Crime fiction round-up: Another irresistible Maeve Kerrigan book from Jane Casey
Plus more thrills from Jonathan Lethem, Chris Brookmyre, Olivia Kiernan and newcomer Gytha Joyce
Jane Casey’s new book is the relentless, ingenious Cruel Acts. Photograph: Annie Armitage
Much is made of plot in crime fiction, and rightly so; to a substantial degree the entire enterprise of a detective novel is based around the strategic withholding and release of crucial information and its structural arrangement in a logical and coherent pattern. Without a plot the engine stalls.
But without an engaging driver there’s no reason to travel in the first place. In a long-running series, getting the balance right between the exigencies of the narrative and the continuing development of a lead character in whom readers have invested is an art in itself; it can be difficult to recall in any great detail the plots of detective novels, but the personal story of the detective tends to linger.
In Jane Casey’s last Maeve Kerrigan novel the focus was determinedly on the well-worked plot; Cruel Acts (Harper Collins, £12.99) centres on the release of a convicted serial killer whose guilt has been called into question, and a young woman shackled in darkness, awaiting her fate.
Kerrigan and Derwent’s visits to the victims’ families and friends are especially well done; the ability of the detective to traverse varying social classes and domestic set-ups is one of the genre’s most enthralling features, and Casey renders these pen-portraits with incisive detail, psychological acuity and no little compassion.
As importantly though, Cruel Acts centres on Kerrigan herself: her ever present status anxiety and professional insecurity; her deepening relationship with the assiduously unwoke DI Josh Derwent (no spoilers, but the scene where Derwent washes blood out of Maeve’s hair is quite something); the unsettling re-emergence of ex-boyfriend Rob just when she is at her loneliest; the persistent grief she gets from DC Georgia Shaw (“Remember, Georgia, I am you plus a couple of years and a lot of caffeine.”); and perhaps, above all, Maeve’s inspirational ability to bounce back, no matter how hard the fall.
The pace is relentless, the misdirection is artful and ingenious, and there’s a spectacular climax on a Victorian rooftop that is absolutely heart-stopping. And the bittersweet ending is just right. Jane Casey is a terrific writer and her Maeve Kerrigan books are irresistible.
Set in the days around Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, Jonathan Lethem’s The Feral Detective (Atlantic Books, £12.99) is his first trip to the noir side of the street since 1999’s Motherless Brooklyn.
Charles Heist, the titular sleuth, lives in a shabby cabin in Upland, eastern Los Angeles, sited between a wide-strewn trailer park and “a tundra of pits and heaped hills of gravel in a lot the approximate size of Central Park” where he looks after an ailing opossum and a disturbed runaway girl.
Heist is hired by Phoebe Siegler to locate Arabella, her friend’s daughter, who had promised in the past to drop out of school and head to Mount Baldy to find Leonard Cohen. Now Cohen is dead, Trump is president and Arabella is missing. So far, so Macdonald with a shot of Crumley.
The Feral Detective is a wild ride, an exhilarating incursion into the dark heart of contemporary America
The kicker is the story is told not by terse, laconic Heist (mercifully, since he doesn’t have a great deal to say for himself) but Phoebe, Harvard NPR New York Times Phoebe, whose skittish, zesty, borderline delirious narration give the book its wit and charm and a wilful brightness unusual in the genre. Phoebe is in flight too, having blamed the Grey Lady for Trump’s accession and quit her Op-Ed job, in flight from the National Calamity and from “a life that had curdled in its premises. These can be summarised as feeling superior to what I hated, like the Reactionary White Voter, or the men who’d refused me the chance to refuse to marry them by refusing to ask.” (Midway through seducing Heist, she whispers, “Who did you vote for?”)
Barbarous dystopia in the desert awaits, with Mad Max-style Rabbit and Bear tribes pitted against each other. The centre cannot hold, chaos is the condition and the old world of art installations and Paris Review parties and outraged Twitter updates, sweet as it all had been, is gone. The Feral Detective is a wild ride, an exhilarating incursion into the dark heart of contemporary America.
“Everyone in her year – everyone in the school really – would have killed to be sitting here . . . with the group. With Benners’ gang of strange, anarchic, brilliant and beautiful friends.” So muses 14-year-old Aurora Jackson on a hot July night in Brinken Wood in 1983 – the night she disappeared. Thirty years later her body is found, and DCI Jonah Sheens, who was a few years ahead of the group at school, is assigned to lead the investigation.
The narrative shifts expertly between the police and the surviving school friends, and back in time to the events of the fateful camping trip
She Lies In Wait (Penguin Michael Joseph, €15.00) is Gytha Lodge’s first novel, and a most accomplished piece of work indeed. The narrative shifts expertly between the police and the surviving school friends, and back in time to the events of the fateful camping trip. Lodge writes exceptionally well about teenagers, the police are sketched with an idiosyncratic verve redolent of Susie Steiner, and the toll the years has taken on the characters is assuredly depicted, nuanced and credible.
Olivia Kiernan’s The Killer In Me (riverrun, £13.99) is the second book to feature DCS Frankie Sheehan, who runs the central hub of the Bureau for Serious Crime in Dublin. Two mutilated corpses are found in a church in Clontarf; meanwhile Seán Hennessy, newly released from prison having served a 15-year sentence for the murder of his parents as a teenager, is the subject of a documentary intended to establish his innocence.
Kiernan marshals her plot with ease, and a pleasing variety of incidents and suspects helps keep the pages turning to the highly dramatic climax. Even more compelling is the story within the story of the pressure from the commissioner to ensure nothing be allowed to cast doubt on Hennessy’s conviction lest the bureau be sued. Kiernan’s depiction of the casual acceptance of police corruption at the highest level is devastating in its understatement, and adds texture and depth to her explosive second novel.
Fallen Angel packs a considerable punch, while its interrogation of the popular appetite for conspiracy theories is satisfyingly on point
Chris Brookmyre’s terrific 2016 psychological suspense thriller Black Widow won the McIllvanney and Theakston’s Prizes. Fallen Angel (Little, Brown, £17.99) is even darker, an unsettling exploration of the Temple family, the death of their daughter Niamh on a family holiday in Portugal and the reunion trip 16 years later where the official version begins to unravel.
Deeply unattractive characters in a claustrophobic setting with echoes of Alex Marwood’s The Darkest Secret, Fallen Angel packs a considerable punch, while its interrogation of the popular appetite for conspiracy theories is satisfyingly on point.