Crime fiction round-up: If you’re going to steal a title, steal from Chandler
Laura Lippman, Haylen Beck, Kate Atkinson, Adrian McKinty and Lauren Wilkinson
The Lady in the Lake confirms Laura Lippman as one of America’s most important literary voices. Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty
Talent borrows but genius steals, so it’s entirely fitting that Laura Lippman appropriates one of Raymond Chandler’s titles for her latest novel, The Lady in the Lake (Faber, £14.99). A love letter to old Baltimore, the story opens in the mid-1960s, with socialite Maddie Schwartz walking away from her marriage and her comfortable middle-class life to establish a career as a journalist.
Gripped by the curious and tragic death of Cleo Sherwood, who was discovered drowned in a fountain, Maddie sets out to discover the truth about Cleo’s death. At least, that’s the plot strand which provides the novel with its central spine, but The Lady in the Lake is a panoramic novel of Baltimore in the 1960s which explores the myriad difficulties faced by a woman who asserts her independence. The historical detail is beautifully observed, but the novel is a timely one that touches upon contemporary issues such as #MeToo (“The world kept telling [Maddie] to look away, to pay no attention to an age-old system, in which men thrived and inconvenient women disappeared.”) and Black Lives Matter (the investigation into Cleo’s death is half-hearted at best, because, as Maddie’s newspaper mentor tells her, “They’re not big stories, the coloured dying”). Complex, hard-hitting and unflinching, The Lady in the Lake confirms Lippman as one of America’s most important literary voices.
Lauren Wilkinson’s debut, American Spy (Dialogue Books, €17.99), is a spy novel with a difference. Written as a journal for her young sons to read when they’re older, it details Maria’s experience of joining the FBI in the mid-1980s, and her unofficial secondment to the CIA, during which she is detailed to get close to Thomas Sankara, the charismatic president of the newly established Burkina Faso. Maria finds herself conflicted, in part because she admires Sankara, whose Marxist philosophy has delivered massive reforms in the previously corrupt Republic of Upper Volta, but also because, as a young black woman in the US, Maria has long since considered herself a spy working undercover in the ranks of the FBI, and one who struggles to reconcile her desire to work for the common good with the FBI’s historical treatment of black revolutionaries. The conceit of repeatedly speaking directly to her young sons through her journal is something of a distraction, but in blending her fiction into the historical detail of Sankara’s turbulent time in power, Wilkinson brilliantly recreates the confusions, anarchy and self-contradictions of the US’s clandestine involvement in African affairs.
Leaving behind his Troubles-set series featuring the RUC detective Sean Duffy, McKinty delivers an octane-fuelled standalone
In Haylen Beck’s Here and Gone (2017), a woman’s children are stolen from her while she is on the run from an abusive husband. Lost You (Harvill Secker, €15.99) opens with a similar storyline, as Libby, an author of psychological thrillers, takes a short vacation in Florida, where her three-year-old son Ethan goes missing, presumed kidnapped. The hook, however, is a classic bait-and-switch, as Beck – an open pseudonym for Irish author Stuart Neville – flashes back in time to introduce Anna, a young woman who agreed to act as a surrogate mother for Libby before changing her mind at the last moment. What follows is an emotionally complex account of two women’s very different experiences of motherhood, and a wholly absorbing exploration of parental anxiety, paranoia and – ultimately – psychosis.
Jackson Brodie doesn’t like to call himself a private eye – “Too Chandleresque. It raised people’s expectations” – but he winds up investigating another crime anyway in Big Sky (Doubleday, €14.99), the fifth of Kate Atkinson’s novels to feature Yorkshire’s finest knight errant. Sex trafficking, a couple of contemporary murders and an historical paedophile ring provide the backdrop, although the plot is less important than Atkinson’s deliciously laconic style as she slyly deconstructs the classic crime narrative, referencing Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Scandinavian noir and Brighton Rock along the way (Jackson, for his part, likes his crime fiction to be “cheerfully unrealistic”). There’s further light relief in the shape of Reggie and Ronnie, two young detectives who can hardly suppress their glee at being allowed to investigate actual crimes. But Atkinson doesn’t take her subject matter lightly. Jackson’s mordant sense of humour is his spear and shield, and crucial if he’s to survive in a bleak and pitiless world where “there was no meaning to anything. No morality. No truth”.
Adrian McKinty’s The Chain (Orion, €15.99) is as high-concept as any thriller will ever need to be. Boston mom and part-time philosophy teacher Rachel is terrified when she receives a phone-call telling her that her teenage daughter Kylie has been kidnapped, but the kidnappers don’t just want a ransom – Rachel is now part of “the Chain”, and needs to kidnap someone else’s child or Kylie will be killed. Leaving behind his Troubles-set series featuring the RUC detective Sean Duffy, McKinty delivers an octane-fuelled standalone that blends prosaic details (how does an amateur kidnapper get her hands on chloroform? And how much can you use without endangering a child’s life?) with a philosophical exploration of the moral dilemma Rachel faces: Kierkegaard, Camus, Schopenhauer and Voltaire are some of the thinkers the resourceful Rachel invokes as she tries to come to terms with her willingness to sacrifice another child’s life to secure Kylie’s safe return. Breathlessly paced and audaciously conceived, The Chain is a superb homage to the classic thriller motif of the innocent civilian plunged into chaos, and one that will very likely (and not a moment too soon) establish McKinty as one of the finest thriller writers of his generation.
Declan Burke is a journalist and author. He is the editor of Trouble is Our Business (New Island).