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Crime fiction round-up: Stuart Neville’s new horror is unsettling but deeply rewarding

Plus thrills from Nicci French, Elly Griffiths, John Banville and Otto Penzler

Like Rebecca, the urtext of coercive control narratives, Nicci French's new psychological thriller The Unheard (Simon & Schuster, £12.99) begins with a dream: Tess Moreau feels she is falling, about to die. She wakes, but is still in the dream, back where it all began, examining a drawing by her three-year-old daughter Poppy of a stick figure tumbling from a tower.

“He did kill her,” Poppy solemnly announces, but cannot say who or where. The next day, having wet her bed the night before, the child is hurling a wooden cow at her bedroom wall and shouting, “Kingc*nt, kingc*nt, kingc*nt!” Initially Tess thinks something must have happened during one of Poppy’s sleepovers with her father, Jason, especially since his new wife’s sketchy brother has moved in, but soon the list of suspects broadens to include an intrusive male neighbour, a friend’s husband who minds Poppy, even Tess’s boyfriend, Aidan.

When the police prove understandably unresponsive to Tess’s fears (“There’s not only no suspect, there’s not even a crime.”), she begins to investigate, spying on her ex and his pregnant young wife and inevitably, humiliatingly, getting caught. French balances adroitly the way in which Tess is made feel (and feels herself) like a neurotic madwoman and her growing awareness that her life was not what it seemed: that Jason serially cheated on her during their relationship, that even her best friend knew, that she has always considered other people’s feelings before her own.

Risking custody of her child, nevertheless she persists. A compelling, suspenseful read which builds to an electrifying climax, The Unheard is an ingenious, powerful novel about the many ways in which women’s voices are silenced; it starts with a dream and ends with a woman saying: “No.”


Coercive control also forms the spine of Stuart Neville's terrifying The House of Ashes (Zaffre, £13.99). In an isolated country cottage, gifted to Sara Keane and her husband, Damien, by Damien's father, former IRA prisoner turned builder Francie, Sarah is trying to clean bloodstains only she can see from the kitchen's flagstone floor when an old woman called Mary hammers on the window. Sara opens the door and the woman pushes her way in, leaving actual bloody footprints as she goes, demanding that Sara leave her house and asking where all the children have gone.

In the book’s other timeline, narrated in a child’s rich, gritty, rhythmic idiolect, Mary recounts her grim upbringing: “I always lived in the house. I never knew any different. Underneath, in the room down the stairs. In the dark.” Mary has two mummies, Irene and Joy, and three daddies, Ivan, Tam and George, and it is a gruesome House of Horrors indeed; Neville does not stint on the violence, whether emotional or physical, but the limited perspective of the child means we are mercifully spared further details of the abuse.

Sara becomes obsessed with Mary, visiting her in the care home from which she escaped, and gradually begins to piece together the savage history of the house in which she is a virtual prisoner (her husband keeps her phone, won’t give her a house key and continually alludes to her previous suicide attempt, as if his controlling behaviour amounts to solicitude). Redolent at times of Neville’s extraordinary debut, The Twelve, The House of Ashes serves as a resonant symbol: quick with unquiet spirits, haunted by buried secrets, riven by the callous denial of a brutal, irresolvable history. It’s an unsettling, deeply rewarding novel.

"Bert Billington, the theatrical impresario. Poisoned in his own armchair." The opening lines of The Midnight Hour (Quercus, £20) by Elly Griffiths reassure us that we are entering a considerably cosier part of the forest. In the sixth Brighton Mystery, we have now reached 1965 and former DS Emma Holmes has formed a private investigator agency with reporter Sam Collins.

Engaged for their first case by Bert’s widow, Verity, who doesn’t trust the police response to her husband’s death, Emma soon forms an alliance with young Detective Constable Meg Connolly. Keeping Emma’s husband, Superintendent Edgar Stephens, and Meg’s boss, DI Bob Willis, in the loop, a detection ensemble forms and it is almost as anarchic as the glittering cast of theatricals, magicians and performers past and present that they must investigate.

Griffiths writes with verve and wit, and has an unflaggingly keen eye: “Verity didn’t look 75. But she didn’t look 50 either. She was oddly ageless in her red robe and gold earrings, like a painting come to life.” Edgar’s daughters hiding behind the sofa because they are frightened of the Dr Who theme tune is a perfectly weighted, piquant period detail, as is Emma’s surprise at an unabashedly out lesbian – in Brighton, of all places. One of the joys of crime fiction is falling for the latest entry in an unfamiliar series: I now have five more deliriously entertaining Brighton Mysteries to look forward to.

John Banville's April in Spain (Faber, £14.99) calls back to the third Benjamin Black novel, Elegy for April. Lugubrious pathologist Quirke, holidaying uneasily in San Sebastian, thinks he spots April Latimer, missing believed murdered by her brother Oscar at the close of the earlier book. April and Quirke's daughter Phoebe were fast friends, and when Quirke calls to tell her, she swings into action, first interviewing April's terrible uncle Bill Latimer, the serving minister of defence, over tea (and drinks, which she is left to pay for) at the Shelbourne Hotel.

This is an exquisitely set and staged scene, with the grotesque Latimer pitilessly captured: “He had adopted the voice he used on the hustings, the sing-song, folksy tones of a doughty Connemara man . . . In fact, his family had been Dubliners for generations.” All the seedy business involving Latimer and his political and civil servant colleagues is terrifically well done, dark and driven and very funny; the same could be said of Terry Tice, the brisk, resourceful, pint-sized lost orphanage boy and psychopath whose casual violence and depraved speculations enliven proceedings a great deal.

The Quirke sequences feel somewhat voulu, as if Banville is weary of the old misanthrope; once Phoebe teams up with the altogether splendid DI St John Stratford, this absorbing book canters to a sure-footed and shocking conclusion.

Finally, two treats for mystery readers of all stripes. In his forward to Best Crime Stories of the Year Number 1 (Head of Zeus, £14.99), series editor and crime fiction legend Otto Penzler agrees with John Dickson Carr that "the natural form of the traditional mystery is not the novel but the short story". Penzler here collects stories by, among others, James Lee Burke, Stephen King and Sara Paretsky; I especially liked The Gift, Alison Gaylin's chilling slice of Hollywood noir, and delighted in If You Want Something Done Right . . ., a lost story from the much-missed Sue Grafton featuring a hitman straight out of a Damon Runyon tale. Daggers Drawn (Titan Books, £17.99), edited by the indefatigable Maxim Jakubowski, collects 19 Crime Writers' Association Dagger award-winning stories, including John Connolly's haunting On The Anatomisation of an Unknown Man (1637) by Frans Mier; Denise Mina's absolutely terrifying Nemo Me Impune Lacessit; and Lauren Henderson's sly, darkly clever film business fable #Me Too.