Crime: Murder most historic, from Roman Britain to 1870s Paris

A round-up of the latest thrillers from Michael Connelly, Ruth Downie, Andrew Martin, Bob Van Laerhoven and Val McDermid

The shot was fired a decade ago, but Orlando Merced, a mariachi band member, has only now succumbed, which means Harry Bosch has a very unusual open-unsolved (aka cold-case) investigation to pursue in The Burning Room (Orion, €20.85), Michael Connelly's 17th novel to feature the veteran LAPD detective.

Bosch, already on borrowed time as a working detective, is less than a year from retirement as the story opens, but he has lost none of his edge. What appears at first glance to be a depressingly routine drive-by shooting develops, largely due to Bosch's instincts, into a complex tale of jealousy, arson, robbery and politically motivated murder, as Connelly, in a story that wears its Raymond Chandler influences lightly, links the street-level crimes of Los Angeles with the city's highest seats of power.

Bosch, teamed here with impressive new recruit Lucy Soto, goes about his work with the same quality of unobtrusive directness that Connelly brings to his prose, the deceptively understated approach disguising a pacy, powerful investigation that yields results when least expected.

Set in Roman Britain as the natives’ festival of Samhain approaches, Tabula Rasa (Bloomsbury, €12.99) is Ruth Downie’s sixth novel to feature medicus Gaius Petreius Ruso, who is currently serving with the 20th Legion as it builds Hadrian’s Wall.


When rumours begin to circulate that a body has been dumped under the rubble packed into the wall and the young boy responsible for circulating the rumour goes missing, the already tense relationship between the Romans and the native Britons erupts into hostilities.

Ruso's investigation is deftly crafted by Downie, but Tabula Rasa offers far more than the mystery genre's conventions transplanted to Roman-era Britain. Ruso's wife Tilla, a native Briton, is as important a character as her husband and fully capable of conducting her own investigation.

Despite being compromised in the natives’ eyes as a traitor for her marriage to Ruso, she is sympathetic to their traditions, their ways and their lore (the historical detail, judiciously deployed, is superb). Equally fascinating, however, are the contemporary parallels to be found in the Roman experience of conquering and occupying a foreign territory: their ignorance of the local language and customs, the blinkered arrogance of military power and the nerve-shredding presence of constant threat.

Andrew Martin’s Night Train to Jamalpur (Faber & Faber, €11.50) is the ninth to feature Jim Stringer, an Edwardian-era detective working for the London and Southwest Railway. As the title suggests, this outing finds Stringer in India: the year is 1923, and Stringer is investigating the “considerable laxity” – ie, rampant corruption – in the East Indian Railway Company. Stringer, however, is far more interested in a series of murders committed by an unknown assassin who has been placing poisonous snakes in the first-class carriages of Indian trains.

When Stringer travels to Jamalpur and narrowly avoids being killed himself in an apparently botched raid by bandits, he takes a personal interest in the case. The story emerges with all the languid grace of a snake being charmed from its basket as the details of Stringer’s covert investigation are neatly interwoven with a fascinating backdrop of nationalist agitation and Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign for Indian independence, which is gathering pace in the wake of what the English authorities blithely describe as “the Amritsar incident”.

Set in Paris in 1870, as Prussian forces encroach, Bob Van Laerhoven’s Baudelaire’s Revenge (Pegasus Crime, €22.50) finds Commissioner Lefèvre and Inspector Bouveroux investigating bizarre murders that appear to be committed by a killer nursing a grudge against critics of the poet Baudelaire, who died three years previously.

While the main narrative of Flemish author Laerhoven’s English-language debut is a conventional one of policemen pursuing a serial killer, albeit one who considers murder “an amoral work of art”, the novel also functions as a superb historical tale of an embattled city, as Napoleon III’s France finds itself at war not only with Prussia but also with subversive elements in Paris itself.

There are also strong gothic-horror overtones, courtesy of a manuscript left behind by the killer, in which Baudelaire’s themes of sex and death are writ large. The flamboyantly lurid tone is hugely entertaining, although its excesses are leavened by Laerhoven’s depictions of his competent, dogged investigators, hardened veterans of France’s military adventures in north Africa and men who, for the most part, “prefer discretion to good morals”.

Atrocities, war crimes and massacres form the historical backdrop to Val McDermid’s The Skeleton Road (Little, Brown, €17.99), a contemporary tale rooted in the conflicts that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

A prologue detailing a murder on Crete segues into the discovery of a skeleton atop a building in Edinburgh, which introduces us to DCI Karen Pirie of the Historic Crimes Unit. Her cold-case investigation leads her to Oxford and respected academic professor Maggie Blake, who fell in love with Croatian intelligence officer Dimitar Petrovic during the siege of Dubrovnik.

Meanwhile, Alan Macanespie of the International Criminal Tribunal is hunting for a vigilante killer who is murdering war criminals on the run from the legal system.

McDermid's 29th crime novel could easily be characterised, as one character puts it, as "a Jacobean revenge tragedy melodrama", but it is equally engrossing as a psychological study that explores how ostensibly normal, well-adjusted human beings can descend into savagery. Not content with that, McDermid also shoehorns in a poignant love story, a tale of harrowing loss and a neatly constructed homage to Dorothy L Sayers's Gaudy Night. An enervating read that is bracingly cynical about the genre's holy grail of justice, The Skeleton Road is one of McDermid's finest offerings to date. Declan Burke is a journalist and author. With John Connolly, he is co-editor of Books to Die For (Hodder & Stoughton)