Crime novels: Jane Harper, Harriet Tyce, Alex Michaelides and Fiona Barton
Terse men, self-destructive lawyer, psychotherapy and art, and girls missing in Thailand
Jane Harper: slowly and carefully draws you into a completely believable, meticulously imagined world.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that the unforgiving Australian landscape is evoked so authoritatively by Jane Harper, who is English by birth and spent a mere six of her first 28 years in that vast country. After all, the great laureates of classic Californian detective fiction were all outsiders: Raymond Chandler, Chicago-born but raised in England and Co Waterford; Dashiell Hammett of St Mary’s County, Maryland; and Ross Macdonald, born in Los Gatos but raised Canadian in Kitchener, Ontario. Setting is not a birthright but the measure of a particular author’s sensitivity and responsiveness; crime fiction is not travel writing, but a sense of place looms large in the genre, and certain writers stake their claim: The Lost Man (Little, Brown £12.99) constitutes incontrovertible evidence that from now on, we will refer to Harper’s Australia as confidently and as casually as we talk of Chandler’s Los Angeles.
In the relentless sun of Outback Queensland at the Stockman’s Grave, a landmark whose meaning and significance is much discussed and disputed, the body of Cameron Bright is found. There is no apparent foul play, and his abandoned vehicle was in perfect working order. The authorities are reluctant to devote resources to a case that, although strange, does not cry out for justice, so Cameron’s brother Nathan takes it on himself to dig deeper into events leading up to the death, and thereby inevitably into the tangled family history he has been determinedly keeping at bay.
Harper writes carefully and acutely about terse, undemonstrative men at the moment when they find the capacity to restore themselves to some more vivid kind of life. The narrative unfolds from Nathan’s point of view, and his preoccupations – his acrimonious divorce and uneasy relationship with his teenage son; the harsh psychological legacy bequeathed by his brutish father and its malign consequences for his family, but especially for his ill-favoured younger brother, Bub; years of banishment by the local community following a reckless choice he made in anger – drive the story from the nervy, austere opening chapters to the turbulent, passionate, surprisingly romantic climax, when the Bright women – their mother, Liz, and Cameron’s widow (and, it turns out, briefly, Nathan’s ex) – come into full focus. And all set against this “land of mirages, where the few tiny trees in the far distance shimmered and floated on non-existent lakes”; where “the horizon was so flat it seemed possible to detect the curvature of the Earth”; where “the temperature . . . hit 45 degrees at the afternoon peak”. The Lost Man doesn’t beg for your attention or force the pace; there is nothing flashy or frenetic, no high-concept premise or jaw-dropping (and ultimately incredible) twist in the tail of its carefully constructed plot; it slowly and carefully draws you into a completely believable, meticulously imagined world, and the thrills it delivers are heartfelt and human, and all the more powerful for that.
Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce
Domestic suspense continues to be published at a brisk rate, and Blood Orange (Wildfire, £12.99), the first novel by Harriet Tyce, is an incendiary example of the form. Alison, a junior barrister, has just landed her first murder, so how better to celebrate than to get falling down Friday night drunk in front of her colleagues, have rough sex in her chambers with Patrick, her solicitor lover, and be awakened on Saturday morning by her husband and daughter, having passed out at her desk. That little Matilda cuts her hand on a framed picture of herself accidentally shattered the previous night further burnishes Alison’s Bad Mummy credentials. Careerwise Alison is flourishing, but her compulsive, submissive affair, her heroically reckless drinking, her strained relationship with recently unemployed therapist husband Carl and her careless parenting propel her into a crisis. Tyce, a former barrister, captures well the romance and restless squalor of hard-drinking London lawyers, understands how effectively sex and alcohol work in fiction as emotional accelerants and is pleasingly nuanced about the transgressive thrill of self-destruction. Blood Orange is glittering and fierce and resolutely unsentimental, a glorious bonfire of a marriage thriller.
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
The Silent Patient (Orion, £12.99) is the debut novel by screenwriter Alex Michaelides, and it is already in development as a movie. Its high-concept premise – psychotherapist Theo Faber is convinced he can treat artist Alicia Berenson, who shot her fashion photographer husband five times and hasn’t spoken since, but his obsession raises as many questions about him as it does about Alicia – is delivered in crisp, functional prose, and its tale of infidelity, sexual jealousy and murder is laced with persuasive details of clinical practice and nuggets of therapeutic wisdom. Your pleasure in it will rest on how well you respond to a twist that will either devastate you with its carefully poised audacity or irritate you by the degree of contrived narrative misdirection employed in its delivery. The Silent Patient comes with a rapturous endorsement from AJ Finn, which is perhaps not as useful as it once was; when Finn says he couldn’t put a book down, you can’t help wondering if he ever picked it up.
The Suspect by Fiona Barton
Fiona Barton’s The Suspect (Bantam, £12.99) follows the pattern set by her previous bestselling novels The Widow and The Child, with briskly paced multivoice narration moderated by her series characters, journalist Kate Waters and DI Bob Sparkes. When two 18-year-old girls on a gap year in Thailand go missing, Waters is determined to follow the story, partly because she senses it could explode but also because her own son Jake left home to go travelling two years ago and has been in fitful contact since. As much as it is a murder mystery and an exploration of the workings of grief on surviving family members, The Suspect is at its best as a forensic examination of how the media reports on and reflects reality: the narrative’s central churn flows through Kate Waters; the more propulsive sections of the book involve her in hold-the-front-page Hildy Johnson action; while the sombre closing pages of this thoughtful, gripping thriller find her professionally and personally compromised and quite desolate.