Crime novels: The pick of the criminal crop

Latest works by MC Beaton, Stephen O’Rourke, Paddy Hirsch, Frances Brody and James Sallis

The irrepressibly irreverent Agatha Raisin is a gin-swilling, chain-smoking breath of fresh air in MC Beaton’s  Beating About the Bush.

The irrepressibly irreverent Agatha Raisin is a gin-swilling, chain-smoking breath of fresh air in MC Beaton’s Beating About the Bush.

 

MC Beaton’s 30th Agatha Raisin novel, Beating About the Bush (Constable, €13.99) – which is somewhere in the region of the prolific Marion Chesney Gibbons’ 120th novel overall – opens with Raisin Investigations commissioned to investigate suspected industrial espionage at an engineering firm in the heart of the Cotswolds.

A dismembered leg (fake) and an allegedly lethal donkey are among the shoal of red herrings that drive the plot, but, as always, the real star of the show is the hilariously vain and shallow Agatha, a woman of uncertain age who might be considered something of a latter-day Miss Marple were it not for her habit of bawling “Snakes and bastards!” when thwarted.

Gritty realism is at a premium in a story that seems to be inspired in equal parts by Agatha Christie, Tom Sharpe and Enid Blyton, and Beating About the Bush is all the more enjoyable for it: the irrepressibly irreverent Agatha Raisin is a gin-swilling, chain-smoking breath of fresh air.

Lighthouse keeper

Set in 1829, Stephen O’Rourke’s The Crown Agent (Sandstone Press, €11.99) opens in Edinburgh with Dr Mungo Lyon tapped up by His Majesty’s Customs to investigate the murder of a lighthouse keeper on Scotland’s western coast. The killers are very likely smugglers, but when the urbane Dr Lyon departs civilised Edinburgh, he quickly discovers that nothing is what it seems in the wild west.

The Crown Agent is an assured debut that unashamedly harks back to classic thrillers in its use of masonic symbols and Spanish treasure as plot devices. The historical detail is neatly observed – the story takes place in the wake of the trial of the notorious duo Burke and Hare, whose infamous activities have a significant bearing on the story – and the pages fairly fly by, with O’Rourke employing a direct, spare style that wastes not a single word.

The latter stages grow increasingly improbable as the dogged Dr Lyon suddenly discovers himself in the midst of an era-defining insurrection, but for the most part this is a lively and unpretentious entertainment that reads like a knowing blend of James Buchan’s The 39 Steps and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

Filthy alleyway

Moving further back in time, Paddy Hirsch’s Hudson’s Kill (Corvus, €15.99) is set in New York in 1803, and is the second of Hirsch’s novels to feature the investigating duo of Marshal Justy Flanagan and his friend Kerry O’Toole.

When Kerry stumbles across a teenage girl dying in an especially horrible fashion in a filthy alleyway, the death is dismissed as unimportant – the girl, after all, is only another young prostitute. Determined that the killer will be brought to justice, however, Kerry and Justy make inquiries, and quickly discover themselves embroiled in a battle between “the Irish, black and American nativist gangs [who] were all struggling for control of what they considered to be their quarters of the city”.

Hirsch is particularly good at evoking the stench and grime of the burgeoning New York, while his plot digresses to good effect as the story broadens out to encompass a newly established Islamic enclave and the ongoing political horse-trading in which vested interests plot against the prospect of a permanent police force on the basis that “a standing army in the city is an abomination”.

Ashley Jensen as Agatha Raisin: a woman of uncertain age, something of a latter-day Miss Marple were it not for her habit of bawling “Snakes and bastards!”
Ashley Jensen as Agatha Raisin: a woman of uncertain age, something of a latter-day Miss Marple were it not for her habit of bawling “Snakes and bastards!”

Rhubarb from Leeds

Set in Yorkshire in 1929, The Body on the Train (Piatkus, €12.99) is Frances Brody’s 12th novel to feature the private investigator Kate Shackleton. Called in by Scotland Yard when a corpse is discovered on a train delivering rhubarb from Leeds to London, Kate and her team – Mr Sykes and Mrs Sugden – set about investigating whether the murder is linked to Russian subversives fomenting unrest among the Yorkshire miners, while also working to prove the innocence of a young man wrongfully accused of a second murder.

Inspired in part by the “Zinoviev letter” of 1924, The Body on the Train is at times sublime and at others entirely ridiculous. Kate Shackleton is a famous private investigator at this point in her career, and yet she expects her good friend Gertrude Brockman to take her at face value when, working undercover, she arrives to stay at Thorpefield Manor in the wake of a double murder with a cover story that involves her compiling a photographic essay of the local rhubarb farmers.

That said, Brody’s description of life at Thorpefield Manor is beautifully observed, and Kate Shackleton is an engagingly forthright and indefatigable investigator.

Hillbilly stock

James Sallis’s Sarah Jane (No Exit Press, €12.99) offers an impressionistic take on the crime novel, as Sarah Jane Pullman – of “hillbilly stock” and a veteran “of one of those wars no one talks about anymore” – finds herself appointed acting sheriff of the town of Farr when the sheriff goes missing, presumed murdered.

But while there is a mystery to be investigated here, the novel, which is narrated by Sarah Jane, is far more interested in her own “patchwork past” as she crudely stitches together half-remembered memories of her life which may or may not be true.

A former short-order cook, Sarah Jane at one point majored in English literature, which allows Sallis to quote from an eclectic range of references, including Dante, John Updike and James Crumley, among others, as Sarah Jane tries to square her own experience of how life is with various theories of how it should be.

James Sallis probably couldn’t write a boring line if he tried, but Sarah Jane – digressionary, kaleidoscopic, wilfully opaque – may prove more than a little frustrating for the crime fiction fan who prefers a linear plot and an investigator who can deliver more answers than questions.

Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His latest novel, The Lammisters, will be published by No Alibis Press later this month

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