Crime reviews: glittering and seedy get equal time in subtle procedural
‘The House of Fame’, ‘Die of Shame’, ‘Distress Signals’, ‘The Passenger’and ‘The Blade Artist’ reviews
The besetting hazard of the police procedural is to be found in the name: procedure. If a writer is not careful, a series will get mired in a welter of nicknames, technical acronyms and tiresome jokes about coffee and doughnuts.
When we first meet DI Nick Belsey in Oliver Harris’s The House of Fame (Jonathan Cape, £12.99), he is in a police station in Hampstead, sure enough, but it has been abandoned, and the disgraced detective is camping here, hiding from the Independent Police Complaints Commission, making rum-laced coffee on a gas stove and using a disused magistrate’s court as a walk-in wardrobe.
When a troubled woman calls to the door and asks for him by name, Belsey agrees to search for her missing son and effectively operates like an unpaid private detective for the remainder of the book, investigating a case that reaches from shabby council blocks to the Primrose Hill mansion of a pop and move star, all the while dodging frequent attempts by his erstwhile colleagues to arrest him for murder.
The House of Fame is meticulously plotted, with a delirious, haunted, paranoid atmosphere. Belsey is an irresistible mixture of the reliable and reckless, laconic and tightly wound, and London’s glittering river of celebrity and its seedy tributaries are given their due. Above all, Harris writes beautifully: of a dead socialite’s minimalist flat that is “untroubled by its owner’s absence, as if grateful for one less piece of clutter”; of the parts of London where “money hung in the air like pollen”; of a corrupt coppers’ Christmas do where “there were specks of blood on the party hats.”
With all the consolations of the genre, but imbued with an uncommon subtlety and intelligence, House of Fame is a superb novel.
Mark Billingham is best known for his hugely popular series featuring DI Tom Thorne. Although there is a procedural element in his new standalone, Die of Shame (Little, Brown £18.99) aims its lens principally at a group of recovering addicts who meet in their therapist’s smart north London house every Monday evening. When one of their number is murdered, it looks almost certain that a member of the group is responsible. But because of client confidentiality, all are reluctant to speak.
There’s more than one reference to Agatha Christie here, and it’s clear that Billingham has had a lot of fun assembling his own artful homage to the queen of crime: a tight ring of extraordinarily unpleasant suspects, a forensic eye on the English class system, and any number of ingenious red herrings. Perhaps most remarkable of all, here is a 400-page novel that for nearly its entire length, centres around one murder.
To say much more would be to deprive the reader of the jaw-dropping twists and turns that herald the climax of this immensely entertaining, masterfully constructed novel – which ends, most un-Christie like, on an unnerving note of perfectly judged irresolution.
Too often in novels of psychological suspense, the principle of thwarted expectations applies: the more intriguing the premise, the more unlikely and disappointing the denouement. In Distress Signals (Corvus, £12.99), Catherine Ryan Howard gets the balance just right and keeps it simple long enough to reel us in. As her principal narrator, Adam Dunne, says: “The most effective lies are the ones that are almost the truth.”
Adam’s long-term girlfriend, Sarah, fails to return from a business trip to Barcelona. It turns out it wasn’t a business trip after all: she was meeting a new boyfriend. Despite her failure to email, text or phone Adam or her parents, Garda HQ in Cork remain sanguine: she’s 29, she cut her long hair short, she may very well have wanted to start over, there’s no cause for concern.
When evidence emerges that Sara left Barcelona and reappeared on a cruise ship off the French coast, even her father is angry and embarrassed at her behaviour. But what has she done? Only Adam is determined to find out.
Distress Signals is a highly confident and accomplished debut novel, impeccably sustained, with not a false note. The exploration of the often murky backstage workings of the luxury liner world is fascinating, and there is a psychologically acute portrait of a killer that is genuinely moving. We will hear a great deal more of this author.
What’s in a name? I’ll call the narrator of Lisa Lutz’s new psychological thriller, The Passenger (Titan Books, £7.99), Tanya DuBois, although 31 pages and one dead husband later, she is called Amelia Keen. There are more dead men to come, along with at least six other identities and as many dye jobs, stolen credit cards and forged identity papers, as Lutz’s irresistible heroine traverses the American midwest in flight from the man who broke her heart, agonisingly unable to divine what might be her future.
With nods to Donald Westlake and Jim Thompson and more than a flavour of The Last Seduction, The Passenger is one hell of a whiskey-soaked ride, funny and sexy and dangerous and dark, all delivered in a glorious noir prose:
“I’d felt like a speck dust in an ice cube for far too long. I should have done something about this life I had long before Dead Frank made me do something.”
“He smelled like bourbon and man. That musky odour can be nauseating or intoxicating, depending on the source.”
The end of Amelia’s exploring, of course, is to arrive where she started, understand it for the very first time – and keep on running. Lisa Lutz is a brilliant writer. You need to read all of her books, but read The Passenger first.
It’s a measure of Irvine Welsh’s considerable gifts that a novel as ill-conceived, under-imagined and unevenly written as The Blade Artist (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) should still hold the attention. The premise owes a debt to real-life hard man Jimmy Boyle. Here’s Trainspotting’s ferocious Francis Begbie has transformed himself into Santa Barbara-based sculptor Jim Francis, replete with all the blessings of the Californian garden: a beautiful wife, daughters named Grace and Eve, and a taste for egg-white omelettes.
When news comes through that his estranged son has been found dead in his Edinburgh flat, Francis reluctantly makes the long trip home. Back in Scotland, like a reformed gunfighter, it’s only a matter of time before the true Begbie re-emerges – if indeed he has ever gone away.
As long as The Blade Artist stays with the hard men of Edinburgh, Welsh’s dialogue is as fine as ever. The plot is carefully constructed, there is a great deal of horrific violence and an unexpected conclusion. But it’s a complacent, hollow, unnecessary novel; Welsh can do so much better.
Declan Hughes is author of the Ed Loy series. His latest is All the Things You Are