Crime reviews: Real Tigers; After You Die; Black Widow; The Quality of Silence; Rain Dogs

Action spy thriller meets dry irony and laugh-out-loud funny in ‘Real Tigers’

Crime thriller writer Adrian McKinty: smart dialogue, sharp plotting, sense of place, well-rounded characters and a nice line in what might be called cynical lyricism. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Crime thriller writer Adrian McKinty: smart dialogue, sharp plotting, sense of place, well-rounded characters and a nice line in what might be called cynical lyricism. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

 

MI5’s Slough House is where the “slow horses” go, the spies whose blunders have condemned them to a lifetime of pen-pushing and near-meaningless profiling. On a hot summer’s night, former soldier Sean Donovan kidnaps Slough House’s unofficial second-in-command, Catherine Standish.

When the body of Sly Monteith, Donovan’s boss, is dumped outside the restaurant where Peter Judd, the new home secretary and Monteith’s boss, await him, the slow horses are unleashed to rescue Standish (and thereby gum things up for the rest of the service).

All the action you might want from an espionage thriller is to be found in Real Tigers (John Murray, £14.99), with betrayal, double-dealing and a fantastically violent climax in an underground facility, but the true pleasures of Mick Herron’s Gold Dagger-winning Slough House series lie elsewhere: in the sharp wit and dry irony and elegant grace of the prose, the razor-sharp characterisation; and above all, the authorial overview: sophisticated and intelligent, satirical but never tipping into pastiche. “Ingrid Tearney has enormous faith in Regent’s Park’s ability to render all and any information in its possession incomprehensible – it was, after all, a branch of the civil service.”

Think Le Carré with fewer posh people and laugh-out-loud funny. Mick Herron is the real deal.

Eva Dolan’s powerful After You Die (Harvill Secker, £12.99) is the third in her absorbing series featuring DI Zigic and DS Ferreira of the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit.

In the wake of a gas explosion in the village of Elton, the bodies of Dawn Prentice and her severely disabled daughter Holly are found dead. It emerges that Dawn was stabbed and Holly was left to die and that the family had come to the attention of the hate crimes unit due to a campaign of online (and real life) harassment over Holly’s activities as a right-to-die advocate.

Suspicion falls on the estranged father and his new stepson, on the next-door neighbours Julia and Matthew Campbell, and on their two foster children, particularly 11-year-old Nathan, who has fled the village and who has powerful elements in the police protecting him.

A hard-boiled, fast-paced village mystery with a tight ring of suspects, Dolan’s unsentimental novel deals carefully with the issues – foster children, online abuse, disability, witness protection for minors – but it remains focused on the characters.

Dolan is amusing and wise at the way things are between men and women: “It wasn’t the argument they needed to have . . . but they were both avoiders. She backed down from him, he ran away from her, and the problem festered between them.”

Men and women and their mysterious ways are also the stuff of Chris Brookmyre’s marriage thriller, Black Widow (Little Brown, £18.99). Diane Jager is a successful surgeon who published a blog called Scalpelgirl, in which she charted examples of sexism in the medical profession.

Rechristened Bladebitch by her targets, she was outed when she took a pop at her hospital’s IT staff. Humiliated and disgraced, she finds herself in a kind of exile in Inverness, where she falls in love with – who else – an IT bod named Peter Elphinstone.

Soon they are married; six months later he is missing, presumed murdered; Diane Jager, the Black Widow, is the prime suspect and Peter’s sister, Lucy, has hired Jack Parablane, Brookmyre’s disgraced journalist hero, to investigate.

With a Gone Girl influence no book of this kind can now entirely escape, at its best Black Widow has the joyful, humanist misanthropy of Iain Banks; on the distaff side, Brookmyre tends to overwrite in an elaborate, multi-clause style a little too redolent of the schoolroom. But the novel’s big heart and quick wit, not to mention a stunning twist in the tail, help carry it off.

Rosamund Lupton’s first novel, Sister, was the fastest-selling debut in the UK, eventually racking up sales of 1.5 million. Her third novel, The Quality of Silence (Piatkus, £7.99), sees Yasmin and her 10-year-old daughter Ruby arrive in Alaska to meet Matt, Ruby’s father. But Matt is missing, believed dead, in a fire that wiped out an entire village. Yasmin refuses to believe her husband is lost and sets off on an epic trek into the freezing Arctic wilderness to search for him, accompanied by Ruby.

Rosamund Lupton is a marvellous writer and there are so many things to cherish in this book, from her poetic evocation of the desolate landscape to Matt and Yasmin’s wonderfully atmospheric back-story, to Ruby’s often exquisite insights and observations, that it feels almost churlish to note that it doesn’t entirely work. I didn’t believe Yasmin, or anyone, would take her child to such lengths simply because her lover had kissed another woman.

Moreover, the fact that the emails Yasmin and Ruby receive are anonymous when they needn’t be, but they can somehow work out co-ordinates from them to determine their destination, felt far-fetched. Hold on tight though and the final 100 pages are wonderfully done. I would certainly read anything else Lupton writes.

It is broadly accepted that the emergence of crime fiction set in Northern Ireland was only possible once the Troubles were over. Adrian McKinty’s acclaimed Seán Duffy series sometimes feels like a contrarian challenge to that position, following as it does a Catholic RUC detective based in Carrickfergus through the 1980s. With Rain Dogs (Serpent’s Tail, £12.99), we’re up to 1987 and, speaking of contrarianism, what better case for hard-boiled DI Duffy than a locked room mystery?

When journalist Lily Bigelow is found dead at Carrickfergus Castle, suicide seems, if unlikely, the only possible solution. But her notebook is missing and Duffy keeps his nerve, charting the movements of a party of visiting Finnish industrialists whose visit Lily was recording, first to a local brothel and then to a thinly disguised Kincora Boys Home. With a flying visit to Broadmoor to interview Jimmy Savile and a near-fatal trip to the Arctic tip of Finland, DI Duffy stays light on his feet and, if he doesn’t quite get his man, a shadowy network of spooks ensure that his man is got.

McKinty has all the virtues: smart dialogue, sharp plotting, sense of place, well-rounded characters and a nice line in what might be called cynical lyricism (“Rain. Wind. The afternoon withering like a piece of fruit in an Ulster pantry.”)

If Duffy’s relentless patter occasionally makes you feel like you’re trapped in a lift with a stand-up comedian, well, those dreary steeples cry out for a little antic distraction. Be warned, though. Rain Dogs is Gateway McKinty: you won’t stop here.

Declan Hughes is the author of the Ed Loy series. His latest novel is All The Things You Are (Severn House).

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