Crime reviews: slave labour, winged monsters, and Kerrigan’s assured return

Brian McGilloway’s ‘Preserve the Dead’; Louise Penny’s ‘The Nature of the Beast’; Malcolm Mackay’s ‘Every Night I Dream of Hell’; Jane Casey’s ‘After the Fire’; and David Lagercrantz’s ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’

‘Planning your own funeral is one thing, but going through with it before you throw yourself in the river? That’s a remarkable feat,” muses the medical examiner of the first body to appear in Preserve the Dead (Corsair, £19.99), Derry author Brian McGilloway’s gripping third novel to feature Det Sgt Lucy Black.

The fully embalmed corpse should have sunk without trace but instead snagged on a tree branch and became exposed when the tide lowered. But whose body burned in the crematorium, and why the cover-up?

When a second body found in a waste compactor is identified as a homeless Polish man, DS Black is drawn into a case that will see her descend, at one stage literally, into the shadowy underworld of the city’s homeless and most vulnerable, in pursuit of the highly connected family who have exploited them as slave labour for years.

Preserve the Dead is a punchier read than McGilloway's superb Insp Devlin novels: the prose is crisp and economical; scene follows scene at pace; plot points are made deftly and concisely. If it sometimes feels like a certain thoughtful lyricism has been left behind, the upside is DS Black, a dynamic, driven character caught among the snares and uncertainties of midlife: declining father, manipulative mother, stagnant relationship and, pervading everything, the old refrain, "Is that all there is?".


Black's gesture towards a homeless teenage girl at the end of the book – generous, compassionate and not a little maternal – is as unexpected as it is perfectly judged, a moving, optimistic vote in favour of the future. Superior in every respect, Preserve the Dead is a first-rate crime novel.

Crying wolf

In the village of Three Pines in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, nine-year-old Laurent Lepage is always crying wolf: an alien invasion is starting, the Iroquois are on the warpath, his house is on fire. So it’s understandable that no one believes him when he claims to have found a huge gun with a winged monster astride it, deep in the woods.

Next morning, the boy’s body is found dead in a gully, his bicycle nearby. An accident, the police decide; not so, says retired chief inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté, in Louise Penny’s The Nature of the Beast (Sphere, £19.99). And since one of the investigating officers is Gamache’s son-in-law, attention must be paid.

When the gun is found, the hunt is on: for the killer, for the true history of the monstrous missile launcher and how it ended up in Three Pines, and for the macabre way in which it connects with serial killer John Fleming, whose play, unaccountably, the local drama group is set to produce.

Since Still Life in 2005, Louise Penny has created an immensely rich and satisfying traditional mystery world, tipping the hat to Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey and PD James, but with her own distinctive recipe: complex characters far removed from village stereotypes, ingenious plots, and a captivating lead detective in Gamache. And while the village idyll is not stinted, reality keeps breaking through: a scene between a recently bereaved widow and the dead boy's grieving mother is heartbreaking.

Terrified “People are terrified of you. You’ve given them good reason. We know how valuable that is.”

With these words, Nate Colgan is appointed security consultant to the Peter Jamieson crime organisation. Jamieson is now in jail and rival factions of his own gang are set to test each other to see who can gain an advantage in their boss’s absence. Every Night I Dream of Hell (Mantle, £12.99) is Malcolm Mackay’s fifth novel to be set in Glasgow’s underworld. The plot is a classic of double and triple cross, and Colgan is a thoughtful, almost attractive kind of brute, although his macho philosophising occasionally teeters into bathos.

Mackay’s real achievement, and it is considerable, lies in the way he renders Glasgow gangland almost abstract: the language is spare, limpid; the dialogue is uninflected, almost devoid of idiom. It’s a shock when, about 50 pages in, someone finally swears. Can this really be Glasgow?

And yet this gives the books their power and a kind of existential force, as does Mackay's repeated use of the word "organisation", Redolent of Donald Westlake's Richard Stark books, and in particular his 1960 debut, The Cutie, Mackay emphasises that crime is a business before it is anything else.

Latest Kerrigan

The latest in Jane Casey’s excellent series of police procedurals, After the Fire (Ebury Press, £12.99) sees DC Maeve Kerrigan and her colleagues investigate the aftermath of a fire on the top floors of Murchison House, a 1970s tower block in the Maudling council estate. Three people have died, including a right-wing MP and two trafficked women forced to work as prostitutes. Kerrigan’s bosses are preoccupied with the dead MP, who, it emerges, did not die in the flames at all, but either jumped or was flung from a window. What was he doing so far from his comfort zone? And who caused the blaze?

The story moves fast, taking in loan sharking, domestic abuse, police brutality, and at least two varieties of closeted sexuality. Meanwhile, Kerrigan endures an attempted rape in her bid to lure her stalker out into the open, a strategy that puts her life at risk.

Casey writes with a deft wit and immense skill; her depiction of the relationship between the not always confident but determined DC Kerrigan and her senior colleague, DI Derwent, a macho throwback, is wonderfully achieved: “‘Don’t worry, Kerrigan. I’ll be right behind you.’ It was typical of Derwent that it sounded more like a threat than reassurance.” The Maeve Kerrigan books keep getting better and better.

Larsson continuation

David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web (MacLehose Press, £14.99) is a continuation of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, and will probably outsell any other crime novel published this year. It is ineptly structured (the murder that finally incites the action takes place on page 130, a good 100 pages too late), repetitive, and fatuously in thrall to brands and buzzwords, as if simply naming them brought them to life. It often reads more like a prospectus than a book. Hackers! The Dark Web! Autistic Savants! The Russian Mafia and the NSA!

At its heart, of course, is Lisbeth Salander, that manic pixie dream girl with abuse issues, a scowly face and piercings. Piercings! Salander remains part comic-book superhero, part male fantasy, but she still deserves better than this cynical, curiously disengaged production.

Declan Hughes is the author of the Ed Loy series. His latest book is All the Things You Are (Severn House). He and Declan Burke will review crime fiction on alternate months