Some crime- and mystery-fiction fans prefer to see the genre’s traditions observed while others welcome an author who can approach the conventions in a new way. All Day and a Night (Faber, €14.90) is the fifth novel to feature Alafair Burke’s NYPD detective Ellie Hatcher, in which Burke offers something of a literal take on the notion of examining a familiar subject with fresh eyes.
Hatcher, along with her partner JJ Rogan, is seconded to a fresh-look team delegated to assess the original investigation that led to the conviction of multiple killer Anthony Amaro two decades earlier.
The recent murder of a Brooklyn psychotherapist, Helen Brunswick, closely resembles those carried out by Amaro. And when a letter arrives at the New York district attorney’s office claiming Amaro is innocent, and containing information known only to law-enforcement officers, the logical conclusion is that the real killer is still at large.
The scene is set for a race against time as Hatcher and Rogan seek to prove Amaro’s guilt and track down Brunswick’s killer. Burke delivers a tightly plotted, pacy tale that twists and turns through a tangle of legal complications. (Burke is also a professor of law.) All told, it’s a satisfyingly complex and emotionally charged police procedural.
Marc Dugain’s The Avenue of the Giants (Europa Editions, €15.75) offers another unusual take on a genre tradition, that of the sociopathic serial killer. Set in California in the late 1960s, and based on the life of Ed Kemper, aka the Co-Ed Killer (whom Dugain acknowledges in his author’s note), the story switches between third- and first-person voices, as convicted killer Al Kenner writes an autobiographical account of a trail of destruction that began when, as a disaffected teenager, he murdered his grandparents.
It's an unusual account, not least because Kenner claims that his literary influences include Dostoevsky and Raymond Carver, with the result that the story unfolds in a style of downbeat realism that grows increasingly unsettling and claustrophobic the more Kenner reveals of his prosaically literal mindset. There are echoes of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me in Kenner's ability to fool those closest to him with his gee-shucks public persona, which allows the charming but manipulative killer to exploit the virtues of peace and love espoused by his hippy victims.
Midnight in Europe (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, €27.50) is the 13th novel in Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers series, most of which are set in the years before the second World War. Opening in Manhattan in December 1937, the story begins with a Paris-based Spanish lawyer, Christián Ferrer, receiving an approach from the shadowy Señor Molina.
Molina represents anti-Franco forces at work in the Spanish embassy, and asks whether Ferrer might be interested in assisting the republic in its hour of need. Soon Ferrer finds himself embroiled in an illegal plot to ship arms to Spain, criss-crossing Europe in a convoluted tale that takes him from Paris to Berlin and on to Warsaw and Danzig.
Furst deftly creates a chiaroscuro world, a chessboard Europe half glimpsed through shadow and fog and dominated by the looming threat of fascism. The sombre tone is offset by Furst’s delightfully improbable cast of characters, which includes down-at-heel aristocrats, mercenary arms dealers, femmes fatales and star-crossed lovers. Ferrer, our amateur spy, is a wonderful creation, an idealistic but hopelessly naive innocent abroad who understands all too well that he is a very small cog in a vast machine grinding inexorably towards a conflict that will dwarf even the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.
Ten of Norwegian author Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer series have been translated into English, but I Can See in the Dark (Vintage, €11.95) is a standalone psychological thriller. The ingratiating persona cultivated by a hospice orderly, Riktor, fools his colleagues – he has no friends or family – as he inflicts his petty cruelties on helpless patients. But when Riktor finally succumbs to his low impulse control and lashes out horrifically, he is outraged to be arrested for another crime entirely.
It’s a sobering account of the first-person sociopath, especially as Fossum goes to great lengths to eradicate anything resembling even facile charm from Riktor’s personality.
The deliberately prosaic style conveys the extent of Riktor's self-delusion: although he believes that he is operating according to a superior intelligence, the rat-like Riktor – he can, as the title suggests, see in the dark – is in fact possessed of little more than feral cunning. Bracingly bleak, I Can See in the Dark is a pitiless exploration of an irredeemably poisoned mind.
The Troubles and 1980s Northern Ireland formed the backdrop to Adrian McKinty’s recent trilogy of novels, but his The Sun Is God (Serpent’s Tail, €17.90) is set on the Duke of York Islands, in the South Pacific, in 1906. A Boer War veteran and former military policeman, Will Prior, is supervising a failing rubber plantation when he is commissioned to investigate a suspicious death on nearby Kabakon Island, home to a cult who worship the sun and eat only coconuts.
Based on an improbable but true story, the novel offers a fascinating twist on the traditional “locked room” mystery, as only the island’s miserable few inhabitants can be considered suspects in the alleged murder.
Prior, as reluctant a sleuth as has ever shuffled into the genre, makes for a blackly humorous guide to a palm-fringed, sun-drenched idyll that is both heaven and hell. McKinty's 15th novel (if you include his young-adult titles) is an ambitious offering that incorporates a subplot exploring pre-first World War colonial tensions between Britain and Germany. But it's the investigation of the central mystery, with its undertones of Paradise Lost, that proves most entertaining.