Elmore Leonard talks the talk
CRIME BEAT:RAYLAN (Weidenfeld Nicolson, £18.99) is the third Elmore Leonard novel to feature the Kentucky-based US marshal Raylan Givens, after Pronto (1993) and Riding the Rap (1995). It is essentially a novelisation of the television series Justified, which is cowritten by Leonard.
The novel opens with Raylan discovering a low-level dope dealer in the bath of a motel room, minus his kidneys. His investigations lead him to discover a pair of backwoods pillbillies who have diversified into organ-stealing, which in turn leads him to the novel’s femme fatale, Layla.
From this point a number of tangential investigations pinwheel away, as the based-on-a-TV-series format gives the story an episodic feel not unlike that of a novel of interlinked short stories.
That said, an Elmore Leonard novel tends to be a freewheeling affair at the best of times, and one that incorporates a diverse ensemble cast of ne’er-do-wells. By that assessment, this fits very neatly into Leonard’s oeuvre, even if the narrative is even more dialogue-driven than usual. Indeed, near the end of the book, the story devolves entirely into dialogue, and is written on the page as it would appear in a screenplay, as Leonard drives home the point – a little too forcefully, perhaps – that he is the contemporary master of minimalist prose and understated cool.
SET IN 1845, Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham (Headline Review, £14.99), finds “Copper Star” Tim Wilde on the trail of a psychopath who is murdering boy and girl prostitutes in a New York city bedevilled by fire, poverty and famine. The Copper Stars were the forerunners of the NYPD, and none too popular when they first appeared on the streets; Faye’s novel is as fascinating a historical novel as it is a crime tale, especially as the serial killer is fanning political and sectarian flames in a bid to wrong-foot potential pursuers. Reminiscent of Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day (2008) in its ambition and style, The Gods of Gotham is an auspicious opening to a proposed trilogy.
ANOTHER NEW YORK-BASEDhistorical crime novel, this one set in November, 1963, Hesh Kestin’s The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats (Mulholland Books, £7.99) is a blackly absurd tale of how a young student of English literature, Russell Newhouse, comes to take over the criminal empire of one Shoeshine Cats, a larger-than-life Jewish gangster who, barely two decades after the revelations of Europe’s death camps, is revered as a hero in his community for his flaunting of the law. “The criminal statutes,” writes Kestin, “held no validity for those to whom the law meant only authorised starvation, torture, death.”
Despite the apparently sombre tone, the novel is a laugh-out-loud absurdist farce in which Kestin subverts the traditional crime tropes at every turn while simultaneously finessing them into a tender homage to the genre. Had Kurt Vonnegut written The Godfather, it would have read a lot like this.
NEWRY NATIVEClaire McGowan sets her debut offering, The Fall (Headline, £12.99), in contemporary London. Middle-class couple Charlotte and Dan seem set fair for a prosperous life together until Dan, on the night he loses his job as an investment banker, gets into a fight and kills a nightclub manager with a broken bottle. Or does he?
McGowan’s novel is as much an examination of how class and wealth affect the perception of a crime as it is about the investigation of a particular incident, as working-class DC Matthew Hegarty comes to terms with how his personal prejudices influence his professional decisions. And how does the system treat victims such as the marginalised Keisha?
The story is undone in the latter stages, as the vagaries of the plot persuade some of McGowan’s characters to make some implausible decisions and belated revelations, but otherwise this is a solid debut.
COMMISSIONER ALEC BLUMEreturns in Conor Fitzgerald’s third novel, The Namesake (Bloomsbury, £11.99), although the usual Rome setting quickly gives way to southern Italy as Blume investigates the murder of an apparently innocent man and discovers that the victim shares a name with a magistrate intent on prosecuting a high-ranking member of the Ndrangheta, or Calabrian mafia. As with Claire McGowan’s novel, The Namesake is as much an exploration of the social, cultural and political factors that led to the rise of the Ndrangheta as it is a conventional police procedural; indeed, the book has as much in common with a spy novel, as Blume joins an undercover agent as he penetrates the Calabrian heartland.
Exquisitely written in a quietly elegant style, and dotted with nuggets of coal-black humour, The Namesake is a bold blend of genre conventions that confirms Fitzgerald’s growing reputation as an author whose novels comfortably straddle the increasingly fine line between crime and literary fiction.
FINALLY, AFICIONADOSof the genre will appreciate Barry Forshaw’s Death in a Cold Climate (Palgrave Macmillan, £16.99), a forensically detailed account of the rise and rise of Scandinavian crime fiction, his explorations ranging beyond the usual suspects of Sweden, Norway and Iceland to incorporate Finland and Denmark. Forshaw, a crime-fiction critic in the UK, devotes the larger part of the book to exploring the reasons for the phenomenal popularity of Scandinavian crime in the post-Stieg Larsson years, but he also traces that popularity back to the novels of the husband-and-wife writing team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, authors of the Martin Beck series of novels, the first of which, Roseanna, was published in 1965.
The book includes interviews with publishers and translators as well as authors, and while well-known writers such as Hakan Nesser, Karin Fossum, Camilla Lackberg and Jo Nesbø are well served, Forshaw doesn’t neglect lesser-known authors, such as Jorn Lier Horst, Sara Blaedel and Mons Kallentoft.