Harlan Coben’s cliffhanger chapters add chutzpah

A round-up of the best new crime thrillers, including books by Sinéad Crowley, Jakob Arjouni, Erin Kelly and Mark Billingham

Since publishing his debut, Play Dead, in 1990, Harlan Coben has alternated between writing standalone thrillers and novels in the Myron Bolitar series, plus, more recently, young-adult novels featuring Myron's nephew, Mickey Bolitar.

Missing You (Orion, €15.99), Coben’s 25th novel in all, is a standalone featuring Kat Donovan, an NYPD detective who receives a shock when she logs on to an internet dating website and sees her ex-fiance, Jeff, for the first time in 18 years. Shortly afterwards Kat’s personal and professional lives collide when a teenage boy comes to see her, convinced that his mother, who has gone away for a romantic weekend with Jeff, is in danger. Kat initially scoffs at his fears, but she soon finds herself forced to reassess how well she really knew Jeff.

The motif of identity is a recurring one throughout the novel and plays a significant part in Kat’s other investigation, as she tries to discover the truth behind the murder of her father, himself an NYPD cop, some decades before. The story unfolds rapidly in short chapters that end on cliffhangers, and even if some of the latter twists veer sharply into the realms of the improbable the sheer brio of Coben’s narrative plate-spinning gives it all an entertaining chutzpah.

Sinéad Crowley's Can Anyone Help Me? (Quercus, €14.99) is a debut that is also rooted in the digital neverland of the internet. Recently relocated from London to Dublin, new mum Yvonne turns to netmammy, an online forum, for support and information. When one of her new friends disappears from the chatrooms, and the dead body of a young mother turns up in the real world, Yvonne reports her suspicions to Garda Det Sgt Claire Boyle, who is herself heavily pregnant.


What follows is a gripping, fast-paced tale that echoes the concerns of Coben's Missing You in its fascination with how easily internet identities can be manipulated and faked for sinister ends. Crowley's prose is direct and propulsive, with short chapters of chat-room conversations, heavily peppered with acronyms, breaking up the more conventional chapters of narrative.

A crucial twist in the novel's endgame matches any of Coben's for improbability, but for the most part Can Anyone Help Me? is a solidly constructed debut that increasingly focuses, as its title suggests, on the vulnerability of its main characters as they battle to second-guess a faceless killer.

By comparison with the cutting-edge technological backdrops to those two novels, Jakob Arjouni's Brother Kemal (No Exit Press, €11.50) is almost quaintly old-fashioned. Set in Frankfurt, it features Kemal Kayankaya, a private eye who is commissioned to investigate the whereabouts of a teenager, Marieke de Chavannes, by her mother, Valerie, herself the daughter of a wealthy financier.

The lean, hard-boiled prose and the "wandering daughter" opening tip off the reader that this, the fifth in Arjouni's series of novels to feature Kemal, is intended as something of a tongue-in-cheek homage to classic fictional private eyes such as Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, and the literary allusions continue when Kemal is subsequently hired as a bodyguard to protect a controversial author, Malik Rashid, during his appearance at Frankfurt Book Fair.

Inspired as it is by the crime novel's traditions, Brother Kemal is nonetheless a contemporary tale in its exploration of Germany's melting pot: born in Germany to Turkish parents, Kemal is subjected to racism both casual and overt, while his heritage leads to another kind of conflict when Kemal, who is not religious, signs up to protect Malik Rashid from the threat of Muslim extremists.

Sadly, Jakob Arjouni died last year, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Pitted with black humour, this bitter-sweet homage to the private-eye novel is a fitting swansong.

Erin Kelly's fourth novel, The Ties That Bind (Hodder & Stoughton, €13.99), also wears its literary influences on its sleeve. An aspiring author, Luke Considine, is obsessed with the British gangsters of the 1960s, and he harbours hopes of writing a true-crime book in the mould of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

Fleeing an abusive relationship, Luke fetches up in Brighton, where he is quickly immersed in the sordid world of a former gangster, Joss Grand, who is now regarded as a benevolent philanthropist. Worming his way into Grand's society, Luke sets out to discover the truth behind the murder of Grand's old sidekick, the psychopathic Jacky Nye, who washed up beside Brighton's West Pier one fateful night in 1968.

Flitting between present and past, the story is particularly affecting in its atmospheric re-creation of Brighton's historical criminal underworld, which owes, and acknowledges, a considerable debt to Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. Equally gripping, however, is the paranoid Luke's slide into moral relativism, as he increasingly aligns himself with malign forces in order to secure the book deal he so desperately craves.

The Bones Beneath (Little, Brown, €10.99) is Mark Billingham's 12th novel in the police-procedural series featuring Det Insp Tom Thorne. Here Thorne is charged, against his better judgment, with escorting a convicted killer, Stuart Nicklin, to a remote island off the Welsh coast, where the unrepentant, media-savvy Nicklin will reveal the whereabouts of the body of a boy he murdered while incarcerated at a home for young offenders some decades previously.

Thorne is as spikily morose as ever, but the inventive storyline, for all its twists and turns, has little in common with conventional police procedurals. With the killer already in handcuffs and serving a life sentence, Billingham slyly inverts many of the genre's tropes in this fascinating battle of wits. Superb use is made of the unique setting – Bardsey Island, reputed to be the last resting place of King Arthur's remains – and Billingham invests the tale with a hypnotically fatalistic tone, which leads to a shockingly downbeat finale. Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His latest novel is 'Crime Always Pays'