A single hand discovered by a mudlarker on the banks of the Thames provides the opening to The Cutting Place (HarperCollins, £12.99), Jane Casey's latest police procedural to feature DS Maeve Kerrigan.
Soon Maeve is investigating the whereabouts of the missing freelance journalist Paige Hargreaves, who has “a fearless ability to puncture overblown privilege”, a description that could equally apply to Maeve. The investigation leads Maeve to the doors of the Chiron Club, an all-male bastion of wealth and power frequented by “politicians, judges, media bosses, billionaires” that has a reputation for boorish chauvinism at its ostentatious fundraising dinners (“even nice guys will do horrible things if they think no one’s going to find out,” Maeve’s colleague Josh Derwent tells her).
What follows is award-winning Casey’s most political novel to date, a police procedural that is meticulously and dispassionately crafted to reveal how Maeve’s personal and professional experience of ostensibly “nice guys” uncovers a chillingly normalised world of institutionalised misogyny in the rarefied echelons inhabited by the powerful and wealthy.
Belfast-based civil rights lawyer Steve Cavanagh specialises in deviously plotted legal thrillers, and Fifty-Fifty (Orion, £13.99) is no exception. The story begins with two 911 calls, one made by Sofia Avellino, the other by her sister Alexandra, both of whom claim to have just discovered the brutally butchered body of their father Frank, the ex-mayor of New York city. Who to believe? Conman-turned-lawyer Eddie Flynn prides himself on his ability to winkle out the truth when it comes to a defendant's guilt, but here even Eddie is stumped: one of the Avellino sisters is capable of the most heinous evil, and each is determined to prove that her sister is guilty. Cavanagh won the CWA Gold Dagger in 2018, and the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year in 2019, largely as a result of his revitalizing the moribund tropes of the legal thriller: Eddie mentions To Kill a Mockingbird in the first chapter here, but the reference to Atticus Finch's idealism only serves to emphasise the extent to which Eddie is a pragmatic, hard-boiled lawyer in the mould of George V Higgins' Jerry Kennedy.
Elizabeth Kay's Seven Lies (Sphere, £12.99) revolves around the friendship between Jane, the narrator, and Marnie, who have been inseparable friends since they met on their first day at secondary school. The novel opens with Jane informing the reader in no uncertain terms that she doesn't approve of Marnie's new husband Charles ("I hated him. I hated him in an all-encompassing, burning, biblical way."), but in pretending to Marnie that she likes Charles, Jane tells the first of the seven lies that lead to murder. Kay's debut novel is a slow-burning psychological thriller recounted by the genre's staple of the unreliable narrator, although what makes this story so compelling is that Jane's unreliability is rooted in her inability to appreciate the depth of her emotional obsession with Marnie – "I loved her and I wanted her to be enjoying the most wonderful honeymoon and yet I wished that I could be part of it too". Smart enough to understand that "we are not immune to our own lies," Jane nevertheless descends into a psychosis in which murder becomes not only the logical answer to her best friend's troubles, but an entirely reasonable method of ensuring that Jane and Marnie remain best friends forever.
Opening in modern-day Japan, Stephanie Scott's debut What's Left of Me is Yours (Orion, £14.99) is narrated by Sumiko, a recently qualified lawyer who discovers that her mother, Rina, did not die in a traffic incident 20 years previously, but was murdered by a man commissioned by Sumiko's father to seduce his wife in order to provide grounds for divorce. When she digs into the old case files hidden away by her lawyer grandfather, Sumiko learns that this man might have first encountered Rina as a wakaresaseya ("breaker-upper"), but that his relationship with Rina quickly became personal. As Sumiko painstakingly reassembles her mother's final year by scrutinising Polaroids, interview transcripts, crime scene reports and autopsies ("it was the private process of reading – the relationship between a reader and the page – that would play the most important part"), Scott delivers a delicately nuanced account of a complex tragedy rooted in the clash between illicit desire and the obligations of duty.
Michael Farris Smith's Blackwood (No Exit Press, £12.99) opens with an understated but brutal account of a father preparing to hang himself and the young son, Colburn, who kicks the stool out from beneath his father's feet. Years later, now an industrial artist who creates sculptures from trash, metal off-cuts and other abandoned treasures, Colburn returns to Red Bluff, Mississippi, a town that is "dying, if not already dead". Shortly afterwards, twin boys go missing, presumed abducted. Sheriff Myer suspects Colburn, but while the story's narrative engine is provided by Myer's hapless efforts to apprehend a chillingly undiscriminating serial killer ("all he wanted was to strike back at the world"), the novel is largely concerned with a vivid cast of losers, deadbeats and outcasts who are "so long detached and displaced that he had come to think of … them as some other species". The result is a compelling blend of Jim Thompson's fatalism and Cormac McCarthy's style as Smith, with a nod to William Faulkner, delivers a Southern Gothic in which past and present are a palimpsest of failure, self-loathing and despair.
Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His latest novel is The Lammisters (No Alibis Press)