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John Banville plays with the mystery novel’s cliches to fine effect

Best new crime fiction for October includes Banville’s Snow and Robert Harris’s V2

"He wasn't a snob, not exactly, only he liked things to be left as they were, and not got up as what they could never hope to be." Det Insp St John Strafford, who makes his debut bow in John Banville's Snow (Faber & Faber, £12.99), questions his own authenticity – can a Protestant scion of the landed gentry be truly at home in the Garda Síochána of the 1950s? – but also the roles being played by those he encounters when he arrives at Ballyglass House in Wexford just before Christmas to investigate the murder of the parish priest, Fr Tom Lawless.

“Everyone seemed to be in costume, seemed to be dressed for a part,” muses Strafford; met by Col Osborne, Strafford is led to the library, where the victim was discovered with a candlestick by his head. The Cluedo set-up aside, the novel is dotted with allusions to Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes and Gideon of the Yard, most of them employed in a self-deprecating way by professional policemen.

It’s all very arch – the death scene is “too theatrical”, Strafford protests, while Archbishop John Charles McQuaid is introduced as “another player steps on stage” – but it’s also hugely enjoyable.

A lugubrious ascetic who defies the great and good of 1950s Ireland, Strafford is not hugely dissimilar a character to Benjamin Black’s Quirke (who is name-checked here), but while Banville is in playfully mischievous form as he toys with the mystery novel’s cliches and conventions, it’s his ability to situate the reader in the chilly, seedy grandeur of the Great House that makes Snow such a compelling read.


Set in 1950s Chicago, Jennie Fields's Atomic Love (Michael Joseph, £10.99) centres on Rosalind Porter, a physicist who formerly worked on the Manhattan Project but now sells trinkets in a department store. Tracked down by FBI agent Charlie Sydzlo, Rosalind is asked to contact her ex-lover, the Englishman Tom Weaver, himself a physicist who is suspected of giving the Russians secrets relating to "the still hypothetical hydrogen bomb".

What follows is a moral cat’s cradle – Weaver is considered a traitor, but is he being noble in providing the Russians with the wherewithal to create a deterrent that might prevent a repeat of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? – although the emphasis is very much on Rosalind’s emotional dilemma. Torn between Weaver and Sydzlo, and guilty herself of betrayal, Rosalind goes ricocheting through the story at the mercy of overwrought imaginings (“His words plunge a knife into the spot where she’s stored her longing for him”) and chased by the dumbest Russian spies this side of parody.

The historical detail is good, and 1950s Chicago is lovingly sketched, but the ease with which Rosalind spots and eludes her Russian foes may cause the reader to wonder why the cold war lasted as long as it did.

Demonic presence

The Devil and the Dark Water (Raven Books, £12.99), set in 1634, is Stuart Turton's follow-up his award-winning, genre-bending The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, and offers an equally improbable scenario. Embarked on the Saardam from Batavia to Amsterdam, the "problematory" Samuel Pipps and his right-hand man, Arent Hayes, discover that their ship has an extraordinary stowaway – the demonic presence "Old Tom", who is preying on crew and passengers.

Pipps is a prototype Sherlock Holmes (“So fantastical were his adventures, so incredible his deductive methods, that many thought him a charlatan”), whose investigation into the supernatural is further complicated by the fact that he is under arrest and confined to a tiny brig. It’s a rollicking tale of devils, lepers and witchfinders, albeit one in which the historical verisimilitude is undermined by Turton’s insistence on inserting contemporary themes – the devastating consequences of globalised capitalism, for example – into his 17th-century yarn.

In 1944 the V2 rocket was "the most technologically advanced feat of engineering the world has ever seen". V2 (Hutchinson, £13.50), which unfolds over five tense days, is Robert Harris's latest historical novel and offers the parallel experiences of Kay Caton-Walsh, an English WAAF officer who takes on the unstoppable weapon with pen, paper and a book of logarithm tables, and Dr Rudi Graf, the war-weary German engineer who dreams of space travel but finds himself launching deadly missiles into the heart of London.

Based on real events, and featuring Wernher von Braun and other historical personages, V2 is a gripping blend of fictional character development and reportage, as Harris delivers a meticulously researched account of the weapon that, for all its “appalling ingenuity”, cost more lives to make than it ever killed.

Golf, interrupted

Carl Hiaasen generally confines his satirical novels to the weird'n'wonderful world of Florida, but Squeeze Me (Sphere, £14.99) expands his remit to all of America by including the character of "Mastodon" – the Secret Service's codeword for the US president – as one of the more grotesque caricatures who populate the "absurd town" of Palm Beach. The playground of "the sun-drenched one-percenters" is also home to the Winter White House, where Mastodon and the first lady ("Mockingbird") are in situ when Kiki Pew Fitzsimmons, a socialite and leading member of the Potus Pussies, or "Potussies", is swallowed whole by a Burmese python while off her head on vodka martinis and half an ecstasy pill.

Convinced that the missing Kiki Pew was abducted and murdered by a gang of undocumented immigrants, Mastodon interrupts his latest round of golf to embark on a furious trial by social media; meanwhile, Angie Armstrong, who wrangles wild critters, discovers that the non-native Burmese python is only the first of a plague that has been released into the Everglades.

Blackly comic, ludicrous to a fault and seething with barely suppressed rage, Squeeze Me is by some distance the most political novel of Carl Hiaasen’s storied career, and arguably his most entertaining.

Declan Burke is a writer and journalist. His current novel is The Lammisters (No Alibis Press)