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Killer stories: this month’s best crime writing

Declan Hughes on Laura Lippman, Catriona Ward, Catherine Kirwan, Sharon Dempsey and Joe Ide

The title essay of Laura Lippman’s brilliant 2020 volume of personal essays, My Life as a Villainess, is simultaneously an account of how she walked out on her first marriage, a playful invocation of the Greek gods’ capacity for wickedness, and an insight into how few of us knowingly do wrong in our lives; instead, we “just blunder and rationalise our way into doing the unthinkable, step by sneaky step”.

Slow Burner, the penultimate story in Lippman's second collection of short fiction, Seasonal Work: And Other Killer Stories (Faber & Faber, £14.99), artfully embraces all three elements in its ingeniously structured tale of Liz finding a burner phone in the coat pocket of her previously unfaithful, now forgiven husband. "Phil's weakness," Liz thinks, is not that he takes advantage of or manipulates these mostly younger women the way Zeus would (Liz teaches a private school Greek mythology class). It's that "he cannot resist the delight of being new to someone, anyone".

In Just One More, Kelley and Tom decide to counter the desire-sapping effects of working from home by joining a dating app under assumed names and waiting for it to match them; the classic Columbo episodes they have been binge-watching get a sinister revamp in this ruthless tale of yearning and romantic fantasy.

The Last of Sheila Locke-Holmes is a classic limited perspective bait and switch. Ostensibly about lonely, quirky Sheila's struggles with bullies and cliques at school, narrated with the brutal, naive candour of an 11 year old ("She could see that her mother had been medium pretty once . . . but she wasn't pretty now"), the story escalates to an almost unbearable pitch of sadness when Sheila finds an old photograph of her father with an ex-girlfriend. This is one of four stories in 
which no one dies, as Lippman notes perkily in a brief afterword. But her uncanny feel for young and teenage girls is on full display, as it is in the eerie Ice and Five Fires and the darkly comic tour de force that opens the collection, Seasonal Work.


Constant Lippman readers (and if you’re not, why not?) will enjoy spotting connections and correspondences: is the monstrous narrator in Snowflake Time a preliminary sketch for Dream Girl’s Gerry Anderson? The Everyday Housewife’s Judith, mother-to-be of Lippman’s series detective Tess Monaghan, will resurface in The Lady in the Lake. And Waco 1982 (story) and The Waco Kid (personal essay) are intriguing to compare and contrast.

When we talk about crime fiction, the conversation usually tilts either toward technical elements or psychological and sociological themes. And Lippman is a gifted and imaginative storyteller with an acute sense of character and a flair for rendering persuasively and evocatively her Baltimore bailiwick.

But what sets her apart is her style, a salty, pulsing, high-status blend of wit, urbane intelligence and indomitable vitality. She is present in her books in the way Jane Austen is present in hers; no matter who is speaking, we sense the distinctive Lippman voice: fluent, eloquent, graceful, wise, direct and evasive, the Head Girl Who’s a Bad Girl, with a bead on the future and some serious Jean Arthur energy (and glamour) in the tank. Above all, that is why, for me, Laura Lippman is the greatest living crime writer.

Catriona Ward has won prizes for her horror fiction, including the Shirley Jackson Award, and her last book was a Richard & Judy Book Club pick. "It's the chickenpox that makes me sure – my husband has been having an affair," announces Rob in the first line of Sundial (Viper, £14.99), Ward's new novel; on the following page, she says, "I find that I am scratching my own arm in sympathy. I sometimes confuse my children's bodies with my own."

Rob has Annie, the daughter she loves, and Callie, the daughter she is afraid of; the school she teaches at calls her the child whisperer, but she has no such powers at home. This is not Irving’s first affair, but somehow Rob cannot bring herself to leave: “The fights always start differently and they always end the same . . . blame is a tapestry so tightly woven that it cannot ever be unpicked.”

But Rob’s discovery of Callie’s apparent attempt to kill Annie gives her the impetus to escape; she takes Callie to Sundial, her ancestral home, where obelisks on the property mark the graves of family members. Meanwhile, Callie is accompanied everywhere by Pale Callie and Dumpster Puppy, her ghostly familiars.

The dread-laden action is so determinedly lurid that it is sometimes hard, in an Oscar Wilde/Little Nell way, not to laugh out loud. And yet. Rob helps allay her fears by penning chapters of Arrowood, an overheated, supernatural English girls’ boarding school melodrama that serves as a self-aware corrective to the main story. And Ward is such a supple, authoritative stylist; she keeps a cold clear eye on the road and a steady hand on the wheel, deftly and absorbingly guiding an emotionally turbulent narrative toward the light, with an absolutely stunning final twist.

Catherine Kirwan's Cruel Deeds (Hachette Books Ireland, £13.99) is the second novel to feature Finn Fitzpatrick, solicitor and accidental detective, and what a lively and exhilarating read it is. When the body of Finn's senior colleague, Mandy Breslin, is found murdered in a squalid rental house in a Cork suburb, Finn is charged by her boss to run an unofficial investigation – if there were professional irregularities, the firm needs to know before the Law Society arrives. One irregularity Finn already knows about is that Mandy was having an affair.

Cruel Deeds has a vividly drawn sense of place, an amused eye for character, class and all manner of Corkishness and, above all, in Finn a winning, vital lead character; her vibrant energy and good humour animates and drives the action at breakneck pace. Hugely enjoyable.

Sharon Dempsey's Belfast-based The Midnight Killing (Avon, £12.99) reunites DI Danny Stowe and forensic psychologist Rose Lainey and centres around the staged suicide of a young Belfast architect. Narrated alternately by the two protagonists and featuring nicely chosen character and location detail, the novel comes into its own once it moves from routine police procedural to cold case and reaches back 20 years to the ill-fated holiday of a group of teenage friends. Extremely well plotted and paced, this is an engaging second entry in what promises to be a highly readable series.

In The Goodbye Coast (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99), Joe Ide has reinvented Philip Marlowe as a successful PI in contemporary LA; he has a cool warehouse apartment, an angry alcoholic LAPD father and a string of successful cases to his credit. Hired first by Hollywood actress Kendra James to locate her stepdaughter, and later by an English novelist to find her kidnapped son, Marlowe is soon embroiled in a hot mess of privileged Malibu dysfunction and Armenian and Russian gang violence.

Ide seems to have taken to heart the famous Chandlerian enjoinder: when in doubt, bring a man through the door with a gun. The plot is dizzyingly complex, Ide has already shown himself a master of LA setting and atmosphere in his excellent IQ series, and there are more than enough snappy one-liners in this kinetic, rambunctious novel to appease Chandler’s unquiet shade.