Murder in a Belfast family, a Greek drama and Jesuit sleuths
Declan Burke's crime writing roundup
Stuart Neville: Those We Left Behind is his best novel since his debut, The Twelve. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Serena Flanagan was a memorable supporting character in Stuart Neville’s The Final Silence, in 2014, but Those We Left Behind (Harvill Secker, £12.99) sees the PSNI detective chief inspector move centre stage.
Set in contemporary Belfast, the story opens in 2007 with the aftermath of the brutal killing of David Rolston by his foster charges Ciaran and Thomas Devine, who are 12 and 14. The story then moves to the present day, with Ciaran, who pleaded guilty, and with whom Flanagan developed an unusually intense bond, about to be released on parole.
Questions remain about who was truly guilty of Rolston’s murder, however, and Daniel Rolston, whose family was destroyed by the allegations the teenage boys made against his father in the wake of the killing, is determined to get to the truth.
Neville’s career – this is his sixth novel – has been characterised by a fascination with the ripple effect of lethal violence. Those We Left Behind, as the title suggests, explores the physical and psychological damage wrought by the actions of two apparently sociopathic young boys while examining the factors that led the boys to behave in the way they did.
Flanagan is a compelling character, professionally capable and hard nosed but emotionally vulnerable in her private life, although it’s young Ciaran Devine who is the most haunting character in what is Neville’s best novel since his debut, The Twelve, from 2009.
Set in 1997, FH Batacan’s debut novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles (Soho Crime, €19.50), which won the Philippine National Book Award in 2002, opens with the discovery of an eviscerated young boy at a Manila rubbish dump.
The investigation into the boy’s murder is headed by the National Bureau of Investigation’s director, Francisco Latimosa, but Batacan’s story focuses on two Jesuit priests, Jerome and Saenz. The latter is a forensic pathologist, and as they uncover a bloody trail their endeavours are hampered by the fact that nobody seems to believe the Philippines could harbour a serial killer.
Saenz is a likeable protagonist, a contemporary Fr Brown, as motivated by compassion as he is by justice, and an experienced campaigner against the kind of abuse of power perpetrated by the Catholic Church that underpins the story.
Hailed as the first Filipino crime novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles is a fascinating snapshot of a country still struggling to come to terms with the poverty, corruption and brutality of the Ferdinand Marcos era.
Opening in Athens in 2010, Leo Kanaris’s debut novel, Codename Xenophon (Dedalus, €14.99) introduces George Zafiris, a private detective who is commissioned to investigate the murder of John Petrakis on the island of Aegina.
The suspects are as plentiful as the red herrings, not least because Petrakis was an eminent scholar with a penchant for exploring the taboos of classical Greece, but, in keeping with the private-eye tradition, Kanaris (aka Alex Martin) and his creation are as interested in investigating their time and place as they are in pursuing justice.
“The laws were ever more elaborate in their complexity, the people ever more ingenious in their evasions. Each tormented the other,” Zafiris tell us as he seeks to throw light on to the shadow of crippling austerity that looms over the story.
The narrative flits from a frenzied Athens to the idyllic islands as politicians, Russian crooks and corrupt (and/or incompetent) policemen thicken the plot while the world-weary Zafiris nimbly negotiates a Byzantine culture in which morality, truth and justice are malleable concepts.
The first in a proposed quartet to feature George Zafiris, Codename Xenophon is a bleak but blackly comic tale that does full justice to its laconic, Chandleresque heritage.
Kelly Creighton’s Belfast-set debut, The Bones of It (Liberties Press, €12.99), is a first-person narration from Scott McAuley, who has recently been kicked out of university and appears to be telling us his story from a secure institution.
According to himself, at least, he is a mild-mannered, green-tea-drinking peacenik. He drip-feeds us ominous snippets from the year gone by, detailing his obsession with his Polish colleague Klaudia and his relationship with his bitterly despised father, Duke, who is now a post-Troubles conflict counsellor but was once imprisoned for stabbing to death two Catholics in a sectarian rage.
Blackly comic in tone, The Bones of It is a Bildungsroman that evolves into a slow-burning psychological exploration of the mind of a most unlikely killer. It may well prove a little too slow-burning for those who prefer their crime novels pacy and packed with incident, but it is an engrossing tale of the consequences of living a life steeped in a culture of violence.
Simon Mawer’s 10th novel, Tightrope (Little, Brown, £16.99), reprises the character of Marian Sutro, a Special Operations Executive agent who parachuted into occupied France in 1943 in The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (2012).
Tightrope opens in 1945, with Sutro leaving behind the horrors of Ravensbruck and arriving home in Britain, in a very fragile physical and emotional state, to discover that the black-and-white certainties of wartime have been replaced, in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by shades of grey.
Spanning the decade following the second World War, and incorporating the first frosty encounters that would lead to the cold war, Tightrope is a nuanced spy novel akin to the best work of John le Carré, in that it bypasses the cloak-and-dagger conventions in pursuit of the noble flaws, foibles and idiosyncrasies that lie at the heart of the most fascinating spies.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009 for The Glass Room, Mawer delivers an absorbing tale about an extraordinary woman who finds her understanding of duty, patriotism and honour ripped to shreds by epoch-defining circumstances. Declan Burke’s latest novel is The Lost and the Blind (Severn House)