Murderous women having a moment in new crime thrillers

Novels by Sinéad Crowley, MJ Arlidge and CJ Skuse explore dark female psyches


Robin Wasserman's Girls on Fire was not just one of 2016's signature novels; its vivid depiction of transgressive teens in full flow seems to have served as a prospectus. Bad girls and wayward women are very much alive and unwell in this month's selection of crime fiction.

One Bad Turn (Quercus, £12.99) is the third in Sinéad Crowley's compulsively readable Claire Boyle series. It opens with the kidnapping of Leah, an unhappy teenage girl, closely followed by an armed siege in the doctor's surgery DS Boyle happens to be attending with her baby daughter. The doctor, Heather Gilmore, and the hostage taker, Eileen Delaney, were childhood friends, and it emerges that Eileen, who has had a hand in Leah's seizing, blames Heather for the death of her son. Flashing back and forth in time, the mystery unfolds at a blistering pace, leading ultimately to an unexpected and devastatingly dark conclusion.

Crowley steers her diverse cast around the coastal village of Fernwood (a thinly disguised, amusingly rendered Dalkey/ Killiney) with aplomb; she has a nice line in wry social comment, a keen eye for psychological nuance, and a facility for misdirection that sets you reeling. The catastrophic consequences of the economic collapse are deftly dramatised, while Boyle's less-than-tranquil relationship with her stay-at-home husband is finely drawn. A volatile mix of police procedural and psychological thriller, One Bad Turn is sensationally good.

MJ Arlidge's Love Me Not (Michael Joseph, £12.99) opens with the seemingly random shotgun murder of a female probation officer by a Bonnie and Clyde couple. The last thing she hears before she dies is the sound of the female killer's laughter. As the killers' spree continues, DI Helen Grace scrambles a team to give chase, while disgraced reporter Emilia Garanita hopes to revive her career fortunes by beating Grace to a story in which the female will prove to be considerably more deadly than the male.

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Meticulously researched, solidly constructed and colourlessly written in a succession of short chapters, Love Me Not, the seventh entry in a bestselling series, is a formulaic read: each scene unfolds exactly as you would expect, every line of on-the-nose dialogue is riddled with cliche, while DI Helen Grace is a relentlessly self-pitying, angry and humourless heroine. (Her backstory is so preposterously melodramatic it would, as Wilde said of the death of Little Nell, take a heart of stone not to laugh out loud.) Arlidge's background is in TV, and the book reads like a blueprint for a not especially interesting series; I frequently wished that's what it already was, so I could change channel.

"It's an exquisite privilege to watch someone die, knowing you caused it. Almost worth getting dolled up for." Rhiannon Lewis has just dispatched a random sexual attacker into the canal, minus his erect penis, which she has severed with a steak knife and packed in one of her dog's poo bags so it can later play a significant part in the plot. We're on page 19 of CJ Skuse's Sweetpea (HQ, £12.99), and that won't be the last, or by any means the most brutal killing in the book. We're not in St Mary Mead any more.

When Rhiannon was six, she was the sole survivor of a massacre in which her childminder and the five other children in her charge died; Rhiannon went on to become something of a child celebrity, garnering TV appearances and the nation’s sympathy. And while she has just made the shortlist for TV’s Women of the Century, mostly she lives a normal life these days: working as an editorial assistant, getting engaged to her unfaithful boyfriend, helping to plan her friend’s wedding, getting pregnant, and getting away with murder.

With a nod to Helen Zahavi's Dirty Weekend, Sweetpea is deliriously amoral, by turns gross, unsettling and hilarious; it reads as if an unhinged Sarah Millican were channelling American Psycho. It's ramshackle and overstuffed and would have worked better at half the length, but I enjoyed it immensely.

In The Housekeeper (Simon & Schuster, £8.99), by the mellifluously named Suellen Dainty, Anne Morgan has broken up with her Marco Pierre White-style chef boyfriend and gone to keep house for Emma Helmsley and her family. Emma – by Nigella out of Gwyneth – is the queen of lifestyle and self-help, while her husband Rob psychoanalyses celebrities on the radio. They live in some style out in the woods past Richmond, and Anne soon makes herself indispensable, for Emma is far too busy preaching domestic bliss to have time to practice any.

The house was once home to a commune, presided over by an RD Laing-style alternative psychologist whose biography Rob is writing. With Rob’s help, Anne gradually begins to recover disturbing memories from the first six missing years of her life, when her mother was still alive and may herself have lived in the house.

Beautifully written, attentive to the insidious glamour of the rich and famous, throbbing with unease and seductive menace, The Housekeeper is a potent, atmospheric chiller.

Lizzie Borden might be the archetypal transgressive female, and Sarah Schmidt has taken the 81 whacks and the parents that were dealt them and spun a mesmerising reimagining of it all in See What I Have Done (Tinder Press, £12.99). The narrative alternates between Lizzie, whose shimmering, mercurial streams of consciousness read like prose poetry, her artist sister Emma, Irish maid Bridget, and Benjamin, who has been hired by the Borden girls' Uncle John to commit murder.

Schmidt writes with precision and flair about the oppressive boredom of domesticity, the twisted intensity of sisterly love and the forlorn dreams of leaving and of personal reinvention Emma and Lizzie share. A glittering, gory fever dream of a book, See What I Have Done is a remarkable debut.

Declan Hughes is a novelist and playwright. He is currently Arts Council writer in residence at UCD