New crime fiction: Scandi noir and secrets of the Irish super-rich
A bleak trip down The Silver Road while Jo Spain deliciously evokes Golden Age mysteries
Jo Spain’s Dirty Little Secrets is deliciously cyncial in tone. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Set in Australia in 1971, the title of Sofie Laguna’s The Choke (Gallic, €12.95) refers to “where the [Murray] river was it its thinnest, the banks like giant hands around a neck”. Our narrator is Justine, 10 years old and living with her grandfather Pop, and whose absent father, Ray, is emblematic of the toxic masculinity that smoulders beneath the surface of Laguna’s slow-burning tale. Sharp-eyed and observant when it comes to the great outdoors where she feel most at home, the dyslexic Justine struggles to learn the ways of the world – the only thing Ray ever takes the time to teach her is how to shoot. Hinted at in the title, the brutality of Justine’s world is established in the very first chapter, as Justine and her half-brothers Kirk and Steve engage in vicious mock-battles on the banks of the Murray, but soon the sham cruelty has erupted into a poisonous feud between neighbouring families, with Justine considered fair game in tit-for-tat violence waged against women. By turns lyrical and brutal, The Choke is equal parts Greek tragedy and heart-breaking noir.
Jo Spain’s Dirty Little Secrets (Quercus, €16.99), which is set in the exclusive gated community of Withered Vale in Co Wicklow, opens with the discovery of the body of Olive Collins. The circumstances appear suspicious, but who could possibly have wanted to murder the genteel Olive? Juicy hints are dropped by Olive herself, who addresses the reader from the grave and confirms that the only suspects are the “seemingly respectable people” who live in Withered Vale. While Dirty Little Secrets isn’t exactly a locked-room mystery, Spain has terrific fun scratching the surface of the apparently perfect lives of Olive’s neighbours to uncover a host of motives. Deliberately evocative of classic Golden Age mysteries in its setting and form, the novel is deliciously cynical in tone – even the children who live in Withered Vale are considered suspects – and revels in exposing the sordid truth about the wealthy individuals who consider themselves above the law.
William Boyle’s A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself (No Exit Press, €13.99) is a strong contender for the most misleading title of the year. What sounds like an especially cheesy self-help title opens with Rena Ruggiero, widow of Brooklyn mobster “Gentle” Vic, bashing her elderly neighbour Enzio over the head with a glass ashtray to repel Enzio’s unwanted advances. Soon Rena is on the run, aided and abetted by former porn star Lacey Wolfstein and Lucia, Rena’s teenage granddaughter. The trio are pursued by a sledgehammer-wielding sadist keen to retrieve the suitcase full of cash recently liberated from the mob by Rena’s father Richie. It’s a crime caper worthy of Barry Gifford at his most lurid, set in a lawless world where, as Richie observes, “you’re one dick fiddle away from being lost or dead or spaced on a highway to Shitsville”. The manic energy can get a little wearying, and not all of the plot twists are entirely plausible, but A Friend is a Gift is screwball noir with real heart. “We’re all unfinished wreckage,” Wolfstein tells her friend Mo. “Whatever’s not dead is fixable.”
Winner of the Best Swedish Crime Novel in 2018, Stina Jackson’s debut opens with Lelle Gustafsson wearily driving up and down The Silver Road (Corvus, €15.99) in northern Sweden as he tries to discover some trace of his missing teenage daughter, Lina. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Meja and her mother Silje have moved from southern Sweden to live with Torbjorn, not realising that every loner who lives in the vast wilderness of Norrland is considered a suspect in Lina’s disappearance. The bleak landscape and suffocating claustrophobia of the dense, looming northern forests are brilliantly realised as Jackson’s Scandi-noir unfolds in the harsh glare of summer’s ever-present sun, but while the bare details of the plot suggests a breathless thriller, Jackson has the confidence to deliver a thoughtful, patiently told story in which there are no conventional genre heroes, just ordinary people struggling to cope with their respective tragedies.
Dervla McTiernan’s debut, The Ruin (2018), introduced Detective Cormac Reilly, recently relocated to Galway from Dublin. In her follow-up, The Scholar (Sphere, €15.99), Cormac’s partner Emma discovers the body of a young woman who has been killed, and badly disfigured, during a hit-and-run outside the Galway laboratories of Darcy Therapeutics. The victim is initially thought to be Carline Darcy, the granddaughter of billionaire pharmacist John Darcy and reputed to be one of the finest young scientific minds of her generation – but when the victim’s true identity is learned, Emma herself becomes a suspect in Cormac’s case. There are shades of Ross Macdonald in McTiernan’s sophomore novel: an austere patriarch, successive generations of a family manifesting the same flawed gene, a self-crippling lust for power, money and status (“To Carline they were the bloody Kennedys. Everything Carline did, she did because she was trying to earn a ticket to Camelot”). McTiernan employs the police procedural form rather than that of the private eye, however, and where a single private detective might have been able to turn a blind eye to Emma’s possible involvement in murder, Cormac Reilly has obligations to a more public code of conduct. The result is a complex, densely plotted murder investigation in which the investigators are professionally and emotionally compromised, not least because their opinion of the fabulously wealthy Darcy family is nowhere as impartial as it should be: “There was always something morbidly fascinating about the super-rich. It was like sniffing at a piece of meat that had been hung a bit too long, that had a taint of rot about it.”
Declan Burke is a journalist and author. He is the editor of Trouble is Our Business (New Island)