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New crime fiction: Tana French returns with an Irish Western

Stylish debut from Stephen Spotswood, urbane wit from Elly Griffiths

Tana French’s much-loved Dublin Murder Squad series is one of the outstanding achievements in contemporary crime fiction. Reviewing the sixth book, The Trespasser, a few years ago, I suggested that two elements were central to the potency of her writing: her ability to trammel the passions, drives and dark forces of the investigation and render them in vivid, surging prose, and her gift for creating characters who we care for long after the details of the case have melted away. Antoinette Conway, Stephen Moran, the legend that is Frank Mackey: unsettled, roiling, kinetic characters deconstructing and reinventing themselves through the challenging, perilous work they do.

The Searcher (Penguin Viking, €14.99) joins Chicago police detective Cal Hooper with his work very much behind him. Dissatisfaction with the force's ethical standards has spurred him to hand in his papers, but while the causes of his discontent are referred to, they don't animate him. Now he has retired to restore a dilapidated house in the remote west of Ireland countryside.

Seemingly content, he works on the house with his grandfather’s tools and watches for rooks and foxes. He engages with his garrulous bachelor neighbour, with the helmet-haired shopkeeper who knows everyone’s business and with the locals in the pub. When a feral young boy persuades him to search for his missing brother, it appears that Hooper will follow the path French’s detectives invariably tread: in solving the case, he will remake himself.

The title of the novel is a nod to John Ford’s The Searchers; there are elements too of Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore. However, unlike Ethan Edwards or Joe Cashin (or Frank Mackey), Hooper, although divorced and disillusioned, is not broken. He is searching for peace, not redemption, and there is an evenness to his temperament, even under pressure.

That gives the book a thoughtful, lyrical quality – there is nature writing here of extraordinary beauty – but it means the turbulent energy that usually pulses through a French novel is subdued, the suspense not quite as compelling. The plot is scant and the storytelling leisurely: almost nothing at all happens for the first 100 pages, and only in the final third do sparks begin to fly.

The Searcher is never less than an absorbing read – French is incapable of writing a graceless sentence – but now that she has had her rural sojourn, I do hope she will return to the tumultuous streets of the city that sustains her finest work: Dublin.

Witty and elegantly assembled

"'Harbinder Kaur was thirty-six years old, unmarried, and still lived with her parents.' If she read that in a book, she'd lose all sympathy with the character." But Det Sgt Kaur – the "Best Gay Sikh Detective in West Sussex" – is grumpy and dogged and entirely sympathetic in Elly Griffiths's The Postscript Murders (Quercus, €18.20). The death of 90-year-old Peggy Smith is attributed to natural causes, but Peggy lied about having a heart condition, was convinced she was being followed and, most pertinently, plied a clandestine trade as a murder consultant, devising ingenious deaths for authors low on inspiration.

With a fast-moving plot that relies in part on the lost novels of a forgotten Golden Age mystery author, a hastily assembled investigative team comprising a dapper, retired religious affairs broadcaster, an ex-monk and a Ukrainian carer, and a nice line in publishing in-jokes and literary satire, The Postscript Murders lands somewhere between Magpie Murders and The Thursday Murder Club: urbane, witty and elegantly assembled. It’s an absolute delight.

Deadly female characters

Set in New York in 1946, Fortune Favours the Dead (Wildfire, €18.70), Stephen Spotswood's stylish debut teams circus runaway Willowjean Parker with the city's most successful private detective, the legendary, three-piece houndstooth suit-sporting Lillian Pentecost. A wealthy young widow is murdered at a swanky society party and the family hires the newly joined duo to solve the locked room mystery. Along the way they encounter voices from beyond the grave, corrupt business shenanigans and an array of redoubtably deadly female characters, sketched with great verve by Spotswood, who avowedly emulates the blend of English mystery and American hard-boiled, established in Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe series.

Persuasive in its attention to period detail and dialogue, with well-constructed set-piece scenes deftly staged, this is a highly accomplished, auspicious first entry in what we must hope will be a long-running series.

Rousing courtroom climax

Best known for their psychological thrillers, the team who write as Nicci French (married couple Nicci Gerrard and Sean French) return with House of Correction (Simon & Schuster, €14.99). A twisty and compelling saga which combines elements of that sub-genre – Tabitha, accused of murder, is convinced of her innocence but unable to account for or even recall her actions on the day of the crime – with a rousing courtroom climax, in which she conducts her own defence, and a leaven of sealed village mystery (there's even a map).

The initial prison sequences are a bit of a trudge, but the pace soon picks up and the courtroom scenes are brilliantly done, highly theatrical, funny and anarchic; all the while the slow burn of claustrophobia, paralysis and malice that is village life seeps through the pages, leaving a satisfyingly acrid aftertaste.

Accessible academic writing

Can a literary genre's endurance be gauged by the degree of academic attention it receives? If so, Irish crime fiction is proving a hardy perennial. Palgrave Macmillan has already published an essay collection, The Contemporary Irish Detective Novel, edited by Elizabeth Mannion; and a contemporary survey, Irish Crime Fiction, edited by Brian Cliff. Now Mannion and Cliff have joined forces for Guilt Rules All: Irish Mystery, Detective and Crime Fiction (Syracuse University Press, €25.30).

The new collection considers authors who didn’t fit into the two previous volumes under a variety of headings: Antecedents and Beginnings, which includes Freeman Wills Crofts, Bartholomew Gill and Julie Parsons; Historical Crime Fiction featuring Conor Brady and Michael Russell; and Domestic Noir including Liz Nugent, Sinéad Crowley, Claire McGowan and Louise Phillips.

There are incisive essays on Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series, Gene Kerrigan’s noir tetralogy, and the Harry Rigby novels of my learned colleague Declan Burke (whose 2011 editorship of Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century is generally credited with kick-starting serious study of the genre). Burke pops up himself with an excellent essay on Alex Barclay’s FBI agent Ren Bryce, and I very much enjoyed Joe Long’s piece on Arlene Hunt.

Here is academic writing that is accessible and fluent, a praxis-free zone with nary a heuristic nor a hegemony in sight. No serious student of Irish crime fiction can be without it.

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