Not so much whodunnit as why do it?


CRIME BEAT: CONNIE BOWSKILL is the deliciously unhinged, unreliable narrator of Sophie Hannah’s sixth novel, Lasting Damage(Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99). Is Connie actually deranged or did she really see a dead body while browsing an estate agent’s website?

Lasting Damage

Robert Harris is renowned for his historical novels, although his eighth offering, The Fear Index(Hutchinson, £10.99), could hardly be more contemporary and relevant. Set in Geneva, in the world of high finance, it centres on Dr Alexander Hoffman, who was once a prodigy at Cern but who has since learned to adapt his scientific theories to profit from the world’s trading markets. The novel opens with a break-in at Hoffman’s mansion, with Harris establishing a tone of paranoia that quickly escalates, as Hoffman’s persecution by an anonymous enemy increases in tandem with the collapse of the global economy. It sounds perverse to describe The Fear Indexas an old-fashioned techno-thriller, but while the computer-based, self-generating algorithms Harris describes are at the cutting edge of technology, the theme itself is old, dating back to when primitive man first picked up a stone and realised the double-edged potential of a weapon. Harris writes with a deceptively languid elegance, so that the novel straddles not only the crime and sci-fi genres but also that of literary fiction. A satisfying read on a number of levels, it is strongest as a character study of a man who discovers, pace Hemingway, the true meaning of the phrase “grace under pressure”.

Virtually every new Scandinavian crime writer is described as the new Stieg Larsson, but the Swedish author Liza Marklund has a better claim than most. Exposed(Transworld, £6.99) is chronologically the first novel in the series of Annika Bengtzon novels, although Annika’s first outing came in The Bomber, which was published in 1998, a full seven years before Larsson’s debut appeared. Annika Bengtzon is a blend of crusading journalist and feisty heroine; in Exposed, Bengtzon is a callow intern with a Stockholm tabloid who receives a baptism of fire when her investigation into the death of a sex-club stripper exposes the dearth of accountability at the heart of Swedish democracy. Marklund is herself a former tabloid journalist, and Exposedis concise, pacy and direct, eschewing any literary pretensions to language or characterisation in favour of a hard-hitting polemic on the topic of domestic violence, in which the personal is very much the political.

The Watchers,by Jon Steele (Bantam Press, £12.99), opens as a conventional private-eye tale, as London-based detective Jay Harper is summoned to Lausanne, in Switzerland, to investigate the mysterious death of a former Russian Olympic hero. Call girl Katherine Taylor is the requisite femme fatale, but Steele’s debut quickly becomes an imaginative blending of a number of genres, including, most notably, that of the supernatural horror. In essence, Lausanne, and particularly its world-famous cathedral, has in the book become a modern battleground in the age-old war between good and evil. The result is that The Watchers– the first of a proposed trilogy – reads like Paradise Lostby way of John Connolly, although Steele, formerly a war reporter, brings hard-edged modernity to his timeless tale as he roots his depiction of evil in the contemporary world. Clever, stylish and epic in scale, it’s a tremendously satisfying debut.

Tartan noir: What makes a crime thriller Gaelic?

Val McDermid is a notable absentee from Dead Sharp: Scottish Crime Writers on Country and Craft (Two Ravens Press, £11.99), a collection of nine interviews conducted by its editor, Len Wanner. Nonetheless, it’s a stellar line-up: Ian Rankin, Allan Guthrie, Louise Welch, Karen Campbell, Paul Johnston and Christopher Brookmyre are among those who participate, each offering insights into the subgenre described, oxymoronically, as tartan noir.

Despite his academic background, Wanner conducts the interviews in a conversational manner that proves accessible and inclusive, although the jaunty tone belies an impressive depth and breadth as the contributors attempt to define Scottish crime fiction and investigate its roots and influences.

Almost inevitably, the book suffers from a degree of repetition, particularly when it comes to discussions of the craft of writing, which invariably boil down to variations on the theme of writing-is-rewriting. By the same token, it’s a comprehensive and entertaining collection that incorporates a wide range of styles and ambitions, including the Gothic tradition, sci-fi, the literary crime novel, hard-boiled noir, comedy capers and police procedurals.

That Dead Sharp arrives in the wake of Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century, edited by this reviewer, and foreshadows Barry Forshaw’s overview of Scandinavian crime fiction, Death in a Cold Climate, to come from Macmillan in 2012, suggests that the crime novel is due a belated critical appraisal. “The lack of academic rigour in the study of crime fiction is rather surprising,” Paul Johnston points out, “since it’s traditionally been the recreational reading of dons.”

Declan Burke’s most recent novel, Absolute Zero Cool,came out earlier this year