On the trail of the killers


CRIMEBEAT: Declan Burkesorts through the latest crime thrillers, including two Irish debuts and a gripping book by Kate Atkinson

THE COMPLEX NATURE of its hierarchies can make Italian policing a daunting world for the inexperienced reader, but that it makes a virtue of such complexities while rendering them accessible is one of the strengths of Conor Fitzgerald’s debut offering, The Dogs of Rome(Bloomsbury, £11.99). Called to investigate the apparent murder of a senator’s husband, Commissario Alec Blume quickly finds himself tiptoeing through a singularly Roman political minefield. Fitzgerald is an Irish writer long domiciled in Rome, Blume is an American-born chief inspector, and both men bring their sceptical outsider’s eye to bear on a city in which the art of compromise is as essential as oxygen. Written in a spare but elegant style, The Dogs of Romeis a very promising debut indeed.

Yvonne Cassidy’s The Other Boy(Hachette Books Ireland, £12.99) is another Irish debut, a novel of suspense that aims to bridge the gap between the conventional crime novel and more mainstream fare. JP Whelan should be the happiest man in London when his girlfriend, Katie, gets pregnant, but then JP’s brother Dessie appears, threatening to blow the lid off the ugly truth of JP’s youth. Cassidy ratchets up the tension as Dessie tightens his grip on JP’s life, all the while offering flashback snippets of what happened back in Dublin when the brothers were boys. Fans of Tana French will find much to enjoy here, even if Cassidy’s prose lacks French’s ambition and inventiveness.

Jan Costin Wagner’s second novel, Silence(Harvill Secker, £12.99), is set in Finland, and opens with an extended prologue in which an unidentified man is party to the rape and murder of a young girl. When a similar crime takes place in the same spot 33 years later, Detective Kimmo Joentaa calls on the experience of his recently retired partner, Ketola, whose first big case was the original crime. Wagner delivers his tale in a taut, dry style, using multiple points of view to explore the psychology of criminality from both sides of the thin blue line. Similar in tone to Henning Mankell’s early Wallander novels, this one drifts up off the page with all the deadly intensity of mustard gas.

Matt Rees’s protagonist Omar Yussef generally prowls the mean streets of Palestine, but his fourth outing, The Fourth Assassin(Atlantic Books, £11.99), finds him in New York as part of a Palestinian delegation to the United Nations. There, Yussef is reunited with his son, only to discover that one of his son’s friends has been brutally murdered. Plodding the bitterly cold thoroughfares of Brooklyn, Yussef must track down the killer before his son is framed for the crime, all the while striving to subvert a Jihadi assassination plot. Rees’s first novel won the CWA New Blood Dagger in 2008, and Omar Yussef remains hugely enjoyable company, equal parts fussy Poirot and the tarnished knight of Philip Marlowe. As always, Yussef’s love of Muslim culture, and the irascible temperament that allows him to poke fun at himself and his co-religionists, makes for a winning blend.

Simon Johnson gets attacked in his apartment one night by a doppelganger who wants him dead. That’s all the information payroll accountant Simon has to work with in Ryan David Jahn’s second novel, Low Life(Macmillan, £12.99), as he sets out to discover who might have ordered his killing, and why. Fans of noirish tales of paranoia by the likes of Gil Brewer and David Goodis will enjoy the Kafkaesque twists and doom-laden tone, but the appeal of Jahn’s tale quickly begins to pall as the improbable absurdities pile up.

A town on an island off the Icelandic coast long buried by a volcanic eruption yields some macabre artefacts when its excavation begins, in particular the three corpses and one severed head discovered in the basement of Markus Magnusson’s old home. Attorney Thora Gudmundsdottir agrees to take up Markus’s case in Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s third novel, Ashes to Dust(Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99), only to discover that her faith in his innocence looks increasingly misplaced. Sigurdardóttir neatly dovetails Thora’s humdrum domestic concerns with the gruesome details she uncovers, and patiently builds up a superbly detailed backdrop to the crime. The sedate pace may frustrate at times, but Sigurdardóttir compensates with elegant prose studded with nuggets of mordant humour.

Savages(William Heinemann, £12.99) is Don Winslow’s 14th novel, and reads like a Ken Bruen redraft of Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers. Specialists in manufacturing high-quality dope, philanthropist Ben and ex-navy Seal Chon go to war with the Baja Cartel as the Mexican drug war spills over the border into southern California. The tale could have been ripped from yesterday’s headlines, and Winslow’s irreverent style and linguistic pyrotechnics maintain a breathless pace throughout. Given that the pair are in love with the same woman, however, and that all three find themselves at the mercy of a terrifyingly ruthless foe, the tale is frustratingly shallow when it comes to emotional depth.

Former Whitbread prize winner Kate Atkinson’s previous offering, When Will There Be Good News?, was something of a phenomenon, and her latest, Started Early, Took My Dog(Doubleday, £17.99), is a beguiling follow-up. Opening with retired policewoman Tracy Waterhouse “buying” a young girl, the novel expands to incorporate a number of parallel narratives, chief among them private eye Jackson Brodie’s attempt to trace a client’s parentage. Brodie is a recurring character in Atkinson’s novels, and his whimsical internal monologues are only one of the joys to be had in a riveting page-turner that blends biting social commentary with an offbeat take on current developments in both the traditional PI and police procedural novels, even as it harks back to Ripper-era Yorkshire of the 1970s.