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Declan Hughes reviews January’s best new crime fiction

Featuring Needless Alley by Natalie Marlow; A Dangerous Business by Jane Smiley; Age of Vice of by Deepti Kapoor; The Mysterious Case of Alperton Angels by Janice Hallett; and The Second Stranger by Martin Griffin

“Where will the likes of you and I be if there were no more rich men with secrets?” So muses Birmingham solicitor Shifty Shirley to William Garrett, Private Enquiry Agent, as they pore over photographs of another compromised wife.

Garrett’s partner, Ronnie Edgerton, a resting actor blessed with “beautiful, film-star chops”, lures the women and Garrett takes the seedy shots. It’s 1933, and Ronnie thinks a self-made man like Garrett should be an American – after all, “Sam Spade doesn’t drink tea”. But neurasthenic Garrett is in thrall to his native city: the canals, the pubs, the crumbling manor houses; the raffish, turbulent, high-to-low slew of boatmen and bohemians, moguls and models, performers and pornographers. Hired by a client who is not only a wealthy industrialist but a leading light of the British Union of Fascists, Garrett promptly falls in love with the wife he is tasked to surveil.

Needless Alley (Baskerville, £14.99), the debut novel by Natalie Marlow, features an epigraph from Raymond Chandler, and it rests securely within the hard-boiled tradition. Marlow has a nicely theatrical way with a scene, and her witty prose has texture and heft. The city is atmospherically rendered, the narrative has an almost hallucinatory quality and Garrett is an engaging leading man. Needless Alley is an exceptionally well-written first novel that whets the appetite for many sequels.

Best known as the author of A Thousand Acres, Moo and Horse Heaven, Jane Smiley turned her hand highly effectively to murder mystery for her third novel, Duplicate Keys. Notwithstanding the reservations she expressed about the genre’s limitations in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, here she is again with A Dangerous Business (Abacus, £16.99).


Eliza Ripple is from Kalamazoo, but her husband brought her to Monterey, California, where, much to Eliza’s relief, he got himself killed in a bar fight. Now she works at a brothel run by the solicitous Mrs Parks, and while the work is not always congenial, she is close to achieving financial independence, and her new life is in every way superior to the one she shared with her unmourned spouse.

When the bodies of young women start to appear on the outskirts of town, Eliza and her friend Jean, who works in a brothel for women and enjoys dressing as a man, turn detective, taking inspiration from their reading of Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Despite the nature of her profession, Eliza is a classic American innocent, a spirited mix of curiosity and pragmatism, remaking herself daily in the lawless streets of Gold Rush Monterey.

Smiley’s assured narration and zestful energy push the story along, and her characteristic preoccupations – horses, real estate and sex – are given generous attention. A Dangerous Business is a clever, tender historical mystery with a captivating female protagonist.

Deepti Kapoor’s Age of Vice (Fleet, £20) comes garlanded with praise from Rumaan Alam, Marlon James and Lee Child, and is housed in a very 1980s airport lounge, black-and-gold blockbuster cover. Beginning with the slaughter of five pavement dwellers at the side of New Delhi’s Inner Ring Road by the drunk driver of a Mercedes, this is an epic gangster melodrama centred on the powerful, corrupt and deadly Wadia family, and charting the fortunes of three principal characters: Ajay, who has risen from poverty to become a trusted servant; Sunny, the playboy scion striving to emerge from the shadow cast by his ruthless father Bunty; and Neda, the journalist who finds the seductive allure of the Wadias too tempting to resist.

Ranging back and forth in time, deftly set and staged, Kapoor brings an exhilarating narrative energy, a sharp eye for status and aspiration, and a gift for the lavishly depicted set-piece and for skilfully and economically evoking the passage of time. Widescreen, immersive, stylishly written, with dynamic storytelling and sudden, shocking eruptions of violence, Age of Vice kept me hooked to the last.

I think I was the only reviewer last year not to have fallen hard for Janice Hallett’s The Twyford Code, so I approached The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels (Viper, £16.99) somewhat warily, ever anxious not to look like the man in an HM Bateman cartoon. Eighteen years ago, a cult brainwashed a teenage girl into believing her newborn baby was the anti-Christ; rather than sacrifice the child, the girl escaped and the Angels killed themselves. Now the baby is old enough to be interviewed, and true-crime writer Amanda Bailey is on the trail – as is a rival, Oliver Menzies, who Amanda loathes but with whom she is obliged to collaborate.

Mind-meltingly complicated, fiendishly well plotted, replete with delicious snark about publishing, clear-eyed and very funny about cold-blooded writerly ambition, the novel proceeds exclusively through emails, WhatsApp messages and transcribed interviews, interpolated occasionally by various drafts of the proposed first chapter of Amanda’s book.

In its assured dexterity and metafictional exuberance, it is a bravura performance, but I felt there was ultimately a gap at the book’s heart: the underlying sensibility and presence of the author. What should ultimately be the affecting and moving climax of a darkly conceived, deeply felt story is frustratingly outshone by the cold brilliance of the technical fireworks.

The Second Stranger (Sphere, £16.99) is Martin Griffin’s ingeniously plotted debut, and while it cleaves to a familiar script, there is confidence and an urgency to the storytelling that keeps it fresh.

Remie Yorke has one final shift at a hotel in the Scottish Highlands before she leaves for Chile; the hotel itself is about to close for winter, and Remie is the last remaining staff member, alongside two residents. Then Storm Ezra rises, cutting the hotel off, and an injured police officer named PC Don Gaines arrives: a prisoner has escaped from the nearby jail and might be heading their way. When the titular second stranger arrives, he claims to be PC Don Gaines also; and so it accelerates.

I found Remie a little skimpily drawn, and the writing is functional, but Griffin ratchets up the tension with plenty of twists and turns, each one pleasingly surprising and perfectly judged, to deliver a gripping, suspenseful, fast-paced thriller.

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a playwright, novelist and critic