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Crime fiction: Declan Hughes on May’s best new thrillers

Beware the Woman; Don’t Look Back; No One Saw a Thing; The Monk; and Italian Rules

Megan Abbott’s recent novels have focused on intense, volatile friendships between teenage girls, whose “dark majesty” she renders in a sophisticated collage of pulp melodrama, yearning poetic romance and uncanny psychological realism. Invariably centring on an absorbing competitive pursuit requiring nerve-shredding levels of dedication (cheerleading, gymnastics, ballet), these books foreground overreaching, feverish, passionate young women driven to unexpected extremes. Her earlier fiction – a mesmerising noir quartet set variously during the Depression era, Golden Age Hollywood and down the mean streets of 1950s Los Angeles — explores the same preoccupations, but the glass is darker, the cast and mis en scène seedier, the stakes more recognisably hard-boiled, the rhythms wilder and more turbulent.

Abbot’s new novel, Beware the Woman (Virago, £16.99), feels in many respects like a call back to that early work: a haunted, woozy, suspenseful Midwest Gothic Noir unfolding in an isolated cabin in the woods, it could be set in the 1950s with minimal editing — and the shade that casts across the book’s sexual politics is salutory.

“It’s not like I’m marrying a stranger,” Jacy tells her mom over the phone on the day of her hurried wedding.

“Honey,” she said, “we all marry strangers.”


Newly pregnant Jacy and Jed take a road trip to Iron Mountain, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to visit Jed’s father. Dr Ash is warm and charismatic, almost flirtatious, and Jacy feels welcome, despite the less than reassuring presence of his caretaker, Mrs Brandt, with her “deep red hair … gathered tight and high … the crisp white shirt, collars and cuffs blade-sharp, a stiff long skirt, full and feminine”; her “dusty, mysterious formality”.

There’s a mountain lion at large in the woods, and the ghost of Jed’s mother, who died in childbirth, and other phantoms from his youth begin to swell the stage, and by the time Jacy suffers a health scare that leaves her unfit to travel the mountain roads, she is already seeing visions and much possessed by dreams.

This is a slow-burning novel of almost unbearable tension, with a compelling, poetic narrative voice, an unsettling, delirious atmosphere, an abundance of darkly funny one-liners and a plot that dramatises incisively issues around patriarchy and female bodily autonomy; the violent, shocking, pulpy climax is splendidly lurid. A new Megan Abbot novel is a major event; she is always essential reading.

On the final day of their belated honeymoon on the idyllic Caribbean island of St Thérèse, Donegal schoolteacher Rose breaks the bad news to Luke Turner, her husband of six months: Just before they flew out, she was attacked by her violent ex, who had been stalking her. And Rose killed him. “I can’t go back. Do you understand? There’s a dead body in our apartment.” As luck would have it, Luke’s ex, Mickey Shiels, is a former solicitor turned champion of women escaping intimate partner violence, and she agrees to help. But the killing is not what it seems, and Rose and Luke have each been keeping secrets: soon the skeletons emerge to do battle, and their marriage is in the dock.

Jo Spain is an immensely skilful author of thoughtful, richly textured thrillers featuring complex, nuanced characters, and Don’t Look Back (Quercus, £14.99) is up there with her best. I especially enjoyed her depiction of the matriarch at the head of a sinister Donegal fishing dynasty, while in Mickey Shiels she has created a lead character I’d be happy to meet again.

Andrea Mara’s new thriller, No One Saw a Thing (Bantam, £14.99) begins with an episode pitched precariously between parents’ worst nightmare and urban myth: juggling a pram and two young children through the London Underground, Sive sees six-year-old Faye and two-year-old Bella surge ahead on the crowded platform and board, just as the doors slide shut and the train sails off. When the next station is alerted, it seems disaster has been averted, but only Bella is safe: Faye has disappeared.

Dubliner Sive is in London for husband Aaron’s twenty-year reunion with his former housemates, and the novel runs with sleek and propulsive velocity along these dual timelines, the tense investigation into the child’s possible kidnapping counterpointed by the renewal of pugnacious criminal barrister Aaron’s fractious, competitive relationship with his erstwhile social circle. With echoes of Alex Marwood and Lisa Jewell, Mara deftly unveils a series of disturbing episodes from the ghastly friends’ secret history: could one of them be behind Faye’s disappearance? Or has Aaron’s fast and loose practice as a criminal barrister caught up with him?

As we hurtle toward our final destination I wondered if there was a twist or three too many, but this is a wild ride, one you’ll want to see through to the end.

The Monk (Head of Zeus, £20) is the fifth in screenwriter and director Tim Sullivan’s DS Cross series, and an extremely accomplished, traditional mystery in the PD James mode it is — the book is dedicated to Sullivan’s old English teacher and is replete with the kind of steady, well-modulated sentences English teachers favour. Here the murder of a monk leads to an investigation into his former life as a high-flying City trader, and to the uncovering of low moral standards in high financial places.

With an appealing, sympathetic partner, DS Ottey, what is most notable about George Cross is that he is openly neurodivergent: his lack of social intelligence is seeded to humorous effect throughout the book and pays off most effectively when it is shown to unsettle suspects in interviews; less persuasive are the moments when he (and a monk, who is likewise on the spectrum) exhibit what might be termed autistic superpowers (photographic memory, unlikely expertise). Still, this well plotted and paced novel is an absolute treat and makes me keen to catch up on the preceding four DS Cross books.

Italian Rules (Constable, £9.99) is an intelligent, kinetically sprung fourth entry in Tom Benjamin’s Bologna-based Daniel Leicester PI series. With a vivid use of the Italian city setting and a nice insider feel both for the corrupt intricacies of civic politics and for the manners and mores of the movie business, this stylish tale of the links between the remake of a cult film, the disappearance of the original print and a gruesome murder-suicide is as bracing and flavoursome as the ice-cold Montenegros our elegant PI likes to drink.

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes

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