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July’s best new crime fiction: Prom Mom by Laura Lippman; Someone You Trust by Rachel Ryan; A Lesson in Malice by Catherine Kirwan and more

Reviews: Prom Mom by Laura Lippman; Someone You Trust by Rachel Ryan; A Lesson in Malice by Catherine Kirwan; The Continental Affair by Christine Mangan; Standing in the Shadows by Peter Robinson

At 16, Amber Glass gave birth to a child on the floor of a hotel bathroom on prom night. Joe Simpson, her date and the baby’s father, never came back to the room. The baby died, and Amber went away for a while, and time passed. Now, 20 years later, she’s back in Baltimore, running an art gallery and biding her time. Joe is married to Meredith, a highly controlled plastic surgeon who decided never to have kids because her near-fatal childhood illness had ruined her parents’ marriage. Joe is better looking at 40 than he was at 19, when he and Meredith met, but then so is Meredith. He had confessed to her, and she had forgiven him, had made him good. They had devoted their lives to their devotion. “Their love kept them shiny.”

Prom Mom (Faber, £8.99), Laura Lippman’s mesmerising new novel, is about Amber, and it is about Meredith, but it is mostly about Joe, All American Joe, who “had yet to meet a situation or a culture where his good looks and sweetness didn’t let him cut the line”; who works for his uncle’s real estate firm; who commits adultery the way most people yawn, because it would be unnatural and uncomfortable not to. He reconnects with Amber, who “had forgotten how little experience Joe had in being teased, how his good looks and utter normalcy hadn’t prepared him for much beyond praise and respect. She had envied him for that, once. Now it explained so much.”

There is another, younger woman, of course, Jordan, who Joe keeps meaning to break up with. Being with Amber again... couldn’t he rediscover, through her, the boy he had been? “How could he explain how he felt when he was with Amber?.... he was in his boyhood bedroom... and he was adored. No one got to be adored in adulthood. Not in adulthood, not in marriage.”

Joe is working on a big deal, and he has emptied a savings account and taken out a second mortgage to fund it; then the pandemic hits and commercial real estate falls apart. Meanwhile, Jordan threatens to tell Meredith about Amber. The past is making increasingly insistent claims upon the present, and Joe, who has danced elegantly among the ruins for his entire adult life, is finally beginning to stumble. Lippman suggests that the book can be viewed as a very long prequel to James M Cain’s Double Indemnity and, sure enough, the noir shenanigans kick in eventually and ingeniously, but for the most part, Prom Mom, as richly textured with novelistic detail as it is, works best as an eerie, shimmering midlife fable, a tragicomic meditation on unfeasible romantic optimism, on faith and faithlessness. I remain haunted by its mordant, rueful wisdom.


Someone You Trust (Piatkus, £14.99), Rachel Ryan’s follow-up to her terrific debut Hidden Lies, is a slow burning, extremely well-structured psychological thriller. Dubliner Amy arrives at Miles and June Carroll’s imposingly modern home, remotely situated at the furthest tip of west Cork. Miles is a solicitor, June an Instagram content creator; Amy will mind the two small children and keep the house beautiful. From the beginning there is evidence of trouble in paradise: nannies who departed abruptly, Miles’s discernibly creepy gaze; spiciest of all, the brooding presence of undisclosed 17-year-old son Liam. But Amy is not all she seems either: it suits her perfectly to be paid in cash, so that “legally, officially it was like she’d dropped off the face of the earth”. But nowhere is safe when a man is after you: “even out here, at the end of the world, she was afraid he would find her”. Amy’s unsettling history of teenage motherhood and an abusive partner is set against the turbulent relationship between the Carrolls and the local community. Ryan ramps up the suspense with skill and builds deftly toward a satisfyingly violent climax.

A Lesson in Malice (Hachette Books Ireland, £14.99) is the third entry in Catherine Kirwan’s immensely enjoyable Finn Fitzpatrick series and, as ever, Cork is the star; in this case, the UCC campus plays a leading role after a visiting academic’s body is discovered following a legal conference to which alumnus Finn has unexpectedly been invited. A locked room mystery in which none of the rooms were actually locked, there is a rivalrous cast of suspects with competing motives and the university world is amusingly and persuasively depicted. Overlong and structurally unwieldy, there are too many characters and the central revelation manages at once to feel genuinely unexpected and somehow perfunctory, but scene by scene this is nonetheless a very entertaining read.

The Continental Affair (Bedford Square, £16.99) is the third novel by Irish-American author Christine Mangan, and it is a characteristically louche, stylish production, set variously in 1960s Granada, Paris, Belgrade and Istanbul, and crucially, provisionally, on buses and trains to and from these places. Louise is in flight from her London family; Henri from his past life as a gendarme in Oran; he must retrieve the money she has stolen from the gang he works for, but cannot seem to spur himself into the required action. In the meantime, there are hotels and restaurants and new friends who glitter and fade as the dark city nights wear on, and always a great deal of alcohol. The Continental Affair reads as if Jean Rhys and Patricia Highsmith collaborated on a script for Alfred Hitchcock; it is an elegant, delirious fever dream of a book.

Standing in the Shadows (Hodder & Stoughton £22.00) is the 28th and final book in Peter Robinson’s much-loved Alan Banks series, following the author’s sad death in 2022. Tacking between 1980, when a young woman student activist is murdered in a Leeds still at the mercy of the Yorkshire Ripper, and the present day, where the role of undercover police officers who infiltrated political protest organisations has come under scrutiny, Robinson delivers an impeccably structured, engagingly spun performance. The terrifying Aftermath remains for me his masterpiece, but Robinson was a master of the police procedural and his thoughtful, nuanced work will endure.

This is my last crime column for the time being. I’ve enjoyed sharing my thoughts about and enthusiasm for mystery fiction in these pages over the past eight years, but I have more of my own books to write, and it’s time to move on. If you have been, thanks for reading.

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes

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