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Best new crime fiction: Joe Thomas’s Red Menace is an early candidate for crime novel of the year

Also reviewed: Where They Lie by Claire Coughlan; Paper Cage by Tom Baragwanath; Anna O by Matthew Blake; and Owning Up by George Pelecanos

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, and those with fond memories of the 1980s might want to avoid Red Menace (MacLehose, £20), Joe Thomas’s sequel to last year’s superb White Riot. Opening in July 1985 with a behind-the-scenes account as Live Aid unfolds, the novel revolves around Parker, a “spycop” commissioned to infiltrate left-wing activist groups by DC Patrick Noble, himself a veteran of the London Met’s race crime initiative in the 1970s.

Parker’s odyssey through London’s political underbelly takes him into the besieged community of Broadwater Farm and on to Wapping, where Margaret Thatcher’s war on trade unions targets the print unions on behalf of an unnamed titan of print journalism (“One day, Parker thinks, this News Inc. is really going to owe the Met”), his investigations paralleled by those of the solicitor Jon Davies, who can’t seem to get to the bottom of who is buying up huge tracts of the Docklands, and Suzi Scialfa, a music photojournalist with The Face who is embedded with Paul Weller’s Style Council and the Red Wedge coalition of artists pledged to oust the Iron Lady from power.

It’s a blistering exposé of the reality beneath the shiny surface of the 1980s, with Thomas employing a blend of terse, truncated prose and excerpts from official documents of the period to uncover the ugly truth of corrupt policing and racial profiling (and worse) that created the conditions for the so-called race riots of Broadwater and Brixton. Toss in some crack cocaine and realpolitik of breathtaking cynicism at the highest levels of British government, all of it told in a style leavened with gallows humour of the blackest variety, and you have a very early candidate for the crime novel of the year.

Claire Coughlan’s Dublin-set debut Where They Lie (Simon & Schuster, £15.99) opens at Christmas in 1968 with the macabre discovery of a woman’s remains buried in a Sandycove garden. Junior reporter Nicoletta Sarto gets the scoop and quickly learns that the woman is Julia Bridges, an actor who disappeared in 1943 after being spotted entering the home of Gloria Fitzpatrick, a woman with a notorious reputation as an abortionist and who took her own life, some years after Julia’s disappearance, while incarcerated in an institution for the criminally insane.


The Garda believe that Gloria murdered Julia, but Nicoletta’s instincts tell her otherwise, and Nicoletta is not a woman to accept received wisdom simply because the self-appointed sage happens to be wearing trousers. Where They Lie, beautifully crafted in its historical detail, is a labyrinthine tale that takes us on a meandering quest from the mean streets of Dublin’s inner city out to its leafiest suburbs, via the bohemian excess of the theatrical quarter, as the intrepid Nicoletta insinuates herself into the society of the city’s ostensibly respectable citizens to uncover a world of back-street abortions, illegal adoptions and cold-blooded murder.

Baragwanath is strong on the socio-economic conditions and unspoken racism that underpin Masterton’s inequalities as he delivers a compellingly claustrophobic account of a community at war with itself

“Us and them ... Our kids might be missing, the answer just one locked door away, but these are lines that won’t be redrawn.” Paper Cage (Baskerville, £16.99), the debut thriller from Tom Baragwanath, is set in the small New Zealand town of Masterton, which should be a rural idyll but is instead poisoned by an epidemic of crystal meth and a mutual suspicion, bordering on hatred, between its white and Māori residents.

Straddling both communities, but fully at home in neither, is local police clerk Lorraine Henry, whose great-nephew Bradley is the latest child to go missing from the streets of Masterton. By no means the dynamic hero beloved by the genre – she describes herself as a “round grey woman” with a bad hip – Lorraine nevertheless has no choice but to investigate: her boss has no great interest in the disappearance of Māori children, and especially when Bradley is the son of the leader of the local Māori gang, the Mongrel Mob.

Thrillers aren’t always the most nuanced of crime fiction’s subgenres, but Baragwanath is strong on the socio-economic conditions and unspoken racism that underpin Masterton’s inequalities as he delivers a compellingly claustrophobic account of a community at war with itself.

Moral and ethical quandaries abound in Matthew Blake’s Anna O (HarperCollins, £14.95), which is largely narrated by Dr Benedict Prince, a Harley Street forensic psychologist who specialises in crimes committed while the perpetrator was asleep. The comatose Anna Ogilvy is considered to be “the most famous murder suspect in the world” when she is delivered into Dr Prince’s care by the Ministry of Justice, which requires a judgment to be made on whether Anna can be revived in order to face trial.

Matters are complicated, however, by the question as to whether a person can be considered guilty of crimes committed while they were unconscious; besides, Prince, who has built a career on exploring Anna’s “resignation syndrome”, has a vested interest in her not recovering consciousness. It’s a beguiling scenario, but Blake allows the more intriguing aspects of the plot to get bogged down in Prince’s personal travails and a number of subplots that revolve around Anna without delivering on the story’s initial promise of an investigation into a singular kind of killer, which results in the repeated references to Medea, Lady Macbeth, Hitchcock and In Cold Blood ringing a little hollow.

He may be better known these days as a screenwriter on The Wire, but those familiar with Pelecanos’s earlier fiction will discover that the writer is tapping into arguably the most fertile period of his career as a novelist

The latest offering from George Pelecanos, Owning Up (Orion, £19.99) is a quartet of novellas set in Pelecanos’s old stomping ground of Washington DC. The stories are thematically linked, in that each features a main character – writers, for the most part, published or otherwise – who finds him – or herself drawn into the criminal milieu. In The No-Knock, for example, Joe Caruso is a best-selling author of nonfiction books on police corruption whose life is turned upside-down when a Swat team kicks down his front door in pursuit of Joe’s teenage son, Vince, who is accused of taking part in an armed robbery.

Similarly, in the 1970s-set Owning Up, teenager Nikos is persuaded to help an older work colleague to break into an apartment to retrieve some personal possessions, only for events to spiral out of control. The pick of the bunch, however, is Knickerbocker, which features the aspiring writer Leah and a deep-dive investigation into Washington DC’s history that embraces the homicidal lunacy of “the Washington Riots of 1919″, which was effectively a three-day explosion of urban warfare.

He may be better known these days as a screenwriter and co-creator on The Wire, Treme and We Own this City, but those familiar with Pelecanos’s earlier fiction, and especially the Nick Stefanos trilogy and his DC Quartet, will discover that the writer is tapping into arguably the most fertile period of his career as a novelist, and with hugely satisfying results.

Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His current novel is The Lammisters (No Alibis Press)

Declan Burke

Declan Burke

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