The best new crime fiction – and one or two disappointments

Novels by Ruth Ware, Maile Meloy, Karen Dionne, Andrew Martin and Andrew Pyper

Maile Meloy:  in Do Not Become Alarmed her mordant wit persists even through the most gruesome scenes

Maile Meloy: in Do Not Become Alarmed her mordant wit persists even through the most gruesome scenes

 

“If it’s not quite art and it’s not quite entertainment, it’s here on my desk.” So proclaims the world-weary movie producer Bobby Gould in David Mamet’s 1988 Hollywood satire Speed-the-Plow. A whip-smart wisecrack, it also serves as a useful barometer when it comes to evaluating the quality and scope of popular art, most especially when that art displays an increasing reluctance to know its place.

Like her first two books, which were UK and US bestsellers, Ruth Ware’s new novel, The Lying Game (Harvill Secker, £12.99), is written from that part of the forest presided over by the shades of Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier.

In the wee small hours of the morning, Isa, on maternity leave with her first child, receives a three-word text message: I need you. Isa immediately makes plans to set off for Kate Atagon’s house at Salten, knowing Fatima and Thea will likewise be en route. The four were fast friends at the boarding school on the marshes there, where Kate’s father was the art teacher. Now a body has turned up on the beach, and the lies the girls told 17 years ago, to the authorities and, as it emerges, to each other, are about to have serious consequences.

Ruth Ware: The Lying Game is a tidy, well-behaved performance, but it takes more than 100 pages to get going
Ruth Ware: The Lying Game is a tidy, well-behaved performance, but it takes more than 100 pages to get going

The Lying Game is a tidy, well-behaved performance, but it takes more than 100 pages to get going, the friendships feel insistent and forced, and the mystery is an either/or affair without much in the way of suspense. The strength of the novel lies in the persuasive depiction of Isa’s awakening from exhausted, overprotective but contented young mother to the awful truth of her character and her affections. It feels as if that’s the book Ware most wanted to write.

Maile Meloy is not the first literary novelist to venture into the forest, but few have emerged with a novel as satisfying as Do Not Become Alarmed (Penguin, £8.99). Nora and Liv are cousins; when Nora’s grief shows little sign of abating after her mother’s death, Liv, a movie executive, organises a Christmas cruise for their families. On a shore day in “the Switzerland of Central America”, while the men are golfing, the women and children find their way to an unfamiliar riverside beach. Some drunken flirting with the tour guide, some midday-sun-induced sleep, and suddenly the children are swept downriver and away, and the nightmare begins.

Do Not Become Alarmed is as much a novel of ugly Americans abroad, with their privilege and their narcissism and their First World anxieties, as it is a thriller, although the thrills are not skimped on. While the parents’ guilt and raging grief are explosively rendered, we unusually get to follow the children on their adventures, too; what we lose in suspense we gain in richness and complexity.

In ‘Do Not Become Alarmed’ the narrative switches dazzlingly from character to character with ingenious facility

The narrative switches dazzlingly from character to character with ingenious facility. Meloy has an Ann Patchett-like eye for nuance and detail and a mordant wit that persists even through the most gruesome and disturbing scenes; this restless, kinetic book is unsettling and provoking but never solemn. I kept stopping and setting it aside to think; at the end I urgently wanted to read it again.

“I was born two weeks into my mother’s captivity. She was three weeks shy of seventeen. Had I known then what I do now . . . I would have been a lot more understanding of my mother. And I wouldn’t have adored my father.”

Helena was 12 when she escaped from the cabin in the woods; her father, the Marsh King, has been in jail ever since. Now she is married with two daughters, and the Marsh King has killed two guards and broken out of prison. Her husband doesn’t know the truth of her past until two police officers arrive at their house, and wants the family to flee. But Helena is her father’s daughter, and she knows the only way to avoid becoming prey is to turn hunter.

Set in Michigan’s bleak Upper Peninsula, Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter (Sphere, £12.99) cuts between Helena’s pursuit of her father and her account of life in the cabin and in the woods, where he taught her how to hunt, and where he beat her and locked her in a disused well.

Karen Dionne’s storytelling is relentless. The Marsh King’s Daughter is set to make the season’s other thrillers look undernourished

Helena’s ambivalence about her father is brilliantly, maddeningly done; the prose is sinuous and lush; the storytelling is relentless. The Marsh King’s Daughter is set to make the season’s other thrillers look undernourished.

Andrew Martin is best known for his Edwardian Jim Stringer series. His exquisitely written new novel, Soot (Corsair, £14.99), takes place in York in 1798. Fletcher Rigge, debtor of the first class, is released from prison for a month to find the killer of the silhouette painter Matthew Harvey, stabbed with his own scissors. The murderer is one of the last six sitters, whose identities must be deduced from their silhouettes, or shades. If Rigge fails in his task he will be returned to the care of his jailer.

Comic but never arch, ‘Soot’ is an artfully sophisticated entertainment

Made up of letters and diary entries, Soot is a well-made whodunnit, an artful pastiche and an atmospheric re-creation of Georgian England, replete with acute bibliomania, the rights and wrongs of enclosed farms, copious draughts of port wine and scenes of an extremely louche sexual nature. Comic but never arch, it is an artfully sophisticated entertainment.

In Andrew Pyper’s The Only Child (Orion, £13.99) a 200-year-old man claims to have kissed Mary Shelley by the Villa Diodati, drunk champagne with Robert Louis Stevenson and traded tall tales with Bram Stoker. He declares himself the father of Dr Lily Dominick, a forensic psychiatrist, and when he murders her boss, drains his blood and flees, she pursues him to the Hungarian town where he has alleged, Frankenstein-like, that he was “created”.

Given that delirious outline, and the fact that Pyper writes elegantly and with grace, the silly generic thriller that ensues is a disappointment: certainly not art, and not entertaining enough.

Declan Hughes is a novelist and playwright

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