The best new crime fiction: bloody messes everywhere
From Val McDermid, Richard Anderson, Tod Goldberg, Karen Perry and Megan Abbott
Val McDermid. Photograph: Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty
The past is a different country; they do things differently there. DCI Karen Pirie doesn’t see it that way, though – Pirie, the head of Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit, is determined that killers will be brought to justice regardless of how long ago they committed their crimes. The fifth in a series to feature DCI Pirie, Val McDermid’s Broken Ground (Little, Brown, €16.99) opens with Pirie investigating a murder from the 1990s, albeit one with its roots in the second World War and the special operations executive training that took place in the Scottish Highlands.
It’s a beguiling combination of crime fiction sub-genres: McDermid offers a blend of whodunit and whydunit as Pirie seeks answers to the mystery of the body dug from the peat of a remote croft in Wester Ross. Identifying the body requires a good deal of cutting-edge forensic science, and Pirie also finds herself caught up in a contemporary case of lethal domestic violence while fighting a running battle with her new boss, Ann Markie. It all makes for a tangled web, to put it mildly, but McDermid’s deceptively languid style, sly black humour and metronomic sense of pacing delivers a compulsively readable tale as the action segues back and forth between urban Edinburgh and the windswept wilderness of the Highlands.
Set in rural Australia, Richard Anderson’s Retribution (Scribe, €11.99) centres on Graeme Sweetapple, a horse-lover and cattle thief who is commissioned by a local rancher to steal a valuable mare. When Sweetapple is double-crossed, he sets out with his girlfriend Carson and disaffected loner Luke to wreak a violent revenge. The plot of Anderson’s second novel can feel rather mechanical at times – the novel opens with Sweetapple playing Good Samaritan and being rewarded with a cache of explosives, which the reader suspects will likely come in useful at some later point in the tale – but it’s a slow-burning thriller that reads like a neo-Western, not least because Anderson, formerly a cattle farmer, vividly captures the vast, rugged landscape and the brutal intensity of the heat in the back country.
With Sweetapple, Carson and Luke all struggling in their own way to suppress violent instincts and simmering rage, the novel is a low-key noir that eventually explodes, although not necessarily in the way the reader might expect or desire.
A sequel to Gangsterland (2014), Tod Goldberg’s Gangster Nation (No Exit Press, €10.99) opens with Sal Cupertine, “the Chicago Family enforcer known as Rain Man”, on the run from the FBI, the Family and the Native American mob and hiding out in Las Vegas, where Sal has adopted the identity of Rabbi David Cohen. Set in 2001, against the backdrop of the consequences of the 9/11 terror attack, Gangster Nation is as hardboiled as noir gets, a litany of brutality and breath-taking cynicism that refuses to nod to the genre’s conventions of justice and redemption. Instead we get Sal quoting liberally from the Torah even as he commits cold-blooded murder and presides over the fake Jewish funerals of victims of crime.
Told from a number of perspectives, including those of Sal’s estranged wife Jennifer, and Matthew Drew, an ex-FBI agent obsessed by revenge, Gangster Nation pulls no punches as it investigates the public’s appetite for crime fiction: “The Mafia built Las Vegas on the bodies of the dead, then Hollywood made that seem glamorous, and then the public made it seem like culture. And a couple of thousand miles away, Nina Drew lay buried in pieces.”
Readers who enjoy being wrong-footed by labyrinthine plotting will savour this to the very last page
Hauled off the streets to safety during a terrorist attack on a London street as Karen Perry’s Your Closest Friend (Penguin Ireland, €14.99) opens, radio producer Cara shares her most intimate secrets with her rescuer, Amy. When Amy, a young American woman, begins to worm her way into Cara’s life in the aftermath, Cara’s life begins to unravel in spectacular fashion. Previously the writing partnership of Karen Gillece and Paul Perry, “Karen Perry” is now Gillece working alone, but the quality of the Karen Perry psychological thrillers remains undiminished. Your Closest Friend owes a considerable debt to Patricia Highsmith, being something of a blend of The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers on a Train, the tension ramping up as Cara and Amy narrate alternate chapters, the former tangled up in a cat’s-cradle of infidelity and deceit, the latter a lesbian sociopath who hears voices in her head. Some of the twists in the latter stages strain credulity, but readers who enjoy being wrong-footed by labyrinthine plotting will savour this to the very last page.
In Megan Abbott’s ninth novel, Give Me Your Hand (Picador, €15.99), Kit and Diane first meet as teenagers in high school, where Diane tells Kit her darkest secret. Equally ambitious, whether as middle-distance runners or aspiring scientists, the pair are reunited many years later at the Severin Laboratory, where Dr Severin is battling for funding to investigate premenstrual dysphoric disorder, which Kit describes as “some kind of catastrophic monthly dance between hormones and the feeling and thinking parts of the brain”. What follows, as the story flits between “then” and “now”, is a gripping psychological study of sociopathy, with Abbott evoking Hamlet and Macbeth as she plunges her characters into “the mad pulses of the blood” to excavate the “ravishing chaos” of the “monstrous and beautiful” brain. Not content with constructing a compellingly plotted and beautifully written psychological thriller, Abbott drills down through the genre’s conventional motives to investigate the biochemistry of sociopathy, in the process delivering one of the most thought-provoking crime novels of the year to date.
Declan Burke is an author and journalist. He is currently Dublin City Council / Unesco writer-in-residence.