Susanna Moore's In The Cut (W&N, £12.99) was first published in 1995, and the blend of unusual sexual frankness, pervasive misogyny and excruciating violence that helped make it a transgressive cult classic has lost none of its power to disturb; if anything, the reissue of this taut, controlled tale of the pleasures and perils of a smart, reckless woman in a city full of predatory men is even more on point.
Frannie lives in the West Village and teaches creative writing; one night in a bar to which she has unwisely brought a male student (who is having trouble with irony), she stumbles on a red-headed woman giving oral sex to a man with a tattoo on his left wrist; the man sees Frannie’s face but she doesn’t see his; she watches until he comes, comparing her technique to the redhead’s. When the woman is found with “her throat cut and her arms and legs pulled from their sockets” and the police come calling, Frannie finds herself strongly attracted to Det James Malloy and they begin a sexual relationship despite, or because of, the tattoo on his left wrist.
She is frightened and compelled by this unabashed philanderer who may be the killer; she is attacked in the street by a man in a black stocking mask; her student stalks her, appearing in the street after she has been out for the evening; all the while the thrum of misogyny, of incipient violence, is quick in the air. Frannie’s voice throughout is poised, mordant, sceptical, and the fever dream trajectory of the plot is counterpointed by the crisp elegance of her narrative voice. At times the sex is written like first-rate reportage; at other times the goal is to convey sheer abandon: “I who did not wish to belong to one man. I who did not wish to belong to anyone. I did not want to be fixed, to be held down, the closed opened, the heart broken.
“I wanted to be fixed, to be held down. Opened. The old longing to be chosen, pursued, fought for, called away.”
At a mere 180 pages, In The Cut is an intense, immersive read; it gathers lethal force as it unfolds and its final pages are shocking and disturbing beyond belief.
Under Occupation (W&N, £20) is the latest in Alan Furst's acclaimed series of historical thrillers. Successful detective novelist Paul Ricard (the French Eric Ambler) is heading home from a bookshop on the Rue de Condé when a man fleeing the Gestapo collides with him. When the man is shot, Ricard tries to help, and has a folded paper thrust into his hand; inspecting it quickly, he sees it is an engineering schematic of a detonator. Get rid of it, he thinks; instead, because he cannot refuse the wish of a dying man, he walks, in his trench coat and battered fedora hat, walks and thinks: "he'd avoided, like most Frenchman, the idea of resistance, waiting for rescue, waiting for the Americans … but he couldn't wait any longer because it would, in time, damage his soul … he would need to do something. To act."
And so Ricard’s adventures as an accidental spy begin: first an undercover mission to Germany and then, having linked up with the glamorous Leila, a series of engagements to secure and send intelligence to the Allied Forces in London.
Furst writes succinctly and authoritatively in enticing, run-on sentences; the plot is well worked and action-packed but appears to spool out in an attractively random manner, with plenty of stops along the way for Ricard to finish and publish his latest novel and, since it’s Paris, as much food, wine and sex as the Occupation will allow.
I especially liked Ricard’s stint as the manager of a café in Sainte-Nazaire, when his provisioner lays out what he’s going to be serving: codfish, a scrawny old chicken for soup, lentils and haricots and a famer who sells “hard, yellow cheese, I don’t think it has a name, we just call it cheese”. Later, dining with his British connection, Ricard recalls “how the French believed in soup – with bread and wine it was all one really needed”. The sex is sometimes a little too heavy on the male gaze, but this is superlative stuff and, at barely two hundred pages, an absolute masterclass in economical thriller writing.
Good Dark Night (Corsair, £16.99) is the conclusion to Harry Brett's Great Yarmouth trilogy, chronicling the exploits of the Goodwin crime family. Tatiana is in control now, aided by Frank, her late husband's loyal henchman, and her son Ben has transmuted their plan to build a super casino into an ingenious blueprint for a criminal financial services hub that will serve as a bridge between state subsidies and private capital.
Then Frank is mistakenly thought to have taken out two dealers from a rival gang, Ben is kidnapped and Tatiana feels everything start to slip out of control.
The family dependencies and vulnerabilities are persuasively sketched and Frank’s bewildered decline is deftly drawn, but the standout feature of the novel is its wind-blasted settings: low-tide estuary, grotty café, crumbling caravan site, business park on fire; they are almost Ballardian in their dystopian British bleakness.
The Night Fire (Orion, £20.00) sees Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch team up again, this time with a crucial role for Mickey Haller. Bosch has been left a murder book by his recently deceased Hollywood division mentor, and asks Ballard to look into it, since the Open-Unsolved Unit mostly work DNA cases and there's no DNA involved.
Combine that with Bosch assisting Haller in acquitting a man accused of murdering a judge, an ex-gangbanger ordering a jailhouse hit and a homeless man possibly murdered to cut him out of a will and all the elements of another brilliantly paced and plotted Michael Connelly crime novel are in place.
But for all his expertise, Connelly always finds new ways to subvert the genre: a quarter of the way through the novel, there’s a heartbreaking chapter, entirely self-contained, dealing with the death of a child and the police procedure that surrounds it, as Ballard first interviews the mother and is then obliged to break the news to the father.
It’s all the more devastating for being understated, as if to say: this is simply part of the detective’s life. After the plot wound its way to a thrilling conclusion, all I could think about was that chapter, that child, and our curious appetite for stories of violent death.