CRIME BEAT:THREE RADICALLY different debuts suggest that Irish crime fiction is in a rude state of health, writes DECLAN BURKE
Set in Cork in 1920, Kevin McCarthy's Peeler(Mercier Press, €10.99) finds the RIC and the IRA pursuing the same killer against the backdrop of the War of Independence. Strong on historical detail and assured in its plotting, Peeleris delivered in an economical style with occasional poetic flourishes. McCarthy hasn't made things easy for himself in choosing for his protagonist an RIC sergeant who is a veteran of the Great War, and who works alongside Black and Tans, but it's to McCarthy's credit that Acting Sergeant Sean O'Keefe emerges as a sympathetic character in a compelling narrative.
Niamh O'Connor's If I Never See You Again(Transworld Ireland, €12.99) is equally authentic, the setting here being the mean streets of contemporary Dublin. Detective Jo Birmingham investigates a series of murders that appear to be the work of a serial killer with a grudge against Dublin's gangland. A crime correspondent with the Sunday World, O'Connor invests her pacy police procedural with gritty detail, although Birmingham's struggle to balance the demands of her professional life with her personal circumstance as a single mother raising two boys is as integral to the plot as the traditional crime-fiction tropes. Birmingham's one-woman campaign on behalf of victims' rights gives the novel its moral ballast.
Moscow faces into the chilly winter of 1936 in William Ryan's The Holy Thief(Mantle, £12.99), in which a number of horrific murders coincide with the start of Stalin's Great Terror. Militiaman Detective Korolev is assigned to investigate, and soon finds himself caught in a web of intrigue involving the NKVD, the Orthodox Church and Moscow's infamous Thieves. Korolev, a religious man secretly faithful to the old regime, makes for an unusually spiritual crime-fiction protagonist. Ryan's stately style belies the page-turning quality of the novel, which compares favourably to Rob Smith's Child 44, not least in terms of Ryan's evocation of the claustrophobic paranoia of Stalinist Russia.
Meanwhile, two titans of the contemporary crime fiction novel offer hugely satisfying reads. In 61 Hours(Bantam, £13.99), Lee Child's ex-military drifter Jack Reacher fetches up in a South Dakota town during a blizzard, and is quickly pressed into service by a police force besieged by a drug cartel bent on eliminating a murder witness. Terse and laconic in style, the novel's tale owes a significant debt to the classic western High Noon, but the deadpan Reacher is a charismatic and endlessly resourceful protagonist. The hero's status as a noble loner reeks of James Bond-style male fantasy, but if you're willing to suspend your disbelief 61 Hoursis an expertly crafted entertainment.
Scott Turow's Innocent(Mantle, £17.99) is a sequel to his best-selling Presumed Innocent (1987). Now 60, and long after being acquitted of the murder of his mistress, appeals judge Rusty Sabich finds himself being investigated by his old adversary Tommy Molto when his wife dies in unusual circumstances. Blending Sabich's first-person account of events with third-person narratives, and featuring an elliptical structure that jumps back and forth in time, Innocent is a mature and insightful exploration of the psychology of crime that makes a mockery of its title, and a gripping thriller to boot.
Venetian policeman Commissario Guido Brunetti returns in Donna Leon's A Question of Belief(William Heinemann, £12.99), in which domestic and professional concerns compete for his attention as he investigates the apparently random murder of a court clerk during a heatwave. Brunetti's emotional intelligence is both his most effective tool and his most charming attribute as he negotiates the labyrinthine corridors of power in his search for the truth. While the compassionate Brunetti makes for enjoyable company on his morally complex quest, Leon's 19th offering lacks a quality of urgency that might have given it a telling edge.
Donna Moore's sophomore offering, Old Dogs(Max Crime, £7.99), is a crime caper that centres on two scheming ladies of a certain age, Letty and Dora, who have decided to steal a pair of jewel-encrusted Tibetan dog statues from a Glasgow museum. Pursued by a ruthless killer, the duo inadvertently gather around them a multitude of scammers, blaggers and thieves, all of whom are inept to a greater or lesser degree. Liberally sprinkled with salty Glaswegian vernacular, the manically twisted tale reads like a contemporary but unusually bawdy Ealing comedy.
With only three novels under his belt, John Hart has already won two Edgars, the crime-writing equivalent of the Oscars, the most recent of which was awarded last month to The Last Child(John Murray, £9.99). Set in a small American town where a number of young girls have gone missing, never to be seen again, it features two protagonists, Detective Clyde Hunt and Johnny Merrimon, the 13-year-old twin of one of the missing girls. Their intertwined investigation provides Hart with a propulsive narrative momentum, but this is a complex tale that explores concepts as diverse as the abuse of power, paedophilia, domestic violence and the consequences of slavery. While The Last Childis first and foremost a compelling police procedural, Hart is a subtle author who in the final reckoning is concerned with excavating the best and worst of the human heart. The Last Child is as fine a novel as you'll read all year, crime or otherwise.
Declan Burke is the author of The Big O. He hosts Crime Always Pays (crimealwayspays. blogspot.com), a website on Irish crime fiction