It's grim up north


Crimefile: There's a whole posse of thriller writers coming out of northern Europe, instigated by The Harvill Press and led by the novels of the Swedish writer Henning Mankell, all of which feature his series detective, the curmudgeonly Kurt Wallander.

Indridason is Icelandic and his cop, Detective Erlendur, plies his trade in Reykjavik in Silence of the Grave. There's a certain doom and gloom about these European detectives that possibly comes from the weather in these northern countries, and Erlendur is no exception. He's a rather dour individual, one of the causes being the fact that his daughter, with whom he has had an uneasy relationship, is in a coma. He also has to investigate a crime that took place half a century ago, as men working on a building site discover a shallow grave.

Old feuds and tensions are uncovered, and a harrowing story of domestic violence results in terminal mental anguish for a young boy. Slow and complex, the novel builds to a moving conclusion, and yes, Erlendur's daughter does wake up from her comatose state. The book was translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder.

Fossum is from Norway, and her novel, Calling out for You, is tranlated by Charlotte Barslund. Her policeman is Inspector Konrad Sejer, and he's on the trail of the killer of an Indian woman who was on her way to Norway as the bride of one Gunder Jomann, a middle-aged man from a quiet and - up to now - placid community. The author is very good at character delineation, and she succeeds admirably in sketching in the various idiosyncrasies of the people in this isolated corner of Norway.

Strangely enough, there is also a woman in a coma here, Jomann's sister, and our author leaves the story slightly unresolved as to the guilt or otherwise of the person arrested for the crime.

Thriller writers beware: there's a new kid on the block in the person of Irish author Alex Barclay, young, beautiful - and boy can she write. In Darkhouse, New York Detective Joe Lucchesi, after a kidnapping in which he shot and killed the kidnapper went wrong, uproots his family - wife Anna and son Shaun - and takes them to a small seaside town near Waterford. But the kidnapper has a friend who vows to take revenge for his death, and also journeys to Ireland and begins systematically to kill Joe's friends and loved ones. This is the bare framework of a novel that rips along and shows great technique for a debut effort. Take my word for it, we'll hear more of young Barclay.

Lisa Scottoline is another who can take the reader on a wild roundabout of thrills and spills. Her protagonist in Devil's Corner is Federal prosecutor Vicki Allegretti, and we first come across her as she is nearly shot to death while meeting, as she thinks, an informer on a routine case. Gritting her teeth and following on the investigation, she blunders into a conspiracy involving drug running on a huge scale. Scottoline has obviously done her research well and, among other rare titbits, I found out that crack cocaine is so called because of the crackling noise it emits when the mixture formed to make it is boiled. I'd highly recommend this one.

Robert Crais is a bit of an old pro by this stage, his Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novels hitting the tops of the bestsellers more often than not. In The Forgotten Man, Cole is mixed up in the murder of a man who, before he died from a gun blast, proclaimed that he was Cole's father. As Cole never knew his real father, he naturally becomes highly involved. An old crime is uncovered which is related to the new one and, in seeking to unravel the threads, our hero puts himself in deadly danger. However, with action man Pike riding shotgun, he does survive to detect another day.

Block is another writer you can depend on to provide a literate and entertaining read. His series detective Matt Scudder may be in his 60s and happily married to ex-call girl Elaine, but he can still bring down the baddies when needed. In All The Flowers are Dying, the killer is actually after Scudder himself, but he's not averse to killing a few innocent bystanders along the way. Block tightens the tension as the villain gets closer and closer, and there are a number of mind-numbing shocks along the way before a resolution is achieved.

And finally, a mention for one of the doyens of American crime fiction writing, one James Crumley. James has been ill recently, but he's now back with The Right Madness, a humdinger of a novel about sundered friendships and murky murders, featuring CW Sughrue and a cast of characters as weird as they come. A bit expensive, but great value for the money.

Vincent Banville is a writer and critic

Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason The Harvill Press, £10.99

Calling Out for You by Karin Fossum The Harvill Press, £10.99

Darkhouse by Alex Barclay HarperCollins, £10

Devil's Corner by Lisa Scottoline Macmillan, £12.99

The Forgotten Man by Robert Crais Orion, £12.99

All the Flowers Are Dying by Lawrence Block Orion £12.99

The Right Madness by James Crumley HarperCollins, £18.99