Faust, a silent classic film, 1926 (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

Murders for April

Dark academia and classic hollywood horror

Artillery Row Books
The Devil’s Playground, Craig Russell (Constable, £20)

We start with a star book. Craig Russell’s The Devil’s Playground (Constable, 2023, £20) is a brilliant work that will hold your interest. It is also very skilfully constructed. Mostly set in Hollywood in 1927, the action is interwoven with Louisiana in 1907 and Kansas in 1897, as well as Death Valley in 1967. The movies are a vortex of unreality and never more than in the apparently cursed and lost The Devil’s Playground (1927), the “greatest horror film of all time”, which seems to bring death and destruction to those involved. The protagonist Mary Rourke is a studio fixer called upon to cover up the death of the film’s star, Norma Carlton, and to present her apparent suicide as anything but. That spins out of control as it becomes clear that murder is in the air.

We are launched into a menacing “anteroom of hell” with the disguise that is integral to Hollywood pervading the lives and deaths of all. The resurrectionist, Hiram Levitt, who creates acceptable backstories for stars, is all too typical of the characters in play, particularly in meeting a grisly end. It is understandable that few know who everyone (indeed anyone) is, and to whom they are beholden. The dominant image is a snake in the shape of a circle “like it was eating its own tail”, and the sense that all will be devoured, by themselves or others, becomes stronger as the novel continues, and the body count increases.

Brilliantly written, with repeated surprises, the book holds together with the differing plots held in balance. The Gothic pile-up is prevented from falling out of control onto both writer and readers. One to enjoy.

The Bequest, Joanna Margaret (Head of Zeus, £20)

Joanna Margaret is less successful in her debut novel, The Bequest (Head of Zeus, 2023, £20), in part due to Russell’s experienced mastery, but there is also something somewhat ridiculous about this overwritten plot “set in the world of dark academia”, which is apparently the St Stephens History Department. Based on St Andrews, where the staff in my time were more noted for spouse-swapping, this presents a heroine narrator working on Italian influences in 16th century France — the topic of the author’s St Andrew’s PhD. Hopefully clichés such as “the only caffeine I craved” can be shed before the next story. It might also be helpful to move to a more distanced protagonist, or otherwise change the approach so that the narrator-protagonist interplay does not irritate.

There is something of the author as character in Peter Robinson’s Standing in the Shadows (2023, Hodder and Stoughton, £22), the last in the Alan Banks series. Robinson died in 2022, and this was the 28th in the series. It is the work of a master plotsmith who has created a most sympathetic character in DCI Banks. The final book is a masterly interplay of two chronologies, one beginning with the discovery of the body of a student in Leeds in 1980, the other with that of a not-so-ancient skeleton in an archaeological dig near Scotch Corner. The two chronologies come to overlap in characters with a steadily greater pace of interwoven mystery. Police behaviour in the shape of undercover agents is a major issue, whilst the changing character of society provides atmosphere, meaning and resonance throughout. A must.

The Aosawa Murders, Riku Onda (Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99)

Riku Onda’s Eugenia (2005) is her first detective novel and her first work translated into English, as The Aosawa Murders (Bitter Lemon Press, 2020, £8.99). The focus is the killing of the Aosawas when 17 people are murdered by cyanide added to their drinks at a murder party. The protagonist Hisako, the blind daughter of the house and sole family survivor, is the complex centre of attention and observation when the crime comes to be understood in multi-testimony account decades later. Slow-moving but powerful. Disturbing on the difficulties of fixing the past.

Harriet Crawley’s The Translator (Bitter Lemon Press, 2023, £16.99) is a brilliant political thriller placed in the troubled present of Anglo-Russian relations. Clive Franklin, the protagonist, has a central place in a fast-moving and effective account.

We close with another debut novel, Nick Curran’s I Know Who You Were (Constable, 2023, £18.99). The protagonist Alex is happily married to the somewhat mysterious Morven, but, having received repeated messages “I know who you were”, she disappears. It turns out that, having been a childhood killer, she has a false identity and a stalker. Taut and properly disturbing, this is a novel with a small cast and a clear take on the hold of the past. Impressive. As with Peter Robinson’s book, this is about the long term consequences of being hidden in society, a theme that clearly offers much to writers and readers alike.

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