Small skull head statues found in flea market in Naples, Italy

Murders for April

April is the cruellest month, breeding detective fiction out of the dry land

The Venus of Salo, Ben Pastor, Bitter Lemon Press, £9.19

My book of the month is Ben Pastor’s The Venus of Salò (Bitter Lemon, 2006/2022, £9.99), the eighth in her Martin Bora series which, I must confess, is new to me. Pastor, the pseudonym of Maria Verbena Volpi, an Italian who taught in American universities, has also written on ancient Rome and pre 1914 Prague, and her Martin Bora series was launched with Lumen (2000). For those who, like me, enjoy the Furst and Kerr novels set in World War Two, this is a game-player up, both because Bora, a Wehrmacht colonel of ability, bravery, scruples and artistic interests, is depicted from within in a very skilful fashion by an accomplished novelist, who, in this novel, also writes well about sexual passion and romantic yearning, but also because the plot is at once almost breathtakingly complex and also highly satisfying. Set in Salò, Mussolini’s capital, in late 1944, the novel begins with the theft of a mesmerising Titian and develops to include murders, conflict with the Resistance, and violent rivalries within the latter and among the Germans, not least a feud within the SS, conspiracies within the Nazi élite, the Gestapo constructing a case against Bora, and rivalries within the Fascist élite. A triumph as a novel and a murder story.

Gilly Macmillan’s The Fall (2023; Penguin, 2024, £8.99) is a first-rate piece of the unexpected, with the malice of opportunists the key theme, a malice that the police are powerless to contain and that is best countered by murder. Brilliantly set in a bend for the Wye, the story begins with the discovery in his pool of the body of a lottery winner. Murder or not is uncertain, but the investigation reveals a web of relationships in which deceit and control play a role. A real page-turner, beautifully written and ably-characterised. A must that twists to the end.

A very different nearby setting is provided in Carol Carnac’s Impact of Evidence. A Welsh Borders Mystery (1954; British Library Crime Classics, £9.99). Whereas Macmillan bathes her characters in a suffusing heat, Carnac, a pen name for Edith Caroline Rivett, who also wrote as E.C.R. Lorac, drenches hers in an adamantine flood. A crashed car is found to contain not only the elderly poorly driving Dr Robinson but also an unknown body. After the local inspector fails badly, Scotland Yard sends Rivers and Lancing. Whose body? Which killer? How? Very much set in the aftermath of the wars, with a central character, Colonel Wynne, having served on the Somme and still having his world-war batman. Smoking, divorce laws, the precariousness of rural life aplenty, army assistance, somewhat stilted conversations. Rivett’s preference for personality over social background emerges: “For all his townsman’s bias, Welby was no fool; he recognised ‘quality’ when he saw it, and by ‘quality’ he didn’t mean ‘class’. He meant the sort of upbringing which developed independence and the ability to learn by experience.” Good solution.

Tokyo Express, Seicho Matsumoto, Penguin Classics, £8.96

Tokyo Express by Seichō Matsumoto (1958, translation published by Penguin 2022, £9.99). Wonderfully short, such that it is a good read for part of a day, with no need for the problems of overnight recollection, this excellent work begins with a lovers’ suicide on a Kyushu beach, but detective suspicions point to a crime linked to governmental scandal. Train timetables are to the fore, and as part of the challenging of alibis. This is a first-rate classic by a master of the Japanese detective novel. A very satisfying read.

Every Trick in the Book (Muswell Press, 2024) is the third of Bernard O’Keeffe’s Barnes-based D.I. Garibaldi novels. The body of an ex-teacher turned crime novelist is found dead in Barnes Pond in circumstances very similar to the death in his novel, launching a well-written and ably-plotted story that makes clear the “boring” nature of police work and provides plentiful opportunities for authorial digs, as in “Ewan was at the heart of senior management, so dealing in partial truths and political evasions had become part of his nature.” I got the who as soon as he was introduced, but not the why. That did not spoil a very fine and enjoyable story.

Appearance in the Everyman series is a sign of recognition, and it brought me to a novel I had missed out on: James Ellroy’s Blood’s A Rover (2009), now published as part of the Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy in the Everyman series (2019, £20). Unlike some of the more recent, somewhat slower, works by Ellroy, this one grabs you by the elbow and pulls you in at once, with a particularly brutal truck hijacking, followed by a quick flip into the assassinations of the ’60s, all presented as politically determined in the close interaction of crime and politics that is a characteristic of Ellroy’s history of modern America. Indeed, the world of Donald Trump appears less fantastic from this perspective, while Ellroy might even seem commonplace and conventional from that of current politics, or, at least, political paranoia.

The style is classic Ellroy abbreviated, and you do need to concentrate, as in “The Boys trusted him with quickly tallied and un-vouched cash…. He skimmed skim off Drax’s hotels.” The Boys are the Mafia leaders, Dracula is Howard Hughes. Everyone is up for betrayal: “there’s some kind of left-wing/right-wing/cop-conference thing going on here.” The settings include Vegas, LA, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and the cast Hoover and Nixon, who are competing. Romance plays an arresting role, most characters come to a sticky end, there is plentiful drugs and sex, and deceit slathers a work in which set-ups and conspiracies are to the fore.

Tom Sullivan’s The Cyclist (2020; Head of Zeus, 2021, £8.99), the second of his D.S. Cross series, is good, but not as good as The Dentist. Possibly this reflects the understandable move toward a formulaic character, or the lack of surprise at the brilliance of so ably presenting an autistic detective. Maybe it is too easy to penetrate the misdirection(s). Still, a very satisfying read. On autism and murder, see Astrid Nielsen in the excellent French 2 series Astrid; Murder in Paris (2019-) which is shown in Britain on Channel 4.

Serial killers are not my preference and N.V. Peacock’s The 13th Girl (Hera, 2024, £9.99) does not shake my conviction. The mental illness of the protagonist who thwarts the killer is ably handled, but the pace of death is too much.

Max Luther’s On the Run (Canelo, 2024, £9.99) is a standard American-style thriller with a Las Vegas setting, gangland villains, a police department that is incompetent, and characters such as Goldtooth. Very good of its type, and very much of its type.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s Second Skin (Muswell, 2024, £16.99) has a Mediterranean setting, with, again, gangsters, a brave hero, and, in this case, MI6. Sentences such as “It was probable none of his mercenaries had any real clue as to his real intentions, but someone like Kate would surely know what Ricky was capable of.” An excellent instance of good writing-by-numbers.

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