Red and blue ambulance car emergency lights on a street at night in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, USA
Artillery Row

Murders for February

Hitler, Harlem and the high-life feature in this month’s murder mystery haul

Blood Roses by Douglas Jackson (Canelo, 2024, £16.99) will appeal to fans of the works of Philip Kerr and Alan Frost but is (properly) even darker. The first of a Warsaw Quartet series by an accomplished historical novelist, this is set in Warsaw 1939-40 and focuses on Jan Kalisz, a Warsaw policeman recruited both by the German occupiers and by the Polish Resistance as a deep agent instructed to gather information. The absolute brutality and total cruelty of the Germans, and not just the SS and Gestapo, come out far more clearly than in either Kerr or Frost, and it is unsurprising that other brutal crimes against young Polish women, Jewish and non-Jewish, are ignored by the German authorities. The situation changes when the daughter of a prominent German is killed. The Germans start killing Poles in reprisal, but Kalisz is convinced that a German is the psychopath, coined “The Artist”, involved. This is a brutal book but one that really takes you along, mixing in real individuals with fictional characters, on the pattern of Kerr, in this case Josef Mengele. The writing is good, and the plot has a strong twist at the close. A Quartet to follow.

“…this is Harlem. Nobody knows all the connections here”

The Everyman Library has already offered fine editions among its Modern North Americans Classics of detective stories, notably by Chandler, Ellroy, Hammett and Highsmith. Now there is the attractive production and pricing of a hardback volume of The Essential Harlem Detectives (2024, £20), four stories by Chester Himes originally published in 1957-65 and introduced by A. Cosby, the whole coming to 700 pages. The stories are A Rage in Harlem, The Real Cool Killers, The Crazy Kill and Cotton Comes to Harlem. Missouri-born Himes (1909-84), who had served time for armed robbery, engaged with the African-American experience at its bleakest, with the protagonists, Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, our guides to ethics on the mean streets of Harlem, “a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish… the sleeping black people in their lice-ridden beds … the t.b. lungs.” A Rage in Harlem is a madcap of fraud and murder, with sudden turns in a phantasmagoria that Himes lights up like a modern Hieronymus Bosch. Yet, there is also a humour of folly and deception, and the writing is more brilliant as commentary precisely because you want to know what happens to Jackson, the jupe, and his brother Goldy who earns his living disguising himself as Sister Gabriel, a Sister of Mercy who makes her living seeking alms and selling admission to Heaven.

Beginning with an attack on the sole white customer in a Harlem bar, The Real Cool Killers moves on, via his shooting in the street, to demonstrate, as permutations spiral, the truth of Grave Digger’s observation “…this is Harlem. Nobody knows all the connections here.” White people are present very critically: “If you white people insist on coming up to Harlem where you force colored people to live in vice-and-crime-ridden slums, it’s my job to see that you are safe,” but in a story that might also serve as a parable for slavery, black people are scarcely blameless. One relishes the sadistic murder of another, while the black schoolgirls sold for whipping are pimped by a black man and their boyfriends are eager to get the money. A helter-skelter story of great energy. I did not guess the killer.

The Crazy Kill is dominated by two characters, Johnny, the gambler, a tragic figure of presence but sudden violence, and Reverend Short who begins the story by falling form an upstairs wake into a basket of fresh bread, and is a “Holy Roller” with a dangerous propensity for visionary significance and shotguns. The combination of unfixed relationships so important to all the plots, lust and the desire for constancy, darken the atmosphere, but again impressive, as both detective story and novel; and, again, the murderer is a surprise.

Murder, suicide or accident? is the puzzle, and this is the classic holiday-lounger book

Cotton Comes to Harlem begins with a well-realised account of Reverend Deke O’Malley’s fraudulent revivalism focused on return to Africa. It is the title with a political dimension, encompassing as it does two “Back to Africa” movements, one fraudulent, and a “Back to the South” of Southern racists. The vulnerability of Harlem is shown to extend to political and religious hucksterdism. Violence is incessant but also unpredictable, the corruption unpredictable, and sexuality a wild-card. This is a very exciting page-turner that brings a fine volume to a close.

“That afternoon she was wearing an emerald-green cocktail frock that brought out the golden flecks of her eyes, and she’d traded her comfy espadrilles for leather platforms with tell-tale red soles.” The signposting and consumerism of Kristina Pérez’s the Many Lives of Veronica Hawkins (Little Brown, 2024) are not lived by me, the men are very different — “‘Do you golf, JP?’ Spence said, an odd challenge in his voice. He poured the last dribble of champagne into his flute and signalled for another bottle,” and the writing somewhat forced: “Veronica was a conflagration of driftwood, salt burning green and blue.’’

This is a pity, as the plot is not without interest with the plutocratic Veronica disappearing from a yacht off Hong Kong. Murder, suicide or accident? is the puzzle, and this is the classic holiday-lounger book, not least if going to Hong Kong. Relations between women are central to the book, notably Martina Torres, Cressida Wong and Veronica, but as Pérez indicates in a particularly interesting authorial note at the end, this is also a book about colonialism and “Western fear-fantasies,” a thesis supported by references to anamorphosis, Lacan and Jane Eyre. Readers will decide how far that discussion helps, and I find it more thoughtful than the consumerism, but the book can also be read as a well-paced story.

Two thrillers to note, and they set standards for each other. David McCloskey follows Damascus Station, already reviewed, with Moscow X (Swift, 2024, £16.99) which sets a target for Tony Kent’s The Shadow Network (Elliott and Thompson, 2024, £16.99), the latest in his Dempsey and Devlin series. Kent is seriously disappointing. The possibilities he showed in Marked For Death have been squandered and the new book is both formulaic and weak. Poorly-plotted and badly-written, it suffers from characterisation that scarcely reaches half a dimension. A badly-written book might have the wit of irony or satire, but there is nothing here as the heroes confront “The Monk … an urban legend in the intelligence community… There were some who gave the Monk credit for pretty much everything the Soviet Union pulled off during the Cold War.” Apparently, there is ‘the never-to-be-underestimated contribution the editing team brings to making these books readable. Well, try harder, and I cannot help wondering how ghastly the first draft was. One to miss.

Trains do not thunder from St Pancras to Penzance.

Moscow X benefits from McCloskey’s understanding of tradecraft and his characters are far more credible than in most books of this type. The violence is handled well, not least the casual brutality of the Russian system, which is put under the pressure of its habitual paranoid insecurity in this interesting plot. Some of the writing could be improved: we do not need tea to be first steaming then glorious, and hearts could do with something other than pounding. Nevertheless, a success, and McCloskey deserves much praise.

Very different in tone is Rosemary Shrager’s Too Many Cooks (Constable, 2024, £22.00), another cosy crime involving the cooking Prudence Bulstrode, this time in a return to a Cornish girls’ boarding school where now a cookery course – “lobster tails with seared asparagus” – is interrupted by the discovery of human bones. This brings back “whispers in the family” in an undemanding tale.

More troubled minds are to the fore in The Face in the Glass. The Gothic Tales of Mary Elizabeth Braddon (British Library, Tales of the Weird, 2nd edn, 2019, £9.99), a well-deserved reprinting of the supernatural tales of Braddon (1835-1915) which show how the Gothic story was prominent in the Victorian period.

Martta Kaukonen provides a modern psychological pacer, with Follow the Butterfly (Pushkin Vertigo, 2024, £16.99), a Finnish work about the psychoanalysis of a serial killer, a work with multiple narrators and a mass of puzzles as links between the characters are shaken in the kaleidoscope of the plot.

Female relationships, the medical world, and the power of authority are also to the fore in Christine Watson’s Moral Injuries (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2024, £16.99). This offers “lies, and shock and sadness and grief.” The writing is often unoriginal — “crappy tea … sloped off to the canteen, … hum of the engines” — could certainly be better, and sometimes is simply wrong as in “Even the police were disinterested in Laura,” but a plot with interest.

For those considering summer destinations, Tina Baker’s What We Did in the Storm (Viper, 2024) provides a very different account of Treco to the usual Scilly Isles lovefest, but trains do not thunder from St Pancras to Penzance.

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