Photo by David Wall
Artillery Row Books

Murders for June

Prepare to be taken to church – this month offers up rich description, promising debuts, and a clerical mystery that manages moral seriousness

It is always pleasant to applaud a debut novel, and I look hard for good ones. For this month, I would like to praise Nilanjana Roy’s Black River (Pushkin Vertigo, £16.99). Incidentally, since so very much reviewing (as Private Eye consistently points out) is in the “kiss ass” or French “long arm” tradition of favouritism (and a friend of mine tells me that financial inducements can play a role with some newspapers), may I underline what is more generally true for these reviews: I know nothing of author or publisher beyond the book.

Black River, Nilanjana Roy (Pushkin Vertigo, £16.99)

Beginning with two brutal murders of women — one a child — in a village outside Delhi, this impressive debut is written with great humanity, as well as with incisive clarity not least about the ethos, pressures and textures of Indian life. The culprit is possibly all-too-obvious, but the plot, characterisation, location and writing is first-rate. Roy deserves much praise.

A Very Lively Murder (Constable, 2023), the second of Katy Watson’s “Three Dahlias” series, will please those who liked the opening book. Again, there is a cross-generational cast and apt attention to tensions within a small community, in this case a film cast and crew. A holiday read for the beach maybe, this is far from gritty. I do not find the characters gripping, but there is no one path, and this book will work for those seeking a comfortable read. The plot rushes the cast along sufficiently speedily for the clichés to pass muster.

A Death in the Parish by Richard Coles (Orion, 2023, £18.99) is the second of the Daniel Clement novels. It is more pointed than Murder Before Evensong and feels more heartfelt. There is a grim theme that will not please evangelicals at all, and — despite “cuddly” appearances in the shape of puppies — Coles’ work is far from the cosy nonsense of Osman. Indeed, there is a deep moral seriousness as well as an emphasis on Christian charity. Readers familiar with the religious themes and language of Christie and James will find more of both. The writing strives for descriptive effect: “there was a general look of greyness about its south front, as if it had been dressed in a thin layer of ash from a distant volcanic eruption … Wimbledon, into which she would settle like Queen Victoria into her reign, untroubled by interruption …. a cardigan that appeared to be made out of the carpet from a Berni Inn … It would have been as impossible to contain the news as Spanish flu.” Ends with tragedy and then comedy. A book to appreciate as well as enjoy. Better than Katy Watson’s novel.

Northanger Abbey, Val McDermid (Borough Press, 2014, £7.99)

Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey (Borough Press, 2014, £7.99) is a wonderful tribute by one author to another, as well as showing the wit and skill of one of Britain’s leading detective novelists. Austen was spoofing Neo-Gothic novels, a major forerunner of the detective story, and McDermid ably transposes Catherine Morland from Georgian Bath to the modern Edinburgh of the Festival. The Tilneys’ country pile remains a source of mystery and menace. Misogyny is an issue. A delight of a novel, though I suspect best appreciated only by those who know their Austen, just as the original Northanger Abbey required a prior reading of Mrs Radcliffe and others of her ilk.

Private Lessons by Bernard O’Keeffe (Muswell Press, 2023, £16.99) is the second of the DI Garibaldi series. Once you get past some of the irritation about social assumptions, you will find this an excellent work. The silliness is shared by the initial procedural emphasis on the murdered Giles, a private tutor working in Barnes, rather than any significant attention to those who hang out in the disused cemetery where his body is found. Instead, Giles’ employers (the Forum Agency), those whom he teaches and, in particular, the wealthy parents of the latter, excite all the attention. The prejudices of the author are much to the fore. There are repeated and repeated and repeated attacks on pushy lawyers and bankers, and their spouses, as well as much hostility towards Radley. This may play well with the prejudices of many, but it is fairly shallow stereotypical stuff.

Far more positive is the plot, with the ability to introduce a range of possible culprits, as well as the maintenance of the pace and energy of the writing. It presents the character of the detective and his relationships with his colleagues in an interesting fashion. There may be a variety of opinions on whether the end hangs together, in the sense of a plausible resolve, but I wanted to find out how the story closed, as did Sarah. Congratulations, but can someone warn the author that his social prejudices are predictable and their repetition dulling.

Silver Pebbles, Hansjörg Schneider (Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99)

Silver Pebbles by Hansjörg Schneider (German original 1993; Bitter Lemon Press, 2022; £8.99), another case for idiosyncratic Inspector Peter Hunkeler of the Basle police, is not so much a mystery as the playing out of a purloining. A sewage worker makes off with diamonds flushed away by a courier pursued by police whilst moving drug profits. Set in the depths of winter, Schneider offers an interesting group of characters in a fast-moving “follow-those-diamonds” plot. Hunkeler’s diatribe against a society that cares little about addicts and other unfortunates may not impress all, but it contributes to the characterisation of a detective under pressure but with his heart in the right place. Schneider ably looks at the complex relationship between the Swiss and the Turkish guest workers and also offers the finely-etched Lebanese courier. The Swiss master criminal is more of a caricature. A good read, it will not encourage mid-winter tourism to Basle.

The Basel Killings by Hansjörg Schneider (Bitter Lemon, 2021, £8.99) is the translation of a 2004 original. Basel (as you would expect from Schneider) is very cold and gloomy, the Swiss selfish, the police force divided and the heroes outsiders. Par for the course for detective fiction of late. Within those constraints, this is a great novel, with Schneider giving his protagonist Peter Hunkeler a Maigret-like persistence and feel for the human condition. The players work well for the plot, which moves effectively with a dark secret of Swiss history ably exposed (as also, less fatally, the crisis of Swiss dairying) and the motive a satisfying one in psychological terms. The descriptions of food are very engaging, though I do not share Hunkeler’s fondness for tripe. The details of life after hours are full of drink and offside life: “There’s nothing sadder than a brothel with no customers.” A good read.

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