Murders for March

Sharp lines, twisting plots and colourful characters

Artillery Row

“Fellows only. Sounds like a dirty mag.” Simon Mason’s Oxford-set A Killing in November (Riverrun, 2022, £9.99) is the first of the Ryan Wilkins’ series. I was so impressed by the third one that I turned back to see this introduction. It was a whose body? why killed? and, crucially, a “fair play” who killer? Ryan Wilkins, the “trailer-trash” DI, in a powerful and sympathetic presentation, sent by accident, instead of the smooth, Oxford-educated DI Ray Wilkins, to investigate a body in the study of the Provost of Barnabas Hall, an arrogant, pompous, knighted mediocrity that the author, an Oxford Fellow, thinks ably characterises Heads of Houses. Moreover, despised by his wife, Sir James is a viciously exploitative womaniser, so the discovery of a strangled young woman, alongside his multiple lying, puts him in the picture. Ryan and Sir James despise each other, and their interaction is brilliantly portrayed.

A dark underbelly of Danish society emerges, with wealth a matter for suspicion, and violence all-too-present

The plot opens up to capture a range of deceits in a brilliant page-turner. The writing can be somewhat forced: “Thames Valley Police Forensics is housed in a hanger-like building … a smooth silver splinter in the sticky ribbed fields of Oxfordshire … the naked body of the dead woman lay, mottled cream and fish scale blue.” Yet most of the prose works well, the developing characterisation is excellent, and the plot a real winner.

This book shares with Heidi Amsinck’s Back From The Dead (Muswell, 2024, £10.99) a strong Middle-Eastern link. The third in the Jensen series, following The Girl in the Photo (already reviewed), with the uneasy relationship of crime reporter Jensen and detective Henrik Jungersen set in a sweltering Copenhagen as a headless corpse is discovered in the harbour and the Syrian refugee driver of an MP disappears. Then a head turns up, but not for that body. This also is a very good novel. It is not as tight as Mason’s and the plot ending is rushed and somewhat weak. Nevertheless, both puzzle and resolution are of considerable interest and this novel well deserves attention. A dark underbelly of Danish society emerges, with wealth a matter for suspicion, and violence all-too-present.

Having enjoyed Tom Hindle’s A Fatal Crossing and Murder on Lake Garda, I filled in with his second, The Murder Game (Penguin, 2023, £8.99). Set on the Devon stretch of the Bristol Channel, this begins with a murder party on New Year’s Eve, and turns out very differently to similar occasions I have attended. The specially devised plot for the evening is based on an unsolved murder a few years earlier, but there is soon another murder, with Damien White, a ruthless property magnate, killed in a closed-cast plot that is handled fairly and that twists with increasing freneticism, eventually leading to another murder, and, at the close, to the solution of that many years earlier. The cast is handled well, from Justin, the horrible young journalist, and snobbish Sylvia, juxtaposed with more complex characters, notably Will, the nervous master of ceremonies, who had found the first body years earlier, and Theo, one of the three thespians brought in to assist the drama. The books has a slow-burn at first but the pace increases and details from the past become instructive A very skilful plot, ably handled.

Anna Britton’s Shot In The Dark (Canelo, 2023, £9.99) is the first in a series pairing Gabe Martin and the cooler Juliet Stern as two English detectives, with (conventionally) troubled backgrounds, investigating the murder of a young woman in the grounds of a New Forest estate. Conveys an urgent sense of the quandaries posed by alibis. Good characterisation and an able mix of formats. Well-writing although I am not keen on the typeface. The dysfunctional landed family with the harsh patriarch and his two imposed-upon sons provide three of the suspects, the other two being the groundsman and the former partner of the victim. Very ably-plotted, although I could have done without the very ending. A success.

Having read and greatly enjoyed the latest of Tim Sullivan’s excellent DS Cross series, I have turned back to earlier volumes, starting with the first, The Dentist (2020; 2021 edn, Head of Zeus, £9.99). The detective, George Cross, is on the autistic spectrum, which provides a distinctive and highly sympathetic oddball character, means of analysis, forms of reasoning and dialogue, and interaction with all others. This is handled quite brilliantly in a Bristol-set plot that begins with the killing of a homeless man apparently by a counterpart. That satisfies the police but not Cross, who discovers the identity of the victim, the innocence of the suspect, and a broadening complexity that encompasses a second murder, apparent police obstruction, and a fascinating quicksilver set of lunges of possibility. Serendipity is crucial as in “Thank God he hadn’t picked up the broken teacup when he saw Hilary’s body … he would’ve likely been convicted for a crime he didn’t commit.” Cross, with his “capacity to look well outside the box,” is the star, but so also is his partner, DS Ottey, “a black single mother, ‘who understands how his mind works.” Very well worth reading.

Westernisation is seen in the introduction of a guillotine by Chief Inspector Kazuki of the Imperial Prosecuting Office

Set in Yorkshire at the time of the Ripper, Ajay Close’s What Doesn’t Kill Us (Saraband, 2024, £10.99) captures, amidst its perceptive social history, the idioms of the age and the creepiness of misogyny from casual abuse to violence, strippers’ audiences to sexual behaviour. The tensions of female identities and lives strained, even broken, by economic hardship, male violence, and changing norms are to the fore in a tale of female assertiveness in and outside the police, all in the shadow of the Ripper. Given the subject, the writing is unsurprisingly tough, though I’m not sure about the phrase “shitting ice cream”. There is some humour in the account of artistic creativity at the poly-fashionable cutting edge, but this is a bleak one.

Fūtarō Yamada’s The Meiji Guillotine Murders (Eng trans., 2023; Pushkin, £9.99) is a distinctive work set in Tokyo in the early years of the Meiji era. Episodic in character, it presents a disrupted world with corruption, violence and the particularities of Japanese society. Westernisation is seen in the introduction of a guillotine by Chief Inspector Kazuki of the Imperial Prosecuting Office. There is a degree of magic realism. A read that requires concentration, but rewarding.

A historic (past) rather than an historical (present, set in the past) work, Ethel Lina White’s Fear Stalks The Village (1932; 2024, British Library, £9.99) introduces an elysian Downland village and uses the poisoned pen to tear the lid off. There is much lightness and wit: “…They were not especially friendly, but their cars always insisted on stopping to fraternise with each other, so their owners had to make the best of it … Although her sea-blue eyes looked demure, she was up to every move of the game, and knew exactly when to drop her prayer-book, and where to pitch it … even the cat dressed for dinner, for his shirt-front was immediately white against his black coat.” The nature of modernity is a reiterated theme from “amusing metal furniture” to “women smoking incessantly in public…”, but also the pressures of position on pretension: “my mother has only got my father’s pension, so we have to help. And both my brothers are out of jobs.” Slow start, as befits the setting, but rapidly gathers pace and an impressive plot that reads well. Much better as a cozy crime story than most modern counterparts.

Morgan Greene’s Savage Ridge (Canelo, 2024, £9.99) is a slow-burn why done it, that begins with the revelation that three schoolfriends have got away with murdering an awful counterpart, a son of the wealthy, dominant and ruthless Saint John family, and sees them lured back to the town a decade later as his brother tries to pin the killing on them. The pace picks up with the revelation of a more complex past and its interaction with the uncertain outcome of the present. Becomes a page-turner.

In my ignorance, I was only aware of his Slough House Thrillers, but a library visit revealed that Mike Heron has written many others including standalones set in a dysfunctional British intelligence. The Secret Hours (Baskerville, 2023, £22.00) has a somewhat convenient backdrop in British politics, with very clear references to Johnson and Cummings, and the suggestion that the anger of the former, “a walking non-disclosure agreement,” with the Secret Services leads to his determination to discredit the latter by launching an enquiry. That cuts across a former asset going on the run when his identity is compromised [Heron is mistaken to think the London-Plymouth line crosses North Devon], and an account of an earlier Berlin mission. There are perceptive remarks about mediocrities [“it would have been impertinent to enquire into the actual achievements his half-century of public service had produced”] and rogues [“I’m an open book … But a lot of your pages have fallen out.”]. The plot has its serious weaknesses but a great read.

Donna Leon’s So Shall You Reap (Hutchinson, 2023) conforms to the series norm for good and ill. There are some amusing comments, as on the dire nature of modern church music, and one of the standard characters is sympathetically presented as gay. Academics may recognise the description of a (medieval) historian: “One article made the prostitutes of Venice sound dull … hoping to learn if the ham-fisted prose style of Professor Molin had been with him in his earliest publications or if his years as an academic had passed it on to him, like head lice.”

Last, and very much least from the library, Richard Osman is on characteristic form with sentimental characterisation and weak plot [Dickens without the ability] in his The Last Devil to Die (Viking, 2023, £22). It started to help pass a patch of bad weather, but even that…. The Acknowledgements at the end reveal as someone else’s best gag: watching New Year’s Eve on Turkish television so as to get to bed at a reasonable hour. The Leon, which offers cosy crime without a loss of plot quality, provides a suitable marker of difference.

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