Murders for May

Killings in the new Japan, family feuds in India and the novel menace of AI

Artillery Row

Book of the month is Anita Nair’s Hot Stage (Bitter Lemon, 2023, £9.99), the third of the Borei Gowda novels, following A Cut-Like Wound and Chain of Custody, but the first I have read. Set in Bangalore, this is far from the quaint brand of Indian detective novels but, instead, one that has a more robust plot and rounded characters, notably the protagonist. Assistant Commissioner of Police Gowda is bright and complex with a divided personal life and a boss he cannot stand. The murder of an elderly rationalist is apparently clearly politically motivated. However, working against the grain, Gowda finds more complex familial and criminal patterns. Excellent writing by an accomplished novelist of high renown, this is both a pleasure in itself and one that encourages me to read the remainder of the series.

The politeness of an old Japan is challenged by the brash newness of greedy and opinionated radical cultural commentators

Everyman’s Library is a publisher of well-chosen and attractively produced reprints and its inclusion of detective novels is welcome. Asking James Ellroy to introduce a Hammett volume that includes six works is exciting but also problematic. Volume 307 in Everyman’s offers the reader the Dain Curse, The Glass Key, and four linked stories: ‘The House in Turk Street,’ ‘The Girl with the Silver Eyes,’ ‘The Big Knockover’ and ‘$106,000 Blood Money,’ all in hardback, well-bound and set in Bembo, for £14.99. Ellroy presents Hammett as ‘in large part a fascist tool’ and sees him as morally dubious, his writing characterised by plot holes, dishonest heroes, and ‘an invasively corrupt world’ in which there are too many killings. This is reminiscent of criticisms of Holmes, Poirot and Bond that tell us far more about the critic than his subject. Ellroy gives us a clear lead on how he would write the Hammett stories, but we already have plenty of Ellroy under his own name.

The Hammett stories in this volume are varied but excellent. The Glass Key (1931), Hammett’s favourite, provides us not with an amoral protagonist, but with Ned Beaumont, a skilfully-wrought and rather attractive central character, in a story that, as if written by Simenon, unravels the mystery of the killing of the Senator’s son through a process of psychological pressure. As with The Dain Curse (1929), female emotion and drives are key elements. The Dain Curse takes a hard look at a number of Californian tropes, including a religious cult, literary pretension, inheritance tensions, kidnapping, and a society partly on the edge. A page turner.

The four linked stories with the ‘Continental Op’ suggest that the Continental Agency contains a range of integrity. Themes include gambling debts, the interaction of California and Mexico, roadsters, shootouts ‘the girl’s pistol barked at the empty touring car,’ and plots that are at once high-octane action and cerebral, psychological probings. Well-worth reading.

Penguin’s successful publication of the works of Seichō Matsumoto (1909-92) continues with Inspector Imanishi Investigates (1961, 2024, £14.99). Longer and later than his Tokyo Express, this is a more considered work, although one similarly interested in train travel. Set in 1960, the writing brings up a Japan before high-speed trains, one that is more alive to differences, not least in dialect, between particular areas. The politeness of an old Japan is challenged by the brash newness of greedy and opinionated radical cultural commentators whom Matsumoto does not view with favour. Imanishi collects bonsai trees, writes haiku poems, and is a man of tact and intelligence, but he is poor as well as honourable. The details of his compromises with life are to the fore. A well-presented book supported by two maps and with an attractive and pertinent cover photograph. Deserves being in the library of all interested in detective fiction.

I do not usually touch novels about child-abduction, but Simon Mason is so good that I felt I had to read The Broken Afternoon (Riverrun, 2023, £9.99). A really interesting story, with the backstories of the two detectives taken a long way forward. The culprit is believable and the plot very well-crafted. A detective novel that works very well as a work of detection and as a novel irrespective of detection.

Jonathan Kellerman and Calla Henkel both focus on American plutocrats with dark secrets

J.D. O’Brien’s Zig Zag (Shaffner Press, 2023, £16.99) comes from a Tucson publisher that does not have much profile in Britain which is a pity as, based on this book, it offers interesting material. This country and western novel is set in a sleazy California full of cheats, losers, and the smell of greasy food. The pleasure of the story is seeing the dodgy characters interact, or, rather, collide, and collide they do to humorous but also deadly effect. And the whole is suffused with dope, drink and dishonesty. Very much on the lowlife level, and a world away from both Chandler and Ellroy, this is a southern California hard-baked in grime. Great characters and a good read.

Sofia Slater’s The Serpent Dance (Swift, 2024, £14.99) falls down badly on a lack of knowledge that a ‘replacement bus service,’ that phrase of foreboding, would ensure that Cornwall was not cut off, and the alibi therefore would remain. Slater sets up an interesting how-did-it?, who-did-it? and why-did-it? The account of Cornwall is very fanciful, but this is a pleasant read and works in part because it is not too long.

Unfortunately praise has to be more tempered for a number of other works. Juan Gómez-Jurado’s Black Wolf (Pan, 2024, £18.99) comes highly recommended, and certainly tries to press the boundaries in its style, but is a brutal jumble with ludicrous characters such as the hitman after whom the novel is named. Did not engage.

Nor did M.K. Hill’s action thriller, Zero Kill (Head of Zeus, 2023, £20), who is ‘the most dangerous person on Earth.’ Yes, well. Nor Douglas Skelton’s A Grave for a Thief (Canelo, 2024, £18.99), which, for me, has the disadvantage of being set in 1716, about which I know a lot. Both the Fellowship and the rival Company of Rogues are ridiculous, and the print is ugly. A pity, as some of the description is good.

Andrew Murray’s A Beginner’s Guide to Breaking and Entering (Hutchinson, 2024, £18.99) focuses on Al who lives, illegally, in the second homes of the affluent when they are away, meets others who do the same, and, after the ‘Who the fuck are you?’ stage, takes up with Elle and her crew only to become involved in a gangster feud in which there is a murder. Written with vim, but the joke swiftly fades, and only the reviewer need plough on. Not well written either. We can all do without prose of such sublime quality as: ‘The Audi pulls up next to my car. The driver’s door opens, and Mr Bowling Ball unfolds out of it. He’s formally dressed, which makes him look more than ever like a manosphere vlogger arriving for a court appearance. His shoulders are giving the suit’s seams a hard time, along with the gun he’s clearly got holstered under his arm.’ Terrible.

Jonathan Kellerman and Calla Henkel both focus on American plutocrats with dark secrets. Kellerman, a bestseller, cannot write well and I do not recommend The Ghost Orchid (Century, 2024, £22.00). Henkel’s Scrap (Sceptre, 2024, £16.99) is more vigorous, and she aims some digs at her plutocrats:

‘“I run WAC, a water-management non-profit, in places of extreme poverty – Madagascar, Nepal, – all over.”
I knew that meant housewife.’
‘…I could see artists for what they were, court jesters employed to liven-up the real-estate above sofas.’

But, ultimately, I could not care about her characters and their secrets. Sorry, but this did not work for me.

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