Hercule Poirot on the Orient Express (Photo by Martin Godwin/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Murders for May

A deadly mixture of reprints and new releases

Firewatching, Russ Thomas (Simon and Schuster, £12.99)

Every month brings a fresh range of discoveries, from new books and new editions that bookshops offer in welcome plenty, to discoveries in second-hand bookshops or the shelves of others. The selection this month covers both new books and earlier works that have been reprinted in a welcome fashion.

Troubled Blood, Robert Galbraith (Sphere Books, £20)

Firewatching (2020) is a debut by Russ Thomas in which the discovery of a bricked-up dead body sets in motion detection, speculation and fresh crime. This is not a comfortable read. In light of the tone and content of the plot, there is a dead irony in the remark by Doggett: “Let’s wait until we get confirmation about the second body in the vicarage. Bloody hell, we’re living out an Agatha Christie novel here.” Actually, no. There is a brilliant misdirection as well as the weight of the past, but Christie’s novels are not lit by the repeated arson seen here. Thomas deserves much praise for the skill of the plot and interest of the characters.

Death of a Bookseller, Bernard Farmer (British Library Crime Classic, £9.99)

Generally I dislike long novels, and remembered finding Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders overlong. I purchased Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) when it came out, casting baleful glances at its length. This stopped me reading it until I realised that it would hit the screen first unless I got my act together. At 927 pages, there is a risk of Potterish gigantism, but Rowling offers a pace that stirs the plot along in a pleasing fashion. She is very good indeed on characters, their interactions and the ambience of modern Britain, from the “unspoken assumptions that had their roots in envy and spite” to the “anti imperial ignorance of a druggy drifter, whether the manipulators, flatterers, liars, chancers and hypocrites” that fester on the farms, and the “over-padded opulence” of Irene Hickson advancing “in a potent cloud of amber perfume and hairspray”. The protagonists’ search for a long-missing London GP becomes a journey to the troubled mind and troubling heart of a society in crisis. A good read.

Murder Before Evensong, Richard Coles (Orion, £16.99)

Bernard Farmer’s Death of a Bookseller (1956; 2022 edition) is the hundredth to appear in the British Library Crime Classic series, which is both a classic achievement in its own right and an encouragement for others to produce new editions of similar works. This volume fully achieves the goal of bringing forward works that are not well-known and, in this case, an author who is generally obscure. Farmer (1902-64) was an engineer-turned-writer who spent seven years in the Met and in 1953 produced his first detective novel. Jack Wigan, his protagonist, is a Met policeman interested in books. Death of a Bookseller presents book-collecting in a murderous light, as well as a range of life encompassing the London of “razor boys … but Ruth was always what is technically called a good girl”, and the expedients of the poor, the occult: “‘He was raising the devil,’ whispered Charlie. He crossed himself. ‘He was sitting reading the Black Mass…’”, along with much else in a well plotted and agreeably paced novel that richly deserves attention.

The Botanist, M.W. Craven (Constable, £14.99)

Two novels soon out in the bookshops deserve mention. Murder Before Evensong by Richard Coles is a relatively pleasant story set in rural Champton where the old order sees an aristocrat Bernard de Floures prominent and the crime is solved by the protagonist rector, Canon Daniel Clement. There is not the anguish seen in James Runcie’s superb Grantchester series (much better than the television counterpart), and it is somehow appropriate that the Clochmerle-like issue of a toilet in the church runs and runs. But there is murder, and then more. Reads very well, although the reveal does not work. The book can therefore be left with Daniel “quietly digesting kidneys in a rich sherry sauce” rather than going to the close. As D.S. Vanloo earlier points out, “Things don’t always fit, sir. It’s not like the novels.” Clubland habitues will be amused to hear which two are noted for “drugs and strumpets”.

A darker note is struck by M.W. Craven in The Botanist (Constable, 2022), the latest in his excellent Washington Poe series which began with The Puppet Show (2018). This can be strongly recommended, not least for its short chapters. The protagonist asks, “Why do I feel like I’m in a John Dickson Carr novel?”, but the “very Agatha Christie” setting of this locked-room puzzle is only one of the settings, themes and indeed references of this fast-paced novel with the villainous “Botanist” out to purge society of the repellent, with a mysterious voice offstage. Well-worth reading.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover