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Murders for the New Year

From Oxford to Italy, the murders continue in 2024

Lost and Never Found, Simon Mason, riverrun, £14.95

There are several very good books to read this month. Taking Oxford well beyond Morse, Lost and Never Found by Simon Mason (Riverrun, 2024, £16.99) is another DI Ryan Wilkins mystery, and is better than Morse in its bite, pace, urgency and characterisation. The rifts among the coppers have far more point to them, not least if you have ever been in an institution where quality is being squeezed out by faddish conformism. 

The story gets going with the discovery of a crashed Rollo in a run-down part of the city and no sign of its driver, Zara Fanshawe, a glamorous aristocratic celebrity. Disappearances and deaths build up in a story much of which revolves around the homeless and their plight. The writing is good. The images pertinent, the descriptions work. The account of society is harsh, as with Lena Wójcik, the young Polish prostitute who “acquired a domestic specialist, a recovery worker, a criminal-justice support provider, an addictions counsellor and a sex-worker outreach officer, and was constantly on the move, struggling and failing.” The protagonist’s life “was and always would be a mess of disappointments and contingents,” but Mason brilliantly uses him as the device to a solution that is a brilliant weave, and not just a skilful one. 

Tom Hindle had already impressed me with his first, A Fatal Crossing, and in his third, Murder on Lake Garda (Century, £14.99), he provides an excellent work that shows the dark underside of the British élite, of influencers, and of Italian high-society. Castello Fiore, an island idyll on the lake is the setting for a grand wedding but, in the first sentence, a death scream cuts short the proceedings. The novel proceeds brilliantly on what is a closed-cast murder. The murderer and the why? were somewhat obvious, but the characterisation is excellent, the how? interesting, and the book becomes a page-turner. Very much one to recommend, though I wonder whether ex-public schoolboys will ever be heroes again in any of the arts. 

Tim Sullivan’s The Teacher (Head of Zeus, 2024, £20) is the sixth in an excellent series centred on the autistic Detective Sergeant George Cross, this time confronting the murder of Alistair Moreton, a retired prep school headmaster. There are a range of suspects, possibly implausibly so as the environs of his cottage must have been very busy that evening, and the plot brilliantly links successive investigations of the suspects in order to move forward a well-constructed story as well as throwing light on autism, tensions within the police, cruelty, sexual harassment, and drug-dealing. A very fine story. 

Big Ben Strikes Eleven, David Magarshack, British Library Publishing, £8.49

Known as a translator of Dostoevsky and other Russian masters, Riga-born David Magarshack (1899-1977) also published three detective novels in 1934-7. The first, Big Ben Strikes Eleven, has been reprinted in the British Library Crime Classics series (2023, £9.99). This begins with the discovery of the body of Sir Robert Boniface, a plutocrat of consequence in his blue limousine on Hampstead Heath. Suspects rapidly increase, while Superintendent Mooney and Inspector Beckett follow leads that take us through society. Thus, for example, the legacy of the world war is clear. Mooney has “a long scar on the right cheek running almost perpendicularly from his jaw to his eye (a memento from a Turk’s bayonet in Gallipoli)” while Matt Caldwell owns “a large German army revolver, a large Browning, a small Webley” and two small pistols. The Depression helps ensure that the prostitute Miss Morrison “was accustomed in these hard times to find her clients a little niggardly about their presents.” Social change is discerned in the tension between Samuel Halstead, the window cleaner who discovers the body, and his daughter Agnes, who beats him when he tries to control her. Marjorie Trevor, the hard-smoking, self-confident young woman with somewhat of a past, is an instructive heroine. 

The possibilities offered by cars for “love-making” are also touched on, while Boniface has an interesting personal life, with a long-term mistress whose husband he employed and paid off, who, in turn, was having an affair. The politics of the period are touched on with Boniface presented as a megalomaniac with Napoleonic tendencies who leaned toward fascism. Share speculation and inheritance options are part of the plot. The writing is measured and matches the deliberative style of the detectives. The genre itself plays a role with the psychologist “Dr” Adams “writing very clever murder stories”, whose Scotland Yard detectives remind the Earl of Rollesborough, an aristocratic combatant in the field of big business, of Mooney. Yet Adams reflects on “how little qualified I am to solve murder mysteries in real life … A writer of detective stories is always looking for clues.” The serendipitous nature of the plot is in fact essential to the solution, the villain is convincing, and the story grips more strongly as it comes to a triumphant conclusion. 

Another London murder reprinted lately in the same series is Margaret Bennett’s Someone From The Past: A London Mystery (1958; 2023, £9.99). Bennett (1912-80) has already contributed two excellent works, The Man Who Didn’t Fly and The Widow of Bath, to the series. This book is not a puzzle set at the height of society, but rather a claustrophobic novel of suspicion, relationships and murder. The writing is imaginative, as in “rookery of waiters that flapped by the service door,” or “standing in front of the long mirror, jabbing an angry red mouth on to her bitter, beautiful face.” There is also shrewd perception: “We could all live different lives, if we did the right thing, at the right time. A little dignity is a small part of what we have to lose.”

A Frightfully Fatal Affair by Hannah Hendy (Canelo, £8.99) is the fourth of the Dinner Lady Detectives series, which is very much in the cosy murders mould, not so much an ironic comment on Scandi-noir as an attempt to wring humour from comedies of social manner presented by British society. The writing is somewhat conventional, of the “breathed a sigh of relief” and “Margery groaned” variety, and the humour is modest, but this is an easy read. 

“Mr Evans was here today though, helping to supervise the dinner hour, which meant leaning against the wall reading a fitness magazine and drinking a protein shake that was so thick it could have probably been used to cement walls.” 

The plot is pleasantly contrived, with credibility so absent it is not really an issue. Thus, the number of crimes ceases to be plausible without one giving up. An imaginative version of the cosy crime genre with the amusing perspective of dinner lady protagonists. 

The Crew by J.M. Hewitt (Canelo, £9.99) deserves persistence. The opening sections are slow, with a tragic death on a luxury yacht treated as an accident, and the return a year later of a crew member leading her to a slow realisation that the death was more problematic. The novel comes to life when we go back a year and switch to the perspective of the young woman who was killed. The plot, writing and pace goes up several octaves; and the book becomes more and more interesting. By the last stages not so much a “Who done it?” but a “What will Happen?” It is well-plotted and psychologically convincing. An impressive novel. 

The Glass Woman by Alice McIlroy (Datura, 2024, £9.99) places the genre of waking in strange surroundings surrounded by menace into a world in which robotic processes are to the fore. The book is a successful example of the genre with a chilling modern feel, and if the genre is not one that appeals to me that should not be seen as criticism of the book. McIlroy conveys menace from the outset. 

That is not the atmosphere in Elizabeth Peters first Amelia Peabody story, Crocodile on the Sandbank (1999; Constable, 2006), in which the bold young Victorian spinster recruits Evelyn Barton-Forbes as her companion and adventures in Egyptian archaeology, with a plot that “might have been invented by a reader of gothic novels, inspired by An Egyptian Princess and other fictional horrors” (193). Similarly the recent film Saltburn gives away its Gothic horror genesis with a reference to Shelley. 

It might be worth considering what we will and/or should see this year. I predict more plots in which AI plays a role and also gender change. There will also be the continued translation of works from other countries, and, probably, an expansion in this range of coverage. Less positively, celebrities will go on showing they are best kept away from the genre, while “cosy crimes” will cloy. There will also be all-too-many poor copies of the great, and too many formulaic repeats by individual authors. Much to look forward to, but also much to avoid. 

I both purchase books for review and also am sent several. In purchasing, I am encouraged to look in particular at the works published by Bitter Lemon, the British Library, Canelo and Pushkin. All can be recommended.

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