The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (MacLehose Press, £14.99, translated from the Swedish by Stephen Murray) is the first volume of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Larsson was a journalist who sadly died of a heart attack before publication. But the books are selling in their millions across Europe and, once you read the first of them, it’s not hard to see why. The central character, Blomkvist, works for a hard-hitting magazine named Millennium. An attack on a corrupt Swedish billionaire has backfired, leaving him on the brink of financial and professional ruin. He accepts a lifeline in the form of a commission to investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl nearly 40 years earlier in an island variant of the classic locked-room mystery. But the two cases are linked, and there are also connections to Sweden’s wartime fascists.
This is a long thriller but it sustains the reader’s interest, partly because it’s well-plotted but more, perhaps, because of the anger Larsson directs at his targets. Misogyny, financial corruption, murder, fascism all have a contribution to make, and Larsson implies that ultimately they spring from the same source. The book may not be particularly subtle but it’s highly effective and a very good read: I look forward to the sequels.
R. N. Morris turns to Dostoevsky for inspiration in A Vengeful Longing (Faber, £12.99), the second novel in a series whose protagonist, the investigating magistrate Porfiry Petrovich, has been lifted from Crime and Punishment. It’s 1868, and another sweltering summer in St Petersburg, with the inhabitants plagued by building work, stench, outbreaks of cholera and rumblings of political discontent. Porfiry and his idealistic young assistant (who proudly proclaims himself an egoist, a rationalist and a materialist) are called to deal with three interlinked crimes — a double murder by poisoned chocolates, followed by deaths by shooting and stabbing.
The result is a book that satisfies on more than one level — as a story of investigation and also as a historical novel crammed with sharply individualised characters. Morris has clearly done his research, and he also has an unusual ability to enter imaginatively into another time and place. The novel is well written too, and constantly nudges against the genre envelope of crime fiction. ‘There will always be blood,’ Porphyry tells his traumatised assistant. ‘If you cannot see beyond the blood, you will see nothing.’
The central character of Clare Francis’s Unforgotten (Macmillan, £16.99) is Hugh Gwynne, a middle-aged Bristol solicitor with a good job, a good marriage and two not quite so good children. He and his wife are given to congratulating themselves on their good fortune, which alway tempts fate — and sure enough fate responds with an enthusiasm that’s positively vicious. The plot has three interwoven strands. The first concerns Hugh’s long-running involvement with a difficult client claiming damages for post-traumatic stress syndrome after a car accident in which his daughter burned to death. The second has to do with Hugh’s wife Lizzie, who works for a Citizens Advice Bureau and has come to believe that a young client from a sink estate has been framed for murder. The third involves their son Charlie, a reformed heroin addict teetering on the brink of relapse.
Francis skillfully constructs a slow-burning thriller that derives its impact from a firm grounding in the processes of the legal system and the dynamics of happy and unhappy families. With the hapless but decent Hugh, the reader is dragged inexorably into a shockingly familiar world where the worst can, and does, happen.
With Cold in Hand (Heinemann, £12.99), John Harvey returns to Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick, the jazz-loving central character of his Nottingham-based police procedural series. Now within spitting distance of retirement, he is drawn into two interlocking cases, both of which involve his partner and colleague, DI Lynn Kellogg. A teenage girl is murdered in a gangland shooting on Valentine’s Day, and her family is convinced that Lynn, who was at the scene, saved her own life at the expense of the girl’s. Despite his personal connection, Resnick is given the case and is allowed to remain in charge when he loses his temper in front of witnesses and threatens the victim’s media-savvy father. Attempts to trace the murder weapon lead by a circuitous route to a far more tortuous investigation involving Eastern Europeans, people trafficking and a shadowy governmental organisation known as the Serious and Organised Crime Agency. In the meantime we learn more about Resnick’s tastes in music and food. Taken as a whole, this may not be the strongest addition to the series but it’s still an impressive crime novel that packs some heavyweight punches.
Andrew Taylor’s latest novel is Naked to the Hangman (Hodder).
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 23, 2008