Henning Mankell bestrides the landscape of Scandavian crime fiction like a despondent colossus. Last year’s The Man from Beijing, was a disappointing stand-alone thriller with too much polemical baggage. His new novel, The Troubled Man (Harvill Secker, £17.99), brings the return of his series hero, Inspector Kurt Wallender. The title says it all: now that he’s 60, Wallender’s trademark gloom is darkened still further by the creeping fear that his memory is no longer what it used to be, and that this is the first symptom of a far more serious condition.
In the first few chapters, he also faces disciplinary action, breaks his wrist and gets mugged. So it comes almost as a relief when an old scandal involving a Soviet submarine threatens a former Swedish naval officer, whose son is the partner of Wallender’s daughter. The family asks Wallender, who is suspended from duty, to keep an eye on the Stockholm police’s investigation.
The Wallender novels are strangely addictive, and it is sad that this will be, we are told, the inspector’s last case. Wallender himself, a sort of grown-up Eeyore, holds the novel together, for the plot itself is of secondary interest. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, the book exerts a melancholy fascination. The inspector’s swansong is more poignant than thrilling. The novel gives off a powerful sense that his creator shares Wallender’s quiet despair.
There’s a very different flavour to Michael Koryta’s The Cypress House (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99), which occupies the fertile territory between the crime thriller and the horror novel. Set in a grimly rural Florida in 1935, it begins with a hurricane and gets steadily more dramatic. Arlen’s experiences on the Western Front have left him with the uncomfortable ability to see impending death in other men’s faces; not only that, he labours under the crushing moral burden of knowing that he may be able to save them. He and his mechanically gifted protégé, Paul, leave a train carrying fellow veterans to what turns out to be death by hurricane. They find shelter in a lonely hotel run by an enigmatic but beautiful woman. Within hours, Arlen finds himself dealing with murder, false arrest, a corrupt sheriff, an evil judge and a host of nightmarish creatures, some of them human, that lurk in the nearby mangrove swamps.
A novel with such richly sensational ingredients might easily have toppled into farce. Moreover, we are never in any doubt about who the villains are; and Arlen is a classic noir hero — hard-drinking, physically indestructible, psychologically damaged and as soft-hearted as a liqueur chocolate. But Koryta knows how to build tension and create a febrile atmosphere, and his story has a plausible setting. The result is a highly coloured novel with expertly managed paranormal trimmings. Koryta is a writer to watch.
A very different but equally good historical thriller is Peter Ransley’s The Plague Child (Harper Press, £12.99), the first of a Civil War trilogy about Tom Kneave, a printer’s apprentice who is not all he seems to be. Tom’s search for his own identity is intimately connected with the seismic events tearing England apart in the 1640s. Ransley has a talent for melding dramatic historical detail with a strong story that could well give C. J. Sansom a run for his money.
Gordon Ferris’s The Hanging Shed (Corvus, £15.99) is another historical novel — but one with an unusually modern route to publication: the Kindle edition was released three months before the one in hard covers, and became a number-one bestseller in Amazon’s electronic format. In 1946, Douglas Brodie, ex-detective and ex- soldier, returns home to Scotland. His former best friend, who stole the love of his life, was terribly disfigured in the war. He has now been convicted of raping and murdering local boys and is awaiting execution in the eponymous shed. Brodie, another damaged loner, unwillingly agrees to help him. Ferris serves up a generous slice of tartan noir with more than a hint of Dick Francis in the mix. The background is convincing and the reader is on Brodie’s side from page one. Best of all, the book has a button- holing narrative that forces you to keep turning the pages.
The Detection Club is the equivalent of the House of Lords for British crime fiction. In 1931, 12 of its then-members collaborated on The Floating Admiral, a wonderfully eccentric serial whodunnit whose authors included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and G. K. Chesterton. Who killed Admiral Penistone and left him floating down the river in the vicar’s dinghy? The mystery is solved in more than one way in a handsome facsimile of the first edition (HarperCollins, £12.99). Simon Brett contributes an informative foreword that reminds us of those halcyon days when crime fiction could be approached in the innocent spirit of a parlour game.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 9, 2011Tags: Book reviews, Crime, Crime novels, Fiction