Like mists and mellow fruitfulness, Val McDermid novels often arrive in autumn. The Vanishing Point (Little, Brown, £16.99) is a standalone thriller whose central character, Stephanie Harker, is a ghost writer who compiles the autographies of celebrities. Her relationship with Scarlett Higgins, a foul-mouthed reality TV star known to the nation as the Scarlett Harlot, begins on a professional level but soon lurches towards the personal.
The novel opens after Scarlett’s death from cancer. Stephanie, now the guardian of Scarlett’s five-year-old son Jimmy, is held up by security at O’Hare Airport, Chicago. A kidnapper walks off with Jimmy and vanishes into the blue. The story develops into a double narrative: events in the present are intercut with Stephanie’s first-person narrative describing her five-and-a-half year relationship with Scarlett which has brought her and Jimmy to this point. Towards the end the strands come together and lead to an eye-blinkingly effective climax.
In this intelligent and hypnotically readable thriller, what really interests McDermid, and us, is the meaning of fame and how people deal with being famous. The relationship between Scarlett and Stephanie is one of the best things she has done. True, the double narrative is sometimes cumbersome and a large red herring stinks to high heaven; but these add up to a small price to pay for this entertaining and thought-provoking book. Roll on next autumn.
It’s not easy to bring something new to the private-eye novel but Declan Burke rises to the challenge with panache in Slaughter’s Hound (Liberties Press, £11.99). Set in Sligo, this is the second novel to feature Harry Rigby, taxi driver and private investigator. His friend Finn Hamilton, heir to a diminishing property fortune, plunges nine storeys to his death before his eyes. For the police, Harry himself, a man of unorthodox methods and habits, is the obvious suspect — the eponymous slaughter’s hound. So Harry has the best of reasons to find out the truth.
The book opens with what may well be the longest sentence in crime fiction — where Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness, with a large spliff on the side. Burke is an author who takes risks, makes you laugh and writes like an angel with a devilish sense of humour.
The glamorous criminal who comes to a bad end seems to have a particular attraction for the American psyche. So does the Prohibition era. Dennis Lehane’s latest novel, Live By Night (Little, Brown, £16.99), combines the two in the story of Joe Coughlin, an aspiring young crook in 1920s Boston. (‘I say there are no rules but the ones a man makes for himself.’) Joe’s career choice gains a particular piquancy from the fact that his father, Thomas, is Boston’s Deputy Superintendent of Police, a man as morally compromised as his son.
Two gangs have gone to war for the control of the town’s liquor trade. The Coughlins are caught in the crossfire. Honed by several murders and a traumatic stay at the Charlestown Penitentiary, Joe moves to Florida and fights to the top of his profession. Then, of course, just as romance, wealth and respectability seem assured, it all goes so very wrong.
In its way, Live By Night is a very moral story. It is the second in a trilogy — the first novel, The Given Day, featured another Coughlin, Joe’s brother. The tension flags a little in the second half of the book. But Lehane’s tough, muscular prose captures the era well; and his dialogue brings to life the inhabitants of its underworld — something one might have expected from an author who wrote several episodes of The Wire.
Modern South Africa is the setting for Deon Meyer’s 7 Days (translated from the Afrikaans by K.L.Seegers, Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99). Its protagonist, as in several of his books, is Benny Griessel, a detective and a recovering alcoholic with an irreparably broken marriage. Hanneke Sloet, an ambitious young lawyer, has been murdered in her own Cape Town flat. There are no clues and the case stalls. Then someone emails the South African Police Services threatening to shoot a policeman every day until the murderer is caught. The threat is immediately put into practice. Griessel finds himself at the head of the hastily reopened murder case. Meanwhile the hunt for the shooter is assigned to a colleague, Captain Mbali Kaleni.
Though the damaged series detective is a familiar figure in crime fiction, Meyer is far too good a writer for this to matter. Griessel is very much his own man, juggling the demands of his career with those of his equally testing private life. The narrative is well-plotted, and the novel brings to life the rich and volatile diversity of contemporary South Africa. There’s nothing flashy here, just a good story, very well told. Would there were more like it.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 October 2012