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A choice of crime novels

Andrew Taylor reviews a selection of recent crime novels

21 January 2009

12:00 AM

21 January 2009

12:00 AM

Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham series is set against the changing backdrop of a provincial town over more than 40 years. But her London-based books, though they lack recurring characters and locations, almost amount to a series in their own right. She has made the city her own, and writes with both knowledge and compassion about its streets and buildings, its transport and its shops — and above all about its inhabitants.

Her latest novel, Portobello (Hutchinson, £18.99), is almost incidentally a crime story. The road of the title provides the spine of a narrative that shifts expertly between groups of characters in widely disparate social settings. An art dealer tries to conceal his pathetically plausible guilty secret from his GP fiancée. A rich man’s son, whom guilt has driven to the edge of madness, feels the siren call of death. An ineffectual young criminal is caught between his love for a girlfriend who has thrown him out and his dependence on a wicked old uncle of squalidly Dickensian eccentricity. When the art dealer finds a sum of money in the street, he puts up a notice to advertise his discovery. By doing so, he triggers a series of events that sets the characters whirling together towards an unexpected and entirely satisfying resolution. As ever, Rendell writes with wry and witty authority. This may not be a crime novel in the traditional sense, but don’t miss it on that account. It’s intelligent stuff, and very readable.

One of the pleasures of Frank Tallis’s Max Liebermann series is the setting — belle-époque Vienna. Darkness Rising (Century, £12.99) is the fourth installment. A monk is found decapitated, his head seemingly wrenched from his body. A councillor is murdered. The corpses are left beside churches. Both victims were vociferous anti-Semites, and the city’s secretive Hassidic community comes under suspicion. Yet again Inspector Rheinhardt turns for help to his old ally Liebermann, a Freudian-trained analyst. Liebermann, himself Jewish, is a man who uses the revolutionary psychoanalytical methods of his master to probe the mysteries of crime. Here it leads him to the intricacies of the Kabbalah, a clash with the hospital authorities that threatens his own career, the Golem of Prague, a jewellery salesman who thinks he is pregnant, and much else.

Tallis is exploring serious themes here — among them, the political and religious climate that made the rise of fascism possible, and the conflict between secular and religious ethical systems. There’s fascinating material on the early history of psychoanalysis. All this occasionally gets in the way of the plot, but it’s a price worth paying.

M. R. Hall’s The Coroner (Macmillan, £10) is a first novel, billed as the first of a series. Considerable legal powers are attached to the coroner’s office, whose quirky independence makes it something of an anomaly in a 21st-century legal system dominated by a streamlined Ministry of Justice. Hall’s central character, Jenny Cooper, is in her early forties, divorced and in the throes of a nervous breakdown. With trepidation that proves all too well-founded, she takes up the coroner’s job in the Bristol-based ‘Severn Vale’ district. Soon she is investigating a complex case involving drugs, teenage prostitution and local government corruption, which makes her extremely unpopular, not least with her employers and colleagues. Meanwhile her understandably confused teenage son flirts with cannabis, and her ex-husband blights her attempts to rebuild her private life with a philandering, dope-smoking boyfriend in the Wye Valley.

There’s much to like here, including the unusual viewpoint, the strong narrative, and the solidly researched background. Hall has written scripts for TV crime dramas, and this has clearly influenced his approach to the book. Indeed, the novel sometimes reads like an extended treatment for a planned series.

The Maze of Cadiz (John Murray, £16.99) by Aly Monroe is also a first novel, and the first in a projected espionage series against the backdrop of Britain’s withdrawal from Empire. In 1944, British intelligence send Peter Cotton, a Cambridge-educated former soldier, to Cadiz, with orders to close their office there and arrest the resident agent, who appears to have gone off the rails. But when he reaches Cadiz, the agent is dead. Cotton investigates the death, and in doing so is drawn unwillingly into an uneasy alliance with the local police inspector.

There’s more than a touch of Eric Ambler in this novel. Monroe is very good indeed on the Spanish background of the book — Franco’s Spain in the closing phase of the war, when the Generalissimo was edging away from the Axis powers. The decaying port of Cadiz festers in the summer heat, and so do the passions of the city’s little expatriate community. As in all the best espionage stories, the personal and the political are inextricably entangled.

Andrew Taylor’s latest novel is Bleeding Heart Square (Penguin).

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