An Empty Death (Orion, £18.99) is the second instalment of the series Laura Wilson began with her previous book, the award-winning Stratton’s War.
An Empty Death (Orion, £18.99) is the second instalment of the series Laura Wilson began with her previous book, the award-winning Stratton’s War. Time’s moved on to 1944, and Hitler’s doodlebugs are spreading fear and destruction through the war-weary city. But Detective Inspector Ted Strattton’s immediate concern is the murder of a doctor on a bombsite near the Middlesex Hospital in Fitzrovia and the linked activities of a medical impostor. Meanwhile, his wife, Jenny, is mourning the absence of their evacuated children, who no longer seem quite hers; to make matters worse, she’s increasingly anxious that she might be pregnant again, and (in an elegant counterpoint to Stratton’s investigation) she’s dealing with a bomb survivor who wrongly believes her husband is an impostor.
Wilson is very good indeed at creating a precise historical context, whether it’s the Strattons’ suburban home or the medical profession in the early 1940s. She achieves it in the subtlest and most effective ways, building up layers of unobtrusive detail that gradually become utterly convincing. Stratton and his family (including a brother-in-law from hell) are solidly realised characters, as is the sad individual whose sense of failure lies behind at least part of this richly textured and very satisfying murder mystery.
There are Orwellian overtones to Henry Porter’s fifth novel, The Dying Light (Orion, £12.99), a dystopian thriller set in the very near future. David Eyam, the charismatic former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, is killed in a terrorist attack in Columbia, apparently quite by chance. But there are those who suspect his death is connected with the reason he was abruptly shunted away from Whitehall. Among them are his former lover Kate Lockhart, a Manhattan lawyer and former SIS officer, whose formidable talents are now honed by grief; and also the enigmatic Peter Kilmartin, whose instructions come from the Prime Minister. Kate has help from an unexpected direction — Eyam himself, who seems to have foreseen his death, and is now manipulating events from the other side of the grave. Meanwhile, on the brink of an election, the government is struggling desperately to contain the spread of toxic red algae in reservoirs.
Porter has all the talents of a good thriller writer, particularly strong, crisp characterisation and the ability seamlessly to blend action and expertise. What really stands out in this novel, though, is the grimly plausible glimpse he gives us of a future that is already creeping up on us: a United Kingdom where elements of government and corporate interests are combining to monitor and ultimately control the lives of the country’s citizens.
In A Visible Darkness (Faber, £12.99), Michael Gregorio returns to French-occupied Prussia in the early 19th century. For the third time, the young magistrate, Hanno Stiffeniis, is obliged to mount a murder investigation with the French army authorities breathing down his neck. Someone has killed a young woman harvesting the closely-guarded amber on the Baltic coast. The lucrative amber trade is earmarked to help pay for the forthcoming invasion of Russia, and Prussian resistance may be responsible for the murder. Meanwhile, Stiffeniis’s wife is pregnant, and the unparalleled hot weather is causing foul smells and a plague of strange insects.
Michael Gregorio (the pseudonym for a husband-and-wife team) has put together another splendidly gothic historical thriller, his best yet, that opens a window on history from an unexpected angle. Stiffeniis is a humane and cultivated character, a former student of Kant’s; but his enquiring scientific mind is set against horrific events in a world that, for all the historical detail, seems constantly on the verge of toppling into the darkest nightmares.
Nicola Upson’s first novel introduced a series that centres on the real-life novelist and dramatist, Josephine Tey, whose innovative crime novels are still in print more than 50 years after her death. Set in the 1930s, the series continues in Angel With Two Faces (Faber, £14.99), where Tey and her not-quite boyfriend, Detective Inspector Archie Penrose, are once again embroiled in a dense slew of murder and other crimes, past and present. Penrose takes Josephine to stay on the lovely Cornish estate where he grew up. The start of their visit is marred by the funeral of a dashing estate worker, drowned in a riding accident. Despite idyllic appearances, passions fester under the surface, and everyone seems to have a dark secret.
Upson writes well, giving new life to a classic murder setting. The portrayal of Tey herself is both sympathetic and perceptive. The narrative is a little overladen with explanation — a necessary evil, perhaps, given the complexity of the plot. But Upson is chillingly effective at showing how good intentions may lead to evil consequences, especially when tainted with a dash of arrogance. All in all, this is a fine addition to a promising series.
Andrew Taylor’s latest novel is Bleeding Heart Square (Penguin).