The crop of recent crime fiction is generously sprinkled with well-known names; as far as its publishers are concerned, Christmas is not a time of year for risk-taking. The Impossible Dead (Orion, £18.99) is the second novel in Ian Rankin’s post-Rebus series featuring Inspector Malcolm Fox of ‘The Complaints’, the team that investigates allegations of misconduct among the police themselves. Fox and his colleagues arrive in Kirkcaldy, where a detective constable stands accused of corruption — by his own uncle, who is in the same force. But the case mushrooms into something far more momentous that leads to some dark corners of the Scottish nationalist movement in the 1980s.
Fox is a decent, rule-abiding and teetotal — more or less an anti-Rebus, in many ways, though he operates in the same world as his predecessor. He’s developing into an interesting character, not least because of his simple decency. That said, the novel is a relatively quiet affair, apart from some dramatic flourishes near the end. Rankin’s genius for narrative makes it never less than readable but there’s still a sense that his second series is a domesticated version of his first.
Peter James is best known for his Inspector Grace series set in Brighton. But he also writes standalone novels, including his latest, Perfect People (Macmillan, £18.99), which moves into similar territory to some of Michael Crichton’s thrillers. John and Naomi Klaesson, devastated by the death of their young son from a genetic disorder, are desperate for a healthy baby. They invest their savings and whatever they can borrow in the charismatic Dr Leo Dettore, a maverick billionaire geneticist who is willing to design them a perfect baby on his floating clinic just outside US territorial waters.
Dettore’s treatment in fact provides them with twins who are equipped with some alarming characteristics. In short, snappy chapters, the story explores the moral, biological and practical consequences.
Apparently the novel was over ten years in the writing, during which time its central premise has become increasingly topical. It’s high concept, as they say, and eminently filmable. The book may not be particularly subtle but it’s a glossy, well-orchestrated technological thriller with a powerful theme.
John Grisham’s legal thrillers dominate the field but, as his recent foray into children’s fiction shows, he’s not afraid to vary his approach. His latest adult novel, The Litigators (Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99), has an unusually broad satirical streak and is set for a change in Chicago. The plot concerns the activities of a struggling law firm that makes most of its money by chasing ambulances and other ethically dubious practices. The aging senior partner, Oscar, is an ex-cop turned lawyer desperate to acquire enough money to afford to divorce his wife. His colleague, Oscar, is an alcoholic shark. The plot kicks off when young David Zinc, Harvard graduate and disillusioned corporate bond lawyer, joins the firm for all the wrong reasons. Soon, in the hope of raising a quick buck, this ill-assorted trio blunders into a mass tort action against a vast pharmaceutical company.
Grisham knows what he’s doing: this is essentially an upbeat little-guy-versus-the-big-guys story, with quirky characters and a solidly interesting legal background. The book is crisply written (with some agreeably sly one-liners) and the narrative canters along. There are few surprises along the way, but few longueurs either.
R. J. Ellory is a British author but his thrillers, like Lee Child’s, are distinctively American in setting and idiom. Bad Signs (Orion, £18.99) is the story of Clay and Elliott, teenage half-brothers whose mother’s murder has condemned them to a grim upbringing in state institutions. Life becomes even worse when a psychopathic killer on the run from death row takes them hostage. Over the next nine days, the three fugitives leave a trail of corpses behind them.
The most interesting part of this blood-soaked and unfailingly readable novel is the effect of the killer’s dark allure on the two brothers. Ellory’s underlying theme is the extent our upbringing determines our lives and our ability to make moral choices.
Finally, in the interests of fair dealing, it should be stressed that Alexander McCall Smith’s Unusual Uses For Olive Oil (Little, Brown, £14.99) is not really crime fiction, though even at his most criminally minded this author is not as other crime writers. This is McCall Smith’s second novel about Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Ingelfeld, author of ‘Portuguese Irregular Verbs’ and a distinguished member of the Regensburg Institute of Romance Philology. The plot involves a philanthropic attempt to find von Ingelfeld a wife, a one-legged dachshund in need of oiling and some bitterly ineffectual scholarly infighting. The novel is humane, gently amusing and decently written. Nice illustrations, too, by Iain McIntosh. Just the thing for leisurely entertainment on Boxing Day.