Sam Bourne’s new thriller, Pantheon (HarperCollins, £12.99), is set just after Dunkirk in the darkest days of the second world war. James Zennor, an experimental psychologist, returns to his family’s Oxford home to discover that his biologist wife has disappeared, taking with her their two-year-old son. Zennor, scarred in body and mind by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, fears that she may have fled from his ungovernable rages. Or was she acting under coercion? He pursues her to neutral America where uncomfortable truths gradually emerge in another university city.
This novel is something of a departure for Bourne. Zennor’s emotional fragility lends an extra dimension to a powerful plot, skilfully constructed and narrated. There are some wonderful glimpses of other worlds and other times — the Barcelona People’s Olympics of 1936, for example, and the Siege of Madrid (echoes of Esmond Romilly, here).
Bourne’s publishers claim that this is the most explosive wartime thriller since Robert Harris’s Fatherland. It is not in the same league but it’s good enough, with an interesting premise and an appealingly damaged protagonist. Unfortunately the tension subsides in the second part of the book and the hurried ending falls disappointingly flat.
The Pleasures of Men (Michael Joseph, £12.99) is the first novel by the historian Kate Williams. Set in 1840, it deals with a serial killer stalking the decaying streets of London and a mysterious orphaned heiress in Spitalfields. The murderer, known as the Man of Crows, slaughters vulnerable young women in a ritual manner. Meanwhile, Catherine Sorgeuil lives with her eccentric uncle in a house stuffed with gloomy curios from remote corners of the globe. She has the reputation of being an heiress but neither her uncle nor her prospects are what they seem. Worst of all, she fights inner demons that link the private terrors of her own past with present activities of the Man of Crows.
So far, so gothic: in a sentence, Jack the Ripper marries Little Nell with Wilkie Collins presiding at the nuptials. The novel is written in lush, overheated and occasionally anachronistic prose that grates on the ear. (Why say ‘one-pence coin’ when you mean ‘penny’?) But on the whole the period detail is admirably solid. Sexual obsession lurks on every page and creates an increasingly spooky atmosphere as Williams moves into familiar territory mapped out by Sarah Waters, Michel Faber and others.
The novel’s ending doesn’t entirely convince and the book suffers from its reliance on other fictional models. Still, there’s considerable potential here, and I look forward to Kate Williams’s next novel.
Simon Lelic’s first two crime novels attracted much well-deserved praise. His third, The Child Who (Mantel, £12.99) is equally good. Like its predecessors, it addresses a disturbing subject. Here it’s the murder of one child by another. Leo Curtice, an Exeter solicitor, is wholly unprepared for the moral, emotional and legal quagmire that opens up before him and his family when he agrees to take on the defence of Daniel, a 12-year-old boy accused of murdering a schoolmate after trying to rape her. Curtice faces not only the public’s rage, expertly fanned by the media, but also the destructive impact of the case and its ramifications on his wife and daughter.
The boy’s guilt is not the issue here, though Lelic does not ignore the question of motivation or shy away from the horror of the crime. But his main concern is with the consequences of the murder. He explores how, in a case of this nature, hate and hysteria can outweigh common sense, humanity and even the law of the land. Despite its dark theme, this stark, powerfully written novel ends on a faint note of hope. Lelic is a writer to watch.
The Glass Room (Macmillan, £16.99) is the fifth novel in Ann Cleeves’s Vera Stanhope series, based in Northumberland, which is now also gracing our television screens. Vera is a resolutely unglamorous detective inspector — middle-aged, single, overweight and with a tendency to drink too much. On this occasion Vera’s amiable hippy neighbour asks her for help in finding his missing partner. She traces the woman to the ‘Writers’ House’, an upmarket residential course centre for aspiring authors. The only problem is that she also finds the corpse of a visiting literary pundit there. The chief suspect, caught with the murder weapon in her hand, is her neighbour.
The resulting investigation is a contemporary variant on the classic country-house murder, complete with numerous suspects, quirky characters and much gentle mockery of cultural pretentiousness. Despite this cosy and rather mannered setting, the story is sufficiently gritty to have an impact, though it’s gentler in tone than Ann Cleeves’s Shetland Quartet. Still, her work is always good value, and this entertaining novel is no exception.