Denise Mina’s 11th crime novel, The Red Road (Orion, £12.99), is one of her best, which is saying a good deal. Set in Glasgow, it marks the return of Detective Inspector Alex Morrow, mother of twins, sister of a gangster and equipped with too many sharp edges to prosper in her career. She’s a key prosecution witness at the trial of Michael Brown, one of the city’s nastier criminals. The only trouble is, Brown’s fingerprints have turned up at the scene of another murder, committed while he was in custody.
Simultaneously, a lawyer connected with Brown dies, and the corrupt and murderous organisation of which he was a part begins to disintegrate. Meanwhile, on a castle in Mull, the dead man’s son waits for the killers who he knows are coming for him. The second strand of the story, set in 1997, concerns a 14-year-old prostitute facing two charges of murder. Her only hope of making something tolerable from the rest of her life rests with this same lawyer, who finds in her plight something that reflects his own.
Such a bald summary is a poor introduction to this powerful and compassionate novel. In the hands of a lesser writer, the material could so easily have become overcomplicated and melodramatic. But Mina makes it entirely convincing. She reminds us that kindness takes unexpected forms and sprouts in unexpected places. On the way she plays havoc with our sympathies.
Yvonne Carmichael, the narrator of Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard (Faber, £12.99), is one of those people who appear to have it all. A respected geneticist, she has a loyal husband, two grown-up children and a comfortable home. All this is put at risk almost wilfully when she begins an affair with a passing stranger, with whom she first makes love in the chapel of St Mary Undercroft in the Palace of Westminster. But something has clearly gone very wrong, for much of the story is in the form of a series of flashbacks from the subsequent trial of Yvonne and her lover for an unspecified crime at the Old Bailey.
It takes a while for the novel to insinuate itself under the skin but, once there, it clings to you like an unwanted memory until the last page. There’s a raw and uncomfortable honesty about Yvonne’s account. The lover, unnamed for much of the book, remains an oddly shadowy person — perhaps that’s the point — but Yvonne’s family come vividly to life in their responses to what happens. The result is a clever, unsettling psychological thriller about the personal mythologies we construct for ourselves and the messy consequences when they collide with other people’s.
Gunnar Staalesen is a hugely successful Norwegian crime writer. Though his novels about the Bergen-based private investigator Varg Veum have been occasionally published in this country since the 1980s, they have never enjoyed the success they have had elsewhere. With luck, Cold Hearts (translated by Don Bartlett, Arcadia, £6.95) will change this state of affairs. The disappearance of a prostitute draws Veum into an investigation into the seedier areas of a beautiful city that leads him towards the worst of crimes.
There are echoes of Chandler and Ross Macdonald in this crisply narrated and well-constructed novel — Staalesen uses the same first-person narrative for his private eye and employs a similar dry humour. But Veum is very much his own man, who operates in his own territory, both fictional and geographical. Staalesen has been compared to Henning Mankell but his books are sharper, wittier and far less lugubrious.
There’s something in the air of Nigel Williams’s London SW15 that makes its sexagenarian inhabitants behave like rabbits on Viagra. Unfaithfully Yours (Corsair, £18.99) is that rare beast, an epistolary crime novel. It’s set in a specialised form of the present day that allows the principal characters to spend much of their time writing old-fashioned letters.
Four couples with a bewildering range of children have socialised together (it would be misleading to call them friends) for years. One of the wives hires a private eye (or ‘dick’) named Orlando Gibbons to investigate the death of another of the wives, which has taken place earlier. This provides the plot framework, though the story really explores the humorous possibilities of Putney’s complex mating rituals.
So long as the reader takes this novel on its own idiosyncratic terms, there’s much to enjoy here. There’s a spiky satirical edge, and it is hard not to warm to characters like the redundant wildlife documentary maker who is convinced that David Attenborough is in league with the devil. ‘More than kisses,’ John Donne presciently remarks in the epigraph, ‘letters mingle souls.’ These ones stir in a few good jokes, too.