No Exit Press is not a large publisher but it has the knack of choosing exceptionally interesting crime fiction. Brother Kemal (translated from the German by Anthea Bell, £7.99, Spectator Bookshop, £7.59) is the fifth of Jakob Arjouni’s novels about Kemal Kayankaya, a German private investigator whose family origins are Turkish. Kayankaya operates in the resolutely unglamorous surroundings of Frankfurt. He’s on the verge of settling down to semi-respectability with his partner, a former prostitute who owns a bar, when he’s retained by the French wife of a Dutch painter to track down her 16-year-old daughter, who has been lured away by a pimp with an immigrant background. Folded into this case is another, involving a Moroccan author over in Frankfurt for the book fair.
The format is classic hardboiled private eye, but there’s nothing formulaic about the way Arjouni handles it. With his Turkish antecedents, Kayankaya is semi-detached from respectable society: he’s in it but not of it. What makes the book stand out, however, is the way sudden violence — and spurts of deduction — erupt out of piles of seemingly irrelevant but oddly fascinating detail.
Arjouni was a very sharp observer of contemporary Frankfurt, and anyone who has been to the book fair will shiver with recognition at his descriptions. (‘The book fair wasn’t hell, it just smelled a bit like it.’) Arjouni died a few months ago, which may mean there are no more books to come. That would be a great sadness, but he has at least left us with a superb swansong.
Cross and Burn (Little Brown, £16.99, Spectator Bookshop, £13.99), the new Val McDermid novel, is the eighth title in her Wire in the Blood series featuring Tony Hill, the psychologically scarred forensic profiler, and DCI Carol Jordan. The difference here is that, following the particularly harrowing events in the previous book in the series, neither Hill nor Jordan has a formal connection with the police.
The Yorkshire city of Bradfield has another serial killer. This one is preying on women who look like Carol Jordan. The investigation is hampered by a blinkered senior officer. Meanwhile, Jordan has cut herself off from society in a remote barn while Hill is cultivating his complexes on a narrowboat.
What makes this series stand out is not so much the novels’ plots, good though they are, as their powerful characterisation, together with the authority and conviction underpinning the settings. In this case, McDermid makes us believe in Bradfield and care about a host of characters — and, in particular, about the tangled relationship of Jordan and Hill.
Jessica Mann has been writing distinguished crime fiction for 40 years. Her latest novel, Dead Woman Walking (Cornovia Press, £8.99, Spectator Bookshop, £8.54), looks back to an event that occurred 50 years earlier: the disappearance of a young woman after an Edinburgh dinner party. Now her body has been found in a car at the bottom of a flooded quarry, and the surviving dinner guests are forced to rediscover the people they once were. Among the guests is the psychiatrist Dr Fidelis Berlin, one of Mann’s recurring characters, who as a child lost everything, including her real name, when she was brought to England from prewar Germany on one of the Kindertransports.
This is a complex and chilling story, with many shifts of perspective and timeframe. The quality of the writing shines out. The question of changing identity is crucial — not just of individuals but of women in British society over the last half-century. Beneath it all is an elegiac note of regret, a sense of wrong choices with long consequences.
Finally, another No Exit title: James Sallis’s Others of my Kind (£7.99, Spectator Bookshop, £7.59). Sallis has a habit of forcing us to redefine what we think of as crime fiction and in this short novel — little more than a novella — he makes us do so again. Jenny Rowan, kidnapped at the age of eight, was kept in a box under her captor’s bed and routinely abused by him; having escaped two years later she spent the next 18 months living wild in a shopping mall. By the time the narrative opens, however, she’s a grown woman who has turned herself into a much valued TV documentary editor; she spends her days assembling fragments and shaping them into coherent stories.
At the start of the novel, which is set in a politically violent version of the near future, a detective asks her to help another abducted woman, who has been recently rescued. The narrative that spins away from this is neither a mystery nor a thriller. Even the crimes, which include murder and have connections to the White House, take second place to what Sallis really wants to write about in his precise and characteristically laconic way: how victims may heal themselves. The result is haunting and immensely readable.