Phil Rickman isn’t unusual among crime writers for mingling supernatural elements with earthly crimes. What makes him different is his way of grounding his novels in the real world, and of bringing a wry sense of humour to his other-worldly themes. His latest novel, Night After Night (Atlanti, £18.99, Spectator Bookshop, £16.99) is a wonderful example of his ability to pull off this fiendishly difficult combination.
A TV production company hires a journalist, Grayle Underhill, to research Knap Hall, a reputedly haunted country house with a chequered history. Its most recent owner, the world-famous model and film star Trinity Ansell, died in tragic circumstances. Trinity was obsessed with the house and its rumoured connection with Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife, who died at nearby Sudeley Castle.
The production company plans to use the house to film a reality TV series named Big Other, a version of Celebrity Big Brother, in which seven needy B-list celebrities — a volatile mix of sceptics and believers — explore the ghostly presences of Knap Hall. The narrative deals both with the making and broadcasting of the programme. Passions run high among the warring celebrities as they are forced to confront crimes, culminating in murder, past and present.
Rickman is a writer who constantly comes at his readers from unexpected angles. He also gives an informed and remarkably perceptive account of what lies behind reality TV. (Grayle muses at one point that television ‘both amplifies and nullifies reality’.) Big Other is hailed as rivetting viewing, though not for the reasons its producers expected. Night After Night is simply a riveting novel.
They do things differently on the Isle of Man. Hop-tu-Naa is the Manx equivalent of Hallowe’en; it has its own traditions, which Chris Ewan exploits in his latest novel Dark Tides (Faber, £14.99, Spectator Bookshop, £12.99). The narrator, Claire, has a special reason to associate the festival with the very worst of horrors. On 31 October 1995, when Claire was eight years old, her mother disappeared on her way to work at the house of a local millionaire.
Six years later, Claire is adopted by four boys and a girl, who take her out on Hop-tu-Naa for a prank-filled, unsettling evening. These outings become a tradition, which reaches its climax when, as young adults, they break into the house of the millionaire and brutally assault him, leaving him crippled. All but one of the gang escape arrest but, as the years pass, one after the other die on Hop-tu-Naa until Claire is the only one left to confront the unknown killer.
It’s a strong premise, and Ewan squeezes every drop of drama from it. He handles action scenes exceptionally well, though not at the expense of character. The six friends come sharply into focus, particularly Claire, the emotionally damaged narrator and potential victim. The setting intensifies the suspense, for the Isle of Man acquires a claustrophobic feel similar to that of the country house isolated by a snowstorm in the traditional detective story. If the last chapter seems rushed and a little contrived, it’s a small price to pay for such a tense and brilliantly conceived crime novel.
The Suicide Club (Hodder, £18.99, Spectator Bookshop, £16.99) is Andrew Williams’s fourth historical thriller. Set in August 1917, when the British army was experiencing a bloody stalemate on the Western Front, it’s the story of Sandy Innes, an officer in the fledgling intelligence service, who is sent under cover to Haig’s GHQ to investigate alarming rumours about the British high command. He is seconded to an advance assault group known as the Suicide Club, and uncovers hints of treachery that could lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of British soldiers.
Williams is an admirable writer who really knows his subject. What stands out about this book is the depth of the author’s research, coupled with a strong narrative and a nuanced understanding of the internal politics of GHQ. As the author’s note makes clear, there are disturbing correspondences between the fiction and the historical fact.
Short stories are generally considered to be ‘uncommercial’, so authors know they have passed a professional milestone when publishers are happy to release an anthology of theirs. Peter James, best known for his skilfully constructed Inspector Grace series, passed that milestone long ago. A Twist of the Knife (Macmillan, £16.99, Spectator Bookshop, £14.99) contains 30 stories, new and reissued, of varying lengths. (The shortest is just 34 words long.) They vary in tone and subject, as well as in length, but most have an agreeably sinister quality reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. Taken as a whole they remind us that James is much more than a crime writer. Some are ghost stories, some are blackly humorous and others have touches of horror; all of them are reliably readable. Perfect for the bedside table.