The act of reading always involves identification: with the story, the characters, the author’s intentions. Renée Knight takes this concept and pushes it to dangerous extremes in her psychological thriller Disclaimer (Doubleday, £12.99, pp. 304, Spectator Bookshop, £11.69). Catherine Ravenscroft finds a novel in her house which she doesn’t remember buying, and which seems to be telling the story of her own life. Her deepest, most terrible secrets are included. And the final page ends with her own murder. Is this a threat? How can the author have such an intimate knowledge of Catherine’s life, of events and feelings that she’s kept hidden even from her husband?
This is a post-Gone Girl novel: a troubled marriage, and two interlocking stories complete with unreliable narrators. It’s a finely crafted puzzle box. In these days when anybody can write what they like about us on the internet, the book is certainly timely. How far should we go to maintain our privacy? What happens when we confront the person behind the pseudonym? The truth shifts back and forth. Catherine has been written into her own fictional story, portrayed as a victim, but her character is fighting back against the author. Intriguing.
If Disclaimer tells of a localised, one-person conspiracy, David Shafer’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Penguin, £8.99, pp. 432, Spectator Bookshop, £8.49) maps out the global version. Here, a bunch of characters are all at the mercy of an invisible, high-tech network hell-bent on owning all of the world’s information. The source code for this kind of novel is William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition: tangential characters slowly coming together as their lives are transformed by contact with a mysterious device which offers a new way of seeing the world. But Gibson has brilliant ideas; this feels a little scanty in comparison, despite being filled to the brim with hipster fizz and dazzle.
And despite the title’s promise, true WTF! moments are rare. I liked the self-help guru who, no longer believing in his own bullet points, is coming apart behind the fixed smile of his mask, and wished for more of that emotional upset. But the paranoid conspiracy plot device is never easy: the enemy has far too much power, while being essentially faceless. By the end we’re actually in James Bond territory — without of course the mirrored cruelty of hero and villain. That sense of individualised struggle was missing for me, and without it my identification suffered.
Both hero and villain of Christoffer Carlsson’s The Invisible Man From Salem (Scribe, £12.99, pp. 304, Spectator Bookshop, £11.69) are driven by dark emotions. Leo Junker and John Grimberg grew up on the poverty-stricken estate of Salem, a suburb of Stockholm. Grimberg fell into the criminal life and Junker could have easily gone the same way; instead he ended up a detective. When, years later, a woman is killed and all the clues point to his old friend, Junker goes on a journey into his own past. This is a wonderfully well written novel, with a prose style that seeks to update noir. Junker’s friend has become invisible, lost in a city filled with a darkness ‘you can taste on your tongue’. I actually found the chapters dealing with their shared teenage life more exciting than the detective work. Junker is drawn back to Salem as if by a spell, and we learn that his own life has hardly been innocent. The desire to kill is driven not by a need to rule the world, but by a pinprick of pain in the heart.
The question of why a killer kills is always central. William Shaw delivers a perfect motive in the third of his excellent Breen and Tozer mysteries, A Book of Scars (Quercus, £19.99, pp. 416, Spectator Bookshop, £17.99). Set in the late 1960s, the series explores the corruption, pain and deceit behind the cosy myth of swinging London. But this time Breen is recuperating on a farm in Devon, a long way from the capital and its vicious crimes. Helen Tozer is Breen’s down-to-earth one-time lover, a woman whose brittle nature stems from the loss of her younger sister to a particularly sick and perverted murderer a few years earlier. Breen takes up the case, and opens up old wounds — wounds that were first inflicted in Kenya, in the final days of the British empire.
Shaw reminds us that ‘brutality creates brutality’, and this is true for every side of a conflict. The killer’s explanatory speech, a bit perfunctory in most crime books, here unfolds a fascinatingly dark tale. The story is sympathetically told: extraordinary events can infect ordinary people with the most terrible of urges, and it can be difficult if not impossible to get back to what you were. This is a proper conspiracy thriller, with shameful secrets hidden behind government regulation. It involves real history, real people, real crimes with real consequences. And a wound that begs to be healed.