All it takes is a spark. In her compelling new thriller, Ten Days (Canongate, £14.99), Gillian Slovo tracks the progress of a riot as it spreads across a rundown London estate. When Ruben, a black man of fragile nature, is accidentally killed in a police action, his friends and neighbours gather to protest his needless death. This peaceful demonstration ignites into violence and looting. Resident Cathy Mason and her family are caught up in the dangers of that night and the ones that follow.
Slovo takes the London riots of 2011 as her blueprint, but she moves beyond that, focusing not only on the local people but also on the new Commissioner of Police and the Home Secretary, both of whom are using the riots for their own political ends. Rather brilliantly, she increases the tension further by making one of the rioters an undercover detective, a man totally lost in the guise he has taken on. The novel does not take sides. Each faction has an equal say — black, white, rich, poor, weak, powerful. In remembrance, Ruben’s final walk through the estate is marked by a twisting trail of candles; Slovo offers her own pathway through the darkness.
A personal blog provides the starting point in Chris Brookmyre’s Black Widow (Little, Brown, £18.99). Diana Jager is a successful surgeon and a fervent online campaigner against sexism in the medical profession. When her name and personal details are revealed by a hacker, she suffers abuse, and loses both her job and the respect of her colleagues. Into her newfound loneliness steps Peter, a kind and understanding man who cares little about her past. Within six months they’re married; within six more Peter is dead, and Diana is on trial for murder.
This is a fairytale with a rotten ending. Disgraced journalist Jack Parlabane delves into the story and starts to uncover secrets on both sides of the marriage. Brookmyre weaves together four storylines, moving back and forth through time. This is mystery plotting at its highest level, all the disparate strands forming into a web and then into a knot that tightens around victim, detective and reader. There are two first-rate twists at the end, the last of which caused me to reread the opening chapters, just to see how well the author had fooled me. Top marks.
The dangers of online life are also at the heart of Helen FitzGerald’s Viral (Faber, £12.99). Eighteen-year-old Su-Jin is filmed in a Magaluf nightclub performing sexual acts on multiple partners. She goes on the run, trying to escape the shame of seeing her drunken behaviour plastered all over the internet. Su’s mother, Ruth, sets out to bring justice to the men who took advantage of her daughter.
It’s a strong set-up, but this is a story told in plain speech, often from Su’s point of view, and it’s difficult to feel connected to her or her predicament. The characters don’t have much life of their own, away from the author’s hands. I longed for mishaps, tangents, contradictions. The potential is there. From the shocking first sentence onwards we’re dealing with a sleazy subject matter. Writers with a pulp heart would gleefully sink into the mire; others might rise above, tackling the difficult theme with a cool objective eye. But the events in Viral unfold as though on television, viewed through a screen: close up, yet untouchable. Su’s final choice of action, between revenge and a return to love and family values, is intriguing. But too easily made.
At first, Bill Beverly’s Dodgers (No Exit Press, £14.99) feels like a flint chipped off The Wire. We meet East, a 15-year-old kid in a position of low authority in a Los Angeles drug gang. The novel takes off in its own direction when East and three other young blacks are given the task of killing a witness in an upcoming trial. This takes them on a journey through white, rural America, essentially a foreign land. Troubles beset them along the way, many caused by East’s brother, Ty, already at 13 proficient with a gun.
Beverly is sharp-eyed, ever observant of the weird angle, the hidden glint that charges the prose into life. His language is uniquely his own. He’s unafraid to find the poetry lurking inside these young, cast-off lives. East is so well described and so imbued with a desperate hope that, despite the wrongs that he does, we are willing to follow him: past all-night doughnut stores and desolate sun-baked gas stations, further, into even stranger realms. Indeed by the end of this truly surprising book I found myself urging him on, wishing him survival. Yes, all it takes is a spark. But Dodgers does more than simply describe the fire; its pages flicker with light.