A young Norwegian police officer finds a rusting vintage car inside a locked and disused barn, and the presence of bullet holes in the bodywork intrigues him enough to start an investigation in his spare time. This is the central puzzle of Jorn Lier Horst’s When It Grows Dark (Sandstone Press, £7.99), and it offers a perfect introduction to his Detective Wisting series. Who owned the vehicle? Why was it abandoned? Was somebody murdered in the car? This is a case without a corpse, without suspects, and Wisting has to piece it together from the tiniest scraps of information, uncovering secrets and emotions kept hidden for decades.
He can ill afford the time: his wife has just given birth to twins, and he tries his best to help around the house. The two impulses drive him equally. Wisting emerges as a true detective, and a very humane presence. He learns about a missing person, and a missing fortune. The burden of the past weighs on the family who once owned the car, as a long-forgotten crime comes to light. Wisting takes on this burden, but is he helping the family or simply stirring up memories that are best left buried? This was my first taste of Horst’s subtle but engaging work and it really made me want to read more of his books.
Kate Hamer’s The Doll Funeral (Faber, £12.99) is set in 1983 and starts with 13-year-old Ruby finding out that she’s adopted: straight off she runs into the garden, singing for joy. This unexpected opening propels Ruby on a hunt to find her real parents. This is a strange book, a mixture of coming-of- age novel and fantasy thriller. Nearly every sentence is veined with imagery and it gets a bit much eventually. If all the fancy language were taken away I’m not sure much actual plot would be left.
Ruby is either a magical child or a fantasist. Is she really seeing the ghost of a young boy she calls Shadow, or is it the fevered creation of a teenage mind? The girl’s voice certainly seems authentic, but the lack of period detail means that the book floats in a never-never world, not only between life and death, but also between eras. The most interesting section finds Ruby living with a group of parentless teens in an isolated farmhouse — The Coral Island set in the Forest of Dean. At its best the elevated language gives the book a dreamlike atmosphere; at its worst it holds the story back from any proper suspense or forward motion.
Guy Bolton’s The Pictures (Point Blank, £14.99) takes place in Hollywood in 1939 when America is still clawing its way out of the depression era. Detective Jonathan Craine is working as a ‘fixer’ for Louis Mayer at MGM pictures. He covers up the indiscretions of film stars and directors, and feels bad about it, but is incapable of doing anything better. He’s weighed down by the recent death of his wife and the problems he has bringing up his young son. Two cases force him out of this inertia — the first the shooting of a young woman and the second the suicide of a big Hollywood producer. As MGM struggles to finish its latest movie, The Wizard of Oz, Craine has to fight against corrupt cops and crooked studio executives, as well as his own sense of doubt.
Craine is not the usual maverick cop and his ambiguous nature makes this novel tick: sometimes he commits to the task; at other times he slides back into his usual cynicism. Place and period are lovingly described, even if the plotting sticks a little too closely to the rules. But the real story is the one between troubled father and mute son, a journey towards words and speech and utterance that is very moving.
Desperation Road (No Exit Press, £14.99) by Michael Farris Smith offers a different level of expression. Russell Gaines is released from a Mississippi prison after serving an 11-year sentence for killing a young man in a drunken road accident. His trouble begins as soon as he steps down off the bus, when he’s attacked by the brothers of the man he killed. From then on he struggles to find a connection to life. But Gaines is only half the story: we also follow the misadventures of Maben, a single mother on the run, who will do anything to protect the life of her young daughter. Spending her last few dollars on a motel room, she is forced to offer her body to a trucker in exchange for money to feed the child, but events spiral out from this reckless act and soon a police officer lies dead on the ground.
This novel isn’t really about love or hope, but simple survival, about two poor souls helping each other despite all the odds that contrive against them. Their combined story is told in a cool, detached style that flickers with poetic splendour. Repetitions, the falling cadences of country music, phrases strung together in long passages of sustained beauty: it’s rare for desperation to be rendered with such intensity. Gaines has a last chance to escape from ‘dreams filled with hand grenades’, and we watch fascinated as he reaches for it, hoping and praying that he keeps tight hold right to the last page, the very last words.