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Crime fiction: a sole survivor is haunted by a family tragedy on a remote Scottish island

Jeff Noon reviews the latest thrillers from Rebecca Wait, James Sallis, Robert Harris and Iain Reid

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

James Sallis has a modus operandi: never to waste a word. Sarah Jane (No Exit Press, £8.99) follows this stricture well, using a sparse yet poetic style to tell the story of a woman born on the wrong side of town to bad parents, who wanders from one lowly job to another, one unsavoury man to another, one trouble to another, living a life of chaos, until, led by some curiously twisted route, she takes a chance and decides to join the police, working small cases in a small town. When the local sheriff, Cal Phillips, disappears, Sarah Jane Pullman assumes the task of tracing his whereabouts, an undertaking that leads to unpleasant truths, both for herself and her late friend and mentor.

Sallis tracks her every movement in his custom-made manner, the prose as sharp as salt on a tequila drinker’s tongue. But that doesn’t mean the language is simple: it weaves a fine spell, digging deep into emotions and motives. And, although Sallis has no great interest in traditional mystery plotting, he still manages to squeeze in a surprise or two along the way. Cool, crisp, non-linear, gritty and dreamlike. A unique voice in contemporary crime writing.

Iain Reid’s Foe (Scribner, £8.99) features married couple Junior and Hen. One day a stranger arrives at their home with the news that Junior has been chosen for a very special journey: a space mission that will take years to complete. Hen will remain behind, but she won’t be alone. A clone or replica of her husband will be left in his place. Junior starts to regret his decision. He wonders about the purity of his own mind, and who this replica will be, and what kind of relation it (or he) will have with his wife.


Junior is passive by name and nature, a victim of every passing fear, and only late in the story does he take on any semblance of action. In fact, we find out that this meekness is all part of the novel’s final reveal, which is easily spotted along the way: when a central protagonist has little will of their own, we have to assume that someone else does, on their behalf. Meanwhile, we’ve read an entire novel written in a curiously inert, unemotional tone. It doesn’t have to be this way. There isn’t a single passive character in the Blade Runner movie, yet it manages to discuss the same philosophical conundrums. And have great fights!

Robert Harris pulls off a neat trick in The Second Sleep (Hutchinson, £20). The first chapters set up a medieval mystery. The year is 1468. Christopher Fairfax is a priest travelling to a remote village to preside over the funeral of a parson. The parson was a collector of ancient artefacts, a practice frowned upon by the church. But then we learn that these artefacts actually belong to our current period: plastic toys, banknotes, iPhones. The novel is set in the far future, in the aftermath of a long ago apocalyptic event. All knowledge of the past has been hidden away, or wilfully destroyed. Is the parson’s death related in some way to this act of repression?

Harris brings the quasi medieval period to life with all his usual skill. Fairfax is well-rounded, nuanced, true to his world. But even though 900 years have passed, I found it difficult to believe that all the buildings could really have disappeared. Wouldn’t there be more evidence of our era, given our capacity for creating things that never decay? I was asking questions throughout, questions that undermined the acts of imagination. Well written, a good premise: but lacking that final brilliance.

Rebecca Wait’s Our Fathers (Riverrun, £14.99) deals with that most difficult of subject matters for a crime novel: the slaughter of a family by a family member. The story takes place on a remote Scottish island. Tom is the only survivor of the tragedy, just eight years old when he witnessed his father’s madness take hold. Traumatised, he lives with his uncle for a while, and then, as soon as he’s old enough, he moves away from the island. And for years he stays away. When he returns, the islanders are surprised and shocked by his appearance: why is he here, what is he looking for?

The novel is fearless in its quest. Day by day, from Tom’s wanderings around the island, from the people he meets, the questions he asks, no matter how difficult, a kind of answer emerges. Of course, there can be no complete explanation, not for such an extreme act, but maybe enough is revealed for life to carry on. Just maybe. An unspoken subject hovers over the land. A ghost. A secret. But slowly, surely, with compassion, the people are allowed to speak. A wonderful novel.


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