Andrew Taylor

Crime fiction - review

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‘We no longer believe in God but hope nevertheless for miracles,’ remarks Frederic Mordaunt, one of the characters of John Harwood’s third novel, The Asylum (Cape, £14.99). He’s being over-optimistic, as Georgina Ferrers, the niece of a London bookseller, soon discovers when she wakes in a strange bed to be told that her name is in fact Lucy Ashton and that the year is 1882.  It appears that she has admitted herself as a voluntary patient at Tregannon House, a Cornish mental asylum run by the charismatic Dr Straker. Tregannon, the ancestral home of the Mordaunt family, is tainted with madness; and the young heir, Frederic, assists Dr Straker in his selfless philanthropic work.

Harwood has a talent amounting to genius for channelling the spirit of 19th-century sensation fiction. It’s all here: maverick science, threats to personal identity, missing wills, lost heirs, illegitimate children and a pervasive sense of unease, of threats half-seen. The prose is an unusually good Victorian pastiche, a rare pleasure in the Gothic genre. The novel naturally has a plot of vertiginous complexity. (At one point the unfortunate Georgina wryly reflects, ‘The experiment might end with my being hanged for murdering myself.’) Wilkie Collins himself would have admired the sly, subversive resolution, though he wouldn’t have dared to use it in his own fiction.

Walter Mosley’s new novel is set nearly a century later and 5,000 miles away in Los Angeles. Little Green (Weidenfeld, £18.99) is the latest in his Easy Rawlins series — itself unexpected, a form of resurrection, since the previous book was billed as the last in the sequence. Easy is a middle-aged black private eye in a city still seething from the combined effects of the Summer of Love and the Watts Riots. Hired almost on his deathbed to trace the missing son of a friend of a friend, he pursues an investigation that leads him among hippies and whores. A local wise woman provides him with artificial energy in the form of flasks of ‘Gator’s Blood’, a supercharged mystic pick-me-up. Further sustained by the love of several good women — yes, Easy is that sort of private eye — he finds that his health steadily improves, despite the rigours of the case.

Familiar though its format is, three qualities make this book well worth reading. Easy provides a black slant on a white man’s world, all the more telling because it’s so casually done. Second, Mosley has an acute sense of historical context — a real bonus in a series spanning several decades. Best of all, perhaps, as this novel shows, he’s a natural storyteller. Easy reading, in more ways than one.

‘Tickling the bone’ sounds an innocuous phrase. In reality, it seems, it’s an exquisitely painful form of torture often practised by South American drug cartels. It’s one of the many sinister touches in Stav Sherez’s latest novel, Eleven Days (Faber, £12.99), the second in a series featuring Detective Inspector Carrigan and his sergeant, Geneva Miller. A fire destroys a house in an affluent Notting Hill square just before Christmas. The building is a convent, home to ten nuns, all of whom have died, apparently without any struggle or attempt to escape. An 11th woman’s corpse is found in the chapel, trapped in a confessional with scratch marks inside the door. Assistant Commissioner Quinn — a local resident and a loyal Catholic — wants Carrigan and Miller to tidy up the case with the mininum of fuss.

Carrigan and Miller, however, have a habit of asking awkward questions. This soon leads to problems with both Quinn and the church hierarchy, which is particularly reluctant to explain why the nuns were on the verge of excommunication.There are deep-buried secrets here with their twisted roots in the liberation theology of the 1970s, as well as some modern villains and nasty crimes in the present.

Sherez is emerging as a very interesting crime novelist indeed, pursuing dark themes with impressive authority. In this powerful novel, he writes with particular passion about London, which is almost a character in its own right, and gives an unsettling insight into the bureaucratic machinations of the Roman Catholic church.

The Anglican church is the setting for Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night (Bloomsbury, £14.99), James Runcie’s second novel in a sequence designed to take Canon Chambers of Grantchester from the Coronation to the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981. Not really a novel but a collection of six linked stories, the book records the amiable Sidney’s romantic entanglements as well as his cases, which range from a don who falls from the roof of King’s College Chapel to a spot of international espionage.

Runcie is emerging as Grantchester’s answer to Alexander McCall Smith. The book brings a dollop of Midsomer Murders to the Church of England, together with a literate charm of its own: civilised entertainment, with dog-collars.