Andrew Taylor

Crime fiction reviewed by Andrew Taylor

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An epigraph taken from Goebbels’s only published novel certainly makes a book stand out from the crowd. A Man Without Breath (Quercus, £18.99) is the ninth instalment in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, which examines the rise, fall and aftermath of Nazi Germany through the eyes of a disillusioned Berlin detective. By 1943, the tide of war is turning. Bernie, now working from the German War Crimes Bureau, is despatched to the neighbourhood of Smolensk, where a wolf has dug up human remains in the Katyn forest. Is this a mass grave of Polish officers murdered by the Russians? If so, the Wehrmacht is more than happy to conduct a scrupulously fair war crimes investigation before the eyes of the world. But what if the killers were German?

It’s an intriguing set-up. There are some very ruthless people waiting for Bernie in Smolensk.The book has two particular strengths: Kerr’s detailed and nuanced portrait of Nazi Germany and his use of Bernie to provide a perspective on it. Perhaps the greatest mystery of all is Bernie’s continuing survival. And Goebbels’s epigraph? ‘A nation without religion — that is like a man without breath.’

Imogen Robertson’s previous crime novels were set in the 18th century. The Paris Winter (Headline Review, £14.99) leaps forward to the Belle Epoque. Maud Heighton leaves her unhappy family in Darlington and comes to Paris to study art. Living on the edge of poverty, she is forced to take a job as a companion to Sylvie Morel, a young woman addicted to opium, who lives in an opulent apartment with her suspiciously obliging brother. As winter tightens its grip on the glittering city, Maud is drawn into a conspiracy involving deception, robbery and murder. Despite her vulnerability, however, she has more than her fair share of Yorkshire grit and some very good friends. The narrative builds to a climax during the Paris floods of 1910.

All the while, Maud continues to paint, and her work runs through the core of this unfailingly interesting crime novel. One of its strongest features is its solidly realised historical context. Perhaps the real story here is that of women struggling to establish careers as artists in Paris 100 years ago. The book is none the worse for that.

Lindsey Davis has now written 20 novels about Falco, a wisecracking private eye in first-century Rome, so it’s understandable that she, if not her readers, would like a change. The Ides of April (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99) is the first in a projected series about Flavia Albia, Falco’s adopted daughter.

Albia has already had a varied life: she was abandoned as a baby in the ruins of Londinium, abused as a child, adopted by Falco and his wife Helena, married, widowed and is now practising as a private investigator in her own right. The sprawling metropolis of Rome is a character in its own right. Vespasian, Falco’s patron, is now dead, and the empire is ruled by Domitian, a paranoid despot whose death squads terrorise the city. But the administration of law and order must continue. A mass murderer is preying apparently at random on victims who seem unaware they have been attacked. Hired by a dead client’s heir to find the murderer, Albia plunges into a dangerous world where powerful officials and corrupt police officers take a rather different view of the case.

An appealing blend of toughness and vulnerability, Albia is sufficiently different from her father to make this format work as an independent series. As a bonus to Falco fans, the setting remains familiar, and so does the combination of wry humour and the sort of history that few of us were lucky enough to learn at school.

Sophie Hannah’s The Carrier (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99), unpicks the tangled relationships of a group of people. One of them, stroke-victim Francine, has been murdered just before the start of the narrative. Another, Gaby, encounters Lauren, a hysterical young woman, at Dusseldorf airport. It’s then that she learns of Francine’s death. Tim, Francine’s husband, has confessed to the crime. But Lauren says Tim is innocent.

Lauren’s presence in Gaby’s life is no accident. The narrative cuts between the investigating police detectives (Hannah’s usual team of officers feature here), Gaby’s attempts to help Tim (her one and only love) and various flashbacks (often in the form of documents that have now become police exhibits) to past events. Poems play a significant part, too.

Hannah has established herself as a leading writer of psychological suspense, though in some ways her books are so distinctive that they deserve to be placed in a separate sub-genre of their own. This novel is never less than readable, though its impact suffers from a rather fragmented and contrived narrative. Still, as ever Hannah excels at sharp, almost Pinteresque dialogue — mannered, perhaps, but always a pleasure.