Jeff Noon

Death at close quarters

Family, friends, neighbours and a treasured nanny are all far from what they seem

Death at close quarters
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Alex Jackson is buried alive inside his own body, a body which lies in a long-term coma following a climbing accident. He can’t see, he can’t move, he can’t speak. This is the terrifying fate of the protagonist of Emily Koch’s debut novel If I Die Before I Wake (Harvill Secker, £12.99). The doctors believe that Alex has no awareness of his surroundings, but he can still think and feel, and he can hear people speaking. His family debate withdrawing life support, and his friends talk about his girlfriend Bea moving on, finding someone new. And from these fragments of speech he starts to piece together a shocking truth: that his fall wasn’t in fact an accident. He needs to find out who tried to kill him, and why, and to protect the people he loves before they too become victims.

Thankfully, Koch steers clear of sentiment and self-pity, allowing Alex to relish his memories of climbing, and of being in love, even if the urge to die takes him over at times. Quite often, the words he says to himself, the unheard words, are painful to read. And yet the quest for truth energises him. In the darkness of the stilled body, this is a novel which glows with life.

A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window (HarperCollins, £12.99) also deals with confinement, in this case, extreme agoraphobia. Anna Fox hasn’t left her New York home for ten months, fearful of taking a single step outdoors. Instead, she sits by her window and watches the neighbours come and go. She’s fascinated when the Russells move in across the way, as they appear to be the perfect family. And then one night Anna hears a scream, and sees someone being killed in the Russell household. But no one believes her story, especially when there’s no sign of a body.

The story is written totally from the inside of the character: we see and feel and hear the world just as Anna experiences it, feeling her sense of helplessness as her condition worsens, and her fears grow. When she’s forced to brave the outside world, even for a few steps before collapsing, we feel her desperation, every moment brought to painful life. There are echoes of Rear Window and Vertigo, but Finn plots his own course with a sure tread, and a tender heart.

Perhaps the most difficult fictional subject is the murder of children, a task that Leïla Slimani takes on in Lullaby (Faber, £12.99). Myriam is a successful French-Moroccan lawyer, living in Paris. She and her husband employ a nanny, Louise, to look after their son and daughter. Louise is quiet, polite and devoted: she loves the children dearly, and they love her in turn. It’s a perfect arrangement. But the family and the nanny become overly dependent on each other, and we see a hidden side to Louise. Is she trying to take over from Myriam, trying to control the children, make them her own? Jealousy and suspicions increase, brimming over into violence, and tragedy strikes the family.

This is a book that draws no mercy. There are no twists and turns in the plot, only a sure appraisal of a situation that gradually becomes worse and worse. The cold, calculated prose perfectly matches the nanny’s personality. The tiniest events build up and merge into one act of devastating cruelty. This isn’t a pleasant read; more a forensic examination of madness. Brilliant and horrible at the same time.

On the level of style alone, James Lee Burke is the greatest crime writer currently at work. His plotting doesn’t always equal this style, but his descriptions of both the Louisiana landscape and of the darkest aspects of human behaviour are without parallel. His latest novel, Robicheaux (Orion, £19.99) is well up to his standard. Ever since Detective Robicheaux’s wife, Molly, was killed in a car accident, he’s fallen back into his old drunken ways. When the driver of the car is found murdered, Robicheaux becomes the chief suspect. And he can’t remember a thing about that night, blacked out as he was on booze. He can’t prove his whereabouts, or give an alibi. And the suspicion of his own guilt eats at his soul.

There are other tales wrapped around this central dilemma, peopled by Burke’s usual array of New Orleans criminals, prostitutes, good old boys, rednecks and Southern belles. The complications of the plot require a clear head, or a page of notes by the reader. But it’s all worth it: utterly convincing characters, a unique atmosphere, and a whole parade of ghosts haunting the land, and Robicheaux’s skull. A deep romantic impulse burns away like mist over the bayou, leaving only the traces of hope. And in this writer’s hands, that’s enough. We cling on.