Andrew Taylor

Mean streets | 27 November 2010

The best recent crime thrillers have an urban setting, according to Andrew Taylor

Text settings

Christmas is coming, which generally leads to a surge in sales of crime fiction. Fortunately for readers, some delectable crime novels have appeared in the past few months. Among them is Val McDermid’s Trick of the Dark (Little, Brown, £18.99). This is not one of her series novels but a standalone thriller whose plot revolves around St Scholastika’s College, Oxford, a women’s college with a certain resemblance to St Hilda’s.

One of its alumnae is Charlie Flint, a clinical psychologist whose professional reputation is hanging in the balance. She receives an anonymous bundle of press cuttings relating to a recent murder at the college, now the subject of a high-profile criminal trial. Lured into investigating, Charlie finds that the tendrils from this case stretch back not only to another college-linked murder but also sideways, into her own emotionally fragile private life. The fact that many of the main characters are lesbian is significant in terms of the plot but otherwise irrelevant — a tribute to the quality of the characterisation in this fine novel. McDermid brilliantly portrays the escalating costs of obsessive love.

The notion of Oxbridge crime fiction immediately brings to mind Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1935 novel, Gaudy Night, which as it happens also deals with the cost of obsessive love, albeit in a rather different way. Jill Paton Walsh has taken on Sayers’s mantle and written three skilful sequels to the Lord Peter Wimsey series, drawing where possible on Sayers’s own material. The latest is The Attenbury Emeralds (Hodder, £18.99), which takes the story of Lord Peter and his wife, Harriet Vane the crime novelist, into the brave new world of the 1950s. It also harks back to Lord Peter’s first case, the details of which have hitherto been unknown. Jill Paton Walsh creates a splendid pastiche of the original series and satisfies our curiosity about the subsequent lives of the series’ characters.

Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne series, which recently had an airing on Sky TV, is set firmly in modern London. From the Dead (Little, Brown, £16.99) is the ninth novel to feature his CID inspector (and in fact includes a side-trip to Spain). A gangster is incinerated in his Jaguar. His wife serves ten years for his murder. Then someone sends her a photograph of her husband, alive and well. Billingham has a superbly individual take on the genre: his characters and their dilemmas engage us, he writes well, and his narrative keeps you turning the pages. There are many maverick police officers in the genre but Thorne is very much his own man.

Laura Wilson’s A Capital Crime (Quercus, £12.99) is the third novel in her series set in what has now become post-war London. The newly widowed Detective Inspector Stratton investigates the sordid but straightforward case of a man who has confessed to strangling his wife and baby in Notting Hill. Later the man retracts his confession and tries to pin the blame on a respectable neighbour instead. It does him no good and he is hanged — this is 1950, after all. But then the corpses of other women are found in the neighbour’s garden, and he vanishes. The real-life Rillington Place murders underpin this dark and disturbing novel. Wilson is superb at recreating the historical context in a way that never obstructs but always enriches her story.

Andrea Camilleri’s Commissario Montalbano series offers rather different pleasures, many of them to do with Italian cuisine. In The Wings of the Sphinx (Mantle, £14.99), Montalbano’s 11th, the Sicilian detective is obliged to investigate the murders of young Russian women in the imaginary town of Vigàta, each of whom has a sphinx moth tattooed on her shoulder. In a sense the murders are incidental — Montalbano and perhaps many of his readers are more interested in his long-distance love affair, his increasingly cantankerous views about growing old, and of course his next meal at an interesting restaurant.

Ruth Rendell’s latest novel, Tigerlily’s Orchids (Hutchinson, 18.99), is not a series title but, in theory at least, one of her psychological thrillers. It’s an ensemble novel, set among the inhabitants and neighbours of a small block of flats in a nondescript north London suburb. A new arrival, the narcissistic Stuart, throws a housewarming party, which sets in train a series of events that includes murder, drugs, paedophilia, advanced alcoholism, adultery and romance. It has to be said that the result is less thrilling than psychological: Rendell’s real interest, as so often in her recent novels, lies in character and setting; the crimes are in a sense secondary, a convenient means to give her story a structure. Nevertheless she is such a good writer, and her eye for the vagaries and variety of Londoners is so acute, that the novel is a pleasure to read.

John Banville, the Booker Prize-winner, moonlights rather haughtily as the crime writer Benjamin Black. Elegy for April (Mantle, £16.99) is the third novel in his 1950s series about Quirke, a Dublin pathologist wrapped in the sort of gloom that would make the average Samuel Beckett character seem the life and soul of the party. Uneasily sober after a spell in a hospice, he is asked by his daughter to look into the disappearance of her friend, the eponymous April, a member of an influential Dublin family that seems keen to squash any investigation. What Quirke stumbles into leads him swiftly back to drink — and deeper and deeper into a city where the all-pervading fog seems to have a moral equivalent in the hearts and minds of its unfortunate inhabitants. But there’s unexpected light relief, too — for example, when Quirke buys an Alvis and tries to learn to drive.

Again, the plot is not really the point of this novel, and nor is narrative tension. It’s beautifully written and has some memorable characters. Best of all, it portrays a time and place so thoroughly that a whiskey-scented fog seems to rise up from the pages.