Andrew Taylor

Recent crime fiction | 24 September 2011

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In numerical terms, British police procedurals about maverick inspectors in big cities are probably at an all-time high. Few of their authors, however, have Mark Billingham’s talent for reinvigorating a flagging formula. Good As Dead (Little, Brown, £18.99) is the tenth of his London-based Tom Thorne thrillers. On her way to work, Detective Sergeant Helen Weeks, who previously appeared in Billingham’s standalone In The Dark, calls into her usual South London newsagent’s.

This time she doesn’t come out with a bar of chocolate: the owner takes her and another customer hostage. Amin, his teenage son, has recently committed suicide in the young offenders institute where he was serving an eight-year sentence for manslaughter. The newsagent is sure that his son was murdered, and he wants Thorne, the officer who put together the manslaughter case against Amin, to find out the truth.

This may well be Billingham’s best book yet. The narrative twists and turns over three breathless days, moving between Thorne’s investigation, the police operation outside the shuttered newsagent’s and the increasingly grim conditions inside. Billingham has a shrewd sense of timing, which he puts to excellent use, especially with a neatly orchestrated series of jaw-dropping surprises towards the end of the novel. He writes convincingly about the police and modern London. As for Thorne, he may be a maverick inspector, but he’s no cliché: he becomes more and more interesting with every book.

Meanwhile, the Scandinavian invasion continues. The Hidden Child (translated by Tiina Nunally, Harper, £7.99) is Camilla Läckberg’s fifth novel to appear in the UK. It features her Swedish detective, Patrik Hedstrom, and his crime-writer wife, Erica Falck. Though Patrik is on paternity leave, once again the couple stumbles into a murder case on their own doorstep. Erica finds a Nazi medal among the possessions of her recently deceased mother. She takes it for identification to a retired history teacher with a lifelong obsession with the Nazis. A few months later the old man is found brutally murdered in his study.

The police investigation is paralleled by Erica’s own investigation into her mother’s past. All this is interspersed with flashbacks to the dark days of the war, which is of course where the heart of the mystery lies.

The book is never less than readable, with some wonderfully gruesome scenes juxtaposed with the domestic minutiae of life with small children. Läckberg skilfully manipulates a very complex narrative. That said, the series framework is oddly cosy, which isn’t to everyone’s taste these days, and sinister wartime secrets are a well-worn theme in Nordic crime.

Moreover, the novel could have done with cutting and a smaller cast of characters. Still, this is lively and enjoyable in much the same way as the chocolates that Erica enjoys so much.

They do things differently in Japan if Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X (Little, Brown, £12.99) is anything to go by. An enormous bestseller in its own country, this unusual novel shows a side of Tokyo that tourists rarely see. With the help of her teenage daughter, a woman kills her abusive ex-husband. Her neighbour, a brilliant maths teacher who is secretly infatuated with her, comes to her help and deals with the problem of murder in a coldly logical way. The police investigators call in the help of an equally brilliant physicist, a former classmate of the mathematician. The case comes to depend on the result of an intellectual duel between the two men. But the one thing that neither man fully understands is that emotions matter as well.

It’s an intriguing premise and, despite the echoes of Holmes and Moriarty, Higashino carries it through with panache. The novel may not be entirely plausible but it’s sharply original and has its own quirky authenticity.

Martin Edwards’ Lake District mysteries are literate whodunnits that don’t depend on gruesome trimmings to achieve their effects. The Hanging Wood (Alison & Busby, £19.99) is the fifth in his series featuring DCI Hannah Scarlett of the Cold Case Review Team and the historian Daniel Kind. It’s set partly at a residential library, a fictional variant of Gladstone’s wonderful foundation at Hawarden, and deals with past and present murders involving two local families. A woman visiting the library proves to be the sister of a boy murdered 20 years earlier by his uncle, a nearby farmer who subsequently killed himself. But the boy’s body has never been found and the woman now claims her uncle was innocent. Nobody takes her allegations very seriously until her own body turns up in the grain silo.

Edwards offers his readers the traditional pleasure of pitting their wits against the author’s. But, unlike most mysteries of this type, his novel is set in a recognisable version of the real world and populated with credible characters. Intelligent, readable and highly recommended.