Andrew Taylor

Recent crime fiction | 4 June 2011

Mo Hayder has a considerable and well-deserved reputation as a writer of horrific crime novels that often revolve around the physical violence men do to women.

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Mo Hayder has a considerable and well-deserved reputation as a writer of horrific crime novels that often revolve around the physical violence men do to women. Her latest, Hanging Hill (Bantam, £18.99), is no exception. Set in Bath, it’s the story of two estranged sisters — Zoe, a detective inspector equipped with a motorbike and a welter of scars, both physical and emotional; and Sally, the divorced mother of a teenage girl, who is struggling to cope with her vertiginous plunge from the agreeable plateau inhabited by Bath’s affluent middle classes. The narrative moves alternately between the sisters’ lives and the impact that the murder of a beautiful teenage girl has upon them. The plot encompasses sexual exploitation, drug-dealing, blackmail as well as murder.

One of the characters observes that Bath is nothing more than ‘a big village’. This may explain why everybody seems to know everyone else, but Mayhem Parva was never like this. Not that it matters — Hayder is an excellent writer who deals as convincingly with teenage angst as she does with forensic science. She has the priceless ability to keep you turning the pages. Occasional suspension of disbelief is a small price to pay for this, especially with the novel’s sly and beautifully finessed twist in the tail.

In literary terms, Howard Marks is best known for Mr Nice, a memoir of his career as a drug dealer. Now, with Sympathy for the Devil (Vintage, £6.99) he switches to fiction. Detective Sergeant Catrin Price returns to her native Cardiff, which she left 12 years earlier when her lover, another detective, turned out to be a junkie. At the same time the charismatic lead singer of Cardiff’s top indie band disappeared, perhaps because he jumped off the old Severn Bridge; his body has never been found.

Catrin is another damaged detective with a motorbike, though she’s much less nuanced than Hayder’s. Her ‘heavy make-up and black leathers’ camouflage a ‘fit, natural athlete’s body trained in martial arts’ and a host of esoteric skills. When the ex-lover is found drowned, she is sucked into a conspiracy thriller streaked with paranoia and decorated with occult trimmings. The narrative has a convincing air when dealing with Cardiff, the forensic background, rock music and, above all, pharmacological details. The plot, how- ever, is uncomfortably complicated. It’s overly dependent on cumbersome flashbacks and, even in its own terms, not particularly plausible, partly because the simplistic characters never give the impression that they might exist in their own right. Not a bad thriller, but substantial editing would have made it much better.

A motorbike doesn’t feature in S. J. Bolton’s Now You See Me (Bantam, £12.99), but the central character is another woman detective, albeit only a constable, with past traumas to cope with. DC Lacey Flint, a wonderfully unreliable narrator, is first on the scene when an affluent middle-aged woman is stabbed to death in a council estate car park in south London. The officers running Lewisham’s Major Investigation Team reluctantly allow her to join them. Lacey receives a letter, apparently from the killer, which has unmistakable references to the Ripper murders — which happen to be a longterm interest of hers. As the body count rises, it becomes clear that someone is methodically replicating the ‘canonical five’ — the five murders which most experts believe were definitely the work of Jack the Ripper — and that Lacey isn’t telling all she knows. This is Bolton’s fourth novel — less spooky than its predecessors, but vivid, gruesome and gloriously convoluted. You don’t so much suspend your disbelief as chuck it gleefully out of the window.

The End of the Wasp Season (Orion, 12.99) is the second of Denise Mina’s Glasgow-based novels with DS Alex Morrow as their central character. Alex has her problems too — her psychopathic criminal relatives and her unlovely male colleagues in Glasgow’s London Road CID. She’s also five months pregnant with twins. None of this dents her efficiency or determination when a young woman is brutally murdered at her family home in a wealthy suburb. The killers, pupils at a spartan public school, ignore the fortune in euros stashed in the kitchen. Nearby, but at the other end of the social scale, a cleaning woman clings to her integrity and her humanity. Meanwhile, in Kent, a disgraced investment banker hangs himself from his own oak tree (all the male characters tend to be stupid or nasty or both).

Denise Mina is one of Scotland’s most impressive crime writers. This dark, angry novel doesn’t offer easy thrills or the intellectual diversion of a whodunnit. Instead, it focusses on its deeply flawed characters, their motivations and the world they live in; in a way, the plot is of secondary interest. The result is bleak and perhaps a little misandrous, but it’s undeniably powerful.