There isn’t a clear line separating crime and literary fiction, but a border zone where ideas are passed from one genre to another. Flynn Berry’s debut Under the Harrow (Weidenfeld, £12.99) is set well to the literary side of this border, but doesn’t shirk on the thrills of a psychological mystery. Nora Lawrence expects to spend a few peaceful days in the countryside, staying at her sister Rachel’s house. Instead she finds Rachel dead, the victim of a brutal murder. A previous, unsolved attack on her sister has left Nora with very little faith in the police, and she is forced to undertake her own investigation. But is she driven by justice or revenge?
Nora seeks a motive for the murder in the earlier crime, and this uncovers aspects of her sister’s life that were hidden away. The novel is a study of grief more than anything, and Berry is very good at detailing the way sadness infects both mind and body. She has a unique writer’s voice. A bloody handprint on the stairs becomes the focus of unrelenting pain. The overly literary style does get in the way at times; too much detail slows down the storytelling. But the twists arise naturally from the psychological desires of the characters, rather than being tacked on for effect. All bodes well for Berry’s next walk along the border.
Italo Calvino declared that profound art doesn’t need to be weighty; it can also enjoy the virtues of lightness. Mario Giordano’s Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions (John Murray, £14.99) attempts a balance of the two impulses, not always successfully, but always with panache and vigour. It’s a comic crime novel starring 60-year-old Poldi, the aunt of the young narrator — who’s often shocked by Poldi’s behaviour and her recklessness. Arriving in Sicily from Munich, she embarks on a wild adventure in search of a missing friend, Valentino, whose corpse is later washed up on the seashore. Seeing this, Poldi’s hunting spirit is roused.
She’s keen on wine, food and sex, and daydreaming about uniformed traffic cops: age does nothing to wither Poldi, nor does danger hold much of a threat to her. She leaps into action and often makes mistakes, and the real police detective is left cursing in her wake, even after the two of them have enjoyed a bout of spirited lovemaking. In the final balance, the tragic aspects of the story don’t quite have the power they should, undermined by the comic episodes; but the whole book is alive with a tang of lemons to set the senses zinging. Refreshing.
J.P. Delaney’s The Girl Before (Quercus, £12.99) has the most intriguing plot idea I’ve seen in a good while: two separate women, both recovering from traumatic experiences, are seeking a new place to live, a refuge from pain. We realise that they’ve both chosen the same house, in different times. Emma’s story takes place in the recent past, Jane’s in the present, and we follow the two stories from each woman’s point of view. The house, 1 Folgate Street, is a high-tech stone cube, designed and built by the maverick architect Edward Monkford. Both women fall in love with Monkford, and suspicions arise that he’s using both of them for his own ends. When Jane learns that Emma met her death in the house, she starts to believe that her own life is in danger.
This is strict Gone Girl domestic noir territory, with the usual hard-to-like protagonists. People keep saying what they mean, and how hurt and troubled they are, except when they’re lying for the sake of the story’s twists. But the pages turn swiftly and the two stories link in increasingly interesting and suspenseful ways. The house becomes a character in its own right, at times motherly, at others evil: it serves as a palimpsest, with glimpses of one life affecting another. For all the security devices on offer, we still learn that love is dangerous. Would we have it any other way?
Joseph Knox’s Sirens (Doubleday, £12.99) is set in contemporary Manchester, where the old fears and values are firmly in place beneath the latest corporate developments and urban regeneration schemes. Falling from the heights is Aidan Waits, a disgraced cop who goes undercover to penetrate a major drugs franchise and to learn the fate of a missing teenager. He walks so close to the darkness that the shadows often pull him into their embrace: he’s an addict — of love and other chemicals. But he never gives up. At times, he seems to care little for his own wellbeing.
‘Sirens’ are young women employed as drug-money collectors by the franchise, and Waits falls head over heels for one of them. He seeks passion and justice: private passion, private justice, in a world where everything is made public. Knox’s highly intoxicated prose style turns a bloodshot eye on the lonely lives amid the party crush, in a city where daylight turns the women ‘from beautiful to plain, exposing the men for what they all are at their worst. Ugly, identical.’ In this world, Waits is both imprudent and principled. We cheer him on, even as we’re cursing him for being so foolhardy. The true siren song of this novel would be a track by Joy Division, whose grey and drizzly version of doomed romance gives the streets their extraordinary atmosphere. A superb debut.