Michael Ridpath, best known for his excellent financial thrillers, explores new territory in Where the Shadows Lie, which combines elements of the American cop crime novel with J. R. R. Tolkein and post-credit-crunch Iceland. Magnus, a detective with the Boston Police Department, is a key prosecution witness in a case that may bring down a Dominican drug gang. For his own safety, he’s temporarily transferred to Iceland to advise their police department on modern criminal methods. He’s promptly provided with work experience — the killing of a philandering academic. Why did a suspicious Yorkshire truck driver with a fetish for Tolkein have an appointment with the dead man? How does the attractive art dealer fit in? And what on earth has the medieval saga of the Volsungs to do with it all? To make matters even more complicated, the Dominican druglords are still doing their very best to find Magnus before the trial comes up and ensure he will be in no fit state to testify.
Billed as the first of a series, Where the Shadows Lie is ingenious, and briskly narrated. Like many good thriller writers, Ridpath is adept at informing as well as thrilling — you can learn a great deal about Iceland, ancient and modern, here, and it’s fascinating stuff.
Allan Massie’s Death in Bordeaux is set in France during the phony war and the early months of the inglorious German occupation. Superintendent Lannes, of the Police Judiciaire, investigates the particularly brutal murder of a middle-aged homosexual. He turns up unexpected connections between the murder and a clutch of obscene letters received by an unsavoury count and his unpleasant family. The cast includes Spanish anarchists, French fascists and a Jewish femme fatale. There’s even a glimpse of Marshal Pétain at Vichy — Lannes, a first world war veteran, raises his hat to him for old time’s sake.
Massie is a distinguished historical novelist, and Death in Bordeaux gives a wholly plausible picture of French life in this transitional and morally queasy period of the country’s history. Lannes, his family and his dilemmas, exemplify an era. The novel is less successful as a straight crime thriller — Lannes, to take one example, is an old and intimate friend of the victim, a fact that no one finds worthy of much comment. But this may be because Massie has other fish to fry; the book works well on its own terms, using crime fiction as a lever to pry open French society and reveal glimpses of the psychology of collaboration. The novel’s ending is wonderfully unorthodox — and grimly convincing.
It is a tribute to the sustained quality of Lindsey Davis’s ‘Falco’ series that the 20th title, Nemesis, is as fresh and interesting as its predecessors. The novels are set in a lovingly detailed version of Vespasian’s Rome where Falco practises as the first-century equivalent of a private eye. His extended family and other recurring characters give the books something of the charm of an intelligent soap opera in period dress. Nemesis, darker in tone than most, starts with the double funeral of Falco’s infant son and father. His father was bulk-buying statues at the time of his death, but the dealers have vanished in the Pontine marshes. When Falco tries to find them, the consequences become steadily more brutal, leading back to a corrupt and ruthless enemy in Rome with far too much political clout for comfort.
There is an astringent, satirical dimension to Nemesis, with slyly effective digs at our contemporary world. All in all, this is literate, witty and as tough as old legionary boots. Aficionados can plug the gaps in their knowledge by consulting the Falco: The Official Companion (Century, £20), published simultaneously.
The commercial success of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson sometimes obscures the fact that there are other Swedish crime writers whose books are equally worth reading. Håkan Nesser’s long- running series about the detached and intuitive Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, set in an unnamed north European country, is gradually being translated into English. Unlike so many fictional policemen, Van Veteeren is not defined solely by his job — in fact he eventually becomes an antiquarian bookseller. In The Inspector and Silence, he slips almost by accident into a case involving the alleged disappearance of a girl from a remote summer school run by a dodgy cult. After the discovery of another girl, raped and strangled in the surrounding forest, the investigation becomes darker and far more urgent, while the members of the cult continue to be perversely uncooperative.
So far, perhaps, so familiar. But Van Vetereen refuses to fit neatly into the standard mould of gloomy Swedish cop. His contemplative intelligence brings another ingredient to the mix. The novel is as much about his thought processes and private pleasures as it is about a murder enquiry. The result is wry, thought- provoking and often surprisingly funny.
Andrew Taylor’s new novel, The Anatomy of Ghosts (Michael Joseph), will be published in September.