Andrew Taylor

Recent crime novels | 26 May 2012

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William Brodrick’s crime novels have the great (and unusual) merit of being unlike anyone else’s, not least because his series hero, Brother Anselm, is a Gray’s Inn barrister turned Suffolk monk. The plot of The Day of the Lie (Little, Brown, £12.99), Anselm’s fourth case,  is triggered by the discovery of files relating to Poland’s suppression of dissidents in Warsaw, mainly in the 1950s. Anselm’s oldest friend, now blind, was caught up in a linked later betrayal while working as a journalist in Poland. He wants Anselm to go there in his stead to examine the file that holds the name of the informant who betrayed both him and many others. The morally barbed relationship between the informer and one of the victims, now an 80-year-old widow, is central to the story.

Brodrick is not interested in cheap thrills. Nor does he make it easy for the reader — his dense, complex narrative moves to and fro in a leisurely manner between England and Poland, and between past and present. His story concerns ‘the tragedy of half-redeemed lives’ and the long consequences of old sins. Anselm’s commission is, he discovers, a question of free choice and, in particular, whether ‘damaged people can make undamaged choices’. That, not the identity of the informer, lies at the heart of this occasionally ponderous but always interesting novel.

Laura Wilson’s DI Stratton series is one of the bright spots of British crime fiction. A Willing Victim (Quercus, £19.99) is set in the middle of the 1950s, with the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising occupying the headlines. Stratton, whom we met first in wartime London, is now a 50-year-old widow with grown-up children and an uncertain relationship with his posh mistress, Diana.

A scholarly crank is murdered in a Soho bedsitter. Stratton’s investigation is as much about the nature of faith as about the identity of the murderer. The two strands combine in a cult based in a fictional version of ghost-ridden Borley Rectory and bankrolled by an author with similarities to Dennis Wheatley. Lesser characters include a tart-turned-medium and a man in touch with extra-terrestrials.

As a Roman Catholic priest remarks, ‘overmuch lay interest in theological matters can frequently be a prelude to insanity’.Wilson’s characters never tip over into caricature, however, and her story is rooted in the humdrum but quietly fascinating lives of Stratton, his colleagues and their families. The result is an intelligent, thought-provoking crime novel with a particularly poignant ending.

When you read a James Sallis novel, it helps if you take a moment beforehand to retune your mind. His narratives drift about in time; his prose is both allusive and elusive; his protagonists are violent men with idiosyncratic moral codes and a taste for metaphysical speculation. Driven (No Exit, £7.99) is a sequel to an earlier novel, Drive, which was recently filmed. The central character, Driver, drives for a living and kills when he has to. Seven years have passed since he left behind a trail of corpses in LA. Now he’s living a new life in Phoenix. The past catches up when two men attack in broad daylight and kill his fiancée before Driver dispatches them.

But that’s just the start: Driver is on the run, pursued by the vicious ghosts of his past.

Driven is a short book, even by Sallis’s standards, and to some extent it’s marred by the excess baggage that so many sequels are obliged to carry with them. It lacks the coherence of both Drive itself and of his previous novel, The Killer Must Die. That said, it’s a dark and fascinating read that sucks you into Sallis’s strangely beautiful world where killers can brood on Nietzsche and reflect that ‘magnolia blossoms smell like sweet human flesh’.

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death (Bloomsbury, £14.99) is James Runcie’s first stab at crime fiction. Canon Sidney Chambers, the Vicar of Grantchester, is a tall, amiable bachelor with an MC and a decorous susceptibility to the charms of ladies. In the course of 12 months in 1953-54, he solves three quite unconnected murders and deals with the disappearance of a diamond ring, a kidnapping and a missing Holbein portrait of Anne Boleyn. He also falls in love twice, albeit in a rather lukewarm way.

The novel is the first in a projected six-book series that will take Sidney and his readers up to 1981. Overpopulated with characters and overburdened with plots, it’s not really one novel but two or three. It is difficult to share the amazing faith that so many people, including his obliging friend Inspector Keating, have in the vicar’s detective abilities. That said, Sidney is an appealing character and the clerical background rings true. The novel is a gentle criminal entertainment with a pleasantly old-fashioned feel to it (in more ways than one). But let’s hope the sequels will have tighter, leaner plots.