Andrew Taylor

Recent crime novels | 30 January 2010

Blue Lightning (Macmillan, £16.99) is the fourth novel in Ann Cleeves’ excellent Shetland quartet.

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Blue Lightning (Macmillan, £16.99) is the fourth novel in Ann Cleeves’ excellent Shetland quartet.

Blue Lightning (Macmillan, £16.99) is the fourth novel in Ann Cleeves’ excellent Shetland quartet. It is just as good as its predecessors. Cleeves has found a way to serve up many of the pleasures of the traditional mystery in an unusual modern setting. Her series detective, Jimmy Perez, returns to his own island, Fair Isle, with his artist fiancée, Fran. Autumn storms cut the island off from the rest of the world. Perez anticipated that he would suffer mild embarrassment when he introduced Fran, an outsider from the south saddled with a six-year-old daughter, to his family home. But soon he has to cope with a murder investigation as well, when a woman is found dead with feathers in her hair at the local bird observatory. And far worse is in store, for the killing hasn’t stopped.

As usual, the plotting is strong and the background fascinating. Cleeves is particularly good at assembling domestic detail that adds a cumulative poignancy and depth to her characters’ lives. The narrative builds to a truly shocking climax with a grimly convincing epilogue. The good news is that this won’t, after all, be the last novel to feature Jimmy Perez and the Shetlands. The quartet is now due to become a quintet at least.

Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski has been a prominent feature in the landscape of crime fiction for so long that it’s hard to remember just how revolutionary she was when she first appeared in 1982. Together with Val McDermid on this side of the Atlantic, Paretsky did much to pioneer the idea of strong women detectives operating in contemporary society. Hardball (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99) is the 13th novel in the series. Warshawski, who is growing more melancholy and reflective as time passes, is involved in a case with its roots in the Chicago race riots of 1966, when a black woman was murdered. A few months after the riot a young man, also black, dis- appeared, and now his mother and aunt want to find him before they die. In another strand of the plot, a cousin, whom Warshawski has never met, comes to Chicago to work on a senatorial campaign. Warshawski’s office is burgled and trashed, and the cousin, Petra, is nowhere to be found.

Hardball is a strong, well-constructed novel, firmly founded in Chicago and its politics, past and present. Paretsky’s plot combines racism, police corruption and family secrets — including Warshawski’s — and the lost idealism of the 1960s provides a haunting backdrop. Some crime series grow stale over time, but there’s no sign of fatigue here. This is partly because the recurring characters continue to develop and engage the reader, and partly because of the moral intelligence that informs the writing.

Long Time Coming (Bantam Press, £14.99) is one of Robert Goddard’s strongest novels for some time. Stephen Swan has always been told that his uncle Eldritch died in the Blitz. He’s understandably surprised when, in 1976, he returns home from the States to find Eldritch installed under his mother’s roof after 36 years in an Irish prison for a crime whose nature he refuses to reveal. But the visit of a solicitor with an equally mysterious commission triggers a narrative that unfolds mainly in two timeframes —1976 and 1940 — and takes in an American collection of modern art, forgery, murder, diamond mining in the Congo, the IRA and British skulduggery in the desperate days at the start of the second world war. The template is familiar — a chance event throws an ordinary youngish man into a life-changing adventure with a dash of romance and a historical dimension. But Goddard manipulates his rich slew of ingredients with enormous panache and produces an absorbing story that gains an extra dimension from the sidelights it casts on the past.

Snow Hill (HarperCollins, £12.99) is Mark Sanderson’s first crime novel and the first of a projected trilogy set in the 1930s. It begins, rather engagingly, with the central character returning from his own funeral and feeling slightly miffed that he didn’t get a better crowd — but finding some consolation in the fact that a dead man can’t be tried for murder. He is Johnny Steadman, an ambitious young reporter on the Daily News. Less than a fortnight before his funeral he received an anonymous tip-off that an officer had died at the City of London’s Snow Hill police station, which is categorically denied by the police themselves. His investigation has plunged him into the dangerous byways of the city’s sexual underworld, where a predatory police officer is finding ways and means to gratify his darkest impulses.

Sanderson relishes the louche and smoky milieu where police and press rub shoulders with sexual adventurers and criminals, and he describes it with considerable verve. The pre-war Fleet Street background is fascinating. Some of Sanderson’s scenes have great impact too — there’s a chilling episode of homosexual rape, for example — and his villains are suitably villainous. It will be interesting to see if he uses the sequels to explore new territory and extend the range and depth of his characters.

Andrew Taylor’s latest novel is Bleeding Heart Square (Penguin, £6.99).