Ghosts of the Past by Marco Vichi (Hodder, £18.99) is unashamedly nostalgic in tone. The title could not be more apposite. The action takes place in 1967, when Inspector Bordelli of the Florence police force is called to a house where a wealthy industrialist has been run through with a sword. Each member of the family is acting suspiciously, as are the various colleagues and associates of the deceased. Bordelli’s life is further complicated when an old friend, Colonel Arcieri, turns up in dire trouble and needing protection.
The case unfolds in a slow haze of interviews and recollections. Vichi takes his time to explore Bordelli’s mind, his thoughts and his feelings, especially concerning the past and love lost. The book yearns for a bygone age. It’s old-fashioned and leisurely, but none the worse for that. There are narrative tangents galore, and one or two of them might even loop back to throw light on the murder case. But the novel’s central concern is not the solution to the case, but the reasons why Bordelli solves it, and what he loses from his own life in exchange for such insight.
Kristen Lepionka’s What You Want to See (Faber, £7.99) has a more practical approach to crime-solving. Roxane Weary, a private investigator, takes on what seems to be a standard surveillance job, tracing a woman whose fiancé suspects her of cheating on him. But events take a nastier turn when the woman is found dead. The police are interested in Weary’s involvement, and suspect that her client is the killer. The private eye undertakes her own case alongside the official one, discovering that the woman she has been following held secrets that had nothing to do with adultery.
In both style and substance the novel harks back to the first of the new wave of female crime writers, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, whose work established a fresh approach to the female protagonist — snazzy, professional and kick-ass when needed. Roxanne isn’t quite in that league, and nothing here ventures beyond the expected progression of clues and suspects. But she handles the case well. I really liked her description of surveillance work: ‘Like watching television with the sound off.’
Right from the start emotions burn off the page in Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Neighbourhood (Faber, £18.99). It’s written with such intensity that the author’s urge to create is felt in every line. The story traces the outcome of a scandal as it affects the lives of a number of people, from the highest of society to the low. Set in Peru in the 1990s, when the country was beset by corruption, strikes, blackouts and terrorist attacks, it begins with the blackmail of a powerful and well-known businessman and spirals out from there to entrap his wife and his friends, as well as complete strangers from other parts of the city.
It’s always fun to the watch the downfall of the great, but the novel offers many other delights: a tender lesbian love affair; a search for revenge by one of the blackmailer’s previous victims; and a sensuality of prose even when it’s describing the basest of human motives. There’s an underlying theme — how to achieve the right balance between freedom of speech, and individual privacy — but it’s woven lightly through the book, rather than stated outright. And it hints at the deeper truth behind the political and the personal. A serious book for serious times.
Gary Raymond’s The Golden Orphans (Parthian, £8.99) starts off in classic Brit abroad mode as a down-on-his-luck artist travels to Cyprus to attend the funeral of his mentor and fellow painter, Frances Bentham. The unnamed narrator takes on his teacher’s old job, working for a Russian gangster; the artist’s task is to paint the gangster’s dreams, or rather one recurring dream: an empty playground swing at night. It’s a brilliant concept. Raymond expertly leads the reader into the island’s secret territories, not least the city of Famagusta, which was split in two when Cyprus was separated into the Turkish and Greek zones, and has been abandoned and haunted ever since.
The whole thing comes in at just over 150 pages, the bare sentences layered with meaning. It feels a little like John Fowles’s The Magus, but condensed into a few days and nights. The pull of the lost city and the children who are rumoured to live there is a thread the hero cannot help but follow, into a world that shifts and turns under the moonlight. Intense, unnerving and brilliant. There are gun battles and a murder, but the novel’s real concern is the struggle of an artist to express that most hidden of all landscapes: the inside of another person’s head.