I have a rule: to ignore the prologue of a crime novel, especially if it’s printed in italics and written in the present tense. Almost always it will be violent, unnecessary and will give far too much away about coming events. I like to be unsettled. I like a story to build at its own particular rate. So, ignoring its prologue, Peter May’s Runaway (Quercus, £18.99, Spectator Bookshop, £15.99) is a well-told tale about five youths who escape from Glasgow in 1965, heading for London and fame and fortune as a pop group. Instead, they fall into a world of drugs, radical doctors, lost love and death. Fifty years later the surviving members of the group return to London to uncover the truth about a long-ago murder. The two time streams are woven together skilfully and the book ends with an intensely moving glimmer of renewed hope.
But the prologue comes from a different kind of book, a more brutal thriller. I imagine editors are keen on this approach. Rumours are spreading that our attention spans have been burnt away by the internet, and that we’ll turn to some other entertainment unless immediately satisfied. Well, it’s just not true. Let us read on; the story unfolds as it must.
Dan Kavanagh’s Putting The Boot In (Orion, £14.99, Spectator Bookshop, £12.99) was published in 1985, before these things counted quite so much. That said, it’s short, the exact length it needs to be to tell the story of an ex-cop called Duffy who now runs a one-man security firm. This book takes him to a third-division football team, struggling against relegation and financial ruin.
Personally I like a murder in a mystery, and this doesn’t deliver that, but it’s filled with misdemeanours: GBH, corruption, bribery, match-fixing, racism. Duffy himself is the most interesting element: bisexual, troubled by doubt and worried about Aids. The prose matches his personality, creating a down-at-heel elegance that mixes tough-guy humour with a desperate sense of desire. It’s all woven together with premier-league skill — as it should be, coming from the pen of Julian Barnes writing under a pseudonym. Or, as they say in the (not so) beautiful game, playing a ringer.
It’s irritating when the literary qualities of a crime novel are overtly spelt out; usually a sign the publishers believe the book in some way ‘rises above’ the delights of genre. The L word can certainly be applied to Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Girl Who Wasn’t There (Little, Brown, £12.99, Spectator Bookshop, £11.69). Like his first novel, The Collini Case, it’s deadpan in tone, its emotional temper on a slow burn. But the earlier book had the stamp of authenticity, as though it had been stolen from the courthouse records. Here, fakery abounds, not least in the central conceit of a murder without an apparent victim. Nothing, it seems, is real. Schirach is certainly courageous, because this is not a book that offers comfortable pleasures. The protagonist isn’t exactly sympathetic, and the story keeps turning away from a linear pathway. I just wish it delivered the goods more. The reader invests time in the murder mystery, only to see it pulled away in a final twist. Literature teases; genre fiction delivers.
In comparison, Eric Lundgren’s The Facades (Duckworth Overlook, £14.99, Spectator Bookshop, £13.49) skims the edges of the crime genre with great skill, and a wonderful sense of the imagination at play. It’s beautifully achieved, set in the same Kafka-meets-Chandler mode as Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Legal clerk Sven Norberg is searching for his missing wife, Molly. Was she kidnapped or murdered, or did she simply run off to a new life somewhere? Later on, his son joins a religious cult, so by the end he’s lost both wife and kid.
There’s a sense in which he deserves it. He’s a cipher, a tour guide to point out the locations and events of interest in the imagined city of Trude. And these events really are of interest. I especially liked the library run by rebel librarians fighting against town-hall cuts with guns and barricades. Norberg’s quest is the thread that leads us through the city’s labyrinth.
A crime novel needs a mystery. Does it also need a solution? Almost definitely. But anyone expecting a startling revelation will be disappointed here. Put that urge aside for the duration and the book satisfies, but there’s still the sense that a better ending is there, waiting to be read. Maybe this is deliberate. As in life, one sometimes gets the feeling that just a few extra pages would do it.