Despite being well-travelled as the BBC’s world affairs editor, John Simpson doesn’t roam far from home in his spy thriller, Moscow, Midnight (John Murray, £20). Life and art intermingle, in both subject matter and character. The hero is named Jon Swift, a veteran journalist bristling under new media regimes. When government minister Patrick Macready is found dead — presumably from a solo sex game gone wrong — Swift takes it upon himself to clear up a few loose ends. Soon he’s under investigation himself, ostracised, and journeying to Moscow to work a connection to a number of Russians who have met similar ‘accidental’ fates.
Swift is cynical, unreconstructed in his view of women, a bit snobbish at times. But his voice is clear and strong, and his moral code keeps him on track. Simpson knows his stuff, obviously, and his plotting is strewn with expert analysis of international affairs and insider knowledge of journalistic practice: all very entertaining. But maybe an author can know too much? The usual gaps in the data field that spy stories revolve around are missing here. And so the mystery suffers. Sometimes, you just have to leave things out.
In a House of Lies (Orion, £20) is Ian Rankin’s 23nd novel featuring the detective John Rebus. Well, he’s not really a detective any more. He’s retired, and ill, hoping for a ‘managed decline’, as his doctor says. But the quiet life holds few delights, and old cases keep dragging him back into action. This time round a dead body found in the woods — a man missing for more than ten years — stirs up no end of trouble, not least for Rebus himself, who was on the original investigative team, a team that cocked up so badly they were named in a police corruption suit.
Over the last few books Rankin has been promoting two other detectives — Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox — to take Rebus’s place, and so the novel weaves between the three different officers, each coming at it from their own angle: Clarke as part of the new inquiry, Fox looking into the corruption, and Rebus on the sidelines, causing trouble and not a little embarrassment along the way. We’re pulled along by the minutiae of police work and the Rankin style, which never wanes. Let’s call it unmanaged decline, all guns blazing.
David Mamet’s Chicago (Custom House, £10.99) is a convoluted, all-encompassing story set in the prohibition era. Mike Hodge is a newspaperman who falls in love with Annie, a florist whose family has mob connections. When Annie is gunned down and killed, Mike does all he can to track down her murderer. That makes it sound far more exciting than it is. The book takes many, many detours along the way, as characters discuss this and that, often unrelated to anything that’s gone before, all set out in Mamet’s well-known idiosyncratic manner. It’s a bit of a slog, to be honest, unless extremely literary quasi-thrillers are your thing.
Quite early on one of Mike’s colleagues says, ‘All newspapermen loathe themselves’. That self-loathing takes its toll throughout the novel, as the journalists wrestle with their consciences: to go for the big story, or the truth. Chicago is more a book to make you think, than one to read for pleasure. The language that Mamet uses is captivating in the theatre; on the page it has a different effect. Coded phrases lead to coded emotions, and because of this there’s little honest humanity on show.
Keigo Higashino’s Newcomer (Little, Brown, £13.99) offers a unique take on the genre. It’s a murder mystery turned inside out: there’s no real emphasis on the corpse, or the location of the crime, or even the imagined motives of the suspects. Instead, Detective Kaga visits the neighbours of the murdered woman, and the people who run local businesses — the girl at the rice cracker shop, the apprentice at the Japanese restaurant, and so on — and he asks questions of them: the strangest questions, which appear to have little if anything to do with the crime. And yet, as the chapters unfold, a logic appears from this mishmash of idle chat, gossip and slips of the tongue. It’s mesmerising. Kaga’s approach is non-linear, almost surreal at times. But there’s another element...
At each place he visits the detective solves another case, a tiny case, often to do with simple domestic upsets, or familial misunderstandings. He brings people together, and offers them glimpses of hope. It’s quite moving to watch him at work. And all the time the murder investigation proceeds, moving through all these non-suspects towards a main suspect, until, with one deft move the strands all pull together: a body, a crime, a motive, a final twist. This is a different kind of mystery novel. A delight to read.