Crime fiction

An Oxford spy ring is finally uncovered

Oxford and Cambridge have many rivalries, but espionage has always been a one-sided contest between the two. Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross were all Cambridge men. If this were put in Boat Race terms, Cambridge would have rowed halfway to Hammersmith Bridge before the dark blues had their blades in the water. Charles Beaumont’s excellent A Spy Alone (Canelo, £9.99) tries to redress the imbalance with its depiction of a richly imagined Oxford-based spy ring. His protagonist, Simon Sharman, is a former agent turned private security consultant. An Oxford man, he is approached when a Russian oligarch decides to donate some of his millions to the university. Sharman is

An untrue true crime story: Penance, by Eliza Clark, reviewed

Remember the teenage girl who was murdered in Crow-on-Sea in 2016? A horrific story. Google it. Or the journalist Alec Z. Carelli, the guy who went to school with Louis Theroux, Adam Buxton and Giles Coren and wrote a book about it? Remember how it was pulled because of the controversy over the way he obtained some of his material? Well, the publisher has decided to release that book after all. There will be no upset loved ones –except perhaps those who were affected by the true crimes mentioned None of this is true. Instead, Eliza Clark, the author of Boy Parts and recently named by Granta one of the

This summer’s most gripping crime reads

As ever, there is an endless supply of crime novels and true crime books out there to pick from for summer reading. Here are five of the best to pack in your hand luggage… City on Fire by Don Winslow Don Winslow is rightfully regarded as one of crime writing’s big hitters. His monumental ‘Cartel’ trilogy about America’s war on drugs is a towering literary achievement. Now, he’s embarking on another three-book run. Set in 1980s Rhode Island and inspired by The Iliad, this first instalment sees a beautiful woman spark a war between Irish and Italian gangsters – and Danny Ryan, a faithful but undervalued member of the Irish

Espionage dominates the best recent crime fiction

The best espionage novels cater to our fantasies while still persuading us of the authenticity of their worlds. Of the titles published this year, two stand out in the field, and each author understands that, in fiction, veracity is not the same as authenticity. In Hemingway’s words: ‘All good novels have one thing in common. They are truer than if they had really happened.’ An extended chase, beginning in Siberia, is a kind of Russian version of The Thirty-Nine Steps White Fox (Bantam, £18.99) is the concluding volume of a trilogy of thrillers by Owen Matthews, one of the best of many western writers on Russia. It can happily be

A gruesome discovery: Death Under a Little Sky, by Stig Abell, reviewed

The journalist Stig Abell has such a versatile CV – moving from the Sun to editorship of the TLS and then to his present morning slot on Times Radio – that it’s no surprise he has dipped a toe into the crime-writing waters where so many semi-celebrities increasingly swim. What may be surprising, given the rigours of the genre, is how well he’s done it. Death Under a Little Sky sits on the cusp of cosy crime. Jake Jackson is a police detective in London whose life changes when an oddball uncle dies, leaving him a large house deep in a nameless part of England, complete with acreage and a

Cosy crime flourishes in the pick of the summer’s thrillers

Cosy crime was once the literary world’s guilty secret, a refuge for any reader seeking entirely unchallenging entertainment – like an Escoffier chef with a private penchant for Mars Bars. It has always proved a great getaway in tough times, which helps explain the extravagant success of Richard Osman’s novels. Murder Before Evensong by the Reverend Richard Coles (Orion, £16.99) follows on Osman’s heels, with the advantage of it being both a more interesting story and a better writer telling it. It begins with an array of clichés, a feature of the cosy genre. Daniel Clement is a man of the cloth, tending the rural flock of a small village

Character is king in the latest crime fiction

Thriller writers are hard pressed to stand out in what’s become a very crowded field. As a result, from Cardiff to Kansas we meet every conceivable kind of detective: if one walks with a telltale limp, another has no legs at all. Even the requirements of diversity can’t disguise the desperation of the search for distinctive heroes, or how variety itself has become a convention. Simon Mason’s A Killing in November (Quercus, £14.99) begins with more than a nod to thriller traditions. It’s set in the fictional Oxford college of St Barnabas, with a grumpy provost wooing a corrupt Middle Eastern potentate, a college servant with a hidden agenda and,

Suspicious circumstances abound in the latest crime fiction

The old adage that everyone has a novel in them has a new version: anyone can write a thriller. Celebrity helps, of course, and Bill and Hillary Clinton are exemplars of the trend, though each has had the sense to draw on professional assistance and the grace to acknowledge it. Closer to home, Britain has spawned its own unexpected authors, led by Richard Osman with his astonishing successful The Thursday Murder Club. Now Alan Johnson, the former Labour MP and cabinet minister, joins the club with The Late Train to Gipsy Hill (Headline, £16.99), his first foray into fiction. He arrives with impressive credentials, however, having published three excellent volumes

The best crime books to buy for Christmas

Want to treat an avid crime fiction reader to a book or two this Christmas? Or simply want to do a bit of literary self-gifting? From a beguiling South Korean mystery to a grizzly serial killer procedural, here are six new novels to consider. Lemon by Kwon Yeo-sun People Like Them by Samira Sedira This pair of short books, both published in translation, are two of the finest crime novels of 2021. Firstly, Lemon, by the South Korean author Kwon Yeo-Sun takes a well-worn starting point, the murder of a beautiful female high school pupil, and spins an idiosyncratic and beguiling mystery from it. A riveting police interview kicks things

Secret treaties and games of cat and mouse: a choice of recent crime fiction

Almost any promising writer of spy fiction can expect at some point to be called the ‘next Le Carré’, an accolade even more promiscuously applied since the death of the master. James Wolff has immediate credentials to jump the queue, since, like Le Carré, he uses a pseudonym and claims to work at the Foreign Office — though his familiarity with surveillance techniques suggests a slightly different employer. How to Betray Your Country (Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99) arrives as the second in a planned trilogy, hard on the heels of Wolff’s striking debut, Beside the Syrian Sea. August Drummond is a former British intelligence officer, cashiered for insubordination after the

Refreshingly unfettered: LRB Podcast’s Close Readings on Patricia Highsmith

I’d forgotten what a rich and deep and characterful voice John le Carré had. Listening to author and lawyer Philippe Sands’s Archive on 4 programme on him last week, I was struck by how much more engaging it was than almost every other male voice on the radio these days. Le Carré’s weren’t simply the measured tones of a mid–century public schoolboy. There was a real spirit in his voice, something melodic, which, in a world of Nick Grimshaws and Greg Jameses, stopped me in my tracks. Le Carré’s voice was undoubtedly part of the armoury that enabled him to win people over, even ‘to manipulate crowds’. This, his youngest

Murder in Richmond Park: House with No Doors, by Jeff Noon, reviewed

It’s 1981 in Richmond, south-west London. Detective Inspector Henry Hobbes is called out to a rundown house where the octogenarian Leonard Graves has killed himself. There’s vodka, pills, a cut on his arm and a note in his pocket to a woman called Adeline. But who is she? Searching the house, Hobbes and his sergeant, Meg Latimer, discover dozens of identical dresses, each one cut open at the stomach, the gash lined with blood. Despite Hobbes’s sense that something terrible has happened among the faded theatrical memorabilia and musty rooms, it’s not immediately clear what it might be. Then Graves’s son is brutally murdered in Richmond Park, and the case

A closing of ranks: The Searcher, by Tana French, reviewed

If the homage wasn’t clear from the title, Tana French makes sure throughout The Searcher, her seventh novel and second stand-alone, that there’s no doubt which genre we’re in. ‘We’ll bring you for a pint, welcome you to the Wild West,’ a cheery local Garda tells her hero, Cal Hooper. ‘They used this rifle in the Wild West,’ Cal explains to someone later, when he gets his Henry shotgun. Cal is a former Chicago cop, recently retired and divorced, and the lawless west here is the west of Ireland, where he has bought a beat-up old farm in search of ‘a small place. A small town in a small country.

Older and grumpier: A Song for the Dark Times, by Ian Rankin, reviewed

By my reckoning, this is the 24th outing for John Rebus, Scotland’s best known retired police officer. One of the many pleasures of the series is that Rebus ages in real time. COPD now makes climbing stairs an increasing problem, so he and his dog Brillo are in the throes of moving to a downstairs flat. DCI Siobhan Clarke, his former colleague, has turned up to lend a hand. She’s distracted by the murder of a wealthy Saudi student, who soon turns out not to be wealthy at all. Nevertheless, he had recently promised to invest £10 million in a real-estate development 250 miles from Edinburgh near the north coast

A choice of classic crime fiction

A guide to reading in lockdown. My involvement with crime and mystery fiction started when I was four. The first book I remember reading for myself was Hurrah for Little Noddy. As Enid Blyton aficionados will know, this is the second in the series about a self-absorbed wooden doll. It’s a thrilling tale about a massive car heist (those pesky goblins), involving a red herring, a car chase, wrongful arrest (oh poor Noddy), a stupid police officer and the intervention of a gifted amateur (Big Ears’s finest moment). Drop everything and re-read it. Much of Blyton’s prodigious output is crime fiction writ small. I have a theory that its imprint

The mean streets of 1960s Soho: Bent, by Joe Thomas, and other crime fiction reviewed

Brian De Palma brings his film director’s eye to Are Snakes Necessary? (Hard Case, £16.99), written in collaboration with the author Susan Lehman. The novel merges fierce political satire with the tale of a corrupt senator happy to cheat on his wife, despite her suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The latest object of his lust is a young videographer hired to record his campaign. Of course, things go from bad to worse and the senator is forced to call in a fixer to sort out the trouble. Terrible consequences ensue, all the way from Washington to Las Vegas to Paris. A globe-trotting sleaze-fest. The story is pushed forward by the three

Crime fiction: a sole survivor is haunted by a family tragedy on a remote Scottish island

James Sallis has a modus operandi: never to waste a word. Sarah Jane (No Exit Press, £8.99) follows this stricture well, using a sparse yet poetic style to tell the story of a woman born on the wrong side of town to bad parents, who wanders from one lowly job to another, one unsavoury man to another, one trouble to another, living a life of chaos, until, led by some curiously twisted route, she takes a chance and decides to join the police, working small cases in a small town. When the local sheriff, Cal Phillips, disappears, Sarah Jane Pullman assumes the task of tracing his whereabouts, an undertaking that

Evil under the sun

When James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential appeared in 1990, it introduced us to a world of blatant corruption, casual racism and routine police brutality that, a year before anybody ever heard of Rodney King, might have seemed fanciful to some. Set in the early 1950s, the novel was a landmark in neo-noir writing, in which historical detail mingled with pacy fiction to conjure up a city that was both highly glamorous and rotten to the core. At the same time, Ellroy’s staccato, near-telegraphic prose drove the action relentlessly onwards, with an urgency that seemed designed to swamp not just the reader but also the protagonists themselves with noise, movement and a

The journalist as sleuth

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

The mask of death | 17 January 2019

Here is a novel set in the no man’s land between past and present, a fertile and constantly shifting territory whose precise boundaries are unique for each reader. Its author, Jeff Noon, is probably best known for his intellectually adventurous science fiction (his first novel, Vurt, won the Arthur C. Clarke award) and also, to readers of The Spectator, as a crime fiction reviewer. The labels are unfairly reductive, however, since his work has never slotted neatly into genre categories. On the face of it, Slow Motion Ghosts looks as if it might buck the trend and be Noon’s first straight crime novel (if such a thing exists). Set in