I’ve been reading relaxing novels of late, and there’s nothing quite so relaxing as crime. Here’s a selection that I’ve enjoyed:
Peter Robinson – Before the Poison
Widowed film music composer, Chris Lowndes returns to his native England and buys a large and very isolated house in Yorkshire. It was a dream he shared with his wife, but now he has to see it through alone. As he settles in, so he gradually learns about the sad history of its previous owners, and the story of beautiful Grace Fox, who was hanged sixty years ago for the murder of her husband, a murder that Chris becomes convinced she did not commit. As the quest to prove her innocence develops, it becomes essentially a reconstruction of Grace’s life, and in particular her time as a nurse in the Far East during World War Two. This was a beautifully structured and plotted novel that seemed to do a great deal more with the ‘cold case’ scenario than many other stories. Peter Robinson takes his time and develops Grace’s story layer upon layer, and the account of her war service is extremely moving. On a very different note, the narrator mentions a number of classical recordings he is listening to, and for a while I chased them down because he had taste that definitely coincided with mine. Robinson is better known for his Inspector Banks mysteries, which I’ve never read, but am certainly intrigued to try now. This was an excellent standalone novel, complex and atmospheric.
Michael Harvey – We All Fall Down
Harvey has a particular noir kind of voice, very Chandleresque, and he deploys it with some style and wit on modern day Chicago, a city that is bursting at the seams with corruption, it appears. This novel opens with a stark image; the fall of a light bulb in a subway tunnel that releases a lethal pathogen. Private eye Michael Kelly is dragged into the government cover-up because he already knows too much (and it is probably worth reading the previous novel, The Third Rail, before reading this one, which I did not and was briefly nonplussed in some of the opening sections, not that it matters ultimately). Quickly he makes the link between the biological warfare unleashed on the city and its mafia- and drug-ridden quarters, convinced that gangland murders are enmeshed in some way with the altogether more sophisticated black biology. This was a terse and tensely written novel, well structured again with all sorts of clever twists. I also felt it depicted its disaster scenario very well, with enough restraint to make it enjoyably readable and plenty of tough science. Whether you appreciate it or not depends a little on how you feel about mash-ups, as this is a book of two very different sides, with the gangstas making a colourful juxtaposition to the sci-fi women in lab coats. Once I’d settled into it, I was surprised how gripped I was by the story. I always think that these male fantasy figures of vengeance, like Kelly, are a little overblown these days, testimony to the masculine desire to be proved right both in high places and in their stubborn refusal to take advice. But hey, James Bond started it and it’s the same kind of tough guy omnipotence in charge here. Fun for the ride.
Helen MacInnes – Above Suspicion
This was a slice of old school style and class. Oxford academic, Richard Myles and his delightful wife, Frances, are preparing for their annual trip to the mountains of Europe. But it’s 1939 and the political situation is in turmoil. They are visited in Oxford by an old friend, Peter Galt, who asks them to undertake a task that, in theory, should be simple. Part of the growing spy network, he is worried that one of their main operatives in the field has been nobbled, and so he wants Richard and Frances to check the links in the chain of communication, starting in Paris and following in a kind of treasure hunt through the clues that will be passed to them. In no time at all, the couple are required to use all their ingenuity to evade the dangers that lurk everywhere. This was just a pleasure from start to finish, absolutely beautifully written, with fine, plucky leads in the form of our academic husband and wife. If you ever enjoyed Tommy and Tuppence or Paul and Steve, you will love these two, as the sort of Ur-Couple against whom all other sleuthing pairs pale a little in comparison. Only one warning: this novel was first published in 1941 and the anti-German sentiment is very marked in our thankfully more peaceful age. I can’t imagine it would be a very comfortable book for a German to read. But if you can live with this, and after all, it is just in keeping with the historical climate of its time, then give it a try. I loved it.