Crime round-up

Gruesome murders in the Paris suburbs, a Somerset village and Oslo grip Joan Smith in her pick of the latest crime novels

Sunday Times, 9 January 2011

Scandinavian crime has been so successful in recent years that it’s no surprise that the first big detective novel of 2011 comes from the Norwegian Jo Nesbo. In a crowded field, Nesbo’s detective Harry Hole has always been a contender for the title of most lugubrious character in contemporary crime fiction, and his latest outing plumbs new depths of alienation and despair.

The Leopard (translated by Don Bartlett, Harvill Secker £12.99/ebook £13.27) opens with Hole trying to forget his sorrows in Hong Kong’s opium dens. Still traumatised by his confrontation with a serial killer known as The Snowman, he returns to Oslo to visit his father in hospital and is drawn into investigating a bizarre series of murders. The victims are young women who have drowned in their own blood, and in each case the pathologist finds 24 puncture wounds in their mouths.

The device that caused the wounds is one of the most fiendish to feature in a modern crime novel, and the only thing the victims have in common is the fact that they spent a night in an isolated mountain hostel. The plot of The Leopard is intriguing, and Nesbo’s writing is as taut as ever. But the combination of slow torture and Hole’s nihilism makes the book a distasteful read, crossing a line into almost wanton horror.

Belinda Bauer won the CWA Gold Dagger for her first crime novel, Blacklands, and she’s produced a barnstorming follow-up with Darkside (Bantam £12.99). Jonas Holly is the local bobby in Shipcott, the Somerset village where Blacklands was set, and he feels a heavy responsibility for the safety of its inhabitants. He is already dealing with a personal tragedy, the decline of his wife Lucy who suffers from MS, when someone starts killing vulnerable people in the village. The first victim is a woman paralysed from the neck down after a riding accident, while the second suffers from dementia.

Holly has known the victims all his life and he resents having to hand over the investigation to Marvel, a boorish detective chief inspector from Taunton. Marvel treats Holly as an idiot, but that isn’t the only insult the tortured young PC has to put up with; anonymous notes start turning up, taunting Holly about his failure to stop the killer and forcing him to take desperate measures. Bold, mordant and compassionate, Darkside confirms Bauer’s reputation as a significant new talent.

The Facility (Mantle £12.99) is a second novel by Simon Lelic, following his highly praised debut, Rupture. Arthur is an unremarkable man, a dentist who’s separated from his wife, so he can’t understand what he’s doing in a top-secret facility where most of the other inmates seem to be infected with a virulent disease. His wife convinces a reporter to look into his disappearance, but this classic race against time – and two people trying to expose an official cover-up – falls curiously flat.

That certainly isn’t the case with Faïza Guène’s Bar Balto (translated by Sarah Ardizzone, Chatto £11.99/ebook £12.25), which opens with a chatty corpse describing his own demise. Until his violent death, Joel Morvier owned a bar in a village at the end of the Paris RER line, and he had so many enemies the police certainly don’t lack suspects. The characters in this unconventional crime novel tell the story in their own words, leading to a sly and unexpected denouement. Guène, a rising star of French fiction, with Algerian parents, is brilliantly attuned to the idioms of the banlieue.

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