Something rotten

Murder as symptom of society’s greater ills takes us from modern Chicago to 18th-century Lancashire in this chilling crime roundup

Sunday Times, 17 April 2011

The best American crime writers have always used murder as a means of writing about political and social conflicts. Few contemporary authors do it better than Sara Paretsky, whose latest novel is a heartfelt commentary on her country’s involvement in the Iraq war. Paretsky’s Chicago has become a city where the conflict is as ever-present as Vietnam, while veterans struggle with their demons and avant-garde art has taken a decadent turn.

Body Work (Hodder £16.99) takes Paretsky’s private eye, VI Warshawski, to the unusual setting of a Chicago nightclub. The star turn at Club Gouge is a performer known as the Body Artist who invites members of the audience onto the stage to paint her naked body. VI is unsettled by the performance, unsure whether the Body Artist is exploiting her audience or being exploited. She’s particularly troubled by a young woman called Nadia who paints a woman’s face on the artist’s flesh night after night.

Another visitor to the club is Chad, a disturbed Iraq veteran who reacts violently to Nadia’s images. When Nadia is shot dead outside the club and dies in VI’s arms, Chad is the obvious suspect, but he’s rushed to hospital with a drug overdose before VI can talk to him. His family asks her to prove his innocence and she embarks on a quest that uncovers another murder, this time in Iraq, and a scandal about defective military equipment. Discovering these connections forces VI to expose herself in a most unexpected way, and makes Body Work one of the most memorable novels in this fine series.

At first glance Robin Blake’s A Dark Anatomy (Macmillan £12.99) could hardly seem further removed from the dark passions that inform Body Work. The book is set in rural Lancashire in 1740, where the squire’s foreign wife is found in a forest with her throat slashed. In the absence of a police force the local coroner, Titus Cragg, is required to investigate the death; it is a time of scientific discovery and Cragg seeks advice from a young doctor, Luke Fidelis, who agrees to perform a post-mortem. He’s barely removed the victim’s clothes when he makes a startling discovery, transforming an apparently straightforward case of wife-murder into a potentially much greater scandal. Again, the human body is revealed as the focus for strong and at times unbearable emotions, in what the author says is the first Cragg and Fidelis mystery.

Kathryn Fox is another crime writer who is fascinated by gender and violence. Her detective is Anya Crichton, an Australian forensic expert, and in Death Mask (Hodder £12.99) she’s called in to examine a young woman who’s been gang-raped by a group of footballers on her wedding night. As a result of the publicity, Anya is invited to go to America to speak at a seminar designed to change the sexual attitudes of some of the country’s top football stars.

Her warnings about the consequences of unprotected sex make some of the players blanch, and she quickly realises that she has taken on one of the biggest challenges of her career. Then five footballers are accused of gang rape, and Anya’s trip to the States takes on a new complexion. She is horrified when the victim is torn apart by the press, but then one of the accused players dies in suspicious circumstances and the case becomes a murder investigation. This is a fascinating novel about the real-life problem of leading sportsmen and sexual violence, even if the plot seems a little forced at times.

Sebastian Fitzek’s Splinter (Corvus £12.99, translated by John Brownjohn) has a similar opening premise to the recent identity-theft movie Unknown, but travels in a very different direction. Marc Lucas is recovering from a horrific car crash that killed his pregnant wife when he gets an invitation to attend a mysterious clinic that is carrying out experiments on expunging traumatic memories. Lucas decides he doesn’t want to take part but perplexing things starts happening to him: his credit cards are refused, his front door key doesn’t work and a stranger is working in his office. Worst of all, he returns to his old flat and discovers his dead wife apparently living there, claiming not to recognise him. Whether he is losing his reason or sinister forces are at work is the question at the heart of this dazzling novel.

Fred Vargas is never less than original and An Uncertain Place (Harvill Secker £12.99, translated by Sian Reynolds) takes her French detective Commissaire Adamsberg from a conference in London to the forests of Serbia. A pile of discarded shoes outside Highgate cemetery, each of them containing a severed foot, is a suitably macabre beginning for a novel that encompasses present-day massacres in Paris and ancient vampire legends. As ever, Vargas’s characters inhabit a world where reason and myth collide, and the result is a thrilling read.

Donna Leon’s latest Venetian mystery, Drawing Conclusions (Heinemann £16.99), shows her veteran detective Commissario Brunetti in his most reflective mode. A young woman returns from a trip to find her upstairs neighbour dead, apparently from a heart attack, although faint bruising suggests that she may have been shaken. Brunetti’s boss wants the case concluded quickly, but it emerges that the dead woman had been sheltering women fleeing domestic violence. The semi-unofficial investigation unfolds slowly, allowing Leon to highlight Brunetti’s complex work and family relationships.

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