The Vault by Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell’s updating of her 1998 crime novel A Sight for Sore Eyes is a tour de force, and a real treat for readers

Sunday Times, 31 July 2011

Over the years, Ruth Rendell’s crime novels have followed two parallel tracks: a series of police procedurals starring her wise detective, Chief Inspector Wexford, and a number of unrelated psychological thrillers. Now Wexford has retired, Rendell has spotted an opportunity to bring the two strands together in a superb novel called The Vault.

The vault is actually a coal hole beneath Orcadia Cottage, a Georgian house in St John’s Wood in London. Rendell’s regular readers will recognise it from her 1998 novel, A Sight for Sore Eyes; the house had already achieved a kind of fame because its pop-star tenant and his then girlfriend were painted in front of it in 1973.

When The Vault opens, Wexford and his wife are on a trip to London. Orcadia Cottage is inhabited by a wealthy couple who don’t know about the coal hole until they move a tub of flowers behind the house. The husband spots a manhole cover, struggles to lift it and is horrified to discover four corpses. Three of them are badly decomposed but the fourth, a young woman, appears more recent.

One of many clever things about the new novel is that it offers a tantalising mystery for readers unfamiliar with the earlier book, while anyone who remembers it will know how some — but not all — of the corpses ended up there. Wexford comes to the case without prior knowledge when he’s asked for unofficial assistance by the detective in charge; forensic examination complicates the puzzle when it is revealed that the two male corpses are distantly related, but there is no obvious connection between the two women.

The investigation starts with the house’s various tenants and owners. The pop star is dead from an overdose but his girlfriend, Harriet, turns out to have lived in the cottage with her husband in the 1990s. He left her in 1998, and she becomes a prime candidate for identification as the older woman in the vault.

A Sight for Sore Eyes was about class and the failure of people from different backgrounds to recognise danger signs in new acquaintances. In it, a young psychopath called Teddy Brex discovered a talent for woodwork and used it to get access to the cottage, where he showed off to a lovely young woman he had met at an exhibition. A beautifully carved mirror hangs in the house as a memento of their affair, its significance unrecognised even when Wexford begins to connect Brex to the tomb in the back garden.

The novel has a modern twist, in the shape of a subplot about sex-trafficking, but the author’s sheer technical skill is evident as she effortlessly brings the original story up to date. Only a novelist whose characters feel intensely real to her could pull off such a coup, and Rendell’s relish in calling in Wexford to investigate suggests she hasn’t enjoyed herself so much for ages.

Hutchinson £18.99/ebook £19.82 pp266.

In ‘Loyalty’, truth and fiction are one and the same

Independent on Sunday, 31 July 2011

I’ve never really believed that Tony Blair lied about why he wanted to go to war in Iraq. I’ve always thought he convinced himself that Saddam Hussein had WMD – not that difficult for someone who believes in an invisible deity – and dismissed people who thought differently. Now my instinct has been confirmed by Sarah Helm’s play Loyalty, which I’ve just seen at the Hampstead Theatre in London. At the time of the war, Helm lived with (and is now married to) Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff. It was Powell’s job to monitor telephone conversations between Blair and important people, and in the play, “Laura”, the character loosely based on Helm, listens in.

Here, in the play, is Bush talking to Blair, less than a month before the invasion: “But you know the Germans have got some really good new stuff showing he has those biological weapons. You’ve seen that, right?” Blair responds hesitantly that he’s just heard about the new source. Bush insists that “the German stuff shows that son of a bitch is really ready to offload. No doubts now, Tony.” Bush flatters Blair, praising his body language and deriding opponents of the war. “I mean, do these people not care about the citizens of Iraq? The answer is no. But when that son of a bitch hits Europe, they’ll be saying: ‘Where were George and Tony?’”

In the play and in real life, the German source was an Iraqi defector who later admitted that he lied to encourage the overthrow of Saddam. When I saw the play, one of the biggest audience reactions came when Blair takes a call from Rupert Murdoch, passing on a message from Donald Rumsfeld about needing to use the British base on Diego Garcia. Murdoch’s recent appearance before a Select Committee makes the scene timely, but it was written a couple of years ago.

Sarah Helm is a friend of mine and a former Independent journalist. (There’s a nice moment in the play when the head of MI6 remarks that Laura writes for the Independent, and makes the sign of the cross; it reminded me that Tony Blair once glared at me at a No 10 party when I reminded him that I wrote for the paper.) The play is described as a “fictionalised memoir” and it has clearly puzzled critics, who seem to have missed the extraordinary insights it offers into Bush and Blair’s relationship; they don’t seem to realise either that the painful conflict between Laura and Nick (the Powell character) was played out between other political couples who found themselves on opposite sides of the argument. My partner at the time was a government minister, and I recall Blair’s clique forever insisting that “everyone knew” Saddam had WMD.

It wasn’t true, but pro-war politicians existed in a self-reinforcing circle. The idea that anyone who opposed the war must support Saddam came up repeatedly, and is perfectly illustrated by Nick’s preposterous question to Laura: “So you want your friend Saddam to stay in power, do you?” The strain it placed on people who cared deeply about each other may go some way to explain why Sarah decided to write Loyalty.

She’s been accused of the opposite, but I think that is unfair. She’s been true to her passionate conviction that the war was wrong and to her belief in her husband, despite disagreeing with him on one of the most controversial foreign policy decisions of our lives. Her drama says more about the psychological processes enabling the conflict than any number of factual accounts of how it started.

Fantasy Warriors Strike Again

Independent, Tuesday 26 July 2011

One of the most disconcerting things about Friday’s mass murders in Norway is the physical appearance of the man arrested in connection with the killings. Posing for a photograph in a wetsuit, Anders Behring Breivik looks like a male model in a survivalist catalogue, while a picture of him in a Freemason’s apron makes him appear frankly ridiculous. Since he surrendered, a picture has emerged of Breivik as a verbose, paranoid, self-glorifying fantasist. Possible links with right-wing extremists in Norway and elsewhere are being investigated, including his claim to have had discussions with members of the English Defence League, but his enemies include a vast array of people, organisations and ideologies. They’re identified in a rambling 1500-page manifesto and include Muslims, Marxists, multi-culturalists and ‘radical feminists’ who have apparently almost completed ‘the feminisation of European culture’.

Breivik’s manifesto isn’t even original, borrowing heavily from the writings of Ted Kaczynski, the convicted American terrorist known as the Unabomber, while his obsession with the Knights Templar is wearily familiar. This order of crusader-monks has fuelled countless conspiracy theories down the ages, receiving a boost when it appeared in Dan Brown’s 2003 bestseller, The Da Vinci Code; the novel has created a tedious literary industry based around the crusades and the holy grail, but Breivik’s interest in the period is more sinister. He claims to have re-founded the Knights Templar in London in 2002 and styles himself a ‘justiciar knight commander’ and one of the leaders of the ‘National and pan-European Patriotic Resistance Movement’.

If it weren’t for our knowledge of the atrocities carried out by the author of this nonsense, it would be hard to read it with a straight face. Breivik is a body builder who plays ‘quest’ computer games and trawls the internet, where he seems to have made almost random connections with right-wingers and nationalists, including Serbs who fought against Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo. The people he admires seem to include Vlad the Impaler, who died fighting the Ottoman Turks near Bucharest in 1476.

There is no doubt that far right organisations exist in Scandinavian countries, or that they have been responsible for political violence in the past. Before he became famous as the author of the Millennium trilogy, the Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson dedicated his career to tracking right-wing extremists; the best-selling Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo has written about the sensitive subject of collaboration during the German occupation of Norway, and the threat from neo-Nazis is often a theme in Nordic crime novels.

Breivik rants against Muslims, appearing to harbour a conviction that just about every organisation from the EU to the BBC is an Islamist front. But what emerges most strongly from his incoherent ideology is that he belongs to a breed of young European men with massive chips on their shoulder and a pitiless disregard for the suffering of other people. Two days ago, Breivik’s lawyer revealed that his client wanted to wear uniform for his first court appearance, although he added: ‘I don’t know what uniform’. Breivik isn’t a soldier and he appears to have made his own version of an officer’s uniform to wear in photographs, covering the jacket in gold braid and medals. This secret (at least until last weekend) warrior identity is evidently very important to him, even though it appears to be far removed from his humdrum everyday existence.

There are parallels here with other young men who feel alienated from the modern European cultures they inhabit, notably the 7/7 bombers who caused carnage on London’s transport network in 2005. The ringleader, Mohammad Sidique Khan, was just two years younger than Breivik at the time of his death. In a ‘martyrdom’ video made before he bombed a Circle Line train at Edgware Road, 30-year-old Khan wound a Palestinian scarf around his head and declared: ‘We are at war and I am a soldier’. A second tape, made by Shahzad Tanweer and released on the first anniversary of the suicide bombings, was entitled ‘The Final Message of the Knights of the London Raid’. In it, 22-year-old Tanweer blamed the British people for the attacks: ‘You have openly declared war on Islam, and are the forerunners in the crusade against the Muslims’.

Their aims are utterly opposed but it’s undeniable that there are similarities between the bellicose vocabulary of the 7/7 bombers and Anders Breivik. These are young men without military backgrounds who fantasise about being soldiers, bigging themselves up in videos and photographs, but they’re really armchair warriors who launch indiscriminate attacks on unarmed civilians. Re-fighting conflicts that date back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, they appropriate historical figures and the language of the crusades in an attempt to justify mass murder. The lack of contrition on both sides is horrifying.

Obviously it’s important to establish the extent of Breivik’s contacts with right-wing groups, just as we need to know how many young men in Western Europe have been encouraged to embrace violence by Muslim clerics. But restlessness and insecurity play a role in making violence attractive to young men who haven’t found a place for themselves in the modern world, sending them in search of simplistic masculine identities. The narcissistic rewards of terrorism have been under-explored in this context but the wealth of material posted online by Breivik before his rampage means the subject can no longer be ignored.

‘Tested gear. Exhausted!!! Good workout though. I’m drinking 4 X protein shakes per day now to maximize muscle generation’, the aspiring mass murderer wrote four days before the attacks. The sheer banality of terrorism has seldom been so vividly exposed.

Ireland squares up to the Vatican

Independent on Sunday, 24 July 2011

Last autumn, as Pope Benedict XVI celebrated an outdoor mass in Hyde Park, I joined a march through London to protest against his visit to the UK. It was boisterous and good-natured, but I was struck by the presence of a number of elderly women who seemed to be marching on their own.

When we started up conversations, I discovered why they had come; speaking quietly, and often with Irish accents, they revealed that as children or young adults they had been victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

The exposure of clerical abuse in the worldwide Catholic church has been going on for decades. Last week, another official report was published, exposing the church’s failure to tell the authorities about allegations of sexual abuse in the Irish diocese of Cloyne, but the result was unexpected. Suddenly and without precedent, the Irish prime minister attacked the Vatican in terms that raised the prospect of his country one day becoming a secular republic. Speaking in the Irish parliament, Enda Kenny talked about “the rape and torture of children” and said the report exposed in Ireland “an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic”.

This is jaw-dropping stuff: Ireland is one of the most Catholic countries in the world. The Irish church has long behaved as though it’s immune from the criminal law, and that has exposed thousands of vulnerable people – not only children but the young women who were used as slave labour in church-run Magdalene laundries – to horrific abuse. The Cloyne report describes the Vatican as “entirely unhelpful” and says it effectively gave Irish bishops the freedom to ignore the church’s own guidelines on reporting abuse. Abusers continued to officiate as priests and were held in high regard by victims’ families; in one case, the abuser officiated at a victim’s wedding.

It isn’t only in Ireland that such accusations have been levelled at the church. A Catholic priest was arrested this month in Germany, where he’s accused of sexually abusing three boys as recently as 2007, while the church in Australia is paying millions of pounds in compensation after failing to stop paedophile priests for decades. The Vatican has repeatedly failed to protect children, involving itself in a series of shameful cover-ups which have allowed paedophile priests to escape the law.

Last year’s huge PR exercise during the Pope’s visit to the UK was a reminder that two irreconcilable views of the pontiff exist side by side: the pious, white-haired, avuncular theologian versus the leader of an institution that continues to shield child-abusers and rapists. No wonder the events of the last few days have the appearance of a seismic shift, with Kenny echoing the Vatican’s sternest secular critics as he talked about “the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism – the narcissism – that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day”.

Ireland’s political class has been left reeling after Kenny issued a direct challenge to the pontiff, warning him that “the standards of conduct which the church deems appropriate to itself cannot, and will not, be applied to the workings of democracy and civil society in this republic”. Even in Catholic Ireland, it seems, the Vatican’s behaviour has reached a tipping point. Let’s hope that the result is a long-overdue debate about separation between Church and State.

Showing support for Norway

I went to the Norwegian embassy in London yesterday to see friends who work there and sign a book of condolence. It was very moving to see so many people queuing quietly to sign, while others came to leave flowers. The staff have received thousands of messages of support since Friday’s tragic events, and I know it means a great deal to them. If you would like to sign the online book of condolence set up by the Norwegian government, you can find it here:​otokoll

Sexual manners and the Left

Monday 18 July 2011

The French Socialist Party loves Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Even more people love Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, although only a hundred of his supporters were invited to his 40th birthday bash a few days before his court appearance last week; starry figures on the Left turned up to toast Assange at Ellingham Hall in Norfolk, where he’s lived under house arrest since he found himself fighting extradition to Sweden to answer sex allegations. Assange and Strauss-Kahn are now waiting for courts in the UK and US to announce their fate, although in France the PS has at least conceded that the former head of the IMF won’t be its candidate in the next Presidential election.

These two stories, playing out thousands of miles apart, expose a longstanding problem about the Left and its approach to sexual mores. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, accusations of rape/attempted rape. It’s obvious that there are other behaviours towards sexual partners that most observers would find offensive, while stopping short of outright criminality. So why are some well-known people on the Left willing to behave as though neither man has serious questions to answer about his private conduct? I’d like to think that some of the guests at Assange’s birthday party had second thoughts when they heard his own barrister’s summary of the allegations against him last week, but so far I haven’t seen any evidence of it. And it took until last weekend for DSK’s hopes of returning to the highest level of French politics to be finally dashed, following new claims in a French magazine. According to an article in Le Point, DSK has told his wife Anne Sinclair that he had sex with three women, including the maid who has accused him of trying to rape her, during his stay at the Sofitel in New York. The magazine attributed a startling quote to a friend of Sinclair: ‘So it wasn’t just one for the road before the Presidential campaign, it was three’.

Previous reports had suggested that DSK propositioned two members of hotel staff, including a receptionist, before his encounter with the maid. He continues to insist he had consensual sex with her but he now faces allegations of attempted rape from a French journalist, Tristane Banon, who claims he tried to force her to have sex when she went to interview him in 2002. (My analysis of Banon’s allegations was published in the Independent on 6 July and can be read on this site, along with other articles about DSK.)

At the same time, more detail has emerged about the allegations against Assange, coinciding with a dramatic change of tactics on the part of his (new) legal team. On the first day of his appeal at the High Court against extradition to Sweden, his counsel Ben Emmerson made a point of not attacking his client’s accusers. He said:

‘Nothing I say should be taken as denigrating the complainants, the genuineness of their feelings of regret, to trivialise their experience or to challenge whether they felt Assange’s conduct was disrespectful, discourteous, disturbing or even pushing at the boundaries of what they felt comfortable with.’ [My italics]

The next day Clare Montgomery QC, who represented Swedish prosecuting authorities, laid out allegations about Assange’s sexual encounter with a woman known as AA on the night of August 13 last year. The woman was a supporter of WikiLeaks and had agreed to allow Assange to stay at her apartment where, Montgomery told the court, she claimed that ‘the prelude to the offence was Mr Assange ripping her clothes off, breaking her necklace, her trying to get dressed again and then letting him undress her’.

Assange’s own counsel, Emmerson, summarised AA’s allegations on the first day of the hearing:

‘The appellant’s physical advances were initially welcomed but then it felt awkward because he was “rough and impatient”….AA was lying on her back and Assange was on top of her….AA felt that Assange wanted to insert his penis into her vagina directly, which she did not want since he was not wearing a condom….she did not articulate this. Instead she therefore tried to turn her hips and squeeze her legs together to avoid a penetration….

‘AA tried several times to reach for a condom which Assange had stopped her from doing by holding her arms and bending her legs open and try[ing] to penetrate her with his penis without using a condom. AA says she felt about to cry since she was held down and could not reach a condom and felt this could end badly’.

Whatever the outcome of extradition proceedings, these are hugely disturbing allegations. The risks of HIV-transmission are well-known and it’s incontestable that anyone, male or female, is entitled to a change of mind if a sexual partner refuses to use a condom.

Admirers of Julian Assange often describe him as ‘heroic’. There is also a (diminishing) band of supporters who think that Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged behaviour towards women has no bearing on his fitness for public life. They’re wrong: the political is personal and sexual manners have changed since the 1970s.

You by Joanna Briscoe

Joanna Briscoe probes the rival passions of a mother and daughter both engaged in taboo-breaking romances

Sunday Times, 24 July 2011

Loving the wrong person is a familiar theme in fiction. In Joanna Briscoe’s new novel, the frustrated longing of its two main characters plays out over two decades, providing plenty of opportunity to explore their turbulent emotional landscape. The fact that they are mother and daughter — estranged because of feelings neither can admit — gives a new twist to the book’s examination of obsessive love.

It is the 1970s and Dora has moved to a longhouse on Dartmoor with her Irish husband Patrick and their three children. They are hoping for a rural idyll but the move forces Dora to confront her husband’s amiable laziness. Barns and outbuildings fill up with itinerant members of the counterculture as Dora struggles to make ends meet; she takes a job teaching at a nearby school and finds herself in an establishment with a hippie headmaster and pupils who regularly opt out of lessons.

Dora’s daughter Cecilia is a studious girl who hates the school’s anything-goes ethos. Along with a couple of like-minded friends, she worships her English teacher James Dahl, who has recently arrived from a conventionally run public school. Soon she is finding opportunities to bump into him outside classes, trying to impress him with her store of literary quotations. Dahl’s wife Elisabeth teaches art at the school and while Cecilia pines for James, Dora astonishes herself by falling head over heels for Elisabeth.

More than two decades later, Cecilia moves into her old home on Dartmoor with her boyfriend Ari and their children. Dora is now living in one of the old cottages on the estate, recovering from surgery for breast cancer, and her illness has prompted Cecilia to attempt a reconciliation.

Standing between them is Cecilia’s child, or rather the memory of her child, who was born in the longhouse when Cecilia was 18 and given away in an unofficial adoption. Despite having three daughters, Cecilia is haunted by the loss of her baby, imagining the presence of a ghost-child out on the moors. She has given the child a name, Mara, and one of her purposes in moving next door to her mother is to extract information about the mysterious adoptive parents.

Briscoe’s interest in unexpected love-objects has been established in her previous novels, including the bestselling Sleep with Me. Here, she counterpoints one taboo-breaking romance, between a teacher and his pupil, with the secret passion between the girl’s mother and the man’s wife. The common factor is a startling degree of self-absorption: thinking about “you” is also a way of focusing on oneself. The only member of the foursome who has an inkling about all that’s going on is also the least emotionally involved.

Briscoe’s portrait of Dora and Patrick’s chaotic household, and the impact of their parenting style on their children, is vivid and acerbic. She has a singular prose style, moving from crisp observations to sentences that seem so gorged with words that they plunge into a lush romanticism. Most of the time it works, although the female characters dominate the narrative, the men appearing weaker and perhaps a little less interesting to their creator. In the end, what appears to be a novel about women in love has at its heart another kind of passion, that of mothers for daughters and the misunderstandings that distort it.

Bloomsbury £11.99

Journalists and private detectives: an unhealthy symbiosis

Independent on Sunday, 17 July 2011

When did British journalists start getting entangled with seedy private eyes? Back in the 1980s, when I worked for the Sunday Times Insight team, I spent hours rooting about in archives and trying to persuade strangers to talk to me. We produced lengthy investigations into the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry and the Iranian embassy siege in London; sometimes we used freelances with specialist knowledge but I can’t recall an instance where we turned to a private investigator.

Now, as the phone hacking scandal engulfs sections of the British press, I am aghast at how things have changed. In May, detectives from Operation Weeting showed me photocopies of handwritten notes about me and my then-partner compiled by Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator employed by the News of the World until his arrest in 2006. Seeing even a few of the 11,000 pages seized from Mulcaire made me realise the extent of both phone hacking and the surveillance operation he carried out on behalf of the paper. But I don’t think the wider public understood until the revelation about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone.

The allegations against Mulcaire and the News of the World highlight a practice – newspapers using private investigators to get personal information – that’s become widespread. In 2005 Operation Motorman led to the conviction of a Hampshire-based private eye, Steve Whittamore, who passed information obtained from the police national database to newspapers. The material seized from Whittamore should have prompted searching questions but the public wasn’t much interested while the names belonged to celebrities and politicians. There’s a widely-held view that they’ve forfeited their right to privacy, encapsulated by the Sun’s furious insistence that it used legal methods to obtain medical information about Gordon Brown’s younger son. So what? The story was a gross intrusion and shouldn’t have been published.

Journalists’ training courses address questions of law and ethics but private investigators don’t have to be trained or licensed to operate. It seems that a symbiotic relationship developed on some papers, with each side encouraging the other in a frenzied pursuit of famous (and not-so-famous) people. A report from the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2006 said that 305 journalists had been identified during Operation Motorman ‘as customers driving the illegal trade in confidential personal information’.

The report identified the cause of the malaise: ‘Journalists have a voracious demand for personal information, especially at the popular end of the market. The more information they reveal about celebrities or anyone remotely in the public eye, the more newspapers they can sell’. A follow-up report listed publications which had used Whittamore’s services: top of the list was the Daily Mail, where 58 journalists had dealings with him on 952 occasions, beating the News of the World into fifth place. The Observer and the Sunday Times appeared lower down, but neither of the Independent titles.

Mulcaire and Whittamore are the investigators whose links with newspapers we know most about, and they help build up a picture of how this unhealthy relationship developed. The News of the World’sinvolvement with Mulcaire started in 1997 and by 2005 he was under exclusive contract, earning £2,019 a week and available ‘all the time’. Meanwhile Whittamore has confirmed that journalists’ demands ‘got more and more personal….telephone account details, that sort of thing, maybe a bank account detail’. He said he couldn’t provide such material but would try to find someone who could.

Because of this kind of behaviour, British journalism finds itself on trial. That’s unfair on reporters and newspapers who follow a strict code of ethics and and haven’t ever resorted to dubious methods to gather information. As various inquiries get under way, I have a very simple suggestion: let’s agree that journalism is the business of journalists, not something to be outsourced to people who will spy on anyone for money.

A new female sleuth making her debut in a child abduction mystery heads this roundup of crime fiction

Sunday Times, 17 July 2011

The abduction of a young child always attracts media attention. In Nicci French’s Blue Monday (M Joseph £12.99/ebook £6.49), a psychoanalyst is treating a man who dreams about a missing child, but the boy’s face is all over the newspapers and she can’t be certain that her client is not involved. When Dr Frieda Klein begins to suspect a link with an unsolved disappearance 20 years earlier, she is torn between her fears for the missing boy and her duty to her client.

Blue Monday is a departure for French, the pseudonym of writing couple Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, who have together produced a dozen hugely successful crime novels. It’s the first in a planned series with Klein as the central character, and marks a move away from the young-woman-in-jeopardy format that has become French’s trademark. The novel has a carefully calibrated build-up of suspense, and Klein’s solitary midnight walks across London suggest mythic elements to her personality, but she’s a promising amateur investigator in a field dominated by hard-boiled cops.

Karen Campbell used to be a police officer and her inside knowledge of investigations contributes a gritty sense of reality to Proof of Life (Hodder £19.99/ebook £10.99). This is Campbell’s fourth novel featuring a woman detective, Glasgow-based Chief Inspector Anna Cameron, and it presents her with the toughest ethical dilemma of her career. Seven months pregnant, Cameron faces disaster when she recognises a dead woman who’s just been pulled from a canal and realises that the killer is out to get her as well. Campbell has the makings of a fine crime writer if she learns to pare her prose down to the essentials.

The Dinosaur Feather (Quercus £12.99) arrives in the UK with glowing testimonials for its author, Sissel-Jo Gazan. It’s been voted Danish crime novel of the decade and it can lay claim to a singularly bizarre method of murder: the first victim dies an agonising death, biting off his own tongue when he is deliberately infected with a rare parasite. The death of Lars Helland, a professor of biology at Copenhagen university, coincides with the imminent arrival of a Canadian academic who is a furious critic of his work.

The novel’s title refers to an academic dispute about whether birds are descended from dinosaurs, and Helland’s graduate student, Anna Bella, initially seems more anxious about defending her thesis on the origin of birds than her teacher’s freakish demise. The unusual plot doesn’t entirely compensate for a ponderous structure, and the means of Helland’s dispatch reduces the number of suspects to a small group with access to the parasite in question.

Arnaldur Indridason’s new novel, Outrage (Harvill Secker £12.99/ebook £13.56), is further evidence that he’s one of the most brilliant crime writers of his generation. With the introspective Inspector Erlendur away from Reykjavik on mysterious business of his own, Indridason’s female detective Elinborg takes on a case involving a young man found murdered in his flat. There’s no evidence of a break-in and the case takes a sinister turn when the corpse’s mouth turns out to be stuffed with a prescription drug associated with date rape.

Elinborg has featured in previous Reykjavik novels but here she comes into her own. The case is linked to a number of unsolved rapes and Elinborg faces the dilemma of a woman cop sympathetic to the female victims but also aware that her job is to catch the killer. The novel contains tantalising hints that her absent boss Erlendur is in trouble. This is a superb read, handling the delicate subject of rape in a way that’s both riveting and unsensational.

An Evil Eye (Faber £14.99/ebook £12.99) is the latest outing for Jason Goodwin’s charming Ottoman detective, the eunuch Yashim. Sultan Mahmut II has just died, throwing the women of his harem into turmoil. Goodwin vividly recreates the sinister atmosphere of the harem, where women and babies can simply disappear, and Yashim’s privileged access is crucial to solving a mystery involving political rivalries at the highest level.

Ernesto Mallo’s crime novels are set in 1980s Argentina, where scores from the years of brutal dictatorship are still being settled and victims of criminal gangs turn up next to people murdered by death squads. In Sweet Money (Bitter Lemon Press £8.99), Mallo’s Superintendent Lascano is recovering from a near-fatal shooting under the protection of the man who’s about to become police chief of Buenos Aires. When his mentor is removed by a ruthless rival, it’s too dangerous for Lascano to go back to his old job and he’s hired by a bank to track down an old adversary who’s just pulled off a huge heist. Mallo’s novels are mordant, political and utterly compelling.

The Golden Cage: Three Brothers, Three Choices, One Destiny, by Shirin Ebadi, trans Nathaniel Rich Kales

The Times, Saturday 16 July 2011

Tehran’s notorious Evin prison stands to the northwest of the city, in the foothills of the Alborz mountains. It was opened under the Shah of Iran, whose intelligence service, Savak, tortured opponents within its walls, and it expanded rapidly after the Islamic revolution. The prison is approached by a long incline known as the “ramp of repentance”, so named because Revolutionary Guards taunt political detainees that the walk itself is enough to make them repent.

In her riveting memoir of a middle-class Tehran family, the exiled Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi recalls how her best friend Pari became painfully familiar with the ramp when one of her brothers was held in Evin prison. Javad was a member of the Tudeh, the Iranian communist party, and he was jailed for taking part in a student demonstration during the Shah’s rule. Pari and her mother, Simin, had to steel themselves to visit him, returning each time “destroyed” by the misery they’d witnessed; Javad was released after a year bearing visible signs of torture, including a broken nose and a long scar on his right cheek. Ebadi recalls that he also had difficulty in walking, writing that “in prison they had whipped the soles of his feet as a form of torture: as soon as the wounds showed signs of healing, they’d reopen them with more violent lashes”.

In 1988, Pari was forced to return to the “ramp of repentance” after Javad was arrested a second time, on this occasion by Revolutionary Guards. Ebadi accompanied her to the prison but was not permitted to enter, leaving Pari to brave its horrors on her own. She was shocked by how much her brother had aged, gazing in dismay at his grey hair, wrinkled neck and eyes “veiled by exhaustion and suffering”. Javad’s request that she bring him “something warm” on her next visit led to a two-hour interrogation by the guards, who suspected that the phrase was a form of code. Two months later, before Pari was able to visit him again, Javad was removed from solitary confinement and put in front of a firing squad with five other political prisoners. He was 38.

Javad was the middle of three brothers whose political affiliations were to test family loyalties to destruction. Raised in an idyllic home in Tehran with an orchard and a view of the Alborz mountains, the brothers embraced opposing political creeds, becoming totally estranged in adulthood. From Ebadi’s standpoint as a democrat and human rights activist — in 2003 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — each brother isolated himself in a “golden cage” of ideology, which made him forget his humanity. She suggests that their hostility to each other is emblematic of the conflicts tearing apart many Iranian families in this turbulent period.

The chronology of these events is not always easy to follow; Ebadi is sparing with dates and has a tendency to offer novelistic accounts of scenes from the family’s history that she did not personally witness. But the story she tells is remarkable: the eldest brother, Abbas, is a fervent monarchist who follows a military career and rises to the rank of general in the Shah’s Army. He could not be more unlike Javad, whose prison record and membership of the Tudeh render him unemployable under both regimes; meanwhile neither one has any sympathy with their baby brother Ali, who grows up to be a devoted follower of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Ali spends his afternoons at the mosque, praying and learning to memorise the suras, causing raised eyebrows among other members of the family who are not particularly devout. His mother hopes that his piety will protect him from the “political manias” of his older brothers, but the clerical dictatorship that follows the Shah’s fall is enmeshed in politics. Ali grows into “a stubborn man who couldn’t make sense of any ideas that weren’t in line with the Revolution, Islam, and the orders of his superiors”, ending up on the front line in Iran’s terrible war with Iraq. Defending his hero Khomeini from Saddam Hussein has tragic consequences for Ali and his young family.

The book covers a 60-year period from the Shah’s power struggle with his popular and reforming Prime Minister, Mossadegh, to the present day. Abbas reveals himself as a zealot early on, joining the mob that stormed Mossadegh’s palace in 1953 and emerging with the ousted prime minister’s pen as a souvenir. “We arrested Mossadegh!” the schoolboy boasts to his horrified parents. In one of the book’s autobiographical asides, Ebadi recalls that her father, a law professor, lost his job because of his passionate support for Mossadegh and tried to ban political conversation at home to protect his family. But his influence — his commitment to democratic politics and women’s rights — shines through every page of his daughter’s book.

What begins as a portrait of a single family widens out into an extraordinary evocation of daily life under two unpleasant political systems. Inside Iran, mass executions mark the early years of the Ayatollah’s regime, while political assassinations are carried out by its agents in European cities. Scarves and chadors become hated inconveniences as Pari and Ebadi deal with implacable officials who will not look them in the eye. Pari becomes isolated at the university where she works, tainted by her association with Javad and accused of subverting her students even when she is no longer allowed to teach; Ebadi is dismissed as one of Iran’s first female judges. Pari’s mother becomes an ever more tragic figure, spending her widowhood in a cramped flat where she struggles to come to terms with the fate of her three sons: one executed, two in exile.

Years after being forced out of her job as a judge, Ebadi managed to get a licence to practise as a lawyer, working on behalf of women and children and defending high-profile dissidents. Harassed by the authorities, in 2009 she decided it was too dangerous to go on working in Tehran and joined Pari in exile in London. While still in Iran, Ebadi had represented Pari in an attempt to get permission from the state to build a monument to the regime’s murdered opponents at the site of a mass grave. Permission was denied but this moving book is a monument in itself, commemorating friendship and the human spirit.

Kales, 256pp, £19.99.