Our worst nightmare

Sunday Times, 15 Jan 2012

With telling insight, two authors deal with the effects of violence on the very young in this roundup of recent crime novels

The impact of violence on children is a sensitive subject. It calls for special interviewing skills and a realisation that the victim may be too traumatised to talk about what’s happened, even if it impedes an urgent  investigation. This is the dilemma facing an Austrian detective, Criminal Commissioner Kovacs, in a striking new novel by the award-winning Viennese writer Paulus Hochgatterer.

Hochgatterer is a child psychiatrist and won the 2009 European Literature prize with his first novel, The Sweetness of Life. The Mattress  House, translated by Jamie Bulloch (Quercus £18.99/ebook £18.99) is set in a picturesque Alpine village whose residents turn up with disturbing frequency in the psychiatric department of the local hospital. Patients slash themselves with razors and post distressing photographs of each other on the internet while their psychiatrist, Raffael Horn, is distracted by anxieties about his marriage and struggles to understand a series of child abductions. The children are all of primary-school age and they reappear with bruises on their shoulders, talking about a sinister “black owl”. Horn and Kovacs come under pressure from worried local people to find the perpetrator, not realising that the beatings are a pointer to something nfinitely more sinister. In a country still haunted by the notorious crimes of Josef Fritzl, The Mattress House offers surreal but telling insights into the minds of young victims.

Belinda Bauer burst onto the scene two years ago when her first novel, Blacklands, was judged CWA crime novel of the year. Her third novel, Finders Keepers (Bantam 4.99/ebook £8.99), has a similar theme to The Mattress House, but her plot about a series of child abductions takes the reader into very different territory. Bauer has established a reputation for plunging her characters into unimaginable gore and her third novel easily matches her previous efforts, exposing village bobby Jonas Holly - still recovering from a narrow escape from death in an earlier outing — to events  unprecedented in British crime fiction. The British countryside has never appeared so alien or macabre.

Simon Lelic’s The Child Who (Mantle £12.99/ebook £8.99) is written under the shadow of the 1993 James Bulger case. A 12-year-old boy, Daniel Blake, has been arrested on suspicion of the murder of a schoolgirl, and the case raises predictable passions. The main character is the boy’s solicitor, Leo Curtice, whose mixed motives include genuine curiosity about the boy and an urge to make a splash with the case. Lelic’s earlier novels drew critical acclaim and his first, Rupture, won a Betty Trask award. But he is an uneven writer, with a taste for sensational subject matter and frequent lurches in tone. When Curtice’s own daughter disappears, the plot loses focus and takes off in a frankly unbelievable direction, leaving behind a general impression of messiness.

Elly Griffiths sets her novels on the bleak Norfolk coast, where Ruth Galloway, her archeologist-detective, lives in an isolated cottage. Galloway is an engaging character, a single mother who wrestles with self-doubt and a fraught relationship with a married detective. A Room Full of Bones (Quercus £16.99/ebook £16.99) opens in a dusty private museum in King’s Lynn where the coffin of a medieval bishop is about to be opened. Galloway arrives early to find the curator dead on the floor, and shortly afterwards the museum’s owner dies in mysterious circumstances. Griffiths’s novels occupy a world where modern science and new-age mysticism coexist, but her characters’ flights of fancy are leavened by common sense and humanity.

Peter May’s novels also have a rural setting, this time the sparsely populated Isle of Lewis. In The Lewis Man (Quercus £12.99/ebook £12.99) a perfectly preserved corpse is discovered by peat-cutters who assume it’s thousands of years old. Knife wounds and an Elvis tattoo dispel that impression, and DNA tests establish that the dead man is related to an island woman, Marsaili Macdonald, who always believed she had no close relatives other than her father Tormod. Marsaili’s former boyfriend, Fin Macleod, is drawn into the investigation despite the fact that he’s given up his job as a police  inspector in Edinburgh. His discovery that Tormod isn’t who he claims to be uncovers a long-buried scandal involving children sent from city orphanages to island families, where they were used as unpaid labour. There is a clunky plot twist towards the end, involving a not very plausible gangster, but otherwise it’s well worth reading.

Tom Benn’s The Doll Princess (Cape £12.99/ebook £13.56) is a first novel from a graduate of the University of East Anglia creative-writing course, and it comes with high expectations. Set in Manchester in 1996, soon after part of the city centre was destroyed by an IRA bomb, the novel is about sex-trafficking and conflicts between gangs. It starts with the deaths of two young women (an Egyptian socialite and a local prostitute) and goes from bad to worse. Neither woman is remotely credible and it is narrated by Bane, a thug with a conscience, in a tiresome Manchester dialect. Violent and cartoonish, the novel is the literary equivalent of being stuck in an early Guy Ritchie

Stuart Neville’s Stolen Souls (Harvill Secker £12.99/ebook £8.99) is a much more satisfying book, dealing in a humane way with the plight of trafficked women. It is set in rainy Belfast over Christmas, where an East European woman is on the run after killing one of her Lithuanian captors. With nowhere to hide, Galya accepts an offer of shelter, only to find herself threatened by a different kind of predator. A weary but decent police inspector, Jack Lennon, has the job of finding her before she falls victim to any of her pursuers. Scary, but always humane.


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