Veiled Bodies

Sunday Times, 8 July 2012

Zoë Ferraris is an American who used to live in Saudi Arabia, and Kingdom of Strangers ­(Little Brown £13.99/ebook £5.99) is the third in her fine series of novels set in the claustrophobic society of Jeddah. There, women can go out only if accompanied by male “guardians”, but the Saudi boast that women are treated with respect is challenged by a gruesome discovery in the desert.

Nineteen women have been murdered, proving that a serial killer is on the loose — but nobody has noticed. The case is assigned to Lt-Col Inspector Ibrahim ­Zahrani, a thoughtful officer with pressing problems. Zahrani is unhappily married and his mistress is missing, but he can’t report her disappearance because adultery is punishable by death. ­Distracted and out of his depth, Zahrani turns to Katya Hijazi, one of the force’s few female officers. Suspense and social commentary combine brilliantly as Katya’s  dilemmas provide insights into daily life in the kingdom, and the state of denial that exists about violence against women.

Ruth Rendell has always been fascinated by everyday life in the suburbs. But her latest novel, The Saint Zita Society (Hutchinson £18.99/ebook £19.81), turns a sharp eye on an exclusive region in central London. Pimlico is one of the city’s most affluent areas but it is also diverse, attracting people from around the world who work as domestic staff. Rendell’s novel focuses on some of these employees: a Spanish au pair, a cleaner from Antigua and a British Muslim widow. This disparate little group is uneasy about Dex, who has recently been released from a psychiatric hospital and hears “voices” via his mobile phone, but they allow him to join the organisation they’ve set up to air their grievances — the Saint Zita Society, which is named after the patron
saint of servants.

The society’s driving force is June Caldwell, an elderly housekeeper who’s been with Princess Susan Hapsburg since she was in her teens. But the class system is fragile and resentments build up, fuelled by how much the domestic staff know about their employers’ affairs. When a banker’s marriage breaks up, their au pair spots a chance to ally herself with the angry husband, with fatal consequences. ­Rendell’s prose style is unadorned, but she uses it to create memorable characters and nail-biting suspense.

Much of the violence in the superb Bed of Nails by Antonin Varenne, translated by Sian Reynolds (MacLehose £18.99/ebook £15.20), is self-inflicted. The novel opens with a team of hard-boiled Parisian cops viewing CCTV images of a naked man running into traffic, culminating in his gory death. The case belongs to Guerin, a maverick detective who has been put in charge of investigating suicides. Guerin suspects that some of his suicides were encouraged to kill themselves by a mysterious ­couple who regularly appear at death scenes. His suspicions are further aroused when a young American kills himself in an S&M nightclub. The novel has a strikingly original plot and characters, and its ­pessimism is balanced by Varenne’s inexhaustible human sympathy.

Jane Casey began her crime-writing career with The Missing, a clever novel about abducted children. The Last Girl (Ebury £12.99/ebook £11.64) has a searing opening, when a mother and daughter are murdered on the ground floor of their large house in Wimbledon, and the girl’s father is found unconscious upstairs. The dead girl’s twin sister survives, finding the bodies when she comes home from a late-night swim. Casey handles several plot lines with ease, and she’s come up with an attractive series character in DC Maeve Kerrigan.

Asa Larsson’s novels feature contrasting female protagonists: a detective and a prosecutor who work together in ­northern Sweden; Inspector Anna-Maria Mella has a husband and four children, while Rebecka Martinsson lives alone. At the start of The Black Path, translated by Marlaine Delargy (MacLehose £18.99/ebook £11.64), Martinsson is recovering from a breakdown after a case that ended with her killing three men in self-defence. She is drawn into Mella’s latest assignment when a woman’s frozen body is found in a fishing hut, apparently showing signs of torture. The growing friendship between Mella and Martinsson is one of the best things about Larsson’s novels, which grow in confidence with each book.

Jussi Adler-Olsen is the author of the Department Q series of novels that has won Denmark’s top literary prize. ­Disgrace, translated by KE Semmel (Penguin £7.99/ebook £3.99), is a follow-up to Mercy, his extraordinary novel about a kidnapped politician. Detective Carl Morck is in charge of Department Q, the cold-cases division of Copenhagen police, and the latest file to land on his desk is 20 years old. A brother and sister were murdered for no apparent reason, and the chief suspects were a group of students from an elite boarding school. Disgrace isn’t quite as original as Mercy, but Adler-Olsen’s ­fascination with abnormal psychology once again pays off.

 

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