Out of Africa

The Sunday Times, 24 February 2013
   A Maasai warrior turned policeman is a fine new arrival in the ranks of fictional detectives in Joan Smith’s round-up
   The best crime novels say a great deal about the time and place in which they’re set. Street names in Oslo and Stockholm have become familiar through the Nordic novelists nd now a British journalist, Richard Crompton, has produced the first in a projected seies of books set in Kenya. The Honey Guide (Weidenfeld £12.99/ebook £6.99) introduces Mollel, a former Maasai warrior who now has a humdrum job in the police frce in Nairobi. Mollel is an intriguing figure, famous as the man who pulled dozens of srvivors from the wreckage of the US embassy after it was bombed in 1998. The novel pens in the run-up to the 2007 elections, when tension in the city is high amid alegations that the governing party intends to use fraud to stay in power. Mollel is ivestigating the murder and mutilation of a young Maasai woman, but it isn’t long before politics intrudes. ­Mollel’s vulnerabilities gradually unfold, revealing a damaged but determined character who promises to be a fine addition to the ranks of fictional detectives.
   Parker Bilal also writes about Africa and Dogstar Rising (Bloomsbury £11.99/ebook £11.99), his second novel set in Egypt, is as gripping as the first. Bilal’s books take place a decade before the Arab spring, in a Cairo where corruption and police brutality are the norm. Tension between the majority Muslim population and the Christian Copts forms the background to the new novel, in which sightings of a mysterious “angel” near a Coptic church seem to be linked to the murders of young boys. Bilal’s detective, Makana, is an outsider, a former ­Sudanese police officer scraping a living as a private detective in Cairo. Bilal is the pseudonym of a literary novelist, Jamal Mahjoub, and his skills are evident in the pace, confidence and emotional truth of this brilliant novel.
   Belinda Bauer has had a dream career as a writer of crime fiction, becoming one of its biggest names in the space of only three years. Her first book, Blacklands, won the 2010 CWA Gold Dagger, startling readers with a plot about a boy corresponding with a convicted paedophile in the hope of finding his uncle’s killer. Her fourth, Rubbernecker (Bantam £14.99/ebook £8.99), confirms her taste for the macabre, dividing its action between a neurological ward and a university dissection class. Bauer’s main character, Patrick Fort, is a young man whose take on the world is literal and obsessive. She never actually says he’s on the autistic spectrum but ­Patrick has been bullied at school and overprotected by his mother. Now he is heading off to university to study anatomy and hopes one day to work in a mortuary. His group of students is dissecting the cadaver of a middle-aged man when Patrick notices something that shouldn’t be there. This is not a novel for the squeamish but it contains one of the most startling plots in contemporary crime fiction.
   Elly Griffiths also writes about examining corpses, but in her novels they tend to be centuries old. Her main character, Dr Ruth Galloway, a forensic archeologist living in an isolated cottage in Norfolk, is a single mother who has an awkward relationship with her daughter’s father, DCI Nelson. In Dying Fall (Quercus £14.99/ebook £16.99), Galloway and Nelson find themselves in Blackpool, after the death of an archeologist in a fire. The dead man asked Galloway for advice just before the fire and she believes he was about to discover the tomb of the Raven King, a figure traditionally associated with King Arthur. Like the French writer Fred Vargas, Griffiths weaves superstition and myth into her crime novels, skilfully treading a line between credulity and modern methods of detection.
   Peter May’s The Chessmen (Quercus £14.99/ebook £14.99) completes the author’s trilogy set on the Isle of Lewis. Fin Macleod, a detective who has come home after the death of his child and the end of his marriage, is head of security on a private estate. He is looking for poachers when he finds the wreckage of a private plane. Inside is a decomposed body and Fin is convinced it is that of his childhood friend Roddy, whose plane disappeared many years ago. Fin can’t understand why another old friend, poacher Whistler Macaskill, is so uninterested in the discovery. Macaskill is a talented sculptor who has filled his isolated croft with giant replicas of the Lewis chessman, but he’s prickly and difficult. May’s novels are strong on place and the wounds left by old  relationships, but his taste for theatrical devices emerges once again towards the end of the novel.
   Robert Ryan’s Dead Man’s Land (Simon & Schuster £12.99/ebook £6.99) is set in the First World War, where a serial killer is using the trenches to conceal his crimes. The most notable feature of the novel is its use of an elderly Dr Watson (estranged from Sherlock Holmes) as an amateur detective. Watson has volunteered to go to the front in spite of his age and against Holmes’s wishes, and he’s constantly aware of the youth of the soldiers dying around him. He has brought equipment to carry out blood transfusions, a treatment still in its infancy, but he’s diverted into investigating a series of unexplained deaths. Men who were expected to survive are dying after displaying alarming symptoms, including a hideous spasm of the lips. Watson keenly feels the absence of Holmes, who is in frail health, and their estrangement plays a key role in this bleak but tender novel.

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