Breaking Taboos

Sunday Times, 9 June 2013

It is a striking fact that disabled people rarely take centre stage in crime fiction. Perhaps authors feel that their books are dark enough without addressing subjects such as the vulnerability of patients who are entirely dependent n other people for their wellbeing. So it feels as if the Icelandic writer Ysa Sigurdardottir is breaking taboos when she sets her new novel in a care hme that is burnt down by a fire in which five of the six residents are klled.

At the beginning of Someone to Wtch Over Me, translated by Philip Roughton (Hodder £13.99/ebook £7.99), te only survivor of the fire is Jakob, a young man with Down’s syndrome. He hs been convicted of arson and is in a secure facility where another inmate, a convicted child abuser, has become convinced of his innocence. The paedophile approaches a lawyer, Thora, who has appeared in ­Sigurdardottir’s earlier novels, and asks her to reopen the case. Thora is shocked to discover that some of the residents were horribly abused before the fire, but she is also astonished by the resilience of the severely disabled people she encounters. This is a tough but moving novel, with an unusual plot and characters.

DA  Mishani is an Israeli historian of crime ­fiction and The Missing File, translated by Steve Cohen (Quercus £16.99/ebook £5.99), is his first novel. Inspector Avi Avraham puts his foot in it in the first chapter, asking the mother of a missing teenage boy why there are no detective novels in Hebrew. His theory is that Israel doesn’t have sufficiently spectacular criminals, but it isn’t what the anxious woman wants to hear. Her eldest son went to school as usual and never came back, her husband is on a cargo ship bound for Trieste and she is on her own with two other children in a small flat in Tel Aviv.

Avraham’s glib reassurance that the boy will return safely turns out to be wrong. Crimes of this type are rare in the neighbourhood — Avraham is at least right about that — and he comes under intense pressure from the close community to solve the case. It is complicated by the behaviour of a neighbour, a teacher with a vivid imagination who believes he has a psychic connection to the boy’s ­disappearance. Mishani’s novel is low-key, avoiding the shocks of popular crime ­fiction, but its vivid characters and ­setting linger in the memory.

The Good Suicides, translated by Laura McGloughlin (Doubleday £14.99/ebook 15.64), is the second of Antonio Hill’s accomplished detective novels set in Barcelona. His detective, Hector ­Salgado, is devastated by the disappearance of his wife, who was living with another woman when she vanished. While one of his colleagues secretly begins her own investigation into the disappearance, Salgado’s official job is to take a closer look at Alemany Cosmetics, a company with a glamorous image and a rash of suicides among senior executives. The deaths started after a team-building exercise in a remote country house that nobody wants to talk about, and the investigation allows Hill to offer more insights into the character of his intelligent and appealing detective.

Two gripping novels set in west London offer very different versions of the police and how they operate. In The Detective’s Daughter (Head of Zeus £16.99/ebook 99p), Lesley Thomson creates a claustrophobic portrait of an affluent area of west London, seen through the eyes of a woman who owns a cleaning company. As a child, Stella Darnell believed that her father cared more about his job as a detective than he did about her, and she knows that he never ­relinquished his obsession with the unsolved murder of a young mother in Chiswick in 1981. She is shocked to ­discover that he was pursuing a new lead at the time of his sudden death, and by the further revelation that she knows most of the witnesses in this strange case. This is a haunting novel about loss and reconciliation, driven by a simple but clever plot.

Stav Sherez’s Eleven Days (Faber £12.99/ebook £7.99) is set not far away from Thomson’s novel in Notting Hill, but his milieu is brutal and impersonal, featuring gangsters who treat their ­victims as commodities. Shortly before Christmas, a fire sweeps through a small convent, ­killing 10 nuns who are found upstairs in a locked room. Another victim, a young woman, is discovered in the basement. Several of the
nuns spent time in Peru at a time when liberation theology was at the height of its influence, and the Vatican’s representative in London does his best to close the investigation down. The novel marks a second outing for DI Carrigan and his equally driven DS, Geneva Miller; Sherez’s novels are strikingly modern and infused with a passionate belief in justice.

Robert Costantini takes on the Vatican in The Deliverance of Evil, translated by NS Thompson (Quercus £14.99/ebook £10.99). This sprawling novel begins in Rome in 1982, with most of the city intent on a televised football match. No one takes much notice when an 18-year-old woman fails to return home, but a few days later her body is found on the gravel bed of the Tiber. The detective assigned to the case, Michele Balistreri, is arrogant, sexist and no match for the dead woman’s employer, Cardinal Alessandrini. Twenty-four years later, Balistreri is worn out, conscience-stricken and troubled by his superiors’ eagerness to pin a spate of sexually motivated murders on illegal immigrants. His failure in the 1982 case returns to give him nightmares in a novel that makes a confused attempt to confront violence against women.

Jenny Mayhew’s first novel, A Wolf in Hindelheim (Hutchinson £14.99/ebook £15.65), is set in rural Germany in 1926. A detective struggles with the war wounds that have left him scarred and nauseous, watched anxiously by his son and ambitious daughter-in-law. When a baby’s body is found in a woodshed, he is ­puzzled by the bereaved family’s ­curious reaction, but then he begins to suspect that the sinister ideas of eugenics have reached even this backwater. ­Mayhew skilfully evokes the atmosphere of between-the-wars Germany, offering ominous intimations of the political upheavals soon to come.


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