Love and death are all around

Sunday Times, 6 October 2013

Jo Nesbo is back with a novel that may come as a shock to many of his fans. His last book left his detective, Harry Hole, in what seemed like a terminal situation, yet Police, translated by Don Bartlett (Harvill  Secker £18.99/ebook £19.81), is billed as “the new Harry Hole thriller”. Nesbo is not in any hurry to solve this conundrum as Hole’s old team struggles to discover the identity of a serial killer who is targeting police officers in Oslo. The murders take place at the scenes of unsolved crimes, as though the killer is punishing the police for past failures.

Much of the suspense in the early chapters depends on the reader not knowing what has happened to Hole, and the novel is full of clues that lead in the wrong direction. But that isn’t the only reason why the book is an uncomfortable read. Hole’s attitude to his long-term girlfriend Rakel has always been grimly sentimental, but now Nesbo introduces a sinister erotic ­element. The juxtaposition of grotesque crimes and perverse romance is jarring, and adds to the sense that the series has become over­dependent on sensational developments.

Sue Grafton’s “alphabet” series of crime novels has entertained readers for years. She is on top form in W Is for Wasted (Mantle £17.99/ebook £17.99), presenting her private detective Kinsey ­Millhone with murders that turn out to be intimately linked to her family history. This is a shock for ­Kinsey, who is famously an orphan with few surviving relatives; but when a homeless man is found dead on a local beach, with Kinsey’s phone number in his pocket, she discovers that most of her assumptions have been wrong. Grafton’s decision to shake up Kinsey’s settled existence is unexpected, and promises an intriguing finale to this long-running series.

Hakan Nesser’s novels are usually strong on psychological insight. So The Strangler’s ­Honeymoon, translated by Laurie Thompson (Mantle £16.99/ebook £10.99), proves something of a disappointment. His detective Van Veeteren has retired from the force when a woman’s decomposing body is found in her flat in the author’s fictional town of Maardam; the woman’s 16-year-old daughter is missing and the killer has almost certainly committed other murders. Van Veeteren is called in and the case seems perfect for his ­intuitive ­understanding of human nature, but the killer turns out to be a mother-fixated psychopath. A subplot involving a ­vengeful woman is frankly incredible, and the novel ends with a burst of ­senseless violence.

Australia has had its share of sensational trials, including the wrongful ­conviction of a mother whose baby was taken by a dingo. Such cases are never far from the minds of characters in The Cry by Helen FitzGerald (Faber £7.99/ebook £6.99), which centres on the disappearance of a nine-week-old baby on a lonely road in Australia. Joanna and Alistair have just arrived from Glasgow and are taking their son to visit his grandmother outside Melbourne when the child vanishes.

Witnesses come forward, de­scribing Joanna’s frantic attempts to get the baby to stop crying on the long plane journey. An anonymous website accuses her of being a bad mother, while Twitter buzzes with speculation. In this very modern novel, which arrives at a startling conclusion, FitzGerald manipulates our knowledge of earlier cases in which women have been wrongly accused.

Dead Water (Pan Macmillan £7.99/ ebook £5.99) marks a welcome return by Ann Cleeves to Shetland, where her detective Jimmy Perez is mourning the murder of his fiancée in an earlier novel. With Perez working part-time, DI Willow Reeves is brought in to investigate the murder of a journalist whose body is found in a traditional Shetland boat. It represents the start of a fascinating working relationship in Cleeves’s novels, which have always been strong on place and character.

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