Watching the detectives

Sunday Times, 9 March 2014

The relationship between children and adults has always fascinated the Gold Dagger winner Belinda Bauer. She began her writing career with a novel about a boy trying to discover the truth about his uncle’s murder, and she returns to similar territory in The Facts of Life and Death (Bantam £14.99/ebook £6.49).

Ten-year-old Ruby lives in a crumbling Devon village, and she is worried her parents might be going to split up. Ruby is a daddy’s girl and she loves going with him on excursions. They spend their evenings driving along country lanes, pretending they’re on the trail of a serial killer who forces his victims to call their mothers just before he murders them. But the murders aren’t a game and Ruby gets too close to the killer in another of Bauer’s gripping and original novels.

When he died, Raymond Chandler left a notebook with a list of titles. Now Benjamin Black (better known as the Irish novelist John Banville) has appropriated one of them for a Chandler pastiche. The Black-Eyed Blonde (Mantle £16.99/ebook £10.99) stars Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe, in a tale that begins with a visit to his Los Angeles office from Clare Cavendish, the eponymous blonde. Cavendish, heiress to a perfume fortune, asks Marlowe to find her missing lover, Nico Peterson. Marlowe learns that Peterson supposedly died in a road accident outside a club in the Palisades, suggesting that his client has been less than frank. The imitation is cleverly done but a little lifeless, while the social commentary that was a feature of classic American crime novels feels heavy-handed here.

From 1950s California to post-apartheid South Africa is a leap, but the country is producing some of the best hard-boiled crime fiction around today. Mike Nicol’s latest novel comes with an unwieldy title, Of Cops & Robbers (Old Street £12.99/ebook £9.99), but everything else about his writing is sure-footed. Unlike his contemporary Deon Meyer, who writes in Afrikaans, Nicol writes in English and relies heavily on slang. It works because his main character, a private detective known as “Fish” Pescado, would rather be surfing than doing any real work. Pescado is hired for, and almost instantly fired from, a job investigating an illegal drag race in which a student has been seriously injured. At the same time, someone is targeting former members of a government-backed assassination squad. Nicol handles these competing plot strands with as much cool as his fictional investigator.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s fabulous Department Q novels are set in the basement of police headquarters in Copenhagen. His protagonist, Carl Morck, belongs in a long line of gloomy Nordic detectives, but his sidekicks, including a mysterious Syrian cleaner, are in a class of their own. The starting-point in Guilt, translated by Martin Aitken (Penguin £7.99/ebook £4.99), is the unsolved disappearance of a woman who owned an escort agency; the case seems to be linked to a home where troubled young women were forcibly sterilised in the 1950s. Adler-Olsen combines suspense and psychological insight with human sympathy.

Jung-Myung Lee’s extraordinary The Investigation, translated by Chi-Young Kim (Mantle £16.99/ebook £16.99), is set in a period of Korean history that isn’t widely known in the West. In 1944, with the region still under Japanese rule, Korean inmates of Fukuoka prison are not allowed to use their own language. A young guard is ordered to find the killer of another guard and stumbles on a sinister conspiracy — and the work of a Korean poet who writes clandestine verses of rare beauty. Inspired by the work of Yun Dong-ju, the dissident Korean writer who died in Fukuoka in 1945, this is a heart-wrenching novel with many unexpected twists.

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