Sunday Times, 13 April 2014
An ingenious revenge tale from Jo Nesbo is a dramatic opener to our crime roundup
Jo Nesbo is having a break from writing about his troubled detective, Harry Hole. His new novel, The Son, translated by Charlotte Barslund (Harvill Secker £18.99/ebook £18.99), is about a heroin addict who stages an unexpected break from an Oslo jail. The young man, Sonny, is a model prisoner who has confessed to murders he didn’t commit in return for a regular supply of drugs. His escape is followed by a series of killings, which Nesbo describes with his usual relish for ingenious methods of murder. Sonny’s late father was a detective, and a cop who knew them both realises Sonny is out for almost-biblical revenge on the gangsters who staged his father’s suicide. The novel has Nesbo’s trademark twists and turns but sentimentality is becoming a habitual flaw in his writing, inviting the reader to overlook the ethical void at the heart of his fiction.
The French novelist Fred Vargas could be Nesbo’s polar opposite, producing hugely readable novels that never lose sight of her characters’ moral imperatives. Dog Will Have His Day, translated by Sian Reynolds (Harvill Secker £14.99/ebook £14.99), is a departure from her Inspector Adamsberg series and brings back characters from an earlier Vargas novel, The Three Evangelists. Seldom has a murder mystery been kicked off by a more slender clue, a human bone that has been eaten by a dog and deposited in a park in Paris. The bone is spotted by a sharp-eyed ex-cop, Louis Kehlweiler, who is sufficiently troubled to take it to a police station. When his former colleagues show little interest, he identifies the dog and follows the trail to a Breton fishing village. Few contemporary crime writers can match Vargas’s soaring imaginative flights, which have won her the CWA international dagger on four occasions.
Thomas Mogford is a relative newcomer whose crime novels are set in Gibraltar. Hollow Mountain (Bloomsbury £11.99/ebook £7.99) is a classic detective story in which a lawyer, Spike Sanguinetti, finds himself representing an international salvage company. The firm is trying to salvage lead ingots from a wreck and needs legal help after coming across a hoard of silver coins, but Sanguinetti begins to suspect more sinister motives. Some of the plot developments are signalled a little too obviously, but Mogford is a fluent writer and the book gains from its unusual setting.
The American author Ben Pastor has produced a fine series of novels featuring a conscience-stricken Wehrmacht officer in the Second World War. Her latest, A Dark Song of Blood (Bitter Lemon £8.99/ebook £8.99), places Major Martin von Bora in Rome in 1944. While each day brings news of allied advances, Bora is ordered to investigate the death of a secretary at the German embassy. The investigation brings him into conflict with the SS, but he also has to weigh the significance of one unexplained death against a mass execution carried out by the Germans on the outskirts of Rome. This is historical crime fiction at its best, vividly re-creating the atmosphere of a city occupied by an increasingly desperate army.
Depressed male detectives have become a cliché of modern crime fiction, but few have psychological problems on the scale of Harry Bingham’s Welsh cop, Fiona Griffiths. As well as being a woman, Griffiths is recovering from Cotard’s syndrome, a condition that leads sufferers to believe they are dead, and she struggles to feel normal emotions. This makes her an ideal candidate for a dangerous undercover operation in The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths (Orion £12.99/ebook £12.99), where she assumes a new identity to infiltrate an international fraud. But it also threatens her fragile sense of self, confronting the reader with profound questions about human nature in the midst of a fast-paced plot.