Hostages to Misfortune

The Sunday Times, 5 October 2014

Reporters are used to dealing with other people’s pain. Few are used to being the centre of an international incident, which is what happens in Liza Marklund’s outstanding Borderline, translated by Neil Smith (Corgi £7.99/ebook £4.48). Journalist Annika Bengtzon is covering the murder of a young mother in Stockholm when she gets shocking news. Her husband, Thomas, who works for the Swedish ministry of justice, has been kidnapped in Kenya.

Annika’s day job is pushed to one side as she desperately tries to find out who is holding him. Marklund has always written about newspapers with an insider’s eye, and the reaction of Annika’s boss offers a sardonic commentary on the modern media. A ransom demand for $40m sends her into despair, and things get worse when one of the other hostages is butchered. The novel delivers an emotional punch rare in contemporary crime fiction.

Journalistic ethics feature again in Good Girls Don’t Die (Quercus £6.99/ebook £6.99) by Isabelle Grey. Her detective, Grace Fisher, is starting a new job in Essex after being hounded out of her last post for “grassing” on a corrupt colleague. A student disappears after a night out, and it isn’t long before the body of another young woman is discovered on a building site. Feeling isolated, Grace turns to her old friend Roxanne, but she is working on a local newspaper and a conflict of interest looms. This fast-moving novel combines clever plot twists with a surprising delicacy of feeling.

In Kristina Ohlsson’s Hostage, translated by Marlaine Delargy (Simon & Schuster £12.99/ebook £6.49), her detective, Alex Recht, is called in to help security services when a bomb threat is found on board a jumbo jet; all the passengers will die unless a Moroccan man, who is about to be deported, is allowed to stay in Sweden. Recht has a personal interest in the case — his son is the co-pilot — but there are plot weaknesses and the novel doesn’t live up to Ohlsson’s usual high standard.

The wars in former Yugoslavia continue to haunt the characters in The Skeleton Road (Little, Brown £18.99/ebook £9.49) by Val McDermid. Someone is killing war-crimes suspects before they can be tried in the Hague, but no one knows the identity of the assassin. When a skeleton is discovered at a disused building in Edinburgh, Scottish detectives uncover a trail that leads back to the siege of Dubrovnik and a missing Croatian general. McDermid fields a cast of police officers, war-crimes investigators and academics, but plot takes precedence over character and the novel slips into melodrama.

Aristocratic detectives are a dying breed. Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler, who lives in the English cathedral city of Lafferton, has often seemed to belong to an earlier era of crime fiction. Hill casts all that aside in The Soul of Discretion (Chatto £18.99/ebook £9.98), in which a mother wakes at 4am to feed her baby, only to spot a naked toddler in a garden across the road. This disturbing discovery sets the scene for a graphically violent novel, plunging Serrailler into a dangerous undercover role as a convicted paedophile.


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