Crime fiction: when bitter rivalries get out of hand

The Sunday Times, 2 November 2014

Scientific controversy rarely features in crime fiction. The best-selling author Sissel-Jo Gazan proved it could be done in her acclaimed first novel, The Dinosaur Feather, which went on to be hailed Danish crime novel of the decade. Her second, The Arc of the Swallow (Quercus £16.99), translated by Charlotte Barslund, tackles another disagreement among scientists, this time about the possible side-effects of immunisation programmes.

A distinguished biologist, Kristian Storm, is found hanged in his office in Copenhagen after carrying out hugely controversial research in Africa. Storm’s observations in Guinea-Bissau appear to suggest that a widely-used vaccine might actually harm children in developing countries. His assistant, who is being treated for breast cancer, refuses to believe Storm has killed himself. Soren Marhauge, the tormented detective who featured in Gazan’s first book, agrees with her.

This is a terrific novel, involving bitter rivalries among scientists, so it is a shame that Gazan’s ambiguity about its relation to real life raises unanswered questions. She insists at the outset that the novel is ‘pure fiction’, but cites research from a controversial Danish research project in Africa which casts doubt on the safety of a particular vaccine. This makes for uneasy reading in the UK, where an unwarranted panic about the MMR vaccine has led to measles outbreaks.

It is more than two decades since Patricia Cornwell began writing novels starring Dr Kay Scarpetta, who has since become one of the best-known characters in crime fiction. In the beginning, Scarpetta was a completely-unknown medical examiner in Virginia, where she was called in to help the police with plausible crimes involving perfectly ordinary victims. These days Scarpetta is a celebrity and the change in her fortunes is evident in Flesh and Blood (Harper Collins £20), which opens with the most pretentious first paragraph I’ve read in a long time.

Scarpetta and her husband are at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sipping coffees sweetened with ‘agave nectar’, when they begin to suspect they are being watched. Not far away, a music teacher is shot dead while carrying groceries into his apartment. At first it seems as though Cornwell is returning to what she used to do so well, pitting Scarpetta against the kind of apparently random killer who turns up so often in the US. But then it becomes clear that Scarpetta and her family are the real targets, exposing the narcissistic tendencies which have spoiled so many of the later novels in the series.

Dreda Say Mitchell’s new novel Vendetta (Hodder £6.99) has a classic opening scene: a man wakes in a seedy hotel room, with no memory of what he’s doing there, and discovers his girlfriend’s corpse in the bathroom. At first he’s terrified that he might be responsible, but then he realises that he has a head wound and someone – Russian gangsters, most likely – is trying to set him up. This is the first in a series of novels about undercover cops, but the cartoonish violence makes it hard to believe in either the plot or characters.

The murder of the Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, is one of the great unsolved crimes of the second half of the 20th century. Palme was shot dead as he left a cinema in Stockholm in 1986 and the suspect who was convicted of the killing was later cleared. Now one of the country’s most admired crime writers, Leif G W Persson, has taken on the subject in a clever and sophisticated novel, Falling Freely, As If In A Dream (Doubleday £18.99), translated by Paul Norlen.

Persson is a psychological profiler and a professor at the National Swedish Police Board. Although this is fiction, he calls on his professional skills to analyse the evidence collected at the scene, using the pretext that a group of fictional cops has been tasked with reviewing the case files. It has the feel of a real investigation, carried out by convincing characters and shedding new light on this most perplexing of crimes.

Comments are closed.