Hate crimes, a locked-room mystery and some very modern murders

The Sunday Times, 3 January 2016

Increasing numbers of people are looking after disabled or elderly relatives, often without much outside support. In Eva Dolan’s stark new novel, After You Die (Harvill Secker £12.99), the police are called when a mother caring for her severely disabled teenage daughter gets abusive phone calls and discovers that her car has been vandalised. It is Dolan’s third novel based at a hate-crimes unit in Peterborough, where her detectives work on a category of offences that has only recently been recognised.

The mother, Dawn Prentice, blames the damage on local kids who resent the special treatment her daughter has received following a climbing accident. A few months later, Dawn is stabbed to death, leaving her daughter to die of neglect in her bedroom; it isn’t clear to DI Zigic and his team whether Dawn’s killer intended the girl to die or if she is an unintended victim of the frenzied attack on her mother. This harrowing plot requires all of Dolan’s skills as a novelist, confirming that she is able to tackle sensitive subjects without sensationalism.

Adrian McKinty’s thoroughly engaging crime novels are set in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s when paramilitary violence was a daily threat. His detective, DI Sean Duffy, is a scruffy cynic based in Carrickfergus whose idea of a good day out is volunteering for a bit of riot duty. In Rain Dogs (Serpent’s Tail £12.99), McKinty has had the brilliant idea of challenging him with a locked-room mystery straight out of the golden age of detective fiction.

A dead woman is discovered early one morning in the courtyard of Carrickfergus castle, where she appears to have thrown herself from the ramparts. The castle has been locked all night and there’s no evidence of foul play, but Duffy is worried by the fact that she is wearing the wrong shoe on one of her feet. His suspicions increase when he learns she is a journalist from London, in Northern Ireland to cover a visit by a group of Finnish investors. This is a classic plot with modern twists, but it is Duffy’s character — sexist and self-aware by turns — that powers the book to its inevitable conclusion.

Samuel Bjork is the latest Norwegian crime-writing sensation. His debut novel, I’m Travelling Alone, translated by Charlotte Barslund (Doubleday £12.99), has appeared on bestseller lists in half a dozen European countries. Bjork is the pen name of Frode Sander Oien, a well-known playwright and singer, who hid his identity for several months after the book was published in Norway two years ago.

The novel opens with a disturbing scene in which a dog walker finds the body of a six-year-old girl hanging from a tree; around her neck is a sign used by a Norwegian airline to identify children who are travelling without an accompanying adult. It is the first in a series of murders that perplexes his detectives, veteran investigator Holger Munch and his troubled protégée, Mia Kruger. For all the power of the opening, however, Bjork seems more interested in his detectives’ psychology than the plot, and the killings are too elaborate to be credible.

The title of Claudia Pineiro’s latest novel, Betty Boo, translated by Miranda France (Bitter Lemon £8.99), is also the nickname of her main character, Nurit Iscar, a novelist who has been reduced to ghost-writing other people’s memoirs after her last book was mauled by the critics. Down on her luck, Nurit feels she can’t refuse when a newspaper editor invites her to write about the killing of an Argentinian industrialist who lived in an exclusive gated community in Buenos Aires. This is a mordantly funny novel about murder, friendship and the state of journalism from an Argentinian writer who has been compared to Patricia Highsmith.


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