The chillingly dark underside of celebrity

Sunday Times, 3 April 2016

It is rare for ordinary people to be invited into the hothouse world of celebrity. Oliver Harris’s detective Nick Belsey gets there by accident in The House of Fame (Jonathan Cape £12.99), when a pop star’s entourage mistake him for a new security guard and invite him into her palatial home. Belsey is suspended from Hampstead CID and facing disciplinary charges, so he decides he has nothing to lose by playing along.

Harris enjoys himself writing about this surreal world, creating vignettes of the stylists, publicists and hangers-on who surround Amber Knight. But the book is heading somewhere darker, sending Belsey to a Mayfair club where he is one of the last people to speak to a waif-like young woman who is murdered shortly afterwards. Harris has a terrific sense of place, hurtling between the wealthiest and most-run-down areas of London. But the cleverest thing about his third Belsey novel is the way the plot unfolds in a chilling and totally unexpected direction.

Isabelle Grey has already distinguished herself with a series of police procedurals that combine attention to detail with a compassionate intelligence. Shot Through The Heart (Quercus £19.99) opens with the kind of mass shooting that’s more often reported in the US than rural Essex. Six people are dead and the first victim was a serving police officer, who had recently begun a relationship with the killer’s ex-wife.

DI Grace Fisher has little sympathy for the murderer but she wonders why what began as a domestic homicide escalated into mass murder. When she asks questions about where he got his arsenal of weapons, her colleagues close ranks and she begins to suspect a cover-up. Female detectives often feel isolated in crime fiction but Grey’s latest novel looks beyond sexism to a toxic male culture that’s existed for decades.

Kate Medina’s Fire Damage (Harper Collins £12.99) is set in the UK but the aftermath of war looms large over the characters. An army psychologist, Jessie Flynn, is back home after serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan. She is treating a four-year-old boy who is deeply traumatised following an incident which has left his father, an officer in the Intelligence Corps, with severe and disfiguring injuries.

Flynn is still trying to win the boy’s confidence when a previous patient, a captain in the military police, asks for her help with an investigation into the suspicious death of a sergeant based at Kandahar airfield. Flynn’s approach is very different from that of a conventional detective and it is fascinating to watch her use her skills in these two cases, which have unexpected connections. Medina is a former Territorial Army officer and she writes about the horrifying consequences of war from the standpoint of a clear-eyed but sympathetic insider.

The Crow Girl (Harvill Secker £16.99) by Erik Axl Sund, translated by Neil Smith, is the latest international best-seller to come out of Sweden. Sund is the pseudonym of two writers, Jerker Eriksson and Haken Axlander Sundquist, who have both worked in the Swedish music industry. The novel is a one-off, taking readers on a break-neck journey through a plot of labyrinthine complexity.

The main characters are two very different women, a detective and a psychotherapist. They are thrown together when the corpses of severely abused boys begin to appear in Stockholm, but it isn’t clear whether their complex relationship is going to help or hinder the investigation. Sund boldly places dissociative identity disorder – a psychological state in which different personalities emerge in the same individual – at the heart of this very disturbing novel.

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