Murder on the colonial front line

Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

Calcutta in 1919 is a city of extremes of wealth and poverty, and colonial rule is threatened by a growing nationalist movement. When a senior civil servant is found dead in a gutter, with a message warning the British to leave India stuffed in his mouth, the authorities assume it is a political assassination. But the detective assigned to the case in Abir Mukherjee’s terrific first novel, A Rising Man (Harvill Secker £12.99), listens to local people and thinks that the motive is more likely to be personal.

Captain Sam Wyndham used to work for Scotland Yard and is a disillusioned veteran of the First World War. He survived the conflict more or less unscathed, only to discover that his wife had died in a flu epidemic, and he has come to India in search of a new life. Mukherjee’s descriptions of Calcutta under the Raj are vivid and evocative, while Wyndham’s position as a newcomer with fresh eyes works brilliantly. The plot moves at breakneck pace but Mukherjee’s real subject is the underlying corruption of a society divided by class and race.

Melanie Raabe is a journalist based in Cologne and another first-time novelist. The Trap (Mantle £12.99), translated by Imogen Taylor, is a twisty revenge drama in which a reclusive author writes a crime novel to trap a man she believes guilty of murder. Twelve years ago, Linda Conrads walked into a flat to find her sister stabbed to death and the killer making his escape. Her health collapsed and she withdrew into self-imposed isolation, relying on her publisher and a couple of trusted staff to manage her contact with the outside world.

Linda has not left her house for 11 years when she spots the killer on a TV programme. He is now a successful journalist and she’s certain no one will believe her, so she comes up with a hare-brained plan to base her next book on the murder and offer him an exclusive interview at her home. What happens next is a chilling battle of wits in which Linda tests the limits of crime fiction and risks her own life in the process.

Mark Billingham’s new novel, Die of Shame (Little, Brown £18.99), presents his detectives with an unusual and frustrating case. A group of recovering addicts has been meeting weekly at the north London home of an unconventional therapist, Tony De Silva, who encourages them to socialise outside the group. There are explosive conflicts between some of the members, especially when a morbidly obese woman joins the circle and disrupts its dynamics. When a young woman is murdered, it is clear that one of the group is responsible.

De Silva refuses to cooperate with the police, citing professional confidentiality, and the surviving members take their cue from him. This is an intriguing set-up, involving a cast of suspects where everyone has something to hide, and Billingham shares suspicion around pretty even-handedly. But it is hard to sympathise with characters who are so self-obsessed, and the ending feels artificial.

Elizabeth Brundage’s haunting novel All Things Cease To Appear (Quercus £16.99) unfolds at a leisurely pace, despite a gruesome opening. The novel begins in upstate New York in the 1980s, when an art history professor arrives home to find his wife has been savagely murdered at their isolated farmhouse. George Clare’s immediate concern is the couple’s daughter, who is the only witness but too young to understand what she may have seen. The case remains unsolved for decades, allowing Brundage to expose the unravelling of the mind of the killer in slow and forensic detail.

 

 

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