Sunday Times, 10 July 2016
A stunning novel set in France and Iceland kicks off Joan Smith’s roundup of crime fiction
For more than a decade, the bestselling French novelist Fred Vargas has surprised readers with plots of startling ingenuity. She has won the CWA international dagger four times, confirming her place in the top rank of contemporary crime writers. Her latest novel, A Climate of Fear, translated by Sian Reynolds (Harvill Secker £14.99), has an anodyne title but it is easily the best thing she has ever done.
Vargas is a historian and archaeologist, a training she has put to good use in her earlier fiction. But it is hard to imagine anyone else daring to combine a secretive society dedicated to studying the writings of Robespierre and a doomed tourist expedition to Iceland in the same novel.
Ten years ago, two people died on a trip to a remote Icelandic island, and now other members of the party are being picked off by a clever killer. Vargas’s detective, Commissaire Adamsberg, has always understood that myths and archetypes influence even the most modern minds. But his closest colleagues are sceptical when he insists that the solution to the murders lies within an arcane association that reenacts episodes from the bloodiest period of the French Revolution. The idea of history repeating itself is at the heart of this stunning novel, which confirms Vargas’s fine understanding of the unchanging nature of human passions.
Michel Bussi was unknown in this country until last year, when his extraordinary novel After the Crash appeared in English for the first time. French crime writing is enjoying a renaissance and Bussi’s latest book, Black Water Lilies, translated by Shaun Whiteside (Weidenfeld £12.99), reveals a very different side to his imagination. The action
takes place in Giverny, the picture-postcard village in Normandy where Claude Monet created his famous garden, but Bussi is more interested in the inhabitants than the tourists who flock to the artist’s house.
The arrival of so many visitors is a strain on the village, and the murder of a local man, an ophthalmologist with a successful practice in Paris, brings simmering class conflicts into the open. Bussi’s detective, Laurenç Sérénac, is from Toulouse and lacks local knowledge, but being an outsider has its advantages; he brings a fresh eye to mysteries that stretch back to the 1920s, including a rumoured final painting created by Monet just before he died. Bussi’s portrait of the difficulties of investigating a closed community is fascinating, and the novel ends with one of the most reverberating shocks in modern crime fiction.
Ruth Ware’s first novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, was a bestseller. Her second, The Woman in Cabin 10 (Harvill Secker £9.99), is a tense, moody drama set on a press trip that goes horribly wrong. A travel writer, Lo Blacklock, jumps at the chance of going to see the northern lights on a boutique cruise ship owned by a millionaire entrepreneur and his wife. On the first night, Lo sees a body heaved overboard from the balcony of the next cabin, but the crew insists the room was unoccupied. Ware has produced a fantastic variation on the woman-in-peril theme, with a plucky protagonist and a brilliantly claustrophobic setting.
The veteran American novelist Laura Lippman effortlessly occupies the territory where crime writing meets literary fiction. Wilde Lake (Faber £12.99) is set in a small town in Maryland where Luisa Brant is the first woman to be elected state’s attorney. Her father held the same job for 16 years and is still a force to be reckoned with, but Luisa’s first case, prosecuting a homeless man who broke into an apartment and murdered the female occupant, looks straightforward.
However, the motive for the killing lies in the summer of 1980, when a young woman from a poor family accused a group of posh boys of rape. Luisa finds a cover-up that tears her own family apart, in a novel that offers a devastating critique of class and privilege.