Something rotten at the police academy

Sunday Times, 4 September 2016

The best-selling crime writer Louise Penny made her name with a series of novels set in the French-Canadian province of Quebec. Now her wise and popular detective, Chief Inspector Gamache, has decided to give up solving murder to train the next generation of investigators. It’s a desk job, but the opening chapters of A Great Reckoning (Sphere £19.99) hint that something is rotten at the Surete Academy on the South Shore of Montreal.

The older students are sullen and unreceptive. The first-years are already dividing into factions. When a controversial member of staff is murdered, Gamache wonders if his undercover mission to clean up the Academy has gone horribly wrong. One of the few clues left by the killer is an old map of the village where Gamache lives, which he handed out to a small group of students as an exercise in detection. Penny’s elliptical style works brilliantly in a novel that combines modern-day police corruption with a century-old tragedy.

Jo Spain’s second novel, Beneath The Surface (Quercus £12.99), opens with a murder in Leinster House, seat of the Irish parliament. The victim is Ryan Finnegan, an aide to a government minister, who has just returned to work after a serious car accident. The novel is a follow-up to With Our Blessings, Spain’s widely-praised debut which featured the notorious Magdalene laundries, but now her detectives have to deal with suspects at the highest level in government. She deftly mixes up political and personal motives, forcing her characters to look behind the public face of powerful people.

Chan Ho-Kei lives in Hong Kong, where The Borrowed (Head of Zeus £18.99), translated by Jeremy Tiang, is set. This unusual collection of linked stories spans more than four decades, each of them set at a significant date in Hong Kong’s history. The book opens with the main character, Inspector Kwan, on his death bed in hospital, surrounded by the suspects in a murder case; faced with a demonstration of the dying policeman’s apparently supernatural powers, one of the credulous onlookers is shocked into a confession. The rest of the book unravels some of his most significant cases, showing Kwan as an old-fashioned omniscient (and not entirely likeable) detective.

Lin Anderson’s None But The Dead (Macmillan £12.99) is the latest novel in her long-running series featuring forensic expert Dr Rhona MacLeod. She is usually based in Glasgow but a macabre find – a woman’s skeleton buried under the old school playground – brings her to the Orkney island of Sanday. The remains date back to the Second World War but the discovery creates a conflict of loyalties on the island, where the local police force is compromised by family connections.

One of the pleasures of Anderson’s novels is a cast of characters who feel like old friends, including her long-time sidekick, DS Michael McNab. He manages to get himself despatched to Sanday, reuniting the old team, just as the discovery of the skeletal remains prompts more violence. The bleak landscape is beautifully described, giving this popular series a new lease of life.

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