Murder in the outback

Sunday Times, 1 January 2017

During the worst drought to affect Australia in years, the bodies of a young family are found in a rural community. At first sight the murders in The Dry (Little, Brown £12.99) by Jane Harper, appear to be a classic example of familicide, sending shock waves through the small town of Kiewarra. No one realised things were so bad for a young farmer, Luke Hadler, that he would decide to murder his wife and son before turning a gun on himself.

These events come as devastating news for Luke’s old friend Aaron Falk, now a detective in Melbourne, who left town hurriedly years ago. Aaron gets a rough reception when he returns for the funerals, not least because he is one of the few people who doubts Luke’s guilt. It is hard to believe that this accomplished piece of writing, which returns again and again to the savage beauty of the landscape, is Harper’s first novel.

A convicted murderer is the prime suspect in What Remains of Me (Arrow £7.99), a clever, twisty mystery by the American writer A L Gaylin. Back in 1980, 17-year-old Kelly Lund was convicted of the murder of a film director, John McFadden. Thirty years later she’s out and married to the son of McFadden’s best friend, a Hollywood actor. When her father-in-law is shot dead, Kelly has no alibi for the night of the murder. Switching between different time periods, Gaylin places the contemporary murder investigation side-by-side with Kelly’s back-story, revealing a dramatic tale of exploitation and incest.

Simon Kernick’s new novel, The Bone Field (Century £12.99), starts promisingly. Just over 25 years ago, a British couple on holiday in Thailand had a row and the young woman stormed off, never to be seen again. Now her ex-boyfriend wants to talk to a detective, DI Ray Mason, and it’s clear he has something to confess. But before Mason can hear his story, things go badly wrong and the woman’s bones turn up not in Thailand but the grounds of a boarding school in the Home Counties.

It’s a tantalising set-up but what begins to unfold is a mind-boggling conspiracy involving a mysterious assassin, Satanism, sex trafficking and a fast-rising body count. Kernick seems to have taken Raymond Chandler’s advice )when in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand) too much to heart. The result is breathless and improbable.

Adrian McKinty has come up with an unforgettable title for the latest novel in his superb DI Sean Duffy series, which is set in Northern Ireland. Police at The Station and They Don’t Look Friendly (Serpent’s Tail £12.99) is a line from a song by Tom Waits, and it perfectly sums up the paranoid atmosphere at Carrickfergus CID in the late 1980s. The murder of a small-time drug dealer doesn’t obviously have political implications but it leads back to the activities of notorious police unit, the B Specials, in 1968. McKinty moves seamlessly between action and reflection, and his sardonic tone is a delight.

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