The Final Curtain

Murder in Minnesota with a Shakespearean twist kicks off Joan Smith’s round-up

Sunday Times, 12 March 2017

Lady Macbeth has always had a bad press. In The Last Act of Hattie Hoffmann (Quercus £12.99) by Mindy Mejia, the actress playing the role in a high school production is found stabbed to death on the opening night. Mejia lives in Minnesota and the victim appears to be a typical teenager from the mid-west, brought up on a farm with loving parents and a brother serving in Afghanistan. But someone hated her enough to mutilate her face in a fit of intemperate rage.

The local sheriff is a friend of Hattie’s father and he has known her from birth. But he discovers that she was a gifted actress in her own life, playing different roles with her best friend, boyfriend and a married lover who immediately becomes a suspect. The links with Lady Macbeth are obvious and Mejia exploits conventional ideas about female manipulation, only to challenge them as the novel unfolds. This is a haunting piece of fiction, full of characters whose self-obsession leads directly to tragedy.

Samuel Bjork’s first novel, I’m Travelling Alone, was a runaway success. His second, The Owl Always Hunts At Night (Doubleday £14.99), translated by Charlotte Barslund, features the same close-knit squad of detectives based in Oslo. It begins with the ritual murder of a 17-year-old girl whose body, half-starved and surrounded by feathers, is found in a forest after disappearing from an institution for troubled teenagers. The only thing in her stomach is animal feed, a detail that eventually links the murder to a ring of voyeurs. Two books into this stark but compelling series, Bjork’s trademark themes are the lethal intersection of technology with child abuse and misogyny.

Summary Justice (Little, Brown £16.99) is an all-action court drama by John Fairfax, who will be better known to readers of crime fiction under his real name, William Brodrick. He has adopted the pseudonym for a novel featuring a newly-qualified barrister, William Benson, who also happens to be a convicted murderer. Benson protested his innocence and used his time in prison to read for the bar, but now he’s out and no one will help him with his first case. It’s a murder trial, due to start in four days, and it looks hopeless until a solicitor who saw him convicted at the Old Bailey offers to help. This is the first novel in a series and it takes time to set up Benson’s history, but once the trial gets going it really takes off.

Rob McCarthy’s terrific second novel, A Handful of Ashes (Mulholland Books £14.99) marks a second outing for his amateur detective, Dr Harry Kent, a medical examiner for the police. McCarthy is a medical student, providing invaluable background for Kent’s job, and the book’s highly topical subject is whistleblowing. It starts with a routine call-out to the apparent suicide of a junior doctor who has been suspended after raising concerns about a well-known heart surgeon. Kent quickly realises that the death has been staged, plunging him into an explosive confrontation between grieving relatives and the medical establishment.

 

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