Sunday Times, 11 June 2017
Just over a decade ago, a young Iraqi-Kurdish woman was murdered in this country by professional killers. The hit men were hired by the father and uncle of the victim, Banaz Mahmod, after she left an abusive marriage and fell in love with a man who hadn’t been chosen by her family. This real-life tragedy is the inspiration for Mark Billingham’s ground-breaking novel Love Like Blood (Little, Brown £18.99), which confronts the phenomenon of “honour”-based killings.
For many readers, what Billingham is writing about will be unfamiliar and troubling territory. In recent years, the police have set up units to tackle “honour”-based murders, but they remain under-reported and difficult to investigate. Billingham has chosen a scenario very much like the Banaz Mahmod murder for his novel, putting his detective, DI Tom Thorne, on the trail of a pair of hit men responsible for a series of contract killings. When a couple of students of Bangladeshi origin are reported missing from a college in north London, Thorne has to decide if they are the latest victims — and whether their parents were involved in the disappearance.
These are precisely the challenges facing real-life detectives who work in this area. Billingham is acutely aware of the cultural sensitivities connected with such a controversial subject, but he doesn’t shy away from the horrors inflicted on the victims, whose deaths he characterises as hate crimes. His hit men have elements of the pantomime-villain, but Love Like Blood is a gripping, unsensational take on a type of crime that is happening more frequently than many of us realise.
Block 46 by Johana Gustawsson, translated by Maxim Jakubowski (Orenda £8.99), also has roots in real events. Gustawsson is a French journalist who lives in London, and her prizewinning novel is the first in a series featuring a true-crime author and a Canadian profiler. It begins with a young designer, Linnea Blix, failing to show up for the launch party of her new jewellery collection at the Cartier showroom in London. A few days later, Blix’s body is found in a snow-bound marina in Sweden, bearing mutilations similar to those on the corpse of a boy discovered in Hampstead.
Most of the novel is set in 2014, but there are flashbacks to 1944 when a German medical student, Erich Ebner, arrives at Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Ebner is subjected to unspeakable brutality before being put to work with the sadistic camp doctor, Horst Fleischer, who is carrying out gruesome experiments on the corpses of children. Gustawsson’s aim is to highlight the role of resistance organisations inside Buchenwald but bringing the two strands of the novel together is a challenge, and the solution she comes up with is far-fetched.
Abir Mukherjee’s first novel, A Rising Man, was a Sunday Times crime book of the month. His second, A Necessary Evil (Harvill Secker £12.99), returns to colonial India where his detective, Captain Sam Wyndham, is still trying to recover from his experiences in the First World War. Wyndham is a widower who lost his wife in the great flu epidemic of 1918, and he is trying to blot out painful memories in the government offices of Calcutta. The assassination of an Indian prince takes him to the wealthy kingdom of Sambalpore, where his ignorance of Indian customs soon has his investigation floundering. Wyndham is an appealing character, reckless and self-aware by turns, and the contradictions of the Raj are beautifully invoked.
Volker Kutscher’s wonderfully atmospheric crime novels are set in Germany at the end of the 1920s. The Silent Death (Sandstone £8.99), translated by Niall Sellar, is the sequel to his critically acclaimed Babylon Berlin, and features the same bad-tempered detective, Gereon Rath. As communists and Nazis clash on the streets of Berlin, Rath does his best to stay clear of politics, concentrating on his investigation into the bizarre death of a silent-film actress. Betty Winter is crushed on set when a live spotlight falls on her, plunging Rath into the brittle, back-stabbing world of Berlin’s rival film studios. When other actresses disappear, Rath finds himself hunting a serial killer in a novel that offers vivid insights into the cultural upheavals of the late Weimar republic.