New Sleuth on the Block

Sunday Times, 18 March 2018

Iceland is famously one of the best places to be a woman, with an enviable record on gender equality. Ragnar Jonasson’s superb new novel, The Darkness, translated by Victoria Cribb (M Joseph £12.99), presents a very different picture. Hulda Hermannsdottir is a hugely experienced detective but her insights aren’t valued by her male colleagues, and she’s being forced into early retirement against her will.

Acutely sensitive to loneliness, Hulda is troubled by the death of a young Russian asylum seeker in an isolated cove on the Reykjanes Peninsula. The woman drowned in salt water and a lazy detective wrote it off as an accident or suicide, but Hulda isn’t so sure. When her boss fobs her off by telling her she can spend her final two weeks on any case she likes, she reopens the file and becomes convinced that Elena was murdered.

Her inquiries create turmoil at police headquarters in Reykjavik, precipitating a chilling sequence of events. This is the first volume in Jonasson’s Hidden Iceland trilogy, which tells Hulda’s story in reverse chronological order and establishes her as one of the great tragic heroines of contemporary detective fiction.

Camilla Lackberg is one of the biggest names in Swedish crime writing, and her new novel, The Girl in the Woods, translated by Tiina Nunnally (HarperCollins £20), is a real blockbuster. Set in the west coast fishing village of Fjallbacka, where Lackberg was born, it brings together a cast of larger-than-life characters including a capricious Hollywood star, traumatised Syrian refugees and an unpleasant bunch of teenagers. The star, Marie Wall, grew up in the village and she has now come back to shoot a biopic about another of its famous residents, the actress Ingrid Bergman.

As teenagers, Marie and another girl were convicted of the murder of a child, based on a confession that was later withdrawn. She has barely arrived when a four-year-old girl goes missing in the same stretch of woodland, reviving traumatic memories from 30 years earlier. The plot is dizzyingly ambitious but Lackberg just about pulls it off, and her point about the long-term effects of domestic violence is well made.

Walter Mosley is best known for his series of crime novels featuring Easy Rawlins, an African-American private detective played by Denzel Washington in the film adaptation of Devil in a Blue Dress. Unlike the Rawlins books, which are set in Los Angeles between the 1940s and 1960s, Mosley’s latest novel takes place on the East Coast in the present day.

Down the River Unto the Sea (Weidenfeld £20) is a suitably biblical title for a novel about revenge and redemption. A disgraced NYPD cop, Joe King Oliver, was thrown out of the force years ago after being wrongly accused of sexual assault. Now working as a private detective, he suddenly gets the chance to clear his name and save the life of a radical black journalist who stands accused of killing two corrupt cops. Mosley’s prose is as fluent as ever but the novel suffers from an accident of timing: a plot involving what used to be called a “honey trap” reads uncomfortably in the era of Time’s Up.

The Devil’s Dice (HQ £12.99) is a fascinating debut by Roz Watkins. A patent attorney is found dead in the Peak District, in a network of caves with a reputation for supernatural goings-on. The cause of death is cyanide poisoning, but DI Meg Dalton has to pick her way through legends about witchcraft and family curses to identify the killer. Watkins brilliantly balances superstition and scepticism in this clever first novel.

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