Getting in harm’s way

From rape inquiries to child abuse, reality is never far away in Joan Smith’s choice

Sunday Times, 13 May 2018

A quarter of a century ago, a young woman was raped and murdered on her way home from an evening out in Southend. Isabelle Grey’s haunting new novel, Wrong Way Home (Quercus £20.99), begins with good news when a DNA test throws up a match from this old, unsolved case. DI Grace Fisher is optimistic about a breakthrough and soon has a list of suspects, all from the same local family, but the man she’s looking for is a cunning predator who will go to any lengths to avoid arrest. In a nice twist, a true-crime podcaster shadows Fisher’s investigation, too inexperienced to realise he’s getting in the way – or the danger he’s putting himself in.

Going back over old files, Fisher realises the original investigation missed the fact that the rape was one of a series in the area, and dismissed crucial evidence from other victims who survived. Grey is one of the most intelligent authors of contemporary crime fiction, and she uses characters from her popular DI Fisher series to highlight long-running problems with rape investigations in this sympathetic, suspense-packed novel.

Belinda Bauer’s plots are never anything less than original and unsettling and her latest outing, Snap (Bantam £12.99), is no exception. It begins with three children one of them a babe in arms, sitting on their own in a broken-down car on a motorway on a hot summer afternoon. It’s 1998 and the family doesn’t possess a mobile phone, so their heavily pregnant mother has gone to call for help. She’s told her 11-year-old son, Jack, to look after his sisters but she’s been gone for almost an hour.  He eventually sets out along the hard shoulder, his sisters in tow, and walks into the middle of a grim murder case.

Three years later, Jack is struggling to care for his sisters, trying to conceal the fact that their father has disappeared. It’s a potentially tragic scenario, but Bauer plays it as a dark comedy until Jack manages to enlist a lugubrious detective in his quest to find his mother’s killer. Bauer is always inventive but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that her child characters behave with a degree of resilience way beyond their years.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s new novel The Reckoning (Hodder £16.99), translated by Victoria Cribb, also tackles the subject of damaged children, but she does it with searing emotional realism. When a time capsule is dug up in the grounds of a school in Iceland, it turns out to contain an unsigned letter predicting the deaths of a number of local people. Everyone hopes it’s an unpleasant prank until a series of gruesome murders begins. This is a very graphic novel about the long-term effects of child sexual abuse, and it’s not for squeamish readers.

William Shaw is the author of a fine series of detective novels set in London during the 1960s but now he’s begun producing crime fiction set in the present day. Salt Lane (riverrun £16.99) is the first in a new series featuring DS Alexandra Cupidi, who’s recently moved from London with her teenage daughter to an isolated house on the wide coastline around Dungeness. When a woman’s body is found in a drainage ditch, and a man’s in a slurry pit, Cupidi finds herself trying to interrogate immigrants who have no papers and are terrified of the police. In his earlier novels, Shaw displayed a sharp eye for period detail and now he’s turned it on the 21st century phenomenon of people-trafficking. There are some touching moments in this vivid novel, which recognises that decent people don’t always behave well.

Volker Kutscher’s wonderfully atmospheric novels set in Weimar Berlin have been made into a successful TV series. The latest, Goldstein (Sandstone Press £8.99), translated by Niall Sellar, opens in 1931 when homeless kids are robbing department stores and a professional hitman, Abraham Goldstein, has just arrived from New York. Kutscher’s detective, Gereon Rath, chafes when he’s ordered to keep an eye on Goldstein, instead of investigating a colleague suspected of murder, but the gangster’s presence shines a spotlight on antisemitism in the city. It sometimes feels as though Kutscher is juggling too many plot lines but the second half of the novel really takes off. 

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