Master of Invention

Sunday Times, 22 April 2018

A gripping tale of family secrets opens Joan Smith’s roundup

Michel Bussi is one of France’s most successful novelists, the winner of more than a dozen literary awards and the country’s second bestselling author. His latest novel, Time is a Killer (Weidenfeld £12.99), translated by Shaun Whiteside, demonstrates why he has such a hold on readers, combining an extraordinarily inventive plot and characters haunted by long-ago events. A middle-aged woman called Clotilde has returned to Corsica from northern France for the first time since the rest of her family was killed in a car crash 27 years ago. She was the sole survivor, glimpsing the bodies of her parents as she was pulled alive from the wreckage.  

Clotilde has never doubted her recollection of those horrific events. But she has barely arrived at the holiday camp where she stayed with her parents when she is confronted with one of those apparent impossibilities that Bussi revels in: a note in her mother’s handwriting, suggesting she might still be alive. Thrown into confusion, Clotilde goes over the days that led up to the crash, reluctantly recalling the breakdown of her parents’ marriage. In a novel packed with shocks, Bussi brilliantly evokes the rugged landscape of Corsica and the lethal family conflict it incubated.

Stella Darnell is the daughter of a Scotland Yard detective, now deceased, and one of the most original characters in British crime fiction. Darnell is both a private detective and the owner of a cleaning company in west London, offering her access to other people’s houses and their secrets. She has already appeared in several of Lesley Thomson’s bestselling crime novels, and she is offered the chance to investigate a bizarre cold case in The Death Chamber (Head of Zeus £18.99).

Two teenage girls disappeared in a Cotswolds town, more than 20 years apart. Police searching for the second girl discovered the body of the first, hidden in a Neolithic burial chamber, but the second victim has never been found. A local detective, now elderly and disgraced, is convinced he knows the identity of the killer and asks Darnell to prove it. A running joke about city types transposed to the countryside wears a bit thin, but Thomson’s plots are original and she draws her characters with genuine affection.

Blind Defence (Little, Brown £16.99) is the second novel by John Fairfax, pen name of the Gold Dagger-winning author William Brodrick. Fairfax’s protagonist, William Benson, is a barrister who trained as a lawyer while serving a prison sentence for murder. Benson’s ultimate aim is to clear his name but in the meantime he has to make a living, and his latest client is accused of a nasty domestic homicide. The novel dramatizes a familiar dilemma, forcing Benson to do his best for a defendant he heartily dislikes, but the novel too often slides into melodrama, especially in the brutal aftermath of the trial.

Vicky Newham is a new name in crime fiction and her debut, Turn a Blind Eye (HQ 12.99), doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects. Linda Gibson is the popular head teacher of a school in east London, where she is credited with having turned round the establishment after a critical Ofsted report. When she is found strangled, a former pupil – Maya Rahman, now a detective based in Mile End – is put in charge of the investigation. Just back from Bangladesh, where her brother recently killed himself, DI Rahman is disturbed to discover that Gibson’s murder may be connected to the suicide of a teenage pupil threatened with a forced marriage. This is the first in a promising series, featuring a female detective who has to negotiate cultural conflicts on a daily basis.

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