KIller smog, Poirot and a dark secret in the Black Forest

Sunday Times, 26 August 2018

London in the 1950s is a city of bomb sites and shored-up buildings, shrouded in fog. Ex-soldiers, refugees from Europe and small-time crooks mingle in Notting Hill, where a man called John Christie is offering to help women who have breathing problems. 

Few people remember the great smog of 1952 that killed thousands, but its choking effects are vividly evoked in Breathe (Hodder £17.99), an outstanding debut by
Dominick Donald. His protagonist, PC Dick Bourton, has been on the force for only six months when he starts to notice a series of deaths across London involving older people who live alone. Distracted by the failing health of his Russian fiancée, he gradually realises he is on the track of a serial killer. Donald combines historical events and fictional characters to superb effect, in a novel that deserves to win prizes
Val McDermid’s Broken Ground (Little, Brown £18.99) opens in 1944 with a couple of men burying something in an isolated area of the Highlands. Whatever they were up to falls outside the remit of Chief Inspector Karen Pirie’s historic crimes unit, which deals with cases less than 70 years old. But when the granddaughter of one of the men turns up, clutching a map left behind when he died, she finds something buried far more recently — a body that has been in the earth for no more than 25 years. McDermid’s novels about cold cases have solid plots and fascinating forensic detail.
The Mystery of Three Quarters (HarperCollins £18.99) is the third in a series by Sophie Hannah that brings back to life Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Hannah is also the author of a series of bestselling thrillers and she brings her passion for verbal clues into her latest Poirot. Four people have received letters, apparently from the Belgian detective, accusing them of the murder of a man called Barnabas Pandy — but Pandy wasn’t murdered and three of the recipients claim never to have heard of him. Inspired by a cake made of coloured squares, Poirot sets about arranging the “suspects” in different combinations and reveals the solution to the mystery in a classic set-piece in a country house. It is all done with great affection but feels more like a late-1920s stage set than the real thing.
A Summer of Murder by Oliver Bottini, translated by Jamie Bulloch (MacLehose £16.99), is the second in Bottini’s acclaimed Black Forest investigations. It has a plot as surprising as the earlier novel, which began with a Buddhist monk tramping through the snow. This time, fire fighters are called to a burning barn that explodes, revealing a hidden arms cache. Chief Inspector Louise Boni is assigned to a fractious task force whose suspects include neo-Nazis, terrorists and rival factions from the Bosnian war. Boni is a bit too much of a stereotype, the emotional woman detective whose intuitions infuriate her male colleagues yet prove correct. But Bottini makes up for this with taut writing and pacy events.  

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