Worthy of Hitchcock

Sunday Times, 5 August 2018

In an uncertain economic climate, the finances of even the most affluent couples may be more unstable than they appear. Mark is an investment banker, Erin a documentary-maker, and they’ve just booked their dream honeymoon in Catherine Steadman’s twisty first novel, Something in the Water (Simon & Schuster £12.99).Then disaster strikes: Mark loses his job and the couple face returning home from their luxury hotel in the south Pacific to a very uncertain future. They’re still trying to convince each other that everything will be all right when temptation floats into view, in the shape of a suitcase stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Steadman, who is an actress with Downton Abbey among her credits, tells the story from Erin’s point of view but doesn’t spare either of her main characters. Erin and Mark believe they’re decent, hard-working people but they discover undreamt-of pockets of greed and dishonesty as soon as they’re tested. The money is tainted, linked to some very dodgy individuals, and paranoia sets in as sinister messages and unexplained events disturb their comfortable lives in north London. The break-down of their relationship is brilliantly described, and it all kicks off with an opening scene worthy of Hitchcock.

A long-running series of crime novels provides some of the same pleasures as soap opera, offering the latest instalment in the lives of familiar characters. Careless Love (Hodder £20) is the 25th book in Peter Robinson’s best-selling series featuring DCI Alan Banks, a thoughtful detective based in the fictional Yorkshire town of Eastvale. Banks is divorced, with two grown-up children and excruciating taste in music, but Robinson never allows the detective’s backstory to get in the way of some very contemporary plots.

His novels track the changing nature of crime, taking on difficult subjects such as gangs of men who groom under-age girls for sex, and the new book tackles the contentious subject of widening inequality. Two corpses are discovered on the moors, a student dressed for a night out and an older man in a business suit, with no obvious connection between them. The inquiry leads to a group of successful middle-aged men with access to expensive lawyers, but Banks is determined to uncover a scam involving sex, drugs and the exploitation of vulnerable young women.

The brooding presence of Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District, hangs over Stephen Booth’s fine novel, Fall Down Dead (Sphere £20). Each year, a group of walkers sets out in commemoration of the mass trespass in 1932, when hundreds of ramblers defied local landowners in defence of the right to roam. The little group is led by Darius Roth, a local man who claims to be a descendant of one of the original protesters, but he ignores warnings about the weather. With one member of the party injured and no signal on their mobile phones, the walkers separate and a woman falls to her death in the fog. DI Ben Cooper suspects that the death wasn’t accidental but he has nothing to go on but his gut feeling – and some painstaking detective work that harks back to a less forensically-driven age of crime fiction.

Clare Askew’s memorable and moving first novel, All the Hidden Truths (Hodder £12.99), presents the police in Edinburgh with a highly unusual crime. When an engineering student walks into college one morning and murders 13 young women before killing himself, everyone knows the identity of the perpetrator. The investigation that follows focuses on three women – a police inspector, the killer’s mother and the mother of the first victim – in a harrowing examination of the causes and consequences of mass murder.

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