Sunday Times, 6 January 2019
In 2017, Jane Harper’s fine first novel, The Dry, focused attention on Australia’s drought-ravaged small towns. The Australian journalist Chris Hammer now uses a similar setting for his debut, a stunning novel set in a town struggling to survive after another inexplicable tragedy. Scrublands (Wildfire £16.99) has a journalist arriving in Riversend to write an article on the first anniversary of a mass shooting carried out by the local priest.
The parallels with The Dry are obvious, yet the books are very different. Martin Scarsden blunders into Riversend with the confidence of a journalist from the big city, opening up barely healed wounds in a town bitterly divided by the priest’s actions. Some locals insist he was a good man, yet the fact remains that he shot five people. When Scarsden uncovers a long-ago rape and the unsolved disappearance of two backpackers, the novel turns into an epic account of the psychological damage accumulated over many years in a dying agricultural town. Scrublands is that rare combination, a page-turner that stays long in the memory.
The American journalist Julia Dahl has created a riveting series featuring Rebekah Roberts, a reporter on a tabloid. In Run You Down (Faber £8.99), a woman from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave in New York has been found dead in odd circumstances, but the police don’t seem interested. Her husband takes the unusual step of asking Rebekah to write about his wife’s death, but she is hampered by witnesses who don’t trust outsiders and her scant knowledge of the enclave. Her own mother ran away from a Hasidic community, but vanished soon after Rebekah’s birth, leaving her ignorant of the Jewish side of her family. The investigation gradually brings the women together, offering touching insights into Rebekah’s insecurities. The novel highlights the
threat from right-wing extremists and gives a chilling picture of the resurgence of
anti-semitism in America.
Lina Bengtsdotter has been hailed as the next Swedish crime sensation and her first novel is already a global bestseller. For the Missing, translated by Agnes Broomé (Orion £14.99), opens with the disappearance of a 17-year-old girl in Gullspang, a small town in southwest Sweden. Two detectives are sent from Stockholm to assist in the search, but one of them, Charlie Lager, is hiding the fact that she was brought up in Gullspang by an alcoholic mother. The febrile atmosphere is intensified by a series of melodramatic flashbacks, dropping hints about an unhealthy friendship between two local girls. While Charlie’s secret local knowledge is initially useful, her heavy drinking and enthusiasm for casual sex soon get her into trouble. Contemporary crime fiction seems to have an inexhaustible appetite for self-destructive female cops such as Charlie, reviving old stereotypes about women in a man’s world.
David Mark’s distinctive detective novels are set in his home town, Hull, where he used to be a crime reporter. Cold Bones (Mulholland £18.99), has a revenge plot reminiscent of Restoration drama but it is also a tribute to the town’s lost fishing industry. An elderly woman is found murdered in a bath of ice, a death that recalls the fate of three trawler men from Hull in the freezing waters off Iceland years earlier. The dead woman, a former social worker, was closely involved with the families of the lost men, allowing Mark to write vividly about their suffering. It is gory, startling and a complete one-off.