No way out – and the chauffeur’s dead

A superb Japanese locked-room mystery and a new Jane Harper lead Joan Smith’s round-up

Sunday Times, 3 February 2019

An isolated mansion stands on a cliff at the tip of Japan’s northernmost island, overlooking the freezing sea. This quirky edifice, with its sloping floors and ill-fitting staircases, is the setting for Soji Shimada’s hugely entertaining locked-room mystery Murder in the Crooked House (Pushkin Vertigo £8.99), translated by Louise Heal Kawai. Shimada has been a huge figure in Japanese crime fiction for almost four decades and the new novel has echoes of his iconic debut The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981).

 

An eccentric industrialist, Kozaburo Hamamoto, has invited his business partners to spend Christmas in the mansion, which houses his sinister collection of antique masks and automata. The murders begin on the first night when a chauffeur is found dead in his room, locked from the inside, while the disjointed model of a golem — a mythical creature from Jewish folklore — lies outside in the snow. Shimada plays with a range of cultural traditions, referring to Edgar Allan Poe and even appearing to suggest, at one point, that the golem might be responsible for the killings. But the arrival of his detective, a gifted amateur loftily dismissed by the local police, brings the novel to a brilliant and satisfying conclusion.

 

In just a couple of years, Jane Harper has soared into the first rank of contemporary crime writers. Her third novel, The Lost Man (Little, Brown £12.99), returns to the parched landscape she used to such powerful effect in her debut, The Dry. A weather-beaten gravestone marks the boundary between two cattle farms in Queensland, its inscription recording the solitary death of a stockman in the 1890s. Now the body of another man lies beside the stone, with marks in the dust speaking of his futile attempt to find shade. The man owns one of the farms and suspicion falls on his brother, whose business is facing ruin. Three generations of women — the dead man’s mother, wife and daughters — struggle to come to terms with these terrible events, and the family’s shocking history holds the key to this superb murder mystery.

 

Jo Spain’s sophisticated new crime novel, Dirty Little Secrets (Quercus £16.99), isn’t technically a locked-room mystery but it’s set on a gated estate in rural Ireland with a closed circle of suspects. When an invasion of bluebottles reveals the fact that one of the residents has been dead for three months, Spain’s detectives find it hard to believe that none of her neighbours noticed her absence. A post-mortem is equivocal but Spain uses a series of vivid flashbacks to reveal how many residents of the estate had reason to hate the dead woman, suggesting that Withered Vale more than deserves its ill-starred name.

 

Bernard Minier’s literary crime novels are bestsellers in France. They’re mostly set in the Pyrenees where the battle of wits between his gruff detective, Commandant Martin Servaz, and a devious serial killer, Julian Hirtmann, has now reached a fourth volume. Night (Mulholland £14.99), translated by Alison Anderson, begins on a train in Norway, where a female detective has been sent from Oslo to investigate a murder in a church in Bergen. The chief suspect works on an oil rig but photographs among his belongings suggest a connection with Hirtmann, sending the detective to Toulouse to team up with Servaz. Minier is an accomplished writer but the protracted pursuit of a fiendish criminal is a familiar trope and his plots are starting to seem forced.

 

Hanna Jameson’s The Last (Penguin £12.99) is a clever murder mystery set in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse. In a Swiss hotel, miles from anywhere, a group of guests and staff hear news of a nuclear strike on Washington. Over the next few hours, cities in the US and Europe are wiped out, forcing the residents of the hotel to decide whether to stay put or risk setting out in search of supplies. An American historian, Jon Keller, tries to distract himself by keeping a journal but it turns into something else when a girl’s body is discovered. Some of his fellow survivors aren’t interested in what appears to be a murder, given the scale of the catastrophe that’s unfolding, but Keller’s mission to find the killer becomes a stand for human values in a brutalised world.

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