Sunday Times, 30 June 2019
Kate Atkinson’s return to crime fiction, after a series of highly regarded literary novels, is deceptively light in tone. Big Sky (Doubleday £20) marks the return of her wayward private investigator, Jackson Brodie, now living in a village in Yorkshire. Brodie’s latest case, following the husband of a gift-shop owner to collect evidence of an affair, isn’t exactly absorbing. But it gives him time to get to know his teenage son, left with him for the summer by his former partner while she films her latest television series.
Atkinson’s wry commentary on her characters is a delight, but a series of sinister events, including a near-death from drowning, weaves a growing sense of menace into the novel. From the outset, there are heavy hints that foreign women are being trafficked, leaving the reader desperate for someone to intervene. Brodie’s involvement is indirect, via a woman who believes she’s being followed, but the denouement in an abandoned mental hospital plunges him into a scene of complete horror. The novel is a masterclass in what can be done with crime fiction, brilliantly using the form to expose what Atkinson bleakly describes as “one more battle in the war against women”.
The death of a teenager in the grounds of an abandoned house looks like a simple case of rape and murder in Jo Spain’s engrossing The Boy Who Fell (Quercus £13.99). Luke Connolly was pushed from an upstairs window and the Dublin police already have a suspect in custody. But when DCI Tom Reynolds is asked to take a fresh look at the case, it begins to seem as though the alleged attacker has been set up: he’s gay, mixed race and unable to afford an expensive lawyer. Spain’s novel is a solid police procedural, showing how even an apparently watertight case can be demolished by painstaking detective work, but it is also about the impact of prejudice and inequality on the justice system.
Vicky Newham’s novels are set in east London, an area that is almost a living history of the UK’s immigrant communities. Her detective, Maya Rahman, grew up in the area and went to the school that featured in Newham’s accomplished debut, Turn a Blind Eye. Her second, Out of the Ashes (HQ £12.99), begins with a catastrophic explosion in Brick Lane, destroying an upmarket takeaway run by a Lithuanian couple. A murder inquiry is launched when two bodies are found in the ruins, but then anti-semitic signs appear in the street, evidently aimed at an elderly Jewish widow. Newham’s plots are original and disturbing, revealing aspects of Britain that don’t often appear in contemporary crime fiction.
The extraordinary The Reunion by Guillaume Musso, translated by Frank Wynne (Weidenfeld £14.99), has sold more than 500,000 copies in France. It’s a hectic tale in which a successful novelist, returning to the Riviera from New York for a school reunion, confesses to murder; a quarter of a century ago, the body of his victim was hidden in the wall of the school gym, which is now scheduled for demolition. Feverish, complicated and occasionally veering towards farce, the novel still manages to exert a strange pull.