Sunday Times, 17 November 2019
For many years, Charleston farmhouse has been synonymous with the Bloomsbury group. But its earlier history includes a period when it was run by two women as a boarding house, a little-known fact that has inspired Nicola Upson’s haunting new novel, Sorry for the Dead (Faber £12.99). It’s 1938 and her heroine, crime writer Josephine Tey, is one of the country’s most celebrated authors. But a sensational newspaper story catapults her back to the First World War, when Tey was a young teacher at an agricultural college based at the farmhouse. Rumours had already begun to circulate about the two women running the college, and gossip went into overdrive when one of their pupils died in horrific circumstances. The author of the article is determined to rake up this scandalous story, implying that Tey had a hand in the murder. Her attempt to clear her name forces her to revisit painful events and to confront deep-seated homophobia. It’s a touching insight into the fictional Tey’s insecurities, and one of the most memorable books in this superlative series.
Abir Mukherjee’s Death in the East (Harvill Secker £14.99) marks a new direction for this award-winning series set in India after the First World War. Mukherjee’s detective Sam Wyndham has been struggling to keep his job in the Calcutta police while relying ever more heavily on opium. The new book returns to his days as a young PC in the East End of London. One of his first investigations involved the brutal murder of a young woman, a killing his superiors were more than happy to pin on a penniless Polish Jew. Now, in remote Assam, Wyndham is stunned to recognise the real murderer, going under a different name, and with an attractive new wife. The novel switches between London boarding houses and rural India, filling in Wyndham’s back story and presenting several hugely ingenious murders. It’s a brilliant change of pace, displaying Mukherjee’s growing confidence as a writer.
Martin Cruz Smith’s detective Arkady Renko has lived through the collapse of the USSR since the bestselling Gorky Park. The Siberian Dilemma (Simon & Schuster £16.99) is set in a very different Russia, ruled by a modern-day autocrat and torn apart by squabbling oligarchs. Renko himself seems diminished, appearing to have little control over his professional or private life. His journalist girlfriend, Tatiana, has been out of touch in Siberia for weeks, and Renko jumps at the chance when his boss offers a pretext to follow her there, leading to a series of surreal turns involving bear hunts, shamans and assassinations. It’s all a bit lacklustre and says little we don’t already know about Putin’s Russia.
Karen Perry’s new novel, Come a Little Closer (Penguin £7.99), is an intense drama set in an affluent street in Dublin. Leah and her boyfriend move into a cheap basement flat, unaware that their neighbour has just been released from prison. Twenty years ago, Anton was convicted of killing his wife, a crime he has always denied, but he is certainly creepy. Add an older female neighbour, obsessively in love with the supposed wife killer, and the conditions are in place for a violent confrontation. Perry has come up with a clever novel in which everyone is hiding something, and keeps the reader guessing.