Sunday Times, 20 October 2019
October 1961, Soviet scientists were preparing to test the world’s most powerful nuclear weapon. Its designer, Andrei Sakharov, took a last-minute decision to change a crucial component, fearing it might otherwise set light to the Earth’s atmosphere. These sensational real-life events are the backdrop to Black Sun (Bantam Press £16.99), an outstanding first novel by the distinguished foreign correspondent Owen Matthews.
The novel unfolds in Arzamas-16, a secret city in central Russia where the apparent suicide of a young scientist through a radiation overdose threatens the success of the test. Major Alexander Vasin, a KGB officer sent to investigate, is convinced the man was murdered, but the key witnesses display varying degrees of fear and hostility. Chief among them is Professor Yury Adamov, Sakharov’s “dark twin”, who sees Vasin’s arrival as a distraction from his vital mission. Matthews writes superbly about a closed, paranoid community where everyone is fearful of failure, the KGB and being denounced as a traitor.
The American author Rene Denfeld draws on first-hand knowledge for The Butterfly Girl (Weidenfeld £14.99), her hard-hitting novel about the murders of homeless children in Oregon. Denfeld lived on the streets herself as a child, and some of the most vivid passages are based on her memories. Homeless children have been vanishing for months when Naomi Cottle, an investigator who finds missing kids, turns up in search of her younger sister. The two girls were abducted as children, but Naomi escaped. Seeking information, she makes friends with Celia, a girl who has run away from home to escape her violent stepfather. In an atmosphere of dread, it becomes apparent that someone is stalking Celia, leading to a climax that exposes decades of murder and abuse.
Susan Hill’s crime novels are set in Lafferton, a fictional English town with a quiet cathedral close. Her main character, Simon Serrailler, straddles two traditions of the genre, resembling PD James’s gentleman-detective Adam Dalgliesh, but dealing with 21st-century crimes such as sex-trafficking. In The Benefit of Hindsight
(Chatto £18.99), Serrailler has returned as the head of Lafferton CID after losing an arm in a savage beating. When a gay couple is scammed by a ruthless gang, he doesn’t move quickly enough to warn local people, with fatal consequences. Hill is clearly very attached to her character and the murder investigation is overshadowed by this latest crisis in Serrailler’s career.
Elly Griffiths is best known for her detective fiction featuring a forensic archaeologist in Norfolk. But she’s also the author of an engaging series of crime novels set in Brighton in the 1950s and 1960s. In Now You See Them (Quercus £14.99), her stage magician Max Mephisto has reinvented himself as a Hollywood star and is on a flying visit to Sussex. He is catching up with his old friend, DS Edgar Stephens, when teenage girls start disappearing. Griffiths puts Stephens’s wife, Emma, a former police sergeant, at the heart of the investigation, recreating the stifling atmosphere of a period when women were expected to give up work on marriage. The novel is wry, emotionally intelligent and quietly satisfying.