Crime round-up

Sunday Times, 8 March 2020

An island in thrall to a local gangster is the highlight of our round-up

Islands are an attractive setting for crime writers. They offer a bigger canvas than a locked-room mystery while sharing some of its features, including a limited list of suspects. In Black Rain Falling (Sphere £14.99), Jacob Ross’s outstanding novel set on the small Caribbean island of Camaho, family connections and ancient hatreds complicate just about every criminal investigation.

Ross is a British Grenadian whose previous publications include two widely praised collections of short stories, and his latest work sits somewhere between literary and crime fiction. He uses the genre to address tough subjects, not least the casually brutal treatment of women in the island’s culture, while never forgetting the demands of a complex plot.

Ross’s characters are exceptionally vivid, their relationships established through dialogue written with the lightest possible touch. His detective, Michael “Digger” Digson, is protective of a female colleague, Miss Stanislaus, who was raped and made pregnant years ago by a local gangster, Juba Hurst. The rapist has now appropriated land owned by Miss Stanislaus’s great-uncle on a neighbouring island, where the local cops are terrified of him. When the two detectives run into Juba by accident, the confrontation ends in his death, Miss Stanislaus is accused of murder — and Digger is given just six weeks to prove she was acting in self-defence.

Black Rain Falling is the second volume in a quartet and its predecessor, The Bone Readers, won the Jhalak prize for BAME writers three years ago. The new novel is a fine literary achievement and a treat for fans of crime fiction.

Violence against women is at the heart of Jessica Moor’s disturbing first novel, Keeper (Viking £14.99). When the body of a young woman who works in a refuge is pulled from a river, the police conduct a half-hearted investigation, inclined to write it off as suicide. Inside the refuge, the residents are reluctant to talk to the cops, distracted by fear of being found by abusive former partners and custody battles over their children. Their stories emerge in the course of the investigation, revealing the myriad forms of domestic abuse that force women to flee their families. However, the best thing about the book is its absolutely chilling portrayal of a relationship based on coercive control.

Burnt Island (Simon & Schuster £8.99) is the third in Kate Rhodes’s engaging series of detective novels set in the Scilly Isles. Ben Kitto, a former Met police detective, grew up on the islands and has returned as deputy chief of police. Kitto is an appealing character, introspective and conscious of experiencing divided loyalties when individuals he has known for decades come under suspicion.

The new novel opens on Bonfire Night as families gather for a fireworks display, but the event is ruined when smoke is spotted rising from nearby Burnt Island; when Kitto discovers the charred body of a man, he puts the entire island of St Agnes in lockdown. Rhodes writes beautifully about small island communities, and her plots are always gripping.

Emily Koch’s first novel, If I Die Before I Wake, was shortlisted for several prizes. Her second, Keep Him Close (Harvill Secker £12.99), has a similarly claustrophobic atmosphere. It alternates between the stories of two women affected by the same sudden death: Alice’s younger son, Lou, has died after falling or being pushed from a multistorey car park, while Indigo’s student son, Kane, is suspected of Lou’s murder.
Both women are single mothers and their objectives could hardly be more different: Alice wants to see Kane convicted, while Indigo is determined to get him out of the grim prison where he has been sent to await trial. However, they have more in common than they realise, and Koch gradually brings them together in a tense drama that strives to be fair to both women.

The Man on the Street (Quercus £14.99) is a haunting first novel by a former naval officer, Trevor Wood. The book is set in Newcastle, and well-known landmarks such as the Tyne Bridge and the Swirle Pavilion flash by as a homeless Falklands veteran, Jimmy, roams the city in search of a night’s shelter. One evening he has just bedded down on the Quayside when he’s woken by the sound of two men having a noisy argument in the distance, near the Millennium Bridge. Like most homeless people, Jimmy is desperate not to draw attention to himself and he does nothing, even when the commotion ends with a splash.

A few days later a student nurse appeals for help finding her father, a university lecturer and environmental campaigner who hasn’t been seen for more than two weeks. As the ex-serviceman is drawn reluctantly into a murder investigation, Wood slowly reveals the extent of his PTSD, neither sanitising nor condemning him. It’s an impressive debut, offering unsentimental insights into the everyday lives of people who end up on the streets.

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