Let Down by Law

Literary Review, November 2018

Eve Was Shamed: How British Justice is Failing Women, Helena Kennedy (Chatto £20)

It is a quarter of a century since Helena Kennedy’s book Eve Was Framed: Women and British Justice was published. A great deal has changed in that time, a circumstance reflected in the unequivocal title of this updated version. Eve Was Shamed: How British Justice is Failing Women leaves us in little doubt that Kennedy believes things have got worse since she first wrote about the way women are treated by the police, courts and judges.

There is a paradox here, because the numbers of women reporting rape keeps going up. The figure has been rising for years, suggesting that some women at least have more confidence in the police and hope they will be able to see their attackers convicted. But savage cuts to police and government budgets mean that it’s now taking up to two years for rape cases to get to court, dragging out the ordeal for both sides. Meanwhile strict new rules on disclosure are forcing complainants – but not, crucially, defendants – to provide access to mobile phones, computers, medical, college and school records. The degree of infusion is literally intolerable for some complainants, who fear hostile questioning in court about irrelevant matters such as abortions or a history of anorexia.

It’s one of several ways in which the situation has deteriorated since Kennedy, a human rights lawyer and Labour peer, first wrote about the criminal justice system. It bears out her proposition that women are being shamed and she is right to highlight the role of the tabloid press in creating the false impression that whole swathes of the male population are at risk of being wrongly accused of rape. The real scandal is that the vast majority of rapists are never prosecuted, let alone convicted.

Kennedy is good on the way on the way in which absolute equality doesn’t produce equal outcomes. ‘We argued for equality but treating as equal those who are unequal does not produce equality,’ she points out, citing the way in which the notorious bedroom tax unfairly penalised people with a disability or who needed overnight carers. (The Supreme Court agreed.) Real equality means recognising a daunting catalogue of sex-based disadvantage including the pay gap, unequal opportunities at work and and the fact that so many women live in fear of abuse and violence.

Eve Was Shamed opens with an autobiographical section about Kennedy’s experiences as a young barrister which, while deeply felt, holds up a narrative that goes on to deal with horrific modern phenomena such as sex trafficking and ‘honour’-based crimes. It is symptomatic of a lack of focus elsewhere in the book, where Kennedy writes at length about exhaustively-documented events such as the judge’s remarks about Mary Archer when her husband, Jeffrey, sued for Iibel back in 1987. Yes, Mr Justice Caulfield’s observations were ridiculous but it was a long time ago and adds to the impression of a book that could have benefited from editing.

Kennedy would have been better advised to concentrate on what has changed since she wrote the earlier book. Sex trafficking didn’t exist on its current industrial scale in the 1990s and it’s since become a significant way of controlling and exploiting vulnerable women. But Kennedy’s take on prostitution and sex trafficking is confused, at one point conflating the two as ‘trafficked sex workers’ when it is obvious that a trafficked woman is a victim of coerced labour or sex slavery.

She acknowledges that women are driven into prostitution by childhood abuse, homelessness, substance abuse and poverty, but she’s dubious about criminalising the men who take advantage of their vulnerability. The fact that the same men use prostituted and trafficked women isn’t acknowledged and Kennedy isn’t keen on feminists who argue for the sex-buyer law adopted in Sweden – where, by the way, a senior police officer told me that the legislation has almost eliminated sex trafficking into the country. Instead, in a telling aside, Kennedy says that sex workers (her phrase, not mine) ‘want middle-class feminists off their backs’.

It’s a cheap shot against women, including survivors of the commercial sex industry who’ve experienced violence and abuse firsthand, who regard selling women’s bodies as a denial of basic human rights. And it’s equally disappointing to find Kennedy arguing in a later chapter that the prison system ‘too often locks up transgender prisoners according to their genitalia rather than their chosen gender identity and often with tragic consequences’. I assume that the book was finished before Karen White, a transgender prisoner awaiting trial for rape, insisted on being moved to a women’s prison and immediately assaulted female inmates – something that feminist organisations had warned was likely to happen.

Twenty-five years ago, I liked Kennedy’s original version of this book. The new one feels like a rehash of Second Wave feminism with an uncritical adoption of some 21st century orthodoxies that are actively hostile towards it. And I can’t help feeling troubled by a book which is so casually dismissive of the legitimate concerns of contemporary feminists.

 

 

 

The killing of Suzy Lamplugh affected a generation of women. Now it’s back

The Guardian, Tuesday 30 October 2018

The case of the 25-year-old estate agent, presumed murdered in 1986, still fills me with horror at the dangers women face

More than 30 years after her disappearance, police are carrying out yet another search related to the murder of Suzy Lamplugh. The news will send shivers down the spine of anyone who remembers the headlines in 1986, appealing for help in finding the missing estate agent. Smiling pictures of Suzy, a lock of brown hair falling over her forehead, were everywhere, but days lengthened into weeks and the woman herself was nowhere.

The fact that a 25-year-old woman could leave her office, head for a perfectly ordinary street in southwest London and never be seen again defied belief. On the day of her disappearance, she had been due to show a house to a client, a routine appointment none of us would have thought twice about in those days. It was only afterwards that the man’s name, “Mr Kipper”, started to look like an obvious pseudonym – and one that suggested a twisted sense of humour, assuming it belonged to her abductor.

The last sighting of Suzy was in a street in Fulham, where she seemed to be arguing with a man, and her white Ford Fiesta was found just over a mile away. Since then, nothing, not a single trace, despite police searches of various locations including a disused army barracks outside Worcester. Sixteen years after her disappearance, Scotland Yard named a convicted rapist and murderer, John Cannan, as the prime suspect in what had long been assumed to be Suzy’s murder. The latest search, using specialist forensic equipment, is in the garden of a house in Sutton Coldfield which used to belong to Cannan’s mother.

Even now, I can’t hear Suzy’s name without remembering the growing sense of dread I felt as it became apparent that the most likely explanation for her disappearance was murder. By the middle of the 1980s, many more women were breaking into previously male professions, but no one had given much thought to the fact that our jobs sometimes required us to be alone with complete strangers. I vividly remember being sent to interview a man whose wife was missing, walking into his house on my own and immediately having a gut feeling that he had something to do with her disappearance. I almost ran out of the house and it made me think much harder about the situations my job might take me into.

Suzy’s disappearance brought all our half-formed fears into sharp focus. As women in our 20s and 30s, we wanted to believe we could do our work on exactly the same terms as men, but the Lamplugh case was a terrifying reminder of the existence of sexual predators. The risk of abduction was small but Suzy’s disappearance highlighted gaps in legislation to protect women, including the fact that stalking wasn’t a specific criminal offence at the time.

To her huge credit, Suzy’s mother Diana understood from her family’s dreadful experience that personal safety was a significant issue for women. With her husband Paul, she founded a trust in Suzy’s memory to campaign for changes in work culture and the law. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust now runs the national stalking helpline and has become the country’s leading resource for women and girls who are suffering from harassment. Tragically, Diana Lamplugh died in 2011, followed by her husband in June this year, without ever finding out what happened to their daughter.

In 1986, there was a tendency to treat the disappearance of a young woman as if it was something out of a crime novel, a whodunnit with a neat solution on the final page. There was even some unpleasant speculation about Suzy’s personal life, as though the idea of a woman being targeted and abducted by a complete stranger was outlandish. I would like to think that most people know better than that now, and if Suzy’s remains are found, it will offer resolution of a kind. Even so, few of us who remember the summer of 1986 can read her name without a sense of foreboding and horror.

 

Crime round-up

Sunday Times, & October 2018

Sara Paretsky’s crime novels could easily be a social history of America, showing how tumultuous political events affect the lives of ordinary people. In Shell Game (Hodder £18.99), she writes about payday-loan companies, undocumented immigrants living in fear of arrest and a group of archaeologists trying to save the heritage of war-torn Syria. Her detective, VI Warshawski, is plunged into this scary, unstable world when she’s asked to help a friend’s nephew, wrongly accused of murder, who appears to have become involved in stolen antiquities.

 

In a nod to #MeToo, she is also trying to find her ex-husband’s niece, who has disappeared in Chicago after returning traumatised from a luxury island getaway with executives from the world of high finance. The two cases appear to be unconnected, but Warshawski suspects that greed (for money, precious objects and young women) is the element that brings them together. Paretsky is brilliant at juggling strands, but the 19th Warshawski novel is also a panoramic vision of Chicago at a time when the city is so polarised that decent people don’t know who to trust.

 

Susan Hill’s The Comforts of Home (Chatto £18.99) opens with a shock for fans of her introspective detective Simon Serrailler. The near-fatal beating he suffered in his last case looms over the new book, delaying his recovery and forcing him to adjust in ways he never expected. A stay on a Scottish island appeals to Serrailler’s yearning for solitude, but he finds himself having to kick-start a murder investigation that has tragic consequences for the islanders. Back on the mainland, Serrailler’s formal return to work in Lafferton begins with an equally disturbing cold case. Hill’s cool observation of her characters doesn’t imply any lack of sympathy, and Serrailler’s struggle to come to terms with the recent past is thoughtfully done.

 

Ian Rankin retired DI John Rebus from the police, but not his fiction, several years ago. Rebus came back as a civilian employee for a time, and even now, suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) after a lifetime of smoking, he’s having to deal with awkward questions about old cases. The latest Rebus, In a House of Lies (Orion £20), begins with the discovery of a body in a car dumped in woods outside Edinburgh. The dead man is a private detective who vanished in 2006, when Rebus was on the force, and his angry family wants to know why he wasn’t found until now. It is an ingenious reason to bring Rebus back, but the book feels like a coda to the earlier novels, as though the author cannot quite bring himself to let Rebus go.

 

Ann Cleeves has taken a bold decision about her detective Jimmy Perez, announcing that Wild Fire (Macmillan £16.99) is the final novel in her Shetland series. Cleeves has put Perez though traumatic events in recent years, including the murder of his girlfriend, which left him to bring up her daughter. His latest case involves an English family who have recently moved to the island. At first glance, Helena Fleming is a successful knitwear designer, but she’s struggling to cope with a depressed husband and an autistic son. When their nanny is found hanging in a barn, Perez’s attempts to unravel the complex dynamics of the household force him to think hard about family loyalty — and his own future. This is an accomplished end to a fine series.

The smearing of Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers shows just how many men believe women are liars

Daily Telegraph, Thursday 4 October 2018

It’s something most women know instinctively. The smearing of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers shows how many men automatically assume that all women are liars – especially, but not only, when they accuse a well-connected man of sexual misconduct.

This week a Senate committee, no less, took part in the ‘shaming’ of a woman who came forward to support the testimony given by Christine Blasey Ford.Dr Ford gave evidence before the judiciary committee last week, graphically describing an alleged attempted rape by the Supreme Court candidate (who is hoping to get a job for life) back in 1982. Yesterday Republican members of the committee released a statement accusing Julie Swetnick, who is herself an alleged rape victim, of lying about Kavanaugh’s behaviour towards women when he was a young man.

The four-page letter also made lurid and uncorroborated claims about her sexual history. If you’ve ever wondered why more women don’t report rape, I suggest you look at what’s been done to Ms Swetnick and Dr Ford – and think again.

Ms Swetnick has contradicted Judge Kavanaugh’s sworn testimony that he drank just the occasional beer, claiming she saw him drunk at parties where women had their drinks spiked and were raped. She also alleges that Kavanaugh and his friends took part in what she describes as ‘gang rape’, and claims they were present at a party where she herself was drugged and raped.

This apparently prompted Ms Swetnick’s ex-boyfriend, if you can dignify him with the title when he dated her for all of two weeks in the 1990s, to issue his own statement. A former TV weatherman, Dennis Ketterer, insisted that Ms Swetnick had never mentioned Kavanaugh or her own rape in the course of their relationship.

It is just possible that she didn’t feel she knew him well enough after a fortnight to reveal such a distressing episode in her personal history. But Ketterer didn’t stop there. He gave a detailed account of her supposed sexual preferences, with the clear implication that a woman who enjoyed consensual sex in anything other than the missionary position couldn’t possibly be trusted to tell the truth about her own rape or other sexual misconduct.

This was the statement released by the Republicans on the Senate judiciary committee in a transparent attempt to discredit Ms Swetnick. They apparently can’t see the difference between a witness making allegations of criminal behaviour and, to put it bluntly, a pile of salacious gossip. While it is true that Ms Swetnick has contradicted some of the claims in her initial statement, she – unlike Kavanaugh – isn’t alleged to have broken any laws or assaulted anyone.

The proper authority to investigate her allegations against Kavanaugh isn’t the general public. It’s the FBI and it should have been done in private, by investigators who are used to conducting sensitive inquiries. Ms Swetnick’s treatment has uncomfortable echoes of the retrial of the Welsh footballer Ched Evans, who was acquitted after the judge allowed other men to provide evidence about the type of sex they claimed to have had with the complainant.

It isn’t just Ms Swetnick who has been smeared. On Tuesday evening Donald Trump, who praised Dr Ford last week, mocked her testimony in front of a cheering crowd at a rally in Mississippi. These public events are akin to expensive therapy sessions where the President sounds off against all his enemies, real and imagined, but this one marked a new low.

It also brought into the open something that usually goes on behind closed doors. Any woman who alleges rape or sexual assault can expect to be vilified by the accused, his friends and his defence team. In this country, under new rules on disclosure, every text or email she has ever written will be pored over, in search of supposedly damning evidence such as any occasion when she mentioned enjoying consensual sex.

I’ve never understood the assumption that a woman who agrees to have sex with one man should be assumed to have consented to have sex with someone else entirely, despite her denials. But then I’ve never understood the notion that women habitually lie about sex, randomly accusing men of rape, while men tell the truth at all times – apart from when they’re boasting to their mates, of course.

In the Trump era, the assumption that all women are liars is being openly expressed at the highest levels of government. The smearing of Dr Ford and Julie Swetnick allows us to see just how badly women who allege rape are treated, although we rarely get to hear about it.

This is not about justice or establishing the truth. It’s scare tactics, designed to protect powerful men who have seen their privileges chipped away by the #MeToo movement. Rape complainants don’t lie any more than victims of other serious crimes, and it’s the men who promote such baseless smears who should be ashamed of themselves.

Lethal White review

Sunday Times, 9 September 2018

Lethal White, Robert Galbraith
Sphere £20
At first glance, Robert Galbraith’s new novel has the length and complexity of Victorian fiction, not to mention a cast of grotesques worthy of Dickens. Just for starters, there’s a possibly psychotic young man who claims to have witnessed a murder, and a Tory cabinet minister who is being blackmailed by a couple of hard-left activists. Galbraith is, of course, the pen name of  JK Rowling, and the fourth novel to feature her private eye, the disabled Afghanistan veteran Cormoran Strike, is easily the most ambitious.
A sense of impending doom hangs over the book, encouraged by the lines from Rosmersholm (Ibsen’s play about a widower who cannot admit he is in love with his late wife’s friend) that head each chapter. Strike is famously hopeless with women, and the novel opens with him gate-crashing the wedding of his assistant, Robin Ellacott. Strike and Robin are chronically unable to express their feelings for each other, continuing to work together after the wedding but deflecting their anxieties onto the blackmail case, for which Robin must go undercover in the House of Commons.
In the hands of a less accomplished writer, the relationship between these two might unbalance the rest of the novel. But Galbraith never forgets that Lethal White is crime
fiction, unfolding a labyrinthine plot with its origins in the basest human emotions. Like Ibsen’s play, the novel is about class and self-deception, with the 2012 London Olympics playing out in the background and offering a glimpse of the optimistic, egalitarian society the UK briefly aspired to be.
The cabinet minister, Jasper Chiswell, is responsible for the Olympics opening ceremony, but could hardly be more at odds with what it represents. He hires Strike to see off the blackmailers, but refuses to explain what he has done, revealing a sense of entitlement shared by most of his dysfunctional family — the horse-mad third wife (lethal white syndrome is an equine disease), and the hedonistic younger son who is just out of prison after killing a woman in a car accident. The family’s crumbling country house is as threadbare as their values, but the blackmailers’ politics are just as dreadful, offering Galbraith the opportunity to write comic scenes in which Marxism, feminism and sex collide.
The tone of the novel is tragi-comic, but simmering underneath is a commentary on the way male violence is tolerated. Strike is Galbraith/Rowling’s exemplar of a decent but damaged man, struggling to overcome his own worst instincts. It’s a blistering piece of crime writing but a great deal more than that, bringing to the genre the serious purpose of popular Victorian fiction.

What Doesn’t Kill You Hurts Like Hell

Literary Review, September 2018

Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain, Abby Norman (Nation Books, £20)

No matter how hard doctors try to measure it, pain is a subjective experience. None of us really knows what someone means when they say they’re in pain, given that what is agony for one person might be bearable for another. But it is clear from this memoir that Abby Norman has endured extraordinary levels of pain, forcing her to become an expert on a subject many people would shy away from.

The subtitle talks about trying to get doctors to believe in women’s pain but the book leaves no doubt that Norman’s own experience is real, long-lasting and excruciating. The book opens in 2010 when Norman was in her second year at Sarah Lawrence, the prestigious liberal arts college 15 miles north of New York City. She is from Maine and a family so dysfunctional that getting a place at Sarah Lawrence was a major achievement. Norman’s mother was anorexic, so absorbed in and ravaged by her own illness that she couldn’t care for her daughter; what she did do was impose draconian rules about food, leaving Norman perpetually hungry and forced to forage for scraps from other children’s lunches at school. She went to stay with her grandmother at the age of 12 but that didn’t work out either and she eventually moved in with a sympathetic teacher.

I hadn’t heard the phrase ‘legally emancipated’ until I read this book but it refers to a minor who has in effect divorced her parents, which is what Norman did in court at the age of 16. It isn’t a step many teenage girls would know how to take, let alone ask a judge to sanction, but it is clear from the early pages that Norman has a rare degree of intelligence and determination. After such a struggle to get to college, the fact that she was struck down with a mysterious and devastating illness during her second year, putting an end to her hopes of graduating, is nothing less than tragic.

Everything about her backstory is heroic but it worked against Norman when she became ill with endometriosis – a condition usually defined as tissue from the uterus growing in other parts of the body, principally the ovaries and fallopian tubes, and causing agonising pain. But it is clear from Norman’s own experience, and the mass of research she has done, that much about it remains mysterious. Endometriosis wasn’t even talked about much until fairly recently when a handful of well-known women, including the novelist Hilary Mantel and the actress Padma Lakshmi, began to speak and write about their own experiences.  

Because it is poorly understood – and, as the books reveals in excruciating detail, doctors don’t always listen to their patients – some of the health professionals who treated Norman looked for other explanations of her pain. Hence the book’s title, which emerged from the frustration of being treated for psychological problems while she sometimes felt so physically ill that she thought she might die. At the same time, in the absence of a unified public health care system, she had to look for doctors who would accept her as a patient on Medicaid. Casual references in the book to threats from debt collection agencies speak volumes about living in a country where access to cutting-edge medical treatment depends entirely on money.

It’s understandable that Norman is interested in the history of medical neglect of women, although some readers might find that passages in the book about Freud’s theory of hysteria cover well-worn territory. But she writes about the experience of pain more vividly than anyone I’ve previously come across, so much so that there were times when I had to put the book down. ‘Bodily agonies that do not end beget a kind of forced intimacy with pain,’ she says at one point. Her book is unusually candid, giving readers a sense of what that terrifying and unsought intimacy might be like.

 

Treating rape victims as ‘liars’ will set British justice back by decades

Joan Smith Co-chair of the Mayor’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 28 August 2018

Why on earth wouldn’t the police believe rape victims? It seems mind-boggling, but plans are afoot by senior officers to abandon the national policy of believing individuals who report rape or sexual assault.

The proposal to abandon the policy – agreed by most chief constables, as well as Met commissioner Cressida Dick – would see the “belief” practice erased from the national guidelines and replaced with “the intention that victims can be confident they will be listened to”.

The whole thing is rightly causing controversy and has been criticised this week by victims’ commissioner, Baroness Newlove. In a powerful intervention, she has called the plan ‘a retrograde step’ for justice, warning that victims will be less likely to come forward if they think they won’t be believed from the outset. Lady Newlove highlights the risk of reversing the ‘great strides’ made in recent years by the criminal justice system, and she challenges the idea that police officers won’t be able to conduct a robust and impartial investigation if they begin by believing the victim.

This is the claim at the heart of the matter – and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that chief constables have confused two different things. Starting from a position of belief builds public confidence in the police and has undoubtedly contributed to the growing willingness of victims to report sex crimes. It doesn’t mean that a complainant’s claims won’t be investigated, just as someone reporting the theft of a car or a burglary would expect to have their account tested to see if it stands up to scrutiny.

The criminal charges brought against the disgraced producer, Harvey Weinstein, are a case in point. The #MeToo movement began with women telling their stories and now some of the key allegations are going to be tested, quite properly, in court. If they had had more confidence in the criminal justice system, it might have happened sooner – and the fact that one of his accusers, the Italian actress Asia Argento, has herself been accused of assaulting a 17-year-old actor, certainly doesn’t invalidate the whole #MeToo campaign. 

The idea that the police simply accept everything a rape victim says, without carrying out an investigation, is simply ludicrous – and that’s one of the reasons why campaigners are so opposed to the proposed change in policy. They think this is more to do with embarrassment over a high-profile case that went spectacularly wrong, subjecting the Metropolitan Police to savage public criticism – and that it’s led senior officers to draw completely the wrong conclusion.

It all goes back to Operation Midland, an investigation into the lurid allegations made by a man known only as ‘Nick’. A senior officer described his claims about a paedophile ring at the heart of the establishment as ‘credible and true’ – but Nick was later charged with perverting the course of justice.

Operation Midland was always a highly unusual investigation, including the fact that the police took the very risky course of commenting publicly before they had finished testing ‘Nick’s’ claims. That was a huge error but it’s not usual practice in sex cases, and could easily have been avoided. Nor is it a good reason to change policy in relation to every single allegation of rape or sexual assault, risking the destruction of much of the confidence in the police that’s been built up in recent years.

Senior officers have clearly been stung by the remarks of Sir Richard Henriques, the retired judge who examined Operation Midland. He argued that officers’ judgement had been warped by the ‘automatic belief’ policy, even though it’s clear that this was a case in which they took it to unusual extremes. Automatic belief doesn’t preclude asking questions, looking for supporting evidence and keeping an eye out for inconsistencies. All of that already happens in rape cases, to a point where complainants sometimes feel as if their entire private lives are being picked apart.

Each year, the number of individuals reporting rape is rising, but that trend will be put in jeopardy if victims – the vast majority of whom are telling the truth – fear a return to the bad old days. For far too long, rape victims were met with scepticism and sometimes outright disbelief, based on the myth that there is a higher rate of false allegations in rape cases than in other serious crimes. There’s no evidence for this, as a study commissioned by the then Director Public Prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer (now a Labour MP), pointed out.

But it created a situation where notorious predators like the black cab rapist, John Worboys, were able to go on attacking women with impunity even after some of his victims went to the police. It was scandals like the Worboys case, and the failure to properly investigate the crimes of Jimmy Savile, that led to the policy change in 2011 when the National Police Chiefs Council issued the instruction that victims should be believed.

It’s had a positive effect, as recorded crime figures show, but now it’s in jeopardy for all the wrong reasons. The NPCC is currently consulting on the change but leading figures, including Lady Newlove, are worried – and they’re right to be.

The problem of rape in this country isn’t too many false allegations. It’s that the vast majority of rapists get away with their crimes, a fact almost entirely ignored in this frankly demeaning discussion of whether victims deserve to be believed. Treating complainants as potentially dishonest from the outset will reinforce one of the most damaging rape myths – and set victims’ rights back by decades.  

KIller smog, Poirot and a dark secret in the Black Forest

Sunday Times, 26 August 2018

London in the 1950s is a city of bomb sites and shored-up buildings, shrouded in fog. Ex-soldiers, refugees from Europe and small-time crooks mingle in Notting Hill, where a man called John Christie is offering to help women who have breathing problems. 

Few people remember the great smog of 1952 that killed thousands, but its choking effects are vividly evoked in Breathe (Hodder £17.99), an outstanding debut by
Dominick Donald. His protagonist, PC Dick Bourton, has been on the force for only six months when he starts to notice a series of deaths across London involving older people who live alone. Distracted by the failing health of his Russian fiancée, he gradually realises he is on the track of a serial killer. Donald combines historical events and fictional characters to superb effect, in a novel that deserves to win prizes
.
Val McDermid’s Broken Ground (Little, Brown £18.99) opens in 1944 with a couple of men burying something in an isolated area of the Highlands. Whatever they were up to falls outside the remit of Chief Inspector Karen Pirie’s historic crimes unit, which deals with cases less than 70 years old. But when the granddaughter of one of the men turns up, clutching a map left behind when he died, she finds something buried far more recently — a body that has been in the earth for no more than 25 years. McDermid’s novels about cold cases have solid plots and fascinating forensic detail.
The Mystery of Three Quarters (HarperCollins £18.99) is the third in a series by Sophie Hannah that brings back to life Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Hannah is also the author of a series of bestselling thrillers and she brings her passion for verbal clues into her latest Poirot. Four people have received letters, apparently from the Belgian detective, accusing them of the murder of a man called Barnabas Pandy — but Pandy wasn’t murdered and three of the recipients claim never to have heard of him. Inspired by a cake made of coloured squares, Poirot sets about arranging the “suspects” in different combinations and reveals the solution to the mystery in a classic set-piece in a country house. It is all done with great affection but feels more like a late-1920s stage set than the real thing.
A Summer of Murder by Oliver Bottini, translated by Jamie Bulloch (MacLehose £16.99), is the second in Bottini’s acclaimed Black Forest investigations. It has a plot as surprising as the earlier novel, which began with a Buddhist monk tramping through the snow. This time, fire fighters are called to a burning barn that explodes, revealing a hidden arms cache. Chief Inspector Louise Boni is assigned to a fractious task force whose suspects include neo-Nazis, terrorists and rival factions from the Bosnian war. Boni is a bit too much of a stereotype, the emotional woman detective whose intuitions infuriate her male colleagues yet prove correct. But Bottini makes up for this with taut writing and pacy events.  

Worthy of Hitchcock

Sunday Times, 5 August 2018

In an uncertain economic climate, the finances of even the most affluent couples may be more unstable than they appear. Mark is an investment banker, Erin a documentary-maker, and they’ve just booked their dream honeymoon in Catherine Steadman’s twisty first novel, Something in the Water (Simon & Schuster £12.99).Then disaster strikes: Mark loses his job and the couple face returning home from their luxury hotel in the south Pacific to a very uncertain future. They’re still trying to convince each other that everything will be all right when temptation floats into view, in the shape of a suitcase stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Steadman, who is an actress with Downton Abbey among her credits, tells the story from Erin’s point of view but doesn’t spare either of her main characters. Erin and Mark believe they’re decent, hard-working people but they discover undreamt-of pockets of greed and dishonesty as soon as they’re tested. The money is tainted, linked to some very dodgy individuals, and paranoia sets in as sinister messages and unexplained events disturb their comfortable lives in north London. The break-down of their relationship is brilliantly described, and it all kicks off with an opening scene worthy of Hitchcock.

A long-running series of crime novels provides some of the same pleasures as soap opera, offering the latest instalment in the lives of familiar characters. Careless Love (Hodder £20) is the 25th book in Peter Robinson’s best-selling series featuring DCI Alan Banks, a thoughtful detective based in the fictional Yorkshire town of Eastvale. Banks is divorced, with two grown-up children and excruciating taste in music, but Robinson never allows the detective’s backstory to get in the way of some very contemporary plots.

His novels track the changing nature of crime, taking on difficult subjects such as gangs of men who groom under-age girls for sex, and the new book tackles the contentious subject of widening inequality. Two corpses are discovered on the moors, a student dressed for a night out and an older man in a business suit, with no obvious connection between them. The inquiry leads to a group of successful middle-aged men with access to expensive lawyers, but Banks is determined to uncover a scam involving sex, drugs and the exploitation of vulnerable young women.

The brooding presence of Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District, hangs over Stephen Booth’s fine novel, Fall Down Dead (Sphere £20). Each year, a group of walkers sets out in commemoration of the mass trespass in 1932, when hundreds of ramblers defied local landowners in defence of the right to roam. The little group is led by Darius Roth, a local man who claims to be a descendant of one of the original protesters, but he ignores warnings about the weather. With one member of the party injured and no signal on their mobile phones, the walkers separate and a woman falls to her death in the fog. DI Ben Cooper suspects that the death wasn’t accidental but he has nothing to go on but his gut feeling – and some painstaking detective work that harks back to a less forensically-driven age of crime fiction.

Clare Askew’s memorable and moving first novel, All the Hidden Truths (Hodder £12.99), presents the police in Edinburgh with a highly unusual crime. When an engineering student walks into college one morning and murders 13 young women before killing himself, everyone knows the identity of the perpetrator. The investigation that follows focuses on three women – a police inspector, the killer’s mother and the mother of the first victim – in a harrowing examination of the causes and consequences of mass murder.