The Fale Sheikh is overthrown, but the matter can’t rest there

Big questions remain for prosecutors who relied on Mazher Mahmood’s testimony – and for all who allowed him to act without oversight

The Guardian, Thursday 6 October 2016

In the course of his long career, the undercover journalist known as the Fake Sheikh bragged about the number of people he’d sent to prison. Back in 2012, during a melodramatic appearance at the Leveson inquiry, Mazher Mahmood declared that he was “proud to have jailed paedophiles and drug dealers”. Now, in a stunning reversal of fortune, the famously camera-shy Fake Sheikh may be facing a prison sentence himself.

Mahmood has been convicted, along with his driver Alan Smith, of tampering with evidence in the drugs trial of the singer Tulisa Contostavlos. That trial was the result of a “sting” operation reported in the Sun on Sunday. Both men have now been found guilty of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, an offence which carries a jail sentence of up to two years.

It is all a far cry from the days when drug dealers, sports stars and celebrities who had fallen on hard times allegedly quaked at the mention of the Fake Sheikh. His scalps included members of the Pakistan cricket team, three of whom were jailed for match-fixing during a tour of England in 2010. Mahmood, by contrast, was celebrated. He won a series of press awards for the story.

The reporter boasted to the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press that he had been responsible for more than 250 successful criminal prosecutions, although critics say the figure is closer to 70. He claimed that he lived under “a constant death threat”, persuading the inquiry that he could give evidence only in a courtroom cleared of everyone except lawyers. Reporters had to listen to the audio feed of his evidence from another room, allowing him to protect his identity – and increasing his mystique.

But there was always a darker side to Mazher Mahmood’s self-mythologising, with some of his best-known stories falling apart long before the Contostavlos debacle. Stings are part of newspaper life, the most recent being the Daily Telegraph’s revelations about Sam Allardyce, which prompted his resignation as England manager. But there is a difference between investigating pre-existing allegations of corruption in sport – or, indeed, a prominent MP’s willingness to pay for sex while chairing an inquiry into prostitution law, as the Sunday Mirror did recently – and persuading people such as Contostavlos to act entirely out of character, which is what, we must now conclude, Mahmood did.

What next? Mahmood and Smith are due in court for sentencing later this month. But even then, it doesn’t end. Big questions remain for police and prosecutors who relied heavily on Mahmood’s investigations and testimony in a number of contested cases. The lawyer Ben Rose, who defended Contostavlos at her drugs trial, went to the heart of the matter: “The real scandal in this case is that Mahmood was allowed to operate as a wholly unregulated police force, ‘investigating’ crimes without the safeguards which apply to the police,” he said.

Following the collapse of the Contostavlos trial, the crown prosecution service dropped a number of criminal cases in which Mahmood was due to be a witness, and announced a review of 25 past convictions. The criminal cases review commission is currently reappraising six cases involving celebrities who were convicted after being targeted by Mahmood.

But the questions go further than that. Consider that some police officers have privately complained that all weekend leave was cancelled when their superiors got wind that Mahmood was about to publish a big exposé in the News of the World. If true, is that level of complicity at all appropriate?

Surely such allegations, indeed all issues raised by the case, demonstrate the urgent need for ministers to set up the second part of the Leveson inquiry, specifically to examine relationships between the police and the press and whether they work towards the public good. It appears to have been parked. The very public fall of Mazher Mahmood tells us it must now be set up without delay.

Flatlines

Literary Review, October 2016

Transit, by Rachel Cusk (Jonathan Cape £16.99)

Rachel Cusk’s narrator is a writer who is in the process of reorganising her life after the break-up of a long relationship. She moves back to London with her two sons and decides, on the advice of a friend, to buy a bad house in a good street rather than the other way round. It needs a massive amount of building work but that isn’t the half of it; the basement consists of a council flat occupied by a hellish couple who harass her at every turn.

To an outsider, this purchase seems ill-judged from the outset, and the state of the house quickly comes to seem like a metaphor for everything that’s wrong with Faye’s current circumstances. She is self-deprecating and uncomplaining – we don’t even learn her name until a long way into the novel – and these characteristics are reflected in the manner of her narration.

Whenever a new character is introduced, she begins to tell his or her story, often employing reported speech as if she’s little more than a mouthpiece. Here she is, for instance, summarising a conversation with an ex-boyfriend who went to live in Canada when she left him years ago: ‘They had stayed on in Toronto for another eighteen months, Gerard went on, during which time Clara was born.’ The problem isn’t so much that these stories are hard to believe – Faye is a passive narrator, not an unreliable one – as her unemotional reaction to them. It is mystifying, given that some of them lead lives of spectacular misery.

There is a clue to Faye’s detachment in the opening chapter, in a rather laboured anecdote about an unsolicited email from an astrologer. Faye knows that the woman has been generated by an algorithm but in the end she pays up for the reading she’s been offered. She seems to be suggesting that the world is so cruel and confusing, and genuine communication so difficult, that computer-generated sympathy is as reliable as the real thing. She has a friend who feels the same following his divorce, feeling ‘moved to tears by the concern for his health and wellbeing expressed in the phraseology of adverts and food packaging’.

Of course this man is depressed and far from alone among the melancholic characters who take their turns in Cusk’s pages. As in her critically-acclaimed earlier novel, Outline, other people move in and out focus, not seeming to relish their moment in the spotlight. Faye’s life exists in the intervals between these stories, as if she’s not even assertive enough to claim back her own narrative. In the course of the book, she moves into the house, sends her sons to stay with her ex-partner when the building work becomes too disruptive, speaks at a literary festival and becomes embroiled (possibly too strong a word) in a feud with her downstairs neighbours.

The malice of this working-class couple – she is obese, he claims to be suffering from cancer, even their dog is ‘shrivelled’ and ‘hobbling’ – is one of the strongest feelings in the novel, rising through the floor like the smell of boiled cabbage. Their mere presence creates a sense of menace which is hard to interpret – do they pose a genuine threat to Faye? – and would send a less passive protagonist straight to the police.

Clearly Cusk shares a great deal with her narrator, having written about the break-up of her own marriage in an angry, self-exposing piece of non-fiction entitled Aftermath. She is no stranger to blurred boundaries in her fiction and non-fiction, inevitably raising questions about what this series of novels represents. The titles – Outline, now followed by Transit – suggest some kind of movement, but whose progression is it?

Cusk’s themes – failures of communication between men and women, the distance between even well-intentioned adults, the damage sustained in childhood – are clear enough. Transit is an unusual entity, a novel almost without minor characters as though her protagonist is involved in a deliberate exercise in literary democracy, insisting that everyone’s inner world has the same value.

Once this becomes evident, any expectation that the novel will arrive somewhere, rather than repeating its themes, quickly evaporates. If Faye is going to emerge from her passivity and depression, it doesn’t seem likely that it will happen in this book: ‘I said that perhaps none of us could ever know what was true and what wasn’t,’ she suggests to a friend as they sit in a café, batting ideas about love backwards and forwards.

A question remains at the end of this ambitious but contradictory novel. Is it a reflection of modern life, accurately capturing the loneliness felt by many adults in a sensitive piece of fiction? Or is it a series of apparently disparate characters who share Cusk’s low expectations and distrust of the world? The book’s flat narration and affectless style seem to suggest the latter.

Trump supporters are terrifying women into buying guns – and making them easy prey

Daily Telegraph, 23 September 2016

Few women in this country own a gun. No matter how worried we are by rising levels of violence against women, most of us don’t think buying a firearm is the answer. Not so in America, where gun ownership among women is increasing and clubs are springing up where they can learn how to shoot, many with their young daughters (and often with pink guns). Women who join say they’re doing it for self-defence – yet the evidence suggests that owning a gun actually increases the risk of being murdered.

The statistics are sobering. According to ‘When Men Murder Women’, a new report from the Violence Policy Centre, more than 1,600 women were killed by men in 2014, and the most commonly used weapon was a gun. In the same year, there were only 15 recorded incidents in which a woman shot a man in self-defence. Obviously no one wants that figure to be higher – women killing their attackers is not the answer to America’s huge domestic violence problem. But it does expose the myth that acquiring a firearm makes women safer.

Yet that’s precisely the message from groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most influential lobbying organisations in the US and a fervent supporter of the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Earlier this week the NRA launched a $5m television advertising campaign in support of Trump, exploiting women’s fears of being attacked while alone at home.

The ad shows a frightened woman calling the nationwide emergency number, 911, while a voiceover tells viewers that the average response time is 11 minutes. As an intruder’s footsteps get closer, the woman runs to a safe, unlocks it and goes to grab her gun. But it suddenly disappears. ‘Don’t let Hillary leave you protected with nothing but a phone’, the ad warns, reminding voters that the Democrats’ presidential candidate supports gun control.

Another recent report suggests that some women are listening to the NRA’s claims. According to research published by Northeastern University and the Harvard School of Public Health, the proportion of American women who own guns is rising, although the overall picture is complicated. It’s a little-known fact that gun ownership is actually falling in the US and is increasingly concentrated within a small section of the population who own, on average, 17 weapons each.

Women who possess guns are more likely than men to say they do it for self-defence. They are also are more likely to purchase a single handgun than the terrifying machine guns so often used in mass shootings. ‘Women are the prey and women are generally weaker and there has to be a way to equalise the battlefield,’ Carrie Lightfoot told the Guardian earlier this week. Lightfoot is the founder of Well Armed Women, a business she set up to teach female Americans more about guns. Its not-for-profit branch now has 280 groups in 49 states.

Tempting though some women find this message, it could not be more wrong. Why? Because the scenario that persuades a small number of women to acquire guns – a stranger breaking into their house or apartment, intent on rape, robbery or both – is far less likely than an assault by someone they already know.

‘The picture that emerges from ‘When Men Murder Women’ is that women face the greatest threat from someone they know, most often a spouse or intimate acquaintance, who is armed with a gun’, the report concludes. ‘For women in America, guns are not used to save lives, but to take them’.

In other words, women acquire guns to protect themselves against intruders, not realising that they are handing a weapon to a man who is far more likely to wound or kill them – an angry boyfriend or husband. An incident that might involve an assault with fists can turn into a murder if there is a gun on the premises. Victims of domestic violence are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser has access to a firearm.

It has been known for almost 20 years that women who keep guns at home are three times more likely to be murdered than their unarmed peers. Ready access to firearms is one of the reasons why family annihilation – where a man kills his wife, children and possibly himself – are far more common in the US than the UK, even allowing for the difference in population size.

Violence is never the answer to violence, no matter what the gender of those involved. In this country, the number of women convicted of domestic violence has tripled in a decade, although the overall figures remain low: 5,641 last year, out of a total of 92,779. It isn’t clear what’s behind the increase but some recent high-profile cases have involved a woman striking back against an abusive partner. That scenario has just played out in Radio 4’s long-running series The Archers, where Helen Titchener stabbed her husband Rob after years of abuse.

Our understanding of violence against women often lags behind the facts. In this country, the picture of the stranger-rapist, lurking in a dark alley, persists in the public imagination even though a high proportion of victims know their attackers. This lack of knowledge about patterns of violence leads some women to worry about the wrong thing – and that’s never been more evident than in relation to American women and guns.

Joining a gun club might make them feel safer – but the sense of security it offers couldn’t be further from reality.

I’m sick of living in a culture that tolerates violence against women

The Guardian, Wednesday 7 September 2016

The level of denial about this epidemic is staggering. A society that genuinely valued female equality would acknowledge the hateful truth

It’s always there, isn’t it? Most of us don’t like it, but what can we actually do about gender-based violence? Sure, the figures are terrible – violent crimes against women in England and Wales reached record levels last year – but they’ve been going up for ages. Rape and domestic violence are the new poor, always with us no matter how much we wish it were otherwise.

If that sounds cynical, it’s because I’m sick of a glaring disconnect at the heart of our culture. The criminal justice system is struggling to cope with the number of women coming forward with terrible stories of rape, beatings and – a relatively new one, this – online forms of abuse such as revenge porn.

The annual report of the director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, told exactly this story when it was published earlier this week. Offences against women, including domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault, rose by almost 10% in 2015-16. Stalking prosecutions were up by 7.1%, child sex prosecutions by 15.4% and there were a record number (4,643) of rape prosecutions.

Cue a great deal of hand-wringing and a weary sense that perhaps violence against women, while regrettable, is inevitable. Just think of all the training, initiatives and public awareness work that’s been done in recent years, yet the picture just keeps on getting worse. Is there really anything that someone – police, prosecutors, legislators – hasn’t already thought of and tried?

There is, but it requires a dramatic shift in public attitudes. How many times have you heard people express sympathy with a man on trial for rape, asking why the victim had had so much to drink or agreed to go back to his hotel room? Public understanding of the law relating to consent is woefully lacking, and there is a persistent tendency to view women’s behaviour much more critically than that of the men who commit even violent assaults.

The same unthinking callousness is shown to victims of domestic abuse, who are often criticised for staying with violent partners even when they have nowhere else to live. There are nothing like enough safe places for victims, a situation that’s going to get even worse when a housing benefit cap hits refuges in 2018.

If we are to change the dire situation revealed in annual crime statistics, there has to be an end to a culture of suspicion, denial and victim-blaming. Sometimes I think we’re making progress but every apparent advance is quickly followed by a return to the status quo. Three months ago, after the horrific killing of the Labour MP Jo Cox, there was an outpouring of shock and sympathy. That consensus didn’t last long. When other female Labour MPs talked publicly about receiving rape and death threats, some people went on social networking sites to mock them. They even laughed at Jess Phillips when she posted photographs of a locksmith fixing stronger locks at the home she shares with her children.

The attitude that being threatened with sexual violence is just another hazard of the job seems to be widely held, with the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, telling his female colleagues to ignore it. When even the leader of the opposition cannot correctly identify a gender-specific form of abuse, we have reached a startling level of denial.

But that is exactly where we are, as I was reminded on the Sunday morning after Cox’s killing. I was taking part in a BBC TV programme that began by discussing the attack on Cox and then moved on to a call by several public figures, including Sir Cliff Richard, for anonymity for men accused of serious sexual offences. Another of the guests immediately began to talk about false rape accusations, as though the biggest problem we face is the number of men being wrongly accused.

This claim was debunked by research published by Keir Starmer, Saunders’s predecessor as DPP. Yet in no time at all we had moved from talking about women as victims of horrendous violence to the idea that they make untrustworthy witnesses. There is nothing unusual about that, sadly, but such assumptions cannot be ignored when we look at the shockingly low rate of convictions in rape cases.

According to the DPP’s latest report, just over half of rape prosecutions ended in a conviction last year. That means that fewer than 3,000 men were found guilty in the whole of England and Wales, yet almost 6,000 women reported rapes to the police in London alone. The vast majority are telling the truth but few will ever see their attacker in a courtroom.

Violence against women is at epidemic proportions. Some of it is driven by technology but the biggest problem by far is tolerance. A society genuinely committed to gender equality wouldn’t put up with this situation for a moment.

Should Keith Vaz step down as chair of the home affairs committee?

The Guardian, Monday 5 September 2016

Joan Smith: ‘It’s hard to think of a more blatant conflict of interest’

Public attitudes to prostitution are changing. In Sweden, where what’s known as the Nordic model of prostitution policy was first introduced, a majority of the public now regards paying for sex as a form of abuse. Women and men who sell sex no longer face criminal sanctions but, crucially, people who buy it do.

In this country, we still have out-of-date laws that criminalise vulnerable individuals who are in reality victims of a vast commercial sex industry. That’s one of the reasons why many of us would like to see a sex buyers’ law introduced in the UK, forcing men who drive this trade (and it is mostly men) to face up to their responsibilities.

The Labour MP Keith Vaz chairs a powerful House of Commons committee that has been holding an inquiry into this key area of public policy. It has heard evidence from a number of organisations that support the Nordic model, yet no one knew that a change in the law may – if the allegations in the Sunday Mirror are true – affect the committee’s chair directly.

That’s why these claims, no matter how luridly they have been presented, are in a different category from other stories exposing the private activities of well-known people. To take a recent example, the argument for publishing details of the sexual relationships of the former culture secretary, John Whittingdale, was undermined by the fact that there was no clear evidence they had affected the way he did his job.

Vaz’s situation is very different from Whittingdale’s. To put it bluntly, he appears to have chaired hearings where campaigners proposed a change in the law that could, in theory, turn his own private behaviour into a criminal offence. This is jaw-dropping stuff, and it’s hard to think of a more blatant conflict of interest.

Real-life Helen Archers aren’t getting the protection they need. It’s shameful

Daily Telegraph, 4 September 2016

It’s fictional, of course, but the trial of the year is about to begin. Millions of Radio 4 listeners will be glued to this week’s episodes of The Archers when Helen Titchener appears in court, charged with the attempted murder of her abusive husband, Rob. Helen’s liberty – and the future welfare of her two sons – depends on the verdict in the trial, which has created a lively national conversation about domestic abuse.

Back in April, fans of the series heard Rob taunt Helen as she tried to leave him. He was so confident he had destroyed every vestige of his wife’s independence and self-respect that he even put a knife in her hand, never believing she would use it. Helen’s barrister, Anna Tregorren, will argue that she stabbed Rob to defend herself and her young son, Henry, but the case hinges on the jury’s understanding of a specific and poorly-understood form of domestic abuse.

Coercive control became a criminal offence at the end of last year. Helen Titchener has shown the classic symptoms of a woman who’s been subjected to it, even while she’s been awaiting trial in a mother-and-baby unit. She has given every appearance of still being under her husband’s control, blaming herself for the breakdown of her marriage and displaying rock-bottom self-esteem. Listeners and members of The Archers cast have felt growing frustration as she refused to reveal the extent of what she suffered at Rob’s hands – including being raped – to her lawyer.

This is far from unusual in this form of abuse, which leaves few physical marks but has devastating effects on victims. It involves a sustained campaign to take away a woman’s autonomy, isolating her from friends and family; perpetrators control access to money, humiliate their victims with callous remarks, and may even go as far as putting tracking devices on mobile phones or cars. Sometimes, as in Helen’s case, it’s the prelude to actual violence, laying the ground so the victim is too cowed to seek help from outsiders.

The new law is based on a realisation that domestic abuse is usually a long series of incidents, not a single outburst of violence. It’s a belated recognition that police officers need to look at a pattern of behaviour if they’re going to identify and charge perpetrators.

Yet figures which have just been published suggest that real-life Helens are not getting the protection they need – or seeing their abusers taken to court. The law on coercive control was used only 62 times in the six months after it came into operation, with some police forces failing to charge a single individual with the offence.

Twenty-two forces in England and Wales responded to a Freedom of Information request from a law firm, and eight admitted that they had not brought a single prosecution. Nine, including Lincolnshire, Warwickshire and Wiltshire, had used the law twice or less. A spokeswoman for Northamptonshire police, which has not prosecuted anyone, said its officers had undergone ‘comprehensive training’ in coercive control but “it will obviously take time to see successful prosecutions move through the system.”

Experts in the field say that coercive control is one of the most common forms of abuse. “Sadly, Helen’s experiences mirror what so many abused women feel and experience every day”, says Sandra Horley, chief executive of charity Refuge. “She has been manipulated and controlled by a violent perpetrator”.

The widespread failure to use the new law is all the more disappointing because we are in the midst of an epidemic of domestic abuse, with the Office for National Statistics estimating that 1.4m women became victims in the year 2013-14. The police recorded almost 147,000 incidents in London alone last year, including 28 domestic murders.

In recent years, while Theresa May was Home Secretary, the police have been given significant new powers to deal with this shameful situation. In March 2014, domestic violence protection orders and notices were introduced, allowing senior police officers and magistrates to put in place measures (including evictions) to protect women in cases where there is insufficient evidence to bring charges. Home Office data suggests they are not being used anything like often enough, with only 71 being authorised in the whole of London in the final two months of 2014.

In May this year, when she was still at the Home Office, May lambasted the police for continuing to fail victims of domestic violence. She said some things had improved since she ordered a review in 2013 but victims of abuse ‘are still being let down and reports are not being taken seriously enough’.

Clearly she’s right. In fact, it seems as though the producers of a BBC radio soap – and the thousands of people who have raised more than £150,000 for the charity Refuge in response to The Archers storyline – have a more sophisticated grasp of domestic abuse than some police forces.

Whatever happens next in Helen’s no doubt memorable fictional trial, we still have a very real problem on our hands. We can’t afford to forget it.

Joan Smith is Co-Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board

Something rotten at the police academy

Sunday Times, 4 September 2016

The best-selling crime writer Louise Penny made her name with a series of novels set in the French-Canadian province of Quebec. Now her wise and popular detective, Chief Inspector Gamache, has decided to give up solving murder to train the next generation of investigators. It’s a desk job, but the opening chapters of A Great Reckoning (Sphere £19.99) hint that something is rotten at the Surete Academy on the South Shore of Montreal.

The older students are sullen and unreceptive. The first-years are already dividing into factions. When a controversial member of staff is murdered, Gamache wonders if his undercover mission to clean up the Academy has gone horribly wrong. One of the few clues left by the killer is an old map of the village where Gamache lives, which he handed out to a small group of students as an exercise in detection. Penny’s elliptical style works brilliantly in a novel that combines modern-day police corruption with a century-old tragedy.

Jo Spain’s second novel, Beneath The Surface (Quercus £12.99), opens with a murder in Leinster House, seat of the Irish parliament. The victim is Ryan Finnegan, an aide to a government minister, who has just returned to work after a serious car accident. The novel is a follow-up to With Our Blessings, Spain’s widely-praised debut which featured the notorious Magdalene laundries, but now her detectives have to deal with suspects at the highest level in government. She deftly mixes up political and personal motives, forcing her characters to look behind the public face of powerful people.

Chan Ho-Kei lives in Hong Kong, where The Borrowed (Head of Zeus £18.99), translated by Jeremy Tiang, is set. This unusual collection of linked stories spans more than four decades, each of them set at a significant date in Hong Kong’s history. The book opens with the main character, Inspector Kwan, on his death bed in hospital, surrounded by the suspects in a murder case; faced with a demonstration of the dying policeman’s apparently supernatural powers, one of the credulous onlookers is shocked into a confession. The rest of the book unravels some of his most significant cases, showing Kwan as an old-fashioned omniscient (and not entirely likeable) detective.

Lin Anderson’s None But The Dead (Macmillan £12.99) is the latest novel in her long-running series featuring forensic expert Dr Rhona MacLeod. She is usually based in Glasgow but a macabre find – a woman’s skeleton buried under the old school playground – brings her to the Orkney island of Sanday. The remains date back to the Second World War but the discovery creates a conflict of loyalties on the island, where the local police force is compromised by family connections.

One of the pleasures of Anderson’s novels is a cast of characters who feel like old friends, including her long-time sidekick, DS Michael McNab. He manages to get himself despatched to Sanday, reuniting the old team, just as the discovery of the skeletal remains prompts more violence. The bleak landscape is beautifully described, giving this popular series a new lease of life.

One nervous night in Iceland

Sunday Times, 7 August 2016

A chilling tale of lethal retribution opens Joan Smith’s round-up

Iceland is a small country but it has produced some outstanding crime novelists in the past few years. Yrsa Sigurdardottir is one of the best-known, and she made her name with a series of tense psychological dramas. Her latest, Why Did You Lie? (Hodder £16.99), translated by Victoria Cribb, is a tour de force.

Four strangers gather to spend a nervous night on a rocky outcrop off the Icelandic coast. A family returns from a house swap in Florida to find no sign of the American couple who are supposed to have stayed in their home. And a young policewoman searches through dusty files, trying to discover what drove her husband to attempt suicide.

The only thing that links these apparently unconnected characters is a series of anonymous notes. In an atmosphere of growing unease, they start questioning themselves and each other, desperately trying to work out what the writer wants. The answer is retribution in an almost biblical sense, sought by a killer who has been nursing a lethal grudge for many years. Sigurdardottir handles the different plot strands brilliantly, bringing them together in an unforgettable climax.

Val McDermid’s engaging new novel, Out of Bounds (Little, Brown £18.99) begins with a joyrider causing a fatal accident. A DNA sample provides a match to the unsolved rape and murder of a hairdresser in Glasgow two decades earlier, even though the driver wasn’t even born at the time.

The blood sample suggests he is a close relative of the murderer, presenting an apparently straightforward case to DCI Karen Pirie of the Police Scotland historic cases unit. But getting the evidence she needs to establish the murderer’s identity involves persuading a sceptical judge, and DCI Pirie finds herself distracted by another unsolved case. Back in 1994, four people died when a light aircraft blew up and the IRA were the chief suspects. Now the son of one of the victims has been found dead on the shore of a loch, and Pirie thinks two suspicious deaths in the same family is more than a coincidence. McDermid’s 30th novel offers fascinating insights into the ethical dilemmas thrown up by advances in forensic science.

Laura McHugh’s stunning first novel, The Weight of Blood, was set in an isolated community in the Ozarks.  Her second, Arrowood (Century £12.99), takes place in southern Iowa where decaying 19th century mansions line the streets of a historic town that’s dying on its feet. Arden Arrowood returns to Keokuk when she inherits the family home, bringing back painful memories of the disappearance of her twin sisters 17 years earlier. Arden was only a child when she witnessed this event and new evidence challenges the accuracy of her recollections. McHugh’s slow exposure of an old crime is a pitch-perfect example of Southern Gothic.

Leif G W Persson is a criminologist and psychological profiler as well as one of Sweden’s leading crime novelists. The Dying Detective (Doubleday £20), translated by Neil Smith, begins with a retired chief of police suffering a stroke. Lars Martin Johansson chafes at being in hospital and he’s intrigued when one of the consultants asks for his advice about an unsolved murder.

The doctor’s late father was a vicar. Shortly before his death, the priest heard a confession from a woman who knew the identity of the killer of a nine-year-old girl. The knowledge tormented him but he did nothing about it, and now the doctor wants to know if Johansson can use this tenuous piece of information to find the murderer. The bored detective promptly launches an unofficial investigation, using a lifetime’s expertise in a profoundly moving novel about endings.

Inside the horror of ISIS

Farida Khalaf’s harrowing account of sadism and sexual torture is lifted by her bravery

The Observer, 31 July 2016

First, some good news. The young Yazidi woman whose story is told in this harrowing book is now safe in Germany, where she is finishing her education. She has been reunited with her mother and younger brothers, who were taken from their village in north-eastern Iraq and kept prisoner by Isis for months. Despite what has happened to her, she is determined to fulfil her long-held ambition to become a maths teacher.

But Farida’s father is missing, presumed dead, and her best friend is still a captive of the self-styled caliphate in Iraq. Even Farida’s name is a pseudonym, adopted to protect her from Isis sympathisers in Europe and the “shame” of having been repeatedly raped by her captors. The book is an unflinching account of the sadistic beatings and sexual torture imposed on a 19-year-old girl by one of the most misogynistic terrorist organisations operating anywhere in the world.

The fact that Isis explicitly encourages its fanatical followers to buy, sell and rape women is well known. Most of the girls enslaved in this way are from Yazidi villages near Mount Sinjar, where their families have lived side by side with Muslim villages for centuries. The Yazidi religion is wrongly regarded by hardline Muslims as a form of devil worship, and in August 2014, Isis fighters gave the inhabitants of Farida’s village three days to convert to Islam or suffer the fate of “infidels”.

What is extraordinary about Farida’s story is the way it goes behind the headlines, offering first-hand testimony of what it is like to be subjected to ethnic cleansing and sexual slavery. She offers a chilling account of how the men in her village were loaded into lorries at gunpoint and driven away to almost certain death. Her 16-year-old brother Serhad was one of only four survivors of the massacre, playing dead among a pile of corpses belonging to neighbours and friends.

Farida and the other unmarried girls were separated from the older women and taken first to the occupied city of Mosul and then to the slave market in Raqqa. “Are all of these girls really still virgins?” an excited “customer” asked the guards. When a Saudi prospective buyer stuck his fingers into Farida’s mouth, she bit him and was beaten senseless.

This terrible story is told in the first person, transcribed from lengthy interviews conducted by a German journalist, Andrea C Hoffmann, while Farida was living in a refugee camp near Dohuk in Iraq. Hoffmann met Farida a few weeks after she and five other girls managed to escape from an Isis military camp near the Omar gas field in eastern Syria, where they had been kept prisoner in shipping containers. At the time, Farida was still recovering from the physical injuries, psychological trauma and malnutrition she had experienced as a captive.

In one of the most chilling vignettes in the book, Farida describes how Amjed, a portly fighter from Azerbaijan, always made a point of praying in front of her before he assaulted her. “Each time he would carry out his religious ritual beforehand,” she recalls. A much younger girl called Besma, who eventually escaped with Farida, was beaten within an inch of her life after she used a pair of scissors to stab the Isis fighter who was raping her.

What these men are doing is not a side-effect of fighting for Isis but an essential element of their ideology. Misogyny is as encoded into the idea of the caliphate as religion, and no doubt all the more attractive to its followers as a result. It allows utterly selfish men who reject modern notions of gender equality to revel in their power over women, deliberately making the sexual act as violent as possible and leaving their young victims bruised and bleeding.

Even when Farida and her friends escaped and were helped by a people-smuggler to reach the refugee camp, their ordeal was not over. Yazidi culture regards rape victims as “defiled”, something confirmed by an elderly woman who cruelly observed that none of the girls would ever be able to marry. Her words had a devastating effect on Farida, who felt as though they “had severed the artery providing me with the will to live”. It is one of many reasons she was ready to leave the camp and start a new life in Germany.

This is one of those rare volumes that offers astonishing insights into the human spirit. Farida resists her captors from the very first moment, fighting them with every ounce of strength she has. Even after months of beatings, she is still fighting and encouraging her friends to look for ways to escape. A catalogue of horror is made bearable only by her extraordinary courage, and the solidarity among girls who literally keep one another alive.

The Girl Who Beat Isis: My Story by Farida Khalaf with Andrea C Hoffman, Square Peg (£14.99)

The Born Identity

Literary Review, August 2016

In the Darkroom, Susan Faludi (William Collins £16.99)

In 2004, the American author Susan Faludi received an email from her father, a retired commercial photographer. They had had little contact for the last quarter century and Steven Faludi had been living in Hungary, the country of his birth, for several years. That was not the cause, however, of the long estrangement between Faludi, a well-known feminist, and her 76-year-old parent. She records matter-of-factly in this harrowing book that her father was a violent abuser, describing how he almost killed her mother’s new boyfriend after their marriage ended in 1976.

Even before the attack, which put the victim in hospital with multiple stab wounds, Steven Faludi treated his family appallingly. When his wife suggested she might get a part-time job, he swept the dishes to the floor and slammed his fists on the table. When his daughter did something that displeased him, he dragged her out of bed and banged her head against the floor. When his wife filed for divorce, he picked up a dining chair and brought it down on her back.

Susan Faludi describes these incidents as manifestations of a rage ‘so ancient it seemed foundational’, long preceding the breakdown of her parents’ marriage. At first sight, they make what happened in 2004 all the more unexpected: in that email to his daughter, laconically entitled ‘Changes’, Steven Faludi revealed that he had undergone sex reassignment surgery and was now called Stefanie. ‘I have decided,’ she explained, ‘that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside.’

This startling event marked the beginning of a kind of reconciliation between Faludi and her father, as she refers to Stefi (her father’s preferred name) throughout the book. Over the next few years, Faludi visited Stefi many times in Budapest, getting to know her and trying to answer questions about how the two of them came to be in this strange situation. Right at the beginning, Stefi challenged Faludi to write a book about her, a task she completed shortly before her father’s death in 2015.

Naturally the book is about identity, that most current of pre-occupations, although not perhaps in the sense that Faludi’s father would have expected. The transformation of Steven into Stefanie was not the first big change in Faludi’s father’s life; his birth name was Istvan Friedman and he was known to his wealthy Jewish family in Budapest by the diminutive ‘Pista’. At the end of the Second World War Pista changed his name to Steven Faludi and settled in the US, where he built a business re-touching photos for some of the most celebrated fashion photographers of the period. He raised his family in a Catholic neighbourhood in New York State, hiding his Jewish identity behind showy celebrations of Christian festivals.

The fate of Hungary’s Jewish population is one of many tragic stories in this book. Faludi offers a history of the country’s anti-Semitism in the 20th century, which led to the deaths of 56 members of her Hungarian family in the Second World War, as well as its alarming resurgence in the 21st. In one of the book’s most startling episodes, her teenage father saves his parents, who were at risk of imminent deportation in 1944, by pretending to their guards that he was a fellow-member of the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s version of the Nazi party.

Faludi tells the story in her father’s words but points out immediately afterwards that Stefi is an unreliable narrator: ‘How could I begin to assess the truth of a story whose very point was to confirm the storyteller as an extremely effective liar?’ Her father’s subsequent reluctance to have anything but the most cursory contact with his parents suggests he had complex, hostile feelings towards them, something Faludi ascribes to her grandparents’ bitter separation before the Second World War.

The problem with the book lies in this matter of character. Much of it consists of conversations between Faludi and her father after 2004, when they are engaged in a project with very different aims: Faludi wants to understand the past, while her father is intent upon showing off her new, thoroughly feminine identity. Faludi is generous and accepting throughout, researching the history of transsexuality in an attempt to understand Stefi better, but even she baulks when her father tries to give her some unwanted bras.

It is evident from these pages that Faludi’s father adopted and abandoned identities at will, but never stopped being a narcissistic bully. The physical violence Faludi witnessed in her parents’ marriage no longer features in their resumed relationship but her father is as prone to psychological abuse – what we now know as ‘coercive control’ – as ever. That makes the book a disturbing read, not because Faludi’s father is transsexual but because she is still a deeply unpleasant human being.