I spent this November deep in the world of crime novels. I read cosy crime mysteries, expansive thrillers, there was even some cannibalism, classics, a new release, debuts, and works of prolific authors.
A Helping Hand by Celia Dale
Josh and Maisie Evans are happy to help wherever they can. The spare bedroom in their house was, until recently, inhabited by an elderly lady who they lovingly called Auntie Flo. Now, Flo passed away, in the skilled and compassionate care former nurse Maisie provided for her. To refresh after their troubles, the couple travels to Rimini where they meet Mrs Fingal and her bitter niece Lena, with whom the lady lives. As the English in a foreign country are bound to, the four are drawn to each other. And while Maisie manages to offer Lena some entertainment and cheering up, Mrs Fingal develops a sweet spot for Josh, who is charming and patient. As the holiday goes on, it emerges that a new living situation for Mrs Fingal might be possible, something more suitable to all involved. Lena rids herself from the burden of caring for her aunt and Mr and Mrs Evans are eager for someone to fill that space in their home left open by Auntie Flo’s passing. Mrs Fingal is excited to leave her resentful niece behind and looks forward to more stimulating conversations with Josh. But soon she realises that something is amiss, behind this veneer of politeness and suburban order.
A Helping Hand starts out as a light and charming read, but quickly turns into something truly sinister. The domestic setting contrasts with the horror that unfolds as Mrs Fingal realises her new carers might not be as selfless as she had thought. Dale creeps up on her readers and hits them with unexpected twists and turns. It is the ordinary setting, the endless cups of tea, that make this story so horrific. Sinister, because you can see it happening so clearly. Dale’s writing is elegant and effective, her characters send a chill down your spine, and the final plot twists will have you question your own judgement.
I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
Where do you even begin to summarise a six-hundred page thriller as expansive as this? I am Pilgrim opens with a perfect murder in a run-down apartment in Manhattan. Our hero, a man who has gone through many names in his career, surveys the crime scene and cannot help feeling somewhat frightened. He recognises the techniques used to conceal identity and motive of the murderer: he wrote about them in his book. Pilgrim, our modern-day (very) American James Bond, is not a detective but here to help out a friend. His knowledge stems from an adventurous career with the CIA. As one of the highest-ranking agents in the USA he knows the secret world inside out, but he also has many enemies, which is why, eventually, he chose early retirement. Soon, however, his peaceful existence is disturbed by an order from the President himself. Intelligence has been received that a terrorist might be planning a smallpox attack on America. After familiarising the reader with Pilgrim’s origin story – adopted by millionaires after his mother’s murder – the novel moves on to Saudi Arabia to show us how a teenager is radicalised and trained to hate the West and America most of all. The Saracen, as the boy will be known us, works patiently to fulfil his life’s ambition. He trains to become a doctor to gain the knowledge and access to facilities he needs to destroy the enemy. We watch him develop and trial his vaccine-resistant smallpox strain on European tourists kidnapped in Afghanistan, and hear the clock ticking as the villain prepares his move and our hero races to catch him before it’s too late. The book races towards its ending and the inevitable showdown between the two.
I am Pilgrim starts out slowly for a book that boasts to be ‘the only thriller you need to read this year’ on its cover. At some point past the halfway mark (over 300 pages in) it does pick up the pace and races towards the anticipated showdown between terrorist and the agent – two men mainly characterised by their … man-ness. . Flashbacks introduce us to this agent we are meant to admire, though mostly what we learn about him is his taste in women: high heels, sharp cheekbones, sensual lips, breasts, curves. Women are ‘chicks’ more often than they are women. Repeatedly pilgrim is presented as progressive. A modern man, who judges no one based on their race or gender and is so proud of that, he has to emphasise it again and again until the point is fully defeated. American involvement and crimes committed internationally to serve the countries interest are admitted casually: it is obviously necessary, the rest of the world is full of evil. Looking past these points, the reader finds a predictable plot – you can guess a character’s role in the climax as soon as they are introduced. The only mystery is created by means of a timeline that makes so little sense it confuses you to the point that makes you wonder whether you dosed off somewhere and missed something.
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
The Orient Express – that prestigious long-distance train in operation since 1883 – gets caught in a blizzard somewhere in the Balkans and has to halt its journey just after midnight. The train is fully booked, but the famous detective Hercule Poirot has managed to get a last second-class berth to return home to London from Istanbul. The morning after the snowdrift, however, there is one passenger less. An American business man is found murdered in his bed. He has been stabbed several times but the door to his compartment was locked from the inside. No footprints are found in the snow. No one can have escaped the train in this whether, and so it doesn’t take the seasoned investigator to realise that the murderer must still be on board. A puzzle unfolds for the brilliant Poirot to solve, quickly! Lest the murderer should strike again. Among the train’s passengers are noblemen and maids, Italians, Brits and Russians, old and young. Everyone has an alibi, but dig long enough and everyone has a motif too.
Finally, my first Christie. About time and the dark weeks leading up to Christmas are the perfect season to dive into this paragon of the cosy murder mystery genre. For the four other people on this planet who have not yet read Murder on the Orient Express, not only the plot of Christie’s famous novel contains a riddle, but the whole books is structured like one. You have your quest, the clues and now it is time for you the reader to try solving it, before the elderly Belgian detective announces the murderer. Considering a stabbing has taken place, Murder on the Orient Express is a light and charming read. All the characters are lovable in their unique and quirky ways and even though the locked-room setting raises the stakes for all involved, the humour is never lost. The plot and storytelling is simple but effective and the despite the hints dropped all over the train like snowflakes the solution is clever and surprising. I did occasionally role my eyes at whole strains of argument that were based on neither evidence or motif, but solely rested on national stereotypes (Italians are temperamental, English too cold and rational…) but all in all Murder on the Orient Express is a cosy and charming read that will make you chuckle along. A welcome break amidst all the horrific scenes I’ve read this month.
In the Cut my Susanna Moore
A young creative writing teacher fills her evenings by compiling a dictionary of street slang that she picks up in during nights out and from the teenagers. One evening, out with one of her students, she accidentally walks in on a couple sharing an intimate moment. She can only make out the girl’s red hair between the man’s legs but she catches a glimpse the tattoo on his wrist. A few days later she opens the door to a police officer investigating a brutal murder. A red-haired woman, last seen in a local bar, was killed. Had she seen anything? The officer starts visiting her with increasing frequency, circling her like a predator ready to bounce on its prey and the teacher enters a relationship that fulfils all her sexual desires but also pushes her towards danger.
In the Cut is a tense, claustrophobic thriller that has your head spinning. Threats keep creeping up on our unnamed narrator, who can be infuriatingly naïve and irresponsible, but we still don’t want to find her chopped up beneath a bridge. The crime story is interspersed, or interrupted, by musings about linguistics and the school system that could be irritating to anyone looking for a more straightforward thriller but I liked the unexpected, slightly meandering narration that enhanced the sense of protagonist and reader being torn in different directions and faced with unforeseen challenges. Moore focuses her narrative on the role of women in crime fiction, where they are often banned to the side-lines, nameless victims of male violence. Here a young woman struggles to take control of her lie and sexuality, even in the face of danger. In the Cut is a dark, violent and gritty read and definitely not for the faint to heart. It also has perhaps the most shocking ending I have ever read.
A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summer
A Certain Hunger is another feminist spin on a classic crime fiction trope: the psychopath. The book opens in a hotel bar where we meet our narrator Dorothy Daniels. A glamorous food critic by day, our villain is a murderess by night. Or whenever she fancies. She lets herself be guided through life by her taste for men, quite literally, because once she is finished with a relationship she tends to have her exes for dinner. She writes her story from within prison, having been caught for her many crimes and sets out to detail them all.
We learn all about how she was raised and how she grew to be who she became, making a name for herself in New York’s literary scene. Until she is brought down by a small vice: impatience – and everything she built for herself comes crumbling down. She is the femme fatale version of Bret Easton Ellis’ bored and disillusioned Patrick Bateman. Where American Psycho talks about clothes, Dorothy Daniels goes into detail when describing food. Whole chapters are filled with descriptions of dinners, and those are the book’s only merit. Dorothy Daniels herself is arrogant and entirely unbelievable as a character. Her lack of dimension fails to hide between smart and snappy commentary that allows for a few good lines but is mostly boring. Summer’s debut is overwritten and lack subtlety and even the feminist argument falls flat when her murderess is brought down by fulfilling some of the genre’s favourite sexist stereotypes.
The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke
Detective Dave Robicheaux is lonely and angry, but at least he has finally managed to get away from the bottle. He has fought in wars and in the streets, lost a wife and escaped death. Now he lives on his houseboat, in New Orleans and tries to fight new ghosts to avoid thinking of those from his past. During a fishing trip, he discovers a young woman’s body floating in the water and starts investigating her murder. He soon realises that some powerful figures want to keep him from finding answers to the many questions that pop up at every turn. Robicheaux enters a world of crime much bigger than the murder of sex worker – corruption, weapons, mafia… there is a little bit of everything. Faced not only with the state’s most sinister characters, Robicheaux also has to fight his own darkest demons to assure justice for the victims and himself.
This first instalment of the Dave Robicheaux series is dark and brutal. The language is rough and raw, authentically from the streets on which it is set but occasionally difficult to follow. I remember being shocked by the twists and turns, the unexpected links in the plot but a few weeks after finishing this book I struggle to recall the details. The Neon Rain is not a book you need to read for the storyline, which mainly consists of horrific acts of violence but the psychological study of our detective and his partner is gentle and intriguing enough that I might pick up the following books in the series just to get to know there dark and moody men a little better.