Crime fiction reviewer and critic Mike Ripley talks to us about the top crime novels he’ll be giving away this Christmas.
Death on Demand by Paul Thomas (Bitter Lemon Press).
Proving that there’s far more to New Zealand than hobbits, dwarves and dragons, that godfather of Kiwi crime brings back his wonderful, anarchic Maori cop, Tito Ihaka, after far too long an absence.
And he has the chops to defy Elmore Leonard’s basic rule of writing by having a 25-page prologue! This is a frenetic, action-packed, highly convoluted tale of crime and skulduggery, red in tooth and claw. Ihaka is a wonderful creation, and the plot, which meanders through police politics, gangsters and blackmail, comes together with the satisfying click of a new round being chambered.
Dead Man’s Land by Robert Ryan (Simon & Schuster).
What better place for a psychopathic killer to get away with murder than on one of the greatest murder sites in history: the Western Front in the middle of WWI? Enter Dr John Watson, flying solo (almost) as an army doctor, to take up the case.
Along the way there’s a subplot involving an attempt to assassinate a well-known public figure (who became even more well known in WWII), and much illuminating material about the role and status of women, especially those who worked as nurses.
An intelligent, atmospheric thriller of which Conan Doyle would surely have approved.
City of Blood by M. D. Villiers (Harvill Secker).
A quite stunning first novel, but I also seriously recommend that no one visits the parts of Johannesburg described in this book. At least, not without a heavily armed escort, as it portrays a very dark and depressing slice of modern South African life, where career criminals think nothing of using rocket-propelled grenades against the police, who seem to have to sleep in their bullet-proof vests.
This Jo’burg is indeed a city of blood, where life seems cheap and the forces of law and order must be sorely tempted to leave the gangsters to fight it out among themselves.
Of course, they can’t do that, or at least the two lead detectives in the book can’t, and they – white Adrian and Zulu Robert – are a formidable double-act who will surely reappear in a sequel.
Proof, if further proof was needed, that South Africa is now a major player on the international crime writing scene.
The Windsor Faction by D. J. Taylor (Chatto & Windus).
A very ‘literary’ novel about . . . well, I suppose about apathy, boredom and powerlessness – masquerading as a ‘what if’ historical thriller set in a 1939 where Edward VIII (minus Mrs Simpson) is on the throne.
This will not satisfy a reader looking for an alternative history of Britain in WWII (Len Deighton claimed that high ground years ago). But though it might be short on thrills and action, this is a novel that is ripe with fascinating characters and beautifully – in parts very beautifully – written.
Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin (Orion).
Edinburgh’s Detective Inspector John Rebus (now technically back from retirement as a sergeant) is something of a national treasure in Britain, though of course that may change if Scotland votes for independence.
For the moment, though, he’s back doing what he does best: shaking things up. It’s good to see such a brilliant character getting older, but no wiser; raging against the machine of injustice wherever it confronts him. And in this book, it’s a case from Rebus’ past, in which he just might be a suspect, which comes back to haunt him.
With Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey and Philip Marlowe all enjoying, or due for, revivals, it would be a crime if Margery Allingham’s Golden Age detective, Albert Campion, was overlooked.
These two Campion novels were written by Margery’s husband and collaborator following her death in 1966, but have been out of print for decades. If they are not quite mainstream Allingham, they delightfully celebrate the tradition of helter-skelter plotting, sly social observation and wonderfully dotty eccentric characters. It’s good to see them back.
Mike Ripley used to be an award-winning British mystery writer and, for ten years, crime-fiction critic for the Daily Telegraph. He has devised and taught a course in Creative Crime Writing for Cambridge University, and writes the scurrilous Getting Away With Murder column on www.shotsmag.co.uk.
For more classic crime reads, head deeper into The Murder Room.