Death Takes a Holiday

. . . and Murder Room author Deborah Valentine is going along for the ride.

In the minority, I know, but I love January, adore deep winter. So we’re starting this round-up in a classic new year chill. Don’t worry, the weather will warm as we jet along to other climes. But first . . .

‘. . . snow had arrived in the night and most of Amsterdam’s sins and dirt were now hidden beneath it.’ And what a variety of sins lay beneath the surface of Anja de Jager’s A Cold Death In Amsterdam! Great drifts of them for Detective Lotte Meerman to plough through, both personally and professionally. Meerman herself comes with more baggage than Eurostar. On the January night she accidentally encounters a petrol station robbery, an avalanche of conflicting loyalties is set off, threatening to bury her career. De Jager writes snow with pinpoint accuracy. Embedded in the morass of moral complications, bad judgements and bitter regrets is a feast of delicious analogies, observations and turns of phrase. Wonderful. Warning: keep a hot toddy to hand because, baby, it’s cold between these pages.

It’s hardly warmer in the Teutonic Spring of M. M. Kaye’s Death In Berlin. As always, The Far Pavilions author Kaye is great at transporting us to another time and place. It’s the 1950s, before the rise of the Berlin Wall. The city is in ruins. The army is there to see to British interests. But on the train to their new posts, members of the regiment have their own drama when one of them is murdered after an astonishing revelation in their midst. Miranda Brand is the innocent abroad, accompanying her soldier cousin and his wife to Berlin for a holiday. Well, what a holiday it turns out to be, when Death devastates the ranks. Amid the fiendish plot twists Kaye has a warm heart and, honestly, no one does a neat bit of romance like she does. She also portrays the nomadic life and disappointments of an army wife with sympathy (she was one herself). A pure delight.

And the temperature is rising . . .

. . . with Agatha Christie’s Murder In Mesopotamia, setin the communal hothouse of an archaeological dig in this vintage Poirot outing. Related with dry wit by its narrator, Nurse Leatheran, I’d forgotten how humorous Christie could be and chortled away happily. Of course, Christie knew her way round the ancient world, having been on many a dig herself. Aside from the inventive twists for which she’s justly famous what is really enjoyable is seeing Leatheran’s perspective evolve: how her prejudices and perceptions of the country, and of Poirot himself, change. If you want cosy nostalgic fun, this one warms the cockles.

Nuri bey – scholar, philosopher, latent warrior – also has a few opinions to revise in Joan Fleming’s Nothing is the Number When You Die. Bouncing back and forth between Oxford and sunny Turkey, Nuri is Sting’s virtual Englishman in New York, except he’s a Turkish fella in England during the swinging ’60s, trying to please the love of his life and foil some dangerous drug smuggling shenanigans. A jolly romp of a tale.

Not a romp but a full-blown existential crisis awaits Sailor when he arrives in a New Mexico town on dubious ‘business’. Dorothy B. Hughes captures the noise, the heat and the primal symbolism of Fiesta in Ride the Pink Horse. Sailor is a stranger in a strange land – overwhelmed by the Indians, the Mexicans, by the land itself. All he wants is to conclude his ‘business’ and get out. But, thwarted at every turn, he’s forced to look inside himself, at his choices in life so far and those he has yet to make. A deeply internal book, this is one that proves you don’t need non-stop action to remain riveted. Despite the bright colours of Fiesta this is as noir as it comes.

Meanwhile, in Cuba, crime takes a literary spin for ex-cop turned bookseller Mario Conde in Leonardo Padura’s Havana Fever, in which ‘Every library for sale was a romantic novel with an unhappy ending . . .’ And never more so than in the private library of a starving elderly brother and sister in an old mansion dismal enough to rival any in gothic fiction. Even in his new career the mind of a cop is ever with Conde; the dark side of life pursues him. Padura’s high literary style may not be for everyone. It’s full of digressions, regressions and bibliomania. But for anyone interested in the socio-political and economic conditions pre- and post-Castro there’s a treasure trove of detail in this intriguing mystery.

Last April I raved about The Honey Guide by Richard Crompton; his follow-up, Hell’s Gate, is another damn fine novel. But wait! It opens with Detective Mollel in jail. What?! Nothing could be worse for a Maasai than to be put under lock and key – and Mollel is Maasai to the core. But soon we’re under the broad Kenyan sky sweating in soupy heat, in a land simmering in tribal tensions. We find out more about Mollel’s background, and Maasai legends and practices are cleverly integrated. Hell’s Gate National Park, gorgeously visualised, is at the heart of this novel; feelings about the land, about ‘progress’ and about the beasts – both human and non-human – its pulse. And Mollel’s stint in jail? Well, it’s unlikely you’ll encounter anything hotter or more, er, fragrant. Brilliant stuff.

We began in snow and ended in Hell. Feeling good and toasty now?


A Collector of PhotographsDeborah Valentine is a British author, editor and screenwriter, who has lived in London for many years after moving there from California. Her crime novels feature former California sheriff Kevin Bryce and his artist girlfriend, Katharine Craig, and chart their turbulent romance amid murder and mayhem. Unorthodox Methods is the first in the series, followed by A Collector of Photographs, and the Ireland-based Fine Distinctions. In addition to the Kevin Bryce series, Deborah Valentine has been the editor of a number of niche journals, and is a prolific writer of articles, screenplays and novels with a supernatural theme. Find out more on Deborah’s website and follow her on Twitter.