In Adrian McKinty’s THE COLD, COLD GROUND (Serpent’s Tail, $36.99), Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy is a Catholic policeman in Northern Ireland in 1981, a time of riots, bombings and sectarian murders. With the police over-stretched on security work, Duffy and a few colleagues have to track down what seems to be Ulster’s first nonsectarian serial killer. Someone has killed two men, sawn off their right hands and left their bodies with each other’s hands.
As if that’s not enough, a woman found hanging from a tree in a forest may have been murdered, although it looks like a suicide. The cover says this is a thriller but that sells the book short – this is a serious novel with convincing characterisation, believable dialogue and a great deal of depth. Really, it’s about the insanity of hating people because their religion is different from yours. Norwegian cop Harry Hole returns to Oslo after three years in Hong Kong straightening himself out. During Hole’s time with Rakel, the love of his life, he acted as father to her son Oleg.
Now, in Jo Nesbø’s PHANTOM (Harvill Secker, $37.99), Oleg is accused of murder and the evidence against him looks watertight. Oleg has become a junkie and it seems he shot another junkie in squalid circumstances. While Hole tries to save Oleg and mend his relationship with Rakel, a drug boss sends a Russian killer after him. This is a book with a lot of humanity; Nesbø can understand, for example, the attractions of the drug world for alienated young people and his characters are authentic in their thoughts and emotions. Yet another excellent Scandinavian crime novel.
THE KILLER IS DYING (No Exit, $28.99), by James Sallis, has a clunky title but it is a perfectly accurate description of the book’s content. Contract killer Christian is getting sicker and sicker, and he knows this will be his last assignment. But it’s complicated – someone else has shot and nearly killed his target before he could make his strike. Two other stories are interwoven, those of an abandoned boy and a police detective nursing a dying wife. Sallis gets inside the heads of his characters, mixing idle thoughts with insights into how they came to be where they are. The quality of the writing is the novel’s strength; Sallis conveys delicate shades of meaning with remarkably few words.
Short stories are a rarity in crime fiction, but Ferdinand von Schirach’s success with this format could well make it more popular. In his second collection, GUILT (Text, $30), the German writer presents 15 concise stories on subjects ranging from the rape of a girl by the respectable members of a small-town brass band to a madman who thinks the security forces have implanted a camera behind his left eye. Beautifully crafted, these stories say a lot in little space – the book is only 178 pages long and the type is large.
One theme is the unease von Schirach – a lawyer – feels with the job of the defence lawyer in criminal proceedings, bound to defend what could be considered indefensible. Precious Ramotswe and her colleague Grace Makutsi are stunned when a tall stranger walks into their No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana and quietly introduces himself as Clovis Andersen. The Clovis Andersen, author of The Principles of Private Detection, their constant guide and reference.
Andersen comes from Muncie, Indiana, and is not quite who the ladies thought he was, but his succinct advice – “Follow the money” – nevertheless helps them sort out two pressing cases. A young mechanic has been wrongly arrested and the formidable matron of an orphanage has been dismissed in suspicious circumstances. THE LIMPOPO ACADEMY OF PRIVATE DETECTION (Little, Brown, $39.99) is the 13th in Alexander McCall Smith’s wonderful series, and as ever it examines human foibles with gentle humour and sympathy.
Bernard Carpinter is a Napier journalist.