Douglas Skelton (Polygon: £8.99)
Douglas Skelton has been writing for a long time now, but the majority of his back catalogue comprises non-fiction, in particular books best described as belonging to the true crime genre. Amongst his many careers, which have included tax officer, taxi driver (for two days) and wine waiter (for two hours), he was/is a journalist and investigator. A fairly appropriate background, then, to turn to crime novels with a reporter as central character.
We first met Rebecca Connolly in last year’s Thunder Bay. Both the character and her creator are developing very nicely indeed in The Blood is Still. The same cannot be said for the Chronicle, the Inverness based newspaper for which Rebecca works. Cost pressures are taking their toll, and potentially impacting on how she can do her job, and on her future.
The book begins with the dying moments of a man, lying alone on a deserted moorland, imagining the noises of a battle fought on the same site 275 years earlier. No prizes for guessing Culloden. Rebecca learns of the death a little time later while interviewing the Burke family, a well known criminal dynasty who rule The Ferry, a less than salubrious part of the town. There is assembled an interesting cast of players. This includes Finbar Dalgleish, oily ultra-right wing politician, head of the Spioraid Party; Anna Fowler, 18th century expert at the local university; John Donahue, aggressive ex-cop who heads security for the film company making a new production about the Battle of Culloden; and the sundry members of the Burke family, who are written with more subtlety than is accorded to the usual villains in crime novels. There is a theme of child abuse, but until the end we are left to guess (unsuccessfully) at the identities of abuser and victim.
The quality of the writing throughout is impressive. Take, for example, a description of an old style, low life boozer, a place where dying dreams were mourned on hard wooden chairs at scarred tables and any hope for the future saw the last rites delivered at the bottom of a whisky glass. The sense of place is excellent. Using a journalist as hero allows all sorts of other side characters to be introduced – all newspaper people have their sources. False trails are set; the pace, for the most part, is steady without being furious; one’s absolute attention is demanded right to the last. Thunder Bay was a fine book; The Blood is Still is several rungs higher. What will Rebecca investigate next? Hold the front page.
Philip Kerr (Quercus: £20; e-book £7.99)
We still mourn the death of this truly gifted author and, with his passing, the totemic Bernie Günther. Kerr had, of course, brought us diverse novels, most recently his football related series (Scott Manson in January Window and Hand of God). This book was originally published solely in the US. It's a cracker.
With a deft hand, the author reimagines the offers of a negotiated peace offered by the Nazi regime to the Russian and US leaders. Professor Mayer is a philosopher who is also a member of the US intelligence service. He is tasked to assist Roosevelt as he embarks in meeting Churchill in Cairo, culminating in the meeting of the meeting of the Big Three in Tehran. Interwoven, in true Kerr style, is a suspected spy ring in the US, as well as walk-on parts by Burgess, Blunt and Enoch Powell in their wartime roles, either when acting on Roosevelt's instructions in London or in Cairo. Mayer investigates further the truth of the murder of Polish officers in the Katyn Woods, but also becomes aware through a German informant of atrocities meted out by the Russians on German POWs. This tight, fast paced, multifaceted narrative is brought to a shattering climax at the meeting in Tehran. Outstanding.
Marion Brunet (Bitter Lemon Press: £7.99; e-book £5.69)
Marion Brunet’s psychological thriller, set in the Luberon, won the 2018 Grand Prix de Littérature policière.
30 years ago, Peter Mayle provided charming depictions of Provence. Brunet’s work rails against the sun-drenched stonework adored by holidaymakers and takes us to the housing estates of Luberon to experience indigenous poverty and ennui.
Two sisters, both in their mid-teens, have grown up in a world where the competing distractions are hatred of Arabs, and the desire for alcohol and underage sex. A tense, efficient, narrative illuminates the tainted claustrophobia of families trapped in rural towns.
This is a tale of dysfunction in dystopia. A teenage pregnancy draws focus on the frustrated lives of a marginalised family. The author examines the frustration of premature mid-life crises. There is hardly a wasted word in this study of the folly of innate racism, social injustice and division. Unexpected empathy is created for flawed characters as they struggle to deal with acts and emotions (some at the extreme end of the scale) which challenge their limited abilities.
The ray of light in this moving tale is the dawning realisation in the mind of the younger of the two sisters. She has talent and intelligence in equal measures to her defensive aggression. Is she learning from the mistakes of earlier generations? Observing the destructive elements which guide her family’s poor decisions, she maintains her resolve to escape.
Serious themes are wrapped up in a gripping tale of crime and violence. A short but powerful novel.