Laura Wilson’s choice
City of Veils, by Zoë Ferraris (Little, Brown, £11.99)
Ferraris’s second novel more than lives up to the promise of her magnificent debut, The Night of the Mi’raj. Also set in Jeddah, it begins with the discovery of the burqa-clad, mutilated body of a young woman on a beach. Investigating policeman Osama Ibrahim and forensic scientist Katya Hijazi soon discover links to vanished American expat Eric Walker, whose wife, Miriam, finds herself alone and afraid in an alien culture. The plot is thrilling, with plenty of twists and turns, and all the characters well drawn, but what makes this novel really extraordinary is Ferraris’s knowledgeable and sensitive depiction of a place where religion, used as a blunt instrument, has given rise to a stultifying, paranoid and sex-obsessed society, where women are forcibly infantilised and men are emotionally bonsaied. Highly recommended.
Needle in a Haystack, by Ernesto Mallo, translated by Jethro Soutar (Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99)
More repression here, this time by the military regime in late 1970s Buenos Aires. Argentinian author Mallo’s first novel is, in many ways, a straightforward police procedural, and its central character, Superintendent Lascano, is a Chandleresque loner who comes complete with obligatory tragic past. Called to the site of a double murder, he arrives at the crime scene to find three bodies. Two are clearly the work of the junta’s death squads, but his investigation of the third murder leads into dangerous territory. Mallo, a newspaper columnist, playwright and former opponent of the then military regime, paints a vivid and compelling picture of a society riven by corruption, social breakdown and casual brutality. Needle in a Haystack is a pacy, intense and thought-provoking read.
The Whisperer, by Donato Carrisi, translated by Shaun Whiteside (Abacus, £11.99)
Italian author Carrisi’s debut novel starts grisly – with the discovery of the severed arms of six children carefully arranged in a circle in a forest clearing – and gets more so. No indication is given as to the location of this atrocity, so that, unlike the two books above, this Euro-bestseller lacks a sense of place. Although this was clearly a deliberate decision, the mish-mash of cultural references – which point sometimes to Europe and sometimes to America – and the characters with multi-ethnic names proved a continual irritant. The investigators, traumatised officer Mila Vasquez and intuitive criminologist Goran Gavila, seem equally rootless and generic, and it takes some time for them to come alive as characters. However, despite these handicaps and a clod-hopping translation, which sometimes results in unintended humour, The Whisperer is a gripping read, and I defy anyone to guess the denouement.
Signal Red, by Robert Ryan (Headline, £19.99)
Robert Ryan’s latest novel is very much fixed in a specific time as well as a place. It’s based on the Great Train Robbery of August 1963, a crime that, in many ways, now seems almost as quaint as the hold-up of a stagecoach. With a mixture of real and fictional characters, it’s a whopping 484 pages but an electrifying one-sitting rollercoaster – provided that your wrists can stand the strain. It’s well researched, with period authenticity and pitch-perfect dialogue – possibly a few too many knowing references to hip popular culture placed in the mouths of the villains, but that’s a minor cavil. It comes with an afterword from Bruce Reynolds, the original mastermind, and there’s an interesting “Aftermath” section, detailing the gang members’ lives post-1963. Informative and highly entertaining, Signal Red is perfect summer reading.
Laura Wilson’s An Empty Death is published by Orion.