Unwritten Secrets, by Ronald Frame | Caught, by Harlan Coben | The Third Rail, by Michael Harvey | The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, by Thomas Mullen
Unwritten Secrets, by Ronald Frame (Telegram, £10.99)
It’s 2008, and renowned American soprano Maria Baxter has returned to Vienna to visit steely Ursule Kroll, the lieder singer and unrepentant Nazi under whom she studied back in 1980. Maria left the city abruptly without saying goodbye and has excised Ursule from her CV. Frame explores their unfinished business and the broader mystery of their connectedness in this complex, powerful novel, which juggles multiple time-frames with great skill. He’s particularly interested in lines of descent – what teachers pass on to their pupils, but also the issue of genetic inheritance and “contamination”. There’s a thrillerish subplot, but really Unwritten Secrets is about youth and the loss of it; how, as jejune twentysomethings, we construct ourselves as the people we want to be, and whether that creation can and should endure. Excellent.
Caught, by Harlan Coben (Orion, £18.99)
There’s plenty of Coben’s patented dark-side-of-suburbia flummery in this stand-alone novel, which features, on the plus side, a cameo from the bracingly weird Win from his Marion Bolitar books; and on the debit side, well, how long have you got? The trigger for the twisty plot is the disappearance of a wholesome, sporty teenage girl. (Why she can’t just be brattish and ordinary?) When a local journalist entraps a rumoured paedophile on her schlocky TV show, we’re tempted to assume a connection. But Coben’s mission is to undermine such assumptions, again and again. In fairness, these jolting reversals are effective, if inadequate compensation for the broad characterisation (a flamboyant gay lawyer), unfunny jokes (we’re supposed to find the idea of a middle-aged white rapper hilarious) and reactionary moralising on the subject of alcohol.
The Third Rail, by Michael Harvey (Bloomsbury, £11.99)
The third outing for Chicago cop turned PI Michael Kelly – a strange fish, barely knowable beyond the central fact of his Irishness. But then he’s a man in a hurry: within the first two pages he’s witnessed a shooting in broad daylight on a subway platform. He gives chase and confronts the killer, only to find himself spared. It’s the first strike in a sustained campaign of domestic terrorism which takes in a sniper picking off drivers on a highway and lightbulbs filled with anthrax, and turns out to be connected to an event in Kelly’s past. Harvey favours a classic noir style that’s brusque and choppy; it shifts, not always smoothly, between first and third person. He likes crimes within crimes and motives within motives. If he’d extended the depth of focus he brings to plot to his hero, this punchy, persuasive novel would have been even better.
The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, by Thomas Mullen (Fourth Estate, £12.99)
There’s a touch of Michael Chabon about this magical-realist gangster thriller set in depression-era America. In its remarkable opening chapter, bank-robbing siblings Jason and Whit Fireson – known as the Firefly Brothers on account of their speedy escapes from crime scenes – wake up in an Indiana morgue hours after they’ve been shot to death by police. This puts the duo in the privileged position of being able to witness their posthumous legacy and ascension to folk-hero status – though as the title suggests, they will experience other deaths. Mullen writes with flair and acute historical intelligence. He’s as good on the grimness of Hooverville life as he is on the family dynamics that made the brothers what they are. (The third brother, Weston, is straight as a die.) Imagine it as a graphic novel and Mullen’s refusal to clarify the process of his antiheroes’ resurrection makes more sense.