That most iconic of American literary private eyes, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, has enjoyed a fitful afterlife that has included Benjamin Black/John Banville’s pastiche The Black-Eyed Blonde in 2014. In the latest riff, Only to Sleep (Hogarth, £12.99), Lawrence Osborne tries something fairly radical. It is 1988, and his Marlowe is 72 years old. He is called out of semi-retirement by an insurance company, who want him to look into the death of Donald Zimm, a property developer. An encounter with Zimm’s mesmerising widow leads the increasingly melancholic detective into the California desert and threatening Latino locales. Chandler famously said: “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand,” but Osborne is less interested than Marlowe’s creator in such tactics; the tone here is elegiac, the pace relaxed. But if you’ve missed Marlowe, you’ll find this a worthy addition to the canon.
After his impressive debut in English, Alex, Pierre Lemaitre’s Inhuman Resources (MacLehose, £16.99, translated by Sam Gordon) is further proof that he has replaced Fred Vargas as the premier French crime writer. Middle-aged Alain Delambre had a stellar career before he was made redundant from his job in HR. When a multinational company offers him an interview, Alain’s preparation is as desperate as his desire to get hired, including bizarre role-playing activities. Soon he is moving from small duplicities into heavyweight crimes, with carnage in the offing. As ever with Lemaitre, this is exhilarating stuff, with pedal-to-the-metal violence. Earlier books incorporated examinations of the nature of identity, but there is no such philosophising here as the reader is drawn into the chaotic world of the driven protagonist.
With The Dry author Jane Harper leading a fresh crop of distinctive antipodean writers, we could have a new genre: Southern Cross noir. And a prime example is Overkill by Vanda Symon (Orenda, £8.99), which opens in alarming fashion as a woman is forced by a terrifying hitman to kill herself in the presence of her child. Police officer Sam Shephard, whose beat is a rural New Zealand community, realises that the murdered woman was the wife of her own ex-lover. And as well as tracking down a killer, Sam finds herself in the frame … The tensions within a tightknit village, along with various aspects of Kiwi society, are laid out with real authority, but it is Symon’s copper Sam, self-deprecating and very human, who represents the writer’s real achievement.
George Pelecanos has many strings to his bow, including writing for The Wire, and his books have a multifaceted approach to issues of crime and race that refuses to provide easy solutions. He is, quite simply, one of the very finest writers in the genre, and if The Man Who Came Uptown (Orion, £20) is much slimmer than his usual work – essentially a novella – its achievements are as solid as in his weightier books. The theme here is redemption through the act of reading. Prison inmate Michael Hudson is finding his universe widened by the books suggested to him by visiting librarian Anna Byrne. Then an investigator for his defence attorney, the unethical Phil Orznazian, persuades a witness not to testify and Hudson is abruptly freed. The ex-prisoner, the private eye and the librarian find themselves on a collision course, with Orznazian expecting Hudson to repay his debt by plying his old trade – armed robbery. Pelecanos sympathetically utilises his own experience with prison literacy programmes.
The Rival by Charlotte Duckworth (Quercus, £12.99) doesn’t break new ground in terms of plotting, but it is still a highly professional piece of psychological suspense. Lifestyle company executive Helena mentors Ashley, a ruthless younger employee. However, after Helena gives birth, her child is never seen. What has happened to the baby? And why are the two women now bitterly divided? Readers may intuit that we’re in All About Eve territory – the film of the hungry young assistant insidiously supplanting her faltering employer – but Duckworth has plenty more up her sleeve. Characterisation is broad, but some cogent points are made about workplace demands on high-flying women.
A very efficient set-up underpins Sarah Ward’s The Shrouded Path (Faber, £12.99). DC Connie Childs works in a sedate Peak District town which appears to have been preserved in aspic since the 1950s. A routine death by apparently natural causes arouses no suspicion, but another fatality in a hospital – murder committed via saline drip – is somehow connected. Grim events from 1957, when six girls walked into an old railway tunnel and only five emerged on the other side, are returning to haunt the present day. This is archetypal Sarah Ward, in which familiar police procedural shenanigans are given a macabre and unsettling twist.
Latest posts by Elle - Reader of Books (see all)
- The Best Movies and TV Shows New to Netflix, Amazon and More in February - February 1, 2019
- The Book Review Podcast: Assessing the Facebook Problem - February 1, 2019
- Young adult author cancels own novel after race controversy - February 1, 2019