NEAR THE END
The Girl Next Door, now out in paperback, turned out to be Ruth Rendell’s penultimate novel, the final, Dark Corners, being published in the autumn.
In some ways it would have been fitting if The Girl Next Door had been the last volume of a career which produced 66 full-length crime novels in little over half a century; fitting for the simple reason that it’s a story of old people. The characters die at alarming rate – not violently or by a malicious act but simply because they belong to the age group best known to the grim reaper.
But it is a crime that brings this group of people together, a crime committed when they were still children or pre-teens; and of which they were ignorant in the way adult actions often remain unknown to youngsters. Still, unknown or not, that murder left its mark on them and a gruesome discovery now, after more than sixty years, brings these elderly people together again.
This togetherness itself has fatal consequences when individuals decide to unmake or remake choices and decisions. Re-living your life proves more problematic than any of them imagined.
The Girl Next Door is a book only an old person could or would write. I’m not claiming that a younger writer couldn’t internalize being old but I doubt if they could spice the story with the same sober and wry amusement – and they would be writing outside that wrinkling skin and creaking joints.
Maybe more poignantly, this is a book that could see the light of day only when the author’s reputation and readership is so well-established that the publisher has no worries about sales figures. If a new or lesser author had produced this manuscript there would be much hesitation – there are so many characters, not all of them well-defined, and all of them old. Young people don’t like to read about old people having sex, they would argue. And they don’t like to be reminded of how we all turn out – if we live long enough – because old age is not glamorous or desirable, however rich you are.
So we can all be grateful to Ruth Rendell – and for all the earlier books by her we’ve enjoyed and which made way for The Girl Next Door. Not because it’s her best but because it best reminds us of the sharp-eyed, unblinking and non-judgmental way she always depicted her characters – us, people.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
Money and crime go hand in hand. Money motivates, money distorts – it’s the most readily accepted reason for people doing bad things. Because everybody wants to have some and some of us want more.
The habitual place for large quantities of money is in the banks but banks and finance in general were perceived too dull for thrillers. There were rare exceptions, between 1973 and 1997 Paul Erdman wrote nine cracking financial thrillers, and Emma Lathen featured the Wall Street banker John Putnam Thatcher as her hero.
The financial crashes and crisis have changed our perception of banks, banking and bankers pretty comprehensively. It would be a brave author who’d now choose a banker as the hero. And the financial world has grown ever more complicated. If even the bankers themselves no longer quite know what they are doing how could you turn their fuzzy but superfast empire into a convincing setting?
Some have tried and succeeded to various degrees. Robert Harris’s Fear Index was one of my favourite books four years ago and I also enjoyed Chris Morgan Jones’s debut novel The Agent of Deceit which focuses more on money laundering and post Soviet spying than banking or finance.
His second, The Jackal’s Share, is set in the world of the super rich. The hero of Morgan Jones’s books, Ben Webster, works for an international investigations agency – very much as the author himself did for fifteen years. Ben’s latest client, a super wealthy tycoon whose company manages assets for other rich people has an odd request – he wants Ben to investigate him.
In his arrogance the tycoon doesn’t imagine that anybody could unravel the web of deceit and double bluff he has created. Ben risks everything, the relationship with his boss, his career and his family as he doggedly digs and exposes and follows the money. Morgan Jones’s background lends the book a feeling of authority and he’s very good at creating a plot which is both complex and comprehensible.
Jamie Doward’s debut Toxic, has a cover strapline: “Sometimes banks are more deadly than bombs”. We don’t need reminding; when a bank collapses it ruins lives as effectively as a bomb; there may be less blood but the ripples of misery go far and wide.
Toxic is ambitious. It starts with a headless body and takes in Police corruption, terrorism, espionage and superfast computer trading. But primarily it is about power and banking – or power through banking. You don’t need to use a bomb to pulverize the western world when you can use computers to manipulate the international financial network – the banks and the high speed buying and selling.
Toxic is well plotted and fast moving. Unfortunately too many of the characters are ill-defined and since most of them are undercover or doubly bad eggs I became very confused with who was who. There was less confusion knowing who were the villains – almost invariably everyone was up to some no-good.
And now comes a rant. There seems to be a convention which is beginning to irk me in a big way, big enough to spoil the pleasure of reading. In thrillers all female characters and children are called by their first name, all men by their surname. Why?
Toxic is a prime example. The main character is Kate and she’s called Kate all the way through. The one sympathetic man is known by his last name only, some of the rest of the cast have given names but are referred to by surname. This leaves Kate sounding the oddity she clearly is, the only woman in a man’s world. Is this because authors and publisher think that only men read these thrillers and like women presented this way? Duh.
Action thriller aficionados can stop right here. These books are not thrilling and even the suspense offered by the sub-genre on today’s menu is often as snappy as an old elastic band.
Domestic Noir is the flavour of the day but even domestic crime comes in many guises. There’s Suburban Noir with seemingly tranquil neighbourhoods festering with malicious intent. Or Chick Noir which likens marriage to a depository of locked-up and sinister secrets. Then there’s Malice Domestic, defined as a traditional mystery which contains no explicit sex or gratuitous violence – a realistic summary of most marriages?
Malice Domestic, in turn, has branched out and one of these off-shoots is Culinary Cosy. It’s exactly what the label says, unthreatening and full of delicious references to various edibles, often augmented with recipes.
Instead of overdosing on cake I spent a Bank Holiday weekend gorging on two Culinary Cosies. The Whitstable Pearl Mystery is Julie Wassmer’s first novel. It’s based in Whitstable, a very cosy little seaside town indeed, much favoured by Londoners who have snapped up many old fishermen’s houses for weekend use. The amazing thing is that the DFLs (= down from Londoners) haven’t spoiled the town. It still is a genuinely pleasant place by the sea, with a long seafood tradition.
Whitstable Pearl Mystery utilizes both the setting and the seafood to good effect. Much of the action takes place during the annual Oyster Festival and the main character, the eponymous Pearl, runs a seafood restaurant in town. Now teetering on the brink of middle-age Pearl is hankering after her brief time as a police constable. Falling pregnant put paid to that career but Pearl is having a second go – she’s got business cards printed and the garden shed as an office – hey presto, Pearl is now a private detective.
That one plotline is, in my opinion, a mistake. Pearl is supposed to be running a busy restaurant and her plate is already pretty full. Why would she want to open a detective agency and expect that the Detective Inspector in charge of an investigation to a suspect death share info with her on equal basis?
Meet Your Baker by Ellie Alexander offers a sample of American Culinary Cosy. Jules is a celebrated pastry chef, now back in hometown, Ashland, Oregon. She’s returned to mend a broken heart and her preferred cure is to bake – and boy, does she bake. Jules doesn’t have much time to sample the produce, though, for she bakes for her mother’s Café – Patisserie, “Torte”, which is the meeting place in Ashland. Mother Helen is a widow and the recession has not been easy for her – or the rest of the town – and Jules is soon far too busy to mope, what with trying to untangle the messy finances and the violent death by the cake cabinet.
Both books are relaxing reads with good, believable settings. Ellie Alexander gives the more realistic picture of Jules’s working life whereas I’m not sure Pearl’s restaurant is really a going concern. Neither book will give you bad dreams or keep you reading past your bedtime – which not necessarily a bad thing.
Julie Wassmer The Whitstable Pearl Mystery Constable 2015 (hardback)
Ellie Alexander Meet Your Baker St Martin’s Press 2015 (paperback, US)
Nobody wants to be a bad parent, I’m sure of that. Some of us might not give much thought to parenthood and simply muddle along as best they can, while others overdo the breeding and rearing. In a weird way parenthood is a life-long status, once a parent always a parent. A child’s perception of parents goes through metamorphoses as the child grows into adulthood, whereas your children remain your children long after they’ve grown up and have children of their own. Being a parent is hard-wired in our psyche.
This probably explains why so many thrillers explore the theme of a lost child. In recent months I’ve read four books on lost children, three of which were excellent, each in a completely different way – and all of which were debut novels.
The first was Kimberley McGreight’s Reconstructing Amelia. We know from a start that Amelia, a much loved, popular teenager, is dead, having jumped from the roof of her New York school.
But why did she jump? Was she alone on the roof or was somebody there with her? Was she pushed? Or made to jump?
These questions torture Amelia’s mother, a corporate lawyer and a single woman. She’s racked with doubt and guilt – had she ignored Amelia at some critical moment? Had she not noticed that all was not well with her daughter? There must have been something, something she’d missed. This is a tender but harrowing book, one that stays with the reader long beyond the last page.
The same question: “What did I miss?” tortures Jenny, the central character of Jane Shemilt’s Daughter. Jenny is a busy GP, the mother of twin boys in their late teens and Naomi, just short of 16, who disappears one night. The havoc of her disappearance is too much to bear and the family disintegrates. Jenny and her husband separate, the relationship between the boys and their parents becomes strained, everybody suffers. The solution to what happened to Naomi left me feeling it was too far fetched – but on the following week I read newspaper reports of a real life case which proved that teenagers in the most loving and caring family can have a secret life of which their parents are totally unaware.
Burnt Paper Sky is Gilly Macmillan’s debut novel and more ambitious in its scope than the other two. Shemilt and McGreight burrow deep into the suffering caused by losing a child in the cusp of adulthood, a fledgling testing their wings. The mother in Burnt Paper Sky, Rachel, experiences something even worse. Ben is only seven and he disappears when Rachel lets him out of sight for few minutes. This is enough to brand Rachel as A Bad Mother and the online community and newspapers come out in force, like a flock of vile, spiteful harpies. Rachel must be punished and she must be punished publicly. Since Rachel is already consumed with self-loathing and guilt much of this public whipping goes over her head but it hits the reader at full force – it also distracts the police in their search for Ben.
This is a very cleverly constructed, well-researched book and I think the publisher probably wasn’t overstating it when she declared that: “Burnt Paper Sky is the best psychological thriller I will ever publish.”
The Hancock Hour
You’re going to be sitting at the edge of your seat during your hours with Hancock and the hours will go very fast as you turn the pages, not wanting to put the book down before you’re finished.
I was very lucky; by the time I found Penny Hancock she had already published three books. That meant I could read them in one gluttonous go without having to wait months or years – like I now have to wait for number four.
The first out in 2012 was Tideline. Sonia lives in a desirable part of London, right by the river. Her husband wants them to sell but Sonia doesn’t want to move – and then something happens which means she can’t leave the house.
Tideline tells about an obsession. As you read the feeling of dread grows, you know there can be no happy ending – but I bet you won’t have guessed the secret that was the genesis of Sonia’s obsession and which gives such a twist to the solution.
Then, in 2013, came The Darkening Hour. I was anxious when I started. Hancock’s debut had been so impressive, I had enjoyed it so much – would the second book live up to my expectations?
I needn’t have worried. A completely different book, written with the same assured style, again with river Thames as the backdrop, again with a riveting story.
Dora and Mona are two desperate women. Dora is barely coping, ambitious for her career as a radio presenter, failing as a mother and as a daughter, a mistress to a married man. Mona is brought in as a housemaid, leaving behind in Morocco a small daughter and an ailing mother who depend on the money she can send.
The women need each other. Dora needs help and can pay and Mona needs money and can work – so what’s the trouble? Well, “the servant problem” used to be a shortage of domestic labour, these days the problem tends to be with attitude – one simply doesn’t know how to treat a servant, such a demeaning job. Although Dora is generally ungracious with everybody she thinks her inferior, not only with Mona. She enjoys the results of Mona’s hard work but resents having her in the house. It doesn’t take long before the women’s interests are tugging like the riptides in the river at the end of their street.
Hancock is excellent at drawing very human characters and she’s clever with social observation and obsessions. We can easily pity and dislike her characters and understand why they see petty grievances as tragic outrage. And throughout the book there is the undercurrent of doom, a sense of looming disaster.
Could book number three possibly be as good? A Trick of the Mind was published in 2014. It has the gold-plated Hancock stamp: a disaster with deep roots unfolding. Ellie is on the verge of a New Life. She’s inherited a cottage from an aunt, she’s beginning to make it as an artist, she’s left a relationship. But Ellie is racked with guilt and suffers from a mild form of OCD. She thinks she may have run over somebody and when the victim of the accident agrees with her Ellie has no choice but the make amends. She exchanges her new rickety freedom for a golden cage. We can see this is going to end badly and we’re not mistaken – although probably didn’t guess all the twists Hancock has in store for us.
Whilst I did enjoy these latest hours with Hancock I didn’t find A Trick of the Mind quite as satisfying as the first two. Maybe it was simply the result of my gluttony, gorging on all three in one go, but I closed the book feeling that it was a little rushed in places. In the book Ellie agonises over her big painting, feeling it needs a little something more. I felt Ellie herself needed a little more of layering to make us understand her behaviour more readily.
That being said, I’ll rush out to buy the next book, as soon as it’s available.
All these three books by Penny Hancock are published by Simon & Schuster and are currently available in all formats.
One Tough Broad
That was the working title of Becky Masterman’s debut novel. The main character, a retired FBI undercover agent Brigid Quinn is the tough broad – very tough – but she’s also well into her sixties and when Masterman started looking for an agent she was told that “Nobody is interested in a woman over thirty.” Luckily Masterman didn’t give up and when the book was published a couple of years ago as The Rage Against Dying it won a whole host of awards and – judging by the sales figures – plenty of readers were interested in a pensioner who can kick ass and does not see why retirement should stop her from going after the bad guys.
Brigid is now back. In Fear the Darkness she’s getting used to being married to the saintly ex-priest Carlo and becoming involved in the community, she’s even acquired a friend. At heart, she remains a copper and when she’s asked to look into a teenager’s drowning she doesn’t hesitate to ruffle feathers in her newly established social circle. But Brigid is wrong-footed by the weird symptoms that suddenly beset her, making her fear there’s something seriously wrong with her health, maybe even with her sanity. And, as if she needed another problem, her niece, on a long visit, brings to mind her family’s shortcomings: “Not for the first time I wondered if my whole family was screwed up that way, if to some varying degree there was a genetic lack of humanity and only a random roll of the cosmic dice put any one of us on the side of good.”
Becky Masterman: Fear the Darkness, Orion Books, 2015
The Silkworm and The Accident
Two recent bestsellers have cast a less than flattering light on book publishing. In Robert Galbraith’s second Cormoran Strike novel, The Silkworm, the detective is looking for a missing author whose parting gesture was to deliver a stinker of a manuscript to his agent. It was a stinker in the sense that it mocked and ridiculed the good and the great amongst publishers, agents and authors. Too many secrets would be exposed and too many reputations tarnished if the book was published – no surprise that the author turns up dead, killed in the very same gruesome way as described in his manuscript.
The Silkworm is a traditional private eye story. People are interviewed, events progress in a chronological order and while there are plenty of entertainingly horrible characters there are also people with at least some redeeming features.
Chris Pavone’s The Accident is also the author’s second novel and is set in the world of book publishing but while Galbraith thrusts a sharp and mocking stiletto in the London literary scene Pavone uses much heavier weaponry in his portrayal of the book trade in New York. His is a world fearful of its future and ready to sup with the Devil if that postpones the Doomsday.
At the heart of Pavone’s book there’s also a lethal manuscript, delivered to an agent. We then follow its progress for the next 24 hours, as people read it and (mostly) die, crisscrossing from New York to Los Angeles, from Switzerland to Denmark. The timeline is convoluted. Most of the narration is in present tense but slips into a past tense to bring in a backstory or to contrast here and now with there and then. Since the cast of characters is fairly large you need to remain attentive while you read – which is not difficult, The Accident does sweep the reader along most enjoyably.
Maybe it’s due to his heavier weaponry but Pavone’s body count is far higher than Galbraith’s – I counted ten dead between the moment the agent finished reading the manuscript (Chapter 1) and when the walking wounded consider their options (Chapter 57), but that is only an estimate. Besides, most of the dead weren’t really properly introduced to the reader so maybe they’re not supposed to count.
Apart its structure Pavone’s book is also the more ambitious in its scope. His targets include an easily recognisable media mogul with political ambitions and a secret service out of control. He clearly wants his book to be more than a thriller about book publishing.
Since I have as much personal experience of the book trade as a vagrant has of a memory-foam mattress I don’t know how true to life the publishing world in these two books is, I’ll just accept that the authors know. But The Accident stretched my willingness to suspend disbelief in some other points. It is possible that a secret agent, hardened by active service and supported by more money than he could spend, might kill a man or two in Copenhagen in mid-morning, fly across the Atlantic and spend the night criss-crossing Long Island to kill some more. Tough life but it keeps the momentum going.
And I could, almost, believe that a subsidiary rights agent could leave her office in New York after 10am, spend an hour at the airport before flying to LA, refresh her make-up and change clothes at the airport, then hire a car and arrive, cool as a cucumber, in time for a 4.30pm meeting – hard, even with the three-hour time difference. But I did find it almost impossible to believe that a studio executive’s PA starts her work in the LA office before 7am. That’s the trouble with detail; if you don’t give enough it doesn’t feel real – if you give too much, nitpickers get to work.
The premise of The Accident is that the ticking time bomb of a manuscript must be retrieved and destroyed before it is published. A sensible reader might feel it’s a pity nobody told its author he could have invested in a couple of Print on Demand machines and by-passed agents and publishers in perfect safety.
But that would have deprived us of a very enjoyable and fast moving thriller.
Robert Galbraith: The Silkworm published in paperback (UK) by Sphere
Chris Pavone: The Accident published in paperback (UK) by Faber & Faber