Books: Independent Choice New British whodunnits

Pick of the Week: Freeze My Margarita by Lauren Henderson Hutchinson, pounds 10, 304pp

THE PREWAR Golden Age of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie still casts a long shadow over British crime fiction. In this quartet of new novels, all take the traditional theme of the small community beset by murder, sometimes with conscious allusions to the past.

Margaret Yorke's False Pretences (Little Brown, pounds 15.99, 310pp) demonstrates a twist recently displayed by other Queens of Crime, notably P D James, presumably in an attempt to appeal to new readers. This is the encounter between middle-class values and lower-class violence. The lower orders always featured in Golden Age detective stories, but could be conveniently stereotyped as servants, whereas modern writers feel obliged to make more of an effort.

Here, a suburban heroine finds her comfortable world upset when a long- lost goddaughter turns out to be a shaven-headed waif who has been living rough on eco-protests. A murky and dangerous entanglement of child abduction and violence follows. Yorke is a lot happier with the world of the Crusties than is Baroness James, though her portrayal of an ugly working-class male character doesn't convince. Never mind: Martin Amis has had the same trouble.

Like Yorke, Reginald Hill has honed his skills over many novels. The Long Kill (HarperCollins, pounds 15.99, 272pp) is not one of his Dalziel and Pascoe police thrillers but instead stands in the tradition of John Buchan and Geoffrey Household. Its male narrator is pursued by foreign powers through the rough terrain of the Lake District. The twist is that the quarry is himself a professional assassin, who falls in love in the course of the chase. There's plenty of suspense, with a plot built like a Bentley.

Andrew Taylor is a younger crime-writer who is working his way backwards. The Judgement of Strangers (HarperCollins, pounds 15.99, 320pp), set in the Seventies, is the second in a trilogy which will go back to the Fifties. It is full of consciously darkened references to Christie and Sayers: there is a village spinster disastrously modelling herself on Miss Marple, and an unfortunate cat called Lord Peter.

Taylor is a complex writer with lots of sinister implications, but tends to fall on the slow side of subtlety. The trouble with chronicles of minutiae is that they can seem just that. It's a long way to the first murder.

These three writers represent the great crime tradition in another way: they are all immensely productive. Yorke and Hill have published over 30 books each; Taylor is on his nineteenth.

Since the outcry when Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes, the convention has been that the detective story must be in a series form, with the same main character appearing in book after book.

The "new Christie" used to be an annual event; now it is the new Rendell, the new Yorke. This is dictated by publishing and marketing as much as by the nature of the genre. According to publishers' received wisdom, crime fiction is sold by building up a series to run along the shelves of bookshops and libraries.

The success of Internet book sales has not dented this principle, since the Web is a very successful way of marketing backlists. Readers attack crime fiction is a particular way: an absorbing book is gutted at top speed, its sequels avidly purchased, and the author's previous works sought out.

It's no wonder, then, that writers try to vary their formulae. Beneath the conventions, one senses that Yorke, Hill and Taylor all have the admirable goal of trying to move the traditional crime novel on to some deeper level of exploration. All three books feature middle-aged characters: Yorke's unhappily-married housewife, Hill's hit-man losing his most prized asset, Taylor's disturbingly lecherous vicar, for whom the murder story is part of their own life crisis.

Yet these attempts at depth can seem portentous and the writing tends to suffer from exhaustion, however skilled the narrative.

All three authors write "civilised" detective fiction: that is, there is a presumption of high culture understood between reader and fictional narrator. Freeze My Margarita (Hutchinson, pounds 10, 304pp), by Lauren Henderson, at first seems a new voice altogether. Her hard-living investigator, Sam Jones, is outwardly a British version of Janet Evanovich's tough and witty Stephanie Plum. Sam, the sort of sculptress who casually wields a blow- torch, gets caught up in a cast of murderous types putting on a production of... hang on, something familiar here?

Yes, it's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and they were all at Cambridge together. Sam, for all her brash exterior, falls for a type with a long patrician nose and a Peter Wimsey drawl. This is a world safe for middle-class values after all.

Nevertheless, this is only Henderson's fourth book, so she is an unselfconscious tyro in crime-fiction terms, and doesn't carry the same heavy professional baggage as the other three. For freshness, wit, sharp observation and a plot that surprises, this is my pick.

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