Crime fiction: Good and evil, nightmares, and narrative acumen


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The Independent Culture

In terms of food analogies, some books are bland or subtly flavoured, while others are like a fiery curry. David Mark's DS McAvoy books are unarguably in the latter category. In Sorrow Bound (Quercus, £16.99), Mark's Hull-based copper is investigating the death of a woman who has been eviscerated. Her ex-partner is in the frame, but McAvoy is not convinced. Pungent characterisation here, including McAvoy's wife Roisin, a woman who endured a violent assault in her days with a travelling community.

Very different are John Connolly's bizarre and phantasmagoric novels, set in an America that he knows as well as his native Ireland. The Wolf in Winter (Hodder, £14.99) is typically irresistible, tackling his customary themes of redemption and a Manichean clash between good and evil.

There are those who regard crime fiction as a frivolous diversion, even though writers from WH Auden onwards have argued for its virtues. Proof that the genre can take on weighty topics? Didier Daeninckx's Nazis in the Metro (Melville House, £9.99, translated by Anna Moschovakis), is a book in which one of France's most provocative political crime writers takes on the country's radical political movements, left and right. Burned-out novelist André Sloga has always taken on the system (though the system doesn't give a damn), but when he is beaten and left for dead, maverick private investigator Gabriel Lecouvreur discovers that Sloga had been infiltrating extremist political groups and writing a truly incendiary book. The Paris we see here is not the tourist city of Woody Allen, but a Stygian world of squats, graffiti and racist thugs. Time for this prolific author to get the attention he deserves across the UK, not just in the librairies of Little Paris in South Ken.

On form: Laura Lippman's After I'm Gone is typically astringent fare

You won't learn who "Dan Kavanagh" is from the dust jacket of Duffy (Orion, £12.99) but a dedication to the late literary agent Pat Kavanagh might tip the wink that this Clark Kent is really her widower, literary novelist Julian Barnes. Barnes – unlike his colleague John Banville – has avoided any feather-ruffling comparisons between his "serious" work and his crime novels, and there is plenty of goodwill for his witty books featuring his bisexual sleuth, even though the lashings of sex and violence are a world away from Barnes's customary endeavours.

Not all is rosy in the crime-writing garden, however; two usually reliable writers have tendered curiously lacklustre efforts: Elizabeth George with The Edge of the Water (Hodder, £12.99) in which the constraints of the young-adult format have vitiated her usual skills, while Michele Giuttari's The Dark Heart of Florence (Abacus £7.99, translated by Howard Curtis and Isabelle Kaufeler) contrives to make Commissario Ferrara's pursuit of a serial killer curiously enervating.

Those who meet Charles Cumming are surprised that this unfeasibly tall writer is also unfeasibly young – surely an espionage maestro of this command has to have the years of a John le Carré? But somehow, Cumming appears to have all the necessary gravitas, as A Colder War (HarperCollins, £12.99) comprehensively proves. The levels of psychological insight are married to genuine narrative acumen – but anyone who has read his earlier books will expect no less.

Three very different but equally talented women writers are on form this month: Laura Lippman, with After I'm Gone (Faber, £12.99) – typically astringent fare; Donna Leon, with By Its Cover (Heinemann £17.99), a pricey but rather slim entry that has Brunetti dealing with stolen antiquarian books and a few murders; and Mo Hayder with Wolf (Bantam Press, £12.99), the kind of unsettling, nightmarish fare we can confidently turn to the gentle Ms Hayder for.