Independent choice: crime fiction

Edmund Crispin once put his finger on three defining aspects of the detective genre: it must, he said, be artificial, contrived and fantastic, however much the appearance of naturalism is superimposed over these attributes. You don't, in other words, look for realism in the detective novel, though it may - indeed, must - contain realistic ingredients, such as details of post-mortem procedures or the actions of rapists. The impact of the novel is partly dependent on the author's skill in creating a persuasive and addictive world, enticingly parallel to everyday experience. Sue Grafton (for example) has this skill in abundance, as do Reginald Hill and Ruth Dudley Edwards.

Killing The Lawyers (HarperCollins, pounds 15 99), the new Joe Sixsmith novel by Reginald Hill, takes a dwindling legal consultancy, adds a scheme to intimidate a charming young woman athlete, and pits the Luton private eye against these dirty doings. Short, black, balding, resolute but unassuming Joe, in whose hands the busines of detection turns into a kind of obstacle race, is a Nineties version of that popular figment of wartime culture, the "little man" who comes out on top. Subject to incessant mishaps - he can't order a flyer to advertise his business without having the name Sixsmith appear as Sexwith, courtesy of a dyslexic printer - Joe nevertheless succeeds in rendering Luton a bit less pestiferous. Pitched in a lower key than the author's Daziell-and-Pascoe novels, the Sixsmith series has a buoyancy and delectability of its own. And a cat as doughty as Puss- in-Boots adds a touch of decorativeness.

Cats are becoming something of a detectives' adjunct - not only Sixsmith's Whitey, but Springsteen in the Angel novels by Mike Ripley, and Ruth Dudley Edwards's Plutarch. Plutarch is a bruiser of an animal who endears herself to like spirits, such as Baroness Troutbeck. Lady Troutbeck, mistress of a Cambridge College, seems to be taking over the role of upper-class policeman Ellis Pooley as the person who gets Robert Amiss (the nominal Dudley Edwards unofficial detective) into one imbroglio after another. This time (in Murder In A Cathedral, HarperCollins, pounds 14.99) it's an ecclesiastical situation summed up by the blunt baroness as "the frolicking queers at loggerheads with the happy-clappies". This blithe series puts itself on the side of the angels by merrily, and staunchly, subverting every tenet of political correctness.

Murder In A Cathedral has an epigraph from William Blake. Change William to Billy and you get the cognomen of a demented derelict who turns up dead on the opening page of Minette Walters's The Echo (Macmillan, pounds l6.99). Billy Blake is at the centre of a higgledy-piggledy plot which concerns a couple of unsolved high-profile disappearances in the past, a peculiar death or two, some family discord, and the efforts of a hard-line journalist to rehabilitate a homeless boy . All this (and more) is overlaid with a high-quality gloss, which absorbs even an egregious coincidence or two, and the inclusion of a mawkish moment alongside the lashings of topical horrors.

Sue Grafton has imposed the utmost artificiality on herself by undertaking to run the gamut of investigations from A to Z. She's got as far as M - M Is For Malice (Macmillan, pounds l5.99) - without showing any signs of flagging or letting the alphabetical framework get on top of her. Her 35-year- old heroine Kinsey Millhone is a private detective based in the California town of Santa Teresa, and a vivid narrator of each intriguing assignment. She is hired to trace the wherabouts of a one-time delinquent, missing for 18 years and now part-heir to a fortune - who proves to be a sacrificial lamb in black sheep's clothing. With their briskness and brio, adept plotting and power to enthrall, the whole series offers stories to keep the spirits up.

Pick of the week

Killing the Lawyers

by Reginald Hill