Andrew Taylor, author of much-respected historical fiction, has apparently been itching to include such icons as mobile phones, CCTV cameras and laptops in his novels. But however attractive it might have been to include gothic Googles in his novel The American Boy (based on Poe's sojourn in London), he has reserved the paraphernalia of contemporary culture for A Stain in the Evidence.
It has an up-to-date theme, beginning with a metaphorical skeleton tumbling out of a cupboard and proceeding to more literally ghoulish events. The 40-year-old James discovers that he has a grown-up daughter fathered during an adolescent fling with Lily, stepmother of a schoolfriend. That boy has turned into a possibly psychopathic man, full of bitterness and power. Now James's lover, Lily, is dying and reveals the truth.
The daughter is pregnant and has no one to turn to her but her biological father. And she needs a shoulder to lean on, since she may have murdered the father of her own child. James manages to give her temporary shelter in an old chapel being turned into a carpet warehouse (a nice modern touch), but then she disappears. She continues to haunt James's life, and his own marriage is on the rocks when his wife suspects that the mysterious girl involved with her husband is his mistress.
Happy modern families, then - a story of murder, mobiles and motorways ensues, wound up like spaghetti in a twisting plot. Taylor is brilliant at capturing teenage angst in the flashbacks to James's youthful affair, and the way in which adolescent feelings struggle to control a stormy relationship with someone of a different generation. The dilemma of the adult James - whether to embrace or abandon his ready-made family - is an issue of our time, its complexities subtly explored as James tries to get to the truth of the murder story, and of what happened in his own past.
The underlying theme is the relationship to children, expressed in many forms, from an unsentimental eye cast over messy toddlers to the exploitation of teenage sexuality. Taylor excels not only in narrative control, but in depth of characterisation. He is also among a select rank of male writers in his ability to empathise with female characters. The movement of James's wife, Nicky, from jealous outrage to motherly supportiveness as she realises the desperate straits of his daughter is one of the highlights of a book bursting with good things.