The monster, the bore and the wardrobe

Vanishing children, sex abuse, murderous squalor and ghostly encounters feature in a new crop of first novels. By Susie Boyt
Jane Adams's novel, The Greenway (Macmillan, pounds 14.99) is founded on a disappearance. One summer day in 1975, while Cassie Maltham and her 12-year-old cousin Suzie are taking a short cut through an ancient enclosed pathway in Norfolk, the child vanishes, never to be seen again. Nobody is found. In time, the police investigation is called off. As a result, the family is left grieving and uncertain, Cassie is left riddled with guilt and the beginnings of a psychiatric illness, and the morale of the detective investigating the case - and subsequently his promising career - ends up in ruins. Twenty years later, still tormented by the event in nightmares, Cassie returns to the scene of the mystery. Then, suddenly, another child disappears in the same way in exactly the same spot. Cassie is the only connection between the two events, and yet she seems to be as much a victim as either of the lost girls.

Adams's narrative has a simplicity that is misleading. The story is compellingly told and rich with psychological insight. The way that the case stirs up personal sadnesses and disappointments in the lives of the policemen who investigate it is particularly poignant and subtle, and provides an interesting depth to the criminal investigations.

Clever Girl by Tania Glyde (Picador, pounds 9.99) follows the fate of Sarah Clevetoe, a witty teenager with sophisticated pastimes such as sculpture and astronomy and playing in an all-girl thrash metal group called the Dildos. Yet Sarah suffers from far more than the usual pitfalls of adolescence. A survivor of child sexual abuse (this is mentioned just a couple of times and only in passing), her body is constantly under attack from almost every man she meets.

Glyde's novel has an impressive range of tone, funny and tragic, heavy as lead one minute and light as feathers the next. In fact, Glyde writes about things of the utmost seriousness with such a shrugging of the shoulders that at times her style seems almost irresponsible. She can describe her heroine being raped by a group of drunken schoolboys who pee on her clothes and tell her she disgusts them, as if presenting an adolescent scrape, just boyish high spirits and horseplay.

Yet this kind of inappropriateness of tone just goes to show how crushed her heroine's hopes and values have become. Finally, something in Sarah hardens against this kind of treatment and she fights back in an oddly surreal denouement, and although it is slightly disappointing that her triumph can exist only in the realm of fantasy, we cheer her on, nonetheless.

Graham Underwood, narrator and self-styled hero of Theodore Dalrymple's So Little Done: The Testament of a Serial Killer (Andre Deutsch, pounds 9.99) is a deeply unattractive character. He reminds you of a crashing pub bore who insists on telling you his life story, dressing up banalities about the world and his wife as if they were dazzling insights of the highest calibre, bending your ear all night and even following you out of the pub down the street. Then, just as you think you are safely out of his clutches, there he is sitting next to you on the night bus.

Dalrymple gives us a thorough tour of Underwood's mind, from his outrage that people who aren't even vegans can dare to complain about the killing of people, to his detailed chronicling of the seedier side of English life that appals him, making him see his many murders a duty. Underwood is rather like a malcontent from a Revenge Tragedy. The world is a sick place to him, crammed with hideous, loose, masochistic women, thin from smoking or fat from junk food, living in abject squalor and for ever giving birth while their violent, thieving partners are nowhere to be seen. Nothing cheers him. A brief thrill at seeing himself described in an Italian newspaper as "Il Mostro di Eastham" and the success of T-shirts bearing the legend, "I Visited Graham Underwood's House And Survived" is all he allows himself in the way of amusement.

Robert Girardi's Madeleine's Ghost: A Novel of New York, New Orleans and the Next World (Sceptre, pounds 5.99) is an ambitious, generous book by an extremely talented new writer. The novel begins in one of the worst parts of Brooklyn. Girardi's hero, Ned Conti, is alternately in despair over his PhD; distraught that he lacks the money to move to a better neighbourhood where he won't get mugged; sad that the girls he knows are drug addicts and anorexics; miserable that his only work prospect is cataloguing century-old papers for a local priest; and, above all, pining for his ex, Antoinette. The last straw is that his apartment, (which used to be a walk-in wardrobe) is haunted.

From here, the novel unfolds into a wild exploration of how to be happy in a world which seems so rife with danger and corruption, and in which everyone is trying so hard not to have any feelings. Ned does not leave a stone unturned in his quest for goodness, reaching hundreds of years back into the past, travelling thousands of miles and stretching his arms, in a gesture of longing, right up to the gates of heaven.