Books: Independent choice

Crime fiction by Andrew Taylor

At first sight there is something drearily familiar about Blood Work (Orion, pounds 16.99), Michael Connelly's latest thriller. Yet another serial killer stalks the streets of Los Angeles. A beautiful woman, sister of a victim, summons a worthy adversary - Terry McCaleb, a former FBI agent who specialised in serial killers. It goes without saying that McCaleb is both a loner and awesomely competent. He is also equipped with the obligatory flaw - he's just had a heart transplant. Nothing daunted, McCaleb plunges into a private investigation and a new romantic entanglement. Soon he and the psychopath are locked in a duel to the death.

So far, so predictable. Hollywood is fond of cliches, and it comes as no surprise to learn that the film rights have been snapped up by Warner Brothers as a vehicle for Clint Eastwood. The real surprise is that Connelly brings fresh life to such a well-worn format. The blood work of the title runs through the book on many levels. Its characters emerge from the shells of their restraining stereotypes. The plotting is outstanding: time after time, Connelly catches the reader off guard and sends the story in an unexpected direction. He proves that what counts is not what you do, but the way that you do it. This is his best novel yet, and it cements an already impressive reputation.

No one could accuse Nicholas Freeling of predictability. He is one of the few British crime writers to have a distinctively European voice, and for more than 30 years his novels have defied categorisation. One More River (Little, Brown, pounds 16.99) is the story of John Charles, a 70- year-old crime novelist living in rural France. One evening, someone takes a pot-shot at him, shattering his contentment. Why should anyone want to kill him? After another murder attempt and the destruction of his house, John drifts warily through Europe, stirring up memories; he needs to revisit his past before the present catches up with him.

The narrative, which oscillates between first and third person, purports to be a transcription of his notebook, in awkward and literary prose. There are echoes of Rogue Male and references to deceased friends - Graham in his flat in Antibes, Pat Highsmith, and dear old Monsieur Simenon. John is a divided man who has made himself into a caricature of the Englishman abroad; the book is in one sense a meditation on nationality. Despite an implausible coincidence at the end, this is a novel that lingers in the memory. Truth is glimpsed, not revealed. Freeling makes the reader as well as John work towards understanding.

Finally an excursion to Barbara Vineland, that fictional territory where everyone plays Unhappy Families. In Gillian White's The Sleeper (Bantam, pounds 16.99), the story revolves around Violet Moon, an elderly medium spending Christmas at her son's farm. Violet and her daughter-in-law Clover have never seen eye to eye. Soon Clover begins to wonder if Violet is trying to kill her. Simultaneously, an old woman vanishes from a nearby residential hotel. And then there's the matter of Violet's childhood, which is full of sinister secrets. Meanwhile, Nature plays its part with storms and flooding.

The result of this imbroglio is a modern Cold Comfort Farm - no jokes, but plenty of rural Gothic detail laid on with a shovel. Nevertheless, Gillian White handles her gruesome ingredients with control and intelligence.

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