Books: Independent choice - New British thrillers

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The classic crime novel puts its villain centre stage; victims tend to be insubstantial creatures whose ordeals are mainly of interest for the clues they reveal rather than as a focus for the realities of physical and psychological suffering. But these three novels all take the victims as their starting point. In two of them, the villain is so thoroughly sidelined that he/she isn't apprehended at all.

Garnethill by Denise Mina (Bantam, pounds 15.99) is the exception. This fast- paced first novel set in Glasgow romps its way to a satisfying conclusion in which the evil-doer receives rough justice of a most apt and unpleasant kind. Yet its heroine, Maureen, initially seems an ideal candidate for a Victim Support Scheme. Abused by her father as a child, recently recovered from a mental breakdown, she is now embroiled in an affair with a married man. Her Mum is an alcoholic, her brother is a drug dealer. As if that weren't enough, Maureen wakes one morning to find her lover tied to a chair with his throat cut. The police give Maureen a hard time, but she's as feisty as they come. Even her dead lover's creepy MEP mother cannot faze her. After a half-bottle of malt, our Maur is off to protect the real victims: the women ex-patients of George I Psychiatric Ward who were tortured during their incarceration there. Funny, raw, compassionate, often brutal, Garnethill turns a wry humour on the shortcomings of its very human characters.

Nicci French - alias husband-and-wife team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French - has also written a winner in The Safe House (Michael Joseph, pounds 10). Nineteen- year-old Finn has had her throat slashed in an attack which left both her parents dead. Post-traumatic stress specialist Samantha Laschen, who has left London with her small daughter Elsie to live in the Fens (where Sam's dyed red hair and metropolitan gear are decidedly out of place) agrees to offer Finn a safe house. Finn becomes a friend to Sam, an adored companion to Elsie. But is she something more to Sam's lover, Danny? The physical safe house is mirrored by a safe house of the mind: the imagined place to which Sam and Elsie retreat - in which they choose their surroundings in a private game. Both idylls are soon invaded with a brutality which leaves Sam bereaved and baffled. Apart from an incredible sequence in which Sam swims to shore through stormy seas after the boat on which she is trapped with a homicidal maniac sinks, this is a thoughtful investigation of the realities of post-traumatic stress. And one of its greatest strengths is the courage with which Sam tackles the aftermath of her own ordeal.

The Locust Farm by Jeremy Dronfield (Headline, pounds 9.99) has, by contrast, no satisfying coup of an ending, no complexity of psychological motivation. Its victims are a Gothic pair who act according to impulses that would be alien to anyone with an ounce of sense. There's some improbable violence; an improbable coincidence involving identical twins; and a villain who bounces implausibly back into the fray after a shooting should have laid him low. The unnecessarily convoluted plot features a foolish woman who has made a trauma out of a minor tragedy in her life: and who, one rainy night, shelters - what lone woman would? - a stranger on her isolated farm. The stranger says he is amnesiac, but he's pretending. And then... but no, I won't bore you with the rest. Just read one of the others.

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