Independent choice: women and crime

Pick of the week: Freezing by Penelope Evans
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Stewart Park is everybody's worst nightmare. His face is like a long, tapering wedge of Cheddar cheese. A single look sends mothers in the local playground scurrying to the police, turns a prostitute's eyes pale with fear. There will be people not sleeping well tonight because of him.

Stewart is also the narrator of Freezing by Penelope Evans (Black Swan, pounds 6.99) and the most unusual and endearing fictional sleuth I have ever encountered. His world is that of London's underclass. He lives at home with his ancient, complaining Dad, who takes things to pieces to see how they work and who is gripped, serially, by mad enthusiasms - home security, fishing.

By day, Stewart is a photographer in a morgue. By night he fights, courtesy of his computer, alongside Dustraiser - who will save the Ice Maiden.

Enter the real Ice Maiden, the corpse of a young girl pulled from the Thames. What follows is an extraordinary odyssey. Innocent, simple, ugly Stewart blunders along the trail of the anonymous dead girl and the pre- programmed Dustraiser develops a mind of his own.

Minor characters (and real treats) along the way include Lady, the pitbull with a heart of gold, Wayne Dodds, the chilling policeman with whom Stewart went to school, and Angie, the fat nurse who makes him realise that perhaps he isn't everyone's worst nightmare after all. But the best thing about this novel is the way it enters Stewart's mind and portrays the sophisticated world to which we are all accustomed as incomprehensible. It's utterly gripping, utterly convincing - a stunning achievement.

Jenefer Shute's Sex Crimes (Secker & Warburg, pounds 9.99) has an intriguing narrator too. She's Christine Chandler, a 38-year-old, successful lawyer who admits, from the start, she was responsible for a violent attack on her 26-year-old lover, Scott. The novel takes the form of a deposition to her lawyer. Snippets from the press - depicting her as the Boston Fury - intersperse her own, seemingly rational account. Scott pursued her, she insists, not the other way about. But gradually, as she continues - I defy you not to keep turning the pages - she reveals her madness. The achievement here is to admit us into the mind of a monster.

As in Freezing, Lesley Grant-Adamson's The Girl in the Case (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 16.99) has a denouement that involves a dog. But Jay, the badly-behaved golden retriever belonging to the protagonist Mandy, is an unlikely saviour.

As unlikely as the rest of the plot: silly Mandy, an estate agent, allows herself to be lured to a remote cottage. Realising her predicament, she phones a colleague but doesn't suggest that the colleague calls the police. And when she stumbles on concrete evidence (an explicit video) of who has done the murders, she leaves it overnight - she is too tired, you understand - before informing the police of its existence. In the meantime, the tape is stolen by the resident kleptomaniac. I have always suspected that people who choose to bury themselves in the depths of the countryside (the novel is set in rural Oxfordshire) might be a couple of bricks short of a building set. My prejudices are confirmed.

Faint Praise by Ellen Hart (The Women's Press, pounds 6.99) features dogs as well, though not as main characters. Restaurant owner Jane Lawless leaves her home, her aunt Beryl (and her dogs) to camp in a Minneapolis loft - a loft to die for. Wonderful interior decor; and wonderful dialogue. Who cares who did it (did what?), as long as the women keep on wisecracking? This is also a lesbian romance with the sexual action kept comfortably - for heterosexuals like me - off the page. Oh, and Jane cooks a mean dinner: try her recipe for chicken on page 51.

There are no dogs in Hot Poppies by Reggie Nadelson (Faber, pounds 14.99). The poppies in question are mutant opium ones that have been irradiated by fallout from a secret Chernobyl-style explosion in China. Ingest them and you bleed from your ears. This is a gripping, hard-boiled whodunit which takes PI Artie Cohen to Hong Kong on the brink of its succession to China.

Artie's girlfriend wants to adopt a Chinese baby. Back in New York, illegal immigrants toil in sweatshops, in which "Fire Exit" is scrawled in red on a blank, whitewashed, brick wall. The inevitable happens; the place goes up in flames. Dante-esque scenes follow: doomed women cling, seven stories up, to a fire escape, then plunge to their death. Against all odds, Artie brings a Chinese baby back to his girlfriend - but not the baby she was expecting.

Comments