Crime/thriller fiction: Thrilling stories discovered by word-of-mouth

From Jonathan Moore's The Poison Artist to Elly Griffiths' The Woman in Blue...

Barry Forshaw
Friday 12 February 2016 14:16
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Filmic inspirations: James Stewart and Kim Novak in ‘Vertigo’ in 1958
Filmic inspirations: James Stewart and Kim Novak in ‘Vertigo’ in 1958

Publishers of crime and thriller fiction are well aware that "word of mouth" is crucial to sales. Many recent hits (from Before I Go To Sleep to I Am Pilgrim) have achieved lift-off through simple recommendation, friend to friend. The latest book enjoying this bounty is Jonathan Moore's The Poison Artist (Orion, £7.99), and it is a worthy recipient.

Channelling (rather cheekily) everything from Boileau & Narcejac's Vertigo (via Hitchcock) to the baroque and complex murder strategies of Thomas Harris, this is a cinematic and phantasmagoric treat. San Francisco toxicologist Caleb Maddox is tabulating the effects of pain on the human body while suffering from an agonising break-up with his artist lover Bridget.

As a serial killer plies a homicidal trade in the city, Caleb encounters a seductive woman, Emmeline, who ushers him into a bizarre and sensuous universe with elaborate rules that she sets out for him. While investigating the murders, he finds a terrifying link with the mysterious Emmeline. Obsession and violent death collide in an elegantly written thriller.

Very different – but equally enthralling – is Helen FitzGerald's Viral (Faber, £7.99), another word-of-mouth success already being compared with Gone Girl (but what isn't these days?). Celebrating the passing of their A-levels, Leah and her adopted sister Su are enjoying a holiday in Magaluf, but only Leah returns. Her more studious sister has been caught on camera in sexual activity, and the footage has (as the title suggests) gone viral. Ruth, the mother of the two girls, is a high-profile judge, and is desperate to bring her humiliated daughter home. But Ruth is to discover that there is more to this affair than embarrassment and pranks – not least Leah's part in it. The revenge scenario here is worked out in rigorous and compelling fashion.

The American writer Gregg Hurwitz is something of a protean talent, unearthing quirky riffs in any field he tackles (such as giving Batman an appreciation of Ravel's piano music), but the author's real metier is the novel, and anyone reading Orphan X (Michael Joseph, £12.99) won't be surprised by the fact that a cadre of his peers, from Tess Gerritsen to Lee Child, have lined up to praise it. In fact, Child's hero Jack Reacher may be the éminence grise behind this one. "The Nowhere Man" (who uses the name Evan Smoak) is a violence-dispensing avenger in the Reacher mould, a Black Ops government assassin with martial arts skills who lives off the grid. When his handler is killed, he is plunged into a world in which even his lethal skills are tested to the limit. If Orphan X sometimes comes across as a conscious effort to inaugurate a new series character to rival Reacher, this is no carbon-copy effort; Hurwitz is too individual a writer to be constrained by any generic straitjacket.

Moving back across the Atlantic, let's honour three distinctive British writers who have adapted the crime/thriller format to their own ends. Alison Bruce has been quietly shaking up the police procedural with her gritty DI Goodhew series, and The Promise (Constable, £15.99) has her copper investigating the death of an informant; it's all orchestrated (from opening adagio to allegro finale) with authority. Similarly, Mick Herron's Real Tigers (John Murray, £16.99) is in the grand tradition of British espionage writing: no 007-style mayhem, but a narrative involving rogue agents and a kidnapped spy that is both sardonically funny and pleasingly complex. Finally, a thumbs-up for Elly Griffiths' The Woman in Blue (Quercus, £16.99); perhaps not the most characteristic in her series of Norfolk mysteries involving the intuitive Ruth Galloway, who is less central to things than usual, but entertainingly combining mystification and topicality.

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