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Crime fiction: New works from Andrew Hughes, Erin Kelly, Akimitsu Takagi, Sheila Bugler and Jo Spain

Emma, Disappeared; The House of Mirrors; The Noh Mask Murder; Dark Road Home; and The Trial show the various crime subgenres are very much alive and kicking

It’s difficult to entirely dislike a chap who believes that exclamation points are a necessary evil, even if the fact that we strongly suspect him of being a sociopathic killer means we cannot wholly commit to his cause. Such is the case with James Lyster, the narrator of Andrew Hughes’ Emma, Disappeared (Hachette Ireland, £14.99). James is a curator of photographs at the National Library of Ireland who specialises in the Victorian-era trend for recording posed photos of the recently deceased.

James, we quickly learn, was the last person to see the successful young entrepreneur Emma Harte before she disappeared. That he is keen to hide that fact, even as a national search for Emma gets under way, suggests that James has more than a professional interest in the dead. This gives rise to concern for his new girlfriend, Libby, whom he “meets” on the bus by covertly observing her social media interactions and unobtrusively sliding into her online life.

James’ day job is a nod to Hughes’ prior offerings, the acclaimed historical crime mysteries The Convictions of John Delahunt and The Coroner’s Daughter. But Emma, Disappeared is a contemporary novel that showcases an inventive manipulation of social media as James – publicly an austere, patrician civil servant – privately thrashes about in his desperate attempts to evade discovery.

Smart, blackly humorous and featuring one of Irish crime fiction’s most audacious femme fatales, Emma, Disappeared is Hughes’ finest novel to date.


“The best way to hide blood is with more blood,” declares an unnamed narrator in the prologue to Erin Kelly’s The House of Mirrors (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99), and just like that we’re off on another of Kelly’s deliciously gothic tales that revolve around crumbling old piles.

Alice, who runs a vintage fashion boutique in Islington, is a young woman who occasionally finds herself at the mercy of an urge to lash out, which doesn’t augur well for her burgeoning relationship with the controlling Gabe. Like father, like child – might Alice be what she is because her father, Rex, was convicted of murder during the long, hot summer of 1997? Determined to establish the truth of her possibly tainted bloodline before she fully commits to Gabe, Alice sets out to untangle the mystery that her mother, Karen, has always tried to hide – only to discover that “motherhood is not a tenderness but a ruthlessness with no ceiling”.

The House of Mirrors doesn’t quite deliver a twist per page, but it’s not far off: darkly insightful when it comes to family dynamics, it’s a worthy sequel to The Poison Tree.

Originally published in 1950, Akimitsu Takagi’s The Noh Mask Murder (Pushkin Vertigo, £9.99) is a locked-room mystery that opens with its narrator, one Akimitsu Takagi, informing us of his desire to become a mystery novelist “a little different from the average” – decidedly not a clone of Agatha Christie, he tells us, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The strange case of the Chizui family provides Takagi with plenty of material when the family patriarch is discovered dead in a sealed room containing an allegedly cursed Noh mask. With no visible signs of violence on the body, the authorities are inclined to declare the death a natural one – until the killer announces that this death is only the first of many.

Set in 1946, and featuring a narrator who has recently returned from the horrors of war, The Noh Mask Murder offers a playful, meta-narrative puzzle that will delight fans of the classic locked-room subgenre, but which also digs beneath the surface mystery to explore the “collective derangement” that can affect an entire family – or, for that matter, an entire nation.

Irish author Sheila Bugler has set all of her novels in the UK until now, but Dark Road Home (Canelo, £9.99) opens with Leah Ryan, “a shit-hot, sharp-dressing, arse-kicking, wheeling-and-dealing corporate lawyer”, arriving home to Dungarry, Co Clare after a decade of self-exile in Australia. She hopes to reconnect with her ailing mam and her older brother Frank, who has sacrificed his own ambitions to care for their mother after she was knocked down in a hit-and-run crash before Leah’s departure.

Bracing herself for a traumatic reunion, Leah’s plans are obliterated when her homecoming coincides with the murder of Eamon Lonergan, once the love of Leah’s life and latterly the husband of Coco, the teenage best friend with whom Leah had an intense love-hate relationship. Devastated by the news, Leah is thrown into further turmoil when Frank is accused of Eamon’s murder.

Subplots abound as Leah also contends with her brain-damaged mother’s inability to recognise her and the tempestuous relationship between her friend Aisling and her partner Jim, all of which feed into the central mystery of who killed Seamus O’Malley many years before, but Bugler just about keeps all the plates spinning. That said, the romance between Leah and Gerry Spillane, the detective investigating Eamon Lonergan’s murder, is the point where the suspension of disbelief finally snaps.

Jo Spain established her reputation with the Inspector Tom Reynolds police procedurals, but has latterly, if not exclusively, focused on stand-alone thrillers. The Trial (Quercus, £20), her 13th novel, opens in the present day with Dani MacLochlainn returning to St Edmund’s university, her old alma mater in Co Kildare, to teach history. We already suspect that Dani has an ulterior motive due to a prologue set in 2014, when Dani’s then boyfriend, the French student Theo, walks out on Dani while she is sleeping, never to be seen again.

What we quickly realise, however, is that Dani is more than capable of managing more than one ulterior motive: an undercover garda detective, Dani has returned to St Edmund’s to discover the truth about a drug trial that promises to deliver a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, a trial that may well be costing lives. Connecting the narrative strands is Declan Graham, the golden boy who was once Theo’s mentor and is now overseeing the development of “a saviour drug” on behalf of Turner Pharma. Complicating matters, and perhaps clouding her judgment, is the fact that Dani’s mother is currently locked into the horror of Alzheimer’s.

It seems there is no subgenre that Jo Spain can’t turn her hand to: from police procedurals to psychological thrillers, from rural settings to gated communities and on to academia, she understands better than most that readers turn to crime fiction not for blood, gore and corpses, but for the delicious pleasure of experiencing life lived in extremis. It sounds simple, but the trick is in making it look effortless, and The Trial confirms Spain’s status as the queen of Irish thrillers.

Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His current novel is The Lammisters (No Alibis Press)