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Crime fiction: Laura Lippman’s protagonist is a compelling, egotistical nightmare

Dream Girl is the thriller of the season; while Joseph Knox’s True Crime Story is ingenious

Confined to his fancy new two-storey apartment (he will never call it a penthouse, never), flat on his back, a bilateral quad tear in his braced, immobilised right leg, attended to by a plump, cheerfully philistine nurse (the Misery references do not escape him), novelist Gerry Andersen is having a long dark Baltimore winter of the soul: what he has done and what he has failed to do.

Especially when it comes to women: the three wives (he drew the line at three; a fourth and he’d be Mickey Rooney), the women he betrayed them with, and more. Gerry insists there’s no more, or if there was it was only the once, and even then it was no big deal, he was the put-upon one, not the victim.

He hates that kind of victim mentality, just as he loathes all manner of what he considers degraded modern culture: the confessional (even though the words aren’t coming, he will not stoop to memoir); foodies (it’s just fuel); genre fiction; TV shows; the internet; that woman who claims she was the inspiration for Aubrey, the heroine in his breakout novel, Dream Girl, and who tweets about Gerry’s penis (and not in a kind way).

Poor Gerry. He is a Great American Novelist who doesn't understand that the only acceptable way to be that any more is to be Dead. And Laura Lippman's Dream Girl (Faber & Faber, £14.99) is the last rites, requiem Mass, memorial service and delirious wake all in one.


Lippman has written movingly about writers’ relationship with the truth and their responsibility to real people in Life Sentences, her 2009 masterpiece. Dream Girl is a rather more mischievous, sulphurous, antic affair. Lippman calls it “a book about what goes on inside a writer’s mind” and classifies it as horror.

The narrative ranges back and forth in time, alternating close third-person present and past tense. Lippman’s fluent mastery of this point of view has never been more effective, as the memories bob to the surface, crashing hard against Gerry’s steadily abating powers of denial. And while Gerry is pretty terrible – mean, ridiculously fastidious, self-obsessed, lacking entirely in collegiate fellow feeling – he is also witty, catty, neurotic, hilariously thin-skinned, petty and above all, utterly (perhaps even heroically) committed to the writing life.

The forensic detail and imaginative energy Lippman infuses this egotistical monster with make him utterly compelling, even when we urgently want to look away. (As an entry in the #MeToo stakes, it reminded me of Mary Gaitskell’s This Is Pleasure.)

As much as anything, Dream Girl is about a writer’s inability, his refusal to settle for real life. There’s a glorious scene when Gerry decides to hire a private investigator to track down the woman who claims to be Aubrey, and in walks Lippman’s series detective, Tess Monaghan.

Immediately enchanted by her looks, her wit, her intelligence, her blunt rejection of his case because “the relationship between a PI and a client … doesn’t work if the client is lying to himself”, Gerry believes he is falling for her. Then he wonders if all he is moved by is how utterly indifferent Tess is to him. “There comes a moment in life when everything is the road not taken, when it’s just fork after fork after fork.”

That bittersweet midlife blend of yearning and despair, of piquant accidie, is what makes Gerry Andersen so familiar, so insidiously engaging, so recognisably toxic. Crammed with first-rate literary snark, superbly plotted and topped off with a bracing All About Eve ending, Dream Girl is the darkly comic thriller of the season.

I greatly admired the pitch-black noir of Joseph Knox's Manchester-set Aidan Waits series. His new novel, True Crime Story (Doubleday, £14.99), presents itself as a collaboration between Knox and a disenchanted novelist named Evelyn. Beginning with a publisher's announcement that its relationship with Knox has been discontinued, and a statement from the author insisting on his integrity in the face of multiple accusations and threats, True Crime Story is a bravura exercise in metafictional documentary.

In the form of a multi-voice oral history, friends and family recount the disappearance in 2011 of 19-year-old Manchester University student Zoe Nolan and bring us up to date on breaking developments, while the correspondence between Knox and his “co-author” shows the narrative taking shape.

The metafictional elements are in some respects the least persuasive aspect of this ingeniously conceived and executed book; much more satisfactory is the Rashomon-like manner in which the carefully assembled cast of characters contradict, deny and betray each other – and themselves. Sometimes the liberal distribution of the narrative leads to repetition and overtelling, and more seriously, to a certain degree of stylistic looseness; the Waits books are more tautly sprung. But this is a lively, distinctive and highly topical mash-up of true and fictional crime.

Palace of the Drowned (Little, Brown, £14.99), Irish author Christine Mangan's second novel, sees novelist Frances Croy recuperating in a friend's palazzo in Venice, following a public nervous breakdown at the Savoy Hotel brought on by a negative review. Desperate to recover the momentum and freshness she showed with her first novel, Frankie is unsettled when a young female admirer befriends her and promises to release the tightly wound author from the prison of her own severity.

Palace of the Drowned is set against the 1966 Venice floods, and the sense that tragedy is imminent is set from the opening page, when a flock of birds swarms the evening sky, sounding “like a crackling fire, so that for one mad moment she wondered whether the world might be burning”.

This is an expertly wrought Gothic novel, elegantly written, exquisitely spun, the tension steadily ratcheting, the atmosphere gradually darkening. Redolent of Highsmith and Du Maurier and with more than a nod to Henry James, but with a style and vision utterly her own, Palace of the Drowned has something uncanny about it, something of the night; it’s a genuine spellbinder.

If the hero of Oliver Harris's Ascension (Little, Brown, £18.99) were the academic researching the history of Ascension Island that he pretends to be, it would certainly be on topic for this month's column. But writing is just Elliot Kane's cover story, as he rejoins MI6 and travels to the south Atlantic to investigate the apparent suicide of a former colleague. Meanwhile, quietly melancholic Kathryn Taylor plays politics in London to keep the mission alive and reignite her stalled career.

Harris always writes stylishly, with grace and verve: his Nick Belsey series is a brilliant achievement. This second Elliot Kane novel delivers a sophisticated vision of the contemporary intelligence world, with absorbing insights into data collection and the wild frontier of space colonisation, housed in a twisty, propulsive spy thriller, all set against the vividly evoked hellscape of one of the most remote islands in the world.

Having given up on James Ellroy years ago, exhausted by the relentless misogyny and homophobia, the disgusting, sadistic violence and the wearisome telegraphic style, I checked out Widespread Panic (William Heinemann, £20) to see if anything had changed. It has, and for the worse, in this stand-alone 1950s-set tale centring on Confidential Magazine's chief strongarm goon, Freddy Otash, retelling scabrous rumours about dead Hollywood stars and written in an approximation of that lurid fan magazine's ginned-up prose.

If the disfiguring cartoon misanthropy doesn’t get you, the asinine, arhythmic alliteration surely will.