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The best recent crime and thriller writing – review roundup

Nilanajana Roy’s Black River, Let Me In by Claire McGowan; Jake Lamar’s Viper’s Dream, The Kingdoms of Savannah and The End of Us

A great crime novel offers not just a mystery to be solved, but explores the culture and society in which the crime occurs – the environment, as often as not, that creates the conditions required for the crime to take place. Nilanajana Roy’s Black River (Pushkin Vertigo, £16.99) begins in the rural Indian village of Teetarpur, where the irrepressibly curious eight-year-old Munia sees something she should not.

When Munia is discovered hanging from a tree adjacent to her father’s small plot of farmland, suspicion immediately falls on Mansoor Khan, an itinerant carpenter who – although Muslim in a predominately Hindu area – has traditionally been afforded “the respect due to all madmen”. Although devasted by grief, Munia’s father Chand isn’t convinced of Mansoor’s guilt, and neither is the local sub-inspector Ombir Singh. But who else in the tightly knit community could have murdered a child beloved by the whole village?

Delhi-based author and journalist Roy has delivered a novel that is on the one hand a wholly satisfying murder mystery, but which also employs the village of Teetarpur as a kind of India-in-microcosm. “Are India’s girls ever safe?” inquires a journalist prying into Chand’s grief as Roy establishes one strand of the novel’s investigation; another is concerned with the persecution of the simple-minded Mansoor Khan, and the mob justice that swiftly escalates the simmering Hindu-Muslim tension into a violent ethnic cleansing. A powerful, immersive and unsentimental novel of modern India, Black River establishes Nilanjana Roy as a crime novelist with which to be reckoned.

Having made her reputation with a series of psychological thrillers set in Northern Ireland, and later moved into stand-alone titles closer in tone to domestic noir, Claire McGowan changes direction yet again with Let Me In (Thomas & Mercer, £4.99). Helen is a self-confessed “control freak” who nevertheless allows her husband George to buy a new house in Cornwall sight-unseen, and immediately regrets her decision when they arrive in the village of Little Hollow – not only is the old Tresallick house a rundown wreck, it was also the home of triple murderer Janna Edwards, whose reputation as a witch contributed to her notoriety when she was convicted of killing a man and two young children in 1986.


Helen doesn’t believe in witchcraft, of course, but soon bizarre events have her questioning her convictions, George’s motivation in buying the house, and the guilt (or otherwise) of Janna Edwards. A knotty, twisty tale told from a number of perspectives ensures that this blend of the supernatural and the classic mystery yarn unfolds at a cracking pace, although its strongest suit is McGowan’s brilliant evocation of a darkly brooding Cornwall and its potential for yielding up plausibly sinister suspects.

Jake Lamar’s Viper’s Dream (No Exit Press, £9.99) opens in Harlem in 1961 with Clyde Viper Morton in a pensive mood. A dealer in weed, a muse to Harlem’s jazzmen, Viper is a failed musician. “But he figured if he couldn’t make music himself, he’d help those who could by supplying them with some of the inspiration they needed, the elixir of creativity.” Holed up in the wake of “his third kill”, although “this was the first time had regretted it,” Viper spools through the key events of his life, trying to figure out how it all might have worked out differently, or if he was always fated to end up this way.

The investigator who investigates himself isn’t an especially new departure, but Lamar employs the trick of situating Viper in parallel with the radical new jazz that the character personifies as Viper departs Alabama in 1936 and establishes himself in Harlem as “a shakedown gorilla” just before bebop explodes. Himself a disrupter and innovator, Viper thrives in the anarchy and creativity which he facilitates and exploits until heroin arrives to lay waste to a generation of jazz musicians. More a noir testimonial than a crime novel, Viper’s Dream is a superbly detailed account of the era when Harlem birthed cool.

“The crimes of Savannah ... They’re all just the sickest crime stories you can imagine,” a historian tells Jaq Musgrave in George Dawes Green’s The Kingdoms of Savannah (Headline, £10.99). An Edgar Award winner for his debut novel The Caveman’s Valentine (2006), Dawes Green leans into Savannah’s history for his latest offering, which revolves around the death of a homeless man, Luke Kitchen, whose body is discovered in a burned building. Was Luke an unintended victim of arson committed by the reviled property developer Archie Guzman for the purpose of insurance fraud? Or is Guzman being framed in order to divert attention away from the real reason for Luke’s murder?

Morgana Musgrave, a Savannah socialite and a devotee of Flannery O’Connor, sets out to investigate via her dead husband’s private investigation agency, drawing her reluctant family members – her niece, the film-maker Jaq, her lawyer-turned-hobo son Ransom, and her sister Willou, a judge – into an unconventional investigation that peels back the layers of a Savannah that was built on slavery and has at its heart “an American Masada”. Dawes Green is perhaps a little too fond of celebrating the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Savannah’s self-appointed moral guardians at the expense of narrative realism, but otherwise, The Kingdoms of Savannah is a powerful, poetic dive into the dark truth of Southern history.

After a critically acclaimed run of four Dublin-set police procedurals featuring DCS Frankie Sheehan, Olivia Kiernan delivers a stand-alone psychological thriller with The End of Us (Riverrun, £16.99), which opens in the well-heeled environs of Wimbledon Village, where Myles Butler, a prosperous GP, and his wife Lana, a psychiatrist, live in the gated community of Belvedere Court.

Alas for Myles, a series of ill-advised investments means that his picture-perfect world is teetering on the brink of ruin; under no illusions as to Lana’s desire to be maintained in the style to which she has always been accustomed, Myles has become a desperate man. And so, when new neighbours Holly and Gabe start talking about the perfect insurance-fraud murder at a dinner party, Myles finds himself taking them more seriously than any reasonable man should.

A comparison with Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train is inevitable but well earned, and especially when the dogged detective Hunter arrives to haunt Myles and cause him to second-guess his every move, but the comparison doesn’t end with the mechanics of plot. Kiernan burrows deeply under the skin of Myles Butler, a self-entitled social climber who is by any measure a reprehensible human being, and yet still manages to elicit our sympathy – as Highsmith always did for her anti-heroes, and most notably with Tom Ripley – for his self-created plight as he plunges deeper and deeper into a moral morass.

It’s not easy for an author to step out of the comfort zone of writing an established series character, but with The End of Us, Olivia Kieran has delivered a stand-alone of style and substance.

Declan Burke’s latest novel is The Lammisters (No Alibis Press)

Declan Burke

Declan Burke

Declan Burke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic