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August’s best new crime fiction: The Second Murderer, The Villa, The Art Thief, Yellowface, A Line in the Sand

New books from Denise Mina, Rachel Hawkins, Stéphane Breitwieser, Rebecca F Kuang and Kevin Powers

Fans of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer may want to look away now because Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is the iconic private eye. Denise Mina is the latest author – following Robert B. Parker and Benjamin Black, among others – to write a Philip Marlowe novel. The Second Murderer (Harvill Secker, £18.99) opens with a nod to The Big Sleep as Marlowe is summoned to the Beverly Hills mansion of the dying Chadwick Montgomery and commissioned to discover the whereabouts of Montgomery’s missing daughter, Christine. There are a number of wrinkles, though: Chadwick Montgomery is a vicious bully and Christine isn’t missing – she left of her own accord.

Complicating matters further is the fact that Montgomery has hired another private eye, Anne Riordan, who isn’t just a rival for Marlowe’s business “who once held him at gunpoint” but the woman who might just force Marlowe to acknowledge that he has finally met his match, personally and professionally. The Shakespeare-inspired title alludes to those “dregs of conscience” that have always been Marlowe’s raison d’etre but The Second Murderer expands Marlowe’s purview. He might ironically describe himself as “a romantic, a rescuer of dames” but, this time, the knight errant is confronted with the brutal truth of violence against women. “When you look like me,” says Annelise Lyle, who is employed as Chadwick Montgomery’s private secretary and punching bag, “everybody wants to hit and hurt you.”

The labyrinthine plot also incorporates art fraud and the Nazi persecution of Jews and offers a very bleak view of the City of Angels: “Freight trains from all over America delivered fruit and flowers and flour and milk and all the lost men, cut loose, men and women and children chewed up and spewed out by the Depression. It was the final stop for the terminally confused and hopeless. They got here and found there was nowhere left to run.” Deliciously cynical, The Second Murderer pulls no punches. If you’ve never read Raymond Chandler, this is a very good place to start.

Rachel Hawkins’s The Villa (Headline, £9.99) proceeds along parallel timelines. Emily is a failing mystery writer in the throes of divorce proceedings who leaps at the opportunity of a six-week holiday in Italy with her best friend, Chess, who is a wildly successful lifestyle guru and the author of best-selling self-help books. Once settled at the Villa Aestas in Orvieto, the blocked Emily finds inspiration in a true crime tragedy – “one of rock music’s biggest scandals” – that took place in 1974, a story recounted by Mari Godwick, who would afterwards transmute the raw material of her witness testimony into a classic horror novel, Lilith Rising.


What follows is a compulsively readable, multifaceted story that employs twin narrators, podcast broadcasts, excerpts from Lilith Rising and snippets from biographies of Mari Godwick to uncover the truth of what really happened at the Villa Aestas in 1974 but also explores the extent to which female creativity is suppressed at source by men who view women as – at best – “muses” to be tolerated for their usefulness once the lights go out.

“The story of art,” argues Stéphane Breitwieser, citing Napoleon, the Elgin Marbles and many other examples, “is a story of stealing.” You might not have heard of Breitwieser but he is “perhaps the most successful and prolific art thief who has ever lived”. What makes Michael Finkel’s true crime account The Art Thief (Simon & Schuster, £16.99) such a gloriously readable book, however, is that Breitwieser – “an unemployed freeloader” – is an aesthete who stole not for profit but because he believed museums were “prisons for art” and who stored his artefacts in the attic bedroom of the modest house in Mulhouse in eastern France that he shared with his partner, Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus – a collection amassed from the museums of eight different countries that “has been estimated by art journalists to be worth as much as two billion dollars”. It’s an extraordinary story about two otherwise ordinary people and Finkel makes the most of his material, blending the tension of their ostensibly prosaic heists into an exploration of Breitwieser’s monomaniac and quasi-sacrilegious abuse of the public trust.

“If publishing is rigged,” says failing novelist June Hayward in Rebecca F Kuang’s Yellowface (The Borough Press, £16.99), “you might as well make sure it’s rigged in your favour.” That’s June’s justification for stealing Athena Liu’s manuscript The Last Front and passing it off as her own after Athena – June’s college friend and America’s literary darling – chokes to death on a pancake at the height of her fame. The twist is that The Last Front is concerned with the plight of expendable Chinese “coolies” drafted to serve in the trenches of WWI, which obliges June to don the “yellowface” of the title in order to plausibly carry off the crime of stealing a dead woman’s story and to afterwards refute the inevitable allegations of cultural appropriation. The twist-twist is that the Chinese-born Rebecca F Kuang employs “brown-eyed, brown-haired June Hayward, from Philly” as a narrator who rails against publishing’s belated celebration of diversity as she seeks to defy “outdated preconceptions about who can write what”. The result is such a deliciously savage satire on contemporary publishing that it really should come with a sticker warning off aspiring authors.

Kevin Powers’s A Line in the Sand (Sceptre, £18.99) opens in Norfolk, Virginia, with Arman Bajalan discovering a dead body on the beach. Detective Catherine Wheel quickly establishes that the dead man is ex-Australian Special Forces and that Arman, a Kurd, served as an interpreter for the United States Army during the Iraq War before being forced to flee after he was branded a collaborator. Is there a connection between the two men? And is Arman now being targeted by the killers because he is a witness to murder or are there motives even more sinister in play?

Powers’s debut novel The Yellow Birds drew on his experience of serving with the US Army in Mosul in 2004 and 2005 and while A Line in the Sand is set for the most part in Virginia, it has its roots in a massacre that took place at Mosul University in 2004 when a squad of private military contractors opened fire indiscriminately on a crowd peacefully protesting their presence. A slow-burning thriller punctuated with understated violence, the novel shifts seamlessly from squalid motels to congressional hearings as Detective Wheel gradually realises that there are billions of dollars in “war start-ups” at stake. Powerful, cynical and, on occasion, unexpectedly tender in its depiction of grief, A Line in the Sand is one of the best crime novels of the year to date.

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

Declan Burke

Declan Burke

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