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Crime fiction: from Slough House origin myth to Stephen King’s Mr Mercedes spin-off

New novels by Mick Herron, Stella Blómkvist, Stephen King, Victoria Selman and Richard Osman

Deborah Ford-Lodge, an “espionage novelist” appointed to the Monochrome inquiry around which Mick Herron’s The Secret Hours (Baskerville, £22) revolves, is “pegged by some as the heir to le Carré – one of an admittedly long list of legatees”. First among equals in that list of legatees is Herron himself, of course, whose series of Slough House novels featuring the spymaster Jackson Lamb are set in contemporary Britain. The Secret Hours, however, is billed as a stand-alone title, a post-cold war novel about “the sins of a different era, dragged into the light, and served up with enough spook glamour to keep everyone happy”. But as the story moves between modern London and an MI5 doing its best to thwart a vengeful prime minister bent on spiking its guns to a 1990s Berlin still coming to terms with the fall of the Wall, it quickly becomes clear that this isn’t really a stand-alone title at all, but more an origin myth for the Slough House personae that features a number of minor characters from Herron’s previous novels, including John Bachelor, David Cartwright and Dickie Bow (along with other more familiar faces, even if names have been changed to protect the guilty). Herron’s themes remain reassuringly the same – the internecine war being fought between the various departments tasked with Britain’s security against a backdrop of post-Brexit chaos and the ongoing privatisation of British intelligence – as does his sly, dry wit (“It had a pre-war air, as if the affair had been scripted by Somerset Maugham, or, at a pinch, Graham Greene”), and the result is a deliciously cynical comedy of manners that is probably Herron’s most mature spy novel to date.

Murder at the Residence – the first Stella Blómkvist novel to be translated into English, by Quentin Bates – is a bracing addition to the ranks of Scandi-Noir

Set in 2008, Stella Blómkvist’s Murder at the Residence (Corylus, £8.99) features “the bank job of the millennium”, although the heist is carried off by legally protected bankers rather than balaclava-wearing criminals (“It’s been three years since a syndicate of financial criminals and political gangsters flushed the economic wellbeing of our Icelandic nation down the toilet”). With Iceland still reeling from its catastrophic crash, politically connected financier Benedikt Björgúlfsson is discovered beaten to death near the presidential residence at Bessastaðir; but when the police immediately identify the killer as a local drug addict, the hard-nosed lawyer Stella Blómkvist scents a cover-up. “Stella Blómkvist” – no one in Iceland seems to know who the author really is – has published 13 titles about the maverick lawyer/private detective Stella Blómkvist since 1997, and the character’s appeal will be evident to fans of hard-boiled private eye fiction: indefatigable in her pursuit of justice for all, the hard-drinking Stella is a knight errant to be reckoned with as she criss-crosses Iceland in her “silver steed” investigating financial chicanery, political corruption and sex trafficking. Unapologetically self-aggrandising, Stella knows her worth to those who cannot afford the conventional route to justice, and Murder at the Residence – the first Stella Blómkvist novel to be translated into English, by Quentin Bates – is a bracing addition to the ranks of Scandi-Noir.

Holly Gibney, something of a mousy recluse when she first appeared in Stephen King’s Mr Mercedes (2014), has since taken centre stage as a principled private eye after she inherited the detective agency established by her former mentor, the retired cop Bill Hodges. Holly has already faced down a number of demons – some more literal than others – but in Holly (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) she finds herself on the trail of what seems to be a rather prosaic evil when she is commissioned to investigate the whereabouts of the missing Bonnie Rae Dahl. Holly really shouldn’t take on the case, given that the Covid pandemic is still raging, but she badly needs a distraction from her conflicted response to her mother’s recent death. King maintains parallel narratives, so that the reader is aware that Holly is stumbling towards a showdown with a pair of bizarre serial killers, who are – we discover early in the novel – retired university professors with a highly unusual appetite for destruction. King described Mr Mercedes as his first hard-boiled novel, but Holly is more cosy than hard-boiled, and a story in which King has a lot of fun exploring Holly’s literary forebears, who include Harry Bosch and Sherlock Holmes, as you might expect, but also the lesser-spotted Dutch Spyglass and Deputy Dawg.

At its core Victoria Selman’s All the Little Liars is a terrifying tragedy of innocence brutally abused

At the heart of Victoria Selman’s All the Little Liars (Quercus, £14.99) is the simple but heartbreaking realisation that a 13-year-old girl who was abducted and murdered was just “a kid desperate to be accepted”. The story is narrated by Finn Jackman, who was a nine-year-old Californian when her sister Izzy became infamous; now living in London, and having changed her name to Kat, Finn has yet to assuage the guilt she feels about the events of two decades before. The reasons for that guilt are teased out in a kind of thriller version of What Maisie Knew, as the precocious Finn tells us – without really knowing what she’s seeing – about how Izzy fell in with a group of manipulative preteens who are being groomed by their biology teacher, the 29-year-old Ryder Grady. Could Finn have spoken up sooner? Should she have tried so hard to protect Izzy’s privacy? The story is longer than it needs to be – there are a couple of narrative non-sequiturs that feel as if they were inserted to stretch the story – but at its core All the Little Liars is a terrifying tragedy of innocence brutally abused.


The Thursday Murder Club returns in Richard Osman’s The Last Devil to Die (Viking, £22), which is set in the sedate surroundings of Coopers Chase in leafy Kent, where retirees Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron and Ibrahim keep the old grey cells busy by solving murders and keeping the local constabulary on their toes. Naturally, when their friend Kuldesh Sharma, an antiques dealer, is discovered executed in a professional hit, the club take an interest and discover that Kuldesh had recently taken possession of a consignment of heroin worth £100,000. Meanwhile, Mervyn, a new arrival in Coopers Chase, is the subject of “romance fraud”, and is being bilked out of his savings by the alleged Tatiana from Lithuania. It’s all go in Coopers Chase and no mistake, although Elizabeth – ex-MI5, and with a CV “to make Netflix blush” – doesn’t really have the time to devote to the Club this time around, as her beloved husband, Stephen, is rapidly declining into full-blown dementia. Unlikely elements for a crime novel, it’s true, but Richard Osman has a sure touch when it comes to blackly comic cosy crime – his reimagined South Coast is the kind of faintly surreal killers’ playground that might emerge if Carl Hiaasen ever swapped Florida for Kent – and The Last Devil to Die is equal parts gripping, charming, funny and poignant.

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