There’s more to Scandinavian crime fiction than Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. THE SNOWMAN (Harvill Secker, £12.99, pb), the seventh in Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole series to be translated into English, finds the laconic police inspector Hole investigating what appears to be the work of a serial killer who targets women, whose deaths are marked by the mysterious appearance of a snowman. Hole’s hard-bitten, hard-drinking and self-loathing mannerisms are the very stuff of stock characterisation, but Nesbø is fully aware of the genre’s conventions and is most enjoyably readable when subverting them. Needle-sharp dialogue and a vividly detailed depiction of Oslo and its hinterlands are bonuses, as is Hole’s rueful awareness of his limitations.
Anne Zouroudi’s THE LADY OF SORROWS (Bloomsbury Publishing, £12.99, pb) is the fourth novel to feature Hermes Diaktoros, aka ‘the Fat Man’, a gentleman detective with apparently limitless resources. Set in Greece some decades ago, the novel finds Hermes investigating the famous ikon of Kalmos, which may or may not be a fake, depending on whether one’s religious faith can be measured in drachmae. Fans of more hardboiled fare might be disappointed by the lack of blood and gore; Diaktoros is a detective very much in the vein of Miss Marple, and tone and pace are equally gentle. Where Zouroudi scores, however, is in her lovingly detailed descriptions of Greek island landscapes.
The Roman detective Falco returns in Lindsey Davis’s NEMESIS(Century, £18.99, hb), the twentieth in a series that turns a sardonic eye on the foibles of ancient Rome. Falco’s old foe Anacrites, a Praetorium spy, plays the foil here, as Falco investigates a series of murders connected to a gang of freed slaves. As always, Davis’s cutting wit and Chandleresque observations are as much a pleasure as the page-turning quality of the tale, as she blows the dust off historical Rome with considerable glee. Also published by Century is FALCO: THE OFFICIAL COMPANION (£19.99, hb), in which Davis fleshes out the backdrop to each of the Falco novels.
From historical Rome to mythical Ireland: REQUIEMS FOR THE DEPARTED (Morrigan Books, £8.99, pb), edited by Gerard Brennan and Mike Stone, is a compilation of modern crime stories derived from Irish myth and legend. Queen Mhaca (Arlene Hunt and Stuart Neville), the Banshee (Ken Bruen), the Children of Lir (Neville Thompson) and Cuchulainn (Tony Black) are among the legends mined for inspiration in a collection that is uneven in tone but never less than challenging in its ability to draw parallels between contemporary criminality and its pre-historical origins. Adrian McKinty’s ‘Diarmuid and Grainne’ and Brian McGilloway’s ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ are the pick of the bunch.
Another unusual Irish offering comes from Robert Fannin, whose FALLING SLOWLY (Hachette Ireland, £12.99, pb) is a Kafkaesque tale set in Bristol. Devastated when he arrives home one lunchtime to discover that his girlfriend has committed suicide, Desmond Doyle is further shocked to learn that Detective Inspector Harry Kneebone is determined to prove that Doyle was responsible for her murder. As his life starts to fall apart, and Doyle ‘falls slowly’ in a downward spiral, he begins to question his own sanity - and whether he is, in fact, his girlfriend’s killer. A tautly plotted tale, this quickly belies its languid pace and philosophical musings to become a compelling, cerebral thriller.
In THE WINGS OF THE SPHINX (Mantle, £14.99, pb), Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano negotiates the labyrinthine social strata of Sicily as he pursues the killer of a young woman who can only be identified by a butterfly tattoo, the ‘sphinx’ of the title. Montalbano’s 11th outing has some of the qualities of a soap opera, as the tribulations of the inspector’s love life are as integral to the narrative as his professional duties, during which he uncovers human trafficking into Sicily conducted by a rather surprising cabal. Deftly plotted but sedately paced, the story suffers from a lack of urgency, particularly as the most terrifying danger the inspector encounters is the threat of his favourite restaurant having to go without fresh fish for the duration.
John Grisham’s latest offering, THEODORE BOONE (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99, hb), is yet another legal thriller from the bestselling master of the courtroom drama, but the twist here is that the eponymous hero is a 13-year-old ‘lawyer’. The precocious offspring of two lawyer parents, Theodore ‘represents’ his peers in legal issues - for example, talking his best friend April through the legalities of her parents’ divorce. When he is approached by a fellow teenager with an insight into a murder case currently being tried, however, Theodore quickly finds himself out of his depth. Reminiscent at times of To Kill a Mockingbird in the way it offers a child’s-eye view of the legal niceties of the adult world, the novel has a direct, unaffected tone that gives Theodore’s plight an unexpectedly poignant twist. By the same token, the plot’s lack of conflict - Theodore is universally admired by young and old, for example - makes for a frustratingly simplistic narrative.
Far more complex and challenging is Maureen Gibbon’s THIEF (Atlantic Books, £12.99, hb), in which Suzanne, a teacher who was raped as a 16-year-old, strikes up a relationship with Alpha Breville, a convict serving prison time for rape. Gibbon, who was herself raped as a teenager, offers no simple solutions to the scenario she devises for Suzanne: THIEF does not deliver the polemic, panacea or ersatz catharsis of the conventional crime novel. It is, however, a fascinating insight into one woman’s journey to come to terms with an horrific crime many years after the event. Despite its quietly elegiac tone, and Gibbon’s frequent philosophical digressions, THIEF is a riveting page-turner that is as uplifting as it is harrowing. - Declan Burke
This article first appeared in The Irish Times