I was listening last night to an edition of Radio 4’s Front Row about the positive influence of immersing yourself in reading fiction if you are plagued by forms of mental ill health. Well, the same holds true for me when I am physically unwell and so this past week, when I have had a really bad flare-up of a chronic complaint, I have simply buried myself in three recently published crime novels and spent time in their fictional worlds as a way of escaping my own.
The first was Helen Fields most recent instalment in her Edinburgh based series featuring DI Luc Callanach and DCI Ava Turner, Perfect Silence. It is a particularly gruesome tale in which successive murder victims, all young women whose lives have, in one way or another, fallen apart, are found with the silhouette of a doll carved into their skin. If this isn’t stomach churning enough, the skin thus harvested then begins to turn up formed into the shape of a doll and left in a location relevant to the next victim.
Previous novels in this series have tended to focus more on Luc, but I felt that this was Ava’s story, which somehow seemed the right progression. Luc, who has come to Edinburgh after a tortuous personal history while serving with Interpol, has finally begun to find his feet in the Scottish force and it seemed appropriate in this, the fourth novel in the series, that he and his colleagues have become comfortable enough with his presence that the author could turn the main focus of her attention elsewhere. I also felt that Fields toned down the sharper edges of some of her other recurring characters who might occasionally have stepped a little near the line of caricature, and made them more realistic. Even DS Lively and the dreaded Detective Superintendent Overbeck seem more believable as serving police officers.
I discovered Sarah Ward’s Derbyshire based DC Connie Childs books three Christmases ago and have read each successive novel pretty much as soon as it was available. She has a remarkable skill of being able to convey the psychological truth of what is happening to each of her characters, often at the expense of the stereotypical expectations of the world in general. In The Shrouded Path, also the fourth in the series, she skilfully juxtaposes two time periods, the present day and November 1957, as Connie and her boss, DI Francis Sadler, are forced to open an investigation into a number of apparently natural deaths when a seriously ill woman, who has never before mentioned her childhood, feverishly asks her daughter to find a particular friend. What comes to light is a story of teenage spitefulness, only too readily believable, which culminated in the mental scarring of more than one young mind and then ultimately leads to cunningly concealed murder more than five decades on.
I think Ward just gets better with each book. There is nothing salacious or outstandingly gory about her work and I find her depiction of the police force as a working unit more believable than almost any other writer in the genre. As I say, it is her ability to portray the psychological truth of whoever and whatever she is writing about which makes her novels stand out in the memory. If you haven’t read her then you have four remarkable books to look forward to.
And then there was the latest Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling) publication, Lethal White. My goodness can that woman tell a story. 600+ pages, it kept me completely engrossed for almost two days solid. I have seen various press reviews which have likened it in scope to a great Victorian novel and I would have to agree as characters of all strata of society are brought together in a plot which encompasses murder, blackmail and political intrigue, not to mention the tortured personal complications for the two main protagonists, Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, brought about by Robin’s failure to act on her impulse, three or four days into her marriage to the creepy little Matthew, to tell her new husband precisely where he can put himself. Like many a Victorian heroine, Robin can be just too nice for her own good.
One of the things I like most about these novels is the glimpses we get of Strike’s peculiar childhood and the families it brought him into contact with. One such family, the Chiswells, (pronounced Chizzle, about as Dickensian as you can get) is at the heart of this particular story. Long standing members of the Tory upper classes, they are now reduced to penury (i.e, they can no longer afford the upkeep of the London home, the country estate, the nine horses etc) and further disaster threatens in the shape of the Socialist Worker son of the old family retainer who knows their deepest and most shameful secrets. Cormoran and Robin are dragged into this both by the appearance of the mentally troubled Billy, who turns up in the office one day asking for help in investigating a killing he believes he witnessed as a child and by the Chizzle Pater Familias, who wants his blackmailers caught before his political career goes completely to pot. Murder mystery though it is, it is all great fun and just the thing to help you get through a couple of days when life is getting you down, even if only because the descriptions of the pain Strike undergoes as a result of his ill-fitting prosthesis make anything you are suffering seem slight by comparison.