The best recent crime and thrillers – review roundup


Show caption Changing landscape… a ‘comprehensive development area’ in the Gorbals, Glasgow, 1970s. Photograph: UrbanImages/Alamy Crime and thrillers roundup The best recent crime and thrillers – review roundup 1979 by Val McDermid; A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris; The Turnout by Megan Abbott; Of Fangs and Talons by Nicolas Mathieu; 56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard; and These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall Laura Wilson Fri 20 Aug 2021 12.00 BST Share on Facebook

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The protagonist of Val McDermid’s latest novel, 1979 (Sphere, £20), is, as her creator once was, an ambitious young reporter. The action takes place in Glasgow during the runup to that year’s referendum on Scottish devolution. Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces album has just hit the shops, taxes are vertiginously high, and sexism and homophobia are rife: Allie, the only woman on the news desk at the Clarion, has to prove her worth every step of the way and, unsurprisingly, her attitude is combative. Collaborating with colleague Danny Sullivan – a man facing his own personal issues – she first exposes an illegal tax evasion scheme and then infiltrates a small group who are determined to bring the cause of Scottish independence to greater public attention by using IRA tactics. McDermid is at her considerable best here, raising the stakes ever higher and conjuring the atmosphere of the newsroom so strongly that the cigarette smoke will have you coughing. The good news is that this excellent novel marks the start of a new series.

Another member of the crime fiction first family drawing on past experience is former teacher Joanne Harris, whose latest novel, A Narrow Door (Orion, £20), is the third to be set at the ill-fated St Oswald’s school. After human remains are discovered during building work, elderly Latin teacher Roy Straitley and new head teacher Rebecca Buckfast pass the narrative baton between them, gradually revealing 35 years’ worth of secrets in this beguiling and unsettling book about deception, lies, expediency and the stories we create in order to survive.

More secrets are revealed in a school of a different sort in US author Megan Abbott’s latest tour de force, The Turnout (Virago, £14.99). Sisters Dara and Marie Durant have been running the family’s ballet academy since the accidental death of their parents, along with Charlie, a former star pupil who became a surrogate sibling long before marrying Dara. This tight-knit, finely balanced unit is threatened when a fire at the school necessitates the arrival of building contractor Derek, whose uncouth physicality in the world of pink tutus and thistledown lightness soon becomes both arousing and disturbing as he invades the trio’s space in more ways than one. Abbott captures the blood, sweat, tears and rivalries behind the apparently effortless grace, to create a contorted and febrile world where pain is “our friend, our lover” and the feeling of menace grows stronger with every page.

Of Fangs and Talons (Sceptre, £16.99, translated by Sam Taylor), the debut novel from the 2018 Prix Goncourt winner Nicolas Mathieu, was feted in the author’s native France, where it has been made into a TV series. There are several intersecting stories in this bleakly uncompromising portrait of working-class life in the Vosges, where a factory that employs most of a small town is scheduled for closure. Martel and Bruce, desperate for money, agree to kidnap two sex workers for some gangsters, but the plan goes wrong. Rita unwittingly becomes involved when an almost naked young woman runs out of the forest in front of her car, and teenager Jordan has problems of his own … The multiple narrators and unsignalled time-shifts may be confusing, at least initially, but this tale of helpless, resentful people with nothing to lose is powerful and compelling.

Irish writer Catherine Ryan Howard’s latest novel, the brilliantly creepy 56 Days (Corvus, £14.99), is set in Dublin at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Oliver and Ciara, whose relationship begins with a meet-cute in a supermarket, decide that she should move into his smart flat on the eve of the first lockdown. We know from the start that this didn’t end well – the gardaí are investigating a decomposing body discovered in the bathroom – and over the next 400 pages of expertly drip-fed information and misdirection, we discover why. Both parties have something to hide, and there’s plenty of suspense in this wonderfully atmospheric and paranoid psychological thriller, which uses the strange and alarming transition to the “new normal” of masks and restrictions to great effect.

As a creator of digital scrapbooks, 24-year-old Mickie Lambert, protagonist of New York Times bestseller Rachel Howzell Hall’s These Toxic Things (Thomas & Mercer, £17.99), spends her days curating other people’s past lives. Her latest assignment is to create a “mega-memory package”, using various souvenirs of sentimental value, for Nadia Denham, the elderly owner of a curio shop in a down-at-heel California mall who has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The precious objects, all of which appear to have originally belonged to women who Nadia has helped in some way, may not be exactly what they seem. And it’s not just at work that there are mysteries to be solved: Mickie has been getting creepy anonymous messages and fears there’s something strange going on at home. Tense and pacey, with an appealing central character, this is a coming-of-age story as well as a gripping mystery.