The serious business of crime

Crime novels satisfy many needs: there’s a puzzle to be solved; good usually (but not always) triumphs over evil; if the location is exotic, that’s a plus — and they’re easy to pick up and whiz through.

Really? Here are three crime novels that take a bit of dedication and concentration, but for very different reasons.

The Silver Swan is the second thriller written by 2005 Booker prizewinner John Banville, writing under the pseudonym he invented for the series. It features Quirke, head of the pathology department at Holy Family Hospital in 1950s Dublin.

For the millions who tried to pick up his award-winning novel, The Sea, and got stuck on lines like, ‘Chloe and I turned our heads simultaneously and, devout as holy drinkers, dipped our faces toward each other until our mouths met”, be assured that Banville, writing as Black, is just as lyrical but less self-indulgent, and by adding a plot to the prose works wonders.

An old medical school acquaintance asks Quirke not to do an autopsy on his wife, who’s been brought in as a suicide. Quirke does one anyway, discovers it’s not a suicide, but lies to protect the fellow. Big mistake — but only one of many Quirke makes throughout the book as his daughter takes up with the victim’s former business partner. Characters wander in from a previous book, Christine Falls, but one need not have read it. It is enough to know that Quirke seems to have put his big feet in it in that book as well and to enjoy Banville/Black’s love of language and image. An example: ‘She faltered into silence. Her voice must have quivered when she said Leslie’s name, for Rose’s attention had snagged on it.”

Peter Hoeg wrote accessible short stories back in the early 1990s, but he has become more obscure as the years have worn on. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow was a bit of a challenge to those who like to follow plots, although it was well worth the effort. One cannot say the same about The Quiet Girl. The protagonist is a clown and a chancer called Kaspar Krone, wanted for tax evasion but with a wonderful gift: not only has he perfect pitch, but he can hear the musical key in which everyone is tuned — the music that defines the individual. He’s especially good with children and can sort out their psychological problems. Some of the children he encounters have gifts as well — for example, making the world stop. Or do they?

There are some truly entertaining passages — Kaspar’s fast-talking escapes from police, tax officials, creditors and a chase scene through the high-tech sewers of Copenhagen. But Hoeg has so mixed up the chapters — perhaps thrown them into the air and seen where they landed — it is virtually impossible to work out the order of the action. A second reading is helpful, but life is too short for that.

Days of Atonement requires concentration for still another reason: it’s a historical thriller, set a year after the defeat of the Prussians by Napoleon’s forces. Hanno Stiffeniis is a magistrate called on to investigate the murder of three children and the disappearance of their mother, the wife of a Prussian soldier stationed in a garrison on the eastern border. A French officer involves himself in the case, making for difficult politics — is Stiffeniis cooperating with the hated French occupier? Only reluctantly. Are there facts Stiffeniis will uncover that must be hidden from the French? Absolutely — starting with what the troops in the garrison are really up to.

Michael Gregorio is a husband-and-wife team of academics (Michael G Jacob and Daniela D Gregorio). Gregorio teaches philosophy, which might be why Immanuel Kant featured in an earlier thriller and is referred to repeatedly in this one, with its somewhat Kantian denouement.

But there’s something to be said for chewing gum for the mind, as long as one doesn’t make a habit of it. Sue Grafton’s 20th novel, T is for Trespass (she’s going through the alphabet), is extremely enjoyable — and even more so for the reader who quit following the exploits of California private eye Kinsey Millhone around about the letter L. In this one her next-door neighbour, an elderly grouch, injures his shoulder in a fall and needs a caregiver to look after him. Enter a woman with a multiplicity of stolen identities and a larcenous — perhaps homicidal — heart. Grafton keeps up the pace while weaving in atmospheric descriptions of down-at-heels California neighbourhoods. She also makes a stirring argument for the power of coincidence. You have been warned.

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Barbara Ludman
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