BookNoir May Crime Round-Up: Independent Presses Part I

Article published on May 30, 2018.

This month’s crime-round up features some of the best Independent press crime thrillers already published. Part II will deal with new novels in early June.

Cross Purpose by Claire MacLeary

Scotland has always been a hotbed of crime writing but several new authors are coming up with some very interesting and original stories that are pushing the boundaries of the genre, helping to keep it fresh. Realistic crime that is very much a product of modern life. In Cross Purpose Maggie Laird is faced with looking after the family single handed when her private eye husband George dies suddenly of a heart attack. She forms a bond with her neighbour, Wilma Benzie, and the two women transform their very ordinary suburban lives by taking over George’s private detective agency. George left the police force under a cloud when a drugs case collapsed, Maggie was instrumental in him not fighting harder to keep his job at the time. Now guilt is driving her to clear his name. She finds out that George had secrets, there is no money and a nasty little man, Gilruth, wants £900 in back rent very soon or ‘something nasty’ might happen. Meanwhile, her teenage son is causing her worries, both children are grieving and the daily bills need paying. When she approaches clients it’s hard to get taken seriously. Also, Willie’s Da is in jail, Fatboy uses the lad to keep his network of drug sales going in Seaton. They take over Kym’s flat. Seventeen-year-old student Lucy Simmons is found dead, raped and assaulted with a makeshift cross. Maggie finds that the conversations she had with her husband about his job don’t equip her for nastier side of the work, but she and Wilma are resourceful.

“In that moment Maggie’s resolve hardened. She’d get justice for George it was the last thing she did.”

There’s a nice mix of the domestic and detective work in this thriller. “Maggie was browning mince in a pan.” How many times will you read that in a detective thriller? Maggie and Wilma are a formidable pair. When Maggie needs support Wilma gives her that reason to keep going. Its an intriguing tale of drugs and murder. All set in Aberdeen’s less salubrious neighbourhoods, particularly around Northfield Towers. A judicious use of dialect gives the story a Highland flavour. MacLeary is a new talent with an interesting take on the buddy partnership. More than a little local granite features in the tale that will have you rooting for Maggie and Wilma. A second outing for the duo, Burnout, was published in March.

**** 9781910192641 Contraband pbk

Quintember by Richard Major

If you don’t like the game being played here, you won’t like this novel. Its a high-brow spoof that manages to hit the humour nail on the head on almost every page. Once you get it you will have a lot of fun. Quintember is a faux-thriller, starring super spy and James Bond role model, Dr. Felix Culpepper, tutor in the classics at St. Wygefortis’ College, a fictional Cambridge college celebrating its quincentennial. When Foreign Secretary Benjy has a “problem” Culpepper is the man he turns to. Culpepper is a fixer, you want a problem to go away, he’s your man; assassinations, information retrieval, mystery solving and making sure secrets remain exactly that (that’s what the Most Especially Secret Safe is for). However, remember I said high-brow, Quintember is a sharp social satire, a comedy of manners, and a platform for debating theological and philosophical issues. Nothing is sacred from being caricatured and many a human pomposity is punctured; politics, heritage, cultural snobbery, literary posturing all get lampooned. Even the name Culpepper is pronounced Culpa (meaning fault in Latin).

As with the best spy stories, and this is a romp through a year in the life of Culpepper that coincides with the college terms, we get the honey trap, stealing secrets from impossible locations, and assassinations. Death-defying adventures in exotic locations, including causing an explosion aboard an Iranian plane before jumping clear with a Rothko under his arm. Which has dire consequences for the pilot; “Tut-tut. It was the pilot’s responsibility. He has already been shot. And his co-pilot.” The Iranian Foreign Minister reports to Benjy when he offers sympathy for the event.

In Soho a young couple are mown down by a Mercedes with barely disguised diplomatic number plates. Apparently they were involved in a fracas at the Déshabillé nightclub on Shaftesbury Avenue. A man tried to grope the woman. The car belongs to that man, the son of the President of Haram, Idris ibn Ali al-Mutlak, and tomorrow he is about to fly home and get away with it because the police don’t have enough evidence to confront him. He’s in Britain to apply for a place at the University of Mid-Pennines, ranked 115 out of 115 in the latest government figures. Benjy asks Culpepper to take care of it so he invites the young man to an interview to read Classics at Cambridge.

Its episodic but the fun never lets up. This being the first volume of the Misdemeanours of Dr Felix Culpepper, I look forward to the second, Parricide.

**** 9781908041418 IndieBooks pbk

The Madonna of Notre Dame by Alexis Ragougneau

This novel really brightened my day. Sharp as a razor, witty and really exciting. Gérard, the Sacristan, is annoyed with the mess the mass priests have left in the sacristy after The Feast of the Assumption. So when a security guard tells him there is a bomb in the Ambulatory he’s more interested in finding his white gloves than clearing the Cathedral, which is rapidly filling up with Monday morning tourists. Everything is not as it seems but you need to find that out for yourself. A while later an American tourist sits down next to a beautiful girl, all in white, praying at the statue of the Virgin of Seven Sorrows. When the woman nudges the girl she crumples to the floor. The fire brigade is called, usual practice for a fainting, but they quickly realise that the girl is dead, the police confirm this and the fact that she has been murdered, strangled in fact. The post mortem reveals some disturbing details. The police soon suspect that the girl has been in the Cathedral all night. The staff offer the excuse that they have 50,000 visitors a day. The caretaker confesses to sleeping in the crypt all night. There are no witnesses to the girl being posed. When security guard Mourad turns up for the afternoon shift, he confirms that he saw the girl in white in the procession outside the Cathedral the day before. A young blond man pulled her from the crowd and attacked her.

“The girl they found this morning, is it her? Is it the girl in white who got attacked yesterday?”

“You’ve got it exactly right, Mourad. You should join the police.”

Luckily for the police, said young man, Thibault, turns up at the confessional the very next day. Case closed, a job well done and the Cathedral can go back to normal. No! Everyone has something to hide.

This is satisfying murder mystery but it’s also a morality tale. Ragougneau has an eye for the darkness in people, their weakness and frailty:

“There was something exciting, sexually, of course, but also morally, about the dead woman in Notre Dame, with her clean little dress and her thighs exposed: a nauseating yet irrepressible feeling he had shared with all the men who’d seen or photographed her throughout the morning, including the priests – of that he was certain.”

The interplay between the witnesses and the cops, a kind of head-butting banter, is very funny. On a more serious note the novel explores faith: In God and humanity, and how this tragic and brutal event affects people. A classic French noir, features portents and fateful events, humour and darkness side by side, pacey action and snappy dialogue. A great read.

***** 9781939931399 New Vessel Press pbk

Killarney Blues by Colin O’Sullivan

This is not a conventional crime novel and for much of the first half of the book it appears to be a tale of small town Irish living, but bear with… The whole town of Killarney seems to be in a funk. Bernard Dunphy is a bit of a dreamer. He’s happiest when he can play his music, he loves American Blues (inherited from his father); not just Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters also Son House and Homesick James (hardcore). Bernard’s mother is ill, and so is his horse, he’s a Jarvey (tourist carriage driver). What weighs on him most is his father’s suicide. Why did he do it? The sins of the past always have ramifications in the present. Its a stormy night as the novel begins and Bernard has been lured into an alley way by Marian Yates’s cousins, on the promise of a message. He gets a good kicking. He’s a stoic character. Later Marian and her two friends are shopping, it something they’re good at. Then they sit in a bar and deconstruct the locals. Jack meets up with Bernard but he hates him, Jack is alive with hatred, his girlfriend Cathy suffers for that. He wants their sex to be like porno. It leaves Cathy confused, numb:

“It’s exactly the way Cathy is beginning to feel about her life. Doesn’t like it all that much. Just gotten used to it. She looks blankly out the window, not really taking anything in.”

An explosion waiting to happen, Jack finally takes it out on a Polish worker. The violence unleashed is disproportionate to the offence caused. What sparked it, what is it that drives Jack’s misanthropy? What does it mean for the town?

Killarney Blues is thoroughly engrossing. While O’Sullivan’s tale builds towards the outburst of  violence the more subtle historical story glides underneath to great effect. There are moments of real wit and a keen appreciation of the life young people lead in a small place with few prospects. It isn’t all doom and gloom but you need to read it to find out how it works out for Bernard and Marian.

**** Betimes Books 9780992655242 pbk.

Paul Burke
May 2018

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