Mark Lawson on this month’s best crime fiction
Fittingly, there are two new thrillers about doppelgängers, although, proving the adaptability of plot lines about worrying doubles, the only other way in which they resemble each other is quality.
Bellevue Square (No Exit Press, 288pp, £8.99) won a big prize and large praise in Canada, where its author, Michael Redhill, has been an admired writer for some time. The enterprising publisher No Exit Press hopes that this book will establish him in Britain, and it deserves to.
Jean, the owner of an upmarket Toronto bookstore, starts having wrong-footing conversations with customers and friends who claim to have been ignored by her, or seen her acting out of character. Although we never receive a full inventory of Jean’s shelves, they seem likely to include Poe’s story “William Wilson” and possibly even ETA Hoffman’s Die Doppelgänger, the 19th-century stories that popularised the idea of doubling in crime fiction. She would surely be able to sell us a copy of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, although it probably doesn’t count as plot-spoiling 132 years after publication to say that Stevenson’s tale is a departure from the Poe and Hoffman model, as “the other” is both part of, and physically opposite to, the original model.
But knowledge of the previous literature leads both Jean and us to rapidly calculate the possible explanations of someone else repeatedly being mistaken for her. Does the double have causes that are cosmetic, genetic, supernatural or even metaphysical, as Jean reflects that “We have no idea what other lives we might have led”? Perhaps she is, like Jekyll, somehow generating the second presence herself. References to the current president of Canada’s North American neighbour suggest a wider reflection on the difficulty of establishing the truth in a world of “alternative facts”.
Redhill keeps the multiple possibilities skilfully in play for as long as possible, and plants early on the risk that Jean 2 may have criminal consequences for Jean 1. The novel is especially blessed with strong supporting characters, including Jean’s sister – who, neatly, is extremely unlike her – and a husband who has to adjust to never knowing, in a way far beyond conventional domestic mistrust, where his wife might have been. This is a smart, intriguing novel from a writer with many gifts.
It is a compliment that can be doubled for another summer release featuring a mystery second woman: The Other Wife (Sphere, 400pp, £19.99). This is Sydney-based Michael Robotham’s ninth novel involving Professor Joe O’Loughlin, an academic whose accumulation of character baggage by now includes a dead wife and worsening Parkinson’s disease.
Within a few pages of the new book, Joe also gains a father in intensive care – after an apparent violent attack in London – and a possible bigamous stepmother, as, visiting his dad on the critical ward, he finds there Olivia Blackmore, who claims to be married to the stricken professor. This comes as a surprise to Joe and his siblings, although, in one of the story’s numerous satisfying thickenings, perhaps less so to their mother.
President Trump has proudly boasted of never reading novels, which is probably a good thing as he might start to wonder why so many current novels concern deceit, delusion and competing truths. This is among the most subtle and gripping.
The 32nd thriller from Val McDermid, Broken Ground (Little, Brown, 432pp, £16.99), also has a double focus, though of plot rather than people, with the beginning moving between two apparently separate strands.
Edinburgh DCI Karen Pirie, in her fifth outing from McDermid’s stable of various investigators, is running a Historic Cases Unit which has taken on serial rapes from 1986, now possibly solvable by advances in DNA analysis. Interleaved with her team’s search for the owner of a red Rover 214 that has come under prime suspicion, comes a sort of private Antiques Roadshow sub-plot of a young woman called Alice seeking a “treasure” that her grandfather claims to have been buried in the Scottish Highlands in 1944. When Karen’s car hunt takes her close to the location of the other storyline, confidence in McDermid’s careful plotting leads us to expect that a find at the treasure site will lead to DCI Pirie being diverted to the wilds and inheriting a second cold case.
That duly – and rewardingly – happens. As in the Rebus books of Ian Rankin – to which the Pirie novels can feel a cross-gender companion – there is the pleasure of being in the hands of a meticulous practitioner, who knows that readers will be guessing how the cases overlap and delights in out-guessing us. Scottish landscape is described in loving detail and the emotions of the characters – especially past grief or guilt – feel very real.
A small concern is that McDermid’s reference to real Highlands eateries and hotels, complete with testimonials from characters (“They’re good here. Very reliable,”) hovers uneasily above the line between geographical realism and product placement. But, were the hotels to return the compliment by leaving Broken Ground on each bedside table, the customers would be lucky indeed.