Books

A new King of Thrillers and Queen of Crime

Frank Gardner was seriously injured in an attack by al-Qaeda sympathisers

Mark Lawson picks the best of this month’s crime fiction

Unlike other crowns, succession to the title Queen of Crime (bestowed at various times on Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith, PD James and Ruth Rendell) is, ironically, not decided by blood, but by acclaim and achievement. By which measure, certainly one of those rising through the ranks is Sabine Durrant who, along with Sophie Hannah and Belinda Bauer, has continued the Highsmith-Rendell tradition of psychological mysteries.

Durrant follows her tremendous 2016 novel Lie With Me, in which a man who had been offered a free summer holiday with friends stumbles into a modern Greek tragedy, with the equally impressive Take Me In (Mulholland Books, 352pp, £12.99).

Suggesting that the writer is fashioning a new mystery category of sunshine breaks gone wrong, her latest story begins on a Greek island. Marcus and Tessa, smugly successful in the 21st-century growth industries of PR and crisis management, are on the beach with their young son Josh when, through separate moments of inattention, the child almost drowns, but is saved by Dave Jepsom, a nearby British tourist.

In fiction, Good Samaritans are often bad news, and Durrant rewardingly keeps us guessing about just how cuckoo Dave might be, while her use of chapters alternately narrated by Tessa and Marcus adds the complicating possibility that one or both of them may not be seeing the whole picture.

Although the characters are all non-denominational, Take Me In – its title as slyly double-meaning as the earlier Lie With Me – feels a very Catholic novel. Issues of guilt – not restricted to the parents’ seaside child-minding – drive and shape the narrative.

The couple clearly owe Dave something, but how much? As the narrative switches to their public and private lives in London, they struggle with the question of when their gratitude to Dave for Josh’s salvation is discharged. The book is very good at the textures of modern middle-class life. Durrant’s stories of dangerous vacations are an ideal summer holiday read.

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Although there’s no official title of King of International Thrillers, publishers are searching for heirs to Frederick Forsyth and Gerald Seymour. A deserving inheritor of their mantles is Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent. Like Forsyth and Seymour, he uses landscapes and conflicts experienced as a journalist as a background for fiction that, the reader suspects, also smuggles in information that couldn’t be broadcast or printed.

Gardner’s smart 2016 debut, Crisis, introduced Luke Carlton, a former SAS soldier turned MI6 agent. The sequel, Ultimatum (Bantam, 400pp, £12.99), is triggered by the discovery of a secret Iranian nuclear programme, which the British government seeks to thwart first through covert means, and then, when that approach implodes, through public diplomacy. The latter tactic also encounters catastrophe in ways that, it can be said without plot-spoiling, would make the novel particularly uncomfortable reading for Boris Johnson.

Gardner’s prose has a satisfying casual knowledgeability, as when Luke tracks a contact “on his encrypted Service phone using the Atlas app, which worked pretty much like Google Maps but without giving away your location to someone you didn’t want to know it”. But the books also have unusual emotional authenticity; scenes in which Luke fights for his life come – as we know from Blood and Sand, Gardner’s memoir of near-death at the hands of Islamist terrorists in 2004 – from a writer who doesn’t have to imagine terrible peril.

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By coincidence, a high-level British visit to a troubled country is also the plot line of the third in Abir Mukherjee’s classy series featuring Captain Sam Wyndham, a Scotland Yard detective seconded to the Imperial Police Force in Calcutta during the fight for Indian independence.

This instalment, Smoke and Ashes (Harvill Secker, 352pp, £12.99), reaches 1921, when Wyndham and his native assistant, Sgt Banerjee, are policing, with help from Military Intelligence, a visit from Edward, Prince of Wales, miscalculated by the UK government as a way of pacifying the disaffected. Both author and readers have fun with the knowledge that the royal visitor will subsequently almost destroy the British monarchy by abdicating.

Another knowing nod is that Wyndham, like Sherlock Holmes, has a drug addiction, which takes him to the opium den where the first body is discovered. The effect on Wyndham of his recent trench experiences – and the reaction of Banerjee’s family to the side he has chosen – are also well deployed in a book that thoughtfully explores, through an historical parallel, subjects – racism, terrorism, independence – with high contemporary currency.

Like Durrant and Gardner, Mukherjee is extending an English language crime-fiction tradition, but, in this case, with a fitting twist of historical redress. Whereas once it was a white Englishman, HRF Keating, who wrote about Inspector Ghote of the Bombay Police, now the nightstick has passed to British-Indian writers such as Mukherjee and Vaseem Khan’s Baby Ganesh Agency novels. In all these genres, a smooth succession feels assured.