The popularity of the Netflix series House of Cards – at least until the moral defenestration of its star, Kevin Spacey – has re-energised the political conspiracy thriller across all fictional forms. The genre has also been encouraged by the scarcely credible chaos in the actual administrations of Theresa May and Donald Trump.
Well built to ride these waves is Killer Intent (Elliot and Thompson, 391pp, £12.99), a debut novel by Tony Kent, a successful barrister. No dates are given, but the story seems to take place in a near future or alternative present in which a “new wave” of Irish terrorism brings frequent attacks against London. An odd feature of these atrocities is that the capital is, this time, targeted by both nationalist and loyalist paramilitaries. Some readers may twitch at the historical improbability of unionists bombing their beloved motherland, but Kent, it turns out, knows what he is doing.
At the time of these New Troubles, an assassination attempt occurs during a joint visit by a new US president and his predecessor. These American statesmen draw vast, adoring crowds, a detail now striking a slightly sci-fi feel in a book published in the month that President Trump postponed his trip to London, apparently fearing mass protests. More convincingly contemporary is a much-reviled British prime minister presiding over an administration daily vulnerable to votes of no confidence.
The politicians, though, are just a trigger for the investigation of what went wrong in London by Kent’s intriguing protagonist Joe Dempsey, a former army star now with the UK’s “Department of Domestic Security”. Also sniffing around the conspiracy are Michael Devlin, a London lawyer whose childhood in Belfast proves crucial, and Sarah Truman, an American television reporter. Their professional efforts glimpse aspects of the web that lead the spider to come after them.
Kent has learned from Frederick Forsyth (crisply describing what the Cobra meeting room looks like) and Lee Child, but brings to the table a knotty consideration of when and whether violence can be justified. The current centrality of Ireland to British politics – due to Stormont stasis and post-Brexit border issues – makes this sharp story, in which the truth lies in Belfast, as timely as it is lively.
A political assassination attempt also sparks off Savages (Corsair, 246pp, £12.99), the first book in the Saint-Étienne Quartet by the French writer Sabri Louatah. On the day of French presidential elections, Idder Chaouch is tipped to become the nation’s first head of state of Arab descent. But, although he’s known as the “French Obama”, there are slight oddities in some of the last-minute polling, as Chaouch relaxes on voting day with his family, including daughter Jasmine and her boyfriend, a well-known young actor, Fouad Nerrouche, who comes from a complex French immigrant family.
What happens in the election opens the Nerrouche family to scrutiny in a story that is unflinching about the racial fault lines of modern France. As translated by Gavin Bowd, Louatah’s writing comes across as refreshingly non-generic or, more precisely, multi-generic: combining the political thriller with a European family saga (reminiscent of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet) but utilising a comic voice common to neither.
Another fêted French import is Chanson Douce, which won Leïla Slimani the Prix Goncourt, and has been published in 36 languages, including Sam Taylor’s English version, Lullaby (Faber & Faber, 207pp, £12.99). Against the rules of most crime-writing courses, Slimani begins with the reveal – in a posh part of Paris, the two young children of Myriam and Paul, a couple of smart lawyers, have been murdered by their nanny, Louise. The narrative economically and ominously flashes back to illuminate the opening tableau through the child carer’s disruption of the family dynamics.
This is the latest in a line of fictions since the 1992 movie The Hand That Rocks the Cradle to explore the paradox that middle-class parents who pay obsessive attention to potential dangers posed by nutrition, immunisations and imperfect cycle helmets are simultaneously prepared to entrust their children all day to a stranger met only briefly at interview.
The justification for this inconsistency is that most parents employing childcare do so from economic necessity rather than choice: housing markets often make double incomes the only possibility of home ownership. More provocatively, in this case, Myriam has chosen to go back to work, even though Paul sardonically points out that, given the cost of Louise, “you and the nanny will earn more or less the same amount”.
Again, this is not a simple issue. Why should a highly trained and skilled woman be forced to suspend her profession in order to have a family? This is one of many questions – even including assumptions about maternal love – that the novel addresses within a satisfying puzzle.
Mark Lawson is a writer and broadcaster