Books

The good deeds of a ‘very bad man’

Philip Kerr: the final word of his posthumously published novel is ‘atonement’

Mark Lawson picks this month’s best crime novels

In literature, as in other areas of life, good intentions do not always guarantee beneficial effects. Accordingly, an anthology of stories in support of a charity is an uneasy product. Writers, providing their services for free, may, deliberately or subliminally, apply slightly less pressure to the keyboard. Readers might feel churlish about applying the usual critical standards when the cash they hand over is being virtuously diverted.

So it’s a relief and a pleasure to encounter a pro bono volume that will not only do good (all royalties go to the RNIB Talking Books Library) but is also, even when measured against things that the contributors do for money, an exceptionally good read.

Ten Year Stretch (No Exit Press, 351pp, £9.99) celebrates a decade of the annual CrimeFest gathering of the homicidal fiction community in Bristol. Editors Martin Edwards and Adrian Muller have invited 20 practitioners to contribute, with the bonus that Peter James, who hasn’t donated a tale, provides a thoughtful foreword reflecting on the equation between length and invention. Although the selection is perhaps slightly too weighted towards the veteran usual suspects among the crime-writing corps, every contribution is effective, and some spectacularly so.

Ian Rankin’s “Inside the Box”, another report from DI Rebus’s blessedly incomplete retirement, is an ingenious puzzle, poignantly involving the old blue police boxes that still stand throughout Edinburgh, most of them converted into coffee or snack stalls. The shortest of the set, Sophie Hannah’s “Ask Tom St Clare”, pleasingly misleads the reader over four-and-a-half pages.

A measure of the collection’s inventiveness is that there are two new twists on one of the genre’s oldest conceits, in which a killing occurs in an apparently inviolate environment. Simon Brett’s “The Last Locked Room” daringly couples his attempt with another riskily over-explored story – the fall-out from World War II – as an old man belatedly solves the apparent murder, in 1939 Brighton, of his grandfather, a renowned writer of pseudonymous mystery yarns.

In “Moses and the Locked Tent Mystery”, Ann Cleeves profitably transports the ancient conceit to an African safari park. Mick Herron offers an exuberant in-joke that claims to reveal the secrets of espionage authors and of CrimeFest itself. If charitable entertainment were always as classy as this, HM The Queen wouldn’t look so gloomy during the Royal Variety Performance.

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Another book difficult to approach with the usual reviewing tools is Greeks Bearing Gifts (Quercus, 486pp, £18.99), which was published soon after the death, aged 62, of its prolific and talented author, Philip Kerr. This is the 14th in Kerr’s sequence following Bernie Gunther, a German cop, from his reluctant service to the Third Reich in the 1930s through to post-war West German reconstruction alongside the separated East.

This 1957 instalment has Bernie, like so many of his generation, living under an assumed identity in the hope of evading faces from the past. A cop jokes (the humour is one of the series’s biggest strengths) that, in West Berlin at that time, he needed “two simultaneous telephone directories” to keep track of who everyone was pretending to be.

Because crime fiction is forcibly haunted by death, a posthumous novel in the genre – as when Michael Dibdin’s finale for Inspector Zen, End Games, appeared soon after his death in 2007 – is inevitably scrutinised for signs of factual morbidity shadowing the fiction. Shiveringly, in this respect, Kerr gives Bernie the cover identity of hospital morgue attendant and has the protagonist reflecting on his attitude to death. As the title suggests, a plot twist leads the story to Greece, which has its own World War II wounds.

As has been the case since the first Gunther novel, March Violets (1989), there is an impressive moral complexity, as Bernie is haunted by feelings of being a “very bad man” who does occasional uncertain good. I’m not spoiling the plot by revealing that its final word is “atonement”, the long-time theme of the Gunther books, which, in a further consolation for Kerr fans, will continue and conclude in 2019 with Metropolis.

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While the circumstances of publication complicate the first two choices, Peter Swanson’s All the Beautiful Lies (Faber & Faber, 283pp, £12.99) is a simple pleasure: the latest in a mainly American sub-genre – from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl to Karen Cleveland’s Need to Know – in which the threat lies potentially very close to home.

In Swanson’s variation, Harry is forced to miss his college graduation because it clashes with the funeral of his father, who has died after a fall near his Maine coastal home. Alternate chapters focusing on the grieving son and his stepmother Alice, young enough to be Harry’s girlfriend, reveal patterns of damage that would interest both Freud and Hitchcock. A suspect relative is at risk of becoming as repetitive a premise as the locked-room killing used to be, but Swanson, with enjoyable efficiency, finds new openings.