Crime fiction is alive and well (though these fictional victims aren’t) in the U.K., with three strong new books.
American crime-fiction fans would be well advised to maintain the famous “special relationship” with their cousins in the U.K., judging from three excellent new books.
If Judith Flanders’ day job doesn’t pan out — as a well-known historian of the Victorian era — she has a promising future in writing comic mysteries like “A Cast of Vultures” (Minotaur, 320 pp., $25.99).
London book editor Samantha Clair is our snarky, perceptive and congenitally disorganized narrator. Her adventure starts when an elderly, force-of-nature friend asks Sam to help find a missing neighbor. Things get complicated when the neighbor’s body is found in the ruins of a burned-out building that may be a locale for drug deals.
Comparisons to Janet Evanovich’s books about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum are clear. Notably, both feature strong, funny, messy female narrators, and both are set in close-knit neighborhoods populated by (mostly lovable) eccentrics. Both protagonists even have cops for long-suffering boyfriends. Flanders, though, has a distinctive and appealing voice of her own, especially when it comes to wisecracks about a publishing scene beset by executives more interested in “product” than in worthwhile writing.
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James Naughtie’s “Paris Spring” (Overlook, 336 pp., $26.95) is a superior example of intelligent spy thrillers that favor character development over slam-bang action. Virtually the only violence in the book is one murder — and that takes place offstage and not until halfway through.
Naughtie, a longtime political correspondent for the BBC, The Guardian and elsewhere, has set his story in a turbulent time and place: Paris 1968, when the city was fragmented by student protests, disaffected unions and activists opposed to “the Old Man,” President Charles de Gaulle.
Against this backdrop, British spy Will Flemyng plays a delicate game. A man calling himself Kristof — apparently an East German — makes contact with Flemyng, who is nominally part of the British embassy in Paris.
Kristof says he has some shocking information about Will’s brother Abel, who lives in the U.S. (their mother was American) and is also a spy for that country. Is Abel, as Kristof intimates, in trouble — and is he in bed with the Soviets?
A third brother, Mungo, is a historian who lives in the family’s ancestral home in Scotland. Naughtie moves the setting there at several points, counterbalancing the main story with set pieces that vividly evoke rural Scotland’s beauty and tranquillity. But the heart of Naughtie’s fine book is Paris, where scenes of everyday life are starkly juxtaposed with political turmoil and Cold War intrigues.
“Bryant & May: Strange Tide” (Bantam, 448 pp., $27.00) is the latest in Christopher Fowler’s delightfully eccentric and unpredictable books about Arthur Bryant and John May, the oldest police detectives in London and stars of the aptly named Peculiar Crimes Unit.
The book, along with earlier Bryant and May adventures, is essentially a mash note to London. Fowler has lovingly stuffed it to the gills with useless but fascinating facts about the city’s rich, arcane history and lore.
A young woman has been found chained to a stone post near the Tower of London and left to drown in the Thames. Why didn’t the killer just throw her body in the river? How can it be that only one set of footprints led to the stone post? And what’s the deal with the Libyan refugee-cum-conman, anyway?
Beyond these problems, the partners and their colleagues face other challenges. The chaotic PCU is always close to being shut down, but that’s not new. What is new and frightening is that intuitive, brilliant, idiosyncratic Arthur Bryant may have dementia. His singular brain activity, combining extreme strangeness with dazzling flashes of insight, is getting….well, stranger.