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Best of 2018: Crime fiction

by MAT COWARD

PIC CAP Idyllic crime scene: Bath is the setting of the thriller Memento Mori Pic: Diliff/Wikicommons

FAR from the first but, in my view, easily the best of the various detective series set during the Roman Empire reaches its eighth instalment with Memento Mori by Ruth Downie (CreateSpace).

Downie's investigators, as ever, are former army doctor Ruso and his native British wife Tilla, who loves her husband rather more than she does his strange, cold people with their rigid ideas and endless laws.

This time, the pair are in Aquae Sulis, even more of a tourist town in 123AD than its 21st century descendent Bath is today. For that reason, while murders are no doubt most unfortunate for all concerned, the main priority of the local powers in their aftermath must be to avoid any revelations that might prompt holidaymakers to spend their money elsewhere.

Swift conclusions to foul crimes need, above all, a swiftly identified perpetrator. The chosen scapegoat in this case is an old friend of Ruso's, so he and Tilla and their personal slaves make the long, seasick-inducing journey from their home near Hadrian's Wall to see if they can help.

The best historical fiction doesn't feel historical when you're reading it. Authors like Downie create or recreate the world they've dropped you into so well that it all seems perfectly normal and there is no historical barrier between the reader and the characters.

One of current fiction's most striking and exhilarating characters returns for a second outing in Crocodiles & Good Intentions by Liza Cody (iUniverse). Released from months in prison, Lady Bag's only priorities are being reunited with her rescue greyhound Electra and finding some red wine.

She enjoys wonderful conversations with her closest friend, but Electra only answers when Lady B has the correct dose of booze inside her.

Being a homeless, penniless, scarred and damaged alcoholic isn't all fun, though, and an attempt to keep a promise she doesn't remember making leads Lady B to check on the welfare of a cellmate's toddler. What she finds, in the doorways and alleys from which society has made a tactical withdrawal, beaten back by a decade of relentlessly targeted austerity, is tragedy and heartbreak.

Her attempts at remedies are quixotic, in the literal sense of being the products of a mind which doesn't reliably differentiate between reality and delusion. Any attempt by her to aid herself or others is as likely to make things worse as better — and it'll definitely make things weirder.

Amid the horrors of Lady Bag's new adventures, and inextricable from them, is some gaspingly funny comedy. Cody has command not only of comic dialogue but, which is much harder to pull off, a kind of verbal rendering of visual humour as she choreographs her characters across the pages with perfect timing.

The crown colony of Singapore in 1937 is the fascinatingly novel background for The Betel Nut Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu (Constable). Its narrator is Chen Su Lin, secretarial assistant in the Detective Unit and would-be journalist, and a young woman not inclined to be limited by her triple disadvantages of being the wrong sex, the wrong race and limping from childhood polio.

The Detective Unit has been formed following the King's abdication, amid fears that ungrateful natives throughout the British Empire will choose this moment to rise up and also to prevent communist-inspired traitors giving aid to the Chinese, who've been invaded by Britain's noble Japanese allies. But the death of a posh foreigner at a local hotel is potentially even more disruptive.     

Great protagonist, great setting — a delightful book.

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