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LITERATURE Crime fiction

Reviews of The Lady Thrillers, How to Betray Your Country by James Wolff, Hellyer's Coup by Philip Prowse and The April Dead by Alan Parks

THE launch of Crimeucopia, a series of themed paperback anthologies, is a promising development for British crime fiction, especially for those who  treasure the purest form of the genre, the short story.

The first quarterly issue is a women-only volume subtitled The Lady Thrillers (Murderous Ink Press, £8.99), featuring 16 women writers from various countries and of varying styles.

At the start of How to Betray Your Country by James Wolff (Bitter Lemon, £8.99), August Drummond has been sacked by MI5 and his wife has died in an accident.

If he’s to survive his grief, he needs a distraction and, on his way to take up a dull civilian job in Istanbul, he thinks he’s found just the thing — a fellow passenger on the flight whose behaviour
triggers August’s mental alarms.

This diversion leads him into a deadly and unpredictable conspiracy and this time he’s not only on his own — he may well be on the opposite side to all his old colleagues.

It’s a marvellously funny book, sad in a way that mysteriously lifts rather than depresses and with a wild but always convincing plot, along with characters hard to forget.

We are living in something of a golden age for sophisticated British spy fiction and Wolff is providing more than his share of the glister.

And so is Philip Prowse, whose second novel Hellyer’s Coup (Kernel Books, £7.99) about academic-turned-reluctant spy Nick Hellyer sees him involved in the Carnation Revolution in Portugal in 1974.

But regime change is not his boss’s main concern. Hellyer’s job is to infiltrate a colonial plot to manufacture a sarin vaccine which would allow the poison gas to become an effective anti-insurgency weapon.

The assignment leads Hellyer into a moral conundrum for which he has no answer — is facilitating one war crime to prevent others morally justified?

And, as he collides with sincerely committed people on all sides, he is forced to wonder what his own motives are. What does he believe in? This is a series that provokes both laughter and reflection.

In The April Dead by Alan Parks (Canongate, £14.99) it’s also 1974 but in Glasgow, where a home-made bomb kills its assumed maker in his own flat.

CID detective Harry McCoy has heard the city described as “Belfast without the bombs,” but is the Irish war now coming to Scotland?

As the search begins for more bombers, McCoy’s also looking for a missing US sailor and at the same time tries to prevent a local villain, an old pal from his childhood in care, from triggering a full-scale gang war. And that’s before his business becomes entangled with that of a secret British army assassination squad.

Set in one of the 20th century’s strangest years, a time of Establishment paranoia and mad conspiracies, this immensely exciting novel is brutal in its events and its language. But the brutality is there as a counterpoint to a sensitive and touching story.

It’s altogether one of the best police thrillers of the last few years.

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