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Book Reviews Crime fiction with Mat Coward

Reviews of new offerings from James Kestrel, Maxim Jakubowski (edited compilation of Crime Writers’ Association’s Short Story Dagger-winning stories), Nicholas Bowling and Frances Brody

FIVE DECEMBERS by James Kestrel (Hard Case Crime, £16.99) starts in Honolulu, in December 1941, with police detective Joe McGrady investigating a murder.

Following a lead takes him abroad, as a result of which he’s not at home when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour takes place. Instead, he’s somewhere even worse.

Through three countries, and through a world war as well as its preamble and its epilogue, Joe keeps his murder investigation alive — and in the darkest of days, it keeps him alive too.

I doubt I’ll read a more satisfying novel this year: if you’re in the market for a crime story, a war story or even a love story, you’ll find them all here. This book is the work of a true craftsman.

The surprising thing about Daggers Drawn, edited by Maxim Jakubowski (Titan, £17.99), is that nobody’s done it before.

It’s a collection of 19 stories which, over the years, have won Britain’s highest award for short crime fiction, the Crime Writers’ Association’s Short Story Dagger.

Quality and variety, therefore, are guaranteed — even before you look at the list of contributors which includes Ian Rankin, Julian Rathbone, Denise Mina and Jeffrey Deaver.

A strange, original, and gripping conspiracy thriller, with elements of science fiction or even fantasy in it, The Follower by Nicholas Bowling (Titan, £8.99) sees a young British woman travel to northern California searching for her twin brother.

He was last heard of as a member of a mountain-worshipping cult, and his last known address was a peculiar hotel in Mount Hookey, a place almost entirely given over to making a living from the followers of Telos.

In a town riven by territory wars between rival scams, no-one is willing to tell Vivian where her missing brother is. It may be that the only answers lie on the mystic mountain itself. I normally prefer my genres unmixed, but I just couldn’t stop reading this book.

Frances Brody has come up with a great setting for her new run of crime novels, written in the traditional style. The first episode, A Murder Inside (Piatkus, £8.99), takes place in 1969, as Nell Lewis, who left the police force for the prison service, arrives at a former borstal in rural Yorkshire to take up her first governorship.

Her task, and her personal mission, is to transform HMP Brackerley into a thoroughly modern open prison for women which will become a model for the service nationwide.

Her insistence that the inmates are to be known as “residents,” and that their stay at Brackerley is intended not to punish them but to prepare them for a future better than their past, doesn’t meet with universal delight.

However, Nell’s real problems begin when a man’s body is found in the grounds. It looks like a suicide, but ex-cop Nell isn’t convinced.

With a competent, dynamic and likeable heroine, and an environment packed with stories great and small, it’s hard to see how this series could fail.

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