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Crime Fiction: Histories of Babylonian intrigue, village villainy and a savage city

Mat Coward's regular crime fiction round-up

The murder of an archaeology professor and one of her young students, with whom she was having a not very secret affair, leads Inspector Christian Tell and his Gothenburg police colleagues on the trail of ancient treasures looted from Iraqi museums during the US-EU invasion.

But in Babylon (Phoenix, £7.99) by Camilla Ceder, there’s also a more obvious suspect — the dead man’s girlfriend, who is undergoing treatment for impulsive behaviour arising out of an obsessive fear of infidelity.

Readers of Swedish crime fiction will be used to the strong focus on the tortured emotional lives of police, victims and suspects alike. But this book, perhaps best described as a psychological police procedural, breaks with the “Scandi-crime” stereotype in one way — although troubled, the characters are not all pathologically miserable.

The plot is good enough but the main attraction is the interplay between a convincingly drawn squad of detectives.

Reg Wexford, now retired as a Detective Chief Inspector and spending his days quietly reading Gibbon, is called in as a police consultant when his local vicar is murdered, in Ruth Rendell’s No Man’s Nightingale (Hutchinson, £18.99).

Half-Indian by parentage, and a convert from Hinduism, some of the locals can’t decide whether to hate her for being the wrong colour, the wrong sex, too informal in her ministry or just for being a single parent.

It’s the latter matter that Wexford fixes on because he’s sure the key to the priest’s death lies in her daughter’s mysterious paternity.

I don’t think anyone would call this classic Rendell. Apart from anything, the ex-DCI’s involvement in the investigation never seems wholly credible.

Insufficient editing means that there are one or two continuity errors and the occasional opaque passage.

But, for all that, it’s still a fine entertainment, with a plot that keeps the attention and good old Reg’s down-to-earth country copper’s contempt for racists and misogynists is thoroughly cheering.

Ten years after she was acquitted of murdering her rich sister, Kat returns to her small-town home in Louisiana in Erica Spindler’s Don’t Look Back (Sphere, £19.99). Goaded by anonymous letters, she’s determined to stop hiding from her former neighbours — and to find which of them is the real killer.

Peopled with compellingly nasty suspects, this is an expertly constructed and contemporary version of a traditional village whodunit.

Seven For A Secret by Lyndsay Faye (Headline, £19.99) takes place in New York city in 1846. Timothy Wilde, of the newly formed and much-hated New York Police Department, has his innocent Yankee eyes opened to one of the most extraordinary and lesser-known horrors of the pre-civil war period.

A flourishing trade exists in kidnapping free blacks and selling them to southern slavers. With the courts mostly on the side of the “blackbirders,” can one green copper make any difference?

Here’s historical crime writing at its best — full of fresh and fascinating period detail, uncompromisingly heartbreaking in its depiction of a savage city and a great adventure story.


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