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Crime Roundup February 2006 by Carla McKay

'The Grave Tattoo' by Val McDermid ; 'Mr Clarinet' by Nick Stone ; 'How to Seduce a Ghost' by Hope McIntyre ; 'The Spanish Game' by Charles Cumming

That excellent entertainer Val McDermid, responsible for so many heart-stopping moments, has produced more of a literary mystery than the kind of tense psychological thriller for which she is known. 'The Grave Tattoo' (HarperCollins 17.99) intertwines a missing poem by Wordsworth with the fate of Fletcher Christian, the mutinous First Mate on the Bounty. When an ancient body is discovered in a Lake District bog, Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham returns to Cumbria to follow a hunch that the body is that of Christian and that Wordsworth had not only harboured the fugitive, but turned his fate into a lost epic poem. But she is not the only one searching for it - and others are prepared to kill to find it.

Definitely more stomach-churning, if that is your fancy, is Nick Stone's 'Mr Clarinet' (Michael Joseph 12.99). All that ex-cop and ex-con Max Mingus knows when he is hired to find a billionaire's missing child is that Mr Clarinet is the local Pied Piper in Haiti - an evil mythical creature who lures children away from their families. He doesn't believe in all that voodoo stuff and black magic that dominate the island, but he does believe in evil and in the hell-hole that is Haiti's Cite Soleil - a slum area where people live like rats - he finds it in spades. This is an original, dark and powerful debut from a brave new meaty voice in thriller fiction.

But not all crime novels need to make you shudder. For brilliant comedy combined with a damn good mystery plot, I urge you to try 'How to Seduce a Ghost' by debut crime novelist Hope McIntyre (Piatkus 18.99). Lee is a ghostwriter who is beset by problems and not a few phobias. She loves her boyfriend Tommy but can't commit because he's too messy; she obsesses about a fire that has killed a TV presenter in her street and thinks she'll be next; she lives in a big crumbling house that urgently needs attention; and she's madly attracted to the husband of a soap star whose autobiography she is supposed to be ghosting. What she doesn't need is to become involved in a murder investigation.

Finally, I recommend a cracking good spy thriller, 'The Spanish Game' by Charles Cumming (Michael Joseph 12.99). An ex-spook who knows his stuff and writes as well as Le Carre, Cumming has set his third novel in Madrid where Alec Milius, the troubled hero of 'A Spy by Nature', has now rebuilt his life in exile. But Milius still looks over his shoulder, not only because of his affair with his boss's wife, but also because he has fallen foul of both the CIA and the British intelligence services in the past. This proves wise when he starts to investigate the disappearance of a Basque politician whom he has befriended and gets unwittingly embroiled in a ruthless power struggle between the ETA and the Spanish government. The serpentine twists and the unflaggingly realistic suspense leave you breathless but spellbound.

Carla McKay has been a fiction reviewer for over 15 years for the Daily Mail and this year has persuaded them to let her do a crime column of reviews of recent crime fiction once every two months or so.

last updated 6/08/2006 20:37