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Mike Ripley's Crime File - August 2007

'Second Violin' by John Lawton; 'No Human Enemy' by John Gardner; 'Tokyo Year Zero' by David Peace; 'The Last Testament' by Sam Bourne

World War II continues to provide inspiration for British thriller writers and three of the best have used it as a background for new books, though in completely different ways.

John Lawton in Second Violin (Weidenfeld, 17.99) provides a superb evocation of the period 1938-40 in both Britain and Nazi-occupied Austria. The novel's underlying themes of Jewish persecution, displaced persons and the plight of 'enemy aliens' are a poignant background to this continuing saga of the Troy family, a saga written backwards from the 1960s so that this sixth book is in fact the first, chronologically.

Second Violin gives us the early career of London CID detective Freddie Troy and anyone who is new to Lawton's work will immediately go and seek out the other volumes in the series. As a writer, Lawton plays second fiddle to no one and his latest is not only seductively readable but downright cheeky in parts, with even a cameo role for one Maurice Micklewhite from the East End. Could this be the Maurice Micklewhite who was the father of the boy to become Sir Michael Caine? I suspect it is.

Sadly, No Human Enemy (Allison & Busby, 19.99) is published posthumously as the author, John Gardner, best known for his James Bond books, died earlier this month.

This was Gardner's 52nd thriller, written in his eightieth year and brings the wartime adventures of his utterly engaging policewoman heroine Suzie Mountford up to 1944 with London suffering a second Blitz from V-1 flying bombs.

Unlike the fantasies he wove around the Bond character, Gardner used his own experience in recreating wartime Britain and his heroine is firmly based on the object of a youthful romance, which gives the book its heart and soul.

In a completely different vein, David Peace, in possibly his most ambitious novel to date, sets a police murder hunt in the bombed-out ruins of Tokyo in 1946 in Tokyo Year Zero (Faber, 16.99).

His cast of defeated and demoralised Japanese detectives have to fight corruption and a network of organised criminal gangs, whilst covering their backs from their political masters and the occupying American armies; and at the same time, try to find a vicious sex-killer.

David Peace, who has lived in Japan for many years, captures the desolation of a shattered city - and society - perfectly and his writing is at times a sort of staccato blank verse. This is not an easy book to relax on the beach with and will not appeal to anyone seeking a cosy detective story, but it is an incredibly powerful novel and though the characters, their beliefs and background may be totally alien, their humanity (as well as their cruelty) shines through.

For a more conventional modern day thriller, look no further than Sam Bourne's The Last Testament (Harper, 6.99), already one of the summer's best-sellers and which at first glance seems to be following in the footsteps of the hugely successful Da Vinci Code.

There is certainly a Biblical link as the plot revolves around the discovery of ancient stone tablets on which is carved, in effect, the last will and testament of Abraham and how this is crucial to peace in the Middle East today. Naturally, there are forces at work which do not want the Testament revealed and a frantic and violent chase across modern Israel ensues.

This is fast-paced, escapist stuff: highly readable and jolly exciting even if the revelation of the final secret of the Last Testament is stretched out for far too long.

Mike Ripley is the author of the 'Angel' series and writes a regular column for the Birmingham Post.

last updated 1/09/2007 22:42