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Mike Ripley's Crime File - February 2008

'A Cure For All Diseases' by Reginald Hill; 'Unforgotten' by Clare Francis; 'Sacrifice' by S J Bolton; 'Bad Traffic' by Simon Lewis

The title of Reginald Hill's last novel, The Death of Dalziel, was never intended to be taken literally, certainly not while ten million viewers regularly tune in to the television adaptations. So it is no surprise, though it is very pleasing, to see Dalziel (and Pascoe) return in print in A Cure For All Diseases (HarperCollins, 17.99).

Hill's new novel is also a treat, in a curious way, for fans of Jane Austen, for it sees Superintendent Dalziel convalescing (after a terrorist bomb blast which would have killed a mere mortal man) in the Yorkshire health resort of Sandytown. Austen fans may well notice the similarities with Sanditon, her last novel, but I doubt if Jane Austen ever had access to the e-mails or Dictaphone transcripts, through which much of the story is told.

Jane Austen would probably not have had a local socialite murdered and left to roast on a charity barbeque either, so serious Austen scholars may wish to look away now. A Cure For All Diseases sees both the crude and outrageous Dalziel and the erudite and witty Reg Hill back on top form and in rude health.

Clare Francis made her name first as an ocean-going yachtswoman, then as the author of some fast-moving thrillers. Of late she has made a reputation as a top-ranking writer of psychological crime novels and Unforgotten (Macmillan, 16.99) will only cement that reputation.

Her new novel starts as a legal thriller, with an engrossing court room struggle over damages for post-traumatic stress following a horrific car accident. Lawyer Hugh Gwynne does his decent best to represent client Tom Deacon, a troubled ex-soldier becoming increasingly paranoid as his legal claim drags on for year after year.

Then, following an unexplained house fire, Gwynne loses his wife and his world disintegrates, just as his client's has. Why are the police not investigating properly and could his increasingly erratic client be behind the blaze?

Clare Francis does an excellent job of building up the suspense and transferring the action from a splendid court-room drama to a scene of domestic distress as the central character tries to hold his family together and resolve a callous murder.

Sacrifice by S.J. Bolton (Bantam, 10) belongs firmly in that specialist category "spooky crime" and could best be described as CSI-meets-The Wicker Man. The setting is the wild and lonely Shetland Islands, an ancient Norse legend is involved and there is enough forensic pathology, both animal and human, to keep fans of Patricia Cornwell happy.

There is a feisty heroine, who is perhaps too feisty for her own good, and a splendidly-drawn lesbian policewoman but none of the male characters should be trusted at all. Just when the plot threatens to spiral out of control, Sharon Bolton grabs the reigns and steers it home by cranking up the suspense with a skill which is remarkable for a first novel.

Bad Traffic by Simon Lewis (Sort Of Books, 7.99) spotlights the crime of people trafficking - the modern equivalent of the slave trade - from the point of view of a father searching for his lost daughter in a strange land.

The interesting thing is that the father is a Chinese policeman (who doesn't speak English) and the strange land is the Yorkshire countryside. Inspector Jian - alone, isolated and bemused - is no painstaking detective; he's a man of action when things get desperate, as they quickly do when gang-masters and "snakehead" Chinese gangsters realise their odious business is threatened.

If anything, there is perhaps too much shoot-em-up action as the book hurtles towards its climax, but it is a valiant and passionate attempt to expose a truly evil trade.

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

last updated 1/03/2008 11:26