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Mike Ripley's Crime File - January 2007

'Saturnalia' by Lindsey Davis ; 'A Gentle Axe' by R N Morris ; 'The Savage Garden' by Mark Mills ; 'Redcap' by Brian Callison

Birmingham-born Lindsey Davis knows just how addictive a good family drama can be and that all families have rows at Christmas time. It was ever thus, even in first-century Rome and her new novel takes full advantage of such a situation, with her colourful cast meeting the challenge head on, or in the case of the first murder victim, head off!

Of course in Imperial Rome the end-of-year festival, like her book, was called Saturnalia (Century, 17.99) and when the family celebrating it is that of Roman private eye Marcus Didius Falco, you just know things will be as uneventful as a Christmas episode of Eastenders.

The Falco mysteries, of which there are now eighteen, are by far the best crime novels set in the Ancient World, but their real strength lies in the day-to-day descriptions of Roman life and the wonderfully believable characters. Those who prefer their history made more palatable as high-class domestic farce, need look no further.

R. N. Morris' fantastically confident novel A Gentle Axe (Faber, 12.99) has an exotic setting, St Petersburg in the Russia of 1897, and claims a distinguished pedigree as a descendent if not the actual sequel to Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.

The first two bodies - one a dead dwarf stuffed in a suitcase - are found in a snowy public park in St Petersburg and things get even stranger from then on for the chain-smoking detective Porfiry Petrovich.

There is no doubt that R.N. Morris absolutely loved doing his research into nineteenth-century Russia, but the historical detail always enhances the story and never overpowers it, which is a great skill if you can pull it off and Morris does.

Mark Mills' second novel, The Savage Garden (Harper Collins, 12.99) is a more gentle mystery set in the more recent past, 1958, in Italy.

A Cambridge art history student is nudged towards the study of the 400-year-old garden of a villa in Tuscany, which sounds like the ideal way to spend a gap year. There is, of course, a murderous logic to the design of this particular garden with clues left in the carefully placed statues of figures from classical Greece.

Whilst unravelling this rather academic mystery, our student hero stumbles on the truth behind the murder of one of the villa's owners at the end of World War II. Although the plot is slightly esoteric, and there is little action or genuine sense of menace, The Savage Garden is extremely well-written with memorable characters and some affectionate snapshots of life in a Tuscan idyll.

There are no punches pulled in Redcap (Severn House, 9.99) by that master of descriptive violence Brian Callison, another book set in the late 1950s, this time in "British" Cyprus.

Although Callison made his literary name and fortune as the author of full-blooded seafaring thrillers, he did himself serve in the Military Police, but hopefully Redcap is not autobiographical.

The hero is the far-from heroic MP Sergeant Walker on duty in a Cyprus torn apart by terrorists and as a wartime veteran, Walker thinks he has seen it all. Then he finds himself a witness to two murders and the identity of the murderer is not in doubt. The problem is, it's his commanding officer.

The action rarely lets up and Callison's unique two-fisted style of writing is perfectly attuned to describing ordinary men under fire.

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

last updated 2/02/2007 11:35