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Mike Ripley's Crime File - July 2007

'Still Waters' by Nigel McCrery; 'Little Moscow' by Mick Scully; 'Not in the Flesh' by Ruth Rendell; 'Last Light' by Alex Scarrow

Nigel McCrery is best known as the creator of television cop shows Silent Witness and New Tricks but in Still Waters (Quercus, 12.99) he has proved he can turn his hand to a fast-moving, original and often genuinely frightening novel.

Policemen are centre stage of course, although his hero Inspector Lapslie is technically on "gardening leave" suffering from the rare neurological condition, synaesthesia, which dramatically affects his nervous system and in particular his taste buds.

The main character, however, is a brilliantly horrible creation: a little old lady who befriends other lonely little old ladies in order to murder them and steal their possessions as well as their lives.

There are some gruesome scenes, not confined to the autopsy room, but these are nothing to the cold calculations made inside the mind of McCrery's disturbed and utterly ruthless villain. Gardeners may also think twice about which pretty plants they fill their flower beds with after reading this.

The geographical centre of gritty, urban crime writing switched some time ago from London to, first, Manchester, then to the Scottish cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. Now there are signs that Birmingham is making a claim to the title for the city with the meanest streets.

Spearheading this move, although one unlikely to win any Tourist Board awards, are the inter-linked short stories of Birmingham writer Mick Scully, which have now been collected in Little Moscow (Tindal Street Press, 7.99), the title referring to a basement drinking den on the edge of the Tyseley Industrial Estate.

This is the seedy world of petty criminals, tattoo parlours, ex-cons and lost souls, where violence often seems the only solution when macho posturing has failed. They will not be to everyone's taste and often make for uneasy reading, but there is no denying the power of the writing and, sadly, the accuracy of most of the low-life characters portrayed.

On the surface, the Sussex town of Kingsmarkham seems a much gentler place, but don't be fooled for there are dead bodies in the woods and the living population are a strange and secretive bunch. This is, of course, the home beat of Ruth Rendell's detective hero Chief Inspector Wexford and his sidekick Mike Burden, who cracked their first case together over forty years ago.

In Rendell's new novel, Not In The Flesh (Hutchinson, 17.99), Wexford is as solid and reliable and Burden as prissy and puritanical as ever, as they investigate the discovery of two bodies which met violent ends several years before. Conveniently, many of the residents of Kingsmarkham (a sort of homicidal Ambridge) have excellent memories of what they were doing, and wearing, on particular days eleven years ago, which is pretty suspicious in itself.

This is very much a traditional British detective story, but Baroness Rendell has added a very modern sub-plot highlighting the shocking treatment of young girls by Somali immigrants, which will disturb readers as much as it does good old Reg Wexford.

In Last Light (Orion, 9.99), Alex Scarrow imagines the ultimate conspiracy theory plot, where all the world's oil supplies are cut off at a stroke. Within a day, lacking fuel and power, society begins to collapse and food riots ensue with the only safe haven seeming to be a besieged motorway service station near Birmingham!

With an action-packed sub-plot in Iraq, Alex Scarrow keeps his foot on the accelerator in this apocalyptic thriller, which is reminiscent of Frederick Forysth and John Wyndham at their best.

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

last updated 29/07/2007 12:00