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Mike Ripley's Crime File - June 2008

'Typhoon' by Charles Cumming; 'The Paper Moon' by Andrea Camilleri; 'Home Before Dark' by Charles Maclean

The modern post-Cold War spy story tends to fall into three types. There is the convoluted, almost impossible to follow plot-based story; the thick-eared all-action type which usually involves a chase across several continents; and the character-based story of real people who just happen to be spies.

The spy novel of interesting characters is by far the hardest to write, but relative newcomer Charles Cumming has chosen this format and proved that when done well, the result is a gripping and totally satisfying thriller and Cumming's fourth novel, Typhoon (Penguin, 18.99) is exactly that.

It could hardly be more topical either, describing a terrorist plot aimed not just at the Beijing Olympics, but at destabilising China as a whole. With totally convincing background detail on Hong Kong, China and the workings of MI6, not to mention some very astute observations on the ethics and pressures confronting young spies, this is a fabulous book and one in the eye for those who predicted the death of the spy story when the Berlin Wall came down.

One of the most fashionable foreign crime-writers among the chattering classes is Italian Andrea Camilleri, whose Inspector Montalbano novels, with a Sicilian setting, have earned him a cult following.

The ninth book in the series is The Paper Moon (Picador, 12.99) and in many ways is a traditional detective story, with Montalbano interviewing the suspects in a murder case with a carefree disregard for legal procedure and forensic evidence. Usually, it is Montalbano's shambolic but utterly charming approach to police work which endears him to us (as well as his habit of having a nap after a particularly good lunch) but in Paper Moon he seems to be simply going through the motions.

Also lacking is the usual joy taken in describing Sicily and its traditional cooking, although the translation cannot be faulted and there are some handy notes to explain the topical (Italian) references. Long-standing fans will devour it, but it almost seems as if Camilleri's heart and taste buds are not really in this one.

Home Before Dark by Charles Maclean (Hodder, 12.99) is a modern horror story and very human demons are released thanks to the wonders of modern technology and virtual reality computer games.

Zipping from Europe to America, with virtually every conversation being conducted on a mobile phone, or by 'video-conference' or in an internet chat room, successful businessman Ed Lister is determined to find the killer of his teenage daughter. The problem is that the killer seems to be trying to catch him.

This is a very well written thriller, with moments of genuine suspense and jeopardy but it is rather difficult to sympathise with supposedly intelligent, successful and rich characters who are so over-dependent on electronic gadgets. Perhaps that's the point.

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

last updated 6/07/2008 20:21