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Mike Ripley's Crime File - March 2008

'A Quiet Flame' by Philip Kerr; 'Silesian Station' by David Downing; 'The Mesmerist's Apprentice' by L M Jackson; 'Orpheus Rising' by Bateman

In the world of crime writing there are three prestigious awards made each year to honour the best crime novel, the best 'thriller' and the best historical mystery, which these days means one set before about 1960. Philip Kerr's new novel, A Quiet Flame (Quercus, 14.99), qualifies in every category and might just pull off a spectacular literary treble by winning all three awards. It certainly deserves to: it is that good.

It helps to have one of the most unusual detective heroes in fiction. Bernie Gunther is an ex-cop turned private eye, which would not be particularly unusual apart from the fact that he operates inside Nazi Germany, which makes his chosen profession more dangerous (and morally dubious) than normal. This is the fifth Bernie Gunther novel - the first appeared almost twenty years ago - and Philip Kerr is wise enough to know that an author should never drop a character as good as this.

Set partly in 1950 Argentina (with a cameo role for "Evita"!) and partly in flashback to the last days of the Weimar Republic in 1932, A Quiet Flame is a master stroke of plotting, suspense and horror, written with a forensic eye for period detail and dialogue which is pitch-perfect Raymond Chandler.

Nazi Germany, this time in the summer of 1939, is also the setting for Silesian Station by David Downing (Old Street, 10.99), who shows himself to be one of the brightest lights in the shadowy world of historical spy fiction.

Downing's fictional hero, John Russell, is a foreign correspondent living and working in a Europe sliding inexorably into war, who finds himself employed by American, Russian and German intelligence services. He has to balance these complicated allegiances with a far from straightforward private life which involves trying to protect his German girlfriend, his ex-wife and son, and whilst attempting to trace a missing Jewish girl.

Silesian Station is a spy story without gadgets, car chases or heroics, intelligently written with a great sense of place, believable characters and clever handling of complex historical material.

For cracking historical mysteries set in Victorian London, look no further than the new series featuring that unconventional detective Sarah Tanner; unconventional because she can not only mix with high and low society (and some of it is very low indeed) but because she is a woman at a time when women were expected to know their place.

The Mesmerist's Apprentice by L M Jackson (Heinemann, 12.99) is the second Sarah Tanner investigation and our resourceful protagonist has to unravel a mystery involving missing letters, quack doctors, rigid social snobbery and a gang of cut-throat street urchins far too blood-thirsty to audition for parts in "Oliver!".

All the sights, grime and smells of Victorian London are expertly evoked, as one might expect from Lee Jackson, who is an acknowledged expert on the period, and Sarah Tanner proves herself a formidable heroine for those times, or, indeed, ours.

Some while ago, comic crime writer Colin Bateman decided to become known simply as "Bateman" rather in the style of "the artist formerly known as Prince".

Whether this has done anything for his brand image I do not know, but his new novel, Orpheus Rising (Headline 17.99) shows a distinct shift away from his hysterically funny, very dark and very violent, crime capers. True, there is a crime, a bank robbery gone wrong, at the heart of Orpheus Rising and, being set mostly on the Florida coastline, there is of course a particularly nasty shark attack.

Yet this is really a novel about lost love and the aspirations, and absurdities, of life as a young and insecure writer and in parts is quite beautifully and sensitively written. The writer previously known as Colin seems well on the way to leaving comedy crime behind him and could be in danger of becoming a proper novelist!

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

last updated 4/05/2008 20:07