Mike Ripley's Crime File - May 2007
'Absent Light' by Eve Isherwood; 'Mistress of the Art of Death' by Ariana Franklin; 'Hard Man' by Allan Guthrie; 'Donkey Punch' by Ray Banks
Eve Isherwood’s first novel Absent Light (Accent Press, £6.99) is an impressively compelling mystery featuring as heroine Helen Powers, a former Scenes of Crime Officer with the West Midlands police.
As if her job wasn't demanding enough, Helen had an affair with married police detective and then, with a commendable sense of duty, reported him for perverting the course of justice in a vicious murder case.
Four years later you would have hoped her private life had settled down, but not so as strange and threatening events begin to dog her footsteps around the mean streets of the Hagley Road and even meaner canals of Brindleyplace.
Eve Isherwood writes well, creating good, rounded characters, especially when describing her heroine's family, but she does make the common mistake of almost all crime writers in wildly overestimating the amount of detail a respectable newspaper is allowed by law to report on criminal investigations. In Absent Light, the newspaper she misquotes happens to be this one!
Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin (Bantam, £12.99) is a historical mystery set in Cambridge in the year 1170 AD, when it was actually called Grantabridge and the university there was not yet a gleam in a scholarly monk's eye.
A child has been murdered and others gone missing and suspicion falls inevitably on the town's Jewish community. Getting to the bottom of the mystery falls to a visiting doctor who is unusual in being a student of dead bodies or what we would call today a pathologist. Even more unusual, the doctor qualified at the great School of Medicine in Salerno in Italy and, very unusually, the doctor is a woman.
This is a lovingly-researched novel packing historical insight around a gripping story and set in a period which saw innovations in the laws of England that are with us to this day.
Allan Guthrie and Ray Banks are making names for themselves as the leading lights in the very dark school of crime writing currently flowing from Scotland, which has been nicknamed "Tartan Noir".
Guthrie's latest is Hard Man (Polygon, £9.99) and comes from the same publisher that does the "No.1 Ladies Detective Agency" books. The unsuspecting reader should not confuse the two as Guthrie's world of violent crime is the polar opposite of Alexander McCall Smith's far cosier stories.
Hard Man is about hard men, or men who think they are "hard", engaged in a violent vendetta from which no one escapes unhurt. The violence portrayed is stupid, pointless, utterly relentless and probably believable given a cast of unlovable, lowlife characters who only seem to have decent human feelings when it comes to caring for their dogs.
Ray Banks, in Donkey Punch (Polygon, £9.99) paints on a broader canvas - the shadowy world of amateur boxing from seedy Manchester clubs to the bigger, but still seedy, venues of Los Angeles - but using a similarly unsympathetic cast of characters. Here too, the hard men are not actually half as hard as they think they are and you just know from the start that it’s all going to end in tears.
This rough and ready new approach to crime writing by Guthrie, Banks and others emerging on the Scottish scene, is unlikely to challenge the established supremacy of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus books, but their power and energy shows that there is still a lot of life left in the crime novel, north of Hadrian's Wall.
Mike Ripley is the author of the 'Angel' series and writes a regular column for the Birmingham Post.