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Crime Roundup November 2005 by Carla McKay

'Oxford Letters' by Veronica Stallwood ; 'The Devil's Feather' by Minette Walters ; 'Jacquot and The Angel' by Martin O'Brien ; 'The Third Woman' by Mark Burnell

W.H. Auden's classic prescription for successful crime fiction was a closed society characterised by such innocence that murder is a shocking violation of the usual state of grace. For this reason, I suspect, Oxford has long been a popular setting for British mystery writers who play off the respectable milieu of academia and culture against the evil that lurks beneath the surface. Alas, Oxford is no longer so genteel or respectable and this is reflected in Veronica Stallwood's latest mystery in her Oxford series. 'Oxford Letters' (Headline 18.99) features, as usual, the novelist Kate Ivory who is required to turn amateur sleuth once more, this time in an effort to rescue her mother from the clutches of a married couple, the oily Freemans, who have insinuated themselves into her life - and possibly her financial arrangements. Also, as usual, the cynical but practised reader can see what's coming before the protagonists can, but this somehow never detracts from the pure enjoyment of an hour or two in Stallwood's company.

The idea behind Minette Walters' 'The Devil's Feather' (Macmillan 17.99) is an excellent one: a psychopathic Scotsman acts out his sadistic fantasies against women in atrocity hotspots - unnoticed among the general chaos of war. However, a sharp young foreign correspondent, Connie Burns, starts asking awkward questions when the man in question pops up under different names in different countries. In Iraq, she is taken hostage, tortured and released - no coincidence she thinks. Panicked and degraded, she retires to rural Dorset to hide and lick her wounds only to become embroiled in a mystery revolving around the neglect of an old lady. The two stories, one so compelling, the other, more low-key, are eventually linked by the reappearance of the psychopath.

Possibly only an Englishman could set his detective fiction in France and infuse it with such passion for the place and its people. Lyrical descriptions of the blue Luberon hills, lovable shopkeepers, mouthwatering food and even some pipe-smoking old resistance fighters set the scene. Indeed, when several members of a wealthy German family resident in Provence are found murdered, the reader is almost lured into sympathising with the gunman. The war, of course, provides a motive but is not the whole story as Martin O'Brien's ultra-cool, spliff-smoking, pony-tailed chief inspector finds out in 'Jacquot and The Angel' (Headline 18.99). This is the second Jacquot mystery and although it's as well-written and compelling as the first, I rather preferred it when the inspector was prowling round the far seedier, less picture-postcard port of Marseilles. Perhaps, since he's done so well on this case, he'll be promoted back there.

Also set largely in France, Mark Burnell's latest thriller, 'The Third Woman' (HarperCollins 12.99) once again stars secret agent Stephanie Patrick to whom we were introduced in his ground-breaking first book, 'The Rhythm Section'. Stephanie is a terrific character, an icy hired assassin who was recruited into a maverick section of the secret service after her family were wiped out in a plane accident and has survived by taking on other identities. But just as Stephanie begins to tire of contract killing and wants out, she is betrayed by an unknown enemy and lured to Paris where she narrowly escapes being killed by a bomb blast. Burnell has many strengths and there is something for everyone here: a fast-moving, well-written action plot with a gratifying number of twists and surprises; witty dialogue; insights into the real world of ruthless big business where information is the most valuable commodity brokered, and some truly thrilling moments.The author is less known than he deserves to be but his creation Stephanie will soon be starring in a series of films to be made around her.

Carla McKay has been a fiction reviewer for over 15 years for the Daily Mail and this year has persuaded them to let her do a crime column of reviews of recent crime fiction once every two months or so.

last updated 6/08/2006 20:37