THE PROOF OF THE PUDDING by Rhys Bowen (Berkely; 304 pages; ₹2,650)
If you fancy reading something frothy, fun, easy and charming, this is the one. We are back among old friends in the seventeenth outing of Her Royal Spyness series. Lady Georgiana (Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie), a cousin to His Majesty Edward VIII, and 34th in line for the throne, is now the lady of her godfather’s manor. She and her dashing husband Darcy are expecting their first baby in a couple of weeks. They finally have their French chef-in-residence, and her eccentric extended family and friends are about to descend on them. Georgie decides to hold her first house party to welcome her godfather back from his recent expedition, and show off her new chef. Sir Mortimer Mordred, the famous author of Gothic horror novels, who has recently bought a nearby manor for its poison garden, is impressed with Chef Pierre. After the dinner, he asks Georgie if he can borrow the chef to cater a gala dinner for a charity event that weekend. Georgie and Darcy join the select group of dinner guests who include Agatha Christie and her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan, film stars Laurence Olivier and his then wife Jill Esmond, the surly son and daughter of the host, an old schoolfriend of the host who paid twenty guineas to attend the dinner just to reconnect. They are given a tour of the poison garden and Sir Mordred’s laboratory. The next day, several guests and staff experience acute food poisoning. A guest dies, apparently poisoned by berries from the poison garden. With Chef Pierre is arrested for murder, it is up to Georgie to clear his name. How was the poison introduced when all of them ate the crab mousse, the duck, and a delectable berry tart, she wonders. A cameo by Christie provides a charming touch as Bowen’s prose trips along, luring us ever so gently into the gay world of manors, manners and balls.
THE GREAT DECEIVER by Elly Griffiths (Quercus; 352 pages; ₹2,218)
This is the seventh book in Elly Griffiths’ Brighton series, which promises to give her Ruth Galloway mysteries (also an absolute delight) a run for the money. Inspired by her grandfather’s time on the stage, the series began with the Magic Men—a group of friends who served in a shadowy unit that used the knowledge of magic tricks to aid Great Britain in the Second World War.
Max Mephisto, magician extraordinaire and now a successful film star, is newly divorced and living in London. He steps out of his flat to visit his daughter Ruby who has just had a baby, but is waylaid by an old acquaintance, magician Ted English, aka The Great Deceiver. Ted’s assistant, Cherry, has been brutally knifed and killed, and he may have been the last one to have seen the young woman. Worried that he may be arrested for the murder, he asks Max to speak to his Magic Men comrade, police superintendent Edgar Stephens, who oversees the case. Max agrees reluctantly.
Cherry lived in a boarding house with other performers at the music hall show on Brighton pier. Meanwhile Edgar’s wife Emma (who used to be Edgar’s deputy before marriage) is hired by Cherry’s parents to find the killer. Emma and Sam (who is having a secret affair with Max) run a detective agency. The investigators discover a link between the victim and a radio personality Pal, whose sinister past with a group of magicians including Ted bears investigating. When another magician’s assistant is murdered, and her link to Pal’s sinister set comes to light, they suspect the presence of a serial killer. Edgar convinces Max to return to the stage to smoke out the murderer. To assist Max on stage, he proposes a surprising candidate, a young and six-foot tall police constable Meg Connelly.
The series explores big issues with a light touch. While Max is an aristocrat and Roedean-educated, Emma is upper class and Edgar is middle class, Meg’s addition to the series allows Griffiths to continue her exploration—this time of a lower-class woman’s struggle to be taken seriously by a chauvinist society and police force. Griffiths is brilliant at evoking an atmospheric setting: the marshy seacoast of Norfolk is as much of a protagonist as Ruth in the Galloway series. Here, Griffiths brilliantly evokes the seedy underbelly and the glitz of Music Halls, and the precarious existence of those in thrall to stardom. The Great Deceiver offers us a cosy afternoon of gaudy glamour and sinister terror in 1960s Brighton Pier.
THE YEAR OF THE LOCUST by Terry Hayes (Bantam; 400 pages; ₹1,924)
If you are a Denied Access Area spy for the CIA, a trained nuclear submariner, and a whiz at languages (Russian and Arabic), then your mission is to find the plotter who is about to unleash a terrifying attack on the West. Ridley Kane infiltrates the borderlands of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran to meet a courier for the Army of the Pure who wants to trade the information for a safe passage for him and his family. But Kane is too late. The murdered courier is strung up on a cross in the middle of a bazaar, and the courier’s wife and two small daughters are chained to it. Kane knows he is in acute danger: the Army of the Pure is hunting for him with drones and machine guns in the mountainous terrain of Iran’s Badlands. Kane must find a way back to convey a terrifying piece of information about a vengeful, vicious, clever terrorist they thought was dead, and about an imminent attack that would make 9/11 look like child’s play.
The beating hearts of the book are Kane and the devout antagonist, a shadowy commander of the Army of the Pure, an Islamist terrorist organisation. Both are men driven by values and duty rather than greed. Kane has the skills of James Bond, but also has an emotional maturity that Bond lacks. His relationship with a doctor, Rebecca, humanises him, making him take difficult decisions when innocents are put at risk. What makes the book stand out even more is the superb job Hayes does of humanising the terrorist—by making us understand his origin story, ie, what made him who he has become.
The beating hearts of the year of the locust are Kane and the devout antagonist, a shadowy commander of an Islamist terrorist organistation. Both are men driven by values. Kane has the skills of James Bond, but has an emotional maturity that Bond lacks
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While the plot twist at the end of part three takes the story into a different genre (and will provoke many readers), the twist itself doesn’t defy the plot’s logic. It will even resonate with readers who have just emerged from a dystopian existence in a Covid world. Whether it was needed is debatable, but what it does do is make the stakes even higher for Kane and our world.
The Year of the Locust follows Hayes’ previous book, I Am Pilgrim, which sold millions of copies. This one has the makings of another mammoth bestseller. English-born Australian screenwriter and producer (including the Nicole Kidman starrer Dead Calm) Terry Hayes is the 21st-century avatar of a hybrid of Robert Ludlum, Alistair MacLean and Frederick Forsyth. He combines their relentless pace, expert in-house knowledge of spy-craft, and heart-in-mouth suspense to give us a wild and an edge-of-the-seat read.
Hayes follows an ancient style of storytelling: a narration that eases the reader into the story by giving just the right amount of information to understand the implications and the context of Kane’s actions. It is written from Kane’s viewpoint as he tells us about these incidents from his past. The precise, succinct, yet lyrical prose packs an emotional punch, the vivid descriptions enhance the unrelenting tension, and dense information is conveyed in an easy way without overwhelming the reader. All these make The Year of the Locust one of the best thrillers of 2023. Despite being a 400-page-book, the pace never flags—a testament to Hayes’s prowess as one of the finest spy-suspense-thriller writers of our time.