CORMORAN STRIKE AND his business partner, the doughty Robin Ellacott are back, and this time the detectives tackle the cyberworld — a shadowy ether with berserk fans and trolls hiding behind online aliases. They are approached by Edie Ledwell, the co-creator of a popular cartoon on YouTube, The Ink Black Heart, who says she is being threatened by an online figure who goes by the pseudonym, Anomie. Edie’s show has been bought by Netflix and this has annoyed Ano•mie and Morehouse, two fans who have created an online game based on the cartoon. Anomie has unleashed the fandom’s wrath on Edie for selling out and has issued death threats against her, Edie says. The agency is overstretched with its other cases, so Robin rejects the appeal only to read in the papers that Edie has been murdered in Highgate Cemetery at the very spot she had come up with the idea for the cartoon, and her grievously injured co-creator is lying in hospital. Robin and Cormoran are hired by a group that includes Edie’s stepfa•ther, her agent and friends to find her murderer. Their task is to infiltrate the online game and figure out Anomie’s true identity. The dictionary definition of anomie—a lack of moral and societal values—highlights why JK Rowling (who writes crime fiction under the name of Robert Galbraith) chose that pseudonym for the villain. The theme is how the online world of anonymous fans and trolls can be made accountable for their actions. Nobody is mob-proof, especially the leaders of the mobs.
Those who live by the mob must be prepared to die by it— that’s one of her answers. Other reviewers have noted that the book could be read as Rowling working out her own battles against the internet trolls who gunned for her over a Twitter controversy about transgender folks. But Rowling denied it in an interview, saying the controversy erupted after she had written the book. Though this is another doorstopper at 1016 pages, she sets a galloping pace and draws us into the tortured worlds of the suspects: the misunderstood and ill-treated young who retreat into online avatars in the anonymity of the digital space, negli•gent and some down•right abusive parents, millionaire commune patriarchs and Far Right acolytes. This is a world where freedom comes with psychological problems. While the structure of the book may put off some read•ers—it veers between online chats and the more conventional narrative—Rowling hooks us with the Strike-Robin combo. Rich interior lives—Strike’s bizarre extended family of half-siblings, his former girlfriend in the midst of a messy divorce that is tugging Strike in, and Robin’s struggle to make sense of her feelings for Strike—propel a page turner. We read to also find out will they-won’t they finally get together. Though here is my heartfelt appeal to Rowling—please, no more door stoppers.
CLARE MACKINTOSH RETURNS to her policewoman roots in the first of a police procedural series with a Welsh DC Ffion Morgan, a fiery detective living in her hometown, a village where she is related to half the villagers and everyone knows the intimate secrets of everyone else. Rhys Lloyd, the biggest star Cwm Coed has produced, one who after making it big now finds his star fading, returns to the town and builds high-end holiday homes on the lakeside land he inherited from his father. The villagers are up in arms at this invasion by outsiders, and as the new owners shift in, to defuse the tension, Lloyd invites the villagers to a New Year’s party. Champagne, music, dancing and food bring the whole village to the resort. When New Year’s day dawns, Rhys is found floating in the lake and the suspects are Ffion’s family, friends and relatives. Since the lake is on the border between England and Wales, DC Ffion has to work with DC Leo Brady from the English side, a man with whom she has a bit of a history.
As they sift through the suspects, Brady realises that Ffion’s relatives abound among the suspects and that Ffion herself has secrets that may impinge on the investigation. Mack•intosh’s racy, pacy style shakes up the usually plodding narrative of a police procedural. Her use of a palindromic technique to tell the story adds to the reader’s delight and keeps them second guessing because at halfway point it flips the timeline and we see the lead-up to the events of the first half.
With the debate on whether white authors can write characters of colour at full swing in the UK, Mackintosh sidesteps the issue by never really bringing it up except when Leo Brady is first introduced. We know he is not white—“his dark arm” is mentioned— and then she proceeds to treat him like a human being, not a racial category. By doing so, she chooses deliberately to ignore how race has made him into what he is (timid and unwilling to speak up when his interests are hurt), and focuses more on his troubled relationship with his ex-wife and the tussle over parental rights over his son. Again, these issues are dealt with a light touch, which deepens the flavour of the book into an enjoyable Agatha Christie-ish whodunit rather than a gritty police procedural. A great start to the series!
A DELECTABLE FEAST FOR fans of Miss Marple written in the voice of Agatha Christie by a talented slew of crime fiction writers. Each one imagines either a continuation of a Miss Marple adventure (like Val Mc Dermid’s ‘A Second Murder at the Vicarage’, which is my all-time favourite among the Miss Marple stories), or a plea from Mrs Bantry (like Ruth Ware’s ‘Miss Marple’s Christmas,’ where a pearl necklace goes missing at Mrs Bantry’s Christmas lunch, and Leigh Bardugo’s ‘The Disappearance’), or an everyday St Mary Mead murder (Natalie Haynes’ ‘The Unravelling’). Others like Lucy Foley whisk her off to visit a schoolfriend in Meon Maltravers, a Fellow’s dinner at St Bede’s college in Oxford (Naomi Alderman), and an inter-racial wedding in London (Dreda Say Mitchell). Her fond nephew Raymond coughs up for his aunt Jane’s foreign trips: Manhattan (Alyssa Cole’s At Bertram Hotel-style mystery), Italy (Elly Griffiths’ ‘Murder at the Villa Rosa’), Cape Cod (Karen M McManus’ ‘The Murdering Sort’) and a cruise ship to Hong Kong (Jean Kwok). No Marple anthology is complete without a train journey (Kate Mosse’s ‘The Mystery of the Acid Soil’) where Christie set many of her books including the brilliant 4.50 from Paddington and Murder on the Orient Express.
Christie’s acerbic humour is lovingly captured in phrases like these: “Miss Hartnell’s jaw dropped, revealing large yellow teeth that would have been more at home in the mouth of Colonel Bantry’s favourite hunter.” As is her acuity in highlighting the jealously guarded class distinctions in Miss Marple’s era: “It appeared that the concept of never speaking ill of the dead fell into abeyance when the dead were of the servant class.” There is a delightful variety of plots, ingenious solutions worthy of the Queen of Crime herself, one of which was very clever indeed where the murderer and the victim …I shall say no more. Grab it and read it.
I AM A CARD CARRYING fan of Horowitz. If you watch any of his interviews, you will come away marvelling at his exuberant enthusiasm for writing, his discipline of working ten hours a day though from how he describes it, he seems to regard it as play, and the sheer inventiveness and range of his talents in novels (the Alex Rider series, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes books, and the Hawthorne series), film (The Gathering), theatre, and television (Foyle’s War, Midsomer Murders, among others).
The Twist of Knife continues the ongoing saga of Horowitz the author as a character in his own novel who had been contracted to write three books about the investigations of the reluctant and enigmatic ex-Scotland Yard detective Daniel Hawthorne. The twohave had a difficult relationship (which echoes the struggle authors face in finding out more about their main characters) and Anthony is fed up with being the Watson and constantly upstaged by Hawthorne. The deal’s over, he tells Hawthorne, now that he is busy with a new play, a thriller called Mindgame, staged at the famous Vaudeville theatre.
The Sunday Times critic Harriet Throsby gives it a savage review, with harsh words reserved for its author. The next day she is stabbed with an ornamental dagger belonging to Anthony. The performers (a rising Welsh actor signed up to star in a Christopher Nolan film, a Native American superstar, and a millennial ingenue), the producer, and the director had the motive and the opportunity to kill the critic. But only poor Anthony also had the means—his fingerprints and DNA are on the murder weapon. His arch enemy Detective Inspector Cara Grunshaw arrests him and after a gruelling interrogation and a grovelling phone call to Hawthorne, the duo is back in business, racing against the clock to find the killer. They have to figure out if Harriet’s death is linked to her past writings or the present review. Unlike the ‘book within a book’ style meta-narrative of some earlier outings, this one hews close to the classic whodunit with its six main suspects, red herrings, surprising twists and a satisfying denouement. A delightful read.