The dark side of Whitby: Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky and other crime novels reviewed

27 July 2019

9:00 AM

27 July 2019

9:00 AM

Andrew Martin continues his quest to create uniquely interesting crime novels in The Winker (Corsair, £16.99). Lee Jones is a rock musician facing cultural extinction as the punks take over. It’s 1976. He wanders around London dressed to the nines, living his fantasies. His trademark move on stage was to wink at a member of the audience. He’s still doing that to people on the street, but what follows these days is anything but mutual admiration. And so begins the career of the winking killer. (The author has fun with vowels.) Charles Underhill, a wealthy Englishman living in Paris, has his own reasons for being obsessed with the Winker’s killing spree. He sets out to uncover the identity of the murderer.

Martin loves to play games with the reader and his characters. His writing is funny and nasty by turns, but it’s all done with a knowing touch that allows him to tease out intriguing ideas. Accordingly, this story never quite goes where we think it will. The attitudes and social mores belong entirely to the period, as does the reason for the murders — as an antidote to ennui. This is a rare creature, a murder mystery that manages to be both comic and an existential thriller.

Ever since Serial took off, the true crime podcast has been popular. In Conviction (Harvill Secker, £14.99), Denise Mina uses this as a starting point for a novel of suspense and hidden secrets. While suffering from depression, Anna McDonald becomes addicted to a podcast called Death and the Dana, about a murder that took place on a yacht in Saint-Martin. With a shock she recognises the name of one of the victims. It seems that Anna is leading a double life, under an assumed identity, using the trappings of a ‘normal’ existence to cloak a difficult, painful past. And suddenly her life is in danger. The only way to protect herself is to find out the truth of what really happened aboard the Dana.

Anna’s adventures are interwoven with transcripts of the podcast. It’s difficult to make the sustained spoken voice come to life on the page, and these chapters don’t have the punch of the rest of the book. But this is an original idea carried out well. Mina’s storytelling is always vivid and exciting, and Anna is a complex, well-rounded figure — both fascinating and irritating in equal measure. And she fights hard whenit matters.

Kate Atkinson’s detective Jackson Brodie is only one player in Big Sky (Doubleday, £20). A whole range of characters, all of them finely drawn, are brought to life in this web of stories centred on the after-effects of the break up of a paedophilia ring. To take one strand: Vince Ives is a man facing divorce and unemployment, a terribly lonely figure washed up in Whitby. You’d think his life couldn’t get much worse, but then his wife is found dead, her head caved in with a golf club, and Vince is the prime suspect. Jackson Brodie saves Vince from suicide, and from then on is caught up in his life.

Many writers these days view working- class people either as victims to be saved or as feral beasts, so it’s refreshing to see them portrayed as wonderfully average human beings, driven by combinations of love and hate, desire, greed, compassion and so on. Every person here is written from the inside out, without any signs of prejudice. Atkinson saves judgment for when it matters: to bring wrongdoers to justice. Sad bastards, low-life heroes, pervy types: the streets of the seaside town are well-populated. A fantastic mosaic of a book.

Written in 1968, Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy (Pushkin Vertigo, £8.99) is a hidden classic. Filiberto Garcia, an ageing hit man, is employed by the Mexican police force. When rumours circulate of a plot to assassinate the US president on his visit to the country, Garcia is given the job of taking out the perpetrators before they can act. Rumours centre on the tiny Chinatown section of Mexico City. Garcia falls for a local shop-assistant, Marta, and the narrative weaves a tender offbeat love story with a violent, hard-hitting tale of redemption.

The spirit of noir haunts the pages. The point of view flows easily from first to third person, so that a paragraph might start off about Garcia, and then, before we know it, we’re inside his head, looking out at an increasingly treacherous world. Gritty, cruel in places, hypnotic and compelling, even by the standards of the period it’s a brutal read. There’s hardly anything in it that corresponds to our present-day values. Which begs the question: what has been lost over the years in terms of truth in storytelling, and what gained? There is no easy answer, only continued exploration.

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