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Character is king in the latest crime fiction

26 March 2022

9:00 AM

26 March 2022

9:00 AM

Thriller writers are hard pressed to stand out in what’s become a very crowded field. As a result, from Cardiff to Kansas we meet every conceivable kind of detective: if one walks with a telltale limp, another has no legs at all. Even the requirements of diversity can’t disguise the desperation of the search for distinctive heroes, or how variety itself has become a convention.

Simon Mason’s A Killing in November (Quercus, £14.99) begins with more than a nod to thriller traditions. It’s set in the fictional Oxford college of St Barnabas, with a grumpy provost wooing a corrupt Middle Eastern potentate, a college servant with a hidden agenda and, naturally, an unknown woman found strangled in the provost’s office. This is Morse country, with an only slightly updated kind of car.

Yet even early on there are suggestions of the author’s highly original take on the genre. When the sheik abruptly leaves the college, fearful for his safety, he is pursued by a menacing posse in hoodies; we expect an assassination attempt at any minute. Instead, the killers turn out to be a quartet of undergraduates, who at the climactic moment moon rather than maim their target. Then an apparently criminal type, sleeping in his low-rent house on the city’s outskirts, is awakened by a phone call at 3 a.m. A deal, it seems, is going down. Grabbing his Glock 26, he drives, against all our expectations, to St Barnabas. There, to the night porter’s disbelief, the man is revealed to be the CID detective assigned to investigate the murder of the mystery woman.

The detective is called Ryan Wilkins and he has grown up in a trailer park on the outskirts of Oxford, relying on native intelligence rather than education to push his way into the police. Upward mobility has yet to soften his rough edges, and he has a chip on both shoulders – as well as a very bad temper that he only keeps in check by opting for insolence instead: ‘People understood insolence in someone like him; everything fell into place if he was rude to them.’

Unsurprisingly, he progresses through the story on the perpetual brink of suspension, and is put under the command of a senior colleague, also named Wilkins – an improbable coincidence that seems entirely lifelike. This other Wilkins is of Nigerian descent, a natty dresser and a graduate of Balliol, with a PPE degree and a boxing Blue. He is calm but ambitious, given to introspection and caution in equal measure, and thus the counterweight to Ryan, who is anything but careful.

The mystery of the murder at St Barnabas is prolonged by difficulties identifying the victim. It seems the sheik may be involved, as well as a rare copy of the Quran that the college owns. The story’s intricacies are not always easy to follow, but the writing throughout is first rate, studded by unobtrusive yet enriching grace notes: a villain’s deformed hand ‘lay on the table like an unshelled crab’; a woman running in the rain has ‘blonde hair swishing like a fan’. And the book lights up with each appearance of the brilliant but self-destructive Ryan, whose way of talking is pungent (to put it mildly) and wonderfully demotic. This is the first book in a projected series, and though Ryan Wilkins is about as far removed from George Smiley as a protagonist can be, he may in time become as memorable. He’s an extraordinary creation, and demonstrates that even in the most suspenseful thrillers, character is king.

After 31 novels with the same hero, Donna Leon knows all about keeping a protagonist alive. Her vast body of work always shows a dual kind of care in its depictions of modern-day Venice and her detective Guido Brunetti. He is the consummately thoughtful rather than macho policeman, though his work reveals the seedy underbelly of life in that most idealised of cities.

In this latest addition, Give Unto Others (Ebury, £20), he is approached by Elisabetta Foscarini, who had been a childhood neighbour in the apartment block where Brunetti grew up. As the daughter of a wealthy businessman, she was always a cut above the working class Brunetti, whose father was the building’s handyman, but now she comes to him as a supplicant. She is concerned about her daughter – who has been warned by her husband that they face some unspecified danger. No crime seems to have been committed, so Brunetti agrees to help only on an informal, unofficial basis. This hampers his investigation even more than the usual Italian bureaucracy’s impediments, but gradually he disinters some powerful family secrets, made especially resonant for him because of his past acquaintance with Elisabetta’s clan.

As ever in Leon’s novels, Venice remains the world’s largest small town, its geography invoked in roaming, specific detail. There are characteristically stylish touches: interviewing a retired vice admiral suffering from dementia, Brunetti sees that it’s futile asking him questions – ‘the sailor had abandoned ship’. But there is also a laboured quality to many of the descriptions, especially when they don’t play any enlivening role in a book that hungers for a quicker pace. Enough of the established formula is here to satisfy Leon’s fans, but those new to Commissario Brunetti should start with the earlier books in the series.

Another thriller veteran, Joseph Kanon has made the world of Cold War spying his forte. His latest novel, The Berlin Exchange (Simon & Schuster, £16.99) is set in East Berlin in 1963, later than Kanon’s usual favoured years just after the war. Martin Keller is an American physicist who has been convicted of passing on secrets about the nuclear bomb to the Russians. After serving eight years in prison, he is released to East Germany as the book begins, in an exchange of spies facilitated by the same man who has taken his place as husband to his ex-wife Sabine – and as father to Keller’s son Peter, who has become nationally famous for his role in a children’s television drama. The reunion with his ex-wife revives Keller’s former feelings for her, and when Sabine is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he determines to escape with her and their son in order to find better medical treatment in the West.

Kanon is a writer of marvellous clearness, whose dialogue simultaneously builds his characters and advances the plot. The Berlin Exchange is particularly good in portraying life in East Berlin soon after the erection of the Wall. Keller is an appealing protagonist, who proves to be a not very committed communist and soon grows discontented with the Stasi-controlled regime. The escape plan for the family is cleverly conceived, and the tension of their flight nicely stoked, though the final twist is fairly unsurprising (when a character says they’re going to the loo twice in one scene you know something’s up).

A bleak ending to the book has echoes of The Third Man and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but despite efforts to promote Kanon as this generation’s Graham Greene or John Le Carré, he is not really in their league. In his not-so-infinite variety, however, he is an excellent and entertaining storyteller. Surely that is good enough.

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