A Few Good Scares
Having reviewed books on and off for twenty years I’ve inevitably built up a spectacular stack of them, mostly good – I don’t see a point of reviewing books you disliked because press space is valuable. The one exception I was forced to make was for a surprisingly weak Stephen King tome about farting aliens, which was granted a 2,000 word space in the paper for no reason other than that everyone else would be covering it.
So here are a few authors I’ve cherry-picked from that vast stack whom you may have missed. None of them, I note, were particularly well served by their covers, all of which are off-cuttingly bland.
Breed by Chase Novak
Crime frequently makes excursions into outright horror, but ‘Breed’ succeeds more than most because of its obsession with a primeval emotion; the child’s fear of its parent.
Alex Twisden is an arrogant old-money New York lawyer, and his trophy wife Leslie is happy to share his lifestyle. Alex needs an heir, but the couple fail to conceive. When they bump into friends who‘ve become fertile after visiting a Slovenian doctor, they follow the same course and Leslie is soon pregnant.
Unfortunately the friends who made the recommendation vanish and their home appears to have been destroyed. Leslie has twins, and as the couple are drawn to thoughts of meat and murder, a kindly teacher risks all to help the children…
Novak puts an innovative spin on the idea that monsters lurk inside every parent, and delivers pulse-racing set pieces on the Manhattan streets as a pervasive sense of dread blossoms into something poisonous and midnight-dark. The result is a stylish parable of greed and uncontrollable appetites, peppered with plenty of dry urban humour. A sequel, Brood, proved disappointing.
Border Run by Simon Lewis
A good crime novel combines anticipation with uncertainty, and thanks to Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’, there’s an unnerving anticipation of bad things to come from the outset of this backpacking tale.
Will and Jake head into the Golden Triangle on the promise of finding a waterfall and local girls, but Howard, their stoner guide, has another agenda. The border is patrolled by police on the lookout for drug runners, and soon the vacation becomes memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Expectations are neatly upended. As the students venture into the jungle darkness, their escalating nightmare is tempered by hopeless attempts at being British and reasonable. There are absurd grace-notes; in a tense standoff with a loaded and unreliable crossbow, an unconcerned forest butterfly floats between them, and a pursuing cop fails to conform to his sinister stereotype – he’s just trying to improve his English. With characters as annoying as any of us would be when pushed into panic, this tight exercise in real-time suspense succeeds where more convoluted thrillers fail.
The Flight by M R Hall
As hooks go, this one has a killer; a gigantic Airbus A380 crashes into the icy waters of the Severn Estuary, but it appears that one young passenger who washes up on the shore survived the crash only to die later. A boat with a lone sailor also appears to have been sunk by the faltering airliner. The coroner starts asking questions that extend beyond her remit; the plane seems to have slowed to stall speed without anyone realising, so how could the computerised plane have failed, and could there be another connection between the crash and the death of a ten year-old girl?
This was Coroner Jenny Cooper’s fourth outing (there are more now). Cooper was in poor shape to begin with, a divorced bundle of nerves on anti-depressants, but this time she’s tangling with big business as well as the establishment, so the stakes are even higher. It’s a terrific series, meticulously researched, sharply plotted and peopled with sympathetic characters, led by Cooper, who is always aware of the human consequences of failure.
Hanging Hill – Mo Hayder
Never put a tennis ball in your mouth. DI Zoe Benedict does this in Hayder’s new novel to see the effect it had on a victim, and nearly chokes to death. It’s the kind of detail the author is fond of adding, because she believes in putting her readers through the same kind of visceral extremes experienced by her characters.
Ditzy Sally and hard-headed Zoe are sisters who have spent two decades apart, but circumstances draw them back together. Sally’s divorce leaves her in dire straits, and with a teenaged daughter to support she resorts to increasingly desperate measures. Working for the kind of man anyone else would have the sense to run a mile from, she soon finds herself involved in drugs, pornography, murder and her sister’s buried past…
I’ve always liked Mo Hayder, although I sometimes think she needs to lighten up a tad. One of her great strengths is showing the connection between economic hardship and criminal actions. Here, Sally’s life unravels as a direct result of her inability to manage financially. Although relentlessly grim, ‘Hanging Hill’ is an authentically disturbing, gripping winner.