There are echoes of the real 11-year-old killer Mary Bell in Nancy Tucker’s remarkably self-assured debut novel, The first day of spring (Hutchinson, Â£ 12.99). From the first line, the eight-year-old narrator leaves no doubt that she too is a murderer. Neglected by her mother, with a catastrophically indifferent father, Chrissie is constantly in search of food, affection, so that someone notices that she exists. She acts in school, bullies her friends, and makes heartbreaking attempts to redefine abuse as care. The tale is split between child Chrissie, whose terrible secret makes her feel, for once, important, as the police try to find out who strangled two-year-old Steven; and the adult woman, renamed Julia and released after a long stay in a secure unit. Now a mother herself, Julia adores four-year-old Molly, but mothering doesn’t come easily to someone who has never been mothered. Consumed by guilt and fearing that Molly will be taken from her, she revisits the scene of her crime. Insightful and compassionate, it’s a story of human devastation, beautifully told.
While not the culprit, protagonist Cath also returns to the scene of the crime in Nina Allan’s latest novel, The good neighbors (Riverrun, Â£ 16.99). Cath was a teenager on the Isle of Bute when her best friend Shirley Craigie was murdered, along with her mother and baby brother. the killer, Shirley’s father, John, died in a car crash shortly after. Cath, now passionate about photography with a plan to document the âMurder Housesâ, forms a difficult friendship with the woman who owns the Craigies’ former home. A dollhouse built by John, a carpenter, offers a disturbing glimpse into his inner world, and when Cath learns he believes in fairies, her suspicions about the seemingly clear family annihilation escalate. Allan is best known for his speculative fictions, and there is certainly an element of whimsy in this wonderfully atmospheric novel, which references schizophrenic parricidal artist Richard Dadd as well as folklore and mathematical theory. However, it is also a wonderful crime story about memory, compulsion, and the effects of trauma.
Any campus crime story involving a charismatic classic with a bunch of sidekicks risks being compared to the gold standard that is Donna Tartt The secret story. Unfortunately, Alex Michaelides’ second novel, The ladies (W&N, Â£ 14.99), is not doing well; despite the Cambridge setting, the ancient cults, and the sprinkling of Euripides and John Webster, it’s a pretty dull affair. Recently widowed at just 36, supernaturally attractive psychotherapist Mariana Andros goes to college to support her niece, Zoe, whose friend has been murdered. Very early on, she decides that the police have the wrong man and that the handsome professor Edward Fosca, with his coterie of adored students, is guilty; it will not be hijacked, neither by other suspicious characters nor by the naturally annoyed Chief Inspector. Further characterization would have made this work a study of obsession, but, as with Michaelides’ first novel, The silent patient, there is an air of artifice, and the end, which comes out of left field, seems implausible and abrupt.
There are more students, in a less healthy environment, in Joseph Knox’s ingenious fourth novel, True crime story (Double day, Â£ 14.99). Posing as a second edition of a non-fiction work dealing with the unsolved case of Zoe Nolan, who disappeared while at the University of Manchester, it contains a fictional version of the author who is suing the case after the death of the original investigator, Evelyn Mitchell. Built from a series of interviews with Zoe’s family and friends some seven years after the event, as well as emails between “Joseph Knox” – who doesn’t exactly cover himself in glory – and the Mitchell more and more paranoid, True crime story is truly immersive: complex, disturbing, surprisingly funny, and very intelligent.
Rachel Edwards’ second novel, Fortunate (4th Estate, Â£ 12.99), offers a glimpse into the terrifying chasm that is online gambling. Etta wants to get married, and her partner Ola says he does too, but they have to save Â£ 30,000 as a mortgage deposit first. Their joint savings amount to Â£ 22,000 and, tired of Ola’s constant promises of jam tomorrow, Etta decides she can fill the shortfall on the Cozee Bingo website, drawn by the promise of big prizes by cash. The beginner’s luck takes him further; in no time, she has used up her nest egg and borrows at dizzying interest rates, always in pursuit of the victory that will fix everything. Edwards’ evocation of how bad decisions lead to worst is realistic enough that the reader suffers a cold sweat, and when Etta forms a chat room friendship with fellow player StChristopher75, the tension becomes almost unbearable. There are other important things going on here – no less than two immigration stories, one of which is apparently unrelated to the main narrative – but such is Edwards’ skill in creating an impossible stack. watch – until the outcome is a pleasant surprise.