Two writers with something to prove this month: one obliged to demonstrate that they can follow up a much-acclaimed debut, and one having to show that they can maintain the quality of a franchise they are taking over.
Stuart Turton must have been apprehensive about the reception that his second novel The Devil and the Dark Water (Raven, £16.99) would receive — the audacious The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle was much praised for its blend of Agatha Christie-style plotting and Groundhog Day tricks with time.
The strategies of that book were unrepeatable, so Turton was obliged to come up with something as new and provocative. But has lightning struck twice?
On a voyage to Amsterdam in 1634, the merchant ship Saardam becomes the scene of gruesome deaths and possibly supernatural horror. Sammy Pipps, a prisoner on a ship full of murderers, encounters a catalogue of the bizarre including a locked room murder and the reappearance of a leprous man who was thought to be dead.
Are the bloody happenings the result of human agency or — as is suspected — a demon with the name of “Old Tom”?
There’s no suspense over the first question: Turton has produced something every bit as unorthodox as its predecessor, a genre-sampling epic that sets outrageous traps for the reader and builds an atmosphere of dread up to an operatic final twist. Turton had to prove he was no one-hit wonder; Andrew Grant, brother of Jack Reacher’s creator Lee Child, has something else to prove — can he sustain the impact of the Reacher books now that the series has been handed to him?
The first book under new management is not quite a clean break — The Sentinel (Bantam Press, £20) is credited to “Lee Child and Andrew Child” (Andrew having taken on his brother’s pseudonymous surname), and the collaborative process has proved successful.
Grant’s own books have been accomplished, but have made only a moderate impact; The Sentinel suggests we’ll be hearing a lot more about Grant/Child frère.
Jack Reacher fetches up in a Tennessee town called Pleasantville — a misnomer. The town has suffered a ransomware cyber attack, with unassuming IT technician Rusty Rutherford in the line of fire as malign individuals close in. But Reacher is on hand, and (as usual) bone-crunching retribution is on the agenda before a final bloody assault on a bad guy’s citadel.
Who wrote what in The Sentinel? Frankly, readers won’t care; the collaboration here produces vintage Reacher. The auguries are that the new author will be able to sustain the trajectory when he is flying solo.
Elly Griffiths’ beguiling The Postscript Murders (Quercus, £18.99) is a sequel to The Stranger Diaries (2018), featuring gay female copper Harbinder Kaur (from a Sikh background).
It’s set in the community of crime writers, agents and publishers — a world Griffiths knows well. In a West Sussex coastal town, Ukrainian care worker Natalka discovers the elderly Peggy Smith dead by a window — natural causes?
Natalka, Harbinder and ex-monk Benedict form an ill-assorted group to investigate the dead woman’s enigmatic past.
Eccentric bands of sleuths are coming back into fashion (Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, for example), but Griffiths carves out her own very distinctive niche in this sub-genre, balancing humour and suspense with some aplomb.
The Edinburgh-set John Rebus novels of Ian Rankin are nonpareil, and it’s clear that age cannot wither either the bloody-minded Rebus or his creator, as A Song for the Dark Times (Orion, £20) comprehensively proves. This 23rd outing transports Rankin’s retired copper to an isolated part of northern Scotland, where his daughter Samantha’s partner Keith has disappeared.
Rankin takes us into a close-knit local commune, the characterisation of which alone is worth the price of admission.
But back in Edinburgh, Rebus’s ex-colleague Siobhan Clarke is investigating the death of a 23-year-old Saudi, and with such familiar figures as the gangster Gerry Cafferty and the unsparing detective Malcolm Fox in the mix, this is vintage Rankin — which is to say, the best that the crime genre can currently offer.
Half-Norwegian, half-American writer Alex Dahl’s assured Playdate (Head of Zeus, £18.99) begins with a daughter’s sleepover ending in abduction, and quickly exerts a grip.
The Blix family is thrown into chaos as investigative journalist Selma attempts to unpick the truth behind a picture of happy family life. Lengthy (400-odd pages) and told from a variety of viewpoints (including that of the missing child, Lucia), this is proof that Dahl is a writer to watch.
Barry Forshaw’s latest book is ‘Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide’
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café
Get alerts on Crime books when a new story is published