This Is What Happened (John Murray, £12.99) is an ingenious standalone psychological thriller from Mick Herron, award-winning writer of the superb Slough House spy series. Recently arrived in London, naive postroom worker Maggie Barnes is adrift and lonely. When she is recruited by enigmatic Harvey to work for MI5, she seizes the chance to be part of something important, but things quickly start to unravel when she is caught sneaking about her office at night, attempting to upload spyware on the company’s computer network. Mind games and Herron’s distinctive dark humour abound, and readers will spot that Harvey isn’t what he appears to be long before Maggie does. It all serves to rachet up tension for a compelling and claustrophobic three-hander, told with admirable economy.
The Blood Road (HarperCollins, £16.99) is the 11th novel in bestselling author Stuart MacBride’s series featuring long-suffering Aberdeenshire policeman Logan McRae. Now working in Professional Standards and policing his fellow officers – including the wonderfully scabrous Roberta Steele – he becomes embroiled in the case of DI Bell, who is thought to have been dead and buried for two years when he turns up as a corpse in a crashed car. Meanwhile, young children are being abducted, and there are rumours that the twice-dead officer might have been involved in a clandestine “livestock mart” that caters to well-heeled paedophiles. Squeamish readers should probably look elsewhere, but the book is a tour de force, expertly balancing wisecracks with moments of genuine fist-in-mouth horror in a smartly paced and vividly pungent police procedural.
Set in Glasgow in 1969, Liam McIlvanney’s The Quaker (HarperCollins, £12.99) is loosely based on the murders of the real – and never caught – serial killer “Bible John”, who is believed to have raped and strangled three women after meeting them in the city’s Barrowland Ballroom. DI Duncan McCormack is drafted in from the flying squad to review Glasgow CID’s failing investigation, much to the irritation of the incumbents, who have already attracted scorn from the media for their futile attempts to solve the case by mingling with the punters at the dance hall. A parallel narrative concerning safe-cracker Alex Paton, who travels home from London to take part in an auction house heist, is skilfully dovetailed as the plot thickens and McCormack gets drawn deeper into both cases. Despite some anachronisms, this is an atmospheric portrait of a dreich and seedy place in the throes of slum clearance, as well as a solidly crafted and satisfying detective story.
EC Fremantle’s The Poison Bed (Michael Joseph, £12.99) is also based on a true story, which took place in London more than three centuries earlier. The arrest of power couple Robert and Frances Carr for the poisoning of courtier Sir Thomas Overbury set tongues wagging in 1615, not least because Carr was a favourite of James I and Frances was a scion of the aristocratic Howard family. Fremantle uses many of the facts as the bedrock for a tale of intrigue and ambition in which rival factions jockey, sometimes fatally, to cement their power bases at court. A place in the king’s bed means the handsome but gormless Carr is promoted beyond his abilities and relies on the far cleverer Overbury for guidance – until the pair fall out over whether he should wed Frances, whose family, desiring advancement, are seeking the annulment of her existing marriage to free her up for this more advantageous union. When Overbury refuses the position of ambassador to the court of Russia, an irate King James consigns him to the Tower of London, where he falls ill and dies in mysterious circumstances. As Robert and Frances pass the narrative baton between them it slowly becomes clear that Frances may not be the helpless pawn that she first appears … Although their characterisation would have benefited from more subtlety, this is a rich and fascinating book, all the more welcome for being set in a period that tends to be neglected by writers of historical crime.
Last but by no means least, there’s light relief in the form of A Shot in the Dark (Raven, £12.99), the first book in Lynne Truss’s projected series based on her delightful radio comedies set in 1950s Brighton. Inspector Steine is convinced that since the Middle Street Massacre of 1951, during which the town’s criminals wiped themselves out while the police stopped off for ice cream, his patch has been clean as a whistle. This is despite the presence of a cast of small-timers such as Stanley-knife Stanley and Ronnie the Nerk, as well as a mysterious redhead with links to a string of burglaries; his airy dismissal of vital clues is the bane of both jaded Sergeant Brunswick and ambitious newcomer Constable Twitten, who have their work cut out when a theatre critic with lots of enemies is shot dead during the opening night of a play. With plenty of brightly coloured bucket-and-spadery, including ghost trains and Punch and Judy and variety acts, this clever, tongue-in-cheek escapade is a perfect summer read.
• Laura Wilson’s The Other Woman is published by Quercus. To order these books at a discount go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
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