The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett (Viper, £14.99)
Hallett’s bestselling debut The Appeal, an intelligent mystery set within the deceptively genteel confines of a local am-dram group, was a modern epistolary novel, told in emails. Her second is even better, and presented as audio files, complete with intriguing mistakes made by the transcription software. Recorded on an iPhone by ex-con Steven Smith for his probation officer, they are records of his attempts to find his old English teacher, who disappeared on a school trip to Bournemouth, erstwhile home of Blytonesque children’s writer Edith Twyford. Twyford’s books are catnip to conspiracy theorists; they’re thought to contain a code that may have something to do with their author’s activities during the second world war. Steven, with help from his former classmates and a librarian, sets out to crack it – and, in the process, solve the puzzle of his own life. This fiendishly clever book, which manages to be both tricksy and surprisingly moving, is the perfect antidote to the post-Christmas carb stupor.
The Second Cut by Louise Welsh (Canongate, £14.99)
Twenty years after Welsh’s award-winning debut The Cutting Room comes the return of gay auctioneer Rilke, now middle aged but still tiptoeing around the edges of Glasgow’s criminal underworld. When old friend Jojo is found dead after giving Rilke a tip-off about a lucrative house clearance in Galloway, the police are inclined to write it off as the result of a decadent lifestyle – Jojo had a fondness for Grindr hook-ups and chemsex parties – but Rilke decides to investigate. The house clearance isn’t quite what it seems, either. There’s the abandoned car in which two people died, the terrified Asian man who may be on the run from people traffickers, the terrier found locked in a chest – and what’s happened to the elderly lady who owned the place? Complex and very atmospheric, with plenty of sardonic humour and sharp observations about injustice, like its predecessor this is a hardboiled gem.
The Maid by Nita Prose (HarperCollins, £14.99)
If you have already trashed your new year’s resolutions, you could do a lot worse than console yourself with this delightful cosy mystery. The narrator, neurodivergent 25-year-old Molly Gray, works at the Regency Grand Hotel, in an unspecified North American city. Although her tendency to take things literally causes some problems, she loves the anonymity afforded by her uniform and finds comfort in restoring order, especially after the death of the beloved grandmother who raised her. Although some colleagues are supportive, others abuse her trust and, when she discovers the body of tycoon Charles Black in the penthouse suite, she soon finds herself in the frame for his murder. The plot is undemanding, and readers will find themselves several steps ahead of Molly at any given time because of her difficulty in decoding situations and reading social cues, but her bravery, kindness and lack of artifice are engaging enough to have you rooting for her all the way.
Wahala by Nikki May (Doubleday, £14.99)
“Wahala” means, loosely, trouble, and there’s plenty of it in this entertaining debut. Friends since university, where they bonded over their mixed Nigerian and British heritage, Ronke, Boo and Simi now live in London, where they pivot between cultures. Dentist Ronke wants to settle down with her unreliable boyfriend; Boo, feeling trapped by family life, is contemplating an affair; and Simi, who is making headway in her career, isn’t as keen as her husband on having a baby … but their friendship is rock solid until glamorous Isabel, an old schoolfriend of Simi’s, arrives to drive a wedge between them, homing in mercilessly on each woman’s weak point. Mystery takes second place to character study, and by the end of the story the vengeful Isabel is teetering dangerously on the edge of caricature, but Wahala is a fascinating, funny and nuanced look at identity and female friendship.
Real Easy by Marie Rutkoski (Tinder, £18.99)
There’s female friendship of a different sort in children’s author Rutkoski’s adult debut: the camaraderie, or lack thereof, among exotic dancers at an Illinois strip club. When Samantha, AKA Ruby, reluctantly agrees to drive new colleague Lady Jade home from the Lovely Lady, they are run off the road – but police officer Victor Amador finds only one body. Real Easy is more than the story of the subsequent investigation: multiple narrators including dancers, their relatives, detectives, club patrons and the killer himself offer a kaleidoscopic view of a morally precarious world where male desire is a whisker away from male violence. With a cast of fully realised characters – the cops have troubles of their own, and life at the club, with its overlay of sleazy glamour, is balanced by domestic vignettes and quotidian concerns – this is a familiar story told in a way that packs a real emotional punch.
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