Death Is A Welcome Guest, the second in Louise Welsh’s post-apocalyptic Plague Times trilogy (John Murray, £14.99), resets the clock to the outbreak of the mysterious disease known as The Sweats. This time around, Welsh focusses on a stand-up comedian who is accidentally arrested while trying to do the right thing. Magnus McFall is a decent guy, and he’s not built for life inside. However, when he and his cellmate escape in the aftermath of the pandemic, Magnus finds that life in the new world outside the prison walls is even more dangerous and brutal.
Welsh’s fast-moving tale switches from a terrifically choreographed prison break to a road-trip through a post-plague landscape where all the rules of society have changed and ordinary people like Magnus must adapt to survive. The last third becomes a terrifying take on the traditional detective story, with a killer to be found among a limited cast in a remote location. But Welsh imbues what could have been a simple narrative with more profound meaning and resonance. The stakes are high, the characters are morally conflicted and the prose races by with furious intent.
Welsh shows that you can write high-concept thrillers without pandering to a perceived audience or sacrificing deeper intelligence. After the thrilling climax, readers will be desperate to find out what happens next in what, Welsh assures us, will be the final entry in this fascinating, unsettling and all-too-plausible trilogy.
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Varg Veum, a private investigator, discovers dark secrets when, at the behest of his long term partner, Karin, he hunts for a missing wind-farm inspector in We Shall Inherit The Wind (Orenda Books, £8.99), the latest from the highly regarded Norwegian crime writer, Gunnar Staalesen.
The book opens with Veum at Karin’s hospital bedside, resisting the urge to lose himself in a bottle of aquavit, before skipping back in time by several weeks. Much of the tension arises from the anticipation of how Karin winds up in that bed, and why Veum seems to blame himself for the situation. But this thread never overshadows the rest of the mature and captivating plot.
With its exploration of family dynamics and the complex web of human behaviour, Staalesen’s novel echoes the great California author Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer mysteries. There are some incredible set-pieces including a botched act of terrorism that has frightening consequences, but the Varg Veum series is more concerned with character and motivation than spectacle, and it’s in the quieter scenes that the real drama lies.
The dialogue, translated with a light and natural touch by Don Bartlett, has a rhythm that often recalls the energy of another influential PI writer, Raymond Chandler; particularly in a scene where our hero finds himself flirting with one of his employers. But for all that he parallels the classic detectives, Veum is very much his own man, and it’s easy to see why the citizens of Norway have become so attached to him over the years. In fact, he is so popular that a statue of the character has been erected in his home-town of Bergen. Not even Scotland’s own John Rebus could claim such devotion.
Robert Olen Butler’s second Christopher Marlowe Cobb novel, The Star Of Istanbul (No Exit Press, £8.99), finds his war reporter hero aboard the ill-fated Lusitania in 1915 and head over heels in trouble the moment he meets movie actress Selene Bourgani. Using his work as cover to do a touch of spying for the American Government, Cobb soon finds himself caught in a deadly web of intrigue as he attempts to keep tabs on an agent of the German secret service.
As with The Hot Country, this is a rollicking thriller with a keen eye for period detail that hops from the wreck of the doomed ocean liner to London and then on to Istanbul. The story is peppered with some excellent moments of action and more than a little chemistry between Cobb and Bourgani, but the book stands out for its muscular voice. This is an author in absolute control of his craft.
Butler has won a Pulitzer Prize for his short stories, but there is no sense that, unlike some other literary novelists, he is writing thrillers in order to make an easy buck. His love of the genre shines through every word in this rip-roaring homage to classic adventure stories.