THE BOOK COLLECTOR
Alice Thompson (Salt, £8.99)

GRETA GARBO’S FEET
Meaghan Delahunt (Word Power Women, £12)

Edinburgh novelist Alice Thompson is no beginner when it comes to building up atmospheres of foreboding, hinting at undercurrents of perversity or giving proceedings a hallucinatory edge, whether induced by drugs, madness or sheer confusion. She must have got stuck into this one with relish. The Book Collector throws the essential elements of the gothic chiller into a blender and what emerges is something between pastiche and critique, in which its author never loses sight of the need to give her readers, first and foremost, an unputdownable yarn.

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A young Edwardian woman named Violet is swept off her feet by widower Lord Archie Murray, who still pines for his late wife. Handsome, charismatic and kind, he also owns a bookshop, which in Violet’s eyes is a definite plus.

Once she gives birth to their son, however, Violet becomes suspicious of Archie’s nocturnal disappearances and the book he keeps in his safe: a volume of fairy tales inscribed to his late wife, Rose. When she hallucinates insects crawling under her baby’s skin, Violet is swiftly committed to an asylum. But, even after her recovery and release, she’s troubled by murders and disappearances in the surrounding area, and by Archie’s continued absences.

One of The Book Collector’s most powerful aspects is that it’s set at a time when men could, and often did, have their wives institutionalised for simply being bothersome. The horror in this novel isn’t confined to Sir Archie and his country pile but encompasses all of Edwardian England. In a patriarchal society which closes ranks against women who step out of line, there is no truly safe place for Violet to go, intensifying the mood of claustrophobia and paranoia.

Thompson also draws a moral distinction between bibliophiles like Violet, who value books for their contents, and those for whom they are simply commodities. The latter are portrayed as sociopathic phonies, their lack of empathy mirroring their disinterest in how writing could excite their senses or enrich them spiritually. It feels as though Thompson is drawing the distant age of gothic fiction closer to our own era of acquisitiveness and consumption, but she keeps any subtexts subordinate to the telling of a gripping story.

Also Edinburgh-based, Australian Meaghan Delahunt has three novels to her name, and now shows herself to be a fine short story writer too. There are 13 in Greta Garbo’s Feet, and not one outstays its welcome.

A compelling opener concerns Esmeralda, a girl from Acapulco, who has in the past been pimped out by her mother but now lives in a village which has a tradition of boys making dangerous dives from the cliffs. Esmeralda believes she could dive as well as any of the boys if she were allowed to, and knows too that her eventual dive will be “the flight that the rest of her life must follow”.

With subject matter that ranges from the sexuality of middle-aged women to a gay man on a drug binge, there’s no overarching theme to this collection, but that line about flight could comfortably be slotted into many of these stories. Delahunt’s characters are often looking over the horizon to a new phase in their lives. A woman who has lost her husband plans to move to a Greek island where she can live alongside the widows who spend their lives dressed in black, externalising her grief and adopting it as her identity. “Here,” she muses, “no-one would think it strange.” Conversely, The Grip is a nice character piece about a 65-year-old Australian man who has been living with his late parents all his life, and now faces belatedly becoming his own man. His first act is to pay a homage to St Andrews in honour of his golf-loving father, but after that an unknown future beckons.

Returning to a subject she’s written about before, Delahunt fictionalises the love triangle of Leon Trotsky, his wife Natalia and artist Frida Kahlo, having Trotsky reflect on their relationship as he lies dying below Kahlo’s portrait of him. In a lighter vein, she transports John Reed, the American journalist who reported on the Russian Revolution, to Leith Walk in the days leading up to the Independence Referendum. Drunk and dazed, Reed isn’t quite sure where he is, but appreciates the spirit, and Irn Bru.

It’s as good a collection of short stories as I’ve read in a long while, distinguished by Delahunt’s broad scope, perceptiveness, inquisitive nature (one story hints that she actually enjoys hearing strangers’ life stories on trains) and, not least, her ability to recognise a good idea and pare it down to its essentials.