Pellegrino Artusi, the original celebrity chef, is travelling the length of Italy to discover the secrets of the best chefs to compile his book The Science Of Cooking And The Art Of Eating. He makes a stop at the home of Baron di Roccapandete, hoping to spend a few days discovering the secrets of the kitchens and hunting boars. Instead, however, he turns amateur detective when a body is found in the cellar and someone takes a pot shot at the baron and not at those local boars.
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Pellegrino himself is a delight, although it's the increasingly frustrated inspector called in to solve the crimes who steals the show, along with the baron's somewhat unhinged extended family. A wildly eccentric cast, a clever-clever mystery and a witty (and welcomely intrusive) omnipotent narrative voice are seasoned with a real sense of fun, resulting in one of the most deliciously entertaining and unique crime novels you will read this year.
Moving from the warm climate of Italy to the distinctly chillier shores of Norway, The Hunting Dogs by Jorn Lier Horst is another in the increasingly long line of Scandi-crime contenders. Horst is the winner of the Glass Key award for best Nordic crime novel in 2013 and the Golden Revolver for top Norwegian crime novel. High praise indeed, and certainly his ability with funereal atmosphere and subtle, deliberate plotting are on evidence in this latest William Wisting novel.
Wisting is a cop with a feisty daughter who works as an investigative journalist. One of Wisting's old cases - he helped lock up the murderer of young Cecilia Linde - comes back to haunt him as someone claims our hero planted evidence 17 years earlier. Wisting is suspended, and decides he needs to clear his name by going outside of the official channels. Meanwhile his daughter investigates an apparently random street murder. Are the two crimes connected? Is Nordic Noir relentlessly gloomy? It's a little familiar, and you can set your watch by some of the revelations, but that doesn't mean it's not gripping and well executed. There's a gritty atmosphere and a good sense of pace, while Wisting and his daughter make for excellent and companionable protagonists.
Leaving Europe for a while, Stephen King opens his latest novel, Mr Mercedes, with a wink to Jim Thompson, the master of American noir, before proceeding to sprinkle references (some subtle, others less so) to writers such as Joseph Wambaugh and Elmore Leonard throughout the narrative, leaving us in no doubt that this is his big shot at the crime genre. No supernatural elements here (although he can't resist one moment that plays like the jump-scare final scene of a horror movie) but rather a war of wills between overweight and depressed ex-cop Hodges and unrelentingly psychotic ice-cream vendor Brady Hartfield, a sickening monster who delights in causing chaos, and has the kind of oedipal complex that makes Norman Bates seem positively sane.
The novel opens with Brady's big crime, a mass murder by Mercedes, and quickly skips ahead several months as he indulges in head games with the now-retired Hodges. Try as he might, King can't maintain the tension of the opening chapters, and there's a sense that you're reading a homage to thrillers rather than an original novel. And all the computer jiggery-pokery is probably best not thought about too deeply. If you're already a King fan, you'll probably enjoy Mr Mercedes for what it is, but if you're not, then you won't change your mind. It's an uneven but still occasionally entertaining tip of the hat to a genre King clearly loves. The prose is solid and there's a really nice misdirection involving Brady's hat around the three-quarter point, but King has written better, and one can't help feeling he should start listening to the advice of one his idols, Elmore Leonard, who said: leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.
Like Mr Mercedes, Stuart Neville's latest DI Jack Lennon novel, The Final Silence, finds a rogue cop in a tense and extended confrontation with a psychotic killer, albeit, this time in Ireland. Neville's pared-back prose and ability to really get inside the head of a madman means that what could be an overly melodramatic thriller becomes something far more complex and terrifying.
Neville is adept at exploring the grey areas of morality inherent within the genre. Rea Carlisle has inherited a house from her deceased and estranged uncle. Exploring the property, she discovers a locked room and a book cataloguing unsolved murders that date back decades. Was her uncle a killer, or is there something even more disturbing in her family tree? The only man who can help her is DI Lennon, but he's got his own troubles with formal disciplinary hearings and a reputation among his colleagues as a bad apple.
There's a little too much reliance on Lennon's backstory, meaning new readers may have to play catch up, but Neville's brutal plotting and ability to ratchet up the tension in almost every scene keep the pages turning until the chilling conclusion. A masterclass in the psycho-thriller genre.