The Quest for Queen Mary

James Pope-Hennessy

Hodder & Stoughton, £10.99

James Pope-Hennessy began work on his authorised biography of Queen Mary, the present queen’s grandmother, in 1955, and shadowed her for the next three years, gaining access to her inner circle. A serviceable biography appeared in 1959, but here royal chronicler Hugo Vickers compiles material from the original notes that didn’t make it into the book. Gay, Catholic and sceptical, Pope-Hennessy was no uncritical admirer but a writer with a keen eye for the absurdities of the eccentric royal court. He was helped by the fact that many interviewees were surprisingly open with him, including Edward and Mrs Simpson, who were happy to talk about the “old queen” at their home near Paris. A symbol of stern Victorian rectitude, she was a relic of a past time: imperious, high-handed and, by all accounts, more than capable of making people’s lives hell. Wickedly indiscreet, this is one of those rare books that will fascinate and amuse both fans and detractors of the monarchy.

The End of the Line

Gillian Galbraith

Polygon, £8.99

Despite Galbraith’s track record as a crime writer, her seventh novel isn’t a murder thriller in the conventional mould at all. After all, undertaker and antiquarian bookseller Anthony Sparrow is an unlikely detective. It falls to him to clear out the Duddingston mansion of deceased 90-year-old haematologist Professor Sir Alexander Anstruther, implicated in the deaths of several haemophiliacs given HIV-infected blood and angrily persecuted by the families of the victims. When Sparrow discovers that the professor may have been smothered to death, he starts looking closely at the old man’s diaries. Their sad and paranoid entries, along with witness statements and pathology and psychiatric reports, make up the bulk of the book, linked together by Sparrow’s fussy, self-consciously literary narration. The format is unconventional but it’s skilfully handled, the varied collection of documents shedding light on the complex psychologies of killer and victim while still allowing Sparrow to exercise his grey matter and bring it to a satisfying conclusion.

A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better

Benjamin Wood

Scribner, £8.99

In August 1995, Francis Hardesty sets out with his estranged young son Daniel on a trip to Leeds. Francis works on the set of Daniel’s favourite TV show, a children’s sci-fi drama called The Artifex, and has persuaded his ex-wife to let him take the boy to visit the studio in the hope that it will bond them more closely. Handsome and charming, Francis is also capable of acting recklessly and callously, and is prone to self-pity when things don’t go his way – characteristics which spell trouble. As their road trip progresses and Daniel looks helplessly on, the dark side of his father’s personality takes control and the ominous feeling of suspense which has been hanging over the story since the beginning gives way to sheer terror. Wood’s third novel is a gripping work, his chilling creation Francis Hardesty leaving an indelible mark. Narrating the events from a distance of 20 years, Daniel is still, understandably, shaken.