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A little crime

I read four outstanding crime novels last month: Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton, A Song for the Dark Times by Ian Rankin, The Satapur Moonstone by Sajatur Massey, and The Sandpit by Nicholas Shakespeare.

Three Hours is set in a school in a remote part of Somerset: teachers and students are being held hostage by two unidentified gunmen for a nail-biting ‘180 minutes: 10,800 seconds’. The headmaster has been shot and is lying in the library. Rafi, a teenager who managed to shepherd his little brother Basi out of Syria must now save him again. Hannah, Rafi’s girlfriend, is trapped in the library with the dying headmaster. Camille has to try to keep her class of seven-year-olds safe in the pottery studio. Sally-Anne, Daphne and the drama class are rehearsing Macbeth in the school theatre. Beth’s son Jamie is somewhere in the school but not answering his mum’s phone calls. DI Rose Polstein, a forensic psychologist, is trying to work out from sparse clues who might have been monstrous enough to plan such an attack. This novel is a nice action-packed thriller, but its overall message, that love and friendship matter more than anything else, is deeper. As Lupton says, ‘you don’t know a person, including yourself, until the everyday is stripped away’. A cogent message for us.

In A Song for the Dark Times Ian Rankin’s sleuth John Rebus is now retired but his professional instincts are still razor-sharp. Unfortunately, his lungs and knees aren’t too good on stairs any more, so Siobhan Clarke helps him to move down to a first-floor apartment. When he’s settled there his daughter Samantha calls to say that her partner Keith has been missing for two days and the local police think that she’s responsible. Leaving Brillo the dog with Siobhan, Rebus takes off for the coast, where the police are less than happy about his involvement. They want to pin the disappearance on Samantha but Rebus suspects that some ancient history is at the bottom of it all. Keith has been looking into memories of the local WW2 camp for internees, Italian and German, some of whom intermarried with residents after the war. Meantime Siobhan is investigating the murder of a Saudi student where a big real-estate deal is in the mix, and her case and Rebus’s case link up. All very exciting and I hope Rebus lives for ever.

I loved Perveen Mistry, the Oxford-educated lawyer of The Satapur Moonstone. In 1922, during India’s rainy season, Perveen is asked to go to the remote princely state of Satapur to adjudicate in a dispute between the widowed maharani Mirabai and the dowager maharani Putlabai over the education of ten-year-old Jiva Rao—who has become the new maharaja of Satapur after the unfortunate deaths of the previous maharaja and his elder son. Since the two women are observing purdah, they are inaccessible to Mr Sandringham, the English political agent—so Bombay’s only woman lawyer, Perveen finds that she has been handed a very nasty job: not only does she have to go to the palace in a palanquin which keeps breaking down, leaving her filthy and drenched, but she also suspects that the royal deaths were not natural and that the new maharaja’s life and that of his sister are in danger. She herself dodges an attempted poisoning and that’s the least of it. This is a fascinating book and I hope Perveen comes back again soon. Meantime I’m chasing up Sajatur Massey’s highly successful first novel The Widows of Malabar Hill.

The Sandpit is set in Oxford—John Dyer has returned with his eleven-year-old son Leandro after many years in Brazil. Leandro attends Dyer’s old school, Phoenix Preparatory, where Dyer makes friends with Rustum Marvar, an Iranian nuclear scientist whose son Samir is, like Leandro, a talented footballer. Marvar, it turns out, has created an algorithm which solves the problem of nuclear fusion, but he doesn’t want to give it to the mullahs, who are keeping his wife hostage in Tehran. Marvar then disappears, having first entrusted his discovery to Dyer. Nicholas Shakespeare handles suspense well and excels at descriptive passages: in one haunting, idyllic passage he describes the half-term break when Dyer takes Leandro to Lancashire to teach him fly-fishing. The Sandpit is a brilliant literary thriller, once read, never forgotten. It’s my pick of the four.

And—don’t miss The Coal Curse by Judith Brett, and The Medicine by Karen Hitchcock. Both are must-reads. After our recent disastrous bushfires Brett has some axe-grinding to do with deniers of global warming and pollies who seem to prefer fracking to farming. Coal mining, she maintains, is not a large employer and our high dollar has contributed to the decline of manufacturing, so we now have few metal workers left, just as we need them. Karen Hitchcock is everyone’s favourite doctor: she thinks laterally, has empathy, and writes like an angel. She covers a wide variety of topics such as the use of drugs in the treatment of pain, and the overuse of anti-depressants. On her last day in a hospital in Perth, she sits beside a cancer patient who has been given eight months to live. Holding the patient’s hand, she says: ‘Bev, you still have hundreds of days to live. Go home and live the shit out of them.’ And they both start laughing.   Soni