Magazine article The Spectator

Recent Crime Novels

Magazine article The Spectator

Recent Crime Novels

Article excerpt

Tudor thrillers are thick on the ground nowadays but this one is rather special. The Bones of Avalon (Corvus, £16.99) is something of a departure for Phil Rickman, best known for his excellent Merrily Watkins series about a diocesan exorcist in contemporary Herefordshire.

Here he writes in the first person as Dr John Dee, the astrologer, mathematician and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. In 1560, William Cecil despatches him to Glastonbury, with his younger but more sophisticated friend Robert Dudley, to search for the bones of King Arthur. But Dee's mission turns into far more than an attempt to strengthen the dynastic foundations of the Tudor dynasty: there's a conspiracy against the Queen for him to contend with, and also something even darker lurking in the shadows.

Rickman makes a wonderfully assured leap into the 16th century. In this compelling and historically convincing novel, he recreates a world of religious and political uncertainty where one man's science is another man's witchcraft, and where the mundane and the mystical rub shoulders.

Dee, whose inner uncertainties are mirrored by the fragmented sentences of his narrative, is intellectually brilliant, socially gauche and entirely believable. All in all, this is an assured and compelling opening to a new historical series.

The results are often entertaining when literary novelists rearrange the furniture of crime fiction within the enclosed confines of the genre. The Booker-shortlisted Nicola Barker is an author who has a wonderful ability to create dysfunctional eccentrics.

Burley Cross Postbox Theft (Fourth Estate, £18.99) contains a multitude of them as the principal characters of an epistolary novel.

Burley Cross is an affluent Yorkshire village populated by people with a taste for old fashioned letter-writing. As the title suggests, the story revolves around the theft of the village postbox. Thirty-one of the letters, many of them typographically varied and quite amazingly long, form the bulk of the narrative, together with equally idiosyncratic communications from the investigating police officers.

Barker uses the novel as a means of skewering the quirks of middle-class Middle England. Her language is wonderfully inventive, and many of the jokes are very good indeed. The fictional framework is not so much whimsical as fabulously surreal. This is all very much to the good. The problem is that like so many comic conceits, this one wears thin over the full-length novel, partly because of the lack of a strong narrative thread to tie it all together. …

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