Magazine article The Spectator

Recent Crime Fiction

Magazine article The Spectator

Recent Crime Fiction

Article excerpt

Donald E. Westlake wrote crime books that were funny, light and intricate. Help I Am Being Held Prisoner (Hard Case Crime, £7.99) was first published in 1974. The protagonist is Harold Künt. (That umlaut, as you can imagine, is very, very important.) In reaction against his name, he's become a serial prankster. After one of his jokes goes badly wrong, he ends up in prison. Here he falls in with the Tunnel Gang, a group of inmates who use a secret tunnel to escape into the nearby town. But they only go there for a few hours at a time before returning to prison to serve out their sentences.

Künt strolls around town, chats to locals, even falls in love, and then heads back to his cell. It's a perfect life. But then the gang decides to rob the nearby bank and Künt is embroiled in the crazy scheme. Westlake piles on the jokes, but there's a serious heart to the story: a hapless and essentially innocent man, forced to play a double-bluff game, holding both his fellow prisoners and the authorities at bay. The brilliant Hard Case Crime imprint specialises in new books written in the noir tradition, as well as tracking down lost classics. This is a fine example of the latter.

William Boyle's Gravesend (No Exit, £8.99) is a tale of revenge. Ray Boy Calabrese is released from prison 16 years after his actions led to the death of a young man. Conway d'Innocenzio is the victim's brother. Driven by desires he can barely contain, Conway stalks Ray Boy and threatens him, but is shocked when Ray Boy asks to be killed: he's suffering from too much guilt to carry on with life. A pitiful game ensues, against a villain desperate to be murdered, and a potential avenger who can't quite bring himself to do the act.

Dismal and poetic by turns, the book peels back the skin of Brooklyn, a place offering little hope of escape. Stories intermingle at crooked angles, never quite leading to the expected conclusions. It's a bold approach, lovingly written. Perhaps the best character is Allessandra, a down-at-heel actress who's returned to her home town after failing to make it big in Los Angeles. Her broken dreams infect the plot between the two men in a very interesting way. I found the ending too despairing by far, but others might well revel in this depiction of life at its grimmest.

Penguin have been publishing new translations of Georges Simenon's Maigret novels for a few years now, and the latest, by Howard Curtis, is Maigret's Travels (Penguin, £7. …

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