Mike Ripley's Crime File - August 2008
'The Minutes of the Lazarus Club' by Tony Pollard; 'October Skies' by Alex Scarrow; 'Ashes To Ashes' by Barbara Nadel
Tony Pollard's first novel, The Minutes of the Lazarus Club (Penguin, £12.99), is a rip-roaring thriller set in the 1850s with one of the most spectacular supporting casts ever assembled in crime fiction!
The hero, a young doctor with an interest in heart surgery, is an initial suspect when corpses showing signs of crude surgery start being fished out of the river Thames. His life gets more complicated when asked to join the intellectual debating society known as The Lazarus Club, which leads him into a web of intrigue involving industrial espionage, high treason, grave-robbing and murder
Our hero is helped and hindered in equal parts by such as Florence Nightingale and genius engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, with walk-on parts for Joseph Bazalgette (who designed London's sewers), Charles Babbage (prototype computers), George Stephenson (railways) and a gentle hypochondriac called Charles Darwin.
The author allows himself a sly nod to the works of Charles Dickens and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the period detail is spot on (Tony Pollard is a noted archaeologist) and the whole thing is fast-moving, engaging read if a touch gruesome in some places.
Another new novel, October Skies by Alex Scarrow (Orion, £10.99), is also set, at least partly, in the 1850s but this time on the pioneer trail in the American west as a wagon train fails to cross the Rockies before being caught in the winter snows. When the remains of the wagon train are found (albeit under conditions which would have surprised Time Team) by a British television journalist over 150 years later, the repercussions turn out to be fatal and not just for those doomed pioneers.
On the surface a tragic historical accident, the fate of the wagon train hides far more sinister motives and actions and Scarrow is extremely good at conjuring an atmosphere of suspense with a hint of the supernatural in the scenes set among the beleaguered settlers, though the book is less convincing when it moves on to a modern-day conspiracy theory tack.
Alex Scarrow, after only three books with very varied settings, has demonstrated he has the ability to write gripping, page-turning thrillers and is clearly a name to watch out for.
Barbara Nadel is already a popular, award-winning crime writer, best known for her Inspector Ikmen series set in Turkey. Of late she has also embarked on a new series set in London's East End during the early years of the Second World War, featuring an unlikely detective - the Anglo-Indian undertaker Francis Hancock.
In Ashes To Ashes (Headline, £19.99), Hancock is caught up in a murder mystery in St Paul's Cathedral on the worst night of the London Blitz - 29th December 1940.
The plot, involving a missing child and a conspiracy of Freemasons, tends to veer slightly out of control, but Hancock, who carries his own personal damage from the First World War, is an engaging hero – an honest working man simply trying to protect his nearest and dearest - who is well worth cheering for.
Mike Ripley is the author of the 'Angel' series and writes a regular column for the Birmingham Post.