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Books Crime fiction with Mat Coward: June 26, 2024

Fatal fame, the deadly dinner party, fictitious husbands and Bangalore backstabbing

HEATHER, a trainee teacher in London, feels she’s fallen years behind her college peers following a traumatic event. But when, in The Winner by CJ Parsons (HQ, £9.99) she wins a place in a social-media-based reality game she’s suddenly way ahead of everyone she’s ever known. 

The “Winfluencers” on Triple F get fame, fortune and followers, provided their popularity doesn’t dip below the cut-off point. The moment it does, they’re out on their ears. In the meantime, Heather’s enjoying the parties, the celebrity and the luxury. Just as long as nobody digs too deep into her past, she’ll be fine.

For understandable reasons, many authors enjoy giving the whole concept of unearned fame a thorough kicking. But this example is done with a good measure of sympathy, as well as humour, and plenty of tension. The motive for the crime eventually revealed is a winner, too.

Here’s a particularly suspenseful and inventive mining of one crime fiction seam which never runs out: the tangled secrets of a small community. In the long summer of 1979, a newly built suburban development near Adelaide, South Australia, looked like an idyllic home for young couples: sociable, spacious, relaxed — and, as it turned out, deadly. 

The neighbourly get-together at the heart of The Dinner Party by Rebecca Heath (Head of Zeus, £9.99) ended in a baby being reported kidnapped. Little Megan was never found. Forty years later, a woman arrives at the home of the missing child’s sister, claiming that she is Megan — and that she can prove it. 

There is a particular flavour to southern US crime writing: that unmistakeable balance of soppy and cynical, humorous and melancholy, absurd and tragic. Ace Atkins has been one its most accomplished chefs since the 1990s. 

His latest, Don’t Let The Devil Ride (Corsair, £9.99) is set in Memphis, where ageing black private eye, Porter Hayes, has a young white client whose businessman husband has vanished. When Hayes finds out that not only has hubby disappeared, but he never officially existed in the first place, things start to get delectably complicated. 

Professor Mudgood, the murder victim in Anita Nair's Hot Stage (Bitter Lemon Press, £9.99), was much respected in life, though not much loved. The book takes place in 2012, and the professor was also a leading critic of India’s growing Hindu nationalist, ultra-right politics.

All the same, Assistant Commissioner Gowda of the Bangalore police doesn’t think this one has the feel of a political crime. Too many of the dead man’s relatives and associates are hiding things, any of which might have provided a reason for killing him.

Gowda’s team must descend into the violent underworld of a city undergoing rapid change as the rampant capitalism of “New India” fractures old communities and the democratic assumptions of the post-independence era. Any police procedural with such a setting is sure to be an interesting read, and when written by someone as accomplished as Nair it is immersive and irresistible.

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