Daisy in Chains
by Sharon Bolton (read by Antonia Beamish)
Daisy in Chains shines a light into one of the most inexplicable areas of crime: why do people, women mostly, fall in love with convicted killers? The killer in Sharon Bolton’s new novel is Hamish Wolfe. A respected doctor with a supermodel girlfriend, he seemed to have the world before him, until he was caught for stalking, grooming and finally murdering three women. Each affair began online. Each woman was overweight. Each one wanted a sympathetic friend who turned out to be anything but.
Hamish’s only hope is Maggie Rose, a lawyer who examines questionable convictions. These are later published as bestselling true-crime books. After months of persuasion, Maggie agrees to meet Hamish and finds herself being charmed into believing he might be innocent. The twists and turns swirl in the final third, originating in a scandal from Hamish’s university days, touching on Maggie’s own past and casting doubt on everyone, from the investigating officer to the suspect’s strange band of supporters. Antonia Beamish is good on everything, from Bolton’s atmospheric setting (a set of dank caves in west England) to Maggie’s unsettling interior life. That she brings humanity to this twisted tale says much about her talent, and that of Bolton too.
Conrad & Eleanor
by Jane Rogers (read by Lisa Coleman)
Jane Rogers has the sort of literary career that deserves to outlast her lifetime. Quiet, unflashy and consistently excellent, she writes books that burrow into your imagination: most famously the strange, disturbing Mr Wroe’s Virgins; most recently the near-apocalyptic The Testament of Jessie Lamb. Both are testaments to her brilliance. Conrad & Eleanor navigates a path through a relationship, one that has moved from fraught joy (an early pregnancy while studying science at Cambridge) to strange turbulence (affairs, deceit, guilt). Conrad examines its decline, in absentia, while fleeing a blackmailer, first in Germany and then Italy: his scientific research involved animal experimentation. For Eleanor and their children, Conrad’s vanishing act raises profound questions about family, fidelity, compromise, and love lost. Neither protagonist is especially sympathetic, but as a result of Rogers’ pursuit of truth rather than fashionable pessimism. Lisa Coleman accordingly reads with composed, cool intelligence, able to bring out humour, heartache, despair and warmth, bringing all to hear on the fantastic proposal: “He felt a sudden, spacey unbalancedness, as if he were starting across a tightrope. Head up, one foot in front of the other; don’t think of the drop. ‘We could get married.’” Terrific.
by Lionel Davidson (read by Peter Noble)
Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights is one of those slow-burning books that seems destined for long-delayed cult status. Its author may not be very well known, but Davidson won a record three Gold Daggers from the Crime Writer’s Association before his death in 2009. First published in 1994, Kolymsky Heights is a glacial thriller set towards the end of the Cold War. Its hero, Johnny Porter, sounds like an offcut from a kitchen sink drama, but is actually an undercover Canadian agent investigating an explosion at a secret Russian research installation. Davidson’s intriguing twist is to make Porter a descendent of the Gitxsan tribe who can pass easily for local Siberians (and even Koreans). Not a bad talent given the high incidences of death that accompany anyone trying to enter the research facility. It is all gloriously unlikely, but also enormous fun thanks to Davidson’s fantastic prose and Porter’s couldn’t-care-less persona. There was an old audiobook read by Bill Nighy, but Peter Noble is a fine stand-in. His voice is lighter, sprightlier than Nighy’s, and able to spring from descriptive detail to sardonic humour to tension. Philip Pullman calls Kolymsky Heights the best thriller he has read. I am in no position to disagree.