Thriller round-up — Midlands Noir to international double crosses

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With so much crime fiction still portraying women as passive murder victims, it’s cheering to see thriller writers give their female protagonists agency, determination and physical prowess.

In Codename Faust (Zaffre, £16.99) by Gustaf Skördeman, Stockholm detective Sara Nowak practises the Israeli martial art of Krav Maga. She is on the trail of a former terrorist known as Faust, who has murdered a priest. Smart and determined, Nowak soon understands “the way that the past still controlled the present, how old alliances determined life and death several decades later”. The sequel to Skördeman’s fine debut Geiger, Codename Faust also loops back to communist East Germany and its enduring legacy. Detail about Nowak’s domestic and family life slows down the narrative, but the book still works as a standalone.

In Nothing Can Hurt You Now, by Simone Campos, deftly translated by Rahul Bery (Pushkin Vertigo, £16.99), Lucinda practises Thai kick-boxing. Her physical resilience boosts her determination to track down her sister Viviana, who has disappeared. Viviana is a beautiful model, living a glamorous life in São Paulo. Or so Lucinda thinks, until she discovers that Viviana is now a sex worker. Teaming up with Graziana, Viviana’s girlfriend, Lucinda investigates her sister’s secret life, much of it recorded in her diary in a mix of erotic, unapologetic detail and insightful philosophising. “[She’s] writing a porno self-help book. God help us. It’s going to sell millions,” Lucinda muses. Campos has written three novels, but this is her first thriller. There could be a more evocative sense of place, but she brings an original and welcome new voice.

There is no lack of atmospheric scene-setting in Needless Alley (Baskerville, £16.99), Natalie Marlow’s highly accomplished debut. First world war veteran William Garrett is a private detective in 1930s Birmingham, at the decidedly shabby end of the trade. He ensnares adulterous couples in honeytraps with the handsome, dissolute Ronnie, and throws up after each assignment. His loathing for his work is matched by his love for the city, “the rain, the pubs, the pasty women”. When Garrett is commissioned by a rich, fascist industrialist to follow his wife Clara, he falls in love with her. Danger follows. Marlow’s very engaging protagonist may herald the birth of a new genre: Midlands Noir.

Resurrection (Head of Zeus, £20) is the third outing for Dan Raglan, a former soldier in the French Foreign Legion and MI6 operative, in David Gilman’s increasingly assured series. An intriguing opening in the Sahara and a murder on the London Underground pull the reader into an action-packed tale replete with plane crashes, shoot-outs, hostage-taking, betrayal and double-crosses from Africa to Moscow. Gilman, a former paratrooper, makes the action scenes feel authentic but without bogging them down in unnecessary detail. Mixed with Raglan’s back story, this makes for a satisfying international adventure.

Philip Prowse’s Hellyer’s Line (Kernel Press, £7.99) unfolds in Athens in the summer of 1974. It’s a hot and dangerous time as the ruling military junta collapses and Turkey invades neighbouring Cyprus. There is a spy in the British embassy and Nick Hellyer, working for British intelligence, is dispatched to determine the traitor. Prowse lived in Athens at that time and the Greek capital is sharply drawn. British spies are not welcome and Hellyer, in his third outing, is soon in danger . . . and romantically entangled.

Jonas Merrick, the protagonist of Gerald Seymour’s In at the Kill (Hodder and Stoughton, £22), is the antithesis of an action hero. He lives in dull suburbia, eats sandwiches packed by his wife for lunch and goes on caravan holidays in Wales. Yet Merrick’s foes shouldn’t underestimate him. Hidden in a drawer are medals for bravery. Like John le Carré’s George Smiley, Merrick’s mild exterior conceals a steely determination. In the third volume in the Merrick series, he has moved from MI5 to Organised Crime and is sneered at by his former colleagues. But Merrick has targeted a powerful international network bringing in cocaine to Liverpool. Seymour’s portrayal of the city’s crime dynasty, and its inner rivalries and tensions, is masterful. The slow pace, density of description and inner monologue (rather than dramatised scenes) demand close attention from the reader.

Finally, a quick hurrah for the welcome news that Damascus Station, by ex-CIA officer David McCloskey, reviewed here last year, has found a British publisher at Swift Press (£9.99). Don’t miss this enthralling, standout debut — one of the best to come across my desk in recent years. Adam LeBor is author of ‘Dohany Street’, a Budapest noir crime thrillerJoin our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café

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