City on Fire by Don Winslow (HarperCollins, £20)
This first book in a projected trilogy about warring mobster families is set in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1986. The Italians and the Irish have carved up the city, existing in relative harmony while controlling the trucking industry and the docks. The author makes overt comparisons with the Iliad, and modern-day Helen of Troy Pam provides a convenient excuse for a bunch of men trapped in a cycle of violence to embark on a disastrous feud, although this time it’s due to a drunken grope rather than divine intervention. In the middle of it all is docker Danny Ryan, his dreams of escape stymied by his family connection to the Murphy clan, for whom he occasionally works; Danny now finds himself embroiled in the conflict. Winslow’s previous “Cartel” trilogy is an astonishing achievement that will be hard to beat, but on the strength of this immersive and humane tale of fate, free will, loyalty and betrayal, his new series will rank alongside it.
A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon (Borough, £16.99)
Cannon uses her chosen milieu – the suburban street where curtains twitch, the chintzy cheeriness of the old folk’s home, quotidian tragedies and buried truths – to explore the inner lives of outsiders. In her third novel, 43-year-old Linda takes centre stage: a socially awkward mixture of naive and sly, she was already the odd-girl-out at school when her piano teacher father’s inappropriate behaviour towards young students meant she and her mother had to leave town, and she has never come to terms with what happened. Her adult life is an endless round of cleaning, cooking and stints in a charity shop. While husband Terry spends his free time in front of the television, she dreams over the upmarket catalogues that arrive for the house’s previous occupant, Rebecca, whom she decides to find and befriend. Meanwhile, neighbourhood gossip is in overdrive because local girls have been going missing. Compellingly creepy, with precisely observed characterisation, A Tidy Ending combines pathos with lovely flashes of humour and a wholly unexpected ending.
Say Her Name by Dreda Say Mitchell and Ryan Carter (Thomas & Mercer, £8.99)
Adopted as an eight-year-old by Cherry and Carlton “Sugar” McNeil, Eva, a woman of dual heritage, decides to track down her birth parents after Cherry’s death and her suspension, on spurious grounds, from her work as a hospital doctor. Eva’s white father, a rich businessman, is easily found – although he may not be all that he seems and she, still emotionally raw, is gullible – but her mother proves more elusive. Ex-police officer Sugar seems to know more than he is letting on and is evasive when asked why he left the force. Eva’s journey takes her back to 1994 and the disappearance – barely acknowledged by the police, let alone the media – of four Black women … Mystery novels can be good vehicles for examining social issues and Mitchell and Carter do an excellent job, providing an engrossing narrative as well as a heartfelt and eloquent exploration of the iniquities of racial bias in cases where women go missing.
Miss Aldridge Regrets by Louise Hare (HQ, £14.99)
Lena Aldridge, narrator of Hare’s second novel, is also of dual heritage, and the person missing from her life is her white mother, who left her to be brought up by her impecunious musician father. In 1936, Lena is singing in a seedy nightspot in London’s Soho when its owner – also the cheating husband of her best friend – is murdered; she decides to take up an out-of-the-blue offer of a first-class ticket on the Queen Mary and a role in a Broadway show. Lena may have her secrets – not only has she disposed of evidence from the murder, but she, is also “passing” for white – but when she becomes involved with the wealthy, dysfunctional Abernathy family and people start dying, she realises that there might be more to her lucky break than she’d imagined. Short, unnecessary sections in “murderer’s italics” are an irritant, but the conflicted, appealing heroine and Christie-type mystery make this an engrossing read.
Three Assassins by Kotaro Isaka, translated by Sam Malissa (Harvill Secker, £14.99)
First published in Japan in 2004, Three Assassins is, in many respects, an odd book. Suzuki is seeking revenge for the deliberate hit-and-run killing of his wife by the “idiot son” of the leader of Fräulein, a criminal organisation so comprehensive in the evil it does that, he notes, “the more that’s revealed to him the more improbable it all seems”. Wanting revenge, he gives up his teaching job to join Fräulein and gets drawn into the world of professional assassins, including the titular hired killers: The Whale, whose MO is convincing people to commit suicide; Cicada, who is handy with a knife; and The Pusher, whose speciality is shoving people under passing cars. Ghosts abound, motivation can be murky, and the characters circle each other like sharks in this frustrating yet mesmerising tale of how life is simultaneously cheap and precious, and the past catches up with us all.