I would describe myself as a fan of JK Rowling’s Robert Galbraith novels – if there is one thing Rowling/Galbraith does well, it is creating a cast of characters to root for, whether that’s Harry, Ron and Hermione, or her private investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott and their will-we-ever-admit-our-feelings dance. But I didn’t love the previous novel in the series; The Ink Black Heart, which centred on online persecution of a murder victim, had a bitter, angry vibe and far too much transcription of internet chat. The Running Grave (Sphere) thankfully steers clear of such topics, and is much more enjoyable. Strike and Robin are approached by a man whose son, Will, joined an organisation called the Universal Humanitarian Church four years earlier. With celebrity members and an awful lot of money, the UHC seems impregnable, so Robin goes undercover at its Norfolk headquarters to find out what is really going on behind the glossy, welcoming exterior. This is a novel about cults: how people get pulled into them, how they’re brainwashed into staying. It’s disturbing and scary. Sprawling, too, of course; Galbraith’s investigators are not ones to leave any avenue unexplored. But no one comes to the author of Harry Potter looking for a tight, concise read, and it’s a pleasure to watch Robin and Strike pit their wits against such awful antagonists.
A cult may also lie at the heart of Suk Pannu’s debut novel Mrs Sidhu’s Dead and Scone (HarperCollins), based on Pannu’s BBC Radio 4 show Mrs Sidhu Investigates and aimed firmly at the Richard Osman market. Mrs Sidhu – a caterer and amateur sleuth from Slough “dressed in neat slacks and practical cardigan”, who’s played by Meera Syal in the radio show and its Acorn TV adaptation – has been relegated to cooking endless brinjal bhajis for her boss. She’s missing her detective work, though, so when a therapist is murdered at a celebrity rehab where our heroine has just been offered a job as a private chef, she’s immediately intrigued. “I do apologise but I cannot attend to anything today. I have several hundred aubergines to prepare,” she says – but is soon in the thick of the investigation. More deaths follow, but this Indian auntie’s inquisitive nature and refusal to take no for an answer means she’s quickly on the trail of the killer. But is it the right one? Peppered with wry comments from Mrs Sidhu’s memoirs – “Finding out what the client wants is the key to a successful catering contract, just as finding out what the murderer wants is the key to a successful investigation” – it is a lighthearted and fun cosy crime caper.
This is a compulsive read, as we watch Claudia chasing the truth
Ten years ago (because thrillers love a “past crime coming to light” situation) Claudia was convicted of killing her eight-month-old baby, Tilly. She’s been in prison ever since, but after years protesting her innocence, she’s now admitted blame and been released. But Claudia – and we readers, who know from a prologue that a mysterious woman really did enter Claudia’s house pretending to be the babysitter and steal her baby – is clear that she didn’t kill Tilly. She needs to find out what happened. Emma Curtis’s The Babysitter (Corvus) moves between the perspectives of three characters – Claudia, newly free, persecuted by a suburban neighbourhood who think she is a baby killer; Sara, now married to Claudia’s former husband, Joe, with a baby of her own; and Anna, the teenage babysitter whose no-show on the day Tilly disappeared led to the hiring of a replacement – and the baby vanishing. This is a compulsive read, as we watch Claudia chasing the truth. The three main women are well drawn, though the unstoppable charisma of the man they circle didn’t quite ring true for me. Nonetheless, I zoomed through this book and relished the (rather melodramatic) conclusion.
I was similarly gripped by Daniel Sweren-Becker’s Kill Show (Hodder) in which, 10 years (told you) after 16-year-old Sara disappeared, those involved have finally agreed to talk about what really happened for an exposé book. We hear from Sara’s parents (her father is speaking from prison), her friends, her teachers, her neighbours. The detective on the case is spoken to, the bus driver who was a suspect and the people working on the huge true crime show that followed the case as it was unfolding (which, it turns out, didn’t really help matters). “It was 2013, everyone was already doing true crime by that point,” says TV executive Marcus. “But we were going to be the first show that did true crime in real time, without the safety net of looking backward. In hindsight, there’s a reason it’s not done like that.”
Sweren-Becker succeeds in telling the story entirely through interviews, slowly revealing the truth about Sara’s disappearance. This is a fun, clever twist on our obsession with true crime. I loved it.