The best recent crime and thriller writing – review roundup

It has been 10 years since Terry Hayes published the international hit I Am Pilgrim, and it’s fair to say that his second novel, The Year of the Locust (Bantam), has been much anticipated. Emerging dazed and somewhat brutalised after two intense days reading this utterly gripping, elegantly written 650-page-plus thriller, I can say that it was most definitely worth the wait. Kane (not his real name) works for the CIA, one of a small group of spies who specialises in entering “denied access areas – places under total hostile control such as Russia and Syria, North Korea, Iran, and the tribal zones of Pakistan”. So when an asset with information that could save the west from a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 needs exfiltrating from the wilds of Iran, he is sent in.

Kane is a fantastic character: preternaturally brilliant and brave, humble and insightful, he comes up with a solution no matter what he’s faced with, and is the sort of narrator who calmly says things such as: “It was now a race between my knowledge of lock-picking and the gravitational pull of the moon.” Some bits I read grimacing and gasping; other bits cheering him on, as his mission turns darker and darker – and (you guessed it) the fate of the world ends up on his shoulders. “I had walked and run for a hundred miles, I had pushed myself to the limit of my endurance, I had travelled by starlight and witnessed things most people would never see: campfires flickering behind enemy lines, mirages so real I could touch them, peregrine falcons in all their majesty, a dead man hanging from a cross.” I wasn’t entirely convinced by the wild twist towards the end of the book, but by that point, I was all in for Kane and would have followed him anywhere.

Michel Caine: ‘a great ear for dialogue’
Michel Caine: ‘a great ear for dialogue’. Photograph: Anthony Harvey/AFP/Getty Images

The fate of the world may also be on the shoulders of another hero, DCI Harry Taylor, an “old school copper” (of course he hates it when people call him that but they often do) and the protagonist of the first thriller by the actor Michael Caine. Deadly Game (Hodder & Stoughton) sees Taylor investigating when a box of radioactive material is found at a dump in east London’s Stepney. It’s stolen by violent thugs almost as soon as it’s discovered, though, and Taylor, who knows this turf well, is on its trail, making comments along the lines of: “Enriched uranium left lying around in Stepney? Stroll on.” Does suave, aristocratic art dealer Julian Smythe have anything to do with the theft? Or how about Russian oligarch Vladimir Voldrev? Caine has a great ear for dialogue and his story zips along. Taylor feels a bit of a detective story cliche, the sort of policeman who “hated psychobabble … but he had a heart – not that you’d ever guess it from his regular manner”. But there’s bags of energy in this, and the denouement is a bonkers delight.

When six-year-old Kimmy disappears while playing hide-and-seek with children she is rarely allowed to hang out with, public interest goes through the roof

Kids Run the Show (Europa Editions) by Delphine de Vigan, ably translated by Alison Anderson, is horribly creepy, not only for its premise – a little girl is abducted – but also for its disturbing look at the world we live in. Mélanie has long been obsessed with reality television, and that “empty feeling” she had, “a feeling that sometimes hollowed its way into her gut like a narrow, bottomless well”, only leaves her when she is in front of the screen. She fails to make it as a contestant on a show herself, but once married with kids, she starts to find validation in posting videos of their lives and her views start stacking up into the millions. Now her whole family makes their living from making “unboxing” videos and “fun” challenges for her two kids, but the children’s enthusiasm is waning (although Mélanie doesn’t really seem to care). When Kimmy, her six-year-old, disappears while playing hide-and-seek with children she is rarely allowed to hang out with, public interest goes through the roof. An indictment of a world obsessed with “likes” and an exploration of what growing up under the glare of constant filming will do to a child, this is skin-crawlingly good.

Alexandra Benedict’s The Christmas Jigsaw Murders (Simon & Schuster) has all the ingredients of a barnstorming festive hit – a brilliant elderly woman out to solve a crime (take a dash of Richard Osman), plenty of puzzles to crack (add a teaspoon of Janice Hallett) and a sprinkle of yuletide spirit. Cryptic crossword setter Edie receives a parcel on her doorstep on 1 December. It contains a handful of jigsaw pieces that show a crime scene and the message that more people will be dead by Christmas Eve unless she can solve it. Luckily, she’s up for the challenge – “Edie suddenly began to feel for the first time in years the thrilling fizz at finding a puzzle she might not be able to solve” – and the festive high jinks begin. This is fun and diverting, and (as is clearly intended) would be a great present for the jigsaw-doing, crossword-cracking, mystery novel fanatic in your life.