The best recent crime and thriller writing – review roundup

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The Guardian

The sense that there is something very wrong in Lily’s home begins right at the start of Ella King’s debut novel, Bad Fruit (HarperCollins, £14.99, pp320). There’s the shouting and the fighting and the unpleasantness between her parents, but it’s the little things King quietly slips in that leave your skin crawling. How Lily’s mama likes to drink juice that is past its sell-by date because “she likes the fizz in it, the sour tang”. And how someone – Lily – “has to taste it to make sure it hovers in that sliver of perfection between expired and putrid”. How Lily eventually escapes to look in the mirror at the “Chinese version” of herself, before taking off her makeup, taking out her tinted contact lenses, to reveal herself as her Singaporean mother’s “whitest child”, her real self concealed by a mother who wants her daughter to be just like her. Lily is 17, a scholarship girl at her south London school who is off to Oxford once term starts. In the meantime, she’s living at home with her parents, escaping the “too still, too threatening” house when she can, placating her mother’s rages when she can’t. But now Lily is having memories that she believes belonged to her mother, memories that cast doubt on everything her mother has told her about her childhood in Singapore. Is Lily losing her mind, or are there secrets here that may be dangerous to dig into? “I know I’m a bad person, that there is something coiled and rotten in me,” she thinks, as her life starts to unravel. This is disturbing, poignant and memorable all at once – an exploration of a very dark relationship between a daughter and her mother.

Carole Johnstone also explores the fragility and dangers of unreliable childhood memories in The Blackhouse (HarperCollins, £14.99, pp400), in which Maggie Mackay returns to the remote village of Blairmore in the Outer Hebrides after her mother’s death. When she enters a bar packed with locals, everyone is initially friendly, until one of them lurches towards her: “You’re Andrew fucking MacNeil. I’m right, right? Right?” Johnstone’s setup is eyebrow-raising at first. Maggie, it turns out, has believed since she was a child that she is Andrew MacNeil, a man she says was murdered in Blairmore years earlier. Her certainty brought a media storm down on the village, but there was no trace of an Andrew MacNeil, and besides, no one had been murdered.

Now Maggie is an adult, she wants to find out what really happened – if her old certainty stemmed from her struggles with her mental health, or if something more sinister was going on in Blairmore. Maggie is told by one grizzled local, Charlie, that the island of Kilmeray is a “thin place”, where “the distance between this world and other worlds is shortest, the walls thinnest”, and Johnstone plays cat and mouse with the reader’s perception of reality and the supernatural. Deliciously creepy and unsettling.

Every time I play hide and seek with my children, I have a momentary fear that I’ll never find them. In Andrea Mara’s Hide and Seek (Bantam Press, £14.99, pp352), this fear is realised after little Lily Murphy doesn’t emerge during a game in a peaceful Dublin suburb and is never found again. When, 30 years later, Joanna moves to the area, she discovers she and her family are living in Lily’s former home. Lily looks strangely familiar and Joanna begins asking questions about what happened to her, believing her own past might have a bearing on the disappearance. “I stare at the photo. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. I don’t know how it’s possible, but I think I do know what happened to Lily Murphy. I think I killed her.” As Joanna digs into the truth, she discovers more about – yep, you guessed it – her unreliable memories of her own childhood. I raced through this at high speed, enjoying the ride through Mara’s twists and turns.

A peaceful valley in Idaho is the setting for Matt and Harrison Query’s Old Country. Photograph: Panther Media GmbH/Alamy

Harry, who is traumatised by his time in Afghanistan, and his wife, Sasha, have just bought a house in a peaceful Idaho valley. They want to work the land, soak up the peace, maybe one day raise a family. But, as their pleasant elderly neighbours Dan and Lucy tell them almost immediately, they’ve made a rather unfortunate choice in their new home. This valley, it turns out, is haunted by seasonal mountain spirits and if they’re to survive, they need to learn to carry out a series of rituals. “Because if you don’t, there ain’t a damn thing law enforcement can do for you. You understand?” Harry – understandably – rejects this, but creepy things happen all the same, and he and Sasha begin to realise quite how deeply enmeshed they have become in this strange world. Starting out as a story posted on Reddit, brothers Matt and Harrison Query’s Old Country (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99, pp352) went on to land a book deal and a Netflix adaptation. It’s Stephen King-lite and never quite brings the real scares – but it’s a lot of fun, for all that, and worth a holiday read.

August 9, 2022 at 03:54PM Alison Flood

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