The Last Protector (HarperCollins, £14.99) is the fourth novel in Andrew Taylor’s outstanding 17th-century series featuring government agent James Marwood and his friend and sparring partner Cat Lovett. The year is 1668: Charles II is on the throne and Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver, is supposedly in exile. However, in the eight years since the Restoration the king’s popularity has begun to wane and, amid growing unease about both his extravagance and the licentiousness of his court, nostalgia for the protectorate is taking hold. Lovett is more irritated than diverted when Richard’s daughter Elizabeth wants to renew their friendship. However, the meeting is far from coincidental, and soon both Lovett and Marwood are drawn into the cut and thrust of political intrigue and find themselves in great danger. With expert storytelling, memorable characters, emotional depth and some nice touches of humour, this is well up to Taylor’s usual high standard.
Another superbly realised historical mystery is Joe Thomas’s latest novel Bent (Arcadia, £9.99), based on the life of one of 20th-century Britain’s most notorious policemen. Awarded a medal for his service in the second world war, Harold Challenor joined the Metropolitan police in the early 1950s. A zealous member of the CID, he was moved to Soho in 1962 as a detective sergeant, and became the self-appointed scourge of lowlifes, gangsters and racketeers. Challenor has been fictionalised several times, most notably in Joe Orton’s 1965 black comedy Loot, but never so thoroughly as here. Moving between Italy in 1943 and London two decades later and sticking closely to the facts, Thomas captures the man’s eccentric style as well as his mental deterioration, as his methods grow ever more dubious. Sparely written, and sharp as a well-cut suit, this is a vivid and atmospheric read.
The past also informs the present in Serge Joncour’s French prizewinner Wild Dog (Gallic, £10.99, translated by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh). Here, the time-slip is between the start of the first world war and 2017, when film producer Franck and his actor wife, Lise, spend time in a remote house in the south where, in 1914, a German lion tamer took refuge with the big cats that he had to keep fed at all costs. While local men were being slaughtered on battlefields in the north of the country, the women and children left behind to tend the fields shrank in fear as the hills above them reverberated to the sound of hungry lions and tigers. In 2017, Franck, lost without a mobile phone signal, finds himself pursued by both wolves in human clothing – his two much younger business partners who he fears are trying to shaft him – and a strange, lupine dog. Wild Dog details a disturbing continuum of savagery, both animal and human. At once eerie and sensual, it’s a timely reminder that, no matter how sophisticated we believe ourselves to be, we are no match for nature.
Holly Watt’s debut thriller, To the Lions, was a worthy winner of a Crime Writers’ Association award, and her second novel, The Dead Line (Raven, £14.99), more than lives up to its promise. This time, a message discovered in an item of high street clothing – “they take the girls” – leads investigative journalist Casey Benedict to Bangladesh on the trail of illegal “baby factories”. Teenagers kidnapped from refugee camps are forced to become surrogates for wealthy westerners, who will go to any lengths for a baby including condoning the commodification of some of the most vulnerable women on the planet. Casey teams up with a former Marine to find out who is profiting from this appalling trade. Very well researched – the author is an investigative journalist – with plenty of action and lots of suspense, The Dead Line is hard-hitting, authentic and, sadly, very relevant indeed.
Motherhood is also a thorny issue in Sarah Vaughan’s second psychological thriller, Little Disasters (Simon & Schuster, £14.99). Paediatrician Liz, teacher Mel, lawyer Charlotte and homemaker Jess first met at antenatal class and have remained close ever since. When Jess turns up at A&E with her youngest child, 10-month-old Betsey, by a considerable coincidence Liz is on duty, and unable to ascertain the cause of the little girl’s injuries. Jess, guarded and on edge, refuses to open up to her, and Liz’s decision to involve the authorities causes friction in the group of friends. Told from multiple points of view, this raw and painfully real portrayal of insecurities, guilt, shame and postnatal anxiety is complex, nuanced and moving.