There are echoes of the real 11-year-old killer Mary Bell in Nancy Tucker’s remarkably assured debut novel, The First Day of Spring (Hutchinson, £12.99). From the first line, the eight-year-old narrator leaves us in no doubt that she, too, is a murderer. Neglected by her mother, with a catastrophically indifferent father, Chrissie is permanently on the scrounge: for food, for affection, for someone just to notice that she exists. She acts up at school, bullies her friends, and makes heartbreaking attempts to reframe the mistreatment as care. The narrative is split between the child Chrissie, whose terrible secret makes her feel, for once, important, as the police try to figure out who strangled two-year-old Steven; and the adult woman, renamed Julia and released after a long spell in a secure unit. Now a parent herself, Julia adores four-year-old Molly, but mothering doesn’t come easily to someone who has never been mothered. Consumed by guilt and fearing Molly will be taken away from her, she revisits the scene of her crime. Perceptive and compassionate, this is a tale of human devastation, superbly told.
Although she is not the culprit, protagonist Cath also returns to the crime scene in Nina Allan’s latest novel, The Good Neighbours (Riverrun, £16.99). Cath was a teenager on the Isle of Bute when her best friend Shirley Craigie was murdered, together with her mother and baby brother; the killer, Shirley’s father John, died in a car crash shortly afterwards. Cath, now a keen photographer with a project to document “murder houses”, strikes up an uneasy friendship with the woman who owns the Craigies’ old home. A doll’s house made by John, a carpenter, offers a disturbing glimpse into his inner world, and when Cath learns that he believed in fairies, her suspicions about the apparently clear-cut family annihilation intensify. Allan is best known for speculative fiction, and there is certainly an element of fantasy in this wonderfully atmospheric novel, which references schizophrenic patricidal artist Richard Dadd as well as folklore and mathematical theory. However, it is also a splendid crime narrative of memory, compulsion and the effects of trauma.
Any campus crime story involving a charismatic classics don with a group of acolytes risks comparison with the gold standard that is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Unfortunately, Alex Michaelides’s second novel, The Maidens (W&N, £14.99), doesn’t come off well; despite the Cambridge setting, ancient cults and sprinklings of Euripides and John Webster, it is a rather flat-footed affair. Recently widowed at just 36, preternaturally attractive psychotherapist Mariana Andros travels to the university in order to support her niece, Zoe, whose friend has been murdered. Early on, she decides that the police have the wrong man and that handsome Professor Edward Fosca, with his adoring coterie of female students, is guilty; she will not be deflected, either by other suspicious characters or by the understandably annoyed chief inspector. Deeper characterisation would have made this work as a study in obsession, but, as with Michaelides’s first novel, The Silent Patient, there’s an air of contrivance, and the ending, which comes out of leftfield, feels implausible and abrupt.
There are more students, in less salubrious surroundings, in Joseph Knox’s ingenious fourth novel, True Crime Story (Doubleday, £14.99). Purporting to be a second edition of a work of nonfiction dealing with the unsolved case of Zoe Nolan, who disappeared while at Manchester University, it has a fictionalised version of the author pursuing the case after the death of original investigator, Evelyn Mitchell. Constructed from a series of interviews with Zoe’s family and friends some seven years after the event, along with emails between “Joseph Knox” – who doesn’t exactly cover himself in glory – and the increasingly paranoid Mitchell, True Crime Story is truly immersive: complex, disturbing, unexpectedly funny and very smart.
Rachel Edwards’s second novel, Lucky (4th Estate, £12.99), offers a peep into the terrifying sinkhole that is online gambling. Etta wants to get married, and partner Ola says he does, too, but first they must save £30,000 as a mortgage deposit. Their joint savings stand at £22,000, and, tiring of Ola’s constant promises of jam tomorrow, Etta decides she can make up the shortfall on the Cozee Bingo website, enticed by the promise of big cash prizes. Beginner’s luck reels her in further; before long she has run through the nest egg and is borrowing at vertiginous rates of interest, still chasing the win that will make everything right. Edwards’s evocation of how bad decisions lead to worse ones is realistic enough to make the reader break out in a cold sweat and, when Etta strikes up a chatroom friendship with fellow gambler StChristopher75, the tension becomes almost unbearable. There are other important things going on here – not least two stories of immigration, one of which is apparently unconnected to the main narrative – but such is Edwards’s skill at creating a can’t-look-can’t-look-away pile-up that the denouement comes as a proper surprise.