“You can’t imagine how much the world can change in six months,” says one of the narrators of Lauren Beukes’s eerily prescient dystopian thriller, Afterland (Michael Joseph, £16.99). Yes, we can, although the unprecedented pandemic in these pages is caused by the human culgoa virus, not Covid. Presenting as a highly contagious form of flu, HCV mutates into a fatal prostate cancer which, by 2023 when the action starts, has killed off 99% of the world’s male population. Quarantined in what are effectively luxury prisons, the few remaining boys and men undergo endless tests to try and determine the cause of their immunity; pregnancy is banned until a cure can be found, and semen has become a valuable black market commodity. On the run from a California facility, 12-year-old Miles and his mother, Cole, are trying to get across the country to Florida and thence home to South Africa, pursued by both the authorities and Cole’s scheming sister, Billie, who hopes to make a fortune bootlegging her nephew’s sperm. With Miles, who is teetering on the brink of puberty, disguised as a girl, the pair journey through a female-only landscape of anarchist groups, religious extremists, strip clubs full of drag kings and government departments retraining women to work in “PMdFs” (Previously Male-dominated Fields). Powerful and intelligent, with some unexpectedly trenchant humour, this welcome addition to the no-longer-so-speculative pandemic subgenre has plenty to say about grief, love, family ties and gender roles.
There’s more dystopia, this time historical, in The March Fallen (Sandstone, £8.99, translated by Niall Sellar), the fifth title in Volker Kutscher’s magnificent Babylon Berlin series featuring police officers Gereon Rath and Charly Ritter and recently adapted for television. It’s February 1933, and Hitler has been sworn in as chancellor of Germany. A mysterious fire is about to destroy the Reichstag, leading to the imprisonment of many communists and a decree that will remove civil liberties from German citizens, paving the way for the establishment of a single-party state. Working under the aegis of a boss who cares more about Nazi ideology than he does about truth, Rath is trying to solve a case that begins with a dead vagrant but turns out to have its roots in the first world war. Although readers may find the main plot strand convoluted, there’s no doubt that Kutscher captures the zeitgeist with chilling accuracy, especially in the plight of Charly, who, having achieved her goal of joining the police, becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the politicisation of her working environment.
Tom Lehrer may have claimed that political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel peace prize in 1973, but it is still, despite a vertiginously high-water mark of real-life folly and vice, very much alive and kicking in the capable hands of Carl Hiaasen. Set in a post-Covid Florida, his latest novel Squeeze Me (Sphere, £18.99) begins with the disappearance of 72-year-old socialite Kiki Pew Fitzsimmons during a fundraising gala. Kiki is a member of the Potussies, a group of wealthy matrons who are fans of the president (unnamed but referred to as “Mastodon” by the Secret Service, and an avid user of tanning beds). Called to deal with a suspiciously bulging python discovered in the grounds of the mansion where the gala was held, wildlife wrangler Angie Armstrong kills and freezes the creature, but its theft precipitates a train of increasingly bizarre events involving, among others, the president and first lady ... With an appealing kick-ass heroine and a cast of crooks and fools, this is an absurd, exuberant and savagely funny read.
Before hanging up his pen for good, Lehrer satirised Wernher von Braun, who, before the Americans nabbed him for the space race in Operation Paperclip, was instrumental, during the second world war, in developing the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile. The resulting rocket is the subject of Robert Harris’s latest historical thriller, V2 (Hutchinson, £20). In the winter of 1944, Hitler, desperate to avoid defeat, pinned both his hopes and his country’s increasingly scarce resources on the new weapon. Von Braun makes several appearances, but this is really the story of two fictional people: disillusioned aerospace engineer Dr Rudi Graf, who is tasked with launching the rockets on London, and V2 survivor Kay Caton-Walsh, who joins a team of crack mathematicians and, armed with a slide rule, races to discover the location of the launch sites. Rather more history than thriller, but immersive and engaging nonetheless.
Fifty Fifty (Orion, £8.99) is the latest high concept legal thriller from Steve Cavanagh. Conman-turned-lawyer Eddie Flynn is defending one of two sisters who are jointly charged with the spectacularly gruesome murder of their father, former New York City mayor Frank Avellino. The equally appealing attorney Kate Brooks represents the other. On the night in question, both women called the emergency services from the house, each claiming her sister is the killer, but one of them is lying. It’s a masterclass in misdirection and withholding information that will have you constantly pitting your wits against the author, with courtroom scenes that are second to none: buckle up and read in one sitting.