Liz Nugent, Our Little Cruelties
Review by Lee Horsley
In Our Little Cruelties (2020), Liz Nugent again demonstrates her extraordinary ability to bring to life characters who both repel and fascinate us. One of the most darkly noir of contemporary crime writers, she excels in the creation of tense, gripping dramas about people imprisoned in their own obsessions and their catastrophic errors of judgement.
The opening of Our Little Cruelties is set at a funeral. One of the three Drumm brothers is dead. We are told that the death was sudden and horrific, and that an investigation was swiftly concluded, but we don’t know which brother is dead, nor do we know which one is narrating:
“As the service began, I became tearful. Without ever realizing it, I had inherited my mother’s acting abilities. My living brother and I stood, side by side, at the top of the crematorium while people lied to us about what a brilliant man our brother had been…”
The chapter sets the scene for a novel that ruthlessly exposes the dynamics of a dysfunctional family. All three brothers have been, in their very different ways, shaped by the monstrous narcissism of their mother, who, with her arrogance and “acting abilities”, dominates them all, including their loving but weak father. Self-pitying and cruel, particularly towards one another, the brothers jockey for supremacy, forming alliances that are invariably fragile and temporary.
Family dinners in their childhood epitomise the resentments and the competition for ascendancy that will dominate the rest of their lives, driving the fear of being seen as “the loser brother”. Their long-suffering father tries to treat them equally, but when their mother is home it’s a very different dinner table: as Brian recalls, “When Mum cooked, Will always got bigger portions than me, and Luke got the smallest.”
The eldest, Will, appears to possess all the natural advantages – a charming and predatory misogynist who becomes a film producer, he is his mother’s favourite. Brian, the middle child, seems more self-effacing, but is also manipulative, harbouring resentments and nursing grievances. Luke, the baby of the family, is the least favoured and would appear to be the most disturbed, given to religious mania and bouts of hysteria. He surprises them all with his sudden emergence as a rock star, rising to a level “of fame, and infamy” which for a time makes him a fortune. But he is unable to leave his instability behind, and the family’s irretrievably tangled adult relationships propel the plot forward to its grimly satisfying conclusion.
From the opening scenes, readers experience the sense of claustrophobic entrapment that so often dominates the novels of classic noir, heightened in Nugent’s work by her technique of moving back and forth amongst the perceptions of different characters. Her unfailingly suspenseful plots are played out through alternating perspectives, exploring each character’s inner world, their misconceptions and their fears of being caught out in the lies they’ve told. Calamitous errors are bred of their own obsessions, their deceits and their idiosyncratic relationship to reality.
Nugent’s four novels to date – in addition to Our Little Cruelties, Unravelling Oliver (2014), Lying in Wait (2016) and Skin Deep (2018) – establish her reputation as one of the finest contemporary writers of psychological noir, giving readers savage insights into an unforgettable gallery of damaged, dysfunctional characters whose duplicity repeatedly ruins the lives of those around them and who can’t ultimately escape the consequences of their own self-deception.
Richard Osman, The Man Who Died Twice
Review by Lee Horsley
Richard Osman’s The Man Who Died Twice (2021) is an ebullient and superbly entertaining take on the Golden Age detective novel.This is the second book in his ‘Thursday Murder Club’ series, which inventively updates the formula of country village atmosphere and loveable, eccentric characters.
The setting, Coopers Chase, is an exclusive Kent retirement village, and the central characters are drawn into circumstances that require all of the investigative skills of the classic detective. Though they are types, each character comes alive in quirky and entertaining ways, carrying the plot forward by their idiosyncratic team efforts. Each possesses an important facet of investigative skills: charming intuitiveness (Joyce, who has worked as a nurse), intellectual grit (Ibraham, a retired psychiatrist), stubborn Bolshie determination (Ron, an ex-trade unionist), and extensive experience of deviousness and subterfuge (Elizabeth, a former intelligence agent).
Following on from the huge success of The Thursday Murder Club, Osman has constructed a plot of even more splendid and comic complexity, confronting his septuagenarian detectives with stolen diamonds, murderous double agents, drug dealers, the Mafia, and an alarming body count.
The adventure begins with Elizabeth pondering how to respond to an invitation to meet up with Marcus Carmichael, whom she last saw when she found his dead body slumped against a Thames bridge: “So, yes, Elizabeth remembers Marcus Carmichael very well indeed…An invitation from a dead man? On reflection, she will be accepting.”
With Elizabeth’s decision, a door is opened to the threatening intrusion of spies and mobsters – figures who seldom if ever frequent the world of old-fashioned country house detection. But Osman handles his plot with the sort of dexterity and humour that keep it all within comic, reassuring bounds. We are held agreeably in suspense, confident throughout that these are protected characters whose warmth and charm will be required in the much-anticipated future novels in Osman’s excellent series.
Lisa Jewell, The Night She Disappeared
Review by Lee Horsley
Lisa Jewell’s The Night She Disappeared (2021) draws us in with an absorbing, beautifully crafted story that holds us in suspense throughout. As in Jewell’s other novels, our attention is compelled not only by the intricate plotting but by characters so richly created and memorable that they stay in the reader’s mind long after the final pages.
The girl who has disappeared is nineteen year-old Tallulah Murray, a college student who lives with her mother in Upfield Common in the Surrey hills, together with her boyfriend Zach and their baby son. When Tallulah and Zach go for a rare night out at the local pub, they never return. The last time they were seen is at Dark Place, the old mansion of a rich acquaintance of Tallulah’s called Scarlett Jacques. In a novel of proliferating mysteries, we are repeatedly brought back to the question of how the lives of two characters so apparently unlike one another became so closely intertwined:
“Tallulah is a pretty girl, but looks like the sort of girl that likes to blend into the background, who doesn’t like compliments or fuss, the sort of girl that likes routine and normality and simple food, who doesn’t experiment with clothes or make-up in case she gets it wrong. Yet somehow she found herself embroiled in a Bohemian, self-centred family like the Jacqueses. How did it happen?”
As we realise the extent of Tallulah’s involvement with Scarlett and with the disturbing secrets of Dark Place, the tone of the narrative becomes increasingly Gothic and terrifying.
Jewell says in her Acknowledgements that she wrote The Night She Disappeared during lockdown, when changes in life and family routine meant that she temporarily found herself unable to write. It is possibly an experience that fed into her creation of another of the novel’s central characters, Sophie Beck, a writer of ‘cosy crime’ novels whose move to a new life in Upfield Common has left her suffering from writer’s block. Instead of writing, she throws herself into trying to solve the village’s year-old mystery of what happened on the night Tallulah and Zach disappeared. The writer as amateur sleuth is instrumental in propelling the investigation forward. Sophie’s involvement also reinforces the reader’s sense of how distant Jewell’s strange and sinister world is from the comforting confines of old-fashioned crime writing.
At the end of the novel, Sophie, writing again, has decided that she will leave behind the conventions of cosy detection embodied in her Hither Green Detective Agency and move on to writing about “the wide world, not just one corner of it.” The Night She Disappeared– perhaps such a novel as an older, more experienced Sophie might go on to write – is a darkly satisfying psychological thriller. Highly recommended.
See more of Crimeculture’s recent reviews below.
Megan Abbott, The Turnout
Megan Abbott’s The Turnout is a mesmerising novel, wonderfully written and vividly imagined. At once brutal and delicate, it takes place in the world of a decaying, secret-laden ballet school. Some of Abbott’s most remarkable earlier crime novels have also explored, to stunning effect, the obsessive, competitive lives of teenage girls who commit themselves to intensely demanding physical disciplines – the cheerleaders of Dare Me, the gymnasts of You Will Know Me. Read our review of The Turnout.
Aaron Philip Clark, Under Color of Law
Aaron Philip Clark’s Under Color of Law is a gripping, sharply observed, fast-moving journey through the dark and treacherous world of the LAPD. It is written as the first-person, present tense narrative of Detective Trevor ‘Finn’ Finnegan, a young black cop who daily confronts the kind of horrors “that strip a person bare and leave them hollow”. Read our review of Under Color of Law.
Stuart Neville, The House of Ashes (2021)
The House of Ashes is a stunning novel, brutal, disturbing and completely riveting. It’s a crime novel but also a deeply affecting ghost story, the ghosts of children appearing to those who can see them, shadowy witnesses to the violence suffered: “A deeper darkness took her for some time, her slumber haunted by broken dreams of broken children between walls and beneath floors…” Read our review of The House of Ashes.
Catriona Ward, The Last House on Needless Street (2021)
Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street is a surreal and fascinating novel. In the opening chapters, it would seem to be about a serial killer, Ted Bannerman, hunted by Dee, a young woman who is convinced he killed her sister when she was six. Ted has locked himself away in a run down, sinister place on the edge of a forest, where memories “lie around the house, in drifts as deep as snow.” Ward’s novel very skilfully creates a dark mixture of child murder and gothic horror, drawing us into a world that is haunted, disturbing and disorienting. Read our review of The Last House on Needless Street.
Caitlin Mullen, Please See Us (2021)
Mullen’s protagonists, Lily and Clara, are very unlike one another, but both struggling to build new lives for themselves. They are brought together under the extreme pressure of violent events, desperate to work out what has been happening and terrified that they may themselves become victims. Lily reflects, “I was so tired of being afraid. And yet, it seemed that was all this summer was: learning all of the ways that dread could creep into my days.” Read our review of Please See Us.
Inga Vesper, The Long Long Afternoon (2021)
Inga Vesper’s The Long Long Afternoon is a beautifully atmospheric and wholly absorbing crime novel, set in 1950s Santa Monica. Vesper’s title conjures up the placid, unbroken calm of a Californian idyll – a sun-drenched suburban life, where affluent housewives display their domestic accomplishments, their blue pools, their May-green lawns. But – as any reader of Chandler will suspect – we will inevitably discover that underneath this claustrophobic, carefully constructed surface there are hidden lies, transgressions and bloodstains on the kitchen floor. Read our review of The Long Long Afternoon.
Jessica Barry, Don’t Turn Around, 2021
“Wasn’t living under the constant threat of danger just a part of being a woman in this world?” Jessica Barry’s Don’t Turn Around is a gripping, swiftly paced female road novel. Her evocative prose propels us into the lives of two strong, determined women, thrown together on a nightmarish journey, facing dangers that neither of them anticipated. Read our review of Don’t Turn Around.
Throughout 2020, Crimeculture reviewed a selection of the outstanding crime novels we enjoyed during the lockdown.
Crimeculture’s Lockdown Favourites
Jane Harper, The Survivors, 2020
Jane Harper’s The Survivors is an engrossing, suspenseful novel, with strong characters and an intensely realised landscape. It takes place in the tiny, isolated Tasmanian town of Evelyn Bay, sparsely populated except during the tourist season, when holidaymakers outnumber the town’s inhabitants.
Read our review of The Survivors
Agnes Ravatn, The Seven Doors, 2020
Agnes Ravatn’s psychological thriller, The Seven Doors, is a haunting and disturbing exploration of guilt and deception – and of an obstinate determination to expose hidden truths. Ravatn’s subtle, mesmerizing prose draws us into a complex skein of family secrets.
Read our review of The Seven Doors…
Hannelore Cayre, The Godmother (2019)
Hannelore Cayre’s The Godmother (published as La Daronne in France) was one of the unexpected delights of this year’s reading. It began to receive widespread recognition when Cayre – a criminal lawyer as well as a screenwriter and director – won both the European Crime Fiction Prizeand the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, France’s most prestigious award for crime fiction. Read our review of The Godmother…
Read reviews of more of our Lockdown Favourites: