Tell Me an Ending by Jo Harkin (Hutchinson Heinemann, £16.99)
This compiling cautionary tale is set in an alternative present when it’s possible to have painful memories removed. Patients at the Nepenthe Clinic may choose to be either “self-informed”, remaining aware that they have had a portion of their past erased, or “self-confidential”, having the knowledge of erasure excised along with the memory. However, not only does this willed diminution of the self fail to bring with it the bliss of ignorance but, after the procedure has been shown to be faulty, Nepenthe is compelled to offer restoration to all clients, including those with no memory of having received treatment in the first place. Interconnecting narratives by multiple characters, including the former and prospective Nepenthe patients and Noor, a psychologist from the clinic who comes to suspect that her boss is up to no good, weave into an intelligent ensemble piece that raises fascinating questions about how we use memory both to create and dismantle ourselves, and the ultimate mystery of who, or possibly what, “myself” actually is.
Wrong Place Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister (Michael Joseph, £14.99)
Another ingeniously plotted genre-bender – one in which time travels backwards. Set in Crosby, Merseyside, the action begins with conscientious divorce lawyer Jen Brotherhood witnessing her 18-year-old son, Todd, fatally stab a stranger in front of the family home for no apparent reason. The boy tells her and his father that “there was no choice”, and, when taken to the police station, refuses a solicitor. The following morning, Jen’s first thought on waking is to help her son, who is being held in custody – then she realises that it is not the day after but the day before, and the murder has not yet taken place. Each day she regresses, initially by only 24 hours but then to points in her life that have significance for what is to come, and she must search the past for the means to prevent the future crime from happening. It’s easy for characters to become ciphers in books that require this much fancy footwork for the internal logic to remain intact, but McAllister succeeds in making us care, and the result is a tour de force.
Oxblood by Tom Benn (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
Many crimes have already happened prior to the start of Benn’s novel, which deals with the legacy of violent men. The Dodds family once ruled Manchester’s underworld but, by 1985, kingpin Jim and his son Sefton are long dead and 22-year-old grandson Kelly, about to be released from prison, is the sole adult male representative. The three generations of Dodds women who share a house in Wythenshawe, a place where there is “no good to be done or honest work to be had”, are each, in their different ways, prisoners of the past. Matriarch Nedra seeks consolation in the Catholic church and plays grandmother to half the estate; daughter-in-law Carol is still grieving for her murdered lover; And 15-year-old Jen, full of sexual bravado, tears at the narrow strip of life on offer and has entirely rejected her as-yet unnamed and unregistered baby. This trio of strong female, working-class voices, each telling her own story, is an absolute triumph: complex, haunting and powerful, this is a blazing tale of complicity, shame, love and hope.
The Island by Adrian McKinty (Orion, $12.99)
Hoping to bring his newly reconfigured family together, fortysomething American doctor Tom Baxter has piggybacked a holiday in Australia on to a work conference. However, 14-year-old Olivia and 12-year-old Owen, who are closer in age to second wife Heather than he is and consider her to be full of “Millennial Hipster bullshit”, have other ideas. Things seem to be improving when they visit a remote private island where – for a price – they can see exotic fauna, but turn nasty after Tom accidentally runs over one of the O’Neill family, who are the place’s only inhabitants. There are definite shades of Deliverance in the ensuing manhunt, but it’s Heather and the children who find their inner strength as the Baxters fight for survival in this tense, pacy page-turner from the author of The Chain.
Dear Little Corpses by Nicola Upson (Faber, $12.99)
The 10th book in Upson’s Josephine-Tey-as-detective series is set on the eve of the second world war when, in a febrile atmosphere of uncertainty not entirely dissimilar to that of March 2020, the children of Britain’s cities were evacuated to the comparative safety of the countryside. When a little girl goes missing from the Suffolk village of Polstead where Josephine and her partner Marta live, suspicion is rife, while in London, their policeman friend Archie Penrose investigates the case of a man’s body discovered in a Shoreditch tenement. With excellent period detail and a strong plot, Dear Little Corpses is well up to the standard of its predecessors. A second real-life crime fiction writer, Margery Allingham – who actually did live down the road, in Tolleshunt D’Arcy, Essex – puts in an appearance and helps with the sleuthing.