Historical and contemporary thrillers lead the fiction pack while the Sixties swings again in our pick of non-fiction paperbacks
Pandora’s Boy by Lindsey Davis
(Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99)
Lindsey Davis’s Ancient Roman whodunits have been such a well-loved part of the books scene for the past 30 years that it’s sometimes easy to forget what a strange mix they are. On the one hand, they’re unobtrusively packed with arresting details of first-century Roman life. On the other, they’re written in a cheerfully modern voice which is not only compulsively readable, but also reminds us that Ancient Romans didn’t think they were Ancient, but (like us) proudly considered themselves the most excitingly up-to-date people the world had ever seen.
These days, the narrator and central character is Flavia Albia—adopted daughter of Davis’s original detective Falco, and, if anything, even more modern-sounding than her dad. (“There was more bling than at a boxer’s retirement benefit,” she remarks of one gathering here.) As ever, the plotting is beautifully done, complete with a Poirot-style denouement at the Temple of Salus. But the main crime story is just one of the pleasures on offer in this funny, gripping, informative and wildly enjoyable—if still quite bonkers—novel.
All the Beautiful Lies by Peter Swanson
Although still some way from Lindsey-Davis status, Peter Swanson is a writer with a growing reputation for thrillers from the more thoughtful and literary end of the spectrum. His fourth novel begins with recent college graduate Harry returning to Maine where his father has fallen to his death from a clifftop in what duly prove to be suspicious circumstances. But while the police investigate, the book largely leaves them to it, concentrating instead on Harry’s uneasy relationship with his glamorous stepmother, who seems increasingly sinister once a series of flashbacks begin to fill in her rackety teenage past.
As other characters and their backstories are added, there’s no doubting the quality of Swanson’s writing—or his ability to create
both psychological depth and a subtle sense of accidentally, and sometimes awkwardly, overlapping lives. Even so, I’d have some sympathy for any fans of more flat-out thrillers who might wonder if all this is just a bit too subtle, with Swanson rather overdoing the slow-burn approach. Admittedly, the unsettling atmosphere does eventually solidify into something properly twisty and thrilling—but maybe not before time.