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The best recent thrillers – review roundup

The Guardian logo The Guardian 14/04/2020 Alison Flood
a tall building with a clock on the side of a road: Photograph: Ilya Dmitryachev/TASS © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Ilya Dmitryachev/TASS

Lockdown

a clock tower in the middle of a road: Peter May’s novel, written 15 years ago, is set in London during a pandemic. © Photograph: Ilya Dmitryachev/TASS Peter May’s novel, written 15 years ago, is set in London during a pandemic.

Peter May

Riverrun, £8.99, pp416

Writers everywhere may be setting out to chronicle the outbreak of a global pandemic, but Peter May, it turns out, has already done it. In 2005, he wrote a crime novel set against the backdrop of a bird flu pandemic. London is in complete lockdown; a hospital is being erected in the grounds of Lambeth Palace when the bones of a child are found in a suitcase and detective Jack MacNeil is told to investigate. The book was never published because “British editors at the time thought my portrayal of London under siege by the invisible enemy of H5N1 was unrealistic and could never happen”, writes May in a foreword to Lockdown , which is just out in ebook, with a paperback to follow.

This thriller would be eerie right now anyway, but it’s even eerier given that May wrote it 15 years ago. His virus is far deadlier than Covid-19, but his portrait of a city under siege from a silent enemy, his explanations for the spread of the disease – “we’ve created the perfect incubators for breeding and passing on infection, in the buses and planes and underground trains we travel on. We were a human disaster waiting to happen” – are scarily prescient. May, who is currently “hunkered down at home in France, forbidden to leave my house except in exceptional circumstances”, as he writes in a new foreword to the book, is a classy crime writer and Lockdown is both prophetic and unnerving.

Little Disasters

Sarah Vaughan

Simon & Schuster, £14.99, pp432

Sarah Vaughan, who hit the bestseller lists with Anatomy of a Scandal, is back with her fourth novel, the shocking, impossible-to-look-away Little Disasters. Opening as a mother becomes increasingly desperate in her attempts to quieten her screaming baby – “doesn’t it make sense to hold her tight, to please, to bargain, perhaps to shout? To try to shake a little sense into her?” – it follows a paediatric doctor, Liz, as she deals with the fallout when her friend Jess brings her baby, Betsey, into A&E. Jess says Betsey “isn’t herself”; Liz discovers Betsey actually has a fractured skull and that Jess’s story doesn’t really make sense. Tracing the aftermath as Betsey lies sick in hospital, Vaughan moves between perspectives – the increasingly desperate Jess; Liz, dealing with issues this raises from her own past; and Jess’s husband, Ed, racked with guilt for letting the burden of family life fall upon his wife.

The Split

Sharon Bolton

Trapeze, £12.99, pp400

The island of South Georgia, between the Antarctic and the Falkland Islands, is one of the most remote places on Earth, home only to a British Antarctic Survey station and visited occasionally by tourist boats. That’s why Felicity, in Sharon Bolton’s The Split, has chosen it – she’s hiding from someone (fortunately, she happens to be a glaciologist). “The ends of the Earth. That’s how far she ran this time. Not far enough.” Because Freddie Lloyd, who has been in prison for murder, is on the last tourist boat out to the island and Felicity is running out of places to hide. Bolton’s depiction of this stark, beautiful, remote wilderness is a balm to the soul in these restricted times and her complicated mystery a welcome diversion from reality.

The Dead Line

Holly Watt

Raven, £14.99, pp480

Investigative reporter Casey Benedict first appeared in Holly Watt’s debut To the Lions, which won her the Crime Writers’ Association’s Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. Now she’s back in The Dead Line, which sees her team looking into the discovery of a desperate message sewn into clothes manufactured for the British high street: “They take the babies for the women.” Her investigation into what this means takes her to Washington DC, to the Greek islands and to Bangladesh, where she learns of the teenage girls who are being abducted from Rohingya camps. “A flame of energy, grey eyes missing nothing”, Casey is fierce, obsessive and brilliant. Watt, herself an investigative journalist, provides a daunting insight into what the job entails – “ordered to override, day after day, the human instinct to be polite, to not intrude, to avert one’s eyes so civilly” – as Casey blackmails and tricks her way to the truth.

• To order Little Disasters or The Split for a special price, click on the titles or go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

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