With most of us stuck in the UK for our summer holidays, Robert Dex picks two thrillers to transport readers away to somewhere very different, from a windswept forgotten island from the Cold War to a sweltering hot southern city where an innocent’s man’s life is on the line.
Ascension by Oliver Harris
If Oliver Harris were not one of our finest thriller writers, he could earn a good living as an estate agent. His latest novel is proof that it’s not just Phil and Kirsty who understand the enduring appeal of location, location, location.
And what a location it is. The book is set on Ascension Island, a largely empty rock in the South Atlantic which makes Guernsey look like Las Vegas, and where his failed spy Elliot Kane has been dispatched. His task? To discover why another failed spy ended up dead either by his own hand - or someone else’s.
A dead schoolgirl is soon added into the mix, along with the sheer strangeness of life on the sparsely populated island which serves as home to US and UK military bases. It’s also home to 40 dead volcanoes and, thanks to its remoteness, has become an unlikely but invaluable cog in a new communications cold war.
The plot rolls smoothly on as Kane finds his way round the island, navigating the walls put up between military and civilians, and Americans and Brits, as the hunt for a murderer raises both suspicions and temperatures. And then - just when you think you know where it’s all heading - the story takes off in an unexpected direction that makes it quite another book altogether.
Fans of his criminally underrated Belsey novels, about a corrupt London detective, will recognise some familiar themes, including a soft spot for heroic losers and an interest in the physical and mental remains of the Cold War. But it is the location that matters most of all, windswept and staffed by a mixtures of spooks, oddballs and drunks, and it will stay with you long after you close the book.
The good news is Belsey is coming back, with a new novel on the way - but, until then, I strongly recommend you get marooned on Ascension.
Ascension by Oliver Harris (Little Brown, £18.99) is available now.
The Devil’s Advocate by Steve Cavanagh
Lawyer-turned novelist Steve Cavanagh has made his name - and sold millions of books in the process - as a writer of courtroom dramas, but I think, deep down, he would rather be writing westerns.
His latest book sees his hero, conman turned lawyer Eddie Flynn, leading a ramshackle posse of outsiders who ride into a hot southern town in Alabama to dispense justice and bring down a crooked lawman. And what a crook he is. In District Attorney Randal Korn, Cavanagh has created a monster - a man who plays the courts as a game for what he sees as the ultimate prize: sending men to their deaths in the electric chair.
This being the southern states of the US, racism is never far below the surface, and when a young black man is arrested for the death of a young white woman there seems to be only one outcome. But Cavanagh is a genius at making legal arguments and the to-and-fro of defence motions and prosecution petitions into page-turning stuff, with even the picking of the jury members becoming a nail-biting affair.
The central tension of the courtroom drama powers the story along even as it opens up. The reader soon realises that a single psychopath working for his own twisted benefit might not be the worst evil in a country where violent white supremacy is raising its head again.
Despite all that, what also comes through is Cavanagh’s love for America, and, while he does not shy away from its worst side, he is also clearly an admirer of the best of it - its open roads, small town diners and popular culture are all thrown in to create an unmistakable atmosphere of the sort of idealised country we sometimes imagine to exist over the Atlantic. This was my first Eddie Flynn novel - but it won’t be the last.
The Devil’s Advocate by Steve Cavanagh (Orion, £12.99) is available now.