It’s unlikely the Canadian tourist board will thank poet Patrick Lane for his debut novel Red Dog, Red Dog (Heinemann £12.99).
Set in 1958, with flashbacks to the Depression and settler eras, this impressive tale of redneck life in British Columbia exudes suffering and menace. If the dog-fighting and suicides don’t get to you, the baby on the bonfire will.
At the book’s heart is the aptly named Stark family: small-time criminal Eddy, thoughtful younger brother Tom, reclusive mother Lillian and dead father Elmer, whose presence haunts them all. Lane’s subject is hopelessness passed down through generations. What stops it being the fictional equivalent of a misery memoir is the writer’s testosterone-laced lyricism and the remarkably intricate deployment of symbols.
Where Red Dog, Red Dog feels timeless, The Unknown Knowns (Cape £11.99) strives for contemporary punch. Jeffrey Rotter’s American satire hinges on the clash between two delusional middle-aged men, one a comic book-loving geek obsessed with the lost underwater land of Nautika, the other an FBI agent responsible for preventing attacks on swimming pools. Mistaking each other for Nautikon and terrorist respectively, they begin a fatal game of cat and mouse.
Rotter has a lot of fun with the posturing of the “war on terror”: “Somebody so much as reads the Koran in a hot tub, we’ve got clearance to act.” There is pathos in the characterisation, too. Post-Obama, however, The Unknown Knowns feels as if it has missed its moment.
Aifric Campbell’s The Semantics of Murder (Serpent’s Tail £7.99) revolves around Jay Hamilton, an American psychoanalyst in London, and the murder of his brother, a linguistics professor. Despite the occasional descent into psychobabble (what is a “lingering relationship ambiguity”?), this is a tautly written thriller of ideas that asks awkward questions about the “talking cure” and its potential to blur fact with fiction. In Jay, a psychic vampire who steals his patients’ stories to write thinly disguised fiction, Campbell creates a character as dark and damaged as any in Red Dog, Red Dog.
Adrian Turpin is director of the Wigtown book festival