In brief

Byron Easy, by Jude Cook, William Heinemann, RRP£14.99, 516 pages

Jude Cook’s debut novel follows Byron Easy, 30 years old and balding, on a train journey from London’s King’s Cross railway station to Leeds. It is Christmas Eve 1999 and Easy has recently separated from his wife of three years. He has with him an empty bottle of red wine, a notebook, a pamphlet of poetry, some banknotes and a change of socks. Think Lord Byron meets rocker Pete Doherty.

On his train journey, Easy picks fights with passengers and reflects on the events leading up to the messy break-up of his marriage. There’s a tipping point when the story begins to focus on his ex-wife, “Mental Mandy”. Cook’s tone moves from a bleakly glamorous existence in the capital into a darker account of a rapidly destroyed life. It does not make for uplifting storytelling but there’s an addictive charm to Cook’s occasionally sentimental, inward-looking prose that gives a potency to this ambitious tale.

Review by John Sunyer

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The Chemistry of Tears, by Peter Carey, Faber, RRP£7.99, 288 pages

When her colleague and lover dies, museum conservator Catherine Gehrig must grieve for him and their clandestine 13-year affair in secret. Her emotional torment is slowly displaced by a new project: rebuilding a 19th-century automaton. Catherine discovers that among its parts is the journal of the original owner, Henry Brandling, who had commissioned the model to amuse his dying son.

Carey delicately interleaves their very different stories. Henry’s journey to the Black Forest in search of a maker for his automaton turns into an altogether darker, more obsessive quest that resonates with Carey’s earlier works (not least Booker prizewinning Oscar and Lucinda). Under Catherine’s expertise, the automaton gradually reveals its true, intricate beauty; but its provenance, and the slightly grotesque characters encountered by Henry, gives this beautifully crafted novel the surreal edge of a fairy tale.

Review by James Urquhart

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The Poisoned Island, by Lloyd Shepherd, Simon & Schuster, RRP£12.99, 400 pages

In 1812, a year on from the Ratcliffe Highway murders explored in Lloyd Shepherd’s debut The English Monster, Harriott and Horton of the Thames River Police return to solve another case. This time the corpses of sailors, with rictus smiles and slashed throats, turn up in slum dwellings along the Thames.

As before, Shepherd is concerned with more than merely exploring the East End. A ship has returned from Tahiti laden with botanical specimens for Kew, and as Harriott and Horton soon discover, the traffic is two-way, as British sailors take more than just disease to far-flung lands and then return with more than they should. The implications of this mystery spread far beyond the docklands to suggest that the early roots of capitalism are themselves poisoned.

Shepherd adroitly blurs fact and fiction with a hint of the fantastic, creating his own superior blend of historical crime fiction.

Review by Christopher Fowler

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A Man Without Breath, by Philip Kerr, Quercus, RRP£12.99, 384 pages

In the past, detective Bernie Gunther has negotiated the maze of Nazi ideology to uncover wrongdoings, which has resulted in some blackly comedic scenes among the prostitutes and chancers of Berlin. But this, his ninth outing, moves into even darker territory.

By 1943, Nazi morale is sinking following the defeat at Stalingrad, and Bernie is working for the German War Crimes Bureau. When bodies are discovered in the Katyn Forest in occupied Russia, he is sent to find out whether the mass grave contains the corpses of Polish officers killed by the Russians or Jews slaughtered by his countrymen. It all turns into a case for the detective, and Kerr draws on what we now know about the multiple massacres that occurred between 1941 and 1943 to create a compelling, elegantly constructed thriller propelled by facts that are still hard for some to confront. In doing so he gives new vigour to this long-running series.

Review by Christopher Fowler

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