The Undertaking, by Audrey Magee, Atlantic, RRP£12.99, 304 pages

On the Eastern Front during the second world war, German soldier Peter Faber marries – in absentia – Katharina Spinell, a woman in Berlin he has never met. It is a marriage of convenience: he gets honeymoon leave; she gets his pension if he dies. A strong attraction forms before Peter is sent back for the final push.

Audrey Magee’s debut novel, shortlisted earlier this month for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, follows the pair as they struggle towards the war’s endgame. Peter is drawn inexorably into the horror of Stalingrad; back in Berlin, Katharina is pulled into the orbit of powerful Nazi party members.

The Undertaking is written in simple, understated language and the effect is a devastating accretion of horror and atrocity, layered like the brutal Russian winter snows until the reader is subsumed. A deft, emotionally powerful portrait of two people holding on to the possibility of love and family in the midst of war.

Review by Carl Wilkinson

The Murder Bag, by Tony Parsons, Century, RRP£9.99, 384 pages

Tony Parsons, author of the bestselling novel Man and Boy (1999), has taken a new direction. Perhaps in reaction to what detractors call his laddish fiction, he has reinvented himself as a gritty crime writer.

If you are feeling shell-shocked from the barrage of novels featuring tough maverick cops – and are convinced that nothing new can invigorate the genre – The Murder Bag will provide the antidote. Bolshie London detective Max Wolfe is investigating a homicide in which a banker’s throat has been cut; a second victim is a homeless heroin addict. The connection: an upscale private school.

Yes, we’ve met detectives at loggerheads with their daughters (as here) before, from Wallander to Rebus. But there are two things that elevate Parsons’ novel: parenting is his speciality subject and it’s treated with a nuance largely absent elsewhere in crime fiction. And Parsons, a quintessential London writer, evokes his city with pungency and élan.

Review by Barry Forshaw

The First Rule of Survival, by Paul Mendelson, Constable Robinson, RRP£12.99, 400 pages

Paul Mendelson’s expertise in the poker field is enshrined in several bestselling books on the subject, and he has clearly been salting away observations of human behaviour acquired in that discipline. His debut novel bristles with a command of language and narrative that suggests someone with a slew of novels to their name.

A decade ago in Cape Town, three white schoolboys were abducted – a mystery that has not been solved. Colonel Vaughn de Vries finds a cold case getting hot when the corpses of two white teenagers are found and the troubled policeman becomes obsessed with bringing a vicious criminal to justice. Mendelson, who writes the FT’s weekly Bridge column, demonstrates a sense of place to rival old hands such as Deon Meyer (and, like him, introduces racism as a key element).

Some will have trouble with the uncompromising directions in which he takes his narrative but most will find this to be authoritative and unblinkered fare.

Review by Barry Forshaw

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