Black is back – Graeme Blundell, The Weekend Australian

'THE job for the black novel is to get down on hands and knees with a bucket of hot water and a rag and start scrubbing away some of the indescribable mess left on the scene by people like Agatha Christie," wrote the English crime writer Derek Raymond, whose own dark novels of dank moral decay reached desolate imaginative landscapes uncharted by other modern crime novelists.

Raymond profoundly influenced those at the vanguard of today's dark crime writing: authors such as David Peace, Ian Rankin and Ken Bruen have made clear their veneration for Raymond's contentious Factory police procedurals. These star an unnamed police sergeant who works in the bureau of unexplained deaths and are graphic, gut-churning, brutal and uncompromising.

"These books are novels," wrote Rankin in Books to Die For, "but also reports from a front line of casual cruelty in a world lacking empathy." Raymond's best, I Was Dora Suarez (Melville, 201pp, $21.95), is still available, so full of dread and dislocation that Rankin calls it English crime fiction's equivalent to Edvard Munch's The Scream.

There's a touch of Raymond lurking in Tony Cavanaugh's novels, the second of which, Dead Girl Sing (Hachette, 325pp, $29.99), is a cracker, though his work owes as much to recent American hardboiled fiction such as that of Robert Crais, Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke.

"The black novel is mankind driven to madness in a bar or in the dark; it describes men and women whom circumstances have pushed too far, people whom existence has bent and deformed," Raymond wrote. "It deals with the question of turning a small, frightened battle with oneself into a much greater struggle - the universal human struggle against the general contract, whose terms are unfulfillable, and where defeat is certain."

And this may just describe the way Cavanaugh's hero, Darian Richards, once the best homicide investigator in the country, lives his life, now in a kind of retirement on the Noosa River in Queensland's idyllic Tewantin, his back turned to the dead eyes of homicide victims. Like Raymond's protagonists, though, he is never at rest; those eyes always find a way to haunt him.

Known as "the Gun" when he was a policeman, he hunted down a serial killer called Winston Promise in Cavanaugh's debut novel, the compelling, highly original Promise. Now, a pink phone, its ringtone an annoying pop song and designated to a girl once in mortal peril of being taken by Promise, leads Darian Richards into an investigation of two dead girls and a missing Gold Coast cop.

He's aided again by Isosceles, a computer genius he once dragged out of court - after having 875 breaches of the telecommunications act dropped - to allow him to work in homicide under Richards's watch on the eighth floor of Victoria Police HQ. Isosceles has geek friends across the country who spy for him and, nestled in a top-floor apartment in one of Melbourne's glass towers, he spends more time in the digital world than with humans.

Isosceles leads Richards through the hidden wiki on the deep web, where you can find anything from child porn to human sacrifices and hand-to-hand combat to the death between humans and animals; where hit-men can be hired, terrorists lurk, and where you can learn to make or buy drugs and bombs. It takes the detective to a sex slavery racket, a little shop of horrors operating smack bang in the middle of schoolies week on the Gold Coast, when 30,000 teenagers hit the beach and the bars.

Most of Cavanaugh's chapters are written in Richards's voice, tough, clipped and mordant, and just a little sad; the others are from the viewpoint of his killers, which sets up an accelerating cat-and-mouse dynamic. He's one hell of a classy writer, presenting his singular hero within a compelling sense of place and atmosphere, in paragraphs of grave, thoughtful prose and sentences crammed with arresting imagery.

Cavanaugh's work, though written in the warmth of Queensland's Sunshine Coast, reminds one of James Thompson's Inspector Vaara novels, written in the snow and ice of Finland. Thompson is that country's best-selling international crime writer and his latest, Helsinki White (Berkley Prime Crime, 355pp, $23.95) is another fine example of the dark novel written for those who want to re-examine the world and themselves.

Thompson, a native of eastern Kentucky and for some years a resident of Helsinki, has written three novels so far as part of a popular series set in Finland featuring the laconic Vaara. His debut novel, Snow Angels, was selected as a Booklist best crime novel bebut of the year and was nominated for the Edgar, the Anthony, and the Strand Magazine critics award. He likes to quote Kafka: "I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us." But his tough and unforgiving novels are also vastly entertaining, full of well-engineered action and intriguingly exotic.

In Helsinki White, Vaara, recovering from brain surgery, and his partners - highly intelligent if faintly unhinged Milo Nieminen and Sulo "Sweetness" Polvinen, an oddly gentle man mountain - have been granted secrecy and immunity for a new black-ops unit. The cash to subsidise it is whatever they can steal from Helsinki's mobsters; anything remaining is to be funnelled back up the highly selective chain of command. But the president of Finland also needs Vaara to investigate the vicious assassination of a prominent immigrants' rights activist and the inspector is propelled into the new era of European racial hatred.

"Imagine your most virulent American Tea Baggers, remove any last shreds of restraint or reason, and what you picture left over will be an accurate portrait of racism in Finnish politics," Thompson says. "Influential racists here in the Nordic region publicly state opinions that are only spoken of in hushed whispers in darkened rooms in the US. Nordic racists make the American version look like girl scouts."

He's blunt, like his books, and so is Tom Wood, the new master of the dark, intricately plotted chase thriller, a genre he's turned into a witty, if violent, cross between Robert Ludlum and Lee Child. His serial novels follow the epic adventures of a ruthless professional killer known only as Victor, a man with no past, who was betrayed and is possibly still hunted by those who originally hired him. This is hard to know, as Wood's novels flow together, enemies and allies coming and departing at an alarming rate.

Wood places Victor in an ambiguous relationship with the police of various countries, one that reveals the limitations of the legal process in achieving "true" justice. His own highly personal sense of integrity and his aggressive acting out of his judgment are made emotionally necessary and morally righteous. But Wood adds more complexity to the basic formula of the rogue agent, killer-on-the-run framework in his latest novel, The Game (Little Brown, 432pp, $29.99). Victor becomes attached to the widow and child of a contract assassin he dispatches on the CIA's behalf. The action is well written, the tradecraft plausible and mechanically credible, and treated with the ironic detachment and neutral terseness that mark's Victor's character.

And like Wood's two previous adventures, the new novel is crammed with technical info: how to spot and track targets; avoid surveillance and leaving a paper trail; encrypt email accounts; convincingly alter appearance; clean and reassemble various weapons; and how to kill quickly, efficiently, silently. Few writers have taken us as deeply into the nuts and bolts of the spy world with such an entertaining sense of scepticism about those who seemingly secretly protect us.

Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther is a protector of a kind, too, a wisecracking, world-weary policeman navigating his way through the mean streets of Berlin just as they become all the more cruel and vicious with the arrival of the Nazis. A Man Without Breath (Quercus, 517pp, $29.99) is the ninth in the Gunther series, Bernie now working for the German War Crimes Bureau based in Berlin, having left the Criminal Police. He's attached to an organisation of elderly Prussian judges, most of whom are staunchly anti-Nazi, who investigate and prosecute crimes committed by and against German soldiers. Bernie thinks it's a nice joke, but in the winter of 1943 he finds his laughs where he can.

After a wolf digs up some human remains in a wood in the Katyn forest, near Smolensk in German-occupied Russia, he finds himself investigating a possible mass murder. But the local rumours are confused - is a hidden mass grave full of thousands of Polish officers killed by the Russians, or thousands of Jews exterminated by the SS?

Kerr's idea for Bernie came the moment he found himself wondering what Raymond Chandler would have come up with if, instead of leaving London for Los Angeles, he'd gone east to Berlin. Few authors so skilfully and entertainingly combine complex noir-crime plots with such intricately researched, authentically realised historical backgrounds. And Kerr brilliantly realises his dark subject matter with a protagonist straight from a 1930s hard-boiled novel, Bernie combining scientific method with poetic intuition. He's a wonderful creation of mixed-up cynicism and honour, brutality and sentimentality; he can dish it out and take it. Derek Raymond would have loved him.

Originally published May 25, 2013 in The Weekend Australian

Rachael McGuirk