Crime waves. A regular column looking at the best in crime writing and thrillers

Cold Hit

Linda Fairstein <em>Little, Brown, 413pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 0671045504

Birdman

Legal wranglings and courtroom dramas have fascinated authors from Dickens to Harper Lee but, when it comes to authenticity, Linda Fairstein has a head start. A prosecutor in the New York County District Attorney's Office for 25 years, she is head of the Manhattan sex-crimes unit and, as such, prosecutes every crime committed between the waist and the knees. Her novels, the third of which, Cold Hit, has just been published, are inextricably linked to her work; Fairstein has first-hand experience of every aspect of a murder investigation, and it shows. In fact, it puts her in a class of her own.

Like its predecessors, Cold Hit is set in New York and features the Assistant DA, Alexandra Cooper, an investigator who is refreshingly less dysfunctional than most. For a start, her world is not falling apart. That is one of Fairstein's many strengths: her characters are firmly rooted in the realities of the everyday world. It's not simply the accuracy of forensic detail or legal procedure that makes these books so real. The emotional accuracy is also quite superb; when Fairstein writes about the fears of women who have experienced sexual assault, when she describes police frustration at the political juggling of crime to create a perception of greater safety, you believe her. Suspenseful and complex as they are, these novels bring characters to life as only major work can.

As a prosecutor, Fairstein also knows how to put together a convincing narrative. Cold Hit deals with the murder of an American art dealer, whose death leads Cooper and her colleagues into the intrigues of the international art community. As she has done in her previous books, Fairstein exposes the myth of something commonly held as sacred: art ceases to be a refuge of beauty and calm and becomes nothing more than a veneer to cover corruption and violence. In this respect, she has inevitably been compared to Patricia Cornwell; but, unlike Cornwell, Fairstein holds no sense of overriding evil - the abominable acts that she deals with on a daily basis are the exception and not the rule.

No less wrapped up in the depths of human depravity, although perhaps a little more obsessive about them, is Mo Hayder's accomplished first novel, Birdman. Having acquired a police record at the age of 14, Hayder left home two years later for London and immersed herself in the society that fills her fiction - a society of prostitutes, drug dealers and strippers. Opening with the gruesome discovery of five bodies - all young women - which have been ritualistically mutilated and dumped on some wasteland in Greenwich, the novel runs the gamut of sexual compulsion in a world where men feel compelled to inflict brutality on others, whether through violence or prejudice. Uncompromisingly graphic in its descriptions, Birdman is perfectly placed to be one of the most hyped books of the year.

Yet, beyond the hype, Hayder has succeeded in creating a convincing world inhabited by real people. With enormous confidence, and in just a few pages, she manages to create a character with the sort of rounded complexities that many writers take books to develop. The Detective Inspector, Jack Caffery, is obsessed with the childhood abduction of his younger brother by a known paedophile gang. Many a fictional detective has been built on an idiosyncratic personality and a suppressed past, and Caffery, driven by emotions that tread a fine line between justice and revenge, has more potential than most.

Hayder is at her best when capturing with vivid detail the intensity of a murder incident room rife with racism, yet praying for a white culprit in the nervous aftermath of the Lawrence enquiry. Unfortunately, the same degree of gritty realism does not quite stretch throughout; despite the author's insistence that her crimes are considerably less shocking than the actual violence she researched, their perpetrator is somewhat larger than life. An aristocratic millionaire, and the major shareholder in a pharmaceutical company, this serial killer lives in a Lutyens mansion, owns Patrick Heron and Frida Kahlo originals, and has an unfortunate penchant for necrophilia and cling film. At best, this could be seen as a terrifying portrait of sexual deviance taken to absolute extremes; at worst, it is an absurd caricature that stretches the bounds of credibility.