Crime waves

A Shadow of Myself

Mike Phillips <em>HarperCollins, 321pp, £16.99 </em>

ISBN 0002326671


Mike Phillips is a genuinely different voice in crime fiction. With his last novel, The Dancing Face, he promised to take the genre into a new dimension, and in his latest book, A Shadow of Myself, he has come of age. Set against a backdrop of post-cold war Europe, this impressive novel is much more than a political thriller: it is also a peculiarly touching love story that moves seamlessly between the 1950s and the present day, and a vivid portrayal of contrasting cities, from London to the stark landscape of a Moscow winter, where one person's hell can be another's gateway to freedom.

Attending a festival in Prague, the black documentary film-maker Joseph Coker is approached by a stranger claiming to be his brother, George, who has been raised in East Germany by his Russian mother. George tells Joseph that they share the same father, Kofi - an idealistic Ghanaian now living in London, whose time in Khrushchev's Moscow shapes the betrayal and tragedy which is to cross over into the next generation, engulfing these men in a world of violence and corruption. With their different cultures and contrasting approaches to life, the brothers symbolically represent east and west. Interspersed with extracts from Kofi's memoirs, their stories demonstrate both the recent history of Europe and how the developing world will influence its future.

A Shadow of Myself is rooted in significant historical moments, from Khrushchev's crushing of the 1956 Hungarian rebellion to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Through five distinct narrative voices, which include George's mother, Katya, and his Czech wife, Radka, Phillips convincingly underlines the way in which politics shapes the personal to such an extent that everything becomes a natural extension of the political environment. In this, Phillips is perhaps more akin to European writers such as the Czech-born Josef Skvorecky than he is to his British contemporaries.

In Phillips's ambiguous world, criminal activity is synonymous with the very organisation of society, and there is no room for comforting divisions between murderers, extortionists and the rest of us. He eschews established models to explore new territory - the struggle between east and west for dominance in Africa, or the experiences of Africans and Caribbeans drawn to eastern Europe by their political beliefs. Written in pared-down, minimalist prose, this is an original and rather beautiful novel.

In Beneath the Skin, the latest novel by Nicci French, three very different women fall prey to a murderous stalker. Through interlinked narratives, each woman tells her own story: Zoe is a pretty, young schoolteacher trying to make a life for herself in a new city with a new boyfriend; Jennifer is a wealthy model turned wife and mother, whose obsession with decorating her new house in Primrose Hill masks her knowledge of a failing marriage; and then there is Nadia, a children's party entertainer, who is determined to find her would-be killer before he reaches her.

With the exception of the awful Jennifer, the women are convincing creations but, as with so many serial-killer novels, the motivation and psychology for the murders are simplistic. The claustrophobic setting of London in an unbearably hot summer is well conveyed, and the terror that each woman feels as her stalker closes in is powerful. But their lives are more interesting than their deaths, and Beneath the Skin is merely a readable reworking of a familiar tale.