Dead Man’s Creek by Chris Hammer (Wildfire £18.99, 496pp)

Dead Man’s Creek 

by Chris Hammer (Wildfire £18.99, 496pp) 

Former journalist Hammer announced his arrival as a major talent with his striking 2018 debut Scrublands, but this — his fifth novel —confirms him as exceptional. 

Set in the Australian outback, it centres on newly appointed homicide detective Nell Buchanan, who is despatched to her home town to investigate a cold case. A skeleton has been discovered deep in the mud beneath a dam in the forest. 

It could have been there for decades, but then another skeleton is discovered, and so begins an exquisite, sweeping saga of families and their secrets — including Nell’s own. But there are other, more modern, crimes afoot — a far-Right terrorist group is hiding in the forest with plans for multiple atrocities. 

This is storytelling that grasps the reader like poison ivy, never once losing its hypnotic grip: both compelling and masterful. 

The Second Stranger 

by Martin Griffin (Sphere £18.99, 304pp) 

If there is a finer crime debut this year, it will be a surprise, for this story set in a hotel in the remote Scottish Highlands during a blizzard is stunning. Young Remie Yorke has been left to close the Mackinnon Hotel for the season when the storm hits. 

There are only two guests left and she is due to depart on a longed-for trip to South America the next morning. 

The phone lines go down, there is no mobile phone signal, and the trio are trapped. Then a man arrives at the door. 

He claims to be PC Don Gaines, who has been involved in an accident on a nearby mountain road while transporting a dangerous prisoner. But then another man arrives, also claiming to be PC Gaines. The question is: which one is real? 

The resourceful Yorke has to decide who — and who not — to trust. There are shades of the great 1948 American film Key Largo as the serpentine story unfolds, and this is not only every bit as gripping, it also boasts a heroine whose resilience warms the blood. 

The Innocent One by Lisa Ballantyne (Piatkus £9.99, 352pp)

The Innocent One 

by Lisa Ballantyne (Piatkus £9.99, 352pp) 

Ten years ago, in a trial that hit the headlines, criminal solicitor Daniel Hunter successfully defended 11-yearold Sebastian Croll against a charge of murdering his school friend. 

Now, Hunter is struggling with a failing marriage and the custody of his young son when he is contacted by Croll — now a student — again. 

Croll’s university professor has been brutally murdered in her office and Croll fears that, given his record, he is bound to become the prime suspect. Hunter agrees to defend him for the second time, and does his best to keep his client’s criminal past a secret. 

He fails, and rumours of Croll’s record as an accused killer quickly begin to circulate in the media. Could someone already accused of murder truly be innocent of this second killing? 

Hunter believes so, but not everyone is convinced — especially the police, after it emerges that Croll had been in a relationship with the professor. 

Beautifully told, with the talented Ballantyne’s typical clarity, it weaves a subtle web. 

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