Book Wars - News and Reviews - Stylist Magazine

Book Wars: Crime

This week a Scandi crime thriller goes head to head with a true life mystery

In our new series, Book Wars, we pit titles from related genres against each other, with Stylist writers championing their chosen book. Let battle commence...

Phantom by Jo Nesbo out in hardback on 15 March (£16.99, Harvill Secker). Reviewed by associate editor, Alix Walker

Call me a follower, call me predictable, but I’m a huge fan of the Scandinavian crime trend currently sweeping the Kindles of every commuter. I don’t know whether it’s the authors’ ability to embrace the dark without sugar-coating, the character names, which sound a bit more sinister than your Smiths or your Joneses, or the descriptions of looming architecture and bitterly cold weather, which put a chill through me. So I was more than a bit excited to read Phantom.

Ex-detective Harry Hole is back in Norway from a brief hiatus in Hong Kong – lured there when he discovers that Olek, the son of his ex-girlfriend Rakquel (and the closest he’s ever come to having a son of his own) has become a junkie and been jailed for murder. He makes it his mission to discover the real perpetrator of the crime and so begins a brilliant and incredibly fast-paced race through the violin-ravaged (violin is a new drug, more powerful than heroin…) streets of Oslo to uncover who is at the centre of the drug ring.

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“This book proves critics of crime fiction wrong”

As well as surviving some incredible attacks on his life in his search for answers, ex-alcoholic Hole is dealing with more demons than 24’s Jack Bauer – meaning you root for him despite an often incredulous plot. It proves that Nesbo’s real skill lies in his ability to weave a story which is about human weakness and love as well as being a grizzly thriller.

Sceptics may argue that crime fiction is too sensationalist and that endings are tied up too neatly but Phantom proves them all wrong. Once you’ve read the conclusion you’ll agree that Nesbo’s writing is far from predictable.

Blood On The Altar by Tobias Jones, out now (£12.99, Faber and Faber). Reviewed by production editor, Francesca Brown

I’m not naturally drawn to the true crime section in Waterstones; all too often it conjures up blood-spattered pulp paperbacks and weekly magazines featuring gruesome crimes. However, Blood On The Altar is such a beautifully written, carefully researched and desperately moving book that it has completely redefined the genre for me.

Recounting the disappearance of 16-year old Elisa Claps from a church in Potenza, southern Italy in 1993, the book is an incredible tale of a loner with a disturbing hair fetish, his controlling family, inept investigators, dead witnesses, church and government cover-ups and a simple revelation that leads to the crime being solved 17 years later. Weaving these disparate themes together is Jones’ fascinating portrayal of an insular, almost primitive region of Italy.

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“Such a beautifully written book… it has redefined the genre for me”

From describing the Sassi di Matera (9,000-year-old houses hewn out of rock where people lived in abject poverty until the Fifties) to the brutal disregard with which Elisa’s family were treated as they attempted to find out who killed their sister and daughter, Jones creates a disturbing portrait of a place where justice cannot be taken for granted.

But what really resonates is Elisa herself. I realised that I was the same age as her when she went missing in 1993. She was a sweet, charitable girl nicknamed Mother Teresa by her big brothers, whose trusting nature was her downfall. She deserved so much better in life. And for that reason alone you need to read this book.

The verdict: can fact ever trump fiction's thrill?

The joy of a well-written crime thriller is the satisfying reveal. The plot is neatly tied up (even with the bleakest of endings the reader is omniscient, slotting the plot's misdirections neatly into place.) However, in the real world the guilty aren't necessarily punished, the innocent still suffer and the reader is left reeling at the injustice of it all. But where true crime can trump fiction every time is in the characters. Real people - who show tenacity and determination in the face of even the worst crimes - are a lot harder to forget than ones conjured up by a bestselling author. Ultimately, true crime is a far more powerful and moving read.

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