The Red Dancer by Richard Skinner (Faber, £8.99)
In The Mirror, Richard Skinner imagined the adventures of the deceased Erik Satie in the afterlife. This fictionalised biography of the notorious First World War spy Mata Hari is more conventional but no less accomplished, examining its subject from a number of angles but still leaving the woman herself a tantalising enigma. Through the eyes of several narrators, he tells of how, in The Hague in 1895, Margaretha Zelle marries Rudolph MacLeod, a captain in the Dutch army twice her age, and goes with him to Indonesia. Abandoned by MacLeod after bearing him two children, she makes her way to Paris and reinvents herself as a star from the exotic East before being recruited by the German secret service and meeting a tragic end. Skinner has immersed himself in the era, allowing him to digress into Cubism, gamelan music and even dowsing, giving depth and weight to the world Mata Hari moved through while allowing his spy to retain her essential mystery.
The Last Best Friend by George Sims (British Library, £7.99)
An antiquarian bookseller by day, George Sims counted Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh among his admirers, and this book was considered by HRF Keating to be one of the 100 best crime novels ever. Art dealer and Dachau survivor Sam Weiss falls 10 storeys to his death, but his friend Ned Balfour, a dealer in rare manuscripts, can’t believe it was suicide. Why would someone with vertigo choose such a horrifying way to die? Balfour’s attempts to uncover the truth about Weiss’s death lead him into the underbelly of the art world, where aristocrats cross paths with gangsters. Sims writes a good, if old-fashioned, crime story, an atmospheric thriller evoking the era when swinging London was rising out of the post-war malaise. But he wasn’t willing to be bound by the constrictions of the genre and plays it very much his own way in a slow-burning tale which highlights the character development of his surprisingly tough and resourceful bookseller Balfour.