Why is it that stories dealing with initially inexplicable, often violent, death are not only not horrific but somehow soothing? It's easy to see the restorative power in the clever clicking of the grey cells in M Poirot's brain as he reasons his way to a solution. In Agatha Christie there are no stray ends: for every killing a motive is teased out, the murderer uncovered and, we are led to believe, punished. The moral order is upheld.
But other popular writers, from Margery Allingham onwards, have refused to be prisoners of the genre and stretched their fictions over the blurred boundaries into thriller territory or comedy (in the case of Kinky Friedman, for example) or even the "proper" literary novel.
The beautiful prose in Underground (Faber pound;9.99), the first novel from the poet and short story writer Tobias Hill, evokes a world as far from Miss Marple's St Mary Mead as it is possible to get. Yet his hero, Casimir, a young Polish immigrant working on the London Tube, is also fixed like a fly in the amber of his moral universe. A young woman falls on the line at Camden Town. Did she fall or was she pushed? Casimir feels compelled to find out, exploring abandoned tunnels and tangling with unexpected squatters living in the half light. Interspersed with this quest is the darker story of the past he left Poland to escape.
Although Hill's grimy hero scarcely strays from the central section of the Northern Line, the emotional scope of this novel is huge, dealing with shifting and uncertain loyalties and attachments. Underpinning the inevitability with which the story unfolds is a sense of place as precise as a wiring grid, which prevents the reader getting derailed by surprise twists in the plot.
You feel Hill has run his hand over every railway sleeper and smelt every crumbling plaster wall between Waterloo and Kentish Town. The only bumps on this often-lyrical ride are the author's attachment to certain words - such as "whicker" and "chuff" - which lose their potency through over-use.
Over the Atlantic on the east coast of the United States, Suzanne Berne, winner of this year's Orange Prize for Fiction, has chosen an unexceptional suburb as the setting for her first novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood (Penguin pound;6.99). When a boy is found raped and murdered in the woods behind a shopping complex, the neighbours' placid assumptions about themselves are swept away.
For Marsha, the 10-year-old narrator, this shattering event mirrors the break-up in her own life: her father has run off with her mother's sister. Nothing will be the same again. Domestic history is being made, says her mother; at the same time Nixon is lying on television about Watergate.
Berne's book breaks the mystery mould - the murder seems almost less important than the death of Marsha's innocence - yet it shares the same concern, to investigate what happens to a group of people when one of them transgresses.
At first, Gary Kirst's Bad Chemistry (Fourth Estate pound;5.99), another first novel set on the eastern US seaboard, seems a straightforward example of the genre. A teenage computer nerd finds a mutilated body in the woods behind his suburban house; Kate Baker's husband Joel disappears and is wanted on suspicion of the murder.
Kate is a former Chicago cop, which makes her tightly written, all-action adventure (encompassing smart drugs, clues on the Internet, gun fights and punch-ups) quite believable. But what makes this book stand out is
the sensitive depiction of Kate's anxieties and fears about her marriage and the moral
choices she is making. The
story is exciting and yet has a depth and resonance rare among such thrillers.