The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett

Bodies galore!

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When Edgar Leggett’s home is broken into and some not particularly valuable diamonds go missing, his insurance company send along their operative to investigate – enter the Continental Op, the only name we are given for the first-person narrator. The CO soon decides that there’s been some kind of inside job, and that there’s more to the case than a simple burglary. Leggett has a wife and a weird, strange-looking but oddly attractive daughter, Gabrielle. The plot is entirely incomprehensible so that’s as much of a summary as I’ll give. Suffice it to say, the thing soon turns bloody, with more corpses than you could shake a stick at, supposing you would want to do such a thing. Gabrielle, who seems to be thought of by some as a femme fatale but seems to me way too pathetic to be such a thing, is at the centre of all the mysterious happenings and comes to believe she is cursed. It’s up to the CO to solve whatever it is that’s going on, and amazingly, he does.

Oddly, despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, I still found the book entertaining. This is largely due to the snappy, hardboiled style of the writing and the relentless pace, which doesn’t give the reader much time to ponder the basic absurdity of the storyline. Plus, in the middle of it there is a passage of very effective horror writing, as the CO battles an evil apparition that may be real or may be the product of hallucination, or is possibly a combination of both. I forgave a lot of the book’s weaknesses for my enjoyment of that piece of writing.

Through the thing’s transparent flesh I could see my hands clenched in the center of its damp body. I opened them, struck up and down inside it with stiff crooked fingers, trying to gouge it open; and I could see it being torn apart, could see it flowing together after my clawing fingers had passed; but all I could feel was its dampness.

Challenge details:
Book: 91
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1929

It also gives a snapshot of aspects of Californian life at the time of writing – the late 1920s. Inevitably, this involves some pretty strong racist language, but I felt this was an accurate reflection of the time (built-in and possibly incorrect assumption in that phrase that things have improved since) and in fact Hammett treated his non-white characters no worse than his white ones, so at least he was pretty even-handed in that sense. We also get to see that guns were as ubiquitous then as they still are now. In fact, as I write this, I’m realising that it could as easily have been written today – weird religious cults, casual drug-taking, addiction, money-is-the-root-of-all-evil… Prohibition might be the only thing that has really receded into the past, though I liked that he touched on the idea of moral degeneracy showing as a physical thing, identifiable by physical features – a concept that pops up in true crime cases around the turn of the century and also appears in quite a lot of late Victorian horror writing. (Hammett references Arthur Machen in the text and I felt his influence could be seen both in this concept and in the piece of horror writing in the middle of the book.) Another touch I enjoyed is Hammett’s inclusion of a character who is a novelist, which gives him the chance to include some humorously self-deprecating dialogue…

“Are you – who make your living snooping – sneering at my curiosity about people and my attempts to satisfy it?”
“We’re different,” I said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in jail, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“That’s not different,” he said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in books, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“Yeah, but what good does that do?”
“God knows. What good does putting them in jail do?”
“Relieves congestion,” I said. “Put enough people in jail, and cities wouldn’t have traffic problems.”

Dashiell Hammett

I feel I should have more to say about this one, but I don’t. It’s quite fun, so long as you can get past the silliness of the plot. But in truth I’m not sure why it would be considered a classic any more than most other books of the era. For me, it’s doesn’t even come close to the only other Hammett I’ve read, The Maltese Falcon, which unlike this one is tightly plotted and has a wonderful femme fatale worthy of the title. I suspect that if it hadn’t been for that later one, this one may have been forgotten along with most of the pulp fiction of the time. According to Martin Edwards in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Hammett himself later described this book as “a silly story… all style”, and I’m forced to agree with him. Still, that style covers a whole lot of weaknesses meaning that I found it an entertaining read overall, and that’s the most important thing…

Book 28 of 90

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Downfall (Joel Williams 4) by Margot Kinberg

Did he fall or was he pushed?

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While playing truant from school, a teenage boy climbs the scaffolding on a nearby construction site, and falls to his death. The police investigate, but there are no suspicious circumstances and no apparent motive for anyone to have wanted to harm Curtis, so it’s filed as a tragic accident. Two years later, Joel Williams, ex-cop turned University professor, is carrying out research along with two colleagues into a for-profit organisation that provides schools for young people viewed as at-risk. This organisation, Second Chance, runs the school from which Curtis truanted that day. As Joel and his colleagues dig into the organisation’s records, they notice some odd discrepancies that start them wondering if there might have been more to Curtis’ death than had been thought…

I shall start with my usual disclaimer: regular visitors will be well aware that Margot and I are long-time blog buddies, so you will have to assume that there may be a level of bias in this review, but as always I shall try to be as honest as I can.

This is Joel Williams’ fourth outing, so his character is well established by now. His police background means he still has contacts on the force, so when he finds himself involved in investigations, his old colleagues are generally happy to have him help out. As a result, the books have a good mix of being part police procedural, part amateur detective, while still feeling realistic and credible. Joel is no maverick – he works with the police, handing over any information he finds promptly, and leaving the serving officers to carry out formal interviews, arrests, etc. Joel is also pleasingly normal, with a stable home life, and a job that he enjoys.

In this one, there are two connected strands. At the same time as Joel is researching Second Chance, another organisation is offering to make a substantial donation to the University of Tilton where he works, in return for being allowed to set up a permanent research facility on methods of providing services designed to keep troubled young people from ending up in jail. So we see Joel struggling to decide whether such organisations can really be run with the best interest of students at heart, or whether corners will be cut in pursuit of profit. His research into Second Chance and the events of the story will feed into his eventual decision whether to support the new initiative. I found this aspect of the book particularly interesting because I worked for some years in a not dissimilar for-profit organisation and struggled with some of the same questions, though fortunately none of our pupils or colleagues were murdered!

Because of the research angle, the book takes us off campus this time, giving us a wider picture of Philadelphia with its mix of affluent and more deprived neighbourhoods. As Joel and his fellow researchers look into Second Chance, we get some insight into how organisations like this are funded and monitored, and Kinberg gives an even-handed picture of the benefits and potential pitfalls of these kind of semi-detached facilities. And she doesn’t lose sight of the fact that at the heart of the story is the tragic death of a young boy, allowing us to see the effects of this on his mother and friends.

Margot Kinberg

Another interesting story from Kinberg that, partly because of the age of the victim, felt a little darker to me than her last book. In truth, I had a good idea of whodunit from fairly early on since the pool of suspects isn’t large, but the interest of the book is more in watching how Joel and the police go about getting enough evidence to prove that Curtis was killed and to make a charge stick. One that has enough of the police procedural about it to appeal to fans of that genre, but with the added element of Joel’s amateur involvement allowing it to retain a feeling of the traditional mystery novel too. Recommended, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Joel’s investigations in future novels.

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The Ice Shroud by Gordon Ell

Small town secrets and lies…

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Detective Sergeant Malcolm Buchan has just been appointed to head up the CIB in the Southern Lakes district of New Zealand’s South Island, when the body of a woman is found in the frozen water of a river near the small town of Queenstown. The fact that the body is naked makes accidental death unlikely, so suddenly Malcolm finds himself with a murder investigation on his hands, and to make matters more complicated, he soon discovers he has a personal connection to the case. Being new to the area, Malcolm is happy when a local cop is seconded to his team – Sergeant Magda Hansen, transferred from Traffic. Their first task is to find out the identity of the dead woman…

This is a début novel, and was nominated for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel in 2017. It’s a police procedural, well written in third person, past tense, with a strong plot and some excellent descriptive writing that brings the small town, set amid rugged landscape, to life. Both Malcolm and Magda carry some personal baggage, but neither is the tedious angst-ridden maverick of so much current crime fiction. Malcolm had previously served in the armed forces including tours of duty in Afghanistan, and is still affected by events that happened there. Magda is trying to balance her role as wife and mother with her ambitions for her career – ambitions which her husband doesn’t support. They are both likeable characters in this initial outing, and each have plenty of room to develop and grow further in sequels, if this is to be the first in a series.

As the plot develops, we discover that the dead woman was well known around town and had links to several of the prominent businessmen and local politicians. What’s not so clear is what was at the root of these links and why so many people seem to want to deny knowing her. Malcolm soon finds that this small community has many secrets, and it’s his job to get past the wall of silence and lies that the townspeople have thrown up. This is where Magda’s local knowledge is essential – as a police officer, she knows many of the people involved and understands the power structures within this small society.

I found this an intriguing story with an excellent setting. Queenstown is full of tourists in the summer months, but now, in the heart of winter, only the permanent residents are around, nicely limiting the potential suspects to a manageable number. Although this is his fiction début, Ell has apparently been a nature writer and photographer and this shows through in his excellent descriptions of the landscape and weather, and the isolated feeling of some of the scenes that take place in more remote parts of the territory. The underlying motive is interesting and stays within the bounds of credibility, and the police procedural aspects feel believable and convincing. As well as the two main characters, we meet the rest of the small team and again they have plenty of potential for future development.

Gordon Ell

The one weakness for me was that I found the ending a bit messy and not altogether clear. It felt a little rushed and, after all the convincing detective work throughout the book, relied a bit too much on luck in the end. There were perhaps too many extra strands, probably put in to provide some misdirection which indeed they did, but it meant all the various solutions were kind of delivered in a surge at the end, leaving me feeling a bit bewildered – all the answers are given but in a way that meant it took me a bit of time to work out which parts fitted together and which were separate from the main plot. But this was a small issue that didn’t have a big impact on my overall enjoyment of the book.

So in conclusion, a strong début that introduces some characters and a setting that I’ll be more than happy to revisit in the future. It’s not yet been published in the UK or the US, but hopefully it will be at some point. I’m indebted to Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist for sending me her own copy – she was on the judging panel for the Ngaio Marsh Award and it was her spotlighting of the novel that first drew it to my attention. Thanks, Margot – greatly appreciated!

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

The weak and the mad…

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Guy Haines is on a train to Texas, hoping that his estranged wife Miriam will finally give him the divorce he needs so that he can marry his new love, Anne. When another passenger, Charles Bruno, begins to chat to him, Guy little thinks that this is the beginning of an odd relationship which will eventually spiral into murder…

First published in 1950, this is one of the early examples of what we’d now call “psychological thrillers”. Bruno has a difficult relationship with his rich father who controls the purse strings. He suggests to Guy that they swap murders – that Bruno will murder the inconvenient Miriam if in return Guy will murder Bruno’s father. Guy tries to brush him off, but Bruno goes ahead with his part of the scheme. The thrust of the book is Bruno pressuring Guy to hold up his side of the bargain – a bargain Guy never agreed to, although he didn’t explicitly refuse it either. We see the psychological effect on Guy and eventually on Bruno too, as the plot plays out.

Two things combined to give me perhaps overly high expectations of this book. The first is its stellar reputation as a masterpiece of the form and as an influence on later generations of crime writers; the second is Hitchcock’s wonderful film adaptation, one of my favourite movies of all time. Having recently read quite a few of the books that Hitchcock adapted, I’ve realised that he often changed the plot almost out of all recognition, so I wasn’t surprised to find that that’s the case with this one too. While Hitch’s story is of a good man hounded by a crazy one, Highsmith’s version of Guy is of a weak and distinctly unlikeable character whose innate lack of moral strength is as much of an issue as Bruno’s possible insanity. Oddly, it reminded me far more of Hitch’s other great classic, Rope, in terms of the moral questions it poses.

Guy’s inability to deal with the moral dilemma and subsequent descent into a state of extreme anxiety is done brilliantly, and the psychology underpinning Bruno’s craziness is well and credibly developed. His unhealthy relationship with his mother in particular is portrayed with a good deal of subtlety – lots of showing rather than telling and, because we see it almost entirely through Bruno’s eyes, it’s handled with a good deal of ambiguity. However, the unlikeability of both characters made it hard for me to get up any kind of emotional investment in the outcome, especially as we don’t really get to know the potential second victim, Mr Bruno, Senior.

Challenge details:
Book: 95
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1950

Miriam is given more characterisation, but not much, and there’s a kind of suggestion that she brought her fate on herself by her sexual promiscuity. But she’s bumped off too quickly for the reader to develop any depth of feeling for her either way. Anne, Guy’s new love interest, is a cipher for most of the book – there merely to give Guy a motive for wishing to be rid of Miriam and, later, to give him something to lose. For the most part we see Anne solely through Guy’s eyes, as a kind of idealised opposite to Miriam, which makes her come over as rather passionless and insipid, and almost unbelievably trusting of this man that she clearly barely knows or comprehends (or she wouldn’t dream of marrying him). In the end stages, we do get to see things from her perspective briefly, but she never really comes to life as a distinct character in her own right.

Patricia Highsmith

The writing is very good, particularly when showing Guy’s increasing loss of grip on reality, but I found the pacing of the first half incredibly slow. Partly that may have been because I knew the story from the film, but the book seems to cover the same ground over and over again, with Guy angsting over his moral dilemma to the point where I didn’t care what he decided to do so long as he finally did something! However, the second half seems to flow much better and the tension ramps up, so that in the end I was glad I stuck with it.

As you’ll no doubt have realised by now, I’m not joining the legions of readers who have praised this unreservedly. For me, the unlikeability of the characters made it an intellectual rather an emotional read and, as I’ve said, the first half seemed to drag interminably. However, there’s plenty to enjoy in it, especially in the later stages when it picks up pace, and it definitely deserves its reputation as a classic for its originality at the time. So I certainly recommend it, both as a good read overall and because it’s always interesting to read a book that has been so influential on the genre.

Book 21 of 90

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The Linking Rings (Eli Marks 4) by John Gaspard

“To see oursels as ithers see us…”

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When his uncle Harry is invited to perform at the Magic Circle in London, Eli Marks takes the opportunity of turning the trip into a holiday for himself and his girlfriend, Megan. But things take a dramatic turn when one of the magicians slated to appear with Harry dies on stage – killed by a “magic” contraption. As Harry falls under suspicion, Eli and some of Harry’s magician friends must try to find out what happened…

I love this series so approached this book with high expectations and it has a lot of the elements that make the series so enjoyable. Eli is a first person narrator (past tense) and it’s always fun to listen in on his thoughts about the people he meets. Gaspard always presents the stage magic interestingly, without breaking the magician’s code of not revealing how tricks are done. I love the interaction between Eli and his elderly uncle and, by extension, the older generation of stage magicians he knows from the days when stage magic was still bigger than TV magic.

But the transplanting of the characters to London didn’t work so well for me. Thankfully Gaspard doesn’t go the funny accent route, but he does keep suggesting that perfectly commonplace English expressions are actually American in origin and therefore hard for us old-fashioned throwbacks to use confidently. And when Eli began to refer to his hotel as Fawlty Towers, it set my teeth on edge somewhat. It’s such a cliché. I also can’t help but get picky about factual or cultural inaccuracies that could have been sorted by a little research: for example, the suggestion that magistrates are responsible for charging people with crimes, or a police officer using the term ‘capital crime’ in a country that abolished capital punishment back when the Beatles still had short hair. Irritating errors like these, and there were several more of them, tend to throw me out of the flow of the story. I strongly suggest that if American authors want to write books based in Britain and publish them in Britain, they should hire a British editor to give them a final look over before sending the proofs to the printers.

However, I doubt any of these things would annoy American readers, who will make up the bulk of Gaspard’s audience, so hey ho! But I personally will be glad when Eli returns to Minnesota for his next adventure.

John Gaspard

Otherwise, the plot itself is quite fun with its origins back in Harry’s past, leading to enjoyable reminiscing among the entertaining group of magicians who’ve assembled for the performances at the Magic Circle. It seemed to me to cross the credibility line more than is usual in this series, and perhaps not to be quite as “fair play”. But there’s plenty of humour in it and Eli is as likeable a hero as always.

I know this review has been quite critical but I did enjoy reading the book overall, although it certainly isn’t my favourite in the series. However, it was good to see the personal stories of the main characters move forward, and I look forward to meeting up with them all again in their next outing.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Henery Press.

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Behind the Night Bazaar (Jayne Keeney 1) by Angela Savage

A visit to the dark side… 

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Jayne Keeney is an Australian woman working as a PI in Bangkok in Thailand. While she is recovering from an injury she received in the course of an investigation, she decides to visit her best friend Didier in Chiang Mai. After a rather strange and disturbing evening in the gay bars behind the Night Bazaar, Didier’s Thai lover, Nou, is found dead and horrifically mutilated. Worse still, Didier is accused of the crime by the police, who shoot him dead, claiming he was resisting arrest. Jayne is determined to clear her friend’s name, so must try to find out who really killed Nou, and why.

I shall start with my usual disclaimer – I know the author, Angela Savage, via our blogs, so you should assume that there may be some bias in my review. However, as always, I’ll try to be as honest as possible. Although Angela has written three novels in this series, this one was her début and is the first one I’ve read.

Despite the PI set-up, the book isn’t really a mystery – we find out who and why quite early on. The real story is about how Jayne navigates her way through the corruption at all levels of society in an attempt to force the authorities to clear Didier’s name. It’s set amid the seamy side of Thai life – prostitution, including child prostitution, police corruption, and foreign sex tourism. Savage pulls no punches, making it something of a grim read, grittier than my personal taste normally runs to. There is also some graphic sex and a sprinkling of strong language.

Didier has been doing outreach work to try to minimise the spread of AIDS not only in the gay community but in the wider Thai society. This has led him to become involved in a project to look at the underlying causes of the massive sex industry in the country and it’s here that the motivation lies. Savage raises some interesting questions, especially around the subject of foreign involvement in the sex industry, as both providers and users, and the attempts of foreign law enforcement agencies to intervene.

To be honest, the little I know about Thailand comes from the various horror stories surrounding sex tourism by sad old perverts and revolting paedophiles that have hit the British news over the decades and I had been hoping that I might get some insights into other aspects of Thai life (I assume there must be some!), but because of the focus of this plot, that wasn’t the case here. So to an extent it reinforced my existing impression of Thailand as a place that I would avoid like the plague. I will be interested to see if the later books in the series will widen the focus to let us see a more enticing side to the country.

It feels very well researched and the picture of this aspect of Thai life feels unfortunately all too believable. The character of Jayne is well developed – she’s strong without having superwoman tendencies, independent but not a loner and, while she’s courageous, we are also allowed to see her fear, which keeps her human and likeable. The writing is very good – happily it’s written in third person, past tense. The story flows well, never dipping into ‘soggy middle’ territory, and Savage manages to keep Jayne’s grief over Didier’s death feeling real without wallowing in the angsty morass so beloved of some of our contemporary crime writers.

Angela Savage

The book paints an excellent picture of how corruption in the police force allows child prostitution and other forms of sex slavery to thrive, but Savage also highlights that not all sex workers are forced into it – many choose the life because they can earn more that way. Without getting overly preachy, Savage through her characters suggests that poverty is the root cause – while I don’t disagree, I felt she took a rather more forgiving approach than I can to parents who sell eight and nine year old girls to the highest bidder, whatever the reason. The foreign sex tourists and the police come off as the baddies – personally I struggled to spot any “goodies”. I was a little disappointed that even Jayne seemed more concerned about Didier’s good name than about the abuse of children, although I do think that’s more realistic than if she’d been portrayed as a moral crusader – a foreign white knight riding to rescue the Thai people from themselves.

The subject matter meant that for me it was more of a thought-provoking read than an enjoyable one. As you may be able to tell from my review, it inspired me to rant about the sexual exploitation – no, let’s call it what it is – the rape of children (even though I’ve edited out about five hundred words of the worst of my frothing at the mouth – kind of me, I’m sure you’ll agree). But on the whole, Savage gets a good balance between the examination of the social issues and the telling of an interesting story, and none of the grittier elements feel gratuitous or voyeuristic. A well-written and intriguing look at the seamier side of Thai culture that will appeal to those who like their crime fiction dark. Recommended, and I look forward to seeing how the series develops.

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Foreign Bodies edited by Martin Edwards

Crime in translation…

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Another collection of vintage short stories from the great partnership of the British Library and Martin Edwards, this one is different in that these are all translated. Many are from European countries but there are some that range further afield – Russia, India, Mexico, Japan. As always the book begins with a highly informative and entertaining foreword from Edwards who always manages to get the tricky balance between not enough and too much information just about perfect. Each story also has its own little introduction, where Edwards gives some information about the author and in this collection also about the translation. Some of the stories were translated earlier and have appeared in magazines or other collections, but some have been translated specifically for this collection and are appearing in English for the first time.

There are fifteen stories in all, and as always the quality is variable. There are “impossible” crimes, Holmes pastiches with a foreign slant, little stories that are just a bit of fun, dark stories that linger in the mind, stories that verge on gothic horror. For me, the collection got off to a pretty poor start – I wasn’t impressed by the first two or three and began to think I’d made a mistake with this one. But as it goes on, the stories get better and better, and some of the later stories are very good indeed. One of them in particular rates as one of the best crime short stories I’ve ever read. In the end, I rated 6 of the stories as 5 stars and another 5 as 4 stars, and there were only two that I thought were complete duds that didn’t really deserve inclusion on the basis of their quality, although I could see why Edwards had picked them – one for the author’s name (Chekhov), and the other because it plays on a classic of the genre. So despite the iffy start, this ended up being one of my favourites of these collections overall.

Here are a few of the stories that stood out for me:-

The Spider by Koga Saburo translated by Ho-Ling Wong. Japanese. Part crime/part horror and definitely not one for arachnophobes! A scientist built a tower where he keeps vast numbers of spiders for study. But one day a visitor to the tower comes to a sticky end. Our narrator is looking into events after the later death of the scientist himself. This is almost Poe-ish in style in that we learn what happened mostly from the diaries of the scientist – a tale told by a man driven mad. Those spiders have haunted me for weeks now!

The Venom of the Tarantula by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay translated by Sreejata Guha. Indian. Very much a Holmes pastiche and excellently done. The detective Byomkesh Bakshi and his Watson, Ajit, apparently appeared in many stories and I’d happily read more of them. In this one, an old man is driving his long-suffering family crazy – he takes a drug that makes him impossible to deal with and they don’t know how he’s getting hold of it. The solution is very Holmesian even if it’s a little obvious, and the story is highly entertaining.

Poster from the 2015 film based on the stories

The Kennel by Maurice Level translated by Alys Eyre Macklin. French. There is a crime here, a fairly horrific one too, but mostly this is a great little gothic horror story. A man suspects his wife of having an affair, especially when he finds another man in her room. She claims it’s all very innocent but things are about to take a very nasty turn. It has a darkly twisted ending that made me gasp aloud (and then laugh). The author apparently wrote for the Grand Guignol and this story is of that type – melodramatic, gruesome and lots of fun!

The Cold Night’s Clearing by Keikichi Osaka translated by Ho-Ling Wong. Japanese again – there’s something about the Japanese approach to crime fiction that always draws me in, and this is the story I referred to above as being one of the best crime shorts I’ve ever read. It’s also by far the darkest story in the book. A teacher is called out in the middle of the night to his friend’s house, where he finds his friend’s wife and cousin dead, Christmas toys and sweets strewn around the floor, and the couple’s young son missing. Beautifully written and translated, the author uses the winter snow, the dark night and the frozen countryside to create a great atmosphere of uncanny dread, and there’s an excellent puzzle to be solved too. I was blown away by this story – a little piece of dark perfection.

So some great stories in there that well outweigh the less good ones, and make this for me one of the best of these collections… so far! Highly recommended and I hope Edwards and the BL keep ’em coming!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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Unplayable Lie (Josh Griffin 1) by Caleigh O’Shea

A strong début…

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Thirteen-year-old Lexi Carlisle is already famous in her home state of Texas. A budding golf player, she looks set to be a future champion. When she goes missing, the police and even her parents think at first that maybe she’s just off doing something she doesn’t want her parents to know about – she’s a good kid but she’s at that rebellious stage. But when time goes on, worry turns to fear – and then the ransom note arrives. Meantime, local journalist Josh Griffin is hanging onto his job by his fingernails – he needs a big story and he needs it soon. So when he gets a tip-off about Lexi’s disappearance, at first he’s thrilled. But Lexi’s mother, Amanda, was Josh’s college sweetheart and he soon finds himself torn between getting the scoop and helping Amanda find her daughter…

This is Caleigh O’Shea’s début novel and before I begin I shall make my usual disclaimer – under her real name, Caleigh is a long-term blog buddy of mine, so you should assume that there may be some bias in my review. However, as always, I’ll try to be as honest as possible.

The book is a traditional thriller – ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events – and O’Shea has used this format very effectively. The pacing is excellent – the story keeps moving along, with time for us to get to know the main characters but without too much back story holding up the flow. Although the series title suggests Josh will be the main character, in fact Amanda is the character we spend most time with.

Truthfully, I didn’t find either of them particularly appealing in the early chapters. Josh seems deeply unsympathetic to Amanda’s worry over her daughter, getting quite huffy when she makes it clear that giving him a good story isn’t her primary concern. Equally, Amanda seemed quite cold and controlled considering the circumstances, reacting too calmly and almost unfeelingly to major events which should, I felt, have upset her hugely. I also felt that while Nee-Hi, Amanda’s little dog, brought a lot of warmth into the story, humanising Amanda’s character, there were perhaps too many repetitions of the day-to-day stuff of dog-caring – letting him out to pee, feeding him, putting him in and out of his carry box, etc.

However, I warmed to both of them as time went on. (Josh and Amanda, that is. I didn’t need to warm to Nee-Hi – I fell in love with him immediately!) Josh gradually begins to get his priorities right, and in the later chapters especially we see more deeply into Amanda’s feelings. By the halfway point I had grown to like them both and was therefore fully invested in their welfare as the action ramped up in the second half. I wondered, as I often do with débuts, whether the book had been written linearly – the second half feels much more skilled in showing emotion realistically than the first, as if O’Shea’s style and, perhaps, confidence had been developing as she went along.

Caleigh O’Shea

The plot is more complex than it first appears – this is no random kidnapping of a rich kid. There’s a motive here, and a mystery which gives Josh a chance to use his journalistic skills to uncover what’s really going on. The police are involved but their suspicions are centred on this being some kind of domestic thing between Lexi’s divorced parents, so Amanda and Josh have to do their own investigating. And in true thriller fashion, eventually all the strands come together in a dramatic but credible denouement, in which I was delighted that neither Amanda nor Josh suddenly turned into unbelievable superheroes. For my liking, the body count was a little high, with a couple of events that I didn’t feel were necessary and which made the story rather bleaker than my taste runs to, but that’s a subjective point.

Overall, then, a strong début with a good plot, great pacing, an exciting and believable climax, and main characters whom I grew to care about. I’m looking forward to seeing how Caleigh, Josh (and maybe Amanda?) develop as the series progresses.

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Pietr the Latvian (Maigret 1) by Georges Simenon

Introducing the great man…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Inspector Maigret is at the Gare du Nord on the trail of a notorious conman known only as Pietr the Latvian. He only has a description to go on, but he sees a man get off the train who matches it in every respect. However things get complicated when a corpse turns up on the train, and the corpse also matches the description! Who is the man on the train? And who is the man who got off the train? As Maigret hunts down the living man, his identity seems to become ever vaguer. But Maigret is nothing if not dogged…

This is the first book in the long-running Maigret series and, like many débuts, not one of the best when looked at retrospectively. The plot is a bit messy and the solution relatively obvious. It consists mostly of Maigret hanging around in hotels and bars as he follows his quarry about Paris and the little seaside town of Fecamp, interspersed with the occasional interview. However it shows Simenon’s skill in creating the authentic sense of place that would become a hallmark of the series and provides an introduction to the character of Maigret himself – perhaps more one-dimensional than he would later become, but already with that relentless persistence that would see him through more complex investigations in his future career.

Challenge details:
Book: 97
Subject Heading: Cosmopolitan Crimes
Publication Year: 1930

He was a big, bony man. Iron muscles shaped his jacket sleeves and quickly wore through new trousers. He had a way of imposing himself just by standing there.

Maigret is a bit of a superman in this one, requiring little in the way of sleep and able to battle on even when injured, possibly due to the extraordinary amount of alcohol he puts away. It’s more noir in tone, perhaps, than the later books (of which I’ve only read a couple, so am certainly no Maigret expert), as Maigret wanders through a kind of lowlife underworld full of rather sad and desperate people. His wife is referred to, but not really in the warm terms I’ve come to expect, of being Maigret’s true partner and best friend. Here she’s more of a “traditional” wife – there merely to provide food when required.

Georges Simenon

I listened to it on audio, well narrated by Gareth Armstrong. It’s part of Penguin’s re-issue of the series with new translations, and David Bellos does a fine job with it.

On the whole I felt one could see the kernel of what the series would develop into, but since these are all standalones, I’d tend to recommend newcomers to start with one of the later, better books as I did. In truth, had this been my first introduction to the great man, it may not have encouraged me to try more. But I found it interesting from the point of view of being able to compare this first glimpse of Maigret to the more rounded character he would later become, so would certainly recommend it on that basis.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

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Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Thought-provoking…

😀 😀 😀 😀

African-American Texas Ranger Darren Matthews is on suspension when a colleague asks him to look into a case in the small town of Lark in East Texas. Two murders have been committed – a black male lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman, and the racial tensions which were already simmering in the town look like they might explode. It’s up to Darren to try to find out what happened before more violence erupts… but there are people in the town who don’t want old secrets disturbed and will go to any length to stop him.

The book is very well written and the plot is interesting, revolving around the various relationships, open and hidden, amongst the people of this small town. Fundamentally, it’s a book about racism and veers towards being too overt in its message-sending, but for the most part the excellent characterisation and sense of place carry it over this flaw. It has something of the feel of an updated version of In the Heat of the Night, with Darren mistrusted and almost ostracised by the white power-brokers of the town, having to act as a lone hero standing up for the black residents against an institutionally racist system and a bunch of terrifying white supremacists. However, Darren is no Virgil Tibbs – he’s on suspension for acting as a maverick, he has a drink problem and his marriage is on the rocks, surely proving convincingly (and rather tediously) that there’s very little difference between black and white detectives in contemporary fiction.

Had I read this a year ago, I’d have been saying it dramatically overstates the racial divide in the US. But after the last few months of sons of bitches and very fine people, I found it frighteningly possible. However – and I’m going to get polemical myself here – while I understand why people who are victims of any form of oppression are likely to develop opposite prejudices, I can’t say I’m much fonder of anti-white racism than anti-black. There is not a single decent white person in this book, and conversely there are no bad black people. When a black person occasionally does something morally dubious, it’s made clear that they’ve been more or less forced into it by society’s racism against them. The white people however are simply racist with no real attempt to consider why this might be so. Of course, sometimes this form of exaggeration can work in literary terms to highlight an issue, but I can’t feel that it moves the debate on – it’s more of a simple protest, maybe a howl of pain. I can see it feeding into both black outrage and liberal white hand-wringing, but I have to ask, given the state of America as seen from distant Scotland, do either of those things really need feeding at this point? Personally, I feel something more nuanced – more perceptive of the underlying reasons for the polarisation of American society – would be more useful. But then, I’m not a black American and Attica Locke is…

The result of this was that I began to find the portrayal of the town less credible as the book went on. The action takes place mainly in two places – a café where the black people hang out, and a bar where the white supremacists gather. Where are the other townsfolk? Even if they were irrelevant to the plot, I’d have liked to feel that they existed – to see them at least out of the corner of my eye. Maybe all white people in East Texas really are white supremacists, and maybe all black people do spend all day every day in a café scared of being killed, but I found myself progressively less convinced.

Attica Locke

This might all make it sound as if I hated the book, but I didn’t. The quality of the writing and the flow of the story kept me engaged, and if I weren’t a political animal I probably wouldn’t have been so conscious of what I saw as a lack of nuance in the portrayal of the racism. It’s all down to timing – at another time, say, a year ago, I would probably have been saying this makes for an excellent wake-up call for people who, like me, had come to think that America was finally getting over the legacy of slavery. But we’ve surely all woken up now and therefore it feels somehow redundant, or perhaps even part of the problem, as each side continues to stand on the moral high ground throwing rocks at the other side.

I realise this has been more of a political statement than a book review. But perhaps if the book serves a purpose beyond entertainment, and I’m sure Locke intends that it should, it’s to stir rational debate. I certainly recommend it – as you can tell, I found it thought-provoking even if I’m not convinced my thoughts are the ones Locke intended to provoke. But stripping my political venting out, I also found it an enjoyable and well written read.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mulholland Books.

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Force of Nature (Aaron Falk 2) by Jane Harper

Lost in the woods…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Two groups set off into the Australian outback on a team-building exercise. The men’s team returns on time, but the women’s team is late. The search for them finds nothing but, just as it’s about to be abandoned for the night, four women burst out of the woods – some hysterical, some injured. But the fifth team member, Alice, isn’t with them. Federal Agent Aaron Falk becomes involved when it turns out Alice made a phone call to him the night before, though all he can make out on the recorded message is a lot of static and two words… “hurt her”. Falk and his partner Carmen had been pressuring Alice to get information for them on her company, since they suspect her boss of money-laundering. What has happened to Alice? Did she just walk away from her team in the middle of the night and get lost or is there a more sinister reason for her disappearance? Just to add to the sense of unease the woods were where a serial killer once brought his victims – the killer is now dead, but his son is alive and no one knows where he is…

It’s not often I have to suspend my disbelief quite so early in a thriller, but I struggled with the whole concept that any company would send its inexperienced staff off into the outback with no professional support, no satellite phone, no flares – no way, in fact, of alerting anyone should things go wrong. Maybe they’re tougher in Aus, but here the company management would be liable to major damages not to mention jail-terms. I also felt the idea that the son of a serial killer would necessarily be a serial killer was… dubious. I didn’t feel Harper did enough to convince me of that likelihood by showing that the son had any kind of track record, nor did I feel that strand was really used effectively as the story developed. So I didn’t get off to the best start with this one.

Having set up Alice’s disappearance, the book then takes us back in time to follow the women on their hike, alternating this with Aaron and Carmen in the present assisting the search and slowly revealing the storyline about their investigation into the company. This works fairly well, and each trip into the woods focuses on a different one of the women so that we gradually get to know them all. It’s not long before they get lost and then we get a kind of accelerated Lord of the Flies syndrome, as the women’s veneer of camaraderie quickly gives way to greed, bullying and the dredging up of old scores. This is not a company I would choose to work for!

I don’t want to be too hard on the book, since I suspect some of my relative disappointment with it is caused by too high expectations following Harper’s excellent début in The Dry. But the technique of flicking back and forwards between two timelines is feeling increasingly tired and, a common complaint of mine these days, the first chapters telling us which women come out of the woods destroy any real suspense when we then go back in time. Every time one of the women other than Alice is in peril, we know she survives. I genuinely don’t get why writers think these prologue-type chapters are a good idea, especially in a thriller. The book is also too long for its content – another common feature of current crime/thriller fiction. It drags badly in the middle and somehow the plot gets too convoluted for a thriller and yet not complex enough for a crime mystery. While Harper does achieve a feeling of creepiness at several points in the woods, the major storyline doesn’t live up to its promise.

Jane Harper

On the upside, Aaron and Carmen mesh together well and are a team I’ll be happy to see work together again. Harper’s writing, characterisation and powers of description are just as good as in her début – the book just needs a sharper plot and tighter structure to create a real feeling of suspense. All the elements are there and, while I think authors always have the primary responsibility, as a newish author I feel Harper deserved a stricter editor who would have made the criticisms several reviewers are now making. I always suspect publishers want to rush second books to market after a successful début, but sometimes it would be better to take a little longer – readers will wait. In the end, this is an averagely good thriller with the potential to have been an excellent one. Now that the always tricky second novel is over I look forward to seeing how Harper develops as the series progresses.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group UK.

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Cop Hater (87th Precinct 1) by Ed McBain

A real classic…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a cop is shot down in the street one night, the squad from the 87th Precinct in Isola swing into action. At first the reason for the shooting isn’t known. Was it random? Was it personal? But when another cop from the precinct is killed in the same way it begins to look like there’s a cop hater on the loose. Now Detective Steve Carella and his colleagues have two reasons to find the killer quickly – to get justice for their fellow officers and to stop the perpetrator before he kills again…

First published in 1956, this is the first in the long-running, successful and influential 87th Precinct series. I read many of them in my teens, but this is the first time I’ve revisited the Precinct in decades. I have no memory of the individual plots, but vividly remember the setting and several of the characters – a testimony to how well drawn they are. In this one Steve Carella is the main focus but as the series progressed McBain developed an entire group of detectives who took their turn in the spotlight, which is why the series is known by the name of the squad rather than any one detective. Carella stays at the forefront more than the other detectives overall, though, throughout the series. The books are based in Isola, an area of a major city which is clearly a fictionalised New York. The various boroughs have been given different names but are apparently recognisable to people who know the city (which I only do through books and TV or movies – I suspect my first impressions of New York may in fact have come from this series).

Apparently the series was made into a TV show. I had no idea – I wonder if it wasn’t shown on this side of the pond…

The style seems to me like a kind of crossover point between the hardboiled fiction of Hammett, Chandler and their generation, and the more modern police procedural that would come to the fore and perhaps dominate crime fiction over the next few decades. (I hasten to add I’m no expert and not particularly widely-read, especially in American crime fiction, so this is just my own impression – perhaps other writers had been making the transition before McBain got there.) When he writes about the city – the soaring skylines, the dazzling lights, the display of wealth and glamour barely hiding the crime, corruption and violence down on the streets – it reads like pure noir; and in this one there’s a femme fatale who equals any of the greats, oozing sexuality and confidence in her power over men.

But when he writes about Carella and the squad his tone is warmer, less hard-edged. While hardboiled and noir detectives always seem to be loners, rather mysterious men without much in the way of backstory, McBain’s police officers are real humans, who joke and watch sports, who have wives and children. Personally I prefer that mix to pure noir – McBain’s detectives aren’t always wholly likeable, but they’re human enough to allow me to care about them. Also, because he uses an entire squad as his protagonist, each individual is more expendable than the single hero or partnership of many other authors, so there’s always an air of real suspense as to whether they will come through dangerous situations. They don’t always…

The plot is excellent – I won’t give any spoilers, but I will say that it was only just before the reveal that I really got any idea of where it was heading. McBain creates great atmosphere with his writing, which actually is of much higher quality than I remembered. Some of the scenes had me on the edge of my seat and he left me shocked more than once, but without ever stepping over the credibility line. In fact, realism is at the heart of the book – these detectives have to rely on doing the legwork, using informants and hoping for lucky breaks. There’s a fair amount of casual police brutality, with the impression that this was the norm back then, and rather approved of than otherwise, both within the service and by society in general (and, I suspect, by McBain himself). Times change – depictions of casual and repeated brutality by police protagonists in contemporary British crime fiction annoy me because it wouldn’t be considered acceptable here today and so jars as unrealistic. But it feels right in this book, and isn’t over-emphasised; it’s just part of the job.

Ed McBain
Copyright: Getty Images

There’s also a strand about the relationship between the police and the press, with an irresponsible journalist creating problems for the investigation. This is handled very well, with the reader put firmly on the side of the police. They may not always be nice guys, but McBain leaves us in no doubt that they’re the good guys. And yes, I do mean guys – no women yet in this detective squad. Women are strictly either femmes fatales or loving wives and girlfriends. Well, it was the ’50s!

The ending has aspects of the thriller and again reverts to a more noir-ish feel as we discover the motivation behind the crimes.

I was expecting to like this but perhaps to find it a bit dated. In fact, I loved it. Writing, setting, atmosphere, characterisation – all superb. While some of the attitudes are obviously a bit dated, the storytelling isn’t at all, and the vices and weaknesses of the human animal haven’t changed much over the years. Excellent stuff – definitely a classic of the genre, and highly recommended to anyone who enjoys a realistic police procedural with an edge of noir. I was intending to read this as a one-off as part of my Classics Club challenge, but I’ll certainly be revisiting the 87th Precinct again.

Book 13 of 90

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You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

When pushy is an understatement…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Devon Knox has spent all her young life becoming a gymnast, her eyes firmly fixed on the ultimate prize of reaching the elite levels in her sport, perhaps even the Olympics. Her parents, Katie and Eric, have supported her every step of the way, making huge sacrifices of time and money to get her the best training, and organising the family’s lives around her needs. She’s worked with Coach T for years and has total confidence in him. Now she’s a couple of months away from competing to reach Senior Elite level. But a hit-and-run accident that kills a young man connected to the gym disrupts her training schedule, and when there begins to be suspicion that Ryan’s death might not have been accidental after all, the repercussions ripple out to threaten the stability of her family and of the whole community of budding gymnasts and parents attached to the gym.

Oh, how I love the way Megan Abbott writes about teenage girls! She takes us to the dark heart of them, where hormones play their twisted games, where innocence and sexuality crash head on, where everything is so intense it can feel like euphoria and despair are the only two possible states of being.

The utterly delightful Olga Korbut who, aged 17, set the world alight in 1972
and started the drive towards the tiny frame required for female gymnasts.

In her last few books, Abbott has told her stories through the eyes of her girls, but in this one it is Katie, the mother, whose perspective we share, though the story is told in the third person. Katie and Eric have convinced themselves they are not like the other parents, driving their children to achieve their own dreams for them. They believe it is Devon, has always been Devon, who is utterly dedicated to her sport, and that they have simply supported her. But the reader is not so sure – pressure comes in different forms, and Devon surely knows how proud her parents are to have a child they repeatedly refer to as ‘exceptional’. Young Drew, Devon’s little brother, certainly knows that his needs always take a back-seat, but that’s how it’s always been and mostly he accepts it philosophically.

In Dare Me, Abbott showed the extreme lengths to which girls would go to get on the cheerleading team. Here she does the same with gymnastics, revealing the physical and psychological costs of reaching the elite levels. Not just building strength and muscle mass, to succeed these girls must remain small and undeveloped – boyish – which in many cases requires delayed puberty. Although it doesn’t play a major role in the book, Abbott hints at the methods to which some unscrupulous parents and coaches will go to achieve this. But she also tacitly suggests that the physical training itself might have this effect for the ‘lucky’ ones. And she takes us into the cruelty of the adolescent world, where other girls are blossoming with femininity, and where Devon’s tiny, muscly body and obsessive commitment is derided as freakish. (I suspect Abbott may be overegging the pudding a little, but it’s all chillingly credible, and I must admit I’ve had concerns myself over the years about these young children who compete at the highest levels, ending up often with their careers over before they’re barely adults but with a lifetime of pain and surgeries still to come.)

Abbott also shows the parents who form the community around the gym, dedicated to the point of obsession with having their child succeed. We see the support they give each other, but also the jealousies and spite over whose child is going to do best. And when things begin to go wrong, we see how quickly loyalty breaks down in the mad scramble to ensure that their own child’s prospects don’t suffer, whatever may be happening to the others in the group.

The amazing Nadia Comaneci, aged just 14, who
in the 1976 Montreal Olympics scored the first perfect ten.

The plot itself is dark indeed, and so well done that, although there are only a few possibilities, I still hadn’t decided exactly where it was heading before we got there. Although so much of the book is about extremes, it still feels entirely credible because Abbott develops the psychology of the characters so brilliantly. As things get ever murkier, Katie is forced to reassess how she has behaved as a parent, to both her children, and to find her way through a maze of morally ambiguous choices.

Megan Abbott
(© Philippe Matsas/Opale)

Anyone who has loved Abbot’s Dare Me or The End of Everything will almost certainly enjoy this one too. But this is written in an ‘adult’ voice, so if you have been put off in the past by her teen voices, then this one may work better for you. For me, I think this may be her best yet, and since I loved both those earlier ones, that’s high praise indeed. It kept me on the edge of my seat, reading well past midnight and on towards dawn, and the ending left me fully satisfied. One that will certainly appear in my crime book of the year shortlist…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.

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She Who Was No More by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

A study of evil…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Fernand Ravinel is a travelling salesman, often away from the home he shares with his wife, Mireille. This makes it easy for him to spend time with his lover, Lucienne. But, in time, the pair decide this isn’t enough – that Mireille has to be got rid of. And so they set out to murder her. Their plot at first looks like it’s going to be successful, but then a strange thing happens, and gradually everything starts to go wrong… and as it does so, Fernand’s mind begins to unravel.

This book comes with a request from the authors for readers to tell nothing about the plot so as not to spoil it for other readers, so I’ve restricted my little introduction to slightly less than is given in the publisher’s blurb. In essence, the book concentrates on Ravinel’s state of mind, showing how guilt and remorse soon knock him off his emotional balance, sending him on a spiral into delusion, depression and finally threatening even his sanity. But there’s also a mystery element that stops this being a simple character study – something strange is happening and, while Ravinel in his delusional state is willing to consider a supernatural element, the reader is left looking for a rational explanation.

Narcejac and Boileau

Unsurprisingly in a man who is plotting to murder his wife, Ravinel is not a sympathetic character. He’s self-obsessed, rather cold emotionally, seeming unable to truly love either of the women in his life, and he’s something of a hypochondriac. But although this makes it pretty much impossible to empathise with him, it still leaves him as a fascinating subject for a character study. Boileau-Narcejac use his weaknesses and character flaws brilliantly to create a compelling picture of a man driven to the edge of insanity. They are the authors who wrote Vertigo on which the Hitchcock film is based, and there are some similarities between the books. Both blur the line between villain and victim, concentrating on the effects on the central character’s mind as he is drawn into a plot that spirals out of his control, and both veer close to mild horror novel territory as he gradually loses his grip on reality. And both are dark, indeed.

For me, this one isn’t quite as strong as Vertigo. Mainly, this is because the solution seems pretty obvious from fairly early on which takes away some of the suspense. It still leaves it an intriguing and enjoyable read though, partly because it’s so well written and partly because it’s less clear how the story will be allowed to play out. As strange events lead Ravinel to become more disturbed, there’s a truly chilling effect – it’s easy to understand why he is so badly affected by them. Both the Boileau-Narcejac books I’ve read have been fundamentally about evil, but they seem to see weakness of character as an integral part of that evil, so that the books are less about the incidents and more about the psychological impact they have on the perpetrator.

I trust I’ve been vague enough to suit the authors and if you’re now wondering what on earth this review is going on about, I can only suggest you read the book! It has also been made into a film more than once, but the consensus seems to favour the 1955 Clouzot version, Les Diaboliques, which I am now looking forward to watching…

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Book 12 of 90

Testimony by Scott Turow

Much more than a legal thriller…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Middle-aged successful American lawyer, Bill Ten Boom, is having a bit of a subdued mid-life crisis. He has ended his marriage, not over another woman but simply because he felt there was no real love or passion in it. And he has given up his partnership in a big legal firm – a role he primarily took on to satisfy the aspirations of his ex-wife. So when he’s offered the job of prosecuting a case at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, he decides it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. The case involves the rumoured brutal killing of four hundred Roma in Bosnia in 2004. It happened near an American base, so the case is further complicated by the fact that the US, under George W Bush, pulled out of the ICC. First, Boom (as he is known) must establish that the atrocity did in fact happen, and if so, must then try to find out who should be held responsible.

Scott Turow is one of those writers whose books transcend easy genre definition. On the surface this is a legal crime novel with all the aspects of an investigation, suspects, clues, trial procedures, and so on. But it is also a careful, revealing look at the way the Roma have been dealt with throughout history, in Bosnia and elsewhere – a group at least as victimised as the Jews over the centuries but somehow still left under the radar of popular concern. Turow avoids the easy route of making the Roma seem too much like helpless victims though – he shows how their determination not to assimilate into the societies within which they live puts them in the position of always being seen as outsiders, who are often involved in criminal activity of one kind or another. He also discusses their cultural attitudes towards girls and women, which to our western eyes display all the sexism we have fought so hard to overcome. But Turow doesn’t do any of this as an information dump. It’s woven into the story as Boom himself learns about the Roma during his investigation, and as he becomes attracted to a woman of Roma heritage who is acting as a support to one of the witnesses.

We are also given a look at how the ICC operates: slow to the point of glacial on occasion, bound up in all kinds of procedures and restrictions, but grinding on in its efforts to bring justice for some of the most atrocious crimes in the world. Turow shows how the process can seem cold and unemotional, almost clinical in its approach, but how even this great legal bureaucracy can be shocked by some of the evidence that comes before it.

….“…I knew there was no point. I could claw at the rock the rest of my life and get no closer. I knew the truth.”
….“And what truth was that, sir?”
….“They were dead. My woman. My children. All the People. They were dead. Buried alive. All four hundred of them.”
….Although virtually everyone in the courtroom – the judges, the rows of prosecutors, the court personnel, the spectators behind the glass, and the few reporters with them – although almost all of us knew what the answer to that question was going to be, there was nonetheless a terrible drama to hearing the facts spoken aloud. Silence enshrouded the room as if a warning finger had been raised, and all of us, every person, seemed to sink into ourselves, into the crater of fear and loneliness where the face of evil inevitably casts us.
….So here you are, I thought suddenly, as the moment lingered. Now you are here.

The story also touches on the other big American war of the early years of this century – some of the errors and miscalculations that turned “victory” in Iraq into the quagmire of factionalism that is still going on today, with consequences for us all. But while Turow is perhaps grinding a political axe of his own to some degree, he also shows the dedication and sacrifice of so many US soldiers at all levels, and the basic integrity of much of the legal and even political classes. And if all that isn’t enough, there’s another minor strand about Boom’s European roots and the seemingly never-ending after-effects of earlier atrocities under Nazi Germany.

Scott Turow

Turow’s writing is as good as always – he’s a slow, undramatic storyteller, so that he relies on the strength of the story and the depth of his characterisation, and he achieves both in this one. If I have made it sound like a political history, then that’s my error, not his. Running through all this is an excellent plot – almost a whodunit – that kept me guessing till very late on in the book. He is skilled enough to get that tricky balance when discussing the various atrocities of bringing the horror home to the reader without trading in gratuitous or voyeuristic detail. And as well as Boom, he creates a supporting cast of equally well drawn and credible secondary characters. More political than most of his books, I’m not sure I’d recommend this one as an entry point for new readers (Presumed Innocent, since you ask), but existing fans, I’m certain, will find everything they’ve enjoyed about his previous books plus the added interest of him ranging beyond his usual territory of the US courtroom. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grand Central Publishing.

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A Necessary Evil (Sam Wyndham 2) by Abir Mukherjee

Royal shenanigans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When the son and heir of the Maharaja of Sambalpore is assassinated in front of him, Calcutta police captain Sam Wyndham quickly manages to catch the assassin, but unfortunately the man dies before he can be questioned. Although the authorities and even the Maharaja are willing to let the matter rest as the work of a fanatic, Sam isn’t so sure, so he manages to get himself and his sergeant, Surrender-not Bannerjee, invited to the prince’s funeral so he can do a bit of investigating. Soon they are both sucked into the skulduggery going on beneath the glittering surface in this fabulously wealthy kingdom…

This is another excellent historical crime novel following on from Mukherjee’s début, A Rising Man, which was one of my top books from last year. The year is 1920, the power of the Raj is in decline and the British need the support of the Maharajas to give a veneer of Indian participation in the rule of the country, so Sam has to handle things sensitively so as not to ruffle any political feathers.

Within Sambalpore, the Maharaja is still the ultimate power – the British police hold no official sway there. But the Maharaja is old and it’s rumoured that he may be dying, so his family and subjects are beginning to look to the future and to jostle for positions of power when the kingdom passes to the next in line. And with three wives, vast numbers of concubines and hundreds of children, there’s plenty of scope for trouble just in the Maharaja’s family alone. Throw in some dodgy politicians, a couple of princes who insist on falling in love with unsuitable women, some diamond mines and an avaricious businessman or two and it’s no wonder I didn’t have a clue what was going on for the bulk of the book! But happily, neither did Sam, and once he finally worked it out it all made sense in the end.

The book is narrated by Sam in the past tense and he’s a likeable character. He has a strong desire to get to the truth and, more than that, to see that justice is done. But, though he may not always like it, he understands that sometimes politics will get in the way. He relies on Surrender-not for knowledge of local customs and religious practices. Surrender-not is more than just a guide though – he comes from a wealthy, high caste family and was educated in England, so he’s often as much of a partner as a subordinate.

Lord Jagganath Chariot Parade, Puri

There’s not quite so much about the politics of the Raj in this one. Instead, Mukherjee gives a picture of what life was like in one of the many small kingdoms that still existed within the country at this time – a curious mix of modernity and tradition. The royals are opulently, ostentatiously wealthy and are revered as godlike by their people. The royal wives and concubines live in seclusion in the zenana – the women’s quarters – but Mukherjee suggests that they had plenty of power to influence things within the kingdom, and the wives, at least, had their own roles to play in the many traditions surrounding the court. Mukherjee also shows some of the religious rituals of the Hindus, especially the cult of the deity Lord Jagganath, all of which adds to the interest.

Abir Mukherjee

For me, this book had a couple of slight weaknesses. In the first book, Sam occasionally indulged in opium – in this book, that seems to have become an addiction, and I got a little tired of being told about his withdrawal symptoms and then about how wonderful he felt whenever he had a hit. I find all the many addicted detectives of current crime fiction tedious, whether their addiction is to drugs or alcohol, so I’m seriously hoping Sam can get himself clean soon. I also felt that there were occasional anachronisms, not in the history or setting, but in the language. Would anyone from that period really talk about someone being “hands on”? Were paper cups so commonplace they would be used as part of a simile? These anomalies weren’t frequent or major enough to spoil the book but they did tend to throw me out of the story for a few moments each time, and a more careful revision and edit could have easily got rid of them.

Overall, though, an excellent second book that assures this series its continued place among my must-reads. It could be read as a standalone, but to understand the relationships among the characters, I’d recommend reading in order.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvill Secker.

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The Follower by Koethi Zan

The tricky second novel…

🙂 🙂 😐

As she is making her way back to university one evening, Julie is abducted. She is kept in a locked room and gradually learns a little about her captors. The man, James, is a fanatic who has created his own distorted religion and for a time had a small group of followers. All have since deserted him except for his wife Cora – a woman he has abused to the point where she is entirely submissive to him. Julie begins to wonder if somehow she can win Cora over, so that she will help her escape.

Alongside the story of Julie’s plight, we gradually learn Cora’s story – the troubled childhood and adolescence that led to her coming under the sway of the evil James. James himself is given no real backstory, so his motivation is left undeveloped – he’s simply a mad monster. The final strand of the book belongs to Adam, an ex-policeman who hunts for abducted women in his own time, as a kind of penance for the loss of his own sister to a predator before Adam was born.

The first third of this book is great and then I’m afraid it all begins to slide downhill, eventually landing with a crash which shatters the last remaining pieces of credibility. The quality of the writing is high and at first it builds a good level of tension. The storyline is very dark – Julie’s treatment in her captivity is horrific with repeated episodes of violence and rape, although happily Zan doesn’t make us watch the latter – it is implied rather than described. Each of the characters is deeply damaged except Julie, so it’s unfortunate that she’s so unlikeable. Despite the traumas she undergoes, I found it hard to empathise with her or, indeed, to care much what happened to her.

Cora’s story is perhaps more interesting and she is rather more empathetic during her teen years, when she is dragged around the country by her drunken father, never staying in any place long enough to put down roots or make friends. But sadly, her story gradually descends from being dark but credible, going straight past melodrama and on down to ridiculous. Adam never really comes to life as a character and feels rather tacked on, as if he exists only so that he can be around for the denouement – a denouement that regrettably becomes somewhat farcical.

The basic idea is good and the quality of the writing makes it quite readable. At first, the characterisation seems as if it’s going to be good too but somehow after a bit they stop ringing true. It all becomes a bit over the top – too many crazy people with poorly developed motivation. I think the problem is that none of it feels psychologically believable, and in the end I’m afraid they all begin to feel cartoonish. A pity, but now that Zan has the notoriously tricky second book out of the way, here’s hoping her next one will replicate the much higher standard she reached in her excellent first one, The Never List.

(PS I realise some people don’t mind a lot of swearing in novels, but plenty of others do, for various reasons, so it seems crazy to me that an author would put off potential purchasers and readers by including the f-word in the first line, exactly where a casual browser would look. Even stranger, given that actually the swearing content in the book as a whole is fairly low, with only the victim being consistently and obnoxiously foul-mouthed (which is a large part of what makes her so unlikeable, quite frankly). It’s up to writers, of course, but I’d assume most writers would want to reach a maximum audience, and putting a considerable number off with the first, in this case unrepresentative, line seems a bit silly…

FF’s Eighth Law: Swearing never attracts readers who wouldn’t otherwise read the book, but frequently puts off readers who otherwise would.)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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Maigret Takes a Room by Georges Simenon

Street life…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Following a robbery, the police are staking out a rooming-house where the suspect had been living in the hopes that he will return. But one evening, one of the police officers, Janvier, is shot outside the house. The police think it may have been the robbery suspect, Paulus, who shot him, so it’s even more vital now that they catch him. Maigret is on his own at the moment as his wife is away looking after her sick sister, so he decides to move into the rooming-house to be on the spot should Paulus return.

I enjoyed this one a lot. We know straight away that Janvier is still alive, so the plot isn’t quite as dark as it would have been had he been killed, but we still get to see the emotional impact of the shooting on Janvier’s wife. The rooming-house is run by the charming Mademoiselle Clément, a lady of middle years and twinkling eye, whose somewhat over-the-top personality provides a lot of fun and humour. As always, Simenon creates an authentic feel of Paris, and the rooming-house setting allows for there to be several characters, each with their own story. Maigret is at something of a loss without his wife though part of him is rather enjoying the adventure of living in the rooming-house, and he doesn’t seem averse to a little mild flirting with his landlady. He gradually chats to most of the people in the street, the shop and café owners as well as the neighbours, and while Maigret is gathering together clues that will lead to the solution, Simenon is building up an affectionate picture of life in one of the less fashionable streets of Paris.

Georges Simenon

I listened to the Audible version, narrated by Gareth Armstrong. He speaks more quickly than most narrators and I rather liked that and felt it suited the tone of the book – kept it going at a rattling pace. He gives different voices to the various characters, using English accents throughout and suiting them well to the class and position in society each holds. I prefer the use of English accents when “foreign” characters are supposed to be speaking in their own language – it sounds more natural than having the characters speak English in a faux foreign accent. His portrayal of Mlle Clément is a little caricatured, which works for her character and adds to the lightness in tone of the book. All-in-all, I think it’s an excellent narration.

The solution is more complex than it seems as if it’s going to be, and Maigret gets there by a nifty little piece of detective work. And the story behind the crime gives us a glimpse into darkness, so that in the end the tone is nicely balanced. The translation is by Shaun Whiteside, which means that it’s smooth and flawless. Most enjoyable – I’m looking forward to reading more of Maigret’s adventures, or listening to them.

NB This book was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

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The Ghost Marriage by Peter May

Take this woman…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This short novella is a new follow-up to Peter May’s China Thrillers. This was the series that originally turned me into a May fan, long before the Lewis Trilogy made him a major star in the firmament of crime fiction. So it was a pleasure to revisit Margaret, the American forensic pathologist, and her Chinese partner, Li Yan of the Beijing police.

Margaret and Li Yan are still living together, now with the addition of their young son, when Margaret is approached by an elderly woman who tells her that her granddaughter has gone missing, and begs Margaret to use her influence with Li Yan to get him to investigate. As Li Yan gradually finds out what happened to the girl, the story takes us into a mysterious and macabre aspect of Chinese tradition, and into the secrets and lies that can exist in families.

Because the story is so short, I won’t say any more about the plot for fear of spoiling it. What has always attracted me most to May’s writing is that he chooses interesting settings for his crimes and his impeccable research allows him to create a great sense of place. This was always particularly true of the China Thrillers, especially since he began the series way back when the idea of visiting China still seemed like an exotic dream for most of us. The length of this one doesn’t allow for much description of Beijing itself, but the plot gives an insight into some of the strange superstitions and rituals that still exist in the country, while also touching on some of the issues thrown up by China’s long-standing but now abandoned one-child policy.

From the South China Morning Post: Dolls represent the happy couple in a Chinese-style “ghost wedding”

With Margaret being a pathologist, the China Thrillers also contained some rather gruesome autopsy scenes, and that tradition continues in this one. There isn’t room for a huge amount of detection – really we just see the story unfold along with Li Yan as he gradually uncovers the truth. I enjoyed it as a way to catch up with two characters who feel like old friends, but I think it would work equally well as a brief introduction to the style of the series for people who haven’t tried it yet. There was never much doubt that Margaret and Li Yan would stay together as a couple so although this takes place after the other books, it’s otherwise spoiler free.

Peter May

I listened to the Audible audiobook version, narrated by Peter Forbes who, I believe, has been the narrator for May’s books for a long time now. I thought his narration was very good – I have no way of knowing whether his pronunciations of Chinese words and names is accurate, but I certainly found them convincing. The decision to give the Chinese characters Chinese accents didn’t really work for me, I admit – I feel that if characters are supposed to be speaking their own language, then they shouldn’t be made to sound ‘foreign’. I listened to a Maigret novel immediately following this, where the narrator gave all the French characters English accents appropriate to their class and position in society, and I must say that felt much more natural and authentic. However, it’s a debatable point, and some people may prefer the ‘foreign’-sounding accents.

Overall, a short but enjoyable return to the world of Beijing. I’m now wondering whether this is a kind of coda to the series, or whether it’s to whet our appetites for a future new novel? I hope it’s the latter…

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK via MidasPR. The story is also available as an e-book.

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Penance by Kanae Minato

Survivor guilt…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Five young girls sneak into their school playground on a holiday to practice volleyball. While there, a workman arrives and asks if one of them will help him do a small job in the changing room. It’s a while before the other girls notice that Emily hasn’t returned, and when they look for her, it’s too late – all they find is her body. None of the girls is able to describe the man well – they are young, they weren’t paying particular attention, they are suffering from shock. As time passes without an arrest, in her grief Emily’s mother tells them they must either give the police enough information to catch the killer, or do something that she will accept as appropriate atonement. She gives them a deadline – the statute of limitations on the crime will run out in fifteen years…

In Minato’s earlier excellent book, Confessions, she looked at the motivation for crime and at revenge. In this one, she takes a fascinating look at how a crime affects not only the direct victim, but the people touched by it in other ways. Each of the four surviving girls, now women, tells her tale in turn. We see how their immediate reactions to the crime were affected by their own personalities, and then Minato takes us into their families so that we can see how each of those personalities was formed. This provides a base for taking us forwards from the crime, seeing how it affected each child as she grew up – not just the horror of the day itself, but the guilt of knowing that they had neither protected Emily nor helped bring her killer to justice, and the fear of knowing that the killer is still at large knowing they are the only witnesses.

As the deadline for the statute of limitations approaches, we see how for each girl this leads indirectly to a kind of crisis. Minato doesn’t forget the grieving mother in all this – years on, does she still feel the same? Does she still require the girls to do penance, or has time enabled her to see that the girls were victims too? And lastly, almost as a minor story, will time allow the girls to recognise small clues that they missed in their youth, in time for the murderer to be caught?

When reading Japanese fiction, I often find the society so different from our Western one that it’s almost incomprehensible to me. I’ve commented in the past that there seems to be a huge disconnect between the generations, that young people seem to have rejected the values of their parents but haven’t yet found anything to replace them with, leaving a dangerous moral vacuum. Intriguingly, that isn’t the case with this one. Perhaps because it’s set in a small town rather than in Tokyo, the family structures seem stronger and more traditional, though we see clearly how sons are still more valued than daughters. Some of these families have problems, indeed, but the kind of problems we would be familiar with in our own society. I also noted that Minato mentioned in passing that there seems to be a slight move away from driving the children quite so hard towards educational success at the expense of all else – a small recognition of the harm that can be caused by the excessive stress that was being put on young people. And this is one of the reasons I enjoy her books – she always provides intriguing insights into society, especially family life and education, in modern Japan.

Kanae Minato

But she also tells a great tale! I was completely caught up in each girl’s story and, while there are moments that stretch credulity, it never goes past the breaking point. The characterisation is excellent, and though we see the murder again and again, each voice and perspective is original enough to stop it feeling repetitive. After the murder, the girls’ lives go off in different directions, so Minato has room to cover a lot of ground with four very different stories, but all linked to the central event so that with each telling the reader learns a little more about the lead up to and aftermath of the crime. And in the final chapters she manages to bring it all together, so that there’s a real feeling of resolution – not a slick happy ending, but a sense of closure for some of the characters at least. Another excellent novel from Minato – my tentative love affair with the strangeness of Japanese crime fiction continues…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mulholland Books.

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