Over My Dead Body by Jeffrey Archer

Going rogue…

🙂 🙂 🙂

DCI William Warwick has been assigned to the Met’s new Unsolved Murders Unit – a crack team that will look into cold cases. But first he’s off on a cruise to New York with his art expert wife, Beth. It turns into a busman’s holiday when a fellow passenger, the man who heads up the cruise-line, dies, and Warwick is asked to look into his death to decide whether he may have been murdered by one of his family looking to get their inheritance sooner rather than later. Warwick is also on the trail of his old nemesis, Miles Faulkner, whose funeral he attended not long ago, but who now seems to have returned from the dead.

Well! There’s so much going on in this one that it’s quite hard to summarise. And while it starts out intriguingly with the murder mystery on the ship, it transpires that that storyline is simply in the nature of an appetiser, while the main course is the Miles Faulkner story, and the cold case murders are merely side dishes. It also turns out this is the fourth book in the William Warwick series and clearly the main story started in the earlier books, with the result that I had no idea what crime Faulkner had originally committed. It didn’t really matter though – the whole plot became so ludicrous as it went along that I didn’t feel I was missing much by just having to accept that Faulkner was the boo-hiss pantomime villain.

The book is set in the 1980s, which I suppose gives Archer some leeway in allowing the police to behave in ways that wouldn’t be tolerated today, though I’m fairly confident that even in the Met’s wilder days they weren’t too keen on officers going rogue and meting out vigilante justice all over the place, fitting someone up for a crime here, or provoking a gang war there, or flying all over Europe breaking local laws. Not that Warwick does any, or maybe that should be many, of these things – his nickname is “choirboy”. And he’s an awfully nice, well educated, kinda posh chap with lots of connections in high places, which makes it all the odder that he appears willing to turn a blind eye to what his team members are getting up to. I couldn’t help wondering if the courts would convict any of the criminals given the level of illegal skulduggery and shenanigans the police got up to in order to trap (or perhaps, entrap) them.

It’s a quick, easy read, and if you can tune out reality, then it’s reasonably good fun. I sped through it in a couple of evenings, and enjoyed it enough to stick with it to the end. But it goes so far over the credibility line in the latter stages that I really couldn’t take it seriously as a thriller – it began to feel as if it was spoofing itself, though I’m certain that was not the intention. I also have an old-fashioned preference for the good guys to behave better than the bad guys and that certainly is not the case here, which would have been less of a problem had Archer not made it so clear that we are supposed to admire and approve of the way the rogue police officers were behaving.

Jeffrey Archer

This is the first Archer I’ve read in many years, and although I found it quite readable, it hasn’t inspired me to read more. The tone is light, with supposedly likeable characters and some humour, and yet the deeds get progressively darker. Had it been written in noir style the transgressions of the police wouldn’t have jarred, but the whole spirit of the ends justifying the means didn’t sit well with the almost cosy portrayal of Warwick as a loving husband and father and a respected police officer with a reputation for integrity. An odd mix.

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

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Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Intimacy of strangers…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As the Orient express makes its way from Ostend To Istanbul, the passengers on this long journey find themselves thrust into a kind of intimacy where secrets are revealed and character flaws are laid bare. Myers is a Jew in the currant business, going to Istanbul to supervise the purchase of a rival company. Coral Musker is a dancer, going out to join a dance group to replace a girl who has fallen ill. Mabel Warren, a journalist and a drunk, who is in the station at Ostend to see off the beautiful woman she loves, spots a man whom she recognises and jumps aboard as the train is about to leave. The man is travelling as Richard John, a teacher from a school in England, but Mabel knows he’s really Dr Czinner, who fled from Yugoslavia five years ago after giving evidence in the trial of a General in the ruling regime accused of rape. Czinner was then a prominent figure in the opposition to the dictatorship and Mabel realises that if he is now returning to Belgrade, there may be a story here that could get her a coveted byline on the front pages of her paper.

The book is set in the 1930s, and gives a real sense of the political unease throughout Europe in this between wars period. Through Czinner’s story, we see the rising clash of extreme right and left ideologies that scarred the twentieth century and, while Greene gives a sympathetic portrayal of Czinner as a man and an idealist, he indicates little belief that leftist regimes would be any better than the fascist dictatorships springing up across the continent. Poverty and inequality, Greene seems to suggest, make people open to any leader who convincingly promises to make life better, and those at bare subsistence level don’t much care what ideology that leader may be professing. Czinner wants to love his fellow man, and perhaps more importantly wants to be loved by him, but man is a fickle beast who will tend to follow the leader he fears most.

Greene’s treatment of Myers, the Jew, is undoubtedly problematic to modern eyes and makes for uncomfortable reading. However, if the reader can look past the surface, Greene is actually giving a remarkably sympathetic portrayal for that time. While accepting the perceived negative characteristics of Jews as actuality, Greene is seeking to show how, in Western Europe at least, they have developed in response to the discrimination and prejudice Jews have had to deal with on a daily basis. Jews, he suggests, who have run from pogroms before and fear that they will be driven out again from their new, uncertain places of refuge can hardly be blamed for their love of gold, as a form of portable security – a deposit against the need to buy acceptance in the now or future refuge elsewhere. We see Myers in a constant conflict of emotions. He is proud of his wealth and importance as the owner of a successful and growing business, but at the same time there is the constant anxiety of what we now call micro-aggressions and the growing fear, soon to be tragically justified, that those aggressions might at any time turn to violence. The race memory of centuries of persecution never sinks below the surface, and so he ingratiates himself to people he inwardly despises, and despises himself for doing so. Although I found some of this difficult reading, I felt that Greene was appealing for understanding and tolerance rather than intentionally contributing to the stereotyping that has done so much harm.

Mabel is also problematic as a character, in very similar ways. Greene is frank and open about her lesbianism in a way that was rare in literature as early as this. But he is a male author, writing in a time when lesbianism was still not openly discussed, and I felt again his portrayal relied too heavily on stereotypes, as if he was writing about something he didn’t properly understand. Like Myers, Mabel has more than her share of negative characteristics – she drinks, she hates men, she manipulates young women, she uses people without caring about the impact she may have on their lives, she wallows in self-pity. She is desperate for love, but Greene, perhaps unintentionally, gives the impression that lesbian love is doomed to be sordid and impermanent. Again, though, it seemed to me that he was seeking to elicit sympathy for her from a readership who largely would have no knowledge of the world of lesbian love and would mostly be heavily prejudiced against it. Mabel, he seems to be saying, is a horrible person, but how could she not be when her whole life has been one rejection after another, when the world treats her as a living perversion?

Graham Greene

Coral, happily, is considerably easier to like and to pity – a young woman alone in the world and tired of the insecurity of poverty. She may seem weak and some might judge her immoral but she has her reasons, and in the end she’s the one who shows herself to have the warmest heart.

The story itself is excellent, taking the characters into unfamiliar and frightening situations that will reveal them to themselves as much as to us. As with most Greene, it’s not exactly uplifting – in fact, in some ways it’s downright depressing – and there are no real heroes. But there is warmth and sympathy here, all under the already looming shadow of the horrors soon to be unleashed across Europe. I considered deducting a star for the stereotyping problems, but having allowed the book to settle in my mind for a few weeks, I really feel that it deserves to be cut some slack for the time of writing and for what I feel were Greene’s good intentions; and the quality of the writing, the storytelling and the humanity of it put it up there amongst Greene’s best for me.

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The Chateau by Catherine Cooper

Brits abroad…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Aura and Nick have left England and the thing that happened there behind to create an idyllic new life in France, in an old run-down château which they intend to renovate and run as a posh B&B, or chambres d’hôtes, as Aura likes to call it, proving she has mastered at least three words of French. With them they bring their not-at-all-pretentiously-named sons, Sorrel and Bay, and a film crew, consisting of Seb and Chloe, who are filming the family for inclusion in a fly-on-the-wall series about Brits making new lives as ex-pats in France. Joining the merry throng is Helen from HappyHelp, an organisation that matches up backpackers with families who give them bed and board in return for a few hours work each day (or as Chloe puts it, an unpaid au pair). But the thing that happened in London casts long shadows. Nick and Aura’s marriage is on a knife-edge, and the strange things that begin happening as soon as they arrive add to the tension. And then there’s a murder…

I’m so inconsistent about this kind of thriller that even I don’t know what it is that sometimes makes one work for me, when others quickly get thrown at the wall. This is written in present tense from a variety of first person viewpoints and has the dreaded “that day” aspect of something that happened in the past looming over the present but the reader being kept in the dark nearly the whole way through as to what exactly happened back then, and the plot crosses the credibility line about a hundred times. So I ought to have hated it. And yet…

I think it’s mainly because Aura and Nick are so awful that they become funny, and I felt that that was deliberate on the part of the author. Aura in particular is one of these dreadful types who prides herself on having all the right attitudes, while in fact being swayed by every ludicrous fad that hits her social media feed. And, of course, like the climate warriors who jet around from protest to protest, or the social justice warriors who campaign against victimisation by victimising strangers on Twitter, her attitudes are shallow, self-serving and optional. I loved the occasional line Cooper would throw into Aura’s monologues that showed both her superficiality and lack of self-awareness – some of them made me laugh out loud…

I felt a whoosh of relief – as a semi-vegetarian I don’t think I could cope with getting rid of a dead rabbit.

…or…

Bay is simply adorable dressed as a pumpkin – I try not to think about the poor kid who must have slaved over his costume in some godforsaken sweatshop, but sometimes needs must.

Nick is also pretty awful but in a different way, and honestly, while I try very hard not to blame women for the faults of their men, I couldn’t help having some sympathy for him. Being married to Aura would have tested any man to the limits. However, I can’t go into detail about what puts Nick into the awful bracket because that would impinge on the thing that happened back in England. Suffice it to say, my sympathy for him only went so far.

Although murder and some dark deeds form parts of the plot, the story is quite lightly told for the most part, surprisingly so at times. One plot strand in particular involves a teenager, and has an air almost of innocence around it, in comparison to the standard fare of most thrillers of today. While I got a little tired of the fact that sixteen-year-old Ella thinks of nothing but boys, ever, I felt she thought of them in a way that was pretty true to her age. In a sense, I felt it gave the book a Young Adult vibe – unusually for me with contemporary thrillers, I’d be quite comfortable with the idea of mid-teens reading this one. There is some swearing, but not too much, and some sex, but not graphic. The one thing Aura and I have in common is that we are both prudes and prefer to look away when people are getting up to hanky-panky!

Catherine Cooper

The other aspect that amused me (and I do hope it was supposed to) was the awful ex-pat community, all socialising with each other and having as little to do with actual French people as possible. Aura, of course, speaks no French at all but really doesn’t see it as essential when she can always get other people to do things for her. I laughed again when she said in the same sentence that she wanted Sorrel and Bay to grow up bi-lingual and that she intended to home school them. I guess the two languages would be English and Pretentious then!

It’s a quick read and not one that requires a great deal of concentration to keep on top of the storyline. So despite myself, I found it entertaining – a relaxing and enjoyable way to spend a few lazy hours.

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

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Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

A Reading Diary

Day 1

Off to a mixed start! Three bodies, frozen under the snow in Gorky Park in Moscow, faces and fingertips mutilated to prevent easy identification. Bit of tension between our hero-to-be, Arkady Renko, and the boo-hiss stereotypical baddie from the KGB. The writing is messy with sentences quite often requiring more than one reading to try (or fail) to work out what the author is trying to communicate, but maybe it will improve. Or maybe it won’t.

“Vodka was liquid taxation, and the price was always rising. It was accepted that three was the lucky number on a bottle in terms of economic prudence and desired effect. It was a perfect example of primitive communism.”

Eh?

Day 2

No movement in the plot whatsoever. I say plot, but I fear one has yet to appear. We’ve had our first naked woman though, complete with nipple description! Arkady’s wife, who seems to stroll around their apartment naked despite the Arctic weather outside – who knew Muscovites had such effective heating systems in the 1980s? Impressive! And fortunate, since she and Arkady generate no heat of their own, clearly disliking each other quite a lot. Arkady meets another girl, though – a weird and quirky twenty-one-year-old, with whom our middle-aged hero is obviously destined to have sex at some point. I wonder what her nipples will be like…

Day 3

Still no identification of the corpses. Still no movement in the investigation. Arkady and his wife have split up after Arkady got into a punch-up with her lover. Arkady has been beaten up by someone whose identity we also don’t know, but despite being punched in the heart twice and kicked in the head, next day he’s fine. To summarise – three unidentified corpses, no suspects, no plot, two beatings, one naked woman, and endless lectures about Soviet history and how awful life is under Soviet rule (because presumably we didn’t know that). To quote Chandler Bing, could I be more bored?

Day 4

Apparently I could.

* * * * *

Abandoned at 19%. Life is too short and the book is too long.

* * * * *

This was The People’s Choice winner for November. Thanks for getting it off my TBR, People! 😉

Book 11 of 12

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The Last Trial (Kindle County 11) by Scott Turow

A wonderful finale…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Lawyer Alejandro “Sandy” Stern is old now and beginning to fail both physically and mentally, but when Kiril Pafko finds himself in trouble, Sandy agrees to defend him. Sandy’s daughter and legal partner, Marta, has decided to retire and Sandy recognises that he won’t be able to continue without her, so this will be his last case. Marta agrees to stay on till the case is over, and Sandy’s granddaughter, Pinky, is also helping out, both with the casework and as a kind of personal assistant to her ageing grandfather. As the case slowly unfolds, Sandy finds himself reflecting on his long career in the law. Having been diagnosed with cancer, Sandy is also facing his own mortality and finds himself thinking back to the people who have been important in his life – his family and friends. Kiril is one of those friends, a brilliant Nobel prizewinner, who has developed a drug that combats cancer with spectacular results. Too spectacular – Kiril is on trial for suppressing negative studies into the side-effects of the drug, and for the murder of patients who, the prosecution claims, had their lives shortened by taking it. Kiril is also accused of having made a fortune by selling shares in the drug just before the negative studies became public. Although for Sandy the main aim is to have Kiril legally acquitted, Kiril is just as concerned about the damage to his reputation in the scientific community, and Sandy finds that their differing objectives mean that his client oftens impedes his attempts to argue the case on legal grounds.

Sandy Stern first appeared in Presumed Innocent in 1987 and I, along with millions of others, have followed his career ever since. Turow has used him over the series to present a thoughtful and realistic picture of how the law works in the US, slowly and not always achieving true justice, but an essential part of the democratic system of ensuring the rights of the individual. Stern’s cases are usually set among the rich and powerful, and Turow clearly shows that justice depends as much on the quality of lawyer a defendant can afford as on the rights and wrongs of the case. The books are always billed as legal thrillers which I think does them an injustice. To me, these long ago crossed the line into literary fiction – they are far more about the human condition in all its frailties and strengths than about exciting courtroom drama, and the writing is of the highest quality. Calling them thrillers I’m sure attracts readers who are disappointed by the slow pace while putting off readers who would appreciate the deep concentration on character, the mechanics of the law and the society that depends on its judgements.

Turow rarely shows the legal system operating corruptly. In most cases, the judges want to do justice fairly according to the law, and the lawyers want to do the best for their clients, whether prosecuting or defending. Stern is a moral man who cares deeply about acting with integrity, even when it would be easier professionally or personally to cut a corner or two. That doesn’t mean he won’t defend someone who he believes has indeed broken the law; like Atticus Finch, Stern believes that justice only works when every accused person has the right to a defence, guilty or innocent. He also knows that even good people occasionally do wrong, if the motivation is strong enough. Sandy doesn’t see himself as either a moral or legal judge – he is a cog in the legal system, his belief in which has perhaps been the greatest passion in his long life.

Raul Julia as a younger Sandy Stern in Presumed Innocent (1990)

I read this one months ago, when I was in the middle of my pandemic-inspired reviewing slump. It was round about the time that the rich nations were deciding on the safety of the Covid vaccines, and the news was full of stories about our various regulatory bodies and when they would get their act together to approve these and other promised life-saving treatments. There were also stories about Big Pharma’s share prices rocketing up and down with every rumour as to the success or otherwise of their version of a vaccine. At the same time as the book was giving me a detailed picture of the stages any new drug has to go through before it can be approved, the real world was confirming an issue raised in the book – that when rumour gets out of a life-saving treatment for a deadly disease the pressure to approve it becomes immense, almost unstoppable. And Turow shows that when companies stand to make or lose billions depending on whether their drug is approved, the temptation to hide negative reports or manipulate the statistics can be overwhelming. He also raises the question of risk – if a thousand people have their lives extended and improved by a drug, how much weight should be given to the hundred who may be killed by it earlier than they would have died anyway? And if the disease in question is terminal, does that change the balance? If a lawsuit means that the drug is withdrawn and the thousand who would have lived die as a result, is that justice? Questions that all seemed very relevant as reports began to come in about Covid vaccines causing blood clots in a tiny number of people, and entire nations stopping their vaccination programmes as a result.

Scott Turow

Although this could certainly be read as a stand-alone novel, it gains from the emotional attachment long-term readers will have developed for Sandy over the years. We are seeing him now in his old age and for those of us who have grown to know him over the years, it’s a nostalgic and occasionally moving experience. He is failing physically, taking the very drug that the case is about to treat his own cancer. Although his mind is still as brilliant as ever, he is slower now, not as able to handle sudden developments on the spur of the moment, and increasingly reliant on his daughter’s support in the courtroom. He too is in nostalgic mood as the end of his career approaches, thinking back and assessing how his devotion to the law may have led him sometimes to fall down on the job of being a husband and father.

A wonderful finale to what has been a superb series. This may be the last we see of Sandy Stern but I sincerely hope that Turow will continue to give us his thoughtful and beautifully written novels for many years yet.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle Pan Macmillan via NetGalley.

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The Disappearing Act by Catherine Steadman

The road to fame…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Hoping to capitalise on her recent success in a TV remake of Jane Eyre and at the same time hoping that a change of scene will help her get over a difficult breakup, young British actress Mia Eliot has come to LA to do a round of auditions arranged by her agent. While waiting at one such audition she falls into conversation with Emily, another actress there for the same audition. Emily is called in just as her car is about to go over its time in the parking lot and Mia agrees to go feed the meter for her, so Emily hands over her car key and wallet. But when Mia gets back to the audition waiting room there’s no sign of Emily and she can’t find her anywhere. Mia is not one to give up easily though and she begins to ask questions about Emily, unaware that she’s straying into danger…

This was a book of two halves for me. The first half, where we get to know Mia and learn a lot about what it’s like to be a screen actress just at the beginning of what looks set to be a glittering, award-strewn career, I found both interesting and hugely enjoyable. The second half, when we get deep into the mystery of what has happened to Emily, becomes increasingly less credible as it goes along, with Mia taking extreme risks with both her safety and the career she has worked so hard to build, all for a woman she met for only a few minutes. Given the Hollywood setting, it’s unsurprising but disappointing that the #MeToo trend soon gets mixed into a plot which seems at the beginning as if it’s going to be intriguing and original.

It was only after I finished reading and did my usual googling that I discovered Catherine Steadman is indeed a successful screen actress in her own right – I’m so out of touch! That explains why all the stuff about auditions and screen tests and awards and so on feels so authentic. I found Mia very likeable, still with stars in her eyes and not yet ruined by fame. I liked that Steadman allowed her to be good at her chosen career, and not too angst-ridden over it. Mia approaches each audition professionally, and Steadman shows how an actress prepares – learning the scenes, choosing appropriate clothes for the role, deciding what accent to use, etc. She gives us a good idea of how soul-destroying it must be for the less successful actors, turning up for audition after audition without much hope of ever landing the big part. Mia is not in that position – her role as Jane Eyre has attracted public and critical praise, so she’s one of the lucky ones. She’s not yet in a position to pick and choose which roles she will play, but it’s clear she soon will be. And I particularly liked that Steadman didn’t force false modesty onto her – Mia knows she’s talented, works hard at her job and can tell when she’s turned in a good performance, but she’s still young and inexperienced enough to be thrilled by the starry company she’s now keeping.

Catherine Steadman

I also enjoyed the plot until it spiralled over the credibility line in the latter stages. Emily’s disappearance is done very well, with definite vibes of The Lady Vanishes. When Emily apparently shows up again Mia knows she’s not the same person, but can’t find any way to prove that. Being alone in LA where she knows hardly anyone, there’s a real feeling of almost spooky danger when odd things begin to happen around her. Or do they? Like most of the people she tells her story to, the reader has to wonder if Mia is strictly reliable – could the whole thing be an invention born out of the stress she’s feeling over her breakup?

Overall the strengths of this one well outweighed the weaknesses for me, but I did wish the resolution had maintained the level of credibility and authenticity that I loved so much in the first half. However, although in the end the plot may have turned out to be rather forgettable, Mia’s character and her very believable life as an actress on the cusp of international success will, I’m sure, stick in my mind for much longer. I’ll be looking forward to reading more from this author in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster via NetGalley.

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The Final Twist (Colter Shaw 3) by Jeffery Deaver

Locked and loaded…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In the third and final part of Deaver’s Colter Shaw trilogy, Shaw has come to San Francisco on the trail of the conspiracy which he believes led to his father’s murder, finishing the story arc that has been running in the background of the previous two books. Here, he’ll find he is both hunter and prey, as the people behind the conspiracy try to stop him from getting the evidence he needs to bring them down. But he won’t have to fight them alone. Russell, the elder brother who has been missing since their father’s death, turns up and soon the two brothers are working together and trying to rebuild their relationship between gunfights, explosions and murders.

It’s essential to switch off your credibility monitor before reading this, since I sincerely hope it’s not really possible to have all this noisy violence going on in the streets of San Francisco without the authorities ever noticing. But if you can accept the basic unbelievability of it all, then Deaver is still one of the best at this kind of all-action thriller. Colter’s father was a paranoid survivalist, though it seems his paranoia had some foundation in fact. He trained his sons in survivalist techniques from an early age, so both brothers are crack shots, expert hunters, natural strategists and tacticians, and over the years since their father’s death both have added computing skills to their endless list of talents. So despite being up against giant corporations with vast resources and armies of hitmen and women, Colter and Russell, along with some of their friends and colleagues, are able to hold their own.

There’s a secondary plot related to Colter’s usual work as a bounty hunter searching for missing people for whose return a reward has been offered, in this case a young woman who disappeared from the street where she had been busking. The girl and her mother are ‘illegals’, so the mother can’t go to the police for help, and the reward she can offer is tiny. But Colter makes enough money that he can take on the odd financially unrewarding job like this, just for the satisfaction of doing good. However, this bounty hunter plot plays such a small part in this final instalment that it hardly seems worth having it in there at all.

The main plot concerns corrupt businessmen, drugs, dodgy real estate deals and a bit of politics. All of that is credible enough, although stretching at the boundaries, and touches lightly on some current topics, like vote-rigging, gerrymandering, and the corruption of big money in politics. Mostly though, it’s about the action and, in America, action means guns. Occasionally bombs, grenades, knives and IEDs, even bows and arrows, but mostly guns. Since everyone wears their concealed weapon casually beneath their untucked shirt, one wonders if concealment means something different in America. However, since apparently one can be attacked several times in the course of any given day, it’s probably just as well to have one’s weapon locked and loaded at all times (although Colter assures me that locked and loaded is a terribly inaccurate description. Apparently for speed, one really wants to have one’s weapon unlocked and loaded…) Fortunately for the state of the environment Russell has contacts in a government agency who are expert in disposing of the trail of corpses that would otherwise be left to litter the streets, unnoticed by the cops who, one assumes, were all off at a team-building event over the couple of days that the Shaw brothers and their adversaries had their little war.

Jeffery Deaver

Despite my mockery, I enjoyed this one just as much as the other two in the trilogy. There are conventions to this kind of thriller and Deaver is a master of them, so that when he goes over the top, the reader is quite happy to go along with him. There is hardly any swearing, remarkably little gruesomeness and gore, and no graphic sex, so it’s all very tasteful despite the constant violence! Given a choice between three baddies being killed and three uses of the f-word, I’ll take the killings every time! 😉 Colter is a likeable lead – if this is really to be his last appearance I’ll be quite sorry. I feel that now the running story of his father’s death has been resolved, he could easily appear again in his role as bounty hunter. Each of the books could stand alone, but I think they’re really better read in order, starting with The Never Game.

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

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False Witness by Karin Slaughter

Nothing bad happens to the cat…

😦

Back when they were teenagers, sisters Callie and Leigh committed a terrible crime, although they had good justification for it. Since then, Callie has spiralled into drug addiction, partly because of this early experience, and partly from getting hooked on pain medication after an accident that has left her with all kinds of physical problems. Leigh, on the other hand, has lifted herself out of their deprived beginnings, becoming a lawyer now working in a prestigious firm. One day she is asked to defend a man who has been charged with a horrific rape. She doesn’t recognise Andrew at first, but he recognises her – and he knows what she and Callie did that night. And it soon becomes clear he’s enjoying the power this gives him over both sisters…

I’ll admit it straight away – I found the subject matter of this sordid and the graphic descriptions of rape, extreme drug abuse, violence and gore more than distasteful. The constant, casual use of the foulest of foul language didn’t help matters. By the time I finished I felt that I needed to scrub my mind out with a brillo pad to get rid of the slime. Slaughter and I are clearly not kindred spirits.

Trying to be objective, it is well written for the most part and the characterisation of the two sisters is done well, even if that meant that I disliked both of them to the point of not wishing to spend time in their company and not caring what happened to them. Andrew, the rapist client of Leigh, is a stock psychopath from central casting, caricatured way past the point of credibility. But all three of them are merely vehicles for Slaughter to use her clearly well-practised shock tactics on the reader. The plot is entirely secondary to the horrors she shows us along the way, from repeated descriptions of both child and adult rape of the most violent kind, to the lovingly detailed and very lengthy descriptions of Callie’s drug taking, including how best to inject oneself through an abscess to get the thrill of added pain, to violent beatings in which she lingers on the crushed bones, detached eyeballs, etc., etc.

Karin Slaughter

Apart from my general disgust, the real problem from a literary point of view is that it’s incredibly repetitive. We revisit the original event many, many times – not gradually learning more, we already know what happened, but just going over it again and again which, since it involves child rape, I could seriously have lived without. We are told the same things about Callie’s physical problems every time her name is mentioned, and yet, despite their apparently debilitating effects, they never stop her when she wants to beat up someone much larger than herself or climb over a fence or in some other way channel Superwoman – heroin must be a miracle drug! Slaughter incorporates Covid, so we get masking and social distancing thrown at us constantly, as if we haven’t all heard enough about that in real life already. The whole book could have been cut by at least a third simply by removing the worst of the repetitions. If she had also removed the foul language and the loving instructional handbook on how to get the most out of drug abuse, I reckon she could have lost another hundred pages. Take out the graphic descriptions of rape and violence and we’re down to novella length…

Nope, not for me, though since she has a massive following I don’t expect that will bother her too much. If you haven’t already gathered, trigger warnings for just about everything you can think of and several things you probably can’t. But, on the upside, nothing bad happens to the cat.

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

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The Goodbye Man (Colter Shaw 2) by Jeffery Deaver

Make Immortality Great Again!

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Goodbye ManBounty hunter Colter Shaw is on the trail of two young men, boys really, who have been accused of defacing a church with neo-Nazi slogans and then shooting the church janitor who had run out to confront them. But as Colter learns more, he feels it doesn’t add up. Though troubled, neither of the boys have a history of involvement with neo-Nazi groups, nor have shown themselves to be trigger-happy. When his search ends in tragedy, Colter decides he wants to know more about what might have been behind their actions, and his investigation soon leads him to a kind of retreat, called the Foundation, where the boys had been headed during the chase. The more Colter looks into things, the more mysterious and sinister the Foundation appears. So Colter decides to book himself onto a retreat there, undercover…

This is the second book in a trilogy about Colter Shaw, a man brought up by his survivalist father to have all the skills needed to be both hunter and expert in self-defence. He uses this unique background to find missing people for offered rewards, travelling the country in his Winnebago. Sometimes the people he is searching for are accused of crimes, as is the case here, and sometimes they have simply chosen to disappear for more personal reasons. His success rate means he has plenty of money, so that he can choose which cases to take on and sometimes follow something up if it interests him, even without the prospect of financial reward.

As well as each book having an individual plot, there’s an overarching mystery in the background regarding the death, probably murder, of Colter’s father and the disappearance of his brother, also trained in survivalist techniques. That story doesn’t move much in this middle book, but the ending suggests it will probably be the main story in the third and last book of the series.

The main story here is about the Foundation, which Colter soon learns is a personality cult around the charismatic figure of Master Eli, who promises that he has discovered the true way to happiness and immortality. He attracts those who are suffering from grief or depression, and preys on their vulnerability. But is he merely a charlatan, a snake-oil salesman, out for money? Or is there something darker going on? How far will Master Eli and his inner circle go to protect their lucrative business?

Jeffery Deaver
Jeffery Deaver

Jeffery Deaver has an easy style that makes his books very readable even when the subject matter might be a little clichéd, as it is here. He brings nothing new to the idea of the cult, and it all seems a bit too convenient that people should be gullible enough to fall for Master Eli’s nonsense quite as quickly and completely as they seem to. Because, honestly, the basis of his “message” is pretty laughable – the merest soupçon of cynicism should have been enough to protect the new recruits. I found it quite amusing, though, that Deaver occasionally makes Eli sound rather like a better-looking and more eloquent version of a certain orange cult leader with whom we have all become far too familiar over the last few years, which certainly had the effect of reminding me that gullibility is pretty widespread. (I restrained myself from saying “in America” – do I get bonus points for tact? 😉 ) What is also widespread in America is the Great God Gun, worshipped with far greater fervour than the Bible which usually accompanies it, and of course there are Glocks and Colts and hunting rifles aplenty in the book. But Colter also uses his specialist knowledge to create some more innovative weapons, equally capable of killing or maiming, proving that guns really aren’t essential fashion accessories for the true survivalist.

I felt a little too much time was spent on building up the picture of the cult but most of the book is given over to action, which Deaver does very well. Colter is a likeable protagonist although he’s almost too good to be true, always able to come up with some arcane piece of knowledge in a crisis, like which herbs have certain properties, how to deal with various kinds of wildlife threats, how to bypass security systems, and so on. But although Deaver stretches credibility to its limits, he never quite breaks it completely. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as the first book, The Never Game, purely because I couldn’t fully buy in to the attraction of Master Eli and his cult, but I still found it a fast-paced page-turner and I’m looking forward to getting to the resolution of the background mystery in the final novel (which I already have and will be reading very soon as another of my 20 Books of Summer).

20 books 2019Book 7 of 20

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins via NetGalley.

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Mother Loves Me by Abby Davies

Got myself a crying, talking, sleeping, walking, living doll…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Mother Loves MePoor Mirabelle is never allowed to go outside. Mother has explained that she has a severe allergy to light and if the sun shone on her she would die, painfully. Mirabelle has wondered if she couldn’t maybe go out in the evening then, after sunset, but Mother has told her that there are evil people out there at night who would do bad things to her. So Mirabelle lives her life inside her home, all the windows boarded up to stop light from getting in, all the doors locked to stop Mirabelle from getting out. But there’s one good thing in her life – Mother loves her. Every morning Mother paints Mirabelle’s face and dresses her so she looks just like a doll – Mother’s little doll. And then on her thirteenth birthday, Mother brings home a surprise – a little sister called Clarabelle, although the new little doll claims her name is Emma. And Mirabelle isn’t Mother’s favourite any more…

Written as Mirabelle’s own past-tense narrative, Davies manages to get a huge amount of tension into the story as Mirabelle begins to realise that everything Mother has told her may not be true. Admittedly, her voice and actions don’t always fit with her age – she sometimes speaks and acts like an older teenager, almost adult, and it’s hard to believe that she has as good a knowledge of the world as she has, given that everything she knows comes from books. But for the most part I found that issue quite easy to ignore, and I enjoyed the way Davies references the books Mirabelle has acquired her knowledge from, and how she models her actions on the heroes and heroines she has found in them.

While the thriller aspect goes well over the credibility line in the later stages, the basic premise is pretty terrifying because it’s so believable. And yet it’s not quite as dark as some of these stories about people being kept locked up for years because the baddie in this case is a woman, and therefore there’s no aspect of sexual abuse regarding Mirabelle or Clarabelle. Mother simply wants a living doll of her own, and so long as Mirabelle doesn’t make her angry then life is bearable, and it’s all she’s known. It’s only when she begins to realise Mother’s deception that Mirabelle becomes first confused, then unhappy and finally angry.

Abby Davies
Abby Davies

The writing style is simple, as befits a narrative from a thirteen-year-old, but it has some nice touches that make it an enjoyable read – the book references I mentioned earlier, the way Davies builds tension and shows us Mirabelle’s fear and her methods of controlling it, and her sense of wonder about the world she has never seen. I also liked how Davies managed to give a sense of both time and place to the reader even though all we have to go on is Mirabelle’s very restricted viewpoint. I wouldn’t say I ever came to have any sympathy for Mother, but Davies adds enough depth to her character to prevent her from merely being a pantomime villain, and she does a good job of showing how hard it is for Mirabelle to trust her own judgement about Mother given the years of brainwashing to which she’s been subjected. By the time it all goes a bit over the top towards the end, I was too invested in Mirabelle’s peril to get overly critical. And while it may not be strictly credible, I have to admit that nothing in it would be completely impossible…

Fast-paced, creepy, highly suspenseful, a bit gory in the latter stages but not too much so – given that it’s not really my usual kind of thing, I enjoyed this one considerably more than I thought I would.

20 books 2019Book 6 of 20

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

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The Pact by Sharon Bolton

Poor little rich kids…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The PactIt’s the night before A-level results and a group of six friends have gathered together as they’ve done most nights of this gorgeous summer, to make the most of these last weeks they’ll all be together before going off to their various Universities. They’re confident they’ll get the results they need for they’re the cleverest group in their expensive, academically-renowned school. A privileged childhood lies behind them and now they have a golden future to look forward to. But drink and drugs and youth are a dangerous combination, and they all agree to one last mad escapade that results in the death of a woman and her two young children. Panicked, they flee the scene, but they’re sure the police will soon trace the car they were in. And then Megan, the quiet one, the outsider, offers to take the rap for them all. She knows she’ll likely go to jail, but she’s willing to do that on one condition – that the other five promise that when she gets out, they’ll each do her one favour, whatever she asks. The others grab this lifeline and agree. Fast forward twenty years… Megan is back, and she’s ready to call in the debt…

Goodness, when Bolton’s on form there’s no one to touch her for truly thrilling thrillers! This one grabbed me right from the start as I watched these six kids – selfish, yes, but also programmed to be high achievers by pushy parents and ambitious schools – do one stupid thing and then follow it up with another, even stupider. Even though the blurb reveals this early part of the plot, the tension that Bolton creates is irresistible, the definition of page-turning.

It slows down a little in the middle as we learn what our five remaining golden people have achieved in their twenty years. Tal has followed her father into the legal profession and now runs his well respected law firm. Xav is a successful investment manager. Amber has gone into politics and is being spoken about as a probable Cabinet Minister of the future. Felix has used his chemical expertise to set up his own business, from which he’s made a fortune. Dan is the least successful – he’s “only” become Master of the school the group once attended. But as we get to know them, we discover that beneath the glittering exterior of their lives, the memory of that night has affected them all to one degree or another. And now that Megan is back, all the feelings of guilt and fear are also back at full strength – maybe even more so now that they each have so much more to lose. And they don’t even know yet what favours she’s going demand in return for her silence.

After that slightly slower section it ramps up to full speed again, and never lets up till the end. I don’t want to say any more about the plot, since most of the fun comes from not having a clue what will happen next. So I’ll limit myself to saying that although Bolton dragged me far over the credibility line, it’s such a relentless ride I didn’t have time to worry about that at the time – nor even to really notice it. I believed in the characters and in their actions as they were happening and didn’t stop to analyse too deeply (and this of course is why thrillers work best when they are fast-paced).

Sharon Bolton
Sharon Bolton

Other things I loved, that made this work for me when so many other contemporary thrillers don’t (including one or two of Bolton’s own). Third person, past tense throughout, allowing Bolton to let us into the characters’ minds or keep us out as she chooses – and she uses that brilliantly to lead us on and misdirect us. It’s also much easier to put up with unlikeable characters when you’re seeing them from the outside. No “that day” nonsense – Bolton starts by telling us exactly what happened on that day back then before she brings us into the present, and what a difference that makes. She builds suspense on the basis of what might happen in the future, not by refusing to tell the reader what has already happened in the past. Similarly, no dual timeline – Bolton tells us about the past and then about the present, rather than jumping back and forward between them. And although the characters are all pretty unlikeable, they all feel believable – self-absorbed and selfish, yes, but their instinct for self-preservation is understandable even if it’s not particularly admirable.

I loved this one and raced through it, and the climax had all the thrills it needed and then a couple more. I wish all thrillers were written like this! Highly recommended.

20 books 2019Book 4 of 20

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion via NetGalley.

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The Killing Kind by Jane Casey

Twisted…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The Killing KindThe law says that everyone has the right to defence in court, so sometimes barristers find themselves defending people they’d probably rather not know. So it was with Ingrid Lewis when she was just starting out, successfully defending John Webster from accusations of stalking and harassment. It wasn’t long after the trial before Ingrid learned to her cost just what it was like to be the target of John Webster’s games. Now, a few years later, a fellow barrister is killed and Ingrid becomes convinced that John Webster did the killing, mistaking the other woman for Ingrid. But can she persuade the police to believe her before it’s too late?

Jane Casey always writes entertainingly and well, and I love her police procedural series starring Maeve Kerrigan. This book is something of a departure from her, moving into standalone thriller territory, and it rockets along throwing twist after twist until the poor reader’s head is spinning. This poor reader, I’m afraid, found it went so far over the credibility line that I had to stop trying to take it seriously at all at a fairly early stage, when Ingrid begins to wonder if Webster is really the bad guy, or is he trying to save her? From there on it spirals into ever more ludicrous scenarios, in which the only constant to hang on to is Ingrid’s profound stupidity. She’s the type of heroine who, on being told a house is haunted by murderous ghouls, volunteers to spend the night in it. “I am in fear of a crazed stalker who I believe wants to kill me, so I’ll wander about the dark, lonely streets of London late at night, all alone, rather than getting a cab,” seems to be her general attitude to self-protection.

Jane Casey 2 - telegraph.co.uk
Jane Casey (source: telegraph.co.uk)

I know credibility isn’t considered a plus in contemporary thrillers, so I’m sure this will work well for people who generally enjoy the “I didn’t see that coming” impact of total lack of plot and character consistency. Unfortunately I do like plots to hold together and there are far too many holes in this one for me, and I don’t like when characters have a personality makeover halfway through, as both Ingrid and Webster do in this one. I felt that by the end both were unrecognisable from how they had been drawn at the beginning, not because they had been changed by events, but because they had been changed by the author to fit in with the plot twists. Plus, I regret to say it, but despite all the twists I did see that coming… I had very little doubt from quite early on as to where the story was going to end up, although it’s done well enough that I wondered from time to time if perhaps I was wrong. But I wasn’t.

Overall, then, reasonably entertaining but I think it’s fair to say it’s not my favourite Casey novel by quite a long way. I’d admit, though, that I am probably the wrong reader for the book, and I’m sure it will work better for the many people who love this kind of over-the-top twisty thriller.

20 books 2019Book 3 of 20

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins via NetGalley.

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The Man from London by Georges Simenon

Lead us not into temptation…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Man from LondonMaloin is a railway signalman who works the night-shift in the signal box at Dieppe, overlooking the harbour. One night, he’s watching the various arrivals and departures of cross-channel ferries as usual when he spots one man throwing a suitcase over the fence to another man, thus avoiding customs. Maloin shrugs – smuggling is commonplace and he’d probably do it himself. But when he later sees the two men fighting over the suitcase and then one of them killing the other, during which the suitcase falls in the dock, he doesn’t do what he knows he should – inform the authorities. Instead, he uses his knowledge of the tides to retrieve the suitcase, which he finds to be full of English banknotes…

This was my introduction to Simenon’s non-Maigret books, and turned out to be a very good one to begin with. It’s a study of a weak man whose greed leads him into an act of which he would not have thought himself capable, and the consequences on his character of the guilt and fear that follow.

Simenon’s settings are always one of his main strengths, and here he gives a great picture of the working life of Dieppe – the shopkeepers, the people who make their living from the fish and shellfish in the sea and on the shore, the hotels and bars, the rather downbeat, humdrum sex trade, and the transient travellers, mostly passing through on their way to somewhere more exciting. Too big to be a place where everyone knows everyone else, it still has a small town feel – the inhabitants carefully graded according to their station in life.

Maloin is an unpleasant character even before he gets himself involved in crime – bullying to his wife and children, using the services of the local prostitute whenever he feels the need to bolster his ego and prove himself a man, jealous of anyone to whom he feels socially inferior. His night work suits his rather misanthropic personality, allowing him to spend his working hours alone and giving him the days free to pursue his hobbies. His family are used to being quiet around the house so as not to disturb his daytime sleep, and mostly they propitiate him so as to avoid his outbursts of unreasonable anger.

But once he commits the act of retrieving the suitcase he sees visions of wealth and at first feels no guilt. However, seeing the murderer searching for the suitcase, he feels the first chill of fear, and as the police become involved in the hunt, first for the money, and then for the murderer, he finds himself entirely consumed by it to the point where he can’t sleep or concentrate on anything else. And then the guilt begins. Without going further into the story to avoid spoilers, it’s a very credible picture of how someone without any particular intelligence and a loose moral compass might behave when temptation comes his way. Maloin’s plans for how to convert the money to francs, how to explain its sudden acquisition, never get past the woolly stage, and meantime he finds himself getting sucked into a quagmire of deceit and a criminal investigation that is growing more serious by the day. What seemed at first like a minor transgression is gradually destroying his state of mind.

georges-simenon
Georges Simenon

Novella length, this doesn’t waste any time on unnecessary padding – the length of the book is dictated by how long it takes to tell the story, a skill Simenon had in spades and which many a modern crime writer would do well to emulate. The suspense element is excellent – while Maloin behaves consistently with the character Simenon has created for him, it’s nevertheless not at all clear where his fear and guilt will ultimately lead him. And I found the ending entirely satisfactory, showing once again that sudden twists are not necessary to produce true suspense – it’s the fundamental unpredictability of human behaviour that does that.

This will certainly encourage me to seek out more of Simenon’s non-Maigret work. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it more or thought it was better, exactly, but it has a somewhat different, darker feel and that aspect of being a story complete in itself that I always appreciate in stand-alones, without losing the features I always enjoy most in Maigret – the settings and the characters of his villains.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics via NetGalley.

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The Chill Factor by Richard Falkirk

Volcanoes, geysers and spies…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Chill FactorIt’s 1971, and post-war Iceland is a somewhat reluctant host to the American military, there ostensibly to protect Iceland under the NATO banner, but in reality because Iceland’s geographic position makes it a strategically important part of the Western bulwark against Soviet Communism. When the Americans fear that a Soviet spy ring is operating in the country, NATO sends in a British agent, Bill Conran, to investigate. Meanwhile, a young girl has been found dead after a drunken night out and a young American soldier is suspected to be responsible. The Icelanders, already resentful towards what some see as an American occupation, are outraged…

Sometimes, rather than reading historical fiction, it’s interesting to read a book written at the time – you tend to get a much clearer feel for the prevalent attitudes without the filtering of hindsight. This book is a great example of that. No one writing today about Iceland in the 1970s would generalise, exaggerate and affectionately mock it in quite the way this British author of the time did. Falkirk reminds us that Britain and Iceland had recently emerged from the Cod Wars – i.e., a long-running dispute over fishing territories in the North Atlantic. (In fact, he spoke too soon – the dispute would be resurrected in the following years and not finally settled till the late 1970s.) As a result, Brits of the time would probably have quite enjoyed seeing Iceland made fun of a little – the Cod Wars never really made us all-out enemies but they were certainly serious enough to cause tension and a degree of animosity.

And Falkirk has fun with his Icelanders – the drinking, the sexual permissiveness (he sounds quite jealous of that aspect) and the obsession with the weather. This 50th anniversary edition of the book has an introduction by Ragnar Jónasson, a very familiar name to fans of Nordic crime fiction, who says that Falkirk got a lot right, especially the descriptions of Reykjavik and the landscape, but tactfully suggests that some of the commentary on the Icelandic character needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Jónasson also tells us that the book was popular in Iceland at the time, partly because it was so rare for a foreign author to set a book there.

The other historical aspect that’s interesting to see from a contemporary perspective is the on-going Cold War. Falkirk has no doubt about the standing of the various players in that – the Brits are morally good and intellectually superior, the Americans might be a bit naive but they have lots of useful guns, the Icelanders should be grateful for NATO’s protection, and the Commies are evil! (Actually I suspect British attitudes today might be pretty similar to that, but moving swiftly on… 😉 )

The main strengths, as Jónasson suggests, lie in the descriptions of Iceland itself, with its active volcanoes, geysers and mud pools, the small, clean towns and the lack of poverty. Falkirk portrays the people as fun-loving, friendly souls with none of the repressed hang-ups of the stiff upper lipped Brits, so although he does make fun of them it is broadly affectionate. He talks about the extremely low crime rate, which is apparently true, showing that therefore an individual crime takes on a much greater importance in the public mind than it usually does in more crime-ridden societies.

Richard Falkirk aka Derek Lambert
Richard Falkirk aka Derek Lambert

I found the story itself somewhat less interesting. It’s a rather standard Cold War thriller and I felt it was too easy to spot the various double-crossers. However it was entertaining enough to keep me happily turning the pages, and Conran is a good, typical fictional spy even if he does seem to spend considerably more time chasing women than Russians! There is a bit of a twist at the end which obviously I won’t reveal, but it again arises from the recent history of Europe and perhaps would have felt more credible to readers at the time than it did to me now. There’s a fair amount of mild humour in it to lift the tone, and at just over 220 pages, the book doesn’t outstay its welcome.

So overall I enjoyed it a lot, though more for the descriptions of Iceland and the historical context than for the story itself. Recommended for fans of spy thrillers, and also for fans of Icelandic crime fiction who might enjoy, as I did, getting a different perspective on the island’s recent past.

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

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Taken by Lisa Stone

Looking for Leila…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Little Leila Smith has had to learn to look out for herself. Her mother, Kelsey, is often out of it on drugs or drink, which she pays for out of the money she makes from prostitution. So when Leila disappears from the playground one evening, it’s several hours before Kelsey realises she’s missing…

The reader knows, though, and we also know straight away who took her – a man who lives in the same block of flats as Leila and her mum. Happily, we also discover quite quickly that, although there are dark aspects to this story, it isn’t about child sexual abuse and the man is not a paedophile. That leaves us with the central mystery of the book – why has he taken Leila? And what does he intend to do with her? Will she ever get back home?

Meantime, Kelsey has been shocked into sobriety. She knew that there was already a good chance that the Social Services would take Leila away from her, and now she’s sure that even if Leila is found, there’s no chance of her being allowed to come back to live with a mother who didn’t even notice she was missing. Her struggle to stay clean forms another strand of the book. Here Stone doesn’t cut any corners in letting us see the sordid and dangerous life Kelsey is leading and at first it’s hard to sympathise with someone who has neglected her child so badly, but as we see her guilt and regret, and her terror at what might have happened to Leila, she becomes more likeable and I soon found I was rooting for her to finally get off the drugs and get her life together.

The main story regarding Leila’s disappearance requires a major suspension of disbelief at several points. She’s supposed to be eight but speaks and acts like a much older child. Partly this could be down to her having had to fend for herself more than a child of that age should, but it still doesn’t ring entirely true. The idea that she wouldn’t already have been in care is hard to swallow too but is necessary for the story, so let’s call it fictional licence. Even though she didn’t wholly convince me, I admit that she gradually won my heart and I found myself hoping that somehow there would be a good outcome for both her and her mum.

Even the baddie got a bit of sympathy from me once his reasons became clear. I had a pretty good idea of where the story was likely to be going from about halfway through, but was still interested in seeing how it all worked out for the various characters, and found the ending satisfying and more credible than some of the stuff that happened in the earlier parts of the book.

It’s well written in a plain style that suits the story – third person, past tense, so we see various perspectives, Kelsey’s, Leila’s, the baddie’s, and Beth’s, the police officer who’s in charge of the investigation. It has twists enough to keep it interesting, but not the ridiculous kind that turn the whole story on its head twenty pages before the end. Well-paced and not overly long, I found it a fast read and, once I got into it and put my disbelief in cold storage, a page-turner. And much less bleak than that blurb had led me to fear, largely due to the sympathetic characterisation. An enjoyable read!

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

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Domino Island by Desmond Bagley

They don’t write them like that anymore

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When rich businessman David Salton dies, it looks like the Western and Continental Insurance company are in for a big hit – he was insured for half a million pounds. Although the inquest found he had died of natural causes, the circumstances of his death were a little odd, so before they agree to pay out the company sends their best investigator to take a look. Bill Kemp had a career in military intelligence before he went into the insurance industry, and when the investigation becomes the catalyst for all sorts of shenanigans on the Caribbean island of Campanilla he’ll need all of his skills just to survive…

(It occurs to me on writing that blurb that I don’t know why the book is called Domino Island, since the island is called Campanilla – maybe I missed the explanation! Anyway, it doesn’t really matter.)

Desmond Bagley was a hugely popular British thriller writer back in the ‘60s-‘80s, and the fact that most of his books are still readily available suggests he’s still got a pretty solid fan base nearly forty years after his death. So when this previously unpublished novel was found in his archives in 2017, more or less complete and with his own notes of the changes he intended to make, the idea of publishing it would have been irresistible. Michael Davies, a lifelong Bagley fan, took on the task of tidying it up and this is the result – and an excellent result it is, too! My inner cynic feared that Bagley or his publishers must have felt it wasn’t good enough to be published, but the editor of this volume explains that in fact it was well on the way to publication when Bagley withdrew it because he’d signed a deal that required him to produce a different novel tied into a movie he had scripted, and he didn’t want the two publications to clash. I don’t know why he never returned to this one, though.

The fictional island of Campanilla was part of the British Empire, but has recently gained independence and is now operating partly as a tourist destination and partly as an offshore tax haven, where the wealthy are extremely wealthy and the poor find it extremely difficult to survive because of the inflated prices and property values that wealthy people bring along with them. So there’s political tension between the governing party who see their job as keeping life sweet for the rich, and the opposition, divided between a moderately left party and an extreme left-wing, veering towards communism. David Salton was the leader of the soft-left party, so Kemp wonders if his political opponents may have had something to do with his death.

But there are other possibilities too. It transpires that Salton may have been a good man in the world of politics, but he was a philanderer in his spare time, keeping his mistress in a luxury flat while his wife lived in their secluded home in a different part of the island. Then there’s Negrini – owner of a local casino and reputed to have ties to the US Mafia. Salton has promised that if he gets into power he’ll crack down on the gambling industry. The status of the island as a tax haven means that there’s lots of financial skulduggery bubbling beneath the surface, so there are plenty of other people with a vested interest in making sure that a politician who intends to tackle corruption shouldn’t get into power.

All these various people and factions don’t want Kemp investigating and stirring around in the murky dealings of the island, and soon he finds that he’s in personal danger at the same time as political tensions on the island are reaching boiling point. It all comes to a climax in a traditional thriller ending, with goodies pitted against baddies, corpses aplenty and an entirely unexpected (by me) but satisfying solution to the mystery of Salton’s death.

The writing is very good, and not nearly as dated in attitudes to women as thrillers of this era usually are. It’s years since I read any Bagley and I can’t remember if his females were always treated this well or whether perhaps part of Davies’ tidying-up was to make the tone more acceptable to modern readers. Whatever, the women are pretty good characters, and one of them is even kinda kickass, which I found unexpectedly refreshing. They’ve certainly not been modernised to the extent of not feeling true to the time, however.

Desmond Bagley

There are parts where I felt it could have been tighter and a bit faster paced, and maybe Bagley’s final edit would have seen to this, but it never drags. Kemp, who tells the story in the first person, is a likeable and believable protagonist – he’s resourceful but not a superhero. He soon teams up with the forces of law and order in the person of Superintendent Hanna of the island police, another likeable character, and they work well together. The story is both interesting and well told, and although the island is fictional, it feels entirely authentic both politically and culturally. I enjoyed this one very much, and now want to go back and investigate some of his other books – it is sadly true to say that they don’t write them like that anymore, and they really should…

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

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Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Journey’s End…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is Wednesday, 2nd October, 1872, and as he does every day, Mr Phileas Fogg is playing whist with his friends in the Reform Club. But this day the conversation turns to how the world is shrinking as more and more places become linked by fast steamships or railroads. Fogg claims that it is now possible to go around the world in eighty days. His companions pooh-pooh this notion, and Fogg offers to prove his point by making the journey. A wager is hastily arranged for the massive sum of £20,000 – half Fogg’s entire fortune. He intends to use the other half to cover any unforeseen expenses on his travels. And within hours he’s off, accompanied only by his French manservant, Passepartout, whom he had hired just that morning. But, unbeknownst to them, they are being followed…

I started my Around the World in 80 Books Challenge back in March 2016, so it has taken me considerably longer to make the trip than Phileas Fogg allowed himself! When I got close to the end I realised this was the only possible book I could choose to bring me back to London where my journey started all those years ago. And a perfect choice it proved to be! Not only is it a great book in its own right, but it also took me to all the places I’ve read about in the books I picked for my challenge. So when we got to Bombay I thought of playing cricket; when Fogg and his companions travelled by elephant I remembered Solomon’s journey; when they reached Omaha I thought of the World Fair. Anyway, I shall do a proper round-up of the challenge soon, but meantime, back to this book!

Fogg is a man of rigid habits and an obsessive concern with punctuality and exactness in all things. The narrator suggests his background is rather unknown, but that he must have travelled in the past to give him his fairly encyclopaedic knowledge of the world. He is unflappable to an extraordinary degree given that his entire fortune is in the balance, but we eventually see that he has hidden depths. Passepartout, in contrast, is volatile and constantly getting into scrapes, but on the other hand he soon develops strong feelings of loyalty to his master and shows true bravery on more than one occasion. Then there is Detective Fix, trailing Fogg whom he suspects of having robbed Baring Brothers bank on the day he left London so suddenly. Fix spends half the time trying to slow them down and the other half trying to speed them up since he can only arrest Fogg on British soil – and the book reminds us that British soil spreads fairly extensively across the world at this period. The fourth character is an Indian woman they pick up along the way, but I won’t say more about her because to tell her story would be a bit too spoilery.

The book starts a little slow, with a lot of concentration on timetables and dates and so on, and Fogg is not initially a very endearing character. He is interested only in achieving his aim of proving that the journey can be done in the time – he has no interest in the places to which they travel other than how quickly he can get out of them again on the next leg of the trip. Europe gets barely a mention, Egypt is a passing blur, and it’s only really when they reach India that they begin to have adventures. But by that time, Passepartout and Fix have developed into entertaining characters, sometimes friendly, sometimes not, and they give the story the life and liveliness that Fogg’s cold mechanical persona lacks. It’s in India too, though, that for the first time we see signs of humanity beneath that British stiffness, and from there on gradually Fogg also becomes someone we care about.

From India to Hong Kong, to Yokohama, across America – sometimes ahead of the clock, sometimes behind. One adventure after another holds them back, each time throwing Passepartout into gloom and desperation but leaving Fogg unruffled and determined. And each adventure is more fun than the one before – storms and Sioux warriors, acrobats and opium dens, trains and steamships, polygamists and Parsees, and oodles of luck both good and bad. Will they make it back in time? Even though I knew the answer, I must admit I found the last fifty pages or so pretty heart-pounding, and joined Passepartout on his emotional roller-coaster ride between despair and euphoria. And the end is brilliantly done, misdirection and twists abounding!

Jules Verne

The new translation by William Butcher in my Oxford World’s Classics edition is excellent – flowing and fun. His rather scholarly introduction left me somewhat befuddled, in truth. As always, I read the book first, and imagine my surprise on being told that it’s full of sexual innuendo and “brazen homosexual overtures” between the three male characters. I missed all of that! Even though he’s now told me it’s there, nope, I don’t see it. Maybe he’s right – in fact, since he’s a Verne expert and I’m not, I’m willing to assume he is right – but then, on the other hand… sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Butcher goes so far as to say “the book is not designed for callow adolescents”. Hmm, I was probably a callow adolescent when I first read it, and I don’t think it corrupted my innocence! I did enjoy Butcher saying that Verne had portrayed the Mormons as an “erotico-religious group” though – I missed that too…

So an excellent adventure story suitable for all ages, or a walk on the wild side of sexual psychology, depending on whether you believe me or Butcher. Either way, highly entertaining – great stuff!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Book 5 of 20

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The African Queen by CS Forester

Love among the leeches…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

It is 1914. When the Germans round up all the native inhabitants of the Reverend Samuel Sayer’s mission in Central Africa to take them off to fight in the war, the Reverend quickly succumbs to fever and dies, leaving his faithful sister all alone. Until along comes Charles Allnut, a Cockney mechanic who had been out on the river collecting supplies when the Germans came, and returned to find all the people at the mine where he worked gone too. He realises he can’t leave Rose here, so takes her with him aboard the little steam boat, the African Queen, planning to find somewhere safe to hole up till the war is over, at least in this part of the world. Rose, however, has a different idea. She wants revenge on the Germans for destroying her brother’s life work, and quickly convinces herself that they should take the African Queen down river to Lake Wittelsbach, there to destroy the German gunboat that patrols the lake. It takes her a little longer to convince Allnut…

This, of course, is the book on which the Hepburn/Bogart film was based, and since that’s always been a favourite I knew the story well, and was interested to see how closely the movie had stuck to the original. The answer is that it does to a very large degree with one or two minor changes in characterisation, and then a huge divergence in plot at the end that makes the film into an adventure classic and leaves the book floundering as a rather anti-climactic disappointment.

Book 65 of 90

In the book, Allnut is a Cockney Londoner rather than an American. While I feel it would have been highly entertaining to see Bogie attempting to do a Cockney accent, I can understand why the star factor led to the movie character being portrayed as American. It doesn’t make much difference, except of course to change the patriotism emphasis from one of Brits fighting the Germans to the usual Hollywood hoopla of Americans saving the world. Rose is very much as Hepburn played her except that the woman in the book is a decade or so younger. So although she is still the “spinster sister” of the missionary, she is young enough to make her transformation into an active adventurer and passionate lover slightly more believable. She is, of course, actually English too, unlike Ms Hepburn!

The main strength of the book is in the descriptions of the African riverscape. Forester gives a real feeling for the abominable heat and how badly this affects the pale-skinned Brits, however used to it they may be. The sudden rains, the insects, the leeches lurking in the water, the reeds that choke some parts of the river and the rapids that make other parts a terrifying thrill ride – all of these are done brilliantly and feel completely authentic (at least, to this reader who has never been even close to Africa).

The characterisation is considerably weaker, unfortunately, although they are both likeable enough to keep the book entertaining. Allnut is a weak, rather cowardly man but with lots of practical skills and knowledge, while Rose has courage enough for two and the ability to learn quickly, so they complement each other well. Do people change as rapidly as these two do, even in extreme circumstances? Hmm, perhaps, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. Under the leadership of a strong woman, Allnut suddenly discovers a courage even he didn’t think he possessed, whereas Rose quickly throws off a lifetime of repression and strict religious beliefs to become the lover of this rather underwhelming man. I didn’t altogether believe it, but I still enjoyed the journey in their company.

CS Forester

At least, I enjoyed it up until the last ten per cent or so, when suddenly all the tension is destroyed by an ending that leaves our two main characters on the sidelines while the regular armed forces of Britain and German take over. No wonder the plot was changed for the film! I can’t imagine what Forester was thinking, really. Perhaps he thought that the idea of two people tackling a German gunboat on their own was just too unbelievable and in real life that might be true. But this isn’t real life – it’s an adventure novel and needs a dramatic end led by our two unlikely heroes! Let them succeed thrillingly or fail tragically, but don’t just stick them to one side and let other people take over! Pah! I was left infuriated and let down by the way it all fizzled out.

So overall, good fun for most of the journey but with a sadly disappointing ending. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure that I’d really recommend it except to diehard fans of colonial adventure novels (which, by the way, reminds me that I haven’t mentioned that some of the language about the “natives” is toe-curlingly dated). One of those cases where I feel the film is better…

Book 3 of 20

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Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu

The politics of crime…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a petty criminal is brutally killed, at first no one pays too much attention. But it quickly turns out he was only the first victim – soon there have been several murders, all carried out the same way: a method which earns the killer the nickname Sword. All the victims have two things in common. They are all criminals, and they are all members of the Roma, a minority ethnic group in Romania. Soon the matter becomes political as long-unresolved racial tensions rise to the surface, leading to outbreaks of violence. This is the story of a new, fragile democracy and of the men who are trying to make it work, or to undermine it…

This is the first book translated by Marina Sofia, long-time blogging buddy and now one of the co-founders of a new venture into translated crime fiction – Corylus books. The translation is excellent, as I expected, knowing Marina Sofia’s skill with words and expertise in about a million languages! Romanian is her mother tongue and English is the language she currently uses in her life, work and writing, so she really is the perfect translator for the book. There’s no clunkiness, and either she or the author, or both, know when an international audience might need a little bit of extra guidance to understand something that may be obvious to Romanians. This meant that, although the story is quite complex, I never felt lost.

The book is a very original take on a crime novel, looking deeply into the politics of racially motivated crime and how it impacts on an already divided society. The first chapter shows us the first murder in fairly graphic detail and it seems as if it’s going to be the start of a more or less standard crime fiction. But almost immediately we are taken, not to the police investigation, but to the corridors of power, where a Presidential election is only a few months away and all the top politicians are jostling for position. Some of the characters are named, but others are simply known by their titles – the President, the Minister of the Interior, and so on. There’s a cast of thousands (slight exaggeration, perhaps) and a handy cast list at the end, although I quickly found I didn’t need it, because in a sense who the characters are doesn’t matter – it’s their role in the politics of the country that matters. By about halfway through some of them had developed distinctive personalities, but others were simply “journalists”, “Presidential advisers”, “political commentators”, etc.

You hate the sound of this now, don’t you? But honestly, it works! It’s not really about the people, or even the crimes – it’s a political thriller about how politicians in a corrupt society manoeuvre, how they manipulate the media and how in turn the media manipulates them. It’s about Romania trying to juggle the demands of all the demanding new European and American partners they have to deal with now they’ve left the Soviet sphere of influence. And it’s a coldly cynical look at how politicians might ruthlessly inflame the divisions in society to boost their own electoral chances.

The Roma are seen as a kind of underclass, marginalised and discriminated against by a society that has written them off as criminals. They are the target of the Romanian version of white supremacists, but even the mainstream parties would rather they just stayed silent and invisible or better yet, left Romania altogether. As more victims turn up, tensions between the Roma and the Romanians grow, eventually leading to a series of violent confrontations, each more serious than the last. For those in power, a difficult balance must be struck – plenty of Romanians see the Sword as some kind of avenging angel, while the equally unscrupulous political leaders of the Roma see it as a way to lever some recognition for themselves. For those who want to be in power, it’s an opportunity – how can they best use it to bring the government to its knees?

Bogdan Teodorescu

I suspect you’d have to be interested in the skulduggery of politics to enjoy this one, although it’s certainly not necessary to understand Romanian politics specifically. The thing that most stood out to me, in fact, was that no matter the country, the corruption and the character of those who seek political power are depressingly similar. It’s so well done – too believable to be comfortable. Seeing how the actions of one man can cause a chain reaction that escalates to a point where society itself is fracturing and in danger of imploding is frighteningly relevant, especially when the basis of the story is about the marginalisation and repression of an ethnic group – something we’re all struggling with in the West at the moment. I love political shenanigans, so I loved the book, and learned a lot about Romania’s recent history as a bonus. Great stuff – highly recommended!

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The Never Game (Colter Shaw 1) by Jeffery Deaver

74% successful…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Sophie Mulliner is missing and her frantic father has offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who can find her. Enter Colter Shaw, professional “rewardist” – a man who uses the tracking skills instilled in him in childhood by his survivalist father to hunt for missing people for the reward money. The case soon becomes more complicated when another person goes missing, then another. Colter, teaming up with local police detective LaDonna Standish, must try to find each victim while they’re still alive, while also attempting to work out who is behind it all and what they’re trying to achieve. Soon the investigation will take them deep into the gaming industry in Silicon Valley, full of eccentric designers and cut-throat competition, and the whole weirdness of people who spend more time in virtual worlds than the real one.

As well as the main plot, this first in a new series fills us in on Colter’s unusual upbringing and the mystery that still hangs over him from back then, which is clearly going to become a running story arc over future books. Colter’s father bought a huge wilderness property and called it the Compound, on which he brought up his three children to be able to survive anything nature or mankind could throw at them. Although Colter then went on to college and is perfectly comfortable in the outside world, his childhood has left him unwilling to settle in a routine job and too self-sufficient to work for someone else, so he travels around the country in his Winnebago, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes chasing down a missing person for the reward money. But he’s not a traditional loner – he has friends and people he works with professionally, and still regularly goes back to the Compound to visit his mother. His father taught him to make decisions based on probabilities, so when making any decisions he runs through the various options allocating each a percentage rating of success. These percentages appeared to me to be entirely arbitrary and so became increasingly pointless and annoying as the book went on. I do hope Deaver drops that in future books because otherwise Colter has all the makings of an excellent series protagonist.

Jeffery Deaver

It took me a while to get into this and it never really turned into a heart-pounding thriller for me, but I liked Colter and loved LaDonna (who unfortunately probably won’t appear in future books, since Colter doesn’t stay in the same place for long), and I found the background story about the world of gaming interesting (though I suspect it may drive real gamers crazy since Deaver explains everything at a really basic level for the novice). It is too long at 450 pages, and the divide between the actual plot and Colter’s back story slows the pace too much, especially in the early section. The plot has lots of interesting twists and turns, though these aren’t always executed as smoothly as I’d expect from an author with Deaver’s long experience. However, the writing is excellent for the style of the book – that is, it’s plainly and clearly written, third person, past tense, with a nice balance between characterisation and action, and I gradually found myself absorbed in it. I must admit I actually found the mystery relating to Colter’s past rather more interesting than the main plot in the end, and it would be it that would tempt me to read the next book.

So overall, a good start to what has the potential to be a great series – I’d say there’s about an 81% chance of that. I look forward to finding out.

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

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