A Pinch of Snuff (Dalziel and Pascoe 5) by Reginald Hill

Dark secrets…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

There have been complaints from the local residents about the Calliope Club, a private cinema that shows pornographic films, so the local police in the person of Sergeant Wield are already keeping an eye on it. However, everything is perfectly legal and the only disruption the club is causing is to the respectable sensibilities of its neighbours. But Jack Shorter, one of the club members, is worried, and since he happens to be Inspector Peter Pascoe’s dentist, he takes the opportunity to pass on his concerns. He tells Peter that in one scene of a film, in which the naked heroine is being beaten up her equally naked captor, he is convinced that the beating is real and that the woman has been seriously hurt, if not worse. So Peter goes along to see for himself, starting a chain of events that will uncover some dark secrets around the town and lead to murder…

By the time of this fifth Dalziel and Pascoe book, both of the main characters have become much more fully developed, although they will continue to evolve throughout the long-running series. Dalziel is brash, crude and often uncouth, although he’s perfectly capable of presenting different faces when he wishes. He knows everyone who’s anyone around his patch, and is well tuned in to all the gossip and secrets of his fellow townspeople. Pascoe is educated and cultured, more empathetic and often deeply affected by the things he witnesses as part of his job. He is the modern face of policing, although that modernity of 1978 when the book was first published seems very out-dated now, especially in social attitudes. Because this story involves porn, violence towards women and what would now be considered child exploitation at best, or child abuse at worst, those outdated attitudes make for uneasy reading to modern eyes. If you find it difficult to allow for different times, then this may not be the best book in which to meet Dalziel and Pascoe for the first time.

However, if you can look past that, then there’s a strong plot here – tighter and better paced than in some of the earliest books. The storyline is undoubtedly dark, but there’s plenty of room for some humour in the interaction between the two leads. Hill tended to change the main viewpoint from book to book, and here we see the story from Peter’s perspective, which is a kinder and gentler one than Dalziel’s. The starting point of the story – the suggestion of ‘snuff’ movies, where the supposedly fictional on-screen death is actually real – soon veers off to become more domestic in nature, as Jack Shorter is suddenly accused of seducing one of his underage patients. Meantime, the owner of the Calliope Club is attacked and left to die, and Peter must try to find out if there’s a connection to his investigation into the possible snuff movie. With all the concentration on porn, there are some salacious moments and some earthy language but no graphic descriptions of sex, on or off screen.

As the series progressed, the books gradually widened out from the two main detectives to become more ensemble pieces with several recurring characters. That process is beginning in this one, as we get to know Ellie, Peter’s wife, a little better. She’s a feminist and what we would now call a social justice warrior, so there’s always tension between Peter and her over his job, since she sees the police as a reactionary pillar of a patriarchal society. Sergeant Wield is also coming to the fore, although at this early point in the series, he is almost unrecognisable as the complex and appealing character he will later become.

Reginald Hill

Going back and reading these books in order has made me realise just how much the characters developed and changed over time – a reflection, I suspect, of Hill’s own development as well as of the changes in society during the decades in which he was writing. It’s quite hard to realise it now, but in fact at the time these books were at the forefront of the social changes, with Hill addressing subjects like feminism and homosexuality at a time when they were rare indeed in crime fiction. The way he does it sometimes seems clumsy to us now, with our heightened sensitivity and demand for strict adherence to the rules of liberal political correctness, but the underlying messages are positive ones for those who can see past the blunter style of expression of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Pascoe is already learning to be more sensitive, partly through Ellie’s influence, and later in the series even Andy Dalziel will show he’s not as dinosaurish as he likes to appear.

While there are still a few books to go before Hill hit his peak, this one feels to me like a bit of a turning point, with indications of how the series would later develop, especially in the characterisation. As always, this series is highly recommended!

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Critical Incidents (Robin Lyons 1) by Lucie Whitehouse

Strong start to a new series…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Robin Lyons has been dismissed from her job as detective inspector in the Met for disobeying orders and releasing a man her superior believed to have committed a murder because her instinct told her he was innocent. She intends to appeal the dismissal but in the meantime she has to find some other source of income to support herself and her teenage daughter, Lennie. So she’s on her way home to Birmingham, to live with her parents and to work for an old family friend, Maggie, another ex-police officer who now investigates insurance and benefit fraud, and occasionally other things. The first case Robin becomes involved in is the disappearance of a young woman whose frantic mother can’t get the local police to take the matter seriously. But then a crime much closer to home occurs, when Robin’s best friend Corinna is killed and her husband Josh goes missing. Robin can’t help wondering if it’s related to what happened ‘that day’ many years ago, so finds herself doing a bit of investigation into Corinna’s death too.

This book contains some of the features that have made me increasingly unenthusiastic about contemporary crime fiction in the last few years. There’s the ubiquitous ‘that day’ feature, when the crime involves something from the past coming back to haunt the present, but the reader isn’t told what actually happened in the past until the story is almost over, in a bid to create false suspense. There’s the utterly tedious casual swearing which serves no purpose. (It made me laugh that in fact at one point Robin, who never knowingly uses an alternative where the f-word will do, is appalled by the casual swearing of the kids in the local high school and wonders why standards have fallen so badly – yeah, possibly because everything teenagers read or watch is full of swearing maybe? Just a thought…) There’s the personal involvement of the detective with the crime, meaning we have to hear an awful lot about Robin’s grief over the death of her friend – never entertaining to me. And the book is roughly a hundred pages too long for the story it contains, meaning there’s a lot of unnecessary filler in there.

However, there are a lot of good things about it too. The story is interesting and, despite being overlong, the pacing is good so that it didn’t drag through the mid-section. It’s very well written, both in terms of the descriptive writing and the believable dialogue. Third person, past tense – a big hurrah from me for that! I thought Whitehouse’s depiction of her Birmingham setting was excellent, giving a real feel for the physical city and for the culture of what is probably the most racially diverse city in Britain outside London, with a huge and long-established Asian community. Happily, Whitehouse shows that, while racism still rears its ugly head on occasion, the majority of the citizens rub along fine together enjoying the added richness of a mixed culture. I found it a convincing and positive portrayal.

The characterisation is a mix. There are too many minor characters to keep track of and they never come to life, so that whenever one was mentioned I had to pause to try to remember who they were and how they fitted into the story. However, the major characters are very well developed, especially Robin and her parents. Robin is hard to like, opinionated, somewhat selfish and convinced that she knows better than everyone else. This is the first in a series, though, and it’s reasonably clear Robin is on a learning curve – that her recent troubles are giving her a level of self-awareness she’s never had till now. The tension between her and her mother is particularly well done – two women who annoy each other as much as they love each other, but who now have a chance to build a better relationship… or a worse one.

Lucie Whitehouse

Overall, despite a few weaknesses, I enjoyed this and thought it was well above average. This one reads like a private eye novel, but the series is billed as a police procedural so I anticipate that future books will see Robin back in harness. First books in series are always tricky since so much introduction and backstory is necessary, but I felt Whitehouse handled those aspects very well, creating some characters I will be happy to meet again. Recommended – a series I look forward to following.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, 4th Estate at HarperCollins.

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Cruel Acts (Maeve Kerrigan 8) by Jane Casey

A thriller, a chiller and a serial killer…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Leo Stone was convicted of killing two women and sentenced to life imprisonment. But now one of the jurors has revealed that the jury broke the rules and as a result his conviction is certain to be overturned when it comes before the Appeals Court. There will be a retrial, but Superintendent Godley wants to make certain that he’s convicted again, so Detective Sergeant Maeve Kerrigan and Detective Inspector Josh Derwent are assigned to reinvestigate the case and to find more evidence if they can. Maeve quickly discovers in the files that there was a third woman who may have been a victim of Stone’s too, but he was never charged with her murder for lack of evidence. Maeve’s sense of empathy for this victim makes her determined to find out the truth of what happened to her too. In the midst of the investigation, after Stone has been released, another woman goes missing…

Well, it’s been a long wait for this latest instalment in Jane Casey’s excellent Maeve Kerrigan series, but this is well worth waiting for. As always, it’s told in the first person (past tense) by Maeve, so that we get her often humorous take on the people around her, especially Derwent. Their relationship has settled into a rather more equal friendship now that Maeve is more experienced, but that doesn’t stop Derwent from lecturing her about her personal life, being over-protective, embarrassing her at every opportunity and generally winding her up. For all that, she knows there’s no-one she’d rather have beside her when things get dangerous.

The other regulars are back too. Una Burt, Maeve’s boss, still doesn’t much like her and the feeling is mutual. Liv appears a bit more in this one – another colleague and Maeve’s best friend. Godley is back, though he plays only a small role. Maeve still looks up to him, but in a more mature way than the hero-worship she felt for him in the early days. And the new girl on the team, Georgia, is back too, just as obnoxious, and just as jealous of Maeve’s success. Followers of the series are doubtless thinking, yes, but what about Maeve’s love life? Is Rob back? Or is there a new man on the scene? Or are Maeve and Josh…? You don’t really expect me to tell you though, do you? 😉

In general, I’m not wild about serial killer stories and helpless females being tortured and killed, but I was right to trust Casey to handle it with her usual sensitivity and good taste. Although women are killed, the reader is not put in the room with them as it’s happening – there’s nothing prurient or gratuitous in the writing; no lengthy descriptions of torture scenes designed to titillate. That doesn’t stop it from being heart-in-mouth thrilling and chilling at points, though. The prologue is wonderfully scary and the thriller ending is tense and dramatic, with several scenes dotted throughout that also had my anxiety levels rocketing.

When it turns out that Leo Stone has an alibi for the time of the latest disappearance, Maeve and Derwent have to consider whether he was innocent of the earlier murders or if there’s a copycat out there. I thoroughly enjoyed the plotting in this one. I didn’t work it out – I rarely do – but all the clues are there. I always think that Casey plots like a Golden Age author, giving the reader a fair chance to do a bit of armchair detecting, although in every other respect her stories and characters are entirely modern.

Jane Casey

I also love that Maeve tries hard to stay within the rules. While her personal life might be a bit complicated, she’s no angst-ridden maverick. The same goes for her colleagues, in fact – they’re probably the most realistic police team I can think of, and while there are petty jealousies and squabbles, they behave overall like the kind of professional force I’d like to think we actually have. The women are not always struggling to be taken seriously by sexist bosses, which delights me since I think it’s such an out-dated image in most of our public services now, and completely overused in crime fiction. Casey simply has men and women working together as a team as if… gasp… it’s normal! But she still allows room for a bit of banter and the occasional flirtation, and she doesn’t feel the need to make the women superheroes or the men weaklings.

While this could easily be read as a standalone, I do recommend reading this series in order to get the full nuances of all the various relationships within the team, and especially to understand Maeve and Josh’s complicated friendship. For existing fans, you’re in for a treat with this one – isn’t it great to have Maeve back? Highly recommended, and I sincerely hope Ms Casey is hard at work on the next one…

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

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Ruling Passion (Dalziel and Pascoe 3) by Reginald Hill

ruling passionTragedy at Thornton Lacey…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Peter Pascoe and his girlfriend, Ellie Soper, are off for a weekend break to visit old university friends now living in the village of Thornton Lacey. But when they get there, they are met with tragedy – three of their friends lie dead from shotgun wounds and the fourth, Colin, is missing. Not surprisingly, Colin immediately becomes the chief suspect, but neither Peter nor Ellie can bring themselves to believe he could have done such a horrific thing. Meantime, back in Mid-Yorkshire, Dalziel wants Peter back as soon as possible, since they are in the middle of a major investigation of a string of burglaries that seems to be escalating into violence.

First published in 1973, this is the third book in the Dalziel and Pascoe series, and shows a big leap in the development of some of the characters. Pascoe has changed out of all recognition from the rather commonplace young man of the first book. He’s now showing the intelligence and sensitivity that make him such an enjoyable character, both in his own right and as a contrast to the brash and arrogant Dalziel. Dalziel still has some way to go in terms of development – he’s still not quite the larger than life figure he will become. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s missing in his character so far, but am looking forward to spotting it as the series progresses. I think it may be his touch of omniscience, or that he hasn’t quite fully become the ‘big fish in a small pond’ of later books.

Ellie, too, has developed a good deal from the last book, but is also not yet fully the Ellie of the middle and later ones. With her character, Hill gets away from the, to modern eyes, outdated portrayal of women as little more than sexual temptresses that he gave us in the first book. Ellie is a mixture of strength and softness – a feminist at a time when feminism hadn’t quite worked out what it wanted to be when it grew up. Volatile and feisty, politically on the left and therefore deeply ambivalent about Peter’s job in that tool of capitalist oppression, the police force, she often gives him a hard time. But deep down she knows he’s one of the good guys and agrees, though she might never say it, that his job is one that needs to be done, and is better done by honourable, intelligent men than by thugs like Dalziel (it’s the ’70s, chaps, so forgive the inbuilt sexism in that sentence – Hill will introduce women police detectives later). In this book, though, she also begins to get to know Dalziel better and starts the slow process of realising that maybe his thuggish exterior hides a more complex and nuanced morality than she’s ready to give him credit for.

Susannah Corbett and Colin Buchanan as Ellie and Peter in the BBC adaptation
Susannah Corbett and Colin Buchanan as Ellie and Peter
in the BBC adaptation

Pascoe’s relationship with Ellie and this trip back to his university days highlights his intellectual side, which in turns allows Hill to start what becomes a feature of later books – references, some subtle, some humorous, to the greats of English literature, especially Jane Austen. The title is from Pope and his poem Eloisa and Abelard plays a minor role in the plot. If you spotted that the name of the village comes from Ms Austen’s Mansfield Park, well done! Some of the characters’ names are also from Austen, often her juvenilia. If you like these sorts of references, it can be fun trying to spot them, or googling them; but, if the thought makes you go cross-eyed with boredom, I can reassure you that they’re completely incidental to enjoying the books. When I first read them, long, long, ago, I was unaware that Hill liked to play these games, never spotted them, and never felt that I was missing anything.

Reginald Hill
Reginald Hill

The plot in this one is deeply confusing with too many people playing minor parts and too much coincidence coming into play. I’m finding on this re-read that the plot tends to be the weakest part of each of the books so far. It’s always set up interestingly, as with this one in the triple murder scene, but somehow it tends to get a bit over complicated as the book progresses. However, it’s the quality of the writing and characterisation that lift even these early books above the average. There is always plenty of humour to offset the darkness of the storylines. Hill gives a believable picture of Ellie and Peter’s grief at the deaths of their friends, but without wallowing in it. And their growing relationship is handled beautifully, showing all the compromises that have to be made when two strong characters collide, but also the rewards that come in a partnership of real equals. This one works fine as a standalone, as they nearly all do, but I must say that reading them in order gives extra pleasure in seeing both the characters and Hill’s writing style develop as the series progresses.

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Blessed Are Those Who Thirst by Anne Holt

A crime wave in Oslo…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

blessed are those who thirstThere seems to be a crime wave going on in the heat of the Oslo summer, and Detective Inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen and her colleagues are feeling the strain. There’s been a spate of rapes, and though many of them are ‘self-inflicted’, as Hanne’s boss charmingly puts it – i.e., date rapes – one is different. A stranger invades a young girl’s flat and the rape is particularly violent and degrading. Meantime, some practical joker is spending Saturday evenings creating what look like blood-soaked crime scenes around the town, but with no bodies. Hanne’s not convinced it is a joker though…

Hanne is a likeable detective – functional, hard-working, relates well to the people in her team. Her private life is stable, though she’s hiding her long-term gay relationship from her colleagues and family – the book was only written a couple of decades ago, but oddly that strand already feels outdated, and rather clichéd. This means she doesn’t socialise much with the team, so in some ways she’s a bit isolated, though not a traditional loner. And she has a good friend in her colleague Billy T, who maybe knows her even better than she thinks.

Both strands of the plot – the rape and the Saturday night “massacres” – are interesting and Holt is excellent at setting the scene. The description of the rape is graphic without being gratuitous, but for my taste there’s too much dwelling on the despair of the rape victim and her father in the aftermath. My views on misery-fests are well known to anyone who reads my reviews, but I do read crime primarily as entertainment and sometimes the voyeuristic wallowing becomes a bit much. However, the characterisation of both victim and father is very well done and their actions are for the most part believable.

Holt gets off to a great start, letting us know enough about the recurring characters to make this work fine as a standalone, and introducing the two major plot-lines nice and early so that the reader is hooked. And the ending takes on aspects of the thriller. It goes pretty far over the credibility line in places – one of these ones where you feel if people would just have a quick conversation a lot of angst could be avoided – but the quality of the writing carries it.

The major problem with the book is the tricky middle. For long stretches of time the police don’t actually seem to do anything much, while constantly complaining of overwork. Can it really take three weeks to determine whether the blood left in the “massacre” scenes is human? And while they wait for results they do nothing else to try to find out who might be behind it. Is it really credible that the rape victim’s father is able to find clues about the rape that the police missed, by merely questioning neighbours? If so, the competence of Hanne and her team can’t be terribly high. Even I might have thought to ask if anyone had seen a strange car around the neighbourhood on the night in question. The overwork excuse is dragged out to cover every lapse that is required to allow the plot to develop into a thriller, but that leaves credibility as the major victim.

All this lack of investigation allows plenty of time for personal relationship stuff, though – most of which I could cheerfully have lived without, but that’s just personal preference. And then when Holt finally moves towards the denouement she does so by having Hanne have a couple of those brilliant moments of inspired guesswork, based on pretty much nothing, so beloved of the fictional detective.

Anne Holt (photo: Jo Michael)
Anne Holt
(photo: Jo Michael)

This is the second book in the successful Hanne Wilhelmsen series, which now stands at nine, though I think only eight have been translated into English so far. As so often, I jumped into the middle of this series with the third book, Death of the Demon, which I thoroughly enjoyed. This one didn’t impress me quite so much, but its problems are of the kind that often infect authors’ early books. On the whole, they were outweighed by the strengths – the quality of the writing enhanced by a good translation from Anne Bruce, the excellent characterisation, and the basic idea behind the plot, even if the execution of it wasn’t quite as good. And knowing that by the time of Death of the Demon, Holt was more in control of her plotting and pacing means this is a series I will look forward to returning to in the future.

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A Clubbable Woman by Reginald Hill

a clubbable woman 2A promising debut whose promise was fulfilled…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Sam Connon had been a rising star destined one day to play rugby for England, when his career was thrown off track by an injury. Still fit to play, though not at the top levels, he was a stalwart of the local rugby team in Mid Yorkshire, and still turns out occasionally for the fourth team – the old-timers whose glory days are behind them. On this afternoon, he has had a kick in the head during a scrum, which has left him feeling woozy and sick. So when he returns home, he merely pops his head into the living-room to let his wife know he’s home and then goes straight to bed, where he falls into something approaching unconsciousness for several hours. His wife hadn’t acknowledged his greeting but that wasn’t too unusual – their marriage was rocky, at best. But when he comes downstairs again, he discovers she is dead, with a circular hole in the middle of her forehead…

This is the first book in the long-running Dalziel and Pascoe series – my favourite crime series of all time. I originally started, as so often, in the middle of the series and then backtracked to the earlier books. And I’m rather glad I did, because although this one is a good, solid police procedural it’s nowhere near the standard that Hill reached as the series evolved. Both Andy Dalziel and Pete Pascoe have some of the attributes that make them such a memorable pairing, but they’re not yet fully developed. Andy is as brash and uncouth as he will always be, without yet the depth of characterisation that reveals the intelligence, subtlety and loyalty to his junior colleagues that is seen in later books. Pete, still single, spends much of his time having a rather annoying internal monologue, partly about the attractions of the various women he meets in the course of the investigation, and partly about his resentment and reluctant admiration for his boorish boss.

Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan as Dalziel and Pascoe in the BBC adaptation.
Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan as Dalziel and Pascoe in the BBC adaptation.

The plotting is very good as, of course, is the writing. First published in 1970, the book shows its age in Hill’s depiction of most of the women as sexual temptresses – surprising for someone who went on to write one of the most intriguingly feminist characters in crime fiction in Elly, Pete’s future wife. I guess that as a debut writer, Hill may have been trying to conform to what was then the norm, whereas he soon became a leader in the field, showing the way in including strong female and even empathetic gay characters long before the trailing pack would have dared. However, Connon’s daughter Jenny feels almost like an embryonic Elly, giving a hint of his later style in depicting women as intelligent, witty and, above all, equal to his male characters. Jenny’s boyfriend, Anthony, is the first example of another ‘type’ that appears regularly throughout the series in different personas – decidedly straight men but with slightly effeminate traits, intellectual and rather urbane, with a love of words. I have always wondered how much these characters might have been autobiographical.

Reginald Hill
Reginald Hill

The plot is interesting and quite traditional in format – all of the action centres around the rugby club so there is a defined list of suspects all with various motives. Andy, as a leading figure both in the club and in Mid Yorks life, knows everybody and this gives him access to ‘inside information’. Pete worries that Andy is too close to the people involved and doesn’t yet know him well enough to be sure that he won’t let his actions and opinions be swayed by friendship. But true to his later characterisation, Andy believes in justice above all, though he might step outside the bounds occasionally to achieve it. And the solution when it comes gives hints of the complex morality of the criminals Hill will introduce us to in future years.

To be honest, if I were reading this for the first time with no knowledge of the series, I’d probably be saying it’s a promising debut, better written than most but fairly standard otherwise. And I might or might not have gone on to read the next one. So when I highly recommend it, as I am doing, it’s as the first step in what becomes something exceptional further down the line. A series to be read in its entirety, and though not essential to read them in order, best read that way to see how all three of them – Dalziel and Pascoe, and Hill himself – develop as the years go by.

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A Good Way to Go by Peter Helton

a good way to goThe body in the canal…

😀 😀 😀 😀

DI Liam McLusky has returned to his job after a nine-week suspension, but is under warning from his boss that one step out of line will result in him being fired. But Liam is fundamentally a good cop so, despite the black cloud hanging over him, when a woman’s body is found in the canal he is put in charge of the case. A few days later another body is found, a man this time, and there are elements of the two murders that make Liam suspect they are linked, though he can’t see what the two victims have in common. Then a third man is abducted…

I recently enjoyed Peter’s Helton’s Indelible, a PI novel with a Golden Age feel about the setting, so I was intrigued to see how his style would work in the format of the police procedural. And I’m pleased to say the answer is – very well.

The book gets off to a good start with a nicely scary chapter about a woman sensing an intruder in her flat. It turns out this is part of a sub-plot about a sex-pest who is graduating from stealing underwear from clothesline to more serious offences, and this storyline runs in parallel with the murder mystery. We then meet Liam for the first time, in this book, at least – there have been earlier books, which I haven’t read, but this one works fine as a standalone. At this point Liam is still on suspension, is driving drunk and behaving like a stereotypical maverick, and my heart sank. However, I’m glad to say he improves on acquaintance – once he is back at work he proves to be a good detective and manages to remain sober. And although he has a string of failed relationships behind him, he hasn’t given up all hope of finding the right woman.

The main plot is complex enough to hold the reader’s interest throughout, even if it does require the odd bit of disbelief suspension. I admit I kinda guessed whodunit a good bit before the end, but not why, so it didn’t spoilt the suspense too much. And the sub-plot about the sex-pest is very well done, getting increasingly creepy and chilling as it goes along. Liam and his partner, DS James Austin, work as a good team and their interactions help to make both characters likeable and enjoyable. And oh joy! It’s written in the third person past tense!

Peter Helton
Peter Helton

I like Helton’s writing style. I could complain that the story was a bit over-padded, and I could have lived with fewer descriptions of Liam smoking, drinking coffee, eating chocolate bars etc. But, in contrast, the violence is gritty without being graphic, the dialogue is realistic without the constant use of bad language, there’s some humour that keeps the tone light, and the characterisation is very good throughout, and particularly of Liam himself. It all goes to show what a lottery crime writing is – I’d rate this book well above the average standard of most police procedurals out there, and better than many that have achieved a higher level of success. So if you’re in the market for a new author, here’s one I recommend.

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

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Original Skin (Aector McAvoy 2) by David Mark

Sex, violence and misogyny – a losing combination…

😦

original skinWhen Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy finds a lost phone, the images and messages on it lead him to believe that a death that had been ruled a suicide may in fact have been a murder. The victim is a flamboyantly tattooed young man who was clearly involved in the dangerous game of arranging sexual encounters with strangers. The reader knows a little more than Aector since the prologue shows us the murder taking place and tells us that the murderer is also hunting down another possible victim, Simon’s friend Suzie. Meantime, a drugs war is kicking off on the streets of Hull, involving Vietnamese drug lords and the brutal torture and killings of competitors.

This book seems to be getting a generally positive reaction so I’m afraid my review will be swimming against the tide – again. Hard-hitting and noir seem to be becoming synonymous with graphic and sleazy in current crime-writing, so Mark is probably on track for major success. There’s no doubt that he has the ability to tell his story well. The drugs plot seems a bit pointless, thrown in purely to give a reason for some pretty graphic descriptions of violence and torture (including of course the obligatory tortured naked woman incident), but the murder plot is quite original, intriguing and brought to a reasonably satisfying, if unlikely, conclusion.

The character of Aector is fairly poorly drawn, I felt. Pretty much all that we learn about him is that he is the one moral man in the whole of Hull, he’s tall, blushes a lot and loves his wife. We know these things because we are told them repeatedly (and boy, do I mean repeatedly) but there’s no real depth to the characterisation. The other male officers are mainly as violent and lacking in morals as the criminals, and behave in ways that wouldn’t be tolerated in even the laxest of police departments and would certainly destroy any chance of a prosecution holding up in court. In Hull, apparently violence is the main male currency.

The women on the other hand come straight from the Misogyny section of Central Casting, and their currency is sex. The stay-at-home wife – foul-mouthed (as are all the women) but great in the kitchen and better in the bedroom; the female boss who sexually harasses her subordinates; the female detective who dresses like a hooker and hopes that allowing suspects to look down her blouse while she sexily crosses and uncrosses her legs will tempt them into confession; and Suzie, the nymphomaniac (literally), whose sexual fantasies and activities, while admittedly integral to the sleazy plot, are graphically described in endless gratuitous detail. There isn’t a woman character who is not defined in one way or another by her sexuality.

David Mark Photo: Nicola East
David Mark
Photo: Nicola East

But if you can overlook all this and ignore the constant use of the foulest of foul language, it must be admitted that the story flows fairly well and, despite my feeling that Suzie’s story is mainly there to provide an excuse for titillation, Mark manages to make her the most believable and sympathetic character in the book.

So overall, as sex, violence and misogyny go, this is pretty well-written sex, violence and misogyny. But not to my taste – I see no reason why crime-writing has to wallow in the gutter. There are plenty of authors out there who can tell a hard-hitting story without descending to this level. 4 stars for the basic flow of the writing and the plotting of the murder element – less 1 for the gratuitous foul language, 1 for the unnecessary and repeated violence and torture, and 1 for the constant soft-porn sex. All adds up to a 1-star rating for me. And I haven’t even deducted anything for the misogyny…

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

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Redemption (Department Q 3) by Jussi Adler-Olsen transl. Martin Aitken

SOS to the world…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

redemptionWhen a bottle is washed up on a beach in Scotland, it is found to contain a message, mostly obliterated by time and damp, but with the Danish word for ‘Help’ still clearly showing at the top. This might have been dismissed as a joke except that the bottle also contains traces of blood. The age of the message marks this as a cold case, so it falls to Copenhagen’s Department Q, Carl Mørck and his team, to investigate. Enough of the message can be deciphered to suggest that it relates to a kidnapping, perhaps worse. But the case isn’t as cold as Carl thinks, as the kidnapper is just about to repeat his crime…

This was my first introduction to Jussi Adler-Olsen and I was very impressed. The story is told in the third person from a variety of viewpoints, and in the past tense. (Hurrah! Am I the only person who’s tired of every second book being in the present tense these days?) The author manages to create a good mix of humour mixed in with some really nail-biting suspense. There are some great action scenes, fast-paced and tense, together with some slower but no less interesting passages where Adler-Olsen lets the reader see inside the heads of the main players. His characterisation is very strong, both of villain and victims, and some of the scenes are quite harrowing, though he steers clear of being too graphic for the most part. Contrasted with this is the humour around the odd mix of people who make up Carl’s team and family. It took me a while to get tuned in to these characters and some of them are undoubtedly a bit too eccentric to be quite realistic. However as I got to know them better, they grew on me – particularly Carl’s main sidekick, his Syrian assistant Assad, who provides much of the book’s humour. Carl himself is of course a bit of a maverick with lots of problems, but he stops well short of the stereotypical angst-ridden drunk, thankfully, and I found him a very likeable lead character.

(photo: wikipedia)
(photo: wikipedia)

The translator Martin Aitken has done an excellent job. The gradual deciphering of the message is key to the plot while a lot of the humour is based around Assad’s misuse and misunderstanding of words, but Aitken manages to navigate these issues seamlessly and for once the humour travels very well. In fact, had I not known it was a translation, I’m not sure I would have guessed, which is about the highest praise I can give.

I could criticise some small weaknesses in the book – coincidence comes into play occasionally, some aspects stretch credulity a bit, the ending is perhaps a shade clichéd. But overall I found the book very well written and strongly plotted, and heartily recommend it as an interesting and enjoyable read that held my attention throughout. Although it works well as a standalone, I felt I would have gained from knowing the recurring characters’ back-stories, and will now be adding the earlier books to the ever-growing TBR pile.

(This book has been published in the US under the title ‘A Conspiracy of Faith’, which I must say I think is a much better title for it than ‘Redemption’. Confusingly, it is available under both titles in the UK.)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bad Blood by Arne Dahl

bad bloodBe careful what you wish for…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Paul Hjelm and the team have had very little to do since they wound up their last case in The Blinded Man. ‘Violent crimes with an international character’ seem to be in short supply. And Paul is bored…

‘What they needed was a robust serial killer, of a robust, international character, thought Paul Hjelm as he slid back into his orgy of self-pity.’

Be careful what you wish for! Even as Paul thinks this, a serial killer is on his way to Sweden – a killer who tortures his victims in the cruellest ways – a killer so professional he has eluded the FBI for decades. But why is he coming to Sweden? And is this killer more than just your ‘ordinary’ psychopath?

In this second instalment of the Intercrime series, Dahl lets us see how the team members have developed since their experiences the year before. Although Paul is still the main character, we find out more about the lives of the others, particularly Nyberg and Norlander, and this adds an extra layer of interest to the book. Paul himself, happily, is suffering much less from the existential angst that afflicted him so much in the last book. Back with his wife, he still has feelings for the enigmatic Kerstin Holm though their relationship has changed. Kerstin is a much more rounded character here – in the last book she really seemed only to be there to allow Paul to fantasise about her, but in this one she becomes a real person.

Arne Dahl
Arne Dahl

At first this looked as if it was going to be a fairly straightforward manhunt for a serial killer book, but when Paul and Kersten go to America to liaise with the FBI, it becomes obvious there are some strange and unexpected things about this killer. Firstly, the method he uses was one developed during the Vietnam war and known to very few people. Secondly the killer had stopped fifteen years before, but has now started up again – the murder method remains the same but the type of victim has changed. And thirdly, the FBI’s main suspect is dead. And yet the obvious explanation of copycat killings doesn’t fit either since there are aspects to the crimes that a copycat couldn’t have known. As the plot progresses, it become increasingly dark and complex, raising some uncomfortable questions of personal and state ethics.

I found this book to be both less complicated but deeper than The Blinded Man, and although there is some graphic violence right from the start, it’s not the main focus. The translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles is fine, although as in the first book sometimes the humour doesn’t travel very well. The plotting is very good, stretching but not breaking credibility, and the characterisation is much stronger and less stereotyped in this novel than the last. Recommended – and I look forward to reading the next in the series.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Blinded Man by Arne Dahl

the blinded man‘Behind the mystery, there’s a mist…’

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

When two top-level financiers are murdered in quick succession, the Swedish authorities decide to put together a special unit to investigate. Fortunately for our hero, Paul Hjelm, he is asked to join just as he is about to be fired for shooting an immigrant during a hostage situation. As the murder toll continues to climb, the unit is following several leads. Are the crimes to do with something in the men’s pasts? Or is the murderer an insane serial killer? Could the victims’ membership of a Masonic-type secret society be involved? Or is the spate of murders a sign that the Russian Mafia is moving in? Apparently this book was previously published under the name Misterioso – a reference to the Thelonious Monk album of the same name.

I watched the first episode of the Arne Dahl TV series last Saturday (BBC4) and was seriously underwhelmed. I’m glad to say the book impressed me considerably more. Like most Nordic crime, there’s a lot of angst in the book and dark undertones about a society that doesn’t ever seem very comfortable with itself. However our hero, though of course profoundly miserable and with the obligatory unhappy home life, at least is neither a total maverick nor a drunk.

Arne Dahl (source: wikipedia)
Arne Dahl
(source: Wikipedia)

The book is well written and very well translated by Tina Nunnally, and the plotline is satisfyingly complex. Each of the leads is followed through to its conclusion and each shows us a different aspect of Swedish society. The various members of the A-unit are a bit stereotyped – the foreigner (so we can talk about questions of race), the intelligent one who wrestles with moral questions, the older one, trying to prove he’s still got it, and, of course, the beautiful and complicated token female whose main purpose seems to be to allow Hjelm to indulge in some rather unnecessary sexual fantasizing. However, they are in the main developed well and we see them change from a group of strangers into a cohesive team as the book progresses.

Overall, this is an enjoyable, well plotted police procedural with elements of both mystery and thriller and a good deal better than the TV adaptation would suggest. I’ll certainly be looking forward to the author’s next, Bad Blood, which I believe is due out in August 2013, although apparently with a different translator.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Burning (Maeve Kerrigan 1) by Jane Casey

The BurningGreat new detective on the block… 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A young woman is found, savagely killed and then her body burned. Is this the work of the serial killer known as the Burning Man or a copy-cat? We follow the plot through the eyes alternatively of amibitious young DC Maeve Kerrigan and of the victim’s best friend, Louise.

Maeve is a very likeable character and I found her much more believable than most of the angst-ridden mavericks we have to contend with in crime fiction these days. She has a normal social life, loving parents and no obvious drink, drug or psychiatric problems. She respects and admires her boss, tries to stay within the rules and gets on with most of her colleagues. And she has a sharp wit and a good sense of humour. A great new entrant to the detective genre and one I hope to see again.

I loved the dialogue in this book, particularly the banter between Maeve and her colleagues. It sounds natural, just as people really speak to each other. And, since the book is written in the first person, we also get to share some of Maeve’s thoughts and insights – often very funny.

If you like Rankin, McDermid or Hill you should give this a try – highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/R23RSYCVKCBY2G?

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

The Chalk Girl (A Mallory Novel) by Carol O’Connell

The Chalk GirlYou love her, you love her not… 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

I should love Carol O’Connell – she has everything I look for in a crime writer. Great use of language, complex and interesting plotting, the ability to conjure up tension, humour…

I should love her, but unfortunately I don’t, and for one very simple reason – Mallory. O’Connell’s detective is so unbelievable as to be ridiculous – Superwoman, who can quell nasty criminals simply by putting her hands on her hips; a woman with no heart and a really bad attitude whom nevertheless everybody loves; an over-the-top rule-breaker who gets away with it for reasons that O’Connell fails to adequately explain. Even in the days of the maverick detective, Mallory was extreme and now that crime fiction is finally moving on/back to a new generation of more realistic detectives, Mallory also seems very dated – Modesty Blaise without the sexiness. This is the first Mallory book I’ve read in over a decade and I read it in the hope that she may have developed a bit, but no – still 26, still crazy, still loved by all…except me.

Having said that, O’Connell writes very well and the plotting was excellent. Apart from Mallory, her characterisation is good although her bad guys slip occasionally into pantomime villain territory. Despite my criticisms, I felt compelled to stick with the book to the end to find out what happened, though in usual Mallory style the ending was unbelievable and unsatisfactory. Difficult to rate the book – it’s much better than OK in terms of writing and plotting, but the major flaw of the main character means I can’t say I really enjoyed it, nor am I likely to try another in the series. So I’m giving it a generous 4 stars, because anyone who can tolerate Mallory will surely find this an excellent read.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/R2YQ12SH6WPLI0

Amazon US Link: http://www.amazon.com/review/R1WMK43PJUZLPY