Three Bullets by RJ Ellory

Camelot revisited…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s the summer of 1964 and the Democratic Convention is on the horizon, when they’ll have to decide whether they will support President Jack Kennedy as their nominee for another four years. Scandal is beginning to swirl around him, though – over vote-rigging and corruption in the last election, over his increasing health problems and questions about his mental stability, over the many women with whom he is rumoured to have had affairs. When young journalist Jean Boyd is found dead, her mother can’t believe the official line that Jean committed suicide. So she asks Mitch Newman, an old lover of Jean’s, to look into it. Mitch’s investigations will soon take him to Dallas where, back in the previous November, Jean had been following a lead relating to the President’s visit there…

If you’re confused, don’t be. This is an alternative history, based on the premise that JFK did not die in November 1963. Ellory speculates as to how the Presidency would have played out if Kennedy had remained in office – would the scandals of which we’re all now aware have become front and centre during his re-election campaign? Was he fit, physically and mentally, for another four years? Would the Democrats have stuck by him if he lost the Camelot glamour that inspired a generation? Would Jackie have been able to tolerate another four years of his blatant philandering? All interesting questions, and Ellory’s research felt solid to me so that, although he perhaps takes some aspects a little further than my credibility was wholly willing to follow, it nevertheless felt mostly chillingly possible.

The other strand of the story is Mitch’s investigation into Jean’s death, and unfortunately this worked less well for me. Mitch has never got over Jean although they split up when they were barely adults, and we are treated to endless descriptions of his feelings of guilt, loss and self-loathing, all of which bored me to distraction. Ellory even chooses to include several of the love letters Mitch sent to Jean after their break-up, all of which reveal nothing more startling than that he was sorry and still loved her. (Poor Jean – if she was anything like me, she probably only read the first three…) Ellory repeats and repeats how Mitch feels today, how he felt back then, how he felt when he was in Korea during the war. The book could have lost ninety per cent of all this, and been considerably better for it.

RJ Ellory

It’s a pity because otherwise this strand is interesting too. Basically, it’s the story of the real assassination, only changed to reflect the fact that in the book the assassination doesn’t come off. But real people show up – Jack Ruby, Lee Oswald, etc. – and Ellory treads a line between the official account and the various major conspiracy theories. I’m not hugely knowledgeable about the details of the event, but it all seemed to tie in well with what is known as far as I could tell.

It all leads up to a satisfying thriller ending, which again teeters precariously on the edge of credibility but doesn’t quite fall off. The whole presents a dark, dark picture of the Kennedy clan, exaggerated in places (I assume) to achieve a thriller effect, but sadly mostly only too believable. If you can put up with all Mitch’s endless regrets or, like me, skim read past most of them, then the what-if? features make this an interesting and enjoyable read.

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

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Book 3 of 20

TBR Thursday 198…

Episode 198

Yet again, the TBR has dropped – down 1 to 221! I wish this was because I was racing through the books, but in reality it’s because I’ve been abandoning books right, left and centre. It’s a brutal way to get it down, but effective…

Here are a few more that will be rolling off the pile soon…

Factual

Courtesy of Picador via NetGalley. The story of a real female amateur detective operating in the time of Golden Age mystery fiction is irresistible…

The Blurb says: Maud West ran her detective agency in London for more than thirty years, having started sleuthing on behalf of society’s finest in 1905. Her exploits grabbed headlines throughout the world but, beneath the public persona, she was forced to hide vital aspects of her own identity in order to thrive in a class-obsessed and male-dominated world. And – as Susannah Stapleton reveals – she was a most unreliable witness to her own life.

Who was Maud? And what was the reality of being a female private detective in the Golden Age of Crime?

Interweaving tales from Maud West’s own ‘casebook’ with social history and extensive original research, Stapleton investigates the stories Maud West told about herself in a quest to uncover the truth.

With walk-on parts by Dr Crippen and Dorothy L. Sayers, Parisian gangsters and Continental blackmailers, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective is both a portrait of a woman ahead of her time and a deliciously salacious glimpse into the underbelly of ‘good society’ during the first half of the twentieth century.

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Fiction

Courtesy of Viking via NetGalley. I know nothing about this one but have heard good things about the author, and the blurb makes it sound wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful. Plus it’s set in Istanbul, so hopefully will make for an interesting detour on my Around the World challenge…

The Blurb says: “In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila’s consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore. Her brain cells, having run out of blood, were now completely deprived of oxygen. But they did not shut down. Not right away…”

For Leila, each minute after her death brings a sensuous memory: the taste of spiced goat stew, sacrificed by her father to celebrate the long-awaited birth of a son; the sight of bubbling vats of lemon and sugar which the women use to wax their legs while the men attend mosque; the scent of cardamom coffee that Leila shares with a handsome student in the brothel where she works. Each memory, too, recalls the friends she made at each key moment in her life – friends who are now desperately trying to find her. . . 

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Thriller

Courtesy of Orion via NetGalley. RJ Ellory is one of those authors who is great when he’s on form, but sometimes he’s not. Hopefully this “what if?” thriller will be one of the great ones…

The Blurb says: IT WAS THE SHOT HEARD AROUND THE WORLD
On 22nd November 1963, John F. Kennedy’s presidential motorcade rode through Dealey Plaza. He and his wife Jackie greeted the crowds on a glorious Friday afternoon in Dallas, Texas.

BUT WHAT IF IT MISSED?
Mitch Newman is a photojournalist based out of Washington, D.C. His phone never rings. When it does, a voice he hasn’t heard in years will tell him his former fiancée Jean has taken her own life.

WHEN THE TRUTH IS BIGGER THAN ALL THE LIES
Jean was an investigative reporter working the case of a lifetime. Somewhere in the shreds of her investigation is the truth behind her murder.

WHO WOULD BELIEVE IT?

For Mitch, piecing together the clues will become a dangerous obsession: one that will lead him to the dark heart of his country – and into the crossfire of a conspiracy…

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Fiction on Audio

I tried to listen to this when it came out and abandoned it, partly because Reese Witherspoon’s accent is so Southern I was struggling to catch some of the words, but mainly because I was uneasy about the publication of the book – I still feel Harper Lee was taken advantage of at the end of her life. However, having recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and just finished the fascinating Furious Hours by Casey Cep (review to follow), about the true crime novel Lee tried and failed to write, I find I’m ready to approach this one now, more as an interesting insight on Lee herself, perhaps, than with a real anticipation of it being a great novel. If Reese is too much for me, I have a paper copy to fall back on…

The Blurb says: Originally written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted to her publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird. Assumed to have been lost, the manuscript was discovered in late 2014.

Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later. Returning home to Maycomb to visit her father, Jean Louise Finch—Scout—struggles with issues both personal and political, involving Atticus, society, and the small Alabama town that shaped her.

Exploring how the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird are adjusting to the turbulent events transforming mid-1950s America, Go Set a Watchman casts a fascinating new light on Harper Lee’s enduring classic. Moving, funny and compelling, it stands as a magnificent novel in its own right.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

The Devil and the River by RJ Ellory

the devil and the riverLies and corruption…

😐 😐 😐

A young girl disappeared from the small town of Whytesburg, Mississippi, 20 years ago – a runaway, or so it was thought. But now, in 1974, a fierce storm has disturbed the mud at the river and Nancy’s perfectly preserved body has risen to the surface. Sheriff John Gaines is a man who has seen a lot of horrors in his life, mostly during his tour in Vietnam, but he’s shocked to see that the girl’s body has been horribly mutilated. Still fighting the demons of his own war memories, Gaines must now try to find a way to the truth through a labyrinth of lies and corruption. The discovery of Nancy’s body seems to have brought the devil into Whytesburg and more deaths are on the way…

There’s a good story at the heart of this novel and Ellory’s writing is always skilful enough to hold the readers attention. But there are some real problems with this book. It reads at times like a draft rather than a finished novel. For most of the first half we are constantly dragged back to Gaines’ war experiences which, while relevant in explaining his character, don’t move the plot forward at all and are overlong and repetitive. Continuity errors abound – for example, at one point Gaines tells retired attorney Nate Ross about a possible source of information, clearly forgetting that it was Nate who gave him this information four chapters earlier. At another point, a character tells Gaines she has just found out something that she, the same character, had already told him several chapters earlier. These are just a couple of examples of what was a recurring problem throughout the book.

And lazy devices for building tension – Gaines is stunned three-quarters of the way through to discover the reason for the mutilation of Nancy’s body. However, he had the man who did it in custody much earlier in the book and, despite knowing and discussing with him the fact that he did it, it never occurred to Gaines to ask him why – clearly so that we could have the big revelation at a later point; though the reason had seemed pretty obvious from fairly early on anyway. Gaines’ method of detection, in fact, seems to be to decide that someone did it and then later, for no particular reason, change his mind and decide that no, actually it was someone else. This goes on throughout until, pretty much by coincidence, he apparently fastens on the right perpetrator at the end – an end that is somewhat anti-climactic, I fear.

RJ Ellory (www.guardian.co.uk)
RJ Ellory
(www.guardian.co.uk)

I thought Ellory’s last book, A Dark and Broken Heart, was the best thriller of 2012 and this was one of the books I was most eager to read this year. So I’m afraid this has to count as one of the biggest disappointments of 2013. That doesn’t mean it’s the worst book I’ve read this year – far from it. Despite the plotting problems, Ellory’s writing and strong characterisation make this a very readable story. But the sloppiness of the plotting combined with the frequent repetitiveness prevent this from developing anything like the darkness, depth or tension of some of his previous books.

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A Dark and Broken Heart by RJ Ellory

a dark and broken heartThrilling Noir…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This was the winner of the FictionFan Award* for Best Noir Thriller of 2012. Fabulously well written, dark and twisted, the reader is carried into Vincent Madigan’s life as he struggles to find a way out of the tangled and dangerous mess he has made of his life.

An anti-hero of epic proportions, we know from the beginning that he is surely irredeemably bad. No-one could be forgiven for the crimes he has committed, the vicious things he has done. And yet…and yet, as we get to know him, we find empathy for him as the author brilliantly plays with questions of morality and ethics. Madigan makes no excuses for himself; he accepts responsibility for every criminal and violent act he has committed, blames himself for the break-ups of his marriages and for losing touch with his children. But inside this man beats the dark and broken heart of the title and the reader – at least, this reader – can’t help but see the good man he might so easily have been…and might still be. The author manipulates the reader so skilfully that I was left uneasy at how much I wanted Madigan to win through despite knowing his history. It reminded me a bit of how I felt about the awful but oddly likeable Patrick of American Psycho, but where that was blackly comic, this is true thrilling noir.

RJ Ellory(source: telegraph.co.uk)
RJ Ellory
(source: telegraph.co.uk)

I have deliberately not given a synopsis of the plot since it is so complex and has so many twists that I fear even a simple outline could lead to unintentional spoilers. But after the first couple of violent chapters, the reader is blasted by the first breath-taking twist and from there on is swept into an ever-shifting, ever more threatening world where good and bad become so blurred that they are eventually almost impossible to tell apart. This is a superbly told and completely compelling roller coaster of a story – bleak, often violent, but never without the possibility of redemption.
Highly recommended.

*The prize for the prestigious FictionFan Award is that I guarantee to read the author’s next book 🙂 – which in this case apparently will be The Devil and the River due to be published in June 2013. Can’t wait!

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