Siren by Annemarie Neary

A soggy sandwich with a great filling…

🙂 🙂 😐

Twenty years ago, Róisín Burns had to flee her home in Northern Ireland after getting caught up in the Troubles. Now the IRA man she fled from, Lonergan, has reinvented himself as a politician, and Róisín has returned to take revenge, sort of. Or something.

This is another of the ubiquitous trend for books set part in the past and part in the present and, like so many of them, one part is much stronger than the other. The past section is set at the height of the Troubles, and Neary gives a convincing picture of a young girl trapped into doing the IRA’s bidding in a city where fear is a constant presence. The present is a silly thriller with absolutely no credibility whatsoever and drags interminably. In fact, had I not been reading this for Reading Ireland month, I would undoubtedly have abandoned it before I even got to the past, since it takes almost a third of the book to get there, apart from the brief prologue.

Róisín, now known as Sheen, has turned up on Lamb Island off the coast of Northern Ireland, where Lonergan now has a cottage. Sheen rents a little cottage too, isolated of course, just up the road from the resident nutter whom everyone assumes murdered the previous woman tenant. They don’t bother to tell Sheen this though, contenting themselves with warning the nutter, Boyle, to behave himself. He doesn’t. But he’s not the only bad man on the island – for such a small population it seems to attract more than its fair share of men willing to bump off lone women, for personal as well as political reasons. We spend an inordinate amount of time inside Boyle’s foul-mouthed and lustful head – ugh! (Constantly using “fucken” instead of “fucking” really doesn’t make it cute, by the way, especially when there’s no other attempt to reproduce Irish speech or accent.) Tedious in the extreme.

Then we go back to Belfast to what seems like the mid-’70s, though we’re not told exactly. The Troubles are at their height, with frequent beatings and bombings directed at both British soldiers and civilians fairly indiscriminately. This section feels almost as if it’s written by a different author. The city and its people are recreated with a real feeling of authenticity, and Neary raises a lot of intriguing questions about where moral responsibility begins and ends in a situation where the norms have disappeared and law and order have almost completely broken down. At first Róisín is tricked into helping the IRA, but after that she has to make choices – pay the consequences or continue down the path of terrorism, this time knowingly. Neary shows how grey that question becomes in a sharply divided society, where informers on either side are at extreme risk. She also touches on the question of how far the crimes of the past must be forgotten or forgiven in the pursuit of peace.

Annemarie Neary

And then sadly back to Lamb Island for a ridiculous thriller ending. The idea is ludicrous that a middle-aged woman with no combat experience or training would decide to take on members of the IRA whom she knows have no compunction about killing. And so unnecessary, since if Róisín simply wanted to destroy Lonergan, she could have sent an email to the police or the newspapers from the safety of her American home. But instead she comes back to Ireland to face Lonergan herself, to… I’m not really sure what… threaten him? Shame him? Neither tactic likely to work on an IRA terrorist, I’d have thought. And then it gets even sillier…

So a mixed bag. If Neary had stuck to telling the real story – the one in the past – this could have been an excellent book. Instead it’s like a sandwich with a great filling, but slapped between two thick pieces of soggy and underbaked bread. Maybe it’s time for authors to start telling one story again, instead of feeling obliged to stick in an extra timeline and a thriller ending – as all trends do, this one has seriously lost its novelty value. Sadly I see her new book follows the same double timeline format, so I think I’ll pass on that one.

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

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The Dry (Aaron Falk 1) by Jane Harper

Revisiting the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-dryKiewarra has been suffering from drought for a couple of years now with no sign of rain coming soon. The farmers are worried, many having to kill their livestock for lack of water, and the knock-on effects are being felt through the town. As tensions rise, a tragedy occurs – Luke Hadler shoots his wife and young son, and then kills himself. Or so it seems, but Luke’s parents can’t accept that their son would have done this awful thing. So when Luke’s childhood friend Aaron Falk turns up for the funeral, they ask him to look into it. Falk is now a police detective working in the financial crimes section in Melbourne. It’s twenty years since he was last in Kiewarra, when he and his father left the town under a cloud of suspicion after another death. Many of the townsfolk are unhappy to see him back…

I’m in the highly unusual position of being unable to find a single thing to criticise about this book! So get ready for a dull review – or here’s a better idea, skip the review and read the book instead.

The writing is great – Harper conjures up this drought-ridden and anxious community brilliantly, showing the deep connection between man and nature in a town that relies on its farmers for survival. There’s are some dark descriptions right from the start, with blowflies being the first to find the bodies of Karen and her little son, Billy, but Harper stops well short of being gratuitously gruesome – the balance is just about perfect.

Jane Harper
Jane Harper

I liked Falk as a character very much, so am rather glad to see that the book is listed as the first in a series. Although he had to face a terrible incident in his past, he hasn’t allowed it to make him either embittered or angst-ridden. He’s professional and intelligent and is someone I’d happily spend more time with. The new local policeman Raco, too, is a refreshing character – a happily married man looking forward to the birth of his first child, he treats people with respect and uses his brains rather than his brawn to get to the truth. And the characterisation is just as good of the other townspeople – from Luke’s grieving parents, to Aaron’s childhood friend Gretchen, to the people who still hold Aaron responsible for what happened back in the past – a whole range from nice to nasty, and each equally convincing.

The plot is strong and well-executed; the familiar device of a crime from the past resurfacing in the present feeling fresh because of the skill in the telling. Raco also has doubts about Luke’s guilt, because of a couple of things that don’t make sense to him. His main issue is that little baby Charlotte survived, and he’s convinced that if Luke had decided to destroy his family out of desperation, he’d have killed the baby too. So Raco and Falk team up, and as they investigate the current crime, the shadows of the past loom ever larger. Harper plants false trails all the way through – I freely admit that I suspected everyone in turn, but was still surprised by the solution. And yet it feels totally fair – all the clues are there and, when the reveal comes, it’s completely credible. Add to all this one of the best and most original thriller endings I’ve read in a long time, and you can see why I’m at a loss to find anything to grumble about.

I part read this book and part listened to it on the Audible audiobook version narrated by Stephen Shanahan. Annoyingly, I can’t fault it either! Shanahan’s narration is the perfect complement to the book. He has a lovely Australian accent, but not at all broad enough to be difficult for non-Australians – it reminded me a little of Pat Cash’s voice (*brief pause while FF swoons*). He doesn’t exactly “act” all the parts, but he manages to differentiate between the different voices. There is one Scottish character, and I was impressed by the accuracy of his Scottish accent.

the-dry-audioOne thing I really liked was that Shanahan used a “younger” voice for Aaron in the sections set in the past – a little quicker and lighter than the voice of adult Falk in the present. And, whether intentional or not, Harper also made this an easier listen than some audiobooks, by calling the young version Aaron and the present version Falk throughout, which was a huge help in clarifying which period we were in. On the printed page, the past sections are in italics, but of course, this is no help when listening. It would be great, now that audiobooks are becoming such a big thing, if more authors thought about how to differentiate for a listening audience as well as a reading one.

All-in-all, a brilliant read and an excellent listen! I’m enjoying the read/listen experience in general – a good narration adds another level to the characterisation and for books set elsewhere it also means you get the correct pronunciation of place names and so on. Expect to see this one turning up in my annual awards at the end of the year, but don’t wait till then – grab it if you can!

Since I couldn't track down a pic of Stephen Shanahan, here's a gratuitous Pat Cash pic instead...
Since I couldn’t track down a pic of Stephen Shanahan, here’s a gratuitous Pat Cash pic instead…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group Ltd., and the audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

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The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer

Murder as performance art…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the-beautiful-deadTV reporter Eve Singer is on the crime beat, so she’s called to the scene of a brutal murder committed in the foyer of an office building, just feet from where people are passing by on the pavement outside. This is a murderer who likes to perform his gory crimes in public, and then stage them as if it were some kind of performance art. When he makes contact with Eve, at first it seems like a great thing – she’ll have the exclusive story and it will give her career a much needed boost. But soon she realises that she’s becoming caught up in the murderer’s schemes, almost to the point of becoming an accessory…

First off, let me say that I love Belinda Bauer. And this book has in it many of the things I love her for – the great writing, touches of humour, some nice building of suspense and an original and dramatic climax. However, for me, this isn’t one of her best. It feels derivative – there are touches of Hannibal and Clarice in the relationship between Eve and the killer, and heavy shades of Psycho over the storyline. Perhaps there’s not much new left to say in the serial killer novel – certainly it’s been a while since I read one that felt fresh. But the derivations in this one seemed so blatant that I wondered at points if she was deliberately referencing some of the greats as a kind of inside joke, but if so, it didn’t quite come off, and simply ended up feeling rather unoriginal.

The structure also doesn’t feel up to Bauer’s usual standard. We are given biographies of the characters rather than being allowed to get to know them through the plot – whatever happened to ‘show, don’t tell’? Eve’s father suffers from dementia and this is used partly to give some humour to the book – always tricky with such a sensitive subject and I felt it occasionally passed over into tastelessness. And while I thought the portrayal of his dementia was well done for most of the book, when it became part of the plotting in the later stages it crossed the credibility line and began to feel contrived and inauthentic, and I found myself feeling that this awful disease was being used for entertainment purposes rather than being given the empathy it deserves. The humour didn’t work as well for me as usual, I didn’t take to Eve much, and the amount of lazy swearing throughout became utterly tedious, not to mention Eve’s need to vomit every time a corpse turned up.

Belinda Bauer
Belinda Bauer

On the upside, there are passages where Bauer achieves that delicious feeling of creepiness, for example, when Eve thinks she’s being followed home in the dark, and it does have a great thriller ending which redeemed it a little in my eyes. I was also pleased that this murderer was pretty eclectic in his choice of victims, not exclusively butchering vulnerable young women. But overall, this is one I’m going to put down to an off day, and go back to waiting avidly for her next offering. I’ve given it three stars but, in truth, I think one of those stars is from a mixture of loyalty and the feeling that I may be judging it too harshly because of my perhaps overly high expectations. Because, despite this one, I do love Belinda Bauer. I can’t help wondering in general if the pressure to get a new book out every year is really a good thing in the long run…

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

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Cast Iron (Enzo Files 6) by Peter May

Secrets of the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀

cast-ironBack in book 1 of the Enzo Files series, Scottish forensic expert Enzo Macleod, now living in Toulouse, took on a bet that he could use modern forensic techniques to solve the seven unsolved murders that were described in a true crime book written by Parisian journalist Roger Raffin. A few years on, he is now beginning his investigation into the sixth murder, of a young girl, Lucie Martin. Lucie disappeared one day back in 1989, and no trace of her was found until the great heatwave of 2003 when her skeleton showed up in the dried-out shore of the lake near her home. Her parents believe she was murdered by a notorious serial killer who was active at that time, but he had a cast-iron alibi for the time she disappeared. Enzo has very little to go on as he reopens the case, but it soon becomes clear someone is out to stop him from finding out the truth…

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I’m a big fan of Peter May’s work, going all the way back to his China thrillers. I admit, however, that the Enzo Files is the one series of his to which I’ve never really taken. In fact, I haven’t read them all – just the first two, then this one. But this is really due to a matter of personal preference than any real criticism of the books. May’s usual protagonists tend to be unencumbered by family ties, or to develop relationships as the series progress. But Enzo comes with a lot of family baggage, which gets added to in each book. Having left his first wife and their daughter, he moved to France with his new love, who then died giving birth to another daughter. So in the early books there’s a lot of working out of resentments with his first, abandoned daughter, Kirsty, and by the time of this book, both daughters have acquired lovers who featured in earlier cases.

Enzo meantime picks up women at a rate that would make George Clooney jealous, so that by the time of this book he has tense relationships with more than one ex. And in each story, some or all of his extended family get involved in the investigation. May does it very well, and keeps all the various personal storylines ticking over, but it’s just not my kind of thing – I find all the relationship stuff takes away from the focus on the plot (and I frankly don’t see what it is about Enzo that apparently makes him so irresistible to women). But I wouldn’t want to put other readers off – what I don’t like about this series may well make it particularly appealing to people who like their protagonists to have a ‘real’ life beyond the immediate plot.

As Enzo begins his investigation by visiting the victim’s family, he is unaware that his daughter Sophie and her boyfriend Bertrand have been abducted, until he receives a warning to stop if he wants to get them back safely. Naturally, this only makes him redouble his efforts! The strand involving Sophie and Bertrand’s imprisonment and attempts to escape is my favourite bit of the book. It takes us into traditional thriller territory with plenty of action and mounting tension, and May excels at this type of writing.

Peter May
Peter May

The main plot regarding Lucie’s murder is also excellent, showing all May’s usual skill at creating strong characters and interesting settings, and managing to have some credible emotional content to offset the action thriller side of the book. However, there is also an overarching plot to the series which comes to a climax in this one, and I felt there was perhaps a little too much going on and too many coincidental crossovers between the various strands. But May’s writing is a pleasure to read as always, and he manages to bring all the threads together well in the end. Some aspects of this work as a standalone, but because it reveals so much about the background plot, I would strongly suggest this is a series that should be read in order. Reading this one first would undoubtedly spoil the earlier books in a significant way. The first book in the series seems to be known as Extraordinary People now, though it was originally published under the title Dry Bones.

I hope my relatively lukewarm review won’t deter people from trying this series. Even with favourite authors, we all prefer some of their stuff to others, but any Peter May book is still head and shoulders above most of the competition. And this is as well-written and strongly plotted as always, while the French setting gives it an added level of interest. So, despite my personal reservations, I still recommend the series, especially if the complicated family relationships aspect appeals to you.

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

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The Methods of Sergeant Cluff by Gil North

Behind the net curtains…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the methods of sergeant cluffAlthough Sergeant Caleb Cluff is still on leave following the events in the last book, when the body of a young woman is found, as the only CID man in Gunnershaw, he is called to the scene. A local man, he knows the people of the town, so he recognises the girl as Jane Trundle and is immediately aware of who the chief suspect will be – a young man who was in love with her despite her constant rejection of him. But Cluff isn’t convinced that Jack would do such a brutal thing and begins to cast his net wider, much to the annoyance of his superiors who’d rather get the case wrapped up quickly.

For the first thirty or forty pages of this short book, I was a bit uncertain of whether it was going to live up to the previous excellent one, Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm. There are a lot of indications that Cluff and the other characters know things about Jane and some of the other characters, but for what seems like quite a long time the reader is kept in the dark. Happily, however, before it becomes too annoying, this background knowledge is gradually revealed, and the plot begins to darken.

Sergeant Cluff is allocated a uniformed officer to work with him, PC Barker. But Cluff is really a bit of a loner and an early version of the maverick cop who has become so ubiquitous now. His methods are mainly to use his local knowledge, together with a bit of intuition and his deep understanding of the passions of the human heart, to help him decide who committed the crime, and then to silently intimidate and harass his suspects until they either confess or do something that incriminates them. He has a strong sense of justice, but doesn’t think the law is necessarily always the best way to achieve that. And while he has a moral code, his methods sometimes step well beyond what would have been considered acceptable even back in those less politically correct days of the early1960s. At loggerheads with several of his colleagues, it is only his habit of getting results that allows him to get away with his behaviour.

Gil North
Gil North

North’s writing style seems improved from the previous book – fewer staccato sentences and a better flow. The dialogue remains somewhat stilted, but I’m delighted to note that his obsession with describing the breasts of every female character seems to have disappeared. (Perhaps some kindly woman hit him over the head with a hardback copy of book 1 – if so, thank you!) The real strength of his writing comes in his descriptions of this industrial town – all blacks and greys and browns, dirt from the mills and factories, and poverty hidden behind a façade of respectability and net curtains. This is a town set in the midst of Yorkshire moors and farming country, though, and himself the son of a landowning farmer, Cluff is as at home with these prosperous countrymen as he is with the townspeople. Some of his insights into his characters are beautifully written – sparsely, but with truth and a real empathy for the narrowness and hardships of their lives.

Cluff climbed to his feet, a mourner at the death of a marriage that could not be broken while they lived, because this was Gunnershaw and they lived in Rupert Street and were middle-aged and had to exist, both of them, on the pittance the man earned, because, more than anything, they were respectable and the wife could not tolerate, if the husband could, what the neighbours would say. The man could no longer deceive himself about the extent of his wife’s disloyalty. Everything between them was finished and had to go on still, as it had always done.

The climax of the book heads towards the over-dramatic and dangerously close to the credibility line, but somehow it works. The plot becomes very dark, and Cluff’s behaviour, to put it mildly, is morally dubious, but it seemed to me to echo the amateur detectives of the old school, who would often allow justice to take its own course outwith the confines of the law. Again, as with the first book, I found that from halfway through I was totally hooked, unable to put the book down until I saw how it all played out. The current trend of lengthy crime novels had almost made me forget the pure pleasure of racing through a book in one or two breathless sessions, and yet there’s as much depth and plot in this as in most books that are three times as long; and considerably more tension. (I suspect that may be why the credibility issue doesn’t matter so much – there’s not enough time for the reader to dwell on the details.)

Excellent – I hope the British Library go on to publish the rest of the series.

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

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Enigma by Robert Harris

Masterful storytelling…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

enigma 2It’s 1943, and the Allies rely on the shipping convoys from the US to keep their battered countries fed and munitioned. The tide has been flowing in the Allies favour since the German Enigma codes were broken at Bletchley Park in the South of England. But now the Germans have changed the U-boat code, threatening not only individual convoys but the entire defeat of the Allied forces. Tom Jericho, hailed as one of the most brilliant codebreakers, is on a break, suffering from a combination of stress, overwork and a broken heart over a girl named Claire. But with this new threat, despite his fragile health, he’s urgently needed back in Bletchley. And when he gets there, he discovers Claire is missing…

What a joy, after a series of less than stellar reads, to find myself in the safe hands of a master storyteller once again! This is a masterclass in how to write a book. The writing is so good it hooks instantly. Harris recreates wartime Britain with what feels like total authenticity; and specifically the world of these men, recruited for their brilliant minds, their maths and puzzle solving skills, on whose youthful shoulders it sometimes feels the whole weight of the war rests. Throughout the book, Harris feeds out his extensive research into Bletchley and codebreaking at the right moments and in the right quantities, as a natural part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. He carefully creates his characters to feel real and then ensures their actions remain true to that characterisation. And oh, bliss! The book has an actual plot – a proper story, that remains credible throughout and holds the reader’s attention right to the end! The pleasure of reading this well-crafted, expertly-paced story highlighted to me what a rarity that has become in contemporary fiction.

The book starts in Cambridge University, where Jericho has been sent to recuperate. The whole feeling of the ancient university in wartime is beautifully created, setting the tone for the rest of the book. The old staircases and shabby rooms, the ancient traditions; the dullness of an institution empty of so many of the young men and women who would normally have been there, but who are instead part of the war effort; the gossiping staff with too much time on their hands, speculating about the arrival of this young man and then his sudden departure; the difficult position of young men not in uniform, but whose work is too secret to be revealed.

Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park

On arriving back at Bletchley, Jericho finds that two convoys have left the US and are crossing the Atlantic. The Americans want assurances that the codes will be broken quickly enough to allow for these convoys to be protected, but Jericho sees no hope of that. Instead, he believes that by monitoring the signals of the U-boats that will be aiming towards the convoys, he might gather enough information to break the codes. Harris shows very clearly the ethical dilemmas the young codebreakers must face – they find themselves almost hoping for the convoys to be attacked so that they can get the information they need. Harris also raises the point that it was often necessary not to act on the information gathered from Enigma so that the Germans wouldn’t realise the codes had been broken and change them. Thus many Allied lives were sacrificed in the hopes of saving many more by eventually winning the war. He doesn’t labour these points in a heavy-handed way, but he uses them to show the almost unbearable levels of stress the codebreakers worked under, coupled with the necessary secrecy of the work which left them somewhat detached from the rest of society, in a little bubble of constant tension.

No wonder then that suspicion was never absent, the fear of spying a real and present threat. So when Jericho discovers something that forces him to question Claire’s loyalty, he is torn. His head knows he should make the authorities aware of what he’s found, but his heart wants to find her and give her an opportunity to explain. And soon he finds himself teamed up with Claire’s old house-mate, Hester, backtracking through Claire’s actions in an attempt to find explanations.

Robert Harris
Robert Harris

The plot gives Harris the opportunity to gradually lead the reader through how the whole set-up worked, from the soldiers and sailors risking their lives to get hold of code books, to the listening stations on the South Coast where the women of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) intercepted the coded German signals*, and on to the huts in Bletchley, each responsible for an aspect of the war; Eastern Front, naval manoeuvres, etc. Harris shows how women were restricted to being glorified clerks, regardless of their skills or aptitude, while only men were given the more glamorous job of the actual code-breaking. But his few female characters are excellently drawn, strong and credible within the limitations the system forced upon them. The stuff about the codebreaking is complex, sometimes too complex for me, but the story doesn’t get bogged down in it. As with all of the best spy thrillers, there is a growing sense of moral ambiguity throughout, where even the motives of the baddies are equivocal.

A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this one gets my highest recommendation. And now to watch the film…

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*including my mother.

Book 11
Book 11

Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North

Dark and menacing…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

sergeant cluff stands firmWhen Sergeant Caleb Cluff is called out to the scene of a sudden death, it looks like a clear-cut case of suicide. After the death of the mother she had looked after through her youth, Amy Wright in her loneliness had made a bad marriage to a younger man who only married her for her money. Made miserable by him, she is found in her bedroom with the gas tap turned on. Although everyone holds Alf Wright morally responsible for her death, legally he seems to be in the clear. But Cluff can’t accept the coroner’s verdict, partly out of guilt because he, like everyone else, knew that Wright was cruel to Amy but had done nothing to stop it. Since there’s to be no official police investigation, Cluff takes some time off and begins to pursue Wright himself.

This book is being re-published to celebrate the author’s centenary. Written in 1960, the book feels more modern than the other British Library Crime Classics books I’ve read so far. It’s much darker and Cluff, though a man of high moral principle, is something of a maverick, following his own path to justice when the system fails. North has a distinctive writing style – short, sharp sentences that nevertheless allow him to deliver some excellent descriptive prose and create an ever-growing atmosphere of tension as the book progresses. It took me a few chapters to get tuned in to his style, but once I had, I found I was totally gripped and ended up reading the whole book in one session. (As an aside, how lovely to get a book that delivers everything necessary and yet still comes in at under 200 pages. The good old days!)

The characterisation is excellent, not just of Cluff and the other major players, but even of minor peripheral characters North introduces in passing to add depth to his portrayal of the town. North does have a rather unfortunate obsession with describing the breasts of every woman who appears. (I was going to comment that this was probably to do with the time of writing but then remembered how often I’ve sighed over the same obsession in some contemporary male authors!) However, it’s not enough of an issue to spoil the overall enjoyment, and otherwise I felt his female characters rang as true as the men.

He could feel it in the blackness, a difference in atmosphere, a sense of evil, of things hidden. The doors he passed should have been locked and bolted. In the dark they appeared closed, but Cluff had an impression that they were open, just the slightest of cracks, people listening behind them in unlit hallways. Pale patches showed in the upstairs windows of the houses on the side opposite to him, disappearing when he paused to look. Eyes watched him. More than once he heard a quick intake of breath.

The first part of the story takes place in Gunnarshaw, a fictionalised version of Skipton in Yorkshire. It takes North very little time to give a real flavour of life in a small town at a period when neighbours still knew each others’ history and business. Cluff lives in Gunnarshaw, alone in a cottage with his dog and cat for company, and knows the people of the town in the way local police officers did in rural communities back then. North takes us behind one or two of the net curtains in the town to catch a glimpse of Cluff as seen through the eyes of the residents, and he’s revealed as someone who is trusted by the people he works amongst. However, his single-mindedness isn’t always appreciated by his bosses and colleagues in the police – he’s a man who tends to go his own way and it’s probably only his ability to get results that saves him from the wrath of his superiors. He sees himself as some kind of arbiter of the town’s morals, quite prepared to tell someone to leave town if he feels they’re a bad lot.

gil north
Gil North

In this case, he pretty much stalks Wright, hoping that somehow he’ll give himself away. Cluff’s behaviour is threatening and intimidating, and he finally drives Wright to flee Gunnarshaw and go into hiding on a farm on the moors. And it’s when the scene shifts to the moors that the plot begins to both thicken and darken, taking an entirely unexpected turn. North uses the wildness and isolation of the setting to build up a brilliant atmosphere of menace and terror, while gradually the action ratchets up to a truly thrilling climax.

The high wall of the croft rising above the level of the kitchen window screened off most of the late afternoon light. The room was dark, lit only by the leaping flames of the fire. They sat quietly, wearied of talking, in a silence intensified by the ticking of a clock, eerie in the stillness. The noises of the farm had died away as the day was dying. Time and place and life itself were unreal and shadowy.

The book has an enjoyable and informative spoiler-free introduction from Martin Edwards, who tells us a little about the author’s life and puts his books into the context of their place in the development of the detective story. In case you missed it, Martin was here on the blog yesterday, giving us his recommendations for Ten Top Golden Age Detectives, and highlighted North’s Sergeant Cluff as having been influenced by Simenon’s Maigret.

A great start to the series – it’s hard to understand why books as good as this become ‘forgotten’, and I’m delighted the British Library have brought North back for a new audience. I know they’re bringing out at least one more in the series, The Methods of Sergeant Cluff, in September, and hope they’ll go on to re-publish the rest of the series.

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

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The Widow by Fiona Barton

Stand by your man…

😀 😀 🙂

the widow bartonWhen Glen Taylor becomes a suspect in a case of child abduction, his wife Jean stands by him, providing an alibi and declaring his innocence to the world. The police are still trying to get enough evidence to convict him when Glen is killed in an accident. Will Jean now reveal the truth? That’s what both journalist Kate Waters and investigating officer DI Bob Sparkes hope, and each has their own way of trying to persuade her.

The book starts off excellently as Jean is barricaded in her home by a howling press pack trying to get her side of the story. This first section is told in first person present tense from Jean’s perspective, and we quickly see that she’s a complicated woman – perhaps not as loyal to Glen on the inside as she seems to the world. In fact, her major emotion at Glen’s death appears to be relief. She gradually reveals their past together – her initial romantic love for this attractive man whom she almost feels is too good for her, then her gradual disillusionment over the many years of their marriage as he retreats to his own world, spending hours alone on his computer. She shows us Glen’s control over her, his ability to manipulate her, so that over time she finds herself distanced from friends and family, with the two of them living an isolated life.

The second perspective is Kate’s, the journalist, and the afterword tells us that this is Barton’s own background. Kate likes to think that she’s performing a public duty trying to get victims to tell their stories, but in her more clear-sighted moments or when she lets her guard down, she reveals her burning desire to beat the opposition, to get the story at whatever cost to the people involved. We also see Jean’s view of Kate, a much colder one, and it’s interesting to contrast the two perspectives. All of this is done skilfully, and frankly the relationship and sparring between these two would have made an excellent novel with plenty of psychological tension.

Unfortunately the book then descends into tedious domestic thriller territory, building up to a twist that I defy anyone not to spot coming before they get past the first third of the book. The police investigation is so bad it’s a joke, but with the added problem that it isn’t written that way – we are in fact supposed to take it seriously and admire the dogged but incompetent DI Sparkes, who provides the third perspective, and is the only man in the world who doesn’t spot many of the glaring errors and omissions in the investigation. The psychological astuteness with which the book begins is thrown out half-way through in order to allow for a long, long, long build-up to an undramatic climax.

Also, in the middle, Barton gets lost in her timeline and tenses, talking about Glen in the past tense at times when he is still alive, but going back to present tense after he’s dead, etc. If it hadn’t been for the dates given at the chapter headings I’d have been completely lost at points as to whether we were in the past or present. Sadly, Jean’s character starts shifting too – sometimes more intelligent and better educated than others, as if she is being written differently depending on the requirements of plot developments.

Fiona Barton Photo by Jenny Lewis
Fiona Barton
Photo by Jenny Lewis

Sometimes one’s reaction to a book is as much to do with what else one has been reading, and this book suffered because I was reading it at the same time as Helen Dunmore’s wonderful Exposure. There were enough similarities in the story – wives standing by husbands accused of crimes, and shifting timelines – for comparisons to become unavoidable, and I fear they really highlighted the weaknesses in both plotting and storytelling in this one (and conversely made me appreciate Dunmore’s skill even more). As the story became less and less credible, I regretted that Barton hadn’t had the courage to realise her book would have been stronger had it been rather more restrained and avoided the clichéd thriller aspects.

However, Barton is clearly a talented writer and this was her début, as far as I’m aware. Hopefully its success will give her the space to steer clear of the domestic thriller bandwagon in her next outing and give us something with more of the depth this book promised in its early chapters. Despite my criticisms of this one, I look forward to seeing how she develops in the future.

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

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Book 2Book 2

Open Wounds (Davie McCall 4) by Douglas Skelton

Genuine Tartan Noir…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

open woundsDavie McCall is a gangster with a moral code – he doesn’t hurt women, children or ‘civilians’. But that doesn’t stop him from hurting other people – badly, when they’ve done something that crosses one of his personal lines. He’s always felt in control of his violence though, until recently, when he suddenly found he was enjoying it. Now he wants out of the ‘Life’, but he’s scared – not of what his boss might do to him, but scared that he won’t be able to change, won’t be able to leave the desire for violence behind him. Meantime, he’s still working as a heavy for Rab McClymont, who’s not just his boss but an old friend. So when Rab asks him to lean on a man, Fergus O’Neill, at first Davie’s fine with that. O’Neill was convicted a few years back of a horrific burglary that involved rape, but is now out pending appeal and is publicly accusing Rab of having fitted him up for the crime. When Davie begins to believe that O’Neill may have been innocent, he still can’t believe that Rab would have been involved in a rape, even indirectly. So he begins to investigate…

This is a great book that I’m strongly recommending you don’t read. At least not straight away. It’s actually the fourth and final book in the Davie McCall quartet, and I very much wish I’d read them in order, partly because there are lots of references to the previous books in this one which meant I was a bit lost at the beginning, and partly because having now read this one, the first three will have been a little spoiled for me since I know how the series resolves. That won’t stop me reading them though! The first in the series is Blood City.

The book is set in Glasgow gangster culture and has a totally authentic feel to it. These are low level gangsters, running dodgy businesses, small-time drug dealing, protection rackets and loan-sharking. As well as giving a great sense of place, using mainly real locations, Skelton has a complete grip on Glaswegian “patter”, the humour that covers the harshness of life on the edges of society. The dialogue isn’t really written in dialect so non-Scots would have no difficulties with it, but the speech patterns and “voices” are spot on.

Normally I would have a serious problem with being able to empathise with a man who uses violence as a tool, but Skelton provides a ton of moral ambiguity, both about Davie’s victims and regarding his background, that makes him understandable. And his own internal struggle to hold onto some kind of moral code lets the reader be on his side, willing him to win out against the demons that haunt him. I couldn’t help but think of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw – Davie might be how Laidlaw would have turned out if he’d been born into the life of the gangster, and with a few better breaks in life Davie could have turned into Laidlaw. They share that sense of clear-sighted vision about the society they move in, the same philosophical acceptance that there’s only so much any one man can do to change things and the same core of morality that makes them swim against the tide even when they feel themselves being sucked under.

Douglas-Skelton
Douglas Skelton

Though I struggled at first from not having read the earlier books, by about a third of the way through I had gathered enough about the background for that aspect to stop being an issue, and from that stage in this worked fine as a standalone. The plotting is great, with several strands weaving in and out of each other. Davie is a kind of mentor to a younger thug, trying hard to stop him from losing his humanity. He’s increasingly at odds with his boss Rab, whose growing suspicions of Davie’s motives threaten their old friendship. There’s a corrupt police officer on the take, and this strand is handle particularly well – Skelton shows him believably as the exception rather the rule within the police, disliked as much by his fellow officers as by the lowlifes he bullies and uses. The characterisation throughout is exceptional, with every character ringing true – no clichés or stereotypes here. And in the end all the strands come together to an ending which is credible and satisfying without being falsely uplifting.

This is genuine Tartan Noir, grounded in the real recognisable Glasgow of today – a rare treasure amidst some of the overblown melodramatic dross which is so often wrongly acclaimed as giving an authentic picture of life here. I’m delighted to have stumbled across Douglas Skelton and he is now part of that select band of Scottish crime writers to whose future books I will look forward with keen anticipation.

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

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Daisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton

Brilliant!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

daisy in chainsHamish Wolfe is a prisoner, convicted of the murders of three young women. Maggie Rose is a defence barrister and author of several books regarding possible miscarriages of justice, some of which have resulted in the convicted men being released. Hamish and his little group of supporters on the outside are keen to get Maggie to take on his case. Pete Weston owes his promotion to Detective Sergeant to his success in catching Hamish, and he’s adamant that no mistakes were made.

This is Sharon Bolton at her twisty, twisted best, and her best is pretty brilliant! Told in the third person, we’re only allowed brief glimpses into the mind of each of these three main characters, so we’re never quite sure who’s telling the truth. But we’re pretty sure from early on that each one is hiding something.

Hamish is a charming, exceedingly handsome and intelligent young man, so he has even more than the usual quota of strange women declaring their love for him despite, or perhaps because of, his convictions. But is he guilty? The evidence looks pretty solid but he’s always insisted he’s innocent and there are plenty of people who are willing to believe him. Pete seems like one of that rare breed (in fiction) – an honest hard-working cop who sticks to the rules. But as Maggie begins to delve into the case it does begin to look as if coincidence played a pretty big part in his original investigation. And what is Maggie’s motivation for getting murderers released from prison? She claims it’s not about guilt or innocence but about whether they got fair treatment under the law – a moral standpoint, if true…

Bolton’s skill is not just in the plotting, great though that is. Where she really excels is in setting up an atmosphere of growing tension and dread, always helped by the settings she chooses. Her last couple of Lacey Flint books have made us all see the Thames in a new and sinister light, and in this standalone she uses the caves and tunnels beneath the Somerset coast to brilliant effect. Her descriptive writing is fabulous – the lowering snow clouds, freezing cold and short dark days all adding beautifully to a scary sense of creepiness and fear. But there’s a healthy dose of humour which prevents the book from becoming too dark, meaning that it’s a truly enjoyable read even while it’s deliciously tingling the reader’s spine.

Sharon Bolton (amazon.co.uk)
Sharon Bolton

As well as the three main players, there’s a small host of quirky secondary characters, most of them part of the little group campaigning for Hamish’s release. Bolton does address a couple of serious issues – the way some people are drawn to notorious, violent killers for all sorts of reasons, some saner than others, and how society sees and reacts to fat people (all of the victims were fat women). But she does it with a light touch so that it never feels like she’s grinding an axe or thumping a tub – she is observing rather than judging.

It’s a strange thing that sometimes the best books are the ones that require to have the least said about them. The joy of this one is in being lead so skilfully through all the various twists, constantly having to reassess one’s opinion of the leading characters as each new piece is added, so I don’t want to reveal too much. I’ll simply say that in reading over my short notes made while reading I see I’ve used the word ‘brilliant’ no less than nine times, with a couple of fabulouses thrown in for good measure, and I’ve already made space for this one in my Book of the Year roundup. (It could easily also win best title and best cover.) In case I haven’t made myself clear – highly recommended! In fact, brilliant!!

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

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Close Your Eyes (Joe O’Loughlin) by Michael Robotham

Another strong entry in the series…

😀 😀 😀 😀

close your eyesTwo women have been murdered – the mother brutally, the daughter left posed as if she were sleeping. Psychologist Joe O’Loughlin is called in to review the case when another psychologist who had been working on it, an old student of his, reveals details of the crime to the press. It’s not clear from the differences between the two murders whether this is the work of a psychopathic killer or something more personal. But when another murder happens, linked to a series of vicious attacks, Joe begins to suspect that there’s a connection…

Meantime, Joe’s estranged wife, Julianne, has asked Joe to come and spend the summer with the family in their holiday cottage. Joe has never stopped hoping for a reconciliation so jumps at the chance, although he knows that Julianne won’t be happy that he’s got involved in another police investigation. It’s only as time passes that he will discover the reason for Julianne’s invitation.

The story is told from Joe’s perspective in the dreaded first person present tense, but at least Robotham is skilled enough to handle it well. The focus remains primarily on the investigation throughout, with Joe’s personal life forming a secondary strand.

Feeling responsible for his old student’s behaviour, Joe is driven to find the killer before there are any more victims, so he calls in his old friend Vincent Ruiz, now retired from the police, to help him investigate. They do so in the ‘old-fashioned’ way, by interviewing suspects and getting to know the background of the victims. The plotting is excellent as always – I didn’t guess the solution, but felt it made sense when revealed, though looking back I’m not sure there were enough clues for the reader to work it out.

However, as with so much modern crime fiction, the book is far too long for its content, meaning that it drags in places with the same ground being covered more than once, and it takes way too long for Joe and/or the police to work out the obvious connection between the victims. The old cliché of the protagonist’s family becoming targets is trotted out again – one can quite understand why Julianne gets a bit fed up with Joe taking on cases since every time the murderer ends up trying to kill one or all of them! In line with current trends, there’s the obligatory prologue from the mind of the killer, and in this case it’s pretty sleazy and a bit gruesome – to be honest, if this had been my first Robotham novel, I may well have abandoned it before chapter 1, but experience led me to expect, rightly, that the salacious elements wouldn’t be allowed to take over the whole book.

I also wasn’t keen on the personal story arc in this one, which becomes fairly traumatic. Robotham handles it sensitively and well, but nonetheless I’m not an enthusiast for this kind of wallowing in misery, soap opera approach to the protagonist’s life in contemporary crime.

Michael Robotham
Michael Robotham

Despite the clichéd elements, Robotham’s excellent writing always makes his books very readable and this one is no exception. Joe is an interesting and likeable protagonist, his battle with Parkinson’s disease always handled well, again never being allowed to dominate the story, and his working partnership with Ruiz is one of two equals with differing skills who respect each other. His relationships with his ex-wife and daughters always feel authentic too – he is at heart a family man, and although he and Julianne are separated, the family unit is still strong and both parents work together to give their daughters the support they need. The plot finally leads up to an exciting and scary thriller ending, but Joe never turns into an unbelievable superhero, so that it all feels perfectly credible.

So, for me, not quite the best, but still a strong entry in a series that is a long way above most contemporary crime. The plot works fine as a standalone, but to get the best out of the background story I’d recommend reading the books in order – unlike me! – starting with The Suspect.

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

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Tuesday Thriller! Fear is the Rider by Kenneth Cook

HE’S BEHIND YOU!!

 

“…get us out of here, for God’s sake get us out of here quick!”

She was still staring wildly into the scrub. Her fear seeped into his spine. There was something there in the low trees, something terrible…

Tuesday Thriller white gunslinger

It’s 50 degrees centigrade outside as John Shaw is driving over one of the most dangerous roads in the Australian outback, and there isn’t a house within two hundred kilometres. A terrified girl has run out in front of his vehicle, running for her life. Now they’re racing along the track, but someone is behind them, and he’s catching up…

Woo! A non-stop thrill-fest indeed! The author jumps right into the story so that from the first paragraph the tension starts ratcheting up. John’s driving a Honda, not built for this terrain. The Man has taken Katie’s Land Cruiser – bigger and tougher. The only advantage John and Katie have is that their car is faster, so long as the road is good. But this road doesn’t sound good at all…

Danger sign

Neither of them have any idea why the Man wants to kill them. In fact, they can’t even be sure he’s a man – he’s huge and hairy and smells rancid, like decaying flesh. (I think I met him up the dancin’ once.) And he doesn’t seem to be in a very good mood. They don’t have time to speculate – all they can do is keep driving and hope they can put enough distance between them to get to safety before they’re caught. But they’re heading the wrong way – straight into the danger zone – and they can’t turn round because HE’S BEHIND THEM!!!

fear is the rider

 

Brilliant stuff – pure action from beginning to end. Cook doesn’t give us any explanations or much character development, either of which would just serve to slow the pace. Fortunately John knows cars and is a skilful driver. Once Katie gets over her initial terror, she pulls her weight too, and she knows more about the Outback than John. But neither of them is a superhero – just two ordinary people caught up in an insane terror. The pacing is great – it never lets up! It’s novella length and definitely one to be read in one sitting – no chapters, just a heart-pounding race with a new peril thrown in every few pages, leading up to a truly fab climax. Phew! A thriller that’s actually thrilling and isn’t trying to be anything else – great stuff! I’m off to lie down in a darkened room for a while now…

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

 

* * * * *

Yippee Ki Yay rating:     😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

 

It's a Bruce!
It’s a Bruce!

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Tuesday Thriller! Here Be Dragons: A Short Story (Lacey Flint) by Sharon Bolton

Going undercover…

 

A summer evening in London, and Mark Joesbury is steering a Marine Unit boat up the Thames. He’s under orders but not from his superiors. An undercover mission is going badly wrong, his cover is blown and the bad guys are holding a gun to Lacey Flint’s head…

Tuesday Thriller white gunslinger

What a brilliant story! Any fan of the Lacey Flint series must read this, and it would actually work fine as a standalone too. In terms of time period, it crosses over with the ending of A Dark and Twisted Tide, tying in with things we learned in that one, while avoiding any spoilers for it. It’s novella length – I’m rubbish at converting from Kindle length (881) to pages but I’d guess about 60 or 70. Long enough for Bolton to give us a really believable, satisfying story, with as much depth as most novels achieve, but just the right length to read in one session.

The plot is great and frighteningly credible, based on a terrorist threat, which is as much as I’m going to tell you about it. It’s the gorgeous and lovely Mark Joesbury who’s in the starring role for once, and he fills it perfectly, though of course Lacey has a part to play too. As she did in A Dark and Twisted Tide, Bolton brings the Thames to life, with its shifting tides and hidden dangers lurking beneath its moody beauty, running between some of the most important buildings in the UK. Her descriptive writing really is second to none at creating an atmospheric sense of place.

Here Be Dragons

Although in a sense it’s a police procedural, because it’s based around Mark’s undercover work it reads much more like a true thriller. There’s no real detection element to it, certainly not as far as knowing who the bad guys are anyway, but there’s still a big element of suspense in not knowing exactly what’s going to happen.

And tension! Oh yes! Brilliant build-up, fantastic dénouement. Pulse-racing stuff – can’t remember when I last enjoyed a short story so much (sorry, James Joyce!). And as for the ending… trust me, Lacey fans, you’ll want to have read this one before the next novel comes along. Which I hope will be soon!! The best kind of cliffhanger – the type that leaves you satisfied but also wanting more…

Can you guess I’m recommending this one? *turns cartwheels while blowing a horn*

* * * * *

Yippee Ki Yay rating:     😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

 

It's a Bruce Willis!
It’s a Bruce!

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The Cold, Cold Ground (Sean Duffy 1) by Adrian McKinty

the cold cold groundUnlicensed to kill…

🙂 🙂 🙂

It’s May 1981, and Northern Ireland is on the brink of a complete breakdown of law and order, possibly even civil war. IRA prisoners in the Maze are on hunger strike, and when the first one dies the streets erupt in violent riots. In the midst of this mayhem, a man is found dead with his hand cut off. At first the police assume the victim was an informer, punished by one or other of the bunches of murderous nutters who held sway in NI at that time. However, when a second body is found, it appears that these killings may be nothing to do with the unrest – it looks like Northern Ireland might have its first serial killer, targeting gay men. It’s up to Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy and his team to catch him before he kills again…

The book starts out well. McKinty has a great writing style and paints an authentic seeming picture of NI at the height of the Troubles. The book is told in the first-person past-tense from Duffy’s viewpoint and he gives a good insight into the various divisions and factions that ruled the streets in those days. He also shows how socially conservative this small part of the world still was, even more than mainland Britain. The book touches not only on the victimisation of homosexuals but on the question of unmarried motherhood – shown as a thing so shameful that women would attempt to hide pregnancies, abandon their babies, or even, in some cases, commit suicide.

Duffy and his team are all likeable characters, and the interactions between them provide some humour which prevents the story from becoming too bleak. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was, of course, a major target for the IRA and Catholic officers in particular were seen as traitors, selling out for English gold. McKinty shows Duffy as a Catholic who, like the vast majority, wants peace and in his case is prepared to put himself at risk to be part of achieving it, as many did in real life, too.

begorrathon 2016

So there are many good things about the book. Unfortunately, however, credibility begins to nose-dive early on and eventually crashes into the set of a second-rate Bond pastiche. First off, a Catholic police officer is ridiculously unlikely to have bought a house in a Protestant stronghold at that time, unless he really had a death wish. The idea of him having a police issue sub-machine gun lying about on his hall table for weeks (just so’s it’d be handy when the plot required it) is ludicrous. That Willie Whitelaw, then Home Secretary, would ever have phoned a low-ranking police officer on behalf of MI5 is laughable. Et cetera, et cetera. And the ending, which obviously I can’t discuss, is like something out of a low-budget Bruce Willis rip-off.

I think part of the problem is that McKinty, who lives in America, may be aiming for that market, and using words like “gasoline” instead of “petrol” reinforced that feeling. The more ridiculous the plot became, the less authentic the rest of the book felt to me. The quality of the research in the earlier part of the book means that I feel it must have been a deliberate choice rather than lack of knowledge for McKinty to veer so far beyond the credibility line as the book progressed – I suspect the words “movie deal” may have been on his to-do list.

Adrian McKinty
Adrian McKinty

A couple of final, brief criticisms. It’d be great if just once he could introduce a female character without immediately assessing her sexual attractiveness and/or willingness. I know that’s a noir tradition, but, you know, traditions don’t have to be followed slavishly once they become outdated. And, as with so much modern crime, the book is way too long for its content – there’s about a hundred pages in the middle that could have been cut with no loss.

Hard to rate – I found the first half very enjoyable, which made my disappointment with the long dip in the middle followed by the implausibility of the rest greater than it would otherwise have been. It works reasonably well as a slow thriller, but doesn’t live up to its early promise of giving a realistic picture of the difficulties of policing Northern Ireland in the midst of the Troubles.

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This post is part of Reading Ireland Month 2016 – #begorrathon16 – being jointly hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff.

I Am No One by Patrick Flanery

Paranoia doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…

😀 😀 😀 😀

i am no oneJeremy O’Keefe has returned to New York after spending a decade teaching at Oxford University. He’s glad to be back, especially since it means he’s able to spend time with his daughter, now grown and married. But a series of odd events begin to make him feel he’s under some kind of surveillance, though he doesn’t know by whom or why. Unless he’s imagining it all…

Flanery has chosen a very different voice for the first-person narrator of this book, and he sustains it beautifully. Almost stream of consciousness at times, Jeremy uses long run-on sentences, full of digressions and asides, but so skilfully constructed they always make it back to where they began without losing the reader along the way. Jeremy is unreliable, not so much – or perhaps not only – because he is trying to mislead the reader, but because he doesn’t really want to face up to his own weaknesses. But as he rambles on, frequently repeating himself and going over the same bits of his life again and again, each time the story he tells contains subtle changes, so that we gradually get to understand him better and, despite him, begin to be able to see between the gaps and put the true story together ourselves.

A feeling of unease develops from the beginning, when Jeremy waits for a student with whom he has arranged a meeting. She doesn’t turn up, and Jeremy later finds an e-mail exchange he apparently had with her postponing the meeting – an exchange of which he has no memory. When he recounts this incident to his daughter, he is surprised at how ready she is to consider that the problem lies in Jeremy’s own mental state. But paranoia does seem to be a feature of Jeremy’s personality, as does fear. His academic focus is on post-war surveillance methods, particularly in East Germany, and he also runs courses on how surveillance and voyeurism are portrayed in films. Perhaps all this is feeding into how he’s interpreting events. Certainly some of his suspicions about people seem little more than paranoia, but some of the odd things that happen (if we can trust his account of them) suggest there’s more to it than that. The uncertainty is brilliantly done and creates an atmosphere of growing tension as the story slowly unfolds.

Patrick Flanery zoomed onto my must-read list with his first novel Absolution and consolidated his position as one of my favourites with Fallen Land, a book that I presumptuously declared should be a contender for the title of Great American Novel for the 2000s. So my expectations for this one were high – probably too high. And in truth it didn’t quite meet those expectations. However, having given myself some time to mull it over before writing this review, I’ve concluded that it’s primarily the comparison with his previous books that has left me a little disappointed with this one.

Patrick Flanery (source:patrickflanery.com)
Patrick Flanery
(source:patrickflanery.com)

It’s difficult to explain without spoilers why I felt a little let down by how the story played out, so I’ll have to be pretty oblique here – sorry! There are two main questions in the book – is Jeremy under surveillance, and if so, why? When the answers become clear, it also becomes obvious that Jeremy must have known certain things all along, which makes a bit of a nonsense of all the passages where the reader watched him puzzle over them. As an intelligent man, whether paranoid or mentally stable or not, he could not have known what he knew and yet not have understood the implications. So when all became clear, I found that credibility nosedived. However…

… as I thought about it more, I realised that Flanery had done something that I think in retrospect is rather clever, though I’m not entirely sure whether it was intentional. (And, clever or not, intentional or not, it doesn’t remove the basic credibility problem.) The whole book reads as if it’s heading in the direction of criticism of our surveillance society – of those hard-won freedoms we have cheerfully and perhaps short-sightedly given up in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist episodes of the last couple of decades. This preconception of the ‘message’ of the book meant that, when it ended, my initial reaction was to say Flanery had failed to make his point. But when I thought more about it, I realised that he could have done that facile thing – given us the cliché of the blameless individual hounded by an over-powerful state – and we could all have tut-tutted merrily along in our liberal disapproval. But Flanery didn’t – instead he gave us something that left the moral stance much less clear; something that made me realise how far my own opinions have shifted in response to the repeated horrors of recent years. That yes, I do want to shelter behind state security services and, yes, I am willing to give up things I would once have considered sacrosanct in return for security. And that left me ruminating…

So, in the end, the depiction of Jeremy’s descent into paranoia and fear make it a tense read, and Flanery’s excellent use of language and voice make it an enjoyable one. And, although I don’t think this book works quite as well as his previous ones, it is still thought-provoking, raising important questions about security, surveillance and freedom in this new world we inhabit.

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

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Even the Dead (Quirke 7) by Benjamin Black

even the deadDisappointing…

🙂 🙂 😐

A young man is killed when his motorbike crashes into a tree. Quirke, a pathologist, is on sick leave, suffering from memory problems and attention lapses due to an injury he received some years earlier. But when his assistant begins to think that the young man’s death was not due to either accident or suicide, he asks Quirke to come in to check his conclusions. Quirke agrees – it looks like the death was a murder. The victim is Leon Corless, son of a Communist politician, and the police don’t know whether Leon has been killed for something he has done or to get at his father, a man notorious for annoying people.

I recently read and loved The Blue Guitar, written by the same author under his other name of John Banville, and wondered how his writing style would transfer to the crime novel. The answer, I fear, is not terribly well, at least not as far as this book, the seventh in the Quirke series, is concerned. To be fair, looking at other reviews suggests this is not having universal praise heaped on it by even fans of the series, so I probably picked the wrong one to start on.

The basic writing, as I expected, is excellent. But the balance is totally wrong between the crime and all of Quirke’s personal baggage, of which he has more than plenty. His daughter resents him for him having given her away at birth to his adopted brother and his wife to bring up. He has had many broken affairs, including with the aforesaid brother’s new wife. His daughter is going out with his assistant, with whom Quirke doesn’t get on. Quirke is a drinker, currently on the wagon, but with a history of going in and out of rehab. And so on and on. His memory problems, which we hear about at excessive length for the first half of the book, are completely forgotten in the second half. (Ha! Forgive the unintentional joke.)

The other thing that irritated me was that I had no real idea of when the book was supposed to be set. For a while I wasn’t even sure if it was before or after WW2 – eventually I decided after, but still couldn’t pin it down to ’40s, ’50s or possibly even ’60s. Presumably some indication was given in previous books, but in this one it’s all very vague. Again, other reviews from people familiar with the series tell me it’s the ’50s. Dublin also failed to come to life. Street names and locations are mentioned but I got no feel for the life of this vibrant city.

Benjamin Black
Benjamin Black

There were points when I actually forgot what the crime was, and writing this review two weeks after finishing the book, I’m struggling to recall much about it. The vast bulk of the book is grossly over-padded with filler and the solving of the crime is rushed into the last section. Coincidentally (without spoilers) Quirke, his family and friends all seem to have a personal link to one aspect of it or another, and it appears to relate back to crimes in previous books. And, just to put the icing on the cake, the whole evil Catholic church cliché gets yet another outing.

Add in a ridiculously unlikely love-at-first-sight affair, and all in all, this fairly short book felt very long indeed. In truth, I began to skip long passages of musings about life, the universe and everything, in the hopes that I might finally get to the promised thriller climax. Sadly, I found the ending as flat as a pancake. I’m sure this will work better for people who have been following the series and have an emotional investment in the recurring characters, but as a standalone it left me pretty unimpressed. I’m still looking forward to reading more Banville, but I think I’ll leave Benjamin Black on the shelf in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books (UK).

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The A26 by Pascal Garnier

the a26The wounds of war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Brother and sister Bernard and Yolande have lived together all their lives. Yolande remains permanently holed up in their house, every door locked, every window covered, her only viewpoint on the world a small hole in one of the blinds. And for Yolande, the world she looks out on is still in the grip of WW2, a period that traumatised her so completely she has never recovered. Bernard has been the functional one, his job on the railway providing their income. He has given up his own chance of a personal life to look after his older sister. But now Bernard has been told that he is dying, and suddenly all the missed opportunities and disappointments of his life erupt into violence…

Given the novella length of this book, it packs a mighty punch. Ink-black noir, there are no gleams of light or humour to lift the tone. On the surface, Bernard and Yolande are a pair of extremely dysfunctional and disturbed siblings, each with their own streak of madness, and with the potential for violence simmering not far below the surface. The book has a thriller format, seen from the perspectives of the perpetrators of the various crimes that take place.

But it seems to me (though I may be over-analysing it) that the entire novella is a metaphor for a France still bleeding from the wounds inflicted on it in WW2 – the wounds of defeat, collaboration and betrayal – wounds that eventual victory may have covered, but with the thinnest of scar tissue, easily scratched away. The book was written in 1999, and is set perhaps a couple of decades before that, when many people were still alive who had lived through the war. And Garnier shows this couple as having been damaged even before the war began, much as France still reeled from the horrors inflicted upon its landscape and people in the First World War.

‘Row upon row, their white tunics stained with blood like that bastard of a butcher. “I kill you, you kill me.” And the more they killed, the more of them sprang up again, it was truly miraculous! That’s why there’ll never be an end to the war – anyway, it’s always been here, it’s that kind of country, there’s nothing else to do but go to war. The only thing that grows is white crosses.’

Verdun-17

Yolande had committed the crime of having an affair with a German soldier and had paid the price when her countrymen shaved her head to display her disgrace to the world. But Garnier’s description shows that this episode was as much to do with lust and cruelty as justice and patriotism. The world may have forgotten Yolande’s shame but she has never forgotten those who shamed her. There is the chance for Yolande to throw the past aside and go back out into the world, but she carries her prison with her in her mind. She’s not a weak woman, far from it. Her selfishness makes her monstrous and it’s hard to see her as having been a victim. She is a fact, a piece of history, a hidden scandal, France’s shame. And that unresolved shame is shown metaphorically to be still shuddering through the later generations.

Pascal Garnier
Pascal Garnier

Bernard has watched the woman he loved marry another man – a cruel, boorish man who treats her badly, and when he receives his death sentence his pent-up frustrations and anger boil over into a murderous spree. There are some shocking scenes of violence and horror, but they’re not written in an overly graphic way – Garnier is painting impressionistic images rather than drawing detailed pictures. His descriptions are full of craters and mud, and when he describes places he does it in terms of their association with battles and war, this modern landscape scarred still with reminders of France’s violent past. The A26, being built in the book, runs through or past many of the great battlefields of France and close to those of Belgium – Arras, the Somme, Ypres – and Garnier plays darkly with the conjunction of the digging of the road and the history of its bloody surroundings.

To say I enjoyed this would be a total misuse of the word. It is too dark, too upsetting, to enjoy. But it is powerful and gut-wrenching, with Garnier’s compelling writing enhanced by an excellent translation from Melanie Florence. I may have made it sound more metaphorical than it is, though that’s how it struck me. But it works too on the level of being an extremely dark thriller, leading up to an ending that shocked me and left me feeling completely conflicted as to the morality of the tale. Despite the awfulness of their actions, there was some part of me that empathised with each of the dreadful siblings, and that was the most unsettling aspect of all. As entertainment, I enjoyed Garnier’s Boxes more, but for me this one is the more powerful and meaningful, and therefore better, of the two.

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

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Coffin Road by Peter May

coffin roadBack to the islands…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A man is washed ashore, exhausted and with no idea of how he got there, or indeed where ‘there’ is. He has lost his memory, but is filled with a sense of dread as if something terrible has happened. As he staggers up the road, he is met by a neighbour who calls him by his name – Neal Maclean – and helps him to the cottage that is apparently his home. But when Neal begins to look for indications of who he is and what he’s doing in this remote cottage on a Hebridean island, he can find no information about himself – even his computer seems to contain no history. But his dog Bran is happy to have him back, and when his other neighbours, Sally and Jon, turn up for a prearranged drink, it appears Sally in particular is a close friend…

This book sees May returning to the Hebrides, this time on Harris rather than Lewis (same island – different ends). However there’s a different feel to this one – Neal is an incomer to the island and doesn’t really get involved much with the local community. The landscape, or rather seascape, plays a huge part though and, as always, May’s sense of place and descriptive writing bring it to life. The bulk of the book is written from Neal’s perspective as he struggles to work out what has happened to him. His sections are in first person present tense which, though still not to my taste, makes some kind of sense here, since Neal is effectively a man without a past, and happily May is skilled enough to avoid the clunkiness that often afflicts present tense writing. The rest of it is written in third person past.

Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris
Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris

From things that Sally and Jon tell him, Neal discovers he’s apparently writing a book on the story of three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously disappeared many years ago from the otherwise uninhabited Flannan Isles. But he can find no trace of the book, so takes a boat out to the Flannans to see if it triggers any memories. What he finds there shocks him – is it possible he has done something so dreadful that his mind just can’t accept it?

Meantime young Karen Fleming is in Edinburgh, still brooding over the unexplained suicide of her scientist father two years earlier. Carrying a load of guilt because the last words she said to him were angry and untrue, she is becoming determined to learn more about what caused him to end his life. But what she discovers will turn everything she thought she knew on its head, and put both her and Neal Maclean in deadly danger…

Peter May on Lewis
Peter May on Lewis

The writing is up to May’s usual excellent standard and both Neal and Karen are very well drawn, each flawed but likeable in their own way. Neal’s frustration at his memory loss gets even stronger when he fears he might have something to hide and he soon discovers that he’s in danger, but doesn’t know why or from whom. The only thing he has found in his cottage is a map of the island with the old Coffin Road highlighted – the road the islanders used to use to bring their dead for burial amongst the machair. Karen is an intelligent young girl, but headstrong and with the self-centredness of the adolescent. The more people tell her that looking for information about her father could be dangerous, the more determined she becomes. May handles her grief for her father well, letting us see how it has affected her without wallowing mawkishly in it. As the two strands come together towards an explosive finale, we also get to see the action from the perspective of Detective Sergeant George Gunn, whom dedicated fans will doubtless remember with affection from the Lewis trilogy.

The Coffin Road
The Coffin Road

This has much more of a standard thriller format than the last few of May’s books and reminded me in many ways of his early China thrillers. There’s a strong eco-message in the book, a theme May has addressed before, of the dangers of science being exploited for profit untempered by ethics. The plotting is very strong and it’s paced perfectly to keep it gripping all the way through. A couple of times when I thought it was pretty obvious what was about to happen, May showed me that I should know by now never to take him for granted. As always, May’s feel for this Hebridean landscape adds a great deal to the story, and in this one he uses the sea and wild weather of the islands to great effect. (I also enjoyed his brief detour to Balornock in Glasgow – revived happy memories of spending time there in my teen years!) Another great read from May that I think will please the newer fans who came to his work via the Lewis trilogy, while reminding the older fans of just what a good thriller writer he is. Highly recommended!

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

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The Invisible Man from Salem (Leo Junker 1) by Christoffer Carlsson

the invisible man from salemPast and present…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Suspended cop, Leo Junker, is awakened by the flashing blue light of police cars parked outside his apartment block. A prostitute has been murdered in the hostel for down-and-outs situated on the ground floor. Leo sneaks past the cops guarding the entrance to have a look around before the police detectives arrive, and is shocked when he sees what the victim is clutching in her hand – a necklace Leo instantly recognises.

There’s quite a lot about this book that should have made me dislike it. Leo is angst-ridden in the extreme – traumatised and disgraced after a fatal shooting incident, he pops tranquillisers constantly, often washing them down with absinthe. He’s a maverick, working the case on his own even though he’s on long-term sick-leave – a euphemism for suspension in his case, till his superiors can decide what to do with him. Some days the mix of drugs, alcohol and stress leave him barely conscious, much less functional. And part of the book is in the dreaded first person, present tense, which makes my hackles rise more and more as it continues its tediously ubiquitous hold over crime fiction.

However, the quality of the writing and translation is high, and after a bit of a shaky start the story hooked me completely. It’s another of these books, so prevalent at the moment, where the present day crime arises out of events in the past, and it is the strand from Leo’s youth that raises the book well above standard. Blissfully this strand, which is actually the bulk of the book, is written in the past tense. Also, because Leo is young in it, he hasn’t yet become the drunken, pill-popping mess he is in the present.

Young Leo lives in Salem, a run-down area on the outskirts of Stockholm, a place where the youngsters grow up without much in the way of hope or aspiration. For years he has been the victim of two older bullies, but when he is around sixteen he meets up with another boy, John Grimberg, ‘Grim’, who’s a bit of a loner and misfit, and the two quickly become friends. Grim has a younger sister, Julia, to whom Leo finds himself becoming attracted, despite knowing Grim is overly protective of her. This little triangle is the basis for the story in the past and for the events that will happen years later in the present. Leo’s family is strong and quite supportive, but Grim and Julia aren’t so lucky with their parents. The book gives a convincing picture of the way adolescents can live a separate life from their families even though they are still at home, dealing with their own problems as best they can. Bullying is a major feature of the story and again Carlsson handles it sensitively and believably. He also shows how easily young boys can find themselves drifting into a life of crime, when neither their families nor communities are there to give them the support and guidance they need. I found this whole section of the story entirely credible and absorbing to the point where I didn’t want to put the book down. I could have lived with a bit less swearing and teenage sex, but both were consistent with the characters and relevant to the plot.

christoffer-carlssonThe present day strand also kept me interested, even though I didn’t find older Leo as sympathetic a character as his younger self. The solution becomes obvious pretty early on, so the bulk of this section is more about tracking the murderer than trying to work out whodunit. There is a thrillerish aspect to the story but it doesn’t go wildly over the top. In fact, Leo’s maverick tendencies lessen over the course of the story as he is gradually sucked more into the official investigation. Overall I thought this was an excellent read, and will be looking forward to reading more from the author in the future, with my fingers firmly crossed that Leo can put his troubled past behind him, along with the drink and drugs. Apparently the book was named Best Crime Novel of 2013 by the Swedish Crime Association – well-deserved, I think.

I won this book via Raven’s blog, so many thanks to both Raven Crime Reads and the publisher, Scribe Publications.

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The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham

the night ferrySlave trade…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Alisha Barba is due to return to her job as a police officer after a long period of sick leave following a serious injury she received in the line of duty. Out of the blue she is contacted by an old friend, Cate Beaumont, who asks her to come to a reunion at their school. Ali and Cate had had a serious falling out eight years earlier which left Ali feeling guilty and sorry to have lost her closest friend, so she’s delighted to hear from Cate, and also intrigued to know what has inspired her to get in touch after all this time. They don’t get much chance to talk at the reunion, but heavily pregnant Cate takes the opportunity to whisper “They want to take my baby. They can’t. You have to stop them…” A few minutes later as they leave the reunion, Cate and her husband are run down by a taxi. Felix is killed outright and Cate’s life hangs in the balance…

Although this isn’t strictly part of the Joe O’Loughlin series since he isn’t in it, it links back to the previous books in that series. Ali had a smallish part in Lost, as a Detective Constable on DI Vincent Ruiz’ team. Ruiz has now retired but still acts as a mentor and friend to young Ali when she needs one. I love this way Robotham has of rotating the main viewpoint through the various characters. It keeps each book feeling fresh but gives the reader some points of reference so that it also has that comfortable feeling of familiarity that all good series give. And it also helps with one of the perennial problems of thrillerish crime series with only one central character – namely, that usually the reader knows that all must end reasonably well for the protagonist or the series would have to end.

The plot of this one is hard-hitting, involving illegal immigration, sex trafficking and forced commercial surrogacy. The official investigation is going too slowly for Ali’s liking so she begins to ask her own questions and the trail soon takes her to the sleaziest parts of Amsterdam. Her old friend Ruiz is on hand to give advice and assistance, and she has the support of her boyfriend Dave, also a police officer. Soon Ali is in trouble not just with the bad guys but with her superior officers back home, but she’s now too involved to pull back – too many lives are dependent on her, some of them very vulnerable. Robotham doesn’t hold back in the picture he gives of the exploitation of women trafficked as sex slaves from some of the war-torn places of the world and he has clearly done his research as thoroughly as always.

However, the grimness of the storyline is lifted by the characterisation of Ali. Although she’s following her own path in this case, she’s not a maverick, nor is she angst-ridden. She has a lovely, loving Sikh family who’d like to see her happily married, an appealing and supportive boyfriend in Dave, and as far as possible she works alongside her colleagues and keeps them informed of what she’s up to. She is a little bit Supergirlish on occasion but not enough to destroy her credibility. And her voice is very convincing – no mean feat for a male Australian author to get so authentically inside the head of a young British Sikh woman.

Michael Robotham
Michael Robotham

This is the fifth Michael Robotham book I’ve read and as far as I’m concerned the man can do no wrong. He can tell a gritty story without having to resort to excessive bad language or gratuitous violence – there is some strong violence in the book but not of the police beating up innocent bystanders variety. So often in thrillers the investigation element is weak and so the book loses credibility, but not here – the plotting is tight, there’s proper detective work and everything that happens is totally plausible. And both writing and characterisation are great, with just enough humour to give a touch of lightness to the otherwise dark plot. If only he could be persuaded to stop using the present tense – but at least he uses it well, and I suppose a girl can’t have everything in this life! If you haven’t already guessed, this one is highly recommended. As are all his others…

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

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