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Criminally good reads…

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September 2016

Blog Tour- Thomas Mullen- Darktown

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Atlanta, 1948. In this city, all crime is black and white.

On one side of the tracks are the rich, white neighbourhoods; on the other, Darktown, the African-American area guarded by the city’s first black police force of only eight men. These cops are kept near-powerless by the authorities: they can’t arrest white suspects; they can’t drive a squad car; they must operate out of a dingy basement. When a poor black woman is killed in Darktown having been last seen in a car with a rich white man, no one seems to care except for Boggs and Smith, two black cops from vastly different backgrounds. Pressured from all sides, they will risk their jobs, the trust of their community and even their own lives to investigate her death. Their efforts bring them up against a brutal old-school cop, Dunlow, who has long run Darktown as his own turf – but Dunlow’s idealistic young partner, Rakestraw, is a young progressive who may be willing to make allies across colour lines . . .

For many years I’ve been recommending Thomas Mullen’s The Many Deaths of The Firefly Brothers as a great American novel set during the Depression era, with its compelling period detail and a couple of superb protagonists in the guise of notorious bank robbers Jason and Whit Fireson. On the strength of this, I was keen as mustard to read Mullen’s Darktown, set in the racially charged era of 1940’s Atlanta…

I will quite honestly say that I was held in Darktown’s thrall from start to finish, and felt genuinely engaged with the essence of the period, Mullen’s bold and engaging characterisation, and the compelling plotline which gravitated between claustrophobic tension and heartfelt emotion throughout. Being so firmly rooted within the conflict and racial tension of this period, the language and terms used completely reflect the era, and with our modern day sensibilities there is a slight uneasiness at the language used. However, being so much of its time, and as a testament to the weight of dignity he throws behind his maligned black characters, and the white protagonists, some sympathetic, some hostile, the rhythm, vernacular and cadence of the language used plays an essential role in the book. The depth of Mullen’s historical research shines through from the references to the inherently unjust limitations placed upon black citizens not only in their segregation from whites, but also the lack of legal redress available to them. This is mirrored in the very strict restrictions placed upon his black police officers, Boggs and Smith, as to how they conduct their police business, and the added layer of scrutiny and danger that they have to operate within. Likewise, the impunity that white police officers such as Dunlow operate under is sharply at odds with the black officer’s experience, and gives the crooked Dunlow a very long leash from which to pursue his corrupt ways.  Mullen traverses a significant amount of individual black and white experience across different realms of society throughout the book, from a lowly farmer to the higher echelons of political power, and with the distinctive backdrop of the racially and socially divided Atlanta as his backdrop, the depth and realism of his chosen period is perfectly integrated throughout.

The characterisation throughout the book is never less than perfect, with all of the main protagonists, as well as lesser characters having sharply drawn edges, and more importantly, being absolutely believable in their depiction, Consequently, such is the level of emotional engagement with them as a reader, you are completely drawn into their individual stories of bravery, certitude, honour or corruption throughout. Mullen depicts beautifully their moments of doubt, the battle to retain their moral centre when pushed to the limit by injustice and racism, or the depths of depravity that wearing a police badge or holding a position of power can reveal in those that society has deigned to be above all others. The moral integrity of both black officer, Boggs, and white officer Rakestraw, operating from both sides of the racial divide is explored throughout. It was extremely gratifying to see that although this is a book firmly rooted in the differences between black and white experience both figuratively and racially that Mullen avoids plummeting his characters into overly moralistic tropes. Instead he leaves area of grey where we witness as readers bad people doing bad things, and good people being driven to bad actions navigating their way through the tinderbox flashpoints that racial division stirs up, and can then draw our own conclusions on the veracity of their actions.

This is an intelligent, thoughtful and emotionally compelling read, peopled by a sublime cast of characters and a balanced and realistic portrayal of weighty issues, firmly located in the fascinating and tumultuous period of post war America. Cut through with moments of raw emotion, thought-provoking social observation, and never less than totally engrossing, Darktown is something really quite special indeed, and at times with its exploration of racial divide in America, made this reader ponder how far American society has really progressed when looking at these issues with a contemporary eye. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to  Little Brown for the ARC)

 

Catch up with or continue to follow the blog tour at these excellent sites:

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Blog Tour- Sarah Ward- A Deadly Thaw

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Autumn 2004
In Bampton, Derbyshire, Lena Fisher is arrested for suffocating her husband, Andrew.

Spring 2016
A year after Lena’s release from prison, Andrew is found dead in a disused mortuary.

Who was the man Lena killed twelve years ago, and who committed the second murder? When Lena disappears, her sister, Kat, sets out to follow a trail of clues delivered by a mysterious teenage boy. Kat must uncover the truth – before there’s another death . . .

You know that old adage about the difficult second book? Well, come closer and I’ll let you into a secret. Following Sarah Ward’s compelling debut  In Bitter Chill I’m going to boldly state that this one is even better. There, I’ve said it. Gauntlet thrown down for those foolish enough to challenge me. From the very outset I was completely hooked by this dark, suspenseful tale of Derbyshire folk, so read on and find out why…

What Ward achieves so well in this book is a perfect symmetry between the strength of her plotting and her razor sharp characterisation. The basic twist in the story upon which the whole book is played out is devilishly good, and as a long time crime reader provided a very unique and intriguing premise for a story. Woman reports husband dead. Woman convicted of his murder. Fourteen years later husband turns up dead. Again. Who was the original dead man? Brilliant. As Ward takes us on a darkly disturbing journey between the two timelines of the story, some nasty secrets centring on a string of local sex attacks come to light, flicking on the reader’s empathy switch, and completely immersing us on the dark history that comes to be revealed. Ward’s control of pace and reveal is perfectly realised throughout. With the branching out of other stories focussing on the particular personal relationships of her cast of protagonists, and a frighteningly familiar tale of police incompetence and the lack of sympathy to female victims of crime,  this book adroitly raises these serious issues throughout, but never to the detriment of this being a tautly played out thriller.

Once again, this is an extremely character driven book, and I liked the reprise of the police characters from the first book- DCI Francis Sadler, DS Damien Palmer and the wonderfully feisty DC Connie Childs- and the professional and personal interactions between them. Sadler is still firmly and solidly at the helm, and I liked the way that both Palmer and Childs sometimes resemble recalcitrant teenagers as their personal relationship takes a different turn in this book, and they continue to vie for the professional affection of their boss. There is also a strong cast around them from their under pressure senior commanding officer, Superintendent Dai Llewellyn, gruff pathologist Bill Shields and his assistant Scott, which really shores up the forensic and procedural accuracy of the book as past mistakes rear their ugly head. Equally, Ward carefully explores the sibling relationship between Lena and Kat Gray, and the tensions that arise from the aura of suspected guilt within their family dynamic, and the dangerous ramifications this holds for them both.  Ward again sensitively depicts the fear and emotional vulnerability of Lena as a person in the light of her traumatic experience, balancing this with the turbulent effect that her actions have caused in her sister’s life too, which is a real lynchpin in our engagement as a reader with them.

Great plotting, superb characterisation, the exploration of important issues, and perfectly placed moments of snappy humour make this book a perfect pick up and read. Highly recommended.

Sarah Ward is an online book reviewer whose blog, Crimepieces reviews the best of current crime fiction published around the world. She has also reviewed for Eurocrime and Crimesquad and is a judge for the  Petrona Award for Scandinavian translated crime novels. Follow her on Twitter @sarahrward1

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

Catch up with or continue to follow the blog tour at these excellent sites:

use this one

 

 

 

William Ryan- The Constant Soldier

constant1944. Paul Brandt, a soldier in the German army, returns wounded and ashamed from the bloody chaos of the Eastern front to find his village home much changed and existing in the dark shadow of an SS rest hut – a luxurious retreat for those who manage the concentration camps, run with the help of a small group of female prisoners who – against all odds – have so far survived the war. When, by chance, Brandt glimpses one of these prisoners, he realizes that he must find a way to access the hut. For inside is the woman to whom his fate has been tied since their arrest five years before, and now he must do all he can to protect her. But as the Russian offensive moves ever closer, the days of this rest hut and its SS inhabitants are numbered. And while hope – for Brandt and the female prisoners – grows tantalizingly close, the danger too is now greater than ever. And, in a forest to the east, a young female Soviet tank driver awaits her orders to advance . . .

Already established as a crime writer of some repute with the Captain Korolev series set in the shadow of Stalinist Russia, William Ryan has now produced a fiction novel with huge gravitas, The Constant Soldier. Using as a starting point, the photographs taken by Karl Höcker, the adjutant to the final camp commandant at Auschwitz, Richard Baer, depicting the “social life” of the SS officers who were responsible for the mass murder at Auschwitz, Ryan has constructed a novel that is not only unerringly poignant and harrowing, but one that will stay in your thoughts for some time after reading…

This is one of those of those books that somehow proves difficult to review, quite simply because the ham-fisted meanderings of an amateur reviewer can in no way do full justice to the essential emotional strength and intelligence of this novel. What struck me the most about the book was Ryan’s ability to load the most simple of images with such a powerful emotional resonance from the steam rising from a bowl of freshly cooked potatoes on a family table while a miasma of emotional turbulence plays out around it, to the simple naturalistic images of the serenity of the landscape surrounding the SS encampment, and the ever present shadow of the Auschwitz death camp within its radius. The horrific images of human cruelty that we know are being played out at some remove from us as readers, are made all the more tangible amongst this natural serenity. The claustrophobic intensity of the SS camp and the dark deeds that occur within also acts as a harsh counterpoint, with its pollution of moral decency and the subjugation of those outside the existing regime, particularly in relation to the treatment of the women prisoners. There is the overriding chill of evil permeating the book, but at times dispelled by Ryan’s main protagonist Paul Brandt, and the humanity that he has retained in a world where humanity is largely absent.

Brandt is a mesmerising character, physically and mentally wounded by his experiences within the Nazi regime, and now finding himself working in the dark, sadistic atmosphere of the SS encampment. Deeply affected by his war experience, he attains the role of the moral ‘everyman’ in the novel, working at the behest of those he despises, and charged with an emotional impetus to liberate one of the female prisoners, whose story is so closely entwined with his own. Through his eyes and experience, we consistently witness the sadism ingrained in the SS officers around him, but also the moments of weakness and fear they experience as the war grinds towards its end, and the impending arrival of Soviet troops. The balance that Ryan ingrains in Brandt’s character of certitude and doubt is exceptionally well-handled, and poses a larger question as to why men such as he would seek to endanger his own survival, and use his staunch moral imperative to help others. In tandem with such a compelling central protagonist, Ryan has also confidently created a strong surrounding cast of characters from Brandt’s taskmasters at the camp, to his touching interaction with the headstrong Agneta, and the righting of a wrong he believes he has committed using his relationship with her as a conduit for this. There is also an interesting co-existing narrative focussing on the approach of the Soviet forces seen through the eyes of Polya Kolanka, a young woman who co-operates one of the approaching Soviet tanks. This alternative viewpoint of the events of the war co-exists beautifully with the central narrative, and her tale is as equally grim as Brandt’s but serves to a larger purpose to reinforce the theme of the futility of war, and the harsh reality of those caught up within it.

As Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong has defined the First World War narrative, so The Constant Soldier achieves this for World War II, with its understated but hugely powerful emotional and moral examination of one of the darkest periods of world history. It is harrowing and emotionally charged, but I would defy any reader not to be utterly moved by the story that plays out before them, such is the intensity and deceptively simple brilliance of Ryan’s writing. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Mantle for the ARC)

 

 

August 2016 Round Up and Raven’s Book of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)August has been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for the Raven, what with one thing and another, and some big decisions are now having to be made in the light of recent events. Consequently, my reading and blogging have been seriously impacted, and this has been quite a light month in terms of books read and reviews posted. I normally manage to read at least three books a week, but have been struggling to get through one! So big apologies for my severely depleted output, my sporadic catching up with social media and the acknowledgement of my fellow bloggers’ excellent posts. Am now in a state of ‘catch-up’, and hopefully there will be a much happier Raven back in the zone. Something good has got to happen soon, right?…

BOOKS READ AND REVIEWED:

James Nally- Dance With The Dead

Rod Reynolds- Black Night Falling

Robert Bailey- Between Black and White

Russel D McLean- And When I Die

Craig Russell- The Quiet Death of Thomas Quaid

Raven’s #20BooksofSummer: the first eight…

Chris Abani- Song For Night

Peter Watts- Echopraxia

Paraic O’Donnell- The Maker of Swans

Cynthia Ozick- The Puttermesser Papers

S. E. Craythorne- How You See Me

Robert Edeson- The Weaver Fish

Diana Rosie- Alberto’s Lost Birthday

David Peace- Tokyo Year Zero

Raven’s Book of the Month:

9781780874883With a lengthy hiatus in this excellent series I was delighted that Lennox has now made a more than welcome reappearance. As I said in my review, Russell perfectly evokes the feel of 1950’s Glasgow, with the shabby, downtrodden air of a city recovering in the aftermath of war, and the incessant need for the criminal underclass to keep a foothold in the economic recovery of the city with the opportunity to make an illegal buck or two. Cut through with the dry wit of the laconic Canadian Lennox, the nod to the hard-boiled genre in terms of dialogue and pace, superb plotting and peopled with a colourful cast of supporting characters, Russell has done it again. If you haven’t discovered this series for yourselves yet, I would urge you to seek them out. Excellent.

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