Abir Mukherjee- Smoke and Ashes

India, 1921. Haunted by his memories of the Great War, Captain Sam Wyndham is battling a serious addiction to opium that he must keep secret from his superiors in the Calcutta police force.
When Sam is summoned to investigate a grisly murder, he is stunned at the sight of the body: he’s seen this before. Last night, in a drug addled haze, he stumbled across a corpse with the same ritualistic injuries. It seems like there’s a deranged killer on the loose. Unfortunately for Sam, the corpse was in an opium den and revealing his presence there could cost him his career.
With the aid of his quick-witted Indian Sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee, Sam must try to solve the two murders, all the while keeping his personal demons secret, before somebody else turns up dead…

First there was A Rising Man and then A Necessary Evil and akin to the sound of an angelic host the very words, “There’s a new Abir Mukherjee book out now” made my heart soar with an excitement rarely achieved, since I won a handwriting competition at the age of 10 on holiday on the Isle of Wight i.e very excited indeed. And so we are catapulted back to the inglorious days of the Raj, and to be honest, it would unwise to even countenance the thought that our dynamic duo would be experiencing anything like a straightforward investigation. There is some serious trouble afoot…

It is so gratifying to reach the third book in a series and for it to feel as fresh and vibrant as the first two. Partly, I would put this down to the developing working relationship, and growing friendship of our chalk and cheese partnership of Sam and Surrender-not, and the sheer level of engagement Mukherjee creates with the reader in how he presents the social and political unrest of this turbulent period of Indian history. With the former, I would say that each time we encounter these wonderful characters, there is always a little stretch of unchartered territory between them, little pieces of which Mukherjee brings to the narrative, giving us a different perspective of them as each investigation develops. This book is no different with Sam’s largely deniable opium habit leading to all manner of trouble, and becoming an increasingly large elephant in the room in his relationship with Surrender-Not. Equally, Surrender-not’s personal connection to some prominent political enemies of the Raj, reveals a whole new side to his character, and the very personal toll it has on him, trying to make his way in a career that puts him at odds with his family and fellow citizens. Mukherjee captures perfectly their points of similarity, as much as their points of difference, and how at the crux of their working relationship, these points of separation or conflict actually lead them to be an extremely effective working partnership. This unity of purpose becomes especially evident when pitted against other representatives of law, order and security, and some thorny encounters ensue, and, needless to say when violence comes a-knocking you can guarantee Sam will be in the way. Although, this investigation is markedly more emotive and darker in tone than the previous books, there is still time for the badinage, and affectionate leg pulling that Mukherjee affords his detecting double act, as well as to those they encounter along the way, which is, as always, entertaining.

With the war for Indian independence raging on, and the upcoming visit of the Prince of Wales, there is a tinderbox atmosphere in Calcutta, and Mukherjee completely immerses the reader in the stifling heat, social unrest, and the simmering violence that regularly explodes. Peppered with figures in the fight for independence, and their differing attitudes in how to achieve this aim of liberation from suffocating British rule, the book positively throbs with suppressed and overt rebellion, from the average citizen on the street, to those who would keep order, to those who seek to overturn the status quo, and the increasingly less confident smug satisfaction of the British themselves. All this tension and turbulence is delivered in a measured, informative and entertaining style, underscored by the sights and sounds of the city streets, and the building heat, both meteorological and political, sucking you in and ramping up the tension to the nth degree. Brilliant.

I think this just proves, if further proof were needed, that this is a remarkably good book in a remarkably good series, and I cannot find a bad word to say about it.

Which is lovely.

And why you should all seek out these books for yourselves.

Which would be lovely too.

 

(With thanks to Harvill Secker for the ARC)

 

 

#20BooksOfSummer #2 Theodore Brun- A Mighty Dawn #3 Conor O’Callaghan- Nothing On Earth #4 Sam Selvon- The Lonely Londoners #5 Michael Ignatieff- Charlie Johnson In The Flames

Hakan, son of Haldan, chosen son of the Lord of the Northern Jutes, swears loyalty to his father in fire, in iron, and in blood. But there are always shadows that roam. When a terrible tragedy befalls Hakan’s household he is forced to leave his world behind. He must seek to pledge his sword to a new king. Nameless and alone, he embarks on a journey to escape the bonds of his past and fulfil his destiny as a great warrior.

Whispers of sinister forces in the north pull Hakan onwards to a kingdom plagued by mysterious and gruesome deaths. But does he have the strength to do battle with such dark foes? Or is death the only sane thing to seek in this world of blood and broken oaths?

Right, so I’m now embarking on another series chockfull of Vikings, smiting, pillaging, rumpy pumpy, more smiting and so on, set in eighth century Denmark. Having read Tim Severin, Giles Kristian, Robert Low and the brilliant Frans G. Bengtsson amongst others, I thought this might be worth a look. With the reference to Game of Thrones on the cover, I would agree that this book is incredibly, incredibly similar in tone, and story arc with added horns…no sniggering at the back there. It does feel a little more cinematic to some of the series I mentioned earlier, with a steadfast injection of action and shock horror moments, but this is no bad thing and I like the way that Brun has obviously been influenced by the Scandinavian sagas in the way that he controls the pace and moments of high drama within the book. This also feeds into the way that the story takes on a more mythical feel as the story progresses, and this was effectively done without feeling contrived.

When I was toying with buying this I saw one reviewer draw attention to the Shakespearean feel of the book, and this is a very valid observation, as there are marked themes of betrayal, conspiracy, family conflict and thwarted relationships. I enjoyed this first book very much indeed, with its earthy humour, a myriad cast of characters, and yes, a more than satisfying amount of violence, treachery and ambition with which we associate the marauding Viking hordes. Recommended.

(I bought this copy of A Mighty Dawn)

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It is the hottest August in living memory.

A frightened girl bangs on a door. A man answers. From the moment he invites her in, his world will never be the same again.

She will tell him about her family, and their strange life in the show home of an abandoned housing estate. The long, blistering days spent sunbathing; the airless nights filled with inexplicable noises; the words that appear on the windows, written in dust.

Why are members of her family disappearing, one by one? Is she telling the truth? Is he?

In a world where reality is beginning to blur, how can we know what to believe?

Okay, so on a scale of one to nigh on impossible to review without spoilers, this book is one such challenge. So moving swiftly on from any discussion of the plot, I will merely say that that there was a very strong  feeling of Jon McGregor’s mesmerising If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things about this one, and that pleased me greatly. I think O’Callaghan does a masterful job of constantly keeping the reader slightly on the back foot playing with our perception of the characters and causing us to question their motivations, and the face they present to the world. Everything in this book feels slightly gauzy, and unreal, in what slowly reveals itself as a tense, psychological drama, suffused with a Gothic-esque use of misdirection, luring us further into the darkness. O’Callaghan has perfectly married the suffocating atmosphere of a heatwave, with the building tension of a society that has veered from boom to bust, and the havoc this wreaks on ordinary people’s lives. There is a lyrical intensity to the writing throughout, and I would absolutely suggest that this book is read in as close to one sitting as possible, to appreciate the rhythm and imagery that O’Callaghan employs. Highly recommended.

(I bought this copy of Nothing On Earth)

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At Waterloo Station, hopeful new arrivals from the West Indies step off the boat train, ready to start afresh in 1950s London. There, homesick Moses Aloetta, who has already lived in the city for years, meets Henry ‘Sir Galahad’ Oliver and shows him the ropes. In this strange, cold and foggy city where the natives can be less than friendly at the sight of a black face, has Galahad met his Waterloo? But the irrepressible newcomer cannot be cast down. He and all the other lonely new Londoners – from shiftless Cap to Tolroy, whose family has descended on him from Jamaica – must try to create a new life for themselves. As pessimistic ‘old veteran’ Moses watches their attempts, they gradually learn to survive and come to love the heady excitements of London.

Okay, so my first question is why it has taken me so long to discover this little diamond of book, which has been languishing  on the  bookshelves for years? As an account of the particular problems faced by West Indian migrants in 1950s London, this is a glorious mix of pathos and humour, with the narrative reflecting the rhythmical beauty of  Jamaican patois. I loved the almost poetical flow of the dialogue, and the characters are so roundly drawn that you cannot help be drawn in completely to the fate of them as they navigate the often hostile environment that they now inhabit. The dual monsters of poverty and prejudice loom large throughout, but there’s also an overarching resonance of community, resourcefulness, stoicism and hope too . A wonderful read.

(I bought this copy of The Lonely Londoners)

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Charlie Johnson is an American journalist working for a British news agency somewhere in the Balkans. He believes that over the course of a long career he has seen everything, but suddenly he finds himself more than simply a witness. A woman who has been sheltering Charlie and his crew is doused in gasoline and set on fire by a retreating Serbian colonel. As she stumbles, burning, down the road, Charlie dashes from hiding, throws her down rolling her over and over to extinguish the flames, burning his hands in the process. Believing the woman’s life to have been saved, Charlie is traumatized by her death. Something snaps. He now realizes he has just one ambition left in life: to find the colonel and kill him…

With shades of both Greene and Hemingway, I found this is a finely nuanced and, at times, a deeply moving novella addressing the Balkan crisis. Based on the author’s own experience of war reporting, Ignatieff imbues Johnson with all the moral questioning, unbridled seeking of truth and so on, that more reputable and brave journalists have  been renowned for. Interestingly though, he takes the question of morality further still, testing Johnson’s resolve to resist meeting violence with violence after his witnessing of a war crime. I have read many accounts of war reportage, due to my interest in the  factual and fictional representation of war, and although this stood as a strong testament to the nature of conflict and personal responsibility within the Balkan crisis, I think I prefer the author’s journalistic works like Blood and Belonging and Empire Lite. Worth checking out though…

(I bought this copy of Charlie Johnson In The Flames)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blog Tour-Jesper Stein- Unrest

When the bound, hooded corpse of an unidentified man is found propped up against a gravestone in the central cemetery, Axel Steen is assigned the case. Rogue camera footage soon suggests police involvement and links to the demolition of the nearby Youth House, teeming with militant far-left radicals. But Axel soon discovers that many people, both inside and out of the force, have an unusual interest in the case and in preventing its resolution. With a rapidly worsening heart condition, an estranged ex-wife and beloved five-year-old daughter to contend with, Axel will not stop until the killer is caught, whatever the consequences. But the consequences turn out to be greater than expected – especially for Axel himself…

In the best possible way, Unrest is very much a what you see is what you get type of thriller, as it ticks every single box required of a Scandinavian crime novel, and is extremely reflective of the genre as a whole. Indeed, as I was reading, I felt echoes of Nesbo, Larsson, Staalesen and Nesser throughout the book particularly in terms of plot and characterisation, and the density and slow burning feel of the plot again fulfils perfectly the familiar characteristics of the genre, so plenty to enjoy here for the Nordic noir fan…

The reader is thrust straight into the familiar realm of police conspiracy, so beloved of the Scandinavian set, suffused with the gritty, unflinching gaze on the political and social ills of Danish society. With a riot in full flow, the discovery of a body would seem an ordinary occurrence, but Stein perfectly hinges his whole narrative on why and how this victim is of such significance on a much larger canvas, and the wider ramifications of this killing. Stein presents a broad spectrum of issues including immigration, police corruption, the drug trade, trafficking and so on, and generally  this is one of the more slow burning Scandinavian thrillers I have encountered, as reasons for, and suspects of the killing are slowly addressed, investigated and discounted as the plot develops. It did take me a while to slow down to the pace of the plot, and begin to appreciate the more laborious style of investigation that the main police protagonist, Axel Steen, finds himself embroiled in, in contrast to say the more compact style of other Nordic writers. I think Unrest is extremely reminiscent of some of the fine Nordic TV dramas that we love, with chicanery, social and political division and big meaty issues at its core.    Consequently, the political and social elements of the plot and the tensions between the investigative branches , engaged me more, and I very much enjoyed Stein’s warts-and-all portrayal of Copenhagen. I thought he depicted beautifully the chasm between the areas of the city, both monetarily and structurally, and I loved the way his writing had shades of the old fashioned flaneur, with the very visual and observant tone of his descriptions, as  Steen traverses the different neighbourhoods.

I’m sure regular readers of my reviews know of my general aversion to too much being made of the familial and romantic upsets of the main police protagonists, and to an extent this book did irritate me slightly in terms of this. Personally I grew a little tired of Steen’s domestic woes and his sexual involvement with a key witness, and the less said about his reves humides the better, but on a more positive note I found his professional persona contained some of my favourite characteristics of an officer operating to his own agenda and with his own methods. Stein imbues his detective with the cynical and slightly hangdog air so beloved in the genre, but this pall of negativity usefully detracts other people’s perceptions of Steen, thus revealing a keen mind and nose for a conspiracy. He’s also not afraid to get his hands dirty or to take a knock or two along the way, skating the boundaries of professional behaviour, but delighting us with his aversion to following the rules.

Overall, I enjoyed this new-to-me author, and judging by the praise the author receives across Europe, I think there may be more enjoyment to come in the company of Detective Superintendent Axel Steen. A solid Scandinavian thriller, and recommended for fans of the genre…

(With thanks to Mirror Books for the ARC)

‘Jesper writes about a Copenhagen that’s both full of change yet always the same. Its harsh, dark, yet with a warm, beating heart at its core.’ LARS KEPLER, author of The Hypnotist ‘

‘Jesper Stein’s crime novels cast a strong light on contemporary Denmark in such a way that they deserve readers far beyond Danish borders.’ GUNNAR STAALESEN, winner of the 2017 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel Of The Year

‘Stein’s first novel establishes a whole new Scandinavian style.’ ROLLING STONE (Germany)

Follow the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

 

***COVER REVEAL*** Amer Anwar- Brothers In Blood

brothers-in-blood-cover

 

WINNER OF THE CWA DEBUT DAGGER

THE MUST READ THRILLER OF 2018

A Sikh girl on the run.
A Muslim ex-con who has to find her.
A whole heap of trouble.

Southall, West London. After being released from prison, Zaq Khan is lucky to land a dead-end job at a builders’ yard. All he wants to do is keep his head down and put the past behind him.
But when Zaq is forced to search for his boss’s runaway daughter, he quickly finds himself caught up in a deadly web of deception, murder and revenge.
With time running out and pressure mounting, can Zaq find the missing girl before it’s too late? And if he does, can he keep her – and himself – alive long enough to deal with the people who want them both dead?

“An engaging hero, a cunning plot, and a fascinating journey into Southall’s underworld. We’ll be hearing a lot more from Amer Anwar.”

– Mick Herron

“A fine debut novel. With his engaging characters and skilful plotting, Anwar brings a fresh and exciting new voice to the genre.”
 Ann Cleeves

Raven’s review…

Winner of the CWA Debut Dagger Award, Brothers In Blood marks the start of an incredibly promising crime thriller writing career for Amer Anwar. This one of the most vibrant and edgy crime thrillers I have encountered for some time. From the very start of the book, I was completely immersed in the trials and tribulations of central protagonist Zaq Khan, who through the fickle finger of fate finds himself entangled in a very dangerous situation indeed. Subject to blackmail and intimidation, he is tasked with uncovering the whereabouts of his boss’s errant daughter, Rita, who has ostensibly run away from an impending forced marriage. Finding himself at odds with his boss, Rita’s two meat-headed brothers, and ghosts from the past seeking to inflict some serious physical damage upon him, Zaq needs to be resourceful, cunning and more than a little devious to survive this trial by fire…

Zaq is a truly likeable and engaging character, who immediately gets the reader on side with his mix of easy humour, craftiness, and genuine good guy demeanour. Anwar instils him with a honesty and charm that has you rooting for him from the outset, as pressure is brought to bear on him from all angles. He’s fast-talking and quick thinking, and despite the hole he finds himself in does not lose his keen sense of morality to extricate Rita, and by extension, himself, from a nasty situation.  I loved his interactions with his best mate Jags, and the solid camaraderie that exists between them, despite the twist in fate that sees their lives having progressed on two very different courses. I also admire Jags’ natural ability to act as a second mother to Zaq in terms of tea-making and painkiller providing as his mate gets into a succession of scrapes, and is always happy to play second fiddle to Zaq’s suicidal plans. This has to be one of the greatest friendships forged in crime fiction, and is a constant source of delight throughout. Anwar’s band of bad boys, out for Zaq’s blood are equally well depicted, slow, dull-witted, and handy with their fists, and allowing for some exciting and very well written fight scenes, where there is a realistic and palpable pain. There’s nothing worse than a fight scene where everyone is seemingly unmarked by the experience, and boy, does Zaq take some punishment.

Set around the environs of Southall and its Asian community, the life, colour, languages and atmosphere of this area shines through Anwar’s depiction of its inhabitants. The sights, sounds and delicious aromas of the area bring a vibrancy and liveliness to his descriptions, and gives the reader a real sense of the connections between our main protagonists and their community. The plotting is assured, and I liked the way that Anwar leads us in a seemingly linear direction, which is entertaining enough, but then pulls a couple of startling revelations that take the story in a different direction indeed. The pace is perfectly controlled, and I genuinely found this incredibly hard to put down, as it is punctuated by a glorious mix of fast visceral action, a dash of heart-warming interactions, a further sprinkling of violence and chicanery, and then a steady build up of misdirection to an exciting, and not altogether predictable ending.

I absolutely loved  Brothers In Blood, and having become a little jaded with the British-set crime thriller scene of late, this gave me a right old flying by the seat of my pants reading experience, which seemed fresh and exciting. A cracking new voice on the thriller scene, and yes, I can’t wait to see what Amer Anwar produces next. Pure brilliant and highly recommended.

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Amer Anwar grew up in West London. After leaving college he had a variety of jobs, including; warehouse assistant, comic book lettering artist, a driver for emergency doctors and chalet rep in the French Alps. He eventually landed a job as a creative artworker/graphic designer and spent the next decade and a half producing artwork, mainly for the home entertainment industry. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London and is a winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award. Brothers In Blood is his first novel. For everything else, he has an alibi. It wasn’t him. He was never there.

Published by: Dialogue Books
Release date: 6th September 2018
Also available as ebook and audiobook.