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Raven Crime Reads

Criminally good reads…

#BlogTour- Sarah Stovell- Exquisite

Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name. Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend. When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops … Or does it?

With marked similarity to the books of Barbara Vine and Minette Walters, Exquisite by Sarah Stovell is a discomforting and taut tale of sexual obsession and damaged personalities that will keep you gripped…

Focussing on an initially altruistic friendship between an established author, Bo Luxton, and her young protegee and fledgling writer, Alice Dark, Stovell constructs an increasingly menacing story, built on unreliable narrators and alternating points of view. The structure of the book is also underpinned by a third narration set within the confines of a women’s prison in Yorkshire, automatically causing us to cast aspersions on which of our female protagonists, if either, are incarcerated within. These alternate narratives work beautifully in terms of controlling the suspense, and each is perfectly weighted, to disabuse the reader of flicking between one and the other, holding the interest throughout. Stovell uses these split narratives to great effect, and the unreliable narration works its magic to unsettle, and cause conflict in our own perceptions of these two women. Personally, I didn’t like either of them hugely from the outset, which perhaps is a credit to Stovell’s depiction of both, and I did question the intensity of their relationship which seemed at odds, and slightly unbelievable in light of what we knew of their lives. However, my sympathy was aroused for one character towards the close of the book, particularly with the exceedingly dark , though slightly obvious occurrence on the last page. I also found the presence of Bo’s husband Gus unsatisfying and increasingly superfluous, but as the story builds around Bo and Alice, this was I suppose the author’s intention.

Aside from this, the prose itself is darkly engaging, with interludes of beautifully lyrical descriptions of the Lake District itself, set against the intensity of the burgeoning tension, and increasingly dangerous nature of the relationship between Bo and Alice. Each woman’s point of view weaves seamlessly in and out of the other, leading the reader to question constantly, and form their own opinions of the veracity of each. Trying not to give anything away here, which is difficult, there is also an exploration of Bo and Alice’s formative years, and how the nature of their childhood familial relationships have impacted on them, and formed their personalities. Increasingly this brings to the fore the age old question of nature vs nurture, and with Bo’s own identity as a mother herself, it is interesting to see the ramifications of her previous life experience in her own relationship with her husband and children.

All in all, Exquisite is a largely satisfying psychological thriller with the influence of others in the genre looming large, but taking on an identity of its own. It is a disturbing tale of lies, jealousy and obsession, which will more than sate the reader of the current domestic noir crop, but definitely at the darker end of the spectrum. Recommended.

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

Matthew Richardson- My Name Is Nobody

Solomon Vine was the best of his generation, a spy on a fast track to the top. But when a prisoner is shot in unexplained circumstances on his watch, only suspension and exile beckon.
Three months later, MI6’s Head of Station in Istanbul is abducted from his home. There are signs of a violent struggle. With the Service in lockdown, uncertain of who can be trusted, thoughts turn to the missing man’s oldest friend: Solomon Vine.
Officially suspended, Vine can operate outside the chain of command to uncover the truth. But his investigation soon reveals that the disappearance heralds something much darker. And that there’s much more at stake than the life of a single spy…

Oooh I do love a good spy thriller, and a behind the scenes look at the secret world of espionage, so was more than a little tempted to read My Name Is Nobody, having heard debut author Matthew Richardson talk about the book at a recent crime fiction event. Tapping in perfectly to this popular genre, inhabited by such heavyweights as John Le Carre, Charles Cumming, and Mick Herron, how did this spy thriller measure up? Hailing from Cheltenham, the home of world renowned government listening post GCHQ, and currently working within the hallowed walls of Westminster, the home of British democracy, or skulduggery, depending on your viewpoint, Matthew Richardson brings his knowledge of both locations to the fore. Set aside the mysterious shadowy worlds of MI5 and MI6, and an obvious appreciation of spy tradecraft, Richardson serves up a twisting, and duplicitous tale of counter-bluff, and dishonesty worthy of his contemporaries. Beginning with violent events during an interrogation of a suspected terrorist in Istanbul, and the abduction of MI6’s Head of Station in its aftermath, disgraced agent Solomon Vine, begins his own unsanctioned investigation into these startling events, inviting a whole heap of trouble…

Overall, I found this a well-plotted and multi-layered spy thriller, resplendent with detail on the workings of some of Britain’s most secret inner sanctums, and a never less than accurate and atmospheric portrayal of Richardson’s chosen locations. This applied to the echoing chambers of Westminster itself in the pulsing heart of London, the dreaming spires of Oxford, the rolling countryside of Gloucestershire and the excruciating blandness of Cheltenham rail station and its environs. The action moves quickly and seamlessly between these locations, as Vine endeavours to uncover a major conspiracy, where the old adage applies of trust no one, be this in Vine’s investigation or as we discover in a series of flashbacks, those closest to him. Indeed, my prevailing thought throughout was that I felt unable to trust anybody, and more than a few characters may not appear to be all they seem. I’ll say no more than that on the plot.

Although the plot of My Name Is Nobody was incredibly well structured, with its attention to the workings of Britain’s security services, and some nice old school spy tricks, I was a little less convinced by the characterisation, and a slight over-reliance on repetition in the plot. I don’t know how convinced I felt by the main players as they were a wee bit cardboard cut-out, and some of the personal upheavals in Vine’s life were too well signposted, and a little predictable for this reader, but I think the strength of plotting, storytelling and location counterbalances these small hiccups. A good old fashioned spy thriller with a good contemporary feel. Recommended.

(With thanks to Penguin for the ARC)

Emma Viskic- Resurrection Bay

Caleb Zelic, profoundly deaf since early childhood, has always lived on the outside – watching, picking up tell-tale signs people hide in a smile, a cough, a kiss.

When a childhood friend is murdered, a sense of guilt and a determination to prove his own innocence sends Caleb on a hunt for the killer. But he can’t do it alone. Caleb and his troubled friend Frankie, an ex-cop, start with one clue: Scott, the last word the murder victim texted to Caleb. But Scott is always one step ahead.

This gripping, original and fast-paced crime thriller is set between a big city and a small coastal town, Resurrection Bay, where Caleb is forced to confront painful memories. Caleb is a memorable protagonist who refuses to let his deafness limit his opportunities or his participation in the investigation. But does his persistence border on stubbornness? And at what cost? As he delves deeper into the investigation Caleb uncovers unwelcome truths about his murdered friend – and himself.

As an ardent fan of Pushkin Press‘ publishing output, and their bijou Vertigo collection of European crime in translation, I was more than a little curious to read the latest addition to the series. But what’s this? Not European, but Australian, and the Raven’s curiosity went into overdrive…Okay, so before I start generally gushing about Resurrection Bay, I will set my stall out early, and say that I would be very surprised if this one doesn’t feature prominently in my year end round-up. I thought it was accomplished, original and utterly riveting, so much so that I read it in pretty much one sitting, and indeed felt slightly bereft when I had finished it. I was totally immersed in the difficult and dangerous world of Caleb Zelic from the very beginning, and with its resonance of the sharp, snappy hard-boiled essence of American crime fiction, and the refreshingly original main protagonist of Zelic himself, there is much to enjoy here.

Having a profoundly deaf central protagonist, I imagine poses its own particular difficulties for an author, whilst keeping us focussed on the difficulties and subtle nuances of this disability, but by the same token not over-egging the narrative to reflect this. I think Viskic achieves this balance beautifully, as we come to appreciate the attendant difficulties of Zelic’s life coping with, and largely overcoming the problems associated with his deafness. This was a subtle and sensitive portrayal of this disability, emphasising his reliance on Auslan (sign language) and lip reading, and I particularly enjoyed the way that his perception of people was formed through their varying degrees of success of communicating with him through these methods. The problems that arise through other’s indistinct speech, or shouting at him like he was an idiot was nicely done, and also the mental stress he encounters through tiredness, or the malfunctioning of his aids. As an extension of this, Viskic focusses a great deal on the barriers of communication that exist, not only through Zelic’s deafness, but between other characters in different situations, and how this can lead to danger or emotional isolation. This adds a whole other level to the narrative, which although perfectly serviceable as a compelling thriller, is enriched further by these observations of human communication. Zelic is obviously at the forefront of the book, but there is equally strong characterisation of those around him, including his work partner, ex-detective Frankie Reynolds, and Zelic’s estranged wife Kat. Both women are strong, resilient and uniquely different, and it’s interesting how our perception of Zelic is affected by his particular relationship with each, and how each adds humour, danger or sheer emotional intensity to the plot. Kat provides another sense of depth to the tale with her Aboriginal roots, and the unquestioning acceptance, or blatant racism that her ancestry provokes is touched upon too, but again with a subtlety that doesn’t bash the reader around the head.

I thought the plot of Resurrection Bay was pacey and gripping, as Zelic sets out to investigate the murder of an old friend, and certain dark secrets come to light. There are sporadic bouts of violence and peril, cross and double-cross that keep the story moving nicely, punctuated by more tender and introspective scenes, with an exploration of addiction, love and loyalty. There’s also a good twist at the end, that this reader most definitely didn’t see coming, which is always satisfying, and to be honest I am on tenterhooks for the next instalment of what I hope will be a continuing series. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARC)

Abir Mukherjee- A Necessary Evil

India, 1920. Captain Wyndham and Sergeant Banerjee of the Calcutta Police Force investigate the dramatic assassination of a Maharajah’s son.

The fabulously wealthy kingdom of Sambalpore is home to tigers, elephants, diamond mines and the beautiful Palace of the Sun. But when the heir to the throne is assassinated in the presence of Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant ‘Surrender-Not’ Banerjee, they discover a kingdom riven with suppressed conflict. Prince Adhir was a moderniser whose attitudes – and romantic relationship – may have upset the more religious elements of his country, while his brother – now in line to the throne – appears to be a feckless playboy.

As Wyndham and Banerjee desperately try to unravel the mystery behind the assassination, they become entangled in a dangerous world where those in power live by their own rules and those who cross their paths pay with their lives. They must find a murderer, before the murderer finds them…

Following the inclusion of Abir Mukherjee’s debut A Rising Man in my Top 5 of 2016, obviously I was as keen as mustard to read A Necessary Evil,  the next in the series. This time our indomitable duo of Englishman Captain Sam Wyndham, and his right hand man Sergeant Surrender-not Banerjee of the Calcutta police are transported from their usual locale to the opulent kingdom of Sambalpore, following the assassination of its crowned prince. And be sure that there is more trickery afoot…

Instantly, I was drawn back into the lives of Wyndham and Banerjee, with their affectionate and mutually respectful relationship, and their sense of comradeship and camaraderie fully intact. Wyndham is still struggling with his own personal demons, and also still proving woefully inept in matters of the heart, which adds a lightness of touch to this particularly testing case. Banerjee also grows in stature throughout the book, becoming less of a foil for Wyndham’s character, and becoming much more equal in terms of their professional relationship. He also has some blistering moments of insight, along with the intuitive and studied air that he displays in the course of the investigation. I love the openness and amicability of their friendship, which makes you very comfortable as a reader, and how Mukherjee affords them equal importance, with Wyndham being the more emotionally scarred of the two, but Banerjee subtly adjusting to, and caring about Wyndham’s mental and physical health. I think as well that there is enough scope for both these characters to anchor a long and successful series. While in the realm of characterisation, I would also draw your attention to Mukherjee’s depiction of his female characters, which I think is incredibly good. I like the way that he mirrors men’s general mystification at the workings of the female mind, and his women are strong, independent, and always slightly at a remove of the understanding of his male characters throughout the book. Wyndham is once again bemused by the wonderfully strident and prismatic Annie Grant, and as the plot progresses we meet a parade of incredibly strong, sometimes scheming, women to thwart and confuse the investigation, and outwit our floundering male protagonists.

Once again, Mukherjee is pitch perfect in his representation of the period detail, during the uneasy era of the rule of the British in India. There is a sense of parity throughout where the author is equally stoical and objective of the good and bad that pervades both sides of society, and the interesting contrasts he draws between the human melting pot of poverty in Calcutta, and the ostentatious wealth of Sambalpore, accrued from diamond mining. The sumptuous lavishness of the Maharajah’s palace, and its surrounds, is meticulously brought to life, immersing the reader in opulence, grandeur and the daily routines and traditions of palace life. There are tiger hunts, fancy cars, eunuchs, myriad wives and concubines, but perhaps most importantly for our enjoyment as crime readers, jealousies, plots and murder in abundance. I also like the way that Mukherjee includes little factual vignettes throughout his books, that obviously in the course of his research had piqued his curiosity like ‘death by elephant’…who knew?

So to sum up, Abir Mukherjee has returned in some style, and I thoroughly enjoyed the further adventures of Wyndham and Banerjee in A Necessary Evil. Colourful, dangerous, exciting, and enjoyably educational, this is, once again, a highly recommended read. Add it to your wish list!

(With thanks to Harvill Secker for the ARC)

A Belated Round-Up- Matt Wesolowski- Six Stories/ Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich- The Fact Of A Body/ Lone Theils-Fatal Crossing/ The Crime Book

I’ve done my usual trick of reading many, many books, but have then left the writing of reviews for far too long (hangs head in shame, looking chastened etc…) So in this post I will try to provide some kind of cohesive summaries of these, and hopefully you may find something among them to tickle your fancy!

1997. Scarclaw Fell. The body of teenager Tom Jeffries is found at an outward bound centre. Verdict? Misadventure. But not everyone is convinced. And the truth of what happened in the beautiful but eerie fell is locked in the memories of the tight-knit group of friends who embarked on that fateful trip, and the flimsy testimony of those living nearby. 2017. Enter elusive investigative journalist Scott King, whose podcast examinations of complicated cases have rivalled the success of Serial, with his concealed identity making him a cult internet figure. In a series of six interviews, King attempts to work out how the dynamics of a group of idle teenagers conspired with the sinister legends surrounding the fell to result in Jeffries’ mysterious death. And who’s to blame …

With its highly innovative use of the serial podcast structure, Wesolowski’s widely-reviewed and praised Six Stories weaves a dark and disturbing tale of murder, jealousy and teenage angst pivoting between two distinctive timelines. Setting up each individual’s recounting of events surrounding an ill-fated trip as teenagers to an outward bound centre, Wesolowski uses the trope of unreliable narration to the max, as each protagonist’s recollection is laid out before us. The structure works well, causing the reader to question the veracity of each witness’ or suspect’s testimony, although you may pick up on something quite early on, but then delight in having your suspicion’s confirmed. I loved the very naturalistic style of Wesolowski’s portrayal of the wild and dangerous beauty of his imagined location of Scarclaw Fell, which reminded me strongly of the brilliant Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers, where the location so strongly mirrors the darkness and sinister tension of the main plot. Six Stories is certainly refreshingly different with its quirky structure and clarity of description, and Wesolowski taps in perfectly to both the teenager’s experiences, but also intuitively counterbalancing it with their later perspective on events as adults. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

Before Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich begins a summer job at a law firm in Louisiana, working on the retrial defence of death-row convicted murderer and child molester, Ricky Langley, she thinks her position is clear. The child of two lawyers, she is staunchly anti death penalty. But the moment Ricky’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes, the moment she hears him speak of his crimes, she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case, realizing that despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar. Crime, even the darkest and most unspeakable acts, can happen to any one of us, and as Alexandria pores over the facts of the murder, she finds herself thrust into the complicated narrative of Ricky’s childhood. And by examining minute details of Ricky’s case, she is forced to face her own story, to unearth long-buried family secrets, to reckon with how her own past colours her view of his crime…

With more than warranted comparisons to such true crime classics as In Cold Blood and Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil, Alexandria Marzano- Lesnevich’ s powerful, thought-provoking and intensely moving memoir, recounting the darker periods of her childhood, and her fledgling career in  law is one of the best non-fiction books I have encountered for some time. Tracing and examining her own emotional development from a childhood of abuse and family denial, and her involvement as a young lawyer in one of America’s most thorny and haunting crime cases, The Fact Of A Body raises as many questions as it answers regarding crime and punishment, as well as providing the reader with a deep insight into the life of this remarkable woman whose seemingly firm beliefs in the immorality of the death penalty are so roundly challenged and undermined by the retrial of notorious murderer Ricky Langley. As much as this is non-fiction, the author’s lightness of touch, and her powerful and intensely descriptive, scene setting, gives a feeling of fiction to the whole affair, adding to the reader’s engagement and the sheer readability of the book. One of my personal heroes since my teenage years has been English lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith, due to his tireless quest for justice for death row prisoners in the United States, and the author’s own professional involvement with this remarkable man is strongly bound up in the narrative throughout, adding another layer of interest for this reader. I found this an emotional, compelling and utterly fascinating read, and as only a sporadic reader of non-fiction, this had me completely transfixed. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Macmillan for the ARC)

When a picture of two Danish girls who disappeared on a boat bound for England in 1985 emerges many years later in an old suitcase from a British second-hand dealer, the journalist Nora Sand’s professional curiosity is immediately awakened. But before she knows it, she is mixed up in the case of a serial killer who is serving a life sentence in a notorious prison, and the quest to discover the truth about the missing girls may be more dangerous that she had ever imagined…

With its satisfying mix of Scandinavian crime thriller, and more than a nod to Silence of the Lambs, I thoroughly enjoyed Fatal Crossing,  first of a series introducing Danish journalist Nora Sand. Nora proves herself an eminently likeable protagonist with her dogged reporter style, and her complicated private life, with the story criss-crossing nicely between Denmark and the UK, balancing well her part-time assimilation from her homeland to her life and work in London. With an intriguingly dark, well-plotted investigation, and the shadow of a notorious serial killer looming large within Sand’s quest for the truth, there were enough twists and tension to keep me reading. As an aside, Nora also provides some great moments of acerbic wit throughout, which provided some good pockets of light relief as the story unfolded. Very keen to read the next one. Recommended.

(With thanks to Arcadia Books for the ARC)

An essential guide to criminology, exploring the most infamous cases of all time, from serial killers to mob hits to war crimes and more.

From Jack the Ripper to Jeffrey Dahmer, The Crime Book is a complete study of international true crime history that unpacks the shocking stories through infographics and in-depth research that lays out every key fact and detail. Examine the science, psychology, and sociology of criminal behavior, and read profiles of villains, victims, and detectives. See each clue and follow the investigation from start to finish, and study the police and detective work of each case…

Having treated myself to the Sherlock Holmes Book from the same series. how could I resist this big, bold and beautifully illustrated compendium of dark deeds and murder from across the centuries? With a global representation of murderers, robbers, tricksters and shysters, this covers cases old and new, the well known and the less so, in one visually pleasing and mentally stimulating edition of all things crime. Divided into eight categories including Bandits, Robbers and Arsonists, Con Artists, White Collar Crimes, Kidnapping and Extortion, Murder Cases, Organized Crime, Assassinations and Political Plots and Serial Killers there are a whole host of illustrations, infographics and tantalising titbits to delve into…

The Crime Book not only focuses on the particulars of this myriad of cases, but also explores the world of forensics, psychological profiling, and the media representation of these most notorious of cases. With an introduction by British crime writer Peter James, this is a book that offers much to explore, and the best tips on how to get away- or not- with murder…

Mwahahaha….

(With thanks to Dorling Kindersley for the ARC)

 

 

 

 

#BlogTour- Johana Gustawsson- Block 46

Falkenberg, Sweden. The mutilated body of talented young jewellery designer, Linnea Blix, is found in a snow-swept marina. Hampstead Heath, London. The body of a young boy is discovered with similar wounds to Linnea’s. Buchenwald Concentration Camp, 1944. In the midst of the hell of the Holocaust, Erich Hebner will do anything to see himself as a human again. Are the two murders the work of a serial killer, and how are they connected to shocking events at Buchenwald? Emily Roy, a profiler on loan to Scotland Yard from the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, joins up with Linnea’s friend, French true crime writer Alexis Castells, to investigate the puzzling case. They travel between Sweden and London, and then deep into the past, as a startling and terrifying connection comes to light…

Carefully weaving together the feel of Nordic noir, the heightened emotional sensitivity of French fiction, an unflinching reprisal of the darkest days of WW2, and the hunt for a serial killer, Block 46 proves itself an utterly compelling and harrowing read. Already the recipient of two prestigious writing prizes, Johana Gustawsson artfully balances these contrasting strands throughout, taking the reader on a journey to the darkest recesses of the human psyche…

For the purposes of my review, I will not dwell too extensively on the plot, for as readers this will unfold and immerse you with its beautifully connecting strands at a more than satisfying pace. What held me totally in its thrall, and exhibits so perfectly Gustawsson’s craft as a writer is her placing of her characters under extreme pressure, and their will to survive, and their resilience in these conditions. Obviously drawing on her own personal, familial history, the scenes centred on the  Buchenwald camp in the midst of the Holocaust, are perhaps the most conscious example of this with the focus on the story of Erich Ebner. As he navigates the fragile line between life and death in the inhumane and brutal conditions of Buchenwald, we observe a man who seeks to keep his humanity, and survive this torturous daily existence. He becomes inveigled with Doktor Fleischer in Block 46 ‘the antechamber to death’ a place of grim experimentation , where the reader is confronted with the harsh realities of Fleischer’s madness, but allows Ebner some safe passage through the unrelenting cruelty of life in Buchenwald. These sections of the book, and how they resonate in the contemporary timeline,  more than any other cause us to question not only Ebner’s motivations for survival, but to a degree if we could make the same decisions, and denial of our own moral compass to survive. I like the way that Gustawsson keeps this deliberately ambiguous, allowing her readers to step into this space, and to question themselves in the light of Ebner’s actions.  For me this unflinching portrayal of life in Buchenwald, and how it impacts so dramatically on the contemporary plot was exceptional in both its composition and description, testing the reader, and daring us to both look away, but also to question ourselves. The writing is never less than powerfully understated and intuitive, drawing us into a moral maze of psychological darkness.

This theme of survival and resilience is also played out to a lesser extent certainly, but as effectively, in Gustawsson’s contemporary female protagonists, criminal profiler Emily Roy and true crime writer Alexis Castells. Both women have lives touched by events or personal traits that have hampered their connection with others, with both exhibiting coping strategies to navigate the worlds they move in. Castells has been subject to a personal loss, which has sparked her career delving into the lives of people touched by brutal crime themselves, and as much as she inhabits this world so professionally and objectively, has found herself closed down from emotional personal relationships. Emily Roy, on the other hand is as removed from others by her single-mindedness and unique character traits which fit her chosen profession as a criminal profiler perfectly, but again sees her isolation from responding to others on a more emotional level. I liked the way that Gustawsson ascribed these women with this equal feeling of isolation, and how their seeming points of difference, are in fact so strikingly similar, and greatly enjoyed how these were explored in the course of this testing investigation.

There is a real feeling of all things to all people about Block 46, particularly for readers who like to be challenged and confronted with the less than unpalatable truths of human morality. The subtle weaving of powerful emotion, murderous intent and the tracking of a deranged killer, all underscored by Gustawsson’s influence of French and Scandinavian fiction, all co-exists and blends perfectly into a brave and beautifully realised book. Disturbing and compelling, Block 46 is an intensely unique read. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda for the ARC)

 

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

The Boys Are Back In Town- David Young- Stasi Wolf/ Steve Cavanagh- The Liar/ David Jackson- Hope To Die

East Germany, 1975. Karin Müller, sidelined from the murder squad in Berlin, jumps at the chance to be sent south to Halle-Neustadt, where a pair of infant twins have gone missing.

But Müller soon finds her problems have followed her. Halle-Neustadt is a new town – the pride of the communist state – and she and her team are forbidden by the Stasi from publicising the disappearances, lest they tarnish the town’s flawless image.

Meanwhile, in the eerily nameless streets and tower blocks, a child snatcher lurks, and the clock is ticking to rescue the twins alive . . .

Having absolutely loved David Young’s debut, Stasi Child with it’s refreshingly different setting, and being steeped in the history of Germany’s former divisions, both geographically and socially, here’s the next in the series. Once again the indomitable Karin Müller finds herself enmeshed in a thorny and deeply personal investigation, under the watchful eye of the Stasi…

What I have loved about both books is Young’s attention to detail, that so firmly roots the reader in this timeframe, allowing us to bear witness to the unique and sinister workings of this totalitarian state. Unlike other authors who fail to balance their reams of research with good solid storytelling, Young consistently displays a knack for both, whether describing the functional architecture of Halle-Neustadt, where Müller is stationed, to further adroit observations on the social stratum that exists behind its concrete façade. He effortlessly melds the constraints of life in the east, with references to the forbidden fruits that lie within the west, and the frustrations that Müller and her cohorts face in the course of their investigation . I really liked the use of the dual narrative, that slowly binds the story together, the revelatory impact on Müller’s case. and the grim revelations about certain medical practices in this closed state.

In terms of characterisation, not only does Müller have to navigate the suffocating constraints of state control, which the book excels at,  but there is a slight shift in tone, as Young begins to fill out Müller’s own character more, affording some interesting insights into her family history. At times I felt, this development of Muller’s character was weighted too heavily against the main plot, giving the book a slight imbalance, and there was one twist in the plot that felt a little too contrived for this reader, leading to the feeling that this was a bridging book to greater revelations ahead, instead of a naturally fluid development of the series. However, I enjoyed the way that once again, Young carefully uses Müller’s colleagues to lighten the tone, and adds a much needed softening to the personalities that lie beneath their constricted professional lives.

To be honest though, this one small criticism of Müller’s character development within Stasi Wolf  did little to dent my enjoyment overall. Young’s astute and compelling use of his chosen location and period of history was as enlightening and educational as ever, within the arc of this dark and disturbing investigation. Recommended.

(With thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for the ARC)

WHO IS DEADLIER …

Leonard Howell’s worst nightmare has come true: his daughter Caroline has been kidnapped. Not content with relying on the cops, Howell calls the only man he trusts to get her back.

… THE MAN WHO KNOWS THE TRUTH …

Eddie Flynn knows what it’s like to lose a daughter and vows to bring Caroline home safe. Once a con artist, now a hotshot criminal attorney, Flynn is no stranger to the shady New York underworld.

… OR THE ONE WHO BELIEVES A LIE?

However, as he steps back into his old life, Flynn realizes that the rules of game have changed – and that he is being played. But who is pulling the strings? And is anyone in this twisted case telling the truth…?

Having reviewed Steve Cavanagh’s two excellent previous Eddie Flynn thrillers, The Defence and The Plea  it is with some pleasure that I can say that the big guy has come up trumps again. Having converted me to the enjoyable world of the legal thriller, Cavanagh plunges his stalwart Flynn back into a compelling tale of kidnap and twisted family secrets…

The sharp-talking, quick thinking and utterly engaging character of Eddie Flynn lies at the heart of the success of this America based series to date. He is an entirely likeable protagonist who easily gets the reader on board with his delightful mix of street smarts and, at times, emotional sensitivity. I love the little echoes of his grifter past that undercut his talents as a lawyer, and the interludes of wit that Cavanagh employs in this incredibly fast paced and engaging thriller. Cavanagh’s writing is extremely fluid and well-paced throughout, with an uncanny knack in his control of tension and action, from the high-stakes shenanigans of Flynn’s courtroom appearances, to his clear-sighted and unquestioning mission for justice for his client.

So as not to spoil your enjoyment of this thriller, I will dwell fleetingly on the plot, as there are more than a few twists and turns and surprising revelations in the course of Flynn’s thorny case. What I would say is that there is a proper ass-kicking female FBI agent in this one, who more than deserves a repeat appearance in future books (hint, hint) and a grim tale of dark jealousies that exist between siblings that could only end badly. It is never less than gripping throughout, and Flynn needs his wits about him to navigate this minefield of tricky legal negotiations, and intermittent flashpoints of danger…

All in all, The Liar proves itself an extremely enjoyable, well-plotted thriller with solid characterisation, and a nice sting in the tale. A great addition to an already mustn’t miss series. Loved it.

(With thanks to Orion for the ARC)

On a bitterly cold winter’s night, Liverpool is left stunned by a brutal murder in the grounds of the city’s Anglican Cathedral. A killer is on the loose, driven by a chilling rage. Put on the case, DS Nathan Cody is quickly stumped. Wherever he digs, the victim seems to be almost angelic – no-one has a bad word to say, let alone a motive for such a violent murder. And Cody has other things on his mind too. The ghosts of his past are coming ever closer, and – still bearing the physical and mental scars – it’s all he can do to hold onto his sanity.
And then the killer strikes again . . .

Hope To Die is the second outing for DS Nathan Cody, and the follow up to A Tapping At My Door the first of David Jackson’s new Liverpool based series. Still reeling from the events of the first book, our beleaguered detective has more demons to face in this dark and testing investigation…

Aside from the triple murder case, the book is punctuated by the experiences of a young boy suffering abuse, in this case at the hands of a religiously zealous and cruel mother, and the mental angst of DS Cody himself in the grip of the reverberations of a previous violent interlude in his police career. Jackson largely succeeds at juggling these three strands of narrative, but maybe too consciously is setting the scene for a further book in the series in the case of Cody’s torment. I felt early on that the demons haunting him would not be effectively dealt with this in this book, so resigned myself to a possible cliffhanger for this particular story arc, but no matter as the murder investigations he is involved in provided more than enough tension in the main storyline. I thought the plotting and eventual resolution of the murder cases was extremely well done, with a cunningly concealed, but utterly believable perpetrator, and I enjoyed both the build up to,  and the final unmasking of, the killer. Jackson makes liberal use of red herrings and blind alleys, and I always think this adds something to the reading of a thriller, testing out our little grey cells, and playing with our intuition. I also greatly enjoyed the sideswipes at religious fervour and hypocrisy that are central to the murderer’s motivations.

Something that is always consistent in Jackson’s writing, be it his former New York set crime series, or this one, is his solid characterisation, and the interaction between his characters. There is ready Scouse wit, emotional angst, spikiness, and total professionalism in equal measure, and he never shies away from homing in on this little mis-steps in communication that exist when people have to react with others outside of their professional zone. This is particularly evident in the torturous and frustrating relationship between Cody and DC Megan Webley, whose emotional back and forth, provides a nice little distraction from the grim murder investigation, but not to the detriment of the central plot. More a case of will they again, won’t they again, knock their heads together, throw hands up in despair etc…

Hope To Die proves itself another well-executed police procedural from David Jackson, and as another step in the confronting of Cody’s ghosts from the past, acts as a good bridge in readiness for the next in the series. I’m looking forward to it already…

(With thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for the ARC)

 

 

Kerensa Jennings- Seas of Snow

1950s England. Five-year-old Gracie Scott lives with her Mam and next door to her best friend Billy. An only child, she has never known her Da. When her Uncle Joe moves in, his physical abuse of Gracie’s mother starts almost immediately. But when his attentions wander to Gracie, an even more sinister pattern of behaviour begins.

As Gracie grows older, she finds solace and liberation in books, poetry and her enduring friendship with Billy. Together they escape into the poetic fairy-tale worlds of their imaginations. But will fairy tales be enough to save Gracie from Uncle Joe’s psychopathic behaviour – and how far will it go?

I must confess that when I started reading Seas of Snow, I was entirely unsure of what to expect, hoping that this would go far beyond a simple, linear tale of family misery. My fears were very quickly dispelled, and to be honest, this was one of the most emotive, thought-provoking, and beautifully characterised novels I have read for some time…

For the purposes of this review I will studiously avoid the words crime novel, as to my mind what Kerensa Jennings has produced with aplomb is much more akin to literary fiction, in terms of emotional depth and narrative tone. With the use of the dual narrative structure, where the past is seamlessly intertwined with the contemporary timeline,  the reader finds themselves  gently pivoted back and forth. To avoid any unwitting spoilers, the contemporary aspect of the book involves two characters looking back on childhood events with their knowing adult perspective, but so as not to reveal a hugely surprising twist in the tale I can say no more. Suffice to say this part of this story was incredibly moving, and sees these characters wrestling with the emotional consequences of the events so many years previously. It is emotionally uplifting yet perturbing in equal measure, as Jennings’ explores the themes of redemption and blame in relation to their actions, leading to some exceptionally moving revelations.

Instead, what I will focus on is Jennings’ absolute mastery of the language and thought of both Grace and Billy as children. I do tend to avoid reading books with a child’s narrative, as I am so often disappointed by the lack of realism, and how many authors slip into the attribution of adult reasoning that then undermines the credibility of the young narrator. Jennings’ portrayal of her child protagonists is never less than perfectly realised. Gracie’s dialogue, thoughts and child’s reasoning is absolutely authentic throughout, and as a reader, when the dark events unfold, you are genuinely terrified for her. Jennings’ depiction of the abuse that Gracie suffers is totally unflinching, so much so that at times I had to physically take a breath when reading these scenes. I admired the bravery and realism with which Jennings’ approaches this hugely emotive subject matter, be it the sheer physical fear that Gracie experiences, or in the uncompromising and brutally graphic depiction of the psyche of her abuser. Jennings’ neatly circumvents the clichéd  bogeyman images of paedophilia, but instead, presents a much more frightening depiction by the way she explores so fearlessly and thoroughly the mind-set of this deeply disturbed individual who brings fear and havoc to Gracie’s childhood. It takes the reader into the darkest recesses of psychopathy, and Jennings’ intuitive exploration of the conundrum of nature vs nurture is both deeply chilling, and strangely fascinating. The writing is emotionally intense, graphic and unceasingly honest.

As much as the novel focuses on the violence of Gracie’s childhood, Jennings’ harmonises this throughout with the simple pleasures of childhood friendships,  and increasing perception that both Gracie and Billy begin to experience of the world around them. There are childhood stories of make-believe, adventure, and Gracie’s flourishing interest in the world of books and poetry, that in tandem with her friendship with Billy, sustains her mental equilibrium, as the dark events of her household play out. It brings a beautifully weighted lightness, and emotional relief to the novel, that keeps the reader balanced and engaged, before the next plunge into the darker aspects of the book, and Jennings’ cleverly uses this part of Gracie’s development to change the nature of her narrative voice, and the images she ascribes to her tormentor’s presence. This is the only point where you can quite clearly hear a resonance of Jennings’ own authorial voice, as Gracie’s increasing appreciation of books and poetry, reflect what I believe is the author’s own joy and emotional succour afforded to us all by literature and verse. I found the scenes reflecting Gracie’s growing appreciation of this world of words and images strangely reminiscent of my own, and I’m sure many other readers too, and it was a delight.

This was without doubt an emotionally intense, but extremely rewarding reading experience, despite the harsh and quite often unpalatable depiction of a childhood destroyed. The language, imagery and controlled nature of Jennings’ writing was at times deeply unsettling in the portrayal of the darkness of Gracie’s experiences, and the psyche of her abuser,  but then uplifting in the purity and simplicity she attributes to Gracie’s discovery of the pleasures of storytelling and poetry that becomes her coping strategy. At times, an incredibly discomforting read, with a shockingly powerful denouement, but equally a brave, truthful, and thought-provoking novel. Highly recommended.

(With much thanks to the author for the ARC)

 

 

 

 

 

Amer Anwar- Western Fringes

Southall, West London.
Recently 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 his past behind him.
But when he has to search for his boss’s runaway daughter it quickly becomes apparent he’s not simply dealing with family arguments and arranged marriages as he finds himself caught up in a deadly web of deception, murder and revenge…

Winner of the CWA Debut Dagger Award, Western Fringes 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 Western Fringes, 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.

(With many thanks to the author for the ARC)

 

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