#BlogTour Kjell Ola Dahl- The Courier

In 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In a great haste, she escapes to Sweden, saving herself. Her family in Oslo, however, is deported to Auschwitz. In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum, who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, who helped Ester get to Sweden. Their burgeoning relationship ends abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire. And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He wants to reconnect with his daughter. But where has he been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles across information that forces her to look closely at her past, and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive…

Once again the spectre of WWII, familiar in Scandinavian fiction, looms large in this latest thriller from the always compelling Kjell Ola Dahl. With it’s triple timeline narrative, and an overriding air of conspiracy, lies and betrayal, this is certainly on a par with some of the finest proponents of the espionage genre.

I think the stand out feature for me of this particular book, was the real resonance it had of one of my favourite fiction writers, William Boyd, and this is high praise indeed. In much the same way as Boyd has defined his place in the spy genre with his particular attention to and always authentic female protagonists, so Dahl achieves the same thing with Ester. I found her character absolutely mesmerising throughout as she seeks to unravel the crimes of the past, as the story unfolds through 1940s Norway, to 1960s Sweden and then to the contemporary period. I loved that Dahl imbued her character with an equal share of vulnerability, stubborn minded and tenacious invincibility, truly making her character for the reader to become invested in. From the traumatic loss of her family in Auschwitz, to the murder of her closest friend, and then her conflicting hard headedness and attraction to the man she believed responsible of this crime, Dahl puts her through an emotional wringer, which instead of breaking her, just makes her grow in stature among her peers, and allows her to navigate the disturbing vibrations of the past in the present. I must confess, that such was my interest in her character, the male protagonists of the book became shadowy conduits for Ester’s self realisation, but without their attempted manipulations, and seeming duplicity in relation to her, this made for an interesting journey as she navigates her way to the truth.

What I also admired greatly was the way that Dahl so fixedly entrenches us  in each contrasting time period, as the book does alternate quickly at times between the two. This real sense of time and place keeps us rooted in Ester’s story across the years, and adds contrasting feelings of tension in each era. Obviously, in the Nazi occupied Norway of 1940s and the severe escalation of the Final Solution, the feeling of fear and threat of violence is palpable in these sections of the book. This is further heightened by the illicit activities that Ester herself is involved in. However, Dahl manages to manipulate our sense of tension, which is no less discomfiting, in the 1960s narrative too, as Ester tries to unravel the enigma that is Falkum. This ebb and flow of their interactions, and the veil of secrecy that Dahl manages to cast over events up until the latter stages of the book is effectively done, all leading to an emotional and devastatingly poignant denouement.

In much the same way as Arnaldur Indridason has recently explored the Icelandic experience of WWII, adjusting the focus away from the linear murder mystery form to something far more searching and emotionally driven, so Dahl achieves the same in this intelligent and absorbing standalone. As a fan of Dahl’s regular crime series, I was more than satisfied with this perceptive, and at times, incredibly moving exploration of Scandinavian history. It pirouettes so neatly between changing times, cultural norms (through Dahl’s precise insertion of music and film references) and the growing self awareness and belief of a truly memorable female protagonist. Highly recommended.  

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

 

 

 

Blog Tour- Mari Hannah- The Scandal

When an young man is found stabbed to death in a side street in Newcastle city centre in the run up to Christmas, it looks like a botched robbery to DCI David Stone. But when DS Frankie Oliver arrives at the crime scene, she gets more than she bargained for. She IDs the victim as Herald court reporter, thirty-two-year old Chris Adams she’s known since they were kids. With no eyewitnesses, the MIT are stumped. They discover that when Adams went out, never to return, he was working on a scoop that would make his name. But what was the story he was investigating? And who was trying to cover it up? As detectives battle to solve the case, they uncover a link to a missing woman that turns the investigation on its head. The exposé has put more than Adams’ life in danger. And it’s not over yet…

Following The Lost and The Insider , both of which are really high-calibre police procedurals, we have now arrived at The Scandal, the third book featuring DCI David Stone and DS Frankie Oliver. I’m probably drawing on the biggest review cliché in the world, but this really is a series that goes from strength to strength…

Apart from the superlative structure of Mari Hannah’s books, and her remarkably fluid storytelling, that seems to just hold the reader in her palm of her hand, there are always additional layers of interest in every book. Too often police procedurals are a very linear affair, which probably is my main reason for avoiding most of them, but I am always singularly impressed how Hannah, in a similar way to the Scandinavian tradition of crime writing, throws a penetrating light on social issues, and spotlights those who suffer most in our unequal and unfair society. She achieves this not through soapbox posturing, but by carefully constructing her characters to reflect the effects of these problems in society, and the status quo, so we can make our own judgement call on them. In this book there are some big issues at the forefront of our duo’s investigation, bound up with homelessness, press corruption, and the abuse and exploitation of the elderly- weighty issues that are handled clear-sightedly and sensitively throughout. As a reader that enjoys the ability of crime fiction to more truthfully reflect and explore societal issues, Hannah’s books always hit the spot for this very reason.

Now before you start thinking that this all sounds a bit serious, I’ll throw into the mix the strength of Hannah’s characterisation too, particularly in relation to Stone and Oliver themselves. Their working and personal relationship is a wondrous thing, punctuated by humour, professional respect and periods of complete harmony in how they approach an investigation. However, there is always a slight chaos about their relationship that bursts forth every now and then, as Oliver is no doubt a very savvy detective but likes to go off-road every now and then, and Stone has to balance reining in her more impetuous behaviour, yet seeing where her more intuitive, sometimes secretive, detection takes them. Consequently, there are some wonderful moments of disagreement, class A sulking, and reluctant peace-making that is all rather enjoyable. Like all the best detecting duos, these moments of conflict and parity really make for genuinely engaging and likeable characters, surrounded by an equally strong supporting cast in their professional and private lives, which gives a real added layer of warmth and vibrancy to offset the darkness of  what proves to be a difficult and emotional investigation.

Obviously the portrayal of the North East is top drawer as usual (an area of the country I know well) and completely balanced in drawing attention to the best as well as the dodgy aspects of the area. I always feel a huge tug of emotion as Hannah traverses the region, and love the familiarity I have with the murder sites- if that doesn’t make me sound too much like a twisted weirdo. Joking aside, I will repeat what I have said before that Hannah obviously has a huge pride in, and affection for the region, and this is so tangible throughout her writing, and always a pleasure to read. It goes without saying that I always look forward to the next book Hannah produces, across any of her series, and once again, this is a highly engaging, intelligent, entertaining and well written police procedural. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orion Books for the ARC)

Check out an extract of The Scandal at Shotsmag

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

 

Craig Russell- The Devil Aspect

1935. As Europe prepares itself for a calamitous war, six homicidal lunatics – the so-called ‘Devil’s Six’ – are confined in a remote castle asylum in rural Czechoslovakia. Each patient has their own dark story to tell and Dr Viktor Kosárek, a young psychiatrist using revolutionary techniques, is tasked with unlocking their murderous secrets.
At the same time, a terrifying killer known as ‘Leather Apron’ is butchering victims across Prague. Successfully eluding capture, it would seem his depraved crimes are committed by the Devil himself.
Maybe they are… and what links him with the insane inmates of the Castle of the Eagles?

At the close of the book, Craig Russell has included a small piece on why and how he chose to write this, and the depth of research he undertook in its creation. With its sublime mix of history, both societal and psychoanalytic, folklore, murder and mental disturbance, this is a real edge of your seat read, so settle back and find out why…

The book follows the progress of a grisly murder case, where a woman is eviscerated in the same style as Jack The Ripper’s victims some decades earlier. As the murderer stalks the street of Prague, a connection is made between the perpetrator the dark stories concerning the inhabitants of a mental asylum, and the apocryphal history of the haunted Hrad Orlu castle itself. Russell sucks us in completely to this ever more sinister tale, where we bear witness to the escalating violence of the killer in Prague, and the gradual unveiling of the Devil’s Six incarcerated in the asylum, and their uniquely horrific stories. However, what sets this apart from a slightly creepy horror story, are the fascinating strands of narrative that Russell fleshes the story out with, so we also get an insight into the heightening political tensions in both Czechoslavakia and Europe, the differing schools of thought regarding the treatment of mental disturbance, some truly creepy stories arising from Czech folklore, and a stark reminder of the tissue thin boundaries between sanity and insanity. Not only is this a skilfully rendered and haunting story of madness and murder, but the incorporation of these other facets make for an admittedly eerie but utterly fascinating read as we are so immersed in this period, and bear witness to the slowly evolving revolution in the treatment of the insane, continuing with, or challenging the work of Freud and Jung.

The characterisation in The Devil Aspect is top notch, and I really enjoyed the way that Russell toys with our perceptions of who is good or evil. Everyone is to some degree or another touched by madness, be it in their professional capacity, their interactions with the patients themselves, in the darkest corners of their own psyches sparked by events in their formative years, or the burgeoning of the present itself and the increasing hostility and restlessness sweeping across Europe. I am reluctant to dwell too much on individual characters themselves, as I really want you to be as surprised and shocked as I was as Russell slowly shines a spotlight on each, incorporating more than a few ‘bloody-hell-I-didn’t-see-that-coming-moments’ as he delves into their psyches. Suffice to say your sympathies and belief in some of the characters may be sharply turned on its head as you get more and more involved in this one.

Mwahaha…

So gird your loins everyone, as this book is guaranteed to haunt your dreams and undoubtedly some of your waking hours too. It’s clever, skilfully blending the worlds of science, detection and superstition, populated with an intriguing set of characters, and Russell uses the twin locations of Prague, and the remote forest setting of the Hrad Orlu asylum to the creepiest nth degree. Thoroughly enjoyed this one, so can not be anything less than highly recommended.

(With thanks to Constable for the ARC)

Ilaria Tuti- Flowers Over The Inferno

In a quiet village surrounded by the imposing Italian Alps, a series of violent assaults take place. Police inspector and profiler Teresa Battaglia is called in when the first body is found, a naked man whose face has been disfigured and eyes gouged out. Soon more victims are discovered – all horrifically mutilated – and when a new-born baby is kidnapped, Teresa’s investigation becomes a race against the clock.

But Teresa is also fighting a battle against her own body, weighed down by age and diabetes, and her mind, once invincible and now slowly gnawing away at her memory…

Okay, I think I’m going to have rein in my exuberance, passion and generally ‘gee-that-blew-me-away-ness’ that this book aroused in me. Having already staked a claim for a spot in my Top Ten of the year, I will endeavour to do justice to this frankly incredible book. Bear with me…

The first absolute stand out feature of this book is the character of Teresa Battaglia herself, an older woman battling the twin issues of ageing and physical deterioration. Tuti paints a moving and incredibly touching portrait of this indomitable woman who caught up in an exceptionally distressing and seeming unsolvable case, is battling with her increasing concerns over her mental aptitude, recording her thoughts day by day feeling that they could slip away from her at any time, “what am I if not my thoughts, my memories, my dreams, my hopes for the future? What am I without these feelings, without my dignity?” These sections of the book where Battaglia unloads her consciousness into the written word are incredibly moving, brimming with a self-awareness, and a fluttering sense of mental fortitude that enthrals the reader, and says much about every person’s fear of losing their sense of self.

Partly because of this, she over compensates in the tough exterior she is known for, not suffering fools gladly, and proving a hard taskmaster for her investigating team. The scenes that focus on her repartee with one of the newer members of her squad, who experiences no easy ride from his new boss are particularly barbed, but cut through with wit and a slowly developing sense of acceptance in a play on the pupil and mentor roles. She is, however, bestowed with a remarkable empathy for both victims and the killer saying at one point that “before crossing the point of no return, even a serial killer is a human being in pain. Often abused. Always lonely” which is incredibly prescient as the plot plays out. Tuti cleverly manipulates both Battaglia’s and the readers’ perception of the killer throughout, blurring the lines of moral responsibility, and with a real sense of there but for the grace of God.

As regular readers of my reviews know, landscape is all important in my assessment and enjoyment of the books I read, and this small village overshadowed by forest and mountains in the Alpine region, works completely in harmony with the story. It’s an enclosed community, rife with secrets, and permeated with suspicion and folklore, producing a creepy and chilling backdrop to this murderous tale, “it was like the village had for many years been infected by a dark, tainted humour which had slipped beneath its surface, and festered there, out of sight.” The darkness, density and danger of the surrounding terrain, provides a place of both safety and threat for a group of children with difficult home lives, lending the story a touch of Stephen King who often employs children as a conduit for evil. It’s very effectively done, and really heightens the creeping sense of unease that permeates the book, and with the portrayal of the St Nicholas’ Day torch-lit procession evoking the evil figure of the Krampus, Tuti builds further on this theme of darkness and threat lurking in the shadows of this claustrophobic community.

I think it’s fair to say that this book left a real impression in its wake on this reader, being not only a perfectly formed murder mystery, but also a book that is layered with a supreme awareness of the frailties and strengths of the human condition, through the investigators, the inhabitants of the village and the killer too. I found this a really intense and emotional reading experience, and felt utterly bound up in the lives of the characters, and the travails they experience. Absolutely highly recommended.

(With thanks to W&N for the ARC)

Eamonn Griffin- East of England

Dan Matlock is out of jail. He’s got a choice. Stay or leave. Go back to where it all went wrong, or just get out of the county. Disappear. Start again as someone else. But it’s not as simple as that.  There’s the matter of the man he killed. It wasn’t murder, but even so. You tell that to the family. Especially when that family is the Mintons, who own half of what’s profitable and two-thirds of what’s crooked between the Wolds and the coast. Who could have got to Matlock as easy as you like in prison, but who haven’t touched him. Not yet. Like Matlock found out in prison, there’s no getting away from yourself. So what’s the point in not facing up to other people? It’s time to go home…

Alerted to the presence of this book via social media, the synopsis instantly grabbed me, and with the plus point of being set in a part of the UK that I am not aware of having read about before, this looked to be a sure-fire winner. I was not wrong, and I was completely delighted by this gritty tale of rural noir…

Set in and around the open flatlands of Lincolnshire, East of England, is a sparely written, but no less compelling account of one man’s thirst for revenge and atonement after a lengthy prison spell for manslaughter. I found that the sparsity of the prose mirrored the anodyne nature of the landscape perfectly, and to a certain degree the smallness and petty criminalities of the people’s lives that Griffin so effectively describes here. This is a small, claustrophobic world, that has moved on little since Matlock’s incarceration, and as he revisits traces of his past there is an overwhelming feeling of how slowly time has passed both inside and outside the prison walls, and how easily Matlock can track down those who have wronged him.

Speaking of which,  I loved the way that in describing individual’s physical qualities, Griffin pares them back with a sharp simplicity often highlighting their less attractive features with a rapier wit. Everyone has a certain unattractiveness about them in either appearance or demeanour, but cleverly Griffin manipulates these to keep us fascinated by this collection of nutters, criminals and general oddballs. Matlock himself is a wonderfully mercurial figure, subject to sudden and lethal outbursts of violence and ill-humour, but also demonstrating a more empathetic and charitable side to his character sharply at odds with his bad-boy demeanour. I thought he was an incredibly appealing and unpredictable character, hell-bent on revenge, but quick-thinking and resourceful at every stage, but I was aware of an emotional distance between us and him that I found intriguing. This put me very much in mind of the work of say Ted Lewis (Get Carter) and as Matlock traverses this grim and unrelenting landscape I was sharply reminded of the immortal opening to that seminal film.

I thought this was an accomplished and very enjoyable debut- gritty, tense, violent yet punctuated with moments of pathos and wit at odds with the depressing landscape, and the cast of really quite unlikeable characters. I am keen to see what Griffin produces next, as I would highly recommend this one.

(I received an ARC via Netgalley from Unbound Digital)

Fergus McNeill- Ashes of America

It’s 1953, and an optimistic America is shaking off the hurt of World War II. Russia is defeated and Germany is now an ally. Former soldier Frank Rye is a small-town cop in rural Missouri, but the war has left him cynical and selfish. When his actions lead to the murder of a fellow officer, guilt drives him into a vengeful hunt for justice. His search for the killer will drag him deep into his own past, to the wartime summer of 1944, when he was stationed in neutral Switzerland, to a clandestine world of love and lies. To unmask the killer, he must uncover the truth about the war and about himself…

It’s been a long wait for a new book from Fergus McNeill, but all good things come to those who wait, some of us less patiently than others, and Ashes of America is a more than welcome return from this always excellent author…

From the outset this book ticked a huge amount of boxes for me, with a split narrative set in post war 1950s Missouri, and also 1940s war-time Switzerland. McNeill captures effortlessly, the zeitgeist of the post war era in America, and immerses us in a period where everyone was touched in such measure by the seismic events of this conflict. None more so than his main character Frank Rye, a cop in Missouri, whose back story surrounding his wartime service brings a real vigour and excitement to what could easily just be a linear tale of betrayal and murder. With the brutal killing of a fellow cop in a real wrong time, wrong place scenario, Rye quickly realises that someone is baying for his blood, and finding himself suspended, he sets out on a maverick mission to catch the killer. All well and good, but here’s the thing that McNeill does so well. By pivoting us back to Rye’s clandestine activities in Switzerland during his army service, McNeill has achieved the not so achievable feat of presenting us with two seemingly unrelated narratives that mirror the energy and suspense of each other.

As a fan of spy thrillers, and crime fiction, this provided a hugely enjoyable reading experience. The 1940s Switzerland based story is a perfect example of a well executed spy story, which thanks to McNeill’s excellent rendition of atmosphere and location, sees us following Rye through the twisted streets and dark corners of this beautiful Swiss setting, chasing shadowy figures, relying on his smarts, and trying to avoid physical harm. When I was reading this, I was instantly reminded of the black and white hues of Carol Reed’s The Third Man as Rye seeks to make sense of the strange situation he finds himself in, and the array of secretive characters he becomes inextricably entangled with in this wartime subterfuge. McNeill employs a real smoke and mirrors feel to this storyline, keeping us and Rye himself in a shroud of uncertainty as to why he is there, and who exactly can be trusted as everyone seems duplicitous to one degree or another. It is a beautifully crafted espionage tale, punctuated by newspaper excerpts, keeping us firmly rooted in this idyllic setting with its own claustrophobic intensity whilst reminding us of the war raging on elsewhere.

In 1950s Missouri, as Rye pursues a murderer and his female accomplice from his backwoods station to Kansas City, there is all the tension and suspense of a crime thriller, where in all the best tales, Rye turns maverick cop, but in true Jack Reacher fashion, reveals a few more sensitive facets to his character, that the opening of the book has firmly disabused us of. With a steely determination and a ready fist, Rye succeeds in antagonising most of those he encounters in his path, which leads to an exciting and tense counter-narrative, which then whips you back to the alpine subterfuge, and the slightly different pace, intensity but no less exciting storyline. When encountering a character like Rye, tough, dogged and cynical in outlook, I almost always take to them, and I quickly thought that there would be a real mileage to this character in further books, dependent on whether he reached the end of the book in one piece. Well, you’ll have to find that out for yourselves, and I would urge you to find this out for yourselves. Really enjoyed this one, and good to see the return of Fergus McNeill.

Highly recommended.

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With thanks to the author for the ARC

Buy Ashes of America:  Amazon UK & Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alex Michaelides- The Silent Patient

Alicia Berenson writes a diary as a release, an outlet – and to prove to her beloved husband that everything is fine. She can’t bear the thought of worrying Gabriel, or causing him pain. Until, late one evening, Alicia shoots Gabriel five times and then never speaks another word.

Forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber is convinced he can successfully treat Alicia, where all others have failed. Obsessed with investigating her crime, his discoveries suggest Alicia’s silence goes far deeper than he first thought. And if she speaks, would he want to hear the truth?

Okay, so this book is all over Twitter and elsewhere, leaving a host of swooning and excited reviewers in its wake. Normally, having been scarred by two books that had a similar amount of adulation last year, I wouldn’t have read this. But I did. And what a little treat it was. I thought this was one of the most perfectly weighted, tense and engrossing thrillers I have read of late, complete with one of the best twists in the narrative that had me sitting back on my seat, thinking jeez, that was clever…

Michaelides builds the relationship with damaged, and seemingly non-responsive patient Alicia, and her would be knight in shining armour psychotherapist Theo with such stealth and empathy. Along with Alicia’s account of her life garnered from her diaries, and our growing sympathy with Theo trapped in a faithless marriage, the story begins to tease out each character’s points of weakness. Theo sees unlocking  Alicia’s psyche as not only the greatest challenge of his professional career, but also revealing his utter fascination with the crime she committed and how this has locked her into her silent world. Very slowly, as Theo starts to break down this non-communicative barrier, with his one-to one sessions with her, against the advice of practically everyone, there comes to light a dark tale of obsession that holds many surprises, of which I will tell you…nothing…

I really enjoyed the level of psychoanalytic detail that Michaelides incorporates in his account of Alicia’s treatments in this private facility, The Grove, on the brink of closure and whose treatment programmes operate at the whim of financial spreadsheets. Aside from the intensity of the relationship between Theo and Alicia, the book is peopled with an interesting, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes not, characters that bring a vibrancy and energy to the claustrophobia of the main plot. There are surprising peeks into the lives of others, and the book retains a balance of seriousness, and mordant humour so essential to those that treat individuals with extreme mental disturbance.

There I will leave it, as to reveal anything more would cut your enjoyment of this by at least 99.9%, but take it from me, this is well worth your time, and did I mention the twist…

Recommended.

(With thanks to Orion Books for the ARC)