Christine Mangan- Tangerine

The last person Alice Shipley expected to see since arriving in Tangier with her new husband was Lucy Mason. After the horrific accident at Bennington, the two friends – once inseparable roommates – haven’t spoken in over a year. But Lucy is standing there, trying to make things right. Perhaps Alice should be happy. She has not adjusted to life in Morocco, too afraid to venture out into the bustling medinas and oppressive heat. Lucy, always fearless and independent, helps Alice emerge from her flat and explore the country. Soon a familiar feeling starts to overtake Alice – she feels controlled and stifled by Lucy at every turn. Then Alice’s husband, John, goes missing, and Alice starts to question everything around her: her relationship with her enigmatic friend, her decision to ever come to Tangier, and her very own state of mind…

Two points to make before I launch into my review for the fragrant Tangerine.

(1) When you read publicity material that says it’s like Girl On A Train meets Patricia Highsmith, ignore TGOTT bit and focus on the Highsmith comparison which is absolutely spot on.

(2) This is currently Waterstones Book of the Month for February, and my venerable employer will appreciate the nod. Actually, on the back of this, I have a feeling that I am going to love recommending this book all month…

So let us begin.

I am an ardent fan of Patricia Highsmith, and I genuinely think that Christine Mangan, albeit with her own particular writing flair and style, has captured something of the atmosphere of the aforementioned doyenne of psychological crime. The book is an amalgamation of suffocating obsessive behaviour suffused with a location that also wields a suffocating atmosphere on the characters contained within. Alice Shipley is the timid little wife, wrestling with the demons of events some years previously during her residence at a college in Vermont, adrift in the stultifying domestic routine of her ill advised relocation to Tangier with her husband, John. Only thinking that she needs to conquer her increasingly isolated existence in this bustling, overwhelming and foreign environment along comes Lucy, a real blast from a not altogether pleasant past, and here is where the fun begins…

Written in alternating character viewpoints we bear witness to first, the hugely differing responses of the women to Tangier itself, with Alice resisting and Lucy embracing the idiosyncrasies of this city in the grip of political and social unrest. This theme expands to their different interactions with those around them, the ex-pats and the natives with both women again separated by their willingness to engage or ignore. At another level, the microscope is put on their relationship, defined by tragic past events, and an examination of the faltering steps to form some kind of relationship in the present, whilst simultaneously assimilating the truth from the fiction of what exactly happened back in Vermont. These are two women, on the surface completely divided by money, class, marital status and more, providing a strange dynamic in their relationship. What unfolds is a breathless, claustrophobic and deeply psychological story that reflects the tensions of all these facets of the narrative, with takes the reader to some dark and dangerous territory of both women’s psyches.

This book got its hooks into me from the very beginning, initially because of Mangan’s manipulation of location. I found it extremely clever how she managed to make both the locations of Vermont and Tangier a mirror of each other despite the obvious differences in climate and landscape. Both are claustrophobic, and both are extremely reflective of the psychological upheaval that Alice in particular experiences, The unrelenting cold of snowy Vermont is as palpable, as the sweltering confusion of Tangiers, and Mangan makes her descriptions of both sing from the pages. I was also fascinated by the shifting parameters of Alice and Lucy’s relationship as the book progresses, and the power that each wields over the other on different emotional levels. The shades of light and dark that colour their every interaction was brilliantly done, holding the reader’s attention, and also in a state of suspense for the eventual reckoning. This was the aspect of the book which was most Highsmithian in its rendition, and all leads to a truly dark denouement, which although a little drawn out towards the end, was incredibly satisfying. A clever, vibrant, suspenseful read.

Highly recommended.

(I received an ARC via Netgalley from Abacus)

Craig Russell- The Quiet Death of Thomas Quaid

9781780874883Lennox liked Quiet Tommy Quaid. Perhaps it’s odd for a private detective to like – even admire – a career thief, but Quiet Tommy Quaid was the sort of man everyone liked. Amiable, easy-going, well-dressed, with no vices to speak of – well, aside from his excessive drinking and womanising, but then in 1950s Glasgow those are practically virtues. And besides, throughout his many exploits outside the law, Quiet Tommy never once used violence. It was rumoured to be the police who gave him his nickname – because whenever they caught him, which was not often, he always came quietly. So probably even the police liked him, deep down. Above all, the reason people liked Tommy was that you knew exactly what you were dealing with. Here, everybody realized, was someone who was simply and totally who and what he seemed to be. But when Tommy turns up dead, Lennox and the rest of Glasgow will find out just how wrong they were…

Hallelujah! After a too-long intermission, The Quiet Death of Thomas Quaid, the fifth in Craig Russell’s unmissable Lennox series has arrived. Having reviewed the previous four books, Lennox, The Long Glasgow Kiss, The Deep Dark Sleep and Dead Men and Broken Hearts, the Raven is cock-a-hoop that the inimitable Lennox has returned and in some style…

So let’s get a grip on that excitement and try to bring you a measured, thoughtful and calm review of The Quiet Death of Thomas Quaid, as this could all too easily just slip into a chain of superlatives as a testament to the sheer brilliance of Mr Russell. Taking us back again to the post war years of 1950’s Glasgow, Lennox is still plying his trade as a private detective after the emotional crisis in his personal life he is still subconsciously at least, trying to come to terms with. Fret not, if this is your first foray into the series, as Russell makes it easy to catch up with the salient events of the previous books, and provides ample background to the mercurial and charming Lennox. When Lennox is retained by a shifty stranger to acquire, not entirely legally, some important documents he calls on the help of career thief, the eponymous Thomas Quaid, to assist him. The dire results for the wee, quiet man Quaid, sets Lennox on a dangerous path to avenge his friend’s death, and uncover a conspiracy with far reaching results.

Writing this review from the perspective of a dedicated reader of the series, I was instantly immersed back into this world despite the lengthy hiatus between books. Russell once again places Lennox front and centre of all the action, with his inherent easy charm underscored by the dangerous, bubbling tension that exudes from him. Lennox’s natural humour and cynicism permeates the book once again, in the good old style of the hard-boiled private investigator tradition, but he is as always a man of determination, deep-seated morality, and not averse to getting his hands dirty. Or his knuckles bruised. He has some shady gangster connections, with Russell once again referencing The Three Kings; a disparate trinity of gangland bosses who control and manipulate the criminal world of Glasgow, and Handsome Johnny Cohen, one of the three bosses, has a significant part to play in this book. Lennox is also assisted in his mission by the brilliant ‘Twinkletoes’ McBride, (think bolt-cutters and This Little Piggy), a haystack of an enforcer whose woeful attempts to improve his word-power by regular reading of the Reader’s Digest leads to some excruciating mispronunciations and, by turn, moments of biting wit. Throughout the characterisation of his main protagonists, and the assorted miscreants, schemers, and ne’er- do-wells, that thwart their path, Russell has again drawn a colourful and engaging world, which you cannot help but be drawn into completely. The lightness of touch applied to some of the characterisation is balanced beautifully by some moments of raw emotion and introspection that give an added weight and differing perception to the reader of the tough guy characters, once again spotlighting Russell’s intuitive and accomplished stature as a writer.

Russell perfectly evokes the feel of the period, with the shabby, downtrodden air of a city recovering in the aftermath of war, and the incessant need for the criminal underclass to keep a foothold in the economic recovery of the city with the opportunity to make an illegal buck or two. Cut through with the dry wit of the laconic Canadian Lennox, the nod to the hard-boiled genre in terms of dialogue and pace, superb plotting and peopled with a colourful cast of supporting characters, Russell has done it again. I love this series. More please…and soon… Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)

 

 

Elly Griffiths- The Zig Zag Girl

ellyBrighton 1950. When the body of a girl is found, cut into three, Detective Inspector Edgar Stevens finds himself thinking of a magic trick that he saw as a boy: the Zig Zag Girl. The inventor of the trick, Max Mephisto, is an old friend of Edgar’s, having served together in the war as part of a shadowy unit called the Magic Gang. Hence, the story pivots back to their wartime activities, when they were based in Scotland working on plans to thwart a possible German invasion through illusion and subterfuge. Max is still on the circuit, touring seaside towns in the company of ventriloquists, swordswallowers, dancing girls and third rate comics- including another wartime acquaintance of theirs, Tony Mulholland, who dabbles in mesmerism as well. Changing times means that variety is not what it once was, but Max is reluctant to leave this showbiz world to help Edgar investigate, and is only coerced into action when the dead girl turns out to be known to him. Edgar and Max become convinced that the murder is linked to their army service, and when Edgar receives a letter warning of another ‘trick- The Wolf Trap– he knows that they are all in danger…

I always think it’s a brave decision by an established series author such as Griffiths with her hugely popular Ruth Galloway novels, to step outside of the familiar and tackle a standalone (or opener to a possible new series). I had similar fears with Belinda Bauer, on the publication of Rubbernecker, but Griffiths like Bauer has succeeded admirably in my opinion. Having said that, I would partly put my enjoyment of The Zig Zag Girl down to my own fascination with the world of magic, particularly of this period and earlier, so many of the little nods and references to magic resonated very well with me- Hugh D. Nee indeed! However, where I think Griffiths succeeds so well in this book, is the underlying sense of fun that she seems to be having, and that we can participate in, along the way. There are a host of great little comic interludes and one-liners, that add another dimension to what is essentially a more graphic and souped-up classic Golden Age mystery, including the trusty use of tea cup and poison, transported into 1950’s Brighton. The unerring sense of darkness, and the slight seediness and desperation of the world which Max in particular resides in, is set against the lighter comic tone with great effect, reminding me strongly of the brilliant Bryant & May mysteries by Christopher Fowler. Add into the plot the pivoting timeline, charting the beginnings of the less confident Edgar’s and uber confident Max’s friendship, with their undercover and top secret wartime mission, and The Zig Zag Girl, draws us into its own little illusionist’s trick where nothing is quite as it appears…

I am a self confessed fan of Griffiths, and what I enjoy most about her writing is her characterisation, and this book does not disappoint. Every character is incredibly well-delineated, no matter how small or large part they play in the plot. I’ve already identified the essential difference between policeman Edgar and showman Max in terms of confidence, but it’s incredibly interesting to see how this chalk-and-cheese combo, and their understated loyalty to each other, join forces to catch a killer. Likewise, the character of Mulholland is joyous- in common parlance he would be a total **** – and I enjoyed the acerbic mocking by Max of Mulholland’s purported mesmerist skills and comic talent. He has none. There is also a wonderfully credible female character with Ruby, harbouring designs on being a world famous female magician in her own right, who enthrals Edgar, but strangely manages to resist the obvious appeal of the suave and cool Max. These characters draw you in completely, and I genuinely cared about the peril each faces as the story unfolds. So in conclusion, I was rather keen on The Zig Zag Girl, with its terrific blend of light and dark mood, the strength of the characters, the use of the shabby seaside locations, and the careful balance of historic period detail. All in all it’s fun, a jolly good murder mystery, with a few unexpected shocks along the way to jolt the reader. Magic…

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC, the dinky playing cards and entertaining fridge magnets!)