Lou Berney- November Road

Frank Guidry’s luck has finally run out. A loyal street lieutenant to New Orleans’ mob boss Carlos Marcello, Guidry has learned that everybody is expendable. But now it’s his turn–he knows too much about the crime of the century: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Within hours of JFK’s murder, everyone with ties to Marcello is turning up dead, and Guidry suspecting he’s next, hits the road to Las Vegas. When he spots a beautiful housewife, Charlotte, and her two young daughters stranded on the side of the road, he sees the perfect disguise to cover his tracks from the hit man on his trail. The two strangers share the open road west- and find each other on the way. But Guidry’s relentless hunters are closing in on him, and now he doesn’t just want to survive, he wants to really live, maybe for the first time. 

Everyone’s expendable, or they should be, but now Guidry just can’t throw away the woman he’s come to love. And it might get them both killed…

Parachuting straight into my top three reads of the year is this little beauty from Lou Berney, one of the most engaging and sensitively written books it’s been my pleasure to read of late. Championed by the mighty Don Winslow among others, and with an irresistible premise, this was more than reason enough for me to seek out November Road

As the book is so bound up with the Kennedy assassination, and the violent ramifications for the small group of individuals who enabled it to happen, Berney’s evocation of the period is absolutely perfect. Paying close attention to the social and political fallout of this event, and firmly placing the reader in the heart of 60s America, Berney also traverses the country from New Orleans, to Dallas to the west coast with vivid detail, as Frank Guidry attempts to escape the retribution of his gangster associates seeking to tie up the ‘loose ends’ of those involved in the assassination plot. The sense of the period is always front and centre, from the smallest detail to passing references to civil rights, the filling of the political vacuum, and Berney’s interesting new reworking of the assassination itself, although this is ground that has been trod by many writers and social commentators before. In tackling the Kennedy assassination myth, Berney not only shows belief in himself as a writer, but also succeeds in constructing an incredibly plausible narrative of this most examined and documented event in American political history.

Although the sense of peril looms large with Guidry, and by extension Charlotte and her daughters, being pursued by a particularly pernicious and ice-cold hitman, Berney balances this beautifully with the development of Guidry and Charlotte’s characters, with Guidry in the guise of a travelling salesman, and Charlotte rapidly trying to come to terms with the impulsive decision to leave her alcoholic husband with no plausible plan of what would follow her instantaneous decision. The growing tension in the book, as the sinister hitman Barone unmercifully (for those in his way) pursues them across states, ratchets up the pace of the narrative, and as we focus on the growing relationship between Guidry and Charlotte, the reader has this nagging feeling that danger is just around the corner, as does Guidry himself, and that the clock is ticking down to some kind of showdown. It’s beautifully done, keeping our attention pinned in two strands of the book, inwardly dreading the consequences of these two strands meeting.

Although, theirs is a relationship built on smoke and mirrors, certainly in the case of Guidry, Berney weaves a heartfelt and, at times, incredibly sensitive portrayal of two strangers in flight, drawing closer together, despite the hug chasm between them of their lives up until this point. Suffice to say, we see a gradual change in both of them, and a growing appreciation of how life can sometimes so surprisingly chart a different course, and that these opportunities should be grasped and learnt from. As Guidry becomes more involved with Charlotte and her daughters, I loved the way that Berney handles the initially tentative nature of this, but how he develops and explores both their characters, and the shift in strength and self-determination, particularly in the case of Charlotte. In an effort to avoid spoilers, I can only say that Guidry’s actions both pre and post Charlotte reveal a very different man from the perception we have of him at the outset, and prepare yourself for an incredibly moving denouement…

Regular readers of my blog will know that I appreciate my crime reading is always influenced more by those books that span the genres of crime and contemporary fiction, as I find the more linear, and therefore utterly predictable crime books, less enriching as a reader. Along with two of my reads earlier in the year, Tim Baker’s City Without Stars, and Derek B. Miller’s American By Day, this book held me in it’s thrall from the outset, with its clarity of prose, and perfect characterisation, digging down deep into the nature of human relationships forged in troubled circumstances.

November Road is one of those books that will haunt me for some time. Highly recommended.

(I bought this copy of November Road published by Harper Collins USA)

 

 

Margaret Millar- Vanish In An Instant

On a snowbound night near a small Michigan town, Virginia Barkeley is discovered staggering around, covered in blood and blind drunk. Nearby, wealthy lothario Claude Margolis is found dead, stabbed several times in the neck. The case seems open and shut. Even Virginia thinks she probably committed the crime, although she cannot for the life of her think why. In this classic noir tale of blurred guilt and flawed innocence, a cynical lawyer, Meecham, uncovers the desperate lives of a group connected only by a gruesome murder…

Despite being a huge fan of classic American crime, it is with some shame that I admit to never having read Margaret Millar before. Perhaps slightly overshadowed by her husband, fellow author, Ken Millar aka Ross MacDonald (of whom I’ve read many), on the strength of this one, I think I have a whole new cache of her work to discover…

This is classic American hardboiled crime fiction with a steely feminine edge, that absorbs the reader instantly, and sucks you in to a superbly plotted tale of murder and deception. Millar captures the claustrophobic and suspicious atmosphere of this small town with finesse, where rumour and petty jealousies fuel every interaction. Everyone seems to have an ulterior motive for their actions, and like Meecham you find yourself picking through the evidence, trying to uncover who is the most duplicitous individual in a cast of possibly guilty characters. The plotting is absolutely flawless, and Millar keeps Meecham, and us, in a state of mistrust until the final, and unexpected unmasking of the killer.

The characterisation, particularly in relation to the female characters is just peerless, and I loved the way that each woman Millar introduces are so defined by their difference to the others. We have a femme fatale, a controlling mother, another alcoholic mother, a young doe eyed companion, a strident, though adoring, wife, and so on, each one precisely drawn jumping from the page to our imagination due to the strength of Millar’s characterisation of them. It’s also interesting how she uses her male character, the smart talking and cynical lawyer Meecham, to colour our perception of them further by observing his differing interactions with them, sometimes testy, sometimes flirtatious, or others that reveal a deeper compassionate edge to his character too. All through the book, he is the perfect foil for their particular episodes of scheming, dishonesty or weaknesses of character.  In true hardboiled fashion, both his, and their, cadence of speech and dialogue reflects the razor sharp and clipped style of the genre, conjuring up images of the classic old black and white crime movies with the ‘I speak, now you speak’, style of conversation.

I think we can safely say that Vanish In An Instant was a little gem of a discovery for me, and my hunt for further Margaret Millar books starts here. Her writing is just wonderful, with a tightness yet rhythmic fluidity to her prose that is enviable. A superb plot of red herrings and unexpected twists, populated by a vibrant and perfectly realised group of characters, further adds to the overall distinction of her writing. Cannot recommend highly enough.

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARC)

Douglas Skelton- The Janus Run

When Coleman Lang finds his girlfriend Gina dead in his New York City apartment, he thinks nothing could be worse… until he becomes the prime suspect.

Desperate to uncover the truth and clear his name, Coleman hits the streets. But there’s a deranged Italian hitman, an intuitive cop, two US Marshals, and his ex-wife all on his tail. And trying to piece together Gina’s murky past without dredging up his own seems impossible. Worse, the closer he gets to Gina’s killer, the harder it is to evade the clutches of the mysterious organisation known only as Janus – from which he’d long since believed himself free…

Egged on by some of his fellow Scottish crime authors, Douglas Skelton has taken a break from crime fiction set in his native Scotland, and taken a wee diversion to the mean streets of New York in The Janus Run, and what an utterly splendid diversion it is…

Like another Raven favourite, David Jackson, I think Skelton has set out on a series that could have a lot of mileage, having introduced a cast of strong, well realised characters, combined with a real fly by the seat of your pants action thriller, with the action coming thick and fast. The central character, Coleman Lang is a man with a mysterious past, by day an advertising executive, and after the murder of his girlfriend Gina, revealed to be another man entirely with former links to a shady organisation with the moniker Janus. Joining forces with Gina’s estranged father Tony Falcone, a former Mafia henchman now in witness protection, the two set out on a troubled and violent vendetta to bring the real killer to justice, and avoid the attention of the NYPD (with Lang as their chief suspect), and the vengeance seeking former acquaintances of Falcone. It’s a dynamite combination from the start, with Lang clearly trying to resist being sucked back into his old ways and his links to Janus, and Falcone as a real act first, think later man with violent impulses, bent on revenge. Add into the mix a couple of credible strident female law enforcers in the shape of no-nonsense, Lieutenant Rosie Santoro, who I adored, and the shadowy US Marshall TP McDonough, along with a host of caricature-ish Mafia types, estranged lovers and family, and a real old school NYPD cop who tries to assist Lang and Falcone, all of whom Skelton brings vividly alive throughout. I thought the characterisation was first class, and supported by whip-smart dialogue which carried all the cadence and rhythm of speech you would expect from a New York/Italian cast, it all worked in harmony beautifully.

The plot itself was well constructed, high octane and full of tension, littered with car chases, shoot outs, and cross and double cross. As Lang and Falcone edge nearer to the truth of Gina’s demise, they begin to attract the attention of some real rum sorts, and no-one is safe, with violence being meted out willy-nilly along the way. It’s real punchy stuff, driven forward with energy and pace, and although I had a brief hiatus in reading this, when I picked it up again, I was slam bam right back in the thick of it. I really enjoyed this first foray by Skelton to stranger shores, and cannot wait for the next! Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Saraband for the ARC)

Blog Tour- Sara Gran- The Infinite Blacktop

Driven off the desert road and left for dead, Claire DeWitt knows that it is someone from her past trying to kill her, she just doesn’t know who. Making a break for it from the cops who arrive on the scene, she sets off in search of the truth, or whatever version of it she can find. But perhaps the biggest mystery of all lies deeper than that, somewhere out there on the ever rolling highway of life….

And so we reach the third instalment of Sara Gran’s terrific series featuring private detective Claire DeWitt, and what a powerhouse of a thriller it is. Tagged as a feminist take on the hardboiled tradition of Raymond Chandler, and described by me on Twitter as ‘Nancy Drew on meth’, this is a fast paced, nerve shredding roller coaster of a ride, with one of the most damaged, but engaging, protagonists in modern crime fiction…

Smoothly moving through three timeframes and criss crossing between Los Angeles, Las Vegas and other locations, Gran has created a perfectly weighted account of her DeWitt’s journey from fledgling junior detective, with two of her childhood friends (and a myriad of cases with the best Nancy Drew-esque monickers) through her development of skills under the tutelage of the enigmatic and eccentric private detective Constance Darling, to the current gigantic and dangerous sh*tstorm she finds herself in, as her past comes back to wreak revenge in the present. Not one to be deterred, despite the physical danger she often finds herself in, DeWitt continues her reputation as being as lethal as a cornered wild animal, and draws on all her cunning and ingenuity to track down the man who wishes her dead, opening up the dark experiences from her past, and the path to self destruction that she seems set to embark on. DeWitt is quite simply a gloriously kick ass character, driven by dark impulses, but sometimes showing moments of extreme emotional vulnerability, that when they come are as powerful in the narrative as the aura of violence and isolation that DeWitt embodies. Fuelled daily by a cocktail of liquor and drugs, which would lesser mortals into a catatonic state, we bear witness to the sleeplessness and hallucinations this produces, but also the steely edge and grim determination that this invokes in DeWitt. I found myself veering between like and dislike for her throughout the book, which is always a good reading experience, and I think most readers will experience the same. Gran’s characterisation of both DeWitt and her surrounding cast is superb, and skilfully encompass all the vices and virtues that make up the human psyche to one extreme or the other.

Before you are all set to thinking that this may all just be leading to a linear crime caper, there are two more facets of this book that Gran excels at. First is the whip smart dialogue which is tight, precise and, in the true hardboiled tradition of Chandler et al, gives a verve and tautness to the periods of interaction between character. This applies equally to the general writing style of the book, where truly no word is wasted, and the prose is crisp, cutting and perfectly rendered. Secondly, Gran also takes us on a cerebral journey referencing a book on detection, subtly titled ‘Detection’ by Jacques Silette (himself the tutor of DeWitt’s mentor Constance Darling) which Gran uses to illustrate the differing ‘schools’ of private detection, and their contrasting methods and mind-sets. I found these diversions in the multi-layered narrative, extremely effective, and perhaps these, more than other elements of the book, so clearly define why DeWitt is as mercurial as she is, and what drives her to succeed, despite the extremely dark events that have tarnished her emotional core.

I am a real fan of this series, and if you like your crime with a tantalisingly dangerous edge to it, powered by punchy dialogue, a dark wit, an even darker DeWitt herself, and a more psychological, cerebral feel this is one series you cannot ignore.  Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

 

Follow the blog tour at these excellent sites:

A Raven Round-Up: Steve Cavanagh- Thirteen/ Andrew Shaffer- Hope Never Dies/ Ragnar Jonasson- The Darkness/ Jorge Ibarguengoitia- The Dead Girls/Frederic Dard- The Gravedigger’s Bread

Haven’t done one of these cheeky little round-ups for a while, but think this is a good pick ‘n’ mix of crime summer reads. From the wastes of Iceland to sizzling Mexico, you may discover a little gem here…

They were Hollywood’s hottest power couple. They had the world at their feet. Now one of them is dead and Hollywood star Robert Solomon is charged with the brutal murder of his beautiful wife.This is the celebrity murder trial of the century and the defence want one man on their team: con artist turned lawyer Eddie Flynn. All the evidence points to Robert’s guilt, but as the trial begins a series of sinister incidents in the court room start to raise doubts in Eddie’s mind.

What if there’s more than one actor in the courtroom? What if the killer isn’t on trial? What if the killer is on the jury?

Okay for those of you who have been living in a cave, or in deepest darkest Peru, this has to be the most talked about, and well publicised thriller release of the summer. It is everywhere. And I mean everywhere. So is it any good? Is the hype deserved? Well, quite frankly….IT IS!

Having previously reviewed, and greatly enjoyed The Defence The Plea and The Liar I love the character of  Eddie Flynn, the renegade, ex-grifter, quick-witted lawyer always up to his elbows in trouble, and this is a series of books that has restored my interest in the legal thriller genre. Flynn is a fabulous creation who uses humour as a defence, is a good guy to have on your side when the chips down, does okay in a scrap, yet is woefully inept in his personal relationships, which brings an endearing authenticity to his character too.

Apart from his characterisation, if there is one thing that Cavanagh excels in, it is his control of pace and tension, with the machinations of the courtroom ebbing and flowing punctuated by outbursts (in true comic book style) of POW! and KABOOM! I would defy anyone not to read this in a relatively few number of sittings, and get thoroughly caught up in this exciting mash up of legal and serial killer thriller. Edge of your seat stuff and a cracking twist at the end too. Highly recommended.

( I bought this copy of Thirteen)

He’s an honest man in a city of thieves. He has no patience for guff, foolishness, or malarkey. He is United States Vice President Joe Biden. And when his favorite railroad conductor dies in a suspicious accident leaving behind an ailing wife and a trail of clues Amtrak Joe unwittingly finds himself in the role of a private investigator. To crack the case (and uncover a drug-smuggling ring hiding in plain sight), he’ll team up with the only man he’s ever fully trusted the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. Together they’ll plumb the darkest corners of Wilmington, Delaware, where enemies lurk around every corner. And if they’re not careful, the blood on the tracks may be their own…

I mean this in the most positive and affectionate way, but this is book is UTTERLY BIZARRE but an absolute hoot too. Move over Batman and Robin, there’s a new crime fighting duo in town.

Yes, there is a whole whiff of implausibility about the investigation that the whip smart combo of Biden and Obama become wrapped up in, but that’s not really an issue. The absolute joy of the book is the ingenious hooking up of this completely original and left of field crime fighting partnership. The steady, obviously ageing, slightly resentful Biden, is a joy, with his penchant for ice cream, a quiet and sedentary life, his daily mission to not upset his wife, and his desperate need to build his bond/rekindle the bromance again with his former boss. Obama is this wonderfully sneaky, cool as a cucumber, cat burglar type figure, seeming to lead Biden into all sorts of trouble, but how far is Biden actually controlling this investigation, seeking the truth behind a friend’s mysterious death? I found it an utter joy to see Biden  go from mild mannered ex-politician to slightly unsteady avenging angel, and loved the kickabout humour, and at times sheer silliness of the whole affair. I’m sure American readers will pick up on references to the Obama/Biden administration that may have passed me by, but I loved the subtle digs at the unnamed Tweeter-In-Chief, and other satirical sideswipes. Entertaining, laugh out loud funny, and a genuinely enjoyable read with a partnership as great in fiction as they were in the White House. Oh for those days…

( I bought this copy of Hope Never Dies)

 

A young woman is found dead on a remote Icelandic beach. She came looking for safety, but instead she found a watery grave. A hasty police investigation determines her death as suicide . . .
When Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir of the Reykjavik police is forced into early retirement, she is told she can investigate one last cold case of her choice – and she knows which one.What she discovers is far darker than suicide . . . And no one is telling Hulda the whole story.When her own colleagues try to put the brakes on her investigation, Hulda has just days to discover the truth. A truth she will risk her own life to find.

So, now to a little deviation from the hugely successful Ari Thor series from Ragnar Jonasson, and The Darkness being the first outing for Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir. Featuring a slightly longer in the tooth police protagonist was a nice move on the author’s part, and Hulda was a nice combination of dogged and a tad neurotic, railing against the gender bias of her police department, her looming and unexpected departure from the police, and quite obviously a woman still deeply angered by her former marriage, and the emotional insecurity that a prospective new dalliance puts in her path. With all this going on, and the split narrative that Jonasson uses in conjunction with this, I did begin to wonder how much energy she would have left to investigate her cold case- the suspected suicide of a Russian migrant which is not all it appears. As instances from Hulda’s past rise to the surface, there did feel a little unbalance in the book, and I sometimes felt that the deliberately rushed investigation was a little too deliberately rushed to accommodate the deeper concentration on Hulda’s angst. However, when Hulda knuckles down to her work, sometimes in a wonderfully ham-fisted style, proved to be the more satisfying part of the book for me, and I was genuinely engaged with her investigation and the varying obstacles in her path.

In common with the ‘Shadow’ series by Arnaldur Indridason I also wondered about the order of publication as for reasons I cannot reveal here, I would have liked to read this one later on but hey ho. An interesting flawed protagonist, and Jonasson shows his usual knack for a good crime yarn.

(I bought this copy of The Darkness)

Opening with a crime of passion after a years-long love affair has soured, The Dead Girls soon plunges into an investigation of something even darker: Serafina Baladro and her sister run a successful brothel business in a small town, so successful that they begin to expand. But when business starts to falter, life in the brothel turns ugly, and slowly, girls start disappearing . . .

I loved this strange hybrid of fiction and reportage from the 1970s, taking as its inspiration the real life case of Mexican serial killing brothel owners Delfina and Maria de Jesus Gonzalez. Written with a coolly dispassionate tone, the various players in this increasingly bizarre story take their place in the sun, and the twisted activities of fictional brothel owners Serafina and Arcangela Baladro are slowly revealed. It is noted in the introduction that Ibargoengoitia was experimenting with the fictional form to try and represent the increasing rate of violence and crime in Mexico, and how he influenced other writers such as the great Roberto Bolano. I thought the non-judgemental, and emotionally removed tone of the book was incredibly effective, and the story was utterly fascinating too, bringing into play the full scope of human transgressions- corruption, jealousy, greed, obsession and murder. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Picador for the ARC)

Blaise should never have hung around in that charmless little provincial town. The job offer that attracted him the first place had failed to materialize. He should have got on the first train back to Paris, but Fate decided otherwise.

A chance encounter with a beautiful blonde in the town post-office and Blaise is hooked – he realizes he’ll do anything to stay by her side, and soon finds himself working for her husband, a funeral director. But the tension in this strange love triangle begins to mount, and eventually results in a highly unorthodox burial…

Another slice of bijou noir perfection in the excellent Pushkin Vertigo series. As usual I am curtailed by how much I can reveal due to the compact nature of the book, but rest assured, this wicked little tale of jealousy, lust and obsession is just a further demonstration of the singularly brilliant style of Dard. Reminding me a little of The Postman Always Rings Twice, mixed with the darkly psychological edge of Simenon’s standalones, Dard has constructed a taut and claustrophobic tale, and with the backdrop of being set around a funeral parlour, there is an additional little frisson of weirdness too. As with most of Dard’s books, his characters verge on the strongly dislikeable with the inevitable gullible ‘patsy’, the temptation of Eve, and dark passions at its core, and this is a little belter. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARC)

Elizabeth H. Winthrop- The Mercy Seat/ Michelle Sacks- You Were Made For This/ Elena Varvello- Can You Hear Me?

As the sun begins to set over Louisiana one October day in 1943, a young black man faces the final hours of his life: at midnight, eighteen-year-old Willie Jones will be executed by electric chair for raping a white girl – a crime some believe he did not commit.

In a tale taut with tension, events unfold hour by hour from the perspectives of nine people involved. They include Willie himself, who knows what really happened, and his father, desperately trying to reach the town jail to see his son one last time; the prosecuting lawyer, haunted by being forced to seek the death penalty against his convictions, and his wife, who believes Willie to be innocent; the priest who has become a friend to Willie; and a mother whose only son is fighting in the Pacific, bent on befriending her black neighbours in defiance of her husband…

Billed as having a kaleidoscopic narrative, The Mercy Seat, Winthrop’s tale of racial and social division is a measured and emotive story from beginning to end. As the hours tick by we bear witness to a young man’s progression to the electric chair, after a false accusation of rape, and Winthrop uses a myriad of voices throughout the book, changing the reader’s perception of events along the way. Weighing in with some big, meaty issues revolving around crime and punishment, justice and injustice, and condemnation and mercy, there is no denying the emotional heft of the book, and the raw human emotion that Winthrop pours into the novel. Cleverly, she integrates the shadow of WW2, and the bloodbath events of war in the Pacific, as a juxtaposition to the incredibly moving faltering journey of the condemned man’s father. The exposition of the loss of a mother of her son to war, and the loss of a son to a father through America’s racial war is beautifully rendered, and for me these two narratives were the real emotional lynchpin of the narrative.

With nine characters voices echoing throughout the book, I did feel there was a slight weakness to the clear identification of them, and some blurriness to their own morality or perception of the events unfolding. Interestingly, I came away from the book feeling that I had not read a contiguous tale, but more that these alternating chapters had taken the shape of a short story collection in my mind, as some chapters seemed less related, and a little less relevant to the whole. So I had a slight issue with the structure, preferring to absorb these as connecting stories, moving towards the same end. I was left a little unsettled by the ending too, as the clarion call of mercy was dealt with in a strangely weak denouement, that rather left the reader hanging in the balance at the end. Consequently, although I admired greatly some aspects of the novel in terms of the rendition of time and place, and the strong emotional resonance of some of the characters’ voices, I felt that Winthrop had maybe cast the net a little too wide, and so some sections of the book felt  a little disjointed, and were less satisfactory than others. Would still recommend though despite, in my own opinion, some minor flaws.

(With thanks to Sceptre for the ARC)

Doting wife, devoted husband, cherished child. Merry, Sam and Conor are the perfect family in the perfect place. Merry adores baking, gardening, and caring for her infant son, while Sam pursues a new career in film. In their idyllic house in the Swedish woods, they can hardly believe how lucky they are. What perfect new lives they’ve built for themselves, away from New York and the events that overshadowed their happiness there. Then Merry’s closest friend Frank comes to stay. All their lives, the two women have been more like sisters than best friends. And that’s why Frank sees things that others might miss. Treacherous things that unfold behind closed doors. But soon it’s clear that everyone inside the house has something to hide. And as the truth begins to show through the cracks, Merry, Frank, and Sam grow all the more desperate to keep their picture-perfect lives intact...

With the creeping unease of recent domestic noir thrillers like Gone Girl, but tinged with the emotional darkness of the brilliant Monster Love by Carol Topolski, I rather enjoyed this twisted tale of marital bliss gone sour, and the more than dysfunctional relationship that we suddenly start to observe.

I found the first half of this book in particular, a fine example of pot-boiling suspense, as one couple’s new life in rural Sweden begins to show cracks and fissures, that Sacks exposes in a beautifully controlled fashion. The sudden sinister shocks that she surprises the reader with, and which may unsettle those of a more nervous disposition, become darker and darker as the plot progresses. Structured in alternating chapters, both Merry and Sam begin to have aspects of their characters exposed which become just a little more distasteful and disturbing in their words and deeds, but Sacks unashamedly brings the darkest compulsions of Merry front and centre, in her fraught relationship with her child. I think Sacks walks a very thin line here between voyeurism and objectivism with the issue of abuse she raises, and unlike the aforementioned Monster Love , I felt a certain disconnectedness with the intent of choosing this narrative, and the response it seeks to spark in the reader.

I think it appealed to me at first, that these are two of the most dislikeable and smug characters that I have encountered for some time, and although initially finding myself unable to look away from their solipsism, self absorption and fake morality, I did begin to grow weary of their naval gazing self justification for their eminently disturbing behaviour. With the advent of the arrival of Merry’s friend Frank, further scope was given to the author to explore the formative years of this trinity of more than a little screwed up protagonists, and give the reader time to see the strange dynamic between them begin to evolve. However, with this introduction of a new character, I felt the plot begin to crawl to a more sedentary drawn out pace, sparking a feeling of frustrated boredom, and just a muted eyebrow raise at some of the revelations. I felt that the story seemed to start circling itself only inching the narrative forward, after the assured pace and reveals of the first half of the book, and a strange propensity for overwritten truisms began to become increasingly more evident towards the end of the book, as opposed to the clarity of statement and intent from the characters at the beginning. Definitely a book of two halves for this reader.

(With thanks to HQ HarperCollins for the ARC)

1978.
Ponte, a small community in Northern Italy. An unbearably hot summer like many others.
Elia Furenti is sixteen, living an unremarkable life of moderate unhappiness, until the day the beautiful, damaged Anna returns to Ponte and firmly propels Elia to the edge of adulthood.
But then everything starts to unravel.
Elia’s father, Ettore, is let go from his job and loses himself in the darkest corners of his mind.
A young boy is murdered. And a girl climbs into a van and vanishes in the deep, dark woods…

I experienced a mild sense of excitement that I would have to talk about this book for a whole month wearing my bookseller hat, so I started reading with a heightened sense of anticipation. Now I love a translated slow-burner as much as the next person, but for some reason or other this one just didn’t hit the spot. Unlike undoubtedly hundreds of others, I was unerringly frustrated by this obvious hybrid of autobiography and fiction, at odds with my usual enjoyment for the genre- for example Karl Ove Knausgard or Edward St Aubyn. I felt for the most part I was just an incidental passenger to the author’s cathartic writing exercise, which revealed itself quickly to be what I perceived to be an exploration of her own father’s mental disturbance. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but I felt it was to the detriment of what could have been an infinitely more engaging experience for the reader.

Sometimes as a bookseller, I recommend books to people with the words, “Well, nothing really happens, but things don’t happen in a beautifully written way”, and this is what I was longing for in this book. There was a real feeling of deferred happenings in this book, and at times a notable compulsion by the author to pull back from events that could have given some substance and interest to the whole affair. Yes there’s a tangible thread of violence running through the book, and a not altogether convincing seduction, but the weirdly overemotional tone that reveals itself in the words and deeds of some characters, does begin to feel like some kind of therapy group literature, and a real lost the feel of dramatic tension to what cites itself as a thriller. As I said, I was looking forward to this one immensely, but feel I must go elsewhere for my Italian fiction fix, where nothing can happen, as long as it doesn’t not happen beautifully.

(I bought this copy)

 

 

 

 

A Global Round-Up- Jane Harper, Arnaldur Indridason, Snorri Kristjansson, Walter Mosley

Just been grappling with a bout of flu, and realising I am a gazillion reviews behind, am bringing you a compact little round up. Luckily, some of you prefer this format anyway so it’s a win-win! 

When five colleagues are forced to go on a corporate retreat in the wilderness, they reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking down the muddy path. But one of the women doesn’t come out of the woods. And each of her companions tells a slightly different story about what happened. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing hiker. In an investigation that takes him deep into isolated forest, Falk discovers secrets lurking in the mountains, and a tangled web of personal and professional friendship, suspicion, and betrayal among the hikers. But did that lead to murder?

A follow up to the bestselling The Dry featuring Police Agent Aaron Falk, and smattered with references to the aforementioned if you are one of, what seems to be, the only people on the planet not to have read Harper’s debut. I immediately liked the premise of this one, being no big fan of these tedious teambuilding exercises where you have to achieve miracles worthy of JC himself to navigate your team across a pond with a pair of tights and a tea-tray. The fact that Harper also has her group of work colleagues simmering with resentment, unavenged slights, and general testiness endeared me even more, as the group becomes increasingly fractured, leading to the disappearance of one member, Alice. Using a split narrative, so we are pivoted back and forth from the events of the weekend, to the real-time investigation, Harper handles the pacing of the plot perfectly, and by slowly decreasing the spacing between the events of then and now, urges the reader on to read quicker, and step up the pace generally. There is also a neat little side story, referencing a notorious killer, and the continuing search for one of his victims, which adds another frisson of murderous intent to the proceedings. I thought the depiction of the characters, both within the group of women, and of Harper’s detectives, Falk and Carmen Cooper, was engaging, and there was a good mix of rivalry, tension, and stretched loyalties among them. Although I was a little disappointed by the ending, in terms of how realistically it played out in relation to how the story had been constructed, I found this a satisfying enough read, although it does pale in comparison slightly  to The Dry.


Now to two books by the undisputed king of Icelandic crime, Arnaldur Indridason, The Shadow District, and The Shadow Killer, which I read back to back, and both set in wartime Reykjavik. My only slight annoyance with doing this, was that the first book is set in 1944, and the second in 1941, and as the first book ties up what happens to the two main protagonists in subsequent years, I was frustrated by going back in time in the second with this knowledge of the future in my head. On a more positive note, however, I thought both books were pretty flawless in their period detail, dramatic tension, and with a thoroughly likeable pair of investigators, Flovent, a police detective, and Thorsen, a military policeman with Icelandic and Canadian roots. There was a good sense of equanimity in the structure of their working relationship, and both characters had pleasing emotional depth and quirks to their personalities. As both are young men, Indridason not only builds into their characters a slight sense of impetuousness, but balances this with moments of mature emotional clarity, as they seek to track down murderers, with the opposing weight of the police force and the military sometimes seeking to thwart their progress.

Although both books focus on fairly linear murder plots, both are superbly enhanced by the wealth of detail that Indridason weaves into the stories, focussing on the country’s gaining of independence and, the role of Iceland in supporting the allied war mission, and the social implications, particularly on families, women and personal wealth, by this massive influx of British and American military personnel. Prior to reading these books I had no awareness whatsoever of the singularly important part that Iceland played in WWII, and certainly for me I found the military detail fascinating, and I was utterly intrigued by the whole concept of ‘the Situation‘- the sense of judgement meted out by families and society alike on young women fraternising with the allied personnel. This is pertinent to both books, and by the incorporation of a creepy subplot based on equally creepy totems of Icelandic folklore, the role of women and their subjugation plays heavily throughout. I found these different themes of home, family, folklore, war and society work in perfect tandem with each other, leading to a real multi faceted reading experience, with the characters of Flovent and Thorsen holding the whole narrative together. I would highly recommend both books but maybe read them in date order!

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He can deny it all he likes, but everyone knows Viking warlord Unnthor Reginsson brought home a great chest of gold when he retired from the longboats and settled down with Hildigunnur in a remote valley. Now, in the summer of 970, adopted daughter Helga is awaiting the arrival of her unknown siblings: dark, dangerous Karl, lithe, clever Jorunn, gentle Aslak, henpecked by his shrewish wife, and the giant Bjorn, made bitter by Volund, his idiot son.
And they’re coming with darkness in their hearts.The siblings gather, bad blood simmers and old feuds resurface as Unnthor’s heirs make their moves on the old man’s treasure – until one morning Helga is awakened by screams. Blood has been shed: kin has been slain. No one confesses, but all the clues point to one person – who cannot possibly be the murderer, at least in Helga’s eyes. But if she’s going to save the innocent from the axe and prevent more bloodshed, she’s got to solve the mystery – fast . . .

I will tarry a wee bit longer in Iceland with Kin by Snorri Kristjansson, the first of the Helga Finnsdottir mystery series, and what holds the unique position of being the first Viking murder mystery, apart from the great sagas themselves, that I have read. I thoroughly enjoy Kristjansson’s normal historical fare having read all three of his Valhalla series, but I had a curious reading experience with this one. At first, I didn’t feel that the opening of the book really reflected the time period it is set in, and this just felt like a small rural community on the cusp of some forthcoming upset. It was only as the family members began to arrive that I felt Kristjansson really settled us in to the timeline, exemplified by the sons’ tales of plundering and fighting. I also felt like it took an absolute age for the actual ‘crime’ to happen, as the story packed to the gills with all the necessary conflict, jealousies and infidelities essential to an Icelandic soap opera, which eventually results in murder. I was rather enjoying this mash up of the Icelandic sagas, Shakespearean treachery, and Viking ‘It’s A Knockout’ , when it was punctuated by a rather unexciting, but completely predictable murder, and then another, which led to young Helga ‘Nancy Drew’ Finnsdottir becoming a rather unconvincing super sleuth. So a thumbs up from me for the familial conflict, and the generally entertaining conniving women and wonderfully Neanderthal male characters, but as a murder mystery in a conventional sense I felt it was a little loose fitting and awkward, and less than convincing overall. Shame.

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Joe King Oliver was one of the NYPD’s finest investigators until, dispatched to arrest a well-heeled car thief, he is framed for assault, a charge that lands him in the notorious Rikers Island prison. A decade later, King is a private detective, running his agency with the help of his teenage daughter, Aja-Denise. When he receives a card in the mail from the woman who admits she was paid by someone in the NYPD to frame him all those years ago, King realises that he has no choice but to take his own case: figuring out who on the force wanted him disposed of – and why. At the same time, King must investigate the case of black radical journalist Leonard Compton, aka A Free Man, accused of killing two on-duty police offices who had been abusing their badges to traffic drugs and women into the city’s poorest neighbourhoods.In pursuit of justice, our hero must beat dirty cops and even dirtier bankers. All the while, two lives hang in the balance: Compton’s, and King’s own…

Although he ranks alongside James Lee Burke and James Ellroy in Raven’s trinity of favourite contemporary American crime authors, it is highly unusual for me to post a review of his work, as he is always read in a vacuum of serenity outside of critical reading, and imminent reviewing- my hygge zone if you will. So I’ll keep this review of Down The River Unto The Sea as brief, and as objective as I can, but frankly Mr Mosley probably writes more interesting post-its than a substantial swathe of self published tosh, we as readers, are assailed with. Every word, image, theme and plot contrivance are perfectly done, and as the first book in a new series, I can only salivate with anticipation as to what is to come for Oliver in future books.

I don’t know if there is any technical term for this, beyond him being a supreme practitioner of observation, but every description of a character imprints a visual image of that person on the reader’s mind. I love the way he shapes and draws his characters, from their way of dressing, to their gait, to the timbre of their speech, underpinned by wit, pure sassiness and razor sharp dialogue. I love the way his characters always seem to walk that line between doubt and certainty, morality and immorality, strength and vulnerability, and the blurring of these credos that always underscore his protagonists, most notably in Oliver himself. In true Mosley fashion the book hums and sings with a rough-edged lyrical intensity, and encompasses all those big powerful themes of racism, political and police corruption, and subjugation that are so redolent of Mosley’s oeuvre to date.

Objectivity is overrated. I totally loved this and cannot fault it.

Mosley is a master. End of.

Highly recommended.

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( With thanks for the ARCs to Little Brown for Force of Nature, Harvill Secker for the Indridason Reykjavik mysteries, Quercus for Kin, W&N for Down To The River Unto To The Sea, which I also bought in hardback)