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)


 

 

Blog Tour- Michael Farris Smith- The Fighter

The acres and acres of fertile soil, the two-hundred year old antebellum house, all gone. And so is the woman who gave it to him. The foster mother who saved Jack Boucher from a childhood of abandonment now rests in a hospice. Her mind eroded by dementia, the family legacy she entrusted to Jack is now owned by banks and strangers. And Jack’s mind has begun to fail, too, as concussion after concussion forces him to carry around a notebook of names that separate friend from foe. But in a single twisted night Jack is derailed. Losing the money that will clear his debt with the queen of Delta vice, and forcing Jack into the fighting pit one last time the stakes nothing less than life or death…

I would like to begin this review by heartily congratulating Michael Farris Smith on writing a book that is so beautifully plotted and exquisitely characterised that I’m already doubting my ability to do justice to the book in this review. I’ll try…

The Fighter is at times so painfully brutal in terms of the physicality of violence that the author presents, but this is tempered by some of the most sensitive and soulful prose that I have encountered for some time.  In a throwaway comment on social media I described Smith as the bastard lovechild of Cormac McCarthy and Willy Vlautin, as his writing exudes all the pain, brutality, and baring of the soul of his characters that these two writers excel in. Jack Bouchard- the fighter of the title- is a man metaphorically and physically bruised and battered by the life he has led, and suffering in the wake of bad decisions and wrong turnings that he has made. As he teeters on the edge of financial ruin, and in the face the impending loss of the one person who, to use a boxing analogy, has fought his corner, since his less than stable childhood, we see a man at his lowest ebb. More importantly as dependent as he is on gambling, illegal medication, and fighting the physical effects of a life spent punched and pummelled as a prize-fighter, Smith loads this character with an incredibly strong moral centre, and a man capable of a depth of emotion that his actions and outward appearance belie. Smith plays with our expectations of this character from the beginning, as he moves Bouchard from an almost clichéd portrayal of a punch drunk wastrel, to this incredibly empathetic character. The characterisation of Bouchard is phenomenal, as we experience his extreme lows, and see his increasingly desperate reaching towards a safe haven and stability in his life. The scenes with Maryann, his adoptive mother, and his recollections of the life lived with her, are beautifully poised and incredibly moving, and there is such a melancholic grace about Bouchard as he teeters on the edge of loss. Bathed in pathos, but not cloyingly so, Smith achieves a rare balance between the essential tough masculinity of Bouchard, and the more sensitive core of his emotional regret and sadness – it’s masterfully done.

Parallel to Bouchard, we enter into the less than stable existence of a young woman, Annette, who bears her pain in a strange parallel to Bouchard. As much as he wears the scars of fights lost and won, Annette has chosen to represent her life, and channel her emotions and thoughts with her body art. As we see her initially in the roustabout world of the travelling show, with no sense of permanence of rootedness, her and Bouchard’s paths crossing seems inevitable, opening up a whole other world of emotional bargaining and personal revelation. I liked very much her curious mix of strength and vulnerability, and how, as a reader, we recognise this symbiosis of emotion that Smith imbues in these two characters. Also, with shades of Elmore Leonard, Smith constructs a small band of despicable criminal characters, to whom Bouchard is indebted, replete with their southern redneck mentality, and violent compulsions, to raise the stakes for Bouchard’s survival. They play beautifully in the overarching feel of violence and hopelessness that permeates the book, leaving the reader in hope of more uplifting revelations…

The sultry, suffocating feel of Mississippi drips from every page, and the laconic cadence of the Deep South, resonates in your mind, in the stripped down, bare bones dialogue, that says as much in the gaps that it leaves, as the spaces it fills. The book oozes atmosphere and tension, and as Smith weaves his tale, I would defy you not to surrender to this dark,  brutal, but utterly beautiful story with its glimmers of redemption, and the power of human connection. Cannot praise The Fighter enough- highly recommended.

(With thanks to No Exit Press for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

A Quick Round Up- Chris Carter- The Gallery of the Dead/ Elly Griffiths- The Dark Angel/ Craig Robertson-The Photographer

Here are three authors that I read on an incredibly regular basis, but aware that they get reviews from far loftier reviewers than myself, here are just a few thoughts on their latest releases…

That’s what a LAPD Lieutenant tells Detectives Hunter and Garcia of the Ultra Violent Crimes Unit as they arrive at one of the most shocking crime scenes they have ever attended. 
 In a completely unexpected turn of events, the detectives find themselves joining forces with the FBI to track down a serial killer whose hunting ground sees no borders; a psychopath who loves what he does because to him murder is much more than just killing – it’s an art form.
 Welcome to The Gallery of the Dead.

There’s always a wonderful sense with Chris Carter that his books have a what you see is what you get feel about them, and that’s not to deride them in any way. I hesitate to use the word formulaic, but you know that there will be a central killer, brutal, mentally unhinged, and with an arsenal of gory methods of despatching their victims, to fulfil their own twisted raison d’etre. With his background in criminal psychology, Carter never fails to unnerve his readers with a plethora of individuals capable of haunting our dreams. The Gallery of The Dead ticks all the boxes as usual…

Deranged killer operating from what he believes is a perfectly normal mind-set

Interesting/bloodcurdling/”ugh gross” methods of despatching victims 

Detectives Hunter and Garcia, (who have acquired a near superhero/indestructible status from their preceding investigations) doggedly pursuing said killer, but wearing their underpants inside their trousers and not over the top of a pair of tights

Hunter beginning to realise that maybe he should be succumbing to his more ‘base’ needs and dallying with a member of the opposite sex 

An absolute belter of a closing line that references an earlier book, and is set to unleash a whole host of trouble for Detective Hunter… 

Some women read delightful nauseatingly pastel books with winsome singletons to turn on, tune in. and drop out. To unwind I read Chris Carter, the master of the dark, the dangerous and the seriously twisted, and The Gallery of the Dead is an absolute cracker.

(With thanks to Simon and Schuster for the ARC)

Dr Ruth Galloway is flattered when she receives a letter from Italian archaeologist Dr Angelo Morelli, asking for her help. He’s discovered a group of bones in a tiny hilltop village near Rome but doesn’t know what to make of them. It’s years since Ruth has had a holiday, and even a working holiday to Italy is very welcome!
So Ruth travels to Castello degli Angeli, accompanied by her daughter Kate and friend Shona. In the town she finds a baffling Roman mystery and a dark secret involving the war years and the Resistance. To her amazement she also soon finds Harry Nelson, with Cathbad in tow. But there is no time to overcome their mutual shock – the ancient bones spark a modern murder, and Ruth must discover what secrets there are in Castello degli Angeli that someone would kill to protect.

I will say from the outset that over the course of the Ruth Galloway books, I have had an up and down relationship with them, but feel almost a sense of guilt if I decide not to pick up the next in the series. The Dark Angel reaches the landmark of ten books, featuring the everywoman character of Galloway, who set apart by her sheer ordinariness, intelligence,  frequent crisis of confidence, and somewhat unbelievably tangled personal relationships, has accrued a significant following of readers in her wake.

I will be honest, and say that this book didn’t really fill me with any sense of satisfaction. As the whole love triangle, now love square, rumbles on unabated, I felt that Griffiths focussing on the machinations of this neglected to provide any sort of interesting plot, despite despatching both Ruth and her on/off/on/off/on/off lover policeman Harry to the steamy surrounds of Italy. The central ‘mystery’ that Ruth finds herself embroiled was all a wee dull, and I didn’t really care who was being killed and for what reason. Also I think that Griffiths has slightly shot herself in the foot, by despatching a character one book too early, as the continuing existence of this person could easily have let them survive a bit longer to spice things up a bit. In fact, the way they were despatched was a bit ludicrous too. Also it felt a bit one-out, one-in as the closing sentence of the book heralds the reappearance of a figure from Ruth’s past, who may or may not add a bit of energy to the series.

On a more positive note, I always appreciate Ruth’s witty asides, and her day to day battles with weight, appearance, and desperately seeking to not say the wrong thing at the wrong time. I love her groundedness, and her professional demeanour, along with the insight into archaeology that arise from the books. I will read the next one, and undoubtedly the next, but unfortunately The Dark Angel didn’t quite hit the spot for me this time.

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)

A dawn raid on the home of a suspected rapist leads to a chilling discovery, a disturbing collection of photographs hidden under floorboards. DI Rachel Narey is terrified at the potential scale of what they’ve found and of what brutalities it may signal.
    When the photographs are ruled inadmissible as evidence and the man walks free from court, Narey knows she’s let down the victim she’d promised to protect and a monster is back on the streets.
    Tony Winter’s young family is under threat from internet trolls and he is determined to protect them whatever the cost. He and Narey are in a race against time to find the unknown victims of the photographer’s lens – before he strikes again.

And so to Craig Robertson, whose series featuring DI Rachel Narey, and her other half photographer Tony Winter, does in all senses go from strength to strength. I’ve read every book to date, and there’s not been a duffer yet, and this one ranks easily as quite possibly the most polished and sensitive yet.

The Photographer revolves around the identification of a serial rapist, who seems to be able to defy prosecution, instead given free reign to stir up the misogynistic forces on social media to persecute his accuser, and by extension, Narey herself who is steadfastly working to bring him to justice. I thought this whole storyline was handled beautifully and extremely sensitively throughout, with Robertson not shying from representing the hatred that women endure through sexual violence, and the loathsome trolls of social media who hide behind their keyboards to vent their vicious diatribes and air their foul opinions. I felt that Robertson wrote some scenes with such compassion and depth of feeling that I was genuinely moved, and it is to the author’s credit that he captured this sense of desperation, and persecution so well. I liked the way that Robertson also didn’t resort to a stereotypical sexual predator, which added an extra level of tension in his interactions with Narey in particular, finding herself in confrontation with a successful, intelligent and extremely devious opponent.

As usual, the central relationship of Narey and Winter worked well with the added dimension of their new baby, and as things become more perilous, the welcome reappearance of Winter’s Uncle Danny, who is always a tonic, and a source of comfort to the reader knowing he has their backs. Robertson always achieves a good balance between the professional and the personal, with neither overwhelming the other in terms of the narrative. Likewise his books always have a resounding realism, and it’s always interesting how this resonates with his reader’s own experiences or their views on, or experience of, the issues he constructs his stories around. As usual, highly recommended, and generally a series that it is well worth discovering for yourselves.

(With thanks to Simon and Schuster for the ARC)

Author Interview: Chris Carter- The Caller

 

July heralds the paperback release of The Caller– the latest thriller featuring detectives Hunter and Garcia, and no doubt depravity and murder await them. Chris Carter has stopped by to tell us more, starting with what the new book is all about…

The Caller is a novel about a new type of serial killer who likes to use Social Media for his victims. The theme of the novel that will hit very close to home with a lot of people because of its theme. It’s also quite scary at times, so by all means, go check it out.

There is an established history of detective duos in the crime genre and Hunter and Garcia form an extremely effective partnership, despite their obvious differences. The steadfast Garcia is the perfect foil for the troubled yet brilliant Hunter, so how did you formulate such a winning partnership? And when they were separated in a previous book, was there a stronger impetus to team them up again?

To be very truthful, Hunter and Garcia’s partnership was formulated by chance. I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to write about a sole detective. I wanted my main character to have a partner. I guess that the main reason why they are so well accepted is because I have tried my best to keep Hunter and Garcia as real as possible. Yes, Hunter has a high IQ and a very analytical mind, which of course helps him in all the investigations, but he’s not self-absorbed or egocentric. In fact, I write him as one of the most common people one could meet, with the sort of common problems we all face. His relationship with Garcia tends to be a little funny, simply because Hunter is not a “joke” person and Garcia is.

It was fun to write a book where Hunter and Garcia weren’t working together, but yes, there was a very strong impetus to team them up again.

Your background in criminal psychology is well referenced, but what intrigues me is whether you cast mind back to a particular individual and construct a plot around them, or is it plot first and then you select an antagonist?

To be honest I have done both. Sometimes the first thing I think about concerning a possible new novel is the main idea for the plot, sometimes I envisage the antagonist first and then come up with a plot.

I guess it’s not too much of a stretch to say that your regular readers enjoy the more macabre aspects of your writing, but on a more serious note, how cathartic do you find this aspect of writing out the darkness, in terms of those you have encountered in your past?

That’s a very good question. Most of the time, writing out the darkness I have encountered in my past, or even the darkness that undoubtedly resides inside me can be very liberating. Writing down what’s going on inside ones mind is a very well known therapeutic method, but sometimes writing down this dark passages brings back some very strong memories – memories that I’d rather not have disturbed, but I guess that that’s part of the job, really.

Why do we love to read about serial killers, and even form a strangely amicable relationship with them? I would of course mention Hannibal Lector, as it would be rude not to, but I rather liked Lucian Folter from An Evil Mind, despite the fact he was quite a sick puppy indeed…

That’s a very hard question to answer, so here’s the long version.

As a criminal behavior psychologist and as a crime thriller writer, I have been asked numerous times why is it that people are so fascinated by crime and murder? Why are people so fascinated by death and by those who cause it? Why do killers and what goes on inside their heads intrigue us so much?

The truth, I believe, is that there is no single correct answer to any of those questions. Every psychologist, criminologist, author, scholar, or whoever else has ever spent any time exploring the “if’s” and “why’s” that inevitably accompany every possible answer we can come up with, has undoubtedly come to their own interpretation of the possible reasons behind such fascination. The following is merely my own conclusion, based on my understanding of criminal psychology, what I know of the human mind and the many years I spent working with law enforcement agencies and interviewing serious criminal offenders, many of them murderers. My conclusion came from analysing two quite simple human aspects.

One – Human beings are inquisitive by nature. It’s just the way our brains are wired up, for example, do you remember annoying your parents no end when you were a kid, always asking – ‘Why this? Why that? Why something else?’ Do you remember what would happen as soon as you got an answer? That’s right, you would move the goal post back a little bit and the “why’s” would start all over again. Maybe your kids are doing the same to you today. Well, the good news is – they are not deliberately trying to annoy you. Those questions are due to the naturally inquisitive nature of the human brain. As we grow older, the questions change, but the desire to find answers to things we fail to understand never goes away. The human brain is always trying to learn new things, always trying to find answers to questions that are ever changing. The hunger for knowledge and understanding simply never really vanishes.

Two – I guess one could argue that the primordial mystery men have been struggling to understand since the beginning of times is life itself. Some of us have become obsessed with trying to find answers to questions such as – How did we get here and where did we come from? I believe that from that intense desire to understand life comes an equally intense desire to understand the lack of it – death. Where do we go, if we go anywhere, once we leave this life form? Is there life after death? Etc.

Once you add these two factors together – the naturally inquisitive nature of the human mind and an inherent human desire to understand life and death – the answer to the question “Why are people so fascinated by crime and murder?” becomes almost obvious. Murder sits right on that thin line that separates life from death. So, with that in mind, I believe that many of us, trying to satisfy our natural human curiosity, would love to understand the reasons that could lead someone to commit murder, to take away the life of a fellow human being, to play God so to speak, sometimes with extreme prejudice. Our intrigue and curiosity heightens considerably when the person in question is a repeat offender – a serial killer, and even more so when the murder is preceded by torture. In a way, our brains long to understand how can a human being, just like you and I, do something most of us could never even contemplate, and worse yet, take such pleasure from something so gruesome and sadistic that he/she would do it again, and again, and again. We simply want to understand.

A great number of us, searching for that understanding, will turn to books, films, documentaries, research papers whatever we can find. The problem is; we are all different. Every murderer or serial killer out there has their own motives for doing what they do, crazy or not. As a criminal behaviour psychologist I have never encountered two murderers with the same exact reasons behind their actions. So as soon as we finally understand the motivations behind the actions of, let’s say Killer X, along comes Killer Y, with a whole different Modus Operandi, a whole new signature, and a whole new set of reasons for us to try to figure out. We’re then back to asking the same questions, but inevitably we’ll keep getting different answers with every case. So in truth, our curiosity and fascination with crime and murder will never be totally satisfied, and we’ll keep coming back for more. Always trying to understand the reasons behind something unreasonable. That in itself could trigger an addiction, a vicious cycle, and that’s why crime readers and crime fans can become such aficionados – The hunger for understanding simply never really vanishes.

You have made use of the contemporary phenomenon that is social media, and referenced the dark web. Despite the recognised pernicious evils of both, you’ve got to admit it’s a bit of a godsend to crime writers. How deeply have you explored the dark web in the course of your writing?

Yes, I do agree that the Internet is a Godsend to writers. I know it certainly is to me, but to quote a song from Poison – every rose has its thorn. The Internet has its good side as well as its bad side. I did explore the dark web quite a bit, actually and yes, it can be very dark.

I’ve often heard authors say that they cannot read fiction while they are planning/writing their books- is this true of you? Any particular authors you admire?

For me it definitely is. I don’t read at all while I’m writing a novel.

To be honest, after becoming an author myself, I now admire every author out there because this is a tough business to be in.

Who would play you in a biopic of your life, as psychologist, international author, and total rock-god?

Not sure about the Rock God part, but thank you very much. Not sure, maybe Dwayne Johnson as we both have the same physique and the same hair color.

Perfect soundtrack for writing? Musicians you’d like to jam with?

Any sort of metal for me. It gets the thinking gears rolling.

Musicians I’d like to jam with. There are too many, but certainly Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie and A Perfect Circle. That would be awesome.

What’s next?

As soon as I am done with book 9 – The Gallery of the Dead – I will take a break of about a month (maybe more), recharge everything then start on book 10.

 

After a tough week, Tanya Kaitlin is looking forward to a relaxing night in, but as she steps out of her shower, she hears her phone ring.  The video call request comes from her best friend, Karen Ward.  Tanya takes the call and the nightmare begins. Karen is gagged and bound to a chair in her own living room.  If Tanya disconnects from the call, if she looks away from the camera, he will come after her next, the deep, raspy, demonic voice at the other end of the line promises her. As Hunter and Garcia investigate the threats, they are thrown into a rollercoaster of evil, chasing a predator who scouts the streets and social media networks for victims, taunting them with secret messages and feeding on their fear…

I cannot resist the allure of a new title from Chris Carter (One By One,   An Evil Mind ) and his dynamite pairing of detectives Robert Hunter and Carlos Garcia of the LAPD. Once again in The Caller our intrepid duo are drawn into the nasty world of another completely loco serial killer, who operates via the world of social media, exacting some wonderfully visceral, and cruel and unusual punishments on his victims and those closest to them. Throw in a hitman looking for revenge on the killer too, whilst hoping to dodge the radar of Hunter and Garcia, and what Carter dishes up is a spine chilling, violent, read in one sitting (in subdued lighting if you dare) serial killer thriller with some very nasty surprises indeed…Recommended.

A big thank you to Chris for answering my questions and to Simon & Schuster for the ARC.

Nick Kolakowski- A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps

Bill is a hustler’s hustler with a taste for the high life. He pulls off big scores for one of New York City’s more vicious gangs…until he suddenly grows a conscience. However, living the clean life takes a whole lot of money, and so Bill decides to steal a fortune from his employer before skipping town.  With a bag of cash in the trunk of his car, Bill heads west, ready for a new life. But all that money makes him a tempting target for some bad people he meets on the road—and if that wasn’t dangerous enough, some old friends are close behind him, and they intend to make a trophy of his head.  Pursued by crooked cops, dim-witted bouncers, and a wisecracking assassin in the midst of a midlife crisis, Bill will need to be a quick study in the way of the gun if he wants to survive his own getaway. Who knew that an honest attempt at redemption could rack up a body count like this?

Being a confirmed fan of deep down and dirty hardboiled American crime, and in the style of Castle Freeman’s Go With Me, or Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move, Kolakowski ticks all the boxes in this pert and stripped down tale of cross and double cross. Inhabited by a marvellous cast of emotionally battered, violent, scheming, characters all on the make, and up to their necks in trouble, the story veers between biting, razor sharp humour, punchy visceral violence, and a strangely unsettling probing of the character’s inner lives exposing a strange degree of emotional frailty, and the need to be loved. Despite being a relatively slim read, Kolakowski packs it to the gills with movement and action, and also has the good sense to include a feisty kick-assing female character in the testosterone -fuelled mix, who proves a perfect foil to the hapless Bill.

It’s a maelstrom of fast, furious action with Coen-esque tendencies that I whipped through at a cracking pace, fully appreciative of the more surreal concept of a hitman in strange attire that comes out of nowhere, before a brilliantly violent, and strangely pathos filled conclusion.

I have my concerns over how Kolakowski’s mind works, but I found this deliciously deranged and very pleasing indeed. Worryingly, perhaps this also says something about me. Recommended.

 

With a good dose of this…

A bit of this…

And plenty of this…

 

How could you possibly refuse? 

 

(With thanks to Nick for the ARC)

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