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American crime fiction

#BlogTour- Kristen Lepionka- The Last Place You Look

Sarah Cook, a beautiful blonde teenager disappeared fifteen years ago, the same night her parents were brutally murdered in their suburban Ohio home. Her boyfriend Brad Stockton – black and from the wrong side of the tracks – was convicted of the murders and sits on death row, though he always maintained his innocence. With his execution only weeks away, his devoted sister, insisting she has spotted Sarah at a local gas station, hires PI Roxane Weary to look again at the case.
Reeling from the recent death of her cop father, Roxane finds herself drawn to the story of Sarah’s vanishing act, especially when she thinks she’s linked Sarah’s disappearance to one of her father’s unsolved murder cases involving another teen girl. Despite her self-destructive tendencies, Roxane starts to hope that maybe she can save Brad’s life and her own…

And so to a debut thriller from Kristen Lepionka, The Last Place You Look, revolving around her troubled female private investigator Roxanne Weary, and a perplexing case in which she seeks to clear the name of an allegedly falsely accused man on Death Row. The plot plays out pleasingly enough, as Weary finds her own family connections inextricable linked with her investigation into this case, and encounters some harsh resistance along the way as she probes deeper into the missing links between these violent events. A few twists and turns along the way keep the action moving along at a pace, and despite a slight hackneyed scenario towards the close of the book, enough is initially kept hidden from Weary, and by extension the reader, to satisfy us with its twists and turns. However, the real strength of Lepionka’s writing lies within her characterisation of  Weary herself…

Being a little world weary (excuse the pun)  of crime thrillers featuring private investigators, I did approach this one a little tentatively at first, but my fears were assuaged somewhat by some nifty characterisation on the part of Lepionka. Although other reviewers have drawn comparison with the hardboiled tradition of Raymond Chandler, I felt that Weary was definitely more closely aligned with the forthright private investigator characters redolent of Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton and a smattering of a more worldly wise Nancy Drew. I think these influences shine through in her portrayal of Weary, reeling from her father’s death, combating her personal demons with alcohol and sex, and being very much of the mould of act now and think later. I did find the dynamics of her  personal relationships with her father’s police partner Tom and the frosty artistic Catherine interesting, and how her behaviour morphed and changed when in their company, or fretting about the emotional depth of her involvement with them.  This added a nice tangential aspect to the storyline, and gave us a greater insight into Weary’s character and her emotional complexity. I had a growing admiration for her as her travails increased, and rather liked her gung-ho attitude in the face of this complex and dangerous case, so much so that the strength of her character rather over-shadowed other characters in the book, who are a trifle hazy in my recollection a few weeks after reading the book.

Overall with The Last Place You Look,  my attention was held mostly by Weary, and the ups and downs of her emotional state, along with the clear-sightedness with which she approaches this troubling case. Although a little less convinced by the final denouement, this was an engaging enough read, and think that Lepionka has a few more roads to travel yet with this character. Recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

Bill Mesce Jr- Legacy: A DiMarchese Case File

Dante DiMarchese is a forensic psychologist, an expert in the workings of the criminal mind and the man responsible for putting the Bailey Beach serial killer behind bars. When a soldier home from a tour in Afghanistan is charged with manslaughter, Dante is immediately called on to help. Meanwhile, the Bailey Beach killer is threatening to smear Dante’s name, while Dante’s persistent ex-brother-in-law ropes him into an inheritance dispute between a still-living father and his family. In the heart of New York, will Dante’s unravel the legacies and lies that others have left behind? Can he contain his own deceptions?

There is the age-old adage that you should never judge a book by its cover, and Legacy is very much proves the rule. I must admit that I was a little put off by the very ordinariness of the book jacket on this, but what a little gem of a thriller lies between its pages…

With its sharp shooting, rat-a-tat dialogue cut through with humour and pathos throughout, Bill Mesce has produced an incredibly readable and highly enjoyable tale centring on the vain and self absorbed character of forensic psychologist, Dante DiMarchese. Enchanting and infuriating in equal measure, DiMarchese is a brilliant creation suffused with professional arrogance and obsession with his appearance, but gloriously underpinned by a genuine sense of morality,  as we observe his involvement with three disparate criminal cases. With somewhat of a car crash personal life, and an inherent knack of getting up most people’s noses, he walks a fine line between irritation for his overdeveloped solipsism, but possessing a charm and honesty that is really rather endearing. I loved this blend of characteristics within him, and equally the reaction of others to him. His long suffering secretary, Esther Froelich, proves a feisty defender of her self imposed position of arbiter of Checkpoint Charlie, as she calls her office, and is a wonderful foil for the shenanigans of her employer, particularly in the realm of hypothetical situations. She very much reminded me of the redoubtable Mrs Landingham from West Wing with her sharp tongue and no-nonsense approach, and the scenes between her and Dante were a joy. There are some pointed and bitter encounters with some in Dante’s personal circle that lead to some caustic and darkly funny episodes, and also those that manage to make us reassess the character of Dante completely. Throughout the select band of supporting characters generally,  we observe a host of contrasting reactions with, and respect for Dante, which fills out our general impression of him, but will our strutting peacock of a main man take some of this criticism on board and mend his ways? That would be telling, but I think there’s more than enough scope for us to waltz with Dante once again…

The book spans Dante’s personal and professional involvement in three contrasting cases, and the case of a contested will, revealing some pretty ugly and acrimonious familial relations is dwelt on the most. Although this legal battle was interesting in, and of, itself focussing on jealousy, manipulation and miscommunication, I felt there was a slight imbalance in the narrative, as the two other cases, one of an emotionally damaged war veteran, and an incarcerated serial killer, had the potential to hold more of the ground in the book, and I felt the former case in particular was worthy of greater focus, as I was interested in this young man’s experiences and his route to a moment of madness. However, on discovering that this was originally written as a screenplay, I totally understand the need to stretch the narrative over three stories and to focus on one in particular to hold the viewer’s interest, but in a novel I would have adjusted the balance slightly with the luxury of more room to explore the perpetrator’s motives and mind-sets. To be honest though, this is just a minor quibble in what proves to be a thoroughly engaging tale of dubious morality, emotional turbulence and the search for resolution, or revenge, in differing ways.

With its feel of John Grisham meets Elmore Leonard, I would heartily recommend Legacy as a bit of a must read for fans of contemporary American crime fiction. Looking forward to Mr DiMarchese’s next cases however he is coiffured…

(With thanks to Impress Books for the ARC)

#BlogTour- J. M. Gulvin- The Contract

In New Orleans, Texas Ranger John Q is out of his jurisdiction, and possibly out of his depth. It seems everyone in Louisiana wants to send him home, and every time he asks questions there’s trouble: from the pharmacist to the detective running scared to the pimp who turned to him as a last resort. Before John Q knows it, he looks the only link between a series of murders. So who could be trying to set him up, and why, and who can he turn to in a city where Southern tradition and family ties rule?

Last year I had the pleasure of reviewing J. M. Gulvin’s debut thriller, The Long Count  featuring Texas Ranger John Quarrie- a tough guy who could out-tough Jack Reacher.  The Contract sees John Q uprooted from his native Texas to the pulsing heart of New Orleans in this tale of corruption and exploitation echoing the reverberations of the Kennedy assassination…

John Q is a brilliant construct, oozing masculinity and toughness in a highly self-contained way, and like the heroes of the American Western tradition, imbued with a rigid core of morality and decency that permeates his dealing with those that have sinned and are sinned against. In comparison to other tough guy figures of modern crime thriller writing, he doesn’t go in for mawkish naval gazing, having found himself a sole parent, does not get drawn into unbelievable love entanglements, and when he does occasionally get his butt kicked we know that it does actually smart a bit.  Gulvin has characterised him with a laconic speech pattern that also plays into this hero tradition, and the brooding quality of the moral avenger. It works incredibly well, as Quarrie proves a menacing opponent for the cast of amateur hitmen and corrupt society figures that his jaunt to New Orleans uncovers.

The absolute stand out feature for me of the two books to date is the exceptionally visual nature of Gulvin’s writing. As he transports the reader between the two disparate locales of Texas and New Orleans, the depiction of both is beautifully realised. The stretching, arid and barren landscape of Texas where Quarrie dwells with his young son is the extreme opposite of the sultry, sensual New Orleans where violence always seems to dwell just beneath the surface. As Quarrie takes up temporary residence in New Orleans, Gulvin moves us effortlessly around the thoroughfares, taking snapshots of the architectural heritage, and immersing us in the culture, politics and spiritual traditions of this unique city. There’s racial tension, sexual exploitation, corruption, and the shadow of the Vietnam War. Coupled with the use of Jim Garrison- a lead figure in the investigation into the Kennedy assassination- and other cultural and social references that firmly fix this book in a period of space and time, Gulvin’s research and attention to detail raises this book above the simple tag of thriller into a richly rewarding read. In common with Tim Baker’s Fever City,  Gulvin provides little teasing references to future seismic events, that the modern reader quickly recognises, again adding another layer of interest into the story. It’s neatly done, but not to the point that it feels contrived.

Tapping firmly into my affection for the more literary, less overtly bish-bash-bosh crime thriller, and replete with period detail and sense of place, Gulvin has confidently matched the success of The Long Count for this reader. On tenterhooks to see what John Q will become entangled in next… Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

 

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Hester Young- The Shimmering Road

A woman is driving through the desert wasteland. Ahead of her, the road shimmers in the heat. She is running from a dream that is so terrifyingly real that it haunts her waking hours. The pop of a bullet, the rush of blood through water … Is her vision a premonition, a message that she and her daughter are in danger? Then Charlie learns that the mother she never knew has been murdered in Arizona. Soon she must confront her past, and untangle a web of secrets that will reveal the truths of her own nightmare…

Having enjoyed The Gates of Evangeline the debut novel by Hester Young, I was very keen to see what this author would produce next. The Shimmering Road takes us on a journey through the border states of America, exposing the grim realities of those whose lives are defined by their proximity to one of the richest nations on earth, whilst weaving a compelling tale of family, poverty, retribution and the search for emotional closure.

The character of Charlotte is the real epicentre of the book, and she confidently holds the reader’s interest throughout. As a woman from a broken background who has strived and achieved success as a journalist, Young now places her in an entirely different geographical and emotional situation on the cusp of motherhood, yet drawn back into the dark history of her family with the murders of her estranged mother and sister. Charlotte is haunted by violent visions of death, and with the news of these murders is drawn into the desperate lives of her former family, uncovering a dark and sordid tale of sex, drugs and violence. Charlotte possesses all the wisecracking toughness and doggedness of her former career, but by the same token displays credible moments of self doubt and emotional uncertainty, which draws us as readers to her. As she delves deeper into her late mother’s work in the Mexican border towns, we see her assumptions challenged, and her willingness to stop at nothing to expose the mistreatment and exploitation of the members of these communities. I loved her caustic wit, her undulating relationship with her partner Noah and the underlying emotional baggage of his previous marriage, and the very real uncertainty she displays with impending motherhood and the tentative adoption of her late sister’s child. Young cleverly uses her character as not only a conduit for the anger and emotional responses for the other characters, but also uses her as a prism for us to be exposed to the social deprivation she observes as she embarks on the mission to uncover the facts behind the murder of her family. In common with The Gates of Evangeline, as a plot device, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Charlotte’s borderline supernatural visions that draw her in deeper to the demise of her family, but appreciate that this becomes invaluable to her investigations in Mexico later in the book.

Having had a long-held interest in the socio-political aspects of Mexico, I was completely hooked by the clear and precise, though not necessarily comfortable, portrayal of life amongst the destitute inhabitants of Nogales. Here, Young draws us into a gruelling world of extreme poverty and sexual exploitation, that is uncompromising, and sadly, all too accurate. What proves interesting is how Young so clearly shows the difference in morality that enables people to survive in dire circumstances, and how some toil in the most indescribably harsh and dangerous conditions to ensure the survival of their families. Others however, through greed and lack of compassion, are more than happy to make a buck by exploiting young girls either for men’s sexual gratification, or to take part in ‘baby farming’ for rich and childless American couples. As Charlotte begins to explore this world, through the charitable work of her reformed late mother, she tends to reflect the sheer horror at these people’s lives that we experience as readers, and to mirror our emotional reactions to these desperate circumstances. This aspect of the book was intense, incredibly well-written and utterly compelling.

I thought this for the most part an extremely accomplished book, with its vivid characterisation, intense emotion, and a wonderful expose of those whose lives are in such stark contrast to our own. Undercut by moments of humour and extreme pathos, Young has produced not only an effective thriller, but a book that is packed with issues of family, poverty and revenge. Recommended.

(With thanks to Penguin Random House for the ARC)

A Quick Round Up-Sara Flannery Murphy- The Possessions/ Mikel Santiago- Last Night At Tremore Beach/ Nicolas Obregon- Blue Light Yokohama

For five years Edie has worked for the Elysian Society, a secretive organisation that provides a very specialised service: its clients come to reconnect with their dead loved ones by channelling them through living ‘Bodies’. Edie is one such Body, perhaps the best in the team, renowned for her professionalism and discretion. Everything changes when Patrick, a distraught husband, comes to look for traces of his drowned wife in Edie. The more time that Edie spends as the glamorous, enigmatic Sylvia, the closer she comes to falling in love with Patrick and the more mysterious the circumstances around Sylvia’s death appear. As Edie falls under Sylvia’s spell, she must discover not only the couple’s darkest secrets, but also her own long-buried memories and desires — before it’s too late…

Billed as a thriller, a ghost story and as a tale of sexual obsession, The Possessions was one of the strangest reading experiences I have encountered for some time. With comparisons to the work of such estimable authors as Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro and Daphne Du Maurier, Sara Flannery Murphy encloses the reader in a world of grief, guilt, love and obsession where irreality, spirituality and human emotions are inextricably entwined…

Curiously I am still unsure as to how much I really enjoyed this book, despite being initially enraptured at its highly original approach to the bridging of the gap between the living and dead. Equally, at first I was held in the thrall of the author’s emotive and completely accurate exploration and characterisation of the human response to personal loss and the assimilation of grief. She explored well the feelings of guilt and emotional stress that the recently bereaved experience, and the need for us to hold on to the one we have lost on some level to eventually move on to emotional closure. Her depiction and description of these differing but highly intense feelings of grief could not be faulted. By using Eurydice (whose name conjures up images of mythical strangeness) an isolated and emotionally closed off individual to act as a conduit from living to dead was expertly handled from the beginning, but as her strange relationship with the recently bereaved Patrick comes to the forefront, I started to find myself doubting her credibility. There was an escalating amount of repetition as the book progressed, with the author re-treading themes and images that started to irk me as the book progressed, and I began to care less and less about Eurydice’s increasing involvement with the spirit of Patrick’s dead wife. As a very obvious plot reveal came to life, I began to falter, and despite reading to the end, I felt strangely unsatisfied by what at first had held my interest entirely, and undoing my initial general crowing about this weirdly good book I was reading. One to make your own minds up about.

(With thanks to Scribe for the ARC)

When Peter Harper, a gifted musician whose career and personal life are in trouble, comes to northwest Ireland and rents a remote cottage on beautiful, windswept Tremore Beach, he thinks he has found a refuge, a tranquil place in a time of crisis. His only neighbours for miles around are a retired American couple, Leo and Marie Kogan, who sense his difficulties and take him under their wing. But there’s something strange about the pair that he can’t quite figure out. One night during one of the dramatic storms that pummel the coast, Peter is struck by lightning. Though he survives, he begins to experience a series of terrifying, lucid and bloody nightmares that frame him, the Kogans and his visiting children in mortal danger. The Harper family legend of second sight suddenly takes on a sinister twist. What if his horrifying visions came true, could tonight be his last…?

With one reviewer billing The Last Night At Tremore Beach as a cross between Don’t Look Now and Straw Dogs, I can only concur thus leaving me only a little to say about this one. I found it a slightly unbalanced affair, although I was intrigued by the back story of Peter’s coast dwelling neighbours, and the secrets in their shady past. With shades of Dean Koontz and Stephen King in the portrayal of Peter’s supernatural gift, I felt that this was to some extent, a bit superfluous to the plot, as a more linear depiction of his uncovering, and being threatened by, his neighbour’s former lives could have been portrayed without this. It felt a little padded. Peter’s character left no real impact on me, and found him generally a bit woolly around the edges. However, on a more positive note I did enjoy Santiago’s attention to the geography of this barren Irish coastline, and how he built tension through the secluded position of this location, and the natural elements that assailed its shores. A mixed bag.

(With thanks to Simon and Schuster for the ARC)

Inspector Kosuke Iwata, newly transferred to Tokyo’s homicide department, is assigned a new partner and a secondhand case. Blunt, hard as nails and shunned by her colleagues, Assistant Inspector Noriko Sakai is a partner Iwata decides it would be unwise to cross. A case that’s complicated – a family of four murdered in their own home by a killer who then ate ice cream, surfed the web and painted a hideous black sun on the bedroom ceiling before he left in broad daylight. A case that so haunted the original investigator that he threw himself off the city’s famous Rainbow Bridge. Carrying his own secret torment, Iwata is no stranger to pain. He senses the trauma behind the killer’s brutal actions. Yet his progress is thwarted in the unlikeliest of places. Fearing corruption among his fellow officers, tracking a killer he’s sure is only just beginning and trying to put his own shattered life back together, Iwata knows time is running out before he’s taken off the case or there are more killings . . .

So saving the best until last, I was incredibly impressed with Blue Light Yokohama based on the real life, and still unsolved, slaying of a family in Japan, and the suicide of its lead investigator. Obregon has beautifully manipulated and used the details of this original case to construct a real slow burning thriller that kept me gripped throughout. Aside from referencing a real case which is one of my favourite tropes in crime fiction, there is a consistency of atmospheric building of tension, punctuated by moments of extreme stress and violence that demonstrates what a good writer Obregon is. His characters, particularly Iwata and Sakai, are completely believable, and undergo real trials by fire throughout, with their reactions and actions also entirely plausible. The story of female officer Sakai is heartrendingly honest and how her story plays out moved me greatly. Although the book does not contain the level of attention to Japanese culture and social mores as that of an authentically Japanese author, the strength and gradual build up of an excellent plot cancelled out this slight disappointment. I delighted in the red herrings and false alleyways that Obregon navigates us through, and there were genuine moments of utter surprise and shock throughout. I felt emotionally invested in both the story and the personal travails of Obregon’s protagonists, and knowing that this book was so firmly grounded in reality further added to my enjoyment. When I finished this book I tweeted that I needed to take a breath. I guarantee you will too.  Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Penguin/Michael Joseph for the ARC)

 

 

#BlogTour- Erica Ferencik- The River At Night- Review/ Exclusive Giveaway #WIN

515pukkp9hlWin Allen doesn’t want an adventure.  After a miserable divorce and the death of her beloved brother, she just wants to spend some time with her three best friends, far away from her soul-crushing job. But athletic, energetic Pia has other plans.

Plans for an adrenaline-raising, breath-taking, white-water rafting trip in the Maine wilderness. Five thousand square miles of remote countryside. Just mountains, rivers and fresh air.

No phone coverage. No people. No help…

Well, this one certainly ushered in the new year with a blast of adrenaline fuelled excitement and no mistake. The River At Night quickly reveals itself as a  glorious mash up of Deliverance meets Eat, Pray Love, played out in the remote backwoods of Maine. How could you possibly resist?

At the outset, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re simply reading about four female friends baring their souls and personal tribulations, the trials of their families, health, relationships and so on, as they embark on their annual trip together to shoot the breeze, and renew the bonds of their friendship. But you’d be wrong. So wrong. The author is quoted as saying that she writes what she wants to read, “frankly I was desperate for a novel about four female friends pitted against each other as they tried to survive” and this she achieves with aplomb. As the women’s situation becomes increasingly more perilous, Ferencik neatly maps out the changes in each of their characters, and in Win’s character in particular, highlights moments of intense self-realisation and the growth of her emotional and physical resilience. She is an incredibly empathetic character, bruised and battered emotionally, but leading us to feel that is day one of a tumultuous change for her, albeit in some dramatic style outside the touchy-feely confines of the counselling environment. Ferencik’s characterisation of all four of her female protagonists, and those they encounter within this doom-laden trip is enthralling and suffused with moments of sheer emotional intensity.

By wrong-footing the reader from the start, another stand out feature of this book for me is Ferencik’s control of pace and tension throughout. The way she manipulates the rhythm of the story, carefully tapping into the darkest fears of her readers with the ominous underlying tension that suddenly explodes into moments of visceral violence, is utterly chilling with devastating effects for the protagonists. Married with Ferencik’s atmospheric use of the wild, uncompromising landscape, and its attendant dangers, there is much to fear and as the women find themselves adrift before physically and emotionally, at the mercy of the natural environment and nerve shredding tension ensues. I loved Ferencik’s razor sharp, visual depiction of the seemingly unnavigable wilderness, and how the hostility of this environment hampers the women’s progress and thwarts their escape to safety, shrouding the book with an air of complete menace. There seems to be an intense feeling of appreciation on the author’s part for the natural world, and an inherent respect for the majesty and danger of nature untamed by man.

 It was so refreshing and gratifying to read a book that not only held my attention with both its dramatic intensity and seat of the pants action, but also its portrayal of ‘real’ women in the grip of a horrific series of events and their responses to it. An early contender for a stand-out read of the year, and definitely one that you should all seek out as soon as possible. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Bloomsbury for the ARC)

EXCLUSIVE GIVEAWAY

To celebrate the inaugural publication for the Bloomsbury Raven imprint I have 3 copies of Erica Ferencik- The River At Night to offer in an exclusive giveaway which I will be running from my Twitter account.

To take part simply tweet me @ravencrime

with the phrase

I want to be swept away by #TheRiverAtNight @BloomsburyRaven

and you’ll be entered into the draw.

Giveaway closes on the 27th January 2017.

UK only.

To celebrate publication day the ebook is currently on offer for £1.49 on Amazon.co.uk and from other e-book retailers.

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#BlogTour- A. L. Gaylin- What Remains of Me

gaylinJune 1980: 17-year-old Kelly Lund is jailed for killing Hollywood film director, John McFadden Thirty years later, Kelly is a free woman. Yet speculation still swirls over what really happened that night. And when her father-in law, and close friend of McFadden is found dead – shot through the head at point-blank range – there can only be one suspect. But this time Kelly has some high-profile friends who believe she’s innocent of both crimes…

Being a fan of contemporary American crime fiction, and particularly those featuring ‘damaged’ female protagonists, such as Jax Miller’s Freedom’s Child and Emma Cline’s The Girls , I’m incredibly pleased to report that the trinity is now complete with this truly compelling novel from A.L. Gaylin, What Remains of Me.

Front and centre of this tale of redemption, revenge and murder, is the figure of Kelly Lund, convicted of murder at a young age, but now having served 25 years for the crime, still battling with her readjustment to life on the outside. Lund is a powerfully constructed and multi-faceted character who gets under your skin, and toys with your empathy as the tale unfolds. Her naivety as a seventeen year old girl, finding herself enveloped in the starry world of Hollywood and its nefarious temptations, is beautifully balanced with our view of her post-incarceration, and the damage this has wreaked on her emotional make-up. The barren emotion and dark shadows of her marriage is set against the frail and tentative emotional connection she makes with her neighbour Rocky, as she struggles with her past actions coming to impact on her new life. I found the lines drawn between the teenage and adult Lund with those connected to her past and present lives, with some particularly nasty skeletons emerging from the closet, were never less than utterly believable, and emotionally engaging throughout. The frailty and imperfections of Lund, as she seeks to make sense of the deeds attributed to her, drive the plot on, and her surrounding cast of characters, and their own failings both in their actions towards her, and their own pernicious acts are constantly surprising, and sometimes deeply disturbing. Gaylin’s fearless and uncompromising eye on the world of celebrity, and those that grow up in its shadow with their attendant emotional problems, is crucial to the playing out of this twisted tale, and grips the reader as our alliances to the main players shifts and changes.

What I liked most about this book is the control of pace and reveal that Gaylin uses, echoing the central theme of the seedy underbelly of the Hollywood crowd, who lie at the centre of the book. There is a real sense of zoom and focal adjustment, as Gaylin seems to anticipate perfectly how closely to bring the reveals into focus, and when to leave the reader hanging slightly by pulling away from certain story strands at exactly the right time. and then bam, another twist socks you right in the kisser.

Equally, Gaylin’s description of location, offsetting the glamourous Hollywood world of Lund’s teenage cohorts, against her new existence in the barren desert flats is beautifully realised, and providing another surreptitious reference to the morally bankrupt excesses of the movie fraternity, against the cleaner moral life of frugality, and engagement with the natural world. There is also a wonderfully dispassionate style to Gaylin’s writing, so it feels that the moments of revelation and emotional intensity are slightly dampened down, to add to the overarching feeling of sadness that permeates the story. In this way, the book exhibits the twin attributes of a nod to the best of hardboiled noir, fused with the emotional sparseness and literary prowess of contemporary American fiction.

So with its blend of strong characterisation, assured plotting, attention to location, and moral ambiguity, What Remains of Me, ticked every single box for this reader. It loitered in my head for some while after finishing it, and that for me is further testament to how good it was. No hesitation in the Raven’s mind that this is one highly recommended read. Excellent.

 

 

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PRAISE FOR WHAT REMAINS OF ME
‘Completely absorbing with a knock-out twist’ – Harlan Coben
‘You’ll stay up late to read this’ – Laura Lippmann
‘Full of crackling energy and heartache’ – Megan Abbott
‘An exceptional book by an exceptional writer. Gaylin is an expert at acute emotional observation combined with seamless plotting. I adored this book.’  – Alex Marwood
 
 

A. L. Gaylin’s first job was as a reporter for a celebrity tabloid, which sparked a lifelong interest in writing about people committing despicable acts. More than a decade later, she wrote and published her Edgar-nominated first novel, Hide Your Eyes.
 
She’s since published eight more books, including the USA Today and international bestselling Brenna Spector suspense series, which has been nominated for the Edgar, Anthony and Thriller awards and won the Shamus awards. She lives in upstate New York with her husband, daughter, cat and dog

(With thanks to Arrow Books for the ARC)

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A Deadly Trio- Domenic Stansberry- The White Devil, Carl-Johan Vallgren- The Tunnel, Steinar Bragi-The Ice Lands

1471984137455The chilling story of a young American woman in Rome, an aspiring actress, who- together with her brother- is implicated in a series of murders dating back to her childhood. She plays a deadly game, alternately intimate and distant, a cipher of unwholesome impulse, and erotic intrigue…

My, my, my, what a dark and sordid tale of jealousy, desire, and cold-blooded murder this proved to be… and I absolutely loved it. With a down-to-the-bone, spare prose style, so resonant of the American hardboiled noir tradition, and scenes that would not be out of place in a Fellini classic, The White Devil is quite simply perfect in its execution. As we become more deeply entwined with this ice-cold female narrator, Victoria, who slowly reveals her tangled and murderous early history, and the strange dynamics at play in her relationship with her brother Johnny, I began to fear more and more for the unsuspecting individuals whom they set in their sights. The book has the pace and sudden shock value of pure classic Hitchcock, and indeed there is a superb visual quality to Stansberry’s writing, as he leads us amongst the upper echelons of Italian society, the starry world of the movies, and the dimly lit and dangerous streets, that lay behind the glamourous façade of Rome.

In addition, Stansberry draws on themes of politics, religion, and money, drawing on the marked differences, and frames of reference, that Victoria and Johnny as Americans abroad harbour, sharply putting into focus their new world gaucheness, and drive to succeed at any cost,  both to themselves or others. I loved the style of Stansberry’s writing, both in its tautness, and, at times, supreme subtlety, and the eminently unlikeable cast of characters with their selfish intentions, or inherent stupidity, exposed as the dastardly Victoria and Johnny inveigle themselves into their world. Woe betide them…

Hardboiled noir to die for. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Molotov Editions for the ARC)

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Private investigator Danny Katz is trying to track down his former drug dealer. Ramón and his girlfriend Jenny have both vanished leaving behind a lot of unanswered questions. How come Ramón suddenly found himself in possession of the mother-load of drugs? And is Jenny really who she claims to be?

Katz’s investigation leads him to the darkest corners of Stockholm’s porn industry and once again his old addiction threatens to control him. Ultimately only one thing seems certain – someone is willing to do whatever it takes to keep Katz from discovering the brutal truth…

What begins as a seemingly ordinary crime heist novel, The Tunnel quickly evolves into a multi-layered and very enjoyable Sweden set thriller, driven by the archetypal social analysis, and strong characterisation that defines Scandinavian crime fiction. As the individual stories of its three main protagonists and friends, Jorma, a  career criminal, Katz, a reformed drug addict, and Eva, an emotionally troubled woman who works for the police, play out, Vallgren draws us into a sordid world of sex trafficking and violence.

For me, Vallgren’s portrayal of these three contrary, but nonetheless totally appealing characters, is the lynchpin for the enjoyment of the book, and I found myself utterly engaged with them throughout. There is a nice sense of balance in their characterisation as they are not all paragons of virtues, finding themselves susceptible to their own singular vices and desires, and with Katz in particular Vallgren is given the opportunity to explore Swedish society, and to draw on the Jewish roots of his character to spin the story off in another direction. The central plot is unsettling, bleak and exposes the seedy underbelly of drug addiction and the sex industry, and the manipulation of those who find themselves caught up in, or profiting from this nefarious trades. I also liked the ending that is not neatly tied up with a bow, but instead is quite bleak and uncertain. Vallgren is the closest writer I have found to Cilla and Rolf Bjorland (Spring Tide, Third Voice) who also specialise in social realism, and troubled-but-empathetic characters, and will now be hastily backtracking to read the first book by him, The Boy In The Shadows. A top Scandi-noir recommendation from me.

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)

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Set against Iceland’s volcanic hinterlands, four thirty-somethings from Reykjavik – the reckless hedonist Egill; the recovering alcoholic Hrafin; and their partners Anna and Vigdis – embark on an ambitious camping trip, their jeep packed with supplies.

Victims of the financial crisis, the purpose of the trip is to heal both professional and personal wounds, but the desolate landscape forces the group to reflect on the shattered lives they’ve left behind in the city. As their jeep hurtles through the barren land, an impenetrable fog descends, causing them to suddenly crash into a rural farmhouse.

Seeking refuge from the storm, the group discover that the isolated dwelling is inhabited by a mysterious elderly couple who inexplicably barricade themselves inside every night. As past tensions within the group rise to the surface, the merciless weather blocks every attempt at escape, forcing them to ask difficult questions: who has been butchering animals near the house? What happened to the abandoned village nearby where bones lie strewn across the ground? And most importantly, will they ever return home?

With a nod to Halloween, felt it right to include The Ice Lands in this wee round-up. I would probably describe this as an existential version of The Blair Witch Project, mixed up with Lost with shades of On The Road. I must confess, that for large portions of the book, including the not the most easily comprehensible ending, I was rather confused at quite what the jiggins was going on. Suffused with the dark, bleak and completely terrifying landscape of rural Iceland, and the creepy inhabitants of a house that I’m fairly sure was not constructed of gingerbread, four unwitting, and not entirely likeable egotistic individuals find themselves privy to a nightmare experience. With enough schlock horror moments to keep you on the edge of the seat, and some not always welcome diversions into the world of scientific academia which were initially quite interesting and then waned, Bragi has constructed a unique blend of traditional shocker, and highbrow horror, that chills and perplexes in equal measure. I was dying throughout for these frankly annoying characters to reach grisly ends, but did they? That would be telling. As much as I was confused by some aspects of this tale, I did make it to the end, having had a sense of enjoyment, and frustration, in equal measure. I think overall I liked it, but at times it was just a little…how can I put this… too much up itself for a totally enjoyable reading experience. Sort of recommended.

(With thanks to Macmillan for the ARC)

 

 

Blog Tour- Thomas Mullen- Darktown

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Atlanta, 1948. In this city, all crime is black and white.

On one side of the tracks are the rich, white neighbourhoods; on the other, Darktown, the African-American area guarded by the city’s first black police force of only eight men. These cops are kept near-powerless by the authorities: they can’t arrest white suspects; they can’t drive a squad car; they must operate out of a dingy basement. When a poor black woman is killed in Darktown having been last seen in a car with a rich white man, no one seems to care except for Boggs and Smith, two black cops from vastly different backgrounds. Pressured from all sides, they will risk their jobs, the trust of their community and even their own lives to investigate her death. Their efforts bring them up against a brutal old-school cop, Dunlow, who has long run Darktown as his own turf – but Dunlow’s idealistic young partner, Rakestraw, is a young progressive who may be willing to make allies across colour lines . . .

For many years I’ve been recommending Thomas Mullen’s The Many Deaths of The Firefly Brothers as a great American novel set during the Depression era, with its compelling period detail and a couple of superb protagonists in the guise of notorious bank robbers Jason and Whit Fireson. On the strength of this, I was keen as mustard to read Mullen’s Darktown, set in the racially charged era of 1940’s Atlanta…

I will quite honestly say that I was held in Darktown’s thrall from start to finish, and felt genuinely engaged with the essence of the period, Mullen’s bold and engaging characterisation, and the compelling plotline which gravitated between claustrophobic tension and heartfelt emotion throughout. Being so firmly rooted within the conflict and racial tension of this period, the language and terms used completely reflect the era, and with our modern day sensibilities there is a slight uneasiness at the language used. However, being so much of its time, and as a testament to the weight of dignity he throws behind his maligned black characters, and the white protagonists, some sympathetic, some hostile, the rhythm, vernacular and cadence of the language used plays an essential role in the book. The depth of Mullen’s historical research shines through from the references to the inherently unjust limitations placed upon black citizens not only in their segregation from whites, but also the lack of legal redress available to them. This is mirrored in the very strict restrictions placed upon his black police officers, Boggs and Smith, as to how they conduct their police business, and the added layer of scrutiny and danger that they have to operate within. Likewise, the impunity that white police officers such as Dunlow operate under is sharply at odds with the black officer’s experience, and gives the crooked Dunlow a very long leash from which to pursue his corrupt ways.  Mullen traverses a significant amount of individual black and white experience across different realms of society throughout the book, from a lowly farmer to the higher echelons of political power, and with the distinctive backdrop of the racially and socially divided Atlanta as his backdrop, the depth and realism of his chosen period is perfectly integrated throughout.

The characterisation throughout the book is never less than perfect, with all of the main protagonists, as well as lesser characters having sharply drawn edges, and more importantly, being absolutely believable in their depiction, Consequently, such is the level of emotional engagement with them as a reader, you are completely drawn into their individual stories of bravery, certitude, honour or corruption throughout. Mullen depicts beautifully their moments of doubt, the battle to retain their moral centre when pushed to the limit by injustice and racism, or the depths of depravity that wearing a police badge or holding a position of power can reveal in those that society has deigned to be above all others. The moral integrity of both black officer, Boggs, and white officer Rakestraw, operating from both sides of the racial divide is explored throughout. It was extremely gratifying to see that although this is a book firmly rooted in the differences between black and white experience both figuratively and racially that Mullen avoids plummeting his characters into overly moralistic tropes. Instead he leaves area of grey where we witness as readers bad people doing bad things, and good people being driven to bad actions navigating their way through the tinderbox flashpoints that racial division stirs up, and can then draw our own conclusions on the veracity of their actions.

This is an intelligent, thoughtful and emotionally compelling read, peopled by a sublime cast of characters and a balanced and realistic portrayal of weighty issues, firmly located in the fascinating and tumultuous period of post war America. Cut through with moments of raw emotion, thought-provoking social observation, and never less than totally engrossing, Darktown is something really quite special indeed, and at times with its exploration of racial divide in America, made this reader ponder how far American society has really progressed when looking at these issues with a contemporary eye. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to  Little Brown for the ARC)

 

Catch up with or continue to follow the blog tour at these excellent sites:

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