Douglas Skelton- The Janus Run

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

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

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

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

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

(With thanks to Saraband for the ARC)

Rory Clements- Nucleus

June 1939. England is partying like there is no tomorrow, gas masks at the ready. In Cambridge the May Balls are played out with a frantic intensity – but the good times won’t last… In Europe, the Nazis have invaded Czechoslovakia, and in Germany the persecution of the Jews is now so widespread that desperate Jewish parents send their children to safety in Britain aboard the Kindertransport. Closer to home, the IRA’s S-Plan bombing campaign has resulted in more than 100 terrorist outrages around England. But perhaps the most far-reaching event of all goes largely unreported: in Germany, Otto Hahn has produced the first man-made fission and an atomic device is now a very real possibility. The Nazis set up the Uranverein group of physicists: its task is to build a superbomb. The German High Command is aware that British and US scientists are working on similar line. Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory is where the atom was split in 1932. Might the Cambridge men now win the race for a nuclear bomb? Hitler’s generals need to be sure they know all the Cavendish’s secrets. Only then will it be safe for Germany to wage war.
When one of the Cavendish’s finest brains is murdered, Professor Tom Wilde is once more drawn into an intrigue from which there seems no escape. In a conspiracy that stretches from Cambridge to Berlin and from Washington DC to the west coast of Ireland, he faces deadly forces that threaten the fate of the world…

Brace yourselves for more conspiracy, subterfuge and a good dose of derring-do in Nucleus, an accomplished follow up to the brilliant Corpus , which first introduced us to dashing American academic Tom Wilde. Must admit I was on tenterhooks waiting for this next book after the explosive and captivating events of the first outing…

Rory Clements could not have picked a better era as the backdrop for these books, with Europe on the cusp of war, the reluctance of America to be drawn into the crossfire, the race for the harnessing of atomic power, and the hotbed of Cambridge academia where the security services plucked the finest and the best for a life of espionage. Throw into the mix a missing young German boy, the son of a prominent scientist, the increasing occurrence of IRA activity, and a smattering of Hollywood glamour, and the scene is set for a rich reading experience indeed. As in Corpus, Clements is incredibly proficient at drawing on the salient historical detail of the period, and the subtleties of the underlying political and racial conflicts, without compromising the tautness and tension of the plot itself. I think when I reviewed the previous book, I made a similar point that as I was fairly unfamiliar with this period, I came out of the book with an enriched and enhanced knowledge of the era, as Clements is so good with this balance of detail and narrative. I was fascinated by not only the background to the race for atomic supremacy, but also the Quaker involvement in shepherding so many Jewish children to safety from the increasing persecution of their families in Germany. This latter theme of the book is incredibly important in one character’s foray to Berlin, at an incredibly dangerous time, and I thought this aspect of the book was very well executed indeed, with a palpable sense of peril. I was also impressed with Clements’ handling of each branch of his storyline, as referenced above, and the balance that he keeps between them, pivoting the readers’ attention between them effortlessly, but maintaining the harmony overall, and never to the detriment of our engagement with his cast of characters.

After a hiatus in reading Corpus and Nucleus appearing, I was drawn back instantly into the world of Tom Wilde, a character that has obviously stayed in my mind since, and equally with Lydia Morris, whose personal involvement with Tom has moved on apace in the meanwhile- admittedly with some tribulations along the way. Although they are the real lynchpin to both books, Clements surrounds them again with an interesting, and broad ranging supporting cast, who enliven and colour the story further, and arouse in the reader a mixture of empathy, revulsion or distrust depending on their interactions with Tom and Lydia themselves. By carefully manipulating the foibles, duplicity or amiability of this surrounding cast, Clements has the opportunity to produce a couple of real sucker punch moments, which surprise and unsettle the reader. I thoroughly enjoyed being drawn into this world of contrasting nationalities, social standing and their guiding beliefs, some abhorrent, some not. It’s a rich mix, and carries the book along with aplomb.

All in all, Nucleus is a very satisfying thriller that captures the spirit of the era perfectly, enlightens the reader with its intelligent, but never overpowering, use of historical and social detail, and provides a wide ranging and engaging group of characters, who perfectly fit the model of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Believe me, you’ll be consistently changing your mind as to who belongs to each category…

(With thanks to Zaffre Books for the ARC)

 

 

Clare Carson- The Dark Isle

Sam grew up in the shadow of the secret state. Her father was an undercover agent, full of tall stories about tradecraft and traitors. Then he died, killed in the line of duty. Now Sam has travelled to Hoy, in Orkney, to piece together the puzzle of her father’s past. Haunted by echoes of childhood holidays, Sam is sure the truth lies buried here, somewhere. What she finds is a tiny island of dramatic skies, swooping birds, rugged sea stacks and just four hundred people. An island remote enough to shelter someone who doesn’t want to be found. An island small enough to keep a secret…

Having been utterly bewitched by Orkney Twilight and The Salt Marsh , it was with some trepidation that I embarked on The Dark Isle as I desperately wanted to be as in awe of this book as the previous two. I’m pleased to say that my fears were completely groundless and Clare Carson has triumphed once again…

The Dark Isle moves seamlessly between two timelines spanning the intensely hot summer of 1976, and the political unrest of 1989, with the poll tax demonstrations firmly rooting us in this particular period. Likewise, the story pivots between London and Orkney within both periods of time, with Carson once again demonstrating her particular skill in scene setting and atmosphere, so unlike other books with split timelines , the reader is instantly transported to, and settled within the locations, even without the date stamps on the chapters. Carson’s depiction of landscape, weather and nature,  is completely entrancing as ever. The rugged wilderness of Hoy which seems to teeter on the edge of the earth is as vital and real as the suburban streets of London that Sam frequents in her formative years, and affords Carson ample opportunity to showcase both, and how they impact on, and play such an important part in Sam’s realisation of the world as a whole, and within her own troubled and secretive family history.

In the London scenes, Carson adopts the viewpoint of a flaneur, with the careful demarcation of Sam’s stomping grounds both as a child and as a young woman. In the wilds of the Scottish Isles, Carson casts Sam as an old style explorer as she works to uncover real history through archaeology, and her own personal history whose secrets lie buried in this  mystical and  unforgiving terrain. The locations are absolutely intrinsic to the development of the storylines, and play as much of a role as any character contained within its pages. There are precise and naturalistic descriptions of flora and fauna which flow beautifully in and out of the narrative, giving a sharp vitality and visual panorama to the reader. Carson weaves in mythical tales, adding to the sense of unknowing that permeates the book, and subtly enlightening the reader on folklore which still remains totally in keeping with the story.

Sam is a complex and engaging character, and this book is no exception. There’s a quote that says “Be like a spy. Keep your true self hidden,” and one that Sam along with other characters all seem to adhere to. With her father’s influence, as a shadowy and secretive undercover operative, I found it fascinating how despite losing him some years previously this influence has steadily increased in her own psyche, and how the more subtle aspects of his personality are revealed in Sam from time to time. She is resourceful, determined, not unnaturally brave, and refreshingly susceptible to the duplicity of others. There’s a realism and truthfulness to her character, that makes us admire her gumption, and empathise with her less glorious moments of naivety, and I have a great affection for her as a character. So as not to unwittingly reveal anything, all I would say to the other protagonists who encourage or seek to thwart Sam’s efforts, is that you will be surprised and frustrated by their various deceptions, and most importantly as you’re reading…trust no one…

I suspect that I will have a similar trepidation when I read Clare Carson’s next book, having been so enamoured with this series to date, but I’m willing to endure it! The Dark Isle is another great addition to this beautifully written series, and I would recommend all three books heartily. Great storytelling, pitch perfect plotting, and a wonderful sense of time and place. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to the author and Head of Zeus for the ARC)

 

Anna Jaquiery- Death In The Rainy Season

deathAlways a tense time to be reviewing a second book from an author whose debut you absolutely loved. Anna Jaquiery’s haunting debut The Lying Down Room was a joy to read and review, so much so that it was second in my Top Read of 2014, and is one of the books that I most consistently recommend in my day job as a bookseller, when people are looking for a new slice of Euro crime.

Death In The Rainy Season is the next book to feature Jaquiery’s charismatic and thoughtful French detective Commandant Serge Morel, and marks a change of location from France to the hot climes and unique atmosphere of Cambodia, where the modern socio-economic problems of this country are counterbalanced by its spiritual core. Morel is taking a well-earned sojourn after the vents of the previous book, a welcome break from caring for his father who has been diagnosed with Alzheimers, and a chance to further come to terms with a failed relationship. He finds himself unwillingly drawn into a local murder investigation, when the son of a prominent French minister is found murdered in a down-at-heel hotel room. The victim, Hugo Quercy, oversees a local NGO providing charitable support to street children, and is generally a well-regarded figure in the local community, and  respected by his colleagues. However, as Morel under pressure from his boss back home, joins forces with local Police Chief Chey Sarit, also enlisting the help of grumpy local medical examiner Sok Pran, it quickly becomes clear that Quercy is not quite the man everyone had perceived him to be, and that the conspiracy behind his murder reaches further than Morel and his cohorts could possibly imagine…

Perhaps my first point of reference for my enjoyment of this book should be an appreciation of Jaquiery’s style of writing. Throughout the novel the sense of serene simplicity that her narrative style evokes in the reader is beautifully evinced not only in her evocation of location, but also through the character of her police protagonist Morel. The multi-dimensional facets of the Cambodian setting are sublimely juxtaposed, as Jaquiery carefully balances not only the deep spiritual core of this intriguing country, with the social ramifications of political corruption and misguided economic policies on the Cambodian populace. Where some authors blatantly crowbar in the depth of their research at the expense of the needs of the plot to keep the reader’s interest, Jaquiery intertwines her social detail simply, adding to the richness of the strong central plot, and I learnt much from the quality of this research.

As Morel becomes immersed in the pulsating and bustling atmosphere of Phnom Penh after his initial calm retreat in Siem Reap with its ancient temples and traditional way of life, the sights and sounds of the city form a vital backdrop to his investigation. Likewise, the change of location impacts on Morel himself, as he wanders deeper into the underbelly of the city, and the pressure of the investigation and the demands of home, begin to unsettle his formerly peaceful equilibrium. He is a mesmerising character throughout and one cannot fail to find him empathetic, morally strong and entirely likeable. As he deals with the wife, friends, and colleagues of the victim, whilst slowly establishing a close working relationship with his Cambodian counterpart Sarit, the strength of his character always stands front and centre. Sarit too was instrumental in my enjoyment of the book, as his initial reticence and secrecy at the beginning of the investigation is slowly broken down by his interaction with Morel, and brings instead a sense of understanding and respect between the two men. We share in their frustrations as the investigation progresses, and I loved the slow reveal of the various dynamics of Quercy’s relationships with the possible suspects, and the gradual unfolding of Quercy’s true character as the man behind the myth.

I really cannot fault Death In The Rainy Season in any way, as it contains so many aspects of human interest, emotion, and intrigue along the way. Not only is it a intelligent and compelling tale of murder and corruption, but the quality of the writing and the evocation of its setting and characters make it a rich, multi-layered and totally rewarding piece of crime fiction. I am singularly impressed once again, as I was with The Lying Down Room, and have no hesitation in wholly recommending this one too.

(With thanks to Mantle for the ARC)