***Author Spotlight*** Anna Jaquiery

I thought the time was right to highlight one of the best French crime authors you may not have read, so very pleased to introduce you to Anna Jaquiery. I had the pleasure of reviewing her previous two books featuring Commandant Serge Morel, The Lying Down Room and Death In A Rainy Season (reviews below) and with the release of the third in the series Wasteland, wanted you all to experience this writer for yourselves.

Wasteland once again features Commandant Serge Morel of the brigade criminelle, a philosophical, sensitive and hugely empathetic detective, investigating two murders of young boys within Villeneuve a sprawling, deprived multi-cultural estate in Paris. “If you grew up in a place like Villeneuve, where you knew there was a pretty high chance you wouldn’t get a job when you left school, where it was hard to stay on a straight path and achieve anything, the only way to be heard was to get really pissed off, and loud, and break things. Otherwise, no one heard. No one was listening”  The racism and poverty that Morel uncovers in the course of his investigation underpins the whole story, and as Morel gets closer to the unmasking of a killer, we are totally absorbed into this melting pot environment.

Once again, Jaquiery writes with a stark clarity, that by its at times dispassionate air serves only to immerse the reader more. She focusses particularly on the younger sister, Aisha of one of the victims, Samir, and through her eyes and perception, far in advance of her teenage years, we see the hopelessness and disparity of life for those within Villeneuve. Aisha is both intelligent and street smart, suffering at the hands of schoolyard bullies, but who has a fierce affection for her late brother and a steely determination that his killer will not go unpunished. As Morel becomes more embroiled in the case, we see his natural empathy to and protectiveness of Aisha develop, that puts both himself and her in the crossfire. With police confrontation and gangs a normal facet of life on this estate the stage is set for a violent conclusion, and Morel and his team are right in the centre of the crossfire.

As the book progresses, we also see more of Morel’s difficult home life, and the growing stress that his father’s mental degeneration places on him, which Jaquiery handles in a clear-eyed and sensitive way. Morel remains philosophical in the face of this additional pressure in his life, and it is these passages relating to him and his father that are both poignant and emotional. I love the way that this author balances these slices of his home life so effectively with the particular stresses ands strains of Morel’s murder investigations, and these only serve to flesh out more what is already a very compelling character. From his interactions with his colleagues, to his natural empathy for the murder victims and their kin, Morel is genuinely one of my favourite police characters, and this series one of the best I have read. I love the sensitivity of Jaquiery’s writing and the way she injects a more philosophical edge to her books through the character of Morel himself.  I would definitely recommend that you seek out this series as soon as you are able. Think you may enjoy them…

Discover the Commandant Morel series: HERE

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The Lying Down Room introduces us to the charismatic and dedicated Chief Inspector Serge Morel. The story opens in Paris in the stifling August heat, and Morel is called to examine a disturbing crime scene. An elderly woman has been brutally murdered to the soundtrack of Faure’s Requiem, and her body grotesquely displayed. The reasons for this murder and the choice of victim baffle Morel and his team.

But our detective has problems of his own. His father, such an influence in his life, is descending into the grip of senility. If that weren’t enough for him, Morel is having an affair with a friend’s wife, but has become unsettled by the reappearance of his lost love, Mathilde. Like so many other fictional detectives, Morel has a quirky interest to relieve his angst and focus his mind. In his case it’s origami.

As the investigation continues, and further murders happen, his fingers fold faster and faster. He makes a connection between the victims and two individuals – a middle aged man and a young boy – who distribute religious pamphlets in the suburbs. Soon his inquiries take him back into the past, away from Paris into the French countryside, and eventually to the heart of Soviet Russia. A tragic story begins to unfold.

In terms of characterisation, The Lying Down Room contains all the key ingredients needed to herald the arrival of a new detective in the crime fiction genre. Morel is a very carefully constructed and wonderfully realised character. He combines natural charm and humour that immediately resonate. His interactions in both his professional and personal lives allow the many different facets of his character to shine – like the focused and dedicated police officer, and the man thwarted in love. There are some intensely moving scenes between him and his father. This relationship is filled with pathos, adding poignancy to Morel’s situation. Morel is a man of contradictions with his character being all the more emotionally interesting for it, and consequently the scene is set for further exploration of this detective.

The narrative is particularly impressive, with nice, clean delineation between the various strands that come into play within the plot. Not only is the central murder storyline well paced and realistic, but as Jaquiery expands the story to encompass the personal narratives of the perpetrators themselves, she weaves together various locations and timelines. What emerges is an incredibly human tale of lost opportunities and wicked twists of fate that can put an individual on the path towards murder. Cleverly, this aspect of the novel invokes natural sympathy in the reader as we bear witness to the incredibly sad events in our antagonists’ pasts, evinced in the stark portrayal of life in Soviet Russia, and the mental and physical wounds this produces. At times, Jaquiery handles the sheer emotional heartache of some of these scenes more in the vein of literary fiction rather than a genre crime novel.

There is little to fault in this debut, combining as it does a superbly plotted and emotive criminal investigation with the introduction of a police protagonist more than imbued with enough charm and interest to carry the weight of a series. Anna Jaquiery demonstrates all the natural flair and quirks of French crime fiction that fans of Vargas, Lemaitre, et al, will relish reading. More than proud to proclaim this as my debut of the year.

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Always 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.

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Marion Brunet- Summer of Reckoning #BlogTour

A psychological thriller set in the Luberon, a French region that evokes holidays in magnificent pool-adorned villas. For those who live there year-round, it often means stifling poverty and boredom. Sixteen-year-old Céline and her sister Jo, fifteen, dream of escaping to somewhere far from their daily routine, far from their surly, alcoholic father and uncaring mother, both struggling to make ends meet. That summer Celine falls pregnant, devastating news that reopens deep family wounds. Those of the mother Severine whose adolescence was destroyed by her early pregnancy and subsequent marriage with Manuel. Those of the father Manuel, grandson of Spanish immigrants, who takes refuge in alcoholism to escape the open disdain of his in-laws. Faced with Celine’s refusal to name the father of her child, Manuel needs a guilty party and Saïd, a friend of the girls from an Arab family, fits Manuel’s bigoted racial stereotype. In the suffocating heat of summer he embarks on a drunken mission of revenge…

Now onto a slice of French psychological crime from author Marion Brunet, translated by Katherine Gregor set amidst the machinations of a very disturbed family. Brunet is probably better known for her prize winning YA novels, so this is her first adult novel and the first translated into English…

In no way, shape or form could this be described as a comfortable read if you are seeking some respite from the current global events, so prepare yourself for a story of unrelenting misery, peopled by a cast of unrelentingly miserable characters. Without exception, well maybe Celine as she is quite shallow and charmingly dense, this is a family fuelled by anger, suspicion and violence, where everyone is caught up in a self destructive cycle of familial despair. Their torturous interactions and stilted communication is an incredibly powerful central theme of the book, and apart from the daughters, Celine and Jo who have some semblance of a sisterly bond, despite their seemingly different characters, there’s not a whole lot of love and understanding permeating this family. Their father resents his father, his Spanish heritage and Said, the girls’ Arabic friend with violent consequences.Their mother seems to resent pretty much everyone too, including her husband and daughters, in this claustrophobic and oppressive atmosphere of home.  Little wonder that both teenage girls long for escape and adventure in their differing ways, but cruelly seem to find the opposite is true…

I did rather like the character of Jo, the younger daughter, who is sharp and quick witted, and although as physically attractive as her fatuous older sister. uses her intelligence and slightly teasing nature to expand her life out beyond the simmering pot of resentment she calls home, “Jo drinks the poison of a landscape that’s too familiar. Her nonchalance is just a façade; inside, there’s a clash between love and revulsion for these paths travelled thousands of times…Jo is looking for a way out”  She is heartily bored by her surroundings (although she does seem to have more of a connection to nature), her circle of schoolfriends, the company of her sister, and her irritating parents, and anticipates that as her sister’s due time approaches and she still refuses to name the father, things will get a whole more uncomfortable. As clever as she is though, she is still undone at times by her naivety and impetuosity, and at the close of the book, despite interludes of ‘freedom’ we all have call to question how far she has escaped at all from the domestic familiarity she seem to so resent.

Despite the relative slimness of the novel, there are some quite weighty themes addressed in this book, from internal and external racism, jealousy, unfaithfulness, sexuality, murder and domestic violence. As is so typical of French crime fiction, there is a maelstrom of heated emotion in some characters perfectly balanced with the brooding surliness of others, all within the familiar trope of loaded miscommunications, and petty jealousies escalating into more destructive events. I think if I had been reading this in happier times I would have probably being enveloped in this blanket of misery a bit more as I quite like a bit of angst and sadness in my crime reading, but overall it was a solid read with some interesting observations on family cohesion, loyalty and jealousy. Recommended.

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(With thanks to Bitter Lemon Press for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour, organised by Anne Cater at these excellent sites:

 

A gargantuan round-up! Parker Bilal, Adrian McKinty, Alex North, Trevor Mark Thomas, Guillaume Musso, Luca D’Andrea,

Stumbling upon a massive pile of books that I have read and failed to review, desperate measures are called for to address the problem, before I get even further behind! So, in an attempt to clean down the decks, so to speak, what follows is probably a rambling and longer than average round up of a veritable smorgasbord of thrillers. Hopefully there will be something for everyone here, and concealed within the round up will be a couple that will make a reappearance later in my Top Reads of 2019. Although some reviews will be briefer than others this is more to do with the stress level of being so far behind, although I’m sure this will fall by the wayside as I start to rave! 

So eyes down and here we go…

 

PARKER BILAL- THE DIVINITIES- When two bodies are found brutally murdered at a building site in Battersea, DS Calil Drake is first to the scene. He sees an opportunity: to solve a high-profile case and to repair his reputation after a botched undercover operation almost ended his promising career in the Violent Crimes Unit. Assigned to work with the enigmatic forensic psychologist Dr Rayhana Crane, and on the hunt for an elusive killer, Drake’s investigations lead down the dark corridors of the past – to the Iraq war and the destruction he and Crane witnessed there. With a community poised on the brink of violence, Crane and Drake must put their lives on the line to stop the killer before vengeance is unleashed…

I absolutely loved this opening salvo to a new London set crime thriller series from Parker Bilal, author of the Markana Investigations. Not only capturing the chasm existing between rich and poor in our capital city, and the general feel, spirit and energy of London, Bilal has produced the best police procedural I have read so far this year. The Divinities quickly reveals itself as a multi-faceted thriller, encompassing a gamut of issues and social observation, that gives layers of interest to what could have ostensibly been a straightforward narrative. I was intrigued, shocked and genuinely curious about the issues that Bilal raises, once again demonstrating how so much more of ‘real life’ can be encapsulated and distilled in a crime novel than more traditional forms of fiction. Drake and Crane are two of the most complex and interesting characters, working through and coming to terms with events from their chequered pasts, but adding a vitality and emotional heft to the narrative, sadly lacking from many police procedurals at the moment. What I also liked was the sensitive and compelling handling of the scars both mental and physical left on our protagonists through their prior involvement in warfare, and how difficult it is to make that transition from this life to their civilian careers. Both characters react and act to their own defined moral compass, and Bilal depicts the contrast between them beautifully, as they struggle at first to work together in a complex and testing investigation. This will probably be one of the few crime thrillers that I will re-read in later life (there’s no higher praise than that), but for now I would highly recommend this one, and am anticipating a similarly brilliant book two. No pressure…

(With thanks to The Indigo Press for the ARC)

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ADRIAN MCKINTY-THE CHAIN- Your phone rings. A stranger has kidnapped your child. To free them you must abduct someone else’s child. Your child will be released when your victim’s parents kidnap another child. If any of these things don’t happen your child will be killed. You are now part of the chain… 

Without a doubt the most hyped crime book of the summer with stunning endorsements by Don Winslow, Steve Cavanagh et al, and to be honest, there is probably little more to be said about this tense, twisty and nerve wracking thriller. It’s great to see McKinty finally getting some of the kudos that is long, long overdue with this breakout book, and hopefully will gravitate people to some of his earlier books which I can heartily recommend having read them all. With shades of Linwood Barclay and Harlan Coben, McKinty has produced an accomplished page-turner with a unique premise, and although I was not quite as swept away as the majority of my fellow reviewers, I can see why The Chain has attracted the stellar reviews that it has as bringing something fresh to a very overcrowded sub-genre, and it’s tailor made for a film adaptation.

(With thanks to Orion for the ARC)

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ALEX NORTH- THE WHISPER MAN- Still devastated after the loss of his wife, Tom Kennedy and his young son Jake move to the sleepy village of Featherbank, looking for a much-needed fresh start. But Featherbank has a dark past. Fifteen years ago, a twisted serial killer abducted and murdered five young boys. Until he was finally caught, the killer was known as ‘The Whisper Man’. Of course, an old crime need not trouble Tom and Jake as they try to settle in to their new home. Except that now another boy has gone missing. And then Jake begins acting strangely. He says he hears a whispering at his window . . .

Alex North is the pseudonym of an established crime novel whose work I have always admired greatly. With a change of name, publisher and style, North has produced a thriller that will very much appeal to a wider crime reading audience, and is definitely a chilling read to temper the summer heat. With shades of the great James Herbert combined with an interesting exploration of life beyond bereavement and the bond of father and son in the wake of the loss of their mutual anchor, North has produced a sinister and intriguing story with supernatural overtones. I will be a little bit of a party pooper and say that I did find parts of it a little slow and slightly lacking the darker, quirky finesse of the author’s previous books, but for the most part it worked well, and would definitely recommend.

(With thanks to Michael Joseph for the ARC)

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TREVOR MARK THOMAS- THE BOTHY- Tom is grieving for his girlfriend. Her powerful family, convinced he is responsible for her death, place a bounty on his head. On the run, Tom seeks refuge in the Bothy, a dilapidated moorland pub run by ageing gangster Frank. Tom tries to keep the bounty a secret, but news travels fast, even in the middle of nowhere…

Described by yours truly on Twitter as akin to Magnus Mills on meth, The Bothy proved to be something quite special from the outset. Tapping into the rising reputation and visibility of working class writing in the UK of late, Thomas has, with a limited cast of characters, constructed a dark, and unsettling book, packed to the gills with atmosphere and an overhanging miasma of violence. As Tom is sucked deeper into the strange, isolated world of the Bothy, and its attendant visitors and employees, one can’t help but wonder if he would be better off facing the music back home. Thomas’ sharp, punchy dialogue and his use of description to beautifully convey the cold, dirty shabbiness of Tom’s warped place of sanctuary, is absolutely first class. Throughout the book you feel completely immersed in the chaotic beauty of this isolated landscape, the sheer grit and grind of life, and the less than moral code that defines the lives of these characters. As this is a such a sinister and extremely claustrophobic tale of not your everyday country folk, I can’t reveal more about the violent chain of events that come to pass, but if you’re stout of heart and strong of stomach, I would absolutely recommend this to you.

(I bought this copy of The Bothy published by Salt Publishing)

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GUILLAUME MUSSO- THE REUNION- FRENCH RIVIERA, WINTER 1992 On a freezing night, as her high school campus is engulfed by a snowstorm, 19-year-old Vinca Rockwell runs away with Alexis, her philosophy teacher. No one will ever see them again. FRENCH RIVIERA, SPRING 2017 Formerly inseparable, Thomas, Maxime and Fanny – Vinca’s best friends – have not spoken in twenty-five years. But when they receive an invitation to their school reunion, they know they must go back one final time. Because there is a body buried in that school and they’re the ones who put it there…

Oh what tangled webs we weave with the folly of youth, as we soon discover in the dual timeline of The Reunion and a web that will prove particularly tricky for three former students with more than one secret between them. This is a top notch psychological thriller, effortlessly keeping the reader in a state of anticipation as Musso slowly drip, drip, drip feeds the events leading up to the disappearance of femme fatale Vinca, which gradually reveals a tale of jealousy, lust and greed, spanning families and decades. There are tricksy little twists in the narrative that genuinely caught me unawares, and there is a real assured sense of control as to how and when these little surprises are revealed to the reader.  Musso writes with a real sensitivity and intensity about the dilemmas of youthful emotion and obsession, and the changing perception we have of ourselves, and self realisation that we all experience as we grow older and look back on our younger selves. There is a real finesse to this one, and again a wonderful translation by Frank Wynne. Although it is hard to feel any kind of empathy with Musso’s cast of, it has to be said, quite self absorbed individuals, I was genuinely entranced by this clever and knotty thriller. Recommended.

(With thanks to W&N for the ARC)

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LUCA D’ANDREA- SANCTUARY- Marlene Wegener is on the run. She has stolen something from her husband, something priceless, irreplaceable. But she doesn’t get very far. When her car veers off a bleak midwinter road she takes refuge in the remote home of Simon Keller, a tough mountain man who lives alone with his demons. Here in her high mountain sanctuary, she begins to rekindle a sense of herself: tough, capable, no longer the trophy on a gangster’s arm. But Herr Wegener does not know how to forgive, and in his rage he makes a pact with the devil. The Trusted Man. He cannot be called off, he cannot be reasoned with and one way or another he will get the job done. Unless, of course, he’s beaten to it . . .

I read this some time ago, and to be honest I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. It’s a very strange story, somewhat reliant on coincidence, but there is something I can’t quite put my finger on that made it very readable. I’m not helping am I? Maybe, I’ll start with what I definitely liked, which was the isolated mountain setting of Marlene’s place of safety, and the slowly building relationship between her and the incredibly odd Simon Keller- a man at one with nature, with unsettling mystical healing powers and a frankly alarming sty of quite terrifying pigs- yep, said it was strange. Anyway, aside from this quite bizarre aspect to the story, there is all the tension of woman pursued by hitman with unlikely saviour, and there are some genuinely perilous moments for Marlene along the way. As much as this central premise works, there are some odd diversions in the course of the plot about ancient mystical healing, more about the murderous pigs, and a slightly baffling denouement, which further illustrates my general confusion to how much I enjoyed this. I liked it well enough, I think…

(With thanks to MacLehose Press for the ARC)

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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)

Vive La France!(2) Pierre Lemaitre- Three Days And A Life/ Herve Le Corre- After The War/ Antonin Varenne- Retribution Road

En l’honneur de la fête nationale, voici une sélection des thrillers Français qui ont impressionné, déplacé et ravi le Corbeau dans la même mesure.  Ou en d’autres termes, un billet de blog je pourrais simplement étiqueter, voici trois de mes livres préférés de l’année, qui ne risquent pas d’être dépassé n’importe quand bientôt. Hélas, ma collègue française serait un mauvais service à ces critiques, pardonnez-vous à l’anglais! 

Bonne lecture à tous et à toutes!*

IMG_20180712_212451Antoine is twelve years old. His parents are divorced and he lives with his mother in Beauval, a small, backwater town surrounded by forests, where everyone knows everyone’s business, and nothing much ever happens. But in the last days of 1999, a series of events unfolds, culminating in the shocking vanishing without trace of a young child. The adults of the town are at a loss to explain the disappearance, but for Antoine, it all begins with the violent death of his neighbour’s dog. From that one brutal act, his fate and the fate of his neighbour’s six year old son are bound forever. In the years following Rémi’s disappearance, Antoine wrestles with the role his actions played. As a seemingly inescapable net begins to tighten, breaking free from the suffocating environs of Beauval becomes a gnawing obsession. But how far does he have to run, and how long will it take before his past catches up with him again?

Being a confirmed admirer of Pierre Lemaitre’s books to date, I rather enjoyed the subtle shift of style and location that Three Days And A Life reveals. Turning his attention away from the big city to the rural backwater of Beauval, Lemaitre constructs a slower and more introspective novel than we have come to expect from him, but equally produces a more heightened, and psychologically deft portrayal of human frailty and morality…

Time after time, I become disappointed, and as you know more than a little incensed, by the unnatural narrative voice given to young protagonists. Consequently I avoid reading many books that have a pre-sixteen narrator or central character. With Antoine, the dislikeable little person that he is, Lemaitre captures beautifully his perception of the world, and his reactions to the consequences of his severe misdemeanour. Antoine is realistically imbued with a child’s thought processes, as to how to conceal and avoid punishment of his crime, and I enjoyed the authenticity of his under-developed sense of morality, which he seems to carry quite happily into his adult years too. I thought the portrayal of his mother was also excellent, and how Antoine’s childish perception of her as just his mother actually spoke volumes to the reader about her true emotional state. Equally, I loved the depiction of parochial small town jealousies, and ill-feeling, that reminded me of the observational prowess, and skewed morality that is so familiar in the works of the late Pascal Garnier. Lemaitre reveals a boiling pot of tension and envy that perfectly fits with the feel of a small community under pressure, and the distrust of their neighbours.

The latter stages of the book are hewed from Antoine’s re-visitation of childhood events from an adult perspective, and Lemaitre’s control of his narrative once again comes to the fore. With Antoine being as utterly self-absorbed as he was as a child, but perhaps with a greater perception of the fall out for others from his actions, and indeed, closer to home, there is another twist in store for the reader, and there was me beginning to worry that the king of the psychological twist would disappoint! Once again, a precise and engaging translation from Frank Wynne allows us to fully appreciate this tawdry and morally ambiguous tale of childhood mistakes, and Lemaitre has again demonstrated his flexibility and natural flair as a storyteller. Three Days And A Life is entertaining, thought-provoking, and as always highly recommended.

(With thanks to MacLehose for the ARC)

 

IMG_20180712_2124121950’s Bordeaux. Even now, the Second World War is never far from people’s memories, particularly in a city where the scars of collaboration and resistance are more keenly felt than ever. But another war has already begun. A war without a name, far away across the sea, in Algeria, where young men are sent to fight in a brutal conflict. Daniel knows what awaits him. He’s heard stories. Patrols, ambushes, reprisals, massacres, mutilations, all beneath a burning north African sun. He has just a month left before he leaves but, haunted by the loss of his parents and sister in the atrocities of the last war, Daniel questions why he is even going to fight in the first place. Meanwhile, past crimes are returning to haunt Albert Darlac, the godfather of Bordeaux: corrupt police chief, fascist sympathiser and one-time collaborator. Before long, a series of explosive events will set off a spiral of violence that will bring the horrific legacy of wars past and present to the streets of Bordeaux…

During the reading of After The War, I posted on social media that “This is astonishing. I have been moved, perplexed, disturbed, and enthralled in equal measure” and to be honest, in the wake of finishing it, I could simply leave it at that. Comprising of past and present timelines, the dual locations of the seedy underbelly of 1950’s Bordeaux, and the contentious French conflict in Algeria, and with one police protagonist that is evil incarnate,  Herve Le Corre has produced a truly uncompromising, multi-layered masterpiece…

In common with many crime thrillers this is a story driven by, and built on vengeance, as Daniel, a young man, on the cusp of war,  becomes aware of his estranged father returning to Bordeaux to seek revenge on the man who committed the ultimate betrayal during WWII. Through the powerful narrative of Daniel’s experience fighting in Algeria, juxtaposed with Jean, his father’s, meticulous plan to heap as much misery and wrath on Albert Darlac, an immoral, violent and thoroughly odious police detective, Le Corre raises the emotional intensity, and therefore the reader’s engagement with some considerable skill. His characterisation is absolutely superb, with all three male protagonist’s exposing to the reader the very best and worst of human nature, and digging deep into the notion of how we can be morally compelled to do bad things for good reasons. In the character of Darlac, we see the ultimate realisation of the bete noire, with a man whose actions come from the darkest recesses of immorality, and whose revenge on those around him is driven by evil of the highest order. I was equally repulsed and fascinated by him throughout, and will from this day forward acquire the mantle of one of the darkest characters ever to grace the pages of crime fiction.

Le Corre’s depiction of Daniel experiencing the sheer intensity and dubious morality of men’s actions in war was my personal highlight of the book. As a regular reader of contemporary literary  war fiction, I thought that the author’s realisation and visualisation of the terrain itself was perfect in every detail, and the mundanity of a soldier’s life, interrupted with these big, bold and terrifying incidences of combat was hugely affecting on the reader. Le Corre never turns his full gaze away from this harshest of moral issues as to how the men in Daniel’s platoon react so viscerally to attack, and how they vent this rage on the enemy, contravening the rules of war. The scenes he presents are uncompromising, and yes, uncomfortable at times, but so real and necessary to underscore Daniel’s gradual realisation of the futility of that for which he fights, and in which he loses comrades. It was breath-taking in its depiction.

After The War is a behemoth of a thriller, that challenges and perplexes the reader, testing our notions of morality and empathy, and through the adept translation of Sam Taylor, a thoroughly rewarding, if emotionally troubling read. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to MacLehose for the ARC)

 

And last, but by no means least, and quite possibly my book of the year…

IMG_20180712_211630Burma, 1852. Arthur Bowman, a sergeant in the East India Company, is sent on a secret mission during the Second Anglo-Burmese War. But the expedition is foiled – his men are captured and tortured. Throughout their ordeal, a single word becomes Bowman’s mantra, a word that will stiffen their powers of endurance in the face of unimaginable suffering: “Survival”. But for all that, only a handful escape with their lives. Some years later in London, battling his ghosts through a haze of alcohol and opium, Bowman discovers a mutilated corpse in a sewer. The victim appears to have been subjected to the same torments as Bowman endured in the Burmese jungle. And the word “Survival” has been daubed in blood by the body’s side. Persuaded that the culprit is one of the men who shared his captivity, Bowman resolves to hunt him down…

I have tried and failed to write a coherent review of Retribution Road, with several attempts, as it’s impossible to do justice as an amateur reviewer to the sheer magnificence of this novel. Adopting the form of an allegoric odyssey, Antonin Varenne has produced a sprawling, magisterial novel that defies comparison to anything I have read before…

Structured as three interlinking parts, and traversing more than 700 pages, I could feel the influence of a quest serving as a plot device in mythology and fiction, with a difficult journey towards a goal, in the character of Arthur Bowman who inhabits, and influences, each stage of the novel. As he journeys from his military service in Burma, then on to Victorian London, and finally to the swathes of  unconquered territory of America in the grip of the gold rush, each section of the book is wonderfully visual, with Varenne depicting each landscape with pinpoint precision. In his use of location the ordinary is made extraordinary, and the reader’s sense of us being such a small inconsequential part of the natural world is continually brought to bear. Bowman is beautifully cast as both avenging angel and pioneer, weighted down by the brutal events in his personal history, and hence a man of changeable moods and impulses that wax and wane during the course of his mission to track down a killer.

The prose throughout is as tender and sensitive, as it is violent and vengeful, and our emotions and feelings are challenged and manipulated throughout, as Bowman navigates through both testing terrain, and human interaction. The book also poses some interesting theories on  morality and immorality, particularly as a consequence of Bowman’s actions, and those of the man he so ardently and doggedly pursues, at intense personal cost. I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say that this is a true magnum opus, and held me utterly in its power along the long road to redemption and justice. It was just a completely wonderful emotional rollercoaster,  suffused with historical detail, and a totally authentic evocation of place. It is a hugely complex and challenging novel, addressing themes of war, religion, revenge, human connection and emotional strife. As ever, Sam Taylor provides a perfect translation, that subtly captures the nuances of Varenne’s intensity of emotion.  I cannot praise Retribution Road enough, and would highly recommend it for fiction and crime fiction readers alike. C‘est vraiment magnifique!  

(With thanks to MacLehose for the ARC)

 

*In honour of Bastille Day, here are a selection of French thrillers that have awed, moved and delighted the Raven in equal measure.  Or in other words, a blog post I could simply label, here are three of my favourite books of the year, that are unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. Alas my schoolgirl French would be a disservice to these reviews so forgive the English!  Happy reading!

Vive La France! (1) Philippe Georget- Crimes Of Winter/ Frederic Dard- The King of Fools/ Emmanuel Carrere- The Adversary

En l’honneur de la Journée de la Bastille, il y a trois livres français criminellement bons pour vous ravir et vous divertir avec adultère, meurtre, femmes dangereuses et hommes stupides. Hélas, ma collègue française serait un mauvais service à ces critiques, pardonnez-vous à l’anglais! 

Bonne lecture!*

 

This winter is going to be a rough one for Inspector Gilles Sebag, for he has discovered a terrible truth: Claire has been cheating on him. Bouncing between depression, whisky, and insomnia, he buries himself in work in an attempt to forget. But his investigations lead him inexorably to bigger tragedies – a woman murdered in a hotel, a depressed man who throws himself from the roof of his building, another who threatens to blow up the neighborhood – all of them involving betrayals of some sort.  Perpignan seems to be suffering from a veritable epidemic of crimes of passion. Adultery is everywhere and each betrayal leads to another dramatic crime…

Inspired by the encouragement of other reviewers to read Philippe Georget, this is my first dip into the Inspector Gilles Sebag series of thrillers. I thought the characterisation was truly excellent both of the cuckolded Sebag, with his melancholy wistfulness, and growing dependence on the demon drink, and the surrounding cast of police characters. Sebag himself is a walking contradiction being so incredibly intuitive and effective in his job, but a mass of neuroses when dealing with the fallout of his wife’s affair, and the increasing strain placed on him by a succession of cases involving adultery.  I loved  his colleague Jacques Molina, a big bear of a man, with his bawdy humour and distinctly non-PC view of the world, and the shifty and duplicitous Francois Menard, jealous of Sebag’s innate ability to read and disseminate a crime suspect and scene so effectively. The interactions and relationships between all three both personally and professionally really held the book together, as well as the intermittent entrance of others affiliated to the police force, and the tensions or humour they brought to the story.  Although I enjoyed the various strands of the plot and its intricacies, regarding cases of murder and suicides arising from a range of adulterous behaviour, I felt that there was a little too much repetition and naval gazing afforded to Sebag as he sought to make connections between his own wife’s betrayal, and the cases he’s involved in.  I like a slow-burner as much as the next person, but sometimes it felt more like stopping than slowing, so felt the book could have been shortened slightly  to a more consistently steady pace. That aside, I did really enjoy the book overall, and will be seeking out others in the series soon. Recommended.

(With thanks to Europa Editions for the ARC)

 

From the moment he first gazes at Marjory across the roulette table in the Cote d’Azur Jean-Marie is entranced, and when their feverish holiday romance comes to an end he decides to take the biggest gamble of his life – to follow the beautiful Englishwoman back to rainy Edinburgh. But Jean-Marie’s luck runs out as soon as he arrives. His infatuation with Marjory draws him into an impenetrable mystery and soon he finds himself with blood on his hands, trapped in the grey-granite labyrinth of the city streets, and running out of time to save his sanity and his life…

The works of Frederic Dard are a constant source of delight for me, and The King of Fools is one of the best I have read to date. With its compelling blend of the suspense of Hitchcock, and the psychological claustrophobia of Simenon and Highsmith, this is a taut and tense tale of infatuation and murder played out on the Cote D’Azur, and the grim, dark streets of 1950’s Edinburgh. Jean-Marie is a wonderfully flaky man, ruled by his baser instincts, that lead him to pursue the pale, and lets be honest, quite unprepossessing Marjory from sensual France to down at heel Scotland. Dard delights in painting a dark and depressing picture of Scottish life, and its environs, that causes the reader to question further the indefatigable will of Jean-Marie to wrest the seemingly hapless Marjory from a loveless marriage. But Dard being Dard, you know that there will be dark deeds afoot, that will explode in a moment of madness, but which of our loved up pair will be caught in the crossfire? That would be telling, and I’m sure you will accrue as much pleasure from finding it out as I did. Dard once again shows his knack for ordinary people being put in extraordinary circumstances, with all the psychological darkness and violence that became his trademark. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Pushkin for the ARC)

 

 “On the Saturday morning of January 9th, 1993, while Jean Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting…” With these chilling first words, acclaimed master of psychological suspense, Emmanuel Carrère, begins his exploration of the double life of a respectable doctor, eighteen years of lies, five murders, and the extremes to which ordinary people can go.

Working for a major book retailer in the UK, we are currently promoting this as our Non- Fiction Book of the Month, and whilst some of my colleagues seem keen to foist this on our customers as a true crime book, I would say that The Adversary is so far off the scale of slasher-style true crime so as not to really resemble a true crime book in its traditional form, the notable exceptions being In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song. With a subtle and thoughtful grace, that mirrors Emmanuel Carrere’s dual style as a writer of high quality literary fiction, he presents a tale revolving around a truly Walter Mitty-esque man, whose whole identity and life is built on a tissue of lies and deceit with horrific results. Carrere stands at a distance from his subject for much of the book, although slightly peppering the tale with instances of his own life as a family man, but encourages the reader to form their own opinions, and moral judgement on Romand’s life and crimes. The writing is succinct, and at times, beautifully lyrical as The Adversary explores Romand’s twisted and, at times, inexplicable relationship with the world, leading to an original and disturbing portrait of the mind and psychosis of a killer. Recommended.

(With thanks to Vintage for the ARC)

 

*In honour of Bastille Day here are three criminally good French books to delight and entertain you with adultery, murder, dangerous women and foolish men… Alas my schoolgirl French would be a disservice to these reviews so forgive the English!  Happy reading!

Travels with the TBR #2- Eva Dolan- Long Way Home, Davide Longo- Bramard’s Case, Pascal Garnier- The Eskimo Solution, Frederic Dard- Crush

Somehow,  I don’t think I’m making great in-roads into the 100+ books in the TBR pile, but here’s another selection of books that had been woefully ignored. Hope you find something you like…

 

evaA man is burnt alive in a shed.
No witnesses, no fingerprints – only a positive ID of the victim as an immigrant with a long list of enemies.

Detectives Zigic and Ferreira are called in from the Hate Crimes Unit to track the killer, and are met with silence in a Fenland community ruled by slum racketeers, people-trafficking gangs and fear.
Tensions rise. The clock is ticking. But nobody wants to talk.

Although written pre-Brexit, it has taken me so long to read Dolan, that this book proves an even more powerful read in the wake of recent political tumult in the UK. What I liked so much about this one, is how Dolan so assuredly balances the stoicism and welcoming nature of some to the immigration issue, and the inflammatory and deluded beliefs of others, whilst coolly reflecting the never less than easy day to day existence of those that have sought to assimilate themselves into British society, legally or illegally. From the non-native backgrounds of her main police characters, Zigic and Ferreira, to the perpetrators and victims of the crimes committed, the book paints a vivid and realistic portrayal of the cultural melting pot that is Britain today, and the plot is well-paced, and satisfyingly twisty throughout. An intriguing and less than easy investigation leads to an excellent first of a series, and being quite taken with the two main police protagonists, this is a series that I will catch up with as soon as possible. Highly recommended.

bramardOnce a year, Corso Bramard receives a message from the man who destroyed his life.

He left the police after a serial killer he was tracking murdered his wife and daughter, but fifteen years later he is still taunted by his old adversary. Mocking letters arrive at his home outside Turin, always from a different country, always typed on the same 1972 Olivetti. But this time the killer may have gone too far. A hair left in the envelope of his latest letter provides a vital clue.

Bramard is a teacher now – no gun, no badge, just a score to settle. Isa, an academy graduate whose talent just about outweighs her attitude is assigned to fight his corner. They’re a mismatched team, but if they work together they have a chance to unmask the killer before he strikes again – and to uncover a devastating secret that will cut Corso Barmard to the bone.

A wonderfully downbeat and introspective Italian set crime novel, far more reminiscent of the style of a Raven favourite, Valerio Varesi, than the more colourful and bitingly humorous Andrea Camilleri. This is a real slow burner, so don’t expect a thrilling pace, but instead be lulled by the existential musing, and real soul searching that Bramard asks of himself throughout the book. His interaction with the keen, but less experienced Isa, works beautifully during the course of this tricky investigation, that is so laden with the echoes of dark times in Bramard’s past. Literary crime fiction infused with sadness, that I positively loved. Recommended.

41qpbyzkial-_sx321_bo1204203200_A crime writer uses the modest advance on his latest novel to rent a house on the Normandy coast. There should be little to distract him from his work besides walks on the windswept beach, but as he begins to tell the tale of forty-something Louis who, after dispatching his own mother, goes on to relieve others of their burdensome elderly relations events in his own life begin to overlap with the work of his imagination…

Regular readers of my blog know all too well my deep affection for the work of the late lamented Pascal Garnier, so it will come as no surprise that this is another winner. Cleverly, and in the space of only 159 pages, Garnier weaves together the story in real time, and the book that is being written by the crime writer, constantly shifting your attention between the two. I liked the fictional tale incorporated within the other fictional tale, if you get my drift, and was almost tempted to write another review of that one too. In his trademark style, both stories deal with sex, death, greed, passion, and murder, and dig down to the nastiest aspects of the human psyche, with black humour and mordant wit. Genius.

dard

Seventeen-year-old Louise Lacroix is desperate to escape her dreary life. So on her way home from work every evening she takes a detour past the enchanting house of Jess and Thelma Rooland – a wealthy and glamorous American couple – where the sun always seems to shine. When Louise convinces the Roolands to employ her as their maid, she thinks she’s in heaven. But soon their seemingly perfect life begins to unravel. What terrible secrets are they hiding?

A chilling and psychologically dark Fifties tale of suspense of jealousy and murder, that is trademark Frederic Dard from stsart to finish. His depiction of the naivety and gaucheness of Louise, is never less than perfectly realised, as she inveigles herself in the life of the glamorous but tormented couple, the Roolands. In a relatively short novel, Dard ratchets up both the suspense, and depth of character with some lighter vignettes featuring Louise’s awful relatives too. You know you are being led on a path of self destruction from early on, and as you view the self combustion of the characters, you almost feel guilty for watching. Wasn’t entirely convinced by the abruptness, and rather unfinished feel of the ending, but time spent with Dard is never entirely wasted, as the rest of this dark tale testifies. Recommended.

(With thanks to Maclehose, Pushkin and Gallic Press for the ARCs. I bought a copy of Long Way Home)

July 2016 Round-Up and Raven’s Book of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Aside from losing my internet access for 12 long, long days, July has really been quite productive and mostly enjoyable. A week off work, a birthday, and lots of terrific books read too! Had another heart-breaking book cull, which I imagine to be akin to asking a parent which is their favourite child, waving goodbye to 500+ books to my local charity shop, but still have a few hundred in reserve- hurrah!  And still on the positive,  I have at last made a slight in-road into my 20 Books of Summer Challenge- post coming soon. So, onward to the books…

Books read and reviewed:

Clare Carson- The Salt Marsh

Simon Booker- Without Trace

Anna Mazzola- The Unseeing

Frederic Dard- The Wicked Go To Hell

Frederic Dard-Bird In A Cage

Jonathan Ames- You Were Never Really Here

Massimo Carlotto- For All The Gold In The World

Pierre Lemaitre- Blood Wedding

Malcolm Mackay- For Those Who Know The Ending

Elizabeth Haynes- Never Alone

wilberI also dipped my toe back into non-fiction crime and read Del Quentin Wilber- A Good Month For Murder– which I would put very much on a par with David Simon’s Homicide or Mile Corwin’s The Killing Season. Wilber, an award winning reporter at The Washington Post, gives us a truly compelling behind the scenes look at the police officers and investigative cases of  a homicide squad. By following the progress of several cases and the dedicated officers who approach their task with a mixture of dedication, doggedness, and world weary cynicism, Wilber shines a light on the day-to-day frustrations and danger that this noble band of men and women grapple with, to go about their remit to protect and serve. Incredibly readable, well-researched and thought provoking throughout. Recommended.

Raven’s Book of the Month

No. I can’t do it. This has been an absolutely stellar month for reading with some real stand-out reads along the way. They are all so completely different and wonderful in their own way, so this is the fairest decision I can come to…

Extremely honourable mentions to Clare Carson- The Salt Marsh , Massimo Carlotto- For All The Gold In The World and Anna Mazzola- The Unseeing Seek these out immediately.

Carson_02_THE%20SALT%20MARSH            cover_9781609453367_661_600        unseeing

And down to the wire, the twisted genius of Pierre Lemaitre- Blood Wedding and the seedy,  gritty Glasgow gangland world of Malcolm Mackay- For Those Who Know The Ending proved impossible to choose between. Joint winners chaps and thoroughly deserved.

blood                   malcolm

 

Pierre Lemaitre- Blood Wedding

bloodblood

Sophie Duguet is losing her grip. Haunted by visions from her past, of her loving husband, who committed suicide after a car accident.

One morning she wakes to find Leo, the child in her care, strangled in his bed by Sophie’s own shoelaces. She can remember nothing of the night before. Could she really have killed him? She flees in panic, but this only cements her guilt in the eyes of the law.

Not long afterwards it happens again – she wakes with blood on her hands, with no memory of the murder committed. Just what is it that comes over Sophie when she sleeps? And what else might she be capable of?

Wanted by the police, and desperate to change her identity, Sophie decides to find a man to marry. To have and to hold. For better or for worse. Till death do them part . . .

Having been blown away by Lemaitre’s Brigade Criminelle trilogy, Irene, Alex and Camille featuring diminutive detective Camille Verhoeven, we now have the compelling standalone Blood Wedding, which further serves to demonstrate the sheer brilliance of Monsieur Lemaitre.

Once again, Lemaitre has produced a book that proves troublesome to review in terms of potential plot spoilers. Reducing the story to a linear description, Blood Wedding focuses on a young woman, Sophie who finds herself implicated in two murders, and going on the run, seeks to conceal her identity further by entering into a marriage with a man she meets online, giving her the security to explore the reasons for her attributed guilt, and come to terms with her tangled past. But this is Lemaitre, known for slips and tricks which play with the reader’s perception, and as the plot twists and turns, turns and twists, we are consistently wrong-footed and deceived. In the best tradition of Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock, Lemaitre slowly reveals the plight of a woman in a confused psychological state, seeking to make meaning of the situation she finds herself in, whilst having possibly having been manipulated by person or persons unknown. Consequently, as each previously unknown detail of Sophie’s plight is revealed, with pinpoint precision timing, I would challenge you all to resist the impetus to keep reading, and reading, and reading…

Another real strength of Lemaitre’s work to date, is the depth and realism that he consistently instils in his female protagonists, and I’m always mightily impressed by male writers who achieve this so convincingly. Without a shadow of a doubt, Sophie is seen to run through the whole gamut of human emotion from her initial bewilderment, self-questioning and threat of incarceration, to her own critical analysis of her situation, and a growing steadfast resolve and path of clear-thinking to extricate herself from her now under threat personal freedom. Into the mix comes Frantz, her unwitting potential husband, who possesses a degree of self-knowledge that maybe Sophie is not so enamoured with their match as he is, but resolves to make the best of it regardless, seemingly to bring a degree of solidity to his own troubled past. I will delve no deeper into their attendant character traits at this point, but suffice to say there are more revelations afoot. This combination of extremely well-developed characters, and the reliance of the two of them to drive forward the intricate and exceptionally well plotted story arc, shows a clear degree of authorial skill and deftness of touch that eludes many other writers. As a crime reader, precise plotting, the control of suspense, and believable characterisation lay at the core of my reading pleasure, and Lemaitre achieves this beautifully throughout. The plot twists are in no way reliant on the suspension of disbelief, or clumsily wrought, leading to a genuinely intriguing, and utterly enthralling, example of psychological suspense. The novel is once again beautifully translated by Lemaitre regular, Frank Wynne, which captures all the nuances, and linguistic tone of the original French, further adding to the reader’s enjoyment.

There is little left to say regarding Blood Wedding, as my admiration for Lemaitre has surely been noticed already, but drawing on a well worn adage, I would simply say, if you only read one thriller this summer, do make sure it’s this one. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to MacLehose Press for the ARC)

Bijou Crime- Frederic Dard- The Wicked Go To Hell/Bird In A Cage- Jonathan Ames- You Were Never Really Here

I will confess that I am quite the fan of the Pushkin Vertigo series that is bringing to my attention a whole host of European crime authors previously unknown to me. With the titles to date being generally compact and slim novellas, for this post I will give you a brief overview of my best discoveries to date…

dardBeing such a confirmed fan of Georges Simenon, I could not believe my utter ignorance of the work of Frederic Dard, whose output in terms of number and quality is widely lauded as the equal of Simenon himself. I thought The Wicked Go To Hell in particular was absolutely outstanding, opening with an unnamed and deniable police officer being instructed to go undercover into gaol to initiate a prison break with a recently confined criminal to infiltrate the organisation the prisoner is affiliated with. Not until the final bloody denouement is the reader in possession of the knowledge as to which character is which when the undercover operation begins, being named merely as Hal and Frank. From the claustrophobic intensity of their initial confinement until their attempted escape and beyond, Dard inveigles us in a bizarre guessing game as to which morally dubious man is which, as each tries to deceive and expose the true identity of the other. From the inherent violence of the institution at the hands of sadistic guards, to their quest for freedom, Dard keeps up this emotionally bleak, and sinister tone, which serves to unsettle the reader consistently throughout. I was quite frankly mesmerised from start to finish, despite the darkness and sense of base evil that the book consistently exhibits, and I loved the aspect of reader participation that Dard so skilfully wove into the tale as we seek to discover the true identity of each man, and the descent into immorality we are all capable of.

 

dardEqually, Bird In A Cage was imbued with a tantalising mix of Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock, as a man returns to Paris at Christmas to mourn, and settle the affairs, of his late mother. He encounters a beguiling woman with her young child, whilst dining out one night who inflames his curiosity, being both attractive and the added mystery of appearing to have bloodstains on her sleeve. When he is enticed to return to her apartment, he becomes embroiled in a sinister and dangerous conspiracy which seeks to unravel his life completely. The emotional intensity of this plot is in evidence from the outset, with the title referring to an innocuous Christmas gift for the child, and the psychological impasse that Albert finds himself in, Dard has constructed a claustrophobic existentialist drama that toys with the reader’s perception, and provides an additional deconstruction of male and female psychological impulses. This is a slim dark tale that is engaging enough, but did slightly lack the psychological edge, and bleak immorality of The Wicked Go To Hell, but is worth seeking out as an initial entry point into Dard’s not inconsiderable back catalogue.

 

img_0707In a change of pace and authorial style, I also read You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames, a novella that runs to 87 pages and soon to be a feature film starring Joaquin Phoenix. Joe, a former FBI agent and U. S. Marine, harbouring the memories of an abusive childhood, and the violent events of his recent careers, now has largely dropped out from society, earning a living tracking down and rescuing young girls from the grip of the sex trade. Now he has been hired to save the daughter of a New York senator, held captive in a Manhattan brothel, but finds himself ensnared in a dangerous web of conspiracy and violence. Described as a toxic shock of a thriller, this bijou slice of American noir, delivers a real punch to the reader, and I was mightily impressed how much well defined characterisation, and breadth of action, Ames crams into such a minimal page count. Quickly your sympathies for Joe is heightened and from the beginning you are rooting for him, your empathy well and truly put into overdrive as the mental and physical damage he has experienced is put sharply into focus, and there is a real strength to Ames’ writing in passages where Joe indulges in some critical self-examination of his own psyche. The degree of manipulation he experiences in the course of this mission is well wrought, and the violence throughout is swift and uncompromising, making this a real read-in- one-sitting thriller. My only slight bugbear is the slight cynicism of the ending which too obviously paves the way for a potential sequel, and left me a little unsatisfied, but with a cover price of less than a vacuous throwaway magazine there’s still plenty here for your fiver. Recommended.

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARCs)