Olivier Barde- Cabucon- Casanova and the Faceless Woman/ Rafael Bernal- The Mongolian Conspiracy

1759: Outside the gates of the magnificent Palace of Versailles, the city of Paris sits mired in squalor and crime. One night a body is found with ghastly mutilations that shock even the hardened city watch. The Inspector for Strange and Unexplained Deaths investigates this macabre outrage, and the clues he finds draw him into a deadly web of intrigue, bringing him face-to-face with the notorious adventurer and seducer, Giacomo Casanova. As a second butchered corpse is discovered, the Inspector finds his revolutionary past exposed and his life in grave danger. Can he pick a path between the factions secretly warring for control of the throne and find a way to the truth?

Take a trip with me, if you will to the excrement filled streets of pre-revolutionary Paris, and the dark and derring-do adventure that is Casanova and the Faceless Woman. I’m not a great reader of historical crime fiction, but with my slight obsession with The Three Musketeers, and the absolutely beautiful production of this paperback, it’s got flaps everyone, flaps, I was more than intrigued, and zut alors, what a brilliant read it was.

From the very first instance, Barde- Cabucon completely immerses his reader in the sights, sounds and teeming atmosphere of a Paris underscored by unrest, seditious movements, and a simmering resentment to Louis XV, the sexually voracious and profligate king. What you completely absorb as a reader is the sense of overcrowding, the imminent eruption of violence from the smallest beginnings, poverty and dirt. This vivid and lively depiction of Paris, set against the sumptuous confines of the royal court is strongly in evidence throughout the book, and this is an author who absolutely excels at scene setting, from the minutiae of a humble library, to a gaudy whorehouse, or to a narrow festering alleyway where danger lurks. I absolutely loved the descriptive nature of this book, and the way it so adroitly captured the lives of its inhabitants through all the senses.

I cannot begin to comprehend the depth of research that had to be undertaken for this, the first, of a now established series. By dint of using Casanova as a central character, there was an automatic need for the author to not only adhere to what we already know about him, but for him to become a fully fleshed out and engaging character who remained truthful to fact. Hence, the book is peppered with references to his own life story, but Barde-Cabucon also has a tremendous amount of fun with him too, as we bear witness to his sexual exploits, swordmanship, manipulation and skulduggery. This works superbly well, as he becomes entangled with the maudlin and intense Volnay, the Inspector for Strange and Unexplained Deaths, quite possibly the best job title in the world. As a larger conspiracy unfolds, we bear witness to an exquisite game of cat and mouse, and intense one-upmanship from two men who are divided on so many levels of life, and their wildly different moral compass. This plays out, not only in consideration of the central crimes and a conspiracy that brings the royal household into the mystery, but also on a baser level as a certain young lady casts a spell on them both too. The joie de vivre of Casanova is endlessly at odds with the despondent pragmatism of Volnay, leading to an entertaining, and at times enlightening insight into the lives of these two very different men. There’s also an incredibly cool monk. What book would be complete without one? Sit down Dan Brown.

The plot itself is quite complex, as Barde- Cabucon brings into play the bigger themes of religion, alchemy secret societies, and presents the reader with a larger puzzle where the questions of morality, loyalty and sedition prove integral to Volnay’s investigation. I did find that closer attention was needed sporadically to really get to grips with who was plotting what, against who and why, but cleverly these more intense periods of the narratives are beautifully interrupted by some great swashbuckling action scenes, or another of Casanova’s  passionate or ill-judged trysts which gives the plot a good fluidity of acceleration and deceleration overall. Yes, it’s quite a dense read, but the strength of the characterisation, the incredibly visual description and scene setting, and the wealth of historical detail just makes this book shine. I am delighted to see that that there a host of further books in this series, as I think that Monsieur Barde-Cabucon has just accrued another devotee. Highly recommended.

 

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Filiberto García is in over his head. An aging ex-hitman with a filthy mouth, he has three days to stop a rumored Mongolian plot to assassinate the President of the United States on his visit to Mexico. Forced to work with agents from the FBI and the KGB, García must cut through international intrigue. But with bodies piling up and the investigation getting murkier, he starts to suspect shady dealings closer to home, and to wonder why the hell he was hired in the first place.

With surely the best jacket quote of all time, from Francisco Goldman, “The best fucking novel ever written about Mexico City,” I was immediately sold on this one.

For readers of a more sensitive disposition, which I clearly am not, this is a book crammed with profanity, sexism and violence, reflecting its conception in the 60s where society allowed for a little more freedom of expression. Setting myself aside from the political correctness brigade, I’m more than happy to read books within the context of the time they were written, and yes, there is a certain flimsiness to the central female character, and the male characters drip testosterone and pent up rage, but I thought this was a brilliant slice of completely non-PC fun.

Ex-hitman Garcia is an odious character, foul mouthed, begrudging and resentful of pretty much anything and anyone including himself. His moments of self criticism are frequent and harsh, continually questioning his actions, his libido, and his worth, resulting in him being a little ball of anger throughout much of the book, until a rather touching moment of self-realisation towards the close of the book. His general peevishness is increased by having to work with two outside agents, as they collectively attempt to thwart a double presidential assassination, and he finds himself out on a limb as the depth of the conspiracy comes to light.

The violence comes thick and fast, in little explosive pockets in this relatively slim tale, with one instance in particular  being the only one to make any impact on Garcia’s generally steely hard-headedness, and there is a real pace and energy to the book as these cyclical moments of pow and kerpow occur. The prose also reflects this pace coming quick and fast, where no word is wasted, particularly the word ‘pinche’ and its more profane translation. Consequently, I rather enjoyed this one, with it’s snappy pace, staccato dialogue and description, and a rather likeable, although fundamentally dislikeable central character in the shape of the curmudgeonly and ageing Garcia, a man with an equal mix of attitude and angst. Recommended.

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Buy Casanova and the Faceless Woman here

Buy The Mongolian Conspiracy here

 

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARCs)

Nick Kolakowski- A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps

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Bill is a hustler’s hustler with a taste for the high life.

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

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

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

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

(With thanks to Shotgun Honey for the ARC)

Helen Giltrow- The Distance

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They don’t call her Karla anymore. She’s Charlotte Alton: she doesn’t trade in secrets, she doesn’t erase dark pasts, and she doesn’t break hit-men into prison. Except that is exactly what she’s been asked to do. The job is impossible: get the assassin into an experimental new prison so that he can take out a target who isn’t officially there. It’s a suicide mission, and quite probably a set-up. So why can’t she say no?

Can I just start by saying how I would love to fling my arms around Helen Giltrow and give her a jolly good hug. And here’s why. Over the course of the last couple of months, I have started and failed to finish at least half a dozen thrillers, soon becoming bored with the all too familiar set-ups, and predictable plots. What Giltrow has done is to construct an intelligent and thought provoking thriller that not only provided a slow-burning build up of tension, but was chockful of credible characters, and a tightly plotted narrative that never once made my attention falter. I was in this one all the way…

Starting with the intriguing premise of breaking someone into an experimental prison complex called The Program, to perform a hit, I was instantly intrigued by the depiction of this location. The Program works as an almost self-sufficient prison community, constructed around a run down neighbourhood of houses with its own places of business and rules, but is a nightmarish place to be incarcerated if you are not aligned with the head honchos. Hence, the idea of a professional hitman, Johanssen  needing to be placed within this complex to track down someone who may or may not be there, instantly provokes a taut tension to the story. With his actions overseen by the mysterious intelligence operative Charlotte Alten aka Karla, who has spent years selling secrets to shady criminals. Giltrow neatly builds up Karla’s reservations and fears for her former client Johanssen’s safety as he becomes a brutalised inmate of this violent jail- an excellent cast of baddies are at work here- seeking to avoid detection by those he has tangled with in the past. The depiction of his experience are violent and uncompromising, but this adds to inherent tension of the plot, as Johanssen seeks the elusive Cate, but why is she so hard to find and who wants her dead?

Alongside this taut and utterly riveting storyline, Giltrow ramps up the narrative structure with an exploration of Karla’s chequered career in the realm of secret intelligence, and weighting both plots perfectly, Giltrow retains an assured grasp throughout. Attention must be paid I found as this book in no way resembles the usual linear, and frankly quite boring, liturgy of espionage thrillers that currently populate crime and thriller sections throughout the land. Indeed, to my mind, the style of Giltrow’s writing can be viewed as a contemporary version of Helen MacInnes, which is no mean feat. Likewise, the characterisation of Karla herself, and Johanssen, are absolutely paramount to the engagement of the reader. Both are incredibly well-drawn with the necessary balance of steely-eyed determination, masking their dark secrets and ulterior motives, but with those wonderful moments of clarity that draw us closer to their true characters, despite their criminal tendancies. These are not your standard cardboard-cutout characters, and you will find your perception of both changing chapter by chapter, and I guarantee that Cate will also have you on tenterhooks throughout, as her life outside and inside The Program come under closer scrutiny. That’s all I’m saying…

As you can probably tell, I was really quite keen on this, and despite how long it has taken me to get round to reading the book, it was more than worth the wait and delivered in spades. Can’t wait to see what Giltrow produces next. Highly recommended.

Helen Giltrow was born and brought up in Cheltenham and read Modern History at Christ Church, Oxford. She has worked extensively in publishing, including ten years as a commissioning editor for Oxford University Press. She went freelance as an editor in 2001 and has since worked on a range of fiction, non-fiction and education titles. THE DISTANCE is her first novel. Helen’s writing has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award and the Telegraph ‘Novel in a Year’ Competition. Follow on Twitter @HelenGiltrow