Banish Those January Blues… Alan Parks, Oliver Bottini, Mari Hannah, Donato Carrisi, Masako Togawa

Hello everyone. In the whole killing two birds with one stone thing, and realising I am already behind with my reviews (despite my resolution to do better), here is a little round-up of books to chase away that January feeling of gloom. As you would expect, I had issues with one of them, but you may be intrigued nonetheless, and the rest were pretty damn fine indeed.

You may need a little book retail therapy…

When a teenage boy shoots a young woman dead in the middle of a busy Glasgow street and then commits suicide, Detective Harry McCoy is sure of one thing. It wasn’t a random act of violence.
With his new partner in tow, McCoy uses his underworld network to lead the investigation but soon runs up against a secret society led by Glasgow’s wealthiest family, the Dunlops.
McCoy’s boss doesn’t want him to investigate. The Dunlops seem untouchable. But McCoy has other ideas . . .

Gritty, unflinching, perfectly non- politically correct, and with echoes of the grandmasters of black-hearted noir, Lewis, McIlvanney, Raymond, Bruen et al, this was an absolute corker.

From the outset I was heartily entertained by the exploits of Detective Harry McCoy, with his nefarious relationships and more hands-on methods, and his wet-behind-the-ears sidekick, Wattie as we find ourselves firmly rooted in 1970’s Glasgow. The book is peppered with cultural and political references familiar to those of us born nearer that era- ahem- as well painting a grimly real backdrop for readers less familiar with the period. This is a city down on its uppers, with only occasional glimmers of the city that Glasgow was to become, and Parks’ colourful and inventive use of the Glaswegian vernacular brings a heightened level of enjoyment to the book too. The main storyline is very seedy indeed, involving as it does drugs, exploitation and abuse, which Parks determinedly lays before us warts and all. As I’ve said before I do like a book where I feel slightly soiled by the reading experience, in a similar vein to Benjamin Myers and Jake Arnott,  and Bloody January fitted the bill perfectly. It was feisty, fresh, wonderfully sordid and a sublime blast of noir to welcome in the new year. Highly recommended.

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Louise Boni, maverick chief inspector with the Black Forest crime squad, is struggling with her demons. Divorced at forty-two, she is haunted by the shadows of the past.
Dreading yet another a dreary winter weekend alone, she receives a call from the departmental chief which signals the strangest assignment of her career – to trail a Japanese monk wandering through the snowy wasteland to the east of Freiburg, dressed only in sandals and a cowl. She sets off reluctantly, and by the time she catches up with him, she discovers that he is injured, and fearfully fleeing some unknown evil. When her own team comes under fire, the investigation takes on a terrifying dimension, uncovering a hideous ring of child traffickers. The repercussions of their crimes will change the course of her own life.

Now this one perplexed me, as for the first half of the book I was submerged in the existential peace of tranquillity that gradually evolves into a more straightforward thriller. I loved the concept of this calm, ethereal figure of the monk, traversing the terrain of the Black Forest, pursued by this, as it turns out, very emotionally unstable female detective. I felt a bit like like Manny in Black Books where he swallows The Little Book of Calm as reading this induced a kind of contented relaxation in me, as Bonetti brings the natural serenity of monk, woman and forest into alignment.

Then I got bored.

And increasingly annoyed.

Boni began to irritate me with her constant self obsessed, self pitying keening, and to be honest, my interest was waning from this point. I found the child trafficking plotline slightly repetitive and circular, and I fair scampered to the end of the book just to see how things would pan out. Did feel a huge sense of disappointment in not enjoying this one more, as regular readers know my universal love for translated crime fiction, but alas not this time.

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When a mysterious DVD is delivered to Northumbria Police Headquarters, DS Matthew Ryan and Detective Superintendent Eloise O’Neil are among the few to view its disturbing content. With little to go on the only lead comes from the anonymous and chilling woman’s voice narrating the blood-soaked lock-up depicted on screen.
But with no victim visible, nor any indication of where the unidentifiable crime scene is located, Ryan and O’Neil get the distinct feeling someone is playing with them. What is certain is that the newly formed special unit has just taken on its first challenging case.
As further shocking videos start arriving at police stations around the country, the body count rises. But what connects all the victims? And why are they being targeted? As the investigation deepens, the team is brought to breaking point as secrets from the past threaten to derail their pursuit of a merciless killer . . 

I know I baulk every time I read the strapline, that so and so author is ‘at the height of their powers’ but, I think in Mari Hannah’s case this is absolutely fair. Not only the author of the brilliant DI Kate Daniels series, but onto a winner with this, the follow up to The Silent Room which first introduced us to Ryan and O’Neill.

Obviously you will discover for yourselves the extremely well crafted storyline, and the highly original compunction the killers have for committing the crimes they do (as usual no spoilers here), but I just wanted to highlight something else. The thing above all else that I admire about Hannah’s books is her way of really fleshing out, and roundly depicting her characters, their fears, their flaws, their missteps in communication, but also their moments of empathy, comradeship and loyalty. Every character in this book works seamlessly with the others, with fluctuating levels of trust, professionalism and friendship. Although there was a significant gap between The Silent Room and this one, I was instantly back in the groove with O’Neill and Ryan, and the brilliant Grace and Newman, who make up their merry band, as if there were just friends that I hadn’t bumped into for a while, but instantly recalling when I had last seen them, and what they’d been up to! Obviously, with my affection for the North East, I was once again, transported effortlessly to my old stomping ground of Newcastle, and the sublime, rugged beauty of Northumberland and beyond.

Cracking story, equally cracking characters, and plenty of thrills, tension and heartache along the way.

Superb.

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Sixty-two days after the disappearance . . .

A man is arrested in the small town of Avechot. His shirt is covered in blood. Could this have anything to do with a missing girl called Anna Lou?

What really happened to the girl?

Detective Vogel will do anything to solve the mystery surrounding Anna Lou’s disappearance. When a media storm hits the quiet town, Vogel is sure that the suspect will be flushed out. Yet the clues are confusing, perhaps false, and following them may be a far cry from discovering the truth at the heart of a dark town.

I must confess I did read this one a little while ago, so I may be a bit shady on the detail, but my lasting impression of this one is that I enjoyed it! Referencing my previous point about translated crime fiction, I think that Italian author Donato Carrisi consistently produces extremely atmospheric and gripping psychological thrillers and The Girl In The Fog continued this tradition. Flipping backwards and forwards in time, tracing the disappearance of the eponymous girl in the fog, Carrisi presents a flawed but fascinating character in the sharply dressed and obviously psychologically haunted figure of Special Agent Vogel. I was particularly enamoured with his one to one conversations with the seemingly affable psychologist, Flores, and the little tricks and twists in the interaction between the two men as the story is teased out. As usual, Carrisi perfectly employs the more sinister aspects of the landscape to colour the tale further, and what ensues is a claustrophobic and tense tale of the darkness of the human psyche. Recommended.

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The K Apartments for Ladies in Tokyo conceals a sinister past behind each door; a woman who has buried a child; a scavenger driven mad by ill-health; a wife mysteriously guarding her late husband’s manuscripts; a talented violinist tortured by her own guilt. The master key, which opens the door to all 150 rooms, links their tangled stories. But now it has been stolen, and dirty tricks are afoot.
A deadly secret lies buried beneath the building. And when it is revealed, there will be murder.

Another bijou delight from Pushkin, in the shape of Japanese thriller The Master Key from the late, multi-talented author Makamo Togawa. Revolving around the female inhabitants of the K Apartments, Togawa weaves a spellbinding tale of jealousy, covetousness and chicanery that I can only compare to the brilliant Patricia Highsmith. As we become involved with the everyday lives of this disparate group of single women, and the secrets they conceal, Togawa has not only constructed a compelling thriller, but also has much to say on the nature of the womens’ experiences in Japanese patriarchal society, and how they are compartmentalised and suppressed by the community they inhabit. By turns shocking and moving, but consistently engaging, I will definitely be seeking out more works by this author. An eye opening read.

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(With thanks to Canongate for Bloody January, Quercus Books for Zen and the Art of Murder, Macmillan for The Death Messenger, Abacus for Girl In The Fog and Pushkin for The Master Key)

 

A trio of tempting crime treats- Gangsterland/The Invisible Guardian/The Snow Kimono

Realising that the official April monthly round-up is but a few hours away, thought I best get a wiggle on tidying up the read pile for the month. Despite powering through a stack of advance reading copies, all of the books below I very naughtily bought during the course of the month, despite my initially extremely noble intention to walk around my place of work with the blinkers on, and to NOT BUY ANY BOOKS! Well, best laid plans and all that. As it happens May is a congested month for reading and reviewing, so much less time to indulge in book buying, and to concentrate on those review copies. Raven says. Hopefully…

todFirst up was Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg: Sal Cupertine is a legendary hit man for the Chicago Mafia, known for his ability to kill anyone, anywhere, without leaving a trace. Until now, that is. His first-ever mistake forces Sal to botch an assassination, killing three undercover FBI agents in the process. He knows this could be his death sentence, so he agrees to a radical idea to save his own skin. A few surgeries and some intensive training later, and Sal Cupertine is gone, disappeared into the identity of Rabbi David Cohen. Leading his congregation in Las Vegas, Rabbi Cohen feels his wicked past slipping away from him. Yet, as it turns out, the Mafia isn’t quite done with him yet. And that rogue FBI agent on his trail, seeking vengeance, isn’t going to let Sal fade so easily into the desert…

Normally I’m wary of any crime book labelled as funny, and effusive taglines testifying to the scale of hilarity contained within, but this was an absolute hoot from start to finish. Arising from a short story entitled Mitzvah, the book is not only a dark and sinister crime caper, set in Las Vegas, but contains some of the sharpest wiseguy humour so reminiscent of the old master Elmore Leonard. The whole set-up for the plot with a sadistic Chicago hitman having to re-invent himself as a rabbi in Vegas, is wacky enough, but I more than bought into this gun-toting, sharp talking and endlessly entertaining read. The characters are brilliant and earthy  whether bad guy, good guy, or those that gravitate between both camps of legality, and the action is fast-paced and totally engaging. If you love Leonard, Hiaasen or Dorsey this will tick all the boxes.

igNext was The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo: The naked body of a teenage girl is found on the banks of the River Baztán. Less than 24 hours after this discovery, a link is made to the murder of another girl the month before. Is this the work of a ritualistic killer or of the Invisible Guardian, the Basajaun, a creature of Basque mythology? 30-year-old Inspector Amaia Salazar heads an investigation which will take her back to Elizondo, the village in the heart of Basque country where she was born, and to which she had hoped never to return. A place of mists, rain and forests. A place of unresolved conflicts, of a dark secret that scarred her childhood and which will come back to torment her. Torn between the rational, procedural part of her job and local myths and superstitions, Amaia Salazar has to fight off the demons of her past in order to confront the reality of a serial killer at loose in a region steeped in the history of the Spanish Inquisition…

Another slice of literary European crime, set in the Basque region of Spain. Although I did find a certain familiarity with the style of the writing, the historical and social detail of an area largely unknown to me, more than compensated for the more linear aspect of the plotting. I found the exploration of local superstitions woven into the plot incredibly interesting, and likewise the references to the Spanish Inquisition added another layer to the sometimes pedestrian characterisation of the police protagonists. Salazar was a strong enough lead for the investigative strand of the plot, and I enjoyed the trials and tribulations of her fiery family that punctuated the book, and the visitation of the past that occurs for her, but overall she was too similar to many female detectives that have proceeded her in the genre to really make much of an impact. Well written and engaging enough overall and would still recommend for the insight into the Basque history and region.

 

snowAnd finally The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw: On the same day that retired police inspector Auguste Jovert receives a letter from a woman claiming to be his daughter, he returns to his Paris apartment to find a stranger waiting for him. That stranger is a Japanese professor called Tadashi Omura. What’s brought him to Jovert’s doorstep is not clear, but then he begins to tell his story – a story of a fractured friendship, lost lovers, orphaned children, and a body left bleeding in the snow. As Jovert pieces together the puzzle of Omura’s life, he can’t help but draw parallels with his own; for he too has lead a life that’s been extraordinary and dangerous – and based upon a lie…

To be honest, this is one of those books that I could simply list appropriate adjectives for. This book is poignant, evocative, moving, heartfelt, shocking and, unerringly beautiful in equal measure. Such is the complexity of the writing and plotting, that it almost defies its own inclusion into the crime genre, as its literary credentials are plain to see, and the pace and lyrical intensity of the slowly unfurling plot, take the reader on a wholly mesmeric journey. With each strand of the narrative pivoting between separate characters telling their story, and the shifting location from France to Japan, and the unique characteristics of these two societies, rural and city, weaving in and out of the plot, the reader is constantly kept on the back-foot, and deliciously toyed with as to how the plot will develop. Henshaw cleverly harnesses the haunting simplicity of Japanese fiction, with all the style and impetus redolent of European crime fiction, in this utterly enthralling and highly original novel. Wonderful writing, and a book that I cannot urge you strongly enough to discover for yourselves.

 

Kanae Minato- Confessions

confessionsWhen Yuko Moriguchi’s four-year-old daughter died in the middle school where she teaches, everyone thought it was a tragic accident. It’s the last day of term, and Yuko’s last day at work. She tells her students that she has resigned because of what happened – but not for the reasons they think. Her daughter didn’t die in an accident. Her daughter was killed by two people in the class. And before she leaves, she has a lesson to teach. But revenge has a way of spinning out of control, and Yuko’s last lecture is only the start of the story. In this thriller of love, despair and murder, everyone has a confession to make, and no one will escape unharmed.

I will make my own confession straightaway and admit to not being that hugely read in the field of Japanese crime fiction. Little surprise then that this book has escaped my attention, despite there being a 2010 Oscar nominated film version, directed by Tetsuya Nakashima. The story hinges on the collusion in the murder of a female schoolteacher Yuko’s, young daughter by two of her male pupils and in her last lecture to her class there is to be an exposure of truth and a plan for revenge, that will unhinge and surprise both them and us as reader. The following story is then narrated by the various protagonists intimately involved with the crime. This shifting perspective of the same crime from the point of view of the bereaved mother and the guilty boys, in true confessional mode, provide an interesting counterbalance to one another in terms of the reasons for their actions both past and planned, and the keenness with which our sympathies as readers change as each ‘confession’ is brought to light. As the story unfolds, and with giving nothing away, the nature of these confessions will unsettle you, and make you think. You will probably read this in one sitting, as there is something completely mesmerising about its aura of darkness, that unfolds as each confession takes centre stage.

What emerges in this slim but utterly compelling read is a heartbreaking story of familial instability, provoked by the initial murder for mother Yuko, but then by extension how the differing aspects of motherhood are so utterly central to the actions of the two culpable boys. There is a wonderful quote from crime writer Alex Marwood, on the theme of Japanese adolescence in this novel, saying that the book bears comparison to Albert Camus writing Heathers, and she is spot on. There is the rhythmical prose, which carries you along throughout, where the minutiae of these people’s lives are described in the most insightful and beautiful way, despite the contrasting heartbreaking or cruel realities that surround their actions or involvement in the crime. Also, as an insight into the mind-set of these young confused boys, shaped by either the supportive or neglectful relationships within their own family units, the book provides a great deal of comment on how we are shaped by the relationships we have with those closest to us. It also provides a thoughtful meditation on the social mores and experiences of the boys involved within the larger sphere of Japanese life. The themes and issues that Minato addresses in such a compressed piece of writing like Confessions are truly thought-provoking and emotive, and like the best studies of the human psyche, I guarantee that this book will revisit your mind, long after you have finished reading. A short but entirely satisfying study of the psychology of murder and retribution, beautifully written, and haunting in its simplicity, and a cue for me to delve deeper into the world of Japanese crime fiction…

(With thanks to Mulholland Books for the ARC)