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Criminally good reads…

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The Boys Are Back In Town- David Young- Stasi Wolf/ Steve Cavanagh- The Liar/ David Jackson- Hope To Die

East Germany, 1975. Karin Müller, sidelined from the murder squad in Berlin, jumps at the chance to be sent south to Halle-Neustadt, where a pair of infant twins have gone missing.

But Müller soon finds her problems have followed her. Halle-Neustadt is a new town – the pride of the communist state – and she and her team are forbidden by the Stasi from publicising the disappearances, lest they tarnish the town’s flawless image.

Meanwhile, in the eerily nameless streets and tower blocks, a child snatcher lurks, and the clock is ticking to rescue the twins alive . . .

Having absolutely loved David Young’s debut, Stasi Child with it’s refreshingly different setting, and being steeped in the history of Germany’s former divisions, both geographically and socially, here’s the next in the series. Once again the indomitable Karin Müller finds herself enmeshed in a thorny and deeply personal investigation, under the watchful eye of the Stasi…

What I have loved about both books is Young’s attention to detail, that so firmly roots the reader in this timeframe, allowing us to bear witness to the unique and sinister workings of this totalitarian state. Unlike other authors who fail to balance their reams of research with good solid storytelling, Young consistently displays a knack for both, whether describing the functional architecture of Halle-Neustadt, where Müller is stationed, to further adroit observations on the social stratum that exists behind its concrete façade. He effortlessly melds the constraints of life in the east, with references to the forbidden fruits that lie within the west, and the frustrations that Müller and her cohorts face in the course of their investigation . I really liked the use of the dual narrative, that slowly binds the story together, the revelatory impact on Müller’s case. and the grim revelations about certain medical practices in this closed state.

In terms of characterisation, not only does Müller have to navigate the suffocating constraints of state control, which the book excels at,  but there is a slight shift in tone, as Young begins to fill out Müller’s own character more, affording some interesting insights into her family history. At times I felt, this development of Muller’s character was weighted too heavily against the main plot, giving the book a slight imbalance, and there was one twist in the plot that felt a little too contrived for this reader, leading to the feeling that this was a bridging book to greater revelations ahead, instead of a naturally fluid development of the series. However, I enjoyed the way that once again, Young carefully uses Müller’s colleagues to lighten the tone, and adds a much needed softening to the personalities that lie beneath their constricted professional lives.

To be honest though, this one small criticism of Müller’s character development within Stasi Wolf  did little to dent my enjoyment overall. Young’s astute and compelling use of his chosen location and period of history was as enlightening and educational as ever, within the arc of this dark and disturbing investigation. Recommended.

(With thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for the ARC)

WHO IS DEADLIER …

Leonard Howell’s worst nightmare has come true: his daughter Caroline has been kidnapped. Not content with relying on the cops, Howell calls the only man he trusts to get her back.

… THE MAN WHO KNOWS THE TRUTH …

Eddie Flynn knows what it’s like to lose a daughter and vows to bring Caroline home safe. Once a con artist, now a hotshot criminal attorney, Flynn is no stranger to the shady New York underworld.

… OR THE ONE WHO BELIEVES A LIE?

However, as he steps back into his old life, Flynn realizes that the rules of game have changed – and that he is being played. But who is pulling the strings? And is anyone in this twisted case telling the truth…?

Having reviewed Steve Cavanagh’s two excellent previous Eddie Flynn thrillers, The Defence and The Plea  it is with some pleasure that I can say that the big guy has come up trumps again. Having converted me to the enjoyable world of the legal thriller, Cavanagh plunges his stalwart Flynn back into a compelling tale of kidnap and twisted family secrets…

The sharp-talking, quick thinking and utterly engaging character of Eddie Flynn lies at the heart of the success of this America based series to date. He is an entirely likeable protagonist who easily gets the reader on board with his delightful mix of street smarts and, at times, emotional sensitivity. I love the little echoes of his grifter past that undercut his talents as a lawyer, and the interludes of wit that Cavanagh employs in this incredibly fast paced and engaging thriller. Cavanagh’s writing is extremely fluid and well-paced throughout, with an uncanny knack in his control of tension and action, from the high-stakes shenanigans of Flynn’s courtroom appearances, to his clear-sighted and unquestioning mission for justice for his client.

So as not to spoil your enjoyment of this thriller, I will dwell fleetingly on the plot, as there are more than a few twists and turns and surprising revelations in the course of Flynn’s thorny case. What I would say is that there is a proper ass-kicking female FBI agent in this one, who more than deserves a repeat appearance in future books (hint, hint) and a grim tale of dark jealousies that exist between siblings that could only end badly. It is never less than gripping throughout, and Flynn needs his wits about him to navigate this minefield of tricky legal negotiations, and intermittent flashpoints of danger…

All in all, The Liar proves itself an extremely enjoyable, well-plotted thriller with solid characterisation, and a nice sting in the tale. A great addition to an already mustn’t miss series. Loved it.

(With thanks to Orion for the ARC)

On a bitterly cold winter’s night, Liverpool is left stunned by a brutal murder in the grounds of the city’s Anglican Cathedral. A killer is on the loose, driven by a chilling rage. Put on the case, DS Nathan Cody is quickly stumped. Wherever he digs, the victim seems to be almost angelic – no-one has a bad word to say, let alone a motive for such a violent murder. And Cody has other things on his mind too. The ghosts of his past are coming ever closer, and – still bearing the physical and mental scars – it’s all he can do to hold onto his sanity.
And then the killer strikes again . . .

Hope To Die is the second outing for DS Nathan Cody, and the follow up to A Tapping At My Door the first of David Jackson’s new Liverpool based series. Still reeling from the events of the first book, our beleaguered detective has more demons to face in this dark and testing investigation…

Aside from the triple murder case, the book is punctuated by the experiences of a young boy suffering abuse, in this case at the hands of a religiously zealous and cruel mother, and the mental angst of DS Cody himself in the grip of the reverberations of a previous violent interlude in his police career. Jackson largely succeeds at juggling these three strands of narrative, but maybe too consciously is setting the scene for a further book in the series in the case of Cody’s torment. I felt early on that the demons haunting him would not be effectively dealt with this in this book, so resigned myself to a possible cliffhanger for this particular story arc, but no matter as the murder investigations he is involved in provided more than enough tension in the main storyline. I thought the plotting and eventual resolution of the murder cases was extremely well done, with a cunningly concealed, but utterly believable perpetrator, and I enjoyed both the build up to,  and the final unmasking of, the killer. Jackson makes liberal use of red herrings and blind alleys, and I always think this adds something to the reading of a thriller, testing out our little grey cells, and playing with our intuition. I also greatly enjoyed the sideswipes at religious fervour and hypocrisy that are central to the murderer’s motivations.

Something that is always consistent in Jackson’s writing, be it his former New York set crime series, or this one, is his solid characterisation, and the interaction between his characters. There is ready Scouse wit, emotional angst, spikiness, and total professionalism in equal measure, and he never shies away from homing in on this little mis-steps in communication that exist when people have to react with others outside of their professional zone. This is particularly evident in the torturous and frustrating relationship between Cody and DC Megan Webley, whose emotional back and forth, provides a nice little distraction from the grim murder investigation, but not to the detriment of the central plot. More a case of will they again, won’t they again, knock their heads together, throw hands up in despair etc…

Hope To Die proves itself another well-executed police procedural from David Jackson, and as another step in the confronting of Cody’s ghosts from the past, acts as a good bridge in readiness for the next in the series. I’m looking forward to it already…

(With thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for the ARC)

 

 

Jax Miller- Freedom’s Child

Call me what you will: a murderer, a cop killer, a fugitive, a drunk…

There’s a lot people don’t know about Freedom Oliver. They know she works at the local bar. They know she likes a drink or two. What they don’t know is that Freedom is not her real name. That she has spent the last eighteen years living under Witness Protection, after being arrested for her husband’s murder. They don’t know that she put her two children up for adoption, a decision that haunts her every day. Then Freedom’s daughter goes missing, and everything changes. Determined to find her, Freedom slips her handlers and heads to Kentucky where her kids were raised. No longer protected by the government, she is tracked by her husband’s sadistic family, who are thirsty for revenge. But as she gets closer to the truth, Freedom faces an even more dangerous threat. She just doesn’t know it yet…

Every so often a crime thriller debut comes along with an understated but powerful writing style that fair knocks you off your feet. Freedom’s Child is one such book, and in deference to the general acclaim this book is receiving across the book world, I can only agree with the general trend of overwhelmingly positive reviews it is deservedly attracting…

Focusing on the damaged, and utterly compelling character of Freedom Oliver, many reviewers have been quick to draw comparisons with Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. However, I firmly believe that Freedom, although shaped and emotionally damaged by past events in her life, represents an altogether more powerful credibility as a strong female character. Her whole outwardly hard drinking, feisty and kick ass demeanour, belies her very real emotional frailty, not assuaged by any evidence of intellectual or technological genius as evinced by Salander. Instead, she is completely driven by the overwhelming maternal instinct, caused by the separation of herself from her children, and the sheer determination to atone for, and rescue them from, the repercussions of the violence her actions have given rise to. Throughout the book Miller carefully maintains these two contrasting aspects of her character, where Freedom attempts to shut down emotional engagement and tolerance of others, seemingly on the road to self-destruction, but with the reader always being aware of the fire that burns deep within her driven by her lost role as a mother and the emotional focus this gives her. Her un-mailed letters to her two lost children are particularly heart-wrenching. The characterisation that Miller ascribes to her is as disturbing as it is poignant, and equally how every other character’s actions is so influenced by, or attuned to our mercurial heroine. Her interplay with, and reactions to, those that would help or hinder her keep her in sharp focus throughout, and in her Miller has created a multi-faceted and completely mesmerising central character.

By weaving in the issue of religious fundamentalism, and the focus of the destructive patriarchy of cult leaders, alongside some pretty abhorrent figures from Freedom’s ill-judged marriage, Miller has plenty of ammunition to spray on the evil deeds of men. Freedom’s past experiences, and the current collision course she finds herself on, have been shaped comprehensively by the thoughts, opinions and fists of some pretty despicable men. As disturbed as I was by the truly horrific male specimens that Miller serves up to us, I appreciated her unflinching characterisation of them, as difficult as it was to read at times. However, to balance the score, Miller does ascribe a modicum of decency to both Freedom’s son, Mason, her brother-in-law Peter, and Freedom’s would-be protector, police officer James Mattley, and these three characters will resonate strongly with most readers, as both emotive and engaging characters.

Equally, Miller has a laconic, lean and incredibly rhythmical cadence to the writing style, that is on a par with some of the best writers in contemporary American fiction- Daniel Woodrell, Denis Johnson, and Willy Vlautin spring to mind. The use of a certain amount of rhythmical repetition carries the reader along, and really embeds the voice of Freedom in the reader’s consciousness. Likewise, the visual depiction of something as rough and ready as a biker bar, is counterbalanced by some truly beautiful descriptions of the sprawling landscapes and highways that Freedom travels on her mercy mission, retaining the sense of authenticity that Miller demonstrates throughout her writing.

This book has haunted me since reading it, and as a reader and a bookseller, it is always something special to be so affected by, and witness to, a powerful new voice in fiction. Quite possibly will be my book of the year. Terrific.

 

Nadia Dalbuono- The Few

few

I have recently posted this review at  Crimefictionlover.com  as part of the New Talent November month of features. As this is a very strong contender for my book of the month I feel that the repetition is justified!  

This is the intriguing debut from an author who is originally from the UK but now lives in Italy, where The Few is set. The story focuses on Detective Leone Scamarcio, the son of a once powerful mafia figure. Scamarcio has turned his back on the family business and is on the Rome police force. He is handed a file containing compromising photographs of the Italian foreign secretary Giorgio Ganza with male prostitutes.

Scamarcio’s boss Garramone is a confidante of the country’s prime minister, and sends him to deal with the possible fallout, including the suspicious deaths of Ganza’s companions. As his investigation begins, a young American girl is spirited away from her parents on the beach in Elba, and Scamarcio finds himself drawn into her disappearance and possible links to his primary case. It turns out he has to call on his family’s mafia connections to navigate his way into the darkest currents of Italian society to uncover corruption and conspiracy.

Nicely sitting alongside the ranks of Donna Leon, Michael Dibdin and Tobias Jones, Nadia Dalbuono has crafted an engaging thriller with a fascinating and likeable police protagonist. Scamarcio is a multi-layered man, who on more than one occasion fulfils others’ perception of him as a brilliant maverick. He is a composite of dedicated detective counterbalanced with the strong roots of his family in the ‘Ndrangheta mafia, and is not shy of using his former connections to get to the bottom of this sordid case. He is persistent, clear-thinking (despite his occasional use of marijuana), and perhaps, echoing my favourite line in the book, unafraid to engage in more physical methods of extracting information. “I’m a busy man- places to go, people to mutilate,” he says.

In terms of plot, it’s hard to believe this is a debut novel, so cleverly does Dalbuono weave the various strands of the story together, unveiling a few surprises along the way. Running parallel to the main investigations are a series of cutaways to another stream of consciousness where it’s not initially clear who’s speaking. As the book progresses these come into focus for an unsettling denouement, reinforcing how far the sexual deviance and violence of those in power has spread in Italy. I enjoyed the way that Dalbuono provided an insight into the Roma immigrant community as the story played out. The rum doings of various branches of the branches of organised crime are described with relish.

As the action pivots between Rome, Elba and Naples, the rendition of location and local knowledge shines through every scene. The sights, sounds and atmosphere of each setting will invade your senses. Particularly sentient were the scenes where Scarmacio, in the course of his investigation, is dispatched to a coastal fortress prison housing a sex offender dubbed The Priest. Only accessible by boat, Dalbuono totally captures the forbidding atmosphere of this sinister location, and the inherent sense of fear that each visit produces. Likewise, Rome and its inhabitants are ripe in detail, bringing to the fore the vibrant and well known sights of the city, and the scenes in the seeming idyll of Elba’s tourist community take on a whole character of their own.

It is a delight to encounter a protagonist who I would be keen to meet again, and given such a promising beginning to a potential series, I very much hope this will be the case in subsequent books. The Few is a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking debut.

This is the intriguing debut from an author who is originally from the UK but now lives in Italy, where The Few is set. The story focuses on Detective Leone Scamarcio, the son of a once powerful mafia figure. Scamarcio has turned his back on the family business and is on the Rome police force. He is handed a file containing compromising photographs of the Italian foreign secretary Giorgio Ganza with male prostitutes.

Scamarcio’s boss Garramone is a confidante of the country’s prime minister, and sends him to deal with the possible fallout, including the suspicious deaths of Ganza’s companions. As his investigation begins, a young American girl is spirited away from her parents on the beach in Elba, and Scamarcio finds himself drawn into her disappearance and possible links to his primary case. It turns out he has to call on his family’s mafia connections to navigate his way into the darkest currents of Italian society to uncover corruption and conspiracy.

Nicely sitting alongside the ranks of Donna Leon, Michael Dibdin and Tobias Jones, Nadia Dalbuono has crafted an engaging thriller with a fascinating and likeable police protagonist. Scamarcio is a multi-layered man, who on more than one occasion fulfils others’ perception of him as a brilliant maverick. He is a composite of dedicated detective counterbalanced with the strong roots of his family in the ‘Ndrangheta mafia, and is not shy of using his former connections to get to the bottom of this sordid case. He is persistent, clear-thinking (despite his occasional use of marijuana), and perhaps, echoing my favourite line in the book, unafraid to engage in more physical methods of extracting information. “I’m a busy man- places to go, people to mutilate,” he says.

In terms of plot, it’s hard to believe this is a debut novel, so cleverly does Dalbuono weave the various strands of the story together, unveiling a few surprises along the way. Running parallel to the main investigations are a series of cutaways to another stream of consciousness where it’s not initially clear who’s speaking. As the book progresses these come into focus for an unsettling denouement, reinforcing how far the sexual deviance and violence of those in power has spread in Italy. I enjoyed the way that Dalbuono provided an insight into the Roma immigrant community as the story played out. The rum doings of various branches of the branches of organised crime are described with relish.

As the action pivots between Rome, Elba and Naples, the rendition of location and local knowledge shines through every scene. The sights, sounds and atmosphere of each setting will invade your senses. Particularly sentient were the scenes where Scarmacio, in the course of his investigation, is dispatched to a coastal fortress prison housing a sex offender dubbed The Priest. Only accessible by boat, Dalbuono totally captures the forbidding atmosphere of this sinister location, and the inherent sense of fear that each visit produces. Likewise, Rome and its inhabitants are ripe in detail, bringing to the fore the vibrant and well known sights of the city, and the scenes in the seeming idyll of Elba’s tourist community take on a whole character of their own.

It is a delight to encounter a protagonist who I would be keen to meet again, and given such a promising beginning to a potential series, I very much hope this will be the case in subsequent books. The Few is a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking debut.

(With thanks to Scribe for the ARC)

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