Liad Shoham- Asylum City

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When social activist Michal Poleg is found dead in her Tel Aviv apartment, her body showing signs of severe violence, officer Anat Nachmias is given the lead on her first murder investigation. Eager to find answers, the talented and sensitive cop looks to the victim’s past for clues, focusing on the last days before her death. Could one of the asylum-seekers Michal worked with be behind this crime?

Then a young African man confesses to the murder, and Anat’s commanders say the case is closed. But the cop isn’t convinced. She believes that Michal, a tiny girl with a gift for irritating people, got involved in something far too big and dangerous for her to handle.

Joined by Michal’s clumsy yet charming boss, Anat is pulled deep into a perplexing shadow world where war victims and criminals, angels and demons, idealists and cynics, aid organisations and criminal syndicates intersect. But the truth may be more than Anat can manage, bringing her face to face with an evil she’s never before experienced…

By sheer coincidence, I was pitched this book about the Eritrean and Ethiopian refugee crisis in Tel Aviv, having been absolutely oblivious to this sensitive social issue. In an interesting instance of art imitating life, I encountered an in-depth newspaper feature within days of starting this book, focussing on this very issue, and the depth of feeling within Israel on this emotive and opinion-splitting aspect of contemporary Israeli society. Likewise, in the author’s acknowledgements, Shoham undertook an enormous amount of research into the social, political and economic aspects of the refugee experience, and those that work so tirelessly on their behalf, with little funding or support from the government. Hence, this proved one of the most thought-provoking and deeply poignant crime novels that I have ever read, being so rooted in reality.

The author’s depth of research comes shining through and Shoham neatly balances all sides of this multi-faceted thriller, both in terms of the contentious central social issue, and in providing an intriguing criminal investigation. Whilst Shoham does not adopt a completely dispassionate tone to the larger issues of the book, there is an incredible sense of authorial balance to the story he presents, as he encapsulates the experiences of all sides through the characters he presents. Hence, we as readers, see the unfolding events through the eyes of the refugees, those that work with them, and the police, whilst also incorporating the less than noble actions of the people smugglers and the Israeli political fraternity. Shoham interweaves all these aspects effortlessly, never resorting to mawkish sentimentality, or adopting a preachy tone as to how we should view the issues he presents. With his rounded view, the reader is encouraged to form their viewpoint, and to gain a greater sense of where their empathies lie, in relation to the characters and the problems they find themselves confronted with.

I found myself quite emotionally spent at times, particularly through certain characters in the book. I thought the characterisation of the Eritrean refugee, Gabriel, who confesses to the murder in a pay-off to ensure the safe passage of his abused sister from some ruthless Bedouin people smugglers, was incredibly emotive. With his artistic bent, and strong moral decency, his plight was incredibly affecting. Likewise, the endeavours of others to protect him, most notably the charity worker, Itai, and police detective, Anat, added a real depth to the plot. The problems that Itai faces as a NGO worker, dealing with the well-being of refugees, and Anat, as a female police officer in charage of her first big case, allows Shoham to embrace the larger issues of racism and sexism at play in their everyday working lives. Both characters are written extremely sensitively, and their faltering attempts to gain justice for Gabriel, whilst negotiating the insidious political powers that be is powerfully wrought throughout. I liked all three of these characters enormously, and admired their moral core and interactions with each other, more and more as the plot progressed.

I have a strong belief that if you want to really gain insight into the way any society functions, crime fiction is the perfect conduit for this, and books such as Asylum City only strengthen this belief for me. With its unwavering critique and observation of society in Tel Aviv and the burgeoning refugee crisis, compounded by a striking and deeply involving murder investigation, Shoham balances every facet of his narrative effortlessly. I cannot recommend this thriller highly enough if you enjoy your crime fiction with a more socially aware edge, as well as adhering to its central tenet of being a highly effective thriller, setting it apart from the more throwaway mass market crime fiction. Excellent.

(With thanks to Scribe for the ARC)

 

 

 

 

Anna Jaquiery- Death In The Rainy Season

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

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

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

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

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

(With thanks to Mantle for the ARC)