Alex Michaelides- The Silent Patient

Alicia Berenson writes a diary as a release, an outlet – and to prove to her beloved husband that everything is fine. She can’t bear the thought of worrying Gabriel, or causing him pain. Until, late one evening, Alicia shoots Gabriel five times and then never speaks another word.

Forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber is convinced he can successfully treat Alicia, where all others have failed. Obsessed with investigating her crime, his discoveries suggest Alicia’s silence goes far deeper than he first thought. And if she speaks, would he want to hear the truth?

Okay, so this book is all over Twitter and elsewhere, leaving a host of swooning and excited reviewers in its wake. Normally, having been scarred by two books that had a similar amount of adulation last year, I wouldn’t have read this. But I did. And what a little treat it was. I thought this was one of the most perfectly weighted, tense and engrossing thrillers I have read of late, complete with one of the best twists in the narrative that had me sitting back on my seat, thinking jeez, that was clever…

Michaelides builds the relationship with damaged, and seemingly non-responsive patient Alicia, and her would be knight in shining armour psychotherapist Theo with such stealth and empathy. Along with Alicia’s account of her life garnered from her diaries, and our growing sympathy with Theo trapped in a faithless marriage, the story begins to tease out each character’s points of weakness. Theo sees unlocking  Alicia’s psyche as not only the greatest challenge of his professional career, but also revealing his utter fascination with the crime she committed and how this has locked her into her silent world. Very slowly, as Theo starts to break down this non-communicative barrier, with his one-to one sessions with her, against the advice of practically everyone, there comes to light a dark tale of obsession that holds many surprises, of which I will tell you…nothing…

I really enjoyed the level of psychoanalytic detail that Michaelides incorporates in his account of Alicia’s treatments in this private facility, The Grove, on the brink of closure and whose treatment programmes operate at the whim of financial spreadsheets. Aside from the intensity of the relationship between Theo and Alicia, the book is peopled with an interesting, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes not, characters that bring a vibrancy and energy to the claustrophobia of the main plot. There are surprising peeks into the lives of others, and the book retains a balance of seriousness, and mordant humour so essential to those that treat individuals with extreme mental disturbance.

There I will leave it, as to reveal anything more would cut your enjoyment of this by at least 99.9%, but take it from me, this is well worth your time, and did I mention the twist…

Recommended.

(With thanks to Orion Books for the ARC)

 

 

Peter May- The Man With No Face

Jaded Edinburgh journalist Neil Bannerman is sent to Brussels, intent on digging up dirt. Yet it is danger he discovers, when two British men are found murdered. One victim is a journalist, the other a Cabinet Minister: the double-assassination witnessed by the former’s autistic daughter. This girl recalls every detail about her father’s killer – except for one. With the city rocked by the tragedy, Bannerman is compelled to follow his instincts. He is now fighting to expose a murderous conspiracy, protect a helpless child, and unmask a remorseless killer…

Originally published in 1981 as Hidden Faces, and with a little polish here and there, but remaining by and large faithful to the original text, has reissued it for a new generation of readers as The Man With No Face. Written in the 1970s when May himself was a journalist reporting on the upheaval and consternation of Britain aligning itself with the EU, (oh happy days in the light of the current political debacle) the book is based on real life events, amid the corridors of power in Brussels…

Rich with political intrigue, as a slippery politician and a scheming journalist meet their respective murderous ends, I was fascinated by how little politics and political power changes over the course of decades, and responds significantly little to shifts in society. May conveys this world of corruption and power perfectly throughout as jaded, but tenacious Neil Bannerman starts to dig deeper into the outwardly appearing case of murder-suicide that sends shockwaves through the political community in Brussels and London. Of course, there are darker forces at work and with it a deepening sense of danger as Bannerman launches his own investigation, and forms deep attachments to the nearest and dearest of one of the victims.

I think what struck me most about this book is the sense of resistance to change in political circles, and that the story that May constructed over four decades ago is so easily interchangeable with the current political climate, and the groundless fears that being aligned with Europe had then as well as now. Equally, and sadly, that political corruption is something that never goes away, where the self inflating egos of men (predominantly) become even more avaricious with the heightened status and power they attain, and their increasing distance from those they are meant to represent the best interests of. In addition to this May also shines a rather unflattering light on those members of the fourth estate in this wilfully backstabbing and competitive atmosphere, where the copy is all, and professional allegiances are manipulated to get the column inches. It’s an altogether scurrilous world, and May imbues it with colour, tension and a dry wit that resounds with the reader. It’s a real world of dog eat dog, and a lot of them with their eyes on the juiciest bone…

Neil Bannerman is a wonderfully rounded character, beset as he is with the cynicism inherent in his profession as a journalist, but also the way that he reveals another side to his character in his interactions with the daughter, Tania, of his murdered friend. May builds up a superbly empathetic connection between the two of them, particularly in his sensitive portrayal of Tania cast adrift in a world that her autism complicates further, and this is a real standout feature of the book. Refreshingly, May casts an almost empathetic light on the perpetrator of the crimes, and reserves a good degree of bile for some of the less than savoury characters that inhabit the world of journalism and politics so there’s a great mix of heroes and villains.

I am seldom disappointed with Peter May and The Man With No Face proves once again May’s versatility as a writer whichever world his characters are inhabiting. A strangely prescient read with a good dollop of dramatic tension, and yet underpinned by some real heart-warming interludes. Recommended.

 

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)

Margaret Millar- Vanish In An Instant

On a snowbound night near a small Michigan town, Virginia Barkeley is discovered staggering around, covered in blood and blind drunk. Nearby, wealthy lothario Claude Margolis is found dead, stabbed several times in the neck. The case seems open and shut. Even Virginia thinks she probably committed the crime, although she cannot for the life of her think why. In this classic noir tale of blurred guilt and flawed innocence, a cynical lawyer, Meecham, uncovers the desperate lives of a group connected only by a gruesome murder…

Despite being a huge fan of classic American crime, it is with some shame that I admit to never having read Margaret Millar before. Perhaps slightly overshadowed by her husband, fellow author, Ken Millar aka Ross MacDonald (of whom I’ve read many), on the strength of this one, I think I have a whole new cache of her work to discover…

This is classic American hardboiled crime fiction with a steely feminine edge, that absorbs the reader instantly, and sucks you in to a superbly plotted tale of murder and deception. Millar captures the claustrophobic and suspicious atmosphere of this small town with finesse, where rumour and petty jealousies fuel every interaction. Everyone seems to have an ulterior motive for their actions, and like Meecham you find yourself picking through the evidence, trying to uncover who is the most duplicitous individual in a cast of possibly guilty characters. The plotting is absolutely flawless, and Millar keeps Meecham, and us, in a state of mistrust until the final, and unexpected unmasking of the killer.

The characterisation, particularly in relation to the female characters is just peerless, and I loved the way that each woman Millar introduces are so defined by their difference to the others. We have a femme fatale, a controlling mother, another alcoholic mother, a young doe eyed companion, a strident, though adoring, wife, and so on, each one precisely drawn jumping from the page to our imagination due to the strength of Millar’s characterisation of them. It’s also interesting how she uses her male character, the smart talking and cynical lawyer Meecham, to colour our perception of them further by observing his differing interactions with them, sometimes testy, sometimes flirtatious, or others that reveal a deeper compassionate edge to his character too. All through the book, he is the perfect foil for their particular episodes of scheming, dishonesty or weaknesses of character.  In true hardboiled fashion, both his, and their, cadence of speech and dialogue reflects the razor sharp and clipped style of the genre, conjuring up images of the classic old black and white crime movies with the ‘I speak, now you speak’, style of conversation.

I think we can safely say that Vanish In An Instant was a little gem of a discovery for me, and my hunt for further Margaret Millar books starts here. Her writing is just wonderful, with a tightness yet rhythmic fluidity to her prose that is enviable. A superb plot of red herrings and unexpected twists, populated by a vibrant and perfectly realised group of characters, further adds to the overall distinction of her writing. Cannot recommend highly enough.

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARC)

Quentin Bates- Cold Breath #BlogTour

Gunnhildur reluctantly allows herself to be taken off police duties to act as bodyguard to a man with a price on his head. Hidden away in a secure house outside Reykjavík, Gunna and the high-profile stranger, a guest of the interiors minister, are thrown together – too close for comfort. They soon find they are neither as safe nor as carefully hidden as Gunna and her boss had thought. Conflicting glimpses of the man’s past start to emerge as the press begin to sniff him out, as does another group with their own reasons for locating him. Gunna struggles to come to terms with protecting the life of a man who may have the lives of many on his conscience – or indeed may be the philanthropist he claims to be.
Isolated together, the friction grows between Gunna and the foreign visitor, and she realises they are out of their depth as the trails lead from the house outside Reykjavík to Brussels, Russia and the Middle East…

As well as being an accomplished translator of Scandinavian crime, Quentin Bates is also more than a bit nifty at this crime writing lark too! I am a staunch admirer of his Gunnhildur series, and, pardon the pun, Cold Breath once again proves to be a (cold) breath of fresh air…

I think where Bates excels is in his central character of Gunna Gunnhildur herself, and the different facets he reveals to her character with each book. Although most of the series to date have dwelt to a larger or lesser extent on her private life, and that of her sometimes wayward offspring, this book puts her firmly centre stage. Bates places her in an isolated position, where her conduits for conversation are either with the man she is tasked with protecting, or her police colleagues, shifting the focus of the book entirely onto how she copes with this new assignment. Suffice to say she proves herself more than up to the task, and with her refresher firearms training, a limited supply of clean underwear, and a steely determination she throws herself into this tricky assignment with a sense of purpose, determination and her customary dry humour.   Fending off those who would seek to harm her slippery protectee, and avoiding the equally slippery advances of said protectee, Gunnhildur finds herself involved in a tangled and disturbing global conspiracy, forcing her into a situation that calls on all her training and level headedness.

I thought this was a sophisticated and perfectly paced conspiracy thriller, touching on some large and controversial themes, with an even handed and focussed approach. Certain aspects of the conspiracy were very concerning, particularly in relation to the European migration issues, and the way that not all those involved in the charitable aspect of rescue and assimilation may be all that they seem. I enjoyed the political hornet’s nest that Osman’s, the erstwhile philanthropist, sojourn to Iceland stirs up, and the controversial fleeting visit of a gauche right wing American, in addition to the central plot itself. There is a real sense of evasion and coercion throughout, and with four murders in close succession, Gunnhildur and her colleagues find themselves in a fraught and frustrating investigation, stretching from the lowlife of Reykjavik to the harbingers of power.

Once again, Bates has produced a really enjoyable, and compelling read packed to the brim with energy, suspense, violence and humour, powered by his own knowledge of and perspective on Iceland. This really is a superb series, and if you haven’t dipped your toe as yet, I would highly recommend them. Gunnhildur is great!

(With thanks to Constable for the ARC)

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Tom Callaghan- An Autumn Hunting

No sooner has Akyl Borubaev been reinstated as an Inspector in the Bishkek Murder Squad than he’s suspended for alleged serious crimes against the state.After an attempted assassination of a prominent minister goes spectacularly wrong, Akyl is a fugitive from his former colleagues and involved with one of Kyrgyzstan’s most dangerous criminals.

On the run, caught up in a illegal scheme that can only end badly, it’s time for Akyl to take a stand for everything he believes in…

So in a blink of an eye we have reached the final instalment of Tom Callaghan’s exceptional Kyrgyzstan quartet featuring Inspector Akyl Borubaev, that all began with the brilliant A Killing Winter , and took us through A Spring Betrayal, and A Summer Revenge

I don’t usually pay much attention to the use of epigraphs before the book proper, but in this case the quote from Chingiz Aitmatov, “The hardest thing for anyone is to be a human being every day” is entirely appropriate for the emotional wringer that Borubaev goes through during the course of this one. Obviously, being the last book of the cycle, the story is incredibly influenced by events of previous books, but rest assured you are kept firmly in the loop, as to who, what, where and how Borubaev has reached this precarious state, both professionally and emotionally. You never shake the sense that Borubaev is a pawn in a much larger game, not always voluntarily, and in a similar style to the sub genre of East German crime thrillers, there’s always the sinister shadow of other security services seeking to control and manipulate him. Borubaev is a superbly constructed character being the archetypal lone wolf, but being neither utterly corrupt nor totally moral. This book, perhaps even more so that the others, sees him playing a dangerous game, inveigling himself with a ruthless criminal with an illegal mission in Bangkok, and appearing to burn all his bridges in his homeland too. As usual, he navigates some very choppy waters indeed, with the requisite amount of physical fear and violence that Callaghan so precisely and excitingly punctuates his books with, and as the book spirals to one of the best closing chapters I have read for some time, this is real edge of the seat stuff throughout. The book is also littered with little flashes of dark, mordant humour and precisely placed barbs aimed at the State, complete with a knowing raise of the eyebrow.

As he uses his natural guile to stay one step ahead, Borubaev’s character is such that we are also allowed to witness moments of extreme emotion and natural sympathy, particularly in his intermittent dalliance with the femme fatale figure of tough hitwoman Saltanat, when a new development in their relationship is revealed- a development that brings his previous marriage back into sharp focus and analysis. Throughout the series his affair with the totally self contained, clinical Saltanat has been an interesting diversion in the unrelenting grimness, uncompromising violence and double crossing that gives the real punch to the writing, and I was curious to see what would happen with them, being such unlikely bedfellows. Callaghan does not disappoint, and instead of the usual schmaltz-laden interludes that ‘tough guys’ have, there is a real depth of emotion and extreme pathos to the hurdles in their relationship.

Once again, Callaghan uses the grey, bleak feel of Kyrgyzstan, both in terrain and in the socio-political sense, to full effect, focussing on the poverty, social deprivation and corruption rife in society. When the action shifts to Bangkok, these themes are revisited as Borubaev witnesses the highs and lows of life in this pulsing city, rich on the surface, but with an underbelly of poverty and extreme exploitation. There is a real depth and richness to Callaghan’s depiction of both locations, and how the problems of an individual state, are all too often repeated and visible in others, most notably the twin evils of drugs and sexual exploitation, and those who profit from them.

I thought this book was a sublime addition to the previous three, and a fitting conclusion to the series, leaving a little catch in the throat, but as a reader a genuine feel of having read a truly satisfying sequence of books. The locations, characterisation, social and political detail, and genuine page-turning excitement are a credit to Tom Callaghan’s writing, and I have enjoyed (and recommended widely) every book. An Autumn Haunting is no exception.  Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)

 

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Anna Mazzola- The Story Keeper

Audrey Hart is on the Isle of Skye to collect the folk and fairy tales of the people and communities around her. It is 1857 and the Highland Clearances have left devastation and poverty, and a community riven by fear. The crofters are suspicious and hostile to a stranger, claiming they no longer know their fireside stories. Then Audrey discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach and the crofters reveal that it is only a matter of weeks since another girl disappeared. They believe the girls are the victims of the restless dead: spirits who take the form of birds. Initially, Audrey is sure the girls are being abducted, but as events accumulate she begins to wonder if something else is at work. Something which may be linked to the death of her own mother, many years before…

Having thoroughly enjoyed Anna Mazzola’s debut, The Unseeing based on an historical murder case, I was more than intrigued to see what would come next from the author. Suffice to say that this glorious mix of the gothic and the folkloric more than hit the spot…

Once again, the breadth of Mazzola’s historical research is clearly in evidence again, using the backdrop of 19th century Skye to weave this dark and mysterious tale. Melding together the utter poverty wrought by the infamous land clearances of the period, the chasm between rich and poor, and the superstitious belief in folklore, Mazzola paints a vivid picture of the period which has a vivid clarity, and transports the reader effortlessly to this moment in time. I absolutely loved the rendering of the folkloric tales, that Audrey is employed to collect and catalogue, and the natural compulsion displayed by the crofting community to withhold these tales from prying outsiders, leading Audrey to chip away at this reluctance to satisfy her strange and eccentric employer Miss Buchanan. Equally, the interweaving of Gaelic history, and the reduced livelihoods of the local inhabitants adds further colour and context to the story, but there is an even more vital strand to this book concerning Audrey herself.

Audrey has fled from London unchaperoned to take up this position, causing us instantly to wonder at the reasons for such ‘unladylike’ behaviour, and here a very important story arc is revealed. Mazzola uses Audrey’s story, and that of other young women she encounters in Skye, to really cut to the grist of the position of women in this period in society. Without giving too much away, the patriarchal, male oriented society is very much the catalyst for her escape, and her story is poignant and thought provoking, allowing Mazzola to explore the extreme emotional and financial hardship that Audrey and other women experience, and the abuses and indignities they suffer. I found this theme in the book very emotive, and with a modern sensibility felt a righteous anger on their behalf. As the abuses in the local community come to light, Audrey is compelled to intervene and defend the right of these women for justice, placing herself in extreme danger too, and as the sense of peril builds, with a beautifully weighted feel of gothic suspense, there are some extremely dark misdemeanours to reveal.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Story Keeper, and as each layer of the story was peeled back, and different facets of the everyday existence of this community was brought to light there was an enhanced level of interest throughout the book. With it’s curious mix of the ordinary, the strange, the gap between rich and poor, mental illness, and the inherent danger to, and tacit subservience of women in this period, I was held in a state of fascination from beginning to end. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Tinder Press to the ARC)

Blog Tour-Jesper Stein- Unrest

When the bound, hooded corpse of an unidentified man is found propped up against a gravestone in the central cemetery, Axel Steen is assigned the case. Rogue camera footage soon suggests police involvement and links to the demolition of the nearby Youth House, teeming with militant far-left radicals. But Axel soon discovers that many people, both inside and out of the force, have an unusual interest in the case and in preventing its resolution. With a rapidly worsening heart condition, an estranged ex-wife and beloved five-year-old daughter to contend with, Axel will not stop until the killer is caught, whatever the consequences. But the consequences turn out to be greater than expected – especially for Axel himself…

In the best possible way, Unrest is very much a what you see is what you get type of thriller, as it ticks every single box required of a Scandinavian crime novel, and is extremely reflective of the genre as a whole. Indeed, as I was reading, I felt echoes of Nesbo, Larsson, Staalesen and Nesser throughout the book particularly in terms of plot and characterisation, and the density and slow burning feel of the plot again fulfils perfectly the familiar characteristics of the genre, so plenty to enjoy here for the Nordic noir fan…

The reader is thrust straight into the familiar realm of police conspiracy, so beloved of the Scandinavian set, suffused with the gritty, unflinching gaze on the political and social ills of Danish society. With a riot in full flow, the discovery of a body would seem an ordinary occurrence, but Stein perfectly hinges his whole narrative on why and how this victim is of such significance on a much larger canvas, and the wider ramifications of this killing. Stein presents a broad spectrum of issues including immigration, police corruption, the drug trade, trafficking and so on, and generally  this is one of the more slow burning Scandinavian thrillers I have encountered, as reasons for, and suspects of the killing are slowly addressed, investigated and discounted as the plot develops. It did take me a while to slow down to the pace of the plot, and begin to appreciate the more laborious style of investigation that the main police protagonist, Axel Steen, finds himself embroiled in, in contrast to say the more compact style of other Nordic writers. I think Unrest is extremely reminiscent of some of the fine Nordic TV dramas that we love, with chicanery, social and political division and big meaty issues at its core.    Consequently, the political and social elements of the plot and the tensions between the investigative branches , engaged me more, and I very much enjoyed Stein’s warts-and-all portrayal of Copenhagen. I thought he depicted beautifully the chasm between the areas of the city, both monetarily and structurally, and I loved the way his writing had shades of the old fashioned flaneur, with the very visual and observant tone of his descriptions, as  Steen traverses the different neighbourhoods.

I’m sure regular readers of my reviews know of my general aversion to too much being made of the familial and romantic upsets of the main police protagonists, and to an extent this book did irritate me slightly in terms of this. Personally I grew a little tired of Steen’s domestic woes and his sexual involvement with a key witness, and the less said about his reves humides the better, but on a more positive note I found his professional persona contained some of my favourite characteristics of an officer operating to his own agenda and with his own methods. Stein imbues his detective with the cynical and slightly hangdog air so beloved in the genre, but this pall of negativity usefully detracts other people’s perceptions of Steen, thus revealing a keen mind and nose for a conspiracy. He’s also not afraid to get his hands dirty or to take a knock or two along the way, skating the boundaries of professional behaviour, but delighting us with his aversion to following the rules.

Overall, I enjoyed this new-to-me author, and judging by the praise the author receives across Europe, I think there may be more enjoyment to come in the company of Detective Superintendent Axel Steen. A solid Scandinavian thriller, and recommended for fans of the genre…

(With thanks to Mirror Books for the ARC)

‘Jesper writes about a Copenhagen that’s both full of change yet always the same. Its harsh, dark, yet with a warm, beating heart at its core.’ LARS KEPLER, author of The Hypnotist ‘

‘Jesper Stein’s crime novels cast a strong light on contemporary Denmark in such a way that they deserve readers far beyond Danish borders.’ GUNNAR STAALESEN, winner of the 2017 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel Of The Year

‘Stein’s first novel establishes a whole new Scandinavian style.’ ROLLING STONE (Germany)

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