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)

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)

 

 

 

 

Tom Callaghan- A Killing Winter

tomIf, like me, you felt a sense of loss at the close of Tom Rob Smith’s trilogy (Child 44, The Secret Speech and Agent 6) I may have found something to ease our collective troubled souls. A Killing Winter is a hard-hitting and not to be missed thriller from debut crime novelist Tom Callaghan, that transports the reader to the harsh and unforgiving landscape Kyrgyzstan…

When Inspector Akyl Borubaev of the Bishkek Murder Squad is called to the brutal murder scene of a young woman, all the evidence points towards a sadistic serial killer on the hunt for more victims. But when the young woman’s father is revealed as a leading government minister, the pressure is on Borubaev to solve the case not only quickly but also quietly by any means possible. Until more bodies are found. Still in mourning after the recent death of his beloved wife, Chinara, Borubaev descends into Bishkek’s brutal underworld where violence is the only solution. And so begins a thriller that is by turns sordid, violent and yet powerfully emotive that I guarantee will keep you reading..and reading..and reading…

This book contains a number of stand-out features, most notably the author’s assured use of what to many is probably a relatively unknown location. Not only does he convey to the reader the inhospitable climate of this region, where the cold really seeps into your imagination when reading, but also the socio-economic make-up of this former Soviet enclave. It is populated by a cast of characters from both ends of the social spectrum, from the desperate day-to-day existence of the local prostitutes, to those inhabiting the higher echelons of power and the rewards this reaps. Somewhere in the middle stands our dogged detective Borubaev, a man of strong moral stature, manipulated by not only his police superior, but by the wider influence of the political sphere. As the story progresses, we gain valuable insight into the troubled history of this region, and the political machinations over the ownership of the country, and how Borubaev becomes firmly enmeshed in these warring factions.

Borubaev is an intriguing character, who pivots between an unerring toughness underscored by some emotive chinks in his armour, revealed by the references to his bereavement following the death of his wife. His emotional attachment to her memory is truly moving, and the way in which his memory of her fuels his actions, “I wanted to think of her as an unseen presence, spurring me on, watching from the sidelines”, where we feel his sense of loss consistently throughout, added to by an emotive revelation at the close of the book. Throughout the course of the investigation, he always fights for the victims, and despite the sheer physical harm that is meted out on him, his dedication to justice is embodied in his every action. I liked him very much indeed.

The plot itself proved incredibly satisfying with some nice red herrings, and reveals along the way, strengthened by the tough and unrelenting sordidness of both the language and the violence. This is not a book for the more squeamish reader, but the brutal nature of the plot worked extremely well overall. It’s rough, tough and blunt-speaking, but with the emotional counterpoint, as previously mentioned in Borubaev’s private life, works exceptionally well as a whole. A Killing Winter is a brilliant debut, and an early contender for one of my top reads of the year I feel.

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)