A Raven Round-Up: Steve Cavanagh- Thirteen/ Andrew Shaffer- Hope Never Dies/ Ragnar Jonasson- The Darkness/ Jorge Ibarguengoitia- The Dead Girls/Frederic Dard- The Gravedigger’s Bread

Haven’t done one of these cheeky little round-ups for a while, but think this is a good pick ‘n’ mix of crime summer reads. From the wastes of Iceland to sizzling Mexico, you may discover a little gem here…

They were Hollywood’s hottest power couple. They had the world at their feet. Now one of them is dead and Hollywood star Robert Solomon is charged with the brutal murder of his beautiful wife.This is the celebrity murder trial of the century and the defence want one man on their team: con artist turned lawyer Eddie Flynn. All the evidence points to Robert’s guilt, but as the trial begins a series of sinister incidents in the court room start to raise doubts in Eddie’s mind.

What if there’s more than one actor in the courtroom? What if the killer isn’t on trial? What if the killer is on the jury?

Okay for those of you who have been living in a cave, or in deepest darkest Peru, this has to be the most talked about, and well publicised thriller release of the summer. It is everywhere. And I mean everywhere. So is it any good? Is the hype deserved? Well, quite frankly….IT IS!

Having previously reviewed, and greatly enjoyed The Defence The Plea and The Liar I love the character of  Eddie Flynn, the renegade, ex-grifter, quick-witted lawyer always up to his elbows in trouble, and this is a series of books that has restored my interest in the legal thriller genre. Flynn is a fabulous creation who uses humour as a defence, is a good guy to have on your side when the chips down, does okay in a scrap, yet is woefully inept in his personal relationships, which brings an endearing authenticity to his character too.

Apart from his characterisation, if there is one thing that Cavanagh excels in, it is his control of pace and tension, with the machinations of the courtroom ebbing and flowing punctuated by outbursts (in true comic book style) of POW! and KABOOM! I would defy anyone not to read this in a relatively few number of sittings, and get thoroughly caught up in this exciting mash up of legal and serial killer thriller. Edge of your seat stuff and a cracking twist at the end too. Highly recommended.

( I bought this copy of Thirteen)

He’s an honest man in a city of thieves. He has no patience for guff, foolishness, or malarkey. He is United States Vice President Joe Biden. And when his favorite railroad conductor dies in a suspicious accident leaving behind an ailing wife and a trail of clues Amtrak Joe unwittingly finds himself in the role of a private investigator. To crack the case (and uncover a drug-smuggling ring hiding in plain sight), he’ll team up with the only man he’s ever fully trusted the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. Together they’ll plumb the darkest corners of Wilmington, Delaware, where enemies lurk around every corner. And if they’re not careful, the blood on the tracks may be their own…

I mean this in the most positive and affectionate way, but this is book is UTTERLY BIZARRE but an absolute hoot too. Move over Batman and Robin, there’s a new crime fighting duo in town.

Yes, there is a whole whiff of implausibility about the investigation that the whip smart combo of Biden and Obama become wrapped up in, but that’s not really an issue. The absolute joy of the book is the ingenious hooking up of this completely original and left of field crime fighting partnership. The steady, obviously ageing, slightly resentful Biden, is a joy, with his penchant for ice cream, a quiet and sedentary life, his daily mission to not upset his wife, and his desperate need to build his bond/rekindle the bromance again with his former boss. Obama is this wonderfully sneaky, cool as a cucumber, cat burglar type figure, seeming to lead Biden into all sorts of trouble, but how far is Biden actually controlling this investigation, seeking the truth behind a friend’s mysterious death? I found it an utter joy to see Biden  go from mild mannered ex-politician to slightly unsteady avenging angel, and loved the kickabout humour, and at times sheer silliness of the whole affair. I’m sure American readers will pick up on references to the Obama/Biden administration that may have passed me by, but I loved the subtle digs at the unnamed Tweeter-In-Chief, and other satirical sideswipes. Entertaining, laugh out loud funny, and a genuinely enjoyable read with a partnership as great in fiction as they were in the White House. Oh for those days…

( I bought this copy of Hope Never Dies)

 

A young woman is found dead on a remote Icelandic beach. She came looking for safety, but instead she found a watery grave. A hasty police investigation determines her death as suicide . . .
When Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir of the Reykjavik police is forced into early retirement, she is told she can investigate one last cold case of her choice – and she knows which one.What she discovers is far darker than suicide . . . And no one is telling Hulda the whole story.When her own colleagues try to put the brakes on her investigation, Hulda has just days to discover the truth. A truth she will risk her own life to find.

So, now to a little deviation from the hugely successful Ari Thor series from Ragnar Jonasson, and The Darkness being the first outing for Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir. Featuring a slightly longer in the tooth police protagonist was a nice move on the author’s part, and Hulda was a nice combination of dogged and a tad neurotic, railing against the gender bias of her police department, her looming and unexpected departure from the police, and quite obviously a woman still deeply angered by her former marriage, and the emotional insecurity that a prospective new dalliance puts in her path. With all this going on, and the split narrative that Jonasson uses in conjunction with this, I did begin to wonder how much energy she would have left to investigate her cold case- the suspected suicide of a Russian migrant which is not all it appears. As instances from Hulda’s past rise to the surface, there did feel a little unbalance in the book, and I sometimes felt that the deliberately rushed investigation was a little too deliberately rushed to accommodate the deeper concentration on Hulda’s angst. However, when Hulda knuckles down to her work, sometimes in a wonderfully ham-fisted style, proved to be the more satisfying part of the book for me, and I was genuinely engaged with her investigation and the varying obstacles in her path.

In common with the ‘Shadow’ series by Arnaldur Indridason I also wondered about the order of publication as for reasons I cannot reveal here, I would have liked to read this one later on but hey ho. An interesting flawed protagonist, and Jonasson shows his usual knack for a good crime yarn.

(I bought this copy of The Darkness)

Opening with a crime of passion after a years-long love affair has soured, The Dead Girls soon plunges into an investigation of something even darker: Serafina Baladro and her sister run a successful brothel business in a small town, so successful that they begin to expand. But when business starts to falter, life in the brothel turns ugly, and slowly, girls start disappearing . . .

I loved this strange hybrid of fiction and reportage from the 1970s, taking as its inspiration the real life case of Mexican serial killing brothel owners Delfina and Maria de Jesus Gonzalez. Written with a coolly dispassionate tone, the various players in this increasingly bizarre story take their place in the sun, and the twisted activities of fictional brothel owners Serafina and Arcangela Baladro are slowly revealed. It is noted in the introduction that Ibargoengoitia was experimenting with the fictional form to try and represent the increasing rate of violence and crime in Mexico, and how he influenced other writers such as the great Roberto Bolano. I thought the non-judgemental, and emotionally removed tone of the book was incredibly effective, and the story was utterly fascinating too, bringing into play the full scope of human transgressions- corruption, jealousy, greed, obsession and murder. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Picador for the ARC)

Blaise should never have hung around in that charmless little provincial town. The job offer that attracted him the first place had failed to materialize. He should have got on the first train back to Paris, but Fate decided otherwise.

A chance encounter with a beautiful blonde in the town post-office and Blaise is hooked – he realizes he’ll do anything to stay by her side, and soon finds himself working for her husband, a funeral director. But the tension in this strange love triangle begins to mount, and eventually results in a highly unorthodox burial…

Another slice of bijou noir perfection in the excellent Pushkin Vertigo series. As usual I am curtailed by how much I can reveal due to the compact nature of the book, but rest assured, this wicked little tale of jealousy, lust and obsession is just a further demonstration of the singularly brilliant style of Dard. Reminding me a little of The Postman Always Rings Twice, mixed with the darkly psychological edge of Simenon’s standalones, Dard has constructed a taut and claustrophobic tale, and with the backdrop of being set around a funeral parlour, there is an additional little frisson of weirdness too. As with most of Dard’s books, his characters verge on the strongly dislikeable with the inevitable gullible ‘patsy’, the temptation of Eve, and dark passions at its core, and this is a little belter. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARC)

There’s Always Someone Watching… Leo Benedictus-Consent / James Lasdun- The Fall Guy

 

This book is an experiment.
We’re experimenting together.

You are part of the experiment, if you’ll agree to it.

Normally I don’t let my subjects choose to be subjects. If you know you’re being watched, you cease to be you.

But I want you to read this. I wrote it for you.

This magnetic book pulls you in its wake even as you resist its force. Sometimes you don’t want to know what’s next…

Just to make my reviewing equally difficult, here is another book,  that in common with the book jacket itself, I am going to tell you hardly anything about in terms of plot. I saw the author being interviewed by James Naughtie recently, and my interest was piqued by what I was liberally describing as a creepy ass psychological thriller to my bookselling colleagues….

I thought this was absolutely superb and a truly dark and deliciously twisted thriller, entwining us in the psyche of a stalker, and providing a commentary on the repercussions of his actions on just one of his many chosen targets, Frances.  Benedictus is completely without fear in his representation of this despicable individual and the measures he takes to inveigle himself more and more deeply into Frances’ life, and the danger this poses to both her associates, both personal and professional, and to Frances herself. I was mesmerised by the supremely cool and dispassionate first person narrative of the stalker, whose actions seem perfectly reasonable to his own consciousness, but grow increasingly unsettling and worrisome to us, as we pre-empt the effect his actions will have on Frances. Likewise, the growing unease and persecution of Frances, slowly gathers pace, again feeding into, and adding to the chilling nervous tension that Benedictus perfectly builds. I enjoyed his depiction of Frances, as such a normal, hard working, ambitious, and unencumbered by personal vanity type of woman, as this sense of her being such an ‘everywoman’ resonates much more strongly with a female reader, and making her plight all the more tangible, and ramping up the effect on us as a reader.

I am always held in the thrall of writing that has a tangible physical effect on me as a reader, and Consent did this admirably, as I felt my heartbeat quicken on several occasions, and a slight roiling of the belly at one particularly graphic moment, that discomfited even this normally strong stomached reader. I didn’t, however, object to the use of violence in this particular context, unlike say the gratuitous violence of American Psycho (which I do have a wee soft spot for), as to my mind it actually worked extremely well within plot, and allows the book to remain on the right side of the needlessly voyeuristic.  It merely elevated the fear quotient a little more, and gave the narrative a swift injection of kapow, before carrying us along to that unexpected, supremely creepy denouement…shudders…

I thought the pacing, use of language and increasingly uncomfortable feeling that this book produced in me was cleverly done, perhaps reflected by my reading this in pretty much one sitting, and putting down the book with a palpable sense of satisfaction, despite that truly dark and unsettling ending.

As it says on the cover, Read Me….

Highly recommended.

(I bought this copy of Consent, published by Faber Books)

=================================================

It is summer, 2012. Charlie, a wealthy banker with an uneasy conscience, invites his troubled cousin Matthew to visit him and his wife in their idyllic mountaintop house. As the days grow hotter, the friendship between the three begins to reveal its fault lines, and with the arrival of a fourth character, the household finds itself suddenly in the grip of uncontrollable passions. Who is the real victim here? Who is the perpetrator? And who, ultimately, is the fall guy?

A new author for me, and a great introduction to his work, as The Fall Guy, resonates with a feel of Patricia Highsmith, and kept the Raven hooked in its clutches…

As is natural with an intense character driven psychological thriller of this kind, the synopsis above is all I am going to give you in terms of plot reveal. Like me, I would urge you to read this largely in a vacuum of unknowing, as the tension both in personal relationships, and the air of deceit and disloyalty, gradually builds and builds. With such a finite group of characters, I felt like I was almost observing a stage play, and for some reason I had an echo of Albee’s brilliant  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf tickling in the back of mind throughout. I thought the relationship between the three main characters and the dips, ecstasies and growing dislike and distrust were beautifully played out, against the backdrop of a sultry heat that seemed to add to the tension of the piece even more. There is an increasingly poisonous relationship building between married couple Charlie and Chloe and cousin Matthew, and be warned your sympathies will be toyed with, and your allegiances shifted along the way…

Lasdun shows his perfect control of pace, as slight reveals and little moments of trickery, lulling us into the feeling that we know exactly what’s going on, and how this will all play out. Wrong tiddly wrong wrong. I was sucker punched by the ending, and was just so, so pleased that it caught me completely off guard. Beautifully paced, a brilliant escalation of tension, and great characterisation. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Vintage for the ARC)

 

#BlogTour- Simon Lelic- The House- Extract

Welcome to the latest stop on the blog tour marking the release of a terrifyingly tense new psychological thriller- The House– from Simon Lelic.

Tantalise your crime tastebuds with this exclusive extract…

Londoners Jack and Syd moved into the house a year ago. It seemed like their dream home: tons of space, the perfect location, and a friendly owner who wanted a young couple to have it.
So when they made a grisly discovery in the attic, Jack and Syd chose to ignore it. That was a mistake.
Because someone has just been murdered outside their back door…

When my hand slips from the knife, my first thought is that using it wasn’t as difficult as I assumed it would be. I feel elated, initially, until I notice the blood. It flows quickly, determinedly. It stains my sweatshirt, my trousers, even the floor, and that’s when my elation turns to fear. It’s gone wrong, I realize. This thing I’ve planned for so carefully: it has all gone drastically, horribly wrong.

Jack

The police were outside again last night. I watched them in the alleyway from the spare- bedroom window. They couldn’t have seen me. I’m fairly sure they couldn’t have seen me. And anyway, so what if they had? It’s not like I was doing anything wrong. It’s perfectly natural, isn’t it? Like the way motorists slow down to get a view of an accident. Probably the police would have assumed it odd if I hadn’t been watching. I mean, I couldn’t tell from where I was standing, but I bet the rest of our neighbours were all watching too. All with their lights off. All cloaked discreetly by their curtains. What I didn’t like was the impression I had that everyone out there was also looking discreetly at me. That the police being out there, at that time of night, was all just a show. A reminder.

God, this is hard. Harder than I thought it would be. It’s knowing where to begin as much as anything. I’m not Syd. I know what she thinks, what conclusions she’s drawn already, but I don’t process things the way she does. If she had gone first, I don’t know where we would have ended up, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have had a clue about where to go next.

I guess for me the only logical place to start is the day we first saw the house. This was back in April. It’s September now. The fourteenth. At 3.17 in the morning, to be precise. Syd’s in bed, but I couldn’t sleep even if I wanted to. I doubt she’s sleeping either, to be honest. I don’t think she’s slept properly in weeks. Me, I drop off easily enough. Every night I don’t think I’m going to, but it’s exhaustion, I suppose, the weight of worry. Tonight, though, our decision made, I just wanted to get on with it.

There’s a lot to get through and not a lot of time.

The open day, then. I suppose it has to be, though there’s very little about the day itself that was unusual. I recall how busy it was; how many people, when the time came, narrow- shouldered their way through the front door. Because there was a queue, you see. Not a line, but one of those messy, I- was- here- first scrums you see at bus stops. We’d arrived forty minutes early and already there were half a dozen couples ahead of us. But that wasn’t uncommon. Not for a house viewing in London. The strange thing was that it wasn’t just the house that was up for sale. Whoever bought it would also be buying everything the house contained. And once Syd and I had got inside, we saw that the entire place was stuffed with junk. Actual dragged- home- from- the- skip junk. Books, too, and clothes, coats, pictures on every square inch of wall, boxes stacked heedless of shape or size, plus furniture big and small in every crevice. It was like a live- in, life- and- death version of Jenga.

Oh, and birds. Clearly the current owner was into dead stuff. Taxidermy: doing it, hoarding it, I couldn’t tell. There was a hawk, a seagull, even a pigeon amid the scattered flock. Syd must have noticed them, too. I remember being surprised she didn’t turn around the moment she did and walk straight out.

The story the estate agent gave us was that the owner had met a woman on the Internet. She lived in Australia, apparently, and he’d dropped everything to run off and be with her. Just like that. He’d been approaching retirement age anyway, but even so he chucked in his job, abandoned his friends and signed over his house, dead pets and all, to the estate agent to sell as one bumper package. Which made a good sales pitch, I suppose, and accounted for the state of the place, but personally, right from the off, I just couldn’t see it. I mean, what sort of person would do that? And, setting the storybook explanation aside for a moment, why?

So yes, that was odd, and for me more than a bit off- putting. Maybe it wouldn’t have bothered me so much if I’d fallen for the house itself. I mean, the layout wasn’t a problem and there was more than enough space (lounge, kitchen, separate dining room, plus one, two, three bedrooms, not including the unconverted attic). The building, though, it was creepy. There’s no other word to describe it. The garden was overgrown and the paintwork about as attractive as a skin complaint. The house stood alone (‘detached’, marvelled the brochure) as though it had been shunned. There was a row of terraced houses on one side, huddled together as though for safety, and a block of flats with its back turned on the other. It looked, and felt, somehow ostracised.

So I suppose all I’m saying is I didn’t like the place. All that junk, the building itself: it just felt wrong. The problem I had was that Syd was clearly smitten. I knew she would be. She knew she would be: it was Syd who’d found the house on the Internet and who’d insisted we arrive at least half an hour early.

So- oo,’ I remember her saying to me, once we’d finally finished looking around. ‘What do you think?’

We were in the lounge, beside the fireplace. I remember this older guy kept staring at me from across the room. I was conspicuous in trainers and a T- shirt, whereas all the other blokes my age wore a collar, pressed jeans and polished brogues. They were City types, basically, or, like the man who kept staring, fathers of spoiled little rich kids. And probably that was the other thing that was stopping me sharing Syd’s enthusiasm. It had taken Syd and me more than two years to scrimp enough for a deposit, whereas most of the couples we were up against had likely earned theirs from a single bonus. So on that playing field, with London rules, how could the two of us be expected to compete?

I think it’s like The Hunger Games,’ I answered uncomfortably. What I meant was that bit in the film before the action starts, where the contestants are drifting around, pretending to be friends, to be allies of whatever, when really they’re just itching to kill the crap out of one another.

Syd looked at me blankly. I knew for a fact she’d seen the movie at the cinema, but her memory about stuff like that isn’t the greatest. She smoked a lot when she was younger and I’m not talking Marlboro Lights. She did a lot of drugs, actually. I’m not saying I’ve never dabbled myself, but there’re certain people they affect more than others. Syd had a difficult upbringing. Horrendous, actually, so bad that she’s still never told me the whole story. And when, later on, she had her troubles, the drugs I reckon played a part. She says they didn’t. She says all the damage had already been done. But weed, coke, pills, what have you: that stuff definitely leaves a mark.

Just . . . all these people,’ I explained. ‘I mean, I knew there’d be other interest, but nothing like this.’

Syd slipped her hands around my waist. ‘Forget about everyone else for a moment. What do you think about the house ?’

I paused for half a second too long. ‘I like it,’ I said at last. ‘I do.’

But?’

But . . . nothing. It’s just . . . it’s kind of dark, that’s all.’

I think Syd assumed I was merely playing my role, in house- hunting as well as in life. Syd dishes out her affection as though she’s sharing wine gums, whereas I trail stoically beside her, kicking tyres and knuckle- tapping walls. It’s rare that I know what I’m wary about exactly (what’s actually supposed to happen when you kick a tyre, other than the reverberation in your toes?), but it’s a part I’ve somehow settled into. It’s what men do, I’ve learned from somewhere. My father, probably, who could suck the joy out of riding on a rollercoaster. Plus, as I say, Syd definitely needs a counterweight. It’s why we’re so good together. She stops me gazing at my feet so much; I stop her floating off into the sky.

That’s just the weather,’ Syd countered. ‘All these people. Plus, I mean, have you seen all of this stuff?’

I was half expecting her then to mention those birds. She didn’t.

There’s an attic, too,’ I said. ‘If the rest of the place is like this, what must it be like up there?’

Syd glanced towards the ceiling. I joined her, worrying in that moment whether the whole building was liable to suddenly cave in.

Well,’ said Syd, ‘we’ll just have to hire a van or something. A man. Assuming we can still afford it.’

She smiled then and tucked a stray strand of hair behind a perfectly formed ear. In the house in which I grew up there was this blossom tree outside my bedroom window. Cherry, apple, I’ve no idea. It flowered pink, but never actually bore any fruit. The leaves, though, were this deep, rosewood brown, which came aglow when caught by the light. Syd’s hair, which she never dyes, is exactly the same colour.

Jack? I’m not going to make you live somewhere you don’t want to. If you really don’t like it, then let’s just leave.’

It wasn’t a guilt trip. Syd genuinely meant what she’d said. So maybe I should have said something. Maybe I could have put an end to it all then and there.

We did leave . . . but in the end we put in an offer as well. Just for the hell of it. And, I’ll admit, because Syd was clearly head over heels and I wanted her to be happy. Besides, what harm could it do?

I didn’t love the place, but I didn’t hate it exactly, and anyway we couldn’t afford it. The mortgage we had agreed wouldn’t even get us to the asking price and the details stipulated offers over. So there was no way we’d get it, not given the level of interest. All those people, with all their money . . .

I felt safe because we shouldn’t have had a chance…


Simon Lelic is the author of The House, Rupture (winner of a Betty Trask Award and shortlisted for the John Creasy New Blood Dagger), The Facility and The Child Who (longlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger and CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger 2012).

The House is his first psychological thriller, inspired by a love of Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King.

Simon is married, with three young children, and lives in Brighton, England. Other than his family, reading is Simon’s biggest passion. He also holds a black belt in karate, in which he trains daily.

You can follow him on Twitter @Simon_Lelic.

The House is available to buy here

 

#BlogTour- Simon Booker- Kill Me Twice- Extract

Welcome to the latest stop on the blog tour marking the release of Kill Me Twice, a compelling and nerve-shredding psychological thriller from Simon Booker, and a follow up to his debut Without Trace which introduced us to feisty investigative journalist Morgan Vine.

Read on for a tantalising extract…

Karl Savage is dead.
He must be. His ex, Anjelica, is in prison for murdering him in an arson attack. Multiple forensic experts testified to finding his charred remains.
So when Anjelica begs investigative journalist Morgan Vine to prove her innocence, it seems an impossible task. It doesn’t matter that Karl was abusive. That Anjelica has a baby to care for. That she’s petrified of fire. The whole world knows Karl is dead.
Then he turns up outside Morgan’s window . . .

Her solicitor said the evidence against her was purely circumstantial. No jury would convict.

But here she is. And here she’ll stay, unless someone champions her cause.

They said I’d have done anything to stop Karl taking my baby, which was true.’ Angelica checks herself, swallowing. ‘But not that. Not setting fire to his flat…’ She swallows again, eyes brimming with tears.

Morgan lets Anjelica sob. She scans the woman’s bruises, the cuts on her cheek. She doesn’t need to ask how they got there. Weeks of hostile press coverage cemented the woman’s reputation as a callous killer. A heartless mother.

Mum murdered lover while sick baby cried.

Devil woman.

Time’s up.’

The overweight prison officer is in the doorway, hands on her hips.

Morgan checks her watch.

Still got twenty minutes.’

My shift’s over. There’s no one to supervise.’

Anjelica looks panic-stricken.

We don’t need anyone to supervise.’

The officer rolls her eyes.

Two minutes, make ‘em count.’

She steps outside. Anjelica starts to babble, running out of time.

The good Lord knows I’m telling the truth but he’s testing me every day. I need you to believe me. There’s no CCTV of me driving across London, the car doesn’t show up on the number plate recognition thing – the ANPR…’

She knows all the jargon. But still Morgan isn’t convinced.

You could have taken a friend’s car. Or a night bus. Or a minicab.

I need to review everything,’ she says. Her ribs are aching.

Anjelica fixes her with a glare.

Easy to write a book, make money,’ she says. ‘Harder to help people.’

Morgan forces half a smile. The woman is short on charm but has a point.

I’ll give you a decision as soon as I can.’

She gets to her feet. Anjelica follows suit, fear in her eyes, panic in her voice.

I can’t lose my baby. I can’t be in here. Not for something I didn’t do.’ She pauses, her voice falling to a whisper. ‘God forgive me for saying this, but if you don’t help me I’ll kill myself.’

The threat makes Morgan bristle with anger. The words harden her heart.

You know I’ll have to report what you just said.’

A steely stare.

Just being honest.’

The officer is back, tapping her watch, lips pursed.

I’ll be in touch,’ Morgan says. But Anjelica isn’t finished.

I read your book. It says you have a daughter.’

Yes.’

The woman stares Morgan in the eye.

Think about me tonight, when you’re trying to get to sleep. Picture me here. Imagine I’m your daughter.’

I’ll do what I can. I promise.’

Morgan follows the officer onto the landing. She turns. Anjelica is watching, twisting the tissue in her hands, a picture of anguish. Behind her head is a poster.

Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

——————————————————————————-

Simon Booker is an author and screenwriter who has written prime time TV drama for BBC1, ITV and US TV. His UK credits include The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Holby City and The Mrs Bradley Mysteries. He has written seven plays for BBC Radio 4, worked extensively as a producer in television and radio, and as a journalist. Booker lives in London and Deal.

His partner is fellow crime writer MJ McGrath. They often discuss murder methods over breakfast.

Follow the author on Twitter @simonbooker 

Kill Me Twice is available to buy here

Blog Tour- Ausma Zehanat Khan- The Unquiet Dead

Scarborough Bluffs, Toronto: the body of Christopher Drayton is found at the foot of the cliffs. Muslim Detective Esa Khattak, head of the Community Policing Unit, and his partner Rachel Getty are called in to investigate. As the secrets of Drayton’s role in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide of Bosnian Muslims surface, the harrowing significance of his death makes it difficult to remain objective. In a community haunted by the atrocities of war, anyone could be a suspect. And when the victim is a man with so many deaths to his name, could it be that justice has at long last been served?

Once again with The Unquiet Dead I have had the privilege of reading a book that defies any simplistic recognition of it being a ‘crime thriller’. Instead what we experience as readers is a searing testimony to the futility and brutality of war, in this instance the violent break up of the former Yugoslavia, and a sensitive and heartfelt portrayal of survivor rage, and guilt. All this is cocooned within the more linear investigation of a suspicious death; a death that reaches back into the turbulent past, but with severe ramifications for those in the present.

I am rarely emotionally moved by a book to the degree that I need to sometimes halt and take a breath, and in common with this book, those have been occasioned by novels depicting war and its consequences. Given the emotional reach of this book in terms of its depiction of the genocide and rape that occurred in this conflict, Khan’s prose and imagery of war is beautifully controlled throughout. It is written with a clarity and grace of simplicity that every scene of man’s unconscionable violence towards others hammers straight into the heart of the reader. Taking into account the author’s depth of research, this feeling of discomfort is amplified by the knowledge that these scenes are so firmly grounded in truth. These dreadful events happened, thousands died, and many more live with the physical and mental scarring of having witnessed such tragedy. Alternating between the past and present, the reader remains fully engaged with both timelines throughout, slowly piecing together the incontrovertible truth of  history continually reverberating in the present, as all the protagonists experience to some extent. Khan uses this motif not only in those affected by the war, but also other characters who have experienced some form of emotional, marital or familial upset too, so the level of human interest is palpable and certain situations recognisable to the reader too. It’s cleverly done, and merely strengthens the many levels of human relationships and experiences that permeate throughout the book.

For reasons that will be become absolutely clear when you read this book for yourselves, I am loath to delve too deeply in this review on some of the characters in this book for fear of giving too much away. Suffice to say, several of them exhibit the best and worst characteristics of the human condition, from quiet dignity to unbelievable greed and hatred. Instead, I would draw your attention to the unique combination of detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty who prove themselves so defined by their differences, but so symbiotic as an investigative team. There’s a wonderful quote from Getty on her taciturn and reserved boss, Khattak, in which she says, “He wasn’t a man who dealt in ultimate truths as she did, he traversed the underground cities of doubt and discrepancy where human frailty revealed itself in layer upon layer of incongruity.” Khattak remains almost unknowable throughout, being both sensitive and prone to introspection, but retaining an aura of quiet determination, despite certain revelations and his involvement in the case at a more personal level. Equally, Getty has an intriguing back story in terms of her family background which unfolds slowly, giving her some personal revelations of her own. She also proves an excellent foil to Khattak with her propensity to cut straight to the chase, and ask the difficult questions at the right time, without fear or favour. I liked both these characters immensely, and the strength of their partnership and very individual personalities that lie at the core of the book.

With a slow reveal of historic crimes, emotional wounds and the desire for monetary gain, revenge or closure, this books burns with a unique intensity, that is quite difficult to put into words. As a meditation on war and its aftermath it’s powerful and disturbing, and as a crime thriller on a conventional level it transcends the genre in terms of its emotional reach and characterisation. A difficult, yet thoroughly rewarding read, that will linger in my mind for some time to come. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to No Exit Press for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

Vive La France!(2) Pierre Lemaitre- Three Days And A Life/ Herve Le Corre- After The War/ Antonin Varenne- Retribution Road

En l’honneur de la fête nationale, voici une sélection des thrillers Français qui ont impressionné, déplacé et ravi le Corbeau dans la même mesure.  Ou en d’autres termes, un billet de blog je pourrais simplement étiqueter, voici trois de mes livres préférés de l’année, qui ne risquent pas d’être dépassé n’importe quand bientôt. Hélas, ma collègue française serait un mauvais service à ces critiques, pardonnez-vous à l’anglais! 

Bonne lecture à tous et à toutes!*

IMG_20180712_212451Antoine is twelve years old. His parents are divorced and he lives with his mother in Beauval, a small, backwater town surrounded by forests, where everyone knows everyone’s business, and nothing much ever happens. But in the last days of 1999, a series of events unfolds, culminating in the shocking vanishing without trace of a young child. The adults of the town are at a loss to explain the disappearance, but for Antoine, it all begins with the violent death of his neighbour’s dog. From that one brutal act, his fate and the fate of his neighbour’s six year old son are bound forever. In the years following Rémi’s disappearance, Antoine wrestles with the role his actions played. As a seemingly inescapable net begins to tighten, breaking free from the suffocating environs of Beauval becomes a gnawing obsession. But how far does he have to run, and how long will it take before his past catches up with him again?

Being a confirmed admirer of Pierre Lemaitre’s books to date, I rather enjoyed the subtle shift of style and location that Three Days And A Life reveals. Turning his attention away from the big city to the rural backwater of Beauval, Lemaitre constructs a slower and more introspective novel than we have come to expect from him, but equally produces a more heightened, and psychologically deft portrayal of human frailty and morality…

Time after time, I become disappointed, and as you know more than a little incensed, by the unnatural narrative voice given to young protagonists. Consequently I avoid reading many books that have a pre-sixteen narrator or central character. With Antoine, the dislikeable little person that he is, Lemaitre captures beautifully his perception of the world, and his reactions to the consequences of his severe misdemeanour. Antoine is realistically imbued with a child’s thought processes, as to how to conceal and avoid punishment of his crime, and I enjoyed the authenticity of his under-developed sense of morality, which he seems to carry quite happily into his adult years too. I thought the portrayal of his mother was also excellent, and how Antoine’s childish perception of her as just his mother actually spoke volumes to the reader about her true emotional state. Equally, I loved the depiction of parochial small town jealousies, and ill-feeling, that reminded me of the observational prowess, and skewed morality that is so familiar in the works of the late Pascal Garnier. Lemaitre reveals a boiling pot of tension and envy that perfectly fits with the feel of a small community under pressure, and the distrust of their neighbours.

The latter stages of the book are hewed from Antoine’s re-visitation of childhood events from an adult perspective, and Lemaitre’s control of his narrative once again comes to the fore. With Antoine being as utterly self-absorbed as he was as a child, but perhaps with a greater perception of the fall out for others from his actions, and indeed, closer to home, there is another twist in store for the reader, and there was me beginning to worry that the king of the psychological twist would disappoint! Once again, a precise and engaging translation from Frank Wynne allows us to fully appreciate this tawdry and morally ambiguous tale of childhood mistakes, and Lemaitre has again demonstrated his flexibility and natural flair as a storyteller. Three Days And A Life is entertaining, thought-provoking, and as always highly recommended.

(With thanks to MacLehose for the ARC)

 

IMG_20180712_2124121950’s Bordeaux. Even now, the Second World War is never far from people’s memories, particularly in a city where the scars of collaboration and resistance are more keenly felt than ever. But another war has already begun. A war without a name, far away across the sea, in Algeria, where young men are sent to fight in a brutal conflict. Daniel knows what awaits him. He’s heard stories. Patrols, ambushes, reprisals, massacres, mutilations, all beneath a burning north African sun. He has just a month left before he leaves but, haunted by the loss of his parents and sister in the atrocities of the last war, Daniel questions why he is even going to fight in the first place. Meanwhile, past crimes are returning to haunt Albert Darlac, the godfather of Bordeaux: corrupt police chief, fascist sympathiser and one-time collaborator. Before long, a series of explosive events will set off a spiral of violence that will bring the horrific legacy of wars past and present to the streets of Bordeaux…

During the reading of After The War, I posted on social media that “This is astonishing. I have been moved, perplexed, disturbed, and enthralled in equal measure” and to be honest, in the wake of finishing it, I could simply leave it at that. Comprising of past and present timelines, the dual locations of the seedy underbelly of 1950’s Bordeaux, and the contentious French conflict in Algeria, and with one police protagonist that is evil incarnate,  Herve Le Corre has produced a truly uncompromising, multi-layered masterpiece…

In common with many crime thrillers this is a story driven by, and built on vengeance, as Daniel, a young man, on the cusp of war,  becomes aware of his estranged father returning to Bordeaux to seek revenge on the man who committed the ultimate betrayal during WWII. Through the powerful narrative of Daniel’s experience fighting in Algeria, juxtaposed with Jean, his father’s, meticulous plan to heap as much misery and wrath on Albert Darlac, an immoral, violent and thoroughly odious police detective, Le Corre raises the emotional intensity, and therefore the reader’s engagement with some considerable skill. His characterisation is absolutely superb, with all three male protagonist’s exposing to the reader the very best and worst of human nature, and digging deep into the notion of how we can be morally compelled to do bad things for good reasons. In the character of Darlac, we see the ultimate realisation of the bete noire, with a man whose actions come from the darkest recesses of immorality, and whose revenge on those around him is driven by evil of the highest order. I was equally repulsed and fascinated by him throughout, and will from this day forward acquire the mantle of one of the darkest characters ever to grace the pages of crime fiction.

Le Corre’s depiction of Daniel experiencing the sheer intensity and dubious morality of men’s actions in war was my personal highlight of the book. As a regular reader of contemporary literary  war fiction, I thought that the author’s realisation and visualisation of the terrain itself was perfect in every detail, and the mundanity of a soldier’s life, interrupted with these big, bold and terrifying incidences of combat was hugely affecting on the reader. Le Corre never turns his full gaze away from this harshest of moral issues as to how the men in Daniel’s platoon react so viscerally to attack, and how they vent this rage on the enemy, contravening the rules of war. The scenes he presents are uncompromising, and yes, uncomfortable at times, but so real and necessary to underscore Daniel’s gradual realisation of the futility of that for which he fights, and in which he loses comrades. It was breath-taking in its depiction.

After The War is a behemoth of a thriller, that challenges and perplexes the reader, testing our notions of morality and empathy, and through the adept translation of Sam Taylor, a thoroughly rewarding, if emotionally troubling read. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to MacLehose for the ARC)

 

And last, but by no means least, and quite possibly my book of the year…

IMG_20180712_211630Burma, 1852. Arthur Bowman, a sergeant in the East India Company, is sent on a secret mission during the Second Anglo-Burmese War. But the expedition is foiled – his men are captured and tortured. Throughout their ordeal, a single word becomes Bowman’s mantra, a word that will stiffen their powers of endurance in the face of unimaginable suffering: “Survival”. But for all that, only a handful escape with their lives. Some years later in London, battling his ghosts through a haze of alcohol and opium, Bowman discovers a mutilated corpse in a sewer. The victim appears to have been subjected to the same torments as Bowman endured in the Burmese jungle. And the word “Survival” has been daubed in blood by the body’s side. Persuaded that the culprit is one of the men who shared his captivity, Bowman resolves to hunt him down…

I have tried and failed to write a coherent review of Retribution Road, with several attempts, as it’s impossible to do justice as an amateur reviewer to the sheer magnificence of this novel. Adopting the form of an allegoric odyssey, Antonin Varenne has produced a sprawling, magisterial novel that defies comparison to anything I have read before…

Structured as three interlinking parts, and traversing more than 700 pages, I could feel the influence of a quest serving as a plot device in mythology and fiction, with a difficult journey towards a goal, in the character of Arthur Bowman who inhabits, and influences, each stage of the novel. As he journeys from his military service in Burma, then on to Victorian London, and finally to the swathes of  unconquered territory of America in the grip of the gold rush, each section of the book is wonderfully visual, with Varenne depicting each landscape with pinpoint precision. In his use of location the ordinary is made extraordinary, and the reader’s sense of us being such a small inconsequential part of the natural world is continually brought to bear. Bowman is beautifully cast as both avenging angel and pioneer, weighted down by the brutal events in his personal history, and hence a man of changeable moods and impulses that wax and wane during the course of his mission to track down a killer.

The prose throughout is as tender and sensitive, as it is violent and vengeful, and our emotions and feelings are challenged and manipulated throughout, as Bowman navigates through both testing terrain, and human interaction. The book also poses some interesting theories on  morality and immorality, particularly as a consequence of Bowman’s actions, and those of the man he so ardently and doggedly pursues, at intense personal cost. I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say that this is a true magnum opus, and held me utterly in its power along the long road to redemption and justice. It was just a completely wonderful emotional rollercoaster,  suffused with historical detail, and a totally authentic evocation of place. It is a hugely complex and challenging novel, addressing themes of war, religion, revenge, human connection and emotional strife. As ever, Sam Taylor provides a perfect translation, that subtly captures the nuances of Varenne’s intensity of emotion.  I cannot praise Retribution Road enough, and would highly recommend it for fiction and crime fiction readers alike. C‘est vraiment magnifique!  

(With thanks to MacLehose for the ARC)

 

*In honour of Bastille Day, here are a selection of French thrillers that have awed, moved and delighted the Raven in equal measure.  Or in other words, a blog post I could simply label, here are three of my favourite books of the year, that are unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. Alas my schoolgirl French would be a disservice to these reviews so forgive the English!  Happy reading!

#BlogTour- Sarah Stovell- Exquisite

Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name. Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend. When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops … Or does it?

With marked similarity to the books of Barbara Vine and Minette Walters, Exquisite by Sarah Stovell is a discomforting and taut tale of sexual obsession and damaged personalities that will keep you gripped…

Focussing on an initially altruistic friendship between an established author, Bo Luxton, and her young protegee and fledgling writer, Alice Dark, Stovell constructs an increasingly menacing story, built on unreliable narrators and alternating points of view. The structure of the book is also underpinned by a third narration set within the confines of a women’s prison in Yorkshire, automatically causing us to cast aspersions on which of our female protagonists, if either, are incarcerated within. These alternate narratives work beautifully in terms of controlling the suspense, and each is perfectly weighted, to disabuse the reader of flicking between one and the other, holding the interest throughout. Stovell uses these split narratives to great effect, and the unreliable narration works its magic to unsettle, and cause conflict in our own perceptions of these two women. Personally, I didn’t like either of them hugely from the outset, which perhaps is a credit to Stovell’s depiction of both, and I did question the intensity of their relationship which seemed at odds, and slightly unbelievable in light of what we knew of their lives. However, my sympathy was aroused for one character towards the close of the book, particularly with the exceedingly dark , though slightly obvious occurrence on the last page. I also found the presence of Bo’s husband Gus unsatisfying and increasingly superfluous, but as the story builds around Bo and Alice, this was I suppose the author’s intention.

Aside from this, the prose itself is darkly engaging, with interludes of beautifully lyrical descriptions of the Lake District itself, set against the intensity of the burgeoning tension, and increasingly dangerous nature of the relationship between Bo and Alice. Each woman’s point of view weaves seamlessly in and out of the other, leading the reader to question constantly, and form their own opinions of the veracity of each. Trying not to give anything away here, which is difficult, there is also an exploration of Bo and Alice’s formative years, and how the nature of their childhood familial relationships have impacted on them, and formed their personalities. Increasingly this brings to the fore the age old question of nature vs nurture, and with Bo’s own identity as a mother herself, it is interesting to see the ramifications of her previous life experience in her own relationship with her husband and children.

All in all, Exquisite is a largely satisfying psychological thriller with the influence of others in the genre looming large, but taking on an identity of its own. It is a disturbing tale of lies, jealousy and obsession, which will more than sate the reader of the current domestic noir crop, but definitely at the darker end of the spectrum. Recommended.

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: