Hanna Jameson- The Last

Historian Jon Keller is on a trip to Switzerland when the world ends. As the lights go out on civilisation, he wishes he had a way of knowing whether his wife, Nadia, and their two daughters are still alive. More than anything, Jon wishes he hadn’t ignored Nadia’s last message. Twenty people remain in Jon’s hotel. Far from the nearest city and walled in by towering trees, they wait, they survive. Then one day, the body of a young girl is found. It’s clear she has been murdered. Which means that someone in the hotel is a killer. As paranoia descends, Jon decides to investigate. But how far is he willing to go in pursuit of justice? And what kind of justice can he hope for, when society as he knows it no longer exists?

With a jacket quote from Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven, and my general affection for dystopian and post apocalyptic themes, The Last appealed from the outset, but provided a curious, though none the less rewarding reading experience…

Focussing on the disparate guests at a hotel in Switzerland, suddenly cast adrift into a world of confusion and fear. It’s funny that for the most part I really didn’t perceive this book as a crime thriller, set as it is in the wake of a stream of nuclear events across the world. Although there is a crime, the murder of a young girl, within the narrative, at times it felt almost superfluous, to the clear, defined thrust of the book, examining how a group of relative strangers can co-exist and survive when isolated from the world. I must confess that I could have happily read this book without this facet of the story, and much more interesting was the way that these strangers then had to try and formulate themselves into one cohesive social group, and the fractures and difficulties this clearly brought to the surface. In much the same way as say, The Walking Dead, becomes really much more focussed on the relationships between, and development of individuals, so The Last formed a similar impression, with how Jameson manipulates her characters in this strange and fearful world.

By choosing the hotel as the setting for the book, Jameson immediately had great scope for confining a wide ranging group of people in one space, all living, working or temporarily residing there for numerous different reasons. Also this is a perfect organic setting for throwing together not only men, women and children, but people with vastly differing lifestyles, opinions, beliefs, nationalities and personal characteristics, and Jameson quite rightly milks this to the nth degree. What this then produces is a smorgasbord of people who by their very characteristics should not be able to co-exist, but as their individual survival depends on this have to learn how to, and the ramifications for those who don’t. Consequently, there is conflict, violence, moments of personal disclosure, self destruction, and shifting notions of justice and morality, that really is the bedrock of the book, and which holds the reader’s attention throughout. I thought the scope of characters, and their behaviour under pressure was excellent throughout, and the very real human frailties and doubt that haunt even the strongest characters was always measured and truthful. As some characters find inner strength, previously not known to them, to cope and survive, Jameson never shies away from those that fail to rally, but balances her other character’s responses from those quick to judge, and those that harbour similar emotional fears. Jameson has a complete balance in her male and female characters, exposing their strengths and weaknesses equally and how their lives previous to this devastating event, goes a long way in forming their responses to it and to those around them. There’s also a dark playfulness about the less attractive features she attributes to some, and the irritation that others can arouse in the reader, which are perfectly valid when anyone is thrust into a situation with strangers.

For Jameson’s compelling examination of the instinct for survival, and how it shapes human character, I would wholly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys dystopian fiction. Using a personal journal with shifting timelines to construct the narrative, Jameson wends a thought-provoking and highly satisfying tale examining morality, cooperation, and the will to survive. Recommended.

(With thanks to Penguin Books for the ARC)

Laurent Gaude- Hell’s Gate

When his son is killed by gangsters’ crossfire on his way to school, Neapolitan taxi driver Matteo is consumed by despair.
But just when he feels life has lost all meaning, he encounters a man who claims the living can find ways into the afterlife. And legend says that there’s an entrance to the underworld beneath Naples. What if Matteo had a chance of bringing Pippo back from the dead?

Very, very, rarely does a book literally haunt my dreams in the way that the perfectly executed Hell’s Gate did, and as a mark of its intensely powerful writing it drifts back into my thoughts. Despite only running to less than two hundred pages, this book contains more philosophical examination of the human condition, and important questions and observations on the nature of faith, redemption and the life beyond,  that I really did experience a multitude of emotions reading this. What could simply have been a straightforward tale of revenge and loss reveals itself to be so much more…

Although I’m probably the most irreligious person I know, I was genuinely moved, terrified and in awe of Gaude’s portrayal of the afterlife, and the sheer intensity of the love that Matteo exhibits in reconnecting with his son, despite the huge mental and physical cost to himself. Gaude’s depiction of Hell, and the souls that dwell within it, conjures up images worthy of Hieronymus Bosch and Dante, and the writing of these scenes in particular is utterly chilling. Gaude possesses an innate skill in making us believe that we are walking in Matteo’s shadow as he navigates the underworld, such is the visual power of the horrific images and depiction of sounds that accompany his torturous journey to reclaim his son. This unrelenting presentation of human misery and suffering is powerful in the extreme, and gives the reader more than one  pause for thought.

The characterisation of the damaged individuals who become aligned with Matteo in his hellish mission, is suffused with pathos. The individual travails of their lives gives Gaude ample room to provide comment on sexuality, poverty, exploitation and the insidious power of the Catholic church, all of which he does with a cool eye and sense of detachment which makes these individual’s  suffering all the more poignant and resonant. This is a masterclass in characterisation where Gaude shifts the focus on each character subtly and fluidly to really get under the reader’s skin, and worm their way into our consciousness so they truly stay with us.

There is simply no way that this book can be usurped from my eventual favourite reads of the year, even at this early stage, as I was profoundly affected by the power of Gaude’s writing. Mesmerising, cerebral writing that I cannot praise enough. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Gallic Books for the ARC)

 

 

 

 

 

 

#BlogTour- Su Bristow- Sealskin

sealskinWhat happens when magic collides with reality? Donald is a young fisherman, eking out a lonely living on the west coast of Scotland. One night he witnesses something miraculous and makes a terrible mistake. His action changes lives – not only his own, but those of his family and the entire tightly knit community in which they live. Can he ever atone for the wrong he has done, and can love grow when its foundation is violence?

Prepare to be completely entranced by Sealskin, a mystical and emotive novel by debut author, Su Bristow. Set in a small fishing community on the west coast of Scotland, Bristow weaves a magical tale tinged with sadness, regret and violence drawing on the traditional folkloric stories of shape-changing Selkies, and their mesmeric effect on the hapless men that encounter them. One such man is Donald Macfarlane, a formerly quiet and naïve individual, who experiences a phenomenal change of character to forcibly abduct a young Selkie woman, and integrate her into his family and community. What transpires is a story, that in its seeming simplicity, explores many threads of human nature, and the real meaning of community, family and love…

I was instantly held in the swirling, mystical air of this story, and quickly developed an instant feeling of empathy or strong dislike for the characters contained within it. The way that Bristow explores the changes that Mairhi’s arrival in this close knit community, and on those who dwell within it, is a constant source of enjoyment throughout the book. Mairhi’s influence on a whole array of individuals, for better or worse, exposes some real schisms in the community, and behaviour that was previously overlooked or accepted comes to be exposed as truly the opposite. There is a real growing in strength in some of the female characters in particular, and by the same token, a noticeable reigning in of the arrogant and violent behaviour of some of the male residents. The way Bristow leaves her without verbal communication allows us to view her as a human prism through which other’s behaviour is seen and judged, and although not wholly childlike she does have this aura about her. The changes she brings to Donald’s character in particular is striking, exposing a man formerly crippled by insecurity in a community where masculinity is prized, who grows in stature and confidence as he builds a life with her.  In the day to day lives of the village’s inhabitants, Bristow carefully navigates the realm of the real and the spiritual, drawing in the themes of the tough existence of the fishermen, the influence of religion in the community, and the adherence to the old ways of natural cures and respect for the traditional. This is very strong in Donald’s mother, Bridie, who practices, and is regularly called on for, her craft in traditional cures,  and the community as a whole exposes division and suspicion roughly drawn along the lines of those who subscribe to the retaining of tradition and those that embrace the folkloric. Hence, the arrival of Mairhi, is cause for further suspicion, moments of violence, and an eventful and emotional journey to some degree of acceptance for more than one character along the way.

Bristow’s portrayal of the bleak and wild coastal landscape is never less than perfect, reflecting the extremes of weather and seasonal changes that impact on this small community and shape their lives. The changeable spirit of the ocean that punishes or provides in equal measure is at the heart of this story, and the author’s descriptions of this windswept terrain, flora and fauna is vivid and tangible to the reader. Whether it is the cries of the seals, the raging of the sea, the hostility of winter, or the blooming promise of spring, the descriptions consistently arouse our senses and form bright, vivid pictures in the mind.

It’s been a while since I have been utterly lost in a book, but Sealskin produced this very effect. Set apart by its difference in subject to much of modern fiction, it held me totally in its grip, and the ending was something special and unexpected too. A book that is tinged with sadness, but utterly magical too. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

Catch up with, or continue to follow the blog tour at these excellent sites:

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Katie Medina- Fire Damage

medinaFour-year-old Sami is deeply traumatized, and it’s up to psychologist Dr Jessie Flynn to unlock his terrifying memories. She needs to find out who ‘the girl’ is – but nothing can prepare her for the truth about what haunts him. Meanwhile, Jessie’s former patient, Captain Ben Callan, is investigating the suspicious death of an officer in Afghanistan – the problem is the only suspect refuses to talk. When a dead body washes up on a Sussex beach, Jessie and Ben’s cases converge. Soon it’s clear that the mystery in Afghanistan began with a secret much closer to home. And a desperate killer will do anything to keep it buried…

Having been swept away by Medina’s debut thriller  White Crocodile set in Cambodia, I was extremely interested to see how a change of publisher and nom de plume, along with a new setting would work for Medina. I’m very happy to report that this author appears to be going from strength to strength…

In a similar style to Matthew Frank’s debut If I Should Die and tapping in perfectly to my love of fiction depicting the experience of war, Medina tackles some weighty psychological issues in tandem with producing a genuinely emotive and compelling thriller. Drawing on her psychology degree, Medina said recently in an interview that she wanted to not only address the overpowering love or destructive nature of familial relationships and the emotional fallout of military service, but also to create a female protagonist to represent strong, clever and independent women. Through her characterisation of her central female character Jessie Flynn, four year old Sami, and her portrayal of three victims of their war experience, Sami’s father Major Nicholas Scott, Captain Ben Callan and Sergeant Colin Starkey, Medina achieves this admirably. Jessie Flynn is a multi-faceted character being a compassionate and headstrong psychologist, with a background in the military, but also struggling with her own behavioural disorder in the form of OCD.  I liked the way that she so seamlessly moulds her approach and interactions with those around her, driven on by a tenacity of spirit, and total dedication to her chosen profession, striving to unlock and treat the severe mental stress that affects Sami, and his family, along with being sensitive to the simmering tensions present in the character of Callan as she aids his investigation into a violent episode that has taken place amongst service personnel in Afghanistan.

The physical and mental stress exhibited by both Scott and Callan as a result of their military service is handled sensitively and honestly, and Callan in particular is a hugely empathetic character within the book. The sudden fluctuations of his mood and behaviour is beautifully handled as he struggles to keep a lid on the more destructive elements of his psyche, as without the Army he would be left bereft floundering with his personal demons. The repartee, and interesting relationship he has fostered with Flynn gives a further emotional weight to the overall plot, and I was heartened to see Medina avoiding some more obvious directions that their personal relationship could take.

Aside from the emotional gravitas of this book as we gain an insight into the troubled facets of Sami and particularly with his mother, Nooria, whose personal story is heartbreaking, the plot is incredibly well drawn, with a brutal honesty as to the dark chasm of secrets and lies that people conceal and seek to escape. The ending of the book is unexpected, and will make your heart race a little faster, and is entirely unpredictable but totally believable. The plot is punctuated throughout by real heart in the mouth moments, that interrupts but never detracts from the array of human emotion that Medina has structured the book upon. I also enjoyed the very real and vital portrayal of the experience in the theatre of war that so impacts on her characters, without resorting to timeworn clichés that some fiction with this story arc tends to produce.

It really is an ‘all things to all people’ kind of thriller, where the narrative, plot incidents, and skilful characterisation work together perfectly, and I was held riveted throughout. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to HarperCollins for the ARC)

BLOG TOUR: SJI Holliday- Black Wood Review and Extract

Blog-Tour-URLs[3]Raven Crime Reads is delighted to be the first stop on the SJI Holliday Black Wood blog tour- a debut crime novel that more than lives up to the promise of being a dark and extremely compelling psychological thriller. Inspired by a disturbing incident in the author’s own childhood, Black Wood explores the lives of two young women, Jo and Claire, deeply affected by an event that happened to them in their younger years in the local woods. This distressing incident left Claire paralysed and Jo with deep mental scars, but due to Claire’s memory loss, how much is Jo’s version of what happened to be trusted? Twenty-three years later, a familiar face walks into the local bookshop where Jo works, dredging up painful memories and rekindling her desire for revenge. At the same time, popular local police officer, Sergeant Davie Gray is investigating a man who is attacking women near the disused railway, shocking the sleepy village of Banktoun. But how is this man connected to Jo’s unwelcome visitor, and will the dependable Gray unravel the tangled web of secrets and lies to keep Jo safe and give her justice? And just who will survive the violence that must surely follow?

blI should really start by saying how much I applaud Holliday in taking the decision to present us with a cast of characters who are all so singularly dislikeable. They range in character from self-absorbed, to screwed-up, from emotionally crippled to inherently evil, and all the worst points in-between. If I were to encounter any of them in real life, I would not seek their company again, but within the confines of this book, I liked them all immensely. I loved the premise of having this collection of oddball personalities, whether shaped by unfortunate experience or just as a result of their natural weirdness, in this claustrophobic community, and the fact that as a reader you could remain largely unaffected by their trials and tribulations. I was very much put in mind of a brilliant drama series from years ago, Cape Wrath, which instilled a similar feeling as to the largely nasty characters within it, but remained compulsive viewing. I liked the feeling of being unencumbered by empathy with Jo, in particular, and rather enjoyed the fact that she inhabited the role of victim, but had a rather unpleasant and manipulative streak to her. She seemed to wield some strange hypnotic effect over most of the male characters, including the dogged Sergeant Gray who was probably the only character registering at all on the niceness scale. The assured characterisation of such a cast of dark and twisted people was a real strength of the book overall, and as much as I disliked them, I derived great satisfaction from seeing into their lives- the good and the bad.

I liked the unfolding complexity of the characters connections to one another within the central plot. I did read quite a way into the book with not the faintest clue as to how it would pan out, and I thought Holliday’s control of reveals was incredibly well-handled, keeping my interest throughout, as we became further embroiled in the nasty dark secrets and lies at the heart of this community. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the explosion of violence towards the end of the book, but no matter, as what proceeded it was more than satisfying. Oh- and there is a good twist right at the end of the book. I love it when that works, and this one did. All in all, a good debut, that contains all the necessary tension, and unwelcome surprises of a thoroughly enjoyable psychological thriller. Seek this one out and you won’t be disappointed I’m sure. Here’s an extract to tempt you further…

THE WOODS

He spots the two girls through the cracked screen of beech, sycamore and leg-scratching gorse: a flash of red skirt and a unison of giggles.

He waves a hand behind him, silently gesturing for the other boy to stop walking.

They hunker down behind a giant felled oak, and watch. The one with the red skirt sits astride a rusty water pipe that juts out through the hard-packed mud on either side of the burn. Her long, skinny legs dangle like the branches of a weeping willow, her sandalled feet almost skimming the water that bubbles beneath.

‘Come on, scaredy-cat!’

Her face is turned in the direction of the far bank, watching the path that runs down the side of the neat little row of square seventies housing where all the nice families live with their panel-fenced back gardens and their rabbit hutches and their Swingball sets. Where the other girl stands: shorter, plumper and dressed in denim dungarees and a pair of blue wellingtons.

‘I can’t. It’s too fast.’

The water is high from the rain that has barely stopped for weeks. The ground is soggy, and the boys’ footsteps have disturbed the mulch on the floor of the wood, releasing a stink that reminds him of clothes that’ve been left too long in the washing machine mixed with the tang of fresh grass from the bucket on his dad’s lawnmower.

He hears the snap of a twig close behind him and whirls round.

‘Ssssh, you idiot. Don’t let them hear us.’

The other boy mumbles a sorry.

The girl with the red skirt turns back to face the wood and he holds his breath, desperate not to make a sound. She frowns and shakes her head and dark little curls bob around her face. She is younger than he is. A couple of years. Maybe the same age as the pudgy-faced one in the dungarees, but even from this distance he can tell she’s going to be a heartbreaker before long. He stares at the long bare legs straddling the pipe and feels the stirring in his trousers that’s becoming increasingly familiar.

The other girl takes a tentative step towards the pipe.

‘I’m not going over it like you,’ she says haughtily. ‘I’ll get my dungarees dirty.’

The other girl lets out a dirty little laugh and shuffles over to the end of the pipe, then leans forward and grabs the protruding roots of the ancient oak that overhangs the waterway. As she pulls herself up, the front of her baggy T-shirt gapes open and he strains his eyes to see what’s concealed beneath. The other one steps onto the pipe and, with arms outstretched like a tightrope walker, slowly makes her way across, until she is close enough to grab onto her friend’s outstretched hand.

He waits until they are both safely away from the bank before he grabs the sleeve of the other boy and they both stand up. The smaller girl sees them first and she lets out a strange little squeak and jumps back, grabbing onto the other girl’s T-shirt, revealing a flash of milky-white shoulder.

He grins.

Find out more about the author here

Don’t forget to visit The Welsh Librarian BlogSpot tomorrow for the next stop on the tour…

(With thanks to Black & White Publishing for the ARC)

Special Feature- Irish Crime Fiction Round-Up

In recognition of the saturation coverage of the vote for independence in Scotland, I thought now is the time for a special feature. On Irish crime. I like to be different. I have recently read the latest releases from three authors I have reviewed in the last year. Mark O’Sullivan, whose debut novel Crocodile Tears featured the utterly engaging DI Leo Woods; Matt McGuire with his striking Belfast set police procedural Dark Dawn , and Louise Phillips’ intriguing psychological thriller The Doll’s House So without further ado, feast your criminal eyes on these…

Mark O’Sullivan- Sleeping Dogs

slGangland boss Harry Larkin has taken three bullets and lies dying in a Dublin hospital. Amongst his delusional ravings to Senior Ward Nurse Eveleen Morgan, one name stands out: Detective Inspector Leo Woods. Harry’s message for his old ‘friend’ Leo: find my daughter Whitney. Leo is drawn into the murky world of the Larkin family, a hell he thought he had escaped from thirty years earlier. With the help of Detective Sergeant Helen Troy, his search for Whitney turns up more questions than answers, more darkness than light…

O’ Sullivan’s debut novel Crocodile Tears made a strong impression on me last year and snapped at the heels of my final selection of the Top 5 crime reads of 2013. Introducing the slightly curmudgeonly and many-layered police officer DI Woods, I was struck by how O’Sullivan circumvented the normal bog-standard police procedural with his attention to characterisation and the more literary quality to his prose throughout. Sleeping Dogs has done little to undermine my initial favourable impressions of his writing, once again giving rise to an extremely character-driven story, centred on the investigation of the shooting of local figure Harry Larkin. Ultimately, the whys and wherefores of this shooting is of little importance in the book, as the cast of characters on both sides of the investigation provide the real strength of the book. With the connection between DI Woods and Larkin established by their interactions some 30 years previously at the height of the Troubles, Woods is caught offguard by Larkin’s dying entreaties to find his missing daughter. What transpires is an extremely engaging tale of dark family secrets and lies, where the truth is hard to find, causing Woods and his team to embark on a tricky and at times heart wrenching investigation. Add into the mix an intriguing side plot involving a Libyan intern, and his connection to Larkin’s missing daughter Whitney, a mixed-up kid troubled by the dark goings-on close to home and O’Sullivan neatly enfolds us into a plot full of red herrings and partial truths. Woods is as appealing as in the first, embarking on a touching romantic interlude, but in the footsteps of the lovelorn Inspector Morse, doomed to disappointment. His predominant sidekick DS Helen Troy, provides not only a credible female detective, but is a good sounding board for the more intense Woods, and the interplay between them is also an added point of enjoyment throughout. A great follow up to a strong debut,  and definitely a series to be added to your must read lists.

Mark O’ Sullivan is the recipient of a number of prestigious awards including two Reading Association of Ireland Awards, the Eilís Dillon Award and three Bisto Merit Awards. He has also received the Prix des Loisirs as well as two White Raven Book Awards. In addition he has written radio drama for RTE and contributed to Lyric FM’s Quiet Corner.

Matt McGuire- When Sorrows Come

9781780338323Belfast, 2am, Tomb Street. A young man lies dead in an alley. Cracked ribs, broken jaw, fractured skull. With the Celtic Tiger purring and the Troubles in their death throes, Detective Sergeant John O’Neill is called to investigate. Meanwhile O’Neill’s partner, DI Jack Ward, a veteran troubles detective, is receiving death threats from an unknown source…

Having quickly established a well deserved place alongside the likes of Brian McGilloway and Declan Hughes, McGuire returns with the second in his police procedural series featuring DS John O’Neill. In common with his debut, Dark Dawn, McGuire pulls no punches in his depiction of the violence lurking just beneath the surface of Belfast, a city undergoing change and growing prosperity but still grappling with the imprint of its bloody history. To all intents and purposes, When Sorrows Comes does revisit some of the original tenets of the first book in terms of the social and well established facts of Ireland’s political history, as the investigation plays out. However, the further establishment of DS O’Neill’s character lifts the plot from the fairly pedestrian to greater interest, as he grapples with the demands on his personal and professional life. Still attracting the displeasure of his superiors by his more renegade actions and detection techniques and general unwillingness to tow the line, O’Neill combines a good mix of stubborness and empathy, whilst retaining a fixed resolution to follow the course of justice. His personal life is messy- in common with many of the best detectives- and our sympathies with him in this area of his life are pulled this way and that as the softer side of his character comes to the surface in the increasingly hostile interactions with his estranged wife, Catherine and his relationship with his daughter Sarah. An enjoyable follow up to the first in the series, if a little too similar, but well worth a look for police procedural fans.

Matt McGuire was born in Belfast and taught at the University of Glasgow before becoming an English lecturer at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. He has published widely on various aspects of contemporary literature and is currently writing a book on Scottish crime fiction.

Louise Philips- Last Kiss

10406581_676106955792842_8923423451031752354_nIn a quiet suburb, a woman desperately clings to her sanity as a shadowy presence moves objects around her home. In a hotel room across the city, an art dealer with a dubious sexual past is found butchered, his body arranged to mimic the Hangman card from the Tarot deck. But what connects them? When criminal psychologist Dr Kate Pearson is brought in to help investigate the murder, she finds herself plunged into a web of sexual power and evil which spreads from Dublin to Paris, and then to Rome.Will Kate discover the identity of the killer before it’s too late to protect the innocent? But what separates the innocent from the guilty when the sins of the past can never be forgotten?

I must confess with the absolute glut of female psychological thriller writers currently inhabiting the genre, my recent reading in this genre has been an up and down affair. However, building on the success of both Red Ribbons and The Doll’s House, Phillips has earned a steadfast place in my list of favoured writers. Once again placing the likeable and engaging  criminal psychologist Dr Kate Pearson in league with the grizzled and world weary DI O’Connor, there is again time for Phillips to play with the dynamics of their relationship, as they are pitted against a sadistic murderer and a far reaching investigation. What quickly transpires is that the killer they seek has killed before, and has no compunction in killing again…and again. This is a difficult review to write as I am not going to dwell on plot, purely because this is such a chilling and twisting investigation that I am desperate to avoid spoilers. Needless, to say I loved the little false alleys that Phillips leads us up in the course of the book and although I guessed the identity of the killer (more through fluke I believe) , which is beautifully concealed, there was no way I saw that ending coming. It’s dark, devious and totally gripping with interesting and engaging central characters, a good use of the contrasting locations, and more slippery than an eel covered in Vaseline. Thanks to Phillips for restoring my faith in the psychological thriller, and in some style.

Louise Phillips’ debut psychological crime novel, RED RIBBONS, went straight to the BEST SELLERS listing in the first week of its release in Sept 2012, and has received phenomenal reviews. In 2009, Louise won the Jonathan Swift Award, and in April 2011, was the winner of The Irish Writers’ Centre Lonely Voice Platform,as well as being short-listed for Bridport UK, the Molly Keane Memorial Award, and the Penguin/RTÉ Guide Short Story Competition. In 2012, Louise Phillips, was awarded an ART BURSARY for Literature from her home city of Dublin. Her debut novel RED RIBBONS, was shortlisted for Best Irish Crime Novel of the Year (2012). Visit her website – www.louise-phillips.com , www.facebook.co/LouisePhillips Follow on Twitter @LouiseMPhillips

 

(With thanks to Transworld Ireland, Constable and Robinson and Hachette Books Ireland respectively for the ARCs)

 

 

 

 

Gilles Petel- Under The Channel

petelAnother little slice of French noir and the first of Gilles Petel’s five books to be published in English. Written whilst Petel was living in London and working as a teacher at the Lycee Francais Charles de Gaulle, Under The Channel is a gripping and mysterious tale about identity, opportunity, and the clash of two cultures.

John Burny is a libertine Scottish estate agent, who in spite of his forty-five years is fit and youthfully handsome. Lieutenant Roland Desfeuileres is a French police officer, married with two children and somewhat tired of life despite the fact he is only forty. Their lives collide when Burny is murdered on the Eurostar en route to a sexual assignation in Paris, and Roland is charged with investigating the death. His investigation takes him to London, a welcome excuse to escape his failing marriage. But who was the real John Burny, and why was he murdered? Desfeuileres immerses himself in the victim’s hedonistic lifestyle, ostensibly searching for clues, and the longer he walks in the dead man’s footsteps, the more he discovers about himself.

To be honest, I would be reluctant to label Under The Channel as a crime book per se. Admittedly, the premise of the murdered Englishman is enough to hold the plot together as a criminal investigation ensues, undertaken by our hangdog French policeman, but far more interestingly, the book hinges far more on the psychological collision of our protagonists lives and the consequences of this. Desfeuileres is a marvellous character, experiencing the neurosis and midlife crisis of a man drowning in an unfulfilling marriage, despite his efforts to spice it up, and whose sojourn in England opens his eyes to a life he could have lived in different circumstances. Working against the reluctance of his police chief to invest time and effort in this cross border murder investigation, Desfeuileres adopts a stubborn stance, prolonging his stay in London to try and establish the reasons for Burny’s death. Very much in the spirit of the flaneur, Desfeuileres tramps the streets of London during the height of the financial crisis, imbibing the chasm between wealth and poverty in the bustling metropolis. The depiction of London and the searing differences in neighbourhoods, merely a few streets from one another, is well portrayed and as Desfeuileres immerses himself in the more affluent lifestyle of his victim, he realises that London could indeed be paved with streets of gold for him personally. As Desfeuileres comes into contact with Burny’s work colleagues, the sensual Kate Reed, and Burny’s male lovers, past and present, Petel cleverly manipulates Desfeuileres character and we see a man undergoing a complete change of personality, as the life of Burny begins to seep into his consciousness, and forces a change in his own life and sensibilities that is gradually revealed to the reader. It is deftly handled, and as Desfeuileres adopts this rebirth in his personality, the book holds a series of surprises. Consequently, the actual murder plot, plays second fiddle to the growth of Desfeuileres character, as this appears to be the real motivation behind the writing, so was perhaps a less fulfilling and well realised aspect of the book. I became entirely uninterested in the our poor victim’s fate, as I found the psychological and personal development of our morose French policeman altogether more interesting, and how easily a man’s moral and physical credo can be undermined and changed with the influence of another man’s life.

As an admirer of the late Pascal Garnier, I was reminded of his writing in some of the scenes played out within this compact novel. With flecks of wit, and a singularly unexpected outcome to the whole affair, there is a dark and almost sordid feel to the book. The ending will leave the reader with unanswered questions, but for my money the journey to this is more than worthwhile.

(With thanks to Gallic Books for the ARC)