Alexandra Sokoloff- Huntress Moon (FBI Thrillers Book 1)

alexsFBI Special Agent Matthew Roarke is closing in on a bust of a major criminal organization in San Francisco when he witnesses an undercover member of his team killed right in front of him on a busy street, an accident Roarke can’t believe is coincidental. His suspicions put him on the trail of a mysterious young woman who appears to have been present at each scene of a years-long string of “accidents” and murders, and who may well be that most rare of killers: a female serial…

Huntress Moon is the first of a trilogy by Alexandra Sokoloff, that in a wonderful moment of serendipity, and the power of Twitter, I came to review. I think the fact that I read in this in somewhat of a vacuum, having been completely unaware of the author and these books, contributed even more so to my enjoyment of the book. Hence, the reason why I have given you only a snippet of the synopsis of the book, so that you can gain as much pleasure from discovering this intelligent and beautifully plotted thriller as I did.

Having just effectively boxed myself into a corner as to how far I can share the plot with you, I will reveal that we encounter this story from two narrative viewpoints, that of seasoned FBI investigator and the mysterious and violent female perpetrator he pursues. A satisfying aspect of this as a narrative structure is that Sokoloff retains an assured sense of balance between her two central protagonists, and as a reader you are discovering the bigger picture about our female killer through Roarke’s deeper investigation into her life, background, and why she exhibits such a compulsion for killing. The only book I can compare it to in terms of this structure would be Pierre Lemaitre’s compelling thriller Alex, where there is a gradual sense of the curtain being lifted on the central female protagonist, after a period of uncertainty on behalf of the reader as to her motivations. With Special Agent Roarke being so adept at reading the criminal mind, it is truly enthralling to see him confronted with the fairly unique prospect of tracking a female serial who in another intriguing twist, fails to comply with his cut-out Quantico image of why particular women are driven to kill. This is turn gives Sokoloff the opportunity to demonstrate a welcome degree of research on the psychology of killers, to intersperse the plot with some extremely interesting background detail on the psychopathy of serial or spree killers. Although this is quite a common trait amongst writers of serial killer thrillers, and some of the material was familiar from other books, I did learn a fair few things that I didn’t know before, and I particularly enjoyed the wider and more cerebral musing on the place of women in society in general, at odds with the oftentimes violent, patriarchal status quo.

In terms of characterisation, there was a glorious lack of cliché in relation to the depiction of both the central protagonists. Although Roarke is quickly revealed as a man whose personal relationships have suffered due to the demands of his job, which is not uncommon in law enforcement generally, I found him a mercurial, intelligent and completely engaging character. I was intrigued by the moral dilemma he found himself in as an essentially moral man, as he became more involved in his hunt, and certain details and heinous events became apparent to him. It gave a wonderful sense of his moral axis having to shift slightly as events played out, but undergoing a mental battle with his responsibilities as a federal officer pitted against his natural sense of empathy. Likewise, our female protagonist is multi-layered, leading the reader to question her motives, particularly when we see her entering alien environments, and reaching out to form relationships, but always with the underlying question as to what degree are her motives pure, or is she just bad to the bone? Hence, the shades of uncertainty that Sokoloff attributes to her characters, just serve to perplex the reader more, and increase our curiosity further…

With the further enticement two more titles in this series, Blood Moon and Cold Moon, I am genuinely pleased to have been introduced to this writer’s work. If you like your serial killer thrillers to be of the more intelligent variety, with a considered, well-researched approach, a real depth of plotting and character development, look no further. You’ve found it. Very enjoyable indeed.

Alexandra Sokoloff is the Thriller Award-winning and Bram Stoker, Anthony, and Black Quill Award-nominated author of the supernatural thrillers The Harrowing, The Price, The Unseen, Book of Shadows, The Shifters, and The Space Between, and the Thriller Award-nominated, Amazon bestselling Huntress FBI thriller series (Huntress Moon, Blood Moon). As a screenwriter she has sold original horror and thriller scripts and adapted novels for numerous Hollywood studios. She has also written two non-fiction workbooks: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love,and has served on the Board of Directors of the WGA, west and the board of the Mystery Writers of America. Alex is a California native and a graduate of U.C. Berkeley, where she majored in theater and minored in everything Berkeley has a reputation for. In her spare time (!) she performs with Heather Graham’s all-author Slush Pile Players, and dances like a fiend. She is also very active on Facebook. But not an addict. Seriously, it’s under control. Visit her website here

(With thanks to the author for the ARC)

 

 

 

Patrick Hoffman- The White Van

whiteAt a dive bar in San Francisco’s edgy Tenderloin district, the dishevelled Emily Rosario is drinking whiskey and looking for an escape. When she is approached by a mysterious and wealthy Russian, she thinks she has found an exit from her drifter lifestyle and drug-addict boyfriend. A week later she finds herself drugged, disoriented and wanted for robbery.

On the other side of town, cop Leo Elias is broke, alcoholic and desperate. When he hears about an unsolved bank robbery, the stolen money proves too strong a temptation. Elias takes the case into his own hands, hoping to find the criminal and the money before anyone else does…

Knowing my penchant for edgy American crime fiction, The White Van from debut novelist Patrick Hoffman, delivered in spades. With what appears to be an incredibly simple premise for a story, the power of Hoffman’s incredibly understated prose, and the natural fluidity and ramping up of the tension, heralds a striking new voice in the genre. I am confident enough to compare Hoffman to another of my favourite authors Denis Johnson, in terms of the pared- down style. Like Johnson, the rendition of violence when it occurs is rapid and brutal, entirely reflective of the burgeoning intensity of the story.

From its ‘what-the-hell-is-going-on’ opening, I was utterly hooked from the outset, and immediately immersed in Emily’s world sharing her confusion and fear at the situation she finds herself in. The build-up to her involvement in a bank robbery is brilliantly formulated, and likewise her attempts to extricate herself from the clutches of the Russian gang that have used her effectively as an unwitting pawn in their crime. She is a curious mix of vulnerability, underscored by a steely determination to both conquer and profit from the situation she finds herself in. Equally, Hoffman’s cast iron characterisation of the burnt out cop, Leo Elias, down on his luck, in debt to his eyeballs with an imploding marriage, gave a real solidity to the storyline overall. As Elias becomes enmeshed in a maelstrom of problems, and his natural greed kicks in, his unrelenting pursuit of Emily and her cohorts adds a further intense momentum to the plot. This is further strengthened by the changing parameters of Elias’ professional relationship with his police partner, Trammell, which can only be destructive as Elias goes into free fall.

Hoffman’s depiction of the Tenderloin district of San Francisco also works terrifically well, as the down at heel, sordid and dangerous backdrop to this violent tale, easily assuming a character of its own.  It’s brilliantly done, and overall a debut that I cannot recommend highly enough.

(With thanks to Grove Atlantic for the ARC)

Court Haslett- Tenderloin

It’s 1977 and the Reverend Jim Jones has moved his Peoples Temple from San Francisco to Guyana. Rumors immediately shoot through the city that Jones is taking revenge on all of his critics. When a former Temple member and friend of Tenderloin vagabond Sleeper Hayes is murdered, and another friend is accused of the crime, Sleeper sets out to uncover the truth.  But the truth and justice are hard to find as Sleeper becomes the Temple’s next target while investigating a murderous plot that stretches from skid row all the way to City Hall.

Thanks again to the world of social networking , my attention was drawn to Court Haslett and the very positive vibe surrounding Tenderloin. As a reader who is instantly drawn to novels depicting the more real and  less salubrious aspects of American life. and with a fervent interest in American political and  social history, I found this too tempting an opportunity to miss and had to read.

From the very outset, Haslett has created a slice of evocative fiction, perfectly depicting the seedy underbelly of San Francisco life in the 1970‘s. With much the same depth of social study afforded to the run down New York neighbourhood of Gabriel Cohen’s Red Hook, or the Washington DC of George Pelecanos,  Haslett focuses on the eponymous San Francisco neighbourhood of Tenderloin. With the affection, but also sharply critical eye of someone who has lived in this area, Haslett instantly draws the reader into the essential life, sights and sounds of this neighbourhood, but underscoring the very real social deprivations that inner city living produces. Setting his book against the backdrop of the real life events of 1978, the book is suffused with references to the political and social mores of this period, but also cut through with well placed references to the effervescent cultural life in the period through music (an integral part of the book) and sport. Setting his book in this particular period, makes the inclusion of the illegal and murderous activities of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple, tailor-made as a main plot device in the book. The less than honourable affiliation of Jones with the echelons of political power in the city, is a great hook for this solidly researched and presented tale, that kept my interest throughout, with its engaging and tense plotting.

In terms of characterisation, Sleeper Hayes, Haslett’s central protagonist, is a real find. Yes, there are comparisons to be drawn with the hardboiled tradition of American crime writing, in the presentation and spare prose with which Haslett realises his characters, but this perfectly taps into the spirit of the 1970‘s and the more relaxed attitude both to life, and making a living, of Hayes and his cohorts. Hayes is a gambler with a gambler’s instincts, and despite his probable protestations to the contrary he has a very defined moral centre, that cannot be denied by the overall loucheness and positively horizontal relaxedness of his outward character. Hayes exists in a world populated by criminals, bums, boxers, hookers and bent politicians- think a 70‘s set version of The Wire- but ingratiates himself into all these worlds through the vitality and doggedness of his character, which some take to more than others!  He is sharp, funny and proves an unlikely knight in shining armour at the core of this book, but is eminently likeable and genuinely a character I would love to read about again.

I was very impressed this book, and between you, me and the gatepost this is a book I could have easily missed out on in the overcrowded crime genre. This book sits perfectly alongside Pelecanos and Lehane in my opinion, with its no-holds-barred  depiction of  urban American life and crime,  so well worth a look.

Court Haslett is the author of the “Sleeper Hayes” crime series set in San Francisco’s skid row Tenderloin neighborhood. A San Francisco and Bay Area resident for over 20 years, his work has been short-listed for the Faulkner-Wisdom Award. TENDERLOIN was named a Nook First Pick: Compelling Reads by Emerging Authors by Barnes and Noble. When not writing, Court likes to gamble and grouse, usually in that order. Follow him on Twitter @courthaslett and at www.theroguereader.com