Helen Callaghan- Night Falls, Still Missing

On a cold, windswept night, Fiona arrives on a tiny, isolated island in Orkney. She accepted her old friend’s invitation with some trepidation – her relationship with Madison has never been plain sailing. But when she approaches Madison’s cottage, the windows are dark. The place has been stripped bare. No one knows where Madison has gone. As Fiona tries to find out where Madison has vanished to, she begins to unravel a web of lies. Madison didn’t live the life she claimed to and now Fiona’s own life is in danger . . .

The third book from new-to-me author Helen Callaghan, Night Falls, Still Missing, transports us to the wild and desolate backdrop of a winter in Orkney, and the strange disappearance of a woman working on an important archaeological dig. This was an altogether different and interesting read for me, though not for the reasons I imagined when I set out to review this one, as the ‘crime’ element of the book became increasingly less relevant as I read on…

Somewhat perversely, I will start by saying that what I really didn’t like about this book was so central to how much I enjoyed other aspects of the book. That is to say, straining a largely far-fetched and predictable plot through such a compressed set of characters who were so eminently dislikeable that I would have totally increased the body count with no hesitation at all. Veering from the painfully woolly Dr Fiona Grey, summoned to the island on the whim of her friend the intensely self-obsessed, man-mad and narcissistic Madison (who also has a de rigueur creepy stalker), and then to the largely banal and irritating group of Madison’s archaeological cohorts, this is truly a rich pick ‘n’ mix of people you would desperately not want to be stuck in a confined space with. Consequently, whether by design or coincidence by the author, my lack of interest in these characters and the weak plot, afforded me an opportunity to look elsewhere in the book for some points of interest, and this proved a much richer source of enjoyment indeed.

I know this is a strange thing to say, and maybe sounds a little harsh, but this book would have been really quite stunning if the half-baked crime plot had been omitted. What Callaghan has is a really quite impressive prose style when she is focussing on the backdrop to the story in terms of her depiction of the natural elements of the landscape, and the feel and atmosphere of the location itself. I feel that if Callaghan had focussed more on this, and developed the glimpses of the more interesting aspects of her characters, which became overwhelmed along the way, a much stronger book would have emerged. Perhaps controversially, and with no disrespect to Callaghan herself, the book could have evolved into a more than satisfying fiction read, replete with naturalistic detail, but with small incidences of human connection and disconnection, against the rugged and beautiful landscape she so perfectly describes. I also loved the referencing of archaeological detail, the overarching theme of the past impacting on the present, and the illuminating historic references pertinent to Norse legend and so on. It’s so frustrating that all these good elements had to take a back seat to the central narrative that was ultimately quite ridiculous and  unsatisfying. Unfortunately, a book of two halves for this reader, but displaying clear evidence of a suppressed, but good, writing style that maybe didn’t quite suit this genre on this occasion.

(I received an ARC via Netgalley UK/ Michael Joseph)

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#BlogTour- Jesper Stein- Die For Me

A depraved stalker. An unsolved murder. A cop who will stop at nothing to catch the killer. A brutal stalker is preying on women in Copenhagen. DI Axel Steen begins an obsessive manhunt that sends him spiralling out of control.  The investigation is fraught with heart-stopping near misses, dark mysteries, and a final revelation with devastating consequences. 

I was fortunate enough to take part in the blog tour marking the release of the first Axel Steen thriller Unrest which proved an exhilarating and thought provoking series opener. In common with the first book, Jesper Stein has no reticence into plunging his reader into a nightmarish scenario, with a particularly vicious and sadistic individual stalking the streets of Copenhagen…

On the basis of the first two books, it comes as no surprise that they have been optioned for television by the producers of The Bridge, and if they find the right actor to bring the right level of tortured maverick detective, well, it will be an absolute must see! What Stein achieves so beautifully is manipulating the old cliché of crime fiction, that of the maverick cop with mental and physical weaknesses, estranged from personal relationships, lives for the job and so on, by making his protagonist Axel Steen utterly mesmerising. He’s strong-willed and tenacious, somewhat foolhardy at times with his physical wellbeing, both by his own actions and by putting himself in the path of danger without a moment’s hesitation, but what I really like about his character is the absolute certainty and steadfastness he brings to every action he takes in his professional life.  His doggedness of purpose and the absolute empathy he has with both the murder victim, and the women who have been subjected to the most violent and degrading attacks, sets him apart admirably from his colleagues, and more importantly instils a faith in the women that their attacker will be caught and punished. To balance it out nicely, his personal life is not so clear-cut and leads to times of procrastination, doubt, and complete tactlessness but hey, he’s only human, but there is also an insidious presence in his day job who would probably tick off even the most mild mannered individual, to add to his troubles. Steen carries within him a mercurial mix of hot-headedness, empathy, compulsiveness, and sheer bloody-mindedness that makes him unpredictable, but also fascinating. A complicated man to be sure, but a great character…

Dealing with such an emotive and troubling subject as violence against women and rape, I think there is a danger of readers becoming desensitised slightly to the effect of these crimes, and the fear, shame and anger that women live with afterwards. I found this central theme in the book was handled in a particularly sensitive and balanced way, that whilst not shying away from the more visceral physical details of what these women have been subjected to, there is a real sense of understanding throughout of how this impacts on both their lives, and physical and mental wellbeing post-trauma. It felt to me that Stein had either researched this extremely thoroughly, but more evidently had spoken to women who had experienced this extreme violence, and what it had meant to live with the memory and affect of this crime. I may be wrong, but the book felt that it had a deeper connection to, and empathy with, victims of violence, rather than some of the more lazy depictions I have read. Equally, Stein succeeds admirably in steering clear of the mawkish, having a cool and clearheaded approach to the specifics of the crimes, a sense of sympathy to the victims, but wholly adhering to the natural aspect of the Scandinavian crime fiction tradition, where character and plot are so completely bound up with one another.

As well as focussing on the emotional and physical effects of the crimes perpetrated, there was also a dizzying amount of detail regarding the forensic investigation, written in a very natural and engaging way, and not just clumsily shoehorned into the narrative. Admittedly, those of us who practically inhale crime fiction would be aware of some aspects of forensic detection, but I learnt some really interesting stuff along the way, in terms of forensic investigation, reading a crime scene, and the intrinsic correlation of science with intuitive investigation in approaching cold cases. In conjunction with the extremely unpredictable Axel Steen and  the slow burning tension of a complex and twisting investigation, I thought this was a great follow-up in the series. With the usual precision and sheer readability of a translation by Charlotte Barslund, Die For Me is to be recommended. Excellent.

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(With thanks to Mirror Books for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

 

Clare Donoghue- Never Look Back

Three women have been found brutally murdered in south London, the victims only feet away from help during each sadistic attack. And the killer is getting braver. Sarah Grainger is rapidly becoming too afraid to leave her house. Once an outgoing photographer, she knows that someone is watching her. A cryptic note brings everything into terrifying focus, but it’s the chilling phone calls that take the case to another level. DI Mike Lockyer heads up the regional murder squad. With three bodies on his watch, and a killer growing in confidence, he frantically tries to find the link between these seemingly isolated incidents. What he discovers will not only test him professionally but will throw his personal life into turmoil too.

I must admit that on receiving this book to read and review, there was a slight sinking in my heart when I saw the well-worn comparisons to Mark Billingham, Peter Robinson and Peter James. However, never one to be deterred by publicity blurb,  I dove in to this debut crime novel with an open mind and was more than pleasantly surprised by what lay within…

From the outset you are plunged into a nightmarish insinuation that this killer has more than a passing resemblance to the resident weirdo killer in The Silence of the Lambs. Crafting his magnum opus in his spare room, that you just know is going to be constructed out of items accrued from his crime scenes. Cut to young woman being violently attacked on a London street and its aftermath, quickly introducing us to the main police protagonists, and straightaway Donoghue has raised the reader’s interest simply and succinctly. This is what you want from a British police procedural- straight in- boom- so loved that. Then, the story spirals out encompassing the miserable day-to-day existence of a previously vivacious woman and her nightmare experience at the hands of a stalker. Donoghue captures perfectly the claustrophobic dread of Sarah’s life from her waking moment under the microscope of her stalker’s eye, and this is very well depicted within the plot. Inevitably, all the facets of the plot intersect nicely, as Sarah’s cries for help are eventually answered by the intervention of DI Mike Lockyer and DS Jane Bennett as her stalker enters their radar, in the course of their murder investigation…

I did like the tight control that Donoghue kept on the pace and gradual unfolding of the plot, never resorting to implausible coincidence and keeping the tension high. I was slightly less sure of the development of the relationship between Lockyer and Sarah, and did raise my eyes to the heavens a little as this came to light, but both characters, carrying their own emotional baggage, were empathetic enough, and this did help overcome the slightly hackneyed nature of their personal interactions. Overall, the characterisation was very good, and Lockyer makes for a good central police character, with more importantly further room for development. He displays all of the central tenets needed by a leading character, and though not quite as charismatic as DI Tom Thorne  from Mark Billingham, there are definitely sparks of interest.  I’m also hoping that in any future books DS Jane Bennett has a greater part to play as I think she could well be a character to take more of a role from this initial encounter with her.

So to sum up, a more than satisfactory debut of another player in the British police procedural genre. Despite my minor quibble with one aspect of the plot, I would be more than happy to pick up another in the series, and always nice to encounter a new author. Promising stuff.

After ten years in London, working for a City law firm, Clare Donoghue moved back to her home town in Somerset to undertake an MA in creative writing at Bath Spa University. The Watcher is her first novel and in 2011, whilst still an unpublished manuscript, was long-listed for the CWA Debut Dagger. Follow on Twitter @claredonoghue

(With thanks to Macmillan for the ARC)