Fergus McNeill- Ashes of America

It’s 1953, and an optimistic America is shaking off the hurt of World War II. Russia is defeated and Germany is now an ally. Former soldier Frank Rye is a small-town cop in rural Missouri, but the war has left him cynical and selfish. When his actions lead to the murder of a fellow officer, guilt drives him into a vengeful hunt for justice. His search for the killer will drag him deep into his own past, to the wartime summer of 1944, when he was stationed in neutral Switzerland, to a clandestine world of love and lies. To unmask the killer, he must uncover the truth about the war and about himself…

It’s been a long wait for a new book from Fergus McNeill, but all good things come to those who wait, some of us less patiently than others, and Ashes of America is a more than welcome return from this always excellent author…

From the outset this book ticked a huge amount of boxes for me, with a split narrative set in post war 1950s Missouri, and also 1940s war-time Switzerland. McNeill captures effortlessly, the zeitgeist of the post war era in America, and immerses us in a period where everyone was touched in such measure by the seismic events of this conflict. None more so than his main character Frank Rye, a cop in Missouri, whose back story surrounding his wartime service brings a real vigour and excitement to what could easily just be a linear tale of betrayal and murder. With the brutal killing of a fellow cop in a real wrong time, wrong place scenario, Rye quickly realises that someone is baying for his blood, and finding himself suspended, he sets out on a maverick mission to catch the killer. All well and good, but here’s the thing that McNeill does so well. By pivoting us back to Rye’s clandestine activities in Switzerland during his army service, McNeill has achieved the not so achievable feat of presenting us with two seemingly unrelated narratives that mirror the energy and suspense of each other.

As a fan of spy thrillers, and crime fiction, this provided a hugely enjoyable reading experience. The 1940s Switzerland based story is a perfect example of a well executed spy story, which thanks to McNeill’s excellent rendition of atmosphere and location, sees us following Rye through the twisted streets and dark corners of this beautiful Swiss setting, chasing shadowy figures, relying on his smarts, and trying to avoid physical harm. When I was reading this, I was instantly reminded of the black and white hues of Carol Reed’s The Third Man as Rye seeks to make sense of the strange situation he finds himself in, and the array of secretive characters he becomes inextricably entangled with in this wartime subterfuge. McNeill employs a real smoke and mirrors feel to this storyline, keeping us and Rye himself in a shroud of uncertainty as to why he is there, and who exactly can be trusted as everyone seems duplicitous to one degree or another. It is a beautifully crafted espionage tale, punctuated by newspaper excerpts, keeping us firmly rooted in this idyllic setting with its own claustrophobic intensity whilst reminding us of the war raging on elsewhere.

In 1950s Missouri, as Rye pursues a murderer and his female accomplice from his backwoods station to Kansas City, there is all the tension and suspense of a crime thriller, where in all the best tales, Rye turns maverick cop, but in true Jack Reacher fashion, reveals a few more sensitive facets to his character, that the opening of the book has firmly disabused us of. With a steely determination and a ready fist, Rye succeeds in antagonising most of those he encounters in his path, which leads to an exciting and tense counter-narrative, which then whips you back to the alpine subterfuge, and the slightly different pace, intensity but no less exciting storyline. When encountering a character like Rye, tough, dogged and cynical in outlook, I almost always take to them, and I quickly thought that there would be a real mileage to this character in further books, dependent on whether he reached the end of the book in one piece. Well, you’ll have to find that out for yourselves, and I would urge you to find this out for yourselves. Really enjoyed this one, and good to see the return of Fergus McNeill.

Highly recommended.

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With thanks to the author for the ARC

Buy Ashes of America:  Amazon UK & Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)