October Round-Up and Raven’s Book of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)

It was wonderful to host an exclusive Q&A with Dwayne Alexander Smith and to take part in the blog tour for the release of Luca Veste’s The Dying Place, but a month of total frustration reading-wise which saw my normal list of 10 or more severely curtailed! Due to the time pressures of reading and reviewing, I now have ‘the 40 page rule’.  So if a book has not piqued my interest, be it with characterisation, location, the writing style or other random points of interest that I look for, it gets consigned to the slush pile. Some people have questioned me on the wisdom of this, but having seen other reviews of books I’ve abandoned, some people have suffered excruciating mental torment in their dogged determination to read to the end. Sadly, the axe fell on six books this month which didn’t make the grade in terms of what hooks me in- a well-crafted writing style, a-smack-between-the-eyes plotline, or an endearing or likeably dislikeable protagonist. It also means that I have more time now to unearth some real gems, and as I am participating in Crime Fiction Lover.com  New Talent November features, (see next post) a chance to discover some cracking new authors. Fear not though, I have already read three incredibly strong books for release in November, and looking at the to-be-read pile they will have good company I’m sure…

Raven reviewed:

Val McDermid- Forensics: The Anatomy Of Crime

Ryan David Jahn- The Gentle Assassin

Steffen Jacobsen- Trophy

Marco Malvaldi- Three Card Monte (www.crimefictionlover.com)

Luca Veste- The Dying Place


Book of the Month

jahnRyan David Jahn- The Gentle Assassin:

Seems a tad unfair to only have 5 to choose from this month, but having waited a good while for a new one from the exceptionally talented Mr Jahn, I could not award this to anyone else. Once again, Jahn lifts the ordinary crime thriller to join the ranks of the best contemporary American fiction writers, with this thoughtful, emotional and genuinely engaging novel. With its careful interweaving of two timelines, and two central characters that effortlessly carry the emotional weight of this compelling thriller, this may well feature in my end of year Top 5. Watch this space…


Happy reading everyone!

Val McDermid- Forensics: The Anatomy Of Crime


The dead talk. To the right listener, they tell us all about themselves: where they came from, how they lived, how they died – and who killed them. Forensic scientists can unlock the mysteries of the past and help justice to be done using the messages left by a corpse, a crime scene or the faintest of human traces.Forensics uncovers the secrets of forensic medicine, drawing on interviews with top-level professionals, ground-breaking research and Val McDermid’s own experience to lay bare the secrets of this fascinating science. And, along the way, she wonders at how maggots collected from a corpse can help determine time of death, how a DNA trace a millionth the size of a grain of salt can be used to convict a killer and how a team of young Argentine scientists led by a maverick American anthropologist uncovered the victims of a genocide…

I confess to not being a huge fan of true crime accounts per se, but with the dual temptations of Val McDermid- one of the UK’s premier crime novelists- and a real behind the scenes look at the craft of forensic science, I couldn’t resist a look at this one. What unfolds is a fascinating and wonderfully readable look at a wide range of forensic practices and case histories that sheds light on the skill and intuition of crime scene investigators, underscored by the fluid and entertaining style of McDermid’s writing.

The books charts over 200 years of developments in forensic techniques, using a combination of familiar crimes like the Ripper case, but whirling backwards and forwards through time, to provide a view into more recent crimes and atrocities like the Madrid train bombings. Equally, a familiar institution like The Body Farm in America is set against the ground-breaking techniques that are occurring day in and day out by less well known forensic laboratories, so adding heightened points of interest and discovery for the reader. Broken down into specific areas of interest in each chapter, this format allows the reader to skip back and forth easily, and I found this very useful, reading this alongside fiction. The chapters cover a wide breadth of subjects; fire scene investigation, entomology, pathology, toxicology, fingerprinting, blood spatter, DNA, anthropology, facial reconstruction, digital forensics, forensic psychology and finally how these techniques are drawn on during the final legal process to gain a conviction. The language is uncomplicated, but never patronising, and I would say that this book would hold a wide appeal, not only for those employed in, or studying the field of forensic science, but also eminently suitable for writers and readers such as myself with an interest in the subject, but no advanced knowledge of this field. Bolstering McDermid’s presentation of the subject matter, there are also some insights into her own personal experiences of gathering the material for the book, and some nice personal touches to the overall narrative. If like me you are rather jaded by the celluloid representations of the CSI field, with their showy camera tricks and lip glossed forensic investigators, there is much to be gleaned from this well-researched and highly readable account of this crucial area of crime detection. Although McDermid does incorporate some cultural references to crime on screen, for the most part, the book centres on the real day to day job of forensic investigators and the difficult, and at times, laborious reality of their investigations.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this, and having read many, many fictional crime books presenting assorted medical examiners and forensic officers, it was a rewarding and refreshing insight into those who do this for real. I learnt some things that I didn’t know before, but equally enjoyed McDermid’s representation of the more familiar cases and developments through the years. An entertaining and enlightening read for professionals and laymen alike.

(With thanks to Profile Books for the ARC)

Val McDermid- Cross and Burn

Someone is brutally killing women. Women who bear a striking resemblance to former DCI Carol Jordan. The connection is too strong to ignore and soon psychological profiler Tony Hill finds himself dangerously close to the investigation, just as the killer is closing in on his next target. This is a killer like no other, hell-bent on inflicting the most severe and grotesque punishment on his prey. As the case becomes ever-more complex and boundaries begin to blur, Tony and Carol must work together once more to try and save the victims, and themselves.

Well it is with great delight that I can report that in this humble reviewer’s opinion,  Val McDermid is back on form with her new outing for Carol Jordan and Tony Hill- hallelujah and saints be praised! After the relative disappointments of McDermid’s stand alone The Vanishing Point and the last Jordan/Hill The Retribution (reviewed elsewhere on this blog) I was feeling a little deflated as I’ve always held McDermid in some regard and very much enjoyed her books previous to these two, so I did approach Cross and Burn with a slight sense of trepidation but my fears were quickly dispelled…

What I particularly enjoyed about Cross and Burn was the sense of readjustment that ran through the book for all the protagonists, as after the horrific events of  The Retribution, both mentally and physically for the main players, they are all in a state of flux in their personal and professional lives. Carol Jordan, now no longer a police officer, is still coming to terms with her familial loss and on a mission to erase these events, now firmly rooted in a rural idyll and her relationship with her former colleagues, and more importantly, Tony Hill completely severed. Our favourite bumbling but brilliant psychological profiler, Tony Hill is, well, bumbling along, pining for the loss of his relationship with Jordan, the drying up of his police consultancy work and his new life on the waves- okay- a canal. Newly promoted DS Paula McIntyre takes a larger part in the story, now part of a new investigation team under the steely leadership of another female boss- DCI Fielding- and finds her personal and professional life intermingling when a friend disappears. As a series of abductions unfold McIntyre and Hill join forces providing a different dimension to the plot, but Hill soon finds himself in the accusatory glare of the indominitable Fielding and Carol Jordan cannot help but be drawn back into the world she has left behind, despite the fragility of her relationship with him. This is the real strength of the book for me, as the abduction storyline was a little laboured (although I appreciate the need to draw McIntyre’s personal life into the mix for the sake of the plot) but where McDermid excels is in her observation of the very human need for connection and reconciliation. I loved the tentative and thorny reactions between Jordan and Hill, the pressures on McIntyre to connect with a new team of detectives and her narrow minded boss, and the ruminations of Hill on his disconnection with a world that largely tolerated his own peculiar quirks of character and way of working. I enjoyed the depictions of the solitary lives led by Jordan and Hill- consumed in their own particular miseries- set against the sudden change in McIntyre’s domestic set-up with the introduction of her own newly arrived waif and stray and how this impacts on her relationship with her partner Eleanor, and of course the very marked differences made in the characters and professional attitudes of Jordan and Fielding in their former and current roles of overseeing murder investigations.

No question then in my mind that McDermid is back with style, not necessarily in the depiction of the central investigation, but in her capturing in the real frailties and strengths in her established cast of characters. It’s no mean feat to reveal new aspects to such stalwart characters over the length of a series, but to me this worked beautifully throughout, and I thoroughly enjoyed the ebb and flow of them reconnecting them in the face of emotional and professional difficulties. Nicely done.

 Val McDermid is the author of twenty-four bestselling novels, which have been translated into more than thirty languages, and have sold over ten million copies. She has won many awards internationally, including the CWA Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year and the LA Times Book of the Year Award. She was inducted into the ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards Hall of Fame in 2009 and was the recipient of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for 2010. In 2011 she received the Lambda Literary Foundation Pioneer Award. She has a son and a dog, and lives with her wife in the north of England. www.valmcdermid.com/ Follow on Twitter @valmcdermid

(I received Cross and Burn as a galley in Kindle format via www.netgalley.com )

Val McDermid- The Vanishing Point

Stephanie Harker is travelling through the security gates at O’Hare airport, on her way to an idyllic holiday. Five-year-old Jimmy goes through the metal detector ahead of her. But then, in panic and disbelief, Stephanie watches as a uniformed agent leads her boy away – and she’s stuck the other side of Security, hysterical with worry. The authorities, unaware of Jimmy’s existence, just see a woman behaving erratically; Stephanie is brutally wrestled to the ground and blasted with a taser gun to restrain her. And by the time she can tell them what has happened, Jimmy is long gone. But as Stephanie tells her story to the FBI, it becomes clear that everything is not as it seems with this seemingly normal family. What is Jimmy’s background? Why would someone want to abduct him? And, with time running out, how can Stephanie get him back?

Right- so you read the synopsis of the book and think this sounds intriguing and what an excellent premise for a crime novel. Now excuse me if I’ve missed the point but what follows an initially promising first couple of chapters is an absolute flight of fancy and I think McDermid is just playing with her readers a wee bit!  I like to think that McDermid had her tongue very firmly planted in her cheek throughout the writing of the book as she shamelessly draws on the most nauseating aspects of ‘reality TV’ spawned celebrity with its attendant bad behaviour, press manipulation, ill gotten gains and the role of the ghostwriter in presenting a more acceptable version of these hideous people to their adoring public. The book centres on Scarlet Higgins, a Northern working class girl who comes to fame on reality TV show ‘The Goldfish Bowl’ ( a blatant hybrid of ‘Castaway’ and ‘Survivor’) despite her ill-behaviour, racist outpourings (counterbalanced nicely by her later relationship with an Asian DJ)  and generally lewd behaviour. Desperate to raise her public profile the hapless and incredibly naive Stephanie Harker-ghostwriter- is commissioned to write a book about the now pregnant Scarlet as a missive to her unborn child and Harker finds herself drawn into the duplicitous world of the scheming Scarlet. This is where it all goes a bit silly with a frankly ludicrous story line involving a Scarlet-impersonating cousin, a Romanian orphanage, a half-baked stalker and all manner of other silliness involving the FBI, a positively Greek Adonis of a policeman and eventually a murder which comes way too late in the plot to have any impact at all.

 But, and I stress this very clearly, as unbelievable and irritating as the whole thing is you can’t help being compelled to just read a few more pages, then a few more until before you know it you’ve read the whole book, and despite not having believed a word of it you realise you’ve had fun on the way, such is McDermid’s portrayal of a world of celebrity culture you recognise all too well backed up by an improbable but incredibly entertaining plot! So bad that quite frankly it’s brilliant…

‘The Vanishing Point’ is published by Little Brown 13th September

Visit Val McDermid’s website here: http://www.valmcdermid.com/

(Thanks to Little Brown for the advance reading copy)

Read Maxine’s review at: Petrona.




Val McDermid- The Retribution

There is one serial killer who has shaped and defined police profiler Tony Hill’s life. One serial killer whose evil surpasses all others. One serial killer who has the power to chill him to the bone: Jacko Vance. And now Jacko is back in Tony’s life. Even more twisted and cunning than ever before, he is focused on wreaking revenge on Tony – and DCI Carol Jordan – for the years he has spent in prison. Tony doesn’t know when Jacko will strike, or where. All he knows is that Jacko will cause him to feel fear like he has never known before and devastate his life in ways he cannot imagine…

I’m always keen to read McDermid’s Tony and Carol in torment tales, and with the added hook of the reappearance of the dastardly Jacko Vance I was anticipating a good read. However, like some of the previous reviewers I felt the story reached a point of twisted brilliance in Jacko’s search for revenge but petered off from there with the ending feeling completely implausible and I mean implausible. Val was probably thinking “A-ha, they’ll never see that coming” whilst rubbing her hands together in pure silent movie villain fashion and no I didn’t, because it was totally improbable! However, just to balance the bad with the good, the parallel storyline of the budding serial killer allowed a nice amount of freedom for Carol’s sidekicks to shine and this plotline played out quite well whilst Tony and Carol thrashed about in the throes of their further deteriorating relationship and we all lost interest. Disappointing but enough to while away a couple of hours…

(Thanks to Little Brown for an advance reading copy)