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Blog Tour- Ausma Zehanat Khan- The Unquiet Dead

Scarborough Bluffs, Toronto: the body of Christopher Drayton is found at the foot of the cliffs. Muslim Detective Esa Khattak, head of the Community Policing Unit, and his partner Rachel Getty are called in to investigate. As the secrets of Drayton’s role in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide of Bosnian Muslims surface, the harrowing significance of his death makes it difficult to remain objective. In a community haunted by the atrocities of war, anyone could be a suspect. And when the victim is a man with so many deaths to his name, could it be that justice has at long last been served?

Once again with The Unquiet Dead I have had the privilege of reading a book that defies any simplistic recognition of it being a ‘crime thriller’. Instead what we experience as readers is a searing testimony to the futility and brutality of war, in this instance the violent break up of the former Yugoslavia, and a sensitive and heartfelt portrayal of survivor rage, and guilt. All this is cocooned within the more linear investigation of a suspicious death; a death that reaches back into the turbulent past, but with severe ramifications for those in the present.

I am rarely emotionally moved by a book to the degree that I need to sometimes halt and take a breath, and in common with this book, those have been occasioned by novels depicting war and its consequences. Given the emotional reach of this book in terms of its depiction of the genocide and rape that occurred in this conflict, Khan’s prose and imagery of war is beautifully controlled throughout. It is written with a clarity and grace of simplicity that every scene of man’s unconscionable violence towards others hammers straight into the heart of the reader. Taking into account the author’s depth of research, this feeling of discomfort is amplified by the knowledge that these scenes are so firmly grounded in truth. These dreadful events happened, thousands died, and many more live with the physical and mental scarring of having witnessed such tragedy. Alternating between the past and present, the reader remains fully engaged with both timelines throughout, slowly piecing together the incontrovertible truth of  history continually reverberating in the present, as all the protagonists experience to some extent. Khan uses this motif not only in those affected by the war, but also other characters who have experienced some form of emotional, marital or familial upset too, so the level of human interest is palpable and certain situations recognisable to the reader too. It’s cleverly done, and merely strengthens the many levels of human relationships and experiences that permeate throughout the book.

For reasons that will be become absolutely clear when you read this book for yourselves, I am loath to delve too deeply in this review on some of the characters in this book for fear of giving too much away. Suffice to say, several of them exhibit the best and worst characteristics of the human condition, from quiet dignity to unbelievable greed and hatred. Instead, I would draw your attention to the unique combination of detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty who prove themselves so defined by their differences, but so symbiotic as an investigative team. There’s a wonderful quote from Getty on her taciturn and reserved boss, Khattak, in which she says, “He wasn’t a man who dealt in ultimate truths as she did, he traversed the underground cities of doubt and discrepancy where human frailty revealed itself in layer upon layer of incongruity.” Khattak remains almost unknowable throughout, being both sensitive and prone to introspection, but retaining an aura of quiet determination, despite certain revelations and his involvement in the case at a more personal level. Equally, Getty has an intriguing back story in terms of her family background which unfolds slowly, giving her some personal revelations of her own. She also proves an excellent foil to Khattak with her propensity to cut straight to the chase, and ask the difficult questions at the right time, without fear or favour. I liked both these characters immensely, and the strength of their partnership and very individual personalities that lie at the core of the book.

With a slow reveal of historic crimes, emotional wounds and the desire for monetary gain, revenge or closure, this books burns with a unique intensity, that is quite difficult to put into words. As a meditation on war and its aftermath it’s powerful and disturbing, and as a crime thriller on a conventional level it transcends the genre in terms of its emotional reach and characterisation. A difficult, yet thoroughly rewarding read, that will linger in my mind for some time to come. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to No Exit Press for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

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)

Matthew Frank- If I Should Die

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When a homeless man walks into Greenwich police station and confesses a killing, it should be the admission that cracks open a murder enquiry. Instead, he stumbles out on to the street and collapses, bleeding from a stab wound he’s attempted to repair himself. The newest member of the Met’s murder investigation team, twenty-five year-old Afghan veteran Joseph Stark, doesn’t believe the man’s story. Yet it becomes clear that Stark and the down-and-out share a connection. And that this could provide the key to unlocking the case. Soon, the young detective and his colleagues are drawn deeper into a dark, disturbing world as dangerous as anything Stark has known on the frontline. And where there’s enough at stake for a man to risk everything . . .

Somewhat belatedly I finally managed to squeeze this debut from Matthew Frank into my reading schedule. As the old adage runs, all good things come to those who wait, as this was truly one of the most well-plotted and compelling crime thrillers I have encountered this year…

What struck me most was how this book could so easily be all things to all men (and women) due to the complexity of the book as a whole. First, it is a socially aware thriller with the story focusing on the random attacks on the homeless community in a corner of London by a group of disaffected and vicious youths from a local sink estate. Frank taps in perfectly to the moral degradation of said youths, drawing a contrasting depiction of those on whom they vent their misguided and sadistic violence. This is particularly emotionally affecting after their attack on an aged homeless war veteran, a man of integrity and honour fallen on hard times, and the casual sadism that their ringleaders exhibit. Set against the isolation of their homeless victim, Frank also really gets to the crux of the manipulation and fearful isolation that certain members of the young gang feel, as their sense of morality begins to kick in, putting them at odds with their manipulative gang leader. There is a huge sense of emotional damage running as a motif through the book generally, and in the experiences and dialogue of the youths, Frank captures this perfectly.

Secondly, it’s a well plotted, linear, police procedural with an assured and likeable cast of characters, which could easily establish this as a series. Frank sets up a team of detectives, that you immediately feel comfortable and emotionally engaged with, and the petty rivalries and jealousies that affect any workplace. With the team being mostly overseen by headstrong and outspoken DS Fran Millhaven, Frank immediately gets a gold star for constructing a female character who is both believable and normal, without the usual emotional baggage that tends to follow these characters around. Her interactions with TDC Joseph Stark in particular are a mixture of spikiness, an almost sisterly affection and then pure exasperation, which gives shades of light and dark to their relationship, providing a strong central base for the plot to pivot around. There is also an extremely strong group of bit players, from those linked to the central investigation, through to the characters we see outside of Stark’s police role, reflecting his former career, and the therapy he is undergoing, giving ballast to this being the first of a series. Frank uses some of these exceptionally well, as a mirror to his main character Stark, and how they and we should perceive him and his emotional and physical vulnerability. It’s very well accomplished.

But more than a socially aware thriller, and police procedural, and this is what impressed me the most, was the depth and characterisation of ex-soldier and TDC Joseph Stark ,which gives Frank an enormous amount of opportunity to give us an insight into the mental and physical turmoil experienced by returning soldiers in the wake of conflict. As the representation of war in fiction is a particular interest of mine (and the subject of my MA) I have read widely in the genre, detailing the experiences that Frank explores here. The depth and clarity with which Frank narrates Stark’s experiences in combat, the journey to recovery and the particular difficulties he experiences in adjusting to civilian life and his return to the police force, is truly compelling. Every nuance of his emotional state, and the frustrations caused by his psychological and physical therapy is captured perfectly, along with the intermittent flashbacks to the harrowing events that he experienced as a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. This gives a real emotional third wheel to the overall solidity of the book, and the structure of this within the realm of what could be labelled ostensibly as a police procedural, is powerfully done, and perfectly realised.

As you can no doubt tell, I was incredibly impressed with If I Should Die for many reasons, not least because it avoid well-worn cliches within the genre, was powerfully characterised, and addressed some weighty issues in a believable and engaging way. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Penguin for the ARC)

Steffen Jacobsen- Trophy

steffAlready a bestseller in Europe, Trophy is the second of Jacobsen’s books to be released in the UK, following the excellent When The Dead Awaken With one of the most atmospheric and terrifying opening chapters I have ever read, Jacobsen delights in ramping up the tension, and exposing the grimmest aspects of the human character, amongst the most privileged class of society…

This is a tale of immorality, greed and violence that Scandinavian crime fans will savour, drawing as it does, in a similar style to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, on the less than savoury activities of a wealthy family, and its recently deceased patriarchal figure of Flemming Casperson. Casperson had built his business empire on technology crucial to military weapon systems, but is quickly revealed as financially rich but morally bankrupt with the discovery of a DVD implicating him in a macabre human manhunt for sport. His daughter, and potential heir to the family business-Sonartek- enlists the help of deep cover investigator Michael Sander, to discover her father’s role in this dark past-time, and as it happens its connection to the strange suicide of an ex-soldier, Kim Anderson, on his wedding day being investigated by feisty detective Lene Jensen. As Sander and Jensen’s paths cross in the course of their separate investigations, they find themselves embroiled in a sinister and violent conspiracy, and the exposure of some unsettling truths which threaten both their lives.

The characterisation throughout the book is absolutely superb, and Jacobsen’s central protagonists of Sander and Jensen, carry the book effortlessly throughout. Sander is a wonderful construct, with all the nous and cynicism of a traditional hardbitten private detective, operating below the radar of mainstream society and a difficult man to enlist for hire. He is singularly unimpressed by the wealth and power of the Caspersons, and of Casperson’s shady business partner, Victor Schmidt and his sons, Henrik and Jakob, but this a lucrative investigation and his moral integrity is at the fore in his decision to get to the heart of this dark and morally baseless crime. Jensen proves herself a wonderful foil to Sander throughout the book, with her sense of justice equally inflamed by the repercussions of his investigation, onto her own into the senseless suicide of Anderson and the unearthing of his connection to the Caspersons. It was heartening to read a thriller not based on any unbelievable sexual tensions between Sander and Jensen, and I loved the equal balance of power and tenacity afforded to both characters regardless of gender, and the personal moments of crisis that arise for them when their investigation reverberates into the lives of family and friends. Jacobsen also succeeds fully in his characterisation of the Caspersons and Schmidts, with their battle for supremacy and control in the Sonartek empire, fuelled by greed and a moral bankruptcy that was shocking but entirely believable.

The plotting was terrific throughout, and I loved the way that Jacobsen incorporated the military detail of the backgrounds of some of the protagonists, pivoting the location of the book between Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan and Scandinavia. The relentless pace of Sander and Jensen’s striving for the truth, is interspersed with scenes that are shocking and violent, and consequently this was a book that could not be left alone for long. The denouement of the book is excellent and mirrors completely the shock value of the opening chapter, with a neat and entirely credible twist at the end as well. Another winner for me from Jacobsen, and a testament to the continuing rude health of the Scandinavian crime genre. Fully deserving of a trophy itself!

(With thanks to MidasPR/Quercus for the ARC)

 

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