Raven’s Crime Debut of 2014

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Well, what an incredibly close-fought competition this was and having read so many debuts this year, a mammoth task to select one clear winner! So, in the spirit of fairness, I will give some very honourable mentions to the following before revealing my winner…

 

neelyNeely Tucker- Ways of The Dead: I had a sneaky eye on this one from the minute it arrived into the bookstore where I work, due to the dual temptations of a cover recommendation from Michael Connelly, and a Washington setting promising echoes of George Pelecanos. To be honest, I could not have been any more delighted with this book, as it not only delivered in spades from this starting point, but also imbued all the social critique and wry humour of The Wire too. I know. You’re intrigued now too aren’t you?

Read my review  here

fewNadia Dalbuono- The Few: A singularly impressive Italian set crime debut that I cannot recommend highly enough. The story focuses on Detective Leone Scamarcio, the son of a once powerful mafia figure. Scamarcio has turned his back on the family business and is on the Rome police force. He is handed a file containing compromising photographs of the Italian foreign secretary with male prostitutes, and soon after that embroiled in the disappearance of a young American girl on holiday with her family. With the possible links between both cases revealing themselves to our suave detective, Dalbuono conjurs up a thriller that is dark, compelling and totally unputdownable.

Read my review here

springCilla & Rolf Bjorlind- Spring Tide: Opening with the unsettling murder of a young pregnant woman at the time of the spring tide, twenty-four years previously and now designated as a cold case: a case which a young police trainee, Olivia Ronning, is designated as a summer project. The plot unfolds in a number of directions, bringing the reader into the world of contemporary Sweden and a series of brutal attacks on the homeless community, cold-bloodedly filmed and uploaded to social media sites, a series of attacks that the police are failing to solve. An assured Scandinavian debut that kept me completely gripped…

Read my review  here

 

And the winner is…

 

the-lying-down-roomThe Lying- Down Room is an astounding, emotive and utterly gripping French debut thriller by Anna Jaquiery that it was my great pleasure to review in June. I didn’t think that there was anyone to challenge Pierre Lemaitre (author of Alex and Irene)  in my affections as a French crime author par excellence but delighted to discover that there is. I implore you to discover this one too!

The Lying Down Room introduces us to the charismatic and dedicated Chief Inspector Serge Morel. The story opens in Paris in the stifling August heat, and Morel is called to examine a disturbing crime scene. An elderly woman has been brutally murdered to the soundtrack of Faure’s Requiem, and her body grotesquely displayed. The reasons for this murder and the choice of victim baffle Morel and his team.

But our detective has problems of his own. His father, such an influence in his life, is descending into the grip of senility. If that weren’t enough for him, Morel is having an affair with a friend’s wife, but has become unsettled by the reappearance of his lost love, Mathilde. Like so many other fictional detectives, Morel has a quirky interest to relieve his angst and focus his mind. In his case it’s origami.

As the investigation continues, and further murders happen, his fingers fold faster and faster. He makes a connection between the victims and two individuals – a middle aged man and a young boy – who distribute religious pamphlets in the suburbs. Soon his inquiries take him back into the past, away from Paris into the French countryside, and eventually to the heart of Soviet Russia. A tragic story begins to unfold.

In terms of characterisation, The Lying Down Room contains all the key ingredients needed to herald the arrival of a new detective in the crime fiction genre. Morel is a very carefully constructed and wonderfully realised character. He combines natural charm and humour that immediately resonate. His interactions in both his professional and personal lives allow the many different facets of his character to shine – like the focused and dedicated police officer, and the man thwarted in love. There are some intensely moving scenes between him and his father. This relationship is filled with pathos, adding poignancy to Morel’s situation. Morel is a man of contradictions with his character being all the more emotionally interesting for it, and consequently the scene is set for further exploration of this detective.

The narrative is particularly impressive, with nice, clean delineation between the various strands that come into play within the plot. Not only is the central murder storyline well paced and realistic, but as Jaquiery expands the story to encompass the personal narratives of the perpetrators themselves, she weaves together various locations and timelines. What emerges is an incredibly human tale of lost opportunities and wicked twists of fate that can put an individual on the path towards murder. Cleverly, this aspect of the novel invokes natural sympathy in the reader as we bear witness to the incredibly sad events in our antagonists’ pasts, evinced in the stark portrayal of life in Soviet Russia, and the mental and physical wounds this produces. At times, Jaquiery handles the sheer emotional heartache of some of these scenes more in the vein of literary fiction rather than a genre crime novel.

There is little to fault in this debut, combining as it does a superbly plotted and emotive criminal investigation with the introduction of a police protagonist more than imbued with enough charm and interest to carry the weight of a series. Anna Jaquiery demonstrates all the natural flair and quirks of French crime fiction that fans of Vargas, Lemaitre, et al, will relish reading. More than proud to proclaim this as my debut of the year.

 

Neely Tucker- The Ways of the Dead

neelyWhen Sarah Reese, the teenage daughter of a powerful Federal judge, is discovered in a dumpster in a bad neighbourhood of Washington DC with her throat cut, the local police immediately arrest the three nearest black kids, bad boys who are members of a gang. Sully Carter, a veteran war correspondent, newly returned from the war in Bosnia with emotional scars far worse than the ones on his body, suspects there’s more to the case than the police would have the public know. With the nation clamouring for a conviction, and the bereaved judge soon due for a Supreme Court nomination, Sully pursues his own line of enquiry in spite of the obstacles thrown at him by government officials, the police and even his own bosses.

I had a sneaky eye on this one from the minute it arrived into the bookstore where I work, due to the temptation of a cover recommendation from Michael Connelly, and a Washington setting promising echoes of George Pelecanos. To be honest, I could not have been any more delighted with this book, as it not only delivered in spades from this starting point, but also imbued all the social critique and wry humour of The Wire too. I know. You’re intrigued now too aren’t you?

I will immediately put my hands up and confess that I do usually do a slight bodyswerve when reporters carry the weight of a crime book. With a few exceptions, I sometimes find that the plot overshadows the characterisation of such protagonists, and they merely become a conduit for whatever browbeating issue/murder investigation ensues. Not this one. Oh no. What Tucker delivers is not only an enthralling murder investigation (based on the real life case of the 1990’s Princeton Place murders), but a plot that is strengthened and illuminated by two of the best characters I have read for some time- reporter Sully Carter and his cohort, the streetwise gangster Sly Hastings, whose intimate knowledge and personal involvement with the seedy underbelly of Washington provides a regular source of information for Sully. Sully is a weary, cynical, PTSD suffering, former war reporter, physically and mentally scarred by his experiences. A little too keen on the drink, but a harbinger of not only a strong moral core, but a tenacity for justice and truth that shines through in his mercurial personality. I loved his character, whether dealing sensitively with bereaved families, facing up to the arrogant David Reese (father of the initial murder victim) who has tried to sink Sully’s career before, and his pure obstinancy when berated and sidelined by those intent on scuppering his investigation. Equally, Sly is a gem of a character, sassy, bursting with street smarts and possessed of an almost charming disposition that belies the violence he is so capable of meting out, and the fear he instils in others. Together, their exchanges are pure gold with Sully attempting to squeeze information out of Sly, and Sly pretty much only volunteering what suits him, but equally, very capable of a few surprises…

Despite the very character driven nature of the book, not only with Sully and Sly, but with the police officers, Sully’s work colleagues, local residents and the associates and families of the victims, the plot stands solidly throughout. Not only does it bring into focus the political power and wrangling inherent in Washington, but perhaps more ardently, puts into the spotlight the undercurrents of racial tension, urban crime and poverty that underscore the nation’s capital. In his writing, Neely Tucker gives a voice to the dispossessed and the ignored, especially in relation to his character’s linking of a series of murders where the victims cannot hope for the same pursuance of justice afforded to the likes of Sarah Reese, as the daughter of an influential figure. Through Sully Carter these voices resonate loudly in the book and it is gratifying to see that one man embodies the dogged determination to bring their killer to justice.

So with such a glowing review, there is little for me to add, except, you should buy this book. Free up some quality reading time, get yourself comfortable and prepare to be gripped and enthralled in equal measure. A great debut and I think Michael Connelly succinctly sums it up: “If this is Tucker’s first novel, I can’t wait for what’s coming next.”

Neely Tucker was born in Lexington, Mississippi and is a former war correspondent, who worked in many places where people would shoot you for free. He is the author of Love In The Driest Season, a memoir about war reportage. He is now a staff writer for The Washington Post. For more see www.neelytucker.com

(I bought this copy of The Ways of the Dead)