Spain is corrupt and on the brink of collapse. The king is ill, banks are closing, hospitals are in chaos, homes are lost, demonstrators riot and right wing thugs patrol the street. The tunnels beneath the streets are at once a refuge and a source of anger. And as the blood flows Cámara roars in on his motorbike...
The 4th book in the Max Cámara series, which means if, like this reader, you've missed the first three, there's something to look forward to.
Set in post financial meltdown Spain, BLOOD MED is part crime fiction, part police procedural, part analysis of a society that's bottomed out. The King's illness seems to have provided yet more impetus for riots and thugs roaming the streets. Against this backdrop the brutal murder of a young American woman, and the suspect suicide of an ex-bank clerk seem oddly dwarfed. Not helped by the Machiavellian games being played by Cámara's boss setting him and his partner and friend Torres off against each other - budget cuts meaning one of them is going to lose their job.
Add to the tensions in the police, the health service is rapidly falling apart, with insufficient drugs for patient treatment, banks are foreclosing and leaving properties empty all over the place, and some people have been forced to live in the tunnels of the ridiculously expensive, and unfinished underground rail system. Needless to say, official corruption is at the heart of so much that's wrong.
It all feels like a very current day, and one can't help thinking very realistic, scenario. And there is a lot of concentration on those societal aspects in BLOOD MED. Whilst the investigation of the murders does continue, often times it definitely does feel like the society dysfunction is all encompassing. And very personal.
Alongside Cámara there are a number of other main characters - Torres his colleague, his girlfriend Alicia and his much loved grandfather Hilario. All the main characters play reasonably high profile parts in the investigation and in the way that society is viewed, analysed and highlighted.
For a book that's 4th in a series it's quite easy to get into, there's enough background on the characters to give you a good understanding of how everyone fits together. It actually makes you want to go back and read the earlier 3 books.
BLOOD MED is crime fiction that uses the setting of the murders as a way of taking a long, hard, detailed look at the society in which they occurred. This is less crime fiction for fans of investigations and closure as it is for those who are looking for the why, and how things can get to the extremes of murder.
Review - BAD BLOOD, Casey Kelleher
Blood makes you related. Loyalty makes you family.
In the underbelly of Soho's organized crime ring, everyone knows that retired boxer Harry Woods is not one to mess with. And that goes double for his family.
Harry has it all: the big house, the flashy cars, and an abundance of wealth. As much as money talks in his world, Harry knows deep down the only thing that really counts is family. Haunted by the sudden death of his wife, he'll do anything to protect his children, but truth is a heavy burden and hidden secrets can unravel even the strongest of bonds...
Quite a few crime fiction books use the life and crimes of a Gangster type as their central premise, with a sideline of the impact that has on family and friends. BAD BLOOD looks at this scenario with the affected firmly at the centre of the action.
Starting out with a series of chapters that introduce a central character or scenario, readers will need to pay attention. As they will to the prologue which looks at the past of central character Harry Woods and his young, pregnant wife. In the present time, Harry's much loved wife is dead, his children grown and the family ties weakened. Once those introductions and the set-up are out of the way, the action moves forward rapidly bringing the family back together after estrangement, stretching their relationships in new directions, with new tensions.
Each of the characters in this book - Harry, his four children, their partners, his best mate, get equal billing at some point. The story revolves around damage, past decisions, power and control. It's somehow less about the long-time criminality of Harry, and more about the impacts that a life spent on the edge has had on all of them. It's also about decisions - the choice that Kelly makes to come back to the family fold, the choice that Nathan makes to try to live a different life. It contrasts those choices with the lack of conscious choice that Christopher and Evie seem to have in who they are or what they will become. There's a series of questions posed throughout the action about the ramifications of choice (or lack thereof), although that's based in a solid shell of action, tension, threat and violence.
After reading somewhere that author Casey Kelleher was strongly influenced by a well-known author of these sorts of Gangster centric novels, I was particularly intrigued to find how engaging BAD BLOOD was. I've struggled with the influencing authors work in the past, but I think the humour, the strong characterisations, and the less than black and white resolution here made this a strong, believable story. Whilst there's no holding back from the brutality of this life, it was balanced with some basic human decency and care. Whilst Harry might have a questionable moral compass when it comes to drugs, and criminal activities, he's a man who loves his kids, and struggles to this day with the fate of his wife. As clichéd as it might seem - it works in BAD BLOOD. There's something very realistic about the portrayal and the way that it does not make any attempt to explain, justify or excuse what is basically human nature.
Review - LAMENTATION, C.J. Sansom
As Henry VIII lies on his deathbed, an incendiary manuscript threatens to tear his court apart in the new installment of C.J. Sansom's Shardlake series.
Lamentation is the sixth in CJ Samson's historical crime fiction series set during the reign of King Henry VIII. As with other books in the series, one of the key drivers of the plot is a battle over religion and religious beliefs. The book starts with the horrific burning of Anne Askew and two of her compatriots, accused of heresy for daring to suggest that the bread and wine used during Mass do not become the body and blood of Christ. Society itself is in turmoil, torn between Catholicism and Protestantism and the various shades in between, to the point where the safest position to take on any given day was: I worship as the King worships.
Samson's main character, lawyer Matthew Shardlake, has, in the way of many historical fiction protagonists, been a participant and observer in many of the key moments of the age. At the start of Lamentation he is still suffering a little post-traumatic stress from having been on the Mary Rose when it sank in the Solent the year before. He is once again drawn into affairs of state when a manuscript called The Lamentation of a Sinner, written in secret by Queen Catherine Parr, Henry's sixth wife, is stolen and one of page is found in the hands of a murdered radical printer. Shardlake has worked for Catherine before and has already drawn the ire of both Henry himself and a number of his key advisors.
Lamentation is a hefty slab of historical crime fiction. At over 600 pages it has the potential to wear out its welcome. But after a slow start, Samson manages to get the plot boiling at just the right temperature to keep the reader's interest. This is assisted by a subplot involving a sibling battle over their mother's will which manages to raise the stakes for Shardlake just as the main plot starts to run out of steam.
There is a lot of historical detail here but not so much that it overwhelms the narrative. Samson is able to bring the late 16th century to life even though it is through the views of the slightly anachronistic Shardlake. Life at the time could be nasty and brutal and the combat scenes, particularly, bring out the savagery of the age. There is also plenty of court intrigue and a view into the last days of Henry VIII as his health declined and his courtiers and advisors jockeyed for position, changing allegiances as it suited them.
While Lamentation is the sixth in a long running series and there are passing references to previous events and characters it stands up well as a stand-alone novel. Shardlake is an engaging narrator and both his companions and enemies come across as fully formed and complex characters. The resolution is an interesting surprise which manages to throw more light on the politics of the time and the end implies that there may well be more Shardlake to come, which is by no means a bad thing.
Review - THE DARK, VM Giambanco
Seattle Homicide Detective Alice Madison is bound to jailed murderer John Cameron and attorney Nathan Quinn by a debt that cannot be repaid, by a nightmare that changed their lives forever.
When the remains of Quinn’s younger brother – murdered when he was a boy – are discovered in a shallow grave, Madison vows to follow the trail of brutal deaths that leads to the truth.
A sadistic killer stalks the investigation as Madison’s own demons threaten her future career with the police and darkness closes in. How far is she prepared to go to save a life?
The Dark is Valentina Gaimbanco's follow up to her debut novel The Gift of Darkness. The events of the new novel follow hard on the heels of the first and in some ways, this sequel fills in much of the backstory of key characters from her debut. Set in and around Seattle, the novel is full of twisted souls and moody scenery and Giambanco effectively ratchets up the tension from early on.
Detective Alice Madison is still psychologically scarred by the events of the previous novel which saw her hunting down Salinger, the man who kidnapped her godchild. She was helped in that search by a lawyer, Nathan Quinn, and his dangerous client, old friend and suspected killer Jack Cameron. At the start of The Dark, Madison is in therapy, Quinn is in hospital and Cameron is in solitary confinement for his own safety. When the remains of Nathan's brother, killed 25 years earlier, are found in the same forest where she battled Salinger for her life and Nathan puts a public bounty on information leading to his brother's killer, Madison is drawn back into the orbit of the lawyer and the killer.
The Dark can be confusing at first for those who who haven't read The Gift of Darkness, particularly with its two prologues and short point of view jumps. But it does not take long to pick up the character threads and the new threat that emerges as the cold case starts to heat up. The Dark quickly becomes compulsive as details of the past emerge and the threat starts to materialise in the form of a gang of resourceful killers. Giambanco intercuts the stories of Madison, Cameron and Quinn to great effect as the climax rushes forward, her only slip being to cut away from Cameron just as he is at his most vulnerable.
The plot contains many familiar elements of the genre - a cold case, a rookie detective drawn into breaking the rules and forming a relationship with criminals and moments of extreme violence. Giambanco has managed to put all of this together into a thrilling package with memorable characters and, for an expat Italian living in London, a real sense of place.
Review - HAPPY DAYS, Graham Hurley
As ex-drug baron Bazza Mackenzie runs for parliament, ex-cop Paul Winter knows that his time with Bazza must,at whatever cost,come to an end, in the 12th in this highly acclaimed series of police procedurals
DI Faraday is gone and the police are left reeling. As his boss attempts to limit any possible PR damage, his one time shadow on the force, ex-DC Winter, is ever more.
It was somewhat bitter-sweet to know that on reading this book, Joe Faraday is dead, and another series over. Which I confess is a lot of the reason for the delay.
The Faraday and Winter series has always been a slow burner in this household, quick to obtain, slow to savour, the characters at the heart of the books – Faraday, Paul Winter and Bazza Mackenzie real and vibrantly drawn. Because of that realness the fate of Faraday seems, unfortunately, so right, here is a man who always seemed slightly lost. His life validated by his job, his son and his relationships, he never seemed destined to be able to move on. Ex-DC Paul Winter's questioning of his colleague Mackenzie also makes much sense. As Bazza Mackenzie becomes more erratic, more driven, the blinkers come off and Winter seems to suddenly realise he's got to make some hard decisions. And Mackenzie himself. Standing for parliament is both a lunatic undertaking for a man of his background, and yet so apt. (Is it wrong to think that at least here would be a politician who everyone knows is a crook – without the need for a corruption enquiry?)
But that all makes sense in the prism of this series which has always been about right and wrong, about people and the choices they make, the directions they take. So it seemed fair to expect that HAPPY DAYS would settle some scores, iron out some wrinkles and make a few statements. Which it does, in an understated, almost reflective manner.
Perfect styling for a perfect ending (if there can be such a thing) to a much loved series.
Review - MORIARTY by Anthony Horowitz
Sherlock Holmes is dead. Days after Holmes and his arch-enemy Moriarty fall to their doom at the Reichenbach Falls, Pinkerton agent Frederick Chase arrives in Europe from New York. The death of Moriarty has created a poisonous vacuum which has been swiftly filled by a fiendish new criminal mastermind who has risen to take his place.
Sherlock Holmes is the detective who cannot die. Arthur Conan Doyle tried, vainly to kill Holmes off in 1893. Wanting to concentrate on his historical novels, Conan Doyle famously killed Holmes and his arch nemesis Moriarty, sending them both plunging into Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls. But it couldn’t last. Public pressure led to Conan Doyle penning The Hound of the Baskervilles, set before Holmes’ death. Then, later a story that revealed that Holmes had, in fact faked his death at the Falls, setting the scene for many more years of Holmes stories. Over a hundred and twenty five years since he first appeared in print, Holmes and his erstwhile companion Watson are still going strong. You don’t have to go far in 2014 to find the two small screen and one big screen incarnation of the world’s foremost consulting detective.
And then there is Anthony Horowitz, the creator of both Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War, who, in 2011 was commissioned by the Conan Doyle Estate to write a new Sherlock Holmes novel. House of Silk was a well received Conan Doyle replica that fed the seemingly insatiable Holmes fan base. Now Horowitz returns with Moriarty, in which Holmes appears only in an extra Conan Doyle–style short story at the end. The book itself focuses on the period just following the Reichenbach Falls and the potential criminal vacuum that opens in London as a result of both Moriarty and Holmes’ demise.
Moriarty is set up very much in the style of a Sherlock Holmes story. It is narrated by Frederick Chase, a Pinkerton detective on the trail of an American criminal mastermind is somehow in league Moriarty. He befriends Scotland Yard man Athelney Jones, a Sherlock Holmes devotee (and character from an earlier Holmes novel), whose greatest wish is to emulate the great man. Their investigation takes them from Switzerland to London where a new, violent criminal enterprise led by the shadowy Deveroux, is rising. While their relationship is more equal than Holmes and Watson, Chase’s narrative follows very much in the tradition established by Conan Doyle.
There is plenty of fan service here. References to Sherlock Holmes esoteric research, a visit to Baker Street, a scene in which a bunch of Scotland Yard policemen sit around reminiscing about their favourite Holmes cases, an early clue that is in the form an encoded excerpt from a Sherlock Holmes novel. So much so that you can imagine Horowitz has a room much like that owned by Athelney Jones, packed wall-to-wall with Holmesian paraphernalia. But in comparison to this rich source material, the Jones and Chase investigation feels like Sherlock-lite. This feeling only grows as the plot wears on and is practically confirmed by the conclusion. You feel that Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson would have made much shorter and more enjoyable work of this investigation.
Bad things happen. Everybody dies. But the girl in the red dress kicks against the pricks. Four merciless and compelling stories by emerging writers from Canada, the UK, and USA.
From behind the wheel of her father's lovingly restored Barracuda, a waitress will protect her baby sister at all costs.
A nihilistic junkie whore hell bent on revenge snatches a last-gasp shot at an unlikely redemption. Her father sold her virginity for the price of a custom paint job. Now she's back and she's taking the whole damn car.
The combination of cars and girls makes absolute sense to me. Include them in a series of noir styled, dark and pointed short stories, and CARS & GIRLS from the Pankhurst Collective was both unexpected and an absolute pleasure to read.
Whilst the central theme of cars and girls carries through each of the stories in the collection, they are a varied bunch, in setting, style and resolution. The exciting thing though is that no punches are pulled. This is a dark and frequently violent collection, full of explicit sex and gun battles putting the central female characters in the sorts of roles normally allocated to men. And doing it seamlessly.
Given that each story has it's own particular flavour and style, there are some aspects (other than the darkness and the violence) that hold throughout. Each story is fast-paced, strong, gritty and in your face. That's not to say that anything is particularly gratuitous, it's finely balanced noir. There's tension and pace in most of them, and enough twists and turns to keep you guessing, although to be fair, the first story, 500, is of a slightly less frenetic pace, and perhaps a little more predictable than what's to come.
The collection is made up of 500 by Zoë Spencer, Road Runner by Tee Tyson, Barracuda by Madeline Harvey and Crown Victoria by Evangeline Jennings.
CARS & GIRLS definitely isn't a book for fans of traditional women protagonists. You get the distinct feeling the only use that any of these women would have for a teapot couldn't be discussed in polite society. It is, however, one for readers interested in something different, smart, stylish, and undeniably very clever.
Review - THE BOMB MAKERS, Marcus Case
A fugitive bomb maker dies in a police ambush in Marseille… A global terrorist collective meets in Paris to plan an attack on a European target… The terror cells have been activated and elite bombers from ETA and the Real IRA are already making their move, intent on using a device that will cause carnage on an unimaginable scale. Their motivation has its origins in a purpose shared decades earlier, leaving them with a legacy of grief and greed.
THE BOMB MAKERS by pseudonymous author Marcus Case is a terrorist thriller set in London, with the threat coming from a combination of ETA and the Real IRA. Which is a different combination for this reader.
A big, bold plot, THE BOMB MAKERS combines a bit of good old fashioned British policing with current counter-terrorism methods to track down an unusual and complicated bomb maker, and the bomb planter. DCI Emma Rydan and her junior, DS Kent are paired up when he's seconded to an investigation that's gone pear-shaped. In an interesting take on a very current day scenario, deep cover terrorists are activated in England, and a bomb maker with no history and a completely ruthless personality proves to be close to the investigation and hard to spot for some. It's a chilling idea, and very realistically portrayed. At one point I was wondering if rather than "general terrorist alerts" it might be better to get a bit more pointed with senior personnel warning them to be realistic. Just because someone young and beautiful is coming onto them, perhaps a glance in the mirror and a reality check wouldn't hurt?
As you'd expect in a thriller of this nature, there is action aplenty, with pace and a bit of over the top survival of the desperate. There's also lots and lots of threads running out from the central characters - into family and close ties, working on that idea of deep cover, being one of the most sobering.
The only minor quibble is possibly that there's too much of that connection - too close an inspection might make it seem like it's an unrealistically small world. If you get a chance to notice. There is also an awful lot going on, and perhaps a few too many close but not quite type scenes that do slightly detract from the pace. And a very convenient bit of teenager jeopardy that you could see coming from chapters away.
Still minor things in THE BOMB MAKERS - a thriller that was certainly a quick, exciting and engaging read.
Review - IF I SHOULD DIE, Matthew Frank
Vicious, apparently motiveless attacks target defenceless down-and-outs in South London. But when one of the victims dies from his injuries, it's murder . . .
For Joseph Stark, the Met investigation team's newest detective, death is already all too familiar. Wounded in an attack that killed his comrades, Stark has been haunted by nightmares since his return from the Afghan frontline.
Just trying to recover would be struggle enough, but Stark also has to deal with the rigours of a murder investigation while navigating the rivalries and loyalties of his new department.
In a world crowded with police procedurals it’s sometimes hard to imagine there being room for something new. While Matthew Frank’s debut novel IF I SHOULD DIE traverses some familiar procedural ground he uses this structure to introduce a startling new character and reveal London and Londoners in a distinctive style and voice.
Joe Stark is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He has returned home after being seriously injured in a fire fight but has shortcut his recovery to rejoin the police as a trainee investigator. The heart of the novel is Joe’s journey and his battle with the nightmares and physical impediments which plague him as he tries desperately to create a new post-military life. The structure and tone of the novel reflect Joe’s stubborn and reserved personality and, as a reader, it is easy to become as frustrated as his colleagues and therapists by his stubbornness and reticence. Reflecting this, the narrative pans away from Joe whenever he is forced to reveal his past, so as not to reveal his secrets.
The crime element of the novel is engaging and well handled. What begins as a series of beatings of homeless people by a group of disaffected youth quickly spirals into a series of murders with broader implications. While there are twists and reverses, Frank does not pull back from the boring procedure – walking around a crime scene, digging through rubbish bins, watching hours of CCTV footage – which gives the team’s wins some value. And as the novel proceeds that team emerges strongly, particularly Stark’s supervisor DS Fran Millhaven and her boss DCI Goombridge. As part of this team, Joe, as it turns out, is not a half bad detective and a number of times (maybe too many) he comes up with the idea that gives the case a break.
IF I SHOULD DIE is a confident and well-written debut. On the surface this is a Bill-like police procedural, walking the mean streets of Greenwich. But the heart of IF I SHOULD DIE is Trainee Investigator Joe Stark and an absorbing exploration of loyalty, duty and honour.
Review - BANGKOK COWBOY, Ron McMillan
In Bangkok anything – or anyone – can be had for a price.
Two days after private eye Mason sees a drunken Australian kicked to death in Bangkok’s notorious Soi Cowboy, he is approached by one of the men involved. Mobster Raymond Long owns nightclubs on the seedy sex strip and wants Mason to find his American accountant, who has disappeared, taking with her a computer hard drive. Mason is about to turn him down, when he realises the missing accountant is his friend Nathalie West.
Written with incredible pace and verve, BANGKOK COWBOY combines a very good plot with a couple of great central characters. Army veteran and PI Mason is in Thailand, disappearing after a bad war experience and an imploded marriage. In a series of elegantly incorporated thought bubbles, Mason's backstory is filled in well, including how he came to be in a business partnership and close friendship with Dixie. A Thai ladyboy, Dixie is a strong, brave, and gorgeous character, working with Mason and as a highly sought after personal escort. An unlikely friendship maybe, but well done, with a real sense of affection and concern for each other. They work as a pairing, as unlikely as it might seem.
The plot of the novel centres around the disappearance of a friend of Mason's - Nat West has been working as an accountant for a notorious gangster nightclub owner. She's gone missing along with a hard drive full of information that Raymond Long is very keen to get back. As are his mob bosses, right back to his Canadian roots.
There's quite a bit more to BANGKOK COWBOY than your standard thriller, mostly based on the lifestyle of Mason and his friends, and Dixie's contacts. Their connections and respect for each other adds a different dimension to the novel, although not at the expense of everything you'd normally expect. There's action aplenty, and some cunning outwitting of the bad guys by both Dixie and Mason. Perhaps less convincing is a bit of voluntary jeopardy at points where some resolutions were required - all of which were just a bit too daft on the part of the characters to be totally believable, although the action built into them does make it all a lot more palatable.
Minor quibbles apart, there was a lot to like about BANGKOK COWBOY, and a lot to look forward to in the next Mason and Dixie outing. Hopefully soon.