Ben Cowper, an attending psychiatrist at the prestigious New York–Episcopal Hospital, is stunned to learn the identity of the emergency patient he’s just been assigned to treat: Harry Shapiro, a Wall Street colossus and one of Episcopal’s most prominent donors. But a high-profile reversal of fortune has left the once powerful investment banker jobless, bitter, and possibly desperate—judging by the handgun his wife finds him clutching. In Ben’s expert opinion, Shapiro is a suicide waiting to happen.
The problem with setting fictional books within real life events is that you seem to run the risk of alienating readers who aren't particularly interested in the subject, environment, or even the event itself. Particularly when the subject matter is something that could be perceived as a bit dry or more than a bit outside the average person's own experience. Hands up to being one of those people - financial system crashes, financier's behaving badly, guaranteed to have me humming The Girl From Ipanema loudly and looking for the closest exit.
Luckily I don't often pay a lot of attention to book blurbs and the next one that pops up on the Review Queue will be the one I at least have a go at reading. Half a dozen chapters in and the urge to go looking for a bit of detail about the author's background became quite overwhelming because A FATAL DEBT was shaping up to be extremely engaging. Gapper is chief business commentator and associate editor of the Financial Times and a regular on the BBC and CNN. His previous books are non-fiction discussions of real-life financial disasters. He has now written a very good thriller.
It won't be surprising at all if those with more financial world knowledge are able to match up the circumstances and the people to real life versions, as it was difficult to ignore the sneaking suspicion that there's some facts behind the storytelling. It will also not be particularly surprising if that level of recognition makes absolutely no difference whatsoever to enjoyment levels of the book. A FATAL DEBT worked particularly well for a reader with absolutely no idea who anybody could be based on, nor what particular High Finance scandals were recognisable.
Part of what makes that work so well is avoiding making the central protagonist a financier. Instead Attending Psychiatrist Ben Cowper is dragged into that world via his very high profile patient. It's not until Cowper's in way too far, and things have gone very wrong for investment banker Harry Shapiro that Cowper realises he's stepped right into a very deep hole, that may actually have been dug with intent. This device cleverly allows the author quite a few opportunities to explain the world to the fictional outsider, allowing the reader to eavesdrop on the clarifications. Allows the reader to learn a few things along the way without having to feel like the only neophyte at the altar of High Finance.
Of course the book is styled as a thriller, and there has to be a bit of action, a few lurking villains and a bit of romantic tension. The big difference is that in A FATAL DEBT the action isn't all energiser bunny and over the top heroics and the lurking villains have expensive tastes in suits and transportation methods. Perhaps the romantic interest could have been shelved in the "oh no not that old chestnut" drawer as it didn't contribute a whole lot to a plot that was, overall, a refreshingly excellent look at the world of white collar crime.
THE SUNDAY PHILOSOPHY CLUB - Alexander McCall Smith
Edinburgh. Genteel home to ladies who lunch, attend concerts, art exhibitions and - for this is not a showy city - do good by stealth. Ladies such as Isabel Dalhousie.
But behind Edinburgh's regimented Georgian facades, its moral compasses are spinning with greed, dishonesty, lust and murderous intent. Isabel knows this. Isabel, in fact, rather relishes it.
As strange as it may seem for somebody who prefers the darker side of Crime Fiction, I don't mind the occasional dabble in The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency and I've rather enjoyed a few of McCall Smith's other series as well. Alas THE SUNDAY PHILOSOPHY CLUB didn't work for me at all.
I think to like this book you're going to have to like the protagonist Isabel Dalhousie, and unfortunately, she's the sort of character that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. There was something vaguely passive aggressive about all her actions, behaviours and attitudes that made my skin crawl slightly.
Of course it could be that part of what the author was aiming at was to make her a bit of a fish out of water, but somehow she just got up my nose. Which made the basic premise of the book very difficult to connect with. I kind of hoped at one point that the lovely ex-boyfriend of the perfect niece, he that Dalhousie obviously had a bit of crush on would turn out to be a maniacal serial killer with a massive problem with snooty older women and take to her with the stiffened spine of one of her philosophy treatise.
I may have lost perspective.
Doesn't mean I won't still dabble in the other books, particularly as I found myself left with a vague longing for PORTUGUESE IRREGULAR VERBS. Must go back and re-read that one over summer.
THE SACRIFICIAL MAN - Ruth Dugdall
When Probation Officer Cate Austin is given her new assignment, she faces the highest-profile case of her career. Alice Mariani helped her lover to die, and Cate has to recommend a sentence. But first she needs to understand.
Why did Alice agree to everything he asked of her?
After reading Dugdall's first book THE WOMAN BEFORE ME I was kind of expecting something a bit wow from THE SACRIFICIAL MAN. Which it delivered in that sort of sock removing, what the, oh boy, cook your own dinner I'm reading, kind of way.
Mind you, it's a bit on the sneaky side. The story starts out with Cate Austin out of the prison system, working her first new assignment which is a sentencing recommendation for Alice Mariani. As explained in the blurb, Mariani helped her lover to die, and she is dealing with the consequences of that on a legal and a personal level. But it is the personal that is particularly interesting Austin as Mariani doesn't quite seem to be reacting to the death or it's consequences in a way that makes sense. It's that digging into Mariani's past - both by Austin, and in the way that the author reveals the truth, that makes THE SACRIFICIAL MAN a book that's going to stay with me for quite a long time.
There are a number of extremely good aspects to this book. The subject matter of assisted suicide and the potential outcomes is going to be confrontational for some readers, but it is a very current day issue, and this is a particularly instructive approach. There's certainly nothing sensationalised, judgemental or conclusive about the treatment. There's also a very complicated storyline which is handled deftly. The timeframe shift backwards and forwards between current day, and the time when Mariani and the man who died first meet, and the arrangement that they come to. The viewpoint also shifts between Mariani, as herself and using a pseudonym (as does the dead man which is why I'm not confusing the issue here by using his name) and that of Austin. It's also not an investigation of guilt or innocence as such, as Austin is looking to provide sentencing recommendations, for a woman who has already been found guilty.
I must admit I didn't notice when THE SACRIFICIAL MAN went from being "the book that I'm reading" to "the book that I must read" but it did. Somewhere in the middle of all of that backwards and forwards, perspective switching, something happened and the back story of Alice Mariani started to explain who she was. Somewhere there a man made a decision to die, looked for support, and set up a process that he thought was fair on everyone. Somewhere the wheels fell off that and consequences ensued. And ultimately a person tries to get to the bottom of those circumstances and come up with a recommendation on how those consequences will pay out. About there I suddenly found a depth, and some messages that I'm still thinking about.
THE WRONG MAN - Jason Dean
In this adrenaline-fuelled thriller from Jason Dean, former Marine James Bishop only has one opportunity to make his prison break. And one chance to prove he isn't responsible for the murders that put him inside.
Three years ago Bishop was the leader of a elite close protection team assigned to safeguard a millionaire and his daughter. After being attacked, Bishop regained consciousness to find seven bodies strewn throughout the millionaire's Long Island mansion – including those of his two charges – and a mountain of evidence guaranteed to send him down for the murders.
I've got to start rationing this sort of thriller. I'm starting to develop a bit of a twitch when there are any loud bangs anywhere, and don't get me started on the reaction when anybody a bit furtive-looking is walking towards me on the streets of the local towns.... Although I will admit there's something rather appealing about close protection bodyguards. Except maybe not the lot that James Bishop gets himself mixed up with in THE WRONG MAN.
Bishop's been framed, and the initial action in the book sets up the circumstances of that event at breakneck pace, continuing that right to the very last page. A debut novel, THE WRONG MAN also has an interesting plot which seemed refreshingly unique to me. His ex-military background is part of what got him the job, and got him involved with the people that are trying to screw him over. It's part of the reason for his actions and his abilities, but that's about where the military style involvement ends. We're not talking politics, or lurking baddies of <insert your threatening culture / belief system here>. Just a good old fashioned "I was framed yer honour", and a bit of hard graft to sort it all out.
Sure Bishop's another stoic loner and more than a bit of an energiser bunny type, who gets the girl and then doesn't quite know what to do about it. There is a bit of daft fem-jep going on which was mildly disappointing, although there was some redemption of that towards the end. Of course there are lurking baddies in the picture, but mostly it's about self-interest, and most of them are very matter of fact about Bishop as a threat to their own agendas. There's also a satisfying level of special effects type action, and a lot of personal jeopardy and bugger the consequences going on, but that's balanced well with a plot and some characters that you can get a bit of a connection with.
THE WRONG MAN was one of those books that was a sit down and read in one sitting. It was highly entertaining, exciting and a nail-biting at points, overall a satisfying, good debut novel. Hopefully there are more from this author in the pipeline.
KILLING FOR THE COMPANY - Chris Ryan
2003. Invalided out of the SAS Chet Freeman makes his living in high-end security, on a temporary contract for an American corporation called the Grosvenor Group. He catches a young woman, a peace campaigner, eavesdropping on a meeting the Group is holding with the British Prime Minister. The Group's interests include arms manufacture, and what Chet and the young woman overhear seems to imply that it is bribing the Prime Minister to take his country into an illegal war. Could this possibly be true?
I'm starting to wonder if it's become mandatory for ex-SAS or other special forces members to leave active duty and write books. It seems that there are a lot of options for this sort of informed thriller style book, but you'll need to be partial to something that includes a military theme somewhere.
KILLING FOR THE COMPANY has, as it's first military connection, an ex-SAS member, Chet Freeman, invalided out, now working in anti-bugging and surveillance on contract for a major American corporation. Long story short, he catches Suze McArthur, a peace campaigner, eavesdropping on a meeting between corporation executives and the British Prime Minister, Alistair Stratton, that seems to be talking about a personal financial incentive for the Prime Minister to be take his country into the Gulf War.
The opening action takes the reader back 10 years, leaping forward to the current as the cover-up for that eavesdropping proves deadly, even after all these years. The Prime Minister (nobody's going to earn a gold star for working out who it's based on) is now a Middle East peace envoy and in the second military connection, Freeman's mate and special services, close protection agent Luke Mercer is in the action. Firstly he's contacted by McArthur asking for his help, secondly as he's assigned to get Stratton into Gaza.
The setup is absolutely rapidfire, and totally no holds barred. Once the baddies and the goodies are all sorted out though, you're going to need to fire up that suspension of disbelief and keep it operating at tip top condition. You're also going to need a little bit of a thick skin (actually you're probably going to need that from the outset). After all, there's "getting" the idea that sometimes you have to dehumanise the opposition to be an effective fighter, and then there's some very confrontational terminology and attitudes. Readers are also going to have to be comfortable with the idea that sometimes bad things happen - very very bad things.
I've never read anything else from this author, and I've never seen any of the television programs that he's been connected with, so I've no idea how this book sits in terms of his other work. Whilst this was a very action packed thriller, particularly in the early stages, and there's some good and some very surprising twists in the lives of the characters. There are some rather formulaic aspects, a bit of a dodgy plot, and for some reason, that dehumanising that really stuck out. There's also that idea that because you can work out who the high-profile figure is, you just can't shake the feeling that there could be a bit of political statement going on. Perhaps if the connection to the Prime Minister hadn't been quite so obvious, the plot might have been slightly more believable. If you don't care about that, and you don't mind your plots wobbling a bit under the pressure of the action, KILLING FOR THE COMPANY would definitely be one of those high-action summer reading type thrillers.
MAKING MONEY - Terry Pratchett
The Ankh-Morpork Post Office is running like . . . well, not at all like a government office. The mail is delivered promptly; meetings start and end on time; five out of six letters relegated to the Blind Letter Office ultimately wend their way to the correct addresses. Postmaster General Moist von Lipwig, former arch-swindler and confidence man, has exceeded all expectations—including his own. So it's somewhat disconcerting when Lord Vetinari summons Moist to the palace and asks, "Tell me, Mr. Lipwig, would you like to make some real money?"
Less of a review - more of a note to self. If Terry Pratchett published the doodles from the notepad on his telephone table I'd probably read that, so MAKING MONEY was no trial at all, even though it's probably not one of the better of the Discworld novels.
Maybe that's because there was a decided lack of wizards, maybe it's because Moist Von Lipwig isn't quite as flamboyant or, well let's say it, lunatic as some of the central characters in other books. Maybe it's also because the plot isn't quite as convoluted, layered, twisty, and, well lunatic, as others.
Frankly a slightly less than stellar Terry Pratchett book is still a thing of joy for me. In 2013 I am really hoping to go back and start the entire Discworld series from the very beginning again just because I want to...
THE BURNING - Jane Casey
The Burning Man. It’s the name the media has given a brutal murderer who has beaten four young women to death before setting their bodies ablaze in secluded areas of London’s parks. And now there’s a fifth.
The morning that I went for my drivers licence, I'm not sure who was the most worried. My very patient, very kind driving instructor or me. Because we both knew that when it came to parking, I might as well be driving a block of flats. It didn't matter what that poor man did, there was no way in the world I could "get" parallel parking, and nothing much has changed in the intervening years. So I guess from the opening scenes of Jane Casey's THE BURNING I was feeling a little frisson of connection with DC Maeve Kerrigan.
That connection alone is never going to be enough to hold a reader's interest in any particular book however, particularly as I'm not convinced that the book should be described as a thriller. It's definitely more in the vein of a police procedural, albeit with a strong feeling of tension and pressure.
Whilst there is the search for a serial killer at the centre of the storyline this is another twist on that scenario in that Kerrigan's focus is actually on a killing, initially put down to the serial killer, but with sufficient differences to make her question that. This means that this victim's life needs to be examined closely, and along the way, that of her friend Louise North.
Somewhere in the characters of North, the victim Haworth, and her wealthy handsome ex-boyfriend who seems to have a rather sinister reason for transferring his attentions to North, there's obviously an unreliable narrator. The question is which one. Or is it any of these three. Could it perhaps be one of Haworth's other past lovers? As the viewpoint switches back and forth between Kerrigan and North, there are glimpses of the truth that kept this reader intrigued right to the end.
Personally I really liked the character of Kerrigan. I liked her imperfections and doubts, her reckless commitment to the task at hand. I liked the slightly tongue in cheek humour, the idea that she was a woman holding her own in a world of blokes with attitude problems. I thought there was much about her that was very appealing, although I'd imagine that some people could struggle with the very laid-back, dry sense of humour.
The best thing about getting to this party late as usual, is that there are more books out now in the Maeve Kerrigan series, which have gone onto the Must Acquire list.
COLD LIGHT - John Harvey
It's a run-of-the-mill Christmas crime wave as far as D.I. Charlie Resnick is concerned - a cab driver badly beaten, one woman on drunk and disorderly charges, and a possible case of child abuse. All in all, things are under control, until they get a call from Dana Matthieson. For Dana's flatmate has been missing for eighteen hours by the time Resnick and his colleagues have been notified. And soon they have concrete proof that she has been abducted. In the New Year, the first cape arrives and Resnick knows for sure that they are dealing with a chilling psychopath.
I do really like the fictional Charlie Resnick. Sure he's another loner cop with a fractured personal life and a work ethic that sometimes seems to veer dangerously close to avoidance of the mess of the personal life, but he's also a man who loves his cats, is good to his friends, seems quite attractive to the ladies, and makes a very mean sandwhich.
There is a pool of these good, solid police procedural series coming from a similar time, and I am working my way back through them on occasions. Some of the books are re-reads, some of them are new, all of them are hopelessly out of series order. Which means that each of the books has to work on its own, which they do. Some of the plots are more complex and believable than others, and whilst COLD LIGHT does seem to rely on a few red herrings liberally dotted throughout, there is a good sense of pace, and urgency about the search for a missing young woman. As well done as the sense of rage in her father, and the attraction that builds between Resnick and her flatmate. There's some nice touches of coincidence, that are quite believable in a confined geographical location, there's also some complications in the case, and in the personal that flesh the whole thing out.
I must admit I am quite a fan of the Charlie Resnick series, although I do like most of the books by this author that I've read. Definitely one for fans of solid, believable police procedurals from what is, after all, a pretty large British pool.
SHADOW OF THE ROCK, Thomas Mogford
On a humid summer night in Gibraltar, lawyer Spike Sanguinetti finds Solomon Hassan, an old school friend, waiting on his doorstep.
Accused of murdering a Spanish girl in Tangiers, Solomon swears his innocence. He has managed to skip across the Straits, but the Moroccan authorities demand his return.
If you're going to be a business lawyer dragged into criminal matters by an old school friend who gets himself into a heap of trouble, then the mean streets you walk somehow seem considerably more exotic when they are the laneways, byways and desert tracks of Gibraltar and Tangiers.
SHADOW OF THE ROCK is the first Spike Sanguinetti novel from UK author Thomas Mogford. An old-fashioned hard-boiled style thriller, this book is not short of a lot of running around, some lurking, a lot of our hero lost in a strange new world, a love interest, some unexpected threats, a big business styled conspiracy, and a very big allocation of action.
Fortunately, unlike in a lot of these big, bold thriller style books, there are some very engaging characters who behave in a surprisingly real way. Sanguinetti in particular is brave when pushed, daft when required and a son, a lawyer and a friend way before he's any sort of an action hero.
The sense of place delivers strongly as well, although most of the action does take place in Tangiers and surrounds. Obviously this provides a lot of the tension and difficulties for Sanguinetti to resolve as he's very out of his depth, in places and a culture that is outside his own experience. There are some early scenes in Gibraltar however, but not a lot actually happens in the Shadow of the Rock. Which if you want to think about it this way, could be a good thing. Now there's hope that the next book in the series looks locally at Gibraltar providing the same view of a place, and a culture, which is very different from the mean streets of ... say Melbourne, Glasgow, or New York.
THE SCIENCE OF DISCWORLD III - Darwin's Watch, Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen
The wizards discover to their cost that it’s no easy task to change history.
Not so long ago a past Prime Minister of ours declared that History teaching in schools should be more about learning dates and less about interpretation and analysis. Or something like that. I wasn't listening after the first bit about dates - I was curled up in a foetal position, fingers in ears, chanting "Make it Stop" "Make it Stop".
Much like most of my, thankfully short, school years.
THE SCIENCE OF DISCWORLD, might be fictional wrapped up with some science commentary, but to be frank - there were some explanations of scientific theory in this book - that a lot of years later, suddenly made some of the stuff they banged on about at school make sense.
Made me realise if they had given learning some narrative, actually chucked in a bit of fun, gave things some context and some interest ... I might have spent a lot less time fighting unconsciousness and a little more time actually learning something.
PS - himself who is a science nerd of the first order read the book at the same time as me and was equally impressed. They took some very complex scientific concepts and made them very accessible. (I think that's what he said... I've got my fingers in my ears chanting....)