The Noah: a city-sized ship, half-way through an eight-hundred-year voyage to another planet. In a world where deeds, and even thoughts, cannot be kept secret, a man is murdered; his body so ruined that his identity must be established from DNA evidence. Within hours, all trace of the crime is swept away, hidden as though it never happened.
It is arguable that The Forever Watch is not a crime novel. If you were going to get hard and fast in genre terms you would sit it on the science fiction shelf in the bookshop. For starters, The Forever Watch is set on a massive spaceship called Noah which is carrying the remnants of humanity fleeing a ravaged Earth on a thousand year journey to a new home. It features a rigid social and political structure and characters with enhanced mental powers. And it toys with plot strands that involve alien contact and artificial intelligence. So far so scifi. But the true heart of this novel, and the driver of at least its first two thirds, is moulded along the lines of a classic procedural/detective story.
The plot revolves around Hana Dempsey, a high level town planner who is drawn into the investigation of a series of bloody murders by her policeman lover Barrens. Barrens is investigating the death of his former mentor who was found ripped apart by a killer that he has nicknamed “Mincemeat”. And it turns out that his mentor is not the only victim. Not only are seemingly random people being killed in the most gruesome way, but it seems that the authorities are doing their best to cover the crimes up. As in all good crime novels, their investigation allows a deep exploration of the world in which Hana and Barrens live as what starts as an attempt to solve a small number of incidents escalates outwards and layers of secrets are exposed. The plot is carefully structured around multiple layers of secrets, some so deep that even thinking about them can be dangerous, and they continue to be revealed right up to the final pages.
In many crime novels, the crime is solved, the mystery is wrapped up and the world moves on. But Ramirez is not satisfied with that and The Forever Watch does something in its final act that crime novels tend to skirt around. Ramirez explores the consequences not only of the keeping of secrets by authorities but what might happens when those secrets start to come to light, particularly in a closed society.
The Forever Watch is first and foremost a fabulous piece of world building. Ramirez manages to successfully juggle a number of science fiction standards and produce something startlingly original. There is very little exposition as Ramirez drops the reader straight into first person present narration of Hana Dempsey. As a result, it takes time to get across all of the nuances of the world of the Noah, but the effort is worth it. And the whole package is made more enticing by the crime elements which drive the reader in and through this world.
Review - The Few, Nadia Dalbuono
Detective Leone Scamarcio, the son of a former leading Mafioso, has turned his back on the family business, and has joined the Rome police force. He may be one of the last honest men in Italy.
But when Scamarcio is handed a file of extremely compromising photographs of a highprofile Italian politician, and told to ‘deal with it’, he knows he’s in for trouble. And when a young man is found stabbed to death in Rome, and a young American girl disappears on a beach in Elba, Scamarcio’s job gets a whole lot more complicated.
Italy is fertile ground for crime fiction. With the mafia, political shenanigans and corruption often making international headlines. In addition, it is a beautiful and colourful place with fabulous locations for nefarious acts. Nadia Dalbuono's debut novel, The Few, draws on all of these aspects, and adds a few more to create a heady mix of plot and character.
Detective Leon Scarmacio, like all good crime protagonists, is a policeman with a shady past and on the outer with his colleagues. Son of a famous mafioso, Scarmacio is the white sheep of the family, a fact that is not lost on his less than white colleagues. In The Few, Scarmacio is drawn into the investigation of the death of a male prostitute which also involves blackmail of a senior government minister and shady dealings at all levels of the Government.
Then, following an anonymous tip-off, Scarmacio becomes involved in the investigation of a missing American 7-year-old on the island of Elba. There are a number of these poorly justified tip-offs in the novel, dropped in to keep the investigation (and plot) on track.
As the plot unfolds on Elba, The Few starts to feel like two, or perhaps three, books shoehorned together. The whole is also not helped by short italicised flashbacks at the beginning of some of the chapters, many of which make little sense and require rereading as plot unfolds. And while the disparate plot strands and flashback sequences do come together towards the end, the novel never escapes the feeling of being overstuffed with plots, characters and connections. In the end, while the central mystery is resolved, there are still a number of side issues, particularly related to Scarmarcio's past, left dangling for an expected sequel.
Review - STALIN'S GOLD, Mark Ellis
December 1938. Moscow. Josef Stalin has lost some gold. He is not a happy man. He asks his henchman Beria to track it down. September 1940 London. Above the city the Battle of Britain rages and the bombs rain down. On the streets below, DCI Frank Merlin and his officers investigate the sudden disappearance of Polish RAF pilot Ziggy Kilinski while also battling an epidemic of looting unleashed by the chaos and destruction of the Blitz.
The thing with really enjoyable review books that are part of a series is that there's no option but to go back and get the earlier books. Regardless of how teetering the current reading pile might be. Which is what happened here after finishing STALIN'S GOLD.
Interesting enough this is now the second series built around the Polish in England that's appealed - albeit this isn't set in current day. Despite it also being the second book in the series, it's very easy to get into sync with Frank Merlin. A cop kept behind in England whilst the war rages, because of the importance of the job, he's not completely comfortable with this imposition. The job is also made considerably more difficult because there is such a lack of police resources with so many people fighting the war. On the home front the police are dealing with the aftermath of the London bombings, with looters causing concern in very high places, enough to make his immediate superiors question the need for much time to be spent searching for a missing Polish RAF pilot.
But search and find that missing pilot Merlin does, and not just because of a personal request from the brother of his Polish lover. But the finding of the dead pilot leads to an even bigger mystery which eventually winds itself around more than just his death.
The atmosphere and sense of place that builds in STALIN'S GOLD is palpable. The ever present threat of the bombings, combined with the feel of darkened streets and people living in straightened circumstances, is nicely described, and that, combined with the character of Merlin - restrained, very British, and yet a loving and concerned man gives what's ultimately a thriller, a strong base in place and character. It's also not all dire - in amongst the bombed out centres there's orchestra performances, moments in parks, and quiet and relatively peaceful streets with people getting on with life.
The pacing of the thriller aspects is well done, and whilst the plot is complicated and quite far ranging, it weaves together deftly, with the characters remaining a strong focus. In a nice touch there's a real sense of grey about many of those characters. The circumstances of the lives that wartime people live sometimes leading them to do great things, or bad things. Not excusing any of the worst of the goings on.
The other nice touch is the inclusion of the Polish government in exile and the Polish community - an aspect of wartime London here, at least, that was quite illuminating.
Definitely a series for fans of historical crime fiction. Particularly those who like a touch of thriller pace in what is ultimately a good police procedural, with a strong central protagonist.
Review - EENY MEENY, M.J. Arlidge
Two hostages. One bullet. One lives. One dies.
There's nothing new about a central police character as damaged as the victims they are fighting for, and in many ways DI Helen Grace is one straight out of the mould. She's driven, single-minded, single and a devoted cop and good and supportive boss. She's not a woman who is just suffering from "women's issues" - she's a cop with a hard and complicated past, dealing with it in a manner that's sad and yet somehow unsurprising. This is a women who is beating herself up on a daily basis, and still operating as a good, hard-working, dedicated cop. Who is hunting one of the most bizarre killers you'd ever come across.
Which makes this a rather spooky and confrontational plot. Definitely not one for those whose sensibilities are easily offended. There's violence, terror, the worst of human nature and the particularly frightening idea that this killer is taking 2 people and putting them in the position of making a truly frightening choice. Starkly so in the first case - where a young couple are kidnapped, confined and left with a gun and that choice - one kill the other, and the survivor goes free. Whilst further cases and victims come to hand, somehow it's that first couple - young, planning a future, and being forced into that position that remains so profoundly upsetting and shocking.
Not that the reader gets a lot of time to dwell in EENY MEENY. The pace is rapidfire and the combination of victim, crime, investigation and personal really elegantly balanced to give you even more reasons to keep reading. There is, however, enough time for the reader to identify with the victim's who "survived", and the cops chasing the killer.
A killer who is female, and capable of some astounding feats of strength to say nothing of ruthlessness. Chased by a female cop, with a couple of well developed colleagues - one female and one male. Grace's DS Mike is a cop with his own personal problems - the breakdown of his marriage means he's drinking way too much, leaving the remaining main character - fellow cop Charlie with a surprisingly normal life. Although her much longed for pregnancy makes her vulnerable at the wrong time completely.
As followers of my reviews will know I'm a bit over spending heaps of time in the head of the barking mad serial killer style of books just because that's a good place to get some shock value. There's none of that feeling here. There are short segments written from the perspective of a very damaged individual, but it's not killer-porn. It's sad, sinister and revealing and it all seems to be building on the "why" (there's twists and turns that mean it's less what you think it could be by the end). There are, actually a lot of twists and turns in this plot and some elements that, frankly, made me kick myself for not seeing coming.
After finishing the book, a quick look at the author's bio indicates that M.J. Arlidge has worked in television for the past 15 years. Whilst there's nothing "script like" about EENY MEENY there is something visual about it. Uncomfortably so, because these are victims, and cops who remain with me, and I'm guessing will for quite sometime to come. It seems there is a second book in the works which will be on the read immediately list.
Review - DEATH-WATCH, John Dickson Carr
In the shadowy hallway of the clockmaker's old house a policeman is found murdered, a steel clock hand embedded in his neck. A thing with gilt-painted hands scuttles across London roof-tops. These are just two of the frightening scenes in Dr. Gideon Fell's most frightening case- a case that starts with a knife-wielding shoplifter and ends with a portly detective using a mad-man to capture a murderer.
Originally published in 1935, DEATH-WATCH is the fifth book in the Dr Gideon Fell series by "golden-age" writer John Dickson Carr.
After marrying an Englishwoman, Dickson moved to London, the setting for many of his novels. Referred to as one of the "Golden Age" writers of mysteries, most of the books relied on complex plots, although Dickson was a particular proponent of the "locked room" style of puzzle. Dr Gideon Fell is one of the great solvers of the seemingly impossible crime and in DEATH-WATCH he is working closely with Inspector Hadley to solve the odd mystery of the death of an undercover policeman. The house in which the policeman died is that of clockmaker Johannus Carver, who is then connected to another case - the wounding of a store detective - and the theft of jewellery and a unique watch, also connected to the house via the maker.
DEATH-WATCH really is a classic "Golden-Age" mystery, with a complex plot relying on connections and circles within circles. To say nothing of wading through a lot of red-herrings and around a lot of possible suspects. Much of the investigating relies on the keen observation of Dr Fell, who notes, sees and considers all the actions, and comments of everyone who lives in the house. Needless to say the police are there to run errands, pick up evidence and generally serve the machinations of the Great Detective.
Obviously this is old style mystery writing, so it is very wordy compared to current standards, and quite convoluted in places. There's also a decided propensity to write hysteria and oddity into just about every female character in the book - they are either prone to suspicious behaviour, over the top outbursts, mad personal affectations, or completely bland. In DEATH-WATCH this tendency seemed to be even more pronounced than normal even allowing for the time that the novel was originally written.
If you are a fan of Golden-Age mystery writing, then you might already have come across the Dr Gideon Fell novels. If they are new to you, and you can handle the wordiness and the attitude towards women then this book is perfectly readable as a starting point, or a point in the middle, or even if you're in the mood to work your way through the series from the beginning.
Review - THE TRUTH WILL OUT, Jane Isaac
Eva is horrified when she witnesses an attack on her best friend. She calls an ambulance and forces herself to flee Hampton, fearing for her own safety. DCI Helen Lavery leads the investigation into the murder. With no leads, no further witnesses and no sign of forced entry, the murder enquiry begins.
Slowly, the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. But as Helen inches towards solving the case, her past becomes caught up in her present.
In THE TRUTH WILL OUT, author Jane Isaac has created the beginnings of a classic British police procedural series. At the heart of the book is DCI Helen Lavery, a cop leading a team of murder investigators. She's a widow with two teenage sons, living in a shared caring arrangement with her own mother, balancing the difficulties of raising kids with a full-time demanding career. Because of that slightly different angle, Lavery as a widow, there's a slightly different feeling about the personal. The arrangement with her aging mother assisting with the raising of her grandkids, the loss of her husband at a very young age, and the sense of moving on, trying out a new relationship (with a fellow cop), gives her a slightly different perspective. Especially with the new relationship having gone pear-shaped, and suddenly finding herself face to face with him again, competing as it were, over investigation territories.
The concentration is not fully on the personal though. At the heart of the story is the brutal killing of a young woman, with another slightly unusual twist in that the only witness to the attack is her best friend, who sees everything via a Skype call, and then can't work out if she's running from the reality of what happened, or from the killer herself. The twisty nature of Eva's involvement is mirrored by the twisty nature of the possible suspects as well, as the lay down case established by Lavery's ex is picked apart by her team due to their persistence and her failure to believe the easy answer.
The combination of plot and characters are really good, although there are some issues with pace towards the middle of the book. There's a nice sense of realisation that builds throughout the book, with just enough red herrings and doubt sprinkled through to keep the reader guessing, right up to the last few chapters. At that point things do seem to get a little ragged, with some daft decision-making leading to something dangerously close to good old fem-jep. The biggest problem, however, is that the style suddenly flips into "now we'll wrap up the resolution in a few well crafted revelations". Granted there's no living room with all the characters sitting around in a half circle while the great detective espouses their theory. But it was hard to shake that perception.
Early series books, being early series books, there's always something that the dreaded picky reader can nitpick, and to be fair, up until those few minor quibbles at the end, THE TRUTH WILL OUT was working on just about every level. Definitely a series to keep an eye out for, especially if you like a good old British police procedural, with the violence, blood and gore kept to a minimum, and a central detective who doesn't come across as never needing a battery change.
Review - DEATH CAN'T TAKE A JOKE, Anya Lipska
When masked men brutally stab one of his closest friends to death, Janusz Kiszka – fixer to East London’s Poles – must dig deep into London’s criminal underbelly to track down the killers and deliver justice.
Shadowing a beautiful Ukrainian girl he believes could solve the mystery, Kiszka soon finds himself skating dangerously close to her ruthless ‘businessman’ boyfriend. Meanwhile, his old nemesis, rookie police detective Natalie Kershaw is struggling to identify a mystery suicide, a Pole who jumped off the top of Canary Wharf Tower. But all is not what it seems…
The second book in the Kiszka and Kershaw series set within the Polish community in London, DEATH CAN'T TAKE A JOKE has been a much anticipated arrival, which does not disappoint.
In the first book, WHERE THE DEVIL CAN'T GO, Lipska builds a terrific partnership between the distant, slightly standoffish, Polish PI Janusz Kiszka and an ambitious, young, British detective Natalie Kershaw. This is not your traditional police procedural relationship, there's no love interest (not even a spark of sexual tension), and there's no enforced working relationship (they aren't colleagues). In DEATH CAN'T TAKE A JOKE this relationship is expanded further as once again, their investigations overlap deep within the complex world of the Polish expatriate community centred around the area of Kershaw's police beat. It's a clever way of pulling together an unlikely pairing like this, particularly as Kiszka's involvement here is initially that of a suspect.
Part of the reason this pairing of characters works well is the contrasts. The life of the immigrant forced from a country he loves by circumstances beyond his control, a broken marriage and fractured relationship with his only child, versus that of someone British born, whose major life change is moving in with partner, and fellow cop Ben. Although there are some similarities in that their love lives always seem to be teetering on the edge of not quite getting it right, they both fare slightly better with friendships. In particular, Kiszka's long-term friends have been a source of real enjoyment in both of these books, particularly the magnificently batty Oskar, who is the perfect foil for the taciturn Kiszka in every way. Their enforced abode sharing in this book is the source of a series of particularly funny one-liners. There's also a good working relationship between Kershaw and her boss - he's not the stereotypical thorn in our hero's side for once, and there's a great sense of understanding, camaraderie and co-operation.
Whilst the characters are a big part of why this series has worked so well, they are supported by good, believable and complex plots. There's no surprise in the death of Kiszka's friend being an official investigation, and the focus of his own attention. There's also something elegantly realistic about the way that the connections between a Ukrainian mystery woman, a ruthless Romanian gangster and the unknown Polish man who seemingly jumped to his death fall into place. There are even touches of history lesson woven in - we're learning more and more about the political tensions in Poland, and the reasons why so many people have fled or been forced out.
All of which leads us to the underlying reason for this series heading into firm favourite stakes. Lipska is a consummate storyteller. The characters, the place, and the plots are realistic. The dialogue is well structured, and even the inclusion of Polish terms and slang flow into place without ever bogging the reader down in translation thinking. The combination of plot, personal and pace are perfect. There's real impetus to keep reading here, and that's not because of any impending sense of doom or gloom, it's because of a genuine engagement with the investigators, their friends, family and colleagues, and the victims.
If you've not read the first book WHERE THE DEVIL CAN'T GO, then you could dive straight into DEATH CAN'T TAKE A JOKE. There's enough feel for the back-story of all the main characters that you're not going to be completely lost and bamboozled. Although you'd be missing a real opportunity to catch up with, and then wait impatiently for the third book in the series. Just like the rest of us welded-on fans.
Review - THE CABINETMAKER, Alan Jones
The Cabinetmaker, Alan Jones’ first novel, tells of one man’s fight for justice when the law fails him. Set in Glasgow from the late nineteen-seventies through to the current day, a cabinetmaker's only son is brutally murdered by a gang of thugs, who walk free after a bungled prosecution.
It’s young Glasgow detective John McDaid’s first murder case. He forms an unlikely friendship with the cabinetmaker, united by a determination to see the killers punished, their passion for amateur football, and by John’s introduction to a lifelong obsession with fine furniture.
THE CABINETMAKER was offered to me as a review book, no conditions, although it did come with a warning about the inclusion of some strong language. Even allowing for a tendency to think that the pile up of bodies in crime fiction is more discomforting than the occasional burst of swearing, there's not a lot that's particularly noticeable, especially compared to the levels that you find elsewhere.
This is an unusually styled novel, focusing on the 30 year friendship between cop John McDaid and Francis, cabinetmaker, footballer and father of Patrick who was bashed to death one night. Despite a number of suspects being identified, and the case being bought to trial, somehow the likely perpetrators walked away. In an interesting twist in the Scottish legal system most of them let off with a verdict of "not proven" as opposed to "not guilty".
McDaid and Francis are drawn together from the very moment they both meet as a result of the case. That friendship expands into their shared football life, and into the workshop where McDaid steps into the role of apprentice cabinetmaker, learning the skills that Francis has honed over a lifetime. Building a touching friendship along the way, through the failure of marriages, relationships and into older age. McDaid and his colleague climb the policing ladder, and Francis quietly continues his art form of furniture making, while they both regret the lack of justice for the death of Patrick.
Whilst there is a sense of drift and lack of purpose at points in the story, there's also positives in both their lives. Francis may end up separating from his wife, but they stay friends, and his work and his love of football seems to be sustaining him. McDaid eventually seems to have found a good, albeit slightly odd, relationship with an unlikely woman. He has mates, he has his job, and he has his increasing love of furniture making and wood work.
Obviously, there is the question of where all this is heading, and despite any doubts early on, it's not long before the friendship becomes engrossing and the story of McDaid and Francis involving despite that seeming lack of an obvious direction. Of course, it's crime fiction, so you know / hope / think that perhaps eventually Patrick's death with be solved and justice served. Once the story starts to twist and turn, how that is going to be resolved becomes even more intriguing.
THE CABINETMAKER is a slow burner. There are points where some judicious editing might up the pace a little and hold the reader's attention more firmly in its grasp. But it is intricate and in the main engaging. In looking past the murder, into the lives of those left behind, the fallout from the death of a young man on his family, and on a policeman who feels some responsibility for the failure of a court case, THE CABINETMAKER was a welcome change from standard crime fiction fare.
Review - A LOVELY WAY TO BURN, Louise Welsh
It doesn't look like murder in a city full of death. A pandemic called 'The Sweats' is sweeping the globe. London is a city in crisis. Hospitals begin to fill with the dead and dying, but Stevie Flint is convinced that the sudden death of her boyfriend Dr Simon Sharkey was not from natural causes. As roads out of London become gridlocked with people fleeing infection, Stevie's search for Simon's killers takes her in the opposite direction, into the depths of the dying city and a race with death. A Lovely Way to Burn is the first outbreak in the Plague Times trilogy.
Normally I'm avoiding post-apocalyptic scenarios like the plague they are often employing. There is, however, absolutely no way in this world that I'm going to miss anything written by Louise Welsh no matter how leery of the subject matter I may find myself. So could one of my favourite authors make me accept the whole pandemic thing? To save you wading through the rest of this. Yes.
At the centre of A LOVELY WAY TO BURN there is the mystery of how surgeon Simon Sharkey died. Given the pandemic raging it seems likely that his girlfriend Stevie Flint is the only person that cares. Which is kind of understandable. As 'the Sweats' starts to take grip, the city of London is in chaos. There are riots, gridlocked traffic, emergency services struggling with personnel going down with the same virus, hospitals filling with sick people and the bodies of the dead.
Stevie has had her own battle with the virus and somehow she's now one of the survivors. She should be of great interest to authorities, if they weren't preoccupied, or compromised. Whilst she battles against the city and population gone mad to find out what happened to Simon, friends, colleagues and support systems crumble.
It's a real testament to how good a writer Welsh is that the whole pandemic, riot, madhouse thing works despite there not really being a lot of new ground to be mined in there. The interweaving of the murders does add a strikingly "normal" aspect to life - and you can almost feel the pointless of Stevie's quest. It's also a testament to Welsh's writing that makes you care about what happened to Simon, even when the details of his involvements are eventually revealed. The pace of this book is terrific, and the plot, in the main solid. Stevie, however, is a real standout - determined and fair, she's driven initially by a desire for the truth for Simon, despite the unravelling of his solid reputation.
A LOVELY WAY TO BURN is the first book in Louise Welsh's 'Plague Times' trilogy, which means that for a while to come, I'm going to be pointing out I don't like post-apocalyptic scenarios.. except when Louise Welsh is writing them.
Review - SOLO, William Boyd
It is 1969 and James Bond is about to go solo, recklessly motivated by revenge.
A seasoned veteran of the service, 007 is sent to single-handedly stop a civil war in the small West African nation of Zanzarim. Aided by a beautiful accomplice and hindered by the local militia, he undergoes a scarring experience which compels him to ignore M’s orders in pursuit of his own brand of justice. Bond’s renegade action leads him to Washington, D.C., where he discovers a web of geopolitical intrigue and witnesses fresh horrors.
As the first of the restarted Bond franchise novels that I've tackled I wasn't really sure what to expect. Especially as we've been doing a rewind of all of the movies recently so there's a certain perception of Bond jammed in my brain that's obviously going to take precedence over and above memories of the original books / writing.
At the start of the book this was definitely not Bond as I thought him. There's something oddly thoughtful, considered and reflective in the early chapters that really threw me. Badly. Obviously too many movies where, I have to admit, things got a bit too cartoonish. But I can definitely see how the opening part of this book has appeal. This is a human Bond - somebody that reminds me very much of Daniel Craig's version.
Once the action parts of the book get moving then we're back into more familiar territory, although the idea of filling in a back story around World War II works, providing a bit of continuity for the African civil strife to follow. SOLO also uses this scenario to provide a much more realistic threat for Bond to go up against. Even though I sort of did miss mad evil geniuses, shark tanks, mysterious islands, massive cities in space and all the other daft lunacy.
What Boyd does seem to have done is write a book within the Bond franchise that works as a thriller in its own right, with sufficient of the original framework to be true to the spirit, without trying for a direct copy.
To be honest I wasn't really looking forward to reading SOLO, so I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable it became.