Detective Constable Ash Henderson has a dark secret…
Five years ago his daughter, Rebecca, went missing on the eve of her thirteenth birthday. A year later the first card arrived: homemade, with a Polaroid picture stuck to the front – Rebecca, strapped to a chair, gagged and terrified. Every year another card: each one worse than the last.
The tabloids call him ‘The Birthday Boy’. He’s been snatching girls for twelve years, always in the run-up to their thirteenth birthday, sending the families his homemade cards showing their daughters being slowly tortured to death.
Said it before, should say it again. Will read anything Stuart MacBride publishes... eventually. And yes I know they are extremely violent, dark, with a warped sense of humour and slightly mad edge. What, therefore, is not to love.
A SONG FOR THE DYING isn't, however, a Logan McRae novel but don't let that make you lose hope. There's an equally good cast of misfits, mad buggers, scrappers and fighters here. Which is just as well as it's not easy for an ex-cop like Ash Henderson to survive a spell inside. Especially as even there, arch-enemy, gang boss and evil bitch Maeve Kerrigan can still seem to get to him with impunity.
This is the second Ash Henderson book and I'm shocked, somewhat amazed, and more than a bit disappointed in myself to find that I've not read BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD (despite having it in my stash since release). I plead insanity. Having said that, it was only half-way through that I twigged that there was another book, so the lack of back story didn't matter a jot. Not when Henderson is in jail, not when he refers to deaths in his family in the past, nor when he's tagged and released to help out with the investigation into the return of the bizarre and sadistic killer nicknamed "The Inside Man". Out of circulation for a quite a while, the return of the Inside Man means Henderson's called upon as he's the only cop that even came close to nicking him in the past.
Needless to say the details of The Inside Man's modus operandi are revolting. After grabbing and drugging women, they are "operated on" and a cheap plastic doll inserted into their abdominal cavities, before being stitched up, dumped and then in a particularly cruel twist, their own pre-recorded message played to emergency services from the nearest payphone. Everyone is very keen to get this monster before more women have to suffer, although Henderson isn't likely to follow the rules as closely as authorities would like. Being electronically tagged to team member psychiatrist Dr Alice McDonald isn't going to stop him from going after The Inside Man in his own way, and hoovering up the problem of Maeve Kerrigan along the way.
So many of the elements of Stuart MacBride's books are there. Complicated team member relationships, put upon heroes, a bit of bizarre behaviour on both sides of the law, some whatever it takes goings on, and some mightily pissed off people with some scores to settle. The plot gallops forward and the physical damage inflicted on Henderson would make a lesser man at least take a nap sometimes. We're not, however, in Aberdeen anymore but that doesn't stop the rain and the general bleakness of the weather. There's also a certain level of violence and depravity that I've come to love in MacBride's writing. It's fiction after all, and I've always maintained I like my worst of human nature on the page rather than the streets or TV screens.
The interesting thing about A SONG FOR THE DYING is that Henderson is a lot more suspect than Logan McRae will ever be. Anti-hero he might be, as wrong as it might feel to be on his side, he's a tremendous character who you can't help but cheer on. From a long way off in the sidelines mind you. As with all the characters around him, if you get too close, you're going to get a bit of heat rash.
WRONGFUL DEATH - Lynda La Plante
Six months after the body of Josh Reynolds, a London nightclub owner, was found and determined by police and coroner to be a suicide, DCS James Langton tasks DCI Anna Travis to review the case. Reynolds died from a single gunshot wound to the head, the gun held in his right hand. But details are emerging that suggest someone else may have fired the gun... As soon as she wraps up the case, Langton tells Anna, she can join him at the FBI Academy in Virginia for training.
WRONGFUL DEATH is the ninth book in the Anna Travis series from Lynda La Plante. Which therefore requires a confession. I started to struggle with this series around book 4 (DEADLY INTENT), and never managed to finish book 5 (SILENT SCREAM) or book 6 (BLIND FURY). So on the upside, I did manage to finish WRONGFUL DEATH. On the downside it was a disappointment.
Whilst the central premise, the re-investigation of the death of Josh Reynolds was an interesting idea, the cast of characters flat out didn't work for me. Can't remember the last time I've encountered so many characters that it was almost impossible to understand or connect with. In the earlier books I did finish, Anna Travis was a complicated and prickly character, but a dedicated investigator. In WRONGFUL DEATH she's still prickly and complicated, but considerably less convincing about it. A caricature.
Having said that, for the life of me I could not work out why Senior FBI Agent Jessie Dewar. What on earth she was doing there, why she had to be so universally unpleasant, difficult, opinionated, escaped me completely. Unless she was there to be the token out of step foreigner? Still can't get it straight in my own mind.
Then there's the rest of the office staff with the token over-worked, put upon one; the lazy, flittery one who never does anything but makes a lot of noise anyway, and the steady bloke in the background. Just a few too many caricatures.
Not helped by the presence somewhere in the upper echelons of DCS James Langton which also seemed odd. He seemed to bounce in, all in charge, and then bounce out all flustered by the higher up-upper echelons having it in for him. And then there was something about his marriage, and his past relationship with Travis, and then... to be honest I lost interest. Not quite before Travis heads off to the US, gets into another relationship, solves the local problems and steams back to the UK all ready to pick up the Reynolds case and solve it in one big bound....
And therein lies the biggest problem with this book, it starts out as slow as treacle, with only the characters to engage interest. And they don't. The plot then heads off into somewhere-else land and when everything's righted there, our hero returns to the UK to save that day as well. Which left me wondering even more what on earth Senior FBI Agent Jessie Dewar was there for.
Reading, as I do, rather a lot of crime fiction in a year, it's normally possible to find something positive. In the earlier books, even in the last one I finished, Travis was a good character who could lift a book's ranking, even one that has a flawed plot, or a lot of filler, or some daft red herrings. In WRONGFUL DEATH, however, she's not strong enough for that much heavy lifting.
WHEN THE DEVIL DRIVES - Christopher Brookmyre
Is the devil merely the name we give the worst in ourselves?
When private investigator Jasmine Sharp is hired to find Tessa Garrion, a young woman who has vanished without trace, it becomes increasingly clear that there are those who want her to stay that way. What begins as a simple search awakens a malevolence that has lain dormant for three decades, putting Jasmine in the crosshairs of those who would stop at nothing to keep their secrets buried.
Christopher Brookmyre is appointment purchasing in these parts, but even allowing for that obsession, I do really like the way this Jasmine Sharp series is shaping up. WHEN THE DEVIL DRIVES is the second book now, and whilst it would be better to read them both in sequence, you could get away with just picking up this one, especially if you're aware there's a story behind Jasmine becoming a Private Investigator.
There is a cast of central characters, built around Sharp, featuring hardman Fallan and DS MacLeod. Since Sharp took over running her Uncle Jim's detective agency, it's become increasingly apparent (to her) that she's not completely useless at this PI game. She's particularly good at finding long lost relatives, so when a woman walks through the door looking for her long-lost sister, it's a bit business as usual for Sharp.
For MacLeod, business as usual is the shooting of a well known patron of the arts and man about town, although the location, in the Highlands, and the manner, long-range sharp-shooting are less run of the mill.
More straight-laced than Brookmyre's satirical novels, that doesn't mean that WHEN THE DEVIL DRIVES is without humour, or absurdity or a bit of in your face goings on. But it all fits well into the scenario of PI's, cops and crims. Nicely plotted with intersecting lines that come together in a believable fashion. Combined with a nice line in lurking protection from Fallan again, I do really like this series. It's not dark and noir, it's not light and fluffy. It's not cuttingly satirical. It is, however, very engaging, and enjoyable and I'm really looking forward to following where it goes in the future.
THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS - Erskine Childers
Tempted by the idea of duck shooting, Carruthers joins his friend Davies on a yachting expedition in the Baltic. But Davies has more on his mind than killing fowl. As they navigate the waters and treacherous, shifting sands on board the Dulcibella, Carruthers learns the real reason behind their trip – and how the safety of Britain depends on it. The Riddle of the Sands is full of danger, double-crosses, and discoveries on which the fate of nations hangs by a thread.
First published in 1903 THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS, is an early espionage novels that I remember reading ... way back. The re-release as part of the Penguin Green Classics series, provided an excellent opportunity to revisit it. Interesting to look back now with adult eyes and to discover that it was, at the time, considered to be a prime example of British anti-German paranoia. Until a few years later. I think I've also read somewhere that Childers may have also had in mind a bit of rev up for British naval strategists.
Narrated by the uber-British Carruthers, this is the story of what starts out as a bit of yachting holiday around the coast of Germany and ends up a lot more sinister. Carruthers, classically foppish, obsessed with the minutiae of the life of a gentlemen, is a minor functionary in the Foreign Office. Despite reservations, he accepts the invitation of old-school-chum Davies to join him on his yacht. The facilities of which he somewhat under-estimates. Arriving with stacks of luggage and a series of parcels made up of the shopping requested by Davies, he finds that the "yacht" is a thirty-something foot, converted lifeboat. Despite a momentary concern that Carruthers is simply going to whinge and complain, he quickly adapts and finds himself enjoying the life of a hard working, journey-man sailor.
Whilst the story starts out somewhat light-heartedly it quickly becomes apparent that Davies' might actually be onto something. There's something afoot in the area, with skulduggery and very unsportsmanlike sailing eventually convincing Carruthers that Davies might be right to suspect the mysterious German tycoon / sailor and his very attractive daughter.
THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS is a book that comes equipped with maps. And frequent map references as Carruthers narrates events directly to the reader. Needless to say if you're a fan of maps, then this is the perfect use of them. Not that you need to follow too closely exactly where the goings on, are going on.
Told in language exactly like that you'd expect a minor functionary of the Foreign Office from 1903 to be using, this is immersion reading. Knowing the not too distant future of the British / German relationship does provide the reader with an interesting perspective, and the notion that perhaps Childers was trying to make a point some resonance. But really, you can just read this as a straight out spy / espionage thriller of its time. Perhaps a little less action packed than current day thrillers, but a ripping good yarn to boot.
(According to Wikipedia, Erskine Childers was executed by firing squad in 1922, during the Irish civil war. The article claims that his last words were a joke at the expense of his executioners: "Take a step or two forward, lads. It will be easier that way." John Bucan later wrote of him "no revolution ever produced a nobler or purer spirit.")
WHERE THE DEVIL CAN'T GO - Anya Lipska
The naked body of a girl washes up on London’s Thames foreshore – the only clue to her identity a heart-shaped tattoo. Who is she? And why did she die?
Janusz Kiszka, unofficial 'fixer' to East London’s Polish community, and a man with his own distinctive moral code, has been hired to track down a missing waitress. Meanwhile, DC Natalie Kershaw, a rookie detective who’s not afraid of breaking a few rules, investigates the suspicious deaths of two Polish girls.
They hail from very different worlds, but Kiszka and Kershaw are set on collision course…
No idea whatsoever how or why, but WHERE THE DEVIL CAN'T GO by Anya Lipska wafted into my somewhat dodgy attention span recently, and I started reading it immediately. As in read the sample, bought the ebook and read it as soon as it downloaded.
Sometimes the universe is very kind and benevolent place, because this is an excellent debut book. Set within the Polish community in England, I think I've since heard somewhere that this is the first novel of this sort out of that environment.
The story is set deep within that Polish community, many of whom are in England for work, escaping economic deprivation and sometimes official persecution in their homeland. The timeline is before the London Olympics, with much of the community working on building the Olympic venues.
Janusz Kiska doesn't work as a builder, rather he's an unofficial "fixer" for the community, a solid, taciturn man with a past and strong connections back to his homeland. One of the very early Polish arrivals in England, he sees things as a migrant, and as a long-term resident. Believable, fascinating, approachable although slightly stand-offish and touchingly sentimental, Kiska is a strong man with a strong sense of right and wrong. Thoughtful, calculating, clever and not above rule bending if required, his connections extend from recent arrivals, through to the religious hierarchy of the community and many of the leaders and power-brokers in both Polish and English society.
Natalie Kershaw is a young detective trying to forge her way in the male dominated police force. Her struggles in the force make her another outsider, especially as she's not against breaking a few rules herself. Starting a relationship with a workmate is probably the biggest rule she could have broken. Despite her doubts, she is supported by her boss, and whilst her colleagues might be a bit tricky, a large percentage of the problems she experiences could be put down to her own attitude. She's touchy, prickly and as believable as Kiska.
These two characters form less alliance, more a ceasefire when their cases of missing or dead young women connect up. Kiska working within the community and Poland with knowledge of the people, their superstitions and the language on his side. Kershaw with scientific and, eventually, the support of police resources behind her.
There's a lot working in this book. The characters are strong, and whilst we have a pairing of male and female, the romantic complications are in other directions. The plot elements are cleverly unpredictable, relying on the evils of money, drugs and sex as well as politics, influence and corruption. The book also takes the reader into a community that's not as well known, at least in these parts. Along the way there's some light cast about a background and the consequences of migration and marginalisation which was elegantly done.
Like it when a debut book puts an author on my "to be bought immediately" list. WHERE THE DEVIL CAN'T GO was finished in a couple of greedy reading sessions, DEATH CAN'T TAKE A JOKE pre-ordered immediately. It's going going straight to the top of the pile come March 2014.
RUMPOLE AND THE REIGN OF TERROR, John Mortimer
A respected Pakistani doctor is imprisoned on suspicion of being a terrorist, and the British government refuses to release any information to Rumpole regarding the evidence against him. The case appears hopeless and it is almost certain that the accused will remain incarcerated indefinitely without trial. As if this wasn't enough to deal with, 'She Who Must be Obeyed' is threatening to reveal her intimate opinions of her husband in a tell-all memoir…
You kind of forget how really good the Rumpole books can be - and this is a perfect little example. Especially with Mrs Rumpole locked in the box-room writing her memoirs (while not being romanced by Rumpole's nemesis of course). At the same time that Rumpole is proceeding with defending a Pakistani doctor suspected of terrorism. Who happens to have a connection to the infamous Timson family. Who have a big problem with him. Which means that Rumpole suddenly has a bit problem with cash flow.
Really should not have picked this up, but I'm having a lot of trouble resisting the lovely new Green Penguin Series. But all I've done to myself now is remind myself of another series I need to re-read from the start. As soon as I've finished all those other series I'm supposed to be reading from the start again.
13 SHOTS OF NOIR - Paul D Brazill
English writer Paul D Brazill's 13 Shots Of Noir is a collection of short stories in the vein of Roald Dahl, The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The first story, "The Tut", was nominated for a 2010 Spinetingler Award, while the story "Anger Management" was chosen as one of the Predators and Editors top twenty crime stories.
Dark, funny, dark, clever, funny, dark and absolutely brilliant, 13 SHOTS OF NOIR is a short story collection blurbed as in the "vein of Roald Dahl". I need to go back and read Dahl. Unless Brazill's got more of these collections.
Short, sharp and lyrical, these are dark dark dark little morsels, gloriously British in feel, funny where required, poignant where appropriate. Cleverly balanced between sharply observant and a bit of sly commentary on the "human condition", there's really not a bad one in the bunch here. It made me laugh, and made me think all at the same time. Which makes it perfect reading.
Every now and then the universe sneaks up and smacks you very hard around the head and shoulders until you pay attention to that which is being waved right in front of your nose. If this happens to you, and it is 13 SHOTS OF NOIR wafting in and out of your slightly blurred vision, then take the bloody hint.
LADY AUDLEY'S SECRET - Mary Elizabeth Braddon
When his uncle, Sir Michael Audley marries a beautiful and enigmatic young woman, Richard suppresses his misgivings. But the strange behaviours of Lady Audley and the suspicious disappearance of his friend, George Talboys, lead him to explore her mysterious past – with grave consequences.
Penguin Green Classics have provided an excellent opportunity to read, collect and revisit classic crime fiction titles. In the case of LADY AUDLEY'S SECRET, readers get an opportunity to return to a book from the Victorian era.
Shocking and an absolute sensation in its time - LADY AUDLEY'S SECRET is one of the original potboiler style novels. Considerably more wordy than current day stylings, with a plot that's very weak really, this is a novel about the journey, as opposed to the resolution. It's all about whether or not our hero, Richard, can solve the mysterious disappearance of his friend George, along the way resolving the enigma that is his uncle's new wife.
In a not altogether surprising format, the main character in this book isn't Lady Audley, but Richard. A typical upper-class man of his time, he's a barrister who seems to lead a life of extreme luxury. Lady Audley is, for the most part, the figure in the wings, waiting for her secret to be revealed. She only really steps onto stage towards the end of the book, as she is forced out of cover. To try to save her reputation and keep her secret hidden.
It's all very melodramatic of course, but it's quite attractively done, with a briskly paced narrative and some amusement and distraction along the way. The style is very arch, and probably exactly of its time, with little asides to the audience reminiscent of music hall type entertainments. There is also a surprising amount of wit and humour built into the tale, although sometimes the language of the time is very dense, and very wordy, which might defeat some current day readers. Particularly those who are more interested in the reveal - the secret, than the journey towards it.
It's wonderful to have the opportunity of going back to the early days of crime fiction with books like LADY AUDLEY'S SECRET. Stylings, tone and point of view might have changed over the intervening years, but for readers that can handle the density of words and the different cultural and social attitudes, then it could be a very enjoyable wander around in the past.
ps - the price of these little gems ($9.95) is classic Penguin as well and makes getting the entire set of Green Classics a distinct possibility which is very encouraging for book-addicts as well. Certainly it's a bit of a quest in these parts now.
DEAD LINE - Chris Ewan
What do you do if your fiancée goes missing, presumed taken?
If you're Daniel Trent, a highly-trained specialist in hostage negotiation, the answer is simple: You find out who took her and you make them talk.
But matters are complicated when Daniel's chief suspect is kidnapped. How does he get him back quickly - and alive?
Daniel Trent is a hostage negotiator, working alongside fiancée Aimee, but he could not have expected Aimee to go missing, or his chief suspect to be kidnapped as well. All of which is setup with breathtaking speed in DEAD LINE, dragging the reader into the story from the very first page, and not letting up until the end. Every now and again I did find myself rechecking the opening pages though - the sense of pace, the tension and the sheer wild ride of DEAD LINE didn't seem like THE DEAD THIEF'S GUIDE series at all. And I really liked those books from this author.
There's something deeply satisfying about Trent's single-minded pursuit of Aimee. Anybody who gets in his road, anything that prevents him from finding where she is, who has her, swept aside with extreme prejudice. He's thinking all the time and whilst the reader might not always be in on the innermost logic of what he's up to, there's never a moment of doubt about his commitment to the cause.
What's really interesting is that there's a sneaking suspicion of an unreliable narrator as well. Trent obviously has a plan, and even the suspect's family aren't going to be allowed to get in the road, but just sometimes, there was the disquieting feeling that nobody is exactly who they seem to be - even Trent. At one point I was even starting to wonder what on earth Aimee's story was. Cleverly done, the reader can both like and not be sure about Trent at the same time as not really know who to trust.
Charging headfirst to a cliff hanger of an ending that really works in this context, DEAD LINE is a book that made this reader pay attention.
SIGN OF THE CROSS - Thomas Mogford
Just as a degree of calm returns to Spike Sanguinetti's life in Gibraltar, he receives the shocking news that his Maltese uncle and aunt are dead after a domestic dispute escalated into a blood-soaked murder-suicide.
SIGN OF THE CROSS is the second Spike Sanguinetti novel, in a series that really does need to be read in order. Not that it's any trial to have to do so, as this is shaping up to be a standout.
It's not just the brutality of the murder, there's a fundamental sombreness about these books which works. The first book, THE SHADOW OF THE ROCK, was also set partly outside Gibraltar in Morocco, yet somehow that idea of a Shadow being cast carries through both stories. Sanguinetti is troubled in this book. By the brutal death of a loved aunt and uncle, the increasing frailty of his father, life itself. That's not to say he's morbid or tedious, it's a reflective man who struggles with the relationships around him - the lost and the failing.
A strong character study, with a clever and engaging plot, SIGN OF THE CROSS also has a very strong sense of place. Malta is as complex a society and history as was Morocco and Gibraltar in the first book. The books aren't travel guides, or postcards from, but they weave the place and the history into the story. The sense of culture and location informing the actions of the people now as it obviously has done for generations. Pulling the multi-generations of Sanguinetti's family into the action echoes those aspects beautifully.
Neither of these books are fast thriller styled crime fiction. They are enthralling, involving, intriguing studies of places and peoples, mistakes, history and relationships. And so far, two books down, very worth reading.