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.
Review - AFTER THE SILENCE, Jake Woodhouse
A body is found hanging on a hook above the canals of Amsterdam's old town, a mobile phone forced into the victim's mouth.
In a remote coastal village, a doll lies in the ashes of a burnt-down house. But the couple who died in the fire had no children of their own. Did a little girl escape the blaze? And, if so, who is she and where is she now?
Set in Amsterdam, AFTER THE SILENCE is a debut police procedural introducing, amongst a big cast of characters, Inspector Jaap Rykel. If you were looking for a single word to describe everyone in this book it would have to be damaged. They are all dealing with their own demons, to the point where there is a sneaking suspicion that there's not a happy person in the entire city. Mind you, the themes in the book will also have you wondering about where they have put their human decency into the bargain.
Rykel is a very flawed main character with a complicated past. His work partner, and friend Andreus also has his own problems, although the impending birth of his first child is something he's looking forward to. Until he's shot dead one night, when Rykel should have been working with him, although he was dealing with his sister who has a severe dose of PTSD from her time in Afghanistan. Rykel's guilt is exacerbated by his grief, and his complicated past with Andreus' girlfriend Saskia.
The inclusion of an out of town cop, Tanya van der Mark, seconded somewhat haphazardly to the investigation, to work alongside Rykel brings with her yet another set of private demons. About now the reader could be forgiven for thinking everybody and everything about this book is going to be flawed, damaged, mildly barking or overly complicated.
AFTER THE SILENCE specialises in complications. The personal lives, and backstories of everyone, the plot which works through a lot of threads - the death of the cop Andreus; the murder of an older couple by arson, and the discovery that their hereto unknown adopted child is missing; child abuse rings in a highly technical world and the murders of various business men. You might feel the need to take notes.
As well as the complicated plot and characters, the story is tackling a lot of deeply disturbing ills. Not just child abuse and abduction alongside organised crime including sex slave smuggling and drugs, it also takes a hefty swipe at the pointless interference of political and management types, macho police culture, and the overt sexism and harassment that seems to prevail in every station in the book.
Surprisingly for something as complicated, bleak and dark as AFTER THE SILENCE, there are high points. There are some touches of black humour and whilst many of the male characters are seemingly without a lot of hope, Rykel is an interesting amalgamation of flaw and decency. His new, seconded, partner, van der Mark, is committed, determined and dedicated. Which is obviously a cliché on one level, but on another, believable and consistent. The tension between all the team members is complicated, relies on a lot of past history, and present behaviour but there are some consequences. There is a bit of cop-jep sprinkled throughout that's either going to work because you have a sneaking suspicion that the character deserved it, or drive you bats, depending upon your perspective.
Perhaps the greatest downside to AFTER THE SILENCE is that it bashes the reader over the head with a kitchen sink full of the ills of the world congregating in one investigation and one group of people. There are points where it's overwhelmingly complicated (there's that word again) and it's hard to avoid that sinking feeling of yet another "bad thing" being just around the corner. Having said that, the action is piled into a series of days, following up quickly on a number of violent deaths that trigger an all out search - not just for a cop killer but for a missing little girl. If you look at it from that point of view, then maybe that sort of pressure means that the wheels fall off a lot more quickly and considerably more spectacularly than you'd normally expect.
Despite a slight feeling of doubt, a slight feeling that everything was so bleak, and everybody was so damaged that you'd wonder how anybody got anything resolved ever, AFTER THE SILENCE is an interesting debut which shows promise, hopefully with a step back from the sink. It's definitely a series I'll look forward to following.
Review - THE FOREVER WATCH, David Ramirez
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.