Glasgow 1946. Brodie's back in Scotland to try and save childhood friend Shug Donovan from the gallows. Everyone thought Donovan was dead, shot down in the war. The man who eventually returns is horribly burned, only venturing out for heroin to deaden his pain. When a local boy is found raped and murdered, there is only one suspect, but Donovan claims he's innocent. Ex-policeman Brodie feels compelled to help him. Working with advocate Samantha Campbell, Brodie finds an unholy alliance of troublesome priests, corrupt coppers and Glasgow's deadliest razor gang.
THE HANGING SHED is a thriller. It's a searing portrayal of post-war Scotland, a haunting story of the personal after-effects of war, dislocation, friendship, loyalties, and mistakes. It's powerful, atmospheric, uplifting, sad, violent, and compassionate.
The central character, Douglas Brodie, is a former policeman, who on returning from fighting for King and Country in the Second World War, secures a job in London as a reporter. News from his native Glasgow that childhood friend Hugh Donovan is about to be hanged for the murder of a child has him returning home, conflicted. The cause of the conflict is yet more history, between him and Donovan. Although hard for Brodie to put aside, it must be, as for everything that has happened between them, Brodie has a strong sense of right and fairness.
The whole of this book simply worked for me. The sense of compassion and sadness that wove it's way into the violence and desperation. The loss and fracture of the past, made even more stark by the impact of the war. The deprivation in the United Kingdom, the deprivation and sense of loss of those returning from fighting. The way that the path back into life was so individual, the way that Brodie struggles to find his place again.
It's about as pitch perfect a book as I've read in a long time. Perfect enough to ensure the purchase of BITTER WATER, the next in the series.
THE CASE OF THE MAN WHO DIED LAUGHING - Tarquin Hall
Murder is no laughing matter.
Yet a prominent Indian scientist dies in a fit of giggles when a Hindu goddess appears from a mist and plunges a sword into his chest.
The only one laughing now is the main suspect, a powerful guru named Maharaj Swami, who seems to have done away with his most vocal critic.
Even allowing for the lighter nature of this series, the idea of death by Hindu goddess in the middle of a laughter class is a bit of a stretch for anyone's imagination. But the thing I really like about the Vish Puri series of books is the gentle humour that eases the underlying message. The message of THE CASE OF THE MAN WHO DIED LAUGHING appearing to be the tension between modern and age-old Indian society, and hypocrisy in all its guises.
Knowing that the author married an Indian woman, and has lived in India for a period of time explains why a man with such an English name seems to be writing about that society and those messages with a combination of understanding, exasperation and great affection. Whilst Puri is a larger-than-life character, often referred to as the Indian Hercule Poirot, with his own particular set of mannerisms and ... well affectations ... underneath the slightly stereotypical persona there is an interesting mindset, and a man with a way of operating that seems somehow, quintessentially Indian.
The books also provide an insight into family life, and the way that the society functions within Puri's own particular class. Personally I love the character of Puri's Mummi-ji, even though I can't get Ummi from the Kumars at No 42 out of my head whenever she appears on the page...
The lightness of touch does rather deceive in this book though. At the start I just kept thinking the whole plot was too fantastic, too ludicrous to possibly be able to be explained logically and physically, and whilst there are more twists and turns to come before the resolution, the whole thing did ultimately make sense.
As this is now the second of the Vish Puri books don't let that worry you. Both of them would work out of order, so don't not pick up THE CASE OF THE MAN WHO DIED LAUGHING because you've not read THE CASE OF THE MISSING SERVANT. I'd also say don't be put off by the feeling that the both of them could be a bit light on, fluffy or even a tad unsympathetic. Sure they are entertaining and funny, but there's a little starch in the kurta at the same time. Oh and the food descriptions are positively cruel.... you can't read these books without a craving for authentic Indian food that just will not go away.
THE GOOD THIEF'S GUIDE TO PARIS - Chris Ewan
Charlie Howard - mystery writer and professional thief - is flush with the success of his Paris book reading when he agrees to show a novice the basics of the trade by breaking into the man's own apartment. Trouble ensues when it turns out the apartment belongs to someone else. The next day, Charlie's fence hires him to steal an ordinary-looking oil painting - from the same address. Mere coincidence? Charlie reckons there's no harm in finding out - until a dead body turns up in his living room.
Second in the Good Thief Series (after Amsterdam), THE GOOD THIEF'S GUIDE TO PARIS sees the return of Charlie Howard, author and professional thief along with his agent Victoria and fence Pierre. Although in this book Victoria gets to be more than just a voice at the end of the phone.
You're going to get the idea of the plot of this book from the blurb, although what you aren't going to get is an idea of the elaborate twisting and turning, leaping and posturing that goes on to get to the nub of the problem. Although all of that carry on is fairly normal in Charlie's world. These books are an pleasing combination of light-hearted humour, a hefty dose of self-deprecation (including some plot elements where the reader seems nowhere near as confused as Charlie is) carried off with considerable aplomb. To be fair though, there are also a number of positively ridiculous scenarios carried off with more than a bit of ham-fisted reverse explaining.
There is a particularly nice sense of place about these books, and I will confess to a sneaking suspicion about research versus tourism and tax dodges = a book to justify the jaunt, which is part of the fun. You don't want to read these books too seriously and in this one in particular, definitely not for the destination. In fact I suspect that some readers of THE GOOD THIEF'S GUIDE TO PARIS are going to be chewing the edges of the book at some elements of the resolution, even though the journey there was seriously good fun.
THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD - Ian Rankin
Malcolm Fox and his team from Internal Affairs are back. They've been sent to Fife to investigate whether fellow cops covered up for a corrupt colleague, Detective Paul Carter. Carter has been found guilty of misconduct with his own uncle, also in the force, having proved to be his nephew's nemesis. But what should be a simple job is soon complicated by intimations of conspiracy and cover-up - and a brutal murder, a murder committed with a weapon that should not even exist. The spiralling investigation takes Fox back in time to 1985, a year of turmoil in British political life.
If you, like me, have been more than a bit concerned about regular reading habits with the retirement of Rebus, I'm happy to report that at least I'm no longer fearful. Well about the loss of a fictional companion anyway. Now I can spend long periods of time worrying about Ian Rankin's health and hoping that all is going well with his writing. Because I'd really like to think there's more than a few Malcolm Fox books in the future, as this new series shapes up to be something well worth following.
It's probably not surprising that there are some aspects between the two series that are similar. There is a central character with a difficult back story, albeit with differences between Fox and Rebus. Fox isn't as comfortable in his flaws, he's taking steps to try to get his act together. It makes sense that a flawed man is working for The Complaints. It's not surprising that a man who has done the best and the worst can cope with the best and the worst in others.
Another similarity is the way that the books are perfectly balanced between a character study and a good, solid plot. In THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD The Complaints are investigating allegations about a single individual - ex-Detective Paul Carter and what looks like a cover-up by his fellow officers. Fox and his small team are forced closer together simply by being outsiders, but this book gives Rankin the chance to strengthen that team feeling, whilst also allowing them to rise as individuals - again not unlike the Rebus / Siobhan pairing.
Whilst Fox, his ailing father and his bitter and twisted sister remain the focus of the personal aspects of the book, there is a back story for all of the team building, just as the resentment of the cops that investigate other cops is growing. I must admit I'm finding that aspect - cops investigating other cops, and the things that are being hidden and why - part of what's particularly interesting about this series. Obviously because it is something different, but also because in Rankin's hands, it's not one-dimensional, and the mechanics of "investigation" of a crime remain forefront.
Whilst I'm happy that the occasional Rebus outing is still in the offing, I've also developed quite a liking for this new direction in a big hurry. Of course, there is always the fact that if Rankin published his to do list, I'd read that as well, but THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD is really a very good entry in this excellent new series.
EVIL IN RETURN - Elena Forbes
Bestselling novelist Joe Logan walks out into a hot summer's evening in central London. The next day his body is found dumped in a disused Victorian crypt at the Brompton Cemetery. He has been tied up, shot, and castrated. The killing has the hallmarks of a professional hit. But what had Logan done to deserve such a brutal end?
Thank goodness for notes! I finished this book at the start of the year, and just noticed that I'd not posted the review I wrote at the time. Which is interesting, as re-reading my notes again, I can remember just about everything about this plot. Which makes it, to my mind, a very good book.
Elena Forbes tackles something interesting in EVIL IN RETURN. Joe Logan is found carefully posed in a cemetery crypt. Shot through the head and castrated, there's something that seems deeply personal, ritualistic about the way he was killed. When Paul Khan dies in an identical manner, in a property which he shared with Joe Logan and 3 other men whilst they were at university, it's obvious there's a connection. Logan is a best selling author, his novel telling a supposedly fictional story of a group of university friends who cover up the death of a young girl. After the way the two friends are killed it's not exactly a leap of faith to consider how much of that novel isn't fictional at all, and are these killings revenge?
DI Mark Tartaglia and DS Sam Donovan are the reoccurring characters in this now third novel from Forbes. There's a nice balance of the professional and personal in all these books, with the police procedural elements, solid, believable and carefully paced. The personal is enough to give the characters a little depth, to make you feel like they are real people.
Whilst the murders are obviously gory and quite confronting there's nothing sensational or overblown about EVIL IN RETURN. The focus remains very much on the process of investigating, the connections between the victims, the possibility of revenge. There's also a particularly good sense of place in all the books, with EVIL IN RETURN taking the reader into the world of houseboat dwellers in particular.
I've been quite the fan of this series since the first book, and whilst they should work if you pick them up out of order, there's some character build up that will be better if you can read them in order. Hope there's a fourth book in the works.
THE GENEVA TRAP - Stella Rimington
Geneva, 2012. When a Russian intelligence officer approaches MI5 with vital information about the imminent cyber-sabotage of an Anglo-American Defence programme, he refuses to talk to anyone but Liz Carlyle. But who is he, and what is his connection to the British agent?
At a tracking station in Nevada, US Navy officers watch in horror as one of their unmanned drones plummets out of the sky, and panic spreads through the British and American Intelligence services. Is this a Russian plot to disable the West's defences? Or is the threat coming from elsewhere?
It's always intriguing, who or what will be the next threats that espionage writers can employ in their thrillers. I'm not sure what it says about the world that we live in but there does seem to be no shortage of possible scenarios and nefarious goings-on to occupy the intelligence world. THE GENEVA TRAP is the 7th book in the Liz Carlyle series, and the main plot elements, as you'd expect from a writer with Rimington's background, have a ring of truth and absolutely credibility about them.
Liz is a very strong character. Strong enough to survive this particular reader's tendency to wander around in this series, as there are a few books that I've missed. Most obviously, it's her personal life that I'm behind with, but at no stage did I really get lost or feel at sea. Which was particularly pleasing as there is a sub-plot in THE GENEVA TRAP which involves her mother's partner, his daughter, Liz's own partner, a French commune, and the possibility of armed protest and personal violence.
Not everything, however, worked perfectly, particularly some of the technicalities of computer hacking. Now granted I'm not as technically expert as some around me, but there were elements in the "techy talk" that simply didn't make any sense, and lacked credibility. To the point where I had to give myself a little "it's fiction - get over it" talking to at one point. Nitpicking undoubtedly, but it did make those parts of the book hard to swallow. What wasn't so hard to chew was the spy craft, right down to the surveillance aspects, the not quite as clandestine as required meetings in parks, generational sleeper agents and all the other covert goings on.
There's good pace and action, some very nice twists and turns and a complicated but clever plot that does pull everything together in a believable finale, although that's tempered a little by some very stereotypical villains and the requisite inept upper echelons. But THE GENEVA TRAP, and the whole Liz Carlyle series are very much espionage based thrillers, and despite a few minor quibbles, this was a book that was hard to put down.
RUSH OF BLOOD - Mark Billingham
Three couples meet around the pool on their Florida holiday and become fast friends. But on their last night, their perfect holiday takes a tragic twist: the teenage daughter of another holidaymaker goes missing, and her body is later found floating in the mangroves.
When the shocked couples return home, they remain in contact, and over the course of three increasingly fraught dinner parties they come to know one another better. But they don't always like what they find: buried beneath these apparently normal exteriors are some dark secrets, hidden kinks, ugly vices...
Part of what makes RUSH OF BLOOD work is the normality of the setup. Three couples, on an overseas holiday form one of those short-term friendships that we've probably all done. The one thing that seems to draw them together post holiday is the unthinkable. The disappearance of a young, obviously intellectually handicapped girl, from the same resort as them. The other part that works - the way the reader knows one of these six is a most likely a killer, but which one?
There are a number of devices that Billingham uses to obfuscate, explain, reveal and draw out the clues to what happened in Florida. Whilst it's a big set of possible suspects, each of the voices of each of the characters is quite distinct, as are their observations of each other - jointly and as couples. The major reconnection points, three dinner parties, hosted in turn by each couple, serve as check points in their friendship, in the events during their holidays, and in the understanding of each of them that the reader is building. The clues about what happened to the young victim are sparingly revealed - cleverly - as her body takes a long time to be discovered, in the same way that some sort of motivation, and the revelations about the killer are sparingly revealed. All the while the character of each of the six main suspects becomes clearer, and more worrying - is it the sleazy one, the creepy one or the one with the temper, maybe the appeaser, the victim or the enigma. Doubt is cast in all directions, and the pressure is increasingly getting to someone.
Whilst he's doing all of that with the possible suspects, Billingham, in short sharp bursts, also gives the reader an insight into the fallout from such a disappearance / death. The young girls mother, the local cop investigating the murder - each of these characters beautifully reflect that for every victim, there are ripples of consequence, of loss, of effect.
In RUSH OF BLOOD Billingham has created an interesting combination of character study and psychological thriller combined with a good old fashioned whodunnit. Not until the final moments of the book is the total truth revealed, and along the way it seems strange that of six random people, seemingly normal, everyday people, simply on a holiday in a foreign location... each of those people could conceivably be guilty of murder. Of a vicious, opportunistic, cruel murder into the bargain.
As a huge fan of the Thorne series of books, I've developed quite an admiration for the occasional standalone that Billingham has embarked on. RUSH OF BLOOD just reinforces that admiration - in very big spades.
THE VANISHING POINT - Val McDermid
Young Jimmy Higgins is snatched from an airport security checkpoint while his guardian watches helplessly from the glass inspection box. But this is no ordinary abduction, as Jimmy is no ordinary child. His mother was Scarlett, a reality TV star who, dying of cancer and alienated from her unreliable family, entrusted the boy to the person she believed best able to give him a happy, stable life: her ghost writer, Stephanie Harker. Assisting the FBI in their attempt to recover the missing boy, Stephanie reaches into the past to uncover the motive for the abduction.
It's probably no coincidence that in a genre that, in my mind anyway, is purpose built for looking at the things that don't work in society, I seem to fallen over a few books recently that are exploring the outcomes of Reality stardom. Which is useful as this is about as close as I want to come to any form of reality anything on TV. Val McDermid's latest novel, THE VANISHING POINT, looks at the impacts of reality stardom on a few levels, the perceptions that people have of a certain type of reality star (we're talking the dumb blonde stereotype), but also the sort of impact that the stardom has on a lot of other aspects of life. And, to be fair, McDermid does find the good and the bad in the whole thing.
THE VANISHING POINT uses a sort of detailed flashback scenario - it opens with the snatching of Jimmy Higgins in the present day. His mother, reality star Scarlett has died, and Jimmy's guardian is the ghost writer who worked with her on her biography - Stephanie Harker. The investigation into the disappearance of Jimmy continues in the current day, although most of the heft of the story is back in the past - starting before Jimmy was born. What makes this particular scenario work very well is actually a sort of reverse flashback idea - where the current day is the bit that's dipped in and out of, and the story itself progresses through the past. Which is a cack-handed way of saying that the back story of Scarlett and Stephanie is where the reason for the kidnapping of Jimmy has to have come from.
There's enough fodder in that background to provide lots of possible reasons for Jimmy's kidnapping. Stephanie's relationship with an obsessive, nasty bloke who seriously objects to her friendship with Scarlett for a start. Scarlett's own background from a poor, dysfunctional family, using her Reality TV stint as a springboard out of that, she's actually a lot less of a bimbo than it would initially seem but people have been burned on her fight out. Along the way she's made a lot of money, money that might not be available to Stephanie and Jimmy, but that's not necessarily something your average kidnapper might have thought through. Then there's Jimmy's father's background - a privileged boy who turned his back on his family expectations and sank into a life of drugs and his own form of stardom. Needless to say, there's enough to make you wonder.
Whilst the concentration is very much on the lead up events, there's sufficient action in the current day investigation to keep the reader engaged. The way that the search moves between the FBI and English Detective Nick Nicolaides works well, always providing that look backwards as Nick's past involvement with both Scarlett and Stephanie emerges. As the back story works its way into the present, and Nick and Stephanie pair up to follow the leads, the pace quickens, and a series of revelations strip away the red herrings and draw to a conclusion that frankly, I didn't see coming anywhere.
The aspect that most struck me about THE VANISHING POINT is the two central female characters. Whilst the likelihood of friendship between these two very different women seems highly improbable, when it does emerge it makes enormous sense. Whilst both women face their own particular challenges there's nothing contrived, it's actually a nice reminder that you shouldn't ever judge a book by its cover and that old chestnut about assumptions. I particularly liked the way that was done - not in a preachy or told you so way, but in such a matter of fact, part of the whole story way.
The final interesting coincidence is that there are a few books floating around at the moment that have a kidnapping theme. Not having read them all, it's next to impossible to draw any conclusions or make observations, but for what it's worth McDermid has contributed a fascinating look at the possibilities of fame and fortune, with an edge of ruthlessness. She's also shaken the preconceptions just a little and written an excellent combination of psychological thriller / procedural tie up that actually made my reading time a very rewarding place to be.
SHATTER THE BONES - Stuart MacBride
You will raise money for the safe return of Alison and Jenny McGregor. If you raise enough money within fourteen days they will be released. If not, Jenny will be killed.
Here's the thing. You hoard a book because it's a favourite series, and there's no sign of the next one yet. But then there are noises about the next one, but that's not out for ages, but you can't wait any longer so you read the one you've had tucked away. Then you've not got that little thing of joy hidden away in the bookcases anymore. So now you're stuck in that horrible no man's land, because the next book's not out for ages, and you've given into temptation. It's a nightmare.
Mind you, that's about the only complaint I can come up with about SHATTER THE BONES. But then I'm a huge fan of Stuart MacBride's Logan McRae series. He's one of those writers that combine violence, brutality and some truly shocking story lines with absolute laugh out loud moments, a heap of creative swearing, some terrific insights into human nature and, in this case, social commentary into the bargain. There's a sense of urgency, lunacy and hurtling madness about most of the investigations in the McRae books that feels real. There are believable, fantastic characters performing over and above the call of duty, desperately hanging onto family and personal in the middle of an absolute storm of crazy.
In SHATTER THE BONES MacBride is also taking a wee shufty at the madness of reality TV - the way that a frenzy of interest and concern whips up when a mother and daughter are kidnapped, an interest that seems unlikely to have occurred without their TV profile. In amongst the kidnapping, the reactions, an investigation hampered by a total lack of forensic information, and some very cunning acts on the part of the kidnappers, further hinderance comes from closer to home. When the serious crimes squad sends in an "expert" you just know that things are going to get complicated, but the level of idiocy of this bloke is beyond the pale.
Whilst a lot of the madness, and the characters and their personal situations are carrying forward from the earlier books (thank goodness DI Steele remains a standout as frankly I'd be spitting the dummy well hard if she backed off), there are things that are moving forward. McRae's actually in danger of developing a personal life of his own, the relationships between the team are expanding a little, and ranks are progressing. There's also more than a few smacks around the head at the end of this book, and there's a final scene that's an absolute kicker.
CLOSE TO THE BONE is out in January 2013. I might ... just ... last ... until ... then.
A DENIABLE DEATH - Gerald Seymour
C.R.O.P.: Covert Rural Observation Posts are places where men like Danny 'Badger' Baxter hide for endless, motionless hours, secretly recording criminal or terrorist activity.
But now Badger has a bigger job than photographing dissident Republicans in muddy Ulster fields or Islamic extremists on rainswept Yorkshire moors.
I.E.D.: Improvised Explosive Devices are the roadside bombs which account for 80% of British casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
You'd think, on the face of it, that this would be a book that would be right up my dark and twisty alley but for some reason A DENIABLE DEATH took an age to read, and I came away from it with a mild sense of disappointment.
And try as I might, I can't quite put my finger on why, as there was much about the book that I did like. It's very much a contemporary thriller, with a very strong idea as the central plot, delivered with pace and authority. I suspect what didn't quite work for me was the contrivance of the classic lone wolf - Badger - trudging through a very dangerous mission with a partner in tow that he can't stand. For some reason that didn't quite gel. Perhaps it's a device that seemed designed overtly to create a bit of tension. Whatever it was, the sniping and bitching got me flipping too many pages, and struggling to maintain focus at points.
Which was annoying as the idea of C.R.O.P. agents somehow seemed very realistic, possible, interesting. I just couldn't get the whole scenario to make sense - even though it is perfectly feasible that at some point in your life, everybody is going to be stuck in some sort of boat with somebody you'd happily rather throw overboard. On one level the whole thing seemed like a reasonable situation - yet at the same time it just refused to work for me in this book.
Of course, it's also very very possible that this simply was the wrong book at the wrong time, and something about those two central characters just got up my nose for no particular reason. Stranger things have been known to happen, and despite any slight sense of disappointment in A DENIABLE DEATH, there are lots of other books by this author that I have loved, and will continue to seek out.