Diplomat Jess Turner is the British Consul in Canberra. When a British businesswoman is brutally murdered in a Queensland resort, Jess travels to Brisbane to liaise with the police, and help the victim’s next of kin, her journalist sister, Susan.
The Author of DEADLY DIPLOMACY has a background as a diplomat working for many years in Embassies and High Commissions in Australia, Brussels, the Caribbean, China, East Berlin, Indonesia, Mauritius and Switzerland. Her indepth knowledge of the workings of that world stands out in this novel, with her protagonist, Jess Turner, the British Consul in Canberra.
Called upon to support the sister of the victim, Turner is quickly dragged into the investigation. Setting up a diplomat and a cop being forced to co-operate is an unusual approach, but the inclusion of the possibility of corruption and big money in the background helps to provide a scenario where the political, business, crime and international elements all combine giving both viewpoints a perfectly legitimate and believable reason for being there.
Unfortunately, what works less well is the dialogue. No denying this is a frequent bugbear of this particular reader’s but the importance of dialogue in establishing a connection with characters is paramount for me at least. Alas, much of the dialogue here came across as particularly tinny. From “worker” Australian’s dropping their g’s everywhere, whilst white collar ”worker” appeared to be able to hang onto them very reliably, through to some uncomfortably formal exchanges between locals, there was much in the dialogue that did not work to the point where it distracted from the plot. Whilst that might not necessarily be an issue for overseas readers, it’s a pity that there appears to be an implication here about class in a society, when verbal ticks are more likely to be as a result of location of birth than position in society.
Because the focus is very much on Jess Turner, reader’s reactions to her are likely to dictate the level of connection with this novel. If you sympathise with her that her over problems with senior colleagues, how difficult it must be to negotiate the world of criminals, corruption and murders whilst treading a diplomatic and cautious path then your enjoyment of this novel is going to be hugely enhanced. She’s an interesting character, and as indicated earlier, the way that she operates / works / functions within her role is obviously well informed and very believable.
Of course yet another conspiracy, corruption, big-government and business up to stuff scenario isn’t particularly new, but it’s well constructed here, and quite engaging. Perhaps if it was set in another part of the world, where the formality might feel more natural, and the verbal ticks weren’t quite so grating DEADLY DIPLOMACY would have made a bigger impact for this particular reader.
Review - CAREER OF EVIL, Robert Galbraith
When a mysterious package is delivered to Robin Ellacott, she is horrified to discover that it contains a woman's severed leg.
Her boss, private detective Cormoran Strike, is less surprised but no less alarmed. There are four people from his past who he thinks could be responsible--and Strike knows that any one of them is capable of sustained and unspeakable brutality.
Career of Evil is the third novel to star Iraq veteran Cormoran Strike and his plucky offsider cum secretary Robin Ellacott. It is no spoiler to reveal that Galbraith is the pen name of JK Rowling, this worst kept secret in publishing was revealed with the publication of the first Strike novel. Career of Evil, as its name suggests, is darker than the previous two. It opens with Strike and Ellacott receiving a package containing a woman’s leg. Given that Strike is himself an amputee there is clearly a personal element to this, an element that becomes more personal as it appears that Robin is also a target.
As with the previous volumes in this series, the best thing about Career of Evil is the two main characters and their relationship. Strike, the grumpy former military investigator with a prosthetic leg, is a great character and well handled by Galbraith. As is Robin, whose violent past finally gets an airing. One of the highlights of the novel is the exploration of Robin’s history and its impact on her relationship with her fiancé.
Galbraith takes a route of many contemporaries, mixing descriptions of her protagonists’ activities with short chapters from the killer’s point of view. This is by far the weakest aspect of Career of Evil. While these point-of-view chapters are supposed to ramp up the tension, they are too clichéd to be as scary as Galbraith wants them to be. Unlike writers like Michael Robotham and Jeff Lindsay, there is no nuance or depth to the character that might both make them more human and thus more menacing.
It is too easy to look to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series when reviewing her pseudonymous crime novels for patterns and clues. But there are similarities that are hard to avoid. In the case of Career of Evil, much like the latter Potter books, it is Rowling’s propensity to pad out a threadbare plot with character interactions, lengthy red herrings and reams of detail. While Galbraith/Rowling is an engaging writer, she would be a better crime writer if she could just cut to the chase.
Review - BLOOD, SALT, WATER, Denise Mina
DI Alex Morrow and her team have been shadowing a woman suspected of being involved in a large drug-smuggling and money-laundering operation. Roxanna Fuentecilla recently moved from London to Glasgow under suspicious circumstances, and Morrow's bosses want all the glory when she's finally arrested. But then Roxanna disappears. She's left her partner and her two children, and something about the situation, and the children's evasive attitude, leads Morrow to question what's really going on.
Denise Mina is one of those authors that you can always trust to spin a good yarn, and once in a while an absolute ripper. BLOOD, SALT, WATER is somewhere on this reader’s scale between really good and ripper.
Taut and pointed, her ability to skewer character’s personality traits - good and bad - is razor sharp as usual, with a beautiful turn of sarcasm when required. Putting those characters in a realistic small-town location in Scotland provides not just a wonderful sense of place, but an interesting juxtaposition of have’s and have-nots, whilst leaving more than enough room for some skewering of superficial assumptions.
The 5th book in the Alex Morrow series sees a complicated, small town plot revolve around one childhood friend who stayed, and others who have recently returned. Whilst there’s plenty happening in the small town, there is also a disappearance to be investigated. A particularly embarrassing one as a very high profile woman disappears in suspicious circumstances when she’s supposedly being shadowed by Morrow and her team. The “battle” for territory between the local cops and London is intensive as it turns out that recent legislation changes mean lucrative possibilities for the arresting force.
Needless to say there are a lot of ongoing threads in BLOOD, SALT, WATER that could be less convincing, or receive less attention in the hands of some authors. Mina, on the other hand, manages to keep the balance equally between all the characters and all the threads. Along the way she produces an excellent entry in a really good series, although you could definitely read this as a standalone (or as in my case, out of order in the series).
Review - THE DOCTOR OF THESSALY, Anne Zouroudi
A jilted bride weeps on an empty beach. A local doctor is attacked in an isolated churchyard. Trouble arrives at a bad time to the backwater village of Morfi, just as the community is making headlines with a visit from a high-ranking government minister. Fortunately, where there's trouble, there's Hermes Diaktoros, the mysterious fat man whose tennis shoes are always pristine and whose investigative methods are always unorthodox.
Reading a series in order, I’ve decided, is too normal. Or at least that’s the best excuse I can come up with for starting the Hermes Diaktoros series at book number three - THE DOCTOR OF THESSALY.
Set in a tiny Greek village, a crying jilted bride, leads quickly to the discovery of the groom, and local doctor, horribly scarred and blinded by an attack on the morning of his wedding. Surprisingly almost sanguine about the attack, the doctor is rushed off to hospital, refusing to see his intended bride, as the village slips back into its day to day activities of sniping at the new young mayor and wait for something to happen to jolt it out of economic malaise.
Into this intrigue meanders Hermes Diaktoros, another of those cerebral private investigators who spends a lot of time in this book struggling with the dreadful food and lodgings provided to him by the only option in the village, wrestling with the vagaries of the car he’s borrowed for the purposes of getting here in the first place, and ensuring that his white tennis shoes remain pristine.
Needless to say a fair dollop of eccentricity in the central character, the village identities, the plot line and the investigation techniques.
There’s something wonderfully Greek about this book, and all of the characters in it, with a good plot that resolves itself neatly and not completely unexpectedly, with a slightly more shocking reason behind it all than you’d imagine possible from something that reads as gently and lightly as THE DOCTOR OF THESSALY.
Definitely a series I’d like to read more of (she says knowing that the house is already groaning under the weight of Mt TBR).
Review - POST MORTEM, Kate London
An intricate, gritty and authentic crime novel from a serving detective in the Met's murder squad - an explosive debut.
Kate London worked for the English police force both as a beat cop and as a detective, and it shows. Her debut, Post Mortem is a solid, well observed, sometimes surprising procedural. London deconstructs the small decisions and the slippery slope of arse covering that can lead to tragedy, and then how people deal with the fallout of their decisions.
Post Mortem opens with the tragedy. A seasoned beat officer and a fourteen year old girl lie dead at the base of an apartment block. Still on the roof, a young policewoman and a five year old child, abducted earlier that day by the dead girl. Lizzie Griffiths, the young officer, is allowed to go home but runs when the investigators come to try and find out what happened.
The story then centres around two women. The first is Lizzie, on the run and lying low for reasons that only slowly become clear. Much of the narrative surrounding Lizzie is told in flashback, describing the events that led up to the book’s shocking opening. London carefully observes Lizzie’s behaviour and the behaviour of the police officers that she works with, revealing the way that her relative inexperience is manipulated. Lizzie tries her hardest to help people but is quickly drawn in to the us-and-them mentality of her colleagues.
Meanwhile, Detective Sarah Collins, is trying to both track Lizzie down and solve the crime, coming under increasing pressure from the higher ups. When her investigation starts to centre on one of Lizzie’s commanding officers, the police politics become even more caustic. Sarah is not as richly described as Lizzie. She comes across as a typical police investigator of the type that appears on a multitude of British police dramas. A workaholic who gets the job done by ignoring police culture, placing a barrier between herself from her colleagues as a result.
While the stories of the two women alternate, Lizzie is really the centre of the tale. Her dilemmas, the decisions she has to make, and her choices are well described. London displays a much deeper understanding of what makes Lizzie tick. The investigating officers, Collins and her colleagues, are less well drawn making some of their actions, particularly towards the end of the book, a little puzzling.
The resolution of Post Mortem, if it can be called that, is messy, and as a result adds to the overall feeling of veracity. There is no easy, Agatha Christie style drawing room revelation or criminal mastermind spilling their guts. When the novel finishes, only the reader has a grasp of the full circumstances of events.
Post Mortem is supposed to be the start of a series. If London is going to focus that series around Sarah Collins then she has a lot more work to do. If she continues to focus in on police culture, and the messiness of real life, then this promises to be a series to watch.
Review - TRIGGER MORTIS, Anthony Horowitz
It's 1957 and James Bond (agent 007) has only just survived his showdown with Auric Goldfinger at Fort Knox. By his side is Pussy Galore, who was with him at the end.
Unknown to either of them, the USSR and the West are in a deadly struggle for technological superiority. And SMERSH is back.
Anthony Horowitz is the fourth author to be asked to write a James Bond novel. Horowitz is well qualified for the job. He is the creator of the popular James Bond-for-kids Alex Rider series and also behind the long running Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War TV series. But, perhaps more importantly, he managed to successfully channel Arthur Conan Doyle in the estate-approved Sherlock Holmes book House of Silk a few years back.
In Trigger Mortis, unlike some of the other new Bond books, Horowitz attempts to write Bond as Ian Fleming would have. The book starts two weeks after the end of Goldfinger and is written in a style that is true to the period. Horowitz was given access to a treatment Fleming had written for a James Bond TV series, including some notes and dialogue, which revolved around a plot to kill an English racing car driver. He used this plot as the jumping off point for a much more dastardly scheme and incorporated the material that Fleming had written. It is to his credit that it is impossible to tell which are the five hundred or so words written by Fleming and integrated into the book.
As with his Sherlock Holmes effort, Horowitz is not shy with the fan service, particularly for lovers of the original Fleming material. Pussy Galore, the book version of the Bond girl from Goldfinger, makes an appearance, the evil Russian organisation SMERSH is back and all of Bond’s favourite cigarettes, guns, watches and drinks get a mention. Numerous references are also made not only to the recently completed Goldfinger mission but also to most of the preceding Bond adventures.
Horowitz walks an interesting tightrope in Trigger Mortis. Ian Fleming’s Bond, and indeed his writing, was chauvinist and overtly racist. Writing for a 21st century audience, Horowitz’s writing and his Bond, although true to the original, is not. Among other things, the female characters have significant agency, Bond has a fairly openly gay best friend who calls him a “dinosaur” for his views, and the bad guy is a Korean who may be a psychopath but has a legitimate beef with America. In this way, the book is a bit of a sheep in wolf’s clothing. On the surface it reads like a Fleming book but is much closer to the modern Bond that movie goers will be familiar with.
Quibbles aside, there is more than enough here to keep Bond fans happy. They know what to expect – fast cars, daring escapes, beautiful women and a remorseless villain who can’t help but spend a good ten pages monologuing about both his tragic past and his evil plans once he has Bond in his clutches – and Horowitz delivers. And while those readers know how it is all going to end from page one, there is plenty of fun to be had in getting there.
Review - THE AMERICAN, Nadia Dalbuono
As autumn sets in, the queues outside the soup kitchens of Rome are lengthening, and the people are taking to the piazzas, increasingly frustrated by the deepening economic crisis.
Detective Leone Scamarcio is called to an apparent suicide on the Ponte Sant'Angelo, a stone's throw from Vatican City. A man is hanging from the bridge, his expensive suit suggesting yet another businessman fallen on hard times. But Scamarcio is immediately troubled by similarities with the 1982 murder of Roberto Calvi, dubbed 'God's Banker' because of his work for the Vatican Bank.
Nadia Dalbuono’s debut novel The Few introduced readers to Italian policeman and son-of-a-mafioso Leone Scarmacio. At that time, it appeared The Few would be the first of a pair of novels to feature Scarmacio, the second promising to focus on the dangling plot threads relating to the protagonist’s past. The American, Dalbuono’s second novel to feature Scarmacio, does not delve too much further into this backstory. It takes Scarmacio off in a new direction and is all the better for it.
A man is found hanging beneath a bridge near the Vatican. The circumstances surrounding his death are reminiscent of the death of Roberto Calvi, known as God’s Banker, found hanging in London in 1982. When the body goes missing following the intervention of some shady Americans and a cardinal is killed in the Vatican, Scarmacio’s antennae start to twitch. Before long he is well and truly in over his head, dealing with forces far beyond those of the Italian police. But Scarmacio is not one to leave a mystery alone.
The American effectively pits the little guy against the global forces that shaped the late twentieth and early twenty first century behind the scenes. The world of espionage and state sponsored terrorism is revealed in all of its ends-justify-means pragmatism. What really happened, and what truth there is to the many conspiracy theories floating around , including 9/11, remains murky. By the end, it is hard to know what to believe, but this is a credit to Dalbuono rather than a criticism.
The feeling of threat, both personal and professional, that was hanging over Scarmacio from The Few escalates considerably in this novel. And the violent scenes, when the threat eventuates, are well handled, often creating a flow-on array of issues for Scarmacio. Dalbuono has refined some of the elements that were not as well handled in The Few, including the flashback sections at the beginning of most chapters which are still slightly opaque but have a greater coherence with the narrative.
In the end, The American is a taut, well constructed thriller. There is no need to have read The Few to enjoy this volume but newcomers are likely to be keen to go back and read the first Scarmacio novel and fill themselves in on some of the backstory. While the main case is wrapped up, the ending, once again, leaves a number of ongoing matters and potential threats unresolved. The American is definitely not the last we will be seeing of Leone Scarmacio and most readers will be hanging on to see what happens next.
Review - I SAW A MAN, Owen Sheers
The event that changed all of their lives happened on a Saturday afternoon in June, just minutes after Michael Turner - thinking the Nelsons' house was empty - stepped through their back door.
It’s a gutsy move to put the first sentence of your novel on the front cover. Even more so when the text is given more prominence than the name of the book itself. But it is a great ‘what’s in the box?’ first sentence: The event that changed all their lives happened on a Saturday afternoon in June just minutes after Michael Turner – thinking the Nelson’s house was empty – stepped through their back door. A bit long winded for a book title. The actual title, I Saw a Man, carries its own weight - conjuring the old nonsense rhyme about seeing a man who wasn’t there – a connection that carries its own resonance as the plot unfolds.
Michael Turner, the main character of the novel, has already been through a life changing event when the story opens. Turner, a journalist turned novelist, is still recovering from the death of his journalist wife in a drone strike in Afghanistan. The key issue, as far as Sheers is concerned, is the way in which Michael deals with the loss of his wife and with the whole grieving process. Sheers in interested in the way in which grief changes the way people see and interact with the world.
I Saw a Man retains the bones of a thriller, the build up to the “event” mentioned in the first sentence takes place over half of the narrative, and various suspense elements follow. There is an investigation of the “event” and an exploration of the caustic impacts of crime. But the plot is really here as a skeleton on which to build something much more substantial. An exploration of grief, loss and the need to seek redemption for real and perceived wrongs. Every character has their own journey, their own unique perspective and their own ways of dealing with these issues as they unfold.
The female characters are well drawn, Michael’s wife in flashback and Samantha Nelson, one of Michael’s neighbours. But the real focus is of Owen’s exploration is very much on the men, how they deal with these issues and each other. Michael’s relationship with his neighbour Josh Nelson is central to the plot. But also critical is the odd correspondence that develops between Michael and the pilot of the drone that killed his wife.
I Saw A Man is both gripping as a slow burn thriller and thought provoking. And while the finale might at first reading come across as a little anti-climactic after a creeping build-up, it rings true in terms of Sheer’s characters. And in the way of many books about writers, it all becomes a bit meta and twisty, which is fine too. The world of I Saw a Man is unfair, and there is plenty of sadness and loss in this novel. But in the end there are also some glimmers of hope and optimism in its exploration of the way people are able build and rebuild their lives.
Review - MURDER IN COURT THREE, Ian Simpson
Farquhar Knox QC heard a creak to his right and swung round, prepared to bully an intruder into going away. But the blustering tirade died on his lips as the sharp point of an arrow pierced his dinner shirt, entered his torso below the ribs and was pushed up until it penetrated his heart. A few gurgles were the last sounds Farquhar Knox made. His own day of judgement had arrived.
Even if you didn't know that author Ian Simpson regards John Mortimer as one of his inspirations, there's something slightly similar in their writing styles, although there's no Rumpole character in MURDER IN COURT THREE.
Set in the precincts of courts, and the legal fraternity, the victim here is a Barrister, and the investigation is straight police procedural, albeit with a hefty portion of fraud case in court antics on the side. It's actually a nice balance, as is the idea that the police team is made up of DI Flick Fortune, pregnant and about to have her baby at any moment and DS Bagawath Chandavarkar from the Major Crime / Fraud squad seconded into this investigation because the victim, Farquhar Knox QC is one of the legal team involved in a major fraud case.
It's a complicated investigation because, for a start, just about every possible suspect - from the fraud trial, the marital infidelities, past cases as well as a general dislike of up jumped lawyers seems to have been on-site the night that Knox died. Many of these characters have plenty of experience of the law - from both sides - as well, and they are past masters at the art of vague memories and obfuscating answering. Even allowing for the slightly odd method of his death there's no shortage of possible motives as well, down to the senior police officer who ends up suspended whilst the team investigate his wife's relationship with the victim.
Alongside the complications of the case there are the irritations of the media shoving it's nose in where it's not wanted, and the opinions of Fortune's old boss who does a particularly nice line in antiquated, horrible old dinosaur if there ever was one.
The subject matter in MURDER IN COURT THREE is handled well and there's no indication that it's a spoof, but the author's hand is light and very engaging. His characters all have lives, thoughts and feelings, and the way that they are affected by each other, and the pressure of an investigation reads with authenticity. There is something here though, some sort of gentle hat-tip to Rumpole perhaps, that does make this feel slightly on the lighter side. Maybe it is the home, love and real lives interwoven with the day to day grind. Perhaps it is the setting of the legal world, and the idea that an Advocates and Archery night would happen in the first place that makes it all seem slightly "not of this world". It's definitely not crime fiction on the gritty side, but it is fabulously readable and enjoyable enough to quickly place the previous two books (MURDER ON PAGE ONE and MURDER ON THE SECOND TEE) instantly on the purchased list.
Review - POP GOES THE WEASEL, M.J. Arlidge
DI Helen Grace returns in Pop Goes the Weasel, the electrifying new thriller from M. J. Arlidge.
The body of a middle-aged man is discovered in Southampton's red-light district - horrifically mutilated, with his heart removed.
Hours later - and barely cold - the heart arrives with his wife and children by courier.
A pattern emerges when another male victim is found dead and eviscerated, his heart delivered soon afterwards.
The second novel in the DI Helen Grace series POP GOES THE WEASEL returns to Grace's life in the aftermath of her sister's death, and that of a much loved colleague in the first book EENY MEENY. Because the events in that first novel were so fundamental to everything that Grace is and how she behaves, this is definitely a series that would work best if you can start at the beginning, something that this reader would have highly recommended anyway.
Arlidge has taken a brave approach with the development of Helen Grace as a character. She's prickly, standoffish, often tricky to be around but there are plenty of reasons for her to be so. An impossible childhood, a dreadful outcome with her sister in the first novel, Grace could be forgiven for getting a lot of things cackhanded, and when it comes to working with other colleagues also involved in the earlier novel, then she's not exactly on high moral ground with everything. She's also got a new boss, DS Ceri Harwood and to say they don't get on is a bit of an understatement.
Despite the personal problems, and the tensions with colleagues, there's a major investigation that demands everybody's attention when a particularly vicious murder is discovered. As victim's start to pile up, in known sex or drug use haunts, eviscerated, with their hearts removed, the team is scrambling to find connections. Particularly difficult with each victim having a substantially different background, although slowly the use of online porn sites and prostitute rating forums starts to reveal itself.
The way that this author has now built a story surrounding an unexpected killer, who for all their violence and depravity, also has reasons for what they are doing in both books, is an interesting precedent. There's also a constant theme of women colleagues, friends and family and their relationships. In POP GOES THE WEASEL that examination extends to the family of the victims, particularly the first victim and a wife who struggles to admit the truth about a tyrannical husband and father.
The balance between personal and professional, angst and dedication is well done in this series. All of the characters are developing well and in some ways it's an ensemble cast, despite a lot of the focus being on Grace. The plot is fast when it needs to be, detailed and thoughtful when there are things need exploring. The balancing act between these elements is well done and makes for an engaging, yet fast paced police procedural with tension, aggravation, and that most unlikely of things - a sympathetic and very sad serial killer.