Megan McDonald is a high school senior when she disappears from the small town of Emerson Bay. Miraculously, after two weeks held captive, she escapes from a bunker hidden deep in the woods.
Now, one year on, Megan is a national celebrity thanks to her bestselling book, Missing. It’s an inspiring story - except for one inconvenient detail.
There was a second girl who was taken. Her classmate Nicole Cutty.
Another day another ‘Girl’ book. But don’t be fooled by the title which is linked to the current marketing zeitgeist but is actually is a subtle commentary on the plot. The Girl Who Was Taken, second novel by American author Charlie Donlea, is not the “domestic noir” the title might suggest but is actually a fairly straight down the line crime thriller with a resourceful investigator helped by a lucky victim, the girl famous for escaping.
The Girl Who Was Taken starts with a potential abduction and an escape. An unspecified time after she was kidnapped, Megan McDonald finds herself in a cabin in the woods and disorientated, staggers out through the rain and onto the highway where she is rescued. A year later and she has become famous for a ghostwritten book about her experiences which does not mention the second girl, Nicola Cutty, who disappeared on the same night she did and has never been found. While everyone expects Megan to be the “girl” she was before the kidnapping, Megan finds herself unable to return to a normal life as she works with a hypnotherapist to delve into the memories of the two weeks in which she was held captive.
But the protagonist of The Girl Who was Taken is Livia Cutty. A Kay Scarpetta in training, Livia is a junior medical examiner and spends her days doing autopsies or on ride-alongs to pick up bodies. Livia still lives with the guilt of nor answering a phone call from her sister on the night she disappeared. The story kicks into gear when Livia discovers a link between a body she has been asked to autopsy and her missing sister. Rather than bringing this to anyone’s attention she starts to investigate herself, finding out just after the reader does that her sister was into some pretty weird stuff including a group obsessed with abductions called the Capture Club.
Donlea does his best to up the tension by dropping in some kidnapper’s point of view chapters that allow for a few fairly forced red herrings. The story of the abduction itself comes out in flashback chapters which establish Nicola as a not particularly likeable teen looking for some attention, caught up in something she is unable to control. The fairly unsettling reveal when it comes is well handled and brings all of the clues together, but even so it comes a little out of the blue and is hard to reconcile with the criminal’s pov chapters.
The Girl Who Was Taken does not have any of the domestic noir genre trappings of the current crop of ‘Girl’ books with which it might be compared (on title alone). Rather, it is an effective, page turning crime thriller with a well handled mystery and an engaging and resourceful protagonist. While she keeps being told at every turn that as a medical examiner she should not be investigating things it would be no surprise if Livia Cutty returns. After all, being stuck doing autopsies never stopped Kay Scarpetta or Quincy.
Review - Since We Fell, Dennis Lehane
I LOVED YOU
I HATED YOU
I NEVER KNEW YOU...
Rachel's husband adores her. When she hit rock bottom, he was there with her every step of the way as she slowly regained her confidence, and her sanity. But his mysterious behaviour forces her to probe for the truth about her beloved husband.
How can she feel certain that she ever knew him?
And was she right to ever trust him?
Dennis Lehane takes a swerve away from his long running Kenzie and Genaro series (which includes Gone, Baby Gone) and his recent prohibition and gangsters trilogy to deliver a psychological thriller of sorts. Since We Fell is a book that is hard to categorise. In some ways it is an extended character study and in others it is an extremely long con not only of some of the characters but of the reader. For that reason it takes a long time for the novel to really come into focus with some readers possibly only hanging in to resolve the strong opening hook.
Since We Fell opens with a bang, literally. Rachel shoots her husband on the deck of a boat and he flops over the side. Why she has taken the shot and what happens next will have to wait as Lehane takes us back to Rachel’s childhood and her difficult relationship with her mother. Following her mother’s death, Rachel goes on a years long search for the father that she never knew and who her mother refused to tell her about. Through this search she meets Brian, a private detective who, after much trauma on her part comes spectacularly back into her life.
The first two thirds of Since We Fell is essentially a character study of Rachel – the foundation of her deep anxieties and agoraphobia, her desire for safety and security, her extreme response when things don’t turn out the way she expects. Only some of which is really relevant for the final third of the book when the pieces fall into place and the action kicks in. At which point Since We Fell starts to feel like a different book altogether – full of violent goons, sleights of hand and plenty of gun play.
It feels like Lehane is trying to do too much in Since We Fell. The naturalistic exploration of Rachel’s mental state is undermined by the extreme suspension of disbelief needed to follow the plot. And again, in the final third of the book Rachel manages to throw off the burden of mental illness that she has been carrying in order to both forward that plot and be an effective actor in its resolution. The idea being, I think, that all she really needed was something bigger to focus on outside of her own worries.
The lengthy and detailed start of the book becomes irrelevant by about half way through, used only as a way to manoeuvre various characters into place. The original hook is almost forgotten by the time it rolls around again, with only some well-timed hints to keep the reader’s appetite whetted. And its resolution requires such a breathtaking suspension of disbelief that it skews the rest of the plot. The last third, while nominally exciting and well written does not feel it resolves any of the real issues that were raised earlier on and just leaves the reader constantly asking “but why…?”. So that in the end Since We Fell doesn’t work. There is definitely some psychology here but possibly not the psychological thriller that fans of Lehane’s work and of good thrillers more broadly would have been hoping for.
Review - The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz
He was once called Orphan X.
As a boy, Evan Smoak was taken from a children's home, raised and trained as part of a secret government initiative buried so deep that virtually no one knows it still exists. But he broke with the programme, choosing instead to vanish off grid and use his formidable skill set to help those unable to protect themselves.
One day, though, Evan's luck ran out . . .
The world seems to be full of highly trained, disaffected, black ops, renegade loners who are trying to do good deeds while being hunted down by their government. Last year, Orphan X, also known as Evan Smoak, joined the ranks of the likes of Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher as the latest highly skilled loner on the block. But there is no need to have read Orphan X to get right into this novel as Gregg Hurwitz covers all of the necessary detail in one paragraph:
“…the Orphan Program, a deep-black project buried inside the Department of Defense. It had identified the right kind of boys [and as it turns out, girls] lost in the system of foster homes, covertly culled them one by one, and trained them to do what the US government could not officially do in places where it could not officially be. A fully deniable, antiseptic program run off a shadow budget.”
When the book opens Smoak has turned his back on the Program and has taken his budget and skills to the street. He is “The Nowhere Man” and will help people in trouble, asking in return only that they pass on his phone number when they know of someone else who needs his help. In this case he comes to the aid of a girl blackmailed and at risk of being trafficked. This job brings him to the attention of some other bad dudes who are after his very healthy Swiss bank account and before long Smoak has been captured himself.
Smoak finds himself up against Renee Cassaroy, a villain who has stepped straight out of the pages of a James Bond book, complete with monologues, a bunch of expendable ex-Sinaloa cartel goons (including one mute goon called Dex who is bigger and badder than the rest), a taste for fine everything and a creepy doctor doing illegal things to keep him looking young. Smoak has come to Renee’s attention due to his bank account and he initially has no idea what Smoak is capable of. But even when he works it out, Renee sees their contest as a game rather than the life and death situation that it is. At the same time, Smoak’s old Orphan crew, still out to kill him themselves, is closing in.
The Nowhere Man sits well within genre tropes but is an enjoyable action thriller. As Smoak’s situation gets worse, his self belief and ability to improvise increase. This leads to some fantastic, hold your breath action scenes. This is cartoon stuff but Smoak is a sympathetic character Hurwitz handles the action with great panache. And it is not real spoiler in this genre to suggest that there will be plenty more Smoak to come.
Review - You, Caroline Kepnes
When a beautiful, aspiring writer strides into the East Village bookstore where Joe Goldberg works, he does what anyone would do: he Googles the name on her credit card.
There is only one Guinevere Beck in New York City. She has a public Facebook account and Tweets incessantly, telling Joe everything he needs to know: she is simply Beck to her friends, she went to Brown University, she lives on Bank Street, and she’ll be at a bar in Brooklyn tonight—the perfect place for a “chance” meeting.
YOU is one of those books that I've been hearing murmurings about for ages, so when it was talked up by a local publicist who knows her crime fiction well it became required reading. Having said that, I'm well aware that it has also garnered mixed reactions so all in all, quite an intriguing read.
It doesn't take long to identify some of the likely causes of the mixed reactions. YOU is a creepy, sobering and realistic story about stranger obsession which is enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It's discomfortingly, worrying and more than a bit weird to spend time with somebody talking intimately (in their own heads) to the source of their obsession.
The you of the title is a young college student / writer living in New York. She's a typical millennial girl, who lives her life in a public stream of Twitter, Facebook and email, willingly surrendering privacy to the point where she's even given up closing curtains in her apartment, regardless of what she's doing / when she's completely nude. It does feels like a very realistic portrayal, made even more disconcerting by something narcissistic, almost wanton about her as well.
The narrator is a seemingly charming, normal, well-read, good looking young bookshop manager. Yet readers may quickly come to believe that he's sociopath. He's certainly obsessive, manipulative and chillingly entitled.
So not a necessarily likeable pair of characters, but extremely believable and identifiable. Which ends up setting up a very interesting scenario for a reader, who will be confronted with a disconcerting plot of obsession and manipulation, in a manner that's very current day, and feels particularly insidious and particularly scary as much of it revolves around our technological lives.
Everything in YOU therefore wrong-foots the reader, creating a challenging reading experience of very intimate personal time with rather unpleasant people, wrapped up in obsession, fuelled by the manipulation of technology to control.
The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith
The stunning new novel from the author of the international bestseller Gorky Park: a World War II love story set against the romance and danger of occupied Venice.
Martin Cruz Smith takes a break from his long running Arkady Renko Russian crime series which started with Gorky Park to explore a different corner of history. The Girl from Venice takes readers to Italy in the dying days of the Second World War. Italy is being bombed by the allies and is riven by division as Mussolini and the fascists cling on to power. At the same time the country is playing host to the German Western Front command and an increasingly desperate German army, many of whom can see the writing on the wall.
But the focus of the novel is Innocenzo, or Cenzo, a fisherman of Pallesteria, a small town across the lagoon from Venice. When Cenzo picks up what he thinks to be a dead girl floating in the lagoon he steps into a world of trouble. The girl, Gulia, very much alive, has escaped from a German attack that killed her Jewish family and the two end up in the middle of a number of power plays as various people try to manoeuvre as the war ends. Chief among these is Cenzo’s brother, a famous actor and propagandist for the Mussolini regime.
Cenzo, while having a very different background turns out to be a similar character to Renko. This is not apparent in the first half of the novel where he spends his time as a fisherman hiding Gulia. But when she disappears and he goes with his brother to Salo to find her, Cenzo turns out to be anything but a simple fisherman. Salo is the seat of the German high command and a hotbed of partisan activity. The narrative takes on some of the elements of noir crime fiction as Cenzo navigates this world with amazing aplomb and a healthy disrespect for authority, in a manner reminiscent of Cruz Smith’s Russian detective,
In The Girl From Venice, Cruz Smith effectively captures a point in time. In particular the chaos that accompanied the slow withdrawal of the Germans from Italy. The scenes in Salo as the American army advances, the German army crumbles and the Italians try to work out which side to bet on are particularly fascinating. All this sits in the background to the plot itself, part family drama, part mystery and part romance that keeps the whole ticking along. So that while he falls back on familiar character tropes, Cruz Smith delivers an engaging and fascinating historical drama.
Review - Dodgers, Bill Beverly
When East, a low-level lookout for a Los Angeles drug organisation, loses his watch house in a police raid, his boss recruits him for a very different job: a road trip straight down the middle of white, rural America to assassinate a judge in Wisconsin. Having no choice, East and a crew of untested boys - including his trigger-happy younger brother, Ty - leave the only home they've ever known with a roll of cash, a map and a gun they shouldn't have. Along the way, the country surprises East. Only he can decide which way to go - and which person to become.
Bill Beverly has taken out 2016 Golden Dagger Awards for both best crime fiction and best debut for Dodgers. This is the type of crime novel that is steeped in the criminal world. There are no murders to be solved, no stunning late novel twists, no confession in the library or carefully staged plea bargains. This is a story about criminals, about crime and redemption, that shines a light on modern America.
East is a yard boy for a Los Angeles drug operation. His job is to manage the group pf teenage boys who stand guard around the houses where people come to buy and take drugs. At fifteen he is already lost to the system, living out of a cardboard box, having to find his own way and working for that gang to support his young single mother. When the drug operation is blown, East is given a new assignment by his boss Fin, a man to whom he is also related – to go with three other boys, including his trigger-happy younger brother Ty, to Wisconsin to kill a potential witness in an upcoming trial.
East and his three companions, young black teens, are all out of their comfort zone and out of their depth as they are asked to drive a van from LA , the only place most of them have ever known, across the middle of America. The four represent different archetypes – Michael the brash older boy who has been to college, Walter the young intellectual used to helping the gang with the books, Ty a thirteen year old killer with a thing for guns and East, the conscience of the group somewhere in the middle, trying to do the right thing.
For a while Dodgers is a bizarre roadtrip in which, as could probably be expected, nothing goes to plan. The more the boys have to improvise the more their desperation and characters emerge. About two thirds of the way through, as the original plan continues to disintegrate in the light of the real world, the book changes pace but not intent, continuing to focus on the situation and plight of the American rust belt through the eyes of outsider East.
Dodgers is a stunning debut. A tough novel full of tough characters often doing questionable things, it nevertheless has a strong sense of humanity. East is an original and sometimes heartbreaking literary creation. A fifteen year old wise before his years but with plenty of growing up still to do. Other characters too, both the boys themselves and people they meet, leap off the page.
If you are looking for a crime novel that provides some modicum of comfort in crimes solved then perhaps Dodgers is not the book for you. But if you want a crime novel that delivers a page turning story but also in a timely way explores American culture and society then Dodgers should be on your list.
Review - The Whistler, John Grisham
The most corrupt judge in US history.
A young investigator with a secret informant.The electrifying new thriller.
Lacy Stoltz never expected to be in the firing line. Investigating judicial misconduct by Florida's one thousand judges, her cases so far have been relatively unexciting. That's until she meets Greg Myers, an indicted lawyer with an assumed name, who has an extraordinary tale to tell.
The Whistler is an issues novel that uses the framework of a legal procedural. In his recent Grey Mountain, Grisham took on the coal industry, in The Whistler it is the Indian-run casinos and the range of social and political issues that they raise. But in focussing too much on the issues he raises and their potential resolution, he loses sight of the need to for a legal thriller to thrill.
An informant (the whistleblower or ‘whistler’ of the title) brings a potential corruption case to the attention of the Florida Board of Judicial Conduct. The allegation is that a Florida judge has been working with an organised crime gang and has been instrumental over the years in helping establish and then keep in business a casino on Tappacola land. This not only included favourably ruling on land deals but also possibly having an innocent man sentenced to death in return for a cut of the casino profits. For BJC Investigator Lacy Stolz and her partner Hugo Hatch, this investigation promises to be the most far reaching of their careers. But as they start to investigate they soon find themselves well out of their depth and a target of criminal forces.
Despite some of the trappings of a thriller, The Whistler is rarely anything but a legal procedural. A combination of Board of Judicial Conduct investigation into a potentially corrupt judge and the FBI investigation into the organised crime group that she is working for. Grisham takes readers through the investigation – the lucky breaks, the building of a case, the presentation to the grand jury, the turning of key witnesses – step by step, occasionally providing the criminal’s point of view to solidify or explain some aspect of the plot. While there are undoubtedly some tragic and tense moments as the case builds, Grisham never loses sight of the legal processes that need to grind away to achieve a result.
This tale is made readable by Grisham’s experience in delivering an accessible description of those procedures, the way they operate and the complex web of corruption they are uncovering. His main characters, including Lacy, a strong middle age single woman are well drawn but have limited roles outside of furthering the investigation. And it is left to the minor characters including Lacy’s obnoxious but well resourced brother Gunther and her mysterious informant Greg Myers to add colour to the narrative.
The Whistler is John Grisham’s twenty-ninth legal thriller and once again shows that the formula which he practically invented in his early books – a combination of social commentary, legal shenanigans and fairly low key action that occasionally generates real thrills – is still working. But in The Whistler that formula doesn’t quite fire as it used to. Because after setting up for the bang of a thriller, The Whistler’s end game becomes a lengthy legal procedural whimper.
Review - Never Never, James Patterson and Candice Fox
Detective Harriet Blue needs to get out of town, fast.
With her brother under arrest for a series of brutal murders in Sydney, Harry’s chief wants the hot-headed detective kept far from the press. So he assigns her a deadly new case - in the middle of the Outback.
Deep in the Western Australian desert, three young people have disappeared from the Bandya Mine. And it's Harry's job to track them down.
But still reeling from events back home, and with a secretive new partner at her side, Harry’s not sure who she can trust anymore.
James Patterson has been working with a number of crime writers recently, producing these co-authored books, so it's hard not to read each one playing a sort of "who wrote what" game in your head. Candice Fox, as Australian's all know, is the author of a brilliant series of crime fiction books of which the first (Hades) won the best first novel, and the second Eden, the best novel in the Ned Kelly Awards. The third novel Fall was shortlisted in the Neds as well. So the other thing that was always in this reader's mind - other than the who / what bit, is how this melding would pan out. Fox is a particular favourite of this reader for her darker characters and clever, intricate plots.
NEVER NEVER starts out in the expected dark manner with a character known only as "the Soldier" killing somebody in the desert, at night, in some sort of sadistic military-style game. Switch from there to Sydney and you're introduced to Detective Harriet "Harry" Blue who is trying to process the information that her brother is the only suspect in a series of brutal killings. Up until that point the characterisations were absolutely going to form, with darkness and complexity rife. Where the wheels seemed to initially fall off is in the idea that a NSW detective was suddenly up and sent to WA as part of an investigation into the death of a young FIFO miner in Western Australia. Even allowing for the slight "what the" about the cross-border / cross-force transfer for the rest of the book I couldn't for the life of me work out what a sexual crimes expert from inner-city NSW was doing bashing around the desert in WA in search of a serial killer at a remote mine site.
If you're happy to park the doubt about that, once the action moves to the mine it's an interesting sort of a case with a series of suspicious disappearances, which, and here things started to get a bit ropey plot wise again, is basically pretty lawless. There are resident drug dealers, violence, threats, odd behaviour and some almost devil may care attitudes that didn't quite jell for this reader. Again with some great characters dropped into the mix, but with some very thin plot elements and some very odd goings on from one end of the site to another. To say nothing of the creepy chapters in which the "the Soldier" gets to reveal all.
There's a reasonably populated list of suspects that are ticked off, although so much about the build up is pretty predictable, as is the final twist which was very unfortunate as Harriet's really a great character with just enough attitude to be believable. Having said that Harriet is no Eden so don't expect the dark and light, and the complications of Fox's series characters.
Perhaps this is one that's more out of the box for Patterson fans, although it's got enough thriller aspects that will work for reader's who aren't as bothered by a dose of plot wobbles.
For the record the game ended with the conclusion that the characters and sense of place had a hefty touch of Fox about them.
Review - Nothing Short of Dying, Erik Storey
Sixteen years. That’s how long Clyde Barr has been away from Colorado’s thick forests, alpine deserts, and craggy peaks, running from a past filled with haunting memories. But now he’s back, having roamed across three continents as a hunter, adventurer, soldier of fortune, and most recently, unjustly imprisoned convict. And once again, his past is reaching out to claim him.
NOTHING SHORT OF DYING is the debut release from author Erik Storey, which arrived with considerable fanfare. It's flagged as something that will have Lee Child's Reacher watching over his shoulder which clearly flags this is action packed, with a lone hero up against it from all sides central character.
Clyde Barr is a mountain man, hunter and a mercenary. After many years fighting conflicts in Africa amongst other places, and a torrid stint in a Mexican jail he's heading back to his native Colorado, out into the mountains, going bush as we'd say in Australia, looking for a low key sort of life. Which all goes to hell in a hand-basket when he gets a frantic call from one of his sisters, and heads out to save the day. At this point you start to find out that Barr's personal life is anything but uncomplicated, his family is fractured, his younger sister has been a bit of a trial and just about everybody is flat out nasty or at the very least disinterested. Unless you count Allie the barmaid with a sort of heart of gold and taste for adventure, who joins him on quest, serving as companion, love interest and recently arrived conscience or reason to get his act together.
NOTHING SHORT OF DYING is really quite the roller-coaster ride, and in that I'm not just referring to the action packed, race to find and free the sister. There are many highs and lows in dealing with Barr to navigate as well. The action here is bloody and violent, there's a feeling of the wild west about the pace, and the free-wheeling bash, crash and killing spree. Whilst it's obvious that those who have taken Jen are definitely the black hat wearers, Barr's not so easy to pigeon-hole. There are times when he feels like part of the problem - with a tendency to wipe out anybody who even looks like they are going to get in his way, and times he's haunted by memories of things that have gone wrong in the past, people who he's failed to save, bodies he's left in his wake. And of course, there's a budding romance with Allie - who is carting around more than a few issues of her own.
There were points where I absolutely loved NOTHING SHORT OF DYING, and points where I'd cheerfully have flung it across a room. Whilst there are aspects of Barr's characterisation that rang true, that has to balanced up against the constant concept of anything can be solved if you shoot it, hit it hard enough, or drive around it fast enough. All of which has been done - to death - before, although undoubtedly that doesn't sound particularly fair as the same could be said of lots of thrillers. It's all going to come down to a question of connection with Barr and even with Allie. If, as a reader he's somebody you instantly feel you can barrack for, or even just understand a bit, then the quibbles will disappear. If he's somebody you're struggling with, then the lack of subtlety, and the constant bang bang, shoot 'em up, loner out to save the day, getting it wrong, getting it right and the extreme violence is going to be less successful.
NOTHING SHORT OF DYING is definitely one for readers to make their own minds up about.
Review - Darktown, Thomas Mullen
The award-winning author of The Last Town on Earth delivers a riveting and elegant police procedural set in 1948 Atlanta, exploring a murder, corrupt police, and strained race relations that feels ripped from today's headlines.
Responding to orders from on high, the Atlanta Police Department is forced to hire its first black officers, including war veterans Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith. The newly minted policemen are met with deep hostility by their white peers; they aren’t allowed to arrest white suspects, drive squad cars, or set foot in the police headquarters.
A crime novel set in Atlanta in 1948, Darktown uses the genre to shine a light on a point in time in American history and, in doing so, on present day America. Thomas Mullen uses as his jumping off point the true story of the appointment of the first eight black policemen in Atlanta. They do not have an office, instead they are forced to operate out of the basement of a local YMCA. They were not given cars and had to call in white detectives when a matter needed investigation. Distrusted almost as much by the locals in their own, segregated neighbourhoods as by their fellow police officers, they were nevertheless part of the vanguard of a nascent civil rights movement.
Lucius Boggs, son of the local preacher and recently returned from the Second World War, is one of the first eight black policemen in Atlanta. He and his fellow recruits are keen to clean up their part of town, rife with bootleggers, gambling and prostitution. To add to their problems, many of those enterprises are either sponsored or actively managed by their white police colleagues who make money from turning a blind eye and who are not keen to see any change to the status quo. Despite not being permitted to investigate crimes, Boggs and his partner, Tommy Smith, surreptitiously take on the investigation of the death of a young black girl who has died in suspicious circumstances but whose case has been shelved.
On the other side of the tracks, Rakestraw, a white rookie cop who also saw action in the War is supposed to be learning the ropes from an ageing corrupt, violent, racist partner. While Rakestraw does not necessarily want to see the communities of Atlanta integrated, he does want to do something about the corruption that surrounds him and see the fledgling black police force succeed. And it is this interest that also sees him investigating the same death as Boggs and Smith.
Darktown has a James Ellroy feel to it. A tightly plotted procedural in which police with different agendas and different access to witnesses and evidence are trying to attack a problem separately, finding only late in the piece that they are on the same trail. And while this setup takes a while, the second half of the novel picks up significant pace with some white-knuckle cliffhangers based as much in the social divide as in the criminal activity. And as if to underscore the structure, after mainly separate chapters, a single chapter climax alternates between the two main characters as they work at different angles of the case.
The historical context not only highlights how attitudes have changed since the 1940s but how the attitudes of those times are still not far from the surface. Mullen explores the way the new policemen are treated, not only by their colleagues but by the wider community and in some cases their own community. He also looks at the still all too common tensions and reactions to the way neighbourhoods change over time. There is an optimism here. Mullen makes clear the strength of will and purpose that carried these men through, a strength which formed the backbone of the civil rights movement. A strength that continues to be needed in a world that is still haunted by the attitudes of the 1940s.