A travel writer. A rogue agent. A marriage on the rocks. A whole world of secrets.
Much like its titular magazine, The Travelers is a whirlwind journey that takes readers to some of the world’s most desirable places. For starters – America, France, Argentina, England and Iceland. But for all of the glamour, fine wine and food, these places just provide the backdrop on an engaging, twisted and compulsive thriller.
Will Rhodes is a writer for Travelers magazine. His job is to fly around the world to places that his readers would like to go, take photos, eat good food, drink expensive wines and attend A-list parties. This not only keeps the readers and advertisers happy but supports Travelers’ side business as an exclusive travel bureau to the rich. But right from the cold open, Will is in trouble and the first part of the story just highlights how deep that trouble is. Soon he finds himself lying to his wife and his colleagues and becoming involved in clandestine operations which seek to use his real work as cover for espionage. Will is a likeable hero – he is no James Bond but is just resourceful enough to feel like a real person trying to work his way out of trouble.
Chris Pavone puts a lot of balls in the air in The Travelers. Will is not the only one with secrets. Everyone is hiding something – his editor, his co-workers, his wife and his new “employer”. The interesting aspect of The Travelers is the way that this deception plays out into their personal lives. Pavone is interested in partnership, particularly marriage, and the impact of work and secrets not only on Will and his wife but the other staff of Travelers magazine. While the issues are heightened by espionage, there are nevertheless real and provide The Travelers with a solid emotional core.
There is also plenty of social commentary. Pavone has a sharp eye for the foibles of modern society, never more on display than when it involves international tourism. While the book roves around the world and he has something to say about the travelling class, most of Pavone’s wit is saved for his home town of New York. But while his characters are recognisably American, there is plenty of sly and overt comment here that translates well across the first world.
But aside from all of this, The Travelers is first and foremost a thriller. And it’s a thriller that works. Pavone succeeds in setting up layers of secrets. The more he unravels, the more the pressure on Will mounts. While The Travelers has a premise that requires more than a fair amount of suspension of disbelief, it eschews the common moustache-twirling terrorism tropes that pervade much of the genre. And given this premise, Pavone also leaves enough of his balls in the air so that when the action finally settles down to set up for a potentially very different sequel.
Review - Cambodia Noir, Nicholas Seeley
A high-octane thriller with a heart-stopping conclusion about a mysterious American woman who disappears into the Cambodian underworld, and the photojournalist who tracks her through the clues left in her diary.
CAMBODIA NOIR will appeal to readers who like anything from wild west adventure novels, through to classic noir styled lone wolf investigations, set in a country with a difficult recent past, and a fraught present. Because it is a combination of all of those elements, and then some.
Dark and violent, with explicit drug taking and sex, author Nick Seeley has written a book that makes no attempt at all to cushion the blows that his characters, and his readers encounter whilst reading. It's a tough, no apologies tale set in a society that's broken. So broken that life is cheap, money is everything, and the levels of corruption and organised crime are positively breathtaking.
Needless to say, not one for fans of cosies, readers of this book are dragged through the mire along with a protagonist that's as guilty of some horrible behaviour as many of those he encounters. He's also one of those blokes capable of enduring a positively epic level of beatings, sleep deprivation and drug taking. He's also one of those blokes with a moral compass which might swing wildly, but is there, and his desire to find the missing June is as much about finding the girl, as it is about understanding what the hell she and her sister are up to.
Highly recommended if you like your noir on the darkest of dark sides.
Review - The Ex, Alafair Burke
Twenty years ago she ruined his life. Now she has the chance to save it.
The Ex is an American legal thriller set firmly in the realms of John Grisham or How to Get Away with Murder (Viola Davis is even name-checked at one point). It has everything readers have come to expect from the genre – a feisty defence attorney who will fight for her client despite growing misgivings, plenty of legal action and a multi-layered mystery.
The cold open is a police interview with Jack Harris. Jack is telling a far-fetched sounding story about why he might have been at the scene of a triple murder. He has been picked up because one of the victims is a man who he possibly has a reason to kill. Not long after this, his teenage daughter is calling defence attorney Olivia Randall asking for help. This is not some random call, Olivia had been engaged to Jack twenty years before she broke his heart. Olivia meets with Jack and, based partly on their history together, believes him to be innocent so, despite misgivings, takes on the case. As the plot unfolds, the evidence mounts and Randall keeps finding herself with increasing suspicion and higher legal mountains to climb.
There’s plenty of American legalese here – bail hearings, Brady-laws, gag orders – but not so much that it overwhelms the plot. Alafair Burke, a former prosecutor and law lecturer, knows the ins and outs of the system and plays them like a pro. The relationship between Olivia and her counterpart in the District Attorney’s Office feels genuine and court room scenes are well handled.
Burke has seeded major secrets into the plot. And, given Olivia and Jack’s history there are plenty of secrets to uncover both related and unrelated to the crime at the centre of the story. Many of these, for avid readers of this genre, will be obvious almost from the start. But they serve to keep the pages turning and a few earned “ah ha” moments. In the end, though, this is a by-the-numbers American legal thriller. Enough, at least, to satisfy lovers of this genre.
Review - The Method, Shannon Kirk
They thought she was the victim, but they're the ones in danger...
Imagine a helpless, pregnant 16-year-old who's just been yanked from the serenity of her home and shoved into a dirty van. Kidnapped...Alone...Terrified.
In The Method, Shannon Kirk takes the usual thriller formula and absolutely turns it on its head. There is still formula here – damsels in distress, bizarre criminals, an FBI investigation which relies on luck as much as detective work – but it is often twisted and reformed in ways that defy reader expectation.
A sixteen year-old girl has been kidnapped. The book opens when she has been in captivity for four days. The reader knows that she is going to survive because she is telling this story seventeen years later. She is quite clear up front that this is the tale of her “undeniable victory” which was no less than a “masterpiece”. As is immediately obvious, this is no ordinary girl, and she freely admits that in certain circumstances she would be considered a sociopath. She has the capacity to switch off her emotions and think intensely logically and rationally. In this case, despite the fact that she is seven months pregnant. As soon as she is kidnapped she is already plotting her escape, cataloging all of the objects in her locked room that she can help her and physically and mentally preparing herself for a breakout.
At the same time, FBI investigator Roger Lui is looking for missing girls. Pregnant girls who it is first thought have run away before it dawns on someone that they may have been kidnapped. Lui’s job, and his approach to it, is informed by a trauma in his past which is glimpsed at but only revealed late in the book. Unlike the girl, Lui is driven by emotion and a desire to put the world right.
To talk anymore about the plot would spoil what is a focussed, tight read. Kirk effectively moves the pieces into place before slowing the action right down to the day of the girl’s attempted escape when every small detail counts.
Despite being keyed into the eventual victory, Kirk throws additional elements into the mix, including a bit of bait and switch, to keep readers on their toes. Nothing quite goes according to plan for anyone involved and part of the fun is watching how each of the characters – the kidnapped girl, the criminals and the investigator - improvise. The Method is a page turning thriller that subverts the dominant genre paradigm of the well armed, special forces bloke taking on the bad guys. And for that alone it is worth the time.
Review - The Poison Artist, Jonathan Moore
Dr. Caleb Maddox is a San Francisco toxicologist studying the chemical effects of pain. After a bruising breakup with his girlfriend, he’s out drinking whiskey when a hauntingly seductive woman appears by his side. Emmeline whispers to Caleb over absinthe, gets his blood on her fingers and then brushes his ear with her lips as she says goodbye. He must find her.
Many crime novels straddle the line between crime and horror. Serial killers, on the whole, are the stuff of nightmares and crime writers have been falling over themselves for some time to up the gore factor. While horror novels usually rely on some form of supernatural agency and do not necessarily have the neat resolution of the crime genre, the bloody results are often the same. And so it is with The Poison Artist – a crime novel with the feel of a horror novel or a horror novel with crime elements – it is often hard to tell. Although in this case that ambiguity is not a bad thing.
Before the reader gets to the crime there is the pain. Dr Caleb Maddox, toxicologist and pain researcher, has been dumped by his girlfriend after a fairly vicious fight which involved flinging of glass. Caleb is drowning his sorrows in the bar of the San Francisco hotel in which he is taking refuge when he catches sight of a beautiful woman. He moves on to a smaller nearby where he encounters the same woman who thoroughly bewitches him to the extent that he begins a city-wide search for her.
At the same time there is a serial killer at work. Bodies are washing up in San Francisco harbour, seeming suicides but with strange marks on their shoulders which suggests something else. The last known location of the latest victim is the small bar in which Caleb had been drinking. Frustrated by a lack of progress, and suspecting problems in his own lab which are later confirmed, the chief medical examiner, who also happens to be an old friend, calls Caleb in on the sly to re-examine the victims for poisons. Caleb fails to mention at that point that he is also being questioned by the police in relation to the crimes.
There is plenty of mystery in this set-up and Moore holds a lot back, including the reason for the fight between Caleb and Bridget and the deep trauma in Caleb’s past. The reader has to work though layers of character-based mystery through to the final, breathtaking revelations. But enough happens for this coyness not to feel too forced.
The San Francisco setting is effectively used. The narrow, darkened alleyways coupled with the ever present-fog give a Victorian-era feel. This is accentuated by the use of old buildings and backroom bars and Caleb’s obsession with learning the arcane observances around the drinking of absinthe. While there is both the police investigation, and Caleb’s own off-the-books investigation, to ground the crime elements, this environment and Caleb’s state of almost perpetual drunkenness gives the narrative a dreamlike feel that adds to the growing sense of dread and allows the present to merge with the past.
Much like Thomas Harris, with a little bit of Edgar Allen Poe thrown in, Jonathan Moore has produced an effective hybrid of crime and horror. The Poison Artist is overall a compulsively creepy thriller.
Review - Girl Waits with Gun, Amy Stewart
A novel based on the forgotten true story of one of the nation’s first female deputy sheriffs.
After reading GIRL WAITS WITH GUN, a little looking back was required, as the first reaction was that of disappointment. Billed as being based on the forgotten true story of America's first female deputy sheriff, perhaps this reader was expecting more of the "sheriffing" aspects.
GIRL WAITS WITH GUN is the story of three sisters, raised in poverty, living a self-contained, quiet and hard-working life on the family farm, until the day they are involved in an accident between their horse-drawn buggy and a very early motor vehicle driven by a local silk factory owner. A dispute between them over damages quickly escalates when Constance confronts the over-privileged, connected, and utterly barking mad Henry Kaufman resulting in escalating threats, intimidation, and blackmail from Kaufman and his coterie of Mafia friends.
There's something very worthy about the way that Constance steps in to defend her family - as the blurb puts it, in a way that women in 1914 would not have dared. Although to be honest you have to wonder how many women did just that and simply never got mentioned, reported, or offered a ground-breaking job at the end of it all. The fact that Kaufman and his cronies got away with the levels of intimidation and appalling behaviour on the other hand is believable although not well served by the amount of repetition. Possibly designed to make the threat seem overwhelming, but oddly watering it down to a "here we go again" almost cartoonish feeling, unassisted by the sheer over-the-topness of the Kaufman character.
There's also a lot of what feels like filler, with a kidnapped child sub-plot and an obsession with reporting the colours, clothes and wafflings of the simpering, annoying younger sister; the jolly hockey sticks portrayal of the middle sister who is doing most of the keeping the sisters alive on a day to day basis and the stoic acceptance of her role as defender of the family of the eldest sister. Needless to say the stereotypes were obvious, to say nothing of a tendency to coyness when it comes to the "family scandal" particularly as any reader desperately searching for mystery in all of this will have little difficulty in solving that one. Of course it could be that there's a sense of humour at play here that this reader simply didn't get - but I found the worthiness of Constance wearying, the younger sister strangulation inducing, the ever-present spectre of the now deceased mother tedious and the limitations of the time period too conveniently deployed or disregarded.
Upon considerable reflection, my disappointment in this novel initially came from the slowness in getting to the crux of Kopp's role as first female deputy sheriff. That was mightily exacerbated by a sense of frustration over too much repetition and too many ancillary bits and pieces that just simply didn't hold interest or contribute to understanding her motivation. That reflection time has also clearly indicated that this reader missed something - be it a sense of humour, be it an exploration of the time, be it a commentary on the position of women in that period of history. Maybe if you're comfortable with less mystery, and more of that sort of historical lifestyle exploration, GIRL WAITS WITH GUN would be a more satisfying read.
Review - Let Me Die in His Footsteps, Lori Roy
Everyone knows Hollerans don’t go near Baines. Aunt Juna was the start of all the hatred between the families, and even though she’s been gone a good many years, the hatred has stayed put.
On a dark Kentucky night in 1952, exactly halfway between her fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays, Annie Holleran crosses over into forbidden territory. It’s been that way since Joseph Carl Baine was hanged in 1936. But local superstition says that tonight Annie can see her future in the Baines’ well.
Lori Roy had both of her first two thrillers shortlisted for the prestigious Edgar Allen Poe Award, the first, Bent Road, won the award for best Debut Novel. In Let Me Die In His Footsteps she brings that thriller sensibility to the reimagining of a historical event – the last judicial hanging in the United States in rural Kentucky. The novel is best described as loosely inspired by this event as many of the details have been altered.
It is 1952 and Annie Holleran is fifteen and a half. This is the age at which the girls of Kentucky “ascend” and become women. On the night on which they turn fifteen and a half, tradition has it that if she looks into a well, Annie will see the man she is to marry. Annie chooses to look into the well of the neighbouring Baines property, a place she has been warned off. Sixteen years before, an incident involving her mother’s family led to the hanging of one of the Baines in an incident that still echoes through the area.
Roy’s narrative alternates between Annie’s slow uncovering of family and community secrets and the first person narrative of Sarah Holleran, Annie’s adopted mother, from back in 1936. Sarah’s narrative charts the events leading up to the hanging of Joseph Carl Baines, accused of killing her brother and molesting her sister Juna. There is clearly something deeply wrong with the case against Joseph Carl Baines, but the drive of the community for justice and some sort of closure against their better judgements, leads him to the scaffold. Roy carefully doles out the revelations both before and after the event, twisting both reader and character expectations.
There’s a little bit of American Gothic here too. Roy weaves in a strain of homespun mysticism as Annie and her Grandmother share the “know-how”, a way of knowing when things are going to happen. The action takes place on a former tobacco farm, the tobacco ploughed up and replaced by a crop of lavender. Roy evokes this landscape so clearly that the smell of lavender almost comes off the page.
Let Me Die in His Footsteps is not a crime novel in the traditional sense but it has crime and a deep mystery at its core and plenty of crime to go round. The revelations, when they come, bring understanding but do not necessarily bring the closure that either the community or the reader might want. This is a beautiful, disturbing and insightful novel from a writer who continues to impress.
Review - The Murderer's Daughter, Jonathan Kellerman
A brilliant and dedicated psychologist, Grace Blades has a gift for treating troubled souls and tormented psyches - because she bears her own invisible scars. Only five years old when she watched her parents die in a bloody murder-suicide, Grace took refuge in her fierce intellect and found comfort in the loving couple who adopted her. But her now-accomplished life has a secret side, ruled by an insatiable desire; by night she pursues the addictive thrills of sexual trysts with strangers.
Jonathan Kellerman is taking a break from his long running Alex Delaware series (thirty books and counting) to focus on a new type of psychologist. Just to keep fans happy, Delaware is name checked a couple of times early on as a colleague of Dr Grace Blades, the protagonist of The Murderer’s Daughter. But Grace is a very different character to Delaware, probably deliberately so, and this is both a positive and negative.
Dr Grace Blades is a psychologist who helps people deal with significant trauma. She speaks from experience having had an extremely traumatic childhood herself. When someone from her past turns up and is then killed, Grace, rightly as it turns out, fears for her life and begins a quest to find out who is responsible. Intercut with this story is detail of Grace’s backstory as a brilliant but traumatised five-year-old passed through numerous fostering situations that eventually takes her story to the present.
Grace is a less touchy-feely, more action oriented character than Alex Delaware. She is cold and has difficulty making connections, all of which is explained, but it also makes her difficult to warm to or cheer for as a character. She deals specifically with clients who have dealt with trauma and shows her compassionate side here but even that is only a professional compassion. Grace is fiercely intelligent, a point that is consistently made, which helps her build a picture of her adversary out of a series of fairly tenuous connections.
Given the circumstances of its protagonists and the people she is tracking down, this book could have been a scathing indictment of the child welfare system in the United States. But all of that feels like window dressing. If anything, the plot ends up being an extended nature versus nurture argument. For Grace, who’s history we learn in great, often tedious detail, it seems that her nature set her up for some form of success despite a tough childhood. For her adversary, things are not so clear. Most of what the reader learns about him is supposition based on Grace’s investigation and her own experience and then an all too brief encounter in which he is clearly “bad”. The question as to whether this is innate or due to his being raised by a cult is never considered.
In the end the whole book feels like a very lengthy set-up for a new series. Most of the focus is on Grace’s past which, while occasionally interesting, is fairly banal. The plot itself mainly involves Grace’s investigation. While she is harassed and followed, she deals with this threat quickly and competently and never really seems in danger. There is very little in the way of tension as Grace moves closer to her target and the climax, when it finally comes, is short, sharp and decidedly anti-climactic. This is then followed by a strange coda, written in a different tense, which seems to imply that Grace Blades will return.
This whole book feels like it emerged from backstory notes that Kellerman wrote when developing his new character. If this is the case, there is hope that Grace may develop in more interesting sequels. However, as either an introductory or stand alone novel this effort does not make the grade.
Review - FOR THE DIGNIFIED DEAD, Michael Genelin
A woman’s body is pulled from the frozen Danube in Bratislava. Police Commander Jana Matinova recognizes the killer’s calling card. She had him in her grasp once before …and he slipped away. But not this time. Determined to end the bloody killing spree, Matinova’s investigation plunges her into the center of an international conspiracy involving hundreds of millions of dollars and turns the hunter into the hunted.
The 5th book in the Jana Matinova series (as best as can be gleaned from online lists which universally don’t seem to include it), FOR THE DIGNIFIED DEAD was so good the first book leapt straight into Mt TBR. It also extremely readable if you are new to them as well.
Part of the strength of the book was undoubtedly the central character of Jana Matinova who is strong, smart and unwilling to take any crap from anyone - crims and colleagues alike. She’s compassionate without being soppy and dedicated. She’s also very driven in this book as she’s well aware that the killer’s signature is that of one who got away. She’s not too proud to take assistance from unlikely quarters when it’s offered, and she’s definitely no super-hero.
The sense of place here is interesting, somehow there is a very Slovakian sensibility in the attitudes, the physical locations and, obviously, the impact of the weather. There’s a rapid pace, but it’s always supported by a sense of the places that Matinova encounters as she searches for a serial killer, a lot of money and some very unexpected connections.
Finally there’s a good plot, with internal consistency, enough twists to keep you paying close attention, and enough depth and complication to make the path that Matinova must tread believable. There’s also quite a bit of action and some tension and threat which works really well.
Thanks to Netgalley I happened upon this book and liked it so much that the it has became a series I’m making sure I catch up with from the start.
Review - ROGUE LAWYER, John Grisham
I'm not a typical lawyer. I don't maintain a pretty office filled with mahogany and leather. I don't belong to a big firm, prestigious or otherwise. I don't do good works through the bar association. I'm a lone gunman, a rogue who fights bad systems and hates injustice . . .
Sebastian Rudd takes the cases no one else wants to take: the drug-addled punk accused of murdering two little girls; a crime lord on death row; a homeowner accused of shooting at a SWAT team.
John Grisham has never been one for subtlety. He is a writer who prefers to tell rather than show. Laying out character and plot much like a court document. Just the first few pages of Rogue Lawyer are completely in this style. They tell the reader everything they need to know about narrator Sebastian Rudd, the rogue lawyer of the title and his circumstances. The rest of the book is in much the same vein.
Sebastian Rudd is the lawyer you call when you have run out of hope. His fame, such as it is, comes from defending death row clients and mobsters, people who no one else will defend. A lawyer who is needed to keep the system honest, or so he tells himself. And there is plenty of dishonesty to go round in Rudd’s world. From lying prosecutors, to biased judges, to gung-ho cops trying to cover up their latest mistakes. Not that Rudd is above underhand tactics, but in his world this is just a matter of levelling the playing field.
At first Rogue Lawyer reads a bit like Rumpole. It feels more like a collection of short stories about a lawyer who takes on seemingly hopeless cases with some connective narrative tissue. Each story seems designed to shine a different light on some corrupt, or corrupted, part of the American judicial system. But about half way through, the background plot strands start to come together and Rogue Lawyer becomes more the page-turner that Grisham regularly delivers. As the book goes on, Rudd’s life becomes more and more the centre of attention as his mistakes, commitments and short cuts pile on top of each other, forcing him to take more and more desperate measures to stay ahead of the game.
Grisham has been on a soap box for a long time - his books becoming increasingly polemical as he rails against the system. Plenty of bad law and badly applied law gets a serve in Rogue Lawyer. That said, this makes his books a bit of an antidote to the streams of cops-doing-it-tough reality TV and the Law and Order/CSI style detectives and lawyers-as-heroes dramas. The law is anything but good guys versus bad guys in Rudd’s world and, for the reader, that’s all for the better.