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.
Review - WORLD GONE BY, Dennis Lehane
Ten years have passed since Joe Coughlin's enemies killed his wife and destroyed his empire, and much has changed. Prohibition is dead, the world is at war again, and Joe's son, Tomas, is growing up. Now, the former crime kingpin works as a consigliore to the Bartolo crime family, travelling between Tampa and Cuba, his wife's homeland.
Denis Lehane returns to the world of gangsters and organised crime in World Gone By. In 2008, Lehane, already known for his Kenzie and Genarro crime series (of which Gone Baby Gone is the best known) and stand alone novels like Mystic River and Shutter Island, penned The Given Day: a historical epic about the fiercely Irish Coughlin family set during the 1919 Boston Police riots. The loosely connected sequel Live by Night, stepped forwards a few years and centred around black sheep of the Coughlin family, Joe, who finds himself enmeshed in the prohibition era organised crime. Live by Night chartered Joe’s rise from a small time hood in Boston, through wit and guile and a propensity for violence, to running a crime syndicate in Florida.
World Gone By finds Joe ten years on. He has stepped down from the top role, ceding it to his oldest friend (and more importantly Italian) Dion Bartolo. Joe is the consigliere, the fixer. Every crime family and syndicate owes him for some scheme he has put in place to make them money. As Dion says at one point – this is their “thing”, finding ways to screw the Government out of money. So when Joe learns that someone has taken a contract out on him, he needs to find out why.
But the contract is just a symptom of wider changes occurring in the world that Joe has built. While the old guard try to hold things together, their younger, power hungry lieutenants are restless and start to use the old rules to fashion their own, new world order. World Gone By, as the title suggests is looking at change - change of attitude, change of rules, change of generation – and of the dangers of looking back versus the risks of looking forward. Joe sees this almost physically in the form of a ghostly image of a young boy from his past. But others are haunted too by the choices that they made and the lives that they have led. This feeling is instilled in the book right from the first chapter, where a journalist reflects on photos of a charity ball that Joe hosted and how many of the people in those photos are now dead.
Joe Coughlin is a complex and engaging anti-hero. He constantly strives to do what he thinks is the right thing within a fundamentally corrupt and corrupting system. Joe does not think of himself as ‘bad’ although he accepts that he does bad things. But as the threat comes closer to him and his family Joe’s propensity for violent solutions comes to the surface. Despite this, Joe constantly tries to set an example for his ten year old son, and wants him to think well of him despite his day job as a gangster.
World Gone By is another brilliant, layered crime novel from Lehane, one of the world’s premier crime writers. It can be read as a stand alone, but readers of the earlier novels will be more rewarded. The plot ticks over with plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. The descriptions and set pieces are cinematic. The dialogue shifts from goodfellas style talk to deep conversations about the nature of good and evil, racism and morality. This is a writer at the top of his game.
Review - THE WHITES, Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt
Writing as Harry Brandt, Richard Price has adopted a transparent pseudonym for this brilliant thriller about a rogue NYPD detective dragged back into his dark past by a murder in the present
Richard Price is well known for gritty crime dramas in a number of forms. His early novel Clockers, about crime on the streets of New Jersey brought him favourable attention. He went on to write film scripts (Sea of Love, a crime thriller starring Al Pacino) and award winning episodes of TV’s The Wire. Price claims he created the writing persona Harry Brandt as a way of divorcing himself a little from this output and focusing on a more down-the-line police procedural genre piece. The Whites proves, in a good way, that this has turned out as a bit of a lost cause. The Whites has some genre elements, but it is about much more than life on the beat in New York City.
The first issue to deal with is the name of the book. At first glance, it might be assumed that The Whites is some sort of reference to race relations, always a fertile source of material for American crime novels. But the name actually has a much more literary source. A "white" is the one that got away, a cop’s personal Moby Dick. These are criminals who have committed despicable crimes but managed to dodge the system whether it was through lack of evidence or some technicality. Many of the cops and ex-cops of the book carry their whites around with them, keeping an eye on their quarry and staying in touch with the families of the victims even after they have left the police force. As the plot unfolds, the term “white” starts to take on a broader meaning, referring to any obsession or lifelong pursuit that, much like Captain Ahab, can drive people to dangerous extremes.
Billy Graves heads the Night Watch. His team take the streets of New York between midnight and eight am. When the story opens it is St Patrick's Day, one of the most violent nights of the year. But as the book wears on it is clear that most nights are violent, just some are more violent than others. While there is a plot the swirls around and centres on Billy, the pressure of his job, and the constant crime that he has to deal with never lets up and creates an undercurrent of tension through the book.
On that opening night Billy is called to a murder at Penn Station. He immediately recognises the victim as the “white” of one of his former partners. Billy was part of a group of detectives who called themselves the Wild Geese and ruled the city in the 1990s. He is the last one left in the police force, the others having left to go into other roles including private security, property development and undertaker. Each of them has their own personal white. And when Billy notices that the Penn Station victim is not the only white to turn up dead, he has to dig back into his past and test his relationship with his old partners.
At the same time, another cop, Milton Ramos, has his own mission: avenging the death of his brother many years before. A mission that causes him to target Graves' family in an escalating program of terror. The story spirals around the two men as they are slowly pulled into each other's orbit.
The Whites is, on its surface, the crime procedural that Price was after. Much of it is about cops, doing their business, managing other cops, trying to juggle a private life, while dealing with the unending tide of crime. But it is also more than this. The book explores the impact that this life has on those people: why they became cops, why they continue to be cops, and the ties that bind them together. It is a story that explores the twisted byways of love and loyalty, regret and the price of vengeance. It is Richard Price's Moby Dick, which is probably why, after creating Harry Brandt, he put his name back to it.
Review - ENTROPY, Robert Raker
When a series of child abductions and murders disrupt the life of an economically blighted community, the consequences have far-reaching implications. The brutal crimes take a different toll on a disparate group of individuals; the scuba diver who retrieves the children’s bodies; the disfigured cellist who thinks he knows who’s responsible; the undercover federal agent; and the mother of one of the victim’s. United in a situation not of their choosing, they are forced to take a deep, introspective look into their intersected, yet isolated lives.
The opening lines of each viewpoint in ENTROPY by Philadelphia based author Robert Raker are the clearest indicator this reader has come across in a long time of whether or not a book is going to work for you.
From the scuba diver called in to retrieve the bodies:
"The bloated, distended corpses of the people whose shortened lives I had retrieved from the water were clearly visible in the immature patterns of condensation that evaporated gradually on the mirror."
The musician, the disfigured cellist from the blurb:
"I just sat there. Looking closely at the gun, I cocked the trigger back and forth repeatedly, like a curious child studying the physics of a toy, wanting to grasp the technical aspects of it, what made certain parts of it function and react the way that it did when it was used."
The undercover Federal agent:
"I glanced up at the cracked face of the clock above her dresser. She would be leaving for the lawyer's office soon. After that I would need to catch the next bus to the terminus. What happened after I boarded would leave me with minimal contact with anybody, even her."
And finally, the model, the mother of one of the victim's from the blurb:
"How did we get here? We were once such a happy family but now I am left alone with only my memories as a comfort to the love we once shared and the child we had borne. When did you start to drift? I think about this daily trying to pinpoint the moment that our relationship fell apart."
This book has an interesting structure, the exploration of the impact of a series of murders on different individuals. Each person's involvement being more or less emotional and/or physical. The scuba diver who retrieves the bodies with hands on experience and shock; the mother who experiences lost; the agent on the search; and the musician. It's not a structure that's undertaken frequently.
Whether or not the structure, and the viewpoints is going to work for individual readers, however, is going to be down to the style of writing. Which is descriptive, made up of long sentences and frequently meandering. It leans heavily towards internal observation and could be that the author is aiming for something languid. Involving.
"Mull and I had much in common with one another, despite our distant upbringings, although he would never admit it. That, among other things, was probably why he didn't want me here. It was like I was his foil, an altered mirror image, the villain unobstructed, who thwarted his attempts at prestige and destiny, and constrained his movement."
"...What was left of the hair on her scalp resembled algae or kelp floating on the surface of the Dead Sea. It was a majestic and historical body of water, the Dead Sea, which was rumored to cover the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Because of the overwhelming salinity, life could not exist in its waters. I had visited Jordan once during my failed attempt at an Olympic career. We were in Europe for time trials near the end of my attempts to represent the United States. However, despite being so close to the Dead Sea, I never got a chance to experience the myths and legends of that body of water. I wasn't entirely sure why I thought about it now. The girl's body was now almost free of the silo."
"Having trained as a musician, I held sound in the highest importance: pitch, tone, the logarithmic construction of amplitude, frequency, intensity, and other the other [sic] characteristics that were essential for desirable auditory quality. The biology of sound was complicated. It moved in waves, propagated outwards from a fixed point. I felt I could see sound move, drip from the strings of violins and cellos in a concerto like water, or trickling from the golden mouth of a trumpet like honey."
"The flames flared up, fed by the latent chemicals in the composition of the photographs, and rolled across the distorting images of suspects and buildings. I accidentally burned a photograph of us at her sister's wedding. I leaned closer and tried to save the vibrant colours of the gorgeous dress she had worn but it was too late."
"Despite being apart now for four months, I still recognize you in everything I see. You taught me how to study angles and lines, and I notice how they change in differing light and shadows. It doesn't matter where I go. Sitting in our unfinished dining room, I find myself folding and assembling my napkin to understand its texture and possibilities. I can, at times, hear your voice telling me not to focus on the object directly, but on spaces between the dark and the unseen."
Whilst the idea of immersive, internal and introspective writing greatly appeals, alas nothing in ENTROPY worked for this reader. Whilst the language is obviously trying for descriptive it frequently became confusing and distracting. Unfortunately it made for heavy going and frequent disconnection from the point of story, and from the narrator. Certainly it didn't create an atmosphere in which this reader could feel any engagement with any of the characters.
The reason for providing so much quotation within this review is to give other readers an indication of the style. After all, differences in taste of we readers is one of the most baffling parts of talking about books.
Review - THE KIND WORTH KILLING, Peter Swanson
I looked at the pale, freckled hand on the back of the empty bar seat next to me in the business class lounge of Heathrow airport, then up into the stranger's face.
'Do I know you?'
Delayed in London, Ted Severson meets a woman at the airport bar. Over cocktails they tell each other rather more than they should, and a dark plan is hatched - but are either of them being serious, could they actually go through with it and, if they did, what would be their chances of getting away with it?
We seem to like spending time with bad people - sociopathic characters who are constantly scheming to manipulate and kill. You just have to look at the popularity of Dexter or Hannibal Lecter or the success of Gone Girl. The Kind Worth Killing understands this desire and plays on it to the hilt. None of the characters come across as particularly likeable and all of them have skeletons in their closets but Swanson makes spending time with them fun.
The Kind Worth Killing has a fabulous cold open: a man meets a woman in an airport bar. The rules are different in airport bars and before long, and after more martinis, Ted is revealing all to Lily about his wife’s infidelity and his desire to kill her. What surprises him is that his companion encourages the idea and offers to help. To reveal anything that happens after that point would take this review well into spoiler territory. Suffice to say that at most points in the narrative, whatever you think is going to happen is not what happens.
There are a couple of caveats with this novel. Firstly, there are the stereotyped gender roles. The main female characters are both stunningly beautiful but deeply, narcissistic and sociopathic. They are constantly using their beauty to manipulate the men around them and, literally in some cases, to get away with murder. The male characters, while also willing to do bad things, are much weaker, easily manipulated or led and never seem to be quite in control of their actions.
Secondly, all of the various narrative voices tend to blend. If not for the post-it note style tag with the character’s name at the beginning of each chapter it is sometimes hard to distinguish between them. This is particularly the case in the section of the book that alternates between the two female protagonists.
On top of this the plot has a couple of holes that, if you stopped too long think about them, you could drive a well stocked ute through. But Swanson has written a classic page turner and manages the pace to ensure that there is no time to think about anything other than what might be coming next. From the opening couple of chapters that introduce the first two thoroughly unlikeable characters, the reader is too busy turning pages to find out how character A is going to outwit or manipulate character B in order to kill character C. In the end, this is a great book to read on a plane, or in an airport lounge, at least as a way of avoiding meeting any sociopaths.
Review - LOCK IN, John Scalzi
Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. 4% suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And 1% find themselves 'locked in' - fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. 1% doesn't seem like a lot. But in the US that's 1.7 million people 'locked in' - including the President's wife and daughter. Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can fully restore the locked in.
For those who like their science fiction with a crime twist or those who like their crime with a sci-fi bent or those who just like a really good read, John Scalzi delivers. Scalzi has been writing sci-fi for a while and has dabbled in a number of subgenres including the Heinlein-esque Old Man's War series, which garnered a number of Hugo Award nominations, and the 2013 Hugo Award winning Star Trek homage Redshirts.
Lock In is like none of these, it is a police procedural set in a post-pandemic world introduced via a few brief pages of info dump. The pandemic, besides killing a great number of people also had the effect of 'locking in' a number of its victims after they experience meningitis-like symptoms. These people, known as 'Hadens', after the president's wife who famously had the disease, find themselves fully conscious but unable to move or speak. A huge ‘moonshot’ style research effort led by the US president has resulted, twenty five years later, in Hadens having their own on-line world in which to meet and the development of 'threeps' - personal robotic transports into which they can project their consciousness and go out into the world. A small number of Haden survivors who are not locked in can also act as 'Integrators', humans who are able the host the consciousness of Hadens for short periods of time.
There is a lot to get across but Scalzi doesn't waste time with explanations, instead jumping into the death of an unidentified man at the Watergate Hotel. On the scene are rookie FBI agent, and Haden, Chris Shane and his grizzled, hard drinking partner Vann. All of the elements of a classic procedural are here and Scalzi doesn't disappoint as the clues stack up and the stakes get higher. There is a little more info dumping, which tends to technobabble, towards the end of the novel as the setup for the end game. But by that time the reader is well and truly invested in the outcome and the detail works in the universe that Scalzi has created.
At the heart of Lock In is an argument about the rights of people with disability, and the question over whether people with a disability need to be 'cured'. In the world of the novel there is a society of Hadens, many of whom don't remember what it is like to not have the condition they have. Political elements of the plot revolve around what happens when the government decides to stop supporting the Hadens financially and technically at the level which allows them to have that society. Lock In is too much an action oriented procedural to dwell too much on these issues but just raising them and having what is essentially a disabled protagonist, them takes the novel to another level.
While there is not a lot of room to explore the world of Hadens to deeply in the book, Scalzi has also written a companion novella Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome available free on the Internet. This in itself is a wonderful piece of world building and hard science fiction and is much more thoughtful than the usually hysterical global pandemic genre.
Lock In is the type of book that makes bookshop owners quail as it’s hard to know which shelf to sell it from. Scalzi is known to sci-fi fans but Lock In is also a great crime novel and would be an eye-opener for crime fans. It is less genre-mash and more genre busting, demonstrating that there is no reason to pigeon hole a good book.
Review - LAND OF SHADOWS, Rachel Howzell Hall
Along the ever changing border of gentrifying Los Angeles, seventeen year old Monique Darson is found dead at a condominium construction site, hanging in the closet of an unfinished unit. Homicide detective Elouise “Lou” Norton’s new partner, Colin Taggert, fresh from comparatively bucolic Colorado Springs police department, assumes it’s a teenage suicide. Lou isn’t buying the easy explanation.
Having been a bit of a fan of one of her earlier books - NO ONE KNOWS YOU'RE HERE - the chance to read LAND OF SHADOWS was gratefully accepted (courtesy of NetGalley). Set in Los Angeles, with another strong, flawed, believable and extremely likeable central female protagonist this writer has a fabulous way of making that world come alive. There's a strong sense of place, particularly in this book, set as it is in that sort of fringe world between deprived communities and incoming gentrification, stalled because of economic downturn and malaise. Add to that a couple of very different central protagonists - Lou Norton from the neighbourhood, a woman from a difficult childhood, strong, flawed, resilient in many ways and vulnerable and self-destructive in others. The incoming cop - her new country boy partner - a bit of a fish out of water in the inner-city, somebody who has much to prove and not a lot of ideas on how to go about that.
Given she's the central character in this book, Norton holds up her end of the bargain very well. After her sister goes missing when they are children, she's spent her life and her career looking closely at the man she suspects was behind that disappearance. The fact that his name appears again in this latest murder gives her much to be wary of. Obsession can make a poor investigative tool and she's aware of that, whilst also utterly committed to finding what happened to her sister as well as this latest victim. She's also dealing with a serially unfaithful husband, and the implications that he has for her "happy ever after plans" once she finds out what did happen all those years ago.
She's a bundle of contradictions needless to say. Strong in the job, determined and quite forceful, she's a good mentor for the new cop on the block, albeit prickly and inclined towards sarcasm. Yet her home life, as luxurious and physically comfortable as it is, is a car crash. The fact that she stays anywhere near her husband might be a difficult dilemma for some readers to process.
Within the personal, and the interactions between the two central characters, there's a reasonable, slowish and very procedural investigation. The identification of the victim, the following up of her movements, the way her family operates, the connections between her family members, the past, the present, suspects, places and events all build a picture that eventually develops into a solution. Sure, some of these connections are predictable, and the creepy criminal voice lurking around the edges is a device that's been done to death, but much of that is carried by the strength of the characters and the by-play between Norton and Taggert and, in particular, her personal situation. There's some gentle poking of fun at all levels throughout this book. Norton doesn't take herself too seriously which really helps with some of the emotional turmoil, and the country boy daftness of Taggert never steps over the line into caricature.
Contradictions, inconsistencies and the personal and professional are part of what Hall explores with great precision in this novel. There's much in all of these characters that is required to add up to the whole. Part of what makes Norton a great cop is her compassion, her ability to see the grey, and her understanding that sometimes things aren't straightforward. Part of what makes these two characters feel like that should have a long, and very fruitful fictional life is the strengths, weaknesses and reality of both of them.