BEST INTERNATIONAL CRIME - Edited by Maxim Jakubowski
Includes 40 short stories from an all-star line-up of international writers that cover the spectrum of crime fiction, from noir and thrillers, to whodunnits and procedurals, with settings that include Italy, Cuba, Scandinavia, Russia, USA, Japan, Germany, Mexico, France, Italy, Spain and the UK.
This is a fantastic collection of really good quality crime fiction from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives.
The compilation is made up of 36 stories (too many to list here anyway) from a diverse range of writers and countries. That's part of what's great about this collection - not just an opportunity to hear different voices and perspectives from a wide range of cultures, but to see how crime fiction is universal. Add to that the fact that there really isn't a dud in the bunch, and I found this collection absolutely terrific and can't recommend it highly enough.
PULP FICTION - THE DAMES edited by Otto Penzler
Wearing a low-cut dress or sweater - usually in tatters - and menaced by a group of muscular thugs or a single, scarred villain, the cliched cover girls of pulp fiction magazines stole the limelight from their rather more spirited sisters concealed within.
Okay - I confess this book is the point at which I gave up on this series.
Not that there weren't a few reasonable stories within the collection, but mostly because I'm really very very over the idea that all women are either tramps, or manipulators (or both), or victims, or pathetic, or stupid (well smart if they are manipulating)... and so on.
Even allowing for sensibility differences between when these stories were written and now, I just kept wondering if these authors had wives, or daughters, or mothers that they liked much. And I do know the difference between "fiction" and "reality" but this collection was so relentlessly, tediously predictably clichéd that it was a real struggle for me to finish.
PULP FICTION - THE VILLAINS edited by Otto Penzler
Harlan Ellison introduces a collection of 16 taut and muscular tales starring some of fiction's hardest-boiled criminals, crooks, desperado's and rogues. Anti-heroes to a man, these are the guys who can be guaranteed to outwit the cops, make off with the dough and get the girl. Just don't get in their way.
I suspect that when, half-way through a book, you're still thinking that the introduction has been a highlight, it probably would be a good time to throw in the towel.
Not that there's nothing particularly unpredictable about any of the stories in this anthology, having said that, I think that was part of the problem. It was all a bit predictable, and most of the stories got overly tedious as a result. Obviously, when reading these sorts of collections, some allowance has to be made for a differing sensibility, but I will confess that I was very quickly over the tough guy with the soft interior; the scheming women; the constant cliches and the rather transparent plots.
Having said that, it really was a fantastic introduction by Harlan Ellison, and it possibly could have been called worthwhile reading as an exercise in reminding me of how far we've come. But to be honest, introduction aside, it was all pretty forgettable.
A MOST PECULIAR MALAYSIAN MURDER - Shamini Flint
Inspector Singh is in a bad mood. He's been sent from his home in Singapore to Kuala Lumpur to solve a murder that has him stumped. Chelsea Liew - the famous Singaporean model - is on death row for the murder of her ex-husband. She swears she didn't do it, he thinks she didn't do it, but no matter how hard he tries to get to the bottom of things, he still arrives back at the same place - that Chelsea's husband was shot at point blank range, and that Chelsea had the best motivation to pull the trigger: he was taking her kids away from her.
Think Hercule Poirot in a Sikh turban and the tropical heat of Kuala Lumpur, but add a hefty dose of rumpled Columbo and I think that's the best description of Inspector Singh of the Singapore police that I can come up with. A MOST PECULIAR MALAYSIAN MURDER is the first in this series from Singapore based author Shamini Flint.
This book is definitely on the lighter side of crime fiction, I'll have to read the next couple that I have here to be able to say if that's an ongoing characteristic, but I'm guessing it's probably exactly where the books are heading. Whilst there is a shooting murder in this book, it happens off-page, there's very little in the way of rushing around on the part of the main protagonist and whilst there is always the threat of the death penalty hanging over the chief suspect, there's a sense that Inspector Singh will, of course, save the day. Which he does with a hefty dose of gentle humour, quite questioning, observation and just enough prodding of various sore points. Or at least he sort of does. But more on plot later. It seems a more than reasonable expectation that the personality of the main character is going to inform each of his future investigations, and whilst Singh takes his job seriously, he's very much set up to be a "character".
Of course a debut book in a series has to be read with that in mind, and A MOST PECULIAR MALAYSIAN MURDER is an unusual book in that Inspector Singh isn't so much "investigating the crime" as checking that another authority have got it right. He's not in his usual territory and must rely on some local support (and use some indifference from the local authorities as a spur to proceed). There's a few subplots working their way through the book - with the chief suspect fighting the Syariah courts for custody of her children, a battle for control of the family company, and a tribe of native people's being butchered, all of which are pulled together at the end of the book with some hefty reeling in of the various lines. It's not too hard to work out that these threads are all going to coincide, and therefore have some idea of where the resolution is coming from, but there are precious few clues for the reader to work with. Really there's less of a solving and more of a revealing going on, and because of that I doubt it's going to be a very satisfactory ending for fans of guessing the culprit before the author reveals all.
As the start of a new series of rumpled, "character" type detectives, I thought A MOST PECULIAR MALAYSIAN MURDER was a good, light, fun read, introducing a new protagonist who really seems to have some potential. In future books I really hope that he hits his stride, embraces his inner grumpy old man and gets to grips with his surroundings. I'm also hoping that the next books have a little more leeway to introduce the world that Inspector Singh inhabits, as this first book did seem to have it's hands full introducing him.
OVERKILL - Vanda Symon
When the body of a young mother is found washed up on the banks of the Mataura River, a small rural community is rocked by her tragic suicide.
But all is not what it seems.
We've got this little dog... Jedda is a 3 year old Australian terrier female. She's short, red-golden haired, extremely independent, determined to the point of obsession, friendly but can switch quickly into extreme bolshie and she is absolutely and utterly incapable of stepping away from an argument. She's the sort of dog that will continue the fight after she's been physically picked up and carried away from the conflict point. I suspect if I'd read OVERKILL before we'd got that dog, there would have been a strong case put for naming her Sam.
OVERKILL is written from Sam's viewpoint. Which is a tricky approach as the reader is going to have to like Sam, or at least feel some sense of connection with her, and be comfortable that Sam is fairly investigating this death. Which is complicated because the grief-stricken widower is Sam's ex-lover. Somebody that you'd have to be dead or thick not have noticed Sam still holds quite a torch for. That, and some really ... well let's go with naive rather than stupid actions, means it's not a big step for the powers that be to suspend Sam from the investigation because she's made herself more than suspicious. Perhaps a little unfairly as it was Sam that first wonders if this death wasn't more than a tragic suicide and it's her sniffing around that finds the forged prescription that triggers the murder enquiry in the first place.
Needless to say, a piddling little technicality like "suspicion" and "suspended" isn't going to stop Sam, anymore than a cow manure shampoo or a few stitches in the head. (And that's got to be one of the funniest scenes I've read in years - thinking about it still made me cry with laughter when we were changing our own ute tyre the other day!)
Whilst there's always the exception to the rule, in the main there are some elements that are kind of expected in some forms of Crime Fiction. With your cop protagonist it doesn't hurt that they are a bit of a self-starter. It works well if there's conflict with higher authorities, and suspension allows your cop to head off into somewhat tricky "procedural" territory. There's really nothing wrong with using some formulaic elements in a book provided that they aren't one-dimensional and there's enough other elements for a reader to identify with to allow you to forgive the occasional blatant setup. Where OVERKILL compensates in spades is in the main characters. Sam and her best friend, housemate Maggie are a good pairing - whilst Maggie takes no active part in the investigation part of the novel, she's the calm in Sam's chaos. And the affection, sarcasm, pithy commentary and observations between the two of them are frequently very very touching and funny.
Part of what I really liked about these books was that sense of humour. Frequently self-deprecating, the humorous touches are part of what makes the first-person voice work. At no stage is Sam overbearingly smug or self-serving. She's flawed and human and probably harder on herself than anybody around her could ever hope to be. OVERKILL is the first book in what is now a 4 book series, and having read the next two before I went back to re-read this one, I can see the developmental elements in this debut. Every series, after all, has to start somewhere and there's nothing worse than a debut book that says and does it all. Sam has places to go, people to annoy, problems to solve, ladders to climb, snakes to slide back down again. You just have to hope that 4 books isn't the end and there's a lot more of Sam in the future. (Expect a flurry of these reviews - I've been slack and need to catch up with talking about this terrific series!)
THE SEX CLUB - L.J. Sellers
A pipe bomb explodes at a birth control clinic, then a young client turns up dead in a dumpster. Kera, the clinic nurse, discovers that the girl’s Bible group is sharing more than the Good News. Confidentiality keeps her from telling the police, so she digs for the truth on her own—becoming the bomber’s new target. Meanwhile, Detective Jackson races to find the killer, fearing that his own daughter could be next. But his investigation is blocked by power politics at every step. Can Jackson uncover the killer’s shocking identity in time to stop the slaughter?
To get the obvious out of the way up front - the title isn't quite as sinister as it first seems. Whilst this is a book which has some unsavoury elements to it, the point being made is more about the nature of peer pressure and the unfortunate consequences of denial.
When I was lucky enough to get a copy of THE SEX CLUB for my ereader I wasn't really too sure what to expect. The potential sexual elements of the book were certainly not an issue for me, but combine that with a fundamentalist Christian subplot and I became a reluctant reader. But I'm very glad that I was talked into putting my reluctance aside and found, once I started reading the book, I was very quickly engaged.
THE SEX CLUB combines the two main threads - the bombing of the Family Planning Clinic and the death of Jessie. Whilst some elements of the perpetrator of the bombing are known up front, there is less revealed about the murder. This means that the reader watches as, under pressure and under threat, Kera and Jackson must resolve everything - the bomber's identify and motives, the murder's identity and motives and whether the events are connected. And they must do all of that in time to stop any further bombings or murders. It's a well developed methodology, and the storytelling makes the interweaving of these threads believable, complicated but not complex, and engaging.
This book is a debut book and as an opening salvo in getting to know, in particular, Detective Jackson (who has his name on the ongoing series) it was a good start. There was a lot explained about both Jackson and Kera's backgrounds. Both characters do suffer a little from overtly damaged pasts (leading to much scope for mutual understanding and noble intentions), but overall Jackson, in particular, is an interesting character juggling the challenges of a demanding job and single-fatherhood to a teenage daughter. Of the supporting characters, perhaps the least successful is the perpetrator of the bombing - in whose head the reader spends a fair amount of time. It could be that the character was somewhat unconvincing, having said that, as I write this review I'm aware that it could also very well be that somebody that fanatical is.. frankly... completely offputting and impossible to understand.
In the main, THE SEX CLUB is a book that tackles issues that some readers are going to find contentious. For what it's worth, I thought that each of the difficult aspects were handled with sensitivity, although I should imagine that a slight tendency to "lecture" on some aspects might annoy some readers. Having said that, the sheer tackling of these issues alone is undoubtedly going to annoy some readers. On a personal level I was quite surprised that something built around perpetrators with viewpoints that I would normally leave to other readers worked as well as it did, and I'm looking forward to reading the next books in the series.
AN OBJECT IN MOTION, Ronald S Barrios
Ruth Addems is a soap opera star on the rise, but when her house in the affluent neighborhood of Black Hawk is broken into it looks as if she has a stalker and she is reffered to Rey. But Rey quickly finds out that things aren't always as they appear. In the world of Hollywood everyone has secrets and most stories are the stuff that nightmares are made of. Rey learns that once an object is in motion, it remains in motion...
Novellas must present an author with a series of quite specific challenges - developing a plot, circumstances and resolution with enough development of enough character's to give the story some depth and engagement for a reader. Given that I've recently been reading quite a bit of Pulp Fiction I was really interested to see how Barrios would do this in a current day story.
And it has to be said, in an AN OBJECT IN MOTION, Barrios has pulled off all of the major requirements - with a nice touch of cynical humour that worked really well. Not that this novella reads as a direct rip off of the old Pulp format, and thankfully, there's a good female character who's not just the "blond and beautiful - dangerous and/or as thick as mud" stereotype. Most of the characters in this story have a questionable background, which means that the possible list of suspects builds and moves around as more and more is uncovered.
All in all, AN OBJECT IN MOTION is a good plot that rolls along at a good pace, with the reader given a real sense of solving the puzzle along with our central detective. Well that is until a very interesting twist at the end - that I certainly didn't see coming - but which just made a lot of sense. A definite "of course" sort of moment at the end of a very entertaining story.
DARK BLOOD - Stuart MacBride
Everyone deserves a second chance...
Richard Knox has served his time, so why shouldn't he be allowed to live wherever he wants? Yes, he was convicted of a brutal abduction and rape, but he's seen the error of his ways. Found God. Wants to leave his dark past in Newcastle and make a new start.
Or so he says.
The problem with an author making it onto my "Pre-Order IMMEDIATELY list" is that once the book arrives I have that dreaded "do I read immediately or hoard" dilemma. It's easier with some of my all time favourite authors - there's a few, well not to put too fine a point on it, aren't as young as they used to be. Stuart MacBride, on the other hand, is a young man. Last time I set eyes on him he looked to be in remarkably good health. But still, you never know. Publishers are queer folk and they may suddenly have a brain freeze, or worse still, Stuart may just get distracted by .. well gardening stuff... and forget to write the next one.
So I've come up with a reasonable compromise with these books which is simply "hang onto them until you can stand the suspense no longer!". I held out pretty well with DARK BLOOD but I'm really really pleased I didn't keep it up forever (and the latest book has arrived so it's not like I don't have another one to hoard ... just for a little while.)
DARK BLOOD starts out with one of the best opening sequences I have read in years. One of those opening pieces that make you sit up straight and pay attention. From there the reader is launched into a world of missing informants, sawn-off sledgehammers, fake money, counterfeit goods and jewellery shop robberies. Add to the standard mayhem of Aberdeen on a normal day (well a MacBride normal day anyway), and about the only thing that McRae, Steel and the entire Aberdeen command can agree on is that having one of England's most notorious sex killers "dumped" into their patch on his release from jail is just about the height of all cheek. Which is bad enough, but a Northumbrian DSI tagging along to "keep an eye on things" is dangerously close to taking liberties.
There is always something comforting about returning to a favoured series character - and Logan McRae is one of my favourite characters, although DI Steel is not above giving him a bit of a nudge. Having said that, other readers of these books will be wondering what exactly I'm sniffing if I think McRae, Steel or any of the circumstances of MacBride's books are comforting. But in a strange (okay so slightly twisted) way, they are comforting. That's not to say that things also don't move on in their lives, albeit sometimes slowly. McRae's been doing quite a strong line of greatly put upon, martyrdom in recent books, but in DARK BLOOD he's actually firing up a bit, getting a bit bolshie. Which needless to say doesn't go down well. Nobody could possibly have imagined it would go down so badly that DI Steel would be giving him "advice" on how to get on with others mind you. But advice she does dole out. At the same time that the impending birth of her child is making her life a lot more complicated than she thought it would... especially with conciliatory and caring not exactly coming naturally to DI Steel. As usual McRae doesn't just have to deal with Steel, DI Beattie seems to be going out of his way to behave like a prat, whilst all the time journalist Colin Miller is needling away at the police in general and McRae in particular.
The problem with an ongoing series has to be that it's sometimes too easy to slip into familiar patterns, particularly where the characters and their interactions are concerned. Avoiding this DARK BLOOD has something a little more edgy about McRae - sure he's still a bit of a martyr to the cause, but there's just the occasional flash of a fight back. DI Steel is still delightfully, gloriously over the top, but she's softening just a little, impending parenthood is obviously going to have some sort of affect, but what exactly... well some things aren't to be contemplated too closely. DARK BLOOD also veers away from the more gruesome aspects of some of the recent books, and works harder on a really tight, taut, pacey and interesting plot. There's a realistic feel of pressure - external and within, of competing priorities, and changing levels of urgency. It feels like each of these characters is doing a fine line of tight-rope juggling - personally and professionally. MacBride also isn't afraid to ditch popular characters, to put them in unexpected situations, to pick them up again, and generally to move his chess pieces where the will takes him. But, as always, there's a real underlying humour - some of it observational, some of it almost slapstick, but always with sneaking sense of great affection. The characters for each other, the author for his cast, and in the case of this reader, the reader for the whole package.
THE BLACK PATH - Asa Larsson
The dead woman was found on a frozen lake, her body riddled with evidence of torture. Instantly, Inspector Anna-Maria Mella knows she needs help. Because the dead woman - found in workout clothes with lacy underwear beneath them - was a key player in a mining company whose tentacles reach across the globe. Anna-Maria needs a lawyer to help explain some things - and she knows one of the best.
I reread THE BLACK PATH last weekend. I did that because despite originally having read and reviewed it a while ago, it was one of those books that every time I spied it on a shelf, I was drawn to thinking about again. And I wanted to find out why.
At the time that I originally read it I reviewed it thus:
"THE BLACK PATH is the sort of book that you need to read with your preconceptions and expectations firmly locked in a drawer. Having not read the second book in the series yet, I know something happened to Rebecka in that book, but the details aren't important to understanding, from the start of THE BLACK PATH, that she has been through a traumatic experience and she's struggling back into normal life.
But one thing you will find with THE BLACK PATH is that Rebecka, or Anna-Maria or any of the other characters that either reoccur from earlier books, or step forward into the limelight in this book, won't necessarily remain as the focus of the book. This isn't a book that's specifically about a single person's journey through the events that lead up to a crime (perhaps with the exception of the victim herself), but a story about the swirling circumstances of lives lived. That's not to say that the book has an unfocused or messy feel to it, rather the opposite. But it does give the way the story unfolds a fascinating, sort of ephermeral feel to it, as the focus moves around, and the events that somebody - but not everybody - are involved in, all lead to a resolution.
I have to say, that for me, there was a strong sense of Swedish about this book. But this was a combination of things. The weather, the environment, the sensibility of the people, the way that the supernatural interwove with the mundane facts of life. The book also incorporates some glimpses into Sami culture which were absolutely fascinating.
As with the first of this series that I read, I still find Rebecka and Anna-Maria slightly offputting as characters. Don't know why, but they just are. Having said that, they are fascinating, and people I'm interested in and care about slightly from afar. There's some real skill in writing a story with characters like these that keeps you so involved. But I was also very taken with the lack of predictable styling of the book - I liked the way that the story evolved without the need to ensure series characters got their alloted page space."
I've realised now that the reason that the book continued to call to me is the other characters. Whilst in this review I talked about Anna-Maria and Rebecka (both interesting women in their own right - and second time around - I think I understand them just that little bit more), the victim Inna Wattrang, her brother Diddi and their business partner Mauri Kallis - their families and their motivations are the ones that I wanted to look at again, along with Anna-Maria's partner Sven-Erik, even Boxer the kitten. Most of all revisiting all of these people I'm reminded that there's nothing black and white about anything. Victims aren't perfect, villains aren't simply evil, people do things which others aren't ever going to understand. Perhaps they are doing things they don't even understand themselves. But THE BLACK PATH ticks all the boxes for what makes a very good psychological thriller, with strong, flawed, believable characters in a very good plot.
THE PRIEST - Gerard O'Donovan
His name is THE PRIEST.
His weapon is A CRUCIFIX.
His victims don't have A PRAYER.
A killer is stalking the dark streets of Dublin. Before each attack, he makes the sign of the cross; then he sends his victims to God.
Serial killer storylines. We've all said it. Over it. One more serial killer storyline and I swear..... So I'll adjust previous assertions and instead say I'm over SOME serial killer storylines.
THE PRIEST, the first crime novel from Irish author Gerard O'Donovan has a serial killer that actually doesn't kill all of his victims. Instead they are horribly injured, disfigured, tortured and abused, but they don't all die. And our serial attacker is one of those mad, bad, weird religious nutter types - the burns that he leaves his victim's with eventually reveal that he's using some sort of Cross shaped implement. Needless to say, the nickname of "The Priest". That probably means a whole lot of reasons why you'd think twice before picking up this book.
But there are a lot of things going for this book. For a start it's mercifully free of the dreaded "in the serial killer's head" viewpoint. Secondly, some of his victims do survive - albeit maimed and dreadfully injured. This gives some opportunity for some interesting twists in the personal stories, in particular, of the first victim. Jesica Salazar is the much loved daughter of an older man - a high-ranking Spanish Diplomat, in Dublin for just a short time to experience a different culture, she is found after an evening out in a nightclub, alive but battered and horribly burnt. The sex crimes team steps into the investigation, headed by Claire Brogan. DI Mike Mulcahy has recently returned from a high-profile specialist drug investigation position in Spain, and he's not best pleased at all when he's seconded to the team. They need somebody to translate, and when he steps into a disagreement between a Spanish Official and one of the team, he's even more involved as the Spanish authorities look to him. Which means nobody is pleased. Not the team, not Mike. Add the character of journalist Siobhan Fallon who is as fearless in her journalism as she is insecure about her personal life.
Mulcahy is a good central character, of the slighly embittered, strong willed, grumpy type. He's an extremely likeable sort of character - vaguely reminiscent of Rebus, but I'm prepared to give O'Donovan the benefit of the doubt over the naming of journalist Siobhan Fallon. The tentative relationship between these two has a feeling of reality about it - particularly when the roles of Journalist and Detective Inspector clash.
Alongside excellent characterisations and a really good example of team policing tension, there's a pretty good plot here. The tension doesn't let up in THE PRIEST - possibly because you know that this killer doesn't always kill his victims, partly because he presents such an obvious danger as there appears to be no predictability to actions. The only downside really is a slightly heavy-handed and predictable use of descriptive language, which smacked a little too much of some sort of writing police talk manual and didn't always feel all that authentic. Having said that, despite the serial killer theme, I really enjoyed THE PRIEST and am intrigued by the prospect of a pairing of Mulcahy and Fallon. Hopefully there will be more books featuring one or both of these characters.