Shanghai in the mid-1990s is a city caught between reverence for the past and fascination with a tantalizing, market-driven present. When the body of a young "national model worker," revered for her adherence to the principles of the Communist Party, turns up in a canal, Chen is thrown into the midst of these opposing forces. As he struggles to unravel the hidden threads of this paragon's life, he finds himself challenging the very political forces that have guided his life since birth.
To my mind, the very best crime fiction in the world provides a window into the world in which it is set. Be that the psyche of the people, the machinations of the society, how a community is structured and operates, the laws and mores, even the way in which authorities deal with the disorder, how they implement authority. DEATH OF A RED HEROINE is set in Shanghai in 1990, a year after Tiananmen Square, an ancient city with a population tightly controlled by the Communist Party. Poet Chen Cao is an unlikely policeman, forced into the job by the party system, he's caught between a love of poetry and his own innate sense of responsibility. A loner, a romantic soul, he heads a special unit which is given the task of investigating the brutal murder of Guam Hongying. A National Model Worker, the death of Hongying is viewed as much a political situation as it is a crime.
DEATH OF A RED HEROINE is a very intricate book, exploring many aspects of the society in which the action takes place. Firstly the character of Inspector Chen Cao, a maverick (as much as you can be under totalitarian control), he's a poet, a loner, a romantic soul forced into the life of a policeman. Enjoying the very small privileges that come with rank, he's also uncomfortable with their existence. He's more fortunate in his friendships - both with long-term friends and with his colleagues.
The second aspect of the book that is carefully explored is the victim herself. Her status as a National Model Worker means that her death hits the desks, and the minds of the upper echelons of the Communist Party. Her treatment, in death, as it was in life, is slightly different. The way that her status, and her life was regarded is a particularly interesting aspect of this book, as it leads to the final component of the book worth mentioning - Chinese Society in its own right. Possibly the strongest aspect of the book, because the culture and political system of the society imposes itself over every aspect of it's people's lives. From the way that the investigation is regarded, to the way that Hongying and Chen Coa lead their lives, every move everybody makes is somehow choreographed by the ever present "Party" and its cadres.
The parts of the book that don't work quite as well are the plot, and some of the messages that the author is attempting to impart. Second part first - there is some rather heavy-handed repetition of the ills of Communist China. Whether or not you agree or disagree with the messages being delivered, constant repetition doesn't help. The first part - the plot - well got more than a bit hazy at times. Sometimes this was because we'd wandered so far from the central point of the book memory faded, at other points it was simply because plot points sort of got "dumped" into the narrative. Either way, it's not the most complex or unexpected resolution to the death of an attractive young woman.
It also isn't on the fast, tense, light read side of the scale. This is a book which will require a bit of concentration, some acceptance that as with many debuts, there's a bit of work going on to establish a character and his place in the world. But as a lead into a new series, this book has ticked yes to a lot of questions. This is undoubtedly a series that I want to catch up with. In a hurry.
PAYDIRT - Garry Disher
Wyatt is back in a new adventure set on the far side of morality.
Introduced in Kickback, Garry Disher's bestselling, widely praised crime novel, Wyatt reappears in the South Australian outback, intent on snatching a payroll. But Wyatt is not the only one eyeing the funds.
The Outfit has business with Wyatt. Business that will only be finished when he faces the hitman's gun.
One of the great joys of my reading life is the occasional chance to wander back through a much loved series. And what's not to absobloodylutely love about the Wyatt series from Garry Disher.
Taut as, these books are short, sharp and to the point. 173 pages short. A salient reminder to the reader that you don't actually need 500 or so pages in which to develop a storyline, build a character, create some tension, get in some action, build up a bit of angst, bring in a few double-crossers, and get Wyatt out of trouble by the skin of his teeth.
If that doesn't appeal then consider Wyatt - unrepentant, unapologetic thief. Controlled, self-contained, a crook with none of that fluffy heart-of-gold bullshit. Wyatt is clinical, careful, considered and out to ensure that Wyatt survives. This series is different, fantastic and it just got better and better. It's no trial to reread these. They are the perfect solution to the reading slump that hits even somebody as addicted to a book in hand as me.
DIE A LITTLE - Megan Abbott
School teacher Lora King finds her quiet surburban life disrupted when her brother Bill, a junior investigator with the District Attorney's office, meets a woman by chance and quickly marries her. His new wife is Alice Steele, a beautiful and charming Hollywood wardrobe assistant, and although everyone else is entranced by her, Lora becomes suspicious of the inconsistencies in the stories from Alice's past.
DIE A LITTLE is the first in a series of books from Megan Abbott flagged somewhat unhelpfully as "modern noir". I'm not at all sure what that should imply in terms of expectation, but whatever caused it, something didn't really work about this book for me.
Leaving aside the fact that the cover is absolutely wonderful and the title is glorious, the style very atmospheric and the build up interesting (woman with a "past" who marries a cop, cop's sister smells a rat, digs), something about the delivery of this story simply flat out didn't hold my interest. I suspect part of this is because the "sister" whose viewpoint is paramount, didn't seem to fit with the noir stylings. For a while I wondered if the "bad girl" telling the story, might have helped, but ultimately I think the problem was partially the complete lack of suspense. Noir can be predictable to my mind, but it shouldn't be flat. It shouldn't drone on leaving a feeling of impatience for the damn thing to get to the point.
I suspect part of the problem really was that the focus on the sister's viewpoint isn't supported by her being a character that you can get involved with. It wasn't too long before I was forced into thinking I'd be on side of the bad girl wife, regardless of the question.
SEX CRIMES - Paul Thomas
The things we do for sex - lie, cheat, scheme, kill ...
Sex Crimes is seven delicious helpings of irony, intrigue and full-on entertainment from the writer who the celebrated Australian author Marele Day described as 'a master of plot, pace and the killer one-liner'.
I'm more than a bit of a fan of books by Paul Thomas. I'm more than a bit of a fan of his short stories now as well. SEX CRIMES is a series of fantastic short stories themed around sex. As the blurb puts it "exploring the unpredictable and sometimes fatal consequences that can occur when sex rears its not-so-uly head." (To say nothing of the odd looks you get when you're sat in public places, with a book which declares it's title obviously on the cover, and you, the reader, are snickering and outright laughing at points). Needless to say - this book quickly became a home based guilty pleasure.
Universally these stories are incredibly clever in the way that they build up the scenario quickly, create strong plots and/or strong characterisations, and deliver the resolution in such a short, sharp burst of words. The only story that perhaps doesn't work as well is, strangely, the longest one - revenge being a fantastic subject to explore, unfortunately this vehicle may have just simply been a bit too long at the end of a book that delivered so many other short, sharp, elegantly composed offerings.
I really do wonder why it is that short story collections have been so rare at points. They are the perfect fodder for busy readers, they work as a quick read before turning off the light, they are perfect for the time spent waiting in the car for whoever it is that's running late from wherever, they are particularly perfect for that "sitting around" waiting time that seems to go with all appointment based services these days. Although, given that you're not going to be able to get through this entire book without collapsing with laughter at some point, it might be best to wrap SEX CRIMES in a plain paper cover - you might find the area around you clears a bit and people start crossing the road to avoid you otherwise.
SCREAM - Nigel McCrery
As people disappear from his streets, and a handful of battered and broken bodies are discovered on his patch, Lapslie has no idea that he's up against a man who feels sound like he can taste it.
I doubt it's much of a coincidence being a big fan of the scripts and the acting in the TV Series NEW TRICKS, that I'm also a fan of the DCI Mark Lapslie series. After all, Nigel McCrery is a writer and creator of both. (Along with many other excellent TV series including Silent Witness and All the King's Men.)
SCREAM is the third in the DCI Mark Lapslie series, Lapslie being an unusual central protagonist who suffers from a particularly acute form of synaesthesia. In other words he experiences sounds as a variety of different flavours. Which makes receiving a very disturbing email; with a sound file attached which appears to be a recording of an unknown woman's death throes particularly confrontational for him. The situation isn't made any easier as Lapslie is in Pakistan at an international course on counter-terrorism, which means he has to fly back immediately to lead the investigation as it's obvious that the killer wants him involved.
In the meantime Lapslie's sergeant, Emma, is leading an investigation into the murder of a woman on Canvey Island. It seems that the victim was tortured before death, and whilst they do manage to identify the victim, it doesn't seem to move the investigation any further. Eventually it's trace evidence and the search to see if they have a serial killer that edges it slowly forward.
Lapslie and Emma have been developing a tentative working relationship in all three of these novels now, although in SCREAM things are complicated by Emma's ongoing relationship with local crook and police informer Dom McGinley. He's a most unlikely love interest for Emma, but there's something very pointed about Lapslie's objections, not that he's got any romantic feelings for Emma himself, his concerns are partly paternal, partly professional.
Obviously Lapslie's synaesthesia (which does contribute to his investigative ability) has been a major element in all the books thus far, although in SCREAM he is getting treatment, and the condition is not as overpowering, and therefore it's not as major a thread throughout the entire book. Which is actually a really good thing. Not only has the condition improved, his life in general is improving, he's even able to enjoy concerts or meals out with a new girlfriend. A considerable change, particularly from the first book, where he was effectively housebound. That sense of moving on helps make this a very engaging series, but I suspect, if you've not read either of the earlier books, you could be missing out on the importance of Lapslie's improved circumstances and outlook. It may make reading this book out of sequence a little less of an enjoyable experience.
But that won't make it an unpleasant experience. McCrery has a very deft manner in the way that he plots out a story, and draws a verbal picture of the forensic and crime scene details. Having said that, the books don't read as a film / TV script in the making - SCREAM is a great novel, with pace, humour, intrigue and tension.
1222 - Anne Holt
1222 metres above sea level, train 601 from Oslo to Bergen careens off iced rails as the worst snowstorm in Norwegian history gathers force around it. Marooned in the high mountains with night falling and the temperature plummeting, its 269 passengers are forced to abandon their snowbound train and decamp to a centuries-old mountain hotel. They ought to be safe from the storm here, but as dawn breaks one of them will be found dead, murdered.
Take one gloriously grumpy central protagonist, add that train crash, include a massive snowstorm cutting off a train full of people 1222 metres above sea level in an inaccessible hotel, add a mysterious locked carriage and a group of shadowy unknown passengers, then kill off a high-profile passenger and see what happens.
What happens is that our grumpy protagonist, Hanne Wilhemlsen, ex-police officer, in a wheelchair as a result of being shot on duty, has to work out what is going on before the body count continues to increase. With no official help from the outside, and way too much interfering help on the inside, Hanne and a small group of trusted people - some passengers, some staff, some locals, need to work out who wanted to kill off a seemingly harmless, albeit annoying, priest. And the killing doesn't stop there.
Of course this plot has more than a hat-tip to a few perennial favourite devices - a closed room setting, albeit a biggish closed room in this example. This is a very large, rather luxurious resort, capable of taking in 269 or so people at a moment's notice. Then there's the idea of the thinking, observational detective - in this case enforced because of physical restrictions, there's something vaguely reminiscent of Nero Wolfe or Hercule Poriot about Hanne, although her Archie / Hastings is embodied in more than one person in 1222.
There is a large potential cast of passengers, staff and local helpers so it's just possible that the concept of a resort (that's further divided after a particular storm event) could be what makes the action being centred around a very small group of people feasible. Despite this, there was more than one point where I did wonder where everybody else was hiding - 269 plus people not being a small number after all. Add to that the secretive sub-thread about the mysterious closed off carriage, and you couldn't help wondering what was going on behind closed doors, besides the murder plotting of course!
That secretive sub-thread is probably the only part of the book that simply flat-out, doesn't work. This reader had to assume that perhaps the closed carriage was there as a bit of a hap-tip to the classic red-herring (being another perennial favourite), but to be honest, it didn't work as a red-herring throughout the book and the resolution... well it was just pointless.
Ignoring that bit of off-kilter action, the rest of the book was really good. I really like Hanne (and not just because I like grumpy protagonists!), and the use of the setting to provide a closed off, claustrophobic environment along with a sense of potential threat worked. There was a good cast of supporting characters, some nice touches of humour and good pace, and for readers who like to work out the whodonnit aspects, the author has played pretty fair - you've got a good chance of sorting it out, although you will be waiting until the last minute to get your deductions confirmed.
After a bit of a look around it seems that, in that delightful habit publishers have designed to drive readers mildly bats, 1222 is the eighth Hanne Wilhelmsen novel, but the first to be translated into English. Hopefully we'll get the rest of the series "toots sweet". In the right order would be greatly appreciated.
THE AFFAIR OF THE BLOODSTAINED EGG COSY - James Anderson
The theft of the diamond necklace and the antique pistols might all be explained, but the body in the lake - that was a puzzle. "Don't expect me to solve anything," Inspector Wilkens announced modestly when he arrived to sort out the unpleasantness. And at a house party that included English aristocracy, foreign agents in disguise, a ravishing baroness, a daring jewel thief, a Texas millionaire, and of course, the imperturbable butler, it was going to take some intricate sleuthing to uncover who killed whom and why.
Yes, yes, I know. What am I doing reading a book like THE AFFAIR OF THE BLOODSTAINED EGG COSY. In my defence I used to be quite a SPLASHER (4MA speak for somebody who reads a wide range of crime book "styles") although in recent years I will admit I've moved more and more to the dark side. But every now and then I like a bit of a splash around in the lighter side of the genre, and I do rather like the eccentric side of the classic English country house sub-genre. Chuck in a slightly batty Lord; an unflappable Lady; a house with secret passages; a poor cousin / secretary / jolly young thing girl; a bit of spying and/or intrigue; an imperious butler; an exotic unknown female and some dashing around in the dark, and well I can be quite happy. Provided it's all done rather well, and doesn't veer too much into cartoon territory. Which THE AFFAIR OF THE BLOODSTAINED EGG COSY (henceforth to be known as THE AFFAIR ETC) avoids nicely.
Originally written in 1975, THE AFFAIR ETC has a very authentic 1930's feeling to it. And just the slightest dash of lunacy about it. The biggest part of the action takes place on one night, when there's a woman screaming; somebody gets locked in a linen closest; one man goes missing (his dead body shows up the next morning in the lake outside the house); one valuable necklace is stolen; the exotic female goes missing; alarms go off; people rush around; and a lot of stuff goes bump in the night whilst nobody thinks to turn on the lights. All of which culminates in the arrival of a very self-effacing detective, who seems to think he's been promoted above his abilities, and mostly seems to do his detecting by standing around and waiting for others to stick their feet in it... so to speak.
There's also a bit of business to do with a famous pair of guns; a famous gun collection; and a dirty, bloodstained egg cosy in the lavender bushes. Now it goes without saying that we're talking a very busy plot here, delivered with just a hint of really good farce. This is the second book from the Burford Family mysteries (actually the first in the series I believe) that I've read and I've got to say I really like these books. Light-hearted, enormously batty, good humoured and very entertaining, THE AFFAIR ETC is incredibly complicated. You'll be doing better than me if you can work out what's going on for most of the time, but I hope, like me, you really not going to care and just enjoy being very entertained.
VIOLENT EXPOSURE - Katherine Howell
When Suzanne Crawford is found stabbed to death and her husband Connor is discovered to be missing, it looks like just another tragic case of domestic violence to Detective Ella Marconi. But as the investigation progresses, it becomes clear that all is not as it seems. Why is there no record of Connor Crawford beyond a few years ago? Why has a teenager who worked for the pair gone missing too? And above all, what was the secret Suzanne knew Connor was keeping at all costs – even from her?
Katherine Howell is rapidly becoming one of my stars of crime fiction writing in Australia. Part of what really works in Howell's books (and VIOLENT EXPOSURE is no exception) is the way that the viewpoint is slightly skewed from the common police, detective, investigator concentration. In all the books there is a paramedic viewpoint (no surprise as she was a paramedic herself for 14 years), but I particularly like the way that even that predictable element is slightly twisted in all the books - but even more so in VIOLENT EXPOSURE.
The central thread of this book is the stabbing murder of Suzanne Crawford and the police search for her missing husband, believed to be her killer. The secondary thread is built around a crew of three ambulance officers. Carly and trainee Aidan are called to the Crawford home not long before Suzanne is killed. Aidan, the young trainee, is cocky, opinionated, his work record is poor. Sleeping with Suzanne after attending to her in the aftermath of a domestic assault is just another example of his incredibly poor judgement and behaviour. Carly and Aidan's other supervising senior, Mick, are already writing up very negative reports on Aidan's work performance before that event, but then Mick makes a mistake.
The interesting thing about VIOLENT EXPOSURE is that while that Detective Ella Marconi is investigating the murder of Suzanne Crawford, the thread involving the ambulance officers interweaves and balances out the book. At the same time, Ella's own life isn't left one-dimensional - the job and just the job. She has a teetering relationship with another police officer and aging parents to deal with as well as the day to day difficulties of finding Connor Crawford and working out if he did really kill his wife. These multi-threads create a very realistic feeling for a procedural style of novel, and, despite Howell's own personal background obviously informing one particular aspect, each of the viewpoints feels authentic, well-informed and well-formed.
Howell really writes her characters well, she makes them nuanced. What's particularly interesting in VIOLENT EXPOSURE is the idea that a likeable and sympathetic man like Mike can do something stupid and the reader is left trying to decide whether to condone or condemn. All of the while there's the matching idea that it's all too easy to assume that Suzanne's husband is guilty and to convict him before he's even found.
VIOLENT EXPOSURE has good pace, and a great set of characters. There's an interesting and nicely complicated story behind Suzanne's death, there are ramifications for lots of people's actions, and a nice piece of moral ambiguity to give readers something to chew on. Just some of the reasons Howell is becoming one of my personal stars of crime fiction writing in Australia.
ZULU - Caryl Ferey
As a child, Ali Neuman narrowly escaped being murdered by Inkatha, a militant political party at war with Nelson Mandela's African National Congress. His father and brother were not so lucky. Only he and his mother survived the carnage of those years. But as with many survivors, the psychological scars remain. Ali has been marked, indelibly, by the brutality of those years, and healing only comes at a price.
Unbelievably violent, amazingly confrontational, searingly honest and profoundly emotional, ZULU is one of those books that you may have to read through spread fingers, but it is almost impossible to put this book down until it screeches to an ending that will make you shudder.
This is noir, critical, brutal writing at it's absolute best. The "Zulu" of the title refers not so much to the tribe as a whole, but to Cape Town homicide captain Ali Neuman. Heading up the investigation into the death of a young woman whose body is found with a crushed skull, Neuman accepts that his job must sometimes mean that he's put in difficult situations. His profound belief in the job he does comes from his childhood - when he was a young boy he was forced to watch the ritualised murders of his father and brother. He grew up with an overwhelming desire to put an end to the lawlessness that plagues his country. Regardless of other people's reactions to him or the colour of his skin.
There's nothing particularly uncommon about the idea that a central protagonist is fighting his own demons, or even battling against unsympathetic or antagonist authorities. What is different in the portrayal of these elements in ZULU is the context. Neuman's demons are the violent murders of his brother and father; the political complications of South African society; the appalling violence and disadvantage of the townships; attacks on his elderly mother. Murder rates that are simply breathtaking; AIDS; desperation; the disregard for life - it's all laid bare, raw and yet, there's also some sense of poignancy. There's love, affection, regard and concern for others. There's even humour and acceptance. Put all of that into a book that is written with a cynical, forthright style that is absolutely no holds barred. Then add more ways of killing and maiming and hurting people than even in your worst moments you couldn't have dreamed up and build the action and the reader's interest into a really interesting and likeable central protagonist. Then tear the rule book up and add a twist at the end that will just blow some readers out of the water, and what you've got is an intelligent, thought-provoking, frightening, fascinating and unputdownable book about a society that is still dealing with the impacts of Apartheid and profound societal upheaval.
ZULU isn't a book that is going to do much for the South African tourism industry, but it is a book that simply took my breath away.
MURDER ON THE EIFFEL TOWER - Claude Izner
The brand-new, shiny Eiffel Tower is the pride and glory of the 1889 World Exposition. But one sunny afternoon, as visitors are crowding the viewing platforms, a woman collapses and dies on this great Paris landmark. Can a bee sting really be the cause of death? Or is there a more sinister explanation? Enter young bookseller Victor Legris. Present on the tower at the time of the incident, and appalled by the media coverage of the occurence, he is determined to ?nd out what actually happened.
I suspect we all pick up a book looking forward to what is going to happen. So normally around page 50 a reader will be getting twitchy if nothing much has happened. Get to the end of the book and it still seems like you're waiting for something to happen and it's a very frustrating experience.
Set during the 1889 World Expo in Paris, the Eiffel Tower has just been officially opened and is a massive attraction. When a woman dies on one of the Tower's platforms, officially she died from a bee sting. As other people also die supposedly from bee stings, the police are not particularly interested, but Victor Legris, local bookseller and man about town type, is convinced that there is something sinister to these deaths.
Part of the reason that the book seems to go nowhere is that very early on the reader will find themselves being dragged down all sorts of cul-de-sacs, and dead-end alleyways into some, albeit fascinating historical aspects. What the book does particularly well is give you a great sense of the place and time - with some of those cul-de-sacs quite interesting in their own right. If only they hadn't dragged the focus away from the main plot point just once too often.
None of that meandering around was much helped by the investigation style of Legris. Which seemed to amount to a lot of leaping and posturing, and very little in the way of fact gathering - or disclosure to the reader for that matter.
The other problem with the book was some seriously poor character development, particularly that of Legris and his love interest, Tasha the Russian artist. He was very flat, and strangely one-dimensional and I did wonder how much the background of the author (actually two Parisian bookselling sisters) informed their view of their central protagonist. Perhaps they were aiming for dramatic and interesting, but alas ended up with melodramatic and a bit silly. Tasha didn't fare much better, as if being an artist in 1880's Paris wasn't enough of a cliché, she was Russian, she started out with a bit of potential, but quickly faded to bland.
I will dip into the next book in the series, as it's here, and first books are often not a good indicator of the potential of a series, but to be honest, I had to bribe myself with a chocolate for every 20 pages read to finish this one. I hope my doctor's not going to get all over-excited about my blood sugar levels after the next one.