On a humid summer night in Gibraltar, lawyer Spike Sanguinetti finds Solomon Hassan, an old school friend, waiting on his doorstep.
Accused of murdering a Spanish girl in Tangiers, Solomon swears his innocence. He has managed to skip across the Straits, but the Moroccan authorities demand his return.
If you're going to be a business lawyer dragged into criminal matters by an old school friend who gets himself into a heap of trouble, then the mean streets you walk somehow seem considerably more exotic when they are the laneways, byways and desert tracks of Gibraltar and Tangiers.
SHADOW OF THE ROCK is the first Spike Sanguinetti novel from UK author Thomas Mogford. An old-fashioned hard-boiled style thriller, this book is not short of a lot of running around, some lurking, a lot of our hero lost in a strange new world, a love interest, some unexpected threats, a big business styled conspiracy, and a very big allocation of action.
Fortunately, unlike in a lot of these big, bold thriller style books, there are some very engaging characters who behave in a surprisingly real way. Sanguinetti in particular is brave when pushed, daft when required and a son, a lawyer and a friend way before he's any sort of an action hero.
The sense of place delivers strongly as well, although most of the action does take place in Tangiers and surrounds. Obviously this provides a lot of the tension and difficulties for Sanguinetti to resolve as he's very out of his depth, in places and a culture that is outside his own experience. There are some early scenes in Gibraltar however, but not a lot actually happens in the Shadow of the Rock. Which if you want to think about it this way, could be a good thing. Now there's hope that the next book in the series looks locally at Gibraltar providing the same view of a place, and a culture, which is very different from the mean streets of ... say Melbourne, Glasgow, or New York.
PLAYING DEAD - Julia Heaberlin
The Letter: A few weeks after her father's death, Tommie McCloud receives a letter in the post from Rosalina Marchetti in Chicago. Rosalina claims that Tommie is her biological daughter, who was kidnapped over thirty years ago.
Up front, I really had some problems with this book. Using a first person voice is a tricky business as you're automatically hoping that the reader can achieve some sort of personal connection with your central character. That doesn't always automatically have to be "like", but it's certainly got to include believe. The other thing you're going to have to do in a thriller where you spend a lot of time in the main character's head, is use motivations and actions that make sense. Alas neither option quite worked out in PLAYING DEAD.
The plot has quite an interesting idea at the core - a woman suddenly finds that everything she believed was true about her stable, loving family isn't. Of course you're going to have to accept that the letter that sends Tommie off in a cloud of confusion has to arrive just after her beloved father dies... and her mother's dementia is too far advanced for coherence, but, well coincidences happen don't they?
The problem I had with PLAYING DEAD really came down to questions of credibility - whilst the stable loving family thing sort of worked, albeit a little nauseating on occasions, our heroine, was too conveniently inconsistent. Strong, wild child, ex-rodeo rider, intelligent, educated, woman who went all daft as a brush as required. Not helped at all by the idea that she could boldly go wherever and whenever she damn well felt - as long as the big strong ex-boyfriend, conveniently in just the right line of work to step in and save the day, was ... well available to step in to save the day.
The question of credibility wasn't helped by the voice of the central character as well - it didn't quite jell. Whilst I guess it's possible that somebody with a degree in Psychology is the person least able to take a good hard look at themselves, but I kept wondering why she didn't at least have the occasional red light flashing in front of her eyes. I also couldn't quite get the idea that somebody who spent all those years on the rodeo circuit didn't seem to have any idea whatsoever of personal peril / risk assessment. I'm not talking a bit of an error, I'm talking what seemed to be repeatedly bashing your head into a brick wall and wondering what it is that's making your head hurt... Once all this started circling around in my mind, I found myself nitpicking which is never a good thing. Nitpicking about the need for Tommie to be beautiful, and the rodeo champion thing, and the need for the degree so she's not just all brawn, oh and let's chuck in rich into the bargain.
Having said all of that, perhaps what's going to make this book work for other readers is a sense of connection with Tommie. If you get that, then the rest of the stuff might not be an issue. Goodness knows I've read plenty of books where a central character's propensity for personally inflicted idiocy is neither here nor there, but I've believed in that character, been on their side if you like. Alas I couldn't quite make that connection in PLAYING DEAD.
THE GENEVA TRAP - Stella Rimington
Geneva, 2012. When a Russian intelligence officer approaches MI5 with vital information about the imminent cyber-sabotage of an Anglo-American Defence programme, he refuses to talk to anyone but Liz Carlyle. But who is he, and what is his connection to the British agent?
At a tracking station in Nevada, US Navy officers watch in horror as one of their unmanned drones plummets out of the sky, and panic spreads through the British and American Intelligence services. Is this a Russian plot to disable the West's defences? Or is the threat coming from elsewhere?
It's always intriguing, who or what will be the next threats that espionage writers can employ in their thrillers. I'm not sure what it says about the world that we live in but there does seem to be no shortage of possible scenarios and nefarious goings-on to occupy the intelligence world. THE GENEVA TRAP is the 7th book in the Liz Carlyle series, and the main plot elements, as you'd expect from a writer with Rimington's background, have a ring of truth and absolutely credibility about them.
Liz is a very strong character. Strong enough to survive this particular reader's tendency to wander around in this series, as there are a few books that I've missed. Most obviously, it's her personal life that I'm behind with, but at no stage did I really get lost or feel at sea. Which was particularly pleasing as there is a sub-plot in THE GENEVA TRAP which involves her mother's partner, his daughter, Liz's own partner, a French commune, and the possibility of armed protest and personal violence.
Not everything, however, worked perfectly, particularly some of the technicalities of computer hacking. Now granted I'm not as technically expert as some around me, but there were elements in the "techy talk" that simply didn't make any sense, and lacked credibility. To the point where I had to give myself a little "it's fiction - get over it" talking to at one point. Nitpicking undoubtedly, but it did make those parts of the book hard to swallow. What wasn't so hard to chew was the spy craft, right down to the surveillance aspects, the not quite as clandestine as required meetings in parks, generational sleeper agents and all the other covert goings on.
There's good pace and action, some very nice twists and turns and a complicated but clever plot that does pull everything together in a believable finale, although that's tempered a little by some very stereotypical villains and the requisite inept upper echelons. But THE GENEVA TRAP, and the whole Liz Carlyle series are very much espionage based thrillers, and despite a few minor quibbles, this was a book that was hard to put down.
THE VANISHING POINT - Val McDermid
Young Jimmy Higgins is snatched from an airport security checkpoint while his guardian watches helplessly from the glass inspection box. But this is no ordinary abduction, as Jimmy is no ordinary child. His mother was Scarlett, a reality TV star who, dying of cancer and alienated from her unreliable family, entrusted the boy to the person she believed best able to give him a happy, stable life: her ghost writer, Stephanie Harker. Assisting the FBI in their attempt to recover the missing boy, Stephanie reaches into the past to uncover the motive for the abduction.
It's probably no coincidence that in a genre that, in my mind anyway, is purpose built for looking at the things that don't work in society, I seem to fallen over a few books recently that are exploring the outcomes of Reality stardom. Which is useful as this is about as close as I want to come to any form of reality anything on TV. Val McDermid's latest novel, THE VANISHING POINT, looks at the impacts of reality stardom on a few levels, the perceptions that people have of a certain type of reality star (we're talking the dumb blonde stereotype), but also the sort of impact that the stardom has on a lot of other aspects of life. And, to be fair, McDermid does find the good and the bad in the whole thing.
THE VANISHING POINT uses a sort of detailed flashback scenario - it opens with the snatching of Jimmy Higgins in the present day. His mother, reality star Scarlett has died, and Jimmy's guardian is the ghost writer who worked with her on her biography - Stephanie Harker. The investigation into the disappearance of Jimmy continues in the current day, although most of the heft of the story is back in the past - starting before Jimmy was born. What makes this particular scenario work very well is actually a sort of reverse flashback idea - where the current day is the bit that's dipped in and out of, and the story itself progresses through the past. Which is a cack-handed way of saying that the back story of Scarlett and Stephanie is where the reason for the kidnapping of Jimmy has to have come from.
There's enough fodder in that background to provide lots of possible reasons for Jimmy's kidnapping. Stephanie's relationship with an obsessive, nasty bloke who seriously objects to her friendship with Scarlett for a start. Scarlett's own background from a poor, dysfunctional family, using her Reality TV stint as a springboard out of that, she's actually a lot less of a bimbo than it would initially seem but people have been burned on her fight out. Along the way she's made a lot of money, money that might not be available to Stephanie and Jimmy, but that's not necessarily something your average kidnapper might have thought through. Then there's Jimmy's father's background - a privileged boy who turned his back on his family expectations and sank into a life of drugs and his own form of stardom. Needless to say, there's enough to make you wonder.
Whilst the concentration is very much on the lead up events, there's sufficient action in the current day investigation to keep the reader engaged. The way that the search moves between the FBI and English Detective Nick Nicolaides works well, always providing that look backwards as Nick's past involvement with both Scarlett and Stephanie emerges. As the back story works its way into the present, and Nick and Stephanie pair up to follow the leads, the pace quickens, and a series of revelations strip away the red herrings and draw to a conclusion that frankly, I didn't see coming anywhere.
The aspect that most struck me about THE VANISHING POINT is the two central female characters. Whilst the likelihood of friendship between these two very different women seems highly improbable, when it does emerge it makes enormous sense. Whilst both women face their own particular challenges there's nothing contrived, it's actually a nice reminder that you shouldn't ever judge a book by its cover and that old chestnut about assumptions. I particularly liked the way that was done - not in a preachy or told you so way, but in such a matter of fact, part of the whole story way.
The final interesting coincidence is that there are a few books floating around at the moment that have a kidnapping theme. Not having read them all, it's next to impossible to draw any conclusions or make observations, but for what it's worth McDermid has contributed a fascinating look at the possibilities of fame and fortune, with an edge of ruthlessness. She's also shaken the preconceptions just a little and written an excellent combination of psychological thriller / procedural tie up that actually made my reading time a very rewarding place to be.
BLACKWATER MOON - B. Michael Radburn
Andy Walker, son, lover and an ex-soldier, knows tragedy is only ever a heartbeat away.
When an inmate escapes from the prison farm upriver and abducts Nathan, a child Andy has vowed to protect after losing his own son years before, Andy Walker discovers that the escapee is a dark figure from his past, the devil who changed his life, the man who introduced him to 'The Game'.
BLACKWATER MOON is the second book from Australian author B. Michael Radburn, although this has more of a crime fiction / thriller focus. Atmospheric, emotional, poignant and tightly controlled, both books from Radburn mark him out as an author to be watched.
The story is built around Andy Walker, a young boy, in a small Australian country town who starts out in life with challenges. An alcoholic and abusive father, a mother who eventually throws in the towel and takes up drinking to kill the pain, Walker is lucky enough to meet a man who teaches him to row, who acts as a mentor. Alas, another adult that Andy meets on his journey is another damaged human being, a man all too willing to give in to his own demons.
This is not the first book I've read recently that uses a small town / young boy / war intervention theme, although it is set more recently, and the war involved is the Vietnam conflict. Both these books have, at their core, a strong sense of loss, of struggle, and of the potential outcome of background and circumstance. BLACKWATER MOON also includes that idea of a mentor, of the one person that can step into a young boy's life and make a difference which adds a level of hope, the possibility of a positive in a life which is set reeling by the actions of others. Then there's the character of Andy Walker. A young boy from a difficult background, in danger of being shaped by a dreadful experience, beaten down again and again by events, timing and things outside his control - Walker struggles to build a life. But there's more to the book than that, the story is also looking into the eyes and mind of a damaged man. A man who acted with impunity, seemingly unseen by a small community, a man who has made starkly different choices.
The tension in BLACKWATER MOON is multi-level - an external threat, the "Game" and its perpetrator, the internal threat of what life has done to Andy Walker. There's some fascinating observations of what it must be to be a victim, to succumb to the terror, or find a way to deal with it, go on, live a life.
Needless to say, BLACKWATER MOON is clever. It's sad, uplifting, poignant, worrying, touching and provides more than a little insight into life, love and the whole damn thing. Sure the ending is a bit sentimental, but by that stage the characters and the reader have been in the wars. A bit of schmaltz is exactly what a lot of readers are going to need by then.
THE HYPNOTIST - Lars Kepler
On the face of it, THE HYPNOTIST should be a book that's right up my alley, and yet, somehow it's taken quite a few attempts to get to the end of, and the feeling left has been one of vague confusion and a little disappointment.
Dr Erick Maria Bark was once a renowned hypnotherapist, doing ground breaking work with people with deep psychological issues. Until something went wrong, and Bark vowed never to use hypnosis again. A vow he keeps until many years later, when he's asked to use his technique on a young, teenage boy, horribly injured in a two part attack that has killed his father and then his mother and one sister hours later. Surviving the attack, but only just, Josef Ek is in a critical condition in hospital and Detective Inspector Joona Linna is desperate for clues, and to save the only remaining family member, older sister, Evelyn, who may have only survived because she wasn't at home on the night of the murders.
Herein probably lies a large part of my confusion. I never quite worked out the whys / hows and what thes associated with hypnotising a young, unconscious, critically injured man. The whole requirement to get him hypnotised in the first place seemed overtly convenient, a very odd set of circumstances designed to get the main storyline going. Which appeared to be more about Bark's own background and less about the murders for a fair proportion of the book. A background, which on the face of it, seemed to have a so-called professional therapist making some rather odd decisions when it comes to treating patients. Which background also needed to have a fraught home life, which was pre-destined to lead to a threat close to home, and a very odd feel good sort of an ending, after some rather overt violence and what can only be classed as a lot of slashing about - literal and figurative.
Part of the problem I had was not that Bark was a difficult character to empathise with, more so that he was such a difficult character to believe. The other part of the problem was the muddied focus. There was so much concentration on the backstory of Bark, on his previous patients, on his family life, that it was too easy to loose the central thread of his involvement. That there was this damaged, now mostly dead family, and a brother and sister who obviously had some sort of major back story. The level of violence, the madness inherent in the way that they died didn't seem plausible as a story device, when they only seemed to be there for the purposes of getting Back into the limelight.
The other part of the problem was with the plot arc which, frankly, got all over the place at points. Of course it doesn't help when just about everybody, including Bark, is overtly "damaged" ... which seemed to be code for shrill, daft and/or utterly self-obsessed. All in all I just couldn't shake that feeling of confusion - no idea what on earth this book was trying to say or achieve. And disappointed because there really is a sneaking feeling that this was an opportunity lost.
BEREFT - Chris Womersley
It is 1919. The Great War has ended, but the Spanish flu epidemic is raging across Australia. Schools are closed, state borders are guarded by armed men, and train travel is severely restricted. There are rumours it is the end of the world.
The frustrating thing about discussing a book like BEREFT is the reason Womersley's the author, and I'm the reader. How do you put into words something as moving, involving, immersing as BEREFT and make it intelligible? No idea, so let's go with the next best option.
"A searing gothic novel of love, longing and justice" sounds, to be frank, not my sort of thing. It's probably the juxtaposition of "gothic" and "love" that somehow or other has my befuddled brain thinking "regency" / "romance". No idea to be honest, but, regardless of why, if THE LOW ROAD hadn't been such a revelation I probably would have gone on ignoring BEREFT in MtTBR. But there was always something that had my eye wandering back to this book, and despite the ridiculous delay in getting started, this turned out to be a one sitting book. Which meant a second reading was required, as once I got to the end, albeit a somewhat rushed ending, I wasn't at all ready to leave Quinn Walker, and had to go back and start over.
BEREFT is the sort of book that crept up on this reader. Set in 1909, a young man returns to his home district after fighting at Gallipoli and then in France in the First World War. He has a history - he fled his home when discovered hunched over the bloodied and abused body of his much loved younger sister. Everyone, including his own father and uncle, assume he killed her, they also vowed to take justice into their own hands should they find him. But post WWI, in the middle of the Spanish Flu epidemic, Walker comes home, desperate to see his mother (who is now dying from the Flu). He is lost, haunted by memories of the war, a sad lonely, bereft figure. His only friend turns out to be a 12-year-old orphan living rough in the bush, hiding from Walker's uncle. Somehow his ability to protect young Sadie Fox becomes his mission, a way of saving her, and himself.
There are touches of the paranormal in BEREFT, but woven, as they are, into the narrative of a man who is struggling anyway with the past and the present, reality and his memories, it is somehow seamless, unexceptional. Perhaps that is because there is so much more to the sense of hope and direction that Sadie gives to Walker that anything that's slightly outside the expected, normal, is somehow acceptable. Anything is okay as long as it gets them through.
But what BEREFT has in spades is intrigue, suspense, and a beautiful sense of love, courage and glimpses of optimism. Reading it was a wonderful experience, and reading it a second time, even knowing the ultimate outcome, just reinforced what a glorious thing it is.
GHOST MONEY - Andrew Nette
Max Quinlan is an Australian ex-cop turned PI whose latest case is to find missing business Charles Avery. The trail leads to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Along the way Max will team up with an Australian journalist and his Cambodian translator to track Avery through the underbelly of the city and beyond.
Start out reading GHOST MONEY and you're quickly immersed in a tight, tough, noir story set mostly in Cambodia. But don't be surprised if at some point, you also find yourself right smack bang in the middle of a history lesson and a subtle exploration of racial politics.
Knowing a little of Nette's interest in pulp fiction, I confess that the taut, noir stylings of GHOST MONEY didn't come as any surprise whatsoever, so for this reader, what was most rewarding about the book was the unexpected complexity of the central character, Max Quinlan. As well as one hell of a plot that just does ... not ... let ... go.
In a testament to the power of the storytelling there's something very matter-of-fact about the son of a Vietnamese woman and an Australian Vietnam vet as an ex-cop, a specialist in finding people who would rather stay lost. It also seems to go without saying that Quinlan, despite his lack of extensive PI experience, and his own misgivings, would find himself in SE Asia looking for the once successful Melbourne lawyer Charles Avery. Who is now a missing, dodgy gems trader whose sister wants to know what happened to her brother. It doesn't come as any surprise at all that Quinlan would follow the clues to post Khmer Rouge Cambodia and right smack bang into the madness of a country still recovering from the extremes of that regime.
What's also frighteningly matter-of-fact and at the same time very revealing, is the nature of the world in which Quinlan moves. The tension between Cambodian and Vietnamese, the vulnerability of people in a society that's been so brutalised, the casual way in which life is regarded as dispensable, and the greed and self-interest. Quinlan survives because of his own background, because he can read people, because he can see things and people for exactly what they are. And because he's careful about who he allows to get close.
It's one thing to know the theoretical history of a place, it's another completely to see the outcomes from within, to experience the result from the point of view of a direct observer or participant. That is part of what's so clever about GHOST MONEY. In the character of Quinlan, Nette has created a very realistic dichotomy. A man with an Asian look, yet his knowledge of his Vietnamese mother is non-existent. Australian raised, by a man who was profoundly damaged. Thai speaking, but looking enough Vietnamese to be regarded as suspicious by the Cambodians, there's so much about this man that demonstrates perfectly the complexities of the Vietnamese / Cambodian / Australian experience. Pairing him with Sarin, a Cambodian who has had direct and devastating experience of the Khmer Rouge, who remains in his damaged and difficult country, desperately trying to find a way to continue to survive, he's realistic and considered. He's all too aware of the difference between the reality and western perception of Cambodia, he's not an observer, he is the experience.
Great characters are one thing, but stick them into a plot that is not just realistic, but tight and fast moving, and frankly, nerve-racking, and something else starts to happen. Again, there was something so matter-of-fact about the lows that people will sink to when it comes to greed and self-interest, the way that loyalties shift and personal gain remains paramount that was chilling, especially when you match that up with the extreme violence of whatever it takes to win attitudes. Fingers crossed GHOST MONEY is the start of a new series.
BY ANY MEANS - Ben Sanders
Friday rush hour. Auckland City. A lone shooter fires across a packed street and kills a man. Detective Sergeant Sean Devereaux is assigned the case. He's not complaining. His Friday nights are seldom better spent.
But the inquiry is not straightforward. Witness accounts are conflicting. The dead man appears to be an unintended victim, with the true target unknown. It's a homicide that leaves police with no initial suspects, and no apparent motive.
BY ANY MEANS is the second book from NZ author Ben Sanders. Sanders is a fan of writers such as Michael Connelly and Lee Child, which I suspect you can probably tell from his style. Rapid fire, with an opening that will really make you sit up and take notice BY ANY MEANS has a number of intriguing elements to it. It's a complex, shifting plot which moves through viewpoints rapidly. It has a lone wolf style of central character in Sean Devereaux, who despite being a cop, basically plays a solo part in resolving not just the opening shooting of the book, but, it seems, just about everything else that ever happens in Auckland. What little sense of partnership there is, is unusual for a cop, as ex-cop John Hale, current fugitive from justice himself, jumps in and out the action. And you'd be best placed to pay attention at those points - there is an awful lot going on that both these men are trying to stay on top of.
Given that this is the second book, and I know nothing at all about THE FALLEN I've a sneaking suspicion I should have read it first. There were points in BY ANY MEANS where I really thought I was missing something - that there's obviously something about both Devereaux and Hale that I just don't know. I really must go seek out that first book and see if I've made a bit of a mistake in reading them out of order.
On the upside, when Sanders is writing terse, pointed, sharp and tight action BY ANY MEANS is a seriously good thriller. That style does get a bit patchy in places, and it's when the terseness gives way to wordiness, where there's just a sneaking suspicion that the music and popular culture references are getting in the way of the plot, things do bog down a bit. There's also some very complicated plotting going on here and whilst things eventually do come full circle, back to the reason for one of the best opening's of a book I've read in a long time, it did seem, sometimes, that I was caught up in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.
THIRST - L.A. Larkin
Antarctica is the coldest, most isolated place on earth. Luke Searle, maverick glaciologist, has made it his home. But soon his survival skills will be tested to the limit by a ruthless mercenary who must win at any cost. The white continent is under attack. The Australian team is being hunted down. Can Luke stay alive long enough to raise the alarm? Can he avert a global catastrophe? The countdown has begun. T minus 5 days, 2 hours and 53 minutes ...
One of the earliest thriller writers that got me hooked on the genre was Alistair MacLean. Granted that was a very long time ago now, but in my mind, his books always had a sort of triple threat scenario - place, weather and people. Reading THIRST by L.A. Larkin I was really struck by the similar environment, albeit with a touch more romance than MacLean would ever have countenanced. I was also struck by the characterisation of the central male protagonist. Luke Searle, maverick glaciologist, a cool, calm man much like MacLean's hero's, although slightly less cynical, and overtly more the devoted father than would have been even contemplated back in Ice Station Zebra days.
Set in Antarctica, the book provides a real sense of both the majesty and threat of such a harsh environment. Whilst there is obviously a strong environmental protection theme in THIRST it's done in a show, rather than tell fashion. This made the message all the more succinct and the scenario that the book is exploring even more sinister. There's precious little preaching going on here, but there is a sobering matter of factness about the potential that blatant, self-serving exploitation poses. After finishing the book I will confess to the smallest wish that Larkin might want to turn her attention a little more local, say somewhere in the middle of the mining areas of Australia, and take a long hard look at the effects of rampant greed ... but I digress.
Along with a very evocative setting, Larkin's got some good characters in this book. Both male and female protagonists were believable and felt extremely real. Granted there's a tad of requisite romantic tension, but it isn't all over the story, and didn't get too much in the road of what is, after all, a desperate bid for survival.
Interestingly enough Larkin has remarked that she is one of just a few female thriller writers in Australia, and looking at THIRST from that particular angle, there's nothing particularly obvious about a thriller written by a woman as opposed to those written by men that I've read lately. Perhaps the connection with his son is a little more overt in this book, but that's just pure guesswork on my part. What's important about this observation is that really, thriller fans who don't read books like THIRST just because they are written by women are crazy.