When filming his TV series Race Relations, John Safran spent an uneasy couple of days with one of Mississippi's most notorious white supremacists. A year later, he heard that the man had been murdered – and what was more, the killer was black.
It was difficult to pick up MURDER IN MISSISSIPPI with many standard preconceptions. Safran's not somebody who immediately comes to mind when you think True Crime writing (investigative or explorative). He certainly comes to mind when you think a bit of good old-fashioned shit stirring with a very big stick. Which combined with the Deep South, white supremacists, a possible hidden homosexual link, and six months research still wasn't exactly scanning naturally. Getting into the book however, it's hard not to hear Safran's speaking voice, even for somebody like me whose TV watching is sporadic at best, and has only occassionally taken in his work.
All of which made the style of this book somewhat surprising. Hard to describe really. Push comes to shove it came across to this reader as the story of the research into the subject matter of the book. Along the way I'm not 100% sure I'm any clearer on the truth of the death of the victim, nor the confirmation of guilt or innocence of the perpetrator. What I am a lot clearer on is the difficulties of the situation. The level of discomfort that Safran ended up feeling, poking around in the lives of others, especially in a world that's very different from the somewhat protected, Melbourne suburban environment that he comes from.
It's definitely not like any other true crime book I've ever read, and the writing style whilst engaging and quite conversational, has a rawness to it that I don't remember encountering for quite a while. It's definitely the author's voice, loud and clear. It's self-deprecating in points as well, and brilliantly draws a picture of the sheer confusion of the difference between where he comes from and where Mississippi comes from.
For this reader, it was fascinating. It's also distinctly possible that for other readers it will be the most irritating thing they (try to) read. Maybe it's going to come down to whether or not you're a Safran fan. Maybe it will be what preconceptions you come to the book with. But, in a most unexpected way it was a reading highlight for me.
After his December 2003 arrest, registered nurse Charlie Cullen was quickly dubbed “The Angel of Death” by the media. But Cullen was no mercy killer, nor was he a simple monster. He was a favorite son, husband, beloved father, best friend, and celebrated caregiver. Implicated in the deaths of as many as 300 patients, he was also perhaps the most prolific serial killer in American history.
Books like THE GOOD NURSE aren't really designed to give you a warm and fuzzy feeling about any health service. Particularly one that seems to be motivated by profit and avoidance of lawsuits, programmed to just move a problem on, and avoid looking too hard at anything that might be slightly amiss.
This is really a chilling story, looking closely at the career (nursing and killing) of registered nurse Charlie Cullen. Particularly chilling as there was nothing merciful or even understandable about the killing spree that led Cullen to kill patients. Randomly choosing his victims, even hands off killing by injecting drugs into random, unallocated IV bags, Cullen's motivation for his actions seem to be wrapped up in his own severe psychological problems. Unfortunately Cullen himself isn't particularly forthcoming about his childhood or his background so there are points at which the narrative is at a loss, the author is at a loss, everyone is at a loss to explain why this man did what he did.
What's even less able to be explained is a medical system that refused to see what was happening. Either wilfully or stupidly, the reader is left speechless by the seemingly incomprehensible reaction of authorities, particularly once a couple of very dedicated policemen get onto his trail, and a dedicated and caring colleague steps up to assist the investigation.
To be brutally frank, whilst what Cullen was doing is horrifying, what was even more horrifying were the actions of the hospital administrators, lawyers and management who worked overtime at cover up. Their actions were criminal, and whilst it's some relief to know that some families were able to take legal action, there's absolutely no excuse, no justification, no reason on this earth that any of them should not have been hauled to account by authorities.
A GOOD NURSE is a really uncomfortable read as it's definitely truth being considerably more frightening than fiction. Whilst Cullen was ultimately convicted of a very minor number of the deaths for which he is responsible, and there is some feel good factor in the way that some dedicated policework and ethical behaviour from a single nurse prevailed, the rest of the system comes out looking underwhelming to say the least.
TOMORROW CITY - Kirk Kjeldsen
After an armored car robbery goes horribly wrong and leaves four people dead, young ex-con Brendan Lavin flees New York City and attempts to start over again in Shanghai. But twelve years later, after opening a bakery under an assumed name and starting a family with a local woman, his former colleagues show up and force Brendan to assist in another armed robbery, of a wealthy diamond merchant. If he doesn’t cooperate, they’ll expose him and kill his family. Will Brendan help them pull it off and keep his new life intact?
Obviously when you're a young ex-con you would restart your life outside using the skills that you learnt in jail. It made enormous sense that young ex-con Brendan Lavin would start a bakery under those circumstances. It also made sense that because the bakery is struggling to survive he'd be convinced to get back into the old gang for just one big job. Which goes, of course, pear-shaped. So of course he'd flee New York City and head for Shanghai...
Okay so that last bit had me a little confused. It's not the immediate path you'd imagine. And it's a real testament to TOMORROW CITY that up until Lavin starts setting up another bakery in Shanghai, well into his life in the Chinese city that I suddenly thought.. what the. It was probably about the time that his ex-gang mates started showing up in Shanghai. Mind you, the thought was easy to bury. Too busy following things as they moved at a rapid pace into more pear-shaped carry-on only this time in China.
It helps that Lavin is a really great central character, flawed but well-meaning, hard-working and only dragged back to the dark side of life with regret. Of course it also helps that the gang mates aren't so well-meaning, their ruthlessness is as stark as Lavin's conflict.
It's a wild ride at points, with some in your face violence and, courtesy of the gang, some breathtaking lack of concern for others in the world. Not so Lavin who somehow remains very human, very believable and very vulnerable. Sure he escapes the mess he gets into in Shanghai but at what cost. Maybe he can start all over again. But at what cost. I hope we find out in a subsequent book.
THE TRUSTED - John M Green
How far would you go to save the planet? ...Would you destroy it?
Imagine a global depression caused, not by greed or stupidity, but by a secret band of brilliant and radical environmentalists, 9S, using cyber-terror to slash the world’s population and smash its resource-hungry economy. Members of 9S have spent ten years secretly infiltrating industry and government, working themselves into the most trusted jobs in the world... sleepers ready to act.
Interesting premise this. Take a devastating hit, albeit targeted, in the name of radical environmentalism to engineer a change for the good of the planet. Use sleeper agents who have worked their way into positions of influence and power over many years. Make it even more devastating by having the strikes occur in quick succession, stretching authorities to the limit. Make the targets as varied and unpredictable as possible.
Because of the huge range of incidents the authorities are scrambling just to deal with the fallout, the connections aren't that easy to see to start off with. At the centre of it all is Dr Tori Swyft, ex-CIA member, Australian surfer girl, who, at university, briefly belonged to the group of sleeper agents - 9S. Lead by a most unexpected character, the group has spread out across all sorts of industries, cultures and backgrounds. These committed individuals, once inculcated to the cause, never contact each other again. It's really only Swyft that can work out the connections as the attacks build. Very fast train pileups, a code change in management software for nuclear reactors (okay so I had a bit of trouble swallowing the open source / nobody noticed bit of this one), a financial crisis instigated by within a bank (not so hard to picture), biohazards, and potential shipping disasters.
Swyft, now working for another secretive organisation involved in engineering major corporate outcomes for its clients, was in the middle of a major political / corporate coup when she is forced to walk away to discover where the trojan in her nuclear reactor code came from. This organisation and it's eccentric leader provide her with the resources, tools, and support she needs to find the connections, to go head to head with the sleeper agents, and stop the threat.
So we're obviously talking a very big threat scenario, with a lot of action happening all at once. There's also a big corporate feel to the anti-sleeper effort with private planes, fabulous yachts, high-tech gadgetry and much charging about in helicopters. A lot of the analysis, identification and outcomes that Swyft pulls off rely very heavily on the use of some very high-tech gadgetry. It's a testament to the pacing of the story that at no stage do you feel any desire to scratch a few estimates on the back of an envelope and do a spot of cost accounting - it's all very wild and cutting edge stuff yet it's compelling.
For something quite this "out there", there is a sneaking sense of possibility, which is always a very good thing in a thriller of this kind. After all, sleeper spy agents are absolutely nothing new in the world of espionage. It's not that hard to imagine that the most trusted in corporate, financial and government circles could be a plant. With an agenda that's set by convictions deeply held. Fortunately THE TRUSTED is probably fiction. At least you'd hope so.
NO WAY BACK - Matthew Klein
Jimmy Thane knows all about crossroads. Every time he's been faced with one he's taken the wrong path. At the peak of his career, he chose alcohol. When his job became shaky, he turned to drugs. And when his wife lost faith in him, Jimmy went looking for other women. Now Jimmy's clean and he's at a new crossroads. He has one last chance to save both his career and his marriage -he has seven weeks to turn round a failing company. In return, Jimmy lands the job of CEO and he and his wife get to start over. This time he knows which path to take.
"The perfect thriller for everyone who has ever worked in a corporate environment" may not exactly sound like much of a recommendation, and early on in NO WAY BACK, thriller fans could be excused for wondering what on earth they are doing in a story that seems obsessed with the mechanics and machinations of high-tech company restarts. Stick with it. All is not as it seems.
It goes without saying that Jimmy Thane has had a rather chequered background, and initially it seems like he's struck it lucky with the chance to steer a money sink company in the high-technology world out of the doldrums. The job's been given to him by an old friend, a venture capitalist with a lot of money at risk in this company. On the personal side, it's quickly obvious that his past has had a very direct impact on his relationship with his wife, which is fraught. And whilst things at work rapidly become quite complicated, somehow what's going on at home seems oddly passive yet tense at the same time.
With a story like this it's almost impossible to explain some things without getting into massive spoilers, so proceeding with caution, early on you may be wondering what on earth this is all about. Apart, that is from some very telling and quite funny observations about the various personality types that do pop-up in high tech companies with sales and marketing arms. But really there's doesn't seem to be a lot all that threatening or worrying, unless it was your money going down the company drain. There's also some rather obvious repetition which seemed a little overt and off-putting. It does seem to take quite a while for anything particularly "thrilling" to happen although all the time, there's something just not quite right about Thane, his wife, their relationship and the people around them. A lot of that, on the face of it, could be explained by his past, and yet, there's something else. Once the story gets into the revelation phase, lots of things start to fall into place, and a lot of things fall somewhere slightly different.
In many thrillers it's rather easy to see where the story is heading. The good guys struggle, the bad guys get it in the neck, world order is restored and everybody goes home for tea. Nothing is quite that straightforward in NO WAY BACK and it has to be said, regardless of how much you think nothing's happening, or that you know what's happening or where all this is going, stick with it. There's more twists and turns in this tail than your average ... twisty-turny thing.
BACKTRACK - Jason Dean
Sometimes a man must take a step back to move forwards...
In a small, sleepy Pennsylvania town, the staff of a loan store find themselves at the mercy of a gunman who demands they hand over the store's entire cash reserves. But when the sound of police sirens shatters the silence sooner than expected, the robber is forced to take a young female customer hostage in order to make his escape.
Sometimes a man must take a step back to move forwards... and sometimes he just has to get up close and into a lot of faces. Either way James Bishop is exactly the sort of bloke you want to see looming up behind the disaster that life can sometimes turn out to be.
BACKTRACK is the second James Bishop book from Jason Dean, in, so far, two rather good, solid thriller books with a flawed but resilient central hero. Bishop, former marine, wrongfully accused prisoner, close protection bodyguard now disappearance expert manages to extricate a young woman from a nasty husband with suspect involvements, into a new identity and life with considerable aplomb. So he's not best pleased when it turns out that she's subsequently vanished. Bishop has a bit of history with obligations he messed up, and he isn't going to let that happen again. So he is determined to find Sonja Addison and how come there are other blonde, young women disappearing as well?
One of the most common things about a lot of thrillers of this kind, is that the central threat's got to be big and bold and just that bit out there. In this case whilst it might be a bit difficult to swallow the ultimate reason, there's something very convincing about the idea that women could just drop out of sight from disparate locations and backgrounds and have nobody make a connection, until a suspended female cop and an ex-marine with a tricky past accidentally fall over each other in the middle of their individual searches.
Of course it doesn't hurt in the acceptance stakes that Bishop is quite an interesting central protagonist. Far from perfect he's got enough of energiser bunny syndrome to be exciting and enough aches and pains to be plausible. It helps also that his sidekick in this adventure, Clarissa Vallejo, suspended cop, secret lover and particularly talented car driver is also a strong character who contributes, rather than stands around or causes complications.
This really is a great thriller series, with a central character who is definitely somebody you'd want on your side. Not the least because he's somebody who is not so good, so perfect, so invincible that you don't end up with a sneaking desire to barrack for the baddies once in a while. With a strong, capable and well-developed female sidekick in BACKTRACK, any slight wobbliness in the plot believability was a mere hiccup in what was, overall, a most enjoyable and fast-paced adventure.
HARD TWISTED - C Joseph Greaves
Lucile Garrett is just thirteen when she meets Clint Palmer, a charismatic stranger who will forever change her life. The year is 1934, and as the windblown dust of the Great Depression rakes the Oklahoma plains, Palmer offers Lucile and her father, homeless and hungry, the irresistible promise of a better future.
But when they follow Palmer to Texas, Lucile's father mysteriously disappears, launching man and girl on an epic journey through the American Southwest: a spree of violence and murder that culminates in one of the most celebrated criminal trials of the era.
The Great Depression is one of those eras in history that has been depicted in books and movies over and over again. Perhaps it's the obvious case of the more dire the circumstances in which people must find a way to survive, the more opportunity there is to explore those extremes, to consider how it is that the best and worst in people can emerge at times of great distress. It's also a period that lends itself to a certain style of cinematic portrayal, dark, dirty, deprived, depressed, it's hard not to think grey and bleak.
There is something cinematic about HARD TWISTED which incorporates lyrical passages of writing and descriptions, creating a sense of that grey bleakness. It provides a very realistic feeling of a dire world in which lives are lived on the extremes of hardship and people struggle with the endless grind of hunger and homelessness with no obvious way out. It's a story that resonates through lots of hard economic times.
Winner of the Best Historical Novel of 2010 in the South West Writers International Writing Contest, there are strong echoes here of other classic depression and hard-times based fiction with dysfunctional worlds, people on the move, on the lookout constantly for a way out, some relief from the inevitability. Told mostly from the viewpoint of 13-year-old Garrett, HARD TWISTED is the story of an ex-con, hustler, charismatic charmer who is really a dangerous, murderous psychopath. It's also the story of a 13-year-old girl in an impossible situation.
The book employs a number of different viewpoints and timeframes. Much of it is the direct relating of current day events, mostly from Garrett's viewpoint, interspersed with the voices of other characters. Parts of the book are introduced by snippets of testimony at what is obviously a trial, the nature of which is revealed as the book progresses.
There is much to admire about this book, and yet, there were problems which meant that this reader often found herself lost and fighting a growing sense of disinterest. Which confounded me completely. Whilst there is absolutely no doubt that the word pictures being drawn were beautifully done, there was something indistinguishable about the character's voices, not helped at all by a total lack of quotation marks to indicate what was / wasn't dialogue. No idea why, all it did was make me toil backwards a lot - checking what / who / said / observed / saw / did / didn't. Confused... moi... frequently.
That confusion meant that whilst the multiple questions of why - why he did what he did / why she stayed - the interesting and instructive bits, especially as you knew who, and what wasn't that hard to work out, kept disappearing. It was disappearing into beautiful, dense, poetic, lyrical writing no doubt about that, but it was there, just out of reach, for so much of the book whilst this reader worked backwards and forwards through the text, trying to get focus.
Maybe it was ultimately that I came away from HARD TWISTED feeling like I'd been invited to a party where everybody else spoke in a different language. Beautiful to listen to, lovely to watch people interact, no idea why I was there. I got so bored with the constant tracking backwards and forwards, with the low-key, laid back glacial advancement, with the cleverness of the structure that I got frustrated with myself. It's doubtful that anybody else is going to have that reaction - the authority with which the time period is described, the way that the life is so beautifully drawn, undeniably mean it's going to be a book that other readers are just going to get. As much as I kept thinking I should be loving this book, I didn't loathe it, but I certainly obviously didn't get it.
A FATAL DEBT - John Gapper
Ben Cowper, an attending psychiatrist at the prestigious New York–Episcopal Hospital, is stunned to learn the identity of the emergency patient he’s just been assigned to treat: Harry Shapiro, a Wall Street colossus and one of Episcopal’s most prominent donors. But a high-profile reversal of fortune has left the once powerful investment banker jobless, bitter, and possibly desperate—judging by the handgun his wife finds him clutching. In Ben’s expert opinion, Shapiro is a suicide waiting to happen.
The problem with setting fictional books within real life events is that you seem to run the risk of alienating readers who aren't particularly interested in the subject, environment, or even the event itself. Particularly when the subject matter is something that could be perceived as a bit dry or more than a bit outside the average person's own experience. Hands up to being one of those people - financial system crashes, financier's behaving badly, guaranteed to have me humming The Girl From Ipanema loudly and looking for the closest exit.
Luckily I don't often pay a lot of attention to book blurbs and the next one that pops up on the Review Queue will be the one I at least have a go at reading. Half a dozen chapters in and the urge to go looking for a bit of detail about the author's background became quite overwhelming because A FATAL DEBT was shaping up to be extremely engaging. Gapper is chief business commentator and associate editor of the Financial Times and a regular on the BBC and CNN. His previous books are non-fiction discussions of real-life financial disasters. He has now written a very good thriller.
It won't be surprising at all if those with more financial world knowledge are able to match up the circumstances and the people to real life versions, as it was difficult to ignore the sneaking suspicion that there's some facts behind the storytelling. It will also not be particularly surprising if that level of recognition makes absolutely no difference whatsoever to enjoyment levels of the book. A FATAL DEBT worked particularly well for a reader with absolutely no idea who anybody could be based on, nor what particular High Finance scandals were recognisable.
Part of what makes that work so well is avoiding making the central protagonist a financier. Instead Attending Psychiatrist Ben Cowper is dragged into that world via his very high profile patient. It's not until Cowper's in way too far, and things have gone very wrong for investment banker Harry Shapiro that Cowper realises he's stepped right into a very deep hole, that may actually have been dug with intent. This device cleverly allows the author quite a few opportunities to explain the world to the fictional outsider, allowing the reader to eavesdrop on the clarifications. Allows the reader to learn a few things along the way without having to feel like the only neophyte at the altar of High Finance.
Of course the book is styled as a thriller, and there has to be a bit of action, a few lurking villains and a bit of romantic tension. The big difference is that in A FATAL DEBT the action isn't all energiser bunny and over the top heroics and the lurking villains have expensive tastes in suits and transportation methods. Perhaps the romantic interest could have been shelved in the "oh no not that old chestnut" drawer as it didn't contribute a whole lot to a plot that was, overall, a refreshingly excellent look at the world of white collar crime.
A DARK AND BROKEN HEART - R.J. Ellory
It should have all been so easy for Vincent Madigan. Take four hundred grand from the thieves who stole it in the first place and who could they turn to for help?
Madigan is charming, resourceful, and knows how to look after himself. The only problem is that he's up to his neck in debt to Sandià - the drug king of East Harlem. This one heist will free Madigan from Sandià's control and give him the chance he needs to get his life back on track.
Any new book from R.J. Ellory is an event in these parts, and A DARK AND BROKEN HEART coming with the subtitle of "How Long Can A Man Escape Judgement?" was a particularly tantalising arrival.
Fans of Ellory will know that he writes flawed, complicated, considered stories often about consequences. He writes dark, and sad and desperate. He also writes glimpses of hope, humanity and future. Which makes his books amongst some of my all time favourites, and right up to and including the final sentence in A DARK AND BROKEN HEART this book is undoubtedly one of my favourites.
What is particularly interesting about this book is that it has, as the central character, a cop who is crooked. He makes very little apology for that, and for most of the book is completely obsessed with resolving the symptoms of a life gone horribly off the rails. Gambling, drug taking, working for the crooks, he's prepared to pull the "ultimate heist" to get his life back on track. And that's just the start of how far he's prepared to go to save his own skin.
I won't be at all surprised if some readers struggle a little with this book. Vincent Madigan is not an immediately likeable human being. His flaws, his driven disregard for everyone around him could make him appear completely ruthless, completely self-obsessed. He's manipulative, violent and very dangerous to know. Somewhere in the middle of all of that I could get a sense though that this was a very scared, imperfect human being, somebody who may not engender overt sympathy, but does have a conscience, does struggle with his decisions and the outcomes he now must deal with.
As is always the way with Ellory's books A DARK AND BROKEN HEART is no holds barred. Ellory is looking at themes that he often explores - what makes a person choose a certain path and what makes good people do bad things. The book does this concentrating almost totally on Madigan and his battle with his chosen path, with supporting appearances from a cast of characters that further explore that distinction between "good" and "bad" but more importantly why. Madigan and his associates - from both sides of the law - don't inhabit a happy place, and everyone who brushes up against them is affected by that contact. The story is fascinating, the writing tight yet descriptive, evocative yet sparse and very very pointed. And the ending is perfect.
HELL'S FURY - P D Martin
She lies in an Afghani prison cell, disowned by the CIA and regularly tortured. Seven months into her prison term, a lone operator stages a daring extraction. But who is Decker, the mysterious man behind her rescue?
He claims to represent The Committee, an international group made up of ex-professionals from the CIA, FBI, Interpol, MI5, Scotland Yard, Mossad and ASIS; a private organization that serves and protects where the current intelligence or justice agencies fall short.
Being a bit of a fan of thriller's, I was very intrigued by PD Martin's HELL'S FURY. Not just because it has a central female protagonist, and there simply aren't enough good, strong female characters in thriller fiction (particularly spy or military style thrillers), but also because there's a very current story thread at the central core - a CIA operative captured by the Taliban, disowned by the CIA, saved with a price to pay for that rescue.
I was possibly less intrigued by the concept of "The Committee", being somewhat twitchy about mercenary, outside the law, retribution based story lines. A personal prejudice made somewhat more edgy by the sex trafficking of young children story line, which to be frank, I was a bit twitchy could possibly been seen as a good justification for mercenary activities. HELL'S FURY, however, neatly avoids the traps of those threads, partially because Martin has created some complex backgrounds for her main characters, fudging a lot of the black and white, and partially because "The Committee" aspects are very much in the background.
It also does not hurt one little bit that this is a very fast paced, action packed book, with character depth and a strong, believable female lead who isn't just an energiser bunny. The post-traumatic stress that she is dealing with on a daily basis as a result of her capture and torture by the Taliban creates an interesting arena for Martin to play with. Rather than the dreaded fem-jep scenario, what we sometimes have here is a woman who has to deal with flashbacks, lost moments, recall that impacts at the worst possible times, that doesn't necessarily place her completely in jeopardy, but is something that she has to be aware of, take into account.
All of the operatives actions are supported by a lot of high-tech wizardry, all of which was used with great effect, and came across as very plausible and realistic. There's also some excellent dialogue and interaction between characters, and some nice touches of empathy and genuine compassion. The action mostly takes part in the US, and the book has probably been styled (grammar / spelling etc) with that marketplace in mind, but there should be no concern for readers from any part of the world feeling displaced. Best of all HELL'S FURY seems to be hinting at the possibility of an ongoing series, which I for one am rather hopeful is the case. There's nothing I like more than a personal prejudice being given a bit of a going over by a book like HELL'S FURY.