ORPHEUS LOST is latest novel from Janette Turner Hospital, her last crime fiction novel being DUE PREPARATIONS FOR THE PLAGUE, which won the Davitt Award for the "Best Crime Novel by an Australian Woman in 2003".
ORPHEUS LOST is the story of 3 people. Leela is a mathematical genius from a small town American Southern state, studying in Boston. Cobb is her childhood friend, mathematically gifted as well, but he took a different path in life - into the Armed Services and ultimately Iraq. Mishka is a young Australian musician, grandson of refugee Jewish Hungarians, unknowingly the son of a Lebanese Muslim terrorism leader.
Leela and Mishka meet in Boston where they are both studying, the attraction between them is instantaneous. Cobb is drawn into the circle when Mishka is implicated in a terrorist attack on the Boston train network. Mishka has been seen meeting with the suicide bomber responsible for the attack and he's hanging around a notorious Mosque. That and the links to his father make Mishka instantly suspicious to American authorities. When Mishka suddenly disappears Leela is no more aware of Mishka's background than his current activities and it seems that Cobb, who she did not even know was watching them, knows more about Mishka than Leela ever did.
ORPHEUS LOST is categorised as Fiction - not Crime Fiction or a Thriller and the author is quoted as saying that she's "always been interested in examining ordinary human beings, people without political agendas, who are suddenly caught up in the fist of history and crisis." Certainly ORPHEUS LOST explores the accidental acts of history - familial and current affairs - that place people in extraordinary circumstances. Each of the 3 main characters in this book have their own backstory which has elements of sadness, eccentricity, secrets, extreme stress and loving care. Leela and Cobb experienced childhoods in the same town, with fathers with different but equally damaging behaviour for their children. Mishka's family background is disconnected, private, intensely damaged by the Second World War - his unknown father only becoming somebody when he's an adult, seeking his own identity. When these 3 people come back together again, the results are quite complicated and very intricate.
Where ORPHEUS LOST becomes less of an interesting book is in a device that the author uses a lot - where characters move rapidly from real life events into dreams / dream sequences / imaginings of events. There is certainly a lyrical flavour to these sequences but they also jar within the pace of the general book - driving the reader out of the story. This is likely to make the book less appealing for many readers, and it's a pity because the basic premise is very clever and extremely well executed, the 3 main characters very sympathetic and interesting and the supporting cast well drawn and involving.
HIT - Tara Moss
Meaghan Wallace is invited to one of the "must be at" social events in Sydney - a party at the very very rich Cavanagh household. When her escort (and boss) finally passes out, she stumbles across Damien, the very spoilt son of the family, arguing with other men in the same room as a bed, and a very young, dead Asian girl. Meaghan uses her phone camera to videotape the event, amazed at the famous faces she's encountering at this party, but is caught by Damien's friend Simon who smashes the phone and quietly removes Meaghan from the party. When Meaghan is found dead in her own apartment a few days later, a young drug-addled junkie who is also there is assumed guilty by the police, but Meaghan's boss is not so sure.
Makedde Vanderwall is working freelance for the PI firm he hires, saving up the money to open her own forensic psychology practice, and she is assigned the case. It also seems that Simon is not such a great minder for his friend after all and Damien's father - Jack - is forced to step in to clean up after his son and protect the family reputation and business.
HIT is not a who or why done it - it's a thriller. You know that there are two main threads converging - Makedde's investigation and the Cavanagh family tidying up. HIT is all about how and when these elements collide. The book changes perspective with each chapter - from Makedde's investigation to the family and the activities of their hired help.
The good thing about HIT is the "bad guys". Whilst the action swirls around Damien, he is a very one dimensional character, but Simon is a classic leached on friend. He is Damien's minder and pimp, for the money he can redirect his way, but mostly because of the influence that being the "friend of Damien" gives him. Jack Cavanagh has a "minder" of his own - an enigmatic character known as "The American" who sorts out problems. There is a hired killer, bought in from India, an Australian with a Sydney based history, an unforgettable appearance and a big reputation as an efficient killer.
The bad thing about HIT is the Makedde chapters which frequently slow the pace to snails crawl, with extraneous padding and repetitive elements that become hard work. The major sex scene, albeit short, between Makedde and her boyfriend Andy, would probably qualify for the Literary Review Bad Sex Awards. There is also way too much made of the fact that everyone underestimates Makedde because of the way she looks, and too many pointless references to Makedde's blissful unawareness of how her stunning good looks stop conversation in restaurants and create murmurings in shopping centres. And why the push up bra and skimpy singlet "that she felt might come in handy"? Did it come in handy? This reader is still wondering.
Ultimately HIT will please fans of Tara Moss, and could well find a market in those looking for pure entertainment.
BYE BYE BABY - Lauren Crow
Thirty years ago there was a victim. A victim of unbearably cruel actions who never saw justice. Now there's a serial killer on the loose.
DCI Jack Hawksworth doesn't know any of this when he is assigned the case. Jack is young for his rank and good-looking which makes him interesting to the media. He's also the subject of considerable interest and speculation amongst his female colleagues which doesn't help.
In separate parts of England two bodies have been found - both of them horribly mutilated, ritually humiliated... but strangely, it seems, most of the worst of the atrocities are committed after the men were heavily drugged. Aside from the method, which indicates a single killer, there's precious little obvious connection between these two victims, and Scotland Yard is called in to take over the investigation. DCI Jack Hawksworth is put in charge of the investigation, despite an horrendous outcome in his last case. He puts together a team of investigators - many of whom he has worked with before. DI Kate Carter is smart, ambitious, attractive and excited to be included in that team. Sure she has always found herself attracted to Hawk, but they have worked together before, and she's now engaged and planning her wedding. Surely they can work together. Meanwhile the killer they seek is after vengeance for crimes past and it is not until Hawk and his team can work that out, that they have a chance of stopping the deaths.
BYE BYE BABY is the first crime novel by well-known Australian Fantasy author Fiona McIntosh, which makes the reading of this supposedly debut novel make a lot more sense. There's an aplomb about the structure of the story and accomplishment to the writing that can sometimes be less obvious in a debut novel. There's also some elements in BYE BYE BABY that did stand out as the mark of a debut crime novelist. This dichotomy makes reviewing this book quite a challenge. There's a bit of tweaking of common crime fiction cliches in BYE BYE BABY. Jack Hawksworth is the gorgeous, much coveted DCI - haunted by romantic attachments in the past and the death of a policeman in his last case - these events still threaten his career. He is counseled by his senior officers to take care in his relationships with his new team - especially put together to track down this killer. Kate Carter is attractive in her own right, but she's finding herself questioning her own marriage plans and increasingly feeling attracted to Jack and cannot control jealous reactions when he is encouraging of the younger, female DS in their team. There's also the source of the original crime - the event that triggered this killer's reactions and the killer themselves. Suffice to say there's a twist in there that you can see coming pretty early in the book. There are quite a few elements to the plot that are revealed to the reader much earlier than the police come across the detail which sort of gives the reader a bit of a pantomime feeling - you sort of find yourself wanting to yell "he's behind you" - or the literary equivalent at points throughout the book. There is also some interesting characterisations going on - there are points in this book that I sincerely disliked every single person - police, victims, killer, families and all. There were other points when it was possible to empathise, to understand - but most of the time you weren't too sure whose side you were on.
What's really interesting was that you'd think that some the clunky plot elements, some of the romantic tension, the angst over personal lives, the almost voyeuristic feeling that the reader has in knowing what's going on a long time before the police work it out - would detract considerably from the book. But it doesn't totally turn you off. The aplomb of the writing, the tension of the story and the plot, the compassion you can feel for the killer keeps the reader occupied and engaged and just ever so slightly conflicted about what is really justice. The final twist ending was, to tell the truth, hard to decide on. Was it intriguing, and in a strange way, a form of ultimate justice, or was it a convenient cop-out - a desire by the author to throw that final massive twist the reader's way. It's one of those endings that some readers are going to hate, and others are going to like.
THE LAST TESTAMENT - Sam Bourne
The blurb for THE LAST TESTAMENT reads along the lines of "The Biggest Challenger to Dan Brown's Crown" and "A brilliant new high-concept religious conspiracy theory thriller", which might put some readers off, or at the very least set you up with some pre-conceived conceptions about the book. Ignore all of that and you'll be getting a fast paced, believable thriller which sets itself within a current day conflict in a very realistic manner.
In the dying days of the regime in Iraq, the Baghdad Museum of Antiquities is looted. A young boy takes an ancient clay tablet, hidden away in a forgotten vault.
At a rally for the signing of an historical peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, Israeli security forces shoot dead a Jewish man, pushing his way through the crowd towards the Israeli Prime Minister. Instead of a gun, the man they thought was an assassin held a blood-stained note, addressed to his old friend the Prime Minister.
The peace negotiations falter as a series of tit for tat killings start up in both the Palestinian and Jewish territories. Washington takes the rather unusual step of calling in once star negotiator Maggie Costello, despite the fact that her last involvement in official negotiation ended in semi-disgrace. Costello arrives in Jerusalem and is instantly plunged into a mystery rooted in the last unsolved riddle of the Bible, with extremists on both sides not afraid to kill and menace to push the negotiations in the direction that they want.
THE LAST TESTAMENT is a thriller with a certain level of suspension of disbelief required from the start. Early on the reader is really wondering why on earth Maggie would be called back to work as a negotiator - her personal life and her previous entanglements in other negotiations would seem to make her a bit of a liability! On the other hand, when she arrives in Jerusalem and basically heads off out of the negotiation arena, on her own private quest to solve a riddle, you're really wondering what on earth is going on for a while. But, ultimately, if the test of a good thriller is whether or not you're more than happy to let some of the niggling inconsistencies roll whilst the story drags you along, then THE LAST TESTAMENT delivers in spades.
Sure there's a premise at the base of THE LAST TESTAMENT that has the potential to cause religious debate and maybe even controversy, making it another potential entrant in the "stirring up religious debate" category of thrillers that have been doing the rounds recently. Whether or not that's a category of book that suits you will be very dependent on each individual reader.
Maggie's not a bad character - she's a bit flawed, a bit insecure, a bit useless when it comes to sorting out her own life - but she knows it and she's not self-pitying about it. The other main character, Uri - son of the murdered suspected assassin is a bit ethereal in the book - there's a little of his background, enough to flesh him out a bit, but not enough to ever really let the reader inside his head too far and that's a bit tantalising. There are some other secondary characters that are interesting, some that are perhaps a little too predictable, but they fit within the general persona of the novel and the location it is set in.
Where THE LAST TESTAMENT appealed was in the realistic feel of the location of the story, and the way that the events moved rapidly. There are some twists and turns at the end, some of which were predictable and some were not. Even the more predictable elements weren't bland though, there were some nice gotcha moments that gave them some spark and interest.
BROKEN SKIN - Stuart MacBride
There's something immensely satisfying about reading a book that tackles some very tricky subject matter head-on, with enough of the gory details to illustrate rather than titivate and just the right level of gallows humour. BROKEN SKIN is the third book featuring DS Logan McRae and it's as good as the first two.
It's February and it's raining again. McRae is on DI Steel's team and they are most definitely not at home to her favourite term for a complete disaster, particularly as DI Insch is well on the outer. There's also an awful lot going on. There's a vicious, nasty and cruel rapist - slicing up his victim's faces with a knife, but while PC Jackie Watson is taking that particular investigation very very personally, in the early morning, the blood-drenched, horribly injured body of a man is dumped outside A&E at the local hospital. There's also a massive upswing in burglaries and a major drug investigation.
The dead man is only identified when one of the PC Rickard says that he's recognised a distinctive tattoo in explicit sex films that could be connected to the death. Unfortunately for his sense of gravitas, Rickard also seems to have very direct connections to the local bondage community and, from the victim's injuries, it's very likely so did he.
Most of the characters from MacBride's two earlier books, Cold Granite and Dying Light are back - all behaving very much to type and all getting in each other's road and up each other's noses in equal measure. The twist in the focus for this book is that both DI's have equal exposure, they are both forefront and not liking each other's presence one little bit. McRae and Watson's personal relationship is ongoing but is, in a beautiful touch, going nowhere happily. All the other members of the investigation team endure just the right amount of success, failure and merciless ribbing.
As well as those characters, the taut storytelling in BROKEN SKIN carries you along the manic multiple threads, with a really realistic feeling of a cold, wet, miserable city full of cold, wet and miserable criminals and equally cold, wet and miserable police officers. The humour is again dark, savage and thoroughly engaging - DI Steel has got to be one of the all time great offensive women, and this reader in particular, thinks she's marvellous.
Being the third book in the series, the characters are now very well established. Reading the first two books will certainly give you the background for many of the relationships and the antagonisms. Whilst that will definitely help with some of the minor threads going on, it's probably not 100% necessary, particularly if you are the sort of reader that can just accept that there's some tension and not want the details of what lead to that.
If you're a fan of the no holds barred, character driven Police Procedural, then you should definitely read BROKEN SKIN and both earlier books if they've somehow passed you by. Gruesome subject matter delivered with deftness is the mark of this author's books. Savage, dry humour is the other common factor. Logan McRae's one of those characters that you certainly wouldn't want to work with - the pace that this book maintains would kill a normal human being - but he's the sort of character you'd like to have a beer with, provided you could handle the quantities.
DYING LIGHT - Stuart MacBride
DYING LIGHT is the follow-up book to the much talked about and acclaimed COLD GRANITE and it maintains the high standard that the first book in the series reached.
It is summer in Aberdeen, the sun is shining and it is not raining anywhere near as much as it does in winter. With his love life sort of looking up and his working life running pretty well par for the course, the major downsides to the entire season seem to be that somebody is killing prostitutes and DS Logan McRae has been moved to DI Steel's "Screw-Up" squad. One botched raid, one severely injured uniformed PC and Logan's gone from Police Hero to another Internal Affairs investigation in the blink of an eye.
The focus of this book switches from DI Insch and his team (although he is still there and working on a fatal arson attack) to DI Steel and her Screw-Up Squad. DI Steel is a totally different prospect to deal with. She's abrasive, touchy, pushy and extremely unconventional. Logan's Number One priority is getting out of the Screw-Up Squad and the best way to do that seems to be a quick resolution to the increasing number of prostitute murders. Number Two priority is to try and keep his love life intact. Number Three priority is to keep avoiding journalist Colin Miller. Number Four priority is to survive another Internal Affairs investigation and keep from getting fired.
In the first book of the series, the weather was almost like another character, providing a great backdrop for the general miserableness of the crimes. In this book the summer setting, albeit slightly damp, provides a contrast for the crimes and the mood of the investigators in both Insch and Steel's teams.
DYING LIGHT is a solid, twisting police procedural with some short-lived sequences of quite graphic violence. This violence and the pitch perfect gallows humour that MacBride uses remind the reader that there is some real substance to the world being written about. The characters are very real. You feel like all of them would be instantly recognisable if you strolled in the Aberdeen nick, the local bar, the morgue or down the docks late at night.
Sometimes a second book, particularly one so close on the heels of such an impressive first novel can feel a little flat, or a little directionless. The trick of moving the focus on the DI's and their teams adds a freshness to the supporting characters and to Logan's personal interactions with his colleagues that really worked extremely well. After the sheer pleasure of reading DYING LIGHT you will be instantly left wondering where MacBride is going with the next one and very eager to find out.
COLD GRANITE - Stuart MacBride
COLD GRANITE is one of those debut books that come along and slowly cause a stir of comment and discussion in crime fiction forums. So much commentary just makes you want to get that book that everyone is talking about, but at the same time you often wonder if there's a chance that it's all noise and not much substance. COLD GRANITE is all substance.
On his first day back from extended medical leave, DS Logan just wants to get through his first day and hand responsibility back to his new DI. Despite needing to ease himself back into the job Logan finds himself investigating who is killing children. Just to add insult to injury the Chief Pathologist is his former girlfriend and her reception is just about as inviting as the Aberdeen weather in the middle of winter.
Getting himself back into the routine and back into the teams proves problematic for Logan. He's got to contend with a new DI who has an addiction to lollies, a problem with fools and a tendency to assume everyone is one. DI Steel is a well known womaniser who ends up with all sorts of political problems when a trial goes pear-shaped. WPC Watson is assigned as Logan's new babysitter, and she doesn't have the reputation of a ball-breaker for nothing. There's a new journalist in town and he's cocky and pushy. Somebody is leaking stories and Miller, the journalist, just can't seem to keep away from Logan. Children keep dying and disappearing and Internal Affairs seem to be very interested in Logan. All in all, things are not what Logan wanted or needed.
COLD GRANITE uses the weather almost as a character in its own right - it's used to enhance mood and atmosphere in a very engaging way. You feel the weather just as you feel the character's reactions and follow their desperate attempts to stop children dying.
Despite a difficult central subject, the murder of children, the author pulls off a light touch and a level of humour which isn't always just black and feels almost expected. This is a police procedural, but a good, varied story that uses the procedural elements as a framework and builds in details of the characters, their lives and their reactions in a manner that makes everyone human and many many of the people extremely likeable. There are sufficient sub-threads to add texture and realism to the environment and all of those sub-threads are finalised or pulled together elegantly at the end and there's no sense of rush to finish off the book. The language is sufficiently fluid and fluent to keep you engaged but the book does not smack of over-writing or the tendency of some first books to include all the ideas an author has ever had.
Add to that some clever twists and this is a pleasingly strong debut novel and one seriously good read.