Jane Logan is a stranger to Berlin and she finds the city alive and echoing with the ghosts of its turbulent past. At six months pregnant, she's instructed by her partner Petra to rest and enjoy her new life in Germany. But while Petra is out at work, Jane begins to feel uneasy in their chic apartment. Screams reverberate through the walls, lights flicker in the derelict building that looms over the yard, a shadow passes on the stairs...Jane meets a neighbour's daughter, a girl whose life she tries to mend, but her involvement only further isolates her.
One of the things that makes Louise Welsh one of my favourite authors is the way you just never know what to expect when a new novel arrives.
In THE GIRL ON THE STAIRS Jane Logan moves to Berlin to be with her partner Petra, in the lead up to the birth of their first child. From the moment she arrives there's something wrong. Jane is uneasy in their chic, upmarket apartment, where amongst lots of other oddities, there are shadows on the stairs and a neighbour's daughter who Jane is sure is in danger.
A psychological mystery, the book is chilling and discomforting. There's something about the fears that Jane develops that don't quite ring true. Of course the world is seen through Jane's eyes, so small events are major and Jane is extremely isolated. By the move to a foreign country, by her partner's work commitments which seem to keep her distant and in an apartment, and neighbourhood that also somehow seems isolated and claustrophobic. Yet, at the same time, the reader can't help but wonder, is Petra really so distant, are things quite that gothic, and dark, is there really something behind Anna, the next door neighbour's daughter hostility, or is Jane imagining things.
As this doubt started to grow there were points where loyalties were compromised. We're supposed to be seeing things from Jane's point of view, yet somehow, Jane doesn't seem to be getting it, is possibly constructing mountains out of molehills. Is she the classic unreliable narrator?
The concentration on the book is very much on a woman whose mind may be playing tricks on her. The physical setting of Berlin contributes little to the narrative other than a feeling of the other, "somewhere foreign", providing isolation. Her pregnancy, her partner's pre-occupation outside the home, all provide a vehicle for pulling the focus back to Jane, back into Jane's head, back into Jane's overwhelming imagination.
As I'd expect from this author, I'd no idea how THE GIRL ON THE STAIRS would evolve when I started it, and it did take quite a while to twig what was going on. I didn't particularly warm to Jane, found her viewpoint unsympathetic and a bit offputting. The introspection was uncomfortable, the isolation palpable. Despite all that, there was something very compelling about the story that dragged me into it. Right to the sort of ending that I love - subtle, unexpected, unsettling, challenging.
ALL THE DEAD VOICES - Declan Hughes
Ed Loy has made some changes. He has moved into a flat in Dublin's city centre, leaving the family home behind. Maybe now he can break free from the ghosts of his past.
But when a fifteen-year-old murder case is re-opened, Loy is hired by the victim's daughter to investigate the suspects ignored by the first investigation: a rich property developer, an ex-IRA man and Loy's least favourite sociopath, George Halligan.
Grant me a moment here, but Ed Loy is well and truly back and I'm more than a little bit happy about that! ALL THE DEAD VOICES is a really tense, investigative novel with a just a touch of the thriller about it. The action is swift, the tension carefully ramped up and the plot nicely complicated. The details are carefully laid out, allowing the reader to keep up, sort it out, decide for themselves, pick up the clues along the way. Provided you're concentrating.
In 1980 two IRA men are hiding beside a roadway, ready to detonate the bomb destined to kill a hated judge. Just as well this is a carefully planned operation, as the two killers do not get on - much to the amusement of their colleagues.
Current day and Ed is moving on, by moving house, clearing his head, getting his edge back. He's doing a little low key watching of an up and coming footballer - Paul Delany. His half-brother Dessie's a bit suspicious that Paul might be dealing heroin on the side, and living in Greece there's not much he can do about it himself. A threatening moment at a football match and Paul's reaction reassures Loy something's going on; the couple of young hoods that have a go at him in an alley late at night reinforce that. But Loy had just left them a bit bruised and battered - their turning up dead is definitely not down to him, even if the police aren't so convinced.
Meanwhile, Loy is approached by Anne Fogarty, who thinks that the police have got the wrong man for the killing of her father, fifteen years ago. Anne's father had been a revenue inspector, involved in the investigation of some very dodgy people: Jack Cullen, ex-IRA now gang leader; Bobby Doyle, ex-IRA now property developer, and George Halligan - Loy's least favourite sociopath. Oh, and because it never rains but it pours, something is brewing in the Cullen camp and Comerford is convinced that somebody is leaking information about drug smuggling to the police, and he wants Ed to find out who.
One of the things that I really like about the Ed Loy books is that the plots are crowded, complicated and not always made up of obviously intersecting threads. ALL THE DEAD VOICES has that lightening pace, as well as the swirling list of links, possible links, gangs, impending violence, past violence and secrets. It's that wheedling out of secrets that Ed Loy does best of all, well that along with juggling all the goings on, surviving the occasional beating up and reluctant, but efficient, dishing out of the occasional thumping. Ed's style of investigating is very much the "prod something a bit and wait for the ripples to spread" methodology, but it's effective, partly because he's not too afraid to prod where others may not dare, and he's well aware of the circles in which he is moving.
After being slightly less enthusiastic about the last Ed Loy outing, ALL THE DEAD VOICES is not only a return to the standard of the first books in the series, it has a touch of the moving on about it. Loy's not standing still, and neither should readers - regardless of whether you're already a fan, or this will be a new encounter for you.
The earlier books in the series are:
The Wrong Kind of Blood
The Colour of Blood
The Dying Breed
OLD CITY HALL - Robert Rotenberg
A celebrated talk-show host confesses to the brutal murder of his young wife. The words "I killed her" are the last he will speak. But what lies behind his vow of silence? Can this really be the straightforward crime of passion it first appears?
Despite a rather shaky start in the legal profession, Robert Rotenberg's background in criminal law explains the perspective of his first novel OLD CITY HALL, most of the the book is being told from either the defence or the prosecution viewpoints.
OLD CITY HALL starts off in a decidedly disarming manner, with polite, proper and very Indian Mr Singh going about his daily job of distributing newspapers which always involves a chat with Mr Kevin in Suite 12A. On this particular morning the door is open as usual, but there is no sign of Kevin Brace. When he eventually appears in the hallway of his apartment, Mr Singh is the only person to hear him confess to killing his wife. Kevin Brace refuses to speak again. He doesn't speak to the police who investigate the crime, to his cellmate as he awaits trial, or even to his own defence counsel.
The case of Kevin Brace is the reason a number of characters all come together, although Brace himself is almost a bit player in the entire book. Partly this is because of the use of the Counsel viewpoints, partly because of Brace's decision not to speak. I have to admit I found other characters failure to deduce the reasons behind his speechlessness somewhat inexplicable at the end of the book, although this aspect is really difficult to talk about in a review without giving the game away - suffice to say, there were aspects that made clanging noises for quite a while after I finished reading.
Whilst there is a crime at the centre of the book, it does take a slightly lower profile in this book. An odd thing to conclude as ultimately the story is about the trial of that crime. Possibly this is because this isn't the sort of book where a crime is committed and a guilty party must be identified, rather this is book concentrates on "post arrest". Whilst there is definitely still some investigating going on, mostly it's not about the who, but more concentrating on the why of the crime, it's also the story of the trial and the characters involved in that trial. The crime itself is over and the investigation has a slightly different focus, and therefore intensity, once preparations for, and the trial itself, commences. Having said that, the trial even takes a slightly lower profile as well. Perhaps it's partly this difference that made OLD CITY HALL compelling, possibly it's partly because the lawyer characterisations are really very strong. The book slowly builds the story of the two counsel, aspects of their private lives and their involvement in the trial, at the same time as the facts behind the case are revealed. The lives of the perpetrator and victim are gradually drawn out, the motivation behind the death of Kevin Brace's wife is explained, and Mr Singh goes back to delivering his papers.
THE DYING BREED - Declan Hughes
Find a missing man with a single name? It's not much to go on, even for the best private eye. One name is all Ed Loy is given by the family of a prominent racehorse trainer FX Tyrrell, and he has no choice but to take the case.
THE DYING BREED is the third book in the Irish PI Ed Loy series from Declan Hughes, Ed being an Irishman who went home after living in the US for many years. A broken marriage and the tragic death of his young daughter are events that shaped him there, but his childhood in Ireland shaped him even more firmly, and a large number of the characters that he works with on a daily basis are connections from the past. But he's a PI (in a place where that's still a bit of a novelty) and he's ready for his next case (and pay cheque), so he takes on a very odd investigation in THE DYING BREED. Father Vincent Tyrrell wants him to find a missing man, although there's not a lot for Ed to go on. It takes him into the world of horse racing, and a rapid build up of dead bodies and family skeletons.
Ed Loy is the very epitome of the classic Private Investigator. A loner, a tough man, a man who always manages to pick the wrong woman, Ed's very reminiscent of so many of the well-known PI's of the genre, although with a very Irish twist. There's a constant tension between Ed and the Catholic Church - very much a love / hate relationship, complicated in earlier books by his difficult relationship with his very devout mother - and her confessor priest.
There's something not quite right about the early stages of THE DYING BREED, which made the first half of the book a struggle. It was hard to get involved, hard to be engaged; the story just seemed to float along with no connection to the society in which it was happening. The long-term characters held up their parts fairly well, but there were too many new entrants - part of the horse world - who were underdone. The action does ramp up later in the book, and things do get more interesting, but the resolution lands on the reader, told as opposed to revealed or shown, leaving the reader feeling rather short-changed.
If you haven't read any of the Ed Loy series, you'd be well served starting out with the first two books - they give you a lot of background to why Ed is where he is (which is just nice to know, not necessary). For this avowed fan of the first two books, THE DYING BREED simply wasn't as good as them.
THE WRONG KIND OF BLOOD - Declan Hughes
Ed Loy hasn't been back to Dublin for twenty years. But his mother has died, and he has returned to bury her. Loy realises that the world waiting for him is very different from the one he left behind.
When an old school friend asks him to investigate the disappearance of her husband, Loy reluctantly agrees. And suddenly in the Dublin where he grew up - among the Georgian houses, Victorian castles and modern villas of Castlehill - Loy finds himself thrown into a world of organised crime, long-hidden secrets, corruption and murder.
Okay, so Ed Loy is a bit of a lone wolf character. He's also obviously been endowed with some sort of minor super-powers. You know the sort. No matter how much of a kicking he takes, no matter how much battering, beating, brawling and bashing goes on, Ed keeps on keeping on. He might limp a bit occasionally. He might grimace when a recent scar stings, but there's a job to be done and Ed's going to do that job. Of course this sort of character can get right up the reader's nose unless they have something else - that personality or style - that means you can forgive the minor super-human powers and just read the book. Ed's definitely one of those blokes for this reader at least.
It doesn't hurt that this is a complex tale. After 20 years Ed comes back to a Dublin that might have changed a lot, to people that haven't. Meeting up with old friends and acquaintances at his mother's funeral, the fabulous opening paragraph of this book happens - "The night of my mother's funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband". That has got to be one of the all time great openings, and luckily the tone and style that it sets remains through the book.
Ed finds Linda's husband, and along the way he finds out a lot about his father, his mother and the ties that bind them all back through the family lines. Typically Irish in that the family loyalties and enmities that go back generations, are faithfully carried forward to the current day; typically hard-boiled thriller in that it portrays a stark brutality, beautifully balanced by a central character that's as tough as nails and fragile as glass all at the same time.
THE WRONG KIND OF BLOOD is the first Ed Loy book, the second book is THE COLOUR OF BLOOD which I was lucky enough to read first. WRONG KIND OF BLOOD fills in where Ed has come from a lot, but both books stand alone and work as a series if you're lucky enough to get the order right.