Review - Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts, AK Benedict
In a city of lost souls, the living and the dead are sometimes too close for comfort...
Maria King knows a secret London. Born blind, she knows the city by sound and touch and smell. But surgery has restored her sight - only for her to find she doesn't want it.
Even the name of this novel gives the hint that this is a mash up of two genres. Modern day police procedural meets Victorian-style ghost story on the streets of (where else?) London. Ghost stories and crime novels seem like a natural fit. And Benedict brings them together reasonably effectively in her second novel. Although, as the title suggests, she is not really sure whether this is a crime novel (about detective Jonathan Dark) or a ghost story (about ghostwhisperer Jonathan Dark).
Jonathan Dark is a police detective, on the trail of a stalker who killed his last victim and has moved on to a new target. That target is Maria King, blind since birth but recently given her sight back through surgery. Maria is a mudlark, spending time on the banks of the Thames digging for pieces of old London. She still walks the streets of London with a blindfold, unable to bear the thought of using her newly regained vision.
At the same time Finnegan Finch has died after taking part in a deadly game while trying to escape the clutches of a shadowy organisation. Finnegan returns to London as a ghost, helped by his old mate and undertaker Frank. Frank helps the newly deceased come to terms with their spiritual state with the aid of a range of ghostly companions.
There is a lot going on in Jonathan Dark. The police investigation into the crazy stalker, a mysterious cabal with its tentacles across London including the police force itself, Jonathan’s relationship with his ex-wife, the rules around ghosts, and a subplot around evil soul sucking spirits. And all of this requires a fair amount of exposition. And while it is handled competently, there is a little too much backstory and information.
In the end, as with many crime novels with a supernatural element, the procedural element is almost completely subverted by the supernatural element. It is always much easier to solve murders when you get help from the ghosts of the victims. And this happens across all of the disparate elements of Jonathan Dark. Still this is an atmospheric supernatural thriller with some effective twists that takes readers to parts of London that don’t often get a look in.
The final line of the novel is: “Death has no sequel”. But not so crime novels. And with all of those rules and backstory out of the way, Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts could be the start of another interesting genre mashing series.
Review - BLOOD, SALT, WATER, Denise Mina
DI Alex Morrow and her team have been shadowing a woman suspected of being involved in a large drug-smuggling and money-laundering operation. Roxanna Fuentecilla recently moved from London to Glasgow under suspicious circumstances, and Morrow's bosses want all the glory when she's finally arrested. But then Roxanna disappears. She's left her partner and her two children, and something about the situation, and the children's evasive attitude, leads Morrow to question what's really going on.
Denise Mina is one of those authors that you can always trust to spin a good yarn, and once in a while an absolute ripper. BLOOD, SALT, WATER is somewhere on this reader’s scale between really good and ripper.
Taut and pointed, her ability to skewer character’s personality traits - good and bad - is razor sharp as usual, with a beautiful turn of sarcasm when required. Putting those characters in a realistic small-town location in Scotland provides not just a wonderful sense of place, but an interesting juxtaposition of have’s and have-nots, whilst leaving more than enough room for some skewering of superficial assumptions.
The 5th book in the Alex Morrow series sees a complicated, small town plot revolve around one childhood friend who stayed, and others who have recently returned. Whilst there’s plenty happening in the small town, there is also a disappearance to be investigated. A particularly embarrassing one as a very high profile woman disappears in suspicious circumstances when she’s supposedly being shadowed by Morrow and her team. The “battle” for territory between the local cops and London is intensive as it turns out that recent legislation changes mean lucrative possibilities for the arresting force.
Needless to say there are a lot of ongoing threads in BLOOD, SALT, WATER that could be less convincing, or receive less attention in the hands of some authors. Mina, on the other hand, manages to keep the balance equally between all the characters and all the threads. Along the way she produces an excellent entry in a really good series, although you could definitely read this as a standalone (or as in my case, out of order in the series).
THE COLOMBIAN MULE - Massimo Carlotto
When Colombian Arias Cuevas is caught trying to smuggle drugs through Venice airport, his fear isn't fuelled by the idea of prison. He's much more frightened of his aunt - it was her coke he took off with. The cops set up a sting to find out who was to be the recipient of the drugs, and art smuggler Nazzareno Corradi falls straight into the trap. But he's been set up. His lawyer hires "the Alligator," and his fixer, Max, to find out what's going on.
At this time of the year for some reason, goodness knows what, I crave dark, violent, humorous escapism. I crave pulp, noir, hardboiled, I'll even happily take nasty. THE COLOMBIAN MULE delivered exactly what I was looking for.
It doesn't hurt that this isn't a police procedural, a stereotypical lone wolf private detective or any of the expected scenarios as well. Instead we do have a PI, who works with a group of old friends, to solve problems. In this case, the problem is why one man seems to have been set up to take the fall as the recipient of drugs smuggled in by a Columbian man who has a big reason to be worried about himself. What doesn't make sense is why he's seemingly identified the wrong man as his contact. Our hero, ex-con, former blues singer, fixer, secret bar owner and his intrepid team set out to work out what the real story is.
The book is sparse, tight and beautifully balanced, with not an excess word in sight. Peopled with some very original characters, who slide and dodge their way through life, with every action, every act, tempered by the understanding of what doing time in jail will do to a man.
CUE THE EASTER BUNNY - Liz Evans
Spring has come to the faded seaside town of Seatoun. Vetch’s Investigations is buzzing with clients, but Grace Smith is the only one without a client. The situation has become so desperate that Grace has taken a job with the local Tourist Board. Dressed as the Easter Bunny, she's supposed to be promoting the town’s “child friendly” image.
Unfortunately, a series of encounters with kids who can't resist tormenting dumb creatures results in Grace being the first bunny to be nicked in Seatoun for Grievous Bodily Harm.
Grace Smith has always been one of my favourite of the fraught, vaguely madcap female private detective sub-genre for a bunch of different reasons.
Firstly I love Grace herself. Slightly bats definitely, sometimes refreshingly stupid, often times bordering on out of control, there's something refreshingly real and unmanufactured about Grace. She's the sort of girl you could see yourself having a drink with and whilst you might be a bit worried about the state of your shoes at the end of the night, your personal ego's not going to come away feeling somewhat underbaked.
Secondly I really love the supporting cast, particularly the other staff at the Detective Agency that Grace works at, most of whom are somewhat mildly bats in their own right.
Lastly I really like the plots of the books, and CUE THE EASTER BUNNY is no disappointment in those stakes, although, to be honest, the ongoing jokes about rabbits got dangerously close to being the biggest attraction.
I've been dodging the inevitable here I guess - is she the English Evanovich? Hate these sorts of comparisons as, apart from the coincidence of similar sorts of central characters - they are different books about different people in a completely different location. Given the choice, if it's my money being shelled out, Grace Smith is a better bet. None of that coy will she / won't she and with which bloke (which last time I tried a Plum book was still dragging on....). With Grace Smith there's nothing coy or cutsey - she is what she is, her love life is as on and off again as she bloody well wants it to be and besides, it's not the only thing in this girls life.
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.
THE COMPLAINTS - Ian Rankin
Nobody likes The Complaints - they're the cops who investigate other cops. Complaints and Conduct Department, to give them their full title, but known colloquially as 'The Dark Side', or simply 'The Complaints'. It's where Malcolm Fox works. He's just had a result, and should be feeling good about himself. But he's a man with problems of his own. He has an increasingly frail father in a care home and a sister who persists in an abusive relationship - something which Malcolm cannot seem to do anything about.
There is life after Rebus, even if it comes in a package of polar opposites. Rebus was an old school cop - murder squad, Malcolm Fox works for the cops who investigate other cops. Rebus was more than prepared to ignore rules, stretch boundaries and stomp rather resoundingly all over team work. Fox looks for just that sort of behaviour. Rebus was an unreformed grumpy drunk, Fox is a more carefully controlled man with a broken marriage, his drinking under control. They are both solitary men, although with Rebus there was something satisfied about his aloneness, Fox's comes with a real sense of regret.
But, however you characterise the people in any book by Ian Rankin, he really knows how to write a character that holds your attention, albeit in this case, a character that is considerably more subdued, controlled, underplayed than Rebus ever could be. In a strange way I couldn't get Siobhan out of my mind whenever Fox made an appearance - there seemed to be something in common about those two.
Given that this new series centres around the Complaints department, obviously Fox and his colleagues are going to be investigating a cop, although their current investigation carries some baggage from a recent case involving a long-time member. In a twist, a young officer colleague of Heaton's comes under suspicion when there's some evidence he could be involved in an online child pornography group. In a further twist, that young officer - Jamie Breck - is the officer who calls Fox to tell him that his sister's boyfriend has been murdered. Fox and his sister have had their difficulties in the past, not just because the now dead boyfriend used to beat her up on a semi-regular basis, there's always been a bit of conflict there. None of which is helped by their father aging and getting increasingly frail.
There's a lot of connections in the case that Fox is investigating. There's a feeling of swirling activity around him, Breck, his sister, and into the group originally investigating the online child pornography case. Within those connections and co-incidences there's going to be some conflict of interest complications and of course Fox gets himself into deep water, only digging himself out as he starts to get to the bottom of all of the connections. Which is complicated even more by the fact that he and Breck find common ground, friendship if you like.
THE COMPLAINTS is a different book from anything in the Rebus series partially because the nature of the investigation is different, and partially because Fox isn't Rebus. The investigation - the getting to the bottom of who's crooked, who's just unfortunate and who's flat out stupid, the idea that cops are investigating cops gives that aspect of the book a different feeling. It's quite feasible that some readers may find it a little flatter than what they are used to - possibly because there's less of that feeling of justice being seen to be done, and more a feeling of housework - necessary but definitely not high profile or glamorous. Beside that the character of Fox is more subdued than Rebus... less dangerous, definitely less edgy. He's a solid man, doing a nasty job that somebody has to do. He takes it seriously, he believes his job is about doing what's right and doing it well.
A great story is normally pretty well guaranteed in any book written by Rankin, but THE COMPLAINTS gives us a new scenario, a different approach and a different overall feel. Which is a very good thing.
THE END OF WASP SEASON - Denise Mina
When notorious millionaire banker Lars Anderson hangs himself from the old oak tree in front of his Kent mansion his death attracts no sympathy. One less shark is little loss to a world nursing a financial hangover. But the legacy of a life time of self-serving is widespread, the carnage most acute among those he ought to be protecting: his family. He leaves behind two deeply damaged children and a broken wife.
The second in the Alex Morrow series, THE END OF THE WASP SEASON is a book that it would actually be possible to read before the earlier. The opening chapters of the book introduces the reader to the three women at the centre of this story - DS Alex Morrow, Kay Murray who worked for Sarah Erroll and Sarah herself, 24 years old, murdered in a house that she rarely used.
Somehow, however, the focus of the book seems to be Lars Anderson, millionaire banker, disgraced financier, suicide hanging himself from a tree in the garden of his house. Father in a family that's about as dysfunctional as it can possibly get, his son returns from school to a family falling apart, not necessarily just because of his father's suicide, somehow the man's life seems to have had a more profound affect on a son, wife, daughter and mistress.
Needless to say this is an intricate tale weaving together a tangle of lies, deceit, damage, power, influence and moral ambiguity. Mina is renowned for her ability to create a well-drawn, complex and memorable cast of characters - from the main protagonist through to many of the lesser cast members. There's no sign of that ability flagging in THE END OF WASP SEASON. The other element that I've come to expect, particularly following on from the first Alex Morrow book, is a sense of restraint, contemplation, almost a reluctance to get into the evil that human beings can do. That's enhanced by the fragility of so many of Mina's characters. From Kay Murray, childhood friend of Alex's, Kay is a battler. She's not had an easy life, and somehow the tension of her embarrassment at her circumstances viewed by Morrow; her reaction when one of her children is briefly a suspect for the killing of Sarah; her pride and her vulnerability were beautifully executed. As was the character of Thomas, son of Lars, a young man pulled from school to confront the reality of his father's legacy, and the implosion of his family and everything that he thought life was supposed to be. Even down to the surreal experience of he and his mother discovering freezers of food, and working out how to actually prepare a meal - Thomas grows up in front of the reader's eyes, and there's something really quite sad about the way that has to happen.
The restraint of the storytelling in THE END OF WASP SEASON is the thing that really stays with me since I've finished the book. There was also something there - perhaps something about the way that sex and sexual politics started to play such a big part in the potential resolution, stacked up against Morrow's mostly male colleagues seeming disregard for this particular murder that could very well have been telegraphing something pointed. It could also be that I'm reading in something that wasn't ever supposed to be there, but there did just seem to be a little tale of attitude being told here, purposely underplayed, purposely observational and not conversational.
It is, however, not a book that's necessarily devoted to solving the crime. That aspect of the plot, whilst investigated by Morrow, is somehow less important than the why, and the way that circles of influence emanate from the rich and powerful. Perhaps it's a plot for a post GFC world? The way that the ripples of one person's life choices, and influence based simply on their wealth and ruthless use of the power that money can bring, can have repercussions in the most unexpected places.
The problem with picking up any book by Denise Mina is that she has hit so many heights with those that have come earlier, that somehow, sub-consciously there's always an expectation that perhaps this book could be the one that's not quite as good. For this reader, this wasn't that book. Denise Mina continues to write engaging, thought-provoking and always interesting stories.
BAD SIGNS, R.J. Ellory
Orphaned by an act of senseless violence that took their mother from them, half-brothers Clarence Luckman and Elliott Danziger start life with two strikes against them. Raised in state institutions, unaware of the world outside, their lives take a sudden turn when they are seized as hostages by a convicted killer en route to death row.
Every now and then, along comes one of those books. The sort that makes you look at people who make statements like "I NEVER read genre fiction" with just that little bit of sadness for what they are missing. That's not to say that BAD SIGNS is the sort of book that everyone is going to enjoy, but for any readers looking for something that will really make you think, take you into some very uncomfortable places, and be profoundly challenged, then it will be an outstanding book.
Strange as it may seem from the blurb, this is a book about hope. Albeit brutally wrapped up in human frailty. Returning to themes that Ellory has explored in earlier books - this is the story of young men confronted with an impossible situation, informed only by a deprived and desperate background, and the choices that they make. BAD SIGNS gives us two young boys, half-brothers, raised by the same mother, witnesses to the same violence and experiencing the desperation and degradation of State Care together, who make independent choices when pushed to the extreme. Fuelled by their respective ages, tempered undoubtedly by their allotted "roles" in their relationship, Clarence (Clay) Luckman and Elliott Danziger fight their dark stars in their own particular ways.
BAD SIGNS is populated by difficult people to read about - be it because of who they are, what they become, or what could happen to them. Psychopathic serial killer Earl Sheridan is a violent, out of control madman, who for some reason chooses not to kill the brothers in the aftermath of his escape. Which makes reading about their present in his thrall terrifying. What happens to those two boys while they are dragged across the country by this lunatic, violently killing just about everybody he encounters is profoundly discomforting reading. As each of the early chapters end by flagging the horror that is about to occur, it's really difficult to see where any hope is going to come from. Until the boys make their own choices, and the affects of that start to play out. Even then, the tension remains as you worry about how this will play out for the boys. The story remains disturbing and confronting, and the tension is ramped up even more as the reader is dragged, kicking and screaming into the minds of these two boys. Somehow, it's not long before a sense of hope does rise, and with that the tension gets even worse as the reader is left fighting a range of emotions - identification, terror, worry for the future, nervous about the potential resolutions.
It's clever this BAD SIGNS. It's incredibly clever. It's dark and dire, and frightening, disturbing and hypnotic. It's only when you've finished reading, when the resolution is known and the tension can finally abate, that there's a chance for this reader to look back and consider. What the book has done is take two characters from the same mother and childhood, with that slightly different genetic background, put them in dire circumstances and look closely, forensically at what becomes of each person. Whilst not everything is completely hopeless, and there are glimpses of bravery, belief, care, love, defiance and empathy, it is a careful study in human frailty, in madness, mistakes and the power of connections. It's a sobering reminder of how a single encounter can twist a life forever - good or bad, it just depends on how each individual plays the cards they are handed.
There were points where I had to step away for a little while. The violence, the psychopathy of Earl Sheridan, the circumstances of these two young boys, it's in your face. It's pointed, almost grotesque. It's frequently overwhelming. But it's not gratuitous, it draws a very clear picture of the peril of Clay and Elliott, as well as anyone who innocently comes across the worst of them.
Make no mistake, BAD SIGNS is not an easy book to read, it is, however, one hell of a very very very good book.
SAINTS OF NEW YORK - R.J. Ellory
The death of a young heroin dealer causes no great concern for NYPD Detective Frank Parrish - Danny Lange is just another casualty of the drug war. But when Danny's teenage sister winds up dead, questions are raised that have no clear answers. Parrish, already under investigation by Internal Affairs for repeatedly challenging his superiors, is committed to daily interviews with a Police Department counsellor. As the homicides continue - and a disturbing pattern emerges - Frank tries desperately to make some sense of the deaths, while battling with his own demons.
I started reading R.J. Ellory's books with A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS which I absolutely loved. Then moved onto THE ANNIVERSARY MAN which made my Top Ten of 2010 and eventually, after I worked out a way to finagle the definition, into the two books that I nominated as my favourites for that year in my contribution to an article in Deadly Pleasures magazine. SAINTS OF NEW YORK is the latest I've been lucky enough to read, and with each book, I just get more and more impressed.
SAINTS OF NEW YORK is veering more towards a traditional procedural crime novel than earlier books, but with Ellory's trademarks of flawed characters, in a dark and murky world, struggling against personal and external demons and pressures.
In Frank Parrish's case, a lot of his demons come directly from the larger than life legacy of his father, one of the original "Saints of New York", the policemen who famously stood up to the Mafia in the early 1980's. Whilst everybody else regards John Parrish as a hero and legend, Frank stands alone, remembering a man who seemed to care more about the job, and the money, and status than he did about his own family. How Frank deals with his own day to day life, as a divorced, alcoholic, desperate and disaffected man, is woven brilliantly into this book as he has been forced to attend daily sessions with a Police Department counsellor. As these sessions proceed, Frank's state of mind, his background and his life are drawn out, just as he inches closer and closer to the killer of what turns out to be more than just one teenage girl.
SAINTS OF NEW YORK has a wonderfully dark, murky, tense and slightly desperate feel about it. It sets itself deep in the underbelly of New York, simultaneously taking you deep into the personal world of Frank Parrish. Violent and dark, there is also an intricate and compelling plot in which a man handles the professional with aplomb and the personal with a staggering lack thereof. I really have no idea how this author does it, but there's something amazingly compelling about Frank Parrish. Which doesn't take anything away from a fast-paced, well plotted novel that takes a few chapters to pull you in and then grabs you and holds onto you until the very end. And then for a while after that.
THE ANNIVERSARY MAN - R.J. Ellory
Twenty years ago John Costello's life, as he knew it, ended.
He and his beautiful girlfriend, Nadia, became victims of the deranged 'Hammer of God' killer who terrorised New Jersey City throughout the summer of 1984. This murderer went after young courting couples in an attempt to 'save their souls'.
Sometimes, not very often granted, a blurb on the front of a book nails it for me. In the case of THE ANNIVERSARY MAN the blurb from Clive Cussler is "The perfect author to read late into the night". I'd definitely advise that you catch up on your sleep before you pick up a book by R.J. Ellory. This is the second of his that I've read now and both of them have kept me up way too late, or found me sneaking out to hide in the chook sheds and grab a little time with the book when I really should have been working.
THE ANNIVERSARY MAN is the story of a serial killer, but don't let that put you off. The killer is not the focus of this book, there's none of that "in the head of" stuff going on. Instead, you get a glimpse into the life of a victim who survived and the cop who, many years later, finds himself looking to that victim for guidance on what is driving a current day killer. John Costello is the victim who survived when his girlfriend and he were attacked as teenagers. His killer caught, John was left to recover from his physical injuries and find a way to live his life and deal with the mental trauma of what he had been through. His way of coping is to know serial killers and their victims. To see the patterns, I suppose to try to understand why. Karen Langley is the crime reporter for whom John works as a researcher. She knows little about John's personal life, but she is extremely protective of him. Ray Irving is a cop with his own trauma. A natural loner, the death of his long-term girlfriend has taken away Ray's anchor, left him blindsided in a way that he has no idea how to handle. In a poignant and almost sad way, a series of killings that eventually sync up to be copies of previous serial killer's acts becomes Ray's personal crusade. A desire to stop the Anniversary Killer drives him, his ability to throw himself into the investigation despite barriers, seems to be his need to be relevant, wanted, busy, connected to the world again. Ray and Karen and John somehow have to feel their way into a working relationship, maybe the potential of a personal relationship between Ray and Karen, but somehow these three people have to band together to help find a dangerous, inexplicable serial killer who seems unstoppable.
This is a very different serial killing book. The murders that are happening are all as close to identical to the past events as the killer can make them, right down to the dates, methodology, the scenes of the crime. But the Anniversary Killer is emulating more than one past serial killer so part of the investigation must be to solve how this person has such detailed knowledge. There's also the never-ending question of why. More chillingly, what next. And that is where John's particular knowledge becomes something Ray relies on - finding the next anniversary, working out where the killer is likely to strike. The relationship that builds between Ray, Karen and John is beautifully done - the potential of a new romance touching and not at all distracting; Karen's protectiveness towards John nicely balanced; John's life somewhat shadowy, his knowledge completely understandable, and so touching.
THE ANNIVERSARY MAN was as close to perfect a reading experience as I've had in quite a while, I really did not want to put this book down. Why? Possibly because the crimes, as confrontational and awful as they are, were used as a catalyst for other people's reactions or actions. The characters in this book aren't perfect, perhaps a little overtly damaged in some cases, but the insight into human behaviour was both illuminating and touching. And there's no Hollywood ending here - it's real, and it hurt and whilst, you may have an inkling of what's coming, there was just enough to make you wonder if Ellory would really go through with it. There is also that something that just works for particular readers - I really believed in Ray. I really wanted him to succeed, solve the crimes, get the girl, become best mates with John and ride off into the sunset to a happy place. And most importantly, I can happily forgive him for anything he didn't quite manage to do.