THE SECRET FRIEND is a contemporary American crime fiction thriller. A serial killer with their own desperate and cruel background. A religious element. A corrupt ex-FBI agent. A bad cop. And a CSI - Darby McCormick - as the central protagonist. Darby is pulled into the case of Emma Hale and finds herself up against a lot of things. There's the lack of evidence or an explanation for why somebody would have snatched Emma, kept her alive for months, and then killed her. There's Emma's powerful and wealthy father who wants answers enough to run his own investigation. There's the second student dead in similar circumstances and it's obvious that this killer is not going to stop unless he's caught. There's the either incompetent or corrupt police force that haven't been able to solve the case. There's a pushy and politically motivated senior officer. And finally, there's the lurking presence of the FBI agent gone bad - the vigilante fugitive from law, taking the law into his own hands.
THE SECRET FRIEND may appeal to a particular type of reader. Fans or believers in CSI's actively investigating cases and those interested in the "technical wizardry" that goes along with crime scene analysis. There are certainly snippets of technical information sprinkled through the book which show the depth of the research or knowledge that went into the writing. To help widen the possible appeal, you've got all these other elements built in - the rogue FBI guy with the astounding connections - inexplicably one step ahead of the cops and Darby all the way; the corrupt cop; the serial killer who may just engender sympathy in some readers; the lurking presence of the closed down institution - where all too many horrible events could have occurred.
I wouldn't be at all surprised if this book doesn't appeal to many readers, but for me it was too much. Whilst it was competently written, the main sub-plot, the rogue ex-FBI agent, just didn't work for me and as he got more and more focus, I got less and less interested. The serial killer's motivations and behaviour seemed to have some potential, but they don't remain the main focus of the book and kept getting lost in the other sub-plots and the snippets of forensic information that were packed in.
THE BLOOD DETECTIVE - Dan Waddell
It's not the best start to DCI Grant Foster's day: standing over a mutilated body in a windswept London churchyard. Although the killer has left a cryptic and brutal clue.
It is only when the clue is handed to Nigel Barnes, a specialist in compiling family trees, that the full message becomes spine-chillingly clear. For it leads Barnes back more than one hundred years - to the victim of a demented Victorian serial killer.
If you're looking for a slightly different twist to the standard police procedural theme, then THE BLOOD DETECTIVE could be worth looking at. This book is the author's first novel - a journalist, he has previously written non-fiction books, including the book connected to the BBC Series Who Do You Think You Are?. Needless to say it's not hard to work out where he got the inspiration for the idea behind THE BLOOD DETECTIVE.
When the first body is discovered in a windswept Notting Hill church the very cryptic clue isn't even obviously a clue, and it's really a bit of luck that the police team twig that there could be a genealogical reference here. It's also not immediately apparent that a recent suicide is connected until the genealogy reference starts to work it's way out. Another body and Barnes finally finds a connection from the original clue, back to a Victorian serial killer, tried and hung for his crimes in 1879.
At the heart of the police investigation team DCI Grant Foster is a tricky character - prickly, even a bit mean-spirited he's the traditional complicated copper. The reasons for the character traits are slowly revealed and it does become possible for the reader to build some empathy for the man. His sidekick DS Heather Jenkins has none of those tricky character traits - basically a relatively happy, laid back sort of a woman she just gets on with the job, but isn't above a bit of interest in Nigel Barnes. Nigel Barnes is a genealogist with a chequered background - nothing really bad, just a bit complicated and he's back working as a family tree researcher for hire when Foster and Jenkins track him down to help with the clue that sets them all on the trail of a serial killer in the current day, and a serial killer in Victorian times.
The reader is going to have to be happy to accept some slightly odd feeling procedural elements to let the story roll - but stranger things than a civilian freely investigating lots of aspects of an active (and very high profile) police investigation have been ignored in the pursuit of a good story.
That's where THE BLOOD DETECTIVE really wins, it's a really good story. It's an interesting plot device that is delivered really well. It's a clever plot device as well as genealogy, family trees, sins of the father are an area that a lot of people are really interested in. The little snippets of how a family tree can be followed back were liberally provided, but they don't overpower the point of this story. The connections between the past and the present are nicely twisty and, whilst there were some aspects that you could see coming, there were enough that weren't so obvious. The 3 central people at the heart of the investigation are also characters you can really enjoy spending time with.
UNTIL IT'S OVER by Nicci French
Husband and wife writing team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French have been churning out the psychological thrillers now for almost ten years since the release of THE MEMORY GAME. Every year another is released and they all feature variations on a similar theme, that being of the urban girl in jeopardy. UNTIL IT'S OVER lacks the density of some of the priors and is almost startlingly light in the mental conundrums we're used to seeing in novels by these authors. The suspense, such as it is when it appears, doesn't gel with the casualness in which the characters go about their lives, as they keep it all upbeat and act strangely indifferent to the murders happening around them.
Perhaps this is a deliberate play for the female market. Not romantic suspense as such, but skimming somewhere close to it. Think backpacker murders in inner city London, only it is an old house with the tenants being virtually squatters. What holds these people in the house is the prospect of losing their cheap rent when the owner decides to move his less than easy-going girlfriend in. It is so absurd to think that a legal battle could even be contemplated in such circumstances, and it simply isn't enough of a plot driver to keep all the characters rooted in what is clearly an extremely dangerous place to be. UNTIL IT'S OVER is a somewhat shallow read, nowhere near the calibre of what Nicci French is more than capable of, yet may be just the ticket if you aren't in the mood to agonize over the plight of the characters, and simply want to see how it all ends.
Kudos to the cover artist as the cover image at first appears to be a rather creepy bug! At second glance, it can be seen that it is actually a bicycle wheel with the spokes bent out of shape (very relevant to how this book begins).
KILLING JODIE - Janet Fife-Yeomans
Drug user and part-time prostitute, Jodie Larcombe disappeared from St Kilda in December, 1987. It would have been easy for police to shrug their shoulders and put it down to her lifestyle. However, the detectives assigned to her case refused to give up on her.
They were certain she had been murdered. They knew who did it, but they just couldn't prove it to the satisfaction of the Department of Public Prosecutions.
This year I have read true crime books about crooks, books about crimes and books about the personalities involved, but this is the first book I've read that tells the story from, the perspective of the investigating officers.
KILLING JODIE is an in-depth nuts-and bolts look at the investigation. Because there was no body, not only did the detectives have to collect evidence proving the Suckling had commited murder, they also had to discount the inevitable claims that Jodie was still alive.
The author, Janet Fife-Yeomans became intrigued with the case when covering the story for The Australian newspaper. In her acknowledgements she states that "I have tried to take the reader inside the investigation so the evidence unfolds for the reader as it did for the police" and she has succeeded. KILLING JODIE reads like a police procedural. We share the ups and downs of the case with the investigating officers who refused to let go, the relationships formed with Jodie's family and other witnesses during the case and the impact it had on all their lives.
Fife-Yeomans had the co-operation of both police and family in writing KILLING JODIE and has written it in such a way that it is almost impossible not to become emotionally involved while reading the book.
KILLING JODIE is a must-read for true crime devotees. If you're not, perhaps this book will change your mind.
THE SKELETON MAN - Jim Kelly
For seventeen years, the Cambridgeshire hamlet of Jude's Ferry has lain abandoned, requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence for military training in 1990. The isolated, thousand-year-old community was famous for one thing - never having recorded a single crime.
But when local reporter Philip Dryden joins the Territorial Army on exercise in the empty village, its spotless history is literally blown apart. For the TA's shells reveal a hidden cellar beneath the old pub. And inside the cellar hangs a skeleton, a noose around its neck...
THE SKELETON MAN is the fifth novel in this series - "starring" Philip Dryden, journalist - once Fleet Street luminary, now small-town newspaper man, and I have to confess this is a favourite series of mine. Not because the books are edgy, or dark or particularly enlightening of the human condition, but because everybody in them is relatively normal; the situations that Dryden ends up investigating are not that outlandish and because there is a real human touch in the way this author builds his characters.
THE SKELETON MAN is set in and around a little village that has been forcibly cleared by the Army to be used as a practice range - with the sorts of actions that the British Army is involved in nowadays, building searches; working in confined small towns - is exactly the sort of training they are looking for. The villagers did not go willingly however, and Dryden as a young reporter at the time, remembers the final days well. When he is invited on maneuvers with the Territorial Army back at the village he's on the spot when they discover the body - hidden in an undocumented cellar.
There's a lot to this plot. Not only do they have the skeleton of a young man; there is a missing woman; a missing girl; an injured young man pulled from a river with amnesia; a dead baby; a raided tomb; an army survey that seems to have inexplicably missed the existence of this cellar; and a lot of secrets for a village society that was split up a long time ago. Mind you, one of the skills of this writer is to take a very crowded plot and make it all roll along at a very English countryside pace. Maybe it's Humph - the cab driver - willing to pull over for a wait and a nap at any point (Dryden doesn't drive himself around); maybe it's the side trips into Dryden's personal life - his wife is slowly recovering from the car accident that put her in a coma. Maybe it's just the slightly sleepy, quiet Fen Country. THE SKELETON MAN has a lot happening, but it's not rushed (nor is anyone really rushing around).
If you've read earlier books in the series then you'll have Dryden's background a little more fleshed out than if you just picked up THE SKELETON MAN - but you should be able to read this on its own if you've not started out on this series before - there are touches of the back story, cleverly woven into the plot to give you enough of an idea of what's gone before.
There's also a tantalising, albeit very brief, new character built into this narrative - DI Peter Shaw - the surfing, fishing, seaside dwelling policeman. After 5 Dryden books I hear a rumour that the author is working on a book with him as a central character. Let's hope Dryden's not consigned to the newspaper archives totally just yet.
SENSITIVE NEW AGE SPY - Geoffrey McGeachin
All Alby wants is a decent coffee and a day off. But there's a hijacked tanker with a deadly cargo in Sydney Harbour, and bullets are flying on board a US Navy cruiser. Three sailors are dead and a Seahawk chopper is missing.
SENSITIVE NEW AGE SPY continues the Alby Murdoch story where D-E-D Dead! left off. Post the hilariously over the top events at the end of the first book, Alby finds himself thrust into leadership of D-E-D, not that it's all bad. He manages to not get too involved in the day to day, and there's always Julie. Julie helping out on operations is one thing, Julie asleep, in not a lot, on your couch is another altogether. Mind you Alby's pretty well convinced he'll never get to have his way with Julie, it's a pity that for an intelligence agent, he can be as thick as the walls of an 80,000 tonne tanker.
Which is exactly what brings Alby and Julie's happy, relaxed long-weekend to an abrupt end. Nobody's quite sure how a tanker that big could be hijacked in the first place, in the second place how did it end up moored right up beside Fort Denison in the middle of Sydney Harbour, but the more pressing problem is how much of Sydney will be left if the LNG on board goes up in flames. The added complication of the nearby US Navy cruiser that "may or may not" be carrying nuclear weapons and Alby's day is about to get a whole lot more complicated. But every bad situation has to have a an upside and maybe, just maybe, Lieutenant Kingston could be it.
Slightly more assured than the first book, SENSITIVE NEW AGE SPY is a romp through the intricacies of being a spy in a complicated world. No more do spies get the luxury of ultra-sleek Aston Martins and Martinis on call; Sydney's latter day Spy gets a rusted out 4WD and the occasional bottle of red. And breakfast has become a major problem. Alby has really got to get people to stop shooting at him at his favourite breakfast haunts - the poor man may be reduced to a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice like the rest of us mere mortals. At the centre of SENSITIVE NEW AGE SPY, amongst the severely tongue in cheek dialogue (harbour duty officers getting alert and alarmed - which will probably mean more to your average Australian reader...), there is buried in here, a good mystery. Were there nuclear arms on that cruiser? Are they still there, or have they gone missing? Who is the mysterious Reverend Priday and his gorgeous daughter and what on earth does all this have to do with whales?
You could be reading this book first if you want to, there's the odd reference to events in D-E-D Dead!, but not enough to throw you. Having said, that, read them both.
DARKNESS INSIDE - John Rickards
True confession time. I really didn't expect to like THE DARKNESS INSIDE. Oh dear, I thought to myself - appalling child mistreatment again. Oh bother, I muttered - another bitter and twisted ex-FBI agent / lone wolf PI / life sucks / let's just get this case over / I can take all the hammering you can throw at me.... Luckily I very rarely listen to anybody, and I include myself in that rule.
Now you can't for a moment pretend that there are not some very unpleasant aspects to THE DARKNESS INSIDE. The main case in this book is the unsolved abduction and disappearance of a large number of young girls. In most cases a body has never been found, no trace of the girls ever seen again, no idea what happened to them. Cody Williams is the prime suspect for all of those disappearances, but nothing could ever be proven / found. Luckily Williams is found guilty of the, somewhat inexplicable, murder of a serial rapist operating in the same area. Maybe Williams killed him because he was stealing his limelight, maybe he was just a homicidal maniac - the general consensus at the time was "who cares". Only Williams cared quite a bit, and when he's diagnosed with terminal cancer he wants to talk to Rourke.
Rourke's not that thrilled with the idea of talking to Williams, and he's less than impressed when details of the cases of the girls are hard to get, but the families really want to know where the bodies of their little girls are. When Williams plays his winning hand - one of his victims, Holly Tynon is still alive, Rourke is suddenly deeply involved. What he reveals in his search for Holly casts light on the truly revolting in society. Clubs of child-molesters, murderers and gangsters - willing to do anything to protect themselves are part of Rourke's problem - but when his own friends are threatened, then the stakes are raised even higher.
There's an overwhelming sense of justice in the face of great evil in THE DARKNESS INSIDE. Rourke's path to discovering the truth and maybe recovering Holly is littered with people very motivated to protect themselves; people who are just flat out scared; or people who are finding everything just a bit too much to cope with. Starting off with the support of his partner in the PI firm, Rourke is cut loose even by him in the end as his notoriety grows. Rourke discovers very quickly that sometimes you end up on the wrong side of society yourself when you're fighting those who are happiest over there anyway.
Ultimately what works in THE DARKNESS INSIDE is that sense of connection with Rourke. The subject matter is unpleasant, the ending unexpected, and sure Rourke's a bit of a loose cannon, a major risk taker and there are points when he's a bit of an energiser bunny, but he sticks with what he's doing because he really feels a connection with the families of those child victims.
BLOOD OF DREAMS - Susan Parisi
Starting off with the elaborate building of Laudomia's life as the youngest sister of two very self-important merchants in 1700's Venice - BLOOD OF DREAMS is part historical novel, part passionate romance, part Gothic tale of death and the occult and part mystery. Laudomia is destined to be married off, she lives her life seemingly tightly controlled by her brothers and their mindless and rather shallow wives. But she also has a more secret existence. Starting off with roaming of the streets of Venice with only an old servant for company, at a party held by her own family, Laudomia finds herself deeply attracted to the glorious, but risky Estavio. But whilst they pursue their passionate, and secret love affair; the madness of Carnevale acts as cover for a vicious killer, driven by a different sort of madness - to steal the dreams of others.
BLOOD OF DREAMS leans heavily on the great, Gothic and elaborate in the style of the story telling, the characters themselves (everyone is just ever so slightly over the top), the atmosphere of brooding and decadence, and in the events and happenings everywhere in the book. Mixed in with romance is lust; with murder and intrigue - occult; with obsession - drugs and addiction. The style of the book is very luscious, almost over the top in the descriptions of the characters, their costumes, the world they inhabit. Venice itself is dark and brooding and dangerous, Carnavale is the excuse that lots of people have to step outside the boundaries of accepted behaviour.
The point of BLOOD OF DREAMS is probably not the mystery, or the romance, or the occult, or any one particular element. It is one of those novels of a style that you either love or hate, but if you're a fan of this sort of book then BLOOD OF DREAMS should be a must read.
D-E-D DEAD! - Geoff McGeachin
Alby Murdoch, international photographer and undercover agent for D-E-D, the Australian Directorate for Extra-territorial Defence, ducks bullets and bombs as he attempts to unravel a lethal web of high-level dodgy dealings....
From the moment Alby drops his gun on a St Kilda tram he knows he's in for a bad day. Then his partner Harry is gunned down in a Double Bay coffee shop. By lunchtime, Alby realises someone wants him dead - and they want him dead now.
James Bond would have nothing on our Alby these days (and can we all just spare a moments thought for a character name like Alby Murdoch and wonder idly whatever happened to..... remember those Alby Mangel specials?), but I digress. Mind you, Alby's not opposed to the odd digression as well. Sure assorted bad guys have shot his colleague dead. So he's suddenly face to face with Grace - that gorgeous creature from the tram who returned his dropped gun and now she's armed, dangerous and driving the getaway car. But a good lunch is hard to find and there's absolutely nothing wrong with a quick stop for a glass of wine and a coffee or two. It's going to take a whole lot more than assorted mayhem to keep this man from the things that matter - your stomach and finding love in all the odd places.
Alby is really one of the starting (and "staring") lights of D-E-D, and in particular WORLDPIX - the famous photographic outfit that operates as cover for the operations of the Directorate for Extra-territorial Defence. They do all sorts of surveillance and general spying for the Australian Government, but nobody really expected that the yearly drudge of the security clearances for Bitter Springs - the top-secret US military facility deep in the central Australian desert - would quite trigger the blast of activity that ensued. In avoiding the people that want him dead as well, Alby escapes to Bali and sneaks back into the country, fighting off the pirates and handling the affections of Grace Goodluck.
Okay, there's not a lot that's particularly serious in D-E-D Dead! as you can probably tell from the book synopsis, but there are moments of inspired hilarity. Tongue-in-cheek, quintessentially Australian, Alby's a spy who's dangerous to know - not only does he have a tendency to get people trying to shoot him, he could represent Australia in the eating Olympics! But Alby's got mates and contacts that go back years, and he's also deeply annoyed that somebody shot his long-term partner Harry, and he's bloody determined to find out who and why. Spies who don't get around in tuxedos, nefarious goings on in Central Australia, politically incorrect and fun - enormous, great, rip-roaring, laugh out loud fun!
D-E-D Dead! is the second novel from this author - the first was Fat, Fifty and F***ed! and the third - sensitive New Age Spy is on the way.
KING OF SWORDS - Nick Stone
Miami, 1981. When Detective Max Mingus and his partner Joe are called to the scene of a death at Miami's Primate Park, it looks like another routine - if slightly bizarre - investigation. Until two things turn up: the victim's family, slaughtered; and a partly digested tarot card in the dead man's stomach. The King of Swords.
KING OF SWORDS is the second book from Nick Stone - MR CLARINET debuted in 2006 creating a big stir - tense and scary, set in Haiti, immersed in that country's culture and in voodoo in particular, MR CLARINET was a notable debut.
KING OF SWORDS, whilst it is the second book, is actually a prequel to the events in MR CLARINET - set in 1980's Miami where the central character from both books, Max Mingus, is still in the police force. Miami is portrayed very much as a city clinging to the edge of civilisation - drugs are overwhelming the community, people smuggling is rife and there is increasing racial tension - particularly between the police and the immigrant communities drawn to the city. Many of these people are refugees escaping poverty or oppression in their home lands and many of them have come to make money and they don't much care how they do it.
The book starts out with the oppressive, weird, creepy discovery of a body in the middle of a Primate Park - dead for sometime, the animals are unsettled by the corpse's presence and the police are unsettled by the animals. The discovery of a partially-digested tarot card in the dead man's stomach is one thing - his business colleagues dead in the boot of his car is another - but the discovery of his entire family butchered makes it another case altogether. The paths of the investigating officers cross that of pimp Carmine Desamours and his voodoo priestess mother Eva. Eventually all paths lead to the mysterious Solomon Boukman - a man everyone has heard of, but very few have seen.
If all of this is starting to sound a bit complicated - it is. There's an awful lot that happens in the early part of this book, and that's possibly one of the areas that I struggled with the most - dead bodies building up; personal things happening to Max and to his partner Joe; menacing and unethical behaviour from their boss; Eva and Carmine had their own stuff going on and it all got very very busy. Obviously there's an awful lot of connections being built and frequently the writing just carried you along - but occasionally I found my attention wandering or having to back track as I got lost in the cast or in the events.
That's not to say that much of the writing isn't visual, stark, sometimes quite lyrical and, as with the earlier book, graphic to the point of stomach-churning. KING OF SWORDS builds a world in which these people live - that frankly I'm not sure you'd even want to visit, but you are drawn into some of the elements of what's happening, whilst being utterly repulsed by other components of the book.
The only other complaint with KING OF SWORDS is that there is so much build-up, this world that's generated around these crimes, that the ending and resolutions seem to come in a rush. There's a bit of a tendency to have the inexplicable happen and then explain it away a bit later in the narrative. It got a bit breathless, it seemed in too much of a hurry for a book that ultimately is 560 pages. Mind you, if you've read MR CLARINET first, you're going to be able to make a pretty reasonable guess about the outcomes for many of the main characters - probably doesn't matter too much - the ride could be more than enough, nevermind the ending.