A nervous courier delivers the handwritten manuscript of a dissident Russian novel to Paul Christopher early one morning in West Berlin. Minutes after the hand-off, the courier's spine is neatly snapped by an impact with a passing black sedan. Meanwhile, in Rome, Christopher's wife Cathy takes a famous film director as a lover to stir her husband out of the stoicism that defines his personality.
Charles McCarry was a CIA officer operating under deep cover in Europe, Asia and Africa during the Cold War. That background undoubtedly has had a profound impact on the "tradecraft" that he describes in his books. His spies move through their allotted tasks with a surety that makes the espionage aspects extremely realistic and believable. There's a lot more to THE SECRET LOVERS than the spying element however. The book heads rapidly into personal territory, taking the reader voyeuristically into the love and married life of Agent Paul Christopher. The mixture of the espionage and the personal creates quite a closed, incestuous feeling to the book - especially as the intertwining of the characters is revealed. Christopher's wife Cathy meets up with an old schoolfriend, who is now married to Otto Rothchild, master spy once, now a desperately unwell and frail man. Rothchild is an old colleague of Christopher's, and it is to him that Christopher and his boss turn when a manuscript is smuggled out of Russia. The writer of the manuscript is an old friend of Rothchild's and there is great concern for the life of the Russian writer in the event that the manuscript is published. And the links continue on - right into Cathy's family.
Paul Christopher is a dispassionate man, a good and able agent, an analytical man. A man who wrote poetry in his earlier life and is now almost embarrassed to be reminded of it. His nature, and his job, creates problems within his marriage though. As analytical, as controlled, as dispassionate as he is, Cathy is the exact opposite. His secret life leads her to create her own secret life - to take a constant stream of sex partners and lovers - to create a residence of her own. The difference is, of course, that Cathy can't keep the secret and she takes almost vicious delight in telling Christopher of her exploits - trying to excite some sort of reaction in him.
In all aspects of the story, THE SECRET LOVERS is dense, involving and slowly burns to a resolution, with some elements that were completely unexpected and some that you just dreaded coming. I love Paul Christopher as a character - whilst he's a very human and accessible central protagonist, there's also something deeply and profoundly secretive about him. The reader can sympathise with Cathy's frustration, if not empathise with her actions.
Everyone in this book is slightly damaged by the lives that they have lived, yet the book is not without resolution, or without hope, or without moments of great enjoyment. But the story is bleak, understandably and realistically part of the Cold War. The personal is often equally as bleak and complicated and fraught. If you're looking for a good, slow-burning, involving, very human espionage story, then THE SECRET LOVERS could be a book that you enjoy as much as I did.
GHOSTLINES - Nick Gadd
Philip Trudeau, a once-respected investigative journalist, has stepped on the wrong toes. With his personal life and health deteriorating around him, he is consigned to a suburban newspaper where he writes 'filler' local news articles to be slotted in among the real-estate and restaurant advertisements. Sent to cover what appears to be a tragic-yet-routine death at a level crossing, Philip is drawn into a multilayered mystery that involves art theft, political intrigue and business corruption not to mention murder.
GHOSTLINES won the 2007 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, before being published by Scribe in 2008. It's the author's first novel, the tale of a profoundly flawed hero - journalist Philip Trudeau, a very driven man. Unfortunately a lot of that drive is self-destructive, but in Gadd's hands, Trudeau is a character who can engender sympathy and maintain the reader's interest and concern - despite those myriad and very obvious faults.
When a young boy is killed at a level crossing, Trudeau reports it initially as a tragic accident. He finds, when forced to dig a little further, that there is a lot more to why a young boy was mown down by a train, late at night, on his own, riding his pushbike as if he was very very scared. There are ghosts of other presences that night - and it's those ghostlines referenced in the name of the book that describes the investigation that Trudeau embarks on. There is just the hint of something more at the train line, and it often seems that Trudeau is the only person that is seeing the hints. That is, until he finds himself in peril, and he knows for sure that there was a lot more going on that night.
GHOSTLINES is a fascinating book. The use of a flawed hero is a well known device nowadays but it's not necessarily easy to pull off - an author can run the risk of turning off the reader, making his hero annoying or pathetic. Trudeau dances a line between truly annoying and frustrating and somebody who can engender, if not sympathy, than at least understanding. He's also a most unapologetic flawed hero - which helped for this reader at least. There is a little bit of the supernatural going on in the book, and that may be slightly offputting for the more traditional crime fan. The fact that GHOSTLINES is not about the gore or the traditional procedural in solving a mystery, and more about the psychology of our central character, makes the supernatural work as it becomes part of the thought process of Trudeau as he drags himself through his self-made mire. But that's also not completely fair - GHOSTLINES is dark and dire and sad and flat out miserable in some places, but it's not without hope. Personally I hope that Trudeau returns - I want to know what's happening to him.
THE LOW ROAD - Chris Womersley
THE LOW ROAD is an austere portrait of two of life’s losers. Lee has never really had a chance. He lost his parents suddenly at the age of ten. Wild, on the other hand, was successful and threw it all away. Lee is incapacitated through his gunshot wound. Wild is so hopelessly addicted that he is almost incapable of any decision making outside of getting his next fix.
Reading THE LOW ROAD isn’t easy. In fact, there were moments in the book when I nearly put it down completely. It offers the reader no comfort at all. Like the winter landscape Womersley describes, it is cold and bleak. However, there is something there that keeps you reading. Perhaps it is the vivid descriptions. Maybe it is the characters. Surely they can’t sink any lower? Can they? Whatever it is THE LOW ROAD will stay with you after you’ve finished reading the book that’s for sure.
THE MIERNIK DOSSIER - Charles McCarry
Reading this book, the thing that most often came to mind is how long it's been since I've read a classic, taut, engaging and nicely complicated, good old fashioned spy thriller. THE MIERNIK DOSSIER has a different "construction" to many of the classic spy thrillers of years gone by, but it has all of the elements that you'd hope to find.
Told in a series of intelligence reports, wire taps, surveillance reports, letters and transcripts of conversations, this is a story about 5 people who are friends, of a sort in Geneva; and how they end up in a Cadillac on a road trip from Europe into Africa at the height of a terrorist alert in the deserts of Sudan. The complication in their friendship is that just every one of them is an agent for a different country - or a suspected agent. They are all focused on Miernik and what or who he really is.
Because of the style of the narrative - the different reports / documentation - gives you a series of different viewpoints of all the events, the trigger that starts their journey, the trip itself, the smuggling of Miernik's sister out of Communist controlled Poland; the journey into Africa and the activities within Sudan and a terrorist group trying to overthrow the government there.
That narrative is very rapidfire - each of the reports is short, some shorter than others, so the pace of the novel never lets up. Then there's the fun and games of spying on the spies. All in all, the style, the subject matter and the story itself made up for a tremendously enjoyable, and mildly addictive spy thriller.
A DEADLY BUSINESS - Lenny Bartulin
Jack Susko is trying for a quiet life in his second-hand bookshop in downtown Sydney. It's more tin mine than gold mine, yet it's his and that's something. But when a wealthy businessman hires Jack to locate some books for him, life starts to get a little more complicated.
Jack's life has certainly been a roller-coaster - there are liberal hints throughout the book of a somewhat less than spotless background and there's a pared down, minimalist sort of a private life. But his bookshop is something that is his, and he obviously knows a bit about the business. So he's surprised when somebody starts offering ridiculous amounts of money per copy for the books of a very obscure local poet - Edward Kass. But cash is cash, so after tracking down a copies he delivers them as requested.
Hammond Kasprowicz doesn't really come across as a bibliophile - he seems more interested in quantity than quality, and it really doesn't seem he's interested in reading the books. But there's that cash thing, and besides Jack is busy being distracted by Hammond's daughter Annabelle. Which attention underwhelms her soon to be ex-husband (the disgraced former gynaecologist). Needless to say - Jack ends up in trouble, the Police end up involved and Jack is not sure if he really deserves the girl.
A DEADLY BUSINESS makes secondhand bookshop owning a contact sport. Given that Jack's adventures are about as far away from the musty, dusty, quiet expectations more normally expected from that business, the twist is done with considerable aplomb. There are touches of noir; a somewhat startled accidental detective; a would be tragic romantic lead; combined with slapstick and some subtle and really funny injokes.
There's also a pretty good plot - with some nice, if not just ever so slightly twisted reasons for everything that happens. All in all A DEADLY BUSINESS was highly entertaining and it's good to know that there's a second Jack Susko book in the making.
SPEAK OF THE DEVIL - Richard Hawke
It all begins on a perfect Manhattan morning: a gunman's bullets shatter the festival atmosphere of the world-famous Thanksgiving Day parade. Only one man in the crowd sees it happening but, fortunately for the unsuspecting throng gathered for the parade, he's the right man for the moment.
Meet Fritz Malone, New York's sharpest PI - an outsider with an insider's nose for City Hall politics, and a man who knows the rules well enough to work around them.
SPEAK OF THE DEVIL is the first Fritz Malone book - some may remember a review of COLD DAY IN HELL a while ago. Interestingly enough, it wasn't until I'd finished SPEAK OF THE DEVIL that I realised it was the earlier book in the series.
I've got to say right up front I like Fritz Malone. I don't really know why - hard-bitten / soft-hearted / wise cracking PI's with hearts of gold and bodies of steel are - well dangerously close to cliched and they can be desperately boring, but Hawke gets away with it for some reason. Goodness knows how really - Malone's girlfriend Margo is there to join in the wise-cracking, quick with the disapproval, playing the part of the straight "man" to Malone's erratic persona. Margo's father is the old timer, hard man in his own right, taught Malone everything he knows, ended up in a wheelchair, ready with advice and a sounding board. Malone has a coterie of sidekicks who step up, step in, kick, shoot and watch his back.
So what does work - well there's an interesting story at the heart of SPEAK OF THE DEVIL - why on earth would some loser / nobody / shoot up the Thanksgiving Parade? Was the cop that was shot dead a lucky shot or was the real target the somewhat famous actress girlfriend of the Mayor? Why, when Malone corners the shooter in a park is he bundled away from the scene? Why did the shooter turn up dead? Who is threatening the Mayor and what does a two bit local drug dealer and thug have to do with all of this?
There's also some of Malone's family background fleshed out a bit in SPEAK OF THE DEVIL - who he is and how his extended family works (or doesn't) is touched upon and that helps to turn Malone into slightly more than just a wise-cracking hard man.
Of course you're going to have to like him as is. Hawke presents Malone very much as is - take it or leave it - he is what he is. Maybe that's what works most about the book. Wise-cracking / hard man / hard boiled / cynical PI's are us. Now, let's get on with it.
EQUINOX - Michael White
What links Isaac Newton to a series of horrific murders and a centuries-old quest for occult knowledge and the secret of the Philosopher's Stone?
Oxford. A young woman is found brutally murdered, her throat cut. Her heart has been removed and in its place lies an ancient gold coin. Hours later another woman is found dead. The MO is identical, except that this time her brain has been removed, and a silver coin lies glittering in the bowl of her skull.
Michael White is the author of a considerable number of non-fiction books, including one entitled Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer and you'd have to assume that book feeds a lot of the fictional story of EQUINOX. Mind you, EQUINOX doesn't read like a non-fiction / biography style book - it's a thriller with a slightly bizarre, but really effective, main story thread.
In current day Oxford as the bodies of young women are found with different organs removed and an ancient style of coin left in the body cavity, a visiting New York journalist and the father of her Oxford student daughter become involved in running their own parallel investigation of the deaths. Daughter Jo's father, Philip Bainbridge is a photographer who supports his more artistic aims by working as a police crime scene investigator and he's originally very unsure about Laura's interference in the crime investigation because of the possible embarrassment and complication it could cause in his job, but as connections between the crimes and incidents in Oxford in the 1600's are revealed the whole family increasingly becomes involved.
Interlaced with the current day story there is a tale of The Royal Society in the 1600's. The society includes Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley and Christopher Wren, and alchemy is the link between the current and the past.
Okay, so it's possibly not that difficult to work out who the villains are in EQUINOX, but the revealing of the reasons behind the murders and the pace of the investigation doesn't let up so you're carried into the story, becoming infinitely more concerned about the why's and wherefores than the who's. The intertwining of the past and present really works, the revelations of the activities of the Royal Society are actually pretty weird and creepy and that gives what is obviously going on in the current day a really disconcerting feel to it. At the end of the book there is a list of reference materials used to flesh out some of the elements of the book, it's a bit surprising to find out what is based on fact and what isn't.
But really what works so very well in EQUINOX is the quality and style of the writing. EQUINOX whips along at lightening speed and carries the reader through to a climax that has a couple of really nice twists, despite what seems to be a pretty unlikely plot at the end of the day. Movie anyone?
COLD DAY IN HELL - Richard Hawke
Fans of wise cracking, hard men with hearts of gold style Private Investigators are going to be very pleased to catch up with Fritz Malone in Richard Hawke's second book COLD DAY IN HELL.
Set in New York, COLD DAY IN HELL opens up with famous late-night TV star, Marshall Fox on trial for two grisly murders. Fritz Malone could care less about the trial, but when one of Fox's former lovers is murdered in her apartment using a signature piece from the first two murders, Malone gets interested. Firstly because this killing is just across the street from Malone's girlfriend Margo, and secondly because he knew Robin Burrell was scared - she'd spoken to him twice about threats she had been receiving.
The NYPD were convinced that Fox was the guilty party in the first two murders, but Malone finds himself teamed up with them trying to work out if the Burrell killing is a copycat, or is the wrong man on trial. Digging around in Fox's past discovers an unexpected secret life for this down home, happy go lucky cowboy figure.
COLD DAY IN HELL is set, obviously, in New York, and Malone is a very New York - been there, done that, seen it all - lone wolf type of guy, with just enough contacts on the dark side to do what has to be done. His relationship with Margo is long-term but they rub up against each other, just like many other long-term couples. Whilst Malone is very much the wise cracking PI with a conscience and a heart of gold, luckily that characterisation stops just short of being sanctimonious and is no where near as cliched and, frankly, annoying, as it can be.
The book uses an interesting 3 act kind of layout, with the central act going back to the lead up to the murders after a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of the first act. That method worked in this example, raising the temperature whilst you wondered what the outcome of the cliff hanger would be, and keeping the pace of the book moving whilst filling in the back story. The inclusion of NYPD officers spread the focus. In particular Megan Lamb, just returned to duty after the murder of her life partner, she's struggling with the guilt and her mixed feelings about killing Helen's murderer. This gave the whole story less of a self-involved, self-obsessed, Private Investigator against the world feeling and added another level of interest and, whilst Megan is, in her own way self-obsessed and self-involved, the reasons for that are different / more reflective.
Whilst not normally being much of a fan of that lone wolf style of PI, in COLD DAY IN HELL, it worked. Sure there's a lot of rushing around waving guns in the air, which bores this reader rigid, but the character of Fritz is just human enough to be interesting, the layout of the book was unusual and thus engaging, and the inclusion of focus on people other than just Fritz opened the whole story out, creating an interesting, enjoyable book.
THE LOW ROAD - Chris Womersley
Bleak, stark, pitiless, violent, hypnotic and strangely satisfying was my immediate reaction to THE LOW ROAD, and interestingly it's staying with me for quite a while after I've finished it. Mind you, THE LOW ROAD is not by any means an easy or enjoyable book.
Bleak - well the landscape in which the book takes place could be any dirty, grimy, lost city and the despairing suburbs. In fact it's very very hard to tell where the book is actually set until very late in the finale, so it could be New York, Stockholm, Sydney, anywhere really. Not only is the landscape bleak, the characterisations are bleak - there's nobody much in this book who, on first reading, seems much like anybody you'd want to know. Lee's just another pathetic little gangster - shot in the process of pinching something that doesn't belong to him - who could possibly care what happens to him. Wild is a drug-addicted, suspended General Practitioner - self-loathing and self-justification in equal parts.
Stark in that there's an honesty to these characterisations that is searing - everybody's stripped back to the bare essentials of who they are.
Pitiless in that Womersley lays out the stories of these characters without asking for understanding, pity, sympathy or acceptance for who they are or the situation they are in - and yet....
Violence is implicit in most of the moves that the 3 characters make - they intimidate, kill, demand their way ahead to their ultimate goals. Even in attempting kindness there is a violence in their approach which is startling and very confronting.
Hypnotic in that despite all of the previous components you just can't put THE LOW ROAD down.
Strangely satisfying in that the main characters slowly reveal their human frailties and you can't help but feel a connection - despite their intrinsic awfulness - to people who have placed themselves into their respective positions, but perhaps, just perhaps, there's reasons why we all do what we do.
AMONGST THE DEAD - Robert Gott
Failed Shakesperean actor and would-be private investigator Will Power's unique detective skills are, once again, in demand. The Japanese army is rampaging through the islands of the South Pacific and Australia's front line of defence is a top-secret, crack division of men embedded deep in the tropical wilderness of northern Australia. But something is threatening their vital, covert mission: one of this elite corps is a murderer, preying on his comrades, one by one.
AMONGST THE DEAD is the third novel in Robert Gott's William Power series. William is an "aspirational" but failed Shakespearean actor, turned Private Investigator who finds himself in very unusual circumstances in the Top End of Australia during World War II in AMONGST THE DEAD.
William and his brother Brian are called upon by Australian Military Intelligence to find out the truth behind the suspicious deaths in a crack, very secret squad. William, of course, thinks, that they need him for his superior powers of detection, and because they are to be infiltrated into the squad as part of an entertainment troupe. The North Australia Observer Unit (or Nackaroo's) are a small group of soldiers and their Aboriginal assistants who patrol the Top End of the country, watching for any sign of the Japanese invasion from the Islands of the South Pacific into the Australian Mainland. Intelligence believes that the deaths of three Nackaroo's were highly suspicious, but the level of secrecy of the NAOU means that they cannot trust the investigation to just anybody, and when it comes to somebody stroking his ego, William will volunteer for just about anything.
William is not sure if it helps or complicates the investigation when they discover their third brother - Fulton - is a member of the suspect squad. The inclusion of the entertainment troupe is further complicated by the fact that William's Shakespearean recitation is not exactly the entertainment most appreciated by the troops and that doesn't help William's overall mood, somewhat strained already by the persistent rain, mould, heat, mud, long days walking through the Top End bush, encounters with Crocodiles, Dengue Fever, and murder.
AMONGST THE DEAD has a lovely comic twist with William Power undoubtedly being one of the most over-developed "theatrical" egos doing the rounds. He is, unfortunately, also a bit of a twit, which means that his concept of solving the deaths of the soldiers and two more deaths in the squad after he and Brian arrive, seems to involve a lot of blundering around, an awful lot of shooting his mouth off at the most inappropriate times and an enormous chunk of the investigation feeling well sorry for himself. He also, alas, can't see the woods for the trees, and when he is ultimately accused of killing the two men who died after he arrived, rather than see the wood for what it is, he's too busy feeling righteously indignant followed by madly accusing everyone else around him, to really see what's going on.
Of course, the point of AMONGST THE DEAD is that William doesn't really solve anything - he's the method by which other people sort out a mess that has to be sorted out. But the book doesn't suffer at all from this variance from the norm in crime fiction - if anything it adds a different dimension. In William you have a "hero" that you can truly laugh at - that you just want to sidle up to and whisper "dear me, old chap, put down the Shakespeare script, have a peek over the chip on your shoulder and I suspect you'll see something to your advantage". Having said that - he's marvelously awful - you just can't disagree with Shane Maloney's quotation on the press release. "Literature has had its share of heroes, heroes of many kinds: classic heroes, super heroes, accidental heroes, flawed heroes, anti-heroes. And now, at last, it has a dickhead hero".