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".