THE KILLING HANDS doesn’t quite have the pace and suspense of P.D. Martin’s previous books. Because Sophie is working with a gang task-force, it is necessary for the author to give the reader an overview of the structure and remit of the various agencies that investigate gang-related crime in L.A. This does slow down the plot a little. However, Martin’s usual thorough research and attention to detail do make for informative reading.
In THE KILLING HANDS we meet Sophie’s parents who visit her and there is an interesting development in her private life as well. But we will have to wait for the next book to discover where that will take her. By doing this Martin has deftly avoided one of the biggest pitfalls of a series; a character who never moves on from where they started in book one.
P.D. Martin has become one of my favourite Australian crime fiction writers and THE KILLING HANDS has done nothing to change my opinion.
OUR LADY OF PAIN - Elena Forbes
The young woman was Rachel Tenison, a wealthy West End art dealer, who led what appeared to be a normal, fulfilled life. But as DI Mark Tartaglia and DS Sam Donovan scratch away at the surface, a darker, secret side emerges.
OUR LADY OF PAIN is the second novel from English writer Elena Forbes - her first DIE WITH ME received a much deserved nomination for the Crime Writers' Association John Creasey New Blood Dagger award.
This book picks up with the same investigation team headed by DI Mark Tartaglia and DS Sam Donovan, called in when a most bizarrely "displayed" body is found in a snow covered London park. The naked corpse of a young woman is kneeling down, her head bent right over touching the ground, her face almost hidden beneath a tangle of pale blonde hair. Identified finally as a wealthy, seemingly very normal West End Art dealer, there is a much darker side to the victim which her friends and family don't make it easy to unveil.
OUR LADY OF PAIN has a similar feeling to the first book, the investigation takes place in the freezing cold of a London Winter, the subject matter is often dark and there's a dismal and almost lost feel to the lives led by just about all the suspects, witnesses and the victim. All of that lends a subdued, dark, sad feeling to many of the characters who are frequently damaged people. Not so the two main lead characters who lead relatively normal lives (especially compared to many police characters in Crime Fiction in general). They are both single, and there is a spark of romantic interest, slightly one-sided perhaps, but it's not overplayed and it is not used as a source of ongoing angst. There's something very realistic about the way that the relationship between Mark and Sam is portrayed and there's something refreshingly normal about both of them. Sam has a happy home life, sharing a house with her sister, they are close and the only thing that's overtly wrong there is a worrying inability to cook. Mark has a good relationship with his own family, despite his sister's ongoing attempts to pair him off with all her own female friends, he cooks, he lives in a normal home, clean and furnished, and well - normal.
It's partly the balance of all these elements that really make this book work, as they did in the first novel incidentally. It's also helped by sound police procedural elements, alongside a strong plot. The plot is reasonably fairly laid out giving fans of puzzle solving a chance of working out the outcome, although the final resolution is not as obvious as you could be forgiven for thinking it was going to be.
I really liked the first book - DIE WITH ME - and I was wondering how the second book would rate, given the class act it had to follow. OUR LADY OF PAIN held up really well, and kept the series ticking along nicely. I hope there's a third and many more outings with DI Tartaglia and DS Donovan.
THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN - Fred Vargas
Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is not like other policemen. His methods appear unorthodox in the extreme: he doesn't search for clues; he ignores obvious suspects and arrests people with cast-iron alibis; he appears permanently distracted.
When strange blue chalk circles start appearing overnight on the pavements of Paris, the press take up the story with amusement and psychiatrists trot out their theories.
THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN is the first book in the Adamsberg series by French writer Fred Vargas. As they have been translated out of series order, fans of this fantastic set of books know Adamsberg well by now, without having had the chance to be in at the beginning so to speak. This release gives the reader a unique opportunity. For existing fans a chance to see where Adamsberg came from, and to consider a first book, in light of knowing how good the series has become. For new readers a chance to start at the beginning if that is your preference.
The strange blue circles that start appearing overnight on the pavements of Paris, each circle enclosing a seemingly pointless and meaningless little article - cigarette lighters, badges, a hat, a doll's head, seem to most people to be a distraction. The press take up the story with great amusement and psychiatrists and other experts are soon making pronouncements on what the artist is trying to say (or not!). Adamsberg seems to be the only person who feels the stirring of malice and sees cruelty in the circles. He is the only person who doesn't seem all that surprised when the body of a woman is found - her throat savagely cut, placed carefully in the middle of one of the chalk circles.
Adamsberg is not your traditional policeman. He's unorthodox, seemingly permanently distracted, he's a thinker and an acute, but unobtrusive observer. He's profoundly aware of human nature yet he often has flashes of insight which seem to have come from nowhere. He constantly baffles his colleagues but his methods work and he's comfortable with who he is.
The thing a new reader to this series is going to get most clearly from THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN is a sense of the quirkiness of Adamsberg. The other ongoing feature of the books is the wonderful cast of supporting characters - mainly of them as eccentric as Adamsberg. All the characterisations become more assured as the series goes on, and at no stage does anyone become cartoonish or unbelievable. There is something quintessentially French about Adamsberg and the world that he inhabits - to this outsider at least. There's also something delightfully matter of fact about them all, and in particular, the way that Adamsberg works - leaving it totally up to his colleagues to adjust, just as it will undoubtedly require from some readers.
I understand that the translation order of a series is often dictated by the perceived popularity of a particular book. Perhaps it was felt that the character of Adamsberg got stronger, more clearly drawn in later books. Perhaps it was felt that the plot was not quite as unique as some of the later books. Regardless of the reason, it's a good book, it introduces Adamsberg with a very deft touch, and it does hint at where the rest of the series is going.
If you're new to the Adamsberg series, you could start with THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN and get a sense of how the rest of the series is going to progress. You can also read the entire series out of order if needs must and that's how the books become available for you. But if you're a fan of something with a strong sense of a place and the people, with a central character who is not afraid to be a little odd, a little eccentric, a little different; decent, caring and extremely human make sure you read these books.
The books in translated order:
2003 - Have Mercy On Us All (Published in French in 2001)
2004 - Seeking Whom He May Devour (Published in French in 1999)
2007 - Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand (Published in French in 2004)
2008 - This Night's Foul Work (Published in French in 2006)
2009 - The Chalk Circle Man (Published in French in 1996)
There is also a standalone novel, released in translation in 2006
The Three Evangelists (Published in French in 1995)
FAN MAIL by P.D. Martin
On her last day at FBI headquarters at Quantico before transferring to the Los Angeles field office, Australian FBI profiler Sophie Anderson is given the task of showing crime author Loretta Black around the facilities. She finds Black to be rude and overbearing, and is glad when the tour is over.
Within days of Sophie's arrival in Los Angeles, Black is found murdered in bizarre circumstances. She has been killed in exactly the same way as the victim in her latest book. It doesn't take long for Sophie to link this crime with the murder of another crime author several months earlier in San Francisco. She too had been killed in the same manner as one of her fictional victims.
When another author disappears in circumstances similar to the plot of her most recent book, Sophie is involved in a desperate race against time to catch the killer before he can kill again.
FAN MAIL is the third book featuring psychic FBI profiler Sophie Anderson. I have to admit that I don't normally like woo-woo in crime fiction, and Sophie's psychic ability initially made me wary of this series. However, thankfully Martin has resisted the temptation of having Sophie have a convenient vision and voila! - crime solved. Actually there was one such moment, relating to a side plot, but I didn't mind that instance as I'd already figured it out for myself some time before without any psychic intervention!
Rather Sophie's visions help provide her with a better picture of the victim and the crime scene, and she combines this with the more usual profiler techniques to build a better picture, more quickly, of the perpetrator. She chose to transfer to a field office so she could make better use of her psychic abilities at crime scenes when the details are likely to be fresher and her visions stronger.
Alongside the main plot, the finalisation of the investigation from the previous book, THE MURDERERS' CLUB continues. I would recommend reading the earlier book before starting FAN MAIL as it contains significant spoilers. As we follow the course of the investigations, a lot of detail about investigative and forensic procedures is included and, while mostly interesting, it sometimes gets a bit tedious and has a tendency to slow down the story.
It takes a brave crime author to write a story about a serial killer murdering crime authors! But luckily Martin had no such qualms because FAN MAIL is good fast paced thriller with an interesting and unique character in Sophie.
DEADLY INTENT, Lynda La Plante
Alexander Fitzpatrick is one of the most wanted men in the Western world. Wealthy, handsome, charismatic and supremely dangerous, with numerous aliases, Fitzpatrick is a drug-trafficker who has eluded arrest for more than thirty years. For the past decade there has been no sightings of him.
DEADLY INTENT is the fourth book in the Anna Travis series, made up of ABOVE SUSPICION, THE RED DAHLIA and CLEAN CUT. It's been a series which I've really enjoyed... up until this book, which I have to say disappointed.
Anna is a dogged sort of a detective character, who has had a complicated personal life - having had a short-lived but dramatic affair with her previous boss - James Langton. She is still feeling the loss of that relationship and finding dealing with Langton on a daily basis very difficult. When he steps into overall control of the investigation of the death of Brandon, she's dealing firstly with a very complicated case with no apparent leads, and secondly with her fragile personal feelings. Langton is more shadowy than ever in DEADLY INTENT as well, which is going to make it difficult for any reader new to the series to understand, for a start, what Anna could possibly have seen in him, or in his defence, why he is like he is. There are hints throughout but they just didn't seem to help that much. For such a big, hefty book there are a number of underdone major characters throughout which is disappointing. DCI Cunningham has a touch of the wonderfully acerbic, grumpy female seniors about her, but she bounces in and out of the narrative so much it's hard to get a good look at her.
The case is quite clever - the connections that slowly have to be built up to explain why Brandon was in the drug squat, what would lead to his presence being so threatening that somebody would blindly shoot him through a closed door, how the other bodies turning up are connected and onwards is actually nicely baffling and quite interesting. But it drags on for too long. There are too many connections and "coincidences" which aren't - and they obviously aren't, and it all grinds to a halt in the personal lives of all and sundry too frequently.
Another major distraction is that whilst in the earlier books there is a lot of concentration on the relationship between Travis and Langton, it's rise and ultimate fall fitted into the storylines well, not distracting from the main aim of the books which was always to solve a baffling crime. Unfortunately in this book - with the definite end of the relationship the constant soul-searching of Travis just gets in the way - there were way too many times when the reader was told all about how conflicted she is having to work with Langton, how she still loves Langton, how a new relationship will be complicated by the pain she felt when Langton left her. And she does form a new relationship in this book - and it is a bit of a highlight in the storyline for a short while.
Ultimately the biggest problem with DEADLY INTENT is that there is a a good crime and investigation buried in the middle of 641 pages - but there's not 641 pages of it. The book meanders, there's too much fill-in, too many unbelievable red herrings, and, despite being a fan of unresolved loose ends, there are too many threads in this book which are left frustratingly, unjustifiably and inexplicably dangling. It all smacked just a tiny bit of... In The Next Episode.
If you've not tried the Anna Travis series, then don't let my thoughts on DEADLY INTENT put you off the first three books - they were terrific. Perhaps don't start with this one though as there's a lot of the personal things that may not make sense, and the book could give you a slightly skewed view of Anna, who is really a very good central character.
A DARKER DOMAIN - Val McDermid
It seemed like an unsolvable mystery at the time: a wealthy heiress and son kidnapped in Fife, then a botched payoff, leaving her dead with no trace of the child.
So when, over twenty-five years later, a possible clue is discovered by a journalist in Tuscany, cold-case expert DI Karen Pirie doesn't hold much hope of unraveling the infamous enigma.
Val McDermid has tackled some social history that is obviously very dear to her own heart in A DARKER DOMAIN, and it has to be said, she's done it with considerable style. Not only does this book give you a fascinating glimpse into the social chaos and personal pain caused by the Miner's Strikes in early 1980's Britain, it carries the story of three unfathomable disappearances.
Cold Case squad detectives DI Karen Pirie and DS Phil Parhatka are initially looking into the disappearance of Mick Prentice - reported missing 22 years after he supposedly broke ranks and joined the scabs in the devastating miners' strike of 1984. There's also the baffling disappearance of Mick's mate Andy about the same time. Unfortunately Karen's boss thinks that new evidence in the case of the dead heiress and missing son (and grandson) of a wealthy and powerful man is more important. Karen isn't all that fazed by pressure from on high though, and she's able to dance a fine line between both investigations.
The action in this book does take a couple of overseas trips to Tuscany, but mostly it stays within the small mining community of East Wemyss (a place that Val spent time with her grandparents as a child), and the way that the setting is portrayed in this book is wonderful. Not just the look and layout of the place, but the psyche of the place. The damage that the miners' strike caused, within families, throughout the community, the fractured lives demonstrated was really moving in some places, but at no stage did it become sentimental or overblown. There's also romantic element to this book which is also well done and quite funny. In fact that is something about this book which you wouldn't expect - there is a sense of humour amidst the sadness that lifts the story beautifully.
DI Karen Pirie is a tremendous character, with (hopefully), real possibilities for an ongoing series. An archetypal maverick police officer maybe - she's just not afraid to manipulate, defy and flat out be as devious as she needs, to do what she thinks is the right thing. Phil as her offsider is perfect, less emotional, equally as determined, they are a really good team.
An extremely solid and nicely twisting plot; a couple of very engaging central characters; an interfering and weak boss; a powerful man who wants to know where his grandson is; a daughter who needs to find her father; a wife who cannot forgive; and a sister who is grief stricken 22 years after the unexplained; there's an enormous amount in A DARKER DOMAIN. But at the base of it is a community that was destroyed - to the point where the abnormal was accepted as the normal, and there's no sign of recovery. Beautifully done, A DARKER DOMAIN is simply and utterly a wow of a book.
DEVIL'S PEAK - Deon Meyer
What makes a book special for you? For me it’s when the characters and the story stays with you after you’ve closed the book. All too often once the book is finished , the details begin to fade almost immediately. Not so with DEVIL’S PEAK by Deon Meyer
The alcoholic detective is something of a staple in crime fiction; to the extent that it frequently becomes a cliché. Not so Benny. Meyer writes about Benny’s struggle , self-recrimination and the realisation of the full impact of his drinking on his life, his family and his colleagues with a great deal of sensitivity . We feel Benny’s pain, guilt and despair as struggles through “one day at a time.”
DEVIL’S PEAK was written in Afrikaans and translated by K.L. Seegers. Not only is the translation spot on, but Seegers has retained enough of the Afrikaans slang and dialect for the reader to easily imagine an Afrikaans accent.
The sense of place and culture are also very strong. There is no way this book could be set anywhere but South Africa. DEVIL’S PEAK is not only well written with a nicely honed plot, but the author has also seamlessly incorporated a history lesson, a clear idea of diverse cultures and characters you won’t forget in a hurry. These all combine to make DEVIL’S PEAK a memorable read on many levels.
The second week of 2009 isn’t over yet and already I feel I’ve read one of my top books for 2009
THE FINAL BET - Abdelilah Hamdouchi
Casablanca. Othman, a handsome young Moroccan man, returns home to discover his elderly French wife, Sofia, brutally murdered in their bedroom. Highly educated but unemployed, Othman had been in desperate straits before meeting Sofia, who pampered him with fancy cars, expensive clothes and access to her mansion in the most exclusive neighbourhood in Casablanca. But living with a woman more than forty years his senior was too much for Othman - before his wife's murder he sought relief in a steamy affair with an attractive young aerobics instructor, Naeema.
Remarked upon often as the first Arabic detective story translated, THE FINAL BET is a very slim volume that has a strong central message. The book really isn't particularly about Casablanca the place, or even the people. It's very much targeted straight at the way that the Moroccan legal system functioned at the time that it was written - and you can pick that thread up very clearly even without reading the afterword by the translator of the book - Jonathan Smolin.
Othman has often thought about killing his elderly wife. The marriage is complicated by the difference in the ages between them, and because Sofia holds the purse strings and she therefore holds the power. Othman is an educated man - he studied law - but for some reason he was unemployed and destitute when he met Sofia. She had been married and had a son, but when her first husband was killed, she received a very substantial insurance payout. There was one other younger husband before Othman as well, but Sofia cut him off when she discovered he was cheating on her. Othman feels even more trapped - he wants out of the marriage, he wants his mistress, but he doesn't want to lose the luxury that money gives him.
He returns home late one night from his regular dog walk (where he meets with his mistress), to find Sofia lying on their bed. Stabbed and dying. He claims she tried to speak to him, gestured to the knife. He pulled it from her stomach as she dies, so his fingerprints are on the knife. Needless to say, he's aware of what that will say to the police, and the police are pretty well convinced they've got their man. It is only when Othman finally engages a lawyer that somebody listens to Othman's pleas of innocence and looks further.
The point of THE FINAL BET seems to have been to illustrate the brutality of the legal system at the time - that circumstantial evidence is easy to accept, and that suspects are often too overwhelmed by their situation to affectively advocate on their own behalf. In fact, in the afterword, Smolin points out that at the time of writing this book, Moroccan law didn't require a suspect to have legal representation at the time of police interview. He further explains that during the period of the 1970s and 1980s there were grave human rights violations - a time known as the Years of Lead. Knowing the background makes the point of the novel considerably clearer, although, it works as a fictional writing in its own right.
THE FINAL BET is a very small book - 148 or so pages (including the afterword), and it is very reminiscent of early hard boiled police procedural novels (or at least that's what it triggered in my mind). There isn't a lot of sense of place, but then there is a significantly different focus within this book than the location. It's very much a story of illustration, social commentary and an attempt to cast light into some very dark places in the world being written about.
A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE, Malla Nunn
In 1950s South Africa, the colour of a killer's skin matters more than justice.
When Captain Willem Pretorius, an Afrikaner police officer, is brutally murdered in the tiny backwater of Jacob's Rest, Detective Emmanuel Cooper is sent to investigate.
One thing that will strike readers of A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE firmly between the eyes is how an apartheid society is so incredibly foreign from the ways in which others of us live. That's not to say that there is an overtly "political" agenda in this book, rather the book does not take a step backwards in depicting South Africa under Racial Segregation laws. It also starkly draws a picture of the various societies within that - the 'English' South African's, the Afrikaner South African's and the native South African's. It is not a particularly pretty picture, and it's delivered vividly.
Jacob's Rest is a very small town in the South African veldt. The prejudice, petty jealousy, intrigues, secrets and isolation of small town living are overlaid by the racial situation - the kaffir path that runs behind the town's houses is the only way around for the towns coloured population, and it's that situation that allows it to be used for more sinister purposes. Captain Pretorius and his family of big, strong sons, have stood sway over Jacob's Rest with a born to rule superiority that can only come from an unwavering belief that their way is the only way. So when the Captain is found in a river with a bullet in his head, his sons are convinced that the coloured community holds the key. Detective Cooper gets the case mostly by accident and he has been placed in a dangerous and difficult position, particularly when the very heavy handed (and overtly political) Security Branch muscle in. Cooper finds himself relegated to investigating previous claims of a peeping tom using the kaffir path, whilst he tries to keep out of the way of the thuggish Security Branch (and the sons of the dead man).
Nearly all of the observations and viewpoints in this book come from the young Detective Emmanuel Cooper. He is a man who is not comfortable with Racial Segregation and he's not at all comfortable with the way that life is divided up in Jacob's Rest. His natural inclination is towards time spent with Constable Shabalala - the part-Zulu man who was an offsider of the dead Captain Pretorius, and Zweigman, the German Jewish shopkeeper - who is really a doctor but part of the secondary class of society. It is these three who are the key to the unwinding of a long tale of secrets and misuse of influence, and to hefty doses of corruption and cover-up.
More than a message book, A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE is really an extremely good thriller, with lots of twists and turns in the story, which happens to be set in a society totally foreign to this reader at least. Having said that, there are elements which are familiar - the locked room (closed in village); elements of police procedure, albeit somewhat strained by the remoteness of the location and so on. The underlying message of the book is heavy handed, but it is done in an illustrative way - rather than a smack over the head job. The way that the investigation has to proceed within the society structure is profoundly shocking. The revelations of the way that the Security Branch operates; the secrets in families throughout the town - which aren't really all that shocking or dreadful, but nonetheless need to be secrets is profoundly discomforting; and the way that people's lives were so fundamentally affected by something as minor as the colour of their skin is really very sobering indeed.
The ending is undoubtedly a tiny bit sentimental, but after the previous hammering that the characters have endured, it's forgivable. In fact that's probably the only small criticism I could come up with, the book could easily have finished with no need for the gentle let down, I'd have fretted over Constable Cooper just as happily. I do hope, however, that the ending is hinting at another book beginning though.
THE DARKEST HOUR - Katherine Howell
Paramedic Lauren Yates stumbles into a world of trouble the night she discovers a body in an inner city alley - the killer still lurks nearby. When the murderer threatens to make her life hell if she tells the police, she believes him - he's Thomas Werner, her sister's ex and father to Lauren's niece ... and not a man to mess with.
But when a stabbing victim tells her with his dying breath that Werner attacked him too, she finds herself with blood on her hands and Detective Ella Marconi on her back.
Since finishing THE DARKEST HOUR I've been trying to think of another author who uses such an unusual protagonist's viewpoint of violent crime. I can't, which simply could be my aging brain, or it could be that Howell is looking at violence from an angle that not many have first hand experience of.
THE DARKEST HOUR is Katherine Howell's second book - the first - FRANTIC - was a tremendous debut and she's followed up with another tight, taut and suspenseful book, using parallel viewpoints which almost become plotlines in their own right. THE DARKEST HOUR reintroduces Detective Ella Marconi who shares the limelight this time with paramedic Lauren Yates. Lauren is the ambulance officer called to a series of violent deaths that Marconi is investigating. Unfortunately for Marconi, Lauren Yates knows a lot more about the killer than she's prepared to divulge - frightened for her family and herself by the violent and menacing Thomas Werner.
Less of a mystery as the killer is clearly identified at the start of the books, THE DARKEST HOUR is a thriller in styling, as Marconi tries to identify the killer, that Lauren is only too aware of. Both women find themselves personally threatened and frightened, although unaware of each other's position. Lauren's life is further complicated by her relationship with her working partner - Joe - and the affect this is having on his fiancé.
Whilst it is undoubtedly the difference in viewpoint that make THE DARKEST HOUR (and FRANTIC before it) such fascinating books, there needs to be more to it than just that. And there is. THE DARKEST HOUR provides an overwhelming sense of menace, interwoven with a real sense of the life, in particular, of a paramedic. The complications of potential romance with a work colleague, the exhaustion of a bruising work schedule, the difficulty in talking about the awful things that are seen on a day to day basis, are all very starkly drawn in THE DARKEST HOUR and they really serve to make, in particular, Lauren feel very real. That's not to say that Ella is not a well developed character in her own right - with the problem of what to do with elderly and ailing parents, and the pressure that comes with being a daughter in those circumstances.
THE DARKEST HOUR is definitely up to the same standard as the first book and it's very pleasing to know that Katherine Howell is currently working on a third novel.