How can a man die twice? That's the question facing Detective 'Kubu' Bengu when a mutilated body is found at a tourist camp in northern Botswana. The corpse of Goodluck Tinubu displays the classic signs of a revenge killing. But when his fingerprints are analysed Kubu makes a shocking discovery: Tinubu is already dead. He was slain in the Rhodesian war thirty years ago.
There's something in the water (or maybe it's in the dust) in Africa at the moment. Whilst there has been a slowly increasing number of crime or mystery books set in Africa, there's now an increasing number written by African authors appearing for our enjoyment. Michael Stanley (the South African duo of long-time friends Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip), have now released their second book - A DEADLY TRADE (aka The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu), follow up to the very well received debut book - A CARRION DEATH.
Wrapped up in the well devised plot of a solid police procedural, A DEADLY TRADE is very much a novel of Africa. The setting for the crime obviously helps - a tourist bush camp, made up of tents, set on the banks of crocodile and hippo infested waters. The characters fit so well into that setting - Detective 'Kubu' Bengu the central investigator (Kubu means hippopotamus in Setswana) and Detective Sergeant Joseph 'Tatwa' Mooka (Tatwa - Giraffe in the same language) are the main investigation team, working to solve the disappearance of one man and the killing of two others at the camp. The brutal death of Tinubu is the most baffling of the killings - despite having been declared dead many years ago during the Rhodesian war, he seems to have subsequently lead a blameless and quiet life as a much respected teacher in Botswana. The other two elements that firmly set this book in Africa are the terminology, and a quintessential use of pacing. Whilst the general pace of the book is rapidfire, and the investigation moves constantly forward, there is a wonderful feeling of slowing, of consideration, of reflection whenever Kubu appears in the narrative. There's something about the writing of this character that imparts a feeling of consideration, intelligence and thoughtfulness, a large man physically, Kubu doesn't rush around no matter how hectic an investigation gets. He thinks, he ponders, he eats (very well). Connections have to be drawn between Kubu and Hercule Poroit in the way that they both approach an investigation, Montalbano in the way that they both approach the next meal. Kubu has a family though, and when his beloved wife Joy and sister-in-law Patience are threatened as a result of this investigation, the reader sees a little more than his size as a link to his nickname. Kubu enraged must be a sobering sight!
There is another level to A DEADLY TRADE and that is the glimpses into the ongoing effects of the Rhodesian War, the current day problems in Zimbabwe and the complicated relationship between that country, and the surrounding nations. There are also touches of the problems that beset all nations - drugs, violence and organised crime. The fallout from the Rhodesian War is something that greatly impacts on A DEADLY TRADE, and in the way of all very good story tellers, the implications of that are spelt out in the book without it being a lesson, rather it's a revelation.
A DEADLY TRADE (as with the first book A CARRION DEATH) is just simply good crime fiction. The crime occurs within a social situation and in a social reality that impacts on the actions of everyone. Small events in the past don't necessarily go unforgotten, and brutality often engenders brutality. Adding an African situation to that scenario adds a new twist to the events, at the same time that it shows that human reactions are human reactions, the world over.
Incidentally - there is a cast of characters at the front of the book to help if the unfamiliar names are phasing the reader, and a Glossary at the back which can help with understanding of some of the terminology. As part two in a series of books, it's often best if you've read the earlier book - so that you have a background to all the characters. Having said that, it would be possible to pick up A DEADLY TRADE and start - but that's no reason why you shouldn't also seek out A CARRION DEATH.
DARK MIRROR - Barry Maitland
When Marion Summers - red-haired, beautiful and mysterious - collapses and dies in the rarefied surrounds of the London Library, DI Kathy Kolla and DCI David Brock are sent to head the investigation. Kathy finds a reluctant kinship with the feisty Marion, who had, like Kathy, left a difficult home life when young and struck out to London for independence.
Fans of Barry Maitland's Brock & Kolla series have had a wait on their hands. The last book - Spider Trap - was released in 2006, with a standalone book Bright Air in 2007. Leaving aside the eagerness with which we fans wait for the next book in a favourite series, there's also the slight nagging doubt always - has the wait been worth it?
In DARK MIRROR Kathy's been promoted and Brock seems to being forced away from front-line policing, more into administration. They are called into the investigation of the death of a beautiful young woman who dies horribly in the rarefied and beautiful surroundings of the London Library. Marion Summers has been researching a Pre-Raphaelite group of artists, wives and lovers circling around the Victorian artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The strange thing is that the poison that killed Marion is arsenic - once common in Victorian times, and particularly connected to one woman in Rossetti's circle. Not so common these days, and not so easy to obtain. The investigation soon finds that Marion is a woman who had things to hide, and sorting through the victim's own background and life proves nearly as difficult as identifying the murderer.
There's always been a strong sense of place in Maitland's books - he sets his action in London, and puts a lot of research into his locations, as well as the procedures and methods current in English policing. Part of the great attraction of DARK MIRROR is yet another quirky, unexpected location - the London Library is one of those delightfully idiosyncratic little private locations, tucked away in Piccadilly. A subscription only library, it is renowned for its central role in England's intellectual life, popular with both writers and readers. Marion's presence and work in this library provides a central focus for the investigation, and Kathy finds herself as intrigued with the circle that Marion has been building around Rossetti.
There is also a strong sense of the characters in these books - Kathy is a little unsure of herself since her recent promotion, and very wrong-footed by a most unexpected romantic attachment. Brock continues to serve as Kathy's main mentor, taking a more active role in directing the investigation as another young student dies of arsenic poisoning and Kathy struggles with an increasing tendency to identify with the victims. As confident as Brock is in his role as a policeman, he struggles as well with his personal life, and this investigation brings those two elements too close together for his comfort. With both central characters the touch of the personal isn't overpowering, but it does give the reader a chance to see a more human side of them both. That's nicely balanced against getting to know the victim, who Marion is and why she has maintained such control and secrecy over her own life creates a sense of connection with her that makes the investigation more poignant.
DARK MIRROR is everything that fans of this long-running series are going to enjoy, and the wait definitely wasn't wasted. Strong sense of an unexpected gem of a place (and another location from Maitland's London that you just want to see for yourself); a good police procedural with a touch of the personal; some moving on in the lives of the central characters; and a motive that's all too human and whilst sad, is also surprisingly cruel - it all just goes to remind the reader yet again about the futility of cold-blooded murder.
GLASGOW KISS - Alex Gray
Eric Chalmers is one of the most popular teachers at Muirpark Secondary School in Glasgow. So when precocious teenager Julie Donaldson accuses Chalmers of rape, the school goes into shock. How could a deeply religious family man like Chalmers do anything like that?
Sometimes you have to wonder if the blurbs publishers put on the front of the book are more of a hindrance than a help. In the case of Alex Gray's 6th book - they've set an unbelievably high expectation with 'Brings Glasgow to life in the same way Ian Rankin evokes Edinburgh'. Quite a high mark to set, and one I have to say I didn't think was reached with this particular book.
DCI William Lorimer has been called in to investigate the disappearance of a little girl. Snatched by a woman in a car from just outside her home, everyone fears the worst as the days drag on with little or no clues. Meanwhile, at the school where Lorimer's wife Maggie teaches, Julie Donaldson - a teenage student at the school - has accused a popular Religious Education teacher of rape, and young Kyle Kerrigan, coincidentally he is very close to Julie, is dealing with the release from jail of his violent and abusive father.
When Julie disappears an official investigation stretches Lorimer's team further as they are still hunting for the missing toddler. Meanwhile Maggie is conducting her own unofficial investigations as she and her colleagues struggle to believe that a popular teacher like Eric Chalmers would have ever been involved with a young student.
Despite the sense of urgency that you think would be inherent in these sorts of multiple threads, the book really seemed to lack focus and pace. The concentration of the story around the school - and hence Maggie - also meant that Lorimer, as the investigating policemen, was at best a bit part, a sort of a grey lurking figure in the background somewhere. The main thread in the book does appear to have been the accusation of sexual assault, and because this occurs within the context of the school community, Maggie does have a much higher "investigator" profile. As startling as this seems, the sexual assault case became all a bit boring. Perhaps this was partly because Maggie's was a very difficult character to have much interest in or sympathy with. She and her colleagues seem to operate in a starkly black and white world - where people are either "good" or "bad" and that distinction had an overtly moralistic tone to it. Along with that - the constant claims of disbelief at Eric's position (the "good" people); the colleagues with differing opinions (the "bad" people); the constant assertions that Eric is "not that sort of person"; the wanderings around in his personal life that didn't contribute much to anything in the book; and it all got very repetitious and extremely tedious. Combine that with some aspects of the abuse of Kyle Kerrigan that were - even for a reader well versed in the art of willing suspension of disbelief - unbelievable, and it was a strangely flat sort of a book. This definitely wasn't helped much by a series of nice, tied up in ribbon resolutions that were piled on at the end, leaving the whole thing with a bit of a "here's one that we prepared earlier" feeling.
Having never read any of the other books in the series, it's not possible to say whether this particular book suffers from the concentration of Maggie and the lack of a substantive part being played by William or not. Having said all of that, I should try another book in the series and see if this one just didn't quite hit the spot for this reader. The blurb has to be hinting at something after all.
Also by Alex Gray: Never Somewhere Else, A Small Weeping, Shadows of Sounds,The Riverman and Pitch Black
BORDERLANDS - Brian McGilloway
A well written police procedural is one of the reasons I'm so addicted to crime fiction. A good police procedural will introduce you to the police,take you by the land and lead you through their investigation as they unearth clues by interviewing people, sifting the evidence and following leads. There will be a careful balance of detecting and learning about the lives of the detectives. If the author has done the job properly s/he doesn't deliberately hold back clues or have the the detectives catch the culprit in the act, just two pages before the end.
In his first novel, BORDERLANDS, Brian McGilloway has succeeded in all of the above. He has also avoided producing a door stop of a book. At just 227 pages, BORDERLAND doesn't muck about. You're straight into the story with no unnecessary padding. It's something I wish more authors would try to achieve.
If, like me, you enjoy police procedurals, you can't go wrong with BORDERLANDS. I look forward to reading more of McGilloways' writing.
BROKEN SKIN - Stuart MacBride
BROKEN SKIN is Stuart MacBride’s third Logan Macrae novel. The first, COLD GRANITE had him working with DI Insch. In the second, DYING LIGHT, DI Steele was the officer in charge. In BROKEN SKIN, MacBride seems to have gone for a bet each way and had Macrae working for both at the same time. It’s not a plot idea that does not seems to work terribly well. Rather than concentrating on a single investigation, Macrae is pushed from pillar to post, grumbling all the while and becoming impatient himself. Macrae and his colleagues moan, groan and whinge their way through the book. We know this because these adjectives are used often; to the point of annoyance on my part.
The issue of the over-used adjectives aside, BROKEN SKIN is entertaining enough. However after the wonderful debut novel, COLD GRANITE, BROKEN SKIN is a bit of a disappointment. I only hope this was a glitch and subsequent novels will be of the standard of MacBride’s first
BEAUTIFUL DEATH - Fiona McIntosh
A man walking his dog by the River Lea in London makes a grisly discovery and soon DCI Jack Hawksworth is in the grip of a confounding case: Londoners have become the target of a calculating killer‚ who ′trophies′ the faces of his victims.
Now a little housekeeping before we go too far. Beautiful Death is the second DCI Jack Hawksworth book, published under the author's real name of Fiona McIntosh. The first, Bye Bye Baby, was published under the pseudonym Lauren Crow. Fiona is a well known Fantasy writer in Australia, and these two books are her first foray into crime fiction.
DCI Jack Hawksworth has a good working relationship with his team - they are a close group who have worked together on dreadful cases before. The team, and his superiors are more than used to Jack getting the personal and the professional deeply entwined, as happens again in BEAUTIFUL DEATH.
There's a strange serial killer in London. He seems to be selecting a wide range of victims, with no obvious connections between them. The strangest thing of all is the way that the victims have had organs removed, and their faces trophied. Human organ trading seems the only possible conclusion as the removal appears to have been done with considerable skill, but the face mutilation is still very strange - particularly as two of his victims are newly arrived illegal immigrants. Why would you want to obscure their identities? Public and political pressure increases with every new victim, but the personal intrudes even more dramatically for Jack when he sees something about one of the victim's that shocks him to his core.
There are a lot of elements that are similar in both Hawksworth books - romantic tension, unrequited love, Jack's personal life being hopelessly (and dangerously) entangled in the current investigation and another one of those open ended "see our next instalment" type endings. The crimes themselves are somewhat unique, although this is a serial killer with a substantially different motive to most - ultimately, it's a slightly mad person with an obsession. I'm sorry to say it's not hard to pick the perpetrator, despite a pretty carefully laid out trail of alternatives and red herrings, and the motive is flagged pretty early on. Combine that with the level of personal involvement yet again of Jack and I was really disappointed in this book, which just seemed more of the same old same old from the first book. Definitely the level of knowledge of the author of the central subject matter - cranio-facial surgery shone through, and there were small sprinklings of that throughout the book that proved quite interesting. Unfortunately there was just too much personal angst, personal involvement, loves lost and love lies bleeding for this reader. Perhaps this book will appeal more to people who like that level of romance and personal angst in their crime fiction, perhaps it might work really well for anybody who hasn't read the first book and isn't seeing the same themes emerge. Notwithstanding, if there's a third book, I'd give it a try as the first one appealed, if not simply because it was good storytelling.
STILL WATERS - Judith Cutler
Detective Chief Superintendent Fran Harman has never been happier. Her relationship with Assistant Chief Constable Mark Turner is going well and they are buying a house together. At work, a former protégé, Simon Gates, has just become her new boss.
The second DCS Fran Harmon book I've read, there is such a lot that that you'd think would make these books unlikeable. Fran is almost too cheerful and nice, she's the sort of person that it's not hard to fantasise about as a victim of brutal crime. Mind you, she's also refreshingly not like your stereotypical angst ridden, difficult boss - she actively supports and encourages her subordinates, both in a day to day work sense, and as part of her ongoing police policy work. She's got her own boss problems though, and she handles them (mostly) with aplomb. There's a big concentration on Fran (and Mark's) personal life - which whilst not totally idyllic, is love's young dream enough to drive you mildly nuts, especially if you're slightly allergic to that level of the personal in the middle of your police procedural. And finally, in STILL WATERS, there is the classic multiple unconnected threads that end up converging.
But for some strange reason STILL WATERS (and the other book I've read in this series) are quite entertaining reads. On the less than confrontational side, there's something very engaging about Fran and Mark, their ongoing love story, their investigation methods, the station in which they work, and in all their colleagues. Sure things are a bit busy in places, who is who and where they fit in the police structure can be hard to follow at points, and Fran - as you'd expect from somebody of her personality type - has a tendency to talk way too much, but the basic plot of the investigation was nicely done, and cleverly drawn out - right to the end of the book.
STILL WATERS is the latest in the Fran Harmon series, and reading the earlier books will give you a total view of who she is, where she came from, although you could also pick this book up on its own without any problem. There is enough back story filled in, without it being tedious if you have read earlier books.
There's some really entertaining storytelling in STILL WATERS, despite all the things that you'd think would drive you slightly bats, Fran is the sort of overly cheerful character that even this grumpy reader can happily spend some time with.
THE SHADOW WALKER - Michael Walters
His eyes were adjusting to the darkness now, and he twisted around trying to see what it was that had tripped him. At first, he couldn't make it out. Just a blank shapeless mound, spread across the frozen ground. And then he thought it looked something like a human figure, but not quite like one. He rolled over, trying to clear his head, trying to work out what was wrong.
Less of a full review, and more of a note about the first book in this (now) 3 book series set in Mongolia. THE SHADOW WALKER is the first book, which I read recently, having already read the 2nd in the series (the third is here in the queue).
A first book in a series is often slighty problematic and I have to say having read the 2nd book (The Adversary) which I loved, I was willing to cut this first book a lot more slack than perhaps others would be willing. In THE SHADOW WALKER, the two main characters from the series Negrui and Doripalam are introduced, but a lot of the central focus of the story is around a blow-in English detective, bought into help out the locals when a number of bodies are found in increasingly violent killings.
This device is a little unsatisfactory as the action therefore has an overtly "British" feel to it and it seems to deaden any feeling of Mongolia - despite a visit onto the steppes at one point. There's also a slighty unsatisfactory aspect to the plot with yet another serial killer which ends in a rather predictable manner.
Having said that, there are glimpses of the ongoing personalities of Negrui and Doripalam and if they appeal to you, then you should want to move onto the second book.
BLOOD MOON - Garry Disher
When hordes of eighteen-year-olds descend on the Peninsula to celebrate the end of exams, the overstretched police of Waterloo know what to expect. Party drugs, public drunkeness; maybe even drink-spiking and sexual assault.
The Hal Challis series is really growing into something particularly interesting, as well as entertaining. There's a distinct edge to this story, there are obviously some issues which the author wants to talk about, and he's cleverly worked a number of elements of social observation and commentary into what is, overall, a good solid police procedural.
Hal and Ellen's romantic interest at the end of the last book has developed into a live-in relationship. Which has a number of complications - not just that they work together and that Hal is Ellen's boss. Ellen's divorce is only just completed, and as attracted as she is to Hal, living together is an unexpected experience that she's struggling with. And the rest of the team are well aware of what's going on, even if the whole thing is not spoken of. The brass is also less than impressed, but they have given Hal a way out of the situation which he needs to decide on whilst he's also juggling a number of simultaneous investigations.
The unit is busy. It is Schoolies Week and Waterloo has become one of the destinations for groups of celebrating teenagers in recent years, and the workload for the police increases as a result. Whilst most of the lower ranks are fully occupied with Schoolie liaison and investigating minor crimes, there are occasional bigger problems like assault and in particular sexual assault. Nobody necessarily thinks that the vicious bashing of a local private school chaplain is connected to the Schoolies, although it could be possible. What is definitely known is that the victim's brother works for the local Member of Parliament, and he's a Pollie not adverse to a spot of police bashing and throwing his weight around. Things get even more complicated in that case when a racial motive is unearthed.
Meanwhile a local planning officer is having family problems of her own. Her husband is obsessed and a bully - following her constantly, criticising her constantly, carping and harping at her all the time. She's also got a job that sometimes makes her unpopular, either enforcing breaches of planning law, or in one case, failing to stop the demolishing of a much loved old landmark.
The storylines provide a real possibility for some particularly pithy - and frequently funny - digs at things that can go very wrong when places of natural beauty start to attract a lot of people. In particular, people who seem hell-bent on destroying the things that attracted them in the first place. There is also some very elegant commentary about corruption, privilege, and overt and tacky displays of wealth, dotted throughout. By no means overpowering or distracting from the investigation, this social observation adds a layer of understanding about the area, and the people on all sides of the investigations.
It is a complicated series of threads - the bashing assault of the chaplain; a bludgeoned body; sexual assault within the Schoolies; a young man who picked on the wrong girl last year; and an unsavoury event within the investigation team. All of these threads make the story busy, but not messy; the team feels stretched but not unexpectedly or unreasonably so; and the resolutions aren't impossible (or too easy) to deduce as you go along.
The fifth book in the Hal Challis and Ellen Destry series, BLOOD MOON is another of those great, solid, entertaining, engaging chore-stopper books. Whilst it could stand on its own, if you haven't read any of the earlier books, then track them down at the same time. Reading the entire series does give you a feeling for how it's growing into its early promise.
The Dragon Man
Chain of Evidence
THE KILLING HANDS - P.D. Martin
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.