Richard Knox has served his time, so why shouldn't he be allowed to live wherever he wants? Yes, he was convicted of a brutal abduction and rape, but he's seen the error of his ways. Found God. Wants to leave his dark past in Newcastle and make a new start.
Or so he says.
The problem with an author making it onto my "Pre-Order IMMEDIATELY list" is that once the book arrives I have that dreaded "do I read immediately or hoard" dilemma. It's easier with some of my all time favourite authors - there's a few, well not to put too fine a point on it, aren't as young as they used to be. Stuart MacBride, on the other hand, is a young man. Last time I set eyes on him he looked to be in remarkably good health. But still, you never know. Publishers are queer folk and they may suddenly have a brain freeze, or worse still, Stuart may just get distracted by .. well gardening stuff... and forget to write the next one.
So I've come up with a reasonable compromise with these books which is simply "hang onto them until you can stand the suspense no longer!". I held out pretty well with DARK BLOOD but I'm really really pleased I didn't keep it up forever (and the latest book has arrived so it's not like I don't have another one to hoard ... just for a little while.)
DARK BLOOD starts out with one of the best opening sequences I have read in years. One of those opening pieces that make you sit up straight and pay attention. From there the reader is launched into a world of missing informants, sawn-off sledgehammers, fake money, counterfeit goods and jewellery shop robberies. Add to the standard mayhem of Aberdeen on a normal day (well a MacBride normal day anyway), and about the only thing that McRae, Steel and the entire Aberdeen command can agree on is that having one of England's most notorious sex killers "dumped" into their patch on his release from jail is just about the height of all cheek. Which is bad enough, but a Northumbrian DSI tagging along to "keep an eye on things" is dangerously close to taking liberties.
There is always something comforting about returning to a favoured series character - and Logan McRae is one of my favourite characters, although DI Steel is not above giving him a bit of a nudge. Having said that, other readers of these books will be wondering what exactly I'm sniffing if I think McRae, Steel or any of the circumstances of MacBride's books are comforting. But in a strange (okay so slightly twisted) way, they are comforting. That's not to say that things also don't move on in their lives, albeit sometimes slowly. McRae's been doing quite a strong line of greatly put upon, martyrdom in recent books, but in DARK BLOOD he's actually firing up a bit, getting a bit bolshie. Which needless to say doesn't go down well. Nobody could possibly have imagined it would go down so badly that DI Steel would be giving him "advice" on how to get on with others mind you. But advice she does dole out. At the same time that the impending birth of her child is making her life a lot more complicated than she thought it would... especially with conciliatory and caring not exactly coming naturally to DI Steel. As usual McRae doesn't just have to deal with Steel, DI Beattie seems to be going out of his way to behave like a prat, whilst all the time journalist Colin Miller is needling away at the police in general and McRae in particular.
The problem with an ongoing series has to be that it's sometimes too easy to slip into familiar patterns, particularly where the characters and their interactions are concerned. Avoiding this DARK BLOOD has something a little more edgy about McRae - sure he's still a bit of a martyr to the cause, but there's just the occasional flash of a fight back. DI Steel is still delightfully, gloriously over the top, but she's softening just a little, impending parenthood is obviously going to have some sort of affect, but what exactly... well some things aren't to be contemplated too closely. DARK BLOOD also veers away from the more gruesome aspects of some of the recent books, and works harder on a really tight, taut, pacey and interesting plot. There's a realistic feel of pressure - external and within, of competing priorities, and changing levels of urgency. It feels like each of these characters is doing a fine line of tight-rope juggling - personally and professionally. MacBride also isn't afraid to ditch popular characters, to put them in unexpected situations, to pick them up again, and generally to move his chess pieces where the will takes him. But, as always, there's a real underlying humour - some of it observational, some of it almost slapstick, but always with sneaking sense of great affection. The characters for each other, the author for his cast, and in the case of this reader, the reader for the whole package.
LIKE CLOCKWORK - Margie Orford
When a beautiful young woman is found murdered on Cape Town's Seapoint promenade, police profiler Dr Clare Hart is drawn into the web of a brutal serial killer. As more bodies are discovered, Clare is forced to revisit memories of the horrific rape of her twin sister and the gang ties that bind the city's crime rings. Are the murders really linked to human trafficking, or is the killer just playing sick games with her?
Margie Orford lists, among many other activities, that she does Advocacy work for a Rape Crisis group in South Africa, so it's not very surprising LIKE CLOCKWORK looks very closely at the horrific consequences of rape and extreme violence against women. Because of that there's nothing particularly easy about reading this book, but it definitely fulfils one of my major preferences in crime fiction - which is to inform the reader. No matter how uncomfortable that information can sometimes be.
Dr Clare Hart is a police profiler who lives on Cape Town's Seapoint promenade, so the discovery of a young girl's body at that location has a very close, discomforting feel for her. There's something very brutal about the way that this girl died, and something oddly ritualistic about the way that the body was disposed of. The discovery of more young girls - all very similar in appearance - make for the sobering realisation that there is a serial sex killer in Cape Town. A city that's not unused to violence and, in particular sexual violence, as Clare and her twin sister are all too aware.
One of LIKE CLOCKWORK's strengths is the glimpse that the reader is given of the living victim - in this case Clare's sister and a young victim of gang rape and violence that Clare steps in to save. The other strength is the strong characters. Clare Hart is an interesting woman - dour, somewhat humourless, more than a little obsessive, she's working on a documentary set in Africa, but she also freelances as a police profiler (although there's not a lot of detail as to how she got that job or what her background is). The main police character - Riedwaan Faizal has enough twists on the standard scruffy, lone wolf policeman to make him just that little bit unexpected. He's a Muslim, alcoholic, dissolute, and a loner. Clare and Riedwaan share a good working relationship (which seems to be about the only one that they each have), as well as a somewhat uninspiring sexual relationship. As unappealing as they both would seem, they were both great characters - real, imperfect and quite human. There is, however, some sort of backstory between these two which was hinted at, but not really fleshed out in this book. But it is Clare and Riedwaan who carry the interest in the book, supported well by a cast of supporting characters including the state pathologist; the nasty brother of one of the victim's and the refugee chef's assistant in a sushi restaurant. As does the glimpses of Cape Town. A beautiful place, with seafront views and a comfortable lifestyle, where a dangerous killer is disposing of his victims. A modern city entertainment area, full of trendy bars and partying people, side by side with sexual exploitation and sleaze.
The weaker side of the book is the plot, which is a little disjointed. Perhaps the author has understandably tried to build in as many examples of the violence and exploitation experienced by women in particular. There's absolutely no doubt that these women's stories (including that of Clare's sister) are told gently and respectfully - there's no voyeuristic or sensationalist descriptions of appalling violence here, but, whilst that is happening the focus (and tension) of a serial killer stalking young women dissipates. Which leads to a final flurry of activity to expose him and save a young girl before it's too late.
Despite those plot inconsistencies, LIKE CLOCKWORK really gives the reader a feeling for Clare and Riedwaan's Cape Town - from it's physical beauty through to the gang violence that plagues the society. It also gives the reader glimpses into the diverse society that exists in South Africa. It certainly tempted me enough to order other books by this author.
A DEATH IN TUSCANY - Michelle Giuttari
In the picturesque Tuscan hill town of Scandicci, the body of a girl is discovered. Scantily dressed, with no purse or other possessions, she is lying by the edge of the woods. The local police investigate the case - but after a week they still haven't even identified her, let alone got to the bottom of how she died.
A DEATH IN TUSCANY is the second book from former Florence police chief Michele Guittari, billed as a bestseller in Italy and translated into nine languages. I was particularly interested to read this as the first book A FLORENTINE DEATH had a number of elements which didn't work at all for me, and I wanted to see if this was first book syndrome or more to do with this particular author's style of storytelling.
A DEATH IN TUSCANY starts out with the discovery of the body of a girl near a small Tuscan hill town. Scantily dressed, no identification, the problem for police is discovering who she is - let alone who killed her. Stepping into lead the investigation is Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara, head of Florence's elite Squadra Mobile, although he is soon distracted by conspiracies to the left and right of him.
Part of my problems with the first book was the overt self-aggrandisement of the central character - I don't think it was too much of a stretch to imagine that it's very much autobiographical, and frankly, the self-reverential tone got really tiresome, really quickly. The second book is only marginally better in this respect, as once again Ferrara seems to be the only person in the entire cast that knows anything, can see anything, understands the clues. Combine that with a plot that just simply did not work, and this book was very disappointing. At the centre of the story is the discovery of this young girl, who quickly becomes the catalyst for a crusade and much righteous (and reasonable) indignation at her fate. That is until Ferrara's best friend goes missing and he heads off in that direction. Which leaves the reader with absolutely no doubt whatsoever that somehow these two seemingly unconnected events will eventually be connected. Which was disappointingly drawn out and overly convoluted to the point where the whole plot became almost laughably contrived. Add to that the requisite shadowy influence of a secret society (in this case the Freemasons as well as the Mafia), political corruption, international drug running and a greatly put upon and misunderstood Ferrara and the whole thing not only lacked credibility, it got dangerously close to silly at points.
The action either lurched forward in chunks of Ferrara's personal brilliance, or bogged down in endless drives, bizarre chats, and detailed descriptions of procedural elements that frankly got so boring it was a real struggle to stay with the book. Which is a pity. Because the death of young people at the hands of sick adults in powerful positions should be a storyline that makes the reader stop and think about what's going on in the world.
INTO THE SHADOWS - Shirley Wells
When Rodney Hill, wrongly arrested for a series of murders, hangs himself, Jill Kennedy the forensic psychologist whose profile led to Hill's arrest, gives up her work with the police and moves to the peaceful village of Kelton Bridge to write self-help books, enjoy a quiet life with her cats and perhaps an occasional flutter on the horses.
English village mysteries are one of the categories that remind me that even though I love the dark and noir side of crime fiction, a little lighter fare every now and again is good for the psyche. Or at least a welcome change in approach. I'm always on the lookout for a new "series" of these style of books to accumulate for when I'm looking for something lighter as I'm running a little short of favourites to turn to.
INTO THE SHADOWS is a more modern take on the traditional English village style of book, mostly I felt, because there's yet another serial killer involved. I have to say that the combination of a blurb talking about a retirement life with cats, romantic tension with an ex-lover trying to regain affection, and a stalking serial killer and I was feeling a little leery. Add to that some predictable plot points (every male in the village seemed to be a suspicious character), and some flat out unbelievable plot points (look behind you - well in this case above you for goodness sake!) and I wasn't exactly in my own particular reading comfort zone.
Surprisingly enough though, I found that I could still read this book. Perhaps it's because Jill and Max were an interesting pair, flawed, warm, funny, very realistic. Perhaps it's because it is an English village mystery and there are some aspects of those style of books that you can just let roll - after all they are the perfect antidote to a cold Sunday afternoon. And that's probably the main reason that I'm always on the lookout for a good English village series - I like reading these sorts of books, curled up in the rocking chair in front of the fire, large glass of something red and a small select box of good choccies. Whilst I can't say that INTO THE SHADOWS wasn't a flawed book, it certainly had enough going for it to put other entrants in the series on my potential new series to follow list.
HYPOTHERMIA - Arnauldur Indridason
One cold autumn night, a woman is found hanging from a beam in her summer cottage by Lake Thingvellir. At first sight, it appears to be a straightforward case of suicide; the woman, Maria, has never recovered from the loss of her mother two years earlier and had a history of depression. But when Karen, the friend who found her body, approaches Erlendur and gives him the tape of a séance that Maria had attended, his curiosity is aroused.
Less of a review - closer to a drool, HYPOTHERMIA is the latest in one of my all time favourite series of books from Icelandic author Arnauldur Indridason. If you've not read any of the earlier books, coming to HYPOTHERMIA from the start could still work, but part of what is really wonderful about this series is the slow unfolding of the backstory of the central detective Erlendur.
Erlendur is very much of the "rumpled / crumpled" detective genre - somebody who life has dealt some complicated hands to. Whilst he shuffles those cards, the reader is taken through his current life, his relationships with his estranged children, his childhood and his family tragedy. Still with that Nordic sense of constraint, thoughtfulness and introspection, there's also something lighter and hopeful in the sub-themes of HYPOTHERMIA, despite the puzzling suicide of a woman in a beautiful lakeside location. Her obsession with the loss of her mother, and the drowning of her father when she was a child takes Erlendur back to what happened to events from her childhood, somehow giving him permission (or the will) to explore his own history, and the death of his young brother in a blizzard many years before.
Within this series there has always been a strong sense of Icelandic culture and beliefs, from their particular personal name conventions in earlier books, to a real sense of the relationship between the present and the supernatural in this book in particular. And it's not just Erlendur's personal circumstances that leads to an exploration of the past and the present - there is often a theme within the books that pursues exactly the effect that past events (sometimes hidden, sometimes not) have on the current lives of many of the characters.
Along with the rumpled / crumpled detective styling, Erlendur has an admirable sense of justice and duty. He doesn't give up, he doesn't accept the obvious (in this case the rapid verdict of suicide) and he is prepared to stick to the task until the truth is revealed - no matter what the consequences. Having said that he, and this author, are not unaware of the effect of this sort of persistence. Grief, loss, guilt and confusion are beautifully illustrated, as is there often a cheeky sense of humour.
HYPOTHERMIA is an outstanding example of everything that is wonderful about crime. The book transports the reader to the place and the culture in which it is set, the landscape, the people, their particular way of looking at the world are woven into the threads of grief, loss, cause and effect seamlessly. There is pace to the story, alongside lyrical, beautiful storytelling and there are wonderful, believable, flawed characters to follow. Hopefully for lots of books to come.
BEYOND REACH - Graham Hurley
Crushed cranial vault. Visible extrusions of brain tissue through multiple scalp lacerations.
She tried to keep up, tried to focus on the fat grey threads of jelly that laced what remained of this man's head. Memories, she told herself. Intelligence.
The very stuff of what we are, of what we do. Billions of nerve cells that should have warned him to take care when crossing the road.
She closed her eyes and took a tiny step backwards, secretly glad that something like this could still shock her.
Some reviews are just flat out hard to write. Normally it's because the book is good, and I'm in real danger of gushing. Particularly in this case, where gushing got dangerously close to an understatement.
BEYOND REACH is the 10th Joe Faraday and Paul Winter book from British author Graham Hurley. The series started out as a police procedural, with a good strong "villain" character - a bit of a rough diamond in drug lord with a decent streak, Bazza Mackenzie. Joe is a long-term cop, once completely content in his role as a DI, single-parent to his profoundly deaf son. He is a widower with a passion for bird watching, poignantly tentative in his love life, not so content anymore. Paul was a young cop struggling within a system which he ultimately chucked for the dark side. At this point the series moved from a really good police procedural to something much more. The focus on Winter intensifies, although the police side remains involved. An edge comes in as the two main characters play off each other - sometimes directly, more often indirectly. Their strong-points and weaknesses are contrasted. Events are seen from the two viewpoints, the difference between "knowing" and "guessing" on both sides is explored, there's some murky lines between good and bad, black and white. All of this is just getting better and better with every book.
Winter, working as Bazza Mackenzie's right-hand man, has been involved in some stuff he wishes he hadn't seen. He's also involved in some positive changes in Bazza's life, as the Mackenzie family attempt a little genuine intervention work with the underprivileged youth of Portsmouth. Whilst Winter is uncomfortable in the position of working closely with those kids, he also finds he is being drawn closer and closer into the family. It's this closeness that helps take these books somewhere different. Winter has a view from within the camp, but not immersion in the life, he's an insider and an outsider all at the same time. Friend of Bazza's he's also still a friend of his old colleague Joe Faraday. He's involved with the day to day operations of Bazza's network and family, but he's also not necessarily a crook. He's taking an interesting path into the world of part-enforcer, part-right hand man, part conscience, part advisor, part observer, part player. Tricky to have so many parts!
Meanwhile Faraday's got things going on in his own life. The current case he's working on - the hit & run death of a local thug, seems like it's going to be a simple case of following the obvious. This victim is a man universally regarded as a bully and the murderer of a young boy, but that police investigation was never able to find witnesses or evidence. Faraday's biggest problems are in negotiating the politics within the force, and the complications of his home life when his beloved girlfriend packs up and heads overseas on a University secondment, seemingly with little regard to what it will do to their relationship. Faraday is lost at home, and dispirited at work - the pressures of the force's political and petty power struggles seem to be getting to him. Because of his general dissatisfaction there's always that elephant in the room - what next for Faraday?
One of the things that this author does incredibly well is provide multiple intersections for the lives of the cops and the villains. Winter's current project is to find out the facts about Bazza's daughter Esme's affair with a top ranking cop. A cop that has been involved in major investigations into Bazza's empire. A cop that Faraday knows. The kidnapping of Esme's son causes everything to go very pear-shaped, that investigation pulling the two sides uncomfortably close together. Faraday's hit & run case is close to Bazza's empire - the wild and dangerous world of the housing estates, the drugs, the under-privileged, right into the same environs as Bazza's illegal activities as well as his charity project.
Another thing done well is the way that Portsmouth (or Pompey as it's known affectionately) is portrayed. The urban decay, crime, desperation of some areas played off against the wealth and privilege of others. Bazza, as a character, striding through both environments - his wealth earning him a place in the privilege, his background making him more relaxed in the decay. And it's striking how apt this title is - there's so many things in this world that seem BEYOND REACH. Peace of mind, pride, escape, retribution, justice, survival. In different ways, for just about every character in this world, there's something somewhere that's just slightly beyond their reach.
If you're new to the Faraday and Winter series, then dive in somewhere. It would be better if you could start a little earlier in the series to get you up to speed with the history of these characters and their earlier encounters. But if you're having trouble getting hold of any of the earlier books - then start with BEYOND REACH. But if you're a fan of really good English crime fiction - then make sure this series is on your reading lists.
Faraday / Winter Books:
Cut to Black
Blood and Honey
The Price of Darkness
No Lovelier Death
Rules of Engagement
The Devil's Breath
Thunder in the Blood
The Perfect Soldier
FEVER OF THE BONE - Val McDermid
When teenager Jennifer Maidment's murdered and mutilated body is discovered, it's clear that there is a dangerous psychopath on the loose. But it's not long before Tony and DCI Carol Jordan realise it's the start of a brutal campaign targeting an apparently unconnected group of young people. Their chameleon-like killer is chatting with them online, pretending to share their interests and beliefs - and then luring them to their deaths.
Relationships (personal, business, familial, friendship) are complicated things, as the 6th Tony Hill and Carol Jordan book FEVER IN THE BONE explores.
The central investigation centres around the brutal deaths of a number of apparently unconnected teenage victims. Starting out with a look at the victims themselves, and therefore into their family relationships, McDermid simultaneously weaves in a closer look at the families of her main characters. Tony's hitherto unknown father, and his non-relationship with his mother; the strange little "family" that is Hill and Carol Jordan's friendship; even the family that is the Carol's specialist investigation squad. Tellingly, McDermid also explores the relationships that people form in the world of social networking (going so far, it seems, as to create the social networking environment referred to in the book - which has now closed down I believe).
One of the most important things I noticed in reading FEVER OF THE BONE is that even though I'm all over the place with this series, there was no point when I felt I was missing out on something from an earlier book. I think a reader could jump into the series just about anywhere and find themselves engaged from the start. Sure there's some relationship development - particularly between Tony and Carol - that's going on, but it's carefully paced and it's not hard to work out what the backstory is. Mind you, it probably does help to realise that part of McDermid's great skill as a writer is evident in Tony. He's undoubtedly one of the most engaging annoying characters you're ever going to encounter in crime fiction. Possibly not surprising when you consider that his profiling style is to somehow or other think himself into the head of a killer, but it's definitely not a recipe for being an all sunshine and happy smiling times sort of a bloke.
There is some backstory to Tony, from his childhood through to the recent discovery of the identity of the father that he never knew. There are a lot of reasons for Tony to be complicated and they are explored in FEVER OF THE BONE. There are undoubtedly reasons for Carol to be complicated also. And that's another relationship that gets an airing in FEVER OF THE BONE - Carol has a new boss - James Blake. She has gone from having the support of her superiors, including their understanding that Tony's consultancy role on major investigations is a given, to a new boss who isn't supportive, is borderline dismissive and extremely suspicious of the combination of personal and professional between Tony and Carol. When he stops Carol from using Tony as a consultant to this investigation, he cuts off a lifeline that she's relied upon. Not just because of his skill as a profiler, but because Carol feels safe when Tony is around. Eventually Tony is able to hand Carol a way of ensuring his involvement, but with that comes an offer of major change in both their lives. As the investigation is resolved, the future becomes the next mystery - for them and for the reader.
With every book I read in this series, I find something new to admire. The way that McDermid works with her characters, exposing flaws, highlighting strengths, making them human whilst not overtly looking for sympathy. Obviously this is strongest in the main characters, but there is also evolution in the supporting character set. The way she humanises the victims - again flaws, strengths and all. There's good, solid, old-fashioned police investigating going on, supported admirably by clever technology, but the emphasis is the right way around - the hi-tech supports the slog, enhances the hunches, and tightens up the timeframes within the investigation. And finally, there's a clever, tight and quite chilling plot, with some unexpected but perfectly believable twists and turns that lead to a final resolution that will make the reader think long and hard about assumptions and prejudices.
BLIND FURY - Lynda La Plante
A motorway service station on the M1: dimly lit, run down, poorly supervised, flickering lights, dark corners; a favourite stopover for long-distance lorry drivers on their way up north from London. Behind it, a body is found in a ditch, that of a girl barely out of her teens. She appears to have no family, no friends, no connections anywhere. Other girls have gone missing in the vicinity and no one has stepped forward to claim them.
I've been happily reading the Anna Travis series by Lynda La Plante since the first book and enjoying them. Despite a few odds and ends that can be mildly annoying. Ongoing romantic angst, a tricky senior officer (in this case the early on love interest as well), and some seriously big books without always having quite enough story to fill out all of the pages.
BLIND FURY, unfortunately, nearly defeated me before the end. Which is a pity. Because the investigative elements of this book are actually not too bad. It does take a while for things to get moving mind you - but it's an interesting sort of a case, with the bodies of two young unidentified girls and an identified older prostitute seemingly having little in common. Aside from the circumstances of the dumping of their corpses, and the way in which they were raped and killed. Identifying the victims requires a lot of good old fashioned police investigative work - a lot of which is done by the team that Anna is working with - with flashes of insight from Anna herself. At the same time, for reasons best known to DCS Langton, Anna and a colleague also find themselves visiting a maximum security jail to discuss the case with a previously convicted multiple murderer who claims he has a unique insight into the mindset of this new killer.
Langton and Anna have a romantic history (they lived together at one point) and both have moved on. A while ago. It is mentioned, not quite as frequently as in earlier books, and it's sort of spiced up a little with some vaguely longing behaviour from Langton which seems to cause Anna to realise, frequently, that she's moved on. Moved on to the point where she forms a relationship with one of the guards on the unit where killer Cameron Welsh is held. And at this point the personal elements of the story start declaring themselves in bold face letters, with a little neon decoration for good measure.
BLIND FURY heads off into unbelievable territory fairly quickly - with the unfathomable concentration on an unconnected, unqualified, convicted killer as some sort of "expert" witness in the case. Which didn't stack up well on it's own, let alone when you also have to accept some of the leaps of brilliance or "intuition" elements of the normal Anna investigation style. Normally this sort of thing is a little easier to swallow as previous books have belted along at a good pace, but this one dragged. As the focus is increasingly on Anna and her personal life, the concentration on the actual investigation wanes - and that got really annoying, as the process of identifying the two unknown girls, connecting them to the dead prostitute and then the painstaking work required to try to identify suspects was reasonably compelling. Or at least it felt so stacked up beside the inevitability of the trainwreck that is Anna's personal life.
Overall there just wasn't enough of the good elements to hide or compensate for the increasingly sinking feeling of inevitability that hit as soon as a new man walked into Anna's life and the book dragged on to its foreseeable and really disappointing conclusion.
THE OLD SCHOOL - P.M. Newton
Sydney, 1992. Nhu 'Ned' Kelly is a young detective making her way in what was, until recently, the best police force money could buy. Now ICAC has the infamous Roger Rogerson in the spotlight, and the old ways are out. Ned's sex and background still make her an outsider in the force, but Sydney is changing, expanding, modernising, and so is the Job.
As I was reading this book I couldn't help but create a checklist of the things that make up seriously good crime fiction for me, and apply it as I went.
A sense of place that puts you right on the spot, without turning into a travelogue. Something that gives you a sense of the smell, the look, the way that people move around and interact with their location. THE OLD SCHOOL is set in Bankstown, a suburb of Sydney almost tailor-made for the action that is taking place - multitudes of cultures living up close and personal, dodgy dealings in all walks of life, overcrowded streets, haves and have nots, development and profound poverty, traffic and dust. Aboriginal activists are still fighting for land rights and against deaths in custody. The Prime Minister's famous Redfern Speech gets a mention. There is such a strong sense of the place, and the timeframe in this book, that I'd swear you can smell the kebabs she describes.
A solid plot, a believable set of circumstances in which people find themselves pushed to the limit, achieving great things, dealing with other people, solving problems. The events of the book - the discovery of two skeletons in the concrete foundations of a building being demolished and the death of an old homeless Aboriginal man are interwoven with the professional and personal life of Nhu 'Ned" Kelly. Ned is a young, mixed race woman, working her way towards promotion / change within the NSW police, at a time that ICAC (the Independent Commission Against Corruption) investigations are carefully dismantling the careers of many around her. It's a nice touch to weave the reality of the ICAC investigations, and mentions of some of its more notorious participants into the daily working life of Ned - adding not just a sense of realism, but giving readers a timeframe without having to stress dates. Perhaps there are a few elements in the plot that rely a little too much on co-incidence but frankly the way that THE OLD SCHOOL lays that out - well coincidences do happen.
Good characters, including some growth, a bit of backstory, a realistic feeling of people who aren't perfect, who make mistakes, who do good, and bad things. What glues the elements of this book together are the characters that Newton has built. Ned, her mentor and boss TC, her sister Linh and aunt MM, along with various other police and members of the Aboriginal community. Whilst it's undoubtedly Ned's story, all the other players get their moments, and provide a great supporting role. Newton also draws a very sensitive portrayal of being the child of a Vietnam vet in Australia, whilst slowly revealing the truth behind the death of Ned's parents, many years ago.
Social observation - exploring real things from real life that aren't right. THE OLD SCHOOL does touch on a lot of issues - police and official corruption, organised crime, Aboriginal activism and land rights, fallout from the Vietnam war. It uses all of these elements as aspects of the plot - there's never any sense of lecturing or pushing a barrow. Rather each element is revealed as part of the ongoing investigation, the lives of the characters, as aspects of the revelations leading to a solution.
Finally realism. Not to the point of user manual accurate - but a real feeling that there are elements of the story, the setting, the events that are being presented that have a believability about them (not that I actually care if they are or aren't 100% realistic or accurate - I just want to feel like the author knows what they are talking about). THE OLD SCHOOL does this in spades.
According to the blurb on THE OLD SCHOOL, Newton worked in the NSW police force for thirteen years, and this is her first novel. If this is a debut - bring on a whole lot more of the series please.
BAD INTENTIONS - Karin Fossum
Early one September three friends spend the weekend at a remote cabin by Dead Water Lake. With only a pale moon to light their way, they row across the water in the middle of the night. But only two of them return, and they make a pact not to call for help until the following morning.
Karin Fossum is an author who uses observation acutely, whilst being more than willing to play with both expectations and the outer reaches of readers' comfort zones. Each of her books uses a different type of scenario to explore human behaviour and quirks. In BAD INTENTIONS she is looking at the nature of manipulation, conscience, and absolute and total egocentricity. She's also very very good at creepy - be it the characters or the setting, and in BAD INTENTIONS there's some of each.
BAD INTENTIONS is the ninth novel overall, seventh available in English, from Norwegian writer Fossum's series based around Inspector Konrad Sejer. These books are all psychological thrillers, within a police procedural setting. But really, the point of all of all of them is to look into a variety of different mindsets - that of the person committing the crime, and often also those observing or affected.
BAD INTENTIONS is about three men - Alex, Reilly and Jon. Friends from childhood, Jon suffers from anxiety attacks and has such severe psychological problems that he's been hospitalised. Alex and Reilly have taken him to their favourite place, a remote cabin in the forest beside a lake, as a treat - to try to cheer him up. Restless the 3 friends row out onto Dead Water Lake, where Jon panics and jumps into the water. One friend wants to save him, the other stops him. A shared story is concocted, suicide is blamed, and they wait until the following morning before calling the police. Konrad Sejer is assigned the case and he and his team quickly start to see inconsistencies, not only in the stories that the boys are telling, but also in Jon himself. Suicide seems so unlikely for someone improving, developing relationships, sorting his life out.
This is a very clever plot that effortlessly demonstrates the snowballing affect of attempted cover ups. In this case, the cover-up of Jon's death is just yet another link in a chain of lies and bad choices (intentions if you like) that goes way back. But as with any of Fossum's books - it's not just about the cover-up, BAD INTENTIONS is also about friendship, damaged people and breathtaking ruthlessness.
Best of all, BAD INTENTIONS is extremely believable. Okay so that's probably not a "best" thing, but this book describes events that are totally feasible - there isn't a single moment's reading where you are left thinking "no, surely not". Cleverly written, insightful and informative, this is a book that is suspenseful and entertaining whilst also being extremely thought-provoking. Exactly what you'd expect from this fantastic series.