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.
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)