It's the case that could make DS Alex Morrow's career, it would make any cop salivate. A home invaded in the dead of night, deep in the heart of the cosy suburbs, a hard working family at the heart of it and a vulnerable old man taken hostage. It's high profile: a black-and-white case and it shouldn't be too hard to solve...
The attackers were slovenly. The two strangers who forced their way into the warm comfortable home demanded millions the family didn't have and shouted for a man nobody had hear of. It had to be a mistake, and a bad one at that.
According to the famous names quoted on the back of STILL MIDNIGHT, Denise Mina is the crown princess of crime, past winner of the John Creasey Memorial Prize for her first crime novel GARNETHILL. She certainly is a writer that deserves a wide fan base, as she is undoubtedly one of the great writers of the nuanced central character.
STILL MIDNIGHT introduces one such new character - DS Alex Morrow. Morrow is prickly, raised by a single mother suffering from chronic depression, there but for the grace she's somehow kept herself out of trouble. She's somebody who the hierarchy think can't be trusted - she shoots from the hip too often, offends people, loses her temper, has a mouth on her and is simply not able to not use it, despite the need for politics and tact. What the hierarchy don't seem to realise is that she's way harder on herself than they could ever be. But she's badly rattled when she's not given responsibility for the sort of case that Detectives dream about. She would have been the perfect officer - a home invasion and the kidnapping of an elderly man - has happened right on her childhood stomping ground. She's knows a lot of the criminals in that area, she still has contacts, yet she somehow finds herself reporting to DS Bannerman - would-be surfer dude, political player, bosses mate. Morrow does what she does best, setting out pretty much on her own, doling out the snarling and insults as she proceeds, she rides roughshod over anyone who gets in the way. All the while struggling with the problems in her personal life.
The interesting thing about STILL MIDNIGHT is that there's a lot of ground in here that it seems frequent readers of crime fiction will have travelled before. Difficult central police characters; unthinking / unsupportive hierarchy; family problems; racism; troubled youth; lone wolves. Put these elements in the hands of a writer with the skill of Mina however, add a villain with an almost whimsical view of the world; a cock-up that puts the villains in a nothing to lose scenario and you have something that's edgy, involving and really really good.
Fans of Mina's GARNETHILL trilogy will find something vaguely familiar in STILL MIDNIGHT. There's something all too real in all of Mina's characters that might make you squirm just a little bit! Sure Alex and Maureen come from different sides of the law, but they are both flawed, complicated and frequently annoying characters who seem somehow familiar and extremely sympathetic. Add to that strong procedural elements, a great sense of place and pace, and STILL MIDNIGHT is a terrific book - let's hope it's the start of a new series.
SUFFER THE CHILDREN - Adam Creed
DI Will Wagstaffe - Staffe to friends and enemies alike - is a man with many burdens. On the eve of leaving for a personal trip abroad he is called to the scene of a horrific crime, a known paedophile has been butchered in his own home.
SUFFER THE CHILDREN is the first book introducing DI Will Wagstaffe. A confession early on - I try not to read blurbs on books so the first few chapters referring alternatively to Wagstaffe and Staffe left me mildly confused, a feeling that came back to visit me on a few occasions throughout the book.
Staffe is a workaholic, that or he doesn't trust the team he works with. Either way, as one of his past cases resolves leaving him threatened by the perpetrator and his gang of thugs, Staffe is planning a holiday. Which he cancels, or avoids, when somebody starts killing known sex offenders. Paedophiles keep dying, bizarrely, violently and Staffe and his colleagues find themselves in the invidious position of trying to find the killer of people that, well, does anybody really care. Guy Montefiore has a young teenage daughter of his own and he's not impressed with the bad habits her mother is handing onto her, but then he's also busy stalking teenager Tanya. Meanwhile Staffe mourns for his broken marriage, tries to help an old friend, and support a sister who is the victim of domestic violence (and who has moved into his house).
SUFFER THE CHILDREN has a very complicated plot line. It's overly complicated to be frank, which is a pity, as lurking within the complication, and slightly over dramatic goings on, there's a character set that had some promise. Mind you, yet another paedophile / vigilante / should anyone care because the victim's not a nice person - well it seemed very much like it had been done before and, even with all the ancillary goings on, there was nothing particularly startling or surprising. I think that's probably my biggest problem with SUFFER THE CHILDREN, predictable and a little boring and I wasn't all that shocked, or surprised, or disturbed or even particularly interested by the end.
FEVER OF THE BONE - Val McDermid
There are reasons why Val McDermid is one of the best in the business when it comes to writing crime fiction and they are all contained in FEVER OF THE BONE.
Tony, Carol and her team are all familiar but evolving characters. Characters you care about. Several different threads of the plot weave in and out of each other, changing emphasis at just the right time for maximum suspense.
FEVER OF THE BONE differs from many books featuring serial killers in that McDermid doesn't take you inside the killer's head and doesn't describe graphic violence.
It is a police procedural and one of the best I've read in a long time.
FEVER OF THE BONE is one of my top books of 2009 to date. It would take something very, very special to knock it off that list. I can't recommend it highly enough.
THE DEAD OF WINTER - Rennie Airth
It‘s not often that I don’t finish a review book. I feel obligated to read the entire book in order to do justice to the review.
Sadly, I had to give up on THE DEAD OF WINTER. Not because it was a necessarily a poorly written book. I don’t think it is. I have read worse and finished them. So why did I give up at page 197 of a 408 page book? I ran headlong into one of my pet peeves. This particular peeve is when the author pauses the plot to give the back story of a character. It’s all very fine and dandy for a couple of major characters but when the reader is being told the history of minor characters it becomes a major distraction. That’s what happened in this case. Do we really need to know the history of the relationship between the main character and the local village bobby, who up until i stopped reading the book had a very minor role. If this had been a movie it would have been with half a dozen lines.
When that was all I was noticing I decided to call it quits. This may be unfair to the author, but everyone has their quirks and Rennie Airth ran into one of mine.
THE TOWER - Michael Duffy
Young detective Nicholas Troy is basically a good man, for whom homicide investigations are the highest form of police work. But when a woman falls from the construction site for the world's tallest skyscraper, the tortured course of the murder investigation that follows threatens to destroy his vocation.
In an interesting twist THE TOWER is the first crime novel from former publisher, journalist turned author Michael Duffy. Set in Sydney, the book will introduce readers to two Sydney police characters, the young Detective Senior Constable Nicholas Troy and the older Detective Sergeant Jon McIver.
Falling from high up on the construction site for the world's tallest skyscraper in Sydney isn't going to end well, landing on the roof of a police car just makes it seem all that more cruel. It takes quite a while for the police to identify the woman who died on that dark Sydney night, although thinking it is unlikely to be a suicide is made easier by events high up in the tower as the investigation commences.
Young Nicholas Troy is one of the earliest detectives on the scene, and it's very easy to imagine that without him this tale of greed, money, power, corruption and influence would never be fully uncovered. Life for Nicholas isn't particularly straight-forward though. At home, he and his wife Anna have a young son, but the pleasure in becoming parents has been shattered by Anna's ongoing battle with debilitating post-natal depression. At work he's closely connected with Jon McIver who has a bit of a reputation. As the investigation into who this woman is and why she fell from this particular building rolls on, the truth of this massive building project is slowly revealed, despite the best efforts of some really incompetent policemen and some blatant police politics.
THE TOWER is an interesting book for a number of reasons. Firstly there is this spectre of this massive Tower Building being constructed in the city of Sydney, imposing itself in such a grand manner over the city and its inhabitants. As the story unfolds the tower is hiding secrets within the construction, in its background and how it came to be, and in the history of its builders and their own motivations. The tower and it's original builder and their connection with the victim are revealed in the midst of a mix of corruption, money and screwed up family relationships. Along the way there are a range of characters deeply involved in the mystery - the engineer come security chief for the tower, his Chinese master, the victim's own family and, of course, Troy's family and friends.
The book does have a few minor problems - there's a little too much repetition, particularly of some of the circumstances surrounding Troy's personal life which tends to drag out the length of the book without necessarily adding much new to the overall story. The tensions between the upper-echelons of the police force and McIver and Troy are a little predictable and Troy commits one of the basic no-nos in a police investigation by getting too close to a possible suspect. But there are some very interesting characters here. Everybody is human - not perfect - not completely bad. As the story of Troy, McIver and the death of this woman begins to unfold, there's something refreshing about the matter of fact way in which the characters are presented. The supposed good guys - the upholders of the law, skate across a minefield of temptation, expediency and convenience. They are capable of losing control and objectivity, of making bad decisions. The bad aren't all bad, but certainly aren't particularly good either and their decisions are as compromised by the circumstances of their own lives. There's no glossing over the victim herself, she's a spoilt little rich girl with very limited street-smarts. Yet in a strange way there's a glimmer of possible sympathy sometimes just as there is a desire to line them all up for a serious dressing down.
Supporting those characters is a very complicated plot that doesn't suffer from being overly busy. There are elements that really ring true, there are others that take their lead more from the traditional thriller than perhaps a police procedural, but they work together very well. There's also an interesting interweaving of the very domestic and the very international.
It looks like THE TOWER is the start of a new series - police procedural, character based, set in Sydney. Where Duffy takes Troy and Anna, McIver and the rest of the investigation team is something to look forward to.
It's market day in St Denis, a small town in the Perigord region of south-west France. The locals are on the alert because inspectors are about to make a 'surprise visit', hoping to enforce the unpopular and bureaucratic EU hygiene rules. But for Captain Bruno Courteges, St Denis' Chief of Police, this particular market day turns into something far more serious.
If you're not a fan of cosy style mysteries, you could be forgiven for missing BRUNO CHIEF OF POLICE. Don't be fooled by the cover photos, or the blurb which uses a comparison with a rather well known cosy writer though. BRUNO CHIEF OF POLICE is much more of a police procedural. Well it's a rural French procedural, so whilst there's a violent murder to be solved, there's also a very engaging central police character, a great sense of place, and meals to die for. Perhaps a comparison with Montalbano might have been more successful? Although it's still not quite accurate as Bruno is considerably more content and able to deal with life, his colleagues and the various challenges along the way (like matchmaking local women) with a lot more joie de vivre than you could ever imagine Montalbano contemplating.
Mind you, the story does it's bit to mislead the reader at the beginning, as Bruno seems to be mostly occupied with stopping the locals from wreaking havoc on the EU Hygiene Inspection officer's as they clamp down on the local farmers market. Luckily that's not exactly a full time occupation for a local Chief of Police, so he's got plenty of time in which to attend to his own vegetables and poultry, make his own liqueur and potter around building his house. The story behind how Bruno ended up Chief of Police of St Denis is a tale in its own right, but Bruno's background, the story of the village and the occupants and its extremely important history and culture are built into the investigation of a shocking murder in a way that is seamless, charming and involving. When the idyllic village lifestyle is shattered by the discovery of the body of an old man, head of a local immigrant North African family, dead, eviscerated, his body mutilated with the image of a swastika, the multi-levelled police system in France means that outsiders take responsibility for the investigation. They are more than happy to suspect two local rich kids, on the fringe of a drug trafficking neo-Nazi group. Local knowledge leads Bruno to something from the past that has surfaced at last.
Bruno is simply a wonderful character. Astute, yet relaxed, alone but self-sufficient, he's a believable village copper with a lifestyle that is highly desirable. The village is nicely populated with its own brand of eccentrics, the old residents and the new arrivals. Whilst the tensions in that little town in the middle of a big rural area reflect the sorts of tensions that you get in any society, there's the added complications of a country, and people, who remember the Second World War all too clearly.
The only worrying thing is that for this series to continue, and continue it hopefully will, St Denis could run the risk of becoming as dangerous a place as St Mary Mead, Midsomer or Denton. Let's hope there's enough vin de noix to keep Bruno's spirits up.
BLIND EYE - Stuart MacBride
Someone's preying on Aberdeen's growing Polish population. The pattern is always the same: men abandoned on building sites, barely alive, their eyes gouged out and the sockets burned. And the threatening letters arriving at Force Headquarters make it clear there's more to come.
DI Steele deserves her own fan club. It would have to be a club where swearing, drinking, smoking and fiddling with your bra strap were perfectly acceptable behaviours of course. You've also got a ready made slogan as fans of the wonderful Logan McRae series from Scottish author Stuart MacBride will be aware.
BLIND EYE is the 5th book in this funny, gruesome, funny, ferocious, unflinching, funny series featuring DS Logan McRae and a passing parade of DIs and DCIs. DI Steele makes a very high profile return in BLIND EYE, in fact she's in danger of completely stealing the show, although McRae also has to deal with the considerably more prickly DCI Finnie as well.
In true MacBride style, not only are the characterisations vivid, unflinching and frequently decidedly unflattering, the subject matter of this book is confrontational. Somebody is preying on Aberdeen's Polish community - not killing, but dreadfully maiming a series of men. Gouging out their eyes and burning the sockets, the crime seems inexplicably cruel and utterly and totally ruthless. The victim's are understandably too scared to talk, and the only witness - a paedophile on the run - doesn't exactly inspire anybody's hope in being able to sort this.
As the investigation grinds on, and the maiming take a particularly startling turn, McRae finds himself having to deal with Finnie's increasing sarcasm and what seems like antagonism, as well as Steele's glorious excess - which now includes a rather personal component, making McRae increasingly squeamish.
Undoubtedly the subject matter that MacBride touches on in all his books is going to be unpleasant reading for some people. He balances that beautifully with humour - sometimes gallows style, frequently black and downright hilarious in other places. He writes gruesome but highly realistic plots which don't shilly shally around with your sensibilities. You'll often come out of one of these books feeling a little like you've been slapped around the head and shoulders with something quite quite icky. MacBride also writes fantastic police characters - McRae's increasing dithering around nicely balanced by the iron wit and will of DI Steele, both of them up against the sarcasm and terseness of Finnie. Settling in with these characters is rapidly becoming more and more like a visit with favourite friends. Sure you've heard the stories before. Sure you've seen them when they have a few too many before. Who cares - good mates are extremely hard to find.
DEATH WORE WHITE - Jim Kelly
At 5.15pm Harvey Ellis was trapped, stranded in a line of eight cars by a blizzard on a Norfolk coast road.
At 8.15pm Harvey Ellis was dead, viciously stabbed at the wheel of his truck.
And his killer has achieved the impossible, striking without being seen, and without leaving a single footprint in the snow.
There's nothing better than a well-executed version of one of the good old staples of crime fiction - a twist on the locked room scenario.
DEATH WORE WHITE is the first in a new series from CWA Dagger Winner Jim Kelly, an author well known for his ongoing Philip Dryden books. DI Peter Shaw and DS George Valentine are a good pairing - Valentine the older cop, ex-partner of Shaw's father, his career has seen higher points. Shaw, on the other hand, is a rising star, keen to prove himself and to clear his father's, and consequently Valentine's, reputations over the last case they both investigated. Despite what sounds like a pretty predictable scenario (and let's face it - most of everything's been done before), Shaw and Valentine rub along together as you'd expect the old buck and the young upstart to do for a while, eventually coming to a grudging if not quite respect, then at least understanding.
At the heart of DEATH WORE WHITE there's a very complicated plot which unravels for some aspects predictably, and in others unexpectedly. One of the best parts of this particular locked room scenario is that whilst it's obvious that's what the reader is being confronted with, and therefore there must be more to the initial discovery of the scene, the full story is revealed in a way that the reader can draw some conclusions, maybe completely solve the puzzle. The story is, however, incredibly complicated and some readers might find that it stretches credibility somewhat, having said that, personally I had no problem with the interconnectedness of the entire thing.
The book is really a great story, told well, with a couple of interesting central characters, set in a vividly drawn and ever so slightly quirky setting. Kelly knows how to write good, solid entertaining crime fiction - a bit of a puzzle solver, as gruesome as the killing may be, these books aren't particularly confrontational and characters and the settings are a big part of what he does. DEATH WORE WHITE should appeal to fans of the Dryden series, as well as to readers who are new to Jim Kelly's books.
TROPIC OF DEATH - Robert Sims
When a severed head is found buried in sand on a beach in Whitley, Queensland, the locals are sent into a tailspin. Little do they know it's only the first in a series of events that will sully their apparently idyllic resort town.
TROPIC OF DEATH is the second book by Australian journalist, author Robert Sims, featuring Detective Rita Van Hassel, Criminal Profiler.
Criminal Profiling isn't overly common in Australian Police Forces, and Rita is one of the first in Melbourne in TROPIC OF DEATH. Begrudgingly, finally allowed to set up her own speciality support "department", she is called to Whitley in Queensland to assist when the grisly body count starts rising. Whitley is one of those sleepy Queensland idyllic towns from the tourist brochures - beach and rainforest. What Rita finds is all the brochures offer, as well as a US defence base, green activists and - as the book blurb puts it - a hotbed of malignant passion.
TROPIC OF DEATH is an interesting combination of a police procedural and a great big conspiracy thriller. Rita is a very good, interesting, police character and she and the local police form a classic police investigation team trying to solve a series of particularly gruesome killings - albeit that criminal profiling is a new activity for Australian crime fiction as well. Behind the killings there is a conspiracy thriller. Big government, anonymous men in darkened cars going thump in the night, magicked away problems, computer hackers, sinister computer systems and so on. There are touches of Rita's personal life as well, and some of those relationships intertwine within the main storyline of the book, giving context for some introductions and connections which help make sense of how a girl from Melbourne can get inside a Queensland story with some ease.
The police investigation component of this book - and Rita and her offsider Steve Jarratt work really well together. For this reader, the big conspiracy, government's doing shady doings, hackers in virtual reality helmets, big brother computer systems didn't. Whilst those sorts of thriller plots do sometimes work, this one didn't - possibly because it was all just a bit too much over the top for me - disappointing, as I particularly liked other aspects of the book. I found the use of the Australian context for a criminal profiler interesting and I'm looking forward to see where Rita goes in future books. Personal quibbles aside, if you're a fan of the big conspiracy, and you'd like to see it done with a great female central character, then you really should read TROPIC OF DEATH.
BLACK ICE - Leah Giarratano
Beautiful People can do Terrible Things.
A mother out of gaol, hell-bent on vengeance, desperate to be reunited with her son.
An ambitious cop trying to bust a Sydney drug cartel.
A glamorous society couple living the high life - he's a successful lawyer, she's a model. He's also feeding her growing cocaine and ice habit.
When Detective Sergeant Jill Jackson goes undercover to investigate Sydney's drug lords, these worlds collide. Soon people are going to get hurt.
Leah Giarratano, forensic psychologist, crime fiction writer and consummate storyteller has just released her third novel - BLACK ICE. As with both of the earlier books, Giarratano takes the reader deep into a specific world of crime and criminal behaviour, the theme in BLACK ICE is illegal drugs.
Readers of the two earlier books will know about DS Jill Jackson, a survivor of child sexual abuse, she has fought her way back from despair and continues, ever so gradually, to get control of her life and to deal with the memories of what happened to her. BLACK ICE adds another dimension to the story with the introduction her sister Cassie - famous model, one half of a glamorous society couple, a cocaine addict. Her boyfriend Christian, a highly successful lawyer and drug dealer has a past which is about to catch up with him. Cassie inadvertently steps into an investigation into illegal drugs that Jill is working undercover on, and in even more difficult circumstances, Christian's past, when a young mother, just out of jail is hell-bent on vengeance.
One of the strongest aspect's of Giarratano's books is that she is obviously writing about people and behaviours that she knows all too well. DARK ICE draws a picture of both sides of drug addiction. The sheer ruthlessness of the "business" side of drugs - the totally amoral behaviour of the dealers and the people who make obscene amounts of money. The ease with which that money can buy the cooks, the dealers, the trappings of the lifestyle. The craziness that takes over when there's turf to protect and supply and demand chains to maintain. Finally the depths to which the addicts themselves can sink. Even as part of the so called "beautiful people", addicted people do terrible things.
The introduction of Jill's own sister under threat provides Giarratano with an opportunity to explore the relationship between the sisters. There's an age difference, and then there's the problem of the affect of abduction and abuse on the siblings of the victim. The relationship between these two sisters is very fragile, and a lot of the difficulties go back to the way that their family coped with what happened to Jill. Hopefully this is an area that Giarratano's going to get further into as this was a particularly interesting aspect of the affects of dreadful crimes that isn't overly explored in crime fiction. Slightly less successful for this reader was the story of Seren - the young mother jailed for drug offences, who is so keen to achieve revenge. To this reader it seemed the author was seeking to create another character who, despite enormous odds against them, triumphs over circumstances which seemed a little to co-incidental with Jill, despite the specific experiences being very different. Perhaps it was simply a personality thing - but readers who find a connection with Seren will undoubtedly be able empathise with her strongly.
As always with Leah Giarratano's books, the reader is going to come away from BLACK ICE thinking just a little bit more about the consequences behind the headlines on the nightly news. That's a very good thing.