A killer is stalking the dark streets of Dublin. Before each attack, he makes the sign of the cross; then he sends his victims to God.
Serial killer storylines. We've all said it. Over it. One more serial killer storyline and I swear..... So I'll adjust previous assertions and instead say I'm over SOME serial killer storylines.
THE PRIEST, the first crime novel from Irish author Gerard O'Donovan has a serial killer that actually doesn't kill all of his victims. Instead they are horribly injured, disfigured, tortured and abused, but they don't all die. And our serial attacker is one of those mad, bad, weird religious nutter types - the burns that he leaves his victim's with eventually reveal that he's using some sort of Cross shaped implement. Needless to say, the nickname of "The Priest". That probably means a whole lot of reasons why you'd think twice before picking up this book.
But there are a lot of things going for this book. For a start it's mercifully free of the dreaded "in the serial killer's head" viewpoint. Secondly, some of his victims do survive - albeit maimed and dreadfully injured. This gives some opportunity for some interesting twists in the personal stories, in particular, of the first victim. Jesica Salazar is the much loved daughter of an older man - a high-ranking Spanish Diplomat, in Dublin for just a short time to experience a different culture, she is found after an evening out in a nightclub, alive but battered and horribly burnt. The sex crimes team steps into the investigation, headed by Claire Brogan. DI Mike Mulcahy has recently returned from a high-profile specialist drug investigation position in Spain, and he's not best pleased at all when he's seconded to the team. They need somebody to translate, and when he steps into a disagreement between a Spanish Official and one of the team, he's even more involved as the Spanish authorities look to him. Which means nobody is pleased. Not the team, not Mike. Add the character of journalist Siobhan Fallon who is as fearless in her journalism as she is insecure about her personal life.
Mulcahy is a good central character, of the slighly embittered, strong willed, grumpy type. He's an extremely likeable sort of character - vaguely reminiscent of Rebus, but I'm prepared to give O'Donovan the benefit of the doubt over the naming of journalist Siobhan Fallon. The tentative relationship between these two has a feeling of reality about it - particularly when the roles of Journalist and Detective Inspector clash.
Alongside excellent characterisations and a really good example of team policing tension, there's a pretty good plot here. The tension doesn't let up in THE PRIEST - possibly because you know that this killer doesn't always kill his victims, partly because he presents such an obvious danger as there appears to be no predictability to actions. The only downside really is a slightly heavy-handed and predictable use of descriptive language, which smacked a little too much of some sort of writing police talk manual and didn't always feel all that authentic. Having said that, despite the serial killer theme, I really enjoyed THE PRIEST and am intrigued by the prospect of a pairing of Mulcahy and Fallon. Hopefully there will be more books featuring one or both of these characters.
THE WHISPERER - Donato Carrisi
Six buried arms. Six missing girls. A team led by Captain Roche and internationally renowned criminologist Goran Gavila are on the trail of a serial killer whose ferocity seems to have no limits. And he seems to be taunting them, leading them to discover each small corpse in turn; but the clues on the bodies point to several different killers.
You sometimes just have to wonder about the bravery of the people who select the blurbs for the front of books. THE WHISPERER, debut book by Italian author Donato Carrisi, comes with the attribution "The most eagerly awaited thriller in the world? It is written by an unknown Italian' Il Giornale". Now I'll be honest, this blurb really threw me, it seems to set high expectations, particularly for a debut novel.
The central thread of the book is the story of the discovery of six severed arms in a forest clearing without bodies, but identified by forensics as belonging to girls aged between eight and thirteen. There are five girls in that age group reported missing, but with no bodies identifying the victims isn't quick, and there are no clues about the owner of the sixth arm.
A close-knit team of investigators with Criminologist Goran Gavila as the central point is assigned the case. An experienced investigator, Gavila is naturally inclined towards being rebellious, but he has his working methods and he and his team and comfortable with each other. Mila Vasquez is a young female police officer with a difficult past, who is equally rebellious, boyish, prickly, unable to relate to others, but with an eerie ability to locate missing people. She's bought into Gavila's team for this case. They are able to work together well, his team aren't so easy for Mila to get on with.
The investigating team have a difficult task, as the bodies slowly starting to appear, they are looking for a serial killer, and the sixth victim - not reported missing and very possibly still alive. The killer seems to be leaving macabre clues with each discovery of a new body, and the team must move quickly and deftly to have a chance of keeping her alive.
I came away from THE WHISPERER really unsure about how I feel about the book. On the one hand it's an interesting, complex plot with some twists at the end that came as a big surprise. On the other hand there's yet another damaged investigator; a frisson of romance between the two central characters, a team that doesn't handle the imposition of an outsider well; a cast of characters with secrets. Combine all of that with yet another serial killer targeting children and there's a real sense of been there / done that if you read a lot of crime fiction. Of course it's unreasonable to assume that any book is going to be completely unique, and there are elements here that have a freshness about them. The pairing of a cop and a scientific investigator was well done - creating a different dynamic between the two central characters, shown up particularly by the cop versus cop tensions between Mila and the team. Also THE WHISPERER used the stagey, calculating way that the killer used his victims to play games with the investigating team in a chilling and uncomfortably realistic manner.
I think my greatest sense of disappointment in THE WHISPERER is that there was no particular sense of a place or a culture in which the killings are occurring. The location wasn't obvious, the book could have been set anywhere, so I never quite got a complete sense of reality, it somehow seemed to dissipate the threat. The damaged central investigator line also didn't quite work - it was almost too predictable, as was the romantic entanglement, and the rest of the team's antagonism. The antagonism seemed too broad brush, and whilst there is some attempt at explanation, some justification if you like, it was hard to move past the tension for tension's sake feeling.
Having said all of that, it's a good plot, with some cleverly done twists and turns that will keep the reader guessing, and will engage. The way the characters secrets are revealed works in the main, although some readers may agree that some of the elements are a tad unbelievable, even for fiction. Overall I came away conflicted, not sure enough to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but certainly not able to say that I didn't like it at all. But that's not so surprising with a debut book so I'd definitely read another by this author.
RANDOM - Craig Robertson
Glasgow is being terrorised by a serial killer the media have nicknamed The Cutter. The murders have left the police baffled. There seems to be neither rhyme nor reason behind the killings; no kind of pattern or motive; an entirely different method of murder each time, and nothing that connects the victims except for the fact that the little fingers of their right hands have been severed.
One of the things that I really like about reading review books is that I constantly find absolutes in my reading tastes aren't. Ask me about serial killer books before reading RANDOM and I would have categorically stated been there, over it. Add being inside the serial killer's head for the entire of the book and I'd have put my hand on my heart and said it's all too tedious. Then I read RANDOM and found myself really hooked on the internal monologue of a serial killer.
Based in Glasgow, RANDOM, on one level is your typical serial killer book. Unconnected victim's, strange signature from the killer, police are baffled. This time the killer isn't using a signature methodology, and there doesn't seem to be any rhyme nor reason to the killings. Whilst there is a police investigation and DS Rachel Narey is struggling against pressure from police hierarchy and the shenanigans that go on at that level when the media are finally alerted (by our killer) to the connections, this isn't really a story of the pursuit of a killer. Where RANDOM starts to vary is that our serial killer in this book is undoubtedly vicious and driven and quite quite odd - but he's also flawed and not mad, and strangely not totally bad. He's also made a big mistake with the selection of one of his victims which makes his life very very complicated and the police pursuit the least of his problems. Told from the point of view of the killer, his true identity is slowly revealed, as are the methods he is using to select his victims, the way that he kills his victims, and even more slowly, his reasons.
RANDOM really was a book that I simply wasn't expecting, especially after reading the blurb with that slow sinking feeling. But being a review book, you have to press on and I am really really glad I did. It seems a very odd thing to be saying about a serial killer book, but I enjoyed this book. RANDOM is undoubtedly manipulative, the reader is pulled into this killer's mind and into his life in a way that was subtle and clever. Balancing the way that this man selects his victims, the way that he is so ruthless in his decisions on who to kill and who not to, against a home life that is not your typical abusive, weird family relationship, but something more touching, sad, heart-breaking; and I did find myself in a really odd place - feeling sympathy for a serial killer.
There's a final twist in the tail of this book which on one level I knew was probably coming, but I didn't quite expect the way it played out. And it was affecting, and challenging and sad and right and wrong all at the same time. RANDOM was a real reading revelation for me. Flagged as a thriller it is a pacy, tense and disturbing book. It's also a reflective, moving and quite emotional book. Perhaps if you're a reader who holds their preference for no more serial killers under any circumstances closer to their core than I do, this might not be the book for you. For me, it was one of those books that took all my reading assumptions, pitched them out a window and ran over them with a bus just to make sure they were well dead and buried.
SPLINTER - Michael MacConnell
Special Agent Sarah Reilly has just been decorated for bringing down one of America's worst serial killers. Refusing extended leave, she goes straight back to work in the Boston field office. But the murder of a child, Milo Kane, sees her transferred to LA to head up the FBI's investigating task force.
One of the best things about a good thriller is when they present a scenario that could just possibly happen. The reader of SPLINTER has no trouble at all believing in the possibility of the kidnapping of the child of Hollywood celebrities; they can join in the initial rush of sympathy for parents who have been put in an impossible situation, and as the fictional public sympathy starts to splinter into suspicion, the reader will be there along for the ride.
The problem with this kidnapping is that Milo is found dead within his parents own home - in the basement, suffocated. There are so many complicating factors in the early stage of this investigation - the local police have really bungled the crime scene; the child is discovered by his own father which helps to confuse and obfuscate reactions; but the biggest problem is that Sarah, once called in as head of the FBI investigation team, really suspects that the parents are hiding something. There's also the classic problem of the closed room scenario. The basement that Milo was found in is within his parents home, within a secure compound. The family have their own security personnel - so how on earth could somebody have got into the place? When Sarah finds that a former bodyguard has gone missing, and she and her team get a chance to review the crime scene themselves, slowly the case starts to crack open.
Slowly doesn't mean to imply that there's anything slow in the action of this book. There are a lot of red herrings, and a lot happening. The plot in SPLINTER is nicely complicated, with that encouraging touch of reality to just make it all the more hair-raising and therefore involving. There's even a bit of budding romance, designed more to complicate things than create any sort of rosy happy ending. There are some backward references to the first Sarah Reilly book - Maelstrom - but not enough to put off a new reader though. As in the tradition of all good thrillers, there's a high energy finale with a bit of jeopardy and some professional and personal resolution.
There were a number of things to really like about SPLINTER. The reality of the proposed scenario made the threat seem extremely pointed and believable. The matter-of-fact way in which Sarah acted and reacted was engaging, she was possessed but not arrogant, questioning but not whinging, and in this book in particular, she simply was who she was and she (and the reader) got on with it. The ending was a good rollercoaster of the good versus the bad and the what not being exactly who you thought it was. There's a big setup for the villain of the next book at the end as well, and that's hinting at something that could get very very interesting. I'm looking forward to some serious fireworks when Sarah goes up against the Puppeteer.
EXECUTION LULLABY - Nigel Latta
Simon Chase is on death row for the murder of seven teenage girls. Execution Lullaby is told from his point of view. It quickly become apparent that Simon didn't murder the girls, but he is complicit.
The story follows Simon's blissfully happy marriage to his wife, until he discovers a terrible secret.
The blurb for the book asks the question "how far would you go for the one you love?" and gives Simon's answer.
Nigel Latta is a clinical psychologist who specialises in assessing and treating sex offenders. It's dark place he has to visit on a regular basis and EXECUTION LULLABY reflects that. It's a compelling read if you have the stomach for it, with a very clever twist at the end. I found EXECUTION LULLABY unputdownable
MAELSTROM - Michael MacConnell
Sarah Reilly is a Special Agent with the FBI. She is following in the footsteps of her semi-retired father, who made his name tracking down a notorious serial killer.
Sarah and her partner and former boyfriend, Drew, are assigned a case out of town. It bears all the hallmarks of a serial killer who murders couples in a specific locale near a lake. For Sarah, a profiler, there is something not quite right about these killings. She can’t put her finger on it, but she feels this is the work of a copycat.
MAELSTROM is a no-apologies thriller. I have to be honest and say thrillers aren’t usually my choice of reading. They work better for me on the big screen than between the pages of a book, but I found myself enjoying MAELSTROM much more than I expected. The there is plenty of action without it being dragged out too much and there’s enough plot to keep non-action people like me reading.
Dedicated thriller-readers will enjoy every action-packed page of MAELSTROM. It is a promising debut novel from Michael MacConnell.
MAELSTROM is a 2008 Ned Kelly nominee for Best First Novel.
Michael MacConnell is Australian and lives on the Central Coast of New South Wales. He has a degree in International Relations, History and Ancient History and currently works in New South Wales law enforcement. His official website is http://www.michaelmacconnell.com/
MAELSTROM - Michael MacConnell
From the Book: Special Agent Sarah Reilly is the daughter of an FBI Legend. Her Father made his reputation hunting down one of America's worst serial killers. Now it's her turn.
Michael MacConnell's debut book MAELSTROM is - paraphrasing his own words - a book designed to appeal to thriller and crime fiction devotees; not falling into the trap of being too similar to other authors in either genre. So I read MAELSTROM with that aim in mind.
It's definitely a thriller style book - there is lots of fast paced action combined with a sinister, lurking vigilante presence - metering out their version of justice to killers - people that the vigilante's think need to be removed from society. The background of this vigilante group is slowly revealed and there's a wealthy man funding the group for what he believes are noble and true reasons. There's a sense of menace and extreme violence in their acts, there's definitely a sense of forcing those killers to face their enemy on more equal ground - giving them some sort of perceived chance - more than they ever gave their victims.
There's also elements of crime fiction in the book in that there is a serial killer with a standard modus operandi - killing violently, seemingly randomly - but there is a pattern that can be discerned and clues to his methods if the investigators dig. There's a copycat killer - muddying the waters of the investigations, threatening the very lives of all the investigation team.
There's also the beautiful, young FBI agent - Sarah - with her mane of red gold hair. She has to live up to the reputation of her father, and to complicate her life even more, the reputation of her lover - a fellow agent - well known and well liked.
Maybe it is a "girl thing" but this constant idea that every female character has got to be physically attractive and that state has to be commented on is getting boring. As is the idea of the menacing vigilante team - working outside, around and above the law by dint of the amount of money that the team "leader" has (can a vigilante team ever just be a bunch of average people who have just had enough - but that's digression.)
Not to say there's not some good things in this book - the quiet menace of the opening segment is truly sobering. The first appearance of the vigilante group is shocking. They seem to appear from nowhere - for a short while the reader is slightly wrong-footed. There's romantic attachment, which, despite a deep feeling of foreboding, was actually handled well - with a slightly different twist which was refreshing. But there are also some things that don't work - the use of Australian terminology by American characters jars, the appearance of the beautiful FBI agent; the motivation, structure and behaviour of a team of vigilantes that seem to be able to commit mass violence and then just disappear was just that bit too far of a credulity stretch.
Whether or not MAELSTROM meets the authors aim is going to be very much to the individual reader's taste.
THE PERFECT SUSPECT- Vincent Varjavandi
The author of THE PERFECT SUSPECT is a surgeon who, it would appear, has a strong interest in the welfare of children. Readers of this novel could probably be excused if they assume that the character of Tom is based on the author himself, although obviously, you'd hope without the tragic family background! Early in the novel, the medical background of our central character - Tom - and the death of his wife is rapidly established. Only a matter of weeks later, Tom returns to Australia and is shocked to find a delivery of black roses at his home - seemingly from the killer of his wife. Tom moves to practice medicine in Sanctuary - trying to start again. In Sanctuary, while Senior Sergeant Jack Maguire is dealing with day to day policing matters, something considerably more sinister and terrifying starts - firstly with the brutal death of a woman - witnessed by a brain damaged young girl who has been used as bait to get the victim to open her door. And the killing continues from there.
This is a first novel so unsurprisingly there are a few things that don't work as well as they could. What does work really well is the lifting of suspense and the generally creepy and decidedly sinister characterisations. There's plot twists, that, okay, they weren't that hard to second guess - but in some way that worked. You sort of know what is coming and still there was that creepy feeling at the back of the neck. What didn't work so well is that the plot was overly complicated at times; there was too much made early in the book about the good and caring nature of the central character Tom - it got a bit cloying and potentially distracted from the suspense; and there was the use of a few too many unlikely scenarios and the "gut instinct" school of problem resolution.
But there is an interesting sense of place at play as well. Despite the prologue set in New Orleans - this is very much an Australian book. The resort of Sanctuary (should we be drawing conclusions about Sanctuary Cove) has an Australian feeling to it and there's just a smattering of slang and location - not enough to confuse / enough to place. Interestingly there's a strong relationship being developed between the central police character - Jack Maguire - and his new assistant Detective Constable which could, perhaps, be hinting at another direction for a future novel. Either way, there's potential being shown here and fans of general thrillers - even Medically based thrillers should give this new Australian author a try.
DEARLY DEVOTED DEXTER - Jeff Lindsay
Dearly Devoted Dexter is the second book from Jeff Lindsay "staring" forensic blood splatter specialist and serial killer Dexter Morgan. Dexter is, by his own observation, not exactly a normal human being. He has a busy sideline in righteous serial killings - he kills people who undoubtedly have avoided retribution for crimes they have committed. Dexter and his darker side "The Dark Passenger" work very hard at their chosen craft and Dexter spends a large amount of time explaining himself, his motives and his methods in an internal voice, shared with the reader.
Dexter was adopted as a small child and his foster father, a cop himself, taught him all sorts of tricks whilst grooming him for his role of avenging angel. His sister, Deborah, was groomed for a role in the police force and it is her Dexter is having lunch with one day (she knows all about Dexter's extra-curricula activities) when they are called to a particularly gruesome crime scene. Dexter develops a sneaking sense of regard for a serial offender who has a line in gruesome that makes Dexter look like a bit of an amateur. Meanwhile Dexter is quietly executing his own plans for some retribution against a pair of child molesters. Unfortunately this plan is being seriously interfered with by local Police Sergeant Doakes who is absolutely convinced that Dexter is up to something and undertakes some pretty close surveillance.
Dexter's own crime scenes are elaborate and graphically described but that is absolutely nothing compared to the crimes that he finds himself having to investigate, firstly, by happy co-incidence with Doakes, which gets Doakes off his own back and away from his own activities. Secondly because his sister's own personal life is involved.
As in the first Dexter book (Darkly Dreaming Dexter) there is a heavy dose of black humour in DEARLY DEVOTED DEXTER. Dexter is very self-deprecating, whilst simultaneously firmly convinced of the necessity of his actions. Nearly all of the insights into Dexter and how or why he does what he does are through Dexter's own internal musings. This provides an unusual insight into the mind of Dexter the serial killer but I could see how after a couple of books you could possibly be wishing that Dexter would just stop talking for just a few pages. Black humour, slightly on the heavy handed side with a very unusual central character, it will be interesting to see how long the Dexter series can continue.
EL DORADO - Dorothy Porter
I'll be perfectly honest - I circled El Dorado in the Readings tent at the Melbourne Writers festival for days. It's a contemporary Australian crime fiction thriller. It was long-listed for the 2007 Ned's and I'd promised myself to read the entire list of nominees this year. So why was I circling?
Well El Dorado is a verse novel - poetry and I admit I'm never convinced about reading poetry. Sure I love listening to some bush poetry, and I love to listen to some I guess you'd call them performance poets - ask everyone about dragging me away from Lem Sissay's performances at last year's MWF - but reading an entire verse novel.... a crime verse novel. Errrrrrrrrrr
So I circled.
The opening verse is a ripper mind you:
The little girl's
is sticking stiffly
as if reaching
to grab an angel's foot.
Then I found this stanza on page 8 and I was heading for the cash register:
It's not often
Detective Sergeant Rodney Mason
but a man
with no imagination
and no sense of smell -
'the wife reckons
I never buy her flowers' -
is right at home
in the city morgue
El Dorado is fascinating. As a story it switches from dark comedy, to tragedy. The personal lives of the investigating team are laid bare, the raw grief of families who lose a child to a murderer, the panic and worry as it becomes increasingly obvious that not only do they not know who, they don't understand why. There's pace, there's a progression of the story and it's done in pared down, beautifully worded verse.
El Dorado is a great crime novel. It's compelling verse. All I can say is don't circle it like I did - grab a copy and try it - you'll probably find yourself mildly astounded.