Rachel Doe needs to sort out her life. She's had such a sheltered, cautious existence; an accountant, only daughter of very timid parents, the only really daring thing she has done in her life was to dob in her lover - a liar and thief. All she got for her efforts was suspicion and a greater sense of loneliness and isolation than she had ever had before.
When Rachel meets Ivy she's totally captivated and they soon become involved in a very intense, platonic friendship which surprises everyone. Ivy is so different from Rachel, she was a real wild child - charismatic; a life-drawing model; ex-junkie; cleaner and ex-wife of Carl - now a Judge. The relationship is even more intense for Rachel as she finds, in Ivy's mother Grace, the sort of mother figure that her own never was, encompassing, loving, fun and ever so slightly happy crazy, Rachel is ultimately as attracted to Ivy's family as she is to Ivy.
Ivy's divorce from Carl came after the drowning of their daughter in a lake not far from Ivy's family farm. Since the divorce she has had no contact with her son. Rachel finds herself trying to bring about a reconciliation, at least between Ivy's parents and their grandson. Whilst she is repulsed by Carl and the stories of his violence and cruelty towards Ivy, she also finds herself strangely attracted to him. Can this charming, considerate man really be the monster that tore Ivy's son from her arms and caused the death of his own daughter?
As the friendship between Rachel and Ivy escalates and Rachel's attempts to firstly contact the Judge and then get him to agree to meet with Ivy's parents, there is a slow building of tension. Events occur around them that appear to have no relationship to what is happening between the main players in the story, but at the same time, the reader is made more and more aware that there's something very odd going on. The story unfolds rapidly and whilst you can guess that there's something really sinister going on, the question is what exactly is that "something".
There's a great sense of escalating tension and conflict in this book. Rachel is an interesting character as she moves from infatuation with Ivy, through doubt, to justification and denial, and finally strength and inner steel. Ivy is very edgy, intense and obviously complex. The surrounding characters are flawed, human and retain your interest. There is a bit of subtext around the story - the difficulties of farming life, Carl and his life with a teenage son, a sympathetic and overworked policeman and his own family.
Having read quite a few Frances Fyfield books in the past, THE ART OF DROWNING is definitely a major standout, it was compelling, retained interest and was nicely paced with a very realistic and satisfactory ending.
PUNISHMENT - Anne Holt
PUNISHMENT is the first in a newly translated, extremely successful series in Europe, featuring academic and former FBI profiler Johanne Vik and Detective Inspector Adam Stubo of the Oslo police.
When 9 year old Emilie goes missing her father is worried but not frantic. She'd done this once before just after her mother died. This time, they don't find her. When a little boy disappears and ultimately is returned to his parents; dead, no obvious cause of death, and a handwritten note: You Got What You Deserved; Oslo starts to worry.
Police Superintendent Adam Stubo, working the case, turns to former FBI profiler Johanne Vik for help. Johanne is already looking into the conviction of Aksel Seier for the rape and murder of a young child many years ago. An old lady really wants to know if Seier was guilty or not. Johanne is not confident that she can help Adam, but he is increasingly desperate for any sort of lead that the Police can get. He and his team make very little progress and they soon have 3 abducted children, two dead and a chance that Emilie is still alive.
The story shifts focus between the search for the current child killer in Oslo to Johanne's search for information about Seier's case. At the same time Adam is increasingly leaning on Johanne for assistance in the case and for human contact. Adam's own wife and daughter have died. Johanne has a disabled daughter she struggles to manage on occasion, and an ex-husband who would be happy to take full custody of their daughter.
Whilst both of the cases slowly gather some pace, the central part of the story concentrates on the increasing involvement of Johanne and Adam. It's not a romantic involvement as such, but there is a feeling of interest and reliance from both of them.
There are a couple of hints in this book that indicate a first time novel. There is a tendency towards over-development and over-explanation of characters, and at points this concentration takes away from the pace and focus you would expect from a current day serial killer investigation. The resolution was also over reliant on some coincidences which certainly added to the thriller side of the story, but perhaps over-egged the pudding slightly.
Neither of these minor quibbles ultimately take much away from the book, and the central character of Adam Stubo is a really interesting, sympathetic and intuitive Police Detective.
SUN AND SHADOW - Ake Edwardson
Erik Winter is the youngest chief inspector in Sweden. He's quite the snappy dresser, an intuitive if slightly moody cop, consumed with his job and with his very pregnant girlfriend. When his father has a massive heart attack in Spain, he is pulled away from his job to spend a little time with him before he dies. His time in Spain is very conflicted, a completely different culture and experience which his parents have embraced totally, away from his girlfriend and his job, he's lost and uncomfortable. When he returns, a particularly gruesome double murder, almost on his doorstep drags Winter and his team into the cult world of Gothic music and ultimately, adult games.
At the same time, his girlfriend has moved in and they are preparing for the birth of their baby when anonymous phone calls and strange noises outside their apartment late at night start to worry both of them.
This is an intricate, complicated, layered book which builds slowly to an intense and rapid conclusion. There are many contrasts between the characters in the book, with a rich cast of supporting characters - both from the police and Winter's own family, as well as witnesses that are drawn into the story as the investigation proceeds.
Classic Scandinavian crime fiction, well-paced, textured, thoughtful and compelling.
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.
VISIBILITY - Boris Starling
VISIBILITY is the fourth book from Boris Starling. It is set in 1952 in London in the middle of one of the last great, lingering pea-souper fogs.
VISIBILITY could be a reference to the fog which is all pervading and dictates all of the action and events in this post-war thriller. When biochemist Max Stensness is found drowned in early in the evening, in the middle of the fog, Herbert Smith, ex-MI5 and now member of Scotland Yard's Murder Squad gets the case because it's probably going to be an uninteresting one, and the rest of the murder squad are very unwelcoming and suspicious of Herbert's background.
VISIBILITY could also be a reference to Hannah, the underwater diver called on to search the location where Stensness's body is found. Hannah is Hungarian, blind and a refugee from the Nazi concentration camps.
VISIBILITY could also be a reference to the world of espionage. When Herbert gradually reveals more about the victim he finds that he is back looking at the world of spies, informers, the CIA, the KGB and MI5, despite the fact that he's now looking at it from the point of view of a murder investigation.
VISIBILITY finally could also be a reference to the events surrounding the end of the war and the dissipation of all levels of Nazi party members.
The design of the plot of this book intertwines a lot of historical components - setting the place and the time for the book squarely in a world still dealing with the fallout of the Second World War. Herbert Smith is an interesting detective character, having been forced from MI5 and feeling the effects of a life as a spy which has made him a very lonely, conflicted man. He has a complex and difficult relationship with his mother, currently hospitalised with chronic respitory ailments, exacerbated by the fog. Hannah is a lively, interesting, exciting character, who despite suffering dreadfully at the hands of the Nazi's is not a victim. She's a really strong, capable, independent woman and her blindness is not a disability.
The only minor criticism is that the final outcome is a twist of historical fact which is an approach that can be confronting - what is actually the truth and what did you read in a fiction book? Other than that small, probably personal quibble, this is a good, paced, interesting and involving book with some very engaging characters.
SPIDER TRAP - Barry Maitland
The bodies of two young girls are found, shot and discarded in an old abandoned warehouse in the Cockpit Lane district in Brixton, London. Nearby the activity of the police investigation sparks the interest of a young schoolboy who is obsessed with a school myth about "Brown Bread" and an abandoned wasteland near the warehouse and his school. Nobody really knows what "Brown Bread" is, but the whole school has known for years that it's hidden on that bit of wasteland. The problem is that the wasteland reveals 3 skeletons and they don't seem to be the "Brown Bread" that everyone's been talking about. The skeletons have been there since the Brixton riots around 20 years ago.
The Cockpit Lane area is the heart of the West Indian Community in London and Brock has previous history with them, and with one of the original crime families from before the West Indian invasion. The Roach family are now worth serious money and it seems, have gone straight, but it was a different story for them at the time of the Brixton riots.
There was something really engaging about this book. The investigation of the death of the two girls is sidelined by the discovery of the 3 skeletons, but there are some elegant twists and turns which tie everything together. There are some really engaging and involving stories around the victims, the West Indian Community and how many of the younger members of that community came to be in London. There is a great supporting cast within the West Indian community, and there are some complicated and involving connections between them, Brock, Kolla, the victims and the local villains. These interplaying connections added a level of reality to the entire storyline. There is some private life goings on for both Brock and Kolla. Brock's personal life story goes to how he reacts and feels about being dragged back into his own past. Kolla's becomes integral to the storyline of the investigation but is not a distraction from that.
SPIDER TRAP is ultimately a really engaging story which is very readable.
A TALE ETCHED IN BLOOD AND HARD BLACK PENCIL - Christopher Brookmyre
DS Gillespie suspects they are not dealing with the sharpest pencils in the box when she's called to the discovery of two partially disfigured, roughly hidden bodies in the forest. The reputation of the killers is not enhanced greatly when they leave the receipts for all the gear they bought for disposing of the bodies behind, but the whole thing moves further into the surreal for Gillespie when she can identify both the victims as locals and people she knows all too well from her own school days.
A TALE ETCHED moves between school days in the 1970's and the current events and investigation as more and more of Gillespie's old school pals are pulled in. The switching of perspective between the two timeframes slowly reveals the development of the core characters from who they became at school, to what they are in their adult lives.
In typical Brookmyre fashion this is at times absolutely hilarious and at times very painful. These stories bring back so many of the trials and tribulations of childhood - the desperate need to "fit in", the bullying, the cliques, the rises and falls from grace, sadistic teachers, ineffectual teachers, family dysfunction, deeply felt-friendship and always remembered embarrassments.
In the end, there is a mystery about who killed these two victims and why - the why having more twists and turns that are revealed as more and more of the growing years of the central characters are revealed.
Whilst it's typical of Brookmyre to mix utter side splitting hilarity with a serious message and undertone, there's something in A TALE ETCHED IN BLOOD AND HARD BLACK PENCIL that made it compelling. Maybe you needed to go to a primary school for it to grab you, but boy did this grab.
THE CLEANER - Paul Cleave
Meet Joe. He's a nice guy out to catch a copycat killer. The one copying himself.
Suprising and compelling, this powerfully written novel is a terrifyingly vivid insight into the mind of a serial killer. Joe is in control of everything in his simple life, including both his day job at the police department and his 'night work'. He remembers to feed his fish twice a day and visit his mother at least once a week, although he occasionally peppers her coffee with rat poison.
The Cleaner is Christchurch, New Zealand based Paul Cleave's debut novel. Set in Christchurch where at one point Joe, the central character, muses that the biggest crime in Christchurch City - apart from the fashion and the Old English Architecture, glue-sniffing, too much greenery, bad driving, bad parking, lack of parking, wandering pedestrians, expensive shops, the winter smog, the summer smog, kids riding skateboards on footpaths, kids riding bikes on footpaths, old guys yelling Bible passages at anybody passing by, stupid policemen, stupid laws, too many drunks, too few shops, barking dogs, loud music, puddles of vomit in the gutters and the grey decor, among several other things - is burglary. And, thanks mainly to Joe - serial killings.
Joe works as a cleaner for the Christchurch Police. They think he's mentally handicapped - a bit slow. Joe knows he's not and he knows fully well that he's actually a very intelligent, busy, serial killer. He also knows that of the 7 murders they currently have chalked up to the Christchurch Carver - one of them wasn't him. And he's just ever so slightly miffed by this.
Early on in this book, I'll be perfectly honest, I was thinking that the world could really do without another self-impressed, self-involved, self-narrating serial killer and about the time I was ready to throw this out the nearest window, bang, Cleave suddenly turned THE CLEANER on its head and Joe finds himself in a very very strange place. From then on the book takes you on a bit of a wild ride whilst Joe ramps up the killing spree, and tries to find the perpetrator of the one murder that he didn't do. Professional Pride? More likely a handy scapegoat.
Although set within the Police Station, this is not a police procedural, so there is little concentration on the actual investigation, with most of the Police investigators taking a very low profile. Aside from the police, there are some unusual and well fleshed supporting characters. All in all, a very promising debut book with some good twists and turns.
LANG - Kjell Westo
Kjell Westo is a Swedish speaking Finnish author, who has previously published poetry, short stories and three novels. LANG is his first suspense / crime novel.
The central character, Lang, is a twice divorced, well-known novelist and host of a TV discussion panel show in Finland. He's a very self-obsessed, slightly pretentious man who totally loses personal control when he meets Sarita - a very self-contained, distant woman. Lang and Sarita develop a complicated and tortuous personal relationship which is not helped by the presence of Sarita's ex-husband Marko. Lang feels physically and emotionally threatened by Marko but his passion for Sarita is so extreme he cannot tear himself away.
The novel is structured in an unusual manner, there is a narrator, Lang's best friend, who starts off telling the story after a murder has been committed, when Lang calls him late in the night. The story then steps back through the events that led up to Lang meeting Sarita, the difficulties of their relationship, their various split ups and reconciliations and Marko's involvement. The narration of events is interspersed with snippets of the narrator's involvement with Lang since childhood, and even before the crime is revealed in the book, Lang's behaviour in prison where he is obviously serving a sentence for killing somebody - but who is not clear. The victim is intentionally vague until the final clarification - it could be Sarita, it could be Marko, it could really be anybody.
This is another one of those classic Scandinavian style crime fiction books where nothing is easy, nothing is simply resolved, and there are more questions at the end than there are answers. Lang is an unpleasant character - not the sort of person that you could warm to, and even at the end, when it appears that he may just have done something grand and selfless for love, he is at the same time pulling away from the people who try to support him, back into his prickly, self-involved world. Sarita is both a victim and a perpetrator, she uses Lang just as much as he tries to control her. Even the narrator is relieved that his involvement is kept out of the courts and therefore out of the press. Another one of those books that you can't say outright that you loved or even necessarily enjoyed, but you read it, and you think about it for weeks and weeks afterwards.
THE RAFT - Alan Mills
It should have been a simple holiday in far North Queensland. A chance for Martin and Lydia Napier to repair their faltering marriage. A time-out with their young daughter Ami from a pressured city life. It should have been...
But the brutal power of nature means a drastic change of plans for the Napier family when they're forced to flee rising floodwaters. Within hours the family find themselves marooned with a small group of surviviors on the roof of an isolated farmhouse, with dwindling hopes of rescue and a killer in their midst...
THE RAFT was originally published in 2005 before the author's recent CITY OF ANIMALS.
Lydia and Martin Napier have gone through personal tragedy, their once perfect lives have been turned upside down and they are now struggling with the news that Martin has just lost his long term job writing and drawing an ongoing comic strip.
Lydia's boss offers them the use of his property in Far North Queensland as a chance to get away and decide what they will do. The arrive, with their small daughter Ami, in Cairns at the same time as a cyclone rolls in, cutting off the farm and surrounding areas with massive flooding and torrential rain.
Whilst trying to escape the remote property, they end up stranded back there with a policeman, his prisoner and a truck driver who have also been caught in the rising flood waters.
The book intersperses chapters of the "action" with time that Martin spends in hospital recovering from injuries sustained in the ordeal. During this time he is remembering and taking local police through the events, and there is a gradual unfurling of all that happened in that cut off farm house.
There is something of the film script about this book - it's written in a very big and bold style - there is lots of action and drama and the pre-requisite number of evil and threatening baddies lurking throughout the entire book.
This is probably a book for fans of the big bold blockbuster style of rolling action, but beware - cliches and stereotypes are pretty thick on the ground.