CHILD 44 is the debut novel for Tom Rob Smith, set in the dying days of Stalin's Soviet dream society, inspired by a real-life serial killer.
Starting in 1933, with villages of people starving to death in a desperate winter, the opening chapter of CHILD 44 deeply underscores the desperation of life in that environment. Moving 20 years later in 1953 Moscow, a very young child is found dead on the railway tracks. His death is barely investigated. The Security Services have other things on their minds. Mostly vicious persecution of ordinary people. Slowly, Security Ministry Officer Leo Demidov is being manoeuvred into the position of State enemy, and ultimately he is sent, along with the wife he refused to hand into the authorities, to the Ural Mountains where other children are found murdered. Murder (and most crime) isn't acknowledged by the Soviet authorities, unless it can be blamed on the insanity or perversity of the perpetrator, so convenient scapegoats are found and the cases quickly closed. Leo knows there's something more going on, and when the local Police General finally is convinced as well, they discover something much more sinister. The problem then really becomes whether Leo and his wife can survive long enough to get to the end of the trail.
CHILD 44 takes a while to get moving - in terms of a pure investigation of crime novel. The early part of the book is taken up with the events that lead Leo into the position of being "an enemy of the State". Throughout this part of the book the direness of the Soviet experience, the petty corruption and bullying that a martial society allows are brutally explored. The sheer cruelty of a system that seeks to find it's own citizenry guilty is glaringly stark.
Patience as this building of scene is rewarded though as once the book hits the point at which Leo and Raisa (his wife) end up in the Urals, events begin to pile on top of each other.
There's a lot more to CHILD 44 than the investigation of a shocking series of child murders. What's also at stake is the whole way that fear can control a society, can affect personal relationships, can twist everything.
Obviously there's been considerable research into the background of CHILD 44, but the book doesn't read as a research tome - it reads as a story of fear, manipulation, power struggles, petty jealousy, brutality, cruelty, madness, loss, survival and humanity.
SHOOTING STAR - Peter Temple
Anne Carson: fifteen, beautiful, wayward. Abducted.
The rich Carsons have closed ranks and summoned Frank Calder, subject to strict instructions. This is not the first kidnapping in the Carson family and hard lessons have been learned.
But are the two events connected? And is greed the motivation? Revenge? Or could it be something else? To find out, Frank Calder must go beyond his brief.
And his every step into the darkness may end a girl's life.
Frank Calder is a bit of a maverick. Ex-cop / ex-soldier - current day "mediator". He's the sort of bloke that gets called in to sticky situations where unusual solutions are required. He's worked for the Carsons before. When a crazed gunman took store staff hostage, Frank wandered into the situation to save the hostages. Which he did. Quietly, efficiently and unusually.
So when Anne disappears on the way home from school and a ransom demand is received by the family, the Carsons again turn to Frank. He wants them to call in the police, but they did that once before and one of their own very nearly died. This time they want to do exactly what the kidnappers ask and once they have Anne back, they'll deal with the kidnappers themselves. Frank finds himself having to wade around in the families dirty French soap smelling laundry to get to the bottom of a possible motive.
SHOOTING STAR is classic Peter Temple. The prose is sparse, the central character is a bit of a maverick with a heart, he has connections, he uses them. The Carson families skeletons are all a bit on the unsurprising side - large, very wealthy families seem to have these little peculiarities, but the methods of uncovering them are fast, tight, and often quite funny.
All of the characterisations are interesting - Calder himself, his offsider Orlovsky, the Carson patriarch Pat, his sons, their sons, the wives, the granddaughters - the hired help. And throughout the story there are those standout little passages that you can expect from Temple - the observational points. Orlovsky as an immigrant in his own country, Calder as a man who only smokes when bad things are about to happen, Pat Carson and his whiskey bottle - all that money and that compound.
Wonderfully paced, with a good resolution, SHOOTING STAR is already a classic of Australian Crime fiction.
THE AFFAIR OF THE MUTILATED MINK - James Anderson
It's really easy for latter day homages to early 1930's / 1940's arch, drawing room style comedies or take offs to overdo it to the point where it's cartoonish. THE AFFAIR OF THE MUTILATED MINK doesn't overdo it, but on the other hand it doesn't under deliver on a slightly comic (tongue in cheek) murder drama in the realms of high British aristocracy.
The Earl of Burford is a recent convert to the joys of the cinematographic entertainment and he's more than a bit chuffed at the Hollywood crowd arriving. He doesn't even mind the eccentric screenwriter who invites his own secretary along - even though he's an odd sort of a cove. Of course neither the Earl or the Countess are convinced about Gerry's plan of inviting both her suitors for a close up comparison - but who can talk Gerry out of anything. Catching up with the long-lost cousin and her husband, recently returned from Australia are about the only thing that the Countess can look forward to, whilst the Earl is starting to worry about the history of large house parties at Alderley - seems they have a bit of an history. With the arrival of the totally unexpected Great Italian Actress and the equally early arrival of the very effacing librarian; the party is primed and starting to feel the tension rise. Then a death occurs (of course!).
The murder is being ably investigated by local Inspector Wilkins - who has been involved in mysterious deaths at Alderley in the past. He's been doing an admirable job, but in "rides" Allgood of the Yard. Allgood is here to save the day and solve the puzzle, being a master detective and all round genius (definitely a legend in his own notebooks!)
In this mix of characters there are more daring deeds, bad 'uns, nefarious goings on, creeping around in the dead of night, cheating, snooping, lying, ducking and weaving than you'd think possible to fit into 350 pages. It's a nicely complex plot which doesn't ever become overly complicated and there's some fun twists on the standard of the final "everybody in the drawing room" conclusion.
At the end of the day Merryweather saves the day - now you'll have to read the book to find out which day!
WEB OF EVIL - J A Jance
WEB OF EVIL is the second Ali Reynolds book from JA Jance - who also writes a number of other series - the Joanna Brady books; J P Beaumont books and a number of thrillers involving the Walker Family.
WEB OF EVIL takes up with Ali after she has returned to her hometown, and as her divorce from husband Paul is about to take place. She returns to LA for court appearances - to finalise the divorce and her wrongful dismissal case against her old employers. Despite Paul being the one who is desperate for the divorce to proceed quickly - his very young girlfriend is very pregnant and their wedding is to happen the day after the divorce - he doesn't show at the court date. Ali remains in town anyway - with a new date set for the divorce, she's also waiting for the second case - when the reason that Paul hasn't shown up becomes all too abundantly clear. Ali, her mother, and a policeman friend from her hometown find themselves investigating what happened to Paul, trying to support his pregnant girlfriend and dealing with the fallout from a big mess.
J A Jance is a very prolific writer, and the Ali Reynolds series is one of her most recent developments, which undoubtedly has a big range of fans. This book is a very very busy story with lot's happening, a lot of people rushing around and a heroine who must get out there and save the day herself. The police suspect that she's behind what happened to her ex-Husband. This suspicion seems to be based mostly on her driving through the same area where he died. I think. Nobody else seems to be wondering about the girlfriend, her grasping mother or the odd inclusion of Sumo Sudoku to wedding festivities (Sudoku played with rocks - don't ask / I couldn't quite work it out either).
There's a very big cast of supporting characters - people who subscribe to Ali's blog / her family and supporters / friends of the ex-husband and his girlfriend / the girlfriend's family / the staff at the mansion that Ali used to share with her husband. The blog itself also plays a part as a supporting character, as Ali shares what's happening with her life by way of blog postings.
All this gave the whole thing a feeling of vague confusion - I had trouble following the method behind using her blog (sad bit of nit picking on my part I know); I was also almost terminally distracted by the dialogue style which just didn't work for this reader; and to be perfectly honest - over 35 marked occurrences where somebody refers to the makes and models of cars (although that got inconsistent as the book went on) - and I was thoroughly and totally distracted from the central story. Add to that a mobile home with a basement and some really unclear reasoning behind a hometown friend getting involved in the whole mess and everything got unfocused and just plain daft. I'm not sure if reading the earlier book in the series might not help understand Ali a bit better - but if she insists on referring to her ex-husband as "Fang" publicly and Paul everywhere else (except the book blurb where he seems to have been known as the 'cheating rat'), I'm not sure I'd be able to.
Certainly the book reads very quickly and you can charge through the story. Maybe that's part of the attraction of these sorts of books - they are quick / a lot happens / and the bad guys get it in the end.
LAST RITUALS - Yrsa Sigurdardottir
A young man is found brutally murdered, his eyes gouged out and a strange symbol carved on his body. A student of Icelandic history in Reykjavik, he came from a wealthy German family who do not share the police's belief that his drug dealer murdered him. Thora is hired by his mother to find out the truth, with the help - and hindrance - of boorish ex-policeman Matthew Reich.
Firstly, it has to be said - the book blurb doesn't do Reich any favours and if he was a real person he'd have every right to be slightly miffed about the description of himself as boorish. Sure he's a little stiff and formal in the early part of the book, but that's all it is - he's not boorish at all, and there is a twinkle of a teasing sense of humour that reveals itself as LAST RITUALS proceeds.
That sense of humour is part of what's notable about LAST RITUALS. The subject matter is quite dark, menacing and more than a little bit weird. The body of the young German student has been desecrated after death - the eyes gouged out. But before death, Harald has self-inflicted some odd body art and self-mutilation - all it seems, part of his deep and obsessive interest in witchcraft, magic and the absurd / the violent.
Thora and Matthew are investigating his death as Harald's family don't believe he was killed by his drug dealer - why, well that's probably not the point - and it's not dwelt on in the book. Matthew works for Harald's family and he's sent to Iceland, and because of Thora's background studying in Germany she's pulled into the investigation to assist. Matthew does need some help - he can't speak Icelandic and he struggles to understand the people and their customs plus he doesn't like eating fish that much - in a country where it's a staple food. So he's a bit grumpy and a bit at a loss. Mind you Thora doesn't have to deal with any of that, but she is as lost in the investigation as Matthew. They both agree with Harald's family that it doesn't seem like the drug dealer was involved, and it does look like his friends must have something to do with this - the magic society that they have formed is close and secretive and more than a little weird. The only way to get to the bottom of this is to understand Harald himself, and that's a path that's hard to take.
Sure the subject matter - or method of death for Harald is gruesome, and the magical customs and interests that he had in life are often-times gross and frequently just peculiar, but LAST RITUALS isn't automatically a gruesome and dark book. There is a deftness in the humour used, in the characterisations that lifts the book into something that you really can't help but get involved in. Even Harald, after death, is somebody that seems a bit lost, and there is definitely something odd in his relationship with his own family (and right through the family for that matter).
There's some romance in the relationship between Thora and Matthew that you can really see coming - but it's not overdone or cloying or overly sentimental - it fits right in with the two persona's, and it's tempered by happenings in Thora's own life that just felt so realistic that it worked. There is a heavy concentration on the history of Icelandic and German witchcraft - the magic and the rituals Harald is, after all, studying it as part of his course before he dies. Maybe that will annoy some readers a bit as the concentration is frequently on those components. This reader loved it as it fleshed out the people, fleshed out the world in which they operated and highlighted Harald's fascination and obsession.
SPEAK OF THE DEVIL - Richard Hawke
It all begins on a perfect Manhattan morning: a gunman's bullets shatter the festival atmosphere of the world-famous Thanksgiving Day parade. Only one man in the crowd sees it happening but, fortunately for the unsuspecting throng gathered for the parade, he's the right man for the moment.
Meet Fritz Malone, New York's sharpest PI - an outsider with an insider's nose for City Hall politics, and a man who knows the rules well enough to work around them.
SPEAK OF THE DEVIL is the first Fritz Malone book - some may remember a review of COLD DAY IN HELL a while ago. Interestingly enough, it wasn't until I'd finished SPEAK OF THE DEVIL that I realised it was the earlier book in the series.
I've got to say right up front I like Fritz Malone. I don't really know why - hard-bitten / soft-hearted / wise cracking PI's with hearts of gold and bodies of steel are - well dangerously close to cliched and they can be desperately boring, but Hawke gets away with it for some reason. Goodness knows how really - Malone's girlfriend Margo is there to join in the wise-cracking, quick with the disapproval, playing the part of the straight "man" to Malone's erratic persona. Margo's father is the old timer, hard man in his own right, taught Malone everything he knows, ended up in a wheelchair, ready with advice and a sounding board. Malone has a coterie of sidekicks who step up, step in, kick, shoot and watch his back.
So what does work - well there's an interesting story at the heart of SPEAK OF THE DEVIL - why on earth would some loser / nobody / shoot up the Thanksgiving Parade? Was the cop that was shot dead a lucky shot or was the real target the somewhat famous actress girlfriend of the Mayor? Why, when Malone corners the shooter in a park is he bundled away from the scene? Why did the shooter turn up dead? Who is threatening the Mayor and what does a two bit local drug dealer and thug have to do with all of this?
There's also some of Malone's family background fleshed out a bit in SPEAK OF THE DEVIL - who he is and how his extended family works (or doesn't) is touched upon and that helps to turn Malone into slightly more than just a wise-cracking hard man.
Of course you're going to have to like him as is. Hawke presents Malone very much as is - take it or leave it - he is what he is. Maybe that's what works most about the book. Wise-cracking / hard man / hard boiled / cynical PI's are us. Now, let's get on with it.
BLACK MONDAY - R Scott Reiss
A plague that will cause the death of millions, destroy countries, plunge the world into chaos and yet make nobody sick?
When the planes first go down - in Europe, America and Asia - the authorities blame terrorists. All flights are grounded as world leaders try to figure out how the global assault has been coordinated. And when cars, ships and factories stop running too, it becomes clear that the common link is oil. A microbe, genetically engineered to destroy petroleum, has somehow infect the world supply.
Sounds really intriguing doesn't it. A microbe that cuts off the world's oil supply and plunges everything into a dark age. A fascinating premise no doubt about it. BLACK MONDAY has, as it's central hero, Dr Gregory Gillette, an epidemiologist with the Centres for Disease Control. He is a disease hunter, a plague specialist if you like - used to going into the centre of epidemics and finding the cause. Initially the Pentagon ask him to be part of the Rapid Response Team assembled to track and kill the devastating Delta-3 bacteria, but he quickly discovers that his expertise is being ignored and he must go it alone if he's to find the cause and stop this different sort of a plague. Not only is the leader of the task force against him, there are other threats lurking.
Possibly you're going to need to be a fan of blockbuster movie style books, maybe you're going to have to like the idea of one man against uncaring / unthinking / incompetent authorities scenarios. You're definitely going to have to accept a couple of extra, more individual threats thrown in as well as some convenient fear factors to like BLACK MONDAY, but if you do like that style of movie - in particular - then BLACK MONDAY could be the book for you.
There's absolutely no doubt that the good guys will win. There's no doubt that there is a lurking threat - very human threat behind the microbe. There's a sudden, dramatic and frenetic breakdown of society (except for the little pocket that our hero lives in) as the panic sets in when oil supplies run out. There's also some uncontaminated supplies of oil, incidentally, so those people that need to move around (for the sake of the plot) can move around.
And perhaps that's also what didn't work about BLACK MONDAY. It reads like a film script wrapped up as a book. There's little actual character development - mostly the book relies on "action". Whilst this can work in book format as well, it was slightly off the mark in this book as most of the action was predicated by things that just didn't make sense. The authorities responses were too inexplicable; the reasons behind the shadowy assassin's actions too unclear; the threat from the local "gangster" too cartoonish.
I confess BLACK MONDAY didn't work for me because of the overt and mostly unexplained lurking threatening presences; the one man against the authorities scenario with insufficient good reasons for that having to happen; and all the pointless rushing around and waving of guns as plot points. Of course, you can see why this has been movie optioned so quickly and readers will undoubtedly have some fun picking out a casting line up.
BY DEATH DIVIDED - Patricia Hall
Caught by the current, her body tumbles this way and that in the black waters of the River Maze, dragged inexorably forward, her long dark hair trailing out behind her. For days she continues on, unseen, making a lonely passage through villages and marshes, until, at last, her journey comes to an end in a tangle of debris washed down with the flood waters.
BY DEATH DIVIDED is the 14th book in the Thackeray and Ackroyd series. Laura Ackroyd is a journalist - her partner Michael Thackeray is a DCI. Fitting the double central characters, BY DEATH DIVIDED has two main threads - a missing Asian woman and her husband (which Thackeray is investigating) and domestic violence (which Ackroyd is reporting on). Both of these threads - probably predictably - meet up as the book draws to a conclusion. Mind you, there's nothing wrong with the predictability of this joining up, as it's done with a fair amount of aplomb and some darn good reasons.
The book has a third central character - Mohammed Sharif is a Policeman, Asian and Muslim background, but living a very non-traditional (and unpopular with his family) lifestyle; he is tightrope walking between his life and that of his family, and his connection with the missing Asian woman (his cousin) and her husband. Some of his "thought processes" probably provide the only minor quibble with the book - he's frequently put into a position of asking questions / doing things that he says to himself "will get him banned from his extended families homes". Yet he goes back. Minor point, but by the second time around it stuck out like the proverbial.
BY DEATH DIVIDED touches on a lot of current day themes within the the context of both main threads - the domestic violence issues discussed include how hard it is to build cases against perpetrators when family members won't talk; how the violence is often inexplicable and rapid - but also how there can actually be an explanation behind it. The investigation into the missing woman works it's way through the differences in lifestyles of traditional and non-traditional Asian families - and how that fits into a wider British community; the problems associated with perceptions of religion; the complications that terrorism brings to communities who are too easily tarred with a wide ranging brush; the difficulties in understanding arranged marriages for those outside.
Nothing in the book is jarring or controversial, but it covers a lot of ground very competently. Built into the narrative is an ongoing development of the relationship between Thackeray and Ackroyd. There's some background to that relationship that's briefly hit upon in BY DEATH DIVIDED, and it would be interesting to know what that is - but it's not going to stop you from diving into this long-running series at this point, if that's what it takes to get you started.
A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS - R J Ellory
Don't let the synopsis mislead you - this is not really a book about a group of children, nor is it necessarily a book about a murder investigation. This is a book about Joseph Calvin Vaughan and how events shape him. From the death of his father when Joseph is only 11; through the beginning of the unknown killers vicious killing spree; the long-term hospitalisation / sanctioning of his mother; his love life; his loss - the reader travels with Joseph as he attempt to make sense of the world around him.
It seems to move incredibly slowly as Joseph's life ebbs and flows - well mostly ebbs really. The brutal killings of young girls continue slowly, paced out over years as Joseph's own life peaks and then hits major low points. And all the way through his life, there is an ongoing doubt - even that he has - about who is the killer of young girls. There are other bit characters in A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS - Joseph's mother; friends from the small town; lovers; the local sheriff, but the focus of the story; the narrator of events is Joseph.
You'll need to slow down to read A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS. You'll need to connect with Joseph. You'll need to be content to take a journey through many years with a boy, who grows to a young man, experiences a hard and painful life, and in the end, finds out the truth - but you have to wonder if it's just a little too late. It's a very moving book, involving despite the slowness of events, despite the almost back seat that the murders take. At the end of it all, you have to wonder if an author could put his central character through any more and bring him out at the other end alive.
SENSITIVE NEW AGE SPY - Geoffrey McGeachin
All Alby wants is a decent coffee and a day off. But there's a hijacked tanker with a deadly cargo in Sydney Harbour, and bullets are flying on board a US Navy cruiser. Three sailors are dead and a Seahawk chopper is missing.
SENSITIVE NEW AGE SPY continues the Alby Murdoch story where D-E-D Dead! left off. Post the hilariously over the top events at the end of the first book, Alby finds himself thrust into leadership of D-E-D, not that it's all bad. He manages to not get too involved in the day to day, and there's always Julie. Julie helping out on operations is one thing, Julie asleep, in not a lot, on your couch is another altogether. Mind you Alby's pretty well convinced he'll never get to have his way with Julie, it's a pity that for an intelligence agent, he can be as thick as the walls of an 80,000 tonne tanker.
Which is exactly what brings Alby and Julie's happy, relaxed long-weekend to an abrupt end. Nobody's quite sure how a tanker that big could be hijacked in the first place, in the second place how did it end up moored right up beside Fort Denison in the middle of Sydney Harbour, but the more pressing problem is how much of Sydney will be left if the LNG on board goes up in flames. The added complication of the nearby US Navy cruiser that "may or may not" be carrying nuclear weapons and Alby's day is about to get a whole lot more complicated. But every bad situation has to have a an upside and maybe, just maybe, Lieutenant Kingston could be it.
Slightly more assured than the first book, SENSITIVE NEW AGE SPY is a romp through the intricacies of being a spy in a complicated world. No more do spies get the luxury of ultra-sleek Aston Martins and Martinis on call; Sydney's latter day Spy gets a rusted out 4WD and the occasional bottle of red. And breakfast has become a major problem. Alby has really got to get people to stop shooting at him at his favourite breakfast haunts - the poor man may be reduced to a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice like the rest of us mere mortals. At the centre of SENSITIVE NEW AGE SPY, amongst the severely tongue in cheek dialogue (harbour duty officers getting alert and alarmed - which will probably mean more to your average Australian reader...), there is buried in here, a good mystery. Were there nuclear arms on that cruiser? Are they still there, or have they gone missing? Who is the mysterious Reverend Priday and his gorgeous daughter and what on earth does all this have to do with whales?
You could be reading this book first if you want to, there's the odd reference to events in D-E-D Dead!, but not enough to throw you. Having said, that, read them both.