The world is in economic meltdown but the mining town of Hopetoun, Western Australia, is booming.
With the town's population exploding, it's easy enough to hide a crime - and a dirty past.
Disgraced police-service golden boy DSC Cato Kwong is doing time investigating roadkill with the Stock Squad. But when the ocean throws up a human torso onto the shores of Hopetoun, Cato is called in from the cold.
There's absolutely nothing like a quintessential Aussie bloke, a cop in purgatory, stuck in outback Western Australia, doing time on the Stock Squad for offending the powers that be. Alan Carter's debut novel PRIME CUT starts out with considerable promise, despite the slightly unrealistic picture of a Stock Squad peering that closely at roadkill!
But the setup is beside the point as DSC Cato Kwong has to be out in the middle of nowhere for some reason, therefore becoming the only option on hand when a mangled torso is washed up on the beach of mining town Hopetoun. Much to his old bosses displeasure. But then it's just for a few days until some resources can be freed up in Perth. So Kwong has a mystery, an existing force of two cops, and a deadline if he wants to drag himself back from the brink of investigating rustling for the rest of his born days. And things are even more complicated when he arrives in Hopetoun to find that one of the local cops is an ex of his, sidelined to the bush because she was badly injured in an incident after they split up, Tess Maguire has problems of her own.
Because Kwong and Maguire both have pasts (separate and their failed relationship) there's obviously going to be a hefty dose of self-evaluation and backward looking focus at points in the book, but that's handled with considerable aplomb - and helped immensely by some really deft touches of humour, and a laid back, Australian sensibility. There's also a point at which you can see that this author has spent some time in this town, he has a keen eye for the effects of a mining boom on a quiet little seaside town and he's developed a good sense of place - albeit a place in the middle of nowhere, a 21st century outback Australian frontier of a sort.
The pressure of the deadline gives the story a good feeling of tension, without it being played overtly. There's a nice balance of investigative ability and observation, assisted by some risky moves and some strong local knowledge. There's also a lot of threads playing out in the book, so the reader is kept well on their toes keeping track of who is who and what is what, let alone why! The characters are really well handled, from the ambitious but flawed Kwong, to the local policeman who can hold his own. Tess Maguire was interesting, her life obviously considerably derailed by her encounter with a man who injured her badly when on duty one night, her story weaves its way into the narrative, just the same as Kwong's personal story is drawn out. The only downside is that towards the end Maguire disappears a bit in the hurly burly. The series stars DSC Cato Kwong, but Carter may just have a team on his hands here. And let's hope that we see a lot more of one or both of them into the future. PRIME CUT really is a terrific debut novel.
CRIME - Ferdinand von Schirach
Crime is a collection of stories told by one of Germany’s most prominent defence lawyers. Some of the cases are strange, some bewildering and others heartbreaking, but all are told with genuine concern for those who have slipped through the protective nets of society.
The author of CRIME, Ferdinand von Schirach is a criminal lawyer in Berlin. He's also an extremely good storyteller.
The stories incorporated in CRIME (as the publicity material puts it) were specifically chosen to demonstrate the relationships between truth and reason, law and compassion. They are real-life cases from the author's own experience. The subject matter, frankly, is frequently much much easier to imagine as fictional - but they are not. Whilst it's clear they are tales chosen to trigger certain emotions and reactions in the reader, in von Schirach's hands, the telling isn't overblown or overtly manipulative. There's something restrained, dry, matter-of-fact in the author's storytelling which makes the subject matter striking, but somehow more palatable (for want of a better word). Palatable only in the reading mind you. Consideration of what is happening in each of these tales, on the other hand, is more challenging.
There's lots of things to find interesting about this book - not just the nature of truth, reason, law and compassion, but also the more practical elements - the way that the justice system works in Germany, the glimpses into the world of the criminal lawyer. More than once I finished one of these stories wondering how it is that people get themselves into these situations, and how they ended up on von Schirach's doorstep afterwards. Perhaps the first part of that statement is what the book does best - really makes you wonder / think / consider the nature of justice.
The only downside to the book is that it might be best to read in small snippets - a story at a time, and then give yourself some thinking time and then onto the next. I certainly have found myself drawn back to reading some of the entries again, which, for somebody with a lot of reading matter available to them, is about the highest praise I can think of.
SCREAM - Nigel McCrery
As people disappear from his streets, and a handful of battered and broken bodies are discovered on his patch, Lapslie has no idea that he's up against a man who feels sound like he can taste it.
I doubt it's much of a coincidence being a big fan of the scripts and the acting in the TV Series NEW TRICKS, that I'm also a fan of the DCI Mark Lapslie series. After all, Nigel McCrery is a writer and creator of both. (Along with many other excellent TV series including Silent Witness and All the King's Men.)
SCREAM is the third in the DCI Mark Lapslie series, Lapslie being an unusual central protagonist who suffers from a particularly acute form of synaesthesia. In other words he experiences sounds as a variety of different flavours. Which makes receiving a very disturbing email; with a sound file attached which appears to be a recording of an unknown woman's death throes particularly confrontational for him. The situation isn't made any easier as Lapslie is in Pakistan at an international course on counter-terrorism, which means he has to fly back immediately to lead the investigation as it's obvious that the killer wants him involved.
In the meantime Lapslie's sergeant, Emma, is leading an investigation into the murder of a woman on Canvey Island. It seems that the victim was tortured before death, and whilst they do manage to identify the victim, it doesn't seem to move the investigation any further. Eventually it's trace evidence and the search to see if they have a serial killer that edges it slowly forward.
Lapslie and Emma have been developing a tentative working relationship in all three of these novels now, although in SCREAM things are complicated by Emma's ongoing relationship with local crook and police informer Dom McGinley. He's a most unlikely love interest for Emma, but there's something very pointed about Lapslie's objections, not that he's got any romantic feelings for Emma himself, his concerns are partly paternal, partly professional.
Obviously Lapslie's synaesthesia (which does contribute to his investigative ability) has been a major element in all the books thus far, although in SCREAM he is getting treatment, and the condition is not as overpowering, and therefore it's not as major a thread throughout the entire book. Which is actually a really good thing. Not only has the condition improved, his life in general is improving, he's even able to enjoy concerts or meals out with a new girlfriend. A considerable change, particularly from the first book, where he was effectively housebound. That sense of moving on helps make this a very engaging series, but I suspect, if you've not read either of the earlier books, you could be missing out on the importance of Lapslie's improved circumstances and outlook. It may make reading this book out of sequence a little less of an enjoyable experience.
But that won't make it an unpleasant experience. McCrery has a very deft manner in the way that he plots out a story, and draws a verbal picture of the forensic and crime scene details. Having said that, the books don't read as a film / TV script in the making - SCREAM is a great novel, with pace, humour, intrigue and tension.
1222 - Anne Holt
1222 metres above sea level, train 601 from Oslo to Bergen careens off iced rails as the worst snowstorm in Norwegian history gathers force around it. Marooned in the high mountains with night falling and the temperature plummeting, its 269 passengers are forced to abandon their snowbound train and decamp to a centuries-old mountain hotel. They ought to be safe from the storm here, but as dawn breaks one of them will be found dead, murdered.
Take one gloriously grumpy central protagonist, add that train crash, include a massive snowstorm cutting off a train full of people 1222 metres above sea level in an inaccessible hotel, add a mysterious locked carriage and a group of shadowy unknown passengers, then kill off a high-profile passenger and see what happens.
What happens is that our grumpy protagonist, Hanne Wilhemlsen, ex-police officer, in a wheelchair as a result of being shot on duty, has to work out what is going on before the body count continues to increase. With no official help from the outside, and way too much interfering help on the inside, Hanne and a small group of trusted people - some passengers, some staff, some locals, need to work out who wanted to kill off a seemingly harmless, albeit annoying, priest. And the killing doesn't stop there.
Of course this plot has more than a hat-tip to a few perennial favourite devices - a closed room setting, albeit a biggish closed room in this example. This is a very large, rather luxurious resort, capable of taking in 269 or so people at a moment's notice. Then there's the idea of the thinking, observational detective - in this case enforced because of physical restrictions, there's something vaguely reminiscent of Nero Wolfe or Hercule Poriot about Hanne, although her Archie / Hastings is embodied in more than one person in 1222.
There is a large potential cast of passengers, staff and local helpers so it's just possible that the concept of a resort (that's further divided after a particular storm event) could be what makes the action being centred around a very small group of people feasible. Despite this, there was more than one point where I did wonder where everybody else was hiding - 269 plus people not being a small number after all. Add to that the secretive sub-thread about the mysterious closed off carriage, and you couldn't help wondering what was going on behind closed doors, besides the murder plotting of course!
That secretive sub-thread is probably the only part of the book that simply flat-out, doesn't work. This reader had to assume that perhaps the closed carriage was there as a bit of a hap-tip to the classic red-herring (being another perennial favourite), but to be honest, it didn't work as a red-herring throughout the book and the resolution... well it was just pointless.
Ignoring that bit of off-kilter action, the rest of the book was really good. I really like Hanne (and not just because I like grumpy protagonists!), and the use of the setting to provide a closed off, claustrophobic environment along with a sense of potential threat worked. There was a good cast of supporting characters, some nice touches of humour and good pace, and for readers who like to work out the whodonnit aspects, the author has played pretty fair - you've got a good chance of sorting it out, although you will be waiting until the last minute to get your deductions confirmed.
After a bit of a look around it seems that, in that delightful habit publishers have designed to drive readers mildly bats, 1222 is the eighth Hanne Wilhelmsen novel, but the first to be translated into English. Hopefully we'll get the rest of the series "toots sweet". In the right order would be greatly appreciated.
FOLLOW THE MONEY - Peter Corris
Cliff Hardy may still have the moves but he's in trouble. The economy's tanking and he's been conned by an unscrupulous financial advisor and lost everything he's got. Cliff only knows one way, and that's forward, so he's following the money trail. It's a twisted road that leads him down deep into Sydney's underbelly, into the territory of big money, bent deals, big yachts and bad people. Cliff's in greater danger than ever before, but he's as tenacious as a dog with a bone.
You really have to worry about Cliff Hardy. Every year he seems to dig himself a bigger, deeper more dramatic hole and he's not as young as he thinks he is.
Or so it seems from these books, but realistically Cliff is timeless. He has to be - don't try to do the maths of how old he must be - your brain will hurt or you could suddenly wonder why you're not quite such an action hero when you're nowhere near Cliff's age! Cliff's timelessness is part of his attraction, as is his blatant disregard for the rules, personal safety, and doctors advice. In recent years he has moved on a tiny bit though - he's had a heart attack and bypass surgery; finally got love; lost that love through tragedy; got rich; and in FOLLOW THE MONEY, lost the money again. At the hands of an unscrupulous financial advisor who, just to rub salt in the wounds, is renowned as somebody who ripped off clients too lazy to keep an eye on their own financial affairs. Cliff's not lazy, he's just easily distracted!
For Cliff though, it seems that the only thing worse than being ripped off could be being hired to find out if the aforementioned unscrupulous advisor isn't as dead as initial reports indicated. But forethought and consideration aren't items big on Cliff's checklist and off he goes. Enduring beatings and attacks, stays in hospital, chases, liars, cheats and threats and generally doing a fair bit of rushing around, Cliff does what Cliff does and gets to the bottom of the story.
One of the most important things in a series of this longevity, which concentrates solely on a single central character, has to be keeping the stories interesting and fresh. Sure there are elements that you expect - like the beatings, and ignoring the rules and the hospital visits etc etc etc, but luckily Corris seems to have found the happy knack of keeping things entertaining in the last half dozen or so of the Cliff Hardy books. This means that readers can quite conceivably look on the standard elements as time spent with an old friend. Albeit an old friend that you'd be barking to stand next to at the bar for fear of finding yourself in a fight that had absolutely nothing to do with you - but a little distance, and maybe a well defined exit strategy and why not shout a round. Okay, so you're not going to learn a lot about the psyche of the Australian male of a certain age. Okay so you know that Cliff's going to come out on top, well as close to the top as Cliff's ever going to get, and you know that being the love interest in Cliff's life's going to be a tricky prospect. But on the other hand, you also know that the bad guys will get found out, that wrongs will be righted and the Medicare system works like a dream. And it's nice to know that in each book there's always a bit of a plus for Cliff. Somewhere.