THE CUTTING ROOM is Louise Welsh's debut novel, published for the first time by Text Publishing in Australia in 2006.
Rilke's not exactly the archetypal hero accidental investigator. He's in his 40's; his personal hygiene is a bit offhand; he's an auctioneer for one of Glasgow's less than salubrious auction houses and he's gay with a taste for anonymous sexual encounters anywhere, anytime.
When summoned by Miss McKindless to her recently deceased brother's home, stuffed full with antiques, the likes of which Rilke's firm have never been able to get hold of. Despite her demand that the entire house be cleared in a week, Rilke readily agrees to the windfall. When she insists that Rilke personally clear her brother's private room in the attic he goes along with that as well, although she's very particular that everything in it must be destroyed. Naturally Rilke can't resist a very good look around and in amongst the very impressive collection of exclusive erotica, he finds a cache of photographs. The photographs include some of the dead man along with many that have a snuff porn theme. Rilke is immediately drawn to finding out where these photos came from and who the girl depicted could be.
Despite the fact that the search for the origins of the photos and the girl herself is a very fruitless task - the photos are obviously old, there is no indication of where they came from or where taken or anything that could possibly provide any sort of lead, Rilke can't leave well enough alone. He says himself "Let's just say I can't leave her there" when pressed to chuck it all in. And herein lies one of the great dichotomy's of the book. Rilke is in many ways a very confrontational character. His pursuit of sexual pleasure is, well, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit mucky. His (and those of his boss Rose's) ethics are a tad on the questionable side, and yet he continues the quest to find out something about these photos in a way that is extremely human and decent. At the same time, he's not depicted as a lone wolf, hard man who cares - typical of many crime fiction books. He is extremely cynical, he's a realist.
Along with Rilke there's a supporting cast of wonderful characters - Rose, his slightly overblown, vaguely past it, sexual predator boss, whose best friend is ultimately Rilke - the one man who just isn't vaguely interested in her sexually no matter what she does. There's Les the drug-dealing transvestite. There's a bunch of reprobate second hand dealers in everything from books to porn, furniture to junk. There's the old schoolfriend, now policeman, who does Rilke more than one favour by dragging him out of some difficult 'legal' situations. All of the supporting characters are drawn as vividly as the Rilke and again, there are some things to like and some things to loathe about many of them.
Ultimately THE CUTTING ROOM is a fascinating book - part morality tale, part crime fiction, part character study, vaguely Gothic, grotty and steeped in a sense of place and people. If you are interested in the non-black and white, if you can let the obvious flaws in somebody's character roll and look beneath to find a true nature, you should enjoy this book.
LOST SUMMER - Alex McAulay
Caitlin Ross is a typical Southern California teenager, obsessed with clothes, boys and how she looks. Her younger brother Luke is out of control, getting into trouble shooting paint guns at people and obsessed with his violent DVD's and video games. Kathryn, Caitlin and Luke's mother, is too busy popping pills to have any hope of controlling them. Their father, now living a long way away, is too busy with his own new life.
Suddenly Caitlin's mother announces that because they are so out of control, the three of them are spending the summer on the isolated North Carolina island of Outer Banks. Caitlin and Luke have no choice but to go along; their father doesn't want to get involved and Kathryn controls the purse strings. Once they all arrive on the island, the resort hotel they were heading for turns out to be a desperately rundown and understaffed old hotel, owned by an old school boyfriend of Kathryn's. They immediately start to rekindle the old romance and Bill continues to feed Kathryn's addiction to pills and alcohol, but there's something even more creepy about Bill.
I confess I had some serious problems with this book, and it's very possible I was not the right person to review it. For a start all of the characters were way too stereotypical and bland. There were also some very hard to believe goings on. Caitlin and Luke flee the hotel and go to stay in the trailer of a young girl Caitlin has met on the island. Kathryn makes no attempt to contact them / find out what is happening with the children that she cared enough about to take away to see if they would straighten out, and only in the final chapter there's an attempt to explain that away. There is a murder, finally, but the story climax occurs in a massive hurricane which overtakes the island - with lots of people rushing around outside in the middle of the storm and some very big attempted twists in the plot. Caitlin and friend are ultimately rescued and then the Coast Guard shows up to take them to medical help because they "were out looking for a small airplane"... in a hurricane! The other unsatisfactory element was the final chapter, wrapping up of all the loose ends and explaining the up until then, unexplained. I'm not a fan of those types of resolutions.
As the blurb describes the book as "Laguna Beach meets Cape Fear" this could be a book that would appeal to fans of rapidly moving, big picture thrillers.
FIELDS OF GRIEF, THE (US Title: BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS) - Giles Blunt
John Cardinal is a detective in the small police force, in Algonquin Bay, Ontario a small rural town in Canada. The local mayor keeps reporting his wife missing, when everybody else in town knows exactly what she's up to. Rather than just try to convince the poor delusional husband what's really going on, Cardinal is sitting in a car, with the mayor, outside the local motel, when there's a call over the radio about a body.
As Cardinal pulls up outside the location, a part of him is wondering about the car that looks just like his wife's and a part of him is wondering why somebody would die outside a mostly uninhabited, new building in Algonquin Bay.
Cardinal's wife, Catherine, is a photographer who has had problems most of her life with manic depression . She's been in and out of hospital, but she's been regularly taking her medication and when she was heading out earlier in the night with cameras, there'd been nothing in her manner that caused her husband any concern.
But it's her at the foot of that building, and there's a suicide note.
The opening few chapters of THE FIELDS OF GRIEF are heartbreaking. Cardinal struggles to understand why his wife has killed herself, and he just can't bring himself to believe that she has. That she'd stood in front of him only a few hours earlier and he hadn't picked up anything in her manner or her behaviour that indicated what she was about to do. The coroner thinks it was suicide, Cardinal's companions think it was suicide, John Cardinal can't agree.
A young man heads into a local laundromat, shotgun in hand and despite new CID member, Larry Burke's best efforts to talk him out of it, puts the shotgun to his head and kills himself. It's Fall in Algonquin Bay, the place is at its most beautiful. Suicide's sometimes happen there, but if they do, they happen in the dead of Winter, not in Autumn.
Detective Lise Delorme has her own confrontational problem. Graphic photos of a young girl being sexually abused have been discovered and the backgrounds of the photos show that some of the abuse occurred in Algonquin Bay. She's trying to track down the victim and the perpetrator.
Slowly a connection between the victims appears and somebody who should be trying to help vulnerable, sad and damaged people, is even more damaged. The problem is Cardinal knows that there's something a lot more to his wife's supposed suicide, but what is it? When he knows what it is, is there really anything he can do about it?
THE FIELDS OF GRIEF is a raw study in grief: Cardinal's reactions to his wife's suicide, his daughter's feelings about her mother. The mother and sister of the young man in the Laundromat, the reactions of Larry and Lise are all so different. It's also a shocking portrayal of what happens when the helper needs help. Deeply affecting and very compelling: highly recommended.
PRIME TIME - Liza Marklund
It's Midsummer and Annika Bengtzon, newspaper reporter and mother, is preparing for family celebrations at her partner's parents Island Holiday home. When she gets a call to say that Michelle Carlsson, a big name TV presenter has been murdered, and Annika has been assigned to follow the story, Thomas is furious at her for leaving him to get the children to his parents alone. Annika's just returned to work after maternity leave and her relationship with Thomas is increasingly fraught with tension and anger.
Annika is instantly torn between the fascination of a major murder investigation and the call of her family. On the one hand - a murder in a remote, isolated location during the filming of a prime-time TV series; a limited number of suspects, one of whom is her own best friend; and the victim Michelle - a controversial person, and long-time target of Annika's own paper. On the other hand, her own very young children; an increasingly difficult relationship with the disgruntled and demanding Thomas; and her parents-in-law who just do not approve of Annika and maintain an ongoing close friendship with Thomas' first wife.
The central mystery in PRIME TIME is a twist on the classic closed room scenario. There are only twelve suspects and there are all sorts of complicated personal and professional factors affecting all of the suspects and their relationships with the victim. There is a police investigation, and a police investigator, Q, who plays a very small role in the book. The investigation of the crime in this book is done by Annika as she sets out to find the story and ensure her best friend is not incriminated. There is also all of the machinations and manoeuvring of media organisations; even Annika's own paper seems to be embroiled in scandals and management power struggles.
PRIME TIME is the 4th book in a series which concentrates on Annika's own life, her career and her personal relationships. There's absolutely nothing easy about Annika. In the earlier books she's a very angry, prickly and difficult woman, always complaining, always rubbing up against everyone around her. In PRIME TIME the chip on Annika's shoulder has decreased in size a little, but there are definitely times when you'd like to take both Annika and Thomas by the hand and bang their heads together. Towards the end of PRIME TIME they are both starting to see what the real problems are and they start sorting out their personal relationship and their own careers.
As Annika searches out the story behind Michelle and ultimately her murder, there are some of the 12 suspects who become very real, whilst others remain very shadowy and under-drawn. Despite the quick dissipation of the closed room scenario, as the suspects leave the scene of the murder and return to their own environments, there is a final "drawing room" denouncement.
There's some real skill in the writing here, Annika's not a character that's easy to warm to, but you really feel inclined to stay with her to the end.
THE WALKER - Jane R Goodall
Detective Briony Williams is a rookie appointed to an all-male team investigating a bizarre murder at the Anatomy School of Gresham College in Bloomsbury, and her superiors constantly make her feel left out. But a killer obsessed with following Jack the Ripper soon changes that.
Jane Goodall's first book is The Walker, published originally in 2004 when it won the Ned Kelly for Best First Crime Novel.
Jane is a Brit, now living in Sydney and The Walker is based in London.
In 1967 a schoolgirl is the only witness to the killer, as they leave the train, having left behind an elderly woman's body, with her throat cut. Nell then moves to Australia with her parents, returning to London in 1971 as a University Student. She's been suffering panic attacks and required counselling ever since that day boarding the train.
In 1971 Detective Inspector Briony Williams is getting ahead in her career, seconded to the team tracking down a killer with a very theatrical streak. This killer arranges his victims' in twisted parodies of Hogarth's famous engravings, he sends body parts to the police with defiant messages and he's a very experienced anatomist. Shades of Jack the Ripper?
This is a very good book, particularly when you consider it's a first novel. It's got some good characters - both the female and male, a nicely paced plot and really interesting twists and turns. Very enjoyable.
FINAL CURTAIN - Kjersti Scheen
FINAL CURTAIN is the first of Kjersti Scheen's books to be translated into English and is also the first in a series of books feating ex-actress turned private investigator Margaret Moss.
Margaret's had a go at quite a few things in her life and hasn't really been able to settle to anything much - being a PI at least means she is her own boss, and can quite comfortably do everything "Her Way". Living with her daughter Karen (she of the bright green hair and teenage passions), in an apartment in the same house as Margaret's elderly aunt, Margaret drives a beat old Renault and scrapes by financially doing the odd bit of survelliance.
Whilst she's gainfully employed following the wife of a banker, who is sure she's having an affair; an old friend from Margaret's acting days, and well known theatre actress Rakel disappears. Her family is worried and they ask Margaret to dig around and see if Rakel just has a new boyfriend or where she has gone.
It takes a while for anything much to happen in this book, during which time a fair amount of how Margaret thinks and reacts to everything is laid out. In the early parts of the book Margaret runs a real danger of just being plain annoying - she's a bit inclined to talk to herself and she's rushing around head long into all sorts of situations. After numerous bone jarring encounters with a group of young Neo-Nazi's; a fair amount of sneaking around on rail lines, in ditches and through overgrown gardens; Margaret does get to the bottom of what happened to Rakel.
Interesting book - Margaret's a bit of an energiser bunny, a disaster area on legs. There's a couple of serious oddities with the plot and it's a big messy, lot's of things happening type plot, but, despite all of the slight nagging doubts left at the end of the book, I'll be keeping an eye out for the second in the series.
KITTYHAWK DOWN - Garry Disher
Second in the Hal Challis series, Kittyhawk Down is an extremely busy book. Firstly there's the upper class sort of "gated" housing area, the farming area and the housing estates. There's a sinister South African living in one of those big gated houses. There's Monroe, the farmer, who is under increasing financial pressure and a bit of a hot head. There's a local busybody who spends his life reporting people to the relevant authorities and writing snippy letters to the local paper, earning himself the nickname of The Meddler. There's the unemployed, drug using sisters with their deadbeat boyfriends - one boyfriend suspected of being behind the disappearance of one of the sister's toddler daughter. There's the lawyer that acted for the farmer. Then there is the fellow pilot, sometime aerial photographer who hangs out at the same airfield as Challis and her reclusive, internet stock dealing husband. Finally there's the editor of the local paper and her on / off relationship with Challis.
Add to that Pam Murphy, Constable at the Waterloo police station getting herself into a spot of bother, John Tankard (another Constable) still lurking around not doing anything terribly well, Ellen Destry with her family problems and Hal's crazy, jailed, soon to be ex-wife and things start to get messy. Even more messy when the farmer does a runner on the local police, shotgun in hand, and people start turning up dead from shotgun wounds and everybody automatically assumes that Monroe is settling some old scores.
This complicated cast of characters and events does add a certain level of excitement and tension to the book, although it also means that things can get pretty complicated pretty quickly. It certainly adds a level of reality as I'm not sure that police stations anywhere just deal with one crime at a time.
There are a couple of minor quibbles with police procedure and the reasons for Hal being on the spot as a Homicide Investigator, there are some loose ends and weird things in the resolutions, and there's a more than large dollop of personal story woven into the actual crimes.
For some reason best known to the author the location for these books is the real place of the Mornington Peninsula that he then liberally sprinkles with fictitious towns and locations. Only they are only fictitious to a certain point and it's not too tricky to pinpoint possible "role models" for these locations. This does mean that for a reader who knows that location, I do spend a lot of my time mentally trying to orientate myself. Now why I do this with these books I've no idea, I think possibly because of the obvious juxtaposition of the fictitious into the real - I don't think I'd mind so much if he's swapped Rosebud and Mt Martha around or stuck them totally in the wrong location, but masquerading Rosebud as Waterloo really stumps me. It's me I know it's me, I don't know why I'm doing this.
THE RED DAHLIA - Lynda La Plante
When the body of a young woman is found on the banks of the River Thames, the injuries turn out to have an unsettling similarity to the unsolved, 1930's Los Angeles case of Elizabeth Short - known as The Black Dahlia.
Detective Inspector Anna Travis is on the team investigating this horrible crime when Detective Chief Inspector James Langton is called in to take over from the original team leader. They have a prior working and private history and Travis is very hesitant and discomforted by the close presence of the volatile and erratic Langton. As the killer starts to taunt the murder team in a manner that follows the Black Dahlia case, right down to inciting local media to dub the victim The Red Dahlia, the team becomes increasingly aware that this a violent and vicious killer who thinks that taunting them is part of the game. It doesn't help that the victim herself is a bit of a mystery, and there are very few clues in her life to a possible perpetrator. Another copycat killing and Langton and Travis realise they have just a few days before the 3rd victim and absolutely no concrete leads. An anonymous tip off finally leads the team to a suspect, and from there on the novel becomes a race to the finish to try to prove the seemingly unprovable.
There is absolutely no doubt that La Plante can write big rip-roaring books with good characterisations and THE RED DAHLIA delivers on that promise. Whilst La Plante does write good, strong, human female characters they are not at the expense of the male characters. Langton starts off an uptight, inaccessible workaholic, becoming more human and vulnerable, even troubled. You can see why Travis would find him so attractive. The killer, who is known from the time of the anonymous tip off is pure evil, but not a caricature. There are some awful elements to the violence of the killings and to the events surrounding the suspect and his behaviour but these are handled carefully, with no attempt to shock or sicken the reader.
This is the second Travis and Langton book, the first being ABOVE SUSPICION but you do not need to have read the first to get the second. THE RED DAHLIA really was a great read - involving; fast paced; nicely balanced in terms of revelations of the violence and horror and sprinkled with just enough personal life to make you engage with all the characters.
BORKMANN'S POINT - Hakan Nesser
BORKMANN'S POINT is the second book in the Inspector Van Veeteren series, but the only one currently available in English. Nesser lives in Sweden and has set his book in a fictitious small Scandinavian town.
An ex-con is murdered by a blow from a very unusual, extremely sharp instrument. Soon a real-estate mogul is killed in the same way seemingly with the same weapon. Van Veeteren, who was holidaying on the coast nearby, is stopped from returning home and sent to help the local under-experienced police team. Van Veeteren finds an immediate friendship Bausen, the head of the local police, due to retire any day now. Bausen is very anxious to get this serial killer, dubbed unsurprisingly, The Axeman caught and stopped so that he doesn't have to retire with this case outstanding.
The local team is made up of two investigators: Beate Moerk who is trying very hard, but she's very inexperienced and Kropke who is very full of himself, but very obsessed with technology and extremely naive. There are also two Constables - Bangs and Mooser - again a bit bumbling and out of their depth. Van Veeteren brings Munster, one of his own team down to the small town to assist, and the whole group tries desperately to find some sort of link between the victims to try to explain why. When a third victim is found, this time with the weapon itself, there's still no obvious links and the weapon, no matter how unusual is old and doesn't help much either.
Slowly an idea of a connection between the victims starts to reveal itself to Van Veeteren, as the murderer's thinking is slowly revealed to the reader.
There's nothing much in the solution that the reader can't see coming in this book. BORKMANN'S POINT is actually a reference to a theory on solving crimes that a senior officer tells Van Veeteren years before and in this case, it's actually quite true. There is a point in the book, quite a bit before the finish where it's possible to see the solution quite clearly.
There's a good sense of humour at play throughout the book which certainly helps and Van Veeteren is one of those rumpled detective types that does appeal to me in particular, but there was something about the arch tone of some of the conversation which just didn't quite sit right. Add to that the fact that it wasn't the most original or involving mystery, it wasn't the WOW read that other recent books have been.
Having said that, it was definitely readable, with a good sense of place, a nice sense of humour and a cast of characters with some potential.
COLOUR SCHEME - Ngaio Marsh
Often regarded as her most interesting book and set on New Zealand's North Island, Ngaio Marsh herself considered this to be her best-written novel. It was a horrible death -- Maurice Questing was lured into a pool of boiling mud and left there to die. Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, far from home on a wartime quest for German agents, knew that any number of people could have killed him: the English exiles he'd hated, the New Zealanders he'd despised or the Maoris he'd insulted. Even the spies he'd thwarted -- if he wasn't a spy himself...
I was prompted to re-read this after an absence of 3(cough) something years (good grief when did those years happen), by a discussion on 4 Mystery Addicts (the best online crime fiction discussion group that I've ever found).
Colour Scheme is one of Ngaio Marsh's books actually set in her homeland of New Zealand and was, I think, originally released in 1953 or 1943. Despite the age of the book it still holds up pretty well. There's a lovely underlying sense of humour about it, a bit too much stuffed shirt middle class English twit in some of the characters maybe, but there are two elements that stay with me.
Firstly landscape - the setting for the book is a hot springs / thermal area with a small residential hotel building. The smell of the sulphur and the bubbling of the mud along with the moonlike look were very evocative.
Secondly the inclusion of a number of characters from a local indigenious Maori group and their customs and beliefs was refreshing simply because they were just there. There was no particular over-statement of their existence, of their involvement or of their interactions. In other words, what I'm trying to say, is that no big deal was made of their presence.
The storyline itself interwove the involvement of all the characters well and the whole thing, whilst obviously written quite a while ago, was actually just an interesting book with a bit of a spy thriller sideline. Couple of minor silly things in the plot that were a little contrived but when you consider Marsh up against the more well-known Golden Age writers - she can hold her own pretty well.