Is it really only a month or so since IN THE WOOD was released in paperback? There's a lot of talk about this debut book, and you should be listening, the positive talk is highly deserved.
In 1984, in Knocknaree, County Dublin, Ireland, three 12 year old children - Adam, Peter and Jamie (Germaine) are playing. They've been life long friends and they go everywhere together. They are seemingly leading an idyllic childhood, with the housing estate they live in filled with young families and other children, backing onto the wood in which they regularly explore, run and play. Until the day that Peter and Jamie disappear, leaving Adam, seemingly unharmed, but terrified into total and complete amnesia. Peter and Jamie are never found. Adam and his parents move away, Adam is sent to boarding school and over the years he morphs into Rob Ryan - returned to Ireland with a posh school British accent, a policeman, attached to the local murder squad.
Cassie Maddox is only the 4th woman to join the Murder Squad, and she's young, straight out of Undercover Drugs operations - she's not exactly conventional and she's regarded with immense suspicion by many of the longer term Murder Squad Members. Cassie and Rob end up as partners and close friends. Friends only, despite the rumours and innuendo flying around.
When the body of a young girl is found on the edges of Knockarnee and the wood, Cassie is the only person who knows about Rob's past. Cassie and Rob are joined by a third investigator - Sam - and the three of them try to discover the identity of the killer of young, promising ballerina Katie. Rob's past increasingly haunts him and it starts to affect his decisions and reactions to the current day.
There are layers within layers and stories within stories in this book. Not a book for fans of the quick resolution, massive amounts of action style, IN THE WOODS weaves and wanders through an investigation that bogs down quickly with no easy suspects or motives for Katie's death. Interspersed with the investigation is a fascinating character study of 3 people working closely together. Rob and Cassie have a close, intimate relationship, without a romantic element. There is something simultaneously engaging about a close friendship that doesn't instantly morph into a sexual or romantic relationship, at the same time there's something slightly off-putting about the intimacy and closeness of these two people. There's something in Cassie's background that has obviously affected her life, we know only too well what has happened to Rob in his childhood. Into this twosome, Sam is pushed as a result of the investigation. Sam's pretty uncomplicated compared to the other two, a normal robust childhood, a slightly dodgy Uncle is about as difficult as it gets in Sam's life. He slips into the investigating threesome easily in some ways, and in other ways he's an observer, secluded and separated by the closeness of Cassie and Rob.
Overall it's the people that populate IN THE WOODS which makes it really interesting. So many people in this book are just not quite right, not exactly what they first seem to be be. Katie's life seems normal for a 12 year old girl, but there's also something that doesn't quite add up. Her sisters - the same. Her parents seem to have been loving, concerned parents, but there's also something just ever so slightly wrong. Rob seems so caring, so kind, a SNAG, but he's also haunted by what he can't remember of his past (and the snippets that he does). Does that past and that uncertainty make him vulnerable, stupid or just human. Cassie's past is also revealed, but is she a ruthless investigator or is she just as vulnerable in her own way.
There are some elements of IN THE WOODS that do drag a bit, it does bog down a little in some places and get dangerously close to repetitiveness or over-egging the angst pudding, but ultimately IN THE WOODS is fascinating. It's one of those books that twists and turns and moves and shape shifts to the point where you really don't know what you did or didn't think you knew a few pages before. And there is something for all sorts of readers to see, identify with, get annoyed about, smile and nod in agreement with, wonder about, worry about. It's also one of those books that ends with not everything nicely answered / tied up / resolved - just like life really.
THE LYING TONGUE - Andrew Wilson
Andrew Wilson is the author of a highly renowned biography of Patricia Highsmith and THE LYING TONGUE is his début novel. In an interesting move the author starts his first novel with the comment "This is not the book I wanted to write. This is not how it was supposed to be at all." All I can say is if he writes what he wants to write and it turns out as good as this one, then bring on the next novel.
Adam Woods is a young man with a degree in Art History and a vague desire to write a novel. With a decidedly dodgy romantic history, Woods heads off to Venice to take up a job as a companion to a young boy. When that post doesn't eventuate he finds himself as live in companion and carer for the reclusive, elderly novelist Gordon Crace. Gordon wrote one of "the" great English novels and promptly disappeared from general sight - never writing another novel. Crace is obsessive, insular, scared of the outside, unable to be left alone, alternatively clinging and moody, and Woods becomes increasingly obsessed with his employer's past. When he discovers that there has been talk of a biography that Crace, seemingly, has rejected out of hand, Woods can't help himself - he cannot stop himself from pursuing the truth behind Crace's past, the story of his famous novel and why he has ended up so reclusive, so timid.
Nothing, absolutely nothing is as it first seems in THE LYING TONGUE. For most of this novel you're struggling to keep track of who is the good guy, who is the bad guy, and exactly what is going on - and all of this with effectively two main characters. There's just this general feeling of claustrophobia, corruption, seduction, manipulation and ruthlessness.
You have to wonder about the influence of movies such as Sleuth (Michael Caine and Sir Laurence Olivier). Reading THE LYING TONGUE bought back thoughts of that movie time and time again - the storylines are nothing like each other of course, but there's something about the intensity of the two characters, their interactions, the menace, that for some reason triggered the memory.
Amazingly there's very little guilt in either of the main characters in THE LYING TONGUE and that, along with the way that both of them seem to be more than happy to manipulate any circumstance to suit their own requirements, makes the whole novel almost breathtakingly ruthless. Mind you, the number of times that you're just flat out deceived by the twists and turns of the truth of these characters makes you get to the end of the novel wondering if you've actually read what you thought you read.
THUMBPRINT - Friedrich Glauser
Friedrich Glauser was born in Vienna in 1896, dying at aged forty-two after a tumultuous and way too short life. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, addicted to morphine and opium, he spent much of his life in psychiatric wards, insane asylums and, when he was arrested for forging prescriptions, in prison. He also spent two years with the Foreign Legion in North Africa, after which he worked as a coal miner and a hospital orderly. His Sergeant Studer crime novels have cult status in Europe, Germany's most prestigious crime fiction award is named after the author, and Thumbprint has now been published in English by Bitter Lemon Press.
The death of a travelling salesman in the forest of Gerzenstein appears to be an open and shut case. Sergeant Studer is confronted with an obvious suspect and a confession to the murder. But nothing is what it seems. Envy, hatred, sexual abuse and the corrosive power of money lie just beneath the surface. Studer's investigation soon splinters the glassy facade of Switzerland's tidy villages, manicured forests and seemingly placid citizens.
Don't make the mistake I did when you sit down to Thumbprint, and assume that 197 pages will be a quick read. Thumbprint is enthralling, involving, dense and endlessly fascinating, but it begs to be read slowly. The dialogue is lively, Studer's methods partly eclectic, partly dogged. Thumbprint is a magnificent book though, and I'm really looking forward to my next book from this all too small collection of books.
THE WESTERN BANKER - Joe Barrett
THE WESTERN BANKER is Barrett's first book, set in the world of International Bankers and high finances, a world that the author undoubtedly knows a lot about. The book takes a slightly unusual approach in that the central character is... not to put too fine a point on it .... a bit of a bastard. Obsessed with the pursuit and the trappings of money, he's pretty well amoral in his working life, and a bit tacky in his personal life. There's also just a hint of sadness (and self-awareness of that sadness) in Alex that makes him a fascinating character. On one hand he could quite conceivably revolt the reader as a no-conscious manipulating money grabbing grub, and on the other hand he's a figure of some sadness. Lonely, no mates, no meaningful relationships, can't even manage to keep an apple in his fridge type. In the process of doing just another finance deal which has the potential to win his bank a lot of money, to say nothing of his own commission and bang, he's confronted with something that actually makes him uncomfortable, squeamish about the possible outcomes of the deal. Of course, you then go further up the chain in terms of seniority and responsibility within the Bank and you find that Alex is probably a bit of a rank amateur at being a bastard compared to the directors of his bank - and coincidentally The World Bank.
Barrett is also not afraid to do something pretty daring with this book - just when you start to feel some sympathy for his central character (or just before you want to track down a fictional character and slap him for being a prat), something major happens. Whilst the reader is dealing with that - the truth of the finance deal gets more and more serious and the games that people play become deadly.
It's a first novel - there are a couple of odds and ends that don't quite jell - including one particular incidence of geography where the US President seems to be having a meeting in an office not that geographically far from a major incident. That just didn't seem practical, prudent or even likely to be occurring and it jarred dreadfully. Possibly because most of the rest of the action had seemed almost believable in a vaguely disconcerting sort of a way. By then we were only 10 or so pages from the end of the book and it was rolling along at a massive pace so, sure, this reader was jolted out of the story and madly scrambling for an Atlas (US Geography being just one of the things that I'm not very good at). In the global scheme of things - it was a minor point in what was otherwise a really enjoyable first thriller novel.
THIRTY-THREE TEETH - Colin Cotterill
The once retired Siri Paiboun - now national coroner, confused psychic and disheartened communist - decamps from the steamy capital and heads north to examine two badly charred bodies. Siri's a busy man, dining with the deposed king, attending a shamans' conference and being rescued by the ghost of an elephant.
THIRTY-THREE TEETH is the follow up to THE CORONER'S LUNCH featuring the elderly, reluctant Laotian National Coroner Dr Siri Paiboun.
In THIRTY-THREE TEETH it is summer in Vientiane and it is hot, bloody hot. Laotians greet each other with that phrase as they steam away in the unrelenting heat. In Vientiane, a much tormented Asian Bear escapes from cruel confines in a local hotel garden just before there is a slow build-up of viciously savaged corpses in Dr Siri's morgue. The injuries that these victims have endured appear to indicate that they have been mauled by a very large animal, but Dr Siri is pulled away from that investigation by the authorities who demand he flies immediately to the north of the country to examine two badly charred bodies. In the meantime there has been another very mysterious death at a local government building and there's a chest in the National Archives that still has to be opened.
Whilst Dr Siri is spending time in the north, Nurse Dtui goes snooping using some very ingenious casts of the mauling victim wounds to try to understand what creature could be causing these sorts of injuries. In the North, Dr Siri has got problems of his own. He's always been psychic and he frequently chats to the dead, but in the North he's surrounded by the living, the spirits, the dead, shamans, Laotian Royalty, Communist hierarchy and his own in-laws. Knowing what caused the death of the two charred victims is one thing. Getting back to Vientiane, getting that chest in the Archives open, sorting out the fate of the poor bear and stopping the mauling deaths is another thing. Equally importantly there are the more domestic problems of that blasting loudspeaker at the end of the road and watching his new Shaman friend romance his dreaded next door neighbour.
THIRTY-THREE TEETH is a little more confrontational than THE CORONER'S LUNCH from two major aspects. Firstly there are a number of animal characters in this book that have a higher profile and there is cruelty described in broad detail which could be disconcerting for some readers. There is also a much higher level of the mystical in this book than in the first, which again might worry some readers. Both of these aspects fit seamlessly in the cultural context of the book, and there is a nice touch of revenge and restitution which helps lessen any reader discomfort. It would be a pity to dodge an outing with the marvellous Dr Siri and his indomitable assistant Nurse Dtui because of them. The mystical in THIRTY-THREE TEETH has the added bonus of delivering a new side character in the magnificent shaman Inthanet whose role in the unveiling of the contents of the chest are only a small part of his overall impact on the various storylines.
Ultimately THIRTY-THREE TEETH is a good mystery with a lot of solid threads running through it, peopled by some fabulous characters, deftly drawn. It is delivered in what seems, to a complete outsider, a very Laotian style - celebrating the cultural uniqueness, whilst also pointing out the differences and difficulties that the people are managing within.
COLOUR OF BLOOD - Declan Hughes
THE COLOUR OF BLOOD is the second Ed Loy novel by Declan Hughes, the first being The Wrong Kind of Blood, published in 2006.
Ed Loy is a Private Investigator in current day Dublin, Ireland - a place that's part gritty, poor, desperate and part rich, privileged, twisted. Shane Howard is a Dublin dentist, and the son of Dr John Howard, a pillar of Dublin Irish Society, famous in the local area, with a legacy that is maintained by his family. Shane's 19 year old daughter Emily has gone missing and now he is getting blackmail threats and sexually explicit photographs of her - Shane is not sure if she's being abused or if she's a willing participant.
What starts off as a fairly straight-forward job locating the missing Emily and tracking down the source of the photographs rapidly gets more and more complicated as digging around in the Howard family starts to reveal a lot of skeletons in everyone's closets.
There are a few reasons why you'd wonder if this was a good book or not. There's the tortured, embittered, lost, hard-drinking PI in Ed but for many reasons he may teeter on the edge of the cliché, but he never quite tips over. There's the wealthy, seemingly successful Howard family, rotten to the core with all sorts of secrets and tacky goings on, but stereotypical in many ways, however there's something engaging, human, interesting in many of the members of that family.
There are a lot of subplots in THE COLOUR OF BLOOD. As Emily is found and the blackmailers are being tracked down, there are events in and surrounding the family from years ago, leading up to current day, that are rapidly revealed. The book roars along at a rapid pace with revelation and resolution overlapping themselves at every twist.
There's also a great sense of irony, of gentle humour, the cast of characters certainly help with that. The dentist Shane, whose Medical Doctor father never quite "approved" of his choice of career. Sandra, the Irish Princess, sister of Shane, family manipulator, she of the vaguely Gothic look, swooping down from the family estates to rescue Emily and her son Jonathan. Jonathan and his purposely put on private school boy touches. None of these humorous touches are overdone but they balance the brutality of many of the other aspects of the novel.
Finally, there's a great sense of place in THE COLOUR OF BLOOD. Current day Dublin with its wealth, opportunity, developers and 21st century values are contrasted brutally against the greed, exploitation, societal manipulation, hypocrisy, criminal gangs, drugs and violence. And ultimately that's the crux of the whole book - if something's rotten at the core, then it doesn't matter a damn where that something is positioned on the social scale - the damage lingers and it will come back to bite you.
FRANKIE - Kevin Lewis
If "About the Author" in the press release is to be believed, then in FRANKIE, Kevin Lewis is writing about a world not that far from the one he grew up in.
On a cold London evening Frankie, a young woman with a sad past, now living on the streets, has no choice when a drug dealer, pimp and lowlife targets the very young Mary - a recent street kid, still pretty, still not drawn into addiction and degradation. Frankie fights for Mary and the pimp dies. Frankie is now not just on the streets with her own past to deal with, but she's running from the police, from the consequences of the fight.
In the process Frankie mugs another young woman - not realising that Rosemary has just broken into her bosses computer, and the necklace that Frankie grabbed contained the evidence that the Fraud Squad desperately need to keep Rosemary safe as well.
Frankie finds she can run, she can escape from her past and from the events of that night, but only for so long. Sometimes your actions come back to haunt you years later and in Frankie's case, the consequences are more dire when you actually have more to lose.
There's a lot to like in FRANKIE and there's a lot to feel a bit let down by. The direness and desperation of life on the streets is really well drawn in the early parts of the book, and the events that happen to send Frankie on the run tear along at a great pace with good tension and the reader's interest is firmly held. The consequences of what seems like a simple case of purse snatching by Frankie are a sobering twist and Mary's fate is no holds barred confrontational. Frankie is a good character in that she has guts and determination and a willingness to try again, despite everything that has happened and does happen to her.
Possibly that is the source of a feeling of being slightly let down, the events that sent Frankie to the streets were overly predictable - the characterisations of her mother and stepfather too formulaic; the sudden remembrance of evidence of her past too contrived. Frankie's rescue from poverty and despair was a little on the unbelievable side, and her achievement of everything a girl could possibly hope for mildly over-sentimental. The conclusion where everything she's built for herself is threatened and torn apart as a result of the actions of years before, on top of all of that build up just seemed a bit on the melodramatic side.
PLASTER SINNERS - Colin Watson
Wandering around in Wormhole Books in Belgrave South last Saturday, you have no idea how pleased I was to find a copy of Plaster Sinners by Colin Watson. This is the last of his 13 Flaxborough novels that I've been looking for for such a long time.
Colin Watson is one of the great under-appreciated and discussed British Writers as far as I'm concerned. His Flaxborough Series, written between the late 1950's and 1980 (he died in 1982) are a magnificent example of the slightly cheeky, irreverant but never scorning, school of the ever so slightly absurb Crime Fiction.
The entire set is:
Coffin, Scarcely Used (1958)
Bump in the Night (1960)
Hopjoy Was Here (1962)
Lonelyheart 4122 (1967)
Charity Ends at Home (1968)
Flaxborough Chronicle (1969)
The Flaxborough Crab aka Just What the Doctor Ordered (1969)
Broomsticks Over Flaxborough aka Kissing Covens (1972)
The Naked Nuns aka Six Nuns and a Shotgun (1975)
One Man's Meat aka It Shouldn't Happen to a Dog (1975)
Blue Murder (1979)
Plaster Sinners (1980)
Whatever's Been Going on at Mumblesby? (1982)
All of them are fantastic, witty, slightly silly, but ultimately sound mysteries with a strong plot and engaging characters.
Plaster Sinners is the tale of poor Detective Sargeant Sidney Love, an amiable sort of a policeman, and the mystery of why, when all he was doing was attending the local antique auction, somebody should take it upon themselves to hit him over the head with a doorknob. At the time he was simply appraising Lot Thirty-Four - comprising two golf balls, an LMS railway tumbler, an old meat mincer, two decanter stoppers, a soap dish and a moulded relief of a cottage entitled "At the End of Life's Lane". Enquiring minds, in the shape of Inspector Purbright, are also somewhat exercised when the same lot is keenly pursued at the auction by the local Gentry, a solicitor and a stranger who promptly take the bidding to the princely sum of 400 pounds.
And if you've never read any of his wonderful novels, well, rectify that as soon as you possibly can.
THE MALICE BOX - Martin Langfield
Create a fantasy quest, add a mystery and some thriller elements, include an online community and game and THE MALICE BOX is something way outside the normal, expected style of Thriller or Fantasy Quest novel.
Robert Reckliss (yes that is his name) is seemingly just another Englishman in New York. He and his wife Katherine originally met at Cambridge, at the same time that they both fell under the spell of the mercurial Adam - who has continued to appear and disappear from their lives since their school days.
When Robert receives what seems to be a simple copper puzzle box, both he and Katherine assume this is just another one of Adam's little practical jokes or puzzles. But that night one of Robert's acquaintances kills himself in curious circumstances and the existence of an arcane weapon that could wipe the Western world from the face of the planet is revealed. Suddenly, New York in the year 2004 is a battleground to the death between ancient forces and Robert must use his spiritual powers to overcome seven mystical trials - Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Ether, Mind and Spirit. Only then can he come face to face with evil in a disused subway station beneath City Hall and save the World from destruction.
THE MALICE BOX is definitely unusual. Set in current day New York there's a really weird combination of the arcane and the current day - New York interwoven into a plot that is sometimes told in current day language, sometimes in something more Gothic and elaborate. It has a highly complex plot combining the alchemical and the mystical, taking characters on a journey of danger and self-discovery.
Because the THE MALICE BOX is a combination of fantasy, thriller and mystery it is a different reading experience from a standard, more conventional thriller. It is also different from a lot of recent big-name thrillers in that it does have the adventure or the quest, but the characters are an important component at the same time. The fantastical aspects of THE MALICE BOX will require an acceptance of the unexpected and the other-worldly which is not going to appeal to all readers. The combination of the styles of language - the gothic and the everyday is also obvious at points in the book - not necessarily completely off-putting, but unusual enough to stand out.
The online game at http://www.maliceboxquest.com/ is still running, although the prize competition is resolved. Playing the game adds a level of interest and multi-media experience that could just be that little something different that you're looking for.
THE RECKONING - Sue Walker
In the summer of 1973, 11 year old Miller McAllister is very happy. His family own a house overlooking the sea on the East Coast of Scotland and the small island, Fidra, that's visible from the mainland house. The youngest of three children, Miller and his father Douglas love the island, with its birds, wildlife, old ruins and the simple cottage residence.
When Douglas is arrested, tried and found guilty of the rape and murder of three young girls, Miller is profoundly affected. To start with he believes in his father's innocence, but when the girl bodies are found on Fidra, he falls apart. While Miller's mother, sister and older brother stand stoically beside Douglas, protesting his innocence, Miller believes totally in his guilt and he cuts himself off from his father - a dramatic and damaging act for such a young boy. He tries to start his own life when he is old enough, but nothing is ever really right with Miller from that day on. More than 30 years later Miller is pulled back to the family home and island when his father dies. Despite Miller's reaction to his father, he alone has inherited the house and the island but the condition seems to have been a plea to re-assess the evidence against Douglas. Despite his better judgement Miller is pulled into rechecking the facts. With the help of his childhood friend Catriona Buchan and Duncan - a monk and close friend of his mother, Miller unearths the truth of the triple murders and confronts the whole family's demons.
THE RECKONING is a pretty harrowing book. The setting, which incorporates the old house, the island, rugged coastlines and the brooding presence of a ruined castle perched high above the sea create a feeling of closed off, sinister insularity. Add to that a family, initially seemingly very happy, who are forced, with very few close and lifelong friends, to close ranks and protect themselves in the aftermath of the conviction of the father for such dreadful crimes. The insularity of the family translates directly into Miller's own personality - he has become more and more disconnected from himself, his own wife and children, and his siblings. As he fights the conflict he feels towards the memory of his father and reinvestigating the trial, he becomes more stressed and more fragile.
The story is relatively well paced, and there are a reasonable set of possible suspects - including the man who Scottish justice convicted of the crime. There are attempts peppered throughout the book to provide third party background on the case, the island and the family. This does break up the flow of the narrative slightly and, given that Miller is such an intense, worrying, almost foreboding character in his own right, these forays into extra information are a bit distracting and give the whole book a bit of a choppy feel at times. It's certainly a very busy plot, moving from the current, back to the lead up to the deaths of the girls, through the investigation and then briefly into the families lives post the trial, although sometimes some of these areas were overly detailed and some too brush stroke.
What was really interesting about THE RECKONING was the exploration of a brutal series of murders and the affect that they have on more than just the victim's family. In this case there were three dead girls, and one very damaged little boy.