On the night of 22 December 1980, a plane crashes on the Franco-Swiss border and is engulfed in flames. 168 out of 169 passengers are killed instantly. The miraculous sole survivor is a three-month-old baby girl. Two families, one rich, the other poor, step forward to claim her, sparking an investigation that will last for almost two decades. Is she Lyse-Rose or Emilie?
AFTER THE CRASH opens with private eye Credule Grand-Duc preparing to take his own life after spending nearly eighteen years failing to discover the truth behind the miracle of the baby who survived a plane crash. Preparing his papers for handover, and setting the scene for his dramatic final act, he contemplates once more the front page from the local newspaper the day that the crash happened. And suddenly realises he finally knows the answer.
Occurring at a time well before the advent of DNA testing, any chance of establishing the parentage of the baby at the time was limited to potential physical evidence - of which the type of clothes she was wearing, the lack or existence of jewellery and the location where she was found are the only possible pointers that the court, and initially Grand-Duc have to work with. The two families have had to resort to court action to settle their claims for the baby girl, one of two on the list of passengers on that ill-fated plane. The hard-fought court case eventually hangs on the slightest of evidence, and enough doubt to lead the court to decide in favour of one family. Accepting the decision, but quietly hiring Grand-Duc on a yearly retainer up until the girl turns 18, the other family clings to the idea that the baby may still prove to be their granddaughter, hence the dilemma that he finds himself in at the eleventh hour.
This is such an intriguing, and utterly believable story told in multiple narratives, switching from the baby girl's brother Mark, and voice of Grand-Duc via his case notes. Along the way there are telling observations around the events of the crash and the aftermath. The fickle attention span of the media, the nature of familial love and connection, and the love of a brother and sister which always seems to have another aspect to it. It's also not a single-threaded story, there are plenty of complications in both of these families, and each set of grandparents are left with one living grandchild into the bargain as well as their own complicated and realistic personal stories. In both these cases the families are always part of the focus, frequently part of the problem, or struggling with many unexpected complications.
Bussi is a master at the art of dropping clues into the narrative that don't become clear until much later, and of frequently leading the reader into a solution which raises more and more questions. Using the case notes of Grand-Duc as the guiding narrative for much of the action also brings in the potential of a highly unreliable narrator, especially as both he, Mark and the second possible sibling seem to be rushing to precipitate a resolution against each other. Of course you could be forgiven for wondering why it is that Mark doesn't simply flick straight to the end of Grand-Duc's notes, but that realisation might only happen with the benefit of hindsight. The quest in this case constantly seems more important than the resolution in the end. Particularly as it becomes clear that the matriarchs of both families have known the truth for much longer than anybody could possibly realise.
The pacing of this thriller is particularly interesting, somehow achieving massive leaps forward in what otherwise feels rather languid, almost rhythmic style. Even for those readers that pick many of the twists and turns coming there is more than enough unknowns to keep most people guessing right until the end of AFTER THE CRASH. Certainly this reader was intrigued, and surprised by the resolution, having got to the point where it felt like just about everybody was stepping up for the position of chief unreliable narrator.
THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD - Ian Rankin
Malcolm Fox and his team from Internal Affairs are back. They've been sent to Fife to investigate whether fellow cops covered up for a corrupt colleague, Detective Paul Carter. Carter has been found guilty of misconduct with his own uncle, also in the force, having proved to be his nephew's nemesis. But what should be a simple job is soon complicated by intimations of conspiracy and cover-up - and a brutal murder, a murder committed with a weapon that should not even exist. The spiralling investigation takes Fox back in time to 1985, a year of turmoil in British political life.
If you, like me, have been more than a bit concerned about regular reading habits with the retirement of Rebus, I'm happy to report that at least I'm no longer fearful. Well about the loss of a fictional companion anyway. Now I can spend long periods of time worrying about Ian Rankin's health and hoping that all is going well with his writing. Because I'd really like to think there's more than a few Malcolm Fox books in the future, as this new series shapes up to be something well worth following.
It's probably not surprising that there are some aspects between the two series that are similar. There is a central character with a difficult back story, albeit with differences between Fox and Rebus. Fox isn't as comfortable in his flaws, he's taking steps to try to get his act together. It makes sense that a flawed man is working for The Complaints. It's not surprising that a man who has done the best and the worst can cope with the best and the worst in others.
Another similarity is the way that the books are perfectly balanced between a character study and a good, solid plot. In THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD The Complaints are investigating allegations about a single individual - ex-Detective Paul Carter and what looks like a cover-up by his fellow officers. Fox and his small team are forced closer together simply by being outsiders, but this book gives Rankin the chance to strengthen that team feeling, whilst also allowing them to rise as individuals - again not unlike the Rebus / Siobhan pairing.
Whilst Fox, his ailing father and his bitter and twisted sister remain the focus of the personal aspects of the book, there is a back story for all of the team building, just as the resentment of the cops that investigate other cops is growing. I must admit I'm finding that aspect - cops investigating other cops, and the things that are being hidden and why - part of what's particularly interesting about this series. Obviously because it is something different, but also because in Rankin's hands, it's not one-dimensional, and the mechanics of "investigation" of a crime remain forefront.
Whilst I'm happy that the occasional Rebus outing is still in the offing, I've also developed quite a liking for this new direction in a big hurry. Of course, there is always the fact that if Rankin published his to do list, I'd read that as well, but THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD is really a very good entry in this excellent new series.
FEAR THE WORST - Linwood Barclay
The worst day of TIm Blake's life started out with him making breakfast for his seventeen-year-old daughter Sydney. Syd was staying with him while she worked a summer job at the Just Inn Time hotel, and Tim hoped this quality father-daughter time would help her deal with the after-effects of his divorce.
It's probably heresy to admit this - but there were a few things about this book that made it sound less attractive than it could have. Not least of all the plot of a teenage girl going missing in circumstances sounding suspiciously like a run-away. Teenage angst is a subject normally avoided in my reading choices. How wrong can you possibly get?
FEAR THE WORST is the third book from Canadian author Linwood Barclay, the earlier two being NO TIME FOR GOODBYE and TOO CLOSE TO HOME. FEAR THE WORST is really the story of Tim Blake and how his life goes completely pear-shaped when his teenage daughter doesn't come home after a normal start at her summer day job. Nothing has gone from her room. She's not answering her telephone. No friends admit to having seen her. She simply vanished. Stranger still - the hotel where she's supposedly been working say that Sydney Blake has never worked there. Tim is a pretty normal divorced man. He works as a car salesman, he's trying to maintain a relationship with his daughter, he's not particularly jealous of his ex-wife's new boyfriend. He has got himself into a very messy relationship with a woman who is definitely not quite right, but he's trying to do the right thing about her as well. He's even trying to be a good role model for his daughter's teenage friends - especially Patty. An unlikely best friend, Patty comes from a very dysfunctional background and she's very very different from Tim's Syd.
Tim's problems start when the police seem to be more interested in proving he killed his daughter, than actually looking for her, but things really start to get complicated when he's lured to Seattle on a false report and returns to find his house trashed and drugs planted there. The police find Syd's car only to discover there's blood on it - but not just Syd's; and there's something going on with Patty and Syd's ex-boyfriend Jeff. As Tim searches for Syd more and more weird things (and people) start falling out of the cracks of what Tim thought he knew about his daughter.
FEAR THE WORST ticks all the "page turning" boxes. The action is fast and frenzied, and whilst our hero does take a bit of a battering, he's not made out to be super-human. He's believable. The supporting cast of characters - Patty, Tim's ex-wife, her new boyfriend Bob, all have some shape and depth to them. The grudging co-operation which slowly builds between Bob and Tim is good, again believable. The plot is complex but not complicated to follow, the twists and turns built into Syd's life realistically, adding some blips in Tim's along the way just to show sometimes life can come back and bite you when you least expect it.
Every now and then along comes a book that I can really say was a page turner. FEAR THE WORST is definitely one of them.
STRATTON'S WAR - Laura Wilson
London, June 1940. When the body of silent screen star Mabel Morgan is found impaled on railings in Fitrovia, the coroner rules her death as suicide, but DI Ted Stratton of the CID is not convinced. Despite opposition from his superiors, he starts asking questions and it becomes clear that Morgan's fatal fall from a high window may have been the work of one of Soho's most notorious gangsters.
STRATTON'S WAR is the first in an new planned series of crime novels featuring Ted Stratton, a Detective Inspector in the London police during the Second World War. This book includes a second protagonist - Diana Calthorp, young, socialite, not long and unhappily married and unexpected MI5 agent, involved in a covert operation against sympathisers and spies in the local community.
It's a very elaborate, multi-layered story. The death of a silent film star who hasn't worked for many years is the starting point. It's an investigation that Ted cannot put aside, despite a verdict of suicide. Diana starts work as a clerical assistant in MI5 but soon finds herself infiltrated into a group of well-to-do and well-known people, suspected of being Fascist sympathisers or spies. There's Ted's own family situation - a loving relationship with his wife, made tense by the evacuation of their two young children. There's the brother-in-law that Ted really struggles to deal with, and a problem nephew. Diana has gotten herself into a very unhappy marriage, with an overbearing and controlling mother-in-law, her husband is now serving in the Armed Forces. Diana's romantic liaison with another MI5 operative - a known womaniser - despite all the warnings that he's not to be trusted, despite threats from her mother-in-law, makes her realise she doesn't want to be married to her husband anymore.
The book weaves its way through all of the various threads of investigation and private life as it slowly draws a complicated web of crimes, espionage and the personal, slowly to the point where Diana and Ted's paths cross and the realisation that the Underworld and the Secret Service operate in very similar ways.
The thing that made STRATTON'S WAR really work for me was the way that there were multiple threads and a strong dose of the personal throughout the book. Some readers may find that less satisfactory, but for this reader, it created an atmosphere - a world if you want, that the characters inhabit. Some readers might find Diana's affair and the concentration on her personal feelings annoying (and I will agree she was a bit dangerously close to being whiny in places), but she's a young woman, in a weird time in the world, and it illustrated that she was a very young, inexperienced woman - one of the least likely people called upon to perform the most unlikely duty in the middle of war. The crime investigation, conducted within the background of a war, with nights spent in air-raid shelters, police stations being bombed into oblivion, and an old body being revealed in the bombed out remains of a church starkly revealed that even in extraordinary times, in the middle of a war, local criminals continue operations and family relationships remain complicated.
STRATTON'S WAR won the 2008 CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award. The award is given to the best historical crime novel (set in any period up to 35 years prior to the year in which the award will be made) by an author of any nationality.
HELL'S FIRE, Chris Simms
The deliberate torching of a church creates outrage across Manchester. And when a charred corpse and satanic symbols are found in the smoking ruins, DI Jon Spicer and the city's Major Incident Team are called in.
Jon Spicer quickly finds himself drawn into the depths of a horrifying underworld he didn't know existed. Soon, fresh killings bring revelations that those responsible are prepared to commit unspeakable acts of evil in homage to their God.
HELL'S FIRE is the fourth book in this Manchester based series featuring DI Jon Spicer, although this is the first book in the group that I've read. An error of omission on my part that I'm going to have to do something about!
As you'd expect with a story that concentrates on the torching of churches, there are a lot of religious elements to this book. Although organised religion and the satanic ritualism as part of the church destruction is only part of a complex intertwining of religious elements. Satanic ritualism at the scenes connects to a Satanic styled rock band. The rock band connects to a new age college. The college connects to the victims - both of the fire and of the murders that keep happening. And for Jon, in a more personally confrontational manner, the new age college leads to his sister's newfound belief in Pagan religion, and conflict with their own, ultra-conservative and devout mother.
All of these connections, and the way that the investigation circles around the churches, the way that the churches - the buildings and the institutions - affect daily life in Manchester, and in Jon's own family - create a sinister, subtle feeling of menace that infects the entire story.
There is a lot of the personal in HELL'S FIRE. Simms has pulled his character's lives firmly into the investigation, and whilst that might prove a little distracting for some readers, it could also provide a real connection for others. To be honest I couldn't decide what I thought about it - I found Jon's personal life a bit overwrought and overblown at points, but that could have been because the plot itself was proving quite involving and very intriguing and I was getting impatient with the family stuff sometimes "getting in the way". Having said that, it's a temporary distraction and the intricacies of the HELL'S FIRE plot held up all the way through the book to an intriguing conclusion.
Before starting HELL'S FIRE I was aware that UK Bookseller Waterstone's selected Chris Simms as one of their '25 Authors for the Future' as part of their 25th anniversary celebrations. After reading the book you can see why. This isn't the most flattering portrayal of life in Manchester, but it is certainly compelling.
GOOD OMENS - Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
There is a hint of Armageddon in the air. According to the Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (recorded, thankfully, in 1655, before she blew up her entire village and all its inhabitants, who had gathered to watch her burn), the world will end on a Saturday. Next Saturday, in fact. So the Armies of Good and Evil are massing, the four Bikers of the Apocalypse are revving up their mighty hogs and hitting the road, and the world's last two remaining witchfinders are getting read to Fight the Good Fight. Atlantis is rising. Frogs are falling.
GOOD OMENS is a collaboration between Pratchett and Gaiman. According to the introductory interview with them at the start of the book, it came about because Gaiman wrote half a short story, but he didn't know how it ended. He sent it to Pratchett, who didn't know either. But he did know what happened next. So half a short story became one very very good book.
Originally published in 1990, GOOD OMENS was written as a collaborative novel in the days before high speed internet connections - in fact according to the same interview a 1200/75 baud modem (yes kiddies, we used to use them - and we had electricity and everything), was eschewed as a communication method as it proved slightly less efficient than underwater yodelling and instead a bizarre method of messages in different working times exchanged via Ansaphone's was employed. (Yes - we used machines with little tapes in them - in the house - to record phone messages.)
The problem with a Divine Plan is that there's always somebody that forgot to read the requirements specification. Nun's can get it wrong. Avenging Angels (who can be such fussbudgets) and Fast-Living Demon with a passion for posh cars don't have to look forward to the coming Rapture. When you've lived amongst Humanity for quite a while now and you're fond of the cushy gig, you may actually decide to interfere with the Plan. So as unlikely a pair as they seem, Crowley and Aziraphale are going to stop this silliness - even if they do have to kill the AntiChrist (who at this stage is really nothing much more than a naughty little boy). If they can only find him.
Obviously when you're writing high comic fantasy, the time in which the reader picks up the book becomes less problematic. But what really gives GOOD OMENS a life forever is that the central theme - the great battle of Good versus Evil - works no matter when you pick it up. Having said that, reading GOOD OMENS again in late 2007 / early 2008 and bingo - a timeframe in my human history at least - where the occasional consideration of Good and Evil, Frogs and Witches, Hogs and Devil Children - well lets just say between the hysterical laughter, just occasionally you read something that makes you go hmmmmm.
This edition of GOOD OMENS isn't the first one I've read. But it was absolutely no chore to read again. And again. And I might just pick that book up on a more regular basis for a bit of a re-read. For a collaborative novel it's hard to pick the who wrote what bits. As a novel about Good and Evil it works. As a reminder of Queen's Greatest Hits it was truly sobering. It's also dark and funny and pointed and clever and a darn good book!
GONE - Lisa Gardner
It is a dark and stormy night in Oregon when former law officer Rainie Connor disappears. Her car is found, engine running in the middle of the road in a heavy downpour. Connor's husband, former FBI Special Agent Pierce Quincy is summoned to the scene and after being briefly considered a suspect, ends up working with the local police to solve the mystery of his wife's disappearance. He also calls in his own FBI agent daughter, Kimberly and her lover, a Georgia based investigator to help.
It soon becomes clear that Rainie has been kidnapped, but no-one is sure if she is a planned target or just a random victim. Rainie definitely has problems of her own - she drinks too much and has never recovered from a case that she and Quincy investigated years ago. Quincy remains haunted by the death of his first wife and elder daughter. Rainie and Quincy's own marriage is in trouble - joint causes of drinking and disappointment when an adoption falls through. Rainie has also been very involved in the life of a young boy, a victim of family violence and step-family roundabouts.
Lisa Gardner is also known for writing romance fiction and GONE definitely includes a lot of personal angst, complicated personal relationships and difficult pasts to go with the crime.
There is a very complicated, multi-faceted plot that keeps the pace moving. The central characters are certainly up to their elbows in more than their fair share of personal trauma and this, and the way that it doesn't seem to matter how often the investigation goes awry, they are still on the trail of their man, get a little unbelievable after a while. It seems to the reader that Gardner has devoted some good research into covering proper Police Procedure for this book, although some suspension of disbelief will be required as close family members of Rainie battle the kidnapper until the very end. The ending of GONE ties off all the main plot threads neatly, leaving a slightly unrealistic and unsatisfactory ending given the complications of the lives that Gardner's characters lead.
THE DANTE TRAP - Arnaud Delalande
Murder, intrigue, swashbuckling adventure and satanic conspiracies.
Venice, 1756: the city is at the height of its prodigious power. But as the revelry of Carnival begins to spread its madness, a dark force stalks the gothic shadows: a force that threatens to annihilate the city itself.
The body of one of Venice's brightest young actors is found, crucified, his eyes gouged out and a line of verse carved into his chest. His is just the first death as a shadowy group stalk the rulers of Venice and their supporters. The murderer, known only as The Chimera, is the leader of this dangerous fanatical group - the Stiges or Firebirds - determined to kill one of the depraved, the gluttonous, the traitors to their cause - one for each of the nine Circles of Dante's Inferno.
The Doge of Venice turns to Pietro Viravolta, a dashing young adventurer, best friend of Casanova, seducer of women in his own right, and lover of the beautiful wife of the powerful Senator Ottavio. Pietro - The Black Orchard - awaits execution in jail for adultery, but he is called from that jail to investigate the deaths by the Doge, on the proviso that he does not escape the city and does not contact Anna - the love of his life, the Senator's wife.
The Black Orchid's investigations lead him to Luciana, the beautiful courtesan; Spadetti, the master glass-maker of Murano and his son, the maker of the glorious crystal gown; Caffelli, the tormented priest of San Giorgo Maggiore and further and further into the echelons of power and to Senator Ottavio - the husband of the woman he loves. As he goes murder follows and the Firebirds draw closer and closer to The Doge, completing their nine circles in the brutal fashion.
THE DANTE TRAP is a very intricate historical work, written originally by a Frenchman, and translated to English, the text is dense and peppered liberally with non-translated quotations and references. It's a very elaborate and quite decorative style of writing that immerses the reader in the other world of 1756 Venice - the descriptions of the location, the costumes, the styling of the dialogue has a very authentic feel to it. Unfortunately, I'm not much of a reader of historical mystery fiction of this style, and I suspect that personal preference means that I missed a lot of the intricacies of this book as I found the use of those non-translated references and the complications of the names and the relationships quite confusing on occasion.
THE DANTE TRAP certainly read like a book that is extremely competently done, with an elaborate and quite intricate and multi-layered plot; with mystery and political intrigue; a lively and slightly irreverent central character in Pietro; with a more than healthy dose of romance and difficult love; with some pointed references to the life of women - courtesans or nuns if they don't want to make the marriage that is deemed by others to be acceptable; and with a glorious picture drawn of Carnival in Venice, I suspect that THE DANTE TRAP will greatly appeal to fans of this style of historical mystery fiction.