Ely is a small town, deep in the Cambridgeshire Fens. It's situated near low lying marshes and the canals that formed the trading routes of old. Current day Ely is slow and quiet. It's also deeply shrouded in heavy smog – part mist / part smoke from the local dump. The dump is a huge pile that's been building up for decades, and it's burning, deep in its centre, pumping pollution out to mingle with the mist.
Philip Dryden is a reporter with the local small newspaper. Philip was a bigger fish in a bigger newspaper / reporting pond until a car accident that nearly killed his wife Laura and changed both their lives forever. Laura was trapped in the car that Dryden was driving as it went into one of the canals. Comatose she has lain in a hospital bed for many years since then. A victim of “locked-in” syndrome, she has recently been able to communicate sporadically with the outside world via a computer driven by mouth suction. Since the accident Philip has refused to return to driving, and he is now ferried around by Humph, owner driver of a beaten up Capri taxi and devotee of language lesson tapes. Humph is happy to drive Philip and then sit and wait, in fact there is very little of Humph's life that's conducted outside of the Capri.
In THE MOON TUNNEL Philip is pursuing a number of stories. Firstly the future of the town dump is causing ructions, and as the smog lingers, the local council and the dump owners escalate the arguments. Not too far away, an archaeological dig is working on a series of Anglo-Saxon burial tombs. The tombs are situated below a WWII prisoner of war camp which held Italian, then German, servicemen up until the end of the war. Many of the Italian prisoners worked on farms in the area and a lot of them stayed in England after the war. They, and their families, are a prominent group in Ely still. When a skeleton is found in a wood lined tunnel, it makes sense that this is an escape tunnel from the POW camp, and the body must be that of an Italian serviceman. Only there doesn't seem to have ever been an escape from the camp. Combine that mystery with the theft of an extremely valuable painting from one of the local “Country Houses” in the dying days of the war, and Dryden thinks the body in the tunnel is not really who they re-buried him as.
THE MOON TUNNEL is one of those engaging, stately character driven English mysteries. Stately isn't meant to imply a slowness of plot that's annoying, rather that the story progresses elegantly and smoothly. Philip is a perfectly feasible amateur sleuth as he digs away at stories that interest him, perhaps that could be saleable to bigger papers than just his local rag. His ongoing devotion to his wife is touching, but not cloying or overplayed. The nightly visits to Laura, particularly now that she can communicate, albeit stiltedly, convey an intellectual as well as loving connection between them. His ongoing reliance on her ability to perform some research tasks for him is natural as is his acceptance that she may forget. Philip's ongoing friendship with Humph is also beautifully drawn out. Humph's a character and really Philip is equally as eccentric and these two men have created a friendship out of mutual reliance which is comforting and charming. Many of the cast of supporting characters also fall into that eccentric category. Ma, the dump owner, is a women to remember, as is Vee, the elderly sole remaining member of one of the great families of the great Country Houses.
Despite the amount of back story between Philip, Laura and Humph, THE MOON TUNNEL still stands up well on it's own. There is just enough information about their past to make the reader catch on to what is happening, without rewriting earlier books. The mystery of the body in the tunnel interweaves the archaeological team, local Druids and protesters, the ex-pat Italian community and Dryden's own family. There are components of this story that come from the Second World War, there are aspects that are very much current day. THE MOON TUNNEL is a very entertaining book, the mystery is interesting, the pace of the overall book is really good and Dryden and Humph are a great combination.
AND HOPE TO DIE - J M Calder
Set in an unnamed USA city, JM Calder's second thriller AND HOPE TO DIE is chilling. The book opens as a package is received by the parents of a kidnapped little girl. Finding out that this little girl is the 4th child taken by the same kidnapper and then discovering that even though the children are released, they have been purposely mutilated is bad enough. Then finding out that the kidnapper's demands aren't for money, but for the suicide of the mother in return for the life of the child, and you're going to be squirming in your chair as you read.
Solomon Glass has been investigating these crimes since the first kidnapping and by the 4th case they are no closer to finding any clues. There just does not seem to be any connection between the victims, no clues to the kidnapper's identity and no real idea where to start. The lack of progress isn't helped when the father of the latest victim is a powerful financier in the city and able to exert a lot of pressure on the mayor, which feeds to Glass's boss Keeves who has no hesitation in dumping the pressure directly on everyone in Glass's team.
Lieutenant Solomon Glass – Solly to everyone around him is a veteran police officer with a reputation for being different. He's also a man on the way back from his own personal tragedy. Dan Maloney, his new, young partner is an eager and hardworking policemen with a lot of respect for Glass. Nora Bloom, secret girlfriend of Maloney, and member of the IT / Files and Records Section of the force, has been seconded to the team for this investigation and she is also one of the officers who likes working with Glass. Glass has a background in psychology, a difficult personal past and an approach to crime solving that is part psychology, part sheer effort and part lunatic. Eventually it becomes clear that these kidnappings are a message to Glass and as a suspect is finally identified, Glass is ultimately the only person who can stop this man.
AND HOPE TO DIE is fascinating. In the early stages the book starts to play out very much like a police procedural, albeit with some unexpected twists and turns from Glass. But as the pressure builds, the latest victim still missing and the kidnapper becoming increasingly cruel as he plays with the parents, the book twists into a more complex thriller. Glass, despite the respect that his team holds him in, becomes more and more of a loner and slowly his family and personal story is revealed. More and more the entire story comes down to a battle between Glass and the unknown kidnapper.
The final scenes twist and turn as page by page the kidnapper seems to be more and more elusive. Glass's final solution is pretty obvious, but that doesn't detract from the page twisting worry that he's not actually going to pull this off.
BIG SHOTS - Adam Shand
There's something - possibly it's car crash fascination - but ultimately there's something nigglingly alluring about True Crime books about the recent ructions in Melbourne's Underworld. Maybe it's the proximity of the goings on, maybe it's the sheer unbelievability of the world that people - who don't live a million miles away from me - live. It's a lifestyle that doesn't have any similarity with my own, yet it goes on in the same city that I live in. And Melbourne's not a humongous metropolis... it's Melbourne.
Adam Shand's Big Shots is, I guess, in that style that they call narrative non-fiction. It rolls out the story of the underworld war that led to a massive amount of publicity in the media, concern in the police, and frankly probably a lot of curiosity in other denizens of this city. As the bodies piled up and the ructions between the various camps increased Adam Shand, a finance journalist who seems to be openly admitting in this book was massively out of his depth, found himself with unexpected access to a number of central characters from both sides of the argument. Although the Carlton Crew were adamant that this was not a war of their making, and a considerable number of their members died, the war was more complicated and considerably more multi-faceated than just a war for territory. It seems to have been partially about territory, partially about long-held grudges, partially a lot of willy-waving and ultimately an exercise in power and what sort of mayhem bucket loads of money can buy you.
If you're even vaguely interested in the story behind the gangland wars - then this book is worth reading. It's certainly not glamorising either the events or the people involved, and it doesn't do a lot for talking up the life of a local gangster.
THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND - Stav Sherez
There is a serial killer in Amsterdam, killing young women in an unspeakable manner. The body of the elderly tramp, found in a rain soaked park, is covered in scarring of all types, so police assume that he is the latest victim, despite the differences in the manner of his death. All Detective Ronald van Hijn has as a clue to the victim's identity is a name and a phone number, written on the inside of the book of poetry found in the tramps pocket.
Jon Reed knew the old man – Jake Colby – because he had recently been overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility for this quiet, homeless man. Some strange impulse had made him invite Jake into his flat, where they had spent time together talking about their backgrounds and their respective fathers.
Summoned to Amsterdam to identify Jake, Jon finds himself drawn to the city; to the investigation into Jake's death; to the Jewish quarter and to Suze, an American student writing her thesis on a little known Jewish artist, killed in Auschwitz. Jake had recently discovered he wasn't who he had thought he was. Jon is aware that he is not who he really is, and that his own father had denied their Jewish history totally. Whilst he is searching for Jake's past and what it was that led to his death, Jon finds himself pulled into a strange twilight world of drugs, alcohol, Jewish History, Nazism and fetishes.
THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND is a thriller. The action is almost non-stop and there's lots and lots of sex and drugs; a bit of rock and roll; Nazi's; pornographers; shadowy Internet auction sites; body piercers; cruelty; secret societies and a huge dose of despair. Whilst there is a lot of action and always something new happening, there are also some short reflective moments whilst Jon tries to work out what being Jewish means to him. Van Hijn is another rumpled, slightly maverick Detective. What makes him different and interesting though is that he's actually not bullet-proof, he also sticks with this investigation, despite the powers that be wanting him anywhere else. And he's addicted to cheesecake – the seriously nice sounding variety and some really weird sounding varieties (chilli and chive or liquorice cheesecake anyone?) . Suze is not just your typical love interest or token female, she's got some very challenging behaviours of her own.
THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND is dark. Much of it's subject matter is revolting, many of the characters just appalling, the violence is extreme and people behave badly – frequently. The sex and the drug taking are graphic and brutal. The cruelty of the murders is reflected again and again in cruelty at all levels – to each other and animals; historical and current day. But the pace of the book is sharp and the storyline is taut and well written. THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND is not a comfortable read, but it is a great thriller.
DEATH BY CHOCOLATE - Toby Moore
We have seen the future, and it's a scary place. In DEATH BY CHOCOLATE, being fat in most States of America is now a crime, and Health Enforcement in New York enforce weight licences and track down humonsters for forced re-education. Brown (chocolate's street name) is only available from smugglers and illicit dealers. Illicit eateasy's are hidden all over town, serving burgers, fries and other illegal substances. The boring, day to day existence of Health Enforcement Officers Devlin and Strong is disrupted in a big way when Cupid Frish, pulled over just days before for a random weight check, is found, dead.
It doesn't take too long to find that Frish has some very questionable connections with the Head of Health Enforcement as well as Bishop Instructor Heston Gotfelt of the Fit for Christ Church, conglomerate corporation; church; fitness institution and political power-base. It seems that Frish has been strangled, coated with a bizarre brown bikini and dumped, but when her body goes missing from the morgue; her apartment is trashed and she turns out to have been a lot more than just a murder victim, Devlin and Strong get themselves into a heap of trouble overstepping the role of Health Enforcement Officials.
There's a lot of playing around with perceptions and everyday scenarios in DEATH BY CHOCOLATE. Firstly there's a society totally and utterly obsessed with food and weight - trying to control every aspect of citizens lives with a mixture of religious zeal, legal control and financial incentives. There is corporate power behind the political throne, making a lot of money from controlling people's behaviours. There is massive weather pattern shifting with cold winds and flurries of snow in summer New York. There is also a switching of traditional roles with Devlin, a man, trying to balance work and being a single parent to a rebellious teenage girl and Strong, a female, being a hard drinking, hard playing maverick.
There's some very clever switching around of some of the methods used in society to control anti-social behaviour, for example, illegal drug selling and use. The comparisons between speakeasys and eateasys is pretty obvious, and it's a illustrative part of Moore's future world. In places though, the comparisons get a bit heavy-handed and DEATH BY CHOCOLATE veers towards self-involved. The mystery of Frish and what happened to her gets somewhat lost amongst the agonising of Devlin - is his daughter really using Brown? Will she end up in rehab? Will he ever get a girlfriend? The ramblings, rantings and manipulations of Gotfelt and the Church are amusing and quite telling in places, but again, it all ends up getting a bit too carried away in its own cleverness. The way that all the components of religion, and bureaucracy can be switched to be for or against any subject, item, passion (illicit or legal) starts to get drawn out and whilst many of those comparisons are clever, it's all just a bit too much because the central story starts to suffer and lose focus.
DEATH BY CHOCOLATE is amusing, it's clever and if you can forgive it trying to hit you across the head with the comparisons, it's a good light-hearted read for somebody who is looking for a something a bit on the silly side. Two warnings though, fat is printed as f*t, cuteness can be incredibly trying sometimes, and most importantly, you couldn't possibly read DEATH BY CHOCOLATE and not have uncontrollable cravings for a large box of chocolates, a very strong full fat cappuccino and a pizza with everything.
A CERTAIN JUSTICE - P D James
Venetia Aldridge QC, distinguished barrister, is found dead in her Middle Temple Chambers, stabbed once cleanly through the heart; sat in her chair; wearing a full wig covered in blood.
She had recently successfully defended Garry Ashe, accused of killing his aunt, and has been horrified by the announcement that Ashe and her troublesome daughter Octavia plan to marry. The current Head of Middle Temple Chambers is about to retire and Venetia believed she had a right to the position, despite just a few scant weeks of seniority. She was planning big disruptive changes in Chambers, and her best friend there was also her main rival for the job. Her lover, a prominent parliamentarian wanted to end their relationship. Dalgleish and his team firstly struggle to explain why the bizarre treatment of the body, and then to narrow the vast cast of possible suspects to get to the bottom of the death, until a second brutal killing suddenly reveals a lot of things that were carefully hidden away.
The book is broken into four distinct phases, "Book One - Counsel for the Defence", "Book Two - Death in Chambers", "Book Three - A Letter from the Dead" and finally "Book Four - The Reed Beds". This breaks the story up into those 4 distinct phases - the events leading up to the death of Venetia, the discovery of her body and the commencement of the investigation through to the resolution in two parts.
The characters in the story are artfully revealed, but in particular, the main character, the victim herself, is somebody that you come to know a lot about in the lead up to her death. There's a touch of the personal story of the investigators, less of Dalgleish and a little more about Kate Miskin and Piers Tarrant. The concentration, however, is mostly on how they work, and react to each other.
The location of the early parts of the book, in and around the Temple Chambers and the Old Bailey give a great sense of place - something vaguely archaic, cloistered and claustrophobic.
This is definitely a doorstopper of a book at 482 pages in the standard paperback, but there is no discernible padding in that. The only minor quibble is the same quibble that readers can sometimes get from James in that there's a vague feeling of class distinctions and people who are "quite right" and people who are "not quite right", based on where they come from. Kate Miskin, for example, came from Public Housing and she is constantly feeling that she has to compensate for that background.
A CERTAIN JUSTICE was involving from the start to the end, regardless of the size of the book. It is an old fashioned puzzle story, in the hands of an author who really knows how to crank out a good, deft, solid mystery. You really get the feeling you're in the hands of somebody who knows what they are doing.
HIDDEN - Katy Gardner
Mel Stenning has been a victim most of her life. Adopted by very conventional parents, she rebelled (but hated herself for doing it), getting into all sorts of situations and ultimately ending up in Australia, pregnant with no chance of having anything to do with her daughter Poppy's father. Returning to England she's a single mother, working for a living, finding it hard to cope, when she meets Simon. Never really convinced that Simon loves her, and constantly obsessed that he's remained involved with his last girlfriend Rosa, Mel is pregnant again. When Simon proposes, they marry and move to an old, derelict warehouse in Kent that Simon is sure they can renovate. Poppy finds it hard to adjust to the new area; the renovations lurch along out of control and mostly going nowhere; Mel obsesses over Simon's commitment to her; and Jo, when he arrives, is a difficult baby, colicky and fractious. Simon is increasingly absent from home working in London on jobs for desperately needed money.
In the meantime London police are investigating the violent stabbing death of prostitute found in her own flat, and then Rosa goes missing. The police are very interested in talking to Simon about Rosa, even more so when his credit cards are found in her house. Mel's even more convinced that Simon has been lying to her about Rosa, but when the police interest in him increases and Poppy suddenly goes missing, seemingly taken by Simon, Mel's life and faith in Simon spirals totally out of control.
Mel is the focus of HIDDEN. The story is told from her perspective, starting immediately with the circumstances around Poppy going missing and then back through events that got them to that place. Interspersed with Mel's life are chapters from the viewpoint of policeman Dave Gosforth, in charge of the murder investigation and then Rosa and Poppy's disappearances. The use of the first person perspective means that Mel's obsessions are stark and concentrated. This perspective gives the book a very claustrophobic, self-involved feeling, almost voyeuristic and definitely slightly creepy. Mel is quite exasperating - her victim mentality and her inability to make a positive change become really frustrating, but the pace of the book does pull you through the story. The final resolution is not hard to see coming, but the increasing tension by that stage means that you stay with Mel just to see if she'll actually develop some backbone and get herself out of this.
Despite, or possibly because, Mel is such a complicated character this was a unexpectedly involving book.
SUN AND SHADOW - Ake Edwardson
Erik Winter is the youngest chief inspector in Sweden. He's quite the snappy dresser, an intuitive if slightly moody cop, consumed with his job and with his very pregnant girlfriend. When his father has a massive heart attack in Spain, he is pulled away from his job to spend a little time with him before he dies. His time in Spain is very conflicted, a completely different culture and experience which his parents have embraced totally, away from his girlfriend and his job, he's lost and uncomfortable. When he returns, a particularly gruesome double murder, almost on his doorstep drags Winter and his team into the cult world of Gothic music and ultimately, adult games.
At the same time, his girlfriend has moved in and they are preparing for the birth of their baby when anonymous phone calls and strange noises outside their apartment late at night start to worry both of them.
This is an intricate, complicated, layered book which builds slowly to an intense and rapid conclusion. There are many contrasts between the characters in the book, with a rich cast of supporting characters - both from the police and Winter's own family, as well as witnesses that are drawn into the story as the investigation proceeds.
Classic Scandinavian crime fiction, well-paced, textured, thoughtful and compelling.
MR CLARINET - Nick Stone
In Nick Stone's debut book, MR CLARINET, ex-cop, ex-PI, most recently convicted of manslaughter, Max Mingus is contacted whilst still in jail by the desperate father of a child kidnapped in Haiti. Despite offering millions of dollars as a reward, Allain Carver, part of the powerful and rich elite of Haitian society, has to pester Mingus in jail and after release, to take up the search for his son. Mingus has a reputation of getting to the bottom of kidnappings and disappearing children, and of taking those searches very much to heart. Carver has been trying, with various other PI's for 3 years, to find his missing infant son. Charlie Carver is not the only child to go missing in Haiti, and a lot of previous investigators have died or been left scarred trying to work their way through a violent and dysfunctional society.
Stone's Haiti is a country very much on the edge, with occupation forces patrolling streets and gangs controlling others, society conventions are disrupted, there is economic meltdown and increasing slum living conditions, confrontational voodoo practices and rituals are being openly used and discussed, and drug lords enforce their brand of tribal law.
This is a big, elaborate thriller of a book, with action, violence and ritual liberally interspersed throughout. A little judicious editing would have been of some benefit as some of the middle sections of the book drag slightly, and some of the voodoo rituals, whilst perhaps thought to add some colour, came across as pointlessly gratuitous.
All round, a good thriller which, despite showing some weaknesses, indicates promise for a second book.
MAIGRET AND THE IDLE BURGLAR - Georges Simenon
From the Book: Is Chief-Inspector Maigret the only person concerned by the death of a thief?
A burglar is found battered to death on a mid-winter's night in Paris. the victim was murdered, stripped of all ID and thrown from a car on to the icy streets, yet his criminal background has Maigret's superiors eager to dismiss the killing as an underworld vendetta. Certainly nothing the police should concern themselves with, especially when they are supposed to be on the trail of a gang of armed robbers.
There is an awful lot to like about Maigret in AND THE IDLE BURGLAR. Despite dreadful facial injuries, Maigret knows the identity of this man instantly from a single tattoo on his body. The victim, Cuendet, is well known to him. He's a career burglar - a Swiss man, who started out very young as a run of the mill burglar; graduating after a period in the Foreign Legion to an extremely professional, cautious and studied burglar. He has a particular method - he carefully cases out a target, using the newspapers and social magazines to pick a victim; frequently moving into a room or hotel nearby so that he can carefully watch his intended target. He often enters houses when the victims are home, quietly leaving with their jewelery or money, not even waking up the householders. He causes no damage, he lives very simply - he even hoards a lot of his booty. And he has earned a grudging respect from Maigret. Maigret is therefore deeply aggrieved when the French Justice system decides that there are bigger fish to fry than solve a seeming underworld vendetta.
But the French Justice system is currently upside down as far as Maigret is concerned - the police don't control their own actions - Public Prosecutors now control the priorities and methods of investigation, and that is causing a lot of resentment in long-term career Police. So whilst he is seemingly concentrating on finding a gang of hold-up men - because Justice is now obsessed with crime against money - not violence against people in Maigret's opinion - he also quietly works on solving the killing of Cuendet.
In the days before mobile telephones, faxes, email and other forms of instant communication, investigation's proceeded differently. Part of the attraction of these books is the way that a police force knows it's constituency - it's citizens. They sniff the wind and find the scent, and their methodology doesn't feel overly dated because the characterisations in Simenon's books are so vivid and so enjoyable. The sense of indignation that is almost seething from Maigret's pores over the focus in crime fighting is palpable.