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.
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.
THE BULLET TRICK - Louise Welsh
Stage magician William Wilson lives a pretty hand to mouth type of existence as an opening act. In these way past vaudeville days, a stage magician is not really all that in demand. He also doesn't get many gigs at retirement parties for policemen, but Detective Inspector James Montgomery has the nickname of “The Magician” and somebody thought Wilson's appearance would be funny. The stage show certainly goes okay, but afterwards the reason why he's the particular magician asked to do the gig is revealed. It seems that Montgomery is carrying something in his wallet that Bill, the owner of the club hosting the party, really wants. And Wilson does a very good line in pocket dipping.
Despite Wilson not wanting to get involved, there are a lot of reasons to reconsider, not least of all a large number of bookie IOU's, now in Bill's hands, so the envelope is stolen. Wilson then has to scarper out the back of the club holding the envelope for safe-keeping when Montgomery realises it's gone and tackles Bill and his partner Sam to get it back. Sending the envelope on to his mother for safekeeping, Wilson has gone to Berlin to work in a club there, when he hears that Bill and Sam have been found dead in the club, and Montgomery starts ringing Wilson's mobile phone.
In Berlin, Wilson hooks up with Sylvie who performs in his act, despite there being something very reckless about her, and something really weird about her background and her Uncle Dix – is he or isn't he really her uncle and what is it about both of them that's just not quite right. And now, a veil really must be drawn to avoid giving away anything. Suffice to say that Wilson has found himself eventually back in the UK, avoiding Montgomery, intrigued by what was in the envelope; what happened to Bill and Sam; and tortured by events in Berlin.
The book switches viewpoint chapter by chapter, from the events that lead up to the time that Wilson spends in Berlin and where he is post Berlin – back in the UK, despondent, drifting and lost.
As with her first book, THE CUTTING ROOM, Welsh has again created a complicated character set of characters. The motivation for Wilson's investigating the contents of the envelope are a bit vague / quixotic; the reasons for him drifting lost after Berlin could be read as incomprehensible by the sensible / reasonable amongst us. Sylvie's motivations are never clear, her background left sufficiently ambiguous that you can leap to all sorts of conclusions, but the evidence might just not be there. Again, there's a strong, gloriously over the top cast of supporting characters, right down to Wilson's agent and his secretary. The secretary is but a brief pencil sketch in terms of the overall novel, but it's so powerfully written – she's a marvellous inconsequential character. One of the strength's of Welsh's is the marvellous ambiguity of many of the characters actions, the strength of the characterisation – be they “nice” or “nasty”. There's always a feeling that you'd know these people if you saw them in a pub.
And finally there's atmosphere. In The Cutting Room there was a lovely feeling of the voyeuristic, dusty, dirty clearing out of other people's houses. THE BULLET TRICK is a stagey, magical, high camp performance; but not so far behind the spotlight there's a back stage area where the tissues are used and the carpets are dirty and the cigarette smoke's stained the walls yellow. Highly recommended.
THE DINNER CLUB - Saskia Noort
In a commuter village near Amsterdam, upwardly mobile couples have moved in to live the suburban dream. Large houses, ostentatious wealth, room to move, safe streets for the children to play in, village atmosphere. In reality husbands leave early in the morning, the community is closed and unwelcoming to newcomers, wives feel isolated and the beautiful homes aren't quite enough. Karen and Marcel were inner-city dwellers, both working on their own creative careers and a very close couple. They thought they had the suburban dream but the reality is that Marcel is spending hours away from home and Karen is increasingly lonely and isolated. Searching for something, Karen finally forms a friendship with 4 other women, they meet regularly in the village, and with their husbands in tow, form “the Dinner Club”.
The book starts off when Karen (who narrates the story) and Marcel are woken by the news that there is a house on fire. Evert dies in that fire, but his wife and their two sons luckily escape. All the members of the Dinner Club are devastated and distressed and they rally close to support her in anyway they can. Tensions in the group are soon simmering away and the fire triggers a chain of devastating events. What Karen had thought was a close and supportive group of friends, turns out to have a lot more going on just below the surface than she ever realised. When another member of the Dinner Club falls from a hotel balcony, Karen quickly finds herself more and more on the outer of the group, and finally seeing the real truth behind the genteel suburban façade.
On the face of it, the book is about 5 women and then their husbands – depending on your perception they could be bitchy and very unpleasant; caring and supportive; self involved and mindless; interested in each other; using each other to validate their own beliefs and behaviour; naïve and foolish; sleezy and gross; sexy and attractive; claustrophobic and controlling; carefree and happy, creepy and disturbing. There's always something slightly off about this group – although Karen initially sees them only as kind and caring friends.
Reading THE DINNER CLUB, I initially wondered what the fuss was all about. It was a very quick read but surprisingly engaging despite a natural inclination to dislike these sorts of women intensely. But this book has sold record numbers of copies in its homeland and there must be a reason for that. I suspect that ultimately there are a number of different ways in which this book could be read and understood. On one level it's simply a book about a group of friends that fall apart because of their contributory behaviour, a sort of chick-lit mystery narrative. On another level it's a book about perception – what one person sees (or prefers to see) can be very different from what is actually happening or even what another person is seeing in the same events. At another level it's possible that the book could be read as an analogy of the destruction of a society – how the power base of relationships can be used to achieve an outcome, or how the manipulated can become the manipulator. Certainly, by the stage that the truth is revealed and the perpetrator exposed, the book is a lot less about the mystery and a lot more about the power plays.
Ultimately, I suspect that THE DINNER CLUB is going to be one of those books that people will either like or loathe. It's definitely one to think about, and for that I'm going to come down on the like side.
STIFF - Shane Maloney
It falls to the few to sort out the messes made by the many. Murray Whelan, assistant and jack-of-all-trades for the Minister for Industry must regularly vet all comers and documents before they reach his time-poor boss, Charlene Wills. Fencing with other members of the Labor party is a daily occurrence - they may be technically all on the same side, but that doesn't mean they can't irritate the life out of each other in each and every interaction. Sent by party hopeful Angelo Agnelli to find out what's happening out at Pacific Pastoral meatworks, Murray isn't a happy man.
If this book can't raise a few snorts and belly-laughs from you, dear reader, there is something seriously wrong. With you. Truly. The adventures of Murray Whelan, proud member of the Australian Labor party, office worker, single parent and all around smart-arse all began here with STIFF. Reading this book thirteen years after it was written hasn't taken the edge off a work etched out with vinegar-dipped razor blades. Murray Whelan's wry observations can still be applied to how we Australians operate, politically, socially and any other "ly" we may hope to conquer. Smart and funny doesn't even begin to describe STIFF, but startlingly, monstrously accurate and ferociously funny would be approaching the right kind of fawning adoration that you can't imagine the author ever tolerating.
Perhaps we won't go as far as saying that STIFF could be your reading sorbet (totally stripping away all memories of other recent reads and freshening you up for newer challenges) so let's say instead it will be a welcome slap. As always, the first novel in a series has the tough job of establishing a character, making him dear enough to our fickle hearts so that we will seek him out in other works while also placing him at novel's conclusion at fascinating roads yet to be taken. Murray Whelan, master of the smart comeback and champion of the depressed (or as long as they remains interesting), on reflection, actually hasn't had that much time spent on his description. His character would seem to allow nothing less than a tardy remark on such things, and with a galloping narrative regularly taking on plot tangents made fascinating by their familiarity (political manoeuvres, rip-off merchants, bureaucratic tangles), it will take some concentration to
keep it all straight.
Perhaps thankfully, for some readers, the world of Murray Whelan isn't all sunshine. The tangled mess that was, and still is, the Australian political system on a small scale may prove a little frustrating at times and threaten to take the edge of pace but let's not be picky - this is a still just a short novel that manages to pack just so much in.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN - John Ajvide Lindqvist
Oskar is a timid and lonely little boy, living in a high-rise building in one of those suburbs of Stockholm that was built with great fanfare in the 70's and ignored from then on. Oskar likes to eat sweets, collects murder stories in a scrapbook and fantasises about stabbing the boys in his class that torment and bully him constantly. Oskar is also a resilient and surprisingly self-sufficient little boy. His tormentors beat him, but they certainly aren't defeating him. But lonely little boys tend to watch what is happening around them, and Oskar is intrigued by the people that quietly move into the apartment next door. The blinds are always closed and it's very quiet in there. Nobody else pays a lot of attention to this new family, but later on, the removalist that helped them move in did wonder about the lack of belongings and just one bed.
Oskar knows that Eli doesn't have many friends, he knows that he normally only sees her, late at night in the playground near their building. She smells bad; her hair sometimes has grey streaks in it; and she wears light summer clothing and no shoes even though it's snowing. Eli's quiet, reserved, very formal. Oskar knows she's a bit odd, but he is just too young and too innocent to realise how odd, until much much later.
Soon after Eli moves in, a child's body is found hanging in a tree in a suburb not too far away. When an older man simply disappears one night – the media, the police, and all the residents start wondering if there is a serial killer in the area. But nothing in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is ever going to be that simple.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is labelled a Vampire Love Story, and it is. But if you're a fan of the softer, vampire romances where a simple bite on the neck is the weapon of choice, or where the vampire is the romantic hero who saves the day – then approach this book with caution. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is part horror story, part romance, part comedy routine and part murder mystery. And it's graphic. Very very graphic. And hypnotic, fascinating and alluring. And weird – it has to be said – very very weird. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN proved to me again that weird isn't always bad, sometimes it's just weird. Obviously to read this book you need an almighty disconnection with reality. This is the story of a vampire and her familiar (for want of a better description) and the violence implicit in a vampire staying alive. There's a certain disconnection in reactions around these events, as despite a number of sightings and some very gruesome events around the fate of the familiar, the neighbourhood seems surprisingly unaware of the vampire in their midst. But by that time, you're so wrapped up in Oskar's ultimate fate that it's a bit immaterial. Certainly you're so wrapped up in the whole Gothic feeling of it, anything anybody does or is doesn't really come to be all that surprising.
With some overtones of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Eli is aware of what she is and what she does. She is not just a blood sucking monster, intent on her own survival and Oskar needs a friend who believes in him and he can trust.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN dragged me so far out of my comfort zone, I should have packed a lunch, but the journey, despite the gory components, despite the out and out weirdness of the entire book, was not without a particular sort of joy and was most definitely extremely memorable.
OVER EXPOSURE - Hugo Rifkind
Macaulay Lewis has a major problem. Sure he was there the night that shadowy society cat-burglar Fingers stole the Bushman's Thimbles (diamonds that is) from Gemma Conrad's nipples, with the weathergirl not even noticing they had gone. But he kind of didn't update the copy that subsequently went out on his own newspaper's front page so there was no mention of this startling event. Bit embarrassing. Even more embarrassing because the glittering social event was that paper's own Diamond Awards night.
Mac is pretty used to stuffing up though - he spends most of his life in a slightly hung-over increasingly desperate search for a life. Fingers, though, is not the life he wants. The powers that be at the newspaper seem to think that Fingers is somehow their story and despite everything, they hope that Mac is their inner track to the cat burglar. Everybody else in the London media has other ideas. Mac, alas, finds himself more and more at events where Fingers pulls off one of his grand heists and slowly people start to wonder whether Mac and Fingers are more closely acquainted than initially thought. Whilst everyone else is madly speculating, Mac is just trying to get through the day and maybe get laid.
As Fingers increasingly pulls off more elaborate thefts, Mac finds his job security more and more threatened by his total inability to get anything right about this story, and he's no closer to getting his ex-girlfriend Elspeth to fancy him again. He also can't get sister Janie to stop dating losers and sister (christened Margaret - now Miriam) to stop playing the role of Jewish Princess. With their Scottish father and absent Jewish mother, Mac, Margaret and Janie are a close set of siblings despite everything.
OVER EXPOSURE is a bit of a romp through the grotty, silly, self-obsessed world of B-grade celebrity, heavy duty partying and the gossip columns of London. The famous names are liberally sprinkled throughout the book, but for non-UK based, not addicted to TV readers, it will require acceptance that these people were probably famous for some reason and the ability to just let that roll, because frankly, this particular reader has only heard of one in every 10 of the names.
There's also nothing terribly serious about OVER EXPOSURE, but the silliness is quite catching. Readers will have to be prepared for a bit of debauchery and some overt drug use and drinking, but Mac's a great character and there are some good, strong secondary characters orbiting around him. OVER EXPOSURE is a really fun, silly caper book, built around these elaborate celebrity thefts and a bloke who is just trying to straighten up and get the girl.
SHAME, Karin Alvtegen
Monica, is a successful, well regarded surgeon and physician who is ashamed of something in her past. She can't develop any meaningful relationships with anyone and pushes anyone who gets close quickly away.
Maj-Britt, hiding from the world behind an endless supply of food, requires help just to live, she is so obese. Locked in her apartment away from the world, Maj-Britt is deeply ashamed of something in her past.
Monica and Maj-Britt don't know each other, yet somehow, because of a conference, a car-accident and a care-worker, they briefly collide. The results of that collision, catastrophic for one in the short term, force both of them to confront the past and deal with their personal shame.
SHAME is not a novel for readers who like a murder right up there are the front of the book, with an investigation to resolve the crime. There really is no murder in SHAME, but there is death, sadness, despair, personal angst and profound tragedy and sorrow.
SHAME takes you carefully through the lives of Monica and Maj-Britt, revealing the events that lead to the shame that they each feel, and what has happened to each of them since. As those events are revealed, a connection between the two women slowly eventuates. The connection could save them, or it could destroy them both.
With elements of fear, oppressive religion, obsession, betrayal, sexuality, guilt, family dysfunction and emotional blackmail, SHAME is challenging and sometimes harrowing. It is also compelling, taut, intriguing and, ultimately, uplifting.
THE NO 2 GLOBAL DETECTIVE - Toby Clements
Lovers of Precious Ramotswe, Kurt Wallender, Rebus and Kay Scarpetta may wish to look away now. Toby Clements in his second book THE NO 2 GLOBAL DETECTIVE, rolls up his sleeves and gets stuck in.
When Junior Tutor at Cuff College Oxford, Tom Hurst, joins the faculty of the world's most famous crime fiction college he's startled, firstly by his fellow faculty and then a body, in the library, with a spear and the price tag of an IKEA duvet.
Hurst sets off to recruit four of the college's most famous graduates to kind the killer. He journeys to Botswana to see Mma Delicious Ontoaste, then to Sweden and Inspector Burt Colander, before heading for Scotland and Inspector Scott Rhombus, finishing up in America and (well you guessed it) Doctor Faye Carpaccia. Together they must stop arguing and get to IKEA before it shuts.
NO 2 GLOBAL DETECTIVE is really a loosely connected set of parodies of each of the 4 popular crime fiction characters, wrapped up in an overall investigation around the college which has the distinct feel of a Michael Innes or like-minded cloistered academic setting.
According to the bio provided, Toby Clements reviews crime novels for a national newspaper and keeps a who's who in crime fiction on his desk. He obviously knows the nuances of the big name writers he's having a go at incredibly well. Each of the sections is written with a very similar feeling / tone to the original authors, although he's possibly the most successful with Mma Delicious Ontoaste where the lampooning seems to be at its largest and the behaviour of the central character at its most outrageous and unexpected.
Whether or not you like the idea of vicious parody will probably dictate whether or not you like this book. Whilst there are some moments of inspired hilarity - there were some periods where you just wish the author would stop trying to be too clever and get on with it.
Silly, tongue in cheek, having a go at some of the well known names in Crime Fiction, THE NO 2 GLOBAL DETECTIVE has that feel of a book that somebody will buy for a friend they think takes their crime fiction too seriously.
THE CUTTING ROOM - Louise Welsh
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.