Million-copy-selling Chris Brookmyre takes his fiction further than ever before in this wildly inventive and sharply-plotted novel set in the unforgiving emptiness of space.
"This is as close to a city without crime as mankind has ever seen."
Ciudad de Cielo is the 'city in the sky', a space station where hundreds of scientists and engineers work in earth's orbit, building the colony ship that will one day take humanity to the stars.
Space is the final frontier. So it is no surprise that fictional towns in space – on the moon, on space stations on generation ships – are portrayed as frontier towns. And usually not in a positive way. Recently Ian McDonald’s Luna series portrayed a fairly lawless lunar colony run by dynastic families and Andy Weir’s protagonist in his recent Artemis, also on the Moon, makes a living running contraband. So when Places in the Darkness begins and new security chief Alice Blake is told that mankind’s first space station is totally crime free, the reader knows there is more to it. That and the fact that the book has opened with parts of a dismembered body floating in zero gravity.
Nicky “Fixx” Freeman is part of the local Seguridad but she moonlights as a fixer. Collecting protection money and helping a local alcohol smuggler and enforcer as part of a local gang war. Because mankind’s first space station, Cuidad de Cielo (“City in the Sky” or CdC) is riddled with corruption. A state of affairs to which the four ruling corporations (known as the Quadriga) turns a blind eye. But the locals know that the global government might be interested, given that the CdC is also where the first generational star ships, the hope for humanity, are being constructed. A blatant murder, followed by the opening shots of gang warfare puts Nikky in the frame and Alice, a representative of the global government, on the case.
Scottish author Chris Brookmyre is much better known for his gritty, often tongue in cheek crime fiction novels many featuring investigative journalist Jack Parlabane. He brings much of that sensibility to Places in the Darkness. Brookmyre understands that crime fiction is a great way to dig under the surface of a society. The only issue here is that he needs to do a fair amount of setting up and exposition (including a full on lecture early on) to get to the point where he can start digging. So much so that early on this feels like two different novels shoehorned together. But this feeling quickly subsides. And much of this is due to the characters – Nikky Fixx, an ex-LA cop who is carrying around an ancient pain and has become part of a completely corrupt system and Alice Blake, the straight-laced investigator having her eyes opened to how the world really works.
There is plenty going on here and it takes a while for Brookmyre to put all of the pieces into place. But once he does this becomes a classic buddy cop adventure (in space) as the situation spins dangerously out of control and repercussions of failure become more serious. Plenty of cliffhangers, clues and action. And along the way, also a fair amount of contemplation of issues like the nature of consciousness, how societies operate and what constitutes free will.
In the end it does not matter whether this can be considered science fiction with crime genre stylings or crime fiction set in a science fiction universe. In fact what it displays is the limitations of bothering at all with genre. Places in the Darkness is a great read, period and recommended for crime readers, scifi aficionados or just anyone who likes a good book.
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
Newly married, newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband's crumbling country estate, The Bridge.
With her new servants resentful and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie only has her husband's awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. For inside her new home lies a locked room, and beyond that door lies a two-hundred-year-old diary and a deeply unsettling painted wooden figure – a Silent Companion – that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself...
Gothic horror is back in vogue and it does not get much more gothic than Laura Purcell’s debut The Silent Companions. Purcell has thrown everything at her scenario – an opening scene in an asylum, a pregnant widow still in mourning, a creepy village outside of an even creepier manor house, whispers of witchcraft, surly servants, disappearing curio shops, mysteriously locked doors, black cats and strange noises. And the icing on this decidedly black cake are the unnerving, lifelike wooden figures, the silent companions of the title, that seem to move on their own and leave wood shavings and splinters in their wake.
It is 1865 and Elise Bainbridge is in mourning for the loss of her husband Rupert. She is retreating to the family estate known as The Bridge with Rupert’s young cousin Sarah and from the start things go wrong. There is only a skeleton staff in the house and locals from the village will not work there due to historical rumours of witchcraft. Almost immediately strange things start to happen – including odd noises in the night – and they become stranger when a previously locked door to the attic comes open revealing the lifelike wooden figure of a girl and the diary of one of Rupert’s ancestors. As the companions start to multiply around the house and the creepiness factor increases, the potential metaphysical source of the trouble is revealed through diary entries from 1635.
As already mentioned, Purcell throws every Gothic horror trope in the book at this tale and yet somehow she makes it work. Her descriptions of the house and the landscape are evocative, the narrative builds a sense of cloying unease and the creepy companions are… well, creepy. And just to keep readers on their toes, Purcell introduces a strain of ambiguity to the whole thing, heightened by the sections in the asylum.
So if 1980s horror homages are starting to wear a little and you feel like dipping back a little further into the more classical roots of the current jump-scare fad, The Silent Companions may be the way to go.
Review - Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, M.C. Beaton
Putting all her eggs in one basket, Agatha Raisin gives up her successful PR firm, sells her London flat, and samples a taste of early retirement in the quiet village of Carsely. Bored, lonely and used to getting her way, she enters a local baking contest: Surely a blue ribbon for the best quiche will make her the toast of the town. But her recipe for social advancement sours when Judge Cummings-Browne not only snubs her entry--but falls over dead! After her quiche's secret ingredient turns out to be poison, she must reveal the unsavory truth…
I've spent a lot of time driving recently, and these really work as a background to the endless kilometres.
Having kind of liked the TV Agatha Raisin series, I thought trying one of these as an audiobook for one of the recent long drives would be worth a go. I personally prefer things on the lighter side when I should be concentrating on driving, and a change of options was required after having spent a lot of hours with Phryne Fisher.
Obviously the Agatha Raisin of the books is nothing much like the TV version - so if you're hoping for a direct match you may be disappointed. Here the unpleasant aspects of Raisin's personality are more stark, and there's no way she looks anything like the TV blonde bombshell. But in this example, Penelope Keith does a wonderful job of the narration, the story is obviously from the cosier side of crime fiction, Agatha fluctuates between annoying and endearing and Roy ... well Roy is Roy.
There is a nice plot with lots of village shenanigans and enough smiles to keep you interested, if not out and out laughing, which is probably just as well as it was a perfect background to a lot of Australian country drive.
Review - All the Wicked Girls, Chris Whitaker
Everyone loves Summer Ryan. A model student and musical prodigy, she's a ray of light in the struggling small town of Grace, Alabama - especially compared to her troubled sister, Raine.
Then Summer goes missing. Grace is already simmering, and with this new tragedy the police have their hands full keeping the peace. Only Raine throws herself into the search, supported by a most unlikely ally.
But perhaps there was always more to Summer than met the eye . . .
Chris Whitaker's debut novel TALL OAKS garnered a lot of positive publicity and a CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger award. Haven't had a chance to read the first novel yet, but when ALL THE WICKED GIRLS arrived it bounced to the top of the pile based on reputation and expectation alone.
Whitaker is an Englishman, but ALL THE WICKED GIRLS is set in the Alabama of many movies and American mythology. A depressed place, populated by struggling families, dirt poor but tight, close, loving and caring. Deeply religious, these are the sorts of people you feel would be wheeled out when you want to explain "salt of the earth".
When fifteen-year-old Summer Ryan packs a bag, leaves a note saying "I'm sorry", and disappears, the biggest surprise seems to be that it's the "good girl" who has gone. Her twin Raine is the one most likely to get into trouble. Not Summer, the music prodigy, the model student, the golden girl (obviously there's deliberation in the choice of names for these characters). Raine, fortunately, is exactly the sort of person that isn't going to let something like Summer's disappearance roll into yet another mystery. She's the one who is prepared to ask the question their parents, the town and the local Police Chief are trying to avoid - is "the Bird" back? This unknown perpetrator was assumed responsible for the abduction of five young girls in a neighbouring county, but everybody had hoped he was dead or gone. Everybody also assumes the girls are dead - although no sign of them has ever been found.
Symbolism is writ large in ALL THE WICKED GIRLS. From the Summer and Raine names of the twins, through to a town called Grace, which is anything but, and the massive storm that is brewing - meteorological and psychological. Combined with references to good and evil, and the twins aligned with the different sides, God, the Devil and the Church, and the darkness of the atmospherics matches the overwhelming message being delivered. The narrative is supported by the sense of a very odd place, populated by some very odd people, including the morally ambiguous, looming presence of the local Pastor. The idea that Raine's obsession with her sister's disappearance, supported by some of the classic outsiders in the community like this, eventually putting pressure on a dispirited, almost lackadaisical Police Chief does make sense, as does the stirring of the twin's father and his redneck mates.
The narrative switches viewpoint between Summer's voice in the lead up to her disappearance, and the third person telling of the story of Raine and her fellow seekers - Noah (hero cop's son), Purv (son of a local construction worker, victim of shocking violence from his father) and Police Chief Black as he finds his cop's instinct and drive again. Grace, is, it turns out, a town steeped in religious fervour, and not short of possible suspects in Summer's disappearance, and that of the five earlier possible victims.
The sense of this place, the culture and the society in which the action takes place is palpable, uncomfortable and overwhelming. The characters all turn out to have hidden depths and secrets, and it often feels like the whole place is operating on lies. It's deep, dark and beautifully written, with not a hint of an outsider author. The message is, like the atmospherics, on the heavy side - part noir / part morality play, and because of that there's no way you could call this entertaining reading. ALL THE WICKED GIRLS is, however, extremely involving reading, requiring commitment on the part of the reader to empathise and eventually understand that not everything here is what it seems.
Review - From the Shadows, Neil White
He hides in the shadows, watching, waiting, until the time is right . . .
Mary Kendricks, a smart, pretty, twenty-four-year-old teacher, has been brutally murdered and Robert Carter is accused of killing her.
When defence lawyer, Dan Grant inherits Carter's case only weeks before the trial starts, everyone expects him just to babysit it, but Dan's not that kind of lawyer. He'll follow the evidence - wherever it takes him.
Neil White is a new to me author, and one that is now on the to be read list. FROM THE SHADOWS is the first in the Dan Grant / defence lawyer series. It appears that there is also a 5 or so book series based around DC Laura McGanity, 3 books in the Joe & Sam Parker series and at least one standalone. Which begs the question why did it take so long for me to notice? Now I'm really kicking myself as if FROM THE SHADOWS, lawyer Dan Grant and his investigator Jayne Brett are anything to go by, I've got quite a few books to slot into the impossibly large reading queue in these parts.
Legal thrillers can sometimes be a little hit and miss for this reader, with the reason for a lawyer doing a bit of investigating on the part of their clients not always absolutely believable. The inclusion in this novel of Jayne Brett smooths a lot of that, as is the idea that Grant finds himself handling the case of accused murder Robert Carter at the very last minute. All of the setup items in the plot work well, providing context and motivation without the need for suspension of disbelief.
The two main characters, Dan Grant and Jayne Brett are well defined, flawed and capable of working closely together. The relationship is friendly, the reasons for their working partnership and brand of friendship are feasible, plus there's co-operation with just enough angst to make them believable. Grant might be the good bloke in the scenario but that's not overblown or sanctimonious, his difficult relationship with his disapproving father an ongoing thorn in his side. Brett on the other hand has a more dangerous spectre hanging over her head, with the family of her dead abusive boyfriend out for revenge. The inclusion of a strong supporting cast of different types of people gives the human factors of the plot much to work with - from Grant's business partner, through to the lawyer originally tasked with the defence of Robert Carter, and those close to the victim.
The plot's well done, with a good contrast between the requirements of defending the accused and a search for the truth come what may. Brett is a good investigator - dogged, determined and fearless without being overly reckless, she's able to work her way into conversation with many people, quietly looking for the reasons behind so much reluctance on the part of witnesses to get involved, or if they do, why they are telling so many lies. All the while there's an unknown person lurking and threatening. This aspect isn't overblown, it bubbles along in the background, adding to the tension, without feeling manipulative or staged.
A terrific thriller, FROM THE SHADOWS, is fast-paced and populated by extremely interesting characters embroiled in a clever story plot that twists, turns and sneaks around more than enough to keep the reader guessing until the end.
Book review - Did You see Melody? , Sophie Hannah
Tired and irritable from her cross continental flight from the UK, the last straw for Cara Burrows is being sent to the wrong room in the middle of the night by hotel reception. Disturbing a teenager and a man in the room, the over reaction is completely bizarre to Cara but in the light of day, it becomes just one of those things. The purpose of Cara’s trip was to regroup her thoughts and have a well-deserved break from her insufferable family so beyond that, she’d rather just enjoy what the Arizona resort has to offer. Cara has big mental fish to fry.
There’s both highs and dips with this novel. Some of the dialogue is quite fun and the main character Cara is comically harried with all that is going on in her life. We’ve all been there. Mother and teen daughter relationships based on sarcasm are very relatable, as is the faux cheeriness you often encounter from hotel staff when all you want to do is be left alone to enjoy your holiday. Author Sophie Hannah contrives to balance all of the mayhem of hotel goers joining forces for a holiday adventure with the darker depiction of a child’s murder.
As the abduction/murder plot is rather over worked, you will need to check your reality radar (and eyerolling) at the door in order to complete this read. As a beach towel novel, DID YOU SEE MELODY may have served a little better. As a crime novel, it’s a little oddball. It needs a little more darkness, or a little more lightness to slide home successfully in either category. Whether you are new to this author of an existing fan you will appreciate how Hannah has brought together a lot of diverse characters and made them interact in the unlikely environment of a high end desert resort.
Shades of “It’s a Mad, Mad World” for sure, but in the hands of Hannah DID YOU SEE MELODY has enough intrigue (satisfactorily largely in the hands of the women) to push (rather than sweep away) the reader through what is essentially a one location mystery. It’s a bit of frenetic trip in order to answer the burning question of the novel - did Cara really see Melody at the Swallowtail Resort?
Review - The Accident on the A35, Graeme Macrae Burnet
The methodical but troubled Chief Inspector Georges Gorski visits the wife of a lawyer killed in a road accident, the accident on the A35. The case is unremarkable, the visit routine.
Mme Barthelme—alluring and apparently unmoved by the news—has a single question: where was her husband on the night of the accident? The answer might change nothing, but it could change everything. And Gorski sets a course for what can only be a painful truth.
But the dead man’s reticent son is also looking for answers. And his search will have far more devastating consequences.
Graeme Macrea Burnet’s first novel was presented as the translation of an obscure French crime novel written and published in the early 1980s by French author Raymond Brunet (note the anagram). The conceit of that novel – The Disappearance of Adéle Bedaeu – was deepened by the creation of a faux trailer for the film version of the book. After his Booker prize nominated His Bloody Project, Burnet returns to the world of Brunet. The Accident on the A35 is, according to the preface, the translation of an unpublished Brunet manuscript, released after his mother’s death.
Once again, the book centres around detective George Gorski and the small, seemingly dead end town of Saint Louis in which he lives. When the book opens, Gorski’s wife has left him and he is called to the scene of a car accident on a nearby road. The scene appears to be an open and shut case but there are some odd details and Gorski allows himself to be charmed by the dead man’s widow into investigating further. At the same time, the dead man’s son Raymond, after finding an address in his father’s drawer of a house in a nearby town, is also both investigating and trying to grow up.
The Accident on the A35 Is written in the mould of a classic French crime novel, it is intensely focussed on the characters of Gorski and Raymond and is less about the solution to the crime, if indeed there is one, than the impact that the events surrounding the death have on them. Gorski gets caught up with an unsolved crime in a nearby town and Lambert, the shonky detective running the case. Raymond finds himself shoplifting and becoming obsessed with a girl called Delph who lives in the block of apartments that he has been watching.
It is unclear why Burnet feels the need to play the meta-narrative games with his crime fiction except maybe to find an excuse to write novels in this style. And he does it well, crafting a crime novel that is more about the effects of a crime and its investigation and resolution than a crime itself. But this device does provide another, potentially deeper layer to the text and the end notes invite the reader to consider how autobiographical the fiction is in relation to the (also fictional) life of Raymond Brunet.
Book review - Friend Request, Laura Marshall
Louise is on the treadmill of busyness that all single parents are forced to negotiate every day. Her son is great, her ex operates at the standard level of selfish and annoying, her fledgling business is going well and in the between-times Louise checks in and tries to keep up with everyone else’s frantic lives via Facebook. The bright shiny lives of Louise’s friends, ex colleagues and acquaintances are cyber surreal to her and the friends that were once vitally important in the school years have now become just posts on her phone screen.
FRIEND REQUEST is not a social media crime novel as expected; the platform is used instead here to spark off a chain of events. Thematically the story does not labour over the highlight reel that is social media but it is importantly touched upon, tying it neatly back into the past before Facebook etc when many of the same societal pressures existed for young people, albeit in a less technologically advanced age. Different generations facing the same age old concerns. Children being horrific to other children. The feeling of being completely alone as a teenager even though you are typically surrounded by many people on any given day of your school dictated life.
Louise’s slow disintegration is written with care, and it is the increasing of Louise second guessing herself that rachets up the tension. Is Louise actually being stalked, is she over thinking, is there real danger to Louise’s own life and that of her son now as a result of what she participated in as a child. As a reader we’re never entirely sure but there is never any doubt that Louise is fearful and keen to find out the answers to all the questions she should have asked long ago.
Laura Marshall’s debut novel reminds us why most of us move on and far beyond what we were in high school. Remove the rose-coloured glasses, and the “good old days” actually probably were anything but. The adults in this novel are being forced to remember what they were, and its uncomfortable for them to be reminded. This is a cleverly written ‘slow draw’ mystery of dread and old baggage. It will resonate with those who have had to pull back from toxic friends, online or otherwise, and with those who wish they could blank out the mistakes they have made in the past.
Munich by Robert Harris
Hitler is determined to start a war.
Chamberlain is desperate to preserve the peace.
The issue is to be decided in a city that will forever afterwards be notorious for what takes place there.
As Chamberlain’s plane judders over the Channel and the Führer’s train steams relentlessly south from Berlin, two young men travel with secrets of their own.
Robert Harris has long had a fascination with the events surrounding Neville Chamberlain’s trip to Munich in 1938 to negotiate with Hitler. That meeting, which ended with Chamberlain famously returning to Britain waving a piece of paper and declaring “Peace in our time”, has long been seen as the epitome of the appeasement policy that presaged World War II.
In 1988, on the fiftieth anniversary of that meeting, Harris was involved in a documentary called God Bless You, Mr Chamberlain.As the name of his documentary suggests, Harris has a more grey interpretation of Chamberlain’s actions than the popular historical account. And this view of the man and his actions informs much of his latest novel about these negotiations.
Early on in Munich it is clear that in 1938 the British were not ready for a war. Chamberlain is told that that the country needs at least a year to recruit, train and arm their forces. So that while Chamberlain honestly strives for peace, desperately trying to avoid a repeat of Word War I, he is also aware of a need to stall for time. As he observes: “The main lesson I have learned in my dealings with Hitler is that one simply can’t play poker with a gangster if one has no cards in one’s hand.” In Harris’s telling, Chamberlain does everything he can to box Hitler in to an agreement, knowing it is possibly all futile.
While full of historical characters the book itself is anchored around two fictional characters, both advisors to their respective leaders. Hugh Legat is one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries. Many years before, while at Oxford, he had a friendship with a German, Paul Hartmann who now works for the German diplomatic service. They have been estranged for six years after a falling out during Legat’s last visit to Munich, during Hitler’s rise to power, and events that hang in the background for most of the novel. Hartmann is part of a group seeking to bring Hitler down. He hopes to use Legat as a back channel to pass secrets on to the British and derail the Munich talks. So that while it is set against the backdrop of the real negotiations, this is a spy thriller, although one about amateur spies who are dedicated to a particular result but not very good at their craft.
It is easy in a historical novel like this to presage future events and for characters to make gnostic comments about how their actions will impact on the future. Harris does not fall into this trap but his characters are not stupid, they know that war is coming even while they struggle to prevent it. But what Harris does well is use the historical context to shine a broader light one human behaviour. For example, passages where SS characters talk of making Germany great again, and observations on Goebbels insight that the people would believe what they wanted even if it wasn’t true. More generally, Harris highlights the dangers inherent in the rise of nationalism.
Munich shows once again why Harris is one of the best historical fiction and thriller writers going around. His grasp of the detail and the main historical players mean that while the outcome is never in doubt historically, interest is in the cut and thrust of the negotiation process and the interplay of the personal and the political. And in Munich, Harris managed to seamlessly integrate this fascinating historical milieu with relatable characters in an engaging espionage tale.
Review - A Dark So Deadly, Stuart MacBride
Welcome to the Misfit Mob…
It's where Police Scotland dumps the officers it can't get rid of, but wants to: the outcasts, the troublemakers, the compromised. Officers like DC Callum MacGregor, lumbered with all the boring go-nowhere cases. So when an ancient mummy turns up at the Oldcastle tip, it's his job to find out which museum it's been stolen from.
If the universe wants to be particularly nice to us, it will make sure that A DARK SO DEADLY is the start of a new series from Stuart MacBride. There are echoes here of his long running Logan McRae series, but it's delivered with a slightly straighter bat (you'd have to be dead set in front to pick it though), and lots and lots of potential for places for the Misfit Mob to go and crims for them to annoy.
A haphazard grouping of cops who have been in trouble in the force, one who is most definitely not going gently into any sort of night - good or otherwise, and a female boss who is slightly erratic but nowhere near as in your face as DI Steel from the McRae series and there's so much potential here it's hard to know where to start. There's heaps of gallows humour that had this reader somewhere between smirking and laughing loudly at points, and then there's some beautifully dodgy villains, some over the top scenarios (mummified bodies for goodness sake) and that uncomfortable awareness that a scenario quite this horrible really shouldn't be making the reader laugh this much. But then readers, like the cops they are reading about, have to get through the worst of the worst, and MacBride is a genius at making it all feel like the world's gotten seriously it's weird and sick but it's going to be okay.
The Misfit Mob might even work out a way to be okay. You'd have to hope so as there will be some serious sulking in these parts if the universe screws this up on us, and this isn't the start of a new series.