On a stifling summer's day, eleven-year-old Jack and his two sisters sit in their broken-down car, waiting for their mother to come back and rescue them. Jack's in charge, she'd said. I won't be long.
But she doesn't come back. She never comes back. And life as the children know it is changed for ever.
The members of the Booker Prize Committee were very proud of themselves when they longlisted a crime novel for the 2018 Booker. With Peter Temple having won a Miles Franklin a few years back it feels like Australia might be a little ahead of the game in recognising that crime genre fiction can be (and often is) “literary” enough to be considered for these awards. Unfortunately Belinda Bauer’s Snap did not make the Booker shortlist, but hopefully this represents a chink in the armour.
The book opens with a tragedy. It is 1998 and eleven year-old Jack and his two younger sisters have been left in a broken-down car by the side of the M5 while their mother goes to find a phone. Their mother never returns. Three years later the children are living on their own, their father having left them, all still traumatised in some way by the events of that day. Jack has become a thief to support his siblings and he always holds on to the idea that he can find his mother’s killer.
At the same time, heavily pregnant Catherine scares off a burglar but returns to her bed to find a wicked looking knife and a note that says “I could have killed you”. She keeps the encounter from her husband and the police but the pressure mounts as the mysterious messages continue to come.
Enter slovenly, disgraced Detective Inspector Marvel and his not too sharp crew of local detectives and the stage is set for these stories to collide.
Snap is a great crime novel with a tragic central mystery but of course it is more than that. Much like Australian author Garry Disher’s Peninsula series, Bauer’s authorial eye roams across a range of characters in a small town, building a picture of the community. Every one of these characters is a shade of grey. There is no good or bad, no brilliant detectives or purely incompetent ones, just people going about their lives, doing the best with the hand they have been dealt or doing their jobs as well as they are able. On top of this, Bauer manages to create a rising sense of tension as the various threads are drawn together and the main characters collide.
As the Booker Committee finally recognised, great crime fiction is also great fiction just cast within a crime genre frame. And Snap certainly fits this bill. Complex characters, a cracking mystery, a sly sense of humour and plenty of tension. Even if it did not make the Booker shortlist, that makes Snap a winner for any reader.
Whiskey From Small Glasses, Denzil Meyrick
DI Jim Daley is sent from the city to investigate a murder after the body of a woman is washed up on an idyllic beach on the West Coast of Scotland.
Far away from urban resources, he finds himself a stranger in a close knit community.
The investigation becomes more deadly as two more bodies are found.
Love, betrayal, fear and death stalk the small community, as Daley investigates a case that becomes more deadly than he could possibly imagine; in this compelling, beautifully written novel - infused with intrigue and dark humour.
WHISKEY FROM SMALL GLASSES is the first in the DI Jim Daley (yes he does go to the gym daily) and DS Brian Scott series, which I've started listening to, as opposed to reading, and very fine listening it is. Narrated by David Monteath, the series is now up to book 6.
Starting out with a good balance between introduction and set up of new characters, and an interesting investigation to be getting on with, WHISKEY FROM SMALL GLASSES comes with a unique setting and some dark humour into the bargain. There's also more than enough intrigue, marital issues, and police politics to keep a reader amused.
Set in a seemingly fictional version of Kinloch, one hundred and fifty "long way round" miles from Glasgow, the area has recently come under the overall control of the Strathclyde Police. Superintendent John Donald, once footsore copper and compatriot of Daley's, now his boss, is determined to get these remote outposts to step into line, so a murder case seems like the perfect opportunity to send Daley and Scott off to the countryside, get a quick turnaround on the case, and show these yokels a thing or two about effective policing. Not exactly the best timing for Daley's personal life as his marriage to the serially unfaithful Liz is tanking rapidly, his waistline is expanding and his reserves of patience sorely tried. When Liz lobs into Kinloch with her suspect brother-in-law in tow, it's the last thing Daley wants or needs, although the arrival of his investigating buddy, friend and sounding board Brian Scott, him of the highly colourful turn of phrase, and pointed turn of snark, has given Daley the friend and support he needs.
Listening to this novel washing past was a very enjoyable experience. There is a hefty concentration on Daley's problems with his marriage, enough that I'd have normally expected to be rapidly over it, but it does kind of work here. The concentration on the case, the friendship between Daley and Scott, the idiotic behaviour of the local police chief, all sort of slot together, making everyone feel real, and conflicted, and trying hard. With the Daley's being away from home, in a place where they are unknown there is always the hope that they might eventually decide whether it's a yes or no on the marriage. With Daley and Scott being in town, even though the body count does grow, there's always a feeling that there might not be Donald's longed for quick turnaround, but a resolution to the murders will be found. All the while there is the real feeling that Kinloch and it's people are working their way into Daley's admiration and life.
There is much more to these murders than originally thought, and things quickly go from a murder investigation to sorting out an international drug-trafficking ring, and at that point the investigative side of the novel does get a bit ropey, although where it's heading becomes obvious at the end. Write this one off to a major amount of set up for the rest of the series and you should be able to forgive things getting a bit messy, to say nothing of some very heavy darning to pull some threads into place.
Having now listened to the first couple of books in the series, I think I'll stick with them in audio format as the dialogue, the place names, even the thought patterns of the characters are quintessentially Scottish and part of the enjoyment was hearing it in just the right accent.
Absolute Proof, Peter James
Investigative reporter Ross Hunter nearly didn't answer the phone call that would change his life - and possibly the world - for ever.
"I'd just like to assure you I'm not a nutcase, Mr Hunter. My name is Dr Harry F. Cook. I know this is going to sound strange, but I've recently been given absolute proof of God's existence - and I've been advised there is a writer, a respected journalist called Ross Hunter, who could help me to get taken seriously."
What would it take to prove the existence of God? And what would be the consequences?
ABSOLUTE PROOF is a rare thing in these parts - a "did not finish". Try as I might to get into this whopping big thriller, it's just too much of a slog. (For the record I'm not a fan of Dan Brown's books either so there is a distinct possibility that this one was never destined to work for me as it seems to have been compared favourably to them in a number of quarters).
But for this reader, right from the outset there was much that pushed suspension of disbelief too far, and much that just flat out didn't work. The reader is called up on accept that an investigative journalist who has experienced war zone death and terror returns to his daily life willing to accept his wife's infidelity, willing to live with his concerns about his unborn child's parentage, willing to continue to not really trust this woman, until it suddenly becomes something that isn't much talked about again. Mind you, this is same man who is also willing to accept the word of a total stranger that he has proof of the existence of a god. He's willing to pursue that investigation after the violent death of that self-same stranger, he's willing to believe DNA can be retrieved from coagulated blood found in a chalice recovered from the bottom of a well after a couple of thousand years, that the compass points dictated by this god to the aforementioned stranger are pointing to all these artifacts that line up nicely to provide a DNA profile that matches... and and and.
Maybe all of that will work for some readers, perhaps it is better if the central premise actually made a modicum of sense - but it's slower than continental drift on Mars in progressing, there is SO MUCH that's just accepted on face value, and it all descended into farcical fantasy with absolutely no semblemance of logic that I fear the premise has no hope of making sense, the resolution is so uninteresting (and many aspects so utterly predictable) that I have had to abandon half-way through before excessive irritation gets the better of me.
The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry
Edinburgh, 1847. City of Medicine, Money, Murder.
Young women are being discovered dead across the Old Town, all having suffered similarly gruesome ends. In the New Town, medical student Will Raven is about to start his apprenticeship with the brilliant and renowned Dr Simpson.
Ambrose Parry is the pen name of multi-award winning Scottish crime writer Chris Brookmyre and his wife Marisa Haetzman. It was Haetzman’s research into medical practice in Edinburgh in the 1850s that put the two down the track of collaborating on a novel set in the period.
Being a crime novel, The Way of All Flesh opens with a death – a prostitute named Evie, found by one of her regular clients, but also friend, Will Raven. Raven runs from the scene, straight into the arms of the debt collectors looking for repayment of the money he had borrowed to help Evie out. Raven is hoping that his new apprenticeship with famous “male midewife” (aka obstetrician) James Simpson, will help him earn the money that he needs. In Simpson’s house, which also serves as his clinic, is housemaid Sarah who has the capacity to be more and yearns for something better.
It takes some time for the murder mystery to come into focus. Some news about other deaths slowly builds in both Raven and Sarah a suspicion that something strange is afoot. They form a loose partnership as they tentatively investigate. Both characters are engaging and distinctive enough to avoid usual crime fiction stereotypes even when navigating some familiar plot beats.
Regular crime readers will pick this one pretty early on. But the draw of this book is not the plot. Rather it is the use of the crime genre to explore the development of medical techniques at the time. Parry charts the early use of ether to assist with pain in childbith and moves on to the discovery of use of chloroform. On the way, readers are treated to some fairly gruesome and explicit birthing techniques and surgery without anaesthetic.
Parry creates a great feel of the Edinburgh of the time, including the upper class New Town and shady Old Town. In particular the book explores the development of the medical profession as it transitioned from glorified butchery to something more respectable. The bodice ripping (at times) plot allows for a fun and interesting exploration of attitudes and beliefs of the time. And the afterward suggests that there is plenty more source material to build a long running series around.
Spectacles, Sue Perkins
When I began writing this book, I went home to see if my mum had kept some of my stuff. What I found was that she hadn't kept some of it. She had kept all of it - every bus ticket, postcard, school report - from the moment I was born to the moment I finally had the confidence to turn round and say 'Why is our house full of this shit?'
Funny, sad, honest and open as you can possibly be, the audio of this was recorded by Sue - so this is her story, in her voice. Highly recommended.
No Time To Cry, James Oswald
Blindsided by the murder of her boss, Detective Constable Constance Fairchild soon realizes that the Met fully intends to lay the blame entirely on her shoulders rather than come clean about their botched undercover operation. Everything about the shooting of Detective Inspector Pete Copperthwaite shrieks of a cover up, and the Met obviously do not expect their junior officer to offer much resistance to the closing of their ranks against her. How wrong they are.
Constance appears as a fully formed resourceful character with an interesting background and the holder of some firm convictions. No flies on this officer, Con relies on no one but herself and is pleasantly surprised if any of her colleagues in the Met are actually non-biased and useful. Very keen to see how Constance progresses in her career after this book as there will be quite a dramatic change in store for her after the incidents in NO TIME TO CRY.
NO TIME TO CRY is one of those crime novels where you feel you are in very safe hands only a few pages in. Scottish author James Oswald has written here the first entry of a new series, also authors the successful Inspector Maclean series (still ongoing). This experience shows. NO TIME TO CRY is a polished police procedural that nails the ebb and flow of action and introspection, introducing us to the capable DC Constance Fairchild, a police officer in a bind who will dig in deep and not let anyone squash the truth about the murder of her colleague and friend.
The recommendation here is to get on board with what promises to be a cracking new British police procedural series. Shades of ‘woo-woo’, if that’s your thing, can add a fair bit of appeal to a genre that can even in the best hands, can sometimes be a little mechanical. (Let’s face it, it hasn’t hurt John Connolly). There’s a hint of the woo-woo here and as googling tells me, the same goes for the Maclean series (now eight books in, if you feel like going on a binge after enjoying NTTC).
NO TIME TO CRY is a confident series starter that delivers solid entertainment and promises some great series reading to come.
Believe Me, J.P. Delaney
Claire Wright is a British actor living and hoping to improve her craft in the town that never sleeps, New York. Despite Claire’s best efforts to impress her agent and acting school teacher, the job offers aren’t exactly rolling in. Claire well knows that it would only take a few minutes effort from any casting director checking up on her to discover that there’s some dubious history from the set of a previous production filmed back in the U.K.
Yikes. Be prepared for the push and pull as your suspicions settle on one person and then are shunted briskly away to lay uneasily on the head of another. Rinse and repeat.
There’s a lot to like in this novel and there’s also a lot that simply doesn’t work. It’s clever or very clumsy in parts and there’s no continuity with either intent. Claire’s character is suitably complex and we’re all for seeing female characters showing their dark sides, just as male characters have been able to display for the last billion years in fiction. As you progress through BELIEVE ME you are never quite sure if you are dealing with an unreliable narrator – and this can brand a thriller as a one trick pony with there being so many novels about now of this type – or whether this is someone who makes a practice of making monumentally unwise decisions.
Does the reader become invested in the outcome of BELIEVE ME? Not really. We know where we are headed. Second novels following blockbuster debuts can have a terrific weight of expectation placed on them well before release and BELIEVE ME was no exception. The sub culture of sexual fetishes is in interesting inclusion, as is the plot device of selecting certain works of French poet Charles Baudelaire to illustrate the motivations of a killer. BELIEVE ME fires well straight out of the gates but credibility is stretched to breaking point as soon as Claire is asked to contribute her acting talents to the investigation.
BELIEVE ME waxes and wanes between holding your interest and pushing you off to do other things when it gets a bit tedious. You do need to fully invest in Claire and her nebulous reasonings in order to finish this book. Modern relationships are hideously complicated and hats off to BELIEVE ME, as this thriller takes that certainty to a whole new level of dangerous complexity.
A Double Life by Flynn Berry
Claire is someone who appreciates fully the value of her privacy. There are many good reasons for that; the least of it being that Claire is not the name the London doctor was born with. Once the pampered children of two society parents, Claire and her brother Robbie were exposed to horrific violence at a young age after the murder of their nanny at the hands of their father and the attempted murder of their mother. Colin Spenser was never seen again after the attacks and his circle of dilettante friends soon after closed their ranks to exclude Claire and her family.
Flynn Berry burst on the crime thriller scene with her page-turning debut Under the Harrow, a book with a female narrator who may have been a little unhinged but was not unreliable. And so to A Double Life which boasts a similar, reliable, if not particularly stable main character. Only Claire has reason to be as she is – a trauma early in her life which she and her brother are still trying, in their own ways and unsuccessfully, to outrun.
A Double Life is loosely based on the very famous Lord Lucan affair, although transposed to a more modern frame. In 1974, Lord Lucan, killed his childrens’ nanny, Sandra Rivett, and then attacked his wife. His wife identified him as the assailant but he was never found. All that was found was his car, abandoned, covered in blood stains. On the way to that point he had stopped at a friend’s house. But he was defended by his friends and no one admitted to helping him. While an inquest and later the coroner brought down a finding that Lucan had killed Rivett, he was never found and has since been declared dead.
In A Double Life, Berry uses these facts as the basis of a reimagining of the continuation of the story. A Double Life is told from the perspective of GP Claire, many years after the events that left her nanny dead and her mother injured. When the book opens the police have come, telling her of another potential sighting of her potentially fugitive father, Lord Spenser, in Africa. Claire has spent some time spying on her father’s friends, trying to get some clue as to his whereabouts. She is sure that they helped him escape and are still in touch with him. When the daughter of two of these friends returns from England Claire strikes up a friendship with her in order to try and seek out more information. At the same time she is dealing with her brother who has become addicted to painkillers.
Claire’s voice is extremely matter of fact – short, simple language, a methodical approach – hiding a depth of pain. And while some of her breakthroughs are a little far fetched, as a reader invested in her and her seemingly quixotic quest, it is easy to just go with the flow.
As much as this is a mystery story, it is more of an exploration of the long term consequences of a violent through Berry’s flawed narrator. But Berry still manages to inject a fair amount of tension in Claire’s actions as she manipulates and lies her way to the information that she thinks she needs. And while the final act may be a little hard for some to accept it builds logically from what has come before.
In A Double Life, Berry has crafted another compelling thriller that throws a light on a still unsolved Twentieth Century mystery. After a promising debut, this is another assured book from a British crime author to watch for.
The Tall Man, Phoebe Locke
Always present, always watching. The Tall Man comes for your daughters. What to do when you have given yourself over to the Tall Man, and then you have a daughter of your own? You disappear.
The interlaying narratives of this book relate the viewpoints of Sadie as a teen, Sadie as a new mother, daughter Amber as an adult, and also that of the film producer gradually losing faith in the value of her documentary subject. You may find it hard to find anyone to relate to in this novel as there’s a lot of creepy characters here with healthy cases of arrested development.
Not intending to compare this novel to the obvious (fairly recent) urban legend so judging (of course) THE TALL MAN entirely on what it has to offer as a modern work of crime fiction. As other reviewers have acutely observed, it is an unsettling read rather than a thrilling work of fiction. There is a lot of build up to discovery, which many readers may appreciate, or others may simply lose interest as time ticks on and not much is happening. Hang on there till the end as there’s a bit surprise waiting for you (confession, did not see it coming).
A tale for our narcissistic times for sure, and opportunities to nudge this home are employed here in THE TALL MAN. It is interesting to have a murder read where you don’t feel particular sympathy for anyone affected. The use of texts between the two film female documentary makers is very effective in seeding in a little more tension and ambiguity as the film maker on the ground increasingly begins to question her subject, and the other wishes to power on with the pushing of their vulnerable subject for dramatic revelations.
Not sure of the intended market but thinking THE TALL MAN is perhaps for older edge of young adult readers. If you like to read multi generational novels where the actions of the parents impact the future of their children, THE TALL MAN could be the one for you. Look out for the shadows in the corner of your room…
Killing is My Business, Adam Christopher
A blend of science fiction and stylish mystery noir featuring a robot detective: the stand alone sequel to Made to Kill.
Another golden morning in a seedy town, and a new memory tape for intrepid PI-turned-hitman--and last robot left in working order-- Raymond Electromatic. When his comrade-in-electronic-arms, Ada, assigns a new morning roster of clientele, Ray heads out into the LA sun, only to find that his skills might be a bit rustier than he expected....
Fans of MADE TO KILL will already know all about Ray Electromatic, Ada and his line of work. Set in the 1950s, KILLING IS MY BUSINESS is the second in the trilogy based around Ray Electromatic. Part crime fiction, part science fiction, Ray is a robot, Ada is his controlling computer, and together their business, is killing. The first novel MADE TO KILL readers were introduced to Ray, the last robot in America, who covers his hired assassin persona with a day job as a private detective.
The trick here is that Ada wipes Ray's memory (? banks) every night so and must therefore be reminded every day by Ada of ... well everything. In the first novel that was an interesting idea, a way of perhaps turning a robotic assassin into something more robotic, with no chance whatsoever to question his allocated profession. By the second novel, not only does it wear a bit thin as an idea, it's not nearly as well executed and there are more than a few "well how would he know that" moments - enough to make you think that the wiping appears to be opportunistically selective at least.
KILLING IS MY BUSINESS also has a convoluted idea at the centre of the plot - after a couple of hits go wrong, Ray takes on a job getting close to a mafia boss to learn his secrets before then killing him. Leaving aside the whole idea of Ray not knowing what he'd already gleaned if his memory was constantly being wiped, there's the question of why a mafia boss would get that close to a random private detective robot in the first place. Needless to say for a lot of this novel to work you're going to have to pack up those niggles and file them under "silly fun".
Having said that, for this reader the first novel was great fun, this one considerably less so. There's nothing wrong with the writing, nor the mismash of genre's. The fifties feel is spot on, the voices of the character perfect. It's just that the central pillars seem to be tilting.