When the body of a young woman is found on the banks of the River Thames, the injuries turn out to have an unsettling similarity to the unsolved, 1930's Los Angeles case of Elizabeth Short - known as The Black Dahlia.
Detective Inspector Anna Travis is on the team investigating this horrible crime when Detective Chief Inspector James Langton is called in to take over from the original team leader. They have a prior working and private history and Travis is very hesitant and discomforted by the close presence of the volatile and erratic Langton. As the killer starts to taunt the murder team in a manner that follows the Black Dahlia case, right down to inciting local media to dub the victim The Red Dahlia, the team becomes increasingly aware that this a violent and vicious killer who thinks that taunting them is part of the game. It doesn't help that the victim herself is a bit of a mystery, and there are very few clues in her life to a possible perpetrator. Another copycat killing and Langton and Travis realise they have just a few days before the 3rd victim and absolutely no concrete leads. An anonymous tip off finally leads the team to a suspect, and from there on the novel becomes a race to the finish to try to prove the seemingly unprovable.
There is absolutely no doubt that La Plante can write big rip-roaring books with good characterisations and THE RED DAHLIA delivers on that promise. Whilst La Plante does write good, strong, human female characters they are not at the expense of the male characters. Langton starts off an uptight, inaccessible workaholic, becoming more human and vulnerable, even troubled. You can see why Travis would find him so attractive. The killer, who is known from the time of the anonymous tip off is pure evil, but not a caricature. There are some awful elements to the violence of the killings and to the events surrounding the suspect and his behaviour but these are handled carefully, with no attempt to shock or sicken the reader.
This is the second Travis and Langton book, the first being ABOVE SUSPICION but you do not need to have read the first to get the second. THE RED DAHLIA really was a great read - involving; fast paced; nicely balanced in terms of revelations of the violence and horror and sprinkled with just enough personal life to make you engage with all the characters.
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.
THE ART OF DROWNING - Frances Fyfield
Rachel Doe needs to sort out her life. She's had such a sheltered, cautious existence; an accountant, only daughter of very timid parents, the only really daring thing she has done in her life was to dob in her lover - a liar and thief. All she got for her efforts was suspicion and a greater sense of loneliness and isolation than she had ever had before.
When Rachel meets Ivy she's totally captivated and they soon become involved in a very intense, platonic friendship which surprises everyone. Ivy is so different from Rachel, she was a real wild child - charismatic; a life-drawing model; ex-junkie; cleaner and ex-wife of Carl - now a Judge. The relationship is even more intense for Rachel as she finds, in Ivy's mother Grace, the sort of mother figure that her own never was, encompassing, loving, fun and ever so slightly happy crazy, Rachel is ultimately as attracted to Ivy's family as she is to Ivy.
Ivy's divorce from Carl came after the drowning of their daughter in a lake not far from Ivy's family farm. Since the divorce she has had no contact with her son. Rachel finds herself trying to bring about a reconciliation, at least between Ivy's parents and their grandson. Whilst she is repulsed by Carl and the stories of his violence and cruelty towards Ivy, she also finds herself strangely attracted to him. Can this charming, considerate man really be the monster that tore Ivy's son from her arms and caused the death of his own daughter?
As the friendship between Rachel and Ivy escalates and Rachel's attempts to firstly contact the Judge and then get him to agree to meet with Ivy's parents, there is a slow building of tension. Events occur around them that appear to have no relationship to what is happening between the main players in the story, but at the same time, the reader is made more and more aware that there's something very odd going on. The story unfolds rapidly and whilst you can guess that there's something really sinister going on, the question is what exactly is that "something".
There's a great sense of escalating tension and conflict in this book. Rachel is an interesting character as she moves from infatuation with Ivy, through doubt, to justification and denial, and finally strength and inner steel. Ivy is very edgy, intense and obviously complex. The surrounding characters are flawed, human and retain your interest. There is a bit of subtext around the story - the difficulties of farming life, Carl and his life with a teenage son, a sympathetic and overworked policeman and his own family.
Having read quite a few Frances Fyfield books in the past, THE ART OF DROWNING is definitely a major standout, it was compelling, retained interest and was nicely paced with a very realistic and satisfactory ending.
NO SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES - The Mulgray Twins
When your protagonist is a member of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and her partner is a trained drug-sniffer cat (yes, I said cat), you know the book isn’t going to be heavy on the gritty realism. NO SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES is pure fluff so you do have to suspend disbelief to an extent. However, D.J. lurches from crisis to crisis, often endangering her life. Another day, another body. Yet one more attempt on her life. It all becomes extremely repetitious and predictable.
As the suspects are killed off, there is no reason given for their deaths. We have no idea if they are involved in the drug smuggling or whether they merely got in the way and discovered who was behind it all.
D.J. is working alone. She follows a suspect to an island and is pushed down a flight of stairs in an ancient castle. She dives into a pond in a tropical arboretum to avoid detection. She nearly tumbles off a cliff edge following a suspect alone at night. In between all this she is forced to change hotels, to one where the cat is welcome. It is discovered her cat is something of an artist which is encouraged by her host. Cat paintings can fetch big money in the U.S.A. you know. She also manages to accidently dye her hair bright green.
I’ll be honest here. Cozies aren’t my favourite genre of crime fiction. However, I will happily admit to enjoying some light-hearted reading from time to time. NO SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES, however, was just a little too much for me. I found it to be silly in the extreme and without enough plot to sustain it.
VISIBILITY - Boris Starling
VISIBILITY is the fourth book from Boris Starling. It is set in 1952 in London in the middle of one of the last great, lingering pea-souper fogs.
VISIBILITY could be a reference to the fog which is all pervading and dictates all of the action and events in this post-war thriller. When biochemist Max Stensness is found drowned in early in the evening, in the middle of the fog, Herbert Smith, ex-MI5 and now member of Scotland Yard's Murder Squad gets the case because it's probably going to be an uninteresting one, and the rest of the murder squad are very unwelcoming and suspicious of Herbert's background.
VISIBILITY could also be a reference to Hannah, the underwater diver called on to search the location where Stensness's body is found. Hannah is Hungarian, blind and a refugee from the Nazi concentration camps.
VISIBILITY could also be a reference to the world of espionage. When Herbert gradually reveals more about the victim he finds that he is back looking at the world of spies, informers, the CIA, the KGB and MI5, despite the fact that he's now looking at it from the point of view of a murder investigation.
VISIBILITY finally could also be a reference to the events surrounding the end of the war and the dissipation of all levels of Nazi party members.
The design of the plot of this book intertwines a lot of historical components - setting the place and the time for the book squarely in a world still dealing with the fallout of the Second World War. Herbert Smith is an interesting detective character, having been forced from MI5 and feeling the effects of a life as a spy which has made him a very lonely, conflicted man. He has a complex and difficult relationship with his mother, currently hospitalised with chronic respitory ailments, exacerbated by the fog. Hannah is a lively, interesting, exciting character, who despite suffering dreadfully at the hands of the Nazi's is not a victim. She's a really strong, capable, independent woman and her blindness is not a disability.
The only minor criticism is that the final outcome is a twist of historical fact which is an approach that can be confronting - what is actually the truth and what did you read in a fiction book? Other than that small, probably personal quibble, this is a good, paced, interesting and involving book with some very engaging characters.
A TALE ETCHED IN BLOOD AND HARD BLACK PENCIL - Christopher Brookmyre
DS Gillespie suspects they are not dealing with the sharpest pencils in the box when she's called to the discovery of two partially disfigured, roughly hidden bodies in the forest. The reputation of the killers is not enhanced greatly when they leave the receipts for all the gear they bought for disposing of the bodies behind, but the whole thing moves further into the surreal for Gillespie when she can identify both the victims as locals and people she knows all too well from her own school days.
A TALE ETCHED moves between school days in the 1970's and the current events and investigation as more and more of Gillespie's old school pals are pulled in. The switching of perspective between the two timeframes slowly reveals the development of the core characters from who they became at school, to what they are in their adult lives.
In typical Brookmyre fashion this is at times absolutely hilarious and at times very painful. These stories bring back so many of the trials and tribulations of childhood - the desperate need to "fit in", the bullying, the cliques, the rises and falls from grace, sadistic teachers, ineffectual teachers, family dysfunction, deeply felt-friendship and always remembered embarrassments.
In the end, there is a mystery about who killed these two victims and why - the why having more twists and turns that are revealed as more and more of the growing years of the central characters are revealed.
Whilst it's typical of Brookmyre to mix utter side splitting hilarity with a serious message and undertone, there's something in A TALE ETCHED IN BLOOD AND HARD BLACK PENCIL that made it compelling. Maybe you needed to go to a primary school for it to grab you, but boy did this grab.
EASY MEAT - John Harvey
A fifteen-year-old tearaway is obviously heading for a whole lot of trouble, but when he seemingly commits suicide in a youth detention centre after nearly bludgeoning an elderly couple to death, there just seems to be something more to this than originally meets the eye.
When the senior policeman put in charge of the enquiry into the boys death is then found bludgeoned to death, things start to take on a more sinister feeling and rapidly becoming increasingly complicated. Charlie Resnick is put in charge of the death of the enquiry into the death of a senior officer, whilst his love life takes an interesting turn for the better, even though Hannah Campbell is not a cat lover!
FAGS AND LAGER - Charlie Williams
Taking up from DEADFOLK (a debut with a punch if there ever was one), FAGS AND LAGER finds out just how far Royston Blake, head doorman at Hoppers and self-confessed hard man of Mangel, will go for free stack of tinnies and fags.
It seems it's a fair way, as long as you don't mind that Blake does everything his own way (even though he's singing the theme tune from Minder - you just can't help thinking a karaoke version of My Way would be better).
Mangel is a grim little town full of grim little individuals and Blake rules (or at least he thinks he does). Until he finds himself ousted from his beloved position of power (head doorman at Mangels) and surrounded by some very oddly behaving young kids around town. So there he is, jobless, moneyless, beaten up, looking for his local shopkeepers young daughter (payment of the aforementioned Fags and Lager) and somebody's actually had a go at his one love - his 2.8i Capri car (gold - no self-respecting hard man would drive a white one).
So whilst Blake is yomping around (his word for walking) trying to sort out a seriously inconvenient situation for himself, Mangel itself is fighting a seriously weird drug situation and the local newspaper is running its own investigations.
Blake's a counter culture hero if there ever was one - unloveable but totally unhateable; messed up from childhood; totally consistent and even, heaven help us, moral within his own terms of reference; he's out to set things right come hell, high water or a seriously good thumping.
FAGS AND LAGER is dark, tense, heavy-handed, sometime unbelievable, over the top, funny, thought-provoking, sometime believable, disturbing, gruesome and weird - all at once. Don't even attempt to read it if you think it's perfectly okay to drive a white 1.3 Capri.
AN UNCOMMON MURDER - Anabel Donald
Alex Tanner is always on the lookout for work - mortgages on flats in Notting Hill do not come cheap, after all. So when TV producer Barty O'Neill mentions a particularly juicy assignment she jumps at the chance.
Barty has been asked to investigate the shooting of Lord Sherwin, a famous society murder of the 1950s. Although suspicion quickly fell on Sherwin's beautiful wife Laura the case has stubbornly remained unsolved. However Barty has a contact - Miss Potter, once governess to the Sherwin children - who is now ready to tell her story.
First in the series "The Notting Hill Mysteries" originally published in 1992, An Uncommon Murder introduces Alex Tanner is another entrant in a long tradition of accidental investigators, although working, as she does, as a freelance researcher - this time for a possible magazine article - she's got some good reasons to get herself into the situations she finds herself in.
An interesting character, An Uncommon Murder was a good investigation / character based story with a well carried out complication at the end.
IMMEDIATE ACTION - Andy McNab
Published after Bravo Two Zero, in IMMEDIATE ACTION McNab takes us back to his early life. He starts, albeit briefly, with being raised by his adoptive parents after being found as a baby on the steps of Guy's Hospital.
In McNab's very matter of fact style he relates how, as a juvenile delinquent, he decided he had a choice between jail and a nothing much of a life, and the Army. After fighting against the IRA in South Armagh McNab decides that the SAS is where he wants to be and he goes in for "Selection" as the process is known. Selection is a gruelling physical and mental test to join the SAS - you get two chances and if you fail both of those, then that's it. McNab fails the first but gets in on the second attempt. He then goes onto a number of different types of covert operations, until the book finishes, just before The Gulf War, which was covered in BRAVO TWO ZERO.
McNab is writing about a different world from the one that most of us will ever occupy. The nature of the covert operations, the sorts of training and the mindset that members of The Regiment go through their lives with is totally alien to the suburban, family orientated lifestyle that he also tries (and mostly fails) to maintain through a series of very short, sharp marriages and relationships.
As with BRAVO TWO ZERO, IMMEDIATE ACTION is written in a very matter-of-fact style. Whilst there is quite a bit of technical information that is discussed the writing doesn't drag and remains engaging.
It's brutal, but slightly less so than BRAVO TWO ZERO. It's actually quite funny in some places. Ultimately a look at why or how and what sort of person ends up in the SAS. If you like rollicking adventure style books, then the fact that this is true is just one more twist.