The 13s are genetically engineered alpha males, designed to fight the century's last conflicts... but when there are no wars left to fight they become surplus to requirements. And a man bred and designed to fight is a dangerous man to have around in peacetime. Many of them have left for Mars, but one has returned... and a series of brutal murders has erupted across America.
Hands up if you, like me, a died in the wool thriller fan, were just a bit hesitant about BLACK MAN when you saw "science fiction". All I can say is put your hands down and get to a bookstore!
Carl Marsalis is a 13, but he works for the UN, tracking down rogue thirteens. Not a particularly pleasant job really - he's loathed by the other 13's as a traitor and a sell out. The rest of the community regard him as a twist, treating him with suspicion and frequently fear. Thirteen's have a reputation. In BLACK MAN Carl is released from jail to help track down a very rogue 13. After what seems to have been an on purpose crash of a ship from Mars, Merrin is lose on earth and his genetic trace is found at a startling number of brutal murder scenes - in Rim State and in surrounding territories. Merrin has obviously been bought back to earth as some sort of a hired killer but nobody knows why, or who his victims will be, or how they could even be connected. COLIN operatives Sevgi Ertekin and Tom Norton must work with Carl to find the killer and stop him.
BLACK MAN builds a world in the future that's not so far removed from the current that the reader feels stranded. The geography of Earth hasn't changed - the nations, in the main, still exist. Mars is now a colony of Earth, serving as a resource and almost a penal colony, and a secession has split America into two parts. There's highly advanced technology - space travel / general travel; advanced medicine; genetically engineered humans; even basic blinds in your home are different - but none of the "science fiction" is too hard to swallow, in fact it almost becomes invisible within the story. There's still the problem of catching the right flights to catch the shuttles; there are gardens and streets; tensions within families; racial differences; the problems of hangovers and getting shot still hurts, but all of it has a general feeling that this is life as you could believe it could be. Sure there's drugs that help with the hangover that we could only dream of nowadays - but that's the point - it doesn't seem unreasonable to dream.
Within the world that BLACK MAN creates there are also some telling points about humans in the future and how far we haven't gone. It's no co-incidence, one would assume, that Carl is a variant thirteen and a black man. There's a telling multi-layered prejudice being explored here. The full range of genetically modified humans are distrusted, marginalised, despised frequently, just as are humans from other nations and states (which is still going on in BLACK MAN's future). Within circles there are levels of hierarchy, even within each specific group there are levels and Carl, as a Black Variant thirteen is marginalised. Get him working to catch rogue 13's and he's so far on the outside that he belongs nowhere. Of course 13's don't really have feelings of attachment or empathy for others, but then Carl's just that slight bit different from everyone else.
At close enough to 550 pages long, BLACK MAN is a thumping big tome. Love interests that really work; social observation that is as valid for today as it seems it could be in the future; human foibles and frailty in all it's "glory"; I laughed, cringed, sniffled, cheered and read bits peaking through my fingers. No padding, fast paced, totally absorbing with a lot going on - there's some great things being said by BLACK MAN.
EXIT MUSIC - Ian Rankin
There is a mandatory retirement age of 60 in the Scottish Police Force, so Rebus is finally on his way out. Weird really that with all the suspensions, life threatening events and the number of times that he's annoyed Siobhan to the point of shooting him, it's age that's going to see Rebus move on. At the very least you'd think something spectacular. Depending on how Rankin feels about his creation, I guess he could equally have killed him off with a massive whiskey, beer and fish and chip induced heart attack. But Rebus is alive at the end of Exit Music and this is his retirement book - not his total end.
Starting off the book with the same first line of the first Rebus book, Knots and Crosses, Rankin proceeds to give Rebus a low-key, almost dignified final exit. Well apart from a last minute suspension, the sniff of an allegation of an assault charge pending for a while, and an uncertain future that is.
The final case that Rebus and Siobhan handle is the bashing murder of a dissident Russian poet. It looks like a mugging gone wrong, but there is a high-level Russian delegation in town, keen to bring business to Scotland and the local politicians and bankers are keen to get the investigation wrapped up and "put away" out of sight. Big "Ger" Cafferty and his presence around the edges of the Russian delegation is just one more thing that makes Rebus suspect that there is a lot more to the mugging than it seems and a second, very brutal death, just seals the suspicion for Rebus.
There's an elegant balancing of focus in EXIT MUSIC. Rebus isn't fading into the background, but then again Siobhan's not going anywhere either. As Rebus is suspended and goes "solo" Siobhan steps out into the light just that little bit more and, bless her, she does her own bit of bucking authority in her own way. She's definitely a bit quieter about the rebellion than the old dinosaur but she's just as effective. The other elegant act of EXIT MUSIC is to cast a light on the delicate (and frequently lost) balance of politics and business, and just how much influence money can have in all the wrong and right places. It's no co-incidence that Rankin has recently been in Melbourne as patron of the Crime and Justice festival (Crime Fiction and Social Justice issues being discussed), as the one thing that the Rebus books do so well is ask the reader to contemplate the subject matter - the circumstances in which the crime is committed and the criminals are created.
Finally Big "Ger" and Rebus. There's a lot of unfinished business there. Will Rankin go there, post retirement. Who knows. EXIT MUSIC tantalises but doesn't reveal.
DEATH MESSAGE - Mark Billingham
A killer who believes he has lost everything has no fear of being caught. A grieving man, this new killer has decided sending pictures with a text message to D.I. Tom Thorne's mobile phone are the best bet to draw the policeman's attention, operating presumably on the premise that a picture speaks a thousand words. A dead body usually looks like a dead body so the deed has already been done, but Thorne has no idea who the victim might be.
Your opinion of this novel will be determined greatly by what aspect of the series you've come to deem most worthy of your attention. Snappy dialogue is of course a-plenty, and Tom Thorne, however how dark he becomes, is always a hoot. This we'd expect from a writer who once relied on stand-up comedy to pay his bills. If the push-and-shove of modern policing, with its array of colourful characters, is what interests you there will be no disappointments there either. Where DEATH MESSAGE takes its turn is in the processing of the crime itself. Thorne dispenses with standard operating procedures to the point of irritation, and this is reflected in the annoyance Billingham has his secondary characters express at Thorne's behaviour. Thorne's character is not quite the rogue operator yet but walks closer to becoming so in this work, which is something the regular reader of this series may have been expecting with events detailed in previous novels. Thorne has more pain and hate to carry along with him, and this is all borne in the environment of developing a new romantic relationship. Billingham has put a few more spikes his creation this time round and as always, you can't help but be at least partially on the side of Thorne as he keeps his own ledger on who has done him wrong.
Back story is incorporated well into the present events so new readers to the series shouldn't have trouble with the flow of events. The character of Thorne still manages to surprise with unexpected reactions to developments in the police investigation, the details of which are carried mostly inside Thorne's crowded head. The new foibles such as the internet gambling, are a delight under Billingham's clever hand and serve to further endear his leading man to us. Thorne placed in his early forties hasn't yet entered grumpy old man territory, but the promise is there that process will only enrich the character. Are these novels character driven? Yes, as this is the writer's strength.
DEATH MESSAGE is the seventh entry in the Tom Thorne series. Mark Billingham is currently working on his next novel, a stand-alone thriller titled IN THE DARK.
THE LYING TONGUE - Andrew Wilson
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.
MIXED FANCIES - Brenda Blethyn
In this age, where there appear to be more and more people obsessed with being "famous for being famous", and an unfortunate group who follow their every, underwhelming move, MIXED FANCIES arrived in my post box recently.
Brenda Blethyn is one of those actresses you undoubtedly have seen in something.... turning to the back of the book first it was rather surprising to see that so far she has appeared in around 27 movies, 32 TV shows (including Rumpole and Maigret for we mystery fans) and a similar number of theatre productions. Suddenly you realise that she's not overtly famous for doing an enormous amount!
MIXED FANCIES is the story of Brenda Bottle, youngest of 9 children, born to a poor family in Ramsgate in 1940's England. Leaving school young - as with the rest of her siblings - earning a living was a priority, Brenda worked as a secretary. She met and married her husband when very young, the marriage was over by the time she was twenty-seven. Taking a risk, based on the belief of others that she really had talent, she used what little money she had saved and enrolled at Guildford Drama School. Before long she had an ongoing career as one of England's leading character actresses, a new and long-term relationship, Oscar nominations, Golden Globe awards and international recognition.
Underpinning everything is Brenda's strong sense of family - her parents, her siblings and childhood friends and cousins hold Brenda Blethyn firmly to the ground, creating a woman who is talented, capable, very funny, engaging and very human.
What MIXED FANCIES says most strongly is that it's the relationships that Brenda has built up with the people around her that matter most to her. The ongoing obvious love and affection that she had for her parents and for her brothers and sisters is touching, as is their support and understanding for her. One of the best parts of the book is the humour. There's the story she tells about ringing her long-time partner one night, homesick when overseas, to propose marriage to him. His response? "Who is This?". There's the final quotation in the book "I showed some of this book to Gina, my friend who does my ironing. She was very complimentary, saying, 'Coo that's t'rific Bren. But just imagine though if any o' that was true!'"
You're not going to get any of the standard Hollywood, famous for being famous style gossip in MIXED FANCIES. You're not going to get somebody dishing the dirt on years in show business, you're not going to get a warts and all "how I did bad and survived" story. What you are going to get is a lovely, simple, touching story about a poor little girl from Ramsgate England who did good and stayed true.
THE WESTERN BANKER - Joe Barrett
THE WESTERN BANKER is Barrett's first book, set in the world of International Bankers and high finances, a world that the author undoubtedly knows a lot about. The book takes a slightly unusual approach in that the central character is... not to put too fine a point on it .... a bit of a bastard. Obsessed with the pursuit and the trappings of money, he's pretty well amoral in his working life, and a bit tacky in his personal life. There's also just a hint of sadness (and self-awareness of that sadness) in Alex that makes him a fascinating character. On one hand he could quite conceivably revolt the reader as a no-conscious manipulating money grabbing grub, and on the other hand he's a figure of some sadness. Lonely, no mates, no meaningful relationships, can't even manage to keep an apple in his fridge type. In the process of doing just another finance deal which has the potential to win his bank a lot of money, to say nothing of his own commission and bang, he's confronted with something that actually makes him uncomfortable, squeamish about the possible outcomes of the deal. Of course, you then go further up the chain in terms of seniority and responsibility within the Bank and you find that Alex is probably a bit of a rank amateur at being a bastard compared to the directors of his bank - and coincidentally The World Bank.
Barrett is also not afraid to do something pretty daring with this book - just when you start to feel some sympathy for his central character (or just before you want to track down a fictional character and slap him for being a prat), something major happens. Whilst the reader is dealing with that - the truth of the finance deal gets more and more serious and the games that people play become deadly.
It's a first novel - there are a couple of odds and ends that don't quite jell - including one particular incidence of geography where the US President seems to be having a meeting in an office not that geographically far from a major incident. That just didn't seem practical, prudent or even likely to be occurring and it jarred dreadfully. Possibly because most of the rest of the action had seemed almost believable in a vaguely disconcerting sort of a way. By then we were only 10 or so pages from the end of the book and it was rolling along at a massive pace so, sure, this reader was jolted out of the story and madly scrambling for an Atlas (US Geography being just one of the things that I'm not very good at). In the global scheme of things - it was a minor point in what was otherwise a really enjoyable first thriller novel.
FRANKIE - Kevin Lewis
If "About the Author" in the press release is to be believed, then in FRANKIE, Kevin Lewis is writing about a world not that far from the one he grew up in.
On a cold London evening Frankie, a young woman with a sad past, now living on the streets, has no choice when a drug dealer, pimp and lowlife targets the very young Mary - a recent street kid, still pretty, still not drawn into addiction and degradation. Frankie fights for Mary and the pimp dies. Frankie is now not just on the streets with her own past to deal with, but she's running from the police, from the consequences of the fight.
In the process Frankie mugs another young woman - not realising that Rosemary has just broken into her bosses computer, and the necklace that Frankie grabbed contained the evidence that the Fraud Squad desperately need to keep Rosemary safe as well.
Frankie finds she can run, she can escape from her past and from the events of that night, but only for so long. Sometimes your actions come back to haunt you years later and in Frankie's case, the consequences are more dire when you actually have more to lose.
There's a lot to like in FRANKIE and there's a lot to feel a bit let down by. The direness and desperation of life on the streets is really well drawn in the early parts of the book, and the events that happen to send Frankie on the run tear along at a great pace with good tension and the reader's interest is firmly held. The consequences of what seems like a simple case of purse snatching by Frankie are a sobering twist and Mary's fate is no holds barred confrontational. Frankie is a good character in that she has guts and determination and a willingness to try again, despite everything that has happened and does happen to her.
Possibly that is the source of a feeling of being slightly let down, the events that sent Frankie to the streets were overly predictable - the characterisations of her mother and stepfather too formulaic; the sudden remembrance of evidence of her past too contrived. Frankie's rescue from poverty and despair was a little on the unbelievable side, and her achievement of everything a girl could possibly hope for mildly over-sentimental. The conclusion where everything she's built for herself is threatened and torn apart as a result of the actions of years before, on top of all of that build up just seemed a bit on the melodramatic side.
PLASTER SINNERS - Colin Watson
Wandering around in Wormhole Books in Belgrave South last Saturday, you have no idea how pleased I was to find a copy of Plaster Sinners by Colin Watson. This is the last of his 13 Flaxborough novels that I've been looking for for such a long time.
Colin Watson is one of the great under-appreciated and discussed British Writers as far as I'm concerned. His Flaxborough Series, written between the late 1950's and 1980 (he died in 1982) are a magnificent example of the slightly cheeky, irreverant but never scorning, school of the ever so slightly absurb Crime Fiction.
The entire set is:
Coffin, Scarcely Used (1958)
Bump in the Night (1960)
Hopjoy Was Here (1962)
Lonelyheart 4122 (1967)
Charity Ends at Home (1968)
Flaxborough Chronicle (1969)
The Flaxborough Crab aka Just What the Doctor Ordered (1969)
Broomsticks Over Flaxborough aka Kissing Covens (1972)
The Naked Nuns aka Six Nuns and a Shotgun (1975)
One Man's Meat aka It Shouldn't Happen to a Dog (1975)
Blue Murder (1979)
Plaster Sinners (1980)
Whatever's Been Going on at Mumblesby? (1982)
All of them are fantastic, witty, slightly silly, but ultimately sound mysteries with a strong plot and engaging characters.
Plaster Sinners is the tale of poor Detective Sargeant Sidney Love, an amiable sort of a policeman, and the mystery of why, when all he was doing was attending the local antique auction, somebody should take it upon themselves to hit him over the head with a doorknob. At the time he was simply appraising Lot Thirty-Four - comprising two golf balls, an LMS railway tumbler, an old meat mincer, two decanter stoppers, a soap dish and a moulded relief of a cottage entitled "At the End of Life's Lane". Enquiring minds, in the shape of Inspector Purbright, are also somewhat exercised when the same lot is keenly pursued at the auction by the local Gentry, a solicitor and a stranger who promptly take the bidding to the princely sum of 400 pounds.
And if you've never read any of his wonderful novels, well, rectify that as soon as you possibly can.
THE MALICE BOX - Martin Langfield
Create a fantasy quest, add a mystery and some thriller elements, include an online community and game and THE MALICE BOX is something way outside the normal, expected style of Thriller or Fantasy Quest novel.
Robert Reckliss (yes that is his name) is seemingly just another Englishman in New York. He and his wife Katherine originally met at Cambridge, at the same time that they both fell under the spell of the mercurial Adam - who has continued to appear and disappear from their lives since their school days.
When Robert receives what seems to be a simple copper puzzle box, both he and Katherine assume this is just another one of Adam's little practical jokes or puzzles. But that night one of Robert's acquaintances kills himself in curious circumstances and the existence of an arcane weapon that could wipe the Western world from the face of the planet is revealed. Suddenly, New York in the year 2004 is a battleground to the death between ancient forces and Robert must use his spiritual powers to overcome seven mystical trials - Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Ether, Mind and Spirit. Only then can he come face to face with evil in a disused subway station beneath City Hall and save the World from destruction.
THE MALICE BOX is definitely unusual. Set in current day New York there's a really weird combination of the arcane and the current day - New York interwoven into a plot that is sometimes told in current day language, sometimes in something more Gothic and elaborate. It has a highly complex plot combining the alchemical and the mystical, taking characters on a journey of danger and self-discovery.
Because the THE MALICE BOX is a combination of fantasy, thriller and mystery it is a different reading experience from a standard, more conventional thriller. It is also different from a lot of recent big-name thrillers in that it does have the adventure or the quest, but the characters are an important component at the same time. The fantastical aspects of THE MALICE BOX will require an acceptance of the unexpected and the other-worldly which is not going to appeal to all readers. The combination of the styles of language - the gothic and the everyday is also obvious at points in the book - not necessarily completely off-putting, but unusual enough to stand out.
The online game at http://www.maliceboxquest.com/ is still running, although the prize competition is resolved. Playing the game adds a level of interest and multi-media experience that could just be that little something different that you're looking for.
THE RECKONING - Sue Walker
In the summer of 1973, 11 year old Miller McAllister is very happy. His family own a house overlooking the sea on the East Coast of Scotland and the small island, Fidra, that's visible from the mainland house. The youngest of three children, Miller and his father Douglas love the island, with its birds, wildlife, old ruins and the simple cottage residence.
When Douglas is arrested, tried and found guilty of the rape and murder of three young girls, Miller is profoundly affected. To start with he believes in his father's innocence, but when the girl bodies are found on Fidra, he falls apart. While Miller's mother, sister and older brother stand stoically beside Douglas, protesting his innocence, Miller believes totally in his guilt and he cuts himself off from his father - a dramatic and damaging act for such a young boy. He tries to start his own life when he is old enough, but nothing is ever really right with Miller from that day on. More than 30 years later Miller is pulled back to the family home and island when his father dies. Despite Miller's reaction to his father, he alone has inherited the house and the island but the condition seems to have been a plea to re-assess the evidence against Douglas. Despite his better judgement Miller is pulled into rechecking the facts. With the help of his childhood friend Catriona Buchan and Duncan - a monk and close friend of his mother, Miller unearths the truth of the triple murders and confronts the whole family's demons.
THE RECKONING is a pretty harrowing book. The setting, which incorporates the old house, the island, rugged coastlines and the brooding presence of a ruined castle perched high above the sea create a feeling of closed off, sinister insularity. Add to that a family, initially seemingly very happy, who are forced, with very few close and lifelong friends, to close ranks and protect themselves in the aftermath of the conviction of the father for such dreadful crimes. The insularity of the family translates directly into Miller's own personality - he has become more and more disconnected from himself, his own wife and children, and his siblings. As he fights the conflict he feels towards the memory of his father and reinvestigating the trial, he becomes more stressed and more fragile.
The story is relatively well paced, and there are a reasonable set of possible suspects - including the man who Scottish justice convicted of the crime. There are attempts peppered throughout the book to provide third party background on the case, the island and the family. This does break up the flow of the narrative slightly and, given that Miller is such an intense, worrying, almost foreboding character in his own right, these forays into extra information are a bit distracting and give the whole book a bit of a choppy feel at times. It's certainly a very busy plot, moving from the current, back to the lead up to the deaths of the girls, through the investigation and then briefly into the families lives post the trial, although sometimes some of these areas were overly detailed and some too brush stroke.
What was really interesting about THE RECKONING was the exploration of a brutal series of murders and the affect that they have on more than just the victim's family. In this case there were three dead girls, and one very damaged little boy.