THE GRAVE TATTOO is a standalone book from the prolific and well-known author of, amongst many others, The Wire In The Blood series.
When a tattooed, 200-year-old body is uncovered in the peat bogs of the Lake District, local girl turned Wordsworth Scholar Jane Gresham is instantly reminded of a local legend about Fletcher Christian, the man who led the mutiny on the Bounty, said to have returned surreptitiously to England from Pitcairn Island. Returning to her childhood home she is on the trail of a connection between the Wordsworth and Christian families and is intrigued by the meaning behind a letter which she discovers in the archives from Wordsworth's family home. Back in London, on the council estate where Jane lives, a local teenager that Jane has befriended is dealing with a heap of problems of her own, and despite Jane's attempts to help her before she leaves, Tenille finds herself in big trouble. Despite being only 13, and having never travelled far from the council estate in her life, Tenille sets off to meet up with Jane.
The police are looking for Tenille and to add to Jane's problems, her ex-boyfriend, now Historical Document Dealer, is stalking Jane through the Lake District trying to get a lead on the important and valuable documents from Wordsworth that everyone believes exist.
The chapters of the book are interspersed with extracts from Christian's secret diary that all appear to be confirming firstly the theories about who the body is, and the existence of documents or memoirs written by Wordsworth about the mutiny. There are friendships and family relationships that drive Jane and her reactions to the people around her. No sooner have Jane and her coterie of supporters devised a theory about where these memoirs could possibly have gone, then elderly people, interviewed by Jane, start dying.
THE GRAVE TATTOO is quite a change in direction for McDermid, especially for those used to her more confrontational and frequently gory well-known novels. This is more of a plot combined with character study that doesn't pay particular attention to one component over the other. The characterisations were, in the main, reasonably detailed and solid, although some of the motivations for actions were tenuous. The setting was excellent with a great feeling for the Lake Districts and the landscape. The suspects were fairly introduced to the reader, although they were a few over obvious attempts at portraying sinister actions which just didn't quite seem to work, plus it seemed that some of the supporting character roles were too detailed in some places and too sketchy in others.
THE GRAVE TATTOO has a very unexpected setting and environment for a crime fiction book than much of the standard offering these days. In attempting to provide a grand and sweeping theory with a grand and sweeping story it did seem to fall a little flat on occasion.
THE BLOOD-DIMMED TIDE - Rennie Airth
The mutilated body of a young girl is found hidden in a wood by ex-Scotland Yard Detective Inspector John Madden. Her face has been brutally battered and she has been raped. Whilst the local police are concentrated on searching for a tramp known to be in the area at the time, Madden is not convinced this is a one-off opportunistic killing.
THE BLOOD-DIMMED TIDE is the second book in a series based in the 1930's, incorporating now retired DI Madden and his wife, Helen. John Madden now works as a farmer and his wife has a local GP practice in the small village just down the road from where the girl's body is recovered. Scotland Yard, and Madden's old colleagues are bought into the investigation and more bodies are discovered far away from this location. The investigation moves from the local police and villages to a much wider area across England and into Europe with Scotland Yard taking responsibility and focus ultimately shifting to the Diplomatic Service.
In this book John Madden discovers the body, has his doubts about the direction that the local police take and is ultimately in at the conclusion. Other than that, the investigation centres around the Scotland Yard team. The steps taken by the Yard detectives to identify a likely suspect were just a nice old-fashioned piece of strong detective work, without the availability of wiz bang forensics and resources that would be available in this day and age. The timeframe of the book sets it between the wars and there is a general feeling of menace with the build up towards the Second World War being felt in relations between England and Germany. The tramps and people's reaction to them adds a level of complexity.
The plot showed attention to detail and, in particular, the Scotland Yard personnel were an interesting cast of characters. The old fashioned detecting method of solving a crime was a refreshing change and very well handled. The involvement of Madden and his wife seemed a little opportunistic, designed to keep them in the story to maintain the feeling of the series. Whilst everyone is aware that Helen Madden is very protective of her husband, a few times she was in danger of just being a carping spoilsport, but ultimately the only minor quibble is that the Scotland Yard team did most of the work and Madden got the final glory.
MR CLARINET - Nick Stone
In Nick Stone's debut book, MR CLARINET, ex-cop, ex-PI, most recently convicted of manslaughter, Max Mingus is contacted whilst still in jail by the desperate father of a child kidnapped in Haiti. Despite offering millions of dollars as a reward, Allain Carver, part of the powerful and rich elite of Haitian society, has to pester Mingus in jail and after release, to take up the search for his son. Mingus has a reputation of getting to the bottom of kidnappings and disappearing children, and of taking those searches very much to heart. Carver has been trying, with various other PI's for 3 years, to find his missing infant son. Charlie Carver is not the only child to go missing in Haiti, and a lot of previous investigators have died or been left scarred trying to work their way through a violent and dysfunctional society.
Stone's Haiti is a country very much on the edge, with occupation forces patrolling streets and gangs controlling others, society conventions are disrupted, there is economic meltdown and increasing slum living conditions, confrontational voodoo practices and rituals are being openly used and discussed, and drug lords enforce their brand of tribal law.
This is a big, elaborate thriller of a book, with action, violence and ritual liberally interspersed throughout. A little judicious editing would have been of some benefit as some of the middle sections of the book drag slightly, and some of the voodoo rituals, whilst perhaps thought to add some colour, came across as pointlessly gratuitous.
All round, a good thriller which, despite showing some weaknesses, indicates promise for a second book.
THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS - Matt Beynon Rees
From the Book: Omar Yussef is a school master in Bethlehem. When a favourite former pupil, George Saba, is arrested for murder, Omar is convinced that George has been framed and is determined to uncover the truth behind his arrest. But in the process he falls foul of his headmaster and the local police-chief, and time begins to run out for this teacher-turned-detective. His classroom is bombed and members of his family are threatened. But with no one else willing to stand up for the truth, it is up to Omar to act, even as bloodshed and heartbreak surround him.
As implausible as it sounds Omar Yussef is a man in the middle of an awful situation that you want to meet. Spend some time with. Drink some sa'ada coffee. Talk to about his Bethlehem. Omar brings a unique perspective to murder, to power games and to fanaticism whilst simultaneously providing a human and humane view of life in his Bethlehem. That Bethlehem is a world of conflict within and from without his own society; and the tension that changed viewpoints between generations brings. Where once he intermixed happily with all people in the town, now there's a very different feeling and he's horrified by what he sees happening around him.
Yussef is an opinionated, "difficult" teacher in a refugee camp, he says what he thinks, he likes his pupils to think and to be challenged and he genuinely loves and cares for them - even if he's a bit grumpy with them sometimes. So when an ex-student and friend of his, George Saba is accused of collaborating with the Israelis - a crime punishable by death - and nobody else seems to want to do anything to help, Yussef turns from teaching to detecting. Of course, this isn't going to be quite as big a relief as the UN appointed head of his school thinks - he's been hoping Yussef will retire for years - but he really should have been more careful about cultural sensitivity when he starts putting words into Yussef's mouth.
Mind you, Yussef is not exactly perfect. He is prone to grumpiness, he can be acerbic, he hates anointed authority, he used to have a drinking problem and he's a Muslim in a society made up of the devout and the not so devout of many religions. But he also lives in a very complicated Palestinian society - divided between factions, religions, clans, power bases and the good and the bad. So his complicated nature seems almost tame sometimes by comparison. And that complication is one of the great strengths of THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS. Incorporated alongside a complicated and complex character, there's a complex society and a series of deaths which are stark, appalling and desperately sad. Yussef is also a character that the author has allowed to make mistakes - and he forces Yussef to face those mistakes.
The interesting balancing act in THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS surely has to be that the book tells a story of Palestinian society which has such a realistic feel to it, that really gives the reader insights into the nature of day to day life in Yussef's world, but at the same time, it provides a real plot and it moves forward through the story of Yussef and of George Saba and his family - and all the other families that are dragged into what seems like day to day violence. And under it all there's a message that fanaticism comes in all sorts of different forms - and sometimes it's not directed outwards.
URBAN LEGENDS UNCOVERED - Mark Barber
As they say, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. From the horror of the KENTUCKY FRIED RAT (the urban legend which was Barber's inspiration for the writing of this book) to the more modern fakery of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, UK author Mark Barber presents them all. It is not just all about the kitsch campfire stories or teen-scream "it-happened-to-a-friend-of-mine anecdotes"; Barber has detailed the modern day internet scams and spoofs right alongside the creepy or funny stories we all delight in hearing about (of course, as long as they haven't actually been personal experiences of our own).
Working on the premise that each urban legend has a contained moral message or some other reason for its creation, Barber presents his book like an investigative fact file. Many of the cases are referenced back to the author's website or otherwise readily found on the internet, should you wish to take your own investigation that little bit further. There's a lot of "eureka!" moments in the reading of this book as it is impossible not to read of at least one "legend" in each section that you recognise. Barber lists the variations on each, with the possible geographical or culturally diverse reasons for such.
ONE FINE DAY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT - Christopher Brookmyre
Gavin is a holiday tour operator turned big spending resort developer who was invisible at school. Simone, his wife, has had enough of Gavin and his philandering and wants a divorce, although Gavin doesn't know that yet. Catherine is the PR agent for the oil-rig resort and for reasons that even she doesn't even seem to understand, Gavin's latest lover. Matt is a successful stand-up comedian turned wealthy but less successful celebrity due to his part in an American sitcom, and Davie is a violent nutcase turned family-man painter.
What they all have in common is that they all went to the same Glasgow high school, and Gavin, in an attempt to rub in his success, has arranged a large school reunion on his latest project - an oil-rig turned luxury resort. Unfortunately along with the reminiscing and rekindling of old relationships, there is also the unexpected arrival of terrorist hijackers armed with machine-guns, rocket-launchers and not a whole lot of planning.
Whilst the bulk of their schoolmates are held captive, it is up to Matt, Simone, Catherine and Davie to save the day. To do that they team up with the charming and slightly mysterious security consultant Tim Vale and Hector McGregor the hapless, one day into retirement, police officer who stumbles upon the scene in his tartan pyjamas, still a little bit miffed about the local police treating him like a suspect when he was knocked unconscious by a severed arm.
This is classic Christopher Brookmyre. Social commentary, incisive and razor sharp observations of human nature and behaviour, all wrapped up in a rollicking lunatic scenario that is so over the top you have to wonder if it really did happen. Definitely gory, definitely confrontational and definitely not to be missed.
BROKEN BODIES - June Hampson
BROKEN BODIES is a follow-up to the author's first book TRUST NOBODY so many of the characters and their back story come from that first novel. Perhaps this is part of the reason why BROKEN BODIES was a bit of a slog to read, as many characters appear rapidly in quick succession in the early part of the book, talking the patois of the English gangster, talking about each other - dead or alive, it wasn't always easy to distinguish - as if the reader was acutely aware of who everyone was and what had happened in the past. There was a little backfill as the story progressed but that initial opening had this reader floundering from the start and I never really recovered a sense of involvement in the book from there.
Eventually, as the story progresses it becomes obvious that the book is set in the sixties - heavy handed references to the Beatles; big hair; mini-skirts and other icons from the era place you firmly in the correct timeline for the story. The remainder of the characters tend a little towards the stereotypical - the Kray Twins were just a loveable pair of rascals; brothel workers have hearts of gold; and brothel proprietors are caring and concerned - except for the odd bad apple of course.
Of course the story that is being told is gritty and rough as - gangsters behaving badly to each other can't be told in highly refined English - but the patois was hard to follow on occasions. There is also a very high level of explicit, and frequently sexual, violence which becomes desperately repetitive and therefore starts to lack any impact. If you're the sort of reader that is fussed about high levels of mayhem and bad language you might have to avoid BROKEN BODIES.
In the end, looking carefully at the author's bio she is obviously writing about a world that is very real to her and the book is in all likelihood a very realistic portrayal of that world. Unfortunately the atmosphere's pretty thick on occasions, the direness just too unremitting and the characters just a bit too much to let a story of any sort show through.
THE DEAD POOL - Sue Walker
Kirstin Rutherford returns to Edinburgh after two years. Five months ago her beloved father-in-law Jamie drowned in The Cauldron - a deep pool in the Water of Leith, only nobody had told Kirstin. Divorced from Ross, she finds that Ross has not told her about Jamie's death or his funeral for some strange reason. Even more distressing than not being told, it seems that everyone thinks that Jamie's death was either a tragic accident or suicide, but Kirstin refuses to believe that the man she knew could possibly have committed suicide. Ross is not so sure, positive his father had changed in the months before his death.
The only person who may know the truth is Morag. In the months before Jamie's death he had been working as a volunteer river guide and self-appointed park ranger, and Morag and her crowd of friends were residents along the same part of the river. Their activities - parties, games, drinking and playing hard on the banks of the river had brought them into direct confrontation with Jamie. Despite all his best efforts he wasn't able to curb their behaviour, but when two of that crowd are murdered at the Cauldron - just a few months before Jamie's own death, Morag is accused but finally released from jail due to lack of evidence. Convinced Morag is the key to the truth behind Jamie's death, Kirstin befriends her, but Kirstin soon discovers that Morag is unpredictable to say the least.
According to the bio that came with THE DEAD POOL, Sue Walker is a journalist who has specialised in miscarriage of justice cases and THE DEAD POOL follows that vein of investigation - the testing of evidence and events around the death of all three people - the two murder victims and Kirstin's father-in-law. The author is obviously deeply interested in the subject of how people can seem to be guilty of things even though there is very little actual fact behind the perception. THE DEAD POOL covers the question of whether or not Morag is guilty and if not, who else could possibly be involved. The question of Jamie's death is central to Kirstin's obsession, she desperately wants to understand what happened to her much loved father-in-law, both before he died and how he died.
The other interesting component of THE DEAD POOL was the author's choice to populate the book with a lot of difficult characters. Those of the crowd in which Morag mixed that were still around were mostly unpleasant, over the top, self-involved. This gave an interesting twist to their possible involvement in any of the deaths as even Morag was very hard to sympathise with or even like for that matter. Jamie's son Ross seems almost too good to be true, and a weird sort of user, an uncomfortable character to be around, whilst Kirstin, the central character of the book, was equally disconcerting in many ways. Ultimately the true killer wasn't that hard to pick fairly early on, and whilst a number of the side considerations of possible motives or the vague possibility of collaboration were dangled at points, the resolution with a little bit too much rushing around in the rain without the much longed for mobile telephone gave the book a bit of a flat ending.
THE LAST TESTAMENT - Sam Bourne
The blurb for THE LAST TESTAMENT reads along the lines of "The Biggest Challenger to Dan Brown's Crown" and "A brilliant new high-concept religious conspiracy theory thriller", which might put some readers off, or at the very least set you up with some pre-conceived conceptions about the book. Ignore all of that and you'll be getting a fast paced, believable thriller which sets itself within a current day conflict in a very realistic manner.
In the dying days of the regime in Iraq, the Baghdad Museum of Antiquities is looted. A young boy takes an ancient clay tablet, hidden away in a forgotten vault.
At a rally for the signing of an historical peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, Israeli security forces shoot dead a Jewish man, pushing his way through the crowd towards the Israeli Prime Minister. Instead of a gun, the man they thought was an assassin held a blood-stained note, addressed to his old friend the Prime Minister.
The peace negotiations falter as a series of tit for tat killings start up in both the Palestinian and Jewish territories. Washington takes the rather unusual step of calling in once star negotiator Maggie Costello, despite the fact that her last involvement in official negotiation ended in semi-disgrace. Costello arrives in Jerusalem and is instantly plunged into a mystery rooted in the last unsolved riddle of the Bible, with extremists on both sides not afraid to kill and menace to push the negotiations in the direction that they want.
THE LAST TESTAMENT is a thriller with a certain level of suspension of disbelief required from the start. Early on the reader is really wondering why on earth Maggie would be called back to work as a negotiator - her personal life and her previous entanglements in other negotiations would seem to make her a bit of a liability! On the other hand, when she arrives in Jerusalem and basically heads off out of the negotiation arena, on her own private quest to solve a riddle, you're really wondering what on earth is going on for a while. But, ultimately, if the test of a good thriller is whether or not you're more than happy to let some of the niggling inconsistencies roll whilst the story drags you along, then THE LAST TESTAMENT delivers in spades.
Sure there's a premise at the base of THE LAST TESTAMENT that has the potential to cause religious debate and maybe even controversy, making it another potential entrant in the "stirring up religious debate" category of thrillers that have been doing the rounds recently. Whether or not that's a category of book that suits you will be very dependent on each individual reader.
Maggie's not a bad character - she's a bit flawed, a bit insecure, a bit useless when it comes to sorting out her own life - but she knows it and she's not self-pitying about it. The other main character, Uri - son of the murdered suspected assassin is a bit ethereal in the book - there's a little of his background, enough to flesh him out a bit, but not enough to ever really let the reader inside his head too far and that's a bit tantalising. There are some other secondary characters that are interesting, some that are perhaps a little too predictable, but they fit within the general persona of the novel and the location it is set in.
Where THE LAST TESTAMENT appealed was in the realistic feel of the location of the story, and the way that the events moved rapidly. There are some twists and turns at the end, some of which were predictable and some were not. Even the more predictable elements weren't bland though, there were some nice gotcha moments that gave them some spark and interest.
BROKEN SKIN - Stuart MacBride
There's something immensely satisfying about reading a book that tackles some very tricky subject matter head-on, with enough of the gory details to illustrate rather than titivate and just the right level of gallows humour. BROKEN SKIN is the third book featuring DS Logan McRae and it's as good as the first two.
It's February and it's raining again. McRae is on DI Steel's team and they are most definitely not at home to her favourite term for a complete disaster, particularly as DI Insch is well on the outer. There's also an awful lot going on. There's a vicious, nasty and cruel rapist - slicing up his victim's faces with a knife, but while PC Jackie Watson is taking that particular investigation very very personally, in the early morning, the blood-drenched, horribly injured body of a man is dumped outside A&E at the local hospital. There's also a massive upswing in burglaries and a major drug investigation.
The dead man is only identified when one of the PC Rickard says that he's recognised a distinctive tattoo in explicit sex films that could be connected to the death. Unfortunately for his sense of gravitas, Rickard also seems to have very direct connections to the local bondage community and, from the victim's injuries, it's very likely so did he.
Most of the characters from MacBride's two earlier books, Cold Granite and Dying Light are back - all behaving very much to type and all getting in each other's road and up each other's noses in equal measure. The twist in the focus for this book is that both DI's have equal exposure, they are both forefront and not liking each other's presence one little bit. McRae and Watson's personal relationship is ongoing but is, in a beautiful touch, going nowhere happily. All the other members of the investigation team endure just the right amount of success, failure and merciless ribbing.
As well as those characters, the taut storytelling in BROKEN SKIN carries you along the manic multiple threads, with a really realistic feeling of a cold, wet, miserable city full of cold, wet and miserable criminals and equally cold, wet and miserable police officers. The humour is again dark, savage and thoroughly engaging - DI Steel has got to be one of the all time great offensive women, and this reader in particular, thinks she's marvellous.
Being the third book in the series, the characters are now very well established. Reading the first two books will certainly give you the background for many of the relationships and the antagonisms. Whilst that will definitely help with some of the minor threads going on, it's probably not 100% necessary, particularly if you are the sort of reader that can just accept that there's some tension and not want the details of what lead to that.
If you're a fan of the no holds barred, character driven Police Procedural, then you should definitely read BROKEN SKIN and both earlier books if they've somehow passed you by. Gruesome subject matter delivered with deftness is the mark of this author's books. Savage, dry humour is the other common factor. Logan McRae's one of those characters that you certainly wouldn't want to work with - the pace that this book maintains would kill a normal human being - but he's the sort of character you'd like to have a beer with, provided you could handle the quantities.