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.
DYING LIGHT - Stuart MacBride
DYING LIGHT is the follow-up book to the much talked about and acclaimed COLD GRANITE and it maintains the high standard that the first book in the series reached.
It is summer in Aberdeen, the sun is shining and it is not raining anywhere near as much as it does in winter. With his love life sort of looking up and his working life running pretty well par for the course, the major downsides to the entire season seem to be that somebody is killing prostitutes and DS Logan McRae has been moved to DI Steel's "Screw-Up" squad. One botched raid, one severely injured uniformed PC and Logan's gone from Police Hero to another Internal Affairs investigation in the blink of an eye.
The focus of this book switches from DI Insch and his team (although he is still there and working on a fatal arson attack) to DI Steel and her Screw-Up Squad. DI Steel is a totally different prospect to deal with. She's abrasive, touchy, pushy and extremely unconventional. Logan's Number One priority is getting out of the Screw-Up Squad and the best way to do that seems to be a quick resolution to the increasing number of prostitute murders. Number Two priority is to try and keep his love life intact. Number Three priority is to keep avoiding journalist Colin Miller. Number Four priority is to survive another Internal Affairs investigation and keep from getting fired.
In the first book of the series, the weather was almost like another character, providing a great backdrop for the general miserableness of the crimes. In this book the summer setting, albeit slightly damp, provides a contrast for the crimes and the mood of the investigators in both Insch and Steel's teams.
DYING LIGHT is a solid, twisting police procedural with some short-lived sequences of quite graphic violence. This violence and the pitch perfect gallows humour that MacBride uses remind the reader that there is some real substance to the world being written about. The characters are very real. You feel like all of them would be instantly recognisable if you strolled in the Aberdeen nick, the local bar, the morgue or down the docks late at night.
Sometimes a second book, particularly one so close on the heels of such an impressive first novel can feel a little flat, or a little directionless. The trick of moving the focus on the DI's and their teams adds a freshness to the supporting characters and to Logan's personal interactions with his colleagues that really worked extremely well. After the sheer pleasure of reading DYING LIGHT you will be instantly left wondering where MacBride is going with the next one and very eager to find out.
COLD GRANITE - Stuart MacBride
COLD GRANITE is one of those debut books that come along and slowly cause a stir of comment and discussion in crime fiction forums. So much commentary just makes you want to get that book that everyone is talking about, but at the same time you often wonder if there's a chance that it's all noise and not much substance. COLD GRANITE is all substance.
On his first day back from extended medical leave, DS Logan just wants to get through his first day and hand responsibility back to his new DI. Despite needing to ease himself back into the job Logan finds himself investigating who is killing children. Just to add insult to injury the Chief Pathologist is his former girlfriend and her reception is just about as inviting as the Aberdeen weather in the middle of winter.
Getting himself back into the routine and back into the teams proves problematic for Logan. He's got to contend with a new DI who has an addiction to lollies, a problem with fools and a tendency to assume everyone is one. DI Steel is a well known womaniser who ends up with all sorts of political problems when a trial goes pear-shaped. WPC Watson is assigned as Logan's new babysitter, and she doesn't have the reputation of a ball-breaker for nothing. There's a new journalist in town and he's cocky and pushy. Somebody is leaking stories and Miller, the journalist, just can't seem to keep away from Logan. Children keep dying and disappearing and Internal Affairs seem to be very interested in Logan. All in all, things are not what Logan wanted or needed.
COLD GRANITE uses the weather almost as a character in its own right - it's used to enhance mood and atmosphere in a very engaging way. You feel the weather just as you feel the character's reactions and follow their desperate attempts to stop children dying.
Despite a difficult central subject, the murder of children, the author pulls off a light touch and a level of humour which isn't always just black and feels almost expected. This is a police procedural, but a good, varied story that uses the procedural elements as a framework and builds in details of the characters, their lives and their reactions in a manner that makes everyone human and many many of the people extremely likeable. There are sufficient sub-threads to add texture and realism to the environment and all of those sub-threads are finalised or pulled together elegantly at the end and there's no sense of rush to finish off the book. The language is sufficiently fluid and fluent to keep you engaged but the book does not smack of over-writing or the tendency of some first books to include all the ideas an author has ever had.
Add to that some clever twists and this is a pleasingly strong debut novel and one seriously good read.
THE SACRED BONES - Michael Byrnes
THE SACRED BONES is another entry in the recently well-populated field of confrontational religious themed thrillers. When a well armed, well organised small group break through the walls of the mosque in the Temple Mount in Jerusalem they appear to have been very well informed. Blowing a hole in the wall in exactly the right place to reveal an unknown burial crypt, they move straight past a number of ossuaries taking only the one deepest in the chamber. Their escape, facilitated by a stolen Israeli helicopter, leaves Palestinians outraged over the desecration of sacred ground and Israeli's equally outraged over the deaths of thirteen soldiers during the resulting fire-fight.
In the meantime Italian anthropologist Giovanni Bersei and American geneticist Charlotte Hennesey have been summoned to Vatican City to analyse a mysterious archaeological treasure that could prove to be one of the greatest secrets, the ossuary contains a human skeleton, approximately 2,000 years old, obvious speared, obviously crucified. Forces within Vatican City are very troubled over the existence of the skeleton and the implications to the very foundations of belief.
Starting out reading THE SACRED BONES it was very very hard to shake the feeling that if you can manage to offend 3 major worldwide religions then you've got the possibility of a run away best seller. Fortunately the story helps a little in dispelling that fear as, frankly, there's some points of supposed scientific revelation in here that were impossible for this reader (no doctor / geneticist granted) to swallow. Maybe part of the reason for that was some credibility gaps for the main "experts", who seemed to ask questions and make statements that just didn't stack up, maybe part of the reason was that the story had elements that were just too way out to be feasible and hence, the book read as an outrageous over the top thriller.
And as an over the top thriller there were some really funny elements - two of the main characters in severe danger of dying in a hail of sniper bullets, and the scenes around the destruction of the car they were driving were laid out in such detail it was hilarious. The time it takes for the two experts to eventually have the discussion about "whose bones do you think they could be" - the reader can have a wonderful time playing "go on ... say it .. I dare you" games. The sinister security consultant for the Vatican "lurking" around in the shadows everywhere that Charlotte goes, who then conveniently leaves doors open for discoveries to be made. The much commented on loveliness of Charlotte - more homely geneticists obviously would not qualify for this particular task. The Irish (yes Irish) priest, with the murderous background who manages to kill a lurking, dangerous killer in the middle of Rome with seemingly nobody noticing. All great over the top stuff.
THE SACRED BONES might not make it as an entrant in the encouraging controversy stakes but for a totally over the top, really silly bit of light entertainment, it was good fun to play spot the cliché in.