As autumn sets in, the queues outside the soup kitchens of Rome are lengthening, and the people are taking to the piazzas, increasingly frustrated by the deepening economic crisis.
Detective Leone Scamarcio is called to an apparent suicide on the Ponte Sant'Angelo, a stone's throw from Vatican City. A man is hanging from the bridge, his expensive suit suggesting yet another businessman fallen on hard times. But Scamarcio is immediately troubled by similarities with the 1982 murder of Roberto Calvi, dubbed 'God's Banker' because of his work for the Vatican Bank.
Nadia Dalbuono’s debut novel The Few introduced readers to Italian policeman and son-of-a-mafioso Leone Scarmacio. At that time, it appeared The Few would be the first of a pair of novels to feature Scarmacio, the second promising to focus on the dangling plot threads relating to the protagonist’s past. The American, Dalbuono’s second novel to feature Scarmacio, does not delve too much further into this backstory. It takes Scarmacio off in a new direction and is all the better for it.
A man is found hanging beneath a bridge near the Vatican. The circumstances surrounding his death are reminiscent of the death of Roberto Calvi, known as God’s Banker, found hanging in London in 1982. When the body goes missing following the intervention of some shady Americans and a cardinal is killed in the Vatican, Scarmacio’s antennae start to twitch. Before long he is well and truly in over his head, dealing with forces far beyond those of the Italian police. But Scarmacio is not one to leave a mystery alone.
The American effectively pits the little guy against the global forces that shaped the late twentieth and early twenty first century behind the scenes. The world of espionage and state sponsored terrorism is revealed in all of its ends-justify-means pragmatism. What really happened, and what truth there is to the many conspiracy theories floating around , including 9/11, remains murky. By the end, it is hard to know what to believe, but this is a credit to Dalbuono rather than a criticism.
The feeling of threat, both personal and professional, that was hanging over Scarmacio from The Few escalates considerably in this novel. And the violent scenes, when the threat eventuates, are well handled, often creating a flow-on array of issues for Scarmacio. Dalbuono has refined some of the elements that were not as well handled in The Few, including the flashback sections at the beginning of most chapters which are still slightly opaque but have a greater coherence with the narrative.
In the end, The American is a taut, well constructed thriller. There is no need to have read The Few to enjoy this volume but newcomers are likely to be keen to go back and read the first Scarmacio novel and fill themselves in on some of the backstory. While the main case is wrapped up, the ending, once again, leaves a number of ongoing matters and potential threats unresolved. The American is definitely not the last we will be seeing of Leone Scarmacio and most readers will be hanging on to see what happens next.
Review - I SAW A MAN, Owen Sheers
The event that changed all of their lives happened on a Saturday afternoon in June, just minutes after Michael Turner - thinking the Nelsons' house was empty - stepped through their back door.
It’s a gutsy move to put the first sentence of your novel on the front cover. Even more so when the text is given more prominence than the name of the book itself. But it is a great ‘what’s in the box?’ first sentence: The event that changed all their lives happened on a Saturday afternoon in June just minutes after Michael Turner – thinking the Nelson’s house was empty – stepped through their back door. A bit long winded for a book title. The actual title, I Saw a Man, carries its own weight - conjuring the old nonsense rhyme about seeing a man who wasn’t there – a connection that carries its own resonance as the plot unfolds.
Michael Turner, the main character of the novel, has already been through a life changing event when the story opens. Turner, a journalist turned novelist, is still recovering from the death of his journalist wife in a drone strike in Afghanistan. The key issue, as far as Sheers is concerned, is the way in which Michael deals with the loss of his wife and with the whole grieving process. Sheers in interested in the way in which grief changes the way people see and interact with the world.
I Saw a Man retains the bones of a thriller, the build up to the “event” mentioned in the first sentence takes place over half of the narrative, and various suspense elements follow. There is an investigation of the “event” and an exploration of the caustic impacts of crime. But the plot is really here as a skeleton on which to build something much more substantial. An exploration of grief, loss and the need to seek redemption for real and perceived wrongs. Every character has their own journey, their own unique perspective and their own ways of dealing with these issues as they unfold.
The female characters are well drawn, Michael’s wife in flashback and Samantha Nelson, one of Michael’s neighbours. But the real focus is of Owen’s exploration is very much on the men, how they deal with these issues and each other. Michael’s relationship with his neighbour Josh Nelson is central to the plot. But also critical is the odd correspondence that develops between Michael and the pilot of the drone that killed his wife.
I Saw A Man is both gripping as a slow burn thriller and thought provoking. And while the finale might at first reading come across as a little anti-climactic after a creeping build-up, it rings true in terms of Sheer’s characters. And in the way of many books about writers, it all becomes a bit meta and twisty, which is fine too. The world of I Saw a Man is unfair, and there is plenty of sadness and loss in this novel. But in the end there are also some glimmers of hope and optimism in its exploration of the way people are able build and rebuild their lives.
Review - MURDER IN COURT THREE, Ian Simpson
Farquhar Knox QC heard a creak to his right and swung round, prepared to bully an intruder into going away. But the blustering tirade died on his lips as the sharp point of an arrow pierced his dinner shirt, entered his torso below the ribs and was pushed up until it penetrated his heart. A few gurgles were the last sounds Farquhar Knox made. His own day of judgement had arrived.
Even if you didn't know that author Ian Simpson regards John Mortimer as one of his inspirations, there's something slightly similar in their writing styles, although there's no Rumpole character in MURDER IN COURT THREE.
Set in the precincts of courts, and the legal fraternity, the victim here is a Barrister, and the investigation is straight police procedural, albeit with a hefty portion of fraud case in court antics on the side. It's actually a nice balance, as is the idea that the police team is made up of DI Flick Fortune, pregnant and about to have her baby at any moment and DS Bagawath Chandavarkar from the Major Crime / Fraud squad seconded into this investigation because the victim, Farquhar Knox QC is one of the legal team involved in a major fraud case.
It's a complicated investigation because, for a start, just about every possible suspect - from the fraud trial, the marital infidelities, past cases as well as a general dislike of up jumped lawyers seems to have been on-site the night that Knox died. Many of these characters have plenty of experience of the law - from both sides - as well, and they are past masters at the art of vague memories and obfuscating answering. Even allowing for the slightly odd method of his death there's no shortage of possible motives as well, down to the senior police officer who ends up suspended whilst the team investigate his wife's relationship with the victim.
Alongside the complications of the case there are the irritations of the media shoving it's nose in where it's not wanted, and the opinions of Fortune's old boss who does a particularly nice line in antiquated, horrible old dinosaur if there ever was one.
The subject matter in MURDER IN COURT THREE is handled well and there's no indication that it's a spoof, but the author's hand is light and very engaging. His characters all have lives, thoughts and feelings, and the way that they are affected by each other, and the pressure of an investigation reads with authenticity. There is something here though, some sort of gentle hat-tip to Rumpole perhaps, that does make this feel slightly on the lighter side. Maybe it is the home, love and real lives interwoven with the day to day grind. Perhaps it is the setting of the legal world, and the idea that an Advocates and Archery night would happen in the first place that makes it all seem slightly "not of this world". It's definitely not crime fiction on the gritty side, but it is fabulously readable and enjoyable enough to quickly place the previous two books (MURDER ON PAGE ONE and MURDER ON THE SECOND TEE) instantly on the purchased list.
Review - POP GOES THE WEASEL, M.J. Arlidge
DI Helen Grace returns in Pop Goes the Weasel, the electrifying new thriller from M. J. Arlidge.
The body of a middle-aged man is discovered in Southampton's red-light district - horrifically mutilated, with his heart removed.
Hours later - and barely cold - the heart arrives with his wife and children by courier.
A pattern emerges when another male victim is found dead and eviscerated, his heart delivered soon afterwards.
The second novel in the DI Helen Grace series POP GOES THE WEASEL returns to Grace's life in the aftermath of her sister's death, and that of a much loved colleague in the first book EENY MEENY. Because the events in that first novel were so fundamental to everything that Grace is and how she behaves, this is definitely a series that would work best if you can start at the beginning, something that this reader would have highly recommended anyway.
Arlidge has taken a brave approach with the development of Helen Grace as a character. She's prickly, standoffish, often tricky to be around but there are plenty of reasons for her to be so. An impossible childhood, a dreadful outcome with her sister in the first novel, Grace could be forgiven for getting a lot of things cackhanded, and when it comes to working with other colleagues also involved in the earlier novel, then she's not exactly on high moral ground with everything. She's also got a new boss, DS Ceri Harwood and to say they don't get on is a bit of an understatement.
Despite the personal problems, and the tensions with colleagues, there's a major investigation that demands everybody's attention when a particularly vicious murder is discovered. As victim's start to pile up, in known sex or drug use haunts, eviscerated, with their hearts removed, the team is scrambling to find connections. Particularly difficult with each victim having a substantially different background, although slowly the use of online porn sites and prostitute rating forums starts to reveal itself.
The way that this author has now built a story surrounding an unexpected killer, who for all their violence and depravity, also has reasons for what they are doing in both books, is an interesting precedent. There's also a constant theme of women colleagues, friends and family and their relationships. In POP GOES THE WEASEL that examination extends to the family of the victims, particularly the first victim and a wife who struggles to admit the truth about a tyrannical husband and father.
The balance between personal and professional, angst and dedication is well done in this series. All of the characters are developing well and in some ways it's an ensemble cast, despite a lot of the focus being on Grace. The plot is fast when it needs to be, detailed and thoughtful when there are things need exploring. The balancing act between these elements is well done and makes for an engaging, yet fast paced police procedural with tension, aggravation, and that most unlikely of things - a sympathetic and very sad serial killer.
Review - WHAT SHE LEFT, T.R. Richmond
Who is Alice Salmon? Student. Journalist. Daughter. Lover of late nights, hater of deadlines.
That girl who drowned last year.
Gone doesn't mean forgotten. Everyone's life leaves a trace behind. But it's never the whole story.
WHAT SHE LEFT has created a record in these parts as one of the most picked up and put down, unable to continue books that this reader has struggled with for quite some time. Part of the reason for pressing on is that it was a review book, but the more pressing reason became why was it so difficult to read.
An interesting idea, WHAT SHE LEFT uses the idea that the digital trail left by somebody these days could be investigated, explored as part of an Anthropologist's field of study. Building that idea into a mystery / crime format therefore tends to scream that there is a crime here to be solved. And obviously from the start, Alice Salmon is a twenty-five year old woman who died falling off a bridge in her university town in suspicious circumstances. For reasons that appear somewhat bizarre one of her old professor's decides as his memorial to her / anthropological undertaking, to track her life through her diary, blogs, notes, emails and letters - from childhood through to the night of her death.
Part of the problem with this motivation is that it's hard to avoid the slight feeling of creepiness about it, to say nothing of the overwhelming sense, from page one, that there's probably an ulterior motive at play here. Which is most definitely not assisted by the device of putting the Professor's voice in letters of his own as they not only didn't ring true, there was something artificial about the tone, reeking of "unreliable narrator that wants you to know it".
Which now presented this reader with a double dose of difficulty. Not only does the "hero" of the piece, Dr Jeremy Cook feel suspiciously like a bit of a weirdo stalker, but the voice of the heroine, the dead girl Alice Salmon is littered with ironic references and portent so thick it wouldn't have been much worse if there'd been big arrows in the margins to boot.
Whilst it seems, on the face of it, a continuation of a standard historical methodology, seeking to understand an existence from the clues in their correspondence, and memorabilia, the problem with WHAT SHE LEFT is the same as the one that you often find when your Great Uncle has suddenly decided that his life is worth documenting, and you're the lucky person tasked with transcribing the notes. There's a sinking, desperate need to be anywhere else, and a stark reminder that some things are best left unsaid.
Review - ONLY THE BRAVE, Mel Sherratt
When one of the notorious Johnson brothers is murdered and a bag of money goes missing, a deadly game of cat and mouse is set in motion.
DS Allie Shenton and her team are called in to catch the killer, but the suspects are double-crossing each other and Allie has little time to untangle the web of lies.
As she delves deeper into the case, things take a personal turn when Allie realises she is being stalked by the very same person who attacked her sister seventeen years ago and left her for dead.
The third in the DS Allie Shenton series, readers might be best served to have at least read one of the earlier books (this reviewer has read FOLLOW THE LEADER only and that helped make sense of a lot of the sub-plot elements).
Whilst the main plot of ONLY THE BRAVE is the bashing, then stabbing murder of a notorious local identity, his connections to the underworld family that forms a big part of Shenton's background might need a bit of filling from the earlier books to make sense. There are complications aplenty in this death - and not just the missing bag of money. Very soon it appears that Johnson was supposed to receive a warning beating, but how he ended up stabbed to death confuses everyone. Not least the underworld figure who wanted him thumped. Not least his own brother, now living in the same family house of a major character from the earlier books, now sleeping with the same gangster's daughter who the brother's are supposedly minding. Confused? Luckily this plays out really well as the plot evolves, it's really only in looking back that you can see just how much was going on, and how complicated is the web around Shenton, her job, her background and her comatose sister.
ONLY THE BRAVE also brings to a climax events that are set in train when Shenton's sister is attacked and left for dead. In the second book in the series, FOLLOW THE LEADER, her attacker is lurking in the shadows, making it clear that Shenton is now a target in her own right. That aspect is ramped up rapidly in this third book, although there are aspects of the resolution of that thread that feel a little rushed and a little sanitised.
Aside from the ongoing threads, the cases being investigated in both the Allie Shenton books this reader has read are interesting. The way that there are many aspects of day to day life that continue on through the books feels very realistic - the gangster family as her nemesis; the ongoing threat; the perilious situation of her comatose sister; and her close although not sugar-coated relationship with her husband all contribute to making Shenton a believable character with a life as well as a job. The complications of the cases that she investigates are also not straight-forward and there's nuance, and humanity in the victims as well as the entire police crew doing the investigation.
ONLY THE BRAVE is the third in a strong series, although it is one that this reader would recommend you start from the beginning.
Review - CLOSE CALL, Stella Rimington
The next instalment of the Liz Carlyle series: a pacy, intelligent espionage thriller from the woman with true insider knowledge
In 2012, in a food market in Yemen, MI5 agent Miles Brookhaven was attacked. At the time he was infiltrating rebel groups in the area. No one was certain if his cover had been blown or if the act was just an arbitrary attack on Westerners. Months later, the incident remains a mystery.
In the early books of this series, Liz Carlyle was a young MI5 operative out in the field learning spycraft and often finding herself in danger as a result. Now, eight books on, Liz has climbed the ladder within the British Secret Service and is more likely to be directing operations than participating in them. This does not necessarily detract from the tension that Rimington, a former head of MI5, manages to create in Close Call, but it does create a slightly different beast.
Close Call concerns itself with the rise of Jihadi organisations, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring. The focus of the secret service agencies in this book is the illegal arms trade. As the book opens, the British and American secret services are investigating illegal arms shipments into Yemen. Through the course of their investigation they find that many of the plotters are French and English nationals and that the threat posed by these arms might be closer than they thought.
One thing Rimington does particularly well in this book is give the reader a glimpse into the world of international intelligence. While Close Call is clearly fiction, the interactions between the British, French and American secret service organisations, the way decisions are made, the character types that Rimington describes, have the ring of truth about them. There are few bells and whistles here but there is plenty of solid and fascinating spy-craft.
While Liz Carlyle’s character is the one that brings this series together, Rimington’s authorial eye roves across a wide cast of characters in Close Call. Given Carlyle’s necessary remove from some of the action this allows Rimington to create small moments of tension and illumination within the larger plot. But Liz is still the centre of the action and it is her relationships, both current and long past, which carry much of the emotional weight of the novel.
An interesting observation that Rimington seems to make in this novel is the way humans can compartmentalise and ignore the consequences of their actions when they involve people they don’t or can’t know. While a French arms dealer has no compunction in providing arms to be used in the Middle East, he reconsiders his position when he learns that the weapons might be used in Europe. Similarly other characters in the book take the issue more seriously when they realise that the impacts of their actions may not be occurring somewhere on the other side of the world.
Close Call is another solid entry in this long running series from the former head of MI5. While there are plenty of call backs to previous books in the series, and some of the impact will be greater if the reader is familiar with previous events, there is enough background information provided for this novel to easily stand on its own. One for anyone, but particularly the Spooks crowd, to enjoy.
Review - WHAT SHE LEFT, T.R. Richmond
Who is Alice Salmon? Student. Journalist. Daughter. Lover of late nights, hater of deadlines.
That girl who drowned last year.
Gone doesn't mean forgotten. Everyone's life leaves a trace behind. But it's never the whole story.
Everyone is looking for the next big thing - the publishing sensation that captures the zeitgeist and gets everyone talking. The conceit behind What She Left is the zeitgeist itself – the rise of social media and the inevitable digital trail that people now leave behind in the form of Facebook posts, emails, photos and blogs. But it is so obvious and self referential, consistently applauding itself for pointing this out, that What She Left, supposedly a thriller of sorts, becomes more of a chore.
Alice Salmon, twenty-five years old and full of life, has died mysteriously, falling off a bridge in her old university town of Southampton. One of her old professors has decided, as a type of memorial, to piece together her life from the fragments that she has left behind and that other people – friends, family and colleagues – have since provided to him. And so begins the jigsaw of Alice’s life, details doled out non-sequentially in various formats – diary entries, blogs, notes, emails and letters – from her childhood through her university experiences up to the night of her death and beyond.
There is clearly a mystery here: a character who was not everything people thought her to be, or at least was different things to different people. The main problem with this book is that the text is so obvious about this – it self-consciously screams: there’s a mystery here and I’m going to take my time revealing it to you in bits and pieces – and this takes the sting out. The reader is made aware very early on that the Professor compiling the material has plenty to hide (which makes you wonder why he bothered, really) but that eventually he will reveal it. What’s more, almost every other character, at some point or another in the narrative tells the reader they have secrets that their supposes openness is not revealing. The withholding of information, particularly by characters who are claiming to want to reveal the truth, feels forced.
It is hard to get past the self consciousness in the Professor’s letters to his friend Larry which form the backbone of the plot. But all the characters get a chance to be self-conscious. There are plenty of Alice’s diary entries which, besides being cliched, are also filled with portentous language and conscious irony. For example, writing in her diary seven years before her death Alice writes that she “has a soft spot for doomed heroines”. Another character, Alice’s best friend says in her public blog “I can’t believe I’m telling you [the anonymous reader] the things I am”.
In the end What She Left is just not as entertaining or engaging as it would like to think. Or rather, it is as engaging as scrolling through the Facebook wall of someone fairly uninteresting who you never met. Most of the conversations are banal, the mystery is forced and the text is filled with constant references to music and events of the times to provide some sort of proof of authenticity. Some people may enjoy this, and again, the book is very obvious about modern society and its voyeuristic tendencies. But it does not make for a particularly engaging narrative and regular changes of pace and tone, rather than creating any tension, tend to slow the whole down.
The resolution of the central mystery, when it finally comes, is completely unheralded. While it might make the reader reconsider some of the materials that come before, there is really no logical build up to these final revelations. If the point is that social media and the evidence trail that we leave is able to hide as much as it reveals then I guess TR Richmond has made his point. He just takes a very uninteresting route to get there.
Review - TELL NO TALES, Eva Dolan
The car that ploughs into the bus stop early one morning leaves a trail of death and destruction behind it.
DS Ferreira and DI Zigic are called in from the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit to handle the hit-and-run, but with another major case on their hands, one with disturbing Neo-Nazi overtones, they are relieved when there seems to be an obvious suspect. But the case isn't that simple and with tensions erupting in the town leading to more violence, the media are soon hounding them for answers.
Two books in and the Zigic and Ferreira is a new much anticipated, favourite series.
If you've read the first book, then as soon as you start TELL NO TALES, you're straight back with characters that you really know, in a place that you're comfortable in, even though there is nothing comfortable about events, or the social climate. If you haven't read the first, then it won't matter a bit - there is still plenty here for new readers.
Tackling the question of immigration, immigrant workers, tensions with Nationalist groups, and the explosion in Hate Crimes that has occurred in many communities worldwide can't be an easy undertaking - the issues behind everything are complicated and fraught with political and personal implications. Setting events within the purview of the Hate Crimes division, and then never creating an easy situation for them to deal with gives the reader the opportunity to connect, see, even understand many of those issues through the investigator's eyes. Add to that in TELL NO TALES you have the viewpoint of a survivor (and participant), as well as a look at the politics behind many of the tensions, which gives the difficulties more nuance, more complications, more connections.
The other element that contributes much to these books is the way that no-one here is exactly 100% perfect. Zigic is a well-meaning, frequently absent husband and father, who worries about the effect that this will have on his family. There are such nice glimpses into the things that make you go hmmm - the use of very Slavic names for his very English boys and the potential impact that could have. The way that their quiet domestic community is being pressed in upon as the suburbs extend, potentially bringing the problems of his work-beat closer to home. Both of these main characters are the children of immigrant families, so many of the tensions, the problems of acceptance, fitting in are all too obviously understood. Ferreira is the child of Portuguese parents, trying to step away from family control, branch out a little, living the hard partying life of a young woman who is feeling the pressure of family obligations.
This understanding of the experience of many of the victims, and the perpetrators being perused isn't done in a heavy handed manner however. This is a strong police procedural into which these elements are seamlessly introduced, tucked into the narrative in a way that's informative rather than pointed.
All of which is delivered in a flowing, strong style that effortlessly holds the reader's attention, always promising more in the next chapter. TELL NO TALES is great crime fiction. It's a tale being told, it's a look into a particularly dark aspect of society and a very current day problem, and it's an exploration of the things that go wrong (and right) in our world.
Review - SECOND LIFE, S.J. Watson
How well can you really know another person? And how far would you go to find out the truth about them?
When Julia learns that her sister has been violently killed, she knows she must get to the bottom of things. Even if it means jeopardising her relationship with her husband and risking the safety of her son. Getting involved with a stranger online. Losing control.
Perhaps losing everything.
It is a tough gig trying to follow up your own hugely successful debut novel. SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep, the domestic thriller about a woman with short term memory loss was a world-wide bestseller and was turned into a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth. SJ Watson has delivered a second novel that is both similar but very different. His main concerns again set in middle-class Britain – a white, successful, middle-class, professional family with plenty of skeletons in the closet.
Julia is a middle class housewife with a successful surgeon husband and teenage son. The novel opens when Julia’s sister, Kate, is found dead in a Paris street. Julia’s son is actually Kate’s, adopted when Kate was unable to look after him. This continued a pattern that began when Julia started caring for her sister after their mother’s death and father’s decline. Julia is driven by guilt to do for Kate in death what she couldn’t do for her in life. Flashbacks detail how Julia abandoned Kate when she went to Berlin with her boyfriend where both became heroin addicts. Julia has addiction problems which she is successfully battling as the book opens. The title partially refers to her new, or “second”, life that she started after her friend, and now husband, rescued her from her old one.
But Second Life, as the name also suggests, is also concerned with the perils of the internet. When Julia discovers Kate’s online sexual activities through a website called encounterz she follows her sister down the rabbit hole. It is here that the novel starts exploring interesting territory – the way people can reinvent themselves online, particularly in the world of online dating. Julia creates an false online persona for herself as a way of both trying to understand her sister and possible to identify her killer. She meets someone online and falls for him, not considering that he too might not be the character that he seems to be online. It takes her some time to realise that he might also be not quite what he seems. By that time, when she has put her well constructed domestic life in jeopardy, it is too late to easily pull out.
The first big twist is almost predictable, and a little forced, as it relies on people who are communicating using social media not passing on critical and basic information, such as photos. But it works to ratchet up the tension on Julia. However, the barrage of twists that follow stretch the friendship a little too far. By that time the reader is too committed to seeing how the story plays out, but the final twists and reveals are beyond believable. And the ambiguous ending feels like it was left there because Watson had no idea how to get out of the corner he has painted himself into.
Second Life starts as an effective slow burn thriller with a fairly simple premise. It takes a while to ramp up, but this only serves to increase the tension. Like a slow online seduction, Watson draws the reader into the world he creates and then leaves little choice but to push through when things get tough. And it works, until the twists start to come into play to slowly reveal an underlying plot that undermines the premise and collapses under its own weight.