1930s New York City. Three brothers grow up poor on the Lower East Side, until the death of their father forces them to find work to support their family. Each brother takes a different path.
Thriller writer Andrew Gross dips into his own family history for inspiration for his latest book The Last Brother. While there is plenty of action and a little suspense this is down the line historical fiction exploring the growth of the rag trade in New York in the early twentieth century and the organised crime that grew up around it.
The Last Brother opens with a tragedy. One child of a Jewish immigrant family of six children dies in an accident putting Harry, the twin of the boy who died, on a different course to his siblings. Sol, the oldest son goes on to study accounting while the youngest brother Morris at thirteen goes to work for a coat maker and his wife. The narrative proper starts years later when Morris and Sol are running a successful business and Harry is running with some petty criminals. Morris and Sol are under pressure from the unions who are backed by the local mob and when one of his fellow coat makers is attacked and his stock destroyed Morris takes it on himself to see the mob boss Buchalter. It turns out that Morris and Buchalter have a long history, which Gross then goes back to detail.
Gross describes a time when the Irish, Italian and Jewish mobs had divided up the city, with the Jewish mobsters controlling the clothing trade. Harry, who Morris has brought into the company, has deep connections with the mobsters creating tension within the family.
Morris is a fascinating character. He is tough, ambitious and uncompromising. He starts working in a coat factory at thirteen and through sheer guts, nous and determination ends up running the company when the old couple who founded it die. But this brings him in the sights of the local Jewish Mafia. Rather than lying down and accept the way business is being done, Morris, as he has done since he was a kid, takes a stand
The Last Brother is pretty standard historical fiction but Gross has the thriller-chops and manages to pack in some heart-stopping action scenes and clever twists in the tale. No one gets off lightly. While the mobsters, who form part of a citywide group known as Murder Incorporated are shown to be self-interested and unnecessarily violent, Morris’s stand against them has its consequences for himself and his family.
The Last Brother takes a really fascinating corner of history and vividly brings it to life. From the hum of the sewing machines, to the rattle of machine guns to the New York dancehalls. Gross explains in the afterward how this is, in a fictional way, his grandfather’s story, and the affection that he has for his characters and their plight shines through in the narrative.
Hellbent by Gregg Hurwitz
To some he was Orphan X. Others knew him as the Nowhere Man. But to Jack Johns he was a boy named Evan Smoak. Taken from an orphanage, Evan was raised inside a top-secret government programme and trained to become a lethal weapon. By Jack. And yet for all the dangerous skill he instilled in his young charge, Jack Jones cared for Evan like a son.
Hellbent is the third in Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X series. But if you have not read the other two (Orphan X and The Nowhere Man) and are in need of a pacey thriller you should not let that stop you. After a masterclass cold open, Hurwitz provides a quick two page expository primer before jumping straight back into the action. Evan Smoke was an Orphan, one of a bunch of highly trained secret agents working for a shadowy American espionage force. Evan has left the agency and set himself up as The Nowhere Man, an unstoppable coming to the rescue of people in need. But the agency, and particularly his nemesis and agency head Van Sciver, want him dead.
Most of Hellbent is focused on Smoke organising his revenge against the Orphan program for killing his mentor Jack. But he does this saddled with his last mission from Jack: to protect Joey, a sixteen year-old Orphan in training who also escaped from the program. And of course, not wanting to put his Nowhere Man persona on hold, also helping out a father who wants to rescue his son from a deadly gang of thugs in Los Angeles.
Evan Smoke is your typical Jason Bourne/ Jack Reacher/ James Bond character. An action man of few words with a heart of gold. While Smoke has helpers he has few friends but this book, and in particular his relationship with Joey, goes a long way towards making him more human. But Smoke is also very very good at what he does, planning four moves ahead of the opposition, handy with any sort of weapon, or implement that he can turn into a weapon.
There are no real surprises in the Orphan X series. Readers get what is promised on the cover – well written, smart and engaging action. Good guys to cheer for, moustache-twirling bad guys, some conflicted characters in the middle and a conspiracy, that of course, goes much further than Evan could ever have imagined. And with a cliffhanger ending to deal with, it looks like Evan (and his fans) will follow that trail at least into a fourth instalment of this series.
Bluebird Bluebird by Attica Locke
The first novel in a thrilling, timely new series Highway 59, about the cost of justice in the American South.
‘In Bluebird, Bluebird Attica Locke has both mastered the thriller and exceeded it. Ranger Darren Mathews is tough, honour-bound, and profoundly alive in corrupt world. I loved everything about this book’ – Ann Patchett
Attica Locke’s Pleasantville, the sequel to her nominated debut novel Blackwater Rising was one of the standout crime novels of 2015. It went on to win the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction in 2016 and was long-listed for the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction. That book centred around race, politics and crime in Houston. In her latest book, Bluebird Bluebird, Locke moves away from the urban and well into the rural. The majority of the action set in the little East Texas town of Lark where it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Darren Matthews has followed in his uncle’s footsteps to become a Texas Ranger. The Texas Rangers are a highly respected, statewide police force in Texas. But few in the force are black and this creates challenges for Matthews and the work that he wants to pursue involving the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. When the book opens, Matthews has turned in his badge but is convinced by an old friend in the FBI to take a look at two murders in Lark, the first of a young black man from Chicago and the second of a young, female local a few days later. He is given a short timeframe to investigate and permission to wear the badge. Matthews is not surprised to learn that the police are investigating the second murder and not the first and that local black community members are in the frame. When he arrives in town he finds not only the wife of the murdered man looking for answers but a community divided strongly on racial lines but deeply connected by shared history.
In Bluebird Bluebird Locke digs deep into the psyche of her State, of the fraught relationships between the white and black populations, the history that underlies that relationship and the pervasiveness of racism in every conversation, action and decision. Matthews, her protagonist, understands these divisions and continually butts against them in his search for the truth. This in itself creates a huge amount of tension in a situation that is tense enough to start with.
Bluebird Bluebird is top notch crime fiction. Locke once again uses the genre – both the crimes themselves and the way in which they are investigated – to shine a light on the society in which they occur. Matthews is a classically strong, resourceful but conflicted and compromised character and Locke never lets him off the hook, particularly in a finale which leaves both him and the readers dangling.
City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C Anderson
Street-thief Tina breaks in to the luxurious house where her mother was killed to steal from Mr. Greyhill and nail him for her mother's murder. She is caught red-handed.
Saved by Mr. Greyhill's gorgeous son, Michael, the pair set in motion a cascade of dangerous events that lead them deeper into the mystery, and reveal dark and shocking secrets from Tina's past.
City of Saints and Thieves has an immediately engaging open. Sixteen year old Tina is a thief in the Kenyan city of Sangui. Together with her street-criminal backers she is embarking on an audacious robbery of the Greyhill mansion in an upmarket part of town. But Tina has more on her mind than just theft. Her mother was killed in that house while working there as a maid and Tina believes that Greyhill senior was responsible. So the theft is also about revenge. But the heist does not go as planned and from there the tale spins out with Tina only barely in some kind of control.
Natalie C Anderson, the author of City of Saints and Thieves has a long history of working with refugees in Congo, Rwanda and Kenya and this experience shows. Anderson brings both the Kenyan and Congolese settings vivdly to life. The book is rich in detail about the lives of women and children in Africa’s conflict zones and the role of blood gold in fuelling the violence. As a young girl living on the streets of a fictional Kenyan city, Tina’s skills as a thief are the only thing keeping her from a life of prostitution, and violence is never too far away.
While it can easily be read by anyone, City of Saints and Thieves is a book aimed at a young adult audience. The action is driven by teenagers – Tina, her best friend computer hacker Boyboy and Michael Greyhill, the son of her nemesis, keen to prove that his father did not kill her mother. The three teens have plenty of agency in the story, meeting with a dealing effectively with adults in the pursuit of their goals.
Good murder mysteries for young adults are hard to find and City of Saints and Thieves is, if nothing else, a great murder mystery. The story is well paced and the reveals, when they come, are both foreshadowed and heart-breaking. But what sets this apart is the context in which the story plays out, the conflict that has riven East Africa and its impact particularly on women and children. Making this an eye-opening and compulsive debut.
Review - The Last Train, Michael Pronko
Detective Hiroshi Shimizu investigates white collar crime in Tokyo. He’s lost his girlfriend and still dreams of his time studying in America, but with a stable job, his own office and a half-empty apartment, he’s settled in.
His mentor Takamatsu calls him out to the grisly murder of an American businessman. When Takamatsu disappears, Hiroshi teams up with ex-sumo wrestler Sakaguchi. They scour Tokyo’s sacred temples, corporate offices and industrial wastelands to find Takamatsu, and a woman driven to murder who seems to have it all.
Being a huge fan of Japanese crime fiction I admit to being particularly intrigued by THE LAST TRAIN. Set in Tokyo the viewpoint of this novel, written by an ex-pat American professor of American Literature at Meiji Gakuin University who has now lived in that city for twenty years, was a large part of this appeal.
Whatever elements there are that feed into THE LAST TRAIN, they have combined to create a fascinating police procedural / serial killer with a reason novel interwoven with aspects of Japanese tradition and culture. Things get underway pretty quickly, when we're introduced to a victim being led away from a bar district, absolutely hammered drunk, only to have him fall in front of an underground train. Obviously the first part of the investigation is to decide if this American man was an extreme form of suicide or a murder. Enter our detective hero - Detective Hiroshi Shimizu, a man who remembers fondly his time studying in America. Filled with regret over the loss of his foreign girlfriend, he is pulled into a murder investigation in a most unexpected manner. Shimizu is a white collar crime investigator - much more at home in the world of financial shenanigans and spreadsheets, it's via his mentor, Takamatsu that he finds himself included in a murder investigation that rapidly becomes a serial killer hunt. When his Takamatsu goes missing Shimizu teams up with ex-sumo wrestler Sakaguchi to track down that most unusual of things - a female serial killer.
The outsider's viewpoint really works well in the way that Tokyo life is observed and described. There's lots of little gems of information imparted as the action proceeds - from the food / the night life / the way that the nightclub and hostess world works, and there's great humour. It was impossible not to laugh out loud at sumo-sized thugs setting off overweight alarms in lifts, and an elderly man prepared to use machinery lathes as a lethal weapon if necessary.
Interestingly, even though it's an outsider viewpoint, it has an intrinsically Japanese feel to the novel - there's much to learn about the society, there's much to learn about the people, and there's much to admire in creating a female serial killer who is believable, and, more importantly sympathetic understandable.
Even with a little bit of heavy lifting towards the end dragging everything into line, THE LAST TRAIN is a really good novel for fans of crime fiction in general, and Asian crime in particular.
Review - The Girl Who Was Taken, Charlie Donlea
Her truth is only half the story . . .
Megan McDonald is a high school senior when she disappears from the small town of Emerson Bay. Miraculously, after two weeks held captive, she escapes from a bunker hidden deep in the woods.
Now, one year on, Megan is a national celebrity thanks to her bestselling book, Missing. It’s an inspiring story - except for one inconvenient detail.
There was a second girl who was taken. Her classmate Nicole Cutty.
Another day another ‘Girl’ book. But don’t be fooled by the title which is linked to the current marketing zeitgeist but is actually is a subtle commentary on the plot. The Girl Who Was Taken, second novel by American author Charlie Donlea, is not the “domestic noir” the title might suggest but is actually a fairly straight down the line crime thriller with a resourceful investigator helped by a lucky victim, the girl famous for escaping.
The Girl Who Was Taken starts with a potential abduction and an escape. An unspecified time after she was kidnapped, Megan McDonald finds herself in a cabin in the woods and disorientated, staggers out through the rain and onto the highway where she is rescued. A year later and she has become famous for a ghostwritten book about her experiences which does not mention the second girl, Nicola Cutty, who disappeared on the same night she did and has never been found. While everyone expects Megan to be the “girl” she was before the kidnapping, Megan finds herself unable to return to a normal life as she works with a hypnotherapist to delve into the memories of the two weeks in which she was held captive.
But the protagonist of The Girl Who was Taken is Livia Cutty. A Kay Scarpetta in training, Livia is a junior medical examiner and spends her days doing autopsies or on ride-alongs to pick up bodies. Livia still lives with the guilt of nor answering a phone call from her sister on the night she disappeared. The story kicks into gear when Livia discovers a link between a body she has been asked to autopsy and her missing sister. Rather than bringing this to anyone’s attention she starts to investigate herself, finding out just after the reader does that her sister was into some pretty weird stuff including a group obsessed with abductions called the Capture Club.
Donlea does his best to up the tension by dropping in some kidnapper’s point of view chapters that allow for a few fairly forced red herrings. The story of the abduction itself comes out in flashback chapters which establish Nicola as a not particularly likeable teen looking for some attention, caught up in something she is unable to control. The fairly unsettling reveal when it comes is well handled and brings all of the clues together, but even so it comes a little out of the blue and is hard to reconcile with the criminal’s pov chapters.
The Girl Who Was Taken does not have any of the domestic noir genre trappings of the current crop of ‘Girl’ books with which it might be compared (on title alone). Rather, it is an effective, page turning crime thriller with a well handled mystery and an engaging and resourceful protagonist. While she keeps being told at every turn that as a medical examiner she should not be investigating things it would be no surprise if Livia Cutty returns. After all, being stuck doing autopsies never stopped Kay Scarpetta or Quincy.
Review - Since We Fell, Dennis Lehane
I LOVED YOU
I HATED YOU
I NEVER KNEW YOU...
Rachel's husband adores her. When she hit rock bottom, he was there with her every step of the way as she slowly regained her confidence, and her sanity. But his mysterious behaviour forces her to probe for the truth about her beloved husband.
How can she feel certain that she ever knew him?
And was she right to ever trust him?
Dennis Lehane takes a swerve away from his long running Kenzie and Genaro series (which includes Gone, Baby Gone) and his recent prohibition and gangsters trilogy to deliver a psychological thriller of sorts. Since We Fell is a book that is hard to categorise. In some ways it is an extended character study and in others it is an extremely long con not only of some of the characters but of the reader. For that reason it takes a long time for the novel to really come into focus with some readers possibly only hanging in to resolve the strong opening hook.
Since We Fell opens with a bang, literally. Rachel shoots her husband on the deck of a boat and he flops over the side. Why she has taken the shot and what happens next will have to wait as Lehane takes us back to Rachel’s childhood and her difficult relationship with her mother. Following her mother’s death, Rachel goes on a years long search for the father that she never knew and who her mother refused to tell her about. Through this search she meets Brian, a private detective who, after much trauma on her part comes spectacularly back into her life.
The first two thirds of Since We Fell is essentially a character study of Rachel – the foundation of her deep anxieties and agoraphobia, her desire for safety and security, her extreme response when things don’t turn out the way she expects. Only some of which is really relevant for the final third of the book when the pieces fall into place and the action kicks in. At which point Since We Fell starts to feel like a different book altogether – full of violent goons, sleights of hand and plenty of gun play.
It feels like Lehane is trying to do too much in Since We Fell. The naturalistic exploration of Rachel’s mental state is undermined by the extreme suspension of disbelief needed to follow the plot. And again, in the final third of the book Rachel manages to throw off the burden of mental illness that she has been carrying in order to both forward that plot and be an effective actor in its resolution. The idea being, I think, that all she really needed was something bigger to focus on outside of her own worries.
The lengthy and detailed start of the book becomes irrelevant by about half way through, used only as a way to manoeuvre various characters into place. The original hook is almost forgotten by the time it rolls around again, with only some well-timed hints to keep the reader’s appetite whetted. And its resolution requires such a breathtaking suspension of disbelief that it skews the rest of the plot. The last third, while nominally exciting and well written does not feel it resolves any of the real issues that were raised earlier on and just leaves the reader constantly asking “but why…?”. So that in the end Since We Fell doesn’t work. There is definitely some psychology here but possibly not the psychological thriller that fans of Lehane’s work and of good thrillers more broadly would have been hoping for.
Review - The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz
He was once called Orphan X.
As a boy, Evan Smoak was taken from a children's home, raised and trained as part of a secret government initiative buried so deep that virtually no one knows it still exists. But he broke with the programme, choosing instead to vanish off grid and use his formidable skill set to help those unable to protect themselves.
One day, though, Evan's luck ran out . . .
The world seems to be full of highly trained, disaffected, black ops, renegade loners who are trying to do good deeds while being hunted down by their government. Last year, Orphan X, also known as Evan Smoak, joined the ranks of the likes of Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher as the latest highly skilled loner on the block. But there is no need to have read Orphan X to get right into this novel as Gregg Hurwitz covers all of the necessary detail in one paragraph:
“…the Orphan Program, a deep-black project buried inside the Department of Defense. It had identified the right kind of boys [and as it turns out, girls] lost in the system of foster homes, covertly culled them one by one, and trained them to do what the US government could not officially do in places where it could not officially be. A fully deniable, antiseptic program run off a shadow budget.”
When the book opens Smoak has turned his back on the Program and has taken his budget and skills to the street. He is “The Nowhere Man” and will help people in trouble, asking in return only that they pass on his phone number when they know of someone else who needs his help. In this case he comes to the aid of a girl blackmailed and at risk of being trafficked. This job brings him to the attention of some other bad dudes who are after his very healthy Swiss bank account and before long Smoak has been captured himself.
Smoak finds himself up against Renee Cassaroy, a villain who has stepped straight out of the pages of a James Bond book, complete with monologues, a bunch of expendable ex-Sinaloa cartel goons (including one mute goon called Dex who is bigger and badder than the rest), a taste for fine everything and a creepy doctor doing illegal things to keep him looking young. Smoak has come to Renee’s attention due to his bank account and he initially has no idea what Smoak is capable of. But even when he works it out, Renee sees their contest as a game rather than the life and death situation that it is. At the same time, Smoak’s old Orphan crew, still out to kill him themselves, is closing in.
The Nowhere Man sits well within genre tropes but is an enjoyable action thriller. As Smoak’s situation gets worse, his self belief and ability to improvise increase. This leads to some fantastic, hold your breath action scenes. This is cartoon stuff but Smoak is a sympathetic character Hurwitz handles the action with great panache. And it is not real spoiler in this genre to suggest that there will be plenty more Smoak to come.
Review - You, Caroline Kepnes
When a beautiful, aspiring writer strides into the East Village bookstore where Joe Goldberg works, he does what anyone would do: he Googles the name on her credit card.
There is only one Guinevere Beck in New York City. She has a public Facebook account and Tweets incessantly, telling Joe everything he needs to know: she is simply Beck to her friends, she went to Brown University, she lives on Bank Street, and she’ll be at a bar in Brooklyn tonight—the perfect place for a “chance” meeting.
YOU is one of those books that I've been hearing murmurings about for ages, so when it was talked up by a local publicist who knows her crime fiction well it became required reading. Having said that, I'm well aware that it has also garnered mixed reactions so all in all, quite an intriguing read.
It doesn't take long to identify some of the likely causes of the mixed reactions. YOU is a creepy, sobering and realistic story about stranger obsession which is enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It's discomfortingly, worrying and more than a bit weird to spend time with somebody talking intimately (in their own heads) to the source of their obsession.
The you of the title is a young college student / writer living in New York. She's a typical millennial girl, who lives her life in a public stream of Twitter, Facebook and email, willingly surrendering privacy to the point where she's even given up closing curtains in her apartment, regardless of what she's doing / when she's completely nude. It does feels like a very realistic portrayal, made even more disconcerting by something narcissistic, almost wanton about her as well.
The narrator is a seemingly charming, normal, well-read, good looking young bookshop manager. Yet readers may quickly come to believe that he's sociopath. He's certainly obsessive, manipulative and chillingly entitled.
So not a necessarily likeable pair of characters, but extremely believable and identifiable. Which ends up setting up a very interesting scenario for a reader, who will be confronted with a disconcerting plot of obsession and manipulation, in a manner that's very current day, and feels particularly insidious and particularly scary as much of it revolves around our technological lives.
Everything in YOU therefore wrong-foots the reader, creating a challenging reading experience of very intimate personal time with rather unpleasant people, wrapped up in obsession, fuelled by the manipulation of technology to control.
The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith
The stunning new novel from the author of the international bestseller Gorky Park: a World War II love story set against the romance and danger of occupied Venice.
Martin Cruz Smith takes a break from his long running Arkady Renko Russian crime series which started with Gorky Park to explore a different corner of history. The Girl from Venice takes readers to Italy in the dying days of the Second World War. Italy is being bombed by the allies and is riven by division as Mussolini and the fascists cling on to power. At the same time the country is playing host to the German Western Front command and an increasingly desperate German army, many of whom can see the writing on the wall.
But the focus of the novel is Innocenzo, or Cenzo, a fisherman of Pallesteria, a small town across the lagoon from Venice. When Cenzo picks up what he thinks to be a dead girl floating in the lagoon he steps into a world of trouble. The girl, Gulia, very much alive, has escaped from a German attack that killed her Jewish family and the two end up in the middle of a number of power plays as various people try to manoeuvre as the war ends. Chief among these is Cenzo’s brother, a famous actor and propagandist for the Mussolini regime.
Cenzo, while having a very different background turns out to be a similar character to Renko. This is not apparent in the first half of the novel where he spends his time as a fisherman hiding Gulia. But when she disappears and he goes with his brother to Salo to find her, Cenzo turns out to be anything but a simple fisherman. Salo is the seat of the German high command and a hotbed of partisan activity. The narrative takes on some of the elements of noir crime fiction as Cenzo navigates this world with amazing aplomb and a healthy disrespect for authority, in a manner reminiscent of Cruz Smith’s Russian detective,
In The Girl From Venice, Cruz Smith effectively captures a point in time. In particular the chaos that accompanied the slow withdrawal of the Germans from Italy. The scenes in Salo as the American army advances, the German army crumbles and the Italians try to work out which side to bet on are particularly fascinating. All this sits in the background to the plot itself, part family drama, part mystery and part romance that keeps the whole ticking along. So that while he falls back on familiar character tropes, Cruz Smith delivers an engaging and fascinating historical drama.