There is a mandatory retirement age of 60 in the Scottish Police Force, so Rebus is finally on his way out. Weird really that with all the suspensions, life threatening events and the number of times that he's annoyed Siobhan to the point of shooting him, it's age that's going to see Rebus move on. At the very least you'd think something spectacular. Depending on how Rankin feels about his creation, I guess he could equally have killed him off with a massive whiskey, beer and fish and chip induced heart attack. But Rebus is alive at the end of Exit Music and this is his retirement book - not his total end.
Starting off the book with the same first line of the first Rebus book, Knots and Crosses, Rankin proceeds to give Rebus a low-key, almost dignified final exit. Well apart from a last minute suspension, the sniff of an allegation of an assault charge pending for a while, and an uncertain future that is.
The final case that Rebus and Siobhan handle is the bashing murder of a dissident Russian poet. It looks like a mugging gone wrong, but there is a high-level Russian delegation in town, keen to bring business to Scotland and the local politicians and bankers are keen to get the investigation wrapped up and "put away" out of sight. Big "Ger" Cafferty and his presence around the edges of the Russian delegation is just one more thing that makes Rebus suspect that there is a lot more to the mugging than it seems and a second, very brutal death, just seals the suspicion for Rebus.
There's an elegant balancing of focus in EXIT MUSIC. Rebus isn't fading into the background, but then again Siobhan's not going anywhere either. As Rebus is suspended and goes "solo" Siobhan steps out into the light just that little bit more and, bless her, she does her own bit of bucking authority in her own way. She's definitely a bit quieter about the rebellion than the old dinosaur but she's just as effective. The other elegant act of EXIT MUSIC is to cast a light on the delicate (and frequently lost) balance of politics and business, and just how much influence money can have in all the wrong and right places. It's no co-incidence that Rankin has recently been in Melbourne as patron of the Crime and Justice festival (Crime Fiction and Social Justice issues being discussed), as the one thing that the Rebus books do so well is ask the reader to contemplate the subject matter - the circumstances in which the crime is committed and the criminals are created.
Finally Big "Ger" and Rebus. There's a lot of unfinished business there. Will Rankin go there, post retirement. Who knows. EXIT MUSIC tantalises but doesn't reveal.
LAST OF THE GOOD GUYS - John Carbone
From the Book: On the streets of 1970s Brooklyn, it's all about walking tall and making your own luck. Marco Bolzani refuses to work a dead-end job, wasting his life away for a few measly bucks. So he goes into 'business' with his closest friends. Compared to the guys around them, bank robbers and murderers, they're just a group of small-time hoods that aren't making any real noise.
That is, until Macro's Uncle Tony gets involved.
LAST OF THE GOOD GUYS is blurbed as having echoes of The Godfather, Goodfellas and Sleepers. What it does have is a very different sort of style. It's written in the first person, the central narrator - Marco - talking about his life, how he became a gangster, how he and his friends worked that life, what happens to them when he tries to get out, how it affects his friends and family. The "getting out" is complicated when Marco and his gang come up against corrupt authorities - two people who want nothing more than to wipe Uncle Tony, Marco and the rest of the gang off the face of the planet.
The thing you take away most from LAST OF THE GOOD GUYS is the style or tone. It's very matter of fact. Firstly about the way of life that gets you into crime, how they set up a house renovation business to "explain" the money, about the obscene amounts of money they could accumulate. And mostly about the relationships within the gang and with their girlfriends, wives, partners and families. The matter of fact acceptance of violence, of death, of revenge and the cold blooded removal of roadblocks - human or physical. The way that a life can simply be dumped - the cash is the only important element - take the cash - disappear - set up a new life - drop that life - disappear again - move around - form relationships - dump relationships - anything that it takes to stay alive.
And that's the final thing that you take away to ponder long and hard. Is a life lived like this, with no second glances, no consideration of the damage caused as it proceeds and absolutely and utterly no guilt, really worth living? Marco gets to the end of this book as untroubled by the chaos he's caused as he was as a damaged and troubled young boy. Sure he discovers things that might seem to some to mean that he has a future - but there's a brutal failure to accept the past.
LIBERATION ROAD - David L Robbins
From the Book: 1944. The Allies battle through Nazi-Occupied France, only the Red Ball Express - a massive convoy of trucks that serves as a fragile lifeline to the expanding front - supplies this immense effort.
Against this hellish backdrop the lives of two men are changed for ever.
LIBERATION ROAD is billed as a novel of World War II, but it's really a story of two men. Rabbi Ben Kahn is a Chaplain with the American Army in France - his personal crusade is to find out what happened to his son - a missing fighter pilot. Joe Amos is a black truck driver on the Red Ball, supplying the military machine, somehow not quite equal to those he is fighting with. Whilst Joe and Ben, in separate parts of the same theatre for most of the story, struggle with their own personal demons, an American man makes his fortune in the Black Market in Paris. Is this mysterious Chien Blanc Ben's missing son?
The concentration of LIBERATION ROAD is on Joe and Ben's individual wars. There's a very intimate, personal feeling to their stories which makes this the sort of book that the characters are absolutely central to. There's little by way of coverage of the full horror of the Second World War to the local people, or any acknowledgment of the rest of the Allies fighting. There are some small cameo's by two local French people in Joe's story - a romantic attachment in particular which could be seen as poignant on the face of it, but as it ends, there's little opportunity to understand what war has done to those locals trying to simply survive in such appalling circumstances. Whilst Joe and Ben struggle with the war that goes on around them - how to cope with the divide between white soldiers and black truck drivers; how to comfort the badly wounded and the dying; in Paris, Chien Blanc ruthlessly makes his money and lives as high a life as you possibly could under an occupation. The reader knows he is an American, but who is he really?
Ben and Joe slowly move towards each other (without knowing it), until a climax point of the book where the advance of the American Army is temporarily interrupted with profound results for both men. Ultimately, with LIBERATION ROAD the reader has to connect completely with Ben and Joe, be involved in their stories, their war; care whether Ben can ever find the truth about his son; whether Joe stays alive and gets home to his family; how their individual experience will affect both men for the rest of their lives.
THE BRUSH OFF - Shane Maloney
Now pushing fifty, Murray Whelan is spinning his wheels in parliament - a toothless cog in Labor's stalled political machine.
The things a ministerial assistant must do. Murray Whelan's exact job title and the details of his expected duties have never been fully explained but they certainly call for a deft kind of versatility in adapting to all possible situations a Labor party man might find himself inserted into. In yet another show of party shuffling, Murray's boss Angelo Agnelli has picked up the Arts portfolio, and Agnelli's need to endear himself to a new brand of people has now become Murray's personal headache. With suitable gothic dramatism, a failed artist has chosen the first day of Agnelli's new reign to off himself in the moat of an arts building, leaving behind a likewise dramatically worded suicide note which of course blames someone else for the necessity of the deed.
Being rather sceptical that anyone could be willing to die for their art these days, and with the thought that making a public comment about the lack of Government funding is rather pointless once you're dead (as in not being there to reap any possible changes or benefits as a result of your stunt), Murray rolls out the rolodex and gives himself a crash course on the fine art of receiving an arts grant. There's a lot of re-appearing names in all of this, and somehow it all comes to Murray being trapped in a closet, listening to someone else's bump'n'grind. Throw in a feared face from Murray's childhood, more than one smarmy arts patron, the usual various little toadies and conniving blood-suckers out to silence any who dares to question their mechanations and there you have it, just another day in the life of the unappreciated, the world of the Labor party underclass.
DEATH MESSAGE - Mark Billingham
A killer who believes he has lost everything has no fear of being caught. A grieving man, this new killer has decided sending pictures with a text message to D.I. Tom Thorne's mobile phone are the best bet to draw the policeman's attention, operating presumably on the premise that a picture speaks a thousand words. A dead body usually looks like a dead body so the deed has already been done, but Thorne has no idea who the victim might be.
Your opinion of this novel will be determined greatly by what aspect of the series you've come to deem most worthy of your attention. Snappy dialogue is of course a-plenty, and Tom Thorne, however how dark he becomes, is always a hoot. This we'd expect from a writer who once relied on stand-up comedy to pay his bills. If the push-and-shove of modern policing, with its array of colourful characters, is what interests you there will be no disappointments there either. Where DEATH MESSAGE takes its turn is in the processing of the crime itself. Thorne dispenses with standard operating procedures to the point of irritation, and this is reflected in the annoyance Billingham has his secondary characters express at Thorne's behaviour. Thorne's character is not quite the rogue operator yet but walks closer to becoming so in this work, which is something the regular reader of this series may have been expecting with events detailed in previous novels. Thorne has more pain and hate to carry along with him, and this is all borne in the environment of developing a new romantic relationship. Billingham has put a few more spikes his creation this time round and as always, you can't help but be at least partially on the side of Thorne as he keeps his own ledger on who has done him wrong.
Back story is incorporated well into the present events so new readers to the series shouldn't have trouble with the flow of events. The character of Thorne still manages to surprise with unexpected reactions to developments in the police investigation, the details of which are carried mostly inside Thorne's crowded head. The new foibles such as the internet gambling, are a delight under Billingham's clever hand and serve to further endear his leading man to us. Thorne placed in his early forties hasn't yet entered grumpy old man territory, but the promise is there that process will only enrich the character. Are these novels character driven? Yes, as this is the writer's strength.
DEATH MESSAGE is the seventh entry in the Tom Thorne series. Mark Billingham is currently working on his next novel, a stand-alone thriller titled IN THE DARK.
POINTS AND LINES - Seicho Matsumoto
A prominent official in a ministry tinged with scandal. A dining car receipt. A name missing from a passenger list. And a young man and woman dead on a beach in an apparent suicide - lovers who had one final drink together. Disconnected points, but not to Detective Torigai, who keeps searching for the lines that link the dead and the living.
This has been a book that's been in the back of my mind as a "must read" for a long time. It combines that most fascinating (to me) of components of crime fiction - a mystery and an insight into life and the thinking of another culture - one that's totally different to my own. Whilst a lot of "authority" want the death of the young couple to just be written down to "Love suicide", Detective Torigai is not so sure. Kenichi Sayama has that dining car receipt in his wallet, it's from the last train journey witnesses say he boarded with Otoki. Yet the receipt only mentions a meal for one. Then there's the assumption that Kenichi and Otoki are lovers, but nobody seems to have known anything about the affair - and they both, in their own way, seem to have been very private, almost lonely people. And there's the scandal's within the MInistry where Kenichi works.
The suspicion that something is not right is eventually picked up by a higher up / Tokyo based investigator, Kiichi Mihara, who agrees with Torigai that something is not right. But proving that there was somebody else involved proves incredibly difficult.
The ultimate solution to the crime comes from so deep within the Japanese psychology that it's completely fascinating. The country runs on its train system - the main method of moving around is via the trains, and a woman's obsession with reading timetables doesn't seem at all strange to Mihara. Mind you, he's as immersed in timetables as her, as he tries to understand who could possibly have been where when Otoki and Kenichi died.
All in all a fascinating mystery and a fabulous peek at Japanese life.
EDEN - Dorothy Johnston
From the Book: Eden Carmichael died on a hot Tuesday afternoon in January. He was found lying across a double bed at one of Canberra's best-known brothels, dressed in a blue and white flowered silk dress and a blonde wig.
Sandra Mahoney and her partner Ivan are security consultants, so what she is doing poking around the death by natural causes of a well known politician seems to confuse Sandra as much as everybody else. In EDEN, the third Sandra Mahoney series book by Dorothy Johnston, Sandra is home alone - Ivan and their daughter Katya are in Russia visiting his relations and it's summer in Canberra. Sandra had originally planned to spend summer on the coast - with her son, but she's at a bit of a loose end when he heads off to Tasmania with his father, leaving her in hot, slightly dismal Canberra at a time when everybody else is normally somewhere else. The death of Carmichael originally just seems a bit bizarre sure - the wig and a dress for a start - and then in a brothel, but Carmichael had hit the headlines before when his last heart attack had him doing a spectacular swan dive off a staircase in full view of half of Canberra society. Nobody really thought he would survive that attack, and everyone knew he was retiring from parliament and slowing down. Sandra's interest is triggered when there seems to be some sort of connection between Carmichael and something Ivan's been working on. The Australian government has just passed Internet censorship legislation and the companies that make the filter software are juggling for position as preferred supplier.
The interesting thing about EDEN is that Carmichael's death isn't suspicious in itself, other than it being slightly odd, and there are some interesting connections between him and the Internet censorship legislation but there's nothing much else to go on. Except maybe a sneaking suspicion that people, who shouldn't be quite this interested in the events surrounding his death and the legislation, seem to be interested and the investigation that Ivan had already done into the background of one of the leading contender companies has turned up some rather odd coincidences.
There are a lot of things that appeal about EDEN. The central character is female, slightly flawed - but not annoyingly so, persistent, capable and conflicted. Her family life is so consistent with that hybrid type of family that's common these days, she's happy with Ivan and annoyed by Ivan and ever so slightly attracted to a local cop. The sub-cast of characters - the brothel owner Margot, the prostitute Denise who was with him when he died play a major part in building up the story of the book, as do some of the lesser profiled characters - such as Carmichael's political rival but close friend Ken Dollimore. The plot's nicely complicated, providing a real balance for the idea that there is no suspicious death at the beginning of this story.
There is crime being committed here, and people who have questions to answer for their actions. At the end of the book you just can't help but feel that Eden Carmichael deserved better.
LEAN MEAN THIRTEEN - Janet Evanovich
From the Book: New Secrets, Old Flames and hidden agendas are about to send Bounty Hunter Stephanie Plum on her most outrageous adventure yet.
In LEAN MEAN THIRTEEN, Stephanie is chasing bail skips, destroying cars and generally causing a bit of havoc wherever she goes - not least of all by losing her cool and trying to strangle her ex-husband Dickie Orr, just before he goes missing, presumed dead. All of this starts out mind you, with a simple favour for Ranger, and whilst Ranger is very interested in the firm that Dickie works with, Stephanie rapidly becomes more interested in keeping Dickie's lunatic girlfriend from strangling her in retribution for Dickie; keeping just out of reach of the cops who really are wondering about her alibi when Dickie disappeared and staying out of trouble as everyone seems to think that Stephanie knows more than she thinks she does.
You can count on Stephanie Plum for some things that absolutely never change - and I suppose that's what the main attraction of these books is. Stephanie Plum is a bounty hunter, she lives in an apartment with a perpetually empty fridge and a hamster named Rex (how old must Rex be now!) She's broke and desperate to pick up her next bond skip so that she can pay the rent and maybe put something in that fridge. Her mother is still spending a lot of time gazing longingly at the liquor cabinet - especially when Grandma Mazur is in full flight - and Grandma Mazur is at the top of her standard form here. Stephanie is still a disaster where cars are concerned, the bond skips she's after invariably have some very weird ways of amusing themselves (either in their criminal pursuits - or their hobbies), and Lula is still loud and proud! There is still that romantic tension. Morelli has now achieved boyfriend status, but Ranger is still there - still dangerous and Stephanie is just managing to keep her distance.
There are some smile inducing moments in LEAN MEAN THIRTEEN, there's some over the top slapstick comedy that fans of this series are really going to love, and I think that's probably the point. LEAN MEAN THIRTEEN is going to be like an outing with old friends or, if you're game to admit it, maybe even family.
HEAVENS MAY FALL - Unity Dow
The book is a series of vignettes set around a main story. All the stories centre around women facing legal problems. The author, Unity Dow, is Botswana’s first female High Court judge and has made a name for herself dealing with human rights issues, particularly in relation to women. Botswana is a very young country still trying to come to terms with the modern world. That is where the main interest in the book lies. How to reconcile a modern British Justice system with old traditional ways and still achieve justice for women is what makes THE HEAVENS MAY FALL so interesting.
Unity Dow writes with an obvious love of Botswana but she is not blind to its flaws. You can’t help feeling that the stories Dow tells are probably based on her own personal experiences with the Botswanan legal system and that Naleda’s fight for justice for women and children mirror Dow’s own.
Up until now, the literary world has known Botswana through the delightful stories of Alexander McCall Smith and the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Comparisons between the two authors are inevitable. Both have chosen a similar structure in their books. Both love the country. However, McCall Smith’s Botswana is idyllic and Dow’s acknowledges that there are problems to be overcome. The authors make an interesting contrast and perhaps the truth of Botswana lies somewhere between the two. With Dow’s emergence I hope that more Botswanans are encouraged to write about their country and give the rest of the world a clearer picture.
SLEEPING DOLL - Jeffery Deaver
As always, Deaver has been meticulous with his research. Confident as we usually are of this writer's ability to make us believe the unbelievable, Deaver however hasn't quite managed this time round to completely sell the idea of his kinesics expert and her remarkable abilities. There should probably be a "yet" included in there as the minutiae of forensic detailing was not first glance comprehensible for Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme novels either, a series that continues to be without peer for its sometimes excruciating attention to process.
What was the target market for this series? Here's a really obvious suggested answer - the female crime fiction readers. Not the first male crime writer to foray from usual haunts to pick up a greater slice of the reading market, but certainly one with the best reputation to serve up. Jeffery Deaver is regarded as one of the true giants in his very crowded literary field. It is a mark of his popularity that regular readers will take the leap of faith into a new series on the basis of what they know of the author's style and admirable ability to derive all possible twists and turns out of his deliciously convoluted plots. THE SLEEPING DOLL throws it all in the mix and peppers the story with red herrings aplenty. Some call these annoying tangents, I call their inclusion clever. A bit of audience involvement never hurts as you may want to slap some of the characters around for their decisions and this all adds to the enjoyment (we hope) of the read.
There is no need to check the credentials of Kathryn Dance as she was introduced to the readers in the Rhyme series, and it is certainly interesting to see Deaver write a female protagonist without that army of forensic examination supporting her. There is a soft focus on Dance which perhaps may sharpen with future entries into the series, and perhaps not. This is Deaver writing somewhat "lite" - again, this would seem to have in its explanation a change in direction of target market. More characterisation, less of the nightmarish details.