One June night, in a small town gripped by a sweltering heat wave, a young man is forced off the road and into the river. Robert Bell, a disillusioned local journalist with a dry sense of humour and an escalating drink problem, leaves behind the banality of his quiet office to investigate the mysterious death. Simmering racial tensions in the town threaten to boil over and local Serbian immigrants become the easy targets for blame.
I've had this tradition for the last few years that my first favourite book of the year pops up in January. Well that's for the last two years anyway - The Broken Shore by Peter Temple and then Diamond Dove by Adrian Hyland. Breaking the tradition slightly, as Frode Grytten is Norwegian not Australian, but it's January and THE SHADOW IN THE RIVER's officially my first entry in my favourite books of 2008.
This has the sort of style that particularly appeals to me. Dry, sardonic wit, pointed and quite discomforting social commentary, this book reveals what the investigation of a murder does in a closed in, threatened little town. Set in Odda, a small and rapidly dying town, this place has had the guts ripped out of it as industry has closed, jobs have dried up and social services have gradually receded. The remaining residents stay, partly because they have been there for a long time or maybe because they don't know what else to do. Ultimately, that sort of despair and deeply ingrained social disconnection can lead people to look for somebody to blame. And it's very straight-forward to blame the outsiders, somebody who is different. Even if you don't blame them, they are different, so suspicion comes easily.
In the middle of this mix is the main character in this book - Robert Bell. He's trapped in Odda, partly because he can't be bothered, but mostly because the love of his life is in this town and he can't leave her. She's married to his brother mind you, but that hasn't stopped Robert from loving her since the first night they met - when she chose his brother Frank. Frank is now in the police force, and he's investigating the death of the young man whose car was forced into the river. Robert is also looking into that death - as is, it seems, half the media of Norway - drawn to this small town and this murder, you have to suppose, simply because of the presence of the asylum seekers - the easy scapegoats.
This isn't a police procedural, despite the presence of the police. Really it's not much at all about the solving of the crime (which does happen), but it's about the impact that a seemingly meaningless crime has on a small town. And that's what I loved about it. That commentary of the impact - of the loss of a young man - of the suspicion - of the media intrusion. The book is frequently incredibly, poignantly sad; it's often funny, it's tragic and it was completely involving.
DELICATE STORM - Giles Blunt
During the third week of January, the town of Algonquin Bay in Ontario experiences a freak warm front. There is a thick fog blanketing the area pushing up the temperature and bears are coming out of hibernation. When a mechanic discovers a mauled arm in the snow, the first assumption is that someone has fallen victim to a very hungry bear.
For someone from a climate as mild as Australia, the cold of a Canadian winter seems somewhat exotic. Salting the roads, ice storms, bears coming out of hibernation when there’s a warm snap, are all vividly depicted. Giles Blunt imparts a strong feeling of being connected to the community by the clever use of minor characters: there is WUDKY, the world's dumbest criminal; the veteran police officer returning from vacation and remembering a detail from an old case which helps create a lead in a current one and Cardinal's tetchy and fiercely independent father are just a few. Cardinal and Delorme with their different ethnic backgrounds, attitudes and histories also give THE DELICATE STORM a strong and distinctive Canadian flavour.
Blunt has created a mystery with a number of intriguing threads and combined it with interesting characters who pull you into the story and hold you there.
Giles Blunt grew up in Ontario. THE DELICATE STORM is the second of four books in the John Cardinal series. Blunt’s website is http://www.gilesblunt.com/
DARKNESS INSIDE - John Rickards
True confession time. I really didn't expect to like THE DARKNESS INSIDE. Oh dear, I thought to myself - appalling child mistreatment again. Oh bother, I muttered - another bitter and twisted ex-FBI agent / lone wolf PI / life sucks / let's just get this case over / I can take all the hammering you can throw at me.... Luckily I very rarely listen to anybody, and I include myself in that rule.
Now you can't for a moment pretend that there are not some very unpleasant aspects to THE DARKNESS INSIDE. The main case in this book is the unsolved abduction and disappearance of a large number of young girls. In most cases a body has never been found, no trace of the girls ever seen again, no idea what happened to them. Cody Williams is the prime suspect for all of those disappearances, but nothing could ever be proven / found. Luckily Williams is found guilty of the, somewhat inexplicable, murder of a serial rapist operating in the same area. Maybe Williams killed him because he was stealing his limelight, maybe he was just a homicidal maniac - the general consensus at the time was "who cares". Only Williams cared quite a bit, and when he's diagnosed with terminal cancer he wants to talk to Rourke.
Rourke's not that thrilled with the idea of talking to Williams, and he's less than impressed when details of the cases of the girls are hard to get, but the families really want to know where the bodies of their little girls are. When Williams plays his winning hand - one of his victims, Holly Tynon is still alive, Rourke is suddenly deeply involved. What he reveals in his search for Holly casts light on the truly revolting in society. Clubs of child-molesters, murderers and gangsters - willing to do anything to protect themselves are part of Rourke's problem - but when his own friends are threatened, then the stakes are raised even higher.
There's an overwhelming sense of justice in the face of great evil in THE DARKNESS INSIDE. Rourke's path to discovering the truth and maybe recovering Holly is littered with people very motivated to protect themselves; people who are just flat out scared; or people who are finding everything just a bit too much to cope with. Starting off with the support of his partner in the PI firm, Rourke is cut loose even by him in the end as his notoriety grows. Rourke discovers very quickly that sometimes you end up on the wrong side of society yourself when you're fighting those who are happiest over there anyway.
Ultimately what works in THE DARKNESS INSIDE is that sense of connection with Rourke. The subject matter is unpleasant, the ending unexpected, and sure Rourke's a bit of a loose cannon, a major risk taker and there are points when he's a bit of an energiser bunny, but he sticks with what he's doing because he really feels a connection with the families of those child victims.
NATURAL HISTORY - Neil Cross
Reading NATURAL HISTORY I was struck by a number of things. Firstly, this is not your normal family. It's mostly Jane's idea to take over Monkeyland and build it into a good animal sanctuary - saving it from undoubted bankruptcy. Patrick just sort of goes along with this. It's Jane's idea to do the television series about Monkeyland. Patrick sort of goes along with this. Jane's the one that heads off to Africa and more TV stardom. Patrick goes along with this. Patrick's the one that ends up running Monkeyland - half-heartedly you'd have to say. Patrick's the one that tries to keep hearth and home together as Jane deals with her own demons in Zaire. Secondly, their children mirror the parents, but there's the sex crossover. Jo's pretty amenable, she's got her love of Astronomy and now she's home, rather than at boarding school she's just about prepared to roll along with most things. Charlie, on the other hand, is a bit more volatile. He works actively at Monkeyland and he has a real bond with the animals. When he has to be dismissed after an altercation with a patron chucking things at some of the apes, then he gets a job at a big, seaside hotel. And he works hard at the job. He's getting on with things. Thirdly, there are all these cross-over threads. Patrick's worried that Jane's having an affair with her TV producer, Charlie is having an affair with a woman he meets one night in the hotel. Jo's busy studying with her tutor and Patrick... well Patrick's obsessed with a panther. One morning he's sure he's seen a big black panther, stalking the back lanes of leafy England. Finally, it sounds like there's a lot happening in NATURAL HISTORY, and there is, but there's also not a lot happening. In the early part of the book there's Rue, the elderly ape's murder, but in terms of other crimes, there's nothing else much. For most of the book. But there is this never-ending sense of tension. Maybe it's the reader wondering what / if anything is ever going to happen, but whatever it is, the book moves rapidly - somewhere.
It could be that the writer's background as a TV writer shows strongly here, the story is told in short sections from a number of different perspectives. It swaps, changes, wrong-foots, heads down multiple side alleys and slowly, but surely, feels like it's going somewhere but you don't know where. In the first few chapters I was honestly wondering if anything was ever going to happen and thought I was getting impatient. It was only 3/4's of the way through the book that I realised that there was still a lot of what seemed to be nothing happening, and yet, I didn't want to put it down.
Definitely not a book for lovers of the "body in the opening" pages style, NATURAL HISTORY just crept up on me.
BLOOD OF DREAMS - Susan Parisi
Starting off with the elaborate building of Laudomia's life as the youngest sister of two very self-important merchants in 1700's Venice - BLOOD OF DREAMS is part historical novel, part passionate romance, part Gothic tale of death and the occult and part mystery. Laudomia is destined to be married off, she lives her life seemingly tightly controlled by her brothers and their mindless and rather shallow wives. But she also has a more secret existence. Starting off with roaming of the streets of Venice with only an old servant for company, at a party held by her own family, Laudomia finds herself deeply attracted to the glorious, but risky Estavio. But whilst they pursue their passionate, and secret love affair; the madness of Carnevale acts as cover for a vicious killer, driven by a different sort of madness - to steal the dreams of others.
BLOOD OF DREAMS leans heavily on the great, Gothic and elaborate in the style of the story telling, the characters themselves (everyone is just ever so slightly over the top), the atmosphere of brooding and decadence, and in the events and happenings everywhere in the book. Mixed in with romance is lust; with murder and intrigue - occult; with obsession - drugs and addiction. The style of the book is very luscious, almost over the top in the descriptions of the characters, their costumes, the world they inhabit. Venice itself is dark and brooding and dangerous, Carnavale is the excuse that lots of people have to step outside the boundaries of accepted behaviour.
The point of BLOOD OF DREAMS is probably not the mystery, or the romance, or the occult, or any one particular element. It is one of those novels of a style that you either love or hate, but if you're a fan of this sort of book then BLOOD OF DREAMS should be a must read.
A THOUSAND BONES - P J Parrish
Parrish uses the main character of another series - Louis Kincaid to start off the "action" in A THOUSAND BONES, when his lover Joe Frye, the lone female homicide detective in the Miami-Dade PD confesses to him at the start of the book - prologue - that she's carrying a difficult secret from her past. The reader is then immediately taken back to Joe's early career in the police. Starting out as a Rookie in Leelanau County, Frye fights a sheriff's department who underestimate, almost disregard her as a "token female" - not quite up to the albeit pretty uneventful job in a small, quiet county. Joe has moved to this area to take up this job, dragging her veterinarian boyfriend Brad with her and he's less than impressed with the impost that the job makes on their personal time.
Her job gets much much worse when a few scant human bones are found in the woods. There's just enough bones to identify the body as female and a piece of jewellery - originally thought to be a crucifix necklace, turns out to be a charm bracelet and it provides the first possible clue to the victim's identity. But Joe is the only one who thinks this lead is worth pursuing - her boss is convinced he already knows who the victim was.
A THOUSAND BONES has had a lot of very positive press, and this author (actually a team of two sisters) has a big fan base, particularly for their Kincaid based books. Alas A THOUSAND BONES didn't really work for me. Joe, as a female cop in a world populated with male colleagues who under-estimate or dismiss her was just way to stereotyped for me - if there was a "cause" that a female detective has to deal with it showed up at some point. From open antagonism to disregard for her - it was all there. There was the boyfriend who couldn't stand the competition of the job, there was the spark of attraction - that never could be - for the one colleague that treated her with some respect. There were also some jarring components to the investigation - the bracelet which was originally thought to be a necklace (and a bit of early red-herring chasing), ancient Indian symbols carved into trees missed by everyone until enough leaves fell in Autumn to reveal them - luckily just when Joe was around; through to what was by then an inevitable threat on Joe's own life.
Finally a bit of late revelation in the number of victims found providing a nice piece of heart rendering ending and A THOUSAND BONES wasn't to my taste at all. To be fair, it's undoubtedly a book that could appeal to fans of the author pairing, or to readers who like female characters in peril, dealing with lots of the issues.
D-E-D DEAD! - Geoff McGeachin
Alby Murdoch, international photographer and undercover agent for D-E-D, the Australian Directorate for Extra-territorial Defence, ducks bullets and bombs as he attempts to unravel a lethal web of high-level dodgy dealings....
From the moment Alby drops his gun on a St Kilda tram he knows he's in for a bad day. Then his partner Harry is gunned down in a Double Bay coffee shop. By lunchtime, Alby realises someone wants him dead - and they want him dead now.
James Bond would have nothing on our Alby these days (and can we all just spare a moments thought for a character name like Alby Murdoch and wonder idly whatever happened to..... remember those Alby Mangel specials?), but I digress. Mind you, Alby's not opposed to the odd digression as well. Sure assorted bad guys have shot his colleague dead. So he's suddenly face to face with Grace - that gorgeous creature from the tram who returned his dropped gun and now she's armed, dangerous and driving the getaway car. But a good lunch is hard to find and there's absolutely nothing wrong with a quick stop for a glass of wine and a coffee or two. It's going to take a whole lot more than assorted mayhem to keep this man from the things that matter - your stomach and finding love in all the odd places.
Alby is really one of the starting (and "staring") lights of D-E-D, and in particular WORLDPIX - the famous photographic outfit that operates as cover for the operations of the Directorate for Extra-territorial Defence. They do all sorts of surveillance and general spying for the Australian Government, but nobody really expected that the yearly drudge of the security clearances for Bitter Springs - the top-secret US military facility deep in the central Australian desert - would quite trigger the blast of activity that ensued. In avoiding the people that want him dead as well, Alby escapes to Bali and sneaks back into the country, fighting off the pirates and handling the affections of Grace Goodluck.
Okay, there's not a lot that's particularly serious in D-E-D Dead! as you can probably tell from the book synopsis, but there are moments of inspired hilarity. Tongue-in-cheek, quintessentially Australian, Alby's a spy who's dangerous to know - not only does he have a tendency to get people trying to shoot him, he could represent Australia in the eating Olympics! But Alby's got mates and contacts that go back years, and he's also deeply annoyed that somebody shot his long-term partner Harry, and he's bloody determined to find out who and why. Spies who don't get around in tuxedos, nefarious goings on in Central Australia, politically incorrect and fun - enormous, great, rip-roaring, laugh out loud fun!
D-E-D Dead! is the second novel from this author - the first was Fat, Fifty and F***ed! and the third - sensitive New Age Spy is on the way.
COTSWOLD MYSTERY - Rebecca Tope
A COTSWOLD MYSTERY is light reading without being too cosy. There is a cast of interesting characters and the descriptions of Blockley and its history make the reader want to visit the area. The relationship between Thea and Jessica in particular is well portrayed. The pair are close, but their relationship is frequently prickly so there are flare ups and squabbles. It is just what you’d expect from a strong-minded mother and daughter.
I liked Thea and Jessica a great deal and found the mystery to be engrossing. If there is a criticism of the book it is that perhaps the resolution felt a little rushed, but it is a minor quibble. A COTSWOLD MYSTERY is Rebecca Tope’s fourth in the Cotswold Mystery series.
Just as it is thought that this series is nearing an end, another book comes along. CREATION IN DEATH is the 25th entry in Robb's very popular "in Death" series, a major achievement in anyone's terms, and particularly so considering how many books it is that Robb also manages to churn out under her own name of Nora Roberts. For the regular reader, this latest book is well within the comfort zone of how we expect Eve to behave, and also of how the relationships of those around her function. The character of Eve Dallas still throws out the smart and snappy dialogue, while stomping over the social niceties in police boots in order to catch her prey. Secondary characters share the limelight less in this latest offering - a plus, as they can get annoying. Making it more of a one woman show with husbandly backup is this reader’s preferred manner in which the series should operate. The platform of a future world is far more interesting than the domestics of what Eve's friends and workmates are up to.
Despite the future setting of New York, science fiction high-tech style, Robb manages to keep the crime in her "in Death" series on a local level which is something of a relief. The crimes remain those of the city, and so well has Robb maintained the rules of her fictional future world that the procedures of investigation have become very familiar to regular readers. The world of Eve Dallas and her billionaire, drop-dead gorgeous (of course) husband is populated with a myriad of interesting characters (the villains being the best of these) and cool gadgets for everyday living. The momentum begun with the debut of the first book continues to CREATION IN DEATH. Said before, worth saying again - this is the crime fiction reader's sorbet. Great fun, fast, and refreshingly different.
BOOKWOMAN'S LAST FLING - John Dunning
Book collecting and horse racing is a rather unexpected combination, add that to the idea of a woman who dies young, leaving behind a young daughter, an elderly husband and 3 step-sons and you're not short of the potential for some twisting and turning. Janeway is definitely a character who likes to get involved. When he's initially called in to inventory and value the famous book collection of the long-dead Candice he's dismayed to find the substitution of cheap reprints for some of the very rare volumes. H.R. has recently died, but he's never had much interest in the book collection and now the estate must be realised, Janeway can't help but feel that the book thief must be somebody in or close to the family. He gets himself involved in the horse racing side of the family, whilst he gets to know - and watch - everybody who could have had access to the collection.
Perhaps that's where the wheels fall off THE BOOKWOMAN'S FLING a bit because we go from the investigation of missing books deep and totally into a world of horseracing. And there we stay - for an awfully long time. Sure along the way Janeway meets and starts to check out the stepsons; whilst he also has a good look at some of the long-time Horse Racing colleagues and staff of the Geiger's. He does eventually find out that Candice's death may not have been caused by the accidental consumption of food that she was allergic to, but all of that - the actual investigation into the initial disappearance of books and maybe even of Candice's own death - makes a guest appearance in a book that becomes mostly about the horse racing world. Until the end, when the original threads make a sudden reappearance, culminating in a reasonable resolution.
Janeway is an interesting, knock-about sort of a bloke and in some ways he's a bit of a saving grace for this book. There's no timeframe nominated that this reader could remember but it seemed to have a bit of a 50's feel to it - maybe it's Janeway's own style; maybe it's the way his girlfriend was woven into the story; maybe it was the lack of mobile telephones and other quick communications methods. Janeway is a character you could be interested in - I just wish it had not got quite so lost in the middle and taken too long with heaps of extraneous stuff, which unfortunately wasn't interesting enough in its own right, before getting to the final point.