The blurb on HEAD SHOT says Jarad Henry has worked in the legal criminal justice system for the past ten years. It shows. There is a credibility to HEAD SHOT that implies that Henry knows how things work. He has met the people and walked the streets. Anyone who has been following the saga of the Melbourne gangland killings and the success of the Purana taskforce in securing convictions in relation to the killings, will find more than a few parallels in HEAD SHOT. I don’t know exactly what Henry’s job has been the past few years, but I suspect there could be a true crime book there that might prove even more fascinating than HEAD SHOT.
Henry has a second novel BLOOD SUNSET due for publication in May, 2008 and I, for one, can’t wait.
THE RIVERMAN by Alex Gray
There is always the sense that author Alex Gray knows exactly what she is talking about; such is the impression of total authority and confidence in her words. THE RIVERMAN is the fourth book in this series showing a pleasing graduation of intensity and detailing of investigative procedure from the first entry, NEVER SOMEWHERE ELSE. They walk on the dark side for sure; the Lorimer/Brightman series is dancing with that level of seriousness that could yet deviate from "darkly" atmospheric to completely dour and unappetizing. Gray excels in setting the scene and has made the river a character without words in THE RIVERMAN, all but floating the mist right up out of the pages. Is it all becoming a tad too bleak and grey - the balance in this novel is precarious but it is felt that it has been a deliberate effort to make it so. As with other fine Scottish crime series that do no need to be named, Gray has a wonderful sense of place, firmly rooting her stories in Glasgow and making it more about the effects of urban discontent than of about the personal doings of the characters.
THE RIVERMAN would have benefited from some trimming of scenes that draw away from the tying up of the threads. In order to make the read more of an investigative experience for the reader the findings of other forensic personnel and consultants etc would have been a welcome inclusion. The viewpoint was narrow here for the police, yet included much of what for they were not privy to with the actions of the suspects as it all begins to fall apart for them.
A solid entry in a series that is up there with the best, included in that select group, if you'll forgive its mention one more time, of the "Tartan noir".
THE TROJAN DOG - Dorothy Johnston
The Sandra Mahoney series is computer crime fiction - with THE TROJAN DOG being the first in the series. EDEN is the latest - which I reviewed recently.
THE TROJAN DOG has Sandra - with a husband working overseas - single handedly raising her young son, and working on a short-term contract in a Government Department, finishing off a report on out-sourced / home based workers. The head of the Department is an old "friend" of her mother's - an unpopular woman, she is soon accused of fraud and facing criminal charges. Sandra isn't convinced that Rae is guilty and she digs around. With help from one of the resident IT staff in the department - Ivan, the Russian "eccentric" and later on a local policeman - Brook - she is more and more convinced that there's fraud going on - but not by Rae.
The early parts of this book are hard to follow and stay with. There's a lot of build up and a lot of wandering around in Sandra's personal life that just go on and on, without the story seeming to move forward with any speed. Once Brook joins the chase then things get a bit more focused and the story actually proceeds. Sandra's an odd sort of a character as well - she's very hard to get a handle on - in some ways quite standoffish and offputting for the reader, it's something that continues into the later books as well - she's just very hard to get onside with, which makes reading these books quite an interesting experience. A lot of the time is spent considering why it's so hard to be on Sandra's side as she fights on the side of the good.
Still, the idea of computer fraud as a crime (rather than the more standard fare of murder and mayhem) is interesting. Set in Canberra this is definitely a book that tells you something about the tensions in working in the public service - at a time of expected changeover of political masters.
A DEATH IN THE FAMILY - Hazel Holt
When Sheila Malloy learns her second cousin, Bernard Malloy, is doing the rounds of the family in order to research the family tree, her first reaction is to think what a bore. Bernard is a pompous self-important windbag. She imagines his retirement as headmaster from a boys’ school must have come as a huge relief to the boys.
Hazel Holt’s Sheila Malloy has been likened to a modern day Miss Marple. There are some similarities. Shelia lives a quiet, unremarkable life in a village where she lives in happy retirement taking part in community activities.
When it comes to amateur detectives, maintaining believability can be a challenge, one that Holt has met quite well. Holt has commendably refrained from allowing her protagonist to be put into ridiculously dangerous situations that blind Freddy could see are ill-advised. Sheila’s investigations are limited to visiting various family members and questioning them about Bernard’s visit.
The plot is fairly simple and straightforward. There are no tricksy twists. No hidden surprises waiting to leap out of the closet. If there is a criticism it is that the details about Sheila’s life is a little too mundane. There are only so many times you can read about Sheila being asked to bake a cake for an afternoon tea and maintain interest. Having said that, A DEATH IN THE FAMILY is a quick, entertaining read which will appeal to those whose crime fiction tastes are on the lighter side
SHOOTING STAR - Peter Temple
Anne Carson: fifteen, beautiful, wayward. Abducted.
The rich Carsons have closed ranks and summoned Frank Calder, subject to strict instructions. This is not the first kidnapping in the Carson family and hard lessons have been learned.
But are the two events connected? And is greed the motivation? Revenge? Or could it be something else? To find out, Frank Calder must go beyond his brief.
And his every step into the darkness may end a girl's life.
Frank Calder is a bit of a maverick. Ex-cop / ex-soldier - current day "mediator". He's the sort of bloke that gets called in to sticky situations where unusual solutions are required. He's worked for the Carsons before. When a crazed gunman took store staff hostage, Frank wandered into the situation to save the hostages. Which he did. Quietly, efficiently and unusually.
So when Anne disappears on the way home from school and a ransom demand is received by the family, the Carsons again turn to Frank. He wants them to call in the police, but they did that once before and one of their own very nearly died. This time they want to do exactly what the kidnappers ask and once they have Anne back, they'll deal with the kidnappers themselves. Frank finds himself having to wade around in the families dirty French soap smelling laundry to get to the bottom of a possible motive.
SHOOTING STAR is classic Peter Temple. The prose is sparse, the central character is a bit of a maverick with a heart, he has connections, he uses them. The Carson families skeletons are all a bit on the unsurprising side - large, very wealthy families seem to have these little peculiarities, but the methods of uncovering them are fast, tight, and often quite funny.
All of the characterisations are interesting - Calder himself, his offsider Orlovsky, the Carson patriarch Pat, his sons, their sons, the wives, the granddaughters - the hired help. And throughout the story there are those standout little passages that you can expect from Temple - the observational points. Orlovsky as an immigrant in his own country, Calder as a man who only smokes when bad things are about to happen, Pat Carson and his whiskey bottle - all that money and that compound.
Wonderfully paced, with a good resolution, SHOOTING STAR is already a classic of Australian Crime fiction.
THE AFFAIR OF THE MUTILATED MINK - James Anderson
It's really easy for latter day homages to early 1930's / 1940's arch, drawing room style comedies or take offs to overdo it to the point where it's cartoonish. THE AFFAIR OF THE MUTILATED MINK doesn't overdo it, but on the other hand it doesn't under deliver on a slightly comic (tongue in cheek) murder drama in the realms of high British aristocracy.
The Earl of Burford is a recent convert to the joys of the cinematographic entertainment and he's more than a bit chuffed at the Hollywood crowd arriving. He doesn't even mind the eccentric screenwriter who invites his own secretary along - even though he's an odd sort of a cove. Of course neither the Earl or the Countess are convinced about Gerry's plan of inviting both her suitors for a close up comparison - but who can talk Gerry out of anything. Catching up with the long-lost cousin and her husband, recently returned from Australia are about the only thing that the Countess can look forward to, whilst the Earl is starting to worry about the history of large house parties at Alderley - seems they have a bit of an history. With the arrival of the totally unexpected Great Italian Actress and the equally early arrival of the very effacing librarian; the party is primed and starting to feel the tension rise. Then a death occurs (of course!).
The murder is being ably investigated by local Inspector Wilkins - who has been involved in mysterious deaths at Alderley in the past. He's been doing an admirable job, but in "rides" Allgood of the Yard. Allgood is here to save the day and solve the puzzle, being a master detective and all round genius (definitely a legend in his own notebooks!)
In this mix of characters there are more daring deeds, bad 'uns, nefarious goings on, creeping around in the dead of night, cheating, snooping, lying, ducking and weaving than you'd think possible to fit into 350 pages. It's a nicely complex plot which doesn't ever become overly complicated and there's some fun twists on the standard of the final "everybody in the drawing room" conclusion.
At the end of the day Merryweather saves the day - now you'll have to read the book to find out which day!
WEB OF EVIL - J A Jance
WEB OF EVIL is the second Ali Reynolds book from JA Jance - who also writes a number of other series - the Joanna Brady books; J P Beaumont books and a number of thrillers involving the Walker Family.
WEB OF EVIL takes up with Ali after she has returned to her hometown, and as her divorce from husband Paul is about to take place. She returns to LA for court appearances - to finalise the divorce and her wrongful dismissal case against her old employers. Despite Paul being the one who is desperate for the divorce to proceed quickly - his very young girlfriend is very pregnant and their wedding is to happen the day after the divorce - he doesn't show at the court date. Ali remains in town anyway - with a new date set for the divorce, she's also waiting for the second case - when the reason that Paul hasn't shown up becomes all too abundantly clear. Ali, her mother, and a policeman friend from her hometown find themselves investigating what happened to Paul, trying to support his pregnant girlfriend and dealing with the fallout from a big mess.
J A Jance is a very prolific writer, and the Ali Reynolds series is one of her most recent developments, which undoubtedly has a big range of fans. This book is a very very busy story with lot's happening, a lot of people rushing around and a heroine who must get out there and save the day herself. The police suspect that she's behind what happened to her ex-Husband. This suspicion seems to be based mostly on her driving through the same area where he died. I think. Nobody else seems to be wondering about the girlfriend, her grasping mother or the odd inclusion of Sumo Sudoku to wedding festivities (Sudoku played with rocks - don't ask / I couldn't quite work it out either).
There's a very big cast of supporting characters - people who subscribe to Ali's blog / her family and supporters / friends of the ex-husband and his girlfriend / the girlfriend's family / the staff at the mansion that Ali used to share with her husband. The blog itself also plays a part as a supporting character, as Ali shares what's happening with her life by way of blog postings.
All this gave the whole thing a feeling of vague confusion - I had trouble following the method behind using her blog (sad bit of nit picking on my part I know); I was also almost terminally distracted by the dialogue style which just didn't work for this reader; and to be perfectly honest - over 35 marked occurrences where somebody refers to the makes and models of cars (although that got inconsistent as the book went on) - and I was thoroughly and totally distracted from the central story. Add to that a mobile home with a basement and some really unclear reasoning behind a hometown friend getting involved in the whole mess and everything got unfocused and just plain daft. I'm not sure if reading the earlier book in the series might not help understand Ali a bit better - but if she insists on referring to her ex-husband as "Fang" publicly and Paul everywhere else (except the book blurb where he seems to have been known as the 'cheating rat'), I'm not sure I'd be able to.
Certainly the book reads very quickly and you can charge through the story. Maybe that's part of the attraction of these sorts of books - they are quick / a lot happens / and the bad guys get it in the end.
LAST RITUALS - Yrsa Sigurdardottir
A young man is found brutally murdered, his eyes gouged out and a strange symbol carved on his body. A student of Icelandic history in Reykjavik, he came from a wealthy German family who do not share the police's belief that his drug dealer murdered him. Thora is hired by his mother to find out the truth, with the help - and hindrance - of boorish ex-policeman Matthew Reich.
Firstly, it has to be said - the book blurb doesn't do Reich any favours and if he was a real person he'd have every right to be slightly miffed about the description of himself as boorish. Sure he's a little stiff and formal in the early part of the book, but that's all it is - he's not boorish at all, and there is a twinkle of a teasing sense of humour that reveals itself as LAST RITUALS proceeds.
That sense of humour is part of what's notable about LAST RITUALS. The subject matter is quite dark, menacing and more than a little bit weird. The body of the young German student has been desecrated after death - the eyes gouged out. But before death, Harald has self-inflicted some odd body art and self-mutilation - all it seems, part of his deep and obsessive interest in witchcraft, magic and the absurd / the violent.
Thora and Matthew are investigating his death as Harald's family don't believe he was killed by his drug dealer - why, well that's probably not the point - and it's not dwelt on in the book. Matthew works for Harald's family and he's sent to Iceland, and because of Thora's background studying in Germany she's pulled into the investigation to assist. Matthew does need some help - he can't speak Icelandic and he struggles to understand the people and their customs plus he doesn't like eating fish that much - in a country where it's a staple food. So he's a bit grumpy and a bit at a loss. Mind you Thora doesn't have to deal with any of that, but she is as lost in the investigation as Matthew. They both agree with Harald's family that it doesn't seem like the drug dealer was involved, and it does look like his friends must have something to do with this - the magic society that they have formed is close and secretive and more than a little weird. The only way to get to the bottom of this is to understand Harald himself, and that's a path that's hard to take.
Sure the subject matter - or method of death for Harald is gruesome, and the magical customs and interests that he had in life are often-times gross and frequently just peculiar, but LAST RITUALS isn't automatically a gruesome and dark book. There is a deftness in the humour used, in the characterisations that lifts the book into something that you really can't help but get involved in. Even Harald, after death, is somebody that seems a bit lost, and there is definitely something odd in his relationship with his own family (and right through the family for that matter).
There's some romance in the relationship between Thora and Matthew that you can really see coming - but it's not overdone or cloying or overly sentimental - it fits right in with the two persona's, and it's tempered by happenings in Thora's own life that just felt so realistic that it worked. There is a heavy concentration on the history of Icelandic and German witchcraft - the magic and the rituals Harald is, after all, studying it as part of his course before he dies. Maybe that will annoy some readers a bit as the concentration is frequently on those components. This reader loved it as it fleshed out the people, fleshed out the world in which they operated and highlighted Harald's fascination and obsession.
GRIEF ENCOUNTERS - Stuart Pawson
Detective Inspector Charlie Priest is sitting in the monthly superintendent’s briefing doodling idly on his notepad when Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Swainby, one of the ugliest men ever to don a uniform, announces he is leaving the force. He adds that certain allegations are going to be made about him and asks that he be given the benefit of the doubt.
Shortly after that a local member of parliament is photographed in a compromising position in the back of his car. He too chooses to bow out quietly, only he finds a much more permanent method.
Reading GRIEF ENCOUNTERS is like slipping into a pair of your favourite comfy slippers. It may not set the world on fire for being fashionable or chic but you know you are going to enjoy the experience. Stuart Pawson steers away from the dysfunctional stereotypes that abound in crime fiction these days. It is near impossible not to like the amiable Charlie Priest and his team at Heckley nick. These are ordinary people who come to work each day and share jokes, socialise and lead quiet unremarkable lives; just like the majority of us. And perhaps that is the clue to the popularity of Pawson’s Charlie Priest series. The men and women of Heckley could so easily be you and me.
GRIEF ENCOUNTERS is the twelfth in the Charlie Priest series and may there be many more.
SPEAK OF THE DEVIL - Richard Hawke
It all begins on a perfect Manhattan morning: a gunman's bullets shatter the festival atmosphere of the world-famous Thanksgiving Day parade. Only one man in the crowd sees it happening but, fortunately for the unsuspecting throng gathered for the parade, he's the right man for the moment.
Meet Fritz Malone, New York's sharpest PI - an outsider with an insider's nose for City Hall politics, and a man who knows the rules well enough to work around them.
SPEAK OF THE DEVIL is the first Fritz Malone book - some may remember a review of COLD DAY IN HELL a while ago. Interestingly enough, it wasn't until I'd finished SPEAK OF THE DEVIL that I realised it was the earlier book in the series.
I've got to say right up front I like Fritz Malone. I don't really know why - hard-bitten / soft-hearted / wise cracking PI's with hearts of gold and bodies of steel are - well dangerously close to cliched and they can be desperately boring, but Hawke gets away with it for some reason. Goodness knows how really - Malone's girlfriend Margo is there to join in the wise-cracking, quick with the disapproval, playing the part of the straight "man" to Malone's erratic persona. Margo's father is the old timer, hard man in his own right, taught Malone everything he knows, ended up in a wheelchair, ready with advice and a sounding board. Malone has a coterie of sidekicks who step up, step in, kick, shoot and watch his back.
So what does work - well there's an interesting story at the heart of SPEAK OF THE DEVIL - why on earth would some loser / nobody / shoot up the Thanksgiving Parade? Was the cop that was shot dead a lucky shot or was the real target the somewhat famous actress girlfriend of the Mayor? Why, when Malone corners the shooter in a park is he bundled away from the scene? Why did the shooter turn up dead? Who is threatening the Mayor and what does a two bit local drug dealer and thug have to do with all of this?
There's also some of Malone's family background fleshed out a bit in SPEAK OF THE DEVIL - who he is and how his extended family works (or doesn't) is touched upon and that helps to turn Malone into slightly more than just a wise-cracking hard man.
Of course you're going to have to like him as is. Hawke presents Malone very much as is - take it or leave it - he is what he is. Maybe that's what works most about the book. Wise-cracking / hard man / hard boiled / cynical PI's are us. Now, let's get on with it.