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.
IN THE WOODS - Tana French
Is it really only a month or so since IN THE WOOD was released in paperback? There's a lot of talk about this debut book, and you should be listening, the positive talk is highly deserved.
In 1984, in Knocknaree, County Dublin, Ireland, three 12 year old children - Adam, Peter and Jamie (Germaine) are playing. They've been life long friends and they go everywhere together. They are seemingly leading an idyllic childhood, with the housing estate they live in filled with young families and other children, backing onto the wood in which they regularly explore, run and play. Until the day that Peter and Jamie disappear, leaving Adam, seemingly unharmed, but terrified into total and complete amnesia. Peter and Jamie are never found. Adam and his parents move away, Adam is sent to boarding school and over the years he morphs into Rob Ryan - returned to Ireland with a posh school British accent, a policeman, attached to the local murder squad.
Cassie Maddox is only the 4th woman to join the Murder Squad, and she's young, straight out of Undercover Drugs operations - she's not exactly conventional and she's regarded with immense suspicion by many of the longer term Murder Squad Members. Cassie and Rob end up as partners and close friends. Friends only, despite the rumours and innuendo flying around.
When the body of a young girl is found on the edges of Knockarnee and the wood, Cassie is the only person who knows about Rob's past. Cassie and Rob are joined by a third investigator - Sam - and the three of them try to discover the identity of the killer of young, promising ballerina Katie. Rob's past increasingly haunts him and it starts to affect his decisions and reactions to the current day.
There are layers within layers and stories within stories in this book. Not a book for fans of the quick resolution, massive amounts of action style, IN THE WOODS weaves and wanders through an investigation that bogs down quickly with no easy suspects or motives for Katie's death. Interspersed with the investigation is a fascinating character study of 3 people working closely together. Rob and Cassie have a close, intimate relationship, without a romantic element. There is something simultaneously engaging about a close friendship that doesn't instantly morph into a sexual or romantic relationship, at the same time there's something slightly off-putting about the intimacy and closeness of these two people. There's something in Cassie's background that has obviously affected her life, we know only too well what has happened to Rob in his childhood. Into this twosome, Sam is pushed as a result of the investigation. Sam's pretty uncomplicated compared to the other two, a normal robust childhood, a slightly dodgy Uncle is about as difficult as it gets in Sam's life. He slips into the investigating threesome easily in some ways, and in other ways he's an observer, secluded and separated by the closeness of Cassie and Rob.
Overall it's the people that populate IN THE WOODS which makes it really interesting. So many people in this book are just not quite right, not exactly what they first seem to be be. Katie's life seems normal for a 12 year old girl, but there's also something that doesn't quite add up. Her sisters - the same. Her parents seem to have been loving, concerned parents, but there's also something just ever so slightly wrong. Rob seems so caring, so kind, a SNAG, but he's also haunted by what he can't remember of his past (and the snippets that he does). Does that past and that uncertainty make him vulnerable, stupid or just human. Cassie's past is also revealed, but is she a ruthless investigator or is she just as vulnerable in her own way.
There are some elements of IN THE WOODS that do drag a bit, it does bog down a little in some places and get dangerously close to repetitiveness or over-egging the angst pudding, but ultimately IN THE WOODS is fascinating. It's one of those books that twists and turns and moves and shape shifts to the point where you really don't know what you did or didn't think you knew a few pages before. And there is something for all sorts of readers to see, identify with, get annoyed about, smile and nod in agreement with, wonder about, worry about. It's also one of those books that ends with not everything nicely answered / tied up / resolved - just like life really.
THE LYING TONGUE - Andrew Wilson
Andrew Wilson is the author of a highly renowned biography of Patricia Highsmith and THE LYING TONGUE is his début novel. In an interesting move the author starts his first novel with the comment "This is not the book I wanted to write. This is not how it was supposed to be at all." All I can say is if he writes what he wants to write and it turns out as good as this one, then bring on the next novel.
Adam Woods is a young man with a degree in Art History and a vague desire to write a novel. With a decidedly dodgy romantic history, Woods heads off to Venice to take up a job as a companion to a young boy. When that post doesn't eventuate he finds himself as live in companion and carer for the reclusive, elderly novelist Gordon Crace. Gordon wrote one of "the" great English novels and promptly disappeared from general sight - never writing another novel. Crace is obsessive, insular, scared of the outside, unable to be left alone, alternatively clinging and moody, and Woods becomes increasingly obsessed with his employer's past. When he discovers that there has been talk of a biography that Crace, seemingly, has rejected out of hand, Woods can't help himself - he cannot stop himself from pursuing the truth behind Crace's past, the story of his famous novel and why he has ended up so reclusive, so timid.
Nothing, absolutely nothing is as it first seems in THE LYING TONGUE. For most of this novel you're struggling to keep track of who is the good guy, who is the bad guy, and exactly what is going on - and all of this with effectively two main characters. There's just this general feeling of claustrophobia, corruption, seduction, manipulation and ruthlessness.
You have to wonder about the influence of movies such as Sleuth (Michael Caine and Sir Laurence Olivier). Reading THE LYING TONGUE bought back thoughts of that movie time and time again - the storylines are nothing like each other of course, but there's something about the intensity of the two characters, their interactions, the menace, that for some reason triggered the memory.
Amazingly there's very little guilt in either of the main characters in THE LYING TONGUE and that, along with the way that both of them seem to be more than happy to manipulate any circumstance to suit their own requirements, makes the whole novel almost breathtakingly ruthless. Mind you, the number of times that you're just flat out deceived by the twists and turns of the truth of these characters makes you get to the end of the novel wondering if you've actually read what you thought you read.
THUMBPRINT - Friedrich Glauser
Friedrich Glauser was born in Vienna in 1896, dying at aged forty-two after a tumultuous and way too short life. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, addicted to morphine and opium, he spent much of his life in psychiatric wards, insane asylums and, when he was arrested for forging prescriptions, in prison. He also spent two years with the Foreign Legion in North Africa, after which he worked as a coal miner and a hospital orderly. His Sergeant Studer crime novels have cult status in Europe, Germany's most prestigious crime fiction award is named after the author, and Thumbprint has now been published in English by Bitter Lemon Press.
The death of a travelling salesman in the forest of Gerzenstein appears to be an open and shut case. Sergeant Studer is confronted with an obvious suspect and a confession to the murder. But nothing is what it seems. Envy, hatred, sexual abuse and the corrosive power of money lie just beneath the surface. Studer's investigation soon splinters the glassy facade of Switzerland's tidy villages, manicured forests and seemingly placid citizens.
Don't make the mistake I did when you sit down to Thumbprint, and assume that 197 pages will be a quick read. Thumbprint is enthralling, involving, dense and endlessly fascinating, but it begs to be read slowly. The dialogue is lively, Studer's methods partly eclectic, partly dogged. Thumbprint is a magnificent book though, and I'm really looking forward to my next book from this all too small collection of books.