Alex Tanner is always on the lookout for work - mortgages on flats in Notting Hill do not come cheap, after all. So when TV producer Barty O'Neill mentions a particularly juicy assignment she jumps at the chance.
Barty has been asked to investigate the shooting of Lord Sherwin, a famous society murder of the 1950s. Although suspicion quickly fell on Sherwin's beautiful wife Laura the case has stubbornly remained unsolved. However Barty has a contact - Miss Potter, once governess to the Sherwin children - who is now ready to tell her story.
First in the series "The Notting Hill Mysteries" originally published in 1992, An Uncommon Murder introduces Alex Tanner is another entrant in a long tradition of accidental investigators, although working, as she does, as a freelance researcher - this time for a possible magazine article - she's got some good reasons to get herself into the situations she finds herself in.
An interesting character, An Uncommon Murder was a good investigation / character based story with a well carried out complication at the end.
BEHIND THE NIGHT BAZAAR - Angela Savage
Who said crime doesn't pay? Australian expat Jayne Keeney lives in Thailand and works in Bangkok. When she heads north to Chiang Mai to visit her good friend Didier, she soon discovers that the local police have an especially cosy relationship with money and illegal acts. When Jayne learns of this, she realises she is in danger.
Angela Savage won the Victorian Premiers Literary Award for Best Unpublished Manuscript by Emerging Author in 2004 for this book, then called Thai Died.
Jayne Keeney is an expat Australian woman who, in order to avoid a predictable life, left Australia and started teaching English in Thailand. Whilst helping out a student by doing some surveillance on a cheating partner she discovers she has quite a flair for detecting, and that there is a demand for this type of service. She gives up teaching and sticks to working as a private detective in Bangkok doing a good trade in following suspected partners. After a particularly violent turn of events during one such job she seeks some solace in the company of her dearest friend Didier de Montpasse in Chiang Mai. Didier and Jayne share a passion for crime fiction, even though they don't exactly see eye to eye over genre (Didier's a cozy fan, Jayne is strictly hard boiled).
As soon as Jayne arrives there is some apparent tension between Didier and his Thai lover Nau. After a night out with Didier at a gay bar in an out of way part of the city, the next morning Jayne finds the papers leading with stories about a brutal murder in the bar that she was drinking in earlier. Things rapidly take a much bigger turn for the worse and Jayne finds herself having to investigate what really happened in that bar.
This book covers a considerable amount of ground in and around the sex trade in Thailand - local, sex tourism and paedophilia. There are some big players making a lot of money from this trade and there are lots of connections to the police investigating the bar deaths.
Savage has spent some considerable time working in and around Bangkok on Australian Red Cross HIV/AIDS programs and she obviously has an understanding of Thai customs and of the people. The story is peppered with Thai words and phrases and Jayne speaks fluent Thai. The book has a very clear sense of place and the Thai characters and location are clearly defined and interesting.
The compelling thing about this book is that it's a crime fiction novel which is touching on a number of very serious social issues: child sexual exploitation, AIDS/HIV, sex tourism and official corruption, but the book tells the message, reveals the consequences, and avoids lecturing. This is a first novel and there are some problems with some of the motivations and behaviour of some of the characters, but these are minor in the overall use of a really interesting and unusual background. BEHIND THE NIGHT BAZAAR also introduces a central character with an eye to future books.
SUN STORM - Asa Larsson
When she discovers the mutilated body of the revivalist preacher and her brother, Viktor, laid out in ritualistic style, on the floor of The Source of All Our Strength church, Sanna turns to her old friend Rebecka Martinsson for support. Despite her demanding work schedule as a Tax lawyer in a large law practice in Stockholm, and her reservations about her own past in connection with the church, Rebecka heads back to the small town and community to help.
The chief prosecutor on the case seems to have already decided that Sanna is guilty and she is charged after vital evidence is found hidden in her home. Rebecka reluctantly finds herself trying to provide legal and emotional support to the emotionally fragile Sanna as well as care for her friend's two daughters and keep everyone safe. Inspector Anna-Maria Mella shares Rebecka's doubts over Sanna's guilt and despite her own very advanced pregnancy, stays working on the case right up to the birth of her own baby.
There's a very dark, subdued aura hanging over SUN STORM. The setting is freezing, snowed-in small-town Sweden. The atmosphere around the church is equally dark and foreboding. The relationship between Rebecka and Sanna is difficult, each has some past baggage of joint and separate experience of the church, Sanna's family and personal events which tore them apart and turned Rebecka into an outcast from the community years ago.
The interesting thing about SUN STORM is the strength of the writing and the story being told. The two central characters, Sanna and Rebecka are equally unsympathetic, almost unlikeable. Despite that, they are engaging and you are kept reading to find out the truth of what is really going on. The atmosphere is oppressive, sad, everyone seems to be damaged, troubled, unhappy or questioning, and yet the reader is pulled through the story. As a card carrying member of the "dead people: fine, harmed animals: bad" sector of crime fiction fans, even the albeit brief and off-camera fate of an engaging pet dog, whilst shocking, is probably more distressing because of the reactions of the central characters.
An intriguing and ambiguous ending is the perfect finish for a story in which characters are living lives that are real, complicated, challenging and raw. Highly recommended for readers who like their fiction to challenge them, make them think and don't mind the story staying with them way after the book itself has gone.
NIGHT BUS - Giampiero Rigosi
Francesco is a bus driver and gambling addict. Leila is a hustler, picking up men in night clubs and robbing them. Francesco is having big problems with Bear, a debt collector who doesn't have that nickname for no reason. Leila gets more than she bargains for when she finds the key to a locker on a man she's in the process of robbing.
Following that key to the associated locker finds Leila involved in something much bigger than she could have expected. Francesco and Leila find allies in each other as Leila unexpectedly turns up on Francesco's bus late one night and in big trouble over the key, but able to help when Francesco comes face to face with Bear.
There is a lot happening in NIGHT BUS. There are a lot of people coming in and out of the story and there's a lot at stake for all of the players. Right to the end the story is intertwining and twisting around Francesco and Leila and the activities that Leila has accidentally exposed with the theft of the key. The pace really keeps moving and there is a sense of irony and fun in the storytelling that makes this an intriguing book.
There is also a deftness in character portrayal which was a joy. All of the "villains" are different, quirky, human. The heroes are accidental ones. The ones that do something daft in the first place and have to dig like crazy to get themselves out of their own crater.
Ultimately you'd have to call this a caper novel, a real pleasure - thoroughly recommended.
DEARLY DEVOTED DEXTER - Jeff Lindsay
Dearly Devoted Dexter is the second book from Jeff Lindsay "staring" forensic blood splatter specialist and serial killer Dexter Morgan. Dexter is, by his own observation, not exactly a normal human being. He has a busy sideline in righteous serial killings - he kills people who undoubtedly have avoided retribution for crimes they have committed. Dexter and his darker side "The Dark Passenger" work very hard at their chosen craft and Dexter spends a large amount of time explaining himself, his motives and his methods in an internal voice, shared with the reader.
Dexter was adopted as a small child and his foster father, a cop himself, taught him all sorts of tricks whilst grooming him for his role of avenging angel. His sister, Deborah, was groomed for a role in the police force and it is her Dexter is having lunch with one day (she knows all about Dexter's extra-curricula activities) when they are called to a particularly gruesome crime scene. Dexter develops a sneaking sense of regard for a serial offender who has a line in gruesome that makes Dexter look like a bit of an amateur. Meanwhile Dexter is quietly executing his own plans for some retribution against a pair of child molesters. Unfortunately this plan is being seriously interfered with by local Police Sergeant Doakes who is absolutely convinced that Dexter is up to something and undertakes some pretty close surveillance.
Dexter's own crime scenes are elaborate and graphically described but that is absolutely nothing compared to the crimes that he finds himself having to investigate, firstly, by happy co-incidence with Doakes, which gets Doakes off his own back and away from his own activities. Secondly because his sister's own personal life is involved.
As in the first Dexter book (Darkly Dreaming Dexter) there is a heavy dose of black humour in DEARLY DEVOTED DEXTER. Dexter is very self-deprecating, whilst simultaneously firmly convinced of the necessity of his actions. Nearly all of the insights into Dexter and how or why he does what he does are through Dexter's own internal musings. This provides an unusual insight into the mind of Dexter the serial killer but I could see how after a couple of books you could possibly be wishing that Dexter would just stop talking for just a few pages. Black humour, slightly on the heavy handed side with a very unusual central character, it will be interesting to see how long the Dexter series can continue.
THE WRITING ON THE WALL - Gunnar Staalesen
Originally published in Norway in 1995, Gunnar Staalesen's The Writing on The Wall is set in Bergen Norway in the early '90s. Private Eye Varg Veum returns from the funeral of his ex-wife's most recent husband to find the distressed mother of missing 16 year old girl Torild waiting to see him. Around the same time Bergen is buzzing with rumours about the death of Judge Brandt after he is found dead in a hotel room wearing flimsy female underwear.
Veum starts digging into the last known sightings and movements of Torild and her few friends - all of which seem to centre around a local amusement arcade. What initially seems pretty normal, rebellious behaviour seems to be covering up something more sinister and Veum is soon receiving death threats and Torild is found dead.
Varg Veum has a reflective almost pessimistic attitude, enhanced by the first person POV of the book. The reader is treated to everything that evolves in the story from Veum's point of view and with his observations and reactions in stark focus. There is something "Philip Marlowe" about Veum - not just because he's a lone PI, working the cases that the police cannot or will not touch, but also in his attitude and in some of the wisecracks and observations.
Ultimately it's a book about the unpleasant underbelly of a society with some seriously skewed morality covered by an increasingly thin veneer of normality. Varg Veum is a perfect set of eyes to observe all of this and whilst this is not a comforting read and the first person voice is sometimes a challenge to read, it was an interesting social observation.
RUBDOWN - Leigh Redhead
Simone Kirsch is a Stripper (exotic dancer) turned Private Investigator working the fringe of Melbourne constantly, it would seem, in and around the sex industry.
In RUBDOWN Simone and her new PI boss Tony are called in to look for the daughter of a well-known, respectable barrister. His daughter seems to have got caught up in drugs and the sex industry herself. When she commits suicide whilst Simone is supposedly watching her from outside the flat, things start to get a lot more complicated than Simone and Tony want. Simone's PI license is threatened and so is her life.
Leigh Redhead has created a great PI in the character of Simone. She's in the long tradition of female PI's with attitude, although there's a strong sense of humour and Australian-ness in Simone that makes her a great character to spend time with. Her rocky path to love seems to have stabilised a little in this book, although there's a twist (isn't there always). Given that both Simone (and Leigh) have spent time working in the striptease industry the surrounding characters from that world are sympathetic, if not slightly out there, for the average reader. As with Redhead's first book PEEPSHOW, the sex scenes in RUBDOWN are a lot more on the explicit side than some of the similar style books (Liz Evan's Grace Smith for example).
The mystery in this book is a rollercoaster thriller, the plot is deftly handled and nicely twisted. Some of the outcomes are easy to see coming, but that doesn't matter - this is a book about Simone and how she copes with her world and the series is a great, entertaining romp.
DEATH IN TIME - Mignon Warner
Mignon Warner was born in Adelaide, South Australia and in 1982 when Death In Time was published, she was living in London.
Death in Time is set within the confines of a Welsh resort hotel, during a Magician's Conference. Cynthia Playford dies, falling from a cable car travelling up to the local mountain peak early in the morning. It's not so much who would want to kill Cynthia, but who wouldn't as the sister of one of the magicians is not the most popular person.
Nice little book in a cosy / closed hotel style with engaging characters.
THE SHAPE OF WATER - Andrea Camilleri
THE SHAPE OF WATER is the first in Camilleri's series of books featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Set in Vigata, a fictional seacoast town in southern Sicily, The Shape of Water finds Montalbano investigating the death of a local influential in the very insalubrious surrounds of "The Pasture".
The Pasture, once a goat grazing site is now the place to pick up a drug deal or a prostitute. Montalbano is already a bit suspicious about Luparello's death but when pressure starts being applied by a politician, a judge and a bishop he digs his heels in and insists that an investigation is required despite a verdict of death from a heart attack.
Not only does Camilleri give you a great feeling for the local area, Montalbano is a wonderfully eclectic, grumpy character who works amongst a great array of slightly offbeat policemen. And this is a novel from Italy, so there's food and a passionate love affair, made all the more interesting by the distance between Montalbano and his love Livia, who lives in Genoa.
The translation of this book flowed really well and there's a handy short glossary at the end explaining the meaning of some of the phrases and slang used.
There are other books in this series that have been now been translated and they are all well worth catching up with, even if you read this series out of order they stand up well. You miss a little of the developing relationships between the characters but not enough to lessen the enjoyment.
THE CORONER'S LUNCH - Colin Cotterill
It's 1975 and Laos' new communist regime is having teething problems. Dr Siri Paiboun, a charming and crotchety retired surgeon is called back into harness as chief coroner, despite having no training for the post.
When the wife of a Party leader is wheeled into the morgue, eyebrows are raised. Then three more bodies are found - but these are Vietnamese soldiers, and Siri may have an international incident on his hands. Are the deaths linked?
In 1975, and in the middle of Laos' new communist regime's teething problems, septuagenarian surgeon Dr Siri Paiboun finds himself dragged back to work. This time as the chief coroner, a post he has absolutely no training for and little or no equipment, staff, forensic support or resources of any kind.
When the wife of a Party leader dies suddenly and the bodies of three Vietnamese soldiers are discovered, seemingly tortured and thrown into a local reservoir, Siri uses a very strange combination of autopsy results and assistance from his friends (living and dead) to investigate.
Siri is the most engaging character. A communist for love (his now deceased wife convinced him that they should support the Revolution), a charming old reprobate by nature, he uses a combination of medical knowledge, instinct, charm and good old fashioned finagling to find the truth. Even the scenes where Siri is ably assisted by the spirit world seem to just fit in with the world that he inhabits.
The author has a wonderful sense of farce and he has created the character of Siri with a touch of the mystic and a healthy dollop of the human. The supporting cast are well drawn and there is a real sense of community with these characters. The dialogue is funny, the interaction between Siri and his workmates and friends open, irreverant in some places and lovingly real.
Despite the woo woo element, which can turn off some readers, this is a wonderful, original, unusual book filled with people that you just want to spend more time with. Thanks must go to Text for publishing this book in Australia, and hopefully they will continue with the next: Thirty-Three Teeth.