A heartless, sadistic predator is roaming the streets of Melbourne. He is attacking women, sexually abusing them then brutally mutilating them. The first victim has her eye sockets burnt out, but she is a lucky one; she isn’t killed. Detective Marita (Rita) Van Hassel from the Sexual Crimes Squad is asked to assist in the investigation. Her profiling skills can’t pin down the man behind the increasingly violent crimes, but what does become clear is that she is being hunted as she hunts for him.
THE SHADOW MAKER is a debut novel by Australian author Robert Sims. Dark violence is balanced with an everyday normality which lightens things just enough to keep you from locking yourself in your wardrobe. It is not a book for the squeamish. Unfortunately I fit into this category, so I did not relax into this book despite the fact it is very well written. The suspense builds from the first page with various threads picking up the pace until the final confrontation which explodes off the page.
Rita’s character is as elusive as the man she is hunting. She did not open up to me very much at all during the story. There is obviously going to be more from this character, I get the distinct impression that this is just the beginning of a series featuring Rita. Hopefully the author will work on more in-depth characterization in the next book, if there is one. As it stands, Rita is still a closed book.
BY DEATH DIVIDED - Patricia Hall
Caught by the current, her body tumbles this way and that in the black waters of the River Maze, dragged inexorably forward, her long dark hair trailing out behind her. For days she continues on, unseen, making a lonely passage through villages and marshes, until, at last, her journey comes to an end in a tangle of debris washed down with the flood waters.
BY DEATH DIVIDED is the 14th book in the Thackeray and Ackroyd series. Laura Ackroyd is a journalist - her partner Michael Thackeray is a DCI. Fitting the double central characters, BY DEATH DIVIDED has two main threads - a missing Asian woman and her husband (which Thackeray is investigating) and domestic violence (which Ackroyd is reporting on). Both of these threads - probably predictably - meet up as the book draws to a conclusion. Mind you, there's nothing wrong with the predictability of this joining up, as it's done with a fair amount of aplomb and some darn good reasons.
The book has a third central character - Mohammed Sharif is a Policeman, Asian and Muslim background, but living a very non-traditional (and unpopular with his family) lifestyle; he is tightrope walking between his life and that of his family, and his connection with the missing Asian woman (his cousin) and her husband. Some of his "thought processes" probably provide the only minor quibble with the book - he's frequently put into a position of asking questions / doing things that he says to himself "will get him banned from his extended families homes". Yet he goes back. Minor point, but by the second time around it stuck out like the proverbial.
BY DEATH DIVIDED touches on a lot of current day themes within the the context of both main threads - the domestic violence issues discussed include how hard it is to build cases against perpetrators when family members won't talk; how the violence is often inexplicable and rapid - but also how there can actually be an explanation behind it. The investigation into the missing woman works it's way through the differences in lifestyles of traditional and non-traditional Asian families - and how that fits into a wider British community; the problems associated with perceptions of religion; the complications that terrorism brings to communities who are too easily tarred with a wide ranging brush; the difficulties in understanding arranged marriages for those outside.
Nothing in the book is jarring or controversial, but it covers a lot of ground very competently. Built into the narrative is an ongoing development of the relationship between Thackeray and Ackroyd. There's some background to that relationship that's briefly hit upon in BY DEATH DIVIDED, and it would be interesting to know what that is - but it's not going to stop you from diving into this long-running series at this point, if that's what it takes to get you started.
PRIMAL CUT - Ed O'Connor
Common wisdom remembered brain paste. The old ladies of Silvertown would tell you. The porters at Smithfield market would tell you. No doctor would tell you, but what do they know?’....With an opening paragraph like that you know you’re not reading a cozy set in a picturesque country village with a sweet little old lady figuring out who left the letter opener in the vicar’s back.
PRIMAL CUT is violent.There are themes in the book that many probably couldn’t stomach; dog fighting, and bare-knuckle fighting two name just two. It’s a very dark world Alison Dexter inhabits.
The character of Bartholomew has shades of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber about him. Only Bartholomew is the Demon Master Butcher who enjoys butchering and cooking meat. In fact, you could say he is something of a gourmet.
Ed O’Connor’s real strength is being able to ratchet up the tension. This is what kept me turning the pages. I found O’Connor’s habit of referring to Alison Dexter by her surname a little disconcerting for some reason. Perhaps it is because I usually associate that with males.
Despite the suspense, I found some of the plot elements to be predictable. I can’t say “enjoy” is a word I’d use to describe PRIMAL CUT, but if you do fancy a walk on the dark side then this book will well and truly satisfy that desire.
THE REDBREAST - Jo Nesbo
Okay - a little housekeeping first. I can't get accented characters to work properly here ... yet. I'm working on it because it annoys me as much as it undoubtedly annoys readers of these posts.
Secondly, a little background to the Harry Hole (pronounced - we think - Hurler, but corrections from those who really know would be extremely welcome)! THE DEVIL'S STAR (released in English first) is actually number 5 in the series, THE REDBREAST (released in English second) is number 3 in the series and NEMESIS (to be released about now, so third) is actually number 4 in the series. Confused. So were the rest of us :)
On the upside the first two available books are readable out of order, although THE REDBREAST does explain Harry's situation and demeanor in THE DEVIL'S STAR.
But THE REDBREAST - well it's a wonderful book. As you often find in these wonderful, multi-layered and textural (that's textured as opposed to text) books from fabulous Scandinavian authors, we're treated to some entertainment, with an exploration of a societal problem / an itch that needs to be scratched. THE REDBREAST explores the ongoing fallout from the Second World War. That war has ramifications in the local society right up until the current day, and it's worthwhile reading THE REDBREAST just to see how the war affected other cultures, maybe countries that were much closer to the action than we were - for example - in Australia.
Nesbo is also the sort of author who is not afraid to cause the reader trauma - characters that you get close to can die, their death can involve other characters who continue on. Nothing is straight forward and nothing is constantly easy.
If this makes THE REDBREAST perhaps sound a bit too much, then it shouldn't. It's the sort of book that moves backwards and forwards between the then (1940's at War) and now (1999) as Harry investigates the existence of a very unexpected weapon, without necessarily knowing who has it or why. There are sub-plots built into the narrative as well, neo-Nazi's; drugs; all sorts of underground activities that clearly show that life these days isn't straightforward. All of those threads stack up in comparison against life in the war years - the complications of whose side to fight on, the reaction to collaborators when the war was over, the difficulties of surviving through a war, and in a time when attitudes were considerably different than they are today.
THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE - Stieg Larsson
Famous journalist sentenced to prison. Mikael Blomkvist, editor of Millennium magazine, is found guilty of slandering billionaire financier Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. Henrik Vanger, C.E.O. of the powerful Vanger Corporation, revives hunt for solution to niece's disappearance Harriet Vanger vanished 40 years ago from secluded Hedeby Island. Lisbeth Salander declared legally incompetent Computer hacker Lisbeth (code-named "wasp") loses control of her own affairs.
Crime fiction fans are frequently a talkative lot, and news of a phenomenally good book spreads very very quickly. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO has been "the" book on quite a lot of people's lips for what is actually a startlingly short time since it was released - particularly released in English. Needless to say, the publicity has been pretty well universally positive. So reading the much vaunted book was an interesting experience. Often when a book is talked about so much, you can subconsciously approach it with just a little reservation - could it possibly live up to the hype?
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO undoubtedly lived up to the hype. But why? On the face of it, it's an interesting idea for a mystery. A 16 year old girl disappears - completely - from a "locked island". No trace of her is ever found - no body / no sign. Her uncle, Henrik Vanger, 40 years later, is haunted by her disappearance. He believes she was murdered but how, by who, and where she ended up - he can't explain.
Mikael Blomkvist is an unlikely murder investigator. A financial journalist, he has his own problems with a massive fine and a jail sentence for the libel of Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. It's a guilty verdict that he believes is wrong, but he can't prove his side of the case. It doesn't hurt that Vanger is a life-long enemy of Wennerstrom and he may hold a key to proving Wennerstrom is corrupt. But before he will hand over that key, Blomkvist is contracted to seemingly write the story of the Vanger family. He moves to the same closed little island that is the family's base and whilst investigating the family story, he is really trying to work out what happened to Harriet.
Add to that the enigmatic and, well, flat out a bit weird character of Lisbeth Salander, computer hacker, declared mental incompetent, genius investigator, who is originally contracted to investigate Blomkvist's background for Vanger, she has issues of her own that she has to deal with. Her guardianship situation is complicated when her mentor falls ill, her physical and mental wellbeing is abused and threatened by the new guardian. But anybody who thinks that Salander really is mentally incompetent hasn't bothered to look long and hard at her. When Blomkvist and Salander team up, the truth, hidden by a few for a long number of years, is finally revealed.
On the face of it, the plot alone is enough to make THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO interesting, but there's a lot more to the book than just a well executed and nicely complicated plot (as well as some seriously clever ways of getting to the bottom of the story). The book also builds a set of characters - both the main characters and the bit-part players - and the details about their lives that encourages the reader to be involved with them. You care about them. You have a glimpse into their lives that engages you totally. Interestingly enough, they are all well-drawn. Even bit players aren't easily forgotten, even in the complication of the plot - they stand out. There are some elements to those lives that seem quintessentially "Scandinavian" - a rather laid back approach to sex and marriage being the most obvious of those, but there is also a vulnerability to those characters that really makes you care about them. And all the way through the book, you worry, just ever so slightly - or at least this reader did - worried almost constantly about Salander. Would you / could she survive and thrive? As the end of the book draws closer and all of the threads conclude, there is frequently a feeling that somebody - one of them - a character that you've grown to like - may not make it. And at the very end of the book, when you know everything, you're left waiting impatiently for the next book in the series (due in 2009) because you still just have this sneaking feeling.....
It's undoubtedly an amazing book. How lucky we are that there are 3 of these books. How sad that there will be no more than 3.
Stieg Larsson died suddenly after delivering them to his publisher - he did not know about the phenomena he created.
THE SKELETON MAN - Jim Kelly
For seventeen years, the Cambridgeshire hamlet of Jude's Ferry has lain abandoned, requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence for military training in 1990. The isolated, thousand-year-old community was famous for one thing - never having recorded a single crime.
But when local reporter Philip Dryden joins the Territorial Army on exercise in the empty village, its spotless history is literally blown apart. For the TA's shells reveal a hidden cellar beneath the old pub. And inside the cellar hangs a skeleton, a noose around its neck...
THE SKELETON MAN is the fifth novel in this series - "starring" Philip Dryden, journalist - once Fleet Street luminary, now small-town newspaper man, and I have to confess this is a favourite series of mine. Not because the books are edgy, or dark or particularly enlightening of the human condition, but because everybody in them is relatively normal; the situations that Dryden ends up investigating are not that outlandish and because there is a real human touch in the way this author builds his characters.
THE SKELETON MAN is set in and around a little village that has been forcibly cleared by the Army to be used as a practice range - with the sorts of actions that the British Army is involved in nowadays, building searches; working in confined small towns - is exactly the sort of training they are looking for. The villagers did not go willingly however, and Dryden as a young reporter at the time, remembers the final days well. When he is invited on maneuvers with the Territorial Army back at the village he's on the spot when they discover the body - hidden in an undocumented cellar.
There's a lot to this plot. Not only do they have the skeleton of a young man; there is a missing woman; a missing girl; an injured young man pulled from a river with amnesia; a dead baby; a raided tomb; an army survey that seems to have inexplicably missed the existence of this cellar; and a lot of secrets for a village society that was split up a long time ago. Mind you, one of the skills of this writer is to take a very crowded plot and make it all roll along at a very English countryside pace. Maybe it's Humph - the cab driver - willing to pull over for a wait and a nap at any point (Dryden doesn't drive himself around); maybe it's the side trips into Dryden's personal life - his wife is slowly recovering from the car accident that put her in a coma. Maybe it's just the slightly sleepy, quiet Fen Country. THE SKELETON MAN has a lot happening, but it's not rushed (nor is anyone really rushing around).
If you've read earlier books in the series then you'll have Dryden's background a little more fleshed out than if you just picked up THE SKELETON MAN - but you should be able to read this on its own if you've not started out on this series before - there are touches of the back story, cleverly woven into the plot to give you enough of an idea of what's gone before.
There's also a tantalising, albeit very brief, new character built into this narrative - DI Peter Shaw - the surfing, fishing, seaside dwelling policeman. After 5 Dryden books I hear a rumour that the author is working on a book with him as a central character. Let's hope Dryden's not consigned to the newspaper archives totally just yet.
MANHUNT - Christian Jacq
For those unfamiliar with Christian Jacq and his work, he is a leading Egyptologist and author of the bestselling RAMSES and THE MYSTERIES OF OSIRIS series, as well as several novels on Ancient Egypt (a total of around 27 books now I think). MANHUNT is the first in what appears to be a new series - THE VENGEANCE OF THE GODS.
MANHUNT is the story of a conspiracy. The killing of all but two members of the Guild of Interpreters is the start - it seems they have all been killed to keep a plot (for or against Ahmose) hidden. Kel is a convenient scapegoat to be blamed for the killings and he must escape the inquisitor Judge Gem and prove his innocence. Unfortunately, despite his talent with languages, he is not immediately able to translate the coded papyrus. Kel has to rely on the help of his friend Bebon, the actor; Nitis, the priestess; and a donkey called North Wind to escape the authorities and find the key to translate the papyrus.
MANHUNT was the first disappointing book I've read by this author. The style of the dialogue is extremely formal, but it's the same for everyone, so it's very hard to pick which character is which, and therefore give them some context in what is obviously an elaborate societal hierarchy. The formality is also delivered in staccato timing which, combined with the actions of Kel, give the whole thing a stop / start / rushed feeling. Kel escapes the authorities time and time again by simply running away - no-one in authority ever seems to recognise him anywhere, even people who have seen him multiple times before, yet his friends or supporters never seem to have any trouble.
Unfortunately most of the characterisations in MANHUNT seem pretty weak, probably also because many of their motivations are underwhelming and, frankly, some of the behaviour just downright odd. The stand out character is the donkey - North Wind, but even then, his behaviour is fabulously interesting, but there's absolutely no reason given for anything he does.
The other problem is that, even allowing for the idea that this is the first book in an ongoing series, the ending of the book just stops, seemingly with nothing much resolved. Okay there's a cliffhanger there to lead you into the next in the series, but it's too abrupt, and there's too much unresolved in the first book. It's dangerously close to disingenuous.
What does work well is the insights into Egyptian rituals and practices, including some useful footnotes explaining some elements of the book. Don't let MANHUNT put you off Christian Jacq's books. Hopefully the second in this series, The Divine Worshipper which is due out around April 2008, will live up to the standard of the other series by this author.
STALKED - Brian Freeman
Lieutenant Jonathan Stride knows his partner Maggie Bei is in trouble when she reports a deadly crime on a winter night. Maggie's obviously hiding a terrible secret. And her silence only feeds suspicion. Maggie isn't the only one keeping secrets. A young woman has disappeared, leaving behind a stash of lurid fantasies and a cryptic message. I know who it is.
STALKED is the third Jonathan Stride novel. Set in Duluth on the shores of Lake Superior in Minnesota Stride finds himself investigating his own. His long-term work partner Maggie is in her house, asleep in bed, when her husband - downstairs, on the couch, is shot with her gun. A local woman disappears after some bizarre allegations of rape. As further rape victims come to light, Stride finds that the threat is even closer to home.
There's obviously some back story to Stride, Maggie and Stride's life partner Serena that comes from the earlier books in the series. Reading this one as a standalone didn't suffer from not knowing that back story as it's handled pretty well. Obviously it's Serena that has had to move to Duluth, obviously she has had a torrid past. Obviously there is somebody out there who is menacing her. Is that person the rapist? Is the rapist also a blackmailer? Well it's not immediately obvious who's who.
Summing up STALKED is actually quite a challenge. On the one hand I really liked the way the story rolled along. On the other hand, the subject matter is pretty sordid and there's a real sense of pointless cruelty and viciousness as well as tacky sexual behaviour. Add to that there doesn't seem to be a single female character in the book who isn't damaged. Profoundly damaged. To the point where it was off putting, sadly almost cartoonish. That is a huge pity as frankly, it got distracting. Mind you, by the same token, the menacing presence of the uber-evil villain had a bit of that OTT thing going on at the same time.
What did work was that the male characters were interesting - complex without being complicated; pasts that aren't all dire. The plot was multi-layered and there was a startling amount of action, but there was never any feeling of that getting out of control or being too much. There are some actions on the part of the main characters which just don't seem sensible, but by the same token, they happened and the book draws to a fast-paced conclusion.
A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS - R J Ellory
Don't let the synopsis mislead you - this is not really a book about a group of children, nor is it necessarily a book about a murder investigation. This is a book about Joseph Calvin Vaughan and how events shape him. From the death of his father when Joseph is only 11; through the beginning of the unknown killers vicious killing spree; the long-term hospitalisation / sanctioning of his mother; his love life; his loss - the reader travels with Joseph as he attempt to make sense of the world around him.
It seems to move incredibly slowly as Joseph's life ebbs and flows - well mostly ebbs really. The brutal killings of young girls continue slowly, paced out over years as Joseph's own life peaks and then hits major low points. And all the way through his life, there is an ongoing doubt - even that he has - about who is the killer of young girls. There are other bit characters in A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS - Joseph's mother; friends from the small town; lovers; the local sheriff, but the focus of the story; the narrator of events is Joseph.
You'll need to slow down to read A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS. You'll need to connect with Joseph. You'll need to be content to take a journey through many years with a boy, who grows to a young man, experiences a hard and painful life, and in the end, finds out the truth - but you have to wonder if it's just a little too late. It's a very moving book, involving despite the slowness of events, despite the almost back seat that the murders take. At the end of it all, you have to wonder if an author could put his central character through any more and bring him out at the other end alive.
SENSITIVE NEW AGE SPY - Geoffrey McGeachin
All Alby wants is a decent coffee and a day off. But there's a hijacked tanker with a deadly cargo in Sydney Harbour, and bullets are flying on board a US Navy cruiser. Three sailors are dead and a Seahawk chopper is missing.
SENSITIVE NEW AGE SPY continues the Alby Murdoch story where D-E-D Dead! left off. Post the hilariously over the top events at the end of the first book, Alby finds himself thrust into leadership of D-E-D, not that it's all bad. He manages to not get too involved in the day to day, and there's always Julie. Julie helping out on operations is one thing, Julie asleep, in not a lot, on your couch is another altogether. Mind you Alby's pretty well convinced he'll never get to have his way with Julie, it's a pity that for an intelligence agent, he can be as thick as the walls of an 80,000 tonne tanker.
Which is exactly what brings Alby and Julie's happy, relaxed long-weekend to an abrupt end. Nobody's quite sure how a tanker that big could be hijacked in the first place, in the second place how did it end up moored right up beside Fort Denison in the middle of Sydney Harbour, but the more pressing problem is how much of Sydney will be left if the LNG on board goes up in flames. The added complication of the nearby US Navy cruiser that "may or may not" be carrying nuclear weapons and Alby's day is about to get a whole lot more complicated. But every bad situation has to have a an upside and maybe, just maybe, Lieutenant Kingston could be it.
Slightly more assured than the first book, SENSITIVE NEW AGE SPY is a romp through the intricacies of being a spy in a complicated world. No more do spies get the luxury of ultra-sleek Aston Martins and Martinis on call; Sydney's latter day Spy gets a rusted out 4WD and the occasional bottle of red. And breakfast has become a major problem. Alby has really got to get people to stop shooting at him at his favourite breakfast haunts - the poor man may be reduced to a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice like the rest of us mere mortals. At the centre of SENSITIVE NEW AGE SPY, amongst the severely tongue in cheek dialogue (harbour duty officers getting alert and alarmed - which will probably mean more to your average Australian reader...), there is buried in here, a good mystery. Were there nuclear arms on that cruiser? Are they still there, or have they gone missing? Who is the mysterious Reverend Priday and his gorgeous daughter and what on earth does all this have to do with whales?
You could be reading this book first if you want to, there's the odd reference to events in D-E-D Dead!, but not enough to throw you. Having said, that, read them both.