It falls to the few to sort out the messes made by the many. Murray Whelan, assistant and jack-of-all-trades for the Minister for Industry must regularly vet all comers and documents before they reach his time-poor boss, Charlene Wills. Fencing with other members of the Labor party is a daily occurrence - they may be technically all on the same side, but that doesn't mean they can't irritate the life out of each other in each and every interaction. Sent by party hopeful Angelo Agnelli to find out what's happening out at Pacific Pastoral meatworks, Murray isn't a happy man.
If this book can't raise a few snorts and belly-laughs from you, dear reader, there is something seriously wrong. With you. Truly. The adventures of Murray Whelan, proud member of the Australian Labor party, office worker, single parent and all around smart-arse all began here with STIFF. Reading this book thirteen years after it was written hasn't taken the edge off a work etched out with vinegar-dipped razor blades. Murray Whelan's wry observations can still be applied to how we Australians operate, politically, socially and any other "ly" we may hope to conquer. Smart and funny doesn't even begin to describe STIFF, but startlingly, monstrously accurate and ferociously funny would be approaching the right kind of fawning adoration that you can't imagine the author ever tolerating.
Perhaps we won't go as far as saying that STIFF could be your reading sorbet (totally stripping away all memories of other recent reads and freshening you up for newer challenges) so let's say instead it will be a welcome slap. As always, the first novel in a series has the tough job of establishing a character, making him dear enough to our fickle hearts so that we will seek him out in other works while also placing him at novel's conclusion at fascinating roads yet to be taken. Murray Whelan, master of the smart comeback and champion of the depressed (or as long as they remains interesting), on reflection, actually hasn't had that much time spent on his description. His character would seem to allow nothing less than a tardy remark on such things, and with a galloping narrative regularly taking on plot tangents made fascinating by their familiarity (political manoeuvres, rip-off merchants, bureaucratic tangles), it will take some concentration to
keep it all straight.
Perhaps thankfully, for some readers, the world of Murray Whelan isn't all sunshine. The tangled mess that was, and still is, the Australian political system on a small scale may prove a little frustrating at times and threaten to take the edge of pace but let's not be picky - this is a still just a short novel that manages to pack just so much in.
TAMBURLAINE MUST DIE - Louise Welsh
Playwright, poet, and spy Christopher Marlowe is a man who doesn't much care about the consequences of anything that he does. He's dissolute, reckless and playing a dangerous game. London is a grimy, insular, frightened place – with the plague and war threatening, strangers are treated with great suspicion and the shadowy Privy Council run by Ministers who "cared enough for high office to profit from death".
The story begins in May 1593 when Marlowe is summoned from the home of his patron to appear before the Privy Council immediately. He is accused of being an atheist and recruiting others to his cause. His play Tamburlaine is known as an atheist tract and somebody calling themselves Tamburlaine is using references to the play in posters, bills and other materials scattered around London. So called friends of Marlowe have been quick to accuse. Marlowe must find the mysterious Tamburlaine and prove himself innocent, but, alas, history records that he was dead in a house in Deptford on the evening of the 30th May – 3 days later.
TAMBURLAINE MUST DIE is a fictitious account of the events that led from the charging of Marlowe to his death by stabbing. The known facts of the death of Marlowe are that he did die, stabbed in that house, lying on a bed. What is not so clear is the real truth of the events. As the author mentions in an addendum to the book, "The coroner's jury accepted the killer's claims of self-defence ... Marlowe's killer was awarded a pardon." "The flaws in the jury's decision have been well established ... The official account rests on the unreliable testimony of three rogues and is therefore unsafe."
Christopher Marlowe's fate is the subject of much ongoing debate worldwide, as is the ongoing conversation about whether he is or is not the true author of many of Shakespeare's works – and goodness knows this book (and this reviewer) are not stating an opinion one way or the other on that. TAMBURLAINE MUST DIE is Louise Welsh's fictional tale of the days leading up to Marlowe's death. The writing is deft, lyrical and very readable. The setting feels authentic, the characters beautifully grotesque, their actions startling, their sex lives varied to say the least. The book is very descriptive, almost picturesque even though there is very little charming or picturesque about 1500's London, the Privy Council's machinations or the life of a dissolute artist surviving by the kindness of patrons and friends. .
ALONE IN THE DARK - Elaine Coffman
Ellery O'Brien is a news anchor for a major programme in Washington DC. Successful, very attractive and seemingly with everything she could wish for, she is astounded when her father, dying from cancer, tells her not only is he not her biological father, but that she has a twin sister. The girls were separated at birth, Ellery staying with her mother, whilst her sister was taken by their father – married to somebody else at the time the girls were born. Ellery's mother died when she was very young and her father has kept the secret as a promise to his wife for all these years.
When her father dies shortly after, Ellery travels to her mother's home town in Texas to try to find her sister, not realising that in the process she has rented the very house that she is seeing in a series of violent and disturbing nightmares. At first, nobody in town seems to know anything but Ellery meets local rancher Clint and together they find out the truth about her sister.
This book has, on the face of it, an interesting concept. The search for a lost twin, the possibility of coincidence not only in the way that the girls look, but in parallel lines in their lives. Unfortunately the concept is not well served in ALONE IN THE DARK.
The main characters – Ellery and Clint are just way to “perfect” to be true. She's beautiful, successful, great legs, wealthy, independent, vulnerable..... He's the chisel jawed, taciturn rancher. They fall for each other despite a prickly first encounter. The town is full of happy friendly people; mysterious women sitting in darkened rooms; family members who just immediately open up about all the dirty secrets; family members who remain enigmatic.
And there are some very weird plot points that just don't make sense or surge to the front and then disappear never to be seen again. Ellery has her beloved dog Bertha, who, it's pointed out very early on “isn't much of a watchdog”. Convenient given what starts to happen when somebody is breaking into the house she's living in and performing all sorts of nefarious acts. But even allowing for the fact that we've got a dog that's not much of a watchdog, Ellery wonders why she doesn't bark when the house is broken into when she's home, although she never bothers to actually go and check on the poor thing, and then the dog is bundled off to Clint's ranch and never heard of again. Very strange behaviour for a supposed lover of that dog. There was also the almost incomprehensible goings on with Ellery's contact lenses – which are coloured and they, and her blonded hair, seem to have been the main reason that nobody connected Ellery immediately with her twin sister. Possible maybe, but the constant reference to those contact lenses, even after she had been firmly connected with her sister - what was the point? At the start of the book, assumingly to establish the level of Ellery's fabulousness, considerable emphasis is placed on how vitally important she is to her shows ratings and how they couldn't possible survive without her. So she packs up with zero notice and heads off to the wilds of Texas, without a backward glance at the job – except to tell all and sundry that she's a famous news anchor! Finally there was a real tendency throughout the book to telegraph all future actions in a very obvious manner. One small household accident, an appliance that “strangely” couldn't be repaired / replaced and you've got a potential future defence / murder weapon. At that point, given that there was only one Not Perfect character in the entire book, it wasn't too difficult to work out what was coming. The dialogue was arch, coy and frequently turgid and ultimately the book was messy with lots of loose ends thrown into the mix. It really felt like it couldn't decide if it was a straight romance or a mystery novel and just got lost somewhere in the middle.
Elaine Coffman's publicity mentions that she is a New York Times bestselling author, and that ALONE IN THE DARK is the first mystery / crime novel by this romance author. Fans of hers will undoubtedly read this book to see how she converts from straight romance to romantic mystery.
DEATH BY CHOCOLATE - Toby Moore
We have seen the future, and it's a scary place. In DEATH BY CHOCOLATE, being fat in most States of America is now a crime, and Health Enforcement in New York enforce weight licences and track down humonsters for forced re-education. Brown (chocolate's street name) is only available from smugglers and illicit dealers. Illicit eateasy's are hidden all over town, serving burgers, fries and other illegal substances. The boring, day to day existence of Health Enforcement Officers Devlin and Strong is disrupted in a big way when Cupid Frish, pulled over just days before for a random weight check, is found, dead.
It doesn't take too long to find that Frish has some very questionable connections with the Head of Health Enforcement as well as Bishop Instructor Heston Gotfelt of the Fit for Christ Church, conglomerate corporation; church; fitness institution and political power-base. It seems that Frish has been strangled, coated with a bizarre brown bikini and dumped, but when her body goes missing from the morgue; her apartment is trashed and she turns out to have been a lot more than just a murder victim, Devlin and Strong get themselves into a heap of trouble overstepping the role of Health Enforcement Officials.
There's a lot of playing around with perceptions and everyday scenarios in DEATH BY CHOCOLATE. Firstly there's a society totally and utterly obsessed with food and weight - trying to control every aspect of citizens lives with a mixture of religious zeal, legal control and financial incentives. There is corporate power behind the political throne, making a lot of money from controlling people's behaviours. There is massive weather pattern shifting with cold winds and flurries of snow in summer New York. There is also a switching of traditional roles with Devlin, a man, trying to balance work and being a single parent to a rebellious teenage girl and Strong, a female, being a hard drinking, hard playing maverick.
There's some very clever switching around of some of the methods used in society to control anti-social behaviour, for example, illegal drug selling and use. The comparisons between speakeasys and eateasys is pretty obvious, and it's a illustrative part of Moore's future world. In places though, the comparisons get a bit heavy-handed and DEATH BY CHOCOLATE veers towards self-involved. The mystery of Frish and what happened to her gets somewhat lost amongst the agonising of Devlin - is his daughter really using Brown? Will she end up in rehab? Will he ever get a girlfriend? The ramblings, rantings and manipulations of Gotfelt and the Church are amusing and quite telling in places, but again, it all ends up getting a bit too carried away in its own cleverness. The way that all the components of religion, and bureaucracy can be switched to be for or against any subject, item, passion (illicit or legal) starts to get drawn out and whilst many of those comparisons are clever, it's all just a bit too much because the central story starts to suffer and lose focus.
DEATH BY CHOCOLATE is amusing, it's clever and if you can forgive it trying to hit you across the head with the comparisons, it's a good light-hearted read for somebody who is looking for a something a bit on the silly side. Two warnings though, fat is printed as f*t, cuteness can be incredibly trying sometimes, and most importantly, you couldn't possibly read DEATH BY CHOCOLATE and not have uncontrollable cravings for a large box of chocolates, a very strong full fat cappuccino and a pizza with everything.
A CERTAIN JUSTICE - P D James
Venetia Aldridge QC, distinguished barrister, is found dead in her Middle Temple Chambers, stabbed once cleanly through the heart; sat in her chair; wearing a full wig covered in blood.
She had recently successfully defended Garry Ashe, accused of killing his aunt, and has been horrified by the announcement that Ashe and her troublesome daughter Octavia plan to marry. The current Head of Middle Temple Chambers is about to retire and Venetia believed she had a right to the position, despite just a few scant weeks of seniority. She was planning big disruptive changes in Chambers, and her best friend there was also her main rival for the job. Her lover, a prominent parliamentarian wanted to end their relationship. Dalgleish and his team firstly struggle to explain why the bizarre treatment of the body, and then to narrow the vast cast of possible suspects to get to the bottom of the death, until a second brutal killing suddenly reveals a lot of things that were carefully hidden away.
The book is broken into four distinct phases, "Book One - Counsel for the Defence", "Book Two - Death in Chambers", "Book Three - A Letter from the Dead" and finally "Book Four - The Reed Beds". This breaks the story up into those 4 distinct phases - the events leading up to the death of Venetia, the discovery of her body and the commencement of the investigation through to the resolution in two parts.
The characters in the story are artfully revealed, but in particular, the main character, the victim herself, is somebody that you come to know a lot about in the lead up to her death. There's a touch of the personal story of the investigators, less of Dalgleish and a little more about Kate Miskin and Piers Tarrant. The concentration, however, is mostly on how they work, and react to each other.
The location of the early parts of the book, in and around the Temple Chambers and the Old Bailey give a great sense of place - something vaguely archaic, cloistered and claustrophobic.
This is definitely a doorstopper of a book at 482 pages in the standard paperback, but there is no discernible padding in that. The only minor quibble is the same quibble that readers can sometimes get from James in that there's a vague feeling of class distinctions and people who are "quite right" and people who are "not quite right", based on where they come from. Kate Miskin, for example, came from Public Housing and she is constantly feeling that she has to compensate for that background.
A CERTAIN JUSTICE was involving from the start to the end, regardless of the size of the book. It is an old fashioned puzzle story, in the hands of an author who really knows how to crank out a good, deft, solid mystery. You really get the feeling you're in the hands of somebody who knows what they are doing.
OVER EXPOSURE - Hugo Rifkind
Macaulay Lewis has a major problem. Sure he was there the night that shadowy society cat-burglar Fingers stole the Bushman's Thimbles (diamonds that is) from Gemma Conrad's nipples, with the weathergirl not even noticing they had gone. But he kind of didn't update the copy that subsequently went out on his own newspaper's front page so there was no mention of this startling event. Bit embarrassing. Even more embarrassing because the glittering social event was that paper's own Diamond Awards night.
Mac is pretty used to stuffing up though - he spends most of his life in a slightly hung-over increasingly desperate search for a life. Fingers, though, is not the life he wants. The powers that be at the newspaper seem to think that Fingers is somehow their story and despite everything, they hope that Mac is their inner track to the cat burglar. Everybody else in the London media has other ideas. Mac, alas, finds himself more and more at events where Fingers pulls off one of his grand heists and slowly people start to wonder whether Mac and Fingers are more closely acquainted than initially thought. Whilst everyone else is madly speculating, Mac is just trying to get through the day and maybe get laid.
As Fingers increasingly pulls off more elaborate thefts, Mac finds his job security more and more threatened by his total inability to get anything right about this story, and he's no closer to getting his ex-girlfriend Elspeth to fancy him again. He also can't get sister Janie to stop dating losers and sister (christened Margaret - now Miriam) to stop playing the role of Jewish Princess. With their Scottish father and absent Jewish mother, Mac, Margaret and Janie are a close set of siblings despite everything.
OVER EXPOSURE is a bit of a romp through the grotty, silly, self-obsessed world of B-grade celebrity, heavy duty partying and the gossip columns of London. The famous names are liberally sprinkled throughout the book, but for non-UK based, not addicted to TV readers, it will require acceptance that these people were probably famous for some reason and the ability to just let that roll, because frankly, this particular reader has only heard of one in every 10 of the names.
There's also nothing terribly serious about OVER EXPOSURE, but the silliness is quite catching. Readers will have to be prepared for a bit of debauchery and some overt drug use and drinking, but Mac's a great character and there are some good, strong secondary characters orbiting around him. OVER EXPOSURE is a really fun, silly caper book, built around these elaborate celebrity thefts and a bloke who is just trying to straighten up and get the girl.
GAGGED & BOUND - Natasha Cooper
Trish Maguire is a barrister but no expert in libel law, but her head of Chambers desperately seeks help with the weeping, deeply worried Bee Bowman. Bee is being sued by Lord Tick, a new member of the House of Lords, over the use of his little known family nickname in a biography she has written about a young man caught up in the bombing of a bus load of small children. Typically, nothing ever happens in single events though, and Trish is also caught up in the problems of her dear friend Detective Inspector Caro Lyalt who, in the process of applying for a very high profile job promotion, is told that one of her fellow applicants could be in the pay of a notorious local crime family â€“ the Slabbs.
In the process of investigating both events Trish and her young half-brother David are threatened and her love life hits rocky times because of the threats. A whistle-blower dies, a young woman's body is found, Bee's libel case gets complicated and the reach and brutality of the Slabbs is revealed. GAGGED & BOUND refers not just to the consequences of libel actions but also to the Slabbs preferred method of keeping control of the family and their minions.
The investigation of the libel case is an interesting plot point, as the convicted bomber has already committed suicide and the person with the most to lose from the case is the biographer and maybe the bomber's elderly mother. As Trish delves deeper into the circumstances it seems that the circumstances of the bombing were more complicated than revealed at his own trial.
GAGGED & BOUND is not the first book in the Trish Maquire series and whilst it was possible to follow the story itself in the book, a lot of the background to Trish, brother David and partner George is hinted at, but with insufficient detail to prevent a slight feeling of confusion on the part of the reader. Perhaps it was this that lead to a slight feeling of disconnection with the story and with Trish herself. The plot in GAGGED & BOUND is multi-threaded with the libel case and Bee's story interwoven in the narrative with Trish's searching out of connections between Caro's rival and the notorious Slabb family. Trish herself didn't quite do it for me though, maybe a bit too perfect, maybe a bit too much of a stretch to believe she would be so closely involved in some of the investigation lines, maybe it was the sudden revelations out of nowhere that supposedly resolved one of the threads. It would be worth trying GAGGED & BOUND, but you may want to go back to the earlier books to establish a connection with Trish first.
SHAME, Karin Alvtegen
Monica, is a successful, well regarded surgeon and physician who is ashamed of something in her past. She can't develop any meaningful relationships with anyone and pushes anyone who gets close quickly away.
Maj-Britt, hiding from the world behind an endless supply of food, requires help just to live, she is so obese. Locked in her apartment away from the world, Maj-Britt is deeply ashamed of something in her past.
Monica and Maj-Britt don't know each other, yet somehow, because of a conference, a car-accident and a care-worker, they briefly collide. The results of that collision, catastrophic for one in the short term, force both of them to confront the past and deal with their personal shame.
SHAME is not a novel for readers who like a murder right up there are the front of the book, with an investigation to resolve the crime. There really is no murder in SHAME, but there is death, sadness, despair, personal angst and profound tragedy and sorrow.
SHAME takes you carefully through the lives of Monica and Maj-Britt, revealing the events that lead to the shame that they each feel, and what has happened to each of them since. As those events are revealed, a connection between the two women slowly eventuates. The connection could save them, or it could destroy them both.
With elements of fear, oppressive religion, obsession, betrayal, sexuality, guilt, family dysfunction and emotional blackmail, SHAME is challenging and sometimes harrowing. It is also compelling, taut, intriguing and, ultimately, uplifting.
SPIDER LIGHT - Sarah Rayne
Antonia Weston, former psychiatrist has to try to rebuild her life, shattered by murder and obsession. When she is released from prison after serving her own sentence for manslaughter, her former boss finds her a small cottage to rent in the quiet village of Amberwood.
The cottage is in the grounds of Quire House, now open to the public, in the past the family home of Thomasina Forrester. Over a century ago, Thomasina was a woman of money and influence, overseeing a trust that provided support for Latchkill Asylum. Latchkill is a malevolent place which has a profound affect on the local area and the people who live nearby. Maud is one of those people, her father runs the local mill Twygrist, and Maud, young, innocent and motherless is pulled into Thomasina's influence.
Antonia, in an effort to put aside the past events in her own life, forms a tentative friendship with one of the curators at Quire and finds herself increasingly drawn to finding out more about Quire House, Thomasina Forrester and Twygrist Mill. Although Latchkill has long been pulled down, Twygrist Mill still stands, derelict and menacing in the village and it still has a profound affect on people, not the least Antonia herself.
SPIDER LIGHT moves backwards and forwards between the past and the present, revealing more of Antonia's own experience and the story of Thomasina and Maud. Both threads have a central core of personal and sexual obsession which increasingly becomes more twisted and dangerous. Both stories have consequences that rapidly escalate and the results for Thomasina, Maud and Antonia are dire. All the way along, Twygrist Mill remains a focal point for so much anguish.
SPIDER LIGHT is Sarah Rayne's 4th book, a psychological thriller with a clever intertwining of the past and the present. SPIDER LIGHT is a reference to the half-light that comes at certain times of the day, the time when spider's sneak around, the light soft and eerie. It's an image that is used throughout the book to impart the sinister look and feel of Latchkill Asylum. It's also used to describe that half-world between madness and sanity, and it works. It imparts a creepy, half-light, enclosed, fuzzy world where nothing is clearly defined and nothing is quite right with that world.
SPIDER LIGHT is a great book, but don't make the mistake I did, reading it in the middle of a heavy, dull, spidery light, smoke-filled atmosphere from local bushfires. Try it in the bright sunlight, but definitely try it.
THE NO 2 GLOBAL DETECTIVE - Toby Clements
Lovers of Precious Ramotswe, Kurt Wallender, Rebus and Kay Scarpetta may wish to look away now. Toby Clements in his second book THE NO 2 GLOBAL DETECTIVE, rolls up his sleeves and gets stuck in.
When Junior Tutor at Cuff College Oxford, Tom Hurst, joins the faculty of the world's most famous crime fiction college he's startled, firstly by his fellow faculty and then a body, in the library, with a spear and the price tag of an IKEA duvet.
Hurst sets off to recruit four of the college's most famous graduates to kind the killer. He journeys to Botswana to see Mma Delicious Ontoaste, then to Sweden and Inspector Burt Colander, before heading for Scotland and Inspector Scott Rhombus, finishing up in America and (well you guessed it) Doctor Faye Carpaccia. Together they must stop arguing and get to IKEA before it shuts.
NO 2 GLOBAL DETECTIVE is really a loosely connected set of parodies of each of the 4 popular crime fiction characters, wrapped up in an overall investigation around the college which has the distinct feel of a Michael Innes or like-minded cloistered academic setting.
According to the bio provided, Toby Clements reviews crime novels for a national newspaper and keeps a who's who in crime fiction on his desk. He obviously knows the nuances of the big name writers he's having a go at incredibly well. Each of the sections is written with a very similar feeling / tone to the original authors, although he's possibly the most successful with Mma Delicious Ontoaste where the lampooning seems to be at its largest and the behaviour of the central character at its most outrageous and unexpected.
Whether or not you like the idea of vicious parody will probably dictate whether or not you like this book. Whilst there are some moments of inspired hilarity - there were some periods where you just wish the author would stop trying to be too clever and get on with it.
Silly, tongue in cheek, having a go at some of the well known names in Crime Fiction, THE NO 2 GLOBAL DETECTIVE has that feel of a book that somebody will buy for a friend they think takes their crime fiction too seriously.