In an idyllic resort on the island of La Réunion, Liane Bellion and her husband Martial are enjoying the perfect moment with their 6-year-old daughter. Turquoise skies, blue sea, palm trees, a warm breeze.
It's probably not going to come as any surprise to find that DON'T LET GO jumped up the reading queue as quickly as possible, because every novel from Michel Bussi I've read now has been clever, different and intriguing. DON'T LET GO didn't disappoint, it's all of those things and more.
In it we have a family on holidays on the island of La Réunion. Liane leaves her husband Martial and their daughter poolside to head back to their hotel room for a short break and vanishes. There's blood everywhere in the hotel room, but no body. Right from the outset the statements of her husband don't match witness accounts, but there's no sign of Liane Bellion alive or dead. There's plenty of conjecture about murder, how her body could have been disposed of, and lots of suspicion over her husband's possible involvement, not helped when he takes his young daughter and effectively goes on the run.
All of which might sound a little odd, given it's a small island, but this is holiday home territory and Martial Bellion turns out to be a very resourceful man. As is the local cop who leads the chase for him. Despite the higher ups interfering, and the constant pressure to find Bellion, she's calm, methodical and more than a bit annoyed that she can't find the main suspect, the victim or why they are all in this situation in the first place.
DON'T LET GO is the sort of book that grabs the reader from the outset and confuses, confounds and pulls you in. As well as imagination running wild over what could have happened to Liane Bellion, there's never quite knowing what's the story with Martial. Has he killed his wife, in which case what's going to happen to their daughter? Is he a threat to her, or is he trying to save her from something that only he knows about? You're never really sure. But there are aspects of all the characters that confound, confuse and sometimes even annoy a bit.
All of this action, suspense and doubt is interwoven into a great sense of place, infused with the history and culture of Réunion Island, and the intricate social connections that become a big part of the overall story.
All of Michel Bussi's books that I've been fortunate enough to read so far are standalones, so you can dive in at any point. But once you're here, along with what I can't help but think will be an ever increasing fan base, you'll end up like the rest of us. Searching out earlier books and nudging the next to arrive straight to the top of the priority pile as soon as you can.
PELAGIA & THE RED ROOSTER - Boris Akunin
Returning from the Synod in St Petersburg - an an official rebuke of her crime-fighting ways - Pelagia finds herself aboard the Steamer Sturgeon, dodging pickpockets, zealots and a sinister man with a detachable eye. But the brutal murder of the would-be Messiah in the cabin next door spells the end of Pelagia's sleuthing retirement, and the beginning of an investigation that will take her to the Holy Land and far beyond the realms of human knowledge.
PELAGIA & THE RED ROOSTER is the third book (and I believe the last) in this series by Russian author Grigory Chkhartishvili aka Boris Akunin. Readers may be more aware of the six Erast Fandorin novels, which I understand have sold over 18 million copies in Russia alone.
This is the first of the Pelagia novels I've read, having had the pleasure of a few of the Fandorin novels before, and I was reminded again of the absolute feeling of 19th and, in this case, 20th Century Russian sensibility that this author brings to his books.
Having said that, I'm not sure that I'd recommend a new reader to the Pelagia series start at this point, not the least because I found this book more than a little odd. It took quite a while to get the character of Sister Pelagia figured out, especially, as I had no idea what it was that bought the young Polina Andreevna to a convent in rural Zavolzhsk by the Volga, to take up the habit and turn to teaching at the local school. I suspect this lack of background made Pelagia seem a most unlikely sort of a nun to have come from this place, in this timeframe. Pelagia has a very unexpected attitude to authority within the church, and a quite upfront relationship with the Bishops and with her fellow-travellers. To say nothing of a level of freedom which didn't quite make sense at points.
On a ship returning from St Petersburg, Pelagia comes across members of a controversial Jewish sect. After the murder of a man, initially believed to be the sect's charismatic leader in the cabin next door to Pelagia, she travels even further afield; seeking the dead man's true identity and the whereabouts of the real founder of the sect - Manuila; as well as, ultimately, a murderer.
As Sister Pelagia conducts this investigation she is hindered by a lurking man with a removable eye, but aided by a small Red Rooster and the public prosecutor Matvei Bentsionovich Berdichevsky. Matvei a Jew who has converted to Russian Orthodoxy, finds himself pursuing leads within government circles, surrounded by political machinations, intrigues, and anti-Semitic hostility. He also finds himself very preoccupied by his attraction to Sister Pelagia. Meanwhile she is forced to flee to the Holy Land, encountering Palestinian guides, Zionist groups and an American millionaire supporting the re-establishment of Soddom.
Needless to say, this is a very complicated, convoluted and heavily populated plot to get a handle on whilst you are also trying to work out what the central character's personal story is. It could also be very easy to think that you are heading into expected territory what with a single, female, unlikely central investigator. Pelagia, however, is not a Russian Miss Marple character. Very quickly it becomes obvious that PELAGIA & THE RED ROOSTER is not just an intricate tale of religious differences, tensions and obsessions, it is also a tale of a society that is undergoing massive upheaval. Whist appreciating the glimpse into the societal aspects, I never did lose the feeling throughout the book that things were a bit odd. Whether or not it was the elaborate, very Russian stylings, balanced against a nun who didn't seem to be behaving as expected; whether or not it was the religious machinations which were laid on very very thick, or simply the sense that everybody hated everyone who wasn't from their own group, I couldn't shake the feeling that I just didn't quite know what was going on. I think I would have preferred a lot more of the red rooster, and a lot less of the religious machinations. Perhaps if you're a fan of intricate historical perspectives, with a higher tolerance for or interest in religious perspectives - you might like to try the Sister Pelagia series.
The earlier books are Pelagia and the Black Monk and Pelagia and the White Bulldog.
THE ABYSSINIAN PROOF - Jenny White
Constantinople, May 1453. In the dying days of the Byzantine Empire, as 7000 armed men prepare to defend the city against the might of the Ottoman Turks, Isaak and his family are entrusted with a purple velvet bundle. Inside is a silver reliquary carved with the figure of a weeping angel and an inscription 'Behold the Proof of Chora, Container of the Uncontainable'. It holds proof of God's existence.
I have to be honest and say that initially the idea of another historical crime fiction novel, set within the Islamic and Christian worlds left me somewhat underwhelmed. Fortunately there is a lot more going on in THE ABYSSINIAN PROOF, although I will admit that a large part of the attraction of this book was the central character - Magistrate Kamil Pasha, who is my idea of a detective. A little grumpy, a little shambolic, a man who is able to think through a situation and sees the clues that others may gloss over.
THE ABYSSINIAN PROOF starts out with the rescuing of a precious reliquary - supposedly containing the Proof of God - smuggled out of a city under attack. Centuries later, the reliquary is in the protection of a shadowy sect - the Melisites, who have kept it hidden in the Sunken Village, built below the city, occupied by the Habesh. When the reliquary is reported as stolen, Kamil must deal with the sect priestess, Balki, who is desperately unwell and her daughter Saba, to whom Kamil feels an instant attraction. When the person who originally told Kamil of the theft is brutally murdered, Kamil's investigation becomes all the more urgent.
The story weaves through events around the sect and into Kamil's investigation from there on. Kamil has been placed in a very difficult position, as he is well aware of corruption in his society. He is also increasingly attracted to Saba and to the beautiful refugee artist who his sister has taken into her home.
What we have in THE ABYSSINIAN PROOF is a number of pretty standard crime or mystery fiction elements - a secretive society used to its own counsel, a romantic entanglement with complication and a police investigator who must solve the crime despite his superiors lack of support.
Kamil is also, despite his historical setting, somewhat of a typical police investigator as mentioned. That slightly put upon persona, prepared to do whatever it takes to solve the case, complicated in love figure, grumpy, shambolic, but dedicated and with his own brand of cleverness and vision. He's certainly one of the great attractions of this book as he is a character that it is very easy to understand, sympathise or at least empathise with.
The sense of place in this book is reasonably good, although action outside the sect perhaps isn't particularly "Turkish 1800's". The religious elements set the book firmly in a world that is very different from a standard Western society - historical or not.
There are parts of the story that drag a little, and there is sometimes a little too much wallowing around in the comings and goings of the sect and their priestess which certainly add to the historical aspects, but slows the pace too much to remain enjoyable. Having said that, there is exoticism in the story and the character of Kamil is definitely worth sticking with it for.
THE ABYSSINIAN PROOF is the second novel featuring Kamil - the first was THE SULTAN'S SEAL which was shortlisted for the Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award. You certainly won't be lost if you haven't read the first book, but Kamil is somebody that you might want to get to know a little more. I will be keeping my own eyes open for a copy of the first book.