When 10 year old Katie Blasko goes missing, Ellen Destry is in charge of the case. Katie's from one of the local Estates – a poor, run-down area full of dysfunctional families, violence and drugs. Nearly everybody on the investigation team is pretty sure that Katie's disappearance is yet another family out of control - Katie's either fallen prey to her mother's de facto, she's run away, or any of the other things that happen all too frequently to little kids on the Estate. Ellen Destry's not so sure, she's got this feeling that Katie's been abducted and she's got this nagging concern about rumours that have been flying about a paedophile ring on the Peninsula. She's also more than aware that the powers that be in Waterloo Police Station are not convinced she's up to running an investigation of this type. What makes her really sensitive to their thoughts, is that she's agrees with them.
Hal Challis, however, can't be much help. He's half-way across Australia, in the outback of South Australia, watching his elderly and frail father die. He's also wondering what happened to his brother in law who disappeared a few years before, his car found abandoned in the outback. Hal's sister has always thought he did a runner, after all, she's been receiving strange correspondence which seemed to indicate he was somewhere, alive. Hal's not so sure and, because he can't help himself, he intervenes.
Having read all of Garry Disher's Challis series, CHAIN OF EVIDENCE stands out as the best book thus far – at least for me. There is a deftness in the drawing of the two separate plots, and the characters that gave this book a real focus and tension. The main plot, the possible abduction of the young girl is intricate, complicated and involves the Waterloo Police Station in a number of unexpected ways. The complications of the relationship (or lack of relationship) between Challis and Destry has an extra level of interest because of the physical distance between the two characters. Another element was, what seemed like, a deliberate choice of the types of investigations for both characters – Challis is a dry, sparse, reserved man investigating an old disappearance in a dry, reserved, desert edge town. Destry is a more emotional, complicated, outgoing woman, investigating a messy, complicated and intricate crime in a lusher, familiar environment. In this instance, this didn't resonate as a cliché.
CHAIN OF EVIDENCE flags a strong shift of focus from a series concentrating on Hal Challis, with a touch of Ellen Destry on the side, to a combined focus as both characters take centre stage, albeit in different investigations and in different states. This bodes very well for the ongoing development of this series.
MURDER ON THE EIFFEL TOWER - Claude Izner
The brand-new, shiny Eiffel Tower is the pride and glory of the 1889 World Exposition. But one sunny afternoon, as visitors are crowding the viewing platforms, a woman collapses and dies on this great Paris landmark. Can a bee sting really be the cause of death? Or is there a more sinister explanation? Enter young bookseller Victor Legris. Present on the tower at the time of the incident, and appalled by the media coverage of the occurence, he is determined to ?nd out what actually happened.
I suspect we all pick up a book looking forward to what is going to happen. So normally around page 50 a reader will be getting twitchy if nothing much has happened. Get to the end of the book and it still seems like you're waiting for something to happen and it's a very frustrating experience.
Set during the 1889 World Expo in Paris, the Eiffel Tower has just been officially opened and is a massive attraction. When a woman dies on one of the Tower's platforms, officially she died from a bee sting. As other people also die supposedly from bee stings, the police are not particularly interested, but Victor Legris, local bookseller and man about town type, is convinced that there is something sinister to these deaths.
Part of the reason that the book seems to go nowhere is that very early on the reader will find themselves being dragged down all sorts of cul-de-sacs, and dead-end alleyways into some, albeit fascinating historical aspects. What the book does particularly well is give you a great sense of the place and time - with some of those cul-de-sacs quite interesting in their own right. If only they hadn't dragged the focus away from the main plot point just once too often.
None of that meandering around was much helped by the investigation style of Legris. Which seemed to amount to a lot of leaping and posturing, and very little in the way of fact gathering - or disclosure to the reader for that matter.
The other problem with the book was some seriously poor character development, particularly that of Legris and his love interest, Tasha the Russian artist. He was very flat, and strangely one-dimensional and I did wonder how much the background of the author (actually two Parisian bookselling sisters) informed their view of their central protagonist. Perhaps they were aiming for dramatic and interesting, but alas ended up with melodramatic and a bit silly. Tasha didn't fare much better, as if being an artist in 1880's Paris wasn't enough of a cliché, she was Russian, she started out with a bit of potential, but quickly faded to bland.
I will dip into the next book in the series, as it's here, and first books are often not a good indicator of the potential of a series, but to be honest, I had to bribe myself with a chocolate for every 20 pages read to finish this one. I hope my doctor's not going to get all over-excited about my blood sugar levels after the next one.
OVERKILL - Vanda Symon
When the body of a young mother is found washed up on the banks of the Mataura River, a small rural community is rocked by her tragic suicide.
But all is not what it seems.
We've got this little dog... Jedda is a 3 year old Australian terrier female. She's short, red-golden haired, extremely independent, determined to the point of obsession, friendly but can switch quickly into extreme bolshie and she is absolutely and utterly incapable of stepping away from an argument. She's the sort of dog that will continue the fight after she's been physically picked up and carried away from the conflict point. I suspect if I'd read OVERKILL before we'd got that dog, there would have been a strong case put for naming her Sam.
OVERKILL is written from Sam's viewpoint. Which is a tricky approach as the reader is going to have to like Sam, or at least feel some sense of connection with her, and be comfortable that Sam is fairly investigating this death. Which is complicated because the grief-stricken widower is Sam's ex-lover. Somebody that you'd have to be dead or thick not have noticed Sam still holds quite a torch for. That, and some really ... well let's go with naive rather than stupid actions, means it's not a big step for the powers that be to suspend Sam from the investigation because she's made herself more than suspicious. Perhaps a little unfairly as it was Sam that first wonders if this death wasn't more than a tragic suicide and it's her sniffing around that finds the forged prescription that triggers the murder enquiry in the first place.
Needless to say, a piddling little technicality like "suspicion" and "suspended" isn't going to stop Sam, anymore than a cow manure shampoo or a few stitches in the head. (And that's got to be one of the funniest scenes I've read in years - thinking about it still made me cry with laughter when we were changing our own ute tyre the other day!)
Whilst there's always the exception to the rule, in the main there are some elements that are kind of expected in some forms of Crime Fiction. With your cop protagonist it doesn't hurt that they are a bit of a self-starter. It works well if there's conflict with higher authorities, and suspension allows your cop to head off into somewhat tricky "procedural" territory. There's really nothing wrong with using some formulaic elements in a book provided that they aren't one-dimensional and there's enough other elements for a reader to identify with to allow you to forgive the occasional blatant setup. Where OVERKILL compensates in spades is in the main characters. Sam and her best friend, housemate Maggie are a good pairing - whilst Maggie takes no active part in the investigation part of the novel, she's the calm in Sam's chaos. And the affection, sarcasm, pithy commentary and observations between the two of them are frequently very very touching and funny.
Part of what I really liked about these books was that sense of humour. Frequently self-deprecating, the humorous touches are part of what makes the first-person voice work. At no stage is Sam overbearingly smug or self-serving. She's flawed and human and probably harder on herself than anybody around her could ever hope to be. OVERKILL is the first book in what is now a 4 book series, and having read the next two before I went back to re-read this one, I can see the developmental elements in this debut. Every series, after all, has to start somewhere and there's nothing worse than a debut book that says and does it all. Sam has places to go, people to annoy, problems to solve, ladders to climb, snakes to slide back down again. You just have to hope that 4 books isn't the end and there's a lot more of Sam in the future. (Expect a flurry of these reviews - I've been slack and need to catch up with talking about this terrific series!)
RUMPOLE AND THE REIGN OF TERROR - John Mortimer
Justice isn't blind - it's just a little short sighted and weak around the knees ...
His wig may be yellowing and his gown might be in tatters, but Rumpole will not give up the good fight - now while there's injustice to battle.
When a distressed Tiffany Timson (of the infamous South London clan of petty criminals) tearfully explains that her husband Dr Khan has been arrested on suspicion of terrorism, Rumpole knows that to take on this case will mean not just defending one man, but squaring up to the very notion of modern British justice.
Hilda is writing her memoir, so it's probably just as well that Rumpole doesn't know what she is doing locked away in the boxroom for hours on end. But Rumpole is very busy telling his own story of how he nearly lost his livelihood (aka the Timson family clan), and found himself involved in the new world of Terrorism trials.
Despite being extremely concerned about the wherewithal to support both the ongoing requirement for furniture police, Fairy Liquid, scrubbing brushes and Vim alongside his own meagre indulgences in Chateau Thames, Rumpole's sense of justice is outraged by the plight of his client. Dr Mahmood Khan (estranged son-in-law of one of the Timson's) is being held on terrorism charges without the benefit of the details of the crimes with which he has been charged. Rumpole is not at all best pleased by these new terrorism laws, particularly the secrecy aspects and whilst he battles the impossible situation, he is also cunning enough to find a loophole and get his client a proper public trial.
Whilst RUMPOLE AND THE REIGN OF TERROR is wonderfully entertaining, and extremely amusing, it also touches on some important Justice issues. Rumpole is fighting the good fight against unfair laws and unreasonable judges. He's also quite prepared to take on anyone in the prosecution - representation or witnesses. For all his bumbling and slightly scruffy regalia, Rumpole has a fine legal mind and he upholds the British Justice System that believes that everyone is entitled to a robust defence - regardless of whether their defending barrister believes in their innocence or guilt.
The book is an interesting little outing with Rumpole. Written in a semi-autobiographical style, the story of Rumpole's trial is interspersed with snippets of Hilda's memoir. This gives the book a rather unexpected sort of feel, probably because in the past most of what you hear from Hilda is short, sharp and frequently quite despairing of Rumpole's latest activities. There's still quite a bit of that in Hilda's reminiscences, but there's also reflections on married life, friends and quite oddly, her friendship with (well sort of courtship by) Mr Justice Leonard Bullingham (aka Mad Bull).
Giving Hilda a voice adds a little to the bulk of the book, but doesn't really distract from Rumpole in all his glory. Full of mumblings, mutterings, and clever contortions, this is Rumple at his most entertaining, telling a tale which actually has some important points to make.
THE SERBIAN DANE - Leif Davidsen
LISE CARLSEN: A successful journalist trying to smooth over the cracks in a failed marriage.
PER TOFTLUND: A crack member of Denmark's secret service, a lone wolf: unattached, without family and fanatically committed to his work.
VUK: a highly skilled political assassin who has lost everything in the bloody collapse of the former Yugoslavia. Raised in Denmark of Serbian descent.
I can't remember the last thriller styled book from a Scandinavian author that I've read - but I certainly hope I'll find another one soon. THE SERBIAN DANE lingered too long on the unread piles around here - but once started it was fascinating. A Serbian hitman, Vuk, born in Denmark but very much formed by the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, is hired to kill an Iranian author. Sara Santanda has decided to come out of hiding, and her first appearance is scheduled for Copenhagen.
Santanda's contact in Denmark, Lise Carlesen works for the newspaper Politiken. Despite the Danish government's reservations about their relationship with Iran, they agree to provide security protection, and the man in charge is Per Toftlund. Lise's marriage is already on the skids, and Per is a very attractive man. In an interesting twist her increasing absence allows a mysterious stranger to befriend her husband, a combination of all the relationships and events combining to form the catalyst for a quite dramatic conclusion.
Given that this book is a thriller in style, there is quite a lot of action. Alongside that though there are some great character explorations - particularly that of Vuk, the hitman with so many identities that he seems to have lost who he really is. It's strange, but there's something quite vulnerable and complicated about Vuk - as cold-blooded and as ruthless a killer as he is. It seems that you get a real glimpse into the damage that war can do. At the same time Per and Lise's relationship is an interesting development. What is most interesting, however, is that this is a book that was originally published in 1996, yet the issues discussed, the action portrayed and the tension engendered really felt quite contemporary and believable.
This is a really good thriller with a full range of the required elements (tension / pace / threat and a sense of menace), alongside some suprisingly good characterisations and just a touch of human insight.
INTO THE SHADOWS - Shirley Wells
When Rodney Hill, wrongly arrested for a series of murders, hangs himself, Jill Kennedy the forensic psychologist whose profile led to Hill's arrest, gives up her work with the police and moves to the peaceful village of Kelton Bridge to write self-help books, enjoy a quiet life with her cats and perhaps an occasional flutter on the horses.
English village mysteries are one of the categories that remind me that even though I love the dark and noir side of crime fiction, a little lighter fare every now and again is good for the psyche. Or at least a welcome change in approach. I'm always on the lookout for a new "series" of these style of books to accumulate for when I'm looking for something lighter as I'm running a little short of favourites to turn to.
INTO THE SHADOWS is a more modern take on the traditional English village style of book, mostly I felt, because there's yet another serial killer involved. I have to say that the combination of a blurb talking about a retirement life with cats, romantic tension with an ex-lover trying to regain affection, and a stalking serial killer and I was feeling a little leery. Add to that some predictable plot points (every male in the village seemed to be a suspicious character), and some flat out unbelievable plot points (look behind you - well in this case above you for goodness sake!) and I wasn't exactly in my own particular reading comfort zone.
Surprisingly enough though, I found that I could still read this book. Perhaps it's because Jill and Max were an interesting pair, flawed, warm, funny, very realistic. Perhaps it's because it is an English village mystery and there are some aspects of those style of books that you can just let roll - after all they are the perfect antidote to a cold Sunday afternoon. And that's probably the main reason that I'm always on the lookout for a good English village series - I like reading these sorts of books, curled up in the rocking chair in front of the fire, large glass of something red and a small select box of good choccies. Whilst I can't say that INTO THE SHADOWS wasn't a flawed book, it certainly had enough going for it to put other entrants in the series on my potential new series to follow list.
ROUGH JUSTICE - Robin Bowles
Rough Justice: Unanswered Questions from the Australian courts examines the question at the heart of our criminal justice system - what happens when our courts get it wrong?
ROUGH JUSTICE comes from that section of True Crime books which include telling the story of particular cases, and then analysing aspects of those cases.
As with all these sorts of books whether or not it will work for the reader depends on a number of highly subjective elements - whether you agree with the issues raised by the author (either that they exist or they are issues); whether you agree with the outcome or the methodology of that analysis; and whether or not you like or dislike either the tone of book, the raising of the case, the author or any combination of these and/or any other elements you want to raise.
Makes this sort of book a tricky read for a lot of people and you'd have to be silly not to think that True Crime, in particular, is an easy path for either author or reader.
What I appreciated in this book in particular is that the cases that were raised were raised, that the issues that were highlighted were highlighted, and the analysis that was undertaken was voiced. No idea if I agree or disagree or even came up with my own conclusions in the main. But the justice system in this country has to be robust enough to stand up to scrutiny, which is part of the reason that I read these sorts of books - regardless of the cases, the author, the issues or the period of time that has passed.