Charlie Howard doesn't just write books about a career thief, he also happens to be one.
In Amsterdam working on his latest novel, Charlie is approached by a mysterious American who asks him to steal two apparently worthless monkey figurines from two separate addresses on the same night. At first he says no. Then he changes his mind. Only later, kidnapped and bound to a chair, the American very dead and a spell in police custody behind him, does Charlie begin to realise how costly a mistake he might have made.
THE GOOD THIEF'S GUIDE TO AMSTERDAM is exactly the tonic required for a crime fiction fan in dreary, cold winter. Sure it's set in slightly more exotic cold Amsterdam, but the tone of the book is just on the cheeky side, a little bit light-hearted, a touch of the romp. It is a good tale told by the central character - career thief, crime fiction author, the indefatigable Charlie Howard.
After the mysterious American dangles the job of stealing two (of the three of "wise" fame) uninspiring little monkey figurines, Charlie is initially pretty underwhelmed. But once a thief, always a thief and even though the target's don't inspire much interest - the motive for wanting them is very intriguing. They get even more intriguing as the American turns up dead; somebody takes it upon themselves to kidnap and rough up Charlie; and it doesn't hurt that the very attractive blonde from the bar is involved as well.
THE GOOD THIEF'S GUIDE is very much centered around Charlie who narrates all of the action (and performs his own stunts). As with any book where the central narrator is the central character, you have to be able to get on with this character. Charlie is one of those slightly irreverent, cheeky chappy sorts of blokes - good at being a burglar but balanced nicely by being the sort of person that actually feels it when he's roughed up by the baddies. And all the time he is finishing off his final manuscript, and there's something very endearing about the idea that he can crack most safes, open most locks, but fictionally - he can't organise a briefcase. The title also hints at the possibility of a guide book, it's not. There's a feeling of the setting, but it's not a Tourist Guide.
Quick to read, THE GOOD THIEF'S GUIDE was light-hearted but not light-weight and you definitely have to hope that the move to a new city means a new Guide is on the way.
FRANTIC - Katherine Howell
Sophie Phillips is a paramedic based in the central Sydney area. Her husband, Chris, is a police officer. Both are besotted with their ten month old son, Lachlan. Life is perfect for Sophie until Chris is seriously assaulted one night while on duty. He hasn’t been the same since. He’s become introspective and short-tempered and Sophie is beginning to worry about whether their marriage has a future.
Howell is a paramedic herself and writes with great credibility about Sophie’s working day. In fact, she writes so well about the working life of a paramedic that I found myself wishing that Howell had room in the plot for more of that aspect of Sophie’s life. I found it truly fascinating.
Howell also has a deft touch with describing Sydney. It helps that Sophie is stationed at The Rocks, right in the middle of the main tourist area of the city. Anyone who has visited Sydney will immediately recognise some of the locations.
FRANTIC is Katherine Howell’s first published novel and one that shows great promise. The action starts on page one and maintains its momentum until the very last paragraph. Sophie’s tactics aren’t always very well thought out, but that also reflects her state of mind. I did find some of her actions a bit over the top and there was no resolution in regard to consequences of some of her more outrageous behaviour. It is a minor quibble though and I look forward to Howell’s next book, in which I hope she will make more use of her insider knowledge of life as a paramedic.
THE LOW ROAD - Chris Womersley
THE LOW ROAD is an austere portrait of two of life’s losers. Lee has never really had a chance. He lost his parents suddenly at the age of ten. Wild, on the other hand, was successful and threw it all away. Lee is incapacitated through his gunshot wound. Wild is so hopelessly addicted that he is almost incapable of any decision making outside of getting his next fix.
Reading THE LOW ROAD isn’t easy. In fact, there were moments in the book when I nearly put it down completely. It offers the reader no comfort at all. Like the winter landscape Womersley describes, it is cold and bleak. However, there is something there that keeps you reading. Perhaps it is the vivid descriptions. Maybe it is the characters. Surely they can’t sink any lower? Can they? Whatever it is THE LOW ROAD will stay with you after you’ve finished reading the book that’s for sure.
MAELSTROM - Michael MacConnell
Sarah Reilly is a Special Agent with the FBI. She is following in the footsteps of her semi-retired father, who made his name tracking down a notorious serial killer.
Sarah and her partner and former boyfriend, Drew, are assigned a case out of town. It bears all the hallmarks of a serial killer who murders couples in a specific locale near a lake. For Sarah, a profiler, there is something not quite right about these killings. She can’t put her finger on it, but she feels this is the work of a copycat.
MAELSTROM is a no-apologies thriller. I have to be honest and say thrillers aren’t usually my choice of reading. They work better for me on the big screen than between the pages of a book, but I found myself enjoying MAELSTROM much more than I expected. The there is plenty of action without it being dragged out too much and there’s enough plot to keep non-action people like me reading.
Dedicated thriller-readers will enjoy every action-packed page of MAELSTROM. It is a promising debut novel from Michael MacConnell.
MAELSTROM is a 2008 Ned Kelly nominee for Best First Novel.
Michael MacConnell is Australian and lives on the Central Coast of New South Wales. He has a degree in International Relations, History and Ancient History and currently works in New South Wales law enforcement. His official website is http://www.michaelmacconnell.com/
VODKA DOESN'T FREEZE - Leah Giarratano
When a middle-aged man is brutally murdered in the dunes overlooking a children's pool, it's immediately clear to Sergeant Jill Jackson that this was no ordinary victim: someone has stopped a dangerous paeodophile in his tracks. Knowing first-hand the impact of such men on their prey, Jill is ambivalent about pursing the killer, but when more men die - all known to the police as child sex offenders - she is forced to face the fact that a serial killer is on the loose.
Leah Giarratano is a trauma psychologist based in Sydney. Among her clients have been victims of sexual abuse and men serving sentences for child abuse. VODKA DOESN’T FREEZE is her first novel. I had the good fortune to hear Giarratano speak last year. She talked about the book being cathartic for her. She regarded it as an exercise to purge herself of bottled up emotions. She never expected a publisher to accept it.
VODKA DOESN’T FREEZE isn’t an easy book. It is a very dark subject Giarratano writes about. A subject that is difficult to explore. However, the reader who can make it through is rewarded. It offers some insights in ways perhaps not expected by the author or the reader. Yes, it does demonstrate how different people deal with being sexually abused, but what I found was that perhaps inadvertently the author has shown something of the emotional toll taken on professionals who deal with sex offenders in their working life.
VODKA DOESN'T FREEZE is a nomination for the 2008 Ned Kelly Awards for Best First Fiction and a well deserved one.
THE KILLING HOUR - Paul Cleave
They come for me as I sleep. Their pale faces stare at me. Their soft voices tell me to wake, to wake. They come to remind me of the night, to remind me of what I have done.
First line: They come for me as I sleep.
Charlie Feldman wakes up aching all over, with a large painful bump on his forehead, and his blood spattered clothes on the floor. When he turns on the tv, he learns two women he was with the night before have been brutally murdered. The police evidence links Charlie to the crime. Charlie knows that Cyris is the murderer, but he's the only one who believes Cyris exists. When he goes to his ex-wife Jo for help, she doesn't believe him either, so he feels he has no option but to kidnap her. As his memory of that night slowly comes back, Charlie tries to work out why the murders occurred.
Inspector Bill Landry has just found out he is dying from cancer, and wants to end his career with a big success. He keeps vital evidence to himself, and sets out on a one man crusade to track down Charlie, and see justice done.
As Charlie and Jo are pursued by the police and the murderer, and as horror follows horror, the tension keeps mounting, and you wonder just how much more these people can take.
The story is told from multiple points of view, with each chapter shifting to a different character. This could have made for a very disjointed story, but works brilliantly here.
Before you read this book you should make sure you have turned on all the lights and checked all the doors and windows - twice. This is a seriously scary book.
COLD PURSUIT - Judith Cutler
When a colleague becomes seriously ill, Chief Superintendent Fran Harman has to delay her impending retirement to oversee an investigation into a recent spate of 'happy-slappings' and minor assaults in the area.
The wave of incidents has ignited a media furore and Fran soon finds herself having to spend as much time trying to control the press as trying to catch the criminals. However, the local reporter who initially broke the story may have personal reasons for taking such an avid interest in the case.
Chief Superintendent Fran Harman is the main character in what is now a three book series with the third - STILL WATERS recently released. LIFE SENTENCE introduced Fran, followed by COLD PURSUIT in which Fran, on the verge of retirement in the first book, finds herself cajoled back into active duty due to staff shortages and a particularly odd case.
Somebody is committing minor assaults - happy slapping - young women, with increasing frequency, but there are some worryingly sexual elements to some of the assaults. Fran is supervising the investigation team - which rapidly expands into teams as the investigations seem to indicate two sets of crimes. Whilst they are trying to find any possible leads on their happy-slappers, Fran discovers that one of the media pack pursuing them over that case is being stalked in her own right. When her long-time friend DCI Jill Tanner is injured at home, Fran also finds herself up to her elbows in finding out what's going on there as well. As her hoped for slowing down, and a switch to a career as a university lecturer seems to recede further into the distance, it doesn't help that one of the senior officers doing the cajoling to stay on is her lover Mark Tanner. Just to complicate matters they are taking some rather hesitant steps towards cohabitation; so in the middle of multiple investigations, there's house-hunting to be done.
The plot of COLD PURSUIT is different - nobody dies horribly - but a lot happens and there's a realistic feeling of an over-worked investigation team, trying to juggle a lot of things all at the same time. Fran is really the focus of these books and as a "woman of a certain age" she has a way about her - part fussy / part no nonsense / part giddy girl in love. There's occasionally just a bit too much of that giddy breathlessness, but that is balanced by some nice touches of humour and a healthy dose of pig-headedness that makes her, as a character, balance a fine line between slightly annoying and actually quite engaging.
There's possibly a bit too much ancillary information, and at points you feel you could pick the villages and houses that Fran and Mark are considering in a line up, but that's part of the style of the book - chatty / light / romantic / lively, and as much as I keep wondering why, I really did like Chief Superintendent Fran Harman.
A GREATER EVIL - Natasha Cooper
Abandoned as a baby and brutalised in care, sculptor Sam Foundling is the obvious suspect when his wife Cecilia is found beaten to death in his studio.
Trish Maguire, who acted for him when he was a child, hopes he didn't do it. Her campaign for him brings her up against DCI Caro Lyalt, the senior investigating officer .. and her own best friend.
A GREATER EVIL is the eight book in the series feature Trish Maguire - barrister and a bit of a champion of the underdog. In this book she takes on the challenge of proving one-time client (as a badly abused child) Sam Foundling didn't kill his pregnant wife Cecilia. Co-incidentally, Sam is one of Trish's favourite sculptors, long before she connected him with the child she had defended many years before (surname change on his part). Cecilia, co-incidentally has been working with Trish on an insurance case involving the iconic, but structurally faulty Arrow Building. Cecilia is, co-incidentally, the daughter of the judge that Trish most admires. On the day that Cecilia is found brutally beaten in her husband's studio, Sam had actually been visiting Trish to ask for advice about letters he has been receiving supposedly from the mother who abandoned him years before. In another co-incidence the case is investigated by Trish's best friend - Caro, who only finds out about Trish's involvement when she sees who is providing Sam's main alibi.
Now given all these co-incidences you'd be forgiven for wondering what on earth is going on, but interestingly most of it rolls by as the story gets moving. It's probably an indication that the writing is good, because the co-incidences can also be read as connections - everybody in this story has a connection to everybody else - right down to Trish and her long-time lover George who also finds himself involved via the Arrow Building case. Ultimately the case comes down to the police believing that Sam killed his wife, whilst Trish is initially not convinced. There's always the possibility that there is a connection between Cecilia - a loss adjuster, and the case involving the Arrow Building.
To like A GREATER EVIL you are really going to have to like Trish, or at least understand what motivates Trish as she is very much the central character. A lot of the actions, and behaviours of the other characters are filtered through her view. The book is a written in a very flowing style, and is not particularly fast paced or tense, and there are some elements which are a bit thrown away / under-explained. There's a surprisingly adversarial stance between Trish and Caro who are supposed to be such good friends. The connections / co-incidences also give the book a closed in / almost small village feeling in some ways - the interweaving of everybody and everything sort of shuts down the possibility of an outsider invading this "place". The author is quoted (and I'm paraphrasing) as being very interested in the why as opposed to the how of people's motivations and that's definitely explored in A GREATER EVIL.
MURDER ON THE DANCE FLOOR - Susan Kelly
Superintendent Gregory Summers has a new DCI. Striker Freeman is the fifth in four years. Hopefully this one will be competent and stick around for a while. Striker is ex-Israeli army and fit, so at least he won’t die in harness.
The opening chapters in the night club gradually build the tension. It is going to end very badly for someone, but who? This makes compulsive, page-turning reading. Once the victim is revealed, the book shifts to a slightly slower pace as the detectives go about unravelling the case. This doesn’t make the book any less absorbing. MURDER ON THE DANCE FLOOR is a first-rate example of contemporary crime-writing. It has all the right elements: tension, a twisting plot, strong and distinctive characters and a good blend of the working and private lives of the police involved in the investigation.
MURDER ON THE DANCE FLOOR is the sixth in the Superintendent Gregory Summers series and I will be on the lookout for the author’s other books.
THE ADVERSARY - Michael Walters
For more than twenty years a hidden hand has ruled the backstreets of Ulan Baatar, but now Muunokhoi, the once untouchable head of Mongolia's largest and most powerful criminal empire, has finally been caught.
It should be the Serious Crime Team's finest hour. But nothing is ever that simple in the new Mongolia.
THE ADVERSARY is the second book in the Nergui / Doripalam police procedural series set in Ulan Baatar, Mongolia. The first was THE SHADOW WALKER.
Fans of police procedurals who haven't caught up with this series should give it a go. Whilst it is set in Mongolia, and there are unusual names and unusual settings which give it a slightly exotic feel, the basis of the book is a sound procedural with the same sorts of issues that plague police departments the world over. The connection between the Underworld of Gangsters, Drugs and influence and police department corruption has quite a resonance for a Melbourne, Australia based reader.
THE ADVERSARY finds Nergui moved on from the Serious Crimes Squad with Doripalam, his one time protege, taking over as head. When the crime lord Muunokhoi is acquitted because of problems with the validity of evidence against him, the issue of corruption within even the Serious Crimes Squad can't be ignored any longer. Nergui is bought back to try to get to the bottom of the fiasco. Tunjin, old, obese and totally responsible for the faked evidence is suspended. Judge Raadna. who presided over the aborted trial, turns out to be an old Nergui acquaintance and she is being threatened. Meanwhile an elderly woman - member of a nomadic family is beaten to death when she has stayed, refusing to move on with her family, waiting for her missing son to be found.
As Muunokhoi seeks to re-establish control over his empire, Tunjin must make something of himself. Doripalam has to find out who killed a poor defenceless old woman and why - whilst he also tries to find her nomadic family somewhere in the vast Mongolian steppes. Nergui must establish the lengths to which the corruption within his old department has spread. He is not even sure if he can trust Doripalam and the feeling is mutual.
Set within the partly exotic world of the Mongolian steppes and the sometimes drab post-Soviet environment of Ulan Baatar, THE ADVERSARY takes the elements of a really good police procedural, sets a cracking pace, adds some insight into the clash between the traditional and post-Soviet / Western influence and then tops it all up with characters that it's almost impossible not to like.
Probably the standout character and story is Tunjin - the failed, obese, alcoholic, compromised policeman who starts out saving his own skin, and ends up the most unlikely hero. But don't sell Nergui short - inscrutable, contained, besuited and elegant - he and his protege Doripalam are a new force to be reckoned with in detecting partnerships.
If you haven't read THE SHADOW WALKER then THE ADVERSARY will still work for you, but there's really no reason not to read them both.