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Reviews

September 2009

Val McDermid - Fever of the Bone

"...one of the finest character authors writing in any genre today. "

Synopsis:
Psychologist Tony Hill and Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan latest outing has DCI Jordan and her handpicked team of specialists chasing a killer without the profiling talents of Tony Hill, who was a victim of budget cuts implemented by the penny pinching new Chief Constable upon his replacing of DCI Jordan's mentor and champion.

Dr Hill's talents are instead sought by another police force investigating the brutal murder of teenager Jennifer Maidment. There appears to be a murderous psychopath loose who is targeting young teens through a social network site and grooming them to sate the killer's twisted appetites and fantasies. This killer must be stopped as quickly as humanly possible as the body count rises.

Tony Hill's unknown father makes a posthumous appearance which almost sidetracks both him and DCI Jordan from their investigations. Whilst causing further emotional turmoil for the damaged psychologist.

Review:
Val McDermid's latest offering is an excellent book which has the reader guessing and second-guessing the killer's identity and motive throughout the whole book. The main storyline is beautifully intertwined with a cold case and the discovery of Tony Hill's father and his feelings towards the man he believed had deserted him and his mother.

All of the characters are wonderfully constructed and McDermid has the ability to display a person's essential psychological make up in a few short sentences, which gives instant empathy and understanding of a character whose role may be significant yet limited to a page or two. When dealing with established characters such as Tony Hill and Carol Jordan the author has the opportunity to flex her considerable literary muscle as one of the finest character authors writing in any genre today. This leads to an amazing depiction not only of her characters and their actions but their innermost thoughts, fears and desires.

Many books contain fine characters, but few are the books which have this depth of insight into what makes tick the various elements of society. Whether depicting the young or elderly, working or middle class, Asian or Caucasian, Val McDermid hits the nail on the head every time with her understanding of their grammar, values and aspirations.

She does this as a background to a brilliantly executed plot which grips the reader from first page to last.

This has to be her finest offering to date. Which, considering her previous novels, is no mean feat! Fever Of The Bone reinforces her standing as the mistress of the psychological crime thriller.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Nicola Upson - Angel With Two Faces

"...builds up to a crescendo to leave you breathless."

Synopsis:
It is the summer of 1935. Author, Josephine Tey travels down to the Cornwall family home of her friend, Inspector Archie Penrose. Josephine feels she needs a long holiday and also start her second detective novel featuring her creation, Inspector Grant. The country estate is beautiful, but the atmosphere is tainted with the sudden death of a young worker on the estate, Harry Pinching. Leaving behind his sisters, Morwenna and Loveday the estate tries to pull itself together to get over the grief. But too many people have too many secrets they are trying to hide.

Some people believe that Harry's 'accident' was no such thing. And when another death occurs, this time without doubt a murder, roads start leading back to Harry's death. When Archie is put in charge of the case he finds himself at loggerheads with people he calls friends and even family. Now he feels he is an outsider, pitted against a wall of silence. Soon, secrets start tumbling out, some years old, some known to others, others withheld from the innocent. And at the centre is Morveth who seems to be the keeper of secrets… and possibly more.

Review:
Nicola Upson brought out a great debut last year with the first in the Josephine Tey series, An Expert in Murder. It could have been very kitsch to have included a crime novel around someone who was a real figure. It has been done before without great results. However, with Upson's novel, Angel With Two Faces being the second the idea works surprisingly well.

You can tell from Upson's writing that she is possibly slightly in love with her main subject: Josephine Tey, a woman about whom little is known is lovingly fleshed out by the author. She gives us the woman without putting her on a pedestal, a person who has faults like all of us. With the magical writing of Upson she echoes another Faber writer, P. D. James. As with James, Upson brings the Cornish countryside in to play, making the landscape as much of a character as the players within the drama. And this story is populated with memorable characters from Morveth who has made herself the Queen Bee of the whole village to Jasper Motley the most vile and corrupted man who ever sheltered in the house of God as a vicar.

The plot delightfully twists and turns again echoing something that Tey herself would have been proud to have written. The climax builds up to a crescendo to leave you breathless. If Upson can continue with the momentum she has gained in her first two novels, then we can look forward to even greater novels to come.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Ian Rankin - The Complaints

"...a riveting read."

Synopsis:
The Complaints is the department of the police not liked by other policemen. Members of the Complaints and Conduct Department investigate other cops and are seen as almost traitors. Old fashioned coppers, respected by their colleagues for getting results, are brought down by the Complaints for sailing too close to the wind in pursuit of the truth. Malcolm Fox is an Inspector in the Complaints and has just successfully completed an investigation into a popular detective. This makes him some powerful enemies. His private life is not going too well either. He lives a solitary life since his wife left; his sister has an abusive boyfriend and his father is becoming frailer and lives in a care home.

He is then asked to investigate James Breck, a policeman who has allegations of child pornography against him. Breck turns out to be an interesting character and Fox gets on well with him. When a violent murder is discovered involving Fox's family, they begin to work together.
Money, business and intrigue all play a part in this tale, against a background of the modern day Edinburgh that Rankin loves.

Review:
This is another excellent tale from Ian Rankin. As always, the backdrop of Edinburgh and Scotland is up to date and intrinsic to the story. Fox is rather a lonely character who battles with his own demons on his own. Perhaps his is the type of character who gravitates to the Complaints and Rankin describes his life with the little touches that make him real. Throughout this book are descriptions of insignificant details which are beautifully observed and bring the scene to life.

Above all the interactions between the characters make the story. Personal ambition, trust and distrust and individual views of right and wrong make this story more than just an exciting tale. The rivalry between departments and different constabularies, as well as political corruption and money grabbing developments all have their part to play.

I found perhaps the beginning of this book a little hard to get into as Malcolm Fox starts as rather a grey figure, but as the story progresses Fox becomes a more complex character and the various plot lines weave in and out of the story and make it a riveting read.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

David Levien - Where The Dead Lay

"If you haven’t yet gotten round to reading Behr, make it a priority."

Synopsis:
Ex-cop turned P.I. Frank Behr turns up at a fight training sessions to find his teacher and friend dead. This fresh loss leaves Behr adrift and estranged from his girlfriend as he does what he does best...dive head first into a quest for answers and revenge.

Before he can get many answers he is approached by a high-end security firm to find two of their operatives, who have fallen under the radar. At first Behr turns them down until his ex-boss asks him to think again while dangling a suggestion that the force would be extremely grateful to him.
His investigations pit him against a formidable family who are intent on making as much money as they possibly can while getting rid of their competition by any means necessary.

This is Frank's big chance but he knows that anyone who can put down his fighting mentor has to be extremely dangerous. He also knows that they are most certainly after him. Can he avenge his friend's death and track down the killers before they find him?

Review:
Frank Behr has all the qualities that make him my new favourite investigator. Intelligent, dogged, taciturn, an expert street fighter with a troubled past and an ability to reason out everyone else's life... but his own.

David Levien has all the qualities that make him one of my new favourite thriller writers. In Where the Dead Lay his plot is fresh, entertaining and pacy, with strands that merge seamlessly. It's fair to say that this is a writer who can work a plot with the best of them.

His characters, even the most incidental are multi-dimensional, their thoughts and flaws detailed with a gesture, a few words of dialogue or a quick descriptive stroke of the author's pen. Levien manages to tag his characters' emotions without pausing for breath or allowing the pace to sag, meaning that not only do you want to know what happens, you WANT to know what happens.

If you haven't yet gotten round to reading Behr, make it a priority. You will not be disappointed.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Martin Walker - The Dark Vineyard

"Bruno Courreges...loves the town that he is charged to protect and is willing to bend the rules to bring about justice."

Synopsis:
Captain Bruno Courreges of the St Denis police is investigating a fire that has taken place on a neighbouring property. The owner of the fields is a mysterious agricultural company and there is an unregistered barn on the premises and some suspicious looking crops being grown. Bruno immediately suspects local environmental activists who are opposed to the growing of genetically modified food. However his investigation of the crime is interrupted by the offer by a multinational wine company to grow their grapes in the commune. Local opinion is divided and Bruno comes firmly down on the side of retaining the status quo and preserving St Denis' unique local character. But other forces are at play and soon the murders begin to pile up. Who is Bruno looking for, a disgruntled Green party member or a wine aficionado? Either way no peace with be restored to the commune until the crimes are solved.

Review:
This second book featuring Bruno Courreges continues its depiction of life in the fictional village of St Denis. Marin Walker is obviously charmed by rural French life and his descriptions of the markets, vineyards and assorted townspeople evoke a rural idyll. Into this setting Bruno Courreges fits perfectly. He loves the town that he is charged to protect and is willing to bend the rules to bring about justice. But the author also adds a dose of modern day drama. The issue of genetically modified crops in the fields of rural France is an emotive issue in current politics as is the influence of new world winemaking on French traditional methods.

The murder plot is engrossing although sometimes the personality of the victims is somewhat glossed over leaving the reader feel that they are a bit part in the wider French drama. But the investigation reaches a satisfactory conclusion after suitable twists and turns in the plot. Those returning from their holidays in the depths of rural France will thoroughly enjoy the book, as will many other readers of crime fiction.

Reviewed by: S.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

George Dawes Green - Ravens

"...certainly shows how money can bring out the worst in people..."

Synopsis:
When grifters Shaw and Romeo pull up at a convenience store in Georgia, their only thought is to fix a faulty tyre and be on their way to Florida. But this happens to be the store from which a $318 million Jackpot ticket has just been sold - and when the pretty clerk accidentally reveals to Shaw the identity of the winning family, he hatches a terrifyingly audacious plan.

That night, he visits the Boatwright family's home and takes them hostage, while the sinister Romeo patrols the streets nearby, prepared to murder the Boatwrights' loved ones at the first sign of resistance.

At first, the family offers none. But Shaw's plan depends on maintaining constant fear - merciless, unfaltering terror - and soon, under the pressure, everyone's sanity begins to unravel.

Review:
Ravens is the first book for quite some time from George Dawes Green, following the huge success of The Juror.

Shaw and Romeo hatch a plan to share a lottery jackpot with the winning family, without their consent by using fear and threats. Shaw is the brains behind the operation, and Romeo is a misguided, and quite sad and lonely character willing to follow his friend where ever he goes. Unfortunately, the true winners of the lottery are either weak or unpleasant so I was left with litle empathy for them when their lives were disrupted in this way.

There was no explanation as to why each of the characters behaved as they did, leaving much to be answered. I also found the end to be a little disappointing and almost unfinished with much being left open.

That said, Ravens was very well written and certainly shows how money can bring out the worst in people, and also what people are willing to do for money or their loved ones.A good read but be prepared to imagine your own 'what happened next' once you have finished reading...

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Barbara Nadel - Sure and Certain Death

"...a cracking story. "

Synopsis:
Francis Hancock, undertaker extraordinaire, is back from his last exploit in St Paul's Cathedral and is continuing to face both the nightmares of the Blitz and his own internal demons.

When a series of middle-aged women are found brutally murdered, he is horrified to discover a connection that comes close to his own family. Rumour is rife that Jack the Ripper has returned to the streets of the East End but Hancock sees a thread that leads back to the First World War and his own family members.

When the true murderer is finally unveiled, it only confirms the long reaching and pernicious impact of that terrible conflict.

Review:
Barbara Nadel brings the flavour of London's East End during the Blitz vividly to life. The struggles of individual families and the social distinctions of the various “villages” are brilliantly described. The East End was not one amorphous mass, but a closely knit but distinct group of communities with individual identities. Throw into that an element of racial tension, and you have the backdrop for a cracking story.

The individual characters are beautifully drawn and Hancock and his family capture your interest. In this book we learn more about his sister, Nancy, and she develops into a strong character. who is yet another victim of the tragedy of the First world War. This is a book which is primarily an exciting story and a cleverly constructed plot, but it has many elements to appeal to both an historian and a sociologist.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Deon Meyer - Blood Safari

"...superbly executed thriller at the top of its class."

Synopsis:
Lemmer is a freelance bodyguard for Body Armor, a personal security company in South Africa. Lean, angry, violent, he is way down on the company's price list where the bargain basement bodyguards are to be found.

Emma le Roux desperately wants to find her missing brother. Her parents both died some years previously believing that their son was long dead, some twenty years since. Yet, Emma saw a news item where the main suspect in the recent killing of a witch doctor and four poachers had a very strong resemblance to the man she believed her brother might have become. She makes a call to the local police station who is investigating this crime. Just days later she is attacked in her home by masked gunmen, but she manages to escape.

A successful business lady and used to getting her own way she determines to go down to the Transvaal area where this man (her brother?) was last seen and she hires Lemmer to watch her back when she goes looking for answers.

As le Roux and Lemmer look for clues in the Lowveld, it becomes clear someone wants to keep them in the dark. Someone powerful who will go to any lengths to stop them asking questions. When they are attacked and almost killed, Lemmer decides the only way to stay safe is to become the hunter rather than the hunted.

Review:
Question: why has someone this good stayed under my reading radar? If you haven't come across Deon Meyer before you are in for a real treat. This is a novel of real quality that manages to thrill while posing questions about mankind at its worst.

The main character, Lemmer, is no ordinary guard for hire. Sure he has the moves, the muscle and the hardware, but he is also charismatic, damaged and full of insights he has gained on his fellow humans the hard way.

If you like your crime novel to have the usual elements of a fast pace, great characters, brisk prose with the addition of a fascinating location then Blood Safari is the book for you. Meyer is writing in post-apartheid South Africa and this background and the issues now faced by this beautiful and troubled country are part of the fabric of this novel without ever getting in the way of the action. Indeed this setting gives an added dimension that places this superbly executed thriller at the top of its class.

Deon Meyer. Let me repeat it again. Deon Meyer. If this guy isn't a huge literary star in the coming years then there is no justice in the book-buying world.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Gunnar Staalsen - Writing on the Wall

"...an excellent introduction to the author..."

Synopsis:
Private Detective Varg Veum is asked to find a missing teenage girl as her mother is desperately worried about her safety. Although willing to help, Veum is concerned about the complicated home life of the family and the unwillingness of her friends to give any information about her. Veum fears that Torild, the missing girl, may have been sucked into a life of drugs and prostitution, an unfortunately common occurrence on the streets of Bergen.

Could the girl's disappearance be linked to the death of a local judge, found in a luxury hotel, clad only in women's underwear?

As Veum investigates her past he becomes into contact with more and more dubious characters from the city's underworld, including a man known only as 'Knife' who Veum has previously tussled with. When Veum receives a note inviting him to his own funeral he realises he is getting closer to solving the mystery of the missing girl.

Review:
This is a solid mystery from one of Norway's premier crime writers. Gunnar Staalesen wrote his first crime novel featuring the detective Varg Veum in 1977 and this latest book to be translated was first published in Norway in 1995.

For a reader like me who is new to Staalsen's books reading a novel with such an established character can cause some difficulties. However, the beauty of this book that it is a straightforward hunt for a missing girl. The plot focuses on Veum's hunt through dissolute Bergen for a trace of the teenager and solving the seeming randomness of the disappearance. The sub-plot of the dead judge, although an essential part of solving the mystery is not quite as well developed I would have liked. I much preferred the descriptions of the city from its affluent suburbs to it's inner city amusement arcades.

This book is an excellent introduction to the author and would appeal particularly those who like Scandinavian crime writers.

Reviewed by: S.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Lee Child - Gone Tomorrow

"...fast paced enough to keep the reader enthralled..."

Synopsis:
Ex-soldier Jack Reacher has been trained to spot a suicide bomber. They emit twelve tell-tale signs which to the trained eye mean only one thing - they intend to blow up themselves and anyone else in close proximity.

Fortunately, Jack has never had to put into practice his training, until one night at 2 am he is sitting on the subway opposite a woman exhibiting all of the symptoms. Reacher has to make a decision fast. The train is hurtling towards Grand Central Station and the other passengers seem blissfully unaware of the impending crisis.

Jack's subsequent actions have consequences that reverberate around New York and Washington. What was Susan Marks, a minor government official, doing with sensitive information? Why was she so scared of Reacher? And what happened to the witness on the train?

As Jack tries to unravel the events of that evening, he is forced to face his role in the crisis as neatly summed up by the detective investigating the case "You tipped her over the edge".

Review:
Lee Child is a master of the thriller genre and his Jack Reacher novels have fans throughout the world. Reacher excels when he is rebelling against authority and here, pitched against a powerful senatorial candidate there are particularly good descriptions of him infiltrating Washington secrecy.

The plot is fast paced enough to keep the reader enthralled, especially as Reacher goes on the run from contract hitmen who are convinced that the stolen information is now in his possession. My only criticism would be the Al Qaeda element of the plot which I found less than convincing. But given that in each book, Reacher finds himself in a new pressurised situation, Lee Child each time comes up with an innovative scenario.

Reacher is the person that any of us with a daytime job and responsibilities wants to be. His itinerant lifestyle, unencumbered by domestic worries makes him an ideal character for a world in thrall to an economic recession. Perhaps in the next book Reacher could take on the bankers?

Reviewed by: S.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Susanna Gregory - A Vein of Deceit

"...all we expect from Susanna Gregory..."

Synopsis:
Cambridge in 1357 is the setting for the latest mystery featuring Matthew Bartholomew, physician to the College of Michaelhouse. The College is experiencing a series of misfortunes. The Fellows, having seemingly sorted out their funds, are surprisingly still struggling with the supply of money, resulting in a very poor and unappetising diet. Two of the valuable cups held by the College have been stolen, and the Master has been attacked. A close friend of Matthew's sister dies in childbirth in unusual circumstances: a trusted colleague of Matthew appears to have been fiddling the books and then dies, apparently from laughing too much!

Matthew and Brother Michael set off into Suffolk to investigate the loss of the money and find themselves embroiled in disputes over the ownership of a coal mine. It all ties in with the identity of the murderer of the pregnant woman and Matthew fears that his fellow College members may be implicated.

Review:
This is all we expect from Susanna Gregory; a well researched story, an intricate and convincing plot, an engaging hero, a little love interest to keep us entertained and some very mean and unpleasant villains. Put into the context of medieval England where life is hard and uncomfortable, the story both informs and entertains us.

Mathew Bartholomew has very modern views that would have been considered strange at that time, but this helps to make him a very sympathetic hero. The ending leaves us with a puzzle to be resolved in the next book.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Charles Brokaw - The Atlantis Code

"A rip roaring adventure..."

Synopsis:
Dr Thomas Lourdes is the world's foremost ancient linguist. Whilst in Alexandria he is shown an historic bell which is inscribed with writing in a language he has never come across before. The bell is stolen from Lourdes' possession amid an unprovoked and unexpected attack which prompts the reluctant professor to try to solve the riddle of the unknown language, whilst battling against a shadowy group who seem determined to stop his efforts at any cost.

His quest leads him to discover that the bell is one of a set of ancient instruments which hold a powerful secret written in the archaic language. Lourdes is consulted by a Russian colleague and he embarks upon a race across Europe trying to stay one step ahead of the competition, who not only want the knowledge he has but also want to kill him to prevent him sharing this knowledge.

The Vatican meanwhile is exploring under a cloud of controversy a site in Spain which has been uncovered by an earthquake. Is this the site of Atlantis? What role do the musical instruments play with their ancient inscriptions in an unknown language? Why is the Vatican taking such an interest? These are the questions that Dr Lourdes has to find the answers to before his pursuers catch up with him.

Review:
A rip roaring adventure which sees an unlikely hero thrust into a situation not of his choosing but just too intriguing to ignore. Brokaw's debut novel is a well written tale that rockets along at an incredible pace whilst giving a broad and plausible background to the story of a professor deciphering a language 20,000 years old.

An unlikely yet entertaining band of comrades keep the professor company during his romp across Europe, with each character contributing something different to the group as a whole. The interplay between these varied characters helps to maintain the frantic pace and atmosphere of the book.

The novel shines a different light upon the legend of Atlantis whilst still managing to tie in some established theories. With a few twists in the plot before the final reveal of the shadowy conspiracy dogging Dr Lourdes' movement and actions, this can only be described as an accomplished beginning for an author and character who may entertain us for years to come.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Michael Stanley - A Deadly Trade

"Definitely an entertaining read."

Synopsis:
This is another in the new wave of African detective fiction, this time set in Botswana. There, any resemblance to the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency ends, as it is a fast moving tale of murder, war crimes and drug smuggling.

Assistant Superintendent “Kubu” Bengu is sent to investigate the violent deaths of two men in a tourist camp run by two ex- Zimbabweans. Complications arise when the first victim is found to have died thirty years ago in the Rhodesian War. Other lines in the investigation lead back to this conflict, together with political intrigue and a dash of drug smuggling. Kubu himself, when he comes too close to the killers, finds his family under threat.

Review:
This is a well-constructed story with plenty of action to keep your interest. Kubu is an interesting and attractive character. Most of us will find the setting somewhat exotic, and the little details of landscape and cuisine all help to promote the atmosphere and transport you to the excitements of Africa.

The political tensions in the area between Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, with a dash of the old colonial British involvement, are vital to the development of the plot. Definitely an entertaining read.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating: