World of Trouble – Ben H Winters

Title – World of TroubleWorldOfTrouble

Author - Ben H Winters

Published - 15 July 2014 (but not until 15 August in the UK)

Genre – Crime fiction / apocalyptic fiction / pre-apocalyptic crime fiction

So this is it – the final instalment. Any feelings of anticipation I had for this third and final book in the Last Policeman trilogy have been tinged with dread as I know that, whatever the outcome, I must say goodbye to Hank and Horatio.

When the book opens there are just 14 days left until asteroid Maia is due to hit the Earth. Hank has left the safety of the group at the Police House and is on the road for his final case – to find out what has happened to his sister Nico.  I know that it’s this search that keeps him going, gives him some purpose in the final days, but it’s also clear that this coping strategy is really the equivalent of sticking your head under a pillow and hoping the whole asteroid thing will go away.

The crime thread of the story centres around Hank’s efforts to locate Nico and his attempts to explain the situation he finds at the Ohio police station that is the rendezvous point at which he hoped to find her. As less and less technology and resources become available to him he has to draw on every (brief) moment of training he had to collect and analyse evidence, administer first aid, negotiate with armed opponents. Despite the ‘race against time’ dimension that the meteor provides there’s still a mystery to solve, moments of peril for our hero and a few ‘aha!’ moments for those who read the preceding books.

This is a book (and series) where first person, present tense, really works, drawing you into Hank’s life and the immediacy of the problem he faces. Winters’ writing is, as ever, excellent – despite his sparse prose you really get a picture of the environment that Hank and Horatio encounter. Although Winters still manages to inject some humour into the story it remains both poignant and thought-provoking (pretty much true for the whole series). What would you do, what would you care about? There is one particular quote about death and loss that will stay with me.

For once I can safely say that this is not a book that can stand on its own. There is too much you would miss out on, too many subtleties which would be lost. In another universe this was probably published as one long book, and part of the charm for this reader has been the anticipation, the wait for another year to find out what happens next. Anyway – would you read The Return of the King without reading the preceding two volumes? No? Well the same is true here – read the series.

I hope that I won’t give anything away by saying that the book brought a tear to my eye (a couple of times) and I think that Winters gave Hank the ending that he deserved. Whilst I can’t help but be disappointed that this is the end  – I do look forward to whatever venture Winters undertakes next.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy. You can see another point of view over at Eamo the Geek.

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Original Skin – David Mark

????????Title – Original Skin

Author - David Mark

Published - 2013

Genre – Crime fiction

Having enjoyed Mark’s debut ‘The Dark Winter‘ I couldn’t pass up the opportunity when the publisher offered me a review copy of the sequel.

The opening of the book feels a little disjointed – the death of a young man, the arrival of a group of travellers, a Police Authority meeting, some particularly violent drug-related attacks … and it goes on. It takes a while before the different plotlines become clearer and you can get a better idea of where the story is heading. Despite the slow start, once the book hits its stride, Mark builds on the various plotlines and eventually, skilfully draws them together.

Whilst this may be a police procedural the real attraction of the series is McAvoy. He’s the gentle giant of the team, with a strong sense of justice but often suffering a crisis in confidence as to what lengths he might be prepared to go to get the result he wants. In this second novel he finds that he has been left to his own devices when his boss is temporarily out of the picture, allowing him to pursue his own lines of enquiry – not always to everyone’s satisfaction!

The story is told from multiple points of view and the main character, aside from McAvoy, is Suzie, a young woman who gets her thrills from sexual encounters with strangers. This is a risky enough enterprise at the best of times but for reasons that aren’t immediately clear Suzie finds herself the target of someone with more sinister intentions. The subject matter won’t be something that everyone will be comfortable reading but Mark has an eye for when to lighten the mood with the injection of some humour.

While McAvoy doesn’t have any of the typical vices found in crime fiction he does have his own set of problems. He is enjoying family life to the full, with his small son and new baby girl, but the demands of trying to maintain a ‘normal’ life are putting a strain on both McAvoy and his wife. There is also some unwelcome crossover between his homelife and his work as his wife’s traveller past seems to be something that they are unable to escape.

Present tense isn’t to everyone’s liking and Mark’s writing has a lot of clipped sentences which can give quite a stylised feel – but who can resist Aector McAvoy!

You can see another review of this title at Raven Crime Reads.

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Bloody Scotland

BloodyScotlandThere are a plethora crime fiction events but one that looks too good to miss is Bloody Scotland, taking place over 19 – 21 September in Stirling. Only in its third year this is quickly becoming one of the key events for fans of crime fiction.

Scotland seems to produce a higher ratio of top notch crime writers than seems fair (perhaps it’s something in the water) – think Ian Rankin, Quintin Jardine, Peter May, Denise Mina – and they’re all participating this year. Generously the list of authors also includes a few interlopers including Kathy Reichs, Mark Billingham and a contingent from Iceland including Yrsa Sigurðardóttir.

Part of the appeal of the festival has to be the location – Stirling has a wealth of historic venues and the organisers are making the most of this, with events taking place in the Old Town Jail, Stirling Sheriff Court and even Stirling Castle itself. And not all of the events are sedate authors on panels, there’s a crime writer’s football match, a recreation of a real-life medieval murder mystery and a true-crime dramatisation.

For those who would rather appear on a panel than watch one, the Friday features a Crime Writing Masterclass in conjunction with the University of Stirling and will include a masterclass with author Christopher Brookmyre.

The timing of the festival is particularly interesting as the results of the Scottish Independence Referendum will be announced on 19th September – what better time to be in Scotland…?

For more information about the programme see the Bloody Scotland website.

 

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More Bloody Foreigners

More Bloodt ForeignersI’m usually drawn to events because there is a particular author that I’m interested in hearing speak, but in this case I was intrigued by an event where I knew nothing of any of the authors.

The panel consisted of Mariusz Czubaj from Poland, Marco Malvaldi and Ben Pastor of Italy and Montenegrin Andrej Nikolaidis, who were interviewed by Jake Kerridge, journalist and crime fiction critic for The Telegraph.

Although connected by the crime theme it soon became apparent that the four authors had quite different approaches to the genre. Discussions ranged from the importance of place for the novels, which also took in some of the cultural differences between the countries, to their own diverse backgrounds.

Marco Malvaldi  has an interesting background and told a very amusing story about his reports when he was studying chemistry at university. It sounds like he has quite a strong interest in food, with his crime fiction series featuring Massimo, the “barrista”, as well as an historical mystery featuring the real-life character of Pellegrino Artusi, a world-renowned author of the cookbook “La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene”. Malvadi shared some interesting insights on life in Tuscany, much to the amusement of the audience.

Mariusz Czubaj unfortunately struggled more with the language barrier than the other authors, which is by no means a criticism as I’m sure most of the us would have struggled to speak any Polish. However, it did mean that he was less able to express his thoughts about his current book and on the setting, culture etc. What did come across was his sense of humour (although the less said about his Jimmy Page reference the better). He is a real-life cultural anthropologist and his first crime novel, 21:37 (at the moment around £2 on the Kindle), features profiler Rudolf Heinz. What we did miss out on were his views on the relationship between his own role as an anthropologist and that of his protagonist as a profiler – I think that if you could speak Polish he had some really interesting things to say!

Andrej Nikolaidis is a journalist and novelist, who spoke about his book ‘The Coming’. His detective has a quite unusual position on investigation – wanting to give the customer what he wants rather than pursuing the crime to uncover things which they would rather leave hidden. I can think of a few books which would have come to an early end taking this approach! The book itself is more of a novella and deals with some intellectual issues – finding favour with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. He also mentioned that the book is accompanied by a Spotify playlist (I’m now trying to remember is this is how we got on to the subject of Jimmy Page…).

Of the four I was probably most drawn to Ben Pastor (Ben is short for Verbena) who has a series of books set during the Second World War and whose main protagonist is Martin Bora, a Wehrmacht officer. She was very engaging, her opinions made a lot of sense and she has a ‘thing’ for men in uniform.

This was a very entertaining evening attended by around 100 people – no mean feat in the London Review Bookshop! In truth I would be interested to try the books by any of the authors. Many thanks for all who organised the event and sponsored it, allowing us all to have an illuminating event for free.

You may also be interested to read the Stu’s account on his WinstonsDad blog about the related lunch the following day.

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If I Should Die – Matthew Frank

If I Should DieTitle – If I Should Die

Author - Matthew Frank

Published - 5 June 2014

Genre – Crime fiction

I was lucky enough to meet Matthew at the Penguin Crime evening and had another opportunity to talk to him at Crimefest in May, where I also saw him on the “Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock: Ramping Up The Tension ” panel. Since I started reviewing books for my blog it’s become apparent that a lot of new authors have some background in writing – whether it be through journalism, copywriting or teaching, so it’s refreshing to meet someone who comes from a different background (he’s actually an architect).

If I Should Die introduces us to Trainee Detective Constable Joseph Stark, newly discharged from the Territorial Army on medical grounds following a firefight in Helmand. And in that sentence are two key aspects that set this apart from many other police procedurals. The first is that I can’t remember a book where the main character has been a trainee detective – which has some interesting implications. It means that Stark has limitations on what role he can play in an investigation which is balanced by a lack of responsibility. Not that Stark is a man to take his duties lightly, after all he is from a background that demanded that he took orders without question.

The second aspect is an unusual twist on the clichéd ‘flawed detective’. His backstory is intriguing and contrasts with the more mundane nature of crime in south London. The background from his time in the forces gradually comes out through the course book and as with The Last Refuge his nightmares give the reader a glimpse into his past. It’s clear that he is hiding something and there is a sub-plot which involves some unfinished business from his military service.

Stark’s first investigation begins with some fairly run-of-the-mill attacks on the local homeless (local being Greenwich) which have been carried out by a notorious gang of youths. From this inauspicious start the attacks escalate and Stark’s involvement develops. One of the real positives from this book is how credible the crime element remains throughout. The investigative part of the book is very detailed and I particularly liked the fact that the story didn’t end at the point where charges were brought, but carried on all the way through to the court case.

The novel is very much character-led and you can’t go wrong with someone like Stark. He is clearly tough but damaged and comes across as something of an enigma to his colleagues, keeping himself very much to himself. During the course of the book he has to deal with the toll that a return to work takes on his injuries and the treatment that he receives as part of his rehabilitation. There is a temptation for him to turn to drink and drugs to get him through but if he gives in there could be consequences for his new career. The dark mood is lightened, however, by his banter with the ladies – both with Fran, his supervising office and someone he meets during his treatment.

A connection with one of the other characters brings some more political topics to the fore and the author explores some of the issues, both current and historical, regarding the treatment of soldiers during and after service. Although this was in context I thought that it affected the pace of the story.

There is a lot of detail in the book – both in the criminal investigation as well as from Stark’s time in the TA. I have no idea how authentic it all was but it was told incredibly confidently and I found it all fascinating.

A great debut introducing an unusual lead character – I’m looking forward to reading more in the series. Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy. You can see another point of view over at Crime Fiction Lover and you can find the author on Twitter – @M_Frank_Author.

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The Last Refuge – Craig Robertson

Last RefugeTitle – The Last Refuge

Author - Craig Robertson

Published - 22 May 2014

Genre – Crime

I’m not sure that I need to go to the trouble of writing a review for this latest title by Craig Robertson, as I have already given it a one via Twitter. Admittedly that was just a one word review, but the word was ‘stonking’. Whilst it’s not the most informative review I stand by the fact that this is an “exciting, very impressive” book, but I should perhaps expand on that a little.

stonking

This is a departure from Robertson’s earlier series featuring Tony Winter, the police photographer, and takes place on the Faroe Islands. The opening feels like a scene that’s a familiar one in crime fiction – a man who wakes to find that he’s clutching a blood-covered knife with no idea how it got there, or whether or not he may have committed a crime. Don’t let this put you off – there’s nothing clichéd about this story.

Turn back the clock three months and John Callum arrives on the Faroe Islands from Scotland. For reasons that are unclear Callum is seeking somewhere remote to take refuge and initially it seems that he has made the right move, until of course he has to find a job to support himself. Gradually he starts to become involved with more people – a job at a fish farm, a few acquaintances in the local bars and a potential romance. But this is where the trouble starts. There is an inherent violence about Callum, something he tries to resist but there are occasions when it erupts, to the surprise of the locals.

Callum’s dreams, or rather nightmares, are interspersed through the story and provide an insight into the events that led him to escape his Scottish home – but it is inevitable that the reader asks themselves how reliable nightmares are. Despite this it’s clear that they never cease to shake Callum, whatever took place in Scotland is something that he has some regrets over, and his mind is torturing him. This all serves to make him an intriguing character – should the reader find him sympathetic without knowing what it is he is running away from? But told in the first person, it’s hard not to be drawn in.

In some ways this is a book of two halves – the first setting the scene and the background, where the mystery is what led Callum to be clutching the bloody knife. The second half is solving the riddle of whether or not he is guilty of the crime in which he is implicated – he doesn’t know and neither does the reader. Once the crime becomes clear then we’re in police procedural / detective territory – and this benefits from some antagonism between the local force and the team called in from Denmark.

The location is a really interesting choice, the isolation, small population and the harsh and varied environment give the book the feel of a ‘Nordic noir’. The bleak and gloomy weather and surroundings matching the dark tone of Callum’s past and the situation that he finds himself in. Seeing the setting through Callum’s eyes, as an outsider, is the perfect way to introduce an unusual location, and all I know about the Faroe Islands I found out from this story. There are some quirks of the Islands that lend themselves very well to the story (or more likely have been cleverly drawn on by the author) and add to the plot.

I thought the plotting was excellent and the way Robertson told Callum’s story was intriguing. I was completely drawn in and have to confess to being baffled about the ‘whodunnit’ aspect for quite some time. An excellent read that I can’t recommend highly enough. I could ramble on for even longer – but I suggest you go out and buy a copy for yourself.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy. You can see another review of this on Emma Lee’s Blog.

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Thursday’s Children – Nicci French

ThursdayschildrenTitle – Thursday’s Children

Author - Nicci French

Published - April 2014

Genre – Crime fiction

This is the fourth outing for psychotherapist Frieda Klein in a series that will total 8 titles. The series is shaping up well now and as I’ve said in previous reviews, the simplest analogy I can draw is that it’s like a popular crime series on TV where there is a long story arc running through, but each episode has its own plot and resolution.

This story touches on Frieda’s personal life when an old school friend (or rather acquaintance) approaches her to help her teenage daughter. The daughter seems troubled, withdrawn, won’t talk to her mother, but grudgingly opens up to Frieda. Having quickly established what has caused the young girl’s sudden personality change Frieda suggests that she makes an arrangement to see a psychologist on a more professional basis.

The girl’s revelation brings back some uncomfortable memories for Frieda and prompts her return home – something which she has managed to avoid for more than twenty years.  She becomes driven to resolve a very personal incident from her past and embarks on a her own investigation into the event from her teenage years. This involves her tracking down a small cast of characters from her schooldays – both fellow pupils and teachers.  Through her own memories and reminiscing with her old school friends she starts to piece together a picture of what took place. It was interesting to read the way that the adult Frieda perceived herself as a teenager and how her friends remembered her. Of course Frieda doesn’t do anything by halves and she manages to put herself at risk, but the resolution is a stroke of genius.

There’s lots going on in her personal life – developments with her boyfriend Sandy, a new relationship for her niece, and despite her best intentions she becomes drawn into her mother’s life. There’s a regular cast of characters peppering the books now – it would be good to see some of them develop further before we reach the end.

It’s good to get an insight into Frieda’s past and so much of the backstory explains the Frieda that we’ve come to know over the first half of the series. Although she is quite an introspective character we’re never privy to all her thoughts, which gives her the capacity to surprise. Moving the story from Frieda’s association with the police works well too – maintaining her informal involvement over the whole series would have strained credibility.

I still find it hard to explain what it is I find so compelling about the character, but despite being the mid-point in the series this is faultless in terms of characters and plot and one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Many thanks to Penguin for the review copy. You can see another review on the Crime Fiction Lover site.
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