A case of the ‘sweats’ …

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

plague times 1 I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading this, the first volume in Louise Welsh’s planned Plague Times trilogy (the second was published earlier this month), for it turned out to be a taut suspense thriller combining a murder mystery with a deadly pandemic – just my kind of book! Equally, I don’t know why I’ve never read any of Louise Welsh’s books before – I own several others after all.

Stevie Flint has just been stood up in a Soho Club. Irritated, but understanding, for Simon is a doctor and often gets called away she goes home, although ‘he had always phoned, or got someone to phone for him’ before.

The next evening she’s at work with Joanie – the pair are presenters on a TV shopping channel, you name it they sell it – dual action toasters today ‘My husband Derek, he likes his golden brown…’ says Joanie. Stevie and Joanie are good friends in real life too and make a great double act on TV with Joanie acting the married housewife and Stevie the smart singleton, roles that are close enough to real life, although Joanie and Derek are separated now. After the end of her shift, Stevie rings the hospital where Simon works only to find that he’s ‘on holiday’, and heads off to his flat to collect her things!

She finds him dead – in bed – with no obvious signs of murder. She does the right thing and calls the police. Later, having called in sick to work, she really is ‘gut-wrenchingly, jaw-stretchingly, horribly sick.’  It takes several days for the fever to work its way through her system. Stevie is one of the first survivors of what they’ve called ‘the sweats’, and few, if any others, are surviving, but it’s not the end of the world – yet!

When she discovers an ‘in case I’m dead’ type letter from Simon in her tea caddy telling her that he’s hidden a package in her loft, Stevie realises that he was probably murdered for it. The instructions he’s left her are to give it only to Dr Malcolm Reah. When Stevie finds that Reah is dead, and Simon’s colleague Dr Ahumibe is unnaturally interested in Simon’s package, she realises that something’s going on, and that she may become a target too. She has to investigate Simon’s death, so she can protect herself. Finding that the package contains a password protected laptop, who can she turn to? She asks Joanie’s ex Derek, a policeman, for help…

It’s a race against time for Stevie, people are dropping like flies all around her but she is obsessed with finding out who killed Simon, for she had been beginning to think their relationship may have been going somewhere. The question is will she like the answers if and when she gets them?

survivors-1972The spread of the pandemic is well-realised. At first it’s just a nasty virus that’s going round and the world must go on, but as the days go on and more people get the sweats, life begins to break down bit by bit. It brought back strong memories of Terry Nation’s TV series Survivors from the mid-1970s (not the poor 2008 spin-off, and how I loved Greg, Ian McCulloch, in that series, although he had to vie with Robin Ellis in Poldark for top spot in my affections back then!).

By combining the thriller with the pandemic, Welsh has created a wonderful hybrid which made for compulsive reading.  If pushed, I’d say that I was more interested in the pandemic strand than the medical thriller one, but the two themes have a synergy (I can’t believe I just used that word in a review!) that makes the novel more than the sum of its parts. The tension is palpable and the pace rarely pauses for breath.

In the early stages, I particularly liked the behind the scenes view of the TV studio. Welsh could have made Stevie a news or magazine programme presenter, but her choice of the shopping channel was absolutely brilliant. Being that cheesy on screen is not as easy as it looks.

Needless to say, I can’t wait to read volume two, Death is a Welcome Guest, which I have on my pile. The proof copy arrived complete with a kit of surgical mask, gloves and a forehead thermometer strip!  A Lovely Way to Burn would make perfect summer reading for fans of thrillers and dystopias alike, I enjoyed it very much. (8.5/10)

* * * * *
Source: Publisher – Thank you!
To explore further via my Amazon UK affiliate link, please click below:

A Lovely Way to Burn: Plague Times Trilogy 1 by Louise Welsh. Pub 2014 by John Murray, paperback Jan 2015, 368 pages.
Death is a Welcome Guest: Plague Times Trilogy 2 by Louise Welsh. Pub Jun 2015 by John Murray, hardback 384 pages.

A double helping of Maigret

One of the great things about Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels is that they’re short. Each features a story told in full, but achieved within 160 pages or so – in this he resembles Muriel Spark. No words are wasted and there is no flowery language. Indeed, Simenon was known for cutting out ‘beautiful sentences’, editing out unnecessary descriptives and adverbs – in this he also resembles Elmore Leonard. Or rather given that Simenon started writing decades previously, perhaps they resemble him in these respects. More recently, Pascal Garnier has been labelled as the heir to Simenon; true, his novels are short and noir, recalling Simenon’s romans durs, but they are deliciously comic in their nastiness, whereas I wouldn’t say that any of Simenon’s works are overtly funny – although as a character, Maigret is not without a sense of humour!

I read a lot of Maigrets when I was a teenager, but none since except for The Bar on the Seine back when this blog was new and I’d acquired a cheap set of nine Penguin ‘Red’ Maigrets from The Book People in 2006. Now, with the Penguin reissues in wonderful new liveries, and mostly new translations, I plan to make reading his novels a regular thing, not least because their length makes them perfect for the train journey to and from London or as palate cleansers between other tomes.

Let me tell you about the two Maigret novels I read last week – one from the new series, one from the old:

Pietr the Latvian

Maigret 1 Pietr the Latvian This was the first Maigret novel, published originally in serial form in 1931 – yes that long ago! At the beginning Maigret is stoking his office stove when a message comes from Interpol that a wanted international conman known as Pietr the Latvian is due to arrive at the Gare du Nord. Maigret hurries off to meet the train:

He stood still. Other people were agitated. A young woman clad in mink yet wearing only sheer silk stockings walked up and down, stamping her heels.
He just stood there: a hulk of a man, with shoulders so broad as to cast a wide shadow. When people bumped into him he stayed as firm as a brick wall.

Just as he has spotted his man with a retinue of hotel porters in the crowds getting off the train, a shout alerts him that the police are needed – a body, shot,  has been found on the train, and his quarry gets away. No worry, Maigret knows where they were headed. However the corpse also matches the description of the Latvian, but Maigret has a hunch about the other man and goes to the Hotel Majestic, where he openly stalks ‘Mr Oppenheim’ who dines with a wealthy couple at the hotel – later all three will vanish from the hotel.

Back at the office, a strand of hair in a glassine envelope that had stored a photograph was the only posession on the body from the train. An address in Fécamp, a town on the Normandy coast, has been faintly imprinted on it. Dispatching Torrence to the Hotel Majestic, Maigret goes to Normandy and stakes out the house of the envelope’s owner, standing in an alleyway in the pouring rain:

Maigret worked like any other policeman. Like everyone else, he used the amazing tools that men like Bertillon, Reiss and Locard have given the police – anthropometry, the principle of the trace, and so forth – and that have turned detection into forensic science. But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall. In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent.

That last quote encapsulates to me the essence of Maigret’s style of detecting. Waiting and watching. Maigret, however, doesn’t always do this passively – he is not beyond pushing buttons to see what happens, more often than not confirming his hunches.  Needless to say, Maigret clears up the mystery of the identities of Pietr the Latvian and the body on the train, but not without some psychological intrigue, twists and more gunfire.

In this first Maigret novel, we may get to know the figure of Maigret – his solid presence and how he works, but little of his personality – that will surely follow.  In the last chapter of Pietr the Latvian, we also briefly meet Madame Maigret who bustles about looking after him, an unexpectedly jolly woman, I can imagine the pair of them, her gently henpecking him, and him indulgently letting her do it in subsequent outings.

David Bellos translated this new edition and it certainly didn’t disappoint – it was fresh and reflected the character of Maigret in the prose – a great start to the series. (7.5/10)

The Yellow Dog

simenon-the-yellow-dog-penguin

2006 Penguin Red Classic cover

This is the fifth or sixth Maigret book depending on which source you read (I’m finding the Maigret Bibliography and other pages at Trussel.com very helpful. There, The Yellow Dog is the 6th book, also published in 1931). The edition I read, the Penguin Red Classic from 2006 was translated by Linda Asher, and this translation has been retained for the new editions (although I don’t know it it has been changed at all).

It is set in the fishing port of Concarneau in Brittany, a location which Simenon must have known well, for at the bloggers’ reception I went to last weekend, John Simenon told me that many of the buildings described in the book actually exist, including the bar and hotel which are at the centre of the story (see here for an article in French by John Simenon about them).

One November evening, a shot rings out in Concarneau. One of the town’s notables, the wine dealer Mostaguen was shot at point-blank range through a letter-box as he sheltered in a doorway to light a cigar after leaving the Admiral Café. A large yellow stray dog is seen in the vicinity, assumed to belong to the would-be murderer. Maigret, who has been helping the Rennes police force, attends the next day bringing the young detective Leroy with him.

Installed at the hotel, Maigret goes to drink with Mostaguen’s circle of friends, when Michoux, a former doctor, notices grains in their drinks which are identified as strychnine. Next day, another of the group, Servières disappears, his car found abandoned and blood-stained. Sensing a potential serial killer story, the town is besieged by journalists and in coming days the Mayor presses Maigret constantly to find the killer, whom they presume to be a vagrant – with a yellow dog…

Maigret lets Leroy do all the conventional detecting, while he assumes his usual waiting and watching alongside cultivating the waitress Emma who works at the bar:

Maigret’s gaze fell on a yellow dog lying beneath the till. Raising his eyes, he saw a black skirt, a white apron, a face with no particular grace, yet so appealing that throughout the conversation that followed he hardly stopped watching it.
Whenever he turned away, moreover, the waitress, in turn, fixed her agitated gaze on him.

Yellow dog new

New edition

The Yellow Dog is a great yarn – everyone involved seems to have something to hide, especially Emma perhaps? Maigret obviously has his suspicions as to whodunnit early on, but we don’t find out the full story until the cast are gathered together for the denouement, very much as Hercules Poiret so loves to do. The younger Leroy gives Maigret a chance to offer fatherly advice about more intuitive detecting style based on observation rather than forensics, which was a nice touch, but Maigret’s co-star in this short but complex tale is Concarneau itself. The events happen in the depressed off-season, when the contrasts between the haves and the have-nots in town are at their greatest – in the summer everyone works. The notables believe that only an unemployed social outcast could be capable of these dastardly acts, but Maigret’s sympathies lay firmly on the side of poor downtrodden Emma and the vagrant, whom we’ll meet in time.

I don’t think I’d ever have been able to work out whodunnit in The Yellow Dog; for a mystery of a mere 130 pages, the plot was surprisingly complex. I  really liked Maigret more in this novel – his non-judgemental support of the underdog, not suffering fools like the mayor gladly and his ability to say no comment without actually having to say it. Translator Linda Asher is able to bring the town and the tail-end of autumn’s weather alive, whilst giving Maigret some joviality and a bit of a twinkle in his eye, which made this such fun to read. (9/10)

* * * * *

Source: Own Copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Pietr the Latvian: Inspector Maigret #1 by Georges Simenon, trans David Bellow. Pengiun classics, 2013 edition, pbk 176 pages.
The Yellow Dog: Inspector Maigret #5 by Georges Simenon, trans Linda Asher. Penguin classics, 2014 edition, pbk 144 pages.

Small town secrets and lies…

Orient by Christopher Bollen

P1020504

Proof copy – you cant see the black page edges.

This is a thriller about small town America writ large – and chunky, weighing in at 609 pages. However, it was totally gripping right from the start as each page peels away all the secrets and lies that foster in the particular community on Long Island where it is set.

Amazingly, Orient is a real place, a village of less than 1000 people right at the tip of the North Fork of Long Island; an island itself connected by a strip of causeway to L.I.  The people of Orient are, of course, nothing like the characters in the book – and appear to have welcomed the attention that Bollen’s novel has brought to the area. Bollen wrote this article about the real Orient for the New York Times T magazine, and makes it sound rather a lovely place. I haven’t been to Long Island, but I have holidayed on Cape Cod and can imagine many similarities between the two areas.

The Prologue sets up the novel for us right from the start:

When people try to picture me, they undoubtedly recall only the last time they saw me, just before I went missing. There’s been a lot of speculation about the night I left the far North Fork of Long Island – how a nineteen-year-old wanted for questioning in a string of murders managed to elude police and vigilant local drivers, both parties hurrying too slow through the pale marsh frost and winter Sound winds that turn the coast beds into grisly scrap yards of ice. That part is simple: I ran. What seems lost, in the growing storm of blame, is how I got there in the first place. …

I came to Orient at tail end of summer, and I went by the name MIlls Chevern. I arrived mostly innocent. Do you remember seeing me on those last warm days?

UK Hardback cover

UK Hardback cover

Mills Chevern is rescued by New York architect Paul Benchley when he finds him sprawled in the hallway in front of his neighbour’s appartment. Mills is a sofa-hopping junkie trying his luck in NYC, a frequent visitor to Paul’s neighbour. When Paul offers to save him by taking him out to his late parents’ house in Orient to help clear it, nothing more expected other than hard work and some company, Mills jumps at the chance to clean his act up becoming Paul’s defacto foster-kid.

They arrive in town on the day of the annual end of summer picnic hosted by Paul’s Orient neighbours, the Muldoons. It’s obvious from the start to Mills that there is no love lost between the Muldoons and Benchley. Nearly everyone is suspicious of Mills, and Paul’s motives for bringing this edgy outsider into their community – except for Beth Shepherd, an artist who has recently returned to Orient from the city too with her Eastern European artist husband.

It’s not long before the tensions in the small town are exposed.

  • The Muldoons are stalwarts of the Orient Historical Society, that seeks to preserve the area and is promoting a new scheme to buy property owner’s development rights to stop Orient becoming like the Hamptons
  • Adam Pruitt, who has started a security firm to rival Bryan Muldoon’s is trying to drum up business by raising residents’ paranoia over what goes on at the Plum Island Animal Lab – a government facility on a nearby island.
  • There are huge tensions between the ‘year-rounders’ as exemplified by the Muldoons, and the incomers, like the rich artists Luz and Nathan from NYC who bought the old Oysterponds Inn and putting in pools etc.
  • Beth’s husband Gavril is friends with Luz and Nathan, but now they’re all here, Gavril is so absorbed in his art, her own has faltered and she’s pregnant but can’t tell him… yet.

Then Jeff Trader is found dead, his body tied by rope underwater so he drowned. Is it murder or suicide? Jeff was the local handyman, he had keys to all the houses in Orient so he could do everyone’s odd jobs and they’ve gone, he was often drunk. Magdalena, an old lady and long-time resident who is the voice of reason on the Orient Historical Society board, knew there was something wrong and thinks he was murdered – and the jar of keys is missing. She asks Beth to find his workbook, she’s sure there’s something in it, and Beth takes Mills along for the ride.

The Bug Lighthouse, Orient

The real Bug Lighthouse, Orient

Mills will, in coming weeks, find himself always in the wrong place at the wrong time as the tensions in the village ratchet up and more people die. They want a scapegoat, and as we know from the prologue, Mills is it. Mills and Beth place themselves in great danger, but are compelled to pick away at all the secrets and lies that everyone in town has, including their own!  Watching over it all is the Bug Lighthouse, a metaphor for an all-seeing eye that knows everything.

Orient is a complex thriller. The different tensions in the town drive the plot first this way, then that, adding more and more questions that need to be answered as events happen and new information comes to light. I never guessed whodunnit until their identity stared me in the face. It’s cleverly constructed too – starting with the entire large cast of characters nearly all together in the one place at the Muldoon’s picnic. This pool of possible perpetrators gradually declines throughout the novel as they die or are otherwise eliminated from Mills’s and Beth’s enquiries.

You can see how inhabitants such as the Muldoons come up with their schemes to protect their heritage with, so they think, good intentions – for the benefit of their community, not realising that such conservative views will polarise local opinion, and probably lead to the wrong kind of rich people being the only ones who can afford to buy properties there like Luz and Nathan.  The conflicts between new and old money, history versus progress set against family infighting and unneighbourly selfishness, add a rich texture to Orient and the characters are intriguing, all getting their spots in the limelight.

Summer may be gone and winter approaching – but things are just beginning to hot up in Orient, and the suspense (maintained throughout the 609 pages) is killing!  Highly recommended. (9/10)

* * * * *

Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK via affiliate link, click below:
Orient by Christopher Bollen. Pub April 2015 by Simon & Schuster. Hardback 624 pages.

The return of Camille Verhoeven

Irène by Pierre Lemaitre

irene-pierre-lemaitreIrène is chronologically the first novel in Pierre Lemaitre’s trilogy featuring Parisian police detective Commandant Camille Verhœven, yet in the UK it was published second, after Alex and is followed this spring by the third volume, Camille. I reviewed Alex in 2013 (click here) and it was the best crime thriller I read all that year. It had pace, twists and turns, some really stomach-churning nastiness and a fantastic lead in Verhœven, the four foot eleven detective with a big character.

Although Alex refers obliquely to the events of Irène, I can understand why the publisher chose to bring it out first, because it does stand alone as well as being either the middle or the start of a trilogy. You don’t need to know what happened in Irene at all. If you’ve read Alex, you’ll know what I’m referring to in Irene, but I’ll try and be as spoiler-free as I can!

It’s another evening at the brigade criminelle, Paris’s murder squad, and Camille is called out by his team-member Louis to what he described as ‘…a clusterf**k out in Courbevoie.’  When Camille arrives, he finds a murder scene unlike any other he’s seen:

Camille had no time to worry about the strange atmosphere that pervaded the room as his gaze was immediately arrested by the head of a woman nailed to the wall.
Hardly had he taken three paces into the room that he found himself faced with a scene he could not have imagined even in his worst nightmares: severed fingers, torrents of clotted blood, the stench of excrement and gutted entrails. Instinctively, he was reminded of Goya’s painting, “Saturn Devouring His Son”, and for a moment he could see the terrifying face, the bulging eyes, the crimson mouth, the utter madness. (p25)

Sorry for that awful image, but it gets worse, believe me – the crimes depicted in these novels are not for the faint-hearted. On the wall, written in blood using the severed fingers, is the message ‘I AM BACK’ with a fingerprint carefully pressed at the end – these murders have been staged. Perhaps predictably, the press arrive before they’ve even managed to get the bodies out of the building. It will take days for the scene to be completely analysed, but one thing comes through – the fake fingerprint relates to a cold case from 2001 which the press had dubbed ‘The Tremblay Butcher’. They will need to reopen the file.

Camille goes home, his head full of images from the cases. It is that night when his wife Irène tells him that she is pregnant. He finds it hard to keep the two things separate in his brain:

However it had come about, they had been mutilated by men whose only desire was to dismember young women with smooth, pale buttocks, who had been unmoved by the pleading looks of these women when they realised they were going to die, they may simply have excited them, and so these young women who had been born to live had somehow come to die in this apartment, in this city, in this century where he Camille Verhœven- an utterly unremarkable policeman, the runt of the brigade criminelle, a pretentious, love-struck troll – was stroking the beautiful belly of this woman who was constantly new, a miracle. Something was awry. In one last, weary flicker he saw himself devoting every outce of his strength to two goals: first, to cherish this body he was stroking from which, in time, would emerge the most astonishing gift; second, to hunt down the mend who had mutilated those women, who had fucked them, raped them, killed them, dismembered them, splattering the walls with their blood. (p71)

Inspiration will strike to progress the case. I wasn’t going to say, but it is clearly stated on the back cover – there turns out to be a literary connection between the murders, each being staged in homage to a classic crime novel. Dubbed ‘The Novelist’, which book will he use next? It will become a classic chase between the serial killer and his hunter. A race against time, and the press don’t help.

Of the classic murders from fiction reproduced by this serial killer, I’ve actually read three but wasn’t prepared enough to recognise the first two mentioned, I was with the game on another and have added a fourth to my wishlist! Funnily enough, I was contemplating re-reading one of the books referenced anyway – I read this novel when it was first published in 1991 and think it will shock me much more now to read it. It was controversial then, and remains so now, but I’m not going to tell you which book it is, tease that I am, although you might guess from its notoriety. Frank Wynne’s translation is, once more, truly excellent and seamless given all the extra reading he’ll have had to do. The French feel is there, without the need to insert French words everywhere except for police ranks and department titles.

The relationship between Camille, his boss and his team are all part of the narrative. It is Louis whom we get to know particularly well in this novel. From a rich family, Louis is always impeccably attired, there is no need for him to work as a junior detective, but he is clever and extremely good at detail earning Camille’s almost fatherly respect.

I enjoyed reading Irène hugely, and read Camille back to back (but am saving that to talk about for another time and place).  If you enjoy crime novels of the serial-killer variety, I urge you to steel yourself to see past the depravity of the murders in these books and instead read them for the characterisation of Camille Verhœven and his colleagues, for the twists and turns and cleverness of the plots, and for the sheer thrill of the chase. They are truly unputdownable. (10/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon (affiliate link), please click below:
Irène (The Camille Verhoeven Trilogy) by Pierre Lemaitre, trans Frank Wynne. Maclehose press 2014, paperback, 400 pages.

Keywords: Thriller, Vatican, Relics!

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

fifth gospel

No! This isn’t a lost thriller by Dan Brown! Far from it (although at times I wish it had had a bit of Brown’s rip-roaring pace). The Fifth Gospel comes from the co-author of a best-selling religious thriller of ten years ago – The Rule of Four, and has taken author Ian Caldwell that ten years in the writing.

The Fifth Gospel is set in the Vatican City during the twilight of the pontificate of John Paul II, who has a starring cameo to play in the closing stages of the novel. An historical note, without which I’d have been completely lost, sets the scene for the relationship between the original Green and Roman branches of Christianity who split around 1000 yrs ago (the Great Schism of 1054 I learned later) becoming Orthodox and Catholic churches. This division was further reinforced by the Crusades in 1204.  Importantly though, one group, known as Eastern Catholics decided to sit in the middle following Eastern traditions but obeying the Pope. John Paul II wished to reunite the two churches.

So we have a pair of brothers, both priests – Simon and Andreou, who come from an Eastern Catholic family, but Simon had converted to become a full Catholic and has risen up the Vatican ladder. Andrew has remained a ‘Greek’ and thus was married, and has a young son, Peter. I didn’t know that there are types of Catholicism where celibacy is not compulsory. Ironically, Andreou’s wife Mona has left him!

To cut a long story short, the Vatican Museum is to mount an exhibit which is being curated by Ugolino Nogara. Its absolutely top secret and there is not long to go before the exhibit’s opening. When Andrew gets a call from his brother who is in trouble, he leaps in the car to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence half an hour’s drive from Rome, to rescue him. Upon arrival he finds Simon and the body of Ugo.

Both brothers had been working, unknown to each other, on different aspects of Ugo’s project. Simon travelling in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Andreou helping Ugo to understand the differences between the New Testament Gospels – how the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke are more factual and sometimes copy each other, while John is more theological and philosophical in its intent – changing some of the details to fit. Before this novel is over, we will become quite familiar with many of the differences and similarities in the four gospels – particularly in relation to the crucifixion – because… you’d guessed it – that old fake relic the Turin Shroud is to be one of the key features in this exhibit.

Shroud_of_Turin_001

The Turin Shroud (detail, plus negative image) Wikimedia Commons

As Ugo said:

“Yet even now,” Nogara continued, “when we exhibit the Shroud, it attracts millions of pilgrims. At a recent exhibition it drew two millions people in eight weeks. Eight weeks. All to see a relic that has allegedly been disproved. Put that in perspective: the Shroud draws five times as many visitors as the most popular museum exhibit in the world. So imagine how many will come once I prove that the radiocarbon dating of the Turin Shroud was wrong.”

Did Ugo find new evidence about the shroud? Was he killed for it?

Simon is arrested for his murder, and refuses to say anything. Andreou is thrown into turmoil – he suspects that Ugo had discovered something in the Diatesseron, the ‘Fifth Gospel’ their copy of which has gone missing. The Diatesseron was (really) created by an Assyrian Christian called Tatian around 160AD – in it, he attempted to pull together all the four gospels into one single narrative, reordering, getting rid of duplication, adding bridging passages etc.

The next bombshell to hit Father Andreou is that his home is broken into, he gets sent ‘we know who you are’ type threats etc – and from that point on, he moves himself and his son around a variety of ‘safe’ locations within the Vatican’s walls. Cue next bombshell: Simon is to be tried, starting tomorrow, under Canonical Law. The ultimate punishment being to be stripped of his priesthood and have his Vatican passport taken away. We are thrown into an extremely complicated trial, full of twists and turns, discoveries, betrayals, and more before it is time for the exhibit to open, and we discover the full extent of what happened!

Somewhere inside this sprawling novel which runs to 427 pages, was a good thriller trying to get out. However, due to it being based upon real artefacts and the intricacies of Canonical Law in the Vatican, both of which need a lot of explanation, the thiller had to play second-fiddle to the artefacts and theological discussion. Indeed, by the end I was more interested in whether this book considered the Turin Shroud to be real or fake than in Ugo’s murder (something they are still disagreeing about!). I also got rather fed up with Andreou the devoted father, passing his son around all his friends while he wrestled with the trial and the facts – this aspect of emphasising the differences between the Eastern and Western Catholics was quite heavy-handed (although I agree that relaxing the celibacy restrictions would be a good thing).

So as a murder mystery, this book doesn’t quite pass muster; as a theological mystery it was rather more exciting. I learned masses (pun!), and cross-checking some of the facts against Wikipedia for this review, could appreciate the amount of research that went into this book. As a non-believer, for a book to get me reading up about the last days of Jesus and his crucifixion, at Easter-time, must mean something.  (6.5/10)

* * * * *
Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate link), please click below:

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell. Published March 2015 by Simon & Schuster. Hardback 448 pages.

The first in a long line of crime novels

Naked in Death by J.D.Robb

naked in deathLast week, Victoria over at Tales from the Reading Room wrote a post about Obsession in Death, the latest in J.D.Robb’s long-running crime series featuring detective Eve Dallas. In fact, it turns out that Obsession in Death is the fiftieth in the series! I knew that I had the first novel in the sequence somewhere on my shelves, and felt compelled to dig it out and see how Dallas began…

As Victoria said, Robb/Roberts is known for her philanthropy which is lovely. She is also known for being a writing machine, producing countless novels each year, romances as Roberts, crime as Robb. Naked in Death was published in 1995 – the first of fifty, so that’s two or three per year of this series alone.

Eve Dallas is thirty. She’s a Lieutenant in the NYPSD (the ‘S’ is for Security). At the start of the novel she is called out to a murder – it turns out to be the grand-daughter of a senator who is running for his party nomination on a ‘moral’ ticket. His grand-daughter in one of those f***-you type career choices has been working as a ‘licenced companion’ – a prostitute. The scene is grisly – she was killed with 3 bullets from a hand-gun. There’s a note under the body saying 1 of 6.

Naturally, the senator is all over the department wanting to keep things closed down, but Dallas knows there may be more deaths – and there will be.  The killer seems to be expert at bypassing security systems and leaving no trace, but in true psychopath style he sends Dallas videos.

One of the immediate suspects is Roarke, an Irishman. He’s a tycoon, he owns the building she was killed in, he collects guns – which are now antiques. He has to be a suspect – if only he wasn’t so sexy – because you just know that Dallas and him will end up in the sack for some truly purple prose – lancing spears and all that!

Enough of the plot, for it was entirely predictable, I guessed whodunnit halfway in, but the pieces didn’t fall into place until later.

You don’t really read series like this for the crimes. They’re incidental, you read them for the characters. You hope for some development – and reading between the lines in Victoria’s review I can surmise that apart from Dallas and Roarke ending up married, that little has changed in fifty books. However: Naked is set in 2058; Obsession is set in 2060. So these fifty books move forward just two years.  My – that’s a full case-book of murders for anyone!

Note that near-future timeline. In 2058, guns have been outlawed, become collectors items only. Prostitutes have become legal, licenced. Various gadgets make modern life easier, but as far as I could see offer no improvements in quality of life. None but the rich can afford real coffee. Roarke is planning a space resort – so Richard Branson may continue to dream on. Yet, it’s all too familiar – in a way it’s not futuristic enough in its detail. Apart from the guns, there seemed no need to set it in the future, and even now there are collectors of old firearms – the perp could have used contemporary collectibles.

What of Dallas and Roarke? Well she is of course a feisty superwoman, and Roarke may as well be a superman, not so much Clarke Kent, but Bruce Wayne – his money can buy him anything.  Dallas is damaged goods, abused as a child – holding it all in ever since. Roarke is a chancer who hit lucky and made enough money to go legit.  She is a good policewoman with the appropriate contempt for authority and is not afraid to bend the rules. He is just sickening – too handsome, too rich, too lovey, too much!

So there we have it. Naked in Death combines crime with a steamy romance.  I liked the crime part, and squirmed a bit with the romance. As a whole, I enjoyed reading Naked in Death in exactly the same way as I enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code. With no expectations, it was very easy to read throwaway grisly fun. (5.5/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
Naked In Death: 1Glory In Death: 2 etc by J.D. Robb. Piatkus paperbacks, around 400 pages.

 

 

The Intruders were in my TBR!…

The Intruders by Michael Marshall

intruders

British author Marshall began writing stylish SF novels as Michael Marshall Smith – winning the Philip K Dick Award for his debut Only Forward, which I’ve been meaning to re-read for years! After a few more, he dropped the ‘Smith’ and moved into the world of creepy thrillers winning plaudits for The Straw Men and its follow-ups.

I was spurred on to read this one from my shelves by its current TV adaptation. Having seen the first two creepy parts last week, I decided to find out what goes on to happen on the page first rather than the screen. These episodes actually mirrored the novel very closely and now I know…

The prologue starts with the doorbell ringing at the Anderson home, Gina is at home with her son:

She flipped the porch light on. It showed a man in his mid-fifties, with short, dark hair, sallow skin in flat planes around his face. His eyes seemed dark too, almost black. They gave no impression of depth, as if they had been painted on his head from the outside.
‘I’m looking for William Anderson,’ he said.
‘He’s not here right now. Who are you?’
‘Agent Shepherd,’ the man said, and then paused, for a deep cough. ‘Mind if I come inside?’
Gina did mind, but he just stepped up onto the porch and walked right past her and into the house.

No prizes for working out that Gina and her son will soon be dead.

Jack Whalen was a cop in LA. Was – he left in undisclosed circumstances, moving with his wife to a little town in Washington state inland from Seattle. Jack is now an author, first book published – second one not yet in his head. Amy works for an advertising company in Seattle and occasionally has to stop over in the city. The weirdness starts when Amy is away on a trip and Jack receives a call from a taxi driver on Amy’s phone. She’d left it in the cab. Jack tells the driver to take it to her hotel where he’ll get paid.

Jack rings the hotel to find out that she’s not there, no reservation. He arranges to collect the phone and goes into Seattle. Thinking to surprise her at work, he finds she’s not there either.  Uh-oh – is she with someone else?

Cut to the other main strand of the story. Ten year old Madison is sitting on the shore at her family’s beach house, when a man in black arrives. ‘Can you keep a secret?’ he asks.  Soon, she goes missing …

Later on, getting slowly drunk at a bar, Jack is examining Amy’s phone. There are loads of weird texts on it. He’s suspicious – meeting up with the taxi driver, he asks him to take him where he dropped off Amy – but they end up in a fight with some heavies who don’t want them there.

When he gets back home, Amy’s there. She seems to have an explanation that fits for where she’s been. Life carries on.  Except that Amy is different. She suddenly likes jazz where she hated it before; she was always a coffee drinker, and now prefers tea.

Then Gary Fisher comes back into Jack’s life. They were at school together, Gary is now a lawyer, and after seeing Jack’s book, he gets in contact with Jack to ask for his help.

By this stage I had many questions: Has Amy been brainwashed? What came over Madison to make her ‘run away’? What is her connection to Agent Shepherd? Who is Bill Anderson? Is any of this linked? Is Jack just paranoid and jealous? What is Jack’s back story?  At least on that front he starts to explain(!):

I was on the job for ten years. I turned up and did what I was paid to do, entering people’s lives only when they’d begun to go wrong. after the God of Bad Things had decided to pay a call. In the end my own life started to skew, as policemen’s lives do. The problem with being a cop is you wander into the field of play of the God of Bad Things so often that you wind up permanently on his radar – as a meddler, a spoiler, someone who has tried to mitigate his attempts to stir disappointment and pain into the lives of humankind. The God of Bad Things is a shitty little god, but He has a great memory and a long attention span. Once you’ve caught his eye you’re there for good. He becomes you own personal imp, perching on your shoulder and shitting down your back.

It carries on getting creepier and creepier. Naturally, the book’s title and its tagline ‘they’re already inside’ imply some horror scenario to come and I can assure you that there is plenty. Who are they? Even after the big reveal towards the end of the book, there is a neat little sting in the tail. I daren’t say more in case any of you are watching the TV series.

I found Jack a difficult character to sympathise with at all. At the start, he has compartmentalised his life, shutting off the bit that was a policeman – but once a cop, always a cop – and he was one with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, remaining in uniform. It seemed unlikely that a high flyer like Amy would fall for a beat cop – meanwhile, Amy is notable by her absence for most of the novel.

I also felt that Madison was largely extraneous to the main plot – she only has a relevance to the man in black, Shepherd. Whether he’s actually an agent, a hit-man or plain psychopath, Shepherd is by far the most interesting character!

The TV series was made by BBC America, and has two Brits starring – John Simm as Jack, and James Frain as Shepherd; Amy is played by Mira Sorvino. It has a noirish feel, with lots of night-time shots and certainly feeds on paranoia and brings the conspiracy theories to the front – although we have no idea what they are! It’s settling in to be good and dark and confusing, but now 3 episodes in (Mondays 9pm, BBC2) so you’ll need to catch up via iPlayer.

This novel was an good introduction to Marshall’s chiller output. Reading the reviews, there seems to be a consensus that it’s not his best, but I although I found the characters mostly aloof and hard to engage with, the mystery did keep me reading, so it was quite compulsive in that respect – like Twin Peaks without the funny bits. I shall look forward to reading The Straw Men which is also on my shelves. (7/10)

Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Intruders by Michael Marshall, 2007. Harper paperback 496 pages.
The Straw Men (2002)
Only Forward as Michael Marshall Smith (1994)

What is an accident anyway?

Accidents Happen by Louise Millar

accidents-happen-978033054501301

I used to work for one of the world’s major chemical companies whose mantra was that there is no such thing as an accident. After too many ‘accidents’ making explosives in the 1800s, the company became intensely safety focused, and remains so today. They believe, and naturally it rubbed off on me (I ended up as a H&S manager for them) that all incidents have a root cause, and that finding and engineering or training it out etc. if possible is the way to go.

Thus I was naturally intrigued by the title of this novel. Having recently seen Louise speak, I knew I was expecting a tightly plotted psychothriller with some issues of trust and family values at its core, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s one of those stories that crescendos gradually, dropping in little details and clues that will become clear later on in the final climaxes.

Kate and her young son Jack have arrived back from school. Kate is suspicious of everything and everyone – the tailgating driver on the way home, surely there was more in the casserole in the fridge?  She is constantly on edge, and Jack doesn’t know how to handle his mother. She’s in danger of losing it – and we soon find out that they have suffered a double dose of grief from which they’ve not yet recovered. First Kate’s parents died in a tragic car accident, then her husband Hugo was murdered, stabbed in a mugging gone wrong.  She’s all alone, and she feels that Hugo’s parents Helen and Richard think she’s incapable of looking after Jack properly, maybe Hugo’s sister Saskia who was always her ally feels that way too. For it all happened five years ago …

One of the things that Kate has started doing is to do sums… she researches the odds of things happening and calculates the statistics, so she can stop more bad things happening to her and Jack. Nagged by her in-laws, she finally goes to see a therapist and tells her about this:

‘OK, there was a lot of traffic tonight so I decided to cycle. But before I cycled, I did a sum. I worked out that because it’s May, my chances of having a bike accident are higher because it’s summer, and about 80% of accidents take place during daylight hours, but more than half of cycling fatalities happen at road junctions, so if I went off-road I could lower it drastically. So I did. And because I am thirty-five, I have more chance of having an accident than another woman in Oxfordshire in her twenties, but because I was wearing my helmet, I have – according to one American report I read, anyway – about an 85% chance of reducing my risk of head injury. Then when I was cycling I balanced my chances of having an accident with the fact that by doing half an hour of sustained cardio cycling, I can lower my risk of getting cancer. Of course, that meant I increased my chances of being sexually attacked by being alone on a quiet canal path, but as I have roughly a one in a thousand chance in Oxfordshire, I think it’s worth taking.’
She thought she saw Sylvia flinch.

She can’t bear it, so escapes from the therapist’s house and ends up in a cafe where she encounters Jago Martin, a visiting Oxford Professor. He just happens to have written a book about beating the odds. After meeting again, Kate is a bit besotted by Jago, and when he agrees to help her in her predicament she acquiesces with little thought. His methods are not conventional though, he wants to teach her to become a natural risk-taker…

There are many different facets to the drama of this novel – Kate’s relationship with her in-laws, with Saskia, and Saskia’s own relationship with her parents, poor Jack and his over-protective mother, the introduction of Jago, and not forgetting the weirdo student next door who always seems to be haning around.  Over all of them is the aura of Hugo, gone but never forgotten. Kate had always been prone to worrying, but Hugo with his big-hearted happy soul had made things all right, given her life the balance it now lacks.

Millar cleverly misdirects us; everyone has issues, no-one is straight-forward – it’s hard to get to grips with what is bound to happen – or is it more ‘accidents’? The suspense builds.

Imagine a Sophie Hannah novel without the police involved, and slightly more family oriented and you should get the measure of this book. I enjoyed it a lot. (8.5/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Accidents Happen by Louise Millar, 2013, Pan paperback 426 pages.

 

Taking the plunge into the waters of popular thriller-dom…

The Nemesis Program by Scott Mariani

nemesis

Occasionally I read a mindless thriller, something a bit Dan Brown, just to remind myself that I’m not really the target audience for such stuff, although secretly I do enjoy them – a little!  My teenage reading diet was absolutely full of thrillers – Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes and later Colin Forbes, Frederick Forsyth et al – I loved them all, and many of these were well written taut books that got on with things with little padding. I was offered a copy of The Nemesis Program – the latest in a long series by British thriller writer Scott Mariani, and based upon one word in the blurb, thought ‘Why not.’

220px-TeslaOscillatorThat word was ‘Tesla‘. The Szerbian scientist Nikola Tesla was a genius – he pioneered AC electricity, but Edison pushed him out of the way with his inferior DC current. He let go of his ideas for radio telephony and Marconi leapt at it. No wonder he got disillusioned and turned his mind to more controversial ideas – like the Tesla Oscillator a steam-powered electricity generator which could be tuned to resonate and with which he allegedly caused earth tremors in his building in New York, having to smash the device to stop a potential disaster. The Mythbusters TV team have determined that although you can set up a decent amount of resonance with such a device, you can’t amplify it to make an earthquake. But hey! – it’s perfect for a schlocky thriller as the weapon of choice for a mad scientist.

Ben Hope is ex-SAS, now a theologian, and about to get married to his girlfriend Brooke, when an old flame, Roberta Ryder turns up at his door in a Cotswold village in a mad panic – someone is after her. Roberta, an American in Ottawa, had received a coded letter from a friend in Paris, but by the time she reached Claudine – she had been murdered. The police think it was the work of a serial killer they’re tabbing Le Bricoleur because he used DIY implements to murder his victims. Roberta, however, knows a little of what Claudine was working on – a modern version of Tesla’s Oscillator, and sure enough she thinks she was followed in Paris, but she managed to evade them (she thinks) and headed for Ben – he’d know what to do.

Ben, three days away from his wedding thinks it is all a bit mad, but takes Roberta off to have a talk much to Brooke’s disgust, and then guys with guns arrive and he realises it’s real. He is duty-bound to help a damsel in distress, so after seeing off the would-be attackers, he postpones the marriage – Brooke tells him it’s over, and he and Roberta return to Paris thanks to Hope’s sister’s airplane that just happens to have landed at a nearby airfield bringing her to the wedding.

Already that’s one convenience too far isn’t it? The action continues from Paris to Lapland to Indonesia using the plane, always with the baddies following behind. The body count is high – there’s more excess than in any James Bond novel, and without the humour – it’s non-stop action.  Hope, of course, always manages to escape by the skin of his teeth, as in the quote below, a high-speed car chase in which he’s just driven over the edge of a raised section of the Périphérique …

For just a second or two, it was like floating. Ben experienced a strange sensation of weightlessness that was somehow liberating and not unpleasant. […] Then reality cut back in with terrifying speed as the Mercedes dropped like a missile towards the road below and the traffic lumbering in and out of the Port de Sèvres. Ben caught a glimpse of a huge articulated truck coming the other way and he was utterly convinced they were going to plummet right into its path and be smashed and rolled and twisted into tiny pieces all across the tarmac. But then the bone-jolting impact as the taxi’s spinning wheels touched down on the truck’s roof told him that death wasn’t going to be quite so instant. […] An inch difference in its trajectory and the car and its occupants would have been mangled against a steel rubbish skip.

It’s always an inch that saves Ben Hope every time.

Some of the dialogue is so cheesy too. When Hope finally encounters the criminal mastermind behind the Nemesis Program, it’s shortly after he’s dispatched another of his men…

‘…You’ve cost the project a great deal of resources and robbed me of several of my most capable agents. Men not easily killed. Yet you dealt with them with almost embarrassing ease.’ His lips wrinkled into a smile.
‘You mean McGrath?’ Ben said. ‘I’m afraid he went all to pieces.’
‘So it would seem. And now it appears you’ve disposed of Mr Lund just as efficiently, albeit without as much mess.’ The old man shook his head. ‘I don’t know how I’ll replace him. It’s so hard to find personnel of calibre these days.’
‘Have you tried Scumbags R Us?’ Ben said. ‘I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for.’

It was going so well in a sub-Bond way until Ben’s last reply…

Roberta as his girl-Friday is tough but subservient as all Bond girls are, but Hope is made of strong stuff and doesn’t bed her (she’d have been willing though).  So this is a sexless thriller – rather an oddity in this day and age – even Jack Reacher finds a girl in every town.  Also, Hope comes across as a soldier through and through – he knows what to do in an emergency – he’s rarely a fish out of water which makes him predictable and more than a bit boring.

At 431 pages, it took too long to read – under 300 would have improved it and sustained the tension better – it felt too episodic in the transitions. The bits of explanatory techno-babble are obvious and jar too, for babble they are. The thing about Bond villains and their weapons of mass destruction is that they’re pure fantasy, and the story is told with wit which makes it fun.  Here we had a fantasy weapon, a villain who wasn’t involved enough until the later stages, and very little humour to leaven the gore.

These books are extremely popular though – this was actually Ben Hope’s tenth outing.  Would I read another?  Well – if I was on holiday and the airline had lost the bag with my books in and one of these was on the shelf – of course I would.  But that’s an unlikely scenario. Fans will devour this instalment, I’ll go and read something else. (5/10)

* * * * *
Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Nemesis Program (Ben Hope)by Scott Mariani – pub Avon, June 2014, paperback original, 431 pages.

Echoes of Le Carré with a sense of humour …

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

slowhorses200

The other night I was meant to be going to my local bookshop Mostly Books for an event with Mick Herron, winner of the 2013 CWA Gold Dagger for his novel Dead Lions. Instead I ended up in MIU with my daughter who managed to break the fifth metatarsal in her left foot when she fell over on a school trip – but that’s another story! I had to get the flavour of what I missed that evening in the bookshop’s write-up here – sounds like it was a good event.

Slow Horses and it’s sequel Dead Lions are British spy novels, but not set in the glam world of TV show Spooks. This branch of MI5, works in a world that is much shabbier and is usually terribly boring, for Slough House which in spook-speak becomes Slow Horse is a nondescript building in North London where disgraced agents get sent to work. River Cartwright is one of the slow horses.

The book starts with the event that got River his demotion. It wasn’t even a real emergency, it was his assessment exercise – but carried out in the real world at Kings Cross station & underground. It’s his job to find the suspected terrorist before the station is theoretically blown-up.  They find the target and take him down to find it’s just a member of the public. Before he knows it the whole station goes into a security alert.

He shouted into his button. ‘Spider? You idiot, you called the wrong colours!’
‘What the hell’s happening? There are crowds coming out of every-‘
‘White tee under a blue shirt. That’s what you said.’
‘No, I said blue tee under -‘
‘Fuck you, Spider.’ River yanked his earpiece out.

So River is sent to work with the slow horses. A bunch of secret service no-hopers. Over the course of the novel, we’ll get to know some of them and what they did to end up in this dead-end job. Others won’t survive – as mayhem ensues when the British nephew of a prominent Pakistani minister is kidnapped by some nationalist thugs who threaten to execute him in forty-eight hours.  Thanks to an errand that Jackson Lamb, the boss of Slough House, sends River on, he reckons he has an idea of how to start finding the young man – and get the slow horses reinstated.

It’s a tricky game though – the usual Moscow rules as they call them don’t apply.  ‘If Moscow Rules meant watch your back, then London Rules meant cover your arse.‘  It soon becomes clear that people are being played against each other, that various factions within MI5 are involved. Lamb, Cartwright and the team must play the game to come out winners.  It’s convoluted and dirty and people will get hurt.

The relationship between Lamb and Cartwright reminded me quite a lot of George Smiley and his sidekick Peter Gwillam from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Lamb is the one who holds all the cards close to his chest; Cartwright is the eager younger agent ready for action. However Lamb is no Smiley – he’s terribly fat – yet light on his feet. He is also always eating and has one additional weapon in his armoury – his farts! In comparison, River is nondescript – most of the other slow horses are more interesting than him, but as a young and fit man he is there for the action and to look handsome.

The author has come up with a truly labyrinthine plot with many layers of players and internal politics for them to unravel, let alone getting into the minds of the kidnappers. It’s certainly worthy of comparison to Le Carré, and all horribly plausible too! There’s plenty of tradecraft deployed throughout which gives that authentic feel (as if we’d really know how it’s done!), and I loved all the secret service slang. On top of all that though is a sense of humour – subtle at times, less so at others. One thing about the Slow Horses is that they’re not used to working together as a team these days, and old skills have to be brought back into play.

It’s good to know that surviving members of the team are back together in Dead Lions. and if it is half as good as Slow Horses it’ll be a great read.  Mick Herron is a great discovery, and I hope there’s plenty more in the pipeline. This pair of books is crying out to be televised too – fingers crossed, for there’s a series in the offing apparently. (9/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Slow Horses by Mick Herron. Soho Press 2010 paperback 329 pages.
Dead Lions by Mick Herron. Soho Press 2013 paperback 347 pages.