Spoiler alert. For once I’m going to talk about the plot is some detail so, if you prefer to come to this book without preconceptions, do not read this review.
As a lifelong atheist, I feel I’ve been the victim of some discrimination. Back in the 1970s and 80s, I read most of the novels by Dean Koontz (including those written under the various pseudonyms), but slowly grew tired of the style. Having taken my thirty year sabbatical, I therefore thought it would be interesting to see what the latest book was like. It’s called Innocence (Bantam Books, 2014) and, as you can see, the jacket artwork shows a scene featuring a lonely man in a hoodie, standing in the middle of a snowscape. It creates the impression that this man is a threat of some kind and that, as the book develops, we’ll go through the usual supernatural or horror thriller format of this man preying on the innocent or acting as a vigilante to protect the innocent. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the plot has this figure as a victim who hides himself away from the world. Worse, the final third of the book retrospectively converts the novel into an explicitly Christian and specifically Catholic tale. When the publishers design books with Satanic or other themes which they believe might upset the Christians, they put warning pictures and words on the jacket. There’s nothing on the jacket or blurb to warn atheists that this book is going to be deeply annoying.
So what do we have? This is a first-person narrative of a young man whose entire life has been blighted by his appearance. When he was born, the midwife wanted to kill him. This set the pattern and, had the mother not lived in a desolate house deep in the woods, he would not have survived. When he’s eight-years-old, his mother announces she can no longer stand him and throws him out. As he hides in the woods around the home, he sees his mother commit suicide so you can tell his appearance must be horrendous. At this point, all the options are on the table. He’s physically disabled in a very disturbing way. He’s hairy like a werewolf. He’s the antiChrist. To maintain suspense, there are no clues — our narrator is very unreliable and never describes what he sees in the mirror. When he comes to the city, he’s rescued by another older member of his “kind”. This man teaches him survival strategies and shows him how to live underground. Unfortunately, they are out in the early hours of the morning, having fun, throwing snowballs at each other when they are challenged by two police officers. As the man takes off his mask, the officers are so horrified, they immediately open fire and empty their guns into him. This distraction enables the young man to escape.
Fortunately, our hero meets a young girl. On the night her father was murdered, she escaped rape when fourteen and has been living a reclusive life while trying to collect evidence that will prove the man guilty of the murder of her father and the attempted sexual assault. They team up and then have one of these intense twenty-four hours in which several people are kidnapped and/or murdered, they go on the run, and the world as we know it ends. It seems the North Koreans are the agents of the Devil and have released a virus that will wipe out most of the human race.
This girl had a father so rich he could leave her with ten places to hide, one outside the city, miles into the countryside. This is very convenient. Further, to maintain security, only one other man is supposed to know where these places are. So she can safely play hide-and-seek around the city. Except how does she maintain all these places? There must be people who go in to clean and tidy, do the washing, and keep the refrigerator stocked with food. It’s not a problem financially. There are millions stashed away in different accounts and trust funds. But it’s the logistics of all these people going in and out of these places and never talking about it. No burglars ever break in. The pipes never freeze and burst during the winters. Then we have her remarkable powers of foresight. She can set up meetings around the city as the snow begins to fall, and she and the narrator will always end up at the right place at the right time for the plot to work. No, sorry, this is just the author moving the characters around so the plot will work out. There’s no suggestion she has supernatural powers of foresight.
And who are this pair? Well, by now you should be thinking they are the “reincarnation” (sorry, wrong religion) of Adam and Eve. Except that’s not quite right. They are pure innocence. In a photograph, they would look perfectly normal. But face-to-face with “ordinary” humans, they radiate a judgmental field in which the humans are immediately aware of all their sins. These poor folk are so horrified by the extent of their wickedness, they immediately set to and aim to kill the innocent one(s). To add insult to injury, there are also angels and devils floating around. In the end, the innocent survive the plague and go off to repopulate the world (a task which may take some time, so God provides manna to avoid the need to eke out dwindling food supplies). This makes Innocence an Armageddon novel with God providing the means for humanity to get a second chance. But this time, they are starting off with those who retain their innocence and are free from original sin. That should give the future generations a better chance of avoiding sin and walking in the path of righteousness. I suppose I have to classify this as Christian fantasy. In less polite mode, I can think of better ways of describing this literalist biblical belief in a God who judges humanity not worth saving from the plague. He just presses the reset button and starts over. So if you are a Christian who wants to see your worldview affirmed, this is the book for you. Otherwise, ignore the author’s name and the jacket design. Innocence is not a horror novel. It’s a waste of your time.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
As a metaphor, you could see war as a form of scarlet tide as waves of blood push across the shore towards the land, overwhelming the people. Or if you were already on the sand, you might see an army of soldiers dressed in red as matching the description. The Scarlet Tides by David Hair (Jo Fletcher/Quercus, 2014) is the second book in The Moontide Quartet. This is another of these books that was published in England in 2013, but did not make it to America until 2014. I’m therefore reading this one year after it first appeared and publishing this review almost one year after my review of the first in the tetralogy. Although my memory is very good about some things, I confess considerable haziness when I picked up this latest installment. Although I remembered the first book as very good, I could not remember very much of the detail. That meant the failure of the publisher to include a brief summary of the first book weighed heavily on me. There was not even a hint let alone a brief note explaining who everyone was and how they were related to each other. Yes, there are odd explanatory references as you read the text, but it did take me quite a while to build up any confidence I had worked out who was who, and which side everyone was on — not that people stay on the same side, of course. This memory problem was exacerbated by the sheer number of people referred to and the number of different locations to try fitting into the development of the plot.
However, with that reservation out of the way, I’m able to report this as the best fantasy book of 2014 so far. I was somewhat concerned that the world-building in the first book left quite a lot of the physics of the moon and its effect on the tides somewhat obscure. This does occasionally seek to rectify this omission. Other than that, there’s only one major innovation in this book. We’d already seen that the mages had the power to construct different types of animals. This has included beasts of burden and flying animals with the lifting capacity to carry a human. We now meet a new type which, in effect, draws on the mythology of this alternate Earth for its form. As a result, the primary focus of this book the development of the characters as they struggle to survive and/or advance their agendas. The only time the plot slows down is when it becomes necessary for a new person or group to begin to understand how the system of magic works. So instead of having the “Hogwarts” style of formal academic training we saw in the first book, we have more one-to-one teaching. This is saved from becoming boringly repetitious because, in each instance, the practical teaching is actually a mechanism for creating mutual trust and the possibility of affection, if not love.
So we advance into the more everyday world of the Crusade as the army makes progress across the desert. As we readers already know, the locals are rather better prepared this time around and it’s interesting to watch exactly how far the army gets before it realises there’s real opposition. To give us an insight into the life for the boots on the ground, we’re allowed Ramon as the point of view and his Ponzi scheme to ramp up the value of his spurious letters of credit by stockpiling the year’s opium crop is a delight. In terms of its breadth and daring, I was reminded of Catch-22 and Milo’s Syndicate which even accepted commissions for American planes to bomb American bases. In one of the geographically significant states, we watch the ebb and flow of Gurvon Gyle’s efforts to deal with the Dorobon family and advance his own plans for power. As for the other groups, the search for the McGuffin accelerates with more people becoming aware of its existence. How it’s lost and then comes back into the possession of one of the good guys is another very pleasing sequence. At some point, later in the series, they will work out what it does and how to persuade it to do it. At this point, no-one has a clue how it might work.
Taking the overview, the pace and quality of the writing makes this one of the best epic fantasies for a long time. It should go without saying that you should not attempt to read this unless you have also read the first in the series, Mage’s Blood. The experience is so much better when you’ve got the whole story straight in your head. If you do not read any other fantasy book this year, ensure you read The Scarlet Tides.
For a review of the first in the series, see Mage’s Blood.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Sometimes, it takes a book as good as this to remind you how enjoyable a novel set in Victorian times can be. For my sins as a reviewer, I’ve been reading quite a lot of steampunk lately and, set against Death on Blackheath by Anne Perry (Ballantine, 2014), the majority of such books are shown to be shallow and rather pedestrian. This has all the best features of proper historical fiction with a little real science thrown in and a lot of genuinely thoughtful detection work in pursuit of a murderer or (if such a thing is possible) someone worse. In terms of quality, this matches my other favourite historical drama from a different medium. Foyle’s War is a television detective series set during World War II with each murder or other crime growing organically out of the culture and events of the time. What makes this series so enjoyable is its willingness to see all the shades of moral gray with a police officer prepared to bend the rules to both catch “criminals” and let them go as circumstances dictate. It’s also fascinating to see television prepared to deal with corruption both in the police force itself, the armed services, and among some of the supposedly higher reaches of society.
This novel sees us in the world of Special Branch with Charlotte and Thomas Pitt joining up with the cast of regulars to keep the British Empire safe. We start off with the body of a young woman discovered in a gravel pit almost on the doorstep of the home of a leading British scientist. This makes it a Special Branch case because anything that may affect a key member of the scientific establishment has to be investigated by those able to “see the big picture”. In this case, the investigation is made difficult because, although a maid has gone missing from the house, the identity of the woman in the pit is not at all clear. Her face has been completely disfigured although her hair is just about the right colour. However, she does have in her possession two objects which apparently link her to the house. The first is a handkerchief which is marked with the same initial letter as the lady of the house. The second is a pocket watch which belongs to the scientist. When he sees it, the scientist asserts that it was stolen from him some weeks earlier in Oxford Street. The theft was not reported to the police and there are some possible lies when he’s asked to account for his movements during the weeks leading up to the discovery of the body.
I’ve seen the basic idea of this plot used before, but this particular application is one of the most extreme examples of the trope. This makes the underlying mystery challenging for the armchair detective to solve and, in a way, it’s also slightly contrived. Indeed, in the real world, I seriously doubt people would actually behave in this way, but I forgive the author because it does make for a rather pleasing problem for the team to solve. I also note a slightly pleasing modern parallel as we approach the end. This juxtaposition between the historical and the modern does point the difference in the way honour worked back in Victorian times. When people felt indebted to each other, they were more prepared to bend or even ignore rules in order to discharge that debt.
Put all this together and you have a good mystery with some impeccable social commentary both on the class system as it then applied and on the role of women. Although one of the elements of romance proves to be a little predictable, there’s a generally plausible feel to the relationships that underpin the working of the plot. The characters generally feel right for the time. For those who enjoy intelligent writing in service to a good plot, Death on Blackheath is excellent value for money.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Elective Procedures by Merry Jones (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) sees us back in the confusing world of Elle Harrison. For those of you who have yet to read The Trouble With Charlie, the first in the series, a few words of explanation are in order. This is a woman formally diagnosed with dissociative disorder. This means her awareness of events around her can abruptly cease and then restart some little time later. If she’s involved in conversations or listening to others speak, that means she can miss vital elements in what’s being said. If there are high stress events, she’s likely to suffer amnesia. Indeed, at times, her grip on her own identity can be less than secure. The author, in other words, has carefully decided to feature an unreliable narrator. To add a further layer of confusion, there’s also the suggestion of possible supernatural powers at work. In particular, the first-person narrator regularly sees her husband Charlie whom we know from the first book to be dead. In this book, there’s a similar confusion as to whether she’s seeing real people, or ghosts, or merely hallucinating. To compound this confusion, she and a friend consult a fortuneteller who makes the usual generic predictions for the friend, but asserts our protagonist attracts the dead to her and that she’s likely to be in some danger (now there’s a surprise).
This is a kind of cozy mystery masquerading as a thriller. We have four women who decide to go to Mexico. One has decided to have cosmetic surgery (without telling her husband). She wants moral and physical help from her friends to get her through the door of the operating theatre and then to recover from the surgery. One of the remaining three is a lawyer who finds herself online for most of the time in the resort, dealing with urgent problems from the firm she works for. This leaves the other two with the chance to engage in a little holiday romance. The “other” decides one of the entertainment officers is for her. Our hero finds herself involved with the cosmetic surgeon who sees nothing ethically wrong in dating the friend of a patient rather than the patient herself. So far, we’re running along fairly predictable lines.
Early in the book, our hero finds herself attempting to rescue the woman occupying the next suite in the hotel where they are staying. But before our hero can cross from her balcony to the next, the woman falls to her death. At this early stage, it’s uncertain whether this is a murder, accident or suicide, but since the victim has just had cosmetic surgery and should be feeling good about herself, suicide looks unlikely. When another woman is killed in the same suite two nights later, we have the mystery set up and ready to run. However, our author obviously believed the plot would not sustain itself over the usual running length of a mystery novel, so there’s a further level of complexity introduced. For the record, it’s obvious from quite early on, given this particular protagonist, who the killer in the hotel suite must be. This leaves it up to the grafted element to carry the thriller aspect of the novel. Unfortunately, this is less than successful, leaving the whole novel somewhat thin. The romance plays out along predictable lines as well, so on balance, Elective Procedures is not a particularly impressive second book in what’s obviously intended as a growing series.
For a review of the first in the series, see The Trouble With Charlie.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
When I was beginning to explore adventure fiction back in the 1950s, the jokey approach was always summed up in the line, “. . . and with one bound, Dick was free!” The source of this line was the Dick Barton radio serial and, almost immediately, the phrase was hijacked to refer to any situation in which the hero appeared to be caught in an impossible situation by a villain determined to kill him but, with an ease that defied explanation, the hero was able to escape. Although mass market entertainment did quite deliberately adopt many of the clichés of cliffhanging, there was a emerging trend against the too-easy escape as we moved through the 1960s and 70s. Although the cinema continued to contrive almost parodic escapes, the written form of thrillers settled down into a more thoughtful mode in which the heroes actually had to fight to survive.
Then, as with one bound, we come to Terminal Life by Richard Torregrossa (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) which I take to be a kind of homage to the silliness of all the heroes who have found themselves in a hole and managed to dig themselves out without breaking sweat. Perhaps appropriately, the series has picked up the title, The Suited Hero. This is the sartorial elegance of Men in Black applied to an ex-SEAL who, after returning from the wars to find his wife dead, determines to take revenge. To explain the title, our hero who is always impeccably turned-out in bespoke suits, has been diagnosed with cancer. He decides he has no interest in seeking treatment and so has an externally imposed time limit on his investigation. This means he’s not going to sit around waiting for information to come to him. Rather he’s going to keep moving until he has all his ducks in a row and then he’s going to blast them all to pieces. When reading this, I was mentally playing “The Devil’s Gallop” written by the redoubtable Charles Williams. There’s a great sense of pace about the writing as the plot rapidly spins us from one fight to a chase to another fight. It deserves some period background music to match the style of storytelling.
Does that mean the book is a throwback to the 1940s and so of little interest to contemporary readers? Obviously, as an old geezer with the memory of an elephant, I’m always throwing up odd associations and finding past examples of contemporary phenomena. Modern readers would perhaps not be aware of the plotting styles of years gone by and might think this farrago of absurd chases and escapes to be fresh and original. After all, there’s a trend to acknowledge and embrace absurdity as being hyperreal. In other words, we’re invited to accept the obviously fake as authentic and real. Umberto Eco and other philosophers suggest postmodern writers are using simulations and fabrications as a way of creating something that’s supposedly better than real. That way, we readers find ourselves suddenly immersed in stories that are more exciting, more terrifying, or merely more interesting than the rather boring stuff we’re used to encountering in the real world.
Well, there’s one truth about Terminal Life. The hero has a remarkable level of indestructibility as he takes on the mobster’s world and wins. He may have been born with the instincts of a coldblooded contract killer but, as a man who was rehabilitated through the Navy SEAL training course and then killed for America, he now views breaking bones and variously exterminating those in his way as an entirely justifiable means of finding out who killed his wife and why. So if you want a nonstop brutal action story with a high body count somewhat in the same vein as the Jason Statham Transporter films, disconnect your brain, sit back, and enjoy this romp through all the conventions of thrillerdom as filtered through postmodern conventions of hyperreality. Otherwise, you might decide you prefer a thriller supposedly involving real humans to have some better roots in reality, e.g. by avoiding the need for FBI agents to be trained snipers and everyone able to walk away from all the legal consequences for what they have done, give this a miss.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Bad Wolf by Nele Neuhaus (Minotaur Books, 2014) (translated by Steven T Murray) sees a return for Chief Detective Inspector Pia Kirchhoff and Detective Oliver von Bodenstein who are senior officers in Hofheim’s Police Department. I should note the repeat of an appalling practice by the publisher. This is quite a long-running series from an initially self-published, now leading, German author. In their wisdom, the first book published in english was Snow White Must Die and this is the second. In fact, the first book was Swimming With Sharks which saw the light of day in 2005. If you go back to the original German bibliography, Snow White Must Die and Bad Wolf were respectively the fourth and sixth books. There’s also an english version of The Ice Queen so those of you who want to catch up can begin to do so. One of the reasons why people read series is their growing interest in the major characters and their lives. Although each book is focused on a single investigation, there’s a metanarrative which has continuing arcs for many different characters both major and minor. We have therefore been denied the chance to watch the evolution of these characters over the whole series. This is the same problem that blighted the Harry Hole novels.
At a early point in this book, we meet Frank Behnke, a colleague of Pia’s who was disgraced and has now returned as a member of Internal Affairs, determined to exact revenge. We also get a quick introduction to Hanna Herzmann. She’s a television personality who runs a form of investigative journalism show which, if she’s able to acquire the information, has not been afraid to take on bigger stories. Her ambition, however, first seen in Snow White Must Die, the first published in the english version of the series, is going to lead her to take on more than she can chew. The police investigation is triggered by the discovery of a body floating close to the Eddersheim locks courtesy of some teens who were drinking themselves insensible on the river banks. It’s immediately clear she’s been the victim of physical abuse for years. It’s not just the bruises, but the malnourishment and general lack of care suggesting she’s been held a captive for many years. From this brief introduction, you will realise this book is not for everyone. Thematically, we’re dealing with the abuse of children and the network of individuals who trade in them. Although the book is not overly explicit, it nevertheless does not flinch from descriptions which some readers may find distressing.
Structurally, the book has multiple points of view and, for the first part of the book, it’s a little difficult to keep track of who everyone is. Obviously, the longer you read, the more clear the links become between the different individuals, but there’s quite a large cast to accommodate and the plot itself is quite complicated. Adding to the resistance to a smooth reading experience is the denseness of the prose. This is not a criticism of the translation as such. Some books are written with a mass of detail about most of what characters see and experience. This book does require some commitment to get through the opening sections. However, once we emerge into the central section where the investigation gets into its stride, the pace begins to pick up and we have an ending which is both reasonably dramatic and fairly realistic in that the establishment closes ranks and the outcome of the investigation is merely an inconvenience to the remainder of the abusers. We only have to look at the way in which investigations in Britain have been manipulated and suppressed when powerful individuals have been threatened with exposure. For all we like to believe we live in civilised societies in which abuse is always forcefully investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice, the practical reality is that members of Parliament, the judiciary, and senior businessmen have always managed to avoid exposure. We even had to wait until he died before Jimmy Savile’s serial sexual abuse could be exposed. The same happens in Germany and whether you want to read about this in Bad Wolf is a choice only you can make.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Back when I was growing up, one of the more interesting varieties of film that used to cross over the Atlantic and find its way up to our northern shores was the so-called screwball comedy. For those of you who like explanations of jargon, the screwball was a pitch in baseball. The ball spins and travels in unexpected directions. Primarily made during the Depression and the early part of the war, these movies were farces that played both with the struggle between the sexes and, in economic terms, between the social classes. They were often illogical and not a little impossible as different elements were juxtaposed, so poverty and wealth, upper and lower classes could be thrown together as in My Man Godfrey in which even the rich can be saved if given a chance. In some senses these films were romances but, insofar as they did deal with relationships, they were more about the attitudes of those involved than about the decision whether they were to marry. In more modern terms, I’m reminded of films like Get Shorty in which a debt collector decides it’s actually easier to get a Hollywood movie made than continue in a life of explicit crime. These are films with a general comedic sense that play with boundaries in crime and other genres to generate a satirical feel and considerable amusement.
All of which brings me to Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley (Soho Crime, 2014) This is the story of Clive McCahon’s decision to return to his home community of Cold Storage in Alaska after completing a seven-year term in jail for drug-dealing. Since he left at the age of fifteen, not that many people remember him or have any conception of the man he’s become. His brother who served a tour in Afghanistan, acts as the community’s “doctor” while the rest of the inhabitants survive through a combination of fishing (although the cannery that used to provide employment has now closed), some small tourist activity, and sheer bloodymindedness not to be driven away from the inhospitable piece of land. They gossip about the possibility of his return and, as is required in books like this, he times his arrival just as his mother dies (of natural causes). This gives him the chance to meet everyone as they come together to mourn one of the last links with the original settlers who built the huddle of buildings dignified by the name of a town. On his way back up north, he has acquired a healthy pile of cash from Jake Shoemaker, his former business partner, and a potentially savage dog of fairly massive size. The cash pays for the flights and the dog ensures no-one will bother him on his journey.
The other major characters are Lester Frank, a Tlingit Indian who, while observing the foibles of the white folk around him, is actually trying to write the definitive Alaskan novel, young Billy who plans to paddle his way down the coast to meet with the Dali Lama, the young couple who teach at the local school, and the local State Trooper who’s convinced the town is a hotbed for Satanic practices and likely to be overwhelmed by the return of the newly released crime lord. When Clive does return, he decides to renovate and reopen the local bar. There’s just one problem. The local planning ordinances require that there be a church to counterbalance the lure of the demon booze. That’s no problem, of course. Clive will be only too willing to hold services every Sunday as the price of running the bar.
Some of you might sense this is not a crime or mystery novel and you’d be right. There are no murders and no detective, amateur or otherwise, stalks the boardwalks of this northern village to declare whodunnit. Yet, in a way, this is a serious crime novel because we’re dealing with a number of people who will stop at nothing to get their own way. Put a gun in someone’s hand and there’s no saying what mayhem may follow. Indeed, if they take the time and trouble to travel to Cold Storage, there’s no knowing what damage they may do, even if it’s no more than start a band with progressive tendencies. So if you put aside your prejudices, you should embrace this character-driven farce in which men and women, a large dog and the occasional salmon, spend time with each other and sometimes avoid injuring each other. I was delighted and massively entertained.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.