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Tell No Lies by Gregg Hurwitz

Tell No Lies by Gregg Hurwitz

Tell No Lies by Gregg Hurwitz (St Martin’s Press, 2013) demonstrates the old adage that the more you struggle, the faster you sink. So off we go with a mystery thriller that meticulously follows the formula, namely that in the first act of the book, we’re introduced to all the relevant characters including the suspects, that in the middle act, there’s considerable confusion as to which of the suspects may be to blame, and that in the final act, we get an answer, then a twist. If possible, there must be broad, easy-to-understand motives on display, namely, revenge for wrongs caused and a burden of guilt among those who understand what was done.

 

So at the outset, we’re given a ringside seat as Daniel Brasher, a counsellor, works a room of criminals in San Francisco. They have all chosen to go through a course of group therapy in which they learn to confront their inner demons and become better people. If they resist, their probation is revoked and they go back to jail. Not surprisingly, the attendees are deeply ambivalent to the reality of the course. It’s the price they must pay for early release but they would rather not be made to think about the crimes they have committed, let alone decide they would like to reform. For the book to succeed, we must believe in each of the six individuals who’ve signed up for the latest course. More importantly, we must find Brasher’s approach to counselling credible. The exercise in character creation is not unsuccessful. I’m prepared to believe such people would enroll in a course. But I’m not inclined to believe in the somewhat provocative, not to say, aggressive approach adopted by Brasher. We’re expected to believe this motley crew would submit to this form of intellectual and emotional bullying, that it would crack open their shells of feigned indifference, and enable new human beings to emerge from the chrysalises which wrap them while they decide whether to become butterflies. Except, of course, one of them may be a murderer which complicates the relationship our hero has with the group.

Gregg Hurwitz

Gregg Hurwitz

 

The set-up is not without interest. For reasons that need not concern us, Brasher picks up a pile of mail from the boxes of his place of work. Among them, he finds a letter addressed in crabbed hand to an unknown individual. When he Googles the addressee, he discovers the man has been murdered. At this point, he calls the police and our highly experienced female detective arrives. The note is considered interesting but unilluminating. Because this is a thriller, no-one thinks to go through the rest of the bundle of mail. Hence it’s only later he thinks to check. Needless to say, he finds two more notes and this pitches him into the middle of a serial killer’s game. The killer is warning people to admit their guilt or go to their doom. Because this is a mystery thriller, there’s nothing obviously linking these nominated victims and, when they finally do track one down, she has no idea what she might have done to deserve such a death threat. It’s only towards the end of the book that the “crime” is identified and the scope of those at risk realised. At first, there’s no obvious link between any of Brasher’s clients and this “crime”. This is only revealed as we come into the final therapy session for the group.

 

So “Ask Me No Questions, and I’ll” Tell No Lies has quite an interesting point to make about the phenomenon of guilt and the layers of hypocrisy which people erect to insulate themselves from understanding the harm they do to others. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest a potentially significant socio-political subtext is in play. Unfortunately, the potential is rather dissipated by crudely drawn caricatures and reaches a somewhat strange conclusion which, I suppose, we’re to take as a form of ironic form of delayed justice. I think there is actually a good book in this set of plot ideas, but not as written. Yes, the mystery plot has potential, and there are chases and fights as is required in a thriller, but the whole is not as coherent or credible as it might have been.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Of Fever and Blood by Sire Cédric

October 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Of Fever and Blood

Of Fever and Blood by Sire Cédric (Publishers Square, 2013) is distributed in English by Open Road. Sire Cédric has published eight titles (with another due shortly) including L’enfant des cimetières (2009) which won the Masterston prize, this book, De fièvre et de sang (2010), which won the Polar prize at the Cognac festival and the first Cinécinéma Frissons prize, and Le jeu de l’ombre (2011). From this brief history, you’ll understand this author writes about monsters, madness and, without irony intended, rock music. In his novels and short stories, he’s influenced by Clive Barker and Stephen King, having moved from a career in journalism and translation, to writing police procedurals, often with a supernatural element. Le premier sang (2012), the second in this series, has been nominated for the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire and the Prix de l’Embouchure 2013.

Of Fever and Blood is the first of two supernatural thrillers featuring Inspectors Eva Svärta and Alexandre Vauvert. Eva Svärta is a profiler based in Paris. She specialises in cults and anything with an occult connection. We’re immediately pitched into the climax of their hunt for a kidnapped girl. Eva Svärta is assisting in a serial killer case being handled by the Homicide Unit in Toulouse where Alexandre Vauvert works. Structurally, this means the action kicks off in high gear with the pair breaking into a remote farmhouse — none of the niceties of search warrants and backup from SWAT for this pair. They are in (relatively) hot pursuit of the latest kidnapped young woman and are not inclined to let bureaucracy stand in their way. That’s why the two men found at the farm end up dead (well, probably) and the young woman is rescued. Such a good outcome allows the press to senationalise the whole episode as one involving vampires (it’s all about the blood, you see) who’ve been stopped (young women in the area can feel safer) and this positive reaction gives the senior echelons in the policing agencies the excuse to look the other way on the number of different laws broken and the deaths of the two “suspects”.

Sire Cédric

Sire Cédric

Not surprisingly, things don’t go back to normal. Just over a year later, there are two new deaths in Paris which have the same hallmarks from Toulouse. Vauvert is also tempted to return to the farmhouse where supernatural and natural events collide in a rather interesting way (technology is highly relevant here). This prompts our two characters to communicate with each other. They always were unhappy at the summary way their first case was wrapped up. Questions were left unanswered. Now’s their chance to continue the investigation. Except, of course, the two men they killed. . . Perhaps they were Renfields, working for one or more people struggling with the delusion of vampirism. Or just maybe, there’s a real supernatural issue to investigate and resolve here.

Half the interest and fun of this book is the way in which stolid police procedural meets something not covered in the standard training manuals. At one level, we’ve got the usual tropes at work. There’s the structural sexism blighting the career of Svärta. More importantly, there are some seniors officers who’ve seen some inexplicable things in their long careers and are not going to be overly critical if the new generation of officers get caught up in something similar and have to fight their way out, leaving a few bodies behind. And so on. Why should France’s finest have such latitude? Because what they find at the farm and subsequent murder scenes shows a highly organised approach to torturing the twenty-four women kidnapped (or more — keeping count may be important) and draining them of their blood. This signals the most critical failure in the initial investigation. Our heroes never did discover exactly what happened to all the blood.

All this should tell you Of Fever and Blood is a fascinatingly direct voyage into a slightly gothic version of grand guignol. The style is simple and, allowing for the usual melodramatic French sense of atmosphere, unflinching when it comes to describing the way in which the women are killed. We’re then off into slightly more conventional territory with the mythology of vampires and their companion wolves. All of which manages to capture attention early and then ride the curiosity factor through to the end. It’s a real page turner as matters grow increasingly dark for our police heroes. This is not to say the story is stunningly original. In this particular niche which, for these purposes, I’ll describe as supernatural horror and fantasy, there are only a certain number of ways in which an author can manipulate the plot elements. But the results here are carried off with remarkable élan. Given the amount of blood spilled, we’re in early Clive Barker territory. This is not to say the book or its style feels dated. Rather that it’s quite refreshing to find someone getting back to the basic craft of graphic supernatural horror. Put simply Of Fever and Blood is a riveting example of an intelligent plot and ruthlessly efficient pacing in a gore-soaked police procedural. I recommend it.

For a review of the sequel, see The First Blood.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Stranger You Know by Andrea Kane

August 30, 2013 2 comments

The Stranger You Know by Andrea Kane

This is my first look at Andrea Kane who comes with quite a reputation. Let’s start with the prose which is elegantly stripped down. Personally, I have no preference on where an author should locate the prose on the dense to minimalist scale. All I’m interested in is the quality of the product as it appears on the page. This is one of the times when a more elliptical approach fits the thriller genre and gives us a fast, page-turning pace. It has moments tending towards melodrama but that’s largely kept under control. So at a craft level, this author proves her worth with a piece of writing that’s technically very proficient.

So now on to The Stranger You Know (Harlequin Mira, 2013) which is the third in the Forensic Instinct series. Please forgive me for getting the characters straight before discussing the nature of the book. In alphabetical order we have Marc Deveraux, ex-Seal, Claire Hedgleigh, a psychic, Hero, a dog, Kyle Hutchinson, current FBI agent, Patrick Lynch, retired FBI agent, Ryan McKay, IT wizard, Casey Woods, a forensic psychologist and leader of the titular Forensic Instinct team, and Yoda, the primitive AI. For the avoidance of doubt, sexually, the pairings are between Casey and Kyle, Claire and Ryan. This author cut her teeth on writing romance and, to some extent, it shows in this thriller. That’s not to say this is any less thrilling. The author subjects a series of women sharing the same physical features to kidnap, rape and murder. This is an interesting choice of plot by a female author. Central to events is a convicted rapist/murderer who sits in jail and manipulates events though a proxy. This felon’s wife shows all the features of abuse and continues to be dominated by her physically absent husband. Taken as a whole, I have the sense the book is portraying women as essentially weak and prone to be stalked and victimised.

Let’s take one step back. One view of the world is that women are consistently humiliated and abused. Patriarchal cultures objectify females, encouraging the view that dominance by males is the norm. Indeed, until laws were changed over the last one-hundred-and-fifty years in Western societies, women were the property of their fathers until married, when the right of custody was handed over to husbands. The right of women to own their own property and to vote are relatively modern developments, not necessarily resulting in realignments in the average man’s view of the women he meets. Fairly recent American research shows about 18% of women are the victims of attempted or full rape at some point during their lives. This is not necessarily reported because the reality of law enforcement tends not to support women who complain of non-consensual sexual activity. Without rape shield laws to protect women who are themselves put on trial when a rape case comes to court, the number of complaints will continue to be low. So when a modern female author writes about a serial rapist and murderer, she’s simply reflecting the risks a significant proportion of women run during their everyday lives. When a female author describes an abused wife whose personality has been beaten into submission by a controlling partner, she’s describing the experience of perhaps a majority of women in relationships.

Andrea Kane

Andrea Kane

Back to this book, I always have a problem with books purporting to be “real” yet portraying supernatural powers as effective law enforcement tools. Claire has a psychic hotline to women being raped. She can literally pick up the telephone and direct the police to the area in which they will find the bodies. When she fails to have a vision, say because she’s distracting herself by having sex, she beats herself up. This is not to say she can ever stop the attacks from occurring. Obviously, she only responds to the emotional output as the attack is underway. But she nevertheless feels guilt. Well, regretfully, this entire plot thread leaves me absolutely cold. If an author decides to use characters with supernatural abilities, she’s working with systems of magic that fit into the fantasy milieu. Magic doesn’t fit into a milieu in which we’re supposed to be dealing the the brutal reality that about 18% of American women are at risk of being raped during their lives.

Now treading carefully to avoid spoilers, towards the end of the book, the malevolent males have come to the critical point in their fiendish plan. For this plan to work, it requires one of the women to act in a way that can only be described as completely irrational. So this female author has the relevant female character, dare I say it, act like an irrational woman. Perhaps I’m not the right person to be reviewing this book. As a man, I’m deeply offended that this author should force her characters to act with stereotypical stupidity. Why can an author not portray women as having intelligence and emotional fortitude? It’s so frustrating to reach a pivotal moment in the plot and find the author deciding to create a completely fake tension when the inherent situation was already tense enough. The method adopted to resolve the situation would have worked just as well without the absurd decision. Indeed, it would have allowed a woman to show her strength and lead the charge against the malevolent men and kick their butts — an outcome that could have been inspiring to women everywhere. Having to leave it to the men in the team to rescue the situation is just reinforcing the gender stereotype of male superiority.

So The Stranger You Know is successful in the first half, using the inverted crime device to introduce the jailed psychopath, and leading up to a tense and and interesting situation. Indeed, some of the detail of the plot is excellent. But the book drops off the cliff in the second half and is a tragedy for this time. A book like this would have fitted comfortably into the publication lists of the pre-feminist 1950s, but publishing it today strikes me as sending entirely the wrong message to women readers. Andrea Kane can write great prose but has written a book without any feminist sensibilities to help shape the discourse in a direction more positive for gender equality.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Luther: Season 2, episode 2 (2011)

Luther 2010 Idris Elba

It’s impossible to discuss this without detailed spoilers so do not read this unless you have seen the episode.

Well, DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown), the loyal sergeant, gets his reward for being back on the stairway to heaven, police procedural style, by being kidnapped by Cameron Pell (Lee Ingleby), the nutter. We shall pass calmly over the practicality of how the nutter gets into the police car without being detected, overpowers the big policeman, persuades him to leave the car, and then transports him away from the area (presumably thrown over the back of a llama or some other means with an artistic flourish). Anyway, now DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) is on the scene of the abduction, DCI Martin Shenk (Dermot Crowley) is already worried his man’s anger will get in the way of a cleanly run investigation. This set-up has all the hallmarks of another criminal ending up in a hospital in a coma and that’s not going to look good on anyone’s record. So having got the formalities out of the way, it’s on with the hunt. In the meantime, the loyal sergeant has problems. It’s all to do with a blowtorch, a hot iron and suspense as to what’s going to happen.

Jennie Jones (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) is still handcuffed to a chair with Mark North (Paul McGann) acting as jailor with bathroom privileges a challenge. Heavies approach Caroline Jones (Kierston Wareing) (her mother) to get their prostitute back. Except when they explore options with the mother, it seems it may all be part of a plan to entrap Luther. This gives us a twin track narrative. The nutter telephones and Luther ignores him. Our hero has done his psychoanalysis 101 and decides the only way to beat this nutter is to treat him as if he does not exist. He’s to be an “absence”. As an idea, this is clever. I’ve no idea whether this form of provocation would work in the real world. Either way, it doesn’t stop the episode from having a pleasingly dynamic quality. Hey, Luther’s right. What a surprise. The nutter gets upset by being treated as if he has no importance and starts talking to the loyal sergeant instead of torturing him. No, wait. Spouting this rubbish is torturing the loyal sergeant. But at least they’re talking.

Luther and Alice Morgan in a moment of intimacy

Luther and Alice Morgan in a moment of intimacy

It seems the nutter inherited some money when his mother died so Luther has everyone searching for where it went. He also announces to the media that he’s scaling back the hunt for the missing policeman. Shenk and the DS Erin Grey (Nikki Amuka-Bird) interview and intimidate people they identify as having helped the nutter set up a new identity. It turns out he’s bought a bus and a large amount of sodium hydroxide. Leaving the loyal sergeant tied to a metal bracket bolted to a brick wall, the nutter is off to pick up children from a local school. While the cat’s away, the loyal mouse plays with the bracket and eventually breaks free (rusty brackets have no strength when the cat’s away). Shenk and Grey go off to find the bus. Luther picks up the sergeant, embracing him like a long-lost brother. They check the GPS on the nutter’s car conveniently left next to the hideout. This enables them to identify the probable place where the children will be taken.

Anyway, in the second narrative strand, the bad people led by Baba (Pam Ferris) take Caroline Jones hostage, drive a nail through Luther’s hand to show they mean business, and tell him to find out where the police are holding a man who will implicate her grandson, Toby Kent (David Dawson) in people-tracking activities. These bad guys act all psychopathic to frighten Luther, but he’s just angry he has this nail in his hand when he should be out catching the nutter. Except he can’t ignore the threats to Caroloine and Jennie so, with Benny Silver (Michael Smiley) doing the research, our hero breaks into the safe house with Mark’s help and he instructs the witness to withdraw his statement implicating Toby Kent.

Martin Shenk (Dermot Crowley) proving competent in an interview

Martin Shenk (Dermot Crowley) proving competent in an interview

In the main narrative thread, we have the silly situation of Luther and his loyal sergeant getting to the factory unit before every other police officer in London. They reduce the nutter to a snivelling wreck by refusing to treat him as a serious threat to the children he has locked up in his van. With everything happily resolved on this front, Luther returns to his seedy flat where he finds Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) waiting for him. She’s escaped from the secure mental hospital and asks him to run away with her to distant lands featuring places beginning with M. He refuses. Disappointed she gives him a kiss and leaves. He goes to get Jennie and brings her back to his place. Not having read the script, he assures her she’ll be safe there.

Although elements of the episode are idiotic, e.g. cars crashing into each other or through iron railings and still being driveable, the overall effect is as gripping as television episodes ever can be. Luther continues to be restrained, which is a major improvement, and Shenk proves interestingly competent. The loyal sergeant gets to show a heroic quality while the others in the team remain ciphers. In a one-hour episode, there’s no time for everyone to get their moment in the spotlight. This leaves me a chance to offer a word of praise for the villains in these first two episodes who have managed to come across as rather more credible than the more melodramatic criminals from the first season. This has provided Luther with direct antagonists and given the episodes a better balance.

For a review of the prequel novel, see Luther: The Calling by Neil Cross.

Reviews of the television episodes can be found at:
Luther: Season 1, episode 1 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 2 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 3 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 4 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 5 (2010)
Luther: Season 1 episode 6 (2010)
Luther: Season 2, episode 1 (2011)

Luther: Season 2, episode 1 (2011)

Luther 2010 Idris Elba

Luther: Season 2, episode 1 (2011) starts as we know it must. Deathwish DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) survives his morning ritual of Russian roulette and sets off to work as all happy adults must go to their own personal coal face to continue mining. There’s just the one problem with this opening sequence. At the end of the first season, we were left with something of a messy cliffhanger. I had hopes this might signal a shift into a better level of credibility. Rashly, I dared dream this season would deal with the aftermath of the shooting. There we were with three people standing over one body, police sirens wailing in the background. Glossing over this problematic situation would be unacceptable, I thought. So, of course, that’s what Neil Cross does. By his standards, it would be boring to deal with the messy details of whether Alice shooting DCI Ian Reed (Steve Mackintosh) was self-defence or an execution by majority vote, Mark North (Paul McGann) supplying the second vote for death. All we see is DCI Martin Shenk (Dermot Crowley) interviewing Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) who’s intent on taking all the blame for killing Ian Reed. The things we do for whatever passes for love in a sociopath’s mind. When Luther meets up with Mark North, there’s no obvious consequence for either of them. No suspension for Luther whose knife wound seems to have healed nicely. No prosecution for Alice for pulling the trigger. Not even an interview shown for Mark North. It’s just life moving forward as if nothing seriously unlawful has occurred.

Alice Morgan saying, "I did it. It's a fair cop."

Alice Morgan saying, “I did it. It’s a fair cop.”

I know I should not be hankering after a season of what might have been, but just pause for a moment. Alice Morgan is clearly guilty of murder and Mark North incited the shooting, making it their common purpose to kill. Running self-defence would fail because neither Alice Morgan herself nor the others were in immediate physical danger. She’s also not provoked by the words being used so another possible defence falls by the wayside. At an early stage, Ian Reed’s excessive criminal activities over the years will be revealed. Vast numbers of criminals currently residing in HM Prisons now allege they were framed by this crooked policeman. All his files have to be reviewed and DSU Rose Teller (Saskia Reeves) would probably be fired for failing to notice. Now we come to the interesting part. From the early days, Luther was aware of Ian Reed’s criminal connections and actions but he did not blow the whistle. In its own right that’s a criminal offence. Shenk would have a field day (or week) bringing multiple charges against Luther and seeing him locked up. This is four episodes of tense drama as we build up to Luther, Alice Morgan and Mark North going on trial for murder. Will the jury convict once they understand exactly what happened?

Ah well, you can’t always have what you want. Indeed, we’re back to normal in the big city as we watch one lone woman attacked by hooded and masked weirdo who then uses her cellphone to call all her friends (and the vet) to announce the news of her passing. I suppose that crime shows some degree of originality. The only one to have suffered any loss from events is DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) who’s working in uniform as a custody sergeant. Luther sweeps into the station and recruits him into a new serious (this time it’s to be really serious) crime. Amazingly, Shenk is in charge of the unit. He’s no longer investigating fellow police officers. He wants to get back to the real world and locking up serious criminals. Not surprisingly, he’s had to call in favours and twist arms to get the role. Saving Luther meant spending a lot of his goodwill with the “management”. Now he’s under pressure to ensure his star performer doesn’t go off the rails (again) (sorry, was he ever really on the rails?). There’s a new DS Erin Grey (Nikki Amuka-Bird) who’s worried her own career may be wrecked by working with Luther. Since these series are naturally perverse, this means she’s destined for greatness.

Cameron Pell (Lee Ingleby) appealing to the world for recognition

Cameron Pell (Lee Ingleby) appealing to the world for recognition

A new face, Caroline Jones (Kierston Wareing), comes into the police station to see Luther who arrested her husband for murder some years in the past. Jennie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), her daughter, was all messed up by seeing her daddy humiliated and arrested. Now grown up, she’s run away into a life as a more extreme prostitute. For her next paying gig, she’s arranged to go through a form of consensual rape which is to be filmed. Reluctantly, Luther agrees to talk with her. IT whizkid, Benny Silver (Michael Smiley), tracks down where the filming “might” be taking place. Luther goes there, finds much activity, and talks with Jennie who claims to need the money. There’s rent to pay. So he arrests her and leaves her in handcuffs with Mark North. They talk. Two damaged people forced to externalise their losses.

After a second murder, Luther scans the crowd at the murder scene, sees a likely suspect, and runs off after him. Minutes later, we’re back into darkness. This time it’s cellar territory. With the unerring accuracy of the bloodhound, he tracks the man down. They fight and the man escapes — needs must when there’s an hour to fill. Fortunately Luther has bitten the man and has a DNA sample. Now they have a name and a background. It’s Cameron Pell (Lee Ingleby), a failed artist who has an obsession with Springheeled Jack and is out to make himself into a legend. He kills a third time, taunting the police with a live video feed of the dirty deed.

In an idle moment, Luther visits Alice. She may have avoided prison but is now in a secure hospital — apparently she tried to kill herself (several times). She advises him to give up the police force and live for himself and not for others. Those others are all just vampires. He thinks back to his suicidal tendencies and agrees he’s not going to hang around for long. This just leaves me a final word. If we put aside personal issues and treat this episode as a standalone, it proves to be quite an effective atmosphere piece. There’s not a lot of detecting going on but it does build up into quite a pleasingly tense sequence at the end. Although the cliffhanger is woefully contrived — the rear doors on police cars are not kept locked and open silently — it does keep the interest going.

For a review of the prequel novel, see Luther: The Calling by Neil Cross.

Reviews of the television episodes can be found at:
Luther: Season 1, episode 1 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 2 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 3 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 4 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 5 (2010)
Luther: Season 1 episode 6 (2010)
Luther: Season 2, episode 2 (2011).

Ruin Value by J Sydney Jones

Ruin Value by J Sydney Jones

The Germany of 1945 after the end of the war was in terrible shape. It was not politically convenient at the time to tell the victorious citizens back home just how much damage the Allies had managed to inflict upon German cities. Nor did the Allied leaders admit just how much aid was going to be necessary to keep the survivors alive, particularly since contemporary US policy was to deny food to surviving Germans. There was also a conspiracy of silence as about half-a-million Germans disappeared to the East never to be seen again. No-one liked to talk about revenge through ethnic cleansing. Even today, this is a very sensitive subject. Those who were left first camped out in the ruins, chasing food on the black market, using cigarettes as currency. As the months passed and after the end of the events described in this book, they endured what’s become known as the hunger winter 1946/7 where survivors fled the cities and tried to find food in the countryside. This was despite Hoover’s reluctant agreement in 1946 to allow charitable organisations to begin food shipments to Germany to prevent the children from starving. The title, Ruin Value by J Sydney Jones (Mysteriouspress.com original, 2013) A Mystery of the Third Reich is a reference to the legacy of the Reich as betrayal, ruin, rubble and grief. Although there were scare stories of Werwolf brigades left behind as guerillas, the reality was a docile people desperate to survive and find any relatives still alive. While the Russians and French engaged in reprisals, the British and Americans put their weight behind the trials at Nuremberg. Ironically, the trials evoked little local interest. The people couldn’t have cared less what happened to the men who’d led them into this mess.

J Sydney Jones

J Sydney Jones

My reason for starting in this way is that modern generations fail to understand the true extent of the horror experienced both by the German survivors and the occupying forces that became their jailers. Although this book to some extent skates over the surface of the problems, it’s good to see a writer of this quality take the brave decision to set the book in this somewhat controversial period of history.

Captain Nathaniel Morgan, born Morgenstern, is set up as the potential scapegoat if the Allies can’t identify the killer of three men of different nationalities in different parts of Nuremberg. At three day intervals, the killer has slashed the throats of a Russian, American and French soldier. To help, Morgan secures the release of ex-Chief Inspector Werner Beck, a German police officer who had fallen foul of politically connected factions at the end of the war, but who has experience in tracking serial killers. Still short-handed, they recruit Wieland Imhofer, a one-armed private investigator, to help them pursue the killer. Meanwhile Kate Wallace, daughter of a powerful US Senator, is learning her way around the city as a reporter on her first important overseas job. The investigators fear a British soldier will be next, yet the fourth victim turns out to be a Polish civilian. Curiously, this slight shift in the pattern of nationalities and the dates gives them an insight into the plans of the serial killer. Two possible theories emerge. From the first two deaths, this could be someone eliminating the competition in the black market. But the French officer seems not to have had direct connections to illegal trade. This leads to the second theory which is that the murders are political and leading up to a grand gesture to coincide with the first major trial at the Nuremberg court. News that the Allies can’t stop a serial killer and some more serious “terrorist” outrage would seriously distract world attention from the trial itself. For that reason, the Allied Powers are anxious to prevent news of the killings leaking to the Press. Morgan and Beck come under increasing pressure to catch the killer before news leaks.

Although there’s one convenient coincidence which ultimately leads to the discovery of the killer’s identity, this is a nicely paced investigation as the Jewish and German policemen set differences aside and try to act like “proper” policemen in a world turned upside down by the war. Setting everything against the ruins of a once great city at a moment the Allies want to make a pivotal entry in the discourse of their victory narrative gives us a dramatic backdrop. There’s a pleasing confluence of historical factors in play in these ruins. People are the sum of their life experiences. Many Germans have been reduced to little more than feral beasts, abandoning much of their humanity in their drive to survive. Others have managed to maintain something of their past status and dignity. While above the chaos and, to some extent, indifferent to it, the four occupying powers spar amongst themselves over the true nature of their roles in this catastrophic situation. It’s through this tension and the interactions between the different groups that the truth will slowly emerge. In this let’s remember that there were good Germans like Oskar Schindler who helped Jews, and that many of the Allies were profoundly anti-Semitic and indelibly racist. There’s a revealing moment when a young white GI shoots a black solder dead in the street only to be arrested by Morgan. In this book, the minorities have to stand up for each other against the bigotry surrounding them. Some of those we meet look forward to a future when differences will have faded away. Others are bound in the past and committed to the notion that differences must be maintained at all costs.

While I have the slight sense that punches have been pulled so that modern sensibilities will not be overly disturbed, Ruin Value remains a bold piece of writing and a very pleasing serial killer investigation and thriller. It’s well worth reading.

For a review of other books by J Sydney Jones, see:
The Keeper of Hands
A Matter of Breeding.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Beyond the Bridge by Tom MacDonald

Beyond-the-Bridge-3D

Reviewing is rather an odd way of passing the time. Unlike the real world in which I pick the books I want to read, boxes turn up on my doorstep and I add the new books to the pile. I operate on the taxicab rule. It’s strictly first in, first out. That way I keep track of the queue and know which books are next in line. I would like to say that all the books are at least good. If publishers or the marketers are going to send books out for review, you would hope they would always pick the better ones. That way the reviewers wouldn’t have to lie too much to sing their praises. Yet I’m still picking up real stinkers. Perhaps publishers or marketers get too close to their own product or clients, and lose their objectivity. The commissioning editor thought it good enough to buy. Hours of loving care have been spent preparing it for the market. They all want to think the best of it.

Ah well, such is the way of the world. And since taste is intensely subjective, I’m equally able to make mistakes. There’s no absolute right and wrong in this business. Everyone is peddling their own judgement. The publisher puts his or her head above the parapet with the latest title. By return, I fire back with my magisterial opinion. Sometimes, we’re in diametrically opposed camps. In the case of Beyond the Bridge by Tom MacDonald (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) I’m pleased to be able to report the publisher has hit the bullseye. This is one of the best PI novels or thrillers so far this year. Perhaps this is not surprising given the success of the first. I confess to having missed it, but according to the marketing blurb, The Charlestown Connection was Winner of Best First Novel 2012 Indie Book Awards, nominated for the 2012 International Thriller Awards, Best First Novel, a finalist for American Librarians Association, 2011 Book of the Year Award, and nominated for Reader’s Choice Award, Salt Lake City Utah Library Association.

Tom MacDonald

Tom MacDonald

So what’s it about? Well this is the second in an emerging series featuring Dermot Sparhawk set in Boston and, as is always the case when you want to catch out the unwary reviewer, it’s a prequel. Having proved a hit with the character, the author decided to show us how our Irish Native American Indian first got sucked into the investigation game. The backstory is set in the poorer part of Boston with our hero working in a charity outreach role for the Catholic church. Born and brought up in the area, he’s well known because he almost made it as a pro-football player. A knee injury cut short his fledgling career. There’s a real sense of authenticity about life in this area with the poverty and desperation to the fore. It’s a refreshing change from the more cozy middle-class approach to urban America which can allow the hero to visit the wrong side of the tracks, but not actually live there. In this novel, a serial killer is crucifying priests and our hero is asked by the brother of one of the victims to find out who was responsible. Out of courtesy, Dermot tells his priest what he’s doing and, when the Bishop hears, the work becomes more official.

With this character, we’re firmly into the land of novels dealing with disability which I discussed in the reviews of Bleed For Me by Michael Robotham and, to a lesser extent, in A Murder in Passing. Because alcoholism is slightly different, I’m going to expand on this theme a little. Addicted detectives have achieved some success through Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole, Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, and so on. The question is why authors saddle their detectives with a disability. The answer is simple. These fictional characters are going to show off superhuman mental abilities, out-thinking everyone from the tough and experienced police officers to the criminal(s) whodunnit. Since we readers are mental pygmies by comparison, we need to feel these paragons of mental virtue are credible and human enough to empathise with. Hence, they need to be given flaws. That way they become less than perfect and we can come to care about them. In the case of alcoholism, this is to some extent a self-inflicted disability and so we can be fighting alongside as they try to beat the demon booze through AA sessions and with the help of their sponsors. Equally important is the capacity of the character for growth. When he or she has a flaw, there’s always the chance of some recovery. Through rehabilitation, a character may regain some function in an injured limb. An alcoholic can go several chapters without taking a drink. Of course, when the weather gets cold, the old injury can flare up making movement painful. Similarly, one drink can lead to alcohol poisoning and near death experiences. Alcoholism also exposes our hero to added dangers. It’s more difficult to take a sober detective by surprise, but the bad guys can walk into the room of a man incapacitated by alcohol without fear (assuming they have the right room, of course — the wrong room could land them in a lot of trouble).

Beyond the Bridge is a very elegantly constructed puzzle. There are three immediately connected deaths but one doesn’t seem to fit quite as smoothly into the series. As Dermot begins to ask questions, he finds himself threatened which is always inspirational because it suggests he’s on the right track. By the time he’s finished, there are quite a few bodies. It’s par for the thriller course and our hero’s claims of self-defence are credibly supported by the evidence, so his personal tally doesn’t lead to a prosecution. That means there’s plenty of action and real ingenuity in how the final revelation is proved. Hence with trumpets blazing and fireworks leaping into the sky, I herald a terrific read, leaving only one question. Where does Dermot get what seems to be quite a lot of spending money?

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Keeper of Hands by J Sydney Jones

May 27, 2013 2 comments

The Keeper of Hands

The Keeper of Hands by J Sydney Jones (Severn House, 2013) A Viennese Mysteries Novel is the fourth in the series featuring Advokat Karl Werthen who’s disconcerted to learn his father may be acquiring a house close to his in the countryside around Vienna. Distracting him, he’s indirectly approached by Frau Josephine Mutzenbacher to investigate the murder of one of the prostitutes working in her justly famous high-class brothel. The young woman who looked thirteen to appeal to clients of that persuasion has been murdered, her body found in a nearby park. Having talked with the Madame, her brother and the girl who shared a bedroom with the victim, our hero sets off to track down Peter Altenberg, a man he’s recognised as one of the victim’s clients, an eccentric by virtue of his class (if he’d been poor, he might have been considered insane). From him, the trail of breadcrumbs leads to Arthur Schnitzler, the writer and playwright who may have upset some of the military with his latest play. He’s recovering from a beating and begs our hero to add the identification of his attacker to his list of things to do. It’s therefore fortuitous that Doktor Hanns Gross is free to offer a helping hand and the benefit of his experience as a criminologist. Then along comes Frau von Suttner. Our hero’s reputation as an investigator is suddenly bringing him more work than he can comfortably fit into his lifestyle so his wife and secretary take on that task. Then the investigators uncover a connection between the dead prostitute and Count von Ebersdorf who, by coincidence is also recently dead: of food poisoning. He was something “sketchy” in the government, i.e. a spy.

J Sydney Jones

J Sydney Jones

Fin-de-siècle Vienna has always been considered central in the manoeuverings between power blocks. This reflects both its geographical location and its cultural and political importance. The rise of Modernism in the latter part of the nineteenth century produced a crisis for liberalism and laid the foundations for the Europe we know today through the work of great minds like Freud, Arthur Schnitzler, Gustav Mahler, and others. It was a city which produced extremes of optimism and pessimism — a society in flux and, more often than not, resigned to failure, a fact seen in its virulent anti-Semitism and the political disputes between the different nationalities that came together in the city. Spying was a way of life.

From this introduction, you will realise this book is like Vienna, i.e. it sits on the fault lines between different genres. It is, in the same breath, a murder mystery, a conventional thriller, an espionage thriller with political overtones, and a historical novel. As a picture of a city in times gone by, this is a remarkable technical achievement. Too often authors are tempted to show off their knowledge of the place and its history. Just think of all the hours of research that go into writing books like this and admire the self-discipline of the author in interweaving just enough to give us the flavour of the place without submerging us with detail. Then as to the shape of mystery itself, we start off along the conventional line of following the progress of the investigation into the murder of the prostitute, looking over the shoulders of the investigation team as it pushes forward. Then we divide the point of view and see the scene from the other side of the fence. With the context for the murder(s) starting to come into view, we have the pleasure of watching all the disparate elements coming together in a most elegantly constructed plot.

The title is a reference to the barbaric practice of cutting off the hands of slaves who were less than active in their work. Since those responsible for enforcing discipline were only paid by results, a designated officer had to keep the hands and dispense payment when it fell due. In this novel it’s a reference to the signature for our serial killer. All of which leaves me full of praise for The Keeper of Hands. It contrives to be a historical novel with surprisingly modern resonances in the current rivalry between the branches of different intelligence services. It’s a winner!

For reviews of other books by J Sydney Jones, see:
A Matter of Breeding
Ruin Value.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Call (2013)

The Call

Emergency call centres perform a valuable public service. When there’s a problem, this is the interface between police, fire, ambulance, animal control or whatever other service is relevant to deal with the crisis. Manning the telephones of this LAPD 9-1-1 operation centre is a dedicated crew of individuals. They call it the Hive and these busy-bees must be able to deal with a whole range of different callers. Some will be calm, others in the full flow of panic. Some will be homicidal, others suicidal. So significant verbal skills are required to elicit relevant information and get the right response to the site of the call in the optimum time. I’m not sure to what extent the call centre room as shown in this film is realistic. It’s all very high tech with everyone supported by an active IT system. Because we’re to be reassured and entertained, the staff must be shown as caring and highly competent. It would not be good for public morale if this vital interface was shown as staffed by people who couldn’t give a shit what happened to the callers or those who are the subject of the call. The fact that, after a few hours of listening to hysterical people, any sane person would suffer burnout and just wish it would all go away is neither here nor there. No matter where these people are in the shift, they must be shown as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, naturally following on from one call to the next with the same sunny smile and burning desire to help.

Halle Berry taking the call

Halle Berry taking the call

 

In the midst of all this extravagant altruism and caring shown in The Call (2013) sits Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) who gets to take a break when her boyfriend Officer Paul Phillips (Morris Chestnut) drops in — such are the perks when you’re the superstar. Then Lea Templeton (Evie Thompson) calls. A man is breaking into her house. This should be fairly routine. The girl should hide until the police can arrive. But Jordan Turner makes a mistake. When the girl disconnects, Jordan calls back and the sound of the call brings the man directly to his target. A few hours later, the girl is found dead. As is required in all films of this type, this mistake blights her perky attitude. She feels she cannot continue to field calls. What if she makes another mistake?

 

Six months later, she’s working as a trainer. This relieves her of the stress of answering live calls. In a mall, the second kidnap victim, Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin), is taken from a carpark. This recreates the basic situation with Michael Foster (Michael Eklund) the man who finds things not quite going his way and struggles to get things back on his track. So now we’re into a chase sequence as our heroine tries to keep the girl in one piece emotionally while eliciting enough information from the girl to track the car. Naturally the girl only has a disposable cellphone and the GPS can’t instantly give a location. This section of the film is actually quite interesting. Jordan has the difficult task of dealing with the hysterical girl and holding herself together. It’s her first time back behind the telephone after the disaster.

Abigail Breslan being overwhelmed by events

Abigail Breslan being overwhelmed by events

 

Now I’m not going to say flat-out that this is a really bad plot idea. Yes it’s a hoary cliché to have the protagonist suffer a traumatic incident and then have to get back on to the bicycle again. But there have been some pleasingly dramatic films where the result has been a tense and exciting battle for control of self in difficult circumstances that replicate the original tragedy. It’s a chance for redemption. Here we have a gap of six months with no calls and then she just happens to be standing next to an inexperienced operator when the call comes in. That’s not unreasonable. She’s a trainer and regularly gives her trainees a tour through the centre. That would have been enough if the rest of the film had been made with any intelligence. The difficulty is the essentially static nature of the set-up. The emotionally taut Jordan is talking on the phone, the whimpering, submissive kidnappee is in the trunk of the car, the panic-stricken kidnapper is driving around, and the police are in their cars and helicopters but do not touch base with the kidnapper. Something could have been made of this, I suppose. But the scriptwriter then gilds the lilly. He asks the question: what are the odds it’s the same guy from the first kidnapping. Life’s really strange how it works out.

Michael Eklund driving around

Michael Eklund driving around

 

Then, of course, Jordan realises it’s the same man!

 

I’m sure in the real world, dedicated people who work in these central facilities must occasionally draw the short straw twice. Statistics work out that way over thousands of calls. But this is one humungous coincidence and wrecks what might otherwise have been a good film if it had had a good script and a director prepared to be creative. Unfortunately, the script devolves into a blatantly silly sequence of events as our heroine decides to take action personally. On the off chance you go to see this film, I won’t spoil the ending for you. All I will say is that, to me, it’s embarrassingly long-drawn out and bad. In part, it seems to be pandering to an audience that’s presumed to want to watch the torture of a partially undressed young girl by a serial killer whack job. A lot of the ending also seems to have been filmed in darkness with tense music designed to make us think it’s exciting. In fact they couldn’t think of a way to make the action look realistic so kept the lights off. And finally we have the last two minutes of the ending which, not to put too fine a point on it, are hardly the most moral we’ve seen in the last few years. We’ve come a long way since the Hays Code but this just seems to be back to scraping the bottom of the ethical barrel.

 

So, in the stakes for identifying the worst films of 2013, this leaps into the lead. Having started with a reasonable premise, The Call ends up really bad.

 

The 7th Woman by Frédérique Molay

The 7th Woman

The 7th Woman by Frédérique Molay (Le French Book, 2012) (translated by Anne Trager) is a French police procedural with a variation on the “invisible man” idea as in G K Chesterton. Let’s meet Nico Sirsky, Head of the Paris Criminal Investigation Division who can stare down criminals armed to the teeth but goes weak-kneed in the presence of an attractive woman, particularly if she can insert a camera into his stomach and take photographs of potential ulcers. You see he has a stressful job and with stress comes health problems. But before he can start training his stomach wall to smile for the camera, he gets called in to a murder. Marie-Hélène Jory, an assistant professor at the Sorbonne has been tortured before death came as a merciful release. The first impression is that this is a highly organised, not to say, professional killer. Not only did he take his time, but stayed behind afterwards to stage the crime scene and remove all traces of his presence.

This is a novel that obeys the unity of time as a serial killer starts his sequence and the police try to play catch-up as the second identical killing is discovered. To show how serious he is, the killer leaves a message. He’s going to kill a total of seven women in seven days. But, with the third victim, the killer makes it personal by leaving another message, this time addressed to Nico. Worse Nico’s brother-in-law is involved. Even at the best of times, the politics of investigation in France is complicated. The idea of a vendetta against Nico and/or his family is therefore viewed very seriously. After some thought, Nico is allowed to retain management control over the case for the police side of the investigation. He’s expected to be professional enough to ignore the potential conflict of interest. When other senior officers are implicated, the deviousness of the plot become apparent.

Frédérique Molay

Frédérique Molay

I’m not quite sure about the translation. I think it slightly literal rather than being edited into a more flowing English style. As a language, French tends to be a little more detailed in the way it presents ideas. The text we have here matches that with a slightly dense prose style. Worse, there’s quite a significant cast of people to meet so the first half of the book is relatively slow moving as everyone is established and their relationships explained. As an irrelevant aside, there’s a certain class uniformity here. All the characters, including the victims, are middle or upper middle class, prosperous, occupying pleasant homes and fashionably stylish. With the exception of Nico’s son, there’s also a fairly narrow age range between late thirties and early fifties. That means this is a fairly unrepresentative sample of life in Paris. I’m not raising this as a criticism, but it does say something about the author’s view of the world. This being the first of three books featuring Nico Sirsky, our hero also turns out to be something of a workaholic paragon. Although a man, he’s empathetic — described as a feminine characteristic — faithful to his ex-wife but innocently romantic when he meets the doctor who’s going to check out his ulcer. Within days, he’s decided he’s in love again, not something I find very credible in an obsessive man like this while he’s in the middle of a bloody serial killer case.

So where does this leave us? After a slow start, the pace picks up, more bodies appear, and we race into a moderately clichéd confrontation at the end. Although I think it’s obvious who’s responsible, the author plays a very elegant game in trying to distract us. For this, she deserves praise. When there’s only one person who could have done it, it’s something of a triumph to keep making us doubt the obvious. As a police procedural, I think it better than average, but it’s not for everyone as we have fairly graphic descriptions of the torture both from the killer’s point of view and during the autopsies. This is not to say The 7th Woman is in any sense a horror novel. The descriptions are not sensationalised or written in a way likely to raise strong emotional responses. But such factual explicitness may not be to everyone’s taste.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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