The question for consideration in this review is what makes a good thriller. I’m going to avoid the usual bland litmus test which asks merely whether the content of the novel thrills. Judging a creative work by the amount of adrenaline the reading activity produces is somewhat superficial. It’s like saying a tennis match between the world’s top two players is simply a demonstration of how to apply testosterone in the pursuit of victory. The experience of watching a game between two evenly-matched exponents is the satisfaction of seeing something done well. Although they may sometimes hit the ball hard, there are the angles to calculate, the spin to impart, and the subtlety of deception to engage in. Games involve the mind as well as the body. So it is with novels. A thriller cannot truly thrill unless it also engages the mind of the reader. This is done through the strength of the characters and the ingenuity invested in the creation of the situations in which they find themselves. Indeed, in the very best thrillers, the reader cares about the characters and not only wants them to survive, but also to prosper in the long term. Real world outcomes are never as neat and tidy as in the routine thriller. People still have to get up the next morning and deal with all the problems arising from the last three-hundred or so pages of action.
One of my all-time favourite thrillers is Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. Written on the cusp of World War II, it deals with a man who has spent his life hunting. He wonders what it would be like to hunt a man and so, to test himself, he stalks a “European dictator”. Naturally, he’s intercepted and caught. When he escapes, he finds himself stalked. If the book stopped at this level, it would not have become a classic. The reason it transcends time is because it examines the motivation of the man and peels away layers of self-deception. While he may physically hide from the man hunting him, there’s no place he can hide in his own mind. It’s a remarkably intelligent piece of writing which both produces the thrills and satisfies the mind of the reader.
A Billion Ways to Die by Chris Knopf (The Permanent Press, 2014) sees us back with Arthur Cathcart and Natsumi Fitzgerald, the dead guy and the blackjack dealer now in their third outing. The critical challenge for anyone writing a series is to allow the characters to grow as the plot develops over the length of the series. The problem is the features that first made the characters so interesting may slowly be lost as they respond to different situations and stimuli. We readers may be bored if the evolution is too small or not inherently plausible, or the characters may change so much we may no longer empathise with them. The craft of writing is therefore about managing change. The situational contexts will change to preserve novelty, but the ways in which the characters change must remain relatively small-scale and credible. So when Arthur was shot in the head, he should have died. When he survived, he embraced the official status and dropped off the grid. The first book was therefore about survival. The second book saw him become more proactive in trying to discover what had prompted his wife to become involved in criminal activity. Now the past is beginning to catch up with him. He upset people in the first and second books. The US government is also interested. So wherever they go, they are hunted.
As Household told us back in 1939, the experience of being hunted by people who want to kill you, forces some degree of introspection. In this instance, it’s not at all obvious who the hunters are. More puzzlingly, it’s not at all obvious what they want except that it seems to involve a rather larger sum of money. Not unnaturally, Arthur’s accumulated savings are not counted in the billions. He’s therefore unable to answer the questions of the people who catch him and Natsumi. The rest of the book is a modern classic of a couple and then a man who must decide how he wants to live his death. It would be good to be acknowledged as being alive again, but that’s going to bring its own raft of problems. If he’s a target now, what will happen if he officially surfaces again? Conversely, if he stays off the grid, how is he going to protect himself and those he loves? The answers give are compelling as we learn yet more fascinating details about how someone really would set about hiding billions of stolen money. This is particularly elegant. Overall, it’s got everything you would want to find: a pacy plot, a beautifully constructed puzzle for our protagonist to solve, and characters that feel real. Inevitably, there are one or two flaws about two-thirds of the way through, but they are so minor that you’re likely to conclude A Billion Ways to Die is probably the best straight thriller you’re going to read in 2014 (what’s left of it). However, once you realise this is the third in a series and many series have a less readable third book, the true worth of this book emerges. It’s one of my top third books in a thriller series over the last five years!
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Over the last two years, I’ve reviewed a few mystery novels with an agenda to deal with issues of contemporary importance. This has included the abnormally high murder rate in some Mexican towns, people trafficking, and so on. It may be significant that many of these novels dealing with the darker side of human nature are Scandinavian. The literal darkness that descends in the northern latitudes during their longer winters often seems to be matched by a fascination with human depravity in its various forms. This experience has led me, on some occasions, to feel somewhat manipulated. It’s not exactly that I’m beginning to suffer compassion fatigue. I haven’t yet lost my sense of the horror and real injustice suffered by the victims of these crimes. I’ve simply found the themes overly dominant, feeling as if these crimes are themselves being presented as a form of entertainment as we watch the not unnaturally depressed detectives follow the clues to trap the killers and imprison the abusers.
Thematically, River of Glass by Jaden Terrell (Permanent Press, 2014) is dealing with people trafficking. A number of young women have been induced to travel to America from Asia only to find themselves trapped in a living hell where they are taught to be submissive and then sold on to rich johns. All this comes to Jared McKean courtesy of a body in the dumpster at the back of the building where he has his office. The next day an Asian woman is waiting outside his office. She claims to be his half-sister. Backed up by a number of photographs, she explains his father went through a form of local marriage when he was serving in Vietnam. They were expecting him to go back after the war, but he never did. Now her daughter has gone missing in America. She had insisted on coming to find her grandfather. Once he overcomes his scepticism, this sets Jared off on a search for his niece.
Under normal circumstances, he would call on the help of his old friend in the local police force. But he’s somewhat distracted. This leaves his main point of contact the temperamental Malone who has yet to warm up to Jared’s approach to investigating crime. Unfortunately, although he begins to make progress thanks to all his friends, the local law enforcement focus shifts to investigate the activities of a bomber who claims to be exterminating people who have shown themselves to be enemies of justice. This leaves Jared and his half-sister in the driving seat of the investigation without official support.
Although we have scenes embedded in the broad narrative explaining what’s happening to those kept imprisoned, the reader’s eye is kept squarely on the characters of those in pursuit. Since Jared’s disabled son goes through a health crisis, the emotional complexities of his life are laid bare. At a time when he wants and needs to be there for his son, he discovers he has another previously unsuspected part of the family to worry about. In the end the compromises he makes persuade his half-sister into greater recklessness than is prudent. It’s at this point we discover the significance of the book’s title which is appropriately vicious.
What makes this book so satisfying is the balance between the awfulness of the treatment endured by those in captivity, and the determination of those in pursuit to find out who’s responsible. The result is a proper context for the darkness which offers depth and some affirmation for the essential resilience of the human spirit. Those who endure, find some redemption. Those who fight for what’s right find themselves the victim of their own naïveté, but nevertheless can still draw enough strength to continue when the truth emerges. This makes River of Glass one of the best thrillers of the year so far. It’s powerful without overwhelming the sense of compassion we should all feel for those victimised in this way. I strongly recommend this book.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Having had some issues with the narrative pacing of the first in the series, I metaphorically pick up a digital copy of A Cup Full of Midnight by Jaden Terrell (Permanent Press, 2012) featuring ex-cop and now PI Jared McKean. This continues in the best raditions of a serial with characters who were slightly less prominent in the first book, now stepping into the limelight. This time, the focus of attention is Josh, our hero’s nephew. Much to the despair (if not anger of his father), the young sprog comes out as gay and, to add insult to injury, becomes involved with the Goth scene. Except, even this version of the Goth scene is tainted with darker colours as he moves into the world of vampires, witches and others who claim some kind of supernatural status or powers. This leads to him becoming involved with a manipulative man who claims to be a real vampire. A short while after the young man loses his appeal, said vampire is killed in what seems to have been a ritualistic way. Except it’s not at all clear what the ritual might have been, so mixed up is all the symbology. What’s particularly clear is the depth of anger in the killing. Normally, this would not be a problem, but the sprog and a young woman were in the neighbourhood about the time and, worse, the young girl makes a generalised confession that she was responsible for the death. When two less than caring police officers come to interview the sprog, they frighten him and he attempts suicide. This inspires McKean to investigate. He may have thought the man deserved to die for abusing minors, but the suggestion his nephew might have had something to do with it passes a red line.
So this book adheres more closely to the optimal PI narrative pacing model. We have a gentle introduction to the problem and then our PI sets off to investigate. The first hurdle he meets is the number of people the victim had angered in his relatively short lifetime. It was probably something he worked at consciously, seeing how far he could push a real talent for upsetting others. One person describes the victim as a man who’d dipped into the Great Darkness and scooped out a cup full of midnight. So whether it was others in the Goth scene, or the gay scene, or the parents of the young kids he slept with, or the locals in the neighborhood where he lived, there were probably a lot of people waiting in line for their chance to kill him. Anyway, after doing the first round of talking with all the possibles, he knows he’s on the right track because someone with supernatural powers materialises a rattlesnake in his truck in that cold interstitial period before Christmas becomes New Year.
Very much as the first book, this is primarily interested in relationships. You may think you know people, but even those you’ve known for years can surprise you. Take your best friend who’s dying of AIDS. He has a steady boyfriend but he’s prepared to sacrifice that relationship to help an ex-boyfriend who’s that much closer to death. It’s all about priorities and the sacrifices you’re prepared to take to help others or just fit in with the crowd. That’s why Josh is something of an enigma. This is a boy McKean has known from birth, except just how well does he know him? It’s not just a simple matter of him running with the wrong crowd, meeting up with them on a casual basis. He’d been a willing catamite for the victim and who can be entirely sure what he might have done while under that man’s influence. The result as described here is full of resolutions (it’s almost New Year, after all). Some of these endings are tragic, others merely sad. For those left standing, life goes on for now but little in life is ever certain. A traffic accident or some other unexpected event could end it tomorrow. The young never have enough experience to understand how short their lives are. The older people have enough experience to be able to live with the knowledge they will die one day (some sooner than others).
A Cup Full of Midnight turns out to be something of a tour-de-force. The pacing is just right and, more importantly, the people ring true. No matter whether we’re dealing with the more extreme or marginalised members of society, or those whose middle class status is supposed to make them more law-abiding and less dangerous, everyone reacts in the moment. It’s the fallibility of humanity that everyone can be tempted or manipulated into doing the wrong thing. All it takes is someone with sufficient insight and determination to cause chaos, and the world can fall apart. Then it takes someone like McKean to help stick plaster on the wounds and hope people can recover. If that means, sometimes, he has to look the other way, that’s a price worth paying to protect the weak and vulnerable from doing further damage to themselves. Protect and serve doesn’t just apply to police officers. It also applies to PIs and concerned citizens like McKean. Overall, this is an impressive character study and recommended.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
When putting together a PI novel with thriller pretensions, one of the key considerations is narrative pacing. Not to put too fine a point on it, if a reader is expecting action, being slow to introduce it will result in boredom and a switch-off. But equally, having non-stop action can become tedious. Even in the most high-adrenaline adventures, people do take short breathers. So, for example, the James Bond franchise has developed the introductory blast of action lasting five to ten minutes. This captures the attention of viewers by showing a sample of what they can expect when they get to the climax. The plot proper can then begin and slowly escalate up to said climax when all the major stunts are played out. This reflects the general danger that if events are flashing by too quickly, neither viewers nor readers may gain a clear understanding of what’s happening. Of course, cultural anthropologists may suggest Western people with digital inputs are developing very short attention spans and need constant restimulation if they are going to reach the end of the film or book. This may persuade authors to aim for a mini-cliffhanger at the end of every chapter to persuade readers to turn the pages more quickly to resolve their feelings of fear and anxiety. But the dilemma for authors could not be more clearly seen than in Racing the Devil by Jaden Terrell (Permanent Press, 2012).
This is the first of the Jared McKean mysteries. He has an eight-year-old son with Down Syndrome, an ex-wife, and an array of very interesting and supportive friends. The opening sixty or so pages of this book flash by with incidents of note occurring on a regular basis. So: goes into pub, meets woman who has been battered and seems in need of protection; has sex with said woman; wakes up to find himself framed for a murder; makes a bad decision, and is arrested; is beaten up in prison; and then has time to draw breath when his friends bail him out. Now he can begin trying to discover who the mastermind is. Yet even at this early stage, there are problems. To take but two examples, he’s fuzzy when he wakes up after being drugged, but that’s no reason to leave his vehicle untouched. Anyone who thinks someone may be framing them should take the chance to search the vehicle to see whether there’s any other evidence left to be found. To walk away is simply idiotic (or perhaps it isn’t, who knows?). It’s also strange, given the victim apparently kept a diary of where she met the fake McKean, that the real deal does not try to prove the negatives, i.e. that he was not present at all those times. Ah well, you don’t read these books for their logic.
So having our hero back on the mean streets, he has to earn enough to pay the bills and investigate who’s set him up. Although we continue to make progress, the pace now drops quite dramatically (as you would expect). So we’re trying to interview the neighbours and then off to see the deceased’s sister for a little horse massage (no, really, all he does is rub the horse). As the investigation proceeds, we get time for friends and, more importantly, family as he meets his newly-pregnant ex and her new husband on the occasion of his son’s eighth birthday. Indeed, one of the features of this book is the time devoted to exploring this PI’s psychology through the extended backstory that emerges. This makes the book slightly nonstandard. In the conventional PI novel, our noirish protagonist gets out there to investigate. He gets hit a few times, and hands out a beating when it’s deserved or in self-defence. There’s at least one dame that he falls for but, more often than not, she proves unsuitable for one reason or another. This leaves him alone at the end of the book. But Jared McKean is instinctively both a loyal friend and a “family man”. Under normal circumstances, this would mean he lives a suburban life with wife and children. Except his life has not been kind to him. He was married and they have a disabled son whom they both continue to love. He currently shares accommodation with a gay man, but their relationship is entirely platonic. Our hero is straight, but a strong friend. In other words, this hero can only be understood by watching the way in which his relationships ebb and flow. This makes the book distinctly more interesting to read than many more conventional PI novels. Thus, although I might have preferred some of the plot elements to be a little more tightly put together, Racing the Devil proves to be a highly engaging read with a reasonably satisfying explanation of why our hero is the one chosen to be framed, and what the broader motivations are. It will be interesting to see if later books in this series improve on this opening novel.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Vulture au Vin by Lisa King (Permanent Press, 2014) presents a pleasingly different structure for the narrative. In the conventional linear mystery or detective novel, we have the setup which usually focuses on a homicide or some moderately serious crime. In turn, this operates as the catalyst for the second phase which is interaction between our series character(s) and the immediate suspects for the current investigation. In the final part of the novel, there’s a resolution where our series character(s) say(s) whodunnit and, under normal circumstances, we all walk away contented. Handled well, this type of novel delivers a considerable punch because, as in all the best feel-good systems, we move from a bad situation to a relatively happy ending where our desire to see justice done is satisfied.
This novel, however, rather cleverly exploits the notion of a frame story wrapped around a Golden Age style murder mystery. In the conventional use of the frame story, the author embeds a portmanteau of shorter narratives inside the frame, or uses the frame as an introduction to the main part of the novel, i.e. the frame is simply an excuse for launching into the central narrative. Here we have the frame show us life before and after a trip to the house owned by Theodore Lyon. As is required in Golden Age style mysteries, this is stuck out in the wilds of San Diego County in a fairly remote canyon called Valle de los Osos where the vultures ride the thermals in search for anything recently deceased to snack on. Some novelists would write this section of narrative as a free-standing novel. There’s the usual introduction of the old vs the new residents. A 92-year-old cares for and defends the vultures. They reward her by finding the dead body of a local girl, murdered by persons unknown. This victim was an occasional worker at the new house perched uncomfortably on the land—and so the trail of breadcrumbs begins. It all ends with more death, and a raging inferno as bush fires race across the water-starved landscape. It’s all beautifully realised.
Except, of course, some readers want to know what happens after the flames died down and people could return to the burnt out homes to find what had survived. And that’s just what this book delivers. Our wine expert, her lover, and the man who protected her all have lives to go back to. This means there’s fallout to deal with as they try to get life back into a familiar pattern. Sadly, that’s not going to work. First there’s the relationship between our heroine and her lover. As we see from her behaviour at the Lyon house, she’s not exactly living a monastic life while away from him. Perhaps surprisingly, the lover accepts the woman’s failure to make a formal commitment. He just gets depressed when the lack of exclusivity is admitted. Then there’s her protector who’s gay and a martial arts expert. For all he runs a self-defence organisation teaching gay people how to protect themselves if they are attacked in a public place, he’s tended to live a relatively quiet life. That begins to change as a new man comes into his life. Such changes to the emotional landscape can be positive forces for good. In this case, of course, question marks remain.
On balance, I like this approach which gives us a real sense of continuity. Too often detective novels in the Golden Age were presented as puzzles at a more technical level for their series detective to solve. For the usual mixture of motives, this heroine finds herself placed in a situation because of her reputation (and that’s not just because she’s a good journalist). Her curiosity and refusal to be distracted means she identifies one of the crimes in motion in this new household. In other words, the several deaths in and around Valle de los Osos are placed in a proper context. We’re not just interested in deciding who the killer(s) is/are, there are a raft of other issues to investigate and resolve. The result makes Vulture au Vin a highly engaging and rather more interesting a book than the usual mystery fare. Add in the bonus of descriptions of wine and good food. . . The complete package sumptuously satisfies all taste buds for whodunnits and feasting at more elite levels of society.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Dropping for a moment into the American vernacular, realtors claim the key to a sale is location to the power of three. In a sense, the same formula applies to authors when it comes to the setting of their novels. There must be a credible physical place in which the action is to occur. The culture of the place at that specific moment in time must resonate with the readers. We must feel we’ve known places like this and, more importantly, the setting must help to set the mood for the action. And the people who live and work there, both individually and collectively, must step off the pages as living and breathing members of the community. In Parker Field by Howard Owen (Permanent Press, 2014) we find all three realtor qualifications met as our series character, Willie Black, continues to scrape a living as a journalist in Oregon Hill, one of the neighbourhoods in Richmond, Virginia. For those of you who like a little history, the stadium named Parker Field was built in 1934 as a general place for community and sporting activities, and converted to minor league baseball in 1954. It has now been demolished.
Those of you who know me might crack a smile that I should suddenly have developed some knowledge, albeit paltry, of the American obsession with baseball. I confess sport, no matter which country and its local preferences, has always left me cold. After a long lifetime, I can put my hand on my heart and say I have only twice paid to see a professional game played. That has not stopped me from being a moderately competent player of two sports. I’ve just never been interested in following how well or badly other people perform. As the title of this book might suggest, the theme for this investigation is that there seems to be an unusually high death rate among the 1964 team which called itself the Richmond Vees. This is an entirely fictitious team that plays in Parker Field during the fallow year between the departure of the Virginians and the arrival of the Braves. The reason for establishing this somewhat arcane fact is that someone takes a shot at Les Hacker who was a member of the team. Willie is directly involved because Les is living with his mother and has become a kind of surrogate father.
Although the probable motive for the killing emerges quite early on, it’s impossible to see who would have the inclination to act after so long a period of time. There’s also a serious logistical problem for the possible killer to have found all these people and then patiently waited between the deaths so a pattern to the deaths would not be obvious. We therefore settle in for the long haul as our doughty journalist cum detective tracks down everyone who was on the team or their surviving relatives. Once he begins talking to them, a strong indication emerges he’s on the track of a serial killer but, of course, the local police are unimpressed. They have arrested the local homeless vet who made the mistake of wearing the jacket so conveniently dumped on him while he was “resting” in the park. Such is the bullheaded stupidity required of local law enforcement who prefer the obvious solution to the right answer. In the end, Willie solves the problem and ends up no better than he was at the beginning of the book except he’s now without Les.
Taken overall, Parker Field is a particularly fine example of how to make the setting a character in the book. Everything that happens grows organically out of the place and the people who live there. There’s just one thing preventing this from being an outstanding book. Up to this point in the serial killing, the killer has been meticulous and patient. But the later scenes reveal him/her as almost completely unbalanced and not a little reckless. This means the ending is unnecessarily melodramatic. So if you’re prepared to go with the flow and see Willie Black call down destruction on his own head, you will feel satisfied with the outcome. Otherwise, you will think there could have been many better ways for the realism of the set-up to have been continued to the last page.
For a review of the second in the series, see The Philadelphia Quarry.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Ride Away Home by William Wells (The Permanent Press, 2014) provokes me into firing up Google to check my increasingly fallible memory on just how many stages of grief there are supposed to be. Although I suspect such a question is inherently flawed because the notion we can compartmentalise our emotions into convenient little boxes is rather absurd, it’s potentially a useful guideline. This progression was first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in On Death and Dying (1969). On a pick-and-mix basis, therefore, people theoretically move from denial, through anger, to bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In this book, a young woman is going through her first year away from home at college when she disappears. Naturally, her parents are quickly on the scene and, as is always the way, her boyfriend is immediately under suspicion. He lawyers up and stoutly refuses any comment. Since there’s no evidence he did anything “wrong”, he remains only a person of interest. As time passes, the probability increases the girl is dead but, not unnaturally, the parents keep hope alive and so live in denial for months. The mother then moves rapidly into depression, decamps into a home for those damaged by traumatic events, and plays little part in the affairs of the world. The father loses his position as a partner in a firm of attorneys — he’s not been putting in the billable hours and a business is a business. As it comes up to the two-year anniversary of his daughter’s disappearance, he decides this is the time for his midlife crisis.
He buys a Harley (something of a departure from his normal BMW approach to comfort on the roads). His private inquiry agent tells him the boyfriend has dropped out of college and moved down south. He therefore plans a road trip. At this point, he has no clear feelings on whether he will actually ride all the way to Key West. Even if he does make it all the way from Minneapolis, he doesn’t know whether he will confront the boy. By temperament, he’s not the archetypical vigilante. The book therefore represents a form of allegory or parable. Much as heroes in classical Graeco/Roman literature set off on a journey not being certain whether they were “free-agents” or being manipulated by the Gods, so our tax warrior feels caught up in inchoate anger. He knows the denial can’t continue, but hasn’t decided whether the boyfriend is a target. As a man whose life has revolved around the dispassionate analysis of tax statutes and accounts, he’s always tried to stay detached. The author therefore invites us to ride with him on a first-person quest to establish a framework of values by which to live the rest of his life. On the way, he meets various stereotypical characters who, whether deliberately or inadvertently, challenge his worldview and strip away some of the outer layers of his emotional defences. Slightly changing the metaphor, think of a meteorite entering the outer fringes of the atmosphere on a collision course with Earth. As the friction builds, the outer layers of the rock are abraded away. For those on the surface of the planet, the question is whether the entire rock will burn up in the atmosphere or will an irreducible core resist the high temperatures and hit the surface?
Because of the nature of the set-up, this is a book that avoids being overly sentimental. Too often, books with grief as their theme end up mawkish and bathetic. This has a sufficiently hard edge throughout that we can watch the man make decisions and not feel embarrassed by how well or badly they turn out. Because he reserves judgement on whether he will actually take revenge (assuming the boyfriend is guilty, of course), our newly-minted biker remains likeable. He becomes a form of Everyman who, like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, leaves his hometown to find out what is to come. It proves to be a journey with some heartwarming moments, and some times of despair and doubt. Such is life when you’re on the road. Why is Ride Away Home an allegory? Because the opening sections are so deeply rooted in reality, we have the emotional problem very clearly defined. But the mechanism for enabling him to answer the questions he has posed himself is deliberately deus ex machina. We’re also presented with coincidences and contrivances which enable all the loose plot ends to be tidied up. Real life is never this neat. Hence when we arrive at the final page and have our answer as to whether this everyman is a saint or a revenge-driven murderer, it feels as though it has emerged organically from the events as described. And, if you were minded to read the book as an extended parable, it could teach you a valuable lesson about life for those who remain after a loved one has disappeared. As a first novel, this is an impressive piece of writing and worth reading if you like your “crime” novels to have a slightly more literary approach.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.