Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

A Billion Ways to Die by Chris Knopf

December 4, 2014 4 comments

a billion ways to die-red-300

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.

Chris Knopf

Chris Knopf

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!

For reviews of other books by Chris Knopf, see:
Cries of the Lost
Dead Anyway
Ice Cap.

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

Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014)

December 3, 2014 Leave a comment


Revenge is one of the natural human responses, but it’s a more complex moral issue. The implication is that injuring someone in return for an injury suffered is justified as payback in kind but, if everyone engaged in this form of personalised justice, there would be chaos. Violence would escalate and so, to protect society, we delegate the policing function and the administration of justice to the state. In one sense, it takes revenge for us. There’s a balancing of harms and the honour of the victims is upheld. Theoretically, future wrongdoers are deterred and current criminals can be rehabilitated if everyone accepts the idea that the punishment meted out is fundamentally fair.


So let’s say a woman is raped. She’s the immediate victim. If she dies in the attack, her family members are also victimised. In our constitutional systems, the state usurps the right of the individuals to seek personal revenge. By doing so, it denies the experience of the victims and their need to strike back. Indeed ironically, if the victims decide to take action, the state is obligated to protect the rapists. This is not satisfactory to the victims. Further, if the state does not administer a punishment the victims feel is appropriately severe, a further loss of confidence emerges.

Sang-Hyun (Jung Jae-Young) takes his pursuit into the outdoors

Sang-Hyun (Jung Jae-Young) takes his pursuit into the outdoors


Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014) is a Korean version of the novel Samayou Yaiba by Keigo Higashino (a Japanese film version of the novel was released in 2009). The primary character is Sang-Hyun (Jung Jae-Young). He nursed his wife for three years while she died of cancer. When she dies, he sinks into depression. He has no time for his young daughter, Soo-Jin (Lee Soo-Bin). All he can do is go to work, earning enough to pay the bills despite the unforgiving nature of the work itself. When his daughter is kidnapped and dies while being raped, his life completely falls apart. He haunts the police station but all Detective Eok-Gwan (Lee Sung-Min) can tell him is that they are working the case. He can do nothing to help. He should go home and wait for news.

Detective Eok-Gwan (Lee Sung-Min) on the right consider his strategy

Detective Eok-Gwan (Lee Sung-Min) on the right consider his strategy


After a while, he decides to act and spends his savings on fliers which feature photographs of his daughter and his telephone number. Plagued by his feeling of guilt, one of the three juveniles sends the name and address of one of the other attackers who has video recordings of all their attacks. When the father breaks in and watches the video of his daughter’s death, he’s deeply wounded. Unfortunately, the young man comes home at this point and the father beats him to death with a baseball bat. Before he dies, the youth indicates where the third participant may be found. This sets the father off on the hunt. The detectives quickly realise who must be responsible and, with the evidence from the video recordings in their hands, they begin to contact all the families of those involved. Not all these parents where aware their daughters had been raped and their anguish is plainly on display. The problem for the police is that all these offenders are juveniles and unlikely to spend more than a few months in jail for their crimes. Now they know one parent has already killed one of the rapists and is on the trail of another, the senior officers decide they must not speak too publicly about this situation. If they give out the name and photograph of the young man at risk, the parents of other victims or vigilantes may get to him first. Detective Eok-Gwan is to lead the hunt without alerting the media. The father gets to the man who bought the videos of the rapes and sold them on as porn. They fight and, again, before he dies, the pornographer indicates where the missing young man may be hiding.


Conceptually, this is a marvellous film. It shows in detail how so many individuals and the state are broken. Two of the young offenders are callous and feel no guilt as to their behaviour. The third who blows the whistle was weak-willed and participated because he feared what the others would do to him if he did not actively support them. Their families are dysfunctional. The families of some of the victims were also dysfunctional offering little emotional support or practical care to their daughters. The detective is already being investigated because he reacted with some violence when arresting a juvenile offender in an earlier case. He’s deeply frustrated that the state’s justice system is broken and fails to dispense real punishments or positive treatment for offenders to effect their rehabilitation.


The pace of the film is terrific during the first two-thirds, but it then overplays its hand and goes through an unnecessary contortion to produce a grand climax. While not disputing the power of the final scenes, it took too long to get there and the impact was slightly diluted. Nevertheless, Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 is a thoughtful and above average thriller that gets to the heart of the problem of how to deal with juveniles who commit serious offences.


For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Bunshin or 分身 (2012)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Salvation of a Saint
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ (2012)


Stalked: The Boy Who Said No by Patti Sheehy

November 29, 2014 1 comment


In the beginning, before there was any recognised form of writing, oral narratives were the only way of preserving memories of what had happened. People passed down the experience that would benefit those who followed. As writing developed, generational knowledge was easier to preserve. Faster progress could be maintained. Except, of course, people can lie to each other whether by spoken or written word. History is one of the more abused cultural artefacts, with facts misrepresented or manipulated to gain future advantage. Today, we’ve developed a multiplicity of different forms for transmitting information. However, one thing remains true. The line between history and fiction can and will always be blurred.

Stalked: The Boy Who Said No by Patti Sheehy (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) is the second and probably concluding volume that tells the life history of Frank Mederos, a Cuban who escaped from his native country and made a life for himself in the United States. It’s relevant to draw your attention to the author’s name. In other circumstances, this might have been an autobiography, ghosted by Ms Sheehy. As it incorporates a significant number of fictionalised scenes, recreating what the protagonist assumes happened, the “author’s” input is too substantial to ignore. We perhaps should therefore view this as a novelised autobiography, or a straight biography, or consider the whole a piece of historical fiction. Why, you ask, should this question of the label matter? Well, the book is presented to the readers as a “true life story of romance, suspense, and intrigue”. If we take this as an accurate version of what Mederos told his scribe, we can attribute all the prejudices on display to him. The American amanuensis is doing no more than channel his words to us. She is not at fault in any way. But if she is promoting the notion that everything that happened in Cuba was evil and most of what happens in America as the land of opportunity is good, historically speaking, that’s not uncontroversial.

For example, Mederos arrives in New York in 1967 and pays a quick visit to the race riots in Newark. What makes this interesting is that the riots are not given any real context or explanation. Even more interesting is that Mederos himself never seems to be the victim of any discrimination based on his nationality or his inability to speak English. His can-do attitude is lauded and he gets the results he needs in order to become a successful small-scale businessman. He’s the epitome of what’s often held up today as everything that’s wrong with America. By welcoming immigrants, America is depriving its own citizens of jobs, and so on. Ironically, the federal government passed a “dream act” in the form of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1959. Any native or citizen of Cuba who was physically present in the US after 1st January, 1959 and lived there for a year, was automatically deemed a permanent resident. In many circles, this was not a popular law and, under pressure, it was repealed in 1966. This book calmly glosses over all the racial and ethnic problems of the day and, instead, focuses on the inefficiency and corruption in Cuba to the exclusion of all else. Indeed, Mederos is a hero because he defects and Lazo, who stays behind and spies for the CIA, is held up as an example of how every right-thinking member of a society should react when confronted by a regime he finds repugnant.

In other words, this is a book written with every conceivable bias an American author should include to sell a book about the Cuban experience to the great American public. No matter what the truth might be, the black and white portrayed here is what sells the book. Even the fanatical communist who’s sent to stalk and kill Moderos questions his orders, seeing no threat to “his” country in the activities of this sandwich-maker. Hooray for America when even a trained assassin is subverted just by observing the lifestyle of a Cuban exile. This is not to say the book is without merit as a story of a man who joins the woman he loves in America, and tries to make a life for his family. I just wish that, as a book that’s promoted as “history”, it did not whitewash away all the problems in America, and see only the worst in Cuba. So if you are an American who wants a book to confirm your prejudices that America did everything right in dealing with the “threat” of Cuba on its doorstep, this view of American history from 1967 to 1980 or so is probably for you. But if you would prefer a book that presents the history with a little more depth and balance, Stalked: The Boy Who Said No is definitely not for you.

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

Elective Procedures by Merry Jones

November 25, 2014 2 comments


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).

Merry Jones

Merry Jones


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.


Terminal Life by Richard Torregrossa

November 24, 2014 Leave a comment


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.

Richard Torregrossa

Richard Torregrossa

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.

Phantom Limb by Dennis Palumbo

November 16, 2014 3 comments


In the medical world, one of the more unusual psychosomatic conditions is phantom limb pain. This is where an amputee continues to “feel” the presence of the missing limb and experiences a range of sensations from a mild itch that can’t be scratched to quite severe pain. This fourth book in the series featuring Daniel Rinaldi is called Phantom Limb by Dennis Palumbo (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) deals with both the physical and its mirror image psychological condition. One of the characters we meet reenlisted and lost a major part of his leg in Afghanistan. It should not surprise us that one of the many problems he has to confront is pain from the missing limb. However Rinaldi, our protagonist with the hero syndrome, has a comparable problem that just happens to manifest in potentially self-destructive behaviour.

As I write this, I confess to watching the fifth episode of the television series The Flash. Barry Allen is the type of man who runs into burning buildings (or up them) to save people because, (a) he can do so without exposing himself to too much risk, and (b) he wants to help people. Daniel Rinaldi has the latter motivation, but lacks the superpowers to be able to act in this way with impunity. Indeed, in this series, he finds himself attacked in a variety of different ways and nearly always ends up injured to some degree. The question is therefore why he’s driven to embrace danger. The answer is probably that he has, to some extent, given up on life. This loosens his inhibitions and enables him to confront danger to save others, not caring as much as he should whether he survives. This is not bravery and, so far as those around him are concerned, is not something that earns him real praise and recognition. It’s also distinguishable from the acts of a parent or lover who sacrifices him or herself to save a child or partner. That’s a much more immediately emotional reaction when a loved one is threatened. So the ending of this book suggests the basic cause of this behaviour and, more importantly, gives him a way in which he might scratch the itch on his metaphorical phantom limb.

Dennis Palumbo deciding how not to kill off his hero

Dennis Palumbo deciding how not to kill off his hero

As to the plot of this book, it could not be more simple. A woman comes for an appointment with our therapist and confesses her desire to commit suicide as soon as she returns home. Unsure whether he’s talked her out of it, he ushers her to the door at the end of their session. When he opens it, a large man man applies a sap to his head. Some hours later, he surfaces to discover his office overrun by police officers. His celebrity client who’s married to a financially very powerful older man, has called in all the troops. The woman has been kidnapped. This starts us off on a no-holds-barred first third of the book. When we have a chance to draw breath, it looks as though our hero may be out of the firing-line. But, as is required in books like this, the kidnappers have different ideas. It seems they are intent on asking him a few questions.

Once it becomes apparent this has somehow become personal, Rinaldi has to both survive and begin to put together a working hypothesis as to what exactly is going on in this very expensive household that can find five-million dollars in bearer bonds just by picking up a telephone. Has the missing wife really been kidnapped? Why has the nurse looking after the older husband disappeared? What happened to so sour the relationship between the father and his son? The answer to these proves highly entertaining as the plot resolves itself into a fascinating explanation of who’s doing what to whom and why. In the midst of it all comes the one-legged veteran who may have a larger role in all this. Frankly, you can’t ask for more entertainment than this in thriller book form. Phantom Limb is great fun and highly recommended for everyone who enjoys white-knuckle rides with real brainwork involved in the solution of the underlying mystery.

For reviews of other books in this series, see:
Fever Dream
Night Terrors.

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

The German Agent by J Sydney Jones

November 13, 2014 4 comments

The German Agent by J Sydney Jones

Recently, I’ve been giving some thought to the nature and morality of war. Putting this in context, over the years, a number of nations have attempted to characterise the initiation of hostilities as being “just” in the abstract philosophical sense of the word. The preemptive nature of each attack across national boundaries is said to be moral when the utilitarian rule of proportionality is satisfied. That the harm resulting for the few injured or killed during the attack will be outweighed by the good for the majority of citizens who survive. Of course, this requires us to overlook the morality of inflicting the actual injury or death of all the victims in the first wave of the attack and assess the extent of the benefits retrospectively: something the victor has no difficulty in doing when in control of the measurement process. One of the wars in which neither side thinks the proportionality test was satisfied is the ironically named Great War. This was war by attrition. The side still having some men able to fight would win. Indeed, so many died that any measurement and balancing process became rather meaningless. So chaotic was the management of this war that any progress made in the ebb and flow of the conflict was often due to simple luck or accident.


The German Agent by J Sydney Jones (Severn House, 2014) is built around the history of the Zimmermann Telegram which, in 1917, was a backdoor deal between Germany and Mexico that the latter would enter the Great War should the US decide to intervene against Germany. The idea was that Germany would assist Mexico to recover Texas and so tie down US forces on home soil. This book explores the political and dangerous physical world of negotiation when an equivocal America is to be tempted into joining with Britain in fighting against the German Empire. The problem from Britain’s point of view is twofold. It must be able to satisfy the Americans the telegram is genuine. But in doing so, it must attempt to conceal the fact the intelligence service has cracked the code in which it was written. Once the Germans realise the telegram has been intercepted, they need to prevent it from being delivered to the Americans. In this, they rely on an agent, Max Volkman.

J Sydney Jones

J Sydney Jones


His background is not quite standard. He managed to survive one of the many futile charges across No Man’s Land, killing an impressive number of the “enemy” in the process. He was decorated for his heroism but, when he showed little enthusiasm for returning to the frontline, they retrained him as a spy. He should be the perfect weapon. He’s gone beyond fear, facing death and not flinching. But in reality, the experience has left him damaged. He’s not the coldblooded killer the Germans think him to be. This does not mean he’s incapable of killing. Far from it. But this is a man whose mind is trying to decide what’s right for him. After two years in America as a sleeper, he’s to intercept the British man thought to be carrying the Telegram. Almost immediately, he has to kill a local, an innocent civilian, an old man who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In trench warfare, death is dispensed anonymously. This is the first time he has killed someone face-to-face. This is murder. It’s unsettling to a man like this agent. In a war, killing the enemy is the job. By killing the enemy, you are shortening the war and protecting your comrades in the trenches. In a neutral country, killing an old man is what? Perhaps this is a question only a man with a conscience would ask. Well, as this book’s plot develops, the question becomes more personal and less avoidable.


The problem with the book is easily stated. Because the actual history of the Great War is reasonably well known, there’s little suspense. The average reader will know whether the agent succeeded in preventing the Telegram from being delivered to the US President. This does not mean the book is without interest and some excitement. Obviously, the agent is initially determined to carry out his role and there are some good chase sequences and the way in which he stalks the British man carrying the relevant information is fascinating. But the focus of the book fails to create any real degree of empathy with the protagonist. It would have been possible to give us a better view of the man as his fledgling conscience comes back into play and he has real decisions to make. Those with a more jingoistic view of the world will want to cheer if the German fails and boo if he succeeds. In the end, perhaps, neither response is appropriate because he proves just as human as the rest of us. This leaves me slightly ambivalent. The German Agent is beautifully written and the details of the period hold great interest but, for me, it lacks dynamic tension. It’s a book I admire but I’m not entirely convinced it succeeds as a historical thriller.


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


Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn

November 11, 2014 1 comment

complicit stephanie kuehn

There are times when reviewers describe a book as a “fast read” and mean it in a dismissive way, implying it’s the kind of book you might pick up in an airport that might entertain you for the length of the flight. In the case of Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn (St Martin’s, 2014), I’m using the phrase in a more positive light. Let’s start with the prose. It’s not completely minimalist, but it does have an elegant, stripped-down feel to it that places no barrier between the author and the reader. These are words strung together in a way that attractively say what they mean. The fastness of the read is enhanced by the nature of the plot. It’s one of these long-reveal books and, once the seeds of interest have been planted, the reader is going to keep turning the pages to find out what has happened. So far, all this is positive and, if I were to stop here, you would assume I would be giving this book an unhesitating recommendation. Unfortunately, I have to enter a caveat.

Stephanie Kuehn

Stephanie Kuehn

By way of explanation, I have to explain that as a professional reader, I’ve read thousands of books. I have so many t-shirts boasting I’ve been there and done that, I need never buy another item for my wardrobe. It takes something unusual to elicit the unhesitating recommendation. Sadly, this does not quality. From the opening paragraphs, it’s obvious we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator. This is a young man who suffers from acute panic attacks which not only affect him physically with some degree of paralysis to his hands coming as the precursor to unconsciousness and some memory loss. All we know for sure about him is that he and his sister were adopted, and that his sister was later sent to jail for an arson attack in which a young girl was seriously injured and some horses were killed.

My problem is that, about sixty pages into the book, I developed a detailed working hypothesis about what had happened in this young man’s past, and what would happen at the end. Sadly, I was right in almost every detail. This is not to say the book lacks originality. It’s just that there are only a limited number of probable scenarios that fit the setup and what I took to be the right one proved correct. So here comes the summation to this review. For an old and tiresomely know-it-all reviewer like me, this is a by-the-numbers plot which is very nicely constructed and elegantly written. If you are similarly experienced in reading thrillers, you will not be even remotely surprised at the ending. But if you are young and, as yet, relatively inexperienced, this plot may very well strike you as a breath of fresh air. You will be stunned by the revelations, mesmerised by the ingenuity with which the reveal is managed, and shocked by the ending. This is how it should be if the thriller is a good one. Now you can make an informed choice. Look into your heart and decide whether you have read many unreliable narrator novels. If not, then I unhesitatingly recommend Complicit. Otherwise, don’t bother.

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

The Black Stiletto: Endings and Beginnings by Raymond Benson

November 10, 2014 3 comments


The Black Stiletto: Endings and Beginnings by Raymond Benson (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) is the final book in the tetralogy featuring this female “avenger” of the 1960s. Before coming to the detail of the review, I need to express real admiration for the craftsmanship that’s gone into the writing of this set of four books. Some degree of honesty is now required. Authors and publishers could sell their wares in monster packages of more than 700 pages (as in the books forming A Song of Ice and Fire saga by George R R Martin). For some reason, a surprisingly large number of titles in science fiction, fantasy and horror have achieved their own epic proportions when it comes to word counts. So it would have been perfectly possible to publish these four books as a duology or trilogy if we’re only thinking in terms of packaging. Yet here comes a single, coherent book that’s conveniently divided into four “diaries” plus other content to give the history a modern context. Each book has a nicely controlled narrative texture and reaches an appropriately cliffhanging climax at the end of each book. Indeed, just judging the whole on a technical level, it’s a masterclass on how to build and control the dynamics and tension of the narrative over four volumes. For the record, this is a single story. Although there could be more books featuring a female “avenger”, the title of this last volume tells you it would be a different hero.

Raymond Benson

Raymond Benson

In this final volume, our slow-reading son finally gets into the fifth and last section of the diaries while his mother’s health steadily worsens, his intended realises there may be more to this man than first met the eye, and his daughter begins to think her interest in martial arts may just come in handy as the killers close in. She’s already despatched two of them — they were about to discuss family relationships with her father towards the end of the last book. The legal overhang from this intervention is resolved quite early on as the DA decides she was acting in defence of her father and so deserves a free pass. Now more bad guys are on the way and the family must work together to avoid the repercussions from events fifty years ago.

As in the previous books, we get a rotating point of view between the primary characters. The original Black Stiletto takes us through the history of what happened when she worked out the identity of the copycat Stiletto and began more seriously to consider how she might clear her own name and protect the child now growing inside her. We also get the child’s father explaining his point of view while the boy, now grown into a man, gives us his often rather pitiful efforts to protect those around him. Fortunately, courage skips a generation and finds contemporary residence in his daughter who becomes the more active solution to the growing problem. The result is a delightful confection of outright thriller and historical mystery as the Black Stiletto puts together the pieces to bring down a major part of the southern mafia’s operation. In this, it’s interesting to see how the original naive young woman has evolved into a slightly more circumspect mother-to-be. Once the son is born, she becomes even more cautious, but contrives to acquire enough money to be able to live on after she disappears, and to make an interesting use of the diamond that featured so strongly in the last exciting instalment. This is not to say she becomes “bad”, but she does begin to take a more flexible approach to the opportunities as they present themselves to her. It all makes for a great read and I recommend the whole tetralogy as great fun with a thriller edge, finishing on a high with The Black Stiletto: Endings and Beginnings.

For a review of the second and third books in the series, see:
The Black Stiletto: Secrets & Lies
The Black Stiletto: Stars & Stripes.

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

Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper by Mark Hodder

August 24, 2014 7 comments

Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper

Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper by Mark Hodder (Sexton Blake Library, 6th Series, Issue 1, contains the original titular story plus a reprint of “The Wireless Telephone Clue” by G H Teed which was first published in 1922 (Obverse Books, 2014). This takes me back to my youth in the 1950s when I was just getting into my stride with the early adventure and what then passed for thriller fiction. As fast as I could find copies of their work, I was devouring Sax Rohmer, Sapper, Leslie Charteris, Dornford Yates, and a host of others — that was until I discovered the American magazines which signalled, I’m sad to say, a partial abandonment of British thriller and detective fiction in favour of science fiction, horror and fantasy. However, one of the more enduring favorites proved to be the Sexton Blake series. With more than four-thousand stories to work through, I was never going to run out of new material. Then I discovered the films and along came the television series in the 1960s. The television series lacked the wit of The Avengers, but it was a good second best. All of this nostalgia comes into play because Mark Hodder has produced the first new contribution to this series in fifty years. If you’re a fan, this is a red-letter day. If you’ve not previously encountered this heroic sleuth, this is what you need to know.

Sexton Blake, like Sherlock Holmes, occupies rooms on Baker Street and has a housekeeper who, like Mrs Malaprop before her, has a tendency to mangle her words. If nothing else, this introduces a note of levity into the proceedings. There are two key differences between Blake and Holmes. Blake is very much the man of action who takes on a series of individual criminals and gangs, often with an international dimension involving both conventional crime and espionage. Whereas Holmes is into the collection of clues and deductive reasoning, Blake tends to be more intuitive and, although he does depend on solving mysteries, they tend to be more superficial as befits the adventure/thriller genre.

Mark Hodder

Mark Hodder

So in this new story, we’re off and running with one of these 1920s-style slightly science fictional plots in which the dwarfish superbrain working for the Ministry of Defence has created the weapon to end all wars. This is a variety of disintegrating ray which, when held in a relatively stable position, is capable of reducing all in its path to their constituent atoms (or something along those lines). The British naturally have the theory that once this weapon is demonstrated to all interested parties, no-one will challenge the Empire’s hegemony and we will embark on a new era of peace in our time. Our hero has just returned from a jaunt on which he discovered the Ring of Solomon. With the Middle East in a state of ferment, it would be inconvenient if this news was released, so the British government decides to lock it away in a secret vault constructed under the Rock of Gibraltar. To get it there, the Government detaches the latest military airship from its duties as the carrier of this new secret weapon, and so puts all pieces in play. A collector supervillain wants the ring but, when he discovers he might also acquire the weapon, he’s quickly into action. The rest of the story has Blake and his sidekick Tinker fighting the Gentleman, an expert at opening safes, and the Three Musketeers, recently released from prison. The result is one of these very nicely constructed period plots in which our dynamic duo put spanners in the criminal works as we float back and forth between London and Gibraltar. It’s all good clean fun.

“The Wireless Telephone Clue” was the first story in which the Three Musketeers appeared as burglars and robbers fit to terrorise London society. At one level, this is a very simple linear story of three gentlemen thieves who prey on their own class and are making a very good living out of it until, quite by chance, Blake sees two of the most recently stolen items on sale and Tinker hears something unusual on the airwaves. The best way to describe the story is unpretentious. So often, those who write fiction believe they must add detail and pad out the plot. This is efficient in setting the scene, showing how the burglars commit their crimes, and finally watching Blake track them down. There’s nothing very clever about the “detective” side of things. Random chance gives him the information and he and Tinker act upon it to recover much of the stolen loot.

Looking at these two stories in the cold light of 2014, I can understand why the young me would have hoovered up adventure-style thrillers like this. They are very undemanding reads with moderately inventive plots and a bare minimum of action (usually avoiding the more modern habit of explicit violence). The new story by Mark Hodder is slightly knowing and so more fun. The reprint is typical of 1920s fiction and good as far as it goes. So let’s cut to the chase. You do not buy books like this as great literature. They are published as a form of service. There are some characters like the Saint, Bulldog Drummond and Nayland Smith who ought to be remembered as they were originally written. Too often, as in the case of the Saint, their image has been dented by Hollywood. Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper should be read by oldies like me who enjoy the buzz of nostalgia, and by newcomers who want the chance to see what was top of the literary pops up to ninety years ago. I enjoyed the experience.

For reviews of the first five Burton and Swinburne books by Mark Hodder, see:
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi
The Return of the Discontinued Man
There’s also a standalone called A Red Sun Also Rises.

And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.

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

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