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.
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 (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.
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.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
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.
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.
The Hexed by Heather Graham (Harlequin Mira, 2014) is the lucky thirteenth in the Krewe of Hunters series. It starts with Craig Rockwell as a young man with his first experience of having a ghost talk to him. As a result of what she says, he finds her dead body. This diverts him from a possible career as a football player and into law enforcement. Now, thirteen years later, he’s well-established in the FBI and applying for transfer to the Krewe of Hunters because another body has turned up in his home town. It’s been laid out in exactly the same way as the body he found. Needless to say, the Krewe has done its homework on this man and his application for a transfer is accepted. This sends him back to the Salem area (and into danger of romantic entanglement). As he drives into town, he almost knocks down Devin Lyle, the joint heroine and romantic interest. Remember that no coincidence should appear on its own, so she’s just discovered another body (it’s the same signature so the couple are already on the right track) and she can see ghosts too (in magical terms, three coincidences is a charm). And, yes, this is the third body with the Pentagram Killer’s signature! With the triple stars in alignment, it can’t be long before this pair are a couple.
And what better news than this is my third book by this author! Thematically, we have this specialist group of people recruited to an FBI unit to deal with the more serious crimes where it’s difficult to get a result. They beat the usual systems for investigation because they can talk with ghosts. For this to work as a plot device, all the victims they interview must, for some reason, have failed to see their killer(s). They may be shot from a distance by a sniper, or attacked from behind, or poisoned by anyone who had access to their food out of sight, and so on. This leaves the field open for a classical police procedural with a supernatural twist. I actually like the formula because there’s little artificiality about the interaction between the sensitives and the ghosts. The relationships are almost exactly the same as human to human and, as in the real world, the ghosts are just as unreliable as human witnesses. The result is marginally more information available to the investigators than might otherwise have been the case, but there’s still a need for proper investigative skills. The second in the series, however, was overburdened with history that was dispensed in fairly indigestible lumps as spiels to tourists on a ghost walk. Indeed, this book threatens to go the same way with one dollop of information thrust at us in the same way. However, all the other history which is relevant (and a surprising amount is for the solution of this puzzle) is more carefully parcelled out as discussion, extracts from history books, and so on. It’s relatively more acceptable in this format. Because we’re in Salem, we’re deeply into the history of witchcraft and the way in which the trials were manipulated to protect the reputation of the men and dispose of women who could make their lives difficult. It’s a very interesting way to show how deeply entrenched misogyny has been in the American psyche.
From the outset, the book sets out to make Devin as talented as the formal members of the Krewe. She’s quickly talking with Aunt Mina, her recently deceased relative, and preparing to hobnob with those who died centuries ago. Once you get into the groove, all ghosts prepared to talk to you are the same. Of course, some ghosts of choosy and decide they want nothing to do with some humans. If approached by the wrong type, they just disappear. It’s a useful talent I wish I’d developed for use at social gatherings. Anyway, through a combination of dreams, discussions with the dead, and human intuition, our team narrows the pool of suspects to a relatively small number who have recently bought a weapon of the right type, have some connection to “witches” (both current and historical), and who may drive dark-coloured SUVs. Then it’s down to trying to check alibis both thirteen years ago and now. No-one is excluded as the net is thrown out across that part of Salem society which traces its roots back to the days of the original trials and may have an interest in Wiccan or other non-standard supernatural beliefs. When it comes in a dramatic climax, the answer is rather pleasing.
Although three ghosts do play a moderately important role in the solution of this serial murder case, the supernatural profile is slightly lower in this book than the other two I’ve read. Since the basis of the series is the expanding group of ghost whisperers, there have to be ghosts for them to talk to. In this instalment, I think the balance between conventional police procedural and supernatural is about right. Of course this requires a better quality of puzzle for the main players to solve and, again, this book has a good puzzle. My only gripe is not so much the romance which is within reasonable bounds, but the extent of the coincidence that Devin turns out to be not only a natural whisperer, but also an investigator who gets to the right answers. Rather than watching two relatively inexperienced whisperers solve the crime(s), it would be more interesting to see how the experienced approach the investigation of one of these crimes. I suppose this would also throw off the mandatory thriller ending when our hero suddenly finds herself in serious trouble and has to be rescued. In theory, the experienced investigators make the collar and retire to the nearest drinking establishment for several glasses of appropriate spirits. So I report The Hexed as being a good example of these romance-tinged supernatural police procedurals.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Boy in the Woods by Carter Wilson (Severn House, 2014) starts off with a well-tried ploy. In 1981, three boys of fourteen summers have an experience (in the woods of Oregon) which shapes them. Then with the flick of the author’s pen, thirty years pass and we find one of the victims, Tommy Devereaux, has contrived to become a bestselling author of thrillers. This would have been a good place for him to sit quietly, but he decides he should exorcise the ghosts of his past by writing fact as fiction. Yes, he’s decided to blow the whistle on what happened when he was fourteen-years old and witnessed a murder. This would have been a great idea if he’d taken the time and trouble to conceal vital details, but the girl who committed the murder finds the sample chapter published as a teaser all too clear and lets our author know it. Now our “happily” married man has to contend with a psychopathic serial killer who has a story to tell. Needless to say, the events of the past were not quite as clear cut as the prefatory description suggested. Tommy with Mark Singletary and Jason Covington were more thoroughly involved than it first appears. This creates the irony of Tommy being in the position of many of the “victims” in his own books. It also helps to explain a little of Tommy’s psychology because all his books have featured female villains. In a way, he’s been using his books as a form of therapy to accommodate his feeling of horror over what happened.
As a protagonist, Tommy is the perfect victim for blackmail. He’s already in trouble in his marriage because he had an affair and then told his wife about it (but not the identity of the woman involved—she still works for him). Because of that confession, he’s on probation and continues to feel guilty. That he’s keeping an older and darker secret adds to the pressure since he does not want to lose his wife and family. His professional reputation as an author could also evaporate if it was suggested he’d participated in a murder thirty years ago. Similarly, Mark Singletary has gone on to great things as Republican State Senator in South Carolina. The only one who appears safe is Jason Covington. He’s reported as having committed suicide twenty years ago. That would make Jason the weak and cowardly one. Mark was excited by the experience and Tommy. . . Well, he was defiant and, perhaps by some standards, the strong one.
So what does this killer want? Well apart from having a little fun at Tommy’s expense and adding a few more deaths to keep up her batting average, she wants Tommy to understand the mind of a killer. Although she thinks his books to date have been reasonably good, he’s never really communicated a clear understanding of how and why people kill. Now he’s started to write her story, she wants it told right. This means Tommy’s about to get a crash course in how to commit a murder and get away with it. No wait, he’s already done that! Thirty years ago, he could have told his own parents, or the parents of the dead boy, or the police what happened. But he became complicit through his silence. The book then describes the game between Tommy and Elizabeth (or perhaps that should be the other way round since she’s the one who thinks she’s in control).
The story is told in a taut and economical style with short chapters maintaining a good pace as the plot unwinds. As a plot, this has a rather pleasing surprise towards the end. If nothing else, it shows how little young boys know of the world around them. This gives the book the best possible chance to succeed as a thriller with a faint horror edge (the initial murder is of a young boy and there’s an element dealing with child abuse). But the book lacks a certain edge because our protagonist Tommy is not wholly likeable. Although the character is reasonably plausible, reacting to events in ways which are moderately credible, it’s difficult to get behind him as a classic thriller victim and root for him to emerge the winner at the end. This is not to say the psychopathic Elizabeth is anything but a monster. But when a “hero” turns out to have more than just feet of clay, my reaction as a reader is to observe dispassionately to see whether I think the author’s resolution gives the interested parties their just deserts. In this case, only one character gets anything approximating justice, albeit many years delayed. Thus, The Boy is the Woods is good of its type with something of an antihero reacting to threats and struggling to keep his lifestyle together, but it will not be to everyone’s taste.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Murder in Pigalle by Cara Black (Soho Press, 2014) is the fourteenth book to feature Aimée Leduc as our private detective who specialises in corporate security and computer investigations, finds herself pregnant at the most inconvenient time — taxes are due, people who owe the agency money are slow to pay, and the daughter of one of her friends decides to go missing. We’re steadily moving through history and have now arrived in June 1998 with the world (and France) caught up in the excitement of the World Cup. In one sense, this is the perfect moment to commit crimes because the attention of the majority is caught up in the “excitement” of hosting the competition. Yes France won the right to host for the second time and was all out to put on a good show both on and off the field (for those of you who don’t follow the game, France beat Brazil in the July final). As an aside, the baby’s father is Mélac, a police officer who’s at the bedside of his critically injured daughter in Brittany. Aimée hasn’t yet told him of his impending fatherhood which should tell you something of the nature of their relationship.
So there have been three rapes on young girls in and around Pigalle but, at the start of this book, the police have not connected the dots. Unfortunately, Zazie a thirteen-year-old girl who hero-worships Aimée has been inspired to investigate. One of her friends has already been raped and together, they have put together an identikit picture of the man. Zazie has also been talking to an old lady who was in the Resistance during the war, so she’s picked up quite a lot of the lore of secret message drops, surveillance, and so on. She’s even been into Pigalle at night and has photographs which, she thinks, show the man responsible. Sadly, Aimée is distracted when this subject is broached and does not listen with all her attention. So when Zazie fails to come home that evening, she’s caught by guilt and sets off to find her young protégée. That same night, Sylvaine Olivet, another of Zazie’s friends in found dead. It looks as though the rapist has turned into a murderer. It’s possible Zazie was a witness but the Brigade des Minuers is not interested in making Zazie’s disappearance a high priority.
As is therefore required in books like this, she and René Friant, her business partner, are pitched into a race against time to find the missing girl. The problem for Aimée is to reach the point where she might look beyond the serial rapist to what else might be going on in Paris (other than the football, of course). It’s easy for the readers because Cara Black sends quite an early signal the answer is going to require some lateral thinking. Nevertheless, Aimée bulls ahead and, as if to prove she’s on the right track, someone takes a shot at her, killing the woman she’s with. Yet, as all seasoned readers know, nothing is ever as straightforward as it first appears.
Putting all this together, we have an interesting serial rape case to work through. It’s actually based on a real-world crime and therefore has a certain plausibility about it. The setting in Paris is done well. That said, it’s always difficult to know where to draw the line on how much of the French language to include for local colour. Strictly speaking, all dialogue should be in English. Translating all but everyday words like “bonjour” is slightly insulting. This does have characters breaking out into phrases every now and then which is, I suppose, not unacceptable. Setting this in 1998 was an interesting choice, not only because of the football, but also because Pigalle was beginning a gentrification from a more seamy, sex-oriented area to a more respectable middle class area. So both Aimée and the location are in transition. The discussion of the pregnancy and how she will adapt her lifestyle to incorporate a baby are done well (we even have her absent mother helping from hiding and an interesting comment on the circumstances of her father’s death). The thriller elements also work well and put both mother and baby at risk (which is how it should be if the author is aiming for some degree of realism). This leaves Murder in Pigalle as one of the better books set in France with a good puzzle for our hero to resolve and a not unsympathetic view of the French law enforcement agencies and the complex way in which they are required to work.
For a review of another book by Cara Black, see Murder at the Lanterne Rouge.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
No Stone Unturned by James W Ziskin (Seventh Street, 2014) sees the second appearance of Ellie Stone, a young woman driven by the need to prove herself in a 1960‘s society that has still to embrace the notion of gender equality. She’s currently working in the small town of New Holland in upstate New York at The New Holland Republic, but finding it very difficult to be taken seriously as a reporter. Not surprisingly, given the era, Artie Short, the owner, tends to give preference to unimaginative, by-the-numbers George Walsh. This has been grinding down our heroine, so hearing the discovery of a body on her scanner gives her the chance to be first in the queue when it comes to getting the inside story. The body proves to be Jordan Shaw, daughter of the local judge and respected attorney. It was was discovered half-buried in the woods, having previously occupied a room at the somewhat notorious Mohawk Motel. To her surprise, the Judge formally asks her to investigate. It’s not exactly that he has no faith in the local sheriff to discover who killed his daughter, but he reasons it can only help to have a second string to his bow. In making this choice, he’s relying on his inside knowledge of her success in tracking down her father’s killer in the first book.
This doubly motivates her. Obviously she sees the story of her investigation as being her foot in the journalistic door and, if she can also get the judge’s backing, there may be other opportunities flowing from the social and political connections. With her trusty camera always to hand, she takes photographs of everything that may prove significant. Once in full flow, she’s an unstoppable force, identifying the present whereabouts of the Shaw’s family car and then beginning to piece together what happened at the Mohawk Motel. However, it’s when she travels into Boston that we get to see her determination as, confronted by a locked door, she calmly picks up an axe and discovers the next body. Needless to say, she’s in full photographer mode as she waits for the police to respond to her call. Then it’s off to Tufts where Jordan Shaw was a student. At this point, the plot takes off into pleasingly complicated territory as our journalist/reporter has to work out what the relationship is between the lives the two girls might have had in Boston and in New Holland. There’s also a diary to puzzle over with lots of interesting notations and significant initials.
Sadly, she becomes the trigger for a slightly heavy-handed portrayal of the Indian/Pakistan hostility through the palpable tension between Prakash Singh and Hakim Mohammed at Tufts and, later, in New Holland. This plot element and the emerging debate about birth control form the time-specific links to 1960. Although our heroine is attacked and, in a separate incident, almost dies, there’s a distinct pulling of punches when it comes to dealing with the sexism of the time. The racism against the Hispanic community also feels sanitised. More importantly, even more than in the first book, the first-person narrative featuring Ellie lacks credibility. Although she functions very well as an investigator and solves the various crimes including the two murders, it could just as easily have been a young man. Yes she does flirt a little and is physically vulnerable, but this is very much a man’s view of a woman’s internal monologue.
This leaves me with slightly mixed feelings about the book. As a murder mystery, it’s a nicely constructed plot with suspects serially eliminated as the pages turn. The thriller element of the young woman who survives assault and attempted murder is also reasonably persuasive. But the sense of location in 1960 is not quite as successful as in the first book and the characterisation of Ellie is more perfunctory. So if you’re prepared to view this as predominantly a murder mystery with only a faint historical veneer, you’re likely to find this at least as enjoyable as the first in the series. But if you were expecting there to be a step forward in developing the historical themes and watching a young woman try to be ahead of the curve as feminism begins to develop a more positive edge, you’re likely to be disappointed. That makes No Stone Unturned good but not as good as it might have been.
For a review of the first in the series, see Styx & Stone.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.