Let's put this one in the psychological thriller category, because someone is playing psychological games with Maria's mind and the prose has a pace worthy of a thriller. In Back to the Coast, Maria, an Amsterdam-based singer with a covers band already has two children by two different fathers and then she finds herself pregnant again (by the second). Feeling that circumstances are not ideal to bring another child into the world, she has an abortion. Following this, a set of communication and stalking starts which sees Maria fleeing back to the coast of her childhood and refuge at her sister's, in what used to be the parental B&B of their awkward upbringing, now converted into a family home. Just who is stalking Maria and for what purpose?
Well, Amazon says for the synopsis of Gutted:
"When the gangland owner of a pit bull that killed a three-year-old girl is found gutted on an Edinburgh hill Gus Dury is asked to investigate, and soon finds himself up to his neck in the warring underworld of the city's sink estates. Amidst illegal dog fights, a missing fifty grand and a police force and judiciary desperate to cover their links to a brutal killing, Gus must work fast to root out the truth, whilst the case sinks its teeth ever deeper into him."
So what does the novel deliver?
There will be inevitable comparisons with Ian Rankin, Christopher Brookmyre and Allan Guthrie, but Tony Black's Edinburgh-set crime novels have a unique voice and character of their own. Gutted, his second novel, more than lives up to the expectations generated by his 2008 debut, Paying For It.
This author was four books in by the time I caught up with Karin Alvtegen, great-niece of Astrid Lindgren (creator of Pippi Longstocking), courtesy of Canongate, her UK translated-into-English publisher. (Translated by McKinley Burnett.) The tense and heart-gripping opening of Shadow drew me in: a vulnerable little boy, who knew how to behave because of his mother's directions, and concentrated on them forcefully, was left on the steps of an amusement park, with little but a Bambi audio story to amuse him over the forthcoming hours and with his loyal little heart full of concern that he adhered to the discipline instilled in him. He was anxious to pee, but he had been told not to move, so he held on. Only when a guard came and he could hold on no more and he found a small scrap of trust in that new adult, did he run for the loo. In his absence the guard was able to sort through the child's meagre belongings and find a note which said "Take care of this child. Forgive me."
Then, through her lonely death, Alvtegen introduces us to the life of Gerda Persson, as the district commissioner's estate administrator, Marianne Folkesson attempts to seek the dead woman's next of kin. As she leaves the woman's home, she has one clue with which to make a start: signed copies of books by Nobel Prize-winning author Axel Ragnerfeldt. And so a tale begins that follows three generations of Ragnerfeldts and the few people who made it into their private lives. The behaviour of the various Ragnerfeldts suggests that the apples are not ripe in the orchard and over time, secrets, bitterness, forced motivations and revenge are allowed to unfold. And eventually, we also find out what happened to that poor boy and his mother.
I think it was back in 2004 that I discovered Robert Wilson. Everybody had been raving about The Blind Man of Seville and eventually I got my hands on a copy. What I read was a gem and the bar was raised; this was certified chocolatier writing and not Galaxy bar. Some other authors then seemed bland and formulaic: Enid Blyton with added gore for adults. (I subsequently left them on the shelves.) This was the start of a quartet and I continued reading and enjoying. And now comes the fourth and final – The Ignorance of Blood – a novel I couldn’t wait to read, couldn’t wait to finish, but also didn’t want to finish. Reading completed, I have to admit to what was a 24hr period of literary mourning; whatever came next was not going to live up to this novel, and the wonderful character of Javier Falcón deserved a respectful period of silence.
Appropriately, where Consuelo entered Falcón’s life in The Blind Man of Seville as he investigated the death of her restaurateur husband – and she’s been in and out of his life since – the quartet ends with a story centred on Falcón and Consuelo, now with two lives so intermingled as to have become a tentative one. The Ignorance of Blood opens with Falcón having publicly promised to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Seville terrorist bombing, seen in The Hidden Assassins. This he is pursuing until a phone call throws another case in his path. A very nasty motorway accident has led to the discovery of a few million euros in the boot of a car and the Russian mafia appears to be involved.
Falcón is suddenly immersed in the investigation of a turf war over prostitution and drugs. Through the kidnap of Consuelo’s youngest son, Falcón is personally targeted by the mafia as they seek to retrieve their bounty, although he does not know which group is responsible. Alongside, Falcón’s friend Yacoub, who spies for the Spanish government, entrusts Falcón with the knowledge of how he is being blackmailed by Islamist extremists.
Everyone’s mettle is tested to severe limits, not least those of Falcón, Consuelo and Yacoub. Behind the plot, the running theme becomes one of protecting one’s children, the limits to which parents will run and the sacrifices they are prepared to make. Falcón surprises himself with his reactions and the actions he feels forced to take.
Wilson has a great ability to facilitate a reader seeing the victims’ point of view and The Ignorance of Blood is no exception. Along the way, we experience the horrifying lack of humanity in how the mafia values human life and how it uses it, and ends it, to simply send a message.
With the usual intricate plotting that readers have come to expect from Wilson, The Ignorance of Blood also makes for a highly charged emotional read. Some elements of the ending may prove satisfactory, but it is not without loss and the white flowers of the dead will be on your mind.
Readers of the quartet will be fully engrossed in this novel. Readers new to Wilson will have four excellent literary thrillers to encounter.
You can’t rush a Falcón as every word counts. I estimate that I spent approx. 14 hrs reading this novel. In times of recession, that works out at about £1.28 per hour, if you pay the full price for the hardback, and what value! So get reading and don’t miss Falcón.
The Ignorance of Blood was published by HarperCollins on 5 March. And don’t forget the three previous novels in this quartet, if you haven’t caught up with Falcón yet. In order from the start they are:
Crime and thriller writers don’t come better than this.
Review by ScotKris.
Ann Cleeves brings us to Spring with her latest volume in the Shetland Quartet, Red Bones, and it is indeed a most welcome follow-up to the award-winning series opener, Raven Black, and its successor, White Nights.
In this, a set of human remains is discovered at an archaeological dig on the island of Whalsay, a small island community where even the local policeman is related to the victim of an ensuing shotgun accident. Is this connected to the red bones unearthed at the dig? Old bones and new bones form a tantalising tale of intrigue.
People and landscape are brought vividly to life in a portrayal of a self-protecting community, where even Inspector Perez feels like an outsider when he steps off the ferry after the short crossing from the Shetland mainland.
Interweaving mysteries make Red Bones that most appealing of crime novels, the classic page-turner; but make no mistake as this is no 1950s ”cosy”, it is an intelligent, clever and, above all, thoroughly enjoyable novel. I am certainly waiting with anticipation for the final instalment in Ann’s Shetland Quartet.
A Very Persistent Illusion by L. C. Tyler (Macmillan New Writing) is not crime fiction per se, but it does contain a mystery, much humour and is full of suspense. As with the author's début novel The Herring Seller's Apprentice, this standalone combines a unique prose style and ability to tell a story that is a mixture of humour, quirkiness, inventiveness and the erudite, all glued together by cleverness. It's out now and the Herring series follow-up will arrive in August, later this year. So what is A Very Persistent Illusion all about? (I am deliberately avoiding the author's own summary and publisher synopsis here, as neither particularly appealed to me; thus I take a risk on my own interpretation.)
Our story narrator, London-based Chris (Christian – three syllables as in the original Danish, if you please) Sorensen does not wear socks, but he does wear chinos and a leather jacket to work. For all his previous academic achievements, he is an office middle-manager and one of the more obviously successful products of "the Peter Principle" – he has been promoted to the extent of his own level of incompetence – and is now the Director of External Affairs at the Royal Society for Medical Education, overlooking Regent's Park in London. As a team-leader, he is pretty crap; caught up with Virginia his girlfriend, he cannot help but notice and pursue Lucy, the new team recruit, most noticeable for her short skirts, clingy cashmere sweaters, youth and his potential next date. Neither can he take effective and accurate minutes for the Committee Meetings he attends as secretary; his mind is on the creation of spoof poetry.
Having had enough this single lark and looking for some inspiration, I started reading Maria Headley's The Year of Yes last year. Alas, I didn't finish it; I became bored with her year of saying yes to any dates. The basic message of the book is abandon all your preconceived ideas of what you're looking for. Then along came January 2009 and the publication of Shane Watson's How to Meet a Man After Forty and Other Midlife Dilemmas Solved (Penguin). Now, this one I have read from cover to cover.
The basic rule? Drop your prejudices because you can't see the gem of the man inside the brown shirt and shiny suit (which will be on your list of "no-nos"); you need to ditch your list of preconditions. Apparently this is not lowering your standards or a lead to hooking up with Mr Gigantic Compromise, it is pulling the wool from your eyes and will allow you to find Mr Right.
It's written in a chatty style that is easy to read. The text size is good for those of us over forty, who have to wear reading glasses. One hilarious chapter is on modern manners which points out the "newly rude"; "newly not rude" and "still bloody rude". On the subject of dress code, she concludes:
Further stories are provided by Adele Parks, Ali Smith, Bella Pollen, Chris Manby, Daisy Waugh, Emma Darwin, Esther Freud, Fay Weldon, Jane Moore, Joan Smith, Joanne Harris, Justine Picardie, Louise Doughty, Rachel Johnson (winner of last year's Bad Sex Award – a fact not included in her section within "Contributors"), Santa Montefiore and Stella Duffy. [Note: contributor and editor Kathy Lette was shortlisted for last year's Bad Sex Award.]
Billed as "Unashamedly sexy stories by your favourite women novelists", the premise and indeed the theme on reading is akin to the old bawdy seaside postcard. There is a challenge here: the authors have written using pseudonyms (a combination of the name of their first pet and their street), so who wrote what? Can we guess? Having read a few of these authors – some time ago – I thought it might be possible to identify some writers' voices as they can be distinctive. Not so.
This is Simone van der Vlugt's first entry into the adult (psychological) thriller market in the UK. In her native Netherlands, it was her first entry into the adult thriller market too, having been established as an historical children's and young adults' author for about twenty years. An English translation of The Reunion was first sold and published in Australia and now it reaches the UK, courtesy of HarperCollins. So what does it offer?
Well, it had this reader gripped. Because of its shorter length at 295 pages – and why are UK born and bred authors encouraged to deliver 400+ pages to their publishers all the time? – I was not tempted to skim to the end. This was good as the suspense is effectively maintained throughout, within a tight wheel.
Set in Amsterdam and the towns and villages north of there, our protagonist Sabine has suffered trauma that has caused loss of memory, or more-appropriately, repressed memory. We meet her as she is about to go back to work at her Amsterdam bank, having been on extended sick leave after suffering "burn-out" at work and depression. But that is her current trauma, being overcome. As a child, she was the intensely loyal and supportive friend to Isabel who suffered epileptic fits, facilitating Isabel's freedom. However, when they moved schools and into their teenage years, Isabel became the popular, hip and trendy one and left Isabel behind, literally too, at the school gates as their respective bikes crossed the threshold. Sabine then quickly found herself the victim of Isabel's and her gang's bullying. But her loyalty remained and Sabine is aware that she was there, following Isabel on her bike, on the day Isabel disappeared. And so much memory of that time has been repressed.
The newspaper announcement of a school reunion causes memories to start to resurface in Sabine, just as she returns to work. There, she faces a second round of bullying sourced by someone she previously recruited into the team. In the present, she shows a bit of spine in dealing with it, but what of the past? She starts to realise the extent of her memory loss as she returns to the office.
The focus of the story is what happened to Isabel on the day she disappeared? Does Sabine harbour long-repressed memories of what actually happened on that day and will she get to remember?
This novel is one of peeling away layers, much like getting to the core of a Russian doll, in this case using the evolving and resurgent memories of Sabine. That may sound simple, but the author has chosen to use first person, present tense for her narrative. Thus, "holding the mirror up" proves difficult, but Simone van der Vlugt achieves this, even at the early stages when some of Sabine's statements are jarring in their potential ambiguity. We hear Sabine's side and interpretation, but what of the other? It only takes a few pages before the "red alert" is out there and the appreciative reader will be looking out for potential inconsistencies.
This is a gripping tale based on psychological suspense. It weaves the pressures of Sabine's current life with the historic pressures from her formative years. Both her brother and his friend fall into the frame in respect of the past and suspicion. The friend also falls into the frame in her current life and Sabine's relationship with him is another story of some great tension. It is a tale told in a simple fashion, with a direct prose that does not attempt to lead you to looking up in the OUD once translated. The essence here is in the nature of the prose and the storytelling; Sabine talks as straight and as simple as an unused wire brush and we listen. We want to know more. We feel for Sabine. We want to get to the bottom of Isabel's disappearance, perhaps more than Sabine herself does. And the "all known" does come out in the end. A couple of Australian blogging readers referred to the ending as "disturbing". It is. But Sabine's journey of memory and fight for a current decent life is all the more disturbing. You have to read it to find out. (And don't peak to the end as it will spoil it for you.)
On a couple of occasions this novel does require some "suspension of disbelief" in regards to plot, but overall it does deliver, and well. I can only imagine that Simone van der Vlugt has become even better with her successive adult novels and I look forward to reading them.
Reading what it "says on the label" in terms of synopsis, I didn't expect to laugh out loud when reading, but I did. Here's a short extract, where Sabine prepares for a date with her brother's old friend (now working in IT at her banking employer) and goes shopping with her friend Jeanine to prepare for the night in question:
The Golden Pig from the Penny Brothers – Mark and Jonathan – is a comic crime caper set in England (mainly London with a foray to the south coast) featuring Hymie Goldman, the "defective detective". The book itself has unusual origins in that it started life as a competition between the two brothers as to who could write "the most exciting and outrageous plotlines, the most believable yet quirky characters and the funniest dialogue and gags". This resulted in the brothers taking it in turn to write "parts" and hence we have novel made up of parts as opposed to chapters. Clearly feeling the competition was tough, each brother has maintained the comedy well and the gags never let up from the first page to the last. As with many comic crime caper novels, the plot carries a scattergun approach and it's impossible to anticipate where you're going to go in the next part. From part one, here's some of the introduction to Hymie:
Hymie Goldman was a detective of no fixed abode, hairstyle, or opinions: they all came and went like the north wind. Unlike his name, he wasn't Jewish; the closest he'd ever come to Judaism was walking past a synagogue in Golders Green. His real name was Artie Shaw, after the once famous but now deceased jazz clarinettist. As dead musicians weren't noted for their investigative skills, and he was frequently skating on the thin ice of bankruptcy, he'd begun changing his name in a futile attempt to attract new clients and repel old creditors. It had worked in reverse and he was now on his third identity. At least it gave him the chance to advertise himself as "under new management" from time to time…
… Everything about Goldman was a twenty-five carat fake: in his thirty-eight years on the planet he had pretended to be so many things to so many people that he scarcely knew who he was any longer. His flat had been repossessed so many times that he kept a suitcase by the front door. Having recently been evicted, he now lived in his office, contrary to the terms of the lease. Most of his meagre belongings had to be hidden from the bailiffs when he wasn’t actually using them, and even the clothes he stood up in bore the hallmark of the charity shop; a cut that didn’t flatter and a style that was last fashionable in 1986 …
If you love comic crime, then you might want to give these debut authors a try. If you're British and over forty, you might also find yourself smiling at the comments on the UK's social mores and culture over the last three decades; acutely observed, they have an ascerbic twist to them. Expect family shenanigans, Chinese triads, a nasty old woman, a frightening experience on the south coast, an explosive time in London, a pizza-loving Hymie and a non-performing policeman who just doesn't get it when it comes to marital counselling (or driving for that matter). The Golden Pig starts with the theft of a golden pig and involves the theft of champion race horse later; you really won't anticipate what's coming next, but there are gags-a-plenty to maintain the comedy.