Saturday, 25 April 2015

One Man's Opinion: THE SERPENT POOL by MARTIN EDWARDS



Over the Easter holidays I spent some time in the Lake District, always a restful place to be and a hugely stimulating one. The obvious read was something by Martin Edwards who has forged a great reputation with his Lake District mysteries. I plumped for The Serpent Pool (US) in the Hannah Scarlett series and it was a real winner.

For starters, I got exactly the sense of place that I wanted and felt soaked through with atmosphere (and, thankfully, not the usual rain as the weather was kind to us). There’s a real feel for a countryside carved by ancient ice and for the way humans have dispersed there in small settlements to adapt to the climate and the power and beauty of the area.

The story is told mainly through events in the personal lives of DCI Scarlett and her boyfriend, Marc. They’ve reached a point in their relationship when they’re both questioning their togetherness and are feeling the need to reach out and find comfort elsewhere.

For Marc, his distraction is the assistant who works in his specialist bookstore, Cassie. For Hannah, it’s the recently turn of Daniel Kind, the subject of a long-standing crush. All four of them are to be drawn into the investigation into the murder of a book-collector in his library and the cold case of a girl found drowned in the Serpent Pool of the title, which seem increasingly linked even though they happened six years apart.

Martin Edwards does a fantastic job of exploring the motivations of the characters and of making sure that the pace gently increases until it finally explodes into a frenzy of action. The whodunit aspect always feels close, yet can only be seen through a translucent curtain until the eventual reveal. There’s an engaging thread relating to Thomas De Quincy and the idea of murder as an art form that points towards the madness behind the killings being investigated and there’s also the police angle where there are plenty of contradicting styles working together.


It’s a fine murder mystery this and, if you’re looking for a series to get your teeth into, this is likely to provide you with the fertile material you’re seeking.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

One Man's Opinion: THE LOST AND THE BLIND by DECLAN BURKE



Tom Noone is an author, journalist and a ghost writer who is approached to write a biography of one Sebastian Devereaux. Devereaux spent his life as an archaeologist and a novelist on the island of Delphi on Lough Swilly in northern Donegal. The man providing the funds for this task is the super rich octogenarian Shay Govern, long-established as a name among the Boston Irish. His motive appears to be one of cleansing; he wants to reveal a hidden atrocity committed by the Nazis back in 1940 where a number of children were slain. Govern also wants to support the island by regenerating the economy and setting up a gold mining business.

Govern has also employed a private investigator, Jack Byrne, to locate an eye-witness to the atrocity, one Gerard Smyth. He’s an old man who also seems to want to get something off his chest. It turns out that Byrne has already found Smyth and has decided to keep that information from his employer in case he can find an angle to exploit. All he needs is a little help from Noone and they’ll be laughing.

As the stories unfold, the ghost-writing project becomes much more complex than it seemed. It’s unclear who is being totally frank and what dark mysteries rest underneath the surface.

When a murder is committed, the plot thickens considerably and the arrival of a tough and unorthodox cop makes Noone’s life extremely uncomfortable. It’s not long before she forces Noone’s hand and he does a runner with his estranged young daughter. Noone suddenly finds his company in hot demand from a number of unsavoury and rather intimidating characters. There are many out there who want to avoid the truth about what happened on Delphi in the war from being revealed and they will stop at nothing to prevent it from entering the public arena.

The plot is rather complex. It grips tight at the beginning and leaves plenty of open-ended questions and contradictions to create a strong energy and intrigue.

Noone is a noble investigator. He can’t help but throw himself fully into the work and he’s such a likeable narrator that the prospect of harm coming his way causes genuine concern and tension.

Each of the characters in the novel is really well drawn and they’re a pleasure to meet, whether they’re bit players or have major roles. It can, at times, seem as though their motivations seem slightly overblown, but as the work rushes to its denouement all becomes clear and the pieces fall nicely into place.   

I enjoyed this one, not least because of its smooth evocative prose. Contrasting with that, the snappy and clinical action scenes are also a pleasure to read - Burke would make a great undertaker as he can hammer the final nail into a coffin with brutal precision and dexterity.


The Lost And The Blind (US) is definitely one to add to your to-be-read pile. 

Sunday, 19 April 2015

One Man's Opinion: LET IT RIDE by JOHN McFETRIDGE



The Saints Of Hell have pretty much sewn up the criminal world of Toronto. There’s still a mob of Italians and a rogue gang of bikers to share the turf with, but that’s not likely to be the state of play forever.

The novel begins with Get, a US army veteran, transporting arms to The Saints in the hope that he can open up drugs supplies for his mother’s business in Detroit. While in Canada, he hooks up with his contact, JT, who shows him the ropes and reveals just how well-structured the set-up of the Saints is.  He also introduces Get to a hooker, Sunitha, who has a few well-honed skills and a desire to pull off a major heist of her own.

Circling around these threads is a police investigation into a killing, a look into the world of swinging couples and an insight into the lives of those at the top of a number of crime families, all of which are engrossing and tightly put together.

It’s an interesting one to try and examine.

First of all, this isn’t the book I was expecting from the opening sequences. I expected a hard drive towards the resolving of a murder investigation and a crash-bang-boom coming together of the crime syndicates concerned.

Instead, the book took a much more considered route and was all the more satisfying for avoiding a simple journey from A to B and C to D.

There are multiple points of view, each of which is thorough and distinct. Through them, as the world shifts and alters balance, there are explanations of history and personal lives that explain just how things to come to be as they are and why each of the next steps seems almost inevitable. The characters are trapped in their own webs of time and place and are what and who they are.

Let It Ride smoulders its way through the action. It slowly peels off layers to reveal deeper flesh and each shift in viewpoint alters the perspective so that the need for an explosive ending becomes redundant. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of resolutions to be had – they are scattered through the novel as it moves on – it’s more that each answered question throws up something new to focus upon.

I really enjoyed the style and the depth of this one. The characters are etched superbly and their interactions always ring true. There’s a lot in here about the changing of the city and the comparisons between businesses that are, on the surface at least, legitimate or not so. Issues of race, gender and class come under scrutiny in various forms and these are really well-handled (and within character, of course).

My favourite aspect here is the dialogue. It’s put together as if it’s a work of art in itself and that’s from beginning to end. I found myself purring through the conversations and admiring the craft. It’s super stuff.


All this said, I’m not sure how you can best get hold of it. As far as I can gather, there are second hand hard-backed copies up for grabs and there’s an audio book that can be downloaded for a free trial via Audible as well as being purchased directly. That it’s not available for kindle seems criminal, but I might just be missing something – please add a comment if you can point out a better way to get hold of the book. It certainly deserves to be read and, if I may be so bold, fairly widely.  

Monday, 6 April 2015

One Man's Opinion: CONFESSIONS OF A HIT MAN by RICHARD GODWIN



In the early stages of this book, I was reminded somewhat of Lawrence Block’s excellent Hit Man stories. Early doors, the formats are similar in that there are a series of hits to be carried out, each requiring their own subtleties of approach and method of dispatch.

Of course, Godwin’s imagination reaches parts many other authors would not reach in terms of the twists and the twisted and the early events deal with targets of increasingly sordid lives.
Jack, the Hit Man of the title, is an ex-service man who stumbles in to the world of the Sicilian mafia after a chance encounter on the island. His connection sets Jack up with a little work when he returns to London and Jack’s all too happy to find a way out of an existence where cash is short.

He’s good at the work, too. It’s not long before he’s setting out on private hits because his growing reputation has turned him into a sought-after professional.

One thing leads to another and he’s soon coaxed into a job of international significance. He’s to infiltrate and bring down an operation involving the smuggling of plutonium to Syria and feels the hand of the government holding his purse strings. The stakes are higher and the mission is hugely more complex and it’s this story that occupies most of the second half of the book.

I really enjoyed this. It’s well-written and has a slightly breezy style to it in the way the tale is told.
I did favour the shorter tales showing Jack’s early development to the later section of international intrigue. To my mind, the chapter-per-hit formula works very well and within them Godwin seemed to relish the challenges of creating new situations with a playful creativity. The ease at which he managed to allow me to accept the need for execution and to enjoy the killing of the victims has me asking questions of myself that reach fairly deeply. The early links to Sicily and to Italy are also particularly evocative.

The second section does have a slightly different tone. Due to the nature of the job at hand, an awful lot more is required in the set up and a little more patience is taken. Though it hangs together well, it came at the expense of some of that early pace and freshness. I suspect that this says more about my taste in fiction than about the book itself and imagine that thriller fans might well come to the opposite conclusion.


All in all, Confessions Of  A Hit Man is a fine and pleasing read. There’s darkness, humour and a fine sense of character and place to get you in the mood. Well worth checking out.  

Friday, 3 April 2015

One Man's Opinion: THE MURDER BAG by TONY PARSONS



Having seen interviews with Tony Parsons when The Murder Bag (US) was released, as well as a rather good TV piece on boxing in fiction, I couldn’t resist buying the book. Having just piled through it in a couple of page-turning days, I’m very glad I did, even though I have a few reservations.

Max Wolfe is the protagonist. He’s aptly named given that he’s part of a pack as well as acting as a loner much of the time. It’s clear from the off that Max has a strong belief in his convictions and he’ll go against orders when he believes himself to be right.

He’s investigating a series of murders among a group of men who formed tight bonds during their private school days and who have gone on to have varied degrees of success in their adulthood. The killings involve the slashing of throats with a weapon specifically designed to do the job and the perpetrator leaves no clues at the scenes.

When the press get involved, a website by Bob The Butcher and its hashtags goes viral and an MP becomes one of the potential victims, the pressure on the police mounts.

There are many things to like about Murder Bag. The directions the case takes constantly fuel the plot and it’s difficult to stop at the end of one chapter when the path into the next has been so neatly built. Wolfe himself is an engaging sort and the other central players are all nicely formed. The domestic situation, though a little clich├ęd, provides a decent contrast to the drama and the head-scratching.  Wolfe’s thought processes work well and at a number of satisfying levels. There’s also a high pitch of tension when the action takes place and there are some neat little boxing insights that add another dimension. I also really enjoyed some of the turns of phrase; Parsons throws in some sentences of real power and craft along the way and manages to ensure that they don’t feel out of place. London is also really beautifully drawn and had me wanting to go again in the near future – I think visitors to the city hoping to find a read that will add to their overall experience could do a lot worse in choosing their material that this one. I also really enjoyed the final twist – it was a blow that I’d been expecting for so long that I’d forgotten about it and was totally taken aback when it was finally landed.

On the downside, I had a few niggles.

There are passages where the repetition of a word becomes jarring. It may be a deliberate act of style, but I’d have hoped an editor might have suggested a touch of ironing where this is the case.

There’s also an aspect relating to the way the research is handled. Mr Parsons has clearly done his homework and may also have access to things that many others might not. Managing to inserting information to add credibility to a book is a tricky thing and I think a little more subtly would have helped here. It feels, at times, that each character has an encyclopedic knowledge of the world and I’d be looking for better ways of getting a point across in (and hopefully there will be one) book two.  

This seeming desire to get everything right also throws up another issue. In trying that hard, it somehow highlights the points where there are contradictions or improbable procedures. I’m not going to draw your attention to them as that may not help your enjoyment of the story when the time comes.

Overall, I think that if you’re a fan of the police procedural this is definitely one for you. It has most of the things you’ll want and a little more besides. I enjoyed it very much and am definitely going back for more should Max Wolfe make his reappearance.


A winning crime debut.

Monday, 30 March 2015

One Man's Opinion: CRY UNCLE by RUSSEL D MCLEAN



David Burns is a hard man of the old-fashioned variety. He believes there’s honour among thieves and has been the ruthless leader of Dundee’s underworld for many years.

In steps Craig Nairn, the new contender for the Burns’s crown. Nairn is growing arms and legs and when his tentacles reach into Burns’s turf, tensions soon grow out of hand.

Sandwiched in between them is private investigator McNee who is working as one of Burns’s henchmen while undercover for the police.

Cry Uncle is a story that is full of drama, action and tension. It’s a book that had me craving slots of spare time so that I could continue reading and I made sure that I carved out those slots wherever I could. The chapters are perfectly bite-sized to suit these purposes, satisfying the appetite for the book and keeping the pace and momentum high, yet never quite fully sate the appetite until the final pieces are put into place.

McNee is a terrific first-person narrator. His voice is compelling and he’s articulate enough to take us through the ins and outs of the plot with ease. We follow him through a series of events in which he is always weighing up his moral position and, more often than not, considering how he can survive in a world where his friends and enemies all seem to find him expendable. He offers glimpses into Dundee past and present that paint a very vivid picture. He also takes us through the landscape of his internal workings, which is like taking a walk along cliffs that are at once beautiful and treacherous. McNee has limits and also has the capacity to cross them; it’s a moral ambiguity that I thoroughly enjoyed.

I loved Cry Uncle (US) and urge you to check it out. It works on so many different levels that I’m sure it has a broad appeal. Those who like a thriller, a PI novel, a police story or a brutal gangland battle should be fully engaged. As a bonus there are great character studies, curve-balls and tender moments. There’s even an ending that has something about the Count Of Monte Cristo to it and that’s saying something.


Really great stuff. 

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Lost Carnival




Arthur Bird makes radio documentaries. Life is pretty normal for him until the day he receives a mysterious package. What is to come is a perplexing tale surrounding the leader of a lost carnival, Popou Ingenue, the finding of a Phoenix egg and an exotic trip to Morocco. 

Arthur is soon to find himself in a very difficult position, caught between two rival factions that both seek his attention.

Intrigue, humour and the fanciful come together, along with newspapers with missing articles and gun-toting broads. A little hammy and totally absorbing. 

Find the first three episodes of The Lost Carnival here