Monday, 20 November 2017

A Summer Revenge by Tom Callaghan

This is the third novel in the author’s series featuring Akyl Borubaev of the Bishkek Murder Squad. While the previous two novels have been set squarely in Akyl’s home country of Kyrgyzstan (Bishkek is the capital) this third outing pulls him from his comfort zone. Not only is Akyl now firmly ex-police (after events that transpired in the previous book) but his old protector/nemesis, the powerful Minister of State Security, has very much made him an offer he cannot refuse. The Minister’s mistress, Natasha Sulonbekova, has disappeared, apparently run off, and Akyl must travel to Dubai to find her. Succeed and he stands to get his old job back. Refuse, or fail, and he’s likely to find himself in an early grave.

From the outset, Akyl guesses that there’s more to the Minister’s tale than a case of a foolish older man falling for a younger woman only to be embarrassed when she runs away. He wonders whether she’s stolen money from him, but thinks that even this might be not the whole truth. His task is further complicated by the fact that in Dubai he will be operating alone, with none of the official jurisdictional authority that he’s used to. Should he be arrested by the authorities or fall foul of criminal actors, then no one will come to the rescue.

A Summer Revenge is an atmospheric novel and the author clearly either knows Dubai well or has done his research. This isn’t the Dubai of the superrich and glossy holiday brochures, rather it is a seedy underbelly full of dingy strip clubs and populated by prostitutes, gangsters and hustlers. As with the previous two volumes in the series Akyl proves to be a likeable protagonist while the other characters are all well drawn. The exception remains Saltanat Umaroza, a femme fatale Uzbek assassin, a recurring character who I still find a little too clichéd for my liking.

As with the previous two novels, the plot of A Summer Revenge is multifaceted.  Akyl’s suspicions that the Minister’s concerns for his mistress’s whereabouts stretch to more than that of a lover spurned, or mere financials, are borne out. The tale that unfolds involves corruption, greed and Chechen terrorism. The author does a neat job of juggling the various plates he spins and tying up all the various loose ends. That all said, I enjoyed this outing of Akyl’s a little less than his previous adventures. This might be that the peril never seems particularly high. Yes, if Akyl fails, the Minister might have him shot, but compared to A Killing Winter (book 1) and a Spring Betrayal (book 2) where he was battling the perpetrators of ritualistic killings, international corruption and child prostitution rings, the plot of A Summer Revenge just feels a little tame.

That said, this is still a cut above many other novels in the genre and the depiction of Dubai is fresh and intriguing.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, 6 November 2017

Devil’s Day by Andrew Michael Hurley

I borrowed this title from NetGalley, a review service that I use, having not heard of the author before. I was attracted to the title by the striking cover art and the book’s description, with its talk of an isolated village amid a moor, the devil stalking the fens at night. I was expecting a supernatural horror and indeed Devil’s Day is billed as such on Amazon. In some ways, this is an accurate description of the book, it certainly has a supernatural element, but as far as horror fiction goes it’s a slow burn. Devil’s Day might more accurately be described as a drama with a deep sense of foreboding.

The novel’s protagonist, John Pentecrost, is a school teacher who works at a public school in the south of England. Every year he returns to his family farm in rural Lancashire to help his father and grandfather bring the sheep down from the moor and partake in traditional rituals to keep the people and animals of the local community safe from the devil. The novel begins with John bringing his new wife, Katherine (Kat), who’s pregnant with their first child, with him for the first time.  John’s grandfather, popularly known as “the Gaffer”, has just died and his father is getting on in years, so John – who’s increasingly restless in his job - is thinking of broaching the subject with Kat of their moving back to Lancashire to take over the farm.   

As the plot unfolds there are tensions galore. The community John introduces Kat into is extremely wary of strangers and she struggles to fit in. She finds it difficult to understand their old ways and some of them clearly think she’s not up to it. Woodland nearby has recently been burnt down and locals blame a problem family amongst them, members of which have been in prison, bullied other kids at the village school, and generally act in an antisocial manner. As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that John and other members of his extended family hide dark secrets.

Reading Devil’s Day, at first it seems that the superstitions and folklore that the community adhere to are just that, that this is a remote village, cut off from the 21st Century that is backwards and quaint. As past secrets are unearthed, the reader might even conclude that this folklore has been used to cover up terrible deeds committed by the community’s members. Strange things do happen, some of which appear to have a supernatural root. By the end of the novel, and at risk of divulging spoilers, it is up to the reader to decide what is real and what is not.

This is a slow burning novel full of evocative and haunting description. The tension and foreboding ratchets inexorably upwards, but is never gratuitous and not particularly scary. This is more of an unsettling tale, not least for a city dweller like myself. I found myself wondering whether there are indeed communities like this, the kinds of places where if you wandered in and were particularly unlucky, you might not ever leave. That said, the plot of Devil’s Day did meander somewhat and the ending seemed rushed.

3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Sirens by Joseph Knox

I had heard a lot about Sirens upon its publication, read quite a few rave reviews, but hadn’t got around to reading it. Eventually I picked up a copy, mainly because it’s main character was an undercover police officer infiltrating an organised crime ring - undercover policing and organised crime being issues that I’m interested in. And wow. 

Sirens is an amazing book and deeply original. Our protagonist is Aidan Watts, a deeply troubled Detective Constable who’s been suspended from duty. As such he’s been thrown a lifeline by his superior: go undercover in the seedy backstreets of Manchester to infiltrate the operation of a drug lord, Zain Carver. So far, so average one might conclude. But the author elevates what might be a familiar plot through several original threads.

For one, the author is not a former police officer himself. These days readers are exacting in their demands for accuracy, unforgiving when an author makes a mistake in police procedure. Faced with this an author can go one of two routes: conduct copious research or find another way. The problem with research is unless the author is a police officer themselves, they still might make a mistake. Alternatively, as some authors do, they might fill their books with pages and pages of mind-numbing detail. Joseph Knox, the author, takes the other route. By having his protagonist suspended and recruited off the books, for a deniable operation, he’s able to tell his tale while avoiding getting bogged down in all that tedious detail. This isn’t a criticism, far from it, for what we have here is a slick, fast moving tale, full of tension where Aidan is at risk from nearly everyone he meets and has none of the safety net an undercover officer run in the traditional way might have.

A second interesting strand are the “Sirens” of the title. Zain Carver attracts troubled young women, runaways and those from broken homes and these he uses to collect the proceeds of his drug distribution from Manchester’s bars and clubs. Aidan meets a few these women who are all fragile and vulnerable in their own way and these characters add a certain frisson to the narrative. They also lead to a major sub-plot, for one of these women is the daughter of a leading politician who pulls strings to undermine the drugs investigation and have Aidan watch his daughter instead. This leads to an intriguing foil of tension between his boss in the police, who wants him to focus on the drugs, and the politician who wants his focus elsewhere.

A rival gang made up of vagrants and drug addicts adds yet another layer of tension, but it’s the Manchester that the author conveys that really brings this novel alive. There’s a cliché about crime fiction that it’s all about a sense of location. I don’t believe that myself, I’ve read many a good crime novel that could have been set anywhere, while similarly I’ve read many that attempt to instil a sense of place and come off no better than cheap travelogue. When crime fiction gets sense of place right however, it can be magical. The author of Sirens gets it right; Manchester here is a bleak place, its austerity inflicted wounds still to heal.

All this said, I’ve often struggled to define in my own mind what makes a good book, how one author will write a novel that seems original and fresh and another will write something that seems pedestrian and humdrum. As I’ve written before in other reviews, I think in the end it comes down to a certain fairy dust, a magical ingredient that is hard to put one’s finger on, that is in the quality of the author’s writing itself. So, in conclusion, I’m saying that Sirens has that magic fairy dust and it’s for that reason I recommend it.

5 out of 5 stars

Rubicon by Ian Patrick

Both police corruption and undercover policing are subjects that I’m very interested in. As a former current affairs journalist with Channel 4 Dispatches I didn’t work on any programmes which touched on these subjects myself, but I have had the great honour over the years to get to know several journalists who have, not least Michael Gillard and Laurie Flynn who wrote the masterpiece that was Untouchables, a book that blew the lid on corruption in the Met in the 1990’s. So, when I saw that Fahrenheit Press, one of the finest small independent publishers in operation today, were bringing out a novel written by a former Met undercover officer, I was more than intrigued. When I read the book’s blurb and saw that it also addressed issues of corruption, I knew I had to get myself a copy.

Rubicon’s protagonist is Sam Batford, a veteran undercover officer with Met. He’s been seconded to the National Crime Agency (NCA), onto a team run by DCI Klara Winter, which is targeting an upper echelon crime figure called Vincenzo Guardino. Guardian is bringing in a large shipment of cocaine and Mac-10 machine pistols and Klara is determined to bring him to justice. She is not happy with Sam Batford’s deployment, suspicious of the Met’s motives - are they trying to claim the glory of Guardino’s demise for themselves? - and wary that he might not be answerable to her but to his masters in Scotland Yard. 

A lot of other reviewers writing about this book have focused on Batford’s corruption, portraying the novel as quite a straightforward contrast between his moral duplicity and Klara Winter’s rectitude. For me Rubicon was more nuanced than that. While I started off believing Batford to be corrupt, as the narrative span out I quickly found myself in a hall of mirrors unsure just how much of his actions had been sanctioned by his superiors and why. Even at the close of the narrative, while I had concluded that he was corrupt, was he so out of greed or due to fear that he would be hung out to dry, that he needed a nest egg so to speak? Rubicon is written in contrasting styles - first person for Batford and third person for Klara, whose narrative thread is also told through the official reports she logs. Batford’s strand is by far the strongest, Klara being a more straight forward character, but this works for the majority of the novel is told through Batford.

As with any novel written by an author who’s “been there and bought the T-Shirt”, there’s a fair amount of authenticity here. There’s good detail on surveillance - for example, the unmarked cars that one sees racing up the motorway with the light’s blaring from their grills? Quite possibly a surveillance vehicle leapfrogging from one mainline train station to the next. But the best detail is broader brush.  Rubicon is set in the near future, “at a time of austerity and police cuts” as the blurb says, and the narrative addresses how this has impacted the work of undercover officers - how they have less support, less back up. Reading the novel, one has a sense of the author’s anger, that he’s experienced this himself in his own deployments or knows of people who have. Equally the relationship between the police and the NCA is telling. A few years back I read an interesting biography - The Interceptor by Cameron Addicott. Addicott was a former Customs investigator who had been hired by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), the NCA’s predecessor. In The Interceptor, Addicott detailed his growing disillusionment with SOCA, which eventually led him to resign in disgust. While that was a biography and Rubicon is a novel, I sense a similar theme here and wonder whether Ian Patrick hasn’t had bad experiences of the NCA when working as an undercover for the Met. Certainly, the NCA don’t come out of Rubicon very well. 

All in all, Rubicon is a fantastic novel and one that I would recommend to anyone looking for a good crime thriller. 

This is a 5 star read.

Unforgivable by Mike Thomas

This is the second in the author’s DC Will MacReady novels, and if anything, it’s better than the first, Ash and Bones, which I also reviewed. Set against a backdrop of a Cardiff on edge - a white boy has been murdered by a gang of smirking Asian youth, cue lots of EDL types protesting every morning on the court’s steps, Antifa opposing them, the police stuck in the middle - a series of bombs explodes across the city. The first hit’s a souk, an annual celebration of multiculturalism held in one of the city’s parks. The second strikes a mosque. There are multiple casualties at each location, fatalities and maimings. Is this the work of far-right extremists? A cell of bombers or a lone wolf like Anders Breivik, or the Brixton bomber, David Copeland? 

I don’t want to give away spoilers, so I will avoid too much discussion of the plot, but needless to say, everything is not all that it seems. What I will say is that MacReady and the other characters in the novel are well drawn and the book itself is tightly plotted. While this is the second in the series, it can be read as a standalone, though you will miss a little of the back story.

Mike Thomas is a former police officer and as such this novel has a real air of authenticity. While Will is the main character, Thomas is obviously aware that a police investigation is a team effort and consequently the supporting cast play big roles. Some writers aiming for authenticity overwhelm their readers with the minutia of their research but Thomas is careful not to do this, so while the novel does have the ring of accuracy to it, this is not laboured.

Unforgivable is a police procedural and we all know that the bookshelves groan under the weight of such titles. I would say though that the author’s skill as a writer elevates his novel above many of its competitors. For a start this is not a serial killer novel. Also, while MacReady has got a troubled personal life, the author writes well enough to avoid the usual cliche’s. In fact, that’s a feature of the book full stop. Numerous journalists have pontificated in the past over what makes a great book or film, what makes a great crime thriller. For my own part I think it’s a magic ingredient that is difficult to put one’s finger on. So, if one thinks of The Wire, or The Killing, it’s easy to think that it might be a sense of place, or a killer twist. But many books and films have a sense of place or a knockout twist and aren’t so good. Which brings me back to that magic, the elusive fairy dust. Unforgivable is one such novel; while the plot is original enough, there have been books before that have dealt with terrorism and terror-like atrocities, similarly, as noted above, there are innumerable police procedurals with troubled protagonists. But the author writes well and imbues his novel with that something extra.

In short this is a great novel and one that I heartily recommend. Mike Thomas is an author to watch and I look forward to future novels in the MacReady series. But his previous novels (standalones, not Will MacReady novels, and indeed, not police procedurals) are also well worth digging out. In particular, I would challenge anyone to read Ugly Bus and not think it a cult classic. 

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

BLOG TOUR! House of Spines by Michael Malone - BLOG TOUR!

This is the first novel by Michael Malone that I’ve read, an author who from what I gather used to write gritty noir and has now moved into psychological suspense. House of Spines is more than psychological suspense however, the author blending the genre with the gothic supernatural. Ran McGhie is a young man with mental health issues, suffering from bipolar depression. The nature of his illness is such that his moods swing from the deepest, darkest despair to manic elation. Sometimes he becomes delusional, even hallucinates. He’s also a man who has suffered devastating family trauma. At the start of the novel he has just learnt that he has inherited Newton Hall, a huge house, from his mother’s side of the family. A relative Ran had never met has left him the property complete with extensive library. As a struggling writer, this is a dream come true. He moves in but almost immediately feels that there is something wrong, the house having a disquieting atmosphere. Coupled with meeting unpleasant relatives for the first time – Ran’s been told that they’ve been generously compensated in the will and have no designs on the house, but can he be sure that this is indeed the case? - and already struggling with burgeoning loneliness having separated from his wife, it isn’t long before his precarious grip on sanity is feeling the strain.

As mentioned this is a bit of a mash up of genres. We have psychological suspense complete with unreliable narrator and we have gothic horror complete with a haunted house, a woman’s spirit stuck in a mirror trying to claim Ran’s soul for her own, or is she? The two elements complement each other well and the author does a good job of building the tension as the story unfolds. The characterisation is spot on too, I certainly warmed to Ran who cuts a fragile and tragic figure, while some of the antagonists – two in particular - are shocking in the lengths they’ll go to get what they want. But really, it’s Newton Hall itself which steals the show, the property itself taking on a life of its own and making its presence felt on every page. This result is a creepy and atmospheric tale.

Psychological thrillers are currently all the rage but as with any new trend in the literary world, the danger is the marketplace gets saturated. I would recommend House of Spines to fans of the genre as something that dares to push the boundaries and be a little different from the competition.

3 out of 5 stars