Friday, 20 April 2018

Blog Tour! - In For The Kill by Ed James - Blogtour!

When a popular university student is found murdered in her room, DI Fenchurch and his team investigate. They soon discover that she was working as a camgirl – stripping online for webcam sites for those who don’t know – the particular site in question owned by an organised crime boss. The list of suspects is long and includes an alt-right figure, a far-right extremist, a student who works as a gigolo, the crime boss himself and more.

This is the first work by the author I’ve read and the fourth instalment in his DI Fenchurch series. I’m generally wary about stepping into a series when I’ve not read preceding novels as it can be hard to follow the continuing threads that span through the books. In for The Kill can be read as a standalone and the author valiantly tried to explain the backstory without overdoing it, I did feel however that I was missing out somewhat and that my appreciation would be greater had I read the earlier novels.

The shelves of bookshops groan under the weight of police procedurals and there’s a reason for that: crime fiction readers have an insatiable desire for them. That said, I have to admit to groaning somewhat when I see a novel with the tagline: “A detective so and so mystery”. In for The Kill is sub-headed “A DI Fenchurch novel”, so I began this with some trepidation. I was pleasantly surprised however; the story is very current and moves at great pace, the characters well-drawn and believable. There were a few too many characters, particularly on the police side, to the extent that I began to get confused as to who was who, but Fenchurch himself is a great creation and one who drew me in.

I finished In for The Kill in two minds. Competently written as it undoubtedly is, in some ways it is indistinguishable from other equally well-written procedurals, complete with protagonist cop who has various issues and is invariably in trouble with politically correct superiors. On the other hand, the storyline is fresh and keeps the reader guessing until the very end.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, 6 April 2018

A Secret Worth Killing For by Simon Berthon

Maire Anne McCartney is a teenage in Belfast in the early 1990’s. The Troubles are still very much a fact of life, though there are whispers of peace talks in the air. Her brother Martin is a firebrand IRA commander, her boyfriend Joseph his right-hand man. They are both very much in the hardline, anti-peace talks camp. Maire on the other hand is intelligent with the chance of university. She can escape this life if she can just keep her nose out of trouble. When Joseph asks her to help out on a job she’s reluctant, but he’s persistent. Needless to say things don’t go according to plan.

Fast forward twenty-six years and Maire is now Anne-Marie Gallagher, a human rights lawyer in London and prospective Parliamentary candidate. She wins election and is offered a junior ministerial post. A bright future beckons as she’s tipped for greater things. But a body has just been unearthed in an unmarked grave in Ulster while someone from her past makes contact.

The novel proceeds from here in alternating chapters, some in the past some in the present. The chapters in the past are to me the stronger. We follow Maire in Dublin where she’s now studying; she meets a young man, a fellow student and falls in love. But is he all he claims to be? And what of her brother and Joseph who might well be watching over her? In the present, Anne-Marie is almost an entirely different person: glamorous, sophisticated and supremely confidant, yet always afraid her past might catch up with her.

In many ways this is a great book, Maire, the younger version of the book’s protagonist is an extremely convincing character; Anne-Marie is less likeable, but then that might well have been the intention, for she has honed her armour. It keeps the reader guessing pretty much to the end: is Maire/Anne-Marie an innocent victim or was she more involved in the dark events of her past than she lets on? Is she an agent of the IRA, a Trojan horse penetrating the establishment? Was she, wittingly or otherwise, an agent of the British state, used to destroy the anti-agreement faction of the IRA.

That said, the plot is not a little unrealistic. I can’t really say how without divulging spoilers but while I enjoyed this novel immensely, I did feel that the expense and effort the author portrayed UK intelligence agencies going to protect their assets, even years after they had outgrown their use, did not ring true. Numerous former IRA men have complained in recent years that the British state, rather than providing for them, had abandoned them to their fate (Raymond Gilmour, Martin McGartland, to name just two). Obviously, we only have their word for this and as self-confessed former terrorists some might treat their comments with a pinch of salt. But in A Secret Worth Killing the author portrays the state as going to extravagant efforts that just stretched credulity.

Having made this critique however, I must say I read this novel in a matter of days, I really did enjoy it that much. The author is a skilled writer, so much so that even the aforementioned incredulity didn’t really spoil it for me. 

4 out of 5 stars

Death Wish by Brian Garfield

This is a novel that has been made famous, or should that be infamous, by the film adaptation. Directed by Michael Winner and starring Charles Bronson, the movie spawned a whole franchise - five films in all - and now a remake, directed by Eli Roth and starring Bruce Willis. Like the original 1974 adaptation, the 2018 remake has been criticised as a crude vigilante fantasy that fetishises guns and violence, panders to people’s worst instincts and stokes their prejudices. So what of the book behind it all? Do the movies reflect its tone or is it a victim of misrepresentation?

The novel’s plot is almost identical. An ordinary man (in the book he’s Paul Benjamin, an accountant, in both the original film and the 2018 remake he’s Paul Kersey, an architect) lives in New York. One day, his wife and daughter are attacked in their own home. His wife is killed, his daughter badly injured. Our protagonist is angry and embittered by what has happened and by the police’s inability to bring the perpetrators to justice. Over the weeks that follow his thoughts turn to revenge . 

The major difference between the films and the book is that the book is a lot less violent. In fact, for the first half of the book there is little violence at all (the attack on Paul’s family happening off-page and only being reported). Instead we have Paul deteriorating emotionally, challenging his hitherto liberal concepts, increasingly viewing people through the prism of his rage. He starts to carry around a sock filled with coins and stalk the streets, hoping to be attacked. When he finally is, he defends himself and the pleasure he feels persuades him to take the next step: buy a gun. Needless to say, when he next stalks the streets the outcome is much more deadly.

The author, Brian Garfield, apparently was unhappy with the 1974 film adaptation, believing the Michael Winner film to be a mere pro—vigilante screed. I haven’t seen the Eli Roth remake as yet , but if all I’ve read about it is accurate, I can’t see him being any more satisfied. Apparently, he meant his novel to be less a glorification and more a warning. The novel was a creature of its time: 1970’s New York had a violent crime rate that was off the charts; there was serious discussions in the op-ed pages of the metropolis being unsalvageable. In such circumstances, the author penned a tale foretelling the inevitable outcomes should the authorities not be able to get a grip.

That said, this is a short novel, at under 200 pages more a novella, and I feel the author gives himself too much credit. While the first 100 pages or so do show him grappling with and re-evaluating his values, the intention clearly to demonstrate a man having a breakdown of sorts, the fact is the story is just too short to breathe. The characters, including Paul, remain ciphers to fill a purpose. When he does begin his vigilante rampage, his mental and emotional crisis hasn’t been sufficiently explored. Perhaps more importantly, none of the criminals he encounters are explored in any depth whatsoever, are literal cardboard cutouts to be cut down by his rage. This means one is left with a simple and two-dimensional tale that despite the author’s protestations can’t be any more than a vigilante fantasy. It’s well-written enough and certainly wiles away the time, but Death Wish the novel is no better an exploration of the themes than the movie.

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken

Just prior to the 1983 General Election, then Labour Leader Neil Kinnock, delivered what must rank as one of the most poignant speeches ever made in British politics. In what might be called his “warning speech”, he warned of what would happen should Margaret Thatcher win. To paraphrase, he warned people not to get old, not to be young, not to get sick, not to do myriad other things – for the state wouldn’t be there to help them, nay, would actively do them harm.

Fast forward thirty-five years to the age of austerity and Kinnock’s fears appear warranted, albeit delayed somewhat. Depressingly, however, what he got wrong was the identification of a single bogeyman (in this case bogeywoman) in the shape of Margaret Thatcher. Rather, successive governments, of all stripes, have done in our public services.

The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken is at heart a forensic examination of the UK’s broken Criminal Justice System, but its lessons could easily be broadened and in many ways, it addresses issues that plague our public services more generally. It’s a sad tale of starved finances, neglect and political short-termism.

The Criminal Justice System sits in an unenviable position. We all know we might need the NHS, we all can envisage our stake in schools and education, but the Criminal Justice System? Surely, the people who come into contact with that are just criminals, bad people who deserve everything they get. This assumption, fed by poor tabloid journalism peddling myths and half-truths, has enabled governments to cut the system to the bone. The result? Guilty people going free and innocents convicted. In chapter after chapter, The Secret Barrister outlines how the system is failing all those who come into its orbit: victims, witnesses, defendants. Many are the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

The author wonders why we, as a nation, have allowed this dire situation to come to pass, and though the answer lies in part in the demonization of those who are characterised as coming before the courts – the criminals, the drug addicts – there’s another reason, too. As with the cuts to public services more broadly, a tragic fact is that the middle classes who need the services least are those most likely to vote. Middle income voters can afford to pay to jump an NHS waiting list, they can shell out for a private tutor for their children, they never imagine they’ll be arrested and need a lawyer. The poor, who rely on public services most, tend not to swing elections.

But with the Criminal Justice System there’s a sting in the tail. In recent political discourse there’s been talk of the “squeezed middle”, it’s a phrase I intrinsically dislike, for the poor have always been hit hardest, but with criminal justice, under certain circumstances, it can actually ring true. Cuts to who qualifies for legal aid mean those on middle incomes, should they face trial, might have to spend tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of pounds on legal representation. Should they be found innocent, the state doesn’t reimburse a penny.

This is just one example of the system failing and there are many, many more. The axing of the Forensic Science Service – a world renowned and respected leader in the field – mean police forces now put out work to tender. In the current climate, this means the cheapest. The result? Some providers are good, some less so; many are unaccredited and the fear is that some are cowboy outfits. Indeed, already there have been scandals: in one recent case, thousands of drug tests were found to be fatally flawed, contaminated and thus discounted; cases were thrown out of court, convictions potentially overturned.

Then there are the payments received by barristers and solicitors. The rates they receive, the hours they can charge, the work they can bill for, all have been cut. The result? Professionals leaving their jobs, those that remain increasingly overworked. In such circumstances, can you rely on your lawyer going the extra mile, in effect working for free on your case? That’s if, as cited above, you qualify for legal aid at all.

I’m lucky to know a number of police officers in my private life. One officer, an armed officer in the Met, warned me with a weary sigh last year that cuts have consequences, a mantra repeated regularly by the Police Federation. I used to think this special pleading, assume that it was just police officers looking for a pay rise. Now I know better. Like many a jobbing junior barrister, The Secret Barrister both prosecutes and defends and is adamant that the system fails both. Criminals ARE walking free due to the mayhem cuts have strewn through the police, the Crown Prosecution System, the courts. Equally, innocent defendants are almost certainly being found guilty, perhaps even going to prison. All this is an inalienable truth, known to all who work in the system.

It’s difficult to do this book justice in a review; really anyone reading this should beg, borrow, buy a copy and read it. I challenge you not to come away shocked to the core by just how bad things are. For this title really does explain what the Police Federation have warned for so long: cuts really do have consequences.

So, in conclusion things can’t go on like this, the system has to change. If they don’t, I fear I have no choice but to paraphrase Neil Kinnock: Don’t be a victim of crime, don’t be a perpetrator of crime; don’t be accused of a crime you didn’t commit; don’t be a witness. In fact, if you can humanly help it, don’t have anything to do with the Criminal Justice System whatsoever. 

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Blog Tour! - The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith - Blog Tour!

I have to admit to having a bit of a thing for novels, television and films set in the American Deep South. There’s a long litany of fine fiction coming from the region - in television we have True Detective (the first series, obviously); in cinema we have Hell or High Water,  just the latest in the genre, there are many other examples I could give; while on the written page we have novels by the likes of John Stonehouse, Jedidiah Ayres and Donald Ray Pollock, to name just a few. Michael Farris Smith’s novel, The Fighter, joins this August company.

Jack Boucher (pronounced Boo-shay) is a fighter on his last legs. He’s suffered one two many punches, knees and elbows and and has suffered for it; there are yawing gaps in his memory and he needs to keep a notebook at all times to record the names of people he’s met, whether they are friend or foe. He’s addicted to painkillers, his foster mother - the only person he ever loved - is in a nursing home with late stage Alzheimers, the house she left Jack now in hoc to the banks. Worse still, he’s in debt up to his eyeballs to Big Momma Sweet, who runs all the rackets and who you don’t want to cross. 

Luck is not something which stays with Jack for very long, so when he wins enough money at a casino to settle his debt with Big Momma Sweet and maybe pay off the banks, it’s little surprise that things go awry. Big Momma Sweet has put a bounty out on Jack’s head and he’s waylaid. I wish to avoid spoilers, but needless to say he loses the money and thus is left in an unenviable position. Unable to cover his debts, his only hope looks to be a return to the fighting pits, but will his battered body and damaged brain hold out?

This is raw and visceral writing, the author bringing to life Jack’s desperation. I’ve never been to the Deep South, but reading this book, the description, the atmosphere, I really had a feel for a region that’s on it’s knees - economic decline and poverty having ravaged the land. In many ways the two - Jack Bouchet and the Mississippi Delta - complement each other, both two sides of the same coin, certainly, Jack is a product of his environment. The other characters in the novel are equally vividly drawn, especially Big Momma Sweet, who while occupying relatively little space on the page, is larger than life and someone I won’t forget.

At just 223 pages, The Fighter is not a long novel, but Michael Farris Smith is such a gifted writer that he doesn’t need more to tell his tale. Powerfully written and compelling in its intensity, this is not a novel to be missed.

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, 23 March 2018

BLOG TOUR! - Two Little Girls by Kate Medina - BLOG TOUR!

To be honest I kind of borrowed this book from NetGalley by accident. Some years ago, I read Kate Medina’s brilliant debut, White Crocodile, a thriller set in the legacy mine fields of Cambodia and loved it (she was writing under K.T. Medina then). I’ve read nothing from the author since and was unaware that she had turned to psychological thrillers (which perhaps explains why she now writes as Kate rather than K.T.). Personally, psychological thrillers have always left me a little cold and so despite the cover and title – which perhaps I should have taken as a hint that this was a psychological thriller – I borrowed Two Little Girls expecting something more akin to White Crocodile.

That said, once I started reading I decided to plough on. It wasn’t just that I hate to leave a book unfinished, it’s also that Two Little Girls, while not strictly my cup of tea, is well written and compelling. Apparently, this is the latest in a series of novels to feature psychologist Jessie Flynn and DI Bobby “Marilyn” Simmonds of Surrey and Sussex Major Crimes.

In Two Little Girls, Jessie has just been invalided out of the army where she was a psychologist (I presume in previous books she was still in the army) and is now in private practice. When a young girl, Jodie Triggs, is found strangled on the beach, it transpires that the murder is similar to that of Zoe Reynolds, an unsolved homicide that haunts DI Simmonds. One of Jessie’s patients, Laura, turns out to be Zoe’s mother and the chief suspect in her death (her real name is Carolynn Reynolds). Jessie and DI Simmonds now work together to solve the latest murder and in turn the former.

The novel is structured in alternating chapters told from the perspective of the various characters. Some of these are straightforward, such as those chapters that are from Jessie’s perspective or that of DI Simmonds. Others, especially those from the perspective of Carolynn are less so; we quickly realise that she is an unreliable narrator.

At heart, as with most psychological thrillers, Two Little Girls sits firmly within what’s been called “domestic noir”. The Reynolds – Carolynn, her husband Roger, their murdered daughter Zoe – was a dysfunctional unit, especially so after Zoe died; we, the readers, turn the pages wondering if either husband or wife killed their daughter, whether they have gone on to kill Jodie, and if so, why?

The characters in Two Little Girls are well-crafted and believable, and the author plots her tale deftly. Despite liking my crime novels a little harder-edged and noirish – as indeed White Crocodile was -  I read this quite quickly and enjoyed it. So, if psychological thrillers are your thing, and they’re incredibly popular, then you’ll love this.

3 out 5 stars