The Sacred Cut – David Hewson

This is the third in the author’s Detective Nic Costa series (see here and here). Again set in Rome, the author branches out slightly by moving away from the lines of a traditional police procedural, and going more for the mystery conspiracy market.

It begins with Rome covered in snow, and the discovery of a dead, posed, body in the Pantheon. Before our hero and his colleagues can get the investigation started, along come a couple of FBI agents from the USA embassy who want the body for themselves, and the investigation to be run their way. Cue inter agency rivalry as the Italian secret service are also involved. Of course, Costa is not for letting things go, though the investigation is somewhat problematic as the only potential witness has gone on the run. From there, the action heats up, with the target of their sleuthing seemingly always one step ahead of them.

I confess to being disappointed in the book. The story was OK, but the writing felt somewhat heavy handed and oppressive compared to the previous books. Also, the characters didn’t seem to grow very much in this book. Even the Roman backdrop was described in dark, Gothic terms, so that the atmosphere was more of a ghost or horror story. Since I know the writer’s recent output has been excellent, I am hoping this was a minor bump in the development trail of his talent. So, I will be trying out the next one. But if it is more of the same, I will not be happy.

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The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair – Joël Dicker

This is a book by a young author about a young author writing a book. As someone else has described it, there’s a kind of Russian doll feeling of stories within stories within stories. In essence, it’s a crime and mystery tale wrapped inside the narrative of a young author trying to follow up his first novel success with the help of his original inspiration, Harry Quebert.

The backstory is this: in 1975, in sleepy Somerset, New Hampshire, wannabe author Harry fell in love with Nola Kellergan. As in fifteen year old Nola Kellergan. Some 33 years later, Nola’s body turns up in Harry’s back garden, and Harry is accused of her murder. Quebert’s most talented student, the now successful author Marcus Goldman, walks away from his second novel project to prove Harry’s innocence. And from there on, things get more complicated. All is not what it seems.

There are plenty of funny and touching moments that writers will appreciate, and somehow the author does a more than creditable job of unraveling the murder mystery, with a fair amount of tension and plot twists. In addition, the main character is interesting, if not necessarily so likeable, and some of the supporting cast are noteworthy.

But…

You knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?

This book is way too long for my tastes. The length adds nothing of substance to the plot, the atmosphere, or the impact. A heavier editorial touch would have been welcome. Because I am interested in writing, I kept going to the end. But readers with less stamina might give up; many are likely to complain. So, in summary, a fluffed opportunity – not that author will care, as the book has been highly rated by the critics and endlessly promoted as something wonderful. I beg to disagree.

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Six Four – Hideo Yokoyama


This is the strangest crime book I have read in a long, long time, not least because it fuses the standard parts of the genre with office politics on a grand scale, and reflects the unique culture of modern Japan.

At the core, there are two tragedies. First up is Yoshinobu Mikami, a detective now working in the Press Relations Department. He is trying to track down his runaway daughter. There have been some silent telephone calls since she left, and Mikami’s wife is not keen to leave the house in case it is their daughter and she might call again. Second up is the Amamiya family, whose young daughter was kidnapped fourteen years ago, and killed despite the ransom being paid. These come together because the statute of limitations is approaching, and the police authorities want to make a show of effort. Mikami needs to get Amamiya to agree to a visit by a member of the top brass from Tokyo. Meantime, he is fighting with the press because of the police’s refusal to name the driver in an auto accident.

Much of what is written is not high octane action; instead it is bureaucratic maneuvering, political wheeling and dealing, and a great deal of introspection by Mikami. I found much of it slow and overwritten. But, in fairness, the author is taking considerable care to give you the complete cultural baggage of the players, without which the aims and aspirations would seem strange. Also, if you can make your way through all 600+ pages, the finale is almost worth it.

Do not read this on the Kindle or other such device, as I believe only the actual physical books have a who’s who, an essential aid when dealing with so many similar sounding foreign names.

In short, I’m glad I read it, but I don’t rate it as highly as some do. Worth reading if you want a glimpse inside Japanese culture, or are interested in a crome novel that is unlike anything you will have read before. In other words, it’s unique. That may be enough for you.

Finally, a tip of the hat to translator Jonathan Lloyd-Davies for a job well done.

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In the Cold Dark Ground – Stuart MacBride

It is very interesting to compare this Logan McRae tale with the same author’s A Song for the Dying featuring ex policeman Ash Henderson. Henderson’s life was ruined by a gangster, and he did everything he could to kill that person. McRae is under threat from a gangster, too, no less dangerous, but he really struggles with the concept of taking the law into his own hands – though he often crosses the line in his dealings with some criminals – and does not seem to have the same hunger for survival at all costs.

That apart, this is a good piece of crime fiction, with lots of twists and turns alongside teh shocking violence, cracking dialogue and black, black humor.

It starts with a businessman going missing, then a male body (head wrapped in a bin bag) turns up. Is this the missing businessman? At the same time, the uncrowned king of crime in Aberdeen is dying, and the vultures are circling. McRae is caught up in the scenario, not least because he has been picked as the successor!

On the police front, matters are somewhat complicated because others want to take over his case, there’s a new officer in town who hates his guts, and Professional Standards are waiting in the wings. .

Life’s a bit complicated, for sure, and it is going to get worse before it gets better.

Overall, a good read, and highly recommended.

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Be My Enemy – Chris Brookmyre

More Jack Parlabane cynicism and biting wit in action against the big, bad world of business, vested interests, and exclusion. This time around, our quirky hero is on an actual journalistic assignment: to participate in a corporate team building event, and report on his experiences. The beautiful setting and initial enthusiasm of actually enjoying the activity fade quickly as something deadly intrudes, and it becomes clear that this is no bland exercise, but a fight to the very death.

The supporting characters have some surprisingly good scene stealing appearances, although I did feel that some were a bit telegraphed. There are also some references to previous happenings, so if you have not read the other books you may be missing out. It does stand on its own, though, and the side details are not critical.

The story features some of the author’s trademark political posturing, with a wonderful balance between the downright hilarious, and the genuinely shocking. Brookmyre is very skillful at drawing the reader in, taking the reader to unexpected places, offering up some thrills, spills, and twists, and delivering first class entertainment. This book is very much of that ilk until about the last 10% where I rather felt the buzz had gone, and Brookmyre just wanted to finish up and get done with the book. So, not his best, but still terrific fun and well worth reading.

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Looking for Rachel Wallace – Robert B. Parker

Book six of the Spenser series, this one sees our hero hired as a bodyguard for Rachel Wallace, the feminist radical author of an about to be published book. As she starts her promotional tour, there are threats made against her, and the publishers recommend Spenser as the man to keep her safe. Unfortunately, no matter how good Spenser is at his job, he is hopeless at holding back his fast talking smart alec personality, and he and Wallace are soon at loggerheads. Eventually, and unsurprisingly, Spenser is fired, even though it seems plain that there is some real danger. Then Wallace is kidnapped…

Despite the circumstances, Spenser sees it as his duty to rescue the lady. Cue action and adventure as he goes looking for Rachel Wallace.

Once again we see more of Spenser’s character – the strengths and weaknesses – alongside the development of the plot. Clearly it is his attitude towards women – and the other way round – that feature here, and there are some insightful and interesting exchanges and observations. You do not need to agree with Spenser’s viewpoint to enjoy the tale.

The end is a bit predictable, but standard for Spenser books; the plot is neither complex nor demanding, but arguably is therefore that much more believable.

Not bad at all.

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Country of the Blind – Chris Brookmyre

Classic Jack Parlabane material: a powerful media owner and his bodyguards are slaughtered, and public outrage leads to an angry manhunt for the crew allegedly responsible. But one young naive solicitor has an envelope in her possession, handed over by one of the accused before the event. What’s in the envelope, and why does she say it proves the men’s innocence? Whatever the questions were before, there are many more after the men are arrested and then escape custody. Parlabane can smell a conspiracy, and he is just the man to root it out.

This is a cracking story of crime and corruption, told with Brookmyre’s usual biting wit (he really doesn’t like the Tories) and action packed narrative. I’m glad I decided to fill in the gaps in the Parlabane series and this, so far , is one of the best.

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The Cold Cold Ground – Adrian McKinty

After enjoying Rain Dogs, I decided I had to read the rest of the series, this being the first Detective Sean Duffy book.

The setting is Northern Ireland, at the time of the Hunger Strikes. Bobby Sands has gone to meet his maker, and the Troubles are bubbling away with occasional nasty outbreaks of violence. Duffy is posted in the relative backwater of Carrickfergus, where he seems to be managing fine. But the peace is shattered by the discovery of a dead man who may have been the victim of a serial killer. Duffy and his colleagues interact with some of the historical personages manning the ramparts for their respective factions, as they try to work out what is going on.

McKinty’s Northern Ireland backdrop is spot on, while taking care not to detract too much from the story line. The writing is crisp and humorous in places, and yet that may be the one weakness: I thought Duffy’s humor in the face of some of the threats he faced were somewhat incredible. But that minor potential difference of opinion aside, the whole thing was a roller coaster cum page turner that I really enjoyed.

Having Duffy as a Catholic in the largely Protestant setting worked well, as it set up twin conflicts that highlighted his potentially precarious position, and added some heft to his observations. The character is strong, interesting, and thankfully the author avoids giving him any of the super-human qualities that other writers blight their creations with. Duffy is real, believable, and likable.

Highly recommended.

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Roseanna – Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

This is a 1960’s vintage police procedural drama that some critics claim to have been groundbreaking and trendsetting. It might have set the heather on fire then, but I found it too slow in places, and it threatened to lose my interest too often.

The story is straightforward enough: a body turns up in a dredger. It’s a young woman who has been raped and killed. But who is she, where did she come from, and who was the perpetrator? Detective Martin Beck is the one tasked with getting to the truth, and the book charts the slow investigative work, discoveries, disclosure, and resolution.

The key plus point is the Beck character who is identifiable as a realistic creation, musing about life, the universe, and so on, while trying to track the victim and hunt down the killer. I suspect Beck is a character I would like to know more about, and that may mean I read more of the series. However, not much else would inspire me to do that. I found the pacing poor, and the character of the killer to be the polar opposite of Beck: lacking credibility and interest. In short, the baddie seemed fake.

The other part that I differ from the mass of reviewers in is about the quality of the writing. It may be that the translation did not match the original language, but it may also be that it did. The writing was not anything special, and rarely rose above the plodding nature of the investigation.

So, this was OK, but it fell well short of the hype.

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Dead Girl Walking – Chris Brookmyre

dead-girl-walking

Somehow or other, despite liking the author’s Jack Parlabane books, I missed out on a couple, and lost touch. I am now putting that right thanks to Amazon and the Book Depository.

Parlabane is (or was) an investigative journalist. Now out of work, and under investigation by the forces of law and order for possibly being involved in the theft of state secrets, he takes on a sort of private eye role for a pop band manageress. She, the younger sister of one of Parlabane’s now deceased friends, is just about to start a USA tour with her group. The problem is, the star of the group – Heike Gunn – has gone missing. Can Parlabane use his usual resourcefulness and disregard for the law to find the star before the public find out, and before Parlabane ends up inside?

The book gives us Parlabane’s perspective – told in the third person – and the first person perspective of Monica, a recent addition to the band who becomes close to Heike. The twin narratives are different in style, too, and you get very different experiences of the plot unfolding because of this. Although some of the twists were a bit obvious, Brookmyre still has more up his sleeve, and more than enough to satisfy this reader.

There’s a good mix of humor and tension, with atmospheric descriptions of the rock and roll touring world, a band in conflict, and the jealousies that success can cause. Throughout it all, regardless of perspective, the writing is slick, smooth, and confident.

A pretty damn good read.

Oh, and one thing’s for sure: the author hates Starbucks. If you read the book, you will know what I mean.

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