London Rules – Mick Herron

Number five in the excellent Jackson Lamb spy series, this novel keeps up the quality and panache of those that came before, and is a terrific read.

The story this time around involves a terrorist plot that seems to have the authorities stumped. In addition, there’s a suspicion that the intelligence branch know more than they are letting on. Can Claude Whelan, top spook, find the best solution? He has to deal with a loose cannon politician and his troublesome media darling wife, and Whelan’s own number two is on his shoulder ready to swoop on any misstep.

So far as the Slow Horses are concerned, one of their number (Roderick Ho) seems to be the target of a less than deadly killer, the rest of the crew think their latest recruit is a psychotic individual prone to acts of murder, and Jackson Lamb has his hands full keeping his team intact, and their participation in the game free from Whelan’s meddling.

If I have a criticism, it is the underlying formulaic structure of the plot. I knew early on how this would work out. [Spoiler alert!] Since there are more Jackson Lamb books, you are curious to know how he survives, not whether he does.

That apart, simply great fun. There are moments of comedy gold here, with some dialog that deserves the big screen treatment. To cut to the chase, this is highly recommended. But do start at the first book and read them in order.

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Space Carrier Avalon – Glynn Stewart

This is space opera with an emphasis on the spaceship Avalon, in its day the flagship of the Castle Federation. Now, some twenty years later, the much decorated warship is on one final trip before being decommissioned.

The book starts with the arrival of new commanders of the flight crew, and from there on in, it’s action and excitement.

Or, at least it was supposed to be that way. Unfortunately, I was totally unconvinced. I found the characters lacking in appeal, the dialog to be wooden, and the writing a veritable deluge of tell, tell, tell.

There’s a corruption thread that has potentially huge consequences, but simply disappears. The fight sequences are not too bad, though you have to suspend disbelief a fair chunk to get over the techno babble terminology on which the science fiction part is grounded.

This simply did not work for me. Stay away.

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The Trespasser – Tana French

This was an impulse buy from the local Steimatzky’s (bookstore) that turned out to be a surprisingly good read.

Detective Antoinette Conway is part of the Dublin Murder Squad, and she hates it. Primarily, she’s being harassed by some – if not most – of her colleagues. Think college hazing with a bit more spite. The poor girl is at war in her daily work, and it’s a wonder she continues to stick it out.

Then, she is assigned a new case that seems like it’s open and shut, and so should take away some of the tension. A young girl is found dead in her home, the table set for a dinner for two. It has to be the boyfriend. But what are these nagging suspicions Antoinette has, and where does she recognize the deceased from?

The book is dark and desperate in places because that’s the spot that the heroine occupies, as she tries to work out her angst and find a way out of the troubles. Inevitably, she is under pressure to wrap up the case quickly. It doesn’t help she appears to be being stalked, and she is not sure if she can trust her partner.

About half way through, I would have said the only material weakness in the book is that the central character is the only one with real depth. But the second half piled up more on other characters, to the extent there was quite a crowd of them at the end.

The plot is straightforward enough with no real depth, but the atmosphere and the writing is splendid. The tension is real, and the world is all too believable.

I was less than impressed to find this is part of a series – and not the first. I plan on starting again at the beginning. (I do wish publishers would make this more explicit on the cover.)

Good crime fiction, with a spicy, clever female lead character. What’s not to like?

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The Accident on the A35 – Graeme Macrae Burnet

I bought this because of the publicity material. For examples, see after my review. Everyone said it was a great book, and the author was a wonder. Well, I disagree.

I found it to be a gentle, calm, crime novel. Sort of Agatha Christie set in France without the plot twists or an accumulation of dead bodies. In other words, calm as in flat. (Dead flat?)

The central story is Gorski’s investigation into the apparent death in a road accident of a fine upstanding member of the local community. Gorski is smitten with the grieving widow, and goes out on a limb somewhat.

Gorski, is well drawn and interesting if somewhat feeble in places. His matrimonial situation is not material to the plot, but we get to experience that too. The resolution did not seem realistic to me, and that whole part of the novel was unsatisfactory.

The dead man’s son, Raymond, goes off the rails, and his actions following his father’s death are a parallel thread to Gorski’s investigation. Raymond’s travails are more interesting, but truly that is not saying a lot.

In short, not much happens, the plot is a wispy nothing, and the end was a major let down. On the plus side, there’s Gorski’s character, and not much else.

I was so disappointed. Do not waste your time.

And now for some of the (frankly unbelievable) promotional quotes:

“Highly accomplished, The Accident on the A35 works on several levels… The narration has the simple momentum of classic crime writing… It has a denouement like something out of Greek tragedy but delivers as a proper police procedural too… Burnet’s cleverness doesn’t get in the way of your enjoyment but playfully adds levels of meaning.” Anthony Cummins, Observer

That was not a proper police procedural, Mr. Cummins.

“[A] truly superlative tale… fascinating… one of the most clever and compelling novels to be published this year.” Lesley McDowell, Herald

Not a big reader, Lesley?

“Elegant, craftily written and frequently funny.” Phil Miller, Herald

Were the Herald on commission?

“Extravagant talent.” Mark Lawson, Guardian

Were you reading the same book, Mr. Lawson?

“Both a classy detective story and a stylish meditation on agency and existence. If Roland Barthes had written a detective novel, then this would be it.” Philip Womack, Literary Review

Pretentious bollocks.

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If We Were Villains – M. L. Rio

The plot here revolves around Oliver Marks, sentenced to ten years for the murder of one of his fellow students at a prestigious arts institution, a murder he may or may not have committed. On his release, somehow – and this is the weakest part of the novel – Marks is persuaded to unburden himself, and tell the man who was the policeman who investigated the crime and led to Marks’ incarceration, the whole story.

The color and backdrop is Shakespearean in all its glory, because Marks and his fellow students were thespians, craving success, fame, and fortune on the stage. So, for example, much of the group’s chat is peppered with Shakespearean quotes. What’s worse, from my perspective, is that some of the scenes are – literally – scenes, with the reader forced to wade through line after line of more Shakespearean language. Horrible. It is well done if you are a Shakespearean nut, but otherwise it’s overdone.

On the plus side, the group are well sketched, and the dynamics between them – if not the dialog – are well illustrated, and sharply observed. For example, the shifting of perspectives with the changes in anticipated casting as the group move from play to play, were especially fine, as was the gradual peeling of the onion skin of each character, so we could see what parts of their performance were actually performance, and which were their real character. The life of an elite arts institution seemed authentic, and the storytelling – theatricals aside – was good.

For me, the book was too full of its arty drama world to be fully engaging. I am not a theater fan, and Shakespeare is a torture that should never darken the door of modern educational establishments. So, there were chunks that I might as well not have read. But despite that, I was taken enough by Oliver Marks to want to get to the end. And the end is well worth getting to.

If you like the theater – especially Shakespeare – go for it. You will love it. Otherwise, probably best avoiding.

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Hollywood Moon – Joseph Wambaugh

I bought this book years ago, when I got my first Kindle. Somehow, I never read it, and it remained overlooked and ignored until a recent search through my purchases as part of preparing a new tablet. Glad I found it.

Wambaugh’s skill on show here, is taking real life encounters from the cops of Hollywood, and crafting out of their hodge podge of jokes, urban myths, and legends, an entertaining novel – one that tells a decent story, while simultaneously letting us readers peek behind the curtains and get a taste of the dark underbelly we all know is there, but want to ignore.

This book has two main strands. The first is a prowler, whose attacks on women are escalating in violence and severity. The second is a one man criminal enterprise, Dewey Gleason, who has a different persona (disguise, name, and accent) for each of the several cons he is running.

Both baddies are sympathetically and accurately drawn, to the extent that you may feel some measure of anxiety as they head towards their inevitable comeuppance. Also inevitably, these strands are set to come together, adding a further spice to the narrative.

The police heroes vary in quality of characterization, from cardboard cutouts to full blown, believable, enthralling edifices. That’s to be expected. What is unexpected is the realistic way some of the better characters are, shall we say, written out of the story.

In short, good stuff; neither fresh nor cutting edge, but realistic, thoughtful, and often life affirming, even if you sometimes get the impression the author is on autopilot when telling us about some of the police encounters. Recommended.

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Original Skin – David Mark

The second in the DS McAvoy series (my review of the first is here), this is a fine crime novel with a nicely balanced mix of good characters, decent backdrop, and snappy writing.

The plot, such as it is, involves a young couple who are sexually promiscuous and adventurous. Their journey through life takes them to the wrong place at the wrong time, and one of them ends up dead. The other is next on the killer’s list, if only the killer can track down the victim. At the same time, the police in Hull are struggling to cope with high levels of drug related violence, and bitter complaints from the locals about lack of action being taken against traveler folk.

The plot is the weakest part of the novel; it’s not complex, and is somewhat mechanically unwound and revealed. However, it’s a plot that is much more realistic and grounded in actual human desires and capabilities, with no requirement for super duper evil or worldwide conspiracies.

McAvoy is a great character – as is his wife – and seeing the fractured world through his eyes is a worthwhile experience. His police colleagues include some who rise above the cardboard cutout status, and that surely helps.

In short, this is a bit of a step up in quality from the first, encouraging me enough to ensure I will be returning to the series. I wouldn’t bother with the first unless you are a completist. This one is definitely worth reading if you like crime books.

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Blind Sight – Carol O’Connell

One word review: Beautiful.

Longer review: This is crime fiction with panache: written in honeyed prose dotted with little mines that explode in the middle of some previously routine observation about Mallory – the lead in this book – and the wacky world of crime in New York. It’s crime procedural entertainment where the procedure is irregular, the plot off-the-wall, and the mix all too realistic. Mallory is a wonderful character – I think this is her twelfth outing – but the real star is the prose. The writing is beautiful, different, haunting, and powerful. It’s the type of book you read over and over, indulging yourself in the crafted text.

Plot and Stuff: The story involves a dead nun, whose body – along with three others – is dumped on the mayor’s lawn. Then there’s this blind kid, with a familial tie to one of the victims, and the hit man. Where is the blind kid? Who is the hit man? Who is paying the hit man? And what is the purpose of the killings? It’s a plot that will stretch your imagination in a book that will give you hours of great fun, action, and no little tension and surprise.

You do not need to start with the first Mallory book – Mallory’s Oracle – but if you want my recommendation, to get the best out of the books, do read them in order.

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The Shout – Stephen Leather

This is a nice twist on perspective for a crime novel, being a story putting a firefighter front and central in the proceedings, and a female firefighter to boot. Vicky Lewis is a strong character, and needs to be. This young crew manager in the London Fire Brigade becomes shunted sideways into the Fire Investigation Unit, working alongside a non PC male boss, Des Farmer, aka the Grouch. Cue misogynist chatter and all sorts of bruising encounters, but Vicky keeps going.

We know what is going on, because the parallel story thread is told from the perspective of a serial killer, who covers his tracks by setting fires that look like accidents, removing all forensic evidence of his dirty deeds.

Vicky finds about this killer from the Grouch’s private investigation – an investigation the authorities are very much against because, as far as they are concerned, accidents happen and there is no evidence of foul play at any of these scenes. Vicky joins in the Grouch’s off-the-books investigation, and sets off on an adventure dicing with death and destruction.

I enjoyed the story, and learned a lot about fires – at times it felt like I was in a fire safety training session. I am guessing the author thought this was important for context and scene setting, and the realistic detail did not intrude too much, even if it was close. It will be interesting to see if the character merits a series, as I thought Vicky was worthy of more development. Perhaps she will have to move on from the fire brigade?

Good stuff.

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Thirteen – Steve Cavanagh

The biggest disappointment about this book was finding out after I had read it, that it was part of a series, and not the first. However, on its own merits, this was a cracking mix of courtroom drama and murder mystery, full of twists and action.

The central feature is that there is a killer who has framed an up and coming Hollywood star for murder. The killer – a serious nutter – wants on the jury to enjoy his kill that much more. Against this seriously dangerous foe is set Eddie Flynn, former con-artist now defense lawyer. The courtroom maneuvers and the investigation intermingle well, the story rattles along, and the end result is a highly entertaining read.

Highly recommended, but not for the squeamish.

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