A Song for the Dying – Stuart MacBride

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This is very much a change of pace from the Spenser books, this time featuring an ex-policeman (Ash Henderson) who starts the book in prison. He is there because evil Mrs. Kerrigan framed him for his brother’s murder, and nobody will believe he has been stitched up. What’s worse, is that very time Henderson comes up for parole, Mrs Kerrigan ensures there is trouble, and skewers his chances of release.

However, at this point the Inside Man resurfaces. That’s the name given to a serial killer of women who cuts them up and sticks a baby doll inside them. Sick. (there’s a lot of sick stuff in this book. Be warned.). Henderson came closest to catching the killer years ago, and is taken on by a Detective Superintendent in charge of a special task force now trying to get their man.

Of course, Henderson has some other ideas about what to do with his freedom while hunting down the Inside Man.

This is violent, stark, and suspenseful. Occasionally you might get overwhelmed by the number of characters kicking about, but if you can hang in there, it’s worth it.

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Promised Land – Robert B. Parker

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This is the fourth of the author’s Spenser series (I told you I was on a roll) and, thankfully, has bugger all to do with Israel, Jews, or anything of a Middle eastern nature. Instead, we have our not so politically correct detective recruited to find Harvey Shepard’s runaway wife. Spenser goes looking, and from that point on the story heats up nicely.

I suspect there was some marriage conflict episode going on in the author’s life (or circle of friends) at some point, because his observations on the relationships here are extensive and informed, if occasionally a tad harsh. Nevertheless, there’s more to the story than marriage trouble, of course, and it is the hidden danger that puts Spenser firmly in danger.

This was the best of the Spenser books so far, with some good action scenes, as well as the usual trademark Spenser dialog.

This is enjoyable time travel style entertainment, taking you back to the 1970s, and reminding you things weren’t all that great.

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Mortal Stakes – Robert B. Parker

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This is the third of the author’s Spenser series (can you tell I am on a roll?) and is a dark tale of sex and marriage and baseball and gangsters. Our intrepid detective is recruited to go undercover and try and find out if the star pitcher of the Boston Red Sox baseball team is taking bribes to throw games. Of course, being Spenser, it doesn’t turn out to be a straightforward assignment, and soon the action and the danger are fast rising.

Spenser navigates the rocky waters assuredly – as you would expect – and the whole thing is reasonably well wrapped up, and delivered to the reader with some considerable skill. That having been said, there were some patches of the writing that didn’t quite maintain the flow, but on the whole this rattled along and allowed Spenser the character to develop just a bit more. That’s probably a good thing because, apart from the occasional love interest, the other characters are not particularly deep. Never mind; the story’s the thing, and this is a decent enough story, and a decent enough read.

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God Save the Child – Robert B. Parker

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Number two in the author’s Spenser series, and the quirky private detective continues his adventures in much the same way: he pokes the hornet’s test of whatever trouble he is asked to sort out, then ducks, dives, and hangs on until the time is right to step in and save the day.

Spenser is an irascible throwback to the non politically correct 1970’s, but he is also strangely charming, appealing, intelligent, and funny. The bonus for the author is that he doesn’t need to invest much in the plot, because Spenser can (mostly) carry the reader along, and that is what happens here.

The story, such as it is, involves a missing fourteen year old kid that appears to have run away. But his parents are not so convinced, and Spenser is recruited to get to the truth. He does, simultaneously causing a bit of aggravation.

Spenser also observes and reflects on some of the social and cultural issues involved in this plot, such as parenting and moral standards. This time around I felt the author had pitched things about right, so that the sermon delivered from the pages was neither too long, nor too heavy.

This is light, but reasonably crafted entertainment that despite its flaws, is engrossing and satisfying.

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The Godwulf Manuscript – Robert B. Parker

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This is the first in the late author’s highly successful Spenser series, featuring a Boston private detective (former policeman) of that name, making his way in the world. It’s largely a book of its time (the 1970s) with certain cultural signposts: there is no political correctness, and sensitivity towards those of a different outlook is somewhat lacking, at least on the surface. Spenser, a somewhat brash, bolshy, arrogant, and abusive individual, is hired by a local university to recover the Godwulf manuscript, a stolen medieval book of some value. The thief is demanding $100,000 be donated to a free school.

Spenser is on the case, pointed in the direction of a student group called SCACE (Student Committee Against Capitalist Exploitation). His first meeting with the secretary of that group and her boyfriend does not end well. From that point on, the violence and danger escalates, and Spenser has hands more than full.

This book has no literary pretensions. It struck me as being highly formulaic in its structure: Spenser gets to the scene, let’s describe the scene at length, describe the people, start the dialogue, then continue with action. From this reader’s perspective, the descriptions are OK (sometimes better than that) but too often are overdone. In other words, there’s too much description for what is necessary to set the scene and the atmosphere. (Often, but not always.) But the dialogue and Spenser’s internal revelations and thought processes redeem the book and make it worth reading as entertainment. The dialogue is sharp, often childish, but very much in the spirit of the times and his character. Spenser’s view of the world is often amusing, thus making for a more sympathetic view of this rough diamond.

The plot is simple, direct, and easy to follow. There are no complex turns here, and any twists are minor and within reason.

It’s easy, light reading, with enough of an edge and tension to make it a page turner. In short, pure escapist fun.

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The Dead House – Harry Bingham

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Time to mourn. I have now finished book five in the Fiona Griffiths series, and there are no more available to read. Damn! That should tell you all you need to know about the series and the book: they are highly recommended.

This time around, Fiona discovers a body lying in the ‘dead’ house of the title. It’s a young girl, respectfully laid out, and very dead. But she died naturally. So who is she, and who put her in that place? Soon Fiona is off on the hunt, while juggling her other police duties and investigations, to get to the truth. It’s a challenging journey involving real danger and plodding paperwork, but our heroine comes through with flying colors.

As usual, the central character is so powerful, so enthralling, and so captivating, that you can (and should) readily excuse the lack of other characters of substance. there are a few contenders whose rapid portraits hint at more to come, but we will all need to be patient. Again as usual, the book displays the thorough research and eye for accuracy that this author brings to the fore in his work. While the environments that Griffiths goes to are unknown to me, they seemed realistic and believable. There is one extended scene with Griffiths and a colleague in danger of dying that was superb. I felt I was there and experiencing the situation through her. Great writing.

If I have any criticism it is that I couldn’t completely buy in to the rationale for the main evildoers behaving as they did. That may be because I missed something, or it may be because the characterization there was lacking. The difficulty may be a personal bias, but I do not want to say any more for fear of spoiling your enjoyment. And that’s the main thing: this is a thoroughly enjoyable book. My nit picking concerns are precisely that, and in no way detract from a thumping good read. I loved the character, the setting, the interactions of the various policemen and their investigations, and so on. I loved it all.

If you haven’t already done so, get started on reading this amazing series of books.

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This Thing of Darkness – Harry Bingham

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This is Book four in the Fiona Griffiths series. (I highly recommend you read these in order. The plots have some degree of continuity, and they are best enjoyed consecutively.)

This time around, our defective detective heroine joins the dots between a couple of suicides and some burglaries. While the plot stretches credulity a teensy weensy bit, the central character remains as compelling as ever, and the force of her personality easily glosses over any shortcomings there. If you can suspend your disbelief, it does all fit together very well, and is superbly unpacked by the author with great timing and increasing tension as the forces of law and order try to work out what is going on. Inevitably some DIY policing by Fiona Griffiths makes the difference, and her exploits are maniacal, dangerous, and thoroughly entertaining.

Of the four books so far, this was the weakest, but only by a whisker. It is still an excellent piece of crime fiction, with wonderful storytelling to accompany the stunning main character. The backdrop of Wales continues to do its bit in establishing the unique nature of the series, and some of the supporting characters are slowly beginning to get some heft behind them.

Terrific stuff.

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The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths – Harry Bingham

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The continuing adventures of Fiona Griffiths, as she starts off on a minor fraud enquiry that quickly balloons into something much more significant. What was it that lead to the death by starvation of a woman in her own home, and the brutal death of a computer expert by multiple amputation? Soon, Fiona is going undercover, leaving behind everything she has fought hard to acquire and be part of. She builds herself a new deep cover identity, and is taken into the heart of a cold, calculating, criminal enterprise. Will she be safe in the eye of the storm?

The author impresses me with the quality of his writing, his plotting, and the strength of the central character Fiona. Taking her undercover was a clever move, as it allows us to see a new world, removed from the routine police existence she was getting so settled in. And she meets new characters, whose lives and challenges she observes and comments on as only she can.

There were two minor disappointments. One was a story development that I would have preferred had gone in a different direction. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you read it, you will know by the end of the book what I am referring to. Second, there were a couple of encounters between Fiona and Vic (the main baddie she deals with) of an intimate nature. I found both less than convincing. They worked, OK, but weren’t as realistic as I thought. This is a matter of opinion, and it may be the author’s judgement is to be preferred. And, for sure, the two points are very minor in the scheme of the book, so there’s nothing material to get worked up about. (Dare I say it: I might have done it differently. One day…)

In short, this series goes from strength to strength, and I am going to keep reading them. You should too.

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Love Story, With Murders – Harry Bingham

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The second of the series (my review of the first is here) featuring policewoman detective Fiona Griffiths, this continues the high quality, and develops the lead character in an enthralling fashion.

This time around, the story starts with the discovery of a body part of a young girl, killed several years ago. Then other body parts turn up, male, and freshly slaughtered. Who were the deceased, what’s the connection – if there is one – and who is or who are the killers?

Alongside a well constructed and well paced plot, reading this book gives you the continuing adventures of Fiona Griffiths as she makes her way in the world, all seen from her singular, quirky, fresh, and sparky perspective. The character truly is top notch, with ample care taken by the author to avoid familiarity breeding contempt, by managing to put in change just when required. Ms Griffiths is the kind of person you would love to meet in real life, but she would drive you to distraction, and you would never want to rely on her. She’s good, and very much on the side of justice, but her vision of the world is unusual.

The excitement and the action ramp up at times for a frightening brush or two with danger. The only weak spot of the book is the character Lev, who seems to operate as a sort of ‘Get Out of Jail free’ card for our heroine. That being said, that character’s abilities mean we avoid having to read an extra wad of narrative that may not add much to the enjoyment of the book. So, maybe the author’s approach is the best one. After all, if Fiona solved everything on her own, that would hardly make her credible, would it?

In short, a cracking read. True, apart from the heroine, there’s not much in the way of in depth characterization, but it is not missed. And it leaves room for future enhancements; perhaps we will see and hear more from her patient, sympathetic, and understanding boyfriend? But, regardless, I am pretty certain there are surprises ahead.

If you like crime novels, do not miss this series.

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Talking to the Dead – Harry Bingham

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A part time prostitute is found dead in a rundown flat that’s not her own. Beside her body is that of her six year old daughter, murdered in a manner most foul. Into this cesspit comes DC Fiona (“Fi”) Griffths, one of South Wales’ youngest and most inexperienced detectives. But Fi has a way of dedicating herself to the job, and she would like nothing more than to bring the perpetrator to justice. So Fi follows the clues, and her own intuition, to fulfill her self imposed mission while trying to satisfy the more formal and routine requirements of modern day policing. As if that were not enough, Fi has a chunk of her past that she is keeping a closely guarded secret, much in the same way that she isn’t sharing with others the peace she finds in the company of the dead. Fi Griffiths is strange, alluring, and a defective detective worth knowing. Continue reading

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