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

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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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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

promised-land

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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