The Mangle Street Murders – M R C Kasasian

Quirky and entertaining crime novel that takes a shot at the Sherlock Holmes genre, and does a good job all round. It is set in Victorian times and has two main protagonists: Sidney Grice – “London’s most famous personal detective” – and March Middleton, Grice’s recently orphaned (female) house guest.

Grice starts investigating (reluctantly) the case of a young wife murdered, apparently repeatedly stabbed by her husband. March is the one who talks Grice into taking the case to try to prove the husband’s innocence (she pays Grice) and manages by dint of the force of her personality and stubborn resolve to become part of the investigation. Inevitably, it’s not easy for March in this very male and misogynist world, but her sharp brain and tongue do make an impact.

Grice is a cold, grumpy bastard. But clever. March is more caring, with hidden depths, but no less intelligence. However, she has much to learn.

There is some dark humor, and more than one literary joke spiking the narrative. The case itself is no easy puzzle, and the Gothic overtones never let up. This is an encounter with evil.

The two main characters are terrific, and the plot a good support for their interaction. The writing comes in short choppy chapters which sometimes seem too short and infuriating as you are just warming to the situation when it is time, according to the author, to move on. The setting is well done, down to the gritty, harsh details of life in Victorian London for those who are not in the safe bosom of the middle class.

Overall, I enjoyed it enough to fancy reading another in the series. But I wasn’t so enthused by it that I feel I must read more. Maybe further exposure will strengthen the bond.

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Don’t Let Go – Harlan Coben

This is a standalone book which shows the author deploying his well developed technique of presenting a tragic event from one perspective, and slowly revealing what actually happened. Coben is a master at this genre, and he’s on good form here.

The tragic event is that fifteen years ago, teenagers Leo Dumas and his girlfriend, were killed by a train. Did they commit suicide? If so, why? They had everything to live for.

The first person narrative is given by Leo’s twin, Nap (short for Napoleon) who is a policeman with a vigilante streak. He has never given up on getting to the truth. In the present, as Nap tells it, things began to unravel in their community, and the common thread seems to be the death of the two youngsters and some mystery they may have been investigating.

This is a neat bit of storytelling, with a central character that is fairly well rounded, though far from Mister Straight Laced. The plot, as usual, is brilliantly revealed, and the twists are often fast and furious.

The major downside for me is that it all felt familiar. The characters may have changed, and the plot materially different, but the overall impact is the same as in many of Coben’s other books. They are all variations on a theme – good ones, but still variations. So, it was enjoyable, and definitely a good read, but I am looking for the author to stretch himself a bit more. This type of book is too much within his comfort zone.

 

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Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly – Adrian McKinty

The sixth of the excellent Detective Inspector Sean Duffy series of crime novels set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Although not the best of the books, it’s good and keeps up the generally high standard. (Search on this site for Adrian McKinty to see my posts about the other books in the series.)

This time around, Duffy is dealing with the case of a murder by crossbow. A strange occurrence in a land awash with guns and shooters. And a troubling case whose retelling starts with masked gunmen leading Duffy in to the woods to dig his own grave.

Before that, in addition to trying to find the killer, Duffy has to deal with some major personal issues in his life, police station politics, and close attention from Internal Affairs.

Gritty, realistic, and engrossing, this tale does an excellent job of transporting the reader back to the late 1980s and offering some astute observations on the world as it was.

The only blot is that Duffy is the one fully rounded character. There are occasional sparks of life in his police colleagues, McCrabban and Lawson, but not much else. Duffy is strong enough to carry the book on his own, but this is a focused first person narrative with no respite. It wasn’t a problem for me, but I have heard other readers criticize such books, in my opinion unfairly, for not having a broader reach. To my mind, the humor, the tension, and the infusions of literary and musical points of reference, are more than enough to avoid any suggestion of a one dimensional character or world.

No, this is – to coin a phrase – the full monty, and very highly recommended.

Incidentally, the title is from a Tom Waits song:

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The Poison Artist – Jonathan Moore

Caleb Maddox is a toxicologist. The strange and mysterious woman he encounters seems to have some connection to a series of killings that occur. Is she the killer?

That is the plot. The book is a psychological thriller, supposedly rich in threat, danger, and tension.

It is highly touted as something special.

The book bored me.

I found the writing overdone, and the character way too self absorbed, not at all interesting, and lacking in any aura of realism.

I could see the ending before I was far in to the start, and – though I finished it – almost wish I had not made the effort.

All books have their cliches, but if you are trying to portray the dark side of San Francisco, you really should be doing better than calling on the weather to set the scene. And that lack of imagination – ironically – also permeated through the scenes that were supposed to be fear ridden. I would describe them as a mix of pedestrian, overblown, and off kilter. They did not work.

In short, a disappointment. Of course, your mileage may vary. But if you try it and don’t like it, don’t blame me!

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The Thirst – Jo Nesbo

I love the Harry Hole character. I love Jo Nesbo’s writing. I love Jo Nesbo’s plots, his sense of pacing, the artfully done backdrop, and the enthralling nature of each book. So far, so good. It’s been a while since the last Harry Hole book. Would this be up to scratch? I’m delighted to say, this one is no exception.

The story revolves around a murder victim whose particular injuries connect to a case Harry never solved. He is, inevitably, drawn into the hunt for the killer, but all is not what it seems, and the investigation always seems to be one step behind.

The tension builds up to an extended showdown, brilliantly told by Nesbo.

The supporting characters are given a bit of a push here, though if there’s one tiny, niggling black mark here, it’s that I could not 100% buy in to the killer’s motivation. That having been said, it was logical and understandable, which is more than can sometimes be said about other crime novels.

You can read this on its own if you have not read other Harry Hole books, but it would be a better reading experience to go back to the first – The Bat – and read them all. They are a joy.

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Ninefox Gambit – Yoon H Lee

Weird space opera that very cleverly manages to meld calendars, mathematics, and war into a coherent story about the struggle for power in a faction ridden universe.

The lead character is Captain Kel Cheris, a soldier out of favor for not following the stereotypical orders mandated by the Hexarchate. With seemingly nowhere to go, somehow she is one of several candidates asked to pitch their ideas for liberating the Fortress of Scattered Needles that has been taken over by (calendrical) heretics.

With nothing to lose, Cheris suggests an almost heretical approach herself involving Shuos Jedao. The latter is dead, but available. (I did say weird, didn’t I?)

And into battle they go.

On the whole, I enjoyed this. It’s very different, and fairly sizzles as it goes. But the story didn’t grab me the way others have done, and the pictures the text painted in my imagination were confused and incomplete. No doubt my shortcoming rather than the writer’s

If you want to try some science fiction that is different, this is a good option.

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The Wrong Side of Goodbye – Michael Connelly

If you have read any of the Harry Bosch books, you know what you are going to get here: the grumpy but determined detective making his way to solve a crime, regardless of the cost. The setting now is slightly different, with Bosch out of the Los Angeles headlights, and operating as a sort of volunteer detective for the nearby town of San Fernando.

Harry’s main challenge in San Fernando is to track down a rapist. But, simultaneously he is rather naughtily working on a private commission from a dying billionaire to search out a possible heir to his fortune.

Although this is a well constructed book, with a decent plot and interesting characters, it doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of Connelly’s best work.

For example, the search for the heir has no real bite to it, despite attempts to inject some edge to the investigation. And the hunt for the rapist doesn’t seem to be as pressing as you might expect. The narrative falls somewhat flat in places, and even when the action and the interest picks up, it’s not enough to restore the book to the top of the quality tree.

If you are a fan, you will read this and love it. I thought it was OK, but that  underwhelming impression might be because Bosch is on his way out, and the author’s attention is clearly moving on.

If you have not read any Michael Connelly, don’t start here; instead go back to the first Bosch book, The Black Echo, and read them in order. By the time you get to this one (the 19th according to the official list) you’ll be well hooked and gladly excuse the author a less than perfect performance.

 

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Body Breaker – Mike Craven

The follow up to the passable Born in a Burial Gown, this is more of the same: a decent enough police procedural crime novel, with an interesting character at the core, a good measure of tension, a well constructed plot, and a shade too much telling rather than showing. It’s a level above what many would call an airport read, but there’s just something about the writing style that jars with me.

The action starts with the discovery of a severed hand on a golf course, and heats up with our hero policeman getting a visitor who stirs up memories of the past. and a view into the who, what, when, why, and where of the murder. If only he could figure out which way to go in the investigation.

For some, this detective will be so detective, they will not like the book at all. For others, that broken nature will be a main attraction. For me, it’s an interesting enough hook; unfortunately, I don’t see much more that will engage me long term.

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