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Reviews

January 2008

Tess Gerritsen - The Bone Garden

"As ever, there are plenty of suspects to chose from…"

Synopsis:
Present day: Julia Hamill has made a horrifying discovery on the grounds of her new home in rural Massachusetts: a skull buried in the rocky soil - human, female, and, according to the trained eye of Boston medical examiner Maura Isles, scarred with the unmistakable marks of murder. But whoever this nameless woman was, and whatever befell her, is knowledge lost to another time…

Boston, 1830: In order to pay for his education, Norris Marshall, a talented but penniless student at Boston Medical College has joined the ranks of local “resurrectionists” - those who plunder graveyards and harvest the dead for sale on the black market. Yet even this ghoulish commerce pales beside the shocking murder of a nurse found mutilated on the university hospital grounds. And when a distinguished doctor meets the same grisly fate, Norris finds that trafficking in the illicit cadaver trade has made him a prime suspect.

To prove his innocence, Norris must track down the only witness to have glimpsed the killer: Rose Connolly, a beautiful seamstress from the Boston slums who fears she may be the next victim. Joined by a sardonic, keenly intelligent young man named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Norris and Rose comb the city - from its grim cemeteries and autopsy suites to its glittering mansions and centres of Brahmin power - on the trail of a maniacal fiend who lurks where least expected… and who waits for his next lethal opportunity.

Review:
In a slight change of style for Gerritson, the majority of this book is set in the 19th Century and reminded me of books from Barbara Erskine, but with more of a crime element.

Despite the setting being nearly two hundred years ago, not usually my genre of choice, I nonetheless enjoyed The Bone Garden and its fast pace together with the usual whodunit element. Not only was the pace maintained throughout the book, but there was clearly a lot research and historical information which was very interesting.

As ever, there are plenty of suspects to chose from when trying to guess the murderer, although some, of course, were deliberate red herrings.

This book is extremely well written and would appeal to all readers who enjoy both present day and and historical thrillers, together with Gerritsen fans everywhere.

Reviewed by:

CrimeSquad Rating:

Qiu Xiaolong - Red Mandarin Dress

"The sympathetic and knowledgeable descriptions of life in China are brilliantly evocative."

Synopsis:
Inspector Chen is back in Shanghai and attempting to have a break from policing to complete further studies in literature at the university. This will give him extra kudos in the Party and also possibly give him a new career. His faithful sergeant, Yu, is acting head of the special case squad in Chen's absence.

Yu's wife, Pequin, is also helping as much as she can. The murder of a girl in a red mandarin dress is initially just taken as a straightforward killing, but when another girl is murdered in similar circumstances, and there are possible political complications, the special case squad is involved.

Chen tries to keep out of it as he is fully stretched with his university work and another political investigation into corruption in the developing world of business in the new China. Pressures to take up the case are increased when a police decoy is involved. Chen feels the strain and has to take a few days off to be able to cope. The various strands of his life intertwine and each part helps him to reach the final conclusion.

Review:
This latest of the Inspector Chen series gives us a flavour of life in the new China where the Big Bucks are making money and ordinary people have to adapt to the new atmosphere, whilst living lives guided and affected by the various political situations of the past.

The sympathetic and knowledgeable descriptions of life in China are brilliantly evocative. The author provides us with a unique understanding of the customs and feelings of the people. The knowledge and love of Chinese poetry both of Inspector Chen and many of the characters in the book are intrinsic to the story and the many quotes are delightful.

The other dominant theme throughout the book is the food. Many of the dishes are familiar, but in this story, for literary effect, there are some obscure, outlandish and cruel dishes which did make me (and Inspector Chen) squirm.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Edward Wright - Damnation Falls

"… probably ranks as the best book I’ve read during the past year."

Synopsis:
Disgraced Chicago journalist Randall Wilkes returns to Pilgrim's Rest, his hometown, to consider the offer of a job. His childhood friend, Sonny McMahan, is a former state governor who is considering running for re-election. He thinks that his profile might be improved by a flattering autobiography, ghost-written by Randall. Although Randall reluctantly agrees to undertake the task, within days he stumbles upon the murdered body of Sonny's mother Faye McMahan. This is soon followed the murder of others with connections to the McMahan family and by an attempt on Randall's life. These violent events appear to be connected to the body of Confederate soldiers from the Civil War and plans for a conference and research centre focusing on this period of history.

Soon Randall is more interested in discovering why so many of those connected to the McMahan family are being murdered than drafting an autobiography. As he investigates further he is forced to confront the difficult relationship with his father who still lives in the town and his own personal history in order to discover the truth behind the murders.

Review:
As readers of Edward Wright's previous books will know, he is an excellent writer with knack of evoking time and place to narrate a story. In this book the character of Randall Wilkes is the dominant element in the book. His personal journey is the reason why he initially returns to Pilgrim's Rest and also the means by which the investigation is completed. The character of Wilkes is both complex and beguiling. His dubious past does not affect his integrity during the narrative and the reader wills him to reach the conclusion. Other characters in the book are similarly complex. Blue McMahan, Sonny's father, is a conman who is nevertheless revealed to have more depth than his shady life would suggest. Similarly, Randall's upright father, Forrest, has sides to his character that are only gradually revealed.

The sub-plot of the town's links with the American Civil War is extremely interesting. The town's claim to fame, centring round a supposed mass burning, is very believable and I am sure that there are many towns throughout the country with similar tales. It is this marrying of traditional detective writing alongside erudite placemaking that elevates Wright's writing above most detective novels. This book is highly recommended and probably ranks as the best book I've read during the past year.

Reviewed by: S.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Linwood Barclay - No Time for Goodbye

"… impossible to put down."

Synopsis:
High school student Cynthia Archer woke up one morning to discover
that her entire family had disappeared. No note. No clue. Nothing.

Twenty-five years later, Cynthia is still trying to make sense of it, and trying her best to lead a normal life with her husband and daughter. When she begins to notice odd and sinister signs, all pointing to her missing family, no one seems to believe her. Even her husband doubts her.

Could Cynthia be losing her mind? Was she involved with her family's disappearance all those years ago? As dark secrets unfold, the shocking truth slowly emerges. Cynthia might finally get her answer, but sometimes it's better not to know.

Review:
This book deals with a mystery that happened twenty-five years ago and has still not been solved. Cynthia, now an adult, is not the most endearing of characters, but the book is so well written that you feel empathy for her and her nightmare situation.

The book contains is a very intricate web of storylines, and none of the answers is revealed until the very end. Until then I guarantee you will keep trying to guess what happened and why. In fact, for the first time in a long while I was almost tempted to read the end of the book just to find out what happened – an indication of how badly I wanted to know!

The ending was dramatic, if a little implausible, but this is still a great book. One word of warning though… Set aside a couple of days because this is a book that has to be read in one hit - it is impossible to put down.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Barbara Nadel - Pretty Dead Things

"A really good read…"

Synopsis:
This time the mystery confronting Inspector Cetin Ikmen is rooted in the Istanbul of the 1960s when the hippies, looking for enlightenment on the route to Katmandu, passed through the city and left a lasting impression on some of the Turkish residents.

The liberated lifestyle of the Western Europeans rubbed off on some of the citizens, in particular one Emine Aksu, who is reported missing by her concerned husband. Their “open” marriage means that Emine has had a number of partners who may have played a role in her disappearance.

At the same time Inspector Mehmet Suleyman has to investigate the skeleton of a woman found very publicly displayed on the Kamondo Stairs in the old banking district of Istanbul. After detailed investigations of many of the old families of Istanbul, and revelations about the happenings of the past, it turns out that these two cases may be linked.

Review:
This is another captivating story about Istanbul and the hardworking and intuitive Inspector Ikmen.

His family and friends are great characters who are completely bound up in the unravelling of the case. The continuing development of these characters adds greatly to the enjoyment of the series. The insight into the exotic world of Istanbul - caught between two cultures - is fascinating and I particularly enjoyed the interest in the football match between Liverpool and AC Milan.

The way in which the two strands of the plot interlink is clever, as is the final solution. A really good read at any time, but if you were planning a holiday in Turkey, this would be the ideal companion.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Susan Arnout Smith - The Timer Game

"… an enjoyable read."

Synopsis:
A reluctant CSI detective with the San Diego squad, Grace Descano is summoned to work on what looks like a routine crime scene. Hours later, two detectives have been brutally murdered and Grace herself is under investigation for shooting the killer.

Her daughter, Katie, is five years old. She's all Grace has got. But when Katie is snatched, Grace is thrown into a nightmare world of timed riddles that she must solve in order to find her daughter before it's too late.

She has 24 hours before Katie dies.

Welcome to The Timer Game.

Review:
The Timer Game is the debut novel from Susan Arnout Smith, with the plot being the tried and tested format 'ordinary person having to save the day'. But with strong, well-defined and often likeable characters, together with Arnout Smith's writing style, the Timer Game is an enjoyable read.

Despite this format being used many times over, it did not take away any of the appeal or suspense when reading this book. There are plenty of suspects to chose from until the culprit is finally revealed at the end, and, even though the rationale behind the crime and the method of the crimes were not particularly realistic, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would not only recommend it, but am also eagerly awaiting to see where Arnout Smith goes from here.

The Timer Game is an easy book to get into, though slightly let down with the improbable plot. Nonetheless, a gripping book and one you will find hard to resist.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Armand Cabasson - The Officer’s Prey

"… will appeal equally to crime lovers and military enthusiasts."

Synopsis:
Quentin Margont, a Captain in Napoleon's army, is involved in the disastrous 1812 campaign to invade Russia. While battling both the freezing temperatures and Russian Cossacks he has been summoned by Prince Eugene to help unravel a mystery. A young polish serving-girl has been murdered by the lover she has described as her 'Prince Charming'. Her corpse shows signs of a frenzied attack.

With the French army anxious to keep together the uneasy alliance of German, Polish and Italian soldiers, Margont is asked to investigate the case and reveal the culprit to Prince Eugene alone. Margont's difficult task is compounded by the corpse's hasty burial and by the apparent high rank of the murderer. When eventually Margont narrows his list of suspects to four Colonels, he shadows each of them to unmask the murderer. However, before he can bring the murderer to justice he must first survive the disastrous battles that Napoleon is leading them into.

Review:
This is a fascinating book that will appeal equally to crime lovers and military enthusiasts. The investigation into the murder is very interesting and is greatly helped by extracts scattered throughout the book revealing the murderer's state of mind in the aftermath of the attacks. Quentin Margont is an interesting investigator, who clearly does not relish the task given him and sees staying alive as his main priority. Yet this book is clearly the first in a number of Quentin Margont mysteries and his character is gradually developed through the book.

The intricately detailed accounts of various battles didn't personally interest me and I found myself wanting the writer to move back to the main investigation. However, I was moved by the obvious distress and loss of life that Cabasson is able to portray and he writes with authority about the mechanics of the battles.

This is a very interesting book and highly recommended.

Reviewed by: S.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Leif Davidsen - The Serbian Dane

"…accomplished enough to leave images in the brain long after reading."

Synopsis:
A Serb assassin trained in the hell of the Serbia-Croatia war is reaching the end of the line and is offered a big job; a chance to finish his way of life and move on. The job is in Denmark, the place he was brought up. He has been offered the opportunity, via the Russian mafia, to kill an enemy of the Islamic world.

Caught up in this are a Danish journalist organising the visit of an illustrious author and a state security agent charged with the author's protection. As the day of the hit approaches the lives of the three main protagonists combine to merge and crash off each other as the book progresses to a tense and exciting conclusion.

Review:
The writing (and/or translation) of this novel is very good - balanced enough to read effortlessly, but also accomplished enough to leave images in the brain long after reading. This takes nothing away from the plot which moves smoothly from war-torn former Yugoslavia to Germany and Denmark, with faultless timing. The characters are well formed and scripted, and the emotions believable.

The story itself somehow doesn't quite hang right. Trying to draw together the strands of the Serbo Croat conflict in with a sub-Salman Rushdie scenario, whilst illustrating the horror of civil war and discussing the freedom of the printed word is always going to be a bit clunky and produce the odd bum note! Some of the devices used to glue all these plot lines together are clumsy and risk glossing over the very seriousness of the issues that the author obviously feels strongly about. Dream sequences of guilt laden, sadistic, heartless assassins are always going to be hard to imagine and write for an author - and to believe as a reader. Mercifully what there is of this does not detract from the rest of the book, which bowls along to an unexpected double-sided denouement. Without giving away too much, one side is ingenious, the other disingenuous; all a ploy to wait for the sequel - or not - as the case may be.

Reviewed by: S.M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

ed. Maxim Jakubowski - Paris Noir

"… a high quality collection of short stories."

Synopsis:
As the title suggests, this is a collection of crime short stories set in and around Paris. The contributors are a mixture of French writers who have been translated for this collection and British and American authors. The book includes contributions from Stella Duffy and from the editor Maxim Jakubowski.

The stories range from those set in the heart of the criminal underworld to those that portray the seedier side of Paris life where it is only a short step to criminal activity.

Review:
This is a high quality collection of short stories. I was initially disappointed that there weren't more contributions from French writers and the over preponderance of American authors. However, this in fact proved to be one of the book's assets. The American love affair with Paris is a fascinating phenomenon in itself and the stories from American writers are of a consistently high quality.

My favourite story was, however, written by the editor of this collection. Maxim Jakobowski's “L'Americaine” combines the story of a hired assassin alongside a tale of an exploitative relationship. It is very well written and leaves you wanting to know more about the central characters.

Reviewed by: S. W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Peter Temple - Bad Debts

"… a real page turner that sticks in the mind long after it is finished."

Synopsis:
Jack Irish, a part-time lawyer with a wounded past and a broken career, receives a message on his answer machine from Danny, a client he can't remember, from a time he would in any case rather forget.

Jack's life is gently resolving itself, with a regular rhythm beating to his loves of football, furniture and the horses. However when Danny is shot by a policemen before Jack has time to pick up the next message, a mixture of curiosity, conscience and an innate desire to do the right thing makes him pick up the threads of his and Danny's past.

Justice needs to be done, and despite the attraction of a quiet life, Jack decides to avenge Danny. Jack, a man with little to lose, sets out to set right Danny's wrongs, whatever they were and wherever it leads him.

Review:
I recently reviewed another of Peter Temple's novels, the spy thriller In the Evil Day that, whilst generally thrilling, was in the end gently unfulfilling. I rather unfortunately compared it to fast food.

This is far meatier and satisfying stuff, a real Irish stew of a novel - if you pardon the allusion to the hero – it is the sum of its parts and more. Plot strands interweave far more successfully, perhaps because the hero is more believable and solid. There is also a real sense of place, in this case rooted in Melbourne. The author obviously loves the city and the surrounding countryside and therefore is able to place a believable half-gangland/half political scandal narrative against a realistic backdrop, both in scenery and people. Add to this a love affair with a “spirited” woman (at least so the jacket blurb says – read slightly frightening and predatory) it makes for an engaging read, a real page turner that sticks in the mind long after it is finished. In fact, it made me want to go to Australia, if not take up a career in law there.

I'd recommend Peter Temple to carry on with this series – it is very satisfying and totally works. If nothing else, because one can really feel the people and the places. Why not 5/5 then? Well, the love affair made me uncomfortable (a bit too sexy for me), and the all-avenging physical part-time lawyer feels like a cover for an upmarket private eye. It feels slightly fake, either way you look at it. I'm sure, however, after a few more novels, this feeling will go away as I get more absorbed in the character and place. I eagerly look forward to his next one.

Reviewed by: S.M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Karen Rose - Die For Me

"This was an enjoyable thriller..."

Synopsis:
The first victim is found in a snow-covered Philadelphia field. Detective Vito Ciccotelli enlists the aid of archaeologist Sophie Johannsen to determine exactly what lies beneath the frozen ground. Despite years of unearthing things long buried, nothing can prepare Sophie for the matrix of graves dug with chilling precision. The victims buried there haunt her. But the empty graves terrify her - the killer isn't done yet.

He is cold and calculating, the master of a twisted game. Even with Vito and Sophie hot on his trail, he will not stop. One more empty grave must be filled, and one last scream must be heard - the scream of an archaeologist who is too close for comfort and too near to resist...?

Review:
This was an enjoyable thriller, albeit slightly marred by the 'Mills and Boon' element Rose seems to favour. As with another of her books I recently read, I'm Watching You, there is a steroetypical 'beautiful heroine' who has suffered in the past and has a mistrust of men and a strong, attractive hero with whom she gets together. This is, of course, after the statutory mating dance they carry out. I found this sub-plot to be very predictable and in the two books I have read of hers, very similar.

Overall, the thriller part of the book is very good and the romantic element just is not needed to improve it.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating: