April 2009

Stav Sherez - The Black Monastery

"Atmospheric, faultlessly written, perfectly paced and thought-provoking... this is a story of regret, secrets and revenge."

Nikos is a detective who has been sent back to his home, the picture postcard Greek Island of Palassos, while he winds down towards retirement. Soon after, he is faced with the gory murder of two young boys near the Black Monastery. The dead bodies are staged on an altar, innards removed and crawling with centipedes and Nikos is faced with a crime that happened in the exact same spot 33 years previously. Unwelcome memories surface of a mass cult suicide; a cult that was blamed for the murders, and subsequently the island's modern day economy which is based on the summer long invasion by young British holidaymakers is put at serious risk.

Kitty Carson is a best-selling crime writer and she has gone on holiday to the island to try and recover her love for her craft and escape from her troubled marriage. She is followed by a wannabe writer, Jason, who hopes to strike up a relationship with her in the hope she will help get him published. Another murder is committed and the body staged in exactly the same way as the other three. Jason and Kitty are drawn into the investigation and as they discover more about the island's dark past they find that some of the island's inhabitants are determined that their secrets should remain hidden...

Are you planning on stretching out your pale limbs on the beach of a Greek island this Easter? If the answer is yes, then do yourself a favour and leave this book till you get home or you'll be packing a book-sized portion of delicious paranoia along with your flip-flops.

Atmospheric, faultlessly written, perfectly paced and thought-provoking... this is a story of regret, secrets and revenge. The inhabitants of Palassos are baking under the hard Mediterranean sun and struggling under the weight of their secrets. Each character is three-dimensional. Prick them and they will bleed. Chief of police, Nikos is a man who pulls you along with him from the start as you sense his life is full of unresolved issues both in his work and in his marriage. His relationship with his wife is particularly telling and you can taste the loss they each experience within the marriage in each scene they appear together.

The Black Monastery is a thriller of the highest quality. Stav Sherez's prose is at turns terse and lyrical and every word is in exactly the right place. I defy you not to feel disgust at the scene where the first murder victim is discovered or real panic where he describes the scene at an island festival.

By way of a P.S. I'd also recommend that you have a look at Stav's blog where he described why he writes crime fiction- A fascinating, goose-bump inducing article, where life imitates art and where this particular writer does a fantastic job of selling himself.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Erica Spindler - Breakneck

"...practically impossible to put down. "

Kitt is a fifty-something cop whose only daughter died during the hunt for a psychopath. Kitt has endured the worst of what life has to offer, and come out stronger.

MC has led a very different life. In her late twenties, she has always known the safety net of a big Italian family - a family she has never fully felt a part of. Independent and ambitions, MC is determined to prove herself at any cost.

For Kitt and MC, being partners is about more than just the badge.
Loyalty. A substitute daughter for one. A mentor for the other.
Together Kitt and MC are unstoppable. Then the unthinkable happens - a serial killer strikes at those closest to them. In the race to stop the cold-blooded predator, their partnership will be put to the ultimate test.

Breakneck is a thriller with a great plot and very believable characters, making this a book that's practically impossible to put down. Although I didn't feel that Spindler built up a great visual picture of the characters, somehow they still came to life and I felt as if I had known them for some time.

MC was at times a little annoying as she came across sometimes as a little 'woe is me', but in the main for a lead character she did evoke plenty of empathy with the reader.

The story was fast-paced with plenty of changes in direction but there are definitely clues and leads to follow which gives the reader a chance to guess who is behind the crimes.

Breakneck is one of those books that would be better enjoyed having read previous books by Spindler as there are many references to previous events and cases which would help the reader understand why the characters behave as they do. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I am sure it will be a hit for old and new Spindler fans.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Lisa Unger - Black Out

"...after reading just the first couple of pages I was well and truly hooked."

On the surface, Annie Powers's life in a wealthy Floridian suburb is happy and idyllic. Her husband, Gray, loves her fiercely; and together they dote on their beautiful young daughter, Victory. But the bubble surrounding Annie is pricked when she senses that the demons of her past have resurfaced and, to her horror, are now creeping up on her.

These are demons she can't fully recall because of a highly dissociative state that allowed her to forget the tragic and violent episodes of her earlier life as Ophelia March and to start over, under the loving and protective eye of Gray, as Annie Powers. Disturbing events - the appearance of a familiar dark figure on the beach, the mysterious murder of her psychologist - trigger strange and confusing
memories for Annie, who realizes she has to quickly piece them together
before her past comes to claim her future and her daughter.

On reading the synopsis I was in no great hurry to read Black Out but after reading just the first couple of pages I was well and truly hooked. This was my first reading of Unger's books and was certainly not disappointed. In fact, it has made me want to read her previous novels such was the great impression Black Out made on me.

Despite this book having a slightly open ending with not every end tied off, I was still somehow not disappointed that the important questions had not been addressed and the remainder were left for the reader's imagination to solve.

The book was set in various timeframes, and whilst in other novels I have found this to be confusing and off-putting, Unger has a fantastic writing style, which, when teamed with the brilliant storyline, couldn't fail to deliver a great read. This is not a book to be missed.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Qui Xiaolong - The Mao Case

"...the expert and knowledgeable commentary on life in modern day China and its recent past is a joy and a revelation. "

This story centres largely on Chairman Mao and the long lasting influence which he has even in modern day China. Set in Shanghai and involving the nostalgia for the past of those who experienced life in China before the advent of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, this story follows Inspector Chen's investigation of the life surrounding Jiao, the grand-daughter of Chairman Mao's dancing partner, and his literary detective work on Mao's poetry.

Jiao spends a lot of time with Xie, an elderly artist who lives in a house in the highly desirable old district formerly the homes of the rich in the 1930s. The powers that be are concerned about how this lifestyle can be maintained and are concerned that perhaps something disreputable about Mao's past may emerge.

When one of the beautiful young girls who surround Xie is found murdered, Inspector Chen comes under even more pressure. He struggles with the politics of his superiors and even uses his contacts with his former girlfriend to come to a solution.

As always with Qui Xialong, the expert and knowledgeable commentary on life in modern day China and its recent past is a joy and a revelation. Added to this, the passion he has for the poetry of his homeland and his talent at providing Inspector Chen with his own verse, make these novels original and highly satisfying. Having said that, this novel does dwell on the literary clues in Mao's poetry, and to those more interested in dramatic action, this does slow down the plot a little.

As always, the culinary menu continues to delight and amaze. Some of the horrific details of previous books are missing (I did not miss the monkey's head). The familiar characters are still there and Old Hunter, Yu and Pequin still provide support for Chen. Chen even dallies with his former girlfriend, Ling, but, like many other fictional detectives, his work is all...

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

G J Moffat - Daisy Chain

"This is a “just one more page” kind of a read..."

Logan Finch is a corporate lawyer with one of the biggest law firms in Scotland. He lives in a penthouse flat, has a wardrobe full of the best tailoring that money can buy and yet his life is strangely empty. The one thing he wants, he can't have. Penny Grant left him twelve years earlier. She simply walked out of his life without an explanation.

D.C. Becky Irvine has been newly promoted to C.I.D. and on her first day in the job is called to the murder scene in the south side of Glasgow. The murder victim is Penny Grant, Logan's former girlfriend.

At this point Logan is working on one of the biggest cases in his career so far. Some seriously rich and dangerously connected people are relying on his expertise in a deal that equates to a sum of £25 million. Then he finds out that Penny has been murdered and that her 11 year-old daughter, Ellie has gone missing. And he is being put under immense pressure to make sure the deal goes through.

Enter Alex Cahill, one of Finch's clients and his best friend. Alex owns his own security firm and is regularly employed to bodyguard politicians and international film stars. He also owns a small arsenal of top of the range weapons and is just the man to help Finch save his own life and that of Penny's daughter...

Mark Billingham was quoted on the cover of another Scottish crime writer's book recently saying that there are many excellent crime writers coming out of Scotland and asking if there was something in the water...? Well if there is, G J Moffat must have taken a good draught of it because he is an excellent and promising addition to the genre.

This is a strong and assured debut novel from lawyer, Moffat and from the opening page the reader knows he/she is in the hands of someone who knows exactly what they are doing. This is a “just one more page” kind of a read with Moffat using the device of short, snappy chapters and a regular switch of viewpoint to keep the reader fully engaged and to propel the story forward.

One of a couple of small grumbles is when Logan Finch gets into a lengthy conversation with Alex Cahill about the background of his employees; it came across as padding, I just wanted the story to move on. Also, I'm not sure that the book would have suffered had D.C. Becky Irvine been deleted in the final edit. She was saved from being a cipher with the hint that perhaps she will have a bigger part to play in subsequent books.
However, neither of these drawbacks detracted from my enjoyment of the book which hurtles along at a fair lick towards a neat, violent and satisfying end.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Fred Vargas - The Chalk Circle Man

"...all of the elements of a classic Vargas mystery are here."

Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg has been appointed to Paris as a Commissaire in the police force of the 5th arrondissement. With a reputation for unorthodoxy, his preferred method of policing is to watch and wait. His colleagues, while amused at his distracted manner, are forced to admit that his methods are highly successful.

When strange blue chalk circles start appearing during the night on the city's pavements, Adamsberg is both intrigued and alarmed. He sees the circles as a portent of something more sinister and, to his colleagues amusement, insists in each circle being carefully photographed. When a woman is found in the blue circles with her throat cut Adamsberg is suddenly on the hunt for a killer whose obsession has turned to murder.

This is the first book in the excellent series by Fred Vargas. As a novel it is of interest to Vargas fans in that it not only provides an excellent mystery story but also shows the beginnings of Adamsberg's career. In particular the book shows the origins of Adamsberg's on/off relationship with Camille.

What is also interesting is how far Adamsberg's relationship with his colleagues develops through the series. In this novel his colleagues are suspicious and his trusted sidekick, Danglard, has yet to develop the easygoing relationship that they have in later books.

But all of the elements of a classic Vargas mystery are here. The suspects are a disparate group of people; each with their individual quirks and, as usual, there is a twist to the tale that it is impossible to guess in advance. Although it is perhaps not the classic Vargas of her later books it is still an excellent read and highly recommended.

Reviewed by: S.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Janet Evanovich - Plum Spooky

"Just when you think Plum's exploits and Evanovich's characters and plots can't get any more imaginative, another novel comes out to prove you wrong."

According to legend, the Jersey Devil prowls the Pine Barrens and soars above the treetops in the dark of night. As eerie as this might seem, there are things in the Barrens that are even more frightening and dangerous. And there are monkeys. Lots of monkeys.

Wulf Grimoire is a world wanderer and an opportunist who can kill without remorse and disappear like smoke. He's chosen Martin Munch, boy genius, as his new business partner, and he's chosen the Barrens as his new playground.

Munch received his doctorate degree in quantum physics when he was twenty-two. He's now twenty-four, and while his brain is large, his body hasn't made it out of the boys' department at Macy's. Anyone who says good things come in small packages hasn't met Munch. Wulf Grimoire is looking for world domination. Martin Munch would be happy if he could just get a woman naked and tied to a tree.

Bounty hunter Stephanie Plum has Munch on her most-wanted list for failure to appear in court. Plum is the all-American girl stuck in an uncomfortable job, succeeding on luck and tenacity. Usually she gets her man. This time she gets a monkey. She also gets a big guy named Diesel.

Diesel pops in and out of Plum's life like birthday cake - delicious to look at and taste, not especially healthy as a steady diet, gone by the end of the week if not sooner. He's an uber bounty hunter with special skills when it comes to tracking men and pleasing women. He's after Grimoire, and now he's also after Munch. And if truth were told, he wouldn't mind setting Stephanie Plum in his crosshairs.

Diesel and Plum hunt down Munch and Grimoire, following them into the Barrens, surviving cranberry bogs, the Jersey Devil, a hair-raising experience, sand in their underwear, and, of course... monkeys.

Just when you think Plum's exploits and Evanovich's characters and plots can't get any more imaginative, another novel comes out to prove you wrong. And Plum Lucky is no exception. Following on from all previous Bounty Hunter Plum novels, this story is based around rockets, magic, monkeys, and yet another man that Plum is struggling to say no to.

Although these books are crime based, there is no real anticipation involved wanting to know who the killer is, or the motives. As a regular Plum fan, all I want to know is what trouble she will get into this time - and how many cars she will get through.

The usual larger-than-life characters are still on the scene, Lula, Ranger, and Morelli, but yet again, disappointingly, Grandma Mazur only has a very fleeting role.

A sure fire hit, and a great filler whilst waiting for Finger Lickin' Fifteen.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Mark Giminez - The Common Lawyer

"...a book that will appeal to all Gimenez -and legal thriller - fans."

Andy Prescott is the most laid-back young lawyer in Austin, Texas.
Specialising in traffic law, he operates from a small room above a ramshackle tattoo parlour. He rides a trail bike and spends way too much time drinking beer in the sunshine. Ambition has never been Andy's strong point - he prefers to take it easy.

That is, until one of Texas's wealthiest men walks into his office. On the spot, billionaire Russell Reeves retains Andy as his lawyer and, in exchange for some easy legal work, pays him more money than he has ever earned before. Andy's life is transformed.

But nothing comes for free. Russell is a desperate man whose sole aim is to save his sick seven-year-old son, Zach. He is prepared to do anything - even if it means putting Andy's life in danger

The Common Lawyer didn't really get going until some pages in, with Gimenez building the characters and the scene for the main storyline - good guy gets drawn into a bad situation, with the reader left to wonder if money or morals will win the day.

In a novel reminiscent of Grisham, the main character is the usual 'nice guy' who has good friends to help him out, a family who is close to him and a battle between right and wrong, whilst trying to save himself from the 'bad guys'.

As usual with Gimenez, The Common Lawyer doesn't have a predictable ending, but since loving his debut novel, The Colour of Law, I have found his more recent novels, whilst still enjoyable and immensely readable, to be lacking the edge contained in this first book.

This is still a book that will appeal to all Gimenez -and legal thriller - fans. I didn't feel disappointed with the story, just disappointed that the excitement and mystery of the first book does not seem to be able to replicated...

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Lesley Horton - Twisted Tracks

"...a great story and the characters ring true at every level."

A young woman has disappeared without any trace; an old woman is brutally murdered; an ex-policeman is missing and an old case of suicide following an alleged raped is reopened. All these strands intertwine and are being investigated by the newly promoted DCI Handford and DI Ali of the West Yorkshire police.

Handford is missing his wife who has a few months exchange in the United States. At the same time he finds that secrets from his past are beginning to emerge as the suicide and alleged rape of a girl from the village where he grew up is revisited. His brother is also implicated and the consequences for several lives could be immense. More echoes from the past, with memories of the miners' strike also impinge on the outcome of the story.

This is a great story and the characters ring true at every level. There are several twists to the story that interlink and, throughout, the everyday lives of the people of West Yorkshire exhibiting the bitterness arising from past mistakes are well drawn.

This is a fast moving tale, and the ending is unexpected. My only issue is that the murderer's behaviour and words at the beginning of the story are not completely consistent with the ending, and are even slightly misleading. There might be an explanation for this, but it did niggle just a bit.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating: