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Reviews

August 2009

Johan Theorin - The Darkest Room

"Those who were enthralled by Theorin’s first book will love this second..."

Synopsis:
Katrine and Joakim Westim move to an old manor house at Eel Point on the Swedish island of Öland. Although in need of extensive renovation, Katrine in particular is enchanted by the history of the old house and the nearby lighthouses. However, the house has a bleak past as evidenced by the list of names of dead people connected to Eel Point which she stumbles across one day.

Not long after, Katrine is found drowned off the rocks nearby. Although seemingly a tragic accident, Joakim cannot understand why Katrine was drawn to the lonely jetty, a riddle that Tilda Davidsson, a new police recruit on the island is keen to solve. As the deepening winter encroaches on the islanders a series of break-ins are an unwelcome distraction for the island's police. However, as the burglars extend their range of victims the crisis at Eel Point and the Island's house thefts converge to make Christmas Eve a night that no-one will ever forget.

Review:
This latest book by Johan Theorin is a mixture of thriller and ghost story. Theorin convincingly conjures up the remoteness of the old manor house and its turbulent and deadly history. This is combined with the modern day supernatural narrative which has the children of Joachim and Katrine seeing their dead mother and aunt in the night. At times the ghostly element to the book takes dominance but this in no way detracts from the thriller narrative. Katrine, the murder victim, is never really given a strong personality and instead the book focuses on the actions and emotions of Joachim. He is a convincingly distraught husband and the fractured family relationships that result from a bereavement are also very well captured.

The parallel narrative of the house breakers of Öland is less interesting than the main plot but adds to the dramatic tension which culminates in the Christmas Eve blizzard. It also serves to show that although the book has supernatural elements the murder is firmly based in worldly matters. There is a continuity between the prevalent crimes of the past – wrecking and seduction – and their modern day equivalent – drugs and robbery.

Those who were enthralled by Theorin's first book will love this second and may even recognise some of the characters of Öland.

Reviewed by: S.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Denise Mina - Still Midnight

"...a book about the ties that bind..."

Synopsis:
Life should be simple for DI Alex Morrow. She has a strong career with the police and about to be thrown into a case that could make her career. Her half-brother, Danny, is also on the up. Unfortunately for Alex, his career of choice involves Glasgow's criminal underworld.

Nearby, a peaceful Sunday evening in a suburban neighbourhood is shattered by a vicious attack. An old van pulls up to the door of an ordinary-looking home and disgorges a pair of armed men in balaclavas. They crash into the house, hold the terrified family within at gunpoint and demand millions of pounds. Confused and frightened, the family protest that they don't have that sort of money. As quickly as they arrive, the attackers grab the elderly grandfather and storm off into the night.

When DI Morrow arrives at the scene of the crime she quickly realises that there are too many conflicting elements in this seemingly random attack: nothing quite makes sense. Who were the men? And why did they think this normal household held such vast amounts of cash? The family is certainly not talking. As Morrow starts to delve deeper, she realises that there are dark secrets all around... and as she searches for answers to this family's secrets, she must protect her own.

Review:
A new Denise Mina novel is a calendar event in my view and in this, her first for her new publishers Orion, she once again meets my expectations. As usual with this talented writer we are treated to strong characterisation, evocative prose and lashings of humour. But what pushes this novel beyond the ordinary is the range of her narrative. We have the contrast of memories of Ugandan Indians fleeing from Amin's thugs with impoverished members of Glasgow's underclass fleeing from their own lives into the next fix.

Where Mina also excels is the depth she gives to her characters and it is within the intricacies of her character's motivations that Denise Mina displays her undoubted talents. In Still Midnight she manages to pull off the trick of making us empathise with their frailties, even while we loathe their actions. Take the gunmen who abduct the old man in the hope of extorting cash from their relatives. They both know what they are doing is wrong but for very different reasons they feel compelled to carry them out.

This is a book about the ties that bind; misguided loyalties and misplaced affection and running alongside this is the genesis of quite possibly the most bizarre love story you will ever come across.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Aline Templeton - Dead in the Water

"One of the greatest strengths in the writing lies with the genuine and utterly believable characters."

Synopsis:
This is the fifth in the series featuring Margery Fleming, Detective Inspector of the Galloway Constabulary, wife, mother, daughter and friend.
DI Fleming has a difficult relationship with the Acting Procurator Fiscal, Sheila Milne. Ms Milne is ambitious and takes any opportunity to undermine DI Fleming's position and authority. As a result of Ms Milne's interest in cold cases, Marjory is asked to investigate a twenty-year old case of possible murder or suicide of a young girl. Her father had been on the original case and had been reprimanded for his handling of it. Some of the family are still around and other interested parties are visiting on the set of a popular TV series.

Fleming has to delve into uncomfortable memories both for her and the relatives of the dead girl. Margery combines her professional life with her family, and her experiences in doing this will ring true to many.

Review:
As always with this series, current issues are enmeshed into the plot. The influx of Eastern European workers and the benefits and tensions caused are explored.

One of the greatest strengths in the writing lies with the genuine and utterly believable characters. The relationships between the team are well portrayed, together with the enthusiasm and doubts about police work experienced by the members. DI Fleming and the Burns-quoting DS MacNee work well together; Superintendent Donald Bailey is supportive but ever mindful of his own position; Tansy Kerr is considering her choice of career.

Aline Templeton has a keen ear for dialogue, and the rhythm and turn of phrase of the characters ring completely true. The plot is beautifully worked out, relying on the unravelling of relationships and understanding of personalities. A very enjoyable read!

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Lisa Gardner - The Neighbour

"...certainly kept me guessing."

Synopsis:
It was a case guaranteed to spark a media feeding frenzy - a young mother, blond and pretty, disappears without a trace from her South Boston home, leaving behind her four-year-old daughter as the only witness and her handsome, secretive husband as the prime suspect.

But from the moment Detective Sergeant D. D. Warren arrives at the Joneses' snug little bungalow, she senses something off about the picture of wholesome normality the couple worked so hard to create. On the surface Jason and Sandra Jones are like any other hardworking young couple raising a four-year-old child. But it is just under the surface that things grow murkier.

With the clock ticking on the life of a missing woman and the media firestorm building, Jason Jones seems more intent on destroying evidence and isolating his daughter than on searching for his “beloved” wife. Is the perfect husband trying to hide his guilt - or just trying to hide? And will the only witness to the crime be the killer's next victim?

Review:
This book has a subtly different feel about it to other Gardner novels, although I cannot explain why or what. The characters are new, although there are a couple of references to Bobby Dodge, who has appeared in previous novels. But Gardner has built these characters very well to ensure that the reader is not really sure as to their motives or guilt.

Sergeant D.D. Warren is an easy character to like, despite her having a very strong personality. But the others have many facets, which certainly adds to the suspense. The reader is never quite sure if the clues and reasons given by Gardner are helpful as to the who and why, which certainly kept me guessing.

It took quite a way into the book to discover the background of the characters - but the not knowing only made me want to read more quickly to find out what was happening. Overall another great read from Gardner.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Peter Robinson - The Price of Love

"...a good introduction to those new to Peter Robinson's writing."

Synopsis:
This collection of short stories show the range of Peter Robinson's work. Each story has appeared in an anthology elsewhere, with the exception of Like a Virgin which was written especially for this book. The stories that do not feature DI Banks, Robinson's popular detective, are set in a variety of places and periods. They include a Toronto noir story, originally published in instalments and a tale of extra-marital skulduggery where fidelity is a dirty word.

The Banks stories are a mix of classic Banks crime and a more reflective tale of a potential suicide. The final novella turns to Banks' roots and describes the case that ended his career in the Metropolitan police and took him to Eastvale in Yorkshire.

Review:
Peter Robinson has created a solid fan base with his novels featuring DI Banks. In the series Banks has 'matured' from a family man running away from his London demons to a single experienced detective who is at a loss when he isn't working. The Banks stories in this book work well because they span the different periods in Banks' life. By far the best is the novella set in 1980s Soho. It contains a few unexpected (and perhaps unwelcome) surprises for Banks fans but it was a joy to see the character of Superintendant Grimsthorpe again. The plot is very well developed and nicely captures the mood of Soho in the 1980s.

The non-Banks stories are a mixed bunch with some working better than others. I particularly liked Walking the Dog where there are no heroes and plenty of villains. This is a good solid book for fans and a good introduction to those new to Peter Robinson's writing.

Reviewed by: S.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Don Winslow - The Gentleman's Hour

"...dialogue that’s tight and humourous; characters with personality to spare and prose as crisp as a packet of Walkers crisps..."

Synopsis:
Boone Daniels, the most laid-back of private investigators, gathers with his surfing buds early in the morning on Pacific Beach, California. No change there then. There's no surf to speak of, but the Dawn Patrol are out in force anyway... it's what they do. Having no work at the moment, and no real reason to go to the office, Boone sticks around for the second shift on the daily surfing clock - the Gentlemen's Hour, frequented by the older veteranos and successful entrepreneurs - and ends up taking on an awkward matrimonial case.

That, however, soon becomes the least of his worries. A territorial dispute ends horribly and an icon of the San Diego surf scene is murdered. The awful truth that violence is seeping into the surf community can no longer be ignored.

Lawyer, Petra Hall, who has more than a professional interest in Boone, asks him to help the defence on that particular case. Boone knows he'll be courting outrage from the community...and from the rest of the Dawn Patrol, but he is equally certain that the man who died would want the murderer to get a fair hearing.

Disappointed and feeling betrayed, his closest friends give him the cold-shoulder but, undeterred, he digs deeper into the murkier side of surfing culture, determined to get to the truth. As events unfold Boone sees his two cases overlap in unexpected ways and finds himself struggling to stay ahead of the game as the situation gets heavier and heavier...and more deadly.

Review:
Question. How on earth has this excellent writer managed to evade my crime radar for so long?

The quick, snappy chapters propel the story forward and like most thrillers of this quality you are tempted always to read just one more page; one more chapter until all those other things you were meant to do get completely forgotten about.

With dialogue that's tight and humourous; characters with personality to spare and prose as crisp as a packet of Walkers crisps this is a sure fire winner as holidaymakers fill their cases with books to read on the beach. Just so long as they don't expect to be quite so cool as the surfer dudes of Pacific Beach.

Don Winslow deserves to be read. I'm off to find some of his earlier works!

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Anne Zouroudi - The Doctor of Thessaly

"This third book in a series featuring the detective Hermes Diaktoros is by far the most successful to date."

Synopsis:
On the morning of her wedding day Chrissa Kaligi is cruelly jilted. Her fiancé, the local doctor, has disappeared and is later found in an isolated churchyard, the victim of a cruel and disfiguring attack. The people of the small town of Morfi show a marked reluctance to investigate the crime, a reflection of the doctor's unpopularity in the village. However, Hermes Diaktoros is not so easily put off. Determined to investigate the strange goings on in the village he soon uncovers in addition to the minor skulduggery of local characters a much more sinister tale.

Never one to let an injustice pass, Hermes Diaktoros must expose the true criminal in the town, thwart the machinations of former bureaucrats and repair the fractured relationships that surround him: all whilst doggedly refusing to reveal to the interested townspeople anything of his own identity.

Review:
This third book in a series featuring the detective Hermes Diaktoros is by far the most successful to date. Anne Zouroudi lulls the reader into a false sense of security by locating the action in scenic Thessaly in northern Greece. But the picturesque surroundings and other worldliness of the characters disguise a crime firmly of our time. The author mitigates the horror of the crime however by setting it alongside more minor misdemeanours. As is previous books, Hermes Diaktoros can call on a range of family and friends to thwart the machinations of even the most determined evil doer.

The story is well written but Zouroudi is no idealist when it comes to Greeks society. She describes life in the unhurried Greek north with a keen eye whilst never letting the reader forget the negatives aspects that village life brings, such as the petty intrigues. This clear eyed view of Greek life gives her books, which could otherwise fall into whimsy, a modern feel.

Reviewed by: S.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Douglas Watt - Death of a Chief

"...a very evocative and atmospheric story"

Synopsis:
Set in 1686 in Edinburgh and the Highlands. Sir Lachlan MacLean is found murdered in his lodgings in the High Street of Edinburgh. He is the proud Chief of a small clan that is experiencing hard times. In the past he had fought bravely against Cromwell's armies on the side of King Charles I and in doing so lost many of his family. He has come to Edinburgh, a city he hated, to try to establish ownership of disputed lands. He has many debts, and many people who would not be sorry to see him dead.

His lawyer, John Mackenzie, and his clerk, Davie Scougall, undertake to find out what has happened to Sir Lachlan. They have a difficult task, as this is a time when religious rivalries and distrust between the Gaelic speaking Highlanders and the Scots-speaking Lowlanders cloud all interactions, and superstition is rife....

Review:
This is a very evocative and atmospheric story, reminiscent of the fast moving Highland tales of Robert Louis Stevenson. The attitudes of the different factions are well and sympathetically brought out, particularly in the relationship between the Gaelic speaking John Mackenzie and his earnest and well meaning scribe, Davie Scougall, who is definitely a Lowland Scot with a well-developed distrust of anything Highland. The Old Town of Edinburgh comes to life as it might have been then, and anyone visiting Edinburgh on holiday would enjoy spotting the sites of the story.

John Mackenzie is a sensitive and long-suffering lawyer who has his own sad memories; Davie Scougall is the callow youth who is introduced to a wider world then that of his upbringing, and develops as a character as a result of that. The two of them together make up an attractive team and I will definitely look forward to more tales from 17th century Edinburgh.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Martin Suter - A Deal With The Devil

"...nothing is what it seems."

Synopsis:
Sonia Freay is a woman with problems. Newly divorced, her husband is now in a psychiatric hospital following his attempt to kill her. To make matters worse, following a bad acid trip she has developed Synesthesia, causing her to feel smells and see sounds. To escape her problems, she takes up a job as a physio at a hotel in a Swiss Alpine village. The hotel has an alarming lack of guests but the ones it does have give Sonia enough problems to keep her busy.

The arrival of Sonia's former mother-in-law throws everything into predictable disarray. However, this soon turns out to be the least of her problems. A series of strange events seem to follow the prophesy of the Devil of Milan. Is this the result of a disgruntled villager using the local legend to scare the new hotel owners, or do the events have a demonic origin? In the męlée, with her fragile mental state, Sonia finds it hard to distinguish friend from foe.

Review:
This number 1 Swiss bestseller uses picturesque Alpine scenery to provide a backdrop for a modern psychological drama. The character of Sonia Freay is set very much in the twenty-first century. Recovering from a violent broken marriage her use of drugs and alcohol to dull the pain is realistically dealt with in the book. Her fragile psychological state also means that the reader is never sure whether the strange events that occur in the hotel are genuinely sinister or all in her mind. The cast of characters around her are also a mix of the thoroughly modern and the bizarre. The reader is never quite sure if people are who they seem, which means that the genuine villain of the plot comes as a surprise at the end of the book.

Although the book makes much of the Devil of Milan plot, in fact this is just a backdrop to the story and is not explored in any detail. Much more interesting is Sonia's synesthesia, which the author portrays very well. The reader is left desperate to experience some of Sonia's sensory illusions and it adds to the tone of the book that nothing is what it seems. An enjoyable read.

Reviewed by: S.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Jeffery Deaver - Roadside Crosses

"...may well make you think twice before logging on to the internet in the future..."

Synopsis:
The Monterey Peninsula is rocked when a killer begins to leave roadside crosses beside local highways - not in memoriam, but as announcements of his intention to kill. And to kill in particularly horrific and efficient ways: using the personal details about the victims that they've carelessly posted in blogs and on social networking websites.

The case lands on the desk of Kathryn Dance, the California Bureau of Investigation's foremost kinesics - body language - expert. She and Deputy Michael O'Neil follow the leads to Travis Brigham, a troubled teenager whose role in a fatal car accident has inspired vicious attacks against him on a popular blog, The Chilton Report.

As the investigation progresses, Travis vanishes. Using techniques he learned as a brilliant participant in MMORPGs: Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, he easily eludes his pursuers and continues to track his victims, some of whom Kathryn is able to save, some not.

Among the obstacles Kathryn must hurdle are politicians from Sacramento, paranoid parents and the blogger himself, James Chilton, whose belief in the importance of blogging and the new media threatens to derail the case and potentially Dance's career. It is this threat that causes Dance to take desperate and risky measures.

Review:
I was eagerly awaiting the return of Kathryn Dance, the FBI Agent with a talent for reading body language. However, for some reason, this novel seems to have lost a little of the excitement and impetus of previous books featuring Dance and, in my opinion, just not quite as gripping or clever as those novels featuring Lincoln Rhyme. Dance's character and personality is beginning to develop significantly the more we read of her, and I would like to read more stories featuring Dance.

As the author is Deaver, any reader will know that the plot will never be as simple as you first thought, or that the killer/suspect will not be who we are led to believe, so - in true Deaver form - there is still plenty of guesswork to be done trying to work out who is the killer.

There are a lot of technology/computer related references that are set around the crime, and these may well make you think twice before logging on to the internet in the future.

In summary, although in my view it is not one of Deaver's best books it is still a very good read. Deaver has the ability to keep the reader interested by knowing that there will always be an unexpected twist that is usually impossible to work out.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Shona McLean - The Redemption of Alexander Seaton

"...a genuine mystery at the heart of the story. "

Synopsis:
In Scotland in the 1620s, a body is found in the house of disgraced minister Alexander Seaton. The victim, a nephew of the town's apothecary, has been murdered by poisoning and suspicion soon falls on one of Seaton's few friends. Seaton is determined to solve the murder and clear his friend's name but Seaton is an outcast in Banff society because of his admission of a clandestine love affair. Seaton's disgrace, along with a seventeenth century society which is dominated by accusations of witchcraft and religious persecution mean that Seaton is thwarted at every turn.

As Seaton travels around Scotland in search of proof of his friend's innocence, he finds his own allies in unexpected places. He is also forced to acknowledge and accept the personal choices that he has made. In doing so he confronts not only his conscience but the fundamentals of his faith.

Review:
Although billed as being written by the niece of thriller writer Alistair McLean, this is not helpful for either the reader or the author. The book is written in the mould of writes such as CJ Samson and Ariana Franklin, but goes beyond usual historical thrillers. In the enigmatic character of Alexander Seaton, Shona McLean has created a man of contrasts. A lover of women or of one woman in particular, he also by his actions shows them a respect unusual at this time in history. He is also a fundamentally religious man who, through sin and disgrace, can no longer find a place for himself in society.

By creating such a morally ambiguous character, McLean could risk alienating the reader, but in fact we are never not on Alexander Seaton's side.

The book is excellently plotted with a genuine mystery at the heart of the story. Admittedly, the character of the murdered man does not ignite the reader until later in the story but it is an interesting tale nevertheless. Hopefully, this is the first book in a series of novels featuring Alexander Seaton. He is a character far too interesting to leave to one book.

Reviewed by: S.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Paul Johnston - Crying Blue Murder/Last Red Death/Golden Silence

"...successful novels which subvert the image of Greece as a whitewashed paradise."

Synopsis:
Alex Mavros is a private investigator of Scottish-Greek descent living and working in Athens. The trilogy of books featuring the detective has now been re-released by publishers Mira with an introduction by the author who explains the origins of each novel. The first, Crying Blue Murder, is a classic detective case, with Mavros hired by a concerned relative to find a missing girl. The action moves from urban Athens to a seemingly idyllic Greek island which has a dark criminal underbelly.

In its sequel, The Last Red Death, an American who decades earlier was witness to her father's murder hires Mavros to track down his killers. The subsequent chase through the Athenian and Peloponnese landscape has all of the hallmarks of a political thriller. Mavros is both the hunter and the hunted and the lines between officialdom and criminality are convincingly blurred.

Finally, the third book in the trilogy, The Golden Silence, is plotted along the lines of a gangster novel, featuring the unforgettable Rea Chioti as the female head of the criminal gang. In this book, Mavros searches for a missing girl from a Russian immigrant family which brings him onto the radar of Chioti's gang with deadly results.

Review:
The re-release of the Alex Mavros novels will be welcomed by both fans of Paul Johnston and by those interested in Greek detective fiction. Unlike other crime writers, Johnston has not simply transposed thriller narratives to a foreign setting but has allowed his knowledge of Greek life to develop the plot. This has produced far more successful novels which subvert the image of Greece as a whitewashed paradise.

Greece, like other western societies, has its political problems which have allowed criminal gangs to flourish under an often indifferent police force. Johnston is excellent at portraying an Athenian society which mixes the glamorous, as epitomised by his sister Anna, the recent turbulent political past, bound up with Mavros'search for his brother Andonis, and the tension resulting from the arrival of immigrants from Eastern Europe.

The introduction by Johnston to each novel is useful for the reader. However I am not sure that the trilogy can be split so neatly into detective, thriller and gangster novels respectively. By far the best book, The Golden Silence, is in fact a mix of all three genres, although disappointingly Johnston kills off the most interesting character (I won't say more except that it's a woman). I could envisage more novels featuring her character, but the trilogy is by no means complete. It would be great if Johnston could continue the Mavros series, perhaps along the way solving the mystery of the missing Andonis.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by: S.W.

CrimeSquad Rating: