|THE SISTERS BROTHERS
Patrick deWitt (patrickdewitt.net)
The Western genre has come a long way from its sunny heights back in the golden days of Hollywood, when John Wayne ruled supreme and you could differentiate the good guys from the bad guys purely based on the colour of their hats. These days, there is more gritty realism, and the distinction between good and bad is often a difficult one to make. There is no place for John Wayne in Lonesome Dove or Deadwood.
Patrick deWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers, falls firmly into this new, gritty style of Western. It is the story of Charlie and Eli Sisters, hired killers from Oregon City in the employ of a man known simply as the Commodore, and of their latest job: go to San Francisco, find the thief Hermann Warm, and kill him. Told from the point of view of Eli, the more stable of the two brothers, it is a darkly comic tale of family ties and redemption, set against the background of the California Gold Rush.
Take Steve Hockensmith’s Amlingmeyer brothers (Holmes on the Range, etc.) and change the colour of their metaphorical hats, and you’ll have some idea of what’s in store when you crack open this book. Charlie, the older of the two brothers, is a man who likes to drink, whore and kill. Eli has problems with his temper which make him the perfect partner for his older brother, but he enjoys the drinking, the whoring and the killing a good deal less. They’re both decidedly likeable, despite their foibles, and it’s a pleasure to accompany them on their journey from Oregon City to San Francisco, as they move towards the realisation of who and what they are.
Despite the humour, and the brothers’ likeability, the reader is never in any doubt that these are a couple of psychopaths. deWitt deftly moves from high humour to taut drama at the drop of the proverbial hat, as the brothers switch to killing mode in a handful of short passages that will send a cold shiver up your spine. The name Sisters strikes fear in the hearts of all who hear it, and the reputation is well-earned. While Eli claims not to enjoy his work, it is clear that Charlie does not share the sentiment and at times the reader is left with the nagging doubt that the only reason Eli is still alive at all is because of the ties that bind the brothers together.
It’s a beautifully-written book with a voice reminiscent of Charles Portis’ Mattie Ross (True Grit) and an oddness evidenced by the motley cast of supporting characters with whom the brothers meet on their journey: the weeping man; the boy with a head that cries out to be struck with the nearest blunt object; the old prospector who brews dirt and convinces himself that it is the finest coffee. The prose and the dialogue run from the sublime:
“…Will you return the money or the pelt?”
“All you will get from me is Death.” Charlie’s words, spoken just as casual as a man describing the weather, brought the hair on my neck up and my hands began to pulse and throb. He is wonderful in situations like this, clear minded and without a trace of fear. He had always been this way, and though I had seen it many times, every time I did, I felt an admiration for him.
to the ridiculous:
“He describes his inaction as cowardice and laziness,” said Charlie.
“And with five men dead,” I said, “he describes our overtaking his riches as easy.”
“He has a describing problem,” said Charlie.
Hidden behind Dan Stiles’ beautiful and striking cover is a surprising and wonderful piece of fiction. At times hilarious, at others grim and noirish, The Sisters Brothers is the perfect novel for people who like great fiction, regardless of genre – don’t let the fact that this is a Western put you off, if your preconceptions of that genre are coloured badly by those old John Wayne films. Living, breathing characters and a razor-sharp plot make this an instant classic is up there with Lonesome Dove and Deadwood. It’s also one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.co.uk)
Glasgow, present day, and someone – a man with a high-powered rifle and a scope to match – is taking out the rulers of the city’s underbelly: drug dealers, murderers, extortionists. As the body count grows and war breaks out amongst the various underground factions, the Strathclyde Police find themselves in the unenviable position of trying to solve a crime, and stop a murderer that the rest of the world is lauding as a hero.
Snapshot, Robertson’s second novel, centres on the characters of Tony Winter and Rachel Narey. Winter is a police photographer, a gifted man who enjoys his work a little bit too much. He’s a leftover from an earlier time, fighting to stay in employment in a time when crime scene photography is increasingly becoming the domain of the crime scene investigators, Jacks-of-all-trades in an environment where saving money is key. Tony has a problem, a need to photograph the dead that borders on obsession, an itch to capture people on the borderline between life and death. Detective Sergeant Narey, who appeared in Robertson’s first novel, Random, returns here to investigate another high-profile case, despite the office politics that remove her from the investigation for a short time.
Snapshot is one of those novels for which the clichés breakneck and gripping, amongst others, were seemingly invented. Opening on a crime scene which introduces us to the key players in as economical a way as possible, the book maintains a frenetic pace for its 400-page duration. We are immediately immersed in the sights and sounds of modern Glasgow, and Robertson has no problem littering both narrative and dialogue with words and phrases that, to an outsider, can sometimes be difficult to understand. Don’t worry, though, you’re unlikely to miss anything important – an insult or jibe between friends. It feels natural and is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, which offsets the grim central plot, a gruesome collection of dead bodies as seen through the lens of Tony Winter’s camera.
Winter is a strange character to put in the central role. He’s not a particularly likeable man, with his slightly creepy hobby and his whiny attitude: Winter is a civilian employed by the police force. As a result, he is outside the main body of the investigation and not privy to the information they are gathering, or the theories upon which they are working. As a result, he is prone to frequent strops when his friends, Narey and Addison, both key players on the team, withhold information from him. I for one wanted to throttle the man and tell him to get on with his work and stop his moaning on more than one occasion. But for all that, the book works, and you care enough for this man to want him to make it out the other side.
The only problem I have with the book is the cover – this sort of stock photography makes a lot of these British thrillers look the same and can, for me, be very off-putting. But it’s a minor quibble, given what lies behind that cover. Dark and darkly-humorous, thrilling and highly addictive, Snapshot is an excellent novel from a self-assured and talented author who has found his stride early in the game.
|CRUCIBLE OF SECRETS
Aberdeen, 1631. Alexander Seaton, lecturer and regent of Marischal College, stumbles upon the dead body of his friend, the university’s librarian, and is asked by the principal to look into the man’s life with an eye to protecting the college’s interests. Convinced that his friend has been murdered because of something he knows – or something that he has found in one of the books recently gifted to the library – Seaton begins his investigation. As he digs, he uncovers links to alchemy, Rosicrucians and freemasons and, when a second man dies, Seaton discovers that he may not know his friends as well as he thought.
This is Scotland, post-Reformation and pre-Enlightenment. Religion plays a huge part in peoples’ everyday lives and the beginnings of modern science are still a handful of decades away. MacLean’s sense of this period is impeccable; it should be: she has a PhD in history, specialising in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Scotland. So we find people dabbling in alchemy in search of the Philosopher’s Stone and religious fanatics – the wonderful character of Matthew Jack – decrying their unnatural and godless practices.
Crucible of Secrets is Shona MacLean’s third novel, all of which feature Alexander Seaton. Seaton is a complex character with an eventful history – much of which seems to play out in the pages of the previous volumes in the series – and more than a touch of insecurity, especially where his relationship with his wife is concerned. The city of Aberdeen is vividly-imagined, and the division between college and city provides the perfect excuse for Seaton’s role of amateur sleuth. The novel starts slowly, despite a gruesome discovery in the first handful of pages, and doesn’t really find its stride until around the halfway mark. There is too much melodrama in the first half, too many instances of Seaton mooning over his wife’s infidelities, real or imagined. And while this plays an important part later in the story, it could have been trimmed down considerably without any loss of impact.
Once the story hits its stride, though, it becomes a hard book to fault, and any minor quibbles about the first half are quashed by admiration of a master plotter at the height of her game. In much the same way that the end of The Sixth Sense makes you question your ability to follow a simple plot and read all the signs that are in plain view, so will the denouement of Crucible of Secrets leave you in awe of MacLean’s ability to pull the wool over your eyes and keep you guessing until the very end.
MacLean’s novels have drawn favourable comparison with C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels. On the strength of Crucible of Secrets it’s not difficult to see why. Expect a slow first half, but your patience will be well rewarded if you stick with it. It may be worth reading the previous books in the series before starting on this one, but the book works as an excellent standalone novel should you wish to start here – there is enough backstory included on the characters that you won’t be lost by anything that is said or done (I can personally vouch for this, as Crucible of Secrets is the first of MacLean’s books that I have read). If you like historical fiction in the vein of Sansom or Eco, or if you like a good, challenging mystery, then this is definitely the book for you.
George Pelecanos (www.hachettebookgroup.com/features/georgepelecanos)
Orion Books (www.orionbooks.co.uk)
Released:25th August 2011
Another week, another shameful secret here at Reader Dad: The Cut – the first book in a new series featuring private investigator Spero Lucas – is the first George Pelecanos book I’ve read. With that out of the way, let’s get on with the review.
Spero Lucas is an ex-Marine, a veteran of Gulf War II who spent most of his tour fighting insurgents in Fallujah, and currently works as an unlicensed investigator in Washington, D.C. Most of the work he does is commissioned by Tom Peterson, a high-powered lawyer who will use any loophole he can find to help his clients beat a guilty verdict. One such job brings him into contact with Anwan Hawkins, a high-profile marijuana dealer currently in prison. Hawkins hires Lucas to find and return a number of packages that have been stolen from his dealers, or retrieve any proceeds made from their sale. What starts out as a simple piece of work soon turns sour, and Lucas finds himself embroiled in murder, kidnapping, crooked cops and psychopathic assassins.
Spero Lucas is an interesting character: he’s part of a large Greek family, most of whom – himself included – were adopted and renamed by their new parents. His father has recently died, and Spero seems not to be coping too well: ‘You go to the graveyard more often than you go to see Mom’ his brother tells him. Despite that, he’s a loving brother and son, and a devout and practicing member of the Greek Orthodox Church. But there’s another side to Lucas: Spero Lucas at work. Here we see a darker soul, a troubled man who has seen more than his share of killing, and who has issues getting it off his chest, even with the men with whom he served. He’s an unlicensed investigator who operates on the fine line between legal and not. There are scenes in The Cut which will make you question whether or not you like this man.
The Cut is a lean (just over two-hundred pages), fast-paced thriller told in language that is almost lyrical. Pelecanos has an encyclopaedic knowledge of DC and the people who live there, how they speak and how they act. This is a city filled with racial tension in which Lucas – a white man with a black brother – seems to be the only colour-blind person. It is at once an edge-of-the-seat crime novel and an examination of a man who has served his country in a foreign war, and is now trying to adjust to life back in his home town, the relationships he forges, and those he fails to forge, and how he can exist as, effectively, two separate people. With a supporting cast of characters who could each carry a novel of two of their own, The Cut is a fun ride with a very dark undertone.
Spero Lucas will return, and we can only hope that Pelecanos sticks to what proves to be a successful formula: short and sharp, dark, exciting and beautifully written. If you’re a fan of The Wire – for which Pelecanos wrote – or a fan of old-fashioned crime fiction – I’m thinking Chandler, Hammett, Stark – then The Cut is definitely one for you.
|UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST
Translated by Laurie Thompson
MacLehose Press (www.maclehosepress.com)
Released: 4th August 2011
In the early spring thaw, the body of a young woman is discovered floating in the river Torne, in the northern extremes of Sweden. It doesn’t take long for police to discover that it’s the body of Wilma Persson, who went missing along with her boyfriend during the depths of winter late the previous year. Unable to accept the obvious explanation – that the couple died accidentally while diving – District Prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson and Police Inspector Anna-Maria Mella ruffle feathers in an attempt to get to the truth and bring the couple’s murderer to justice.
Until Thy Wrath Be Past – the title comes from a quotation from the Book of Job – is Larsson’s third novel featuring the troubled Prosecutor who is adjusting to life above the Arctic Circle in the Swedish city of Kiruna. It’s a straightforward police procedural where the identity of Wilma Persson’s murderer is never in question, not least to the investigators at the centre of the novel. Even so, it is oddly gripping, driven to a large extent by the why rather than the who or the how of many traditional crime novels.
Martinsson and Mella – presumably there is a reason the latter is not included in the series title – are a pair of down-to-earth women. Martinsson is readjusting to life in the quiet city of Kiruna after time spent living and working in Stockholm. She’s recently been released from a psychiatric hospital following a breakdown brought on by one of her previous cases and trying – with varying degrees of success – to get back to a normal way of life. Mella is the tough-as-nails, break-all-the-rules detective with a stable family life – a loving husband and four children keep her busy out of hours. The biggest problem with taking Wrath as your starting point for this series – as I have done – is that you miss a lot of the interpersonal dynamics. This is a standalone case which is completely self-contained within the covers of the book, at least in terms of the main plot. But there is two books’ worth of history here that define these people and how they interact with one another. It would be impossible to write the novel without some reference to what has gone before, but it can be frustrating for the first-time visitor to this part of the world. I’d recommend considering The Savage Altar as a starting point and working your way forward.
Around half of the novel is told from the point of view of the victim. The opening chapter describes the dive and the drowning and is expertly written: told in the first person, it will leave you short of breath and eager for more. Wilma appears to Martinsson early in the novel to provide assistance – an act which Martinsson remembers as a dream. There is a touch of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones in the handling of Wilma’s story and a kinship with John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels – this is a human drama that straddles the line between crime and supernatural “horror”.
There is something distinctly Swedish – unpronounceable names, of which there are many, aside – about how Larsson tells her story, something laid-back about her prose that reminds me of the first time I read Henning Mankell, which would be the best comparison I could come up with should someone ask the question “who is she like?” While Larsson’s Kiruna and Mankell’s Ystad could not be farther apart and still be in the same country – Ystad sits serenely on the south coast while Kiruna rests in the triangle where the borders of Sweden, Finland and Norway meet – they could not be more similar: there’s something positively rural about both places, and much of the police work seems to take place outside of the city proper while still falling under the purview of the city’s police force. Larsson’s sense of place is well-defined, and Kiruna and its surroundings come alive within the pages of the book.
In the ever-growing pantheon of Scandinavian crime fiction, it is sometimes difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. Based on Until Thy Wrath Be Past, Åsa Larsson is definitely worth your time and attention. I suspect that as the series grows, so will this writer’s reputation until it’s Åsa that people think about when they hear the name Larsson. This is an absolute must-read for fans of the Wallander novels in particular and anyone who enjoys Scandi-crime in general.