Casey Hill (www.caseyhillbooks.com)
Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.co.uk)
“First in a new series featuring forensic investigator Reilly Steel,” the review copy informs me and I’m immediately on my guard. In my experience, this means one of two things: the author has already planned out the first twenty-seven books in the series and none of them are particularly good, or my bank account is about to take another long-term hit as I try to keep up with the annual release schedule of another must-read series.
Reilly Steel is an American crime scene investigator, trained at Quantico, and now living and working in Dublin trying to whip the new Garda Forensics Unit into some sort of shape. When a young couple is found dead in an apartment in an upscale part of the city, Reilly finds herself working with Detectives Chris Delaney and Pete Kennedy, and all three find themselves drawn into a deadly cat-and-mouse game with a serial killer who is completely in control and, seemingly, one step ahead of the police. Reilly’s unorthodox working methods give the Gardai an edge they would otherwise have been missing, and it soon becomes evident, as the body count rises, that the killer is toying with Reilly directly..
Simon & Schuster seem to have cornered the market this year in thrillers written by people who normally write in other genres (see my ALTAR OF BONES review). Casey Hill is the pseudonym of husband and wife team Kevin and Melissa Hill. Melissa Hill, for anyone unaware, is one of Ireland’s major players in the so-called “chick lit” market. TABOO, as well as being the first book in the Reilly Steel series, is also the couple’s first thriller.
The plot picks up quickly, and we’re introduced to the characters as we find ourselves standing in the middle of the various crime scenes. Early on, the book suffers from a touch of what I like to call Pattersonitis: discoveries and deductions are made early in the chapter then referred to in veiled and, sometimes, convoluted terms so that it can be dropped on the reader as a massive revelation in the chapter’s final sentence. Fortunately, it’s not a full-blown case, and it’s a lot subtler than the look you, this is important! style that Patterson tends to use. But towards the middle of the book, it’s as if the Hills find their stride – and their voice – and the read becomes a lot more natural and a lot less frustrating.
The identity of the killer will become apparent to the reader a lot sooner than it does to Reilly and the detectives, but there’s still enough uncertainty – a mistrust of certain central characters threaded through the narrative – that it’s impossible to get cocky about it, and until the final reveal, you can’t quite be sure if you’re right. It’s something of a formulaic serial killer novel, but it’s a formula that works, and Hill’s style is fresh and interesting. This one is going to appeal to fans of Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs and probably even Boris Starling. It’s a fast-paced novel which will keep you on your toes and drop a new murder in your lap before you’ve finished trying to get your head around the first one. And while there’s no pervasive sense of place – TABOO could take place anywhere – it’s not overly important to the novel.
Steel is an interesting character – smart, sexy, damaged beyond belief – and has enough charm to carry a series. She’s also a lot more accessible than Kay Scarpetta or Temperance Brennan, mainly because Hill has kept the science to a minimum and concentrated on the excitement. It’s an assured debut with a number of issues, but if the evolution of writing style evident over the course of these four hundred odd pages is anything to go by, this is a writing team that has just hit its stride. I’m expecting great things from Reilly Steel #2. The Reilly Steel series will be hitting my bank account for the next few years at least.
Eoin McNamee (www.eoincolfer.com)
Irish crime fiction is going through a golden era at the minute. Look at the wealth of crime fiction coming out of Ireland – both North and South – over the past handful of years, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more buoyant market anywhere else. From south of the border you’ll find names like John Connolly, Ken Bruen, Declan Hughes. From the North, a newer breed of writer free, now, to write straight crime fiction in which the Troubles, if they make an appearance at all, take a back seat to solid plots and good storytelling. Names like Colin Bateman, Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway.
Eoin Colfer (as the tagline on Colfer’s own website says, “It’s pronounced Owen!”, in case you were in any doubt) is famous for his series of books about Artemis Fowl (I’ll come clean at the start and admit to not having read any of the Fowl books), and for writing the latest Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy instalment. Now, though, he turns his attention to crime – at some urging from the aforementioned Bruen, according to the book’s dedication – in the form of Plugged.
Daniel McEvoy is ex-Irish Army, ex-UN Peacekeeper, living in New Jersey after two tours in the Lebanon. Nowadays he works as a doorman in a seedy rundown casino in the small town of Cloisters, a town that survives simply because its casinos are closer to the Big Apple than are those of Atlantic City. Dan is tough, smart and bald – the latter a fact of which he is not particularly proud, hence the hair plugs which give the book its title. Within a handful of hours, Daniel has murdered the local Irish gangster’s right-hand man, misplaced his friend (but not, unfortunately, his voice, which takes up residence in his subconscious and keeps a steady stream of babble going throughout) and seen the murdered body of Connie, a hostess at the casino who was something of a friend with benefits. From there, the story moves at a frenetic pace, twisting and turning towards the surprising climax, all related from the first-person point of view in that unmistakable Irish voice.
From the first page, Colfer’s prose is enough to hook the reader. It doesn’t hurt that he opens on an ‘ass-licking incident’ at Slotz, the casino where McEvoy works, setting the scene – and the tone – for the rest of the novel. McEvoy’s voice is pure Ireland: that perfect balance between wise-guy and maudlin doomsayer. The story – by turns dark and hilarious – fits the voice well and pushes McEvoy to breaking point on several occasions, showing just what the man is capable of. Flashbacks are kept to a minimum, but they are included, mainly around the first meeting of Daniel and the doctor, Zeb, who is more salesman than doctor, and not particularly effective at either. The rest of the cast are as interesting and quirky as these two: Tommy Fletcher, who served with McEvoy in the Lebanon, a man from the heart of Belfast with an “accent to make the hardest hard man long for a mother’s bosom to nuzzle”; Irish Mike Madden, the big fish in a small pond who runs anything illegal in Cloisters; Jaryd Faber, the pointy/sweary lawyer who first runs afoul of Daniel after licking Connie’s derriere in the casino. And so many more that make this book an absolute pleasure to read.
Colfer has produced the perfect rollicking mystery. In tone, it’s probably closest to Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels or Scott Phillips’ The Ice Harvest, and I would recommend it to fans of both. There is comedy gold here – and Irish readers in particular will find more than their fair share of inside jokes – but the book is also plenty dark, and you’re never quite sure what’s waiting around the next corner.
It strikes me as a brave move for a man famous for his young adult fiction to branch out in a direction that is completely inappropriate for his usual audience, but with Plugged that move has paid off for Eoin Colfer. We should thank Ken Bruen for whatever part he played in the genesis of this novel. Plugged deserves a place with the best of modern Irish crime fiction and I, for one, hope we’ll hear more from Colfer in this genre before too long.