John J. Niven
William Heinemann (http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/william-heinemann)
Released: 2nd August 2012
Donnie Miller has it all: beautiful wife and son, perfect home in the wilds of Saskatchewan and the sort of comfort that comes from having a rich father-in-law who is generous to a fault with his daughter and grandson. It’s a far cry from his poor upbringing in Glasgow and Donnie lives with the constant fear that none of it is real, that it will be taken away from him in the blink of an eye, that it’s much more than he deserves. Donnie Miller has a long-buried secret, a life that he has worked hard to put behind him. As winter settles in, the family dog disappears. When it turns up horribly mutilated, the cracks in Donnie’s life start to appear. When the heavy snows start to fall, cutting him and his family off from the nearest town, Donnie discovers that he’s about to lose more than just the dog.
Cold Hands is something of a slow-burner, to start. Told from the first-person point of view of Miller, we meet the man and his family, and quickly come to understand the dynamics that drive this small family unit. The mutilated dog turns up early on, and seems shockingly out of place in this snow-covered idyll, giving us a glimpse of things to come. The narrative is frequently interrupted by flashbacks – descriptions of Donnie’s childhood, and his friendship with Banny, the school bully – and we quickly learn that there’s a secret, something bad enough to warrant a new identity and a new start outside of Scotland. There is something jarring about these flashbacks – the shift in accent and language, the violence – but it is a feeling that serves the story well, and never reaches the point of distraction or irritation for the reader.
Towards the middle of the book, Niven begins increasing the tension, and the final third is an intense, breath-taking read, that always keeps the story’s main themes in sight, and is never anything less than completely realistic. As many writers have done before him, Niven uses snow as the catalyst for the action in the novel, and the combination of snowstorm and isolation as the enabler for Miller’s persecution (The Shining, anyone? 30 Days of Night?). It’s an old trick, but with fantastic results: a tense thriller designed to keep the reader turning the pages long after bedtime; at its core, a character who does not necessarily deserve our sympathies, but who receives them nonetheless.
At its heart, Cold Hands is a story about parenthood, and an examination of the inherent insanity that comes with it. To what lengths would a parent go in order to protect their child? Or to avenge them? It’s an added dimension that speaks directly to parents, leaving behind an uneasy feeling and a desire to keep the children home, wrapped in cotton wool at all times. Don’t worry, though, there’s plenty here for everyone, and Cold Hands should appeal to anyone who prefers their action heroes more in the vein of John McClane than of Rambo.
Cold Hands is John Niven’s first foray into crime/thriller territory (hence the addition of the middle initial), and shows a writer who is more than up to the task. There were points (particularly during the flashback scenes) where I had to remind myself that I wasn’t reading an Iain Banks novel, but Niven’s own voice is readily apparent for the bulk of the narrative. The settings are beautiful, and Niven does an excellent job of putting the reader in the middle of that cold, snowy Canadian wilderness, and into the heart of the action. It’s also worth noting that he does not pull his punches, and that this is not a book – despite appearances in early chapters – for the faint of heart or stomach.
From its slow beginnings to its violent and blood-spattered conclusion, Cold Hands is a good old-fashioned thriller. With a handful of twists designed to keep the reader on their toes, Niven’s first thriller is an intense and gripping examination of one man’s determination to protect his family from a past he has long forgotten. This is thriller writing at its best, and John J. Niven is definitely one to watch in a genre that can, at times, suffer from saturation of offerings.
|IN HER BLOOD
Annie Hauxwell (www.anniehauxwell.com)
William Heinemann (www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/william-heinemann)
Catherine Berlin is an investigator for the Financial Services Authority, working as part of a task force whose remit is to clamp down on London’s illegal loan shark businesses. Working with an informant she knows only as ‘Juliet Bravo’, Berlin continues an investigation into East End shark Archie Doyle despite the fact that her superiors have closed the case and warned her off. Berlin’s life is complicated by the fact that, aged 55, she’s a registered drug addict, and receives daily doses of pharmaceutical heroin from one of the few doctors left in Britain with a license to prescribe it. When both her informant and her doctor are brutally murdered, Berlin finds herself in the middle of two investigations in which police consider her as a major player. With seven days before her stash of heroin runs out – and any clarity of mind that the drug brings with it – Berlin is up against the clock not only to find her next fix, but also to find the killer and clear her own name.
Hauxwell’s first novel takes no time in getting to the point. As the book opens, we find Berlin standing at the edge of the Limehouse Basin, watching her informant floating in the water below. We quickly get a feel for the character, and the people she is dealing with – the talkative Dempster, the quiet Thompson and the almost farcically stupid Flint. Berlin is a character that is difficult to like, but as the ever-luckless antihero, we find ourselves rooting for her nonetheless, as she moves from one bad day to the next. She’s a woman on the edge, impending withdrawal driving her as hard as the need to know, to find out the truth. And behind it all a black sense of humour that usually serves to rub people the wrong way, but which makes her more human in the eye of the reader.
The plot is complex and involved, but not so much that it will turn the casual reader off. Characters are interconnected in myriad unexpected ways, and a web of relationships, and of cause and effect, forms as the novel progresses. Despite the complexity, and multiple strands, the author manages to maintain complete control – no obvious plot holes or dangling story arcs here; Hauxwell weaves the threads into such an accomplished and coherent whole that it’s easy forget that this is the work of a first-time novelist.
Characterisation is the only area where the book doesn’t quite reach its full potential. While Berlin comes to us fully formed, some of the other characters can be a bit lacking in original personality, cardboard cut-outs from a thousand gritty dramas set in and around the East End of London: the wheeler-dealing gangster; the bent cop; a handful of others. What’s interesting, and what makes the novel stand out from many of those others, is the ambiguity built in to all of these people. There is no black and white here, but varying shades of grey that serve Hauxwell’s purpose well: these are all ordinary people acting under extraordinary circumstances; no-one, least of all the reader, can anticipate how these people will react in these situations, and as a result they sometimes do so in unexpected ways, with surprising consequences.
Dark and gritty, Hauxwell’s debut combines wonderful sense of place (and cold), interesting (if somewhat stereotypical) characters, and a complex and moreish plot into the perfect example of what was once called (and may still be, though it’s not a phrase I’ve seen in a few years) “Brit noir”. There’s enough humour to keep it from being dreary and depressing, and enough action to keep it moving at a good pace. Catherine Berlin, demons included, makes for a surprising and bold choice of central character, but ultimately has the charisma to carry it off and leave the reader hoping for her return in future instalments. Hauxwell is an author who evidently takes great delight in putting her characters through the mill and, on several occasions throughout the book, we find ourselves wondering “what can she possibly throw at this poor woman next?”. In Her Blood is a fine crime novel, and a wonderful debut from a writer who looks set to give the cream of British crime fiction a run for their money.
Zoran Drvenkar (www.drvenkar.de)
Translated by Shaun Whiteside
Blue Door (www.harpercollins.co.uk/…/blue-door)
I will admit that when I saw the cover of Zoran Drvenkar’s Sorry – the first of the German author’s novels to be translated into English – my first thought was that it was a novel aimed at a young adult audience. What lies behind that stark white cover – or the stark black version, which is just as striking – is much darker, and more complex than I had imagined; “young adult” it most certainly is not.
A group of four Berlin friends approaching the end of their twenties decide to open an agency that will apologise on your behalf. They decide immediately that they will only take on corporate commissions and, under the leadership of Kris, a young man who knows exactly what to say, they find themselves earning more money than they could have dreamed. They move to a villa on the shores of the Wannsee and make it both home and base of operations. When Wolf, Kris’ younger brother, arrives at an appointment on the top floor of an apartment block in the run-down Kreuzberg area, he has no way of knowing what lies in wait for him, and what consequences it will have for his life, and for the lives of his friends. A woman hangs on the wall, one nail through her crossed wrists, another through her forehead, at her feet a paper bag containing a threat that means Wolf cannot just walk away; their job is to apologise to this dead woman, and then to clean up the murderer’s mess.
Drvenkar uses multiple points of view to tell the story of this group of young people and the man who has decided to use them for his own ends. Using first, second and third-person narratives, the author sows confusion in the mind of the reader, leaving us unsure of whom to trust until the story reaches its dark and violent climax. As the story progresses, and we come to know these characters who are moving slowly into darker territory, towards an inevitable evil, we start to learn some of the murderer’s motivations; it’s an unpleasant story of ritual child abuse – sometimes graphically described – by two very unpleasant characters, spanning the course of several years. Sorry is a tough and at times unpleasant read, but ultimately, as the pieces slot into place, and we learn exactly what is going on, it is also a very rewarding read.
It will take some time to become used to the multiple viewpoints. It’s easy to make assumptions – something that the reader should avoid at all costs – about story portions told in the first or second person, especially when for the vast majority of the book, the killer is referred to as “You”; it’s a disconcerting feeling, which adds to the overall atmosphere.
You drive the nail through the bone of her forehead. It takes you four more blows than the hands did, before the nail pierces the back of her head and enters the wall. She twitches, her twitch becomes a quiver, then she hangs still.
The book does have some problems, and it is almost a shame to mention them. At least one important thread seems to remain unresolved, something that may well have been done by design. It is difficult to describe in any more detail than that without including spoilers. There are also times when the narrative seems quite clunky. For the most part, the story is told in the present tense, with past tense used where appropriate to describe things that have already happened. There are places – and more than a few – where tenses become interchangeable across the course of a handful of sentences, sometimes leaving the reader to try and parse exactly what is happening. It’s difficult to work out, though, if this is down to the complexity of the writing, or slips in the translation. As I said, it’s almost a shame to mention them, and neither of these points is unlikely to mar the enjoyment of this excellent novel.
Sorry is a cleverly-plotted piece of intrigue. Drvenkar is a writer who is sure of what he’s doing, and proves it by constantly surprising even this most jaded reader of crime fiction. It’s a dark and violent novel that, because of some elements, will not appeal to everyone; it should, however, find many fans outside the crime genre: there are times when Sorry teeters on the edge of horror. Despite the aforementioned clunkiness, the excellent story – original, exciting and very well-conceived – shines through to make this a must-read for fans of tough, gruesome fiction. Drvenkar is a prolific writer, but Sorry is his first novel to receive an English translation. It’s unlikely it will be the last time we see his name on British bookshelves and, if he can continue telling stories like this, it won’t be long before he becomes a permanent fixture on my own must-read list.