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Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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Crime Fiction

RAGDOLL by Daniel Cole

Ragdoll - Daniel Cole RAGDOLL

Daniel Cole

Trapeze (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

One body, six victims, body parts sewn together and strung from the ceiling of a London flat like a puppet. Immediately christened the Ragdoll Killer by the press, it is up to Detective Sergeant William Fawkes and his team at New Scotland Yard to identify the constituent parts. When Fawkes’ journalist ex-wife receives a list of six more people who are going to die – a list that includes Fawkes himself – the connection to the Cremation Killer, the case that made Fawkes a household name, is immediately obvious. But as Fawkes’ appointment with death approaches, the team must look to his past for answers and what they find there might not be what they expected.

Daniel Cole’s debut novel opens with a brief glimpse at the case that made William Oliver Layton-Fawkes, nicknamed Wolf, famous, and which also shaped the man he has become four years later. As a result, the reader goes into the main storyline with their eyes wide open, Wolf’s questionable approach to policing promising an intriguing investigation. Intriguing it most certainly is, and from the point that that opening courtroom scene fades to black, Ragdoll is the type of book that is almost impossible to put down.

There are many points that set Ragdoll apart from your average serial killer thriller, the dark central character and the rich vein of comedy being two of the most obvious. A cross between Boris Starling’s Messiah and Sky’s “A Touch of Cloth”, Cole manages to combine the best parts of both into something completely new and fresh. From the outset, it’s clear that the comedy won’t get in the way of an intense story, as it so often can. Ragdoll is gruesome and frightening, a real sense of menace plaguing the reader through its pages. The murders are startlingly original, usually completely unexpected and constructed in such a way that even the comic moments don’t relieve the tension.

The central cast of characters are memorable and go a long way towards making the reader feel comfortable in this world, drawing us completely into the story and, in many ways, giving us a stake in the outcome. From Wolf, damaged and downtrodden to smart-mouthed Baxter, a confident woman making a man’s world her own, and Edmunds, young and new to the squad, smart and keen to learn, despite the constant haranguing from more senior colleagues. Around this core are a set of lesser characters, no less well-developed: Finlay Shaw, a couple of years from retirement, with no desire to make any big splashes; Wolf’s ex-wife Andrea Hall, a bloodthirsty journalist who will do anything to be first with the story, regardless of what danger it places people in; and Elijah Reid, her Piers Morgan-like editor-in-chief, a man with no moral compass for whom nothing is too sensationalist.

This is an old-fashioned serial killer story where the reader is kept as much in the dark as the detectives. Nothing is told from the killer’s point of view, so Cole plays the motives close to the chest until the novel hits the three-quarters mark, at which point everything kicks into high gear. In many ways its adherence to the tried and trusted formula makes it feel fresh and new again, the power of the novel in the story itself, not in the ways in which it attempts to subvert the genre. While the comedy sometimes feels forced (although my own personal preference is to avoid outright humour, because what works for one person is likely to fall flat on its face for many others), it is never overplayed to the point that it feels annoying. For the most part, it’s a natural comic feeling, stemming from the characters themselves, much of it the sort of gallows humour we’ve come to expect from crime fiction.

Ragdoll started life as a pitch for a television show, and its origins are plain to see. There is a very cinematic feel to the story which, coupled with a sense that something is always happening somewhere in earshot, gives Cole a very distinctive voice. One of the most interesting aspects of his debut is the sense that we have walked into the middle of someone else’s life: there are no introductions, little in the way of backstory on any but the central characters, leaving us with a sense that these people have known each other for a long time, and that we’ve stepped into their lives for a very brief moment to watch one specific episode. So well is this managed that for one brief moment, I had to check that I wasn’t jumping into the middle of a series. It’s disconcerting, but it is a mark of the author’s confidence that he doesn’t feel the need to slow the story down to introduce us to the players.

Dark, funny, gripping. There is no easy way to sum up Ragdoll, except to say that it is an excellent debut, an accomplished and satisfying story that immediately boosts Daniel Cole into the ranks of “must-read”. With compelling characters and a story that grips from the outset, Ragdoll is guaranteed to be one of the best crime novels you’ll read this year, and Daniel Cole a name we’ll hopefully be hearing a lot more of in the near future.

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SPOOK STREET by Mick Herron

SPOOK STREET - Mick Herron SPOOK STREET

Mick Herron (www.mickherron.com)

John Murray (www.johnmurray.co.uk)

£14.99

When the Berlin Wall fell, David Cartwright was one step away from First Desk, the pinnacle of the British Intelligence Services. Now suffering the onset of dementia, the “Old Bastard”, as he is affectionately known by his grandson, River, may be in danger of revealing secrets that he has kept for over twenty years. When a young man turns up dead on his bathroom floor and David’s grandson disappears, River’s boss is called in to identify the body. It’s obvious that Cartwright has survived a botched hit, but with no idea if it was sanctioned by the Service, Jackson Lamb must play his cards very close to his chest, at least until he can find out exactly what is going on. And with only the “slow horses” to call on, who knows how long that might take?

Spook Street is Mick Herron’s fourth visit to the realms of Jackson Lamb and the assorted misfits and no-hopers that the Intelligence Service assigns to Slough House, out of harm’s way. It’s my first encounter with Herron’s work in general, and the Jackson Lamb series in particular, which is all the answer you need to the eternal question: do I need to have read the first three books? Spook Street presents Herron’s regular cast of characters with a brand new, standalone case, and anything else you need to know to enjoy this smartly-constructed thriller you’ll pick up within the first couple of chapters.

Slough House is a ramshackle building as geographically remote from the Service’s Regent’s Park headquarters as its inhabitants are operationally remote. This is the domain of Jackson Lamb, a drunken, slovenly excuse for a secret agent with questionable hygiene who would be an embarrassment to the Service, assuming he was at liberty to disclose the fact that he worked for them. Over the years, Lamb has amassed a small team, people whose operational readiness ranges from “not anywhere close” to “psychotically keen”, a group of people known to the wider community as the “slow horses”, a play on the name of the building they call home. One of these people is River Cartwright, and it is his connection with the legendary David Cartwright that gives Lamb all the reason he needs to get involved in this latest case.

From the opening pages, Spook Street comes as a pleasant surprise. With its tongue firmly in cheek, the narrative takes a less-than-serious approach to telling the story. The tone is only one of the many features that leads to inevitable comparisons with Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May series, Slough House doing for Britain’s spies what Mornington Crescent has long done for the Metropolitan Police. Readers expecting the next LeCarré or Morgan Jones will likely be disappointed, though as a fan of both, I would urge those readers to stick with it, as they’re likely to be pleasantly surprised by the result: there is a dark heart to Spook Street, a hard-core mystery that belies the light tone, the frequent bouts of comedy. There is a sense of real danger from the beginning that leaves the reader in no doubt that none of these characters – many of whom have shared page space for three books so far – are safe, that no-one is guaranteed to survive until the end, and that a happy ending is far from likely.

The strength of Spook Street – and doubtless, the entire series – lies in Herron’s characters, and their interrelationships. For the book’s first half, Lamb appears as little more than a shape in the background, but there is little doubt that he is the heart and soul of the story. Instantly unlikeable, Lamb wears his odiousness as a badge of honour, but there is no doubt as to where his loyalties lie: this is a man who will do whatever it takes to protect his people, a close-knit group that often feels like the world’s most dysfunctional family. Newcomer J. K. Coe gives the new reader a character to connect to, someone with whom to learn the ropes of this strange new working environment. Herron also widens the scope to examine the wider Intelligence community, introducing a new First Desk and a new head of the Service’s enforcement team, policewoman-turned-spook Emma Flyte, both of whom find their worldview challenged by the existence of Lamb’s team at Slough House.

I very nearly dismissed Mick Herron’s Spook Street as just another spy novel that I could do without. Luckily for me, I ignored my first impressions and find myself richer for the experience. Herron’s irreverent look at the world of spies breathes new life into the genre and his stories deserve recognition alongside the greats of spy fiction. Already preparing to read the first book in the series, Slow Horses, I can recommend Spook Street unreservedly and assure new readers that it’s the perfect jumping-on point for anyone wishing to become familiar with Jackson Lamb & Co. It’s also the perfect alternative for fans of more serious spy fiction and crime thrillers.

SNATCH by Gregory McDonald

Snatch - Gregory McDonald SNATCH

Gregory McDonald (www.gregorymcdonald.com)

Hard Case Crime (www.hardcasecrime.com)

£7.99

Two eight-year-old boys from very different backgrounds. Two sets of less-than-competent kidnappers. In the hands of Gregory McDonald, almost anything could happen.

Like many people of my generation, my first exposure to the work of Gregory McDonald was the wonderful 1985 film Fletch, in which Chevy Chase took on the role of one of McDonald’s most famous creations. The film, as they tend to do, led me to the books, and I discovered in McDonald one of crime fiction’s finest stylists. The latest addition to Hard Case Crime’s excellent line-up reproduces two of McDonald’s standalone short novels in their usual OTT livery.

Snatched, the first of the two novels, is arguably the best of the pair, and showcases McDonald doing what he does best: using his ear for dialogue to bring his characters to life. Teddy Rinaldi is ambassador to the United Nations for a small country in the Persian Gulf. While preparing to present a new resolution to the UN, Teddy’s 8-year-old son Toby disappears: he gets on a plane in New York, and fails to get off it again in San Francisco. Toby is to be used as leverage to ensure Rinaldi’s new resolution does not pass. There is one small problem: the men behind the kidnapping have no idea where the child is, or who has him.

What makes Snatched special is the humour that underpins much of the action, and the relationship between Toby and his clueless captor, a man paid to do a job who has subsequently lost contact with his employer. This is a battle of wits that develops into something akin to a partnership, the reader never sure which of the pair is in charge. Like the best of McDonald’s Fletch novels, Snatched is presented with a minimum of narrative and a maximum of dialogue, each character unique in the way that they speak, the tics that they have, the language they use. The scenes shared by Toby and kidnapper Spike ensure that we feel more empathy for the tough-talking criminal than we do for Toby’s parents (and I’m speaking as a parent), or for the odious Colonel Turnbull, the so-called good guy of the piece.

The second novel, Safekeeping, takes a different tack, and introduces us to Robby Burnes, the son of a minor English nobleman killed in the Second World War. Shipped off to New York, Robby finds himself in the lackadaisical care of journalist Thadeus Lowry and subsequently kidnapped by a woman who recognises him from the paper and thinks there might be money to be made in ransoming him back to Lowry. This second novel takes itself much less seriously than the first, and while McDonald’s gift with dialogue helps to carry it, it is a much more narrative-driven piece, written in a flowery, over-the-top language that makes the whole thing feel like little more than a farce. It’s an interesting find for McDonald completists (this its first publication since 1985), but beside Snatched it presents as little more than filler, a similarly-themed piece to fill out the page-count.

Don’t let that put you off: the tale of Toby Rinaldi’s kidnapping is worth the price of admission alone, a fine showcase for Gregory McDonald’s talents and a fine addition to the ever-excellent Hard Case Crime line. Snatch, as the collection is named, is an excellent jumping-on point for anyone yet to experience the creative genius of Gregory McDonald. For the rest of us, it’s a reminder that it has been a while since we last visited with Fletch.

Extract: THE GIRL BEFORE by J. P. Delaney

9781786480293 THE GIRL BEFORE

J.P. Delaney

Quercus Books (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

To celebrate the release of J.P. Delaney’s The Girl Before, I’m very pleased to host a brief extract from the book. Be sure to follow the full Blog Tour. Yesterday’s post can be found at www.heatherreviews.com and tomorrow’s will be available at off-the-shelfbooks.blogspot.co.uk. You can find full details of the whole tour in the image at the bottom of this post.

Then: Emma

It’s a lovely little flat, the letting agent says with what could almost pass for genuine enthusiasm. Close to the amenities. And you’ve got that private bit of roof. That could become a sun terrace, subject of course to the freeholder’s consent.

Nice, Simon agrees, trying not to catch my eye. I’d known the flat was no good as soon as I saw that six-foot stretch of roof below one of the windows. Si knows it too but he doesn’t want to tell the agent, or at least not so soon it’ll seem rude. He might even hope that if I listen to the man’s stupid patter long enough I’ll waver.

The agent’s Simon’s kind of bloke: sharp, laddish, eager. He probably reads the magazine Simon works for. They were exchanging football chat before we even got up the stairs.

And here you’ve got a decent-size bedroom, the agent’s saying. With ample—

It’s no good, I interrupt, cutting short the charade. It’s not right for us.

The agent raises his eyebrows. You can’t be too choosy in this market, he says. This’ll be gone by tonight. Five viewings today, and it’s not even on our website yet.

It’s not secure enough, I say flatly. Shall we go?

There are locks on all the windows, he points out. Plus a Chubb on the door. You could always install a burglar alarm, if security’s a particular concern. I don’t think the landlord would have any objection.

He’s talking across me now, to Simon. Particular concern. He might as well have said, Oh, is the girlfriend a bit of a drama queen?

I’ll wait outside, I say, turning to leave.

Realising he’s blundered, the agent adds, If it’s the area that’s the problem, perhaps you should have a think further west.

We already have, Simon says. It’s all out of our budget. Apart from the ones the size of a teabag.

He’s trying to keep the frustration out of his voice, but the fact that he needs to riles me even more.

There’s a one-bed in Queen’s Park, the agent says. A bit grotty, but . . .

We looked at it, Simon says. In the end, we felt it was just a bit too close to that estate.

His tone makes it clear that we means she.

Or there’s a third-floor just come on in Kilburn—

That too. There was a drainpipe next to one of the windows.

The agent looks puzzled.

Someone could have climbed it, Simon explains.

Right. Well, the letting season’s only just started. Perhaps if you wait a bit.

The agent has clearly decided we’re time-wasters. He too is sidling towards the door. I go and stand outside, on the landing, so he won’t come near me.

We’ve already given notice on our old place, I hear Simon say. We’re running out of options. He lowers his voice. Look, mate, we were burgled. Five weeks ago. Two men broke in and threatened Emma with a knife. You can see why she’d be a bit jumpy.

Oh, the agent says. Shit. If someone did that to my girlfriend I don’t know what I’d do. Look, this might be a long shot, but . . .

His voice trails off.

Yes? Simon says.

Has anyone at the office mentioned One Folgate Street to you?

I don’t think so. Has it just come on?

Not exactly, no.

The agent seems unsure whether to pursue this or not.

But it’s available? Simon persists.

Technically, yes, the agent says. And it’s a fantastic property. Absolutely fantastic. In a different league to this. But the landlord’s . . . To say he’s particular would be putting it mildly.

What area? Simon asks.

Hampstead, the agent says. Well, more like Hendon. But it’s really quiet.

Em? Simon calls.

I go back inside. We might as well take a look, I say. We’re halfway there now.

The agent nods. I’ll stop by the office, he says. See if I can locate the details. It’s been a while since I took anyone round, actually. It’s not a place that would suit just anyone. But I think it might be right up your street. Sorry, no pun intended.

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DEEP DOWN DEAD by Steph Broadribb

DEED DOWN DEAD BF AW.indd DEEP DOWN DEAD

Steph Broadribb (crimethrillergirl.com)

Orenda Books (orendabooks.co.uk)

£8.99

Against her better judgement, bounty hunter Lori Anderson takes the only job Quinn can offer. Overdue rent and sky-high medical bills conspire to leave her with no choice. The fugitive? Robert “JT” Tate, Lori’s former lover and mentor, a man now involved in a child exploitation racket run out of one of Florida’s most famous theme parks, a man who knows her deepest, darkest secrets, and one she hasn’t seen for almost a decade. To make matters worse, lack of childminders means that Lori has to take Dakota, her nine-year-old daughter, along for the ride. What could possibly go wrong?

The answer: everything. Which is excellent news for the reader, because Deep Down Dead grabs you almost from the word go, and keeps you on the edge of your seat for the duration. The action moves at lightning pace, jumping from one explosive set-piece to another, leaving the reader little time to breathe in between, let alone try to second guess what’s coming on the next page, in the next chapter. Steph Broadribb’s debut novel introduces the world to Florida-based bail runner Lori Anderson, and leaves us gasping for more as we turn the last page.

Anderson leaps fully-formed from the page when we first meet her, a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails protagonist with a quick tongue and a narrative voice that makes it difficult to put the book down once it’s been opened. While her job may be more dangerous than most, Lori comes across as a real, grounded person, because she’s facing the same trials and tribulations that many do: trying to balance work with life as a single mother; constant debt; relationship woes. It is perhaps this grounded nature more than anything else that endears her to us, and makes us want to find out more about her. Her relationship with her daughter is wonderful, Dakota in many ways a miniature version of her mother; her relationship with JT is something else, and its history is revealed to us in drips and drabs as the story progresses.

From the moment JT enters the story, things take a turn for the dark, leaving the reader in no doubt that something is not quite what it seems. What should have been a straightforward pick-up and return to jail turns into a deadly cat and mouse chase that will test Lori’s loyalties and her strength to the limit. Chased by not one, but two groups intent on ending JT’s life, regardless of the collateral damage, Lori’s small group makes a break for Florida, a deadline to meet and countless obstacles between them and their destination.

While much of the action takes place outside of Florida, the Sunshine State plays a central role in the proceedings, but not the version that is open to tourists. Broadribb delves into the darker side of the state and of the theme parks that are its biggest attraction, in the form of the fictional Winter Wonderland. Fictional or not, the criminal activity being run in the park is both frightening and horribly plausible, the sort of plot point that will cause any parent to stop and think about just how easy it would be. Broadribb takes an unflinching approach to telling the story, and its gritty realism is only one of the many selling points of this excellent debut.

Like all the best thriller writers, Broadribb doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to character development, and certainly doesn’t let the bad guys pull any punches when they’re beating up her protagonist. There’s an almost sadistic glee as Lori – and to a lesser extent, the other characters – gets put through the mill and ends up bruised and battered in the course of the story. The resulting novel is dark, intense and action-packed though filled with the wit and charisma of a fresh new author and her lifelike creation.

Fellow book blogger Steph Broadribb’s debut novel is one of the finest you’re likely to read this year. A great introduction to a wonderful new series character, Deep Down Dead is a suspense-filled, action-packed thriller that leaves the reader wanting more, and proves that this debut author has the chops to stand alongside the giants of the crime thriller genre. Expect Steph Broadribb and Lori Anderson to be household names in the near future; in the meantime, get on at the ground floor. I can guarantee you won’t come away disappointed.

DDD Blog tour

GUEST POST: Inspiration for Devour by L.A. LARKIN

Devour LA Larkin - jacket image Name: L.A. LARKIN

Author of: DEVOUR (2017)

On the web: lalarkin.com

On Twitter: @lalarkinauthor

To celebrate the launch of L.A. Larkin’s latest novel, Devour, the first in a series featuring journalist Olivia Wolfe, I am very pleased to have the author at Reader Dad as part of the #DevourTheBook Blog Tour, to talk about her inspiration for the novel.

Thanks so much for having me on your blog!

Devour is the first book in the Olivia Wolfe thriller series. It is an unusual action and conspiracy thriller for two reasons: firstly, it has a female central character, and secondly, it is set in a part of the world where very few thrillers have been set – Antarctica.

More often than not, the lead character in this style of thriller is male. Think James Rollins, Lee Child, Matthew Reilly, Clive Cussler, and most assassin-thrillers such as those by David Baldacci and Tom Wood. In my character, Olivia Wolfe, I wanted to create a dynamic, intriguing and credible female protagonist, who could hold her own in dangerous situations. I also wanted this character to have a legitimate need to travel all over the world so that each book could offer a new and exhilarating location.

I have always been a huge fan of The Sunday Times’ investigative journalist, Marie Colvin, who strived to reveal the truth about what was happening in war zones. She was an incredibly brave woman who tragically died in the bombardment of Homs in Syria in 2012. It was her courage that inspired the creation of investigative journalist, Olivia Wolfe, in Devour, although everything else about Wolfe has come from my imagination.

I have been lucky enough to go to Antarctica and I was so mesmerised by its savage beauty and the ever-present threat that such a dangerous location provides, I knew it was the perfect setting for a chiller thriller.

Scientific developments often fuel my stories. I also follow news on expeditions to Antarctica. One particular mission was to become the premise of Devour. In 2012, a British team set up camp above sub-glacial Lake Ellsworth in a very remote part of Antarctica. Their mission was to drill down through three kilometres of ice in the hope they might discover life in an ancient lake cut off from the rest of the world for centuries. Sadly, the team did not manage to reach the buried lake and called off the expedition. But, the question remains: what if there is ancient life down there, and, what if it was catastrophic to bring it to the surface?

L.A. Larkin’s thriller, Devour, is published by Constable at the end of January 2017. Peter James, says Devour ‘delivers action and intrigue in spades,’ and Culturefly says, ‘If you are only going to read one novel in 2017, I suggest you make it Devour.’

Devour Blog Tour Banner Landscape

GUEST POST: On Locations by CONRAD WILLIAMS

Hell is Empty Name: CONRAD WILLIAMS

Author of: DUST AND DESIRE (2015)
                      SONATA OF THE DEAD (2016)
                      HELL IS EMPTY (2016)

On the web: conradwilliams.wordpress.com

On Twitter: @salavaria

When I teach creative writing at university (I’ve had a few gigs over the years at Manchester Metropolitan, Edge Hill and, in the new year, I’ll be at St John’s, York) I invariably include a class dealing with sense of place. In the strongest fiction, a location can possess as much impact as a character; can in fact almost become another character, real or especially imagined. Look at China Miéville’s Bas Lag novels, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Cormac McCarthy’s destroyed America in The Road, Iain Banks’ Scottish island in The Wasp Factory, William Golding’s island in Lord of the Flies. These are all fictional landscapes that provide a colourful, fertile background to their characters’ travails. These places are the novels, arguably. They are so exquisitely rendered that you feel you know them, that you could inhabit them.

In the crime novels I’ve written for Titan Books I very much wanted to make Joel Sorrell’s London a hyper-real city filled with shadows and light, texture and danger. Threat has to come from the antagonists, but it can also come from the urban surroundings. The city can feel alien even to those who spend their lives within it and Joel, as a loner, an outsider, is acutely aware of this. This loose sequence of novels is a missing girl trilogy, but also a trilogy of dereliction. Of duty, certainly, but more so where architecture is concerned. Each of the books end in crippled buildings because I wanted to have that sense of ruin and menace, as well as something positive rising from the dust: a worthy life, a father, a daughter, hope, love.

What is now the Renaissance Hotel, a beautiful reimagining of the old Midland, serving St Pancras station, was for a long time a shattered shell used as railway offices after its closure in 1935. Tours were made of the building in the mid 2000s and I signed up for one, having decided the hotel – surrounded by piledrivers and cranes and diggers – would make a great scene for the climax of my novel. Inside it was dusty, rotting, thick with shadow and old forgotten rooms, some of which had been sub-divided and were windowless places of filing cabinets and filth. The stealthy pursuit of the Four Year Old in Dust and Desire that draws Joel to a window leading out on to the roof of the train station was all mapped out as our group was taken along peeling corridors and that magisterial double staircase that, at the time, looked like some forgotten corner of Dracula’s castle.

Thinking about it, many of the set pieces that occur in this dereliction trilogy are found in and around buildings on the cusp of transformation or are ghosts of glory days long gone: the broken Liverpool docks and the sleeping giant of a hotel in Dust and Desire, a tired old tower block earmarked for refurbishment and a once bustling factory gone to seed in Sonata of the Dead, a squalid prison destroyed by fire in Hell is Empty. I guess they suggest the fragile, transitory nature of relationships. Everything gets demolished in the end. Everything is subject to decay.

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NATCHEZ BURNING by Greg Iles

Adobe Photoshop PDF NATCHEZ BURNING

Greg Iles (www.gregiles.com)

Harper (www.harpercollins.co.uk)

£7.99

April 2017 will see the release, in hardback, of the final volume of Greg Iles’ Unwritten Laws trilogy, Mississippi Blood. To help build excitement for the new book’s release, HarperCollins are running a global blog tour to get people interested in reading the first two books, Natchez Burning and The Bone Tree. I’m delighted to have been asked to take part. You’ll find my review of Natchez Burning below; be sure to check back on October 7th to find out what I thought of The Bone Tree.

Before that, though, HarperCollins have very kindly supplied me with a copy of Natchez Burning and a beautiful Greg Iles tote bag to give away to one lucky winner. To get your name in the hat, leave a comment below before midnight on Sunday 11th September. I’ll draw one name from the hat on Monday 12th September and let the lucky winner know before lunch time.

“If a man is forced to choose between the truth and his father, only a fool chooses the truth.” A great writer said that, and for a long time I agreed with him.

Penn Cage first learns of the death of his father’s old nurse when the local DA informs him that his father is the prime suspect in her murder. So begins a chain of events that will see Dr Tom Cage on the run for his life, and former prosecutor Penn trying to solve a series of forty-year-old murders in order to prove his innocence. With the help of intrepid reporter Henry Sexton, Penn Cage discovers the existence of the Double Eagles, a Klan splinter group whose crimes against the coloured community of Natchez, Mississippi covered much darker motives than those of their white-sheet-clad brethren. As Penn and Henry continue to dig, they find connections to local multimillionaire Brody Royal and the operations of New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello. No longer sure who his father really is, Penn Cage finds himself in a race against time to prove his innocence before his own family become the latest victims of the Double Eagles.

Natchez Burning is the fourth of Greg Iles’ novels to feature (former) state prosecutor Penn Cage, though it is the first volume of the so-called Unwritten Laws trilogy, which will conclude next April with the publication of Mississippi Blood. As a first-time reader of Iles’ work, I’m happy to report that no prior knowledge of the character is required to dive into this dark and intricately-woven tale of the racial tensions that still plague America’s Deep South over forty years after the work of the Civil Rights Movement.

The story focuses on a series of crimes from the central portion of the 1960s ostensibly committed by a Ku Klux Klan splinter group called the Double Eagles. At the end of 2005, as New Orleans struggles to get back on its feet following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the nearby town of Natchez, Mississippi prepares for Christmas. Viola Turner, an elderly black woman who worked for Dr Tom Cage during the early 1960s before disappearing for almost 40 years, has returned home to die. When she is found dead in her sickbed, suspicion immediately falls on Dr Cage with whom, it is reported, she had a euthanasia pact. When Tom clams up, refusing to answer the questions of his son Penn, now serving as the mayor of Natchez, Penn begins to question what he thought he knew about his father. When Dr Cage disappears, Penn’s faith in the old man is shaken to the core.

Henry Sexton, a crusading reporter who has spent years trying to get to the bottom of the Double Eagles’ reign of terror finally gets one of them to talk. Glenn Morehouse is dying of cancer, and wants to confess his sins before he dies. When Henry hears of Tom Cage’s predicament, it becomes clear that he and Penn Cage could help each other, proving Tom’s innocence and bringing down one of the richest men in America in the process. But some of the Double Eagles are still alive, and the group has grown, the reins passing to a younger generation of tougher men, who will stop at nothing to ensure their own safety.

While Natchez Burning seems, at first glance, like a hefty investment – the paperback clocks in at over 850 pages – it’s a reasonably fast-paced read, the type of book that is extremely difficult to put down once you’ve picked it up. It’s the first book in a long time that I’ve found myself sneaking a handful of paragraphs in every spare minute of the day. This is helped by the story’s relatively compressed timeline: aside from the opening chapters which give us some insight into the formation of the Double Eagles, and an introduction to some of their most important (to the story, at least) victims, the bulk of the story takes place over three days in the week before Christmas. Told from multiple viewpoints, it quickly becomes apparent to the reader – if not necessarily the characters, who each have a limited amount of knowledge – just how complex the story is while never quite giving us enough to piece together a solution: as the novel ends, Tom Cage’s motives for flight, for example, are as obscure as they were at the story’s beginning, though we begin to understand his character more as the days pass.

The story is told in a mixture of first-person present tense (from the point of view of Penn Cage) and third-person past tense for a range of other characters including Henry and Tom, Penn’s girlfriend Caitlin, and members of the Double Eagles like Sonny Thornfield and Forrest Knox. It’s an interesting approach that allows Iles to distance himself from Cage when he needs to: there are a couple of key scenes where we watch the action from another point of view and find ourselves questioning Penn’s motives, something that would have been impossible had we been watching through his eyes. While there is no doubt that Penn is the story’s hero, these scenes make him seem more human, more willing to bend the law if it means his father survives and keeps his freedom.

Natchez Burning gives an insight into the modern-day Deep South and shows that, in many respects, the darkness that enshrouded it during the 1960s is still very much in place today. “He broke the law,” one character tells Penn, “the unwritten law” as justification for the death of a black boy whose only crime was to fall in love with a white girl. What is most frightening for the modern audience, is the sense that this sentiment is as true for that character in 2005 as it was in 1964. There is a moment towards the end where Iles falls victim to cliché (the bad guy with a propensity for talk rather than action), but it’s a small blip in an otherwise excellent novel.

Dark and at times horrific, Natchez Burning is a fictional look at one of the worst periods of America’s history made more frightening by its roots in reality. It’s an examination of family and loyalty against a backdrop of racism and conspiracy. There is, in Iles’ opinion, plenty of blame to go around, and he spreads it liberally – the Ku Klux Klan, local police, the FBI. An excellent companion piece to James Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy, with which it shares many themes, Greg Iles’ Natchez Burning is an incredible piece of fiction that I – and, indeed, you, if you have not already – should have read when it was first published in 2014. With the impending publication of the trilogy’s closing volume, there is no better time to catch up with the book that started it all.

INFLUENCES: The Writer’s Bookshelf by ZYGMUNT MIŁOSZEWSKI

Zygmunt Miloszewski Name: ZYGMUNT MIŁOSZEWSKI

Author of: ENTANGLEMENT (2010)
                 A GRAIN OF TRUTH (2012)
                 RAGE (2016)

There are no schools or universities for writers. Well, there probably are some institutions out there that con people into believing they can be taught how to write, but the only school of writing worth mentioning is every writer’s bookshelf. So if I had to name my best teachers they would be: Astrid Lindgren, Charles Dickens, Kurt Vonnegut, Henning Mankell and Pierre Lemaitre.

Astrid Lindgren taught me that complexity and sophistication aren’t needed to make literature great. That wisdom and depth should be accompanied by light, warm humour and simple language, even when you’re writing about the darkest themes.

Charles Dickens is the only teacher you could possibly need for a Ph.D. in drawing characters.

Kurt Vonnegut makes this list for his constant ”Hey, but seriously?” irony, black humour and – in spite of all – his love of humanity. If you think a novel has to be serious to explain the world and you’re proud of having read Dostoevsky over and over, try Kurt. He explained everything that ever needed to be explained, his books are shorter and they‘re extremely funny.

Without Henning Mankell, I’d never have written a crime novel. I discovered him at the start of my career, and I was amazed to find that the same book can provide an in-depth analysis of a society as well as a gripping and well-plotted crime story. That was when I decided to write a crime novel underlined with a social commentary. Societies, with all their wrongs and lies, have always interested me more than individuals.

Pierre Lemaitre, on the contrary, was the reason why I stopped writing crime stories. I discovered his books and wept. While the rest of us competed within the genre of police procedurals, this French author upped and invented a crime genre of his own. The moment I realized what he had done, I decided to quit the contest. We may only be crime writers, but we’re still artists, whose task is to find our own way, not just to follow trails cut by others.

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