Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews



DEEP DOWN DEAD by Steph Broadribb


Steph Broadribb (

Orenda Books (


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.

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NO WAY BACK by Matthew Klein

No-Way-Back-by-Matthew-Klein NO WAY BACK

Matthew Klein (

Corvus (


Jim Thane is a restart executive, a Silicon Valley veteran who specialises in taking on failing companies and turning them around, making them profitable. Jim’s latest assignment has taken him to the oppressive heat of Florida, where Tao Software needs his specialist skills. Within days, Jim has discovered that someone has been embezzling – to the tune of three million dollars – from the company, and that the previous CEO was involved with a very unsavoury crowd. Caught between the FBI and the Russian mob, Jim quickly discovers the real reason he was given this job and just how much danger comes as part of the package.

On Monday morning, at one minute past nine o’clock, I sit in a Florida parking lot counting cars.

It’s an old trick, the easiest way to take a company’s pulse: arrive at the beginning of the business day – on the dot – and see how many employees have bothered to show up. You can tell a lot about a company from its parking lot.

No Way Back has the feel of two different novels glued together in the middle. In this case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the transition from one to the other is much less jarring than that statement might lead you to believe. At the centre of the story is its narrator, Jim Thane, a Silicon Valley veteran who now specialises in rescuing or salvaging failing technology companies. When the story opens, Jim has been clean for two years, but spent most of the previous decade drinking, taking meth and paying high-class prostitutes for sex. Somewhere in that deep and distant past, a past of which he is now extremely ashamed, he was responsible for the death of his only son, who drowned in the bath whilst in Jim’s care. This tragedy has forced a wedge between Jim and his wife, and the tension between them is palpable in the numerous scenes they share.

The first half or so of the book concerns Jim’s efforts to turn Tao Software around. The company haven’t made any money for years, mainly because they have nothing to sell – their only product is very much still in development and no-one seems to have thought about how, or to whom, they might sell it anyway. Klein’s background in the industry provides him with plenty of material, and it’s often presented in a blackly humourous way that skewers both the industry and the individuals that work within it. As someone who has been making a living in software development for close to fifteen years, I found it cut very close to the bone, at once perfectly accurate and laugh-out-loud funny. With little more than the occasional nod to the threat that Jim will ultimately face, Klein still manages to make this first section of the novel extremely readable and strangely exciting. Which, given the novel’s corporate setting, is something to shout about.

The trouble starts on a Tuesday afternoon in September.

As the second section of the novel begins, Klein shifts up a couple of gears and brings the threat into the forefront of the narrative, taking Jim completely out of his comfort zone. As the pressure builds, Jim starts slipping into old habits, and when he discovers that his neighbours are watching his house, he starts realise that nothing is quite what it seems. Tension mounts – along with the body count – until the shock ending, one of only many twists and turns the reader will encounter along the way. For me, this final twist was one too far, and raised as many questions about the preceding narrative as it answered. Suddenly things that we had taken for granted no longer made any sense. While it by no means ruined the novel for me, it left me feeling slightly cheated and a little bit flat.

Jim Thane is a character that the reader will love to hate; his current job and his horrible past combine to leave very few likeable qualities, and yet we still feel sorry for him when we see how he is treated by his wife, or how his life begins to fall apart at the seams as he digs into Tao Software’s history. That said, he’s an engaging narrator and often brings some comic relief to otherwise tense situations. The combination of thoroughly unpleasant central character and corporate subject matter should make No Way Back the ultimate snooze-fest, but what we find is the complete opposite: engaging and entertaining, we are compelled to keep going, as much to see if Jim can turn the company’s fortunes around, as to find out what’s happening with the Russian mob.

Overall, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read. A slightly misjudged ending is the only thing holding it back from “excellent”. There is a ready-made audience in Klein’s peers in the software industry, or anyone who has ever worked in a corporate environment, but No Way Back will also have a much wider appeal and should be perfect for anyone who likes their thrillers to have a slow build and an ending that packs a punch.

RUSH OF BLOOD by Mark Billingham


Mark Billingham (

Little, Brown Book Group (


Released: 2nd August 2012

Six Brits – three couples – meet at the pool of a Florida Keys resort while on holiday, and become friendly over the course of the two-week holiday. On their last day, a child goes missing – a fourteen-year-old girl with special needs, a fellow guest at the resort. Two months later the couples get together for dinner back home, and conversation is dominated by the girl, and the fact that she has still not been found. When Jenny Quinlan, Trainee Detective Constable with the Metropolitan Police, visits the six with some follow-up questions, the group begins to splinter, and tensions rise. They have all, it seems, been less-than-honest with the local police when questioned on the scene. The disappearance of a second girl in Kent under similar circumstances causes Quinlan to dig further: all of these people had means and opportunity in both cases and she can find no reason to believe that any of them are innocent.

Rush of Blood (my first Mark Billingham, surprisingly) takes no time to getting to the point and plunging the reader headfirst into a cleverly-constructed mystery that keeps us guessing to the very end. The action moves from London – where our six protagonists prepare to meet up for dinner for the first time since they met in Florida – to Sarasota – where Detective Jeff Gardner is still trying to find a break in the case of the missing girl – and, through a series of flashbacks, to the resort where the three couples meet and the girl disappears. Additional viewpoints – Jenny Quinlan and the first-person narrative of the murderer – serve to show these characters from different angles, and to deepen the mystery surrounding them.

Billingham sets out his stall early on – this is not a mystery novel that is designed for the reader to solve. Each of the six protagonists have something to hide, and any one of them could have taken the girl on that last day in Florida. While he never holds anything back from the reader, he obfuscates the facts by phrasing them ambiguously:

Half an hour later, one of the couples is in bed and both he and she are reading: a novel that had been discussed on a television book club and the autobiography of a northern comedian. Another couple is making love, and, although the cabins are detached, the walls are thin and on a still night such as this one the sound carries easily from one to another, so they take care to keep the noise down.

The third couple is arguing.

This “one couple, another couple” style is something he uses throughout, and to wonderful effect in the unmasking of the murderer at the end of the book – it is several pages before the reader is let in on the identity, prolonging the suspense, and giving us one last chance to change our mind as to who we thought it might have been.

The characters are all stereotypes (the surly builder with the short fuse; the obnoxious “lad” with an eye for anything in a skirt and a seemingly endless repertoire of tasteless jokes; the excitable, gossipy housewife), but they come with enough padding to lend them some credibility and realism. It’s difficult to find a redeeming feature in any of them, but this makes them very compelling characters to read about, and the discovery that all of them have lied – to a greater or lesser degree – to the Sarasota Police keeps the reader glued to the page despite the fact that they’re a thoroughly unlikeable bunch.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Rush of Blood is the first-person narrative of the murderer. This puts us inside the head of a very disturbed – and disturbing – individual with some very interesting views on the equality of man and the inadequacy of the law. Once again, though, Billingham presents this to the reader in such a way that it provides no definitive answer as to the identity of the murderer.

I felt – I still feel – that punishing me for what I’d done would be wrong. That seemed blindingly obvious, even then. I was positive that if I was ever caught, the powers-that-be would see sense pretty quickly. Once I’d explained, as soon as they’d been made to understand about…fairness, then any kind of punishment wouldn’t really be an issue.

Rush of Blood is a smart mystery coupled with an examination of the human condition, and our relationships with each other. It’s a gripping and entertaining read and Billingham maintains firm control throughout. The characters come to life through natural dialogue and individual tics that make them interesting to the reader. The fact that any one of them could be a suspect keeps the reader on their toes and it’s impossible to make a guess (“it was him!”) and stick with it throughout the course of the novel. A brief appearance by series character Thorne provides a bonus Easter Egg for long-time fans of Billingham’s work, but this is a standalone novel and, as such, is an excellent place to start. Be careful, though: it’s impossible not to get hooked. A wonderful, entertaining read that will make the ideal companion by the side of the pool.

KILLER MOVE by Michael Marshall


Michael Marshall (

Orion (


Michael Marshall is something of a cult writer. His first three novels, as well as the vast majority of his short stories, were published under the name Michael Marshall Smith and were mainly classified as science fiction (the novels) and horror (the stories). In 2002 he dropped the “Smith” and published his first piece of “crime fiction” in the form of The Straw Men.

Nine years later, “Marshall” has produced six novels (of which Killer Move is the latest), while “Smith” continues to produce a steady stream of short stories (you’ll go a long way before you’ll find a more disturbing short story than “More Tomorrow”, but that’s another discussion for another day).

Killer Move tells the story of Bill Moore, a Florida-based realtor who has an almost-perfect life: a great job, good standing in his community, a beautiful home in an exclusive gated community, and a perfect marriage to a woman he loves. If there is one blot on this idyllic life, it is that he is currently six and a half years into his five-year plan with no chance of achieving his goals under the current status quo. Moore is a techno-geek: he starts his day by reading positivity blogs, updates his Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and whatever other social networks he happens upon. He’s all about the “Bill Moore brand”, the image of himself that he has built up as the way he wants to be viewed by other people. In short, he’s a bit of an asshole, but a harmless one who most people actually seem to like.

When a small black card with the single word MODIFIED inscribed upon it appears on his desk – and its twin appears later at his house – he pays it very little attention. But then things start happening, things that affect his brand, and make him slightly uneasy: a book of fetish photography arrives from Amazon; an off-colour joke is sent from his email account to a group of friends and acquaintances. Things really take a turn for the worst when his wife discovers on his laptop a set of photographs of his female colleague – naked – taken with a telephoto lens. It doesn’t take long for things to turn violent, and Bill finds himself in the middle of a situation over which he has no control, and which he does not understand.

As with all of Marshall’s crime novels, there is a parallel storyline: the story of John Hunter, a man just released from prison after serving sixteen years for the murder of the woman he loved, a murder he did not commit. Hunter has only one goal: to find the people responsible and kill them, a goal which sets him firmly on a collision course with Bill Moore’s already unstable life. Following a well-established pattern in his books, Marshall tells the story from two viewpoints: Hunter’s story is told in the third person while Moore narrates in first-person for the sections where he is the star.

Killer Move is an unconventional thriller, like the rest of the Marshall back catalogue. Darkly funny at times and disturbing and graphic at others, it treads a fine line between straight crime and straight horror, while never actually fitting exactly into either genre. Bill Moore begins life as a despicable human being, self-centred and worried only about how everyone else views him. But as his story progresses, and we watch his life fall apart, we’re suddenly in his corner, fighting his fight. It’s because the scenario Marshall outlines is so plausible and so topical: what if someone got hold of your various ecommerce and social network passwords and started to change peoples’ perceptions of who you are? Would we even notice before it was too late to do anything about it? The Internet in general and social networking in particular has made the world a very small place. But it is arguably – in Marshall’s mind at least – a darker and much more dangerous place: we never really know exactly who it is we’re talking to or why they might be interested in us.

Fans of Marshall’s earlier trilogy will be pleased to know, without going into any more detail, that there are loose links between those books and this one, a small bonus for long-time readers. That said, it’s a standalone novel and a good jumping-on point for anyone who has yet to read Marshall (although I would personally recommend going back and starting with The Straw Men). Funny, thrilling, violent, the story moves at a cracking pace towards a devastating conclusion that will leave this story rattling around your head – and affecting your every online moment – long after the final page.

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