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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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LYING IN WAIT by Liz Nugent

Lying%20in%20Wait LYING IN WAIT

Liz Nugent (liznugent.ie)

Penguin Random House (www.penguinrandomhouse.com)

£12.99

Andrew Fitzsimons is a respected judge in the Dublin Criminal Courts system. He and his reclusive wife have been forced to kill a young woman and her body is now buried in their back garden. While Lydia seems to be in control of the situation, Andrew’s life begins to fall apart, especially when he suspects that their seventeen-year-old son, Laurence, knows what they have done. As the families of both the murderers and their victim fall apart, Laurence becomes obsessed with the identity of the dead girl. When a chance meeting brings the two families into contact with each other, it can’t be long until disaster strikes, especially not if Lydia has her way.

Liz Nugent’s second novel, Lying in Wait, opens with the murder of young Annie Doyle and spends the next three hundred pages slowly reeling the reader into a twisted and cleverly-structured thriller that has surprises at every turn. Alternating between the first-person views of Lydia (the wife of the murderer), Laurence (their son) and Karen (the sister of Annie), it first of all describes the havoc wreaked on the two families involved, before morphing into something very different, a dark and disturbing examination of obsession and madness and an answer, once and for all, to the question of whether blood is thicker than water.

We witness the crime through the eyes of Lydia, and it is here in this early moment of unguardedness that we see the truth of the matter: how Annie Doyle died, and how her body was disposed. It doesn’t take us long to realise that Lydia is a dangerous woman: manipulative and more than a little unhinged, it is clear that she has engineered the circumstances that led to Annie Doyle’s death. Her husband starts to fall apart almost immediately, not helped by Lydia’s demands that, should they be caught, he takes the full blame, for the best interests of their teenage son. Lydia has a dark past, one that might explain her disconnection from reality, and one that is slowly revealed, along with the reasons for Annie Doyle’s demise as the story progresses.

Laurence catches on quick that something is wrong, and immediately jumps to the obvious conclusion. His hatred of his father is fuelled by his father’s insensitivity about Laurence’s weight, and by his mother’s seeming innocence in the whole affair. This is the first real glimpse we catch of Lydia’s ability to manipulate and control the situation, but it still cannot prepare us for what is yet to come. Karen, meanwhile, a similar age to Laurence, gives us some insight into the family of the victim. With no body, there is no evidence that her sister is dead, though her disappearance has a profound effect on her family, tearing her parents apart and leaving Karen herself with an undeserved reputation when it is revealed that Annie was a heroin addict and prostitute. The lead detective on the case, O’Toole, is more interested in getting into Karen’s knickers than in finding what happened to her sister, and it is only five years later that she learns that the police did have a suspect but didn’t pursue the matter because he was a person of some power, and O’Toole was unwilling to rattle any cages.

The three threads of the story interweave and ultimately meet as the years pass, and no further word of Annie is heard. Laurence, twenty-three and still under the full control of his mother, becomes a hero with whom we can identify. Despite the terrible things he agrees to do in order to protect his family, we still feel that he deserves a good life, something that he is unlikely to achieve living in the shadow of Lydia. A chance encounter and a big heart find Laurence attempting to make amends for the actions of his father, little more than a token gesture, but as much as he can do until his friendship with Annie’s father leads to an introduction to his surviving daughter.

Lying in Wait is so well constructed that we never question the often outlandish turns of events, instead revelling in the twists and turns and ever-darkening tone of the story. This is, more than anything, Lydia’s story, and we watch, often in horror, as she manipulates her husband, her son and anyone else who comes into close proximity to protect herself, her home, and her family name. A masterful creation, her complex history has produced a woman who is quite clearly insane and who, once she sets her sights on something, will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

Liz Nugent’s writing is beautiful, the voices of the three narrators perfectly pitched, the quirks and tics we might expect in their speech beautifully translated to the written form. From the opening page, Nugent holds the reader in the palm of her hands, so the gut-punch she delivers as the novel draws to a close feels like a physical thing, leaving the reader stunned and disbelieving, emotionally drained yet already hoping for more more MORE! I missed Nugent’s debut, Unravelling Oliver, when it came out in 2014, but it’s definitely on my must-read list even as I try to recover from the effects of this one. An incredible novel, Lying in Wait is a lightning-fast read that should be an essential item for anyone packing for holiday. It cements Liz Nugent’s place as one of Ireland’s finest living novelists, and places her, at the very least, on this reader’s “must-read” list.

Lying-in-Wait-Blog-Tour

INFLUENCES: Magic on Every Shelf by VANESSA RONAN

Vanessa Ronan Name: Vanessa Ronan

Author of: THE LAST DAYS OF SUMMER (2016)

On the web: vanessaronanbooks.com

On Twitter: @vronan

To celebrate tomorrow’s launch of Vanessa Ronan’s debut novel, The Last Days of Summer, I’m very pleased to welcome the author to Reader Dad to talk about her influences as a writer.

My parents had a huge bookcase when I was little. This large, somewhat unsightly, slightly unstable-looking thing covered an entire wall. My father had built it himself, rather primitively, out of pine. Over the years, it served its purpose well enough, that bookcase. It moved to several houses with us—a clear, lasting testament in each that my father was no carpenter. Every warped shelf in it though was full. My whole life. Far back as I can remember. In fact, the bookcase was so full that that made its instability all the more frightening! Or thrilling. Depending on perspective. To me, that bookcase held magic on each shelf. I used to stand in front of it, looking up, wondering what stories on the upper shelves hid just out of sight and reach. By the time I left home, I’m pretty sure I’d read every book on those shelves…

My brother and I were home schooled all the way until college. My parents, both literature professors, placed a strong emphasis on our reading and writing from a very young age. We were taught that books were special things to be always handled with care. So, I guess it was somewhat unsurprising that my brother and I naturally gravitated more towards the literary side of our studies. Writing stories and poems was like a game for us, and we read and edited each other’s work from a very tender age. Who knows, maybe had our parents been astrophysicists or mathematicians that would have naturally turned our focus another way, but they weren’t, and in many ways it is only now as I reflect back on my early influences that I begin to fully realize just how deep an impact the classics—Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens—we were read as bedtime stories, later had on my writing career.

We moved to Mexico when I was five. A small colonial village high in the mountains of Michoacan. We had planned to live there nine months, but ended up staying two and a half years! It didn’t take long before the limited supply of children’s books my mother had brought for us to read and study ran out. With no TV, books were like films to us and we were hungry for them. That was when my mother started reading us the classics, though, as we grew, more contemporary fiction was read to us as well. The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay and The Once and Future King by T H White were the first two novels I fell in love with.

Most of my favourite writers I was first introduced to in childhood, though I have reread them many times as an adult. Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo has long been one of my favourite books. Cormac McCarthy, Isabel Allende, Tony Hillerman, and Larry McMurtry are my greatest influences and have been since I was small. I love poetry and C. K. Williams, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath, and Franz Wright have been especially influential. Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell inspired me around the time The Last Days of Summer was in its fledgling stages, while Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony gave me the courage to keep my novel without chapters. Her description of her book as ‘a single telling’ really spoke to me.

In the last few years I’ve found documentary films and documentary style reality TV programs increasingly inspirational, and they have definitely had an influence on my writing. They are a brilliant resource for character research and development. Seeing different ways of life on the fringes of society away and aside from the mainstream has been my current fascination.

My writing has been described as “dark.” I think that surprises a lot of people who know me. I’m a pretty happy person. I smile a lot. Believe in good karma. But I happen to like dark stories, too. That bit of mystery. Bit of grit. I was raised on the original Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales. Frankenstein and Dracula and The Shining were all bedtime stories before I was nine. Those early dark influences seem to have had a long-lasting reach…

It’s funny though, when I think back on my influences, I picture so many of those books that first inspired me where they sat on that bookcase my parents had. The pine one I mentioned before, so laden with books it looked about to keel over. I can see again the lines down their cracked spines. I can smell them. And it’s like I am a little girl again, standing there, looking up, just waiting for all the stories to rain down.

FINAL blog tour asset1

BROKEN ANGELS by Graham Masterton

BROKEN ANGELS - Graham Masterton BROKEN ANGELS

Graham Masterton (www.grahammasterton.co.uk)

Head of Zeus (headofzeus.com)

£16.99

The body of a priest is found in a river just outside Cork. He has been tortured, castrated and bound with harp wire before dying. Detective Superintendent Katie Maguire of the Cork Guardai picks up the case and discovers that the dead priest is one of many accused of abuse in the 1990s. When a second priest turns up, this one also tortured and castrated, Katie and her superiors fear a series of revenge killings against the clergy. It’s strange, then, that one of Cork’s most senior Roman Catholics is trying to keep the case off the front pages, even going so far as to actively misdirect Katie’s investigation. When a third priest goes missing, a new pattern begins to emerge, and secrets that the Church has guarded for decades are in danger of being revealed.

Picking up eighteen months after the events of White Bones, Masterton re-introduces us to Cork’s highest-ranking female Garda, Katie Maguire. Much has changed in the intervening time – Katie is happy, which makes a nice change from the stressful circumstances during which we were introduced to her – and yet much is still the same: Katie is still battling the same sexist attitudes at work, and the ever-present spectre of her dead son. In the tradition of the best noir, we know from the start that Katie’s happiness can’t last long – the stresses and tensions are what make her such an interesting character – and it isn’t long before the author begins to torment her once more.

At work, Katie is surrounded by a bunch of men who are as interesting as they are stereotypical. Backwards Irish country policemen, each and every one, they come across as often bumbling and slow, unable, at times, to follow Katie’s logic when she figures something out. They are almost comedic, bringing a surprising light-heartedness to the book that plays perfectly against the dark backdrop of the heinous crimes they are investigating. Don’t let the jovial tone of the inter-officer interactions fool you; this is a dark and often disturbing mystery, that spends considerable time in small rooms with chained-up priests and medieval instruments of torture that will have every male reader crossing his legs at one point or another. When violence strikes, it is sudden and graphic, all the more striking when set against the laid-back – and often daft – Irish personalities of both perpetrators and police, characters who might have stepped fully formed from the pages of a Roddy Doyle novel.

Masterton seems to touch on something of a taboo subject in the wilds of Catholic Ireland – the alleged (and often proven) sexual abuse of young boys and girls at the hands of the priesthood. As the story progresses, it quickly becomes clear that what is going on here is much more sinister, and much more disturbing. Through the actions of some, Masterton shines an unflattering light on the Church and, while the central tenet is purely fiction, it is entirely plausible and all the more frightening for its plausibility. Once again, Masterton shows a deep understanding of that part of the world, not only in terms of the language the people speak, or the way they live their lives, but also in terms of the thrall in which many people are held by the promise of eternal life.

While the deus ex machina that brings the novel’s climactic scene to an abrupt end seems rather out of place, it does give Masterton the perfect excuse for the ultimate punchline, a line spoken by one of Katie’s colleagues that more or less sums up the point the author has been making throughout:

Inspector Fennessy helped Katie back on to her feet. ‘Jesus,’ he said. ‘Maybe they did it. Maybe God did pay them a visit, after all.’

In all, it’s a cleverly-plotted mystery that manages to show the reader both sides – both the police and the murderers – without giving anything away until absolutely necessary. Masterton shows that he has still got a touch of what made him such a successful horror author, in the wonderfully-written but never overwrought scenes of torture and violence (you’ll be dreaming of castratori for weeks to come, at the very least), but also that he understands the fundamentals of human drama, creating a cast of characters that resonate with the reader, and make us want to come back for more. An unusual mix of “cosy” and “noir”, Broken Angels takes the foundations laid in White Bones and builds on them, cementing the Katie Maguire books as essentials for anyone looking for engaging, funny and frightening crime fiction. I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s next.

RATLINES by Stuart Neville

Ratlines - Stuart Neville RATLINES

Stuart Neville (stuartneville.com)

Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk/about-us/harvill-secker)

£12.99

It is 1963 and Ireland is preparing for an historic visit from US president, John F. Kennedy. The death of the third foreign national, a German businessman, in the space of a handful of days could threaten not only the presidential visit, but the relationship between Ireland the US; the dead men are all former Nazis living in Ireland with the blessing of the Irish government. They are all also overt warnings to Colonel Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s favourite commando and personal friend of the Irish Minister for Justice, Charles Haughey, that he is no longer safe. Albert Ryan, an officer of the Directorate of Intelligence and former member of Britain’s Armed Forces, is seconded to Haughey and charged with finding out who is carrying out these attacks.

So begins Lieutenant Albert Ryan’s investigation, and Stuart Neville’s fourth novel. Along the way we’ll encounter a host of former Nazis and French nationalists, Mossad agents, ex-army mercenaries, and the beautiful Celia Hume, as we watch Albert Ryan make his way carefully through the minefield that lies between duty and morality. Ratlines is, in many ways, a major departure for Stuart Neville. His first standalone novel, it is also the first not set in post-Troubles Belfast. Many of the themes he explores in his first three novels, though – the deep political and religious differences that divide Ireland in two being the most obvious example – are still very much in evidence here, if seen from a much different viewpoint than before.

Ryan is an interesting character – a Protestant from a small Monaghan town, he crossed the border during the Second World War and signed up with the British Army. To many of his countrymen, he is seen as a traitor and lickspittle, and this has repercussions for his family that he could probably never have foreseen; even in 1963, his parents are still dealing with the fallout of that rash decision. Twenty years later, he is a career soldier, albeit now working for the Irish Directorate of Intelligence, so he comes across as something of an innocent, a man very much out of touch with the modern workings of the world. No street-wise, wise-cracking detective here; think mid-Twentieth Century Jack Reacher, and you’re probably not too far off the mark.

Several of the characters – Haughey, Skorzeny – are modelled on real people and Neville’s narrative grows from a single fact – that Skorzeny spent some years living in Ireland with the permission of the Irish government – into a complex, engaging and plausible story in the vein of Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil. As the story progresses, Ryan’s chain of command becomes less clear, and it’s difficult for the reader to keep track of who he is now working for, or what promises he has made. This is a deliberate move on the author’s part, and is backed up by Ryan’s internal struggle between what he is employed to do – in this instance, protect the life of a famous war criminal – and what he feels is right – the expulsion of this man and all his kind from his country, exposing the corruption within the government at the same time. When it becomes apparent that there is also a lot of money at stake, it’s one more element to keeping the reader guessing just what Ryan’s intentions are.

At the heart of the novel is a knot of political tensions that shows a complex, and sometimes schizophrenic, side to Ireland. Tensions between Ireland and America on the eve of the presidential visit; potential tensions between Ireland and the fledgling Israeli state once Mossad discover the country is harbouring Nazi war criminals; the age-old tensions between Ireland and Britain that inevitably result in sectarian bigotry and outright violence. There is an excellent passage early in the novel, as Ryan thinks back to his days as a young boy working in his father’s shop, that shows how dementedly nationalistic the Irish can often be.

Would de Valera…side with Chamberlain? If it came to it, would he ask his fellow Irishmen to fight alongside the British?

Unthinkable, some would say. Old Dev would never sell his people out to the Brits.

But that Hitler, others would say, he’s bad news…

But he’s just a good nationalist, like us, looking out for his own people. Just like Old Dev did, like Pearse and Connolly did in 1916.

As a whole, the novel works very well. The ratlines of the title serve to tie several different stories together, and make sense of the many different groups trying to get their hands on Otto Skorzeny. It’s a cleverly plotted fiction built upon a solid and well-researched factual base. Part spy novel, part detective story, part examination of Ireland’s role in post-War Europe, Neville also manages to find a nice balance of action to keep the story moving quickly without losing any of its intelligence.

I’ve been a big fan of Stuart Neville since I got my hands on an early copy of his first novel The Twelve (The Ghosts of Belfast in the US). While I enjoyed the second and third parts of what turned out to be a loosely-defined trilogy (you can find my review of his third novel, Stolen Souls, here), neither quite lived up to the early promise of that sensational debut. Ratlines is, without a doubt, a return to form, proving beyond a doubt that Neville is more than a one-trick pony. His best novel since The Twelve, Ratlines takes Neville out of the post-Troubles niche and deals with subject matter that should open his work to a much wider audience than would previously have been interested. If you haven’t yet tried this young man’s work, Ratlines is an excellent place to start.

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