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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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murder

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.

The-girl-before_Blog-Tour-Card

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

RAGE by Zygmunt Miłoszewski

RAGE - Zygmunt Miloszewski RAGE

Zygmunt Miłoszewski

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

AmazonCrossing (www.amazon.com)

£8.99

The discovery of a skeleton in a construction site in the historic Polish city of Olsztyn brings Prosecutor Teodor Szacki into the spotlight when it is discovered that the bones are fresh, the rest of the body chemically dissolved. Identifying the remains proves relatively easy, but that’s only the start of Szacki’s problems. When more victims turn up, it becomes clear that the killer is carrying out their own flavour of vigilante justice on perpetrators of domestic abuse. With the kidnap of Szacki’s teenage daughter, things become personal, and Szacki finds himself closer to an answer to the age-old question: what could be enough to make a man kill?

I’m not a fan of jumping into series that are already several books along, and Zygmunt Miłoszewski’s latest, Rage, is a very good example why: after spending the book discovering a great new voice in crime fiction, and a protagonist who is unlike any other I have encountered, it turns out that this is said protagonist’s final book. While it’s a disappointing end to an excellent book, Rage does work very well as a standalone novel, and Teodor Szacki is a character you are unlikely to forget.

Szacki himself is a prosecutor, the sort of character who turns up all the time in European crime fiction, but who doesn’t have any counterpart in the British or American justice systems. Originally from Warsaw, Szacki is now practicing in the historic city of Olsztyn and he immediately comes across as the big-city character who, despite the pros, can always find something to complain about in his new provincial surroundings. If it isn’t the region’s dreary weather, it’s the traffic planner, and if not him, then Szacki is sure to have something else to complain about.

Despite his gruff ways, he’s an interesting character, a man with a tough exterior coating a softer – and distinctly likeable – centre. There is a black humour that pervades the novel’s every page, a kind of gallows humour that brings levity even at the most unexpected moment, and it often comes from Szacki’s very cynical viewpoint. He finds himself surrounded by one of the oddest casts of characters ever gathered behind the cover of a serious novel, from his boss who refers to him as Misterteo, his by-the-book and thoroughly inflexible subordinate Falk, to the university anatomist with the unlikely name of Doctor Frankenstein.

Despite the humour, and the somewhat off-the-wall characters, Rage brings with it an important message, shining a light on the topic of domestic abuse, and how it is dealt with – or, more often, ignored until it is far too late – by the authorities in many countries: Szacki finds himself in the uncomfortable position of potentially sending one woman home to her death, the result of a very old-fashioned viewpoint combined with the lack of a clear strategy for dealing with the sort of cases that Miłoszewski uses to highlight the problem. And in order to remove any doubt from the mind of the reader, the author places his story in a very specific period in time – late 2013 – by opening each chapter with a brief overview of that day’s news, starting from a global perspective, and working towards news local to the novel’s setting (amusingly, these news reports always end with a distinctly gloomy weather forecast for the region).

The novel takes a dark turn as Szacki makes the final deductive leap and realises who is behind the horrific murders and mutilations. It’s an unexpected turn, a moment of horror that jars the reader out of the complacency so wonderfully evoked by the author’s storytelling style. It forces us to stop and question our loyalties and poses the difficult question: what might I have done in the same position? It’s a master-stroke and ensures that Rage will remain with the reader long after the final page.

This is dark – and darkly humorous – European crime fiction at its best. Anyone who has enjoyed the Verhoeven novels of Pierre Lemaitre will find something to love in Teodor Szacki and the novels of Zygmunt Miłoszewski. If, like me, you’d prefer to meet Szacki at the start of his fictional journey, it’s probably best to start with Entanglement and work forwards, but there may be benefit to starting with Rage and reading out of order – I’ll certainly let you know when I’ve gone back and read the others. Miłoszewski is a writer of unmatched talent, and Rage, ably translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, is one of the finest novels you’ll read this year. Not to be missed.

VIGIL by Angela Slatter

9781784294021 VIGIL

Angela Slatter (www.angelaslatter.com)

Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)

£14.99

Verity Fassbinder’s background makes her the perfect peacekeeper in the Australian city of Brisbane. The product of a Normal mother and Weyrd father, Verity has access to both worlds despite her lack of Weyrd attributes. When a siren is murdered on the heels of Verity’s discovery that someone is selling wine made from the tears of children to a select group of the city’s Weyrd inhabitants, Verity’s employers demand answers before the tentative peace between Normal and Weyrd is irrevocably damaged. Throw in a foul-smelling dervish that does not distinguish between Normal and Weyrd when looking for a meal, and an angelic host who are not as cuddly as religion might lead us to believe, and Verity will be very lucky if she – and everyone she loves – makes it out of this case in one piece.

From its opening pages, Angela Slatter’s debut novel – and the central character that narrates it – has the cynical voice of an old-fashioned hard-boiled detective novel. Verity Fassbinder is an enforcer and private eye rolled into one, her main source of employment ex-boyfriend Zvezdomir ‘Bela’ Tepes and the Council of Five who rule Brisbane’s Weyrd population. Initially hired to find why Normal children have been disappearing, Verity’s case soon widens to include a dead siren and an unknown entity that seems to be eating Normal and Weyrd alike, leaving a trail of rubbish in its wake. Along the way, she attempts to navigate something resembling a normal life, with a boyfriend and a next-door neighbour with a child who treats her like a beloved aunt keeping her grounded in reality.

The mixture of these two very different worlds feels very natural, despite the fact that we’re given little time to adjust and acclimatise to this strange new world. Unlike the usual series opener, Slatter takes little time to examine backstory or introduce us to the characters, instead throwing us into the deep end, quite literally into the middle of the action, and feeding us what information we need to allow us to keep up. As a result, Vigil feels less like the first book in a series, and more like a later volume, populated with characters with whom we have spent a lot of time and shared a lot of adventures (I’ll admit I had to consult with Google to ensure I wasn’t missing an earlier volume or three). Like much of what Slatter does with Vigil, it’s a ballsy move, but one that works surprisingly well. Verity as a character is difficult to dislike, and her voice is more than engaging enough to carry the reader through a story that rarely rests, moving from one awesome set-piece to another.

In creating the Weyrd, Slatter has plumbed the depths of a myriad mythologies, and created a world where sirens live side-by-side with vampires, Norns and angels, amongst others. There are parallels here to Gaiman’s American Gods, both in terms of the variety of backgrounds, and also in the concepts of longevity of some of the species and the requirements for their continued existence. Verity has inherited little of her father’s magical abilities, though a kind of super-strength ensures she can take care of herself, regardless of her opponent. Her ever-present chauffeur, Ziggi Hausmann, himself a member of the Weyrd, helps her deal with those situations where strength is of little benefit.

In tone and content, Vigil feels almost Chandleresque: Verity finds herself following a number of leads that all quickly turn out to be interconnected, annoying many of the wrong people in the process, and facing her own share of pain as she goes along. She is the very definition of cynicism, and it keeps her fresh and interesting. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), Verity is more mature that one might expect from the book’s brief synopsis, and the maturity sits well on her, elevating Vigil to something other than sparkly, teen-focused urban fantasy. While not quite as violent as Daniel Polansky’s Low Town trilogy, there is a lot here that will appeal to its readers.

Brisbane itself – Brisneyland – plays an important role in the story, and Slatter introduces the reader to her home town by showing us its unflattering underbelly and pointing out its problems and foibles. The location serves to keep the story fresh and interesting – for many readers it’s a place we have never visited, and it makes a refreshing change from London or New York.

Vigil is a brilliant debut novel from an exciting writer who cut her teeth on short stories. Pacy and engaging, it’s a book that demands to be finished once it has been started. Verity Fassbinder is a name, and a character, not quickly forgotten by the reader, sure to become a staple of the genre as the series progresses, as instantly recognisable as, say, Sookie Stackhouse or Katniss Everdeen. Angela Slatter is a confident and talented writer whose ability to build worlds is surpassed only by her skill in populating them. A complete story in its own right, Vigil is, nevertheless, the first book in a series, and it leaves the reader gasping for more as it draws to a close. Already one of my favourite books of the year, I can’t help but recommend this to everyone.

Verity Fassbinder’s background makes her the perfect peacekeeper in the Australian city of Brisbane. The product of a Normal mother and Weyrd father, Verity has access to both worlds despite her lack of Weyrd attributes. When a siren is murdered on the heels of Verity’s discovery that someone is selling wine made from the tears of children to a select group of the city’s Weyrd inhabitants, Verity’s employers demand answers before the tentative peace between Normal and Weyrd is irrevocably damaged. Throw in a foul-smelling dervish that does not distinguish between Normal and Weyrd when looking for a meal, and an angelic host who are not as cuddly as religion might lead us to believe, and Verity will be very lucky if she – and everyone she loves – makes it out of this case in one piece.

From its opening pages, Angela Slatter’s debut novel – and the central character that narrates it – has the cynical voice of an old-fashioned hard-boiled detective novel. Verity Fassbinder is an enforcer and private eye rolled into one, her main source of employment ex-boyfriend Zvezdomir ‘Bela’ Tepes and the Council of Five who rule Brisbane’s Weyrd population. Initially hired to find why Normal children have been disappearing, Verity’s case soon widens to include a dead siren and an unknown entity that seems to be eating Normal and Weyrd alike, leaving a trail of rubbish in its wake. Along the way, she attempts to navigate something resembling a normal life, with a boyfriend and a next-door neighbour with a child who treats her like a beloved aunt keeping her grounded in reality.

The mixture of these two very different worlds feels very natural, despite the fact that we’re given little time to adjust and acclimatise to this strange new world. Unlike the usual series opener, Slatter takes little time to examine backstory or introduce us to the characters, instead throwing us into the deep end, quite literally into the middle of the action, and feeding us what information we need to allow us to keep up. As a result, Vigil feels less like the first book in a series, and more like a later volume, populated with characters with whom we have spent a lot of time and shared a lot of adventures (I’ll admit I had to consult with Google to ensure I wasn’t missing an earlier volume or three). Like much of what Slatter does with Vigil, it’s a ballsy move, but one that works surprisingly well. Verity as a character is difficult to dislike, and her voice is more than engaging enough to carry the reader through a story that rarely rests, moving from one awesome set-piece to another.

In creating the Weyrd, Slatter has plumbed the depths of a myriad mythologies, and created a world where sirens live side-by-side with vampires, Norns and angels, amongst others. There are parallels here to Gaiman’s American Gods, both in terms of the variety of backgrounds, and also in the concepts of longevity of some of the species and the requirements for their continued existence. Verity has inherited little of her father’s magical abilities, though a kind of super-strength ensures she can take care of herself, regardless of her opponent. Her ever-present chauffeur, Ziggi Hausmann, himself a member of the Weyrd, helps her deal with those situations where strength is of little benefit.

In tone and content, Vigil feels almost Chandleresque: Verity finds herself following a number of leads that all quickly turn out to be interconnected, annoying many of the wrong people in the process, and facing her own share of pain as she goes along. She is the very definition of cynicism, and it keeps her fresh and interesting. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), Verity is more mature that one might expect from the book’s brief synopsis, and the maturity sits well on her, elevating Vigil to something other than sparkly, teen-focused urban fantasy. While not quite as violent as Daniel Polansky’s Low Town trilogy, there is a lot here that will appeal to its readers.

Brisbane itself – Brisneyland – plays an important role in the story, and Slatter introduces the reader to her home town by showing us its unflattering underbelly and pointing out its problems and foibles. The location serves to keep the story fresh and interesting – for many readers it’s a place we have never visited, and it makes a refreshing change from London or New York.

Vigil is a brilliant debut novel from an exciting writer who cut her teeth on short stories. Pacy and engaging, it’s a book that demands to be finished once it has been started. Verity Fassbinder is a name, and a character, not quickly forgotten by the reader, sure to become a staple of the genre as the series progresses, as instantly recognisable as, say, Sookie Stackhouse or Katniss Everdeen. Angela Slatter is a confident and talented writer whose ability to build worlds is surpassed only by her skill in populating them. A complete story in its own right, Vigil is, nevertheless, the first book in a series, and it leaves the reader gasping for more as it draws to a close. Already one of my favourite books of the year, I can’t help but recommend this to everyone.

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

EPIPHANY JONES by Michael Grothaus

Epiphany Jones A/W.indd EPIPHANY JONES

Michael Grothaus (www.michaelgrothaus.com)

Orenda Books (orendabooks.co.uk)

£8.99

Tonight I’m having sex with Audrey Hepburn.

Jerry Dresden is something of a loner. Obsessed with sex and celebrity – and, very often, both at the same time – he spends his days working at the Art Institute of Chicago, and his nights in front of the computer, hunting down the latest faked images of the world’s most famous women. When one of his colleagues is murdered and a Van Gogh on loan to the Institute is stolen, suspicion quickly falls on Jerry. But he’s fairly sure he’s innocent. And when he meets Epiphany, a young woman who says she needs his help, he knows for certain he’s in deep trouble: Epiphany is the killer and the thief, and she has framed Jerry to ensure his cooperation. It doesn’t help that Epiphany thinks she talks to God. Following Epiphany from Chicago to Mexico, and from there to Europe – because of the promise of evidence of his innocence that Epiphany has in her possession – Jerry finds himself at the centre of a sex-trafficking scandal organised by Hollywood’s most powerful people, and unlocks dark memories that he has buried for almost twenty years.

I’m going to be perfectly honest: when it comes to sex in fiction, I’m not a big fan, especially when it doesn’t really (seem to) add much to the story at hand. So, for the first third of Michael Grothaus’ debut novel, I found myself constantly on the verge of packing it in. The novel’s opening line, above, more or less sums up the story’s central character, Jerry, a man who has taken masturbation to a whole new level, and who revels in sharing the details with the reader. Don’t get me wrong, Jerry is a funny guy, and finds himself in the middle of an intriguing mystery with an intense young woman for whom the word “captivating” seems to have been invented. So I persevered, and I would urge anyone who finds themselves in the same position to do the same. There is a point, around about the one-third mark where it feels like a switch has been flicked: the narrative takes on a much darker hue, and Jerry’s obsession takes a back seat to a new obsession with staying alive.

Told in the first person from Jerry’s point of view, the story gives us time to get to know our guide before throwing him in at the deep end. After losing his younger sister to leukaemia as a young boy, and being involved in the car accident that ended his father’s life, Jerry has gone off the rails. He suffers from delusions, often seeing people who aren’t there, and has a reputation with the people at work for inventing girlfriends. It comes as a great surprise to Jerry, then, when he discovers that Epiphany is, in fact, real. Unfortunately for him, her interest in him is not what he might have hoped for, and before long she is leading him on a dangerous journey across the world, all because the voices in her head told her that he could help.

In Jerry’s mind – and thus in the reader’s – Epiphany becomes a sort of modern-day Joan of Arc, a young woman who believes she has a direct line to God, and is on a mission that he has sanctioned. In stark contrast to Jerry’s comedic persona, Epiphany is a tortured soul, a woman not afraid to use violence to achieve her goals. As the story develops, it becomes immediately clear what Epiphany’s background is, but even that doesn’t help to soften the blow of the bombshell that she drops on Jerry, and on us, when she reveals exactly how he can help her.

From its comic beginnings, Epiphany Jones grows steadily darker until it becomes a book that is incredibly difficult to read at times: Grothaus pulls no punches, dropping the reader into the middle of his child trafficking and sex slavery storyline right alongside Jerry. There are no artistic fades or camera-pans here, just a brutal realism – even filtered, as it is, through Jerry’s mind – that leaves the reader with no questions about where their sympathies lie. This marked contrast between the first and second halves of the novel brings with it a surreal sense that we have taken a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in a completely different story. We are, in a way, taken unawares, lulled into a false sense of security before being exposed to the true horror of the dark underbelly of the world.

Despite my qualms with the book’s beginning, Epiphany Jones is one of the strongest and certainly the most original debut I’ve read this year. It’s a beautifully-written piece, and the author knows how to strike the right balance between comedy and real-life horror to ensure that he doesn’t alienate any part of his audience. Underpinned by a strong plot, Epiphany Jones is, nonetheless, driven by its quirky characters and by the relationships between them. Michael Grothaus has produced a mature and engaging debut that is sure to divide readers right down the middle and that, for me, is the ultimate sign of a great storyteller. Not to be missed.

13 MINUTES by Sarah Pinborough

13 Minutes - Sarah Pinborough 13 MINUTES

Sarah Pinborough (sarahpinborough.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£16.99

When the body of sixteen-year-old Natasha Howland is pulled from the freezing river, it takes paramedics thirteen minutes to revive her. Natasha is part of the popular crowd a school, a beauty queen and leader of “the Barbies”, a trio of blonde ice queens for whom status and appearance are everything. With so much going for her, it’s unlikely that her dip in the river was the result of a suicide attempt, but Natasha can’t remember any of the events leading up to her impromptu swim. With the help of her childhood friend, Rebecca, a girl she has recently shunned in favour of the Barbies, Natasha tries to piece together the days leading up to the incident, convinced that her so-called friends Hayley and Jenny were involved in some way. But as the mystery unravels, Rebecca discovers there is more to Natasha’s near-fatal drowning than anyone could have guessed.

From the outset, it’s clear that Sarah Pinborough’s latest novel is a change of direction from anything that she has written before; the resulting story is a cross between psychological thriller and young adult “high-school” fiction (with a distinctly British flavour). Within a handful of pages, the reader is captivated, putty in the hands of a writer who refuses to be constrained by genre boundaries, and who has proven time and again that she can manipulate her reader as easily as she does the characters on the page.

At the centre of 13 Minutes are two teenage girls from opposite ends of the social spectrum: on the one hand the blonde, thin, beautiful, popular Natasha; on the other, dark-haired, “dumpy geek”, almost-invisible Rebecca. Once close friends, these two girls are now separated by the chasm of teenage social hierarchy. Now, following her thirteen minutes in the arms of Death, Natasha returns to her old friend Rebecca who, in her desperation to be somebody, accepts Natasha’s return without question.

As always, the strength of Pinborough’s storytelling lies in her characters, in her ability to get deep inside the mind of a teenage girl, and show us the world through her eyes. In Natasha, we find a girl whose outlook on life has changed drastically since her return to life: there is regret for the fickleness of the younger her, the shallowness of a girl who values appearance over true friendship. Rebecca is equally damaged, but her life has taken a much different course from that of her childhood friend: she is part of the bottom end of the social structure, those classmates who are barely noticed, all but invisible to those around them. There is a jealous and needy streak that often surprises the reader when it rears its ugly, but it’s a result of that turning point in her life when Rebecca went from somebody to nobody at the whim of the most popular girl in school.

Told from alternating points of view of the central characters – Rebecca, Natasha, Detective Inspector Caitlin Bennett – the narrative is interspersed with documentary evidence – excerpts from Bennett’s case notes; interview transcripts between the girls and their therapist; newspaper clippings – that serve to give us further insight into the mind-sets of these characters. The mystery around which the story is constructed is interesting and engaging and when it takes a darker turn halfway through the book, we can’t help but be impressed by how completely taken in we were. There’s a touch of Pierre Lemaitre in Pinborough’s timing and execution, and in the ease with which she turns everything on its head.

Having skimmed through my reviews of previous Pinborough novels, I can see they are overflowing with gushing hyperbole. 13 Minutes shows that every word of it is true, as if we needed any further confirmation following last year’s stunning The Death House. This is the work of a writer at the very top of her game, one who is comfortable turning her hand to any subject, any genre. It’s a book that you won’t want to put down once you’ve started it, drawn in by the characters who are barely restrained by the book’s pages and by the author’s glorious ability to manipulate the reader in the same easy manner that she manipulates her creations. If you haven’t read Pinborough before, 13 Minutes is as good a place to start as any. If you have, then what are you waiting for? While you may not know what to expect story-wise, there’s one guarantee: there are very few writers as talented and as readable as Sarah Pinborough and 13 Minutes is an excellent new addition to an unsurpassed body of work.

NIGHTBLIND by Ragnar Jónasson

NightBlind-BF-AW-2-275x423 NIGHTBLIND

Ragnar Jónasson (ragnar-jonasson.squarespace.com)

Translated by Quentin Bates (graskeggur.com)

Orenda Books (orendabooks.co.uk)

£8.99

The violent death of Siglufjördur’s police inspector heralds a new age for the small northern Icelandic town. There are rumours of drug deals gone bad, police corruption and the involvement of the town’s mayor and deputy mayor. Ari Thór Arason, Siglufjördur’s remaining policeman, recovering from illness and dealing with the stresses in his relationship with the mother of his son, requests the help of his old boss, and together they investigate, leaving no stone unturned, no skeletons in any of the town’s closets, unravelling, as they go, a fifty-year-old mystery surrounding the house where the police inspector was murdered.

Nightblind is the second of Ragnar Jónasson’s novels to be published in English, even though it is the last of a five-book series published in the author’s native Iceland. Readers of Snowblind expecting to pick up where the first book left off may be disappointed, but if, like me, you missed that first book, it makes Nightblind a good jumping-on point, safe in the knowledge that it’s a reasonably stand-alone piece of fiction.

The book opens with the death of Herjólfur, the new police inspector of the small town of Siglufjördur, a remote town in the far north of Iceland with few links to the rest of the country due to the mountains and sea that surround and isolate it. Ari Thór Arason, the town’s remaining policeman, is finally starting to feel welcome as a local after five years serving the town and is unsure how best to look at Herjólfur’s tragic demise: as the tragedy it is; as a near miss, since it should have been him on duty when the murder took place; or as the long-awaited opportunity for Ari Thór himself to step up into the role of police inspector. As he and Tómas, Herjólfur’s predecessor who has since moved to Reykjavik, investigate, it becomes clear that Herjólfur may have been involved in shady deals, and all clues seem to point to the man who has recently become the town’s mayor, and the mysterious young woman whom he has chosen as his deputy and who is on the run from her own tortured and dangerous past.

With the exception of Tómas, who we really only see through the eyes of others, Jónasson gives us in-depth access to the minds of the central characters. What becomes immediately obvious is how unlikeable each and every one of them is: from Ari Thór whose self-interest and self-pity quickly wear thin, to Mayor Gunnar Gunnarsson whose private life is in danger of encroaching on his public life, to Siglufjördur’s resident criminal whose seemingly innocent mention of Ari Thór’s family hides a world of dangerous intent. In many ways Tómas is the only character with an ounce of humanity, an illusion perhaps created by the distance Jónasson maintains between him and the reader.

The town of Siglufjördur is an integral part of the story, and becomes a character in its own right. With a similar feel to the eponymous location of British television’s Fortitude, this small town likes to keep itself very much to itself, despite recent developments that allow more traffic to flow through the small town centre. Set at the onset of winter, Jónasson gives us some idea of the harsh conditions that have created this small, tight-knit community who spend three months of every year in almost complete darkness due to the mountains that surround them. There are a number of key themes that run through the book, giving the story an added depth that can sometimes be lacking from straight crime fiction, especially crime fiction of this length (Nightblind comes in at barely 200 pages). The most obvious of these is the sense of belonging or, more correctly, the feeling of not belonging; none of the key characters – Ari Thór, Herjólfur, Gunnar, Elín – are Siglufjördur natives, and it shows, despite their public roles within the community. There is a sense that the town is keeping something to itself, and one wonders what the locals know that we – and the story’s central characters – do not.

Other themes feel very closely linked together: no less than three of the characters are currently, or were at some point in the past, being unfaithful to their wives, husbands or partners. Without introducing spoilers, it’s sufficient to say that these traits don’t help in endearing the characters to the readers. Tied closely with this is the misogyny and violence against women – again, in more than one unrelated instance – that, in some ways, forms the very foundation of the story. Despite the small-town setting and the sometimes-laid-back nature of the people who live there, Nightbllind has a dark heart that turns this slim volume into something special.

Tensely plotted and perfectly paced, Ragnar Jónasson’s Nightblind is something of a revelation. There is no need to understand the backstory of these characters (thankfully, since three of the earlier books aren’t yet available in English!) in order to fully appreciate the events of the story. It’s a clever whodunit with a cast of memorable – though, to varying degrees, unpalatable – characters in whose stories, beyond all reasonable expectations, we find ourselves totally invested and a beautiful desolate setting that is as cold as it is exotic. I, for one, will be adding Snowblind to my reading list, and will be looking forward to the further adventures of the townspeople of Siglufjördur. In the meantime, I can’t help but recommend Nightblind to anyone who enjoys their crime fiction on the darker side.

THE INVISIBLE GUARDIAN by Dolores Redondo

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THE INVISIBLE GUARDIAN

Dolores Redondo (www.doloresredondomeira.com)

Translated by Isabelle Kaufeler

Harper (www.harpercollins.co.uk)

£7.99

The body of a young girl found on the banks of the Baztán River in Spain’s northern Navarre region calls for the expertise of the homicide squad from the nearby capital, Pamplona. Heading the team is Inspector Amaia Salazar, who finds herself returning to her childhood home town, Elizondo, to investigate this horrendous crime. As the body counts starts to rise, Salazar finds herself dealing with the stresses of the case, as well as the family strains that her move to Pamplona caused. Local mythology and superstition serve to further complicate an already complex investigation; meanwhile, the killer is still on the loose, and the frequency of his crimes is escalating quickly.

As Dolores Redondo’s debut novel opens, the reader gets the distinct impression that they have been here before; this is textbook crime fiction, a crime we’ve witnessed a hundred times over, and a troubled investigator who is likely to mirror a hundred others we’ve already spent time with. It doesn’t take long for Redondo to disabuse us of this notion, and set out her stall as something new, something interesting, a writer willing to take risks, and take the genre – and its readers – out of its comfort zone.

Amaia Salazar, the character at the centre of this rich and layered story, is like no fictional detective you have encountered before. As her backstory unravels, and the case progresses, we find ourselves in the presence of a strong, if troubled, person whose life has been shaped by her horrific and traumatic childhood. Tensions between her and the two sisters who stayed behind in Elizondo are palpable from the outset, and when one becomes a suspect in the case, Salazar’s sanity begins to unravel. Flashbacks to the Spring of 1989 gives us glimpses of her life as a girl growing up in this small, provincial Spanish town, and offers some insight into the person she has become. This is a troubled detective who is unlikely to take solace in the bottle, like so many of her predecessors, but for whom family and the promise of motherhood is the refuge she needs, even when she doesn’t realise it herself.

Alongside all this pressure, Amaia also finds herself dealing with a large dose of sexism, both on the institutional level, and in the eyes of small-minded, small-town people. Her assignment to the case by the Police Commissioner immediately causes friction with fellow Inspector, Fermín Montes, who immediately sets out to make her life more difficult. Interestingly, the rest of Salazar’s colleagues have a much more modern outlook, with her Deputy Inspector, Jonan Etxaide relishing the opportunity to learn from her.

Characterisation – and while Salazar is definitely the strongest character in the book, as you might expect, she is certainly far from the only strong or interesting character you’ll meet in the small town of Elizondo – aside, the other great strength in The Invisible Guardian, is in Redondo’s ability to instil a wonderful sense of place. Basing the action in a real small town in the northern reaches of the country, the author shows us a side of Spain that we tend not to see otherwise: it is February, and the Navarre region, nestled against the foothills of the Pyrenees, is cold and damp, a far cry from dense heat that we expect to find from a story set in this part of the world. But Redondo’s Navarre is much more than its geographical location; it is the people that inhabit it and their petty dislikes and superstitions, and the myths and legends that have sprung from these superstitions over the course of hundreds of years. The Invisible Guardian is soaked in these stories, these myths, and the investigation into the deaths of Ainhoa Elizasu and the other girls is inextricably linked with the beliefs of both the investigators, and of the townspeople with whom they are surrounded. Take this wonderful exchange, which, outside ultra-Catholic Spain, might seem a little odd:

She looked at Iriarte and pointed at him with her finger.

‘Inspector, can you bring me the calendars from your desk?’

Iriarte was back in barely two minutes. He put a calendar with a picture of the Immaculate Conception and another with a picture of Our Lady of Lourdes on the table.

The very name with which the media tag the killer, basajaun, shows just how deeply ingrained these beliefs, religious or otherwise, are in this little corner of the world and this underpinning is what gives Redondo’s novel its freshness, what makes it stand out from the crowd.

Forget Scandi-noir. When it comes to European crime fiction, it’s time to start looking elsewhere than the frozen wastes of the continent’s north. Dolores Redondo’s first novel shows that excellent crime fiction can come from Europe’s southern reaches as well. Steeped in atmosphere and driven by one of the most engaging protagonists to emerge for some years, The Invisible Guardian breathes new life into an old, creaking genre and paves the way for a new wave of fine Euro crime. The first book in The Baztán Trilogy, the second and third books of which are already available in Redondo’s native Spain, The Invisible Guardian is an accomplished and beautifully-written – not to mention ably translated, by Isabelle Kaufeler – work that will leave you gasping for more as your fingers whittle quickly through the final few pages.

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