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Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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serial killer

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.

RAGDOLL Blog Tour Poster

DUST AND DESIRE by Conrad Williams

DUST AND DESIRE - Conrad Williams DUST AND DESIRE (A Joel Sorrell Novel)

Conrad Williams (conradwilliams.wordpress.com)

Titan Books (titanbooks.com)

£7.99

London-based private investigator Joel Sorrell has gotten himself entangled in a most bizarre missing person case. Hired to look into the disappearance of his client’s brother, Sorrell begins to believe that he may be on a wild goose chase, especially when his client vanishes into thin air. When the body-count starts to rise – most notably the man who cuts his own throat on the landing outside Sorrell’s apartment door – Joel discovers that there are ties here to his old stomping grounds in Liverpool. As he investigates, he begins to understand that someone from a past Joel would much rather forget is out for vengeance, and Joel is the target. But why him?

In a departure from his usual horror fare (Williams, in case you haven’t read him, is one of the most exciting British horror writers since, say, Ramsay Campbell or James Herbert), Conrad Williams finds himself in the guise of downtrodden London PI Joel Sorrell as he faces a case that will test him to the limits, and force him to examine his life so far. From the outset, it’s obvious that Sorrell is a man with a tough-guy reputation protecting a soft inner core, a damaged character with a history that haunts his every move and decision: his wife was murdered when he was still a trainee policeman, and his teenage daughter disappeared several months later, apparently unable to cope with her father’s approach to grief.

Sorrell is hired by Kara Geenan to find her brother who has disappeared, and Sorrell accepts the case despite his better judgement. In typical hard-boiled fashion, it isn’t long before he finds himself beaten and in trouble with the police in the form of a humourless man with whom he trained. The man he is trying to find seems not to exist, and when he attempts to get in touch with Kara, he discovers that she has disappeared. His investigation brings him into contact with a host of colourful characters, from the hulking doorman Errol, to the self-important Knocker, and a handful of ex-girlfriends, all the while attempting to maintain some semblance of normal life with his cat Mengele and the beautiful vet who is as lonely as he is.

The first-person narrative allows Joel’s personality to shine through in his strong voice. The writing is stylish, but not at the cost of substance, full of wit, yet tinged with the sadness that is a constant in Joel’s life. From the opening lines, there is a very definite hard-boiled feel to the narrative, something familiar, yet far from clichéd, a fresh take on an age-old voice. Often laugh-out-loud, there is a natural feel to the writing that leaves the audience feel less like a reader, and more like a listener.

I came out of the Beehive on Homer Street and trod on a piece of shit. Big surprise. I’m always doing it. It was the end of a pretty rough day, and the noble gods of misery obviously didn’t fancy me toddling off to bed without pissing in my pockets one last time. I looked down at my shoe. The piece of shit said: ‘Can you get off my face now?’ I lifted my foot and let him stand up.

While Dust and Desire (a reworking of Williams’ 2010 novel, Blonde on a Stick, released by Titan in anticipation of a second and third Joel Sorrell thriller next year) is a departure from the author’s horror roots, there is a darkness here that belies those roots and blurs the lines between the two genres. The occasional violence is shocking in its intensity and graphic in its execution. The frequent side-trips into the mind of the serial killer leave the reader feeling disturbed, somehow unclean, at once understanding his twisted logic and wishing that we didn’t. His status as a “leapling” gives him added dimension and makes him, somehow, even more disturbing – it’s not every day we come across a four-year-old serial killer.

Dust and Desire is Conrad Williams doing what he does best, regardless of genre: crafting a story that we want to read, and that draws us in from the first page. Beautifully-realised characters and an engaging plot combine to make this one of the must-read crime novels of the year. The prospect of more of the same in next year’s Sonata of the Dead and Hell is Empty fills this reader with joy and excitement. Conrad Williams brings a wealth of experience to the genre, yet gives us a fresh new voice that immediately places him at the front of the burgeoning Brit Noir scene.

NORMAL by Graeme Cameron

normal_frontcover NORMAL

Graeme Cameron (www.graeme-cameron.com)

Harlequin Mira (www.mirabooks.co.uk)

£7.99

Erica has been abducted by the man who killed and dismembered her best friend, and is now living in a cage in his basement. Her abductor is a seemingly ordinary man with a penchant for murdering pretty young women. But things aren’t going as planned: at the local supermarket, a pair of blue eyes are his downfall, and he finds himself falling in love with Rachel; his relationship with Annie, who he had planned on murdering, but who he ended up saving from potential rape, is complicated to say the least; and neither he nor Erica is sure who has the upper hand in their relationship, or why exactly Erica is still living in the cage in his basement weeks after her abduction.

Normal_BlogTourBannerFor his debut novel, Graeme Cameron puts the reader inside the head of a nameless serial killer at the point where his life takes a very strange turn. The narrator is an interesting character – friendly and personable, a man who might live next door, and who you might stop to have a conversation with on your way past his house. Like Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels, there’s more than a hint of black humour here, but Normal presents us with something altogether darker and more sinister: this man targets young women, and seems unable to control himself when in their presence. There is no moral code here, nothing to redeem him in our eyes. And, yet, it’s impossible to dislike him, and when things start to go pear-shaped as the story progresses, we find ourselves rooting for him, hoping that he might find a way out, despite the horrible things we have watched him doing.

A number of factors conspire to make the narrator of Normal question his career choices: his meeting with Rachel, and the rapport that quickly develops between them; the arrival on his doorstep of the police, who have linked him – however circumstantially – to the disappearance of a prostitute. But there seems to be a foreshadowing of this in his treatment of Erica: he gives her a microwave oven so she can cook her own food because she says she won’t eat anything that he has prepared; he spends hundreds of pounds on clothes for her, and takes her from her cage into his home where he allows her to bathe, and eat, and watch television. And even he is unable to explain why he has spared her for so long, or why he is now treating her like a houseguest rather than a prisoner held against her own will. It is a decision that will haunt him, given the new direction his life seems to be taking.

Cameron focuses on the relationship between abductor and abductee, and paints it in a completely unexpected light for the reader. These two people feel like a married couple at the end of their tether with each other. Erica becomes suspicious of her abductor’s motives, and gives him hell when he disappears for extended periods of time. When his kindness towards her inadvertently places her face-to-face with a CID officer, her reaction is completely unexpected. Interestingly, on his dates with Rachel, our hero feels some guilt about Erica, as if he is cheating on her. It’s an interesting dynamic, and Cameron uses it to great effect to drive the story in the direction he wants it to go. This is Stockholm Syndrome taken to the extreme, with a reciprocal feeling from the man who, for all intents and purposes, should be calling the shots, but who isn’t.

Normal is wonderfully written, and blackly funny throughout. The comparisons with Dexter will be obvious for the humour alone, but Cameron draws on – and extends – a much broader-ranging sub-genre. The first person narrative puts us in the head of this psychopath, with access to his thought processes and justifications for what he does. Not since Lou Ford, the protagonist of Jim Thompson’s seminal The Killer Inside Me, have we been so closely involved with the workings of the sociopathic mind. Despite the humour, Normal is a chilling and gripping read, made all the more so by the seeming outward normality of the man at its centre (and the sometimes questionable motives of those he encounters). There is a mastery of the language here that allows us to laugh out loud while we’re trying to think through the consequences of the narrator’s every action, and to wonder at just how plausible a plot-line it is.

If I have one complaint about the novel, it’s Cameron’s repeated use of “innuendoes” to insinuate murders that the narrator hasn’t committed. Throw-away lines like “[She] made a hell of a mess” play on the reader’s expectations, only to pull the rug out from under us several paragraphs or pages later. While it’s an interesting trick, and fits nicely with the overall light-hearted tone of the novel, I feel it was overused: once is clever; twice, slightly funny; beyond that it just gets predictable and irritating. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a reasonably minor quibble.

Graeme Cameron has done a phenomenal job with Normal. Taking the serial killer formula and playing with it to see what new and interesting shapes he can make has resulted in a dark and hilarious examination of the psychopath next door, and how quickly our carefully constructed world can start to crumble around us. It is a brilliant first novel, and I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about Cameron in the near future.

STOLEN SOULS by Stuart Neville

STOLEN SOULS - Stuart Neville STOLEN SOULS

Stuart Neville (www.stuartneville.com)

Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk)

£12.99

Released: 26 January 2012

Stuart Neville fairly burst onto the crime fiction scene in the middle of 2009 with his first novel, The Twelve (released later that year in the US under the title The Ghosts of Belfast). The novel, bearing high praise from James Ellroy, occupied a similar space to the novels of John Connolly – that fine line between crime and supernatural fiction – dealing with an ex-paramilitary haunted by the ghosts of the twelve people he had killed during his career. Collusion followed a year later, focusing on policeman Jack Lennon who, while not haunted in the traditional sense, had more than his fair share of demons. Lennon is once again centre-stage for the events of Neville’s third novel, the dark and oppressive Stolen Souls.

Galya Petrova is a nineteen-year-old Ukrainian lured to Ireland by the promise of well-paid work as a nanny and English teacher. After working on a mushroom farm, she is chosen and taken to Belfast where she is pressed into service as a prostitute. On her first night she cuts the throat of a man who turns out to be the brother of a Lithuanian mob boss. Before the night is out, three men are dead, Galya Petrova is in the hands of a man with less than honourable intentions, and Arturas Strazdas – a man who has built an empire on drugs and prostitution – is leaving no stone unturned in an attempt to get vengeance for his dead brother. Enter Detective Inspector Jack Lennon, a man who wants to spend a quiet Christmas with his daughter, and who finds himself in the middle of what looks like a gang war that is only just kicking off.

Neville takes us back to the familiar territory of his earlier novels, and into the bleak world of Jack Lennon as he navigates life in post-Troubles Belfast. Lennon doesn’t have much going for him – he’s a Catholic who joined the police force at a time when doing so was frowned upon at best; he formed a relationship with a young woman who turned out to be related to one of the leaders of a local Republican paramilitary organisation and ran when he got her pregnant. Now, eight years later, he is struggling to balance his career and his homelife, beset on all sides by enemies: his once-friend Dan Hewitt is working behind the scenes to make his work-life miserable, while his daughter’s aunt is constantly on the phone trying to talk him into handing custody of the child over to her mother’s family.

This is a bleak and violent novel, mirroring the situation in which Lennon finds himself. It takes place over the course of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the unexpected snow which blankets the city adding to the sense of oppression and entrapment. Belfast itself is an important character part of the novel, bringing a unique atmosphere to the story. There is the sense that it’s a city not well-liked by any of the characters, natives and foreigners alike:

Herkus had liked Belfast at first, but now it grated on him. The rain, the small-mindedness, the damned pompous self-importance of its people who thought their petty little war was more important than anyone else’s.

Beneath the surface of the city, a feeling that Neville captures and expresses perfectly, is the threat of a violence that could be ancient history but is more likely lying dormant, awaiting an opportunity to return:

‘Or maybe Sam and the foreigner killed Tomas, and someone else took exception to that and held them to account.’

‘Tit-for-tat?’

‘Just like the good old days,’ Lennon said.

There is a beauty to Neville’s writing that shines through the violent, everyday subject matter. In some ways, Galya and Lennon are very similar people, both fitting the title of the book. Galya has been forced into a life of prostitution with no way of ever repaying her debts and returning home to her family, trapped in the soul-destroying life that others have chosen for her. Lennon’s suffering is, for the most part, self-inflicted and it seems there can be no way out for him either. Instead he moves through the city righting wrongs in an attempt to salve his own conscience, or buy his own redemption. There is little relief in this novel, scarce humour to lighten the constant tension, the tone of the book summarised in Lennon’s own musings:

Jack Lennon knew a human soul could bear an almost infinite amount of shame as long as it remained inside, and stayed hidden from others. Many bad people survived that way. In the quietest minutes of the night, he wondered if he was one of them.

Despite the bleak tone, and the philosophising, Neville has produced another brilliantly-plotted and well-paced crime novel. Like Collusion, it fails to quite reach the heights of The Twelve, but let’s face it, “brilliant” rather than “exceptional” is still something to shout about. Unlike many other Northern Irish crime writers, Neville has not only acknowledged the region’s recent history, but embraced it and made it a central part of the wonderful trilogy of which Stolen Souls is the perfect closing chapter. While it works as a standalone piece of fiction – canned history is included which will give the first-time reader enough to avoid being completely lost – it works best when read in conjunction with the first two novels. Stolen Souls cements Stuart Neville’s reputation as one of Northern Ireland’s finest exports, and a crime writer to keep on your radar.

TABOO by Casey Hill

TABOO-Casey Hill TABOO

Casey Hill (www.caseyhillbooks.com)

Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.co.uk)

£6.99

“First in a new series featuring forensic investigator Reilly Steel,” the review copy informs me and I’m immediately on my guard. In my experience, this means one of two things: the author has already planned out the first twenty-seven books in the series and none of them are particularly good, or my bank account is about to take another long-term hit as I try to keep up with the annual release schedule of another must-read series.

Reilly Steel is an American crime scene investigator, trained at Quantico, and now living and working in Dublin trying to whip the new Garda Forensics Unit into some sort of shape. When a young couple is found dead in an apartment in an upscale part of the city, Reilly finds herself working with Detectives Chris Delaney and Pete Kennedy, and all three find themselves drawn into a deadly cat-and-mouse game with a serial killer who is completely in control and, seemingly, one step ahead of the police. Reilly’s unorthodox working methods give the Gardai an edge they would otherwise have been missing, and it soon becomes evident, as the body count rises, that the killer is toying with Reilly directly..

Simon & Schuster seem to have cornered the market this year in thrillers written by people who normally write in other genres (see my ALTAR OF BONES review). Casey Hill is the pseudonym of husband and wife team Kevin and Melissa Hill. Melissa Hill, for anyone unaware, is one of Ireland’s major players in the so-called “chick lit” market. TABOO, as well as being the first book in the Reilly Steel series, is also the couple’s first thriller.

The plot picks up quickly, and we’re introduced to the characters as we find ourselves standing in the middle of the various crime scenes. Early on, the book suffers from a touch of what I like to call Pattersonitis: discoveries and deductions are made early in the chapter then referred to in veiled and, sometimes, convoluted terms so that it can be dropped on the reader as a massive revelation in the chapter’s final sentence. Fortunately, it’s not a full-blown case, and it’s a lot subtler than the look you, this is important! style that Patterson tends to use. But towards the middle of the book, it’s as if the Hills find their stride – and their voice – and the read becomes a lot more natural and a lot less frustrating.

The identity of the killer will become apparent to the reader a lot sooner than it does to Reilly and the detectives, but there’s still enough uncertainty – a mistrust of certain central characters threaded through the narrative – that it’s impossible to get cocky about it, and until the final reveal, you can’t quite be sure if you’re right. It’s something of a formulaic serial killer novel, but it’s a formula that works, and Hill’s style is fresh and interesting. This one is going to appeal to fans of Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs and probably even Boris Starling. It’s a fast-paced novel which will keep you on your toes and drop a new murder in your lap before you’ve finished trying to get your head around the first one. And while there’s no pervasive sense of place – TABOO could take place anywhere – it’s not overly important to the novel.

Steel is an interesting character – smart, sexy, damaged beyond belief – and has enough charm to carry a series. She’s also a lot more accessible than Kay Scarpetta or Temperance Brennan, mainly because Hill has kept the science to a minimum and concentrated on the excitement. It’s an assured debut with a number of issues, but if the evolution of writing style evident over the course of these four hundred odd pages is anything to go by, this is a writing team that has just hit its stride. I’m expecting great things from Reilly Steel #2. The Reilly Steel series will be hitting my bank account for the next few years at least.

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