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Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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thriller

INFLUENCES: Why I Write Crime Fiction by CANDICE FOX

9781784758066 Name: CANDICE FOX

Author of: CRIMSON LAKE (2016)

On the web: candicefoxauthor.com

On Twitter: candicefoxbooks

There was a lot of crime in my childhood, so my interest in crime began there, even if I wasn’t writing it as a young’un. My mother fostered 150+ kids who generally came from abusive, neglectful and criminal backgrounds. My father worked at a prison and my mother was a true crime nut who told real-life crime stories to us as kids. I used to peruse true crime mags and books in her bedroom from an inappropriately young age, which has probably desensitised me.

When I started writing I was trying to emulate the stories I liked, so I wrote gangster stories because I was a huge Martin Scorsese fan. But I didn’t have a good idea of structure, and found vampire stories (which are essentially just romances at times) easier when I was 16 or so and fell into Anne Rice and the like. A lot of those gothic influences linger, certainly most obviously in the Bennett/Archer series. I swung back toward Australian crime when I started reading Peter Temple in my early twenties.

Crimson Lake Blog Tour_editjpg

GUEST POST: Thriller vs Horror by TIM LEBBON

Hunt Front Cover hi-res NEW Name: TIM LEBBON (writing as T.J. Lebbon)

Author of: WHITE (1999)
                 BERSERK (2006)
                 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007)
                 COLDBROOK (2012)
                 THE HUNT (2015)

On the web: www.timlebbon.net

On Twitter: @timlebbon

Tim Lebbon, best known for his horror novels, is releasing his first thriller (under the name T.J. Lebbon) on 16th July. It’s a fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat beauty, and I will be reviewing it here on Reader Dad next week. For now, I’m very pleased – not to mention excited – to welcome Tim to the blog, to talk about the differences between writing in the two genres.

They say you should write about what you know. That’s interesting advice when you’re a horror and dark fantasy writer. I’ve never met zombies and have never seen a ghost, but the advice is not literal. I know about fear and loss, love and grief, and it’s this aspect of what you know that you try to inject into a story to bring it to life.

If you have seen a ghost, all the better.

Until I wrote The Hunt, everything I ever wrote had some element of the supernatural or fantastic about it. This includes over thirty novels (seven in collaboration with Christopher Golden), over twenty novellas, and hundreds of shorts stories, as well as several screenplays. I’ve often been asked why I write horror, and my answers vary quite a bit. Mostly, I just say that it’s the way my parents put my hat on. I don’t like to analyse why I write what I do, in the same why I don’t think too much about why I prefer red wine over white, rock and punk instead of pop, or red meat instead of fish. It’s a matter of taste, and taste is part of what makes us unique.

And then I wrote a thriller.

I’ve been wanting to write a thriller for some time. Part of it was wanting to stretch my writer’s wings a little and see if I could write something that has no supernatural elements. I’ve stopped and started a few thrillers over the years, and one or two of these have changed into horror or even fantasy novels. But with The Hunt I knew what it was right from the beginning.

And it really was writing about what I knew.

I got into endurance sports a little over four years ago. I went from a standing start––overweight and unfit, I found a sport I loved, and it really changed my life. I’ve written elsewhere about the process, what I went through, and how it all happened. Suffice to say, a little over two years after starting to exercise seriously (at the age of 41) I raced my first Ironman. That’s a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a marathon, all in under seventeen hours.

I started to learn about effort and pain, the physiology of exercise, the feeling of being up in the hills tired and thirsty and hurting, and still have a few miles to go until home. I loved it. I enjoyed being alone, and discovering a sport which is all about yourself, not teammates.

Being a writer, I knew that I’d write about this one day.

The Hunt is the result, a novel written with no contract in place, and definitely one of the most enjoyable writing experiences I’ve ever had.

So what was the difference between writing The Hunt and any of the horror/fantasy novels I’ve written? In truth, very little difference. The process was the same, and perhaps the greatest change was the amount of research involved in this book over others.

Firstly, I wanted to really use my new experiences as an endurance sports competitor. That was writing about what I knew (or what I was still learning a lot about, at least). Secondly, I had to get the landscape right. Set in the mountains of Wales, I needed to know the nature of the hills and valleys, their ruggedness and beauty, the weather, flora and fauna. Whereas in my fantasy novels I’d been able to make this all up (the sentient tumbleweed in Dusk being a particular favourite), in The Hunt I had to get it right. Although I did take geographical liberties, I like to think I got the feel of the mountains and wilderness just right.

I also had to research trophy hunting. That wasn’t very nice, and perhaps that’s the closest I got to horror with this novel.

Other aspects of writing remained the same. My characters were still thrust into shocking and dangerous situations, the only difference being that the main threat was from other people, not something supernatural (and aren’t we the scariest monsters anyway?).

I suppose the biggest difference about writing The Hunt has been since I’ve actually finished the writing process. After selling it to the very wonderful Avon, I soon came to realise that here I was, over thirty novels into my career, and now I was a debut novelist again! It was a strange feeling, but a strangely liberating one, too. I’m sure a few people will see through the cunning pseudonym of T. J. Lebbon, but working with Avon and their splendid PR company The Light Brigade has been a unique experience for me. I have features and interviews upcoming in the national press, and next week when the paperback is released I’ll see it on supermarket shelves. These are both new experiences for me.

As a debut novelist, these are exciting times!

COMPETITION: Win a Copy of Jonathan Freedland’s THE 3RD WOMAN

The 3rd Woman Jacket image THE THIRD WOMAN

Jonathan Freedland (www.jonathanfreedland.com)

HarperCollins (www.harpercollins.co.uk)

£12.99

To celebrate the release on July 2nd of Jonathan Freedland’s exciting new thriller, The 3rd Woman, which I will be reviewing here soon, those lovely folks at HarperCollins Publishers have given us three copies of the novel to give away. It couldn’t be simpler to be in with a chance to win: simply click here to send me an email with the answer to the question below as well as your name and postal address:

The 3rd Woman is Jonathan Freedland’s first novel published under his own name, but it’s not his first published novel. Jonathan has had a successful career publishing thrillers under a well-know pseudonym. What is it?

Entries must be received by midnight on Thursday 9th July, and the winners will be notified on Friday 10th July. This competition is open to UK residents only.

Don’t forget to follow the The Third Woman tour (see the banner for details), keep up to date with the buzz on Twitter and check back next week when I will be posting my own thoughts on the novel.

JFBLOGTOURBANNER

THE INQUISITOR by Mark Allen Smith

inquisitor_hardback_1849836558_300 THE INQUISITOR

Mark Allen Smith (www.markallensmith.com)

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

£12.99

Geiger is a man without a past; his life started with his arrival, several years before, in New York. Before that, a black hole. After chance leads him to the local Mafia boss, he decides to go into Information Retrieval – torturing subjects to extract information required by paying clients – and discovers that he is very good at it. Geiger rarely draws blood, but he has a knack for knowing truth from lies, and for understanding exactly how to get the information he needs. When a client presents a twelve-year-old boy as the subject instead of the expected adult, Geiger acts quickly without considering the consequences for himself or his partner, Harry: he grabs the boy and runs. But the client has the resources to track them down, and the motivation for getting the boy back and finding out what he knows; everyone else is expendable.

I will freely admit that when I read the blurb for The Inquisitor and learned that the author started out life as a screenwriter, I set my expectations for a very specific type of thriller. You know the type – two-dimensional characters and a very cinematic experience; a Jason Statham movie in book form. So I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. The central characters spring from the page fully-formed and with complete backstories, and the book reads like a well-structured novel, rather than the dialogue- and action-heavy converted screenplay we might have expected.

Geiger is a man of few words, and something of an enigma, even to himself. As events progress, we begin to see glimpses into his past, and the events that formed him. Throw in the fact that he has been seeing a psychiatrist since his “rebirth” and Geiger suddenly seems more human than he pretends to be. Given his line of work, he is clearly a man of few scruples, but he does have a strict moral code for which he is willing to sacrifice everything. It is in his relationship with his business partner, Harry, and, ultimately, his fast friendship with the boy, that we see the humanity behind the stone facade and find someone worth rooting for. His choice of name shows us something of the man’s personality:

At first he’d used the name Gray, then Black. One day, passing a Barnes & Noble bookstore, he spotted a book about the artwork of H. R. Giger. The byzantine images appealed to him, as did the name with its twin g’s. For visual symmetry, he added an e and so became Geiger.

Smith offers a taut thriller with dark undertones. The events take place over the course of 24 hours and this compact time-scale allows the author to ratchet up the tension very quickly once the introductions are out of the way. It’s a fast-paced and, most importantly, believable piece of fiction. Smith manages to keep things down-to-earth and on a tight rein: Geiger is no superman, and as the story progresses he becomes more ragged, to the point where we wonder how he keeps moving. The author manages to tell his story without levelling half of New York and, with the exception of one or two little surprises, presents a straightforward tale that is engrossing, entertaining and uncomplicated. Which is not to say that it’s predictable; far from it, but you won’t find any convoluted twists or high-concept macguffins designed purely to confuse the reader. At its heart, The Inquisitor is a tale of evil versus evil – let’s not forget what Geiger does for a living. It’s a daring concept for a first-time author, but it succeeds due to careful plotting and characters who are immediately engaging and intriguing.

The Inquisitor is Mark Allen Smith’s first novel. Well-written and well- (if simply-) plotted, it serves to introduce the character of Geiger and sidekick Harry to the world. It is unlikely, in this reader’s humble opinion, that this is the last we’ll see of either of them. Geiger presents as a cross between Jack Reacher and Sheldon Cooper. While The Inquisitor may not appeal to fans of The Big Bang Theory, fans of Lee Child’s series would do well to give it a shot: it’s an excellent first novel, and brings with it the promise of more to come.

REAMDE by Neal Stephenson

REAMDE - Neal Stephenson REAMDE

Neal Stephenson (www.nealstephenson.com)

Atlantic Books (www.atlantic-books.co.uk)

£18.99

I first became acquainted with the work of Neal Stephenson when, in 1999, I discovered his massive novel, Cryptonomicon, in the “New Books” section of my local Waterstone’s. The blurb appealed to the nerd in me, and my internal masochist fancied the challenge of reading such a hefty novel. It was, for me, something of a life-changer, driving me towards post-graduate studies in cryptography and kindling an interest that is still strong 12 years later. Needless to say, from that point, Stephenson has become one of my “must-read” authors, and frequently challenges Stephen King for the top spot in my list of favourites.

He’s an author that’s difficult to categorise: Snow Crash, the work for which he is, perhaps, best known fits, without doubt into the realms of science fiction, as does his 2008 novel, Anathem. The Diamond Age is more in the steampunk vein while Zodiac is described by the author as “a 1930s hard boiled crime novel dressed up as a 1980s eco-thriller.” The Baroque Cycle, of course, is more difficult to nail down: it’s historical fiction, certainly, but it’s much more than that tag suggests, as you would expect from a work almost 3000 pages in length, and featuring, as characters both main and secondary, the likes of Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, James II and Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. Reamde, his latest offering, has been described as perhaps his most commercial, if such a thing can be said of a book that weighs in at just over 1000 pages – not exactly the type of thing the casual traveller is going to pick up that airport. It’s very much a thriller, but in Stephenson’s own inimitable style.

Richard Forthrast is a 50-something Iowan who, as a younger man fled to Canada to avoid the draft. These days, he divides his time between Seattle – the base of his multinational games company – and the mountains of British Columbia where he is part owner of Schloss Hundschüttler. Richard is the creator of T’Rain, an online multiplayer game in the style of World of Warcraft that has made him millions, and is popular the world over. One of the driving factors behind the creation of the game was to accommodate “gold-farmers”, usually Chinese teenagers, for whom the transfer of funds from the game world to the real world is usually something of a pain. During the annual family reunion, Richard reconnects with his niece, Zula – an adopted Eritrean refugee – and offers her a job working with the man whose job is to manage the geography – and therefore the locations of gold deposits – of T’Rain.

When Zula visits Richard at the Schloss several months after taking up employment with his company, she discovers that her boyfriend is trafficking in stolen credit card numbers. When the man to whom he has sold them follows him back to Seattle, they discover that his laptop has been infected with REAMDE – a virus which encrypts the hard drive of the computer and leaves a note with instructions on how to pay the ransom and obtain the key – rendering the stolen credit card information unusable. To complicate matters, the credit card information, as well as various other key documents on the man’s computer, belong to the Russian mob who arrive heavy-handed, trying to find the person responsible. In an attempt to stay alive, Zula tracks the creator of REAMDE to Xiamen, a small island off the coast of mainland China, and soon finds herself on a private jet headed in that direction. From there, things go from bad to worse, and Zula discovers that her trip to China is only the first leg in a long and dangerous journey that will, eventually, bring her full circle and change the lives of everyone around her.

There are plenty of common themes here from Stephenson’s earlier work to have constant reader wondering if there is any link. The virtual world, which is completely different to that created in Snow Crash, is still a virtual world and there’s an oblique reference to the earlier novel acting as an inspiration for this world. The twin subjects of gold and cryptography are mainstays of Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon / Baroque Cycle duology, so it’s good to see them turn up hand-in-hand here. There are also new themes aplenty: Stephenson is very much interested in the whole social media aspect of our modern lives – even though it is something he himself uses sparingly – and this is an area he explores in some detail, which is understandable given the context of the novel. Stephenson also uses this opportunity to explore the differences between East and West and, amongst other things, the motives that drive terrorists to do what they do.

There are massive parallels here with what Stephenson, Bear, and everyone else at Subutai Corp, are doing at the minute with Foreworld and The Mongoliad. I’m guessing, following the recent announcement by Amazon that they will be publishing this ground-breaking work as a series of novels next year, that everyone is now aware of this project, but for those who have yet to check it out, I would urge you to do so. There is a section at the start of Reamde devoted to a description of T’Rain and how it came about, the rules of the game, and the “plumbing” put in place to support it. Anyone with passing acquaintance with The Mongoliad will immediately recognise PULP in APPIS, the creation of the Canon, and various other commonalities between this virtual world and the virtual world of Foreworld. But the game is so much more than what the players see on the screen when they log in. Stephenson takes a playful dig at the at the general world-building techniques used by the creators of the vast majority of fantasy games through Donald Cameron (D-Squared) and Devin Skraelin (Skeletor), who spend their time producing vast numbers of novels designed to support the game and generate interest outside the gaming community. The competition between these two men also gives us the “Apostropocalypse”, an entertaining interlude that should be heeded by all producers of fantasy fiction. The backdrop of the game also leads to some wonderful – and entirely nonsensical exchanges between characters as they rhyme off the names of spells and counter-spells that might be evoked in certain situations. Stephenson is nothing if not thorough.

As Zula and her Russian mob escort arrive in China, the pace ratchets up a couple of notches, and the thriller element is brought into full effect. In an action sequence that lasts somewhere in the region of 230 pages, Stephenson introduces further players including Chinese hackers, MI6 and a cell of Islamic jihadists led by a black Welshman by the name of Abdallah Jones, and leaves us at the end of this section with the players scattered, groups broken and reformed, and allegiances unsure. This is very much a character-driven adventure, and it is in his characters that Stephenson excels: each one is believable, relatable, likeable – if not as a person, then certainly as a character – and with rich back stories usually related in the form of long and entertaining tangents that take the main story nowhere except in the development of the character from whose point of view we find ourselves watching the action. These sometimes come with beautiful little nuggets that leave the reader wondering if the reference just made is real or imagined. The most obvious one here is the fact that the Russian mob leader’s right hand man, Sokolov, always carries a towel with him, leading the reader pause long enough to wonder if Stephenson is channelling the late great Douglas Adams, or if it’s all just a happy coincidence.

Behind everything lies T’Rain (which should be pronounced “terrain”, for those wondering). The vast majority of this massive novel takes place in the real world – or Stephenson’s version of the real world – but T’Rain is an important element and there is always the sense that a large and important part of our story will be resolved in this imaginary world. It leads to some interesting thoughts on social media that most people will most likely identify with: towards the end of the novel Richard finds himself in the mountains of British Columbia and marvels at the fact that he is completely uncontactable – a position in which very few people ever find themselves in this day and age; no-one can phone him, email him, get him on Facebook or Twitter or a hundred other sites that people may sign up to. Later, as he approaches civilisation again, he begins to worry about the backlog that is likely to greet him when he comes back within range of a cell-phone tower or a Wi-Fi hotspot – a worry that should seem trivial given his circumstances, but one that I suspect most people have had at one point or another in this fast-moving, Web 2.0-enabled world.

As usual, Stephenson’s finger is very much on the pulse of technology and he’s aware not only of the limitations of what we have today, but also of what’s just around the corner. His little jabs find their target every time:

To which the moneychanger responded immediately with “K”, that being the chat abbreviation for the unwieldy two-letter message “OK”.

Or (this one contains language not suitable for the faint of heart):

He could already picture the YouTube page, Dodge kneeling on a rug with a sack on his head, Jones behind him with the knife, and, underneath the little video pane, the first of many thousands of all-capital-letter comments sent in by all the world’s useless fuckwits.

He also scores a direct hit with this dig about the pace of modern life in general:

Beyond that the road tunnelled to two lanes and angled upward, then a few miles later began to wind like a snake and buck like a mule.

So it was inevitable that he would close in on the tail of a gigantic RV no more than 30 seconds after he’d reached that part of the road beyond which passing was completely out of the question.

As the end of the book approaches (by which I mean about 200 pages from the end), the pace ratchets up another couple of notches as all of the players move into position, all converging towards a single point for a massive, Stephenson-style standoff that certainly won’t disappoint.

If you’re a fan of Stephenson’s work, then I’m preaching to the choir and you’ve probably already read it long before me. If you haven’t read his work before, then this is a good place to start – it’s definitely a much more commercial product than many of his earlier books while still retaining the uniqueness and character that makes a Neal Stephenson book a Neal Stephenson book. Like all of his books, you’ll come out smarter than you went in: it’s not absolutely necessary, but it’s advisable to have a dictionary/encyclopaedia/Google near to hand as you read. At times, you feel like you’re overhearing part of a conversation between people who, seemingly, speak a completely different language from you. No explanation is forthcoming because a) you’re really only a spectator and b) the main players already know what all this stuff means. That’s not to say you’ll be totally lost – you won’t – but it is useful to have reference material close to hand just on the off-chance.

Thriller is certainly a good description, but it’s much more than that, and so much more intelligent than what immediately springs to most peoples’ minds when the word is mentioned. It’s surprisingly fact-paced for a book its size, and Stephenson manages to maintain the reader’s interest for the duration – an astounding feat in itself. My first thought was that a book about Islamic terrorists was a strange topic for Stephenson to tackle, but it’s no stranger than anything else he has chosen to write about in the past. His work is definitely an acquired taste but, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, it’s a taste worth acquiring. A thousand pages is a big commitment to make in this fast-moving world, but Reamde is worth every second. This one is, hands down, my book of the year.

SNAPSHOT by Craig Robertson

308807 SNAPSHOT

Craig Robertson

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

£12.99

Glasgow, present day, and someone – a man with a high-powered rifle and a scope to match – is taking out the rulers of the city’s underbelly: drug dealers, murderers, extortionists. As the body count grows and war breaks out amongst the various underground factions, the Strathclyde Police find themselves in the unenviable position of trying to solve a crime, and stop a murderer that the rest of the world is lauding as a hero.

Snapshot, Robertson’s second novel, centres on the characters of Tony Winter and Rachel Narey. Winter is a police photographer, a gifted man who enjoys his work a little bit too much. He’s a leftover from an earlier time, fighting to stay in employment in a time when crime scene photography is increasingly becoming the domain of the crime scene investigators, Jacks-of-all-trades in an environment where saving money is key. Tony has a problem, a need to photograph the dead that borders on obsession, an itch to capture people on the borderline between life and death. Detective Sergeant Narey, who appeared in Robertson’s first novel, Random, returns here to investigate another high-profile case, despite the office politics that remove her from the investigation for a short time.

Snapshot is one of those novels for which the clichés breakneck and gripping, amongst others, were seemingly invented. Opening on a crime scene which introduces us to the key players in as economical a way as possible, the book maintains a frenetic pace for its 400-page duration. We are immediately immersed in the sights and sounds of modern Glasgow, and Robertson has no problem littering both narrative and dialogue with words and phrases that, to an outsider, can sometimes be difficult to understand. Don’t worry, though, you’re unlikely to miss anything important – an insult or jibe between friends. It feels natural and is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, which offsets the grim central plot, a gruesome collection of dead bodies as seen through the lens of Tony Winter’s camera.

Winter is a strange character to put in the central role. He’s not a particularly likeable man, with his slightly creepy hobby and his whiny attitude: Winter is a civilian employed by the police force. As a result, he is outside the main body of the investigation and not privy to the information they are gathering, or the theories upon which they are working. As a result, he is prone to frequent strops when his friends, Narey and Addison, both key players on the team, withhold information from him. I for one wanted to throttle the man and tell him to get on with his work and stop his moaning on more than one occasion. But for all that, the book works, and you care enough for this man to want him to make it out the other side.

The only problem I have with the book is the cover – this sort of stock photography makes a lot of these British thrillers look the same and can, for me, be very off-putting. But it’s a minor quibble, given what lies behind that cover. Dark and darkly-humorous, thrilling and highly addictive, Snapshot is an excellent novel from a self-assured and talented author who has found his stride early in the game.

KILLER MOVE by Michael Marshall

KILLER MOVE - Michael Marshall KILLER MOVE

Michael Marshall (michaelmarshallsmith.com)

Orion (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

ALTAR OF BONES by Philip Carter

ALTAR OF BONES

Philip Carter

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

£12.99

Thrillers and I have had something of a rocky relationship this year, going from one extreme (The Obelisk) to the other (Sanctus). Philip Carter’s Altar of Bones, I’ll say right at the outset, comes somewhere close to the Sanctus end of the spectrum. Carter is, according to the publicity material that comes with the book, the pseudonym of an international bestselling author. My natural curiosity, and five minutes online, was enough to reveal said author’s identity, and enough to make me dubious from the outset. While I won’t name her (go on, do your own digging if you’re that interested), I will say that she is an international bestselling author of romance novels (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s about as far from the fast-paced thriller genre as it’s possible to get).

Altar of Bones opens in a prison camp in Siberia in 1937. Lena Orlova, a nurse in the prison’s infirmary, affects a daring escape with her lover, one of the camp’s prisoners, and finds she has led them into the middle of a massive snowstorm which almost kills the man. She takes him to a cave and feeds him from the altar of bones, of which she is the Keeper, and quickly discovers his treachery.

The scene shifts to “Eighteen Months Ago”, and we find ourselves at the bedside of the dying Mike O’Malley. After revealing a dark secret, he urges his son Dom to find his brother, and together find the video tape that has kept him – and them – alive for the past forty years. Days later, Dom is also dead and his brother, Ry, is running for his life.

“Present day”, and we meet Zoe Dmitroff, a young lawyer who specialises in helping abused women. When an old woman is murdered in Golden Gate Park, the police turn up on Zoe’s doorstep. The old woman was Zoe’s grandmother, and she has died leaving the secret of the altar bones – along with the title of Keeper – to Zoe. Joining forces with Ry, she attempts to find out more about the secrets her grandmother died trying to protect, and ends up running for her life across Europe, towards the barren Siberian wastes.

Altar of Bones follows a set formula in thrillers of this type: on the one hand we have a group of people with a secret that must be protected at all costs. On the other, we have the group of people who know the secret exists, but not what it is or where to find it. Add in a few puzzles that a sharp-eyed reader may be able to solve before the characters (I’ll be honest, and say that this reader could not), and a handful of twists and turns and the formula is complete. Despite that, though, this isn’t exactly predictable.

As Zoe and Ry begin to dig into the mystery surrounding their respective families, we discover that they’re in danger from more than one set of hunters. Sure, the identity of “the big kill” is telegraphed long before the actual reveal, but that’s a minor quibble in such an intricate and involved plot. The characters and their respective histories are well fleshed out, quite possibly as a consequence of the scope (time-wise) of the novel. And Carter provides us with one of those bad guys who seems to take on a life of their own and stick in the readers memory, in the shapely form of Yasmine Poole – a truly evil piece of work, if ever I met one.

The novel suffers from some of the same issues that plague any “first novel”, and I’m guessing in this case they’re because of a writer who has decide to write well outside of her comfort zone (for which she should be applauded): the car chase through rush hour Paris traffic in which a car can keep up with a motorcycle; the comedy “car chase through a wedding cake” scene; and, perhaps most annoyingly, the author’s inability to call a car a car: you’ll find plenty of “Beamers” and “Mercs” in this novel, but there’s hardly a “car” in sight (which gets a bit old after not one but two Beamer-chases spanning multiple pages and, indeed, chapters). There is also plenty of evidence of the author’s previous life: long, meaningful glances and deep sighs, the sexual tension between the two protagonists laid on with a trowel. Any maybe “Carter” is conscious of her long-standing audience, so there’s nothing wrong with trying to lure some of them gently into this new creation.

In all, it’s a successful foray into the genre, and a worthwhile read for people who like their thrillers fast, smart and sexy. Without wishing to belittle it, or consign it to mediocrity, I’d call it the perfect airport novel, a great beach read. And perhaps the publisher thought so too, considering the timing of it’s release. But rest assured: it’s a chunky piece of fiction. No two-page chapters here. No movie written in novel form with a few extra words here and there to flesh out the action-and-dialogue skeleton. Philip Carter is the real deal and I think we can expect to hear more from him – or, indeed, her – in the near future.

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