Book review: Vengeance in Mind by N J Cooper

Vengeance in Mind
by N J Cooper
Simon and Schuster, 2012
Karen Taylor #4

I had not intended to read the latest Karen Taylor novel so soon after reading the previous two, but when I saw a copy in the library I decided that fate had intervened. Vengeance in Mind is the best so far in this series, I think, and can be read without having read the previous novels: the main elements of Karen’s back-story are easy enough to pick up for newcomers to this intelligent, attractively independent but somewhat impulsive protagonist.

Karen is a psychology academic at the University of Southampton but is also an occasional consultant to DCI Charlie Trench of the Isle of Wight police force. Karen’s varied research interests are usually uncannily similar to a crime that Charlie is investigating, as is the case here. The body of a globally famous, philanthropic businessman is found viciously mutilated in the kitchen of his grand mansion on the island. The only other inhabitant of the highly secure house is Sheena, the person who called the police. Sheena claims to have no memory of what happened between arriving the night before and discovering the body, so Charlie calls in Karen to assess her believability. Karen accepts the job because she just happens to be embarking on a research project about why some murderers mutilate their victims after killing them.

The novel is not at all gory or explicit, despite this ghoulish opening. The emphasis is on Karen’s assessment of Sheena and her subsequent actions as she begins to dig into Sheena’s life as the mistress and press secretary of the deceased to try to find if the young woman is a fantasist or is telling the truth. Karen’s investigations lead her into terrible danger, but also an increased determination to find out the connection between the murder and a charitable foundation to help young women who have been trafficked from eastern Europe.

I very much enjoyed this book, even though there is no suspense about the identity of the killer(s) — for Karen it is a matter of following her hunches and persuading the irascible Charlie to take her seriously, and for the reader it is a question of following in her wake as she dashes between Southampton, London and the island following leads and interrogating people she regards as suspects or witnesses, whatever the police may think.

Despite some flaws, not least the tendency of Karen’s regular associates to have friends who can help out in any situation at the drop of a hat (Karen’s boss Max here turns out to have a direct line to a women’s refuge that comes in handy a couple of times, her on-off boyfriend Will suddenly acquires a sister at a useful point in the plot, and a publican happens to know a radio ham just when Karen needs one), the book is a brisk and largely satisfying read. It benefits from less emphasis on the rivalries between Charlie’s team and Karen, and on Karen’s romantic dithering, as in previous novels these inconclusive elements have slowed things up too much. The main gripe I have with Vengeance in Mind is everyone’s dismissive treatment of a second murder victim. But there are some very good moments, not least a scene in which a character experiences a heroin injection and its aftermath, which is compellingly and vividly described. N J Cooper manages an impressive achievement: an unflinching look at nasty events and their underbelly, without being “cosy” or using excessive graphic detail. Without pulling her punches, she knows what is necessary, and what is too much.

I borrowed this book from the library.

My reviews of the previous books in this series: No Escape (#1); Lifeblood (#2) and Face of the Devil (#3).

Crime Time: article by the author about writing (this novel in particular).

Publisher’s website: about the Karen Taylor series.

Book review: A Fountain Filled With Blood by Julia Spencer-Fleming

A Fountain Filled With Blood
by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Minotaur/St Martin’s, 2003
Clare Fergusson #2

The quotation that forms the title of this book is from a hymn by William Cowper, referring to the washing away of sins. The small town of Millers Kill in the Adirondacks (New York state) seems to be a focus for hate crimes against gay men. In the first two described cases, the victims are attacked and viciously beaten by thugs, but are not robbed. The third case seems different, so police chief Russ van Alstyne is unsure whether it is related.

Reverend Clare Fergusson is improbably concerned in all three cases from the outset: she is sitting next to the partner of the first victim when he is informed of the incident by Russ; she’s about to perform the marriage ceremony of the sister of the second victim; and she discovers the body of the third while out walking the dogs that belonged to the first victim. Despite the attractiveness of Clare’s personality and the fluent writing style of the novel, I almost stopped reading it at this point because of these impossible coincidences.

However, I am glad I read on, because the book changes direction. Clare and Russ clash about Russ’s determination to keep secret the sexual orientation of the victims – Clare preaches tolerance and believes that others potentially at risk should be warned to take care. Insatiably curious, Clare manages to inveigle herself into various situations where she encounters possible suspects and motivations for the crimes, which may be connected to a huge spa resort being built just outside the town, and a controversy over the associated environmental impact statement. She and Russ, therefore, constantly bump into each other as their separate investigations add pieces to form a complete picture.

Both Russ and Clare are vivid characters who deal with their attraction to each other in a moral yet adult way – she is a celibate priest, he is married. It becomes clearer in this book, the second in the series, how compatible they are, not least in a dangerous mission near the end involving a helicopter. It’s very hard to write a genuinely thrilling, original action sequence; here the author has done it again after her success in this regard in her first novel. The easily guessable crime-plot, with its somewhat boilerplate suspects, is in some ways secondary – though it is well-constructed, and it provides an excuse for a great set-piece in which Clare wangles an invitation to a pre-wedding party, gets drunk, and finds herself trapped in an embarrassing situation.

Julia Spencer-Fleming writes with a light but mature touch, depicting very well small-town characters, concerns, tensions and politics. Based on the evidence of her first two books, this series looks set to be near the top of those being written in the USA today, not least for the excellent handling of the ‘will-they-won’t-they?’ relationship of Russ and Clare – a treatment that could serve as a model for other authors who attempt to do the same, but less successfully.

I purchased this book.

Other reviews of A Fountain Filled With Blood: Bookreporter, Kirkus reviews, Kittling:Books, Reviewing the Evidence (Barbara Franchi) and January Magazine (Sarah Weinman).

My review of In The Bleak Midwinter, the first book in the series.

Author’s website (now functioning!) – includes the series in reading order, news, excerpts and offers.

Book review: The Pied Piper by Ridley Pearson

The Pied Piper
by Ridley Pearson
Orion, pb 2004 (first published 2003)
Boldt & Matthews #5

Although this is fifth in a series, it’s the first book by this author I’ve read. The setting is Seattle, and the story concerns the city cops who are investigating the kidnapping of a baby while the parents have gone out for the evening, leaving their two infants in the care of a babysitter. The police quickly connect the case to a spate of similar abductions that have been going on across the country – in fact Sheila Hill, their commander, has anticipated this event by setting up a task force to be ready and waiting.

Over the next 550 pages the reader is taken on a roller-coaster ride as the investigators pore over every detail of forensic evidence in their desperate attempt to apprehend the perpetrator(s). The attempt is desperate because the local police are driven to solve the mystery on their own, without the interference of the FBI taskforce that is already working on the case. It is, of course, impossible to keep them out of it, so the two teams work in parallel with a daily meeting to share what has been found over the past 24 hours. There is a lot of petty politics, in which both sides keep information back, either not logging it at all or waiting until after the joint meeting to do so.

After 200 pages and one further abduction, the case turns very personal in a nasty plot twist. Although the preface and the cover blurb of the book both reveal this twist, I shan’t do so here, as it changes the entire direction of the book as well as the moral perspective of the participants, and would spoil the reader’s experience to know it in advance.

The main strength of this book is the ensemble nature of the storytelling. The novel is in the tradition of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, as we follow the personal lives and concerns of various police officers as well as their working practices. There are thrills and tensions aplenty, in a printed equivalent of Hill St Blues or The Wire, as the case widens out into a brilliantly described narcotics bust as well as many other elements too numerous to describe here, including intelligence-gathering, computers and psychology. At the same time, there is sex and tragedy in spades as the all-too-human cast of characters determine in unpredictable ways how events will turn out.

The main conundrum, that of how the Pied Piper manages to stay one step ahead of his or her sophisticated trackers, is solved in a way that I found extremely unlikely, but even so it works within the piled-on, ratcheted-up excitements and cliff-hangers of the plot. The way in which the investigation is hampered by the inter-agency rivalry is much more believable, and adds to the emotional temperature of the book. Although I don’t think the author needed 550 pages to tell his story, which would have benefited from good editing, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel – which at its heart is an excellent crime thriller – and shall definitely be reading more in the series.

I bought my copy of this book. I discovered it via a recommendation by Keishon of Yet Another Crime Fiction blog. Her reflections on the book are here.

I can’t find any other reviews of this book that are worth reading, but I see that the 3-CD audio version is considered to be far too heavily abridged by more than one reviewer.

Author’s website. He’s written many novels including this series – the titles and reading order of which are listed at the website, and at Wikipedia.

Book review: Broken Silence by Danielle Ramsay

Broken Silence
by Danielle Ramsay
Avon (Harper Collins) 2010
DI Jack Brady #1

Whitley Bay, in the north-east of England, is the setting for this debut police procedural. In the opening chapter, a young woman is out at night arguing with her boyfriend, then is killed. DI Jack Brady is still recovering from being shot “almost” in the balls a year ago – we know the wound can’t be all that bad as we first encounter him in bed with a young woman he’s picked up the night before and whose name he does not know. Still on sick leave, he’s called back to work at short notice by his unpleasant boss to replace his colleague DI Jack Matthews, who was in charge of the investigation, but who has abruptly vanished after committing the shockingly careless mistake of throwing his coat over the corpse, thus compromising the forensic gathering of evidence.

Brady is a mess, a parody of every affliction of male cops in crime fiction. Not only is his sex-life (and his home) unfit for scrutiny but his wife has left him because he had a fling with a colleague, he’s addicted to alcohol and tobacco, and he launches into the investigation determined to cover up any involvement of Matthews, to whom he owes an unspecified favour. As the book progresses, we discover a trauma from Brady’s childhood, witness the reappearance of a drunk old tramp who seems to have a hold on him, and become aware of his longstanding friendship with a local Mr Big. Brady is the epitome of the macho cop, attacking witnesses verbally, never keeping records, being attracted to any female within range, constantly on the edge of enraged breakdown as the burden of all his secrets, as well as his bad leg, take their toll.

Broken Silence is a revved-up curate’s egg. Somewhere in this overcomplicated mélange is a good mystery story with a couple of twists in its tail that cries out for a pared-down telling. The setting of Whitby is vividly, if revoltingly, conveyed. Yet the whole is a mess, written at an easy-reading level to put it politely, and full of clichés, for example we are several times told of Brady’s “olive” complexion (is he green?). Characters enter and depart to play their predictable roles as necessary to the plot (bitter ex-wife, sad ex-girlfriend now married to Brady’s best friend, irascible pathologist, seedy journalist, good cop colleague, bad cop colleague, etc), never staying long enough to become more than cardboard and in at least some cases, seemingly there only to set up themes to be explored in future books. The story is regularly unbelievable, for example Brady interviews an upset teenage girl with no social worker or female officer, and various characters commit crimes with impunity but never feature in the papers – hardly likely, but necessary for the plot.

The novel is a quick and easy read that seems to have commercial potential, but the author is clearly talented so it is sad that she has missed the chance to turn an overly detailed account, more crammed full of drama than a TV soap opera, into the focused, hard-hitting crime novel that it could have been. This is unfortunate, as the theme of the sexual abuse of teenage girls, and its acceptance – even encouragement – throughout society (the professions, the media and so on) is one of the West’s main social problems of today. The book is sincere in its exposure of many issues surrounding this horror, but it is more concerned with the egoistical Brady and his mess of a life, than with this more interesting, and challenging, aspect.

I borrowed this book from the library. It was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger in 2009.

Other reviews of Broken Silence: Reviewing the Evidence, Marc Hooker books and Read Regional.

There is already a second book in the series, Vanishing Point, reviewed at Reviewing the Evidence.

About the author and her books at the publisher’s website.

Book review: Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti

Lorraine Connection
by Dominique Manotti
translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz
Arcadia, 2008 (first published 2006)

“Warning. This is a novel. Everything is true and everything is false”. This laconic prologue sets the tone for this marvellously sophisticated, strong thriller, set in a town (I think fictional) called Pondage in Lorraine, northern France. Previously the engine of the country via its iron and steel works, the region has fallen into hard times, now revived somewhat by the Daewoo cathode-ray factory which attracts millions in EU subsidies and is a major local employer. There is something not right about the factory, though. We first see it from the perspective of the workers, with two horrible assembly-line accidents, an unfair dismissal and the discovery by the workforce that its long-overdue bonuses will not be paid for many more months. The result of these provocations is a flash strike, brilliantly described, which ends in dangerous chaos.

The action gradually broadens out from these small beginnings into a huge network of the connections alluded to in the title of the book. The local economy, the police investigation of the strike, the privatisation of ‘Thomson’ (France’s largest military-electronics concern), the Korean methods of doing business, and the heart of the country’s government itself are all gradually revealed to have their places in this grimly corrupt, venal society in which financial, violent and indeed any crimes are entrenched at all scales, from the small to the institutional, abetted at all levels.

As well as this superb plotting and rising to the challenge of making her cruel world utterly believable, Manotti tells a great human story, focusing on some of the workers and the fallout they experience in the weeks after the strike, as well as on Charles Montoya, a failed ex-cop who is sent to Pondage by one of the interested parties in the Thomson buy-out to find out what is going on. Montoya’s arrival and quick discoveries spark a burst of violent responses, one of them in particular very tragic.

Manotti has written an unflinching, knowledgeable and tough book, convincingly cynical about the way businesses and countries are run (nobody reading it could be surprised about the current financial meltdown in Europe). She is extremely good at depicting the adaptations individuals make to this world in which they find themselves, in particular the workers of North African origin. The combination of passion, politics and sheer ruthlessness that runs through all walks of life is confidently and persuasively presented. Although there is little to be happy about by the end of the book, the author provides a glimmer of light in one character, who cleverly manipulates the convoluted situation to win (one hopes) a better life elsewhere. A perfect crime novel, so well written and beautifully translated, all within 200 pages.

I borrowed this book from the library. It deservedly won the CWA International Dagger award in 2008.

Other reviews of this book: Crime Scraps, Euro Crime (Laura Root), The Game’s Afoot, Reviewing the Evidence (Sharon Wheeler) and International Noir Fiction.

Wikipedia: fascinating article about the rise and fall of Daewoo.

Three other books by Manotti have been translated into English. I’ve reviewed two of them: Rough Trade and Affairs of State (both excellent). Rough Trade, set in Paris, is the first of a series about Inspector Daquin. The second, Dead Horsemeat, has been translated and is reviewed by Karen at Euro Crime. Affairs of State is a political thriller set within the Mitterrand administration – highly recommended!

Book review: The Last Girl by Jane Casey

The Last Girl
by Jane Casey
Ebury Press, 2012
Maeve Kerrigan #3

No mention is made by the publisher inside this book that it is the third in a series featuring DC Maeve Kerrigan of the Met – a good detective in an institutionally sexist and occasionally racist (she’s Irish by origin) organisation. The main plot of The Last Girl does not depend on anything in the earlier novels, so it can be enjoyed without having read them, but recurring characters have been established previously and some themes continue through the books.

The main plot concerns a brutal murder of a woman and her teenage daughter in their home in Wimbledon Village, an area of London inhabited by the richer end of the professional classes, hence the reader is treated to an undercurrent of social comment as Maeve and her aggressively macho boss DCI Josh Derwent briefly interview the surviving members of the family – the father and the twin sister of the dead girl – and go through the house searching for evidence.

The story continues in a traditional theme: Maeve and Derwent drive around London interviewing the few relatives and friends of the dead. The father, a criminal defence lawyer, is portrayed as an odious person with no time for his surviving daughter and with a few people in his past who probably bear him a grudge because of the cases in which they were involved. The narrative is well-written but exceedingly slow, as it takes the detectives more than 250 pages to visit a half-dozen or so witnesses and suspects. If they had looked on Wikipedia at the outset of their investigation, they would have known of the existence of a surprise character who enters the novel at this point, causing its focus to shift from interview mode to celebrity gossip/”characters in peril” mode, leading to the inevitable dangerous climax and a wrap-up chapter of exposition explaining the secrets that led to the crimes.

Interwoven with the main plot are one or two subplots, one involving the romance between Maeve and her erstwhile colleague Rob. The couple is now living together but Maeve is commitment-shy, leading her to some immature behaviour concerning Rob’s possible interest in another woman as well as to her reluctance to confide in him (or anyone) that the stalker from the previous novel, The Reckoning, may be back. The other subplot concerns the police’s attempts to stem the gang warfare that is getting out of control on London’s streets – again, this story began in the The Reckoning but here is dealt with in a way I found not credible, including a trip by Maeve and her uber-boss Godley to visit a crime lord in prison, and a coincidental link between this case and the deaths being investigated by Maeve.

Despite the (rather many) flaws and missing elements in this novel, the fact that the solution to the main mystery does not depend much on the work done by Maeve and Derwent, and its excessive 500-page length, it is an enjoyable read because the author can write well. The sketches of the people interviewed reveal interesting dilemmas about legalities, crime and justice, as well as questions about human nature. It is hard to escape the sense that the book has been written with an eye to a film version, though, as it is far stronger on description and events than it is on motivation and sustained characterisation.

Thanks to Michelle for sending me this book. Her review of it is at Euro Crime.

Another review of this book is at the Irish Independent.

My review of the first book in the series, which I enjoyed: The Burning. I have read, liked, but not reviewed the second, The Reckoning – see this review from the Irish Independent for more information. The author’s strong debut novel is a standalone, which I have reviewed: The Missing.

Euro Crime’s reviews of all Jane Casey’s books to date.

Author’s website (whose homepage is strongly reminiscent of J K Rowling’s!).

Book review: In Her Blood by Annie Hauxwell

In Her Blood
by Annie Hauxwell
Penguin/Michael Joseph, 2012 (Australia)
Catherine Berlin #1

Catherine Berlin, known always as Berlin, works for the consumer affairs branch of the financial services agency based in East-End London, one of those quangos set up in the headier days of public spending sprees but now demoralised, without results, and probably destined for the chop as the cuts bite. Berlin is focused about pursuing the goals of the unit, which are to help individuals at the mercy of loan sharks. To this end, she has cultivated an informant with the code name “Juliet Bravo” (after an old, popular TV series). The informant has agreed to pass to Berlin information implicating Doyle, a local villain of mythic proportions. But before she can do so, she ends up in Limehouse Basin with her throat cut.

Berlin has not followed correct procedures, so her superiors slap a “no further action” notice on the file. Naturally, Berlin is not happy about this and decides to continue to investigate Doyle – resulting in her suspension from work, but not in any reduction in her determination to discover who is behind the murder.

The action switches to a council hearing, where a local doctor called George Lazenby (cue James Bond jokes) is fighting to keep his position, rare among British general practitioners, of prescribing small doses of heroin to registered addicts, rather than the officially endorsed methadone, which is thought to be the only way in which a person can be “cured” of his or her addiction. Berlin herself is revealed as a long-term heroin addict, one who (by her own account) has her craving under control by taking a daily maintenance dose of the drug – prescribed by Lazenby. Another theme of the novel is how Berlin finds herself with only seven days’ worth of dose remaining to her, which becomes her self-imposed deadline for solving the murder case (she has little faith in the police) and for finding a new source of her drug.

In Her Blood has a large cast of characters, ranging from Doyle and the past history that has made him a successful financial criminal today, to the city types, who are now feeling the pinch as investments crash and who are desperate to liquefy their assets. There are also two separate police investigations, as well as Berlin’s multi-problems with her line management at work. The novel switches from theme to theme, all set against a background of East-End London old and new, among the mists, the rotting canals and the abandoned buildings that once seemed to herald a new commercial boom. The reader has little time to get ahead of Berlin, as she herself is constantly on the move while she juggles all the limited facts at her disposal to attempt to create a coherent story – the fractured nature of which is at least in part due to her subjective perception of the world as a heroin addict.

Although this novel is, at times, a little vague around its edges, and switches scenes so quickly that some of the characters fail to gel sufficiently, it is a very interesting book. Berlin, in particular, is an unusual protagonist who refuses, as does the author, to take any easy moralistic positions. The final answer to the story of “Juliet Bravo” is perhaps, in the end, a little predictable, but is none the less powerful for that.

I thank Bernadette of Reactions to Reading for sending me this book. Her review of it is at Fair Dinkum Crime.

Other reviews of the novel: Euro Crime (Sarah Hilary), Aust Crime and The Bibliomouse.

Publisher’s website: about the book and the author.

Book review: The Gingerbread House by Carin Gerhardsen

The Gingerbread House
by Carin Gerhardsen
translated by Paul Norlén
Stockholm Text, 2012 (e-book), first published in Sweden 2008
Hammarby police #1

Conny Sjöberg and his team make a welcome addition to the crowded but mainly enjoyable world of translated Swedish crime fiction. The Gingerbread House is an accessible book, following the traditional route of a murder (later murders) investigated by the police force in this country area north of Stockholm.

Thomas, a reclusive man in his mid-forties, has a job delivering mail in a large company. His whole life to this point has been shaped by his experiences at pre-school (this translation is into US English), when he was mercilessly bullied by the other children while the teacher looked on, uninterested. By chance, while taking a train journey, he spots a fellow-passenger he recognises as one of the main instigators from those days. Impulsively, he follows him. The next day, the man is found bludgeoned to death in a temporarily empty house in the neighbourhood.

Enter Conny and his team, in particular a young officer called Petra Westman, whose lives and concerns are woven into the story of the murder investigation. Petra, as well as being a capable and enthusiastic colleague, is concerned about a bad experience she had, or may have had, after meeting a man in a bar. She takes matters into her own hands to try to find out what happened, and becomes embroiled in a subtle, but important, case of her own.

The details of the murder investigation continue alongside Conny and his amenable wife Asa’s domestic life, a somewhat hectic one as they have five young children, the youngest of whom are adopted twins. Despite all the demands on him, Conny is a patient parent and a dedicated officer. The investigation remains stalled for most of the book, however, while the assailant attacks other ex-pupils who now live in different areas of the country. It takes the police an inordinately long time to make the links between the cases – computerised sharing of information between squads does not seem to be a feature of the Swedish police force as depicted here – but once they do, matters come to a head quickly, not forgetting a final twist.

The Gingerbread House is the sort of book that slips down a treat, despite some over-gruesome murder descriptions. The domestic and local details are fascinating, and the ensemble cast of characters allow the author to examine contemporary issues without slowing up the pace of the narrative.

I purchased this book.

Other reviews of The Gingerbread House: Criminal Element and Mystery Fanfare (interview with the author).

Scandinavian Crime Fiction: Barbara Fister’s post on Stockholm Text titles.

Stockholm Text: about this book and about other Swedish crime novels from this publisher.

Book review: Missing Persons by Nicci Gerrard

Missing Persons
by Nicci Gerrard
Penguin, 2012

Missing Persons is a story about an English family who live in East Anglia: Isabel is a primary-school teacher, Felix an academic at the nearby university, and their three children are growing up. The middle child, Johnny (never called John) is the only one of the three who seems problem-free: as the novel opens his parents take him to start his university degree course in Sheffield. After a few weeks, Johnny ceases all communication and vanishes.

The novel tells the story of the next seven years in the lives of the remaining family members. A long section of 200 pages is devoted to Isabel’s reactions in the days and weeks immediately following the disappearance, including her perceptions of her own childhood family and of various friends of hers and of Johnny’s. Although movingly depicted, there are far too many details of cooking and nurturing to sustain this number of pages. The second half of the novel, narrated from various perspectives, is in some ways more engaging, as fewer pages proportionately are given to each year since the disappearance. But even though the author provides many telling vignettes, the narrative as a whole tends to skate over the surface rather than getting to grips with the issues or the characters.

As ever with Nicci Gerrard, this book is readable and is a telling intimate portrait of family life and the pains of growing up. The parents and siblings are forced to adapt to the loss of Johnny, but essentially stay the same – particularly in the case of Isabel, a rather overwhelmingly domesticated woman (her cooking is frankly obsessive) who seems to swamp her offspring with anxiety and a striving for a perfect family image. Her personality makes it easy to see how a child might feel claustrophobic or find it hard to break away independently. Although there is much to like about this book, in the end I found it frustratingly superficial in its failure to provide real insight into motivation and cause.

When Nicci Gerrard writes crime novels with Sean French in the Nicci French persona, the mystery or thriller plot provides an impetus for the story. In Missing Persons, the story itself becomes the details – of Isobel’s relationships with her brother, her seeking out of the man who painted her mother (who died when she was nine), Felix’s breakdown, weddings and funerals, and so on. Although the novel is undoubtedly sincere, these descriptions in themselves do not add up to enough. A braver investigation into Johnny’s story or a different outcome for the family dynamics in the final section, for example, could have provided the book with some much-needed edge and purpose.

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine programme

We Love this Book: short review of this novel.
YouTube: Nicci Gerrard talks about the novel.
Observer: Nicci Gerrard on “empty nest” syndrome, an article published to coincide with Missing Children’s day (25 May).
Best crime books: synopsis of this book and the other novels written by Nicci Gerrard as sole author (all of which I’ve read, so I know they are not crime novels!).

Book review: Amuse Bouche by Anthony Bidulka

Amuse Bouche
by Anthony Bidulka
Insomniac Press, 2003
Russell Quant #1

As its title implies, Amuse Bouche begins in an enticingly charming style with PI Russell Quant, whose office is in what was called the Professional Womyn’s Center (now renamed PWC) in Saskatoon, Canada, musing on his lack of clients. When he does score some work, Russell’s cases are usually at the level of finding missing cats or casserole dishes. Hence he jumps at the chance to solve a mystery for rich businessman Harold Chavall. Discretion is Russell’s watchword, as it turns out that the mystery concerns Harold’s bridegroom Tom, who stood up Harold at the altar, so to speak. Although not entirely in the closet, Harold would prefer a quiet but efficient investigation as to Tom’s whereabouts, rather than involving the police.

The book starts very well, in brisk style and replete with neat observations about the Saskatoon and Saskatchewan scene, both in terms of its people and its environment. Russell is a pleasantly engaging narrator who immediately has the reader on his side. Unfortunately, however, the plot is far too protracted – Russell follows Tom’s trail to France but it takes him 200 pages to discover the basic facts of the disappearance which have been evident to the reader pretty much from the outset.

The second part of the book is stronger than the first, in which the action shifts from France back to Saskatoon, when Russell tries to interest his police contact in a reciprocal information-sharing partnership, as well as digging into the backgrounds of Harold’s and Tom’s circle of friends and business associates. Although there is much to enjoy about the novel, at 400 pages it is too long for the story it tells. Nevertheless, I loved all the local atmosphere and details of Russell’s friends and neighbours, not least the Ukrainian aspects, and look forward to meeting them again.

I bought my copy of this book. I thank Bill of Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan for bringing this author to my attention. His review of Amuse Bouche is here, and his other reviews and posts about the author’s books are here.

Other reviews of Amuse Bouche: Quill and Quire, Buried in Print (which makes a good point about the lack of sufficient editing) and Reviewing the Evidence.