Book Review: Sister by Rosamund Lupton

Sister Sister

By Rosamund Lupton

Piatkus, 2010.

 This engrossing, haunting novel is told from the point of view of Beatrice, a young English woman who is a successful commercial art designer in New York, recently engaged to Tod. At the start of the novel, Beatrice is in her sister’s London flat, looking out of the window at the hordes of media clamouring for a quote or interview. Tess, Beatrice’s younger sister, has disappeared. We deduce that the circumstances are dramatic and awful; soon, via Beatrice’s thoughts, we come to understand what has happened.

It is hard to write a review of this novel, because a bare plot description removes the many subtleties of the story of Tess’s life (gradually uncovered by her sister in the days after Beatrice’s precipitous arrival in the UK). Suffice to say that Beatrice decides to find out for herself what happened, dismissive of the official explanation which is universally accepted.

This novel is a very powerful, and convincing, account of a relationship between sisters as well as of grief and its after-effects. It is mostly told in the form of an internal letter from one sister to the other, which adds a beautiful element. There’s also a very moving subplot about the redemption of another relationship – that of a mother and her daughter. The way in which one daughter gradually realises the truth about her childhood perceptions is quite marvellous.

I really loved this book, and would urge anyone to read it. I was lucky enough to start it on a day when I’d booked a holiday from work, as I spent quite literally all day reading it from page 1 first thing in the morning, to the last page in the mid-afternoon. The crime plot is not as good as the rest of the book – the identity of the perpetrator is too obvious; the much-discussed "twist" at the end not a proper twist; and unfortunately the area of clinical research is completely misunderstood (though the author does a good job on describing the science of a single-gene defect). The details of hospital practice and treatment of visitors are also somewhat inconsistent with what I know of reality.

The power of this novel is in its depiction of the relationships of a mother and two daughters, and the inner lives of the girls. I loved it, and am glad that the novel is enjoying such success as a result of being one of the Richard and Judy book club selections this year.

I purchased my paperback copy of this book.

Judy and Richard's reviews of this novel are here; and a synopsis/reader comments on it are here.

Video interview with Richard and Judy, and a conversation with the author.

Author website, including an extract from the novel. 

Read other reviews of this novel at: The Independent (brief); Katie's Book Blog; Bioethics Bytes (unusual perspective); and  A Booklover Talks.

Some thoughts about restricting e-readership

Those of us (and our numbers are increasing rapidly!) who like to read in e-format often bemoan the way in which publishers sell the "rights" to their books on a regional basis hanging over from the world of print as the only reading medium. Of course, print readers (myself included) also find it frustrating not to be able to read a book after perusing reviews of it, if one does not live in the "right" (righted?) region. But for the e-format (including digital audio), this restriction seems even more pointless.

Bernadette, in an excellent post at Reactions to Reading, put her finger on one reason why this regional  division is a no-win for publishers – piracy, which as everyone from the CEO of the E-reading_women major publishing companies down to the youngest kid on the internet block, admits occurs on a massive scale. (Never by me or anyone in my house, I am of the honest but frustrated quarter of content users.)

I have two "hats" that I wear in the context of this debate. First, as a reader, I want to read a book as soon as it is published, not wait for some artificially imposed geographical business model. In the world of scientific research, this is the norm. When a paper is published, it is published – people argue about subscription vs "author pays" or the size of the unit of publication, but the argument is how readers pay for access, not about whether one can access at all.  Second, my other "hat" is that I work for a publisher – not, thankfully, on the business side, but on the scientific journal/editorial side. So I can see at first hand the large amount of value a publisher adds to the raw material. In the case of scientific publishing, there is an incredibly large investment in the editorial selection process, for example. I am not as closely familiar with book publishing (though my employer is an internationally leading publisher of books). Even so, I can see the resources that are put into both print and e- (digital) books, and am well aware that this is considerable. (There are many other factors in addition to editorial and production costs, of course.) 

The point for the reader is not price, it is access. Based on my long experience of scientific publishing, it is not necessary to restrict access geographically in order to run a viable business. This is why news items such as these lose me completely –

Waterstones has removed from its website the ability for anyone outside the UK to buy e-books, with "no plans" to reinstate them.

WH Smith has removed e-books from people's e-readers. That is, people who have paid to download a book. The information provided to these paid-up customers is minimal.

The UK Publishers' Association last week agreed that it would restrict library borrowing of e-books to those who are physically present in the library. (See, eg, this Guardian piece.)

This last piece of news is appalling: "I can't believe the PA has declared war on libraries in this way" wrote Luton's librarian at the Bookseller website. Yes, indeed, the very point of e-books is that people who do not live near, or cannot get to, a library can now read! How ludicrous.

I understand concerns on the behalf of authors, and I understand that publishers want to stay in business (and booksellers, but that is also a slightly different story). I know that issues often seem more simple to those outside a situation than they are in reality, but what I am questioning is what we learnt years ago in the scientific publishing sphere – base your business model on some form of payment per download, not on deciding who can read the content based on where they live. The payment can be made directly by the customer (book purchaser) or library on behalf of its patrons, Ipadreader
or borrower (lending fee). Public libraries could also use a variant of the site-licence model in place at academic libraries, in which the price paid for the content is proportional to the number of readers of that content; as well as providing books and other content for free according to whatever criteria they choose (including providing out-of-copyright books free). 

The point of this post is simple – there are technological solutions in place in other parts of the industry for what is termed "e-commerce". Why aren't organisations such as book publishers and governments' library authorities exploring these to reward authors and publishers, instead of exploring technical means to restrict access to non-rights-holders and/or people who have not paid? To paraprhase Bernadette, even if not perfect, the former means some income; the latter encourages piracy. The former also gives the customers (readers) the message that the publisher likes, or even is proud of, its content and actively wants people to read it. (This Telegraph article, for example, is about the increase in library membership bought about by the e-format.) Those new readers might then go on to read more, instead of watching TV or playing computer games – that is, the publisher has a great opportunity to increase its customer base with this format. The latter seems to me bad for business, and provides a rather Scrooge-like image which can hardly be good PR for an industry that is under so much pressure in this era of "instant availability" and from Google Books et al.

I do hope that publishers' organisations will soon find a way to remove the geographical element of their rights arrangements – in their own interests as well as in readers'. We are living in a global community,  after all.

Book Review: The Build Up by Phillip Gwynne

Build-up The Build Up
by Phillip Gwynne

Pan Macmillan Australia, 2008

In the oppressive heat of Darwin, capital of Australia’s Northern Territory, you can’t even swim in the sea to cool off because of the giant jellyfish. Detective Dusty (Frances) Buchanan is a tough, smart, 30-something female cop who is single after the end of a live-in relationship with a lawyer, and who before the novel opens has been instrumental in identifying a leading suspect in the murder of a British backpacker – the region’s highest-profile murder case since Lindy Chamberlain’s baby Azaria was taken by a dingo.  The presumed perpetrator, a man called Gardner, is in jail awaiting trial. Dusty is uneasy about his guilt, but is taken off the case by her new boss, “the big C”, and put onto more mundane tasks.

Depressed by the office politics at the station and frustrated by her single status, the resolutely upfront and unspun Dusty keeps herself fit by swimming in the pool in her yard and by running on the beach. For much of the first half of the book we become immersed in her life and that of the people in Darwin, fascinatingly portrayed with great local colour, as we gradually become aware that sinister events are occurring – possibly connected to a local Vietnam Veterans’ group, or possibly related to a local brothel whose location remains obscure to Dusty (and the rest of the police, who are all more concerned about the Gardner case than in anything else).

Dusty is a great character. She gives as good as she gets verbally as well as physically, but at the same time she’s vulnerable and sympathetic. She’s friends with Trace and Miriam, two very Australia-map different aboriginal Australians, and the author portrays vividly the coexistence of these cultures at the edge of this hot land. As the build-up to the inevitable storms and rains continues, so does Dusty’s conviction that there is a murder to be investigated whatever her boss might say. With the aid of a German birdwatcher (there is a delightful sequence where Dusty picks him up in a bar), Dusty manages to get herself busted back into uniform and ostracised for an almost-fatal accident (which emphatically was not her fault). Undeterred, she makes an unlikely ally and sets forth to follow up what leads she can under the radar – and in the process finds some evidence that completely changes the earlier case.

There are so many great touches and themes to this novel – I can only urge you to read it. It’s full of what I call “grown up” humour, and there are so many clever nuances where Dusty’s straightforward and “straight down the line” methods bring rewards in unexpected ways, not least her caring attitude towards animals – the scenes with the pig, and their part in revealing the plot, are particularly great. The reader eager to learn about Darwin_harbour2 life in other regions will be well-rewarded with plenty of vernacular and vignettes. Yet along with the unsentimental and upfront telling, the novel also represents an emotional core – the author is very wise about emotions and failings; above all there is bags of humanity in the book. Combine this with an attractively independent heroine, plenty of action and humour, and a wonderful sense of place and culture, and you could want no more from a book. I do hope very much to meet Dusty again one day.

I thank Bernadette of Reactions to Reading for so kindly sending me a copy of this excellent book.  Her review of it is here. The novel has also been reviewed at Mysteries In Paradise, Aust Crime Fiction and Crime Down Under.

Publisher's website.
Agent's website,
with the news (2008) that the author has been commissioned to write two more novels in the series.  

Interview with the author (2009), mainly about his young adult fiction, but also about his plans for the sequel to The Build Up.

Progress on reading books eligible for the 2011 International Dagger

It was late August when I last asked myself how I am getting on with the books eligible for the International Dagger for 2011. To qualify, books have to be translated, and published in the UK between May 2010 and June 2011. Karen has recently updated her essential Euro Crime blog post of eligible titles, now up to 48.

These are the books on the list that I had read when I wrote my 21 August post (links go to my reviews):

The Wings of the Sphinx by Andrea Camilleri, translated by Stephen Sartarelli (Italy)
Needle in a Haystack  by Ernesto Mallo, translated by Jethro Soutar (Argentina)
Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum , translated by Charlotte Barslund (Norway)
The Inspector and Silence by Hakan Nesser, translated by Laurie Thompson (Sweden)

Since then, I have read:

Red Wolf by Liza Marklund, translated by Neil Smith (Sweden)
River of Shadows by Valerio Varesi, translated by Joseph Farrell (Italy)
Ashes to Dust by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, translated by Philip Roughton (Iceland)
Silence by Jan Costin Wagner, translated by Anthea Bell (German, setting Finland)
Three Seconds by Roslund-Hellstrom, translated by Kari Dickson (Sweden)
Bunker by Andrea Maria Shenckel, translated by Anthea Bell (Germany); review submitted to Euro Crime
Operation Napoleon by Arnaldur Indridason , translated by Victoria Cribb (Iceland); review in draft of a copy via the library.

Books I have on my shelf or e-reader waiting to be read:

1222 by Anne Holt 
The Postcard Killers by Liza Marklund and A. N. Other 

Remaining to read – none of which are yet available on Amazon UK apart from Villain (which is quite expensive):

Basic Shareholder by Petros Markaris
Frozen Moment by Camilla Ceder
Villain by Shuichi Yoshida
Rendezvous by Esther Verhoef
The Leopard by Jo Nesbo
The Quarry by Johan Theorin
The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell
Death on a Galician Shore by Domingo Villar
The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler
The Gallows Bird by Camilla Lackberg
Shadow Sister by Simone van der Vlugt
Bandit Love by Massimo Carlotto
Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End by Leif G W Persson
Summertime by Mari Jungstedt
Blood Sisters by Alessandro Perissinotto
An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas
Inquisition by Alfredo Carlitto 

There are around 20 titles left to read if I manage to get through all the above list. 

See  International Dagger, a collection of all the posts at Petrona on this topic. 

2011 International Dagger – list of eligible titles.

2010 International Dagger – list of eligible titles.

The CWA International Dagger pagecurrently featuring the 2010 winner, The Darkest Room by Johan Theorintranslated by Marlaine Delargy.

Petrona's post about the 2010 winner.

The 2010 shortlist, and my reviews of each title on it.

Petrona posts tagged International Dagger.

Euro Crime list of 2011 eligible titles.

Book Review: The Guards by Ken Bruen

Kb_guards The Guards
By Ken Bruen
Brandon, 2001 (reprinted 2010).

For a long time I have been planning to read Ken Bruen, a highly regarded writer, and have finally made good my intention in the shape of The Guards, the first novel in a series about Jack Taylor. Taylor is in his mid-50s and has just been sacked from the Garda after many years of warnings. He’s been told he is good at finding things, so he sets himself up as a private eye in Galway, Ireland. He’s also a complete drunk, which fits this stereotypical bill (his “office” is a pub).

The Guards is a very good book indeed. The plot is ostensibly about the unexplained suicide of several young teenage girls whose bodies are found washed up in the sea at Nimmo’s pier.  The mother of one of these girls is certain her daughter did not kill herself, and asks Taylor to find out how the girl died.  Taylor’s only friend (by his own admission), the sinister artist Sutton, has his own ideas about how to find out what’s going on, and Taylor is almost a passive partner in the ensuing “investigation”.

Really, though, the investigative aspects are perfunctory at best, and the true subject of the book is Taylor himself – his past, his feelings, convictions, and how he has come to the end of the line. As well as Sutton, Taylor interacts with other vividly sketched people during the novel – Cathy B, a singer whom Taylor pays to help him find out information; the aged barman Sean; Ann, the dead girl’s mother; and various other characters from the street and from the old, traditional days which Taylor inhabits in his mind.  Taylor is not an obviously sympathetic person – and someone's alcoholism  isn’t intrinsically an interesting subject to read about (how many different ways can someone fall off the wagon and get on it again?). Yet the author has two great things going for him: he’s a very good writer, using various stylistic forms, poetry, wit and quotations to weave a mesmeric whole; and Taylor is a metaphor for all that is tough about life’s essential condition – the grinding boredom of work, the easy distractions of the shallow existence, the inevitability of death, and so on. This having been said, Taylor is not a construct but a warm human being, showing integrity and commitment to people who he likes (even when they are winos and other of life's dropouts). Throughout the book, Taylor has the idea of “escaping” his past and his fate and moving to London. He even buys a ticket – which, of course, he is told by the travel agent can only be one-way. I wonder if he will ever get there. 

I was immersed in this book and particularly responded to the observations of life in the city and the sense of the protagonist's separateness from the mainstream (to which he is tied by the symbol of a coat) – a staple of literature as well as popular fiction, and extremely well done here. As a crime story the novel is not that good – there isn’t any detection or suspense or even much of a puzzle element. But the novel is both emotionally honest and true to itself, and achieves something that is very difficult to do – creates a sympathetic portrait of a weak man who has chosen not to take the paths offered to him in his youth by his father and other mentors, but has become a washed-up drunk. I could quibble at the way details of every-day life are skated-over in the novel (where does the rent come from, for example?), but I won’t because I can certainly admit to being a convert to Ken Bruen on the basis of this novel.


I purchased my paperback edition of this novel.

I have been encouraged for some years to read Ken Bruen by Norman of Crime Scraps (primarily) and several others including consistent recommendations by Declan Burke at Crime Always Pays, and most recently by Keishon of Yet Another Crime Fiction blog. Thanks to them for the recommendation.

Read other reviews of The Guards at: The Book Bag, Jen's Book Thoughts, Critical Mick, Allan Guthrie's Noir Originals (review by Charlie Stella)

Ken Bruen's books at the publisher's website.

The Guards at the author's website. (Includes plot summary, reviews and an extract.)

Shots ezine appreciation of Ken Bruen by Ali Karim.

The Guardian: Interview with the author in 2001, just after the book came out. 

Crimespree cinema: about The Guards TV movie, including trailer.

New UK paperbacks for February 2011

Three seconds Three seconds With the first snowdrops will come ever-more books – for those of us in the UK or able to buy UK paperbacks, quite a selection will be available, according to The Bookseller (22 October issue). On the translated front, Three Seconds by Roslund and Hellstrom (Quercus, £7.99) is one to look forward to – a blistering thriller covering drug dealing, an undercover prisoner, government corruption, police investigations and more. The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell (Vintage, £7.99) seems to be the only other translated crime novel in this listing, and it, too, is Swedish. "Links China and the US in the 1860s with present international issues" states the Bookseller entry – it's also set in Sweden, and has three very strong female characters. 

Other treats in store are Where the Shadows Lie by Michael Ridpath (Corvus, £7.99) – another fast-moving thriller, this one set in an Iceland of sagas, folklore and volcanoes. A good holiday read, I'd suggest. Open Season by C. J. Box (also Corvus, £7.99) is the first in the author's Joe Pickett series, well-established in the USA but being published for the first time in paperback in the UK (some have been published as Robert Hale hardbacks previously). Corvus plans to bring out 10 Joe Pickett books between February and November 2011. I haven't tried this series yet.

Tom Bale's follow-up to Skin and Bones, this one called Terror's Reach (Arrow, £6,99) is due out, as is Elena Forbes's Evil in Return (Quercus, £7.99), the third in her London (Barnes)-based DI Mark Tartaglia novel (I have so far only read the first, Die With Me.) One I shan't be reading is The Sword of the Templars by Paul Christopher, about which the Bookseller writes "Penguin believes any book with "Templar" or "Code" in the title scores." (£6.99). Perhaps looking up from that period of history is Jeremy Duns's second novel, Free Country (S&S, £7.99), in which it is 1969 and Cold War territory for agent Paul Dark. (His debut is called Free Agent.) And Stephen Booth has another Fry and Cooper Peak District novel out, Lost River (Harper, £7.99), apparently his last before he moves publisher (to Little, Brown).

Among the predicted top sellers and blockbusters are Caught by Harlan Coben (Orion, £7.99), which I enjoyed; Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson (Black Swan, £7.99), a George George series in which I am woefully behind; This Body of Death by Elizabeth George (Harper, £7.99) and The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith (Abacus, £7.99), the eleventh outing for Mma Precious Ramotswe. 

These aren't the only books due out in the UK in February. I keep spotting interesting ones, for example Two for Sorrow by Nicola Upson (Faber, £7.99), third in the series that started with An Expert in Murder,  in which Josephine Tey researches two women who were hanged for murder. On that topic, and last for this post, is The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley (Orion, £7.99), "the second in the Christie-esque country house murder series featuring precocious 11-year-old sleuth Flavia. They really are charmingly silly books and Orion is having trouble getting the right look – hence the delay."  This is not to mention new paperbacks from Faye Kellerman, Louise Penny, Beverly Barton, Quintin Jardine, Lindsey Davis, Andrew Taylor…. the list seems endless, and that's just February paperbacks!

Book Review: The Reversal by Michael Connelly

TheReversalUKNEW125 The Reversal
By Michael Connelly
Orion 2010

Michael Haller, the Lincoln lawyer, is presented with an unusual proposition – to be a special prosecutor for a 24-year-old case in which a young girl was taken from her garden one Sunday afternoon and within an hour found dead in a dumpster. A suspect, the driver of a tow truck, was quickly identified and the girl’s sister identified him as the abductor. He was tried and imprisoned for the crime.

Now, DNA analysis of some of the original evidence raises questions about the conviction, and the criminal, Jason Jessup, wins the right for a retrial. Although the detectives and lawyers involved in the original case have all died or are too ill to contribute now, the DA’s office wants an independent prosecution to reduce the damages it will have to pay out if Jessup gets off (as seems likely).  Haller, until now firmly on the defence side of the line, agrees to take the case if he can employ his ex-wife, Maggie “McFierce”, as his second chair, and LAPD detective Harry Bosch as his investigator. The main plot of the book alternates the story of Bosch’s (third-person) investigation of the old case, and Haller’s first-person account of the preparation for the trial and, later, the trial itself.

The Reversal is typical, superior fare from Michael Connelly. The book works fine as a standalone but will be more enjoyable if you have read previous novels in the series, particularly the more recent ones (starting with The Lincoln Lawyer) in which Haller appears. As well as a classic investigative plot, the author is interested in exploring the human costs of crime and of the criminal justice system. As an aside I was quite shocked to realise that while a trial is under way in the US, the jurors, defence and prosecution teams all mix together in the breaks between the court sessions.

At the heart of this novel is the testimony of Sarah, the sister of the girl who was killed. Before the trial starts, Bosch and Maggie track her down and find out what has happened to her in the intervening years, since the “shearing of life that happened at that moment” when her sister was taken. This phrase speaks directly to the appeal of Connelly’s books – in modern, materialistic, shallow and crime-ridden America, the author understands this “shearing” of a life that can happen in a single moment and change it forever, and his characters are those who are there for those people in the ensuing years  - to speak up for them, defend and protect them. This is big-picture stuff, but there are also plenty of little observations that make this book (in common with others by Connelly) a joy – for example when Maggie is briskly summarising the case at the outset and fails to notice, unlike Haller (Bosch’s half-brother, and more in tune with him), that “Bosch is somebody who still used the phone book instead of the internet.”  

Connelly builds up the suspense in The Reversal, but does not end this novel in any of the ways one might think based on the various plotlines. It is as if the author realises he does not need to provide a manufactured climax, but can satisfy the reader by simply telling it like it is. 

I purchased my copy of this book in Kindle format.

The Reversal at the author's (very good) website.

Other reviews of The Reversal are at: The Scotsman (2 pages); Mostly Fiction; Irish Independent; Spinetingler magazine; LA Times (a positive review despite the paper not being very positively represented in the book!); the Globe and Mail; and the Daily Beast.

Crime Watch blog features Craig Sisterson's Weekly Herald interview with the author, and a video of Gregg Hurwitz's interview with Michael Connelly at the recent Bouchercon festival.

About Black & White by Lewis Shiner, available as free PDF

Blackwhite Via Jenny D. of Light Reading, I heard about a book that sounds excellent, Black & White, by Lewis Shiner. Black & White, which was on several "best crime fiction for 2008" lists including the LA Times,  is published by Subterranean Press (2008, 2009) and as well as being a print book is available for free as a PDF at the Fiction Liberation Front site (direct link to the PDF is at the author's website). According to Jenny, the transfer into Kindle format is very easy. There is also a link to an audio-interview, and many reviews and quotes about the novel. Plot summary:

"When Michael follows his dying father to North Carolina, a lifetime of lies begins to unravel. His pursuit of his father's past–haunted by voodoo, adultery and murder–takes him to a place called Hayti, once the most prosperous black community in the South.  Now the mysteries of Michael's own heritage become a matter of life and death, as racial conflicts barely restrained since the 1960s erupt again. Rooted in the true story of the US government's urban renewal policy and its disastrous aftermath, Black & White is a literary thriller, a family saga, and a searing portrait of institutionalized hatred."

Lewis Shiner's autobiography is absolutely fascinating, both as a story of a life and an account of how he learnt to write.  

I believed that plotting was my biggest weakness, so I read Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald in the evenings and tried my hand at some mystery short stories. One of the first was called "Buyin' My Heartaches a Beer," about a construction worker who gets framed for his wife's murder. I got a nice long rejection letter from ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE for that one, and though I never did sell them anything, it was the first personal response I ever got on a story and it made me think I was on the right track. I followed it up with "Deep Without Pity," featuring an Austin private eye named Dan Sloane. At the time nobody had done a private eye who was a Vietnam vet, and I had dreams that he would catch on and I could do a series of novels about him.

Less than a month later my first Dan Sloane story, "Deep Without Pity," sold to the new MYSTERY MONTHLY, and for the first time I dared to think of myself as a real, honest-to-god writer. Unfortunately, I was premature again. The editor at GALILEO was "dismayed" with the rewrite I did for him, and I went a year and a half without knowing (or really much caring) if the story was going to be published at all. MYSTERY MONTHLY folded the month before my story was scheduled to come out. It was another three years before my next sale, when SHAYOL, a semi-professional magazine out of Kansas City, finally bought "Kings of the Afternoon."

There is lots more fascinating stuff about the author's path as a SF, fantasy or mystery writer, and here he explains why he now gives away his work for free (link via Jenny D).

More information:
Arts&Literature: Lewis Shiner reflects on Black & White. 
Austin Chronicle: review of Black & White. 
Black Clock: A long talk with Lewis Shiner. 

Book review: Cemetery Lake by Paul Cleave

CLake Cemetery Lake
By Paul Cleave
Arrow PB, 2009 (first published 2008).

Theo Tate is an ex-cop turned private investigator, who as this novel opens is supervising the exhumation of Henry Martins, a man who died some years ago. His daughter firmly believed that he had been murdered by his second wife, for whom he had abandoned his first family. The police were not convinced, but the widow’s new husband has also now died in suspicious circumstances, hence the exhumation. As Tate watches the digger at work, he notices what he at first thinks are giant, black bubbles in the lake adjoining this part of the huge cemetery. Soon he realises that the disturbance is, in fact, bodies rising to the surface – a sight that makes Bruce, the man digging up the grave, run away – in terror or in guilt?

After this set-piece opening, Tate embarks on a fast-moving spiral familiar to readers of the genre. We soon learn that the reason he resigned from the Christchurch, NZ, police force two years ago was because his wife and young daughter were victims of a drunk driver. Emily, the girl, was killed and Bridget, the wife, is in a catatonic state and cannot recognise anyone. The man responsible for the accident was caught but given a suspended sentence. He subsequently vanished, and most of his then-colleagues assumed Tate was responsible for the disappearance (we find out whether this supposition is correct later in this book). 

When the coffin that has been exhumed from Martins’s grave is opened, an unexpected and gruesome discovery is made. At this point I began to lose sympathy with Tate, as he takes a crucial piece of evidence and begins his own investigation into the case, without keeping his old colleagues in the loop. During the first two-thirds of the book he questions bereaved families a in an unforgivably cruel way in my opinion, as well as impeding the official investigation. Using his inside information to discover more leads and more victims, he creates a “murder room” in the process to record his investigation and leads – presumably setting himself up in competition with the police so he can solve the crime before they do? At the same time, he’s involved in violent altercations with the father of Bruce the absentee gravedigger and with Bruce himself, as well as being drawn into some coded, threatening interactions with the priest of the cemetery’s church. 

As well as being a crime thriller, Cemetery Lake provides plenty of shlock-horror set piece descriptions of rotting bodies and various nasty things that happen to them during the course of the novel. I don’t mind these per se, particularly as the rather flat narrative protects the reader from the full extent of the "yuk" factor, but I did mind that I could not believe much of the main story. One example of this is that the police are investigating the bodies in the lake by searching graves in the cemetery – they are also looking for Tate and the gravediggers. Yet if they had conducted even the most basic search, or simply looked at the graves of Tate’s daughter or Bruce’s mother, they would immediately have found crucial evidence in the shape of recently (re)dug grave plots. Unfortunately, I think the author is keener to attempt to shock his readers by his horror-novel descriptions of things happening to decomposing bodies, etc, than in providing a credible plot. 

Despite his old mates trying to keep him out of the investigation, Tate ploughs on regardless of the sensitivities of the families of the bereaved. Eventually after a shocking event in his office, he becomes so distraught that he turns to drink. After being on a bender for a month, he follows someone he regards as a suspect and jumps a red light, crashing into a car being driven by a woman whose young daughter is a passenger. Tate has become the man he has spent the last two years hating, but this realization does not stop him from immediately borrowing another car and continuing his single-minded quest.

Cemetery Lake is written at a fast pace and despite its various plot holes it does engage the attention, even though the “solution” to the main case is too extreme to convince. The main problem with the novel for me was the character of Tate, who is potentially interesting but just too unsympathetic even taking into account his tragic past, given all his unethical, cruel and thoughtless actions. His heart is in the right place, but unfortunately his ego is the most important thing to him, which combined with his action-man toughness makes him hard to like or to care much about.  I think the novel is fine for those who like lots of events (including revolting ones) and action, but is less successful on an emotional, credible level. I was also disappointed not to come away with more of a sense of Christ Church, New Zealand.

My copy of this novel was borrowed from the local library.

Read other (mostly very positive) reviews of Cemetery Lake at: Euro Crime (Michelle Peckham); Overkill (Vanda Symon); Crime Watch (Craig Sisterson); Reviewing the Evidence (Craig Sisterson again, a different review); DJ's Krimiblog (Dorte Jakobsen); and It's Criminal (Helen).

Here's a post at Crime Scraps, which in a balanced way outlines some of the downsides to this novel. I should have remembered this post before picking up the book from the library shelf! 

Feature about the author at Crime Watch (by Craig Sisterson).

Author's website.

Just finished reading: Kind of Blue by Miles Corwin

Kind-of-blue-200 Two or three weeks ago, I was contacted by Oceanview Publishing, who kindly asked if I would like to receive a copy of Kind of Blue, a debut novel by Miles Corwin. The novel looked interesting, as I like police procedurals and in this case the author had previously written three non-fiction books, two of which are about the Los Angeles police department, so presumably knows his onions. I accepted the offer, and have just finished, and enjoyed,  the book. I was about to write a review when I see that the publication date is not until 1 November. Instead of a review, therefore, I'll provide an excerpt here, and post a review when the book is actually out.

The novel is about the LAPD, in particular a case that is given to Ash Levine, a detective who quit the force a year earlier. Ash is persuaded to return to work to investigate the death of a retired cop, Pete Relovich. Near the start of the novel, Ash visits the victim's home for the first time:

"Relovich lived near the end of a cul-de-sac, in a ramshackle pale blue clapboard bungalow with peeling paint and a sagging roof. When I was a kid, this had been a working-class neighborhood, populated mostly by Croatian fishermen. But now, homes with a view of the water were at a premium in Los Angeles and property values had soared. Most of the fisherman had sold to investors, who viewed the modest homes as teardowns, replacing them with mammoth two- and three-storey monstrosities, spanning lot line to lot line. Relovich's house, which was encircled by yellow crime-scene tapes, was flanked by two gray and white clipboard Cape Cod-style McMansions that could sell for more than a million dollars.
I pulled out a pair of latex gloves, a few small Baggies, and a flashlight from a wooden box in Duffy's trunk, stuffed them in my pocket, and walked to Relovich's front porch, which faced the harbor. Lingering for a moment, I looked out at the inky black water laced with streaks of silver from the three-quarter moon. Lights atop the graceful span of the Vincent Thomas Bridge, which connected San Pedro to Terminal Island, twinkled in the distance. An offshore wind, brisker here than in the central city, blew off the water, carrying the smell of seaweed, brine, and a hint of diesel fuel.
Duffy opened the front door and flipped on the lights. I followed him inside. The house had an air of dereliction. In the living room, newspapers, unopened mail, fast-food wrappers, and empty Dr. Pepper cans were strewn on the nicked hardwood floor. Fingerprint powder streaked the wooden arms of the sofa, the chipped coffee table in front, two chairs beside a picture window, and every other smooth surface. I took a deep breath and nodded. After a year of disorientation, I finally felt at home again.  Yes, this is what I've missed. Homicide. "

About the book at the publisher's website.

Author's website.