Book review: The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty

The Cold Cold Ground
by Adrian McKinty
Serpent’s Tail, 2012

The Cold Cold Ground is a police procedural set in the chaos of 1981 Belfast, Northern Ireland. A man is found dead in his car : he has been shot and his hand cut off. Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy, who has just moved to the area and taken up a new post at Carrickfergus CID, is given the case, with two colleagues to help. Attending the autopsy, Duffy is embarrassed to be told by the pathologist, Laura Cathcart, that the hand does not belong to the victim. She also provides him with some more evidence that indicates that the killing is not a straightforward impulsive deed or a political execution.

Duffy and colleagues soon track down a second victim, whose corpse contains similar clues in addition to the first victim’s hand. Apparently, there has never been a serial killer in Ireland because, it is said, anyone of that mindset can easily find an occupation working for the IRA, the UVF,or other political faction. The next 200 pages follow Duffy’s attempts to investigate the crime against a background of violence. Bobby Sands, the Maze hunger striker, has just died so there are riots and strikes in the city, not to mention terrorist attacks. Duffy and his colleagues are attacked when they try to follow up leads in Belfast’s “no go” areas, and they are hampered by the fact that homosexual acts are illegal as well as abhorred by IRA and UVF alike – nobody is interested in helping the police investigate an apparent homosexual crime.

Brennan, Duffy’s boss, suddenly hands over to him another case: that of a missing woman called Lucy Moore. Lucy is the ex-wife of another Maze prisoner who has just begun to participate in the mass hunger strike to force the British government to give the men what they regard as their basic human rights. Lucy vanished a few months ago on a pre-Christmas shopping trip. When her family began receiving postcards from her saying that she was well, the police lost interest, but the case was not closed. It isn’t long before Duffy hears that a woman’s body has been found hanging in some nearby woods.

For 200 pages, this novel is an assured police procedural replete with convincing period details, really making the reader see and feel what it must have been like trying to maintain law and order under such impossible and dangerous circumstances. Not only are there so many political factions, but Special Branch and MI5 are involved, making it hard for Duffy and colleagues to obtain the background information they need about their suspects and witnesses. Duffy becomes obsessed with the clues that the presumed serial killer has left and continues to send, as well as being convinced in his mind that the Lucy case is somehow connected. The author weaves a completely believable universe, with real-life figures such as Gerry Adams and Margaret Thatcher making brief appearances, and some heartbreaking moments – for example the book is set just after the announcement that De Lorean is moving to the city, bringing hope of prosperity. In one of many nice touches, Duffy and Laura are both Catholics – very much a minority in a mainly Protestant city. As far as Duffy is concerned, this fact allows the author to present telling vignettes of ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives in a hopeless situation – the scenes in Duffy’s street are wryly amusing as well as useful for the developing plot.

The last 100 pages of the book are less successful. Frustrated by his lack of progress, as well as having been officially removed from the investigation(s), Duffy goes for the all-out approach of accusing everybody of everything, presumably to spark some response. The result is an alternating mixture of approvingly described violence (harking back to the opening passage) and great tracts of exposition from one character to another which have a deadening effect. Duffy himself is not a hugely likeable character because of his ego (he often “impresses” us with his university education) and his inevitable 100 per cent success rate with women, despite his diet of alcohol, questionable length of time he wears the same T-shirt, and habit of falling asleep in a stupor on the floor (or once, in a much worse place). He’s also another one of those fictional characters who is always namechecking music recordings. But he does have some redeeming features to keep the reader interested in him, notably his refusal to join in the general Protestant/Catholic knee-jerk divide that is regularly expressed to him in one way or another. I enjoyed reading The Cold Cold Ground, and look forward to the next in the series.

I received this novel via the Amazon Vine programme.

Other reviews of The Cold Cold Ground: Fair Dinkum Crime (Bernadette in Oz), The View from the Blue House, Yet Another Crime Fiction blog, Crime Always Pays, Mysteries in Paradise, and many more.

Book review: The Lewis Man by Peter May

The Lewis Man
by Peter May
Quercus, 2012 (#2 of the Lewis trilogy)

Some months after the end of The Blackhouse, Finn MacLeod is winding up his life in Edinburgh – his marriage, his job as a police detective – and returns to his emotional home, the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. He plans to restore his parents’ derelict croft house while living in a tent – pretty brave, considering the Scottish island climate.

Before getting very far in his task, Finn becomes embroiled in a murder case. The body of a man has been found buried in a peat bog. The victim has been killed, probably in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Finn is consulted by George Gunn, the constable on the island who worked with him on a previous case – the two men hope to find the victim’s identity, and hence solve the crime, before specialist reinforcements arrive from the mainland and take over. At first, the task seems relatively simple, because a DNA test reveals that the victim is related to Tormond MacDonald, the father of Finn’s childhood sweetheart Marsaili. (That’s three coincidences so far, as Tormond was the only man on the island who did not request his DNA sample to be destroyed after the collection made in The Blackhouse.)

Finn cannot make progress, though, because the old man has dementia and is degenerating rapidly. Finn’s gentle questioning of him throws up some clues, but not many. The author depicts Tormond very movingly, in particular his fractured internal life, in which past and present are confused. Something about Finn and Marsaili’s enquiries triggers the old man’s memories, and for much of the book we learn of his childhood. These sections of the book require the reader to suspend belief in the set-up in order to enjoy them, as they are written as if by an articulate, logical person and not convincing as a first-person narrative. On the other hand, the author needs to use this device to pace his narrative and to control when certain revelations occur. If one can overcome this flaw, the story is an emotionally gripping one, about “homers” and the cruel ways in which orphans were treated by the church, local councils and other authorities, in shockingly recent times.

The narrative continues in a leisurely way, alternating between the old man’s memories and the present day, where Finn is searching for the identity of the dead man as well as re-establishing old relationships. About half way through the book there is a twist that puts it onto a different footing, and the mystery crystallises, gathering some much-needed pace in the process.

The story is very well told, with a great sense of atmosphere and place. As with The Blackhouse, this novel really cries out for a map, as Finn travels up and down the islands on his quest amid storms and beautiful sunshine, beaches and wild cliffs. It would be very useful for the reader to be able to follow his journey across the various ferries and suspension bridges. The scenery is beautifully described, and the author cleverly includes elements of the traditional way of life, such as the Harris knitters, into his narrative. At the end, there is a double shock climax, which a reader could have guessed from the clues given, but may well not have done in either case.

In sum, The Lewis Man is a readable mystery with a tragic core – all the more so because the events described really did happen to people. It rather strongly mirrors The Blackhouse, in that the former novel is about Finn’s quest to learn about his own past; and the new book is about Marsaili’s family’s past. The third novel, the to-be-published The Chess Men, will I predict focus on the next generation, as there are hints both that Finn will seriously try to track down the hit-and-run driver who killed his son, and that there will be continuing, perhaps escalating, family tensions between the MacLeods, MacDonalds and the Murrays on the Island of Lewis.

I purchased my copy of this book.

Read other reviews of The Lewis Man at: Euro Crime (Amanda Gillies), Shots (Jim Kelly), and The Scotsman.

About the book at the author’s website, including links to reviews, background information, videos and more.

My review of The Blackhouse, the first in this trilogy.

Book review: Bloodland by Alan Glynn

by Alan Glynn
Faber & Faber, 2011.

The “conspiracy thriller” is a genre with very few excellent examples and very many substandard ones. Bloodland is of the best. Its momentum is provided by the connectivity of some very small and apparently random dots, to the point where a US presidency and global corporate “imperialism” are directly affected. Although clearly written with an eye on the movie, it is none the worse for that.

The main novel opens in Ireland with Jimmy Gilroy, an inexperienced, young and unemployed journalist agreeing to write a book about a “celebrity” (by the modern definition), Susie Monaghan, simply because the advance will allow him to pay the rent for a few more months. He’s unhappy about his assignment because his father was a fine journalist and Jimmy wants to follow in his footsteps. Nevertheless, he begins by researching the final chapter, about Susie’s death in a helicopter accident.

On the day that Jimmy has an appointment with the dead woman’s sister, he receives a call from Phil Sweeney, an old PR contact of his father’s, who asks him not to write the book, but won’t tell him why. Puzzled, Jimmy meets the sister as arranged – he assumes she will be against the idea of the book, but to his surprise she is very much in favour of it, mainly because she feels that the accident was not properly investigated at the time and she thinks Jimmy’s research will reveal the cause. Keen to continue with this line, Jimmy is then offered a much better deal via Sweeney: to write a ghosted autobiography of the recently retired Taioseach, Larry Bolgar.

Despite his liking for the sister, Jimmy does not waste much time ditching the Susie book and going to see Bolgar, who is a man fighting his own demons — all of Glynn’s male characters have traumatic interior lives, fighting insecurity, fathers (or father-figures) and addiction of one sort or another. What a drunk Bolgar reveals to Jimmy during their first interview makes Jimmy’s head reel, and makes the reader realise that the book is about something else completely than its ostensible subject.

Another plotline involves Dave Conway, who knew Susie and most of those with her on her final weekend. His company owns Tara Meadows, a massive new development of hotels, shops and apartments that is now abandoned, a home for tramps. Conway is desperately trying to find new investors amid a crashed Irish economy, as his family life disintegrates. He sees a brief item on the TV news about a body that has been found in a wood by a man walking his dog, a report that causes Conway to panic.

The geographical scope of the book expands, leading to Italy, London, the Congo and finally to the United States for the dramatic climax. Jimmy only sees part of the picture, of course: from the start the reader has known about a visit by a US senator to the Congo which ends in tragedy, and witnesses the damage-limitation exercise that follows – with its inevitable weaknesses.

The full extent of the connection between these events, partially but not completely known to the reader, depends on Jimmy. Will he be tenacious and bright enough to follow all his leads through, as they point to ever-more amazing implications? I did doubt it at first, when he, a journalist, is researching an Italian UN official and does not know how easy it is to translate documents instantly on the web, going to various lengths to find someone who can tell him what they mean – but this is the only stumble I came across in a very assured plot-build-up.

Most conspiracy thrillers fail by over-reaching themselves, hence lurching into incredibility. This is certainly not the case here. Much of what is revealed depends on coincidence – certain people cracking up at convenient times, or someone deciding to spill some beans at the exact time the right person is there to hear them, and so on. But this element is not overdone, and indeed is a clever analysis of how apparently small decisions made by low-level people in an organisation for what seem at the time to be perfectly good reasons, in fact come back in spades later on down the line.

Bloodland is an immensely exciting book, which works because the author never forgets the human condition. His portrayal of a mine in the Congo is truly upsetting, not in a gratuitous sense but in the sense of providing a snapshot for the reader to understand how children’s lives are completely ruined by the inevitable combination of corruption, greed and exploitation in these sad countries and by those who do business with their leaders.

The novel is told mostly via the device of sharing with the reader the thoughts of the main characters (all male) as their inner worlds, and gradually their outer ones, disintegrate. Will it all come out, or will Jimmy allow himself to be diverted? How will he overcome his lack of resources and his unemployed status to convince anyone of what he knows but cannot prove? Will someone stop him before he can deliver? I can only urge you to read this book to find out.

I purchased my copy of this book.

Other reviews of Bloodland: Euro Crime (Terry Halligan), Reviewing the Evidence (Yvonne Klein), Shots (Ali Karim), View from the Blue House and, a lone negative review, The Irish Independent.

My Euro Crime review of the author’s previous book, Winterland. (Bloodland is not a sequel to Winterland, but a couple of the characters appear in both novels.)

Book review: Needlepoint by Jenny Roberts

by Jenny Roberts
Diva, 2000.

Cameron McGill is mourning the death of her sister Carrie, an investigative journalist whose body was found in an Amsterdam canal two months ago. Cameron, a drugs counsellor in the city of York, cannot move on from this event (unsurprisingly) so her boss gives her a month off work. She decides to go to Amsterdam to find out what she can about what happened to Carrie.

Cameron is a tough character who has had a difficult childhood and a wild phase in her youth. Now she drives a Harley Davidson and only goes in for short-term relationships. Upon arrival in Amsterdam, Cameron stays at a bed-and-breakfast owned by the friendly Mariette, who tells her what she can of Carrie’s last weeks. Cameron finds it hard to believe the autopsy results, which showed that her sister died of a drug overdose, and remembers identifying her body for the Dutch police, which through her grief caused Cameron some puzzlement. When she visits the policeman who was looking into Carrie’s death, however, he tells Cameron the case is closed even though the drug in her system was not identified.

Cameron is even more determined to find out what her sister was doing, soon becoming aware of what was obvious to the reader, that Carrie was investigating some leads rather than being a drug addict herself. Cameron goes to a women’s restaurant then a gay bar, following up with local drug counsellors, squatters and with people using the methadone “buses” to try to build up a picture of what Carrie was doing.

I enjoyed this book, including its vivid portrayal of Amsterdam and the Dutch scene, very much until the middle, then found it became rather predictable. The identity of the villain is obvious immediately the name is introduced – though this does not occur to Cameron, for the reader it is just a matter of waiting until she gets there and seeing how the two ends meet. The book also becomes more of a “thriller” at this point, for example Cameron notices a black Mercedes car on a ferry she is on, and a few pages later the car is pursuing her on the roads. Everyone Cameron meets tries to persuade her not to find out what her sister was doing for her own safety, rather than telling her what they know. So although this is an enjoyable novel in the style of Sara Parestsky’s V I Warsahwski books, providing an authentic snapshot of a particular social culture and at its heart a good crime plot, I wish it had been 50 pages shorter, which would have given it more focus and impact.

I purchased this book, which is the first in a series. I read it because Sharon Wheeler recommended another book in this series, Dead Reckoning, as one of her Euro Crime picks of 2005. From her review: “Cameron’s an attractive and well-balanced heroine surrounded by a believable and well-drawn supporting cast….The sad thing about this outstanding book, though, is that it is unlikely to reach a wide audience, published as it is by a small-scale gay publishers. And that’s infuriating, as Roberts’ writing is up there with the best on the UK crime writing scene.”

Author website.

Quotes from reviews at the author’s website, where you can read an extract of the book.

SinC25: Simone van der Vlugt, #9 post of expert challenge

Having completed the Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ moderate challenge, I am now working hard on the expert level and believe the end is almost in sight! The challenge:

write ten blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention three similar women authors whose works you would recommend.

Reading Rich Westwood‘s recent Euro Crime review of Shadow Sister reminded me of the Dutch author Simone van der Vlugt, whose two novels that have been translated into English are both very enjoyable, in a dark, suspenseful way. Shadow Sister (translated by Michele Hutchinson, my review at link) is about twins, one a schoolteacher and the other a photographer. Their different attitudes to materialism, men and the job market first strike one about these young women, but gradually we come to see how their past life when children has affected them. One of the nice things about this book is the unreliable perception of reality, depending on which twin is narrating the story.

The Reunion is the other book by this author that has been translated (again by Michele Hutchinson) and published in English. Again, there is an unreliable, possibly unstable, narrator, Sabine, recently returned to work after a bout of depression. Gradually, we come to learn more about Sabine’s life and past, and it is not pleasant.

Rich’s Euro Crime review of Shadow Sister touched upon the ordinary lives of the characters. He writes: “Its setting in suburban Rotterdam may as well be suburban Slough, and its Further Education college, shopping mall, and nightclubs could be situated in Leicester, Hull or Stoke. The characters are teachers, photographers, software engineers and teenagers, all people that you might find in your local town centre next Saturday lunchtime.” This made me wonder, in the context of this challenge, what other books by women authors use the ordinariness of setting to cover up distinctly non-ordinary secrets, secrets that gradually are revealed? I have to think of three such authors….

Jessica Mann‘s The Mystery Writer is in one respect about an ordinary character (“Jessica Mann”) who is in Cornwall researching a book about a (true-life) disaster of World War 2 – the sinking of the ship City of Bernares as it was carrying evacuees from the UK to Canada. She witnesses the attempted suicide of a woman, which is the start of the gradual revealing of many family secrets and previously hidden crimes, in a very clever set of plots.

Esther Verhoef, another Dutch author, tells the story of Margot Laine in her novel Close-Up. Margot is an ordinary salesperson who has to cope with being dumped by her husband after seven years of marriage, including being looked down on by her own parents and being stood up by a girlfriend when she attempts to take a holiday to cheer herself up. Soon, the insecure Margot is being wooed by a very handsome man, a celebrity artist — but what does he see in her, and what happened to his first wife? Margot is increasingly sucked into a maelstrom that is very far from ordinary.

School is a place that is much the same the world over, one might think. In Yaba Badoe‘s debut novel True Murder, young Ajuba is trying to get over her mother’s death. She lived in Ghana but has been placed by her father in an English school in an attempt to provide her with a “normal” life. There, Ajuba is befriended by Polly Venus and hence gets to meet the Venus family in the school holidays. Another situation that becomes distinctly abnormal as the pages turn!

My previous posts in the SinC25 challenge.

The Sisters in Crime 25th anniversary challenge.

Book review: V is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton

V is for Vengeance
by Sue Grafton
Mantle, 2012.

I have faithfully read all of Sue Grafton’s “alphabet” series and have usually enjoyed them; but it is only in the past few outings that I’ve come to look forward to each new letter avidly. The author is now well into her stride with her characters and setting, and rather than sticking to the formula established in the first several titles, she is exploring and creating new situations in her fictional town of Santa Teresa (based on Santa Barbara) and its environs. Perhaps more than usual, I felt in V for Vengeance that the author is feeling somewhat constrained by her title style; although vengeance does indeed feature here, it is by no means the only motivation for the many dark deeds described in the pages.

Kinsey Millhone is a private investigator in her late 30s. While in an upmarket department store she sees a woman blatantly shoplifting and reports her to the sales assistant and, via her, the security officers. Although the thief is apprehended, her accomplice escapes – injuring Kinsey in the process. Later, Kinsey reads that the shoplifter, awaiting trial, has apparently committed suicide by jumping off a cliff. Skipping a few plot points, she is hired by Marvin, the dead woman’s fiancé, to look into her death as he is convinced it was no accident. Kinsey makes some progress, discovering that the dead woman was involved in much more than the occasional piece of casual thievery, but runs out of leads.

What raises this book above the level of a straightforward crime novel is its two vivid subplots. One of these involves a crooked businessman called Dante, who has inherited his father’s enterprises but who has little enthusiasm for some of the family’s more lethal methods of settling their affairs. Dante has been trapped in this life since boyhood; the portrait of him is involving and moving. The other main subplot concerns Nora, a rich Californian wife who is married to Channing, a lawyer to movie stars and the like. It gradually becomes clear how Nora and Channing have drifted apart over the years, and that Nora, like Dante a gentle soul at heart, is trapped in the life she’s created for herself.

For the first 250 or so pages, the book is completely absorbing as the three stories progress and the reader can try to outguess the author as to how or if they will turn out to be connected. At this point, there is a bit of a lull, as Kinsey becomes involved in helping an old, lowlife friend “Pinky” who is on the run in a matter concerning some photographs. Perhaps improbably, Pinky is also involved with the people Kinsey is investigating in the shoplifter-suicide case and provides some pieces of the puzzle that Kinsey is trying to solve. At about the same point in the book, a piece of information is revealed to the reader that changes the dynamics between Nora and Dante – a development that I felt was a bit of a cheat as it concerns a matter that Nora, whose part of the narrative is told to the reader from her point of view, would certainly have been thinking about during her daily life but which is not mentioned.

At the end, the book delivers a satisfying resolution to the various plots, as the stories concerning Kinsey, Pinky, Marvin, Dante and Nora, as well as sundry well-observed minor characters, all converge. I was pleased that Kinsey’s neighbour Henry and his brother William did not feature too much here, as I think that they, and Kinsey’s regular descriptions of her unique home, can overburden and slow down the novels too much. I also wish Kinsey would find a different place to eat dinner occasionally. Overall, although I did find that there were rather too many coincidences for my liking, V is for Vengeance is a strong addition to the series and will leave readers eagerly awaiting W is for……

I thank Karen of Euro Crime for my copy of this book.

Other reviews of V is for Vengeance: Reactions to Reading, Crimepieces, and The Neff Review.

About the book at Wikipedia. Author website.

Book review: Dead Scared by S J Bolton

Dead Scared
by S J Bolton
Transworld (Bantam), 2012

Dead Scared is S J Bolton’s foray into that fairly well-known subgenre of crime fiction – suicides of undergraduates. In this novel, the setting is Cambridge University, and DC Lacey Flint (not her real name) goes undercover, pretending to be a psychology undergraduate of a nervous disposition, in order to (she is told) draw out anyone who might be involved in the rather high death-rate of female students in recent years. The author is excellent at creating an atmosphere of paranoia and danger, as Lacey is cut off from her superiors – she can only report to one officer, DI Mark Josebury, and rapidly finds herself out of her depth as her pretend feebleness attracts some truly nasty mass-bullying of a nature that I can only hope is entirely fictional. The internet is involved – Lacey not only has to contend with pictures of her ordeal being put up on college noticeboards, but with the images being available online. Nobody seems interested in helping her apart from her rather odd room-mate. The previous suicide victims have experienced nightmares; a sense of being watched or, in some cases physically attacked while asleep; and have possibly been taking drugs. It isn’t long before Lacey begins to experience the same symptoms.

S J Bolton also specialises in unrequited(-ish) love, which is a double theme in this novel. Lacey and Josebury have met in a previous book and have fallen for each other, though neither can admit it. (This novel, Now You See Me, is the only one of Bolton’s I have not read, but this does not seem to matter from the point of view of enjoyment of Dead Scared.) The plot is somewhat slowed down by frequent descriptions of the feelings one of them has for the other but of course cannot reveal (!). Another character here is psychologist Evi Oliver, the only person in Cambridge who knows Lacey’s true identity and who helps her try to identify the other young women who have killed themselves (information not provided or even admitted to Lacey by her superiors) and, later, whether their deaths might not have been self-inflicted. Evi herself is suffering from her love for Harry, another story told in a previous book (Blood Harvest) – and again, neither Evi nor Harry contacts the other, so we are treated to much wistfulness on Evi’s part.

These romantic distractions aside, the author builds up the tension superbly, as Lacey continues to accrue evidence that the dead women were murdered and turns up several likely suspects, despite Josebury’s anger as he wants Lacey to stick to her decoy role. Lacey and Evi separately discover more and more, but also both become increasingly aware of being targeted by intangible yet terrifying forces. Eventually Lacey works out what is going on at the same time that she and Evi are cut off from help and plunged into danger. Although part of me was annoyed at the plot holes that have artificially allowed things to get to this point (for example, Josebury has to go away to see his son as the investigation reaches its climax, so Lacey has nobody to report to – and many others which I can’t reveal here because of spoilers), the tension towards the end of the book is almost unbearable as Lacey and Evi appear to be doomed. This book is definitely a very exciting read and one that really does require staying up late until it is finished. The eventual revelation of what really has been going on is one that the reader will have worked out in outline but (probably) not in detail, and is very dark and disturbing.

I obtained my copy of this book via the Amazon Vine programme.

Other reviews of the book can be seen at UK Amazon.

Euro Crime reviews of S J Bolton’s previous books.

Author’s website.

Book review: The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect X
by Keigo Higashino
translated by Alexander O Smith with Elye Alexander
Little, Brown UK, 2011 (first published in Japan 2005)

Set in Tokyo, this novel is about the investigation of a crime and the psychological effects of guilt and suspicion on those involved in it. The crime itself is the murder of Togashi, ex-husband of Yasuko, a youngish woman who works in a bento shop (snack bar providing takeaway lunches). The reader knows who committed the murder and why, but not the details of how the crime was covered up to avoid detection.

The police, led by Kishitani, become involved when someone reports a dead body down at the river. First, the corpse has to be identified via missing-persons reports. This causes Kishitani to focus on Yasuko, her friends, employers and neighbours. One neighbour (in fact the only one mentioned in the book as being interviewed), a mathematics teacher called Ishigami, inadvertently reveals that he is an alumnus of Imperial University, where Kishitani also studied (sociology), and where he frequently goes to consult a friend and kind of Sherlock Holmes figure, Yukawa, who has helped on previous cases via his scientific insights. It turns out that Ishigami and Yukawa were old classmates who have lost touch, so Yukawa reconnects with his friend and begins to make his own enquiries about the murder, as he comes to suspect that Ishigami is somehow involved. In the meantime, the official investigation continues in parallel, as Yasuko finds herself sinking further and further into deception and away from the “normal” life she craves for herself and her daughter.

The plot of the novel is clever, in that the reader begins one step ahead of the police but gradually realises that the story is more complex than a simple crime and a cover-up. However, the author maintains a narrow focus so there is a lot of information that we aren’t told. Why are there so many avoidable holes in people’s alibis and accounts of what happened on the fateful night? What is the significance of events that seem not to fit with anything previously told to the reader, for example why a particular bicycle was stolen? While the detectives accrue evidence and witnesses, fear and paranoia escalate among the subjects of the investigation, until all is revealed in a double-twist ending (part of which is a bit of a cheat).

Despite the neat ways the author makes mathematical study an allegory for the story, including Ishigami’s gradual disillusion with the discipline as he comes to realise you can’t apply mathematics to everything in the world (as most of us already know), I did not engage with this book. The prose is flat and the text is written in colloquial American style, so all the characters think in American slang and descriptions are Americanised, ruining a great deal of the atmosphere that would have been provided by use of Japanese words and phrases instead of them being substituted for their American equivalents*. The characters are two-dimensional, with important avenues left unexplored. This is most marked in the case of Yasuko’s young daughter, the character whose role in the story interested me the most, and whose dramatic actions bookend the plot – she is basically ignored. Unfortunately, I found the whole thing rather boring and neither cared about nor was moved by the final revelation — because none of the characters seemed like real, three-dimensional people.

I borrowed this book from the library.

*Via Jackie of Farm Lane Books, there are minor variants between the UK and US editions, eg “maths” and “math”, respectively, but the overwhelming sense of the UK edition is of an American book.

Read other (positive) reviews of The Devotion of Suspect X: Euro Crime, Farm Lane Books, The Independent, Reading Matters, Mean Streets, Yet Another Crime Fiction blog, The Crime Segments and, the only one of these reviewers who liked the book as little as I did, Reactions to Reading. Incidentally, the Reactions to Reading review provides many details of errors and holes in the plot, for those who would like some evidence of these, as I did not provide them in my review.

Book review: The Accident by Linwood Barclay

The Accident
by Linwood Barclay
Orion, 2011.

Linwood Barclay’s books are among my favourite “comfort” reads, and The Accident is no exception – in fact I think it is his best book since his breakthrough novel No Time For Goodbye. Although Canadian by birth, Barclay writes a formulaic, but highly superior formulaic, American domestic novel showing the dark underbelly of the suburban dream. Not only that, but the books always slip down a treat – one has finished them before noticing, almost.

The Accident opens with the seemingly obligatory but unnecessary prologue set in Canal St, New York, where a trip by a couple of out-of-towners to buy fake designer handbags (purses) goes horribly wrong. The main novel is set in Connecticut, where builder Glenn is reeling from the death of his wife Sheila in a car accident. His main priority is his 8-year-old daughter Kelly. Not only does the girl have to cope with the death of her mother but she is being victimised at school because Sheila was drunk and caused the death of a parent and boy who also attended the same school. Kelly deals with her aggressive classmates by stomping on their feet. One has to note this – as this is one of those books where the reader is usually only informed of something if it is going to be significant for the plot.

The bulk of the novel concerns Glenn’s gradual realisation that his wife’s death may not have been an accident. More interesting, though, are the portraits of the neighbours, who are suffering through the after-effects of the crash of the US economy. People have lost their jobs, can’t pay off their sub-prime mortgages, and have a strong sense of entitlement about their constant shopping trips to the mall, flat-screen TVs and fancy cars. Glenn runs his own business and is struggling both with an employee and friend who wants advances on his salary to help with his debts; and the fact that a house he was building has burnt down. Will the insurance pay out? Glenn is worried, with cause, that the electrical subcontractor may have been using substandard materials, in which case Glenn will be liable.

There is a nice mix between the domestic and the crime plot. Kelly goes to a sleepover at her only friend’s house – the parents are not what they seem. Ann, the mother, has lost her job so now holds parties to sell cheap rate, fake designer goods. Belinda, another member of the circle, is desperately struggling in her real-estate business, and has taken up a sideline in selling prescription drugs, a horrible knock-on effect of the lack of a social welfare system such as we are lucky to have in western Europe, where people do not have to pay for their medicines if they cannot afford them.

Glenn is a nice guy if a bit slow on the uptake. He has to deal with gangsters as well as the mother-in-law from hell and a predatory neighbour who wants to snap him up now he is a widower. He’s worried about his business, especially as he comes to suspect he is being fooled into using cheap Chinese materials instead of solid American workmanship (it is a very patriotic book!).

This book is a nice one to read if you are feeling a bit under the weather or want to kill some time. It all hangs together perfectly well, and there are nested solutions that gradually reveal various different aspects of local crimes and criminals. Some of these will come as surprises to the reader, others will not. I enjoyed this novel because it suited my mood at the time. It isn’t great literature but it delivers the goods and is hard to put down once you are into it. If you enjoy books by authors such as Harlan Coben, I am sure you will enjoy this one.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Other reviews of The Accident: Mean Streets, The Book Whisperer, The Guardian (brief), The Globe and Mail.

About the book at the author’s website, includes various additional features.

Video interview with the author at the publisher’s website.

My reviews of three of the author’s four earlier books: No Time For Goodbye, Fear the Worst, and Never Look Away. These books are “standalones”, not a series.

SinC25: Laura Wilson, #8 post of expert challenge

Having completed the Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ moderate challenge, I am now working hard on the expert level. The challenge:

write ten blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention three similar women authors whose works you would recommend.

Laura Wilson is well-known in the UK both as an author of crime fiction and as a reviewer of crime novels for The Guardian. She wrote half a dozen suspense novels, mostly historical, between 1999 and 2006, but here I want to mention her series about London policeman Ted Stratton, as an example of a historical series that, in examining social and political trends over a period of time (the Blitz to the 1960s), does not get bogged-down in the past in the way that many historical novels can tend, rather self-consciously, to do.

Stratton’s War (2007): “The plotting is excellent, dovetailing perfectly with the excitingly tense World War Two background. The constant personal frustrations of Stratton and Diana, as the truths they separately uncover are suppressed for the “greater good” or for the war effort, or for the retrospectively quaint (but no doubt accurate) imperative to preserve the status quo of the class structure, make the book far deeper than a genre novel.
Part of the pleasure and poignancy of this book is the objectivity and frankness that this talented author can bring to bear on events of nearly 70 years ago. For 30 years or so after the war, novels of this type were still, on the whole, covered with a veneer of propaganda and, although exciting, were often too black-and-white to seem realistic or involving. Laura Wilson examines all the issues: social, sexual and political, with a clear-sightedness that provides real insight to the modern reader. This is an admirable novel, both as a good piece of historical crime fiction, but also as a social and emotionally telling commentary on the snapshot of time in which it is set.”

An Empty Death (2009): ” I enjoyed this novel as much, or perhaps even more than, Stratton’s War. The earlier novel focused on events that could only have taken place in the context of the war, whereas An Empty Death is a timeless mystery that is given added interest and excitement by taking place during such unusual times. I am not usually a fan of historical novels, nor of books set in World War Two, but the apparent authenticity of the many domestic, professional* and general details in this novel, as well as its triple plot, soon had me absorbed. The characters seem so genuine: so often when one reads a contemporary novel set in the past, the characters seem to act knowingly about the future, or to have attitudes that anticipate the modern era. There is none of that here, the author simply presents her characters as of their times, which is very effective.”
(*I have since been corrected on an aspect of this point by Norman of Crime Scraps.)

A Capital Crime (2010): “Laura Wilson has written an excellent novel in A Capital Crime. Her invented characters, whether central or tangential, are completely realistic and of their time yet with a subtle overtone of present-day perspective. Her observations of the social mores of the day are acute, and her cast-list (with the exception of the criminal) sympathetic yet unsentimental. Her settings are beautifully detailed and convincing throughout. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and so much hope that it will not be too long before the next episode in the life of DI Ted Stratton.”

I now have to name three women authors who write in a similar vein. This is quite a challenge to me as I don’t read much historical fiction (I read a great deal of it in my teens and then had enough, rather like science fiction), but I’ll try:

Aly Monroe has so far written three books about Peter Cotton, The Maze of Cadiz (which I’ve read), Washington Shadow and Icelight (which I haven’t yet). Like Laura Wilson’s, these novels begin in the Second World War and continue after it, but the protagonist is a military intelligence agent.

Jacqueline Winspear set the main part of her first Maisie Dobbs novel in 1929. There are nine books to date about this psychology-oriented, ex-nurse investigator with her own business, but I’m afraid I have read only the first of these. In that novel, the themes of the effects of war (in this case, the First Word War) on civilian society and on those involved in it, were very much to the fore.

Andrea Maria Schenkel‘s first two novels, The Murder Farm and Ice Cold (both translated by Anthea Bell), are much grimmer affairs about the myths of war and the brutal crimes committed by those caught up in the maelstrom. They are also relentless depictions of claustrophobic German societies and attitudes, in which in each brief novel the reader can only surmise the war’s cause and effect.

My previous posts in the SinC25 challenge.

The Sisters in Crime 25th anniversary challenge.