Book review: The Fall by Claire McGowan

The Fall
by Claire McGowan
Headline, 2012.

The Fall tells the story of the aftermath of a crime from the point of view of three characters. Charlotte, in PR, is engaged to Dan, a city banker. Charlotte and her mother have been planning the wedding to the nth degree for many months. A week before the big day Dan, frustrated at the obsessively detailed and protracted level of effort required to organise the event, decides he’d like to go to a night club after a terrible day at work, so drags Charlotte (who would rather be designing place mats) to a Jamaican club as Jamaica is where they plan to go for the honeymoon. Totally out of character, we are told, the two of them take some cocaine before setting out.

Keisha is a young woman whose 5-year-old daughter Ruby is temporarily living with her mother under the guidance of the social services since Chris, Keisha’s partner and Ruby’s father, broke the girl’s arm in a fit of temper. Keisha has been besotted with Chris ever since the age of 13, allowing him to dominate her completely. Despite having no money (Chris steals what Keisha earns as an off-the-books care-home assistant), Chris insists on taking Keisha to a club one night as he has “business” to do there.

After both couples arrive, the owner of the club is murdered. Dan is the chief suspect, so is taken into custody and after interrogation by DC Matthew Hegarty, is charged with the crime. Because he fails to get bail, he’s imprisoned awaiting trial. The book tells the story of subsequent events from the points of view of Charlotte, Keisha and Matthew, as the two women separately have to ditch their previous assumptions and cope with new ways of life, and Matthew becomes drawn into the case in a way he could not predict and that might jeopardise both it and his career.

The Fall is written at an easy reading level, and has some moments of genuine insight into the two women’s lives. However, it is essentially a romantic novel with a dash of Martina Cole, rather than crime fiction. We know who committed the crime at the outset, so there is little suspense in one of the main plotlines, that of whether or not Dan is guilty. While Dan is in prison, the author focuses on Charlotte’s and Keisha’s everyday lives, but glosses over many practical details. Characters appear and disappear, or change their behaviour, for no apparent reason – for example Charlotte’s mother is a dominant force at the start of the book but fades out in the middle. Keisha’s role in the story is pivotal, for she is torn between protecting her child and whether she should tell Charlotte, or the authorities, the knowledge she has that would transform the case against Dan.

For a large chunk of the novel, nothing happens about Dan’s predicament while he languishes in prison awaiting trial; in particular, he has no lawyer. Despite plenty of holes in the police case, his parents (one of them a retired high court judge) refuse to help or even communicate with Charlotte or Dan, and Charlotte’s well-off father is very detached and won’t get involved. Charlotte’s stepsister is a journalist but won’t write about the case. Dan has told Charlotte that there is paperwork in his study that will incriminate his employer, yet she does nothing about this, or about finding a lawyer for Dan herself. Keisha is badly affected by a sudden tragedy in her family. Both women react somewhat passively to the situations they find themselves in, and the focus is on how they cope with recreating their personal and working lives. Yet towards the end of the book, for no special reason, parents become helpful; Dan’s and Charlotte’s previous employers both respond to the pressure Charlotte suddenly puts them under; the journalist stepsister changes her mind about a campaign. To my mind, this creates a rather artificial conglomeration of a climax.

In summary, this is a lightweight, readable novel that whiles away a couple of hours easily enough. I think the author missed some opportunities by focusing on domestic arrangements, romantic subplots and lucky coincidences (eg Keisha’s mother happens to go to the same church as the mother of the murdered man, which leads to a key plot element), rather than on a more detailed account of the criminal justice process or digging into any of the socioeconomic issues raised – many of them very interesting, but here treated fairly superficially. The trial that forms the climax of the book is the one time where tension is truly generated, but the author chooses to end the account of it at the most interesting moment, and focus instead on a “will they won’t they?” conclusion.

I was sent this book (unsolicited) by the publisher.

Read other reviews of The Fall at: Novelicious, Crime Time, and Crime Fiction Lover.

Q/A with the author at High Heels and Book Deals, and at Crime Always Pays.

Book review: Desert Wives by Betty Webb

Desert Wives
by Betty Webb
Lena Jones #2
Poison Pen Press, 2011; originally published 2002
Kindle format

Lena Jones is an ex-cop, now a private investigator in Scottsdale, Arizona. She has a sad past, being bought up in a series of foster homes, but is now an independent if nonconformist young woman with more than a few personal demons. Desert Wives begins with Lena hiding out in the desert just over the nearby Utah border, trying to help Rebecca, a 13-year-old girl, to escape from her father, who has in effect kidnapped her and taken her to the Mormon settlement of Purity so that she can marry the 68-year-old “prophet” Solomon Royal. Lena’s immediate task is successful, thanks to help from her partner Jimmy, but as they flee they come across the body of Solomon, who has been shot at close range.

Although Rebecca is reunited with her mother Esther, her ordeal is not over. Esther comes under suspicion for the murder of Solomon; if she’s arrested Rebecca’s father will become her legal guardian and can take her back to Purity. There, the girl will probably be married to another of the sect’s elders, so that her father can receive his reward of two 16-year-old girls who he will marry himself. With few options open to her, Lena decides to go undercover into Purity, posing as the second wife of Saul, a great-grandfather who is part of a group dedicated to helping young women escape from their awful lives, so that she can find out who really killed Solomon and hence keep Rebecca and Esther free of the Mormons’ clutches.

Desert Wives is a fast-paced novel told in a refreshing, no-nonsense style. For this reason, its gradual exposure of the ghastly horrors for girls and women of life in a Mormon sect are all the more effective for their straightforward presentation. Taking advantage of local laws (and building their settlement so that it crosses the Utah-Arizona state line), the elders have registered their own school and clinic so that children are isolated, indoctrinated from birth with the warped ideals of polygamy, by which a man ascends to the highest level of heaven according to the numbers of wives and children he has. Men often have more than ten wives, each producing a baby every year. Because polygamy is illegal, only the latest wife is married to the husband; the rest are divorced but live with him as “sister wives”, handing over their welfare benefits as single mothers. It is not uncommon for men in their 60s and 70s to marry girls as young as 16.

The main strengths of this brisk novel are twofold. First, the story is a shocking, ghastly set of revelations that become darker as the pages turn. If you don’t want to believe what you are reading (as I did not), there is an afterward in which the author describes some of her research and provides references for real-life cases that are as awful as some in the book. The exposure of a culture (the United States of America) whose laws not only allow but encourage this systematic brainwashing, abuse and medical tragedy is particularly strong: the author is not shy to make an explicit connection to the Taliban.

The second strength of the book is an enjoyable one (thankfully), which is the great sense of location and atmosphere, in the canyons, hills and deserts around the Pima country of eastern Arizona and nearby Utah (the images shown here are of Phoenician Canyon, Arizona (top) and an artist’s picture of Zion park, Utah). The author makes great use of her knowledge of her various locations, from the art tourists in Scottsdale to the rugged canyons, rainy scrublands and deserts surrounding Purity. The crime plot perhaps takes third place to these two themes, and for this reader the issue of whether Rebecca and other women would manage to leave Purity became more important than who did kill Solomon Royal. But even so, Desert Wives is a book well worth reading (and won’t take long; it is very short).

I thank Ken Mahieu for recommending this book to me. I purchased the Kindle edition as part of a publisher’s promotion. (I have not read #1 in the series but that does not seem to matter.)

Other reviews of Desert Wives: Reviewing the Evidence, Kirkus reviews, New York Times, Murder by Type.

From the author’s Wikipedia entry: “Much of Webb’s subject matter is controversial. “Desert Wives” and “Desert Lost” deal with the polygamy sects in Arizona; “Desert Cut” deals with female genital mutilation. One reviewer [Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times no less] commented that the content of “Desert Wives,” about ‘wholesale enslavement of women and rampant swindling of the state welfare system’ was ‘eye popping’ and if written as investigative journalism would be a contender for the Pulitzer Prize.”

Lisa’s Book Critiques: Betty Webb at Velma Teague library. (Covers the author’s work, including this book and series.)

About the book and the Lena Jones series at the author’s website.

SinC25: Erin Kelly, #10 (and final) post of expert challenge

Having completed the Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ easy and moderate challenges, I have with this post reached the end of the expert challenge! The task:

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

I’m choosing Erin Kelly for my last post. Her second book The Sick Rose is a suspense novel told from the point of view of two characters, in two different time frames. Yet unlike many books that use the “switching time” device, Kelly writes with discipline and focus. Hence there is a strong framework for the story she tells to be revealed gradually to the reader. Kelly’s first book, The Poison Tree, was mainly set in London and concerned some young people who spent a lethal summer living in a big house owned by the father of two of them. The Sick Rose* is set in two contrasting areas of London for its earlier time frame, but in the present the action occurs in Warwickshire – at a castle not unlike Kenilworth, and in the town of Leamington Spa. Rather than recommend three authors who write similar novels to Kelly (who could be Ruth Rendell as Barbara Vine, Morag Joss and Tara French), I am going to highlight three authors from, and who write about, the same midlands region of the UK, which is somewhat unfashionable in international, and even national, terms.

(*The Sick Rose is retitled as The Dark Rose in the USA, which is incomprehensible as the author explains the meaning of “the sick rose” during the book.)

Catherine O’Flynn has written two wonderful novels set in Birmingham. The first, What Was Lost, is a very different kind of detective story, a very sad one, featuring England’s first (real-life) enormous shopping mall and its effect on the lives of the characters. Her second book, The News Where You Are, has a detective story element (again very “different”), and conveys the same sense of sadness in human relationships. One of its themes is of the architecture of Birmingham, widely derided nowadays as a soul-less “concrete jungle” but in the eyes of its architect a marvellous vision of the future. The architect is loosely based on the visionary but misunderstood John Madin, who died earlier this year. Here is a Guardian profile of the author, written just before this novel was published.

Diane Janes set her first novel, The Pull of the Moon, in the countryside round Birmingham and Hereford. The main character, Kate, grew up in the city, went to college there, and as the novel opens is enjoying early retirement. The novel tells of a traumatic experience one summer in Kate’s youth. Janes’s second novel, Why Don’t You Come For Me?, is an excellent suspense novel in the Karin Altvegen mould, set a little further north in the Lake District.

Judith Cutler lived and worked in Birmingham for many years. Her first series of novels featured Sophie Rivers, a teacher at a college in the city. She has also written several other series, some of which are set in the region.

My previous posts in the SinC25 challenge.

The Sisters in Crime 25th anniversary challenge was started by Barbara Fister. Thank you, Barbara, for the fascinating journey – even though I completed it after the end of the official 25th anniversary year!

Book review: Where the Devil Can’t Go by Anya Lipska

Where the Devil Can’t Go
by Anya Lipska
Tadeusz Books, 2011
Kindle format

This confident, well-plotted debut novel is a welcome treat. It is set in the east of London in the unappealing regions of Leytonstone and Stratford, areas currently undergoing “regeneration” in the run up to the 2012 Olympics, and as far as you can get from the London of Buckingham Palace and Lord’s cricket ground.

There has been a thriving Polish community in England since World War 2, but the country’s entry into the EU sparked a huge influx of mainly young people eager to take on work as builders or cleaners in order to make some money for their families at home. Janusz Kiszka is one such Pole. He’s lived in London for more than 20 years, making ends meet in an assortment of jobs and deals, to the extent that he can live in the Highbury Fields flat he first rented as a slum when he arrived in the country, now worth more than £1 million. Janusz is an attractive character, a rough diamond who has made, and continues to make, mistakes, but who has a basic integrity. He has a degree in physics and chemistry from the prestigious Jagiellonian University, but like many of his compatriots escaped the country in the wake of the Solidarity protests that ended communist rule.

Janusz is asked by the elderly owner of the Restaurant Polka to find Weronika, an innocent 19-year-old girl who was working there as a waitress but who has disappeared without trace. Although he thinks the most likely explanation is that the girl has run off with a boyfriend or has discovered more lucrative employment in Soho’s strip clubs (in common with other young women, not least Janusz’s on-off girlfriend Kasia), Janusz agrees to help as he needs the money offered.

In parallel with Janusz’s story is that of DC Natalie Kershaw, a native east Londoner but a graduate entrant to the police force and hence subject to constant ribaldry and heckling from her male colleagues. She is told to attend a body that has been found in the river which turns out to be that of a teenage girl who must have been very beautiful. Natalie finds enough suspicious features about the death to want to pursue an investigation, but she has to be very careful about handling her Sergeant so that he’ll allow her to work on the case, and will sign the budget for the necessary forensics.

Soon, Natalie unearths a Polish connection, and after another body is found in a nearby hotel, begins to work out what she thinks might have happened and who was responsible. In alternating chapters, Janusz pursues his enquiries, which take him to Poland and to the legacy of the traumatic events of the 1980s. It isn’t until about half way through the book that the two characters meet: Natalie tries to get Janusz to help her via his links to the Polish community but he is more interested in using what he can find out to further his own investigations.

As well as the strong (thankfully, not predictable) plot, what makes this book work well is its rounded, authentic depiction of the Polish community. Individuals come to life, such as Oskar, Janusz’s genially irreverent and somewhat gullible friend, but also the minor characters are well-depicted. Yet the bigger picture is also what makes the book more than a simple crime story – the values of the Poles versus the English, how English and Polish societies have changed over 25 years, and ultimately the shady past of those involved in regime change in Poland.

Natalie is a tough yet likeable character as she juggles her ambitions to be a good detective with her need to “keep in” with her mostly unpleasant male colleagues. She makes determined progress in her investigation to identify the drowned woman and to find out who killed both victims, due to solid, detailed, police work. But the reader can see that both she and Janusz need each other to complete the picture that they are both only seeing partially. The question is whether they will come to realise this themselves before it is too late.

Although there are one or two weak points which I won’t dwell on here as they don’t detract from the overall enjoyment of reading the novel, I highly recommend this book as engagingly written with good characterisation; having a great sense of location and atmosphere; with a brisk pace driven by the impetus of the upcoming elections in Poland; and with that touch of emotional resonance that marks out a novel as being above standard fare.

Where the Devil Can’t Go is self-published in the UK, but will be published in Germany by Goldmann (Random House) later this year. If it hasn’t yet been snapped up by a UK publisher, it certainly deserves to be.

I purchased the Kindle edition of this book.

Read other reviews of the novel at It’s a Crime! and at Amazon UK (including a review by Simon Clarke).

The author has written a guest post at It’s a Crime! (on the dangers of Polish Christmas ;-)).

Author’s website, with various reviews and more information about the novel.

February reading report

In February I reviewed 4 books for Euro Crime and 11 at Petrona. The geographical spread was fairly broad, but only one title is translated, so I must rectify that when possible: England 5 (1 set in Holland; 1 non-fiction); Wales 1; Ireland 2; Scotland 2; Japan 1; Australia 1; Canada 1 (set in USA); USA 2. The gender balance between authors is 7 female: 8 male.

Several of these books were highly rewarding, but it isn’t too difficult to award my book of the month for February to THE BROTHERHOOD by Y A ERSKINE. Set in Tasmania, the novel is a police procedural with a 360-degree perspective, set over the course of one day, with hard-hitting social comment and shifting in mood from straightforward to dark, darker and darkest. Great stuff.

Highly commended in a very strong crop are two novels by Peter May (The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man), a series set in the Outer Hebrides conveying a wonderful sense of “place” as well as telling stories of past misdeeds hidden by traditions and codes of conduct ; and Bloodland by Alan Glynn, an exciting, original global thriller. A shade behind these novels are V is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton, Kinsey Milhone’s latest outing is into the murky world of organised shoplifting; The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty, a police investigation into a crime committed in the chaos of 1981 Belfast; and Dead Scared by S J Bolton, about mysterious suicides in the groves of academe, with a gothic and suspenseful touch. However, I’d recommend any of the books in the list, particularly those that score 3 or more out of 5. Click on the titles below for my reviews.

Euro Crime:

The Glass Room by Ann Cleeves 3

Death in a Cold Climate: a guide to Scandinavian crime fiction by Barry Forshaw 3 (non-fiction)

Good People by Ewart Hutton 3

The Sick Rose* by Erin Kelly 3.5

Petrona:

The Accident by Linwood Barclay 3

Dead Scared by S J Bolton 3.5

Long Gone by Alafair Burke 2

The Brotherhood by Y A Erskine 4

Bloodland by Alan Glynn 4

V is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton 3.5

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino, translated by Alexander O Smith with Elye Alexander 2

The Blackhouse by Peter May 4

The Lewis Man by Peter May 4

The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty 3.5

Needlepoint by Jenny Roberts 3

For more February reading choices from book bloggers, see the round-up post at Mysteries in Paradise.

*US title, The Dark Rose, which makes no sense given the author’s explanation of “the sick rose” during the novel.