Book review: Blood Tears by Michael J Malone

Blood Tears
by Michael J Malone
Five Leaves Publications, 2012
Kindle edition

DI Ray McBain of the Glasgow police and his team are celebrating the successful outcome of a murder case: before a day has passed, however, another murder is committed and the team swings into action again. An elderly man has been killed by someone who has inflicted wounds similar to the stigmata on his (or her) victim.

Tasks are divided up, and McBain with his young colleague Alessandra Rossi go to a Catholic care home where the victim worked as a caretaker. McBain is overwhelmed by emotion during his and Rossi’s interview with the mother superior. It turns out that McBain himself grew up in the home and that he suffered cruelty and abuse while there. While the two cops are copying out the names of children who were at the home while the victim was employed there, McBain persuades Rossi to leave his own name off the list, on the grounds that he’ll be taken off the investigation if it is known that he has a connection with it.

The first half of the book continues in a standard police procedural vein, but McBain’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. He gets drunk a lot, insults people, picks up random women and attempts to sleep with them, pukes up everywhere, eats little but deep-fried pizza, and so on. He suffers from terrible dreams, and is convinced that he is somehow connected to the case, if only he can remember how or why.

Events then take a sharp turn, and McBain finds himself a fugitive from the law. He is helped by his only friend, a local criminal who he has helped a couple of times in the past, and by two of his colleagues, who keep him up to date with the investigation. Will McBain be able to solve the case before he is caught?

Blood Tears is a quick and easy read, but I found the main character hard to like, despite the traumas he had suffered in his past. The second part of the book seems particularly unrealistic, as McBain hangs around in a local hotel doing nothing for a month apart from getting fit and drying out, before swinging into action and attempting to follow up some leads. As he does so, the dreams intensify and the reader is given a few more italic “mind of the killer” sections. The ending, when all is revealed, seemed a little flat. There are some engaging elements in the book, in particular the dynamics at the police station in the first half (as well as the underdeveloped character of Rossi), but the second half suffers from these being dropped. The subject matter of abuse in religious and other institutions is a harrowing and awful one. Although this book is perfectly sincere in its portrayal of this sensitive issue, I do not think it provides any further insight in comparison to previous treatments.

I downloaded this book as a free promotion. I thank Rob and Sarah for recommending it. Their reviews of it are at The View from The Blue House and Crimepieces, respectively.

Other reviews of the book are at: Crimesquad, Ric’s Reviews and Undiscovered Scotland (plus a very large number at Amazon UK).

Book review: Killer’s Island by Anna Jansson

Killer’s Island
by Anna Jansson
translated by Enar Henning Koch
Stockholm Text (e-book) 2012
First published as Drömmen Förde dig Vilse (The Dream Led You Astray), 2010
Maria Wern #11

The island of the title is Gotland, best known to me as the setting for Mari Jungstedt’s novels. Killer’s Island is the first in the Maria Wern series to be translated into English but in fact is 11th (or according to some, 10th), chronologically. The books have also been filmed as a very popular TV series in Sweden.

Maria is a criminal inspector in the police team on the island. On the way home from a night out with her colleague Erika, she witnesses a boy being attacked by three men and tries to help him. She herself is seriously injured and ends up in hospital. Much to her annoyance, she can’t investigate the case because she is a witness, but she follows progress with interest.

Maria is not inactive for long, as a few days later the body of a woman is found, clad in a wedding dress, in the botanical gardens. The victim is found to be a nurse at the same hospital where Maria was treated, who has been consulting a local doctor because of insomnia – a doctor who turns out to be the new love-interest of Maria’s colleague Erika.

Killer’s Island is a very quick and compelling read. However, it is very much a mystery in the Agatha Christie style than one that is realistic. The reader is only told information if it is (or will be) relevant to the plot. Everybody turns out to be connected to everyone else. The identity of the killer is not a surprise. He or she is someone who, we learn at the start of the book, has hacked into a Russian satellite that monitors an oil pipeline, and uses this information to track people on the island. He or she is also able to hack into police and hospital computers so knows everything about the potential victims and the investigation. So there isn’t much of a crime puzzle element to the book, though there is plenty of suspense.

The strongest element of the novel is its depiction of the characters, including the members of the police team and their various romantic and other dilemmas. Clearly there is a lot of background that the English language reader cannot know about, but even so, the individuals and their problems are real, often involving their children (almost all of them are divorced). The other characters – witnesses, suspects and victims – are also presented well so that the reader becomes involved in their concerns and lives. Another strong element of the book is its local atmosphere, providing a fascinating picture of daily life on Gotland.

Killer’s Island is an old-fashioned book (despite its nods to mobile phones and the internet). It is rather like the books that have been churned out non-stop by crime authors since the Golden Age of Christie, Sayers and Allingham. If that’s your cup of tea, I am sure you’ll like this engaging, pleasing account in which everything is solved and tied up in ribbon at the end. I enjoyed the book as a change from my usual reading, but I am not converted to this subgenre.

I bought this book.

Other reviews of Killer’s Island: Criminal Element (includes interesting information about visiting Gotland), Simon Clarke (Amazon), Rhapsody in Books and International Noir Fiction.

Stockholm Text: about Killer’s Island.

Wikipedia: Anna Jansson and her books (titles in Swedish!).

Book review: Death of a Carpet Dealer by Karin Wahlberg

Death of a Carpet Dealer
by Karin Wahlberg
Stockholm Text e-book, 2012
(first published 2009)
Translated by Neil Betteridge

Death of a Carpet Dealer is mainly set in Oskarshamn, a small coastal town south of Stockholm, from which the ferries to the islands of Oland and Gotland depart and arrive. As the novel opens, however, Carl-Iver Olsson, the titular carpet dealer, is on a rather different ferry, one that travels up and down the Bosphorus to and from Istanbul. And, given the title, it is not giving anything away to reveal that he is discovered to be dead when the time comes for disembarkation.

Chapters alternate from different points of view: the Turkish sections concern two workers on the ferry who may or may not be involved in Olsson’s death; and the Istanbul police, who initially investigate the crime. When it becomes apparent that the victim was Swedish, the Oskarhshamn authorities are informed and dispatch two officers to Istanbul to help and to be present when Olsson’s family identifies his body. After an interlude in Istanbul, most of the action thereafter takes place in Oskarhshamn.

The novel is like a switchback, as events are told from the point of view of several connected characters. One of these is Veronika, a 47-year-old doctor who is about to give birth to her third child, and who has taken an old carpet to Olsson’s shop for repair. The shop is run by Olsson’s niece Annelide, who is married to one of Veronika’s colleagues. Olsson’s wife, soon to be widow, is a nurse at the same hospital, working the night shift. And Veronika’s husband Claes is a senior police inspector who is given the Olsson case. Each character has a chapter to reflect on life and his or her concerns, often seeming rather tangential to the plot, before the subject changes to another one. In this fashion, a mosaic-style picture of life in this country area of Sweden is provided (click on map for larger view).

In the second half of the book, the plot becomes more central as some facts are revealed to the reader that were hitherto unknown, coming to a climax at Olsson’s funeral which ends the book. The pace of the crime investigation is pretty relaxed: the full picture of what’s happened and why becomes apparent gradually because of information that is revealed piece-by-piece from the various characters’ perspectives and actions, rather than by any great detective work or puzzle-solving. Even at the end when the police have worked out who is their main suspect and “stake out” the church before the funeral, the person concerned simply exits through a side door nobody thought to cover, unobserved.

Death of a Carpet Dealer is an engaging book if you don’t mind the type of novel that is more concerned with telling the stories of a range of characters, that spends pages on describing scenes and ways of life (in Turkey and Sweden), and provides plenty of information about, for example, hospital procedures, the rug trade and Turkish culture. It’s a readable concoction – the author is a storyteller in a vein similar to Camilla Lackberg – which easily slips by. It is a rather old-fashioned book but none the less a pleasant, easy (certainly not “literary”) read, even with occasional lapses in grammar and spelling.

I received this book free in a promotion by the publisher.

From the publisher’s website: “Death of a Carpet Dealer is one of the seven Karin Wahlberg books featuring Police Commissioner Claes Claesson and his wife Veronika Lundborg, doctor at Oskarshamn hospital. It is a traditional crime novel based on a concrete crime to be solved – no politics, no unrelated action, but lots of ordinary life around the characters. Wahlberg herself is one of Sweden’s most renowned accoucheurs. Her highly literary reads have sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide.” I believe it is the sixth in the series, even though it is first to appear in English.

Other reviews of this book: Rhapsody in Books and The Crime House.

Wikipedia: list of the series in reading order.

Book review: The Gingerbread House by Carin Gerhardsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

I purchased this book.

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

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

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

Book review: The Loyal Servant by Eva Hudson

The Loyal Servant
by Eva Hudson
copyright Eva Hudson
Kindle edn, 2011

When Martin Fox, UK Minister for Schools, is found dead at his desk at the Department of Education one night, it is his colleague Caroline Barber who calls the police. Shocked and upset, she gives a brief statement then commutes to her home in Catford, one of the less salubrious areas of south-east London. A typical evening goes by, in which Caroline is criticised by her mother Jean (who lives in an annexe in the house), is ignored by her three children, and her husband Pete is drunk after his usual evening in the pub. The news of her boss’s death is not on the TV as a more “newsworthy” event has occurred – the prime minister has resigned.

When Caroline returns to work the next day, she finds to her shock that Fox’s death is being treated as self-inflicted. She tries to contact the young detective constable who interviewed her, only to be told that he has been transferred to another division. The inspector in charge of the enquiry refers to a suicide note stuck on Fox’s computer screen, which she knows was not there when she found the body.

Caroline is constantly wrong-footed as she struggles to find out what happened to Fox. Her temporary boss is a very unpleasant bureaucrat who forces Caroline to spend all her time looking for a lost CD-ROM. This CD was kept in a secure filing cabinet and contains the names, addresses, financial background and “special educational needs” status of the thousands of London schoolchildren who are being educated at academies, and hence would be embarrassing to the department if it was found in public. Academies (which are real) are government-encouraged schools run by head-teachers rather than having to adhere to local authority rules. They are therefore very unpopular with the educational authorities – it is Caroline’s usual job to manage the academy programme for the department, so hunting for a missing CD is something of a come-down, not to mention of little interest to her. Instead, she tries to find out what happened to Fox but is thwarted at every turn by police and colleagues alike. She eventually turns to a hard-bitten Fleet Street journalist, Angela Tate, for help in exposing what she increasingly thinks to be a cover-up that may reach to the highest parts of British politics.

The Loyal Servant is a refreshingly unusual novel for these times, reminding me somewhat of the novels written by Janet Neel between 1988 and 2001, in which protagonist Francesca Wilson works for the Department of Trade and Industry. Like Francesca, Caroline is a decent, intelligent woman, determined to do the right thing by her work and, in the little time she has left, by her family. As The Loyal Servant continues, though, it moves into full paranoid conspiracy thriller mode, in which all the characters and elements turn out to be connected. For example, Caroline’s carping mother Jean leads a group of protesters against the academy concept, bringing her into direct opposition with her daughter’s job. Not only this, but much later on in the book it turns out that Pete, Caroline’s semi-detached husband, works for the construction company which has all the government contracts for building the new academies. It also emerges late-on that Caroline herself is not entirely honest with the reader.

Caroline is threatened by a sinister security guard, cannot speak to Fox’s family at his funeral, and is prevented from accessing her own computer files – and worse, as the book continues and a family pet as well as people disappear, turn up, are threatened, attacked, and kidnapped. The many twists and turns of the plot are not always convincing, sometimes seeming to pop up to provide the next step in the narrative rather than for any persuasive reason. The lengths to which the criminals go (which include arson, break-ins, hired thugs and guns) are unrealistic, given that they could have avoided many of the dramatics at much earlier stages of the novel. The characters of Caroline and the journalist Angela, and the dynamics between them, are by far the most interesting parts of the book, bringing it to life and providing some genuine colour compared with the flat presentation of the remaining participants.

The Loyal Servant is self-published. It won the Lucy Cavendish fiction prize in 2001. It is no more or less readable than many books that are not self-published, but it needs proper developmental editing to smooth over and make more realistic various disconnected elements, as well as copy editing (for example, there is a difference between there’s and theirs!).

I purchased this book.

Read other reviews of it at: Crimepieces and Amazon UK (eight reviews at time of writing this post).

About the book at the author’s website.

Book review: Killer Instinct by Zoë Sharp

Killer Instinct
by Zoë Sharp
Murderati, Inc (Kindle edn, 2011)
First published by Piatkus, 2002
Charlie Fox #1

Ten years since its first publication, the first book in Zoë Sharp’s series about Charlie (Charlotte) Fox reads as freshly as if it were written this year. Charlie is a young woman who lives alone in part of an old gym in Lancaster – she has three showers but no bath – in the north-west of England. She makes a living by teaching women’s self-defence classes, and seems a pretty tough character with her leathers, motorbike and punchbag hanging in the corner of her room.

The plot proper begins when Charlie visits an old haunt, a nightclub that has been refurbished and renamed as the New Adelphi. Charlie used a room at the old club for one of her classes, but as her friend Gary, the barman, tells her, the new management does not like the image of female self-defence and so Charlie has to seek another venue. Slightly embarrassed, Gary gives Charlie some complimentary tickets to the new club: when Charlie’s motorbiking friend Clare realises there is karaoke in the offing, she can’t keep away. The two women head off for an evening out which turns out to be far more action-packed, and tragic, than they’d anticipated.

The novel cracks on at a fair old pace, as Charlie becomes embroiled in helping the new owner, Marc, with his flawed security arrangements. She also helps Terry, another friend who owns a mobile video van. Terry has accepted a laptop computer in part-exchange for some rental money he is owed, but it is password-protected. Charlie, who is very well-connected in the friends department, asks another devoted pal to help her crack the password, to puzzling effect. In another subplot, the owners of a women’s refuge where Charlie teaches one of her classes seek her help to deal with a man who is hanging round the grounds after dark and scaring the residents.

While the multilayered plot unfolds, parts of Charlie’s back story are revealed: she’s been in the army but has been forced out for reasons that later become apparent. The skills which she’s learnt are highly useful in this book, though, as she is threatened, discovers a murder, and is attacked. Are all these events connected, or are they due to different perpetrators? Charlie has her suspicions, which in the absence of any realistic support from the police, she follows through via more threats, another murder, and more attacks to a violent climax or two in the New Adelphi nightclub, where the layers of plot become unpeeled in various dangerous ways.

I enjoyed Killer Instinct mainly for the character of the independent Charlie, who is very well drawn with just the right balance of toughness yet vulnerability based on her past in the army and, further back, in her childhood with the parents from hell. She is cut from the same cloth as V. I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone, yet her history is more vivid and involving. The depiction of her daily life in Lancaster is also well told, with a great sense of atmosphere. The plot, which starts out well, becomes rather unbelievable in the end as virtually everyone in the book seems to be central to it in one way or another. And some of the details seem wrong – for example is there really a computer programme that could crack a seven-character password in a few minutes? Despite the quibbles, I am sure I shall be reading more of this energetic and engaging series. However, I could have done without having the comparison with Lee Child rammed down my throat, in a blurb, a foreword, an afterword and an acknowledgement. As a reader, I prefer to make up my own mind and not be forced into making comparisons.

I downloaded the Kindle version of this book in a promotion (free of charge).

Other reviews of this book: Honest Indie Book Reviews (although the book is not self-published), Reviewing the Evidence, Lesa’s Book Critiques and Tangled Web.

The author’s website – about Charlie Fox and the series in reading order. (Includes many approving excerpts from reviews, yet more Lee Child comparisons and even some look-alike Lee Child book jacket designs!)

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.

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.

Book review: Long Gone by Alafair Burke

Long Gone
by Alafair Burke
Avon (Harper Collins), 2011

Long Gone is a readable thriller set in New York and environs. Alice Humphrey is the daughter of a rich, famous movie star. However, she wants to make her own way in the world so has been living off her own salary and was working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until the organisation had to downsize. Now, Alice is unemployed and desperate for a job before she has to turn to her father for help.

By chance, Alice meets the handsome Drew Campbell at an art exhibition. He offers her a job running his new gallery – with the catch being that the first artist to be shown there has to be a young man who is in a relationship with the (inevitably) anonymous man who is putting up the money. The “art” consists of distasteful photographs of parts of the body, but Alice sees nothing illegal in these so leaps at the chance, soon becoming absorbed in the details of launching the new venture. She does not see Campbell again; he communicates with her via text messages from a withheld number.

Of course, all goes horribly wrong, as the reader, if not Alice, has come to suspect. The gallery opens but is soon compromised by a demonstration on the street outside by some “religious extremists” who think the pictures in the exhibition are child pornography. After Alice makes many failed attempts to find out more about the provenance of the photographs to see if she can prove they are legal, and to contact Campbell, he finally calls her and arranges to meet her the next morning at the gallery to decide what to do about the protesters. When Alice arrives, she finds a dead body.

Alice finds herself to be the chief suspect in the murder enquiry that follows, and the rest of the book mainly concerns her attempts to prove her innocence while the evidence seems to be piling up against her. She has two friends, but can they be trusted? Some of these aspects are well done, for example the use of Facebook in various key plot points. At the same time, the narrative is fleshed out by Alice’s troubled relationships with her parents and brother Ben, as well as a couple of subplots – one involving an FBI agent’s obsession with a man who was responsible for his sister’s death; the other involving a missing girl from New Jersey. This last story is by far the darkest in the book, depicting unsentimentally the ruthlessness of teenage group behaviour, abetted by social media, as well as another bleak parental theme.

Up until about half-way through the book I found the story to be predictable. Alice does seem extremely naive for a 30-something woman living in New York. Nevertheless, in the second half the story picks up quite a bit, as we learn more about Alice’s family and how current events are related to dark deeds from the past. The plotting is good even if some of the developments are rather heavily signalled; Alice is an attractive protagonist who becomes more independent and more of her own woman as the book pans out and she is able both to confront her fears about her father as well as to follow up some leads that the police will not. I found the subplot about the missing girl very uncomfortable, as well as rather tacked-on to the main story. The climax to the book is somewhat clunky, in that almost everyone turns out to be not what they seem, and there is one dramatic section very near the end which I felt was dealt with in an over-hasty fashion. To sum up, I’d say this is an engaging “romantic thriller”, not a great one but one that, if you are happy to suspend belief for the duration, will pass the time while you see if you can work out the various threads of plot, and which are red herrings, before the author chooses to reveal them.

I purchased this book as a Kindle promotion. Every major US crime writer seems to have contributed a positive comment in the Amazon product description! (Coben, Lehane, Lippman, Connelly, Unger, Gerritsen, Grafton, Reichs, Fairstein, L. Gardner, etc.)

Other reviews of Long Gone are at Murder by Type (the post that made me decide to read the book), A Bookworm’s World, Dot Scribbles, The Washington Post, and Jen’s Book Thoughts.

Book review: Kinglake-350 by Adrian Hyland

by Adrian Hyland
Text, 2011

Kinglake-350 is a non-fiction book about the most terrible bush fire in Australia’s history, on 7 February 2009, in the state of Victoria. Unlike other accounts of natural disasters or other real events, Kinglake-350 is as riveting as any novel could be, which is not surprising given that the author is the superbly talented writer Adrian Hyland.

The first half of the book tells the story of the fire from the point of view of many of the inhabitants of this small community north and slightly east of Melbourne. The author has done his research thoroughly, and his approach provides the book with an immediacy that, in the hands of a writer of this calibre, pulls in the reader as we follow the activities of individual local police, community fire-service volunteers, and other inhabitants as they gradually come to appreciate the magnitude of the threat racing towards them. The lack of warning from the authorities is shocking, as people had little if any time to put into place their fire-protection policies or to flee the region, leading to a much higher death count than would otherwise have been the case, in all likelihood. This part of the book is accompanied by several maps to illustrate the geography of the area and the movement of the various infernos that swept across it; unfortunately in the Kindle e-book I read one cannot magnify these maps into legibility, but even so they were useful in orienting me to the path of the fires and why people could not escape down the few mountain roads.

Gradually, the author intersperses his narrative with scientific descriptions: an explanation for what we know of global climate patterns and their origin; how “natural” fires begin and propagate; the eucalyptus and other vegetation; the psychology and biological response of people faced with horrific dangers; and the relationship of humans with their environment – including why so many people are arsonists. All these sections are gripping; the explanations are admirably clear and comprehensible, unlike many a scientific text – perhaps to me the most fascinating section concerned the contrast between the Aboriginal and the settler-Australians’ relationship with fire and how the different cultures use it to control potentially dangerous natural outbreaks. At the same time, there is immense tension in the story of the Kinglake fires, as we have come to know the cast of characters (particularly Roger Wood, the policeman whose call sign Kinglake-350 provides the title of the book and who is its, for want of a better word, hero) and are desperate to know whether they will survive.

Later, after the worst of the blasts are over but while fires still rage, there are many acts of individual heroism as people are rescued from their houses and cars, as they are treated in a makeshift medical centre, and so on. There were more than a few times that I had tears in my eyes as I was reading.

Finally, the last part of the book summarises the management of the crisis, which was found to be severely lacking from “on high”. Hyland is not interested in assigning blame, however, but in measured (yet occasionally poetic) terms he looks holistically at the causes of this awful disaster. We don’t really have the mechanisms necessary in our society to take the kind of responsibility that can help to ameliorate the conditions that lead to out-of-control environmental catastrophes – and we certainly don’t know enough about the natural processes to be able to predict them with sufficient accuracy. But there are things that could be done – for example the confused response and failed communications when the 2009 fires first started were responsible for much – but more than this, we need to be more connected to the natural world and to live our lives, whether in small or large communities, in awareness that we do not control it. The author puts these arguments very well, while at the same time conveying the lack of process or structure that could make this possible on any enduring, large scale.

Kinglake-350 is a wonderful book, not just as a compulsive 360-degree account of this particular disaster, but in what it says about dealing with any similar incident – floods, tsunamis, volcanoes or earthquakes. The confusion on the part of those responsible for managing or governing from remote locations is a common theme in many of these recent disasters, as are accounts of bravery of those “on the ground”. If everyone read this book then this would be one small step in advancing our understanding of the need to take more collective responsibility for the world we live in, rather than assuming we are the masters of it.

I purchased the Kindle edition of this book as part of an Amazon promotion.

Bernadette’s review of this book at Reactions to Reading – which made me want to read it. Other reviews: Aust Crime Fiction (calls the book “mandatory reading”), All the Books I Can Read and The Australian.

Excellent interview with the author about this book and the events described in it, by Meg Mundell.

Wikipedia on the “Black Saturday” bushfires, which spread over 4,500 square km. There were 173 fatalities and 414 serious injuries.

About the book at the Australian publisher’s website (includes an extract and some excerpts from reviews).

My reviews of Adrian Hyland’s two novels: Diamond Dove and Gunshot Road.