Tag Archives: Thriller / Crime

The Mermaids Singing, by Val McDermid

4.5 stars4.5/5

In anticipation of seeing Val McDermid at this month’s Bookmarked literary salon, I decided to read one of her early books. Simon recommended The Mermaids Singing, the first book in which she introduces Tony Hill, now the central protagonist in the Wire in the Blood TV series based on her books.

The Mermaids Singing

Harper Press, 2010 reissue paperback edition, 400 pages - personal library

The Mermaids Singing is set in the fictional Northern town of Bradfield. When the novel opens there have been two murders and a third is about to take place. Tony Hill, a psychological profiler has been asked to help with the case, much to the disdain of some of the team members who think psychological profiling is all a bit of mumbo-jumbo. Tony confirms that the murders – young men who have been horrifically tortured and dumped in areas of the city frequented by gay men – are likely to be the work of a serial killer and works alongside the smart female officer Carole Jordan to uncover the perpetrator.

Right from the start of the novel the reader is let into the mind of the killer who keeps a recorded diary. Narcissistic and with a cold logic, the killer’s voice reveals the reasoning behind the murders, just a few steps behind the real-time events that are taking place in the police investigation. The police team is a mix of the archetypal bent copper and some key characters, notably Carole Jordan who shines as being dedicated and smart. Tony Hill has a complex mind and plenty of personal hang-ups that make him a fascinating character. Perhaps not surprisingly because of the nature of his job, he often has to go to dark places in his mind, and at times he is incredibly strong, at others completely vulnerable. He finds a good partner to work with in Carole who despite being a young, attractive woman hasn’t had a great deal of success with men. I really liked the interaction between Tony and Carole and the way that they complemented each other in the way they worked through the case.

The Mermaids Singing is definitely one of the more gruesome crime novels that I’ve read because of the sheer sadistic nature of the murders how carefully planned they were, and the twisted logic behind why the killer believes the victims deserved to die. Also, something about the way that the men are abducted – part of normal life one day, and in a living hell the next – really got under my skin. The novel had a brilliant pace, revealing just enough in each chapter to keep you hooked until the end.

The Mermaids Singing was originally published in 1995 but doesn’t feel dated apart from some of the references to technology and even then it seems just like a snapshot of that time. It’s a really original story, and Tony Hill is brilliant. I’m definitely looking forward to reading of the series to find out how Tony’s character is developed in subsequent books. I think that I might have found a new favourite crime writer to add to my list!

The Silent Girl, by Tess Gerritson

4.5 stars4.5/5

I have been a fan of Tess Gerritson’s Rizzoli and Isles books since my boyfriend bought me a copy of The Surgeon a good few years ago.

Bantam Press, 2011 hardback edition, 336 pages - gift

It had me hooked from the first page to the last. I enjoyed it so much that I practically forced Savidge Reads to read it although it was possibly in bad taste that I bought it for him just before a stay in hospital!

Perhaps it really is true that what goes around, comes around though, because last week this rather splendid copy dropped through my letterbox – a gift from said friend and fellow Gerritson fan.

And look! He even got it signed by the author herself when he met her recently!

With life being a little bit hectic as of late, I fancied reading something that would really keep me gripped and The Silent Girl was just the ticket.

The story begins with the discovery of a woman, found brutally murdered in Boston’s Chinatown with her hand sliced clean-off. Detectives Rizzoli and Frost become suspicious that an old case, previously concluded to be a mass-murder suicide is not what it seems and re-open it, but seem to find only more questions they can’t answer easily. Even more intriguing is the character of Iris Fang, a Wushu martial arts teacher who lost her husband in the massacre and then suffered a double tragedy when her daughter was abducted. Could she be connected to the murder somehow?

I raced through The Silent Girl. Although I was hooked from the beginning, what I really liked was the way that the story evolved, becoming ever more complex without actually confusing me. I felt as if I started in one place and ended up somewhere quite different.

I love the way that Gerritson has woven Chinese folklore into the plot. It adds a deeper layer of mystery and suspense. In her author’s note, Gerritson says that this is one of the most personal novels that she has written because of her Chinese-American background and I can really tell that she enjoyed developing the mythical elements of the story.

Gerritson’s tightly plotted crime novel, laced with Chinese folklore has reminded me that I want to:

  1. Read all the Rizzoli and Isles thrillers
  2. Find out when the American TV series is coming over to the UK
  3. Dig out my set of Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West / Monkey and read them for myself

Has anyone seen the TV adaptation of the Rizzoli & Isles series? Has anyone read Journey to the West or can recommend other Chinese legends?

Before I Go To Sleep, by S.J. Watson

4.5 stars4.5/5

Put very simply, Before I Go To Sleep, is an addictive book and a must-read for anyone who likes a good psychological thriller.

Before I go to Sleep

Doubleday, 2011 paperback edition, 368 pages - review copy

S.J. Watson’s debut novel is the story of Christine, a woman in her late forties who wakes up every morning, not knowing who the people around her are or where. She is and is shocked when she looks in the mirror to discover that she is twenty years older than she is in her head. Why? Her memory is damaged, seemingly beyond repair. She doesn’t even recognise her husband when she wakes, effectively with a stranger in her bed. A frightening prospect indeed. It is only when Christine starts keeping a journal that she is able to piece together her past. It is in this journal that she finds one morning an alarming message written to herself ‘Don’t trust Ben’. Is Christine’s mind creating false memories, or could something sinister be happening?

I know that memory loss as a premise has been explored before in science fiction and in films like Memento. I can’t really compare in any great detail, however in my limited experience, Before I Go To Sleep merits being called original. The perspective of a middle-aged woman, whose ordinary life is made extraordinary by this affliction is key in making the reader relate. Christine is not glamorous, she is just woman whose life has passed her by and who is both hungry to know more, and fearful of understanding the past. The feeling of ‘it could happen to you’ is ever present.

Watson’s angle is clever – he puts you in Christine’s shoes. The first person narrative creates a sense of intensity and because you being told the story by her, you have to relive the confusion when she wakes along with her. For this reason the book could have been quite frustrating, but too much repetition is cleverly avoided and instead there is a sense of claustrophobia which intensifies the reading experience.

Before I Go To Sleep is smartly plotted, written compellingly and the premise is well-executed. You will know if it is the kind of book you will enjoy. If it is, I say get your mitts on a copy and indulge!

Bangkok 8, by John Burdett

4 stars 4/5

Discovering Bangkok 8 is the perfect example of why I love blogging. Without Nomadreader’s recommendation I wouldn’t have come across this book which really was the perfect holiday read for my Thailand trip.

Corgi, 2004 paperback edition, 432 pages - personal library

Bangkok 8 is a detective novel with a whole different flavor, thanks to the unique outlook and philosophy of it’s main character. Half Thai, half farang, and the son of an upwardly-mobile prostitute, Detective Jitpleecheep is the quirkiest detective I’ve come across before. If I were to try to describe his sometimes contradictory and spiritual mentality it would sound almost comedic, and yet Bangkok 8 is a very dark novel with a deeply sincere protagonist.

The detective gets in embroiled in a case involving a well connected American jeweler, an imposing black marine-turned jade carver, a stunning mixed-race femme fatale and a bunch of gun-toting Khmers. He becomes involved when his partner is killed as a by-product of what looks like a revenge-killing. Sound far-fetched? Well Burdett makes believable and pieces the story together in a way that is compelling and entertaining.

My favorite thing about Bangkok 8 is the way that Burdett personifies the city so that it feels like a living, breathing entity. I was impressed at how the atmosphere of Krung Thep (Bangkok) is captured and enjoyed the little details about the city’s development. The Bangkok described, was recognisable to me, but I also started to notice things that I hadn’t before as I looked at this extraordinary metropolis with a different perspective. I wouldn’t want to assume everything Burdett writes is a perfect representation of the city or of the Thai way of life but he certainly seems to have something of a love-affair with Bangkok which is demonstrated through the intimate details he describes.

Bangkok 8 is a smart thriller, which explores complex ideas about the sex industry and Thai society without getting too heavy. A great escape from normality, with an oddly charming central character. I’ll leave you with this snippet where Detective Jitleecheep ponders what it means to face death to give you a taste of his unique philosophy:

“We do not look on death the way you do, farang. My closest colleagues grasp my arm and one or two embrace me. No-one says sorry. Would you be sorry about a sunset? No-one doubts that I have sworn to avenge Pichai’s death. There are limits to Buddhism when honour is at stake.”

Novel Insights’ March Review

March has been a funny mix of reads on Novel Insights! I started the month with a crime-wave of sorts, but also randomly read some spooky short stories, a social commentary on Egypt and a Chilean novel. Here’s the summary, favourites first:

Lasting Damage, by Sophie Hannah

4.5 stars4.5/5

“…delivered a typically twisted finale.”

Lasting Damage

 

 

 

 

The Tooth, by Shirley Jackson

4 stars 4/5

“…a brilliant bite-sized selection of unsettling moments and everyday horrors.”

Pengin Mini Modern Classics, The Tooth, Shirley Jackson

 

 

 

The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany

4 stars4/5

“…vibrant characters and an engaging narrative.”

The Yacoubian Building

A Room Swept White, by Sophie Hannah

3.5 stars3.5/5

“…a couple of little frustrations for me… overall a cracking page-turner…”

A Room Swept White, by Sophie Hannah

 

 

 

 

The Private Life of Trees, by Alejandro Zambra

3.5 stars3.5/5

…playfully written…”

Private Life of Trees, by Alejandro Zambra

 

 

 

 

What were your favourite reads in March?

Lasting Damage, by Sophie Hannah

4.5 stars4.5/5

After reading A Room Swept White I moved straight on to Lasting Damage – Sophie Hannah’s latest novel.

Lasting Damage

Hodder & Stoughton, 2011 edition (hardback), 448 pages - own purchase.

A Room Swept White was gripping but flawed. I really enjoyed it but it’s worth mentioning that my boyfriend thought that it was (in his words) “quite bad” on a few counts. He disliked the characters intensely and, as I did felt that the ending wasn’t as twisty as with her other books. We both have quite high expectations of Hannah’s crime novels after I inducted him by practically forcing him to read the brilliant Little Face after totally loving it, so that probably doesn’t help. Arguably he’s a bit less forgiving than me! Lasting Damage though, is Sophie Hannah back on top form.

The blurb on the back told me that the mystery begins when a woman named Connie Bowskill logs on to a property website and looks at a virtual tour of a house in Cambridge. She’s confronted with a bloody mess – a woman, lying down in a pool of blood in the middle of the living room, yet when she goes to get her husband to see it, the tour has gone back to normal and the living room is neat, tidy and bloodless as you would expect.

From the first line, I was hooked:

“I’m going to be killed because of a family called the Gilpatricks.”

This, and the (real or imagined?) murder had my brain firing off questions all over the place, and the best thing was that unlike A Room Swept White, Hannah kept me hanging right until the end. Also, in the previous novel, the ending was a bit forced. Lasting Damage had a simpler but more surprising twist.

I am getting a little bored of the neuroses of Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse – who, if you haven’t read any of Hannah’s novels are part of an ongoing plotline. I just kind of want to yell – “sort it out!” I do however, like the fact that Hannah is giving other characters on the police more time. A small part of the reason why I think I enjoy Hannah’s books so much is because of their setting and the funny little observations of people’s ‘Englishness’. I do sometimes wonder if this would translate to readers from overseas, but I suppose that you could say the same about American novels or Scandinavian crime fiction.

I would definitely recommend Sophie Hannah’s novels if you fancy a bit of crime fiction and need a change from being glued to CSI, NCIS or any of those other programs with acronyms for names! Start with Little Face if you haven’t read any before. If you have then I would definitely say that Lasting Damage is one to look forward to. I stayed up way too late finishing it as Hannah drip fed me clues, and delivered a typically twisted finale. Excellent stuff!

A Room Swept White, by Sophie Hannah

3.5 stars3.5/5

A Room Swept White is the fifth book in Sophie Hannah’s crime novel series.

A Room Swept White, by Sophie Hannah

Hodder Paperbacks, 2010 edition (paperback), 480 pages - own purchase.

The central story revolves around a group of mothers whose children have died in uncertain circumstances. The mothers were convicted of killing their children and then later acquitted with the cause being put down to cot-death. Fliss Benson is asked to produce a documentary about the cases. She takes over from her boss Lawrence Natrass who is a zealous campaigner against what he believes are women who are victims of a miscarriage of justice. One day at work, Fliss receives an anonymous envelope. Inside it is a card with sixteen numbers laid out in four by four rows. She dismisses it as a prank until she later finds out that one of the mothers, Helen Yardley is found dead in her home. A card has been left on the body, just like the one Fliss received.

A Room Swept White is addictive. Like the other books, the story is told from the point of view of a female narrator – in this case Fliss – and through a series of interviews, articles and transcripts, as well as a more typical third-person retelling of the police investigation. I like this style because the story moves along at a fast pace and getting into the narrators head makes me feel more involved in the plot. Fliss is a bit neurotic which was a little irritating at times but also entertaining.

I thought that the cot death storyline risky but ultimately well implemented. Hannah uses the ambiguity surrounding the cases to full effect, causing the reader to constantly question whether the women were innocent victims of a miscarriage of justice or in some way culpable. A potentially sensitive subject, I think that Hannah quite cleverly explores the complexities in judging SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) cases. She looks at how difficult it is for a jury with facts in a situation where medical opinion is not always conclusive and firm evidence is not available.

As usual, I loved the pithy writing style and it felt welcome to go back to characters that I was familiar with – Detective Simon Waterhouse, Sergeant Zailer and the rest. In A Room Swept White there was less focus on the relationship between Zailer and Waterhouse, which was ok because there was so much going on, but I miss this in the context of the series. I felt that the whole team was more involved in this book which I liked because it meant that I got to know more of the characters on the force.

There were a couple of little frustrations for me. The plot line involving the Chief Police Officer nicknamed “The Snowman” felt unfinished and the reveal wasn’t as much of a twist as in some of the other books in the series and felt over-complicated. However these are really small complaints about what was overall a cracking page-turner. I spent most of Sunday afternoon curled up and whizzed through the whole second half of the book (250 pages!). I’m just glad that I got myself a copy of Lasting Damage to read next, so I don’t have to go cold turkey…

My other Sophie Hannah reviews can be found here.

If you have read Sophie Hannah, are there other authors who have a similar style that you would recommend?

Agatha Raisin and The Busy Body

2 stars2/5

A couple of weeks ago, I needed a little pick-me up, so I started reading Agatha Raisin and the Busy Body, a gift from Savidge Reads.

Agatha Raisin and The Busy Body

Constable, 2010 edition (hardback), 208 pages - gift.

The festive cover suggested that I was in for some light-hearted fun. I was halfway right – M.C. Beaton’s novel was an enjoyable read, but also a little darker than I expected!

For those of you that have never read any of this series, the heroine Agatha, is a middle-aged detective with her own private agency in the Cotswolds. All very cosy you would think, but just a few pages into the book someone gets knifed and dies dramatically in full view of half the village! The victim is a busy body health and safety officer with a bit of a dark history of his own. No one seems to care much that he has been bumped-off, in fact most of the inhabitants are glad that he is not going to be around to meddle in their business. And, that’s just the start of things. Quite a few people pop their clogs before the final page is turned.

I was instantly drawn to Agatha as a character and loved the descriptions of her especially her ‘bear-like’ eyes. She came across as slightly crabby, but interesting and generally kind-hearted. I enjoyed the slightly shocking element of gruesome murders happening in a picturesque English village, and the cold indifference of the villagers. Beaton actually paints a pretty a harsh picture of humanity cleverly offset against a cosy setting.

The downside of the book for me, was that The Busy Body is set over a period of over a year and at times, I just felt that the plot was too drawn out. I actually took quite a while to read it despite it being little over two hundred pages long. I can’t say that I was gripped. I was also expecting a bit more festive fun from the snowy cover image! Coming to Agatha Raisin twenty-one books into the series probably didn’t help. Perhaps this is not the best one, and I may have missed-out from not knowing the background of the different characters and subplots.

Lovers of the series will most likely really enjoy this. I was entertained by the situation and M.C. Beaton’s pithy style, but felt that the plot was missing some oomph somewhere. Having said that, now I have been introduced to Agatha Raisin who I found an entertaining heroine, I would still like to read some of the earlier books and will be looking out for The Quiche of Death in the library.

Have you read any of the Agatha Raisin books? What mysteries do you recommend reading at Christmas?

Millennium Series Books II & III

Today’s post is a double-whammy review of two books I’ve been hooked on for the last couple of weeks – Stieg Larsson’s the The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. I’ve squeezed them into one, because I think of the last two Millennium series books like a single story with an interval in between.  If you haven’t read the first book you might think that it’s not worth reading this review, but read on and you may be convinced to read all three!

I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last year and really enjoyed it. While it is not a perfect novel for everyone, it has wide appeal, is a brilliant thriller, and is very well written one with particularly engaging characters. (See more of what I thought of the first one here.) It was the characters again that stood out for me in the final two books of the series which are quite different from the first in that the plot is almost exclusively focussed on the background of Lisbeth Salander, who is the tattooed anti-hero(ine) who we meet in the first book.

The Girl Who Played with Fire

Book II picks up a couple of years after the furore from the Wennerstrom Affair has died down.While Mikael Blomkvist is in Sweden still working at Millennium magazine, Lisbeth Salander has been travelling – escaping it seems from past events. On her return to Stockholm, she becomes mixed up in an investigation which two employees of Millennium Magazine, Dag and Mia are doing for a book on sex-trafficking. When the couple are murdered, Lisbeth goes on the run, suspected of the crime, and is portrayed in the papers as a ‘psychotic lesbian S&M satanist’.  As the story develops, a much deeper and more complex situation is revealed which is intimately connected with Lisbeth’s own personal history.

I had high expectations of this book as I had heard lots of comments that it was the best book of the series. It didn’t disappoint. Ever since the first book I’d been wanting to know more about Lisbeth and also wondering if her guardian Nils Bjurman would resurface, which he did along with a whole other set of new bile-inducing characters. Larsson creates a fascinating history for Salander which is revealed throughout the book, and helps the reader to make sense of her as a character. this is done effortlessly as part of the plot in which current events are a direct consequence of what has come before.

The Girl Who Played with Fire, had some brilliant plot twists and somehow managed to walk the line between having a selection of bizarre characters and making them seem almost realistic. In this book I found I could relate to Lisbeth much more. As a character she demands a sort of odd respect rather than being exactly likeable, and although I found I could empathise with her, I never felt that I was being manipulated into feeling sorry for her. She is portrayed as both a product of her background and also culpable for her own mistakes.

There’s alot of action in The Girl Who Played with Fire which makes for a taught and suspensful read right the way through.

My Rating:

8 out 10

The Girl that Kicked The Hornet’s Nest

Book III, follows on almost directly from where the previous book leaves off. Lisbeth is in hospital following recent events and yet again finds herself painted as a criminal with a long list of charges for which she will later be taken to court for. The story – a whopping 700-plus pages, mostly accounts for the time leading up to the trial in which Larsson answers the question – how on earth is she going to get out of this mess?! Lisbeth is the key to uncovering a scandal which is so secret that she finds herself with powerful enemies who are prepared to use any means necessary to keep her quiet.

Oddly enough, I liked The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest even more than it’s predecessor. Most of the action takes place without Lisbeth as she is laid up in a secure wing of a hospital, but this is just as interesting. She becomes a sort of central figure, almost a totem. One group of characters (Mikael, Armansky) are investigating the past and fighting to clear her name, and another powerful, covert group of people are doing anything they can to discredit and harm her. Unusually for Lisbeth, she finds she has to rely on others to help her.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nes nicely finished up the trilogy for me. There is a strong moral theme to the series around the idea of consequence. The message seems to be that ‘the truth will out’, which may not always be the case in reality, but on a very fundamental level does speak to the idealist in me. Plus, it is delivered in such a violent and messy way that the sentiment wasn’t cloying or sweet.

My rating:

9 out of 10

Overview

The thing that makes the Millenium Trilogy both appealing to me and at some points a little bit of a conundrum is the depiction of strong women characters. At the end of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, Blomkvist in reference to Lisbeth’s journey sums up neatly:

“When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women, and the men who enable it.”

Larsson is quite ruthless in the way that he highlights the prevalence of misogyny in society through sex trafficking, stalking and on a common day to day level of women experiencing hatred in an office environment. He does this using an array of strong female characters that challenge typical female role models – notably Lisbeth herself – whose sexuality is ambiguous, is introverted yet has superior intelligence and is a technology geek. There is also Officer Figuerola – a spy of amazonian proportions, and Erica Berger – a tough career woman with an open marriage – amongst others. Larsson seems to be looking at the idea of femininity through a prism.

I’m sure that it isn’t a coincidence that like Mikael Blomkvist, Larsson was also a journalist. Many the female characters have sexual affairs with Blomkvist who seems to be strangely irresistible and at times I felt as if Larsson was living vicariously through this character. I’m sure it isn’t a coincidence that he was a journalist himself!

I had mixed feelings about the women characters. My gut tells me they are a little bit unbelievable – too perfect perhaps in their complexity and toughness. However, I also loved how tough, interesting and different they were. Larsson obviously had a healthy respect for women.

I so enjoyed the Millennium series and feel a little bereft now that I’ve finished it. I liked the fact that the investigative work is done by a roving reporter instead of the rather hackneyed archetype of a depressed male detective. While some of the female elements are little contrived, I can’t help but love the fact that Larsson cast women the key protagonists. Complex plotting, dark themes and compelling characters made this series really stand out for me. There is a reason why every other person on the tube has a copy of a Larsson book.

Have you read any of Stieg Larsson’s books or been put off by the hype?

Faceless Killers, by Henning Mankell

Vintage, 2008, 304 pages.

Faceless Killers is the first in the Inspector Wallander Mystery series by Henning Mankell (a Swedish writer) and won the Glass Key (an award for nordic crime writers). Although it was originally published in 1991, it wasn’t until 1997 that it was translated into English and since it has been made into a TV series in both Sweden and England.

The book starts with the gruesome murder of an elderly couple. Excessive violence has been used with no apparent motive. Inspector Wallander takes up the case determined to uncover the perpetrator. Wallander is forced to consider whether it could be a random and senseless act of violence or else find a reason why someone would want to harm a seemingly helpless old couple.

While I enjoyed reading Faceless Killers, I can’t say that it blew me away. It is possible that my expectations of this book were overinflated after hearing lots of good things about Mankell, but there were a few things that I felt didn’t work for me. For some reason I just didn’t really like the character of Inspector Wallander. Although he is described well and embellished with a number of interesting character flaws, for some reason I found I couldn’t empathize with him. However this may be just a matter of personal taste.

**Beware spoilers in the next two paragraphs**

One of leads that Wallander has is that somehow a ‘foreigner’ may be involved in the murder, and issues of racism and xenophobia are quite integral to the storyline. This was quite fascinating from the point of view of a discussion of societal problems in 1990’s Sweden. I also found it interesting that people are still having the same conversations about asylum seekers today, which made this content feel very relevant and up to date despite it’s age. However, at times I did feel as if the point was slightly laboured – as if the story was a vehicle for the point Mankell was trying to make.

The biggest problem with the plot for me was that, I like crime novels to provide the jigsaw pieces, string me out till the end, and then reveal a solution that I probably should have seen all along. For me the ‘reveal’ in Faceless Killers was too unrelated – not part of the puzzle. I also found the last bit of the story very rushed and wrapped up a little too neatly.

Having said that Faceless Killers is an enjoyable and very well-written crime novel. I wouldn’t necessarily be put off from reading other books in the Wallander series, which I imagine give you more of an insight into the inspector’s character and I suspect are probably stronger plot-wise.

My rating:

6 out of 10

Have you read any other books in the series and if so, do you think I should try another one?