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?