THE DRY by JANE HARPER (2016, Abacus, 404pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: Who really killed the Hadler family? In the small town of Kiewarra, it hasn’t rained for two years. Swept up in the worst drought to ravage Australia in a century, the town crackles with seething malice and unvoiced grudges. Tensions in the community are at breaking point when three members of the Hadler family are suddenly brutally murdered. Everyone thinks Luke Hadler, who committed suicide after slaughtering his wife and six-year-old son, is guilty, but is he just an easy scapegoat? Policeman Aaron Falk returns to the town of his youth for the funeral of his childhood best friend, and is unwillingly drawn into the investigation. As questions mount and suspicion spreads through the town, Falk is forced to confront the community that rejected him twenty years earlier. Because Falk and Luke Hadler shared a secret, one which Luke’s death threatens to unearth. And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, secrets from his past and why he left home bubble to the surface as he questions the truth of his friend’s crime.
Jane Harper’s debut novel is a confident mystery thriller with an evocative closed community setting. The book links together two mysteries – one in the present, the other from twenty years earlier. Harper’s detective hero, Aaron Falk, is linked to the mystery from the past via his friend, Luke Hadler, who along with his family are the victims of the mystery of the present. Both are seeming suicides and may be linked. The book unravels these mysteries through clever use of flashback passages, frequently interspersed with the present day case. Chapters and scenes are edited so as to keep the reader turning the pages. The characters are vividly drawn and the reader is left guessing right up until the reveal. A strong debut for a proposed series.
THE REDEEMERS by ACE ATKINS (2015, Corsair, 370pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: He is only in his early thirties, but now Quinn Colson is jobless – voted out of office as sheriff of Tibbehah County, Mississippi, thanks to the machinations of county kingpin Johnny Stagg. He has offers, in bigger and better places, but before he goes, he’s got one more job to do – bring down Stagg’s criminal operations for good. At least that’s the plan. But in the middle of the long, hot summer, a trio of criminals stage a bold, wall-smashing break-in at the home of a local lumber mill owner, making off with a million dollars in cash from his safe, which is curious, because the mill owner is wealthy – but not that wealthy. None of this has anything to do with Colson, but during the investigation, two men are killed, one of them the new sheriff. His friend, acting sheriff Lillie Virgil, and a dangerous former flame, Anna Lee Stevens, both ask him to step in, and reluctantly he does, only to discover that that safe contained more than just money – it held secrets. Secrets that could either save Colson – or destroy him once and for all.
The fifth novel in Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson series is the closest the author has come to emulating one of his writing heroes – Elmore Leonard. The story is populated with the type of characters Leonard employed in many of his crime novels set in the modern west. The plot itself is slight, being centred around a robbery, but the character interaction, double-crossing and the bigger picture of Colson’s mission to put Johnny Stagg behind bars keep the pages turning. Atkins has a great handle on his characters and embellishes them through their salty dialogue. Whilst the plot itself reaches a conclusion, some of the domestic threads that have ran through the series are left loose. there is also a signal in the series taking a change of direction in its final pages. Another strong addition to an excellent series.
DIE LAST by TONY PARSONS (2017. Century, 406pp) ∗∗∗
Blurb: 12 DEAD GIRLS As dawn breaks on a snowy February morning, a refrigerated lorry is found parked in the heart of London’s Chinatown. Inside, twelve women, apparently illegal immigrants, are dead from hypothermia. 13 PASSPORTS But in the cab of the abandoned death truck, DC Max Wolfe of West End Central finds thirteen passports. WHERE IS SHE? The hunt for the missing woman will take Max Wolfe into the dark heart of the world of human smuggling, mass migration and 21st-century slave markets, as he is forced to ask the question that haunts our time. What would you do for a home?
Having really enjoyed The Hanging Club I delved straight into Parsons’ new novel, the fourth in his DC Max Wolfe series. The plot deals with the trafficking of humans from Eastern Europe and again brings Wolfe into confrontation with former London gangster Paul Warboys and his family. The book moves along at a fair lick and there are shocks and twists along the way. But this is less successful than the previous book as some of the police tactics seem questionable at best and reckless at worst. Untrained detectives going undercover into dangerous situation may make for thrilling sequences, but leave the reader questioning the authenticity of it all. There are attempts to add further depth to the lead characters through varying domestic crises, which helps give the story a more rounded feel and the reader characters to root for. The detectives though seem too keen to add their moral stance to every twist and turn of the plot. Overall, whilst not as satisfying as the previous book , this is again a fast, pacy read and never less than entertaining despite its flaws.
THE HANGING CLUB by TONY PARSONS (2016, Arrow, 374pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: A band of vigilante executioners roam London’s hot summer nights, abducting evil men and hanging them by the neck until dead. As the bodies pile up and riots explode across the sweltering city, DC Max Wolfe hunts a gang of killers who many believe to be heroes.
This is the third book in Tony Parsons’ DC Max Wolfe series and it is a tight, efficient crime thriller. The themes of the injustice of the legal system and revenge are manipulated by Parsons to evoke maximum engagement and emotion from the reader. This he does well for the most part before settling into more familiar genre conventions in the final part. Wolfe is a character wresling with his conscience as he balances the needs of his job and the constraints of the law with his desire to see that justice is done. The ambiguities lead him to make wrong decisions and put his career – and his life – at risk. Written in the first person, we get inside Wolfe’s head as he unravels the knots of the mystery of the vigilante group. Whilst there is nothing particularly new here, the quality of the writing is more than strong enough to make this a book you won’t be able to put down.
STAY CLOSE by HARLAN COBEN (2012, Orion, 406pp) ∗∗∗½
Blurb: Megan once walked on the wild side. Now she’s got two kids, a perfect husband, a picket fence, and a growing sense of dissatisfaction. Ray used to be a talented documentary photographer, but at age forty he finds himself in a dead-end job posing as a paparazzo pandering to celebrity-obsessed rich kids. Broome is a detective who can’t let go of a cold case – a local husband and father disappeared seventeen years ago, and Broome spends the anniversary every year visiting a house frozen in time, the missing man’s family still waiting, his slippers left by the recliner as if he might show up any moment to step into them. Three people living lives they never wanted, hiding secrets that even those closest to them would never suspect. As the terrible consequences of long-ago events crash together in the present and threaten to ruin lives they will discover the hard truth that the line between one kind of life and another can be as whisper-thin as a heartbeat…
Harlan Coben writes page-turning crime thrillers with a post-modern dose of humour. The plot here borders on incredulity, by insisting that a series of murders committed annually at the same spot could go undetected for twenty years. But if you are prepared to accept this premise then you are in for a fast-paced and entertaining read. The three central characters – Megan, a woman with a secret past; Ray, a photographer who cannot forget the love of his life despite being seaparated for seventeen years and Broome, the detective who can’t hold down a relationship – are cleverly intertwined in the story. Coben uses his brand of sarcastic wit across the dialogue of a number of characters, but manages to keep it this side of annoying. The resolution comes with the appropriate twist.
GENESIS – THE ULTIMATE MUSIC GUIDE (2017, Uncut, 122pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: The Ultimate Music Guide: Genesis, then, seeks to explain the whole shapeshifting brilliance of the band. We’ve delved deep into the archives of NME and Melody Maker, finding interviews with the members that have languished unseen for decades. You’ll see characters emerging and plans being formulated, key figures stepping in and out of the spotlight. A career path being mapped out that does not always appear obvious, but which incrementally builds Genesis into one of the biggest bands of their era. Alongside all these revelatory interviews, we’ve written in-depth new reviews of every single Genesis album, from their 1969 debut right up until 1997’s Calling All Stations, stopping off at all auspicious points in between. We’ve also investigated the significant solo careers: not just of Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, but of Steve Hackett, Anthony Phillips, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks, too. It’s a tricky tale, but an endlessly rewarding one.
Uncut‘s series of The UltimateMusic Guide finally gets around to Genesis. The magazine stretches to 122 pages covering all aspect of the band. Each album is reviewed by a different writer, which ensures they get a dedicated hearing, but also means there are some inconsistencies in terms of judgement and comment. Having said that, there is an admirable balance across the whole of the band’s output as the writers resist falling into the trap of siding with the 5-man line-up or the trio. What this means, however, is that some tracks within the albums are not rated according to their status within the fan base. Classic Genesis songs like Firth of Fifth, I Know What I Like, Los Endos, Afterglow, Duke’s Travels/Duke’s End, Home by the Sea, Domino and Fading Lights all receive just 3-stars, which is hard to accept. However, everyone will have their own favourites and there are some compelling arguments here for the stance taken. The interviews pulled from the archives of NME and Melody Maker are weighted toward the early years. Both papers took with the punk crowd in the late 70s and were savage in their treatment of Genesis thereafter – the later review extracts demonstrate this. The band members’ solo careers are also covered, with particularly interesting perspectives on the output of both Peter Gabriel and Phil Colins. Despite its flaws, this is a good read and an interesting take on a band that, despite its popularity with the music buying public, continues to divide opinion amongst critics.
SHAFT: IMITATION OF LIFE by DAVID F. WALKER/DIETRICH SMITH (2017, Dynamite, 104pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: After a high-profile case puts him in the headlines, private detective John Shaft is looking for something low profile and easy that will keep him out of the spotlight, out of danger. Shaft takes a missing person case that proves to be more difficult than he initially thought. At the same time, he is hired to be a consultant on a low budget film that may or may not be based on his life, and proves to be as dangerous as any job he’s ever had. But when there’s danger all about, John Shaft is the cat that won’t cop out – even if it means squaring off against sadistic gangsters that want him dead.
The trade paperback publication of this four-part comic book arrives a year after similar treatement for Shaft: A Complicated Man. David F. Walker returns as writer and is partnered with Dietrich Smith as artist. The book demonstrates the confidence Walker took from his critically acclaimed debut as the literary heir to Ernest Tidyman’s creation. The story stretches itself around social issues of a decaying New York and the expoitation of young gays through pornography. Walker also finds time to seemingly take a satirical swipe at some of the excesses of Blaxploitation cinema, by having Shaft work as a consultant on a film based on his own exploits, only here exaggerated to comical effect. In reality, however, this is a dig at the makers of the proposed new Shaft movie, which is reported to have a comedic slant. Smith’s artwork is more bold and colourful than the more sensitive tones applied by Bilquis Evely. His work is very effective and at times sublime – notably in the use of light and shade at the start of Part 3, where Shaft is interviewed by detectives in his office. Ultimately, whilst the story lacks the dramatic and emotional bite of Walker’s debut, it is an entertaining read lifting the lid on the sleazier aspects of early 1970s New York. Unlike the TP publication of Shaft: A Complicated Man, this book comes without any extras, such as an introduction, script extracts and character profiles, which is a shame. It is also a shame that Dynamite seem to have stalled on any new Shaft output – with as yet no commissioned third comic book or follow-up novel to Walker’s excellent Shaft’s Revenge. There is also no news of the continuation of the reprints of Tidyman’s originals. I hope the publisher has not lost interest in the series and that we see more Shaft output very soon.
DARK WINTER by WILLIAM DIETRICH (2001, Warner Books, 388pp) ∗∗∗
Blurb: At America’s base at the South Pole, 26 “winterovers” complete the yearly ritual of waving good-bye to the “last plane out,” then summon their energies for that season’s battle with constant darkness, total isolation and murderous cold that can dip well beneath 100 degrees below zero. Little does the group guess that in succeeding days and weeks, they’ll be tested not just by unimagineable weather extremes, but by a murderer intent on gradually eradicating them. Jeff Lewis, as the latest to arrive, becomes the chief suspect when staff members begin to go missing. But he’s hardly alone in attracting suspicion. As the death toll mounts and the camp’s communication with the outside world is all but extinguished, the fault lines that always lie below the surface of any co-operative effort split open. As hysteria develops and scientific jealousies, romantic entanglements and class bitterness intensify the friction, the polar habitat itself – a football-field-sized dome holding temperatures at tolerable levels – becomes compromised. What’s left is a stark choice: root out the psychological contaminant, stop the murderer and the dissent he has sewn, relearn co-operation – or slide down a dark tunnel of everlasting cold.
The Antarctic setting is the star of this book. Dietrich has a feel for the isolation and absolute cold and having personally visited the location, the author is very capable at desribing the environment in which this psychological mystery is set. There are problems though. Dietrich spends a good third of the book establishing the setting and introducing his large cast of twenty-six characters. This slows the pace to a crawl in the book’s early sections and less patient readers may abandon ship. But, once the murders begin the pace quickens. The McGuffin is a priceless rock from a meteor, which has been disovered in the ice and becomes the motive for the murders. The characters all have their own reasons for being at the Pole and their suspicion of Lewis, as a late addition to the party, coincides with knowledge of the meteor becoming public and the first of the deaths. Howeber, as the murders increase, credibility becomes stretched. This is ultimately something that would make a passable movie adpatation – with its references to John Carpenter’s The Thing, betraying its inspiration of an isolated group gripped with paranoia. As a book it is diverting enough, despite its uneven pacing.
SHALL WE TELL THE PRESIDENT by JEFFREY ARCHER (1986, Pan, 331pp) ∗∗∗
Blurb: At the end of The Prodigal Daughter, Florentyna Kane is elected President – the first woman President of the United States. At 7.30 one evening the FBI learn of a plot to kill her – the 1572nd such threat of the year. At 8.30 five people know all the details. By 9.30 four of them are dead. FBI agent Mark Andrews alone knows when. He also knows that a senator is involved. He has six days to learn where – and how. Six days to prevent certain death of the President.
This is the revised version of Archer’s original novel, which was published in 1977, with characters altered to form part of his Kane and Abel trilogy. The story is a traditional race against the clock thriller with it’s hero, FBI Mark Andrews, making a poor detective who walks past vital clues whilst attempting to foil a plot to kill America’s first female President. Archer’s writing style is a little too British for the subject matter and inconsistent – sometimes tight and at other times meandering – but he somehow manages to maintain the reader’s interest throughout. Throw in a romance with a female doctor, who happens to be the daughter of one of the mains suspects, and you also have a level of plot contrivance too. The pace quickens as the clock ticks down to an exciting , if brief, finale.
SIRENS by JOSEPH KNOX (2017, Doubleday, 374pp) ∗∗∗∗∗
Blurb: Isabelle Rossiter has run away again. When Aidan Waits, a troubled junior detective, is summoned to her father’s penthouse home – he finds a manipulative man, with powerful friends. But retracing Isabelle’s steps through a dark, nocturnal world, Waits finds something else. An intelligent seventeen-year-old girl who’s scared to death of something. As he investigates her story, and the unsolved disappearance of a young woman just like her, he realizes Isabelle was right to run away. Soon Waits is cut loose by his superiors, stalked by an unseen killer and dangerously attracted to the wrong woman. He’s out of his depth and out of time. How can he save the girl, when he can’t even save himself?
This is a remarkably assured debut from Joseph Knox that explores the seedy criminal underworld of Manchester. The book is a dark, modern take, on the noir-mystery genre. There are echoes of Chandler, MacDonald, et al, in Knox’s first-person narration, but more so this has an instinctive feel for time and place. It is also a depressing tale populated by characters with few, if any, redeeming qualities. Even Knox’s hero, Aidan Waits, has more than his fair share of troubles, including his own drug dependency. Despite this, Knox’s writing style keeps the reader gripped from start to finish as the mystery unravels. His use of short, one-scene chapters, and his sectioning of the book into effectively six acts, all carrying a single word title, gives the novel the structure of a TV mini-series, which this could well become. The book took Knox eight years to complete and his sense of perfection has resulted in one of the best debut crime novels in recent years. Where he will take his lead character in the promised series will be interesting, as there is a sense that Knox has put everything into this. Like his hero, I am hooked.