Book Review – RED BONES (2009) by Ann Cleeves

RED BONES (2009) ***½
by Ann Cleeves
First published by Macmillan, 2009
This edition published by Pan Books, 2015, 406pp (392pp)
ISBN: 978-1-4472-7446-9
includes 12-page preview of BLUE LIGHTNING.

Blurb: When an elderly woman is shot in what appears to be a tragic accident, Shetland detective Jimmy Perez is called to investigate the mystery. The sparse landscape and the emptiness of the sea have bred a fierce and secretive people. As Jimmy looks to the islanders for answers, he finds instead two feuding families whose envy, greed and bitterness have lasted generations. Then there’s another murder and, as the spring weather shrouds the island in claustrophobic mists, Jimmy must dig up old secrets to stop a new killer from striking again…

The third book in Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series featuring detective Jimmy Perez is a slow-burning mystery. Cleeves takes great care in growing her characters and making them feel real and this is key to the readers’ investment in the mystery. Whilst this approach can often slow the pace in a book with a relatively small cast of suspects, it does help create a sense of place. Cleeves also has the knack of cleverly ratcheting up the tension without the reader noticing it and you can feel yourself being drawn in as the book progresses. Perez is a detective who may lack charisma but has integrity and a sense of moral justice on his side. Much time is given to his sidekick, the raw and naive Sandy Wilson, whose character grows significantly through the book. The result is a good old-fashioned mystery with all the elements present.

Book Review – THE FALLS (2001) by Ian Rankin

THE FALLS (2001) ****
by Ian Rankin
First published by Orion 2001
This edition published by Orion, 2011, 498pp (475pp)
ISBN: 978-1-4072-4759-5
includes an introduction by Ian Rankin and Reading Group Notes.

The Falls (A Rebus Novel)Blurb: A student has gone missing in Edinburgh. She’s not just any student, though, but the daughter of well-to-do and influential bankers. There’s almost nothing to go on until DI John Rebus gets an unmistakable gut feeling that there’s more to this than just another runaway spaced out on unaccustomed freedom. Two leads emerge: a carved wooden doll in a toy coffin, found in the student’s home village, and an internet role-playing game. The ancient and the modern, brought together by uncomfortable circumstance…

The 12th book in Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series is an intriguing mystery that confirmed Rankin’s position in the premier league of crime writers. Four years and four books on from the breakthrough Black and Blue, this is confidently written and demonstrates Rankin’s total mastery of his characters. He even manages to give Rebus a love interest in this story who is also integral to the plot, which adds an additional dimension. The book also sees Gill Templar’s promotion to Detective Chief Superintendent, creating a different boss/Rebus dynamic, given their involvement together earlier in the series. Rankin also gives a greater role to DC Siobhan Clark and highlights her inner turmoil at balancing career aspirations with her leaning toward Rebus’ maverick methods. Rankin also brings DC Grant Hood and DS Ellen Wylie more into the mix with a subplot surrounding their competitiveness in advancing their careers. The characterisations are given depth and motivation, which is explored to the full. Slimy journalist Steve Holly, however, is maybe a tad stereotypical.  At 475 pages, the novel may seem a little over-extended, but it allows the characters to develop and the intricacies of the plot to unfold at a steady rate. The book is never boring as even in its slow passages the writing and introspection are very strong. Only in the finale do we see Rankin fall into more conventional territory.

The Rebus Series:

Knots and Crosses (1987) ***
Hide and Seek (1991)
Tooth and Nail (original title Wolfman) (1992) ***
Strip Jack (1992)
The Black Book (1993) ***
Mortal Causes (1994) ***
Let it Bleed (1996)
Black and Blue (1997) ****½
The Hanging Garden (1998) ****
Dead Souls (1999) ****
Set in Darkness (2000) ****
The Falls (2001) ****
Resurrection Men (2002)
A Question of Blood (2003) ****
Fleshmarket Close (2004) ****
The Naming of the Dead (2006)  ****½
Exit Music (2007) ****
Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012) ***½
Saints of the Shadow Bible (2013) ***
Even Dogs in the Wild (2015) ****
Rather Be the Devil (2016) ***½
In a House of Lies (2018) ***½

Book Review – OUTLAND (1981) by Alan Dean Foster

OUTLAND (1981) ***
by Alan Dean Foster (based on a screenplay by Peter Hyams)
Paperback published by Warner Books, March 1981. 272pp.
ISBN: 0-446-95829-8

35190Blurb: Here on Io — moon of Jupiter, hell in space — men mine ore to satisfy the needs of Earth. They are hard men, loners for whom the Company provides the necessities: beds, food, drink and women for hire. Now, in apparent suicide or in frenzied madness, the men are dying… To OUTLAND comes the new U.S. Marshal O’Neil, a man with a sense of duty so strong it drives him to ferret out evil, greed and murder regardless of the cost. If he must, he will forfeit love, livelihood — even life itself.

OUTLAND was effectively a Space Western movie written and directed by Peter Hyams that riffed on the plot of the classic Western HIGH NOON. The movie starred Sean Connery as the Marshal left to fight alone against a corrupt mine manager and the hitmen sent to kill him on a remote moon of Jupiter. Alan Dean Foster is an old hand at novelisations and he adapts Hyams’ screenplay very professionally, bringing additional depth to the main characters and pacing the narrative well. O’Neil’s inner-torment and outer-determination to be seen to do the right thing in tackling the drug smuggling operation despite the personal sacrifices he makes are the heart of the story and Foster balances this well with the unfolding plot. The interplay between O’Neil and his only real ally – a cynical female doctor – is enjoyable. A decent, if less than original, film gets a decent novelisation.

Book Review – ONLY TO SLEEP (2018) by Lawrence Osborne

ONLY TO SLEEP (2018) ***
by Lawrence Osborne
Hardback published by Hogarth, 2018. 250pp.
ISBN: 978-1-7810-9057-2

Image result for Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe NovelBlurb: The year is 1988. The place, Baja California. Private Investigator Philip Marlowe – now in his seventy-second year – has been living out his retirement in the terrace bar of the La Fonda hotel. Sipping margaritas, playing cards, his silver-tipped cane at the ready. When in saunter two men dressed like undertakers. With a case that has his name written all over it.  At last Marlowe is back where he belongs. His mission is to investigate Donald Zinn – supposedly drowned off his yacht, leaving a much younger and now very rich wife. Marlowe’s speciality. But is Zinn actually alive? Are the pair living off the spoils? 

This is the fourth attempt to continue Raymond Chandler’s legacy of private investigator Philip Marlowe. None of these works has come anywhere near to replicating the best of Chandler’s work. First, there were two books by Robert B. Parker – Poodle Springs (1989) and Perchance to Dream (1991) – the former completing an unfinished Chandler manuscript, the latter a disappointing sequel to Chandler’s first Marlowe novel,  The Big Sleep (1939). Then in 2014, John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black) produced The Black-Eyed Blonde, which was a pretty good sequel to Chandler’s masterpiece The Long Goodbye (1953). Now we have Lawrence Osborne’s take on Marlowe with Only to Sleep. Osborne has taken the brave decision to write about an ageing Marlowe, 72-years old here. This gives him the opportunity to introduce even more world-weariness into the character. A physically spent force, Marlowe now needs a cane to help him get around. Coaxed out of retirement to investigate a suspicious insurance claim, Marlowe goes to Mexico to find the truth. The book has a slow, deliberate pace which allows Osborne to share Marlowe’s anachronistic view of the world. However, his observations are merely those of a tired old man and lack the bite of his younger self. That may have been Osborne’s intention, to show how age has dulled Marlowe’s caustic cynicism. But much of the charm of Chandler’s creation is lost in the process. So whilst, as per convention, the story is written in the first person from Marlowe’s point of view, it doesn’t feel like this is the same man that inhabited Chandler’s novels  – or even those of Parker and Black. There is little of the biting wit we expect. The mystery itself is less a mystery and more a manhunt. There is also nothing in the unravelling of the plot elements that will surprise the reader. Osborne does, however, capture the hot, sleazy atmosphere of Mexico in the 1980s, drawing on his own experiences. Taken as a detective story, the writing is good and mercifully the page count is traditionally light and we are left with a competent detective novel, for which the only real distinction is its use of an iconic name to sell it.

Book Review – WILD FIRE (2018) by Ann Cleeves

WILD FIRE (2018) ***½
by Ann Cleeves
Originally published by Macmillan, 2018.
This edition published by Pan Books, 2019.
ISBN: 978-1-4472-7826-9

Blurb: Drawn in by the reputation of the islands, an English family move to the area, eager to give their autistic son a better life. But when a young nanny’s body is found hanging in the barn of their home, rumours of her affair with the husband begin to spread like wild fire. With suspicion raining down on the family, DI Jimmy Perez is called in to investigate, knowing that it will mean the return to the islands of his on-off lover and boss Willow Reeves, who will run the case. Perez is facing the most disturbing investigation of his career. Is he ready for what is to come?

As  I was watching the latest series of BBC’s excellent Shetland series, I was also reading what is to be the last of the novels the series was based on. From Series 3 the BBC moved away from adapting Ann Cleeves’ novels and into writing original series length stories. That lifted the TV series to the next level by expanding the universe and making the TV version feel less about an isolated community. Cleeves, meanwhile, has finished her series with a novel that is deeply rooted in that community. Themes of a close-knit and suspicious community dealing with an invasion of new residents are explored here. The case is a murder, which in method replicates an earlier suicide by a local man down on his luck, having had to sell his ideal home to a couple of immigrants from England and their family, including their autistic son. Wild Fire is both familiar and entertaining. We know the characters and we know the island very well by now. Cleeves explores her characters by slowing the pace and allowing room for development. Her writing style is descriptive and also looks to explore each of the major protagonist’s viewpoint, making for a fully rounded story that otherwise has the familiar elements of the English crime mystery.

Book Review – HUNTER’S GAMES (2014) by James P. Sumner

HUNTER’S GAMES (2014) ***½
by James P. Sumner
Published by OnlineBookServices.com, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-497-38699-0

BlurbAdrian Hell travels to San Francisco, commissioned to take out a government official who’s found himself on the wrong side of the wrong people. The job goes as planned, but before Adrian can leave the scene, he’s taken into custody by the FBI. Grace Chambers, a straight-talking special agent, asks him to help bring down a terrorist known as The Shark, who’s responsible for several recent attacks on the city. But things aren’t what they seem, and when the truth behind Adrian’s involvement is revealed, so too is the full extent of The Shark’s horrifying plans. Forced into a deadly game of cat and mouse, our unlikely hero goes bullet for bullet with an unseen enemy, as the fate of thousands of innocent people hangs in the balance. With time running out, and the body count rising, Adrian must do whatever it takes to stop his adversary before it’s too late.

James P. Sumner is a local author. When I say “local author” I mean local to me. He lives in Tottington, Bury. Hunter’s Games is the second novel in Sumner’s Adrian Hell series. Adrian is an ex-military black ops operative who now works as a hitman. He only takes out the really bad guys – those who deserve to be taken out. So, there’s an element here of moral questioning of Hell’s motives. Is he cleansing the world of the most vicious of criminals or is he in it for the money. There is actually backstory that signals his motivation and has left him with emotional scars. He covers these scars with a sticking plaster that presents itself in his personality as arrogant, self-confident, flippant, cynical and more than a little flamboyant. As a result, what could have been an annoying character, whose sarcastic wit and smart-alec remarks could have worn thin, actually grows on the reader as the novel progresses. Yes, the plot is derivative – Die Hard with a Vengeance meets James Bond meets Dirty Harry’s The Enforcer – but it zips along at a hell of a rate and is always entertaining. This could easily be seen as one of those Hollywood action thrillers starring a Liam Neeson-type macho male actor. Whilst I may have predicted some of the plot twists and rolled my eyes at the occasionally overly macho dialogue, I also smiled at the witty interplay between the characters. Sumner’s writing style, written in the present tense in order to heighten the tension, is engaging. He  is a self-published author who has demonstrated how you can be successful without the support of the traditional publishing industry and his enthusiasm for his material is mightily evident in the pages of this novel.

Book Review – COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1965) by Chester Himes

COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1965) ****
by Chester Himes
First published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1965
This edition: published by Penguin Books, 2011, 224pp.
ISBN: 978-0-141-19645-9

Blurb: A preacher called Deke O’Malley’s been selling false hope: the promise of a glorious new life in Africa for just $1,000 a family. But when thieves with machine guns steal the proceeds – and send one man’s brain matter flying – the con is up. Now Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed mean to bring the good people of Harlem back their $87,000, however many corpses they have to climb over to get it.

This is the sixth book in Chester Himes’ series about Harlem detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. It is perhaps the best known of his novels in that it was adapted for the big screen in 1970 and was one of the major instigators of the Blaxploitation genre of filmmaking that dominated cinemas through the mid-1970s. The novel is a quirky, sometimes absurd, but always entertaining story of the search for stolen loot right through to its ironic twist ending. Himes wonderfully captures the cornucopia of characters and misfits that inhabit the streets of Harlem, all looking to improve their lot in life. The book comments on the way society will feed off and steal from itself in order to survive – from the charlatan preacher Deke O’Malley to the sexy Iris. Himes outlines the Harlem criminals’ trait in feeding, like vultures, off of the vulnerable in their own society, embodied by the widowed Mabel who is taken in by O’Malley’s preachings and meets a tragic demise herself. The McGuffin is a bale of cotton in which is hidden $87,000 taken by O’Malley from 87 families looking to return to their roots via his “Back to Africa” initiative, which is really a scam. When the money is lost during the getaway the search begins and Grave Digger and Coffin Ed use all their street-smart methods to get it back. The book is representative of the Harlem of 1965 and brings alive the poverty (represented by the homeless Uncle Bud) and survival instincts of its inhabitants. The writing is sometimes idiosyncratic but is of a style Himes perfected over his series of novels about life in Harlem and is perfectly suited to the characters and stories he portrays.

Book Review – THE QUIET DEATH OF THOMAS QUAID (2016) by Craig Russell

THJE QUIET DEATH OF THOMAS QUAID (2016) ****
by Craig Russell
Published by Quercus, 2016, 376pp
ISBN: 978-178087-491-3

Blurb: Quiet Tommy Quaid is one of Lennox’s few friends in Glasgow. Lennox appreciates Tommy’s open, straightforward personality – even if he is a master thief. When Tommy is flung to his death from a factory roof in front of Lennox’s eyes, Lennox discovers just how wrong he was about Tommy’s quiet life. It seems Tommy knew a secret, and it cost him his life. But for once, Quiet Tommy didn’t go quietly. His secret concerned people above the law – people in some cases who are the law – and so now, from beyond the grave, he leaves a trail for Lennox to follow to ensure justice is done. For once, Lennox is on the side of the angels. But he is an avenging angel, and in brutal Glasgow, justice has to get bloody.

After a four-year break, this is the fifth book in Craig Russell’s 1950s Glasgow-set noir series featuring Canadian private detective Lennox (he has no first name). The book is a dark tale of sordid crimes and cover-ups. The McGuffin is a stolen ledger containing photographs of several prominent citizens involved in unspeakable acts. Lennox becomes involved through his association with the murdered thief who obtained these items. The plot involves various factions with interest in retrieving them and Lennox has to draw on his instincts, honed during WWII, to get to the bottom of the mystery and expose those who are responsible. Russell is an engaging writer whose style owes more than a debt to Raymond Chandler in his prose style, but whose hero has perhaps more in common with Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer in his approach to detection. There is much wit amidst the sordidness and Russell delves deeply into Lennox’s psyche, highlighting the emotional scars he carries over from the war and their impact on his actions – despite his attempts to suppress them. It is a confident mystery with a satisfying, if a little rushed, finale, that wraps up the many strands of the plot. The spirit of the classic pulp novels is alive and well in Craig Russell’s writing.

Other books in the series
Lennox (2009) ***
The Long Glasgow Kiss (2010) ***
The Deep, Dark Sleep (2011) ***
Dead Men and Broken Hearts (2012) ****

Book Review – LETHAL WHITE (2018) by Robert Galbraith

LETHAL WHITE (2018) ***
by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Published by Sphere, 2018, 650pp
ISBN: 978-0-7515-7285-8

Image result for lethal white robert galbraithBlurb: When Billy, a troubled young man, comes to private eye Cormoran Strike’s office to ask for his help investigating a crime he thinks he witnessed as a child, Strike is left deeply unsettled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed, and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic. Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott – once his assistant, now a partner in the agency – set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside. And during this labyrinthine investigation, Strike’s own life is far from straightforward: his newfound fame as a private eye means he can no longer operate behind the scenes as he once did. Plus, his relationship with his former assistant is more fraught than it ever has been – Robin is now invaluable to Strike in the business, but their personal relationship is much, much more tricky than that…

The fourth Cormoran Strike novel is a long, twisting mystery with a sophisticated plot and a colourful cast of eccentric characters. Rowling has a tendency to increase the page count in her series novels as they progress. There is certainly enough complexity in this mystery to warrant a longer novel, but at 650 pages you have to ask whether this could have been pruned back. The domestic stuff, whilst helping flesh out the central characters, does often get in the way of the developing mystery. Rowling is seemingly running story arcs through these novels as a hook for the reader to return for the next instalment.

The book initially progresses slowly through a blackmail plot against a government minister during the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. Robin goes undercover to tease out information against the perpetrators. At the half-way point, the story takes a sharp turn and the plot thickens into a murder mystery. The pace quickens from here as the detective duo gradually unravel the mystery and the finale is a tense play-off.  Whilst the plot here is probably the most labyrinthine of Rowling’s novels at the same time it is perhaps the least involving. Most of the characters come across as either spoilt, rich brats or anarchists with a chip on their shoulder. The reader, therefore, would be happy to see any of them unmasked as the chief villain. The only sympathetic major character outside of the two detectives is the mentally disturbed Billy. The resolution of his story of sinister childhood memory is much more satisfactory. There is also a tendency to gloss over of the police involvement in the case. Their seeming happiness for Strike to do their job for them does not ring true and there is an absence of the conflict evident in the earlier books.

Rowling has created a likeable detective team with this series and I look forward to their next outing but hope Rowling’s editors have more of a say in its pacing.

Other Cormoran Strike novels:
The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) ****
The Silkworm (2014) ****
Career of Evil (2015) ****

 

Book Review – IN A HOUSE OF LIES (2018) by Ian Rankin

IN A HOUSE OF LIES (2018) ***½
by Ian Rankin
Published by Orion, 2018, 372pp
ISBN: 978-1-4091-7691-6

Blurb: Everyone has something to hide… A missing private investigator is found, locked in a car hidden deep in the woods. Worse still – both for his family and the police – is that his body was in an area that had already been searched. Everyone has secrets… Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke is part of a new inquiry, combing through the mistakes of the original case. There were always suspicions over how the investigation was handled and now – after a decade without answers – it’s time for the truth. Nobody is innocent… Every officer involved must be questioned, and it seems everyone on the case has something to hide, and everything to lose. But there is one man who knows where the trail may lead – and that it could be the end of him: John Rebus.

The 22nd book in Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series sees the retired detective feeling his age as his deteriorating health leads him to quit smoking and limit his drinking. Bored, he grasps at the opportunity to help his former partner, DI Siobhan Clarke, by re-investigating an old case. Meanwhile, Clarke herself is deeply embroiled in a murder investigation whilst fighting off an internal enquiry into her conduct.

Rankin steers away from any major political and social issues and concentrates on the mechanics of the two cases. The murder mystery involves a high-ranking businessman and a film producer as well as two corrupt cops, giving the novel a few narrative strands to weave together. Of course, there is a link between these threads and Rebus again locks horns with his nemesis Big “Ger” Cafferty who is tied to both.

Nothing too surprising here, just another well-written crime mystery by a writer who knows his craft. It’s difficult to see where Rankin will take his lead character as he ages in retirement and struggles with ill-health.

The Rebus Series:

Knots and Crosses (1987) ***
Hide and Seek (1991) ***
Tooth and Nail (original title Wolfman) (1992) ***
Strip Jack (1992)
The Black Book (1993) ***
Mortal Causes (1994) ***
Let it Bleed (1996)
Black and Blue (1997) ****½
The Hanging Garden (1998) ****
Dead Souls (1999)
Set in Darkness (2000) ****
The Falls (2001)
Resurrection Men (2002) ****
A Question of Blood (2003) ****
Fleshmarket Close (2004) ****
The Naming of the Dead (2006)  ****½
Exit Music (2007) ****
Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012) ***½
Saints of the Shadow Bible (2013) ***
Even Dogs in the Wild (2015) ****
Rather Be the Devil (2016) ***½
In a House of Lies (2018) ***½