Book Review – STAY CLOSE (2012) by Harlan Coben

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.

Book Review – DARK WINTER (2001) by William Dietrich

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.

Book Review – SIRENS (2017) by Joseph Knox

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.

Book Review – THE DARKEST GOODBYE (2016) by Alex Gray

THE DARKEST GOODBYE by ALEX GRAY (2016, Sphere, 456pp) ∗∗∗½

Blurb: When newly fledged DC Kirsty Wilson is called to the house of an elderly woman, what appears to be a death by natural causes soon takes a sinister turn when it is revealed that the woman had a mysterious visitor in the early hours of that morning – someone dressed as a community nurse, but with much darker intentions. As Kirsty is called to another murder – this one the brutal execution of a well-known Glasgow drug dealer – she finds herself pulled into a complex case involving vulnerable people and a sinister service that offers them and their loved ones a ‘release’. Detective Superintendent William Lorimer is called in to help DC Wilson investigate and as the body count rises, the pair soon realise that this case is about to get more personal than either of them could have imagined . . .

This is the thirteenth book in Alex Gray’s William Lorimer series and is the first that I have read. Although Lorimer is the series’ primary character, this book focuses on newly appointed Detective Constable Kirsty Wilson. Her father is a well-respected DI who is about to retire and Kirsty is initially paired with troubled DS Len Murdoch – who has a gambling addiction and a wife suffering from MS – as her mentor. The mystery surrounds a secret organisation provided assisted death to terminally ill patients for money.  The mystery is well-plotted, but there is little depth to the characters and the lead, Lorimer, is somewhat lacking in charisma. The story, whilst familiar procedural fare, is never dull and is crafted by a writer comfortable in her game.

Book Review – THE HIGHWAYMAN (2016) by Craig Johnson

THE HIGHWAYMAN by CRAIG JOHNSON (2016, Viking, 194pp) ∗∗∗½

Blurb: When Wyoming highway patrolman Rosey Wayman is transferred to the beautiful and imposing landscape of the Wind River Canyon, an area the troopers refer to as no-man’s-land because of the lack of radio communication, she starts receiving officer needs assistance calls. The problem? They’re coming from Bobby Womack, a legendary Arapaho patrolman who met a fiery death in the canyon almost a half-century ago. With an investigation that spans this world and the next, Sheriff Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear take on a case that pits them against a legend: The Highwayman.

Craig Johnson continues his output of Sheriff Walt Longmire mysteries – which has now stretched to twelve novels, two novellas and a collection of short stories – with this enjoyable novella. The “ghost story” elements give the story an sense of fun and mystery – although the mystery itself is straight-forward and doesn’t really produce any surprises and the scenario is never comedic. This is more about Johnson having fun with his characters with Walt supported by his long-time friend Henry Standing Bear. Their interplay is as witty and affectionate as ever. Whilst the book is never much more than a mild diversion until the next novel, An Obvious Fact published later the same year, it will satisfy fans of Johnson’s writing and characters.

Film Review – SCOOP (2006)

Scoop (2006; UK/USA; Technicolor; 96m) ∗∗∗  d. Woody Allen; w. Woody Allen; ph. Remi Adefarasin.  Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Jackman, Ian McShane, Woody Allen, Romola Garai, Kevin McNally, Jim Dunk, Geoff Bell, Christopher Fulford, Nigel Lindsay, Fenella Woolgar, Matt Day, Rupert Frazer. An American journalism student in London scoops a big story, and begins an affair with an aristocrat as the incident unfurls. Lightweight comedy mystery is one of Allen’s lesser works. Allen and Johansson spark well with Allen relishing his role as a cheesy magician. The mystery elements are less satisfying and not all the one-liners hit home, but it has just enough to make it an entertaining diversion. [12]

Book Review – RATHER BE THE DEVIL (2016) by Ian Rankin

RATHER BE THE DEVIL by IAN RANKIN (2016, Orion, 310pp) ∗∗∗½

Blurb: For John Rebus, forty years may have passed, but the death of beautiful, promiscuous Maria Turquand still preys on his mind. Murdered in her hotel room on the night a famous rock star and his entourage were staying there, Maria’s killer has never been found. Meanwhile, the dark heart of Edinburgh remains up for grabs. A young pretender, Darryl Christie, may have staked his claim, but a vicious attack leaves him weakened and vulnerable, and an inquiry into a major money laundering scheme threatens his position. Has old-time crime boss Big Ger Cafferty really given up the ghost, or is he biding his time until Edinburgh is once more ripe for the picking?

Rankin’s twenty-first Rebus novel is an entertaining read and one that shows Rankin is extremely comfortable with his characters. In this one the plot is fairly ordinary based around two cases that weave into one. Rebus is now long-retired, but investigating an old case and still sparring with gangster Big Ger Cafferty. The interplay between the main characters is what works best in this book. Rankin otherwise plays to more conventional crime fiction tropes and as such the book feels closer to his earlier work than his later, more complex novels. Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox are on-board as is Cafferty’s challenger for the control of the Edinburgh crime scene – Darryl Christie. The book continues the gangland arc from Even Dogs in the Wild and sees it through to a satisfying conclusion, that sets up the series for the future. Rebus himself, is coming to terms with growing old and bronchial problems. He has, however, lost none of his acerbic wit and doggedness. Seeing him work with, but outside of, the police has given the series a new lease of life.

Book Review – EVEN DOGS IN THE WILD by Ian Rankin (2015)

EVEN DOGS IN THE WILD by IAN RANKIN (2015, Orion, 408pp) ∗∗∗∗

BlurbRetirement doesn’t suit John Rebus. He wasn’t made for hobbies, holidays or home improvements. Being a cop is in his blood. So when DI Siobhan Clarke asks for his help on a case, Rebus doesn’t need long to consider his options. Clarke’s been investigating the death of a senior lawyer whose body was found along with a threatening note. On the other side of Edinburgh, Big Ger Cafferty – Rebus’s long-time nemesis – has received an identical note and a bullet through his window.

This is the twentieth novel in Ian Rankin’s highly successful Rebus series and he shows no signs of tiring of his creation. It is a punchy and absorbing crime novel, expertly plotted and populated with a strong cast of characters. The retired Rebus is now acting as a consultant to the police and his interplay with ex-colleagues and gangsters remains as sharp as ever. Freed from the shackles of paperwork and the need to answer for his actions, Rebus is re-energised with Rankin having fun with theses aspects. Clarke and Malcolm Fox are also given room to breathe with Fox determined to prove he is a good detective and often going off radar to do so and Clarke the control element to clue the investigation together. Two plot threads intertwine with current affairs, a trademark of Rankin’s novels. There is also a softening of the character of Big Ger Cafferty – Rebus’ lifelong gangster nemesis – and whilst their scenes together contain the usual caustic banter, Rankin shows the men have a high level of respect for each other. Already Rebus 21 is in the works with Rather Be the Devil due out in hardback in November as the series continues to maintain its level of quality.

Film Review – GUMSHOE (1971)

Gumshoe (1971; UK; Eastmancolor; 86m) ∗∗∗½  d. Stephen Frears; w. Neville Smith; ph. Chris Menges; m. Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Cast: Albert Finney, Billie Whitelaw, Frank Finlay, Janice Rule, Carolyn Seymour, Fulton Mackay, George Innes, George Silver, Bill Dean, Wendy Richard, Maureen Lipman. A nightclub bingo caller eager for a career change advertises himself as a private eye in the newspaper. Affectionate pastiche of classic private eye thrillers. Finney excels as the night club host who fantasises he is a PI in the Bogart mould. Convoluted plot populated by mysterious characters carried along by a witty script full of acerbic wisecracks. [12]

Film Review – FALLEN ANGEL (1945)

Fallen Angel (1945; USA; B&W; 94m) ∗∗∗½  d. Otto Preminger; w. Harry Kleiner; ph. Joseph LaShelle; m. David Riskin.  Cast: Dana Andrews, Alice Faye, Linda Darnell, Charles Bickford, Anne Revere, Bruce Cabot, John Carradine A slick con man arrives in a small town looking to make some money, but soon gets more than he bargained for. Well cast film-noir is solid entertainment despite the melodramatic and uneven nature of its script. Andrews is always a great rogue and there are some effective individual scenes. Darnell makes the most of her manipulative role, whilst Bickford adds a layered performance as a semi-retired cop. Based on the novel by Marty Holland. [PG]