It’s a rare occasion when the majority of the books I cover come from ‘big name’ authors, but this month there was no avoiding them and getting yet another confirmation that the craft and deceptive ease of reading of writers like Connelly, Harris, Gross, Fowler and ‘Al’ Collins comes from years of experience and hard work. A fairly traditional selection then, but none the worse for it, encompassing Los Angeles noir and two of our favourite local characters, historical WW2 thrillers (albeit one is technically pre-war what with Robert Harris’s meticulous dissection of the political moves and conspiracies that led to the war), a look at forgotten books and writers many in our genre, a harrowing tale of family horror which has attracted much attention, the return of die-hard hero Quarry, a speculative tale of bees, fathers and sons which has hit the bestseller list in many countries, a Scandinavian school-of-Hiaasen caper, a surprise debut from a well-known actress, and other delights.
BOOK OF THE MONTH: Michael Connelly/TWO KINDS OF TRUTH (Orion) Following the introduction of a new female series character, late shift cop Renee Ballard in THE LATE SHOW, Connelly returns not just to Harry Bosch in his new novel, but also involves his half brother, the Lincoln lawyer Mickey Haller in another tale of assured sleuthing that runs as smooth as any Connelly narrative, with not a superfluous word or scene to slow down the inexorable unfolding of the precisely engineered plot, full of accurate police procedure, humour, tension and legal insights. Connelly is now out of the LAPD and working cold cases on a part-time basis for the small San Fernando force when a murderer on death row comes up with new information framing him for a long, past case. Adamant that he didn’t cross the line all those years back, Bosch has to rope in Haller to assist him prove his innocence and, in the process, uncovers a whole nest of snakes, while juggling his current workload, hostile cops and the legal system. Reading Connelly is like listening to a well-oiled machine purring softly, as if by magic and, once again, he makes the reading (and the writing) so easy, unshowy, intelligent and gripping. A crime author in full control of his craft!
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Robert Harris/MUNICH (Hutchinson) Just like Connelly, Robert Harris is in top form, yet another demonstration of how some ex-journalists manage to balance style and plot and deliver, time after time, almost perfect thrillers. Even more so on this occasion as, similarly to Frederick Forsyth’s THE DAY OF THE JACKAL we all know the outcome but still can’t put the book down. MUNICH is about the diplomatic efforts in 1938 to avert the onset of war when Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia and involves a handful of British diplomats and Foreign Office staff alongside a number of Germans opposed to the Nazis for a variety of different reasons as they all try to slow down the inevitable path of history. History as thriller and no one does it better than Harris, as he breathlessly involves the reader against his better knowledge and transforms what has become a somewhat infamous episode into a story of morality, expediency, human endeavour and compelling immediacy.
FEATURED: Gabriel Tallent/MY ABSOLUTE DARLING (Fourth Estate) In stark contrast to the above titles by Michael Connelly and Robert Harris where the book’s style never for a moment draws attention to itself, Tallent’s staggeringly bleak debut effort has a totally opposite effect, insofar as on almost every single page, the mind and attention linger on the dense style and descriptions, all things of terrible beauty which slow down the plot and action in almost forensic detail but as a result make the narrative even more horrific in its unfolding and implications. A young girl in the California wildness near Mendocino lives alone with her widowed father on the margins of society, shunned at school, almost feral. Hints of deeper and increasingly disturbing situations loom as the story ever so lazily unfolds, surrounded by the wild beauty of nature and the nearby sea, a weight of expectation and dread weighing on the reader as you, almost reluctantly, read along. Without wanting to give away the essential plot twist that turns this into a domestic thriller of sorts, with guns, snakes and blood galore at its inevitable conclusion, a word of warning to the unaware: this is gritty and unpleasant stuff indeed behind the lush writing and striking characterisation.
Christopher Fowler/THE BOOK OF FORGOTTEN AUTHORS (Riverrun) A collection of 99 short features on writers who once had their day in the spotlight and have, in many cases, now fallen not so much into disrepute but faded from the collective readership’s consciousness, this volume, based on Chris Fowler’s erstwhile INDEPENDENT column is a godsend for book lovers if you want to make new discoveries, explore the fertile past and have a yearning for quality and quirk. Inevitably many of those names Fowler resurrects were involved in crime and thrillers, and although I might argue that Margery Allingham, Georgette Heyer, Graham Joyce, Dennis Wheatley or Tom Robbins are still rather popular, I can only welcome reminders of how vital authors like Cornell Woolrich, Robert Van Gulik, John Dickson Carr, Dino Buzzati, Margaret Millar, Arthur Upfield and many others still are, in the context of the long and fruitful history of crime and speculative writing. A wonderful book to dip into and to send you scurrying to the nearest second-hand shelf or internet search machine, to see if you agree with Fowler’s pithy assessments. Hours of fun lie ahead.
Antti Tuomainen/THE MAN WHO DIED (Orenda) We always think of Nordic crime as bleak, white and unrelenting, but Finnish author Tuomainen has come up with an irresistible crime comedy caper which transfers the upside down humour and wit of Carl Hiaasen’s Florida bizarro tales to the far North with a vengeance. Whem mushroom mogul Jaakko Kaunismaa finds out he has been poisoned by slow-working toxins, he embarks on a rumbustious, rollercoaster search for the culprit, a journey through paranoia and enhanced emotions that will take on twists galore, outrageous situations, a veritable galleries of grotesques, all through a voice laced with dark humour and wit. More than just a whodunit, but a gripping tale of self-loathing, investigation and desperate floundering as Jaakko struggles to control what is left of his life and roars down the road in search of the truth like an elephant through an allotment. Both a thriller and a dark laugh a minute journey that will keep you haning on to the end. The story of a man investigating his own death has been done before but not with such gusto.
Maja Lunde/THE HISTORY OF BEES (Scribner) This literary novel from Norway by an author previously known for children’s books, is about hives, bees, and the relationships between parents and children and has become a surprise bestseller in many foreign countries (it even topped the list in Germany). But it’s also a thriller of sorts as the last of the three parallel stories that make up the book is set in a dystopian China following a global catastrophe in the near future has decimated the world’s food production and the importance of bees has become paramount. In 1851, William sets up a farm in England and creates a new model of hive while in in 2007 George, an American beekeeper with a strong streak of obstinacy reads the signs on the horizon of the imminent disappearance of the species which is confirmed in the third strand set in 2098 where pollinating is now done by hand by an oppressed population. How the three stories actually connect is the mystery at the heart of this slow-moving but rewarding novel, and the truth that emerges is both sad and moving. One to savour slowly.
Krysten Ritter/BONFIRE (Hutchinson) A rather splendid legal and psychological thriller debut from an unexpected source, the young American actress who plays Jessica Jones in the Marvel franchise and displays from the outset an assured voice and sense of pace. A young Chicago attorney, Abby Williams returns to her small town following her escape to the big city as part of a team engaged in an action against a large chemical corporation who control the town with a strong whiff of corruption. Here, not only does she have to face the machinations of big business but is again involved in the case of the disappearance ten years earlier of a school friend and the enmity of bullying girls she thought she had left behind as well as her abusive father. A convincing character, a well-engineered plot and a first person narration which provides enlightening insights into the heroine’s mindset make this a debut of note.
Max Allan Collins/QUARRY’S CLIMAX (Hard Case Crime) Already the 14th volume in the well-established series by prolific US author Collins featuring a contract killer who learned his craft in Vietnam and returned to disillusion and now works for the Broker, a shadowy middleman figure in a Midwest America full of pools, strip clubs, false glamour and dubious morality. The series was recently adapted for cable TV but never caught the essence of the actual books. On this occasion, Quarry is not hired to kill but to prevent the killing of a well-known pornographer by a rival team of hired guns. Noir to the max, operating between shades of grey and darkest black in a glittery environment where sin is to the fore, Quarry territory is hardboiled, laconic, fast moving, raunchy and all action, where quips cross swords with bullets and the story is always compelling. Great fun.
Andrew Gross/THE SABOTEUR (Macmillan) A true war story (with a few fictional necessary improvisations) as thriller in this tale that was once filmed in part with Kirk Douglas as THE HEROES OF TELEMARK about the destruction of the Nazis’ heavy water reserves and nuclear development effort by combined British and exiled Norwegian forces and the local resistance. A local engineer bruised by the German invasion is sent back to his home region to blow up the seemingly impregnable factory where the Germans are getting closer to an an atomic bomb. Splendidly visual and evocative with its unending vistas of white snow fields, jagged peaks, deep fjords and extreme weather situations, Gross captures the agony of German occupation, and the contaminated atmosphere of fear and collaboration circling the Norwegian provinces with pinpoint accuracy while juggling all the disparate strands of war time strategy, sacrifice and perilous improvisation. Another tale when you know the historical outcome but feel compelled to read all the way to the end.
Jennifer Egan/MANHATTAN BEACH (Corsair) Where Jennifer Egan’s previous book A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD was all brevity and ellipses in the way the varied short stories moved between genres and came together to form a whole, her much-awaited new opus is what one would term an old-fashioned novel in its attention to detail, scope and intentions. Lengthy, detailed, meticulous, with a cast of many and a profound mystery at its core, it will surprise readers who only latched on to her protean talent with her previous, unexpected bestseller but were unaware of how she changes her stories, style and preoccupations from book to book. Set during the Depression years and World War Two, the story centers on an Irish family in Brooklyn living in the shadow of the Naval Yard where their lives are switched off course by a mysterious disappearance which forms the heart of the lingering plot. Children, gangsters, lost souls and a sad gallery of damaged human beings are part of the book’s unfolding and fascinating tapestry. A book for grown-ups!