Once again we span the mysterious globe, with stops in China, Vienna, North Korea, the inner worlds of J.G. Ballard, the Greek islands, the mountains of Macedonia, the courtrooms of New York City, an America that will fortunately never be, a world without chocolate which will similarly (I hope) never be too, a women’s prison and the hell of British care homes as they scar the future of so many kids. Maybe not a menu to relish in real life, but then the magic of fiction and storytelling makes it all so fascinating and gut-churningly compelling!
Book of the Month: Henry Porter/FIREFLY (Quercus) Following a lengthy absence from the fiction field, eminent political journalist Porter returns with a powerful thriller that couldn’t be more topical, dealing as it does with one of the tragedies of our time, the influx of refugees from the African continent to Europe. An ex-intelligence agent now a private eye is co-opted to investigate and locate a young boy on the refugee trail from the camps in Greece across Macedonia and on his way to Germany, as he harbours vital information connected with future terrorist attacks in Europe. However, he is not the only party seeking to halt the bright thirteen year old Naji, with Isis also hunting him down. A gallery of horror ensues with particularly strong depictions of human evil and memorable villains against a background as realistic as one would expect of Porter whose Cold War thrillers were particular for their on the ground research and strong sense of place. Ex-spy Paul Samson and often reluctant participant, of Lebanese descent also proves a strong character with a wonderfully-sketched background and there is a hint this might be the initial volume of a series featuring him. More will certainly be welcome.
Highly Recommended: Steve Cavanagh/THIRTEEN (Orion) Irish lawyer and writer Cavanagh’s fourth Eddie Flynn thriller raises the bar in a major way, managing effortlessly and intriguingly to blend with devilish imagination the courtroom drama genre with the panache of Grisham with a new serial killer as chilling and imaginative as any born from the pens of Thomas Harris or Michael Connelly. His killer is one of the most fiendish ones to come our way in many years and the duel between him and Flynn, the con artist and now a lawyer for hire is unputdownable as Kane, the lethal killer who crosses his path on the occasion of the trial of a Hollywood star accused of the savage murder of his wife and his bodyguard has -and this is indicated not only from the first chapter but also on the book’s cover blurb, so not a spoiler- managed to infiltrate the case’s actual jury through the murder of potential jurors and other manipulations. A gripping cat and mouse game ensues with a series of twists that are so so cleverly unveiled and keep the reader on high alert throughout. Addictive.
Kevin Wignall/TO DIE IN VIENNA (Thomas & Mercer) Wignall has for the past decade or so been writing impeccable, normally European-set, thrillers with laconic characters and quickfire action and his new book proves no exception, even if not his best, although it appears to be something of a breakthrough with film rights sold to Hollywood and Jake Gyllenhaal slated to play spy for hire Jake Makin. Assigned to a long term surveillance operation in Vienna on a Chinese academic, his world topples over when his subject is suddenly killed and Makin is hunted down for evidence he is initially unaware of. A man used to working in the shadows, he has to save himself by not only identifying why the kill occurred but also the reasons behind it and, foremost, who is after him after his London employer is also ruthlessly eliminated. The systematic and furious way Makin manages to turn the tide makes this a particularly gripping tale of intrigue and adventure although I had the feeling Wignall could have produced a meatier book and delved further into some of his fascinating characters, but his forte is streamlined action and we shouldn’t complain about this in an age of overblown books.
D. B. John/STAR OF THE NORTH (Harvill Secker) Another high octane and rather topical thriller in which Jenna, the sister of an Korean American music student who was seemingly kidnapped by North Korea whilst on a beach in the South, endeavours to find and save her twelve years later when she reappears out of the blue on the radar of the CIA. A perilous journey into a hitherto forbidden territory follows, featuring a particularly strong assortment of local characters providing powerful insights into the North Korean dark fortress of secrets, lies and corruption as seen through the eyes of local citizens high and wide on the human and political spectrum, and Jenna’s own perilous clandestine investigations. The threads of the stories and diverse characters, the main ones being a local peasant woman and a befuddled official, eventually come together like an intricate puzzle being assembled under cover of darkness and leave a strong impression, humane, worrying and never less than fascinating. Far from your run of the mill thriller and all the better for it.
Zhou Haohui/DEATH NOTICE (Head of Zeus) A rare example of a Chinese police thriller in translation and if this is the normal quality of what is being produced there, we are in for much in the way of future treats and good reads. A criminal mastermind is in the business of publically executing villains the law can’t indict, and the task of finding him (or her) falls to an elite police squad. A wonderful blend of McBain 87th Precinct cop lore and the imaginative excesses of the serial killer genre a la ‘Seven’ combine to make this a splendid read as well as gifting the reader with more insights into contemporary Chinese culture and background than any magazine, newspaper article or TV documentary could. The puzzle presented is intricate in the extreme with the police always being advised in advance by a death notice indicating who the next victim will be alongside a list of their crimes and always find themselves a step behind in the tit for tat game. How they solve the problem makes for a compulsive and particularly ingenious read and a first class mystery.
Lavie Tidhar/CANDY (Scholastic) A definite and endearing curiosity, this is a debut children’s book from an author hitherto notorious for the harshness of his noir, imagined worlds -the adventures of Adolf Hitler as a parallel world private eye shadowed by the horrors of our own world’s concentration camps in A Man Lies Dreaming still resonate like a scar in my memory. Blurbed by the publisher as Charlie and The Chocolate Factory meets Bugsy Malone, it’s the delightful tale of Nellie Faulkner, a 12 years old private eye in a city where chocolate has been banned. In true Chandler tradition her case begins when a notorious candy gangster walks into her office (which of course happens to be her dad’s garden shed) asking her to find a missing teddy bear. As ever, the case quickly becomes more complicated when after locating the bear, her client then disappears and Nellie finds herself in danger. Witty, amusing and a loving variation on grown-up private eye tropes, this would make the perfect introduction to crime writing for kids and is very much tongue in cheek, and as such even more appealing to adult fans. Delightful.
Jack Fernley/AMERICA UBER ALLES (Unbound) A somewhat different thriller introducing the reader to a particularly worrying imaginative parallel word cum dystopia in which elite Nazi soldiers travel back in time to the America of George Washington days and infiltrate the war between his still nascent and dishevelled army of brave but diverse volunteers by placing highly trained mercenaries amongst the British forces before cleverly betraying them and turning the tide of time in their favour to radically change the still far flung future. What follows modifies known history with a vengeance with the principles underlying the Fuhrer’s Mein Kampf leaking insidiously into the US Declaration of Independence and subverting all the idealistic principles that lay behind the establishment of the USA (long before Mr Trump did so…) and creating a present world that has little semblance to ours and casts a strong shadow across it. Undoubtedly topical subject-wise, even if the factors creating the chaos are dissimilar to our so-called democratic systems and fictional. Alongside all this, a quick, thrilling read and one to tickle your thoughts.
Debra Jo Immergut/THE CAPTIVES (Titan) set in a women’s prison, this tense psychological thriller notches up the tension with sadistic talent and proves a memorable debut. Frank Lundquist is a troubled prison psychologist at Milford Basin Correctional Facility for Women who once had a powerful unrequited crush on the captivating Miranda Greene when they were both in high school. And now, years later, the daughter of a former Congressman arrives at the prison bearing a life sentence for committing a terrible crime. With a failed career and marriage behind him and a heroin addicted younger brother Frank is totally vulnerable to her charms again and his obsession is awakened even though she doesn’t even recognize him, and makes it his job to understand what drove her to murder in a bid to gain her attention and affection, when Miranda comes to him for counselling in the hope of obtaining drugs that might help her escape her plight. Naturally, all have further secrets and nothing moves the way the reader expects. Compelling.
Mark Hill/IT WAS HER (Sphere) Mark Hill’s impressive debut crime novel introducing DI Ray Drake was puzzlingly retitled His First Lie even though the hardback edition was called the more evocative The Two O’Clock Boy and demonstrated an assured talent for populating his world with increasingly troubled characters and murky family ties from which Drake could not extricate himself. Once again his past follows him and the world of care homes and abandoned youth remains central to the sad tale he has to confront. Assisted by DS Flick Crowley, he is called to investigate a case of bludgeoned bodies in a holiday home which are quickly linked to Tatia, an orphan once adopted into a well-off family where the son was mysteriously found dead, casting a shadow over her. Soon, further families suffer the sane fate and the tendrils that link with Ray’s past lurk ominously in his quest for the despairing answers. Bleak, but always compassionate, Hill’s stories have a strong ring of contemporary truth and this downbeat but assured novel should establish him as a major voice in English crime writing.
Rick McGrath/DEEP ENDS, A BALLARDIAN ANTHOLOGY 2018 (Terminal Press) McGrath, a Canadian advertising veteran has been lovingly editing this compendium of J.G. Ballard miscellanea for some years and the latest, attractive full-colour volume now introduces to his previous mix of interviews, collages, essays and photography, the bonus of a handful of short stories in the tradition of the sage of Shepperton. Disclaimer: I wrote one, Olympia Express, which is based on my intersection between Ballard and William Burroughs and is partly true and partly fictional. But Paul Di Filippo, Geoff Nicholson, James Reich and others also bring new perspectives, alongside David Pringle’s indispensable chronology of the minutiae in the entwined lives of Ballard and Michael Moorcock reaches 1970. Even if you’re not a Ballard aficionado, this lovingly-curated volume is a minor piece of art and design, let alone full of fascinating insights and compelling stories, and well worth investigating. It even features our current Queen, Brigitte Bardot and nude holiday-makers in the same pages, so what is there not to like?