Another slate of impressive writing, and devious plots allied with wonderful characters on both sides of the good and evil wall. Moving from 1940s Hollywood to Kyrgizstan and making detours through, literally hell, Mars, Reading in a future Britain where everyone is almost hidden behind virtual reality, a Finnish holiday resort that thinks it’s in Florida, Iceland, Southern Italy and the worldwide first class travels of bestselling authors and globetrotters like Frederick Forsyth and Peter James, we have a plethora of landscapes to please every imaginative palate. Add twisted plots in fifth gear and memorable heroes and villains and you have yourself another gourmet serving of crime and mystery.
BOOK OF THE MONTH: Guy Bolton/THE SYNDICATE (Point Blank)
British writer Bolton’s debut THE PICTURES introduced us to his hardboiled Hollywood fixer Jonathan Crain, a cop with elastic principles and a tragic love life who navigated the dark alleys of both the film world’s mean streets and the underbelly of criminal Los Angeles in the 1930s. It was deservedly shortlisted for the CWA’s New Blood Dagger. It’s now 1947 and Crain has taken a step back from his shady activities and now nurses his sorrows on a faraway farm with his son with whom he shares a fractious relationship. But the notorious murder of Bugsy Siegel drags him back to reality, when he is summoned to Las Vegas by well-know mobster Meyer Lansky and blackmailed into reluctantly resuming his sleuthing. Shadowed by a feisty female reporter also interested in the case and against the background of the McCarthy-led anti communist purges in Hollywood, Crain has to tread a thin line in a race against time. Again, Bolton’s evocation of the period and its many real-life characters is perfect and sharply drawn, and I can only think of James Ellroy or Max Allan Collins, both US authors, who have equalled Bolton’s feel for the atmosphere and mood of crooked Hollywood, and Crain sports all the colours of a classic troubled hardboiled character. I am certainly looking forward to where Bolton will take his wounded hero next as the years unwind. A total success.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Antti Tuomainen/PALM BEACH, FINLAND (Orenda)
Following on from his hilarious, dark comedy about, of all things, the mushroom trade, THE MAN WHO DIED, Finnish author Tuomainen delivers another delightful slice of dark humour and crime, full of bizarros, downbeats and deluded characters worthy of Carl Hiaasen, running around in ever-decreasing circles in a cold Finland coastal resort that is the total opposite of Florida but nonetheless aspires to its touristy attractions against all the odds. Undercover cop Jan Nyman is despatched from the big city to investigate a bizarre crime cum robbery at the house of Olivia Koski, a determined but broke resident and surfing instructor, who is resisting hard all the attempts of a crooked local developer to acquire her property with a view to expanding his gaudy resort. The premise of the story is familiar but the twists and highly original absurdities Tuomainen weaves around it will have you in stitches and his characters jump out of the page with gusto, both larger than life and terribly fallible but loveable -even the cretinous or would be villainous baddies. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry with laughter, what is there not to like? Welcome to a classic new holiday resort!
Peter James/ABSOLUTE PROOF (Macmillan)
Abandoning the mean-ish streets of Brighton and Roy Grace for a weighty detour into Dan Brown conspiracy territory, Peter James’s new stand-alone never lacks for ambition as he tackles mighty weighty themes such as the existence of God and what it would mean to our complicated contemporary world if a proof could actually be established. When investigative journalist Ross Hunter gets a call, which he initially is cynical about, offering specific evidence to a question that still puzzles humanity, little does he know the insidious chain of events he is about to set in motion will attract an avalanche of enemies to try and stop him or worse. What with the Vatican in all its sinister shadowy aura, money-grabbing tele-evangelists whose whole pack of cards could be destroyed by the evidence, political powers and all sorts of antagonists casting obstacles, both moral and physical, in his path and his own marriage in peril as a result of his growing obsession to establish the truth, Hunter treads a dicey road in the quest for an irrefutable answer. Ambitious and a definite page-turner but weighed down by a surfeit of research into religion, conspiracies and philosophy, this somehow never hits the mark and must go down as something of an ambitious failure, albeit one that remains eminently readable and engageable. Just wasn’t my scene.
Frederick Forsyth/THE FOX (Bantam)
Forsyth returns following a 5 year break and, as ever, his narrative is fast-paced and unrelenting as he tackles a terribly relevant, contemporary theme, in this instance cyber-hacking, with all the inside knowledge a thriller writer of his stature has at his fingertips or at any rate the necessary contacts in the intelligence world. In response to cyber attacks from hostile alien powers, a British master spy in the canny Le Carré mould traps a 17 years old genius English kid whose hacking talents are incomparable to turn the tables on Russia, Iran, North Korea and the UK’s enemies, rather than being extradited to the USA for a dangerous prank he had committed. All this is never far from the headlines. Naturally, this does not go without a violent response and the narrative follows a traditional cat and mouse pattern. The schemes are both ingenious and realistic, although the psychology is not surprisingly a tad simplistic at times and laden with a deluge of superfluous technical and logistical information which weighs down the plot a little, and by the end it does feel a bit like much wish fulfilment, hoping that a lone British operative could outthink the cyber capacities of almost half the world, but the journey is entertaining and in fifth gear throughout. A quick and satisfying read.
Richard K. Morgan/THIN AIR (Gollancz)
Morgan’s first novel ALTERED CARBON, which has since become a lauded TV series, established him from the outset as ‘the’ hardboiled SF thriller writer par excellence, blending crime tropes with advanced SF cyberpunk imagery and themes in a dazzling way. After a long excursion into a similarly heavy-muscled branch of heroic fantasy, his return to the genre he does best is a sheer pyrotechnic triumph: wonderfully imaginative, written in overdrive, mercilessly violent (as well as surprisingly sexually explicit, so treat this as a warning if that’s not your thing…). Computer-augmented corporate enforcer Hakan Veil is stranded on Mars, unable to return home and tasked to protect an executive from a colonial audit team with shady motives who are on an inspection visit which could jeopardise the planet’s future independence. Double-crosses, triple crosses, a gallery of unforgettable characters in all shades of moral greyness and with fascinating back stories which in most instances prove vital to the development of the plot, all make for a ride in overdrive through a planetary landscape that owes much to mean street hardboiled imagery and a merciless unfolding nest of conspiracies that will ever keep you on the back foot. Who will survive, who will kill who, and how, which side is betraying the other? A twisted conundrum and a hell of a ride!
Lilja Sigurdardottir/TRAP (Orenda)
A direct continuation to SNARE, the seductive opening volume of her Reykjavik Noir trilogy, Sigurdardottir’s female-empowered tale of drug running, financial improprieties and women in vengeful mood begins with Agia and her son briefly taking refuge in Mexico before her foes make an appearance and she is once again blackmailed into illegal activities. In parallel, her lover Sonja is about to go to prison for her part in a banking scandal. How the two women will manage to get their own back and survive makes for a relentless read with a string human heart, set against a cloudy Iceland in the shadows of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption. Fortunately, Agia has made an ally of now-retired canny customs officer Bragi who is willing to bend the rules so he can pay for his dying wife’s healthcare. How the three main characters navigate the shady and narrow when the odds are strongly against them makes for a breathless read and provides fascinating insights into financial manipulations. Nordic noir with a heartbeat and a sense of reality which doesn’t allow time for the customary angst many other authors would have injected into the plot. I look forward to seeing how they all end up in the final volume of the trilogy and how Sigurdardottir will, I am confident, defy expectations.
Richard Kadrey/HOLLYWOOD DEAD (Harper Voyager)
Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series reaches its 10th milestone and continues to be one of the most enjoyable, witty and ever full of surprises romp through the underbelly of Los Angeles and the not too dissimilar kingdoms of Heaven and Hell! His dialogue is as hardboiled as a dinosaur egg and sparkles with sheer mischief and verbal diamonds in the rough and is worth the detour alone. But, in addition to the verbal nuggets there is so much more to enjoy, from a main character who is, in this particular volume, half dead and seeking to regain his status as part of the living lest he returns permanently to the underworld, but also an assortment of characters as bizarre as they are extreme, from monstrous but fiercely beautiful female lovers, mechanical sidekicks, magicians, angels and devils, corporate villains of a truly nasty nature, supernatural conspiracies galore, a crooked taste for cigarettes and booze that will literally kill you and murderous struggles on almost every page. Add a love of old movies, rock n’roll, fast American cars, lethal weapons and everything Sandman Slim encounters makes for a a potent and explosive cocktail of action in overdrive, calculated nastiness and a thrill a minute. Delicate souls should abstain but us gentle perverts can’t but enjoy…
Gianrico Carofiglio/THE COLD SUMMER (Bitter Lemon Press)
Italian leading crime author and ex-Mafia judge Carofiglio opens a new series, following the success of his lawyer Guido Guerrieri novels and it’s a subject that is close to home for him, taking us back to the bloody Mafia activities of 1992 when several judges were blown up in Sicily. Here, Italian cop Pietro Fenoglio is drawn into a landscape of ferocious gang wars in the Bari area of Puglia after his marriage collapses and an encounter with a gang member, who, when accused of murder, proves willing to testify against his past cohorts. Much of the narrative filters through the man’s testimony which lays bare the endemic corruption that holds grip of Southern Italy. In an environment where the forces of law and right have to blur the lines to combat the forces of evil, as well as resolve the confusing case that their informant is accused of, the kidnapping and killing of a child, Fenoglio proves a cerebral and compassionate investigator whose moral compromises disturb him but whose passion for the truth conquers all. Bleak and a powerful evocation of a past Italy that, hopefully, has changed a lot since.
Adam Roberts/BY THE PRICKING OF HER THUMB (Gollancz)
Brilliant and tenacious private investigator Alma made her initial appearance in Roberts’ compelling THE REAL TOWN MURDERS. She functions, with much difficulty, because of her obligations to her ill partner who must be given the right medication every several hours, which only Alma can regulate, in a future England where much of the population have retreated into a form of virtual reality and where four ultra-rich individuals appear to control the way of things. When a body is found, its death seemingly dealt by a needle into her thumb and the revelation that one of the four moguls is possibly dead, the investigation -much like the locked room, or rather locked car boot-,of the earlier novel in the series- quickly descends in to a Gordian knot of complications and impossibilities that stymies the persistent Alma and quickly threatens her personal equilibrium and the fate of her partner Marguerite, who was once a Watson to her Holmes, or maybe it was the other way around? Tense, cerebral, fast-moving and at times beautifully poignant, this adds another dimension altogether to traditional sleuthing and the futuristic elements artfully blend into the detection process to form an almost perfect combination of mystery and science fiction.
Tom Callaghan/AN AUTUMN HUNTING (Quercus)
Another season of investigating and woes for Inspector Akyl Borubaev of the Kyrgyzstan police force, following the innovative and powerful A KILLING WINTER, A SPRING BETRAYAL and A SUMMER REVENGE. Reinstated into the Bishbek Murder Squad after the travails of the previous volume, Borubaev is soon suspended for crimes against the state and finds himself on the run from his erstwhile colleagues after the failed assassination of a prominent politician, and forced to collaborate with criminals in his attempt to survive, what with the police and security force, drug runners, government officials and allsorts in his footsteps. A haunted man, after the death of beloved wife to cancer, Akyl is at heart a good person caught in a whirlwind not of his own making and the trail will lead him to Thailand and difficult decisions he will have to ruthlessly take. Callaghan has created a memorable character, complex, human and also implacable in his quest for justice, and although each volume in the series can be read independently, the depth of characterisation, local colour and exoticism (for a European reader) grows on you from book to book. This could be Akyl’s final fling; don’t miss it.