Another globetrotting column moving briskly from Colombia today to Los Angeles in 1947, with bloody detours and dark thrills in Nazi-era Berlin, turn of the 20th century Barcelona, the isolation of the Tyrolean Alps, exotic Hounslow and its Muslim community and Brooklyn in the years of the depression. Proof, as if we needed further confirmation, that crime and bad things can happen at any time and anywhere, for our reading pleasure of course!
BOOK OF THE MONTH
Chris Petit/PALE HORSE RIDING (Simon & Schuster)
London-based film director and critic Chris Petit follows up on his powerful novel of Berlin during WW2, The Butchers of Berlin, with another bleak and compelling outing for the two detectives introuced there: August Schlegel, a financial crimes sleuth with am ambiguous relationship with the Nazi corridors of power and SS Prosecuting Investigator Eiko Morgen. The horror of Auschwitz have become a major source of wealth and power as a result of the systematic confiscation of goods from the ill-fated deportations of often wealthy folk from all across Europe and this has become an embarassment to the reigning regime. The two cops are assigned undercover as post office officials to the camp, a seemingly hopeless situation they have little chance of surviving. Harrowing and atmospheric, this is a heads first dive into the nature of evil and the insidious way corruption is an integral part of human nature, but also a fascinating thriller set in bad times, about redemption and salvation. Awkward subject matter but essential.
Santiago Gamboa/RETURN TO THE DARK VALLEY (Europa)
Colombian author Gamboa made his initial bow in English with Night Prayers, a fascinating, existential quest by a namelss diplomat to prove the innocence of and free a compatriot held on a drugs charge in an overseas jail, but who ends up in an ambiguous relationship with his sister. His new novel is vastly more ambitious and the thriller elements prove more political, involving Nazis in Argentina, paramilitary priests, present day Colombian revolutionary politics and much in the way of darkness. Also returning are the consul and Juana as we follow their fate after the conclusion of the first novel in what might turn out to become a series. Also on board in these twisted adventures and explorations of the dark side of night are the poet Rimbaud, a preacher who claims to be the Pope’s son and a gallery of colourful characters taking us on an unforgettable ride which spans the planet and the imagination. Both topical and wildly imaginative and daring, this is what Roberto Bolano might have written had he wanted to indulge in thrillers. Rather unique.
Giorgio Van Straten/IN SEARCH OF LOST BOOKS (Pushkin Press)
Another form of mystery as an Italian literary expert investigates the cases of eight mythical books that have either been lost in the sands of time or maybe never have even existed. Following existing clues in libraries, memories, interviews with contemporary witnesses and all around the world, he makes a compelling case for his quest and the reasons that have led to the actual books (or manuscripts) disappearance, through the author’s will, death, in two instances fire or the decisions taken by relatives in the name of discretion. What happened to Bruno Schulz’s major novel The Messiah or how both Hemingway and Malcolm Lowry lost novels that had taken them years to complete, or whether Gogol did actually complete the second part of Lost Souls make for a painstaking investigation and clever sleuthing, highlighting the shadow zone of literary history. Fascinating and thought provoking. So where the hell is the manuscript of that novel about the Wandering Jew I wrote in long hand when I was only sixteen?
Luca D’Andrea/THE MOUNTAIN (Maclehose Press)
A sprawling thriller by a new Italian author with the viastas of the Dolomites standing as a magnificent and evocative background and a complex thriller plot that always keeps you guessing. In a remote community, an outsider, American documentary filmmaker Jeremiah Salinger is confronted by a 30 years old still unsolved triple murder as he tries to create a new home for himself and his family, his wife having roots in the region of the Alto Adige, a remote area which is more German than Italian in tradition and language. A tale of a community with deadly secrets which are peeled away in thin layers folllowing Salinger’s initial disaster of a shoot about mountain rescue staff from which he emerges as the sole survivor, and his only salvation is to solve the mystery of the village’s past. The Tyrolean Alpine settings feel almost Scandinavian in their powerful bleakness and one can easily imagine this on a big screen. Already something of an international bestseller and no wonder. Great stuff.
Nick Triplow/GETTING CARTER (No Exit Press)
An invaluable study and biography of British writer Ted Lewis, who is now best remembered as the author of Jack’s Return Home, adapted as Get Carter, which became a cult classic directed by Mike Hodges and featured Michael Caine in one of his more iconic roles. Both Lewis’s books and the film have proven quintessential influences on several generations of later British noir authors and film makers, including Derek Raymond, Jake Arnott, David Peace, William McIlvanney, Ian Rankin and more. Triplow’s exemplary biography places Lewis in his time and evokes a much troubled soul and the society he both came from and lived in, bringing on the grime and darkness of Northern England in the 1960s with powerful style and memorable vignettes. Like so many of his contemporaries, Lewis was an alcoholic and his shortcomings and dabblings with Wardour Street probably held his literary career back, so we must be grateful he did write the Jack Carter books, GBH and a handful of other novels, and can only speculate what might have been. Indispensable.
Khurrum Rahman/EAST OF HOUNSLOW (HQ)
Javid Quasim, who prefers to be called Jay, is a small time dope dealer and an accidental jihadist in this entertaining and also thought-provoking debut by a new British author who has the courage to tackle the ills and ironies of contemporary British society. Sardonically humorous, dangerously topical, this tale of a second division wide boy crook who gets involved in more than he can handle (and still lives at home with his mum…) and ends up being recruited by MI5, finding himself the target of all and sundry. A rip-roaring spy adventure with a strong dose of reality, this is great fun and a fast read, as well as planned as the first volume in a series. I will look forward to the next ones with eager attention, as this has the potential of rivalling the Mick Herron Slough House adventures, what its quirky but recognisable characters and its highly idiosyncratic approach to the nuances of good and evil.
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 styles 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 likely 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!
Adam Hamdy/FREEFALL (Headline)
Following up from his debut Pendulum, British screenwriter Adam Hamdy’s second high octane thriller featuring photographer John Wallace and occasional cohorts, FBI Special Agent Christine Ash and DI Bailey returns, so to speak, to the scene of the crime, and sees the comeback of evil mastermind Pendulum who we had thought had been eliminated in the opening volume. The plot runs at breakneck speed between continents, with terrible crimes and breathless pursuit seeding the pages in masteful fashion. Hamdy comes highly-praised by James Patterson, a man who is quite an expert already at engineering a must read, propulsive thriller, although Hamdy only on his second book injects an extra international dimension and characters with added emotional life and a credible degree of believability. Watch out, Jack Reacher and Alex Cross, the new generation is here!
Jordi Llobregat/THE SECRET OF VESALIUS (Riverrun)
Promoted as a cross betwen The Shadow of the Wind and Frankenstein, this gothic thriller which has scored a major hit around the world already, is set in Barcelona in the weeks preceding the 1888 World Fair which brough the Industrial Age to the city. A murky, complicated tale of body stealers, mad surgeons, families with deep secrets, corruption, esoteric texts and conspiracies galore and so much more, this doorstep of a book engages the reader like few historical sagas do, although the comparison with Zafon’s modern classic is a touch over the top, as the atmosphere of the fabled city on the cusp of the century is evocative but lacks magic in spite of the seemingly supernatural elements, possibly because of a rather flat translation. All in all a compulsive read and an undeniable guilty pleasure, adventure and thrills of the first order.
Piu Eatwell/BLACK DAHLIA, RED ROSE (Coronet)
The notorious case of the savage murder and mutilation of Elizabeth Short, now better known in the collective criminal memory as the Black Dahlia, never ceases to attract writers’ attention and inspiration. James Ellroy, of course, penned what has become a classic novel based on the case (as well as his own mother’s murder in similar if less gory circumstances). So has Eatwell, a British writer and lawyer based in Paris, brought anything new to the table? Well, yes and no; she evokes the Los Angeles era in which the murder was committed with pinpoint accuracy and feeling, dragging in all the contemporary societal elements of the immediate post WW2 period, Hollywood, gangsterism et al, and meticulously draws together in her investigative web all the necessary threads and makes the affair clearer despite its inherent complexity. She also draws attention to the ensuing cover-up, motivations and comes up with a daring proposal as to the culprit and the motivations, based on all the available extant information. Probably the final book on the case and the best, as the author’s exemplary research collects all available data and allows the reader to make his mind up.