Friday, November 18, 2011

Review Round Up November 2011

ALREADY GONE by John Rector, Amazon Encore, ISBN 9781439276006
With THE COLD KISS, Rector made an immediate impact upon us here at Crime Scene Scotland. His taut, spare prose was refreshing and affecting, and the dark, twisted plot made us shiver with the kind of discomfort we really seek to find in the best crime fiction.
Now Rector returns with his third novel, ALREADY GONE, the story of a man who has turned his life around and left behind his old days on the streets to become a respected novelist and new college professor. His wife, an art dealer, has little idea of what he was once capable of but loves him all the same. In fact, things couldn’t be better Jake Reese.

Until the mugging.

Outside a bar, Reese is attacked and his wedding ring stolen. Not just the ring, in fact, but the finger on which it was placed. It’s a violent and disturbing act, but something about it makes Jake think there’s more going on than a simple robbery. That there’s something personal motivating the incident.

After this, the novel kicks into an impressively high gear as Jake wonders whether his own past has come back to haunt him. But the truth may be even more terrifying than Jake realises, and when his wife goes missing, Jake reverts to his old ways in order to find the men responsible for destroying his new life.

Of course, things are never what they appear and – like Deaver or Coben – Rector takes a great delight in twisting the reader’s expectations. Unlike most exponents of the twist-in-the-tail-novel, however, these unexpected revelations that smack the reader about the head are oddly truthful and full of an emotional honesty that really hits home. ALREADY GONE never sacrifices character for plot, or even the other way round. No, Rector’s too smart for any of that.

And while one or two twists might threaten to momentarily throw the novel off-balance (there’s a feeling they may be just a little too clever verging on the cute), Rector’s controlled and balanced sense of scale keeps ALREADY GONE believably tense and occasionally quite terrifying.

ALREADY GONE is simply one of the best character-led thrillers I’ve read in a long time. With its spare, brutal prose, it allows the reader space to read between the lines of the action and to truly immerse themselves in Rector’s dangerous, deceptive universe. No longer simply “one to watch”, John Rector is now firmly established as one of the finest of the new breed of thriller writers and one who deserves to find a large and devoted readership.

DOVE SEASON by Johnny Shaw, Amazon Encore, ISBN 9781935597643

Johnny Shaw’s debut novel makes an impression from the first page with a confident voice and a real sense of place. Reading the book was enough to make me feel dehydrated from the dry heat of rural California, near the Mexican border, so that my short soaked through with sweat even though all I was doing was sitting in a chair.

Atmosphere is king in Dove Season, and while Jimmy Veeder and the cast who revolve about him are the stars of the plot, it is Shaw’s evocation of place that stays with you long after you’ve finished the novel. And that is a great thing; I often feel like I’ve toured the world through the pages of crime novels and the ones that stay with me are the ones that give me a real sense of place. Johnny Shaw’s vision of life on both sides of the border is immediate, memorable and utterly compelling.

Which isn’t to say he shirks on other duties. While the novel appears to take its time – with our protagonist, Jimmy Veeder searching for a prostitute his dying father once knew – in setting up events, it soon becomes that this leisurely pace is essential, and by the midway point, where the gear suddenly shifts and the novel starts to descend into a terrifying freefall, you start to see how clever Shaw is. Plot is as much about the setup as it is about the resolution, and Shaw is a master at making his action unexpected while at the same time appearing natural and utterly inevitable.

This is a complex and quite brilliant novel that is both ambitious and surprisingly accomplished for a debut. Of course, some people may find the move from meandering and thoughtful caper to flat-out thriller territory a little jarring, but Shaw is smart enough to make that move seem inevitable and by the end of the book you’ll be sweating not just from that desert heart but from fear of what will happen next.

DOVE SEASON is a novel about fathers and sons, about life-changing decisions, about finding your own morality. The atmosphere is palpable and all-consuming, and the cast feel like old friends within moments of meeting them. If this is how Shaw starts out, then we at Crime Scene Scotland can’t wait to see what he does for an encore.

HELL AND GONE by Duane Swierczynski, Mulholland, ISBN 978-1444707588

Swierczynski is the master at making the ludicrous plausible. Frome nanobots (THE BLONDE) to time travelling aspirin (EXPIRATION DATE) he excels at taking insane plot points and making them feel real. Much of this is to do with his grounded and utterly convincing voice. More is to do with his ability to pace his novels at such a breakneck speed, you have no choice but to hang on and go for the ride.

The first in his Charlie Hardie trilogy, FUN AND GAMES continued this trend with ex-cop Hardie pitted against “the accident people”, a mysterious organisation who excelled in killing people and making it seem like an accident. Now, in HELL AND GONE, Charlie finds himself incarcerated in a seemingly impossible prison. He is told that he is to be the new warden, and that if he refuses his new duties then everyone in the prison – including the innocent guards that are now under his charge – will die. The prison is deep underground and no one has ever escaped or even attempted to. The inmates and guards alike are utterly cut off from the outside world.

HELL AND GONE is complex – moreso than it first appears – and this makes for a delicious game of twist and countertwist as Swierczynski plays with his readers. Its insane, its ludicrous and its incredibly good fun. Like the best kind of action movies, HELL AND GONE just asks you to accept its rules and have a blast. It’s a burst of adrenaline, and surprisingly smart for something so insane. Swierczynski may be making his own rules, but he sticks by them and refuses to cheat his characters or his readers. This is the kind of action thriller that doesn’t need to talk down to its audience.

Once again, as with FUN AND GAMES, the reader is left on the edge of their seat. But fret not, its only a few short months until the third instalment of the Hardie trilogy. And I’ll tell you this – we at Crime Scene Scotland can’t wait for it to hit our shelves!

NINE INCHES by Bateman 978-0755378647

(The Artist formerly known as “Colin”) Bateman’s long-awaited new Dan Starkey novel is finally here. NINE INCHES (and there’s a moment where that title just clicks – and it’s a pretty good gag too) finds the ex-investigative reporter turned owner of a “Boutique bespoke service for important people with difficult problems” or, as you and I would say, Private Investigator, tackling the case of a local radio personality whose son was kidnapped for four hours and returned unharmed with a note in his pocket.

It’s a case that’s going to turn Belfast on its head. Taking in The Troubles, Organised crime, the perils of life as a butcher and how best to negotiate with a fourteen year old troublemaker by taking away his false leg, it’s a Bateman novel through and through, with just enough of a serious undertone to make all the jokes matter.

If you love Bateman, you’re going to dig the hell out of Nine Inches. The plot is nicely absurd and the gags are often very, very funny. And more than once there are moments of real humanity amongst the caper-like plot.

But if I’m honest, I’m not so keen on Starkey as a character as I am on Bateman’s more recent creation, The Bookseller with No Name. Like The Bookseller, Starkey has a neat line of put downs and timely gags, but unlike The Bookseller he often comes across as overly self-centred and more than a little callous. But then I like my characters with a bit of humility, and its much the same problem as I have with Christopher Brookmyre whereby I prefer the novels without his ongoing character Jack Parlabane. In fact, Parlabane and Starkey have a great deal in common. They’re both stubborn, annoyingly confident, supremely arrogant men who happen to wind up on the right side whether they intend to or not. And that’s fun for a while, but both characters supreme confidence can get a little wearing after a while. The self-doubt of a character like The Bookseller is, for this reader, infinitely more endearing.

That said, I still got a big kick out of Nine Inches. It’s a fun caper novel with a few serious thoughts lurking beneath the great gags as Starkey exposes the self-destructive greed and pig-headed idiocy of those around him with some particularly good barbs pointed in the direction of the political sphere.

A Bateman novel is always good value, even without The Bookseller. He’s one of the kings of the caper and one of an elect few authors who can marry humour with a thriller format and come away with his dignity – and his obvious talent – intact. Nine Inches will only cement his reputation as one of the most consistently entertaining writers on the block.