Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Announcement: Move Along, Folks

Some of you may have noticed how quiet we got here at crimescenescotland. Well, fear not, because we may have been sleeping but we're back. And by back we mean we've got a whole new format. Go dig our new home at There's new content, a new style and loads more stuff, too. Go on, let us know you still care...

See you soon...

Crime Scene Scotland

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Review - THE BURNING SOUL by John Connolly

By John Connolly, Hodder and Stoughton, 9780340993538

John Connolly is that rarity; a series author who is unafraid to take risks not only with his characters, but also his narrative voice. His lyrical and compellingly literary prose style – that nimbly and effortlessly breaks all the rules to switch between first and third in a way only James Lee Burke seems to have managed previously – has grown in leaps and bounds since his confident debut in EVERY DEAD THING, becoming unique and recognisable both within the genre and perhaps beyond. His peculiar obsessions – the nature of evil, the idea of an afterlife, the physical and mental embodiment of sin – have also marked him out as unique within a genre that can, all too easily, rely on easy tropes and generic shorthand to explore its themes. Even those ideas that seem familiar take on a unique and fresh aspect; Connolly's books demmand and maintain your attention.

While one might have expected Connolly to adhere to a more straightforwardly supernatural route following from the revelations that came to his ongoing protagonist, Charlie Parker, in THE LOVERS, the more overtly fantastical elements of THE BURNING SOUL feel toned down and held back in a way that suggests some characters may be haunted not by outside elements but by their own guilt and fear. Again, this is the hallmark of a Connolly novel: while he may have acknowledged the idea of some other realm of existence, it is all too often the more human incarnation of evil that provides the catalyst for his work.

The novel begins with Parker taking on the case of a man who once lived under another name. That man killed a black girl with the help of his best friend when all three were in their teens. Now living with a new identity and trying to build something that might be close to a worthwhile life, Randall Haight has been receiving threats from someone who seems to know his secret. And with a local girl missing, Haight is going to be suspect number one if anyone does hear a whisper of the boy he used to be.

The grey areas of morality have become Connolly’s playground, and here he asks the reader to consider a number of issues about responsibility of both of the perpetrators and the authorities, and whether someone found guilty of a crime as a child is capable of becoming an adult who contributes to society. There are no easy answers here and Connolly manages to explore sensitive issues without exploiting them or reducing them to a kind of one-dimensional melodrama, something that many lesser writers may have wound up doing.

Sins of the past and issues of identity play deeply into the narrative, and it seems that everyone has a secret to keep, maybe even Parker himself. The idea of the small town with skeletons buried under the streets (metaphorically and perhaps even physically) is nothing new in American literature, but here it serves Connolly’s intentions perfectly and allows him to slowly chip away at his characters to reveal surprising truths about what makes them tick.
On top of all the thematic depth, Connolly’s often-gothic narration is a joy to read. Unusually among thriller writers, his turn of phrase is often beautiful and evocative; a skill that he has developed and honed over his career. He should now one of the most lyrical of the modern crime writers – again, something he shares in common with Burke.

But unlike Burke, Connolly rarely lets his love of words interfere with the swiftness of his narrative, and there is a sense that every word has been carefully considered to build up not only atmosphere, but a riding sense of movement to the novel. And once the novel kicks into its final act, it becomes difficult to stop turning those pages as revelations come thick and fast and assumptions are confounded for both the characters and the reader. And while a few of the central twists might seem a little obvious in the cold light of day, Connolly is a skilled enough writer to make them feel fresh upon a first reading, caught up as you are in his narrative. Connolly is the perfect argument for the literate thriller. On the surface, his books are thrilling and gripping – forcing you turn these pages to find out what happens next. But beneath all of that, the construction and the engagement continues on a deeper level if you care to look for it. This is what makes him exciting and unique as a thriller writer, his insistence on giving his readers something deeper and more than they might expect.

THE BURNING SOUL is a brilliant, tense, literary thriller with just a hint of the supernatural, a uniquely Connolly-esque mix. It will reward long-time fans and recruit new ones, who will no doubt scurry to the backlist to discover what they’ve been missing for all this time.

Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland 10/01/11

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Review - THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC, by Lawrence Block

Telemachus Press, 9781937387310 (ebook), 9781937698071 (Epub), 9781937387327 (paperback)

It’s no secret that in my other life (that of an unrepentant writer of PI fiction), I have always acknowledged the debt I owe to Lawrence Block’s magnificent creation, Matt Scudder. So the moment I realised Block’s new collection of short stories, THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC, focussed on the PI who used to do “favours for friends”, I was sold. Block and Scudder are a powerhouse combination, but I admit I was intrigued to see how this combination would work in the short story format, as a great deal of what I loved about the Scudder novels was the way that he would intertwine themes and ideas with the main action. Thus the novels were not merely about crime, but about alcoholism, about dealing with past sins and future change, and of course the evolving cityscape of New York. Its worth noting that before I ever visited NYC, my impressions were formed by constant viewing of NYPD Blue and of course the Scudder novels.

This collection maintains all these elements from the Scudder series, and a whole lote more besides. THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC collates shorts from various sources and inspirations (which are detailed in Block’s intriguing afterward) and details moments from over 50 years of Scudder’s life. So here we meet Scudder as he was in his uniform days (in the very clever LET’S GET LOST) and see him through his alcoholic years, his first attempts at sobriety and his more sober senior years.

The stories themselves range from clever mystery construction (OUT THE WINDOW) to odd and affecting viginettes from Scudder’s life (THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC and MICK BALLOU LOOKS AT THE BLANK SCREEN) to affecting glimpses of the transient nature of life in Scudder’s NYC (the quite wonderful, A CANDLE FOR THE BAG LADY) and a whole lot more besides. Scudder’s always been as much about character as he is about crime solving and here we get the evolution of a character through a series of short and often sharply penned stories that grip the reader from the first paragraph and linger for a long time afterward. As a reader, I tend to read short collections in gulps and it’s the rare anthology where I finish one story and then immediately start another. But with THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC, I found myself thinking, “oh, one more short won’t hurt” and suddenly realised I was closing in on the end of the book before I knew what was happening.

Of course all of this emotional connection with Scudder may mean that the collection may not be the best starting off point for newcomers to Scudder (there’s a great deal of history to the character that might better require the breathing room afforded of a novel to elucidate the uninitiated) but that’s a minor criticism and Block handles any necessary exposition with grace and humour. The result is the feeling of dipping in and out of the life of an old friend. Which means that not every story centres on a crime or act of wrongdoing. Indeed, the title story is a brilliantly told mood piece that will deeply satisfy those who have followed Scudder on his journey through life. It is a rare moment of pure humanity in Scudder’s world and, along with moments such as MICK BALLOU LOOKS AT THE BLANK SCREEN (which has the double impact of justifying my adoration of the finale of THE SOPRANOS) serves to give the impression that Scudder is a lot more than just a PI, that his story doesn’t stop when we’re not reading about him.

Along with A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, this collection makes 2011 a banner year for fans of Scudder (and his creator, Block). You owe it to yourself to stop whatever it is you’re doing and read this collection straight away. As a portrait of not just a man but a city that changes with the years, you’re really not going to do any better.

Russel D McLean for, 04/01/11

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Review - ASSUME NOTHING by Gar Anthony Haywood

ASSUME NOTHING by Gar Anthony Haywood, Severn House, 9781847513793

One of my favourite characters in crime fiction is not a detective or even remotely a hero. Rather he is Richard Stark’s anti-hero, Parker. The sheer determination and absolute focus of the character are reflected in the spare, powerful prose style of its author.

So from the word go, I was inclined to adore this latest novel from the supremely talented Gar Anthony Haywood (YOU CAN DIE TRYING). Its central character, Joe Reddick, shares much in common with Parker. He’s focussed. Determined. Able to improvise. And utterly ruthless. And again, this is reflected by Haywood’s lean, muscular narration. But what makes Reddick more than just a Parker clone, is the fact that while Parker is driven by money and challenge, Reddick is driven by a more primal instinct – the urge to protect his family.

Reddick is an ex-cop with anger management issues. Having seen his family slaughtered almost a decade earlier, he is trying to rebuild his life, despite his frequently inappropriate responses to explosive situations as seen early in the novel where he almost kills a couple of punks causing trouble in a fast food outlet. But he’s grounded by Dana and her son, his new family, his new reason for living. They are what give him hope for the future and allow him to carry on without giving in completely to the psychopathic rage that boils inside him.

As with all good crime novels, what happens next has the organic feel of “shit happens”. Like Elmore Leonard, Haywood spends a while setting up seemingly disparate threads and allowing characters to collide in ways that set up the action to come. Its an accident that puts Reddick in the path of some would-be bad guys trying to dispose of a body. And its those guys who make the mistake of thinking that the best way to make sure Reddick doesn’t talk to the police is to threaten his new family.

From this point on, the novel explodes. The action unfolds quick and fierce, and Reddick unleashes that righteous anger that’s been inside him the whole time. Like Parker, though, he has a code and tries his damndest to stick to it even when the odds dictate he should maybe do otherwise. Unlike Parker, though, this code has a simple moral base and allows the reader to truly get on side with Reddick despite some of the terrible things he does. And it also allows Haywood to play with ideas of ethics and morality in a way many crime novels shy away from. The question of who the bad guy is comes into play as the cops become interested in why bodies are piling up and start to piece together the disparate pieces of the puzzle that the reader already knows. And its a credit to Haywood that while Reddick is an incredible creation, he allows the supporting cast room to breathe. In particular, the trio of "bad guys" that Reddick pursues are painted not as simple schm,ucks or cackling villains, but as ordinary guys who made some bad, bad decisions. This only adds to the novel's sense of realism and increases the tension of the moral conumdrum at the heart of this work. It also means that when they collide with Reddick, the results are anything but predictable. Haywood's characters live and breathe in a way that means we can imagine they might be merely a street away.

Years ago, I read Haywood’s YOU CAN DIE TRYING and adored it. More recently his short story collection, LYRICS FOR THE BLUES confirmed that Haywood is a major talent. ASSUME NOTHING has brought me firmly on board as a fan of Haywood’s literate, engaging and uncompromising brand of crime fiction. You want my advice? If you haven’t read Haywood, you need to start now. Trust me, you’ll want to devour his entire back catalogue.

Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland 03/01/12

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.

Friday, September 23, 2011

CHOKE HOLD by Christa Faust

Hard Case Crime, ISBN 9780857682857, $7.99, $9.95

Faust has long been a favourite here at Crime Scene Scotland. From the sheer bravura of MONEY SHOT to the alterna-noir of HOODTOWN, she is one of the strongest, most convincing authors of the new noir breed. We’ve been waiting for CHOKE HOLD for a long time now, and figure we have to cut straight to the chase by saying this is one of the most thrilling, exciting and affecting noir novels you’re going to read all year.

At this year’s Bouchercon, Faust talked about how she can promote her books on two levels. There’s the “porn star gets two –fisted revenge on those who did her wrong” angle, and then there’s the more emotional body image, aging and dealing with loss side of the novels that appeal more to the emotional reader. As with MONEY SHOT, the book works on both levels, and quite brilliantly.

When we catch up with Angel Dare (last seen in MONEY SHOT), she’s in Witness Protection, working under the name Julie and seeing a court-appointed psychologist to talk about what happened to her. But with the psychologist more interested in Dare’s past in the porn industry and Dare’s own defences not allowing her to open up to anyone, never mind this nosy shrink, it’s a case of severely wasted time. And then a face from Dare’s past turns up, sending her on the run again. She meets an old acquaintance – Thick Vic – and his kid, Cody, an MMA* fighter on his way up. But there’s no time to get reacquainted as a shoot-out kills Vic and sends Dare on the run with his son.

From here, CHOKE HOLD doesn’t let up for a page. True to her pulp roots, Faust knows how to keep the narrative taut, but never at the expense of characterisation. For all the gunfights and two-fisted action, there’s an emotional honesty that lurks around the edges of the action. Dare may deny her feelings, but that doesn’t mean they’re entirely absent. More than once she betrays something of the woman she could have been to the reader, and those moments are truly affecting. On top of that, the supporting cast are brilliantly drawn, particularly the hugely empathetic Hank “The Hammer” Hammond, Cody’s trainer and maybe his only friend.
Dare is an intriguing character. More than simply an avenging angel, she is a truly human creation who tries to deny her own humanity to cope with the situations she finds herself in. She is one of the most engaging heroes to emerge from the crime scene in a long time, and honestly, we here at Crime Scene Scotland are hoping and praying for a third instalment.

Faust herself does a brilliant job at engaging the reader with worlds that may not be familiar to them. Her take on the adult entertainment industry is not always glamorous, but it is never as preachily downbeat as certain other writers might paint it. Dare’s attitude here makes all the difference. To Dare, the Industry is a job, and it comes with its good and its bad. Yeah, its got a lot of damaged people working in it, but what industry doesn’t? Coming out of the other end of the novel, the reader comes to realise that the world isn’t as black and white as they might have believed, whether in the world of organised sex or organised fights.

CHOKE HOLD is a sexy, dangerous and compelling novel from an author whose direct, spare prose burns itself into the brain. If you haven’t read Faust, you need to do yourself a favour a check her out right now.

*Mixed Martial Arts – for the uninitiated, it’s a bit like the new form of wrestling where, essentially, anything goes

Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland 24.09.11

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Round up July 2011

We're still here, you know. Still reading the best crime books. We've made a decision recently that in order to keep the reviews going we need to do more round up reviews than one offs. This means shorter takes but hopefully more reviews. And while they may be briefer, rest assured they're still going to be well-thought out and solidly opinionated, just the way you've come to expect from Crime Scene Scotland.

Anyway here's what we've been reading lately:

BLACK FLOWERS By Steve Mosby Orion Books, 978-1409101116

Mosby’s complex thriller is as much about how storys and narratives run through our lives as it is about the mysterious connection a young writer’s father may have to a long cold case. Mosby uses fairy tale motifs ("This is not the story of a little girl who dissapears. This is the story of a little girl who comes back") to great effect in this unique and unsettling thriller, cementing his reputation as one of the most original high concept thriller writers working in the UK today.

It all threatens to get a little silly as the conspiracy becomes insanely personal, but Mosby pulls it back from the brink by presenting the reader with emotionally honest characters and a genuine intrigue that builds as the narrative progresses. And while the thriller aspects – and in particular those that verge close to a kind of horror motif – are very well done, its Mosby’s investment in character that really pulls us in. Very few writers can create such real characters as Mosby does in the thriller genre, and its this deftness of touch that places him leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the pack. It helps that he somehow makes even the most high of high concepts appear plausible.

If you haven’t read Mosby before, we advise you start now.

KILLER MOVE Michael Marshall Orion Books, 978-1409133247

As ever with Marshall, the book starts intriguingly with a man who starts to realise that the life he’s living is being manipulated by forces beyond his control. Bill Moore is an ordinary guy, a Florida Realtor, who has started to notice odd things happening in his life. Little business cards with the word MODIFIED start appearing in his workspace. Books he never order come by post. Emails he never sent are recieved by friends. And then the changes start getting bigger and more disturbing. And the worst part is, no one else seems to notice.

Marshall's prose is solid and engaging, and the intrigue and level of tension is slowly ratcheted with a kind of expert control. Its the kind of thing Marshall does with ease; taking the everyday and then twisting into something else. The trouble is that often Marshall's ideas are too big to appear plausible, and as KILLER MOVE races to its conclusion, its only in the last few chapters that the reader may feel the narrative beginning to implode.

As with THE INTRUDERS, there’s that twist of the knife that goes just a little too far. Unlike one of his closest counterparts in modern thriller writing, Steve Mosby, Marshall doesn’t present us with characters complex enought to pull us through the insanity of their situation. They seem more at the mercy of the plot than the plot is at the mercy of them. Ultimately this means that the motivation of the bad guys appears paper thin. Although perhaps that’s because one might need to have read Marshall’s famous Straw Men series first, as another reader has pointed out to us.

Of course, much of this can be down to personal taste, and if you can buy the increasingly insane twists and turns of the plot, this is a well written thriller with one hell of a great opening. How much you can take though depends entirely on your suspension of disbelief and whether you were a fan of the old Michael Douglas movie, THE GAME, which seems to have had more than a passing influence on Marshall’s narrative here (but its an influence and – thankfully – not a direct knock-off) or at least that's how I felt when I realised where events were heading to.

I feel much the same about KILLER MOVE as I did about THE INTRUDERS, which was a solid and intriguing premise rather blunted by an ending that felt rushed and out of left field. But Marshall is clearly a writer of talent and his attempts to inject something a little different into the crowded thriller field should be applauded, even if they tend to self destruct towards the end.

FUN AND GAMES Duane Swierczynski Mulholland Books, 978-1444707564

The first of a trilogy featuring Charlie Harper – ex Philly cop turned “house sitter” – finds our hero getting involved with a mysterious group of directors who arranged accidental deaths for a price. Madden Lane is a starlet with a past whose indiscretions have become inconvenient to the wrong people who now want her dead. But no one reckoned on Harper getting involved.

As always with Swierczynski (THE BLONDE), the action is ludicrous and yet rendered believable by the tight, uncompromising prose and the sheer, relentless pace. Where most thriller writers believe detailing guns for pages on end is a way to get the adrenaline pumping, Swierczynski jumps straight to the chase giving you only what you need to understand the action. And it works, it really does. The author isn’t apologising or explaining his story. He’s letting it stand on its own two feet, and this results in the kind of narrative that just sweeps you up and has you hanging on for dear life. Swierczynski is one of the few writers who can recreate the adrenaline rush of the best action thrillers on the page, and the only thing you can do as a reader is just surrender and go along for the ride. To keep you in the mood, each chapter is headed with quotes from action movies and film stars, which becomes a fun little game to see how the intent of these quotes is twisted to fit Swierczynski’s narrative.

Yes, it’s melodramatic, ludicrous and patently insane. But its sense of self belief is palpable that even a half-naked, one-eyed woman who arranges killings with cold efficiency seems absolutely plausible within Swierczynski’s world. Not to say that the novel isn’t smart. It is. FUN AND GAMES is sly, and fun and just one hell of a good time.

This is the first book of Swierczynski’s to be published in the UK. So if you haven’t read him yet, you no longer have an excuse. Go buy FUN AND GAMES. Right now. Or I’m giving the Accident People your name…

FIFTH VICTIM By Zoe Sharp Allison and Busby, 978-0749009328

For a long time I've been singing the praises of Zoe Sharp's Charlie Fox novels, citing not only her uniqueness in the male-dominated action thriller genre, but also the fact that her books feel absolutely real; there is no questioning the authenticity here.

As the Fox series has developed, another interesting wrinkle has been added - - Sharp gives a distinctly human quality to her protagonist. Charlie is not just another arse-kicking automaton, but a fully rounded human being who occasionally makes bad judgement calls. The last one, of course, wound up with her lover and fellow bodyguard Sean Meyer in a coma.

In FIFTH VICTIM, Charlie finds taking on an apparently simple gig to try and distract her from the reality of Sean's condition. But nothing is ever as simple as it seems and soon enough both Charlie's life and that of her principle are in danger. The plot twists and turns with a surprising ease, but its the final twists that provide a real kick to the heart and the head.

The perfect blend of thrills and emotional investment mean that Sharp's latest novel is her best yet. If you're not reading her, you really should start now.

Russel D Mclean for, 14/07/11