From Doon With Death by Ruth Rendell

FromDoonI have mentioned before that my parents’ love of crime fiction played an important role in my formative years. One of my strongest memories growing up was my mother’s stack of Ruth Rendell and Colin Dexter novels, one of which always seemed to be on hand for those sorts of occasions in which you were stuck in a waiting room.

While I did get into Morse in my late teens, I actually never got around to trying Rendell either in print or in the televised adaptations. Given that those starred one of my favorite actors, George Baker, I am not sure quite how I have achieved that. I probably should rectify that…

From Doon with Death was Ruth Rendell’s debut novel and concerns the disappearance of a fairly modest, conservative housewife and the subsequent discovery of her body in a wood, strangled to death. Among the clues that Inspector Wexford will have to work with are a tube of lipstick in an unusual shade and a set of books with messages all inscribed with notes to Minna from Doon.

Rendell hangs a lot of the narrative on the question of Doon’s identity, revealing something of that person’s personality to the reader in the form of short excerpts from letters that they had written to Minna as caps to the chapters. The way the book is structured, it will all build to a moment in which that identity is revealed and if the reader feels surprised it will likely result in a rush of excitement and general good feeling.

Unfortunately I think that this reveal does not really hold up, as it heavily reflects the novel’s age and aspects of the time in which it was written. I have mentioned that at times I have found not having the appropriate context or period knowledge to be a barrier in solving an older crime novel but here I feel that not belonging to the mindset of that period makes it easier to predict where it was headed and lessens the power of the ending.

It is not so much that this story could not be told today but that it would be told differently and our sympathies might be expected to be somewhat different. For instance, there is a male character who is treated far more softly and sympathetically than I think he would be had the novel were to be written today.

Whether the reader is surprised by where the novel goes, I think the appeal of the book is in the very competent execution of those ideas. Let’s face it, the clues in this case are fairly slight so it was a pleasant surprise that she manages to lay a convincing trail to the killer with such a weak starting point. There are no significant developments or twists along the way, at least until those final scenes, but just diligent police work such as Wexford and Burden conducting interviews and going from store-to-store in the hopes of finding where that striking shade of lipstick had been purchased.

I found Wexford to be a likable figure as a sleuth. He is not flashy and has no particular character tics, at least in this novel, that would distinguish him from detectives in scores of other procedurals yet I appreciated his matter of fact attitude toward the case. The pairing with Burden works well and I found their interactions to be quite entertaining.

I was a little less fond of the use of a trap which is used to prove a case – something that I think is usually pretty uninventive and underwhelming in these sorts of stories. Perhaps more importantly, I have seen some readers question whether this is a fair play mystery as Wexford receives some information in the form of a telephone call, the contents of which we are not privy to.

My own thought is that while Wexford receives helpful information that we don’t have, the reader ought to be able to get ahead of him by at least thinking to ask a question. While it is a manipulative move designed to try to add power to his explanation at the end, I think that information is only needed if something does not occur to the reader that they might figure out for themselves. I think the reader ought to be able to come to that conclusion for themselves so while it may technically not be entirely fair, I think the impact is minor.

Overall I felt that this was a solid if unremarkable start to the Wexford line of novels but it is one that gives me hope for when the time comes to read some of the later installments. What makes me sad is that Terrence Hardiman, who did such an amazing job narrating this, did not record the later stories when they were turned into audiobooks as I had loved his voicing of Wexford and Rendell’s prose. He does a great job here voicing the different characters distinctly and he is easy to follow so I would certainly recommend that recording if audiobooks are your bag.

Closer Than You Know by Brad Parks

Closer.jpgI really enjoyed reading Brad Parks’ previous novel, Say Nothing, which is a superb domestic thriller. One of Brad Parks’ strengths as an author is his uncanny ability to play on parents’ fears to deliver unsettling thrills that can hit close to home. Say Nothing was predicated on the idea of a child being kidnapped while Closer Than You Know begins with a new mother discovering that her infant son has been taken into custody by social services based on an accusation made against her.

The book alternates perspectives between the mother Melanie, the couple who foster her children during the case, and Amy, the assistant district attorney who is prosecuting the case against her. This allows us to see the case from both sides which means that we frequently have a better idea of what is taking place than the characters.

Melanie Barrick is quite a likeable and sympathetic protagonist. We learn early on that she was raped and impregnated by her attacker. Her boyfriend stuck by her and they decided to keep the child, getting married and moving into a starter home together. Her job, working as a dispatcher for a freight company, is not her dream career but the healthcare is excellent and life is at least comfortable. All that comfort is shattered when she arrives at her daycare to discover that her child was seized while she was at work.

The early chapters of the book are very effective at presenting Melanie’s panic at being separated from her child and her complete confusion about what is taking place. We have a little more knowledge about the accusations being made but we still have to piece together who has made this accusation and what their motives are. At times Melanie makes some bad choices but they are very credible given this situation and this worsens the hole that she finds herself in.

We also get to learn about Amy’s background as assistant district attorney and the forces pushing for a speedy resolution to Melanie’s trial. Her boss is relatively green but incredibly ambitious and hopes to use a successful conviction to springboard himself to become State’s attorney general and later seek higher office. Several months earlier he had success sending an African-American dealer to prison and he is keen to make sure that a comparatively tough sentence is handed down to this White suburban mom, preferably before his November reelection.

Amy has her own priorities however and one of these is trying to find and prosecute the serial rapist who has been preying on women in the county over the past decade. As the novel develops these two stories will begin to intersect though it will take a while for some of the characters to realize this.

Parks remains a strong storyteller and he manages to keep things moving briskly, delivering some moments of surprise and causing us to question just how well we know the people in our lives. Unfortunately however I found the combination of these two storylines to be a little too incredible and it leads to some very contrived moments in the final third of the novel.

A key moment will come at trial when a whopping great piece of evidence is volunteered, seemingly from nowhere, that will completely alter the trajectory of the story. It is an incredibly convenient development that feels much too clean and tidy, existing to allow the author to smoothly transition the story into its final phase.

That final phase is certainly exciting and once again it demonstrates Parks’ skill at building tension but I am not sure I bought a key character’s motivation or thinking heading into that encounter.

 

I do want to give some credit to Parks for managing to present the foster system and the individuals who work it with some perspective. While the protagonist, herself a former foster child, voices her fears about her son Alex ending up in the system, Parks acknowledges that the social workers  and legal authorities involved are acting in what they perceive the best interests of her child to be.

Parks attempts to create complex supporting characters that will challenge our perceptions of them. One of the successes is Melanie’s brother who has issues with drug addiction who clearly, in spite of his problems, loves his sister and appreciates what she has done for him. Sometimes the attempts to speak to the reader feel a little too blatant such as in the case of her neighbor, a man who is passionate about the second amendment and likes to refer to himself as one of Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables. I didn’t object to the characterization but the awkward, on the nose exchange in which it occurs.

In spite of some of my grumbles, I do want to emphasize that I think the book is an exciting read and I did want to find out how things would be resolved. I cared about Melanie and her son and wanted them to find a happy ending. In these respects I do think the book is quite successful.

While I enjoyed it, the issues I have with some aspects of the plotting keep me from enthusiastically recommending it the way I would Say Nothing. If you haven’t read that book I’d encourage you to go check it out because it is a fantastic read. This has its moments too but it is let down by some contrived developments in its final third.

Dark River Rising by Roger Johns

DarkRiverWe all have something that creeps us out. My rather conventional thing is snakes of any description. You might think after living in Georgia for a decade and having had several unintentional close encounters of the serpent kind that those irrational fears would have gone away but they remain deep-rooted. That is why the opening image of this book absolutely terrified me. If you share my fear you may want to skip the next paragraph.

Dark River Rising begins with the body of a big-time drug dealer being discovered in a disused warehouse. It is tied upside down, its fingers are crushed and there are recent signs of surgery visible on the corpse’s stomach. The reason for those cuts, and for the sleepless night I will likely endure tonight, is that a living emerald boa snake has been sewn inside the victim while they were still alive. Thankfully this turns out to be a very small part of the case.

While the local Police start to interview witnesses and compile their list of suspects, the case catches the attention of the Drug Enforcement Agency who recognize that gross snake-move as a calling card of a major drug kingpin south of the border. One agent is particularly worried that this is a sign that two cartels will begin aggressively competing with each other in Louisiana and he gets in touch with Wallace, the lead investigator on the case, to ask to meet with her and share information.

Wallace and Mason have different objectives and at times gently spar about issues of jurisdiction which I always enjoy – this is one of my favorite tropes of the American crime novel. Wallace is focused on the homicide and wants to be clear that this is her case while Mason would prefer to use federal resources to handle aspects of the investigation. Ultimately the pair get on well though and establish a solid working relationship with some romantic overtones, though those moments are kept in the background for almost all of the novel.

Wallace is undoubtedly the lead character however, getting the most to do and a much more detailed back story. In the course of the novel we encounter her family, learn about a tragedy that still affects her years later and meet her mentor and partner who is on an indefinite leave of absence to deal with a medical issue. I found her to be a likeable protagonist and appreciated that Johns balances the darker aspects of her thinking with lighter aspects of her character.

While most of the novel follows the actions of Wallace and Mason, there are occasional interludes presented from the killer’s point of view. At times these directly contradict some evidence or theory that the Police have gathered, helping the reader connect things together, explaining an action they have taken or to eliminate a suspect from consideration.

Given this exposure to the killer’s psychology I toyed with labeling this an inverted mystery but stopped myself based on how little of the novel is in that format. I did find those sections of the novel to be very effective though and I was glad of the chance to get to understand the killer’s actions a little better.

That these sections do not help the reader much in identifying the killer and the reasons for their actions reflects that this is not really a puzzle mystery but rather would be better described as a thriller. Certainly I do not think that a reader could deduce the identity of the killer before it is revealed though I suppose they might be able to work out the motive and what the victim was up to before the detective works it out. I rather enjoyed the approach taken here and found that the little timestamps at the start of each chapter were a nice touch both to give a sense of the passage of time and also to help build some tension as time seems to run out.

I found the case itself to be quite intriguing and will admit to not guessing the murderer’s identity at all. I wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen and devoured the book in just two sittings. For the most part I was very satisfied, though there are a few story threads that just seem to get forgotten or at least never completely resolved. For the most part though the case makes sense and I enjoyed watching our heroes solve it.

On the downside, there are a few moments where the dialogue didn’t quite ring true to me. I also felt that though the case takes several fascinating twists and turns, the ending seemed a little too low-key after some of the craziness that had preceded it.

Overall, I really did enjoy Dark River Rising. I don’t think it quite did enough to grab my January Book of the Month award but it certainly deserves to be in the conversation. There are some fun ideas here and I felt that were this to be the fist in a series it shows a lot of potential. I did find myself hoping that Johns may follow it up with another adventure for Wallace or Mason. As debuts go, this was very promising and I will look forward to seeing what Roger Johns has in store for us next.

Tricks of the Trade by Euan B Pollock

TricksoftheTrade3Tricks of the Trade begins with an investigation, not to find a killer but to confirm a cause of a death.

Major Robertson died leaving behind a sizeable estate yet his will contained an unusual condition. On his death his estate would be split amongst his family unless he was found to have committed suicide in which case his estate would be given away to charity.

The Major was found dead in his bath following a family party, his wrists slit and with a note stating “I can’t live without him”. The room was locked from inside. And just months earlier the Major’s wife had also committed suicide.

With an inheritance on the line, the family have asked a legal firm to arrange for Sebastian Dakar to investigate whether the initial police verdict of suicide can be challenged. Trainee lawyer Stewart Scott has been assigned by the firm to accompany Dakar as he conducts his investigation.

Dakar is a practising Zen master of international reputation and seems to be an unlikely figure to serve as a sleuth. Initially he appears quite enigmatic, though very amiable, and while his respectful, thoughtful questioning style gave the investigation an interesting and unusual pace I found it a little hard to understand why he would be sought out and willing to serve in this capacity in an investigation.

As it happens there are answers forthcoming and I will say that I think the explanation did adequately account for both his technique and why he has become the person that he is at the point we encounter him. I did wish though that it had come a little earlier in the narrative as I felt a little distracted by the question up until that point. In spite of this I found Dakar to be a fundamentally likeable figure and I felt it was credible that he had the skills to dedue the solution to this case.

Stewart is our point of entry both to the case and also to Dakar. The novel is written in the third person, the narration tending to follow his perspective and echo his voice. While I would have preferred to have a little less of Stewart’s personality in the narration, this allows us to see Dakar from a distance and with a degree of cynicism about his methods which does work quite well to make the sleuth seem almost as mysterious as the case he is endeavoring to solve.

I found Stewart a harder to like than Dakar, though he is certainly a recognizable type. Stewart is introduced as grouchy, profane and having an unrequited attraction for one of his flatmates in the earliest chapters. He becomes livelier once the investigation gets underway however and I enjoyed the sequences where he begins to build his confidence and carries out a little questioning of his own. Though I could not get excited about the idea of a romance between Stewart and Beth, I did appreciate the way that thread of the story is resolved towards the end of the novel and that we see his experiences with Dakar have a positive effect on him.

The case itself is an intriguing one though I would caution those getting excited at the phrase Locked Room up above that the question of how this murder is accomplished is the least interesting thing about the case. Rather our primary focus will be on figuring out what in the evidence will prove that this is a murder rather than a suicide and determining who has a motive.

The idea of focusing an investigation on whether a crime has taken place at all is an interesting one though I think it has a clear problem that the author has to resolve. Namely that the outcome is implied by it forming the basis of a novel at all. After all, if this is suicide then the ending is bound to feel a little anticlimactic. Inferring that a murder has taken place is one thing, proving it is a much harder affair and I felt Dakar’s explanation for how he reached his conclusions were quite cunning and logically thought out.

The issue of motive however is the most interesting question of the book. If we assume that it is murder, why disguise it as a suicide when that means you will be disinherited? It’s a clever question and I was surprised when Dakar came to sum up his findings that I had overlooked quite a few subtle clues along the way that were there in plain sight.

In conclusion, though I struggled a little with the characterization of Stewart and the way his personality bled into the narration, I appreciated the carefully constructed plot and clues. When the explanations were given at the end I felt equally satisfied and frustrated with myself for not piecing the solution together – this is always a good feeling when you are done with a mystery!

I am not sure about is whether this book is intended to be a standalone or the first in a series featuring one or other (or perhaps both) characters. The ending certainly seems to be fairly neat for one of the pair and I would imagine that the mechanics of bringing the pair together again might prove difficult. Dakar is an interesting creation though and while I think it might be challenging to credibly use him as a recurring sleuth, his more laid back, congenial style and positive outlook is refreshing and different.

Should he return, I would be intrigued to see where Pollock takes him next.

 

I received an advance reader copy but purchased a copy of the book prior to review.

The Madman’s Room by Paul Halter

MadmansAfter trying and enjoying my first Paul Halter novel, Death Invites You, last year I received some wonderful suggestions for which book I should pick next. I honestly did make note of all of those suggestions and I intended to utilize them. I really did. But then I actually came across a copy of The Madman’s Room and all those plans went out the window… Whoops!

Halter seems to represent something of a literary fault line among the bloggers I read regularly. That was the reason I was initially so hesitant to try him. His plots are constructed with a lot of elements that often seem to be pulling in opposite directions. This not only seems messy, it may lead some readers to wonder if he’s just throwing these crazy, imaginative ideas out there and forcing them into the shape of a novel.

The Madman’s Room is a much more complex narrative than Death Invites You, incorporating significantly more elements and questions for the reader to consider and yet I felt that these hung together exceptionally well to create a much richer, more rewarding story. It still can feel a little messy and unwieldy and at times I wondered just how these elements could be brought together but, when the explanation is given, everything seemed to align perfectly.

A very basic outline of the core points of the story is that the wealthy businessman Harris Thorne moves his wife’s family to live with him in his ancestral home. They learn the story of his great-Uncle Hector who appeared to be able to see the future, predicting the deaths of family members in a fire years after he himself had died. His room was sealed upon his death but Harris decides that he will reopen that room against his brother’s objections to turn it into his study. He dies soon afterwards with some aspects of the case seeming to mirror the circumstances in which Hector had died.

For another writer that alone may be enough material for a novel but Halter weaves a number of smaller mysteries around the bigger question of who killed Harris Thorne. Did Harris really did commit suicide or if he was murdered? What is the significance of a patch of water that appeared in front of the fire both when Hector and Harris died? What do people see in a doorway that terrifies them? Is everyone that we believe to be dead actually dead? Can Harris’ brother Brian really see the future? And just what are the short lecture about possible outcomes of an exhumation (a la Dr. Fell) and the brief romantic scene at the beginning of the novel there for?

It’s a lot to unpack and to do so would violate my intentions to keep my reviews as spoiler free as possible. What I can say is that I think Halter’s explanations of the ways these elements interconnect is really quite masterful and I respected the simplicity and common sense of many of those solutions. Solutions to some puzzles are easier to predict than others but I found all to be quite satisfying and appreciated the variations Halter gives us. Even the issue that Sergio felt stretched credulity struck me as a discrete nod to a similarly stretched moment in a very early Poirot novel.

While the artificiality of a moment like that can be a negative for some readers, I personally find it quite charming. Certainly I think there are very few people who would talk or act like characters in a Paul Halter novel but I think that’s okay as he is clearly playing with classic mystery fiction types and placing all other elements of the novel as secondary to his chief concern of developing the puzzle. His prose is never pretty, nor is it particularly atmospheric yet it conveys precisely the amount of information the author intends to very well and, like JJ, I find it to be very effective.

And though Halter’s characters here may read a little stiffly, I found them to be a much more interesting group than in Death Invites You. This is partly because Halter’s story plays out over a much longer period, allowing those characters time to change in reaction to the events they are experiencing. I found some of those changes in character to be very effective and I appreciated the psychological angles to the solution to this story.

On the subject of the conclusion however, I must take note of Brad’s criticism that the novel is undermined by its confusing and unnecessary final page twist. While I enjoyed the novel enormously, I would agree that this moment detracts from the otherwise clean, refined nature of the ending. Sadly this concludes an otherwise stellar work on a slightly cheap note.

In spite of that misstep, I think The Madman’s Room is a really striking and effective work. At the midpoint of the novel I had no idea how Halter was going to pull all of these elements together so I was really impressed by just how clean and tidy the explanations were. Unlike many seemingly inexplicable crime stories, the explanations given for how and why the strange events occur are very persuasive because of their simplicity while I felt that the supernatural elements in the story were used very effectively not only to build atmosphere but contribute to the key themes and ideas of the novel.

In short, I loved this and am looking forward to reading more Halter. And next time I promise I will actually utilize some of your suggestions!

The Perfect Murder by Stewart Giles

ThePerfectMurderDetective Harriet Taylor, a relative newcomer to Cornwall, receives a call about two cats that were found mutilated outside their owners’ homes. Later that same day one of the two owners is discovered dead with words written on the back of her neck.

Harriet’s investigation is still in its early stages when another body shows up, also with words written on it. The methods used are completely different and yet these two totally dissimilar crimes are clearly linked, leading members of Harriet’s team to wonder if a serial killer may be on the loose in the town of Trotterdown…

When I started reading A Perfect Murder I was unaware that it was actually the second book in a series. This is something I normally take care to avoid and I was a significant way into the book before I realized that I was reading a sequel.

While I felt that I missed out on some important character details by skipping over the first book in this series, I did think that Harriet was an appealing lead and for the most part I enjoyed her interactions with some of her colleagues.

In the course of this novel Giles presents us with several killings, each of which is presented as a perfect murder. Initially these murders seem quite dissimilar as entirely different methods are used for each and the words written on the victims’ bodies change with each killing.

Of the killings we witness, the first is easily the most interesting and also the most disturbing as it involves both a brutal act perpetrated on an animal and also a memorable method of dispatch for the poor pet owner. Unfortunately the crimes that follow receive decreasing levels of space and attention to make their impact on the reader. For the early part of the novel I was intrigued and curious as to how these events all fitted together.

At this point I would issue the warning that the book’s blurb gives away far too much about the story and risks spoiling the answer to that very important question. Even if you skip over reading the blurb though it is far too easy to begin to work out what is going on, especially as Giles presents us with a limited pool of significant suspects to consider. This is a shame because some of the ideas here are quite clever, particularly the explanation of how some aspects of the second murder were achieved.

The revelation of the identity of the killer felt similarly disappointing and while I had predicted that identity, I did feel that the character’s motivation was unconvincing. This is particularly the case given the scale of the crimes they have committed by the point of the novel where that reveal takes place.

One other aspect of this book that I found particularly disappointing was the realization of the setting. I was born and raised in Cornwall yet found little familiar here beyond some elements of the Cornish landscape. Given how unusual Cornish names and speech patterns can be, I was struck by how English almost all of the characters felt. It is a small thing and it will probably not bother many readers and yet I found it utterly distracting and it became a barrier for me to believing in the story’s setting.

Overall, I think that there were some aspects of this story that were appealing and that grabbed my interest. The murders are varied and I felt that the idea behind the mystery was clever, even if the novel spoils it in the blurb. Unfortunately once you figure out that aspect of the story it is far too easy to arrive at the murderer’s identity as the novel never takes the time to identify and develop credible alternative suspects making the last third feel a little anticlimactic.

Review copy provided through NetGalley.

Say Nothing by Brad Parks

say-nothingThere are many ways that becoming a parent three years ago changed my life but the one I could never have predicted is that I, being the sort of man who regularly gets described as stony and unemotional, would get verklempt at the mere sight of an old pair of baby shoes or stay up half the night with worry when the kid has a particularly bad case of the sniffles. It’s a cliche but like most good cliches it comes from a truthful place; the moment you become responsible for another person’s life that changes you.

Say Nothing absolutely preys on that parental emotional with a premise that would strike fear into any father or mother’s heart. Federal Judge Scott Sampson receives a text message from his wife telling him that he doesn’t need to pick the children up from school and is astonished later that evening when his wife arrives home without the children. Moments later the kidnappers get in touch, making it clear that in exchange for their children’s safety Sampson will need to act according to their instructions in his rulings on a case but if they tell anyone there will be severe consequences.

Parks focuses on the psychological impact that the kidnapping has on the parents and explores the way it affects their relationships with each other and their family and colleagues. Knowing that they cannot contact the FBI, Scott and Alison try to figure out who might be responsible but paranoia drives some of their actions and accusations and their seemingly perfect marriage threatens to crumble around them.

The decision to have most of the story told from Scott’s perspective is a solid one and it certainly allows the reader to feel that sense of paranoia build within him and to share in the choices he makes. The remaining chapters are told from the perspective of the kidnappers which I feel was a less successful choice as this gives away a lot of what is going on and at times only serves to remove some of the mystery about what is going on.

To Parks’ credit, he does sustain the premise and builds a sense of tension throughout his novel which is quite long for a thriller at close to 440 pages long. The chapters are relatively short, helping add to the suspense and keep the pages turning.

I appreciated the way Parks builds up the characters of Scott and Alison and introduces elements of their backstory as a family. I had a strong sense of empathy for both characters at points in the novel and when I was frustrated by them I could at least understand what led them to act the way they did.

Unfortunately I was less convinced by the depiction of the two children who seem unnaturally mature in the way they speak at points in the novel. As they play a relatively small role in the story I was able to overlook this and while it may not have been realistic, I do think that the choice did contribute to the clarity of the story.

As you might expect from a thriller there are several significant twists and revelations that help to keep things moving though there are remarkably few action sequences. Instead Parks builds a sense of mystery as Scott and Alison try to figure out just who may be responsible and what their ultimate aim is. While I am not sure if the fair play thriller is really a thing, I can say that the book gives the reader all you need to deduce this information and I felt that the conclusion was strong, if not spectacular.

While I am not sure that I would have felt quite so emotionally engaged in the story prior to becoming a father, I must admit that this story hit those parental trigger points very effectively and kept me turning the pages. I was pleasantly surprised by the development of the mystery which felt well-clued and engaged to the end. It worked for me and I will certainly consider trying some of Parks’ other work in the future.