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"Charlie Parker"

THE DIRTY SOUTH . . . Between the covers

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John Connolly’s private eye Charlie Parker rarely ventures south of the Mason Dixon line; his natural habitat is the brooding forest wilderness of Maine, a place where he communes with ghosts older than those of his murdered wife and daughter. As the name suggests, The Dirty South, his 18th case, sees him in Arkansas. The books begins and ends in the present day, but the greater part of the action takes place in 1997. The state’s former Governor and Attorney General has gone on to greater things, but his elevation has brought little in the way of material benefits to the small town of Cargill.

81hCyWuPLKLParker is still hunting the man who brutalised and then murdered his family and, thanks to former colleagues on the NYPD, he has a file on a girl murdered near Cargill, the manner of her death – and that of two others – give him cause to believe that her killer may be of interest to him. At this point, Connolly has a little fun with what might be called the In The Heat Of The Night trope. OK, so Parker isn’t black, but he is a stranger in town, asking questions. He is not inclined to say much about who he is and what his intentions are so he gets to spend a night in the town’s jail. While he is under lock and key, the body of another missing girl is found – horribly brutalised and left in woodland on the edge of the Ouachita mountains.

Parker’s back story is determined by a police civilian clerk making a call to New York:

“She picked up and listened as the caller identified himself. She wrote the name CHARLIE PARKER in block capitals across the top of a fresh page, and began taking notes.
‘Christ,’ she thought, as the lines began to fill with her handwriting, ‘Kel and the chief need to get back here, and fast. They need to let this man out of his cage before he has a mind to break out of it himself.’”

P Capitalarker is given an apology, and asked to help with the hunt for Donna Lee Kernigan’s killer. He soon learns that the Jurel Cade, a special investigator for Burden County, has been involved in the investigations – or lack thereof – into the earlier deaths. The Cade family are rich, influential and undoubtedly corrupt. They have also managed to entice Kovas, a massive defence procurement company, to build a plant in the vicinity, a deal which will put food on tables, dollars in wallets and hope in hearts for the long neglected locals. A few murdered black girls mustn’t be allowed to embarrass the PR machine that deals with the Kovas public image.

This is a very different Charlie Parker novel. The only supernatural element comes when Parker communes with his daughter who may be dead in physical terms, but is very much alive in his heart, mind and soul. The unspeakably malign villains of previous novels, all of whom were, in some way, connected with the paranormal, are absent. The disfunctional Cade family, and the malign shadow of serial child abuser Hollis Ward are bad enough, but they are flesh and blood. We do, happily for their fan club, have a brief appearance from Louis and Angel. They are as potent a force as ever, but Angel’s possibly terminal illness is many years away.

C Capitalonnolly writes like an angel, and there is never a dead sentence, nor a misplaced word. Occasionally, within the carnage, there is a wisecrack, or a sharp line which sticks in the memory:

“The radio was playing in Rhinehart’s back office: KKPT out of Little Rock, one of only two classic rock stations the device was able to pick up. Nobody was permitted to change the station for fear that it might never be located again, thereby leaving Rhinehart to subsist on a diet of Christian Contemporary Gospel, and Regional Mexican, until he eventually blew his brains out.”

If ever we needed an absorbing and substantial read to distract us from our nightmare, it is now. The Dirty South is published by Hodder and Stoughton and is out on 20th August. Buy it, blag it or borrow it – but don’t ignore it. It is a brilliant read which will provide a few hours of enchantment away from the miserable present.

More Fully Booked musings on John Connolly and Charlie Parker are available here.

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BURY THEM DEEP . . .Between the covers

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James Oswald’s Edinburgh copper Tony McLean is something of a fixture in the crime fiction firmament these days, and Bury Them Deep is the tenth in the series. For those readers picking up one of his cases for the first time, a little of his back story might be helpful. He is based in Edinburgh and now, of course, works for Police Scotland. He was (unhappily) educated in English independent schools thanks to his wealthy family, some of whose riches he has inherited, thus making him ‘a man of means’. He lives in an old and impossibly roomy house, left to him by his grandmother. He has a fragile relationship with partner Emma, and it is fair to say that their life together has been punctuated by both drama and tragedy. McLean drives a very plush Alfa Romeo, enjoys an occasional glass of cask-strength single malt whisky and, aside from his instinct for police work, has been known to be susceptible to stimuli and influences that are not, as Hamlet remarked, “dreamt of in your philosophy.” After many successful cases, he is now Detective Chief Inspector McLean, but if his superiors imagine he will settle for a life behind a desk, they are very much mistaken.

BTDAnya Renfrew is a rather dowdy and dull police civilian worker who seems devoted to her job, which is mastering the many databases which keep investigations fed with information. She has never had a day off in her life, and so when she goes missing it is considered rather unusual. Her mother is a former – and legendary – police superintendent, but Grace Ramsay is now old and infirm, living in a care home. Police are never more active than when investigating actual or possible harm to one of their own, and when McLean searches Anya’s house, what he finds hidden in her wardrobe indicates that Ms Renfrew’s private life was more exotic – and dangerous – than colleagues might have imagined.

A chance bit of tomfoolery by two schoolboys, bored out of their minds during the long hot summer holiday, leads not only to the discovery of Anya Renfrew’s car, but a moorland wildfire of tinder-dry heather. When the fire service manage to douse the flames, they make a disturbing discovery. Bones. Human bones. Bones that the post-mortem investigation reveals have been deliberately stripped of their flesh.

McLean’s professional life already has one big complication. A five-times serial killer called Norman Bale is in a secure mental hospital, thanks to McLean’s diligence and bravery. Now, he asks to speak to McLean, and what he has to say is both shocking and improbable. Are his words just the ramblings of a psychological disturbed killer, or does his suggestion – that Anya Renfrew’s disappearance and the moorland bone-pit are linked to a sinister piece of folklore – have any substance?

joIt takes a bloody good writer to mix crime investigation with touches of the supernatural. John Connolly, with his Charlie Parker books is one such, but James Oswald (right)  makes it work equally as well. The finale of this novel is as deeply frightening as anything I have read for a long time. Despite the drama, Oswald can use a lighter touch on occasions. There is dark humour in the way McLean sometimes needs to ingratiate himself with Edinburgh’s smart set. At an art gallery opening night he listens politely as two guests discuss one of the objets d’art:

“Fascinating how she blends the surreal and the horrific in a melange of sensual brushwork, don’t you think?”
“It all seems a bit brutal to me. The darkness crushes your soul, sucks it in, and you become one with the oils.”
Definitely Tranent, by way of the Glasgow School of Art department of pseudo-intellectualism. He’s been just as much of a twat at that age of course; in his case a student trying to impress with his rather flawed knowledge of basic psychology…”

Bury Them Deep is published by Wildfire (an imprint of Headline Publishing) and will be available on 20th February.

 

For reviews of other books by James Oswald click the link

THE AMERICAN SOUTH. . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey (3): The Dead Are Still With Us

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I’ll kick off (before it all kicks off) and say that for no other reasons than style and simplicity, I am going to use the word black to describe characters in crime novels who other people may wish to call Afro-American or People of Colour. If that decision offends anyone, then so be it.

The racial element in South-set crime fiction over the last half century is peculiar in the sense that there have been few, if any, memorable black villains. There are plenty of bad black people in Walter Mosley’s novels, but then most of the characters in them are black, and they are not set in what are, for the purposes of this feature, our southern heartlands.

heatfirstedition-a2c9af52Black characters are almost always good cops or PIs themselves, like Virgil Tibbs in John Ball’s In The Heat of The Night (1965), or they are victims of white oppression. In the latter case there is often a white person, educated and liberal in outlook, (prototype Atticus Finch, obviously) who will go to war on their behalf. Sometimes the black character is on the side of the good guys, but intimidating enough not to need help from their white associate. John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books are mostly set in the northern states, but Parker’s dangerous black buddy Louis is at his devastating best in The White Road (2002) where Parker, Louis and Angel are in South Carolina working on the case of a young black man accused of raping and killing his white girlfriend.

Ghosts, either imagined or real, are never far from Charlie Parker, but another fictional cop has more than his fair share of phantoms. James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux frequently goes out to bat for black people in and around New Iberia, Louisiana. Robicheaux’s ghosts are, even when he is sober, usually that of Confederate soldiers who haunt his neighbourhood swamps and bayous. I find this an interesting slant because where John Connolly’s Louis will wreak havoc on a person who happens to have the temerity to sport a Confederate pennant on his car aerial, Robicheaux’s relationship with his CSA spectres is much more subtle.

As a Vietnam veteran, he recognises the wordless bond between fighting men everywhere, irrespective of the justice of their causes. One of the magnificent series, which started in 1987 with The Neon Rain was actually called In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993). When it was filmed as In The Electric Mist (2009) Tommy Lee Jones made a very good fist of Dave Robicheaux, but the director’s take on Dave’s interaction with the long-dead soldiers was treated rather literally by the director Bertrand Tavernier, particularly in the final few moments. Incidentally, I have a poser: name me the link between The Basement Tapes and this movie, and I will buy you a pint.

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Burke’s Louisiana is both intensely poetic and deeply political. In Robicheaux: You Know My Name he writes:

“That weekend, southern Louisiana was sweltering, thunder cracking as loud as cannons in the night sky; at sunrise, the storm drains clogged with dead beetles that had shells as hard as pecans. It was the kind of weather we associated with hurricanes and tidal surges and winds that ripped tin roofs off houses and bounced them across sugarcane fields like crushed beer cans; it was the kind of weather that gave the lie to the sleepy Southern culture whose normalcy we so fiercely nursed and protected from generation to generation.”

robicheaux-1Elsewhere his rage at his own government’s insipid reaction to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina rivals his fury at generations of white people who have bled the life and soul out of the black and Creole population of the Louisian/Texas coastal regions. Sometimes the music he hears is literal, like in Jolie Blon’s Bounce (2002), but at other times it is sombre requiem that only he can hear:

“…the dead are still with us, like the boys in butternut marching through the flooded cypress at Spanish Lake, and the slaves who beckon us to remove the chains that bind them to the auction block, and all the wandering souls who want to scratch their names on a plaster wall so someone will remember their sacrifice, the struggle that began with the midwife’s slap of life, and their long day’s journey into the grave.”

In the final part of this series, I will look at a trilogy of novels which, for me, are the apotheosis of the way in which crime fiction has characterised the often grim but never less than fascinating persona of The Southern States.

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A BOOK OF BONES . . . Between the covers

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ABOB COVERIn the previous Charlie Parker novel, The Woman In The Woods, John Connolly introduced us to a frightful criminal predator, Quayle, and his malodorous and murderous familiar, Pallida Mors. Even those with the faintest acquaintance with Latin will have some understanding what her name means and, goodness gracious, does she ever live up to it! Both Quayle and Mors are seeking the final pages of a satanic book, The Fractured Atlas which, when complete, will deliver the earth – and all that is in it – to the forces of evil.

Unusually for a Charlie Parker novel, most of the action takes place far from our man’s home in Portland, Maine. Parker and his customary partners Louis and Angel travel to England via the Netherlands for what may well be the final encounter with their adversaries. All is not well, however. The implacable Louis is still wounded – physically and mentally – after a previous encounter with Pallida Mors, and Angel is undergoing chemotherapy after having a significant part of his intestines removed. There is something of Tennyson’s Ulysses about Parker, Louis and Angel in this epic encounter:

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Charlie Parker aficionados will remember that in The Wolf In Winter (2014) Parker tangled with the sinister residents of a tiny village called Prosperous. They were descendants of The Familists, a pagan cult which had originated in northern England but then emigrated to America, taking the stones of their church with them in their ships. The original village, high up on the lonely moors of Northumberland is now little more than a series of ruined cottages, but it comes into dramatic focus when the body of a young schoolteacher is found with a ring of Muslim prayer beads lodged in her slashed throat.

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JCA Book of Bones is a tour de force, shot through with the grim poetry of death and suffering. Connolly (right) takes the creaky genre of horror fiction, slaps it round the face and makes it wake up, shape up and step up. He might feel that the soubriquet literary is the kiss of death for a popular novelist, but such is his scholarship, awareness of history and sensitivity that I throw the word out there in sheer admiration. Jostling each other for attention on Connolly’s stage, amid the carnage, are the unspeakably vile emissaries of evil, the petty criminals, the corrupt lawyers and the crooked cops. Charlie Parker may be haunted; you may gaze into his eyes and see a soul in ruins; his energy and motivation might be fueled by a desire to lash out at those who murdered his wife and daughter; what shines through the gloom, however, is the tiny but fiercely bright light of honesty and goodness which makes him the most memorable hero of contemporary fiction.

Astonishingly, it is twenty years since Every Dead Thing introduced Charlie Parker to the world. Seventeen books later, A Book Of Bones will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on 18th April.

For more on Charlie Parker at Fully Booked, click the image below.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . A Book of Bones

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PackageI would be lying if I said I hadn’t been counting the days until this arrived. Kerry Hood at Hodder & Stoughton is to be commended for showing great patience in the face of my impatience, but it finally arrived. Kerry had mentioned that it might be something special, but then publicists always say that, don’t they? So, ripping off the sturdy cardboard wrapper ….

 

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UnwrappedTa-da! And there it was, the long awaited latest journey into the darkness of men and angels for the Maine PI, Charlie Parker. The adjectives are easy – haunted, conflicted, convincing, troubled, angry, brave … fans of the series can play their own ‘describe Charlie Parker’ game, but most importantly, our man is back.

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ScalesCharlie Parker is back, and how! I was advised  that I might want to set aside a fair amount of time to read A Book of Bones but, blimey, Kerry was not wrong. At a little short of 700 pages, and weighing nearly 2lbs in old money, the book is certainly a big ‘un. New readers shouldn’t be daunted, though. John Connolly couldn’t write a dull sentence even if he went off to his Alma Mater, Trinity College Dublin, to do a doctorate in dullness.

 

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PiecesBut there was more! Book publicists are an inventive lot, and over the years I’ve had packets of sweets, tiny vials of perfume, books wrapped in funereal paper and black ribbon, facsimiles of detective case files – but never a jigsaw. Wrapped up in a cellophane packet with a lovely Charlie Parker 20 year anniversary graphic were the pieces.

 

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PuzzleAs I was always told to do by my old mum, I isolated the bits with the straight edges first. There was clearly a written message in there, set against the lovely – but sinister – stained glass background. Confession time; although the puzzle didn’t have too many pieces, I got stuck. Fortunately, Mrs P was taking a very rare day off work with a flu bug, and as she is a jigsaw ace, she finished it off for me.

So the publicity is brilliant. but what about the book? Parker could never be described as having a comfort zone, but over the last two decades he had been battling the bad guys on his home ground – usually the forests and shores of Maine. A Book of Bones sees him on unfamiliar territory, but heading for a winner-takes-all struggle with his adversaries Quale and Pallida Mors. They have chosen the battlefield, and it is the windswept and haunted moors of northern England. Quale and Mors are close to achieving a lifetime ambition – to reassemble the pages of The Fractured Atlas, a book which, when complete, spells death and a spiritual apocalypse. Parker is older, slower, and weakened by his battles with the killer angels, but this time, he is playing for keeps. A Book of Bones will be on sale from 18th April 2019.

The last inclusion in this delightful package from Hodder & Stoughton was a lovely postcard from the man himself, John Connolly. If you click on the image, you can read more about the author and his most memorable creation.

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THE WOMAN IN THE WOODS . . . Between the covers

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TWITWIn the dark woods of Maine a tree gives up the ghost and topples to the ground. As its roots spring free of the cold earth a makeshift tomb is revealed. The occupant was a young woman. When the girl – for she was little more than that – is discovered, the police and the medical services enact their time-honoured rituals and discover that she died of natural causes not long after giving birth. But where is the child she bore? And why was a Star of David carved on the trunk of an adjacent tree? Portland lawyer Moxie Castin is not a particularly devout Jew, but he fears that the ancient symbol may signify something damaging, and he hires PI Charlie Parker to shadow the police enquiry and investigate the carving – and the melancholy discovery beneath it.

Those who are familiar with the world of Charlie Parker may, as they say, look away now. Or, at least, skip to the next paragraph. New readers expecting a reprise of the standard US gumshoe who is a hard drinking, wise-cracking, fast moving womaniser, will not find Parker ticking those boxes. He is a deeply reflective man who bears the scars of tragic events. The physical scars are deep enough, true, but the mental and spiritual damage is far more severe. Years before, his wife and daughter were butchered in front of him by a man-creature not entirely of this world. Now Parker is literally haunted by the shade of that daughter, Jennifer, although he has played the relationship game again, but unsuccessfully. He now has another daughter, Sam, who shares his ability to see things that more mundane folk would would say are “just not there.” Parker scratches a living as an investigator, helped by two colleagues, Louis and Angel. It has to be said that they are both criminals but, if there are such things as good criminals, then that is what they are.

The crumbling remains of the woman in the woods give up few clues, but Parker slowly pieces together the jigsaw. The picture that emerges is not one to grace the top of a festive biscuit tin, nor is it likely to be reproduced as a popular wall decoration. Karis Lamb has had the misfortune to be in a relationship with a disturbing and menacing man called Quayle. She fled the abusive relationship carrying not only his unborn child, but an antique book from Quayle’s collection. Remember the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad? The network of safe houses which formed a chain of refuges for escaped slaves? Parker learns that a similar system exists to aid abused and battered women and that Karis Lamb used it in her flight from Quayle. As individuals who provided refuge for the women go missing, or are found dead, Parker realises that he is in a deadly race with Quayle to find the missing book – and Karis Lamb’s child.

JCIn another life John Connolly would have been a poet. His prose is sonorous and powerful, and his insights into the world of Charie Parker – both the everyday things he sees with his waking eyes and the dark landscape of his dreams – are vivid and sometimes painful. Connolly’s villains – and there have been many during the course of the Charlie Parker series – are not just bad guys. They do dreadful things, certainly, but they even smell of the decaying depths of hell, and they often have powers that even a gunshot to the head from a .38 Special can hardly dent.

Connolly brings to the printed page monsters unrivalled in their depravity, and vileness unseen since the days when MR James created his dreadful beings that skipped, scraped, slithered and scrabbled into the terrified minds of the schoolboys for whom, it is said, he wrote the stories. Transpose these horrors into the modern world, and add all the ingredients of murder mysteries, police investigation and the nerve-jangling thriller and you have the distinctly uncomfortable – but wonderfully gripping – world of Charlie Parker. The Woman In The Woods is published by Hodder & Stoughton, and is out now.

An earlier Charlie Parker novel, Time of Torment, won our Best PI Novel Award in 2016.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Bartram, Connolly & Hall

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THE TANGO SCHOOL MYSTERY by Peter Bartram

PBWelcome to Brighton, England – where they do like to murder beside the seaside…Want to know what it’s like when a quiet romantic dinner ends in murder? Ace reporter Colin Crampton and his feisty girlfriend Shirley Goldsmith are tucking into their meal when Shirley discovers more blood on her rare steak than she’d expected.

And once again Colin is on the trail of a big story that can only end in more murder. Colin reckons he’s cracked the story when he uncovers a plot involving a sinister figure from the past. A Tango Academy seems to lie at the heart of the conspiracy.

But nothing is quite what it seems as Colin peels away the layers of the mystery. He tangles with a cast of memorable characters including a professor of witchcraft, the former commander of an army mobile latrine unit, and a tango instructor with two left feet. Join Colin and Shirley for another madcap mystery in Swinging Sixties’ Brighton, where the laughs are never far from the action. The Tango School Mystery is out now, and a full review will be posted on https://fullybooked2017.com very soon.

THE WOMAN in the WOODS by John Connolly

JCCharlie Parker – crime fiction’s most haunted private investigator – is back. As fans of the Portland, Maine detective know, death isn’t just part of the his natural human life cycle – it often assumes corporal form and walks alongside the living. The remains of a young woman are uncovered when a tree is uprooted, and when the body is examined, it is discovered that she had given birth shortly before her death. A Star of David has been carved in the bark of a tree, and Parker is hired by a Jewish lawyer to learn if the death has any anti-semitic overtones.

A mysterious – and  deadly – man named Quayle is also keen to learn more about the dead woman, but even more anxious to discover what became of the new-born child. Along with his companion – a creature named Mors who is truly from hell – Quayle’s path is destined to cross that of Parker. Charlie’s deadly pals Louis and Angel are in attendance, but Angel is there in spirit only, as he is recovering from an operation to remove a deadly tumour. Louis cannot comprehend why his partner has been chosen by the Cancer God, and his incomprehension turns to anger, which he vents on a young man who is unwise enough to have Confederate flags flying from his truck. The Woman In The Woods is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is out now.

OUR KIND OF CRUELTY by Araminta Hall

AHObsession, deception, emotional perversion, sexual mania, psychological sadism…? Yes, indeed. Araminta Hall ticks all of those toxic boxes in her eagerly awaited new thriller, which tells the tale of Mike and Verity. At the very heart of their unusual relationship is a game of seduction and danger, but with Verity’s impending marriage, the game has to end. At least it would in any normal relationship, but of all the adjectives that could be applied to what Mike and Verity get up to, the word ‘normal’ comes way, way, way down the list. So, what happens? Death is what has to happen, but the Grim Reaper seldom walks alone.

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Our Kind of Cruelty is published by Century; it will be available as a Kindle on 19th April, in hardback on 3rd may, and in January 2019 as a paperback.

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THE SHIMMERING ROAD … Between the covers

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Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Cates has plenty of experience in holding the shitty end of life’s stick. Her childhood was scarred with rejection and loss and , talking of loss, the sudden death of her son the previous summer has proved to her that while fate can take, it can also take some more. But now, circumstances have partnered her in a bewildering kind of dance; she has given up her job as a journalist on a sleek New York magazine; she has a new partner, a rough and tumble Mr Nice Guy from Sidalie, Texas, who, in addition to running a very successful landscaping firm, is ridiculously rich. Charlie is also 32 weeks pregnant, albeit accidentally, with a baby daughter for her and Noah Palmer.

shimmeringThen, as Noah is trying to tempt Charlie into marrying him, and agree to their moving into a luxurious new home, comes the ‘phone call which triggers the enthralling next chapter in Charlie’s life. She takes a call from a distant aunt, and the news is that Charlie’s estranged mother Donna, and her half sister Jasmine, have been found shot dead in Jasmine’s Tucson apartment. There is another complication. Jasmine’s daughter Micky was also in the apartment but in another room. She is shaken, but very much alive, and has been taken into protective care.

So, Charlie and Noah head off to Arizona to try to make sense of the shattered family that Charlie hardly knew she still had. They meet, in no particular order, the strangely savant Micky, Donna’s lesbian lover, Jasmine’s cop boyfriend, and an apparently saintly woman who runs a refuge for battered women. What follows is a brilliantly plotted journey into the murky world of USA-Mexican social politics and the disturbing lengths which people will go to in order to have children, when nature has ordained that it simply ain’t gonna happen.

For the book to burn on full heat, you have to accept that Charlie Cates is, to an extent, governed by what could be dreams, or maybe fleeting out-of-body experiences. Charlie confides:

“My dreams are not like other people’s. They show me things.”

She has a terrifying recurring nightmare which involves her – and her unborn daughter – being shot dead while taking a shower. At other times she meets, on this spectral level, other key characters in the story. Some of them are alive, but some of them are dead. Personally, I have no problem with this. Two of my favourite writers, John Connolly with his doom laden PI Charlie Parker, and Phil Rickman with his delightful-but-slightly-scary Merrily Watkins, both take thrilling liberties with our working hypothesis that The Dead are dead and The Living are living.

Hester Young writes like an angel, even if that celestial being has a distinctly dark tinge to its wings. There are sharp observations on some of the absurdities of the American way of life. This is a Texan realtor (estate agent to us Brits):

“Brandi Babcock may possess the name of a porn star, but she has the body of a butternut squash, a solid top that flares out into an epically large backside.”

tjb3vcybThe greatest strength of the book is the magical spell Hester Young (right) casts as she links the reader to Charlie Cates. As a cynical, autumnal English male, with a downbeat view of life and the tricks it can play, I am not the obvious candidate to be entranced by a slightly manic, conflicted and complex American female journalist, but by the time the novel reached its gripping conclusion in the Arizona desert, I was ready to crawl over broken glass to make sure that Charlie survived with body and soul intact. Hester Young slaps a winning hand down on the green baize table – dry humour, suspense, atmosphere, superb characterisation – and deservedly rakes in all the chips.

The Shimmering Road is out now in Kindle and paperback format.

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR … part two

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My first three selections were in the Best Dialogue, Best Historical Novel and best Psychological Thriller categories, and you can review those by clicking this link. Here are my next three ‘best of’ choices.

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BEST NON-UK NOVEL

Murder In Mt Martha by Janice Simpson
There was certainly some red hot competition in this category, particularly from such American superstars as Harlan Coben and Walter Mosley, but there was something about this book that struck a chord. I’ll own up to being a fan of most things Australian, having lived and worked in The Lucky Country, but this story had something rather special.

On the one hand we have the murder itself, based on a real-life crime in the 1950s which remains unsolved to this day. It is true mystery in the sense of both words, but in the book we pretty much know who the killer is quite early in the piece. Simpson treads the tightrope of telling a story through different eyes and times, and she performs like a seasoned veteran, never once coming close to losing her balance. The modern day narrative involves a young Melbourne post graduate student, Nick Szabo, transcribing the memories of the elderly Arthur Boyle.

mimmThe past times take us back to the 1950s, both in Melbourne and then further north in rural Queensland. We enter the home of the young Arthur Boyle, who is looked after by his adult sister. Also resident in the Melbourne home is Ern Kavanagh, a twenty-something young man who has ambitions to be something other than a car mechanic. He then leaves Victoria and travels north, in search of fortune, if not fame in Queensland.

One of the great qualities of this book is the way Simpson plays a game with us about the exact relationships between Arthur, Ern and ‘Sissy’. We think we know what’s what, but it becomes clear as the story unfolds that we most certainly do not. There is, if you will, a two part harmony here, because Simpson then introduces another ‘tune’ which involves the history of the Szabo family, refugees from the Hungarian uprising, and once again, as the two melodies complement each other, family secrets unfold like a timelapse video of a flower opening.

The ghost of the murdered girl, clubbed to death and brutalised in a seaside resort near Melbourne, never quite goes away, and the sheer pity and wasteful nature of her death winds like a deep purple thread of mourning through the fabric of the story. The details of ordinary life in the 1950s are compelling and are given with a sense of wistfulness which never descends into mawkish sentiment. The conclusion of the book is brilliant, and the story comes to an end in a way which I least expected, but is entirely fitting and in keeping with the tone of the narrative. Murder In Mt Martha is published by Hybrid Publishers.

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BEST POLICE PROCEDURAL

Death Ship by Jim Kelly
Odd couples are many and varied in the world of crime fiction, and many authors have explored the Yin & Yang possibilities that open up.  There are many critical appraisals of the device, such as this one from Early Bird Books. I have chosen a beautifully mis-matched duo who are perfect foils for each other. They are Detective Inspector Peter Shaw and Sergeant George Valentine of Norfolk Constabulary, based in King’s Lynn.

Shaw is the younger of the two. In fact, so much so that Valentine actually served on the force with Shaw’s late father. Shaw is a physical fitness enthusiast, a cerebral deep thinker, and is married to an exotic wife whose family is of Caribbean origin. George Valentine is a widower, a suicidally heavy smoker, curmudgeonly but with a razor sharp eye for detail. Together, they have appeared in Jim Kelly’s ‘Death’ series, the previous novels being Death Wore White, Death Watch, Death Toll, Death’s Door and At Death’s Window.

death-shipIn Death Ship, as with all the previous books, the sea is never far away. The seaside town of Hunstanton has been literally rocked by an explosion on its crowded beach. Something buried deep beneath the sand is triggered by some boys determined to dig a sink-hole sized pit before the tide sweeps in. There is a brief moment when something metallic and shiny appears in the wall of their excavation, but then hell is unleashed. Miraculously, no-one is seriously hurt, but the beach is closed to holidaymakers while forensic experts and a bomb disposal team from the army do their stuff.

But the sea holds other mysteries. In the terrible storm of January 31st 1953, a tempest that battered the East Anglian coast and claimed over 300 lives, a dilapidated Dutch coaster, the Coralia, went down, taking its captain and crew with her. With this in mind, Shaw’s investigations are further complicated by the discovery of a dead diver, tethered to the underwater remains of Hunstanton’s Victorian Pier, destroyed by storms in 1978. Eventually, he learns that the murdered diver is the son of one of the crew members of another wrecked ship, the ill-fated Lagan, whose remains are rotting on the seabed a couple of miles distant from the pleasure beach.

Shaw and Valentine eventually pull the different threads of the mysteries together, with a combination of good solid police work and a touch of vision – the classic combination of perspiration and inspiration. All fine novels offer something extra, however, and as in all Jim Kelly’s novels, there is a deep rooted awareness of the past and the long shadows it can cast over the present. In Death Ship the past is like a sunken ship that has lain undisturbed on the sea bed for decades. Then, with a freak tide, or maybe some seismic shift, the ship’s blackened timbers surface once again, breaking through the surface of the present. There can be few novels where the metaphor is more apt. Death Ship is published by Severn House.

private-eyes

BEST PI NOVEL

A Time of Torment by John Connolly
It is safe to say that Irish author John Connolly has taken the PI genre out of its care home for elderly gentlefolk, given it a good scrub down, bought it a new suit of clothes, given it a good slap and generally breathed new life into it. The beneficiary of this rejuvenation? A haunted (literally) and violent investigator from Portland Maine by the name of Charlie Parker.

atotParker’s ghosts are those of his wife and daughter, brutally and shockingly murdered years ago by men whose physical presence was all too temporal, but men whose puppet strings were being pulled by evil forces not entirely of this world. In this novel, Parker is contacted by a former public hero who went from hero to zero when child pornography was found on his computer. Jerome Burnel was given a long jail sentence and suffered the usual fate at the hands of other prisoners for whom sex crimes against children are worse than murder.

Moved by the man’s brutal jail-time story, Parker tries to reassure him that he can rebuild his life. Bernel disappears, however, and his conviction that his days are numbered becomes sadly prescient. Parker and his two New York associates, Louis and Angel, track down Burnel’s chief prison tormentor, Harpur Griffin, also now a free man. Griffin is found in a bar with two companions who register off the scale on Parker’s danger meter. When Griffin is found burned alive in his car shortly after the meeting, Parker, Louis and Angel realise that they are dealing with men who are fueled with something more potent than simple criminality.

Eventually, Parker narrows down his search for Burnel’s tormentors, and his investigations lead him to an isolated – and incestuous – community in Plassey County, West Virginia. The people and their village are known as The Cut, and they have lived in Amish-like seclusion for as long as anyone can recall. The comparison with the Amish begins and ends with reclusiveness, as the god of The Cut isn’t the one found in The Bible. Their god is called The Dead King.

Parker and the people of The Cut circle each other relatively cautiously in the fashion of partners in a courtly dance, but when they do engage, the last 50 pages of the book are violent and remorseless. This is dry mouth time – superb entertainment, but very unsettling too. A Time of Torment is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

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