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"Charlie Parker"

THE SHIMMERING ROAD … Between the covers

USA - Tourism - Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park


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.

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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.

ON MY SHELF … 18th November 2016

 

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james-letoileAt What Cost by James L’Etoile
No-one can accuse the author of a lack of experience of the darker paths taken by men and women when they cross the line which separates citizenship from criminality. L’Etoile has worked as prison warden, parole director, hostage negotiator and probation officer. Whatever is foul and dreadful in this world, he has probably seen it at first hand.

Now he has turned to fiction, and his debut novel tells the grim tale of a Sacramento detective – John Penley – who is working on the impossible balancing act between a demanding police career, and being father to a very sick young boy who urgently needs a new kidney. When his latest case involves a killer who eviscerates his victims, that is bad enough. But when the psychopath offers to provide Penley’s son with a new kidney – at a price – the cop is faced with a terrible dilemma. Crooked Lane Books – 13th December

Dead End by Daniel Pascoe
dead-endPascoe is a retired oncologist, and he attracted good reviews of his first novel, The London Sniper, which came out in 2015. He is back in print with the saga of Matthew Crawford, and his traumatic attempt to find a daughter he never knew. Crawford fathered the child when he was still a teenager, but has gone on to lead a relatively normal family life. We pick up his story when he is about to make the traditional father’s speech at the wedding of his other daughter, Annabel. He speaks of his loves and loss, the personal tragedy of the death of his wife, Rachel, and some other family stories of joy, interspersed with the usual jokes

The long-absent Sophie is never far from his mind, however, and as he runs through the expected clichés, he decides to search for his missing child. That decision brings not only danger and disruption to him, but drags his long-lost child into a deadly war between drug dealers and corrupt politicians.
Book Guild Publishing – out now

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Purged by Peter Laws
Laws is a member of a very exclusive club – that of Baptist ministers writing crime fiction with a touch of the supernatural. If he has fellow members who are reading this, please get in touch! We meet Matt Hunter, a cleric who has abandoned the certainties of religious doctrine for the far fluffier world of sociology.

Hardened CriFi buffs will know that there are few places on God’s Earth (other deities are available) more sinister and receptive to the powers of evil than an apparently tranquil English village. So it is that Hunter and his family take what turns to be an ill-advised holiday in the Oxfordshire village of Hobbs Hill. Hidden within the warm Cotswold stone, the thatch and the dreamy, drowsy torpor of rural England, there are several distinctly malevolent entities at work. A local girl disappears without trace, followed by another. Hunter is certain that something much darker than common criminality is at work and, despite police scepticism, he becomes involved in an investigation that will come to threaten his own sanity and the safety of his family. If you are a fan of John Connolly’s Charlie Parker, or Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins, this may well be your first ‘must-have’ of 2017. Allison & Busby – 16th February 2017

rwdRendezvous With Death by Gil Hogg
Gil Hogg, although living in the West London district of Fulham, is a New Zealander. His novel Rendezvous With Death is far from a debut, as Hogg’s first novel A Smell of Fraud was published as long ago as 1976. He returns with a story which begins in the explosive atmosphere of present day Pakistan.

Nick Dyson has abandoned his career as a barrister in London to act as personal assistant to a British diplomat – Robert Laidlow –  in Islamabad. What seemed like a smart career move goes dramatically wrong when the diplomat is kidnapped. While the authorities are busy blaming the usual suspects – Islamic extremists – it dawns on Dyson that the criminals may in fact be working for a powerful European businessman with an implacable grudge against Laidlow and his family, and that his own head may be the next to roll.

Rendezvous With Death came out at in Kindle at the end of September and you can take a closer look plus a glimpse of Gil Hogg’s earlier books by visiting his author page. If you fancy a print version, then you can order one from the Troubador home page. Matador/Troubador – out now

Tokyo Nights by Jim Douglas
We are in present day Tokyo, and submerged in the frenetic noise, neon and night-time Nirvana of a city that rarely sleeps. The contrast between the brash and gaudy streets of the Japanese capital and the other-worldly, two-dimensional serenity of the country’s traditional image is probably lost on maverick ex-pat Charlie Davis. He takes a long term view of life – he lives for tomorrow rather than the next two hours, but when he becomes involved with Colin McCann, a reluctant PI hired to look into the death of a wealthy businessman’s daughter, his live-and-let-live philosophy comes under extreme pressure.

Jim Douglas is the pen name of a writing partnership between Jim Hickey and Douglas Forrester. Jim and Doug wrote together in their adopted city of Tokyo where Jim still lives. Doug returned home to Glasgow early in 2016 for medical treatment and to be with his family. He died in September 2016 shortly before the publication of this, his first novel, Hence the poignant dedication at the beginning of the book. Fledgling Press – just out now.

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