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American Crime Fiction

LONG BRIGHT RIVER . . . Between the covers

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A wintry Philadelphia is the setting for Liz Moore’s fourth novel. A female police officer, Michaela ‘Mickey’ Fitzpatrick, works the streets of Kensington, This district’s history owes much to its proximity to the Delaware River, and the fishing, milling and transport industries, but these have long since ceased, and the area is run down, dilapidated, and one of the centres of the city’s drug trade.

LBR coverThis is not a crime novel in the traditional sense, and it certainly isn’t a police procedural, despite Mickey’s profession. The plot partly involves the search for someone who is killing young women who have been forced into prostitution to feed their drug habit but, although this is resolved, it is eventually incidental to the main thrust of the novel.

Mickey comes from a dysfunctional family. Her mother is long dead, she is estranged from her father, and both she and her sister Kacey were brought up by a rather forbidding and humourless grandmother they call Gee. Micky’s career in the police force is unspectacular, but it pays the bills for her and her young son Thomas. As the blurb on the back of the book cleverly puts it,

Once inseparable, sisters Mickey and Kacey are on different paths, but they walk the same streets. Mickey on her police beat and Kacey in the shadows of the city’s darkest corners where the drug addicts and the sex workers preside.

As more women fall victim to the mystery killer, Mickey becomes ever more frantic that Kacey will be the next body wheeled on a gurney into the mortuary to await the investigation by the police pathologist. When she hears from an old friend of Kacey’s that the killer is thought to be a police officer, she confides in her immediate boss, Sergeant Ahearn. Not only is he sceptical, but he bounces the accusation back at Mickey, and she finds herself suspended and under investigation into allegations about her own conduct.

Screen Shot 2020-12-27 at 18.57.52Liz Moore (right) treats Mickey’s search for her sister on two levels: the first, and more obvious one, is a nightmare trip through the squats and shoot-up dens of Kensington in an attempt to find Kacey – a search, find and protect mission, if you will. On a more metaphorical level, the books becomes a journey through Mickey’s own past in the quest for a more elusive truth involving her family and her own identity.

As readers we have one or two tricks played on us by the author as she allows us – through Mickey’s narrative –  to make one or two assumptions, before turning those on their heads. Liz Moore’s style is interesting, particularly in the way she replays dialogue. This is a powerful and thought-provoking novel which, despite some measure of redemption, has a truly chilling final few lines.

Long Bright River came out as a Kindle and in hardback earlier this year, and this paperback edition will be published by Windmill Books on 31st December

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LAST TIME I LIED . . . Between the covers

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Riley SagerI was working in Australia when Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic At Hanging Rock premiered. I remember pub and dinner party talk for months after being dominated by interpretations and explanations about what might have happened to the ‘lost girls’. In the endpapers of Last Time I Lied American author Riley Sager, (left) acknowledges his debt to this film (and the short story on which it was based). Instead of a 1900 Melbourne, Sager beams us into up-country New York State in, more or less, our times.

When Emma Davis, a skinny and gawky thirteen year-old just on the verge of young womanhood, wins a place at a prestigious summer camp for privileged teenagers, she falls under the spell of three older girls with whom she shares a cabin. In particular, the assured and sexually aware Vivian captivates Emma, just as she has captivated the other two, Natalie and Allison.

Camp Nightingale was created by a timber baron in the early years of the twentieth century. His master design featured a lake and, as there wasn’t one to hand, he simply evicted the inhabitants of a nearby valley, dammed the river and created his own huge water feature, Lake Midnight. Now the property is in the hands of his descendant, Francesca Harris-White, who presides in benign dictatorship over the gathering of rich city girls every summer.

LTILEmma’s summer idyll is destined to come to an abrupt and tragic end, however, when the three older girls in the cabin disappear one night, never to return. Despite the massive search and rescue operation, Vivian, Natalie and Allison remain missing, and Franny is forced to close the camp in disarray.

Now, fifteen years on, Emma Davis is a successful artist who is on the verge of giving up her day job in an advertising agency to paint full time. Her huge canvases create a stir in the New York art world, but they contain a hidden image known only to the artist. Each painting begins as a depiction of the three missing Camp Nightingale girls, who are progressively painted over by ever more intense foliage until only tantalising glimpses of them remain.

Emma is shocked when she receives an invitation to have lunch with Franny, and her shock turns to panic when she learns that the heiress plans to reopen Camp Nightingale and wants Emma to return for the season as artist in residence. Can she bear to relive the tragic events of that fateful summer? What is Franny’s real motive for reopening the camp? And, most importantly for us as readers, is Emma providing us with a classically misleading unreliable narrative?

Emma does return to Camp Nightingale and, naturally enough, since this is a thriller all about fate and coincidence, she has to sleep in the cabin called Dogwood – the selfsame one which she shared with Vivian, Natalie and Allison. Her new companions are Miranda, Krystal and Sasha. But now, of course, they are the giggly fifteen year-olds, and she is the mature and experienced woman.

Riley Sager packs the story with the literary equivalent of Improvised Explosive Devices, destined to go off at any moment with devastating consequences. We have Theo, Franny’s adoptive son, the subject of Emma’s massive and breathless crush all those years ago. There is Ben, the moody ‘bit of rough’ who has always been the camp maintenance man. Added to the mix are Lottie and Becca, both ‘survivors’ of the first downfall of Camp Nightingale. Above all – or, better, beneath all – is the moody presence of Lake Midnight itself, beneath which lie the stone memories of the displaced villages from over a century ago. Incidentally, if anyone can think of something more dramatically Gothick than Sager’s drowned lunatic asylum, whose roof appears only when the lake suffers from drought, I will give them a prize!

Bitte bei Verwendung Hinweis an: bilder@joexx.de

Last Time I Lied cleverly alternates between Emma’s recollections and the present time. Events in the reopened Camp Nightingale come to resemble nothing more nor less than a disturbing re-enactment of a cold-case crime, where the spectral presence of the fifteen-years-lost girls looms larger and larger with every page.

The eventual solution to what happened to the three girls is dazzling, ingenious, gasp-provoking – and fairly improbable – but, hey, this is a cleverly constructed and blissfully entertaining novel and no lesser person than Aristotle, in his Poetics, declared

“for it is probable that many things may take place contrary to probability.”

Riley Sager is the pseudonym of a New Jersey author who has published several mysteries under his own name, Todd Ritter. Last Time I Lied is published by Ebury Press (an imprint of Penguin Random House) and will be out on 12th July.

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THE PEOPLE vs ALEX CROSS … Between the covers

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Back in the day, James Patterson’s Alex Cross books were my go-to choice for police thrillers with something just a little different. Along Came A Spider, Kiss The Girls, Jack & Jill and Pop Goes The Weasel were all sustenance for a hungry man. But round about the time when Patterson had exhausted his nursery rhyme references for the book titles, I began to lose interest. Maybe it was the Washington cop’s implausible bad luck in choosing wives and girlfriends. For such a demonstrably clever bloke, he was becoming a serial bad judge of character. Was it his Mother Teresa of a grandmother, Nana Mama? Apart from the fact that she must have reached the age of at least 130, had her unfailing wisdom and saintliness begun to grate? Whatever the reason, I moved on. When, however, the good people at Century sent me a crisp new hardback copy of The People vs Alex Cross, I thought it would be rude not to see what the good Dr Cross was up to in his 27th outing, almost a quarter of a century after his first appearance.

Alex CrossAlex Cross is in trouble. Big trouble. He is the victim of a beyond-the-grave revenge attack from his very first opponent, Gary Soneji. Gary is long dead, blown up by his own bomb in a subway. It is not beyond Patterson’s audacity to resurrect someone, but in this case it is supporters of the late Mr Soneji who are responsible for Cross being accused of homicide. He is lured to a warehouse where members of the Soneji cult are waiting for him. In the fire fight that follows, members of the cult are killed and wounded, but when Cross summonses emergency backup, no weapons other than Cross’s own can be found. The words happy, trigger and cop are immediately rearranged into a well-known phrase or saying by the sensation-hungry media.

As Cross prepares for his trial he is, naturally, suspended from police duties. Again, perfectly naturally, since it is Dr Alex Cross we are dealing with, he becomes unofficially involved in the investigation into a series of kidnappings and murders. Whoever the kidnapper is, he or she has a penchant for willowy blonde young women. Cross’s best buddy, the almost indestructible cop John Sampson, is knee deep in the chase to find the missing girls, and the search leads the pair into the darker-than-black world of snuff movies and the mysterious cyber phenomenon known as the dark web.

Writer James Patterson promotes the new movie "Alex Cross" based on his novel "Cross" at the Four Seasons in Los AngelesHand on heart, I have to admit to really enjoying this book. Patterson (right) hasn’t achieved his world-wide pre-eminence as a best selling writer by not being able to tell a story. The action comes thick and fast and in this book at least, the portrayal of Cross disproves the old adage about familiarity breeding contempt. Yes, Nana Mama is still there, serving up delicious meals for all and sundry and being annoyingly stoical in the face of her grandson’s adversity. Yes, Cross’s annoyingly geeky nine year-old son spots something that a top FBI data analyst has missed, but at least our man’s current love interest seems to be a good sort.

The book pretty much turns its own pages. It is pure escapism, but a damn good read. Long time fans of the series will not be disappointed, and apostates like myself may well be converted back to the old religion. The People vs Alex Cross will be out on 2nd November in hardback, Kindle and as an audio CD. The paperback edition is due in April 2018.

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DON’T LET GO … Between the covers

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Napoleon. Dumas. Two names resonant of nineteenth century France. A warrior and a writer. Put them together, and you have an unusual combination. Unusual, certainly, for a New Jersey cop. He has been known as ‘Nap’ for as long as he can remember, and he takes centre stage in the latest thriller from Harlan Coben. Dumas was born in Marseilles but since his family moved to Westbridge, NJ, he hasn’t strayed far from his home town. Nap Dumas is not, however, all he seems to be. On the one hand:

DLG cover“Mr Nice Neighbour. See, I am that rarest of creatures in suburban towns – a straight, single, childless male is about as common out here as a cigarette in a health club – so I work hard to come across as normal, boring, reliable.”

That’s the Nap Dumas who waves to his neighbours Ned and Tammy and never forgets to inquire how their son’s team is doing in the little league. There is another Nap Dumas, too. He’s the man who tracks down Trey, a lowlife bully who has been beating up his girlfriend and abusing her daughter. He’s the man who explains the problem to Trey. With a baseball bat.

There’s a third Nap Dumas, who never lets a day go by without talking to his twin brother Leo. That’s the Leo who, fifteen years ago was found by the railway tracks with his girlfriend Diane. Both of them turned into little more than roadkill by the impact of 3000 tons of freight train. The sequence of events of that terrible night play on loop inside Nap’s head, along with a nightmare tangle of unanswered questions. Why did the pair commit suicide? Why did Nap’s girlfriend Maura Wells disappear that night and simply drop off the radar?

When ex-Westbridge boy Rex Canton – now a traffic cop in neighbouring Pennsylvania – takes two bullets in the back of the head while conducting a routine traffic stop, the investigators come looking for Nap Dumas. At first he is puzzled. He hasn’t seen Rex Canton in years, and they were never particularly close. But when they tell him whose fingerprints they found in the car realisation dawns:

“I have always heard the expression,’the hairs on my neck stood up,’ but I don’t think I ever quite got it until now.”

One of the investigating officers spells it out, just in case the penny hasn’t dropped:

“The prints got a hit …. because ten years ago, you, Detective Dumas, put them in the database, describing her as a person of interest. Ten years ago, when you first joined the force, you asked to be notified if there was ever a hit.”

The discovery of Maura’s prints triggers a journey into a nightmare that some people in Westbridge had tried to forget. A nightmare made up of lies, lives shattered, deception and cold blooded murder. Nap Dumas, however, is determined to prise up the stone from the ground, even though he knows that dark and deadly things will be scuttling about underneath.

Harlan Coben 2014 bis (c) Claudio Marinesco (3).jpgCoben is never anything but readable and he is great form here. This was one of those books which pose a delicious dilemma – do I carry on reading as the hook of the action bites deeper and deeper, or do I put it down for a couple of hours to make it last longer? As a regular reader of Coben’s books I knew that the big reveal – in this case the truth about the deaths of Leo and Diane – would be a definite “Oh, my God!” moment, but try as I might, I didn’t get close to guessing the actual shocking detail.

Coben doesn’t usually spend too much energy on giving us anything remotely romantic but, as a bonus, he allows himself to tug a few heartstrings at the end of this gripping – and affecting – thriller. Fans of Coben’s sporting investigator Myron Bolitar (read our review of Home here) will also be pleased to know that he puts in an appearance – albeit a brief one – in Don’t Let Go, which is published by Century and will be available in all formats from September 26th.

THE WALLS … Between the covers

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Lone mother. Single parent. Solo carer. Whatever the politically correct term currently favoured by The Taking-Offence Police, Kristy Tucker is it. Not only is she bringing up her teenage son Ryan, she is caring for her debilitated father. ‘Pops’ is paying the price for a lifetime of heavy smoking, and two things keep him alive. One is physical – the cannula connecting him to his oxygen tank – and the other is psychological – the faint hope that he can still be a father to his daughter and someone his grandson can look up to.

The WallsKristy puts food on the table and tries to make sure that Ryan isn’t disadvantaged. She has a job, and it is one that demands every ounce of her compassion and every droplet of her sang froid. Her official title? Public Information Officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. If that sounds like some bureaucratic walk-in-the-park, think again. Acting as mediator between inmates, the press and the prison system is one thing, but remember that The Lone Star State is one of the thirty one American states which retains the death penalty. Consequently, Kristy not only has to manage the fraught liaison between prisoners on death row and the media, but she is also required to be an official witness at executions.

Despite the stresses and strains of her professional and family life, Kristy is still young enough to hanker after a personal life, and when Ryan introduces his martial arts teacher, Lance Dobson, she is taken aback by his kindness and his humility. It doesn’t hurt that he is ruggedly handsome and totally charming. Dobson becomes more and more a part of the Tucker household and, despite Dobson’s “aw, shucks..” modesty, Kristy finds herself falling in love with him. She is dazzled by the man, and cannot believe her luck when her affection is returned, with interest, and he asks her to marry him.

Back at the prison, Kristy Tucker has become involved with a condemned prisoner, Clifton Harris. He has been sentenced to death for starting a fire which killed his two children. There have been frequent appeals and stays of execution, but Harris’s last ride on the gurney of death is imminent. Kristy becomes convinced that Harris is innocent, but her profession inhibits her from offering anything but sympathy and a kindly voice.

All too soon, Kristy becomes Mrs Dobson, and both Ryan and Pops think all their Christmases have come at once. For Ryan, Lance Dobson becomes the father he never had, and Pops takes on a new lease of life, knowing that at long last there is an alpha male in the house to take on the duty of care which his illness has prevented him from fulfilling. Gold at the end of the rainbow? Not quite. Within a matter of weeks a fatal chasm begins to open up between Dobson’s public persona and the man he has become when alone with Kristy. He is insanely jealous, sexually demanding, domineering – and brutal with his fists. Despite Ryan and Pops still worshipping the ground that Lance Dobson walks on, Kristy has finally had enough. Using her unique insight into the mistakes made both by criminals and police, she plans a route which will take her out of her misery.

hollieovertonIt will come as no surprise to learn that Hollie Overton (right) is an experienced writer for TV. In The Walls every set-piece, every scene is intensely visual and immediate. With consummate cleverness she sets up two story lines which at first run parallel, but then converge. Two men. One is definitely guilty. One possibly innocent. Both are condemned to death. One by the State of Texas. The other by his battered wife.

The Walls is a sheer joy to read. The pace of the narrative is breathtaking, the characters are beautifully drawn and utterly convincing. Of course Hollie Overton takes sides, and she expects us to do the same, but we can still hold our breath and chew our nails until the final pages. This is domestic drama at its very best. The Walls is out on 10th August in the UK, published by Century, and is available here.

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THE SECRETS ON CHICORY LANE …Between the covers

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Shelby Truman is a highly successful romantic novelist tapping out stories involving her heroine Patricia Harlow. After forty two novels, the public shows no sign of losing its appetite for the sultry Patricia and her ability to choose precisely the wrong kind of man for her peace of mind and blood pressure. It’s a grey Chicago morning, and Truman is taking a deep breath and trying type something – anything – which will trigger the latest episode of inflamed passions and yearning bodies, when she receives a piece of registered mail which her assistant, Billy, has just signed for. She is used to convincing her readers that Patricia’s heart has ‘missed a beat’, but now fiction becomes reality.

“The return address at the top of the envelope indicates that the sender is Robert Crane Esq. of Limite, Texas. I know the name. Eddie’s attorney. A twinge of anxiety starts deep in my chest. I’d been trying not to think about Eddie, but that’s impossible this week.


The thing is, I’ve always thought about Eddie. We go way, way back, to when we were children living in Limite.”

Chicory LaneEddie is Eddie Newcott, the boy who used to live across the street in Chicory Lane, Limite. The boy who was just a bit different from all the other kids at school. The kid whose dad was a rough and abusive oilfield mechanic. The kid whose mom turned to the bottle to escape her violent husband and the beatings he handed out to their only child. But that was then. Now sees Eddie fallen on hard times. Times so hard that he achieved brief notoriety in the tabloid press, and has now been sentenced to death by lethal injection for murdering his pregnant girlfriend, slashing her open, dragging the foetus out and then arranging the two corpses on his front lawn, posed in an obscene mockery of a Nativity tableau. And it was Christmas Eve.

“EVIL EDDIE…” …”SATANIST IN GRUESOME RITUAL..” … ‘SUSPECT CLAIMS TO BE THE DEVIL …”

With these headlines dancing before her eyes, Truman reads that all efforts to appeal for clemency on the grounds of insanity have failed, and that Eddie Newcott will die in four days time. As one of his last requests, the condemned man has asked for a visit from Shelby Truman.

What follows is a wonderfully written and heartbreaking account of the bond between Eddie and Shelby. It is as good a coming-of-age novel as I have read for many a year, but Benson’s skill as a storyteller doesn’t stop there. He delivers the poignancy and unbearable sensitivity of first love and sexual awakening. His account of how children escape from the shackles slapped on by their parents is masterly. Sometimes these shackles are forged from too much love, while with other children, the shackles are tempered in the fires of cruelty and hatred. There is also a very clever murder mystery, which isn’t resolved until the last few pages, and then the resolution brings only heartbreak.

I am never entirely sure what a ‘literary novel’ is, but if it consists of elegant writing, a fine ear for dialogue and a gimlet eye for the painful inconsistencies of human behaviour, then The Secrets On Chicory Lane ticks that box too.

RaymondBensonLike Shelby Truman, Raymond Benson (right) is a highly successful writer. He has written thrillers under his own name, most notably his Black Stiletto Saga, and has also written novels based on video games. He has taken up the baton from authors who are no longer with us, like Tom Clancy, and has written several James Bond stories which have either been based on established screenplays – like Die Another Day – or standalone original stories such as The Man With The Red Tattoo.

The Secrets On Chicory Lane is published by Skyhorse Publishing, and is available for pre-order.

TWO NIGHTS … Between the covers

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For-author-Kathy-Reichs-its-all-about-bones-PRA9K1L-x-largeThe muster room of hard-nosed female cops and investigators is not exactly a crowded place on Planet CriFi. Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski, Fiona Griffiths, Kate Brannigan, Cordelia Gray, Kay Scarpetta and Jane Marple have already taken their seats, but Temperance Brennan has, temporarily, given up hers for another child of her creator, Kathy Reichs (left). Sunday ‘Sunnie’ Night is a damaged, bitter, edgy and downright misanthropic American cop who has been suspended by her bosses for being trigger happy. She sits brooding, remote – and dangerous – on a barely accessible island off the South Carolina coast.

A former buddy, Beau Beaumonde, comes to visit and he has a job offer. A terrorist attack on a Jewish school in Chicago has left victims dead and maimed, but one girl, Stella Bright, was not among the dead, and appears to have been kidnapped. The impossibly wealthy Opaline Drucker, Stella’s grandmother, has decided to spend serious money on an investigation to find the school attackers and discover the whereabouts – or the remains – of Stella.

Sunnie decides to accept the job and heads north to The Windy City in an effort to pick up the trail of the bad guys. To say that Sunnie is ‘street smart’ is an understatement. She hardly trusts her own shadow, and checks into several different hotels, using a different alias each time. She has created several social media profiles stating that she is searching for Stella, but her bait is accepted not online, but in the corridor of a hotel. She answers the threat with extreme violence, but is determined that she will remain the hunter while those who took Stella will easily not shrug off their status as her prey.

Two Nights CoverHalf way through the novel we realise the significance of the title. Sunnie Night is not waging this war alone: her twin brother Augustus ‘Gus’ Night is also on the case and, to use the cliche, he ‘has her back’. Together they are certainly a deadly combination. By this point, though, Reichs has bowled us an unreadable googly – or, for American readers, thrown us a curveball – and it isn’t until the closing pages that we realise that we have been making incorrect assumptions. Which is, of course, exactly what the author planned! Those last few pages make for a terrific finale, as the twins desperately try to prevent an atrocity being carried out at one of America’s most celebrated sporting occasions.

Sunnie and Gus, with a mixture of intelligence and gunfire, close in on the terrorist cell, and it is interesting that Reichs moves away from the obvious contemporary template for a group whose ideology drives their murderous activities. Instead, for better or for worse, we are presented us with the absolute opposite. Sunnie herself is not the kind of character that we readily warm to. In fact, she has trouble warming to herself. She says:

Sure, I’m damaged. I live alone with no permanent phone or Internet account. I have a scar I refuse to fix. I dislike being touched and have a temper that’s my own worst enemy. I use icy showers and grueling workouts to escape stress and trick my brain into making me feel strong.”

Kathy Reichs certainly doesn’t let the grass grow under anyone’s feet in this 110 mph novel. The dialogue – usually between the eponymous Two Nights – is whip-smart and sassy. It is certainly stylised and seems tailor made for a film or TV screenplay, but that is no bad thing in itself. There are guns and bodies galore and the action criss-crosses America with the Night twins homing in on the villains. Maybe it’s not the book for fans of leisurely narrative exposition and detailed reflection by the characters – the pace of the book doesn’t allow anyone much time for introspection – but it’s a cracking and ingeniously plotted thriller. The Kindle version of Two Nights will be available on 29th June from Cornerstone Digital, as will the hardback edition, but from William Heinemann. Follow this link to read more.

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CHOKE … Between the covers

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LisaLisa Towles is over-cautious. Said no-one, ever. In this beguiling and occasionally confusing novel she has assembled the ingredients thus: a small cup of altered reality, two large helpings of global conspiracy, three spoonfuls of domestic noir, just a drizzle of romance, two apparently unconnected plot lines, some roughly chopped historical legend and, most importantly, a generous dash of finely ground medical thriller.

We find ourselves darting between two apparently disconnected stories. In the dark morphine silence of a San Francisco hospital ward, Certified Nursing Assistant Kerry Stine has a blistering migraine. One of the ward’s residents, Rosemary Castiglia, has terminal lung cancer and is only hours away from that fine and private place – the grave. But where is her medical chart? And, even more pressing, where is she?

So begins a nightmare for Kerry Stine. She flees the hospital, pursued by the administrators who believe that she is responsible for Rosemary’s disappearance. Her apartment is no refuge, as she emerges from the shower to find a stranger who, carrying bags of groceries, has let himself in and demands to know what she is doing in his apartment.

On the other side of the country a bio-scientist, Adrian Calhoun, has squared the circle, turned base metal into gold, captured a unicorn and solved Hilbert’s 16th problem in algebra. In short, he has found a cure for cancer. To be precise, he has found a cure for lung cancer. A treatment that will shrink tumours even faster than they have grown. It seems that not only has the God of Lost Causes been smiling on Calhoun’s research, but he has also received the nod from the God of Irony. Who else could have determined that the treatment consists of intensive cigarette smoking? Of course, these cigarettes are not stuffed with fine Virginia tobacco, but with a secret blend of herbs and medicaments that not only attack the invasive cancer cells, but leave the smoker with a heightened sense of well-being.

ChokeMultinational pharmaceutical companies and the giants of the tobacco industry have not achieved their wealth and success through philanthropy, however, and when they learn about Calhoun’s discovery there is only one solution that will prevent them from taking a huge commercial hit, and that is to eliminate Calhoun and destroy all evidence of his research. While he and his colleague Grace Matson are pursued by hitmen, Kerry Stine’s nightmare becomes ever more vivid and violent. She is kidnapped and drugged. In her more lucid moments, myriad questions spin and whirl around her brain. Who is the woman chained next to her in the darkness of her prison cell? What happened in her childhood that was so traumatic that it shut down all subsequent recall?

The two story lines burn away like separate fires in the narrative, but it is only in the final few pages that Towles provides the accelerant that makes them burst into one fierce blaze. She leaves it late, but such is her confidence as a writer that she knows it will work. She opens the curtains to reveal a dystopian world which reminded me very much of the dreamscape of David Lynch’s masterpiece, Twin Peaks, where someone walks into a scene, says something which is obviously deeply significant but too enigmatic to be immediately obvious to us. Menacing characters appear, disappear and then reappear. Towles never allows us to settle. She has written her chapters short so that we are constantly put on our guard, forced to re-evaluate, and constantly question what we think we know about the characters in the story.

Choke is many a mile away from being your standard crime novel and it is almost impossible to tag it as being safely in any particular genre. If your crime fiction taste buds are dulled with the repetition of ‘same old, same old,’ then get hold of a copy of Choke. It will make you think. Buying choices can be found here.

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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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