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HOW THE DEAD SPEAK . . . Between the covers

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Val McDermid was anxious that over-enthusiastic reviewers and fans might give away the ending of her previous Carol Jordan and Tony Hill novel, Insidious Intent (click to read my review). So, given that there will be readers who have that novel on their TBR pile, no spoiler from me. Suffice to say that the metaphorical IED that blasted Jordan and Hill off the road in the final pages of the book have left them in, shall we say, rather difficult circumstances, and at the beginning of How The Dead Speak we find Carol Jordan very much a former police officer while Dr Hill is serving a four year jail sentence.

HTDS coverAfter the events of which we will not speak, Jordan’s Regional Major Incident Team has been disbanded while the woman who was its beating heart and soul keeps her fragile psyche from harm by continuing to renovate her home, a former barn on a heather covered northern hillside. Visitors are few and usually unwelcome, but none more so than Tony Hill’s vindictive and manipulative mother Vanessa who, after inflicting her abrasive personality on her son in a prison visit, coerces Jordan into using her investigative skills to track down a fraudster who has conned her out of a small fortune. Only slightly less welcome is Bronwen Scott, Tony Hill’s solicitor. She also has a job for Jordan, but this time it is to establish grounds for an appeal against a murder conviction handed down to a gay man who, the jury believes, has murdered a rent boy.

Meanwhile, back in the fictional city of Bradfield (which I have always assumed to be Leeds/Bradford) Jordan’s old ReMIT has been given the kiss of life. Its first post-resuscitation job, under the ambitious but box-ticking leadership of DCI Ian Rutherford, is to investigate the gruesome discovery of dozens of human remains in the grounds of a former Roman Catholic children’s home. I am not privy to Val McDermid’s religious beliefs, if she has them, but she certainly gets stuck into the darker side of Roman Catholicism’s social policy. OK, perhaps it’s something of an open goal these days, but as the RMIT try to discover the why and when of the St Margaret Clitherow Refuge skeletons, we learn some dark and unpalatable truths about the ‘Brides of Christ’ whose singular duty is to obey, no matter what the command.

The forty-or-so skeletons are, to an extent, explained away, but when the investigators find a further series of bodies, much more recent and apparently asphyxiated with plastic bags taped over their heads, the police activity intensifies. McDermid is brave enough to initially consign Jordan and Hill to the outer darkness, but she is canny enough to keep us comfortable by placing familiar figures at the centre of the action. Karim Hussain, Paula MacIntyre and Stacey Chen tut and eyeball-roll behind Rutherford’s back but somehow the investigation homes in on the real truth behind the more recent corpses in St Margaret’s vegetable garden.

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There are police procedurals, and then there are Val McDermid novels. Her ingenuity and unmatched clarity as a storyteller make How The Dead Speak a very special book. The Jordan/Hill story appears to be running on separate rails for part of the journey, but in a beautiful twist, everything comes together.

And there is a bonus. McDermid – who, as fans of her band will know, is no mean singer – might just be performing a cover version of one of my favourite songs Save The Best For Last (below). If any potential readers are sentimental old (or young) sods like me, you will be permitted a little sniffle and a dab at a moist eye when you read the final pages.

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How The Dead Speak is published by Little, Brown and will be out on 22nd August.

CHILD’S PLAY . . . Between the covers

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The man whoI’m new to the Angela Marsons Kim Stone series, which is good a cue as any to adapt a cartoon by one of my favourite illustrators, HM Bateman. It is clear that the Kim Stone novels, which began in 2015 with Silent Scream are hugely popular and although her millions of existing readers will not give a hoot what I think, I can now see why.

The author hails from the Black Country, that wildly unfashionable area west of Birmingham, which takes its name from the prodigious amounts of soot generated by its heavy industries in times past. Geographically it includes parts of Staffordshire and Worcestershire. Beyond place names, Marsons doesn’t make the region a dominant character in Child’s Play, at least not in the same way that, say Chris Nickson uses Leeds or Phil Rickman uses the Welsh Marches.

Kim Stone, like the great majority of popular fictional British police officers, has issues. Marsons is too good a writer to include Stone’s complete biography, but we learn that she had a wretched childhood. In both fiction and real life I am never really sure about people who relate better to dogs than they do to fellow humans, but such folk exist in both spheres. Kim Stone is one such, but her general misanthropy probably makes her a better copper. She is a fascinating and complex character who is at home the random chaos of modern life, perhaps because she can escape, maybe from herself:

“She drew comfort from the familarity of town noise, even the late-night noise of occasional sirens, doors slamming, loud music through open windows, drunks singing on the way home from the pub, wives giving them what for once they got there.”

CP coverUnsurprisingly, her chosen mode of transport is a powerful Kawasaki motorbike, the ultimate solo kick where all that exists is the rushing road, the wind and the scream of the engine:

“Her only interest in the countryside was tearing through it on the Ninja to blow the cobwebs from her mind.”

Child’s Play begins with the bizarre and apparently motiveless murder of a woman in her sixties. Belinda Evans is found in a children’s playground, bound to a swing with strips of barbed wire. Belinda – and apologies to people who have never watched Coronation Street – is no Emily Nugent, however, as Stone’s team soon discover that the late woman had a taste for rough sex and bondage.

As the title suggests, there is a theme of childhood running through this intriguing police procedural. All kinds of childhoods. The ones where youngsters are sufficiently traumatised by events that they become mute and withdrawn, living in their own personal hell. The ones where parents seek to live out their own inadequacies through desperate and damaging over-encouragement of a child’s talent. Not just those screaming abuse at the world from the touchlines of a junior football game, but those who believe their children are gifted and talented above the norm, and push, push, push for more certificates, more acclaim and more vicarious satisfaction.

In a fascinating parallel story, one of Stone’s team, Penn, has to absent himself for the hunt for the killer of Belinda vans as he is a key witness in the trial of a man accused of killing a convenience store server. Minutes away from the jury retiring to deliver a nailed-on guilty verdict, the wife of the accused man changes her story and the prosecution case unravels at a frightening pace.

AMMarsons (left) takes us down and dirty into the visceral world of police work:

“It was the pungent, unholy smell that could only be compared to a room full of rotting meat with the added smell of faeces. It was an odour that could live in a house for years despite deep cleaning, and was unmistakeable as anything else other than a dead body.”

The drama finally plays out in the intense, other-worldly – and distinctly disturbing – world of a weekend event for Gifted and Talented children and their parents. Bryant, one of Stone’s team comes face to face with the scary world of youngsters who are on the Aspergers Autism spectrum:

“ ‘This seat taken, buddy?’ he asked a boy sitting alone with a book.
‘Taken where?’ he asked, peering over his reading glasses. ‘Do you mean occupied?’
‘I’m gonna take that as a no,’ he said, pulling the chair towards him.
The boy regarded him seriously and Bryant guessed him to be ten or eleven years old with fair hair and clear hazel eyes, enlarged by the thick spectacles.”
‘Is it appropriate for a middle-aged man to seek the company of an unattended child?’ the boy asked, seriously.”

Gripping, unusual and fast-paced, Child’s Play is, by turns, unsettling and cleverly plotted. It is published by Bookouture and is out now.

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MARKED MEN . . . Between the covers

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Manchester writer Chris Simms intoduced us to Detective Constable Sean Blake in Loose Tongues (Severn House, 2018) where he was making his debut in the city’s Serious Crimes Unit. Crime buffs will know that Simms has been around for a while, building a serious readership with his books about another Manchester copper, the rather more senior Detective Inspector Jon Spicer, as well as earlier novels featuring DC Iona Khan of the Manchester Counter Terrorism Unit.

MMMarked Men begins on an idyllic Spanish beach, but then switches to the less salubrious setting of urban Manchester, and we only learn the significance of the opening much later in the plot. This way of starting a novel has become rather well-worn, but Simms handles it well and times to perfection the revelation of its significance. The Manchester action begins with Blake in waders and hard hat at the bottom of a drained lock on a local canal. There is a body, naturally, with more to follow, and as Blake and his immediate boss, DS Dragomir criss-cross the city trying to make sense of the crime scenes we – like them – are drawn into thinking that the deaths are revenge killings. But who, exactly, is avenging what? This is where Chris Simms leads us – and his detectives – a merry dance. There is a clue, but I have to confess I didn’t get it any quicker than did Blake and Dragomir.

Police procedurals come and go; some writers, in an effort to take the genre in a new direction, make the featured police officers ever more quirky and disagreeable, to the extent that they are barely functioning as normal human beings. Simms has a steadier hand, and is happy to have Sean Blake as thoroughly decent fellow, perhaps a tad naïve at times, but – as an officer – alert and intelligent. The shadow of his late mother is slowly receding as he makes his on way through the complex office politics of the police station. For a boy brought up in rural Sussex and then spending his university days in Newcastle, Simms certainly knows his Manchester and, as in the Jon Spicer novels – he makes the city a strong and vibrant character.

Marked Men will be published by Severn House in hardback at the end of March, while Kindle users will have to wait for the Darling Buds of May to open before they get their chance. Chris Simms has his own website, a Facebook page, and is also on Twitter. Click on the images below to find out more.

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THE BOY IN THE HEADLIGHTS . . . Between the covers

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Somewhere there is a book of rules
that must be followed by writers of police procedurals, and high on the list is that senior investigating detectives must be difficult folk, with troubled personal lives, possibly prone to addiction of one kind or another. The addiction can range from being relatively harmless, like Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne and his love of mournful country songs by Hank Williams, via Nero Wolfe’s gluttony, right through to Sherlock Holmes and his occasional use of cocaine and morphine.

TBITHNorway’s Samuel Bjork ticks the boxes with his Olso cops Holger Munch and Mia Krüger. Munch is a bearded bear of a man, overweight and stuffed into his habitual duffel coat like a fat foot into a shoe two sizes too small. His home life is in disarray. Separated from his wife, his daughter Miriam recovering from a serious injury, he seems to treat those people with – at best – edgy tolerance, but his obsession is with the job, and catching criminals. Krüger’s back story makes Munch’s people look like candidates for a TV breakfast cereal advert emphasising warm family values. The story opens with her recovering from – in no particular order – alcoholism, a fatal shoot-out after which she was accused of murder, and the haunting death of her sister, victim of Oslo’s drug scene.

There is a brief but vivid prologue taking place fourteen years before the main story, which then relates a series of bizarre killings. The dead include a ballet dancer found in a remote lake, a jazz saxophonist lying on a bed in a flea-bitten budget hotel, a teenage boy in the boot of a burning car, and a Catholic priest slumped in his own confessional. All have died from being injected with antifreeze, and the killer has left a clue – a number – at each site.

Seasoned veterans of the serial killer genre will know that there are several variations on a theme as regards the answer to whodunnit? Sometimes the author gives little clues along the way, but the best writers have very devious minds, and often these little hints are designed to lead readers off in the wrong direction. One version of this trope is when some chapters allow us to observe events through the eyes of the killer, but again, how reliable is the narrator? The Boy In The Headlights uses another method altogether, which intially involves a red herring the size of a Great White Shark, but to say more would spoil the fun.

The adage suggests that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, and I felt that the only weakness of this book was in the final resolution. The journey, however, is a brilliant roller-coaster, with great dialogue, convincing sub-plots and a real feeling of pace and urgency. Munch and Krüger are partners made in crime fiction heaven, and both the atmospheric geographical setting and the police procedural detail are impressive. The translation, by Charlotte Barslund, seems faultlessly fluent, but then I suppose we monoglots are in no position to judge. The Boy In The Headlights is published by Doubleday/Penguin and will on the shelves and available for download from 21stMarch.

Click the images below to learn more
about the previous two Munch and Krüger novels

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THE KILLING HABIT . . . Between the covers.

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Mark Billingham’s perpetually disgruntled and discomforted London copper DI Tom Thorne returns in The Killing Habit for another three way battle. Three way? Yes, of course, because Thorne and his resolute allies sit on their stools in one corner of the triangular boxing ring, while in the blue corner are his politically correct bosses. In the red corner, of course, are the various chancers, petty and not-so-petty crooks who challenge the law on a daily basis.

TKHThe Thorne novels have a recurring cast list. As Salvatore Albert Lombino, aka Ed McBain said, quoting a 1917 popular song, “Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here!” Indeed they are. Its members include Helen, Tom Thorne’s long suffering partner plus little boy Alfie, and the bizarrely tattooed and pierced Mancunian pathologist Phil Hendricks. We have Nicola Tanner the police officer scarred by the murder of her alcoholic partner, Susan, and the perpetually cautious DCI Russell Brigstocke. Between them, they pursue two killers; one who murders losers-in-the-Game-of-Life on the periphery of a drugs gang, and another who seems to be targeting lonely women via a match-making service.

It’s a staple of serial killer crime fiction that the bad guy starts out as a youngster by pulling wings off flies or torturing hamsters before graduating to ever darker deeds. Either that, or he is the victim of some terrible childhood trauma which poisons his view of humanity. I say ‘he’ and realise that I may be risking the wrath of the Equal Opportunities Police here, but I don’t recall reading a novel about female mass murderers. They may be out there. Numbered among their ranks may be homicidal Two Spirit Persons or Gender Fluid Otherkins. I do not know. If I have offended any potential killers by using the wrong pronoun, please accept my (almost) sincere apologies.

But I digress. Billingham puts Thorne on the trail of a serial killer – of cats. Why on earth? Two reasons. One is that nothing inflames the fury of Middle England like the killing of domestic animals. The debate that compares this crime with that of the murder of humans is for another day, but Billingham recognises that we are more likely to become incandescent over the death of a domestic pet than the death of a child. The second reason I have already suggested. If someone is waging a covert war on cats, is this just a prelude to something far, far worse? Indeed, it seems so. A succession of women meet their deaths at the hands of a killer who has hacked into the database of Made In Heaven, a low-rent match-making website.

Billingham gives us a parallel plot which eventually converges with the main story. A shadowy but powerful criminal organisation smuggles addictive synthetic drugs into British prisons. The recipients, grateful at the time, are eventually released into the wider world owing the gang an impossible amount of money, repayable only by becoming foot soldiers of the gang itself. An elderly woman, known only as “The Duchess” plays Postman Patricia in this deadly cycle of addiction and dependence and, when her role as amiable ‘auntie’ visiting prisoners is exposed, the connection between the drug scam and the dating killer is made.

As with every Mark Billingham novel, The Killing Habit is incisively written, impeccably authentic as a police procedural and, above all, totally human. No character walks onto the stage without their weaknesses and their frailties becoming exposed in the icy blue of the spotlight. We are not reading about cardboard cut-out people here: they are real, fallible and convincing. They may even be living a couple of doors down from you.

1430895baJust when you think that he has provided all the answers to the complex plot, and the characters are, to quote the only bit of Milton I can remember from ‘A’ Level, “calm of mind and all passion spent,” Billingham (right) provides a breathtaking epilogue which, in addition to turning my preconception on its head, (feel free to add your own metaphor) bites you on the bum, punches you in the gut, hits you over the head with a piece of four by two, takes the wind out of your sails and grabs you by the short-and-curlies. Hopefully recovering from this multiple assault, you will be hard pushed to disagree with me that this is a brilliant crime thriller written by a master storyteller at the very top of his game.

The Killing Habit is published by Litte, Brown and will be available on 14th June. For a review of the previous Tom Thorne novel, click the link to Love Like Blood.

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INSIDIOUS INTENT . . . Between the covers

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Crime Fiction’s Most Distinctive Odd Couple? There would be several nominations in this category, were it to be at an awards dinner of some kind. You can make your own suggestions, using whatever criteria you wish; eccentricity, diversity of character and background, problem-solving methods – the choice is yours. I am going for sheer darkness, grim back stories, and an occasional incompatibilty that sometimes verges on the disastrous, but also a symbiotic need for each other that has no sexual element but is unique in the annals of crime fiction If this sounds like the relationship between DCI Carol Jordan and clinical psychologist Dr Tony Hill, then we are spot on.

Val McDermid introduced them to us in 1995, with The Mermaids Singing, and now they are back for the tenth episode in their turbulent career. As we turn the first page, Jordan is already in trouble. She has tried to drink her way out of the life-shattering experience of feeling responsible for the terrible murders of her brother and his wife but, inevitably, one glass too many has resulted in a drink driving charge. Her bosses, not always as supportive, have conspired to declare the breathalyser equipment faulty, and Jordan is aquitted. But, having been tested with the same equipment, so is hell-raising young driver Dominic Barrowclough. When Barrowclough celebrates his freedom by killing himself and four other road users, Jordan’s guilt begins to reach crisis level.

II CoverBut there is still a job to be done, and in Carol Jordan’s case this is to head up a new police unit, called ReMIT – Regional Major Investigations Team – and their first case is a shocker. In a windswept lay-by on a lonely moorland road, a car is discovered, blazing out of control. When the flames die back sufficiently for the emergency services to get close, the charred remains of a young woman are discovered in the driving seat. The post mortem reveals that she has been strangled, and the blaze started, of all things, by a large box of potato crisp packets. Another such death soon follows, and the ReMIT team discover that they are dealing with a supremely clever killer who befriends his victims at weddings. He ‘crashes’ the wedding with consummate ease, and then targets young women who have attended the wedding unaccompanied. Spinning a yarn that he is a widower still mourning his late wife’s death from cancer, he seems to be the perfect gentleman. Caring, considerate, sexually undemanding – to the unfortunate women he seems like all their Christmases have come at once.

By sheer persistence and a stroke of good fortune, Jordan and her team find themselves a suspect, a young businessman called Tom Elton. But the evidence against him is, at best, circumstantial, and he attends the police interview alongside one of the smartest and most abrasive criminal defence lawyers in the region. Elton is scornful, triumpant, and he literally laughs in the faces of his accusers.

“I thought you lot were supposed to be the elite? I remember the news stories when you were formed. Top Guns, they said,” He scoffed, “Top Bums, more like. If I was your man, I’d be dancing in the streets. With you lot running the show, anyone could get away with murder.”

 All the while, as the investigation gathers speed – and then founders – McDermid demonstrates why she is considered by many to be the greatest contemporary British crime writer. The black clouds loom ever lower over Carol Jordan. Her team, some with their own demons to exorcise, look in vain to their boss for inspiration, while Tony Hill, perhaps for the first time in his career, can see no obvious way out of their travails.

Thomas Hardy, in his Wessex novels, was the master of wicked coincidences; a misinterpreted gesture, words said or unsaid, a lover innocently going to the wrong church for her wedding – these all set in train events which will bring the worlds of these characters down around their heads. McDermid creates one here, albeit one very much of the 21st century. and it contributes to the dramatic and totally unexpected finale of this fine novel. Insidious Intent came out in hardback and Kindle in 2017, and this paperback edition will be available on 22nd February from Sphere.

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THRILL KILL … Between the covers

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Thrill KillThrill Kill is a brisk, no-nonsense police procedural thriller set amidst the hurley burley of Carnival season in New Orleans. Homicide cop Quentin ‘Q’ Archer sets out to bring to justice a serial killer whose calling card is a can of aerosol coolant – tradename ‘Chill’ – beside the bodies of his victims. Archer burns the midnight oil to solve the crime, but it is not the only thing on his mind. He is not a native of The Big Easy, but a displaced person from Detroit, where his police career became violently complex when his wife was mown down by a car, and Archer was forced to turn against his own family in a personal war against police corruption, drugs and racketeering.


Don Bruns
gives us a vivid and totally unsentimental account of the brand known as NOLA – New Orleans, Louisiana. We see a Mardi Gras which is joyous, celebratory, but also perverse and venal in the extreme. Central to the story is Archer’s relationship with a young woman Solange Cordray. Cordray is described in the publicist’s gush as a “voodoo queen”, which does neither her nor the book justice. Cordray certainly makes a living out of selling charms, herbal remedies and artifacts associated with the supernatural, but she also has a gift which can prove unwelcome and a burden to her – she has second sight.

Archer is, initially, completely sceptical about what Solange Cordray senses and feels, but he is conflicted by his growing physical attraction to her. Meanwhile, the killings continue, and it slowly dawns on Archer that they are not the work of a single murderer, but the result of a looming turf war between rival gangs. As ever, drugs are the main commodity, and their transit from South America to the streets of New Orleans is as clear as day, but the police simply do not have the resources to tackle the flow.

Even more worrying is the trade in human beings. The tragic irony is that much of America’s prosperity, particularly in the Deep South, was historically based on such a trade, but the new merchandise does not consist of strapping men brought in to pick cotton, but young – sometimes terribly young – women who are swept up from poverty in places like Mexico and Ecuador with the promise that they will soon be earning enough money to send home to their struggling families. In reality, the jobs consist of – at best – stripping but, more usually, outright prostitution. The money they earn is taken from them, and not one nickel, not one dime goes anywhere but into the pockets of the pimps.

DBDon Bruns himself (right) is an interesting character. As well as the first book in the Quentin Archer series Casting Bones, he has written two other series, Caribbean and Stuff. He describes himself as “a musician, song writer, advertising guru, painter, cook, stand-up comic and novelist who has no idea what he wants to be when he grows up.” His music is mainstream country, but with a little twist of this and that to spice things up. You can hear samples of his music here and I was amused to see the wonderfully titled Get Your Tongue Out Of My Mouth I’m Kissin’ You Goodbye as part of his repertoire. I always thought it was a spoof title, rather like If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too? and You Were Only A Splinter As I Slid Down The Bannister Of Life, but I am clearly wrong!

With a help from the insights of Solange Cordray, and a good-hearted stripper, Archer sets up a sting to bring down the main characters in the turf war between the rival gangs, and in doing so rips away the drapes that have been concealing the fact that the whole dreadful enterprise of importing Colombian Marching Powder and young flesh is controlled by those who are right at the top of the political tree. Thrill Kill is published by Severn House and is available here.

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THE KILLER ON THE WALL … Between the covers

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There are towns and villages the world over which in themselves are insignificant in the greater scheme of things, but whose names are indelibly imprinted on the public consciousness for the evil deeds committed there. My Lai, Sandy Hook, Columbine, Dunblane, Hungerford: the names resonate, and cause us to shudder. In the latest novel from Emma Kavanagh, Briganton is such a place. It is a village otherwise little worthy of note, with nothing to detain either the traveller or the tourist save, perhaps, for its proximity to the remains of the winding wall built to protect the northern limits of Roman Britain from so-called Celtic barbarians.

TKOTWThe name Briganton, to most British people, conjures up a series of murders, where the victims were dragged up the steep hillside and posed, in death, gazing with sightless eyes out over the windswept moorland. But all that was long ago. The killer, Heath McGowan, was brought to justice by the determination of Eric Bell, a local policeman who has since been promoted and has achieved national celebrity due to his solving the case. His triumph had added poignancy because it was his teenage daughter, Isla, who discovered the first bodies while out for an early morning run.

Twenty years have past, and now Isla Bell is Professor of Criminal Psychology at the University of Northumberland. Her husband, Ramsey Aiken was one of the original victims of The Killer On The Wall, but he survived his injuries, and is now a freelance journalist, while her father, Superintendent Eric Bell has become something of a police legend.

Isla is working on a project to identify physical differences between the brains of serial killers and normal people, and her work takes her to the prison where Heath McGowan is serving several life sentences for his murderous activities in and around Briganton. As she persuades him to undergo an MRI scan, she tries to persuade him to talk about the killings, but he treats it as a game, and refuses to divulge any useful information.

Then, the unthinkable – even the impossible – happens. In quick succession, two more local women are murdered and take the places of the long-dead bodies propped up against the limestone blocks of Hadrian’s Wall. Clearly, McGowan is not the killer, but does he have an imitator? An accomplice, maybe, who was never caught decades earlier? A young Detective Constable, Mina Arian, has made her home in Briganton and she becomes obsessed with finding – or disproving – links between the original killings and the new murders.

Emma Kavanagh has a doctorate in psychology, and her understanding both of what we know – and what we don’t know – about the workings of the human mind give this novel a very distinct and disturbing potency. Her academic credentials aside, she is a very gifted writer. As far as the plot is concerned she gives us a trawl net full of red herrings to sift through, and her vivid characterisations, particularly of Mina Arian, Eric Bell and Isla Aiken, give the narrative an electric charge.

This is a guided missile of a book: it explodes into life, and then keeps burning, inexorably homing in on a target which you will only foresee by cheating and flipping through to the last few pages. When it comes, the detonation is as devastating as it is unforeseen. Only the very best writers have the daring and dexterity to deliver such a plot twist and make it as credible as it is shocking, and Emma Kavanagh must be a founder member of that exclusive club.

You can read our review of The Missing Hours, an earlier novel by Emma Kavanagh, and she also wrote a very perceptive feature on Trauma. The Killer On The Wall is out now.

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AT WHAT COST … Between the Covers

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Sacramento. Capital city of California. Named after its river, which was in turn named after the most holy offering in the Catholic liturgy. But there is nothing sacred and everything profane about the butchered corpse found on the river levee. Maybe ‘corpse’ is the wrong word for what lies at Detective John Penley’s feet. The pouring rain, caught in the glare of the crime scene halogen lights, patters remorselessly on a headless, limbless trunk. It had been a man. And that man, judging by the Aztec inspired tattoo spreading over what is left of the chest, was a member of a Latino gang, The West Block Norteños.

awclThe remains of Daniel Cardozo are hauled off to the city morgue to join those of several of his professional associates who have met a similar fate in recent months. Penley and his new partner Detective Paula Newberry know only that the killer is also a butcher, perhaps not by trade, but certainly by intent. They also become aware that the human remains are minus their soft tissue organs – hearts, livers, kidneys.

Newberry and Penley make an uneasy pair. Newberry, because she is treated like a leper by fellow officers ever since she orchestrated a surveillance sting that ended the careers of a couple of corrupt cops in the department. And Penley? His mind is forever straying to thoughts about his young son Tommy whose life is slowly but inexorably drifting away as he waits his turn for a kidney transplant.

As the tale unfolds, there are echoes of England’s infamous and unsolved Whitechapel Murders. As with the person who slaughtered prostitutes in that fateful London autumn of 1888, Penley’s killer seems to have more than a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy. And, like the detectives in Victorian London, Penley is actually sent a kidney as a taunt, but unlike the Ripper’s handiwork, the one Penley receives is most definitely human.

 L’Etoile’s story rapidly adds an extra dimension to the standard hunt for a ruthless serial murderer, as it become a medical thriller, too. The villain is, we soon learn, harvesting organs for the lucrative international trade in spare body parts. Like so many other aspects of life, the search for viable organs operates on two levels; the first is, of course, the regular – and highly regulated – world of transplant waiting lists; the second operates within the freemasonry of hard cash, and the opportunities afforded to unscrupulous traders – and their desperate customers – by The Dark Web.

It all too quickly becomes horribly personal for Penley and his family. His son narrowly avoids being given an intentionally damaged kidney, and it is clear that the detective’s personal anguish has handed the killer an invaluable tool with which he can torment the man whose professional job it has become to unmask him and bring him to justice. With someone hacking into hospital records and falsifying clinical data, Penley runs out of people he can trust, and is forced to play a dangerous game of deception with the killer, his colleagues and – worst of all – his own family.

jamesThe author (right)  certainly knows his way around the American justice system, with his background in probation, parole, investigation and prison operation. An experienced Associate Warden, Chief of Institution Operations, Hostage Negotiator and Director of Parole, he has also done extensive homework on the medical background to the complex world of organ donation and transplants. The plot rattles along with scarcely a breath being drawn, and in Penley and Newberry, L’Etoile has created a partnership which is complex and attractive enough to feature in more adventures further down the line.

At What Cost is published by Crooked Lane Books and is out now.

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