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AFTER THE FIRE . . . Between the covers

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Jo Spain’s Irish copper Tom Reynolds – now Detective Chief Superintendent, if you please – returns in After The Fire and we are, as ever, in Dublin’s Fair City. Are the girls still ‘So Pretty’? The young woman walking naked down the city street, much to the astonishment of shoppers might have been pretty once, but now she is in a terrible state. Hair awry, skin blackened with dirt and a look of sheer terror in her eyes.

Except that is not dirt on her skin. It is soot, and she has escaped, traumatised, from a catastrophic house fire. The terraced house is in an area which has moved upmarket because of its proximity to the The International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) but the services being offered at the ruined house were something different altogether. First one body is recovered, and then another, and as the young woman – a Russian –  recovers in hospital, it becomes clear to the police that the house was a brothel, and she was one of the items on the grisly menu.

As a DCS, Tom Reynolds is not meant to get his hands dirty at an investigational level, but there is no drama in balancing budgets and supervising staff deployment, so the admirable Mrs Spain has Tom notionally taking a spot of leave so that he can lend a hand in the case which is being led by his former protégé Laura Lennon.

Tyanna, the woman who fled the fire, is too terrified of the people who controlled the trade at 3 Shipping Row to be of much use, but she has mentioned a baby, now missing, the child of a young woman whose corpse was discovered in the building. Another frightened young woman – Nina Cusack – who was bought and sold there has also emerged, but she has sought sanctuary with her parents and is, again, too terrified to divulge much about the identities of the guilty men who are controlling the brutal trade.

The sheer fluency of Jo Spain’s writing will come as no surprise to those of us who are long term admirers, and the bottom line is that every book she writes is, quite simply, a bloody fine read. It is, however, worth taking a moment to look at just how and why she is so good. Lesser writers will seed their narratives with gore and gruesome detail, while Spain leaves us in no doubt about how brutal people can be, but in a much more subtle way.

Some police procedurals rely too much on the central copper being a maverick, or a bitter misanthrope, or a damaged person with a hundred different devils to fight each day. Tom Reynolds doesn’t distract us in that way – he is a decent man who has been dealt a fair hand by fate, and so we don’t waste valuable time having to understand him by examining his CD collection. (Yes, I know CDs are so very yesterday, but you get my drift)

As for elaborate scene setting with endless paragraphs about how Dublin looks, smells, sounds and feels, Jo Spain puts us in the place with a couple of telling sentences. We know we are in Dublin – that’s fine – but then she gets on with the important stuff. The important stuff? That is the story and above all, Jo Spain is a storytelling genius. Those who follow her career will know she is also much sought after as a screenwriter. The Tom Reynolds books and the stand-alones are not written for the screen, but they may as well be because every page, every paragraph and every sentence comes to life as vividly – and as visually – as if we were standing right there, watching.

After The Fire is published by Quercus. It is available now as a Kindle, and will be out in paperback on 6th August.

For more on Jo Spain and her novels, click the image below.

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THE FINISHER . . . Between the covers

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51bAlRSlCzL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Fictional police officers come in an almost infinite number of guises. They can be lowly of rank, like Tony Parsons’ Detective Constable Max Wolfe, or very senior, such as Detective Superintendent William Lorimer, as imagined by Alex Gray. Male, female, tech-savvy, Luddite, happy family folk or embittered loners – there are plenty to choose from. So where does Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond fit into the matrix? As a Detective Superintendent, he pretty much only answers to the Assistant Chief Constable, but for newcomers to the well established series, what sort of a figure does he cut? Lovesey lets us know fairly early in The Finisher, the nineteenth in a series that began in 1991 with The Last Detective. Diamond is on plain clothes duty keeping a wary eye on a half marathon race in the historic city of Bath:

“Difficult to tell whether Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, on duty in the gardens, was overt or covert. If he had been in the race, you might have taken him for one of the jokers in fancy dress. He might have stepped out of a nineteen-forties film, a sleuth on the trail of Sydney Greenstreet. The gabardine trench coat and dark brown trilby, his so-called plain clothes, weren’t plain at all in twenty-first century Bath.”

Neither is Peter Diamond a vain man, nor one who gives excessive attention to his personal appearance:

“He didn’t waste time showering or shaving. A swish of tap water took the sleep from his eyes and a squirt of deodorant completed his grooming. Unshaven jowls were standard among the younger members of his team.”

The book’s title is a clever play on words and has a double significance. It can be someone who manages to complete ‘The Other Half’ – an alternative half marathon pounded out along the elegant streets, disused railway tunnels and steep wooded hillsides of Bath. It also has a more sinister connotation – a person who gets things done, even if doing so involves a lack of compassion and, even, a willingness to use violence.

Lovesey’s clever novel combines the events surrounding the race, as well as a particularly brutal example of modern day slavery – illegal immigrants forced to work for a pittance, housed in grim conditions, and for ever in thrall to men and women who earn fortunes exploiting the vulnerable.

Finisher021There’s a dazzling array of characters to act out the drama. We have an earnest school teacher who forces herself to run the race in order to make good a lost donation to a charity; there is a statuesque Russian, wife of a cynical businessman, determined to lose weight and gain her husband’s respect; instant villainy is provided by a paroled serial seducer and sex-pest who has taken on a new role as personal trainer to the rich; at the bottom of the pond, so to speak, are a pair of feckless Albanian chancers who have escaped from an illegal work gang, and are trying to avoid the retribution of their controllers.

Throw into this mix a fascinating geographical background which comes vividly to life, even to someone like me, who has only a limited knowledge of Bath. Like most, I knew of its Roman heritage and the wonderful Georgian architecture, but I was totally unaware that the hills surrounding the city conceal warrens of quarries, caves and tunnels from which the beautiful local limestone was hewn.

Throughout his long and celebrated writing career, Lovesey has never given away his solutions without putting the reader through their own private marathon of false clues, and misdirections. So it is with The Finisher. If you get within ten pages of the end and reckon you know who did what to whom – then trust me, you don’t! This wonderfully entertaining novel by one of our finest living writers is published by Sphere and is out now.

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DIE LAST … Between the covers …

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Tony Parsons has passionately held political views, and he takes no prisoners in this searing account of how human life has become a mere commodity in the biggest criminal racket ever to infect British society. Worse than drugs, more damaging than financial fraud and with a casualty list that makes the Kray twins and the Richardson brothers look like philanthropists, the trafficking of people into Britain is a growth industry which attracts the investment of evil men and women, and pays guaranteed dividends – in blood money.

DLHis London copper, DC Max Wolfe, becomes involved when a refrigerated lorry is abandoned on a street in London’s Chinatown. The emergency services breathe a huge sigh of relief when they discover that the truck is not carrying a bomb, but their relaxed mood is short-lived when they break open the doors to discover that the vehicle contains the frozen bodies of twelve young women. The bundle of passports – mostly fake – found in the lorry’s cab poses an instant conundrum. There are thirteen passports, but only twelve girls. Who – and where – is the missing person?

One of the young women shows a flicker of life, and she is rushed off to hospital, but hypothermia has shut down her vital organs beyond resuscitation, and she dies with Max Wolfe at her bedside. He discovers her true identity and vows to bring to justice the people responsible for her death, the people who brought her from poverty in Serbia, the people who promised her that she would find work as a nurse.

The search for the slavers – and the missing girl – takes Wolfe and his colleague Edie Wren to the hell on earth that is the makeshift migrant camp near Dunkerque. They discover a brutal racket run by a group of anarchists posing as voluntary workers, but police attempts to infiltrate the network – whimsically called Imagine – end in tragedy.

Wolfe feels that he has blood on his hands, but this makes him all the more determined, and the deeper he digs, the more convinced he is that someone more powerful and with a much bigger bank balance than the hippies of Imagine is at the heart of the operation. From the mud, despair and violent opportunism of the Dunkerque camp Wolfe follows the trail to millionaire properties in central London and the influential men and women whose lifestyles reek of privilege and wealth.

tony_400x400Max Wolfe certainly gets around for a humble Detective Constable, but he is an engaging character and his home background of the Smithfield flat, young daughter, motherly Irish childminder and adorable pooch make a welcome change from the usual domestic arrangements of fictional London coppers with their neglected wives, alcohol dependency and general misanthropy. Parsons (right)  is clearly angry about many aspects of modern life in Britain, but he is too good to allow his writing to descend into mere polemic. Instead, he uses his passion to drive the narrative and lend credibility to the way his characters behave.

The plot twists cleverly this way and that, and Parsons lays one or two false trails to entice the reader, but in the end, a kind of justice is done. This is compelling stuff from one of our best crime writers, and his anger at the utter disgrace of modern slavery drives the narrative forward. Die Last is a novel that will hook you in and keep you turning the pages right to the end. Your natural disappointment at finishing a terrific book will be tempered by the excellent news that Max Wolfe returns in 2018 with Tell Him He’s Dead. You can grab a copy of Die Last from all good booksellers, or by following this Amazon link.

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