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Thriller

OUTBREAK . . . Between the covers

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This is the third Luke Carlton thriller by the BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner, following Crisis (2016) and Ultimatum (2018). Carlton is a former Special Forces operative who now works for MI6, the foreign intelligence service of the United Kingdom. The novel begins in the frozen wastes of Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago formerly known as Spitzbergen, and three environmental scientists from the UK Arctic Research Station have been caught out by a blizzard and, too far from their base camp to make it back safely, they seek refuge in a hut. What they find there makes them wish they had braved the snow and wind and tried for home. They find a gravely ill man, and one of the scientists, Dr Sheila Mackenzie gets rather too close to him:

“As Dr Mackenzie turned back to face the sick man, without warning he arched his body forward off the back of the couch with surprising speed. His whole body shook with involuntary convulsions. In that same moment, he coughed violently. His mouth wide open in a rictus gape, he emitted a spray of blood, bile and mucus into the air, his face less than two feet from hers, before collapsing, quivering on to the wooden floor.”

Screen Shot 2021-06-06 at 18.46.45That, then, is the Aliens moment. Events move with terrifying speed. Mackenzie is airlifted back to England and isolation and the wheels of government and the intelligence agencies begin to whirr. Given that there is a large Russian presence in Svalbard, ostensibly for mining operations, the fingers of guilt begin to point towards Moscow, particularly when the virus is found to be man-made.

Gardner doesn’t allow either Carlton or readers pause for either thought or breath. The action zig-zags between the MI6 building at Vauxhall Cross in London, the Arctic Circle, Vilnius, Moscow, GCHQ in Cheltenham and – less exotic but rather more deadly – a down-at-heel industrial estate near Braintree.

This is an impeccably researched novel, as you would expect from someone with Gardner’s experience in the worlds of soldiering, news gathering and international affairs. Most of the story is all-too-horribly plausible, given what we know about what is euphemistically known as ‘mischief’ from Moscow and Beijing, but then Gardner has a surprise for us. The Russians are involved, certainly, but not the Russians we might have expected. To say more would spoil the entertainment but I did find the identity of the conspirators not entirely plausible, given what we know (or think we know) about terror cells operating around the world. But hey-ho, this is not a documentary but a novel – and a bloody good one, too.

Gardner has a box full of thriller writer tools, and he uses them to great effect – punchy, short chapters, many of them shamelessly cliff hanging, whirlwind globe trotting, a convincing (if rather conventional) hero, something of a romantic backstory, breathtaking amounts of cyber-wizardry, and enough military intelligence acronyms to satisfy the geekiest security geek. You won’t be surprised to hear that Carlton eventually triumphs, but I advise caution. The last twelve words of the book might set alarm bells ringing …..

Outbreak is published by Bantam Press and is out now.

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Lethal Response

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Readers first encountered Norman Townsend’s creation Paul Stafford back in 2018, in Trashed:

“Some ex-military men
find that civilian life is hard to deal with, but Paul Stafford is coping well. He has used his retirement pot to start a small recycling business and everything in the scrapyard seems to be rosy, until he wins a lucrative contract to run a further five sites. What should be a business triumph turns into a nightmare for Stafford when he realises that his new sites have been previously used by a powerful criminal organisation, and the bad guys do not take kindly to their work being interrupted. Murder and violence come as second nature to them, and when his own employees begin to feel the full clout of the gangsters, Stafford must stand and fight – both for them and his own integrity.

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lr cover017Stafford’s triumph has won him some influential friends, but also some deadly enemies. You don’t take on powerful international criminal gangs without there being a downside, and when two of Stafford’s long time buddies pay the ultimate price for being associated with him, it’s payback time. Stafford’s first job is to protect those around him from further harm, but once that is done, he will be taking no prisoners.

Something about the author. Norman’s Amazon page says:

“I’ve worked as a photographer, milkman, salesman, warehouse manager. I’ve been self-employed, I’ve bought and sold trash! Worked in the waste industry for thirty years or so, and though now retired, still buy and sell stuff. TRASHED is my first novel, and it’s based around the waste industry, recycling centres, to be specific. I’ve tried to make it a fast paced, exciting read. Literary Fiction it ain’t, but it’s getting good reviews from real readers. Thank you folks, for that”

Lethal Response is published by Matador/Troubadour and is available now.
 

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WEDDING STATION . . . Between the covers

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Coming late to a well-established series can pose problems for a reviewer but, happily, this book is a prequel to the six published previously. The series is known as the Station Series, written by David Downing, and featuring the investigative crime reporter John Russell. The titles all take their names from railway stations around Berlin. They are Zoo Station (2007), Silesian Station (2008), Stettin Station (2009), Potsdam Station (2010), Lehrter Station (2012), and Masaryk Station (2013).

Fans of the books will have to excuse me while I paint a quick background picture. It is early 1933, and Hitler has been Chancellor for just a few weeks. We begin just hours after the Reichstag fire, and the SA – Sturmabteilung – are going about their grisly business with renewed vigour. Russell is English, a veteran of WW1 – and a former communist – but due to his marriage (now failed) to a German woman, he can happily say, “Ich bin ein Berliner.

WS coverWhile reporting on the death and mutilation of a young rent boy, Russell is asked by a friend to take on another case, this time on behalf of a senior army officer whose daughter is missing. It is a delicate business, because there is a strong suspicion that Lili Zollitsch has run off with a boyfriend who is an active member of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands.

Russell seems to collect mysterious deaths and disappearances like some men collect stamps. Hard on the heels of the Colonel’s missing daughter, he hears that a prominent genealogist has been killed in what seems to be a case of hit-and-run. One of Herr Mommsen’s most popular services had been producing evidence of racial purity – as in no trace of Jewish blood – for his clients. Had he made a rather unfortunate discovery and signed his own death warrant? If this weren’t enough, a well-known astrologer has gone missing – believed permanently – and when Russell investigates via one of Harri Haum’s customers he is astonished when she tells him that in a crystal ball-reading session a few days before the event, the seer had predicting the burning of the Reichstag.

But there is yet more for Russell to deal with. One of the friends of the murdered rent boy contacts the journalist and hands him the dead lad’s diary, in which he has faithfully recorded the names of his clients, as well as intimate physical descriptions. As Russell turns the pages, he finds the names of prominent members of the SA. Now while homosexuality is – along with communism, and being Jewish – a big no-no in the eyes of the Schutzstaffel (SS) it is a different matter in the rival organisation, the SA. The SA’s head, Ernst Röhm along with a good number fellow brownshirts are, as coy newspaper obituaries used to say, “confirmed bachelors.”

The final straw for Russelland one that very nearly breaks the back of the proverbial desert beast of burden – is when a knock on the door of his apartment reveals a young woman called Evchen who, years earlier, was a communist comrade. Not only is she still a party member, she has just shot dead one SA trooper and seriously injured another. And now she seeks shelter. How Russell gets himself out of these various pickles is gripping stuff. Some of the tension is obviously diminished by the fact that we know that the journalist survives to feature in six further books, but it is still a very good read.

We are clearly in Bernie Gunther territory here, and comparisons are inevitable, but in no way negative. This is a compelling read and a chill reminder – if any were necessary – of the gathering storm facing Germany and the wider world in the 1930s. Wedding Station is published by Old Street Publishing. The hardback is available now, and the paperback version will be out on 4th May.

SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME . . . Between the covers

This is a strange one, and no mistake. Not the book itself, which is perfectly readable, but the title. Mainly because the one thing it isn’t is Robert B Parker’s. It’s Ace Atkins, re-imagining the world of the tough wise-cracking Boston PI, Spenser. I suppose it must be some legal stipulation from the estate of Spenser’s creator (1932-2010), but it certainly makes for an unwieldy title. I was a huge fan of the forty canonical Spenser novels and, also, the equally readable Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall books, but let’s remember that Spenser was himself something of a reinvention of Philip Marlowe: a few decades later, for sure, more up for a fist fight, but still with a good line in wise-cracks and sarcastic put-downs. Unlike Marlowe, however, Spenser had a reliable repertory company of helpers, notably his alluring psychologist girlfriend Susan and the implacable and intimidating Hawk.

So, to the novel. The characters are all present and correct including (regrettably, as far as I am concerned) the latest manifestation of the dog Pearl. Pearl and her little ways used to irritate me in the original books but, to be fair, Spenser simply wouldn’t be Spenser without the doggy love, so Ace Atkins gets a reluctant star for authenticity. Spenser is asked to investigate a sex crime. Not his normal bread and butter, but a very much under-age friend of a friend has been used and abused by someone much richer and infinitely more powerful. Peter Steiner and Poppy Palmer are disgustingly rich – and have disgusting moral values. To put it bluntly, Peter likes under-age girls, and Poppy likes that he likes them, and gets her kicks from sucking them into their decadent whirlpool.

The Steiners are also well-connected. Politicians great and small, financiers, socialites, fund-raisers – mostly anyone who is anyone in Boston and further afield – all tip their hats to the Steiners. Neither does it hurt that the Steiners’ clout enables them to hire serious muscle from the criminal underworld and, as most of the child rape is conducted on a private island somewhere in the vicinity of the Bahamas, neither the Boston Police Department nor the FBI can do anything to intervene.

Spenser is, if nothing else, an extremely moral man, and the plight of the youngsters stirs him to put his hands into the hornets’ nest. He has important allies in the shape of two other long-standing members of Spenser Inc. – tough and honest cup Quirk, and the voluptuous campaigning lawyer, Rita Fiore. Despite their authority, however, neither Quirk nor Fiore can lay a glove on the Steiners while they are despoiling young lives on their Caribbean hideaway.

Clearly, in real life, things work differently. Or maybe they don’t? Much closer to home we have witnessed the appalling abuse of thousands of young girls across English towns and cities, while those in authority, like the Jew and the Levite in the parable, passed by on the other side. Maybe they weren’t swayed by money directly, but their livelihoods in social services, the police and local government would have been under threat if they had done or said “the wrong thing”. Back to the fiction, Ace Atkins sets up a terrific finale here, with Spenser and Hawk travelling to an island close to the Steiners’ lair. Not only do they face a small army of minders and gunmen, but a man known as Ruger who, a few books ago, bested Spenser and left him for dead.

Spenser’s crusade is flawed, however, because someone he counts on is working for the bad guys, and the plans to liberate the youngsters goes pear shaped. Just when you think that this is finally “it” for Spenser and Hawk, something totally unexpected happens and a certain amount of rough justice is meted out. The scandal of powerful men – not just the rich and privileged, but men with social status in their communities – abusing young children seems to be a growth area. Ace Atkins has written a scathing account of one such atrocity in America. Someone needs to have the balls to write one set in Britain. Someone To Watch Over Me is published by Oldcastle Books and is out now.

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . .The Little Man From Archangel by Georges Simenon

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Was Georges Simenon the greatest ever Belgian? He was certainly the most prolific both in his literary output and his apparently inexhaustible sexual appetite. Best known for his Maigret novels and short stories, he also wrote standalone novels. One such was Le Petit Homme d’Arkhangelsk, first published in English in 1957. This new edition, translated by Siân Reynolds (who is the former Chair of French at the University of Stirling) is, like most of Simenon’s books short – just 185 pages – but as powerful a story as he ever wrote.

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Little man013We are in an anonymous little town in the Berry region of central France, and it is the middle years  of the 1950s. Jonas Milk is a mild-mannered dealer in second hand books. His shop, his acquaintances, the café, bar and boulangerie he frequents are all like spokes of a wheel, and the hub is the bustling Vieux-Marché. Jonas appreciates his neighbours, such as Le Bouc behind the counter in his bar, Gaston Ancel the butcher, with his booming voice and bloodstained apron, and the Chaignes family in their grocery shop. Jonas values these people or, to be more precise, he values their acceptance of him, because he is an outsider. Sure, he has been in France since he was a small boy, his family – from the port on Russia’s White Sea coast – having sought refuge in France during the Revolution. They have all returned to their homeland, and Jonas does not know if they are alive or dead. He is also a Jew, but because of his fair hair and complexion he survived the attention of the Nazis during the Occupation.

Little man014 copyJonas Milk has a wife. Two years earlier he had converted to Catholicism and married Eugénie Louise Joséphine Palestri – Gina – a voluptuous and highly sexed woman sixteen years his junior. No doubt the frequenters of the Vieux-Marché have their views on this marriage, but they are polite enough to keep their opinions to themselves, at least when Jonas is within earshot. But then Gina disappears, taking with her no bag or change of clothing. The one thing she does take, however, is a selection of a very valuable stamp collection that Jonas has put together over the years, not through major purchases from dealers, but through his own obsessive examination of relatively commonplace stamps, some of which turn out to have minute flaws, thus making their value to other collectors spiral to tens of thousands of francs.

Gina has had her flings before, though, seeking physical excitement that Jonas does not provide. He has born his shame in silence, and it has never occurred to him to challenge her. This time, however, when he makes his morning purchases – his croissants, his cup of espresso – and is asked where Gina is, he makes a fatal mistake. Perhaps through embarrassment, or irritation perhaps, he tells a small lie.

“As a rule, Gina, in bedroom slippers, often with her hair uncombed, and sometimes wrapped in a flowery dressing gown, would do her shopping early on market days, before the crowd.
Jonas opened his mouth and it was then that, in spite of every instinct telling him not to, he changed the words he was going to say.
“She’s gone to Bourges.”

Four words. Each of them harmless on its own, but together, something entirely different . What happens next is a masterpiece of brilliant storytelling, as in just a few days, the world of Jonas Milk begins to unravel. Simenon’s ability to describe profound events while framing them with little inconsequential moments of observation – a blackbird pecking at crumbs in a back garden, a café owner turning his face away from the steam of his coffee machine, a wife not cleaning up the frying pan after cooking herrings – is astonishing.

You will probably read this book in a couple of sessions. Yes, it’s a short book, anyway, but my goodness, what an impact it makes. The Little Man From Archangel is published by Penguin Modern Classics, and is out on 1st April.

THE SANATORIUM . . . Between the covers

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The Sanitorium cver026Elin Warner is an English police officer. We meet her and boyfriend Will as they ride in an over-crowded car on a funicular railway. They are travelling to Le Sommet, a luxury hotel high in the Swiss Alps, where Erin’s brother Isaac and his girlfriend Laure are about to celebrate their engagement. We soon learn a few background details. Elin has been on sick leave for many months, after a serious incident. Her mother has just died of cancer, and she and Isaac have been estranged for many years.

Le Sommet has a distinctive history, as it is a former sanatorium, where tuberculosis victims were sent in pre-vaccine days in the hope that the clean mountain air would ease their suffering. Its transformation into a five star holiday destination was masterminded by a prestigious firm of Swiss architects, one of whom mysteriously disappeared at the site in the early days of the project. No trace of him has ever been found.

Pretty much as soon as Elin and Will arrive, a fierce snow storm cuts off Le Sommet from the rest of the world, and they wake after their first night in the hotel to the news that Laure has disappeared.

After a few chapters, I pictured Le Sommet as a rather diabolical cross between The Overlook Hotel where Jack and Wendy Torrance spent such an eventful winter (“Here comes Johnny….!“) and the Hotel California (“You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave…“)

Unlike the residents of the hotel, we know that there is someone out there, a killer who has an agenda. Revenge, maybe? Or perhaps a psycho with neither rhyme nor reason, other than their insanity?

There is another undertow tugging at us as we move through the chapters, and it is Elin’s suspicion that Isaac had something to do with the death of her younger brother Sam years earlier. The tragedy was deemed to be accidental, but what if the unthinkable had happened, and it was a case of fraternal jealousy taken a step too far?

Sarah PearseWhen the body count starts to rise, Elin’s professional training kicks in and, after phoning the local police for permission, she takes charge of the investigation. With no access to forensic support or police databases, she has to make do with what she has – basically her own instincts as a copper. She suspects that whatever is motivating the killer lies in the history of the hotel. Sarah Pearse (right) exploits the conventions of the locked-down/cut-off-from-the-outside-world thriller for all she is worth, and we have hidden passage ways, disused tunnels, murderers in sinister masks, and the general sense that most of the key figures in the plot are hiding secrets of one sort or another.

This is a convincing debut novel, and the author doesn’t give us a moment’s downtime in terms of tension. If there is such a thing as Anxiety Porn, then The Sanatorium is a fine example of the genre. Sarah Pearse also leaves us with an Epilogue which takes one of the assumptions made by Elin – and us readers – and turns it on its head.

The novel came out as a Kindle on 4th February (Transworld Digital) and will be available as a Bantam Press hardback from 18th February. You can find out more about the author by clicking this link.

BEFORE SHE DISAPPEARED . . . Between the covers

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It was around this time last year when I reviewed Lisa Gardner’s When You See Me, and in January 2018 Look For Me came under the Fully Booked microscope. These both featured the ‘odd couple’ Flora Dane and DD Warren, but this January the New Hampshire author has produced a standalone thriller – Before She Disappeared.

BSD coverCentre stage is a woman called Frankie Elkins. She is middle-aged and a recovering alcoholic. Her purpose in life is to find missing people. People who have been taken. People who have just walked away into oblivion. People who the police have made an effort to find, but have given up. This mission may remind British readers of the David Raker books by Tim Weaver (click the link to read more), but Frankie is rather different in that she doesn’t work for a fee. She follows cases on internet message boards and then just ups sticks, and with all her belongings in a suitcase heads of to where the trail went cold. I have to say that this was, initially, a fairly improbable premise. Frankie seems to have no money, little other than the clothes she stands up in, so why would she do this? Stay with it, though, like I did, and there will be an explanation. She carries the burden of a terrible trauma, and Lisa Gardner teases us about its actual nature until quite late in the story, and when we learn what happened, the past has a terrible resonance with the present.

In Before She Disappeared, Frankie goes to Boston, but this isn’t the upper crust Boston of the Kennedy dynasty, Leonard Bernstein or Harvard. She heads for Mattapan, a hard-scrabble and tumbledown district home to thousands of Haitians and other refugees from strife, poverty and natural disasters. Her mission? To find out what happened to Angelique Badeau, The Haitian teenager had been living with her aunt, sent to America after an earthquake devastated her home. One day she set of for school as normal, and nothing has been seen or heard of her since.

As a white woman in Mattapan Frankie is something of a curiosity, but she takes a job in a bar and slowly makes friends. The downside is that as her probing into Angelique’s disappearance starts to uncover some dark secrets, she also makes some serious – and deadly – enemies.

Frankie gains the begrudging trust of a local cop, Detective Lotham, and the pair begin to generate a certain electricity between them. This is, of course, a very handy – but perfectly plausible – plot device,as it enable Frankie to have access to all kinds of information, such as CCTV footage which, as a civilian she would otherwise not have.

The problem for Frankie is that Angelique was almost too good to be true. Studious, punctual, respectful, no boyfriend interest and certainly no connection to the local gangs, there seems to neither rhyme nor reason behind her disappearance. Then, after a more thorough search of the Badeau’s apartment Frankie makes a shocking discovery. She finds a huge stash of cash hidden in the hollow base of a standard lamp. When most of these bills are found to be rather good forgeries, the case swerves in a totally different direction.

I had in the back of my mind the comment, “a typical American thriller.” This is in no way derogatory. In the best of these books there is a slickness, a tight control over the flow of events, a sense of darkness that gives an edge without being too disturbing, and a cinematic quality. Before She Disappeared certainly fits into this slot. It is taut, sharply original and very, very readable. It is published by Century/Penguin Random House and is out now.

DOUBLE AGENT . . . In brief

DA 1Political journalist, TV news presenter – and novelist – Tom Bradby is as close to the centre of British international relations as it is possible to get without signing The Official Secrets Act. His first novel, Shadow Dancer, was published in 1998, and now his eighth book – Double Agent – which came out in hardback earlier this year, is available from 7th January in paperback.

The central character in this spy thriller is MI6 agent Kate Henderson, and fans of Bradby’s work will know her from Secret Service, which came out in 2019. Then, as now, the villains of the piece are the Russians – and those in the West who share the Russian ideology behind a mask which allows them to operate at the very centre of the British establishment.

51UTZczpwoL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_If this has an echo of the late and much-lamented David John Moore Cornwell, better known to us as John le Carré, then so be it. Bradby carries the torch for a younger generation of novelists who are intrigued by the complex relationship between the Russian soul and the British mind. In Double Agent, Kate Henderson becomes the reluctant keeper of a terrible secret – the British Prime Minister is working for the Kremlin.

How she handles this potentially deadly information makes for a riveting read for anyone who likes political thrillers. Double Agent is published by Corgi/Penguin, and is available here, and from all good bookshops. Fans of Kate Henderson will be pleased to know that a third book in this series – Triple Cross – will be out in May this year.

ONE WAY STREET . . . Between the covers

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TrevorWood-600x600Trevor Wood (left) introduced us to Jimmy Mullen in The Man On The Street (click to read my review) in October last year. Mullen is a Royal Navy veteran who has fallen on hard times. Not the first man to struggle after a military career ends, he has served time for manslaughter, lost his wife and daughter, and lives in a Newcastle hostel for homeless men. His PTSD means that his dreams are often invaded by visions of the several hells he went through in his service career. In the previous book he gained a certain temporary celebrity as the ‘Homeless Private Eye’ when he tracked down a murderer, but now life has returned to its drab normality. He still lives in the hostel, dines at The Pit Stop, a drop-in centre that feeds the homeless, goes everywhere with his dog (called ‘Dog’) and has a precarious friendship with a man called Gadge who is also homeless, but is a regular user of the computers in the local library, and has a grasp of modern technology that is often useful to Mullen.

Into Mullen’s life comes a young man called Deano. Deano is a wreck of a boy with a stack of criminal convictions, addicted to whatever can ease the pain of the next couple of hours, traumatised by being pimped out as a male prostitute, and forever searching for his missing mother and brother. Deano’s brother Ash has turned up dead in nearby Sunderland, and Deano convinces Mullen to take a look at the case, as several other youngsters have turned up dead in a variety of unpleasant ways, apparently out of their heads on Spice – a cheap and potent chemical version of cannabis.

OWS coverThe search for answers takes Mullen not just into the grimy underworld of the Newcastle drug scene, but brings him face to face with a prominent local politician, a clergyman whose teenage daughter has been leading a double life and – more painfully – the wreckage of his relationship with his ex-wife and their daughter.

On the way to resolving the mystery of the murdered children, Mullen survives attempts on his life and struggles hard to subjugate his own violent and retaliatory instincts as he encounters some seriously depraved individuals.

As you may gather, this book is not a bundle of laughs. Mullen is convincing, likeable even, but his world is full of human shipwrecks. To extend the analogy, Mullen appears at low tide, but some of the other characters are many leagues down at the bottom of the human ocean. I cannot imagine what personal research has gone into this, but Trevor Wood has produced another addictive read. One Way Street is published in Kindle by Quercus, and will be available on October 29th. It will be out in hardback in March next year.

 

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