Books Reviewed by Val McDermid Winner of this year's Golden Dagger Award All reviews originally appear in the Manchester Evening News and are kindly supplied by the author. Photo of Val by Jerry Bauer.
Mortal Spoils, by D.M.Greenwood
When it comes to covering up scandal, nobody does better at hiding their dirty linen. But curate Theodora Braithwaite realises that even the Church can't hide a corpse indefinitely. However, the corpse of the foreign bishop found propped up in a chair in the C of E's headquarters has been spirited away not once, but twice, and when Theodora agrees to help solve the mystery she finds her colleagues are motivated by matters that are far from the spiritual plane.
But when Theodora discovers that depravity and corruption go right to the heart of the church's hierarchy, she is faced with the difficult choice of whether to protect its reputation or cast the money changers from the temple.
D.M.Greenwood is herself an ecclesiastical civil servant and she brings the world she knows to vivid and unsentimental life, avoiding stereotypes and creating a vigorous cast of characters who are too flawed to be saintly, but too human to be entirely blamed. She writes entertainingly and intelligently about a church under pressure and her insights are valuable. Sharp, strong and to be savoured like a mature cheddar.
Sleeping Partner, by William Paul
Saturday night in Edinburgh and an elderly woman is battered to death, seemingly by a burglar she'd disturbed. It's an illusory start to a rollercoaster 48 hours for maverick Detective Chief Inspector David Fyfe where nothing in his private or his professional life turns out to be quite what it seems.
The respectable solicitor, the murderous Mercedes driver, the gentle giant with the violent streak, the old lover who seems to offer blackmail, and the close encounter who seems to offer new love --- nothing delivers what it promises, and Fyfe is reduced virtually to the role of bemused bystander as events unfurl before him. Warm, witty and off-the-wall wild in places, Paul reveals a different side to the Festival City that's every bit as entertaining as anything on the Fringe.
L is for Lawless, by Sue Grafton
L is number twelve in Sue Grafton's alphabet series featuring wry, prying PI Kinsey Millhone. You'd think I'd have learned by now not to start reading them last thing at night. By two in the morning, gritty-eyed, I had to admit the most successful of America's women gumshoes had me hooked yet again.
There's a seeming effortlessness to Grafton's style that speaks of solid craft. She has an eye for ambience, an ear for dialogue and, rare among American writers, a sense of irony that has enlivened Kinsey's adventures since A is for Alibi. As if that wasn't enough, she has created in Kinsey a heroine who manages to be both difficult and loveable, tough yet generously human.
With L, Grafton demonstrates that even after so many books, it's possible to avoid falling into a rut with a series character. For a kick-off, Kinsey is on holiday for what seems like the first time in years. At a loose end, she agrees to a simple favour for a friend of a friend which soon turns mystifying then nasty by turns.
On the surface, the story is pretty straightforward, with few surprises along the way. But behind Kinsey's impulsive pursuit of a lock to fit the strange key she's unearthed lies a more subtle exploration of what she understands by 'family' and her attitude to it. An orphan who grew up thinking herself alone in the world, she has recently discovered a network of relatives.
While they play no significant part in this book, Kinsey's attempts to come to terms with her new identity as a member of a large extended family resonate throughout every encounter that develops in the novel, finally unmasking aspects of Kinsey never revealed before. Witty, wise and wildly funny in places, L is for life-enhancing!
Body Blow, by Dianne Pugh
(Headline Feature, £16.99)
Families and what they do to each other is the theme of the third novel to feature financial whizz-kid Iris Thorne. Her race along the fast track to success as an investment broker seems unthreatened when a voice from her past demands help to track down his errant daughter.
Bill DeLacey wants Paula found so she can come to her mother's funeral. But Iris suspects his motives, especially when she discovers a mislaid message from his late wife frantically claiming that her husband was trying to kill her. Iris's search to uncover the truth behind the mysterious death takes her back twenty years to a time when her family were inextricably bound to the DeLaceys until murder shattered all their lives. When Iris starts asking questions, she soon discovers just how many people have built successful lives on the edifice of lies surrounding that earlier death. And when she threatens them, it's not long before Iris's career and her very life are at stake. Sharp and stylish, Pugh manages the seemingly impossible task of making a ruthless sales shark like Iris Thorne a human being we can care about. Body Blow is a multi-stranded complex of lies, betrayal and desperation that builds to a dramatic climax that strips bare the politics of human relationships. Clever and cool.
Dead of Light, by Chaz Brenchley
(Hodder & Stoughton NEL Paperback £5.99)
Contemporary crime fiction is a broad church. There isn't a subject or a style that's excluded. Often, the books that push back the boundaries are among the best, like Patricia Cornwell, Ruth Rendell or Peter Hoeg. With his latest book, Chaz Brenchley demonstrates there is still new ground to be broken, and cultivated well.
The Macallan family are a close-knit Mafia who run their city with ruthless efficiency. That, and magic. For the Macallan men are no ordinary team of villains. The unique talent that passes from one generation to another means their grip on their territory seldom slackens. That is, until someone shows up with more talent than all of them put together and Macallans start dying in ways more horrible than they could ever have imagined. It's a crisis that forces the family reject, Benedict, back into their spiky bosom. Benedict, the self-imposed outcast, the talentless one, holds the key to the serial murders that are decimating his family. But is it a key he understands? And can he bring himself to use it?
Brenchley is a writer who worms his way into the heads and hearts of his characters and tells their terrible, tragic truths. Dead of Light grips like superglue. Powerful, poetic and passionate, it reveals an assured and accomplished story-teller at the peak of his powers. Like the whisky the family shares its name with, it's magic! More details about Dead of Light.
Instruments of Darkness by Robert Wilson
(HarperCollins pbk, £4.99)
The end of the cold war sent a chill down the spines of thriller writers. What were they going to write about now? Robert Wilson solves the problem in his first novel, a taut thriller set on the West African coast they used to call the White Man's Grave.
These days, it's not malaria that piles the bodies high but the fallout from politics, corruption and international crime.
Englishman Bruce Medway is a fixer for traders, a job that's never easy but has never put him in the firing line until he makes one small misjudgement that throws him into a treacherous tangle of villainy. A minnow among barracudas, Medway threads his way through threats and torture to a final confrontation that risks everything in his bid to uncover the truth about missing expat Steven Kershaw. It's a sordid story that draws in drug running, bribery, murder and sado-masochism, set against a background of impending political turmoil.
An atmospheric and absorbing debut, Instruments of Darkness vividly paints a credible picture of a world I know almost nothing about. Now I feel like I've been there. Robert Wilson writes like a man who's been doing this half his life, creating a richly varied cast of characters who collide with Medway, usually bringing more trouble in their wake. He's added some great one-liners to the mix to make this a real winner.
Play The Fool, by Laurie R. King
When one of the city's homeless is found cremated in Golden Gate Park, the prime suspect for San Francisco homicide detectives Kate Martinelli and Al Hawkin is one of his fellow vagrants. But the man they call Erasmus is no ordinary wino -- he's an eccentric who only talks in quotations from the Bible and Shakespeare, a 'holy fool' with his own bizarre band of apostles from street people to senior academics. The unravelling of Erasmus's oblique utterances forms the core of this extraordinary novel, quite unlike any other I've read. The conventional ingredients are all there -- a puzzling whodunnit and why, a complex detective with personal difficulties to resolve, a prime suspect with a mysterious hidden past, and a clutch of red herrings. But To Play The Fool is as unconventional a crime novel as you'll ever read.
Intriguing, demanding, well crafted and better written than most, this book demonstrates that there is still fresh and stimulating ground to be broken by the crime novel. Laurie R. King's first, A Grave Talent, just out in paperback, was an award winner that demonstrated a rare new talent. To Play The Fool confirms her place as one of the most literate and gifted writers the mystery world has seen for some time.
The Phoenix of Prague, by Douglas
(Little Brown, £15.99)
As current Russian politics demonstrates, the collapse of the communist empire hasn't brought happy endings all round. In Douglas Skeggs Prague, it seems that the Czechs have simply swapped one set of brutal masters for another, slightly less official one. In this post-cold war thriller, he paints a picture of violence and corruption as pervasive and corrosive as it ever was under the Red cosh.
Jan Capek is a Czech-born British agent who is sent back to his native country to track down the source of a clutch of Old Masters appearing in the British auction roms that were once supposedly part of Ceaucescu's private collection. As Capek soon discovers, the new owner of the paintings is as ruthless as the Romanian dictator when it comes to carving out a road to power.
For Capek, nothing and no-one are quite as they seem. Old enemies become allies, and allies can never be trusted as he struggles to salvage something positive from the carnage around him.
Tough, wisecracking, fast-moving and blessed with more plot than most action thrillers, The Phoenix of Prague is a rollercoaster read that takes the reader inside the brave new world of Eastern Europe. Smells like the real thing.
A Wild And Lonely Place, by Marcia
(The Women's Press, £5.99)
Marcia Muller broke the mould back in 1977 when she created Sharon McCone, first of the feisty women private eyes. Now she's attempting to repeat that ground-breaking feat with McCone's 16th adventure. Instead of a conventional private eye novel, pounding the mean streets of San Francisco, Muller has opted to try the action thriller, jet-setting from the Caribbean to California via the Florida Keys.
Foreign diplomats in the USA are under threat from the Diplo-bomber, an elusive terrorist who delivers bombs to their doorsteps. McCone gets dragged into the hunt initially because she has a friend on the task force and subsequently because of her past connections to international security consultants RKI. Single-handedly, McCone achieves what the FBI and the police have failed to do. She spots the far from gobsmacking motive behind the bomber's actions and so targets the killer, incidentally bonding with a nine-year old moppet who made my fingers itch.
As a long-time fan of Muller's reflective writing that normally illuminates a complex and compassionate heroine, I wish I could say this is an experiment that works. Sadly, it doesn't. It's far from the only thriller with an improbable starting point, but Muller fails to distract us from that with dazzling pyrotechnics or clever plot switches.
Her previous two McCone novels were by far the best she has written; we fans will just have to hope she'll return to her previous stamping grounds with the next.
The Missing Child, by Janet Dawson
Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky were the first American wave of women PIs at the start of the 1980s. Within half a dozen years, they were nearly swamped by the crashing surf of their followers and imitators. Now, there are more women writing PI novels that I can count, and most of them read like Millhone by numbers.
Not so Janet Dawson, whose Jeri Howard never fails to enlighten and entertain, even in the grimmest of circumstances. Dawson is a writer with the courage to take on the big issues without flinching, and this time her plot revolves around the homelessness and the impact on 'nice' middle-class families when the HIV virus invades their lives.
The starting point is a murdered teenager who has abandoned life as a rich kid to hit the streets. Jeri, always driven more by curiosity than her client's narrow interests, needs to find out what traumatic event drove Maureen Smith down that road. When she discovers the runaway later became a mother, Jeri becomes obsessed with the quest to reveal what happened to the baby.
Complete with seasonal setting, great for anyone who enjoys a tight plot, an appealing heroine and an insider's guide to the Bay Area.
Day of Wrath, by Daniel Easterman
Daniel Easterman's thrillers are never less than enthralling, elegantly written and frighteningly credible. So when a writer with his gifts, Belfast born and bred yet also an expert in Islamic studies, turns his attention to combining the IRA, Muslim extremists, Christian fundamentalists and maverick British security in one tight plot, there's nothing for it but to lie back and submit to the master.
The book is set in a plausible near future, with the Irish Republic the setting for a Muslim Leaders conference aimed at hammering out a lasting Middle Eastern settlement. But the man in charge of security, Declan Carberry, has more than that on his mind.
His daughter has died in a hail of bullets meant for him, and he doesn't know why; the only woman he's ever loved has reappeared in his life; and now a gang of apocalyptic right wing Christians has been manipulated into a bizarre alliance with the IRA to kidnap the entire conference.
Before long, Declan finds his inquiry wrested from his control by strangers with a different agenda. Forced to go on the run himself, he has to stay one step ahead of everyone in a terrifyingly taut race against time. And if he loses, Armageddon waits. Stylish, shattering and spellbinding.
In The Gutter, by John Baker
(Victor Gollancz, £15.99)
Twice married Bob Dylan fan with a drink problem, Sam Turner ended up at the men's group because he didn't fancy the Esperanto class then claimed to be a private eye because it had always been his fantasy. The last thing he expected was for one of his fellow group members to hire him to spy on his wife. When the client turns into the next victim of a deranged serial killer, Sam's hooked by the need to find out what's going on. As his investigation proceeds, he collects a wild bunch of allies and employees -- a retired English teacher, a teenage street kid, an unemployed snooker player -- to form England's strangest detective agency.
Set in York, Baker's debut novel is engagingly credible, off the wall, romantic without being sentimental, with a sharp sense of humour. The plot holds few surprises, but it has a great cast of characters I look forward to encountering again.
Dead White Female, by Lauren Henderson
(Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99)
Sam Jones is a sculptor with attitude. Sexy, street wise and shrewd, she can't understand why everyone believes it's an accident when her former mentor dies at a riotous party. Especially since Sam knows Lee had secrets that someone might kill to keep hidden.
Her determination to uncover the truth takes Sam from her normal down-and-dirty beat into the world of Mayfair art galleries, international business and stakes so high that murder seems a small price to charge for self-preservation. Sexual intrigue, passion and corruption threaten to strangle Sam in their tentacles as she strives towards the truth.
My only problem was believing in the actual murder methods, which seemed unlikely and unconvincing. But cool, savvy and sharp as shiv, Lauren Henderson's tenacious heroine is the best new girl on the block I've met in a long time.
With Body, by Raymond Flynn
(Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99)
Disgraced Detective Inspector Robert Graham is exiled to a godforsaken windswept seaside resort where his bosses can forget about him. To stave off boredom, he responds to a plea from the parents of a murdered girl to reopen her murder, unsolved from years before. It's a quest that unsettles the whole town, from the family who run the place to Graham's senior officer.
Fitting his inquries round the town's routine crimes and his attempts to resolve his failed marriage, Graham unravels a mess of motives, mysteries and mistakes from the past that threaten to engulf him before he finally prevails in a solution as clever as any I've read this year.
DI Graham, with his homicidal Lakeland terrier, is an unconventional copper from the same breed as Frost and Morse. On this form, like them he should win fans and keep them.
Image To Die For, by Mike Phillips
When a crusading TV producer bent on exposing miscarriages of justice offers freelance Sam Dean a piece of the action, the journalist suspects he's only being hired because his colour gives him an entre; into the black community. But the two men have a history -- or rather, Sam and the producer's wife have a history -- and so he decides to give it a go for old times' sake.
But when one of the TV crew is brutally stabbed during a crucial interview, Sam starts to realise how much more is at stake than one convicted man's freedom. In a complex investigation that leads Sam from streets of London no tourist ever sees to the back alleys of Manchester's Moss Side, Mike Phillips takes no prisoners in his unsparing snapshot of an inner city Britain snapping at the heels of the middle classes.
It's an urban nightmare where hopes shrivel and dreams distort, where corruption is routine and the distances between black and white seem almost too wide to gulf. It's a vision of life where love is as destructive as it is redemptive, yet somehow Phillips finds a harsh humour to carry us over the chasms. This is far more than a tour of British black experience; it shines a spotlight on the way we live now.
Mean City, by Ron Mackay
(Hodder & Stoughton, £9.99)
Like Mike Phillips, Ron Mackay is a journalist who chooses to write about the world he knows from weary experience. Mean City takes the lid off the Glasgow gang wars of the last sixty years from the perspective of one of the city's top criminal family firms, and in it, Mackay draws on incidents familiar from newspaper reports of recent years.
Intercut with the history of the crushing rise of the Stark family runs the quest of a crime reporter for the next big scoop. McQuade knows something's going on, and that it involves his personal top police contact and a visiting detective from the NYPD. As journalist and cop race against time to defeat the powers ranged against them, the horrors of gang warfare pile up.
It's not surprising that an award winning journalist keeps us turning the pages, but there is more to constructing a crime novel than outlining the facts, however gruesome and gripping they are. Where Mean City disappoints is that there isn't nearly enough weight, interest or complexity in the journalist's investigation. In spite of that, and that I didn't actually like any of the central characters, this is a fascinating anatomy of criminal society.
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