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.
The Brimstone Wedding, by Barbara Vine
When Ruth Rendell writes as Barbara Vine, she signals to her readers that we are about to enter a world of damaged lives where the long shadows of old sins threaten to engulf present illusions of stability. From the first few pages of The Brimstone Wedding that delicious sense of an impending doom that will fall on someone else's head infects us, and it stays till a denoument that is at one and the same time mundane and profoundly shocking. Stella is dying, and she knows it. But a single bizarre coincidence has brought her to the one place and the one person who will allow her to unlock the dark secrets of her heart, confidences she has given to no other person and even now cannot bring herself to utter except into the non-judgemental ear of a tape recorder. Her sole confidant apart from the tapes is her care assistant, Jenny, whose own life is altered forever by the trust Stella places in her. Her struggle for answers to the questions that surround Stella teaches Jenny strange lessons, truths that mean an end to a life bound by tradition and superstition. Ruth Rendell demonstrates once more that she is the mistress of the craft of psychological suspense who is still growing and developing after nearly 50 books. She's a better mimic of other people's voices than Rory Bremner, capturing perfectly the tones and cadences of old and young, rich and poor, sophisticated and raw. And when it comes to telling a story that makes her readers put the rest of their lives on hold, she has no equal. The Brimstone Wedding reveals yet again a writer who never puts a foot wrong.
Chain of Fools, by Steven Womack
(Headline Feature, £16.99)
It's nearly 70 years since Chandler and Hammett began the hard-boiled private eye tradition. And in Steven Womack's latest Harry James Denton novel, he pays homage to their best known works, The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. No-one who has read the books or even seen the movies will manage to avoid a wry smirk of recognition at the household of General Breckenridge Jameson and his out of control younger daughter, or the gross porn king Klinkenstein and his psychopathic sidekick Mousey Caramello. But there is far more to Womack than a tip of the hat to the past. This novel is no mere pastiche of past greatness. It's a sharp reminder that although basic human nastiness doesn't change, the means and motives for damage and destruction grow ever more sophisticated and our capacity for horror is undiminished. The exploitative sex industry is the main target of Womack's sharp pen, though he doesn't spare the supposed joys of family life along the way. He writes with wit and controlled anger, setting a clutch of oddball characters against the backdrop of a Nashville that, after four books, I feel I know well enough to avoid the worst traffic jams. In the overcrowded field of private eye fiction, Steven Womack stands head and shoulders above most of the herd.
Killing Critics by Carol O'Connell
When an artist is murdered in stylish performance art style at his own opening, it reminds maverick New York cop Kathy Mallory of one of her adoptive father's unsolved cases from a dozen years before. But as soon as she starts to probe that old case, the word comes down from on high to close Mallory down. But in Mallory's world, rules exist only to be shattered at will, so, with her assortment of misfit sidekicks, she continues to bulldoze the opposition to arrive at the shocking truth of a gruesome night that turned two young people into hideously mutilated 'art works'. O'Connell's first novel to feature the dysfunctional detective, Mallory's Oracle was an extraordinary tour de force -- stylish, stunning and quite unlike anything that had gone before in its portrayal of a woman with phenomenal talents warped and damaged by childhood experiences so terrible they had to be locked away in amnesia. But this, the third in the series, has become a prisoner of its own stylised affectations. It reminded me of nothing so much as the progress of the Batman films from Tim Burton's imaginative Gothic magnificence to the self-parodying absurdities of Batman Forever. As with them, even the central character seems to have been switched for someone who is going through the expected motions, while the surrounding plot has become unlikely to the point of ridiculous. If O'Connell has an oracle, it should be telling her to abandon Mallory and turn her undoubted talent to something worthy of itself.
Designer Crimes, by Lia Matera
A couple of Lia Matera's earlier novels featuring San Francisco lawyer Laura di Palma have been sitting on my To Be Read shelves for over a year now. Somehow, I was never quite in the mood for another feisty female Californian sleuth. But Designer Crimes is all it took to turn me into a fan. Laura is fighting for her career as her clients desert her, put off by the bad-mouthing of her former boss. When she goes to another lawyer to seek advice, the woman is gunned down before her eyes. Soon, the terrifying suspicion dawns on Laura that she might have been the intended target. As her life starts to unravel at the seams, she is forced to face the frighening thought that someone out there wants her dead. In tandem with Laura's fight for survival is her attempt to find out who's behind the clever idea of the designer crimes of the title. Cheated by your employer? Sacked for no reason except to improve profits? Dumped on by the boss and left with no legal redress? Why not hire someone smart enough to design a revenge for you? The wickedly apt events that strike a whole range of California companies look too much like poetic justice to be accidental, and Laura starts to wonder if someone has hired the architect of vengeance to strike to the core of her own life. Designer Crimes races to its heart-stopping conclusions like a fast, well-tuned sports car, Matera's atmospheric prose conjuring up claustrophobic legal communities and small town small mindedness with equal vividness. Me, I'm busy catching up on the first four in the series...
See details of Face Values by Lia Matera
Truth Or Dare, by Anne Wilson
(The Women's Press, £5.99)
The pace of life in Chiswick is a little less frantic than in San Francisco, which is mirrored in the more reflective style of Anne Wilson's first novel. In the English tradition, her heroine is an amateur investigator rather than a high-flying lawyer or a smart-mouthed private eye. Sara Kingsley is a community counsellor, a divorced mother of two, who becomes obsessed by the apparent suicide of Caroline, an acquaintance who had turned to her for help that Sara couldn't provide. As she strips away the layers of Caroline's fast lane life as a journalist, recreational coke-head, rich man's wife and high flyer's mistress, Sara is increasingly sucked into a conspiracy of greed and respectability that ultimately threatens her own life. Wilson's style flows smoothly along, strong on the ambience of a community clinic and the pressures of life as a single parents, the narrator wryly humorous about her life and appropriately cynical about the people she encounters. As with many first novels, the plot tends to lack subtlety, but Anne Wilson more than compensates with a credible and interestingly drawn cast of characters. A distinctive debut.
Shooting Elvis, by
Two very different new novels demonstrate the range of current crime fiction, one introducing a new writer, the other saying farewell to a long-running character. Shooting Elvis, by R.M.Eversz is subtitled Confessions of an Accidental Terrorist, and as confessions go, it's wild, wicked and off the wall. Mary Alice Baker is naive and compliant, accustomed to doing what the men in her life tell her. When she agrees to deliver a package to LA airport for her biker boyfriend, the worst thing she can imagine is getting a parking ticket. Minutes later she learns how wrong a person can be as she staggers from the wreckage of a terminal demolished by the bomb she's just handed over. Now she's on the run, from the cops, from her ex-boyfriend and from a pair of hit men. Soon she discovers that skin-deep changes of appearance are not enough -- if she's going to survive, she has to change from the inside. Shooting Elvis shoots along at a furious pace, its black humour making shocking switchback plunges into horrific scenes of pain and fear. Throughout, though, there's something heroic about this small-town girl who is forced by circumstances into cutting a solo Thelma and Louise swathe through southern California. Fast, frightening and funny.
A Dwarf Kingdom, by Nicolas Freeling
For over thirty years, Nicolas Freeling has been one of the most innovative and interesting crime writers on the scene, writing about Europe with an insight and affection that few British novelists have ever achieved. He's never been afraid to take risks with his readers, killing off his first series hero, the popular Dutch cop Van Der Valk, in the middle of a book, then turning his widow into the protagonist of that and several subsequent books. His second successful series hero, French police commissaire Henri Castang, is let off more lightly -- he and his wife Vera are allowed to walk together into the sunset, though Freeling makes it clear that this is the last time we will be privileged to share Castang's unique explorations into the criminal mind. However, Castang's retirement is no cheery departure with handshakes all round and a gold watch presentation. When two of his closest friends are thuggishly killed before his eyes in a tranquil Brussels garden, he realises death has laid its hand on his life once too often and it's time to go. When Vera is left a seaside home by an old friend, it seems like a gift from the gods. But the gift turns sour, plunging Castang into the most painful race against time he has ever run. Freeling, arguably the first of the post-modernists, writes elegant, opinionated and elliptical prose that never loses sight of the need to move the story along. Fraught with moral dilemmas and emotional stresses, A Dwarf Kingdom is one of his richest novels yet.
Two For The Dough, by Janet
(Hamish Hamilton, £12.50)
One For The Money introduced Stephanie Plum, America's least competent bounty hunter, to gales of giggles and piles of plaudits. Now Stephanie is back with another bizarre adventure that includes death threats to her hamster, a pistol-packing grandma in a mortuary drawer, and the theft of two dozen coffins -- thankfully empty. As if it's not enough to have to track down a bail-jumping slimeball who shot his best buddy, Stephanie has to trawl the most eccentric set of funeral parlours outside an Ealing comedy as well as negotiating the assault course of her relationship -- or lack of it -- with less than candid cop Joe Morelli. All of this is set against the screwball world of the Italian community of Trenton, New Jersey, the land normality forgot. The raunchy, feisty female PI has become one of the growth areas of contemporary crime fiction, producing a mountain of novels of variable quality. Evanovich, who won the CWA John Creasey Award for Best First Novel, is one of the best of the new breed. She writes stylish smartassed prose that keeps the pages turning and the smiles flickering round the corners of your mouth. Her novels may lack the heart of Sue Grafton or the guts of Sara Paretsky, but for sheer readability, it's hard to fault her. Slick, sassy and surreal, Two For The Dough is the kind of romp that makes you hope your train journey will last long enough to finish it.
Destruction, by Martin Edwards
Harry Devlin might be down at heel and frayed round the edges, but when it comes to having a nose for a mystery, he's the smartest solicitor in Liverpool. When his latest client reveals he's been bugging his wife to get evidence for divorce, Devlin finds more on the telephone tapes than meets the ear. But when he starts to dig deeper, a simple matrimonial escalates without warning into bloody carnage that leaves three bloody bodies on the floor of a deconsecrated church. His private life too is dogged by inexplicable events and peculiar reactions from everyone around him, from his business partner to the woman he lusts after. The mysteries he has to solve there shed light in turn on the puzzle of the sudden savage murders. Edwards lays the clues out neatly for the reader, providing his own battle of wits to parallel Devlin's path through the labyrinth, but making it slightly easier for us than he does for his hero. The chameleon city of Liverpool has proved a dramatic background for Edwards' previous Harry Devlin novels, revealing itself in all its seediness and splendour. While Eve Of Destruction is full of fascinating nuggets about Liverpool, particularly its murderous history, the city itself is less present than it has been before. In spite of that, Edwards still produces an atmospheric addition to the traditional English mystery.
Nathan's Run, by John Gilstrap
(Little, Brown, £12.99)
Nathan is on the run. At twelve, he's been branded a cop killer, an escapee and so dangerous he should be shot on sight. It's not a great career move for a kid who, twenty-four hours before, was a lonely orphan sentenced to juvenile detention for car theft. But nothing is quite as it seems on the surface of Nathan's life. far from being a ruthless criminal, he's a frightened little boy -- a victim rather than a villain, on the run from a hitman who's even more of a threat than the cops.
But America has made its mind up. And as Nathan flees, he hears himself condemned on a radio phone-in hosted by the queen of the badmouth brigade. Bewildered and scared, he picks up a phone and calls The Bitch and slowly but surely over the airwaves, the terrifying truth starts to emerge.
But among the forces of law and order, only one man believes in Nathan's innocence. Nathan's Run is an electrifying race against time as the kid keeps one step ahead of twin pursuers who each have their own agenda to fulfill. Compelling, page turning and stacked with suspense, this is a thriller that tugs at the heart without spilling over into sentimentality and delivers a message that never interferes with the story.
Official and Doubtful, by Ajay Close
(Secker & Warburg, £10)
Nan Megratta runs the dead letter department of the Glasgow Post Office, normally a place where careers go to die. But for her it seems tailor-made since Nan has buried her own secret so deep she can barely see it herself. Then one day, she finds a blackmail letter in the pile. The only question is who it's meant for. She narrows down the possible identity of the recipient to three Macleods. Danny is a high profile Labour MP, a philanderer with political skeletons in his cupboard. Imogen is a former feminist high-flyer reduced to newspaper agony aunt, whose own secrets of the heart would break more than her own. Callum is an entrepreneur with fingers in several pies, some of them containing Class A drugs. Each recognises in Nan a fellow keeper of secrets and liver of lies, and the more her life intertwines with theirs, the more of her own past resurfaces, like a vast killer whale slowly rising over the waves to breathe.
Using the format of a mystery novel, Close employs her protagonist's search for the victim and the blackmailer as the vehicle for an exploration of the nature and function of lies and trust. This is an atmospheric and tense read, making the reader as edgy as the characters whose lives are unpicked in its pages. A welcome addition to the list of exciting young Scottish novelists.
Naked In Death, by J.D.Robb
(Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99)
In the 22nd century, guns have been outlawed, prostitution is a respectable, legal career and genetic defects are corrected in the womb. It's a society where murder and rape are rare, and money can buy just about anything, including a great body.
So when police lieutenant Eve Dallas is called to a murder scene, she's astonished to find a prostitute brutally killed by three perfectly aligned bullet wounds. The accompanying note says 'One of Six'. When she returns home to find the murderer has left her a video disk that shows the killing in grisly detail, she knows she's got a real psychopath on her hands. As the bodies pile up, Eve finds an irresistible attraction to her prime suspect, and she's forced to confront the tormented history she's tried to bury under her devotion to her job.
In spite of futuristic setting, Naked In Death isn't really sci-fi, more a conventional murder mystery with a neat twist in the tail and a hi-tech gloss. Nevertheless, it's a fast, sexy read that demonstrates how human nature is the one thing that never changes.
Bitter Business, by Gini
Corporate lawyer Kate Millholland likes the rough and tumble of stitiching up deals with her fellow professionals. But when a dying colleague passes on his oldest clients to her, she's forced to enter the feverish atmosphere of a family firm about to go into meltdown.
Lydia Cavanaugh, the spoilt brat of the chemical company family, is determined to sell her stock, a decision that rocks the rest of the dysfunctional bunch. But when a secretary dies mysteriously, followed by the even more suspicious death of the only likeable member of the Cavanaugh clan, Kate finds herself embroiled in the kind of case her gilt-edged law firm has never encountered before. The more she finds out, the more skeletons tumble from the troubled family's closets. As if that isn't enough, her own life is at a crossroads. A comfortable relationship demands decisions at the same time as raw emotion is stirring somewhere else in her life.
This is a gothic tragedy of a novel, with shades of King Lear, but it's written in the cool prose of a legal thriller. The suspense keeps the pages turning, and Kate Millholland is a complex heroine with human failings that give Bitter Business a genuine warmth.
Moonrise, Sunset, by Gopal Baratham
(Serpent's Tail, £8.99)
Although Singapore is an island where violence is far from a stranger, when people are killed it has always been for discernible motives. So when How Kum Menon's lover Vanita is stabbed to death asleep in his arms, the first victim of a seemingly deranged serial killer, no-one knows how to deal with it. The first response of the police is to attempt to beat a confession out of How Kum, then, realising he is innocent, to forge a strange alliance with him in the hope that his desire for vengeance will merge with theirs for a conviction.
More help attaches itself to the investigation from even stranger quarters, and motives for the murder lead How Kum into explorations of every aspect of Singaporean life from corruption to religion. Moonrise, Sunset is an appealing novel, its narrator an unwittingly ironic commentator on his environment and its occupants. Brain surgeon Baratham vividly conjures up both the landscape and the culture of the Singapore where he lives and works, and that's what makes this book the fascinating experience it is.
The Big Killing, by Robert Wilson
Thriller writer Robert Wilson broke new ground with his first novel set in West Africa, and he returns to the same geographical and psychological territory for fixer Bruce Medway's second outing. Medway, a loser who finds his survival anew each day in a bottle, is more broke than usual, which is why he takes on three jobs at once -- resolving problems at his regular patron's factory, acting as minder for a rich diamond trader, and making a delivery for a porn merchant.
But nothing is ever simple in Medway's shady world, where trades are never straightforward, politics is another word for casual violence and people are there to be used and discarded. Soon the vicious killings of a man known only as The Leopard are headline news all over the Ivory Coast, and every step Medway takes seems to bring him closer to The Leopard's claws. And betrayal lurks just below the surface of every contact he makes.
There is too much running around from one location to another, making it hard to follow the extremely complex and multi-layered plots. But the ambience of steamy West African life is captured so strongly you can almost taste it. Wilson clearly has a love/hate relationship with the place, and he dissects a way of life where corruption is as open as it is endemic without judging, preferring to explain why, for example, even a decent police chief needs to take bribes. A creditable second novel.
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