Monday, 21 October 2013

Book Review: TALKING TO THE DEAD by Harry Bingham

Talking to the Dead

Talking to the Dead
Author: Harry Bingham
Publisher: Hachette Book Group
Read: October 10 - 15, 2013

Synopsis (Amazon):
For rookie detective constable Fiona Griffiths, her first major investigation promises to be a tough initiation into Cardiff's dark underbelly. A young woman and her six-year-old daughter have been found brutally murdered in a squalid flat, the single clue a platinum credit card belonging to a millionaire businessman who died in a plane crash six months before. For her fellow cops, it's just another case of a low-rent prostitute meeting the wrong kind of client and coming to a nasty end, but Fiona is convinced that the tragic lives and cruel deaths of this mother and daughter are part of a deeper, darker mystery. Fiona, however, has secrets of her own. She is still recovering from a crushing psychological breakdown, and the feelings which haunt her are constantly threatening to undermine the mask of normality she has learned to wear. As she begins to piece together a bizarre and terrifying conspiracy, Fiona finds that what makes her vulnerable also gives her a unique insight into the secrets of the dead, and in solving the murders of Janet and April Mancini she can begin to start solving the riddles of her own past.

My thoughts:

When I saw Harry Bingham’s novel Talking to the Dead being compared to the writing of Stieg Larsson and Tana French, two of my favourite crime writers, it made me instantly curious but it also meant that the story had a lot to live up to. And it did! Introducing an interesting new protagonist, troubled Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths, Talking to the Dead opened the door to a gripping new series of police procedurals set in Wales, one which is sure to attract a wide audience of readers who enjoy a solid police procedural with a main character who is slightly different from your mainstream heroine.

Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths, a Cambridge graduate and relatively new recruit in the Wales police department, is investigating a case of police corruption when she is drawn into the investigation into the brutal murder of a prostitute and her six-year-old daughter in a squalid Cardiff flat on the wrong side of town. A credit card belonging to a millionaire recently killed in a plane crash is one of the only clues found on the scene. Fiona, who is still battling the effects of a mental illness which stole two years of her life as a teenager, is finding herself drawn to the murder victims, determined to bring their killer to justice. When her investigations into the owner of the credit card throw up strange connections to her other case, she finds herself stirring a hornets nest of corruption, unwittingly putting herself in the path of people who will do anything to keep their assets protected.

Fiona is an interesting protagonist with a fresh engaging voice and I found myself instantly drawn into the story and the mystery surrounding her own secrets, which are gradually revealed as the plot unravels. In his blog Sharing a Head with Fiona Griffiths, author Harry Bingham says that he wanted Talking to the Dead to revolve as much around the mystery of Fiona’s character as it does around the crime she’s investigating – and he has certainly achieved that. Without the graphic or action packed scenes of other contemporary murder-mysteries, it is Fiona who carries the storyline, her unpredictable and definitely somewhat odd character keeping the reader enthralled.

Fiona’s battle with her mental illness is well portrayed, especially her feelings of depersonalisation and isolation as well as her impulsiveness and at times lack of common sense and forethought. This is very clever, as it allows for her actions to be very un-police like at times, especially when she sets off alone in pursuit of dangerous criminals and gets herself in all sorts of sticky situations. Throughout her journey of self-discovery, hastened by the emotions this case brings out in her, Fiona is being brutally honest about her feelings, which I not only found touching and endearing but which also got me into her head very quickly. There is a little bit of Fiona in most of us at times, the feelings of inadequacy, of not fitting in, of not quite fitting the mould, which enabled me to relate to her quite well. With her troubled past and sometimes unorthodox methods, Fi follows in the line of other plucky but troubled crime novel heroines such as S. J. Bolton’s Lacey Flint (one of my favourites) or Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander.

I did find Fiona’s tendency to go out on her own and take matters into her own hands a bit far fetched at times (especially towards the end of the novel), but not to the point where it was totally unbelievable – and let’s face it, if it weren’t for her adventures the standard police investigation would make for a rather boring read. There is one scene in the morgue which was slightly off-kilter and almost spoilt an otherwise solid plot – but fortunately this was adequately explained later on in the book, which mollified me somewhat. I also thought that the scenes in the lighthouse were a bit rushed and would have benefited from a bit more depth and explanation – after the long slowish lead-up, the final unravelling of the plot finally brought the action I had been anticipating, but it was all over all too soon. None of it however impaired my reading pleasure or my total absorption in the book.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed Talking to the Dead and was thrilled to receive the next instalment in the series, Love Story with Murders, through Netgalley – which I am currently reading (and which is shaping up to be just as good as the first one). Strongly recommended – this will be one crime series to watch, and to provide many hours of entertainment yet to come.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Book Review: WEB OF DECEIT by Katherine Howell

Web of Deceit (Detective Ella Marconi, #6)

Title: Web of Deceit
Author: Katherine Howell
Publisher: Macmillan Australia
Read: September 20 - October 10, 2013

Read an Excerpt: click here

Synopsis (Goodreads):

When paramedics Jane and Alex encounter a man refusing to get out of his crashed car with bystanders saying he deliberately drove into a pole, it looks like a cry for help. His claim that someone is out to get him adds to their thinking that he is delusional.

Later that day he is found dead under a train in what might be a suicide, but Jane is no longer so sure: she remembers the terror in his eyes.

Detective Ella Marconi shares Jane's doubts, which are only compounded when the case becomes increasingly tangled. The victim's boss tries to commit suicide when being questioned, a witness flees their attempt to interview her and a woman is beaten unconscious in front of Jane's house.

Ella is at a loss to know how all these clues add up and then a shocking turn of events puts even more people in danger...

My thoughts:

I have always thought that paramedics would make great protagonists of a crime novel, coming in contact with all sorts of different people and crime scenes. I was thrilled to see that not only did Katherine Howell realise this potential, but she also executed it with such skill that she has created a truly remarkable series of police procedurals featuring charismatic detective Ella Marconi as well as various paramedic teams – and as an extra bonus, they are all set in Australia.

Paramedics Alex and Jane are called to a motor vehicle accident in Sydney, car vs power pole. The driver, Marco Meixner, appears unhurt, but extremely distressed, claiming he is being followed and in danger of his life but unwilling to give more information about his alleged pursuer. At first Alex and Jane put his claims down to a psychiatric disorder and delusional thoughts, but when he is found dead under a train later that afternoon, they start to believe that there may have been a sinister truth to his claims. Detective Ella Marconi, who is sent to investigate the incident, discovers that Marco was the sole witness of a murder seventeen years ago, leading to the conviction of the perpetrator, who has just recently been released on parole. When she starts digging into Marco’s past it soon becomes apparent that there are secrets he has hidden from his wife and friends – which someone is trying to protect at all costs and may just be the reason he had to die.

I love Howell’s writing style – whilst Ella Marconi features in every book in the series, she introduces different paramedics in each novel, their lives providing a parallel storyline to the crime under investigation. Here we learn of Jane’s secret affair with a famous lover, which goes terribly wrong, whilst single father Alex battles with his recalcitrant teenage daughter Mia. Their experiences on the streets of Sydney provide the reader with many interesting snippets of the everyday work of a paramedic. Drawing on her own experiences in the profession, the stories are believable and engaging, the information accurate and detailed enough to also hold the interest of readers who are in the medical profession. Her “warts and all” approach paints a realistic picture of life on the city streets and the city’s inhabitants. This is no glorified Hollywood movie - unlike many other crime novelists she is not afraid to unmask the boring and tedious side of police work, which form a large part of any investigation, such as workplace politics and restrictions such as funding cuts and red tape. Neither does she hold back when it comes to the everyday experiences of her paramedic protagonists, which can be horrific enough to result in lasting mental scars for Alex, who still battles with PTSD after attending an MVA resulting in the death of a teenage girl a few months ago.

Ella herself is a likeable protagonist, who struggles with issues in her own personal life, such as her new love affair with a young doctor who is suddenly giving her the cold shoulder. In fact, the dynamics of human relationships underpin every part of Web of Deceit – a parent worried about his teenage daughter, a jilted lover, a jealous girlfriend, an abused partner, a bereaved wife … each emotion presented in a heart-felt fashion which instantly grabs the reader and drives the storyline. I was especially touched by a scene describing the reaction of a young pregnant wife when told by police that her husband had been killed – it read heartfelt and true, like so many of the emotion driven scenes in Web of Deceit.

I loved this book so much that I immediately rushed out to get an earlier book in the series – Frantic – and I am deeply engrossed in it already. Katherine Howell is evidence of the great talent we have in Australia when it comes to crime fiction, and it is easy to see why Web of Deceit was nominated for the Ned Kelly Award 2013. I can see the writing on the wall that this will be one book series that will be utterly addictive and hold me in its grip for many hours yet to come. Highly recommended.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Book Review: SOFT TARGETS by John Gilstrap

Title: Soft Targets
Author: John Gilstrap
Publisher: Kensigton Books
Read: September 21 - 22, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):
"Rocket-paced suspense."--Jeffery DeaverFour children's lives hang in the balance. A vicious criminal is on the loose. With law enforcement at a dead end, there's only one man who can recover the hostages--Jonathan Grave.

FBI Special Agent Irene Rivers is horrified to learn that because of mistakes made by agents under her command, a murderer and child molester will walk free. When Irene's own daughters become the monster's next targets, she reaches out in desperation to an elite Special Forces operator. His name is Jonathan Grave. For Grave, results matter more than procedures. Together, they discover a new kind of justice--and a new breed of evil. . .

My thoughts:

I have fond memories of reading my first John Gilstrap novel At All Costs whilst on a holiday in Augusta with friends many years ago – which made me extremely bad company as I was holed up in my room compulsively reading until I had finished, emerging stunned and bleary eyed for short moments only to get food and water.

Unfortunately Soft Targets did not have the same effect on me. Had I realised that the story was a novella rather than a full-length novel I might have hesitated before starting to read it. I have found in the past that novellas rarely manage to pack in a wholesome and fulfilling crime story, with character development or plot suffering from the need to wrap things up in a hundred pages or so. Soft Targets was no exception. Whilst the general story outline held promise, fitting a complex plot into a novella came at the expense of character development. Irene Rivers’ two children are kidnapped, and the first person she contacts is a Catholic priest – really? Strangely, Irene does not seem overly perturbed that her children could be in the hands of a child molester, seeming more worried about her job as FBI Agent, careful not to overstep any boundaries. Actually, she manages to live through the whole ordeal with minimum emotional involvement, which made her a rather uninteresting, shallow character for me. Jonathan Grave and his mate Boxers held a more promise, which however was thwarted by trying to fit a complex plot (plus a rather substantial red herring) into a mere 127 pages.

All in all, the story did not live up to its full potential and left me unfulfilled and rather disappointed in an author who I know can do better.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Please note that the final published copy may vary from the one I reviewed.