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Crime Fiction Lover

Review - Preserve The Dead by Brian McGilloway

Detective Sergeant Lucy Black of the Derry police force leads a full and complex life. Her father is suffering the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and has been badly beaten by another inmate at the secure unit he’s currently in. But before she can complain about his treatment a body is discovered floating in the river that passes beneath the unit. Black drags the corpse ashore. It’s an old man, fully dressed and appearing as if he’s been at a funeral.

Investigation shows the old man was dead before he went into the river. Actually he was ready to be buried and had been embalmed. So how did he end up in the river and why?

With the corpse taken away and questions swirling in her mind, Lucy heads home to her father’s house, only to get sucked into a domestic abuse case. One of her neighbours asks for help. His sister’s wife, Fiona, has been badly beaten. Lucy agrees, but she doesn’t declare herself to be police in case it scares Fiona off and makes her return to her husband. Lucy awakes the next day to find she’s landed another case. A homeless man has been found in the compacter of a rubbish truck. He’d been emptied into the truck from a bin he’d been sleeping in. Only it wasn’t the compacter that killed him. The tramp had been beaten up first.

Lucy returns to the case of the floating man. She learns someone was cremated in his place, but all they have left are the ashes and some metal pins and plates. One of the plates is from the skull and it has a large cut in it. Seemingly the person was killed by a blow to the head. With multiple mysteries on her hands Lucy carries on digging and it appears the case of the homeless man and the unidentified cremation are connected. It transpires homeless men have been going missing all over Derry, drawn towards the offer of work by a mystery man in a van. But who was cremated and why was he killed? And how is he linked to Fiona’s husband, the wife beater? What Lucy eventually finds shocks her to the core.

Preserve The Dead is the second novel featuring DS Lucy Black. From the first page she is beset with a series of issues to resolve personally and professionally. Her father has Alzheimer’s, but there’s also the a difficult relationship with her mother, who left Lucy and her father when she was eight and happens to now be the Acting Chief Constable so is ultimately Lucy’s boss. The characterisation is strong. For example, it’s particularly easy to associate with Lucy and her troubles.

The book operates well enough as a stand-alone novel with minimal reference or impact from previous story lines. The only significant element is the tension with her partner Robbie, who was previously injured in a car bomb meant for Lucy. It’s a wise aspect to add, though, as it adds another dimension to her trouble and complex life.

One slight disappointment with the book is the editing. Sometimes the diction is repetitive and there are some mangled sentences. This aside, Preserve The Dead is a very good read and will appeal to anyone who enjoys police procedurals or strong female leads. McGilloway is a rising star in the crime world, and deservedly so.

Originally reviewed for Crime Fiction Lover.

Rating: Four Stars

Review - Dexter Is Dead by Jeff Lindsay

Dexter Morgan is in a Miami prison, in the section reserved for the worst of criminals. He’s being held for the murder of three people, his wife, his lover and a man by the identity of Robert Chase. Worse still the police are claiming Dexter is a paedophile. But this time Dexter is innocent. Chase is the killer and he’s the paedophile who had designs on Dexter’s children.

Dexter was arrested by Detective Anderson, a cop who hates him with a passion. As a result he’s been in prison for an age, the system seemingly arrayed against him. No-one seems willing to spring Dexter, not even his sister, Deborah. She knows Dexter and his desires and has sided with him before, but now even she has had enough. Deborah arrives at prison with papers for Deter to allow her to legally adopt his children. She has disowned him, and Dexter is alone.

Weeks go by until Frank Kraunauer turns up at the prison. He’s the best and therefore most expensive legal eagle in Miami, and even the police are scared of him. He gets Dexter out on bail immediately. It transpires that Dexter’s equally depraved brother, Brian, has put up the bail money. Dexter is surprised, Brian isn’t wealthy, so where did the money come from?

Dexter goes to ground in a hotel, he checks in but heads out immediately to see Deborah and hand over the papers. On his return he finds two bodies. One on the bed, the other in the wardrobe. It looks like one was awaiting his return, someone else entered and a fight ensued. Someone is still after Dexter.

The US cover.

Brian reveals he stole money from a drug baron, Raul, whom he was working for. The dead are Raul’s men. With Anderson still hot for Dexter’s head and the clock ticking before he’s back in prison he needs answers. When Deborah gets in touch and says the children have been taken Dexter knows who has them and what to do about it. But will it be the end for Dexter?

This is the eighth, and final, installment in Lindsay’s hugely popular Dexter series, the serial killer everyone roots for. It featured in our list of the best serial killer series – one of the most popular articles on our site, and there’s even a Dexter wiki. By day Dexter is a blood spatter pattern analyst with the Miami Dade police force, by night he hunts the killers that have slipped through the net.

Many will lament his passing, myself included. The hugely successful books spawned a successful television series which ran for eight seasons, garnering a following of its own and 23 Emmy nominations. It depicted Dexter at his dark and gory best, yet allowed the characters to develop and grow.

In Dexter is Dead our favourite serial killer isn’t his usual, incisive self throughout. He makes mistakes, gets a bit confused and has conflicting feelings, particularly after Deborah disowns him. For a murderer who operates without qualms this is a surprise to him, it will probably surprise you as well. He tends to stumble through the plot, bumping into one issue, resolving it, then moving onto the next, only Brian at his side. He seems lost and trying to find his place. For a man who was so certain of his goals in life it’s disturbing. There’s no real plan here, beyond the next objective, until the end when he faces up to Raul and knows what to do… sort of.

The opening paragraph says, “It wasn’t supposed to end this way.” That’s the thread within the novel, Lindsay setting up Dexter for the conclusion. It’s clear to see why and what he’s done on the final page, but it does drag the story down a bit and dulls Dexter’s incisiveness. The finale will more than likely please some people but I was somewhat disappointed. As ever a good plot, but a sad ending…

Originally reviewed for Crime Fiction Lover.

Rating: Three Stars

Review - The Samaritan by Mason Cross

There’s a serial killer operating in Los Angeles, here in Mason Cross’ latest Carter Blake thriller. Trouble is, nobody realises it until the mutilated body of a young woman is found in the Santa Monica mountains after torrential rain produces a mud slide and reveals her body. When officers begin to investigate the dump site they find more bodies. Each victim was mutilated before the coup de grace: having their throats cut using an unusual knife which leaves behind a distinctive wound.

LAPD detective Jessica Allen has just recently transferred to the force. On viewing one of the corpses Allen knows she’s seen the killer’s handiwork previously. The cut is unmistakable. It’s a killer she’s remained keen to catch. She and partner Mazzucco begin to piece together the case. The killer preys on lone female drivers who’ve broken down. Dubbed The Samaritan by the press, but there’s nothing good about him. Somehow he manages to persuade them to get into his vehicle and sadly for them, it’s the last thing they do. Allen’s work and background knowledge prove that The Samaritan has been operating undetected for a long time and across many US states. But what has brought him to LA?

Carter Blake, ex-military and now private contractor for hire, is in LA too. He finds missing people and he’s very good at it. After wrapping up his latest assignment he sees the news. The manner of the women’s death has been leaked and Blake believes he knows The Samaritan. So he begins his own investigation and offers his help to the LAPD but Mazzucco turns him down, much to Allen’s frustration.

As the case widens The FBI enters the frame and Allen loses the investigation to them. She wants to catch The Samaritan, whatever it takes, and starts working with Blake behind Mazzucco’s back. As the net tightens around the killer, the real reason he’s in LA is revealed. Blake and Allen are in a race to prevent more deaths – can they find The Samaritan before he goes to ground again and starts killing elsewhere? Time is against them…

Mason Cross is a Scottish writer producing American crime thrillers and he does it very well. One of the strongest points in his writing is the American styling that pervades the novel, from spelling conventions right through to mannerisms and observations. Although this is the second Carter Blake novel it can easily be read as a standalone. The opening chapters set up the narrative very well, with an introduction to Blake’s special seek-and-destroy skills.

Blake operates in first person perspective and an air of mystery is maintained about him. Blake isn’t his real name, for instance. Snippets of his past are revealed, while keeping the rest closed off, presumably for the future. The remaining characters are covered in third person narrative and because there are so many of them it’s easy to lose track now and again. There’s a mixture of chapters for Blake, Allen, Mazzucco, the killer and so on…

This is a minor flaw with in an overall package which is tightly woven and continues at a very high pace. It really is a difficult novel to put down. The characterisation is strong, the sense of place powerful and Cross’ scenic descriptions vivid and compelling. This is a very well written crime thriller and Carter Blake deserves many more outings.

Originally reviewed for Crime Fiction Lover.

Rating: Four Stars

Review - The Jump by Doug Johnstone

One day Ellie’s teenage son, Logan, committed suicide by stepping off the apex of the Forth Road Bridge and plunging to his death. Less than six seconds from stepping over the railing to smashing into water as hard as concrete. In the intervening six months Ellie has been struggling to cope with her loss. She can’t understand why Logan did it, there were no signs of his unhappiness, his intent. She and her husband are simply existing, each getting through via their own coping mechanisms.

Ellie walks for miles, swims and has tattoos of Logan and the bridge all over her body. Almost every day she leaves her house that sits in the bridge’s shadow and climbs to the point where Logan jumped, trying to imagine what it was like. She posts messages on his Facebook page and even watches CCTV footage of Logan’s last moments, all in an attempt to make sense of life and death. Meanwhile, her husband has become a conspiracy theorist. He believes a chemical has been released into the atmosphere that drives people to their deaths and Logan succumbed to it.

But then everything changes. On one of her walks Ellie meets a young man, just a few years older than Logan, who’s about to jump from the same point on the bridge. Ellie talks Sam down and so begins a series of events that will change the course of their lives. Ellie learns that Sam has just stabbed his father, a policeman. He survived but is in intensive care. He did it because his father was interfering with his 11-year-old sister, Libby. Ellie decides to help both Sam and Libby, undertaking a crusade to save them from their father, and herself from her unhappy existence. With the help of her husband Ellie goes to the furthest reaches of what is lawful in order to do so, and beyond.

Doug Johnstone is an author who counts the likes of Ian Rankin, Irvine Welsh and Chris Brookmyre among his admirers and, on the strength of The Jump, it’s easy to see why. This is a real page turner, the narrative deceptively fast. It took me only two sittings to chew through this novel. The basis for the unfolding events – suicide and incest – are dealt with bluntly, but with sufficient sensitivity. It’s like the author’s wrapped a brick in velvet and hit you over the head with it a couple of times. Smooth and blunt.

For example, Logan’s suicide is relatively graphic. Ellie calculates how many seconds (5.6 to be precise) it takes to fall from the bridge, thinks about the impact of the fall on the human body, and studies the description of the CCTV footage. It’s painful and in your face, but it isn’t gratuitous. There’s real empathy generated. And by doing so the author creates some very strong motivations for his major characters, us mere mortals would probably go running to the police, unable to take the steps that Ellie and Sam do. Johnstone keeps it just the right side of grim and believable.

Given the subject matter there can’t be a truly happy ending, but it is satisfactory, nevertheless. The characters get about the best out of it that they can. And from where they started that’s a pretty good deal…

Originally reviewed at Crime Fiction Lover.

Rating: Four Stars

Review - The Girl Who Wouldn't Die by Marnie Riches

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Written by Marnie Riches — Georgina (George) McKenzie is a Cambridge University student on exchange in the lurid city of Amsterdam. When a bomb goes off outside the university where she is studying politics, no-one seems able to explain why it was targeted. George can’t help herself but get involved and pulls along her reluctant friend Ad. After she writes a blog post about the bomb the officer in charge of the investigation, Detective Paul van den Bergen, enlists George in his investigative efforts. Very soon they realise that a person was part of the bomb. In a large box with the device was one of George’s classmates. Then another bomb goes off with a second of George’s class killed. Why are they being blown up, and by whom?

In South London, Ella Williams-May is a girl in trouble. She and her mother are being targeted by a local gang, led by Danny. When Ella is caught stealing handbags to make ends meet she’s forced to become an informant by the police. Ella inveigles her way into Danny’s gang, leading a dangerous double life.

As George, Ad and van den Bergen race against time to find the bomber they discover that George herself may be the target. Can van den Bergen save her?

This is a smart debut crime novel from Marnie Riches. It switches between gaudy Amsterdam, narrated by a suitably coarse George, and down at heel South London, in two seemingly unconnected story lines. The jump between the two is jarring at first. There’s no clear signposting when you step from one strand into the other. However, the plot is pacy and compelling enough to maintain the interest and when the link is finally made, it’s well worth it.

There are several major strengths in this novel. First and foremost is the sense of place. The majority of the plot occurs in Amsterdam, with a smattering of Cambridge gentility, some events in Germany along with a parallel plot in gritty south east London. The Dutch location comes through the strongest and suits George’s voice (another major plus) very well. It is clear Riches knows her stuff when it comes to Amsterdam, in fact she studied modern and medieval Dutch. George’s neighbours are prostitutes, everyone smokes drugs and when the story opens she’s been sleeping around. It seems she fits in well. But there’s a lot more to George than first meets the eye. She’s dogged and determined, happy to be involved in a brutal and dangerous case.

There are a lot of characters in The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, from sleazy university lecturer Vin Fennemans, who manipulates and assaults his students and has an intense dislike of George, to each of the victims who we meet before their grisly ends. The author doesn’t hold back at all in her narrative. The descriptions as the killer goes to work are up close and personal. The pace is high and maintained throughout, if anything increasing as the conclusion is reached and the perpetrator is revealed in a very satisfying and intelligent conclusion. There are two further installments to follow. The next will be The Girl Who Broke the Rules, due to be published in August.

4 Stars

Originally written for Crime Fiction Lover.

Review - 22 Dead Little Bodies by Stuart MacBride

Written by Stuart MacBride — Stuart MacBride’s Aberdeen detective Logan MacRae isn’t a stranger here on the pages of Crime Fiction Lover. We’ve previously reviewed Shatter the Bones and Close to the Bone. Normally, however, he appears in books that are 400, 500 or 600 pages in length. In January, MacBride released a novella featuring MacRae – The 45% Hangover – and now we meet him once again in a short novel. 22 Dead Little Bodies is only 172 pages in length and it’s presented a bit like a week in the life of the detective. Perhaps the author is aiming for an audience wanting a gritty, gory cop story but who can’t quite commit to the longer read. Is it a good move?

Here, Logan MacRae is Acting DI and he’s having a difficult week. The action takes place in between novels eight and nine in the series – Close to the Bone and The Missing and The Dead – and things get going when MacRae has to go for lunch with his superior and nemesis, DCI Roberta Steel of the Major Investigations Team. She is able to take any case away from Aberdeen CID at the moment, which makes things slightly interesting. On his way back to the station he finds himself attempting to stop prospective suicide John Skinner from throwing himself off a building. But Skinner, despite MacRae’s efforts, is determined to die, making a cryptic comment before his plummet. It is down to MacRae’s team to deliver the grisly and unwelcome death message to his wife. Then the team find that she’s missing, along with the couple’s two young children.

At the same time MacRae is dealing with some other humdrum cases. There’s the irritating Mrs Black who’s reaching the apex of a dispute with her next door neighbour, Justin Robson, and has complained about every officer she’s dealt with. The woman is toxic. Apparently Robson is hanging bags of poo (her words) from her prized tree, but worse she is accusing him of being a drug dealer. In turn, Robson is fed up with the noise and smell resulting from 20 squawking birds in Black’s back garden. There is also the equally banal challenge of dealing with the tramp who has been causing difficulty in a middle class area… until the man drinks himself to death, that is. In his limited personal time MacRae is attempting to sell his flat to pay for the care of his girlfriend, Samantha, currently in a coma with no sign of resurfacing. A local gangster is offering to cover the costs, in return for certain favours, of course.

When the body of Mrs Skinner turns up and the children don’t, MacRae knows he’s in a race against time to find them, while also coping with the increasingly strange Mrs Black and aggressive Justin Robson. Even the death of the tramp is not all it seems; MacRae suspects foul play. All the while DCI Steel sits back and watches.

There are clearly events in 22 Dead Little Bodies that have their backgrounds elsewhere, such as Samantha’s bed ridden condition. The story works largely as a standalone though, and may even hook you into reading more of the series. The narrative style is brief and punchy, the dialogue is sharp and witty. It is worth noting that there is barely a single swear word within – quite unusual for crime novels these days. Despite the subject matter there is a vein of humour, usually black in colour, but present nevertheless. One minor negative is Steel herself. She’s irritating and somewhat over the top, although perhaps the author is having a little fun with the character. And the body count is actually higher than the title suggests – 25 in total. But who cares? Overall this is a tantalising taste of MacRae and Steel that leaves the desire for more…

4 Stars

Review originally written for Crime Fiction Lover.