Book Review: Casanova and the Faceless Woman

“However scientific our cast of mind, it always comes down to this, does it not? […] How to get rich and remain forever young. The universal dream of mankind.”

Casanova and the Faceless Woman, by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon (translated by Louise Rogers LaLaurie), is crime fiction set in and around Paris and the Palace of Versailles a few decades before the French Revolution. Its protagonist is Volnay, a serious young man living in frivolous, dangerous times. Granted the title, Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, after he saved the life of King Louis XV, the local police chief does not appreciate Volnay’s incursion into what he regards as his territory.

Volnay works with a disgraced monk who has an interest in and keen knowledge of the latest scientific thinking. He examines the bodies of the dead in an attempt to uncover clues as to how they met their end. This is the age of enlightenment, although there is wider interest in associated gossip, along with wild exaggeration, than in deduction and proof.

The story opens with the discovery of a body – a mutilated young woman. The skin on her face, palms and fingertips has been removed. When Volnay arrives at the crime scene he is dismayed to find it was the renowned philanderer, Casanova, who first came across the victim. Casanova watches as Volnay removes a letter from the woman’s clothing and is then intrigued when the policeman claims it fell from his sleeve.

This letter proves key to the investigation. Influential and shadowy figures are eager to read what it contains as it affects the dissolute and capricious King. His Majesty’s detractors are seeking ways to bring down the monarchy. Others advise caution until those who would grasp power after such a revolution may be put in place.

Casanova regards his involvement in the investigation as another entertainment, especially when a beautiful young aristocrat, Chiara, shows an interest. Volnay is also drawn to the girl and this unlikely trio find they must share secrets if the case is to be solved and the reason the letter is so sought after understood.

Then another young woman is found dead, with her face removed, this time outside a property used by the King to meet with the young girls he favours. Despite the similarities in the victims’ demises, Volnay is perplexed by the differences. With his life endangered from multiple sources, he discovers that trusting Chiara may have been a mistake.

Although this is crime fiction it will appeal to those who enjoy vividly depicted historical fiction. There are sumptuous descriptions of dress and setting, of food consumed and the decadent lifestyles of those who found favour within the Palace of Versailles at this time. Their wealth and privilege may be contrasted with the dangers lurking in the dark and dirty streets of Paris where penury is widespread. Small coins are earned by whatever means necessary to survive, with little loyalty. Death is common and rarely investigated. Punishments are brutal, meted out to those who would not assist powerful figures whose spies are everywhere.

Volnay is an interesting character although I regarded the romantic element of his story an unnecessary distraction. Casanova’s role is well developed – the reasoning behind his behaviour credible even if his performance abilities are overplayed. As I have little interest in dress and lavish furnishings I found the pace unduly slow due to the many details. It also disheartened me to consider the risks people take with their health in order to achieve what is widely accepted as beauty.

“Nothing of all this was real, or true. It was all a carefully maintained illusion.”

Although well written and structured there were too many elements within the story that personally irritated. I grew tired of the lily white skin, rustling silk and gleam of gilt furnishings. I was curious about the science until the unlikely denouement – again, this flight of imagination felt unnecessary (authors are, of course, free to write as they choose).

For those with an interest in the lifestyles of the wealthy the tale offers a colourful portrayal. Centuries later plutocrats are still seeking personal advantage over the greater good of scientific discovery. Aging is rarely regarded as a privilege with outward beauty highly valued. I may well be taking an entertainment too seriously, but I found this tale depressing.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.

 

Book Review: Never Be Broken

Never Be Broken, by Sarah Hilary, is the sixth and possibly final instalment in the author’s Marnie Rome series of crime thrillers. It opens with DI Rome attending a crime scene – the wreckage of a car that is stained with the blood of her colleague, Noah Jake. The timeline then moves back forty-eight hours leaving the reader to ponder if a favourite character from the series has been killed.

DS Jake is receiving counselling following the murder in prison of his brother, Sol. Noah feels responsible for Sol’s incarceration. Despite knowing it must be his subconscious speaking, Noah is haunted by his brother’s ghost. He is reluctant to lose even this tenuous link and refuses to speak of it to anyone.

Marnie’s crime team are investigating the growing number of deaths of children from London’s less than salubrious estates. There are links to drug dealing, the supply of knives and guns, and perhaps even people trafficking. When the latest victim, a white girl named Raphaela Belsham, is gunned down in Muswell Hill close to her parent’s expensive home, questions are asked about possible links to the run-down high rises where the dark skinned victims lived. Raphaela’s father is furious at the suggestion that his privileged daughter could have been caught up in any form of criminal activity.

The police are widely regarded as either incompetent or the enemy. Belsham blames people of colour for the country’s ills. When Marnie takes Noah along to question the Belshams about Raphaela, her father’s anger and racism manifest. He accuses Noah of planting evidence.

Much of the action revolves around Erskine Tower, a block of flats within sight of the fire damaged Grenfell. The residents include the elderly who have lived there for decades and younger people caught up in the escalating violence. Raphaela had been a visitor to the tower as part of a supervised school project. Her level of supervision comes under scrutiny.

Although following the fast moving, tense and twisty structure of many compelling crime fiction novels, the author digs deeper into complex issues raised. This is skilfully done, never compromising effortless reader engagement. Her use of language is impressive conjuring the tastes, sounds, smells and feel of challenging locations. Shocking events are presented to the reader in high definition.

The denouement is violent and rendered without compromise whilst avoiding sensationalism. There are several heart palpating moments involving key characters. There is a nagging fear throughout that the author will kill her darlings – she has ensured that the reader cares.

This is a tenacious and troubling exploration of the many colours of life existing beneath the shiny veneer of our capital city. It is crime fiction at its best.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline. 

Book Review: Vanish in an Instant

Vanish in an Instant, by Margaret Millar, is an old time crime thriller set in small town America’s mid west. First published in 1952 it needs to be read with an awareness of attitudes at the time. The women all appear to be looking for a husband, the men for a woman who takes care of her appearance. A new romance that blossoms was the one aspect I couldn’t make sense of in what is otherwise a carefully crafted tale.

The story opens with a concerned mother, Mrs Hamilton, flying into town to help her married daughter, Virginia, who is being held at the county jail following a murder. Virginia, was picked up by local police, seriously drunk and covered in the blood of the victim. They had been out together the night before. Virginia cannot remember anything about what happened at the cottage where the body of the married man was found.

A local lawyer, Eric Meecham, has been called in by Virginia’s husband, Paul. Mrs Hamilton takes an instant dislike to Eric. The mother is resentful that her son-in-law hasn’t managed to prevent the possibility of such a situation occurring. She appears overbearing but not entirely surprised at developments.

Before Eric can make progress with uncovering what happened, a witness appears whose evidence allows Virginia to walk free. Late night meetings and a series of unhappy marriages bring with them the whiff of dodgy deals. A further death takes Eric out of town where he becomes embroiled in the well being of an elderly alcoholic who the second victim was trying to help.

There are the requisite twists and blind alleys as the affected families and those associated with them reveal their links to both victims. Eric appears content to work without payment, despite it being offered on numerous occasions, as he follows leads and tries to uncover the truth of a sorry situation.

The writing flows and the plot is well structured. The denouement provides answers to the puzzle with the scattered clues now making sense. The era evoked brings to the fore the dissatisfaction and frustrations of, particularly, the female characters. This may be old time crime – lacking forensic analysis and effective, dogged police work –  but it offers a window into sociological aspects that are still not as distant as many of us desire.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.

Book Review: Trap

Trap, by Lilja Sigurðardóttir (translated by Quentin Bates), is the second novel in the author’s Reykjavik series of crime thrillers. I have not read the first. While the story holds together as a standalone I wondered if the limited backstory, which brought new readers up to speed, contributed to my inability to sympathise with any of the characters. Perhaps had I better understood how they ended up in the difficulties they must now face I would have felt more concern over their fates. It is hard to care for drug runners and murderers no matter how much they love those dear to them.

Opening in April 2011, in a trailer park in sunny Florida, Sonja wakes from an unplanned nap to realise that her young son, Tómas, is not where she expected. The pair are on the run from Adam, the boy’s father. He is furious that Sonja has thus far evaded him.

Forced to return to Iceland and resume her job as a drugs courier, Sonja contacts her former lover, Agla, for assistance. Neither of the women appear to understand what the other works as. Theirs is an unbalanced relationship based on sexual attraction – a driving lust and its associated jealousies.

Following the financial crash Agla’s money laundering activities are under investigation. What the authorities are unaware of is their size and reach. Needing to clear a large debt she schemes with others working the financial markets to pull off a lucrative deal. She has many associates who will benefit, operating in powerful places.

As both women call on their contacts in an attempt to extricate themselves from official attention and underworld danger, their games of cat and mouse are surveilled by circling predators. Agla’s activities have come under scrutiny from a diligent investigator at the special prosecutor’s office. Sonja finds herself caught between drug barons vying for power on both sides of the Atlantic, including Adam who is using Tómas as leverage. Even when supposed kingpins are taken down there is always another ready to step into the vacated space.

It is not hard to believe that this is how the mega wealthy operate, and that they will always have minions seeking to increase their personal power and influence by whatever means. The observations on the men involved – driven by ego and unwilling to admire any woman’s superior contribution to their business – were familiar.

Sonja’s strength and resilience were sometimes irritatingly erratic – perhaps this was an attempt to make her appear more human by showing occasional weakness.

Agla misunderstands love, associating it with some form of ownership and control, as did Adam. Despite being clear headed and capable in business she too suffers weaknesses – her egocentric attitude to Sonja, and cocaine.

The writing and structure maintain the tension as each character takes risks and encounters danger. The movement of drugs and money is portrayed as beyond the control of authority – above the law due to the influence of the globally wealthy. Although the story held my interest and attention I found this, and the way key characters were willing to behave in extremis, somewhat depressing to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda.

Book Review: The Teahouse Detective

“Crime interests me only when it resembles a clever game of chess, with many intricate moves”

First published in 1908, The Teahouse Detective: The Old Man in the Corner, by Baroness Orczy (probably best known for her Scarlet Pimpernel novels), is a collection of cosy crime mysteries of varying length that were serialised in magazines in response to the success of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

The unnamed sleuth is a pale, thin, balding man who sits down uninvited at a teashop table in London opposite a young journalist – Polly Burton. Noticing what she is reading he proceeds to explain to her how he has solved cases that have baffled the police and puzzled readers of daily newspapers – which provide details of ongoing investigations. He holds his own abilities in high regard and is contemptuous of the establishment tasked with apprehending and convicting law breakers.

“I never for a moment ventured to suggest that there were no mysteries to the police; I merely remarked that there were none where intelligence was brought to bear upon the investigation of crime.”

As he talks the old man habitually knots and unknots a length of string. He recalls details of each crime, producing photographs of key places and players which he shows to Molly. He tells her of related court hearings he attends, describing the people he observes there. He challenges Molly to learn from his methods of deduction and work out for herself who the true perpetrators could be.

Molly grows used to sitting with this man on subsequent visits to the teashop. She begins to ask him about particular cases that have intrigued her. Although at times nervous and somewhat excitable, the facts and views the man presents are as interesting as his detailed knowledge of them is puzzling.

The various crimes committed involve: murder, forgery, theft, deception. The settings vary but are mostly in British cities. The victims and villains are largely drawn from the wealthier classes. They are portrayed as gentlemen, the implication being that this means they should be trustworthy, although lifestyles described do not come across as noble to modern sensibilities. Women are presented as adjuncts despite several playing important roles. The testimony of servants is not granted as much weight as that from their employers.

The writing is very much of its time with the era well evoked and sympathetically rendered. Each story provides a puzzle that the reader may enjoy trying to solve before its final reveal. Violence is involved in many of the crimes yet these remain gently told tales. The reasoned deductions and carefully planted clues keep fresh an inquisitive reader’s interest in narrative from a bygone age.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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Giveaway

If you would like to win a copy of this book then head over to my Twitter account here as, in true festive spirit, I am running a giveaway. To enter, follow me on Twitter and RT the relevant tweet by 8am GMT on 12 December 2018. Two winners will be drawn at random from all qualifying entries – the giveaway is UK only.

Winners will need to provide me with their postal address via Twitter DM within 48 hours of being notified of their win. I will pass these addresses on to the publisher who will post the books direct.

All personal data provided will be deleted by both myself and the publisher once the books have been sent. My thanks to Pushkin Press for providing this prize.

 

Book Review: Disbelieved

Disbelieved, by Beth Webb, is YA crime fiction with a touch of the supernatural. Its protagonists are fifteen year old Anelise Skinner and seventeen year old Joseph Bonne, cousins whose peers refer to them disparagingly as Skin and Bone. Anelise’s mother is dead and her father is working abroad so she lives with her Aunt Genevieve, Joe’s mother. Genevieve Skinner is a professor of forensics, currently assisting in a criminal trial. Joe’s father no longer appears to be involved in their lives.

Joe is fascinated by forensics and has access to his mother’s lab at their home. Anelise is a troubled young girl, coping with her demons by dying her hair different, garish colours and snacking on highly sugared foodstuffs.

The story opens above an abandoned quarry where Anelise is out walking. She sees a fast moving cyclist lose control of his bike and plummet over the edge into the undergrowth below. Horrified she phones for help, summoning emergency services. They search the area but find no sign of the cyclist. Anelise is chastised by the police for wasting their time.

The following weekend Joe takes his cousin back to the quarry in an attempt to find a rational explanation for what she saw as it is still bothering her. They witness the same cyclist as he crashes through the fence and into the quarry. This time they can both see him after the event, lying still and bleeding below.

Anelise’s apparent premonition upsets her further and causes the police to treat her with suspicion. It also gives a local reporter something juicy to write about. Joe meanwhile is carefully sweeping the scene, taking photographs and gathering samples as potential evidence. What the cousins saw and heard suggests this may not have been an accident. The police do not take their concerns seriously, regarding them as bothersome children.

The two teenagers soon fall foul of another witness, a man who seems keen to keep them away from the damaged bike. This soon disappears but not before Joe collects traces of white powder from the frame. They recognise that if drugs are involved what they are doing could be dangerous.

Undeterred they set out to uncover who may have wished to harm the cyclist and why. He was a blogger, employed by a bike shop to promote and deliver their wares. Donning disguises they investigate in key locations. With Genevieve away or busy with work they seek help from sources who treat them as the problem.

The plot is well structured, fast moving and with plenty of tension as befits crime writing. The vivid portrayal of the key moments of crisis suggests this would make fine television. My only quibble was with the denouement, a twist that was signalled but I couldn’t quite rationalise. This did not spoil my enjoyment of the story.

Young people have long relished tales in which adults are absent or do not take them seriously and are then proved wrong. Anelise may need to hone her unusual gift, and find a way to cope with it that does not require such regular sugar hits, but I would like to see this pair further developed. They have the potential to be an alluring addition to the crime fiction canon.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Night Driver

From Wikipedia: Fritz Haarmann (1879 – 1925) was a German serial killer known as the Butcher of Hanover, the Vampire of Hanover and the Wolf-Man, who committed the sexual assault, murder, mutilation and dismemberment of a minimum of 24 boys and young men. Described by the judge at his trial as being “forever degraded as a citizen”, Haarmann was found guilty of 24 of the 27 murders for which he was tried and sentenced to death. A known homosexual and police informant, his preferred murder method was biting into or through his victims’ throats.

Marcelle Perks has taken Haarmann’s story and reimagined it in a contemporary setting. Her serial killer is called Lars, a lorry driver who seeks the intense sexual thrill he gains from murdering young men picked up on his travels. Lars and his lover, Hans, co-own a nightclub that offers clients drugs and the services of prostitutes. Hans cleans up after Lars, making money from the bodies disposed of. Hans also enjoys the services of the women they employ, his handsome good looks and attentions leading each to believe he cares for them.

Into this murky environment enters Fran, an English woman living in Hanover who is eight months pregnant. She met her husband, Kurt, on a business trip to the Cayman Islands where he was working as an engineer. At the time Fran had a well paid job and a house in London. She was drawn to Kurt by his old-fashioned, movie star good looks, his charm, attentiveness and dry humour. When Fran lost her job she sold her house and moved to be with Kurt. They married and returned to his native Germany, to a suburb where he expected Fran to keep house. Since she fell pregnant Kurt has lost interest in his wife. Alone and frustrated by the limits on integration imposed by the language barrier, Fran is determined to learn to drive that she may regain a little independence. Despite daily lessons she is struggling to master the skills required.

Lars in his lorry comes across Fran on one of her lessons, hassling her slow progress until she loses control. Fran’s instructor reports him to the police but they take no action. In her current state there is a risk to the unborn child leading to leniency from the examiner on her driving test. Shaken by events, Fran has no confidence behind the wheel. Determined to overcome her fear she decides to take Kurt’s car without telling him and practice while he sleeps and the roads are quiet.

On her first night drive Fran meets a young Polish man, Tomek, who is trying to track down his sister, Anna. He is kind to the lonely woman and she is attracted to him. She decides to help in his quest as a reason for them to meet again.

Fran and Tomek visit Dorcas, a prostitute and friend of Anna’s. Both women work for Hans. When Tomek goes missing Fran grows concerned and asks for Dorcas’s help. Neither women are yet aware that the focus of the nightclub’s criminal activity has moved to a more lucrative use of the bodies they dispose of. Their dogged interest in the missing siblings makes them a liability that Hans and Lars come to realise they must deal with.

The structure of the story is episodic as in TV dramas with short chapters divided into scenes shown from key characters’ points of view. The narration is clipped in style which suits the typically British portrayal of the German language and efficient attitude. This idiosyncratic presentation was easier to read in short spurts than one sitting.

Descriptions are vivid and often bloody. Sex is perfunctory. I found Fran’s limited concern for her unborn child difficult to empathise with but her isolation in the face of Kurt’s lack of interest for her well-being was well portrayed. The men at the nightclub are chillingly authentic, their treatment of women as property to be used and then discarded believable. The sociopathic tendencies of the killers was unsettling but fitted well in explaining their warped reasoning.

This is a disturbing tale but one that maintained engagement. That it is inspired by true events gives it an added edge.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane.