Book Review: The Source

The Source, by Sarah Sultoon, tells a hard hitting tale of the sexual exploitation of children. At its core is a paedophile ring run by an army unit working on high level intelligence. Although certain key figures in this setup are eventually brought to justice – if that is ever possible for such crimes – there remain rumours of perpetrators who have proved untouchable due to the nature of their work and security clearance.

The tale is told across two timelines. In 2006, a young journalist named Marie is investigating human trafficking with her colleagues from a national news channel. Just as their story is coming together, it is announced that a police investigation into child sex abuse within the army, uncovered a decade earlier, is to be reopened. Marie and her colleagues are required to make this development their priority. The human trafficking story is to be shelved.

The earlier timeline opens in 1996. Thirteen year old Carly is barely coping with the life she has been dealt. Carly’s alcoholic mother is incapable of looking after her toddler daughter, Kayleigh, so Carly must try to keep her little sister clean and fed while still attending school – necessary to ward off social services. The girls’ elder brother, Jason, is a soldier at the local army base – following in his dead father’s footsteps. When he cannot deliver food and other supplies to the family home, the sisters go hungry. Carly’s best friend, Rachel, suggests they both attend parties they have been invited to at the army base. This offers the chance for some fun along with welcome rare attention. However, these outings quickly turn into something more sinister and damaging.

I struggled with this tale for a number of reasons. The opening chapters detailing the human trafficking investigation were written as a fast moving, dangerous assignment that Marie appeared badly suited to deal with. At key moments she would lose concentration. Her stress reaction throughout the story is to puke or faint. I lost track of the number of times she was: distracted and didn’t hear what could be important information, fumbled equipment, swallowed down bile. This is hardly the cool, clear head needed when trying to appear in control of a situation involving dangerous criminals – potentially putting her colleagues at risk. As the tale moved forwards I wondered how the human trafficking investigation would be woven into the army base story. I was left disappointed.

Carly’s experiences were more strongly written. Sadly, the supporting cast on this earlier timeline appeared two-dimensional. Many people are mentioned but not developed. It is never explained why Jason acted as he did – was he simply a horrible person or perhaps being bribed or blackmailed? It is a challenge to comprehend the choices he made, why he stayed. As the two timelines come together, such questions about character behaviour – the whys and wherefores – are too often left hanging.

The author is a former CNN news executive so will likely be much more familiar with the realities of characters such as these than I can be. Nevertheless, reading the book I was struck by the sickening horror of what was going on but not sufficiently drawn into the various predicaments. There are attempts to build tension through set piece scenes – an underground room containing a shadowed man, clandestine meetings requiring code words and pseudonyms, a broken down train in which other passengers appear inexplicably deaf to pleas for assistance. Actions described in these, including physical violence, are rarely developed further or even referenced.

Marie is obviously a badly damaged individual, doing her best to cope with personal demons but struggling. It is explained why she wanted to be a journalist, and how she landed the role, but this explanation made me question how she had been allowed to survive. I wanted to be rooting for her – of course I did – but cold-blooded criminals, particularly those holding high office, find ways to quietly dispatch inconvenient witnesses or those they believe have reneged on agreements.

The denouement suggests a degree of closure but I was left with too many unanswered questions. It is depressing to consider how the Carlys and Kayleighs of this world find ways to cope with day to day living after what wicked men and their accomplices have done to them. It may be true that Carly is not entirely innocent – as treatment of Rachel’s character serves to demonstrate. Nevertheless, their experiences deserve to be heard as the author has attempted here.

That I did not derive satisfaction from the tale may be down to the fact that I have read other books exploring similar subject matter that I have gained greater satisfaction from – that expanded my awareness of the logistics of child abuse and slavery beyond the evil perpetrated. This was not a book I enjoyed due to the style of the writing and lack of wider character development. Other readers have looked on it favourably as a thriller but, sadly, it wasn’t for me.

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

Book Review: Bury Them Deep

I started reading this crime thriller on a recent stormy weekend when I wished to curl up with a book I could immerse myself in. A few hours later I commented on Twitter: “Plucked some crime fiction from my TBR pile and am reminded once again why this genre, when well written, is so popular with readers”. I was looking forward to getting back to the story the following day.

Unfortunately, by then, I was around 200 pages into what is, in proof form at least, a 450 page tome. The pace from here became glacial. Dinner parties were being detailed along with a trip to an art exhibition. Whilst I enjoyed the take-downs of pseudo-intellectuals trying too hard to impress, I was trying to work out why these scenes were needed. I feared they were there as filler. Twitter confirmed that certain genre writers are contracted by the big publishers to submit manuscripts containing a prescribed number of words.

Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy crime fiction. Sarah Hilary, for example, may structure her books using a recognisable formula but her writing and plot development contain enough depth and interest to take a reader’s mind off this. I’m certainly not going to criticise the quality of James Oswald’s writing. It is polished and, as I mentioned, contains injections of humour. My problem with Bury Them Deep was that it felt bloated. Eventually, with 50 pages to go, I just wanted it to end.

The story is set in and around Edinburgh, a place I love to visit. It opens with a local legend – the tale of Sawney Bean who, for 25 years in the 16th century, headed a clan of incestuous cannibals, before they were captured and executed without trial. Following this is a chapter introducing an unnamed woman as she heads out for a Friday night of sex with strangers. Her story is subsequently interspersed with that of the various police investigations the protagonist, Detective Chief Inspector Tony McLean, is required to lead.

This is the 10th novel featuring Inspector McLean and the first I have read. There are references throughout to what I assume are his previous cases which are intriguing. The plot of Bury Them Deep does, however, hold up when read standalone.

In this tale, DCI McLean’s team is a small part of Operation Caterwaul, a high security, global investigation into unnamed, high profile, powerful individuals. Details are shared on a strictly need to know basis. When one of Tony McLean’s team goes missing – a long serving admin assistance named Anya Renfrew – there is consternation amongst his superiors who fear they will be blamed for what could be a catastrophic security breach. Tony is more concerned about Anya’s safety.

It is agreed that locating Anya is a high priority task, even if for differing reasons. Tony allocates resources to interviewing those who knew her and working out where she could have been since last seen. He discovers that the quietly competent admin assistant had unimagined secrets. He ignores the paperwork his rank is supposed to deal with and heads out into the field.

Into the mix are added a couple of young teenagers, one of whom enjoys setting fire to things. There is also an inmate of a secure psychiatric unit with whom Tony has history. Emma, Tony’s wife, is demanding that he pay her more attention. Through Emma, Tony is reintroduced to a Forensic Anthropologist he knew as a teenager.

All of these characters play their roles. Ancient, and not so ancient, bones are uncovered. Trails that may lead to Anya are followed. A retired detective takes an active interest in the direction the investigation is taking. The unnamed woman is being put through hell.

There are more references to the relentless hot weather than I found necessary although it is significant. Perhaps my problem with plot development was that everything seemed obvious from early on so I was waiting for the story to catch up and fill in the details. This took more words than I felt were required, certainly more than held my interest.

I rather liked the ending although, as with much of the way Tony worked, it appeared highly unprofessional. There were several threads that, having finished the book, made me wonder why they were included. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the story more had I read previous installments in the series.

Other reviewers have described this as a page-turner. I would be interested to know if crime fiction fans want their books to be the length the big publishers provide. Personally I prefer my fiction to be taut and compelling, or offering prose so exquisite it is simply a joy to savour. Bury Them Deep was not a book for me.

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

Book Review: The Man Who Died

“Death only comes round once in a lifetime”

The Man Who Died, by Antti Tuomainen (translated by David Hackston), is a thriller written with a wicked sense of humour. Set in Finland during a sultry summer, it opens with the protagonist, thirty-seven year old Jaakko Kaunismaa, being told by his doctor that he will die soon, possibly within the next few days. Jaakko has been slowly poisoned, irreparably damaging vital organs. This news comes as something of a shock as Jaakko believed he had flu and would be cured with a course of antibiotics. With death imminent he is determined to discover who has done this to him.

Still in shock, Jaakko seeks out his wife, Taina, for advice. He finds her in a compromising position with one of their employees. While digesting this second piece of new and unwelcome information he starts to suspect that she may be behind the poisoning. Taina is a skilled cook and prepares most of what Jaakko eats. If he is to confront her he requires proof.

Jaakko is CEO of a moderately successful mushroom processing and distribution company. Recently, competitors have set up beside his factory. Run by three local thugs they threaten Jaakko and headhunt key members of his staff. With his life close to its end Jaakko decides that he wishes to save the business and ensure it does not all go to his suspected murderer.

From being a comfortable but unexciting boss, Jaakko proposes innovative changes to operations. This sudden switch in personality surprises everyone, not least his wife. The competitors are impatient with Jaakko’s refusal to do as they demand and threaten violence. In a bizarre series of events the police become involved and Jaakko is forced into hiding. He discovers that Taina is planning something to do with the business and is determined to thwart her.

Plans require immediate action as Jaakko may have little time left. He must also battle the symptoms which can, at times, be debilitating. He requires assistance but must be clever in bringing on board those who he previously had little to do with. Imminent death brings into sharp focus what must be achieved when reacting to unfolding events. While there is still life though, there are also typically human vanities and concerns. These are portrayed with sympathy, gently mocking at times but empathetic.

This is a clever and entertaining take on the thriller genre, offering unexpected twists with just a touch of the surreal. Coming face to face with one’s demise may sharpen focus but death is, after all, a prospect anyone living could face on any given day. Deftly written with a satisfying originality this is a warm and witty but still suspenseful read.

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

Book Review: Resurrection Bay

Resurrection Bay, by Emma Viskic, is the first in a proposed series of crime thrillers featuring Caleb Zelic. Set in and around Melbourne, Australia, it opens with the brutal murder of the protagonist’s friend, Gary, who the police then insist must have been involved in some dodgy dealings. Caleb has known Gary since they were children and refuses to believe this can be true. He sets out to find the culprits, and their motive, for himself.

In a packed genre the author has succeeded in creating an original lead character. Caleb is deaf but determined to prove that he can cope independently in a hearing world. His reluctance to accept help, or admit when he is struggling, has cost him his marriage. Now he finds that his continuing love for his ex-wife, Kat, can be used against him.

Kat is a talented artist of Koori descent. They grew up a few streets apart in Resurrection Bay. In this small community, where everyone takes an interest in each other’s business, it can be hard to keep secrets. With the death count rising Caleb starts to question his innate ability to read body language. He is unsure who he can trust, including his brother, Anton, a recovering drug addict.

Together with his business partner, Frankie, Caleb attempts to work under the far-reaching police radar to uncover what Gary had been working on and if, as he suspects, this led to his death. Gary had made a series of frantic phone calls, including to Anton and Frankie, so knew his life was in danger. Caleb comes to realise that whoever took his friend’s life may wish him to meet a similar end.

The denouement is bloody with an excellent twist. There were perhaps a few too many threads thrown out before it all came together but this did keep me guessing. The pacing was balanced whilst maintaining the tension. The writing flowed effortlessly which always takes skill.

Enjoyable and compelling with sufficient originality to keep this popular style of storytelling fresh. A recommended read for all crime thrillers fans.

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

Book Review: Wolves in the Dark

Wolves in the Dark, by Gunnar Staalesen (translated by Don Bartlett), is the third book in the author’s Varg Veum series of crime thrillers to be translated into English by Orenda Books (you may read my reviews of the first two here and here). Four years after the death of his beloved Karin, Veum is slowly dragging himself from the mire into which his grief took him. He is now in a relationship with Sølvi, although her faith in him is about to be tested.

The book opens with Veum being arrested for accessing child pornography on line. He is accused of being part of an international operation supplying images and videos of such content. Incriminating evidence is found on his office computer and personal laptop. Veum vehemently denies the charges but the investigating officers do not believe his claim that he had no idea the files were there. When his lawyer requests information about potential contacts from his past who may be seeking revenge, Veum is forced to admit to alcohol induced gaps in his memory since Karin’s death.

As a private investigator of many years standing Veum has accumulated a bank of enemies. He delves his patchy recollections but realises that the evidence against him and the understandable revulsion felt by those who are convinced of his guilt undermine his protestations of innocence. When an opportunity to escape incarceration unexpectedly presents itself he goes on the run. He must solve his own case before being recaptured or face a prison term where he would likely be punished by inmates as the worst possible type of offender.

The plot is tightly constructed and written with a droll humour that offers relief from the sickening subject matter and page turning tension. Veum deploys a direct approach to people of interest in his investigations, a tactic that further angers those he interrogates but which builds the intrigue for the reader. There are the requisite twists and turns with blind alleys and dubious characters. Few of those he encounters emerge untainted in some way.

This challenging topic is tackled with empathy and skill, characters rising from the pages fully formed, grotesquely believable. Veum may not be entirely likable but it is hard not to confer a degree of sympathy for his predicament.

A dark thriller that uses its setting in Norway to fine affect. This is a gritty, gripping read.

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

This post is a stop on the Wolves in the Dark Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Wolves in the Dark is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

Book Review: The Lighterman

The Lighterman, by Simon Michael, is the third book in the author’s Charles Holborne series of crime thrillers (I review the first two here and here). Set in 1960s London, in and around the historic law courts at the Old Bailey, Holborne is once again working as a barrister from chambers where his Jewish heritage is disdained. Family background is an important backdrop to the story. The key case being dealt with involves Holborne’s cousin, Izzy, with whom he worked on the Thames during the Second World War.

Following events from the previous intalments in the series, Holborne is on the Kray twins death list. The metropolitan police are unwilling to help as they still believe Holborne was complicit in the murder of his wife and therefore deserves whatever comes his way. With blackmail and bribery rife on both sides of the law he must risk all to save Izzy and himself.

Holborne is in a relationship with Sally who is unhappy with being sidelined when work continually demands her lover’s time and attention. Despite a tentative reconciliation with his family, his harpy mother’s continuing complaints about his life choices remain a thorn in Holborne’s side.

I began to understand some of the bad feeling harboured against Jews, that it is their rejection of assimilation, a refusal to accept a different way of living for the next generation, just as is the case for many other orthodox religions. Holborne chose to break away but cannot shake the feelings of guilt this has caused, stoked by his mother’s criticism. These personal conflicts are well presented within the context of a fast moving plot.

With Ronnie Kray determined to punish Holborne and a judge eager to support the river police, one of whom Izzy is accused of murdering, Holborne is forced to take matters into his own hands. He puts his career in danger to gather his evidence and must then go to court and give the performance of his life. This representation of a barrister’s role and thought processes remains a highlight as in the previous books.

The writing throughout is slick and engaging, the plot well developed with a strong sense of time and place. The ending sets up an interesting dilemma for subsequent intalments in the series to explore.

On a personal level I struggled to warm to the protagonist. Holborne is described as strong and muscular, able to hold his own in a fight. He works out by running and boxing. He has a high sex drive. Although portrayed as a tough, east end lad made good, with a moral compass that isn’t as strong as he would like where justice, as he sees it, is involved, his exploits reminded me too much of the typical male, all action hero. I had to remind myself that this was 1960s Britain and women were even more objectified than today. Sally is no shrinking violet but Holborne’s interest in her appears largely sexual and selfish.

An enjoyable read for those who like their heroes physically strong, their justice warriors slightly flawed. It is a well written page turner strengthened by its setting within the rarefied world of the courts of law.

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

This post is a stop on The Lighterman Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Book Review: Western Fringes

Western Fringes, by Amer Anwar, is a crime thriller set within the Asian community of West London. There is a strong sense of place in an area of the city not normally portrayed in popular fiction. It is this which gives the story its edge.

The protagonist is Zaq Khan, recently released from a five year prison sentence, now trying to keep his head down and put his life back together. With his criminal record he struggled to find work so is eager to hold on to his job as delivery driver at a builder’s yard. When his boss, the volatile Mr Brar, needs someone to do a private job for him quickly and discreetly, he threatens Zaq with false accusations of theft in order to bend his employee to his will.

Mr Brar’s daughter, Rita, was to be forced into an arranged marriage so has run away from home. Mr Brar suspects she is with Kasim, a Muslim man her brothers claim she was dating. Such would be the alleged dishonour to Brar’s Sikh family if this became known, he requires Zaq to discover Rita’s whereabouts before the community realise what has happened, that she may be brought back and dealt with in a manner that her father deems appropriate. His strong armed sons, Parm and Raj, are eager to get to their sister first.

Zaq has dubious skills and contacts from prison, and also good friends he can call on for help. The Brar brothers are well known in these circles for their violence, although they are not the only ones keeping an eye on Zaq’s movements. The closer he gets to Rita, the more criminal activity he uncovers. He also finds himself ambushed and beaten on a regular basis, the details of which are graphically described.

The plot is engaging although at times the writing explained more than I felt necessary. The window into a culture I am unfamiliar with was interesting even if it was depicted in a largely negative light. The men seemed intent on gaining the upper hand in every situation through violence and intimidation. The only woman of note appeared to be victims despite their supposed intelligence.

There is tension and intrigue but I was not fully drawn into the tale. I could empathise with Zaq’s predicament but there was what I regard as a bleakness to so many of the lives. This may be a story more appealing to those who gain a vicarious thrill at comeuppance served through fighting. I prefer my princesses to save themselves with bravery and wit rather than relying on the arrival of a sword wielding knight.

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

Book Review: Block 46

Block 46, by Johana Gustawsson (translated by Maxim Jakubowski), is the first book in a proposed new series of crime thrillers featuring protagonists Emily Roy, a Canadian profiler working for Scotland Yard, and Alexis Castells, a French true-crime writer living in London. Dealing as it does with a suspected serial killer who preys on young boys, and with a backstory that graphically details the horrors of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, the tale is dark and raw in places. It studies circumstances that can allow for the normalisation of evil.

The story opens with a group of high-end friends coming together for a launch in London of a bespoke jewellery line created by Linnéa Blix, who is one of their number. When she does not show up for the event they are gravely concerned as this was a much anticipated highlight in her career. Three of the group – her partner Peter, and old friends Alba and Alexis, opt to fly to Sweden where Linnéa had been on retreat. As they arrive they are informed by the local police that Linnéa’s mutilated body has been found on a small marina near her holiday home.

The short chapters jump around in time and place which took me some time to engage with. A body is being buried in a wood in 2013; a German medical student is experiencing dehumanising treatment in a crowded train on his way to Buchenwald in 1944; the Swedish police call in a talented profiler to assist with their investigation into Linnéa’s murder in 2014. The London based friends experience intense grief at their loss and I was somewhat perplexed by how emotionally invested they appeared to be. Perhaps this is simply that I struggle to empathise with such relationships.

Of the key protagonists, I found Alexis weak initially but enjoyed the way Emily’s character was being developed from the off. Both harbour tragedies from their pasts that are gradually revealed. This promises to be an interesting literary pairing.

The presentation of the thought processes of the killers, both contemporary and at Buchenwald – the pleasure they derived from their actions and the way they justified what they were doing – is chillingly portrayed.

The tension picks up as the threads are expanded and the murder investigation progresses. The twists and turns ensure that the reader cannot easily guess the next reveal or where it may be leading. The denouement was deftly handled although not all my questions were answered. I am left wondering if I missed clues along the way.

I enjoyed the reactions of the characters to each other. For example: the policeman Olofsson generates annoyance amongst colleagues with his actions and attitudes yet is genuinely trying to fit in; Emily changes persona when she deals with interviewees as she has been advised what manner can be effective, something that perplexes the more emotional Alexis who has only previously experienced Emily’s natural brusqueness. I was drawn to Emily, her innate abilities, honesty and social distancing.

The author has based the Buchenwald sections on the experiences of her grandfather and these are a strong if disturbing addition to the story. In weaving a contemporary plot around how certain inmates may have been affected long term by interactions within the camp, and the cost of their survival, the reader is challenged to consider personal actions and justifications.

Despite a lingering degree of ambivalence there is much to ponder from this tale. It developed into a gripping if sometimes harrowing read. I will look with interest for the next book in this series. The author’s astute and uncompromising style suggests she is one to watch.

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

This post is a stop on the Block 46 Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Block 46 is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

Book Review: The Quiet Man

The Quiet Man, by James Carol, is the latest thriller in the author’s Jefferson Winter series and the first of his books that I have read. The protagonist is a former FBI profiler, now travelling the world as a freelance consultant assisting in hunting down serial criminals. Winter’s backstory as the son of a killer and possessing an unusually high IQ makes him an interesting creation. In this story, set in Vancouver, he teams up with Laura Anderton, a former detective turned private investigator.

Anderton headed up the police team tasked with investigating a series of murders in her city, carried out annually on 5th August. Each of the three victims to date was gagged, strapped to a chair, and left alone wearing a bomb which, when triggered, tears them apart. The method of triggering is this killer’s modus operandi yet conflicts with serial killers’ understood ways of working.

With 5th August approaching once again, Anderton has requested Winter’s help in the hope that they can prevent another death. Having been forced out of the police by a negative media campaign she is eager to solve this case for herself.

Anderton and Winter are being payrolled by Nicholas Sobek, a wealthy and controlling businessman whose beautiful young wife was the killer’s first victim. Initially Sobek was a suspect but the subsequent murders made this difficult to prove. He is intense and determined, his aim being to punish the man who took what was his.

The writing is engaging with many twists and turns offering the reader chances to guess at motive and connections. Winter is not afraid to take risks that the police could not countenance for fear of compromising their ability to present evidence necessary to secure a conviction. This is not so much a high action thriller as a deadly game played by cold cunning and methodical intelligence. There is little emotion in the narrative and this strengthens the intrigue.

The varied cast of characters adds interest with interactions affected by attraction and repulsion yet remaining professional. I was impressed that the author felt no need to inject romance, common in crime fiction yet often unnecessary for plot progression.

I enjoyed this book and would now like to read previous instalments in the series. It is a compelling and entertaining read.

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

This post is a stop on the Quiet Man Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Book Review: The Contract

The Contract, by JM Gulvin, is the second book in the author’s John Q series of crime thrillers. You may read my review of the first one here. Set in 1960s America, the protagonist, John Quarrie, is a fearless and determined Texas Ranger. He is a modern day cowboy with a strong sense of justice for all, in a country still divided by race.

The book opens with a robbery at a gunstore in small town Texas. This leads to a shoot out and car chase. To save his own life, Quarrie takes down an assailant. When he investigates the perpetrators he finds another dead body with links to New Orleans. Flying there to follow up on one of his few leads, Quarrie becomes embroiled in a secretive plan that involves many in the state’s law enforcement agencies. He struggles to work out what is going on and why. His presence and the methods he employs while out of his juridiction are resented by many. Quarrie suspects he is being manipulated but does not know by whom. There is nobody he can trust.

Although the reader is offered snapshots of all those involved, the extent and reasons are only slowly revealed. There is a large cast of characters with a variety of links. I struggled at times to follow the numerous threads.

Having said that, this is a compelling read. The action remains tense throughout and is rarely predictable. The story is written in a voice that is original and engaging. There are links to historical events of the time and to a variety of conspiracy theories. Given today’s political situation, the attitudes of many of the characters is chilling.

The reveals at the end provide a good mix of the unexpected, some satisfying if a tad dodgy come-uppances, and a few loose ends in keeping with the story arc created. Quarrie gets things done the old style Texas way, which is not always appreciated. His methods do, however, provide an entertaining read.

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

This post is a stop on The Contract Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.