Book Review: Ten Dead Comedians

Ten Dead Comedians, by Fred Van Lente, is a contemporary Agatha Christie style murder mystery set on a celebrity owned island in the Caribbean. Hollywood funnyman Dustin Walker invites nine fellow comedians to collaborate with him on an unspecified project, details to be explained during a luxury, weekend retreat. All are excited at this potential injection of energy into their mutable careers and accept. When they arrive it is to discover that they are cut off from the mainland with no access to mobile reception or wifi. Their host then informs them that they are all here to die, including himself.

Lives may be at stake but so are fragile egos. These people have experienced the adrenaline rush of applause, of popular attention, and become addicted. Those who have touched the heady heights of fame may be aware of its disappointments but they still long for its return. They are disdainful of their fellow artistes, especially when compared to themselves.

The deaths begin immediately. At first some believe it is an elaborate hoax, a gig in which they are all being played. As the body count increases and the meagre food supplies get eaten everyone falls under suspicion.

The writing is a satire on the modern performers of comedic repartee where offence and insults pass as humour. Each character found a niche that got them noticed by agents, some even believe themselves to be funny.

The action is offbeat in places, the characters unlikable and at times pitiable, but this is a competent murder mystery. The means of death are imaginative, the reveal of the perpetrator clever even if all is understandably far fetched.

As someone who prefers intelligent humour to the more widespread unsavoury crudeness this garnered an unusual degree of sympathy for modern comedians. I may not have found the transcripts from the standup routines amusing, but the pathos portrayed gave the applause hungry entertainers more humanity than their words suggest they deserve.

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

Book Review: Six Stories

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Six Stories, by Matt Wesolowski, is a murder mystery told in the form of transcripts from a series of podcasts. This original construction took some getting used to, perhaps because I do not choose to listen to the popular broadcast medium. I am not a fan of audio or visual discussion or reporting, also eschewing vlogs and their ilk. I prefer to savour the written word, which to be fair is exactly what is offered here.

The tale is told in the six broadcast episodes. To be more precise, the same tale is told from six differing perspectives. The concept for these podcasts is that the reader (listener) should be offered up the facts of a now forgotten, never fully explained controversial incident and then be left to make up their own mind as to what actually happened. In this way it is similar to recent TV programmes such as Making a Murderer – which I watched a few times before growing bored with the repetition. Six Stories also contains repetition but, despite this, the author has succeeded in maintaining the intrigue and tension. Its approach reminded me of local gossip, where behaviour is dissected and judged based on personal prejudices and ideals.

The incident being investigated is the unexplained death of a fifteen year old boy, Tom Jeffries, who disappeared twenty years ago whilst away from home on an informal outward bound type weekend. His badly decomposed body was discovered after a year by a group of twenty-something year old privileged young men, one of whose father still owns the land.

Tom had been one of a group of five teenagers who had been regular visitors to the area, Scarclaw Fell, which harbours the raft of spooky myths common for an isolated location. The young people are tracked down by the podcast maker and interviewed, along with family members, former teachers and local residents, to determine if the interactions and dynamics within the group could shed light on what happened so long ago.

What they relate of the trips away is that the adults believed they were enabling the supposedly sensible teenagers to enjoy healthy, outdoor pursuits while the youngsters took the freedom granted as an opportunity to ingest copious quantities of alcohol and other drugs. There were the usual plays for power and some all too typical bullying.

“You see, the thing is, unless you’ve been on the other end of bullying, you don’t really know how much these smaller things can affect you. People’s perception of bullying is still so archaic or cliched: the ‘give us your dinner money’ schoolyard stuff, or else the ‘OMG you’re so ugly’ stuff online. [] bullied [] in a professional way. […] It’s the little things – the name-calling, the comments, the giggles when your back’s turned. That’s how the professionals do it. Like water-torture, or death by a thousand cuts. ‘Professional’ bullies crush your soul a sliver at a time.”

The alphas were mimicked by those who admired them and had yet to find their own niche, something recognised and derided by their peers.

“He didn’t have any personality of his own. He borrowed everything.”

The background and exploits shared demonstrate how self-absorbed and fickle memory can be. I did wonder why these now settled thirty-five year olds, who no longer interact, would agree to talk to someone about their teenage high jinks – which are always likely to contain embarrassing details – knowing that they will then be publicly shared. However, the popular and enigmatic investigator has a reputation for presenting his findings without the usual edits and distortions. He creates a compelling story, although if other media outlets take an interest the risk of public judgement and condemnation for the participants is only likely to increase.

There is much to be said for presenting a murder mystery in an original format and I was quickly drawn into this tale. The denouement was unexpected with a few threads left for the reader to interpret. Just as the podcasts were designed to encourage discussion amongst listeners, so the tale raises issues it would be interesting to further consider. With this in mind, it would be a perfect choice for a Book Group.

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

This review is a stop on the Six Stories Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below. 

Six Stories is published by Orenda Books.

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Book Review: See What I Have Done

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See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt, is a reimagined account of the notorious case of Lizzie Borden. On the morning of 4th August 1892 the mutilated bodies of Andrew Borden and his wife, Abby, were found in separate rooms of their large house in the town of Fall River, Massachusetts. They had both been murdered with what was suspected to be an axe. Andrew’s younger daughter, Lizzie, was first on the scene. His older daughter, Emma, was away from home at the time, visiting a friend. The girls’ Uncle John had been an overnight guest. Also in the house was the maid, Bridget.

The author has taken the known facts of this true crime and woven a chilling story which takes the reader inside an unhappy household where resentments run high. Events are presented through the eyes of each of the surviving key players.

Following the death of their beloved mother, Emma was tasked with caring for Lizzie, her junior by almost a decade. Lizzie was not an easy responsibility to manage. She has always felt entitled to her sister’s affection and attention. Both desire their domineering father’s love. The girls regard his remarriage as a betrayal. Andrew is a cruel and controlling figure. Despite his wealth he keeps a tight rein on all expenditure.

The oppressive heat of the summer permeates each scene. This is a house filled with adults who do not get on yet who can see no way of changing how they live. They feel hard done by, often with good cause. The hurts bubble over into heated exchanges.

The writing evokes an atmosphere dark and chilling despite the heat. Sweat blooms on constricted skin. The sounds of scraping and swallowing grate the inmates sensibilities in the brooding silences. Body odours are rife, breath rancid as food that spoils in the heat must still be eaten; waste will not be tolerated. Boredom and the prospect of endless confinement together allow grievances to fester.

The house is kept tight shut, doors locked, secrets held close. This is a respectable family in a small town. Lizzie is a Sunday School teacher, Emma dabbles in art. Their oppression is hardly unusual for the time. The murders threw a spotlight on what most worked hard to keep private.

I was aware of the Borden story from The Legend of Lizzie Borden (TV Movie 1975), a film I watched as a child. Even knowing what would happen I found this book compelling.

The story is skilfully constructed, the writing taut and evocative. The truth of the denouement may be questionned, as it has been since the conclusion of the murder trial, but this is a riveting tale that I recommend you read.

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

Book Review: The Place That Didn’t Exist

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The Place That Didn’t Exist, by Mark Watson, is a simmering murder mystery set in Dubai. It is a variation on the locked-room trope, and the mirage like setting of the desert city is perfect for all that unfolds. So much exists beneath a veneer of excess and is not what it seems when probed. Even the suspected murder may have a more mundane explanation, one of over indulgence as is common in such a place.

The plot centres around a group of film makers and backers, brought together to shoot a commercial for a charitable organisation based in Dubai. It is largely narrated by a Junior Creative, Tim Callaghan, who is representing the London advertising agency who pitched for and won the project. Tim has travelled little and is thrilled to have the opportunity to experience the renowned and glittering metropolis.

The other members of the team appear more jaded. They also seem to know more about each other. Tim soon suspects that there are secrets to which he is not being made privy. As he struggles with the excessive yet sterile surroundings, the obsequious staff, and the slow progress of the project, he tries to fathom the relationships between his colleagues as well as their aims. When one of them is found dead the surreal atmosphere of this improbable location take a darker turn.

The author’s observations of people and place balance humour with a healthy critique of westerners’ desire to escape the reality of their competitive, acquisitive lives via temporary oblivion. Feeling good about shooting an expensive commercial which aims to encourage charitable contributions demonstrates how shallow good intentions can be. Dubai is emblematic of the inequalities in global wealth distribution, yet it is still regarded as a desirable destination.

The denouement explains why events occured without asking for concord. It points out the little noticed clues required to solve the puzzle presented.

Throughout the writing is thought provoking but never heavy. This is an engrossing and entertaining read.

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

Book Review: Wolf Winter

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Wolf Winter, by Cecilia Ekbäck, is a haunting tale of isolation, superstition and murder set in a remote, mountain community in 1717 Swedish Lapland. Maija, her husband Paavo and their daughters Frederika and Dorotea have moved to the Blackåsen Mountain from their native Finland hoping to escape their past. It is not to be.

Whilst out herding goats with her sister, Frederika comes upon the mutilated body of one of the other settlers. His violent death is put down to a wild animal attack but, having examined his remains, Maija will not accept this verdict. Throughout the course of a particularly harsh season, a wolf winter, she stubbornly questions her neighbours about what preceded the man’s demise. It seems that everyone has secrets.

Overseeing the scattered community is a Church determined to suppress the Shamanism which Maija eschews but which still lurks beneath the surface on the brooding mountain. It is unclear what is real and what is conjured up through fear but it cannot be spoken of. Suspected witches will be tried and condemned.

The story is told from three perspectives: Maija, Frederika and a priest who is also new to the area. The prose is sparse, evoking the cold and bleak atmosphere of the setting and the challenges of staying alive in such a wild and isolated place.

As well as portraying the storms and darkness of the day to day lives of the settlers the author explores relationships with a sometimes uncomfortable realism. She skilfully presents Maija’s feelings towards her husband who has changed so much since they first met; the increasing distance between Maija and the teenage Frederika; Frederika’s burgeoning interest in a young Lapp man; the conflicts felt by the priest in his encounters with two of his female flock.

The layers and twists in this tale make for powerful reading. As secrets are uncovered the resultant truths precipitate reactions which must then be dealt with by all. The climax of the tale does not disappoint.

Beautifully written with a clear and haunting voice, this story takes the reader into the heart of a dark and challenging way of life. The cold seeps in along with the story. Wrap up well and enjoy.

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

 

Book Review: Gone

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Gone, by Rebecca Muddiman, is a crime thriller that does not attempt to portray the forces of law and order in a particularly positive light. Even the more dedicated police officers appear distracted and inept at times. Resources are limited and witnesses uncooperative. It was frustrating to read but perhaps accurately portrays the challenges of the job.

Sixteen year old Emma Thorley went missing eleven years ago. It was her third disappearance in less than a year so few took this event seriously. As a known drug user she elicited little sympathy. The officers tasked with investigating her case expected that she would turn up eventually, as she had done before.

Now a body has been discovered buried in woodland. Items recovered suggest that it could be Emma but there is no DNA evidence, no dental record, nothing concrete to confirm identification. DS Nicola Freeman is assigned the case and soon has a suspect on her radar, Lucas Yates. As she sets out to track down other persons of interest in an attempt to gather evidence she becomes aware that Lucas is on the same trail.

The character of Lucas Yates is brilliantly developed by the author. An arrogant, vicious, misogynist he could be charming when he chose but was truly unlikeable. He made my skin crawl, not least because his attitude was an exaggeration of laddish behaviour that is still all too commonly accepted. He considered women to be his property, existing to please him. The strong writing evoked angry emotions as I longed to see him taken down.

Many of the male characters showed his attitude towards women in a minor way. The married man whose wife left him for a colleague felt bereft at his loss but also resentful that she should have made him appear lessened in front of others. The loving boyfriend was determined to rescue his girl, partly due to a feeling of embarrassment following his discovery that she had been protecting him when his ego required that he should be seen to be protecting her.

There was little empathy between the characters. Each were existing within their own ideas of what they wanted their lives to be, railing against the actuality. In this it seemed a believable if bleak depiction.

Although I had guessed many of the answers to the various mysteries early on I was not disappointed by the tying up of threads. The short chapters, recaps and time jumps took some getting used to but by the second half I was eager to turn each page.

This is crime fiction for readers who appreciate realism over heroes and happy ever after. There is tension and drama aplenty with DS Freeman and DI Gardner making an interesting team. I wonder if the author plans to develop their relationship in a sequel.

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

 

Book Review: Blood Lake

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Blood Lake, by Kenneth Wishnia, is a complex and gritty tale of murder, poverty and corruption in troubled Ecuador. Written from the point of view of a revolutionary activist turned private investigator, the style of writing left me questioning if this were intended as a serious political drama or a satire. The characterisations contain a deluge of  clichés such that by the time I was a quarter of the way through I was hearing the narration in the voice of Naked Gun’s Frank Drebin. I was surprised by this as the protagonist, Filomena Buscarsela, is female.

Much of the action takes place amongst the dirt poor, hungry and often feral residents of a swamp. These supposedly family orientated down and outs appear willing to sell their souls for the price of a beer. Life is cheap and, despite the many descriptions of violence and death, I found it hard to empathise with their plight. There were too many people double dealing to know who was who. At no point in the book did I really understand why our leading lady was so damn determined to avenge the murder of someone she hadn’t been in contact with for 20 years.

The last book I read persuaded me that I never wish to visit Nigeria, this one has done the same for Ecuador. Much of the story dwells on the hardship, corruption and violence that are a way of life in this country although perhaps this is not typical. Filomena herself said:

‘Don’t get me wrong, there are nice parts of Guayaquil. I just never visit them.’

As she is in the country with her teenage daughter in order to catch up with family and be a tourist I couldn’t help but wonder why not.

Filomena worries a lot about carcinogens from the likes of smokers or burning tyres, all while deliberately putting herself in the way of people with guns who have no qualms about killing. She is portrayed as a hardboiled detective concerned about her daughter, yet continually runs risks that are liable to bring retribution on her whole family.

Perhaps I took it all too seriously, I really didn’t quite know what to make of this book. It was not one that I could just keep reading, not a page turner. Whilst being well enough put together it did not draw me in as I would have liked. Filomena risked her life for a cause and it was never really explained why.

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