Strong crime titles just keep coming at the moment, maybe this is why the genre has overtaken contemporary as Britain’s best loved fiction. For starters this month another Clinton turns crime writer as Hillary teams up with Louise Penny for State of Terror, a geo-political blockbuster. The world is under threat from an underground terrorist organisation that prefers it’s anonymity to claiming responsibility for the explosions that ripped through London and Paris. A third bomb is anticipated, possibly this time on US soil. The burden of stopping an escalating global crisis falls on US Secretary of State Ellen Adams. This is an involving blockbuster, rich in insider detail and insightful analysis of current world affairs. It’s overlong but intriguing and easy to read. Signing off is Irish spy author, yes he changed his nationality in disgust at Brexit, John le Carré, RIP. His swansong Silverview though not his best is still so much better than most of the chasing pack and is always rich and intriguing. While Andrea Camilleri, who died in 2019, gives inspector Salvo Montalbano his final bow in Riccardino, a fitting end for the popular Sicilian detective. But to the main course:
Outlaw by James Swallow is the sixth Rubicon/Marc Dane thriller and it picks up where Rogue left off. So we hit the ground running and from that moment on there’s no let up. This is an exhilarating adventure spy thriller that would leave Jason Bourne straggling. There’s an intelligent and thought provoking background to this novel, a warning about the vulnerabilities and abuse of power and corruption within our failing democratic systems. But, much more than anything else this is adrenalin fuelled fun.
Rubicon is the last bastion against a vast conspiracy attacking global financial structures in order to acquire power and money for a select few corrupt individuals. Known as the Combine they attacked Rubicon almost destroying it, its leader, Ekko Solomon, is believed to have been killed in an explosion. It’s left to ex-MI6 officer Marc Dane, his colleague Lucy Kaye and the remnants of the Special Conditions Division to resurrect Rubicon operations and tackle the Combine, who are steadily tightening their grip on the world markets and political power. It’s a life and death struggle not just for Rubicon and the team but for global stability and freedom.
The novel opens with Marc and Lucy watching The Combine HQ looking for a way to get at them when they come under attack from a team of assassins and are forced to retreat, it’s another blow. Re-building from the ground up the SCD have to get back in the game. They have the Rubicon archives, a treasure trove of information, but they won’t rat out friends and whistle blowers. Somehow they need to find the money and resources if they are going to go to war with The Combine. This is breath-taking action: there’s conspiracy and counter-conspiracy and the added tension of an internal battle within the Combine as Pytor Glovkonin takes out his competition for head of the organisation. There’s plenty of dastardly plotting and action at break-neck pace. Rubicon is perfect for a new action series a la Bourne. Zaffre, 9781838774615, hardback out now. Personal/group read solid 4*
With The Genesis Inquiry by Olly Jarvis we are still in adventure mode but this time we have a more philosophical conspiracy that begins in the halls of academia and roves across the world in the search for meaning. A professor at the University of Cambridge believes he has found a way of looking at human affairs through ancient cultures and manuscripts that will fundamentally shift our understanding of the modern world. Can the coming catastrophe of global meltdown, which we appear to be heading towards, be averted by a better understanding of history and each other, engendering a spirit of cooperation? Before that question can be answered the academic disappears. Jarvis, a criminal defence barrister, offers us a QC as the main protagonist, a woman reluctantly drawn into a missing persons case only to uncover a vast conspiracy. Silk Ella Blake lives in a campervan up north, devastated by a case she lost three years previously she has withdrawn from the legal life and taken to drink and seclusion. Former Pupil Jim Hodges has come to tempt her back, not with a court case, but an inquiry at one of Cambridge’s colleges, de Jure. The master John Desmond explains that polymath and maverick American academic Matthew Shepherd disappeared a few weeks ago. The police think he left of his own accord but his brother back in Arizona doesn’t believe that and he wants answers. Cameron Shepherd is pressuring de Jude and that’s why they want Ella on board. So Ella is left with several questions; where is Shepherd, what was he working on and where is that research. All the college knew is that Shepherd thought he had found something with profound consequences for humanity. Cameron Shepherd wants to meet Ella but is killed en route to the UK. With the help of her estranged daughter, a computer whizz she saved from prison on espionage charges and an American policeman Ella’s hunt for Matthew Shepherd and his discovery is on. It’s not long before Ella and the others are in deep danger from forces seeking to hide Shepherd’s work.
Perfect for lovers of The Da Vinci Code but with much more wit and wisdom. Jarvis takes time to introduce his characters, their relationships and the ideas behind the plot so the pace is steady most of the way but does speed up when needed. Well plotted and engaging fun, perfect for an evening curled up in front of the fire/radiator – yes, those days are rapidly approaching. Hobeck Books, paperback, out now. Personal/group read 3½*.
The Night Watch by Thomas Walsh is a touch of genuine hardboiled with noirish tinges from 1950s America. The writing is spare and subtlety builds a bleak picture of the pressures of police work and the struggles to maintain integrity against a backdrop of temptation and corruption. There’s a steady descent into hell for a trio of cops on a last chance assignment and the tension builds toward a really satisfyingly and desperate denouement.
Detective Lieutenant Frank Eckstrom has a new assignment for three of his detectives, none of them are living up to the job they signed up for. This is going to be a test, maybe even a last chance to prove themselves. The guys will need to play nice together to get it done. For McCallister, Ahern and Sheridan this should be straightforward, they are looking for Harry Wheeler who was part of a bank heist that netted $40,000 but a guard was shot in the raid.
These three detectives have the 7pm to 7am shift watching Wheeler’s wife’s new apartment in Parkway Heights. Eckstrom warns them he wants Wheeler alive so that he can identify the rest of the gang and where they’re hiding out. His last instructions to the trio are don’t screw up and do it by the book. The routine is pretty straight forward, they rotate, one in the car out front and two in a rented flat with a view of Mrs Wheeler’s place. As nothing much happens the first few days McCallister is distracted by the two nurses living in the apartment next door to Mrs Wheeler, particularly the petit and attractive Jane Stewart. She seems to have admirers coming out of the woodwork but keeps them at arms length. The golden rule is no contact with the wife or the neighbours. McCallister knows it, but when a guy grabs Jane’s wrist in the lobby he’s forced to intervene and that’s a genie you can’t put back in the bottle. While McCallister is distracted Wheeler shows up, the two in the apartment don’t see him either until he’s inside his wife’s place. Ahern is down on his luck, Sheridan is just bad, neither wants Eckstrom on their case. They decide to wait for him coming out again and pretend they didn’t miss him. When Ahern and Sheridan confront Wheeler they beat him to the ground. That’s when they discover the bag he’s carry is his share of the loot. As Ahern is figuring how to explain things to the lieutenant Sheridan shoots Wheeler dead claiming he was coming for Ahern, there was no choice. So now it’s a question of hiding the body and finding a way to make it look like this never happened or coming up with a plausible explanation. It’s not just the lieutenant, there’s McCallister to worry about too.
In his introduction former cop Jim Doherty says journalists get cops and that’s evident in Walsh’s writing, he worked for The Baltimore Sun for many years. This is a tense little ensemble piece, all about temptation, trust or lack of, corruption and just how out of whack life can get when you take the wrong path. The characters are nuanced, their relationships believable and the action is truly gritty. This is the first story in a single volume double feature from Stark House Press that includes The Dark Window. The tale of an injured cop who becomes a security guard at a hotel, he’s off his game but he’s forced to confront Janisek, a crook looking to swindle a bishop escaped from eastern Europe out of the money he’s raised for the cause. Paperback, out now. Personal/group read 4*
Modern day New Zealand for Quiet People by Paul Cleave. This has a wonderfully devious plot which riffs on the idea of the perfect murder and the tragedy of a child abduction. There are several twists and bags of tension in this harrowing story that says a lot about the rush to judgement and the assumptions we make about other people. Characters misreading each other is crucial to the action. There will be a few points in the story where you will think you’ve got to the bottom of things but the layers keep coming. This is how you write a psychological suspense thriller with real emotional depth; it’s involving, wrought with tension and, at times, genuinely terrifying. And yet retains a sense of humour.
Cameron and Lisa Murdoch are crime writers, minor celebrities and they have a seven year-old son Zach, his behaviour is described as ‘challenging’. Cameron panics when Zach wanders off at the visiting fair one afternoon and runs into trouble with other parents while searching for him. When they are reunited the child sees his father’s anxiety as anger and plots to run away for real that night, and so a nightmare begins. Incidentally, The Quiet People are the ones who when you find out something dark about them you think I never would have expect that of them, they’re so ordinary, so unassuming.
When Zach goes missing the first thought is that he ran away, then, that he might have been kidnapped, but finally suspicion falls on the parents and a set of events is set in trail with tragic consequences. The story is seen from the point of view of Cameron, the father, and Kent, the detective, their interpretation of events dramatically diverge, where does the truth lie? The press and the public soon turn on the Murdochs. Suddenly, the comments they’ve made over the years at crime writing festivals about committing the perfect crime come back to haunt them and they have enemies who have been waiting for this moment. Events escalate as the nightmare of every parent snakes and spirals toward a nail-biting denouement. First class thriller writing, intelligent and heart stopping. Orenda, paperback, personal/group read 5*.
Tobruk by Peter Rabe is a real curio. As a whole I’m not in favour of novelizations of films. Call me a snob if you want, too often there’s no quality threshold and they are too slavish to the screen version. This is different, I was surprised to learn that Rabe, one of hardboiled’s most original and distinctive writers took this on. Almost immediately I realised it couldn’t be a simple retelling of a disjointed one dimensional action movie. Rabe’s writing is unique, he has his own take on storytelling, it’s wry and off kilter and sometimes opaque until he wants to reveal a truth. I have no doubt Rabe wrote Tobruk for the money, no shame in that, but it’s soon clear he wants to tell this story in his own story. Offering a deeper psychological insight into character, a tighter spy thread and plenty of tension and grown up relationships. This 1967 novel came about when Rabe was at a low point in his career but his edge is still there. I really wonder if the film producers got what they wanted though, did they expect a war novel that glorified an allied victory, something that complimented Hiller’s film, it’s messy script and weak acting? Because what they got was different in so many ways. The conspiracy aspects are neater, more realistic and more intriguing. The characters are rounded and credible and their motivations are clear. Though there are a couple of Nazi caricatures designed to poke fun at the pompous, deluded, inherently vicious and deeply ignorant types who considered themselves educated and righteous and thrived under Nazism. The espionage is far less back and white, although the film hints mildly at British intolerance/duplicity, this makes it crystal clear that there are no white hats to be seen. This is far more cynical – a plague on both your houses, fits. The only virtuous characters may in fact be the ones considered traitors and spies in the book. When the Germans shoot one of their spies, a Jewish collaborator, he has only worked for them in the belief that he is saving the life of the girl he loves. The death of her lover finally opens the eyes of that girl to the things she’s been party to. She was a willing follower of her father and his support for the Germans. This isn’t Rabe at his best but the psychological insight is profound. Rather than a representation of a war movie this is an anti-war novel.
The novel opens with German Afrika Corps prisoners arriving in Algiers. Among them is Major Craig, a Canadian officer serving with the British Long Range Desert Group. Craig was caught eighty miles behind enemy lines. He is soon separated from the other prisoners by local Gestapo chief Von Hahn.
‘He was not cruel. Only inhuman.’
Von Hahn want to know what the British scout was doing so far behind their lines. Craig was investigating the British suspicion that there is something of strategic importance that the German are hiding in Tobruk. Von Hahn has Craig sent to the notorious Grenoble HQ in Vichy, where the Gestapo employ more persuasive means of eliciting information. Meanwhile, based at the Kufra oasis almost 800miles from Tobruk Craig’s boss Colonel Harmer has assembled a Jewish unit from the pre-war Palestine Special Identification Group for a special rescue mission. They are led by captain Kurt Bergman, these are men who will not surrender to the Germans and are expendable. They have to free Craig or failing that kill him before the Germans get him to talk. At the same time former Mosleyite and now German spy, Portman, is planning on getting to Cairo to make friends ahead of the final push by Rommel to take Egypt. He has involved his daughter in his plans. It’s all about the oil, tanks march on their stomachs and the fuel dumps are crucial to the success of the Afrika Corps advance, Tobruk is the last chance for the British to stop them. All the parties are destined to meet in the desert.
This is a narrative that has the nuance and intricacy of a solid spy novel, it fills in the blanks in the film and makes sense of its thin plot lines. As always with these double headers from Stark House Press there is another novel in this volume. Stop This Man! A tale more reminiscent of Aldrich’s film version of Kiss Me Deadly, that at least gives you the idea of the territory it’s set in and it involves the a hunt for a man carrying a stolen radioactive gold bar. Out now in paperback, ISBN 9781951473457. Personal/group read 4*.
Hear Us Fade by David Hogan
Out on a limb and set in the near future is Irish author David Hogan’s climate apocalypse come mad cap thriller Hear Us Fade. Railing against the technological takeover of every part of our lives and the impending apocalyptic disaster but doing it with a lot of humour and a great deal of invention. It’s 2029, which may only eight years from now but the world has really come apart at the seams in that short time.
Rex Nightly is on Celebratate, a drug that numbs some of the pain of living but nothing totally anesthetises. He and his partner in crime Urban McChen are torturing their prisoner. Who is no less than Abbott Swenson, the governor of the great state of California. Rex and Urban want him to grant a stay of execution for a prisoner on death row about to be killed that morning. They’re against capital punishment and California is about to carry out the last execution before a moratorium comes into effect and there’s a change of legislation. This is the last place on earth judicial killing is still llegal. Hogan plays with ideas of a better/worse/terrible future. America is still such a violent place. Rex doesn’t see any irony in torturing a man to achieve the goal of a more peaceful and respectful world. This was urban’s idea anyway, he kind of went along with it but hurting a man tied up in a bath tub is beginning to lose its appeal.
Billy ‘The Goat’ Wharton confessed to the killing of eight people, the cops say it’s nine, that’s one of the troubling discrepancies in the case. He’s is being transferred to a prison with the juice for the electric chair. Strangely Billy can’t remember killing those people, let alone eating anyone, but that’s what he’s confessed to. The fact that Billy’s psychiatrist had him on some dubious medication sponsored and promoted by a large pharma-company the doctor was pocketing kick backs from hardly seems to have mattered to anyone during the trial.
Urban uses the Taser on Wharton again, he writhes and dies. At that moment Sofina, who owns the flat they are using, returns and they have to hide the body in a closet. Meanwhile with the tides rising, the boiling seas are brim full of plastic and the atmosphere is heavily polluted by the constant fires in the hills. Billy manages to escape and with the help of Mack and Sally heads back to San Francisco. Urban bails on Rex, figuring there’s no point in them both going to gaol. That leaves Rex with the body and no way to explain it to Sofina, who has just announced that she is going to run for governor. She hates Swenson but clearly believes that there is a legitimate way of getting rid of a bad politician. Little does she know. It’s all set to get madder, darker, funkier and funnier from here.
Betimes is a small publisher based in Ireland which has given an opportunity to an interesting array of authors who deserve publication, that including Hogan. This crime/science fiction/rapidly becoming reality thriller is a lot of fun. Hogan is a competent storyteller and this satisfies the need for something outside the box that we all occasionally have. A bit challenging but ultimately rewarding. Betimes Books, paperback, ISBN 9781916156579, out now. Personal/group read 3½*
And so to dessert, the highly recommended in brief: A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris is consummate crime writing, pointed, deliciously entertaining and darkly witty. This tale of public school life is loaded with plenty of skulduggery, misogyny and revenge. The first female Head at St Oswald’s in 500 years, Rebecca Buckfast, is unforgettable as is her nemesis, the Latin teacher, Roy, these are wonderful creations (5*). On The Edge is a debut from Jane Jesmond with a strong female protagonist, daredevil climber Jen Shaw. This is the beginning of a new series and it has a gripping premise, a well executed plot and an evocative Cornish setting (3½*). Judas 62, illustrates that the future of spy fiction is safe in the hands of Charles Cumming. The follow up to Box 88 sees Lachlan Kite on the Russian ‘Judas’ hit list, it’s a very personal fight for survival. Intelligent, relevant and engrossing (4½*). The Apollo Murders by former astronaut Chris Hadfield is an original and insightful Cold War thriller that is entrancing from the first page. Is it fair that someone should be this talented? Hadfield really can write and maybe there’s more than a little insider knowledge of a possible confrontation in space that might have actually happened nearly half a century ago (5*). The Eighth Girl by Maxine Mei-fung Chung is a startling and original psychological novel. A page turner that will have you hanging off every word. It’s astonishingly good for a debut. Alexa lives in London, she is intelligent and creative but she also has multiple personality disorder. So even though she’s aware of that when her friend is in danger she is lost, how can she know which personality is telling the truth. Her search may provide answers that unlock her own character or perhaps it will simply destroy her (4*). Pushkin Press, paperback, out now. Personal/group read 4½*. I leave you with the second collaboration between Lee and Andrew Child Better Off Dead. Reacher is dropped off in the wilds of Arizona near the Mexican border and he soon witnesses the only car for miles around hit the only tree in the barren desert. It leads him into the investigation of the missing brother of a wounded Afghan vet for whom this is personal, FBI officer Michaela Fenton. Her twin brother Michael worked for Dendoncker, the reclusive town boss, the question is what were they into that might have gotten Michael killed. Naturally the bad guys are lining up to get in the way of Reacher and his new partner Michaela. Plenty of thrills in this non-stop action parade. So far the hand over to Andrew from Lee seems to be going well. Be prepared for a shock at the start, (avoiding a spoiler by saying more, but apparently this was Andrew’s idea). Bantam Books, hardback, out now. Personal/group read 4*.
I suggest a hearty meal base on a selection of the above accompanied by the tipple of your choice.