Summer Book Reviews
Crimeculture kicks off with a brand new series of book reviews, covering some of the best recently published crime fiction. Read our recommendations and reviews for summer 2016 below.
Rory Flynn, Dark Horse
Review by Kate Horsley
Dark Horse is the second novel in Rory Flynn’s Detective Eddy Harkness series, recounting the exploits of a hero created in the great tradition of American urban tough guy protagonists – men knocked about by life, tarnished but fearlessly dedicated to getting the job done. At the beginning of the book, Eddy is already legendary, both for tackling Boston’s criminals and for getting himself into trouble. Courageous and compassionate, he is deeply committed to the city he loves and willing when necessary to bend the rules to protect it.
In the first chapters, Harkness, half drowned, battles for survival as a hurricane floods Boston. As he rides on top of a taxi that lurches through the raging water, he tenaciously keeps his hold on the deaf boy he is trying to rescue: “They thrash through the tempest, swept underwater and dragged down with the cars, trashcans, and stinking debris, the sepia water pulling at them with greedy hands. Harkness struggles toward the dim light above them…” It’s a terrific, dramatic opening, and one that foreshadows the narrative conflicts of the novel as a whole – the detective’s strength of character, his determination to help the weak, and his struggle against the vicious, submerged forces of economic and political corruption that pull at people with “greedy hands”, threatening to wreak havoc on the life of the city.
As head of Narco-Intel, Eddy’s remit is to investigate drug crime, and the ‘dark horse’ of the novel’s title is a particularly dangerous drug, a mix of high-grade heroin with cheap brown lactose that’s ultimately responsible for more than a thousand overdoses. But as he tracks the sources of this deadly threat, Eddy finds that the distribution of dark horse is “just the beginning”, a part of something larger and even more sinister that menaces Boston’s Lower South End: “The more you dig, the more dirt you’ll find.” True to character, Eddy unhesitatingly persists in digging more deeply, and the closer he gets to the men responsible the more warnings he receives: “They’re cold-hearted power brokers, Eddy. And if they decide to, they’ll crush you.”
Pretending to uphold Boston’s fine traditions and civic pride, these avaricious and corrupt men serve only their own financial interests. Swayed by the schemes of a man who sees himself as “an urban-planning visionary”, they are willing to betray their fellow citizens in order to tighten their control of the city. Flynn skillfully builds the tension as Harkness uncovers the hidden connections, the conspiratorial plans that will destroy the lives of ordinary Bostonians.
Flynn gives his readers memorable, beautifully drawn characters and a vivid, atmospheric creation of Boston itself. Dark Horse is a tough, sharply observed novel, written with warmth and energy – a gritty, dark, suspenseful tale of a hard-boiled fight against low-life morals in the highest places.
Kate Hamer, The Girl in the Red Coat (2015)
Review by Kate Horsley
Eight-year old Carmel, “the girl in the red coat”, disappears in the fog from a storytelling festival, abducted by an old man pretending to be her estranged grandfather. In reality, the man is an itinerant preacher who believes the girl has a gift for healing the sick. Telling her that her mother has died, he transports her to the States and leads her off into an increasingly bizarre world in which he is committed to demonstrating that “she’s the one….a very rare person.”
Kate Hamer’s beautifully crafted story is told from the alternating perspectives of Carmel and her distraught mother, Beth. For Beth, the day she lost her daughter, “the sense of the ground opening up,” is a nightmare to be repeatedly relived, as she tries to hold on to life as she knows it. For Carmel, the struggle is to grasp a form of life she has never known. Her account of the months and years following her abduction brings us to understand both the family that has taken her and her own Stockholm syndrome-like acquiescence. As she grows older, she tries desperately to hold on to her name and to some sense of her former self, whilst imprisoned by the preacher’s determination to exploit the special powers that she does indeed appear to possess.
Beth’s narrative provides readers with a constant reminder of the painful reality of a grown-up sense of loss. But it is Carmel’s narrative that most fully holds our attention, the immediate realities of her new life observed from her own bemused but also precociously sensitive angle. Of her obscurely understood journey, for example, she reflects: “When I wake up I remember my name is Carmel. I’m being rattled around now. I’m in a sort of factory maybe, rolling forward like an engine or a chocolate to the place where metal arms will pack me up into a box. Once I think I’m going to fall off the moving belt but I don’t know what onto – I feel like I’ll carry on falling. Further and further and forever.”
As she grows older, Carmel becomes capable of increasingly detailed and perceptive observations about the strange world into which she has fallen. The Girl in the Red Coat is a subtle, absorbing novel. We read it, of course, to find out what hazards Carmel will face and whether she is ever to be reunited with her mother. But even more than that we read for the fascinating representation of grown-up obsessions and ambitions from the perspective of an intelligent child who is struggling to process what she experiences: “I try to make sense of what I see.”
Mary Kubica, Pretty Baby (August 2015)
Review by Lee Horsley
Mary Kubica’s Pretty Baby opens with cold rain and wind buffeting a frail, lost-looking girl and a tiny baby: “The first time I see her, she is standing on Fullerton Station…clutching an infant in her arms.” The hook is irresistible. Heidi, who watches them helplessly, is overwhelmed by the feeling that she must “do something”. As readers, we feel apprehensive not only for the girl and baby but for Heidi herself. Although she is consumed by her desire to save them, she also has a foreboding that taking home these particular stray kittens could turn out to be a very bad idea.
Heidi’s narrative alternates with those of her investment banker husband, Chris, and of the girl herself, Willow, whose own life story gradually emerges. The horrors she has suffered in brutal foster care complicate and darken the narrative. Before long we know that Willow has told many lies and is “in a lot of trouble”, but we don’t know why. Is she purely a victim or is she also a dangerous transgressor? Can she be saved or will her past, catching up with her, destroy the family who take her in?
There are already problems enough in the tiny apartment inhabited by Chris, Heidi and their sulky twelve-year old daughter. With Chris teetering on the edge of infidelity and Heidi still traumatized by a miscarriage and cancer that left her unable to have a second child, they are barely holding things together as it is. Chris thinks it’s “utterly insane” that Willow and baby Ruby have been invited to stay “in a space too small for three, much less five.” He hires a PI to find out more about Willow, and increasingly fears “that this whole fiasco might land us both in jail.”
Heidi’s character and motives are altruistic – a manifestation, Chris reflects wearily, of her determination to help “every neglected, mistreated, overlooked, ignored, abandoned, forgotten, emaciated, abused, derelict creature on God’s green earth.” But she is also driven by her own inner demons and desperation, and we come to suspect that there is something perversely possessive in her rescue mission.
Kubica’s well-plotted novel is a taut, suspenseful psychological thriller. It plays inventively with some of the most compelling ingredients of domestic noir – obsession, secrets and deceptions, distrust, marital disharmony, claustrophobic domestic space, and psychological disintegration. A thoroughly engrossing read.
Elizabeth Brundage, All Things Cease to Appear (2016)
Review by Kate Horsley
Reading Elizabeth Brundage’s All Things Cease to Appear is a mesmerizing experience. For those wishing to categorise it, the novel is generally described as a mixture of ghost story and murder mystery. In truth, neither the ghosts nor the police are very active presences: this is not a tale that achieves its effects by arousing supernatural terror or by displaying an investigator’s insights. It is, however, an extraordinarily gripping and suspenseful narrative, much of it told from the perspective of a murderer. Like much else in Brundage’s novel, the fleeting supernatural presences and the largely unsuccessful investigation have wider resonance. The ghosts are intimations of unseen connections in our lives and perceptions; police failures remind us how easily bold lies and secret violence can be concealed from the view of others. The hidden persistence of guilt and hatred is at the core of the novel.
For the reader, there is, from the beginning, little doubt about who is responsible for the murder of Catherine Clare. What compels our attention is the gradual and painful revelation of the fault lines in a relationship – all of the things not said, and the slow movement towards disaster. We see how deception and cruelty can become habitual: “He’d lied. He lied to her all the time. He didn’t know why. Maybe he thought she deserved it. Theirs was such an awful and predictable story that he tried not to think about it.”
All Things Cease to Appear is also a portrait of a town at a time when its cultural and economic landscape is shifting, the older generation of farmers going bankrupt and the new money from the city buying up the land. The picturesque scene admired by visitors is one of the more deceptive aspects of the town of Chosen: “If you wanted to see a real farm you’d have drunk, broke farmers and hungry animals worried for their lives. You’d have bitter wives and snot-nosed kids and old people broke down from giving their hearts and souls to the land.” In some ways comparable to Daniel Woodrell’s The Maid’s Version, Brundage’s novel explores an exhausted, dying community during a time of irreversible historical change.
In plot terms, the chilling story of Catherine and George Clare, newcomers to the town of Chosen, is woven together with the equally dark history of the Hales, the family who owned the farm before them. The Hale parents committed suicide in the same room where Catherine Clare was found gruesomely murdered. They left behind them three boys who come back to the farm to help out and whose lives become entangled in complex ways with those of the Clares.
Brundage builds a tense and subtle narrative around the relationship between the Clares and the longer established residents of this isolated community. All Things Cease to Appear is a beautifully written novel that works on many levels. It is thoughtful and lyrical, a penetrating study of a psychopath and a deeply disturbing portrait of a doomed marriage, but also a meditation on the deceptiveness of all appearances and on “the big fairy tale of America.”
Review by Kate Horsley
“… it was a lovely weekend. Glorious weather and great company, the children getting on like a house on fire and enjoying themselves hugely on the beach… I can’t believe that such a beautiful weekend has ended so badly…”
It’s the house party from hell. The cast is a splendidly drawn collection of rich, pampered people who lead disordered lives and who are used to domestic chaos on a grand scale (“His third wife was there the night his second marriage broke up. His fourth wife found his third wife’s dead body when she came to visit with her parents.”) In The Darkest Secret, Alex Marwood displays her remarkable talent for sharp, bitchy, painfully revealing dialogue, and for creating characters whose duplicities, arrogance and casual cruelty keep us transfixed throughout.
The Darkest Secret is one of several recent novels centering on the death or disappearance of a child. Here, however, whilst feeling the torment and the pathos of such an experience, we are involved much more closely in the corrosive relationships and machinations of a collection of grown-ups who “had their friends coming, and…are not people who like their children to interfere with their fun.” Marwood’s novel has at its centre the disappearance of Coco Jackson, a 3-year old twin who vanishes in the night from Harbour View, a luxury property where Sean Jackson and assorted hangers-on are gathered on August bank holiday weekend to celebrate his 50th birthday.
The tense, twisting plot is in large part sustained by the fact that Marwood’s characters change their stories as readily as they replace their designer clothes. When they think, “we will never recover from this,” grief is not, in fact, uppermost in their minds. They are terrified of what will happen should they be blamed: “Everything – we’ll lose everything. Custody, jobs, reputations, liberty…” Sean himself, who epitomizes this mind-set, “is already rewriting his narrative in his head.” Will the lies and treacheries ever end? As we follow Marwood’s suspenseful plot, the truth only gradually emerges. The Darkest Secret is compulsive reading – a darkly, wickedly funny but also moving exploration of loss and desperation in the midst of the most lavish indulgence and self-deception. It is an immensely skillful novel, and one that keeps readers hooked to the very end.
Review by Lee Horsley
Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone is a superb take on the American tradition of tough, witty investigative fiction. Two separate narratives intertwine, only briefly intersecting but sharing the powerfully realized themes of loss, memory, the search for answers and the guilt of the survivor. The point of intersection – Oklahoma City – is vividly evoked, both its changing landscape and its communal sense of a past trauma shared and remembered, “a small town at heart” where, after the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building, “everyone knew someone who had been killed or maimed in the blast or someone who’d descended into hell to help with the rescue.”
The stories of The Long and Faraway Gone are told from the perspectives of two very different investigators, Wyatt and Julianna, each of whom is struggling with traumatic memories that have haunted them for more than two decades. Wyatt Rivers, who more than holds his own in a long line of wise-cracking private eyes, “had yet to figure it out, the central mystery of his life, why so many people assumed, automatically, that he was being a smart-ass. People he’d never met before, who didn’t know him from Adam.” He is hired to investigate a case that takes him – very unwillingly – back to his home town of Oklahoma City, where he cannot avoid reliving and ultimately investigating the far more disturbing central mystery of his own life. In 1986, when he was a teenager, he was the only one to survive a violent robbery at the movie theater where he worked. Again and again, he feels compelled to relive the night of the massacre and to ask himself, “Why am I still here and all the others gone?”
Berney’s other central character, Julianna Rosales, was only twelve years old when her life was transformed by an equally random experience of incomprehensible loss. Having taken Julianna to the Oklahoma State Fair, her older sister, Genevieve, asks her to wait for her briefly. As it grows darker and darker, Julianne continues to wait, but her sister never returns: “Why did Genevieve do it? How could she do it? How could she leave Julianna alone on the curb outside the rodeo arena, dusk falling fast, and never come back? Julianna would never know.” Like Wyatt, Julianna is tormented by the thought of not knowing, and obsessively pursues any leads she can find.
The Long and Faraway Gone is a riveting novel – sharply written, subtle, funny and moving. There are answers to the questions raised, but not altogether tidy and reassuring ones. There is no easy, revealing convergence of the two plot lines. Wyatt and Julianna, who meet twice during the course of their investigations, converse briefly, but only to share fragmentary memories of Oklahoma City in the mid-80s. These are not memories of the mysteries they are trying to unravel but simply recollections of intensely felt moments, like the time they both saw the same tornado – in Julianna’s memory, “so close it was almost on top of us. It was right there. It had been there all along, and we didn’t know it.” The powerfully experienced memory animated in this scene resembles, for both of them, their ultimate realizations about what happened in the long-ago tragedies of their lives – something that was there all along, but not recognized until seen in the mind’s eye with a sudden clarity. The effect of such moments of recall is to realign facts as they had imagined them to be, allowing them to come to terms with the past and with the possibility of moving on, however tentatively and painfully.