No 591 The Bat by Jo Nesbo

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I’m a big fan of Jo Nesbo and his dark, troubled creation Harry Hole. Nesbo has just published The Thirst, his eleventh in the Harry Hole series. I’ve read almost all the books, but thought I would go back to the beginning and read The Bat, the first Harry Hole novel written in 1997 but only published in the UK in 2012.

Following an accident that killed a colleague, the guilt-ridden and recovering alcoholic Harry Hole is sent to Australia to investigate the murder of Inger Holter, an ex-children’s TV presenter in Norway, who has been living and working in a Sydney bar. Despite being sent as an observer, Harry being Harry, is soon sucked into the case which appears to be the work of a serial killer, targeting fair haired women.

The Bat is an accomplished enough novel, but lacks some of the skills which make Nesbo’s later works like The Redbreast or The Snowman so successful. The setting will seem strange to Nesbo fans, used to encountering Harry in his Oslo milieu. The cold and snow of the Norwegian landscape is replaced with the heat and bars of Sydney. On his arrival in Australia, Harry is assigned to work with Andrew Kensington, an Aboriginal ex-boxer who is a well-written and intriguing character. However Nesbo uses Andrew as a voice for the way the Aboriginal people have been treated and the political struggles they face in general society. These passages are often superfluous and feel shoe-horned in to make a wider point about the debt owed by Australia’s collective guilt.

As you would expect from Nesbo, the book is well-plotted, but lacks the page-turning pacing of his later books. The story takes a while to really hit its stride but when the investigation becomes a catalyst for the resurgence of Harry’s demons it becomes more involving. In fact, Harry and those demons is probably the best reason for delving in to The Bat at all.

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Throughout the series, what happened in Australia and what brought Harry there in the first place, has often been alluded to. Harry’s tortured nature, his alcoholism and his disdain for authority all have their roots in this story and it is interesting to explore the pivotal experience that made Harry the character that regular readers of the books have come to love.

It is also interesting to see the work of a younger Nesbo. While not as tightly paced or plotted as the later novels, there is no sense of an author finding his feet. His trademark over the top violence is here, along with casual music references and a thrilling denouement that more regular readers will have come to expect.

If you’ve never read the Harry Hole series before, this is now the key place to start; yet, if you’ve read the rest of the series, The Bat will fill in enough detail in Harry’s backstory to be necessary in its own right.

Nesbo’s second book in the series Cockroaches has since been published, so the Harry Hole saga is now complete!

Are there any other Harry Hole fans out there?

 

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No 595 The Reckoning by Jane Casey

Things weren’t great for Maeve Kerrigan at the end of The Burning, the first in the series of crime novels by Jane Casey. Attacked by a serial killer; dealing with the machismo and misogyny of her fellow police officers and starting a perilous relationship with her colleague Rob Langton had left Kerrigan in a fragile position.

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When we meet Maeve again at the start of The Reckoning, things aren’t much better. She has moved into a new flat with strange neighbours; she can’t reconcile working with and sleeping with Rob and her beloved boss Godley has paired her up with the obnoxious, chauvinistic Josh Derwent.

Kerrigan and Derwent are working on a series of murders of registered paedophiles – all horrifically killed, but in very different ways. Given the nature of the victims, there is little impetus for the police to solve the crimes, but Maeve sees past the unsavoury nature of the victims’ characters and believes that murder is murder no matter who the victim is. Derwent, does not agree – either with Maeve’s determination to solve the crimes, or with her usefulness as a police officer.

Derwent was still talking, oblivious. “According to the boss, this is an important case and needs sensitive handling. That’s why he assigned you to work on it with me, which makes some sort of sense. The last thing I need is one of those hairy-arsed DCs from the team clumping around offending the families by saying the wrong thing.”
“I’ll do my best to avoid that,” I said stiffly.
“That’s the thing. You don’t have to do anything at all. Just stand back, look pretty, and let me do all the work.” Derwent squinted out through the windscreen and I was glad he didn’t look in my direction, because the expression on my face was nothing short of murderous.

Thankfully Maeve ignores Derwent’s advice to rest on her looks and the more they investigate, the more complex the situation they are in becomes. John Skinner, a well-known gangster with a grudge against Godley is involved. His daughter Cheyenne has gone missing and there are links to another woman’s disappearance 18 months before. Meanwhile, it seems as if someone within the police force is leaking information and someone is stalking Maeve, taking pictures of her without her knowledge.

If the plot sounds complex, it is. At the half way mark there is a U-turn, a change of focus which is cleverly handled without leaving the reader to feel the rug has been pulled from under them.

There is a lot packed into The Reckoning, and it is to Casey’s credit that nothing feels like filler and subplots are made to feel like part of the bigger picture. The reckoning of the title refers to a lot of happenings in the book and the result is a well-paced, sharply plotted thriller.

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When I reviewed Jane Casey’s previous novel, The Burning, I said that the strength of the book was the characterisation of Maeve Kerrigan and that continues to be the case. Crime novels can be as complex and plot-driven as they like, but if the lead character isn’t memorable, then there is the risk of the book becoming forgettable. However, with Kerrigan, Casey has created a dynamic, sharp-witted protagonist to match classic detectives such as Jane Tennison, or John Rebus. Maeve drives the plot as much as the crimes do and I find myself reading as much to find out about what it going to happen to Maeve.

Casey also explores the male-female working dynamic very well, particularly as it stands in the police force and the introduction of a lesbian character in this book widens out that discussion.

Casey is also careful not to turn Derwent into an all-out chauvinist pig and has created a character with room to grow. The relationship between Derwent and Maeve is an interesting one. They are probably more similar than Maeve would like to admit, both with a fiery temper and the ability to say the things that no one else will say. Despite being as maddened by him as Maeve is, there is also an interesting undercurrent developing in their relationship that I’m sure will carry through in future books.

Jane Casey has just published her latest book Let the Dead Speak to great critical acclaim. For me, she has created a great protagonist in Maeve Kerrigan and her crime novels are the most interesting I have come across in a long time. Meticulously plotted, realistic in the depiction of the slog of police work and with a strong, smart female lead, this series is one I can’t wait to read more of.

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Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

Liz Nugent’s barnstorming page turner of a thriller, Lying in Wait, has a blistering opening line;

My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it

From here on, the tension never lets up as we learn that respected judge Andrew Fitzsimmons has murdered the aforementioned Annie and with the help of his wife Lydia, they have buried her in their garden. What follows is not your typical who dunnit – we know that already – but a why dunnit as we find out what has brought these respected members of society to this situation, and wonder will they get away with it?

As Andrew starts to crack under the pressure of his crime, his cool as ice, agoraphobic wife Lydia takes control, determined to protect her beloved son Laurence and her closeted, comfortable life in the family home – Avalon.

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The story is told through multiple narrative voices. Lydia, the cold matriarch, her passive, overweight son Laurence who starts to become obsessed with the missing girl and Karen Doyle – Annie’s sister, who is sure Annie did not just run away and will stop at nothing to find answers. Karen and Laurence meet by chance and as their relationship grows and Laurence begins to realise what his parents have done, the novel becomes a chess-like battle of wills between Laurence and his domineering mother.

Lydia is a wonderful character – complex and compelling, both without pity, but still to be pitied. Holed up in her fortress of Avalon, with its beautiful gardens, privacy and fading opulence, she is a woman who is used to getting what she wants. As the family fortune starts to dwindle and her chance to have a second child disappears, her actions set off a domino effect, which will cause havoc for all involved.

Another striking character in the book is the setting itself. Avalon, Lydia’s childhood home is reminiscent of Manderlay in du Maurier’s Rebecca. Lydia idolizes the childhood she has spent there, but Nugent slowly shows how the house itself manifests the pain and turmoil that drive her present day motivations.

Avalon is her prison as much as her refuge and although the setting for the novel is the 1980s, the book takes on a fairy tale quality, with Lydia, the evil queen doing all she can to protect her reputation and keep her son by her side. She is a fabulous villain, over the top and unforgettable but Nugent is clever enough to provide an explanation for her darkness. The gothic undertones create a narrative that demands the suspension of disbelief, as the twists and turns lead the reader to a horrifying ending of dysfunction and warped self-preservation.

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Liz Nugent really knows how to ratchet up the tension and the book is well plotted and paced. The influence of Nugent’s work as a script writer for RTE soap Fair City is well in evidence here and a television or film adaptation may be in the not too distant future. In a style reminiscent of Harlan Coben, this is a book to be read in the least number of sittings possible. Once you think you have a handle on where the narrative might be going, Nugent upends everything with twist after twist.

The book also has interesting things to say about female sexuality, motherhood and mental illness and has a rich supporting cast of characters that create a believable landscape for the sometimes unbelievable plot.

Lying in Wait has taken the Irish literary world by storm, winning the RTÉ Radio 1’s The Ryan Tubridy Show Listeners’ Choice Award 2016 at the Irish Book Awards. No doubt do the same in the UK now that is has been chosen as one of Richard and Judy’s Book Club picks. She has just signed a deal with a US publisher and the release of Lying in Wait along with her first novel Unravelling Oliver in the States in 2018 will further cement her reputation.

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The Lost by Claire McGowan

 

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In Claire McGowan’s incredibly assured debut novel The Lost, forensic psychologist Paula Maguire looks at the photographs of a group of missing girls and notes

All of them lost, in their own ways

The same could be said for all the characters in this tightly plotted and intricately woven thriller as McGowan explores what it means to be literally and figuratively lost, and how we cope if we are the ones left behind.

The story is set in the fictional Ballyterrin (cased on McGowan’s home town of Rostrevor), a small Northern Irish town sitting close to the border with the South of Ireland. Paula Maguire left Ballyterrin for London in 2000, but now 12 years later, she is called back home to join a Missing Persons Unit, set up to look into cold cases of disappeared lives. Paula has her own reasons for focusing on this line of work and as her team are drawn in to investigating the disappearance of two young girls who had links with a local religious group, the lines between past and present become frighteningly blurred and it seems that history may be repeating itself in the town of Ballyterrin.

The Troubles may be over, but the pain that it wrought is still very raw and the violence of the past clings to the present despite attempts to move on. These girls may just be runaways, but as the team looks into their lives, it seems that the past may have something to do with where they are now.

The story is a good one. As Paula tries to fit in with her investigative team, we also see her trying to fit back in to her old life that she so abruptly ran from all those years before. She must navigate a new relationship with her ex-boyfriend Aidan who is now running the town paper and make amends with her old friend Saoirse, whom she hasn’t spoken to in twelve years. McGowan cleverly explores both how suffocating and comforting small town life can be compared to the anonymity of a city like London and how, in a town like Ballyterrin, your past is never your own. Paula is hiding her own secrets too, she is trying to find something she has lost and it seems that being home is harder than she thought it would be.

Paula is a great character – smart and focused but also reckless and prone to impulsive behaviour, which makes her interesting and relatable. She plays by her own rules and yet is also hiding a great amount of pain. In McGowan’s capable hands, we realise that Paula is as much lost as the girls she is looking for and as the title takes on multiple meanings, the book gains in depth and emotion. The supporting characters, from Paula’s father to her investigative team are also well drawn and the dialogue, peppered with Northern Ireland vernacular is particularly strong.

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The setting feels like a character in its own right in The Lost, the brooding, rain drenched streets of Ballyterrin hiding secrets and lurching from generation to generation without confronting it’s painful past.

Here already were the hills around her home town, the rolling mountains veiled in rain. It must be a beautiful place, people always said – people who didn’t have to live there – and she always shrugged. Scenery was one thing, twisted hatred another. And the past was still everywhere, creaking with spectral life.

McGowan has written a subtle and insightful post-troubles thriller, exploring a different type of crime that has sprung from the sectarian violence that blighted Northern Ireland. She dips her toe into subjects like the Magdalene laundries, the travelling community and long held religious divides with subtlety and care and creates a layered thriller that is evocative of place and character. It is both grounded and realistic, but also incredibly well-paced and builds to a conclusion I for one didn’t see coming. It is also nicely set up for a series and I for one look forward to reading more about Paula Maguire.

I received a copy of The Lost from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

 

No 657 Fever of the Bone – Val McDermid

It turns out that Fever of the Bone is the sixth novel in a series featuring profiler Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan, but it is my first experience of Val McDermid. As often happens when you dip into a series in the wrong order, much time is spent just working out who is who and deciphering the references to earlier books, but it is to McDermid’s credit that Fever of the Bone doesn’t suffer from being read out of context.

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There is a lot of plot in Fever of the Bone, but the main narrative focuses on the deaths of seemingly unconnected teenagers in and around the fictional town of Bradfield. The young people have been groomed on a social networking site called RigMarole, before being lured into a meeting with their killer. Carol and Tony are also facing their own pressures as Carol’s new boss wants to crack down on her reliance upon Tony as a profiler and also wants her team to prove its worth. Tony is trying to come to terms with the death of the father he never knew and the ensuing inheritance he has received and Jordan’s team are under pressure to solve a cold case relating to a missing mother and child who vanished over a decade ago.

With all these narrative strands vying for attention things could get messy, but this is very much a story about parents and children and the overarching theme brings a coherence to the plot and allows different narratives to echo and influence each other. While the murders are gruesome (and involve genital mutilation), more time is spent exploring with subtlety the devastating impact of the loss on the parents. We spend some time with the teenagers before their murders, which gives the reader an insight into what has been lost, what has been taken and shows the human side of the police investigation. While Carol tries to find out why Tony’s father stayed out of his life, Tony himself is attempting to reconcile the idea he has had of his father with the reality he is uncovering. There is an exploration of the idea of what we pass on to our children and what makes us who we are that is prevalent through all the narrative strands and it ties in perfectly with the Christie-esque revelations that come at the end of the book.

Hermione Norris as DCI Carol Jordan and Robson Greene as Tony Hill in Wire In The Blood

Hermione Norris as DCI Carol Jordan and Robson Greene as Tony Hill in Wire In The Blood

McDermid is also good at striking the right note in her depiction of the teenagers and in her imaginary social media site RigMarole, which seems to be an amalgamation of Facebook, SnapChat and Twitter. Given the fears around who children are talking to online and what they are sharing on these kind of sites, it is a prescient and frighteningly believable premise.

Hill and Jordan clearly have a ‘will they won’t they’ relationship that has been built upon in the previous books and the pressure they are under individually appears to amplify and confuse their feelings. There is a cliff-hanger at the end, but it is of the emotional kind and it will be interesting to see how Tony, Carol and McDermid solve it.

To weave together so many plot strands without sacrificing suspense is no easy task and McDermid pulls it off for the most part. I personally found the opening chapters of the book slightly confusing due to the sheer number of characters being introduced (two police forces are depicted throughout the story) but that could also be down to the fact that I have not read the previous five books and so don’t have any knowledge or back story to start with. Although some sections flagged a little – particularly the cold case Carol’s team are working on – there was enough interest in the detailed characterisation, the unusual murders and the intriguing relationships to keep the pages turning at a brisk pace.

Have any of you read more of this series? Would I have been better to read in order?

 

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No: 743 Faithful Place by Tana French

Sometimes – particularly after a book like Harvest – I like to treat myself to an entertaining, page-turning, ‘don’t have to think too hard’ thriller. That was the plan with Faithful Place, but I didn’t quite get what I bargained for.

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Faithful Place is Tana French’s third instalment in her Dublin Murder Squad series. Our narrator, Frank Mackey, an undercover cop who appeared in her second novel The Likeness, is forced to face the past he’s been running from for over twenty years and reassess everything he has believed to be true. Frank has defined himself by the loss of his first love, Rosie Daly, who dumped him — and was never seen or heard from again — on the night they were to elope to England. Two decades on, Frank has cut all ties with his dysfunctional family and Faithful Place, the street where he grew up, until he gets a call to say that Rosie’s suitcase has been found.

It’s time for Frank to go home.

This is a story of past and present and how they collide, merge and have a habit of blending in to one another.  It is a tale of two eras in one city, the 1980’s and the present day, the prosperity years of the Celtic Tiger don’t get a look in.

In some ways, Faithful Place doesn’t feel like a crime novel. Sure, it has all you would want. An unsolved crime, a middle-aged maverick detective with an ex-wife, an adored daughter and a blatant disregard for rules and a murderer close to home. Yet this elaborate tale of family obligations, regrets and first love is both a page turner and a tale to savour all at the same time. Pretty much everything in the novel happens in one street, there is little in the way of evidence being uncovered, just a slow excruciating exorcism of the past which pulls the reader in and doesn’t let go. There isn’t even a big reveal, a ‘twist’ from the Harlan Coben School of Crime Writing, just a series of events that blow apart the lives of those in the fall out zone. The mystery of ‘whodunit’ is tightly wrapped up in the themes of sibling rivalry, long held resentments, family violence and the childhood dreams of escape.

As Frank gets closer to the truth, the tension does build, but again the suspense isn’t the main point. There is darkness, anxiety and danger on every page, the real life kind where people are pushed to the edge because of circumstance, fear and desperation. Frank is so well drawn, so very ordinarily real, that the reader undergoes the same psychological struggle as he does in trying to work out what happened to Rosie. In fact, every character is so well drawn that by the end of the novel, it’s hard to pin point the crime itself, everyone is implicated. French has a fantastic gift for dialect and for dialogue which turns her characters from potential archetypes into fully rounded people.  She resists the urge to resort to a simple bogeyman to explain away the pain and as such I even had sympathy for the murderer by the end and was left with as many questions as answers.

Intelligent, absorbing and rich in detail – what more could you want from your crime fiction?

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