Review: Trace by Patricia Cornwell

After a few lacklustre entries in the Scarpetta series (culminating with “Blow Fly,” which asphyxiated from profuse intertextuality), I was convinced Patricia Cornwell’s literary franchise had lost its way and apprehensive about continuing my journey through each instalment. But actually, “Trace” is a return to form, and in fact a perfectly suitable jumping on point for series newcomers. 

Here, Cornwell brings Kay (and Pete Marino) back to Richmond (where she was previously the Chief Medical Examiner) as a consultant for the newly-installed chief. She’s there to determine 14-year-old Gilly Paulsson’s cause of death, which has the local experts stumped. 

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Review: Never by Ken Follett

This chunky geopolitical thriller by Ken Follett — his first contemporary novel in years — weaves together several plot lines in order to portray a chain of frighteningly plausible events that lead to nuclear war. It’s speculative fiction at its terrifying best, reminiscent of Tom Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising,” and Mark Greaney’s “Red Metal.” 

“Never” is crammed with incident, but its breadth of activity and ping-ponging perspectives belies a neat, assured and ultimately straightforward structure that ensures its narrative never becomes inordinately convoluted. It’s a jam-packed cast, but Follett keeps things focused on five principals, including the American President, a high-ranking Chinese Intelligence official, a CIA operative running an agent undercover in Chad, who becomes embroiled in the lives of a widow and her child desperate to escape Islamic State by any means necessary. 

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Review: Life Without Children by Roddy Doyle

The stories in “Life Without Children” are textbook Roddy Doyle, exploring familiar themes, but primsed through the pandemic. I’ve always enjoyed his mastery of evocating the stillness and banality of everyday life, perforated by ordinary incidents that afflict us all at some point. His take on one of the greatest discountenances of our time was a tantalising prospect.

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Review: When We Fall by Aoife Clifford

There’s no shortage of small towns with deadly secrets in the thriving landscape of Australian crime fiction. The trope is perpetuated globally, obviously — hell, Jack Reacher wanders into a new one every year — but our geography, so wide and varied, is perfect fodder for writers of mystery fiction. That said, you’ve got to give your setting soul, and its population a heartbeat, for it to stand out; which is why Aoife Clifford’s “When We Fall” is so luminescent in a jam-packed field.

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Review: Blow Fly by Patricia Cornwell

A stylistic metamorphosis — from first person to third, with James Patterson-inspired chapters that can run as short as a couple of paragraphs — can’t salvage the twelfth Kay Scarpetta novel, “Blow Fly,” which is the overwrought culmination of various plot threads from the last few books in the series. 

That means, yes  — more of French serial killer Jean-Baptiste Chandonne, aka Loup-Garou, now on death row; and more of his equally depraved brother Jay Talley, who is on a kidnapping, torture and killing spree. But the seismic revelation here is our discovery — and Scarpetta’s — of the truth about Benton Wesley’s death and — SPOILER! — his not-so-miraculous return; and the involvement of Scarpertta’s niece, Lucy Farinelli, and the ever-irascible Detective Pete Marino.

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Review: The Way It is Now by Garry Disher

This is another assured and modest crime novel by Australian grandmaster Garry Disher, whose books are so enjoyable precisely because they lack even the slightest glimmer or pretension. In a genre that increasingly demands a killer hook boiled down to a single sentence, Disher’s focus is on character, and scalpel-sharp dissections of his selected themes. 

The title of “The Way It Is Now” denotes the focus of his latest: the evolution of society and its attitudes during the 20 years of Charlie Deravin’s career with the police. When it opens in January 2000 he’s new on the job, managing the fallout of the disintegration of his parents’ marriage, and working in tandem with his brother to evict his mother’s creepy housemate. Soon after, with Charlie embroiled in the police search for a missing school boy, his mother disappears. She is eventually assumed dead, and Charlie’s father is deemed the likeliest suspect, though nothing is ever proved.

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Review: The Last Precinct by Patricia Cornwell

“The Last Precinct” picks up right where “Black Notice” left off: Kay Scarpetta, injured and reeling from her brutal takedown of the French serial killer, Loup-Garou — ‘the Werewolf.’ Which makes the abrupt shift to first person present tense (from first person past tense) all the more discombobulating; a minor pet peeve, but something that stuck in my craw for the duration.

This eleventh novel in the series is overstuffed; pockmarked with intrigue, but its narrative impetus curtailed by excessive talking and retreading over events from Scarpetta’s previous cases. The individual pieces are fascinating, but the fused result is muddled, like the merging of multiple jigsaw puzzles; one at a time, please.

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Review: Silverview by John le Carré

So here it is, John le Carré’s last completed novel, “Silverview,” which reads like an epilogue for its newly-introduced characters, most of the action and excitement having already occurred off-page decades ago. But that doesn’t diminish its charm. 

Set in the distant aftermath of the Cold War, its featured spies long-retired or headed towards that point, le Carré unearths the enduring half-life of a spy’s life in this honed volume that highlights his greatest gifts: to make the mundanity of espionage and geopolitics enthralling, and to evoke incredible suspense through dialogue. The result here is slightly uneven, but never anything less than compelling, its two narrative strands threading together a little more contrivedly than le Carré’s best, but still better than many of those who’ve followed in his footsteps.

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Review: The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield

“The Apollo Murders” is a brilliantly imagined and superbly crafted alternate history Cold War thriller where Apollo 18 — cancelled in reality because of budgetary cuts — launched into space in 1973. 

The crew’s initial mission objective is to collect lunar geological samples and sabotage a Russian moon rover. But things escalate quickly, and their task becomes more complicated and spectacular: destroy a Soviet spy satellite which, despite intelligence reports, isn’t the easy, unmanned target they expected. 

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Review: The Dark Hours by Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly’s police procedurals have always viewed law enforcement with skepticism. They have never assumed the justice system functions efficiently. Harry Bosch was always portrayed as an outsider in an insider’s job, dedicated to his mission more than he was to the Los Angeles Police Department; he was in the department, but not of it.

Renée Ballard, Bosch’s unofficial apprentice and the star of “The Dark Hours,” is the same. She is the quintessential police detective. She lives to solve cases, but constantly finds herself bogged down in petty departmental politics and bureaucracy, particularly now, with the LAPD’s policies focused on optics, because the public’s mistrust of law enforcement is at an all time high. Here, she juggles two investigations: the murder of former gang member Javier Raffa, and the hunt for a pair of serial rapists dubbed “The Midnight Men.” 

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