Review: The Frenchman by Jack Beaumont

Jack Beaumont is the nom de plume for a former French fighter pilot turned spy for the French foreign secret service, the DGSE, who has now turned his hand to writing espionage fiction — and this is his first.

“The Frenchman” is moulded like a le Carré novel. Forget your super-agents like Court Gentry and Ethan Smoak, who go into every situation guns blazing (and whose violent escapades I am addicted to) — for Alec de Payns it’s all about long, detailed mission prep: staking out locations, trailing suspects, ruminating about possible scenarios. The tradecraft of espionage is all about nailing the mundane details, Alec has been trained to kill, but if gunplay’s involved, it’s a sign things have gone to shit. And in “The Frenchman” things very much have gone to shit.

Dealing with the fallout of a bad operation in Palermo and the possibility of a mole inside the secretive Y Division of the DGSE, Alec is tasked to investigate a secret biological weapons facility in Pakistan. It’s not a one-man infiltration job — you’d have to call Ethan Hunt for that — but an assignment for a small team, whose mission is essentially to sit, and wait, and look. It soon becomes apparent the facility is manufacturing a weaponised bacteria capable of killing millions — and Paris is their target. These are some very powerful, very well connected terrorists, whose reach quite possibly extends into the DGSE itself — painting a target on the backs of Alec’s wife, Romy, and their two children.

Beaumont’s steady escalation of the risks Alec faces, and the exceedingly realistic ways he tackles them, make “The Frenchman” an exemplary addition to the genre. Most impressively, for a guy who has been there and done it, he never burdens the reader with superfluous info dumps; there’s no heavy detailing of weaponry or gadgets. And he cleverly works in the familiar “family in peril” trope without divesting Romy’s agency, or casting her as a damsel in distress.

The writing is smooth, the plotting precise. This is good, le Carré -esque entertainment.

Category: Fiction
ISBN: 9781760529383
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Pub Date: January 2021
Page Extent:400
Format: Paperback – C format

Review: Still by Matt Nable

In Matt Nable’s absorbing, if not slightly unevenly paced crime novel “Still,” Senior Constable Ned Potter discovers the body of an Aboriginal man face down in the shallow edge of a swamp.

The man has been viciously beaten and shot twice — and nobody seems to care. Not Potter’s colleagues in the small-town constabulary, nor its mayor, or its citizenry. This is early-sixties Darwin, and the town — like the country — is mired in prejudice. Racism doesn’t simmer under the surface; it’s ablaze. And Potter’s not convinced he has the courage to make a stand. If anything, he’s feeling the pressure to acquiesce to the demands of the corrupt forces in charge.

Charlotte Clark is increasingly discontent with her lot in life. At 23, she is married to one of its ne’er do well’s, destined to remain shackled to a man and town she has lost all affection for, with dreams of what might await beyond the borders of the Territory. A chance meeting with a stranger offers an opportunity to escape the life she has; but not necessarily a life society will understand or accept.

Nable is a clean storyteller whose prose is unembroidered with philosophical asides. He has a filmic approach, perhaps a tip of the cap to his acting career and a lifetime reading scripts. “Still” bounces from scene to scene, cutting between a clutch of well-drawn characters, but principally Ned and Charlotte. It’s not quite a mystery like “The Dry” or “Scrublands,” as the antagonists are exposed in the omniscient third person narration early on; it’s more an exploration of morality and corruption, its tension derived from the readers’ desire to see the bad guys brought to justice. The line between cop and criminal has never been so opaque.

The first half of “Still” is superb, Nable ably sketching his characters, layering his plot, and pockmarking his text with evocative descriptions of the disparate landscape, equal parts lush and rough. Its final act wobbles faintly under the weight of all that’s built before it, as the narrative jumps weeks, then months ahead in time, offering some interesting revelations, but galloping forward with such abandon, the narrative loses some of its earlier elasticity. But Nable sure knows how to keep the pages turning, and “Still” is a welcome and exciting addition to Outback Noir.

ISBN: 9780733644740
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 336
Available: 26th May 2021
Publisher: Hachette Australia

Review: The Lonely Silver Rain by John D. MacDonald

When mega-rich Billy Ingraham hires Florida-based Travis McGee to find his stolen million-dollar yacht, the self-described “salvage consultant” finds it with relative ease — alongside the slaughtered bodies of the thieves, one of whom happens to be the daughter of a Peruvian diplomat. Further trouble rapidly burgeons in the form of some seriously lethal drug traffickers, and the elaborately staged murder of Ingraham.

Any gusto to this twenty-second (and final) Travis McGee mystery is completely undercut by the protagonist’s mellowed thoughts on mortality. The plot hits all the necessary beats, the kind of thing MacDonald could write in his sleep, and the dialogue is sharp, with a constant shadow of menace looming over proceedings — but the whole thing is mired in McGee’s crestfallen thoughts.

I’m sure if I was more familiar with the character like I am with, say, Harry Bosch or John Rebus — I’ve read half a dozen books in the McGee series, in whatever random I discover them secondhand — I would’ve found his internal struggles interesting, a fascinating texturing of a decades-old character as he gradually comes to terms with his place in the world, and discovers a new reason to persist. And perhaps “The Lonely Silver Rain” deserves to be returned to, one day, when I’ve read a few more. It’s one of those books that isn’t substandard in any tangible way, just a smidgen unsatisfactory without deep background. I can see why MacDonald’s legion of aficionados admire it — one day I hope to as well.

Publisher : Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
Publication Date: 1 August 1985
Hardcover : 232 pages
ISBN-13 : 978-0340378496

Review: Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell

While the methodology of Kay Scrapetta’s investigative practices detailed within have aged, the seamless mechanics of Patricia Cornwell’s storytelling have not. In fact, I enjoyed “Postmortem” as a historical document as much as I did it as a mystery. Policing, like every other facet of our lives, has had to adopt and adapt to modern technologies and shifting attitudes. It’s interesting to see what has changed, and in some cases, how much has remained ostensibly the same.

This is the first Kay Scrapetta novel, and its plot is fairly conventional. A serial killer is operating in the city of Richmond, in Virginia — and Scarpetta, the Chief Medical Examiner, is working with the police to discern their identity. She is hindered by chauvinistic male colleagues and cops; and outrightly obstructed by someone close to the investigation leaking information to a dogged reporter; and persons unknown hacking into her computer and corrupting files. 

Scarpetta is tough and uncompromising, forging her own path in a man’s world. Her softer underbelly is exposed through her niece Lucy, who is visiting for a couple of weeks. The plot blazes along nicely, although Cornwell has a tendency to slow things down to explain a particular forensic practice — DNA was in its infancy here — or somewhat laughably (from a contemporary context), how a modem works. 

It’s been more than a decade since I read my last Cornwell, and I’m excited to rediscover her books. While some of the story beats are familiar, there’s something spellbinding about its execution… never mind the Scrapetta factor! 

ISBN: 9780751544398
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 432
Published: 1st October 2010
Publisher: Little Brown

Review: Later by Stephen King

This is the first time I’ve finished a Stephen King novel and thought, “Boy, that could’ve done with a couple hundred more pages.” Which isn’t to say the 240 here aren’t packed with incident, or that “Later” won’t end up being one of the best damn entertainments of the year. I just wish the core ideas at the heart of it had more time to germinate, and that the connective tissue between its major scenes expanded upon.

Jamie Conklin sees dead people. I know — you’re read and watched this one before. But like every device in fiction, it’s not the concept that makes a novel, but its development. “Later” is framed from Jamie’s perspective, looking back on his childhood as the only child of a New York literary agent. He’s aware of his supernatural ability, but tries to ignore it, and does so successfully — mostly. The dead don’t interact with Jamie unless he initiates contact, and unless their bodies were mangled in death, they look like everybody else on the street.

But dire circumstances dictate Jamie harness his “powers” to help his mother finish her late client’s manuscript. And when his mum’s girlfriend — a crooked, dope-addicted cop — witnesses Jamie in action, she realises how effective he could be in saving lives… and illicitly enhancing her own. Trouble is, Jamie has angered a darker, demonic presence, who wants revenge.

Jamie’s young voice doesn’t come off as particularly contemporary, which jarred at first, given the story is ser in the recent past; but it bothered me less as the story progressed. I didn’t love King’s explanation as to how Jamie got his abilities in the novel’s coda, either. It fits thematically, I suppose, but left me feeling a little sour. But “Later” is such a cracking yarn, easily consumed in one poolside sitting. Its story beats echo some of King’s epic works, but confined to the shorter page count of the classic pulps. No, it’s not vintage, but I had a really fun time with it.

ISBN: 9781789096491
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 272
Published: 1st March 2021
Publisher: Titan Publishing Group
Country of Publication: GB

Review: The Wife and the Widow by Christian White

If one novel was ever emblematic of why I read thrillers, “The Wife and the Widow” is it. I burned through Christian White’s second novel in a day, completely suckered in by its considerable twists and turns, and suitably surprised — and left satisfied rather than feeling cheated or swindled, as is sometimes the case with novels of this type — by its final revelation. 

White generates suspense from the simplest premise. When Melburnian Kate Keddie discovers her husband is missing, having lied to her about going to London for work, her search for answers takes her to Belport Island. A local resident on the islet, Abby Gilbin, is dealing with her own familial crisis, which threatens to devastate their lives. The two situations are connected, and White successfully teases the how and why for the novel’s duration. 

“The Wife and the Widow” is told in alternating short, sharp chapters from both Kate and Abby’s point of view. Each ends on a cliffhanger, making it all but impossible to put the book down, as it builds to a crescendo when the two women finally meet, but not necessarily as you’d expect. It’s a tightly constructed, heck of a page-turner, constructed with incredible precision. White dispenses crucial plot twists like a magician working his magic on a starstruck crowd. 

Pub Date: 24 September 2019
RRP: $32.99
ISBN: 9781925712858
Fromat: Paperback
Pages: 384 pages

Review: Swallow the Air by Tara June Winch

I loved fragments of “Swallow the Air” more than I did its totality, but that won’t stop me recommending it wholeheartedly. This was my first time reading Tara June Winch — “The Yield” will happen sometime soon though, I assure you — and the writing is beautiful; lyrical, certainly, punctuated with vivid descriptions; but somehow planed flat, too. Winch doesn’t waste a word. Her prose is stripped of superfluities. It’s a finely honed instrument wielded virtuosically.

This is the story of fifteen-year-old May, an Aboriginal girl desperate to find a place she belongs following the death of her mother, the long-ago abandonment of her abusive father, the alcoholism of her aunt, and the desertion of her prime ally in life: her brother, Billy, who has turned to drugs. Through a series of interconnected, linear vignettes, we trace May’s journey as she hitch-hikes to the Top End in search of her father, eventually ending up in Redfern’s Block, Lake Cowal and eventually a mission in Euabalong.

Its episodic structure makes “Swallow the Air” a breeze to read, and I had to forcibly slow myself down on occasions to truly appreciate the language and the gravity of the narrative. I wished Winch would marinate in scenes longer. They’re so carefully and delicately sketched, but I wanted more. Which is why I’m so excited to finally read “The Yield,” which feels like a more substantial tome.

ISBN: 9780702263309
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 216
Release Date: 2/02/2021

Review: The Devils You Know by Ben Sanders

Ben Sanders is one the most reliable entertainers in thriller-lit. “American Blood” and “Marshall’s Law” earned him comparisons to some of the genre’s greats: Lee Child, Robert Crais, Elmore Leonard; the gold-class writers of crime fiction and thrillerdom.  But if what came before was Sanders reaching for that high bar, “The Devils You Know” is him setting it. Nobody keeps a story engine churning like this guy. It’s not that the plots themselves are hyper-original; it’s the bravura of his storytelling.

Vincent’s not quite a pacifist, but after more than a decade in covert ops, and the catastrophic ending to his last mission — he was the only one to make it out when the helicopter fairground-twirled to the ground, surviving with two broken legs and a dislocated shoulder — he’s done pulling triggers at the behest of the US government. For anyone, in fact. He’s seen enough conflict for a whole lifetime.

Through a pal, Beauden Ash, he’s landed a contractor gig in Santa Barbara, working as the head of security for a supermarket mogul. Vincent drives Eugene Lamar to breakfast and golf, and fills the time in between surfing, writing his screenplay, and making small talk with Lamar’s daughter, Erin Jones, a pro-war journalist who’s book “Moral War: Failed States, Foreign Interventions,” is causing quite a stir.

A couple things pique Vincent’s Spidey-Sense: Lamar’s home is outfitted with a panic room full of assault rifles, and a revolver rests in the glovebox of his car. It quickly becomes clear he’s embroiled in a business far more dangerous than supermarkets. And inevitably Vincent has to utilise long-dormant skills, as some very deadly people close in on Lamar and his daughter.

Sanders never loses control of his clean, smooth prose or his ability to sketch fully fleshed characters in a few scenes. In “The Devils You Know” he serves up a taut and exiting tale, bristling with action, tinged with well-placed emotional depth, which hurtles forward at a furious pace. Pop fic at its best.

ISBN: 9781760877873
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Pub Date: February 2021
Page Extent: 336
Format: Paperback

Thriller Roundup: Mick Herron’s Slough House and Gregg Hurwitz’s Prodigal Son

And so here we are with “Slough House,” the seventh instalment in Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series, and “Prodigal Son,” the sixth Orphan X novel by Gregg Hurwitz: two thrillers seismically disparate in approach, both dragging long coattails of continuity, both extraordinarily polished page-turners. 

“Prodigal Son” is a kinetic, breathless, action-packed masterpiece that sees Evan Smoak — former government operative Orphan X turned former vigilante harbinger of justice, “the Nowhere Man” — snapped from retirement by a phone call from a woman claiming to be his mother. She wants Evan to protect a former member of the Pride House Group Home he was plucked from as a teenager to be moulded into an assassin. Andrew Duran has landed himself a James Bond-level adversary, who wields tiny, murderous drones as his weapons of choice; not to mention a sadistic brother-sister team of killers.

Hurwitz is the king of action-lit, operating in the same realm as Ludlum, Greaney, Carr and Flynn; a veneer of authenticity regarding the technology described, but the action itself amplified to “Mission: Impossible” levels. Here, Smoak can survive a head on vehicular collision with little more than whiplash; in Mick Herron’s universe, such an ordeal is likely to kill the character involved, or if they’re lucky enough to survive, have them so bent and broken we’ll be reading about it further in future series entries. Herron’s the closest contemporary approximation to John le Carre we have, albeit his books are drenched in wry humour, the politicking and intelligence gathering played for equal parts drama and comedy.

In “Slough House,” Jackson Lamb’s Slow Horses — MI5 operatives banished from the higher echelons of Regent’s Park for a variety of shortcomings and vices —have had their personal information purged from government computers, while veteran members are being stalked by Russian agents. It’s all connected to bureaucratic manoeuvring by Diana Taverner, the First Chair at Regent’s Park; although in this instance she may’ve bitten off more than she can chew.

Hurwitz is a master of orchestrating mayhem, the sort involving gut battles, harrowing high-speed escapes and lethal hand-to-hand fights. Herron builds his plots slowly, steadily, working them to conclusions with the occasional crack of violence, but more often resolved at a bench overlooking the Thames, or a quiet restaurant. They’re very different kinds of thrillers, but of the same consummate class.

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz
Published: 2 February 2021
ISBN: 9780241402863
Imprint: Michael Joseph
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 464

Slough House by Mick Herron
Published: 4 February 2021
ISBN: 9781529378658
Imprint: John Murray Publishers Ltd
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 320

RRP: $32.99

Review: The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen

In “The Faces,” Tove Ditlevsen — whose history of substance abuse is well documented, alongside her repeated stays in psychiatric hospital, and her death by suicide due to an overdose of sleeping pills — relates a searing tale of mental health anguish in the voice of a children’s author and mother.

This is a short, sharp, terrifyingly claustrophobic novel, set in late sixties Copenhagen, about Lise Mundus’s torturous descent into mental illness. Narrated in third person, but exclusively from her perspective, “The Faces” depicts Lise’s horrific disorientation as she struggles to ascertain reality through clouds of delusions. The reader shares her confusion, a deliberate narrative device on Ditlevsen’s part designed to suffuse the narrative in a thick layer of ambiguity.

Early on, Lise makes a conscious decision (albeit one shaped by disembodied faces and voices that plague almost every waking moment) to overdose on sleeping pills as a means to escape her tumultuous home life in which she believes her husband Gert, having witnessed his previous lover Grete kill herself, is having an affair with their housekeeper Gitte. This similarity between their names is another method Ditlevsen’s uses to keep readers off balance and blur reality and mirage. It works, almost too well; there were occasions I’d need to skim previously read passages to recalibrate my understanding of a scene. If I was struggling, imagine poor Lise.

Most of the novel takes place in her hospital bed as Lise recovers from her overdose, and struggles with cacophony of disparate voices inside her head, and the familiar faces that form over the top of doctors and nurses, who spit venomous taunts. Her sense of terror is palpable. She is sure the hospital staff are trying to kill her and that her family has abandoned her. The line between reality and her perception of it has been obliterated. Stretched over a wider canvas, “The Faces” might’ve been all too bewildering, but its brevity means it reads like a fever dream.

Published: 26 January 2021
ISBN: 9780241391914
Imprint: Penguin Classics
Format: Paperback
Pages: 144
RRP: $19.99