“Sheerwater” is a nerve-shredder.
It’s a novel of urgent, breathtaking suspense that had me turning its pages fast — white-knuckled, goose-fleshed, stomach churning with unease — as I raced towards its mercilessly poignant conclusion. But Leah Swann looks too deeply and evokes too much honest pain for it to be classified as a mere thriller. Her debut novel is as propulsive as it is heart-wrenching. It is powerful and crushing.
It is one of the unmissable Australian novels of the year.
There is a rhythm and structure to “Sheerwater” that’s easy to take for granted, but much harder to pull off than some readers might give it credit for. The same can be said of its plot which, summarised, sounds comfortably conventional, but is actually the perfect vehicle for Swann’s exploration of a toxically dysfunctional relationship; the bond between a mother and father and their children, and its distortion into something terrifying. Through its simple premise we understand the power and resilience of a mother’s love, and the consequences of domestic violence.
Swann wrong-foots readers from the start. Ava and her sons, Max and Teddy, are driving to their new home in Sheerwater when a light plane careens into the field next to the road. She does the right thing — hurries to help the pilot and his passenger — and when she returns to her car, the boys are gone. Is their disappearance linked to the plane crash? Surely not; but Swann dangles the possibility. More than likely it was her husband Lawrence; but he has a solid alibi. Which leaves — what?
Swann jumps from beat to beat, giving each character just enough development and humanity for them to register as genuine, but not lingering long enough for readers to get impatient. Every sentence, every paragraph, every scene is charged with urgency. “Sheeerwater” is a visceral experience. We are never released from almost unbearable dramatic tension. It hits hard — it is impactful, truly harrowing, and ultimately haunting — because the origin of evil that lurks within these pages is the human kind. It’s man.
Number Of Pages: 320
Published: 23rd March 2020
Country of Publication: AU
The work of novelist Daniel Silva is inextricably linked to current events, his thrillers either ripped from the headlines, or frighteningly prescient. As his hero Gabriel Allon has ascended to the head of Israeli intelligence, the scope of Silva’s novels has expanded. His recent fiction has explored Islamist extremism, the diminishment of the United States as an intelligence powerhouse, and the rise of Russian influence. His twentieth novel in this long-running series is smaller in scope, but with ramifications just as significant: a murder mystery in which the victim is Pope Paul VII.
Following the death of the Supreme Pontiff, Allon is whisked away from his family vacation in Venice to meet with the pope’s personal secretary, Archbishop Luigi Donati, who is adamant the Holy Father did not die of his purported natural death. Allon investigates, and uncovers the secret machinations of a secret right-wing cabal with toxic influence throughout Europe, who are determined to uncover the lost Gospel of Pilate, which offers revelatory new information on Christian anti-Semitism.
“The Order” is steeped Catholic history. Much of the joy comes from ascertaining how much of what we’re reading is accurate and factually based, and how much is dramatic license. Forget the girls, guns and gadgets of Bond and the exaggerated combat of Bourne. This is a thriller without most of the genre hallmarks Hollywood has set in stone, and it’s all the better for it. Maximum intrigue, minimal gunfire: Daniel Silva is le Carré class. You won’t read a better spy novel this year. And most importantly, for longtime readers, there are hints to what’s next for Allon, when his life as a spy reaches its inevitable conclusion.
Imprint: HarperCollins – AU
On Sale: 22/07/2020
List Price: 32.99 AUD
Unlike some writers who want their heroes to remain supermen forever, Ian Rankin has paid attention to John Rebus’s years, and found stories to exploit them. Not that Rebus’s mortality is the focal point of “A Song For the Dark Times;” but it’s always there on the periphery. In his twilight years, with his physicality and raw machismo dwindling, every flash of violence has greater consequence. We’re not just worried about Rebus taking a punch; we’re worried about what happens when he throws one, too.
There is something sadly discomforting in witnessing the irascible former maverick inspector in decline, forced into a downstairs apartment because Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease has made the climb up to his series-enduring tenement in Marchmont untenable. Not that he intends to putter away his golden years: Rebus has commandeered a selection of unsolved case files. Fodder for another time, however. Any plans Rebus has to reopen old murder files is interrupted by a call from his daughter Samantha. Her partner Keith — father to their daughter Carrie — is missing.
While Rebus journeys to the very far north of Scotland — inserting himself into the investigation of which Samantha is the primary suspect — detectives Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox work a murder case involving a very wealthy, and very well connected, international student in Edinburgh. Rankin builds intrigue like a symphony conductor. The cases overlap through several key witnesses and suspects, but their connection, although obviously manufactured for the sake of the narrative, doesn’t feel contrived.
As ever, Rankin’s themes are timely and prescient. Here he tackles the subject of Scottish land ownership, the festering desire for retribution, and the toxicity of secrets, while peeling back layers of the country’s past. Much of the novel revolves around Camp 1033, a WWII internment camp that housed ‘aliens’ and captured soldiers. Ignorance on my part, but I had no idea such camps existed in Scotland; once again Rankin provides a history lesson alongside a cracking yarn.
Tautly constructed, compulsively paced, and consistently arresting. Routine brilliance from Ian Rankin. He delivers, every time.
Number Of Pages: 320
Available: 29th September 2020
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
David Mitchell’s “Utopia Avenue” is a rags-to-riches rock ‘n’ roll story that begins in London, 1967, and ends in tragedy in San Francisco a little more than a year later. It examines the lives of the quartet that make up Utopia Avenue — troubled guitarist Jasper de Zoet, bassist Dean Moss, keyboardist and singer Elf Holloway, and drummer Peter ‘Griff’ Griffin — as it charts the development of their three albums, and their burgeoning success and fame.
“Utopia Avenue” is a crowd-pleaser. It is zesty entertainment, despite its overwhelming familiarity, the destination of its arc visible from its opening pages (and its blurb). This is the story of a band that made it big, embellished with connections to Mitchell’s earlier work, which will add delicious texture for some readers, and befuddle others. It’s all part of the ‘Mitchell Experience.’ But his name has clout. It is laden with expectation. I expect Mitchell to enliven. I expect him to subvert. And he doesn’t here to the extent I wanted him to.
“Utopia Avenue” ticks all the boxes of the archetypal ‘rise to the top’ tale of a rock band, replete with ego clashes, confrontations over creative differences, drug problems, a host of parasitic record-label personalities, and a flood of cameos by stars of the period (including Bowie, Jagger and Zappa). It is saturated in 1960s counterculture, and the racism and sexism of the time. And it’s depicted vividly and lovingly. Overstuffed at times, sure; but written so assuredly and with such verve, sprinkled with a slight dusting of the fantastical, you’ll forgive its similitude. What it lacks in sparkling ingenuity it more than makes up for in spellbinding storytelling.
Number Of Pages: 576
Published: 14th July 2020
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Country of Publication: GB
“The Hunted” is an absolutely merciless thriller set in the Australian outback. It’s violent and scary and relentless, and so filmic in its unfolding, it’s easy to see why Hollywood is already scrapping it for parts. It is a novel of pure action; a shotgun blast of mayhem; bullets, blood and explosions organised around the barest bones of plot and character — because such elements would only impede its relentless velocity.
Gabriel Bergmoser has supercharged the survival thriller. “The Hunted” is one of the most aggressive novels I’ve ever read. Imagine “Mad Max” meshed with “Wake in Fright” written by Matthew Reilly, which should tell you: don’t get too attached to its characters.
It observes the time-honoured tradition of the genre: it begins with a large cast and dooms them, in this instance, at the hands of a seriously depraved rural community of hunters. We fear for each of them, because the novel does not have a settled protagonist, so everyone is expendable. Narratively this is a risk, which works for the most part, but a part of me does wonder how “The Hunted” would’ve played out with an archetypal ‘hero’ to root for, because there isn’t a lot of room here for personality development. I never assumed anybody was safe: but I never really cared who lived or died. A ‘white knight’ to pull focus from these lightly-sketched characters might’ve actually enhanced them.
In survival thrillers like this, it’s more often not the slashing we enjoy, but the build-up towards it; the impending menace, the imminent threat, the lighting of the fuse and its burn; the generation of fear rather than its final manifestation. But “The Hunted” is all about the manic exhilaration of the third act, when the shit hits the fan, and it’s pedal to the metal visceral action. It hits hard and fast, a constant barrage of audacious violence that doesn’t exhaust, because this is not a book that outstays its welcome. It is as lean as it is mean, and it’ll leave you drunk on adrenaline, and meditating on the pointlessness of violence and the savagery of men.
Imprint: HarperCollins – AU
On Sale: 31/07/2020
List Price: 29.99 AUD
Genre critics sometimes indulge themselves by scoffing at loopholes or implausibilities in thrillers that could not possibly exist without them. These people want their fiction grounded in a world of physical and psychological plausibility. They want characters to ask the obvious questions, or react rationally; but characters in thrillers do not, because then the problems would be solved (or avoided entirely) and the book would be over.
Thrillers, by their nature, are intended as escapism. And sometimes, to escape, you need to let go; let yourself get swept away by the thrum of the narrative. The thing about “The Safe Place” is that once you know its premise (a struggling actress in London is offered a too-good-to-be-true live-in job working for a wealthy family on their luxurious but isolated coastal property in France) you can guess the story line and many of its beats. But that doesn’t stop it from being one of the best entertainments of the year.
This debut by Anna Downes is slick and polished. She makes every word, every sentence, and every page count. It is a well-oiled machine, with not a single wasted moment. It rips along at a fast clip, cutting between three characters in a cat-and-mouse game towards the truth and a tense climax.
And absolutely, most of us would’ve gotten the hell out of dodge if we were in Emily Proudman’s shoes, when the young girl in her charge displays violently erratic behaviour, and it becomes obvious the opulence of her surroundings mask dark secrets. But forget about that. Just enjoy the ride. The energy of “The Safe Place” is invigorating.
Number Of Pages: 384
Published: 30th June 2020
Publisher: Affirm Press
Jane Harper’s “The Survivors” is a splendidly entertaining and addictive whodunit set in the small coastal town of Evelyns Bay in Tasmania. It is a crystallisation of Harper’s three preceding novels — “The Dry,” (2016) “Force of Nature” (2017) and “The Lost Man” (2019) — and plunders similar themes of childhood friendship, family loyalty, and festering secrets, which threaten to break the thin-ice on which its characters live when the body of a young woman washes ashore.
Kieran Elliott’s life inextricably changed the day his recklessness cost the life of his brother; the same day an adolescent girl disappeared during a cataclysmic storm. Guilt has haunted him ever since, and resurfaces sharply when he revisits his hometown with his young family, and is forced to confront his past as police investigators probe the community about its newly dead.
I call it a ‘whodunit’ rather than a ‘thriller’ because the fate of its cast is never really in question, and its suspense — perhaps ‘tension’ is a better word — is procured not from a looming menace, but revelatory conversations between its characters, of which “The Survivors” has a Greek chorus, sharing contradictory impressions as the truth of what happened today — and years ago — remains tantalisingly difficult to determine.
Harper’s latest has the twisty plot, evocatively sketched landscape, and page-eating pace punctuated with emotional heft we’ve come to expect.
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: 22/09/2020
Imprint: Macmillan Australia
Few writers — let alone crime writers — write with as much style and substance as Don Winslow. In “Broken,” a collection of six novellas, he acknowledges Raymond Chandler, Steve McQueen and Elmore Leonard, which should give newcomers to his work some idea of his stylistic leanings; but the scope of his work — even in this shorter format — is positively Dickensian. Brusque, punchy sentences and dialogue David Mamet would be proud of bely thematic weight.
There are three personal standouts in this brilliant collection, though your verdict might vary depending on your particular predilection; some of which feature characters from Winslow’s earlier work. “Crime 101” stars a jewel thief named Davis who targets jewellery shops on the Pacific Coast Highway 101, which hugs the ocean south-north in California. He’s got Detective Lou Lubesnick on his tail, and he’s like a dog with a bone. “The San Diego Zoo” opens with an escaped chimp armed with a revolver causing havoc. Well-intentioned police officer Chris Shea intervenes, and ends up the laughing stock of the department, and a YouTube sensation, hindering his chances of earning a spot on the robbery desk with Lubesnick.
The most powerful and timely story — maybe my favourite — is “The Last Ride,” in which a Border Patrol agent breaks protocol and attempts to return a Salvadoran girl to her mother. The story coruscates with the fear and desperation of both the agent and the traumatised six-year-old girl he wants to help; but as the title suggests, all does not bode well.
The three other tales — “Broken,” “Sunset,” and “Paradise” — are pacy stories that crackle with energy and excitement: a New Orleans cop goes on a rampage to avenge his murdered brother; a bail bondsman hunts for a heroin-addicted former surfing legend; and O, Ben and Chon hope to expand their weed-growing business from California to Hawaii but encounter deadly opposition.
Each of these stories could be expanded into a blockbuster novel: they are atmospheric, suspenseful and propelled by deep wrenching human emotion. And they are proof Don Winslow is one of the world’s best crime writers.
Imprint: HarperCollins – AU
On Sale: 06/04/2020
List Price: 32.99 AUD
“The Morbids” by Ewa Ramsey is about a self-punishing, traumatised, anxiety-ridden young woman who slowly comes back to life through the power of love, friendship and kindness. On the surface, this would all appear to be another take on a familiar formula: it’s elevated beyond the sum of its parts thanks to Ramsey’s ability to create perfectly-drawn characters who haunt your heart, and its exploration of the heaviest of themes — personal tragedy, crushing guilt, and loneliness — with a dry wit that keeps it buoyant.
The titular ‘Morbids’ are a support group for people living with death-related anxiety. Caitlin attends meetings every Tuesday as a result of a fatal car accident two years ago, when she walked away unscathed, but laden with an irrational sense of culpability; a brutal form of survivor’s guilt that effectively eviscerated the life she knew, which had her climbing the corporate ladder and planning international vacations with her best friend Lina.
Now Caitlin is a borderline alcoholic, works the bar at Sawyer’s, and has isolated herself from Lina; not maliciously, but unconsciously; a manifestation of her trauma. When Lina announces her upcoming nuptials in Bali, and a handsome doctor named Tom enters her life, Caitlin is forced to confront her anxieties, possibly rooted in events preceding the car crash…
“The Morbids” is quietly devastating but ultimately heartening and life-affirming. It’s an intimate and moving account of the myriad ways in which kindness can change the notes and beats of our existence. Ramsey is a new voice in Australian fiction to celebrate.
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Pub Date: September 2020
Page Extent: 368
The only thing wrong with Peter Swanson’s “Rules for Perfect Murders” (published in America as “Eight Perfect Murders) is that it spoils — by necessity — the plots of eight classic crime novels. But if you’re okay with that, or better yet, have already read them, and you’re a crime fiction connoisseur, Swanson’s latest is tremendous fun: a twist-filled, pacey psychological thriller, and a love letter to the golden age of crime fiction.
Deception and duplicity course through these pages like a river. Nothing is what it seems, and everybody has a secret. Malcolm Kershaw is the co-owner of the Old Devil’s Bookstore in Boston, which specialises in mysteries and thrillers. It’s a routine day until FBI agent Gwen Mulvey arrives at the door with questions for Malcolm about a blog post he wrote years ago titled ‘Eight Perfect Murders,’ which described the ingenious methods and strategies used by killers in eight classic crime novels. Mulvey believes a serial killer is re-creating those ‘perfect’ murders, and wants Malcolm’s analysis.
The murders in question stem from Agatha Christie’s “The A.B.C. Murders;” A.A. Milne’s “The Red House Mystery;” Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train;” James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity;” Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History;” Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap;” Anthony Berkeley Cox’s “Malice Afterthought” and John D. MacDonald’s “The Drowner.” Swanson — through the lens of Malcolm — evocatively summarises the details of these murders. Spoilers abound, certainly; but I was more enticed than discouraged to read the four books on Malcolm’s list I haven’t yet imbibed.
“Rules” boasts a wildly charismatic and eclectic cast; authors, bookstore customers and colleagues, and dark web correspondents. They’re diverse and distinct, and though savvy readers might identify the killer before Swanson gets to the big reveal, there’s more to this story than the ‘whodunit.’ This is about unravelling the complex psyche of Malcolm; understanding how the tragedy of his past has affected his present. Honestly, “Rules” is one of the most purely entertaining mysteries of the year: a throwback to the mystery novels of yesteryear with a contemporary sheen, and a mystery I’d happily hand across to any trepidatious crime reader.
Format: Paperback / softback
Imprint: Faber & Faber
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publish Date: 5-Mar-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom