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 In fact, I enjoyed “Postmortem” as a historical document as much as I did it as a mystery.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

Review: The Imitator by Rebecca Starford

It’s March 1948, and Evelyn Varley’s beau Stephen — an Italian translator — has been offered the opportunity to travel to Rome for a month to begin a new translation of Ovid. He wants Evelyn, a bookseller at a quiet London shop, to join him; but all she can do is promise to think about it. There are complications involved, which neither Stephen — or the reader — know about. Yet.  

Then she spots someone over Stephen’s shoulder, through the window of the hotel bar; a person she hasn’t seen in eight years, whose eyes meet hers, which careens her clandestine past into her present, threatening to devastate the life she has built from the ashes. And so we spool backwards in time to 1939, just before Evelyn is recruited by M15, to Bennett White’s elite counter-intelligence department, where she learns to become a chameleon, a master of deceit…

Betrayal is the great theme of Rebecca Starford’s novel — and the dark undercurrent that ripples beneath the best espionage novels. Tension in “The Imitator” is derived not from gunplay or pyrotechnics, but from the moral dilemma faced by its young protagonist as she infiltrates an underground group of Nazi sympathisers, forming connections she’ll inevitably have to snap. But the duplicitous nature inherent in her profession soon manifests in her personal life; after all, Evelyn hasn’t been seconded to a foreign country. She’s a spy operating on the same streets as her friends and family. Which inevitably means someone she knows is entangled in her mission. So it becomes a question of what matters most: Queen and Country, or friendship?

Starford puts a puts a human face on the moral complexities of espionage. And while it’s not laden with bombshell twists, the author is exemplarily erudite with its telling; the prose smooth, the characters and historical backdrop textured. Starford is a natural born storyteller, whose fiction debut suggests even greater things to follow.  

ISBN: 9781760529796
ISBN-10: 1760529796
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 352
Published: 2nd February 2021
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

For years people have been telling me to read Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.” But although I make my living recommending books, too many people telling me something is going to be my favourite thing ever is a total turn-off. So I’ve let this sit for a while. More than a decade actually, since it was first prescribed essential reading. Until now.

“Kavalier and Clay” is based on the history of the Golden Age of comic books, and its titular protagonists — Czech immigrant Josef Kavalier and his cousin Sammy Clayman — are inspired by several real-life comic creators of the era, particularly Siegel and Shuster, Simon and Kirby, and Steranko. (I’m sure they bear resemblances to other important creators too — Chabon cleverly plucking various characteristics and histories to form these two magnificently realised characters — but these seem the most glaring to my eye).

After they meet in 1939, Sam and Joe decide to utilise the latter’s artistic talent and the former’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the costumed heroes taking the world by storm, and create “The Escapist,” part Houdini, part Robin Hood, and inspired by Joe’s traumatic upbringing in the shadow of Nazism (and the tragedy of his family, still trapped in Prague), and his training as a magician and escape artist. The Escapist is a mega-hit; a Superman-like phenomenon.

But for all their success, both Sam and Joe battle their own demons. Josef thirsts for vengeance against Hitler, unable to find solace in his depictions of The Escapist taking on the Nazis, hardened by heartbreaking tragedies that befall his family, leading him to depart the life he knows for an unlikely and outlandish pilgrimage. Sam, too, is burdened by his polio-stricken body and repressed sexuality, and a desire to be more than a writer of pulps.

“Kavalier and Clay” is big and bold. Chabon luxuriates in its telling. There were times I wished he quickened its pace, but on reflection, able to perceive the narrative’s tapestry from a distance, I can’t imagine what he might redact. This is one of those rare books that shines more brightly in hindsight. Scrutinizing it is like polishing gold. It’s supreme entertainment; a genre-meshing symphony: an epic adventure story that’s also an intensely interior examination of the psyches of two men. And a wonderful ode to comic books.

ISBN: 9781841154930
Imprint: 4th Estate – GB
On Sale: 23/01/2002
Pages: 656
List Price: 22.99 AUD

Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The best novels are experienced rather than merely read, and Sarah Waters’ “The Paying Guests” is one of those rare and brilliant creations. I fell in love with this book, utterly addicted to all 600 of its pages, unperturbed by its glacially-paced first half, and obsessed with discovering the fate of its characters after the narrative takes a darker, violent turn.  

It’s 1922, and Frances Wray lives with her mother in their grand family home in South London. Her two brothers were killed in the war, and her father died soon afterwards, leaving behind immense debt the surviving Wrays can’t possibly resolve on their own. To alleviate their financial woes, and much to their chagrin — who, after all, wants strangers gallivanting around their home — they rent out rooms to Leonard and Lilian Barber.

Frances is initially wary of her lodgers; standoffish, almost, their exchanges brusquely genteel. But an attraction quickly forms between Frances and Lilian, and the story is soon fuelled by ‘will they/won’t they’ tension, which thickens when they do, as they desperately scrabble for time alone to consummate their love. And then, something happens, an act of violence, a moment of crescendo, that tilts the narrative on its axis, transforming it into a suspense-filled, white-knuckled crime drama, turning my compulsion to read into a physical force.

“The Paying Guests” is so perfectly formed, deliberately paced in order to richly texture its characters, so its melodrama reverberates. It was my first Sarah Waters, and it won’t be my last. “The Little Stranger” awaits on my reading stack.

ISBN: 9780349004600
Format: Paperback
Pages: 608
Imprint: Virago Press Ltd
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 4-Jun-2015
Country of Publication: United Kingdom