Review: The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson

image (1)Damn, Ragnar Jónasson, where have you been all my life?

(In the crime section of every good bookshop I’ve visited, actually; including the one I work at — I’ve just never picked one up.)

The Darkness is a book that completely subverted my expectations and stunned me with its climax. Which is a rare thing. I read a lot of crime fiction. Like, a lot. It takes something special to impress me. And it takes something brilliant to steal the air from my lungs; that physically stops me launching up the escalator when I alight from my train at Kings Cross and instead take up residence on the left side of the moving staircase to enable an extra minute of reading. Jónasson’s writing is razor sharp. Nothing goes to waste. And its short, sharp chapters, and creeping sense of dread, tantalise you into reading just one more page, just one more page until you’re all out of pages, all out of book, and left with nothing but despair when you realise there’s months to wait until the next entry in the series.

On the eve of her abrupt and unwanted retirement, Reykjavík inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir is allowed to pick a cold case to work on while she dwindles away her final days with a badge. Hulda reminded me a lot of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch; addicted to the mission, bleeds police blue, who truly relishes putting bad guys away. But she’s almost 65 and retirement is non-negotiable. The deaths of her husband and daughter — adroitly extrapolated  — have left her with nothing to look forward to, save for a fledging relationship with a man she’s not quite in love with, but in whose presence she finds great comfort.

The cold case Hulda plucks from the ether is a doozy: the death (suicide? murder?) of a Russian immigrant named Elena, who had applied for political asylum, which as Hulda quickly discovers, was granted; which makes her colleague Alexander’s handling of the investigation and ultimate conclusions all the more incongruous. Ineptitude? Corruption? A mixture of the two? As she digs deeper, Hulda confronts a legion of dark forces, not least of which are tendrils from her past, that threaten to finally consume her.

The Darkness will have you burning the midnight oil till 2:00am. It’s a gloriously compelling yarn, whose spell continues to hold even when you’ve turned its final page thanks to its unexpected ending, which, though confounding, is thematically apt. I can’t wait for Jónasson’s next; in the meantime, I’ve got his backlist to keep me busy.

ISBN: 9781405930802
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Penguin Books Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 4-Oct-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin

9781409176893 (1)Classic Rankin — top-notch police procedure  merged with deft characterisation.

Having conjured twenty-two novels worth of exploits for the irascible and incomparable John Rebus over the last thirty years, it would seem entirely reasonable for Ian Rankin to begin repeating himself, or for his series to start running out of steam. Indeed, even Rebus references the “managed decline” of his post-retirement life in In a House of Lies, and his treatment of the Saab that’s been as much an ever-present in these books as Rebus himself.  But even as Rebus gradually succumbs to a lifetime of bad habits — not just the drinking and smoking, but integrating himself into trouble, and his recurrent dalliances with vigilantism Rankin’s novels go from strength to strength as he shows a greater willingness to dive deeper into the moral ambiguity of his protagonist. Rebus was always an anti-hero — hard as nails, roguish; but always convinced of his own moral code — but as he faces us to his own morality, with the burden of empty years spent ruminating on his actions, Rankin paints a powerful portrait of a man lacking the assuredness that defined him.

Rebus’s ‘old school’ methods are thrust back into the spotlight when the skeletal remains of a private investigator are discovered more than a decade after the man’s disappearance  in a location that was, apparently, searched during the initial investigation. Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke is part of the new inquiry, tasked with combing through the mistakes of the original case; while Malcolm Fox, formerly of Professional Standards, has the job of specifically looking for misdemeanours, of which there were evidently many — several of which can be tied back to Rebus’s nemesis, the wily, power-hungry crime boss, ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty.

Rankin’s insight into character and motive is as keen as ever. He deftly cuts between his three primary leads as they follow wonderfully woven, unspooled threads that eventually tie together. As always, the resolution is incredibly satisfying, but is almost besides the point: we’re here for the characters, especially Rebus, whose wit remains as razor-sharp as ever. In A House of Lies encapsulates precisely why Rankin is the grandmaster of the genre, and why Rebus remains one of its most iconic and complex creations.

ISBN: 9781409176893
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 384
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 4-Oct-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Time to Murder and Create by Lawrence Block

9780752827490

A couple of weeks back I read A Drop of the Hard Stuff, which reminded me how much I enjoy Lawrence Block, and in particular his Matthew Scudder novels. So I went back and re-read the first book in the series, The Sins of the Father, which lived up to the pedestal my memory had elevated it to, and immediately tore through the second book, Time to Murder and Create. And wouldn’t you know it, I’m now reading the third, and highly anticipating the seminal fifth book in the series.

Time to Murder and Create has a tantalising premise: a small-time crook hires Scudder to guard a package, and only open it if he meets an untimely demise.

Obviously he does. C’mon, now. What did you expect?

Scudder discovers the package contains four envelopes, three of which hold blackmail evidence for three different people — all of which is potentially worthy of murder — and the fourth envelope contains cash for Scudder’s investigatory services. The dead crook wants Scudder to unravel the mystery of his death, and so our unlicensed private investigator visits each of the blackmail victims, probing them, determined to uncover the identity of the killer.

This isn’t top tier Block, but it’s a taut page-turner, and readers will enjoy this pulpy, bite-sized mystery. It’s very workmanlike, like Block’s on autopilot, going through the motions as he weaves his tale. Still highly readable and enjoyable, full of colourful characters and perfect dialogue and descriptions; just missing that special something. More than anything, Time to Murder and Create adds layers to the character of Matthew Scudder, which makes the payoff in the fifth book in the series, Eight Million Ways to Die, all the more resonant.

ISBN: 9780752827490
Format: Paperback (179mm x 145mm x 14mm)
Pages: 176
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 1-Sep-1999
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block

9781409135166The master of the hard-boiled detective story delivers a noir masterpiece with A Drop of the Hard Stuff, a tale about good intentions that backfire, spectacularly and fatally, for all involved. Lawrence Block doesn’t waste time with pleasantries and sub-plots and red-herrings that convolute the tales spun by his contemporaries; A Drop of the Hard Stuff is a pared-down, hard-edged investigation into the death of a man trying to make amends, infused with just enough compassion to make it resonate.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff is a prequel to the preceding Matthew Scudder novels, which is framed around the protagonist reflecting on his first year off the bottle, and his inquiries into the death of a guy he went to school with Jack Ellery, who Scudder’s had previous interactions with through a one-way mirror at a police precinct while he was still wearing the badge, then again years later at an AA meeting. Scudder and Ellery chose very different paths, but their addiction unites them, and they get talking, Ellery mentioning his “Step Nazi” sponsor Gregory Stillman, who is a true believer in the 12 steps in the AA program, and is adamant that each be completed.

Unfortunately for Ellery, his dedication to the fulfilment of Step 8 gets him killed. Having scrawled a list of the people he’s wronged, Jack begins the difficult process of apologising to each of them. Trouble is, his criminal background means saying sorry to bunch of nefarious characters; one of whom puts a bullet in Ellery’s mouth and forehead. With the NYPD unconcerned by the death of a former criminal — even one trying to make amends — Jack’s sponsor, Stillman, hires Scudder to look into the people on Jack’s list.

Block paints a sympathetic picture of Jack Ellery, a man who has done bad things, owned up to them, and is now determined to rectify his mistakes. A Drop of the Hard Stuff makes you wonder: is reconciliation possible? When you’ve broken bad, is atonement feasible? Scudder’s investigation is fairly conventional, but it’s augmented by particular moments that force Scudder to confront his own demons, and his attachment to the sauce.

There hasn’t been a Scudder novel since A Drop of the Hard Stuff, and if this is a master’s valedictory swansong, it’s a fitting finale, and an absolute pleasure to read.

ISBN: 9781409135166
Format: Paperback (133mm x 201mm x 23mm)
Pages: 336
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 1-Sep-2012
Country of Publication: United Kingdom