Review: The Enemy Within by Tim Ayiffe

Tim Ayliffe is one of Australian crime fiction’s most reliable entertainers, and “The Enemy Within” is another sure-footed mystery starring investigative journalist John Bailey.

It begins in medias res, with a body falling from the sky and crashing to the pavement right in front of Bailey’s eyes. Sickened by the sight, but having witnessed worse horrors in Afghanistan, he approaches the body, sidestepping the pool of blood spreading across the concrete.

Of course, he recognises the man.

Continue reading

Review: The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Is this a crime novel with ghostly undertones, or a ghost story with criminal connotations? Whichever way you look at it, “The Girl Who Died” is a bit of a disappointment. It never really chills or thrills, and its climactic revelations are curiously signposted. 

The story has potential; it just feels undercooked. The village of Skálar at the northeastern tip of Iceland, with its tiny population of ten, is perfect fodder for a creepy tale. Its protagonist, young school teacher Una, provides the ideal perspective to regard its unfriendly inhabitants. It’s set in the mid-1980s, before mobile phones made contacting the outside world a breeze. 

Una is isolated. She lives alone in the creaky attic bedroom of one of the town’s residents. And at night she hears singing. Is it the young girl named Thrá, who died in the house in 1927 under mysterious circumstances, whose ghost is rumoured to still haunt it? Or is she just losing her mind?

A few months into her stay, one of her two pupils collapses during the annual Christmas concert. It’s clear something maleficent has occurred. And given Skálar’s population, the pool of suspects is limited. The question bugging Una is whether the death is connected to the disappearance of a man who visited Skálar weeks earlier.

Ghost stories should build slowly and understatedly. Tension is derived from the reader’s knowledge that something nasty is around the corner — but which corner? Ragnar Jónasson’s “The Girl Who Died” reads too fast for its own good. I’m all for a page-turner, but not at the expense of mood. Scenes here have a sketched quality. Its characters aren’t given time to breathe, so they feel superficial. 

One of the great strengths of Stephen King’s most unsettling novels is their pacing, and that’s what feels off here. King understands the scale of scariness; how to intensify from a spine-tingle to teeth-chattering terror. Jónasson nails the claustrophobic atmosphere of a tiny town with secrets. But it never really elevates beyond mildly creepy, and its mystery is undercut by flashbacks that inform too much of the novel’s resolution. Readable as ever, and a pacy distraction, but this pales in comparison to the Hulda series.

ISBN: 9780241400135
ISBN-10: 0241400139
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 384
Published: 4th May 2021
Publisher: Penguin UK

Review: The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

There is something immensely satisfying about following a writer for several years, experiencing the consistent honing of their craft, and reading the brilliant culmination of their evolution as a storyteller; which is the case with “The Housemate,” the best crime novel Sarah Bailey has produced, and one of my favourites of the year. 

It opens with rookie Melbourne newspaper reporter Olive Groves at the scene of a murder in St Kilda. She doesn’t know it, but this case — dubbed the housemate homicide — will befuddle and enamour the police, and the public, for almost a decade. Of the house’s three cohabitants, one is dead, one is missing, and the other is accused of the murder. 

Almost ten years later, the corpse of the missing housemate is found on a remote property, and Olive — now an established reporter in a dying profession — is assigned the story, alongside Cooper Ng, a greenhorn reporter, who represents the changing face of the news industry as a podcaster.

“The Housemate” is very much a procedural, just without a detective at its centre. The labyrinthine plot builds slickly, and Bailey wrings suspense out of every possible aspect of Olive’s obsessive hunt for the truth. The facts she and Cooper uncover add up, but make no sense until the key is supplied in a flurry of revelations at the novel’s climax. 

With a mystery like this, I want to ride the plot twists like a passenger on a roller-coaster. I know there will be sharp curves and abrupt changes of speed and direction. But I also know I’m strapped in. However out of control I feel, my experience is being managed. “The Housemate” is pockmarked with red-herrings. It twists, and it turns, but there’s an assuredness to Bailey’s storytelling that establishes trust. I didn’t know where we were headed, but I had faith she would get me there, and that the ending would satisfy and surprise.

Reader, it does.

ISBN: 9781760529338
ISBN-10: 1760529338
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 464
Available: 31st August 2021
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Review: The Deep by Kyle Perry

Rating: 4 out of 5.

All of its bells and whistles aside, Kyle Perry’s “The Deep” reads to me like an exploration of the sliding scale or morality among his large gallery of characters, all of whom are bound by blood as members of the nefarious Dempsey family crime syndicate. 

His second novel, set in Shacktown on the Tasman Peninsula, is a battle between good and evil, you could say. Except that everyone in it is evil, at least to a degree, or has the capacity for it; but some are less evil than others, or are fighting against it; and most have their good sides. 

Its characters are knotted into a coiled mess of secrets, lies and revelations. 

The Dempsey family have run a drug ring for generations, using the fishing industry and the notorious Black Wind as cover. When thirteen-year-old Forest Dempsey — presumed dead for almost a decade — walks out of the ocean, bruised, battered, and branded, his return forcibly unites fractured members of the family; including Mackerel, desperately trying to keep out of trouble before his next court date; and his cousin Ahab, who renounced the underworld long ago. 

As they endeavour to understand what happened to Forest, the infamous drug Kingpin Blackbeard starts moving in on Shacktown, and their drug empire, compelling everyone with Dempsey blood coursing through their veins to confront their personal and familial ethos.   

“The Deep” is a mashup of Jane Harper and Matthew Reilly’s narrative sensibilities. Its location and landscape are fundamental to its being. But whereas Harper prefers a twisty slow burner, Perry chooses to flick on the afterburners, his sights set on crafting a rollicking thriller bursting with pages that grip and propel; those underwater scenes in particular. If Reilly wrote a small town mystery, it would be paced like this. The result is slightly undisciplined, but incredibly entertaining; like a whole season of television drama crammed breathlessly into 500 pages.

Published: 20 July 2021
ISBN: 9781760895716
Imprint: Michael Joseph
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 464
RRP: $32.99

Review: A Man Named Doll by Jonathan Ames

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’m a fan of a style of crime novel that was dead, or dying, before I was born. 

Hardboiled detective fiction, exemplified by Chander, Hammett and Spillane has been replaced in popularity by psychological thrillers, unreliable narrators, and small towns with dark secrets. Lehane and Pelecanos are two modern ambassadors for the form, but with their attentions seemingly turned wholeheartedly to TV, I’m desperate for someone to carry the torch. 

Enter: Jonathan Ames.

I adored Ames’s snack-size, violent masterpiece “You Were Never Really Here.” Its simple conceit belied its stylish execution, a John Wick-esque sledgehammer to the face kind of thriller. Not for everyone, but definitely for me.  

“A Man Named Doll” is an easier book to recommend, because reduced to its finest form, it’s a straightforward mystery told through the eyes of Happy Doll, a dysfunctional ex-LAPD cop who works security at Thai Miracle Spa in a strip mall just off the Hollywood Freeway. The novel opens with a pal, Lou Shelton, asking Doll for a favour — a big one. Doll’s kidney, specifically; his are failing, and he’s running out of time. By the end of the day, Lou is dead, Doll has killed a man, and the police want him for questioning.

Doll is a mostly archetypal gumshoe transposed to present-day LA. He blunders his way into trouble (and out of it, though not without suffering). Grit and gumption are in short supply; Doll’s ineptitude is mugged shamelessly for laughs. My tastes skew more deadpan, but I can see Robert Downey Jr. starring in an adaptation, and I imagine much of the comedy will translate better to the screen.

This is a superb series opener. If the names Marlowe, Hammer, Spade, Archer and Scudder fill you with warm nostalgia, “A Man Named Doll” is for you. It’s not hardboiled detective fiction masquerading as anything. It owns what it is, wholeheartedly and delightfully. 

ISBN: 9781782276999
ISBN-10: 1782276998
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 224
Published: 29th April 2021
Publisher: Faber Factory

Review: When You Are Mine by Michael Robotham

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Another year, another exceptional thriller by Michael Robotham. The guy is as sure a thing as you get in the genre. You reach for one of his books and you know you will be lost to your world for the entirety of its pages.

“When You Are Mine” is being touted as a standalone, which is a shame, because I’d love to revisit Philomena McCarthy sometime in the future. The events of this novel leave an indelible scar. And the kind of terrain you could mine for a whole series.

Philomena’s father is London gangster Edward McCarthy, the ‘teflon man’ who reinvented himself after a lifetime of criminality and steered into outwardly legitimate money-making schemes. But she can’t shake his notoriety. Particularly given her career choice: Phil is a police officer with the Metropolitan Police.

When Philomena is called to the scene of a domestic assault, she clashes with the bloodied young woman’s boyfriend and arrests him. The trouble for her is, Darren Goodall is a highly decorated (and very much her senior) detective sergeant, with friends in even higher places. Which means her upwards career trajectory is suddenly in a tailspin.

But Phil can’t leave it alone. She is disgusted by Goodall’s flagrant sullying of the badge and all it means, which is enhanced when she learns his wife and kids live in fear, under his thumb. And she has formed an imprudent friendship with the woman he attacked, Tempe; despite warnings from her friends and fiancé that Tempe has secrets of her own, and shouldn’t be trusted. 

As “When You Are Mine” races along, the plot pivots in surprising directions, and Philomena is forced to reassess her own code of morality as her wedding day looms. The final pages brilliantly pull together the story’s many threads, guiding readers to a devastatingly wistful conclusion.

Signature Robotham, for whom the hits just keep on coming.

ISBN: 9780733645921
ISBN-10: 0733645925
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 416
Available: 30th June 2021
Publisher: Hachette Australia

Review: Cruel and Unusual by Patricia Cornwell

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“… he thanked God for a mercy I saw no evidence of and claimed promises too late for God to keep.”

Here we go. The fourth book in the Kay Scarpetta series, and I feel like Patricia Cornwell is really hitting her stride. This is everything I want from my crime fiction: a super compelling hook fleshed out in a serpentine plot, its now firmly-established characters enmeshed in a wider conspiracy.  

Continue reading

Review: The Girl Remains by Katherine Firkin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Following on from her debut “Sticks and Stones,” Katherine Firkin reunites readers with Victorian Police Detective Emmett Corban as he reopens a twenty-two-year-old cold case when human bones are discovered on an isolated beach in the coastal town of Blairgowrie on the Mornington Peninsula.

On the night of 22 September, 1998, three teenage girls — Gypsy, Scarlett and Cecilia — set off into the darkness, weaving their way through shrubbery, following a trail towards Blairgowrie’s notorious Koonya Ocean Beach: ‘a magnificent stretch of coastline, punctuated by towering sandstone rocks and crashing waves.’ Only two of the girls — Gypsy and Scarlett — returned. And for more than twenty years, the disappearance of Cecilia May has baffled detectives. It remains a mystery, waiting to be solved. 

Emmett Corban, his new partner Lanh Nguyen, and a cohort of investigators, are tasked with digging into now decades-old trauma and secrets. In doing so, they unravel a wickedly complex tapestry, which includes a registered sex offender who confessed to the murder despite having a rock-solid alibi; Gypsy and Scarlett’s sketchy recollections of what precisely happened that night; and a visitor to Blairgowrie who is determined to exact her own brand of justice.

“The Girl Remains” is an earnestly crafted police procedural. Firkin isn’t trying to put some magical spin on the conventional elements of the detective genre, which makes it catnip for armchair sleuths like myself. Her step-by-step description of procedural details, from reviewing old case files to reinterviewing suspects and witnesses, totally immerse readers in the investigation. And the sprinkling of personal dramas — including Emmett’s news-photographer wife, Cindy, gatecrashing the investigation — adds further spice. The purity of its unfurling, even as it criss-crosses between its expansive cast, makes it a pleasure to read.

Published: 4 May 2021
ISBN: 
9781761042621
Imprint: Bantam Australia
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 368
RRP: $32.99

Review: Repentance by Eloísa Díaz

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In my experience, readers who besmirch crime fiction do so because of the supposed ‘limitations of the form.’ Crime novels have no ‘literary merit’ (a dubious concept) because they are merely ‘entertainments’ ― thanks, Graham Greene.

But here is a novel I would happily recommend to any reticent crime reader, whose mystery is vital to its plot, but whose solving is secondary to the exploration of its central character, and the city of Buenos Aires. It’s entertaining, sure: but it’s also got plenty to say about greed, corruption, guilt and redemption.

I wonder where it would fit on Greene’s spectrum of ‘entertainments’ and ‘novels?’

Eloísa Díaz’s “Repentance” vividly depicts the brutality, uncertainty and fragility of life in Buenos Aires during two tumultuous periods in Argentina’s history. In 1981, the Dirty War was at its peak. By its end, 30,000 people would be ‘disappeared’ by the state as the country’s military dictatorship turned against its own people.

Among them: the brother of Policía Federal inspector Joaquín Alzada.

Twenty years later, as thousands of protestors start revolting against the government, an unidentified corpse is discovered in a skip behind the city morgue. Then a woman from one of the city’s wealthiest families goes missing, and the only clue to her disappearance is a number plate linked to a high-ranking government official. Alzada is ruled off the case. She hasn’t been missing long enough to warrant an investigation. But Alazada can’t leave it alone. He decides to present the corpse from the morgue as the missing woman’s… and open a murder file.

This gritty, absorbing novel is served well by Díaz’s concise prose. I could’ve done without the overuse of italics to demarcate Alazada’s inner monologue, but it’s the one flaw in a novel I rushed to finish, only to have it linger in my thoughts long after I was done. It’s an absolutely enthralling portrait of the darkest days of Argentine suppression and sedition, and one man trying to make sense of it.

ISBN: 9781474613842
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 304
Imprint: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Publisher: Orion
Publish Date: 4-Feb-2021
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Doll by Ed McBain

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is the 20th novel in the 87th Precinct series, but there’s nothing hackneyed about it. Ed McBain was the unequivocal master of the police procedural, able to twist and re-shape conventional whodunits into top-drawer crime fiction. “Doll” (1965) is no different. It’s a scalpel-sharp, beautifully stripped-down mystery thriller in which Detective Steve Carella and Detective Bert Kling investigate the brutal slaying of fashion model Tinka Sachs, whose daughter Anna heard the entire murder unfold from the room next door, her favourite doll clutched tightly.

Kling is a good detective turning bad, ‘a cop who was going to hell with himself’ following the murder of his fiancée, whose grief has mutated into a toxic attitude that’s put him on the lieutenant’s shit list and a possible transfer out of the precinct. Working the Sachs case with Carella is his last shot to prove himself, but when he messes up a simple interview with a witness, Carella works it solo – and quickly finds himself in dire straits, taken hostage by a seductress who hooks him on heroin, and presumed dead by the world at large.

“Doll” is a breathless procedural, razed of everything but its lean, mean plot. I treated it like a tasty hors d’oeuvre, down in one swallow, desperate for the next.