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.

Review: Not Dark Yet by Peter Robinson

There’s something decidedly unsexy about reviewing serial detective fiction.

Each instalment is moulded into an archetypal shape, and designed to incrementally shift forward the lives of its characters. I love the familiarity of these tales; the recognisable framework of their narratives; their recognisable protagonists. But it means I’m so often relying on tired clichés to describe my feelings because — by design — they’re hitting the same notes time and time again. Virtuosically in many cases, without the slightest warble; but the same notes nonetheless.

Which is the case with “Not Dark Yet,” the 27th Alan Banks novel, another stellar entry in Peter Robinson’s long-running series, who is easily one of the most reliable practitioners of crime fiction, and who has been playing a damn fine tune from the same piano for more than 30 years. Here, a seemingly open-and-shut homicide case turns into something far more convoluted — and deadly, with the Albanian Mafia painting a target on Banks’s back.

When DCI Banks and his team — DI Annie Cabbot and DC Gerry Masterson — start rooting through the home of a murdered property developer in Eastvale, they uncover a cache of spy-cam videos on which they find footage of an unidentified young woman being raped. Banks takes on the murder investigation while his partners try to identify the female victim, and Robinson handles these parallel cases with trademark dexterity.

Bank’s inquiries send him on a collision course with Zelda, a sex trade survivor who has found made a new life for herself in Yorkshire with one of the Detective Chief Inspector’s closest friends. Abducted from an orphanage in Moldova when she was a teenager, she’s been assisting the National Crime Agency to demolish sex trafficking rings; but a series of murders with ties to her childhood abusers puts her firmly in the spotlight as a suspect, and Banks must wrangle with his romantic feelings for her, as well as his own interpretation of justice.

The plot might be gnarled, knotted and twisty, but the storytelling is slick and seamless. Peter Robinson is — still! — one of the best crime writers in the business.

ISBN: 9781529343120
ISBN-10: 1529343127
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 352
Published: 18th March 2021
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Review: Body Of Evidence by Patricia Cornwell

A writers’ toolbox is vast, which makes the ending of Patricia Cornwell’s “Body of Evidence” all the more vexing, as it essentially replicates the climax of her debut. I won’t go into details obviously — this is a safe, spoiler-free zone — but I was galled by the culmination of this otherwise superb mystery, mystified at how Cornwell didn’t recognise she was aping her own work. It’s the only false note in her second Kay Scarpetta novel. 

When successful historical romance writer Beryl Madison is barbarously slashed to death in her Richmond home after returning home from Key West, Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta joins the police investigation led by Detective Pete Marino. A couple factors of the case immediately pique Scarpetta: the fact Madison evidently welcomed her killer into her home; the subsequential murder of her mentor, reclusive writer Cary Harper; and then suicide of his sister. Not to mention the looming shadow of an unscrupulous lawyer who is determined to obliterate Beryl’s final manuscript from existence; and the re-emergence of Kay’s former beau.

Putting aside its ending, Cornwell’s plotting is seamless, and the burgeoning claustrophobia of Scarpetta’s terror as Beryl’s killer closes in is utterly heart-pounding. The mystery unravels through forensic discoveries, exhaustive analysis of paper records, and various interviews with people of interest. The investigation builds steadily, not through melodramatic discoveries or explosive confrontations, but through dogged fact finding. Its crescendo is effective, sure; it works, functionally, for the story. But we just saw this play out; for me, less than a month ago, when I embarked on this mission to re-read the Scarpetta novels. It was a sour note to end on in a novel I otherwise wholeheartedly recommend.

Review: Dark Sky by C.J. Box

“Dark Sky” is another stellar C.J. Box thriller, his long-time hero Joe Pickett outgunned, outmanned, and adrift alongside a terrified Silicon Valley multibillionaire in the rough terrain of the Bighorn Mountains as temperatures plummet. Of course, the Wyoming game warden has demonstrated a propensity for overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds in his 20 previous adventures — but that doesn’t stop his 21st from being another page-turning success.

In “Dark Sky” Joe is tasked with guiding Zuckerberg-clone Steve Price, CEO of social media company Aloft, on an elk hunting trip. Price, who logs every moment of his life online, wants a genuine no-holds-barred experience, and the governor wants to ensure Price gets his wish; his hope is that Price will be so enamoured with the landscape, he’ll build Aloft’s enormous server farm in the county, creating jobs, and furthering the governor’s political career.

Things go to hell very quickly when Earl Thomas and his sons arrive on the scene, seeking vengeance on Price for the death of Earl’s daughter, who committed suicide after being trolled and bullied on Price’s social media platform. Their thirst for revenge is perhaps a tad flimsy, and it allows Box to offer social commentary on the dangers of our digital lives — but just go with it. Ultimately what matters here is that they’re the bad guys, they armed to the teeth, eminently capable of murder, and Joe Pickett is the only thing standing between Steve Price and certain death.

A subplot involving series-favourite Nate Romanowski, ex-special forces turned falconer, and his protégé, Joe’s eldest daughter Sheridan, is really more of a tease for Box’s 22nd Pickett novel. Someone is stealing valuable birds of prey, a very bad dude indeed, we discover; but just as this plot builds up a head of steam, it’s quickly snuffed out when Nate is dragged into Joe’s situation.

“Dark Sky” has all the elements I love most about this series, utilising the unforgiving landscape to great effect. Box’s novels always work best when the Wyoming environs play a key role. And every time I finish one, I can’t wait for the next. Is there a more consistent writer of high-quality crime fiction than C.J. Box?

ISBN: 9781788549325
ISBN 10: 1788549325
Imprint: Head of Zeus GB
On Sale: 04/03/2021
Pages: 368
List Price: 32.99 AUD

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: Girl A by Abigail Dean

Touted as ‘the biggest mystery thriller since “Gone Girl,”‘ Abigail Dean’s “Girl A” thrums on intrigue rather than suspense. It explores the long echoes of trauma born of childhood abuse, and has more in common with Emma Donoghue’s “Room” than it does with the archetypal psychological thriller. Which is not a complaint about this impeccably-paced, immersive psychological study, rather a caveat for readers expecting a narrative laden with explosive twists and shockwaves.

Alexandra “Lex” Gracie is the titular Girl A, and the protagonist of Dean’s debut. Alongside her older brother and four younger siblings (Boy A, Girl B, etc), Lex grew up in an abusive home in Hollowfield, England — until she escaped, and led the authorities to their rescue, where her father promptly committed suicide, and her mother was sent to prison. The children were all placed in various foster homes, with limited, and sometimes no, contact.

Fifteen years later, Lex is now a 30-something lawyer in New York when she learns of her mother’s death. She has made Lex the executor of her estate, which includes the “house of horrors,” and Lex is determined to turn Hollowfield House into something beneficial to the local community. In order to do so, she needs approval from each of her siblings. Thus, as she meets with them, readers learn how their shared traumatic past has shaped their lives, complicating relationships between each other, and those beyond their private circle. Because no matter how much time has passed, there’s a darkness at the root of each of them that has germinated differently.

The tight and polished control demonstrated from her opening hook — “You don’t know me, but you’ll have seen my face” — to the final, haunting line mark Dean as a writer to watch. Gritty, peopled with rich characters that so easily could’ve been caricatures of trauma, “Girl A” isn’t the white-knuckle thrill ride you might expect, but it’s brilliantly compelling. 

ISBN: 9780008389062
Imprint: HarperCollins – GB
On Sale: 20/01/2021
Pages: 336
List Price: 29.99 AUD

Review: The Chase by Candice Fox

More than six hundred of the United States’ most dangerous prisoners break out from Pronghorn Correctional Facility in this turbocharged suspenser from Candice Fox — her most ambitious and byzantine novel yet. 

As some of the scariest humans on the planet flee into the Nevada desert following a bold escape plan actioned by persons unknown, death row supervisor Celine Osbourne makes it her mission to capture one specific fugitive: John Kradle. His crimes — the murderous rampage that massacred his family  — elicit traumatic memories from Osbourne’s childhood, and she is determined to see him returned behind bars; even if it means partnering with another inmate to access his particular skill set, and splitting from the official manhunt run by U.S. Marshal Trinity Parker, whose focus is a terrorist she is certain will strike again, and soon.

But Kradle is less interested in hiding from his pursuers and more concerned with finally unearthing the truth about the crime he was convicted of, and finally enacting vengeance.  Taking advantage of the pandemonium, he spends his first hours of freedom trailed by the serial killer who has befriended him, and who Kradle can’t shake; then gradually peels back the layers of deception that landed him in Pronghorn. 

“The Chase” is brilliantly cinematic, tailor-made for adaptation into a slick television mini-series. While Kradle and Osbourne are the protagonists, Fox splices interludes from various other players, including fugitives and bystanders, which orbit the primary plotline, and engender an epicness to the story. But despite the grandness of the tale, Fox’s distinct brand of wry humour still shines through; the dialogue is sharp, and the characters are characteristically quirky. This is trademark Fox, but using a wider canvas: a proper blockbuster. 

These are some of the most carefully-crafted, well-groomed pages Candice Fox has produced. Breathless and compelling to the end, “The Chase” is a strong contender for thriller of the year.

Published: 30 March 2021
ISBN: 9781760896799
Imprint: Bantam Australia
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 480

RRP: $32.99

The Top 10 Crime Novels of 2020

Say what you will about 2020, but it’s been packed with some phenomenal crime fiction and thrillers, and it was so difficult culling my list of favourites to a measly ten. In any other year, Peter Swanson’s “Rules For Perfect Murder” would feature; so too the new Rankin (“A Song for the Dark Times”), at least one of Connelly’s (“The Law of Innocence” and “Fair Warning”), and Silva’s “The Order.” But when I sat back and reflected on my year of reading, these were the ones that resonated.

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