Review: The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry

If you’ve read any of Max Barry’s previous works ― particularly “Lexicon,” which remains the gold standard for a rip-roaring, up-all-night page-turner ― you won’t need any prompting to pick up “The 22 Murders of Madison May.” The guy writes tornado-paced blockbusters; techno-thrillers in the vein of Michael Crichton, with the pell-mell velocity of Blake Crouch. His latest is another relentless genre mashup: a dimension-hopping psychological thriller about one woman’s pursuit of a serial killer across parallel earths.  

Barry is a spectacular entertainer. But plenty of writers can conjure a high concept; a “what if” scenario. A select few are able to marry this with a cast of characters the reader cares about, that are developed beyond caricatures, or fodder to be annihilated in epic circumstances as dictated by an outlandish plot. The titular Madison May, for example ― the serial victim ― is fleshed out beyond mere prey, or a plot device, as each iteration of her is granted page-time to further establish her.

“The 22 Murders of Madison May” is a thriller of cyclonic speed and intensity. Barry has a gift for sustaining momentum that never lets up, and for creating scenarios and characters you won’t soon forget.

ISBN: 9780733645808
ISBN-10: 0733645801
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Available: 30th June 2021
Publisher: Hachette Australia

Review: Relentless by Mark Greaney

Mark Greaney’s 10th Gray Man novel reads like an R18+ “Mission: Impossible” blockbuster, a pedal-to-the-metal action thriller that doesn’t let up from its opening, when CIA Poisoned Apple operative Zack Hightower is nabbed by goons from a Venezuelan intelligence service in a Caracas marketplace when he’s tracking a presumed dead (but actually treasonous) former NSA computer scientist. 

When CIA deputy director for operations Matthew Hanley learns of Hightower’s failed mission he assigns fellow Poisoned Apple agent Court Gentry — the assassin formerly known as The Gray Man — to finish the job; nevermind the fact he’s still recovering from injuries suffered during a previous operation. But that’s the thing about action heroes: no matter how racked they are by pain and exhaustion, they always find a way — although Court’s rogues gallery has rarely been so substantial or lethal as they are in “Relentless.”

Bullets fly as Court faces off against American mercenaries working for the UAE, an unscrupulous international spy agency, and Russian agents hunting Zoya Zakharova, the love of Court’s life, and — you guessed it — also a Poisoned Apple asset. By now Greaney’s characters have enough flesh and blood to be convincing rather than mere gun-totting goons, and although he has a Clancy-esque eye for detail, narrative momentum never gets bogged down in the nitty-gritty particulars of the weaponry and gadgetry. 

Greaney unabashedly delivers what fans of action-lit desire. Readers who desire the subtlety and subtext of John le Carré may cringe at the undulated carnage on these pages, but those who’ve been with The Gray Man since day dot will delight in it. This is grade-A action pulp, and I can’t wait for the next one.

ISBN: 9780751578454
ISBN-10: 0751578452
Series: Gray Man
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 528
Published: 23rd February 2021
Publisher: Little Brown

Review: The Frenchman by Jack Beaumont

Jack Beaumont is the nom de plume for a former French fighter pilot turned spy for the French foreign secret service, the DGSE, who has now turned his hand to writing espionage fiction — and this is his first.

“The Frenchman” is moulded like a le Carré novel. Forget your super-agents like Court Gentry and Ethan Smoak, who go into every situation guns blazing (and whose violent escapades I am addicted to) — for Alec de Payns it’s all about long, detailed mission prep: staking out locations, trailing suspects, ruminating about possible scenarios. The tradecraft of espionage is all about nailing the mundane details, Alec has been trained to kill, but if gunplay’s involved, it’s a sign things have gone to shit. And in “The Frenchman” things very much have gone to shit.

Dealing with the fallout of a bad operation in Palermo and the possibility of a mole inside the secretive Y Division of the DGSE, Alec is tasked to investigate a secret biological weapons facility in Pakistan. It’s not a one-man infiltration job — you’d have to call Ethan Hunt for that — but an assignment for a small team, whose mission is essentially to sit, and wait, and look. It soon becomes apparent the facility is manufacturing a weaponised bacteria capable of killing millions — and Paris is their target. These are some very powerful, very well connected terrorists, whose reach quite possibly extends into the DGSE itself — painting a target on the backs of Alec’s wife, Romy, and their two children.

Beaumont’s steady escalation of the risks Alec faces, and the exceedingly realistic ways he tackles them, make “The Frenchman” an exemplary addition to the genre. Most impressively, for a guy who has been there and done it, he never burdens the reader with superfluous info dumps; there’s no heavy detailing of weaponry or gadgets. And he cleverly works in the familiar “family in peril” trope without divesting Romy’s agency, or casting her as a damsel in distress.

The writing is smooth, the plotting precise. This is good, le Carré -esque entertainment.

Category: Fiction
ISBN: 9781760529383
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Pub Date: January 2021
Page Extent:400
Format: Paperback – C format

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 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

Review: Win by Harlan Coben

The trouble, I think, with making the long-running sidekick of an established crime series the lead is that it diminishes the facets of their character that made them cool in the first place. Specifically the kind of sidekick who is notorious for last-minute rescues, or doing the dirty work the hero refuses to muddy their hands with; like Nate Romanowski from C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett mysteries, or case in point, Windsor “Win” Horne Lockwood III, from Harlan Coben’s eleven-book long Myron Bolitar series.

Win’s always been happy to handle the messier side of Myron’s vigilantism. He has a natural predilection for violence, rooted in his tumultuous childhood. He’s brilliant in a supporting role: ridiculously wealthy, a self-trained combatant, incredibly intelligent. And hedonistic as hell. Win is basically Batman without the Batsuit, only because he prefers the feel of thousand-dollar tailored suits against his skin.

In “Win” he is approached by the FBI to accompany them to one of most prestigious buildings in Manhattan, the Beresford. An unidentified older man has been found dead. Win doesn’t recognise the victim — but he immediately spots the Vermeer painting hanging on the man’s wall as one stolen from the Lockwood family home twenty years ago. So, too, a suitcase with Win’s initials. The case gets more convoluted when the dead man is identified as the leader of a radical left group responsible for the accidental deaths of seven people decades ago. Then comes a connection to another crime from the past, also close to home: the traumatic abduction and abuse of Patricia Lockwood; Win’s cousin.

There are lots of pieces to this puzzle that eventually connect satisfactorily, though without Coben’s trademark blockbuster final twist. “Win” is a breeze, the definition of a perfect beach read, laced with plenty of moral ambiguity and pockmarked with action, and the author’s established cracking dialogue and wit. But without Myron to gloss over his harshness, Win is an unsympathetic protagonist, and honestly, I think Coben has proved his storytelling is better suited to standalone novels that focus on the everyperson  rather than “heroes.” 

Published: 16 March 2021
ISBN: 9781529123852
Imprint: Century
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 400
RRP: $32.99

Review: The Order by Daniel Silva

x293-2The 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.

 

ISBN: 9781460755518
Imprint: HarperCollins – AU
On Sale: 22/07/2020
Pages: 464
List Price: 32.99 AUD

 

 

Review: The Hunted by Gabriel Bergmoser

x293“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.

ISBN: 9781460758540
Imprint: HarperCollins – AU
On Sale: 31/07/2020
Pages: 288
List Price: 29.99 AUD

Review: The Terminal List by Jack Carr

the-terminal-list-9781982157111_lgYou are familiar with the premise of “The Terminal List” because you’ve seen a version of this story played out a million times before. But if you’re like me — you enjoy a dose of action-lit in their monthly reading — Jack Carr’s political / revenge thriller hybrid is a great recycling of familiar ingredients.

Navy SEAL Commander James Reece is the sole survivor of a mission gone wrong in Afghanistan. He had a bad feeling about the op from the start, and back home, his attempts to mollify his concerns and unearth the truth are stonewalled by the top brass.

Soon, during a routine CT scan, Reece learns he has a brain tumour. Alarmingly, so did other members of his team, which can’t be a coincidence. Then he discovers the bullet-riddled corpses of his pregnant wife and baby daughter at his house in Coronado, California. And Jack knows he has become unwittingly embroiled in the machinations of a secret cabal. But his enemies have made a fatal error. They’ve unleashed an apex predator; stripped a trained killer of the only things that kept him human and reigned in. And a man like that, with nothing to lose, wants only one thing: revenge.

The action comes thick and fast, and crackles with insider information, some of which has been redacted by the Department of Defence, leaving a trail of blacked-out sentences and words throughout the text, which prove more distracting than intriguing. Carr’s level of detail when it comes to weaponry and tech is almost Clancy-level, and his hero’s homicidal tunnel-vision delivers a high body count and ingenious methods of killing for readers who might think they’ve seen it all before.

“The Terminal List” is not a novel that delves into the morality of Reece’s kill spree. Revenge does not poison his soul. This is action-lit at its purest, for fans of Flynn, Hurwitz, Greaney, and Ludlum of yore: one crusading individual against an impossibly powerful adversary. It won’t turn you into a fan of the genre, but for stalwarts, there’s plenty to enjoy.

ISBN: 9781982157111
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 416
Imprint: Simon & Schuster
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publish Date: 8-Jul-2020
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz

9780718185510On the eve of his retirement as “the Nowhere Man” — a harbinger of justice for those in need of desperate aid — former clandestine government assassin Evan Smoak — the infamous “Orphan X” — finds himself pitted against a seemingly endless supply of gun-totting goons as he attempts to liberate Max Merriweather from the looming threat of the bad guys who murdered his cousin.

Gregg Hurwitz writes with the pace and economy of a blockbuster action movie. Think Michael Bay’s The Rock or Bad Boys; not so much Transformers; thrillers with some semblance of heart and humanity. He understands the lurid pleasures readers want from their action-lit, and delivers in spades. In Into the Fire, Smoak is forced to infiltrate a police precinct; go undercover (and unarmed) into a maximum security prison; and face off against a barrage of gunmen nursing a concussion, armed with only a sniper rifle. All par for the course for Hurwitz’s hero, who readers know will walk out of every confrontation (relatively) unscathed; the pleasure comes from witnessing how he escapes these impossible odds.

The fifth book in the series, Into the Fire leans heavily into its established continuity. In some respects, this feels like a bridging novel between the next momentous phase in the life of Orphan X. Plot threads related to his Max Merriweather mission are suitably tied; but there’s plenty left dangling to suggest the next novel could be truly cataclysmic for Evan. New readers will still enjoy the bombastic action and bodycount, but longtime fans will truly appreciate the repercussions it potentially has for the series moving forward.

In the hotly-contested field of action-lit, Gregg Hurwitz comes out on top, time and time again.

Published: 11 February 2020
ISBN: 9780718185510
Imprint: Michael Joseph
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 480
RRP: $32.99