A guilty secret

Sharon Bolton’s latest, The Pact, capitalizes on a theme we have seen before, in everything from I Know What You Did Last Summer, the teen thriller by Lois Duncan, to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. That doesn’t make it any less impactful, however—especially in the hands of a master of psychological fiction.

Five entitled young people and their one friend on a scholarship are spending their summer vacation (while awaiting their final A level marks that will determine their future at University) hanging out together, indulging themselves in drink, drugs, and indolence. The various effects of this provoke a dare game in which they all pile into a car in the wee hours of the morning and drive the wrong way between two ramps on a motorway (freeway). Each of them in turn has done it, with no real consequences but with some near misses, but when the final person’s nervous driving leads to tragedy, all the six can dwell on in that moment is how it will impact their futures should their wrongdoing come to light.

Amidst turmoil, hysteria, and guilt, accusations are made and fingers are pointed as they all seek a plan to protect themselves. Finally Megan, the scholarship girl, offers to take the fall—to claim she was driving by herself and that she alone was responsible. In return, she asks that when she is done serving her term in prison, each of the others will owe her a substantial favor. Caught up in the giddy relief that only one of them will suffer, the others all agree to her terms without questioning her motivation. They craft their story carefully, not realizing that outside circumstances will substantially affect the case against Megan; she ends up being sentenced to 20 years, instead of the three to five they expected.

Twenty years later, the others—Talitha, Felix, Xav, Amber, and Daniel—have all made significant achievements in their careers, as well as most of them accumulating spouses, children, and wealth. Meanwhile, Megan has served her full sentence and has suffered injuries while imprisoned that have left her physically and perhaps mentally damaged. Now comes the reckoning, the part where Megan gets to name her terms and the others must comply. As they each contemplate the guilt over having shunned and ignored her during her incarceration, the secret shame they feel at wishing she’d not been released, and the fear of the price she will exact, the tension builds.

Although the story is involving and well told—in both the present and the past—it is the character studies that make this book so compelling. Sharon Bolton is so good at creating unlikeable characters and then causing the reader to hope they get what they deserve while simultaneously pondering how he or she would have reacted in their place! As each of the five considers Megan’s admittedly outrageous requests and flails around crafting a response, you realize it’s just a matter of time until someone snaps. But that realization is far from the result of knowing who it will be, which is the trick that keeps you reading to the end.

Bolton has written another gem of a thriller that first defines and then shreds the concepts of friendship and loyalty in the face of unbearable tension. While it’s not my favorite of her books (because of the plot, less original than most), it’s definitely worth a fingernail-gnawing evening or three!

Open ended

Writing a book review by basing it on this readers’ advisory concept may be unfair, in that it’s a sort of spoiler. If you plan or planned to read this book but decide not to because I reveal that the ending is somewhat inconclusive, then I apologize. But I mention it for the good reason that I usually avoid open-ended fiction like the plague, being a person who wants my stories resolved, if not tied up with a too-tidy bow—but I enjoyed the questions left by this one and applaud the author for ending it in the manner she chose.

The book I am talking about is Verity, by Colleen Hoover, and I have been under subtle pressure to read it for a long time. Most of the pressure came from my own mind, but some from friends who urged it on me. It is one of the five books continually discussed, lauded, and recommended as “best” on the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook page of which I am a member. This week, I discovered that the e-book was actually available from the library, and I finally succumbed.

Too much hype is almost always off-putting, and I think I probably would have enjoyed this book a little more if I had come to it with fewer expectations. Fortunately, I had never previously read a description of it, so some semblance of surprise remained intact. I knew Colleen Hoover was a romance writer, and for some reason I expected this to be romantic historical fiction, so when I opened the book to the first line, I was shocked and somewhat taken aback, but also intrigued.

In case you know nothing about this book (which seems impossible but probably isn’t), it’s the story of a self-effacing young author, Lowen Ashleigh, who has had some critical success but is on the verge of financial disaster when she is asked to “collaborate on” (which turns out to be code for write) the last three books in a series by the well known and immensely popular writer Verity Crawford. Verity has been in a debilitating automobile accident and her condition is “uncertain” at the moment, according to her publishers. Lowen accepts the lucrative offer made by Verity’s husband, Jeremy, and travels down to the Crawford home to look through Verity’s notes to get an idea of how to proceed. Although she plans to be there for only a day, financial difficulties paired with the sheer volume of material to peruse (plus her undeniable attraction to Jeremy) causes her to stay a while. But the entire sojourn is made increasingly uncomfortable by the discovery of an autobiography written by Verity that reveals a horrifying side to the Crawfords’
tragic story.

On its face, this is a rather typical gothic plot: Our heroine, young and unsure of herself, is put into a situation where she craves the attention of a seemingly unavailable man who may actually be more receptive than she initially believes. An obstacle (this time in the form of a critically injured wife) presents itself, but there may be a way around it, resulting in the union of the star-crossed couple. Victoria Holt mastered this one many times over, back in the 1970s.

That’s not to say that this book is a cliché, only that it’s not as unique as some would paint it. There are several things that set it apart: the frank depiction of sexual activities, which was verboten in the gothic oeuvre; the extenuating circumstances that occurred before the current timeline in this disaster-prone family; and the sheer creepiness of the alternation between the protagonist’s and the author’s voices as we jump back and forth between the present-day narrative (Lowen) and the words of the autobiography (Verity). And there is also the dark quality of life in the Crawford domicile in this moment, which is not to be discounted.

The final difference is that in the gothic romance tradition, all is resolved by the end of the book. Not so here, where a crucial piece of information casts all certainty into doubt and the reader is left to ask, What the hell just happened?

In the past in this column, I have complained of authors who just couldn’t resist putting the fix on every single dangling detail of their plot, to the detriment of the book, as in my rant about the epilogue of Things You Save In A Fire. At the same time, I am a person who does in general like a clear resolution to a story; it doesn’t have to be absolute, but if something is left hanging, I want it to give the implication that there will be satisfaction at some point. But having read Verity, I will say that there is something incredibly effective about making your reader say “Whaaaat?” at the end, which is that it keeps them thinking about your book for days after!

Perhaps you will read it and see what I mean; or perhaps you will curse me for leading you down this path without a pretty conclusion. Either way, be prepared for an interval of wild energy, uneasiness, confusion, and dread, wondering about the sanity of anyone who would willingly stay in a situation permeated by those emotions, regardless of the incentive.

Significant relationships

I picked up The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne,
with the misconception that it would be a fantasy retelling of an obscure fairy tale. But although the author makes creative episodic use of the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name by revealing it gradually in chapter headings, the tale told here is all too real.

Helena Pelletier is revealed as a former “wild child,” one of those who has been raised in the wilderness outside of society, under no one’s influence but that of her parents. Even that statement is misleading; her mother played no real role (except that of passive housekeeper and provider of meals). Her Anishinaabe nickname, given to her by her part Native American father, was Little Shadow, and Helena became, as she grew, a miniature version of him, learning all he was inclined to teach her—including a basic disdain for her weak and ineffective mother. Under his tutelage she learned to track, trap, hunt, gather, and survive in the combination of forest and marshland in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where their cabin was situated.

The truth that she finally discovers at age 12 rocks her world and skews all her perceptions: Her father kidnapped her mother off the street when she was 14 years old, brought her to his cabin in the marsh, and held her prisoner. At age 16 she became pregnant and gave birth to Helena, who spent the next 12 years in ignorance and freedom, being raised by the victim and her captor.

The story is compellingly told in alternating chapters of present day and past tense. After eluding arrest for two years, Helena’s father spent 13 years in prison for his crimes. But now he has managed to escape, killing two guards and supposedly heading off into the heart of a wildlife refuge. But Helena, now in her late 20s and with a husband and two daughters of her own, knows him well enough to believe that this is misdirection to get the manhunt going in that area while her father will make his way to the land he knows best, part of which is now the site of Helena’s family home. She also believes that since no one knows him and his skills the way she does, she is the only one who can track him down.

Each revelation in the present day leads to a chapter about her life in the past, and as the book moves to its conclusion, the picture of what that was like grows deeper, broader, and more fascinating. This is a cat-and-mouse thriller full of suspense: Although we know from the outset that Helena’s father is “the bad guy,” the tension of seeing how her life plays out as she grows up and becomes self-aware enough to recognize him for who he is—a dangerous narcissist, a psychopath—gives agency to some truly compelling character development. The conflict experienced by Helena, who goes from idolizing her father to questioning his authority to the major revelation of his actions, followed by an uncomfortable and protracted adjustment to her new life in society, shows all the nuances of parent-child relationships and how they help and harm as children achieve adulthood. I’m so happy to finally have read a book this year that I can unequivocally endorse! Five stars from me.

One of the attractive parts of this story is the wealth of detail about the marshes and wetlands of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in which it is set; but I should also note that there is a fair bit of detail about the trapping and killing of animals for food that may disturb some readers. I am a vegetarian for compassionate reasons and managed to get through it, but some of it was more graphic than I would have liked.

Series, new to me

I tried a “new” series this week, whose first book came out in 1990. To Speak for the Dead is the first in Paul Levine’s Jake Lassiter novels and there are apparently 11 or 12 more. It was a free Kindle download a few weeks ago, so I added it and let it sit until I was between books and feeling restless for something different.

After trying and failing to read The 7.5 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle for book club (I may return to it later) and also striking out with three of the four books that preceded that, I was in the mood for a straightforward protagonist with a simple agenda. Jake Lassiter, attorney and former linebacker, seemed stable enough to qualify. I have been burned by courtroom dramas often enough that I tend to avoid them now in favor of more direct interactions with the case (i.e., police procedurals, detectives), but this one sounded intriguing.

I liked it pretty well. The main character is well developed and fun, with a bit of a rogue attitude but holding, at heart, a basically sound philosophy; and some of the side character “regulars” are likewise engaging (notably Granny Lassiter and the now-retired medical examiner, Dr. Charles Riggs). And there is quite a bit of leavening humor, which always helps. In this one, at least, the women were a bit one-dimensional (although I got a big kick out of Cindy, Lassiter’s receptionist), but I forgave that to a certain extent, because A. it’s the first book in the series, so we are meant to be focused on Jake Lassiter, and B. Levine wrote this in 1990, so the standards weren’t quite as high (although it would have been much more forgiveable had it been, say, the ’70s!).

There were some things that would flat-out never happen in a legal/court case, but Levine writes his Miami setting as if it is a place like no other, where rules are lax and meant to be stretched, and it’s easy to go along. The plot is a weird one, in that the man Lassiter represents, Dr. Robert Stanton, seems to be innocent of the crime of which he is accused in the civil case being tried when the book opens, but appears to be guilty of much worse as events unfold. It’s hard to be sure, though, with so much conflicting information and so many other dastardly people in the mix, and the whole book is an extended game of what John Lescroart, in his Dismas Hardy series which I have lately abandoned, calls “SODDIT,” or “Some Other Dude Did It.” But who? is the question we are meant to answer.

The book wraps up with an open-ended scene that is among the weirdest I’ve ever experienced in a so-called mystery, but it was just bizarre enough to work. I’m at least going to try the second book in the series before calling a halt.

2020 Faves

I don’t know if anyone is dying for a reprise of my favorite books of 2020. Since I am such an eclectic reader, I don’t always read the new stuff, or the popular stuff. Sometimes I discover something popular three years after everyone else already read it, as I did The Hate U Give this past January (it was released in 2017). Sometimes I find things that no one else has read that are unbelievably good, and I feel vindicated by my weird reading patterns when I am able to share it on my blog. But mostly I just read whatever takes my fancy, whenever it comes up and from whatever source, and readers of the blog have to put up with it.

Anyway, I thought I would do a short summary here of my favorite reads for the year, and since they are somewhat evenly populated between Young Adult and Adult books, I will divvy them up
that way.

YOUNG ADULT DISCOVERIES

Fantasy dominated here, as it commonly does, both because fantasy is big in YA and because I am a big fantasy fan. I discovered a stand-alone and two duologies this year, which was a nice break from the usual trilogy and I think worked better for the authors as well (so often the middle book is weak and the last book is rushed in those cases).

The first was The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, by Melissa Albert, and although I characterized them as fantasy, they are truthfully much closer to fairy tale. I say that advisedly with the caveat that this is not the determinedly nice Disney fairy tale, but a real, slightly horrifying portal story to a place that you may not, in the end, wish to visit! Both the story and the language are fantastic, in all senses of the word.

The stand-alone was Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. The book borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any prosaic fairy godmother. It is a beautifully complex, character-driven story about agency, empathy, self-determination, and family that held my attention from beginning to end.

The second duology was The Merciful Crow and The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen, and these were true fantasy, with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and a protagonist from the bottom-most caste. It’s a compelling adventure featuring good against evil, hunters and hunted, choices, chance, and character. Don’t let the fact that it’s billed as YA stop you from reading it—anyone who likes a good saga should do so!

I also discovered a bunch of YA mainstream/realistic fiction written by an author I previously knew only for her fantasy. Brigid Kemmerer has published three books based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” (and they are well done), but the books of hers I fell for this year were about typical teenagers with problems that needed to be solved and love lives that needed to be resolved. My favorite of the four was Letters to the Lost, but I also greatly enjoyed More Than We Can Tell, Thicker Than Water, and Call it What You Want.

These were my five-star Young Adult books for 2020.

ADULT FICTION

As YA selections were dominated by a particular genre, so were my books in Adult fiction, almost all of them falling in the mystery section. But before I give you that list, I will finish up with fairy tale by lauding an original adult story that engaged me from the first page and has stuck with me all year: Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique. It is the story of three children and the impact of their disappearances (and possible reappearance) on the people close to them, as well as on the inhabitants of one small town beside the river Thames who are caught up by chance in the events that restore a child to life. But the story encompasses more than her fate: It gives extraordinary insight into the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, and what is the best way to pursue them.

Another book I encountered in 2020 that didn’t fall into the mystery genre or belong to a series was the fascinating She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. This was a short, powerful book by a first-time author, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller that bowled me over with its contradictory combination of evil deeds and poignant moments.

And the last stand-alone mainstream fiction novel I enjoyed enough to bestow five stars was Just Life, by Neil Abramson. The story showcases the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and involves a deadly virus and a dog shelter in a fast-paced, gripping narrative that takes over the lives of four people. It made me cry, three times.

Most of the mysteries I enjoyed this year came from a “stable” of staple authors I have developed over the decades and upon whom I rely for at least one good read per year. The first is Louise Penny, whose offering All the Devils Are Here in the ongoing Armand Gamache series is nuanced, perplexing, and utterly enjoyable, all the more so for being extracted from the usual Three Pines venue and transported to the magical city of Paris.

Sharon J. Bolton is a reliable source of both mystery and suspense, and she didn’t disappoint with The Split, a quirky story that takes place over the course of six weeks, in stuffy Cambridge, England, and remote Antarctica. Its main character, a glaciologist (she studies glaciers, and yes, it’s a thing) is in peril, and will go to the ends of the earth to escape it…but so, too, will her stalker, it seems. The Split is a twisty thriller abounding in misdirection, and definitely lives up to Bolton’s previous offerings.

Troubled Blood, by “Robert Galbraith,” aka J. K. Rowling, is my most recent favorite read, and is #5 in that author’s series about London private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner, Robin Ellacott. It’s a police procedural with a lot of detail in service of both the mystery and the protagonists’ private lives, it’s 944 pages long, and I enjoyed every page.

Finally, this year i discovered two series that are new to me, completely different from one another but equally enjoyable.

The first is the Detective Constable Cat Kinsella series by Caz Frear, which currently encompasses three books. I read the first two earlier in the year and promptly put in a reserve at the library on the third (which had yet to be published at the time), and Shed No Tears just hit my Kindle a couple of days ago. They remind me a bit of Tana French, although not with the plethora of detail, and a bit of the abovementioned Sharon Bolton’s mystery series starring Lacey Flint. Cat is a nicely conflicted police officer who comes from a dodgy background and has to work hard to keep her personal and professional lives from impinging one upon the other, particularly when details of a case threaten to overlap the two. I anticipate continuing with this series of novels as quickly as Frear can turn them out.

The second, which is a mash-up of several genres, is Charlaine Harris’s new offering starring the body-guard/assassin Gunnie Rose. I read the first two books—An Easy Death and A Longer Fall—this year, and am eagerly anticipating #3, coming sometime in 2021 but not soon enough. The best description I can make of this series is a dystopian alternate history mystery with magic. If this leads you to want to know more, read my review, here.

These are the adult books I awarded five stars during 2020.

I hope you have enjoyed this survey of my year’s worth of best books. I am always happy to hear from any of you, and would love to know what you found most compelling this year. I think we all did a little extra reading as a result of more isolation than usual, and what better than to share our bounty with others?

Please comment, here or on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/thebookadept. Thanks for following my blog this year.

Serendipity

In the days that seem longer ago than five months, my habit was to browse library shelves, picking up the books that caught my eye and taking them home perhaps based on the cover, or the description on the flap, or the chance reading of an elegant sentence from a randomly selected page. Achieving serendipity is much harder when you are purposefully searching a catalog, or “browsing” on a vendor’s website. If you don’t know what you are looking for, then a catalog is pretty useless, unless you happen upon something as a result of searching for something else; and vendors’ websites have their own perils, since they are designed, above all else, to sell.

So when I happen upon a book, buy it because I was arrested by the title, and discover that it is “all that” and more, I celebrate Serendipity in all her happy godlike majesty. Such was the case with She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. I was attracted to the title because I had just finished reading Charlaine Harris’s Gunnie Rose books and this title echoed of “Western” and female empowerment and freedom, and also most likely because my favorite character of Harris’s (albeit in another series) is named Harper. It was a discounted selection on bookoutlet.com, so the expense didn’t stop me; and it was an unassuming, fairly short little book, that I could happily squeeze in between the fat fantasies that are my usual fare. It also turned out to be the Edgar Award-winner for Best First Novel of 2018.

I’m so glad I picked it up. The theme seems an unlikely one to say you “enjoyed”: Nate McCluskey, recently freed from prison a few years early on a technicality, is under death sentence by a gang called Aryan Steel. (They wanted him to work for them on the outside, and they didn’t take it well when he said “no.” The man who tried to convince him and came out second best—i.e., dead—was the brother of the gang leader.) Not only did they put a contract on him, but they also decreed death to his family, which consists of an ex-wife and an 11-year-old daughter, Polly. So Nate shows up at Polly’s school and whisks her away before anyone can notice, including her mother who, with her second husband, is already lying dead in the family home. The rest is a saga, albeit short, about how Nate and Polly evade both the bad guys and the police and try to find a way to survive, free of fear, somewhere out there in the future.

The narrative is spare, told in third person but alternating between Nate’s and Polly’s points of view, and for that reason it becomes all the more engaging, because the author knows how to change it just that little bit to make it feel like the character in question. And the imagery is occasionally so beautiful! Nate believes that if he (“they,” says Polly) makes it painful to have Nate around in revenge mode, perhaps Aryan Steel will lift the bounty on Polly and he can send her away somewhere anonymous to grow up. So they begin by trapping someone who will tell them some of the gang’s biggest operations, and then they show up at the house where the largest methamphetamine stash is hidden in the coat closet, and take both their revenge and the meth. Afterwards, Polly thinks about the evening and looks in the mirror:

She was glad that her dad had hurt the man who had looked at her like that, and she felt bad for feeling good. It seemed when she was a kid she only ever felt one thing at once. She could be happy or sad but she’d only be that one thing. Now she never felt only one thing. It was like walking wearing two different-sized shoes. Nothing was ever level or smooth.

The evolution of Polly into a little badass is poignant and also frightening, both to the reader and to her father; while he teaches her to be tough, showing her choke holds and coaching her in boxing, when she puts his teachings to good use, the new person looking out of pale blue eyes so like his own gives him the willies. The narrative strengthens as it goes, mostly because the author doesn’t just recount the difficulties the pair endures in their quest to stay hidden but also lethal, he also lets the reader watch as the connection between them as father and daughter—not strong to begin with, since Polly hadn’t seen her father since she was almost too young to remember—grows, solidifies, and turns into something palpable. The other feature that proves engaging is Polly’s stuffed bear: Yes, she knows that eleven is too old to carry around a stuffed animal, but Polly treats him more like a ventriloquist’s dummy than a cuddly toy, and uses him both to express the innermost feelings she can’t bring herself to voice and to disarm people. It’s pretty hilarious to see a weathered ex-con gang leader react first with surprise and then with engagement to the pantomimes of a teddy bear in the hands of a girl who is turning into a consummate con artist right before your eyes.

This was a powerful book, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller. It has everything you would want; even more amazing that it’s a first novel. I look forward to see what’s next from Jordan Harper, if he can pull this off on his first try.

Making note of the “readalike” component: I would liken Harper’s narrative style and sense of drama to that of Peter Heller, though his sentences aren’t as choppy; and another book that comes to mind that you might like if you enjoyed this one is Canary, by Duane Swierczynski.

Laudable series

As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently spent some time re-reading the four books and two novellas Sharon Bolton wrote about Detective Constable Lacey Flint, who works for the London police, sometimes with a murder team, other times undercover and, in one book, as part of the River Police who patrol the Thames.

Lacey is an iconoclast, part of that subgenre of mystery characters known as loners. She attempts to be colorless and matter-of-fact, to keep her head down and fit into the team; but she has so many secrets of her own to keep that it’s a relief to be able to focus instead on the secrets of others, on the methods and madnesses of the serial killers she hunts. As a young, new, and inexperienced detective, Lacey is extraordinarily unlucky about attracting the attention of these criminals to herself. There is some sort of affinity between Lacey and her prey that causes some among her fellow officers to be over-whelmed by the suspicion that she herself is the criminal they are seeking.

nowuseemeIn the first book, Now You See Me, Lacey serves as a source for “her” team on the history of the Jack the Ripper killer, whose scenarios, methods, and exploits the murderer they are now seeking seems to be mimicking. What becomes clear as the team follows this killer further into the labyrinthine twists and turns of serial murder, however, is that the Ripper similarities are camouflage for something much more sinister, and that Lacey is at the center of the story. The rarity of this and the other books in the Lacey Flint series is that the mystery keeps unfolding in each, all the way to the last page.

deadscaredIn Dead Scared, Lacey’s sometime mentor and reluctant crush, Detective Inspector Mark Joesbury, asks her to go undercover as a student at Cambridge University to explore the inexplicable uptick of bizarre suicides on that campus. Given her fragility since the recent end of their last case, her boss, Dana Tulloch, and other members of the team are concerned that Lacey will be overwhelmed by the necessity of playing this vulnerable part. But Joesbury thinks she’s up to it, and she’s the obvious choice, given her youthful appearance, so she immerses herself in campus life and tries to discover more about the raft of lonely and insecure students who chose such unconventional methods of death. It’s an insane plot, fascinating (and misleading) to the last page, and full of peril for more than just Lacey.

likethisIn Like This, For Ever, titled Lost in the United States, Lacey is on leave from her job, and considering not returning to it. She hasn’t been able to process the jumble in her head created by her last case, and is spending most of her time obsessively working out and taking long late-night walks to exhaust her enough for sleep. I can’t say too much about the plot of this one, because it takes an unusual twist at about 85 percent that I don’t want to reveal, but it’s written with Bolton’s usual skill and panache. Because Lacey is on leave, she is not directly involved in most of the police investigation of a serial killer who is targeting young boys. But the usual crowd (Stenning, Anderson, Mizon, Tulloch, Joesbury) are all on hand, and Lacey inevitably gets drawn in by an unexpected personal involvement with a seemingly peripheral character, the boy next door. There’s lots of suspense, with multiple red herrings and a great resolution.

darktwistA Dark and Twisted Tide once again involves Lacey Flint in spite of herself. After her leave of absence, instead of working as a detective she has gone back to uniform as part of the river police, hoping to return gradually to the force, but quiet time is not in the cards. Only Lacey could be out swimming at high tide in the Thames River (a hobby she has taken up since moving onto a houseboat) and discover a body floating in the river wrapped carefully in white burial cloths. Soon it becomes obvious that she didn’t find it by accident, that once again someone is focused on her, trying to draw her in. Being Lacey, she lets herself be drawn. This one, I have to say, was a little weird in spots even for me—but I enjoyed it. I had two problems: First, I think it’s time for Bolton to take up a new story line with regard to Lacey—not every case can relate specifically to her! Second, the long-drawn-out non-courtship of Lacey and Detective Mark Joesbury can’t be prolonged beyond a point, and I think we just hit that barrier as readers. To quote my British friends, at least give us a little snogging!

The two novellas that Bolton wrote for this series exclusively as
e-books are equally compelling and mysterious. In the first, If Snow Hadn’t Fallen, something happens in Lacey’s neighborhood that weighs on her mind, because none of the explanations for it add up to what the killers attempted to convey. The second, Here Be Dragons, which falls at the end of the series, is a long-needed exposition of Mark Joesbury, detailing one of his undercover cases and leaving us, finally, with a cliffhanger regarding his relationship with Lacy. There have been two stand-alone books written and published since the #4.5 novella with the tease at the end; when, oh when, will we discover the outcome?

One of the things I like about this series is that Bolton has nicely combined two separate mystery subgenres. Her protagonist is a lone-wolf type, and we get all the fun that goes along with that; but the books are also pretty comprehensive police procedurals, detailing all the myriad ways in which the police go about solving a murder. This gives the lone-wolf concept a nice, solid background on which to rest.

These books are beautifully written, with a wealth of detailed description of the characters, the neighborhoods of London, and the beauties of the natural world that make themselves known even
along the dreariest parts of the river Thames. Both the characters
and the mysteries are sufficiently unique and well developed that
I would venture to say if you are a Tana French fan you would love these books.

They also remind me of Carol O’Connell’s series featuring Kathleen Mallory: Lacey Flint is likewise a damaged, somewhat amoral police detective who does everything according to her own instincts regardless of policy and logic, and gets “up people’s noses” even though she has no desire or intention to do so. I think Bolton has been wise, however, to vary her oeuvre with completely unrelated stand-alones; O’Connell’s Mallory has a distressing sameness from book to book as her series unfolds, and Bolton could fall into that trap with Lacey if she focused solely on her as a protagonist. That’s not to say I don’t want more of Lacy, because I do! But I will wait at the pleasure of Ms. Bolton and meanwhile enjoy everything else she has written, which is considerable.

 

Glacial thrills

No matter where she takes you or what unlikely scenario into which she drops you, Sharon Bolton never disappoints. I first discovered her when I picked up one of her stand-alone novels from the new books shelf at the library a few years ago, and I haven’t missed one since. I equally enjoyed her four-book (and two-novella) series starring Detective Inspector Lacey Flint.

I recently received a notice from Goodreads that Bolton had published a new novel, but when I went to check out the e-book from the library, it was a three-week wait. Undeterred, I put it on hold and decided, while I waited, to reread the Lacey Flint foursome plus novellas. I managed to read books one and two and the first novella, but received book four while waiting for book three and didn’t want to go out of order, so I read something else. Then The Split, her new one, became available, so I enthusiastically jumped over to that.

splitThe story begins with Dr. Felicity Lloyd, a glaciologist (yes, there is such a thing) who has been living in Antarctica on the remote island of South Georgia for the past nine months. She is part of a research team there to study flow and the draining of lake waters as the precursor to the breakup or “calving” of glaciers. Although this research is the dream job of her career, Felicity has an additional reason for retreating to this forbidding landscape: Her ex-husband, Freddie, who abused her terribly while they were together, has written to tell her that he is out of prison and wants to see her. Although Felicity feels fairly secure at her post at the end of the world, cruise ships do arrive from time to time, and she watches their manifests scrupulously. When the Storm Queen faxes over a list of passengers with Freddie Lloyd’s name on page five, Felicity knows she has to take drastic action to escape him. She packs up and heads for a deserted mining town on the other side of the island. Freddie follows, but is foiled in his attempt to get to Felicity by a woman named Bamber, who confronts him, gun in hand…

At this point, we are transported back 10 months to Cambridge, England, where Felicity lives and works at the University, and where she has just received the offer to go to South Georgia. Only one impediment stands in the way of accepting the job: She has recently been attacked, but has no memory of who hurt her or why, and the University has mandated that she see a therapist. Unless she can convince the therapist to sign off on her good health, she will lose this amazing opportunity, which is also the perfect hiding place from her past. Dr. Joe Grant, her therapist, realizes she is trying to manipulate his diagnosis, and the better he gets to know her, the more troubling her problems become. Dr. Grant is, himself, recovering from the loss of a woman with whom he was working as part of his pro bono community service, while his mother, Delilah, a police officer, is pursuing the killer of two homeless women.

During the next six weeks red herrings abound, and ultimately you don’t know who to suspect of what, and why. Bolton does her usual good job of keeping her reader breathless with anticipation at each turn in the road, and provides the unexpected at every one. Fast-paced, well written, and exciting, this is a twisty thriller made even better by its vivid descriptions of its unusual landscapes and the careful delineation of each character. Sharon Bolton, as I discovered when I read her last published book—Dead Woman Walking—can get you to believe practically anything, no matter how unlikely, and The Split reinforces that assessment.

 

Journalism & crime

fairwarningOn May 26th, a surprise arrived via my Kindle. I had completely forgotten that I had pre-purchased Michael Connelly’s new novel, Fair Warning, to be delivered as soon as it was published, and suddenly there it was! I had another book mid-read, so I have just finished it.

Connelly leaves the world of Harry Bosch to hark back to gonzo journalist Jack McEvoy, the protagonist of two of his former books, The Poet and The Scarecrow. Although I read both of those books when they came out (I have to date read 34 of Connelly’s books!), it’s been such a long time that I toyed with the idea of revisiting them first before proceeding with the new one, but chose to forge ahead. Although there were a few references to the previous cases in this one, it essentially read like a stand-alone for those who hadn’t read them, so that was fine.

As well as being the title of the book, Fair Warning is the name of a non-profit consumer protection news website run by Myron Levin (which actually exists in real life). Jack is a reporter for this website, which feels like something of a come-down from his former hard-hitting crime beat for the L.A. Times (and his authorship of two best-selling books), but he is quick to point out that consumer reporting is a vital service to the public, especially in this age of accelerating scientific discovery, and that many major papers (the L.A. Times and others) pick up and run with his stories. Maybe he protests too much?

The beginning of this story, however, isn’t professional, it’s personal: Two homicide detectives show up at McEvoy’s door with the news that Tina Portrero, a woman with whom he had a fun, slightly drunken one-night stand (a year previous) has been brutally murdered, and he is a suspect. Jack cooperates to the extent that he provides a DNA sample in order to eliminate himself from their list of “people of interest”; but then, because of a curious mind and an eye for the anomalous detail, McEvoy gets ahead of the detectives on this crime and a bunch of related ones.

The method of the murder (which I won’t mention here) is so dramatic and so extreme that McEvoy researches it, and discovers that this method appears in widespread cases; then he notices that the murderer may have been using personal data shared by the victims themselves in a particular way, to select and hunt his targets.

At this point, McEvoy has ceased to think of himself as an accused murderer and started to see the potential for a really big story that involves solving the murders of a bunch of women, zeroing in on a serial killer, and even calling the government to account for lax practices in data protection. So he decides to reach out to his former lover, Rachel Walling, whose FBI profiling career he burned the last time they collaborated, to see if she can pull some strings for him.

Instead, Rachel jumps into the middle of his quest, perhaps to curry favor with and return to the FBI fold, helping Jack’s information stream but also setting up all kinds of conflicts of interest.

A big part of the story here is the moral quandaries in which the various characters find themselves. McEvoy does want to identify the killer and facilitate his capture; but he also wants to break his story, which means he can’t hand over all his information to the police until he “gets the scoop.” He and Rachel Walling have a chemistry between them that didn’t disappear with their falling-out years ago, so there is a motivation to perhaps rekindle that. In addition, Walling has been pursuing a necessary but boring job since she left the FBI, so the prospect of handing them a serial killer ignites her with the ambition to prove them wrong for firing her. A colleague of Jack’s at the website, who is added to the story by his editor, wants to make a name for herself without treading on Jack’s toes too much to do so; and Jack realizes that although he is the better researcher, she is the better writer, so he reluctantly acquiesces in her involvement but then keeps throwing her under the bus. And of course the police want to be the first, last, and final arbiters of what happens with this case, story scoop be damned. It makes for an interesting level of tension throughout the story.

Connelly has pulled off a gripping, fast-paced tale whose interest level is enhanced by having a reporter, rather than a detective, at the helm. Some of the true-to-life details of data collection and (the lack of) government regulation are chilling, and he also fills in the reader on some aspects of operating on the dark web, as well as providing the usual details of his Los Angeles setting that are fun for those of us who live here and recognize them. I enjoyed this book, and it was a nice change from the Bosch litany.

And no, I have no idea why there is a black bird (a crow? a raven?) on the cover.

Procedural?

coldcoldI just finished reading The Cold Cold Ground, the first book in the “Detective Sean Duffy” series by Adrian McKinty. The book was published in 2012, and although I had never heard of it, it won a couple of fairly prestigious awards. A friend on Goodreads thought highly of it, so I decided to check it out. I love getting stuck into a good mystery series, especially when its setting and time period are a bit unusual.

This one takes place in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, at the height of “the Troubles,” which is to say when the country was a battleground for multiple nationalist groups on both sides of the Catholic / Protestant fence, against each other and also against the vilified British government. Sean Duffy is a police sergeant, a recent hire to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and a rare Catholic in a sea of Protestants. He doesn’t seem to hold his faith in particular esteem, but that fact doesn’t matter to the “Fenian” haters all around him, so he has a lot of proving of himself to do on two counts—being the new lad, and being an outsider.

Duffy doesn’t let it worry him overmuch, although he does do a daily check of the undercarriage of his car for bombs before he sets out each morning. It’s an odd period in history in which to set a police procedural because, with every street a potential hazard due to IEDs, gunmen, or just unemployed teenagers throwing cartons of milk and bricks at your car, it’s hard to concentrate on one particular crime. But Duffy does have a crime assigned to him, and it is itself an anomaly—it seems he may have a serial killer on his radar. He and his crew, nicely described and developed in the course of the novel, are investigating the deaths of at least two gay men who have been killed, mutilated, posed, and labeled by the murderer, as well as drawn to the police’s and media’s attention by a series of notes. Sean initially falls for the allure of the first serial case ever to crop up in Northern Ireland, but then begins to suspect there’s a deeper story that has little to do with a hatred of homosexuals and more to do with political undercurrents amongst all the players on scene.

The descriptions are first-rate, the characters compelling, and the action fast and violent, while the writing doesn’t suffer because of the pace. I enjoyed the story from beginning to end, but can’t help but note that this is not an ordinary police procedural. Although Duffy and his mates do a conscientious job of exploring all the clues (sometimes at great risk to themselves), the inferences Duffy then draws from them proceed mostly from his instincts and sometimes wild beliefs than they do from any evidence, which is sparse. The leaps of faith that he makes (and that the author apparently expects you to make along with him) are sometimes a mile (or would it be a kilometer?) too far. Add to that an ending in which Duffy steps far outside his persona as a policeman in order to obtain justice and this book doesn’t dwell very well within its subgenre. Nevertheless, it’s an engaging story, and based on it I would read another by McKinty.