Tag Archives: crime series

Every Night I Dream of Hell: Malcolm Mackay

Enforcer Nate Colgan first appeared in Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, the explosive gateway to a series of novels focusing on a Glasgow organised crime network. Colgan didn’t have much of a role to play as the ex-boyfriend of Zara Cope who, in the Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, is shacked up with a minor drug dealer who trespasses on someone else’s turf and subsequently pays the price. Colgan was one of the most memorable characters in the novel, and somehow it just makes sense to find him spearheading Every Night I Dream of Hell.

Every Night I Dream of Hell is the fifth novel in the Glasgow crime series. The first three in the series (The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, The Sudden Arrival of Violence) explore the turf war between mid-level gang-lord Peter Jamieson and used car dealer with ambition, Shug Francis. In a grow or die scenario, one of the gangs will be destroyed and/or cannibalized by the other.

every night I dream of hell

In Every Night I Dream of Hell the turf war is over and Jamieson and his right hand man, John Young are in prison, and that leaves the remains of the Jamieson gang ‘managing’ the turf, the deals, the money and the bent coppers. Nate Colgan is hired as a “security consultant,” and it’s a role he’s not particularly comfortable with. Colgan sees the writing on the wall thanks to the in-fighting and overall lack of confidence in leadership, but a new threat appears in the form of a British gang who, smelling blood, have moved north to invade Jamieson’s territory. Naturally with a very visible, violent threat knocking at the door, Colgan is involved, but his position is made tougher by the fact that Zara Cope is involved up to her neck with the British gang.

Both Zara and Colgan are great characters. Colgan is a killer but he seems to have a cool head on his shoulders. It must have been a temporary lapse in judgement that caused him to allow the sly, opportunistic Zara to creep under his covers. Or perhaps women are his Achilles’ Heel? Colgan knows better than to get involved with Zara again, and yet there’s something there he can’t resist.

There was something sweet and sticky in her words, a trap I didn’t like the sound of.

Zara may be a lowly figure in the crime world, but she’s in the sights of DI Fisher:

You can’t chase every rat; you will end up getting lost in the sewers. You catch the ones you can. You keep an eye out for the most rotten of them; you don’t get distracted from the bigger picture. But some, Jesus, some of them you can’t stop chasing. It’s not a professional thing to admit to, no cop should get sidetracked by a criminal of no importance, but it happens. Someone infests your mind. Might be a victim you just have to help. Might be a criminal you just have to catch. Everything else drops into the background.

There’s a lot of back story to the plot, and this is supposed to either jog our memories of the last four books or fill in the blanks (if we haven’t read the books), but the catch-up occasionally weighs down Mackay’s bleak, machine gun -style. Any reader should do themselves a favour and read at least the first three books first–otherwise you may be completely lost in the sea of names and past associations.  Those who’ve already read the earlier books won’t be able to resist this one.

For this reader, Every Night I Dream of Hell, although it involved the same turf, some of the same characters, and the network and hierarchy of a brutal criminal gang, wasn’t quite up to the standard of the previous four. This may be because Colgan is a lot like the gunman MacLean in many aspects–wanting a slice of normal life but understanding that it comes at too high a price.

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How a Gunman Says Goodbye: Malcolm Mackay (Glasgow trilogy 2)

It’s the kind of industry where you have to be shockproof. People do things that logic can’t explain.”

In Malcolm Mackay’s crime novel How a Gunman Says Goodbye, the second book in the Glasgow Trilogy, we’re immediately back on familiar territory with a familiar character, hitman Frank MacLeod. In book 1: The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, Frank MacLeod, the aging hitman for the Peter Jamieson crime organization is temporarily out to pasture with a hip that needs surgery. It’s a bad time for him to be out of commission as small-time drug dealer, Lewis Winter, treading on dangerous ground, starts selling on Jamieson’s turf. Jamieson, and his right hand man, the reptilian John Young, suspect that Winter wouldn’t take this step unless he had some powerful friends, so they conclude that Lewis Winter must be killed as both a statement and damage control. Since Frank MacLeod will soon be sunning himself in Spain for the recuperation period, Jamieson and Young take Frank’s advice and hire freelance hitman Calum MacLean to kill Lewis Winter. According to Frank, Calum is “the best of the new breed,” and while Jamieson and Young consider that Frank is irreplaceable, they understand that they need to step outside of their organization for the hit and also that eventually, Frank will have to be replaced. That day hasn’t come yet…

How a gunman says goodbyeHow a Gunman Says Goodbye finds sixty-two-year-old Frank back in Glasgow with the Jamieson organization, and the turf war continues. This time the trespassers are two young men:

‘There’s a kid named Tommy Scott,’ Jamieson’s saying. ‘Wee bastard of a thing. We didn’t think much of him. He used to be a peddlar. Street stuff. Ran with a gang, sold to them–shit like that. Used to do deliveries on a bicycle. A fucking bike! I guess I underestimated the bastard. I’ve been getting complaints. The kid cutting into out market, up Springburn way. I tried sending a warning, but the little bastard’s tough. Determined, too. Got one of his gangs providing security for his peddlers. Only has three of four guys delivering for him now, but a couple of months ago he had none. He’s growing fast, and stepping on toes. I’m fed up of hearing people complain. I need my people to know I’ll protect their patch. I need Shug-bloody-Francis to know his men aren’t safe.’

Tommy Scott and his childhood mate, the hyped-up, irrational and compulsive, Clueless live together in a tower block, just one floor below the top.

Well, that’s just bloody brilliant. Very few places worse than that. Having to make an exit from a tower block is never ideal. You’re always a long way from your getaway.

Right. And a tower block, which can serve as a veritable fortress for the criminals who live there, is always a hostile environment for those who don’t belong. But Frank is confident and considers this a “soft job.” What can go wrong?

In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, the focus is the individual within the criminal organization, and that theme continues in the second book in this gritty trilogy. Whereas relative newcomer, freelancer Calum MacLean was the focus in the first book, old-timer, the legendary Frank MacLeod is the focus of How a Gunman Says Goodbye. Peter Jamieson considers Frank a friend, someone he will always trust, but Calum thinks Frank’s best days are over. For his part, Frank considers Calum, a kid who’s too slow with his contracts, “takes too long in the scouting,” a time waster who doesn’t understand the meaning of deadlines. It’s a crucial time in Jamieson’s crime organization; Jamieson must either be prepared to grow or be cannibalized by the suddenly hungry and aggressive Shug Francis. Jamieson must have a reliable gunman and he’d like to add Calum to the organization, but Calum wants the independence of freelance work.

In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, author Malcolm Mackay shows the benefits and the drawbacks of being part of a criminal organization, and again those issues have relevance in this second book in the series. Being part of an organization gives you protection if you ever need assistance, and in theory, you should have more value, but there again, if you’re freelance, you can walk away any time you feel like it. Gunmen Calum and Frank are on opposite ends of their respective careers–Calum is gearing up to be the best hitman in Glasgow while Frank’s career is winding down. Looking at a lonely ‘retirement,’ Frank suddenly realizes that he has no life outside of the organization–no wife, no family, no friends, no hobbies:

You spend decades as a gunman, which few do, and you think of the world from a different angle. It’s all about secrecy and self-preservation. A lifetime of hiding the things you do. It changes you. It must have changed Frank, too. … He’s a gunman, and that’s all he’ll ever be. You spend so long teaching yourself to be that, you simply can’t become any other kind of person. You become so tied to your work it dominates your life. Destroys it.

On the other end of the spectrum is D.I Michael Fisher–a devoted, hardworking copper who’s trying to fit together all of the puzzle pieces of the Shug Francis-Peter Jamieson war. Fisher is a lonely man who’s every bit as isolated as Frank MacLeod:

He has to take action or see this all fall through his fingers. He’s not going to let another chance go. You spend years getting good results, doing your job the right way. You have a couple of failures, and people start to point the finger. They think you don’t have it anymore. He’s been guilty of that himself in he past. He knows how it works. A cop getting older–you start to question their ability to close a case. Are they still in touch with modern crime and policing techniques? Did they still have the hunger? Some do lose it. They’ve done their bit, now they’re looking towards the end. He’s not that kind of cop. His ending will be forced on him, he knows it. The hunger’s still there, but nothing is falling his way.

Mackay builds an argument for the similarities between two parallel organizations: the criminals and the police, and then, of course, there are those snitches and bad cops, spurred on by desperation, cynicism or compromising need, who traverse between both organizations.  D.I. Fisher feels the pressure to produce and feels himself near the brink of a career move–one that could make or break him, and both Frank and Calum’s careers are also on the brink of change. Mackay doesn’t belabor the comparisons between hit men Frank and Calum, one on the way up and one on the way down, but the connections are there, and in this novel both men face tough personal and professional choices. Told in a terse, unemotional style, again the emphasis is on the individual within the criminal organization with issues such as loyalty, friendship, and trust challenging the vital security of the Jamieson empire. While we see the ‘human’ side of our protagonists, Calum and Frank, Malcolm Mackay never allows sentimentality to intrude on the narrative.

Those who’ve read the first novel in the trilogy will not be disappointed by the second book in the series. Tense, dark and with a merciless gritty reality, Calum’s story continues. …

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The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter: Malcolm Mackay (Glasgow Trilogy 1)

Never hit a target you don’t need to hit. Ever. One murder gets the police interested, two gets them excited.”

In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, freelance hitman Calum MacLean takes a job from crime lord Peter Jamieson to kill a fairly lowlevel drug dealer who is poaching on Jamieson’s turf. Jamieson would normally order a hit from within his own organization, but with his star, aging hit man, Frank Macleod, out of commission, Jamieson is forced to turn to freelance.

According to Frank, Calum is “the best of the new breed,” quiet & methodical. Jamieson and his right-hand man, John Young, are scoping out, and ready to recruit, an eventual replacement for Frank, so hiring a freelance outsider is not only a necessity but may also be a way of building a permanent business arrangement. Jamieson’s “instinct for the nasty work was unrivalled,” which explains his success, and while he’s the brains, Young brings his tactical ability to the organization. “Separately they were talented; together they were lucrative.”

the necessary death of lewis winterWhen Jamieson hires Calum for the Lewis Winter hit, he considers Calum, who paces his jobs carefully, “not too hot, not too cold, but just right. A Goldilocks employee.” Calum, who prefers the freedom of freelance work, takes the one-off job with no reservations and applies his usual precautions. On the surface the job seems simple, but what he doesn’t know is that he’s stepping into a turf war between Jamieson and a challenger. Small-time Lewis Winter, under pressure from his much-younger, high maintenance girlfriend Zara Cope, has made a deal with another organization to move into Jamieson owned territory, and while this move brings a death sentence, it also ignites a series of fall out events.

And this is how this explosive hard-boiled crime novel opens:

It starts with a telephone call. Casual, chatty, friendly, no business. You arrange to meet, neutral venue, preferably public. You have to be careful, regardless of the caller. Regardless of the meeting place. Every eventuality planned for, nothing taken for granted. Tempting to begin to trust, tempting, but wrong. A person could be your friend and confidant for twenty years and then turn away from you in an instant. It happened, Anyone with sense remembers that bitter reality; those without sense will learn it.

This gripping tale is essentially a character study of a hitman. Calum is an unemotional, precision killer–a loner, an avid reader who prefers to keep his independence rather than trading it in for the “suffocating” security of working within an organization. As an independent, he can take or refuse jobs, and keep his criminal associations to a minimum, and so far, in spite of an already well-established reputation, he’s completely off the police radar. Calum understands that if he ever stops being freelance and takes a permanent job, “settling down,” as Jamieson calls it, he’ll be forced to take more risks, make more hits and will inevitably have a high profile with the police.  It seems to be a consensus between Frank, Jamieson and Young that as hitmen age, most of them seek the security of working within a firm. Calum isn’t at that point yet:

Does he want something long-term and lucrative?

Small flat, small car, small savings, but always enough. He works for need, not luxury. Long-term means risk, and risk is to be avoided. There are gamblers in the business, but they all lose eventually, and the cost is final. So don’t gamble. You don’t need to. There are two reasons why people do: one acceptable, and one not, The unacceptable reason is greed, the prospect of more money, which they don’t actually need. The other reason is the thrill, and that’s different.

While this is a character study of a hitman as the story unfolds against the backdrop of the contract on Lewis Winter, the novel’s other characters are well-drawn. Author Malcolm Mackay paints a cohesive, disturbing portrait of Glasgow’s impenetrable, violent criminal underworld with its trashy clubs, nervous snitches, lowlife drug runners, sleazy drug dealers, skilled drivers, bottom feeder loan sharks, and brutal muscle men. It’s in this world that grasping Zara Cope “a slut, but a smart one,” passes from one criminal to another and realizing that her shelf life is short, she grabs the malleable, pathetic Lewis Winter as her permanent meal ticket. Lewis “is small-time, always has been. He is a man cursed. Every success was swiftly followed by a crushing failure,” but with Zara pushing for more, Lewis is ready to make some risky moves for his new powerful friends. Zara’s greed, when combined with Lewis’s desire to impress her and keep her, is the catalyst for explosive violence.

With corrupt cops and fragmented flashes of criminal organizations, we see that the mantra isn’t so much crime solution or even crime prevention as much as it is “crime management.” Through carefully crafted scenes, Mackay shows us multiple sides of various complex characters as they move through the hierarchy of the criminal world in which taking orders is imperative, initiative may or may not be rewarded with a bullet, and the most important element in a crisis is having associates you can call for back-up. In this world, contract hits aren’t killings–they’re statements of power. While many novels focus on the individual within society, the focus here is the individual within the criminal organization.

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, written in a hard-boiled style that paradoxically welds an intimate knowledge of the criminal mind with an objective, factual distance is gritty, explosive and riveting, and it’s highly recommended for readers who prefer to read crime novels from the criminal perspective, but be aware that this is the first of a trilogy and after you turn the last page, you’ll want to continue the story in book 2: How a Gunman Says Goodbye.

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Little Black Lies: Sandra Block

I read out loud to them: ” ‘patient voices regret over her past actions. States she would like to visit Children’s Hospital, or become a Big Sister to help other children. Her dream is to become an elementary school teacher or social worker to help troubled kids, as she feels she was not helped.’ Is that not unbelievable? She’s acting like Mother Theresa, and he’s falling for it, hook, line, and sinker.”

Little Black Lies a first novel from neurologist Sandra Block introduces damaged psychiatry intern, Zoe Goldman. For regular readers of this blog, you already know that I have a fascination with books set in asylums/mental hospitals and plots either written by or featuring psychiatrists/therapists. Since Little Black Lies focuses on psychiatry resident Dr. Zoe Goldman who is assigned a patient newly transferred to her care, I was, naturally intrigued. Plus .. book two featuring Zoe Goldman : The Girl Without a Name has an ETA of 9/15 … sign me up.

little black liesThe plot takes place over just a few months, but reaches back into the shadowy past of the protagonist, damaged Zoe Goldman. Zoe who’s in the middle of a long-distance relationship with a Frenchman, works in the psychiatric ward of a hospital where she sees and treats many “frequent flyers:” those with the “usual circuit: emergency room, psych ward, rehab, streets, and repeat. A cycle destined to continue until interrupted by jail, death, or less likely, sobriety.”

The book begins with daily rounds and Zoe’s latest assignment, a ‘new’ patient– 36-year old, Sofia Vallano who’s been institutionalized since age 14 for the murder of her mother. After the closure of another hospital, Sofia has been transferred for “further treatment and evaluation,” and of course the underlying question is: can Sofia be released into society or does she still represent a danger to others? Compared to the other patients in the psych ward, Sofia seems much more controlled. There are no violent outbursts, she is on no medication, and, rather conveniently, she claims to remember absolutely nothing about the death of her mother.

And there is Sofia Vallano, perched on the bed, reading a magazine. I’m not sure what I expected. Some baleful creature with blood dripping from her eyeteeth maybe. But this is not what I see. Sofia Vallano is a stunning mix of colors: shiny black hair, royal blue eyes, and opera red lips. Something like Elizabeth Taylor in her middle years, curvaceous and unapologetically sexual. They say the devil comes well dressed.

Zoe juggles a number of personal problems with the demands of her professional life. While she performs well at work (in spite of constant friction from her boss) she really is a bit of a mess and takes three different medications: Adderall “So I keep my mouth shut most of the time,” Lexapro “So I don’t jump off the Peace Bridge,” and Xanax “So I can sleep.” Plus she’s in therapy. Zoe used to suffer from horrendous nightmares, and when those nightmares return, she begins to question her past. While holes rapidly develop in the constructed history of her childhood, Zoe hits a stumbling block when she tries to question her adoptive mother who now suffers from dementia.

The fragility of memory is a central theme of the book. On one hand there’s “model patient,” Sofia, who murdered her mother as a teenager, and now under Zoe’s supervision, she conveniently claims to remember a vital component to the crime. With Sofia’s imminent release on the table, Zoe isn’t buying Sofia’s sudden surge of memory or her professed desire to turn her life around. While trying to get to the bottom of Sofia’s story, in a parallel quest for the truth, whatever that truth may be, Zoe tries to uncover details about her own past–initially through therapy and then through some good, old fashioned detective work.

While I guessed the book’s central secret, this was an entertaining read that explores the ephemeral nature of memory. So much of our early memories become a construct for our adult selves, but what happens when that construction is fabricated? While Little Black Lies is an eminently readable book, complex therapy options including hypnosis, day residue and dream rehearsal enter the plot. Interesting secondary characters are included in Zoe’s support network: an adoptive brother and two workmates: idiom obsessed Thai Dr A. and Chinese-American Jason (the dialogue between Zoe and her fellow doctors is energetic and feels authentic) . If this is indeed the first in a new series, then it’s a good start. It’s going to be intriguing to see where the author takes her main character. Will she remain focused on hospitalized patients or will she branch out into her own practice? The subject matter offers a wide range of possibilities, and for therapy junkies (like me) Sandra Block’s Zoe Goldman promises an interesting new series.

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Behind God’s Back by Harri Nykänen

Behind God’s Back, the second in the Inspector Ariel Kafka series is a police procedural from Finnish author Harri Nykänen. I haven’t read the first in the series: Nights of Awe, but I will be correcting that. Starting with the second in the series, I didn’t feel as though I missed much by jumping in, and instead Behind God’s Back was an interesting read from Bitter Lemon Press–a publisher whose name is well-known to fans of international crime fiction.

Behind God’s Back features Inspector Ariel Kafka, a Finnish bachelor, a Jew, who’s just beginning to think that perhaps devotion to his job and the neglect of his personal life may have caused him to miss some opportunities. Kafka is an intriguing main character, a man we want to spend time with. He doesn’t have a drinking problem, he’s not a train wreck, but he does have the saving grace of possessing a lively, quirky sense of humour. Not that there’s much humour to be found in the crime under investigation–the assassination style shooting of a prominent Jewish businessman who made the mistake of opening his own front door to the killer.

Behind God's backWhen the novel opens, Finnish police are involved in Operation Jaffa aka Operation Haemorrhoid–renamed for the hours spent “without a break on the hard-edged, unpadded kitchen chair” watching a suspect through a telescope. This case, which purportedly involves a high-profile assassination, sprang from monitoring a group called Seeds of Hate who targeted a handful of “prominent Jews” for hate mail. The organization is also responsible for the kidnapping and beating of a professor, so the threats must be taken seriously.

The situation becomes even more serious when Samuel Jacobson, the owner of a chain of office supply shops is killed when he opens the door to a man who posed as a police officer. Inspector Kakfa, from the Violent Crimes Unit, and a member of the relatively small Jewish community, knew Samuel and briefly dated his daughter many years previously. Stepping into the case and becoming re-involved with Samuel’s family takes Kafka back to his teens when he was deemed not good enough to date Lea, Samuel’s daughter. It’s a weird, almost surreal turn of events for Kafka who, as he investigates, discovers that Jacobson’s company over-leveraged during the Boom years and is now heavily in debt. On top of that, Lea, now living in Israel, is married to a man who has ties to the Russian Mafia.

With a cast of nicely-drawn secondary characters (including a couple of nosy neighbours who keep a handy pair of binoculars close by,) Kafka works his way through the crime and makes the uncomfortable discovery that his much more successful brother, corporate lawyer, Eli is also involved in some shenanigans. As this police procedural unfolds, Behind God’s Back, is mostly a leisurely read–although as often is the case with police procedurals, the plot tends to pile in on itself as the solution nears. The plot does not rely on tension, violence or gore, but instead the emphasis is on Kafka’s dogged pursuit of the truth–no matter where that journey takes him. Kafka’s bachelorhood and relationships with his colleagues are all tinged with humour:

My relationship with Lea had come to an abrupt end when someone had blabbed that, after a party at my friend’s, I had stayed behind with Karmela Mayer, the daughter of the fur shop owner. I had dated Karmela for over a year, and had almost ended up under the chuppah. Karmela lived in Israel these days, and had three children. I still had restless dreams about her large breasts. Lea also moved to Israel later and married a wealthy entrepreneur, or at least that’s what I remembered someone telling me. That’s the extent of what I knew about her family life.

I had dated three other Jewish girls and screwed up those relationships , too. When you add one-night stands, if you wanted to draw a hard line, I was disqualified when it came to every single Jewish family in Helsinki.

The murder of Samuel Jacobson forces Kafka to confront his past as the investigation involves questioning people who consider him an outsider now and not quite good enough for their society or their daughters. The cast of characters includes:

Kafka’s boss, former male model Chief Detective Huovinen who “always looked polished down to the tips of his toes.”

Sidekick Detective Simolin:

a good police officer, but so inherently innocent that he often found himself coming up against life’s realities. He was fascinated by North American Indians. He even had an Indian name, which he wouldn’t tell anyone, and a set of buckskins complete with moccasins and a feathered headdress.”

Detective Arja Stenman:

To be honest, she looked too classy for rough-and-tumble police work. She would have fit right in as the trophy wife of a middle-ranking CEO. In a way, she had been pretty close. She was divorced, but her ex-husband owned, or had owned, a construction equipment rental company. He had sold it in the nick of time before the police and the tax authorities caught up with him. Stolen machinery had been found in the company’s warehouses. In any case, Arja Stenman had been accustomed to a life where you didn’t have to worry about whether the money would stretch until payday. She had clear skin, freckles and a straight nose. I couldn’t deny it: she was easy on the eyes.

While the solution to the crime held my attention, my main interest lurked on Kafka:

Living alone had its advantages, but it wasn’t a dogma or principle for me. It was ninety per cent sad especially when your wildest partying days had passed and started valuing other things.

I don’t know what my problem was, but I attracted the wrong sort of women. They represented one of two extremes: either they were too bossy and domineering, or too meek and adaptable.

Another problem was that all the women my age were divorced and usually bitter about it. Plus they had children, and even though I had met some nice kids, I didn’t want to be a father to the children of a man I didn’t know.

As a bachelor over the age of forty, my relatives considered me a strange bird. I was continuously dodging their attempts to marry me off. “Good Jewish girls,” were foisted off on me under any variety of pretences.

Kafka has an interesting voice, and he’s a character who blends well with his quirky colleagues. The term crime fiction covers a vast range of subjects and cannot fit into some one-size-fits-all description. This series should appeal to fans of international crime, Nordic crime, or police procedurals that are light on violence but emphasize an affection for returning characters.

Translated by Kristian London

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The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel

First, an admission: I would never have started the Danish crime novel The Forgotten Girls from author Sara Blaedel if I’d known that it was number 7 in a series. Apparently it’s a number 1 bestseller in Denmark, and due to the current demand for Nordic crime fiction, the book will probably fare well in N. America.

I was well into the book before I began to pick up clues that this was not an introduction to Blaedel’s main character, the feisty, single, Louise Rick. Suddenly backstory began to appear in the crime under investigation, and so I took a look at Goodreads and discovered that The Forgotten Girls is number 7 in the Louise Rick series and while I may be missing something, I can’t see where number 1 in the series has been translated into English–although numbers 2, 3 and 4 appear to be available in English.

Excuse me while I rail at the illogicality of this….

The Forgotten GirlsIn The Forgotten Girls, Louise Rick has left the Copenhagen Homicide Department, and in “an unusual step down,” returns to her home town to become “the technical manager of the Special Search Agency”:

Each year, sixteen to seventeen hundred people were reported missing in Denmark. Many turned up again and some were found dead, but according to the assessment of the National Police, there was a crime behind one out of five of the unsolved missing person reports.

Her department was tasked with investigating these cases.

Investigating missing persons reports is, as it turns out, an important distinction; she’s not supposed to investigate or solve murders, and this becomes quite clear as the plot moves on. As head of the New Special Search agency, Louise arrives at the right moment, for shortly after her arrival, she gets her first case. An autopsy is conducted on a woman found dead in the woods near a lake in mid-Zealand, and although she appeared to die from injuries from a fall, there are some bizarre aspects to the case. The woman was barefoot and dressed in old-fashioned shabby clothing. No one has stepped forward to identify the mystery woman in spite of the fact that she has a huge scar that destroyed one side of her face. She also had horribly neglected teeth and a long-ago broken bone in her forearm that was not treated. Someone must be missing this woman, so why has no one claimed the body?

So this is the central mystery to the story, and eventually Louise and her new partner, Eik Nordstrøm, a man who seems to make a habit out of drinking hard and showing up for work late, find that their investigation takes them back into the past and the archaic attitudes towards treating the mentally handicapped.

Ok, enough of the plot.

There’s a lot of backstory here: some present–some absent–and there were moments when I wondered why on earth Louise decided to go back to her old stomping grounds where everyone is so friggin’ freaky. This a community in which a local bully holds sway over his peers, weirdos live in the woods, and people seem to be either running around hanging themselves or perpetuating rape. Ok, a bit of exaggeration, but as the distant sound of banjos played in my head, there did indeed seem to be a thread here which more than hints that the locals are odd. Not only are the locals strange, but the old gang from school don’t exactly remember Louise fondly. She frequently runs into the old crowd and these encounters just bring back a lot of painful memories. Some catch-up paragraphs helped explain some of the incidents in Louise’s past but her decision to return home, without the backstory, seemed either misguided or a moment of temporary insanity. Perhaps the earlier books fill in that gap.

The mystery of the dead woman is weighed against various personal problems faced by Louise. Her friend, the journalist Camilla, is planning a big wedding to a very wealthy man, and Louise’s involvement in her work may lead to difficulties with establishing boundaries with a neighbour. The ending seemed a little too Hollywood for me (read over-the-top), and I guessed the solution to the mystery way back, and that left me wondering what the hell the police were playing at. In spite of the fact that both the treatment of mentally ill and the mentally handicapped play significant roles in the tale, this is not a deep crime novel. Instead, its appeal probably rests on attachment to the characters and their lives, and since I haven’t read the other 6 books, I can’t comment on the series or how this book stands compared to the rest. However, Louise, as an unsubtle, two-dimensional main character, didn’t have much appeal for this reader–although I did warm to Eik when, after interviewing a particularly bitter, unhappy witness, he states that “that’s enough to make you want a drink,” when we already know that he doesn’t need much of an excuse.

Translated by Signe Rød Golly

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The Kings of London by William Shaw

She’s Leaving Home was the first in a proposed trilogy from British author William Shaw. Set in the 60s, She’s Leaving Home introduced CID CS Cathal (“Paddy” to his workmates) Breen and Temporary Detective (“Probationer,”) Helen Tozer. Breen, an outsider in D Division, and Tozer, a female copper who wants to cross gender boundaries and work in the Murder Squad, make an interesting team. In She’s Leaving Home, Breen and Tozer investigate the murder of a teenage girl found dead under a mattress. While the crime under investigation in this first novel was engaging, the book’s strength came from the crackling dynamic between Tozer and Breen. This is the Swinging 60s and Breen is feeling left behind and out of touch with the new subversive elements of society whereas Tozer, subjected to continual harassment from her male colleagues, opens doors that close in Breen’s face.

She’s Leaving Home is a solid introduction to the Breen-Tozer team, and so here we have the second in the series The Kings of London. Once again, there’s an absence of 60s nostalgia, but this is late ’68, and in this world of shifting morality and changing attitudes, both Breen and Tozer find themselves, once again, butting up against laws and shifting attitudes towards abortion, sexuality, and narcotics.

Kings of LondonBreen investigates the death of Francis Pugh, living on a trust fund, a man who played the field with an endless stream of married women, and who collected art. He’s found dead in his home moments before it, and any possible evidence, explodes into a fire. Francis was the son of a Welsh politician, and so pressure’s on for Breen to solve the case, but also to not make noise when seeking witnesses.

She’s Leaving Home took this reader straight back into the 60s–a strange time–a time when meaningful social change occurred but was somehow tragically derailed by the drug culture. In The Kings of London, the cultural references were occasionally, just occasionally, more like name dropping rather than bricks in the solid wall of genuine atmosphere. The story has a strong 60s feel, and it’s mostly ugly: Tozer’s boss doesn’t hesitate to grope her, Tozer lives in segregated housing, Breen must suffer the bother of feeding the electric meter, people fire up cigarettes casually in restaurants, the now vanished rag-and-bone men (immortalized by Steptoe and Son) make an appearance, and a disabled child is ordered to leave the library by an employee. It’s these well-worked in references that build and create atmosphere, placing us effectively in the attitudes and expectations of the Age. The more obvious references–especially to the rockstars, added too much name-dropping tinsel and felt forced.

The strength of She’s Leaving Home is absolutely in the dynamic between Tozer and Breen. There’s a sexual attraction from Breen towards Tozer, but she, a child of the 60s has an entirely different attitude towards relationships. In The Kings of London, Tozer, who’s decided to leave the force and plans to return to the family farm in Devon, is somewhat sidelined, but every time she appears in the book, that central dynamic resurfaces. And what’s so interesting here is that even though just a few years separate Breen and Tozer, they are clearly the products of a different age. Unfortunately for Breen, he’s caught between floors; he doesn’t fit with the Establishment and its values, but neither can he adjust to this new world of hippies, Hare Krishna, Free Love, and the Psychedelic 60s.

Breen is the main focus here, and we see his character shift as he’s forced to either allow the Establishment to roll over his career or to take steps to manipulate his future. There’s some unfinished business at the end of the novel, but even more intriguingly we see Breen developing and, as he fights for his career, wondering if this is how corruption begins.

He was fifteen minutes early for the 11:52 at Paddington. He stood on the platform end. He was back at work. He was a policeman again. He had something to do. But he was also a little appalled at himself. First Tarpey, now Creamer. This was the way it started. A slow corruption.

Many of the characters first seen in She’s Leaving Home continue their stories in this second volume. The unpopular “old-school policeman,”  Inspector Bailey, who never seems to connect with D Division, is still as out of touch as ever, Division secretary Marilyn still has a thing for Breen, and the ferrety Jones still can’t quite align himself with impending fatherhood. Given that one on-going thread/mystery in this novel concerns Breen’s arch-enemy, bent, but popular copper Sergeant Prosser, to get the full impact of The Kings of London, She’s Leaving Home should be read first. Fundamentally this is a novel about change–at the fore, of course, is the dynamic, constant shift of the 60s. New Scotland Yard has relocated to posh new digs and the Drug Squad is the place for the ambitious to make their careers.

The Drug Squad was still recruiting. Carmichael wanted Breen to follow him into it. But they were a loud team, brash and confident. Always getting in the papers. Not only were they fighting a whole new type of criminal, but the ones they were arresting were usually far more glamorous than the usual CID fare.

Underneath that main emphasis of the shifting 60s, William Shaw creates characters who must face changes in their lives, whether they seek those changes or not. Tozer is very much a New Woman–a woman who rejects the traditional path of marriage and children. Breen sees Inspector Bailey as a good man but largely ineffectual and fossiled in the attitudes of the past. The big questions remaining at the novel’s conclusion: Can Breen change with the times? Are Breen’s aggressive career moves simply self-defense or is he on a slippery moral slope?

Rock on volume 3….

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The Way You Die Tonight by Robert J. Randisi

Any book on the history of organized crime in America needs at least a chapter devoted to Las Vegas. It’s an incredible place–not that I’d want to live there as I’m not thrilled by desert living, and neither am I attracted to living in its artificiality. I’ve been there, of course, and it’s quite an experience–a decadent Disneyland for adults–what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, Sin City,  and all that. The Vegas setting of Robert Randisi’s novel The Way You Die Tonight sounded attractive…

The Way you die tonightThe Way You Die Tonight is an entry in the Rat Pack Series, and while this is the first Rat Pack novel I’ve read, it didn’t seem necessary to have read the previous titles.

It’s 1964, and the protagonist of the tale is Eddie Gianelli (Eddie G.), a pit boss at the Las Vegas Sands hotel. He’s a fixer of sorts, so his boss, hotel owner Jerry Entratter, asks Eddie G to host Edward G. Robinson who’s coming to Vegas to research his upcoming role in The Cincinnati Kid.  It’s a request straight from Frank Sinatra, and Eddie G., who admires Edward G. Robinson, is only too happy to comply.  In addition to showing Edward G. Robinson Vegas and high stakes poker games, Eddie G. is approached for information by a very eccentric, and well-guarded Howard Hughes who’s in town to buy some casinos.

“Vegas is your town,” Hughes said. “I need somebody who knows this town in and out. That’s you.”
“Is that what you’ve been told?”

“It’s what I know from all the information I’ve gathered,” Hughes said

But when Jerry’s secretary, Helen Simms is murdered (suicide according to the cops), Eddie G. starts investigating on his own with help from Vegas PI Danny Bardini and pal, Jerry Epstein (all three hail from Brooklyn). Gradually the portrait of Helen Simms, known to be a quiet, modest woman, is replaced, and instead Helen seems to have been a woman who led a secret life.

The murder mystery, along with the characters of Jerry, Danny and Eddie G,  for this reader, are the most interesting aspects of the book, but the crime jostles for space with Eddie G’s job hosting Robinson. Any crime novel which features a series character spends time on the crime and time on the protagonist’s personal life; it’s a delicate balance. While interesting information and history about Vegas is folded subtly and carefully into the story, for this reader, the references to real life people–Frank Sinatra, Edward G. Robinson etc, big stars who dropped into the frame with their own scenes, began to feel like over-kill name-dropping and overwhelmed the rest of the tale. Vegas and its casinos present a rich backdrop for crime and murder; the fictionalization of real icons from the period seemed too much, but then their presence is the point of the series. The Rat Pack Series is very popular with a solid fan base, so I appear to be a minority opinion.

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Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

“Different times, different rules, isn’t that right?”

Ian Rankin’s long-running Inspector Rebus series came in for its share of criticism in the last few years. Even long-term fans called for Rebus’s retirement, but this latest well-plotted novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible shows Rebus and his creator in excellent form. Exit Music, the 17th inspector Rebus novel depicted the last few days before his retirement. After the beginning of a new series featuring Malcolm Fox, Rebus returned  to the Cold Crimes Unit, “a bunch of old hands itching for answers,” in the 18th novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave.  Long-term fans know that Rebus had no life outside of police work, so it’s no wonder he couldn’t let go of the badge.

saintsIn Saints of the Shadow Bible, the 19th Rebus novel, DS Rebus (demoted when he applied to rejoin the force), “back in CID on sufferance,” along with Siobhan Clarke are out on a seemingly simple car accident report which occurred in the “Badlands” of West Lothian. It’s a standard one-car accident, and the only thing that seems a little out-of-order is the driver’s boot in the passenger side. The driver is the daughter of a very wealthy London businessman whose unsavoury reputation and influence at the Met follow him all the way to Scotland. There’s something about the accident that gnaws at Rebus, but a few questions lead nowhere and “he realized the case was disappearing.”

Rebus and Siobhan are both pulled from the car accident investigation when a prominent politician is found dead in his home. Is it murder or an accident? Clues hint at B &E, but since the dead man’s home is close to the car accident, Rebus can’t help but wonder if there’s a connection.

While these investigations continue, Rebus is hauled in by Malcolm Fox of The Complaints (the Scottish equivalent of Internal Affairs) to investigate a crime committed over 30 years ago when Rebus had just joined the force. The Scottish Police force is in a state of flux, and the “eight regional Scottish forces were soon to be amalgamated into something called Police Scotland,” and thanks to the changes in the double jeopardy law, the file on the beating death is reopened due to pressure from the Solicitor General. The crime goes back to the 80s and involves the Summerhall police, specifically a tight-knit group of men who called themselves The Saints of the Shadow Bible. According to Rebus, if you were at the Summerhall station, you were a Saint, and Rebus argues that it was not sinister but a fairly innocent group identification that boiled down to a tape playing by “The Skids singing ‘The Saints Are Coming’ ” when they went out on a call (think Apocalypse Now’s The Ride of the Valkyries). The Summerhall “cop shop” no longer exists, but Fox is reopening a case from thirty years before when Saunders, a Summerhall snitch allegedly beat a “scumbag” to death. The case “collapsed” in  court due to evidence tampering or police incompetence depending on who you ask. Of the handful of the Saints that were involved in the case, one is dead, one is dying, another is a wealthy man who left the force in disgrace, another is retired, and that leaves Rebus alive, kicking and still with a badge.

Rebus is questioned by Fox and while it’s clear that he wasn’t involved in the cover-up/evidence tampering, he was deeply involved with the Saints and knows many of the group’s secrets. The big question is: whose side is he on? He feels loyalty to the remaining saints and yet if there is a dirty copper amongst them, should he cover for his former pals? When the stakes are raised and a few bodies are lifted from watery graves, Rebus’s dilemma sharpens as loyalties become increasingly complicated. According to Rebus, digging into the shady procedural past of the Summerhall cops “would be like giving a cow a machine gun–bullets could go anywhere,” yet he plays both sides of the game–assisting Fox with the investigation and simultaneously informing the Saints about the progress in the case.

Saints of the Shadow Bible is set against the backdrop of a divided Scotland and the debate whether or not to seek independence from Britain. The political situation doesn’t help matters as Rebus’s various suspects fall on both sides of the debate, and one of the Saints is convinced that he’s being targeted because of his political position.

The novel’s strength comes from the intensity of the relationships between its characters, sharp dialogue, the depiction of divided loyalties, the cat-and-mouse game between Rebus and his Fox, and the idea that while we may not be the same people that we were 30 years ago, that doesn’t stop us from being held accountable. Malcolm Fox and Rebus make perfect foils for one another. Rebus has a drinking problem but is managing to keep it under control; Fox is an alcoholic who has abandoned his destructive addiction and leads a life of culinary aestheticism which is in complete contrast to Rebus’s greasy diet and poor physical condition. Here’s Siobhan Clarke and Rebus on the subject of the old Summerhall days:

She leaned forward on the sofa. “And is there anything for him  to find? Anything that’s going to end up incriminating you?”

Rebus considered this. “If he looks hard enough, there might be a skeleton or two. Thing is, a lot of the supporting cast have left the stage–gone walkies or been fitted for the wooden suit. So while he might find stuff, he’ll have the devil’s own job making it stick.

Clarke was staring at him. “How dirty was Summerhall?”

He studied the surface of his tea. “Dirty enough. You ever see that program Life on Mars? If felt like a documentary…”

“Beating a confession out of someone? Planting evidence? Making sure the bad guys got done for something?”
“You thinking of writing my biography?”

Rebus is full of his usual acerbic wit, and keeps his cards close to his chest as he tries to discover the truth about what happened with the Saints thirty years before. At one point, Rebus and Siobhan are discussing politics and she argues that voting can give an opportunity for a “fresh start.” Rebus replies:

“Thing about fresh starts, though, Siobhan…”

“What?”
“They usually turn out to be the same old in disguise.”

And we see he’s right. This investigation into a decades old-crime is no accident and certainly politically motivated. Everyone here is under pressure. Fox is being moved out of the Complaints back into a police force that views him as an enemy. Rebus, juggling an investigation into events in the 80s and a case in the present, wants to stay in the force, but will there be a place for him?

Rebus is a loose cannon; he’s off the sale; you can’t trust him; he’s past his sell-by.

Rebus appears, in one sense, like a relic of how investigations used to be conducted–along with questionable methods. But Rebus has survived by no mere accident, and this is shown by his ability to cross worlds as he deals with the Saints and also digs into the past with Malcolm Fox. Rebus’s complex morality was never murkier. He refuses to pick a side and as always, plays his own game by his own rules. As Rebus says, “I’m from the eighties, …, I’m not the new-fangled touchy-feely model. Now get out of my fucking car!”

Review copy.

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Purgatory by Ken Bruen

“How many times and in how many fucking ways could you adapt Pride and Prejudice?”

Purgatory, the 10th novel in Irish author Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series, finds former cop Taylor in post-boom Galway, haunted by his past and missing a few fingers. Jack has given up alcohol after reasoning that it “wasn’t easing” his “torture but fine-tuning it.” and while his attitude towards society in general has soured, his personal fortunes have improved with the discovery of a nestegg which he grabs before the church gets a whiff of it. Not that he mourns the death of his parents:

My mother wasn’t a simple bitch. She was more evolved, a cunning sociopath who hated the world under the guise of piety.

He’s got new digs, and almost as though he’s expecting the apocalypse, he’s lining the walls with as many books as he can. He turns down missing persons cases, and seems set to detach himself permanently from society when he finds himself dragged back into the mire by two things: the emergence of C33, a vigilante killer and the acquaintance of Reardon, a young dot-com billionaire who’s rapidly buying up Galway.

PurgatoryWhen Jack receives the first anonymous note from C33, he dismisses it, but it soon becomes clear, with the discovery of several dead bodies, that C33 means business. C33 delivers retribution to those who’ve escaped the consequences of their crimes, and for some inexplicable reason, the killer wants Jack to join in–even pointing him towards the next intended victim, and telling him it’s his “turn.” Since Jack is in disconnect mode, he sets his old “reluctant ally” Stewart, “former yuppie dope dealer,” on to the trail of C33. Besides, Jack has his own distractions with a woman 20 years younger–the enigmatic and very dangerous Kelly. It turns out that ignoring the killer, and focusing on Kelly is a bad mistake….

Bruen nails character in his own inimitable fashion with a few sharp sentences:

Peg Ramsay was not a nice lady. There was little in her background to indicate she’d become a mean, vicious, greedy cow. She was simply a bad bitch.

And:

Peg was a heft of a lady, in her rough fifties, with a face that no makeup was ever going to conceal, a face that had learned hard, sustained it. A shitload of jewelry that rattled like a conscience when she moved. A smoker’s pallor, that colour I know, inside and out. She rasped, “Taylor, well I’ll be fucked.”

Nice.

Purgatory is full of Bruen’s unmistakable voice so we not only learn about Jack Taylor’s reading habits (he’s on a female crime writer binge), but we also learn, in a quote that gives a sense of Bruen’s lean, abbreviated style, that Jack will never own a kindle:

Jack had been educating her in crime fiction and, so far, she had seven of the James Lee Burke titles. And, oh horror, she’d told Jack,

“I’m thinking of getting a kindle.”

See him explode.

Like this.

“Yah dumb bitch, you’ve read what? Six books, total? And what, you’re going to have storage for thousands of books. Get fucking real, lady. You think I’ll come round your house, ask, “hey, can I browse through your Kindle?”

This entry in the Bruen canon is dark and while there are touches of humour, they’re few. Instead Jack Taylor is close to dismissing the whole of the human race, and he’s fine with that, but the vigilante killer is dismissing people in a whole new way, and when the killer’s reach touches Jack’s life, he’s forced back into the game.

On the rating scale, I prefer Bruen’s standalone London Boulevard and A White Arrest–crime novels I cannot recommend highly enough. Bruen’s lean novels somehow manage to clean the mental palate, but a vigilante killer makes this reader wince–especially one who seems to have the abilities of the SAS. While Purgatory has all the prerequisite Bruen skill, it feels a little tired or even end-stage plot-wise (you’ll see what I mean when you read the book) and that may partly be just Jack’s exhaustion with the human race oozing through the pages. Anyway, Bruen/Jack Taylor fans won’t be able to say no, but it’s not his best.

review copy

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