Tag Archives: Irish crime fiction

Rain Dogs: Adrian McKinty

Cathy at 746 books hosted Reading Ireland Month during March 2016, so it seemed like the perfect time to pick up Rain Dogs, the 5th book in the Sean Duffy series from author Adrian McKinty. As a police procedural with just a few references to other cases in the past, it’s possible to read this as a stand-alone.

rain dogs

Rain Dogs finds Detective Inspector Sean Duffy still working in Northern Ireland, in the Carrickfergus CID. It’s the late 80s, and we’re in the so-called ‘Troubles,’ —a misnomer if ever I heard one. Duffy is on the point of a break-up with his live-in girlfriend, Beth, who basically tells Sean that he needs to find someone his own age (ouch!).  Duffy is called out on a very petty incident to locate the missing wallet of a visiting Finn VIP at the toney Coast Road Hotel. The theft turns out to be a wild goose chase, and yet it’s also the incident that opens the door to murder, conspiracy, intervention from higher-ups and even the deepest betrayal from an unexpected direction.

Duffy is subsequently called to Carrickfergus Castle to investigate what appears to be a suicide. An attractive British journalist, Lily Bigelow, who caught Duffy’s eye at the hotel the day before, is found dead on the castle grounds. She appears to have jumped to her death, with depression over a broken relationship as the root cause, but there are two elements to the case which trouble Duffy: her notebook has vanished, and her shoes were placed on the wrong feet. Could this be a homicide? And yet if this is a case of murder, who is the killer? The castle grounds were locked down for the night, and while it’s theorized that Lily hid somewhere on the grounds in order to commit suicide (and CCTV shows her entering but not exiting the castle,) several searches and even tracking dogs do not reveal the overnight presence of a possible killer other than the highly respectable, responsible caretaker who swears that he didn’t see the girl–let alone murder her.

The case haunts Duffy and recalls the Lizzie Fitzpatrick case (Book 3: In the Morning I’ll be Gone)–a case in which a young girl was murdered inside a locked pub. Rain Dogs explores how the random, explosive violence of everyday life during The Troubles is a dance with death and just how easy it is to slip a murder in under sectarian violence. This is also the first time I’ve heard of a mercury tilt bomb.

McKinty brings these troubled times alive with a sense of disturbing reality. Duffy is Catholic which puts him outside of his Protestant CID department, his girlfriend Beth is a Protestant, and he lives in a Protestant neighbourhood. Although he’s surrounded by sectarian violence, Duffy rises above it–labels don’t exist in Duffy’s mind–even though he must survive in a chaotic, violent society in which labels are enough to get you killed. Duffy is intelligent enough to realize that while labels may offer a degree of identity, they certainly don’t guarantee much more beyond that. It’s clear that while Duffy is an excellent detective, he’ll never rise above a certain rank–he’s too much of an independent thinker and while his investigations are intense, he doesn’t have any respect for lines of class, power or money.

Duffy is an interesting character–definitely someone we want to hang out with, and while McKinty keeps Duffy well within the bounds of his well-established fictional creation, Duffy remains surprisingly and pleasantly unpredictable. Something occurs during a trip to England which made me even fonder of this character. As tough as Duffy’s environment is, he’s still humane.

There’s one great scene where Killian, a gypsy is arrested for car theft. He coolly brags that juvenile facilities make escape easy:

“We could charge you with conspiracy. I suggest to Special Branch that you’re part of a car-theft ring that aids paramilitaries, I get you sent to an adult prison. Special Branch will keep social services out of it.”

“Why would you do that?”

“To teach you a lesson and stop you stealing cars,” I said, switching back to English.

“That seems a bit of a disproportionate response,” Killian said.

“Maybe I’m the disproportionate response type.”

“You don’t seem the disproportionate response type,” Killian said, blowing a smoke ring up to the ceiling.

“Why’s that?”

“You speak Irish and you’re Catholic, I’d say that you’ve had your fair degree of shite from the RUC and are probably on the side of the underdog, which, in this analogy, would be me.”

I bit down a grin and thought about it. Not a completely unlikeable kid.

By the time the novel ends, it’s clear that Duffy has personal and professional problems in his future. This really is a great crime series and is certainly worth investing in.

Over the past few years, my dislike of finding real people making appearances in fiction has grown. I can’t mention the name of the infamous person who appears here without giving away a major part of the crime factor, so I’ll just say that this is a pet peeve of mine, but at the same time, I understand that McKinty was showing just how absolutely insane a particular situation was. Having powerful friends literally gave this person carte blanche. How disgraceful.

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Filed under Fiction, McKinty Adrian

Antidote to Venom: Freeman Wills Crofts (1938)

Time for another British Library Crime Classic: Antidote to Venom from Irish author Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957). Published in 1938, Antidote to Venom is a gem from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. For brilliant plotting, structure, characterization, and sheer ingenuity, Antidote to Venom is a marvelous read–a book I was loath to set aside, so for readers out there who have any interest in crime fiction of this period, do yourself a favour and grab this book.

In the introduction, Martin Edwards describes Antidote to Venom as “ambitious and unusual,” and the book is certainly both of those things, and yet when a book is described as ‘ambitious’ there’s often a subtext of failed effort. There’s no failure here in this highly readable, engaging, inventive, and unpredictable crime novel.

Edwards explains that in the years before he wrote this book, Crofts had been experimenting with his detective fiction, “trying to escape from the predictable.” In Antidote to Venom Crofts used what he called “an ‘inverted story’ in which events are seen at first from the perspective of the culprit.” Crofts’ structure is sheer wizardry, for the book begins with the story of George Surridge, the Director of the Birmingham Zoo. The zoo, which boasts a phenomenal snake collection, is moving onto more modern enclosures for the animals, and one of George’s headaches is concern for safety. He’s given permission for an elderly professor, who’s experimenting with venom as a cure for cancer, access to the most poisonous snakes, and when the book opens, George has the painful duty of firing a night watchman for leaving the zoo unattended.  George is a decent man, devoted and conscientious with his work, but married to an unpleasant society woman whose constant demands have worn George down to plodding unhappiness. He meets another woman, falls in love, and driven by an ever encroaching financial need is drawn into murder.

antidote to venomThat’s the basic plot, and the book’s focus in on George and his predicament for about 2/3’s of the book, and then at that point, Crofts’ Inspector French enters the scene and the action focuses on the investigation. Antidote to Venom is full of twists and turns–not the least of which is: who is George going to murder? His obnoxious wife, Clarissa? Or his aged Aunt– who has left almost her entire estate to her nephew upon her death? But remember this book is unpredictable, so the crime isn’t the one you expect.

While drawn slowly into George’s life, Crofts shows us exactly how George finds himself on a path towards crime, and as is so typical with a man who considers himself ‘decent,’ and ‘law-abiding,’ George doesn’t start his journey in crime with its conclusion in mind. Instead he takes one step on a slippery moral slope, and gradually finds himself increasingly compromised. It’s fairly easy to have quite a bit of sympathy for George, at least initially, although for me, sympathy wore off as he began wishing his aunt dead:

 But really, when people reached a certain age their usefulness was over. And in his opinion she had reached and passed that stage. She could not enjoy her life. If she were to die, what a difference it would make to him!

Of course, George tends to feel bad after these sort of thoughts, but nonetheless, it’s true; his aunt is elderly and ill and once she dies his inheritance will ease all of the financial pressure he feels. Or so he thinks ….

The novel explores the psychological side of murder. George finds himself in a position of thinking that murder is the only acceptable alternative. He knows that he is “faced with one of the major decisions of his life“– an act that cannot be reversed, and yet at the same time he’s trapped and under a great deal of pressure. George can’t confide his problems to anyone and while he rationalizes his acts, he can’t imagine the post-crime burden of guilt or the many places this seemingly perfect murder can go wrong.

Here’s a quote which illustrates how skewed George’s thinking has become. Here he is pre-murder trying to simplify his problems down to a) losing his mistress and facing financial ruin b) murdering some innocent person. And at the same time he avoids the fact that his choice, “the lesser of two evils,” involves the death of an innocent person. Somehow that doesn’t even enter the equation.

The sweat formed on George’s forehead as he considered these alternatives. It was not, he told himself, a question of doing right or wrong; whatever he did would be wrong. It was a choice of two evils. Which was the lesser?

The solution to murder involves discovering 3 essential things: Motive, Means, and Opportunity. In the murder under investigation, the police while sniffing that they are investigating a murder rather than an accidental death, cannot tie all three elements: Motive, Means, and Opportunity to the most likely suspect, and so the inquest closes the case. Then Inspector French from Scotland Yard becomes involved, and the book shifts to his investigation.

All too often when police investigate a past crime, a great deal of the book is given over to the detective’s wordy explanation of exactly how the crime was committed. Not so here. When Inspector French arrives on the scene, he must convince the Birmingham police that his skepticism  about the case’s solution has merit, and he argues logically, laying out all possibilities for each step of the crime, so much so, that we can only admire French’s logical and methodical thinking. Once he’s convinced the Birmingham police that his doubts are valid, he moves forward into the investigation, going over the details of the case once more, and instead of sticking with the inquest conclusion, French toys with various ways a murder could have been committed. Character and psychology play important roles for French in any investigation, so he asks himself questions such as: is it likely that a certain person would have acted in such a manner? Who stands to profit from the death? But above all, for French, the solution to a crime is an intellectual exercise, a puzzle to be solved.

Inspector French, a series character, is admirable indeed. A bloodhound on the trail of any murderer, nonetheless, there’s humanity there too:

This was a part of his job which he absolutely loathed. The running down of a criminal was a different matter. There was the intellectual problem, the slow search for facts with which to build up and prove a theory and the excitement of the chase, all throughly interesting, if occasionally somewhat exasperating. But when the affair became personal, when instead of dealing with a factual jigsaw, French found himself bringing terror and despair into human eyes, he wished he was out of it. There was no use reminding himself that his victims had usually done the same thing to someone else and with less cause: he was always distressed by their distress.

Sometimes with detective fiction from this era, class snobbery plays a role, and while it’s true that the less advantaged members of society have their moments of being under suspicion, that suspicion makes perfect sense. The novel’s only weakness is the unconvincing religious redemption at the end.  Antidote to Venom, in spite of the fact that it was published in 1938, is fresh and adds a great deal of ingenuity, originality, and craftsmanship to the genre.

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Filed under Crofts Freeman Wills, Fiction

Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty

“How can you investigate a murder in a time of incipient civil war?”

Irish author Adrian McKinty, now living in Australia, wrote Dead I May Well Be, which is one of the best modern crime novels I’ve ever read. This is the story of Michael Forsythe who, finding himself running out of options in his native Ireland, relocates to New York where he becomes an enforcer for crime boss Darkey White. If you haven’t read Dead I May Well Be, the first in the Michael Forsythe trilogy, then do yourself a favour and grab a copy.

McKinty’s Gun Street Girl is the fourth in his Sean Duffy series, and while I own all of the books, I am hoping aboard for this one. With just a couple of brief references to an incident or two in his past, this Sean Duffy novel can easily be read as a stand-alone, so if you read it and like me, enjoy it, it’ll be easy to go back and pick up Sean’s earlier history.

Gun Street girlThe story focuses on what appears to be an ‘open-and-shut’ case (Duffy hates that term) of a double murder-suicide involving a very wealthy middle-aged couple and their son, Michael, who’s just been kicked out of Oxford following a scandal. The murders take place in Whitehead, just “over the line in Carrick’s RUC turf,” and Inspector Duffy, the head of the CID unit, has to decide whether or not to fight for the case or to hand this high-profile murder to Larne RUC.  Duffy makes his decision under a great deal of stress, and he opts to fight for the case–a decision which says a great deal about his tenacious character. One of the interesting implications of this turf war is that if Duffy hadn’t fought for the case, the outcome would have been far different:

“Do you think these victims were shot by a nine-millimeter?”

“Again forensics will tell us for sure, but if you ask me the wounds are consistent with a pistol of that caliber.”

“Yeah. Almost certainly.”

“But you’re not happy?” he said, reading my expression accurately.

I shook my head. “I don’t know, Crabbie, I can see where you’re pointing me, but this thing has a professional killing vibe about it, don’t you think?”

While the clues to the crime are dropped like gingerbread crumbs to lead Duffy to the solution,  Duffy, instead focuses on the things that don’t fit the scenario, and soon he’s up to his neck in rogue Americans who may or may not be spooks, the closed ranks of the upper-class British, and M-I5.

The story is set against the Anglo-Irish Agreement; it’s 1985, and the violent riots which break out wreak havoc with Duffy’s investigation.  Gun Street Girl places its characters squarely in the tumultuous 80s, and the author’s note at the end of the book admits to “several real historical events of the time period.” These real events–along with frequent music references help build a solid sense of atmosphere.

Duffy is the sole catholic working in his department and living in the protestant neighbourhood of Carrickfergus. McKinty’s realistic characters are complex, and that’s one of the fascinating aspects of this excellent, compelling crime novel. Duffy navigates a fragmented, chaotic, violent society in which people are defined by labels–labels which on a peer level are theoretically safety zones but paradoxically also attract unpredictable, random violence. These are labels that show clear demarcations of beliefs and loyalties: cop, crook, Catholic, Protestant, IRA, UDF and yet as the plot continues all the labels assigned or selected by various characters, blur and pixelate.

“Would it surprise you to learn that one in four IRA volunteers now works for us in some capacity?” Kate said, deadpan.

“One in four! You’re joking!”

“One in four. Actually in terms of percentages it’s around twenty-seven percent.”

“A quarter of the IRA are actually British agents? Bollocks!” I said utterly shocked.

“It’s true,” Kendrick said. “One in four IRA volunteers work for us in some capacity as fully paid informers, as petty touts or occasionally as active agents.”

I was struggling to take this in. “But, but … but if that’s true why haven’t you shut them down completely?”

“The cell structure,” Kendrick explained.

“Some commands have entirely resisted infiltration. The South Armagh Brigade, for example. The sleeper cells in England and Germany. And then there’s also the fact that we’re playing the long game with many of these agents and informers. Letting them rise as far as they can …”

“So you let them commit the odd murder here and there so they can prove their bona fides and move up the ranks?” I said with some disgust.

Duffy is a prime example of a McKinty character who could be defined by labels–he’s a Catholic cop (hated by both sides of the population), but in Duffy, McKinty creates a strong main character, someone we definitely want to hang out with–a man who, once you scrape the surface, defies labels, doesn’t kiss ass and breaks the rules. There’s some deep inner core of highly individualistic integrity in Duffy, so while he does the odd line of coke, he refuses to be intimidated by the power structure of the British government. Duffy is a man you could count on to do ‘the right thing’ but it’s the right thing as defined and performed by Duffy.

I’m not going to say much about the plot, but I’ll add that Duffy lives in a Protestant neighbourhood–a decision that makes a definite statement.  Every time Duffy gets into his car, he looks for bombs, and the author adds this detail repeatedly which, rather unpredictably, adds humour even as it underscores the fact that Duffy can never relax as to be caught off his guard could prove deadly. Duffy’s outlook–although jaded and cynical–is still somehow refreshing & humorous which fits the insanity and chaos of his environment.

In Gun Street Girl Duffy breaks in two new detective constables. In the beginning of the novel, Duffy prefers the female as “the slightly more interesting of the two.” The other detective constable is Alexander Lawson, who’s liked by the other coppers, but Duffy “feel[s] a little irritated by his slickness.” As the plot moves on, Duffy finds himself working closely with Lawson and in time his impression of the newbie improves, and again this says a lot about Duffy’s character as he doesn’t pollute his relationship with Lawson with snobbery. There’s a great moment in the novel when Duffy and Lawson travel over to England and get a taste of what it’s like to live in a country that’s not a war zone but also what it’s like to be treated like a couple of sightseeing, boozing idiots by the British police. Prejudices and assumptions bombard the two Irish cops and Duffy, who really can be a chameleon, sets his British hosts straight about his serious approach to the case. Here’s Duffy and the woman who runs a B&B in Oxford:

“Inspector Sean Duffy,” I wrote in the book. She didn’t notice the “Inspector,” but the name and the accent gave her a fond memory: ‘”Of course, in my late husband’s time we had a strict rule about Irishmen. He was very particular. Do you remember that, Jeffrey?”

“No Irish, no West Indians,” Jeffery said.

“Oh yes, he was very particular was my Kenneth. You knew where he stood.”

Again back to those labels.

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Filed under Fiction, McKinty Adrian

The Secret Place by Tana French

“Young girls slip between worlds very easily, Detective.”

I missed Tana French’s first three crime novels concerning the Dublin Murder Squad (In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place), but I caught up with her for number 4: Broken Harbor, a book so good, it made my best-of-2012-list. The story of Broken Harbor is haunting; it was one of the best new crime books I’d read in ages, and yes, it was a page-turner, but the book was a lot more than that; it was also an exploration of human nature and how some of us deal with crisis.

The problem is that when a book such as Broken Harbor is that good, you start wondering if the author can hit the same stride for the next novel, and that brings me to The Secret Place–a book which is going to make my best of 2014 list. While Broken Harbor concerned the murder of an entire family in a seaside ghost estate, The Secret Place concerns the murder of a teenager, a boarder at an elite boys’ school.

The secret placeDetective Moran is stuck working cold cases when Holly Mackey, the teenage daughter of Frank Mackey (from Faithful Place), and a boarder at St Kilda’s girls’ school, arrives with evidence in the cold case murder of sixteen-year-old Christopher Harper. The year before, Christopher, the son of a wealthy banker, and a boarder at St. Colm’s, an equally elite boarding school for boys, was found murdered on the grounds of St Kilda’s. Various theories floated throughout the investigation at the time, none proved, and the case remained unsolved. Holly arrives in Moran’s office with a card which includes a picture of Christopher and the words “I know who killed him.” She tells Moran that she found the card posted on “The Secret Place,” a noticeboard devised by the school as an outlet for students to “express emotions that they don’t feel comfortable expressing elsewhere.” That’s PC-speak to explain that the noticeboard is ideally to curb internet bullying.

Moran approaches the lead detective for the case: Antoinette Conway, an attractive, icy, woman who has a poisonous reputation in the Dublin Murder Squad.

A woman working Murder shouldn’t rate scandal, shouldn’t even rate a mention. But a lot of the old boys are old school; a lot of the young ones too. Equality is paper-deep, peel it away with a fingernail. The grapevine says that Conway got the gig by shagging someone, says she got it by ticking the token boxes–something extra in there, something that’s not pasty potato Irish: sallow skin, strong sweeps to her nose and her cheekbones, blue-black shine on her hair. Shame she’s not in a wheelchair, the grapevine says, or she’d be commissioner by now.

While she’s made good career moves so far, the palpable antagonism against Conway in the squad room from her male colleagues has left her isolated and “flying solo” without a partner after her previous sidekick retired.  Aware that his career is stalled, Moran sees Holly’s tip as a way of getting out of Cold Cases and into the Murder Squad where he’s currently on the “shit list for the forseeable.” Conway’s life in the Murder Squad is hell. She’s not treated like one of the guys, and she won’t tolerate the sexual innuendos, so in the eyes of her rejected male colleagues this makes her perceived sexual orientation/preferences a source of jokes–to them, she’s either a lesbian or a dominatrix:

Conway was in an interview. I sat on an empty desk in the Murder squad room, had the crack with the lads. Not a lot of crack, now; Murder is busy. Walk in there, feel your heart rate notch up. Phones ringing, computers clicking, people coming in and out; not hurried, but fast. But a few of them took time out to give me a poke or two. You want Conway? Thought she was getting some, all right, she hasn’t busted anyone’s balls all week; never thought she was getting it off a guy, though. Thanks for taking one for the team, man. Got your shots?  Got your gimp suit?

Moran’s origins are working class, but whereas Moran can accept the knowledge that privilege and money will always open doors, Conway, from Dublin’s inner city “tower blocks IRA-wannabe graffiti and puddles of piss,” has zero patience for social status and niceties. Conway hit a wall in the investigation a year ago, and she got nowhere with the “shiny pedigree bitches” at St Kilda’s, girls from the wealthy homes who sniff her working class origins. The only lead Conway ever caught was that the victim was rumoured to be dating a St Kilda’s student named Selena.

The book goes back and forth from the present investigation to the past events which led up to the murder. The present, set within St Kilda’s, has a tightly, compulsively readable claustrophobic feel as Moran and Conway begin interviewing girls who knew Christopher. They try to penetrate the social world of these teenage girls, tentatively probing the membrane of friendship, loyalty and rivalry, and discover two sets of suspects: one group nicknamed the Daleks: 4 students dominated by a girl named Joanne, and another clique which includes Holly and Selena. Moran interviews each girl with intriguing results, and he’s very good at reading people, crafting an individual approach for each interview:

You want in a witness, you figure out what she wants. Then you give her that, big handfuls. I’m good at that.

Just as Broken Harbor recreated the desperate human face behind the housing crisis, The Secret Place showcases the artificial world of a girls’ school where the teenage girls compete, often viciously, for the attention from the boys at the boarding school next door. The nature of school life is ephemeral, and while some things that happen at school seem so important at the time, in the bigger scheme of an entire lifetime, these incidents will fade and disappear. But St Kilda’s, for some girls, is a crucible and because many of them have problem home lives, they’ve developed bonds that are unhealthy.

You forget what it was like. You’d swear on your life you never will, but year by year it falls away. How your temperature ran off the mercury, your heart galloped flat-out and never needed to rest, everything was pitched on the edge of shattering glass. How wanting something was like dying of thirst. How your skin was too fine to keep out any of the million things flooding by; every color boiled right enough to scold you, any second of any day could send you soaring or rip you to bloody shreds.

Tana French brilliantly explores the world of teenage girls–girls who are at a delicate, crucial time of life when their flexible morality is developing in the shift towards adulthood.  Broken Harbor concerned the death of an entire family in a house which held the echoes of the crime, and the same is true of The Secret Place. St Kilda’s is a vast school set on beautiful grounds, but there’s a strong sense of disquiet, the rumor of a ghost, and an atmosphere that fed murder–a very particular murder set firmly in its context and its unique set of circumstances.  The case throws Moran and Conway back into their pasts. The girls at St Kilda’s remind Conway of everything she had to overcome, and Moran finds himself remembering his own teen years while stepping very carefully to avoid the hazards of some of the more dangerous St Kilda’s students. A murder set among teens would normally not pique my interest and would more likely result in a yawnfest. The Secret Place is so much more than a crime novel, and yet it’s my favourite sort of scenario that explores a crime created by a unique set of circumstances, time and place. Highly, compulsively readable, the novel is structured to keep us guessing until the end while throwing in issues of class conflict, class acceptance, teen angst, sexual politics and above all, the extent, and the limits, of loyalty.

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Filed under Fiction, French Tana

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.


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.”


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


Filed under Bruen Ken, Fiction

Dark Times in the City by Gene Kerrigan

After hearing a couple of friends rave about the crime novels of Irish author Gene Kerrigan, I knew I’d have to read one sooner or later, and this brings me to Dark Times in the City, a gritty crime novel that explores the difficulties of remaining neutral in a corrupt damaged society where taking a moral stand can prove to be expensive.

Dark TimesDanny Callaghan is a 32-year-old ex-con who’s been out of prison for just 7 months. As an ex-con, he’s considered a success since he’s chosen the straight life. Callaghan lives in a nest of low-rent, drug-infested flats called ‘the hive’ and is holding his life together with a marginal job as a driver which allows him to tune out and remain independent. Ironically, he drives around visiting toffs and business execs whose nightly excursions tend to end in vomit-soaked drunken binges while Callaghan hangs out and acts responsible. One night, he’s minding his own business in a pub and having a quiet pint when two men walk in to make a hit.

The first assassin spotted his target and began to move forward. By now, most of those in the vicinity knew what was happening. The motorcycle helmet indoors, the armed minder watching the killer’s back and the quick stride towards the intended victim–in recent years, a routine as recognisable as a Riverdance twirl.

Danny doesn’t hesitate; he steps in between the gunmen and the intended victim and sends the two thugs packing. With this action, Danny finds himself dragged into a very ugly turf war between two rival gangs. One gang is run by the ageing Lar Mackendrick who’s had a tight fist on the Dublin crime scene for decades. The other gang is run by 27-year-old Frank Tucker, the head of a crime family that may or may not have old business with Danny Callaghan. Callaghan served 8 years in prison for manslaughter. He claimed he killed Big Brendan Tucker in self-defense, but with Big Brendan’s family, including his nephew Frank Tucker testifying against the self-defense argument, Callaghan served his time. Callaghan is concerned that Frank Tucker wants revenge and an unsettling meeting with the crime boss leans against that theory, and yet Callaghan still has the uneasy feeling that he’s being followed.

Tucker looked beyond Danny Callaghan, as though looking into the past. “Brendan and me, he was, what–about fifteen years older. He saw himself as a sort of uncle, I suppose. He was my cousin and I loved him, but what Brendan did best was throw shapes. He got a swanky car, swanky clothes, jewelry, bodyguards. You could quote any line from Scarface and he’d do the whole scene for you.” Tucker’s tone changed. “Too tall to be Pacino, though. Too fat, and too dumb. Brendan talked to the crime hacks from the Sunday papers, made himself out to be a big player. But everyone knew that Brendan would eventually fuck up. He did a bit of boxing early on, wasn’t much good at it but he knew how to push people around. Hardly a week went by he didn’t beat the shit out of someone. No way to build a business. Attracts the wrong kind of attention. And sooner or later—-“

To Frank Tucker, Callaghan is old business. While Callaghan worries that the past has yet to catch up with him, he doesn’t realize that he’s stumbled into the middle of a gang war where the vicious Lar Mackendrick is seen as “low-hanging fruit.”

If this were the Godfather, we’d be talking about gang members going to the mattresses, but here we see gang members picked off and brutally slaughtered–sometimes gleefully by the rival gang. This is an unpleasant bunch of characters who think nothing of beating some one to death and have fun doing it. Feeling he has little choice, Callaghan is dragged into the ongoing war and forced to cooperate, but still he struggles against an uneasy conscience. 

Emphasizing the predictability of character and the impossibility of escape in given circumstances,  Dark Times in the City is hard-boiled crime, and author Gene Kerrigan tries to balance the brutal darkness of this tale with moments of sentimentality involving Callaghan and various people he cares about. This balancing act may work for some readers who need to feel that there are some good, decent people in the world, but the moments of sentimentality work against the novel’s bleak, hard-core centre. That said, the pizza episode (and I’ll give no more away) nails how the lives of ordinary people are shockingly subsumed into the dark world that exists just out of sight in the margins of society. Ultimately, this is a page-turner which I would have preferred to see without its sentimental moments.  The two mega-crime bosses are well pitched towards one another–both intent on the destruction of the other, and, of course in the post-boom collapse, there’s only room for one crime family, and the most savage will win and the weak, I’m thinking the weasely character of Walter Bennett, will be crushed. Frank Tucker is seen as the new face of crime in a country that’s still defining itself:

The North was still leaking blood, and the South’s middleclass aspirations and distaste for the excesses of nationalism came together to create a fashion in housing estates with English labels–Sherwood Park, Tudor Heights, Balmoral Lawns. That was before the economic boom and the winding down of the Northern bloodletting encouraged the middle classes to adopt a bit of the old nationalist swagger.


Filed under Fiction, Kerrigan Gene

A White Arrest by Ken Bruen

“See, you gotta let ’em see you’re the most brutal fuckin’ thing they’ve ever seen.”

I read and thoroughly enjoyed London Boulevard some time ago, so when I was offered a copy of A White Arrest, I grabbed it. After finishing London Boulevard, I picked over this author’s back list and discovered that A White Arrest,  the first part of a trilogy followed by Taming the Alien and The McDead, was OOP and pricey if you could find it. Now back in a $9.99 kindle version is the entire The White Arrest trilogy. People can bitch as much as they want about the evils of the kindle, but for many crime fans, electronic readers have brought back some fantastic titles. Case in point.

the white trilogyFirst things first: A White Arrest, and a term I’ll admit I’d never heard before, is  an arrest that is “the pinnacle of a policeman’s career,” and now that I’ve given that description, I’ll say that it seems extremely unlikely that Irish Detective Sgt. Brant, the antihero of this story is ever going to get white anything. That’s because Brant isn’t exactly a by-the-book copper. He’s crude, coarse, a sexist who leaves a trail of complaints in his wake. Brant’s boss is Chief Inspector Roberts, and they are known in the department as R and B:

The relationship twixt R and B always seemed a beat away from beating. You felt like they’d like nothing better than to get down and kick the living shit out of each other. Which had happened. The tension between them was the chemistry that glued. Co-dependency was another word for it.

Both men have hellish personal lives. Roberts has a fancy house and an even fancier wife, and together they have a teenage daughter who just got kicked out of private school. While Fiona Roberts pulls the disapproving Ice Queen routine on her hubbie on a nightly basis, her afternoons are spent on the sly buying sex from studley, oiled young men. Whereas Roberts’ expensive and complicated home life is poison, Brant is now single and his flat is a “one room basic unit. He kept it tidy in case he scored.”

To complicate matters, Brant fancies Fiona Roberts, and there is some debate whether this misplaced lust is genuine or whether it springs from a desire to cuckold Roberts. Every interaction between Brant and Roberts is fraught with tension–Brant, for example, insists on calling Roberts Guv–even though he’s told repeatedly to knock it off. On another level (and one I’ll admit I delighted in) there’s an ongoing literary duel between the two coppers about the best crime writer. Brant is a fan of Ed McBain, and he owns a prize collection of his favorite author’s books in his grotty council flat in Kennington with “one whole wall devoted entirely to books.” He owns the entire Ed McBain series, “two shelves were given to the Matthew Hope series” and the bottom shelf is the home of the Evan Hunter books–or as Brant likes to think “the three faces of the author.” When Brant isn’t quoting McBain, he’s trying to get Roberts to read him, and the fact that Roberts rejects McBain only underscores Brant’s view of his boss’s serious character flaws. Here’s Brant trying, unsuccessfully once again, to get his boss to read McBain.

I’ve another McBain for you.

He tossed a dog-eared book on to the desk. It looked like it had been chewed, laundered and beaten. Roberts didn’t touch it, said: “You found this in the toilet, that’s it?”

“It’s his best yet. No one does the Police Procedural like Ed.”

Roberts leaned over to see the title. A food stain had obliterated that. At least he hoped it was food. he said: “You should support the home side, read Bill James, get the humorous side of policing.”

“For humour sir, I have you–my humour cup overflowed!”

In spite of the fact that tension flows between Brant and Roberts, they work well together, and oddly enough Roberts protects Brant at crucial moments. When the novel begins Brant is in no small amount of trouble.

All his little perks, minor scams, interrogation techniques, his attitude, guaranteed he’d be shafted before the year was out. A grand sweep of the Met was coming and they were top of the list. Unless … Unless they pulled off the big one, the legendary White Arrest that every copper dreamed about. The veritable Oscar, the Nobel prize of criminology. Like nailing the Yorkshire Ripper or finding the shit-head Lucan. It would clear the books, put you on page one, get you on them chat shows. Have Littlejohn kiss yer arse, ah!

So those are our coppers, well a couple of them. There’s also WPC Falls “the wet dream of the nick. Leastways she hoped she was. A little over 5′ 6″ she was the loaded side of plump, but it suited her.” And there’s young, weak Brant wannabe PC Tone who imitates his idol and feels “dizzy with the macho-ness” of unaccustomed phrases and actions.

Now to the crimes: there are no less than two serial murders taking place. A gang of young racist thugs begin by murdering drug dealers and then move on to other targets, and then there’s a total psycho who’s bumping off members of the England cricket team in spectacularly exotic fashion. R & B are on the trail of the killers with Brant determined to get his White Arrest and wipe his dirty slate clean.

In spite of Brant’s abrasive, coarse personality, there’s the core of twisted idealism alive and well festering in his perverse heart. In between ripping off pizza delivery boys, and harassing Indian newspaper vendors, Brant, a crime film and fiction aficionado freely quotes from some of his favourites and would like to style himself on the Ed McBain novels:

For some perverse reason he finds that Ed McBain in the police procedural comes closest to the way it should have been. Long after he’d dismissed Dixon as a wanker. his heart still bore the imprint of Dock Green. In Brant’s words, television had gone the way of Peckham. Right down the shitter.

It’s through Brant that one of the novel’s sub themes is most evident, and that’s the way we tend to need heroes in our lives; there’s PC Tone whose desire to emulate Detective Sgt. Brant leads him on a deadly path, there’s Brant who really wants to be a cop in Ed McBain’s 87th precinct, there’s Roberts who relates to the heroes of film noir, and vicious thug Kevin’s emulation of Charles Bronson in Death Wish and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. On that note, here’s a free tip: want to know what someone really thinks?… ask ’em who their heroes are before you take them home to meet mother.

 I read a lot of crime, and sometimes when you read a lot of one particular genre, books blend into each other and the characters and story threads blur: missing teenage girls who walked away from a party and never came back, alcoholic policemen who turn up disheveled and red-eyed for roll-call, the detective who must beat the clock before a sicko-serial killer offs his next squirming teenage captive…. well you get my drift. A White Arrest crackles with originality and delivers sordid details of those on both sides of the fence–Brant is a flawed morally reprehensible human being whose, let’s say, unconventional approaches to crime solution leave a lot to be desired, but he is also at the same time a very unique and very real creation. Brant does awful things to people he deems weaker than himself, but even so there is some sort of moral line he won’t cross. To those who work with Brant, that moral line may seem non-existent, but it’s there nonetheless. Brant with his gleefully nasty larger-than-life-in-your-face-and fuck-you-if-you-don’t-like-it personality is someone I want to read about. Ken Bruen added just enough tiny details to Brant’s character to salvage him from a total wipe-out to someone who has a few deeply hidden human traits that are rarely shown to those within the department. Highly recommended for those who like their crime dirty, dark  and hard-boiled with just the right touch of black humour.

For those interested, to date there are seven novels in the Brant series.

Review copy


Filed under Bruen Ken, Fiction

Falling Glass by Adrian McKinty

Time to shamelessly promote another author, and this time it’s Adrian McKinty–an Irishman who lives in Australia, and if, like me, you are at all interested in Irish crime fiction, then Adrian McKinty is a name to note. Simple as that. McKinty’s Dead Trilogy  (also known as the Michael Forsythe Trilogy) is as good as crime fiction gets: dark, hard-boiled, and unrelentingly mean, the trilogy (Dead I May Well Be, The Dead Yard, The Bloomsday Dead) a fantastic exploration of Irish criminal culture follows the explosive criminal career of Michael Forsythe who leaves Ireland and goes to America where he works as an enforcer for Darkey White. If you haven’t read this trilogy, all I can say is ‘what are you waiting for?’ And this brings me to McKinty’s latest book Falling Glassanother hard-boiled crime novel which connects to the Dead Trilogy.

Falling Glass begins with Killian finalising another job as a collector in Boston. It’s St Patrick’s Day, and Killian finds himself in the middle of the celebrations which are rife with faulty Irish folklore and annoying people who’ve never been to Ireland correcting Killian about various aspects of Irish life and culture. This is a great intro to the story because fabrications (lies and BS) play a large role in the story that plays out. Killian is a great story spinner too, and we see this talent when he meets and tries to collect from Marcetti, the man with the overdue debt of “five large.” Killian likes to know understand his quarry–in this case, the respectable suburban husband and father whose secret life has led to a “shark’s enforcer” arriving at his perfect home with its triple garage looking to collect 500,000 the hard way if that’s what it takes.

He could imagine the traj; street or half-street kid, pretty smart, scholarships, college, banking, marries into money, moves to the Boston burbs and gradually migrates north. Perfect until, like some atavistic demon, the grifter comes out: a visit to the local casino, maybe he wins, in any case the hooks are in, he starts playing, starts losing, starts borrowing. In a year, he’s under the ocean, deep down, Robert fucking Ballard territory, the Mariana fucking trench.

After impressing Michael Forsythe with the results of the Boston job, Killian is hired to track down Rachel, the junkie ex-wife of multi-millionaire entrepreneur Richard Coulter. Rachel has gone on the lam with her two small children, and Coulter, who’s remarried to wife number 3 and about to become a father yet again, wants his children back. The word is that Coulter wants to enjoy “one big fucking happy family” according to Killian’s ‘agent’, Sean. Coulter claims that he’s worried about what’ll happen to his children with Rachel back on H, and given Rachel’s history, this seems a very reasonable worry. To sweeten the pot, Coulter offers Killian 500,000 pounds if he’s succeeds in finding his ex- who “is off the deep end.”

With a half-million score at the end of the rainbow, how can Killian refuse? In his own words he’s “semi semi” which translates to mean that he’s trying to go legit. The only problem is that Killian tried to go legit at the wrong time. After quitting “The Life,” and deciding to attend the University of Ulster, he jumped into the property boom. Now he’s “three hundred thousand quid negative equity” on an apartment building that no one wants to buy at the price he needs. So Killian agrees to take the job which appears to be the answer to all his problems–although he has reservations and sniffs that the job “reeks.”  Killian discovers, the hard way, that the whole scenario about Rachel left out some important details….

Killian finds himself in Hong Kong where he meets Coulter and his new-wife Helena and gets the details for the job.  Coulter claims that he has “proof” that Rachel is using again, and that would certainly explain why she’s dropped out of sight.

We found out she’d disappeared. Stopped using cash machines, only used payphones. Her solicitor doesn’t even know where she is. We thought she’d joined a fucking cult or something.

At first things go smoothly, but then Killian begins to peel away the layers of deceit and discovers the real reasons for Rachel’s flight, and it’s at this point that the situation turns ugly.

One of the reasons I’m a fan of Adrian McKinty’s crime novels is that he creates interesting complex characters. Killian may seem like an affable soul, a good story-teller, a decent man, but as the hunt for Rachel turns into something else, he adapts to circumstances, and we see exactly why he’s easy to underestimate. There’s a meanness there, just below the surface, that Killian is perfectly capable of unleashing when circumstances warrant violence, and since I’m on the subject of violence there is one scene here that is definitely not for the squeamish. But, make no mistake, Killian is the good guy here in a world of corruption and senseless violence. Killian has moral standards he adheres to, and there are some things he will not do for money.

The book also explores Pavee life. Killian is a Pavee, and while that doesn’t mean much to me beyond the vaguest, shapeless idea of caravan life, it means a great deal, apparently, to other Irishmen. Killian, who is from a tribe of Irish Travellers and speaks Shelta, reconnects with his people during the course of the novel, so the story opened up a window into an unknown culture. I knew, of course, about the enmity between the catholics and the protestants, but just how the Pavees fit into this was new to me. This was an interesting twist, and Killian’s background goes a long way to explaining why he’s viewed as a disposable outsider who is not trusted by the people who employ him.

Falling Glass is another intense crime read from McKinty. It’s fast paced and gripping, but loses momentum towards the end, and there was one element to the plot (can’t give it away) that felt a bit tired to this reader. The Dead Trilogy is still IMO, McKinty’s best work, but I have his latest Cold, Cold Ground (Book One: The Troubles Trilogy) just published here in N. America to look forward to.


Filed under Fiction, McKinty Adrian

Broken Harbor by Tana French

“Here’s what I’m trying to tell you: this case should have gone like clockwork. It should have ended up in the textbooks as a shining example of how to get everything right. By every rule in the book, this should have been the dream case.”

Those two opening lines from Irish author, Tana French’s fourth novel, Broken Harbor tell us a lot about Dublin Murder squad detective, 42-year-old Mick Kennedy: 1) he cares deeply about his job 2) he’s an engaging narrator, and 3) this is a man who places a great deal of importance on the rules. If you stop and think about it, murder is an instance in which rules are broken; I’m not just talking about laws because that’s obvious. But murder also breaks the rules of what we expect: parents kill their children, children kill their parents; spouses vow to love and cherish ’till death do us part,’ until murder suddenly and inexplicably becomes an alternative to divorce. Even neighbours sometimes engage in feuds that end in death. We’re all supposed to grow to a ripe old age, yet murder violates these expectations and breaks the so-called rules of these trusted relationships. As regular readers of this blog know, I read a lot of crime novels, but Broken Harbor is ahead of the pack for lots of reasons but more of that later.

The novel begins with Detective Kennedy and his rookie partner, Ritchie Curran on a new case. Kennedy, whose nickname is Scorcher, appeared in Tana French’s earlier novel Faithful Place and he’s back here as the narrator. Scorcher had the “highest solve rate” in the department but his success took a beating after a case went wrong, and now down to “second” he’s been given a chance to redeem himself by his boss, who hands him the case.

The second it hit the floor, I knew from the sound that it was a big one. All of us did. Your basic murder comes straight to the squad room and goes to whoever’s next on the rota, or, if he’s out, whoever happens to be around; only the big ones, the sensitive ones that need the right pair of hands, go through the Super so he can pick his man. So when Superintendant O’Kelly stuck his head around the door of the squad room, pointed at me, snapped, “Kennedy, my office,” and vanished, we knew.

The case is a triple homicide: dad, Pat Spain and his two children, Emma and Jack are dead, and Pat’s wife, blonde beautiful, Jenny Spain lies in hospital in a coma hovering between life and death. Right from the outset, the big money is on Pat as the suspect:

When it plays out like this, it’s usually the father: a woman just takes out the kids and herself, a man goes for the whole family.

The Spains lived in a large new home in Broken Harbor, a coastal town–now renamed Brianstown in a housing estate called Ocean View:

At first glance, Ocean View looked pretty tasty: big detached houses that gave you something substantial for your money, trim strips of green, quaint signposts pointing you towards LITTLE GEMS CHILDCARE and DIAMONDCUT LEISURE CENTRE. Second glance, the grass needed weeding and there were gaps in the footpaths. Third glance something was wrong.

That “something wrong” is a housing estate that started to be built during the economic boom but fell flat shortly after the economy tanked. Only a few houses on the estate are occupied. Other cheaply made houses were in various stages of being completed before the builders abandoned the project. There are “random collections of walls and scaffolding,” many houses lack windows or interior finishing,  some rooms are “littered” with remnants of building materials. It’s as if an alarm sounded and everyone walked off the job leaving the desolate housing estate semi-completed. A few families live on the estate, but squatters have moved in. The Spains lived in one of the occupied houses, and the feeling that there’s something radically wrong with Broken Harbor increases when the detectives enter the Spains’ home.

Scorcher is an engaging narrator who through training Curran also trains us about police procedure. Rule number one, according to Scorcher, (back to those rules again), “no emotions on scene.” Curran argues that his impoverished background and working in Motor vehicles has prepared him for “pretty bad stuff.”

All of them think that. I’m sure I thought it too, once upon a time. “No, old son. You didn’t. That tells me how innocent you are. It’s no fun seeing a kid with his kid split open because some moron took a bend too fast, but it’s nothing compared to seeing a kid with his head split open because some prick deliberately smacked him off a wall till he stopped breathing. So far, you’ve only seen what bad luck can do to people. You’re about to take your first good look at what people can do to each other. Believe me: not the same thing.”

And here’s Rule Number Two:

When someone’s behaviour is odd, that’s a little present just for you, and you don’t let go of it till you’ve got it unwrapped.

I’ve exchanged comments with Max at Pechorin’s journal regarding the creation of literary detectives. It’s ok to have a barely functioning low-rent PI who’s boozed up to his eyeballs, but once you have an alcoholic murder detective who’s on the skids, as a reader, I get fed up with this type of character appearing repeatedly. Scorcher is different. He’s a bloodhound on the scent of the killer, and once he has his teeth in a case, he doesn’t let go, and if that means working 20 hour days, then that’s what it takes. Part of the novel’s power can be found in the way the story is told. Scorcher and Curran arrive at the fresh and relatively undisturbed crime scene and we effectively arrive with them. Author Tana French creates a visceral shock and an intensity as we accompany the detectives through every room in the house.

When you get a chance to see a scene that way, you take it. What waits for you there is the crime itself, every screaming second of it, trapped and held for you in amber. It doesn’t matter if someone’s cleaned up, hidden evidence, tried to fake a suicide: the amber holds all that too. Once the processing starts, that’s gone for good; all that’s left is your own people swarming over the scene, busily dismantling it print by print and fiber by fiber. This chance felt like a gift, on this case where I needed it the most; like a good omen. I set my phone on silent. Plenty of people were going to want to get hold of me over the next while. All of them could wait til I had walked over my scene.

As you can tell from that passage, Scorcher is possessive about his crime. It’s his to solve–no one is going to take it away or screw it up for him, and this brings me to another story thread involving Scorcher’s past. Broken Harbor has a lot of bad memories for Scorcher, and these memories are impossible to bury as the investigation continues. By creating this thread, French draws some nice parallels between Scorcher’s past and the crime, and the case inevitably causes Scorcher to question his carefully constructed belief system. The story is also loaded with some sharply drawn secondary characters:  Office slouch, Quigley who’s viciously jealous of Scorcher’s success and can’t wait to stab him in the back if he gets the chance, Cooper the pathologist who goads Scorcher every chance he gets, Jenny Spain’s sister, Fiona who makes Scorcher uneasy for some reason he can’t fathom, and then there are the Spains’ low-life neighbours, the resentful Gogans who thought the Spains were snobs. Even Broken Harbour seems to become a character–a relic of smashed dreams of suburban success and rising affluence, and a place where violent events seem to be the natural results of a world in which everything went wrong.

While this is a who-done-it police procedural, there is also, rather interestingly, equal weight given to the ‘whys’ of the crime, and perhaps this is yet another reason that makes Broken Harbor stand out from the pack. Bottom line, for this reader, it’s Scorcher’s intelligence and single-minded drive that makes the book a riveting read, and here with one final quote is Scorcher’s “dirty secret” about murder:

I know this isn’t what we get taught on the detective course, but out here in the real world, my man, you would be amazed at how seldom murder has to break into people live’s. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it gets there because they open the door and invite it in.

Review copy from the publisher


Filed under Fiction, French Tana