Tag Archives: thriller

Graveland by Alan Glynn

I tend to avoid reading thrillers, but there’s the consideration that thrillers cross over into the crime genre, and that is definitely true with the novels of Irish author Alan Glynn–an author who takes the term ‘conspiracy theory’ out of the trash can and makes you rethink the headlines that quickly fade and the scandals that sink from view. I first came across Glynn through the film Limitless which was based on his first novel, The Dark Fields. Somehow all that skullduggery in the dirty pharmaceutical industry fascinated me–well I believe that some very ugly business goes on in the R&D departments of the pharmaceutical giants. Just hang out on Cafepharma sometime and amuse yourself by watching the mudslinging.

GravelandAlan Glynn’s latest novel, Graveland brings back some repeat characters from Bloodland, but it isn’t necessary to have read the earlier novel before reading Graveland. Journalist Ellen Dorsey, who appeared in Bloodland, is a central character here, and Jimmy Gilroy who was a main character in Graveland has a small role. The shady background figure, James Vaughan, Chairman of the Oberon capital Group also appears in both novels.

Graveland begins with the seemingly random murders of two billionaires:  one a CEO of an investment bank, a “Wall Street behemoth, one of the Too Big To Fail brigade” and the other man is “Exponential Bob,” manager of a Wall Street hedge fund. With the first murder, investigative journalist, Ellen, who works for the fading investigative magazine Parallax, senses that there’s more to the story, and when the second murder occurs, she’s convinced she’s on the trail of something big. While the police seem to have no clues, Ellen begins digging deeply into internet forums, and there she comes across some possible pointers that become all too real.

We are also introduced to middle-aged Frank Bishop, a bitterly unhappy one-time architect. Cut loose from his profession, now post-boom, he’s lucky to find himself as a poorly paid manager in a small shop in a dying “suburban mall in upstate New York.” Frank knows that he should appreciate the job, but he finds it galling to continually bow and scrape to his customers and his much younger boss.

At forty-eight, and in the current climate, he could just as easily have landed on the scrap heap. There are days when this certainly feels like the scrap heap, but most of the time he just gets on with it.

He has bills to pay.

It’s as simple as that, his life is reduced to a monthly sequence of electronic bank transfers. College fees, allowances, rent, utilities, car food. Fuck.

Close his eyes for a minute and Frank can be right back before any of this got started, twenty-five, thirty years ago–a different world, and one in which this degree of a financial straitjacket was something he only ever associated with his parents, with that whole generation.

While Ellen investigates the two billionaire murders, another story thread follows Frank Bishop as he trips into meltdown mode. There’s also Craig Howley, the man who’s “number two” at Oberon Capital. Howley is subordinate to 84 year-old Chairman James Vaughan. Howley is hungry to take over the role of Chairman and thinks  a lot about how much longer, Vaughan, on his sixth plastic wife, can last. But Howley has to check his ambition:

Because with Jimmy Vaughan you don’t ever ever assume anything. You just keep watching, making connections, cutting deals, bringing it home.

The good news for Howley, and the bad news for Vaughan is that the latter’s health finally seems to be failing. Maybe. One day, he looks like he’s headed for the coffin, but the next he’s ready to work a strenuous day. Howley can’t make sense of it.

Glynn novels are all about connections, and the first few pages introduce a lot of characters. It’s not easy at this point to keep them straight or to work out which ones are important and which ones are insignificant. It was the same with Bloodland. But after a few chapters, you’re in and turning pages. Glynn’s presentation of distinctly separate but connected worlds follows what I call the Brazil Model. You’ve got the Favelas on ground zero and then all the way up to the dizzying heights of the super-wealthy–the people who always pursue more money, and aren’t too fussy about how they get it. Glynn’s novels illustrate that while these worlds are separate, they connect in unseen ways, and it’s these invisible connections that fuel this author’s work.

 Bloodland, partially set in the Congo was a very exciting book. Graveland lacks that pacing, but it’s still a good thriller and its portrayal of the mostly invisible (to us plebs) powermongers, those who compose the 1%, is piercing and prescient.

Review copy

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Bloodland by Alan Glynn

“Someone else’s perception of the truth–however outlandish or irrational–is a valid starting point for any investigation.” 

After seeing the film Limitless, based on the pharmaceutical thriller The Dark Fields by author Alan Glynn, I knew I wanted to read his latest book, Bloodland. Bloodland is a thriller and it starts off very strongly with a couple of employees of Gideon Global, a private security firm, accompanying the “package,” Senator John Rundle, a politician who is also a strong contender for the next presidential race. They’re in the Congo about to meet with Colonel Kimbela, the sadistic maniac who has a weakness for fake Louis Quinze style furniture and also controls mining rights for the region. It’s a tense situation, and the pampered Washington politician isn’t used to dealing directly with psychotic leaders. The convoy, gets stuck in a village. Here’s former Iraq vet, now Gideon employee Ray Kroner:

They’re both former servicemen, he and this other guy, and are virtual clones to look at–the buzz cuts, the pumped-up muscles, the armored vests, the mirrored shades–but Ray Kroner is prepared to lay even money that whereas he is ramped up to the max, his dial straining at eleven, Tom Szymanski here is barely a notch or two above clinically dead.

Ok, Ray has got 600 milligrams of Provigil in his system, but that’s not what this is. Big in the military, and even bigger now in the PMCs, Provigil will keep you awake for days on end, but it’s not speed, it’s not even coffee, it’s just an off switch right next to the sleep option in your brain–press it and one thing you won’t have to worry about anymore is getting tired.

The novel introduces a lot of characters in the first few chapters, and since we don’t yet know the significance of who’s who, it’s not easy to keep them all straight. That’s about the only complaint I have about this fast-paced tale that should definitely be made into a film. While Glynn introduces all his characters and sub plots early, a main thread soon develops, and that thread concerns unemployed Irish journalist, Jimmy Gilroy who’s working, desperately on a bio of dead actress, Susie Monaghan, one of those celebrity walking disasters who created news wherever she went and who was killed in a helicopter crash after leaving Drumcoolie Castle. Gilroy, who’s living on the book advance, is warned off the book by his father’s former business partner, Phil Sweeney:

PR guru, media advisor, strategist, fixer, bagman, God knows what else? Someone for whom talking to people was–and presumably still is–nothing less than the primary operating system of the universe?

Jimmy wonders why Sweeney would want to squash a celebrity bio of Susie a “tabloid celebrity, a bottom-feeding soap-star socialite.” But then again, Susie send a series of cryptic text messages right before she died….

It’s so obvious now that Phil Sweeney is covering for someone, a friend or a client, some balding, paunchy fuck who was maybe having an affair with Susie at the time and doesn’t want the whole thing dredged up again now, doesn’t want his name associated with her, doesn’t want his reputation or his marriage put in jeopardy.

Jimmy lifts his glass.

Could it really be as banal as that, and as predictable? Unprepossessing rich bloke, gorgeous girl on a fast-ticking career clock? Then this grubby, undignified attempt a few years later to pretend it never happened?

Jimmy can’t see what connection exists between Sweeney and Susie as they seem to live in different worlds. There is, of course, a connection, and it’s a global one that stretches from the compound of a psychopathic Congo dictator to the highest reaches of corporate America and those oh-so invisible, grubby strings that operate the marionettes in Washington. Once Glynn sets down all the initial threads of this tale, then the book becomes a page-turner, and Jimmy finds out the hard way that conspiracy theories often pack a punch. What’s particularly enjoyable about the book is the way Glynn shows a definite hierarchy of corruption and how various characters are committed to a cover-up no matter what it takes while others jump ship when the moral consequences are more than they can live with.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley. Read on the kindle.

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Fever Dream by Dennis Palumbo

I’d read some good reviews of Dennis Palumbo’s first book Mirror Image, so I decided to give this author’s second novel a try. After all, Fever Dream features Daniel Rinaldi, clinical psychologist and “trauma expert” who acts as a consultant for the Pittsburgh police, and I have a weakness for books that feature therapists. Dennis Palumbo who is a psychotherapist was formerly a Hollywood screenwriter, and all of that experience is apparent in this action-packed tale that seems to be firmly rooted in the thriller genre and screams for a film adaptation.

Rinaldi, now a widower due to the actions of a coked-up mugger, rather appropriately specialises in therapy for the victims of violent crime. So it’s no surprise when he’s called in to try to extract some vital details from a terrified bank teller who’s just been released from a hostage situation at First Allegheny Bank. The teller, Treva Williams, is in a state of shock when Rinaldi arrives at the scene, and she’s able to give a few details about what happened inside the bank. A SWAT team surrounds the area, but any plan to negotiate vaporizes when the bank robber executes everyone–with the exception of the guard who’s left wounded, disgruntled and threatening to sue

While a bloody mop up is underway, Rinaldi promises to accompany Treva to the hospital, but a delay causes him to miss the departing ambulance that’s transporting Treva and the guard to the hospital. Later, however, news breaks that the ambulance never made it to the hospital….

From the moment Rinaldi arrives on the scene outside of the bank, something doesn’t feel right about this bank robbery. Was this because one of the robbers flaked out and ran off? Or was it because the assistant bank manager was cold-bloodedly killed as he bent to pick up his glasses? And what about the bank manager who rather conveniently didn’t go to work that day?

Rinaldi isn’t exactly on the Philadelphia’s Police dept Xmas list, and many of the officers resent his interference–especially Lt. Stu Beigler who thinks Rinaldi has no place sniffing around a crime scene. The bank robbery turns out to be a political hot potato as it’s an election year and District Attorney Leland Sinclair, a smooth, ambitious politician who’s running for Governor in a gentrified city is running on one of those  “tough law-and-order” platforms. The bloodbath at the bank is a PR nightmare for Sinclair, and while he spews forth the usual insipid political platitudes, he doesn’t fool anyone, least of all Rinaldi, about his real concerns. After all, “dead hostages make for lousy campaign ads.”

The clash between outward appearances and inner realities runs through the story as Rinaldi juggles his personal and professional life while finding that he’s drawn deeper into the aftermath of the hostage crisis. Since Rinaldi is a psychologist, the novel is full of his insights into human nature–insights that others miss:

His name, I recalled from Treva, was George. Tall, salt-and-pepper hair trimmed to a severe V at the middle of his forehead. He was in his mid-fifties, and given how tight he wore his olive green uniform, maybe a bit vain about how fit he was. Skin tanned like leather, a strong chin. Hard grey eyes that had seen a lot.

Here’s a scene from inside the bank:

I took another breath and found myself looking at the walls. Maybe to avoid looking down at the bodies. The walls spattered with blood, scarlet blotches that sprayed out in a curving pattern like thrown mud. That dripped slowly in rivulets to the floor like some living Pollock painting.

Bits of flesh and bone fragments pitted the teller’s  stations, the customer counters, the free-standing courtesy desk whose pen still dangled half-way to the floor with its silver chain.

Palumbo shows his screenwriting background in the sharply drawn physicality of that scene which captures the stunning violence and lives cut short in the flash of a moment. An engaging read packed with enough action to push the book into thriller rather than straight crime fiction, Fever Dream checks all the boxes for the genre while continuing the story of a strong series character. While references are made to incidents that took place in the first novel (Mirror Image), it does not appear necessary to have read that one first. However, that said, I would have preferred to read Mirror Image first as it seems that Rinaldi is not the only character to reappear in this second novel, and many of these characters have a history with Rinaldi.

My copy came courtesy of the publisher via netgalley and was read on the kindle.

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Any Human Face by Charles Lambert

I had a bit of luck recently when I won a book give-away held by The Fiction Desk. The book, Any Human Face by Charles Lambert arrived and I almost immediately picked it up. I planned to read the back cover and perhaps a page or two as I had another book I intended to get to first. I ended up devouring this book in two separate readings over the course of a twenty-four hour period. The blurb on the front of the novel promises: A dark, fast-paced story of love, sex, abduction and murder, and the book certainly lives up to all those qualities.

The main character of the novel is Andrew Caruso, a man in his 50s who owns a sad little bookshop in Rome. His father was Italian and his mother Scottish, but Andrew manages to be neither. It’s 2008, and he’s lived in Rome now for decades. While he ‘fits’ in when it comes to adaptability, there’s a sense of impermanence to his life. This is expressed in the squalor of his neglected apartment (shared with a “half-starved” cat) and his complete indifference to his appearance. Even though he barely scrapes a living from the bookshop, he’s too kind to chase away the occasional shoplifter.

Andrew lives in a world of dilapidated, permeable borders. The books inside the shop, on the shelves and outside the shop, on the bargain table, are fluid categories, the membrane between his home and his place of work as punched with holes as a long-distance train ticket. Half the time, he doesn’t know where he’s put things and it’s a source of constant niggling disquiet that something important–but what?-might have gone missing.

Andrew is working on an article about one of his past lovers, a passionate explosive young Belgium photographer named Michel who killed himself back in 1983. Andrew has ‘moved on’ from the relationship, but he’s still deeply wounded by the affair. Searching through a box of Michel’s possessions brings back painful memories, but then he discovers some packages of photos he was unaware of. Pushy neurotic art director Daniela dell’ Orto comes up with the idea of holding an exhibition of Michel’s work. And from this point, things go rapidly downhill….

The narrative goes back and forth over time with each section focusing on one of the handful of characters. In 1983, for example, a young hustler named Alex has a close brush with violent death when his older lover, Bruno, is brutally murdered. Alex takes shelter at the home of former actor, the Birdman, a strange character who lives in the Piazza Vittorio. Gradually the segments of the novel show the connections between the characters, and the mystery of the photos deepens. This doling out of information makes the novel intense and an addictive read. At the same time, there’s this nagging feeling that this is a yarn–mainly due to the novel’s structure, but it’s a yarn in the best sense of the word. Any Human Face is described as “part thriller, part love story,” and while I wasn’t crazy about the love part, the story is far richer than a thriller. Yes there is a faceless power structure pulling the strings behind the scenes, but this is a book that primarily examines the shifting relationships between its characters as they cope with corruption, fear and monolithic abuse of power. How does the average person endure when they are surrounded by corruption? Well if you are lucky, you have family and friends you can count on. If you’re alone, you’re screwed.

Any Human Face tracks the way in which some characters mature or disintegrate. Alex, for example, morphs from being a selfish hustler to a decent human being, and in the process he learns to appreciate the generosity of caring relationships.  The novel also explores the idea that fringe-dwellers like the Birdman are quite aware of the darker, seamier side of life, but while they rub elbows with these elements, they manage to maintain some ethics in their personal behaviour. The Birdman dabbles in pornographic photography, and yet he is one of the kindest people in the book. He’s a marvellous friend, generous, forgiving and unselfish, yet he hardly fits into any sort of acceptable societal rules. He’s the one character who immediately grasps just what’s going on and the dangers involved of plunging in too deep. Here’s the Birdman warning Alex:

 “I don’t mean decent, respectable working-class homes like yours. I’m talking about our ruling classes. Bureaucrats, pimps, upholders of the faith. The worst kind of scum, but they don’t know that because nobody has the nerve to tell them, and if they do they’re branded as mad, or bad. As I have been, to my cost.  I’m talking about people with money and power.”

In one part of the novel, Andrew engages in anonymous wanking via an internet video, and while it’s a pseudo encounter with very little risk, it’s bleak, lonely and ultimately unsatisfying. Andrew catches himself trying to read the book titles in the background behind the anonymous man who’s wanking for an unknown audience.  There’s an emptiness to the experience that echoes through Andrew’s life. Any Human Face is a novel of connections and contrasts–anonymous sex and pornographic photographs, a missing girl snatched from the streets of Rome, sex and power, sex and vulnerability, human beings who use and exploit each other and relationships that endure.

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