crime fiction

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith

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The Cuckoo's Calling Robert Galbraith

I use Grammarly for English proofreading because they’re not going to win their fight over there.

Cormoran Strike is a military vet turned private detective who has had a recent string of bad luck – between crippling financial trouble and parting with his fiance, his world is in an emotional upheaval.  After a temporary secretary, Robin, bowls into his life and he is given the high profile case of solving the assumed-suicide of a young model, Strike’s life gets even more complicated.

I am ashamed to say that I had only heard of this book after it was leaked that J. K. Rowling wrote it.  Because she was so disappointed that the sales were going to skyrocket based on her name and not the novel’s own merit, I decided to give it some time before I read it.  Honestly though, this book or potential crime series would have taken off without her pseudonym being revealed.  Strike, like so many Harry Potter characters, is a well-drawn, three-dimensional protagonist who continuously draws you in and captures your attention.  Robin, who might have been a stereotypical secretary and assistant, steals the show as the mystery-solving assistant who just won’t leave Strike’s side.  She finds herself instantly drawn to the gruff man and to his chosen career, but she struggles internally with the expectations her new fiance has for her and her career prospects.

Perhaps what I loved most about The Cuckoo’s Calling was that while it contains so many of the same tropes you would expect in British crime fiction, Galbraith/Rowling manages to write it in her same magical way.  There is a quality to her writing that is nearly fantastical, even when she is talking about the mundane, that lifts the words right off the page.  While I am not sure she achieved this same quality in The Casual Vacancy (a book I gave a miss), she nails it in The Cuckoo’s Calling.  Her writing is simple and accessible, but the story never feels boring or tired.

The Cuckoo’s Calling moves at a rapid pace, keeping you plugged into the case and the strange relationships that filled up the dead model’s life.  While the central mystery is intriguing, the real magic of The Cuckoo’s Calling lies in the draw of Strike and Robin’s platonic friendship and chemistry, along with their individual lives.  While I have yet to hear of an announced sequel, I would gladly read more Cormoran Strike novels.

Dissolution – C.J. Sansom

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C. J. Sansom DissolutionHenry VIII is now Head of the Church of England and Reformation is in full swing.  Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer who is particularly liked by Thomas Cromwell and works with him on various cases.  When a monastery inspector is found decapitated in the monastery’s kitchen, Cromwell dispatches Shardlake to find the murderer and to get the Abbot to agree to close the monastery down.  Though a hunchback, Shardlake shoulders the extreme responsibility and makes his way out of London with his young assistant.

This book was recommended to me by a local bookshop in Grantown-on-Spey and it was a fantastic recommendation.  Though it takes place in the 16th century, the reader is almost instantly thrown back into that time, the scenes and characters painted so vividly you feel completely jarred out of reality.  When reading a historical fiction book, you want every little detail to feel tangible, and Sansom does that with great aplomb.  The concept of a hunchback lawyer solving crimes in the 1500s seemed a bit far out there to me, but I am glad that I gave the book a read.

Shardlake himself is a very likeable, sympathetic character.  Self-deprecating because of his hunchback, you never are asked to pity him but you find yourself wanting to give him a hug so that he knows he is loved.  He values his intelligence and knows his strengths, but especially because of his place in time sees his physical deformity as an impediment to the possibility of real love.  It’s especially this little detail that makes you feel attached to Shardlake and makes him incredibly alive on the page.  He is a character of his time, and yet his growing understanding of what really fuels the dissolution of the monasteries and other acts of the Reformation under Cromwell makes his thinking feel a bit more modern, allowing the current reader to connect with him yet again.

Even the “side” acts on the page are well-drawn and fleshed out, and the who-done-it of the story has a great number of twists and turns.  I devoured this big book over a few days (in front of a roaring wood fire in the Highlands) and could not put it down.  Every time I picked it up I stepped back into the pages so completely that to stop reading it, to stop being in that Sussex monastery with Shardlake, almost felt wrong.  C.J. Sansom has done something incredible with Dissolution.

Rating: 9/10

Ian Rankin’s 10 Writing Tips

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On Monday, Most Wanted publishing is announcing Ian Rankin’s newest book title and revealing the cover.  With a new maybe-Rebus on the way, I wanted to celebrate tonight with Ian Rankin’s 10 Writing Tips.  I love the bluntness of his advice, and that he recognizes there’s a lot of luck involved with getting published (look at how many publishers rejected J.K. Rowling after all). What do you think of the Scottish Crime King’s tips?

Ian Rankin Writing Tips

Image Text:

  1. Read lots.
  2. Write lots.
  3. Learn to be self-critical.
  4. Learn what criticism to accept.
  5. Be persistent.
  6. Don’t give up.
  7. Have a story worth telling.
  8. Know the market.
  9. Get lucky.
  10. Stay lucky.

Source: Guardian

Heat Wave – Richard Castle

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Heat Wave Richard CastleTV meets novel reality with Heat Wave, the book Richard Castle writes while following Kate Beckett.  Heat Wave introduces us to Nikki Heat, a tough, guarded NYC homicide detective.  A local real estate tycoon is thrown off his balcony, and Nikki must rush to find the killer before he takes out anyone else, all while being shadowed by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Jameson Rook.  Rook is writing a piece on the NYPD, but has taken a liking for Heat.  She finds herself unwillingly attracted to the mischievous reporter, but how long can she stay distanced from him?

In the last month, my husband discovered and then “forced” me to watch all 4 1/2 seasons of “Castle” with him.  In about a month.  So after binging on the fun Nathan Fillion show, I decided to finally pick up the first in the Nikki Heat series.  These are all written by a ghostwriter but sold as Richard Castle;  there are even cute asides in the acknowledgements and Fillion appears on the back cover.  I didn’t expect a lot from a TV show tie-in, but Heat Wave is fun and entertaining, pulling you along with the characters and their crime solving goal.

I have to admit, if Richard Castle really wrote these I would expect them to be better.  There isn’t a specific problem with Heat Wave, it just is a bit simplistic and somewhat poorly written.  While the characters are fairly rounded and the tone matches what I expect from Richard Castle, they certainly aren’t an addition to some of the better crime fiction out there.

There are some funny little inclusions in the books, things that Castle experiences with the crew.  For instance, in the second novel, Naked Heat, it features a body snatching from a morgue vehicle just as it happens in the season 2 premiere.  You also get Detectives Ryan and Esposito in the form of Ochoa and Raley (though Raley might be a bit tougher than his TV show counterpart), and ME Lauren Parry who is a lot like Lanie.  Frankly, it’s pretty much what I would expect from Castle; including his friends while making subtle character changes but infusing them with the same brand of humor.  And it is just like Castle to make himself a Pulitzer Prize winner (twice) and Beckett’s Heat a little less guarded with herself.  Man can dream, right?

Heat Wave is definitely geared towards fans of the show, but may not stand well on its own legs.  That, I think, is where the tie-in fails.  It could have been a thick, substantial, gritty and fun novel to match what the TV show has told us about Richard Castle and his career.  Instead, there isn’t a lot to bring in the more discerning crime fiction crowd, though the book is fast-paced and very visual.

But, if you love “Castle” it is definitely worth a read and it’s quick enough that you’ll be finished within a day or two.

Rating: 6/10

The Blackhouse – Peter May

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The Blackhouse Peter MayEdinburgh-based detective Fin Macleod is reeling from personal tragedy when he is sent back to his childhood hometown of the Isle of Lewis.  There in his quiet town, he must help investigate a murder that is eerily similar to one he was investigating in Edinburgh several months before.  But Macleod has bad memories of his life on Lewis, and as the story moves, we learn just what Macleod was escaping when he left Lewis 18 years before.

The first in the Lewis Man trilogy, I was expecting great things from Peter May’s novel.  Unfortunately, the book only really came together in the last twenty or so pages, leaving me wondering just what he was trying to accomplish through most of the book.  While The Blackhouse looks and sounds like a crime novel, it really is more of a character-driven drama that just happens to center on a detective.  The bits that would fall more into the crime genre were cliché, almost carbon copies of things Ian Rankin and other Scottish crime authors have already done.  Rocked by personal tragedy? Check.  Bad marriage?  Check.  Hometown he wants to forget?  Check.  First novel includes a crime that is personal and vindictive against the detective?  Check.  Sound a bit like Knots and Crosses to you?  Except Fin Macleod is mostly a shallow, one-dimensional character that hardly grabs your attention or your sympathy, until that last portion of the book.

In fact, most of the characters in The Blackhouse felt contrived and as if they were cardboard cut-outs.  The only character with real dimension was the landscape of Lewis.  The long, florid descriptions provided you with a very detailed visual of what the treeless island looks like.  The only issue is that the book is not a travelogue, though so many passages are dedicated to the landscape that you might believe it is meant to be.  I found myself skipping over the landscape portions after the beginning of the book, as it only stalled the momentum of the novel.  While there are some authors who have a talent of making landscape come alive, May was not particularly adept at this task.

Another portion of the book that completely threw me was the narrative style.  While it opens in third-person and follows the present-day Fin on his journey back to his past, there is an inexplicable and unexplained shift into first person describing his childhood memories.  I am sure May was going for something artistic, but it reads more as someone who doesn’t know how to write or construct a novel.  I have never seen a book that presents emotional insight into a character in both third and first person, and it was so jarring that it distracted me for the rest of the novel.  These past insights were never explained – was it meant to be a journal?  Further thoughts from Fin?  It is never explained and never really makes sense.

In all, The Blackhouse had some great character insight that finally paid off in the final pages of the book, but failed to keep you involved until then.  The overall novel read like a first-time author and self-published on Kindle.  Except he’s not and it’s not.  Between the glaring stylistic missteps and the overdone story elements, The Blackhouse was a novel that fell far short of its potential.

Rating: 5/10

Buy The Blackhouse from Amazon.com

Standing in Another Man’s Grave – Ian Rankin

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Standing in Another Man’s Grave follows Ian Rankin’s now-retired DI Rebus, who has not given up his need to solve cases.  Working as a civilian with other retired cops in the Cold Case Unit, Rebus meets a woman who claims her daughter was the first victim in a string of murders along Scotland’s A9 motorway.  Rebus, ever a man who loves a damsel in distress, decides to look into the case.  In so doing, he begins to uncover some interesting facts about the current disappearance of a young girl.  He throws himself back in with Siobhan Clarke, and worms his way onto the active investigation.  Wary of Rebus’s presence is another Rankin protagonist, Inspector Malcolm Fox of the Complaints.  Fox cannot believe Rebus is a clean cop, and when Rebus thinks about signing on to active duty, Fox thinks it’s his duty to find all the dirt of Rebus and his strange relationship with mobster Big Ger.

When Standing in Another Man’s Grave was announced, I was excited about the prospect of Fox and Rebus going toe to toe.  There are plenty of our favorite authors who have multiple beloved characters, and wouldn’t we all like to watch these characters meet?  By the earlier released log line, I assumed this was a book from Fox, and that Rebus would be a minor figure.  Paint me astonished, because upon reading it the book was much the other way around.  The majority of the narrative follows Rebus on the case, and we only get a small glimpse into what Fox thinks of this rather old-fashioned cop.  And that glimpse is rather scathing.

Rankin explains in the afterword that he had never really been done with Rebus, but the required retirement age in Scotland had painted him into a corner with Rebus’s employment.  Because John Rebus would never become a private detective nor would he be able to find crimes to solve while not on active duty, Rebus was retired.  But then Rankin heard about the Cold Case Unit employing retired cops, and even better, the age restriction being raised.  Suddenly, Rebus could come back and back he came.

I was mostly happy with the return of Rebus.  He got up to his old tricks, but painted against the backdrop of Siobhan’s career choices and Fox’s opinions, it was hard not to feel that Rebus was a bit out of place in modern crime solving.  Which is what I think Rankin wanted to do, but, not giving anything away, the ending really cemented that maybe Rebus has gone too far to prove he is still relevant and can deliver results.  Going forward with any new Rebus, it would be interesting to see if Rankin would tame him a bit, allow him to adjust to the newer way of doing things.  Otherwise, the reality of Rebus staying in the force would seem a bit stretched, and Rankin has been fairly fastidious about being realistic.

As for the meeting of the minds, it was rather intriguing to see Fox set against the backdrop of Rebus.  Having read both The Complaints and The Impossible Dead, Fox is a character I thought I knew quite well.  When things are told from his side of the story, you automatically assume guilt on the part of the cops, and you know why Fox goes after them so hard.  But when Fox comes after Rebus, and you know Rebus is innocent, it puts a whole new spin on the view of a narrator.  After all, from Fox’s perspective, this is a retired cop interested in rejoining the ranks who still works for the police department, has biweekly nights out with former mobster Big Ger Cafferty, and by all accounts, saved Cafferty’s life.  But we know that Rebus hates Cafferty and that his motives are pure, even if his methods aren’t.  Standing in Another Man’s Grave brings these two protagonists against each other and says a lot more about the respective characters when the reader thought they knew enough already.

As a crime novel, I found Rankin’s newest offering to be mostly on par with his previous works.  My only real complaint was the end of the book, and the issue was that Rebus was so strong-handed that I felt it cheapened and lessened the criminal’s confession.  However, having another Rebus and seeing that there is still a lot more to his story makes my day, and I will continue to read any new offerings.  (It gave me chills to see “Rebus is Back” right there on the cover.)

Rating: 7.5/10

Gods & Beasts – Denise Mina

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Gods and Beasts is the third novel featuring DS Alex Morrow and follows her investigation into a pre-Christmas post office shooting and robbery.  While she tries to unravel the mystery, Alex just wants to be home with her new twin boys and husband.  Woven in is the mysterious young man who cared for a boy while his grandfather was shot, increasing amounts of police bribery, and a corrupt MP fighting scandalous allegations.

Mina is known for her deep, psychological crime fiction, and I expected Gods and Beasts to be on par or better than End of the Wasp Season.  I am afraid this newest installment fell a little short of its predecessor.  It is several pages before we even see Alex Morrow, our protagonist, and the lack of focus on her makes the book feel very full.  There are countless characters all involved in various schemes, and even I had a hard time remembering which names fit into which story.  The entire MP storyline could have been lifted from the book without a lot of bother.  It only sheds light on the major ending twist; a twist that could have been delivered another way easily.  Instead, Mina’s desire to delve into the political feels misplaced and could have been more powerful in another novel.

One thing that worked very well in Gods and Beasts was Morrow’s new motherhood.  Mina is one of the few crime authors I’ve read that has had her main character be personally successful.  In fact, during Bloody Scotland, Mina mentioned that she wanted “to write a cop who is very happy at home, just to be outrageous.”  Morrow’s desire to be at home, her appreciation for her “second-chance at motherhood”, and her desire to push forward in her life were quite refreshing.  She even admits her familial connection with half-brother mobster Danny to her bosses, just to prove she isn’t ashamed of who she is.  I loved that about her, the strength it must have taken.  DS Alex Morrow has shown one of the better character progressions in Scottish crime fiction, and Mina shows great restraint in not mucking it up for drama.

Gods and Beasts is still a fantastic read, even if it did have a high standard to live up to with End of the Wasp Season.  While it lacks the same depth in its criminals that we have gotten more often from Mina, she does bring a new twist to a genre that constantly redefines itself in Scotland.  Now if we could just have gotten rid of Kenny Gallagher MP, the story would be tight.

Rating: 7/10