Reviews

UNSUB (Unsub #1), by Meg Gardiner

I saw the review for Unsub on a fellow blogger’s site some time ago – I forget who it was, or I would thank them properly for showcasing one of the best thrillers I remember reading in ages. This novel, while not being for the faint of heart, is a compelling journey into the mind of a cold-blooded serial killer and of the law enforcement officers hunting him, in a hazardous cat-and-mouse game that favors the battle of wits between the two opposing forces rather than indulging in the more gruesome details of the crimes themselves, which was the main reason I stopped watching shows like Criminal Minds when the “gore factor” became more important than the psychological analysis, which I find much more fascinating.

In the ’90s, the area around San Francisco was the hunting grounds for a serial killer nicknamed The Prophet because of the enigmatic messages he left on the scenes: detective Mack Hendrix gave everything he had in the hunt for the killer and emerged from the battle devastated in body and mind, while the unsub – acronym for Unknown Subject – was never captured and seemed to vanish into thin air. Now, after twenty years, new murder scenes following the Prophet’s same m.o. are appearing again, and police officers are wondering if their killer has resurfaced or if the killings are the work of a copycat.  Caitlin Hendrix, Mack’s daughter and a police officer herself, is determined to find the Prophet, both for the sake of her city and to restore the good name of her father, who is seen as unhinged and unreliable. As the victims’ number climbs, the Prophet establishes a sort of direct communication with Caitlin, with the intent of drawing her into a trap that will destroy her as it happened with her father, while the young police officer tries to stay one step ahead of the killer and to win the deadly game.

The phrase “it was impossible to put the book down” can be found so often that it somewhat lost its impact, and that’s the main reason I usually avoid using it, but in this case it’s the perfect description of what UNSUB did to me: while at times it can be quite distressing because of the Prophet’s brutally arranged displays of his work, it also offers some distance thanks to the emotional difference between the written word and a filmed scene, so that readers can concentrate on the actual clues and on the relentless – and often discouraging – efforts from law enforcement in preventing these crimes and catching their perpetrator. Meg Gardiner draws you into the story in such a way that, just like her protagonist, you need to see the end, see where the deceptively arranged clues and the many twists and turns will lead – and hope that at the end justice will emerge victorious.

I liked Caitlin as a character, mostly because she is flawed and is going around with a huge chip on her shoulder, but her determination in getting at the root of it all and finally catching the killer is strong, stronger than the despair that comes from seeing how the killer keeps eluding the chase: no matter how many hard hits she takes, she keeps trying to move forward knowing that to win the fight she must be smarter than her enemy. Caitlin is not depicted as some kind of super-hero, and it’s her humanity and imperfections that make her so compelling as a character and that kept me glued to the book to see where and how the story would end. And let me tell you that it did not end in any predictable way…

The Prophet, for all his inhuman focus on making his victims suffer and the police feel inadequate and lost, is an equally fascinating character, mostly because he appears quite lucid in his madness and very proficient in advance planning, not unlike a consummate chess player who’s able to plot for several moves ahead in the game. His ability to predict how the victims or the police will behave makes him a terrible adversary indeed, quite far from the mindless killer looking only for a blood-soaked series of murders.  There is also the added factor of his choice of messages and murder scenes that take inspiration from a well-known work of literature – one I’m not going to mention to leave the surprise of discovery intact: this element was of particular interest for me because I studied the source material back in my school days, and I was intrigued by the discovery of how certain well-remembered passages were tied with the Prophet’s work and his goals.

UNSUB is a dark story, no doubt about it, and there are moments when it becomes thoroughly ominous and disturbing, but at the same time it feels very authentic – the main reason it turns out to be so immersive. I would not mind seeing it turned into a movie because it possesses all the right elements for a breath-stealing one, but lacking that there are two more published book in this series that promise to be equally riveting: having just discovered Meg Gardiner’s talent, I intend to explore more of her works as soon as possible.

My Rating:

Reviews

LATER, by Stephen King

My years-long negative streak with Stephen King’s books seems to be definitely over: the last few books of his I read all turned out to be as engaging as the stories I used to enjoy, and Later is only the last example in my lineup of positive reads.

Even though it’s a shorter story when compared with King’s usual production, Later sports all the elements that I’ve come to expect from the Master of Horror: this novel might not be classified as his usual horror creation, since there are not many blood-chilling elements in it, and there is also a mystery/crime component added that changes a little the expected parameters, but in the end this proved to be an entertaining, page-turning read, and one I enjoyed very much.

Jamie Conklin sees dead people: not exactly ghosts as was the case for the young protagonist of Shyamalan’s movie alluded to here with a sort of tongue-in-cheek humor, but rather people newly departed and on their way to the Great Beyond. Jamie is able to see and hear them (although after a while their voice fades, as do they before disappearing forever) and to ask them questions to which the dead are compelled to reply truthfully.  Jamie’s single mother runs a literary agency and she’s able to stay afloat – barely – thanks to the best selling author of a successful series: when the man suddenly dies just as he was outlining his last novel, the one where all the mysteries hinted at in previous books would be revealed, Tia Conklin needs Jamie to contact the deceased author to get all the information he can gather on the story, so she can ghost-write it and keep the company in business and financial health.

The trouble starts when Liz Dutton, Tia’s former girlfriend and a cop with too many problems and not enough scruples, decides to use Jamie’s talent to discover where a serial bomber, who just took his own life, did hide his latest explosive package: something ancient and evil rides on the shoulders of the man and starts haunting Jamie, forcing him to resort to a harrowing ritual to get rid of the creature. That is, until the boy needs the thing’s help against Liz when the dishonorably discharged ex-cop kidnaps Jamie for one last, heinous act…

Very few authors can successfully filter the problems and inconsistencies of the world through the eyes of a child as Stephen King does: unlike other protagonists of his stories, Jamie is not shunned, bullied or otherwise made to suffer by peers or adults, but he does witness his mother’s struggles to survive in an unsettled economy and through a difficult relationship, all the while dealing with a “gift” that sets him apart from other kids, forcing him to keep secrets, and ultimately places him in danger. Jamie’s voice, as he grows up over the years from childhood to young adulthood, feels true and natural and for this reason it’s easy to connect to him and see the world through his eyes: innate resilience helps him navigate through the difficulties posed by his peculiar talent, particularly in the instances where his innocence is threatened. This is another theme dear to King, the way in which the adult world (or the supernatural) can rob children of that innocence, exposing them too early to situations that require them to grow before their time: in Jamie’s case this is compounded by Liz’s relentless focus first and greed later, so that he’s forced to come into contact with the darker aspects of the human mind, which more often than not are far more  frightening than actual supernatural horror. 

Young Jamie is able to find some balance in this very unusual existence thanks to the certainty of his mother’s love – even though he’s quite aware of her flaws both as a parent and an adult – and the guidance of old Professor Burkett, the closest thing to a father figure he can depend on: the relationship between Burkett and Jamie, both in life and after the old man’s death, reminded me somehow of the dynamic explored in Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, one of the short stories from King’s If It Bleeds collection.  The somewhat cranky professor, like many of Stephen King’s memorable figures, is the one providing Jamie with a stable anchor and a perspective that helps the boy focus on the problems at hand rather than his fear, and offers a delightful dynamic between wide-eyed youth and grumpy old age that is one of the author’s trademarks.

There might be nothing new, narratively speaking, in this novel, but it does not matter much in the face of the story’s easy flow, which is carried by the constant curiosity engendered by Jamie hinting at other developments to be disclosed, indeed, later: the young protagonist keeps his audience captivated like serialized novels did in the latter part of the 19th Century, by promising further revelations yet to come.  This choice led me to wonder weather Jamie might be considered an unreliable narrator – either embellishing or changing events to suit them to the overall flavor of his story: that’s a doubt that surfaced for me once a detail of Jamie’s origin is revealed, because he himself first offers an explanation for the chain of events, only to deny its accuracy in the next page.

This detail (I will not spoil it, but if you’ve read the book you know what I am referring to) does not affect the story in any way – and I’ve kept wondering what it should mean in the overall scheme of it – but rather offers an off-key note to the ending which, in my opinion, would have stood quite well on its own without this added… baggage.  Still, Later feels like vintage King, indeed, and I would recommend it to his longtime fans – and not only them.

My Rating:

Reviews

DEAD SPACE, by Kali Wallace

After my engrossing first encounter with Kali Wallace’s previous book, Salvation Day, I had great expectations for her new novel and I’m happy to report they were all met, if not surpassed: the synopsis made me think about a delightfully tense SF movie from the ‘80s, Outland, and there were some similar vibes here, mostly due to the background in which the story takes place, although Dead Space moves in quite a different direction.

Hester used to be a gifted AI expert, part of a deep space expedition toward Titan, where the exploration of Saturn’s biggest satellite would be assisted by Vanguard, an evolved form of artificial intelligence capable of learning and adapting, Hester’s ultimate achievement. Unfortunately the Symposium, the science ship built for the mission, had been infiltrated by extremists who managed to sabotage it and kill most of the science team. Hester survived, although devastated both mentally and physically: the left side of her body is now mostly prosthetics, implanted by the doctors of Parthenope Enterprises, the corporation to which she is now in deep debt. To repay it, Hester has accepted to work as security analyst on the mining colony of Hygiea – a thankless, menial job that crushes her already defeated spirit and misuses her brilliant mind.

When one of her Symposium friends, another survivor of the disaster now working in a different mining outpost, is killed in mysterious circumstances shortly after having sent Hester a weird message, she joins the investigative team to discover what truly happened to her old colleague David and finds herself embroiled in a spiral of conflicting clues and unsettling revelations that is only the surface layer of a deeper, far more dangerous conspiracy, and she will need to rekindle all her old skills and determination if she wants to survive and avoid disaster on a massive scale.

Like Salvation Day, this novel offers a view of the future that’s far from comforting: the drive for space seems to have been taken over by big corporations whose sole purpose is to exploit the resources in the Solar System, gaining as much profit as possible with the minimum of expenditure in the areas of workers’ comfort or safety. It does not take much, as Wallace describes the mining outposts disseminated throughout the Belt, to compare this background with Earth’s mining towns of old, where the miners’ wages were spent almost entirely in company-owned shops and utilities, therefore creating a vicious circle of legalized indentured slavery.  Hygiea and Nimue (the site of the investigation for David’s murder) represent this set-up in dreary relief, so that it’s easy to picture ill-lighted, barely maintained tunnels, none too clean, inhabited by a gloomy humanity whose sole, desperate goal is to beat the system of diminishing returns that keeps them tied to these balls of rock. 

There is a claustrophobic quality to the story – which seems to be Kali Wallace’s skillful trademark – that works hand in hand with Hester’s despondent attitude, and even if she is not prone to self-pity, one can feel the quiet despair that has turned her once-brilliant personality into the sharp, cutting posture of someone who feels detached from humanity, sometimes even her own:

[…] didn’t stop people from looking at me and seeing only the metal.

It doesn’t take much, however, to bring her out of this self-imposed numbness: once the investigation into David’s murder starts and progresses from the first appearance of a personal attack from a co-worker to something more complex, and with far-reaching implications, once the dangers pile up and Hester’s life is threatened at every step of the way, she is finally able to wake up her old self, the one that was smothered by post-traumatic stress and the thankless job she has been trapped into. When the real Hester emerges, we are finally able to see the intelligent, intense person who dreamed of exploring a new world and dared to create something amazing and revolutionary as Vanguard, the person we see in the brief flashbacks before the Symposium disaster.  What happens on Nimue, as ghastly and horrifying as it is, is the systemic shock she needs to finally process her grief and loss and reclaim the keen scientific mind that had propelled her in the past.

Even though Hester’s journey is front and center, there are a few other interesting characters peopling the story, starting from David – her murdered friend – whom we see in the flashbacks and through the descriptions of his coworkers on Nimue: like Hester, the before and after personalities are as different as day and night, stressing once more how the Symposium tragedy shattered these lives, not only through physical damage or because of the heavy debt incurred with medical expenses, but above all for the death of their dreams of advancing science, of learning the mysteries of the cosmos, of making a difference for humanity.  It’s also worth mentioning the Nimue staff which, in pure whodunit style, share a common lack of reliability that enhances the sense of foreboding and danger that permeates the investigation from the very start.

And again, Hester’s partners in the investigative team are quite intriguing, particularly the unit’s leader Adisa, whose Martian origin constitutes a handicap: some time before the Mars settlers rebelled against their inhuman living conditions and the revolt was stamped out with ruthless efficiency, while the powers that be chose to lay the blame for the war on the hapless colonists, who are now the object of scorn and racial slurs.  I was intrigued by these hints about the conflict, just as I was by the apparently self-effacing Adisa who, when push comes to shove, exhibits some very unexpected abilities, but unfortunately the pacing of the story did not allow more than a few, tantalizing glimpses, and that’s my only small disappointment with this novel because I wanted more and would not have minded a deeper digression into this particular topic.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the breathless, adrenaline-rich new story that Kali Wallace gave us with her latest work, a well-crafted mix of thriller, science fiction and social commentary that offers many layers of character exploration while keeping you entranced with a deadly puzzle to solve. Highly recommended.

My Rating:

Reviews

TRUNK MUSIC (Harry Bosch #5), by Michael Connelly

The more I move forward with this series, the more I’m glad that I started reading it propelled by my enjoyment of the TV show it inspired: not only it offers a welcome digression from a steady “diet” of science fiction and fantasy, therefore helping me avoid reader fatigue, it also showcases an engaging character whose personal journey is still ongoing as he deals with interesting murder cases, the complex social microcosm of a big city like Los Angeles and the even more convoluted political ramifications between law enforcement agencies.

Returning to work after the compulsory leave of absence described in the previous book, Harry Bosch is eager to go back to solving homicides, and the first one he’s called to investigate looks like a mob hit: a body is found in the trunk of an abandoned Rolls Royce, and once the victim’s identity is revealed (a small-time producer of porn movies with a side occupation as a money launderer) everything seems to point toward organized crime.  Some details, however, don’t add up and the investigation leads Bosch and colleagues along several paths, both in L.A. and in Las Vegas, where the victim was a frequent visitor: it’s here that the detective makes an unexpected encounter with someone from his past, a chance meeting that is fraught with uncomfortable memories and unrepressed emotions. As the hunt for the killer becomes more complicated Bosch faces a web of misdirections and red herrings – as does the reader – but nothing, not even a false accusation of having planted evidence, will distract him from following his leads with the usual dogged determination, until he solves the case.

In my review of the previous book in the series I spoke of a turning point for the main character, and here the differences in personality and approach to situations are indeed remarkable: Harry Bosch is still relentless in his pursuit of the truth, and he’s still prone to ignoring the rules when they clash with his methods, but while in the past he might have looked possessed by an inner darkness, now he’s more at peace with himself and this attitude reflects on the way he deals with people. It’s possible that having finally solved his mother’s murder he gave himself the permission to be more human, to be happy and to reach out to other people: this new approach is evident in his relationship with his old-time partner Edgar and with the new one assigned to the team, Kiz Rider, who is a brilliant, on-the-rise detective. Rider, and Lieutenant Grace Billets, Bosch’s new chief, are welcome additions to a story that was begging for a few female figures of substance: in particular I was happy for the arrival of Billets because I enjoyed her TV character very much, and because she marks a huge difference from the previous commander, since she is stern and tough but also knows how to give some slack to her detectives when it’s necessary to get things done.

While this “new” Bosch still indulges in his lone-wolf attitude at times, here in Trunk Music we see how he’s able to work with a team – of which he has been given command with a show of faith in his skills as a coordinator – and to ask for the cooperation of other people instead of getting it literally at gunpoint as he used to do in the past: it’s as if he’s been trying to rebuild himself, just as he’s now rebuilding the house that was wrecked by the earthquake in the previous book, and the parallel about new beginnings extends also to his private life, where the chance encounter I mentioned before leads to a momentous change that sees him involved in a stable relationship.  One of the reasons I’m enjoying this series so far is Connelly’s ability of showing his character’s evolution through the experiences he deals with: in this book he faces his own feelings for a woman from his past and comes to admit his vulnerability where she is concerned, but at the same time he’s able to avoid being distracted by those same feelings in his search for the truth. What comes out is a more rounded – and more human – character than the one presented at the beginning of the series, and makes him more relatable and sympathetic.

Of course the investigative parts of the story are no less intriguing than the characters peopling it: the old-fashioned detective activity is still present, of course, with witness questioning, search for connections and so forth, but some details of the forensic angle start to come into play more than they did before – which never fails to intrigue me because I’m totally fascinated by the scientific side of police work. And in this particular case there are several clues that seem marginal at first, only to be later revealed as pivotal in the solution of the case: nothing is left to chance here, there are no hanging threads that end up nowhere, there is instead a fascinating organization at the roots of these stories that leads the reader, alongside the detectives, toward the final revelation and the surprises awaiting there, because there are no foregone conclusions here and the sustained, never slacking pace of the story carries you from step to step while keeping you totally immersed in its progress.

An important consideration, that became more noticeable in Trunk Music, is how the books and the TV series they inspired are similar but never the same: since I encountered these stories in their televised form first, I thought that the “excitement factor” might be diminished by my foreknowledge of the way they went, but this fifth book confirmed how the TV scripts changed many of the pieces on the playing field, allowing me to enjoy the books because of the marked differences between the two mediums. Which leads me to believe that I have still many surprises awaiting me down the road…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE CROSSING PLACES (Ruth Galloway #1), by Elly Griffiths

I discovered this thriller series thanks to fellow blogger Sarah at Brainfluff, and before launching into this review I have to thank her for the post that piqued my curiosity and led me to learn more about this intriguing character.

Dr. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archeologist living on the Norfolk coast, in a bleak but suggestive area of salt marshes, strong winds and compelling Iron Age relics. In her late thirties, Ruth teaches at the nearby university and lives alone with her two cats in a cottage facing the boundary between land and sea: hers is a quiet, contented life, her seclusion a choice rather than the product of circumstances.  The quiet routine is one day shattered by the visit of Chief Inspector Nelson, tasked with the investigation of a young girl’s disappearance and obsessed by a similar case from the past, one he was unable to solve: the discovery of human bones on a nearby beach compelled Nelson to seek Ruth’s help in finding out if they belong to the missing girl.

Ruth’s examination brings her to the conclusion that the remains are from the Iron Age, but still Nelson’s case haunts her, particularly because someone – probably the abductor of the first child – keeps writing taunting letters to the inspector, using terms that only someone versed in archeology would know. The parallel between the Iron Age ritual sacrifices and the mystery of the kidnapped girls preys on Ruth’s mind and she finds herself progressively more embroiled in the riddle, to the point that her life might be in danger…

I enjoyed The Crossing Places quite a bit, thanks to its many unique elements: first there is the isolated, windswept background of the Norfolk coast salt marshes – I searched the web for more information and the pictures I found showed that despite the apparent bleakness there is a sort of… savage beauty to the place, and I was able to understand Ruth’s fascination with the area, and her desire to remain immersed in such a changeable environment.  This is a very atmospheric story and the salt marshes are the perfect setting for a mystery encompassing several years and developing along a very circuitous route riddled with false trails and red herrings, not unlike the treacherous paths running along the marshes.

And then there is Ruth, a very unusual heroine for the genre: she is a quiet, reserved person who has learned to deal with the vagaries of life and built herself an existence tailored on her own preferences, uncaring of the conventions and requirements of society and family. Composed and almost withdrawn, she is not however the kind of person who allows others to rule her choices, and therefore the perfect foil for the brusquely driven, almost overbearing Nelson, with whom she establishes a relationship that’s mostly based on mutual respect and the acknowledgment that their differences can complement each other rather than clash. This is portrayed quite well in the dovetailing of current police investigation and archeological research, which are not so different after all, as someone says at some point: for Ruth it’s a brief step from her study of the Iron Age girl’s remains, and the reasons for her burial in that particular site, to the burning curiosity to learn the fate of the missing girls – she knows that in each case they were sacrificed, one because of religious beliefs and the others because of someone’s twisted goals, and her inquisitive mind needs to put all the pieces together to form a complete picture.   But what I liked most in Ruth’s character is that while she acknowledges that reaching one’s middle age carries its own load of regrets and missed opportunities, she totally owns her choices and has found a way to turn them into a kind of existence she can be comfortable with, if not exactly happy.

The mystery at the core of the novel is an intriguing one, particularly as it focuses on the scenes from the point of view of a girl imprisoned in what looks like a cell, both expecting and dreading the infrequent visits of her captor: it’s clear from the start where those interludes are leading, just as it’s easy to figure out who the kidnapper/killer might be, because in spite of the false trails scattered here and there the clues appear to point in that direction, but that hardly matters because the fascinating aspect of this mystery lies in the foreboding and menacing flavor of the story, enhanced by the very peculiar background in which it’s set.

The Crossing Places is a good, if sometimes imperfect story: having checked, I discovered it’s the author’s debut novel, which helps me make allowances for some of the “blemishes” I encountered along the way and to hope that some of them will be straightened out in the next works.  At the start of the story we get Ruth’s physical description through one of the most abused ways, i.e. through the character looking into a mirror: I freely acknowledge that it’s one of my (too many…) pet peeves, but for some reason it never fails to bother me, because it speaks of a certain unwillingness to find other means to get that kind of description across. Then there is the detail about Ruth being slightly overweight, a detail too often repeated – to the point where it seems to define her in spite of her academical and personal achievements, as if she were more concerned with appearance than substance, in open contradiction with her otherwise well-balanced personality.

These are however minor disturbances, and they were not enough to prevent me from total immersion in the story or from looking for the next novels in the series, with the hope that some of the problems that afflict this book will be straightened out in the course of the journey.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE LAST COYOTE (Harry Bosch #4), by Michael Connelly

In my exploration of this crime/thriller series I have arrived at an important marker for the definition of Harry Bosch’s character, one where his past is explored in depth opening a window on how that past shaped his personality.

As The Last Coyote opens, Bosch is home on involuntary leave after he threw his superior officer through a glass wall: while his situation is being examined, he’s been remanded to a series of counseling sessions with the department’s psychiatrist, Dr. Hinojos, where he keeps resisting the doctor’s attempts at understanding what makes him tick. Feeling increasingly restless, despite being busy with trying to fix his house after a damaging earthquake, he decides to tackle a cold case that is very close and personal – his mother’s murder, which happened when he was a young boy, and is still unsolved. 

The investigation will not only compel Bosch to revisit the past with all its hurts, but most importantly will force him to face himself and understand why he is the person he is now – not to mention that, story-wise, this is a journey that provides many surprises for the reader as well: since I met this character through the TV version first, I thought I knew how events would move forward, but I was delighted to discover that, despite the similarities, there are many narrative threads that are completely different, so I’m certain that future books will offer as many unforeseen developments as this one did.

There is an interesting parallel here between Bosch’s house – marked for demolition since the earthquake undermined its foundations – and his present life: in previous books we saw him always pushing the boundaries and going out of his way to thumb his nose at people in authority, but now he has indeed crossed a dangerous line, and it hardly matters that his commanding officer is an inept bureaucrat with a penchant for stupid taunts, the fight that ended with the lieutenant flying through a glass wall might very well be the last straw in a long series of insubordinate stunts.  So, just as the house is condemned – no matter how much work Bosch puts into it – his whole career is in a precarious situation, and the decision of pursuing the investigation in his mother’s murder seems like the only element in his life he can control: until now we saw Bosch relentlessly seeking the truth for the victims of his cases, in this instance he does the same for himself and his mother.

The reason his mother’s murder is still a cold case some 35 years after the fact is two-fold: on one side there were not enough clues that would lead to a suspect, and on the other she was a hooker, which placed her very low on the scale of “worthy” subjects – this must be at the roots of Bosch’s personal philosophy concerning victims, that everybody counts, or nobody counts. His dogged determination to get to the roots of every case he’s assigned to must come from the realization that justice is not dealt impartially or fairly, and that a victim’s standing determines the level of energy poured into any given case.  What’s interesting here is that Bosch does not feel “tainted” by the knowledge of his mother’s profession, that even in his adult years he holds on to the awareness of her love for him; there is a sentence that sums up his feelings quite clearly and shows the depth of his sense of loss – and ultimately the vulnerability he tries to conceal from the world:

“I don’t blame her for anything. I blame the man who took her from me. […] All I know is that she did all she could to get me out of there.[…] She never stopped trying. She just ran out of time.”

As the investigation proceeds – revealing some unexpected ties into the Los Angeles political scene – so does Bosch’s journey of self-discovery thanks to Dr. Hinojos’ treatment: I really enjoyed the psychiatrist’s character because this is the first woman in the series who does not bend or break under the detective’s rough manners, but instead faces him head on and even forces him to look inside himself and dig for the truth. I hope this is the first in a hopefully long list of female characters who can be strong without being either a proverbial dark lady or a heartless operator, the indication that – narratively speaking – times are changing and moving toward a less biased point of view.

Story-wise, The Last Coyote offers a compelling look into Bosch’s investigation as the old clues are lined up and explored, leading toward interesting directions – and a few red herrings that made the final revelation even more remarkable. I enjoyed many of the twists scattered through the book, particularly the one where Bosch quite childishly uses his boss’ identity to mask his inquiries and get broader access, only to have this prank backfire in a spectacularly dramatic way.

This book has all the flavor of a turning point in the series: the past is finally dealt with, the damaged house, Bosch’s lair and refuge if you want, is torn down – there are many indications that the next volume will see some changes both in the main character and in the way he faces his job. Curiosity will certainly lead me to the next volume in the series in a very short while…

My Rating:

Reviews

SOME CHOOSE DARKNESS (Rory Moore/Lane Phillips #1), by Charlie Donlea

I became aware of this author’s work through the review Mogsy at Bibliosanctum posted for the second book of this series: intrigued by what I was reading, I searched for the series’ starter and found both an amazing thriller and a new writer to keep firmly on my radar.

Some Choose Darkness moves on two different temporal lines: the past, set between the years 1979 and 1981, and the present, alternating chapters from both timelines and building a sense of impending doom that compelled me to turn the pages at a very fast rate. Between the end of the ’70s and the start of the ’80s, a serial killer nicknamed “the Thief” preyed on young women in the Chicago area, and  several of them disappeared: we see their end through the eyes of the killer, who enjoys torturing his victims in a very gruesome manner, and we also follow the obsessive search for clues from a troubled woman, Angela Mitchell, who manages to uncover the killer’s identity. 

In the present, almost 40 years after the Thief was apprehended on the charge of murdering Angela, whose body was however never found, the killer is ready to be released on parole and since his lawyer just died, the case is shifted to the man’s daughter, Rory Moore, who normally works for the police as a forensic reconstructionist on cold cases. The Thief is convinced that Angela is still alive, and he asks Rory to continue the search for the woman started by her father: intrigued by the mystery she’s faced with, Rory launches on a journey of discovery not unlike the one that faced Angela as she pieced together the clues about the serial killer, and in both timelines the two women will face chilling discoveries…

Some Choose Darkness focuses more on the psychological aspects of the story (although there are enough twists and revelations to keep your adrenaline running high) and does so by following the path of the two center figures in both timelines, who share many similarities: Angela Mitchell is the typical suburban wife, with a nice house and a caring husband, but she’s afflicted both by an obsessive/compulsive disorder and relational difficulties comparable to autism. Although frightened by the news about the disappearance of young women in the summer or 1979, she keeps collecting newspaper clippings on this story and compiles detailed profiles for the missing women: her husband’s worry about this obsession, that is clearly exacerbating her condition, and her only friend’s doubts about the conclusions Angela reaches, only lead the woman to keep searching and to finally come to a revelation that will place her life in extreme danger.

For her part, Rory suffers as well from a borderline form of autism and OCD, but she channeled it all into the ability to extrapolate data in a very unconventional way, which – together with her eidetic memory – turns her into a quirky, but effective, investigator and a powerful asset for the Chicago PD.  Once tasked by her client with examining clues about Angela Mitchell’s continued existence, Rory is enthralled by her discoveries and the mystery surrounding the woman, and as she tries to solve the puzzle she finds herself on an unexpected path, where momentous revelations will change her life forever.

The most fascinating element in this novel comes from the two protagonists, both troubled by behavioral issues but not succumbing to them, on the contrary putting the differences engendered by their psychological makeup to use: the comparison between the two timelines’ approach to their affliction underlines all the difficulties encountered by Angela as she’s treated with various degrees of contempt by acquaintances and even by the media – even when her findings help apprehend the Thief, she’s depicted by reporters as a mental wreck, with little or no acknowledgment of her role in the solution of the crime.  The way the author represents her is very different, however, because he manages to showcase an inner strength in Angela, one that first carries her forward in a relentless search for the truth and then urges her to take an arduous, heart-breaking path.

Rory is an equally strong figure: unlike Angela she enjoyed the understanding and support of her parents, so she has been able to create a series of coping mechanisms that allow her to lead a normal life and to carve a unique working niche in which her talents can be put to the best of uses.  There is a fascinating narrative thread in which we learn about Rory’s side activity in repairing damaged porcelain dolls: if on one side it shows her need to set things right, restoring the integrity and the beauty of these objects, on the other it’s easy to see how they might be a representation of herself, and the unexpressed statement about Rory’s will of repairing herself without external help.

These two fascinating characters are set in a very enthralling story, one where the two timelines enhance each other leading the readers toward the final showdown in a progression where you can only expect the unexpected: the pacing, as I noticed, is relentless, revelations and discoveries come in a natural way that never feels forced or contrived, and the build-up of tension becomes at times unbearable while keeping you glued to the pages with irresistible fascination.

What I liked most about Some Choose Darkness is that while we get acquainted with the killer’s mentality, the story is not so much about him but rather about the women pitted against his deranged world-view and cruelty.  The character of Rory is a fascinating one, and I enjoyed witnessing how her mind works, so I will keep following her journey in the books that see her protagonist, together with other novels from this newly discovered author who made me a fan with just one book…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE CONCRETE BLONDE (Harry Bosch #3), by Michael Connelly

It’s true that third time’s the charm: this third book in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series looks indeed to have reached the solid ground needed for a continuing story, one that reinforces my resolution of adding more crime/thriller novels to my usual reading “menu” and to give further space in the genre to this series in particular.

A past investigation – one that was previously mentioned in passing – has come to bite Bosch in the behind: four years prior he was involved in the manhunt for the serial killer nicknamed “the Dollmaker” because he used to garishly paint the face of his victims with their own makeup. Following an unexpected lead, Bosch burst into the apartment where the killer brought his victims and shot him when the man seemed to reach for a gun under his pillow: the police found later that Norman Church, that was the man’s name, had a lot of incriminating evidence in that apartment, and therefore Bosch had indeed apprehend the true killer, but his off-procedure actions brought on a severe reprimand and his transfer from the prestigious Robbery Homicide Dept. to the far less glamorous Hollywood Division.

Now Church’s widow is suing Bosch and the LAPD protesting her husband’s innocence: the man was not actually reaching for a gun but for his toupee, and she maintains he was not a serial killer but an honest family man. The situation is complicated when a message, similar to those the serial killer sent to the police, brings to the discovery of another corpse – this one buried under the foundations of a building – and it seems that the victim was killed after Church’s death, therefore raising doubts about Bosch’s performance and threatening him with an accusation of wrongful death. The detective is forced to walk a difficult path between the courthouse, where his every action is put under merciless scrutiny, and the investigation for the new victim, which leads him to question his own past convictions and actions as he and the LAPD try to figure out if there is a copycat killer still on the prowl.

Of the three books I’ve read so far in this series, this is the most fast-paced and engrossing: on one side there is the hunt for evidence about the existence of another serial killer, and then the actual hunt for the man, punctuated by dead-end clues and faulty leads and culminating into a very unexpected (at least for me) revelation; on the other there is the courthouse trial, where Bosch’s conduct and past are put under a ruthless microscope as the prosecuting attorney pulls no punches in her campaign to discredit the detective. The character of Honey Chandler (nicknamed “Money” thanks to her rate of successes in the field) is an intriguing one: a very capable, very determined woman who is able to shake Bosch’s bedrock certainties making him question his own conduct and certainties: this is not the first time his actions have fallen under the spotlight, or that his career has been in jeopardy, but Chandler manages to make it quite close and personal, shaking the foundations of his perception of himself.

This sense of fallibility, this uncertainty, manage to suddenly make Bosch more human, far more relatable than previously shown, and contribute to turn him into a far more sympathetic character than he was so far. He seems less afraid of his emotions and has even started what looks like a stable relationship with a woman, and although he still keeps much of his feelings to himself, he appears willing to admit to their existence and to let them surface from time to time. While from Bosch’s point of view these might appear like weaknesses, these chinks in his carefully construed armor help in rounding his character and adding more layers to it: for a series that runs for the considerable number of books it has reached so far, this is more than necessary because it would be difficult to carry on for long with a protagonist that never changes from his “lone wolf” self – he needs to evolve through experience and in this book I saw the first glimmer of those changes that I hope will continue the transformation in the course of the series.

The layering of characterization goes hand in hand with a compelling plot where the search for and validation of evidence is made more intriguing by a lack of the kind of technology we are used to in our present time: in the mid-90s, when the story is set, the term “legwork” applied to police investigation was still quite apt, as the detectives had to actually move all over the place to confirm or discard each piece of collected information. This allows the author, in this particular case, to take his readers through the seedier parts of Los Angeles, where the porno industry (and the crime racket) made money through hard-core movies and the sale of X-rated tapes – yes, tapes. So quaint… 😉

Another element I enjoyed here is that although the story is focused on the search for a serial killer, we are not exposed to the gorier aspects of the situation, since the author prefers to detail those of the manhunt: this allows for one of the few lighter sections of the book, when we are given an inside view of the re-formed Dollmaker Team and the interactions between the .detectives. As is bound to happen in any task force, the person in charge is not the best-and-brightest of the bunch, and I was amused at the tongue-in-cheek banter of the detectives as they poked fun at their leader practically under his nose.

Where I was slightly dubious, at the end of the previous book, about the possibility of carrying forward with this series, I am now much more hopeful that the next volumes will be as narratively intriguing as this one and look forward to discovering what lies down the road.

My Rating:

Reviews

KILLMAN CREEK (Stillhouse Lake #2), by Rachel Caine

It’s been quite some time since I read the first book in this series, Stillhouse Lake, and one of the reasons I waited so long – besides the usual problems of a crowded TBR – was that my previous experience with one of Rachel Caine’s series, namely The Great Library, soured a little with the second installment and I was wary of a repeat occurrence. It turned out that my doubts were more than founded: to be completely honest, Killman Creek was not a bad read but a good portion of the freshness and inventive of its predecessor was missing in this book, which led me to think that there might be some form of… narrative pattern here.  But let’s proceed with order.

The woman calling herself Gwen Proctor used to be Gina Royal, unsuspecting wife of Melvin Royal, a vicious serial killer: when a freak accident revealed the horrors hidden in Melvin’s garage, no one felt inclined to believe in Gina’s innocence, because it seemed impossible that she would not know what was going on; no one seemed to understand that a meek, subtly plagiarized wife would be unable to see behind the curtain of normalcy projected by her husband. Once the trial established her innocence, Gina had to keep on the move to save herself and her two children by the hordes of haters who hounded them, mostly thanks to the pervasiveness of the internet: changing her name and keeping on the move were the only options she had, and so Gwen Proctor was born.

In Stillhouse Lake we encountered Gwen finding a place where she wanted to stay and start to build a new life for herself and her teenage children, but Melvin’s reach and vindictiveness – enhanced by a hacker collective called Absalom – went beyond the prison’s barriers and once more shattered Gwen’s existence, culminating in Melvin’s escape from jail and a further level of threat for Gwen and her small family.  Killman Creek sees Gwen choosing to go on the offensive: with the help of Sam, the brother of one of Melvin’s victims, she decides to hunt down her former husband and physically remove him from the equation once and forever.  Easier said than done, though: as the only escaped inmate still at large, Melvin seems able to remain several steps ahead, enjoying the mental torture he can inflict on Gwen just as much as he enjoyed the physical violence visited on his victims, and the people from Absalom keep adding new damning material to Gwen’s profile, to the point that her innocence is dramatically contested both by her shocked children and by a still-grieving Sam, so that she finds herself even more isolated than before and chooses to play a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with Melvin in the hope of forever ending her torment.

The pace in Killman Creek is indeed relentless and there seems to be no way out of the intricate network of deceit and remote control that Melvin and Absalom have created against Gwen, but in the end this complicated web turns out to be counterproductive because it requires such a high suspension of disbelief that the drama feels phony. There is far too much on the table: Absalom’s powers, Melvin’s almost psychic intuitions, a reclusive billionaire with an interest in the matter, an FBI agent ready to go rogue to help Sam, and Gwen’s younger son acting like a very naive monkey wrench in his mother’s plans.  

Moreover, at some point a series of fake videos sheds a very suspicious light on Gwen’s past and creates a tragic fracture between her, the children and Sam, and that was the element that managed to shatter my “belief bubble”, because it felt so contrived and over the top and it added a further layer of drama which, at that point, seemed totally unnecessary.  Since it was firmly established that Absalom could easily manipulate evidence, and it was equally established that Gina/Gwen had no part in her husband’s murderous activities, I would have expected the fake vids to create some doubts and some shock, yes, but not the violent rejection she had to endure from everyone, as if her every single action so far, her fierce protectiveness toward her kids and her willingness to sacrifice everything for them, amounted to nothing.  It looks as if the author thought the mix was not complex enough, and she felt the need to add a melodramatic angle that I found both superfluous and annoying – and which apparently left no consequences, because in the end all was forgotten and forgiven as if it never happened: understandable as far as the children are concerned, far less so with Sam…

The characters, which in the previous book had been established as complex and nuanced, here lose some of that complexity and take a step back in favor of the action: nothing wrong with this, of course, but they also seem to de-evolve in comparison with their former selves. Gwen, despite the resolution to go on the offensive, looks like the proverbial headless chicken running in circles and makes a series of foolish mistakes; Sam is there only to brood and doubt; and the kids, who used to have my total understanding for being forced to grow too soon, here appear as the embodiment of the worst in YA characters, forced angst included.  Even Melvin, who so far had looked like an evil manipulator gifted with a twisted intelligence, here appears like nothing more than the classic, mustache-twirling villain.

It’s a pity that such a good opportunity to keep exploring the troubles and traumas of a serial killer’s family was turned into a paint-by-the-numbers thriller that from the midpoint onwards saw me skimming more than reading: I wanted to see how the situation would be resolved, but I had lost faith in the characters’ journey. A pity indeed…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BLACK ICE (Harry Bosch #2), by Michael Connelly

My attempt at broadening my reading horizons by including more fictional genres in my TBR worked quite successfully with the first book in Michael Connelly’s Bosch series, The Black Echo, so I did not wait too long to move forward with this second novel: while it ultimately turned out to be an enjoyable experience, and it added some new layers to the main character, it did not have the same narrative drive as the first volume – probably a classic case of “second book syndrome”…

Maverick detective Harry Bosch is spending his Christmas alone and on call for any homicide summons from his department, when he hears on the radio that the body of a colleague was found in a dingy motel, a possible suicide. It’s strange enough that he was not called to the scene, and it’s stranger still that the Assistant Chief of police seems bent on keeping him away from the investigation – when the next morning Bosch’s commander saddles him with a few open cases to be solved as quickly as possible, his suspicions escalate, and being like the proverbial dog with a bone he decides to take a closer look into the deceased cop’s death, particularly once he discovers that two of those pending cases foisted on him seem to be connected with it. A further compelling clue comes through a file that Cal Moore, the suicide, was compiling about the traffic of a new drug – the titular Black Ice – and that he had asked his former colleagues to forward the documentation to Bosch, as if he knew that he would not be able to complete it.

As I said, the story is interesting enough, although not as gripping as the previous one, probably because I expected the same kind of sustained pacing that here was missing and picked up only toward the three quarter mark; this slower rhythm, however, is offset by a more concentrated focus on characterization and on some introspection that adds a few new layers to Bosch’s personality and sheds more light into his past. We learn further details about his childhood, for example, like the fact that he was orphaned at twelve and spent long years being shuttled from one foster family to another, which explains his solitary way of life: there is an interesting passage here where we see how he sort of bonds with a coyote prowling the wilderness near his house – recognizing a kind of affinity with the lonely animal, one that is later acknowledged by one of Bosch’s bosses who tells him that while he is enrolled in the police department he does not behave as if he were part of it, and that explains his often reckless disregard for the rules and the chain of command.

While this side of Bosch’s character carries from the previous book, here one can also see a slight softening of his bluntness toward others, particularly when his investigation brings him across the border to Mexico and he discovers the similarities between his early life and that of his deceased colleague, whose death has by this time been ruled as homicide rather than suicide, prompting the detective to follow the trail of clues and bring justice to the victim – the main drive that powers his every action.  This slow mellowing of Bosch’s rough edges is something I’m looking forward to in the course of the continuing series, because the theme of the “lone wolf” existing in an emotional vacuum would carry with difficulty through the next 20-odd books without becoming a cliché.

Speaking of clichés, however, Bosch’s relationship with women seems to follow the guidelines of the noir genre, and where this might have been interesting enough in the previous book, where FBI agent Eleanor Wish was an intriguing foil (and as close as a femme fatale as her personality allowed) for the detective, here we see him entangled with no less than two women at the same time, and both of them look more like props than characters on their own right.  I tried to keep in mind that the book was written 27 years ago and that a lot of proverbial water flowed under equally proverbial bridges, but Bosch’s treatment of both women skirts chauvinism in a very dangerous, very irritating way that grates even more than his endless smoking.

This, together with a too-convoluted plot that at times did not roll forward very smoothly, and with an ending that was saddled with too much explanation, brought my rating down a notch: second books often being difficult beasts to tame, I’m ready to give this series some more time to see if it develops into the successful string of books that many are praising. The next one will probably offer a deciding factor…

My Rating: