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:

Reviews

LITTLE SECRETS, by Jennifer Hillier

 

First things first, I have to thank Mogsy at Bibliosanctum for showcasing this title a short while ago, when I had decided to diversify my reading materials by branching out in other directions: since crime and thriller are among the other genres I enjoy besides fantasy and SF, this book looked just perfect, and it turned out to be a quick, immersive read that I found quite difficult to put down.

Marin Machado lives what you could call a charmed life: owner of a chain of hair salons catering to the affluent and the famous, married to equally successful and loving Derek, mother to four-year old Sebastian –  she can indeed call herself lucky. That is, until one day, shortly before Christmas, a momentary distraction in a crowded market results in the abduction of Sebastian, last seen by security cameras as he leaves the area hand in hand with a Santa-costumed man.  Roughly one and a half years after the kidnapping, Sebastian has not been found and even the FBI put the case on the back burner given the absence of further useful evidence. 

Despite wallowing in understandable despair, and some suicidal thoughts, Marin is not ready to call it quits and she enlists a private investigator to continue the search, to leave no stone unturned: what the P.I. finds, however, is not a clue to Sebastian’s whereabouts, but rather the incontrovertible proof that Derek has been having an affair with a younger woman for the past six months.  The revelation shocks Marin out of her well of misery and turns her on the path of vengeance, driving her to seek “professional help” to remove the threat of the other woman from her already crumbling marriage: this path, however, will prove to have unforeseeable consequences and will lead Marin to agonizing choices and shocking discoveries.

Where this novel starts as the portrayal of every parent’s worst nightmare, the abduction of a child, it soon veers off in a different direction, and I have to admit that I was quite surprised, not so much by the change of narrative focus but rather by the intensity of Marin’s commitment to her new objective: when we see her after the dramatic prologue, she is a ghost of her former self, consumed by guilt for that momentary distraction and by anguished thoughts about what might have happened to her son. She attends regular meetings with a support group of similarly affected parents, and while their therapeutic value might be dubious, they at least give her a chance to talk with people who understand where she is, emotionally and psychologically, filling the place left by the growing distance with her husband. The discovery of the affair seems to give her a new lease on life, so to speak, the pain for the unbearable loss of her child turning into simmering anger that stops at nothing, not even the thought of commissioning a murder – probably because she finally found a target for that anger: she does not know who took Sebastian away from her, but she knows now who is trying to deprive her of what’s left of her family, and in this she is not powerless anymore.

There is not a single sympathetic character in this novel and when we get to know them (through present actions and flashbacks to the past) we see how deeply flawed they are: Marin suffers from a selfish streak, evident in her dealings with longtime friend and former lover Sal, who she ditched quickly when a better prospect came along, but still remains her go-to person in times of need. And like many other betrayed women before her, she prefers to direct her hatred only toward the rival, the housebreaker, conveniently forgetting that in extra-marital affairs the people involved are always two, sharing the blame in equal measure.  For his part, Derek looks like the perfect jerk, one who was already guilty of a fling during Marin’s pregnancy, which makes her resolution to win him back even more baffling: and little does it matter that he seems already tired of the other woman and is acting accordingly – the picture that comes out of his behavior is not a very pleasant one.

The real surprise, though, comes from the author’s choice of giving voice to McKenzie, the mistress, so that her character is substantially fleshed out and we are able to see the motivations compelling her – not that they are uplifting ones, of course. What the young woman is, and has been for a good part of her twenty-four years, is a professional girlfriend: she latches on to older, preferably married men, waiting for the inevitable breakout time to earn what she sees as well-deserved severance pay.  McKenzie’s shallowness, her fixation with social media and the number of likes she gathers by sharing the trivial minutiae of her everyday life, all contribute to make her the focus of readers’ animosity: there seems to be no redeeming quality to her, no perception of right and wrong, something that hints at some early, irreparable damage…

If the description of these characters and the situation they find themselves in sounds right out of a soap opera, think again: this is a thriller through and through and as the story progresses we realize that there is more under the surface than we – or the characters – bargained for. Apart from the angle of loss and despair following a tragedy, like the kidnapping of a child, there is the examination of the psychological implications of such an event, their aftermath on relationships, and the consequences of betrayal and vengeance. And there is a massive surprise at the end, because all these elements – past and present – are connected and this connection comes out as a big surprise toward the end of the story.

I have to admit that the way the various plot lines were brought to their end felt a little too convenient, and saddled with more ‘telling’ than ‘showing’ for my own tastes, but still the road up to that point was a very easy, very intriguing one and I enjoyed every single minute I spent there, which will certainly prompt me to look for more of Jennifer Hillier’s works.

 

My Rating:   

 

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY:  Books I Loved but Never Reviewed

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point, ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday (created and hosted by  The Broke and Bookish) is now being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future week’s topics can be found here.  

 

 

Since I started blogging in 2014 there is a huge amount of books I read, enjoyed but never had the chance to review, and I’m very happy of this Top Ten Tuesday prompt that will give me the opportunity of talking a little about them.

 

Of course the pride of place goes to J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, which I often mentioned but never examined in depth – and here is a thought for the future, when I might decide to finally write down my considerations, after a thorough reread of course. So, ladies and gentlemen, here are THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT, by JRR Tolkien

 

Another constant feature of my exchanges with fellow bloggers is of course DUNE, by Frank Herbert, that for me is the SF equivalent of Tolkien’s works as far as the impact on my imagination goes.

 

Moving to a different genre, there is THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, by Frederick Forsyth, one of my “blasts from the past, the high adrenaline story (probably fictional, but who knows?) of a skilled marksman and killer-for-hire whose target is nothing else but Charles de Gaulle. The man is a shadow, and as elusive as smoke, and the story of the hunt for this man is one of the best thrillers I ever read.

 

EYE OF THE NEEDLE, by Ken Follett is another novel that took my breath away: it follows a German spy working undercover in England during WWII and collecting information on the Allies’ defenses and troops deployment. He is called The Needle because of his penchant for a stiletto as a weapon of choice.  This novel is a successful blend of thriller and historical fiction, and a compulsive read as well.

 

THE HUNGER GAMES, by Suzanne Collins: I read this one on the recommendation of a friend and I enjoyed the dystopian setting as well as the main character, who shortly became a sort of template for many YA heroines – not always as successful in characterization as Katniss was.

 

HEROES DIE, by Matthew Woodring Stover is a very peculiar novel, because it starts as epic fantasy, following the adventures of Caine, the Blade of Tyshalle, a fearless hero, only to reveal at some point that the fantasy setting is an alternate world in which actors like Caine are sent to playact their exploits as a form of entertainment for the viewers of our modern world. It’s a weirdly hybrid premise, but it works very well…

 

WARCHILD, by Karin Lowachee is one of the most poignant stories I ever read: young Jos is enslaved by pirates who capture the ship he was traveling on, killing all the adults. To survive in such an abusive world he will have to go to horrible extremes and suffer the anguish of torn loyalties. A highly emotional story and one that literally tore at my soul.

 

Vampires are among my favorite supernatural creatures, and the main reason I’m so fascinated by them is that SALEM’S LOT, by Stephen King, is the first book I read focusing on them, and one I still consider a fundamental story in the genre. And that scene of the young, freshly turned boy, calling to his friend from beyond the window, is one that I will never forget.

 

CHASM CITY, by Alastair Reynolds, was my introduction to the author’s Revelation Space saga: it introduced me to his rich universe and to the horrifying concept fo the Melding Plague, a virus attacking nanotechnology and from there infecting the organic material in human bodies with implants. A city so ravaged by the Plague is the background for a nightmarish search for vengeance…

 

Are there some… unsung favorites in your bookcases?

Reviews

MR. MERCEDES (Bill Hodges Trilogy #1), by Stephen King

 

After a long hiatus due to a mild disenchantment with Stephen King’s works, I found my way back to his novels through The Outsider and the more recent – and for me far more successful – The Institute. So I decided to retrace my steps and see what other good stories I missed in those “years of disappointment” and settled on the Bill Hodges series, starting with Mr. Mercedes: this trilogy marks a change of pace from King’s usual offerings, since it’s a crime/thriller novel with no elements of horror or supernatural activities, but as I’ve often found out we hardly need monsters to inspire dread, when the darkest depths of the human soul offer more than enough material in that sense…

Mr. Mercedes proves this theory from the very start: in 2009, as the world suffers in the grip of widespread recession, a sizable crowd forms around a stadium where the next morning a job fair will open its doors. Hundreds of hopefuls queue up in the chilling nighttime fog waiting for an opportunity, when a high-end Mercedes sedan plunges at full speed over the crowd, killing eight innocents and maiming twice as much.  Roughly one year afterwards Bill Hodges, one of the detectives working the case of the Mercedes Killings, finds himself in a deep depression brought on by his retirement and the ghosts of the cases he could not solve: he spends most of his days drinking, sitting in front of the TV watching trashy shows, and at times contemplating suicide. All this changes when he receives a letter from the killer, calling himself Mr. Mercedes, and urging the detective to put an end to his life. Forced out of his inertia, Hodges engages in a progressively more dangerous game of cat and mouse with Brady Hartsfield, the killer, teaming up with some unconventional helpers like Jerome, a tech-savvy teenager; Janey Patterson, the sister of the Mercedes’ guilt-ridden owner, driven to suicide by the killer himself; and finally Holly Gibney, Janey’s niece and a character I met in The Outsider, making her first appearance here.

Much as I enjoyed this novel, which turned out to be a compulsive read, I ended up being of two minds about it: on one side the story moved along at a fairly relentless pace and with the stakes getting progressively higher I found it practically impossible to put the book down, on the other, once all was said and done and the proverbial dust settled, my “inner nitpicker” surfaced and started pointing out several inconsistencies that I was able to overlook while I was engaged in reading, but came back to bother me afterwards.

What I liked: as usual, Stephen King’s main strength comes from characterization, and Mr. Mercedes offers many opportunities for the detailed creation of outstanding figures, starting with Bill Hodges himself, who might look like something of a cliché in that he’s the classical former detective, overweight and lonesome, who gave his all in the course of a long career paying the price in terms of family ties, and now feels useless and adrift, but ultimately shows unexpected resilience once he’s presented with the opportunity of getting closure on a case still preying on his mind for several reasons. There is a kind of twisted humor in the way Hodges evolves along the way, because the action that in the killer’s intentions should have driven him over the edge is exactly the one that revives the ex-detective’s interest in life and compels him to get out of the well of melancholy and lethargy that had enveloped him up to that point. This unexpected outcome works well within King’s overall tendency toward dark humor, which is evident both through some tongue-in-cheek references to his previous works (like IT or Pet Sematary) and through a few unexpected developments that keep frustrating the killer’s plans in a way that is, at the same time, dramatic and reminiscent of poor Wile E. Coyote’s major failures.

Brady Hartsfied stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, of course, not only because he’s the villain here, but because he’s the worst, most despicable kind of villain one could ever imagine: a person with a history of abuse, granted, but also one who is a completely abominable creature filled with the need to make his own mark on history, to be seen beyond the drab anonymity of his life, and who chooses to do so by hurting people –  not just physically hurt them, but to torture them psychologically as he does with the owner of the stolen car he used for the massacre, or with Hodges himself. There is a well of hate in Brady – directed both inward and outward – that seeks release by striking toward those he sees as more “fortunate”, and he does so with such a gleeful abandon that wipes out any trace of compassion one might feel for the damaging experiences of his past. There is a chilling, inescapable consideration that comes to mind when reading his sections in the novel: that there are, and have been, many Brady Harstfields in the real world, that a substantial number of them have doled out death and pain, and that any one of them might do so again…

Where the characters and the story-flow worked quite well for me, there are however some narrative choices that did not: for example, Hodges’ dogged determination to solve the case without involving the police. If there is a believable reason, in the beginning, to keep the new evidence and the killer’s missives to himself, and if it’s understandable how Hodges might want this “last hurrah” for himself, this rationale stops being credible once Brady raises the stakes in an… explosive way (pun intended, sorry…) and shows that the theory of the dangerous wounded animal is more than sound. The reasoning behind Hodges’ decision, that the police department is busy dealing with a huge weapons raid, sounds far too convenient to be completely believable and looks like an aberrant deus-ex-machina created to allow the “heroes” to shine on their own.

Still, the final part of the novel is such a breakneck run against time and impossible odds that it’s easy to momentarily set aside any misgivings and to let oneself be carried away toward the ending. While I might not completely appreciate the method, I enjoyed the thrill of the ride and that’s what ultimately mattered. And of course I’m now curious to see where Stephen King will take his characters in the next two novels of the series.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BLACK ECHO (Harry Bosch #1), by Michael Connelly

 

For quite some time now I have been thinking about branching out of my preferred “stomping ground” focused on speculative fiction, not so much because of reader fatigue but rather for a healthy change of pace through a more varied choice of reading material.  In the past, besides SFF, I’ve always enjoyed books in the thriller/crime niche, and I’ve recently marked as interesting several titles in these genres that were showcased by my fellow bloggers, but what really compelled me to finally turn those good resolutions into reality was a tv series.  In the past I had noticed, in the customer suggestions from Amazon Prime Video, the series Bosch and at some point during the lockdown months I decided to take a look: in the space of a handful of episodes I was won over by the story and characters, so that once I discovered they were based on a series of books by Michael Connelly, I decided that my new “reading adventure” would start there – and it turned out to be an inspired choice, indeed.

Mr. Connelly’s successful series focuses on the character of Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, a L.A.P.D. detective whose dogged determination in solving cases equals only his total disregard for departmental politics, which makes him quite unpopular with the powers that be and always on the brink of dismissal. In this first case, Bosch is called on the scene of what looks like a death by overdose, and only a few conflicting details and the fact that he knows the victim – a former comrade, and like Bosch a Vietnam vet – will drive the detective to investigate deeper into what is beyond doubt a murder staged like an accidental death. Despite the inherent difficulties and the bureaucratic obstacles in his path, Harry pursues the elusive evidence that leads him to discover a long-planned, convoluted heist that will not only put him against well-organized masterminds and unfriendly co-workers, but will force him to face some of the demons of his past.

One of the most noticeable differences between the tv series and the book is of course the time setting: while the former takes place in the present, the latter – published in 1992 – is set some 30 years in the past and this accounts for the lack of some elements we have come to take for granted, like cell phones, easy internet searches or information merge between law enforcement databases. Still, this does not detract from the story in any way, and one of its major themes – the predicament of overseas wars’ veterans, who come back home and struggle to reclaim their place in society – is as actual now as it was back then. What I found truly unsettling, however, was the protagonist’s chain smoking: it’s not just that now we are more aware of the dangers inherent in smoking than we were back then, just as it’s not only that as a reformed smoker (I’m proud to say that I quit in 1982 and never relapsed) I now look at it as a ghastly habit – there was so much virtual cigarette smoke in the book that I often felt the need to air the room…. 😀

Apart from these minor distractions, The Black Echo proved to be a very compelling read, one that blends intriguing characterization and an interesting plot that managed to surprise me at several turns, encouraging me to look for the other books in the series: this is Michael Connelly’s debut novel, and it shows already a firm grasp of pace and characterization, so that I know I can only expect the rest of his works to keep improving from this remarkable starting point.

Storywise, I found the depiction of the city of Los Angeles quite intriguing: forget the glamor that’s part and parcel of the world’s entertainment capital, forget the endless, palm-lined avenues and the beaches where beautiful people laze in the sun – here you will get to know the dirty, shabby, ugly face of the city, its graffiti-stained walls, its concrete drainage ditches and the abandoned pipes where the homeless and the dregs of society take refuge. This far from rosy view of L.A. is mirrored by the stark depiction of a police department more focused on bureaucracy and internal politics than in crime-solving work: at some point we learn about Bosch’s partner’s alternate activity as a real estate agent, a job that gets more attention and energies than the man devotes to his primary one.  This is the main reason that sets Bosch apart from most of his colleagues: he’s grimly determined to go to the bottom of things, to bring justice to the victims, and he does so with a dogged persistence that stems from an event in his past, one that’s mentioned in passing here and will certainly come to dominate his attitude as the story moves forward.

What is interesting is that while Bosch’s dedication is admirable, he’s not portrayed as the proverbial square-jawed, unblemished hero: on the contrary he’s a deeply flawed individual – a lone wolf rather than a team player – one who seems to go out of his way to keep people at a distance or to be unpleasant, as if he enjoys aggravating them.  This aspect of his character is in synch with the overall noir atmosphere of the story, evident in the often blunt prose that nonetheless manages to be vividly descriptive. There is a darkness in Bosch’s soul that both keeps him apart from the rest of humanity and compels him to look in places others prefer to ignore: the book’s title refers to a feeling he experienced as a “tunnel rat” in Vietnam, the sensation of the darkness coming alive in those stifling, claustrophobic spaces – he lost something of himself in those tunnels, and only facing his fears he might find it again. There is a passage in the novel where we get a glimpse of Bosch’s mindset through the description of a painting that fascinates him, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks:

 

 

He mostly sees himself as the man sitting alone on one side of the counter, but there is a part of his mind that hopes he might be the other guy, the one sitting alongside the woman: it’s this drive toward normality, coexisting with his cynical acceptance of reality, that makes him such a fascinating character whose exploration is just as intriguing as that of the mysteries he needs to solve.

As a first foray into new “territory”, The Black Echo proved to be a very encouraging attempt, and it will certainly not be the last in this compelling series.

 

 

My Rating: