Book reviews -Deity, The Devil’s Playground, and The Burning

I know, I know, I’m ridiculously behind on these and I’ve read at least three more books since starting to write them. Anyway, better late than never (I hope).


Deity, by Steven Dunne

I believe this is the third in a series starring DCI Damen Brook, but it’s easily picked up as a stand-alone (though I would have liked to know the background to the killer known as the Reaper). Four college students have disappeared, and internet videos suggest they may have committed group suicide. At the same time bodies start appearing with missing vital organs – consistent with having been mummified.

What’s right with it

The plot elements feel sharp and current (internet voyeurism, teen disaffection), and I really liked the intertextuality of films and books. The main character, though formed in a familiar mould, is sympathetic and believable, flawed yet entirely trustworthy. The teens were also very well drawn and spoke with fresh, pitch-perfect voices. All in all it delivered an impressive range of characters and viewpoints, and a satisfyingly twisty plot. I’ll have to go back and read the first two in the series now.

What’s wrong with it

The ‘loner cop’ is overdone in crime fiction, though I liked that this one struggled with nicotine withdrawal rather than other vices. It’s a little predictable that once the DCI’s daughter turns up, she’s going to be in some kind of danger, though I didn’t guess the twist at the end, which is always satisfying.

What I learned

How different viewpoints can create a book that’s richly multitonal.

The Devil's Playground

The Devil’s Playground, by Stav Sherez

A young London man, adrift in his life, is summoned to Amsterdam when his phone number is found on the body of a dead homeless man. He’s soon caught up in a dark web of corruption, stretching from Nazi-era atrocities to the horrors of the current internet. He meets a young American woman with secrets of her own and teams up with a Dutch detective to unravel the dark knots of the story.

What’s right with it

The viewpoint characters, though many, were all compelling and sympathetic (the cheesecake-eating detective, the Jewish artist lost in the Holocaust, the two young people drifting round Europe, unable to name or own their own lostness). It made me hungry for cheesecake (and I am again now, damn) and itch to revisit Amsterdam and seek out these dark corners. It is also one of the most genuinely disturbing books I’ve ever read. If you aren’t ready to face up to the full horrors of what happened in Auschwitz, or what you can buy in the filthiest corners of the interest (hint- everything), then don’t read this. In fact it’s really a meditation on how low humanity can sink, threaded like ribbon through a crime plot. As you read, you will wonder what’s wrong with you that you can find atrocities fascinating – as we all do, if we’re honest, on some level.

What’s wrong with it

Not really a criticism, but that leads me on to the observation that this is not really a crime novel at all. The serial killer aspects felt like they had less conviction behind them, beside the baldly horrific Holocaust strands (never sensationalist, always quietly unblinking). I realise I’ve not really summarised the plot very well, because it’s so densely intertwined I’m not sure I can unpick it. Perhaps this is a lesson that we need to let crime be wider, more all-encompassing, less hidebound by rules. On some level the book seems to ask why we get hung up on one or two small deaths, and ignore the crimes against millions that happened in living memory.

What I learned

People are awful and there is scant redemption in life. But cheesecake is nice.

The Burning

The Burning, by Jane Casey

Maeve Kerrigan is a young DC with the Met, struggling in a man’s world. When a man is stabbed by the woman he’s apparently tried to abduct, it seems they may have caught the serial killer Burning Man, who’s been responsible for four murders so far. But in the kind of clever reversal that marks the book out, it’s a false alarm, and that night another woman is found burned. But when Maeve delves into the latest victim’s life, it seems there could be a lot more to the murder, stretching back years to a secret to her time at Oxford, and involving her buttoned-up best friend.

What’s right with it

This book was a total revelation. I was expecting a straightforward serial-killer procedural, but instead I got a pacey crime story twisted around a dark and disturbing psychological thriller. Maeve is hugely likeable and the rest of the squad, from the hunky young DC to the ageing plod, are well drawn. The details of police life feel meticulously researched, but interesting rather than heavy-handed, as is so often the case in crime novels. I loved the subversion of the serial killer narrative and the twists and turns, and can’t wait to read the rest in the series. As an Oxford exile, I also got a big kick out of the portrayal of college life, its charm and its pitfalls.

What’s wrong with it

There are a few different narrators in the book, and the main two, Maeve and Louise (the victim’s best friend) are excellently done. But the first chapter is from the viewpoint of a character we don’t really see again, and towards the end, when Maeve is offstage for a while, we also get Rob, her colleague. This felt a little jarring, though I suppose it was necessary for plot reasons. I also think the blurb and cover didn’t quite do the subtlety of the story justice. It’s way more than a police procedural and Louise in particular is a seductively repellent character.

What I learned

How to work in research detail so it’s fascinating and believable, not clunky.

I know all of the authors above. 

2 Comments Add yours

  1. I like your reviews, accessed via my editor Martin F’s tweet.. Although you don’t know me I’m a fellow Headline author. Would you care to look at my latest, A Time For Heroes? Meanwhile, do savour that run-up to the release of your debut novel, at which point you can at last consider yourself (publicly) a pro writer. More contact info: Twitter, FrankBarnard Facebook 1, frankacbarnard Facebook 2, frankbarnardauthor

    1. Thanks Frank. Actually my book’s been out since February…I will tweet you.

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