Book reviews – 3 August

Mercy, by Jussi Alder-Olsen

MercyA maverick Danish detective is asked to set up a new department looking into cold cases. Along with his mysterious Syrian assistant, he focuses on the disappearance of a rising female politician from several years before. What happened to the woman, who seemingly vanished off the face of the earth?

What’s right with it

I have to say I was really surprised by how well this book did. It’s little more than your average police procedural. However, the main narrative runs alongside one of an unnamed woman locked in a chamber by sinister assailants, and those segments are very well done indeed, bringing home the horror of being kept in the dark for years , tortured and abused. The painstaking way they unpack the seemingly unsolvable case is also enjoyable, and we are really rooting for the woman to be rescued, such is her tenacity of spirit and courage.  But…

What’s wrong with it

I found everything else pretty predictable – detective with troubled ex-wife (though this is played largely for laughs), odd-but-brilliant Oriental assistant (these bits sat uncomfortably with me, bordering on racism at times), the investigation ranging from the top to bottom of society. There were several sub-plots that seemed to go nowhere and had no relevance to the main plot. I’ve noticed a few times with work in translation that the tone can jar, so perhaps it can be put down to that, but there were some uncomfortable inconsistences as we leap from gags to torture, and some very clunky sentences.

What did I learn

It’s not nice being locked up for years in a pressure chamber.  And don’t believe all the hype around books.

Safe House, by Chris Ewan

Safe HouseA young plumber on the Isle of Man is involved in a motorcycle crash. When he comes to he believes a young woman was riding with him – but everyone else claims she never existed. Teaming up with a female PI, he uncovers a plot that may even be linked to the recent mysterious death of his sister.  Safe House was released yesterday (2 August), so check it out now. I know Chris in real life, and very nice he is too.

What’s right with this

Even including the Russian gangsters, kidnap, and spies we eventually encounter, this is one of the most plausible thrillers I’ve ever read, largely because of the main character, Rob. A down to earth heating engineer who races motorbikes, he’s believable and sympathetic, and the bits of the story we see through his eyes feel like they could absolutely happen. It’s also great to see a strong female lead in Rebecca, the tough and resourceful PI. We feel genuine sympathy for Rob’s family, reeling from the death of his sister, and it makes you really want to visit the Isle of Man (even though it’s apparently a hotbed of gangsters and spies).

What’s wrong with it

I liked Rob’s voice so much it was something of a wrench to leave him for other viewpoint characters. Though this was probably necessary to the plot, I think I’d have preferred to stick to as few POVs as possible.  The multiple POV has become very common in crime novels, sometimes even within the same scene, and while it can work well to build suspense, it can also pull us away from characters we’ve started to care about (which we do from page 1 of meeting Rob, a great achievement).

What I learned

To think about viewpoint in my own books, and how to create a strong sense of place.

Broken Harbour, by Tana French

Broken HarbourOn one of Ireland’s ghost estates, a young family are found stabbed in their dream house. Detective ‘Scorcher’ Kennedy is brought in to solve the case, along with his rookie partner Richie.

What’s right with it

I should say straight up – I loved this book. It pulled on me with a current dark and strong as the sea. What’s beguiling is the absolute simplicity of it. As a crime writer it’s very tempting to use gimmicks and tricks, like different narrative strands, flashbacks, subplots. None of that here, just a first-person voice that unravels the case straight and ruthless as an arrow. In the author’s hands the familiar ‘finding body and going for autopsy’ scenes go through a sea-change, into something rich and strange. By the end we know the dead as intimately and corporeally as our own family. The prose is to die for, with stand-out images like the sea ‘rising green and muscled in the bay’, yet the plot thunders ahead, flashing past these beautiful lines like stations in the window of a late-night train. I didn’t guess the ending, though I probably could have done – I just didn’t want to move my attention past the page it was currently welded to, enthralled. A brilliant story and a haunting snapshot of how recession warps and ruins lives that were built on so much hope. In its evocation of how money and houses can crush the human lives within them, it reminded me strongly of Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz. Sadly, because Broken Harbour is about more obviously bloody crimes, it probably won’t make it onto any literary shortlists. Which is a damn shame.

What’s wrong with it

Thinking back, there were a few things I didn’t like about the book. I hated the main character – arrogant, cold, cocky. I’ve noticed in other Tana French books that her depiction of Ireland falters at times – as if she’s been told to tone down the Irishisms for overseas audiences. I don’t believe a Dublin detective would address people as ‘old son’, for example. This is odd because in other places she has caught the vernacular, and the shifting tides of Irish society, to perfection. Her books also ask a lot of the reader’s patience –her second novel, The Likeness, is 700 pages about a detective going undercover. By page 170 she still hasn’t decided whether or not she will actually take the case. I also wasn’t sure about the small sub-plot involving the detective’s troubled sister. This and the ice-cold pathologist are drawn straight from the Big Book Of Crime Novel clichés (see here-https://clairemcgowan.net/2012/06/25/which-crime-novel-character-are-you/) It was interesting that the lead character had a link to the location of the crime, and discovering at the end why that was packed an emotional punch, but I wonder if it slightly over-egged an already magnificently eggy pudding.

You know what though, none of that mattered, because I was welded it to it for three days, breathless and enthralled, and that’s what we really want.

What I learned

God, I wish I could write like this.

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