Category Archives: Crime Fiction

Review: Blue Monday by Nicci French

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BlueMondayBlue Monday by Nicci French (Pamela Dorman Books, 2012), Frieda Klein series

Blurb: Frieda Klein is a solitary, incisive psychotherapist who spends her sleepless nights walking along the ancient rivers that have been forced underground in modern London. She believes that the world is a messy, uncontrollable place, but what we can control is what is inside our heads. This attitude is reflected in her own life, which is an austere one of refuge, personal integrity, and order.

The abduction of five-year-old Matthew Farraday provokes a national outcry and a desperate police hunt. And when his face is splashed over the newspapers, Frieda cannot ignore the coincidence: one of her patients has been having dreams in which he has a hunger for a child. A red-haired child he can describe in perfect detail, a child the spitting image of Matthew. She finds herself in the center of the investigation, serving as the reluctant sidekick of the chief inspector.

 

Frieda Klein is an interesting character: the psychotherapist who is reluctantly drawn into a murder investigation via a new patient. She’s at the center of a bizarre cast of characters: the police officer she approaches with her suspicions about her patient’s role in the kidnapping; the world-weary colleague who’s turned to alcohol as a means of escaping the conclusions he’s drawn after years of practicing psychotherapy; the self-absorbed sister with the precocious daughter; the wacky Ukrainian émigré who announces his presence by literally falling at her feet. These characters and their relationships with each other and with Frieda are where the book shines, and if I keep reading this series it’s to see how this develops. I’m particularly intrigued by Josef, the Ukrainian, who manages to effortlessly work his way into almost every aspect of Frieda’s life.

The central mystery under investigation is the abduction of a five-year-old boy, which may or may not be connected to the similar abduction of a young girl some twenty years back. (I got the impression that there was supposed to be an analogy here with the hidden rivers of Frieda’s nighttime meanderings, but if so, it was a bit too oblique, and left me with the feeling of a lost opportunity more than an added layer.) The book starts slowly and jumps around a bit, but about halfway through the pace picks up and the various story elements start to come together. Unfortunately for me, I figured out fairly early on where everything was headed and so I never really felt a sense of suspense or urgency, and I genuinely could not tell if this was down to the storytelling or down to me just being good at guessing these things.

I wanted to like this book, and I did, but not nearly as much as I’d hoped. It’s a psychological thriller that doesn’t quite manage to build up and sustain enough tension to make up for the disjointed storytelling. Still, the characterization was good enough to make me want to check out the next book in the series.

 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review: The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel

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TheMurderFarmThe Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel (2014, Quercus)

Blurb: The Murder Farm begins with a shock: a whole family has been murdered with a pickaxe. They were old Danner the farmer, an overbearing patriarch; his put-upon devoutly religious wife; and their daughter Barbara Spangler, whose husband Vincenz left her after fathering her daughter little Marianne. She also had a son, two-year-old Josef, the result of her affair with local farmer Georg Hauer after his wife’s death from cancer. Hauer himself claimed paternity. Also murdered was the Danners’ maidservant, Marie.

An unconventional detective story, The Murder Farm is an exciting blend of eyewitness account, third-person narrative, pious diatribes, and incomplete case file that will keep readers guessing. When we leave the narrator, not even he knows the truth, and only the reader is able to reach the shattering conclusion.

 

As soon as I read this book’s description, I knew I wanted to read it. However, I found the book itself to be a bit of a letdown. While the description uses words such as “exciting” and “shattering,” for me the book was a short, bare-bones, sparse narrative, somewhat fleshed out by the eyewitness accounts, that didn’t have the emotional impact I’d been expecting, given the nature of the crime.

The story is set in 1950s, in a rural German village. The setting was, for me, by far the best part of the book; I got a real sense of the isolation of the village and the impact of the war on its inhabitants. The Danners’ neighbors sense that something is amiss on the Danner farm, and upon further investigation discover that the entire family has been murdered. The narrative isn’t always linear and was a bit confusing in places, but bit by bit the reader learns about the family and its secrets, of which there are many. The focus on the characters’ flaws backfired a bit for me; rather than making each of them the possible target of the killer’s anger, it made them all unlikeable and distant—the book is so short and the characters so undeveloped that it read more like a case file.

There isn’t a lot of detail about the exact nature of the crimes—it’s not a gory book. The impact is intended to be more psychological. However, this approach didn’t really work for me because the murderer is revealed in the same matter-of-fact narrative approach as the rest of the book, without any real insights, and ultimately I felt a bit let down.

 

This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars.

Review: A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell

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ATraceofSmokeA Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell (Forge Books, 2009), Hannah Vogel series

Blurb: Even though hardened crime reporter Hannah Vogel knows all too well how tough it is to survive in 1931 Berlin, she is devastated when she sees a photograph of her brother’s body posted in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead. Ernst, a cross-dressing lounge singer at a seedy nightclub, had many secrets, a never-ending list of lovers, and plenty of opportunities to get into trouble.

Hannah delves into the city’s dark underbelly to flush out his murderer, but the late night arrival of a five-year-old orphan on her doorstep complicates matters. The endearing Anton claims that Hannah is his mother… and that her dead brother Ernst is his father.

As her investigations into Ernst’s murder and Anton’s parentage uncover political intrigue and sex scandals in the top ranks of the rising Nazi party, Hannah fears not only for her own life, but for that of a small boy who has come to call her “mother.”


The premise of the book was too intriguing for me to pass up. Hannah Vogel is a journalist, a crime reporter. During her weekly visit to the Hall of the Unnamed Dead, she is stunned to see a photograph of the body of her cross-dressing brother, a lounge singer whose lovers gift him with fine clothing and jewels. Although she has connections within the police department, Hannah cannot make use of them: a Zionist friend and her son have used Hannah’s and Ernst’s identity papers to escape to America, and until Hannah knows they are safe, she cannot allow anyone to know her brother is dead.

A Trace of Smoke is wonderfully evocative of interwar Berlin: the precarious financial position of city’s population, the uncertainty regarding the Nazi party, the growing intolerance of and discrimination against the city’s Jewish population. Cantrell incorporates actual people and events into the story, which infuses it with a strong sense of time and place. The book is well plotted and well paced.

As capable as the author is with description, she has a tin ear for dialogue. The lack of contractions made the characters sound stilted and overly formal, and this coupled with the lack of variety in the characters’ speech patterns took away from their individuality. This is Cantrell’s first book, so I am hoping the dialogue improves as the series progresses.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review: The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

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WeightofBloodThe Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh (2014, Spiegel & Grau)


Lucy Dane lives in Henbane, a small town in the Ozarks, where families stick together and outsiders are always suspect. Her father’s side of the family has deep roots in Henbane; her mother’s, not so much. In fact, Lily Dane was the kind of outsider who always invites suspicion: a beautiful young stranger who married a local, gave birth to daughter Lucy, then walked into a cave one day with a loaded gun and was never seen again.

Having grown up without Lily in her life, Lucy is now seventeen, and it’s been a year since her best friend Cheri vanished. When Cheri’s dismembered body is discovered, Lucy resolves to find out what happened to her. As Lucy digs deeper into the mystery surrounding Cheri’s disappearance and death, she begins to realize that there might be a connection to her own mother’s disappearance. And in a town where family is everything, she begins to discover her own family’s secrets.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints, primarily Lucy’s and Lily’s, both in the first person, but later in the book there are others, in third person. At times this became confusing, especially later in the book, but for the most part it was well done and helped to maintain the plot’s tension throughout. Lucy’s coming-of-age narrative is particularly well told as she grapples with questions of kinship and loyalty.

Most of all, though, I was impressed by the atmosphere of this novel. This is Southern noir: an isolated mountain town steeped in myth and superstition, and where poverty is a way of life and very few people manage to make it out.

 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Runner by Patrick Lee

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The RunnerThe Runner by Patrick Lee (2014, Minotaur)

Sam Dryden, ex-special forces, goes out for a run one night and encounters a young girl who’s being chased by heavily armed men intent on killing her. Drysden, who lost his wife and daughter in an accident several years before, saves Rachel—and she, in turn, saves him, as for the first time in a very long time Dryden’s life has purpose: finding out who this girl is (she has no idea), who’s been holding her captive and why (again, she doesn’t know), and perhaps most interesting, how it is that she seemingly can read his mind.

This book is all about pacing. It’s roller-coaster action from start to finish, and what a ride it is: paramilitary super-soldiers, sophisticated weaponry, high-level conspiracies, and a hint of paranormal super-powers. But in the midst of all of the action, Lee creates complex, memorable characters. Dryden isn’t a cardboard cutout action hero. Sure, he can take on the best the military sends after him, but he can also show genuine affection and concern for a frightened preteen.

The storytelling is uneven in places. Because the book is so action oriented, sometimes there’s not enough attention given to motives. People did things and I wasn’t entirely sure why. While no words were wasted, I felt a bit could be added to flesh things out a bit. But this is a nitpick, because this book was a lot of fun to read.

I’ve read the first book in another series by this author: The Breach, which has an even bigger science fiction element. After reading The Runner, I’ve added the next books in both series to my TBR pile.

 

This book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Review: Merrick by Ken Bruen

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MerrickMerrick by Ken Bruen (2014, Premier Digital Publishing)

Ryan was a cop in Galway before being fired for being on the take. When he lost his job, his wife left him for another man, taking their daughter with them. Having no reason to stay in Ireland and a head full of memories urging him to go, Ryan headed for New York City, where he works building skyscrapers, fearlessly walking the girders as they build the highest floors.

Once in New York he meets Merrick, another former cop turned private investigator and bar owner. Merrick quickly recognizes the cop in Ryan, and the two become friends. Soon Merrick begins to confide in Ryan. His former partner, it turns out, is in a coma: they’d been working on a case involving a man who did unspeakable things to young boys before killing them. Merrick thinks he’s got some leads, if Ryan would be interested in helping out?

The relationship between Ryan and Merrick is a rocky one—both have explosive tempers and a chip on their shoulder, but generally speaking it’s nothing that can’t be overcome by an apology and a bottle of Jameson. The development of the friendship between the men is the heart of the novel, and it’s solid, enough so to allow for future books and a series.

As with Bruen’s other books, this one is full of pop-culture references, mostly movies and music but some books, that Ryan uses to define himself. When I finish one of Bruen’s books, I almost always have a list of names to look for, and this is no different (I’ll be checking out a couple of new bands this evening).

Merrick is a thriller in stream-of-consciousness, almost free-form verse. It’s a quick read, and a good one.

 

This copy was furnished by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review: Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø (Harry Hole #2)

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CockroachesCockroaches by Jo Nesbø (2014, Vintage): Harry Hole #2

I began reading this series about four years ago starting with book 3, and I’ve kept up with it ever since. I was frustrated at being unable to read the series in order, starting with the first book, but now that I’ve finished the second, I’m beginning to understand the logic behind leaving these until last.

Cockroaches begins some time after Harry Hole solved a serial killer case in Australia and returned to Norway (this takes place in book 1, The Bat). He’s back to his old ways—drinking and brooding—which is exactly what Norwegian authorities are looking for. A diplomat has been murdered in Bangkok, and the situation is delicate; a known drunk should give the Norwegian authorities just the surface-level investigation they need. Clearly they didn’t know much about Harry Hole! As always, his amazing ability to notice inconsistencies and things that aren’t quite right help to solve a complex case.

The book is a good balance between the investigation, the various players (Thai police officers, underworld characters, and the city of Bangkok itself), and Harry. He lacks the hint of optimism that briefly glimmered in The Bat and is developing into the tormented Harry Hole of the later books, but this is an intermediate step on that journey.

The first two books, The Bat and Cockroaches, are set in sun-drenched, exotic locations, while the rest of the series takes place in Norway. In a way, this makes sense: part of the reason I enjoy Nordic crime fiction is its setting, which is so different to where I live, so I’d expect that perhaps Norwegians feel the same way. But as an introduction of a long-running Nordic series to English-language readers, the first two books—both of which take place halfway around the world from Norway—perhaps aren’t the best choice. Nesbø’s writing gets better and better as the series progresses (especially his use of alternating POV and complex interwoven plot lines), so Cockroaches was a step back in that regard, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying it.

I’d recommend the Harry Hole series to anyone who enjoys crime fiction with a strong character development arc. These books are fantastic.

This book was furnished by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review: The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler

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TheHypnotistThe Hypnotist by Lars Kepler (Blue Key, 2012; originally published 2009)

Blurb: Tumba, Sweden. A triple homicide, all of the victims from the same family, captivates Detective Inspector Joona Linna, who demands to investigate the grisly murders—against the wishes of the national police. The killer is at large, and it appears that the elder sister of the family escaped the carnage; it seems only a matter of time until she, too, is murdered. But where can Linna begin? The only surviving witness is an intended victim—the boy whose mother, father, and little sister were killed before his eyes. Whoever committed the crimes intended for this boy to die: he has suffered more than one hundred knife wounds and lapsed into a state of shock. He’s in no condition to be questioned. Desperate for information, Linna sees one mode of recourse: hypnotism. He enlists Dr. Erik Maria Bark to mesmerize the boy, hoping to discover the killer through his eyes. It’s the sort of work that Bark had sworn he would never do again—ethically dubious and psychically scarring. When he breaks his promise and hypnotizes the victim, a long and terrifying chain of events begins to unfurl.

This is a monster of a book, and I mean that in the best way possible. The plot seems simple: the discovery of a man’s body leads police to his home, where his family has also been murdered, but somehow the son, Jack, has survived—barely. Hoping to find the boy’s missing sister—is she a suspect? is she another target?—Detective Inspector Joona Linna calls in Dr. Erik Maria Bark (and yes, there’s a “Boy Named Sue” joke in there) to help get information about the brutal attacks. And that’s where things get interesting. The last time Bark used hypnosis on a patient, the results were tragic and he was disgraced, both personally and professionally. In helping Linna, Bark breaks a promise, and the consequences are horrific and extend well beyond what anyone could have anticipated.

As with many Nordic crime novels, this one has multiple interwoven plot lines, and it’s not clear until the very end exactly how they fit together—or if they’ll fit together. This is a book where the subplots add depth and suspense to the main plot rather than detracting from it. What seems to be a relatively simple crime with a known perpetrator having complex motive turns out to be a series of crimes with equally complex motives, and no clear suspect. It kept me guessing right up until the end. The ending in particular was satisfying; in a book as dark as this one, that delves into the worst parts of the human psyche, sometimes it’s nice to have a bit of light at the end.

Although this is the first book in the Joona Linna series, as the title suggests, the central character is Bark, the titular hypnotist. I’m curious to read the next books to see how Linna’s character develops as the series progresses.

As an aside: “Lars Kepler,” actually a husband-and-wife writing team, was another of the new Swedish authors to be hyped as “the next Stieg Larsson.” I am hoping this need to compare everything to the one Swedish author most Americans have ever heard of will stop, and soon; I also enjoyed Larsson’s books, but the more Nordic crime fiction I read, the more tempted I am to go back and lower my ratings of the Larsson books. Just because they were my (and many other readers’) introduction to Nordic crime fiction doesn’t mean they’re the best examples or even that they’re representative of the genre.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review: Buzz by Anders de la Motte

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BuzzBuzz by Anders de la Motte (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2014): Game #2

Four months after Henrik Pettersson (HP) got out of the Game, he finds himself bored silly. He’s spent time in Thailand and India, smoking weed, having sex, and lounging around. He meets up with some acquaintances in Dubai, and that’s when things take a strange turn: a fun day out with friends ends in murder, and HP is the prime suspect. He manages to prove his innocence, but his appetite for hedonism is gone, and he returns to Sweden. But now he has a mission: to find out who really killed Anna Argos. Assuming the identity of his good friend, an IT whiz, HP takes a job at ArgosEye—and realizes the Game is even bigger than he’d imagined.

Meanwhile, HP’s sister Rebecca is trying to pick up the pieces of her life and her career following a disastrous assignment in Africa. Bad enough that her team isn’t backing her up, but Becca discovers she’s the target of a vicious online attack aimed at ruining her credibility. Who is this mysterious attacker, and why is he trying to destroy her? And more important, who can she trust to help her find out more?

Buzz has multiple subplots that only slowly come together to tell the whole story. HP’s and Rebecca’s stories are intercut in a way that adds to the tension and the sense of confusion; like Game, the first book in the series, this is a quick-moving story that would be absurd if it weren’t on the fringes of what is possible. The depiction of social networking and professional “trolls” rings true—and if that kind of targeted online action works to sell products and services, who’s to say it couldn’t be used to further a political or military agenda?

HP is still a slacker, still making all manner of bad decisions, but he’s a little older and wiser than he was in Game. If nothing else, he’s realizing that his actions have very real consequences for the people he cares about, and that sense of loyalty endeared him to me. The two siblings seemed to have little, if anything, in common in Game, but Buzz makes clear that Becca is just as much of an adrenaline junkie as HP. She’s got a dependable boyfriend and the option to be a career cop. Instead, she’s a bodyguard for Swedish diplomats who’s sent on assignment to places like Darfur, and she cheats on her boyfriend at just about every opportunity. I found myself wondering what would happen if Becca ever got curious enough to ever play the Game.

The final book in the trilogy is Bubble, and I’m excited to see how it ends.

This ARC was furnished by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

Review: In the Blood by Lisa Unger

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InTheBloodIn the Blood by Lisa Unger (Touchstone, 2014)

Lana Granger is a senior in college, taking a light course load (only three classes), and at her aunt’s suggestion she takes a part-time job babysitting a young boy named Luke. Luke goes to a nearby school for troubled children, and he is manipulative and controlling. As a psychology major, Lana has experience working with kids like Luke, and she’s careful in how she engages in Luke’s game-playing. But just as she’s getting to know Luke and his mother Rachel, Lana’s roommate Beck disappears—and the last anyone saw of Beck, she was fighting with Lana at the university library. Is there more to the story than Lana is telling?

In the Blood is all about secrets and lies, and the whole story is told in fits and starts, with teasers and hints dropped here and there in amongst the main action. Lana is an interesting character, which is good as much of the book takes place deep in her POV. However, it’s is also problematic because Lana keeps referring to her behavior and how others perceive her—she’s nothing if not self-aware, even when it comes to her self-deception—yet we don’t ever really get a sense of what she’s like from an outside source; while reading the thoughts of a character with a rich psyche full of vivid memories and details, I found it difficult to visualize her as externally emotionless.

As always, Unger has written a competent thriller, a good airplane book. I’m not sure whether too much information was given out or if my mind happened to go just the right way at just the right time, but about halfway through the book all the parceling-out of information stopped being intriguing and instead became annoying, kind of like a kid’s knock-knock joke that’s gone on a little too long. There’s nothing particularly new in In the Blood, but it is a fun read—even if you figure out where the twists are going to take you, it’s worth the read right up to the end.

This ARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars.