Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Blue Light Yokohama by Nicolás Obregón

This is a police procedural set in Japan. Our protagonist is Inspector Kosuke Iwata, newly transferred to Tokyo's homicide department from some provincial backwater, before which he trained with the police in America. His new partner is Assistant Inspector Noriko Sakai, a no-nonsense, tough, female cop. They’re assigned to a case nobody much cares for, the previous investigator having committed suicide. The crime Iwata and Sakai are now tasked with solving is the wholesale slaughter of a Korean family in their home. This case is of little interest to the department for two reasons: one the ethnicity of the victims, Japanese society characterised by deep-seated racism and prejudice towards Korean migrants, and two, the fact that their deaths have coincided with that of a famous actress, her passing attracting huge media interest.

Iwata and Sakai start to investigate the slaying of the Korean family and they discover a black sun was daubed inside the house. More killings follow and they soon realise that they have a serial killer on their hands. The Black Sun Killer, as they quickly daub him, is immensely strong having torn the hearts from his victims’ bodies. But he’s also incredibly clever and leaves virtually no trace. Iwata becomes obsessed with the case and with dogged determination tries to make headway, despite hostility from colleagues and interference from above.

Blue Light Yokohama is a gripping read; it’s a long book, running to 448 pages, but they swept by. I’m not normally one for serial killer fiction but this had me hooked. Both Iwata and Sakai are compelling characters, flawed and single minded in equal measure. If that sounds like a cliché -the maverick cop with a past - and in some ways, it is, the author carries it off with panache and a certain originality. For example, Iwata’s tragic history with his American wife was powerfully done and I felt for the character.

That all said, I had some issues with this novel. Normally in this kind of book the author leaves clues throughout the narrative as to the conclusion. Obviously if this is too obvious, the reader sees it coming a mile off. The ideal is to have the reader guessing until the final reveal, but then have them saying, “oh right, yeah I see that now.” What you don’t want is the author keeping everything to himself and then just dumping it on you in the final couple of chapters. That’s what Blue Light Yokohama does. While there are a few clues as to the killer’s identity – I guessed a few chapters from the end, much of their motivation is told to the reader in the last few pages. More concerning, there’s a major plot twist involving one of the main characters that just comes out of nowhere, a complete bolt out of the blue.

These aren’t major issues and I really did get through this novel in just a matter of days. I understand that it’s part of a series and we’ll be seeing more of Inspector Kosuke Iwata. I hope so.

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Blog Tour! Cursed by Thomas Enger

This is the fourth in a series of novels penned by this author (the others being Burned, Pierced, Scarred, respectively) and features recurring characters from the series, not least the two protagonists, Henning Juul and his ex-wife Nora. Obviously, the concern with a series is whether one can enjoy it as a newbie. I came to Cursed having not read any of Enger’s previous work, and while there is backstory that I feel I would have benefitted from, enough is explained in this novel when need-be for it not to have spoilt my enjoyment.

Henning and Nora are both journalists. In Cursed, they both end up working on the same story: the disappearance of Hedda Hellberg, a woman from one of Sweden’s wealthiest families. Hedda booked a few weeks at an Italian retreat but never arrived. What’s more, the retreat has no record of her ever booking. The last that was seen of Hedda was when her husband dropped her off at the airport. The husband asks Nora for help as she and Hedda were college roommates. This Nora does, but the case soon becomes murky as it appears that Hedda is somehow connected to the death of an old man gunned down in the forest.

Henning, meanwhile, is pursuing those he believes are responsible for the death of his son (he and Nora broke up after an arson attack on their home which killed him) which leads him to immerse himself in Sweden’s organised crime syndicates. His case leads him to Nora’s which prove to be intertwined.

One of the strong points in this novel is Henning and Nora’s relationship, both wracked with grief by the death of their son, an event which understandably rent their relationship in two. They still care for each other deeply, perhaps still love each other, but tragedy has left a chasm between them.

The plot is handled adroitly, though the backstory of the threats to Hennings life, the different organised crime figures he’s investigated in previous books, people who were sent to prison, died, might have had reason to target him resulting in the fatal arson attack on his home, did get a little confusing at times.

That said, Cursed is a gripping novel with strong characters and if anything, this complex backstory, rather than put me off, has had me buying Enger’s previous volumes.

4 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Little Heaven by Nick Cutter

This is the second of this author’s novels that I’ve read (the first being his excellent book, The Deep) and once again I’m impressed. Nick Cutter has been compared to Stephen King, not least by the great man himself, and it’s not hard to see why; a definite King vibe runs through this novel, from the general scepticism of religious fanaticism, to the mounting air of menace that builds and builds to nerve-shredding heights. But equally, some of King’s faults can be found here, not least the text’s length and the corresponding suspicion that it would have been a better book had some prose been cut.

The plot revolves around a bunch of gunslingers – the book description calls them mercenaries, but really, they’re more like gangsters – are employed by a woman to accompany her to a remote religious community. She’s concerned that her nephew has been taken there against his will by his deadbeat dad and she wants their help should she need to bust him out. Seeing this as an easy gig, the mercenaries/gangsters agree and go along for the ride. This being a horror novel of course, things don’t turn out so easy.

Nick Cutter is a great writer, a brilliant wordsmith, and undoubtedly this novel is a great read. The author really imbues the religious community with a sense of the sinister and one just knows that this isn’t going to be some paradise. He also imbues a real sense of terror to the characters’ first encounter with the supernatural element of the story. That scene I suggest you read during daylight hours, or at least with the light on.

This leads me to my first criticism of Little Heaven. Now to be fair, this might be because horror isn’t my preferred gene. My first choice of read is crime/thriller, horror coming a distant second. So, this might be a tad unfair of me. But I kept finding the supernatural/horror elements getting in the way. The author does such a good job of portraying the religious cult, it’s charismatic and crazy leader, that I kind of wanted him to write a book about a Jim Jones/Jonestown death cult, a study in a madman leading his followers to disaster. But of course, that’s not the focus of the novel – though it does form a strand of the story – and the horror is what the author is all about.

To be fair to Nick Cutter, the supernatural elements are all handled effectively. As I indicate above, many scenes are really scary, the sort of thing that may well give you nightmares. If horror is your thing, if you’re a fan of Stephen King, then this is a book you should read. Until the end that is. And that leads to my second criticism. The ending.

Now I must stop you here because I can’t discuss this without delivering a major spoiler. No, seriously, MAJOR SPOILER COMING! Seriously people! Stop. Reading. Now. SPOILER ALERT!

Ok. Can’t say I didn’t warn you. The main threat to the characters in this novel are ancient demons. The main demon, the big baddie, lives in people it kind of captures. Like a parasite, it feeds on their souls until there is nothing left. So far, so horror affair. But these demons can be killed, right? With just weapons. And throughout the book, the mercenary/gunmen kill demons. That’s Ok, too. Now at the very end, one of the gunmen’s daughter is captured by the main demon. He travels into its lair with his buddies and he has a bomb secreted with him. He makes a deal with the demon: let my daughter go and you can have me. The demon says ok and lets the daughter go. The gunman tells his buddies to take his little girl away. As she escapes, he blows up the tunnel, trapping himself and the demon. So, the demon can have him but can’t escape and prey on anyone else.  But why? Why not run off with his daughter and blow up the tunnel, trapping the demon alone? There is literally no sense in this ending. The demon is unable to move fast, it’s like a little slug thing. He could have killed it, trapped it, anything. The only sense in this ending is to hold it open for a potential sequel (and indeed, the other mercenaries/gunmen discuss going back for him at the end). Other than that, it makes no sense whatsoever. And that annoys me.

All in all, this is a good book. A little too long, would rather there was more on the cult (but to be fair, that reflects my own reading tastes). My biggest complaint is the ending, which to me at least, made little sense. But if you like Stephen King, you could do a lot worse than read this.

4 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

BLOG TOUR! The Hit by Nadia Dalbuono BLOG TOUR!

This is the third in the author’s series of novels and it’s every bit as good as those that precede it. Once again, we’re with Detective Leone Scamarcio of the Rome police force. This time he is assigned to a road traffic accident involving the family of one of Italy’s leading television executives. Micky Proietti was in a chauffeur-driven limo with his wife and young son when they were rammed off the road. A good Samaritan called an ambulance. The paramedics dutifully turned up to take his injured child and wife to the hospital. But then, when the police arrive and chase it up, the two have vanished and there is no record of them being taken to any hospital.

Scamarcio is a good detective and it doesn’t take him long to realise that there is something strange going on and not just the obvious. Proietti is acting strangely, almost like he doesn’t want to help them find his family. No one in the industry has a good word to say about Micky and it soon becomes apparent that his private life is a convoluted mess. In fact, his affairs lead to top level politicians, leading actors and other showbiz figures and politicians. 

Then there’s the Calabrian connection with which Scamarcio must tread carefully. For our protagonist heralds from the region, which is the geographical birthplace of the ‘Ndrangheta, currently Italy’s most powerful mafia. This perhaps wouldn’t be such a problem for him, if Scamarcio’s own father hadn’t been a renowned mafia godfather. The upshot is that despite his gifts, a pall of suspicion has always hung over him and while his boss has always held him in high regard, others in the force do not trust him at all. 

In some ways, The Hit plays for lower stakes than Dalbuono’s previous two novels. The plot of The American, the second in the series, encompassed a conspiracy of literally global proportions. In fact, in my review of The American I worried that Scamarcio might have reached his peak too early. I needn’t have worried, for while our protagonist doesn’t face quite such jeopardy, this is no cozy mystery. The American was an excellent book but I quite enjoyed the change of pace in The Hit, which allowed Scamarcio to examine an alien world – that of showbiz – with the distance of an anthropologist. There’s almost a sense of he and his colleagues scratching their heads at the strange, self-obsessed denizens that populate this world. 

That’s not to say that Scamarcio doesn’t face any risks in The Hit. In the last two novels, he has become increasingly beholden to his father former number two, who after his father’s murder appears to have taken the top spot. This man now comes calling, putting Scamarcio in an impossible position and a strong sub-plot is of his efforts to break free once and for all. So, whereas The American had at its heart an existential threat, the danger in The Hit is much more personal. 

All in all, this is a great third novel is a series that has been consistently strong. I look forward to book number four. 

5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Blue on Blue by Charles Campisi

Police corruption is a subject that I’ve been interested in for a good few years, right back to when I myself worked in current affairs journalism. In the UK there are two books which looked at police corruption in London’s Metropolitan Police, Bent Coppers by Grahame McLagan and Untouchables by Michael Gillard and Laurie Flynn. Broadly speaking, Bent Coppers argues that the Met was effective in combatting the scourge of corruption, while Untouchables takes a far more pessimistic view. What these books both have in common is that their authors are journalists, a police officer involved in the fight against corruption has yet to put pen to paper.

Across the Atlantic, in New York, the reverse is now the case. Charles Campisi was head of the NYPD’s Internal Affairs division from 1996 through to 2014, and his book Blue on Blue outlines his experiences. A lot happened in New York during his tenure. As mayor, Guliani presided over his so-called zero-tolerance. While some claim that led to a drop in crime, a number of police officers appear to have taken it as a green light for brutality. This is not to place the blame for any of what happened at Guliani’s door, I’m not suggesting that he bears any responsibility, but a minority of officers do appear to have interpreted the policy this way.

A big difference between the Met’s problems and those of the NYPD seem to be the scale of violence. Undoubtedly, this is in no small part due to New York officers being routinely armed. Campisi developed a reputation as incorruptible, as something of a hard-nosed investigator, and his tenure at IAD saw a marked fall in the number of New Yorkers gunned down by police and the number of officers who failed integrity tests. That said, he still presided over some harrowing cases. The choking death of Anthony Baez, the killing of Amadou Diallo who was shot nineteen times by police, and Abner Louima who was sexually assaulted by NYPD officers, are just some of those he had to deal with. Then there were the officers trafficking drugs and helping organised crime.

As mentioned, both books written on the Met’s battle against corruption have been penned by journalists. Having read Campisi’s book, it would be interesting to read a journalist’s perspective on New York’s battle. Similarly, I would love a Met police officer to pen an insider account as Campisis has done. Only when we have both can we hope to have something close to a complete picture.

That said, Charles Campisi has written an engaging and intelligent account of the NYPD’s battle against corruption and it’s a book I have no hesitation in recommending.

 5 out of 5 stars.

Trojan by Alan McDermott

I’ve read several of this author’s previous works, all of which featured Tom Gray, an ex-SAS soldier, as their protagonist. I’ve reviewed them all positively, as they’re without exception, excellent titles. Trojan is the author’s first standalone title, featuring characters which appeared in the earlier novels, but with Tom Gray absent. Instead, Andrew Harvey and Sarah Thompson of MI5 take centre stage.

As with Alan’s previous novels, the plot of Trojan is very topical, dealing with an ISIS inspired terror plot aimed at mass casualties in the UK. It also addresses the European Union’s refugee crisis and the risk therein of terrorists infiltrating our borders by hiding amongst genuine asylum seekers. It is important to note here, that Alan makes clear in an author’s note at the start of the book that the novel is not intended as an anti-immigrant rant. But the fact is that there is a potential security threat in such large numbers of people crossing international borders, while criminals and terrorists will try to take advantage of any perceived vulnerabilities.

The earlier novels, which featured Tom Gray at the fore, were by nature a little more action packed than Trojan. That is to expected, seeing as Gray is former special forces. Harvey and Thompson are more cerebral, investigators rather than fighters, and this novel reflects that. There is still action in Trojan, but the novel is more of a procedural, following their efforts to unearth the nature of the terrorist threat, locate the perpetrators, track them down and effect their arrests.

Trojan works on its own terms and the fact that it is less action packed than Alan’s previous titles is not a criticism. Indeed, in some ways I preferred this to his earlier titles. That doesn’t mean that I don’t look forward to the return of Tom Gray; I will snap up the next title in that series as soon as it hits the shelves, but I would also like to see Alan write more in this vein

Highly recommended, 5 out of 5 stars.