HOLIDAY READING BY TIM GLISTER, MARK ELLIS, GARY DONNELLY, SCOTT VON DOVIAK, BRYAN BROWN AND OTHERS
My recent holiday, involving several long distance flights, was a good opportunity to catch up on books that I had been meaning to read for some time, as well as some forthcoming titles.
Among the new releases I read were Ava Glass’ Traitor, Shelley Burr’s Ripper and Benjamin Stevenson’s Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect, all of which I have reviewed separately on this blog (just search under the author’s name). I also read some books which are coming out later this year, or early next year: Lee Goldberg’s Calico, The Drowning by actor turned writer Bryan Brown and Douglas Preston’s Extinction, which is destined to be one of the best speculative thrillers of 2024. I will be doing reviews on each of these closer to their release date, although I have to say that Bryan Brown’s The Drowning is well worth checking out. Set on the north east coast of Australia’s New South Wales, it is a smoothly written and very evocative small town crime novel, with a great cast of characters.
It was also good using the time to catch up on some authors who I had been meaning to read for some time.
I read Tim Glister’s Red Corona shortly after it came out in 2020, and enjoyed it, but had trouble tracking down his subsequent books in Australia. I picked up a copy of A Loyal Traitor (Point Blank, 2022) while in London and was quickly engrossed in Glister’s portrayal of Cold War spying.
A Loyal Traitor is set in 1966, some five years after Red Corona, and finds MI5 agent Richard Knox caught up in a complex plot involving internal Soviet power plays, brainwashing, threats to London and a ghost from Knox’s past. The story is quickly put in place and Glister keeps it all moving along nicely, with plenty of twists and turns. The depiction of 1960s London is convincing and the characters are suitably flawed and interesting. Knox is capable, but is no James Bond, and is frequently physically out-matched by the Russian agents. The Soviet plot at the centre of the story is very devious and is resolved in an unexpected manner. It also introduces a good cast of Russian characters to Glister’s series.
I really enjoyed A Loyal Traitor, and have now also read the subsequent novel, A Game Of Deceit, which moves the action to 1967 and Hong Kong. It is probably not as credible as Red Corona and A Loyal Traitor, but it is a cleverly plotted novel, with some great scenes. I am keen to see where Glister takes the series in future books.
Overall, the Richard Knox books are certainly well worth checking out, especially for those who enjoy intricate tales of spying.
I had heard good things about Scott Von Doviak’s new novel, Lowdown Road, and thought I would go back and read his first novel, Charlesgate Confidential (Hard Case Crime, 2018)
The story is set across three different timelines, which come together in totally unexpected ways. In 1946 a group of criminals pull off the heist of the century, stealing a dozen priceless works of art from a Boston museum. Some bloody betrayals ensure that the thieves get caught, but the missing art is never found. Forty years later, the last surviving thief gets out of jail and goes hunting for the loot, involving some innocent college students in his dangerous plan. Thirty years after that, in the present day, the former college kids, now all grown up, are drawn back into danger as the still-missing art tempts a deadly new generation of treasure hunters.
I was greatly impressed by Charlesgate Confidential and thought that its twist-filled narrative was one of the best things I have read this year. It is a very original concept, and Doviak smoothly moves the action from 1946 to 1988 to 2014 and back again. There are plenty of surprises, as the truth about the original heist and the events in the 1980s are gradually revealed. The characters are strong, and interesting, and the different time periods are convincingly portrayed. There are also some nice reflections on the passage of time and lost opportunities, and how things never quite work out as you expect.
The final ending is perhaps a little flat, but overall it was an outstanding read.
One of the finds of the holiday for me were a trio of novels by Gary Donnelly. Set in Northern Ireland the novels feature DI Owen Sheen and DC Aoife McCusker of the Serious Historic Offences Team in Belfast. Sheen is in Belfast on secondment from the Met to help the unit, but in the first novel, Blood Will Be Born, it is clear that the real reason that he is there is to pursue a very personal case. This also flows over into the second book, Killing In Your Name, which revolves around the nefarious activities of a covert British Army unit operating along the Irish border in the 1970s.
Never Ask The Dead (Allison & Busby, 2021) is the third novel in the series and finds Sheen now settled into his role at the Serious Historic Offences Team, and trying to balance the political agendas of his bosses and his thirst for justice. Sheen and his team are pulled into investigating the “Cyprus Three” killing of three IRA operatives in 1987, but are also chasing down a missing ex-policeman whose life is in danger. Both cases lead them to search for a high level double agent from the Troubles, known as TOPBRASS, who is still wielding considerable power. The bodies soon mount up and Sheen and Aoife find themselves in considerable danger.
Never Ask The Dead is a tough, exciting crime novel with a well constructed plot that weaves its way through some good surprises. The pace is brisk and the violence is gritty and real. As with the first two books, the characters are credible and interesting and Donnelly creates a strong sense of place. Elements from the first two books also flow into this one, adding extra texture to the story.
I really liked the action and excitement of the ending of Killing In Your Name, but thought that Never Ask The Dead was a more complex and satisfying novel, with a good, unexpected conclusion. All three of the books are well worth reading, and hopefully we will see more Sheen and Aoife novels soon.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Gary Donnelly in London for lunch, along with fellow author Mark Ellis (see below). The lunch was organised by Canadian reviewer and book collector Steele Curry, who ably keep the food and the drink and conversation flowing. It was great occasion and it was very interesting hearing from Gary and Mark about the inspirations for their books. Gary also indicated that a fourth Sheen novel may be on the way shortly.
In addition to being an engaging lunch companion, Mark Ellis is an accomplished author, although his books are hard to find in Australia.
To date, Mark’s five novels have focused on London detective DCI Frank Merlin who battles crime during the dark days of World War II. I have only read a couple of Mark’s books so far, but intend to catch up with all of them over the coming months. My favourite to date is The French Spy (Headline, 2018), which was originally released as Merlin At War.
The French Spy opens in Crete in 1941 with the British forces on the run from the Germans. After a gripping opening scene, the action moves to London where Scotland Yard detective Frank Merlin is investigating a series of disturbing events: a young girl killed in a botched abortion, a French emigre shot in a seedy Notting Hill flat and a mysterious letter written by a British officer recently gunned down in Crete. As Merlin and his team investigate the various cases, a complex web of intrigue unfolds in the background involving spies, rivalry between Allies, and crooked business dealings.
Ellis takes his time in setting the various elements in place, but once underway the story moves well and is aided by his rich descriptions of wartime London. Ellis is a keen student of history and the book is filled with a wealth of detail from the appearance of Vera Lynn at the Palladium to the complexity of Vichy French politics. Underlying it all is a good mystery plot that grabs attention and keeps the reader interested until the end.
In all, a very enjoyable historical crime novel and I am presently working my way through the other books in the series.
Offering a change of style is A Lonesome Blood-Red Sun (Level Best Books, 17 October 2023) by former policeman turned author David Putnam.
Set in the blood hot desert of San Bernardino County (California) in 1984, A Lonesome Blood-Red Sun follows the antics of maverick policeman David Beckett as he tackles crime in his own individual way. Tough and violent, with little regard for legality, Beckett follows his own code, which gets up the noses of his superiors. After a series of entertaining episodes, the story jumps forward three or four years to the main storyline. Beckett is now a Homicide detective, but because of his difficult personality and frequent insubordination, he is delegated to the task of identifying the bones of the many victims found in the desert. One day he makes a horrific discovery and becomes obsessed with identifying the victim and finding out who killed her.
This is very gritty reading. Beckett’s behaviour and attitudes will not be to everyone’s liking, but he certainly gets the job done. The jump in the time line brought some surprises with it and it kept me interested to see how things played out. The frequent action also makes for a good pace and easy reading.
I thought that some of the incidences in the book stretched credibility, but in an afterword Putnam explained how they were based on his own experiences as a policeman.
A solid read.
A Lonesome Blood-Red Sun will be released on Kindle and in paperback in the United States and the United Kingdom on 17 October 2023. Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced copy of the book for review.
So interesting batch of holiday books. I am now working my way through the pile of books that were waiting for me when I got home! Happy reading.