MAY MAYHEM: RECENT CRIME AND THRILLER READING
My late May reading has been dominated by two exciting police novels and a much hyped thriller that will dampen your enthusiasm for post-COVID flying!
M. W. Craven is very much a rising star on the British crime scene. His series about Detective Sergeant Washington Poe and civilian data analyst Tilly Bradshaw is a firm favourite of crime readers and the three novels in the series to date have all been longlisted for the prestigious Crime Writers Association’s Gold Dagger Award, with the first book, The Puppet Show, winning it in 2019.
The fourth book in the series, Dead Ground, will be released in early June 2021 and it is another superb piece of entertainment.
The book opens with Poe in court fighting eviction from his beloved and isolated croft, which is situated on a remote piece of moorland in Cumbria. The court case is interrupted when Poe is summoned to a backstreet brothel in Carlisle, where a man has been beaten to death with a baseball bat. It seems to be a simple assault and well outside Poe’s normal area of expertise, but the man is of interest to the security agencies and they have requested his involvement. It soon becomes clear that this is no normal brothel killing by a disgruntled pimp, and Poe finds himself caught up in a complex case involving old crimes and modern day security concerns.
To reveal more of the plot would be a crime, as much of the pleasure of Craven’s novels lies in the unexpected twists and turns of the narrative. Craven reminds me of Robert Goddard in his ability to take a simple opening premise and take it down a path you would never expect, and the storyline in Dead Ground certainly goes in some unpredictable and beguiling directions.
As with the earlier books in the series, there is a load of fascinating information on a whole range of things from ancient artefacts to the conduct of military investigations to housing regulations, all of which is delivered succinctly and interestingly, without slowing the pace of the story. Craven’s characterisations are finely tuned and engaging, and it is nice to be reacquainted with characters from the earlier books. The relationship between Tilly and Poe may be a little too cute at times, but this is very a minor quibble and easily overlooked as you become caught up in the story.
As usual, there is a good pace to the narrative and the book builds to a nicely orchestrated climax, which delivers all the requisite suspense and surprises. It may not be quite as gripping as the ending to Craven’s sublime last book, The Curator, but it is still very good.
In all, another confident and enjoyable crime thriller by Craven. Four and a half stars out of five!
Dead Ground will be released in the United Kingdom on 3 June 2021 and in Australia on 8 June. Thanks to Hachette and the Canberra Weekly for a copy of the book to review.
I am unforgivably late in getting to Natalie Conyer’s Present Tense, which won the 2020 Ned Kelly Award for debut Crime Fiction, but now that I have read it I can see what all the fuss is about.
Present tense is a tough and gripping police novel set in a harshly described modern South Africa. Veteran white cop Schalk Lourens is trying to put the past behind him as he struggles to adjust to the new regime. The past comes flooding back into the present, however, when he is summoned to the farm house of his old boss. Retired police chief Piet Pieterse has been murdered and necklaced, with a tyre placed round his neck, doused with petrol and set alight. It is a form of killing generally confined to collaborators during the apartheid era, so why would the obnoxious Pieterse be killed that way now? The Police Minister wants it wrapped up quickly and cleanly, but Lourens suspects that the reason behind the killing is far from simple or clean, especially with a volatile election underway.
This is a first class murder investigation thriller that dazzles with its depiction of a country under pressure. The descriptions of South Africa are gritty and seemingly realistic, and the plot nicely entwines the horrors of apartheid in the past with the political concerns of the present. The main storyline is fascinating and fast paced, and Natalie expertly winds her plot through several clever twists and some stunning surprises. The story quickly gathers momentum as it unfolds and the final chapters are very gripping.
Present Tense is grittier than Dead Ground, and the characters are much more flawed and nuanced. Schalk Lourens is a complex character and Natalie delivers him with a stark honesty that rings true. He is not always likeable, but he is certainly a very compelling character, who is trying to do his best in a difficult situation. The secondary characters are also well crafted, especially Lourens’ fellow police officers.
The plotting could have been tighter in a couple of places, but overall it is a very good read.
Present Tense is a very impressive first novel that gives Deon Meyer a run for his money and marks Natalie out as an author to watch for. I eagerly look forward to her next book. Four and a half stars out of five!
Present Tense was released in Australia by Clan Destine Press in 2019 and is available in paperback and on the Kindle. It is also available in the United Kingdom in Kindle and book form.
T. J. Newman’s Falling arrives in Australia on the back of considerable media hype and enthusiastic praise by other crime writers. It is also surprisingly being released here in advance of release in America and the United Kingdom.
The premise is misleadingly simple. Minutes after take-off veteran pilot Bill Hoffman receives an unexpected video call from a terrorist who has taken his family captive. Either crash his Los Angeles to New York flight into an undisclosed target or watch his family be blown up by the explosives strapped to them. If he tells anyone about the terrorist threat his family will killed. He is also told that another terrorist is onboard to make sure that he follows instructions. As Bill tries to thwart the terrorist’s plans the plane steadily makes it way north.
It is easy to quickly understand the enthusiasm for this thrill-a-minute thriller, the film rights for which have already been sold. The storyline utilises the classic ‘ticking time bomb’ plot, with the book’s timeline being determined by the five and a half hour flight between Los Angeles and New York. By the end of the flight either Bill’s family will be dead or the plane crashed, or both. This deadline looms over the story from the opening pages and Newman skillfully ratchets up the tension as the flight proceeds. Not unsurprisingly, Newman introduces some good twists and her smooth writing style makes the story unfold in a very readable manner. She also shows good skills in expanding out the original premise of the story and keeping it interesting and tense throughout.
Falling is meant to read in a couple of sittings and the focus is very much on the plot and maximising the suspense. The characters are quickly sketched, but mainly credible, and Newman uses succinct flashbacks to flesh out Bill Hoffman and his wife. Some of the other characters lack depth, and the terrorists remain a bit cliched, but this will not stop you from feverishly turning the pages to find out what will happen.
For once the hype is warranted. Falling is a terrific novel that does what a thriller is supposed to, thrill and entertain. It may put you off that post-COVID flight, but is well worth reading.
Four stars out of five for entertainment value.
Falling is released in Australia on 2 June 2021 and in the United Kingdom on 10 June and in the United States on 6 July 2021.
Thanks to Simon & Schuster and the Canberra Weekly for a copy of the book to review.