NOVEMBER 2023 READING: KEVIN POWERS, DAVID WHISH-WILSON, GILLIAN McALLISTER, JORDAN HARPER
Over the past few weeks I have been trying to catch up on some highly recommended books that I missed from earlier in the year, as well as picking over the best of the newer releases.
David Whish-Wilson is an Australian crime writer who probably does not receive the attention he deserves. In a forest of outback mysteries and domestic suspense novels, his tough, gritty urban crime tales stand out for their vivid writing and astutely observed characters who tread a fine line between villain and hero.
His latest book, I Am Already Dead (Fremantle Press, October 2023), is a terrific novel that really grips from the opening pages and holds attention till the end. It is the second entry in his series about trainee private investigator Lee Southern, first seen in True West, who finds himself drawn into a web of danger and deceit as he investigates a series of bribery attempts targeting a wealthy entrepreneur. Under the expert tutelage of Whish-Wilson’s other regular character, retiring PI Frank Swann, Lee uses all of his developing skills, instincts and cunning to get to the heart of a sordid mystery that is linked to the kidnapping of the entrepreneur’s daughter several years before. As Lee delves deeper into the case, and questions the intentions of those he is working for, he finds himself the target of increasingly ominous threats and several attempts on his life.
This is a superior piece of crime fiction. The plotting contains the requisite amount of action and surprises, and is well supported by good, pared back dialogue, credible and interesting characters and some evocative descriptions of Perth in the early 1990s. In some ways it reminds me of the great Peter Temple, with the subtlety of its dialogue and storytelling, and the ever present suggestion of corporate greed and political corruption. There are also some rich character building scenes as we watch Lee painstakingly restoring cars while thinking through the implications of the case he is working on. Top shelf crime fiction, with a tough and bloody conclusion.
I Am Already Dead was released in Australia in October 2023. It is available on Kindle in the United Kingdom.
Jordan Harper’s Everybody Knows, (Mulholland Books, January 2023), has been out in America for some time, but is not due for general release in Australia until early next year. I listened to the Audible version, which was superbly narrated by Tracie Frank and Chris Ciulla.
Mae Pruett is a ‘black-bag’ publicist at one of Hollywood’s most powerful crisis PR firms. Mae’s job is not to get good news out, it is to keep the bad news in and contain the scandals. It is something that she is very good at. The morality of it all, however, is beginning to get to her. When her boss, Dan, tells her that he has a ‘get rich’ scheme, she agrees to meet in secret with him. However, on the way to their meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Dan is gunned down in the street, and everything changes.
Investigating Dan’s death, with the help of an ex-boyfriend, Chris, a drugged-up muscle for hire, Mae dives headlong into a neon joyride through the jungle of contemporary Hollywood. Pitted against the twisted system she’s worked so hard to perpetuate, she’s desperately fighting for redemption, and her life.
Everybody Knows is a searing indictment of Hollywood, celebrities and the power of the wealthy. The pacing is brisk, and the staccato writing has a James Elroy air to it. Mae and Chris also have that Elroy feel about them as they embark on their desperate mission of vengeance and self gain. The vivid LA setting and the ultra up-to-date plot, however, are all Jordan Harper and the shifting viewpoint between Mae and Chris adds considerable energy to the story.
Mae and Chris are not likeable, but Harper makes them understandable, and it is very easy to become caught up in their dark journey through the glitz, glamour and poverty of LA. The final fifty pages, or so, are very hard to put down.
Everybody Knows is being talked about as a leading contender for this year’s crime fiction awards and it is very easy to see why. Recommended for fans of tough fiction and neo-noir.
I also listened to the Audible version of British author Gillian McAlister’s Just Another Missing Person, (Michael Joseph, 8 August 2023).
The story opens very intriguingly with 22 year old Olivia being caught on CCTV entering a dead end alleyway one dark night, and never coming out. Her new flat mates notify the police about her disappearance, but the police are at a lost to explain what happened to her. DCI Julia Day heads up the team investigating this puzzling case, which gets a lot more complicated when Julia is blackmailed into planting evidence and framing a young man for Julia’s disappearance and likely death.
I have mixed feelings about this one. The story certainly gets you in, and Gillian skilfully shifts the perspective between the various characters to build the suspense and to keep the reader guessing as to what is going on. There are surprises and twists galore, and the plot certainly holds interest. About the halfway mark, I thought that I had worked out what Gillian was doing and what the likely outcome would be, but I was only partially right and there were good shocks all the way to the last page.
My issue with the book was the characters. I could not warm to any of the three main protagonists and the repetitive discussions about how they were feeling: guilt, regret, sense of loss and fear about what a loved one was up to, became overwhelming for me. This, however, may have been exacerbated by listening to the story, rather than reading it, and not being able to skip over parts. I also liked the twist on the final page, but thought that some of the other revelations did not really hold up.
In all, I thought that Just Another Missing Person was a clever crime novel, that will appeal to those who enjoy domestic suspense thrillers with a lot of twists.
Thriller expert Mike Ripley alerted me to A Line In The Sand by Kevin Powers (Sceptre, May 2023) and I am very glad that he did.
This is a well grounded and very suspenseful thriller with a good plot and some convincingly sketched characters. The story opens with Arman Bajalan, formerly an interpreter in Iraq, discovering a dead body on a Norfolk beach in Virginia. Arman is on a special visa in America, given to him for his work with the US military in Iraq, which resulted in his wife and child being killed. Arman has been given lonely sanctuary in the US as a maintenance worker at the Sea Breeze Motel, but when he discovers the body and identifies the killers, he knows that his past has come back to haunt him.
Seasoned detective Catherine Wheel and her newly minted partner are assigned to the beach murder case, but have little to go on beyond a bus ticket in the dead man’s pocket. It leads them to Sally Ewell, a local journalist as grief-stricken as Arman is by the Iraq War, who is investigating a corporation on the cusp of landing a multi-billion-dollar government defense contract. As victims mount around Arman, taking the team down wrong turns and towards startling evidence, they find themselves in a race to uncover the truth before the killers get to Arman.
Powers does not waste any time in putting the elements of his plot in place, and he smoothly sets the story off at a quick canter, with some great action set pieces. The conspiracy plot is well worked out and meshes well with the increasingly frantic police investigation. As with the books by Whish-Wilson and Jordan Harper, the characters are believable and interesting and go beyond the normal thriller stereotypes.
The broader themes about the war in Iraq and the impact of loss on people are also well handled, and do not intrude on the forward momentum of the book. A superior thriller that is among the year’s best.
So, four very different, but very entertaining books. I thought that the David Whish-Wilson book was the pick of them, although Kevin Powers’ A Line In The Sand and Jordan Harper’s Everybody Knows were not far behind.