SEPTEMBER SUSPENSE: Books by Margaret Hickey, Jack Grimwood and Lachlan Page
Suspense and surprises abound in my early Spring (Australia) reading!
First up is the vivid and evocative Cutters End (Penguin) by Margaret Hickey. Set in the South Australian outback, it is a well constructed and very engaging debut crime novel that explores some important issues about the unevenness of justice.
Three decades ago a burnt and broken body was discovered in scrub off the Stuart Highway, some 300 kilometres south of the small town of Cutters End. The death was ruled an accident, but many people suspect it was murder, including a high profile celebrity who is pushing for the case to be re-opened. Detective Sergeant Mark Ariti is given the chance to resurrect his career by re-investigating the case and confirming the original finding. Things are complicated for Ariti, however, as he knows some of the people tangentially involved in the case, and as he digs old secrets come to the surface.
This is a well written novel that steadily draws the reader into its grip. Some sleight of hand by the author plays with the reader’s expectations early in the novel and Margaret effectively uses the dual time line of 1989 and 2021 to generate interest and suspense. As the story progresses, more mysteries are revealed and the tension mounts as Ariti and local police constable Jagdeep Kaur close in on the solution to the morally complex case.
There is a lot to like in this book, especially the depth of the characterisations and the rich descriptions of the Australian countryside. Margaret also brings to life the dusty single building stops along the Stuart Highway and the dynamics of small town relationships in Cutters End. The depiction of Australian society in the 1980s rings true and Margaret smoothly weaves some complex moral issues into the story without over-burdening it. There are also some neat twists towards the end, and the final resolution is satisfying and credible.
On the other hand, some more suspense and tension would have been welcomed towards the end, and there were a couple of errors – podcasts in 1994 and a wrong date heading – in the proof version that I read. These are quibbles, however, and overall it is a good slice of outback noir.
Four stars out of five!
Cutters End was released in Australia on 31 August 2001 by Penguin. Thanks to the publisher and the Canberra Weekly for an advanced copy of the book.
Australian author Lachlan Page also makes an interesting debut with his spy novel, Magical Disinformation (W J Press, November 2020).
Set in a well described Colombia, it is a witty and amusing take on the spy genre. Oliver Jardine is a British spy in Colombia. Enamoured with a local woman, he is upset when the focus of the British government moves away from Colombia in search of greater threats and he is slated for a transfer elsewhere. Desperate to stay, he starts concocting intelligence reports. Similar to Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana, Jardine’s intelligence reports begin taking on a life of their own and he soon finds himself in danger as the bodies start to mount.
Combining action with humour and wit, Magical Disinformation is an easy going spy thriller that draws you in and keeps you interested. The descriptions of Colombia are rich and evocative, and Page seamlessly weaves in a lot of interesting background information on the country and the people. The dialogue is witty, and there is a nice sense of cynicism to the exchanges, as in this reaction to a bombing near the Embassy:
“Jane continued. ‘Fortunately, no British subjects were killed. Will mean less paperwork to fill out.'”
The story moves along at a reasonable pace, and the plot builds to a bloody final shoot-out and a neat conclusion. The action could have been brisker at times, but overall it is an entertaining read.
Three and a half to four stars out of five!
Magical Disinformation is available in Australia and overseas through Amazon in book form and on the kindle (at a very good price).
I have been a bit slow catching up with Jack Grimwood’s Island Reich (Michael Joseph), which was released in Australia in June with very little fanfare, but I am very glad that I have now done so.
Set during the early years of World War II, it is a terrific spy thriller that centres on the Allied and German maneuvering around the former British king, Edward the Duke of Windsor and his American divorcee wife, Wallis Simpson. Bill O’Hagan, a disillusioned ex-soldier and safecracker, is saved from the hangman’s noose and sent to the Channel Island of Alderney, which is under German occupation. The British want him to extract some secret documents from a German safe, while masquerading as a missing farmer from Africa, and Nazi sympathiser, Sir William Renhou, who is also a friend of the former king. The plan goes awry, however, when O’Hagan finds Sir Renhou’s wife in residence. Meanwhile, Edward and Wallis Simpson are on the move from France to Spain and Portugal. All the while being courted by German contacts who want the Duke to express his support for Hitler.
Grimwood, pseudonym of fantasy writer Jon Courtenay Grimwood, expertly blends fact and fiction as he pulls the various strands of his intricate plot together. The book rockets along at a good pace, and there are plenty of twists and turns as events reach an exciting conclusion on Alderney Island and elsewhere. The use of memos, letters and short chapters, certainly help to keep the pace frantic and there is an abundance of interesting historical detail. The characters are nicely sketched and convincing, and the setting of Alderney is well described and interesting.
A thoroughly enjoyable read and one of my favourite thrillers of 2021.
Four and a half stars out of five!
Island Reich is available worldwide
Thanks to fellow reviewer and thriller aficionado Steele Curry for the enthusiastic recommendation!
Thanks again, Jeff. Two of these books are on my reading horizon, and I may have to add the third.