Book Review

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The Curator, by M.W.Craven

Mike Craven spent his formative years in the army, travelling the world, and when he left, he became a probation officer before turning his hand to fiction writing, so he has a fair breadth of experience in the less salubrious aspects of human life upon which to draw for his fiction, and if this story is exemplary of his, to date, minimal canon, he does draw upon this experience; although, to be fair, the violence and psychopathic lack of concern for other human beings’ suffering here is no worse than I have encountered in other thrillers, nor is it worse than any one might find in the output of more ‘respectable’ and well-embedded authors, such as Agatha Christie. This book is the latest entrant in the Washington Poe series, which to date consists of two precursors & one short story collection; other than that, there are two books in the Avison Fluke series—Fluke is a police detective inspector, and it would appear that Craven has a predilection for slightly unusual names, although that could be a canny device that helps to ensure that his character names are remembered, given the multiplicity of police characters from which readers can choose.

Washington Poe is a police officer; a sergeant; he is not a regular detective however, but an analyst in the Serious Crimes Analysis Section: “the National Crime Agency unit charged with investigating serial killers and apparently motiveless murders”, and he is based in Cumbria, a very scenic part of England. By way of a difference in police procedurals, Poe’s partner is not another detective, or a superior officer, but a nerdy female data analyst, Matilda ‘Tilly’ Bradshaw [apologies if the term ‘nerdy’ seems unfair, or ungallant, but surely that can just as easily be applied to a woman as to a man?]. Tilly is highly intelligent, coming to SCAS, her first ‘real’ job, from more years in academia than most graduates, and she is very probably somewhere on the autism spectrum; although I must admit I am slightly uncomfortable with this concept, as I think nearly everybody could be so categorised to some degree, and it does enable people with that particular character flaw to be judgmental about those who are, as I might describe it, otherwise enabled. Suffice to say that Poe, the name he is mostly called, and Tilly are fast friends, and her logic counteracts his more impetuous approach to policing.

The story starts with three murders, which are not discovered until after three pairs of fingers, each of which pairs is cut from the same individual victim, but also, each finger in a pair is cut at a different time: one ante mortem, and the other post mortem. The finger pairs are left in seemingly random locations, and there are no clues, including usable CCTV images, as to who left the gruesome gifts. There is only one common factor, other than the fingers themselves, which ties the three murders together: at each scene, the tag #BSC6 has been left; two are printed on ordinary paper, but the third is custom-printed onto a beverage mug, and substituted for an innocuous mug in a Secret Santa game, intended to facilitate a marriage proposal. Needless to say, the proposal doesn’t happen, although there are other complicating circumstances surrounding the endeavour. The hashtag on these cryptic texts suggests an internet connection, and the unsettling connection is soon found. Tilly & Poe discover who all three victims were in fairly short order, but it isn’t until Poe is contacted by an FBI agent, who is in the wilderness professionally, because of her allegedly outlandish theories, that the British investigators are informed about the subject of the story: the Curator, an anonymous contract killer.

Poe is more accommodating to the American’s information than her own colleagues & superiors have been, but it is some time before he & Tilly can ascertain the common element which caused the deaths of the three British victims; they are also mindful of the fact that a killer, who could strike so apparently easily and anonymously, could very possibly strike again, so as is common in many such stories, there is a race against time to prevent this and catch the perpetrator. Given that the violence was not too graphic, and that the tension was nicely applied, I enjoyed reading this story, and Craven’s characters are interesting enough, without being unnecessarily eccentric, so I would be very happy to find another of his books. The paperback I read was published in 2020 by Constable, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, London, ISBN 978-1-47213-194-2.

Book Review

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Fool Me Twice, by Jeff Lindsay

I’ve never watched the Dexter television series, but I am aware of it, and the fact that the main character is a medical professional who also happens to be a serial killer; so, an antihero, who evidently is able to work while cosynchronously indulging his murderous obsession, but only on criminals, so that’s all right, isn’t it? Coincidentally, this premise is similar to that of another television series, starring the ever-dependable Michael Sheen [and, latterly, another south Walian, Catherine Zeta Jones], although in the latter case, Michael Sheen’s character, referred to as The Surgeon [because that was what he was, ya know?] was caught and incarcerated in a New York high-security penal institution. Anyway, all this preamble is to provide background information to the author, who also wrote the Dexter source books, of which this is, however, not one. That said, the main character in this book, Riley Wolfe, is an antihero career criminal, for whom we are presumably encouraged to root; similarly to Dexter, and Dr John Whitley, Michael Sheen’s character in Prodigal Son [Sky One].

The Wolfe character was introduced in a previous book, Just Watch Me, but the stakes have been raised to an extreme level in this sequel; I was debating whether to use the adjective implausible but, given that this is fiction, I suppose it should be possible to allow a certain latitude in this assessment. Wolfe is being coerced into what is, ostensibly, an impossible theft, on behalf of the world’s richest & most dangerous arms dealer, who lives in impregnable security on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean, and also has a passion for great art, which generally happens to be ensconced in very secure facilities, such as museums; unfortunately for Wolfe, the coercion doesn’t only apply to him, but also to his lady friend [and potential partner], Monique, and Wolfe’s mother, who is living in a persistent vegetative state, so requiring round the clock care. Just to add another level of jeopardy to the situation, the second most successful arms dealer in the world is also aware of Wolfe’s plight, and is therefore using Wolfe to facilitate the elimination of the top man. Oh, and did I mention that the FBI is also highly desirous of curtailing Wolfe’s criminal career, and is aware of the latest developments?

How on earth could Wolfe get out of this one intact, you might very reasonably ask? Well, I can’t tell you, of course, and the way he recovers from physical punishment does stretch credibility somewhat, but he is a fit young man who is adept at parkour, so that much is just about plausible; also, the technique which is used to apparently facilitate the robbery, whilst not currently existing, is at least, theoretically, feasible. I could see this making a very enjoyable film, but I will refrain from any casting suggestions, which is generally a minefield! I would certainly recommend this book, if you like high-tension heist stories, but be aware that there is no shortage of profanity in it! The paperback version I read was published in 2021 by Orion Fiction, ISBN 978-1-4091-8668-7. I will definitely keep my eyes open for Lindsay’s previous Wolfe story and any Dexter books which I might happen to find.

Book Review

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The Hollow Ones, by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan

When I saw the name of “the visionary director of The Shape of Water” [with which I was already familiar, but I suppose not every potential reader is] on the cover, in a prominent position at the top, my attention was drawn to it immediately; I wasn’t aware hitherto that he was also an author, although it is not uncommon for film directors to have authorial input to their films, but his bio at the back only mentions his very successful films*. However, I was prepared to take a risk with this book; I am guessing that Chuck Hogan [whose name suggests he should be a wrestler or stuntman] is the primary writer, given that he is [the usual publishing hyperbole notwithstanding] “a New York Times bestselling novelist”, with GdT supplying the fantasy element of this story. I am normally somewhat selective with my fantasy fiction, but the cover promises, courtesy of The Guardian, that this story is “Like a Jack Reacher crime thriller [of which I have read enough to know what to expect] … with a Van Helsing-style demon hunter”, so to reiterate, I thought it would be worth a risk.

Indeed it was, in my humble estimation anyway. It starts off, to set the scene, with a prelude, describing a mysterious cast iron Edwardian mailbox, situated in the financial district of Manhattan, New York; “a sliver of a property that officially stands as 13½ Stone Street.” Some history is given, and the prelude ends by saying that “Every letter that arrives at The Box is a letter of urgent need—a desperate call for help—and every single envelope carries the same name:

Hugo Blackwood, Esq.

This name is “a tribute to one of our most admired authors and the originator of the occult detective subgenre, Algernon Blackwood”, and the tribute ends with a macabre observation “that grave robbing in New Jersey, for occult purposes, is not at all fiction or a thing of the past. It’s happening. Right now.” So far, so portentous.

The story then gets going in more conventional thriller mode, introducing two FBI agents, the female of whom is a relative newcomer, Odessa Hardwicke, whilst the other is the more experienced Walt Leppo. It was a normal working night, but very quickly, it morphed into X-Files territory, when the first of a series of ‘rampage’ killings occurred, which proves fatal for one of the agents. Two other time periods are included in parallel: 1962, when a black FBI agent named Earl Solomon is sent to the Mississippi Delta to investigate the lynching of a white man, for obviously political reasons; and England in 1582, when the young barrister, Hugo Blackwood, encounters “Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer, spymaster, and scientist”, John Dee, and Edward Talbot, aka Edward Kelley, one of “various mystics who claimed to be in contact with higher realms”, in Mortlake [but not “Greater London”, as the book states, which is a ceremonial county not established until April 1, 1965!], a village that then was part of the county of Surrey. Both Solomon & Blackwood figure in the present-day action, but of the two, Blackwood is the more helpful, albeit initially grudgingly [and almost psychopathically dispassionately], because Solomon is recovering from a recent age-related stroke; Odessa is not immediately aware of Blackwood’s unusual condition, and understandably, it takes her a while to accommodate it.

Overall, this is a quite well structured narrative, and there is a conclusion of sorts when the culprit of the killings is neutralised, but an element of doubt must remain, because the subtitle at the beginning of the book is “The Blackwood Tapes, vol. 1”, which refers to the audio tapes Solomon made during the course of his career, and would suggest that a sequel is to be expected: this paperback version, ISBN 978-1-529100-96-9, was published in 2021 by Del Rey, London. A search using the ISBN doesn’t show any reference to a sequel, so I can only presume that it is either still in preparation, or the idea has been abandoned, pro tem.

*According to the list at the very front of the book, GdT has in fact written ten books on his own account, both fiction & non-fiction; he has also collaborated with Hogan on three other books; Hogan has written five, all fiction presumably; so they are a web-established and productive team.

Book Review

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Launch Code, by Michael Ridpath

This novelist’s name is not one I have encountered before, but he has written eleven other novels, as well as five novels set in Iceland, during the writing of which he “fell in love” with that country: he now also publishes a blog called writinginice, from which a non-fiction book, Writing in Ice: A Crime Writer’s Guide to Iceland, has sprung. The bio on his website tells us that he was privately educated and worked first as a credit analyst, then a ‘junk bond’ trader, so it is unlikely that his experience could be categorised as the ‘school of hard knocks’, but nevertheless, he seems to have an impartial take on humanity’s character flaws: “Working in the City, I had come across some pretty dodgy characters … the shades of grey interested me.” This novel starts off as a thriller, time-shifting between what became known as the Cold War, specifically 1983-4, and the present day; it then morphs into a murder mystery, and quite a tense one at that.

Former Lieutenant William (Bill) Guth, USN, previously assistant weapons officer on the USS Alexander Hamilton, has made a home for himself and his five daughters in Norfolk, after being transferred to England by his American employer; unfortunately, his wife, Donna, died some years ago, but she still figures very strongly in his memory, and in this story, which is played out by the use of regular flashbacks. An incident occurs on board the nuclear missile carrying submarine which brings the world to the brink of nuclear war, but it was clearly averted, or else there would be no present day story to relate. As the narrative develops, details are released gradually as to what occurred on the sub, but only enough details to give the reader one version of the story, which is then changed as new information is released, of necessity in response to the death of a British researcher who is trying to discover the true extent of the danger the world faced, and how close to destruction it came.

The main character of Bill Guth is deliberately, but also cleverly, presented as being ambiguous in his motives, and for a while suspicion falls on his eldest daughter Alice, to the consternation of her loving, but increasingly concerned British husband, Toby; the security services of both countries are also in the mix, which adds another layer of intrigue to the story. I think this is a worthwhile effort, because it throws some light, albeit guesswork to some extent, on the procedures designed to prevent the accidental release of nuclear weapons, and the questionable value of them as a deterrent (all the more so, given Boris Johnson’s pig-headed determination to ill-advisedly increase the size of Britain’s nuclear ‘arsenal’), and the fairly obvious fact that the world has escaped destruction only because brave individuals on both ‘sides’ were prepared to risk their careers, and possibly also their lives, to overrule the automatic systems that were supposed to be foolproof; commendably, the Russians are portrayed as being no more belligerent, and just as fallible as the Americans, as the two quotes at the beginning of the book illustrate:

Never, perhaps, in the post-war decades was the situation in the world as explosive and hence more difficult and unfavourable as in the first half of the 1980s.

Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, 1986

We may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it.

Robert Gates, Deputy Director of CIA and later Secretary of Defense

I will certainly look out for other books by this author, and look forward to reading them as & when I find them. This one is published in paperback by Corvus, London, 2020, ISBN 978-1-78649-701-7.