DEAR DAUGHTER – Elizabeth Little

From a writer’s point of view, the sheer readability and the Voice of the author through the cocky protagonist, Janie Jenkins, is a winner and is enviable.

That the secondary characters, except for one exception, have not the depth is not only inevitable, but almost immaterial, except as a base for the criticism of perfectionists. And, in truth, they have a lot to pick holes in.

For readers, this tale of a convicted murderer trying to find out the truth behind the death of her mother (that exception) is either a hit or a dismal miss, as witness displays from reviewers of one star or four out of five with not much in between. The role of Janie as teenage spoilt socialite, convicted murderer, then detective, is a difficult one to play, but all the more convincing due to her obvious imperfections. She is a quick learner with a cutting, not always kind, wit. She is a stubborn, tough survivor, fairly adept at protecting her vulnerable core, and uses anyone’s weaknesses to her advantage. Blunt, quick, bright and decisive, she often acts before her decisions have completely gelled, which keep her, as well as her adversaries and her allies, on the hop.

Her most faithful ally, the one mostly wrong-footed after he has gotten her out of prison on a technicality after a ten-year fight, is her lawyer. And what mostly sustains her throughout is her hatred of her dead mother. Janie seems to hardly regret that her mother is dead, but the most bothersome thing is that she is not entirely sure if she in fact did, or did not, stab her to death. No wonder mum and kid didn’t get on; they are very much alike.

Clumsily dropping markers behind her as she goes, she follows the only clue she has and heads for a small country ex-goldrush town, where she…

Sure, there are red herrings that appear to be a real threat, and characters that surface and never really blossom, which technically must be construed as weak points, but the sheer fun of the story kept me reading ’til late and ensured my tick in the four-star box.

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UNLUCKY 13 – James Patterson & Maxine Paetro

The Women’s Murder Club.
The Club consists or a cop, San Francisco’s Chief Medical Examiner, a journalist, a lawyer. If that sounds like a recipe for a good crime-solving team, I would say it was brilliant.

To begin with, a few titles back, it was. But now, in their 13th adventure, the Patterson/Paetro team are at a loss for a plot that combines all these gears in one box. So they don’t. They give us three plots to occupy their heroines. (Is that PC, or is it hero-people?) So how can you lose the plot when you have three to choose from? Easily.

The CME and the cop deal with the ultimate untraceable terror threat: chemical belly-bombs. Which is thrilling and interesting for a while, but seems to peter out.

The story of the journalist who tracks an ex-colleague of the cop’s who escapes custody and comes looking for revenge, is more gripping. This could have been a plot worth expanding.

The lawyer’s honeymoon cruise is marred by a terrorist/pirate hijacking. Extraordinary!

The characters are connected by their friendship, but the plots are not related. One is better than the other two, but this is a disappointing read. Writers looking for how to plot a story may analyse this as a route not to take. Plop.

The title of the book may be a reference to the disappointment generated by the read, but I can’t think why else it carries this title.

Thanks again to Random House Penguin South Africa for sending review copies.

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THE BROKEN by Tamar Cohen

Calling the wannabe writers. Calling a lot of think-they-are writers, like me. If we can develop our characters half as well as Tamar Cohen, we’ll be on the road to success.

She has a phenomenal command of the interaction of people. The social double entendre, the meaningful looks, the expressions of self-doubt, the justifications of the ego.

No, I did not find THE BROKEN to be physically exciting, with riveting action. It was something much more skilful and more subtle. The characters emerge as oh-so humanly fallible. Each in their way makes the reader want to give them a wake-up smack for different reasons.

For being too understanding, too forgiving, too blind.
For being too brash, too self-centred.
For missing the point and enthusiastically blundering ever on.
For being too timid, too gentle, without the courage to reach out when the gesture might make all the difference.

The story involves the interaction of best friends, both adults and children, and the slow disintegration of trust, love and loyalty.
And there are threads of something more sinister with an unexpected twist of insanity to round off an exceptional novel.

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COP TOWN – Karin Slaughter

The Lawson family are deeply embedded in the 1970’s Atlanta Police Department. Never mind previous generations, their youngest subscriber is Maggie with an uncle and a brother there to prove something to, without losing her own soul and integrity. Keep in mind that the very first women were only starting to be recruited about then, so sexism, racism, classism and anti-any-kind-of-ism you care to name are the order of the day.

But it’s a tough ask, and now her day becomes even more difficult when she has to baby-sit her new partner, raw and innocent Kate Murphy. When the whole force is mobilised with a cop killer on the rampage, the girls are squeezed out of the investigation. The bull-in-the-chinashop approach seems to them a futile way to go, so they follow more a subtle route. As it begins to bear fruit, they find themselves in the city’s meanest and most dangerous streets, where, in all likelihood, they have bitten off more than they can chew. And who of their fellow officer can they count on as back-up?

The un-put-downable clichés are all true; this is a terrific read. But it is more than that, as the reader gets to know the principle characters and what drives them. Maggie hangs on to her veracity despite the lies, corruption and cover-ups that reach even into her own family, while managing to mentor the green Kate, who, to her surprise, not only survives the humiliation of her first day, but is a fast learner with a knife-sharp mind, and the courage to go with it. Go, girls!

Although Atlanta-based, this is Karen Slaughter‘s only stand-alone outside of the Will Trent series for which she is justly well-known. My copy was provided by Random House Penguin, South Africa.

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BEFORE YOU DIE – Samantha Hayes

About Until You’re Mine, I said: If Samantha Hayes goes from strength to strength, I am looking forward to her next offering. This is it.

That DI Lorraine Fisher from the previous story features more prominently in this one is a moot point. The two stories are not otherwise connected. Briefly, she is visiting her sister in her childhood village of Radcote. A series of local unexplained teenage suicides, complete with notes, seems too much of a coincidence. Lorraine, fearing for the welfare of her nephew Freddie, gets involved.

Although definitely a good read, it lacks the tension of its psychological predecessor, being more of a who-dunnit. The plot is a strong plus. The clues are all there and the red herrings are reasonable. The surprise ending qualifies for a satisfying mystery.

There are perhaps too many characters, although it has to be said that their flesh hangs well on their bones, and nobody is sketchily or unnecessarily included, once the reader is able to sort out who’s who in the zoo. Cyber bullying is one of the motivators that drives at least one of the teenaged characters. Another is infidelity and the associated guilt. The autistic Gil is scarily real and authentic, too.

I was a bit uncomfortable with the inconsistent viewpoints. There are two first-person views and the rest are third-person, which seems an odd approach. Still, this did not detract from a fast-paced, exciting, gripping read with a jaw-dropping finale.

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THE MURDER BAG – Tony Parsons

Prologue: In the Eighties, an horrendous crime is committed in a school basement. Fighting back, one of the violated girl’s attackers loses an eye, but she loses her life. So, eventually, perhaps some people do deserve to die…

By breaking a lot of rules, but proving in the end that his actions achieved the right result, Constable Max Wolfe, gets his desire and is promoted to Homicide and Serious Crimes Command. His immediate boss and mentor is DCI Victor Mallory.

His first crime scene is the office of a dead investment banker, whose throat has been expertly cut from ear to ear. He is living there after his wife kicked him out for having an affair. But surely she would not also cut his throat? On his desk is a thirty-year-old school photo of seven Cadets in uniform, of whom one is the dead man. It transpires that one has committed suicide and others are a successful military officer, a lawyer, an MP. And they share a secret.

Soon, a homeless man is found with his throat cut in the same manner.

DC Wolfe juggles his home-life as single father of a five-year-daughter and owner of a spaniel with the odd hours of a detective, which gives him humanity, but the detective work and the tension is what makes this first crime novel of Tony Parsons a winner.

The trail of serial killings is a tightening garrotte, and neither DCI Mallory nor DC Wolfe is guaranteed to survive the attentions of a ruthless and expert killer, when they threaten to get in his way.

The finale was as thrilling as it was unexpected. I eagerly await the next gritty DC Wolfe tale.

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FINDERS WEEPERS – Penny Lorimer

South African crime novelists are going from strength to strength as Penny Lorimer joins their ranks.

When her mum says GO, Nix Mniki, can’t say no. Of Xhosa, German parentage, this Cape Town based broadcast journalist has no connection to the rural Eastern Cape of her mother’s youth. Her mother has been tight-lipped about both that and any details concerning her German father.

But Boniswa, the daughter of her mother’s best friend, and newly appointed headmistress of Girdwood College determined to restore the school to its former glory, has been out of touch for too long. The two older women, both ex-pupils of this once illustrious school, now fallen into decay and barely functioning, ask Nix to go and find out why.

The roads are rutted and potholed; the school buildings falling to bits. Nix poses as a journalist whose sole aim is to write a story about the school itself, and tries to avoid drawing attention to her interest in the missing woman. The Vice Principal states that Boniswa is away on a course, but Nix guesses that she would not leave her car or her mobile phone behind.

Getting to know the local impoverished communities is both an enlightening journey and a tightening noose as Nix attempts to unravel the mystery. At the same time, she picks up threads as to her own origins…

Lorimer skilfully paints the true picture of the appalling state of education in parts of South Africa, at the same time weaving in an ever-tightening tale of chilling suspense, without falling into the current trend of trying to out-blood-and-gore everyone else.

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The FACTS of LIFE and DEATH – Belinda Bauer

The village of Limeburn on the coast of Devon. The old lime kilns stand on the every encroaching sea, crumbling. The sea eats away at the cliffs, slowly undermining the houses which are abandoned, one by one.

As a chubby ten-year-old, Ruby Trick has to not only put up with school teasing, but her parents bickering. Mum works to keep the family going. Daddy lost his job. Now he drinks, resentful on his dependence on his wife’s support. He belongs to a local club, the Cowboys, whose members meet regularly, dress up, and drink.

When someone starts accosting young women, having them strip naked and getting them to call their mothers on their mobiles, the police are baffled, then desperate, because the perpetrator learns as he goes along. A murderer has to start somewhere, and the victims now call their mothers as they die.

Naturally, the Cowboys start a ‘posse’, riding around the Devonshire countryside searching for the killer and giving protective lifts to women walking the dark roads late at night. Daddy takes Ruby along, sometimes, as his deputy, as a treat, but they keep it a secret from Mummy, so she won’t worry.

DC Calvin Bridge is local; knows the area and the people. He is slow and often distracted, but his partner, DCI King, finds, to her surprise, that Calvin sometimes has the most valuable insights, as they investigate the accelerating spate of crimes.

Ruby’s teacher, Miss Sharpe, gets her class to start writing a diary. As time goes by she begins to be disconcerted by some of Ruby’s entries.

This is a gripping who-dunnit, smoothly written, definitely a late-night-oil burner. Belinda Bauer is here to stay.

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DARK WINDOWS – Louis Greenberg

Set in a future Johannesburg, the tale makes the city somehow off-key and fractured.

Jay Rowan works for an aide to a minister, Meg Hewitt, whose loyalty and dedication to her President is strong and personal. Gaia Peace is in power; all is flowers and tranquillity, so much so that the paranoia of yesteryear’s crime waves has dissipated to a minimal security conscious society.

Meg has been persuaded to initiate a project known as Dark Windows in which, with careful preparation, a world altering supernatural visitation can be ignited. Certain vacant rooms are to have their windows painted opaque, and Jay is the painter. With the accompaniment of his girlfriend, Beth, whose curiosity ignites an investigation into backgrounds to the rooms, they discover that the occupants have recently died.

Beth is led to a seditious student group. The cracks in the New Age veneer begin to spread, leading all the way back to someone on high. The mystery is vague and the outcome a bit so-what.

However, his characters are well-fleshed and warm blooded and I would love to see them populating a more intriguing gritty plot.
Louis Greenberg is the sort of writer whose pen prowess will surely win him accolades, but maybe not a lot of crime-fiction fans.

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WOLF – Mo Hayder

Another Mo Hayder nail-biter, with fluid writing and a double twist to cap it off.

A family of parents and their daughter in a secluded house make a gruesome find of draped intestines in the woods, which is an immediate reference to a hideous crime of some fourteen years prior. But the prime suspect and self-confessed perpetrator is still behind bars. Or is he? They are then invaded by two men posing as policemen. The men torture the family as individuals with the other members psychologically thumbscrewed as witnesses, but the purpose is at first vague.

The father was a renowned scientific inventor in his time; could someone in his past be responsible for this attack? He feels a certain amount of guilt, as some of the laser inventions were used by the military with deadly effect… He and his thirty-something daughter watch helplessly as his wife is hung upside down. He offers all he has to make them stop, but he does not know what they want. His humiliation? His fear?

The family dog escapes down a chimney with only half a plea for help still attached to her collar: … help us… and is found by the Walking Man, a hobo who is searching for clues to his own missing child. We have met him regularly in Mo Heyder’s previous thrillers. He in turn passes the dog to police detective,DI Jack Caffrey with the instruction to find out whose pet it is, in exchange for information the tramp has regarding the mystery of Jack’s missing brother.

The perspective rotates between Caffrey, the three family members and the two torturers, and slowly you might think the truth is emerging.

Until the last twist.

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