I AM PILGRIM – Terry Hayes

Monumental!

Hugely satisfying. Highly recommended.

The ultimate secret agent tale, told with gut-tightening intensity. The protagonist – whatever his name is – is part sentimental, part ruthless, wholly human and completely competent. In its way, I AM PILGRIM is the best of its genre I have had the fortune to read.

Its seven hundred pages is not bulked out; if anything, it has been pruned. A fit and finely tuned marathon athlete, if you will. Every incident is there for a purpose, and what happens fits in smoothly without any sense of last-minute shaping and bending.

Briefly, it is the story of a fanatic Believer, born in the arms of love that is beheaded by betrayal and loss, forged in the crucible of the Afghanistan Hindu Kush, and, alone, he develops a weapon so terrible it will all but wipe out the unsuspecting population of the USA.

Smallpox.

And the story of the man who is sent to try and find him before it is too late. A man who has retired from the game and who has written the ultimate guide-book to investigation. Also, it therefore must be the guide-book to the perfect crime. His only friend is the cop investigating that crime, so, sharing the details, he begins to realise that it has been committed by someone who has studied his manual. With a sense of guilt, he feels in some way responsible; then the crime and the activities of the muj from the Hindu Kush become entangled.

 

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BONES OF THE LOST – Kathy Reichs

Dem bones gonna rise again…

A forensic anthropologist examines bones to determine what kind of animal or human they belonged to. Their age, gender, and if possible, how they died. When the bones are still inside the flesh for instance, the medical examiner would possibly call on the services of a forensic anthropologist to determine various factors pertaining to that woman which, for various reasons, might have a bearing on the case.

In the case of a young woman killed in a hit and run. Besides determining whether it was accidental or deliberate, assuming the latter; then, was she under aged?  The perpetrator’s motives assume a far more sinister aspect than if she was an adult. Child trafficking?  If her bones were damaged, the breaks may give a clue as to the type of vehicle involved…

In the case of parcels containing the mummified remains of Peruvian dogs, confiscated by the US Customs, a Desert Storm veteran has question to answer regarding antiquities.

The same anthropologist, Dr Tempe Brennan of Charlotte, State of North Carolina, not only has these cases on her plate, she agrees to go to Afghanistan to examine the exhumed bodies of two villagers shot by a US lieutenant in a small village. Shot in the chest as they came at him, or in the back as they ran away?

Kathy Reich’s 16th Brennan novel is yet another gripping detection yarn. As forensic anthropologist for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, State of North Carolina, and for the Laboratoire des Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale for the province of Quebec, she knows her bones. She is one of only fifty forensic anthropologists certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology.

And, as a fine crime fiction writer, she weaves a technical tale of intertwined evil and doggedly pursuing good.

The threads are not, of course, as disparate as they might seem; but that they should all tie together is stretching it. Some of the characters in the protagonist’s life from previous books appear but have no bearing on this one and serve no purpose. One does fight, a little, not to drown in the flood of acronyms, as well.

Nevertheless, a satisfying read, indeed.

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Scarecrow by Matthew Pritchard

Danny Sanchez is a journalist working in the Almeria region of Spain. When covering a story about the demolition of the home of a retired expat couple he gets much more of a story than he bargained for. A partially decomposed body is found wedged within the brickwork. How delightful.

Danny, unlike most journalists, is more interested in the truth than a rip-roaring headline so he takes it upon himself to find out just what the devil is going on. His excellent skills as a journalist give him leads that take him to more questions (and more bodies) than answers. Two bricked up bodies and a missing youth later, Danny decides to take a trip to England. His leads point him in this direction and they don’t disappoint. Danny discovers some disturbing truths that give him many more pieces to the ever growing puzzle.

After receiving a threat against his mother’s life, Danny rushes back to Spain in the hope that his mother is still alive. Thankfully, due to a terrible mix up, his mother is alive but another body joins the club. As the final pieces of this physiological thriller start to fall into place, Danny finally uncovers the truth as to who the killer is – and you’ll never believe it. The subtle hints that Pritchard has peppered throughout the novel come flooding back and you’ll marvel in the craftsmanship of such a wonderful piece of writing.

I can safely say that this book has one of the most chilling and intriguing beginnings I have ever read. Normally, this is a letdown because most of the books I read that have a cracking start tend to fall dismally below expectations by the time you wade your way to the final page. Not with this book. If anything, it gets better! With most crime fiction I find myself following the story along, guessing away at who did what, why that’s there and occasionally flicking the odd page, but with Scarecrow I felt as if I was Danny’s partner. Instead of reading his story I belonged to it, striding across the pages bold as brass with my theories and suggestions. (Mind you, it’s a good job I wasn’t really there because I’d have had him murdered and raped with my utterly rubbish detective skills.)

The twists in here are exceptional – none of this cliché stuff – and you’ll be impressed at how such a complex novel can be both easy to read yet challenging on the mind. Pritchard really gets into the minds of his characters and the physiological aspect of this book is very disturbing; probably because there are people out there that really are as disturbed as some of these characters.

Terrifying.

Pritchard draws from his previous ten years’ experience as a journalist and utilises his knowledge and weaves it into this wonderful masterpiece. He also based the idea of bodies being bricked up after he saw it for himself. Not the actual bodies – dear lord – but from seeing how Spain can happily demolish people’s property for the most absurd reasons. It was the demolition of a property that sparked his imagination and so the gruesome plan was hatched and a novel was born.

This is actually the first book (crime or otherwise) that I’ve read from page to page without finding at least a few paragraphs of waffle, or self indulgence, that means nothing to me but the author would rather have had a limb off than delete that paragraph or chapter. It was all relevant and it was all fantastically written with a great plot line and fast pace. As satisfying as the ending was, my only niggle is that it all happened just a little too quickly. The climax was building to this final scene and then ‘blip’ it was over. In this case, maybe an extra paragraph or two wouldn’t have been so bad. Having said that, the book does deliver on ever point – loose ends are tied up, questions are answered and justice is served – but a little more time at the end would have been welcomed. For a debut novel this is quite extraordinary and I’m already looking forward to Pritchard’s next novel. If it’s half as good as this one it will still be an outstanding read.

I can’t recommend this enough. If you’re looking for a great plot, engaging characters, fast pace and a completely different read to the norm, then make sure you get it on your Christmas list – you won’t be disappointed.

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NEVER GO BACK – Lee Child

Success does not hinge on perfection. If it did Lee Child would not win any prizes for sentence construction. And he starts too many with ‘and’. And what about starting them with ‘but’?

But,

he is a genuine can’t put ’em down thriller author. His hero, Jack Reacher, is a hero with morals. And ethics. And integrity. And rules (I read Reacher’s Rules recently, but it was just too plastic, too twee, to review). And sentimentality, so justice is a big thing. Pay-back for the baddies.

Yeah; my kind of hero.

He liked the sound of Major Susan Turner’s voice on the phone. Major Turner, C.O. of the 110th MP Special Unit, Reacher’s old unit. I’m not sure why he phoned in the first place, but when he crosses several states to go and visit her, he not only finds that she has been arrested, he is encouraged to keep on travellin’ by being informed that he has a paternity suit pending as well as a sixteen year old murder rap and that he is still technically in the Army Reserve.

Sent off to a nearby crummy motel to await meetings with the Army lawyers assigned to defend him for these cases, it makes it easy for him to leave and keep going. To equally encourage him on his way are a couple of rough boys sent to lean on him, which, of course, is not what you do to Jack Reacher. When he has dented their car with their heads, he sets out to find out why nice-voice Turner has really been arrested.

On the run, pursuit, confrontations and broken bones, detection and seduction. Wonderful reading! Bring it on, Lee Child; I don’t care how many sentences you start with and.

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POLICE by Jo Nesbø.

If you have forgotten the true meaning of Thriller, upgrade your perception…

By now, Harry Hole is an old friend to a lot of crime fiction addicts. Flawed, vulnerable, brilliant, more afraid of his own inner demons than he is of anything else, Harry has resigned from the Oslo police and lectures at the Police Academy.

Taking a list of unsolved crimes one by one, policemen involved with them are being beaten to death. Is it a general punishment for failure? Or something more sinister?

Oslo police, under their new ambitious Chief, Mikael Bellman, are stymied. His childhood friend, policeman Truls Berntsen, has been suspended due to questions regarding unexplained amounts of cash deposited in his bank account. Although they share much darker secrets, Truls has agendas of his own, not least of which is his fixation with Mikael’s wife.

Harry’s old team, the nearest thing to friends he has, of psychologist Ståle Aune, detectives Katrine Bratt, Bjørn Holm, and forensics chief Beate Lønn, miss his canny insights. But, although they talk about him and what he might do in the ever-more horrifying circumstances, we don’t meet Harry himself until page 165 in his role as lecturer, when he refuses to become embroiled in the case, due to his involvement with the beautiful Rakel and her son, Oleg who is a recovering drug addict. These three also have a secret that should remain buried.

Councillor Isabelle Skøyen and Police Chief Bellman also share a secret or two, not least of which is an anonymous witness in a coma. As he shows signs of waking, it becomes essential to keep him quiet.

One of Harry’s police students, fixated by him, tries to trap him with a rape accusation. She, too, has reason to be murderously unhappy with a certain unsolved crime…

So, finally, Harry is released from his promise, and despite Bellman’s resistance, the team finally begins to function again, leading to an absolutely nerve-shredding finale.

From strength to strength; Jo Nesbø does it again.

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NO MAN’S NIGHTINGALE – Ruth Rendell

No. 24!! Another – not the last, surely – now ex-Chief Inspector Wexford novel from the prolific pen of Queen of Crime writer, Ruth Rendell.

Wexford is now retired, living with his wife, Dora, in Kingsmarkham. Their gossipy cleaner, Maxine, also serves the lady vicar, Sarah Hussein in the local vicarage, where Maxine finds her body. The vicar has been strangled, but the answer as to by whom evades the police under Detective Inspector Mike Burden. Mike suggests that Wexford see if he can give any new insights to the stalled case.

Wexford leaps at the chance, but the clues are few and the possibilities are many, ranging from the secret background of the vicar’s daughter to the parishioner who does not like the new prayer book. Wexford is in his element, but in his enthusiasm does step on the toes of his old friend, DI Burden, from time to time.

It is a gentle read; an Agatha Christie, a winner for those who enjoy the mystery without the blood and guts. There is a wandering maze of clues and red-herrings with a twist from the obvious to the unexpected, but still plausible. Ruth Rendell still masters her characters with depth and skill.

But, for those who prefer trip-wire tension, this is not for you.

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HIGH ROLLERS – Jack Bowman

Tom Patrick is a good case study for an Asperger Syndrome spectrum occupant. His social skills are sub-optimal; his temper is barely tethered to solid ground, like a balloon basket in a high wind. He also fixates on a problem with the intensity of a pit-bull on flesh.

Of the two loves of his life, one is playing poker, at which, lately, he has been losing depressingly often. He is ripe for accepting the suggestion from a beautiful girl that he play with someone else’s money, and they don’t mind if he doesn’t win all the time. Which is one way of laundering money.

Tom’s second passion is his job as an aircraft crash investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, but he is now inspecting pipeline leaks, due to his inability to control his big mouth. He happens to be nearby, playing poker, when the engine of a 737 tears itself apart in a hangar at Los Angeles Airport, and so is first on the scene. Before he is ordered away by the official NTSB team that arrives to investigate, he meets technician Halo Jackson whose friend and workmate has been killed in the incident, and picks up on something that  suggests that the conclusion later arrived at is flawed.

When a 737 across the world suffers a similar fate, Tom takes leave to find out what the connection is. When parts gathered by the investigating team there go missing and the team themselves are attacked, Tom knows the clock is ticking and other 737s and their thousands of passengers are at risk.

What a character! Bowman paints an intriguing canvas of a rough diamond in a background of furiously explosive action. It is such an exciting read, a one-sitting thrill banquet, that he can be forgiven for his unrealistic sketch of South Africa; but perhaps, only a South African would know.

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NIGHT FILM – Marisha Pessl.

Huge; a phenomenon of magnitude-8 proportions. A milestone of a book like no other yet conceived, this is going to be a yardstick by which future thrillers will be measured.

 

Journalist Scott McGrath sinks his own boat with a damning but unsubstantiated article about enigmatic cult horror director, Stanislav Cordova. It takes the death of Cordova’s daughter, Ashley (24), in a high-rise fall, a supposed suicide, for McGrath to take up the trail once more. Surely there must be some truth in the horror rumours about the underground movies?

That the actors disappeared soon after the release of their particular movie?

That the film crews were illegal immigrants?

That Cordova was obsessed by humankind’s basest acts? That children were involved?

That his property, The Peak, was tightly security protected, but was where his blackest movies were filmed?

Obsessed by the daughter is Hopper, a young man who was once on a camp with her, who joins McGrath and Nora, a wannabe actress who accidently obtained Ashley’s coat, in following the trail of Ashley’s last days. Perhaps that will lead them to Cordova himself, who has not been seen in public since 1971.

The skill Pessl uses to weave two skeins of mystery together is phenomenal. The rational explanation and the paranormal dance with the devil. Caught in the weft between the two begins to tear McGrath apart and tugs his fingers from his grip on reality until he forfeits his rights to his own daughter.

Bookmarked with newspaper scans, emails and Google Search Results, the book is groundbreaking in another way, too. But NIGHT FILM is medically not un-put-downable.

Because, at nearly seven hundred pages of high pressure, a reader would need a doctor on permanent standby.

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THE KILL LIST – Frederick Forsyth

 As current as drone strikes and flying cameras at 60,000 feet, as precise as Day of the Jackal, with chronological events unfolding like tomorrow’s headlines, this is another gripping Forsyth winner.

He gets away with dozens of POVs, supposedly a no-no in successful novels, but perhaps that does rob his story of a certain humanity. There is not enough time to get to know the characters beyond their clockwork actions.

Nobody in his target area knows who The Preacher is, but his radical broadcasts to the Muslims living there cause hitherto normal, unassuming people to take up the path to martyrdom, assassinating prominent targets as they go to the promised land. His success rate climbs in the US and in Britain, and with the protection of his own computer genius, nobody can track him.

Perhaps The Tracker can find out who he is and take him down? A former US marine, amongst other talents an Arab speaker, has risen through the ranks to head a terrorist tracking unit. When his own father is included in the Preacher’s body-count, things get personal.

But there is a glimmer of hope when Tracker finds Ariel, the codename of another computer genius, a teenaged lad with Asperger’s Syndrome, and the young hacker begins to make headway.

The Kill List is a catalogue of names sanctioned for elimination by the highest level of US Government, and The Preacher is now at the top.

And Forsyth shares the top of The Thrill List. An excellent read.

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THE NEVER LIST – Koethi Zan

The rack in this sadist’s torture chamber has nothing on the tension in this debut.

FBI agent, Jim McCordy is trying to get Sarah to testify in Jack’s parole hearing to prevent his release, but Sarah is living as a virtual hermit, terrified of the outside world, and of Jack Derber.

Even a dozen years after their escape from the cellar where they were chained, three girls are still the incarcerated Jack Derber’s mental prisoners. But they are also sealed in the plastic shells of their new lives with nothing to do with each other, until Jack’s apparent religious conversion may trigger his release. Sarah knows that he will be coming for them. He has never ceased to be watching. His enigmatic letters make sure of that. The ghost of Sarah’s best friend Jennifer haunts her. She was the fourth girl in the cellar, imprisoned in the box, and, taken upstairs for the last time, was never seen again.

Never get into strange vehicle, never take risks, never go out alone after dark, were Sarah’s bible, but being ultra-careful didn’t help the two girls when Jack took them. The guilt that Sarah suffers over Jennifer nudges her into breaking open those shells of Christine and Tracy, her cellar-mates. The three are driven to face their spectres head on, despite the knowledge that they may not survive the encounter, and despite Tracy’s unconcealed hatred of Sarah. A hatred that Sarah cannot understand, because she blocks out the truth about her own betrayal…

Possibly overdosed with psychology professors’ dabbling into religious cults and torture-slavery, and a surprise at Sarah’s rather rapid transformation from mouse to ferret, THE NEVER LIST is, however,  a one-sitting read followed by a stiff whiskey to shut out the nightmares.

Portraying the incarceration, the despair, the fear and pain in bite sized scoops, Zan does not numb the reader with an overdose, but tightens and relaxes the rack inexorably until the final scream.

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