Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly

Dark Sacred Night.jpg

Publishers: Orion

                       Hachette Audio

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

Legendary crime author Michael Connelly returns for another clever and technically detailed crime thriller that teams up his iconic and most utilised protagonist, Harry Bosch, with his recently created female protagonist, Renée Ballard.

In the chaotic world of the LAPD, Renée Ballard is an outsider who has found herself permanently on the graveyard shift of the Hollywood beat.  Returning to the near-abandoned station after a callout, Ballard is surprised to find a stranger rifling through her unit’s filing cabinets.  The intruder is maverick retired detective Harry Bosch, formally of the LAPD, now currently working as a contractor for the San Fernando police.

Bosch is working a cold case for personal reasons.  The victim, a 15-year-old runaway, Daisy Clayton, was brutally murdered several years before and Bosch has gotten close to the girl’s devastated mother.  Initially kicking him out the station, Ballard’s subsequent investigation of Bosch’s actions reveals the full details of the case to her and she finds herself drawn to Bosch’s hunt for justice.  As the two outsider detectives join forces in order to solve the case, they are once again thrust into the grimy underworld of Hollywood.  But as they attempt to find justice, a cornered killer, departmental politics and the dangerous suspects of the two detectives other investigations may cause the case to come crashing down around them.

Michael Connelly is a prolific and award-winning crime novelist who has been writing since 1992.  During that period he has written over 30 books, all of which are set in the same shared universe.  Connelly’s debut book, The Black Echo, introduced his most iconic character, Harry Bosch, who has been the protagonist of 21 of Connelly’s books, as well as being a supporting character in several other books.  Due to the author’s focus on this character, Connelly’s extended crime universe is often referred to as the Harry Bosch universe.  Connelly has also written a number of other thrillers in this universe, featuring several other protagonists, such as lawyer Mickey Haller, reporter Jack McEvoy and investigator Terry McCaleb.  Many of the characters introduced in previous books often have small roles in later books, while Bosch has had interactions with most of Connelly’s other protagonists.  The second protagonist in Dark Scared Night, Renée Ballard, is a more recent creation who was introduced in the 2017 novel The Late Show, and this is her first interaction with Bosch in Connelly’s wider universe.

Outside of the literary world, Connelly’s works have been adapted to film and screen.  His Harry Bosch novels have been adapted into the current Bosch television series, which will air its fifth season in 2019.  Two of his books have also been adapted into movies.  His novel, Blood Work was adapted into film in 2002 with Clint Eastwood, while his first legal novel, The Lincoln Lawyer was adapted into film in 2011 with Matthew McConaughey.

Dark Sacred Night is an excellent piece of crime fiction that presents the reader with a series of interesting investigations, told from the perspectives of two fantastic police protagonists.  I listened to this book in its audiobook format, which is jointly narrated by Christine Lakin and Titus Welliver, and runs for 10 hours and 39 minutes.  Dark Sacred Night primarily focuses on the investigation into a cold case of a young runaway girl who was brutally killed nine years previously.  This central case is massively intriguing and takes the reader deep into the sordid and disturbing criminal nightlife of Hollywood.  The main case is a gritty and unique investigation as the protagonists are forced to rely on different methods than they would usually utilise to solve the case.  Rather than having any recent evidence, the detectives are forced to rely on old interviews and pieces of police intelligence to identify any potential suspects or witnesses.  This is an intriguing way to investigate an old crime, and I really enjoyed the way they were forced to utilise this less substantial evidence to find their killer.  This method results in the protagonists identifying and investigating several distinctive suspects, and the reader is presented with a series of false leads and suggested possibilities.  I was able to identify who the killer was quite early in the book, but I still had a lot of fun following the investigation to its conclusion.

I really enjoyed the way that Connelly seeded a large number of smaller cases throughout the novel for the protagonists to solve, as well as a number of examples of police work in action.  There is an interesting split here as Ballard, the full-time detective, is given a series of more official and everyday crimes to solve, such as a suspicious death, a missing persons, a theft, trespassing and a kidnapping that she investigates to various degrees throughout the book.  Bosch, on the other hand, only has one case, an old, unsolved gang execution that he is pursuing in San Fernando and which is the focus for a good portion of his chapters.  The inclusion of these smaller cases is a clever move from Connelly as it breaks up the story from a pure focus on the main case and presents a wider viewpoint of crime and policing in the book’s setting.  It also allows the author to showcase his protagonists’ divergent investigative skills and presents the readers with an additional number of compelling mysteries and adventures that they can sink their teeth into.  Some of these additional cases tie into the main mystery in some surprising ways and clues or suspects may be revealed through this.

All of these mysteries do an amazing job showing of the author’s obvious knowledge of police procedures and law enforcement techniques.  Connelly, a former crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has an amazing grasp of the minutiae of police work and he expertly inserts these details into his story.  As a result his police characters mostly investigate crimes, examine evidence and file the paperwork in a way that feel extremely realistic and which adds a huge amount to the books authenticity.  Connelly’s police characters even feel like real cops, as the way that they act or think feels like real life police would act.  All of this combines with the amazing mysteries to create a first-rate piece of crime fiction.

Dark Sacred Night is the first time that Connelly’s main protagonist, Bosch, engages with the author’s newest protagonist, Ballard.  There are some interesting similarities between the two characters, which makes for a great story.  Both detectives have a similar maverick style when it comes to investigating crimes, and both have been screwed over by LAPD politics and had their careers impacted as a result.  As a result, both characters are dogged in their pursuit of criminals, especially those guilty of sex crimes, and both are willing to bend the rules to get their suspects.  However, the main difference between them is how far they will go to get justice.  While Ballard is happy to bend rules, she doesn’t go too far over the line or deliberately hurt or damage her suspects.  Bosch on the other hand has a much more flexible idea of where the line is and engages in some questionable behaviour that could be seeing as going too far. The two characters work well together during this book, and I hope that Connelly continues to use his latest protagonist in the future, especially as there are some interesting stories available when it comes to her complex police past.

The audiobook version of Long Dark Night is a great way to enjoy this crime novel and I found that I quickly powered through the book with this format.  The audiobook format utilises two separate narrators to describe the adventure contained within, broken up by whichever protagonist is narrating that chapter.  For example, Christine Lakin narrates the chapters told from Ballard’s point of view, while Titus Welliver narrates Bosch’s chapters.  Both of these narrators have great voices for their central characters, and both of them fit in perfectly in this gritty crime drama.  Lakin captures Ballard’s character perfectly, and you get a real sense of the no-nonsense and wary personality that is Ballard every time you hear Lakin’s voice.  Welliver’s voice, on the other hand, is deep and gruff and really fits Bosch’s old school and veteran personality.  Overall there is some fantastic voice work in the audiobook format of Dark Sacred Night, and I found that listening to this mystery really drew me into the middle of this investigation and helped me remember certain details and clues.

This latest book from veteran crime author Michael Connelly is a fantastic mystery thriller that draws the reader in with two outstanding protagonists and a series of captivating mysteries.  Dark Sacred Night is written in a way that is very easy to get into and the reader can enjoy the full mystery without any details of the previous books in Connelly’s shared universe.  As a result, despite it being such a late book in this long-running series, Dark Sacred Night is also the perfect place to start your investigation into the crime sensation that is Michael Connelly.  First rate crime fiction at it’s very best, this is an outstanding release from Connelly that is guaranteed to draw the reader into the dark and intriguing world of mysteries.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

 

 

Planetside by Michael Mammay

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Publishers: Harper Voyager

                        HarperAudio

Publication Date – 31 July 2018

 

Well, that was an unexpectantly awesome book!  I am usually pretty good at predicting how good a book is going to be by its plot synopsis or my prior knowledge of the author.  When I first heard about Planetside I thought it sounded like an interesting concept from first-time author Michael Mammay.  While I had high hopes for the book, I did somewhat assume that it would just be another solid but enjoyable science fiction mystery.  What I was not expecting, however, was one of the best science fiction books of 2018 that easy achieves a five-star rating from me.

Set in the far future of Earth’s expansion, Planetside follows Colonel Carl Butler, a war hero living out a peaceful semi-retirement on a training base.  However, when his old friend General Serata calls him late at night and drags him all the way to headquarters, he obliges for old times’ sake.  Serata needs him to travel to the planet of Cappa, humanity’s current warzone, where members of a resilient and intelligent alien race known as the Cappans are fighting a gruelling insurgency against the humans attempting to exploit their planet.  Once there, he will head up an investigation into the disappearance of a young lieutenant who went missing after being wounded on the planet.  By all accounts, the wounded lieutenant was successfully evacuated from the surface, but the military hospital claims that he never arrived at their facility.  To makes matters worse, the lieutenant is the son of a high councillor, and the disappearance has become a highly publicised affair.  Despite knowing that there is more to the case than Serata is letting on, Butler agrees to find the missing officer.

Arriving at Cappa Base, the space station hovering over the planet, Butler soon finds that his investigation is going to be a lot harder than he anticipated.  All the soldiers he speaks to have the same rehearsed story, the head of the base’s military hospital flat out refuses to cooperate with him, the head of Special Ops is continuously unable to come off-planet to speak to him, and any witnesses or evidence that could point him in the right direction mysteriously disappears.  It is also damn suspicious that any time he takes a step in the right direction, somebody tries to have him killed.  Under pressure to wrap this investigation up, Butler decides to drop down onto the surface of Cappa, but what he finds down there will change everything.  Forced into an increasingly desperate situation, Butler must find the answers he needs before it is too late.

This is the first book from Michael Mammay, but it was more than enough to make me a dedicated fan of this author.  With a sequel already set to be released in 2019, Planetside is an extraordinary introduction to an amazing new series.  I chose to listen to this book in its audiobook format, read by R. C. Bray, and at 8 hours 38 minutes, this is a fairly quick way to enjoy this fantastic book.

Planetside’s story is based around the protagonist’s investigation into a missing human soldier on an alien planet that has been occupied by the human military.  As Butler arrives at the military base the solider was stationed out of, he begins to realise that there is something much more to the case than what was advertised.  Every single person he speaks to is hiding something, he seems only to uncover more lies, and some shadowy figures are actively trying to sabotage his investigation in any way they can.  Despite all these setbacks, the protagonist persists with his investigation throughout the course of the book and slowly begins to uncover the underlying conspiracy that the soldier’s disappearance is just one small part of.  There is so much about this mystery investigation to enjoy, as the author seamlessly combines the mystery and conspiracy part of this story with the science fiction element, creating a unique and captivating overall narrative.  The full scope of this conspiracy is very impressive, and Mammay’s slow burn reveal of the extent and implications of what Butler uncovers is well done to keep the reader in suspense.  I was intensely intrigued by this multilayered conspiracy, and was left constantly guessing at what the potential solution was.

The book is told from the point of view of its protagonist, Colonel Butler, and Mammay has created an excellent central character for this story that the reader is instantly drawn to and cannot help but like.  The author has done a fantastic job conveying the fact that Butler is a straight-shooting, no-bullshit, wily veteran soldier who has had enough of war and is just looking forward to retirement.  He is an amusing and intriguing choice to investigate the book’s intricate and potentially wide-reaching conspiracy, as he powers through the expected political niceties other investigators may have worried about without any concerns for his future or career.  His years of service also ensure that he has impeccable instincts when it comes to the people he is dealing with and is fully aware of when the other characters are bullshitting him, which occurs frequently throughout this book.  I had fun observing this rough and seemingly uncomplicated old-school soldier get to grips with this elaborate conspiracy and blow through all the careful plans of the book’s antagonists.  The colonel also has a sense of humour, something that the other characters encounter to various degrees of frustration, especially the people he is intentionally pissing off.  I also appreciated the self-deprecating and extremely honest reflections about the situation that Butler presents to the reader, as it made me like him even more.

The military aspects of this book are another amazing part of Planetside, as Mammay has perfectly captured elements of the modern day military and transplanted them into this science fiction storyline.  The majority of the story is set within Cappa Base, and the reader is made to feel like they are in a real military base.  The author also seeks to capture the full minutiae of military life throughout the book, and the reader is given insight into what tasks are undertaken on the base, the main characters experience and the respect he commands of the other soldiers in the story.  While most of the focus is on the investigation, there are a couple of action scenes throughout the book, including an extended battle sequence that see’s the protagonist and his allies engage in a protracted firefight with enemy forces on the planet’s surface.  The author’s use of the first-person perspective is perfect for these battle sequences and the reader is dragged right into the middle of these firefights, really experiencing the action through Mammay’s skilled and descriptive writing.  This battle sequences felt very realistic and had some noticeable similarities to real-life skirmishes in modern day battlefields.  The tactics the humans use during these conflicts on Cappa are highly reminiscent of American forces in the Middle East, although the inclusion of more science fiction appropriate weapons and technology allow for some interesting differences.

While the impressive investigation storyline does a fantastic job holding onto the reader’s interest, and the solution to the entire mystery arc is creative and clever, nothing compares to the book’s epic conclusion.  Without going into too much detail, I thought that the way that Mammay ended this book was just incredible, and is one of the main reasons why I am giving this book a five-star rating.  I also loved how, towards the end of the book, the protagonist becomes fully aware of how everything has to end, and at the same time he starts to understand that his oldest friend had sent him on this mission because he knew exactly how Butler would act upon uncovering the full extent of the conspiracy.  The final scene of the book was just perfect as the protagonist reflects on everything that has happened with one of the book’s side characters.  During this scene there is an excellent use of the end of a subtle countdown that has been occurring throughout the entire book, represented by a depleting number of whisky bottles, as well as an appropriate moment of happiness for Butler as he finally gets to have a whisky in a proper glass, which was just perfect.  As mentioned above, Mammay already has a sequel planned, and I am extremely curious to see where the story goes next.

The audiobook version of Planetside is a great way to enjoy this fantastic book, and I had a lot of fun listening to this format.  The audiobook’s narrator, R. C. Bray, manages to capture the gruff and grizzled personality of Butler perfectly, and for most of the book it really sounded like the old colonel was telling you his story.  Bray also does a good job producing distinctive voices for the rest of the characters in book, including several female characters, and the listener is able to distinguish between the various people without too much difficulty.  I also felt that listening to this story really helped bring me into the book’s awesome battle sequences as well as ensuring that I was fully invested in the success of the enjoyable main character.  Overall, I would recommend the audiobook format as an excellent way to enjoy this book, although readers will of course get a lot out of this book if they choose the paperback format.

Michael Mammay’s debut novel, Planetside, is an incredible piece of science fiction and is one of my favourite books of 2018.  Featuring a captivating mystery storyline that places the book’s likeable protagonist in the middle of a massive conspiracy, this book completely grabs the reader’s attention and refuses to let go until its powerful and memorable conclusion.  I cannot recommend this book enough and it is essential reading for all fans of the science fiction genre.  I am very much looking forward to Mammay’s sequel to Planetside, which is already at the top of my must-read list for 2019.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Throwback Thursday: Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line Cover.jpg

Publishers: Vintage Books

                        Random House Audio

Publication Date – 25 March 2014

 

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I will be looking at the thrilling and enjoyable first tie-in novel to the Veronica Mars franchise, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line.

Veronica Mars was a highly regarded (at least for the first two seasons) teen crime television series that aired for three seasons between 2004 and 2007.  The show, staring Kristen Bell in her breakout role as the titular character, was an incredibly fun and compelling mixture of teen drama and serious investigation.  Veronica Mars is a teenage private investigator who finds herself investigating the murder of her best friend, following a cover up by the town’s rich and powerful inhabitants.  The first two seasons featured epic season-long mysteries, while the third season contained two half-season mysteries.  Each episode also featured a mystery-of-the-week storyline that would often play some part in that season’s overarching storyline.  In addition to the intriguing and complex mystery based storylines, fans of the show could also enjoy the heartfelt drama and romance between the show’s main characters, as well as the interesting social dichotomy of the show’s main location, Neptune, California.  Unfortunately, the show was cancelled after its third season, and fans were given an unsatisfactory and incomplete series finale.

However, due to support of the Veronica Mars hardcore fans, referred to as “Marshmallows”, as well as an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign, the show was revived with a 2014 Veronica Mars feature film.  This new movie was set nine years after the show’s third season and showed Veronica’s return to Neptune.  The creators attempted to capitalise on the success of the Veronica Mars film by creating some additional material in the Veronica Mars universe.  This included the meta web series Play it Again, Dick as well as two novels set in the aftermath of the movie.  The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line was the first of these novels released, coming out the same month as the Veronica Mars movie, while the second book, Mr. Kiss and Tell was published a year later in 2015.  Both books were written by series creator Rob Thomas and short story author Jennifer Graham, and Thomas has stated that they are both considered to be cannon.

I only ended up watching the Veronica Mars show a few years ago, but found myself really getting into the excellent storylines and memorable characters.  I managed to avoid any spoilers so I was able to enjoy the incredible mysteries of the first two seasons, both of which were very clever, with complicated and hard to predict solutions.  After enjoying both the shows and the movies, I also decided to check out the associated books and obtained an audiobook copy of The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, which I have listened to several times.  With the recent announcement of a Veronica Mars revival series airing in 2019 to be set five years after the events of the film, I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to re-listen to and review The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line as part of my Throwback Thursday series.  I am particularly interested to see if Thomas will continue to consider this book as canon when the new series of the show is released, as there are significant narrative developments that may prove hard to explain to those who haven’t read this book.

Neptune, California is usually the home of sun, sand, the ultra-rich, their low-income employees and a corrupt sheriff’s department.  But something else has descended on Neptune: spring breakers.  With busloads of college students descending on Neptune, the town has been turned into one long and boozy event.  It’s all fun and games until one girl disappears from a party and her case is picked up by the conservative media as a call to action against Neptune and spring break.

After nine years away, Veronica Mars has returned to Neptune, the town where she experienced so many traumatic events.  After saving her former/current boyfriend Logan from a murder investigation, Veronica has given up her career as a lawyer and has returned to her old addiction, private investigating.  With her father still recovering from a suspicious car crash, Veronica has taken over Mars Investigations and is desperately trying to keep the business afloat with small, petty cases.

With the media storm around the missing girl intensifying, Veronica is called in to find her before Neptune’s spring break economy is ruined.  Diving into the parties and sordid holiday fun, Veronica soon finds that the house that the girl disappeared from is owned by a dangerous pair of brothers with serious criminal connections.  Though Veronica is convinced that the owners of the house are behind the disappearance, the case becomes even more complicated when a second girl disappears from the same house.  Worse, the second girl has a shocking connection to Veronica’s past that will rock her to the core.

While it would have been easy for the authors just to create a lazy tie-in novel, Thomas and Graham actually created a complex and multi-layered mystery narrative that serves to keep the readers excited and guessing the entire time they are enjoying it.  There is quite a lot going on within this mystery storyline, as for most of it, the protagonist is uncertain about what crime she is actually investigating.  There are a lot of false leads, suspects, hidden clues and several pulse-pounding scenes in which Veronica finds her life threatened as she attempts to uncover a major break in the case.  The final conclusion of the investigation is pretty clever and has a few sneaky twists that are hard to see coming.  The authors also amp up the drama during certain parts of the book as Veronica is forced to confront some heavy subjects from her past, as well as the anger and despair of the people she is investigating.  There is also further antagonism between Veronica and the towns’ corrupt sheriff, who Veronica is actively investigating for corruption, as well as a dramatic fight with her father, Keith, who is dismayed by his daughter’s decision to remain in Neptune as a private investigator, a decision which caused her much grief in the past.

One of the more interesting things about the original show was the social makeup of the fictional setting of the town of Neptune.  In the show, Neptune is home to both a rich upper class, known as the “09ers” in reference to Neptune’s fictional postcode, and the people who work for them or are employed in the town’s businesses and local economy.  As a result, several of the episodes of the original series focused on this discrepancy between these two distinct social classes, which was often represented by the rich students receiving unfair advantages at Neptune High.  This was continued in the 2014 Veronica Mars movie, which showed that the sheriff’s department had become especially corrupt and were more focused on protecting the rich and powerful than arresting real criminals, as seen when they framed a side character, Weevil, with a planted gun.  The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line continues to explore how corrupt the city has become under the new sheriff, and how incompetent the police have become.  This is shown early on in the book when Veronica is hired by the Neptune Chamber of Commerce to find the missing girls, as the town’s business leaders lack confidence in the sheriff’s investigative skills.  When Veronica queries why they still support him, they make it clear that his policy of doing what the richer citizens want makes him a desirable tool.  There are also some dark reveals about the serious crimes he turns a blind eye to in order to avoid confrontation and stay in power.

While there is less focus on the town’s social divide, the authors did add a new element to the plot of this Veronica Mars book: spring breakers.  The plot of this book shows the town completely overrun with drunk, drugged-up and sexually excited college students keen to enjoy the beaches and parties of Neptune.  Thomas and Graham pull no punches when it comes to these descriptions, attempting to fully encapsulate the chaotic and at times dangerous activities that the students get up to, often highlighting how their behaviour at times degenerates to the level of a drunken mob.  This spring break background serves as an entertaining and intriguing background for the murder mystery storyline.  There is a good amount of humour watching Veronica acting the part of a drunken sorority girl as she attempts to blend in with the crowd, as this is in complete opposition to her usual prickly demeanour.  This spring break storyline will also be an interesting read for those planning to check out the upcoming revived season of Veronica Mars, which is apparently going to focus on a spring break serial killer which initiates a conflict between the upper and lower classes of the town.

As this is a tie-in book to a television and movie franchise, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line appeals to fans of Veronica Mars the most.  Readers will be relieved to see that Veronica still maintains her trademark sarcasm and the jaded personality she developed at a young age when she learned how much other people sucked.  This book is set only a few months after the Veronica Mars film, and shows the aftermaths of the events that occurred during it.  Long-time Veronica Mars characters Wallace Fennel, Keith Mars and Cindy “Mac” Mackenzie all appear in the book in significant roles, while minor movie antagonist, Dan Lamb, returns in a similar role for this book.  In addition, other popular characters like Logan Echolls, Dick Casablancas, Eli “Weevil” Navarro and Cliff McCormack have smaller roles within the book.  While it is good to see them again, their minor appearances have mainly been added in for fan service.  One of the most memorable things about this book for fans of the show are the significant developments that happen in Veronica’s personal life, as a character from her past returns with some massive changes.  While these developments serve an important part of the book’s plot and offer some excellent and well-appreciated emotional moments, I will be very surprised if they carry through into the new season of the television show.  Overall, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line serves as a fantastic addition to the Veronica Mars franchise and contains a huge number of elements that will prove extremely appealing to fans of the original show.

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line is definitely one of those novels that is best enjoyed in its audiobook format.  This is because the Rob Thomas and the producers of the audiobook were able to get Kristen Bell to come in and narrate this version of the book.  As Kristen Bell does a bit of in-show narration, it makes sense for her to continue it here, with Veronica serving as the only point-of-view character.  Having her narrate the actions of the book and everything she sees makes it feel a lot like the television show and gives it a natural and authentic feel.  It was also pretty amusing to hear Bell do the voices of her co-stars from the shows and movies throughout the book.  I think she does a pretty good job of her narration of the other character’s voices, as there are distinctive approximations of all the relevant characters, in addition to new voices for the exclusive book characters.  Overall, if fans of this franchise are keen to experience a new Veronica Mars adventure, this is their best option.  Written by the show’s creator and voiced by its lead actresses, the audiobook version of The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line is essentially just another episode of the show, and is the best way for fans of the Veronica Mars show to enjoy.  At 8 hours 43 minutes, it is a quick audiobook to get through.

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line is an excellent piece of the amazing Veronica Mars franchise which presents the reader with a continuation of this fun universe and allows fans of the show to see what happens next to their favourite characters.  Featuring a clever and intricate central mystery that twists and turns in multiple unexpected ways, this book is a fantastic read as told by its iconic protagonist.  Best enjoyed in its audiobook format with the voice of Veronica Mars herself, Kristen Bell, narrating the story, this is a recommended read for all fans of the fans of the show, and may prove to be an intriguing introduction for newcomers to the franchise.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

The Red Ribbon by H. B. Lyle

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Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Publication Date – 23 August 2018

 

Return to pre-World War I London for another compelling spy adventure in H. B. Lyle’s second book, The Red Ribbon, which is set in the same universe as Sherlock Holmes and features three exciting characters with an intriguing look at early 20th century British history and espionage.

In London, in 1910, Captain Vernon Kell is still attempting create a secret intelligence service capable of protecting England from foreign spies and infiltrators.  Despite the early success of the Secret Service Bureau, Kell’s organisation is constantly under pressure from the country’s politicians and is in danger of being absorbed into Special Branch of London’s police.

Unfortunately, Kell’s only agent, Wiggins, is distracted with his own cases and unwilling to play the political games needed to help the service survive.  Wiggins is the former leader of Sherlock Holmes’s street urchin surveillance organisation, the Baker Street Irregulars, and has picked up a few of his old master’s deductive tricks while retaining his lower-class charm and street smarts.  Wiggins is obsessed with finding the infamous anarchist, Peter the Painter, the man responsible for the death of one of Wiggins’s oldest friends, and is scouring the streets for him.

Looking for a missing girl on behalf of one of his contacts, Wiggins begins to investigate a mysterious embassy located in the affluent neighbourhood of Belgravia.  The embassy is actually a high-class brothel frequented by the rich and powerful of London.  When another girl associated with the embassy is found murdered, Wiggins attempts to find justice; however, the embassy is under the protection of someone Wiggins knows well: Tommy, a fellow former member of the Irregulars.

However, Wiggins’s personal investigations intersect with his work for Kell, as the two of them hunt for the source of a series of leaks at the highest level of government.  With the help of Kell’s wife, the suffragist Constance, Wiggins and Kell must find the connection between the events occurring around London in order to keep the country safe from sinister foreign influences.

The Red Ribbon is the follow-up to Lyle’s debut novel, The Irregular: A Different Class of Spy, and is the second book in the Irregular Spy Thriller series.  This is a great series that will appeal to a huge range of readers, as Lyle combines compelling historical fiction elements with a thrilling espionage story that has fictional links with one of the most iconic book series of all time, Sherlock Holmes.

The story within The Red Ribbon is split between the book’s three main protagonists and takes a look at each character’s different and exciting adventures.  Wiggins and Kell continue their missions from the first book, and while their investigations are ostensibly separate from each other, they eventually intersect in several clever ways.  The relationship between Wiggins and Kell is an important part of these two storylines, as Kell despairs of Wiggins’s personal investigations and wants Wiggins to solely work missions for the service.  The third focal character is Kell’s wife, Constance, who was a supporting character in the first book.  Constance becomes a much more significant character in The Red Ribbon, as the book focuses on her involvement with the suffragist and suffragette movements.  Both Wiggins and Kell become involved with Constance’s storyline in different capacities, while Constance provides significant assistance with her husband’s espionage work.  With three semi-connected stories, it does at times feel like there is too much going on for one cohesive narrative.  However, each of the stories comes together quite well in the end and provides the reader with an extremely captivating overarching narrative.

Having three separate storylines allows Lyle to highlight the differences in social classes during this historical period and highlights how different groups of people were treated.  Kell, as the influential gentleman, is forced to constantly deal with the upper-class politics and attitudes during his attempts to keep the service going.  Wiggins, who was raised on the street, deals more with the average Londoner and experiences the poverty and desperation many of them encounter.  He must also deal with the distain of the upper classes in the course of his espionage work.  While he is clearly the most competent agent in the entire British service, he is constantly looked down upon and ignored by his government superiors.  There are also several instances where Wiggins is assigned to infiltrate labour movements, something he is very reluctant to do due to his world views and background.  This divide often serves to create some significant tension with Kell, who, despite fully understanding Wiggins’s value, skills and point of view, is often exasperated by him.  The beefed-up storyline around Constance allows the reader a significant look at the suffragist movement and the early battles these women fought for equality.  In The Red Ribbon, Constance joins the much more militant suffragettes, and is constantly infuriated by the reactions of the male politicians and their oppressive policies.  The oppression of women also becomes a major point of conflict between Kell and Constance which results in a decline in their relationship, although the final payoff of this storyline is quite sweet.  I really enjoyed the way that Constance and Wiggins developed a fun comradery in this book, as their poor treatment by the upper-class men allow them to bond, with Wiggins even teaching Constance some anti-surveillance techniques.

Lyle cleverly incorporates several important historical events into this book, such as the funeral of Edward VII, the Black Friday suffragettes and suffragists protest outside Parliament and the Siege of Sidney Street.  These events are quite significant in their own right, and Lyle spends substantial time filling in their background and ensuring the reader is aware of why they are happening and why they are important.  However, they also serve as very compelling background events for the plot of The Red Ribbon and work well to enhance this already fascinating story.  In addition to these intriguing and important historical events, Lyle has also packed a number of historical figures into this story.  Quite a few prominent politicians and British civil servants have significant roles in the plot, including a young Winston Churchill, which makes the story feel a lot more authentic.  The author’s continued use of the enigmatic Peter the Painter as one of the book’s principal antagonists is another brilliant stroke, and the reader is provided with some intriguing theories about who he actually was and what his eventual fate was.  Lyle does slightly go overboard by adding in some other famous historical figures in small cameo roles, and the shoehorning in of people such as Charlie Chaplin and members of the 1910 British Antarctic Expedition seems a bit unnecessary.  That being said, it was amusing to watch Chaplin use his drunken tramp routine to help Wiggins escape a conflict in a theatre.

One of my favourite components of this book was the author’s detailed and unique look at British espionage and counter espionage in the early 20th century.  One of the book’s protagonists, Captain Kell, is an actual historical figure who is credited for creating Britain’s domestic spy service, which morphed into the modern MI5.  This fictionalised account of the early days of this organisation are quite fascinating, especially when the author looks at some of its early challenges, the political battles Kell might have had to face, and the sort of work this organisation was originally looking at.  In addition to the domestic espionage work, the protagonists of The Red Ribbon find themselves drawn into one of the most infamous espionage incidents of the era: the capture of British agents Captain Trench and Lieutenant Brandon in Germany in 1910.  This is a highly fictionalised account of the incident, as Lyle has inserted Kell and Mansfield Cummings, one of the founders of MI6, as being there.  It plays marvellously in Kell’s overall storyline, while also featuring some great scenes as the three protagonists’ attempt to evade arrest by the Germans.  Trench and Brandon are not portrayed in the best light, as Lyle has used them to further the class prejudices in Britain, portraying the two soldiers as quite incompetent spies who are captured as a result of wilfully ignoring Wiggins’s advice due to him not being a gentleman.

Another fun part of The Red Ribbon is the connection the book shares with the Sherlock Holmes novels.  The Irregular Spy Thriller series is set in the same universe as the Sherlock Holmes books.  Wiggins was mentioned several times in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works as the leader of the Baker Street Irregulars.  As a result, Wiggins comes across as a rougher Sherlock Holmes, who uses the classic deductive method while also fighting, drinking and speaking in a lower-class manner.  As in the first book of this series, the great detective himself makes a brief appearance, providing Wiggins with a case-breaking suggestion, while casually enjoying his retirement.  The use of the Sherlock Holmes elements is definitely a defining element of the book, and while it is mostly used to draw interested readers into this historical spy thriller, Lyle successfully uses it to create a unique and enjoyable main protagonist.

B. Lyle has followed up his superb 2017 debut with another fun and exhilarating read. Continuing to use his Sherlock Holmes inspired character to great effect, Lyle weaves a full and captivating narrative that presents several unique stories chock full of adventure, mystery and interesting historical content. The Red Ribbon is an amazing second outing from Lyle which also sets up an exciting concept for a third book in the series.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Murder Mile by Lynda La Plante

Murder Mile Cover.jpg

Publisher: Zaffre

Publication Date – 23 August 2018

 

One of English crime fiction’s most distinctive voices, Lynda La Plante, returns with her iconic female detective, Jane Tennison, for another dark and shocking case.

In February 1979, recently promoted Detective Sergeant Jane Tennison has been posted to Peckham CID, one of the toughest beats in all of London.  Previously known as the Golden Mile due to its well-to-do shopping areas, the area is now in decline, a fact not helped by the garbage strikes besetting the entire city, ensuring that the entire area is covered rubbish and filth.

When the body of a young woman is found in the heart of Peckham, Jane and her team must investigate the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death.  But when another body is found nearby, the possibility of a serial killer raises all sorts of problems.  The media scrutinise the case and rename the area Murder Mile.  Even worse, the second victim’s son is well connected, and several important people want the matter dealt with quickly.

As more bodies are uncovered, Tennison must use all of her investigative ability to uncover this dark murderer, while also dealing with the police force’s inherent sexism and disregard for her talent that she has dealt with her entire career.  Can Tennison catch this killer, or will they find a terrible and unexpected way to win?

Lynda La Plante is a talented author and screenwriter responsible for several hit British crime series and movies.  She achieved early success with the 1983 television series, Widows, which has been adapted into a major motion picture set to be released in November this year.  Other successful shows that La Plante has created include Trial and Retribution and Above Suspicion, with nearly all of her books having been either adapted into screenplays or inspired by one of her televisions shows.  Murder Mile is the fourth book in her Jane Tennison series, which serves as a prequel series to one of La Plante’s most successful and iconic shows, Prime Suspect, which features Helen Mirren as an older Jane Tennison.  The first book in this prequel series, Tennison, also served as the basis for the short-lived prequel television series Prime Suspect 1973.

Murder Mile features a dark and disturbing mystery that serves as the central focus of this book.  The protagonist must investigate a series of murders spread out among the dilapidated Peckham area. La Plante has created an intriguing and compelling investigation storyline as Tennison and her team follow a series of promising leads across Peckham and the rest of London, finding clues in a variety of places, as well as several other bodies.  While the majority of the book leading up the conclusion of the story and the solution of the mystery is captivating in its own right, the best part of the book has to be its chilling conclusion.  Not only is the revealed antagonist a despicable creature, but the way in which they attempt to manipulate Jane and the rest of the police characters is just plain creepy.  The conclusion of the story and the ultimate reveal of the antagonist’s last actions are particularly shocking in their execution and extent.  Worse, both the reader and the protagonist can see that the villain is planning something, but you just cannot predict the terrible lengths they will go to win and spite the police.  This memorable conclusion serves as the perfect end to this dark and powerful story and represents some excellent writing from La Plante.

This story is set in 1970s London, and the author does a fantastic job bringing this iconic city to life during a period of economic downturn.  There is a certain gloom around the city, especially in Peckham, where the majority of the book’s investigation takes place.  The plot of Murder Mile is set during the infamous Winter of Discontent, a period of strikes and financial uncertainty that hit the country during 1978 and 1979.  There are several discussions about the situation from the characters and it is interesting to see a fictional perspective of this part of England’s recent history.  In addition, some of the physical effects of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ have some significant impacts on the case.  During January and February 1979, the waste collectors of London were on strike, resulting in a build-up of rubbish throughout the city.  As a result, many of the scenes set in the city feature streets strewn with garbage and littered with filth and rats.  La Plante also examines the parks that were filled with rubbish by London authorities as a stopgap measure for this situation.  This becomes particularly important in the story, as the police discover a dismembered body in one of these parks as the murderer attempted to utilise the situation for their own ends.  The author has also cleverly highlighted the police techniques and technologies that would have been available during the time.  Overall, La Plante has made full use of this chaotic period in Murder Mile, and readers will enjoy her vivid descriptions of these events.

In addition to the general descriptions of 1970s England, one of the key features of La Plante’s latest book is an examination of the inherent sexism in the London police force.  Jane as a Detective Sergeant must continue to fight to gain respect from her co-workers.  In Murder Mile she is constantly talked down to by her superiors, deals with disrespectful comments from the rank-and-file police, and must also deal with having her authority undercut by colleagues she considers to be her friends as they step in quickly to defend her.  It is infuriating to see how senior police ignore Tennison’s detective work and observations, especially as she is right most of the time.  This sexism also requires Tennison to act in a more maverick way, as her frustrations force her to work outside the main police investigation in order to prove herself – a decision that will have significant impacts on her life and career.

While the portrayal of sexism mentioned above has been used in all of the books of the Jane Tennison series, in Murder Mile La Plante has chosen to also focus on police homophobia and how it affects the investigation.  The police homophobia is quite prevalent throughout the series, especially when one of the suspects is revealed to be gay.  The police response to this is extreme, as several of the characters are quite hostile to this suspect and his relatives, alienating potentially helpful people in the investigation.  In addition, there is the stupid assumption that all homosexual males were automatically paedophiles, and this sends the investigation into several biased directions.  Tennison and several of the other characters attempt to change the minds of their colleagues, often without much success.  In addition, one of the more approachable and capable members of the police team is revealed to be homosexual in this book, which serves as a good counterpoint to the more old school and homophobic cops.  Overall, this is an intense and important part of the story, and it is intriguing to see how these old biases would likely have affected cases in the past.

Crime legend Lynda La Plante returns in fantastic form with Murder Mile, an exciting continuation of her Prime Suspect prequel series.  Featuring some deep and powerful examinations of the 1970s London police force, this absorbing mystery takes its readers to the edge of darkness and beyond.  Featuring an incredibly dark and unforgettable ending, Murder Mile is another exceptional release from La Plante and a highly recommend piece of crime fiction.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Greenlight by Benjamin Stevenson

Greenlight by Benjamin Stevenson Cover.jpg

Publisher: Michael Joseph

Publication Date – 3 September 2018

 

From debuting Australian author Benjamin Stevenson comes this chilling and intelligent murder mystery that builds a thrilling case with some sensational twists around an intriguing true crime documentary plot device.

Four years ago, in the small Australian country town of Birravale, Curtis Wade was arrested and tried for the murder of young woman Eliza Dacey.  Hated by the entire town and viewed as an outsider, Curtis was quickly found guilty of the crime with very little evidence presented at the trial.  Everyone was convinced of Curtis’ guilt until podcaster and documentarian Jack Quick decided to get involved.

Noting some inconsistencies in the case and sensing an opportunity for fame, Jack decided to make a true crime documentary series, presenting the local police as incompetent and biased.  His series becomes an overnight hit across Australia, and his edited footage convinces many in the country of Curtis’s innocence.  But the night before the finale is due to air, Jack notices a piece of crucial evidence near the murder scene that could prove that Curtis is guilty after all.  Determined not to ruin his series, and convinced that no matter what happens Curtis will never see the light of day again, he disposes of the evidence.  However, thanks to his series, Curtis is released on retrial, and then a second murder is committed, with several grisly details of the first case replicated.  Has Jack just let a murderer go free?

Returning to Birravale, Jack must once again dive into the secrets of a town that hates him for the way his show portrayed them.  As Jack attempts to solve this crime, he must overcome his own past while also dealing with the guilt of the situation.  But did Curtis commit this new crime, or is he being framed by the real killer?  Whoever the murderer is, Jack is wrapped up in their game and for once he needs to reveal the whole truth.

Greenlight is the first novel from Australian comedian and author Benjamin Stevenson and represents a brilliant and exhilarating debut.  This book has an amazing central storyline with a massively intriguing mystery that focuses on the innocence or guilt of the man who has already been both convicted and found innocent of the same murder.  The protagonist must look at whether the person he released from jail committed the murder he was originally convicted of, as well as a second, similar murder that occurred after the suspect has been released.  The reader is constantly left guessing about whether the prime suspect, Curtis, has committed either or both of the crimes, or whether he is actually innocent.  At the same time, the reader is presented with a series of plausible alternative suspects who have motive for either of the murders or, in some cases, the same motive for both of the killings, and this creates some exciting doubt about the original suspect’s guilt.  The final reveals and twists of this case are rather shocking and will definitely provide the readers with some excellent surprises.  Stevenson does a good job providing a lot of hints and foreshadowing in his text, and readers will enjoy seeing how these cleverly scattered clues are brought together in the end.  Overall, this is a hell of a mystery and the author does a fantastic job tying the investigation into the book’s other elements.

One of the most noticeable and outstanding parts of Greenlight is its true crime elements and how this affects both the story and the way that the book is written.  Ever since the dramatic popularity of the 2015 Netflix true crime show, Making a Murderer, various books and shows have attempted to emulate the documentary setting in their works.  What I liked about Stevenson’s book was that, rather than dealing with the creation of the documentary, it is mostly set some months after the television series was released and instead takes a look at the consequences that the show has had.  Not only is a potential murderer released, but various lives and careers have been ruined as a result of the protagonist’s actions.  It is absolutely fascinating to see the various ways that the reaction and follow-up of the true crime television series comes into play through the story.  The protagonist has to deal with a series of characters who are annoyed or angry about their portrayal in the series, which informs the help, assistance or compassion that these characters give.  The success of the series also affects the police response, leaving the protagonist much more open to investigate the crime.  It is also intriguing to see a television show being used as a motive for murder throughout the book, as the second murder could potentially be tied into righting the wrongs that the show caused.  Stevenson covers all these elements incredibly well, and the examination of the consequences and damages of a successful true crime documentary series turns out to be the perfect backdrop for this captivating murder story.

On top of the powerful mystery and the terrific plot focus, Stevenson has also created an interesting central protagonist who serves as the point of view character for most of the book.  The main character, Jack, is the documentarian who makes the show that gets the mystery’s main suspect freed from jail.  Watching the guilt and shame that this character experiences as a result of his various actions, such as the creation of the show, tampering with evidence and editing the videos to tell a specific story, is a great part of this story, and it serves as a perfect motivation for this character’s continued and at times frantic investigation.  Watching the character understand the full extent of his questionable actions, especially after the second murder, is an outstanding part of this book that highlights Stevenson’s strong writing ability.  It is also interesting to see how his experiences creating a documentary have affected his judgement and the way he perceives the world.  The protagonist now sees the slanted way many of the characters talk when it comes to case, and he is constantly trying to determine what role the people who are involved in the case would have in a television show, such as a main character or a supporting cast member.  The author also creates some interesting character background for Jack that works well with this story, as guilt and trauma from his childhood combines with the current extreme blame and he is currently feeling.  Stevenson also produces an accurate and powerful description of an eating disorder that Jack is suffering from, and not only is this description respectful done and informative, but it adds another level to this excellent main character.

A large amount of Greenlight’s plot is set in the fictional small, winegrowing country town of Birravale in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales.  This serves as a great background setting for the murder investigation as the small town secrets and attitudes play a huge role in the overall mystery.  Stevenson does an amazing job portraying a winegrowing community, and provides some interesting details that come into play in a number of ways and often result in a number of potential murder motives.  The small-town setting also works well with the post true crime series plot element, as the protagonist encounters an entire town that has been portrayed in a negative light throughout this series and is viewed in a different way by the rest of the country.  Seeing these resultant attitudes and the impacts his series has had on the town works wonders for the main character and is a great part of this book.

In his debuting novel, Australian author Benjamin Stevenson has created an incredibly captivating mystery storyline.  Greenlight contains a number of outstanding elements, from shocking plot twists and reveals, an excellent central character and an utterly fascinating central plot device, all of which come together into one amazing novel.  This is an exceptional first book from Stevenson which highlights both his fantastic ability and his huge potential as a crime writer.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars