Amongst Our Weapons by Ben Aaronovitch

Amongst our Weapons Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 12 April 2022)

Series: Rivers of London – Book Nine

Length: 406 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading lights in the urban fantasy genre, the exceedingly talented Ben Aaronovitch, returns with the latest epic book in his brilliant Rivers of London series, Amongst our Weapons.

For the last 10 years, the fantasy world has been exceedingly impressed by the fantastic writings of Ben Aaronovitch, who came up with a real winner with his Rivers of London series (also known as the Peter Grant series).  Aaronovitch, who already had some major nerd cred as a writer of two Doctor Who serials, debuted the first book in this series, Rivers of London, back in 2011.  This book told the story of Peter Grant, a young Metropolitan Police officer who is assigned to a specialised branch of the Met that deals with magic and supernatural incidents.  This intriguing debut combined magical elements with a classic police procedural format to create an epic and captivating read.  The author has since expanded this series out to several novels, as well as a range of novellas, short stories, and even a graphic novel series, all of which continue the story of Peter Grant and Aaronovitch’s unique magical world.  I have had a lot of fun over the last few years with this series, and I have greatly enjoyed Aaronovitch’s last two entries, Lies Sleeping and False Value.  Aaronovitch is back with another exceptional read in his ninth Rivers of London novel, Amongst our Weapons, which continues the excellent format and presents the reader with an awesome new mystery.

The London Silver Vaults are a renowned underground market for silverware in the heart of London.  They are highly secured and constantly monitored, so getting away with any sort of crime in the vaults is impossible.  So when a crazed would-be robber is brutally killed in the middle of the vaults with no witnesses or cameras catching the act, the Met are forced to call in their secret weapon, Peter Grant and his fellow detectives from the Special Assessment Unit, better known as the Folly.

Specialising in investigating magical incidents, Peter and his team are quickly able to determine that the death and the murder’s subsequent escape were a result of powerful magic.  Taking the lead on the case, Peter hopes to catch the killer quickly, but are quick to discover that their investigation is about to get far too complicated.  Ancient magics and unknown powers are loose around London, and after discovering a second body, the Folly team begin to investigate the members of a mysterious college cult from Manchester that has been inactive for years.  As more attacks occur, it becomes apparent that members of the cult are being hunted down and that their killer appears to be a vengeful, spear-wielding angel.

Determined to get to the bottom of the killings, Peter dives into the history of the cult and the mysterious artefacts they uncovered.  His investigation will lead him all over England, from the colleges of Manchester all the way to the dismal North.  But even as he begins to uncover the truth behind the killings and the being responsible, does even the full might of the Folly have the power to stop an angel and the deadly magic gifted to her?  Worse, another party has involved themselves in the case, someone that Peter knows far too well.  Can Peter solve this case before it is too late, and how will he deal with the greatest challenge of his life, becoming a father to his two magical twins?

Wow, Aaronovitch continues to massively impress me, bringing together another brilliant and unique urban fantasy read.  Once again bringing together an outstanding story that features distinctive fantasy elements with a clever mystery, Amongst our Weapons was a fantastic read that I had an incredible time reading.  This book was pretty damn awesome and gets a full five-star rating from me.

I had an absolute blast with the story contained within Amongst our Weapons as Aaronovitch has once again cleverly combined complex fantasy elements with a compelling murder mystery investigation, resulting in a deeply entertaining and addictive story.  Aaronovitch starts this latest novel off strong, with the protagonist and his team immediately thrust into an investigation of a man with a mysterious magical hole blown into his chest and no witnesses who saw what happened.  This intriguing start quickly becomes even more enticing, as a second murder is soon discovered, as well as other unusual signs and discoveries at the various crime scenes.  However, the excitement does not end there, as Aaronovitch also fits in an early encounter with the powerful murder, who appears to be an exceedingly deadly angel of vengeance, as well as the sudden reappearance of recurring antagonist Lesley May, Peter’s former partner who now acts as a magical mercenary.  Throw in some great character driven storylines about the protagonist’s family, as his river goddess wife is about to give birth, and you have quite an exceptional start to the novel.  Indeed, once all these elements were set up, I was hopelessly hooked on the story, and it proved extremely hard to put this book down at all.

The rest of the narrative flows on from here extremely strongly, as the characters launch an exhaustive and intense investigation not only into the murders but into the origins of certain magical items and the history of the college cult who appear to be targeted.  This takes the protagonist on a bit of a fieldtrip outside London, exploring Manchester and the North, and introducing the characters to some intriguing new magical elements.  While parts of the story here did get a bit bogged down when it came to exploring some of the more complex new fantasy inclusions, I flew through the second part of the book, especially as it is laced with several brilliant and imaginative confrontations between the protagonist and the book’s various antagonists.  Everything comes together extremely well in the lead-up to the conclusion, which results in a fantastic battle that helps resolve everything perfectly.  I did think that it got a little too metaphysical in places, but I still deeply enjoyed this great conclusion, which should really satisfy every reader, while also setting up some interesting storylines for the future.

Aaronovitch has such a distinctive writing style for the Rivers of London series, which is put to great use throughout Amongst our Weapons.  Like most of the Rivers of London novels, Amongst our Weapons can be read as a standalone read, with Aaronovitch doing a great job of rehashing some of the relevant continued storylines when they become relevant to the ongoing story.  This book features the usual awesome blend of magic, crime fiction and character-led storylines, wrapped up with a great sense of fun and humour, which helps to produce quite an entertaining and captivating read.  I particularly loved how the author makes his novels feel like a police procedural with magic, and this is perfectly on display in Amongst our Weapons, as the protagonists engage in elaborate investigation into several unique deaths.  It is so much fun to watch these magic-wielding protagonists do research, official police investigations, paperwork, evidence collecting and various theorising as they examine both the magical and human sides of the case, and I always love how well these elements can be fit into a seemingly typical murder mystery storyline.  Everything flows extremely well through this novel, and while I think there are some minor pacing issues towards the middle, readers will power through this entire book once they get caught up in the mystery and the magic.

I have always been really impressed with the distinctive and captivating fantasy elements contained within the Rivers of London novels, which prove to be intrinsic and outstanding parts of the book.  Rather than use classic fantasy elements, the magic and unique creatures featured within this series are a lot more abstract with a focus on energy manipulation, creatures from alternate universes and godlike beings who get their powers by being embodiments of important locations.  This really gives the novels a great, unique feel that is brilliantly enhanced by the way that the various characters treat magic in an almost scientific way, especially from a policing perspective, as the protagonists are effectively investigating and monitoring it in London.  This fantastic way of examining magic proves to be quite effective in Amongst our Weapons, as you get to see all manner of theorising, analyses and scientific conclusions drawn up as the protagonists attempt to identify and quantify the new forms of magic they are dealing with, especially when they come face to face with an unknown being of immense power.  This cool magic is also quite stunningly described throughout the novel, and I loved seeing its unique and clever use throughout the various magical confrontation sequences, and there is nothing more awesome than reading about a couple of wizards face off against an apparent angel.  I find all the cool magical elements quite fascinating to explore, and I loved seeing some of the world building that occurred throughout Amongst our Weapons, with some new groups of magical users introduced or referenced throughout.  Aaronovitch actually sets up some intriguing new world-building elements throughout Amongst our Weapons, and I look forward to seeing how this expands in some of the future novels.

Finally, I really must highlight the outstanding characters featured within Amongst our Weapons, who really help to turn this awesome story into something truly special.  This cast is headlined by the book’s main protagonist and point-of-view character, Peter Grant, who I really have a lot of fun with.  Grant is a funny and bold protagonist, who has been really growing since the first novel, not only in personality and responsibility but also in magical talent.  He serves as a brilliant protagonist for Amongst our Weapons, and his dogged and clever investigation of the unusual events moved the story along at a swift and enjoyable pace.  While his police work is a major part of the character, this latest novel also focuses again on his personal life, showing his unique marriage to a river (well, the living embodiment of a river), and the upcoming birth of his likely magical children.  This puts some major responsibility on Peter’s head, which he struggles to deal with, still taking risks with his work.  Watching him obsessively chase after the culprit while also trying to balance the upcoming birth of his children was a great part of the novel, and it really helped to make the reader feel attached to him.  However, I personally loved his outstanding sense of humour throughout this novel, as much of the book’s comedic elements are thanks to this protagonist’s funny statements and clever observations about the outrageous events he is witnessing.

Aside from this excellent and relatable protagonist, Amongst our Weapons features a large and diverse cast of figures, including a combination of new people associated with the case and a huge batch of recurring characters who have been perfectly set up before.  Most of the recurring characters are re-introduced extremely well, and even new readers should be able to follow who is who amongst this unique cast of magic users and professional police officers who work together to solve crimes.  My favourite supporting character is Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, head of the Folly and the last official wizard.  A gentlemanly figure who fought in World War II, Nightingale serves as a great mentor as well as a badass magician able to throw down with the worst creatures or dark magic users.  While not featured as heavily here as in previous novels, Nightingale has some great moments throughout Amongst our Weapons, and it was awesome to see him squaring off against the winged antagonist.  Aaronovitch also sets up some interesting storylines for him in this book, and it sounds like he will have a much more altered role in the future.  The other major character I should highlight is Lesley May, who serves as a secondary antagonist throughout this book.  Lesley, who spends most of the book as a mercenary character attempting to undermine the police’s investigation, is a great addition to the plot and I am extremely glad that Aaronovitch brought her back for this novel.  Not only do you get more of the regret-filled interactions with Peter but she serves as a great foil for the protagonists, and it was really fun to see her get involved and attempt to manipulate the situation to her advantage.  All these characters, and many more, are great additions to the fantastic and complex plot of the book, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the fantastic and powerful interactions between them.

The Rivers of London series continues to shine as one of the best and impressive urban fantasy series with Amongst our Weapons.  Ben Aaronovitch is such a talented author, and I deeply enjoyed distinctive and captivating stories he crafts, especially with its outstanding blend of unique fantasy and memorable murder mystery elements.  Amongst our Weapons is one of my favourite books from Aaronovitch I have read so far and it is a highly recommended for all fantasy fans.  If you aren’t exploring the Rivers of London, then you are really missing out!

Throwback Thursday – Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales and Michael Bair.

Identity Crisis Cover

Publisher: DC Comics (Paperback – 1 October 2005)

Series: Identity Crisis Limited Series

Writer: Brad Meltzer

Penciller: Rags Morales

Inker: Michael Bair

Letterer: Ken Lopez

Colorist: Alex Sinclair

Length: 288 pages

My Rating: 5 out 5 stars

Welcome back to 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 take a look at one of my absolute favourite comic book limited series, the epic 2004 DC Comics event, Identity Crisis.  (Quick warning, there are spoilers ahead).

Identity Crisis #1

It is fair to say that the early to mid-2000s was one of my favourite periods of comic books, with some truly cool and epic ongoing and limited series being released.  This was particularly true for DC Comics, who produced some of their best work during this time, many of which rank amongst my all-time favourite comic series.  This easily includes the exceptional and brilliant crossover event, Identity Crisis, which to my mind is one of the best limited series ever written.

Made of seven issues, Identity Crisis combines the unique writing talent of thriller author Brad Meltzer with the artistic stylings of veteran DC Comics collaborators Rags Morales and Michael Bair.  This ended up being a near perfect combination of talents and skill, and I have a lot of love for the exceptional story, which absolutely hooks me every time, and its outstanding associated artwork.  I particularly impressed with the addition of Meltzer, who, despite his more literary background has written some of the absolute best and most human comics I have ever had the pleasure of reading, including Green Arrow: The Archer’s Quest and the two Justice League of America storylines, The Tornado’s Path and The Lightning Saga.  However, his story in Identity Crisis is particularly powerful and thought-provoking, and it ends up being a comic that completely changes everything you knew about your favourite heroes.

For years the members of the Justice League of America have protected the world from all manner of evil and destruction, always prevailing no matter the odds.  But who can protect them when someone goes after those closest to them?  And what if they actually deserve the punishment being visited upon them?

On an unremarkable night, a mysterious attacker breaks into the home of long-serving Justice League associate, Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, and commits a terrible crime, the murder of Ralph’s beloved wife, Sue Dibny.  With no evidence about who the killer is and no idea how they breached the Dibnys’ impressive security, the superhero community rallies behind their bereaved friend and seeks to find the killer by any means necessary.

As the rest of the heroes seek answers at any potential suspect within the supervillain community, the Elongated Man and a small group his closest friends hunt for a minor villain, Dr Light, whose secret connection to the League’s darkest moment may hold the answers they seek.  However, when a second attack occurs on another publicly known relative of a superhero, Jean Loring, the former wife of the Atom, it soon becomes clear that someone else is targeting the heroes and their loved ones.

Identity Crisis #1b

As Batman, Superman, Green Arrow and others attempt to get to the bottom of the case, cryptic threats to one hero’s relative reveal that whoever is targeting them knows all of the League’s secrets, including their hidden identities.  As even more tragedies befall the superhero community, dark secrets from the League’s past are brought into the light and no-one will be prepared for the terrible truth behind these brutal murders.  Can the League weather this latest attack, or is this the beginning of the end for the world’s greatest heroes?

Damn, no matter how many times I read this comic, the tragic and powerful events of Identity Crisis still really get to me.  This exceptional comic contains one of the most impressive narratives I have ever seen in a limited series, taking the reader on a captivating and emotional dive into the world of your favourite heroes.  Perfectly combing a dark, mysterious narrative with incredible character work and some truly amazing artistic inclusions, this comic gets an extremely easy five-star rating from me.

For Identity Crisis, Brad Meltzer really went to the well, producing an insanely compelling and moving story that relentless drags you in and introduces you to a completely new side of your favourite heroes.  Utilising his experience as a crime thriller writer, he produces a powerful, character driven superhero narrative with detailed crime fiction elements to create an exceptional and unique story.  Identity Crisis has an amazing start to it, which not only carefully introduces several key figures but also installs some dark tragedy, as the wife of a superhero is killed off.  The subsequent investigation into her murder by the enraged superhero community is extremely compelling and intense, as the emotional heroes turn over every rock and stone, much to the horror of the villains.  However, it is soon revealed that several members of the Justice League are harbouring a devastating secret, one that could reveal the identity of the killer.  This secret becomes one of the most important parts of the first half of the series, and it leads to an epic, action-packed fight sequence against a particularly dangerous foe.

Identity Crisis #2

The story starts to go in a bit of a different direction at this point, with the above secret not really panning out regarding the investigation.  However, other superhero relatives, both public and secret, are targeted, resulting in pandemonium around the characters.  I loved the narrative’s move to a more classic investigation at this point, as the heroes start following every lead they can, while more character development and big moments are explored.  This all leads up to the defining moment when another superhero loses a loved one and the identity of the killer is seemingly revealed.  However, this turns out to be a bluff, as the real killer is still hidden.  The reveal of who did it and why are revealed pretty suddenly towards the end, with some curious and clever motivations exposed.  This leads to a tragic and heartbreaking conclusion, as more secrets are revealed, dangerous lies are uncovered, and several characters leave the story more broken and destroyed than ever before.  You will be thrown through the emotional wringer as you check this comic out.

I deeply enjoyed the way that Meltzer told Identity Crisis’s excellent story, especially as it quickly and effectively engrosses the reader and ensures their undivided attention.  The author utilises a mass-character narrative that follows a substantial collection of heroes and villains, many of whom have distinctive or semi-separate storylines.  This works to tell an intriguing, rich narrative that not only has some clever dramatic components but also allows for some intriguing and compelling retcons and expansions to the already elaborate DC universe.  It is very cool how the story developed into more of a murder mystery/thriller story as the comic progressed, and this really played to Meltzer’s strengths.  The investigation is handled very well, and I liked how the superhero elements altered and enhanced it in some clever ways.  The mystery itself is complex and clever, with Meltzer adding in some great twists, false leads and compelling surprises to keep the reader guessing.  The twist about the actual killer is pretty good, and Meltzer did a great job layering in hints and clues throughout the rest of the story while also introducing a few good alternative suspects.  While the motivations and complexities surrounding the killer’s actions are great, I did think that how the protagonists worked it out was a little abrupt, and it might have been a little better if they worked it out from some earlier clues.  The use of female characters wasn’t the best either, especially as most of them are there simply to be victims in one shape or another.  Having a long-established character getting both raped and murdered in a comic as a plot device is pretty unfortunate, and some stronger female figures might have helped balance this out.  Still, this ended up being an awesome read and I deeply enjoyed how it turned out.

One of the things that I really enjoy about Identity Crisis is the interesting examinations that were included as part of the plot.  Meltzer and the artistic team obviously had a lot of fun exploring or introducing some cool aspects of the DC Universe in this series, especially when it comes to the secret or hidden lives of superheroes and supervillains.  I particularly loved the in-depth examination about how both groups are officially or unofficially organised, and there are some very intriguing views of them socialising or working together.  The inclusion of a highly organised superhero death investigation squad, made up of a range of random heroes (the Ray, the Atom, Animal Man, Mister Miracle and two of the Metal Men) is particularly clever, as is the way the various heroes organise into a vengeful posse to question potential suspects.  The deep dive into the importance of a superhero secret identity also becomes an important part of the story, especially as the loss of the secret brings pandemonium thanks to the killer stalking them.  I also loved the counterbalance look at organised villainy, and there are some excellent scenes that see the villains gathering to socialise or talk shop.  Having an organising force like the Calculator, as well as a secret space station hangout, is pretty elaborate, and the deeper look at the villains of this universe, definitely gave Identity Crisis a compelling and intricate edge.

Identity Crisis #3

However, easily the most groundbreaking and compelling new inclusion to the universe is the reveal about the unofficial league within the Justice League who have some dark secrets.  Made up of heroes Green Arrow, Black Canary, Hawkman, Zatanna and Atom, as well as the Silver Age Green Lantern and Flash, this group of heroes apparently operated separately of the main Justice League during their classic Silver Age adventures, acting as their clean-up crew.  This retcon by Meltzer provides an interesting explanation for why villains never remember the secret identities of the heroes they switch minds with or whose dreams they invade, namely they have their mind erased by Zatanna’s magic after being captured by this inner-League.  While this is already a dark move by these established heroes, it gets even worse when they are forced to reveal that they intentionally destroyed Dr Light’s brain to make him less of a threat.  This and other revelations, acts to make many of your favourite heroes appear much more morally grey and fallible, and it was a particularly impressive and monumental inclusion, that will have grave consequences down the line for the entire universe.

Unsurprisingly for something written by Meltzer, Identity Crisis contains some insanely complex and impressive characters who form the heart of the tale.  Due to the way the story is told, Identity Crisis follows a massive cast of comic characters, including several obscure or underappreciated figures.  Meltzer does a brilliant job of utilising all these established characters throughout his story, with nearly every major cast member getting a moment to shine in some way or another, and multiple figures who were underutilised or unappreciated before this comic were given brilliant and defining second chances here.  While the use of multiple focus characters had the potential for a scattered narrative, Meltzer was able to direct the flow of the story around all these various protagonists and antagonists perfectly, and you still get a tight and concise story, which also takes the time to dive into each of these figures and showcase them to their greatest degree.  As I mentioned before, there is a real focus on highlighting the darker side of the superhero characters throughout Identity Crisis, and you end up really seeing these fantastic figures in a whole new scary light.

Let’s start with Ralph and Sue Dibny.  I must admit that the very first time I ever read Identity Crisis, many years ago, I honestly had no idea who Elongated Man and his wife were, as they were a little obscure.  However, Meltzer really goes out of his way to feature them in this story (even adding in a few retcons) and you are given a great introduction to them at the start.  In just a few panels, you understand who these characters are and what they mean to each other and the other superheroes, as well as some unique characteristics and relationship quirks.  This excellent introduction makes you start to care about them just as Meltzer brings the hammer down and kills Sue.  The subsequent grief, rage and despair from Elongated Man is just heartbreaking, and you go through the rest of the comic seeing him attempt to recover from these terrible events.  This amazing use of characters at the start of the comic has a great flow-on effect to the rest of the story, and you become exceedingly invested in finding the killer as a result.

Identity Crisis #4

From there, a lot of the superhero focus goes to the surviving members of the Justice League who formed the league within the League I mentioned above.  There is some exceptional character work around some of these team members, especially as they come to terms with the decisions they made in the past and how they are impacting them now.  I loved seeing them attempt to justify their actions to the other heroes, even their darkest decisions, especially as you can understand why they did what they did, while also feeling disappointed in them.  You really get a sense of determination and shame from them as the story continues, and you see all of them go through a lot in both the past in the present story.  Despite multiple differences, this team are still friends and comrades, and watching them come together to brawl with some of the most dangerous characters is pretty heartwarming, even if darker elements lie just beneath the surface.

While there is a focus on these inner-Leaguers, some of them are utilised a lot more frequently than others, particularly the original Green Arrow, Oliver Queen.  Green Arrow is an excellent figure in this comic and is probably the closest thing to a heroic narrator/central protagonist the story has.  His unique perspective on the events acts as a good foil to many of the other characters, such as Batman and Superman, and he proves to be a calm, if potentially vengeful figure for much of the story, organising many of the League actions and forensic investigations.  He also proves to be the voice of reason for the inner League, calmly justifying many of their actions and serving as a bridge between this existing group and the newer Flash and Green Lantern.  Despite his belief that they are doing the right thing, you can see some real emotion and regret in his face, especially when the further revelations about Dr Light and Batman come out.  I also appreciated the deeper look into his antagonistic relationship with Hawkman, which partially originated in the past events mentioned here, and it is interesting to see how the events of this comic impact future Green Arrow storylines.

Aside from Green Arrow, other members of this secret League who get an intriguing focus include the Atom, Ray Palmer, and his ex-wife, Jean Loring.  Due to his status as another public hero, Atom and Jean are also targeted throughout the story, and you end up getting a rather intense and fascinating look at both.  Watching their failed relationship rekindle is a nicer part of most of the comic, although eventual reveals and tragedies naturally ruin it and smash everything around.  Still, their complicated emotions and issues surrounding their fractured relationship make for some of the best parts of the comic.  I liked the interesting look at Zatanna throughout the comic, especially as she is largely responsible for some of the worst moments of this group of heroes, as she clearly feels guilty about her magic messing with the villain’s minds.  I also need to highlight the younger Flash, Wally West, who finds out about the actions of the other characters during the current events of the comic.  It is absolutely heartbreaking to see Wally learn that his mentor and predecessor, Barry Allen, was not as perfect as he imagined, and actually participated in some of the team’s worst events.  The distress he exhibits with every subsequent reveal is showcased through the comic’s art extremely well, and his subsequent guilt as he is forced to keep it secret from other Leaguers like Batman is quite noticeable.

Identity Crisis #5

As you can expect from any major DC Comics crossover event, members of DC’s Big Three are strongly featured throughout Identity Crisis.  While Wonder Woman only has a few intriguing scenes, in which you get to see both her ferocity and her kindness, there is much more of a focus on Superman and Batman.  Superman gets some great sequences throughout Identity Crisis, especially as the creative team sinisterly focus on his family and friends, all of whom are potential targets.  Watching Superman slowly get frustrated with the investigation, especially when Lois is threatened, helps to enhance the seriousness of the story, and he has some powerful moments here.  I did appreciate the way in which Meltzer attempted to paint the big blue Boy Scout in a darker light, as it is revealed that even the supposedly righteous Superman is not as innocent as you’d believe.  It is subtly implied that Superman always knew what the inner League was up to (yay for super hearing), and chose to ignore it for convenience.  This brilliant and dark suggestion that even Superman isn’t infallible is a pretty weighty one that  helps to enhance the weight and power of Identity Crisis’s narrative.

Batman is a lot more involved in the story and leads his own investigation into who is behind the killing.  Even though he does not actually appear until halfway through the comic, he is a heavy presence throughout Identity Crisis, both because of his brusque, loner ways of trying to solve the crime, but because of the dark shadows of the past.  There are multiple moments that revisit his childhood and the death of his parents, which parallels some of the other losses in Identity Crisis, and you get to see the human side of grief impacting this usually stoic character.  Batman’s storyline gets even more intense when it is revealed that part of his memory was erased by his fellow Leaguers to cover up their actions surrounding Dr Light, which is a very haunting inclusion.  Meltzer makes this even more intriguing by having Green Arrow suggest, mostly out of guilt, that Batman likely has done something similar in the past, while also acknowledging that he has likely already deduced that his memories were erased.  This really makes you consider Batman’s relationship with the rest of his heroes, and it certainly has a big impact on future Batman storylines.

The Batman impact on this story is also felt through the great focus on the current Robin, Tim Drake, who plays a surprisingly big role in the events of Identity Crisis.  At the start of the comic, Tim is one of the few members of the Bat-family who still has a father, which puts him at odds with Batman and the Robin predecessors.  As his father has only just discovered his dual identity as Robin, he becomes one of the more interesting protagonists, as the comic explores the stress of the superhero lifestyle on family.  Tim’s storyline ends up being extremely tragic when his father is murdered.  Watching Robin talk to his father over the phone as he’s about to die is just damn horrific, and your heart can’t help but break during that epically drawn-out scene where he and Batman arrive too late.  The subsequent parallel between him, Bruce Wayne and previous Robin Dick Grayson during this moment is particularly poignant, and it results in a whole new chapter of this amazing incarnation of Robin.

Identity Crisis #6

While there are a few other interestingly featured heroes in Identity Crisis, I’m going to start talking about the villains, as many of them have a brilliant role in this comic.  Thanks to Meltzer’s fantastic writing, Identity Crisis proves to be just as much about the villains as the heroes, as many of them are deeply impacted by the events disclosed here.  While I won’t reveal the identity of the killer here (I’m keeping some spoilers locked up), I will say that their motivations are pretty fascinating and provide a compelling insight into the super lifestyle.  The rest of the villains in Identity Crisis are fair game for discussion, though, and I deeply loved the creative team’s excellent examination of them.

Easily the villain I need to talk about the most is Dr Light, an old school Justice League villain who had not been really utilised in recent years.  Mostly known before this comic as the Teen Titans’ punching bag, Meltzer completely revitalised the character in Identity Crisis and, with a stroke, turned him onto one of the most deranged and dangerous figures in the entire universe.  It is revealed throughout the comic that Dr Light used to be an extremely powerful villain, but after invading an empty Watch Tower and raping Sue Dibny, the League brutally took him down, erased his memory of the event and then magically lobotomised him.  This resulted in him becoming the moronic and weakened villain who was routinely taken down by the teenage heroes and other embarrassing foes.  This entire reveal is pretty damn epic and horrifying at the same time.  Not only does Dr Light seem excessively evil and deranged in the flashback scenes, but the shocking revelations of his actions immediately make you hate him.  Meltzer’s explanation for why he turned into such as pathetic creature (aside from the real reason of capricious authors) really hits home hard, and even though Dr Light is a terrible person, you can’t believe that members of the Justice League went so far.  The subsequent scenes where Dr Light regains his memories and his powers feature some of the best artwork in the comic, and while he doesn’t do much here, the scenes with him brooding and plotting hit at his returned and future malevolence.  I deeply appreciated how much Meltzer was able to morph this villain, and while the reliance on rape for antagonist purposes is a bit low, he succeeded in making him a very hateful and despicable figure.

Aside from the killer and Dr Light, several other villains hold interesting and significant roles in Identity Crisis, and I deeply enjoyed how they were portrayed.  This includes Green Arrow villain Meryln, who serves as an interesting shadow to Oliver Queen throughout the comic (more so than usual).  While Green Arrow provides the superhero community’s viewpoint on events, Merlyn’s narration examines the supervillain community and their various reactions.  I loved his fun insights into his fellow villains, and he ends up being an interesting inclusion to the cast.  The same can be said for the Calculator, a formerly silly figure who has turned himself into a non-costumed villain who acts as an anti-Oracle, providing the villain community with tech support and intelligence by charging them $1,000 per question.  I loved this interesting revamp of this minor character, especially as this suave, behind-the-scenes information broker became his default look for years.  Calculator’s conversations and business dealings offer some compelling insights into the superhero community, and I loved the occasional jokes about his old costume.  Meltzer also makes exceptional use of one of my favourite villains, Deathstroke, who once again shows why he is the DC universe’s ultimate badass.  Hired by Dr Light to protect himself from the League, Deathstroke takes on an entire team of heroes single handily and essentially spanks them.  I love how the creative team not only showcase his insane physical abilities, but also his tactical knowhow, as he expertly takes down major heroes in brilliant ways (he takes down the Atom and Hawkman with a laser pointer, true story).  His scene in the centre of the comic is the best action sequence in Identity Crisis, and it perfectly showcased this awesome villain (seriously, give this man a movie), while also hinting at some future grudges.

Identity Crisis #7

The final character I want to talk about is the lecherous and always entertaining Captain Boomerang, who has a major role in the plot.  I absolutely loved the exceptional story that Meltzer wrote around this infamous villain, and it is easily one of his most defining depictions.  Captain Boomerang has always been shown as a bit of a joke, but this comic shows him as a fat, washed up has-been, who leaches off his fellow villains and is generally looked down upon by them.  However, he gets a very intense and emotional story in this comic, as he meets his long-lost son and starts to develop a relationship with him.  The father/son moments add a rather interesting and nice edge to the main story and seem slightly disconnected from the rest of the plot.  That is until the final killing, when it is revealed that Captain Boomerang has arrived to kill Robin’s father.  The implied suggestion that Captain Boomerang of all people might be behind the killings is pretty iconic, and I loved the split panels that contrast his phone call to his son with the phone conversation between Robin and his father.  The subsequent results of the attack, as well as the reveals in the aftermath are pretty awesome, and I really appreciated the fun second chance that Meltzer and the artistic team gave to this iconic, old-school villain.

While I have gone a lot about story elements and characters, I also really need to highlight the incredible artwork featured in Identity Crisis.  The artistic team of Rags Morales and Michael Bair did an outstanding job in this limited series, producing some of the absolute best artwork from this era of DC Comics which perfectly enhances Meltzer’s epic storytelling.  There are so many impressive and memorable artistic moments and sequences throughout Identity Crisis, and I loved the various ways in which the artists convey movement, action, and emotion in their detailed and captivating panels.  There are so many brilliant action sequences in this comic, with my favourite being the Deathstroke vs Justice League fight I mentioned above, although a few others are also very cool to see.  I also loved the character designs featured throughout Identity Crisis, especially as the creative team took the opportunity to seriously reinvent several heroes and villains.  The streamlined look of the Calculator is particularly fun, and I also loved the balding and fat version of Captain Boomerang.  While I didn’t love how a couple of characters looked (what was with the hair on Connor Hawke?), most of it was pretty exceptional, and I love how it was later reutilised by other artists.

There are multiple truly brilliant and eye-catching artistic highlights of Identity Crisis that I must highlight, including the massive and powerful funeral sequence that takes place in the early part of the series.  There is an incredibly elaborate double-page public funeral spread that shows every single emotional superhero in attendance, with the various heroes organised by team or connection to the grieving family.  The use of the multiple heroes and associates is pretty awesome, especially as there are a range of character-appropriate reactions, and I loved seeing the whole costume crowd surrounded by members of the press and public as they mourn.  You also get also some excellent and heartfelt sequences in the subsequent scenes which show the eulogies, especially when Elongated Man starts to literally deteriorate due to his grief, which is just so powerful.  Other great examples of the artist’s work include the fun flashback scenes that allowed them to draw events in various classic comic styles, that offer a little bit of simplicity compared to the darker modern spread.

I particularly loved some of the brilliant sequences that are set around Dr Light, as not only do you see him at his most dangerous in the past but you also have some outstanding scenes when he regains his memories and powers.  The excellent parallels between the Justice League’s takedown of Dr Light and their attack on Deathstroke are incredible, and the subsequent massive panel of blinding light around Dr Light’s face is perfection.  However, the absolute best-drawn sequence in Identity Crisis must be the panels leading up to the death of Robin’s father.  Watching the insane amount of emotion on Batman and Robin as they realise that Robin’s father is about to die is so damn moving, especially the anguish on Robin.  The most moving of these panels is the one that focuses on Batman’s face after Robin begs his mentor to save his father.  The look of pure dread, fear and despair on Batman’s face takes my breath away every single time I look at it, and it perfectly conveys all of Batman’s repressed feelings as he realises that history is once again going to repeat itself.  While there are some other great scenes, the above are easily the cream of the artistic crop and definitely make this comic stand out.  I have so much love for the artistic work of Morales and Bair here, and it markedly enhances the already exceptional story, turning Identity Crisis into a true epic classic.

Well, that’s pretty much everything I have to say about Identity Crisis here.  As you can no doubt guess from the excessive way I have waffled on, I have a lot of love for this exceptional comic and I’m not afraid to show it.  The brilliant creative team behind Identity Crisis did an incredible job with this comic and they really turned out something special.  Perfectly bringing together a deep and clever story with impressive artwork, amazing characters, and so much damn emotion, this comic has something for everyone and is so very highly recommended.  I deeply enjoy everything about Identity Crisis, especially how it leads to some other epic comic books (the continuation of the mindwipe stuff in Justice League of America, Green Arrow, Teen Titans and more is particularly good).  One of the most distinctive and amazing comics ever and a must read for all DC Comics fans.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 13: Grey Shadows by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Grey Shadows Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics (Paperback – March 2000)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 13

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out 5 stars

Welcome back to 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 check out another epic entry in the amazing Usagi Yojimbo series by Stan Sakai with the 13th volume, Grey Shadows.

Usagi #23

I had a lot of fun reviewing the 12th volume, Grasscutter, last week and it set me down a bit of a reread journey which saw me revisit several other Usagi Yojimbo volumes.  As such I thought I would take the time to do another review of one of Stan Sakai’s comics, and luckily the next one on my list, Grey Shadows, is a particularly good one.

Grey Shadows takes place immediately after the massive events of Grasscutter and details several adventures that rabbit ronin protagonist Miyamoto Usagi goes on during this period.  Made up of issues #23-30 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, Grey Shadows returns to the series norm of featuring several shorter stories, each of which pit Usagi against a new threat or opponent.  Grey Shadows have several excellent stories, including some that focus on fantastic murder mystery elements while simultaneously introducing interesting new characters.

The first story in this volume is the intriguing and touching entry, My Father’s Swords.  This single-issue story first sees Usagi at the temple of his friend priest Sanshobo recovering from his deadly duel with the demonic spearman Jei at the end of Grasscutter.  Still troubled by the disappearance of Jei’s body and the sudden burden of being responsible for the legendary Grasscutter sword, Usagi journeys out from the temple to scout the surrounding area and determine if it is safe to move the divine blade.  His journeys eventually lead him to meet young wandering samurai, Donbori Chiaki, whose father was an old friend of Usagi’s who served with him under Usagi’s former lord.  While travelling with Chiaki, a chance encounter reveals secrets that will rock Usagi’s soul as a samurai.

Usagi #24

This was an interesting first story for Grey Shadows and it is one that I really appreciated.  I liked the excellent start that revisited key events of the previous volume and examined the burden that Usagi, Sanshobo and Gen now bear.  Not only does Sakai use this opportunity to inform the protagonists about some of the other events of Grasscutter that they were unaware of, but it also helps set up the future 15th volume, Grasscutter II, which will end this overall storyline.  Sakai also takes a little time to showcase Usagi dealing with the dark details of the defeat of his adversary Jei, especially after Jei’s body disappeared upon his defeat.  There is a great scene where a clearly shaken Usagi destroys Jei’s fallen black spear to convince himself that his foe is truly dead, although you can tell he doesn’t believe it.  I am rather impressed that Sakai manages to do such a comprehensive wrap up of the events of the previous volume in such a short amount of time, while also leaving room for another interesting story.

The main story of My Father’s Swords is pretty moving, as Usagi is immediately brought back to another trauma, his service to Lord Mifune and the Battle of Adachi Plain (see Volume 2: Samurai and Volume 11: Seasons).  Travelling with the son of an old comrade lets Usagi briefly relive his glory days, before the past is once again thrust upon him when it is revealed that his friend, Donbori Matsuo, is still alive, following his son anonymously as a cripple.  The reasons for Matsuo hiding his existence from his son and the burden he then places on Usagi to keep this secret for him is a little heartbreaking, and it provides more context about the samurai way of life Usagi is bound to.  The entirety of this storyline is handled perfectly, from the great introduction to Chiaki, the fun remembrances of Usagi’s past, to the final revelation about Matsuo that ends the story on a poignant note that will leave you very thoughtful and moved.  I enjoyed some of the clever artistic tricks in this story, such as the dark shade around Usagi when he deals with Jei’s spear, and the fun way in which Sakai slips in the beggar Matsuo into the background of several scenes, revealing his subtle surveillance of his son.  An excellent entry that not only references the events of Grasscutter but also features a powerful story of its own, My Father’s Swords proves to be a great start to this entire volume.

Usagi #25

Sakai follows up the moving first story of Grey Shadows with the dark second entry, The Demon’s Flute, a clever and memorable horror story.  The Demon’s Flute sees Usagi traversing some remote hills only to be drawn to a small town by the haunting melodies of a flute.  Once there, he discovers that the village is under attack by a mystical menace which kills villagers in utter darkness while the sound of a flute plays.  Believing it to be a ghostly figure of a flutist who wanders around with a white tokage (the dinosaur lizards that serve as this world’s main animals), the villagers implore Usagi to help save them.  However, the true evil attacking them proves to be more complicated and sinister than anyone of them believed.

The Demon’s Flute is a great story that shows just how haunting a Usagi Yojimbo story can be, especially when Sakai utilises some of the creepiest elements of Japanese mythology.  While some of the elements of the story are slightly predictable (Usagi has rocked up to save a lot of random villages over the years), the story has a great pace to it that sees Usagi attacked by dark forces he cannot overcome.  The various scenes where Usagi runs around the village chasing the darkness and the sound of a playing flute are extremely tense, and the sudden reveal of the story’s monster proves to be very thrilling.  I loved the great art that surrounded this part of the story, especially as Sakai makes great use of pure blackness to enhance the tension and threat of a scene, with Usagi often only illuminated by a small hand torch.  The final reveal of the monster and the reason for the haunting flute is pretty cool, and I liked the dark sense of honour and duty that drives even the evil and dead of this realm.  While parts of the story are wrapped up a little too neatly, this was still a brilliant entry which reaffirms my love for Sakai’s horror stories.

The next entry in Grey Shadows is the wholesome and enjoyable Momo-Usagi-Taro, which sees Usagi arrive at a large town.  However, he is almost immediately accosted by a group of orphan children who wrangle him into accompanying them to their orphanage, where he tells them an epic tale to keep them entertained.  This is a genuinely nice entry in this volume, which helps to break up the tension and serves as a gentle buffer between the darker stories in the volume.  While Sakai does take the time to do a little set up for the upcoming stories, most of Momo-Usagi-Taro is dedicated to Usagi’s story to the children, which is a retelling of the classic Momotarō folk story.  I always love it when Sakai tells traditional Japanese stories in his comic, especially as you get to see his artistic take on the legend (which usually results in the protagonist being altered to resemble Usagi), and it was great to see this classic tale brought to life in a new way.  Readers are in for a nice story here, and I loved the fun revelation at the end that the orphanage is the same one shown in Daisho, which is supported by the bounty hunter Stray Dog.

Usagi #26

Now we are getting to some of the main stories of Grey Shadows with The Hairpin Murders.  Set across two issues, The Hairpin Murders sees Usagi get involved in a murder mystery case in town when several prominent merchants are killed using a woman’s hairpin.  Teaming up with the brilliant detective, Inspector Ishida, Usagi helps with the investigation and is soon thrust into a long-hidden conspiracy that bind the victims together.  However, the closer they get to the truth the more resistance they encounter from Ishida’s superiors, forcing them to decide just how far they want to go to get justice.

This was an excellent and intriguing story that serves as one of the more impressive entries in this entire volume.  While still maintaining its comic style and focus, The Hairpin Murders reads just like a classic murder mystery story and sees the protagonist involved in a constricted investigation to find the truth.  Sakai sets up this mystery perfectly, and you are soon racing along to find out who is responsible and why.  There are a couple of great twists here, as well as some interesting connections to kabuki theatre, with the eventual reveal of the murderer and their motivations is handled really well.  The story ends on a pretty satisfying note, and it proves to be quite an intense and intriguing story.

Usagi #27

One of the best things about The Hairpin Murders is the introduction of new character Inspector Ishida, who serves as a supporting figure in the rest of Grey Shadow’s stories.  Based on real-life policeman Chang Apana (the inspiration for fictional detective Charlie Chan), Ishida is a hard-boiled police inspector who is tasked with investigating various crimes around his town, mostly murders.  Despite being restricted by feudal Japanese practices (he can’t do a proper investigation of a body), and the interference of his corrupt superiors, Ishida is a brilliant detective, able to solve complex crimes with the most basic of clues.  Ishida gets a great introduction in The Hairpin Murders, as not only do you see him investigating a tough case but you also learn more about his personality, dedication to justice and elements of his tragic past.  It is so fun to see him in action in this story, especially as he has that great fight scene that shows of his unconventional fighting style (which is surprising considering his small, hunched stature), as well as his excellent use of the cool jutte weapon (I love the jutte so much).  However, the real hint at just how complex and fascinating a character Ishida is occurs at the end of The Hairpin Murders when Ishida is presented with a massive dilemma of justice.  It is strongly implied that Ishida, who spends most of the story sticking to the rules, takes justice into his own hands, and I think it fits perfectly into his character arc, while also leaving some ambiguity about how far he went.  This really was one of the best character introductions of the entire Usagi Yojimbo series and it was so successful that Ishida would become a major recurring character in future volumes (such as Volume 32: Mysteries and Volume 33: The Hidden).

The other two-issue long story in Grey Shadows is the compelling and moving tale, The Courtesan.  In The Courtesan, Usagi runs into the scared young woman he has noticed multiple times in the last few stories and saves her from a group of masked attackers.  His actions lead to him gaining the attention of the town’s leading courtesan, the alluring Lady Maple, who begs Usagi to help save the life of her young son, who is the legitimate heir to the local lord.  However, dangerous forces within the lord’s court see Lady Maple kidnapped and her son in danger, with only Usagi able to help.

Usagi #28

This was another powerful story that really helps to make this volume stand out in terms of story building and character work.  The Courtesan is a particularly well-paced story that ties in well with the other entries of the Grey Shadow’s volume.  Sakai has come up with a pretty compelling narrative here, and the secret battle for control of the lord’s inheritance is played out with some awesome elements, such as a dive into the world of Japanese courtesans and including several great fight sequences.  The character of Lady Maple is particularly strong, as not only does Sakai make a lot of effort to highlight her elaborate beauty with his artwork, but he also shows the mother hidden underneath the fancy makeup and costume, one who is concerned solely for the welfare of her child.  This leads up to an epic and tense conclusion, as Usagi faces down all the conspirators, only for his victory to be marred by tragedy.  I loved the powerful ending this story contained, which, while sad, also ensures that several worthy characters get what they most wanted in life.  Easily one of the strongest tales in the entire volume, I always enjoy reading this impressive story.

The final entry in Grey Shadows is the fast-paced and action-packed single-issue story, Tameshigiri, which serves as an excellent conclusion to the entire volume.  Tameshigiri is another mystery story that sees Usagi assist Inspector Ishida to investigate some murders around town.  This time the two friends are looking into a series of random killings by mysterious masked samurai.  The attacks seem extremely random and lacking in motivation, but the two are soon drawn towards the acolytes of a failing sword testing school who may have a dark reason for dropping bodies around town.

Usagi #29

This was a pretty fun and cool final story for the volume, and it leaves an exciting end note for the reader.  Sakai pulls together a fantastic and compelling shorter story here that once again combines murder mystery elements with the traditional comic book action.  While the culprits of the murder are quite clear from the outset, it is pretty fun to see their plan unfold and the protagonist’s subsequent investigation into it.  The reasons behind the antagonists’ actions are pretty fascinating, and the author paints an outstanding picture of desperation and duty that drives them to kill.  I also quite liked the intriguing investigation into traditional sword testing, which ties into the story extremely well and proves to be a fascinating addition to Tameshigiri’s plot.  The entire story leads up to a massive action sequence that sees multiple participants on both sides engage in a deadly battle to the death.  Not only doe we get to see more of Inspector Ishida’s unique fighting style, but Usagi also shines in an awesome duel.  Throw in the amusing jokes about the events of the preceding story, where Ishida clearly knows Usagi is behind some of the mayhem, and you have a very entertaining entry that not only wraps up the Ishida-based storylines extremely well, but also ensures that the reader has some fun on the way out.

I must once again highlight Sakai’s brilliant artistic work in this cool volume, as Grey Shadows contains impressive examples of Sakai’s amazing style.  There are so many beautiful and intricately detailed drawings throughout this awesome volume, and I love how perfectly it enhances the already great storylines.  I particularly love the amount of detail that he throws into the various panel backgrounds, ensuring that the reader sees both the full breadth of Japan’s majestic natural landscape and the traditional feudal style buildings in the towns and villages Usagi visits.  Sakai also does incredible justice to the many battle sequences scattered throughout Grey Shadows, perfectly portraying the intricate deadly movements that make up the character’s sword play.  You always get an impressive sense of how the characters moved as they battled, and I deeply appreciated all the brilliant and brutal fight scenes.  This incredible artwork always pairs so perfectly with the written story, ensuring that this 13th volume was very spectacular and awesome to look at.

Usagi #30

As you can see, I had a lot of fun with Grey Shadows, and it proved to be another excellent entry in Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo series.  This 13th volume features several outstanding stories, which really dive into their unique protagonists and antagonists and show the full majesty of this version of feudal Japan.  Serving as a key entry in the overall series thanks to the introduction of a cool new character, Grey Shadows is a must read for all Usagi Yojimbo fans and it gets another five-star rating from me.

City of the Dead by Jonathan Kellerman

City of the Dead Cover 2

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 15 February 2022)

Series: Alex Delaware – Book 37

Length: 319 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive back into the excellent world of Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series with the latest fantastic entry, City of the Dead.

There are some awesome crime fiction authors out there now who have some brilliant long-running series, but one I have been particularly drawn to is bestselling author Jonathan Kellerman.  Kellerman, who debuted in 1985, is an impressive murder mystery author who is best known for his Alex Delaware books.  This fantastic series follows titular protagonist psychologist Alex Delaware as he helps his police detective best friend solve some of the strangest or disturbing murders throughout Los Angeles.  I started reading this book a few years ago and have had an excellent time with the last three entries, The Wedding Guest, The Museum of Desire and Serpentine, all of which had an impressive and clever murder mystery narratives.  As such, I made a real effort to grab City of the Dead when it came out as I knew I was going to have a great time with it.  City of the Dead is the 37th Alex Delaware book and features another twisty and powerful mystery.

On a dark LA early morning, a moving truck runs over a naked body on the street.  As the police investigate this tragic accident, they discover a blood trail, which leads them to a nearby house, where the body of a murdered female is found.  Finding many of the details of this case to be unusual, LAPD homicide lieutenant Milo Sturgis once again brings in his friend, psychologist Dr Alex Delaware, to consult.  While the identity of the naked male out on the street is unknown, Alex is shocked to discover that he knows the female victim from one of his custody cases.

The victim, Cordelia “Cordi” Gannett, was a fraudulent mental health practitioner who specialised in manipulating the vulnerable for her own advantage.  Concerned that her deceptive practices may have led to her death, Alex and Milo examine her past to try and discover who killed her.  But as they dig into her intriguing life, Alex and Milo quickly discover that their victim had a troubled past, filled with mistakes, betrayals and bad influences.  But the more they uncover, the more they begin to question everything they think they knew about this terrible murder.  Was Cordi the dangerous manipulator everyone believes, or was she something far more vulnerable?  And what role, if any, did the dead man on the street play in her death?  A dangerous and disturbed murderer lies behind this crime, and their reasons for killing will shock even the hardened team of Alex and Milo.

Kellerman has done it again, producing an excellent and compelling murder investigation that will quickly hook you and take you to some dark places.  I loved the brilliant narrative of City of the Dead, which combines a complex mystery with interesting characters and the author’s unique style and perspective.  The author sets the start the story perfectly, with a couple of bodies discovered in unique positions that immediately grabs the reader’s attention.  This interest is intensified once the connection between Delaware and the victim are established, which also reveals the victim’s scandalous past.  From there the story continues at a slower pace, with Alex and Milo carefully building their case and their profile of the victim through intriguing interactions with various people with connections to the victim and her past.  This helps to set the scene for the rest of the novel, and the reader gets to see how all the details of this case are collected and pulled together.  The plot picks up a notch about halfway through when certain interesting developments to key suspects occur, producing extra complexity to the case, although I question the use of a couple of outrageous figures around this point.  From there the story reaches its zenith, as the protagonists get closer to their answers and a big reveal comes to light.  I really liked the twist towards the end, although it did kind of come out of nowhere and relied a little too much on coincidence.  However, I was very impressed by how Kellerman set up the big reveal from the very beginning of the book, especially as it helped to soften the randomness factor of the sudden reveal.  The entire motivation behind the killings was pretty bonkers (in a good way), and I loved how dark the story got, as well as the intriguing connections to the protagonist’s psychology background.  While I did think the story ended a tad too abruptly after this reveal, this was still a great story and I honestly could not put this down once I started.

Kellerman has a great writing style which I think complemented this fantastic narrative perfectly.  There is a really unique feel to each of his novels, especially as the characters have a distinctive way of interacting and talking, which I feel is a little more natural, even if they sometimes go off on some odd tangents.  I definitely liked Kellerman’s sense of pacing, and he strings this story our extremely well, with the slower, investigative side of the narrative perfectly balanced with the more intense and powerful moments.  The author hits all the right notes when it came to timing and fun reveals, with every great scene or unique character receiving a great introduction that brings the reader in.  Like all of Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels, I found City of the Dead to be extremely inclusive to new readers, and the reader does an excellent job of re-introducing the recurring characters, plot threads and dynamics.  City of the Dead can easily be read as a standalone novel, and people with no pre-knowledge of the series can jump in here without any problems.  I had a great time getting through this impressive story and I ended up powering through the last 200 pages in less than a day, especially after I got really invested in the outstanding mystery.

One of the main things that I love about the Alex Delaware novels is the grounded and realistic approach that Kellerman takes to investigating a murder.  The characters investigate each case, including the one in City of the Dead, with a very methodical style, assessing the facts and slowly building up the case one fact at a time.  There is a particular focus on interviews and research, with the characters talking to multiple people who might know something to gain insight into the victims or potential suspects, while also diving into their past anyway they can.  This, combined with other real-life details such as delayed lab results or overworked cops and technicians, makes for a much more accurate portrayal of a murder investigation.  I personally love this style of mystery solving, and it helps to give City of the Dead a much more unique feel than some other murder mysteries out there.  I will say that some of the jumps were a bit over-the-top in places, and certain key revelations are only gained due to coincidental interactions outside of the main investigation.  Still, this is a great crime fiction story and I have a lot of fun with how a typical Kellerman investigation unfolds.

The final thing I need to discuss are the great characters of City of Dead, especially the two protagonists, Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis.  By this point at the series, Kellerman has established an excellent dynamic between these two characters, and the brilliant psychologist and the seasoned police detective play off each other perfectly.  You can really sense the close friendship they have, and their excellent and distinctive back-and-forth banter is very entertaining.  Pretty much any story involving this partnership really works, and I have a lot of fun with this great team.  I also was quite impressed with the unique character of Cordi, the main victim of the story.  While we never see the character when she’s alive, Kellerman does a deep dive into her past and personality throughout the course of the novel as the two protagonists attempt to find out everything about her.  While you initially form a negative opinion of Cordi (even though she’s a murder victim), Kellerman successfully builds some nuance around her as the investigation continues.  The resultant picture, of a neglected and damaged person who is determined to never be poor or mistreated again, is very moving, especially as it speaks to some of her notable character choices and mistakes.  This makes for a very striking and compelling figure, and it is fascinating how much you become invested in finding her killer.  The killer was also an interesting choice from Kellerman, and while I won’t reveal too much here, I liked how they connected into the narrative, and I had a lot of fun when their motivations were revealed.  An excellent group of characters who enhance a compelling and exciting narrative.

With this latest amazing novel, City of the Dead, Jonathan Kellerman continues to shine as one of the more interesting crime fiction authors currently writing.  This fantastic novel brilliantly continues the long-running Alex Delaware series and presents the reader with an entertaining and thought-provoking murder mystery narrative.  Filled with a great story, some excellent investigation elements and a fantastic cast, City of the Dead was an impressive and addictive read that comes highly recommended, especially to fans of the iconic Jonathan Kellerman.

Throwback Thursday – X-Factor: Volume 1: The Longest Night

X-Factor - Volume 1 - The Longest Night

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 7 March 2007)

Series: X-Factor (Vol. 3) – Volume One

Writer: Peter David

Pencils: Ryan Sook & Dennis Calero

Inks: Wade Von Grawbadger & Dennis Calero

Colour Art: Jose Villarrubia

Letters: Cory Petit

Length: 144 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to 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 Throwback Thursday I look at the start of one of the best comic series I have ever had the pleasure of reading, with The Longest Night, the first volume in Peter David’s impressive and incredible X-Factor series.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 2 Cover

There are many awesome comic series that I have a great appreciation for, but to my mind one of the most entertaining, clever and captivating series I have ever had the pleasure of reading has to be the third major version of the X-Factor title that ran between 2005 and 2013.  This series span off the limited series, Madrox: Multiple Choice, with its entire run written by Peter David, with a rotating team of talented artists.  Also known as X-Factor (Vol.3) or X-Factor Investigations, this long-running series focused on a team of mutants who formed a detective agency after the events of House of M.  Calling themselves X-Factor Investigations and led by Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man, this series followed the team as they investigated mutant related crimes, protected the area of New York formerly known as Mutant Town, and did general superheroics, often for a fee.  Despite its odd-sounding plot, this was an incredibly good series, and it is one of my all-time favourite comic series.  I have recently done a bit of a re-read of this series and thought that it would be a good time to talk about it on my blog, starting with this first volume, The Longest Night.

X-Factor is back, and this time they are in business for themselves as X-Factor Investigations, the weirdest and only mutant run private investigative agency in New York.  Led by Jamie Madrox (the Multiple Man), made up of the ragtag group of heroes including, Strong Guy, Wolfsbane, Siryn, Rictor and Monet, X-Factor investigates the cases no-one else will, especially if it helps current and former mutants.  However, X-Factor are about to find themselves investigating the most sinister case of their brief tenure, when a new client walks in the door, accompanied by the mysterious Layla Miller.  Following the breadcrumbs given to them by Layla, X-Factor begins looking into the rival organisation, Singularity Investigations, who have dire plans for the future of all mutant kind.  At the same time, X-Factor finds itself in the middle of the deteriorating conditions in Mutant Town, as they start their own investigation into what really depowered most of the mutant species.

As their investigations continue, X-Factor find themselves encountering crazy events and dire obstacles from all sides.  Forced to protect their client from being arrested for murder, as well as the deadly attentions of Singularity Investigations, X-Factor struggles to solve the case before it is too late.  However, their actions have awoken a dangerous enemy whose knowledge of time could prove disastrous.  Can X-Factor succeed and become the team the world needs, and what role will Layla Miller play in their future, especially as she actively attempts to hide the events of House of M and Decimation from her new friends?

X-Factor - Vol3 - 3 Cover

The Longest Night is a brilliant and intense comic volume that serves as the perfect introduction to this outstanding X-Factor series.  Containing issues #1-6 of X-Factor (Vol. 3), The Longest Night contains an incredible and epic story by Peter David that expertly introduces the new team and sets up many of their future adventures, perfectly accompanied by the excellent art of Ryan Sook and Dennis Calero.  This incredible comic will really start your fall towards X-Factor obsession.

To start this amazing series off, David has come up with an impressive narrative that not only introduces the team but also contains several clever mysteries and dangerous threats.  The Longest Night starts off in a very interesting way, with Madrox attempting to save the life of a suicidal Rictor, while other members of the team find themselves under attack from sinister forces.  The story quickly develops, with new player Layla Miller directing X-Factor Investigations towards the mysterious Singularity Investigations, while also implementing her own mysterious agenda.  This sets the X-Factor team down a dark path as they contend with the corrupt and deadly Singularity employees as well as other malicious threats that pop up.  I deeply enjoyed the main storyline, especially as the protagonists are forced to intervene in a murder case to prove that their client is innocent, despite dangerous interference from their competitors.  This leads to some dark consequences, as one of the team is attacked and then kidnapped in scenes that strongly remind you of a dark thriller.  The new villains of this early part of the series, Singularity Investigations and their management team the Tryps, prove to be pretty sinister, and I liked some of the unique storylines that are started up around them.  There are also some impressive and clever sequences that explore the aftermath of the Decimation, as well as the current mental states of the various team members, which is extremely powerful and deeply moving.

I loved the cool style that this comic had, especially as the creative team were trying to give it a classic noir detective vibe at times.  While some of the best themes from the X-Men comics are featured within this volume, such as prejudice, dual self-hatred and love of mutant abilities, and the fallout from the House of M limited series, this comic really stands on its own, and I loved the combination of mutant issues and crime fiction.  There is a certain dark edge to many of the storylines, with the character dealing with brutal murders and attempted killings.  While much of the focus is on the darker and more mature vibes, this comic also has a wicked sense of humour behind it which I deeply enjoyed.  All the characters are pretty fun, and there are some dark and clever jokes sprinkled throughout the story, especially when it comes to group clown Madrox and resident mystery girl Layla Miller.  This combination of superheroics, dark humour and crime fiction makes for quite an impressive read, and I always find myself getting really drawn into it.  Due to how many times I have read this series of the years I also really respect The Longest Night as a first entry in the overall X-Factor (Vol.3) series.  While all the best elements haven’t been introduced yet, this comic is still off to a brilliant start, and I loved all the hints and brief mentions of the events yet to come.  Multiple storylines are perfectly set up here, and there are some great references to upcoming events and some key moments from recent comics.  This proves to be an exciting and impressive first entry in this series, and I love how it spawns so many awesome moments in the future.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 4 Cover

One of the things that has always impressed me about this version of X-Factor is the excellent cast of characters featured.  The team is an intriguing combination of some of the more unique and enjoyable characters from the various X-Men comics.  The initial line-up featured in The Longest Night is a great example of this, as David has featured several previous X-Factor members alongside some interesting new choices.  There is a real mismatched feel to the characters, as not only are they angry and discontent, but there is some thinly veiled antagonism going on between them, despite them all being on the same team.  On top of that, they end up being some of the most damaged and complex figures you can expect to find in Marvel comics, as they are all dealing with unique personal issues.  This results in some major personality clashes and great internal struggles that really enhances the drama of the narrative and results in some brilliant storytelling.

The main character of this series is team leader Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man.  Jamie is a very interesting figure in this series, due to the many divergent and tragic issues that result from his ability to create duplicates of himself.  Attempting to be a grounded and calm figure for the team, Jamie often finds himself undermined, not only by his time but also by his own dupes, which proves to be both entertaining and occasionally emotionally powerful.  A lot of these great elements are explored in The Longest Night, and you get a great sense of who the character is and his complex feelings, even if you haven’t read the lead-in limited series, Madrox: Multiple Choice.  Jamie cuts a great figure as a noir-inspired private detective leading a team of misfits, but in reality, he is scared and emotionally drained, even before the series starts.  Jamie ends up spending most of this comic battling his own inner demons and indecision, while also having difficulty controlling his team.  While in many ways Jamie is a tragic figure, he also serves as one of the main comic reliefs, and his smart-assed comments and dark jokes add a lot to the narrative, while barely hiding his struggles within.  I really liked how this comic spent significant time exploring Jamie’s power to create duplicates, as well as the many problems associated with it.  What makes this power very unique is the way that each of his dupes has their own personality, most of which are a manifestation of his own fears, internal struggles, inner dark side and more.  While this is often played for comedic effect, especially as his crazier dupes say some very random stuff, certain dupes show off a real mean side, such as one who pretends to be Zen, but is actually Jamie’s unpredictable side, his “X-Factor”.  This was an overall incredibly impressive introduction to Madrox, and it serves as a brilliant base to his various follow-on storylines that are such an impressive feature of the rest of this series.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 5 Cover

Aside from Madrox, the team is made up of former X-Factor members Julio Richter (Rictor), Guido Carosella (Strong Guy) and Rahne Sinclair (Wolfsbane), as well as X-Factor newcomers Theresa Cassidy (Siryn, daughter of Banshee) and Monet St. Croix (M from the Generation X comic).  I really liked this great blend of figures as it produces some awesome and entertaining team dynamics, such as having the arrogant party girl, Monet, getting into various disputes with the other characters.  All five of these characters have some interesting moments in this volume, such as Strong Guy and Wolfsbane’s interference against an anti-mutant riot, or Monet’s brief emotional breakdown after telepathically experiencing the murder of a young woman.  However, I the best moments of this volume probably occurred with Siryn and Rictor.  Siryn, who serves as a bit of a second-in-command, has several key storylines around her, and she ends up being the one most obsessed with the actions of Singularity Investigations.  The subsequent brutal attack and creepy hostage situation she suffers from is pretty horrifying, and the resultant mental and physical damage makes for some harrowing moments.  Rictor also has a great storyline in this series, as he is the only character on the team who lost their powers in the Decimation.  This leads him to some serious depression, especially as the first scene in the comic involves his attempted suicide, which is only just stopped by the rest of the team.  The author’s compelling and thought-provoking dive into Rictor’s feelings of loss and uncertainty is pretty heartbreaking, and I loved this complex look at the terrible impacts of the Decimation.  Despite his lack of powers, Rictor still serves as a great member of the team, and his involvement in saving Siryn from a terrible situation is extremely cool and very intense.

However, my favourite member of this new version of X-Factor had to be the young and mysterious Layla Miller.  Layla was first introduced as a unique character in House of M, as she could remember the real world and bring the memories back to the various heroes.  She reappears in this volume right in the first issue, walking into office, providing information and declaring herself a member of the team.  Despite the confusion of the other people on X-Factor and the fact that she’s a child, Miller manages to stick around on the team, mainly due to her uncanny insights into the future.  This results in some brilliant and hilarious moments, especially as she can manipulate everyone around her and change events to match what she wants.  Her sarcastic manner and funny reactions really help to enhance the humour of this entire comic, and I loved seeing her change future events in the most amusing ways.  The cloak of mystery and uncertainty that David brilliantly builds up around her is very impressive, and you have no idea the real reason why she is there or what she can do, with her only explanation to that being her favourite saying: “I’m Layla Miller, I know stuff.”  Despite this secrecy, the reader ends up getting some interesting reveals about her, such as her past in the orphanage, her secret mission to stop X-Factor finding out about House of M, and her tragic self-description as the Chaos Theory butterfly, which are pretty cool, even if they result in more questions than answers.  I really loved how dark the creative team made her at times, especially in that brilliant scene where she kills a Singularity Investigations assassin by simply taking screws out of a bath.  Her confession about her motivations to the assassin just before he gets killed is pretty heartbreaking as you can sense she’s revealing a deep secret that is eating her up.  The subsequent conversation as the assassin lies dying is just so damn dark that I love it, especially as she follows up the dying man’s question about who she is with another grim “I’m Layla Miller, I know stuff.”  Throw in that final scene where Rictor confronts Layla about her manipulations, only to completely miss her bringing a dead butterfly back to life, and you have such an impressive sequence of character moments.  I have so much love for this brilliant character, and while the rest of the team is good, Layla Miller is the real X-Factor of this series.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 6 Cover

The cool story and awesome characters are very well supported by the incredible artistic work of Ryan Sook, Dennis Calero and their team.  These great artists give The Longest Night a darker feel that fits into the noir-inspired narrative extremely well.  There are brilliant examples of shading and shadow throughout the comic, and you get a real sense of the dingy nature of the story and the depressed location of Mutant Town.  I deeply enjoyed the cool character designs featured throughout The Longest Night, especially as there is an interesting combination of new styles and classic looks from other X-Men comics.  You get a real sense of the dark emotions hiding within many of the different characters, especially around the various duplicates of Madrox, who run the gauntlet from depressed, to scared, to utterly insane.  However, I felt that the best artwork was utilised around Layla Miller, and perfectly helped to capture her true nature.  I particularly loved that brilliant scene where she killed the assassin in X-Factor headquarters, especially the final few panels.  Due to her machinations the power is out, resulting in her lighting the scene of the dying man with a torch.  The first appearance with her face completely black is just so fitting, especially given her death proclamation to the killer in the panel: ‘Your heart’ll give out in about five seconds.  Your mother will mourn you … but your wife won’t”.  The following two panels with her face in the light highlights her dark expression, followed by a perfectly set up final black panel that could either represent her turning the torch off or the death of the assassin.  I also loved all the panels focused on Layla in issue #6, especially it shows her at her most emotionally compromised as she tries to describe her various issues.  Throw in the reoccurring butterfly that is both dead and alive, and you have an excellent bit of art that emphasises just how complex this figure is.  The villains of this comic are also perfectly shown in this cool artwork, and I was especially impressed with how sinister and disturbed they made the crazy kidnapper in fifth issue.  I deeply enjoyed this and so many other aspects of the art in the volume, and I think it perfectly emphasised the darker nature of this incredibly cool comic.

Overall, The Longest Night was an incredible comic that I would strongly recommend.  The awesome team of Peter David, Ryan Sock, Dennis Calero and the other artists did a fantastic job combining exquisite storytelling with outstanding characters, darker themes and wonderful artwork.  Not only does it stand on its own as an excellent read, but it also works to introduce this superb run of X-Factor and its crime-fiction related storylines.  I have so much love for this series, and I will always appreciate the way in which The Longest Night sets everything up, especially its brilliant characters.  This first volume (and indeed every volume in this series) gets a full five-star rating from me and it comes very highly recommend to anyone wanting to find a unique and powerful comic series to get into.

The Judge’s List by John Grisham

The Judge's List Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 19 October 2021)

Series: Standalone/The Whistler – Book Two

Length: 359 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Those interested in a tense, complex and brilliant thriller should definitely check out the latest novel from legendary crime fiction author John Grisham, The Judge’s List.

Grisham is an exceedingly talented author who has been producing impressive and distinctive legal-based thrillers since his 1989 debut, A Time to Kill.  Grisham has since written over 40 novels, made up of mostly standalone reads with a couple of series thrown in, such as his Theodore Boone children’s thrillers.  Most of these books have been absolute hits, with several being turned into massive films or other adaptations such as The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Rainmaker, and The Runaway Jury.  While I have enjoyed some of the movies that came out of his work, I haven’t actually ever read one of Grisham’s novels before.  So when I received a copy of Grisham’s latest book, The Judge’s List, I decided to check it out, not only to finally see how this author writes but because I really liked the sound of its awesome plot.

Throughout America’s long judicial history, no judge has ever been convicted or charged with murder, but that is about to change.  In Florida all criminal accusations against judges are handled by the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct, and their chief investigator is Lacy Stolz.  Still recovering from her ordeals during her last big case and forced to deal with the chronic underfunding affecting her agency, Lacy is strongly considering a new career path.  However, an intriguing new case may relight the fire within her when a mysterious woman contacts her, wishing to report a serious crime.

For years, Jeri Crosby has been hunting the man who murdered her father using every investigative trick and avenue she can find, while concealing her identity behind a series of elaborate aliases.  Jeri finally believes that she knows who killed her father, and her prime suspect is a sitting judge in Florida.  While this judge appears to be a dedicated legal professional, Jeri believes that he is the most dangerous form a serial killer capable of concealing his identity and using his vast legal and forensic knowledge to hide his tracks and keep his very existence secret from the police.

Determined to stop this killer no matter what, Jeri provides all her evidence to Lacy, who she believes can connect the pieces she cannot.  While initially reluctant to investigate a murder, even one potentially committed by a judge, Lacy is eventually dragged into the case by her own curiosity and sense of justice.  However, the suspected killer is no easy target; he is a compassionless psychopath capable of hunting down anyone who has ever wronged him and permanently ending them.  Now he has both Lacy and Jeri on his list of potential victims, and he is coming for both of them!

This was an amazing novel from Grisham which proves that I really should have read some of his stuff a long time ago.  The Judge’s List has a captivating and clever narrative that pits two determined women against a lethal and brilliant killer determined to survive no matter the costs.  Serving as a sequel to Grisham’s previous novel, The Whistler, The Judge’s List was an outstanding thrill ride that I had an incredible time reading.

I deeply enjoyed the amazing story of The Judge’s List as Grisham came up with an extremely clever and impressive thriller narrative.  The author starts things off extremely quickly, reintroducing the protagonist of The Whistler, Lacy Stoltz, and bringing her into contact with new character Jeri Crosby, who tells Lacy the story about the man who murdered her father.  Grisham drip feeds the details of who the killer is and what they have done to the reader, ensuring that they have just enough to whet their curiosity, without overloading them.  Thanks to the compelling and unique story that the clearly fearful Jeri tells, the readers are swiftly wrapped up in the plot, and this brilliant introduction ensures that they will come back for more.  The novel swiftly continues from here as Jeri reveals more details about the murderer she is stalking, setting him up as a real monster who is seemingly supernatural in his ability to avoid detection and destroy those hunting him.  As Lacy gets closer to starting the investigation, you start to get some scenes shown from the perspective of the killer, whose intense and chilling point of view serves as a grim counterpoint to that of the protagonists.  While Grisham initially keeps the identity of the killer hidden during his scenes to help cast doubt on Jeri’s story, you soon get a very good picture of who the killer is and why they are committing their crimes.

This proves to be an exceptional setup for when the killer become aware of the investigation and starts to take some drastic measures to eliminate their pursuers and fulfil their master plan.  I loved the impressive and clever cat-and-mouse game that soon develops as the killer attempts to stay one step ahead of the protagonists while also discovering who they are and how they can be eliminated.  There are some powerful and brutal moments in this second part of the book, and I honestly had a very hard time putting it down once I got concerned for the characters.  This second half of the book was just outstanding and it all leads up to an intriguing and surprising conclusion.  While I might have preferred a more legal-based ending, perhaps with some sort of trial, I appreciated the brilliant moves that the antagonist pulled and it was an overall satisfying and fantastic way to wrap this excellent story up.

I had a great time with the impressive writing style in this book and it has definitely made me want to check out more of Grisham’s work in the future.  The author tells a clever and sharp story, and there are some amazing twists and turns that I didn’t see coming.  I appreciated how the author revealed the identity of the killer quite early in the book and the rest of the narrative follows the protagonists’ attempts to prove it and then catch him, which was a refreshing change.  Thanks to the cool plot point of the killer being a well-respected genius judge, this proves to be a very complex and intense investigation, and you are honestly uncertain if the protagonists will succeed in their investigation.  I found the inclusion of a judicial conduct board to be an interesting investigative base for the narrative, and it was fascinating to see Grisham utilise his legal knowledge to make this organisation and the characters associated with it feel very realistic.  The author’s use of various perspectives worked well here, especially as you get some amazing shots from the antagonists’ point of view, and you really end up with a full and distinctive plot.  I can say with confidence that readers need no knowledge of any of Grisham’s previous books to enjoy The Judge’s List despite it being a sequel to The Whistler.  I deeply enjoyed the story this book contained and the way that Grisham told it, and it proved to be very addictive.

I also need to highlight the great characters contained within The Judge’s List, especially its two central protagonists, Lacy Stoltz and Jeri Crosby.  Lacy is the returning protagonist from The Whistler, and Grisham introduces some great storylines around her that impact how she investigates the case in this book.  Lacy is still traumatised and damaged after the murder attempt that occurred in the first book, which makes her reluctant to get involved with another dangerous case, especially with the increased profile her previous success has given her.  Lacy has also reached a bit of a mid-life crisis here as she is facing stagnation in both her career and her romantic life.  This becomes a major part of her character as the book progresses, and it was interesting to see her try and balance them with her role in the case.  I also liked the intriguing reluctant investigator angle that Grisham worked into this character, as Lacy isn’t convinced that she should be involved with a murder case.  However, her inherent curiosity and sense of justice keep dragging her back into the investigation despite her better judgement, and it makes for an intriguing story angle.  I had a great time getting to know Lacy in this book and I would love to see more of her in the future.

The other major protagonist is Jeri Crosby, who has been hunting the book’s killer for years.  The author does an amazing job with this character, and you soon get introduced to a dedicated woman deeply obsessed with finding the person who murdered her father.  I loved the great storylines written around Jeri, and it was amazing to see the various impacts of her obsession, including failed relationships and estrangements from family.  Despite her obsession, Jeri is a very collected and cautious person who has adapted to hunt the monster that killed her father.  For most of the book Jeri appears to be extremely paranoid, due to her belief that the killer can track down any pursuer and make them disappear, and I loved how Grisham justified her concerns.  Watching this character finally get to bask in the success of her lifelong venture is pretty cool, although I do question some of Jeri’s choices during the final stages of the case.  Still, this was a brilliant bit of character work here and I deeply enjoyed diving into the psyche of this obsessed character.

While I deeply enjoyed the protagonists of The Judge’s List, the true standout character must be its complex and dangerous antagonist who serves as a brilliant counterbalance to Lacy and Jeri.  Grisham has gone out of his way to produce a truly impressive and distinctive antagonist here, and I loved the concept of a murderous judge who uses their position and knowledge to get away with their crimes.  The author sets them up perfectly, first introducing the idea of the killer through Jeri’s eyes, and then fleshing them out in person with several excellent and thrilling chapters shown from their perspective.  From there, you find yourself caught in the mental web of an unrepentant killer, who acts on petty grudges for their own self-satisfaction.  You really get a sense of what this villain is capable as the book continues, and I found myself really starting to hate him, which is enraging as he manages to slip a lot of nets and proves to be near impossible to catch.  Grisham does a brilliant job diving into the head of this great antagonist, and the reader is given a powerful view into their motivations and history, ensuring that they know how and why he became a killer.  I really enjoyed following this excellent antagonist, and I thought that his character arc went perfectly, and it was fascinating to see the lengths they will go to win, no matter the personal cost.

Overall, The Judge’s List was an intense and impressive novel from John Grisham, which is making me really regret not checking out any of his books sooner.  This latest novel had a brilliant and powerful plot that takes the reader deep into the mind of a demented killer.  Filled with complex and compelling character moments and a thrilling and twist-filled narrative, I had an exceptional time reading The Judge’s List and it comes extremely highly recommended.  I will definitely be reading more books from Grisham in the future, and I cannot wait to see what other outstanding novels he has written.

Quick Review – The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox

The Dying Squad Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 27 July 2021)

Series: The Dying Squad – Book One

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Intriguing new author, Adam Simcox, presents his compelling debut novel, the fun and fascinating supernatural crime fiction read, The Dying Squad, which proves that just because you are dead, it doesn’t mean that you can’t get justice.

The Dying Squad was a fantastic and intriguing first novel from Simcox that contained a fascinating premise about a man forced to solve his own murder as a ghost.  I loved the sound of this book when I first heard about it, and I was very glad when I received a copy a while ago.

Synopsis:

WHO BETTER TO SOLVE A MURDER THAN A DEAD DETECTIVE?

When Detective Inspector Joe Lazarus storms a Lincolnshire farmhouse, he expects to bring down a notorious drug gang; instead, he discovers his own body and a spirit guide called Daisy-May.

She’s there to enlist him to The Dying Squad, a spectral police force who solve crimes their flesh and blood counterparts cannot.

Lazarus reluctantly accepts and returns to the Lincolnshire Badlands, where he faces dangers from both the living and the dead in his quest to discover the identity of his killer – before they kill again.

This was an awesome and intriguing read and I ended up really getting into this fantastic supernatural novel.  Set initially in the apparently crime-ridden wilds of Lincolnshire, the novel quickly establishes itself by killing off the protagonist, Joe Lazarus, and introducing him to his co-lead the bombastic and entertaining Daisy-May, a member of the ghost-run investigative unit, known as the Dying Squad, there to recruit Lazarus.  The book then jumps to the Pen (purgatory), where Lazarus is given the chance to save his soul by solving his own murder.  Returning with Daisy to the real world, Lazarus must investigate his death while facing several limitations, including the fact that the real world is affecting his memories, and he must work to uncover his own past to discover who killed him.  At the same time, dangerous events are occurring in the Pen as a mysterious being leads an uprising of the seemingly mindless souls imprisoned there, while back in the real world, a dangerous creature stalks Lazarus and Daisy-May, seeking to drag them down below.

I really enjoyed the cool story featured within The Dying Squad, and Simcox has come up with something particularly unique and compelling here.  The author does a great job of quickly introducing all the relevant story elements, and the reader is soon expertly enthralled in the book’s compelling mystery.  I loved the unique investigation that takes place throughout the novel, especially as the protagonists must deal with a range of different problems, including the sinister Xylophone Man (he’s a lot more threatening than the name implies), the deceit of living humans, fading memories, and the protagonist’s desire to interfere in events, even when they’re not supposed to.  At the same time, the protagonist’s boss back in the Pen is forced to deal with a universe-ending revolt, as desperate lost souls attempt to tear down the walls of reality.  While Daisy May and some of the other characters are dragged between these two plot threads, Lazarus continues to follow the trial towards his death by investigating several potential suspects and slowly regaining his own memories.  This eventually leads to several startling revelations, including a very clever reveal about who was behind his death and their reasons why.  This investigation eventually leads back to the wider universe story about the rebelling souls, and there are some great moments, especially when the protagonists are forced to make some hard and afterlife-altering choices.  I really enjoyed this unique blend of storylines, as well as some of the cool characters featured throughout the book, and The Dying Squad ended up being quite a fun and interesting read.

I definitely need to highlight the unique world building featured throughout The Dying Squad.  Simcox has come up with a detailed and fascinating scenario, involving supernatural ghosts going back to Earth to investigate unsolved murders.  This results in several memorable and compelling settings, including the dark and dreary Pen, a version of Purgatory, where lost and forgotten souls congregate in confusion and apathy (unless roused by a dangerous soul with ulterior motives).  At the same time, you also have the setting of Earth, which ends up being an unnatural location for departed souls, even the protagonists.  As such, the characters who venture there to investigate encounter all manner of obstacles, from rogue spirits to the very air itself, which drains dead souls of their memories unless precautions are taken.  These various elements, especially the memory loss and the typical incorporeal nature of ghosts, are worked into the investigation aspect of the story extremely well, and it added a layer of complexity and uncertainty that really enhanced the mystery.  At the same time, Simcox really went for broke exploring the wider universe and the focus on the events in the Pen soon become a major part of the plot.  While I deeply enjoyed the potential universe ending event, I cannot help thinking that maybe more of the story could have been spent on beefing up the investigation angle of the book, especially as some of the culprits and twists ended up being a little easy to spot.  That being said, it was a fascinating part of the story that ended up being explored extremely well, and it really enhanced the stakes of the plot.  It will be interesting to see what the focus of the next novel will be, but I am sure that I will enjoy it.

Overall, this ended up being quite a clever read, and I think that Simcox did a great job of combining a complex murder investigation with complex and fascinating supernatural elements.  I had a lot of fun with The Dying Squad, and it is an excellent compelling new debut to check out in 2021.

The Dark Hours by Michael Connelly

The Dark Hours Cover 2

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 9 November 2021)

Series: Ballard & Bosch – Book Three

Length: 391 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The master of crime fiction, bestselling author Michael Connelly, returns with another outstanding Ballard and Bosch novel, The Dark Hours, which sets his iconic protagonists on another intense and captivating case.

Connelly is one of those authors who needs very little introduction, having written an amazing number of crime fiction novels throughout his exceptional career.  I have really been getting into Connelly’s work lately, especially after reading his 2020 releases, Fair Warning and The Law of Everything.  However, my favourite Connelly novels have probably been the Ballard and Bosch sub-series, which follows the team of two of Connelly’s great protagonists.  This includes Renée Ballard, who debuted as the lead character of The Late Show, and Harry Bosch, Connelly’s long-running protagonist who has appeared in nearly every one of Connelly’s books since The Black Echo.  These two protagonists first teamed up in Dark Sacred Night in 2018, and then again in The Night Fire, one of the best books and audiobooks of 2019.  I have deeply enjoyed these two characters, and I was very excited when I saw that Connelly was featuring them again in his latest novel, The Dark Hours, which was one of my most anticipated releases for 2021.  The Dark Hours is the 36th overall novel in Connelly’s overarching crime fiction universe and proved to be another exciting and clever read.

As the clock ticks down the last seconds of 2020, the citizens of Los Angeles celebrate New Year’s Eve in their typical chaotic way, with hundreds of celebrators firing guns up into the air, with a rain of bullets coming down shortly after.  Sheltering under a bridge, LAPD detective Renée Ballard is staking out the nearby neighbourhood in hopes of catching a team of rapists terrorising women during the holidays.  However, she instead finds herself called to the scene of a party where an auto shop owner has been fatally hit in the head with a bullet.

Initially assuming that the death was an accident brought on by the lateral bullets fired in celebration, Ballard soon discovers that the shooting occurred at point-blank range, indicating that someone used the revels to disguise their up-close murder.  Starting her investigation, Ballard soon discovers that the same gun was used in an unsolved murder case which had been investigated by her friend and mentor, retired LAPD detective Harry Bosch.

Working with Bosch, Ballard soon finds herself on the trail of a dangerous killer who may have killed many times before and is at the centre of a deadly conspiracy.  Determined to catch this killer before the case is taken away from her, Ballard is willing to break any rule to catch her suspect, no matter the danger to herself or her career.  At the same time, Ballard becomes obsessed with catching the team of rapists destroying lives in her city, but finds herself fighting against a demoralised and uncaring police department, more concerned with maintaining their image than police work.  Can Ballard and Bosch solve these latest crimes before it is too late, or will the predators they stalk land another fatal strike?

This was another incredible book from Connelly that contains a clever and captivating murder mystery that I deeply enjoyed.  The Dark Hours has a fantastic story to it, that not only takes the reader on an intense and particularly dark couple of cases but which also explores the state of policing in 2021.  A brilliant and powerful read, this was an excellent Connelly novel that gets a full five-star rating from me.

Connelly came up with an exceptional crime fiction narrative for The Dark Hours, which I powered through in a few days.  This latest story, told exclusively from the perspective of Ballard, follows the character as she investigates several horrific crimes.  There are two central cases in this book; the first involves a murder of a mechanic, which sees Ballard connect with her old friend Harry Bosch, who previously worked a connected cold case; and the other is a series of rapes throughout LA, made distinctive by the presences of a two-man team.  These two cases are both pretty compelling and unique in their own way, with Ballard getting quite obsessed with both of them.  The murder case has several outlying threads that see Ballard and Bosch chase down gang connections, dirty cops, and a wide-ranging conspiracy of dentists, all of which results in a tight and powerful investigation story with some substantial dangers to Ballard.  The rape case is a dark and disturbing counterpart to this murder, and Connelly ensures that the full horror of this particular type of crime is on full display.  Both of these cases come together extremely well as the story progresses, and I really appreciated how some of the emotions and consequences stirred up in one case led to the characters doing some rash and dangerous things in the other.  Throw in some major professional drama around Ballard, and you have an intense and powerful narrative that really sticks in the mind.  I loved some of the cool and dark twists associated with these intriguing storylines, and Connelly certainly has the ability to create some major and memorable moments.  The Dark Hours also does a good job of continuing some of the storylines from the previous novels, particularly around Ballard’s many issues as a member of the LAPD, and it sets up some future plot points that will no doubt make for an awesome novel or two in the years to come.

One of the most interesting things about The Dark Hours is Connelly’s compelling and in-depth examination of the LAPD in early 2021, following COVID and the protests of 2020.  Connelly paints a detailed and intriguing picture of the LAPD as a dispirited and defunded organisation which has withdrawn from proactive police work and is instead more concerned with avoiding bad publicity and controversy.  The police characters featured within this novel are notably unmotivated and aggrieved, with many more concerned with their own lives than protecting people.  This is a rather grim but seemingly realistic view of the LAPD, and I really appreciated the fact that Connelly attempted to explore what life as a police officer is like in these controversial times.  The author makes sure to try and show both sides of the debate around policing, made easier by his protagonist’s status as LAPD outsiders, and it was fascinating and moving to see the police perspective.  The apathy of the LAPD comes into play in the story in multiple ways, and it was an exceptional and memorable inclusion to The Dark Hours.  In addition, Connelly spends a lot of time exploring early 2021 Los Angeles, with multiple references to masks, vaccines, unemployment and all the other aspects of COVID-19 that we have come to know and love.  While most people are probably quite sick (ha!) about seeing all the COVID stuff wherever you go, even into book-land, those authors wishing to display modern life need to include it, and I felt that Connelly did a great job showing it from an LA perspective.  Throw in some commentary on other key events of early 2021, and The Dark Hours turns into quite a contemporary novel with some extremely intriguing opinions and insights.

Another aspect of The Dark Hours that I enjoyed was the fantastic use of characters featured within it.  In particular, it was rather interesting to see which protagonists got the most focus throughout the novel.  When I first started reading this novel, I assumed that, like the previous Ballard and Bosch books, the story would be a split perspective narrative featuring the two main characters.  Instead, the entire story ended up being told exclusively from Ballard’s point-of-view, with Bosch featured as a supporting character.  While some long-term Bosch fans might feel a little let down, I personally did not mind this as Ballard has been a really fascinating and relatable protagonist in her last few novels.  Ballard has always been an outcast in the LAPD, following her attempt to report her previous supervisor for sexual harassment, and this sense of being an outsider has only intensified throughout her more recent novels.  This all comes to a boil in The Dark Hours, as Ballard is continually stymied by the new attitude of the LAPD, and is constantly undermined by ineffective, dispirited and politically minded colleagues and superiors.  This eventually forces her to adopt a more Bosch-like mentality and she goes outside the lines multiple times to try and bring her culprits to justice.  I rather liked this more reckless side of Ballard, and it ends up resulting in some major changes to her personality and potential law enforcement future.  It was also very fascinating to see Ballard’s opinions on the recent issues affecting policing, and even she finds herself quite angry with some of the accusations levelled against her and the LAPD, despite harbouring her own negative opinions.  Throw in an interesting new relationship and a fun new puppy friend, and this ended up being a particularly good Ballard story.  I look forward to seeing more of Ballard in the future, and I really think that Connelly is setting her up as his primary police character for the future.

While most of the focus is on Ballard, Bosch still has a significant role in The Dark Hours, serving as the main supporting character and Ballard’s unofficial partner.  While it was a little odd not to see Bosch’s perspective on the two main investigations, he was a great wingman to the protagonist and I liked how Connelly was able to work Bosch’s veteran mindset into Ballard’s way of thinking.  It was fun to see him serve the joint role of being Ballard’s voice of reason while also subtly encouraging her to do some more rebellious moves.  I really enjoyed seeing more of Bosch in the book, and it will be interesting to see what Connelly does with him in the future.  Considering that Bosch is currently a much older, out-of-work detective currently battling leukaemia, you have to imagine that Connelly is planning to retire him permanently some point soon, and I am curious to see how or when that happens, no doubt occurring in heartbreaking fashion.

Overall, The Dark Hours is another exceptional novel from Michael Connelly, who continues to showcase why he is one of the best and most consistent authors of crime fiction in the world today.  This latest novel serves as an excellent continuation of the Ballard and Bosch subseries, and it is always so much fun to travel back into Connelly’s expanded and intriguing crime fiction universe.  The Dark Hours has an outstanding and compelling narrative that follows the authors dogged protagonist as she investigates several major and disturbing crimes.  I was pretty much hooked the moment I picked this book up and it is a must-read for all crime fiction fans.

Prisoner by S. R. White

The Prisoner Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 31 August 2021)

Series: Hermit – Book Two

Length: 421 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out 5 stars

Prepare for a twisty and dark Australian murder mystery novel as author S. R. White presents the compelling and powerful Prisoner.

Deep in rural Northern Australia, a dead body has been found in the middle of a dank and dangerous swamp.  The corpse is staged to appear like a crucifixion, with the man’s arms and legs tied to poles, and his chest caved in with several blows.  Called to the scene of the crime, Detective Dana Russo soon discovers that the victim was a convicted rapist who had only been released from prison a few hours earlier and whose crime occurred only a short walk away from his murder site.

Determined to get to the bottom of this unusual murder, Russo and her team swiftly begin tearing apart the victim’s life in prison and find that he had been in communication with two local sisters who offered him a place to stay once he was released.  Investigating the sisters, they discover a unique pair of siblings who have been irreparably damaged by trauma and abuse and who live separate from the rest of society.  Believing that the solution to the mystery may lay with them, Russo brings them both in for questioning, but finds them uncooperative and elusive.

Under pressure to solve the crime, the detectives slowly unwind an intriguing case, concerning corruption, drugs and prison gangs.  However, the further they dig, the more apparent it becomes that the sisters are hiding some dark secrets about themselves and the victim.  Forced to dig deep within herself, Russo uses the memories of her own traumatic childhood to analyse the suspects and find some common understanding with them.  Can Russo break through these two unlikely suspects, or will the solution to this murder never be revealed?

This was a pretty cool and captivating novel from former British Police officer turned author S. R. White.  Prisoner is White’s second novel and serves as a sequel to his 2020 debut, Hermit.  This proved to be a fantastic read and I deeply enjoyed the intriguing and powerful narrative, especially as White loads his book with a complex mystery and some deeply damaged characters.  I got pretty hooked on this book as it progressed and ended up finishing it in only a couple of days.

Prisoner contains a very impressive and compelling narrative that I really found myself getting drawn into.  The novel mostly starts off focusing on the murder, with the discovery of the body in the first few pages, and then the protagonists immediately jump into the investigation, including the interrogation of one of the main suspects.  As the story progresses, you get some other interesting elements thrown in, mostly around Dana Russo and one of her other colleagues as they deal with some dark personal history.  There is also a captivating subplot regarding internal police politics that produces a real shakeup in the department and has some potential series-wide ramifications.  However, most of the story remains on the mystery, and I really appreciated the creativity and darkness that the author fits into the case.  Despite being a sequel to White’s first book, Prisoner can easily be read as a standalone novel, and no prior knowledge of the characters or the setting is needed.  I felt that the entire narrative progressed along at a great pace, and there were no slow bits throughout the book, as the reader was either reading about the case or dealing with the intense personal demons of the various characters.

I must highlight the fantastic writing style that White featured throughout this novel.  While most of the focus of Prisoner is on central character Russo, the author makes good use of multiple perspectives, mainly of the other detectives on the investigation team, to move the story along and provide some alternate points of view and different investigative threads.  White utilises a very detailed writing style, which encourages a slower reading pace to make sure you don’t miss anything, and I felt that enriched the mystery and increased the realism of the plot.  I also must highlight the incredibly detailed descriptions of the swampy landscape that surrounded the crime scene and the Northern Australian town where the plot is set.  White paints a grim picture of small, isolated community on its last legs, where even the landscape has turned against it.  You can really feel the stickiness and deadliness of the swamps, and it proves to be quite a haunting background to several scenes.  I also must mention the really fun and unique take that several of the characters had on the film Signs.  This film, which I personally rather enjoyed, is brought up several times and becomes a key plot point.  While that does sound a little strange, its inclusion worked surprisingly well, and the subsequent discussions and insightful analysis of the film and its themes, ended up fitting into the overall narrative quite seamlessly, helping to create quite a unique tale.

I also deeply enjoyed the crime fiction/mystery elements of Prisoner, which really helped to turn this into quite a compelling and exciting story.  White crafts together a really clever and psychologically intense mystery for this book, and I had a wonderful time seeing the protagonists unwind it.  The author sets up a great methodical criminal investigation, with the characters slowly uncovering clues, backstory and various suspects throughout the story.  While the police do achieve an impressive amount in just a couple of days, there is a gritty sense of realism to much of the story, and I really enjoyed seeing the police in action.  The best part of the investigation is easily the focus on interrogations as the protagonist engages two uncooperative suspects in several separate interviews throughout the course of the book.  These interrogation sequences are among some of the best parts of the entire book, as Russo really dives into the pasts and minds of her suspects, which also requires her to reach back and harness some of her own trauma to break through to them.  This, combined with the rest of her team’s investigation, proved to be quite fascinating, and I really enjoyed seeing the cooperative work and professional skills involved.  I also quite enjoyed the solution to the murder, especially as White comes up with quite a unique and dark motivation for the crime.  There are several good suspects and motivations for the murder, which at times made me question who the killer might be.  However, I thought the overall resolution of the mystery was extremely clever, and it really made great use of the dark psychology of some of the characters.

One of the biggest highlights of this book were the damaged and traumatised central characters, who White spent a substantial amount of time exploring throughout the course of the story.  This includes a mixture of characters who previously appeared in Hermit and some new characters brought in for Prisoner.  This includes central protagonist Dana Russo, the detective in charge of the investigation.  Dana had a very traumatic childhood, brought on by an abusive mother who beat and emotionally tormented her following her father’s death.  While this was revealed in the previous novel, it was recounted once again in Prisoner, especially as details of the case end up mimicking parts of Dana’s life.  The protagonist is forced to dive deep into her prior experiences to help solve this case, and it was fascinating to see how she could instantly spot signs of abuse, as well as rationalise the various reasons behind it and the impacts it can have on a young person.  The protagonist also uses her experiences to get into the minds of her two main suspects, resulting in some intense and extremely powerful interrogation scenes, where both suspect and interrogator are broken down at the same time.  White also produces some more revelations about Dana’s terrible childhood, including a certain reveal on the last page that was pretty memorable, and I really liked the compelling picture he painted around this impressive leading character.

The other characters who proved to be extremely compelling were the main suspects of the murder case, Suzanne and Marika Doyle.  The Doyle siblings are instantly identified as persons of interest in the case due to their house’s proximity to the crime scene and the fact that they wrote to the victim in prison and helped to organise his parole, despite having never met him.  Upon examination of their history, as well as an insightful look at their house, it soon becomes apparent that both siblings had a hard childhood because of their controlling mother.  Their life story becomes a key part of the overarching plot as Russo attempts to uncover their full history and personalities, as she believes it is important to solve the case.  The eventual reveals about the siblings and their relationship, their past and their emotional states is extremely captivating, and White paints quite a dark and troubled narrative around them that was really fascinating.  The way that this ties into the murder and their relationship with the victim is very clever, and White really outdid himself making these two sibling suspects.

I also must give a quick shout out to the character of Lucy Delaney, one of Dana’s co-workers and an invaluable resource in the case.  Dana and Lucy got quite close to each other in the previous novel, with Dana revealing some of her childhood trauma to her, something she rarely does.  In this novel, you get a much closer look at Lucy, who reveals some of her own personal issues, and the shared grief becomes a major part of her connection to Dana.  Unfortunately for Lucy, she gets dragged into some internal police politics, which impact her and her secrets quite severely and will likely become a recurring issue in the series, especially if the relationship between Dana and Lucy progresses.  Aside from Lucy, I felt that the police characters represented an interesting blend of personalities and skills, such as the wily veteran Mike or the similarly damaged officer Ali, who helped to give the film more personality.  It will be interesting to see how these characters are featured in the future, and I look forward to learning more about them.

Prisoner by S. R. White is a clever and moving piece of Australian crime fiction that proved to be a real treat to read.  White has produced a deep and compelling murder mystery narrative that focuses on a fantastic group of damaged protagonists and suspects, and who have some dark stories to tell.  I really loved the more methodical and grounded police investigation angle of this book, especially the inclusion of some powerful interrogation sequences, and I was impressed with how the narrative unfolded.  An excellent and captivating murder mystery, Prisoner comes highly recommended, and you will have a great time getting through the latest book from this fantastic Australian author.

Blackout by Simon Scarrow

Blackout Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 30 March 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 424 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of historical fiction, Simon Scarrow, breaks new ground in a thrilling and captivating historical murder mystery, Blackout.

Berlin, December 1939.  As the citizens of Berlin worry about a potential upcoming conflict with Britain and France, the Nazi party continues to sink their claws into every aspect of German society.  But as a bleak winter sets in and enforced blackouts plunge the city into darkness, a far more sinister threat begins to stalk the streets of Berlin.

A young woman has been found brutally murdered near a busy set of train tracks.  The victim is a former famous actress with a powerful husband.  Due to her marital connections, as well as a scandalous past with various high-ranking Nazi figures, including Goebbels, her case has dangerous political implications.  To that end, her case is assigned to Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke of the Kriminalpolizei, the Kripo, one of the few police officers not to join the party.  Due to his apparent disregard for the party and the importance of the victim, Horst is under intense pressure from the head of the Gestapo to solve this case.  However, what begins as an easy murder case swiftly devolves into something far more dangerous when a second body is found, and Horst is forced to face the reality that he is chasing a serial killer.

As the bodies of more young women are discovered, Horst rushes to find a killer before the government attempts to hush up the fact that a killer is loose within their perfect Nazi society.  But with the Gestapo interfering at every step and key suspects protected by the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence, this case proves difficult to solve.  When a survivor is found, Horst thinks this may be the opportunity to find the killer.  However, when the witness is revealed to be Jewish, Horst is forced to find a way to protect her from both the killer and the Gestapo.  Can Horst find the killer before it is too late, or will he discover that disloyalty to the Nazi government is considered a far worse crime?

This was another amazing novel from one of my absolute favourite authors.  Scarrow is best known as a Roman historical fiction author due to his long-running and impressive The Eagles of the Empire series, which I am a particular fan of (see my reviews for The Blood of Rome, Traitors of Rome, and The Emperor’s Exile).  However, Scarrow has also branched out into other historical periods with his Revolution quartet, the standalone novels The Sword and the Scimitar and Hearts of Stone, and a modern crime novel he wrote with his colleague Lee Francis, Playing with Death (which I really need to check out).  His latest book, Blackout, is an interesting change of pace from some of the previous Scarrow novels I have enjoyed, presenting a compelling murder mystery story with the dark historical setting of Nazi Germany.  Blackout, which was unfortunately delayed from last year, proved to be an excellent read, and I loved the complex and powerful story that Scarrow came up with.

Scarrow’s latest book has an outstanding narrative that starts with a Nazi social party scene quickly leading to the brutal murder.  This shocking opening in the dark of a blacked-out Berlin sets the scene for the rest of Blackout perfectly, and lets the reader know that they are in for an intense and dark tale.  The narrative then advances to the next day, with a great introduction to central protagonist Inspector Horst Schenke, who gets to showcase his deductive ability while also covering his personality and feelings about the Nazi government.  Once the case proper begins, Horst and his team are thrust into a lethal hunt for a serial killer, while also having to contend with the vicious politics and intrigue of the Nazi party.  Horst finds himself caught between the Gestapo, German Military Intelligence, and other influential Nazis, each of whom are attempting to manipulate the situation for their own ends.  This blend of mystery and dangerous political intrigue makes for a fantastic read, and I enjoyed the compelling balance that Scarrow produced.  The mystery itself is well crafted, with the author ensuring there is a complex and tangled web to unravel, with several promising suspects.  There are some very cool twists added into the plot, and I quite enjoyed the exciting conclusion and eventual reveal of the killer.  This is also a very effective standalone mystery, which would serve as a great introductory novel if Scarrow ever wanted to revisit this setting and characters in the future.  A series set around this book could go in some interesting directions, and I for one would be quite keen for that.

Easily the most captivating and fascinating part of this novel is the amazing historical setting that Scarrow used as the backdrop to his amazing mystery.  While several great mystery series have used World War II Germany as a setting before (the Bernie Gunther series by the late, great Philip Kerr comes to mind), I think that Blackout was a particularly good example of how it could be done, with Scarrow making sure that it really enhanced this already incredible story.  Scarrow skilfully works several fantastic and intriguing elements of this iconic setting into his narrative.  This includes the blacked-out winter streets and train lines of 1939 Berlin, which serve to hide the killer’s actions and ensures an easy hunting ground.  I also appreciated the air of worry and uncertainty that inhabited many of the characters as they are constantly left wondering if their country is heading towards a bigger war with Britain and France, not knowing of their government’s master plan.  There is also a certain amount of nationalism, patriotism and casual racism/anti-Semitism on the streets, which is a confronting and concerning aspect that the protagonist has to deal with.  There is also a fascinating focus on the way in which the Nazis infested all aspects of the German government and administration, particularly the police.  Inspector Horst is constantly butting heads with other members of the police force who were only promoted due to their party allegiances, rather than any skill or ability, which impacts the protagonists to successfully investigate his crime.  Add in the compelling depictions of German politics and Nazi interference that I mentioned before, and you have a very impactful and distinctive setting, which really helped to turn this crime novel into something very special.

Scarrow has a knack for creating some interesting and likeable characters, and this is certainly true for Blackout.  Inspector Horst is a fantastic protagonist, a former famous race car driver who experienced a traumatic crash several years ago.  He has since reworked himself as a talented police investigator and a rare man of honour in troubled times.  There is a lot to like about Horst, including his brilliant investigative skills, his courage in the face of danger, and his complete disregard for the Nazi leadership.  As one of the few senior police officers who has not joined the Nazi party, Horst is a bit of a black sheep amongst the ranks of his organisation, especially as he barely contains his disdain for the Nazis and what they are doing to his country.  This invariably leads him into a whole mess of trouble, which sees him in the crosshairs of the Gestapo and other Nazi figures, who seek to use his neutrality and skill for their own advantages.  I had a lot of fun following Horst throughout this novel, and it was great to see how a non-Nazi supporter would survive amongst the authoritarian ranks of German police in this period.  There are several great storylines surrounding this character, including about the trauma he is experiencing from his crash, as well as guilt at his failure to save the people closest to him.  I really enjoyed this character in Blackout, and it seems likely that Scarrow would have some very compelling storylines in place for this character if he ever revisited this series.

Aside from Horst, there are several other compelling side characters in this novel, which include a mixture of fictional characters and real historical figures.  One of the better characters is Ruth, the only apparent survivor of one of the serial killer’s attacks.  Ruth is a feisty and combative character, made so by her position as one of the few Jewish people still remaining in Berlin.  Despite being threatened by the entire German apparatus as well as a serial killer, Ruth remains strong throughout the book and is a very inspirational character to follow.  I also quite enjoyed the character of Liebwitz, a Gestapo agent assigned to Horst’s unit to spy on him and report back to the Gestapo commander.  However, Liebwitz proves to be a rather unusual Gestapo agent, more concerned with facts and analysis, rather than Nazi internal politics, and it was fascinating to see an honest and non-sociopathic member of the Gestapo.  While there is a lot of mistrust for Liebwitz in the beginning, he soon becomes a major part of the investigation, and Scarrow sets up some very interesting storylines for him.  Finally, I also quite enjoyed the killer of the story.  Several sequences in Blackout are shown from his point of view, although his identity is kept hidden towards the end of the book.  Scarrow paints an interesting picture of this killer’s mental state, and it was interesting to see his motivations run parallel to the goals of the Nazi party, which he uses to justify some of his actions, and indeed his actions are something that the Nazi leadership might approve of.  I felt that the author did a good job setting this antagonist up throughout the novel, and I rather liked the twist surrounding their eventual reveal.

Simon Scarrow continues to show why he is one of the leading authors of historical fiction with the outstanding and captivating historical murder mystery, Blackout.  Breaking into a whole new historical period and setting, Scarrow produces a fantastic and powerful murder investigation which makes amazing use of its complex characters and detailed historical setting.  Featuring all manner of twists, political intrigue and devious Nazi characters, Blackout was a compelling and intriguing read that comes highly recommended.  I cannot wait to get my next hit of Scarrow, and luckily I don’t have to be patient for long as the next Eagles of the Empire book, The Honour of Rome, is out in a few months time.