Friday 28 October 2016

Thinking of bringing a crime on a holiday?

Pretty Girls By Karin Slaughter Random House (2015) €19.99 HHHII

Back in 2009, author and literary critic Jessica Mann bemoaned the increase of sadistic crimes against women in recent works in the crime genre, and, quite rightly, labelled it misogynistic.

It inspired response on the part of female authors, from Val McDermid and Tess Gerritsen on down, who defended their choices with a mix of humour, smarts and well, defensiveness.

Men, who are not socialised with fear, simply don't make interesting victims, and women, who represent over 60pc of crime-novel readers, do so in order to identify with the victim.

In Karin Slaughter's new work, it's been nearly 20 years since the disappearance of Julia Carroll: the crime was never solved, the event tore the family apart, and the disappearance of yet another young woman in present time, has dredged up all the feelings and the fears.

That the two events are connected should come as no surprise to a seasoned reader of this genre. The way the events connect, however, is pure Slaughter, whose attention to detail and flair for character make for excellent reading, no matter the subject matter.

Well, almost. Her previous novels have not been short of terrible events, but the crimes here are so revolting that I sought out the argument put forward by Mann.

I hadn't paid much attention to it at the time, thinking that what's sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose too - I would absolutely resist the notion that women shouldn't write about what they want to write about, and should have their fair share of readership and profit. But as the depth of the sadism and conspiracy revealed itself, in all its repugnant detail, it started to feel needlessly titillating.

In any other writer's hands, this would have been hopelessly derivative. Slaughter, however, is so good with pacing, with revelations and twists that are grounded in perfect logic. She is also mightily adept at creating strong female characters - the ones who were psychological victim rather that physical, the ones who do eventually get some class of justice.

At the time of the Mann controversy, McDermid wrote that "as soon as women - who, after all, are overwhelmingly the victims of sexually motivated brutality and homicide - decide they want to explore the same territory, gender becomes an issue. And not just an issue, but a stick to beat all of us women who dare to want to examine a society that has produced so many people who are interested in reading such fictions".

I can see her point of view.

In the end, in Slaughter's book, there is a sense of triumph when reading the denouement, and if you're me, barely resisting shouting out loud to cheer the heroines on.

Ultimately, it makes for compelling, if somewhat repellent reading.

Mrs Hudson and the Spirits' Curse

by Martin Davies Canelo (2015) €4.11 eBook HHIII

This is probably as diametrically opposed to the above as a crime novel can be: a cosy historical in which the real brains in 221B Baker Street is the housekeeper, not Holmes.

Fans of the Benedict Cumberbatch iteration of the great detective will enjoy placing their new favourite actors and actresses in the roles, and it is utterly irresistible to endow Davies Mrs H with the mannerisms of Una Stubbs. It doesn't really fit, though - and speaking of fits, the hardcore Holmesians among us will be in fits as the man himself is presented as making more mistakes than not.

The story is told through the voice of Flottie, an orphan who became a housemaid in the famous address, and who is essentially Mrs Hudson's Watson (her name in full is Flotsam, an imperfect rhyme with the good doctor's name).

Like Watson, she is looking back on the past, unravelling the mystery, and presenting us with yet another take on the famous sleuth.

Davies does get the atmosphere spot on, and it's certainly more gentle than the Slaughter novel - though I must admit, even after all my qualms, I found the latter far more compelling.

Black Ops

By Stephen Leather Hodder & Stoughton (2015) €22.50 HHIII

If you're looking for a primer for global governmental acronyms, you've found it here. A veritable alphabet soup of agencies is paraded within the first 50 pages of this, Leather's latest instalment in his Spider Shepard series.

Despite being the cornerstone character, Shepard is only one of many of the assassins, black operators, MI5 operators, spies and what have you that populate this over-plotted tome.

Terrorism serves as the spine for the action, with some assassination thrown in; the most fascinating parts concern the endless resources at the fingertips of the spooks - passports and credit cards and fat stacks of cash available overnight!

Leather is at his best writing heart-stopping action sequences; the more prosaic passages plod.

A Devil Under the Skin

By Anya Lipska 4th Estate (2015) €19.50 HHIII

Based in east London, with an English female armed-response officer and a Polish male 'fixer', this is the third in a series in which this unlikely pair work together to solve mysteries.

It's as straightforward as that, I'm afraid.

Natalie is on probation, and she's drinking too much and not cooperating with the police shrink.

Janusz's married girlfriend is about to move in with him; in the midst of his new gig as an investigator for an insurance firm, he discovers she has gone missing with her imminently ex-husband.

He calls on Natalie, and things proceed rather basically. There is a soupçon of romance in the air between the two, but not enough to really invest in.


By Stella Cameron Creme del Crime (2015) €19.50 HIIII

Here, we get the perspective of the inhabitants of a small Cotswold village that is the site of a murder.

Everyone fancies themselves smarter than the coppers, not the least of whom is Alex, a divorcee returned to her home place, who has discovered the body.

The personal lives of each of the main characters comes under the microscope, and nothing stays a secret for long, which is an undeniable by-product of an investigation, and it adds fuel to the fires of those who begin to feel inconvenienced by the crime.

In general, the characters act out of any stray impulse that Cameron just throws at them, and Alex in particular is excessively erratic, and as the book progresses becomes unlikeable in the extreme.

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