Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid

I’m not usually backwards in coming forwards. On reading this statement, those who know me well are probably rolling their eyes and muttering a mutter of faux disbelief. ‘You don’t say, I always saw you as a timid creature lacking confidence in your own opinion.’ But often in these book reviews I meander about a little. A bit of entertaining waffle at the start, the occasional divulging of personal information no-one needed to know, a stab at describing a plotline or a thematic penchant, before a bit more waffle, a pronouncement of judgement, and a conclusive note that doesn’t always end up how I imagined it would when I started writing.

But this time. This time. No mucking around, no babble, no gushing, no sitting on fences. I’m embracing in my blog-personality that which is more apparent in my everyday non-blogging existence. I’m going to be straight with you good people: I did not like Val McDermid’s Trick of the Dark.

Charlie Flint is a psychologist who is asked by a former college professor to find out who killed her daughter’s husband on their wedding day. The mother suspects her daughter’s new girlfriend, Jay, a wealthy and powerful businesswoman who both Charlie and her teacher know from the college. It seems people who get in Jay’s way keep ending up dead, and Charlie takes it on herself to discover if this successful and rich business celebrity is actually a serial killer.

When I say I did not like this book, I mean it fairly comprehensively. I didn’t get much enjoyment from reading it, I didn’t have enough interest in or empathy for any of the characters, I didn’t find much in it to appreciate, I wanted to read it quickly but only so I could finish it. It wasn’t terrible (if it was I could at least lampoon it) it just wasn’t, well, it didn’t do anything for me and I couldn’t see how it would do much for anyone else. I found myself running through the questions I would have asked the author if I was editing the manuscript and the suggestions I would have made for changes to the text, and believe me, it is not a good sign when I am reading for pleasure and my editorial hat takes over. The significance of these opinions, for all the significance my opinions usually have, is that in the past Ms McDermid’s books have done something for me; I have enjoyed them very much. But here is the key difference: never before have I read one of Val McDermid’s novels that wasn’t a part of the Tony Hill series.

So I’m pondering a few things: Did the author just have a bad one? Did I just not get it? Is it only that I am terribly attached to the characters in her Tony Hill books (due to both the books and the television series) and those characters rise high above all others? Or are those novels Ms McDermid’s true calling and other stories are not?

There was a new Tony Hill novel released recently, and once it is in paperback I will be getting myself a copy to read (I almost splurged on the hardback when I was in Edinburgh a couple of months ago). But I don’t think I’ll go running towards Val McDermid’s other novels for some time. Trick of the Dark left me too disappointed.

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Edge by Jeffery Deaver

I’m not usually judgmental of others’ reading habits. As long as there is some kind of decision-making process behind what they read, I don’t really mind how they spend their reading time. I like to think I’m not a superior-reader type, and you only have to read through the titles I post on to see that I’m not a hardline highbrow-literature digester. I’ve even been known to make a general-type of statement (and making general-types of statements is a sweeping habit of mine) when discussing the topic of ‘Men’ that ‘I don’t like men who read’. This, as with most of my general statements, is not entirely accurate. For starters they at least have to be able to read, and for after-starters if they do read for pleasure I do find that attractive. I think my point is more that one does not have to be a super-keen reader, or much of a leisure-reader at all, for me to appreciate them as a person. (And to be honest—back to the Men thing for a second—if I was sitting on a park bench reading Joyce and some nice-looking chap sat down next to me and said, ‘Oh, Joyce, he’s my favourite writer, what do you think of the book?’ I’d fear I was trapped in a romantic indie movie where we were all going to end up sad but appreciatively wiser at the end. It’s just not my style of wooing.)
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This all being said, when someone – and I’m now speaking of all classifications of people – likes the same book or author as me, it does create a stirring within of a need to bond with that person. Nay, a stirring that we are already bonded. When someone really likes an author or book that I like it suggests to me that we share thoughts, tastes and ideals on a number of levels. That we have both been privy to a secret that only certain people can share. That we speak the same language. It’s perhaps why I feel so attached to the members of the book group I belonged to in Sydney, and why I feel the need to join one in London (should do something about that).
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Of course you always need to consider the popularity or success of a book or author before latching on to your book-soul-mates. When the two of you like Pride and Prejudice and To Kill a Mockingbird you may need to delve deeper to see if you really do share a crazy kind of book-loving love.
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As many of you know, Jeffery Deaver is one of my favourite authors. But due to the man’s popularity, I don’t necessarily get all stirred up when someones tells me they like his books—it certainly piques my interest, but there usually has to be more to it. This could be the other volunteering him early on as a favourite, or if I refer to him or one of his books (it’s very common for me to refer to books I’ve read in the most random and everyday conversations, such is my life informed by my habit) and they latch on to his name or start chattering away about quadriplegic forensic investigators I know there might be more to this potential book-friend. I found a Deaver-friend recently (and it has turned out to be more than a passing thriller-friend-phase) and was so happy to share this with them that I leant them my copy of his most recent title, Edge.
While busy keeping up with two series and penning the latest James Bond novel, Jeffery Deaver decided to bash out a standalone thriller called The Edge.
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Corte is a protector of witnesses who seems to work for no organisation anyone can name. Cool, calm, stoic, professional, necessarily private, also a board-games connoisseur. He is assigned to protect a family who have been targeted by a ‘lifter’, a freelance extractor of information. Henry Loving is the elusive fiend whose method of choice for extracting information is a sheet of fine sandpaper, some rubbing alcohol and the target’s bare toes. Loving also happened to kill Corte’s mentor, so this time, it’s personal.
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As ever, this Deaver novel is a consuming, fast-paced read. You feel as if you gain insight into the main character and also into his profession. Towards the climax you feel the desired fluctuations of anxiety and fright, only to remain satisfied when you close the covers. Occasionally the witnesses were a trifle irritating, but I guess that’s the reality of being in the protection game (and of a writer creating issues to overcome in a narrative).
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I like that Mr Deaver doesn’t limit himself to his successful series, and that he seems to continue to tell all his stories well despite the pace at which he delivers them to the world. I’m still more than looking forward to reading the next Kathryn Dance novel (I’m assuming, seeing as the last series update was a Lincoln Rhyme book), but in the meantime, standalone stories such as Edge will keep me well fulfilled.

J is for Jeffery

Sometimes you walk past a bookshop and do a glorious double-take. You moonwalk back to the display window and peer in to check if your mind was playing tricks on you. When you see that it wasn’t—when indeed it seems that one of your favourite authors HAS A NEW BOOK OUT—the kick in your step and Wheeee! in your heart is second to none. And that’s just how I felt when I strolled past my local story-dispenser to see that Jeffery Deaver had a new Lincoln Rhyme novel on the shelves.

J is for Jeffery. And you probably know by now that he is my commercial thriller writer of choice. You can take your Pattersons, Reichs, Cornwalls, your Ludlums. I like my thrillers from an ex-lawyer, ex-folk singer chap who, sure, could do with a hair cut, but who mostly keeps me entertained and enthralled from go to woah.

The Burning Wire is a new novel featuring Lincoln Rhyme, the quadriplegic ex-policeman forensics expert who is a quick-minded, pedantic, workaholic scotch-drinker with a gruff exterior, who prefers solving a mystery to the company of people. Take away the cherry-red wheelchair and he sounds just like your usual loner detective. But the wheelchair and the character’s physical disability do serve to add extra layers of difficulty (complexity from a plot point of view) when it comes to discovering the unsub, to catching the perp. One of the most interesting things about Lincoln is how his being physically crippled isn’t usually what prevents him from catching the killer or indeed living a full life; rather there are emotional and psychological barriers he has trouble ‘stepping’ over. Yes, that speedy wheelchair represents more than just a means for our hero to get around.

I like prickly Lincoln. I like that while fulfilling the hero role and doing all the ‘good’ things our protagonist-detectives are supposed to do, he is still a sarcastic bastard; barking orders and correcting his underlings’ grammar, automatically dismissing anyone who shows signs of sympathy for his condition, demanding tumblers of aged scotch from his put-upon-but-unflappable aide, Thom, at all hours of the day.  His select crew of colleagues (which includes his beautiful partner Amelia and some old police friends) forgive him his foibles for they know that deep down he is a good man, dedicated to righting wrongs, to putting the bad guys away. I, though, don’t particularly care about this. For me it’s Lincoln’s brilliance which allows my acceptance of his being a superior, impatient, cranky arse. The man has a mind like a steel trap, a complex existence, he indulges in the occasional death-wish and has an appreciation for high-quality highland liquor. That’s why I like him.

An advantage of having a disabled protagonist somewhat restricted to his Manhattan brownstone, is that we readers get to discover a lot about the supporting characters in the Rhyme stories, maybe more than we might in other crime novels. One such player we get to focus on in The Burning Wire is FBI agent and undercover wunderkind, Fred Dellray—a wonderful ‘character-in-a-supporting-role’ if ever there was one. In fact, Deaver does a fine line in supporting characters: from Dellray, to Amelia—Lincoln’s partner and our co-protagonist, to ballroom-dancing Mel Cooper, crumpled Lon Selitto, American-pie Ron Pulaski and Thom the aide, to name a few. Deaver knows how to write intriguing, layered, entertaining characters who flesh out his stories. And, cleverly, they help maintain a strong connection with his readers across the different books. Every now and then you’ll be reading a Rhyme novel and a character from a previous story will pop up and the reading-you will give a little cheer at their appearance (or a nervous whimper like I did in this novel when a previous foe turned up). If that’s not a strong sign of reader-and-writer loving, I don’t know what is.

In this novel, our bad guy is using electricity to bring New York to its knees. 

Electricity you say? That thing wot makes the lights turn on? Not exactly a deranged axe-murderer, is it? Isn’t this something the local utilities supplier could deal with? These are the disloyal thoughts I had while reading the blurb.

But have a quick look about you and count off the number of things your surrounded by that run on electricity. Oh and then the number of things which can conduct it. This insano is creating flashes and electrical arcs that are metres long, electrocuting entire people-filled hotel lobbies, threatening to black out the city and cause chaos. How do you process evidence when the weapon can’t be examined in a lab? How do you stay safe when you can’t see the thing that’s rigged to kill you? Should you turn that kettle on? This case has Lincoln and Amelia stretched to their investigative limits and our pal Fred Dellray risks everything to try to catch the perp. So much so that it’s unclear whether he’s going to come out of it clean. If he, and the rest of them, can survive.

The Burning Wire is not the most thrilling Deaver novel I’ve read, but it’s still strongly plotted, character-filled, entertaining, heart-rate rising, solid Jeffery. I impatiently await the next book (which if running to plan will be a new Kathryn Dance novel next year). If you haven’t read Deaver before you should start with The Bone Collector. Start at the beginning and meet Lincoln and Amelia (and Fred and Thom and Mel and Lon) for the first time. You’ll find yourself hooked. You’ll work your way up to The Burning Wire and then the next time your ambling past your local book-supplier and you see a new Deaver in the window, you too will have a spring in your step and a song in your little crime-loving heart.

Book 27: Trust Me by Peter Leonard

This is one of the few books I’ve written about this year, which I’ve been disappointed in. It’s not a terrible novel, nothing of the kind, but like the promise of a cappuccino in North America, I was underwhelmed with what I received.

This could be for a number of reasons, and some having nothing to do with Mr Peter Leonard and his writing. For starters, the book I read before this was Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian which I’m still reeling from. And, a second novel carries a weight. Third, the author is no doubt wedged beneath the heel of his father’s writing boots. How do you scrape yourself out of the shadow of Elmore Leonard? Why, when your dad is such a legend, would you even try this writing caper? I know, I know, when you have to do it, you have to do it. Why do you think I tap out this blog…

I have experienced a past obsession with Elmore Leonard novels – the ‘crime’ ones in particular. A few years ago I would have been able to draw you a mud map of Detroit and its surrounds, so was my attention taken by them. And to be perfectly honest it was Peter Leonard’s parentage which attracted me to his book, Trust Me, and the word on his first novel, Quiver, which I haven’t read. Not that his novels don’t sound like my kind of thing – fast-paced thrillers etc – nor do they sound exactly like Daddio’s kind of thing, (well, you know, he has a few things) but it’s hard to get away from your parent’s reputation.

So here we have Trust Me. Essentially a bunch of not-so-good-guys all trying to get their hands on a wad of cash, that technically belongs to our ‘heroine’ but she’s not really going the right way about getting it back. No one in this story seems to think much through, I’m surprised they don’t all end up on the wrong end of a handgun (though quite a few of them do).

I just didn’t give a particular damn about anyone in this book. Not that you necessarily need to in a crime-y thriller type of thing. But something has to keep you gripped; strapped in for the ride. It might be addictive dialogue, palm-sweating fear, heart-thumping thrills, wry humour, believing the unbelievable, there has to be something. And I’m afraid for Trust Me, there just wasn’t much for this reader. Perhaps whatever I read after Mr McCarthy’s epic story was going to fail, perhaps I was too taken with Toronto and all its distractions… perhaps I wanted Elvis and got Lisa Marie.

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Canadian depository: The Canadian Train from Toronto to Vancouver, day 2.

Book 24: Fever of the Bone by Val McDermid

After a lengthy decision-making process of trying to work out which books to take with me on an overseas holiday (and some inspiringly creative packing), temptation stared me in the face at the airport when I saw that a new Val McDermid book was out. Bugger the embargoed boxes of the new Dan Brown waiting to be opened (yawn). I pushed the security guards protecting the Decoder out of the way to grab my copy of Fever of the Bone. If you like your thrillers intense and twisted, a long unrequited romance, protagonists with clear flaws, are a fan of TV’s The Wire in the Blood (even if it’s just cos you have a thang for Robson Green’s eyes) then Val McDermid’s Tony Hill series are for you.

The latest book in this psycho-detective thriller series was up to her usual standard and to be able to crack it open on the plane as soon as I had fastened my seatbelt, set my holiday off to a fab start.

So how do you choose the books you take on holiday? It’s the result of an odd and lengthy equation of desire and practicality, times the amount of space you have in your suitcase divided by the length of your holiday and squared by how fussy you’re going to be about what you read while on r ‘n’ r. (I hope it is all very clear to you now that I’m posing as an artsy fart and am secretly a mathematical genius.)

So yes, I am carrying several books with me on my trip and leaving them to the winds of various locations as I finish with them (the books and the locations). It’s tough. I know I have said before that I’m not overly sentimental about keeping books but the novels I have brought with me are written by some of my very favourite authors. This is what I went for: four books I have been hanging out to read, one I’m assured will be excellent, one to dip into something new. And of course the airport buy. As I’m mostly writing these entries a couple of weeks after finishing each book, I can tell you that I will have to be replacing most of them when I get home. But that’s the financial burden I was willing to make for creating space and alleviating luggage weight as I travelled. And of course, to read what I wanted.

I suffer from a little known phobia of being caught short without anything to read. So much have I trained myself to be a constant reader (that’s for the Crows Nest folk) that I really do panic if I suddenly have to get a train somewhere and I am without reading material. What the hell will I do for twenty-five minutes on my own….!?

Travelling solo, my books have enjoyed accompanying me to high tea at an olde worlde hotel, breakfast at a diner, lunch at a posh restaurant, dinner at a pub, several hostel common rooms and kitchens, and on oh so many buses and planes. More sociable than an MP3 player, you can retreat to the book if feeling loserly at the table on your own, but discard it when conversation or distraction arises, you can carry it as an intellectual prop, or whack it down for show and employ it for the great ice-breaking qualities a book holds. I’ve used it for all these, and many other, handy uses. Most of all, as an entertaining security blanket. Some people need to know they have their phone on them at all times, others a watch or special piece of jewellery. I just need to feel that familiar weight of bound pages in my handbag and I’m a happy woman. Wherever I may be in the world.

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Canadian depository for Fever of the Bone: Ocean Island Backpacker’s book exchange cupboard, Victoria, Vancouver Island.

Book 16: Roadside Crosses by Jeffery Deaver

One sign of a good storyteller is that their readers are able to forgive them some ‘failings’ in light of their vast strengths. So in an odd topic for this blog, I’m going to tell you what bugs me about one of my very favourite storytellers, using the protagonist in this book as an example. broken

My preferred thriller writer is freed from the pile for the second time this year, with his second novel in the Kathryn Dance series, Roadside Crosses (though it’s her third apperance in one of his books). To be honest, this book was only in the pile for about a week. Mr Deaver does not hang around gathering dust.

Who is Kathryn Dance? As discussed in the very first pile o’ books entry she is a kinesics-expert-CBI-agent (that’s the Californian Bureau of Investigation) who catches the bad guys through her startling ability to read people in equally powerfully intuitive and scientific ways. As the shoutline echoes across the cover, Kathryn Dance is a Walking Lie Detector.  The goofball in me wants to make some quip about those damn useless stationary lie detectors…

I’m not sure how to say this without it sounding like I’m disparaging one of my fave authors, but a lot of Mr Deaver’s characters are a little, well, daggy. I mean, obviously they’re pretty awesome with their whole crime-solving abilities and often for the personal tragedies they’ve overcome (Lincolm Rhyme is a quadriplegic, Kathryn Dance is a young widow raising two children) and a lot of his characters are endearing in their individual ways. Plus they’re not all dags; I love Fred Dellray in the Lincoln Rhyme novels and he is very cool (in movie versions he should be played by Samuel L. Jackson). I don’t know what it is but there’s just something kind of ‘suburban’ about many of them. Maybe it’s just his writing style and the way he puts his enormous amount of research to use. Maybe he tells us a tad too much about them when our imaginations would work better. Maybe he tries too hard to keep the trappings of characters contemporised and therefore dates them once they ‘drive off the lot’. I haven’t managed to put my finger on it yet.

Here are the five things that miff me about Kathryn Dance:

1. It seems to me a lot of his female characters wear hairstyles and clothes which conjure up a guest appearance on Murder, She Wrote. Again, this isn’t a real criticism, I love that show (Jessica Fletcher is second only to Miss Marple for top amateur sleuths). But his descriptions bug me; blouses, tailored pants, french braids, ‘labelled’ clothing, I’ve never been comfortable with Kathryn’s glasses (she wears a pretty pink pair most of the time but when she has to go in for the kinesic kill she puts on her ‘predator’ specs which have severe black frames). I just want one of his characters to be caught out in a pair of dirty jeans, thongs and an old pearl jam t-shirt and not because they’re some wannabe rocker, just because that’s what people wear.

2.  I find her shoe fetish to be a cliche.

3. Kathryn, who is a fit, attractive, healthy cop, is always eating half a donut or weighing up the pros and cons of eating one of her assistants homemade baked goods. EAT THE DAMN COOKIE, KATHRYN.

4.  Her kids are too well-behaved, especially when they’re Dad’s dead and they’re Mum’s a workaholic.

5. The whole attraction to her married (although will he be for long?) friend, Michael, is just going to cause problems, never eventuate and probably mean that that nice man who has the hots for her in this book will have to leave or have something horrible happen to him. Or something horrible will happen to Michael.

Phew. Got it out. I feel better now. These minor annoyances won’t stop me reading any future Kathryn Dance stories. That’s the thing about Deaver. Yes, his characters are a little daggy and I think sometimes he puts in too much of his ‘hip’ knowledge (the ins and outs of blogging dominate this book, we get an explanation of LEET speak) but I’m happy to put up with this, in fact, I expect it and accept it as part of his books. And this minor criticism aside, I still find Mr Deaver’s books fascinating, compelling and thrilling. I thought finally, I had caught on to the killer early in the book, but as usual I was so wrong and had no idea until the author wanted me to know. I have never picked the ‘doer’, I’m usually completely shocked by the events and results, I get a little scared, a little thrilled, there’s the odd giggle and I’m always impressed by the twists and turns. And I care about the characters and I especially like and love the recurring ones – in all their crime-solving, daggy glory.

Book Four: Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Jeff Lindsay

dexterI’m surprised by how at this early stage of the year I have ended up speaking so much about books in tandem with television and film projects related to them. I’m not sure why this is surprising. These days, anything is a ‘Text’, right? I’m led to believe that this is so much the case that you can actually watch a Mel Gibson movie in a high school English class and be said to be qualified to write an essay on Hamlet (though I may be slightly over-exaggerating).

I guess I’m surprised because I saw this blog as a literary creature, and like a lot of us, I tend to place the high culture of capital ‘L’ Literature far above that of the common masses’ small ‘t’ television. But let’s face it. Not only do I spend a heck of a lot of time watching telly (a heck of a lot) but we all do, and the stories we like to be told now happen across various media and us modern creatures are able to cope with the notion of a book being a movie being a TV series being a stage show being an ironic reference in a Joss Whedon creation.

So here I am about to talk about Book 4, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, which is the book which led to the creation of one of my favourite television shows. And this time, this time, despite protestations in previous entries, I have watched the first series of the television show before reading the book (though I have owned the book for years – it’s a reading copy from 05).

So, we get into the situation where in no way are the characters’ looks, mannerisms, voices, clothing, hairdos going to differ from what I have seen on the box. That’s OK. And, I’m going to add back story from the show into characters’ motivations or events that take place in the novel, whether it is relevant or not. That’s OK too. But because I love the series and because it is a fairly faithful rendition of the novel (with the necessary stretching that a full-length TV series requires) I am still going to love the book, right?

Well, er, no.

It was OK. If I hadn’t watched the show I might have thought it was great, but I have, and I didn’t. The premise, which was what originally attracted me to the novel, is fantastic and the writing is fine, but the telly version is better. I blame Michael C. Hall. Were he not the fabbo actor that he is perhaps the novelistic Dexter would not have suffered so much from my comparison. And props to the TV folk for creating the relationship between Dexter’s step-sister and brother/mystery serial killer… it adds drama and suspense that I kept waiting for in the novel.

In the end, the novel left me a little cold, and not because the protagonist is an unfeeling serial killer, but because it was a brilliant idea (a serial killer who only kills serial killers, c’mon that’s fantastic!), professionally rendered but which lacked… something. I don’t mean to suggest that Darkly Dreaming Dexter is bad. It’s not. I just like the TV show more. I will still read the other Dexter novels (two of which I already own) but they may travel down the pile a little. There’s so much to read and I’m not burning with a homicidal desire to rip them open. Yet.