Review: Chris Womersley – Cairo

9781848663916It’s funny how writers can creep up on you. If you’d asked me to compile a list of my ‘must read’ authors, I doubt I’d have thought of Chris Womersley. And yet the minute I received his latest book to appear in the UK, Cairo, I couldn’t wait to read it. Womersley’s Bereft was one of my favourite books of 2012 and a wonderful exploration of the effects of a miscarriage of justice on a man. His The Low Road was a little bleak for my tastes but still a compelling read. Now, in a book that shows Womersley’s versatility as a writer, we get a different insight into Australian life: the world of bohemian Melbourne in the 1980s.

Tom’s aunt dies and he persuades his parents that he is ideally suited to take over the occupancy of her old apartment while attending Melbourne University. But in his first few weeks as tenant in the Cairo apartment block, he encounters the bohemian Max Cheever and his beautiful wife, Sally. He is sucked into their plans to steal a renowned picture in the city’s art gallery. However as the boundaries between what is real and fake begin to blur, Tom realises he may be part of a grander scheme of deception.

Womersely’s writing is exquisite to read. There’s a poetic quality to the prose that allows you to enter the world of smoke and mirrors created by the central characters. There’s also a timelessness about the writing which means that the action is sometimes hard to place. Womersely mitigates this by referring to seminal events and personalities from the 1980s, for example the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. I found this jarred sometimes – did I really want to read about Madonna in this small world that the writer had created?

It only just makes it into the category of crime novel – a killing happens towards the end of the book although there is a strong sense of impending catastrophe throughout the novel. Womersely is adept in layering his writing with various deceptions and it is the blurring of fake and real that makes this book such a compelling read. Tom’s naivety is completely believable and the reader is always slightly ahead of the protagonist in judging what might befall him. It reminded me a little of the early twentieth century crime novels that I loved as a teenager. It was a delight to read.

Thanks to Quercus for my review copy.

Review: PD Martin – Kiss of Death

I had heard a lot about Australian crime writer PD Martin, who writes a series featuring FBI profiler Sophie Anderson, but her books are difficult to get hold of in the UK. However, I thought it was time I read another book as part of the 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge and I was kindly sent a copy of Kiss of Death by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading.

The opening scene features the vision/dream, experienced by FBI profiler Sophie Anderson, of a girl being pursued at night. This sets the tone for the book and introduces to new readers (like me) the fact that Sophie is not only a profiler but a psychic who intermittently experiences visions of events around her investigations. In Kiss of Death, she has just seen the death of a girl who is found in an LA park with two puncture marks on her neck. Investigators soon link the killing to one of the vampiric cults operating in LA, somewhat prosaically named ‘After Dark’ and led by the charismatic Anton Ward. But Sophie’s investigations are hampered by the attraction she feels towards the leader and his possible recognition of her psychic gifts.

Sophie adopts the persona of a vampire follower to infiltrate the group, which causes problems in her relationship with her boyfriend Dan and also begins to blur the boundaries between professional and personal relationships.

My heart initially sank when I realised this book was written on the subject of vampires as this isn’t an area I’m the slightest bit interested in. The book didn’t particularly have anything new to say about the whole vampire genre and I kept expecting the vampire angle to be a red herring in the investigation and the true motive for the murders would be revealed. But vampirism was at the heart of the book and the author seemed keen for the reader to treat the vampire cult as a serious proposition. I think it would have helped if she’d written in a character who strongly disbelieved in the whole notion of vampires to balance out Sophie’s apparent credulity. As the narrative developed, however, the focus shifted to the cult-like nature of the group which was very interesting and widened the scope of the book.

The psychic aspect of Sophie was portrayed very well and I thought this was the better part of the book. The FBI profiler bit was a little superficial for my liking although the infiltration of the group worked well in the plot. It was a fun book to read, with some enjoyable scenes showing snapshots of LA from an outsider’s point of view (Sophie is Australian). I think if the subject matter hadn’t been vampires I would have enjoyed it a lot more, so I am keen to read other books in the series.

Another review of the book can be found at Fair Dinkum Crime,

I read this book as part of the 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Review: Y A Erskine – The Brotherhood

Tasmania is a region I know little about but which conjures up images of beautiful scenery in a temperate climate. The Brotherhood written by Y A Erskine, a former Tasmanian police officer, provides an alternative view of the island. In this excellent book, racial tensions and stresses of police work combine to provide a snapshot of the realities of law enforcement on the island.

The plot opens with the murder of Sergeant John White, a policeman in the city of Hobart, who has a reputation for honesty and integrity. His killing takes place during a burglary in which he is being accompanied by a rookie cop whose narrative sets out the context of the killing. A suspect is soon identified which opens up a political nightmare for the police hierarchy. He is a boy from an Aboriginal family who are ‘known to the police’. Tensions clearly run high between the law enforcers and the Aborigine community and the narrative moves to the Commissioner of Police who clearly fears that the situation could escalate existing stresses. The chapters then tell the story from the perspective of various people involved in the investigation and those who were close to the dead man, including a local journalist, a lawyer called in to defend the suspect and Sergeant White’s wife and ex-girlfriend.

Gradually the personality of the policeman is revealed and his squeaky clean reputation comes under scrutiny along with the cynical manipulation of laws introduced to protect the Aborigine population. This cynicism is reflected in the style of the writing which is honest and brutal with strong expletives meted out by police and criminals alike. The shifting narrative worked very well I thought and brought out the humanity not only of suspect and victim but also of people on the periphery of the investigation. This wasn’t so much a whodunnit but a “whydunnit” and I thought it a very accomplished debut novel.

I read this book as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Other (very positive) reviews of the book can be found at Fair Dinkum Crime, Petrona and Aust Crime Fiction.

Review: Kathryn Fox – Skin and Bone

Participating the Australian Women Writers Challenge is an interesting experince as we don’t have a huge amount of Australian crime fiction written by women published in the UK. This means that I can’t pick and choose as I ordinarily would but have to read books out of my comfort zone. One author who is easily found here is Kathryn Fox, a medical practitioner who writes books in the forensic genre. It’s not a type of book that I normally buy although I have read Patricia Cornwall and Kathy Reichs in the past. I chose Skin and Bone for no other reason than the plot summary seemed to be the least gory of the blurbs.

A dead woman is found badly burned in a house fire and post-mortem evidence suggests that she has recently given birth. There is no evidence of the missing baby and Detective Kate Farrer who has recently returned from sick leave has to try to identify the mother to solve the mystery of the baby’s disappearance. After a few days, however, she and her new partner, Oliver Parke, are pulled from the case and assigned to investigate the disappearance of the daughter of wealthy parents. As they delve deeper into the apparent abduction, the two cases begin to merge and the detectives plunge into a complex web of relationships.

I found the book a straightforward read. The plotting is good and the idea of a female detective with a partner who is the father to five children was a nice idea. The writer obviously knows a great deal about forensic medicine and the descriptions of death by fire were fairly gruesome but written about in a knowledgable way. Fox writes well about family relationships and there were some quite interesting dynamics going on in the book, particularly in relation to the stepfather-stepdaughter relationship.

I thought some of the writing a bit pedestrian although the book is clearly written for a specific audience who I imagine like a fast and engrossing read. I would have preferred a bit more depth to the book because I found the subject matter interesting. But considering it is a genre I don’t normally approach, I enjoyed it and it was nice to read something outside my comfort zone.

The book has been reviewed at Eurocrime and Reactions to Reading.

Review: Chris Womersley – Bereft

This is the second book I’ve read this year set in Australia in the period immediately after the First World War. The era was dominated by a flu outbreak and thousands of soldiers who survived the slaughter in Europe died in the ensuing epidemic. Unlike Carolyn Morwood’s Death and the Spanish Lady, however, this book from Chris Womersley only mentions the epidemic to convey the sense of mental and physical disorientation that met soldiers returning from the war.

The book is set in 1919 with soldiers starting to trickle back to Australia from Europe where suspicion and indifference awaits them. One of the soldiers is Quinn Walker, who fled from his home in the town of Flint in New South Wales ten years earlier when he was accused of the rape and murder of his twelve year old sister, Sarah. The town are convinced of his guilt but Quinn knows that someone else was responsible for the crime. Now his experiences in the Great War have compelled him to return to the town where he is likely to receive rough country justice if he is ever captured. Hiding in the hills above Flint, he befriends the orphan Sadie Fox. Only she appears unafraid of him and helps him survive the rigours of outdoor life. But Quinn needs to find the answers to the events of ten years ago if he is to move on with his life and this sets him on a collision course with those with secrets to hide.

Although the subject matter might seem off-putting the focus of this book isn’t the rape and murder of the child Sarah. Instead, the story deals with Quinn’s attempts to come to terms with the past and in particular the decisions that he made on the spur the moment that have shaped his life since. The character of Quinn is very well drawn although I feel that his act of fleeing the crime scene is never properly explained. Sadie Fox is a much more satisfactory character, attempting to survive amongst adult predators and a harsh physical environment.

What distinguishes this book above other crime novels is the quality of the writing. It manages to combine lush descriptions of the landscape and spare prose with large pieces of dialogue. I found the style quite unusual and the subject moving, although as a crime novel it perhaps failed to address the underlying issue of child abuse and how small towns allow criminality towards the vulnerable to flourish.

Other reviews can be found at crimesquad.com, Fair Dunkum Crime and at Savidge Reads.

Review: Peter Temple – White Dog

I have mixed views about this book. I love Peter Temple, have read all his previous novels and was eagerly anticipating White Dog the fourth book featuring Jack Irish to be published in the UK.  Perhaps I should have done more research before buying it because as soon as I had started the book, I realised that I had read it before. It was first published in Australia in 2003 and I obviously got hold of a copy when I visited the country a couple of years ago. I’m used to translations appearing in the UK significantly later than their original publication but this is the first time I’ve fallen into the trap with a book written in English. Given that it’s been nearly two years since Truth was published here I think it was reasonable that I had assumed it was a newly written book. In this day and age, where I can buy books easily from all over the world and given Temple’s increasing popularity here in the UK, it seems strange that this has only just appeared. Anyway, that gripe aside – and let’s face it perhaps I should keep a better mental list of the books that I’ve read – I had an enjoyable few days re-reading the book.

The plot begins with Jack Irish hired by his ex-business partner Drew to investigate the killing of Mickey Franklin by his girlfriend Sarah Longmore. As both victim and apparent perpetrator have chequered pasts, Irish suspects that there is more to the murder than a lover’s tiff. However, about half way through the book, the narrative shifts with a cataclysmic event and the focus moves to Jack Irish and his unwillingness to let sleeping dogs lie. Both parts of the narrative were very enjoyable and my only criticism would be the necessary suspension of disbelief required to accept the accident that befalls Irish.

I personally prefer the Jack Irish series to Temple’s stand-alones, although The Broken Shore  was excellent. Irish is a well drawn protagonist, in the mold of those hard-boiled PI’s but with enough quirks to make him interesting and for him to stand out from others in his field. The writing is also perfect for this style of crime fiction – sparse and dialogue heavy. I loved the descriptions of the ever-changing Melbourne and was reminded of the last Lawrence Block A Drop of the Hard Stuff which also chronicled how a city becomes gentrified when the coffee shops move in. I wouldn’t suggest readers new to Peter Temple start with White Dog as there seemed to be fair bit of referencing to previous books but for existing fans this an enjoyable way to while away an hour or two. Just check you’ve not already acquired a copy at some point in the last eight years.

Maxine at Petrona also reviewed the book recently and gave it an equally positive review.