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mystery/thrillers reviews

Book Review: A DOUBLE LIFE by Flynn Berry

Claire is a young London doctor, living a solitary life that consists of work and little else. Then a detective inspector comes to her door and says simply, “There’s been a sighting.”

Claire doesn’t need to ask of whom or what; she knows the DI is referring to her father, who is wanted for an almost 30-year-old murder and has been missing since.

While she braces herself for confirmation that the man in Namibia is her father, A Double Life moves back and forth in time to show what happened the night of the killing. The story also reveals that Claire can no longer accept waiting for the answers she feels her father owes her, and that she’s willing to cross dangerous lines to finally get them from him.

Flynn Berry’s follow-up to her Edgar-winning Under the Harrow is less a thriller than an examination of the psychological toll of violence on a family, specifically children. Claire doesn’t date and has changed her name—from Lydia—to avoid being linked to her father, and her younger brother fights addiction. Even though he was only a baby when the murder happened, it occurred in their family home and who knows what he absorbed? “Robbie looks like our father. Sometimes I wonder if that’s why he mistreats himself. It’s the only act of revenge he can take.”

Readers looking for plot-heavy stories might find Life slow going in parts, but Berry’s nuanced prose and complex characters leave a mark with their quiet suffering.

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission.

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Book Review: HOSTILE TAKEOVER by Shane Kuhn

hostile takeoverShane Kuhn shot onto the crime fiction scene last year with The Intern’s Handbook (movie rights were snapped up), and now his assassin John Lago is back in Hostile Takeover with more explosive action.

At the end of Handbook, Lago had lost track of Alice, the person assigned to “exterminate” him. He not only finds her at the start of Takeover but, after a wee bit of gunfire, proposes to her. The two then stage a coup to take over HR, Inc., the company that places fake interns who are really assassins into the corporate world to kill their targets. As with many relationships, their partnership is heady at first, until they start fighting and turn on each other. As Lago says, “With normal couples, someone might get thrown out of the house after a fight. With us, someone is liable to get thrown out a window.” Or worse.

The violence in Takeover is even more over the top than in Handbook, but done in the same satirical way. A boy named Sue is a fun new character who gives Lago tech support–make that hack support. The identity of the big baddie is predictable, and some of the scenes seem more like set pieces rather than action that helps move the story forward, but Kuhn’s sharp-as-a-blade humor keeps readers, like the bullets, flying through pages. And despite the deadly doings, Hostile is quite romantic, for Lago is hopelessly smitten with Alice, just a boy standing in front of a girl, asking her not to kill him.

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is republished here with permission.

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Q & A with Author Michael Robotham

photo: Tony Mott

photo: Tony Mott

Australian author Michael Robotham was an investigative journalist and ghostwriter of memoirs for celebrities and politicians, among others, before publishing his first novel, Suspect, featuring psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, who’s afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. O’Loughlin has appeared in subsequent novels, two of which won the best novel category of the Ned Kelly Awards, the top Australian literary crime prize.

Robotham’s 10th novel, Life or Death (read my review here), is a standalone, about a man named Audie Palmer who, after serving a lengthy prison sentence, escapes from prison one day before he’s due to be released. Stephen King says it’s “a nerve-shredding thriller with the heart and soul so often missing from lesser crime and suspense novels.”

Why did it take 20 years between the idea for Life or Death and publication?

I first stumbled upon the idea in March 1995 when I read a small newspaper story about a man who escaped from prison the day before his release. The obviously question was why? This intrigued me as the setup for a novel, but it took me a long while to think of a compelling reason, which I knew had to involve a love story. Then it took me even longer before I felt I had the writing skills necessary to make readers believe that Audie Palmer would endure 10 terrible years in prison because of a promise he made. I am always trying to challenge myself as a writer and this was a huge challenge, not just in the writing, but also choosing Texas as the setting.

What made you choose Texas? What were some of the pleasures and challenges of capturing that Southern feeling?

I didn’t so much choose to write about Texas as choose to write about Audie Palmer and then had to find a location that I think fit his story. I spent the longest week of my life in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas because I initially thought I might set the story there. I settled in Texas because, as the slogan goes, Texas is “like a whole other country.” It’s not just the size or the cultural diversity–it’s the food, the pride, the people and the history. What other state has its own Independence Day or bumper stickers threatening to secede? I also saw plates that said Don’t mess with Texas, but I don’t know whether that was an anti-littering message or a threat.

I spent five weeks in Texas doing the research, sitting in bars, chatting to locals and driving enough miles to get white-line fever. At the same time, I was listening to audio books by Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, James Lee Burke and Philipp Meyer, trying to get the rhythm of the language.

It’s a daunting prospect to set a novel in a strange place but hopefully I haven’t made too many mistakes.

Some of the scenes, especially ones involving Audie on the road, evoke a sense of music, as if they’re movie montages. If Audie’s life had a soundtrack, which songs would be included?

I’m terrible with music questions, which is why there are so few songs referenced in my novels. I should name songs like “Yellow Rose of Texas” or “Galveston” but that wouldn’t be telling you the truth. I am, however, a huge fan of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, so they have to be included on any soundtrack, along with Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” and the classic gospel blues number “John the Revelator.”

life or deathSuspect was intended as a standalone but the characters were developed into a series. Life or Death is being touted as a standalone…but is it really?

No plans as yet [to make it a series]. I do have another idea for an American novel, but might set it farther north in Maine. I have thought about bringing FBI agent Desiree Furness into a future novel. She’s a great character, so the answer is: “Watch this space.”

Tell us about your reaction when Stephen King raved about your work.

I regard Stephen King as the world’s greatest storyteller since Charles Dickens. When I read his comments about Life or Death, I said to my wife, “It won’t matter if I never sell another book. I can retire now. I will sit in my rocking chair and prepare to tell my grandchildren that the great Stephen King once called me a master.” Believe me–it doesn’t get any better than that.

Let’s hope retirement is many years from now for you. In addition to journalism, you’ve done your share of ghostwriting. One downside is that you don’t get credit for the writing, but there must’ve been perks, too.

Most people do jobs where they don’t get their name written up in big bold type. Teachers. Postmen. Surgeons. Social workers….

As a ghostwriter, I got to look at the world through a fresh set of eyes every time I took on a new project. I had to capture a new voice and immerse myself in an interesting life, performing a sort of literary ventriloquism where nobody recognized my presence. This was challenging and rewarding creatively, and also made me a good living.

Anonymity didn’t bother me because the people who counted–publishers and agents–knew which ghostwriter was responsible for a book. They gave me the credit, even if the general public had no idea.

Another perk was that I could be invisible. I didn’t have to do media or publicity. I still read all the reviews and celebrated the bestseller lists, but my job was done.

If someone asked you to write your memoir but you didn’t feel like doing it, which author—living or dead—would you choose to ghostwrite it? What would be the title?

Tough question. I guess I should be writing my own memoir, but if I had to put my life into another writer’s hands I would choose Hunter S. Thompson. Not for accuracy, but because I’m sure he’d make my memoir more exciting than the reality. And what would it be called? The Last Word.

This interview originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission.

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Book Review + Giveaway: NORTH OF BOSTON by Elisabeth Elo

north of bostonIn crime fiction, the protagonists can start to resemble each other after a while: tough FBI agent or military guy or cop or private eye, etc. I’m not saying books can’t be good with those types of characters—it all depends on the execution—only that every once in a while, it’s nice to see a different type of protagonist, and that’s who Pirio Kasparov is, in Elisabeth Elo’s debut, North of Boston.

One foggy night, Pirio is on a lobster boat with her friend Ned when a huge ship comes out of nowhere, crashes into the little boat, and quickly sinks it. The ship moves on without stopping. Ned perishes but Pirio survives, for over four hours in frigid waters before she’s rescued. She becomes somewhat of a local celebrity, and the US Navy wants her to submit to tests to determine how her body managed to stave off hypothermia when most people would’ve succumbed.

But Pirio, heir to a successful perfume business started by her Russian immigrant parents, only wants to find the ship that ran over Ned’s lobster boat. She meets resistance from the Coast Guard and others telling her to just accept the accident as a hit-and-run.

Then she meets a mysterious man at Ned’s memorial, someone who seems to want the truth as much as she does. Neither realizes how deadly the truth is, and how their attempt to see justice done will land them in deep waters, literally and figuratively.

Pirio is someone I took to right away, a woman who’s smart, not touchy-feely, and blunt to her father and friends if she feels they need to hear the truth. Her one soft spot is for her ten-year-old godson, Noah, who also wants to know what happened to his father, Ned.

The prose is full of witty descriptions such as this:

Her dress is cream and pink, a boatneck, small stripes, and some kind of floppy belt. It looks as if it started out in the morning for a 1912 steamship, took a detour to a 1950s garden party in the suburbs, and ended up in a 2013 online catalog.

When Pirio is in the mysterious man’s home, trying to figure out if he’s a good or bad guy, she checks out his bookshelf and has this observation:

*Mild spoiler*

The environmental books are persuasive, but the book that makes the strongest case for his not-evil character is The Elements of Style. What bad guy would give a shit about the difference between which and that?

*End spoiler*

Can’t argue with her there.

The story goes from the Boston area to more remote locales up the Labrador Coast in northern Canada, where the beauty of the land is contrasted by the danger Pirio is in and the ugliness of the bad people’s actions.

The descriptions of the tests Pirio endures for the navy—for the sake of her country, she’s told—are terrifying and hypnotic at the same time. I could easily visualize and imagine the mental and physical states Pirio goes through as she voluntarily freezes to the brink of death while the navy studies her. Did I mention this woman is tough?

The one false note for me was Pirio’s repeated musings on love: how she wants it, how she’s not sure if she’s ever felt it, what true love feels like, whether or not she’ll ever find it, etc. Her longing is clear and doesn’t need to be reiterated so often.

But that’s a small quibble, and I’d definitely sign up for Elo’s next exotic adventure. The press materials accompanying my review copy said the author spent time last year in Siberia and that’s partly where her next novel will be set.

If you’d like to read North of Boston, leave a comment and you’ll be entered in a giveaway of one copy, courtesy of Viking Books. Answer this question: What’s the most exotic or coldest place you’ve ever visited? (Comments who don’t include an answer will be disqualified.)

Giveaway ends next Monday, February 17, 9 p.m. PST. One winner will be randomly selected and have 48 hours to claim the prize before an alternate winner is selected. US residents only, please.

Amazon | IndieBound

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Book Review: THE OCTOBER LIST by Jeffery Deaver

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission.

october listIn the foreword to The October List (or is it the afterword, since it’s at the back of the book?), Jeffery Deaver explains that he got the idea to tell his thriller story backward after hearing Stephen Sondheim discuss the musical Merrily We Roll Along, which unfolds in reverse order. (Other inspirations he cites include the movie Memento and a Seinfeldepisode titled “Betrayal,” both told in a “fractured time line.”)

The novel begins with the last chapter, as a woman named Gabriela sits in a Manhattan apartment on a Sunday, awaiting news from people who have gone to negotiate with a kidnapper for her daughter’s release. The kidnapper apparently wants something called the October List, plus half a million dollars, in exchange for Gabriela’s child. Someone bursts through the apartment’s front door, but it’s not the person Gabriela is expecting, and the chapter ends with her seemingly in even worse trouble.

Each chapter that follows takes place a few minutes or hours before the preceding one, going back to the previous Friday morning. Even the pages are numbered in reverse order, with the title page at the end. Some of the sentences are clunky but the premise is clever, and Deaver’s ability to execute it successfully makes this experimental novel even more impressive. Revealing the ending first, he still manages to surprise with a few twists, constantly challenging readers’ understanding of the story. Read it backward, forward, once or twice, to see how all the pieces fit together—just be sure to chase down this List yourself.

Nerd verdict: Put October on your reading List

Amazon | IndieBound

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Book Review: THE NEVER LIST by Koethi Zan

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers, and is reprinted here with permission.

the never listThe title of Koethi Zan’s The Never List refers to what Sarah and her best friend Jennifer kept as a reminder of things they should always avoid doing, after they survived a car crash at an early age. The girls became vigilant about making sure they stayed safe, obsessing over statistics and percentages of their getting injured or killed in different ways.

But numbers couldn’t save them from being kidnapped and imprisoned in a sadist’s basement for years with two other women. Sarah eventually helped them escape, but Jennifer never made it out, her body never found. The story opens ten years later, when their tormentor is up for parole. Sarah, now agoraphobic, is determined to keep him locked up and to reclaim her own life by confronting her fears and finding out what happened to Jennifer.

The novel’s eerily prescient echoes of the Ariel Castro case add to the gut-wrenching effect of the victims’ ordeal. Thankfully, Zan doesn’t focus on the torture, but more on the women’s spirit, survival instincts and different methods of coping after reentering society.

The novel’s weakest aspect is its dialogue. Characters address each other by name too much in conversation, talk in long monologues toward the end to reveal all their secrets, and everyone says “after all” too often. But the pacing is tight, the plot both horrific and compassionate toward the women, so it might warrant a place on lists of summer books to read.

Nerd verdict: Flawed, frustrating, but fast read

Amazon | IndieBound

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Book Review: CLOSE MY EYES by Sophie McKenzie

close my eyesSophie McKenzie’s first thriller for adults, Close My Eyes, begins eight years after the protagonist Geniver gave birth to her stillborn baby, Beth, whom Gen is still mourning. She has undergone in vitro fertilization multiple times since then without success.

Then one day, a stranger shows up on her doorstep and gives her shocking news, making her question everything that happened eight years ago, and doubt everyone close to her, including her husband.

I usually don’t include spoilers in reviews, but can’t make my major point about this book without revealing a few, so this is a SPOILER ALERT!

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I knew nothing about this book when I picked up it, but when I started reading, I noticed the unusual spelling of Geniver’s name and thought, “That’s like Guinevere.” And then her sister-in-law (her husband’s half-sister) is named Morgan, which made me think of Morgan le Fay, and her husband’s former friend, a very attractive man, is called Lorcan. OK, that’s not too similar a name to Lancelot, but Lorcan does swoop in and seduce Geniver while her husband isn’t paying attention to her.

Oh, and Geniver’s husband is named…Art. In case you haven’t guessed where I’m going, I think this is a modern retelling of the Arthurian legend. There’s even a sword-wielding child named Ed, who’s like Mordred without the first five letters. I wondered if a man named Merle would show up.

McKenzie’s storytelling is engrossing, and I certainly kept turning the pages, but knowing the Arthurian legend well, I wasn’t surprised by much, including Art and Morgan’s relationship and the supposedly shocking epilogue. Again, see: Mordred. The most startling thing for me was how much this story borrows from the famous myth.

If Close My Eyes were more original, I’d probably recommend it because it’s a fast-paced thriller. But if you’re well-versed in tales about King Arthur and his twisted relations, you may find this story too familiar and lacking in bombshells.

Nerd verdict: Too Close to famous legend

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Book Review: LOYALTY by Ingrid Thoft

This originally appeared as a starred review in Shelf Awareness for Readers, and is reprinted here with permission. 

Fina Ludlow is a private investigator for her family’s law firm, but the case she gets assigned in Ingrid Thoft’s debut novel, Loyalty, is personal. Her sister-in-law Melanie is missing, and the police are looking at the obvious suspect—her husband, Rand, Fina’s brother and a partner at the firm. Carl, the steely patriarch, wants Fina to find Melanie and make the bad publicity go away.

Fina has help from two hot guys: Milloy, her friend with benefits, and detective Cristian Menendez, with whom she exchanges sexy sparks. Neither can protect her from dangerous situations, however, as Fina’s investigation leads her to money launderers, porn mongers, and someone with a vendetta against the Ludlows. How far will Fina go to uncover the truth? Will it destroy her loyalty to her family?

The setup of a female private investigator working for the family business calls to mind Lisa Lutz’s Spellman series, and Fina’s vacillation between two attractive men echoes Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, but Loyalty is much darker than either series and Fina is way deadlier. She doesn’t hesitate to use her gun and gets scrappy in bloody fights. She’s no fancy martial artist, just a resourceful, impatient woman who refuses to be a victim.

Thoft is adept at showing the Ludlows’ dysfunction, and the impossible mother is someone readers might love to hate. Thoft also has a good ear for dialogue, a nice eye for character-revealing details and a firm handle on a PI’s shoe-leather process. If she keeps it up, she’ll gain the loyalty of fans as this series continues.

 Buy it now from Amazon | IndieBound

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Review of THE CUCKOO’S CALLING by “Robert Galbraith”

Since the news broke over the weekend that J. K. Rowling published a crime novel this past April called The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, I’ve seen lots of people on social media and blogs asking, “Anyone read this thing?” or “I want to read it but I’m hold #273 at the library!”

I’ve also seen people on Amazon and Barnes & Noble leave five-star reviews, clearly without having read it, saying, “I just found out J. K. Rowling wrote it so it must be fab!” More baffling are the one-star reviews saying, “Not gonna read this, psuedonyms [sic] are stupid.”

I read Cuckoo’s Calling in March when I got an ARC, so I thought I’d share some thoughts about it in case you’re considering reading it. I didn’t post a review at the time because I found it neither amazing nor terrible, and that type of book is hardest for me to write about. It’s difficult sometimes to expound on “meh.”

The two lead characters, a British war veteran named Cormoran Strike who lost his leg in Afghanistan, and his temp assistant, Robin, are likable characters. Strike is trying to make ends meet as a private investigator, and after breaking up with his girlfriend, he’s living in his office. Robin, newly engaged, is only supposed to work for Strike for two weeks, but she quickly establishes herself as an indispensable assistant. Strike tries to hide his homelessness from her, and she has the class and good manners to pretend she doesn’t know the truth.

Strike is hired by a man to look into the death of his supermodel sister, Lula, under mysterious circumstances—she either fell or was pushed over the railing of the balcony at her home. The mystery and the suspects were the weak points for me.

I didn’t like Lula’s brother, John, or anyone in the awfully cold and selfish family. It’s obvious all they care about is money, not Lula. And I didn’t have strong feelings for Lula, the club-going, rich, beautiful girl who wasn’t completely vapid but not that interesting, either. I wasn’t deeply invested in finding out what happened to her, because she didn’t seem to leave a huge emotional void with her death.

Adding to the detachment I felt was the omniscient narrative voice, not my favorite device because I find it too impersonal. Only Tom Perrotta’s Little Children comes to mind right now as an example of where it’s used to great effect. Feeling disconnected from most of the characters, I almost stopped reading several times (the narrative could’ve been tightened, too), but what got me through it was wanting to see if Robin manages to find a way to stay at the agency. She doesn’t want to leave, you see, but Strike can’t afford an assistant.

This isn’t to say sexual tension exists between the two because, refreshingly, it doesn’t. Their relationship is more akin to the one between Della Street and Perry Mason in the Erle Stanley Gardner novels, in which the extremely efficient assistant is just as sharp, if not sometimes sharper, than her boss. If this example seems dated, that’s because there’s something sweetly chaste and retro about the dynamic between Robin and Strike.

The conclusion I arrived at the end—which was predictable, since I’d guessed the villain’s identity before then—was that I’d probably read more books in the series (Little, Brown has confirmed the next installment drops next summer) for Strike and Robin, but they wouldn’t be top of my TBR list.

The writing style is very different from the Harry Potter books, so don’t expect anything like that. I love the HP books and have read some of them more than once, but did not have any inkling Rowling wrote Cuckoo’s Calling. I find it admirable that she’s such a versatile writer, even if this style was less engaging for me. Some authors use the same techniques over and over, to the point their books become formulaic.

I’ll leave you with the rating I gave it on Goodreads (the 4.19 is the average rating from other readers). You can read an excerpt on the Mulholland Books website.

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Book Review + Giveaway: THE SHADOW TRACER by Meg Gardiner

The following appeared as a starred review in Shelf Awareness for Readers last week. I’m reposting it here with permission, and adding a giveaway! See rules below the review.

Skip tracer Sarah Keller, the protagonist of Edgar-winner Meg Gardiner’s The Shadow Tracer, has just nabbed an elusive target when she hears her five-year-old daughter, Zoe, is at the hospital after a school-bus accident. Zoe is deemed fine—until doctors make a shocking discovery, one that causes Sarah to take her daughter and run. And keep running, from a trio of killers who want Zoe for nefarious reasons, and an FBI agent who wants to use the girl and Sarah as bait. Sarah gets help from a US marshal and a nun, but knows it’s up to her to save her child.

Readers will go on the run with Sarah, too, because the story hits the ground at 60 mph and keeps revving from there. Sarah is a believable combination of everywoman and someone who uses her skip-tracing skills to keep Zoe and herself off the grid. There’s a delicious hint of sexual tension between her and the marshal named Lawless (yes, Lawless), whom she alternately needs and hates.

The action scenes are fun, especially one involving a baby in the back of a pickup truck; one can almost imagine Gardiner laughing with glee while writing it. The denouement in an airplane junkyard is highly suspenseful and cinematic, too. But none of this would matter if not for the characters, equally vivid whether they’re bad or good or somewhere in between. Combined with the blistering pace, The Shadow Tracer is a thriller that fans should not skip.

Sounds good, right? Would you like a free copy of the book, courtesy of Dutton? Enter by leaving a comment about how you would stay off the grid if someone were after you. Close your Facebook account? Use cash only?

Giveaway ends next Monday, July 8, 9 p.m. PST. One winner will be selected at random and have 48 hours to claim prize. US/Canada addresses only. Good luck!

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Book Review: HAMMETT UNWRITTEN by Owen Fitzstephen, Afterword by Gordon McAlpine

This review originally appeared as a starred review in Shelf Awareness for Readers, and is reprinted here with permission.

One almost has to be a Pinkerton detective to unravel the double crosses and mystery surrounding the falcon statue in Hammett Unwritten by Owen Fitzstephen. Or is it Gordon McAlpine, who wrote the afterword? Isn’t Fitzstephen a character from Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse (though his name was spelled Fitzstephan)? This meta novel is a puzzle like that.

Leaping around in time, the narrative explores why Hammett never published another novel after The Thin Man. As he’s putting final touches on that manuscript, he’s visited by Moira O’Shea, on whom he based Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. She tells him the black bird sitting on his desk is made of a magical stone that grants the owner’s wishes, and is thus the reason for Hammett’s success.

When Hammett scoffs at this notion, she convinces him that the only way to prove the legend wrong is to give her the statue. He immediately encounters writer’s block so immovable, the block is more like a wall. Hammett searches for O’Shea to get back the bird, but she seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth. Could the mythology surrounding the falcon be true? Or is O’Shea exacting psychological revenge?

Readers may sometimes feel like McAlpine (yes, he’s the real author) is messing with their heads, but it’s fun to go along with Hammett as he investigates the legend. Fans of Hammett’s work—and The Maltese Falcon in particular—should enjoy references to it, and the novel’s blending of fact with fiction. In the end, it almost doesn’t matter what’s true, only that it’s a story well told.

Nerd verdict: Mysterious, meta Hammett

Buy it now from Amazon| Buy from an indie bookstore

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Book Review: TALKING TO THE DEAD by Harry Bingham

Despite having loads of fun photos to share from Bouchercon, and wanting to post about something mind-blowing and fantastical that happened to me over the weekend, I just haven’t had any time to write or upload any of it. For now, I’ll run the review below, which appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers last week and is republished here with permission. I’d also like to remind you that my giveaway of Jasper Fforde’s The Woman Who Died a Lot ends tonight so enter here if you’re interested in winning a copy.

Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham

Fiona Griffiths, the protagonist in Harry Bingham’s debut novel, Talking to the Dead, will likely be compared to a certain Swedish girl with a dragon tattoo, but she’s actually one of the most unusual characters to come along in crime fiction in recent memory. Despite a psychological condition that makes her feel disconnected from emotions, she’s a fiercely smart, highly efficient detective constable in Cardiff, Wales.

She starts out investigating a former cop accused of embezzlement, but soon becomes involved in the case of a prostitute killed, along with her six-year-old daughter, in a filthy squat house. A credit card belonging to a multimillionaire is also found at the scene. The problem? He’s been dead for months. Did the prostitute know the millionaire? Do the murders have anything to do with the embezzlement case?

It’s good news that this is the first in a series because Fi is an indomitable character whose mysterious past should provide fodder for a few more books. As she points out: “Fi. That’sif backward. Griffiths… two more ifs lurking at the heart of it. My name, literally, is as iffy as you can get.” Though she feels removed from those around her, the first-person narration and witty observations (though perhaps they’re not funny to her) make her accessible to readers. Furthermore, her supportive family is a welcome break from the cliché of heroes coming from broken homes. Fi isn’t damage-free, but she’s fully dimensional—and not iffy at all.

Nerd verdict: Dead sparks with a unique protagonist

Buy it now from Amazon| Buy from an indie bookstore

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