Review: Peter Swanson – The Kind Worth Killing

The Girl with a Clock for a Heart was an excellent debut last year by US writer Peter Swanson. It’s always 23357092good to read standalone crime fiction that combines a thrillerish plot with good characterisation. So I was looking forward to Swanson’s followup book, The Kind Worth Killing. With this second novel, however, Swanson has excelled himself and it was a surprising and unusual read.

Ted Severson, delayed at Heathrow airport, confides to a complete stranger that his wife is having an affair. Lily asks him whether he has thought of killing his unfaithful spouse and together they arrange to meet again to discuss possible plots. Miranda, Ted’s wife, is an artist who may have married him for his wealth. However, she has a few dark secrets of her own which threaten to scupper Ted and Lily’s plans.

The first third of the book is classic thriller territory and we follow the machinations of Ted and Lily in alternate chapters. Swanson is particularly good at giving us the background to the characters so that their varying degrees of willingness to embrace murder is explained. However, there are some unexpected twists and the plot opens out to other characters’ points of view and it is the second half of the book where the real narrative deviousness takes place.

None of the characters are completely sympathetic but nor do they feel wholly bad. Without giving too much of the plot away, it does become something of a bloodfest which is actually very satisfying. The Kind Worth Killing has a great story at its heart and the deceptively simple narrative hides some excellent plot planning.


Eric Rickstad – The Silent Girls

The Silent GirlsThere’s something compelling about murder in a rural setting. Statistically, these are the safest areas to live in and yet we read so much that takes place in what appear to be law-abiding places. Sometimes you just need to suspend your disbelief. Other times, the writer does good job at showing what happens behind closed doors. Eric Rickstad’s The Silent Girls is one such book.

In the small US town of Canaan, Vermont young girls have been disappearing. Private detective Frank Rath is hired to look for the latest missing girl, Mandy, whose mother is convinced she hasn’t just simply run away. The case has disturbing echoes for Frank who is bringing up his niece, Rachel, after the brutal murder of her parents years earlier. Now their killer is up for parole and Frank, absorbed in the hunt for the missing girls, also attempts to prevent the freeing of an earlier murderer.

Eric Rickstad is a very good writer which elevates this book above the average mystery. He manages to convey the isolation and brutality of elements of this seemingly peaceful country town. It’s a difficult trick to pull off the role of a private detective in modern times where police investigations are tightly controlled. He manages it by adding the personal element of Rath’s family history. The detective comes acres as both protective and vengeful on behalf of the girls he is trying to find.

The ultimate subject is a difficult one to tackle especially, I would imagine, in the US. I’ll leave it for readers to discover what it is as to say here would reveal too much of the plot. But he has my admiration for addressing it within a crime novel.

The Silent Girls will appeal to crime fiction readers who like a well constructed mystery that doesn’t shy away from addressing a complicated subject. Highly recommended.


Review: Ben H Winters – Countdown City

Ben H Winters’ The Last Policeman was in my top 5 books of 2012. I found it a fascinating read with an unusual premise: a diligent CountdownCitypoliceman who investigates a murder despite the imminent end of the world. Countdown City takes up the narrative three months before the day that the meteor is due to hit the planet. Hank Palace has now left the Concord Police Department as the work has dried up and investigators are only cursorily trying to solve crimes. He is hired by a businessman to find his missing son-in-law although it soon becomes apparent that the man’s disappearance might not have been involuntary. However, as US society disintegrates around him, the quest for the missing man takes on a wider search for what it means to be a human being when the essence of society is crumbling around you.

The Last Policeman justifiably won an Edgar award for its high quality writing and unusual plot. Countdown City continues very much in the same vein although the narrative has moved forward by three months and US society is patrolled by vigilantes and armed gangs. The extent to which structures that hold together a place can quickly disintegrate is shocking and although has been well documented in films, hasn’t really been covered in crime fiction. Hank Palace, an honest policeman in a shaky world, is true to the character we encountered in the first book. As well as being practical, he is also a romantic at heart and has to make some difficult choices when the reasons for the man’s disappearance emerges.

The hints we got in book one that all might not be as it seems with the approaching meteor wasn’t really explored in this novel and I suspect will be left for the final part of the trilogy. I have a feeling that three books will be perfect for the series. Countdown City is another strong read but I found myself becoming increasingly impatient to know what happens in the final days before the meteor hits. Fingers crossed that all will be revealed in the last book.

Thanks to the publishers, Quirk Books, for sending me a review copy.

Review: Paul Doiron – The Poacher’s Son

Every now and then I pick up a book that I have absolutely no expectations of whatsoever. I’ve not read any reviews, never heardThe Poacher's Son of the writer nor the book, and I’m reading it solely because of the novel’s premise. Of course this can be a mixed blessing as reading is such a subjective experience. However you can come across some gems this way and my latest find was The Poacher’s Son by Paul Doiron, a writer who I will be reading more of in the future.

Mike Bowditch is a game warden in Maine who returns home one evening to find a rambling message on his answer machine from his estranged father. Hard-drinking and violent, Jack Bowditch left Mike’s mother when he was small and despite a couple of attempts  by Mike to bond with his father, he now keeps a distance from the man who makes a living from illegal game poaching. However, when he discovers that Jack is on the run from the police, accused of shooting a local cop, Mike is torn between his instinctive loyalty to his father and the demands of his job. When it becomes clear that Jack is being set-up, Mike gambles his career and his life to discover the true versions of events.

I think this is the first book I’ve read set in Maine, a US state that I know little about and whose location I had to look up. However the setting was a major attraction of the book and like the novels of CJ Box and Nevada Barr, we see the landscape through the eyes of a professional worker. However, Mike Bowditch has an off-hand attitude towards his employment and his loyalty is stretched even further when familial ties prove strong. The book gave a persuasive portrayal of the complexity of relationships and how superficial alliances can hide deeper attachments.  All the characters were well drawn particularly Mike’s mother who has escaped from her trailer park upbringing and and is enjoying suburban life with her lawyer second-husband.

For a first novel, it was paced very well and with a genuine surprise towards the conclusion. It was also well written with an engaging narrative voice. A very accomplished début by Paul Doiron who I can see  has gone on to write two further books. Hopefully these we will see these published in the UK in the near future.

I received my copy of this book from the publisher, Constable and Robinson. Other reviews can be found at Raven Crime Reads and The Lighthearted Librarian. The author’s website is here.

Review: Tom Franklin – Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

I’ve been calling Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter ‘the bloggers book’ because it ended up on my reading list simply because of the quality of the reviews by fellow crime fiction reviewers. The fact that the book won the CWA Gold Dagger Award this year had completely passed me by and it wasn’t until I read rave reviews by Maxine at Petrona and Bernadette at Reactions to Readingand at that I bought it. I have a chequered history when it come to books that everyone has raved about as so often I have unreasonably high expectations (I am still waiting to find the ultimate crime novel). Meanwhile, Keishon at Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog  published a less than glowing review and my interest was really piqued. I don’t normally start my reviews with a precis of other blogger’s opinions. But this book divided the critics so decisively I think I should say upfront that I definitely read it with a more critical eye than I would otherwise have done.

The first thing that struck me was that it is a very well written book. There is a beauty in excellent writing that seems to pull the reader into the narrative and I was drawn to the story of Larry Ott and Silas Jones, childhood friends whose lives take different paths. In essence, the book is a story of the entwining of the two men’s lives with the backdrop of the mysterious disappearance of two teenage girls decades apart.

Secondly the setting of the story is wonderful. I love descriptions of the deep American south and this book is no exception with its passages evoking a unique countryside of rattlesnakes and deserted barns, dusty roads and small town entertainment. The book also works well as a social history of the area. The passages dealing with the underlying racism prevalent as the boys were growing up are lightly written with small vignettes to expose the small indignities that the black population had to endure.

There were some small things around plotting that I found irritating. Given the focus on the relationship between the two men, I felt that the murders of the young women got lost. I have mixed feelings about this because I prefer in crime fiction for the victim to remain at the forefront of the narrative. Although the second murder is resolved satisfactorily, the murder of the teenage Cindy twenty-five years earlier seems to be left deliberately vague. This lack of resolution is all the more strange as there is a strong redemptive element to the narrative where the fractured relationship between the two men begins to heal.

It’s ultimately a sad tale and I find it interesting that this sadness, so far from the tone of other US crime writing that I have recently read, has been so widely praised. I suspect the book is a truly one-off and will stay with me for some time.