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Archive for the ‘Crime Fiction’ Category

It is said that In Cold Blood is the first and finest of the genre of true crime novels, and if it was first, I don’t know, but it was certainly fine. It told the story of the horrific murder of the Clutter family in 1959 by two ex-cons, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. One night, the two entered the Clutter house and shot Herb, his wife Bonnie and his two children, Nancy and Kenyon, with a view to robbing them. The perpetrators left the bloody scene with just under $50.00, a radio and a pair of binoculars.

Unlike most fictional crime novels, there wasn’t an enormous amount of suspense leading up to the event, and at no time did you not know who it was who had committed the crime. Even the motive was established by half-way through the book. Because of this, it should have been a difficult read, and Capote did take great pains to include long descriptions, testimony and psychological assessments, which made for some dense writing at times. And yet, the book was incredibly compelling. The author had spent years meticulously researching and interviewing in order to achieve the thoroughness of In Cold Blood and that most definitely shows. His writing style drives you forward, if for nothing else but to try and understand.

I found that Capote was extremely impartial in his writing. His presence was never once felt. He didn’t pass judgement, nor did he deliberately arouse sympathy or hatred, which made it very unusual to read. Despite the horror of the crime, Capote’s research had exposed both killers to be flawed and yet altogether human individuals. You couldn’t hate them. Indeed, as several of the characters who came across the pair when they were incarcerated said, the worst you could feel was pity. Of course, being a true crime novel, it was very satisfying hunting around on the internet for photographs of the key players. Yet the photos did not change the impression that the author had given.

This is a masterful work, exploring the combined incomprehensibility and familiarity of the human mind.

Rating: 8/10
ISBN: 978-0-14-1418257-5
Publisher: Penguin
Year: 2000
Date Finished: 27 May 2008
Pages: 336
Challenges: 1/8 of category 2: American Authors for the 888 Challenge

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Child 44 is Tom Rob Smith’s first novel, and it is an incredible way to launch one’s career as a suspense writer. Set in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and connected with real events, the book is intensely disturbing and totally gripping at the same time. What struck me most was how terrible the life was for every citizen of the Soviet Union under Stalin. It was like a different world and it was a wonder that people survived through it.

The story follows the fall of Leo Demidov, who holds a high ranking position in the MGB but becomes the object of hatred of one of his subordinates. His fall from grace finds him investigating a murder in a country where officially murder did not exist. Crime was an aberration which was generally ignored or brushed aside without even the semblance of justice, for fear that its presence would question the perfection of the Communist ideal, where because everyone was equal, crime was unnecessary and therefore was naturally eliminated. But idealistic Communism is an impossible proposition when faced with the worst aspects of human nature, and the crimes Leo finds himself faced with are callous, horrific and terrifyingly regular.

This book oozes paranoia and suspicion, which is why it is so disturbing. It seems that within Soviet Russia, there was no such thing as trust, friendship or love because a simple word to the authorities spelt doom for anyone, irrespective of innocence or guilt. The state apparatus apportioned guilt to anyone who did anything even slightly suspicious. If you looked the wrong way at the wrong person, it could mean death. If you treated a pet belonging to a foreigner, you were a spy. If you even thought negative thoughts about the regime, or were indiscreet enough to mutter them, your future generally comprised of hard labour in a gulag, or execution.

Irrespective of the bravery of Leo and his wife beneath such a hostile regime, the message that stood out so strongly for me in this book is that without trust, without care of another and for another, without confidence, then human life is simply a shadow. It is almost not worth existing, when your entire life is spent wondering whether a misplaced word would result in your arrest. This story is the tale of the absolute worst of human nature. It is brutishness, selfishness, paranoia, hatred, fear and vindictiveness laid bare. I am only pleased that as the story progressed, some of the better sides of human nature began to show out otherwise it would have made for grim reading indeed.

I had to suspend my disbelief a little for the ending. After the man hunt mounted to catch Leo and Raisa, I felt it ended a little suddenly and a little more tamely than I would have thought. I can see that the author has left a couple of hanging threads for the next novel in the series which is fine, but after the pace and excitement of the whole novel, without giving a spoiler, the final pages fell a little bit flat for me. Also, I found myself a little irritated by the style of the dialogue. Rather than

“putting conversation in inverted commas, as is normal”

the conversation was written

– In italics and not marked in inverted commas

Just like uppercase letters are generally read as shouting, in my mind the dialogue throughout felt like it was being whispered or spoken a long distance away. Although perhaps that was the intention.

This is not to detract from an incredibly exciting book and a fantastic first novel. I’ll be on the lookout for this author in the future.

Rating: 8/10
ISBN: 978-1-84737-127-0
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
Year: 2008
Date Finished: 23 April 2008 (at 3.00am!)
Pages: 469
Challenges: 4/8 Category 1 of the 888 Challenge: Crime Fiction; S from the A-Z Challenge; 2/8 from The Pub Challenge

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Plea of Insanity

This is a courtroom drama with a difference. It is a courtroom drama with a definite purpose. The author actually seeks to teach the reader something and open their eyes as well as entertain them. It was an interesting combination which I really enjoyed, but which could take the average reader who is just looking for a bit of escapism by surprise.

Plea of Insanity starts out as a story of a rookie prosecutor, Julia Valenciano, who is given her big break by being asked to act as second seat in the murder trial of the decade. David Marquette has apparently slaughtered his entire family in one night, including his 6 week old daughter, and then turned the knife quite harmlessly upon himself. It appears to be a solid case, despite his engagement of one of the best (and most expensive) defence lawyers in town. But when a plea of insanity is filed, suddenly Julia is forced to realise that for the past 15 years she has been living a lie and this case is going to tear her entire life apart.

What it becomes is an exploration of schizophrenia, the nature of the disease and its often tragic and misunderstood consequences. As the author notes in the Epilogue, it is a disease which is rarely acknowledged because it remains such a mystery to medical professionals and the public alike. Like anything which isn’t understood, schizophrenia invites fear and scorn, and it doesn’t take long for Julia to realise that fear and scorn are the most damaging reactions possible. I knew very little about the disease, and I was glad of the care which Hoffman put in to explanations of the symptoms and effects. I could feel precisely when my own judgement of the situation changed – and it was at the time that Julia too began to understand how close schizophrenia was to her. The interesting thing is that Hoffman does still leave you questioning at the conclusion of the trial. You have to come to your own conclusion about who is suffering from the illness and who isn’t. The whole storyline was very well done.

It was a long book but it did keep you guessing. There were passages which were perhaps a little drawn out. I am not really convinced when one character says a line of dialogue and it is followed by two pages of the other’s characters thoughts before they actually give their one line reply. Yes, the mind works very quickly and yes it certainly kept the tension, but it generally found me skipping paragraphs to find out what was said, and then having to go back and re-read them in case I had missed something important.

Otherwise, it was a great book and one which has piqued my interest in schizophrenia – I would like to read more about it. And judging by the tragic true story upon which this was very loosely based, I think that is exactly the reaction that the author was seeking.

Rating: 7/10
ISBN: Book club copy – no ISBN
Publisher: BCA
Year: 2007
Date finished: 26 March 2008
Pages: 598
Challenges: 3/8 of category 1: Crime Fiction for the 888 Challenge

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The Lincoln Lawyer

Mickey Haller’s office is the back of his car. He conducts his business as a defence attorney from the back seat of his Lincoln, defending criminals of all shades – drug dealers, prostitutes, rapists and thieves. And then Louis Roulet, arrested for assault, specifically asks for Haller to defend him. Suddenly, the Lincoln Lawyer is forced to question whether he can even spot innocence, and how deeply his career choice has taken him over to the side of his clients.

Having studied Law at university (and not having a particularly enjoyable time of it) I came to this book with mixed feelings. Would I have picked it up had it not been one of my reading group books this month? I am not sure. But having read several of  Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, I was happy to give it a try. I wasn’t disappointed. In contrast to Patterson’s book, I found the storyline more intricate. I both liked and disliked Haller which made him very real.  And although I had to force my way through the courtroom drama a little, I did enjoy it enough to get it finished within three days of starting!

What I enjoyed so much about this book was that each vital plot point was held together with some fascinating fabric. Although the descriptions of some of the other cases Haller was dealing with were inconsequential, they were still interesting, to the point of me not even noticing that they weren’t fundamental to the story. I also liked the fact that after the whole ordeal, rather than finding some artificial ‘new path’ and turning to a more ‘moral’ business, Haller stuck with what he knew. He was brought up a defence lawyer, and he remained a defence lawyer – his skin staying thick and his priorities firmly embedded in the reality of business rather than the confusing maze of morals. As he said, he is a fundamental part of the legal system. Without him, it wouldn’t run. That was his job, and that is what he did. No matter how flaky and manipulative his role may appear on the surface, he chose to work for a higher good. That, I respected.

Although written in the first person, I loved the way Connelly never gave anything away, even though it was in the mind of the narrator. It was difficult to see how he was going to get out of the situation, and yet at no time did you feel that the narrator was holding out on you. He’d clearly formulated a plan whilst he wasn’t narrating, which he carried out in secret. My only criticism could be that with him relying so much on what he anticipated would happen, was it perhaps a bit unlikely that it did happen exactly as he wanted it? Although having sat through numerous criminal trials myself, I know that it is not impossible for either counsel to steer the trial the way they wanted it, subtly but effectively, to produce the desired outcome.

All in all a good read from a consistently good crime author.

Rating: 7/10
ISBN: 0-75287-955-3
Publisher:  Orion
Year: 2005
Date Finished: 13th February 2008
Challenges: 2/8 of Category 1: Crime Fiction for the 888 Challenge

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I dived straight into this after finishing Along Came A Spider, eager to carry on with the adventures of Alex Cross. Without doubt, it was a gripping read. Without doubt, I couldn’t guess who had done it until I was nearing the end. Without doubt the story was gory and filled with a marked good guy/bad guy contrast. But for some reason, I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much?

Perhaps it was the fact that once again, Cross was getting himself emotionally and romantically caught up with the main heroine. The first time, yes. The second time…really? I wasn’t convinced, and it just made me feel that perhaps Cross was as keen to form an attachment as he was to solve the crime. In my opinion, it detracted from the story, but then maybe I am a cynic. I found it very odd that the whole purpose of Cross’s involvement in a gruesome crime outside of his jurisdiction was because his niece was missing, but in the end, he seemed to pay very little attention to her or the ordeal she had gone through and was more concerned with the new love interest. And there was me thinking blood was thicker than water…

I also found the somewhat shallow racial commentary was a little bit contrived. I applaud Patterson for wanting to include it, but especially the incident where Cross and Sampson get stopped for being suspected thieves, it just doesn’t ring true simply because it is inconsistent. That might be an editing thing, or it might be a deliberate exercise, but either way, it didn’t really help the plot.

Nevertheless, it certainly wasn’t all bad. I love Patterson’s twists and surprises and I thoroughly enjoy his short chapters and pacey writing. I actually sat down and read the second half in a sitting last night (having read absolutely nothing while I was away skiing for a week) so I can’t complain that it isn’t a page turner. But I think I might give Cross a bit of a breather for a little while, before I get cracking on the third in the series.

Rating: 6/10
ISBN: Book club copy – no ISBN printed
Publisher: BCA
Year: 1995
Date Finished: 12 February 2008
Challenges: 1/8 from Category 1 – Crime Fiction in the 888 Challenge

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I recently became the proud owner of the whole series of Patterson’s Alex Cross novels. Having never read any of them, I thought I might as well start at the beginning with Along Came A Spider, where we meet Detective/Doctor Cross and get on another of Patterson’s roller coasters. Satisfyingly, the bad guy was really bad, the good guy was pleasantly flawed and the twist was reasonably unexpected. Having read several of his Women’s Murder Club series in single sittings, Along Came A Spider didn’t quite have the same reach-out-of-the-page-and-grab-you-by-the-neck excitement, but it was still pretty good.

Cross’s first case involves a kidnapping of two celebrity children, a psychopath who allegedly suffers from a split-personality, and several gruesome murders along the way. I think where Patterson succeeds is that he invites his readers to truly empathise with Alex Cross all the way through – you share his doubts, his tenacity, his frustration and his hurt. I am always so tempted to read the last page in a crime novel (which invariably spoils the real surprise but at least it helps me get to sleep at a more reasonable hour). This one I didn’t, and I am quite glad of it. The twist was good, but not brilliant and if I had known what it was half way through it would probably have been a little harder to finish.

Although, as evidence of how much I enjoyed it, after closing the cover I immediately picked up Kiss The Girls and read for another hour or two…

Must get on to the required reading for my reading group…and the pile of books I need to get through for work…but I really want to know what happens next…

Rating: 7/10
ISBN: Book club copy – no ISBN printed
Publisher: BCA
Year: 1993
Date Finished: 29 January 2008

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Mortal Wounds is actually three books in one – Double Dealer, Sin City and Cold Burn. All based on the original CSI TV Series set in Las Vegas, it was a light and easy read.

The only issue I have with TV tie-ins is that the characters can be a little wooden. Maybe that’s because we are used to seeing all of their facial expressions on the screen or hearing the intonation in their speech. Unfortunately, I found that the author skimped on character development because essentially the characters had already been developed on TV. Although each book was a good 220 pages, it still felt a little bit like the one hour episode (minus the adverts, thank goodness). The murders and forensics were crammed in while the characters were almost incidental. There was a brief mention of things outside of the direct case – Catherine’s past as a dancer, a possible love interest between Sara and Grissom – but just like the series, such details were quickly passed over.

Each book follows two murders which are not always related. As with the TV series, the team splits to investigate the murders, both coming to conclusions at about the same time. It did feel like the stories had been shoehorned into the parameters of the franchise, despite the relative freedom that one can gain with the written medium, but perhaps that is what the author had been required to do in order to give it the CSI name?

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book. I hadn’t come across any of the stories before which made it even better. It was nice to have a bit of unchallenging escapism to ease up the stress of life, business and the cold London winter.

Rating: 6/10
ISBN: 978-1-84739-187-2
Publisher: Pocket Books
Year: 2007
Date Finished: 22 January 2008

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