Dead Lions by Mick Herron

dead lionsSlough House, a crumbling building somewhere in London, is the last refuge for MI5 Service screw ups, the hapless assigned to tedious tasks until they resign.  Jackson Lamb is their rumpled leader, a longtime veteran of the Service who prefers the diversion of the shamed to the politics of the Service, although he remains aware of the machinations of the head office.

The Slow Horses, as they are known, aren’t expected to do much, other than shuffle reports and dig through nigh-useless data.  But when a low-level spy is found dead on a bus with a cryptic message on his cell phone, and a Service bigwig drafts two Slow Horses for bodyguard duty, our gang of misfits find themselves on missions of grit, danger, and mishaps – lots of mishaps.

Add in Russian oil magnates, an idyllic English village where location is key, and a London rally of dangerous proportions, and you have the setting for Dead Lions, a dryly humorous send-up of the British Security Service.  The pacing is quick, the plot occasionally convoluted, and the end result a satisfying read.

As a character, Jackson Lamb is a class act.  He’s irascible, misanthropic, hard-drinking, hard-smoking – and those are his good qualities.  Lamb is also a scrupulous professional, although not adverse to playing dirty when necessary, and as an old timer in the Service, is privy to the backstabbing and drama that accompany it.  In his abrasive manner, he inspires a begrudging loyalty from his staff that is somehow endearing.

Dead Lions is number two in the Slow Horses series, and is available from the Greensboro Public Library in paper or ebook format.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapeña

When the babysitter cancels, Anne and Marco Conti figure that they can still go to a The Couple Next Doordinner party next door, with the baby monitor in hand.  They’ll check on their infant daughter Cora every thirty minutes.  What can go wrong?

Everything, when Cora goes missing shortly after 12:30 am, and the couple enters the biggest nightmare of their lives.

From doting parents to negligent inebriates – the press will have a heyday with this one, as does the police, who begin grilling the couple shortly after the kidnapping.  Marco is stressed already with running a struggling software business.  Anne is in the middle of an extended postpartum depression; the disappearance of her child is enough to push her over the edge.

Anne’s rich parents enter the picture soon afterward, with the monetary leverage to deal with a kidnapper, should one come forth.  Their relationship with Anne is close – with Marco, it’s more of a strained tolerance.  He will forever be the outsider, an interloper who took their daughter’s affection.  It is Marco to whom they cast the most suspicion.

It turns out that nobody’s hands are clean, as this brisk thriller proceeds.

The Couple Next Door is not what I would call great fiction, but the book is certainly a page turner.  I easily got caught up in the intrigue, and while there are lots of standard elements in the book, it clips along nicely, and the ending got me off guard.  Plus, with plugs from Harlan Coben and Lisa Gardner… well, read the book.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Conviction by Denise Mina

ConvictionAnna McDonald has it all – a successful lawyer husband, two young daughters, nice house in Glasgow, etc.

She also has a true crime podcast addiction.  Her current podcast du jour is one detailing the Dana, a sunken yacht off the coast of France, where a father and his daughter and son perished.  As Anna listens on, she recognizes the father as a liked acquaintance from ten years ago, when she worked in a lavish country resort in the Scottish Highlands.  It was a convenient place to hide and regroup after an earlier trauma.

Anna is not her real name, and her quiet life of suburban deception is soon to spiral downwards, beginning with her marriage, when her husband informs Anna that he’s in an affair with her best friend Estelle, and they are headed on vacation with the kids, but without her.

Thus begins Conviction, a non-stop tale of a hunted woman who either has been on the run or had a made-up identity for the better part of ten years, and now becomes rediscovered by the wrong people, thanks to a nosy neighbor who posts a photo of Anna that quickly goes viral.

With her personal life in shambles, and soon to be in danger, Anna finds an unlikely ally in Fin Cohen, Estelle’s husband, an anorexic has-been rock star.  The two argue and feverishly journey towards the resort in the Highlands that Anna worked at previously and where she first met Leon Parker, the father of the doomed family in the podcast.  There is one person there who might have some answers, and the area of the resort is remote.

She and Fin find out the hard way that nowhere is remote enough.  On the run again, they trek further, to the French coastal town where the Dana set sail that fateful night, and further on to Venice, trying to stay ahead of certain parties who would prefer them dead.  On the way, Anna and Fin play with the possibilities of podcasting themselves, and find an online crowd more than willing to cheer them on or damn them.

Conviction is a picaresque thriller, its main character a damaged soul who has decided to demand the truth, even if it might kill her.  Anna is a frustated person, and as you learn her back history, you’ll understand why.

Denise Mina writes smart, gritty books within the Tartan Noir genre.  In Conviction, her newest, Mina doesn’t let up the pace.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

What My Body Remembers by Agnete Friis

A young mother with PTSD symptoms comes to terms with past memories when shewhat my body remembers revisits the town in coastal Denmark where she witnessed her father kill her mother.

Ella is a real mess of a person.  She’s on the governmental dole and lives in a slummy project in Copenhagen.  Highly anti-social and prone to brutal panic attacks that render her laid-up, Ella drinks her demons away and tries to provide a home life for her eleven year old son Alex, who is basically all she has.  Social service does not look kindly on Ella’s lifestyle, and places Alex in a foster home during one of her more lengthy panic attacks.

With one last-ditch idea, Ella takes her son from foster care with the intent of going to live in her grandmother’s vacated home on the coast of northern Jutland.  As her finances are limited (her government check is a pittance), the promise of free lodging, however ramshackle, is a good thing.

The seaside setting is a real boon to Alex – he easily makes friends with the surfers that frequent the beaches there.  Companionship also comes to Ella in the person of Barbara, a strange but affable woman who moves herself in and “helps” Ella – mainly with the acquisition of alcohol.  There’s also Thomas, a well-meaning young man in the neighborhood who remembers Ella as a childhood friend.  She does not, or cannot, reciprocate.

After a few run ins with an older man who insists Ella visit her grandmother, Ella does eventually, and starts to take a real interest in the events that led up to her mother’s death.  Her grandmother insists that Ella’s father was innocent.  Ella doesn’t believe her at first, but as she doesn’t remember much of anything previous to the night of her mother’s murder, what really happened is open to speculation.

What My Body Remembers features a main character that is unreliable, snarly, and not really sympathetic.  Ella is all too human, somebody who witnessed something horrific in childhood, so much that she hasn’t had a life since.  As unlikable as she is, she’s also pitiful.  Nobody really wants anything to do with her, and her attitude doesn’t help her.  However, there’s still room for redemption here, and you want to root for Ella even as you might grit your teeth at the things she does.

Ella reminds me of Libby Day, the main character of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, who also goes through a similar childhood trauma, and as an adult, is not particularly appealing.  Read both books if you like your protagonists raw and damaged.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Confession by Jo Spain

the confessionUltra-rich Harry McNamara is viciously beaten nearly to death in his house by a perpetrator who doesn’t even know him, and his wife Julie witnesses the whole thing with barely a flinch.

J. P. Carney, Harry’s assailant, turns himself in the following day, so you know who did it from early on in the book.

It’s not that Harry didn’t have enemies.  A high level banking wiz during Ireland’s boom years, Harry led a charmed existence, making deals over and under the table.  After the financial crash of 2008, he went through a highly publicized trial for bank fraud and managed to avoid any charges.

So, Harry and Julie are one lucky rich couple – that is, until his assailant puts him into the hospital with a golf club.

Through backstories, the author fleshes out Julie and J. P., and another storyline follows Detective Alice Moody and her investigation.  Moody is interesting, a physically large person who is extremely diligent at her job and quick for verbal banter with her boss.  Her interactions with Sargent Gallagher add some bawdy humor into the book (spoiler – lots of Irish-isms, but it didn’t bother me).

When reading J. P.’s personal background, the author creates him as a sympathetic person who has gotten the raw deal on practically everything.  One almost can see his chief motive behind the attack as that of resentment of Harry and his kind – the high rollers who played with Ireland’s economic boom and then left the country in shambles afterward.  Of course, there’s something much more personal than that.

Julie is…well, interesting.  A country girl originally, she falls for Harry early on and rides her good fortune with ease, but sees the cracks in Harry’s façade long before his would-be fall from grace.  There’s also much that Julie doesn’t say at the beginning that the narrative teases out of her.

To put it bluntly (no pun intended) The Confession is a gripping page turner, definitively for fans of thrillers who have an interest in the recent history of Ireland, particularly the crazy years of the Celtic Tiger and the aftermath.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Half Broken Things by Morag Joss

half broken thingsSixty-something Jean is an afterthought of a person, a house sitter by trade who will soon be forced into retirement after her final job, which involves the caretaking of a stately country house for eight months.

With the owners completely absent and a long list of don’ts for a rule book, Jean is at first stifled by her situation, and then liberated, and when she begins to make some unsanctioned decisions (using off limit rooms, discovering the wine cellar, etc.) life acquires new dimensions for Jean.  Now if only she could share her new contentment,  and chores, as the estate requires more upkeep than she can manage.

Company and help come with Michael, a forty-ish petty thief, and Steph, an abused young pregnant woman.  Through a meeting of sheer accident, Jean invites the couple to live there, and Walden Manor, as the house is known, becomes a thriving refuge for them, after making hard decisions, some of them illegal.

Their haven is temporary, and although the house is isolated to an extent, it’s not long before the outside world comes calling.  But Walden Manor is easily the best thing that has ever happened to any of them, and keeping the proverbial wolves at bay involves taking extreme measures.

Half Broken Things is a slow-burner of a country idyll that goes horribly wrong.  Told alternatively in Jean’s journal entries and third person chapters, the book takes awhile to take off, but it does nicely, and you will quickly get wrapped up in the tension.  Suffice it to say, you’ll be alternatively rooting for Jean, Michael, and Steph,  and reeling in shock.

This book came as a recommendation via a New York Times weekly column called By the Book, in which they interview authors and their literary preferences; Half Broken Things got an affirmative nod from Sophie Hannah.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Deep Winter by Samuel W. Gailey

deep winterIt begins with an innocent visit to a friend’s home.

Danny Bedford is a gentle giant of a man.  Years after suffering brain damage as a child during an accident that took the lives of his parents, Danny manages to make his way to midlife.  He lives in a small room above a laundromat that he cleans for rent and a stipend.

Most people in his small Pennsylvania town avoid and make fun of Danny.  Only Mindy Knolls, a waitress in the local diner and Danny’s friend since childhood, has anything worthwhile to say to him.

When Danny stops by Mindy’s trailer with a present and well wishes for her birthday, he finds her dead, with the perpetrators red-handed.  One of them, the town drunk turned deputy, is quick and mean enough to pin the blame on Danny.  When the sheriff comes calling, the deputy is able to convince him of Danny’s guilt, and Danny, befuddled and injured, is in custody at the doctor’s office.

What appears to be a quick deception changes to a manhunt of epic proportions, when Danny gets away.  A state policeman becomes involved, and Mindy’s twin brothers also join the hunt in their own fashion, with revenge on their mind.

The town of Wyalusing will lose some population before the next blizzard.

Deep Winter is a tense, gritty story of sad souls locked into a small town grind where low wages are a living and booze the main outlet.  The book is also an extended study of bullying, its repercussions into adulthood, and how individuals and a community reject a person for being different.

The weather, which gives the book its name, is a relentless adversary.  The descriptions of the snow, the menace of the woods, and the treacherous conditions of driving all drive up the scariness of the story.  Also, the novel takes place in the early 1980s, so easy access to a cell phone is not the case.

There are several points of view in the novel, and you have to get used to some time shifts and past memories that throw the narrative occasionally, but on the whole, Deep Winter is an engaging rural noir thriller.  I was at turns horrified by the violence and callousness of some characters, and gladdened by the humanity of others.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Blame by Jeff Abbott

BlameJane Norton is a damaged soul who almost died two years ago in a car wreck that killed her close friend and next-door neighbor David.  After awakening from a coma, Jane has no memories from the three years prior to the accident.

She is soon to become an outcast in her neighborhood due to a suicide note in her own handwriting, found at the wreck site, which implicates her intent to kill them both.  David’s mother Perri, who was close to Jane for years, now hates her.

After flunking out of her first semester of college, Jane is now living illegally in a friend’s college dorm room and avoiding her mother when she can.  Most of her few former close friends are distant now, although her friend Kamala made the best attempts to help Jane acculturate socially after the accident.  To put it bluntly, Jane is a mess – until she gets a message through her social media account from an entity named Liv Danger, who threatens her and all involved with the wreck, and gets into a tussle with Perri at David’s gravesite.

From then on, the book becomes an intense page turner, as Jane, trusting nobody, finds she has to take chances – with old relationships, neighbors, her mother, and a graduate student who takes an unusual interest in Jane’s situation, not to mention a persistent down-on-his-luck journalist who wants to continue her story in a series he had begun right after the accident.

It soon seems that Liv Danger has a bone to pick with lots of people, and that Jane and Perri have more in common than mutual loathing.

My lone excursion into Jeff Abbott territory was his earlier book Adrenaline (the first in the Sam Capra series, and a cracking good thriller).  Blame is a standalone novel.  To be honest, the book started out as domestic melodrama for me, but this didn’t last long.  Abbott kicked it in overdrive soon enough, and provided plenty of juicy turns throughout.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

The Devil’s Wedding Ring by Vidar Sundstøl

devil's wedding ringWith news of his former friend Knut’s death, Max Fjellanger returns to his native Norway to attend the funeral, and remains much longer then he’d intended.

Knut Abrahamsen killed himself, or so the police have decided, after they dredge his body from a river, his pockets stuffed with rocks.

Max, who is a private investigator, doesn’t accept the finality of the case, and decides to look further into his friend’s alleged suicide.  He joins up with Tirill Vesterli, a librarian who has a theory of her own about a previous murder in the area – one concerning a college student writing her thesis about an ongoing ritual of the residents of Eidsborg.

The medieval stave church in this village in Telemark is the center of interest.  Parishioners there have revived a yearly ritual in which they immerse the wooden statue of a local saint in a nearby lake to insure good fortune.

As Max and Tirill pick at the meager clues, others in the community begin to show their displeasure and the danger ratchets up, especially as Midsummer Eve, the time of the ritual, approaches.  It would appear that something older and more sinister is afoot than a yearly immersion of a saint’s effigy.

The Devil’s Wedding Ring brings together strands of folklore and paganism into a satisfying industrial-strength thriller that fans of Nordic Noir will probably enjoy.

Although the book is fiction, the Eidsborg Stave Church still exists today – read the Author’s Note at the book’s end to find out more.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

 

Fatal by John Lescroart

fatalThe main character in this fast-paced thriller is a likeable cop named Beth.  Beth’s close friend Kate tells her that she’s become obsessed with a man whom she and her husband met at a dinner.  Although she doesn’t even remember his name, she is determined to have sex with him.  Beth, who’s investigated plenty of crimes involving adultery, urges Kate not to act on her fantasy, since this is the sort of thing that ruins lives.

However, Kate wastes little time in getting the man’s name and contact information and luring him into a sexual escapade with long-lasting negative consequences.

Later, during a murder investigation, the victim’s friends tell Beth that everyone loved the victim – surely, no one had any motive to kill him.  However, Beth discovers that his behavior changed radically near the end of his life.  Now the list of people with possible motives to kill him is almost endless, and the police face a very difficult task.

Another plot involves a terrorist attack that injures two of the book’s characters.

Reviewers praise Lescroart, who wrote eighteen bestsellers previous to this one, for his character-driven fiction.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)