CRIME/THRILLER/LEGAL REVIEWS 2012 #1

BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO THIRST
Author: Anne Holt
Atlantic RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Blessed Are Those Who Thirst (Hanne Wilhelmsen #2)Blessed Are Those Who Thirst is the second instalment in the bestselling Hanne Wilhelmsen. I started reading the series with 1222, at the time the only one of Holt’s books translated into English, but the earlier books are now being translated. If you, like me, started the series with the later books, you’ll see a different side to Hanne in the newly-translated ones.

Still feeling the after-effects of her last case, Hanne is feeling overwhelmed by an increasing workload, as are all her colleagues. Her main priority is to hunt down a serial rapist, but she’s also bothered by a baffling case in which crime scenes are being found covered in blood, with no victim to be found – just an odd series of numbers painted in blood. It soon becomes clear that there are links between the cases … just not very clear ones. It’s a race against time to make the connection because the father of the young girl so brutally raped is also making his own inquiries. Hanne warns him not to take the law into his own hands, but she wonders if it was her, would she do anything differently? It could be a matter of victim-turned-vigilante if Hanne can’t solve the case first.

The story is told through two parallel investigations – Hanne’s and the rape victim’s father, Finn Haverstad. Both give insight into the personal values that shape (or blur) their investigations. You see Hanne’s desire to pursue truth and bring a rapist to account following the law contrast with her more personal thoughts: “What if it was my lover who was raped?” This point is strongly brought home when she pushes her lover, Cecile, to tell her what she’d do if Hanne was raped. The same goes for Finn, as he chases the man who harmed his beloved daughter. Initial anger gives way to logic, but the need to make things right outweighs what the legal system can do. Will he go through with it?

The plot is compelling and moves along at a fast pace; I didn’t notice any major problems with translation. I particularly like the social commentary Holt makes throughout her novel/s, through her characters; this time sexuality is a stronger theme than politics. Hanne is lesbian but will not allow the relationship to become public. Whenever the matter is broached by Cecile, Hanne becomes incredibly anxious and fearful, which ultimately puts pressure on the relationship. She’s a very guarded character, but the reader is allowed to see her vulnerable side; this just increases the sympathy they have for her. There’s a touching scene in which one of Hanne’s colleagues gently lets her know that he knows, and encourages her to be more trusting; it was beautifully done.

A great read, with an interesting ending. I’m not sure if satisfying is the word; the judgment is left to the reader, for Hanne and her colleagues have other cases to solve. I hope the next book is out soon otherwise I’m going to have to start learning Norwegian.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

 


THE BAT
Author: Jo Nesbo
Harvill Secker RRP $32.95
Review: Monique Mulligan

My first question after reading The Bat by Jo Nesbo, was “Why have I not read any Jo Nesbo books before this?” The Bat, the best-selling author’s debut novel, was published in 1997 and won the Glass Key Award for best Nordic crime novel (an accolade shared with Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson). The reason I haven’t read The Bat before now is simple – it’s only just been published in English. It’s no excuse for not reading the others yet, but it means I do have an advantage now – I won’t be reading them out of order (which is what happened with Lee Child’s Reacher novels), so I’ll get the back story.

Norwegian detective Harry Hole (pronounced Hoo-leh), is sent to Sydney (my home town) to look into the murder of Inger Holter, a young Norwegian girl who was working in a bar during her gap year. He’s not supposed to get too involved, and initially the Sydney police keep him at arms’ length, but when the team unearths a string of unsolved murders and rapes, Harry becomes a key player. When a more murders follow, Harry finds his wits pitted against mind of a psychopathic killer. Now, it’s not just a battle to find a killer – it’s a battle to save Harry from himself.

The Bat is an edgy, character-driven novel full of twists that kept me guessing until everything fell into place at the end. Harry is slowly introduced as a likeable but flawed man, tortured by rejections, questionable decisions and a toxic secret or two. He’s raw and vulnerable underneath his Nordic reserve – indeed, when events hit too close to home for Harry, falling off the wagon is inevitable. By the time this happens, however, the reader is invested in the character and wants nothing more but for him to pick himself up and get the bad guy. I’m really interested to see how his character develops in the following books.

An interesting point of difference for this book is the intertwining of Aboriginal lore into the novel, which is adds an interesting metaphorical element. To do this, Nesbo created some strong and interesting characters, such as Andrew, the Aboriginal detective who buddies up with Harry. The Nick Cave song, “Where the Wild Roses Go”, is also well used – like one of the characters, I find the lyrics disturbing, but the dark reference fit the storyline well.

I really enjoyed this book and from what I’ve heard, it’s not as good as Nesbo gets. In any case, the combination of tight, fast-paced plotting, red herrings, a complex and interesting lead character, and atmospheric writing means Nesbo is now on my must-read list.

Available from good bookstores and Random House. This copy was courtesy of Random House.


 A WANTED MAN

Author: Lee Child
Bantam RRP $32.95
Review: Monique Mulligan

A Wanted Man (Jack Reacher, #17)I’ve been a fan of the Jack Reacher books for a couple of years – have read most, if not all of them – so I was looking forward to another Reacher fix. Lee Child has created a strong character, physically and mentally, who appeals to a broad readership, and has a knack of developing compelling storylines propelled by Reacher, with each one tending to be better than its predecessor. That’s where A Wanted Man differs – on the whole, it’s a slower read.

Following on from where Worth Dying For left off, Reacher is in Nebraska, trying to hitch a ride to Virginia to meet a woman he has only talked to on the phone. With a freshly busted nose adding to his huge, hulking appearance, his chances are slim. Most people take one look and keep driving. After 93 minutes a car stops for him. Inside are two men and a woman. In matching shirts, they look like they’re on a business trip, but Reacher knows better. The dynamics are all wrong; something doesn’t fit. All three are lying about something – the question is, what? When they get through a police roadblock, Reacher starts to question their motives for picking him up. Were they just being generous? Or is he a decoy?

Meanwhile, a man has been found stabbed to death in an abandoned pumping station. When the FBI, then the CIA gets involved, the investigation takes a sinister turn. The police and FBI are trying to investigate something the State Department wants shut down and Special Agent Julia Sorenson is not happy. Her investigations lead her to Reacher, who’s been abandoned at a remote motel in Iowa after one of the men shot at him, missed and bailed. By this time Reacher is, for reasons he can’t fathom, a wanted man and he has to convince Sorenson to follow her instincts.

How Reacher thinks is a stronger focus in this book than how he pulls punches, which is a big contrast to earlier novels, and may disappoint some readers who revel in the gung-ho, knock-em-down action. If you’ve seen the recent Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey Jnr, you’ll recall how Sherlock’s moves are “thought” in slow motion before they are enacted for real. It’s similar for Reacher – he doesn’t just react. He thinks. And since he’s stuck in a car with three strangers for half the book, he has plenty of time for thinking. Once again, his capacity for understanding mathematics is highlighted and drawn into the story – there’s a riddle of sorts that keeps you guessing through the story (by the end you’ll know how to talk for a minute without saying the letter ‘a’). While this makes for slower reading, there is a logic to it – Reacher has a busted nose, he’s a bit physically under the weather, and let’s face it, he’s no spring chicken anymore. Maybe the next book will have Reacher fighting fit… but he’s got to slow down sometime, so maybe not.

Overall, it’s a good read – not fantastic, not as good as 61 Hours – but good enough. The storyline had promise, but I found it unconvincing at times and the ending a bit abrupt. I didn’t feel that satisfaction I usually feel after a Reacher fix; it lacks the unputdownable factor. Think of it as a transition book – cut Reacher some slack and see how he comes back next time.

Available from good bookstores and Random House Australia. This copy was courtesy of Random House.


BLIND GODDESS, THE

Author: Anne Holt
Atlantic RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

The Blind GoddessAuthor Anne Holt first came to my attention with the excellent 1222, the latest in a series featuring detective Hanne Wilhelmsen. Since then I’ve added her to my inner must-read list.

The Blind Goddess, released in English in August 2012, is the first instalment of the Hanne Wilhemsen series. In order to fully appreciate this book, I had to ‘let go’ of all I remembered of Hanne in 1222 because her character has undergone some significant changes by then – The Blind Goddess is set several years earlier.

Is there any connection between the drug dealer battered to death in Oslo’s outskirts, a young blood-covered Dutch student walking aimlessly in the city and a murdered shady criminal lawyer called Hans Olsen is murdered? The two deaths don’ t seem related, but Detective Inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen is convinced they are. Soon, she uncovers a link between the bodies: Olsen defended the drug dealer. Throw in a far-reaching conspiracy that takes Hanne into the offices of the most powerful men in Norway and you have the basis for a tense, edgy procedural novel.

The plot is intricate with plenty of detail on Norway’s legal system. Holt is a highly talented writer who has used her own experiences in law and order (as a lawyer, with the Oslo police department and later as Norway’s Minister for Justice) to create realistic, suspensful fiction, with some stand-out descriptive pieces. Holt makes ordinary life seem less ordinary using her carefully chosen words. I did find this novel slow going and a little disjointed at times, especially when compared to her later work – this could be a lost-in-translation effect, though.

I liked Hanne as a character. She’s clever, witty and loyal, but very guarded. Few know that her partner is a female; she keeps her private life close to her chest. Is this out of fear? It’s hard to say, but the book was written in the 1990s so it’s possible that her reserve merely matches the undercurrent of the times. It was good to see a bit of her back story, to get to know the younger Hanne. Once the English translations of the next books come out, I’ll be reading those to get more of a timeline about Hanne – how did she become the person she is in 1222?

While Hanne was the lead detective, other characters such as Karen Borg and Håkon Sand, also featured strongly. I particularly liked Håkon’s strength of character – he is a man of integrity. Karen is confused and confusing at the same time – I did feel a bit frustrated with her at times regarding her treatment of Håkon, who clearly loves her. She contrasts well with the seemingly unflappable Hanne.

I’m looking forward to reading more of this series and Anne Holt’s crime novels … whenever I learn Norwegian or they’re translated into English!

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.


BACKLASH

Author: Lynda La Plante
Simon & Schuster RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

BacklashGetting stuck into a good suspense novel is a great way to spend a weekend in my book and that’s exactly what I’ve been up to the last few days. I’ve long been a fan of Lynda La Plante’s crime thrillers and Backlash delivered just what I wanted – a cracking good read.

A van being driven erratically. A body in the back. An arrest, followed by the confession of not one, but three murders. It all adds up a baffling case that will have east London police working all hours, one that gets more shocking the more they uncover.

Henry Oates has confessed to the murders of Justine Marks, the woman in the van, and two missing people – one, 13-year-old Rebekka Flynn, last seen in broad daylight on a busy London street, the other simply known as “Julia”. Still reeling from having to close Rebekka’s case five years earlier, DSC James Langton wants in on the newly reopened investigation headed up by DCI Anna Travis. Meanwhile, the team investigating Justine’s murder is leaving no stone unturned collecting evidence … the problem is, there are so many stones. And when Oates changes his story it leaves everyone wondering – is he a pathological liar or a serial killer?

La Plante is a terrific crime writer, delivering fast-paced, edgy plots full of red herrings and unexpected plot twists. In that aspect, Backlash is no exception – it’s a taut thriller that kept me hooked as the detectives raced to solve the case. Oates was a revolting character on all fronts; he was narcissistic, psychopathic and lacking in any attributes that would encourage reader empathy. Readers are thus primed to want justice, to keep reading to ensure that he is brought to account. The detectives all have their faults – by turn they are selfish, arrogant and insecure – but readers will overlook this because a) they are out to get the bad guy and b) they are human, not robots going through the motions. Their backstories – Langton’s injury and unease at an unsolved case, Langton and Travis’s prior relationship, and Travis’s buried grief about the loss of her fiance – add tension to the story.

My only gripe is that the side plot involving Oate’s daughter. It seemed unnecessary to move the story on and I think the story could have worked without it. All it did was drag on what was already a gripping story longer than perhaps was necessary. Apart from that, Backlash ticks all the boxes – if you like a good crime thriller, chances are this one will keep you up late at night.

Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.


THE BETRAYAL

Author: Y.A. Erskine
Bantam Australia RRP $32.95
Review: Monique Mulligan

The BetrayalDisturbing, confronting, yet compelling, The Betrayal is another tale of corruption and injustice at the heart of the police system, from the author of The Brotherhood. It’s my first taste of the writing talent of Y.A. Erskine and it won’t be the last.

It’s relatively cool (for Perth) this week and I read this in bed while wearing extremely stylish fingerless gloves (not!), which made it easier than usual to relate to the wintry Tasmanian setting of the novel. The novel opens while Hobart is in the grip of one of the longest, bleakest winters on record; it’s particularly icy at the Hobart Police Station. One of the golden rules in policing – what happens at work stays at work – has just been challenged and staff are not happy.

No one is feeling particularly warm towards Const. Lucy Howard. She’s just made an allegation of sexual assault against a respected colleague and few are on her side. Even the commissioner has an opinion. Before long grudges, prejudices and hidden agendas are driving the support for those involved, as well as the impending court case.

This is a dark book and somewhat unsettling to read. It’s not just the topic of date rape and betrayal (emotional and situational) and the sub-plot of police corruption. It’s the outcome (surprising in its execution and the protagonist’s response), the character development and the police-force scenario, all of which combine to create a discomforting read. It’s a book that leaves you questioning the outcome, the integrity of those who are sworn to protect (why is the “brotherhood” sometimes stronger than what is right?), the reactions of the characters…and it’s a book that could polarise readers who may empathise with one side more than the other due to their own frames of reference. Worked in the police force or military? How flexible do you see the “what happens at work, stays at work” rule?

What I found interesting in this was the character development of Lucy, the protagonist. Her rapist (sorry, alleged rapist) Nick is set up as a relatively unlikeable character almost from the outset. He’s arrogant, he’s manipulative…he thinks he’s “all that”. If possible, his character comes across as less likeable as the book progresses; Nick is shown to be a narcissistic player who only ever saw Lucy as a pawn for his own private competition. As a device, it helps to build sympathy for Lucy, who is a victim of more than rape – the bullying she endures following her complaint is almost a rape of her character. Yet Lucy, who comes across as timid, naive and lacking in confidence, but still open with her feelings, becomes increasingly confident and somewhat distant – like her mother. This leap in development seemed a little too contrived to be quite realistic. I couldn’t quite get my head around her reaction to the outcome of her complaint.

It’s a sad indictment of how the world seems to work that I found the police v police scenario entirely believable. The minor characters were well portrayed; self-absorbed and often nasty, they enhanced an already realistic plot. They also added to the reader sympathy for Lucy – it was clear that her best interests were not at the forefront.

If you want to read a book with a happily ever after ending, this is not it. If you want to read a book that accepts the reality that justice is flexible and life is not always fair, The Betrayal is well worth it. Despite its unsettling nature, I found it hard to put down.

Available from good bookstores and Random House. This copy was courtesy of Random House.