Review: WEB OF DECEIT by Katherine Howell

TheWebOfDeceiptHowellBy now the excited anticipation with which I approach each of Katherine Howell’s new novels is tinged with a smidgen of dread that her normal high quality won’t be maintained. But within a few pages of starting WEB OF DECEIT I knew my worries were needless as I was reminded that Howell has few equals when it comes to the consistency of her intricate plots that manage never to stray into ridiculous territory while gripping the reader from the outset and not letting go until the final page.

Howell’s sixth novel starts out with paramedics Jane and Alex attending a minor car crash where the victim, Marko Meixner, appears to be uninjured but possibly suffering from a mental illness as he refuses to be removed from his car and talks of being followed. After finally coercing him from his car they take Meixner to the nearest hospital and leave him waiting for a psychiatric consultation. Later that day they are called to assist with a body recovery from underneath a city train and the victim is Meixner. Jane expresses her doubts that it is a case of suicide to Ella Marconi, one of the detectives called out to the scene. Ella and her partner Murray are soon deeply involved in trying to determine if Meixner fell, jumped or was pushed under the train, all the while fighting against their new boss’ penchant for bringing cases in on budget.

The novel is aptly titled in more ways than one as its plot really does form a web of stories which meet and part and meet again in surprising ways. The police must investigate Meixner’s past, in particular a single incident from nearly 20 years ago, as well as his current life to uncover who, if anyone, might have had a motive for killing him. Is there something dodgy happening at his seemingly normal workplace or could he have become the victim of his wife’s stalker? I loved the way that each person they talk to – wife, colleagues, doctor, friends – describes a different version of the same man and it’s up to the detectives to build an accurate picture from everyone’s impressions.   This helps to keep the reader guessing about who the culprit might be, if indeed there even is a culprit, as well as offering genuine insight into the phenomenon that we humans seem to have an infinite capacity to be different people depending on the environment we’re in.

In addition to this side of the book there are threads dealing with the work and personal lives of the paramedics which, not unreasonably, intersect with the work of the police on a regular basis. Alex’s story is particularly heart-wrenching as he is the single dad to a teenage girl who is being particularly troublesome and, when the book opens, he has recently returned to work after a very stressful incident left him psychologically damaged. This incident, as well as several others described throughout the book, shows how demanding and traumatising this work must be which is something Howell, an ex paramedic herself, manages to do with sensitivity that never crosses the line into being maudlin.

To top all this off WEB OF DECEIT has real heart in its depictions of the people affected by trauma and violent crime, be they victims, investigators, paramedics or family members. When Ella and Murray are confronted with the wife of a victim who refuses to accept her husband is dead the dialogue, the awkwardness and the emotions ascribed to all involved are touchingly realistic and an example of what makes the book such a great read, if a sad one on occasion. At different times the key players are dedicated, frustrated, exhausted, frightened or desperate for a brief respite and as readers it is easy to be drawn into their emotional journeys because at least some of the situations in which they find themselves are ones we recognise from our own experiences and the rest are easily, scarily imaginable.

Fans of the series will be pleased that a development in Ella’s somewhat rocky personal life awaits them in this instalment but I have to say this is one series you can start anywhere. Personally I’d recommend you read all six books, starting with FRANTIC, but if you’ve not read any of Katherine Howell’s novels you could easily leap right in to her version of Sydney with WEB OF DECEIT. It’s a fast, clever, sometimes sad, sometimes funny romp of a tale. Highly recommended.

WEB OF DECEIT is released in Australia on 1 February 2013

I’ve reviewed three of Katherine Howell’s earlier novels here at Fair Dinkum Crime: COLD JUSTICE, VIOLENT EXPOSuRE and SILENT FEAR.

awwbadge_2013I’m counting this as my third book for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for this year

Publisher: Pan Macmillan [2013]
ISBN: 9781742610306
Length: 349 pages
Format: Paperback
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Review: COLD GRAVE by Kathryn Fox

  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Published 2012 Pan Macmillan Australia
  • ISBN 978-1-7426-1034-4
  • 337 pages
  • #6 in the Dr Anya Crichton series
  • Source: ARC supplied by publisher

Synopsis (Pan Macmillan Australia)

Forensic physician Dr Anya Crichton needs a break. Cocooned from the world aboard a luxury cruise ship, nothing can interrupt time with her
precious six year old son.

Peace is shattered when the body of a teenage girl is discovered shoved in a cupboard, dripping wet. With no obvious cause of death and
the nearest port days away, Anya volunteers her forensic expertise.

She quickly uncovers a sordid pattern of sexual assaults, unchecked drug use and mysterious disappearances. With crew too afraid to talk, she is drawn into the underbelly of the cruise line, its dangerous secrets and the murky waters of legal accountability.

Shadowed by a head of security with questionable loyalties, Anya can trust no one. Her family’s lives depend on what she does next.

One thing is certain. There is a killer on board.

My Take

What I like in particular about Kathryn Fox’s approach to her Anya Crichton series is her willingness to embed community concerns. In the previous novel in this series DEATH MASK the central themes were violence, sexual abuse, and drug abuse, in high profile sportsmen. There were plenty of media examples for her to draw on.

The inclusion of much-discussed community issues gives Fox the opportunity for extensive research 

In COLD GRAVE there are at least two themes both springing from the increased availability and popularity of luxury cruises as attractive holidays. The Dianne Brimble case (2002) highlighted the way cruises can attract particular groups of people out for a good time and how individuals can easily become the victims of these groups. I felt the case of Lilly Chan drew heavily from that case.

The second issue related to cruise liners is their potential for marine contamination, particularly with the building of ships that are the size of a small city, with the attendant outputs in garbage and sewage. These ships are frequently in close proximity to shorelines – no one wants to just stare at an unchanging sea do they? – and there are sometimes accidental or deliberate discharge of contaminants. Attempts to control this behaviour by legislation often becomes snarled in jurisdictional disputes, particularly as stricter controls make running the cruises more expensive for the companies who own and register the ships.

So in COLD GRAVE Anna and ex-husband Martin become involved in the investigations of the death of 15 year old Lilly Chan and the kneecapping of a crew member. The presence of Martin and their son Ben provides a connecting thread to earlier novels in the series, without being overbearing.

My rating: an Australian author well worth looking for. It is one of my top reads so far this year.

Dr Anya Crichton (Fantastic Fiction)

  1. Malicious Intent (2005)
  2. Without Consent (2007)
  3. Skin and Bone (2008)
  4. Blood Born (2009)
  5. Death Mask (2011)
  6. Cold Grave (2012)

I’ve also reviewed

My mini-review for MALICIOUS INTENT
Dr. Anya Crichton has recently struck out to work on her own as a freelance forensic pathologist. Work is a bit hard to find but she is gaining a reputation as a credible courtroom authority. She is not without friends in the police, the New South Wales State Forensic Institute, and among the criminal barristers. Something about the apparent suicide of Clare Matthews doesn’t sit quite right: the fact that, a nun, she disappeared shortly before she was due to take her vows, that she suicided by jumping off the Gap, that she was 6 weeks pregnant, and that she had strange fibres in her lungs. And now another case with similarities crops up: Fatima Deab overdoses on heroine after being missing for some days and her lungs contain the same fibres. Debut publication by Australian author. It is obvious to the reader that Kathryn Fox has a lot to say, lots of issues that she wants to make us aware of, and sometimes this novel takes on a bit of a didactic tone.
But the plotting is so good, the tension so well built that by the end I could forgive her anything!

Notable Novel: DEATH DELIGHTS by Gabrielle Lord

DeathDelightsLordGabrielleAudioIn 2002 Gabrielle Lord’s novel DEATH DELIGHTS won the Ned Kelly Award for best fiction. Although it was the sixth year the award had been given this was the first occasion a female writer was to receive it, an achievement that has only been repeated once since then with 2012’s PIG BOY by J.C. (Jane) Burke. Lord had been beavering away at the crime and thriller writing caper for at least 22 years by the time she won this award, having released her first standalone novel, FORTRESS, in 1980 and publishing a total of eight books prior to DEATH DELIGHTS.

The novel is a procedural which introduces forensic scientist Jack McCain. Once a cop with the NSW police force Jack studied to become a scientist and now works for the Australian Federal Police based in Canberra. Though when the novel opens he is on leave and is back in Sydney. His old partner asks him to help out with an investigation into the deaths of two men who have been murdered in a particularly grizzly way. Jack (having a vastly different definition of ‘being on leave’ than I do) throws himself into the case.

Jack has more than his fair share of personal troubles as well, several of which come to a head as DEATH DELIGHTS progresses. His teenage daughter Jacinta ran away from home 18 months earlier and Jack and his estranged wife Genevieve are out of leads on where to look for her when police receive and anonymous tip regarding her whereabouts. Jack immediately follows up, learning facts which have disturbing repercussions for his entire family. In addition Jack has never really given up wanting to know what happened to his little sister who also disappeared as a teenager; kidnapped from near their family home when she was 13, some 25 years earlier, and never having been seen alive since then. When it appears there is a connection between his sister’s disappearance and the case of the murdered men whose bodies have been mutilated Jack wonders if he will finally learn what happened to his sister.

DEATH DELIGHTS is complex and suspenseful and while there is some gruesome violence it is not gratuitously dwelt on. Lord weaves together all the elements of Jack’s personal and professional lives with consummate skill and the reader is never left floundering for something interesting to look out for. I particularly like the way this novel combines the traditional investigative type of case, with interviews and surveillance and so on, with the scientific elements. Unlike episodes of CSI or some of the more formulaic novels I’ve read there’s no instant case solving by finding a particularly unlikely fingerprint but the science, always well explained, offers an added dimension to matters at hand.

But the book has other layers too. It is almost like an adult coming of age story for Jack who has so many threads of his personal life to keep track of and so many past mistakes he feels the need to atone for. Lord has explored the notions of family and of how we learn to be good parents, siblings, partners and so on. The idea that this all comes naturally seems to be a given in society but through Jack, who is by no means a deadbeat, we see how hard it can be to take on these roles without a handy instruction manual. What was perhaps most realistic was that even when he knew what the correct behaviour or gesture should be Jack couldn’t always bring himself to give that hug or spend the necessary time with the person who needed him. In other words he was a very realistic human.

DEATH DELIGHTS has something for every crime fiction fan containing procedural, forensic and cold case elements as well as a thoughtful family drama. It can easily hold its own against the more well known imported offerings in these genres, with the added bonus of a thoroughly Australian sensibility. A highly recommended novel that should be seen as a classic of the genre.

For my re-read of this novel in preparation for this post I chose to listen to the unabridged audio version narrated by Aussie actor Francis Greenslade. It’s a terrific edition of the book and Greenslade does a first rate job of the narration, managing to provide a range of natural sounding voices for the large array of characters without once falling into the trap of getting too ‘ocker’. Elsewhere I bemoan the dearth of locally available audio books with affordable pricing and good format options, so here I must direct you to the US Audible store if you are interested

awwbadge_2013I decided that as part of my participation in this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge I would highlight some older novels of the crime genre that are notable for some reason or other, having won an award or contributed to the genre’s development in some way. It’ll be an eclectic mix, largely based on what I can get hold of via my library but if you have any suggestions for books that might make good features please leave a comment.

DEATH DELIGHTS is the second book I’ve read for this year’s challenge

Publisher: Bolinda Audio [this edition 2011, original edition 2001]
Length: 13 hours 25 minutes
Format: mp3
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Review: HINDSIGHT by A.A. Bell

Hindsight (Mira Chambers #2)Mira Chambers has the ability to see the past. While more of a curse than a gift, this robs her of seeing the present day, which in part, resulted in her incapacitation at an asylum. Sprouting off the fantastical doesn’t generally warrant a rationale minded person’s sympathy or attention. However, in DIAMOND EYES, a couple of scientists saw potential as did the military and when Mira was analysed further, her worth was realised and life compromised.

HINDSIGHT picks up right where DIAMOND EYES left off, so reading the preceding book is a must to understand what’s going on in HINDSIGHT. It’s a vasty different novel from DIAMOND EYES in that Mira’s confidence is well on the way to being fully fledged (certainty in the later stages of HINDSIGHT) and the military component is paramount to the plot, characterisation of Mira, Ben, Gabby and Lockman (as the main characters), and accounts for the majority of the action. For Mira – being perceived as a military weapon is a change from being perceived as a crazy woman who needs to be constantly medicated.

I enjoyed the pairing of Mira and Lockman – he’s almost and anti-Ben type. Everything that Ben’s not yet all that Mira wants in a way. It’s their continued relationship which adds further drama to scenes where life and death plays are made on behalf of either character.

To define HINDSIGHT into a single genre is a difficult thing. While there are elements of the fantastical, thriller, crime, and romance the story itself doesn’t really conform to a single label. The varying degrees of fiction that comprise this tale ensure it maintains a freshness throughout despite some over-the-top and perhaps unnecessary dialogue from Mira (a minor gripe). I did find that HINDSIGHT took a little while to get moving – after 100 or so pages I was left scratching my head as to where author A.A. Bell was taking Mira and Ben – before long my question was answered and soon enough all core characters experience violence up close and personal.

Mira is a unique character and she continues to grow on me the more I read of her. In DIAMOND EYES we saw her as a hopelessly misunderstood young women begging for someone to believe her. In HINDSIGHT she’s grown in confidence, responsibility and has an inner strength akin to a Marine (a slight exaggeration but one that’s justified imo – read the book you’ll know what I mean). I look forward to reading more of her story in LEOPARD DREAMING, the next book in the series.


Review: THIRST by L.A. Larkin

awwbadge_2013I had planned to read something else as my first book for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge but when the mercury headed beyond 40ºC locally I felt the need to virtually head somewhere nice and chilly. Set amidst the icy crevasses and snowy blizzards of Antarctica, THIRST fit the bill nicely.

As I discovered when participating in the global reading challenge there is a certain ‘sameness’ to the relatively small number of fictional tales in this setting: they are almost all action-packed thrillers with clearly defined bad guys trying to do something awful while good guys try to stop them (and cling on to their own lives in the process). Broadly THIRST, set in the near future, does conform to the tropes but it is a highly entertaining addition to this tiny sub sub-genre of novels.

ThirstLarkinLA17249_fIn this instance the bad guys are led by wealthy Chinese businessman Robert Zhao Sheng who is hell-bent on extracting Antarctica’s fresh water, ostensibly to save his over-populated country from the very real threat of running dry really to prove to his abusive tyrant of a father that he is not the useless nothing dear old dad believes him to be. Larkin’s done a nice job drawing this character who is entirely unlikeable but for whom I couldn’t help but feel a shred of sympathy as I pondered how much damage has been wrought upon the world because of astonishingly shitty parenting.

Central among the good guys is Luke Searle a half-Australian, half-French glaciologist working at a fictional Australian station. He and a small group of researchers are gearing up for the long Antarctic winter…seven months during which it will be impossible to leave or have new people arrive as ships cannot make it through the ice…when the ice harvesting plans require putting Hope Station, and its inhabitants, out of action. During the attack several of Luke’s colleagues are killed and the rest must go on the run: an activity which has all the danger you might imagine of such inhospitable terrain. Mayhem ensues.

This is Larkin’s second novel and, for me at least, a better read than her first in which I struggled to believe the characters’ behaviour and motivations. Even in thrillers, where the action-packed plots require a willingness to suspend disbelief at the outset, a reader needs to be able believe that the characters would do and say the things they are doing and saying in the context of the world created for them. We also need to be provided with enough details about their personalities to care whether the good guys triumph or not. Happily that was the case with THIRST. I certainly wanted the despicable Mr Zhao Sheng to come to a grizzly end and was mentally cheering on Luke, his station leader Maddie and the Russian tour guide they picked up in their escape. And I have to say the story was a ripper of a yarn, keeping me happily absorbed in its chilly action while the mercury soared.

It’s clear from the content (and an afterword) that Larkin has done a lot of research for this book but it’s incorporated pretty well into the story without sound too lecturish. I particularly liked the way she included some titbits about the history of Antarctic exploration, a subject I have become fascinated with thanks to our state museum’s excellent Australian Polar Collection and associated exhibits. The environmental themes she explores are also backed up  well and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine some version of this future for our poor, mishandled planet. All in all THIRST is a thoroughly enjoyable romp that should give you a little pause for thought about a world in which water is fought over in the way oil is today.

Publisher: Pier 9 [2012]
ISBN: 9781741967890
Length: 501 pages (actually this doesn’t sound right, it was the first book I’ve read via iBooks and unlike other eBook platforms the pagination appears to not be static so it changes with font size and orientation of the screen – the paperback is 332 pages for more of a guide)
Format: eBook (via iBooks)
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Review: PROMISE by Tony Cavanaugh

promiseDarian Richards was once in charge of Victoria’s Homicide Squad. But after promising a mother her kidnapped daughter would return home only to have that prove untrue he resigns. Throws his gun in the sea and moves to Queensland. A year later someone starts killing young girls in the place Darian now calls home. After half a dozen have been taken, tortured and killed Darian decides he’s going to find said killer and stop him.

This is not my kind of crime fiction. It’s a very popular form of the genre. Indeed it’s what I think a lot of people think all crime fiction to be, but it’s not my personal cup of tea. That doesn’t make it bad or mean you shouldn’t read it (unless we happen to share a particular set of dislikes).

The first thing that makes this not my kind of crime fiction is that I found its protagonist an arrogant, insufferable bore. He’s a genius, the smartest male cop to have ever lived (in Dairan’s world all other male cops are dumb) (though all female cops are smart so he gets a point for not mixing misogyny in with his silly generalisations). He is the one who understands victims. He is so committed to them that never took a day off when he worked Homicide. He knows how to deal out justice better than any pesky old justice system. He is, naturally, a martial arts expert. His ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound is implied.

I know these kinds of super-hero characters  (he reminded me of Jack Reacher) are supposed to be a bit of fun but I find them boring. And in some ways not unrealistic enough. I know people who think they’re gods and everyone around them is a loser and I think they’re boring too.

Next up is the subject matter. I have had enough of serial killer novels, especially ones jammed full of the notion there is such a killer lurking in every neighbourhood. As if the relative few that really have existed are not frightening enough. Throw in chapters depicting endless and gruesome sadism and violence from the killer’s point of view, make the killer someone who also thinks he’s a genius then pit the two egos against each other and you’ve just about marked off the entire checklist of things I don’t like in my crime fiction.

That said the book is well-written and, unlike so many books published these days, not at all bloated. Cavanaugh can capture a scene’s essence with just a few words. Like when Darian lies to a group of victims’ family members and realises “They believed me – except for Juanita whose stare told me she knew bullshit a year away…” I love that line. In fact when it focuses on something other than the duelling egos of the killer and his hunter, the novel can be insightful.

It also has a really solid sense of place. There’s an unsettlingly credible picture of the Sunshine Coast as a serial killer’s wet dream (surely no parent who reads this will ever let their teenager daughter go to schoolies) (or…you know…out the front door) and more broadly the setting is Australian to its core, though it might not bring in the tourists. There’s even some dry humour and some potentially interesting minor characters.

I was looking for the kind of escapism offered by PROMISE on a particularly lazy summer day but I still wanted to be engaged by some aspect of the book. If not the story then the characters. Darian bloody Richards and his over-inflated ego matching wits with a barking mad serial killer didn’t do it for me but I’m fairly sure I’ll be in the minority of readers who react this way. PROMISE has the feel of a Lee Child or early James Patterson book and I know those are hugely popular. Most readers will undoubtedly not see Darian as a giant, boring ego and most readers probably haven’t read enough crime fiction to be well and truly fed up with seeing the world from the point of view of a madman. To all of you: enjoy.

As always other opinions are available and here are just two that differ fairly significantly from mine at Aust Crime Fiction and Bite the Book

Publisher: Hachette Australia [2011]
ISBN: 9780733628474
Length: 327 pages
Format: Paperback
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