Saturday, 21 December 2013

Ali Karim's Best of 2013

He's the main geezer when it comes to crime fiction writing - and reading - so Pulp Pusher is delighted to welcome back the ever-generous Ali Karim with his festive round-up of top reading tips.  

There's one or two you'll recognise from big hitters like Stephen King and Thomas H. Cook  but a few more that are worth taking note of. 

So, sit back with a mince pie and some cherry brandy - or whatever your particular poison is - and enjoy some tips from the top.

Dead Lions by Mick Herron

A surreal look at the world of British Intelligence with a cynical, yet amusing eye – in which Herron’s novel scooped the CWA Gold Dagger for best novel of 2012. The narrative focuses on the losers at Slough House, a group of misfits or ‘slow horses’ who have been transferred from active MI5 Operations due to internal politics, messing up, incompetence, alcoholism et al. Things take a curious turn when ‘slow horse’ and legendary slob Jackson Lamb decides to delve into a lackluster case – the death of Dickie Bow, [a retired old Cold Warrior] from a heart attack on an Oxford bus. Lamb worked with Dickie in Berlin and starts to suspect something more sinister than a natural death. Told with shifting point-of-views, Lamb and his colleagues find themselves back in action and embroiled in the looking-glass world of KGB under-cover agents, a Russian oligarch, a text message on a mobile phone and the ghost of a fabled Soviet spymaster who may not be real. Dead Lions’ plot is as serpentine as it is amusing, and as far from the glamorous world of Fleming’s Tuxedo wearing spy as one could imagine.

Sandrine’s Case [UK Title ‘Sandrine’] by Thomas H Cook

Husband and wife academics, Samuel and Sandrine Madison work at Georgia's Coburn College, in what appears a successful marriage; one that has resulted in a grown-up daughter and outward happiness. The tranquility and genial married lives of the History and Literature Professors are soon shattered when the beautiful Sandrine is found dead in what appears a suicide by Vodka and Demerol. The local community are shocked at the death, which soon becomes a murder investigation as the police [and later the over-zealous prosecutor] zero in on Samuel Madison as prime suspect. The cloud of the death penalty casts a dark shadow over Sam, and his defense team. The narrative structure is that of a courtroom drama, but in the hands of Cook, it only acts as a microcosm of what actually was behind the death of Sandrine, a woman as enigmatic as the ancient history she taught and brooded upon. The themes that Cook explores impinge on what we truly know about those we love, and in reflection what we truly know about ourselves.

Bear Is Broken by Lachlan Smith 

Bear is Broken is a debut legal thriller, reminiscent of early John Grisham or late Michael Connelly, as it reeks with the cynical authenticity of the games cops and lawyers play. At its core, this debut is basically a compassionate tale of two brothers, with lawyer Leo Maxwell seeking to discover who shot his older sibling, fellow lawyer Teddy – hence the title. It seems that Teddy was preparing to wind-up the case of Ellis Bradley, a man accused of marital rape when over lunch with Leo, he takes a headshot from an unidentified assailant. With Teddy in a coma and fighting for his life, Leo finds himself alone. The San Francisco police are of little help, as Teddy in his role as a successful criminal defense lawyer often came into conflict with the boys in blue as well as fellow lawyers. Leo, only recently qualified from his bar exams finds himself having to piece together the mystery of who wants his older sibling dead. The motif that this tale hangs upon is the question that do we really know people that we call family, and how do we deal with uncomfortable truths?

Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley 

Deadly Harvest [the fourth novel in the Detective David “Kubu” Bengu police series] set in contemporary Botswana opens disturbingly with two unrelated incidents each detailing the kidnap of schoolgirls from two different places; each leaving a vacuum within the families they left behind. The local police struggle to find the perpetrators from a combination of a lack of will, as well as a lack of resource. Months later Detective Kubu while chomping his biscuits and singing along to the Barber of Seville watches the politicians battling the upcoming elections with disdain and cynicism. Kubu is especially troubled by the changing politics and corruption endemic in a country ruled by superstition and violence; and sees linkages to the child abductions, and the political forces fuelled by fear. The divergent plot strands slowly start to weave together, though for the reader, it is hard to see where the joins are, such is the narrative talent of the writers, Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who use the name Michael Stanley. With short and surgically edited chapters, like bush-meat the narrative is devoid of any fat, combining a twisting plot striated with social commentary upon which this dark tale is hung.

Joyland by Stephen King

Joyland is a shining example [pardon the pun] of King’s skill as a novella writer, even if its length is that of a short novel. Set in 1973 North Carolina, we follow a coming of age tale based around college student Devin Jones as he goes to work at an amusement arcade for the summer to help fund his education. In the back-story we learn of Devlin’s clinging emotions to a girlfriend who seems to show the signs of tiring of the young student. There is little sadder than the hopeless desperation of a boy’s first love, when all evidence indicates that the love has all but gone. Coupled to this, is his leaving a father [a widower] who also clings to the love of his live, now long gone, leaving an old man bewildered and confused at the uncaring hand of fate. The narrative details Devin’s summer, in which we are treated to his escapades as he enters adulthood, as well as investigating the ghosts of ‘The Fun House Killer’ as under the sound of the carnival beat, the sawdust underfoot and the aroma of candy floss and hot-dogs - lurk dark and terrible secrets. Accomplished story-telling by a writer who after decades of publication can still produce a work that stops you dead in your tracks and forces you to question what it is to be human.

Rage Against The Dying by Becky Masterman

Masterman introduces Brigid Quinn in her debut, as a former FBI agent who spent her early years undercover, often acting as bait in the tracking of serial killers and psychopaths. Facing sixty, and retired from the FBI, the novel opens with a very unsettling scene, one that makes the reader queasy as an elderly lady confronts a nasty sexual predator. Finding the academic and former Catholic Priest Carlo, late in life; their marriage has made Brigid’s life complete, blotting out the darkness of her past. But the past has a way of creeping back into Quinn’s life, reopening an episode that still haunts her. Quinn finds herself dragged back to the case of the Route 66 killer, the case that closed her career, and left scars in her psyche. The authenticity of the proceedings is of little surprise as Masterman works in the publishing side of forensic medicine and law-enforcement, while the pace of the narrative is frenetic and serpentine. With Brigid Quinn we have a protagonist that could have been who Clarice Starling grew into, if Dr Hannibal Lecter hadn’t lured her to Florence.

The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper

Literature Professor David Ullman decides to accept an unusual extra-curricular assignment from an equally unusual woman. The assignment is an all expenses trip to Venice to examine a historical manuscript. David decides to take his 11 year old daughter Tess with him. It appears David’s marriage is about to reach its conclusion due to his wife seeking solace in an affair with a colleague on the campus. The trip becomes a journey, almost torn from the pages of David Ullman’s passion - Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. On arrival in Venice, he is confronted by a most troubling spectacle. The manuscript he’s meant to interpret is actually an insane man, chained to a chair in a tenement on the outskirts of Venice. In that encounter the literature professor’s atheism is firmly tested, as the insane man utters some words that David’s own dying father spoke to him on his death-bed; words that no one else knows. This encounter with what appears as a demonic presence makes the hairs on the readers forearm stiffen such is the pace and language that Pyper deploys, reminiscent of his previous works ‘Lost Girls’ and ‘The Guardians’; and those memories are equally terrifying. The Demonologist is in reality a dark thriller that uses the conventions of the horror genre to propel the story toward its dark conclusion.

:: Ali Karim writes regularly for Shots and The Rap Sheet.