Private Delhi (Private #13), by James Patterson and Ashwin Sanghi

Six stars

In the latest Private novel, James Patterson and Ashwin Sanghi take the action back to India, this time focussing their attention on Delhi. Jack Morgan arrives in country for an international security conference, taking some time to check on Private Delhi and its head, Santosh Wagh. After a number of near-death experiences working for Morgan in Mumbai, Wagh quit his job and returned to drowning his sorrows in a bottle of booze. However, Morgan saw much in this man and convinced him to give things another chance. Soon thereafter, Private Delhi took shape and had been thriving for a time. When a number of bodies turn up in large containers, dissolving in acid, whispers about a new serial killer emerges with the posh community on the southern part of the city. However, upon further inspection, this is not a private residence, but a house owned by the state government, which only adds to the rumours and gossip. Morgan agrees to have Private handle the matter when approached by a high-ranking member of the government, even as Wagh warns that this is solely a political competition between two powerful men. Reluctantly, Wagh leads his team into a case that has many nefarious layers in a country where nothing is clear-cut. The bodies found in those containers are missing organs and new victims soon emerge, political figures with sordid pasts. Once there is a connection between the deaths and organ procurement, Wagh can focus the investigation and limit the number of suspects, or can he? With an investigative reporter out for political blood, the investigation takes new and curious spins, which might cost Wagh everything all over again. A culturally interesting addition to the Private series, Patterson and Sanghi entertain the reader who might not be familiar with the practices in this populated portion of the world.

The advantage of the Private collection is that Patterson is able to tap into cultural and geographic nuances by engaging authors around the world to keep things fresh and spot-on. While some past novels have missed the mark, I quite enjoyed this one that seemed chock-full of cultural aspects and local customs not seen in the novels I tend to read. While I cannot speak confidently about how realistic the narrative tends to be, certain areas about organ procurement and the vast economic diversity within India seems to match information I have previously learned about the region. The array of characters keep the reader on their toes and trying to keep track of the entire cast. Wagh’s struggles do not take centre stage throughout the novel, though there is limited time to see much character growth with the purported protagonist. The plot remains rich and multi-faceted, choosing to hang on the theme of healthcare availability and how there is a significant chasm between what the members of various castes can access. Patterson and Sanghi have done well scripting this story and keeping it short enough that the reader could tackle it in a short period of time, while still leaving them wanting more. Impressive for what it is, this book remains at the top of the Private collection to date. 

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Sanghi for entertaining and teaching me much about India in short order. I am curious to see if you two will come together again for another joint venture before long.

The Hermit, by Thomas Rydahl

Seven stars

Continuing my tour of mysteries the world over through the eyes of authors new to me, I came across Thomas Rydahl. Winner of a few Danish literary awards, I thought it worth a look, if only to compare it to some of the other Scandinavian work I have read over the past few years. Erhard Jørgensen enjoys the quiet life with his two goats. A Danish ex-patriot living on the Canary Islands, Jørgensen contradicts himself by driving his taxi around for tourists and tuning the odd piano when requested by locals. His isolated lifestyle has earned him the moniker The Hermit, though Jørgensen winces whenever he hears it, choosing to defend his lifestyle as one of a tranquil senior citizen. When the local authorities approach him for help on a case, Jørgensen throws himself into the investigation and turns this into his newest obsession. A baby has been found dead in a car, wrapped in the pages of a Danish news magazine, but no one can identify either the child or the vehicle in which he was found. As Jørgensen seeks to learn a little more, the police choose to take the easy way out and bribe a prostitute to take the fall. However, Jørgensen wants justice and and answers, even if he will have to do it alone. Where the investigation takes him, only Jørgensen knows for sure, but when he finds himself in the middle of a travesty, things take a definite turn for the worse. Now a man with secrets of his own to keep, Jørgensen struggles to keep from revealing too much while he continues to search for the truth. As things become clearer, the question remains as to whether Jørgensen will be able to convince anyone to believe him before he becomes the next victim. A superior noir mystery that takes many turns, Rydahl has a winner on his hands. Patient and diligent readers ought to take a look at this finely-crafted piece, if only to weigh-in on the discussion.

The art of reading a novel not in its original language is one that some readers may find difficult, as I have come to learn through numerous conversations and review analyses. I find that a writer cannot necessarily be held accountable for the flow and rhythm of a story when the reader is given something other than the original text, in which language has been put through some sort of sieve. While I love Scandinavian mysteries and find their stories so intriguing, they are not for everyone. This novel’s content differs greatly from the British, Australian, or even North American publications that saturate the market, which has both positive and negative attributes. With a decent translator, a story can hold its foundation effectively, though a poorly penned novel cannot necessarily be resuscitated. I would venture to say that Rydahl’s novel survived its linguistic metamorphisis, as the intricacies of the narrative work well. The great set of characters that emerge as the story flows prove highly entertaining and thoroughly captivating. Of course, Erhard Jørgensen remains the protagonist and his quirks prove both disturbing and very alluring to the attentive reader, especially his fiaxation on his life back in Denmark and the missing finger for which he metaphorically searched throughout. Rydahl develops Jørgensen slowly and pulls pieces of his backstory out throughout the narrative, as if to tease the reader into wanting more, but having to wait awhile before the full picture can be offered. The narrative is one that I would say remains uniquely Scandinavian, as it trudges along, but always gets to the key elements at just the right time. I recently read an Irish author who also enjoyed her ‘pulling molasses in January’ narrative, but Rydahl is perhaps even more methodical in his pacing. Detail is key and Rydahl certainly does that throughout, depicting the smallest thing with the most attention and pulling the reader closer to investigate. One major example is a depiction of a sexual encounter, which, while graphic in nature, is told in such frank terms with linguistic complexities that one could never feel that it is by any means smutty. I found Rydahl offering the reader doses of this detail, though no turning the entire novel into something gazed upon under a microscope, with minutiae filling the page. The symbolism is found throughout the story and the search for justice pushes the story and its protagonist forward from the opening paragraph, though there is also a keen banter in the dialogue, which peppers English, Danish, and forms of Spanish idiosyncrasies throughout. That being said, I am still not sure how I feel about the novel, Erhard Jørgensen, or the entire premise involved. Unique and memorable for sure, I am not ready to place Rydahl alongside some of my other favourite authors from the region. We shall see if time allows my thoughts to ferment a little more and for me to have an epiphany. Still, an interesting read that some who understand the noir mystery might find right up their alley. 

Kudos, Mr. Rydahl for impressing me in some places while also leaving me wondering in others. I will be sure to keep an open mind, though my first impression is surely one of an author deserving of the literary accolades that have been presented.

The Dry (Aaron Falk #1), by Jane Harper

Eight stars

Succumbing to some of the biblio-peer pressure surrounding Jane Harper’s debut novel, I thought I ought to make a little time and see what she had to offer. Australia has been hit with one of its worst droughts ever, turning fertile lands into blobs of brown. In the community of Kiewarra, rain has not fallen in upwards of two years, only adding to tensions. An emergency call is made and authorities arrive at the Hadler farm to find a bloodbath. Luke Hadler appears to have killed his wife and son, before turning the gun on himself. The town chalks this up to extreme duress and a cloud of murder-suicide hangs over the town, which accompanies the scorching sun. When Aaron Falk returns to his hometown to attend the funeral of his childhood best friend, townsfolk whisper. Falk is forced to remember what happened two decades before, when a friend, Ellie Deacon, was found dead in the river and a note addressed to him turned up. His alibi is flimsy and turns out to have been concocted with the help of Luke, though they thought the secret would prove impenetrable. While Falk has made a name for himself in the Federal Police, he remains that teenager whose name was bandied around as having been responsible. Falk faces those awkward memories as he tries to better understand what could have pushed Luke to kill his family, with whom he was apparently very proud when last they chatted. Falk works with some of the local authorities to investigate the deaths, turning up small inconsistencies. Could someone have harboured animosity for twenty years and finally sought revenge for Ellie’s untimely death? Could Falk be next on the list? Working to uncover what might have happened on the Hadler farm, Falk must clear his friend’s name, while standing firm as the past rears its ugly head. A wonderful first novel that allows Harper to show that she is someone to be taken seriously in the genre. Perfect for mystery fans and those looking for a superior story to enthral and entertain.

Harper has made a wonderful first impression on me with this novel, developing a strong police procedural alongside the complexities of small-town Australia. Aaron Falk serves as a wonderful protagonist as he keeps the narrative moving forward with his investigative skills, though the darker past that he has been forced to revisit keeps readers wondering about this man until the final sentence. This hint at a less than pristine Falk allows Harper to introduce a number of other characters whose importance varies, while pushing the narrative forward. Kiewarra proves also to be effective as a setting, as it mixes that proximity to big city life with the quaint farm living that has become destroyed with the current drought. A community that holds grudges while wanting to envelop its citizens away from prying eyes, Harper uses these traits to further enrich her narrative. Harper’s use of flashbacks throughout, rather than straight recounting dialogue, gives the reader a great deal of insight and provides a true ‘revelation’ perspective throughout the story, as if the reader were witnessing some of the events that had been mentioned in passing. The reader learns much from these glimpses into the past and it provides a telling connection to the larger story. Overall, a wonderful piece that should provide momentum for a series, should that be the route Harper wishes to pursue. Curious readers should not take the title to be indicative of the quality or presentation of the novel, but that stocks at booksellers will disappears as swiftly as an Australian brushfire. Get your copy today and you will not be sorry!  

Kudos, Madam Harper for such a great start you your published career. I can see that many others have come to like this work and I cannot wait to get my hands on whatever you have coming.

The Trespasser (Dublin Murder Squad #6), by Tana French

Eight stars

While my February binge-read of Tana French has reached its end, these mysteries remain some of the best novels I have read in a long while. They pull key aspects of police procedurals with a dash of Irish charm and leave the reader with a sense of completion, after a drawn-out story and systematic solution. Picking up a few months after The Secret Place, French turns the focus onto Detective Antoinette Conway, who came from a single-parent home and whose mixed-race background left her feeling out of place. Working the night shift with partner Stephen Moran, Conway joins him as they investigate an apparent domestic disturbance gone wrong. As they arrive to begin their investigation, Conway and Moran learn a little more about Aislinn Murray. Living alone, she appeared to have been expecting someone, with the table set for a nice meal. Conway soon learns that Aislinn had a new boyfriend, Rory Fallon, who had plans to meet her around the time of her murder. Fallon proves less than sinister during his initial interview, though his timeline for the night of the murder is flimsy enough that he could have turned up and committed the crime before following through with date night story. Turning up the pressure, in hopes of having Fallon spill, Conway gets nowhere and his forced to keep her options open.New avenues turn up potential leads, including that Aislinn apparently become fixated on her father, who disappeared from his family twenty years before. After being encouraged to forge onwards, Conway is left to chase down a gang angle. There is the additional angle as to why Aislinn changed her image a few years ago, dolling herself up and becoming more sociable. As she struggles to piece this case together, Conway receives a visit from her own father, who disappeared when she was little. This interaction is nothing short of a disaster and only serves to exacerbate a sense of being unwanted. Sensing parallels in her own life and Aislinn’s past, Conway takes a new approach and revisits all the information that have on hand. It is only then that the case takes an interesting turn and turns up ideas that were previously hidden from her investigation. Filled with wonderful storytelling and an evolving narrative, French remains on the top of her game in this explosive novel, perfect for series fans and curious folk alike.

All six Dublin Murder Squad novels have proven to be a delight to read, with their winding narratives and strong cast of characters. The dedicated reader will see a loose formula to them, but this is not to say that it presents anything close to ‘cookie cutter’ in nature. Pulling the reader in to learn more about Antoinette Conway was the perfect approach for this novel, as she played a minor role previously and might have left some readers wondering about this slightly abrupt detective who allowed Stephen Moran into her case at St. Kilda’s (see The Secret Place). French develops a number of other great characters, whose banter and placement in the story help push the narrative along, sometimes in ways the reader might not expect. Choice of the murder victim as well as the motive are also important to an effective story, which French has kept unique and yet timely as the series gained momentum. French is always keen on adding themes, which helps add new flavour to the story and keeps me entertained as I gather the threads together. The title proves to be the strongest theme for me, showing the various forms of trespassers that emerge. One could easily see that the murderer proved to be the most apparent trespasser that invaded Aislinn Murray’s home, entering and leaving her body strewn on the floor after a struggle. Fathers to both Aislinn and Antoinette could also be seen as trespassers, having left their homes but invaded these women’s minds at various points in the story’s development. Antoinette herself may feel like a trespasser in the Squad, as she is vilified and treated poorly by her fellow detectives, turning against the only woman investigating murders. This trespasser sensation could lead her to depart, which would only fuel the rumours that Conway cannot handle the intensity of murder and the “boys’ club” that it seems to be. The conscientious reader may see others, which are left to germinate for those who want a little more out of the mystery. These well-crafted tales are surely not for everyone, as the story takes time to evolve and the narrative offers slow and paced growth, but that is perhaps one of the greatest features, as the reader is forced to investigate alongside the Murder Squad. While I am caught up on the series, the binge complete, I cannot wait to see where else this series takes fans. 

Kudos, Madam French for leaving me needing more, which only goes to show how effective you are at writing. I hope that many who read this and other reviews will find the time to at least try one of your mysteries and see for themselves that Ireland holds many gems, not all of which require a rainbow.

The Freedom Broker (Thea Paris #1), by K. J. Howe

Eight stars

My curiosity piqued by seeing a promotional poster on Goodreads, I had to give this one a look. K.J. Howe storms onto the scene with her debut novel that pulls together a number of interesting perspectives and keeps the reader on their toes throughout. Athena ‘Thea’ Paris is a world-renowned and respected kidnap and rescue specialist, working for Quantum International Security. Her team has been able to facilitate the release of numerous high-ranking CEOs and members of the business community, though rarely without bloodshed. Heading to Greece for the annual celebration of her father’s name-day, Thea is rocked when she discovers the deck of Aphrodite, Christos Paris’ yacht, covered in blood and the bodies of his staff lay dead in the scorching sun. An oil tycoon and ruthless businessman, Christos is definitely on the radar of many kidnappers seeking a high-price payout for his safe return. All that is left on the yacht his cell, with a cryptic Latin message that has Thea sure that this is no run-of-the-mill kidnapper. While Thea assembles her team and tries to keep the news from making its way into media outlets, someone else is being summoned to help with the investigation. Gabrielle Farrah, former CIA and currently on the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, is on her way at the invitation of Maximilian Heros, part of the Greek police forces and a one-time flame. Farrah has a great deal of experience working with hostages as well, especially during her mission to track down Ares, a kidnapper and weapon’s dealer who has made his mark all over the world. While Thea tries to find clues to her father’s kidnapping, Farrah and Heros foist themselves into the investigation, hoping to help in any way they can, though they are not privy to the inside scoop. Thea must also handle her brother, Nikos, who has been estranged from their father, but who has a kidnap history of his own and wants to get to the bottom of the ordeal. Taken for nine months as a teenager, Nikos remains scarred with the memories of his African captors, though has made a name for himself as a philanthropist and advocate against child soldiers. The further Thea takes the investigation, the more cryptic messages appear, all of which relate to famous quotes but offer little insight into where Christos might be held. Those closest to the oil tycoon seem to be dying off, particularly when they have knowledge of what might have happened, but never in time to share insights with Thea. With an important negotiation for Paris Industries to secure the oil rights in Kanzi, located in sub-Saharan Africa, Thea heads to the region to represent her father and try to track him down. Nikos has his own plan and seeks to secure the best deal to ensure there is a monetary incentive for all the strings he has pulled, but is thrust into memories of his childhood terrors. As Thea inches closer to learning of her father’s whereabouts, someone has slipped her all the relevant documentation tied to her brother’s kidnapping and captivity, which offers a new perspective and might fuel new motives for kidnapping. With Ares potentially behind the kidnapping and Christos Paris still missing, Thea must use all the resources at her disposal to bring her father home with as little bloodshed as possible. A powerful story full of drama, action, and attention to detail that shows how some authors have the knack when they hit the ground running in the industry. Well worth investigating by any reader with a penchant for exciting thrillers.

I mentioned in a recent review that an author’s first impression is key for me. If I like what I find, I will usually try to keep them on my radar, though a poorly crafted novel can leave me pushing away and on to find my next great author. Howe enters the thriller genre with an interesting approach; a kidnap-ransom theme and a female protagonist. Thea Paris is developed well throughout the novel, including some backstory and complex personal struggles, which helps the reader better relate to her as she races around the world to save the rich and somewhat famous. Howe has also been able to complement Thea with an assortment of other characters whose stories will surely continue to play well in the next few novels, should Howe decide to keep writing. The kidnap theme, while not new in many of the novels I have read, is a central focus and will therefore allow readers to see things from this perspective. The plot advances nicely and keeps the reader wondering, with drama and action on two continents, but does take time to develop the narrative. The reader does not feel a sense of literary whiplash as they race around the world, nor is there a feeling that kidnapping is all about jet setting from one posh location to the next. Of particular interest is how the backstory of the Nikos Paris kidnapping serves as a launching pad for the plot as well as flavouring a number of the characters found in the narrative. I would strongly recommend this book and do hope that the ‘Thea Paris #1’ in the title is indicative of another fast-paced novel in the works. I can only hope many others find Howe as interesting as I have.

Kudos, Madam Howe for a great debut novel. The praise on the dust jacket by some of my favourite authors is well-placed and I will surely promote your writing to anyone who will listen. 

The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad #5), by Tana French

Eight stars

Tana French finds new ways to dazzle and impress me with the fifth Dublin Murder Squad novel. Readers familiar with Faithful Place will remember Holly Mackey, daughter of Frank Mackey, and Dublin Police floater Stephen Moran. Seven years later, Moran is now working on Cold Cases and receives an unlikely visit from Holly, who is now sixteen and enrolled at St. Kilda’s, an all-girls boarding school. Holly explains that the school has a wall where students can post anonymous comments about their lives without repercussions, called The Secret Place. Holly has come to Moran with one of the cards she found pinned to the wall, a photo of a young man from the nearby all-boys school who was murdered a year ago. On the back of this card, a message indicating that the card’s creator has information about the murder. Moran takes this and approached the case’s Murder Squad lead, Detective Antoinette Conway, in hopes of joining the investigation. Conway is leery, but agrees after Moran argues his rapport with Holly might be an asset. Trying to make headway, Conway and Moran encounter a clic of girls at the school, all of whom have sentiments about the victim, Chris Harper. This group of teenaged girls would make a murder of crows seem angelic, as they protect one another in one breath and roast the weakest links in the next. Holly is firmly rooted in one of these groups and the investigation shows how Harper used a number of these girls, emotionally and physically, before discarding them and moving onto the next conquest. The reader is given added insight through French’s use of a flashback narrative in numerous chapters, which fills in major gaps that Moran and Conway are not able to acquire. While it appears Harper sought to play the girls for his own benefit, which girl is ultimately responsible for his demise is not clear, nor is the witness who posted to The Secret Place. Perhaps the most challenging Squad case yet presented to readers, French does a brilliant job in drawing out the story and then showing how the murderer came to slay young Chris Harper. Fans of the series and new readers alike will find much to enjoy in his book.

As absorbing as these books have become, I sometimes find myself wondering when the other shoe will drop. Will French run out of ideas and have to replicate a plot or premise? I have yet to find that concern and her continued variety has me feeling constantly refreshed. Somewhat of a thriller and police procedural nut, I have been around the block and French stands leaps and bounds ahead of many other authors in the genre. Her constant rotation of protagonists proved even more effective here, as she broke the pattern of finding a minor character from the previous book and looked two novels earlier. She also chose to incorporate three past characters in the story, which forces series fans to remember the nuances that both Mackeys and Moran brought to the aforementioned third book in the series. The cast of school girls was also a significant feat and that it was done so well (and offered a variety of characters even within the group) speaks to French’s superior writing abilities. As with the past novels, I was able to extract a theme from the text, through the title. The ‘secret’ place has many meanings throughout the story, from the literal place that is used by the girls to air their private sentiments to the as yet unattainable Murder Squad job that Moran seeks. One might also find that these girls are seeking the secret place as a meeting spot to encounter Chris Harper or more metaphorically the ‘place’ in his heart. As the investigation proves intense and Frank Mackey makes an appearance, the reader might wonder if the ‘secret’ place could be thinking someone could be so dark as to travel down a path thought impossible before. However the reader chooses to interpret it, the dynamic between the girls, the police, and the overall mystery is formidable and should give the reader a high-impact mystery with the most unpredictable of characters. If it has not been clear up to this point of the review, or my sentiments in all books of the series, this is a must-read for anyone who has patience and interest in superior thriller novels.

Kudos, Madam French for proving how versatile you are and how the ideas seem never-ending. I am excited to get to the next novel, though it is a little sad that the binge is almost done.

Broken Harbour (Dublin Murder Squad #4), by Tana French

Eight stars

Tana French continues to amaze with her fourth stunning Dublin Murder Squad novel, proving that binge-reading this series was a wonderful February treat. After playing a minor role in Faithful Place, Mike ‘Scorcher’ Kennedy is able to steal the spotlight and prove readers why he is the Squad’s star detective. Assigned to work with rookie Detective Richie Curran, Kennedy picks up a brutal assault/murder over in Brianstown, colloquially known as Broken Harbour. When they arrive, the detectives discover Pat Spain and his two children dead, with wife Jenny stabbed and barely clinging to life. Preliminary sleuthing shows that the Spains were deeply in debt, well on their way to insolvency, which might pose as the strongest motive for Pat to have committed this heinous crime. As he mentors young Curran on the ins and outs of homicide investigation, Kennedy wrestles to keep his history with Broken Harbour from surfacing; a mother who committed suicide over twenty years before. If that were not enough, Kennedy’s sister, Dina, has taken a turn for the worse. Her eccentric ways are not always handled completely with the medication she has been prescribed, leaving Dina to be a danger to herself and those in her immediate vicinity. Kennedy vows not to let Dina know that this case has brought him back to Broken Harbour, concerned that the mere mention of it might re-open the abyss of Dina’s deep-rooted mental health concerns. The high-profile nature of the case is making that more difficult by the hour, forcing Kennedy and Curran to work quickly. After staking out the home, Kennedy and Curran find Conor Brennan literally lurking in the bushes and bring him in for questioning. It is at this point that the case and the novel take significant twists, particularly as computer forensics provide Kennedy and Curran an interesting glimpse into the life of Pat Spain and his daily struggles. How closely tied is Brennan to the Spains’ demise and what truths lurk on the World Wide Web that could blow the case wide open? French toys with the reader throughout this story and paces her narrative in such a way that the suspense grows with every page-turn. Another fascinating glimpse into the world of the Irish police procedural that does not disappoint, no matter where you live.

While it may seem that I am rushing through these novels, I can assure everyone that they have my full attention. The art of novel writing is one that French has discovered and honed over a number of years, proving that she is worth every accolade presented. The use of a fourth different protagonist is not only a brilliant move to keep the story fresh, but it forces the reader to pay close attention and not gloss over some of the background development. With new characters emerging in each novel, French has been forced to craft them carefully and this novel does an exceptional job of linking their stories to the larger narrative. While the story progresses naturally, French uses the perfect amount of Irish brogue to give the reader a sense that they are right in the action, working out of Dublin Castle alongside Kennedy, Curran, and the other members of the Squad. She is also able to inject a theme that permeates the entire story and branches out as needed; in this instance, control in all its forms. While Kennedy might need to control his underling, Curran, he is also forced to offer a sibling protection/control of Dina when she flies off the rails. French also insinuates that there is a strong need for self-control among a number of characters, including Kennedy, Curran, and Pat Spain, though its success is measured in varying degrees throughout the story. One might also see control in the form of online research or technological devices scattered around the Spain household as Pat attempts to create digital omnipotence to battle the issue that arises throughout the narrative. Finally, the ever-present surveillance done by Conor Brennan shows an attempt to control the lives of others without their knowledge. French pushes that the more we seek to control a situation, the less we are able to manage it. In the end, it is an acceptance of a lack of control over minutiae that could save us from ourselves. I only hope that makes some degree of sense, as it rattled around my brain for much of the novel’s slow and steady momentum. I forge onwards to find out what French has in store for readers in the next instalment, though I will take a moment to absorb all that has been offered up and the power of a French novel to move me.

Kudos, Madam French for making this binge-reading adventure one that has helped me discover that I have no control when it comes to superior writing and the authors at the helm. I just may have found some of my best reading of 2017 in your collection of novels.

Faithful Place (Dublin Murder Squad #3), by Tana French

Nine stars

Another stunning novel by Tana French has me rushing to ensure I will be able to continue my binge reading without interruption. After proving his worth as Cassie Maddox’s handler in The Likeness, Francis ‘Frank’ Mackey is given his own novel, where the reader can explore the deep and emotionally-driven aspects of the man’s life. At nineteen, Mackey and his sweetheart, Rosie Daly, planned to leave their dead-end lives in Dublin and cross over to England. When Rosie did not turn up at their rendezvous point, Mackey slumped back home, only to find a ‘Dear John’ letter, which explained that she chose to flee alone. Feeling jilted, Mackey ran off, never to look back on his family or the life he hoped to soon forget. Just over two decades later, Rosie’s suitcase is found around the Mackey home and Frank’s emotions come rushing back after a call from his kid sister. Soon a body is discovered that bears forensic similarities to young Rosie Daly and Mackey tries to weasel his way into the investigation, much to the dismay of Dublin Murder Squad star-detective, Scorcher Kennedy. Not only does Frank have to come to terms with the murder of his first love, but he also must return to face his family and the issues he thought he left in his past. If that were not enough, his closeness to the victim and surrounding area has Kennedy blocking his access at every turn. Remembering not only the lead-up to his planned departure with Rosie but also the struggles he faced growing up in a tenement house, Mackey vows never to let his own daughter bear witness to the depravation that almost crippled him, while he juggles processing his lot who have not matured in the two decades since his absence. With Rosie’s killer potentially somewhere in the tenement project, someone else close to Mackey dies and all eyes shift on him. Could he have killed Rosie and then tried to cover-up when others began to poke around? Told in her brilliant form, French offers the reader a slow and methodical examination of a central theme while developing the story narrative throughout. A must-read for those who have tired from all the cookie-cutter “kill/search/find” police procedurals on the market today.

I am as gobsmacked as the next person that French has me speechless (save for this review) three books into the series. There is nothing commonplace about these books or the characters found herein. While I expected a series of cases with the same central murder squad, these books have taken twists and turns I could not have expected, pulling me well beyond simple admiration. This novel seeks to push away from the formal murder investigation as Frank Mackey takes the reins and does his own investigating, introducing readers to a handful (or a score, even) of local and less-refined Dubliners who have always lived in the shadows of tenement houses and blue-collar lives. French does not shy away from their boozing, beating, and belligerent nature, while shaping a story that uses this to her advantage. The narrative is slow as January molasses, but in so being, allows the reader to gaze at all that surrounds them and develop deeper bonds and curiosities. As with each novel, French offers a soap box for a central theme; this one being the role of family. Frank Mackey is forced to return to the childhood home and face the dysfunction that he sought to flee with two ferry tickets over to England. He must admit from where he has come while trying to shield his young daughter from mixing with his own blood. French effectively shows the less than desirable side of the Mackeys and the Dalys, but also the great socio-economic disparities in Dublin, without making a mockery of the entire thing. Class and standing play a central role in one’s upbringing, but forgetting one’s roots will never erase the past that has shaped the present. A stunning novel that has left me aching to get back over t0 Ireland sooner than later. I only hope the next story is as captivating, as I have discovered a pattern in French’s choice in protagonists.

Kudos, Madam French for yet another wonderful novel. I do hope my friends and family will find your work as riveting as I have, as I speak about it on a daily basis.

The Lion and the Leopard (The Lion and the Leopard Trilogy #3), by Brian Duncan

Eight stars

In his final instalment of the African trilogy, Brian Duncan gathers the plots from his previous two novels for an exciting finale. During the early part of 1914, there are whispers of an imminent war on the horizon, even on the southernmost part of the African continent. Alan Spaight and his daughters are headed back to their farmland around South Africa, hoping to settle on their land and avoid the conflict. Spaight’s cousin, Martin Russell, is also preparing to use his experience from the Boer War to help craft a strong set of military manoeuvres that could be useful should conflict erupt in the colonial lands across Africa. The winds of war have led the world to turn their eyes on Europe, where the Germans are flexing their muscle, but there are important holdings a continent away that could prove just as important for land acquisition. When war formally begins, the African colonies begin to draw their own battle lines, with German East Africa playing the role of central aggressor against their continental neighbours under the control of Britain, Belgium, and Portugal. While the Spaights and Russells are called into action, others in the area join the Allied forces to repel the Germans. As Duncan elucidates, it becomes a battle where the two European groupings are not the only aggressors, particularly with the addition of thick jungles and numerous bodies of water. Malaria-infected mosquitos attack anyone with a blood source and cripple forces in vast quantities. Additionally, the African locals have had their fill of suppression, turning to shed their oppressive yokes by entering their own midnight battles, predominantly against the British landowners. With strong war themes throughout, Duncan pulls the reader into the middle of the untold story of the African Theatre of the Great War. A powerful novel that educates and entertains in equal measure.

Duncan tells a wonderful story with true African flavour, pulled from his own experiences over many decades. Readers who are familiar with the previous two books will understand the richness of the narrative and feel right at home as the story moves from jungle battles to war room strategy sessions. With a number of strong central characters, Duncan is able to weave a masterful tale of the horrors of war alongside the wonders of the African subcontinent and its vast array of wildlife. War-based plots fill most of the narrative, from plotting, fighting, and casualties, but there is also a strong sense of character interconnectedness and development with emotional growth and even romantic encounters. Peppering both English and local African dialects throughout brings another realistic aspect to the story, which is full of symbolism as Duncan develops another avenue of the novel’s rich flavour. Readers who are familiar with another African author’s ‘Courtney’ and ‘Ballantyne’ series will find much enjoyment in this novel (as well as the other two in this trilogy). Those who have a piqued curiosity with the region and its history may also enjoy these well-researched books. 

Kudos, Mr. Duncan for developing this wonderful collection of historical novels. I am pleased to have been pointed in the direction of your novels and would recommend them to any reader with a keen interest in Africa.

The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad #2), by Tana French

Nine stars

After being stunned by Tana French’s opening novel, I was equally impressed with the second instalment of the Dublin Murder Squad. After being severely emotionally scarred during Operation Vestal, in which a young girl was murdered, Cassie Maddox left the Squad for the more structured world of Domestic Violence. After receiving a frantic call from Squad Detective (and current boyfriend) Sam O’Neill, she agrees to meet him at the scene of his latest case; perhaps her first mistake. Cassie arrives to discover a murder victim who bears a striking resemblance to her, with identification listing the victim as Lexie Madison. This startles Maddox and takes her back to days working Undercover, where Maddox used the same name. With no leads, O’Neill hatches a plan alongside Frank Mackey, Maddox’s handler from those days working Undercover, wanting to place Maddox back into the life of Lexie Maddox. Their long-shot hope, to lure the killer back out of the shadows, while also allowing Maddox to gather intel from the four roommates with whom Madison shared a house. Maddox re-establishes herself as an undercover plant, testing her skills as attempts to fit into a life she never knew. To smooth over obvious gaps in what Maddox is able to ascertain about this new Lexie Madison, she heads into the house armed solely with a sketchy backstory of amnesia and the recent stabbing. As Mackey and O’Neill push her, a few motives for the attack come to the surface, though Maddox is unable to substantiate any of them. Could the killer be in plain sight, fraternizing with Maddox on a daily basis, or does an ancient grudge held by the townspeople help to fuel a hatred strong enough to kill? Maddox has a limited time to find the truth before being discovered and the killer slips away. Told with as much deliberate pacing as the previous novel, French shows that she was not a one-hit wonder. Perfect for those who seek a less than conventional murder mystery and police procedural. 

I am still in awe that it took me so long to discover Tana French and her brilliant series. After pulling Adam ‘Rob’ Ryan into the spotlight throughout the opening novel, French turns to his (former) partner and best friend, using both her backstory and previous work in Undercover to develop this equally gripping story. Peppering the narrative with mentions of Ryan, French keeps him at arm’s length and away from making even the briefest of appearances. While some readers might have found the idea of a ‘lookalike’ entirely dubious for this or any other novel, French has a reason for pushing this idea, discussed below. French uses this ‘swap out’ to develop the struggles that Cassie Maddox had playing this faux character, as any undercover plant would while trying to hone in on what happened to the victim. The characters presented throughout the novel help to bring life and action to the plot, while also showing the strains of undercover work during the building of a watertight case against a handful of suspects. The latter portion of the explores the idea of imposters, which might explain the aforementioned use of the lookalike situation. French examines both the imposters angle that individuals use to fool others (a la Jekyll and Hyde), where a person takes on a false persona for their own benefit. Alternatively, there is the imposter that one plays against themselves, trying to pretend that they fit into another socio-economic bracket or general caste. Both are damaging and yet useful in one’s daily life. I would venture to say there is not a single reader who can completely divorce themselves from these situations in their own lives. French explores this theme extensively throughout the narrative, arguing that they appear on a regular basis, even if we cannot decipher them independently. Perhaps her greatest quality of French’s writing is her style of slow narrative momentum to stretch the story out while keeping the reader’s attention throughout. A stunning novel that is sure to garner scores of new fans for Tana French and provide much fodder for discussion. 

Kudos, Madam French for keeping me hooked as I delve deeper into the Dublin Murder Squad. I cannot wait to find out what you have in store with your third novel.