Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

Hot on the heels of Colson Whitehead’s magical realist version on slavery in the antebellum south The Underground Railroad (reviewed here) comes Ben Winter’s alternate history exploring similar issues. Ben Winter’s version of the present is one in which Abe Lincoln was assassinated before the civil war and in the aftermath of that event a compromise was reached in which the Southern states were allowed to maintain slavery. Modern day America still has four slave states (the Hard Four) and has spent the twentieth century as an economic pariah, suffering trade embargoes from Europe but finding alternative markets for its goods in Africa and Asia. The Underground Airlines of the title describes the system in place to help escaped slaves, known in the vernacular as People Under Bond or Peebs, reach the safety of Canada. They are unable to stay even in the free states of the US because of laws which allow Federal Marshalls to recapture and return them. The book opens on Victor, a former slave who managed to escape to the North only to be blackmailed and trained into working for the Marshalls to track down other escaped slaves. But all is not what it seems with…

Surrender New York by Caleb Carr
Crime , Review / 19/08/2016

Caleb Carr is probably best known for his historical crime fiction debut The Alienist. That book, and its sequel, Angel of Darkness, set around turn of the century New York City and, later upstate New York, explored the early days of criminal psychology. They had an old fashioned feel which, given their setting, was entirely appropriate and brought the period and locations to life. Carr’s latest book, Surrender, New York is contemporary, also set in upstate New York and ties back loosely to these earlier works through the investigative legacy of their main character, Dr Kreizler. Dr Trajan “LT” Jones is a criminal psychologist. Run out of New York City after showing up the local investigators, Trajan and his colleague Michael Li have set up in Shiloh, his old family estate outside of the little town of Surrender, in upstate New York. Jones and Li now lecture online to students across the country. They are called in to consult by the local sheriff when a teenage girl is found dead in suspicious circumstances, and soon find themselves, again, falling foul of the State investigators who want to see their case wrapped up quickly. Jones and Li, following in the steps…

Never Never by Patterson and Fox
Crime , Review , Thriller / 10/08/2016

James Patterson best known to adults as the author of the Alex Cross series and to young adults as the author of the Maximum Ride series. But much like Tom Clancy, Patterson has become more than just an author, he is an industry. The back of Never Never lists over eighty novels for which he is co-author. Candice Fox, on the other hand, has written three crime novels in the Archer and Bennett series. But they are three of the best Australian crime novels of recent years, the first two of which took out Ned Kelly Awards for best first novel (Hades – reviewed here) and best novel (Eden – reviewed here) back to back. So what happens when the two get together to write a crime thriller? Well, the answer is the Australian-set Never Never. Never Never opens with a point-of-view character known as the Soldier, killing someone out in the desert at night as part of some sort of sadistic military-style game. Switch to Sydney and Detective Harriet “Harry” Blue is being shunted off to Western Australia to avoid the fallout of her brother being picked up as a suspected serial killer. The next minute Harry is working…

Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi
Crime , Review / 08/08/2016

Michel Bussi has won plenty of crime fiction awards in his native France but his first book to be translated into English only hit the shelves last year. After the Crash (reviewed here) was a twisted, surprised filled eighteen year investigation into the identity of the survivor of an air crash. Following the success of that novel in translation, another of Bussi’s crime thrillers, Black Water Lilies, originally published in 2011, has hit the stands. While it shares some of the twisty-turniness of After the Crash, Black Water Lilies is very different and confirms why Bussi might have won all of those awards. Black Water Lilies does not initially feel like a crime novel, with an opening that is more like a fairy tale or some form of mythology. The prologue introduces three female characters. Much like the various aspects of Fate there is the optimistic young girl, the resigned beautiful woman and the all-seeing wise crone. Each is represented as a different personality and each seem to be in their own way, doomed. The action of the novel is very much tied around the actions of these three characters – the young girl with artistic promise surrounded by equally…

Made to Kill by Adam Christopher
Crime , Review , Science Fiction / 02/08/2016

LA, 1965, a beautiful female movie star walks into a seedy detective’s office and makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Only the detective is a robot. One of the greatest exponents of pulp genre noir detective fiction, Raymond Chandler, reputedly turned his nose up at one of the other popular pulp genres of the time – science fiction. The two trod very different paths – one on the seedy side of reality with hard drinking, smoking, wise talking gumshoes and the other full of chrome flying saucers, ray guns and bug eyed aliens. But even at the time there was a little crossover, Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel and its sequels featured a robot detective, although one constrained from violence by Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. Made to Kill, a perfect mash-up of noir detective fiction and raygun gothic scifi, came out of a question to New Zealand author Adam Christopher about a novel he would like to find. Knowing of Chandler’s dislike of science-fiction, he imagined a science fiction book written by Chandler. But not content with imagining this chimera, he went out and wrote it, first as the short story “Brisk Money” (which can be found here) and…

Vigil by Angela Slatter
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 19/07/2016

Angela Slatter, who has won a number of international awards for her short fiction, goes to Brisbane, or Brisneyland as she prefers to style it, for her first full length novel. Vigil is an urban fantasy which sees the streets of Australia’s third largest city shared between the Normals and the supernatural Weyrd. As is often the case, only a select few Normals are aware of this sharing arrangement. The Weyrd community keeps very much to itself and has put limits on the excesses of its members, which previously included preying on the Normal population. Enter Verity Fassbinder, half-human, half Weyrd able to walk in both worlds, with super-strength from her Weyrd side. Verity works as a freelance investigator, partly in penance for the sins of her Weyrd father Grigor, a kinderfresser, who killed normal children for the highborn Weyrd. Verity is tasked by the Weyrd Council to investigate when children once again start going missing. Soon her troubles mount, with dying sirens (the avian kind), a monster roaming the streets, rampant angels and the search for the missing son of a millionaire. While in genre terms this is strictly fantasy, Vigil plays out strongly along crime fiction lines with…

Black Teeth by Zane Lovitt
Crime , Review / 13/07/2016

In 2010, Zane Lovitt won the Sandra Harvey Award for Crime Fiction Short Story at the Ned Kelly Awards. That story went on to form part of a connected short-story anthology, The Midnight Promise, which won the Ned Kelly for best debut crime novel in 2013. With Black Teeth, a highly original, dark Australian crime novel, Lovitt is once again looking to be a strong contender for the Neds. Black Teeth has an intriguing cold open. Rudy Alamein is trying to purchase life insurance. He is intending to kill someone and does not expect to survive the experience. When he dies he wants the insurance money to go to his only friend. The insurance agent takes this all in and promises to help as he knew Rudy’s father in prison. Only nothing about this conversation is quite what it seems. Cut to narrator Jason Ginaff, a loner who spends his life online and is hired by big firms to do checks on the social media history of potential employees. Jason has anxiety issues and a range of aliases to protect himself from perceived threats. He is also trying to track down his biological father, a retired policeman who was involved…

Sunset City by Melissa Ginsburg
Crime , Review / 28/06/2016

Sunset City opens like a classic noir thriller with a gender twist. A dark, rainy night in Houston, a world weary first person narration, a mysterious stranger at the door, a murder. The narrator is Charlotte Ford and her attractive visitor is Detective Ash, who has come to tell her that her old friend Danielle has been found beaten to death in a hotel. If Sunset City was the noir thriller that the opening seems to suggest then Charlotte would go out to investigate, trawling the mean streets of Houston in a quest to find her friend’s killer. But this is not that book. Charlotte goes into a spin on learning of the death her friend. She had seen her for the first time in two years only a few days before and Charlotte wonders what she could have done to prevent the killing. At the funeral and later the wake, Charlotte falls in with Danielle’s new friends, workers and producers in the internet porn industry. No stranger to drugs and alcohol, and seeking to reconnect with Danielle, Charlotte spirals down into a world of constant highs, casual sex and not a little bit of violence. Somewhere at its heart…

The Dry by Jane Harper
Crime , Recommended , Review / 24/06/2016

The Dry, the debut novel by journalist Jane Harper won the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Award for best unpublished manuscript. But it is a wonder that it had to go this route to get published. The opening of The Dry is a sadly familiar story. In a small town in drought affected country Victoria a struggling farmer, Luke Halpern, kills his wife and ten year old son and then turns the gun on himself. Only his baby daughter survives. Aaron Falk, driven out of town as a teenager and now a federal policeman specialising in fraud, returns for the funeral and is asked by Luke’s parents to look into the deaths. It soon appears that that all is not what it seems. But Aaron, still held under the suspicion by the town for the death of his friend Ellie Deacon twenty years before, does not want to stay. The Dry does what all good crime novels do – it uses Aaron’s investigation of both the current and historical crimes to shine a light on the town, its inhabitants and their often unforgiving environment. In doing so, Harper is able to explore broader social themes and issues affecting rural Australia. There are…

Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts by AK Benedict
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 10/06/2016

Even the name of this novel gives the hint that this is a mash up of two genres. Modern day police procedural meets Victorian-style ghost story on the streets of (where else?) London. Ghost stories and crime novels seem like a natural fit. And Benedict brings them together reasonably effectively in her second novel. Although, as the title suggests, she is not really sure whether this is a crime novel (about detective Jonathan Dark) or a ghost story (about ghostwhisperer Jonathan Dark). Jonathan Dark is a police detective, on the trail of a stalker who killed his last victim and has moved on to a new target. That target is Maria King, blind since birth but recently given her sight back through surgery. Maria is a mudlark, spending time on the banks of the Thames digging for pieces of old London. She still walks the streets of London with a blindfold, unable to bear the thought of using her newly regained vision. At the same time Finnegan Finch has died after taking part in a deadly game while trying to escape the clutches of a shadowy organisation. Finnegan returns to London as a ghost, helped by his old mate and…

The Long Count by JM Gulvin
Crime , Historical , Review / 08/06/2016

JM Gulvin is initially a little coy about the timeframe of The Long Count, the first in a new series centered around Texas Ranger John Quarrie, or John Q to his friends. Hints are dropped through the early text – Vietnam gets a mention and it appears that student rioters are taking up the time of the police – slowly building a picture of the late 1960s.  The secrets that drive this book are also closely held and sparingly doled out, through to the startling revelations left to the very end of the book. When the book opens, John Q, his young son James and his friend Pious are grabbling – freediving for catfish in the submerged wreck of a train. The long count of the title refers to the length of time an experienced grabbler can stay submerged. But their idyll is disturbed by the discovery of bones in the wreckage. This is closely followed by John Q being called out to investigate the killing of a policeman. That killing, followed a separate murder, and spirals out into a wave of other crimes and John Q starts to track the killer across Texas. Soon the trail points to Ishmael, an…

The Plea by Steve Cavanagh
Crime , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 06/06/2016

Eddie Flynn, Steve Cavanagh’s conman turned lawyer, burst onto the legal thriller scene in the stunning 2015 debut The Defence (reviewed here). That book was a Hustle meets Die Hard meets The Practice thrill ride involving the Russian Mafia, an unwinnable court case and, literally, a ticking bomb. Flynn returns in a sequel which is, if anything, more convoluted, more suspenseful and, importantly, just as much fun. The setup for The Plea is anything but simple. Suffice to say it involves, in no particular order: the CIA, the FBI, a crooked money-laundering law firm, blackmail, drug cartels, an internet billionaire, a publicity seeking District Attorney and, if that was not quite enough, another seemingly unwinnable court case involving a classic locked room murder mystery. As with The Defence, the clock is ticking and Flynn has skin in the game, in this case the potential of his wife going to jail if he fails. The Plea opens with a teaser involving guns and bodies and then flashes back to forty eight hours before to chart how Flynn got there. Various chapter headings then remind the reader how close they are getting to that opening shooting. Eddie Flynn is, as previously, the best…

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama
Crime , Literature , Review / 25/05/2016

The first thing to understand about Hideo Yokoyama’s epic police procedural Six Four is that it is not a crime novel in the traditional sense. There are plenty of crimes, including a fourteen year old kidnapping case, a hit and run and some corruption, and the plot centres squarely on the police force. But the crimes themselves are merely the catalyst for the action and little of this action is directly connected to solving these crimes. Most of the procedural action that readers might expect from a traditional crime novel either happens off the page or not at all. And even when the action ramps up, most of the tension comes from internal police department politics and the external pressures of the press. Six Four is the code name for a child kidnapping case from fourteen years before. The ransom was paid, the perpetrator escaped but the child died. Many years later, this famous case is still in the public consciousness and is still being pursued by the local detectives. The shadow of Six Four hangs heavily over all of the action of this novel, still impacting on many of the lives of those who participated in the investigation. The narrative…

Dangerous to Know by Anne Buist
Crime , Review / 06/04/2016

Anne Buist’s Natalie King novel Dangerous to Know could be described as a true psychological thriller. But only because the two main characters are psychiatrists. Most of the plot is taken up with the psycho-personal tousle between bipolar-recovering-depressive forensic psychiatrist King and potentially-homicidal-manipulator academic psychiatrist Frank Moreton. And while it takes a fair while for this joust to develop any heat it does build to a satisfying and twisty resolution. Natalie King, still recovering from the events of Medea’s Curse, has taken herself away from the pressures of Melbourne and her full time practice. Moving to a house in Lorne, on the Victorian coast, she seeks a research position at the local university working for Frank Moreton. Frank is married to a very pregnant Alison, an old adversary of King’s from their university days. And when Alison dies in much the same circumstances as Frank’s first wife Reeva, Natalie feels duty bound to investigate. As with Medea’s Curse, the character of Natalie King is the strongest element of this novel. Fiercely intelligent but struggling to deal with her psychological disorders, trying and failing to downplay the motorcycle riding, rockband singing wild girl as a way of managing her condition. Her…

Ten Days by Gillian Slovo
Crime , Review , Thriller / 01/04/2016

Gillian Slovo’s Ten Days started life as a play that explored the London riots of 2011. The play itself was based on a series of interviews and transcripts. The novel follows the outline of these events but ficitionalises them, which gives Slovo a broader scope than that original piece and some licence with her exploration of character and motivation. But it still centres around a week of intense heat in which the disaffected and disenfranchised went on a rampage in London, in a wave of violence that spread across the country. Ten Days opens ominously. An early morning discussion between single mother Cathy and the man who has spent the night in her tower block apartment is photographed by a passing police helicopter. Slovo litters the narrative with redacted extracts from the inevitable investigation into the events she depicts, giving the personal view of the events and emotionless and stilted counterpoint. The Lovelace Estate, Cathy’s home, is slated for demolition and already the estate is riddled with empty, boarded up flats. A heatwave is driving people onto the streets at all hours and the police, expecting trouble from this part of London, are already in a heightened state of alert,…

The Trap by Melanie Raabe
Crime , Review , Thriller / 30/03/2016

Good thrillers often stand or fall by their initial concept. Think the missing wife and the diary of Gone Girl. Or the woman with amnesia and a journal in Before I Go To Sleep. A simple, possibly plausible, plot driver that is able to twist and flex as the circumstances change. In The Trap, that concept is the reclusive novelist, seeking revenge for the murder of her sister eleven years before.Because she cannot bring herself to leave her house, Linda addresses the issue of drawing out the man she believes responsible for her sister’s murder in the only way she knows how – she writes a book about it. To say too much about the plot of this short, muscular thriller would be to step well into spoiler territory. But the setup has Linda believing that it is a television journalist she saw on the night of her sister’s death and uses the offer of an interview to lure him into a situation in which she can question him. Sections from Linda’s novel pepper the narrative, giving a fictionalised version of the events surrounding her sister’s murder. Raabe uses two layers of unreliable narration to keep everything out of kilter….

The Silent Inheritance by Joy Dettman
Crime , Review / 14/03/2016

Joy Dettman delves into a world of crime in her latest novel. Over a wide cast of characters she manages to fit in a whole spectrum of crime and general meanness into a small space: from a serial killer through to a hit and run, perjury and drug dealing. The Silent Inheritance ranges across a large group of characters so it takes a while to get going. Sarah Carter, deaf since birth, is trying to get a promotion but is passed over for her boss’s mistress, Barbara. Freddy Adam-Jones is a criminal barrister defending the indefensible. And Ross Hunter is tracking down a serial killer dubbed the Freeway Killer by the press. And, because no book involving a serial killer is complete without it, there are the requisite italicised chapters from the Freeway Killer’s point of view. When Barbara’s daughter is taken by the Freeway Killer, Freddy does something unforgivable and Sarah comes into a windfall, their worlds start to shift. But in order to make the plot work, Dettman has to dial the coincidence factor up to eleven. Many of the characters are connected in ways that do not become obvious until late in the piece, others are thrown…

Fever City by Tim Baker
Crime , Historical , Review / 10/03/2016

There is nothing more certain than death, taxes and books about the assassination of JFK. This event had everything – sex, drugs, mafia, movie stars, the FBI, the CIA, communists. And to top it all off, as Tim Baker does not hesitate to point out in Fever City, it was an event that changed the course of America and world history. The shooting of JFK  has always been the motherload for conspiracy theorists but also for crime writers. So if an Australian debut writer is planning to explore this event it has to be a case of go big or go home. In Fever City, Tim Baker, if nothing else, goes big. Fever City is told through a number of narratives over different time periods. In 1960, private detective Nick Alston is brought in to help solve the kidnapping of the son of Max Bannister, one of the richest men in America with fingers in almost every pie. In 1963, contract killer Hastings is one of a number of hit men recruited to assassinate the president by a shadowy cabal of interests. These two characters live in the grey zone always with the potential to be saints or sinners. And…

The Poison Artist by Jonathan Moore
Crime , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 06/03/2016

Many crime novels straddle the line between crime and horror. Serial killers, on the whole, are the stuff of nightmares and crime writers have been falling over themselves for some time to up the gore factor. While horror novels usually rely on some form of supernatural agency and do not necessarily have the neat resolution of the crime genre, the bloody results are often the same. And so it is with The Poison Artist – a crime novel with the feel of a horror novel or a horror novel with crime elements – it is often hard to tell. Although in this case that ambiguity is not a bad thing. Before the reader gets to the crime there is the pain. Dr Caleb Maddox, toxicologist and pain researcher, has been dumped by his girlfriend after a fairly vicious fight which involved flinging of glass. Caleb is drowning his sorrows in the bar of the San Francisco hotel in which he is taking refuge when he catches sight of a beautiful woman. He moves on to a smaller nearby where he encounters the same woman who thoroughly bewitches him to the extent that he begins a city-wide search for her. At…

Fall by Candice Fox
Crime , Recommended / 23/01/2016

  Eden Archer, Australia’s answer to Dexter Morgan, and her damaged partner Frank Bennett are back at work in Fall, investigating a series of murders of women joggers. Underlying this investigation is another one by Frank’s lover (and former psychologist) Imogen, who solves cold cases in her spare time and is closing in on Eden’s true identity. There is plenty else going on in Fall, with Eden’s ex-crimelord father Hades having a cameo and a potential new recurring character added to the mix. In some ways, Fall feels like the novel that Fox might have written as the follow up to her debut Hades. It features another serial killer, and in some respects follows the pattern of other procedurals of its type. But the continuing impact of events in her follow-up, Eden, the investigation into Eden’s past and Fox’s style lift Fall out of the usual serial killer chase genre. With every novel, Fox is more in control of her craft. While her mix of first and third person narration in Hades sometimes felt forced, by this third outing the constant shifts of point of view happen effortlessly and serve to ratchet up the narrative tension. Particularly amusing and effective…