Category Archives: Reviews

Can Anybody Help Me? – Sinéad Crowley

Can Anybody Help Me?I didn’t manage to read Sinéad Crowley’s debut crime novel Can Anybody Help Me? when it came out, but I’m glad I finally did. It’s a good, old-fashioned page-turner, powered by  the molten core of a strong ”what if’ concept.

The blurb could really do with five minutes shut-eye:

Struggling with a new baby, Yvonne turns to netmammy, an online forum for mothers, for support. Drawn into a world of new friends, she spends increasing amounts of time online and volunteers more and more information about herself.

When one of her new friends goes offline, Yvonne thinks something is wrong, but dismisses her fears. After all, does she really know this woman?

But when the body of a young woman with striking similarities to Yvonne’s missing friend is found, Yvonne realises that they’re all in terrifying danger. Can she persuade Sergeant Claire Boyle, herself about to go on maternity leave, to take her fears seriously?

Crowley’s first Claire Boyle crime novel asks why we blithely release so much information about ourselves online, placing our trust in virtual strangers. The early part of the book follows Yvonne — a young mother with a high-powered media husband — who moves from London to Dublin.

She’s shattered and lonely and isolated in the new city, and begins to rely on the friendly advice and banter of the other users of the forum, and her experience is mirrored by that of the very pregnant and very feisty Guarda Sergeant Claire Boyle, whose initial cynicism about getting help online dissolves over the course of the book. I like the way that — as mothers, or mothers-to-be — the tangled family histories of both these women impact on their anxieties and relationships.

The intermittent excerpts of conversations between all the women on the forum netmammy — littered with annoying and cliquey acronyms — take on a chilling context when it becomes obvious that hiding behind one of the avatars is a cold-blooded murderer.

Can Anybody Help Me? has a very good sense of time and place, which gives it a bit of daylight between other big city procedurals. Crowley, like other Irish crime writers, makes some wry and rueful observations about the scars left on Dublin in the aftermath of the economic crash — Tana French’s Broken Harbour is a particularly interesting read on that score, if that’s something you’re interested in — and away from the sinister stuff, makes some lovely observations about the competitiveness between mums and about the Dublin media-scene. Her day job is as Arts and Media Correspondent with RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster.

It’s a crime novel which manages the tricky balance of being both chilling, warm and empathetic, and often funny. Crowley’s characters are great, her dialogue is very evocative, and she drops in a great turn of phrase whenever she needs one.

The ending feels a touch rushed, and Yvonne’s role in the narrative, so strong at first, becomes decidedly peripheral as Claire barges her way in to take centre stage, but the revelation of the identity of the murderer is genuinely surprising. Crowley’s book is a fine debut novel, and proof positive that high-concept ideas don’t have to be cold, gleaming things.

And guess what — Sinéad Crowley is going to be giving us the intel on her work later in the week. Look out for that that, so.

Arab Jazz – Karim Miské

Arab JazzKarim Miské’s debut novel Arab Jazz won France’s top crime fiction award in 2012, the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. But since then, of course, his delicate portrait of the simmering tensions between faiths in the multicultural 19th arrondissement of Paris has gained a shocking resonance:

Here’s the blurb:

Kosher sushi, kebabs, a second hand bookshop and a bar: the 19th arrondissement in Paris is a cosmopolitan neighbourhood where multicultural citizens live, love and worship alongside one another. This peace is shattered when Ahmed Taroudant’s melancholy daydreams are interrupted by the blood dripping from his upstairs neighbour’s brutally mutilated corpse.

The violent murder of Laura Vignole, and the pork joint placed next to her, set imaginations ablaze across the neighborhood, and Ahmed finds himself the prime suspect. However detectives Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot are not short of leads. What is the connection between a disbanded hip-hop group and the fiery extremist preachers that jostle in the streets for attention? And what is the mysterious new pill that is taking the district by storm?

In this his debut novel, Karim Miské demonstrates a masterful control of setting, as he moves seamlessly between the sensual streets of Paris and the synagogues of New York to reveal the truth behind a horrifying crime.

Miské’s freewheeling novel is both a police procedural and a portrait of disaffection among a broiling community. It’s not just a crime novel – indeed, to my eyes, the crime element is the most dissatisfying element of it. Miské is clearly a crime fiction buff — the title is a riff on James Ellroy’s White Jazz, and his reclusive quasi-protagonist Ahmed lives in an apartment surrounded by piles of crime novels — but as a crime novel it threatens to fracture somewhat.

The author has little interest in withholding information, and the POVs of the two investigating police officers, and Ahmed, are sidelined increasingly by a succession of excellent minor characters who grab their moment in the spotlight.

Arab Jazz works more successfully for me as a slyly amusing literary novel. Miské’s narrative pivots on the murder of Ahmed’s upstairs neighbour but then it gradually pulls its focus — Miské is a documentary film-maker — to become a panorama of the whole community, taking in different faiths and professions and communities.

More and more voices enter the narrative and you get a kind of Dickensian sense of the streets, all these different communities rubbing up against each other. There’s street-level disaffection and anger among a generation of young men that bubbles beneath surface of what is, in many respects, a sensitive and good-natured novel.

The new drug that floods the streets of Paris works as a kind of metaphor for that fracturing and disenfranchisement. And not just among fundamentalist muslims, but also the Jewish community and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The drug, naturally enough called Godzwill, comes from a long way away, but it has a devastating impact. There’s a tremendous sense of a city, and a whole generation, in flux, and that’s not helped by the corruption at the heart of the establishment.

And in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks – the magazine is even mentioned in the story – Arab Jazz positively pulses with layers of meaning.

There’s also those magpie touches that French authors so excel at. Pop culture references litter the text — movies and music, and especially fiction. At the back of the book you’ll find a playlist of songs featured in the story, including that most gallic of artists, Serge Gainsbourg.

As a crime novel Arab Jazz is perhaps too freeform for me — the narrative centre doesn’t hold — although it becomes something of more like a classic roman policier towards the end as the bodycount rises. But Miské’s story is always surprising and empathetic — and he’s undoubtedly a writer of considerable talent.

There’s no doubt that Arab Jazz drills down deep into the uncertain and dangerous zeitgeist of our times.

Many thanks to Maclehose Press for the review copy of Arab Jazz. I’m thrilled to say that Karim Miské will be giving us the intel on the novel and his writing – look out for that next week!









The Vault – Karen Long

The VaultIf it’s serial killer thrills you’re after, then Karen Long’s The Vault heaps the Old Skool Grand Guignol up around your ears.

The blurb isn’t going to bathe in that:

In the unrelenting heat of the Toronto summer, a fire at a land-fill site uncovers the remains of a local prostitute. But the post-mortem reveals disturbing details –the body has been preserved and is not who or what it seems.

DI Eleanor Raven is back on duty six months after barely surviving being kidnapped and tortured by a depraved serial killer. Work is her sanctuary but she’s carrying deep scars – mental as well as physical. Where do you go when the place you feel safest is also the place where you are most at risk?

As Eleanor battles her own demons, it looks as though a killer in the city is making a gruesome human collection. And Eleanor’s fight to save the last victim of the Collector becomes a battle to save herself.

The Vault begins on a massive rubbish dump in the heat of summer and the subsequent smell that lifts off the story, of acrid, acid chemicals and evil, goes downhill from there.

Long’s thriller features one of those skin-crawling antags who seems to bumble around the edge of everybody’s consciousness, but who is actually getting up to some pretty unpleasant things. Embalming people, making them human mannequins so that they can join his ‘family.’ Some of the details about his process will, I’m afraid to say, make a little bit of sick come up in your throat.

Actually, if you’re thinking of turning one of your loved ones into an Auton, then The Vault is a pretty good primer. The author takes us painstakingly through the process, lavishing us with all the gory details.

The killer comes from that school of deranged murderers who has travelled far beyond evil into a kind of twisted place that makes even cockroaches give him the cold-shoulder. Actually, the author delights in gleefully piling up the perversion. I don’t think there’s any kind of sexual deviancy, illegal or otherwise, that doesn’t get an honourable mention along the way.

Her protag, Eleanor Raven, returns from the first novel in the series, The Safe Word. Scarred and solitary, Raven lives in a twilight world and seems to be something of a trouble-magnet, which is very bad for her and very good for us.

She’s as unhappy and troubled as that grim and much-maligned bird who provides her surname. Raven is a complex character, brooding and self-harming, who carries around a heavy guilt that sucks any kind of happiness from her life. She may be a difficult so-and-so — you may not even take to her overmuch — but she’s a hard character to ignore, and hopefully The Vault gives her some kind of resolution to the more extreme demons that drive her. If Raven’s tribulations pile up, there’s also an empathetic cast of cops and law-enforcement personnel to provide banter and a bit of warmth.

It’s interesting that The Vault is set in Toronto, but I would have liked to have got a better sense of time and place – and of Canadians. At the moment the city is Made-for-TV bland, a generic place which is not quite realized as a character in itself.

But there’s a lot to enjoy in this macabre and chilling tale. Long is terrific at piling on The Creep, and you’ll probably want to take a bath after putting the book down. Just make sure nobody’s got there first and *just happened* to fill the tub with 250 litres of seventy per cent acetone.

Thanks to Karen Long for the review copy. Karen’s going to be doing a Guest Post right here in this little corner of the internet, and that’s coming up soon!

Hold The Dark – William Giraldi

Hold The DarkWilliam Giraldi’s brutal and lyrical Hold The Dark is an expedition into darkness at the very edge of civilization.

I wouldn’t pet the blurb, if I were you:

At the start of another pitiless winter, the wolves have come for the children of Keelut. Three children have been taken from this isolated Alaskan village, including the six-year-old boy of Medora and Vernon Slone. Stumbled by grief and seeking consolation, Medora contacts nature writer and wolf expert Russell Core. Sixty years old, ailing in both body and spirit, and estranged from his daughter and wife, Core arrives in Keelut to investigate the killings.

Immersing himself in this settlement at the end of the world, he discovers the horrifying darkness at the heart of Medora Slone and learns of an unholy truth harboured by this village. When Vernon Slone returns from a desert war to discover his son dead and his wife missing, he begins a methodical pursuit across this frozen landscape. Aided by his boyhood companion, the taciturn and deadly Cheeon, and pursued by the stalwart detective Donald Marium, Slone is without mercy, cutting a bloody swath through the wilderness of his homeland.

As Russell Core attempts to rescue Medora from her husband s vengeance, he comes face to face with an unspeakable secret at the furthermost reaches of American soil a secret about the unkillable bonds of family, and the untamed animal in the soul of every human being.

It’s a slim book, but Hold The Dark is muscular and feral — every page squirms with energy, theme and startling images.

It’s a crime novel, deffo. You’ve got a psychopath on the run and shoot-outs and a body count, but there’s a Wicker Man eeriness to it, which takes the reader to some mystic, primeval place. Hold The Dark is about myth and story telling and about the bloody rage and violence that us townies have long suppressed, and which makes us powerless in the face of instinctive natural forces which have absolutely no empathy for us.

Giraldi’s Alaskan landscape is implacable, alien and ruthless — his descriptions of the place, and of the people who live there, are compelling and terrifying — and it will kill you the first chance it gets. The normal rules of civilization have no place there.

You sense that Giraldi isn’t a crime writer by instinct, he’s got too many things going on in his head, but the set-pieces are bone-chilling. At one point, a guy starts firing a Minigun, a Gatling-style weapon which fires so many rounds per second that it has to be bolted to the floor, causing carnage to the attending police and their squad cars.

Hold The Dark is a bleak and fascinating book, which manages to be both stark and theatrical. Its images, of animal masks and savage slaughter, stay in your head a long time after you’ve read it. But like the magnificent and deadly pack of wolves who prowl the wilderness outside of Keelut, the book’s meaning and intentions remain elusive, right up to the climax which flips on its head your sense of what you’ve been reading.

Many thanks to No Exit for the review copy. I’m over the moon to say that William Giraldi gives us the intel on Hold The Dark later in the week. It’s an absolutely fascinating interview — Giraldi loves his words — so don’t miss it!

The Widow’s Confession – Sophia Tobin

The Widow's ConfessionCrime Thriller Fella was very happy to take part in The Widow’s Confession blog tour — that’s still perambulating around the countryside, I believe, if you want to catch up with it; you can find dates and places here — and took the opportunity to read the book in question.

And a very fine change of pace it was too. As you know, here at CTF we’re very contemporary fellows who enjoy the kiss kiss bang bang school of fiction, so this Victorian drama, with its tight corsets and stiff collars, was just the ticket to ease ourselves into the new year.

The blurb loves the view from the cliffs:

Broadstairs, Kent, 1851. Once a sleepy fishing village, now a select sea-bathing resort, this is a place where people come to take the air, and where they come to hide…

Delphine and her cousin Julia have come to the seaside with a secret, one they have been running from for years. The clean air and quiet outlook of Broadstairs appeal to them and they think this is a place they can hide from the darkness for just a little longer. Even so, they find themselves increasingly involved in the intrigues and relationships of other visitors to the town.

But this is a place with its own secrets, and a dark past. And when the body of a young girl is found washed up on the beach, a mysterious message scrawled on the sand beside her, the past returns to haunt Broadstairs and its inhabitants. As the incomers are drawn into the mystery and each others’ lives, they realise they cannot escape what happened here years before…

A compelling story of secrets, lies and lost innocence…

The Widow’s Confession is a love story — and a crime novel, of sorts, set in Charles Dickens’s resort of choice. The Goodwin Sands off the coast, where many a sea-faring soul has come to ruin, is a great metaphor for the treacherous psychological shifting sands that consume the characters.

The Widow’s Confession recounts the story of Delphine Beck, a disgraced American woman who is keeping her head down in the UK, accompanied by her cousin Julia. Delphine and Julia arrive for the summer in Broadstairs, where they reluctantly become part of a party of day-trippers, which includes the troubled priest Theo Hallam, a senior gentleman called Edmund Steele, and Miss Waring and her beautiful niece Alba. There’s also a gifted young painter called Ralph Benedict, with a touch of the rascal about him.

Many members of the party are haunted by tragic secrets and unresolved tensions, particularly Mr. Hallam, who’s got kind of a thing for Delphine, but who also has plenty of issues, and therefore is very unpleasant to her indeed. As if there isn’t enough strain between the incomers, every time someone suggests a nice day out they discover another young girl washed-up on the beach – deaded! There’s a killer roaming Broadstairs, who is leaving odd messages in the sand beside the unfortunate victims.

It’s all exceedingly genteel on the surface, but underneath… not so much. This is one of those novels that positively heaves with violent emotion, but it’s all packed down tightly , tamped beneath a heavy assortment of veils, corsets and widow’s weeds. The heavy baggage of these characters could slow a steam train.

Delphine is a very modern heroine, but she’s doomed by the conventions of the time to live in exile. Poor Mr. Hallam is positively crosseyed with guilt and lust – never an ideal combination – and Mr. Benedict’s embarrassing outbursts of temper invite as much opprobrium among the party as his eye for the ladies. So when the emotional moments do come — Delphine and Theo’s harsh words for each other are loaded with subtext — they hit you with the force of a sledgehammer.

The murder aspect of the narrative sometimes seems like a means to an end but the resolution is very satisfying and it dovetails nicely with the themes of the book. Sophia Tobin’s writing is both hugely atmospheric of the time and place, and archly knowing. The Widow’s Confession proved an enjoyable excursion into a totally alien world –- long lost now — which, behind the walks on the beach and afternoon tea and Sunday services, is molten to the touch.

Many thanks to Simon and Schuster for the review copy of The Widow’s Confession. Remember to scroll down a bit, a bit more, to see Sophia’s Guest Post about the inspiration for her Mr. Benedict.

Black’s Creek – Sam Millar

Black's CreekBlack’s Creek is a sweaty slice of dark Americana, part crime novel, part coming-of-age tale, from Belfast writer Sam Millar.

The blurb will tell you:

When young Joey Maxwell drowns himself in Jackson’s Lake, near the small town of Black’s Creek in upstate New York, everyone knows who is responsible – an outsider who molested Joey in the woods. The police investigation seems to be getting nowhere, and three teenage boys decide to take justice into their own hands.

So basically, Black’s Creek is told from the point-of-view of Tommy, an adolescent boy in a small town in upstate New York. He and his friends Brent and Horseshoe make a blood oath to exact revenge on the man responsible for their friend’s death.

It’s a book with an interesting set-up and, just like Brent’s most-excellent Milf Mom, it’s all provocative tease. The narrative slips and slides and never quite bounds off in the direction you think it’s going to. Sinister elements you think will have huge repercussions fizzle and barking small town characters make odd cameos – honestly, some of these people would make you pack up and rent a room in Arkham.

The main event, which threatens to explode at any moment, like Tommy’s haywire teenage hormones, is saved till late in the proceedings. It maybe pulls its punches a little bit, but it’s followed by a neat little sting in the tale.

Black’s Creek, both the locale and the story, has its fair share of dark places, which lurk, for the most part, off the page. But it’s also got a lot of heart, as Tommy supports his disintegrating father, the local sheriff. Black’s Creek, as much as anything, is about atmosphere and cloying memory. The prose has a delirious cartoon brashness about it, and is packed full of bubblegum nostalgia. Tommy and his friends, surrounded by real horrors, find their place in the world by talking endlessly about comics and superheroes and monsters.

Black’s Creek is gothic noir, a small town fever dream in the vein of Jim Thompson, and in this world of cookie-cutter procedurals, that can never be a bad thing.

Thanks ever-so to Brandon Books for the review copy. Sam Millar is a writer with a fascinating background and I’m glad to say he’ll be giving us the lowdown on Black’s Creek and his writing process very soon, so look out for that.

Quick – Steve Worland

QuickIf the world’s most demented stuntman wrote a book while plummeting from a plane at 30,000 feet without a parachute and sucking on a crack pipe, it would be something like Quick.

The blurb didn’t even bother fitting a brake pedal:

Melbourne, Australia: Round one of the Formula One World Championship. Billy Hotchkiss no longer races a V8 Supercar, but that doesn’t mean he’s lost the need for speed. When the young cop uncovers a diamond heist in progress he leaps into action and almost captures the thieves single-handedly.

Lyon, France: Interpol are convinced the criminals are somehow connected to Formula One. And they think this Australian ex-race driver is just the guy to stop them.

Sent undercover with an unwilling French partner, Billy is thrust into the glamorous world of international motor racing. But as the duo closes in on the thieves they soon expose a far more sinister threat.

With the fate of a city and the lives of one hundred thousand people in the balance, Billy must drive like never before to stop the worst act of terror since 9/11.

Quick is an action-thriller for petrol heads, the kind of people who actually know the names of those back-grid Formula 1 drivers who routinely never reach the end of the first lap. If you have any idea what a V8 Supercar is, this is the book for you.

This is not a book to be savoured for its complex plot and subtle characterization. It’s the action you’re here for, and it doesn’t disappoint. Quick’s extended action-sequences flip the finger to the law of physics and give the narrative tremendous G-Force acceleration.

These sequences, which explode every few pages or so, in case you should be in any slight danger of nodding off, feature every vehicle known to man – cars and trucks of every shape and horsepower, but also bikes, mini-helicopters, planes, even something called a zorb, which is like a giant hamster ball — but for persons! They’re the kind of elaborate WTF chases that would make Vin Diesel wave the Highway Code in submission.

And because Worland – author of thrillers with other equally kinetic titles such as Combustion and Velocity – is also a screenwriter, he knows how to crank up Billy’s dangerous situation to the max, making these set-pieces ever more and more unpredictable and treacherous, so that his situation goes from bad to worse to, er, worser.

On the few pages where things slow down the stuff about the ludicrous international circus of Formula 1–- those of us who think car-racing is as easy as sitting down for a couple of hours may learn a few things –- is fascinating, and Worland drops a few well-known motor-racing names to give the whole thing a bit of flesh.

I may have mentioned that Quick isn’t a subtle book. Billy and his French partner Claude, bromantic brothers-in-arms, indulge in the kind of endless, soul-wearying banter that makes you wish more than once that they’d both go up in a fireball, but it has a breathless exuberance and playfulness about it. Quick is perfectly aware that it’s bonkers-on-a-stick and it revels in its own audacious, logic-defying entertainment.

Thanks to Steve Worland and Michael Joseph for the review copy of Quick.

Way back when this site was young and reckless and didn’t have as many chins as it does now, Mr. Worland was one of the first authors to take part in The Intel, and you can reacquaint yourelf with that right here.

And I’m glad thrilled to say that Steve is going to be doing a high-octane Guest Post for us very soon –- look out for that!

The Zig Zag Girl – Elly Griffiths

The Zig Zag GirlIt’s always a tricky business for a writer to stray from a successful series. Some novelists come a bit of a cropper. But with her new novel The Zig Zag Girl, set in post-war Brighton, Elly Griffiths soars to new heights. It’s a hugely enjoyable and evocative tale about the hunt for a killer who copies magic tricks.

The blurb has nothing up its sleeve:

Brighton, 1950.

When the body of a girl is found, cut into three, Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens is reminded of a magic trick, the Zig Zag Girl.

The inventor of the trick, Max Mephisto, is an old friend of Edgar’s. They served together in the war as part of a shadowy unit called the Magic Men.

Max is still on the circuit, touring seaside towns in the company of ventriloquists, sword-swallowers and dancing girls. Changing times mean that variety is not what it once was, yet Max is reluctant to leave this world to help Edgar investigate. But when the dead girl turns out to be known to him, Max changes his mind.

Another death, another magic trick: Edgar and Max become convinced that the answer to the murders lies in their army days. When Edgar receives a letter warning of another ‘trick’, the Wolf Trap, he knows that they are all in the killer’s sights…

The Zig Zag Girl is a sly Christie-esqe confection, with its macabre, elaborate killings and deadly nightshade and whatnot, but there are also are shades of our old friend Patrick Hamilton’s melancholy Hangover Square in its depiction of down-at-heel Brighton, with its dismal B&B parlours and tea-rooms and its weary cast of small-time theatricals. But where George Harvey Bone’s tragic odyssey to the seaside ends in madness and tragedy, The Zig Zag Girl unfurls with a wry Ealing wit.

The world at the edge of the 50s is changing fast. You get the sense of a Britain falling hard, with a long way to go. Everything feels a little bit gin-soaked and two bob at the seaside, and Edgar and Max, both in their own way, struggle to find their lonely place in the world in the post-war years.

The ailing variety circuit is about to get blown-away by television -– it’s no coincidence, perhaps, that sitcom names such as Steptoe and Hodges turn up along the way –- and Griffiths presents an endearing portrait of that curious lost generation of drifting performers who moved endlessly around the country, from theatre to theatre and town to town, never stopping long enough to put down roots or form proper relationships.

The central conceit –- murders which represent famous magic tricks –- is suitably ghoulish, and made all the more gruesome by Edgar’s dogged, understated investigation. And, if you can see the final reveal coming a mile off, there’s such a lot to enjoy the way.

It’s always been her droll asides that have given her Ruth Galloway novels a bit of a bite, and in this new novel Griffiths lets the comedy off the leash. From the Trimmeresque Tony Mulholland, a bitter mesmerist and failed comedian, to the old soak Diablo and Edgar’s disparaging mother, helping to look after the ‘incurables’ at the local hospice, the supporting cast — the kind of characters who have just turned the corner of history — are a treat.

The Zig Zag Girl –- even the title, ostensibly named after the famous magic trick, is a sleight-of-hand — is apparently intended as a stand-alone, but maybe Griffiths can be encouraged to return to the end of the pier. Edgar and Max and Ruby –- the assistant who yearns to be a magician in her own right — are characters you really want to meet again and if Griffiths can come up with a suitable idea, maybe, just maybe, she could be persuaded to offer us another evocative seaside entertainment.

Many thanks to Quercus for the review copy. The Zig Zag Girl is available right now, priced at £16-99.

And, ooh, look. I’m delighted to say that Elly Griffiths is doing a guest post for Crime Thriller Fella later in the week. She’ll be talking about how she put the building blocks in place for The Zig Zag Girl. Come back for that, why don’t you!

The Defections – Hannah Michell

The DefectionsThe Defections, by Hannah Michell, has a terrifically compelling backdrop, the division of Korea into North and South. It’s a setting that instantly echoes those fantastic Cold War novels of the past — and indeed The Defections has echoes of both Graham Greene and John Le Carre in its depiction of a doomed relationship between diplomatic translator Mia Kim and a British attaché.

The blurb wants to be somewhere else:

Seoul, South Korea. Mia is an outsider. The child of an English mother, she defies the rigid expectations of her Korean stepmother to work as a translator at the British Embassy. Her uncle runs a charitable – and controversial – school for North Korean defectors, and prevails upon Mia’s stepmother to shelter a traumatised young student. Mia is too preoccupied to note the defector’s strange behaviour – or its implications.

She has become infatuated with Thomas, a diplomat with a self-destructive streak. When an outrageous indiscretion endangers his position, it is Mia who saves him from humiliation and rescues his career. And the boundaries between them are crossed.

As a reward for his reformation, Thomas is commissioned to audit security amongst Embassy staff. Learning of Mia’s connections to the defector, he is compelled to dig deeper into the life of the woman who has captivated him. Suddenly, all that Mia has done to get close to Thomas begins to cause her undoing.

First and foremost, The Defections is a character study. Its thriller aspect isn’t, let’s be frank, hugely satisfying, and when it does belatedly kick in –- ultimately, Mia and Thomas’s relationship, and the discovery of a tunnel connecting the two countries, spark international tensions — you don’t get the sense that Michell is hugely interested in it. It’s the characters who power the novel and the relationships.

Michell’s protag, Mia Kim, is an outsider in a nation of misplaced people. Because of the split, whole families have been lost to each other for decades. Mia’s mother — who she barely remembers –- is English and so she’s persecuted by her bitter stepmother Kyung-ha, and still carries the scars of attacks from vicious classmates. It’s Mia’s dreams of becoming English that fuels her relationship with diplomat Thomas. Other narratives involving Kyung-ha and a young defector called Hyun-min weave in and out of the central story.

There’s an interesting lack of context to the drama. The traumatic division between North and South Korea, and subsequent fraught tension between the two nations, is a menacing pulse beneath the prose, and yet we’re never really given details about the fractious and disastrous relationship between these two countries.

Michell — who grew up in Seoul — doesn’t provide any history outside of the experience of her characters, and so the city remains an alien place, the kind of strange society, rain-lashed and neon-soaked, that China Melville would create. Everyone seems dislocated, out of whack with their surroundings. Everyone wants to belong, to go home; everyone has someone missing from their lives. Thomas and his long-suffering wife Felicity move from city to city, becoming steadily more unhappy. Korea, seared down the middle, is as disfigured as the network of scars across Mia’s body.

The prose is careful and delicate and soaked in layers of theme and meaning. Michell lets her characters be themselves, warts and all, and we get to like most of them, even the hot-tempered and abusive Kyung-ha. The exception is perhaps Thomas, a monumentally selfish and self-absorbed diplomat and the latest in a long line of sozzled literary consuls.

There’s little here to interest a diehard thriller reader, perhaps, but The Defections is a haunting and bold debut about a people, and a city, straining to cope with the sins of the past.

Many thanks for Quercus for the review copy.

Twist – Tom Grass

TwistTwist by Tom Grass is a contemporary reimagining of Oliver Twist, by one Charles Dickens, in which a homeless young tagger and street artist falls in with a gang of art thieves to pull off an audacious art heist.

The blurb is reviewing the situation:

Eighteen-year-old Twist, one of the most daring street artists in London, doesn’t have much. No money, no home and no family. When he finds himself on the run from the police, Twist knows he’s about to lose the one thing he has left – his freedom.

That’s when he’s saved by the mysterious Dodge who introduces him to charismatic art ‘collector’ Cornelius Fagin and the beautiful but dangerous Red. Fagin has a big deal coming up involving the theft of a series of priceless paintings and Twist is just the man he needs for the job.

Twist is soon drawn deeper into the group and thinks he finally has the chance to be part of something. But as his feelings for Red grow, he discovers she has a secret – one that binds her to the bullying Bill Sikes and means that, unbeknownst to Fagin and the crew, they are no longer playing for money. They’re playing for their lives.

So a young whippersnapper has got his hands on a venerable old text and has the temerity to have fun with it. Twist is kind of like Dickens crossed with Grand Theft Auto. It’s a fast-moving and sly take on a timeless tale, even if the tone is a bit uneven.

The novel is a heist thriller, a love story, a cool Wallpaper style celebration of hoodie chic – is that magazine even still going? – and a gang melodrama. Author Grass has a background in film and computer games, so there’s a lot of free jumping and scrambling across rooftops and car chases, and suchlike. The set-pieces have plenty of exuberance about them – you can almost hear the drum and bass soundtrack kick in when the gang go to work – but the prose can get a bit tangled when it gets over excited.

Grass doesn’t lay the Dickensian social commentary on thick – there’s an enjoyably recycled tech noir feel to this tales of stolen artworks and Russian gangsters – but he’s clocked that the gap between the haves and the have-nots in London these days would make Dickens hold his head in his hands. So the action moves from condemned tower blocks in Newham and across the rooftops to fleshpots in Mayfair all the way up into the gleaming spire of the Shard. It’s all poverty and wealth, rooftops and pavements, and nothing in between.

There’s a lot to like here. Grass sets himself a tough ask with his double heists of six Hogarth prints – I’m a sucker for a good heist – and the thefts are clever and exciting. There’s a fevered description of a nasty Russian gangster’s lurid nightclub in which squid pump along transparent pipes.

I’m not sure I really cared about any of the characters, but they’re cleverly reimagined. Fagin, or FBoss as he’s known, is a Romanian thief, and his disintegrating relationship with his psychopathic former apprentice Sikes grows ever more fraught as Twist’s love for Red – that’s Nancy to you – develops.

At the end of it, you wonder why Grass doesn’t just go the whole hog and invent his own world and characters and be done with it, but I kind of have that opinion about any reimagining. I guess there’s life in the light-fingered urchin yet.

And, wait, a check on imdb tells us there’s a Twist movie in development. Yeah, drum ‘n’ bass loops, definitely.

Many thanks to Orion for the review copy.