Our crime connoisseur Simon McDonald reveals his favourite crime novels and thrillers of the month.
The Force by Don Winslow
Don Winslow, the acclaimed, award-winning, bestselling author of The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, turns his sights away from the War on Drugs to deliver a truly epic, Godfather-esque cop novel, The Force.
It opens with NYPD Detective Sergeant Denny Malone in federal lockup, reflecting on the decisions that landed him behind bars. Formerly a hero cop and the self-proclaimed King of Manhattan North, Malone was in charge of an elite NYPD unit commissioned to battle drugs, guns and gangs, until something -- well, everything -- went wrong, and his whole world came crashing down. Seems 18 years of bending the rules has finally taken its toll. Not that Malone's remorseful. In his mind, he's done what he's had to, in order to keep the streets safe and line the pockets of his comrades, who deserve maximum compensation for the risks they take. Malone doesn't consider himself corrupt or dirty: when you're working under the hammer of a broken justice system, you make your own rules. Against the backdrop of community outrage from high-profile police shootings of young black men nationwide, Winslow unveils Malone's unravelling.
The Force is a propulsive crime novel, offering plenty of social commentary, and a dose of Winslow's trademark dynamism and flair. Anyone needing proof Winslow is one of the finest crime writers working today, here's your proof.
Defectors by Joseph Kanon
Joseph Kanon’s Defectors moves deliberately but colourfully, with intelligent prose and a strong Cold War period feel. With his recent literary gems (Leaving Berlin, Istanbul Passage), the heir apparent to John Le Carré is doing a wonderful job re-sparking interest in classic spy fiction. Nobody is doing it better. Frankly, nobody can do it better.
In 1949, CIA agent Frank Weeks was exposed as a Communist spy and defected to the Soviet Union. Twelve years later, in 1961 when the Defectors opens, his brother, Simon, a New York-based book publisher, gets drawn into a dangerous scheme when Frank dangles the proposition of a tell-all memoir. Simon travels to Moscow, anxious about reuniting with his brother, whose treachery resulted in his dismissal from his work as an analyst (a position he had held with the OSS during World War II), not to mention discomfort over the his secret affair with Frank’s wife, Jo.
But more than that, Simon’s concern is based on uncertainty over Frank’s intentions. The man has made self-preservation an art form, and there is no way his KGB masters will agree to an unadulterated exposé — so what is the true purpose behind Simon’s visit? And will Simon agree to whatever scheme Frank has set in motion? Whatever he decides, there will be a cost.
Like Alan Furst’sThe Foreign Correspondent and Le Carré’s The English Spy, Kanon’s latest perfectly encapsulates the potency of a spy thriller devoid of explosions and shootouts. This is a thriller that eschews video game shoot-’em-up style action, and instead relies on the the complexities of its characters and their confused loyalties to maximise suspense.
Defectors is a virtuoso display by an author at his peak. It’s a masterful thriller, pure and simple.
The Marsh King's Daughter by Karen Dionne
When the notorious child abductor known as the Marsh King escapes from a maximum security prison, his daughter, Helena, tracks her father through the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan while reflecting upon her childhood as his prisoner. Pitched as a breathless race-against time to stop the Marsh King from reaching her family,
The Marsh King’s Daughter is less of a pulse-pounding thriller and more of a coming-of-age character study, with the bulk of the story comprised of flashbacks to Helena’s youth.
Born and raised in a swamp, Helena had no idea that she and her mother were captives until they were rescued. Trained to trap, hunt and kill, Helena and her mother’s rescue plucked her from anomalous existence to another: a foreign world of electronic gadgets, the internet, and a population grossly enamoured in the goings-on of celebrities. She isn’t comfortable in this world; misses the solitude of the wilderness. Meeting her husband, Stephen, eased the transition; so too the birth of her daughters, which focuses Helena, gives her a purpose, makes her something other than merely a survivor. She’s never told Stephen about her past; lied from the beginning, wanting to separate herself from the past. So when when notorious kidnapper, rapist, and murderer Jacob Holbrook escapes police custody thirteen years after she helped put him away, not only does Helena worry for the safety of her children, the sanctity of her marriage is also under threat.
Conceptually, there’s a lot to love aboutThe Marsh King’s Daughter. Who better to track the Marsh King than his daughter, who learned everything from him? And,as the narrative flits between the past and present, the pages almost turn themselves, Karen Dionne superbly ratcheting the tension. This is a fine character-driven psychological thriller for readers who’ve grown tired of such novels set in the suburbs, and looking for a fresh landscape to explore.
Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
Dennis Lehane is the author of one of my favourite novels of all time —Shutter Island — and as a long-time admirer of his Patrick Kenzie / Angie Gennaro crime series, as well as the stellar Coughlin trilogy, I was very much looking forward to his new standalone book. And Since We Fell, ultimately, doesn’t disappoint, despite its slightly meandrous beginning (first sentence aside which is a ripper!), when it feels like Lehane is taking the scenic route to the novel’s core. But when the moment arrives (which will remain unspoiled in this review, obviously), everything clicks into place, and the novel kicks into Lehane’s trademark high gear.
Since We Fell follows Rachel Childs, a former television journalist, who lives as a virtual shut-in after a mental breakdown she experienced on-air as a result of coverage of the massive earthquake that shattered Haiti in 2010. Despite her struggles, life’s not altogether so bad for Rachel: she lives a wonderful life with her husband, who demonstrates incredible composure and understanding of her situation. Then, as a result of a chance encounter one afternoon, everything changes, and Rachel realises she’s been involved in a massive conspiracy; a deception unlike anything she could’ve possibly anticipated. To face the truth, and to survive it, she must overcome her greatest fears.
Lehane’s latest is a satisfying physiological thriller that becomes utterly relentless once it gains traction. The background into Rachel’s past seems excessive at times, even though it’s ultimately necessary information for readers to fully understand her motivations. But once you get through it, when you reach the moment, the plot comes together in exhilarating fashion. The tension is ratcheted up to the nth degree, and readers will be turning the pages as fast as they possibly can to see how the story plays out.
Dennis Lehane’s novels are at the top of the genre’s food chain.
Since We Fell is blessed with a compelling narrative and top-notch writing. It will satisfy Lehane’s legion of fans and convert new ones. At a time when our bookstore shelves are packed with titles trying desperately to be the next Gone Girl andThe Girl on the Train, Since We Fell will satisfy fans of both, but remains its own distinct beast.
Camino Island by John Grisham
John Grisham forgoes his trademark courtroom drama for a multi-layered caper story.
Camino Island opens with a daring heist. The prize? The five manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s only novels, valued at $25 million, under lock-and-key in a high-security vault located deep beneath Princeton University. But there’s no such thing as the perfect crime, and this gang of five made mistakes, which result in a couple of arrests. Despite pressure from the FBI’s Rare Asset Recovery unit, the remaining thieves vanish without a trace, and for a time, their investigation stalls, until a man on their watch list – an infamous bookseller on Camino Island named Bruce Kable – comes to their attention. More specifically, his collection of rare manuscripts. Determined to employ a mole to get close to Kable and assess his possible criminality, Mercer Mann, a struggling writer burdened by debts – and coincidentally, a former frequent-traveller to Camino Island – is somewhat reluctantly pulled into the fold.
Camino Island is a fun cat-and-mouse thriller. The manner in which Grisham ties his various plot threads is impressive, and showcases his skillful plotting. More than anything, it's a love letter to booksellers and readers, the author revealing some insider secrets that folks not "in the know" will be tickled by.