Killing State by Judith O’Reilly: I Can’t Suitably Encapsulate this Gripping Thriller

Killing StateKilling State

by Judith O’Reilly
Series: Michael North, #1

Kindle Edition, 496 pg.
Head of Zeus, 2019

Read: March 5 – 7, 2019

           “You should come with me.”

He turned over the offer in his mind.

Why would he?

Because she was stop-your-heart beautiful.

Then again, the world teemed with beautiful women. Because he wanted to know how it ended.

Badly, he predicted.

What happens when an assassin doesn’t get the expected reaction from his target? Honor Jones, MP, tells him to let her finish her cigarette and asks him a question, “Where’s Peggy?” The assassin in question, Michael North, doesn’t know who Peggy is, much less where she is. What he does know is that he can’t kill this woman — maybe it’s because (unlike the rest of his targets) he wasn’t given a reason for her execution, maybe it’s her attitude, maybe he’s just getting tired of killing (not to be confused with Martin Q. Blank’s newfound respect for life) — certainly her beauty doesn’t hurt.

His refusal to kill her doesn’t go down well with his employer — an extra-governmental body dedicated to the preservation of the British government. That morning, he’s contacted in person with strict instructions to get the job done or face the (fatal) consequences. Instead, North tried to get her out of the country and ends up saving her from a different assassin. Not very shockingly, North also finds instructions to kill him on this assassin’s corpse. By this point, North is smitten with Honor and is committed (whether either of them consciously realize it) to helping her survive and find her friend Peggy.

At the moment, it’s clear that Honor’s search for her dear friend is tied to the kill order. Peggy’s an astronomer, largely apolitical, and not tied to any endeavor that would normally put her on the radar of anyone outside of astronomical/academic circles. Nevertheless, she’s somehow set these dominoes falling, and now Honor and North are running from killers across the country as they seek to learn why Peggy has disappeared.

This hunt for Peggy will push North and Honor to — and past — their limits. It will see them both injured. Both under threat of grave bodily harm (and death) through violence — and both will have to take steps to defend themselves. Around them, the culture and government face shifts and challenges from within that threaten to change everything that Britons know about themselves. On top of all that — there are some great character moments, real growth and change that happen ways that you can believe — not just the clear result of authorial fiat, but because that’s what happens when people face what they did.

Plots involving large-scale conspiracies frequently leave me cold — O’Reilly not only convinces me that her conspiracy is worth reading, but she’s effective enough with it to make me enjoy it. I struggle to accept plots involving psychiatric professionals and loved ones trying to convince a character that the reality they know (and the audience knows) isn’t real, but is the result of delusion brought on by some psychological condition. Now this one isn’t as involved as say, “Normal Again” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it’s there — and O’Reilly sticks with it long enough to accomplish what she needs to for her story, but she doesn’t milk drama out of it. There are a few other things like this — tricks, plotlines, tropes — that I typically avoid or get annoyed by, but I accepted and enjoyed here.

My notes are filled with “O’Reilly isn’t going to try ___, is she?” entries, followed by “Yeah, she is — and it works.” She squeezes in so many of these things that I’m tempted to doubt my memory about them — and I’m writing this less than a day after I read it! For reasons of space, time, and readability I’ve limited myself in what I’ve addressed in this post. I had a lot of other things I wanted to say, and even had drafts talking about. But I ended up restricting myself — not just because of spoilers (though, as always, that’s part of it) — but because O’Reilly stuffs this novel with so many ideas, plot points and details that I can’t talk about it all without the post becoming unreadable. I don’t know how she manages to put it all in while maintaining the pounding pace. It’s truly noteworthy and laudable that she pulls it off. I can’t even express this without producing an ungainly paragraph.

Michael North is a larger-than-life character, but honestly more grounded in reality than many assassin/lone warrior types in Thriller fiction. Part of that comes from O’Reilly’s restraint in describing him — he’s never depicted as anything superlative. He’s simply a skilled and surprisingly dedicated combat veteran in a series of tight situations that even he is shocked that he survives as long as he does.

Similarly, Honor is one of many beautiful women in the world (as North himself notes above) — she’s one of many dedicated elected public servants, she’s one of many people who’ve overcome difficult pasts thanks to the help of a friend/loved one. She also isn’t depicted as a superlative anything — just the right person in the right place at the right time. Even if that right place is in front of Michael North’s knife. And yes, the name Honor is ripe with possibilities and symbolism — O’Reilly takes advantage of it. Not as much as some authors would’ve, but she gets her money’s worth out of the name.

There is an plausibility-stretching character — a young computer whiz (actually, she’s something beyond whiz, but I can’t think of a term that fits her), who North allies himself with temporarily. But between her attitude and role in the overall story, I can’t see any reader not suspending disbelief enough to embrace her.

Most of this book takes place in moral gray areas (as it almost has to given North’s profession), but that doesn’t stop O’Reilly’s villains from clearly being villains and her heroes clearly being heroic. Killing State doesn’t try to go for some sort of situational ethics or a “yes, but” approach to the morality of te characters — which may or may not have been successful.

The plot moves like the proverbial roller coaster — ups, downs, rushes, and loops all at a pace that you just hope to keep up with. Fair warning — once the hook is set (and it’ll be early on), you won’t want to put the book down and you’ll likely get in trouble with deadlines and schedules. Things won’t really end the way you expect them to — I had a handful of expected conclusions that I had to discard along the way (although some I didn’t have to discard until the last moments) — but when you’re finished with the book, you’ll likely realize that there’s no other way for things to have fallen out.

There’s a sequel expected later this year — I honestly can’t imagine that it’ll be able to live up to this. But I wouldn’t put it past O’Reilly to confound my expectations again. I had a lot of fun with this novel and was regularly impressed with O’Reilly (and North and Honor). I expect that I’m not alone, and soon I’ll see a lot of very positive buzz surrounding this book.


My thanks to Love Books Group for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided.

—–

4 Stars

Head of Zeus
Love Books Group

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The Last Act by Brad Parks: He’s in the jailhouse now

The Last ActThe Last Act

by Brad Parks


ARC, 368 pg.
Dutton Books, 2019

Read: February 26 – 27, 2019

Inspired by the Wachovia Bank scandal from a few years back, Brad Parks’ third stand-alone is a departure in a sense from his previous two. Rather than crimes close to home for his protagonists, this is crime on an international scale, with most of the figures involved never laying eyes on each other.

Mitch Dupree was a high-level bank executive who was convicted of aiding a Mexican drug cartel by laundering a lot of money. He’s been sentenced to a minimum security prison in West Virginia. If after reading this — or even while reading it — you want a few more details about what happened with Dupree before the novel starts (or more specifics about the events leading up to his arrest), check out the prequel short story, The Whistle Blower. He has made it known both far and wide that he has a large amount of evidence against the cartel tucked away safely — and as long as he and/or his family are alive, that evidence stays hidden.

Naturally, the DEA, FBI and the cartel want to get their hands on it — and are willing to do some above and beyond work to get it.

Enter Tommy Jump — he’d risen to fame and prominence (and a Tony nomination) as a child on Broadway, but as he aged into adulthood the parts dried up. He’s on the verge of calling it quits — at least for a couple of decades. He’s approached by a childhood friend, Danny Ruiz, flashing a shiny FBI badge and an interesting job offer. Danny and his partner, Rick Gilmartin, want Tommy to go undercover with an assumed identity of a bank robber and serve time in the same prison. He has six months to get close to Dupree, win his trust and get the location of the documents. If the intelligence he gathers leads to indictments, he gets a hefty bonus on top of the pretty nice initial paycheck (all the funds come from civil forfeiture, and the well seems to run pretty deep). Given that his fiancé — a painter waiting to be discovered — just told him she was pregnant, any kind of pay-day sounds good to an out-of-work actor, one with a pay-day that could set them up for years? How can he pass that up?

The early stages of the plan go pretty smoothly — Tommy’s given a new identity, develops a cover story and is sentenced to the same prison. He arrives and gets settled — not really making friends, but getting well acquainted with fellow inmates, who show him the ropes and help him get acclimated. It goes so smoothly, actually, that it bugged me a little. Sure, he’s an actor, but this isn’t a play, there’s no script, and it seems easy. But, Tommy’s such a likeable guy, a winning narrator that I just kept shrugging off my skepticism and rolled with it — I wanted things to work out for Tommy and Amanda, I wanted to see what happened with Dupree — so whatever it took to get me to seeing if things would work out for them I could accept.

And then — because this is a thriller, because Parks is good at torturing his readers (that’s why we keep coming back), and because no one is as lucky as Tommy seemed to be — everything got nearly impossible. On a dime, the momentum changes and suddenly thing look incredibly grim for Tommy, Amanda, Dupree and several other characters. Naturally, at the same time the bottom fell out and I was reeling from a pretty significant reveal, my lunch break ended and I had to get back to work with no time to process things. I know it’s stupid, but it felt like Parks planned it that way.

The novel alternates between Tommy chapters and chapters with Amanda, one of the cartel’s higher-ups and his efforts to find the evidence, Danny and Rick, and Mitch Dupree’s wife. I was honestly surprised how much time we got with Amanda and Mrs. Dupree — both of whom had their own character arcs independent of (although influenced by) Tommy and Mitch. I could’ve used a little more of both of them — not that Parks short-changed them in any way, but their stories were so interesting that I would’ve enjoyed it. Alternatively, by the end of the book (especially in light of The Whistle Blower), I was surprised how little time we got with Mitch Dupree — again, it’s not that he was short-changed, I just would’ve assumed we’d have more time with him. And what time we do have with him was by and large mediated through Tommy or his wife.

Beyond that, all the characters are well-drawn, well-developed and the kind that you would like to spend more time with. Parks has always displayed a great knack at creating characters that you can easily imagine coming across in real life — no matter their walk of life. They’re not all good people (particularly those who are aligned with the cartel), but they’re all believable people.

Before I get back to what Parks did right, I have a couple of problems that I want to talk about — as always, I’m afraid that the amount of space I spend talking about them is going to give the idea that I had real problems with the book as a whole. I didn’t. It’s just a couple of issues — issues that take more space to explain than the bits I like take. Still, they’re worth talking about.

I’m not 100% convinced that Parks adequately gets the point across about how dangerous this cartel that Tommy’s mixed up in is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like he portrays them as cuddly or anything. But I’m still not sure I got a large sense of threat and doom from them–Tommy and Dupree carry that sense, they’re adequately scared (especially Dupree), but I’m not sure that Parks gets the readers to be. I know he’s capable of it, I’m just not sure he did it here.

Similarly, I think he could’ve done a better job depicting life in the minimum security prison, the daily ins and outs — the lack of privacy, the loneliness, the hardships. I’m struggling for words here — the deprivations from a life of liberty that make prison a place you want to avoid, even a minimum security prison.. . It honestly felt like Tommy had an easier time getting up to stuff (including out-of-the-building excursions) in the middle of the night than Harry, Ron and Hermione did at Hogwarts. Or to put it in a different light — Say Nothing‘s Scott Sampson’s pretty sizeable home and nice office, felt far more confining than the prison did. And the small house that Melanie Barrick called home in Closer Than You Know seemed much more restricting and frightening than Tommy’s incarceration (as did the county jail she spent time in).

That said — what Parks was able to convey very strongly was the life-and-death nature of the situation that Tommy, Dupree, and Dupree’s wife was in. Also, the questions of identity, the future consequences of everyone’s actions loomed large here and dominated their thoughts, motives and actions. Where Scott and Melanie’s stories were much more immediate in their focus (yes, with long-range repercussions, but a very intense focus on the immediate future), Tommy’s story and his own focus is on the future. He spends very little time thinking about the now of things, most of his eye is on a decade away — which is likely tied in to his sentence.

As I mentioned earlier, when things started going bad for Tommy, they went really bad — and the rest of the book didn’t lighten up on him. It’s almost as if Parks lulled readers into letting their guard down before hitting them hard (actually, it’s probably exactly that). The twists and turns start to come fast and relentlessly. The beginning of the book is interesting and winning — and then once the hook is set, Parks just messes with you and you can’t relax until everything is over. In his previous stand-alones, Parks pretty much kept the tension and suspense going from the first chapter theory the end. In this book, he saved almost all of it until the end, so it hits you harder. So it stops being about characters that you’d like to see succeed or find out more about, to characters that you like and have to know if they’re going to survive with their wits, health and family intact — and you have to know it right now.

About the same time that things got intense, I had a realization — I think I’ve figured out what makes Parks’ novels work so well, how he gets his readers to commit — in The Last Act — and everything else he writes — what matters most is family. Ultimately, all his books are celebrations of family, and what people will go through for the sake of family. It’s tucked away in some of the Carter Ross books — but, without going back to reread any, I’m pretty sure its there. But especially in his stand-alones, this is Parks’ recurring theme. It’s the way he connects his audience to whatever his protagonist is going through and to the protagonists themselves. There’s something instinctive, primal about the way that Parks portrays family and the lengths that individuals will go through for them — whether the family is just starting or well-established. something that Tommy and Dupree have a conversation about made that click with/for me — and thinking about it is the only thing that got me to think about putting this book down for a moment.

I’ve yet to be disappointed by a Parks book, I’ve enjoyed all of them — and this is no exception. I do think there’s something special about this one, both in Park’s construction of the novel and what it’s saying about the characters. He takes some risks, and does some things he hadn’t done before, and I was pleased to see the results. There’s a lot of heart in The Last Act, a lot of tension, and more hope than you might expect. There’s also some things said about the drug war and the prison system that are worth reflecting on. I’m not sure what else I can say to convince you to try this, so I’ll just call that good.

Disclaimer: I received this ARC from Dutton Books, which did not influence anything I had to say about it — it just means I was able to say something about it before the publication date. I do thank them for the opportunity, however.

—–

4 Stars

Back Door to Hell by Paul Gadsby: Everybody be cool, that was a robbery!

Back Door to HellBack Door to Hell

by Paul Gadsby


Kindle Edition, 213 pg.
Fahrenheit 13, 2019
Read: February 25, 2019

‘Sometimes you gotta take what you need, right when you need it.’

Giving this little piece of brotherly advice might end up being be the worst thing Darren ever did to his younger brother, Nate. Although making a call to his boss back in London for help getting the two of them out of a police cell in Majorca is a contender. Darren’s boss, Crawford, is one of the biggest criminals in London and his help comes with a price. We don’t know what all Darren had to repay Crawford, but Nate had to go to work in a sleazy bar and pool club for a month. It’s nothing major, watch the bar, sell some crisps, wash dishes, don’t ask questions, don’t pay attention to anything.

This would likely be the first step of Nate following his brother’s example and becoming another one of Crawford’s men. But Nate meets Jen, an art student trying to make enough money to go back to school. Unlike Nate, Jen’s figured out that the real reason this dive is still operational is that as a cash business, it’s an ideal way for Crawford to launder money. Not only has she noted this, she’s figured out when the safe is full of Crawford’s various Ill-Gotten Gains and the best time to relieve him of them. She just needs a partner. Enter Nate.

Jen explains the plan to Nate, and drawing on his need for money, his utter lack of a plan for his life, his brother’s bad advice, and the fact that this plan is explained by an attractive young woman with great hair, he’s in.

Here’s the catch: as anyone who’s read Jack Reacher, Spenser, or any number of similar things can tell you, “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Jen’s plan dissolves after first contact, as you’d expect. Sadly, first contact happens a whole lot sooner than she’d anticipated (Jen, the healthy young woman, underestimates the laziness of an middle-aged apathetic fat guy). Undeterred, Nate and Jen grab the money and run. Due more to luck and circumstance than experience and skill (and better mechanics), Jen’s little Fiesta is able to get the pair to safety following a car chase.

As I mentioned the plan is junked by this point — and they trash it even further. They’re supposed to split up for mutual safety, but are so freaked out at this point that they can’t think about going on without each other. So the two work together to get out of London, and make preparations to leave the UK entirely to try to escape Crawford’s reach.

Crawford meanwhile, is turning over every rock he can to get his hands on the two of them — and more importantly, the money. Most of which was promised to some associates. Besides, there’s the principle of it all — what kind of crimelord let’s a couple of twentysomethings driving a piece of junk car rip him off? We end up spending a lot more time with Crawford than I expected — not just him, but his wife and kid, too. Crawford’s son Ollie is on the Autism Spectrum and watching Crawford try to father him, try to communicate with him is both touching and instructive about the character. It does more than humanize the character, but I don’t want to ruin anything with my speculations about Gadsby’s intentions, so just know there’s a lot going on in the scenes with Crawford’s family.

Just because he’s human, doesn’t mean he’s not ruthless or that he doesn’t have a large and violent workforce. Nate and Jen are quite aware of that, and get more aware of it by the moment (although they might debate the “human” bit). They bounce around England, trying to stay off the radar while gathering things like passports and undocumented travel to Europe. There are close calls with Crawford’s men, dealings with less than savory figures, and the kind of paranoia that comes about when they are out to get you — their new life isn’t easy for the pair.

But that doesn’t stop a sweet relationship developing and cementing between the two, while the reader cannot help but sense impending doom, you end up really liking them as a couple and rooting for them — like Jessie and Celine strolling around Vienna for a few hours. Only Nate and Jen are driving around England with (literal and figurative) blood on their hands and a price on their heads. I guess it’s Richard Linklater by way of Chad Stahelski.

I’m not giving anything away, by the way, saying that about sensing impending doom. If you haven’t picked up a sense of impending doom on Page One you aren’t paying attention to Gadsby. How he manages to make you feel that while telling this sweet story, and making you feel how dangerous Crawford is…it’s a great trick.

This is a fast-moving book, and the pages just melt away (not unlike Jen’s plan). It’ll draw you in and keep you riveted through all the twists and turns. And each time you start to think you know what’s going to happen, Gadsby will tell you that you’re wrong. And then he’ll throw a curveball at you. Yes, there’s the looming sense of doom, but there’s a hope shining throughout all that like that green light at the end of the East Egg dock. It won’t be until the very end until you know what to pay attention to — the threat or the hope. Gadsby does yeoman’s work there.

This is a treat folks, you’d do well to indulge.

—–

4 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: Rubicon by Ian Patrick: A thrill-ride that will stay with you long after the action ends.

I bought this shortly after it was released, and then let it collect e-dust on my e-reader, and pretty much used Damp Pebbles’ Book Tour for this as my excuse to read it. I wasn’t over the moon with this one, but I liked it a lot. And then I spent months thinking about it until the sequel came out. Batford’s the kind of character that will not move out of your headspace like any respectable character does when you start a new book. Rather, he’ll take up residence — scratch that, he’ll squat there, not allowing the lease holder to get comfortable sharing the space with him…. I think this metaphor has gotten out of hand, so I’m going to shut up and get on with the post.

RubiconRubicon

by Ian Patrick
Series: Sam Batford, #1

Kindle Edition, 232 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2017
Read: May 31 – June 2, 2018

. . . there’s no money in policing unless you cross the line.

But that doesn’t mean that Sam Batford isn’t going to try.

Batford is an undercover police officer who’s after a kingpin of some repute and his guns and drugs importing. DCI Klara Winter is a no-nonsense head of a task force going after the same kingpin, Big H, more directly — phone taps, applying pressure to associates, interrogations, etc. Batford is assigned to her task force to supplement their intelligence. Neither want this assignment, and work to undermine it immediately. They do actually help each other out — but it’s almost despite their best efforts. Their mutual dislike, distrust and antagonism is one of the more interesting dynamics that I’ve run across lately.

We see most of the novel through Batford’s eyes, with the occasional glimpse from Winter’s perspective. It doesn’t take much to get a strong sense of Winter’s personality and thought process. Just from the volume, the reader ends up seeing things Batford’s way — whether or not they should.

Batford infiltrates Big H’s organization — at least to a degree — for one job. A large one, no doubt, one that would secure Winter’s career (and would do his own some favors). Like most undercover officers (especially in fiction), he cuts many legal and ethical corners to do so. There’s some question — as there should be — whether or not Big H really trusts him, and the constant testing, evaluation and insecurity makes for great reading — it’s an atmosphere you can almost feel through the words.

So Batford is doing what he can to get enough information to take down Big H, to gain his trust (and therefore access), to disrupt the flow of drugs and guns — and mostly to stay alive. If he can find a way to make a little money while he’s at it . . . well, he might as well. Winter just wants enough evidence to make some arrests — and maybe some headlines — so she can get the budget to keep her team working.

This is not a book for the squeamish — there are a few scenes I know that would cause some of my friends and readers to throw the book down in disgust (the same scenes will cause other friends/readers to fist pump their excitement — I’m not sure which of these bothers me more). There’s one scene in particular that made me think of the dental scene from Marathon Man (I’ve never watched the movie just in case they nail that scene from the novel).

There were two . . . I don’t want to say problems for me, but things that kept me from going over the moon with Rubicon: Batford works his way into this assignment by worming his way in to the trust of one Big H’s associates while they’re in Bali. Do Metropolitan Police Undercover Officers really get to globe-trot the way that Batford does? Is that a bit of Artistic License? Is it a sign of just how far outside the lines that Batford colors? Does it tell us that he’s not just a Metropolitan Police Officer? It’s a minor point, I admit — and it’s really easy to accept as kosher (but that doesn’t mean I don’t wonder), because watching Batford’s machinations there is fascinating.

Secondly, Batford displays a very particular vocabulary — I’m not sure if it’s London slang, or Ian Patrick-slang. I could believe either. I will admit that there were periods that the slang got in the way of the story. That’s probably on me — and some of it is Shaw’s two countries separated by a common language phenomenon. With a little bit of work, and a small amount of guesswork (and a willingness to go back and revisit a passage later), it was all accessible enough and perspicuous.

There’s a lot about this book that I’m not sure about — I’ve been chewing on it for a couple of days, and it’s going to take a few more at least. Patrick’s characters take a little chewing, I think. It’d be easy to put Batford in the “murky anti-hero” category and move on — but I’m not sure he fits there; I’m even less sure where Winter fits — she’s not the straight-laced cop you’re at first tempted to label her, nor is she just the figure that makes life difficult for our anti-hero to do what he wants (although she functions pretty well that way). But even if/when I decide how to categorize these two — then I have to decide what I think of them as these characters — are they good people? No. That’s easy. Are they good fictional beings in their particular roles? My gut says yes, and my brain leans that way, but I’m still working on that.

Either way, I’m enjoying chewing on the novel and these ideas — and I’m definitely getting my money’s worth out of this book, just having to think about it this much.

There is part of this evaluation that’s easy — the writing? Gripping. The pacing? Once it gets going, it’s a runaway train that you’re just hoping you can hang on to long enough to get through to the end. The narrative voice is as strong as you could ask, and even when you’re thinking this cop might be more deserving of a being handcuffed on his way to a long incarceration than his targets, you’ll need to hear his singular perspective on the events around him.

Strong writing (some of my favorite sentences of the year are in this book), characters that demand thinking about, a plot that you can’t wrap up in a tidy bow — this isn’t your typical thriller. Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, it’s one that you won’t forget easily.

—–

4 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: Blackwater by GJ Moffat: A Brutal and Gripping American Crime Story

BlackwaterBlackwater

by GJ Moffat

Kindle Edition, 292 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2017
Read: December 14 – 15, 2018

           Early went to [redacted]’s body and hunkered down in front of [redacted]. His skin was flaccid and his jaw and face swollen and misshapen from the effects of his injuries. His shirt was entirely soaked in blood.

Early shook his head, thinking: this is what men do.

Take Walt Longmire (Deputy Longmire, before Lucian Connally’s retirement) throw him into Jesse Stone’s Paradise, and then tell a story imbued with the spirit of Fargo (movie or show), your results will be pretty close to GJ Moffat’s stunning Blackwater.

It’s a tale of violence, bloodshed, power, inevitability and death — what men do.

Deputy Sheriff Early Simms of Blackwater County is the son of the previous sheriff and probably the only member of the Department really fit for the job. A tragic accident in High School changed the direction of his life, and as a result he’s in the same dying New England area he grew up in. He’s made peace with this, and even seems to be happy — he’d be happier if his boss (and colleagues) cared a bit more about the job and his father wasn’t battling Alzheimer’s, sure. But this is his life.

And then everything changes in a couple of days — his old high school flame (and love of his life) returns to town, there’s an investigation into a corrupt public official, an investigation into an assault/attempted murder at a nearby jail, and a couple of brothers on a killing spree have come to the region. There’s also some drug running, spousal abuse, a pretty nasty bar fight. I don’t want to say that Early Simms is the only one investigating the crimes, in trying to preserve the peace — there are three (that we know of) other members of the Sheriff’s Department, some other local law enforcement officers and some FBI agents running around. But Early’s the only individual who’s in each of the stories — he’s the region of intersection in the Venn diagram of Blackwater (and frequently the most capable person around).

One of the criminals we meet in these pages (not saying which one) is clearly not an evil man. There’s some sort of undiagnosed (by the author or by any professional this criminal has ever encountered) mental health issue affecting him. Which does not lessen the evil he does and the trauma he inflicts on others. Part of me wants to know more about the whys, hows, wherefores, and whatnot about this disorder and is a little frustrated that Moffat doesn’t give us any of it. The other part of me is so glad that he didn’t succumb to temptation to get into tall that, instead merely showing his readers what was going on with this man, leaving it to us to do the work. There’s someone else who probably has some sort of Traumatic brain injury symptoms — not quite the same, but some of the same results.

We also see crime perpetrated by someone motivated by power, money and meanness. Also, there are some criminals who just don’t seem to have options, means or inclination to do anything but break the law. It’s up to Early to face down these people, no matter where on the spectrum they seem to be found, to prevent them from inflicting too much harm on the community.

How successful he is at that, well . . .

Moffat can write. That’s all there is to it. It took almost no time at all to recognize that. You get a strong sense of every character in just a few lines and his world is as fully realized as you could hope for. He presents the evil Early sees and fights against in this book fairly realistically, in a way that is as capricious and destructive as anything you see on the news.

So many times — almost every chance he gets — Moffat will do precisely what you don’t expect. What people just don’t do in this kind of book. He’ll put the characters in a situation you’ve seen dozens of times before, and just when you think “X will happen right after I turn the page,” B happens before you can turn the page. I realize there’s a danger in saying that — you’ll be looking for that kind of thing. But I expect that the same thing’ll happen to you as it did to me every time he pulled the rug out from under me — you’ll get sucked in by his writing and the characters (and possibly still be reeling from the last shock) and you won’t even think to expect that he’ll do it again.

I finished the book I was reading before this earlier than I expected to, and didn’t have the next on my list with me, so I took the opportunity to pay a visit to what I call my Kindle’s “Fahrenheit Ward” — where I stick all the Fahrenheit Press books that I buy without time to read — and I grabbed this. I’m so glad my timing worked out that way — this is exactly what I needed. I got sucked in by this immediately, and it was practically impossible to put down. Before I got to the novel’s final confrontation(s), I jotted in my notes, “Man, I hope this isn’t the first of a series — I don’t know if the community can survive another book.”

But if Fahrenheit published a sequel today? I’d shell out cash before the end day. I strongly expect you’ll feel the same way once you recover from Blackwater.

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4 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: The TV Detective by Simon Hall: A Murder. A Reporter. A Police Detective. Maybe the beginning of a beautiful friendship

Meet Dan Groves, a good reporter with a good dog. Which is enough reason to read the book, but there are others, too, as I was happy to discover.

The TV DetectiveThe TV Detective

by Simon Hall
Series: The TV Detective, #1
Kindle Edition, 290 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: May 16 – 17, 2018

The first interview with a witness.

Or, as Breen had put it, ‘Initially a witness, anyway.’

‘Meaning?’ Dan asked, as they walked down the stairs from the MIR.

‘It’s remarkable how quickly a witness can become a suspect in this business.’

All it needed was a musical sting to emphasise the drama of the detective’s words. Dan was beginning to suspect his new colleague was a frustrated actor. He certainly enjoyed a little theatre.

Dan deposited the thought safely in his mental bank. It might just be useful.

Carter Ross, I. M. Fletcher, Annie Seymour, and Jack McEvoy are my favorite reporters who happen to find themselves in the middle of criminal investigations (“find themselves” is typically code for throw themselves into, slip past the all the blockades surrounding, etc.) — I think Dan Groves has added himself to the list. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Dan Groves is a TV Reporter for Wessex Tonight, covering environmental news. With the Christmas holiday rapidly approaching, he’s forced to help cover the latest in a string of attacks on prostitutes. He and his cameraman/friend Nigel are found taking a less-than by-the-book approach to getting a colleague of the latest victim on camera (really, Nigel didn’t do anything — but he didn’t stop Dan, either). The story they aired was good, but their tactics were reported — between his editor’s need, his skill, and his editor’s fresh material for leverage — Dan’s taken off the Environment beat and made the program’s new crime reporter.

The problem is, he knows nothing about reporting on Crimes. And demonstrates it with a facepalm-worthy performance at his first crime scene (a murder, of course) after getting this assignment. So he pitches this idea to his editor, who in turn runs it by the local police. The police haven’t been looking good to the (and in the) press lately, Dan needs a crash course in detective work — so why doesn’t he shadow the investigation, giving the police some good coverage and PR while he learns on the job from the best around. DCI Breen — and (the underused) DS Suzanne Stewart — aren’t crazy about this idea, but they aren’t really in a position to argue with the brass, so they bring him on. Tolerating his presence largely at the beginning, but gradually finding ways to use him.

This is one of those cases that the police would probably be okay with not solving — at least most of the police. Edward Bray was in Real Estate — he owned many buildings, treated his tenants horribly and evicted them when he could find a way to make more money off of the land/building. He was heartless, notorious, and had an enemies list worthy of a, well, an unscrupulous land-owner. Yet, he also gave generously to a local hospice — so generously that many people had a reflexive notion to commend him while they suffered cognitive dissonance between his perceived nature as a shark, and his obvious and selfless good work with the hospice center. The list of suspects is long — former tenants, an employee, competitors he profited from and ruined, his own father — and the head of the hospice center who chafed under his authoritative hand.

So there’s the setup — a pretty good hook, I have to say. It’s an interesting pairing — Castle-ish, but not as goofy. I could totally buy this without suspending a whole lot of disbelief. The reactions of the other police officers help ground this. So who are the investigators?

First is Dan Groves — he seems to be a decent reporter, we’re told repeatedly that he has a history of looking out for the little guy in his news stories. He’s into the outdoors, hiking and whatnot. He’s very single and has been for some time — there’s a hint of something significant in his past that put him there, but we don’t get into that in this book. I’ve never read about a reporter not wanting the crime beat — it’s the most interesting, right? I just didn’t get his rationale for quite a while. But by the time we’ve heard about a few of his past stories, I guess I could see it (and have to admit that Environmental News sounds pretty dull, but wouldn’t have to be in the right hands). Lastly, Dan has a German Shepherd named Rutherford, who seems like a great dog. This speaks volumes for him.

DCI Adam Breen is your typical driven detective — stern, unbending (at first, anyway), not that crazy about the unusual staffing on his inquiry. He has a flair for the dramatic (as noted above — but it’s worse), seems to spend more time and money on clothing than most (somewhere, Jerry Edgar is fist pumping the idea that he’s not alone). We eventually get to know a little about him outside the job — and it seems to go well with the character we’ve met. He seems like the kind of detective most police departments could use more of. Breen will warm to Groves (and vice versa) and will find ways to use his strengths, as Groves finds ways to flex them.

DS Suzanne Stewart, on the other hand, is little more than a name and a presence. Hall needs to find a way to use her character in the future or drop her. This character is the biggest problem with the book. Not an insurmountable one, or one that greatly detracts from the book, but still. I get that Hall’s priority was establishing the relationship between Groves and Breen — and he nailed that. But he could’ve given us more of Stewart along the way. We could also use a little more development with Nigel and Dan’s editor, Lizzie — but I honestly didn’t notice how underused they were. Stewart stuck out to me.

Hall does a really good job of balancing the murder inquiry and dealing with the characters outside of the case — Breen off-duty, Dan’s blossoming personal life, another story or two that Dan works on. The suspects are well-developed and interesting — and there are times that you could totally buy all of them (well, maybe all but one) as the actual perpetrator. That’s really hard to pull off, many writers will start off with a long list of suspects and really only have one or two that you can believe being the killer after one conversation. They all have similar but individualized reasons to want Bray dead. Most of them also have strong alibis, because you don’t want this to be easy. The solution to the case is clever — and better yet, the way that Groves and Breen have to work together to get the solution proven is well executed.

Hall’s writing is confident and well-paced. He knows how to use characters and plot to strengthen each other. There are occasional turns of phrase that will really make the day of readers. I have a lot of “oh, that’s nice” notes throughout the book. This is a solid start to a series — the kind that makes me want to read more. I’m looking forward to finding out a little more about Dan’s history as well as seeing the relationship between he and DCI Breen grow and change (and be challenged, I assume). Good stuff.

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4 Stars

Broken Dreams by Nick Quantrill: Meet Joe Geraghty, PI

Broken DreamsBroken Dreams

by Nick Quantrill
Series: Joe Geraghty, #1

Kindle Edition, 236 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: February 20 – 21, 2018

Wow. This is how you introduce a P.I. Joe Geraghty starts this book with the police looking at him for the murder of woman. There wasn’t a lot of reason for him to be suspected — I mean, sure, he’d spent a lot of time hanging out around her house lately and he has only the flimsiest of alibis for the time she was killed in her home. His defense is that his firm was investigating her on behalf of her employer, and that he was being mugged by some teenagers when she was killed. Although they hadn’t been looking into her for very long, Joe and his partner had already found enough to want to dig into her further — and now Joe’s even more interested in the case, if only to make sure he doesn’t get put in the frame if the police get desperate for an arrest.

Step one is completing their investigation of the woman and the situation at her employers. Step two is figuring out the husband’s involvement. And then there’s a dive into other possibilities. It’s not long before Joe is beat up, repeatedly. There’s some back and forth with the police — and a lot of the other mainstays of PI fiction. I’m not suggesting the book is unoriginal at all — Quantrill hits all the right notes, and the murder investigation goes just like it should. There are plenty of turns and revelations for Joe to deal with — all of which end up painting a picture that looks far different from anything expected by the reader or any character at the beginning of the novel.

At the same time, they are visited by a woman dying of cancer. Her daughter had vanished 10 years earlier and she wants to find her and try to patch things up while there’s still time. She doesn’t have a lot of money to spend, but it seems like the kind of case that could make the detectives feel better about things than their typical fare — so they take the case. There’s not a lot of danger or suspense involved with this one — it’s mostly interviewing people, catching a break or two and a lot of hope that they’re not looking for a corpse. The missing woman — and her family — hadn’t had a very nice or easy life, and Joe uncovers a lot of ugliness along the way. But there’s some hope, too.

Joe was an athlete who had a brush with success before being sidelined by an injury and having to start over without any real tools or options. His business partner/mentor pulled him away from that life and helped train and establish him as a PI — if only to take over the business. Don hovers in the background of the novel, coming out to give advice (not always taken) and help connect Joe with sources of information. Hopefully we see more of him in action in future novels. Recently, Don’s daughter, Sarah, has come on board mostly as office support — but has moved into some investigative roles, as well. She’s a single mom, and much more practical than Joe — she’s primarily involved in the search for the missing woman, and Joe and Don work both cases, with Joe doing the majority of the legwork (and receiving all the beatings and threatenings).

Because individuals in both cases are from the same part of town, there’s some overlap in the investigations — but this isn’t one of those books where seemingly unrelated cases are really tied together. The two do inform each other a little bit, however, and Quantrill weaves them together well. It’s not a fast-paced novel, but the writing is so smooth that it might as well be, it’s very easy to find that multiple chapters have gone by without you noticing the passage of time, and once this story gets its claws into you, it won’t let go. The murder case is complex without getting complicated, and the motives behind everyone’s actions make a whole lot of sense.

There’s a very Lincoln Perry/Joe Pritchard feel to the relationship between Joe and Don, for those that remember Michael Koryta’s debut series. It’s not the same series, but there’s a very similar feel to the dynamic between the veteran with all the connections and the younger, less experienced detective with a troubled and oft-misspent youth. Throwing Don’s daughter (and granddaughter) into the mix changes the dynamic, too. Watching these three interact is almost enough, if the cases they were working were uneventful, I’d probably stick around.

There’s something going on with Don that I’m a little uneasy about, and am very curious about seeing what Quantrill gives us in the next few books. As well as a looming romantic entanglement for JOe — that could be a very sweet story, or a giant disaster (possibly a combination of the two — I might be holding out hope for option 3). But mostly, I’m looking forward to seeing how the events of this novel affect Joe moving forward — I don’t see how they can’t.

While writing this, it occurred to me that most of the mystery novels I’ve read lately have featured at least one law enforcement officer, which is a pretty big change for me. A few years ago, I’d have to think long and hard to come up with a law enforcement protagonists. So getting into a new PI is a very pleasant change of pace. The fact that it’s a good PI novel is just icing on the cake. This was a great ride, and I can assure you that you’ll be seeing me talk about the next two novels in the series pretty soon, I really want to spend more time with these characters and I bet you will, too.

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4 Stars