Cops, robbers, spies and killers: here’s half a dozen crime-thrillers with a little bit of everything – including a blood-soaked American roadtrip, top-notch Nordic noir, British political conspiracy, psychopathic siblings and the John Cardinal book they didn’t make into a TV series…
ROBBERS by Christopher Cook
One of those one-hit-wonder authors who delivered brilliance and then disappeared. This has all the anger and atmosphere of No Country For Old Men, mixed with the bittersweet philosophy of James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux series. A wildly violent roadtrip which introduces the best Texas Ranger I’ve yet met, and a trio of ne’er-do-wells, trembling on the edge of redemption. Seek out an old copy: it’s worth the effort.
The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo
The third Harry Hole investigation – but the most accessible of the early books and probably the best place for Nordic noir fans to start. Unlike its predecessors, The Redbreast is firmly based in Norway, with two timelines – one story set in Harry’s present at the turn of this century, and the other casting light on an untold aspect of Norway’s involvement in WW2. So it’s both an historical mystery and a thoroughly contemporary thriller, stacked with unexpected developments and sneaky subplots. It also features one of Nesbo’s most charming supporting characters, Ellen, whose interplay with Harry is smart, witty and heartfelt.
Seven Hells by Frank Westworth
JJ Stoner is a hard-boiled, Mike Hammer-esque ex-soldier, gun for hire and raconteur. He’s just as happy verbally sparring over a boozy lunch as he is shooting people, and this story sees a mixture of terrorist conspiracies from the past and present to keep him occupied.
Full of pithy asides about the business of violence (I particularly enjoyed ‘Men heading to roofs for nefarious purposes rarely employ the relaxing services of elevators’), Westworth’s narrative style is like a worldly, shady stranger in a boozer half-whispering a dodgy tale. Violent, old-skool and neatly plotted, Seven Hells is a great introduction to Stoner’s gritty, blood-stained world.
Sextet by Mark Fowler
Offbeat and ambitious, Sextet combines sibling rivalry, classical music, suburban domestic discord and strange sexual preferences with vicious maiming and murder to compose a particularly peculiar overture. The warped relationship between the twins – traumatised Susan and psychopathic Penny – skews all other events in the story, ensnaring a conman musician, his belligerent lover and a string of victims in its menacing melody. ‘Bad Penny’ creates a musical masterpiece based upon the themes she perceives in the dying desperation of her victims…
A bit unbalanced at times, Sextet indulges in a lot of detail about composing classical music. It’s rather more sketchy on the pivotal acts of violence: I’m not at all sure that it’s entirely easy to lop off a bloke’s personal part with a single swipe of a sharp knife; nor would that necessarily be a fatal wound. But author Mark Fowler delivers plenty of psychological twists and thrills, resolutely refusing to follow a predictable pathway.
The Faithful Spy by Jeffrey Layton
A globe-trotting contemporary spy story that isn’t too troubled by plausibility or practicality, in which The Hero is square-jawed and manly; his beloved is glossy, gorgeous, stunningly intelligent and wealthy beyond the reach of avarice, and there’s an international conspiracy which only The Hero can confound with his Russian manliness. He is of course a ‘good Russian’ in that he wants to adopt the American dream and live out a high-tech life with his unfeasibly fabulous girlfriend… but first he must complete one last job for the FSB and confound the evil machinations of the dastardly Chinese intelligence agencies (boo, hiss, etc).
The result is a by-the-numbers ‘thriller’, reminiscent of the Roger Moore era of Bond films. It’s serviceable but uninspiring. It would pass a couple of airplane hours at a pinch, but Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series are much more engaging (even the most recent ones which have similarly steered into fantasyland).
The Delicate Storm by Giles Blunt
One of the books which inspired the Cardinal TV series, this is not quite so gripping or involving as Forty Words For Sorrow, mainly because it focuses on homegrown Canadian politics from 50 years ago, so it’s a struggle to relate to. The ending is more than a little anticlimactic, too.
Easy to understand why they chose not to include this storyline in the TV series. But worth reading to understand more about JC’s character, his relationship with Delorme, and how his predicament from the past is resolved…
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