Rapid Reviews: strong female protagonists

The female of the species might be a police detective, a contract killer, a lawyer in the DA’s office or an analyst at MI6. But in modern crime fiction she’s likely to be smart, skilled and assertive, as these four thrillers demonstrate in fine style…LateShow

The Late Show by Michael Connelly
If you’ve somehow swerved MC’s output until now and feel daunted by the extensive back-history of his lead detective, Harry Bosch, try this first book in the Renée Ballard series of LAPD investigations. Ballard has been sidelined on the night shift after falling foul of old-fashioned chauvinism. She’s turned this adversity into opportunity, solving the scut-work crimes which the day-shift barely blink at. While Ballard starts hunting a brute who preys on vulnerable streetwalkers, a multiple homicide alerts her to her old partner’s strange behaviour…
Connelly has created another memorable character; a strong willed young woman whose rigid moral compass occasionally works against her own best interests. Like the Bosch books, The Late Show oozes authenticity in its investigative rigour, detailed legal procedures and the familiar banter at Hollywood Station. Connelly also tackles head-first the tricky issue of a female protagonist who must confront an aggressive and physically dominant male assailant, and the results aren’t pretty. Great writing and a tight plot.

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The Corruption of Chastity by Frank Westworth
It’s rare that you ever advise anyone to start a crime-thriller trilogy with the middle instalment, but this is one of those Empire Strikes Back moments. The core characters are established; the author has honed his wry writing style and the plot proceeds at a rollicking pace through contract killings, bitter betrayals and razor-rapid knife fights. All of it given tone and shade by snappy dialogue, blues music and inventive, explicit encounters of the intimate type.
Chastity Weiss is an unusual creature: a female assassin who kills without compunction. When it’s her turn to have a target painted on her back, she can’t trust her friends or even her family. Instead, an earlier enemy might be her only ally – enter JJ Stoner who is trying to take early retirement from his black ops career. But while Stoner solves Chastity’s dilemma, he’s been stalked by a deadly ghost from his own past. What follows is complex and engaging; hard-hitting, melancholic and ultimately shocking. These are well-formed characters who seriously get under your skin. When you finish the book with your jaw hanging on the floor you can then decide whether to read its predecessor for more context, or gallop straight through to the next episode…


Judgment Calls by Alafair Burke
The start of a series featuring a junior DA who takes the plunge with her first big case. Part courtroom drama, part procedural investigation. Very well informed and detailed description of what an American district attorney actually does, how a criminal case is prosecuted and evidence gathered, the legal aspects of getting a warrant, grand juries and the like.
Some aspects of the plot are rather less successful – like Samantha Kincaid’s conflict with her superiors and workmates, and the stereotype ‘going it alone’ plotline. On the plus side, there’s a splendid ‘didn’t see that coming’ moment and genuinely relevant comment about the perceived ‘value’ of a victim.
Easy reading, and good enough to encourage me to move onto the next in the series.

englishmanThe Englishman by David Gilman
The women aren’t quite front and centre in this military thriller / spy story, as the title quite accurately implies. But while the central character is definitely male, an ex-foreign legionnaire, veteran of Afghanistan and other shadowy combat zones, he’s ably supported by an interesting young woman, Abbie. She’s sent by MI6 to the English chap’s European hideaway when one of his undercover colleagues is kidnapped, to summon him back to active (if deniable) duty. As the plot twists into an international espionage adventure, so Abbie becomes an all-action Moneypenny of sorts. And speaking of Bond moments, the other notable female presence is an unfeasibly attractive Russian police detective: cue steamy descriptions and a slinky gownless evening strap…
The action is relentless, heading east to a remote region of Siberia as an international conspiracy and high-level corruption are revealed. The author definitely knows his martial lore and expounds at length on the subject. Some of the set pieces are a little too detailed: a London car chase felt like a long list of streetnames from Googlemaps, while the extended catalogue of weapons simply slowed things down. Very few writers (well, OK, only one) can bring about unbearable tension through the minutiae of ammunition and firearms. And this story feels more like Stephen Leather than Stephen Hunter. Decently entertaining, but it hardly inspires desperation to read the next one.

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