This month’s selection of recommended reads includes a couple of slightly supernatural stories, a BritCrime police procedural with an intriguing central character, an atmospheric Alaskan adventure with the Aleut, snappy short stories, soulful investigations – and, as usual, one book which we rather wish we’d not bothered with. We’ll come to that a little later. Meanwhile, let’s start with one of the best books of our winter lockdown…
THE GHOSTS OF HOLLEFORD LAKE by Nicholas R Adams
A slightly supernatural novella which will charm readers who enjoy historical mysteries. It all begins with a discovery of old bones, but there’s little sinister about the ghosts of the title. Instead the relentless march of modern development adopts the role of the villain as a new housing development encroaches on the sacred land of a First Nations burial ground. The story zigzags across the centuries, following the fate of pioneer settlers and those who came before them in Ontario’s backwood wilderness.
The author brings these historical characters and their contemporary counterparts vividly to life – and provides intriguing insights into the world of an everyday archaeologist to boot. A story with real soul, and an appreciation of the natural world, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and pleasingly positive modern-day fable.
A COLD DAY FOR MURDER by Dana Stabenow
You know that moment when you happen upon an engaging character in a fascinating situation – and the news just keeps getting better with every page you turn? When the author has a flair for crisp description and witty dialogue; where a plausible plot is enhanced by fascinating insights into a far-flung society? When you reach the hugely satisfying conclusion and discover… there are twenty (yup 20!) more stories in the same series. That moment. It doesn’t happen often but it’s an occasion to be treasured.
The action takes places in snowy Alaska, where the traditional culture of the indigenous peoples is in near-constant conflict with the modern world. The central character is the brilliantly-drawn Kate Shugak, private investigator, native Aleut; sharp as an ice-pick and an expert survivor. The prose is quite beautiful in places but doesn’t get in the way of the plot and personalities. Almost every witness, victim or suspect has a compellingly realistic quirk – even down to the Achilles’ heel of Kate’s male counterpart. A superb introduction to a long-running series.
FIRST CONTRACT by Frank Westworth
JJ Stoner is an unforgettable dude! Having grown up in the 1980s, for me he is a combination of Michael Knight and BA Baracus, but way more badass. He does private contract killings, and is as stealthy and sly as they come. Working for the Hard Man, Stoner is ruthless, hunting his prey with pinpoint accuracy, while still finding time to drink, smoke, and cruise on his Harley. The author creates visual scenes with graphic imagery. I can’t wait to continue reading in this series!
BLOODLINE by Jess Lourey
This nasty piece of work rates less than one single solitary star – and all five, simultaneously. It’s a tribute to the author’s craft – I genuinely could not put it aside, despite my distaste for the subject matter. It’s hard not to applaud the writing, plotting and pacing when you’re inexorably drawn along by the power of the storytelling. So full kudos to Ms Lourey for that.
But the story itself is a spiteful, twisted thing; a mishmash of gaslighting, stalking and paranoid conspiracy with an ‘unreliable narrator’ wrapper. You might be forgiven for thinking that the persecuted female protagonist is one of those modern ‘strong women’ of fiction, but actually she’s a thinly-disguised role model for the innate morality of inevitable maternity. As usual in such parables, her individuality is sacrificed on the altar of ‘family’, her independence surrendered to the genetic imperative. Sheesh.
THE DENTIST by Tim Sullivan
This is one of those typically British police procedurals which stands out from the crowd simply because of its idiosyncratic detective, DS George Cross. Everything else in this murder-mystery is by-the-numbers BritCrime, from interviewing suspects to checking forensics to reviewing cold cases. And the story itself is solid enough, although it wouldn’t have held my attention without its distinctive central character.
DS Cross is special – in the same way that Saga Noren is special – with neuro-distinct cognitive processing (described here as Asperger’s syndrome.) The author’s efforts to create a fully-rounded character are less successful than Sofia Helin’s portrayal in The Bridge, or Ben Affleck in The Accountant – but there’s a lot here to admire and engage with. Sullivan also doesn’t shy away from the inadvertent humour which is often intrinsic to otherwise painfully awkward social circumstances. His observations of Cross’s behaviour might just provide some insight into just how strange ‘normal’ behaviour can appear from the other side of the street…
BEST OF NEGATIVE BURN, Year One
And finally… a sidestep into the unexpected, something a little different to spice up any palates jaded by months of monotony. This is an anthology of 24 short stories in graphic novel form; finely honed writing accompanied by an eye-catching variety of adult-oriented artwork. Every standalone episode is mostly mysterious, and some offer a supernatural angle. Some are pure crime while others are just… odd.
The first year of Negative Burn included offerings from famous names like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Brian Bolland and Moebius, illustrated in stark monotone shades. Among the social, political and personal commentaries lurk loving homages to Lovecraft and Poe which open the doorway to real / imagined demons. Then there’s an affectionate tribute to the golden age of the private eye, featuring a haphazard gumshoe who doesn’t quite catch his man. Every selected story is radically different to its counterparts so you turn the page to find a searing condemnation of the failure of global socialism, followed by a bitter flashback to the days of the KKK in the Deep South.
My outright favourite was a hardboiled episode involving a female repo agent. She calls at a convenience store to buy a huge bar of chocolate, and ends up caught in the crossfire of a hold-up. Some of these stories will appeal more to you than others – but the joy of collections like this is their sheer array of talent and diversity.
Looking for more criminal thrills?
Meet a complicated contract killer in The Stoner Stories