Filler content with detectives

Four reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #31:-

WATCHING THE DETECTIVES

While the publishers are right to market it as crime fiction, Steve Mosby’s latest novel, DARK ROOM (Orion pb, 368pp, £12.99), has a foot squarely placed in the horror genre, with undercurrents of dark psychology and, in media parlance, scenes that some readers may find disturbing.

Initially the book falls very much into the subgenre of the police procedural, with Detective Andy Hicks placed in charge of a task force set up to capture a serial killer, one who taunts the police with letters challenging them to break his code and who apparently picks his victims at random. It’s something that is completely at odds with Hicks’ experience of police work: he has a cast iron belief in logic and killers who act as they do for textbook reasons. Hicks finds himself outside of his comfort zone as a policeman, and to further complicate matters his wife is pregnant and he seems rather ambivalent about that. As the killer takes to posting videos online, including scenes of torture and a ‘killing field’ where several bodies are displayed, the investigation intensifies, with Hicks realising that tangential to the case events from his own past are coming back to haunt him.

The story operates on several levels. As a police procedural come mystery it certainly holds the attention, with a meticulous account of such things as profiling, forensics etc., all the good stuff that fans of CSI and Cracker will expect from their crime novels. I did feel that aspects of the end reveal weren’t quite as unexpected as they might have been, with moments when I myself thought of the twist used by Mosby and wondered why it never occurred to Hicks and his companions. The real interest lies in the complications attendant on the crime, what could be termed collateral damage, and as far as that goes Mosby knows how to keep any number of separate balls up in the air, putting his cast through their paces with skill and bravado, deftly interweaving scenes from the past to keep the reader off balance and then pulling it all together in the final pages.

The greatest appeal of the book though lies in the psychology, both of the killer, and of Hicks himself, the common bond between them. At the end Hicks sees his own reflection in the face of the killer, and must learn to give himself more credit, to accept that he has made mistakes but is not, ultimately, an evil man. The final scenes come with revelations that will take their toll of the reader as much as they do the character of Hicks, with a pall of sadness cast over the whole novel but at the same time a sense of closure, that the ghosts of the past have finally been laid to rest and those who remain can find peace at last. It’s a powerful ending to a compelling work.

Sarah Pinborough brings her Dog-Faced Gods trilogy to a close with THE CHOSEN SEED (Gollancz pb, 384pp, £7.99), neatly tying up all the loose ends of the series and giving us an explanation for the story’s backdrop.

The story starts with honest detective Cass Jones under suspicion of murder and in hiding from his former colleagues, determined to take the war to his nemesis Mr Bright and the members of his shadowy network of movers and shakers, though Cass’ number one priority remains the rescue of nephew Luke. He succeeds beyond his wildest dreams, capitalising on a rift in the Network caused by the awakening of the one referred to simply as The First, with Bright’s rivals intent on his overthrow. Concurrent with all this, a killer stalks the streets of London spreading a lethal virus and Cass finds a chain of events has begun that could result in the end of the world

This is an impressively plotted novel, one in which Cass shifts between being a catalyst for much of the action to somebody who is passed from pillar to post. At times I wondered if Pinborough could bring it all to a satisfactory conclusion, given the welter of plot strands and the competing factions, but I’m happy to report that she more than succeeded, although I felt the intervention of gangster Brian Freeman was akin to a plot convenience. We get further insight into the character of Cass Jones, more on the background to the events that made him who he is, and Pinborough doesn’t stint in showing the consequences of his past behaviour, the way in which others judge him and, more significantly, how he judges himself.

Where the book is special though is in the depiction of the angelic aspects that have been bubbling away in the background all this time, but are now thrust firmly into the light, with Mr Bright revealed as somebody who, at least by his own standards, might actually be the good guy, even though this forces him to do terrible things, and experience a sense of loneliness in his allotted role, qualities that give him more than a little in common with Cass. Pinborough manages to convey so much of the nature of the heavenly conflict and what is happening, while maintaining an air of mystery, at least until the end when she lays it all out for Cass and the reader, which in a way felt slightly anticlimactic, ambiguity replaced with a sub-Miltonian narrative that can’t help but make her creations seem somehow less special, though I recognise that in doing so Pinborough was playing fair with the reader and I can’t see any alternative to the ‘reveal’. There is potential for controversy in the book’s clever reinvention of some of western culture’s most cherished beliefs, with its somewhat less than charitable view of both God and Satan, to the point that I can’t imagine Christian fundamentalists inviting the author to their wine cheese soirees any day soon.

At the end of day what we get is an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable story, a thriller with supernatural elements that kept me on the edge of my seat to the very last, but at the same time a book that doesn’t flinch from asking serious questions about the nature of good and evil, and what we as individuals are prepared to countenance in the service of the former, a moral dichotomy embodied in the final choice presented to Cass Jones, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what that was and how he dealt with it. I recommend that you do.

Another writer with his feet set firmly on the angel pavement, and an author Pinborough credits as an influence, is John Connolly. THE WRATH OF ANGELS (Hodder & Stoughton hb, 480pp, £17.99) is the latest Charlie Parker novel, and the eleventh in the series, moving the greater story arc along after the entertaining diversions of previous volume The Burning Soul.

The book opens with Parker hearing the story of the long ago discovery of a crashed plane out in the Great North Woods, and of the list of names that it contained plus proof that a prisoner was aboard and escaped after the plane was downed. The Collector and Epstein have both received the first page of the list and are moving against the people on it, agents of the secret network that appears to be dictating an extreme right wing political agenda in the US. But there’s a complication and parties who were previously prepared to assist Parker, or at the best ignore his actions, now turn actively hostile. Parker and allies head into the Great North Woods in search of the plane, but others are coming hard on their heels, including the mutilated Darina and a boy who may be the reincarnation of old nemesis Brightwell, while waiting for them are a primitive serial killer and a woodland spirit.

It gets complicated.

This is a slow burn story, one that builds gradually and then unleashes its heavy guns in an all-out assault. We learn much more about the nature of the Collector and how he goes about his work, including hints of an origin for the character. We discover stuff about the nature of angels, including the dropping of a rather heavy clue that Parker himself is not a fallen angel after all. We get the groundwork laid for a no holds barred war with the ‘angelic’ network, and revelations about the ways in which they control events, the far right politics of hate that seem to be so much a part of their modus operandi, and whose rationale Connolly has chipped away at throughout all these books, much to his credit, as both a writer and a decent human being. And to cap it all one of Parker’s closest allies is murdered, showing that nobody is safe and nothing can be taken for granted in this series. As a side issue, Connolly also shows great skill in his depiction of the Great North Woods, the lonely setting coming to life on the page, and in the cruel and spectral denizens who haunt this magical place.

The Burning Soul felt to me like it was marking time, but now we appear to be firmly back on track, with the story moving further along to some epic conclusion. Working away beneath the greater themes and building a firm foundation on which they can stand, is a sound understanding of human nature, so that the worst things that take place, the most terrible hurts and betrayals, are not down to something as grand as evil, but simply small acts that in themselves seem harmless or well-intended, yet accumulate to contribute to some less noble design. Connolly’s fallen angels are magnificent creations, disturbing and malevolent, but so much of their power and influence derives from an ability to exploit subtle flaws in the human characters, corrupting the good in us to their own ends, using our fear and venality, our pettiness and need for validation, channelling those things into a hatred of those who are different, those who don’t conform to some abstract norm. At bottom, they are just the demagogues and fascists of modern political life writ large.

Now that is scary.

There are no angels or other supernatural elements to TERRIBILIS (Atomic Fez Publishing pb, 336pp, £12.99) by Carol Weekes, and it only gets a day pass into the horror genre for the purpose of review, as the work more accurately falls under a crime umbrella, like the Mosby above.

Terribilis is the name of a highly toxic South American frog, and somebody is using its poison to murder people, trying to disguise the killings as the result of a bad batch of heroin. A woman who worked at the University of Ottawa, a female hooker and a young rent boy make up the victim names in the frames for detectives Morrow and Crowther. They find a link with a crime report registered by an Alison Mornay: underwear was stolen from her linen line and she feels that somebody has been inside her house. Alison was married to Gerald Scott, a research scientist at the University with access to terribilis venom, and it’s obvious from her reaction to questions about him that Alison is terrified of Scott.

I have very mixed feelings about this book. At times it reads like the Richard R. Laymon interpretation of Hannibal Lecter. Scott is a larger than life villain, a chilling sociopath who always seems to be one step ahead of the police, though actually his plans go awry with a convincing frequency. Misogyny is a factor here, with Scott’s hostility grounded in sexuality and a determination to humiliate his former wife, but also perhaps playing into reader prurience in the final scenes as Alison, clad only in skimpy underwear and then entirely naked, flees through a snow clad landscape. Sexual violence is perfectly valid subject matter for an author to explore, but in doing so you need to tread a fine line and at times with this it felt like titillation. Reading the closing scenes I wanted to feel the character’s pain and fear, to be fully invested in whether or not she would escape, but none of that came over quite as powerfully as the idea of an attractive woman running around in her underwear. Whether that’s a shortcoming of Weekes’ writing or simply her bad luck to have Terribilis fall into the clutches of a reviewer who came of age in the late sixties and can’t read such chase scenes without thinking of Benny Hill and coming over all unnecessary, I’m not self-aware enough to determine. All I can say with any certainty is that when reading it some aspects of this book made me feel very uncomfortable, but for all the wrong reasons.

That’s my main problem, but there are other shortcomings. The rest of the cast are indifferently drawn, with the prostitute victims seeming incredibly naïve and the police at times coming across as insensitive louts, with Crowther, who is meant to be one of the good guys, referring to a prostitute as ‘shit’ and ‘bitch’, a miscalculated attempt at grittiness that didn’t endear him to me any, while the instant attraction between Morrow and Mornay seems clichéd and a tad too convenient. With a serial killer on the loose, it seems hard to believe that the police would allow Alison to go off to an isolated cabin in the woods, or indeed that she would want to, while it also stretches credibility that it wouldn’t occur to seasoned detectives that their number one suspect might do a runner. At times too the writing feels slightly off, with confusion about which character is our pov, and some naff phrasing, though I read an unedited ARC and the final version might provide a smoother read. On the plus side, the method of killing is intriguing, the story provides some moments of tension and in Scott we have a villain worth hating, but overall I wasn’t particularly impressed. It lacked subtlety. If it was a film, I’d suspect a low budget and predict straight to DVD.

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