Thursday, August 27, 2015

Review: The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz tr. George Goulding

Today sees the release of book 4 in the Millennium series begun by Stieg Larsson, and now continued by David Lagercrantz in the shape of The Girl in the Spider's Web, translated by George Goulding.

London-based reviewer Craig Sisterson was able to get a copy at midnight and has very kindly shared his review with Euro Crime. This review first appeared on Crime Watch this morning:

The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz translated by George Goulding, 448 pages, August 2015, MacLehose Press, ISBN: 0857059998

She's back. After all the waiting, anticipation, and controversy, Lisbeth Salander is back.

It starts with a hand, beating rhythmically on a mattress in an unknown bedroom. Why is the hand beating? Whose hand is it? Whose bedroom? What does it mean?

None of those questions are answered until much later in THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB, and by then David Lagercrantz has taken readers on a heck of an absorbing ride.

Let's address the elephant in the room: not everyone will be happy with this novel. Many people in the books world seem to have decided to avoid it or dislike it on principle: that no-one should continue Stieg Larsson's series, the three books of an intended ten that he'd written but never published before his heart attack.

But those who approach THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB with at least a partially open mind will find themselves pleasantly surprised; it's a very good book. It's terrific to see Salander, who is much more than an antisocial goth hacker, back fighting against injustice in a new adventure. In her own inimitable way.

Undoubtedly the creation of Salander was Stieg Larsson's greatest genius in his initial trilogy: while his tales were swirling epics addressing some dark issues simmering below the seemingly perfect surface of Scandinavian society, Salander was the lightning rod that elevated the stories into something more.

In THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB Lagercrantz does a fantastic job at delving deeper into Lisbeth Salander, offering readers more of an insight into this 'grown up version of Pippi Longstocking' (as Larsson considered her). Lagercrantz treads the fine line between providing more texture about an enigmatic character, without losing the mystery and uncertainty that makes them so compelling in the first place.

Salander is the kind of iconic character who doesn't even need to be in the room to have a presence. Like James Bond, Zorro, Robin Hood, or Sherlock Holmes, she casts a shadow over a wider world, lingering in the minds and hearts of those she's touched, friends and foes alike.

Early on in THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB, Mikael Blomkvist is battling against money-driven evisceration of Millennium, the magazine he loves, when he meets a potential source in a bar to discuss a story tip. Things are stock-standard, and Blomkvist's eyes are glazing as he listens to chat about technology and corporate espionage, when he - and the reader - is suddenly electrified by the passing mention of a female hacker. From there, the story becomes much more interesting, for Blomkvist and the reader.

As Blomkvist delves deeper, the story gets bigger and bigger. A world-renowned Swedish computer scientist, a verifiable genius, has seemingly abandoned his work and boarded himself up in his home. He wants to talk to Blomkvist, but is attacked before they can meet. His work has disappeared, and the only witness is an autistic child, who know becomes the target of a shadowy criminal organisation.

Lagercrantz does well juggling all the players in this tale, from the driven staff of the NSA, who see spying on everyone as the way to protect their country's interests, to Eastern European gangsters, Swedish authorities, and shadowy figures from Salander's own past. While Salander and Blomkvist are the stars, there is a broad cast of fascinating cast of characters who add texture and intrigue - and Lagercrantz does an elegant job keeping THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB building then racing along rather than becoming convoluted.

For those who love Scandinavian crime for the way it delves into social and personal issues, there is plenty of that on offer in the fourth Salander book, from issues of privacy, what the public is entitled to know, to the various ways technology can be used and abused, the changing face of the media, and much more.

For me however, it is the evocation of Salander, who is one of the finest characters created in contemporary fiction, which is the real highlight of THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB. Much like Christopher Nolan did with his tremendous re-imagining of Batman, Lagercrantz delves deeper into Lisbeth while keeping her very much who she is. We see more and understand more, but remain fascinated, intrigued, and unsure.

And when the final page came, I was no longer doubtful of whether the books should be continued or not. In fact, I am very much hoping that we will see more from Lagercrantz, Blomkvist and Salander in future.

Craig Sisterson
August 2015

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review Redux: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest by Stieg Larsson tr. Reg Keeland

To celebrate the publication on Thursday of the new "Lisbeth Salander" book, The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz translated by George Goulding, I have been reposting Maxine's reviews of the original trilogy by Stieg Larsson translated by Reg Keeland, concluding today with:

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest by Stieg Larsson translated by Reg Keeland, 720 pages, June 2015, MacLehose Press; Reissue edition.

The long-awaited final part of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy reaches an English-language readership in 2009, five years after its first publication in Sweden. And it is certainly worth the wait. The story of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist (after earlier hints, here explicitly adult versions of Astrid Lindgren's children's characters Pippi Longstocking and Kalle Blomqvist), pulls you right in on page 1, and is terrifically difficult to leave behind on page 600, especially as so many aspects of their stories (particularly Lisbeth's) have not begun to be explored - and never will be, owning to the sad early death of the author.

THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNETS' NEST begins directly after the dramatic finale of THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, the first 100 pages reflecting the confusion of deaths, illnesses, attacks and conspiracy that culminated in the confrontations at Gosseberga. Most of these 100 pages take place in hospital where Lisbeth lies critically injured, where Zalachenko, her father, is also severely wounded, and where the police, security personnel and other vultures are circling round the pair. Anyone who has not read the previous two books will probably find this long introduction almost incomprehensible in its details - those who have read the predecessors will need good memories but will have no difficulty being drawn into Lisbeth's predicament as she lies paralysed in the knowledge that her father, lying in a nearby room down the corridor, is trying to finish his malign task - while other forces are keen to try her, label her as insane and send her back to the secure institution where she spent her unhappy adolescence - assuming she survives her terrible injuries.

Next, the canvas of the book expands to a compelling history of Swedish politics post-1964, consciously continuing from the social analysis of the Maj Sjowall/Per Wahloo Martin Beck series, charting the failures of Swedish democracy from within the security forces by the formation of the SSA, an unofficial secret police within the official secret police (Sapo), known only to one or two people in the country. Real and fictitious events and characters are seamlessly juxtaposed, though there's an essential brief glossary to help the non-Swedish reader grasp the non-fictional essentials.

In this novel, SSA consists of a small, secret core of very hard-liners, determined to uphold and protect what its members consider to be the country's best interests. Primarily, it seems, this task has consisted of containing Zalachenko, the most important Soviet defector to the West ever. The grey men of the SSA have created a new identity for him and over the years have given him free rein and protected him from the consequences of his criminal activities and gross abuse of his wife.

This army of old men from another time come together in the realization that the Zalachenko affair is likely to blow wide open once he and his daughter Lisbeth are able to communicate with the authorities. Although they have lost one of their main means of controlling Lisbeth (how she disposed of her guardian is part of the plot of book 2), they enlist the help of psychiatrist Peter Taleborian, the man who locked Lisbeth away after her pyrotechnic actions when aged 12, and whom she has good reason to hate. Only Dr Jonasson, the surgeon who is currently caring for Lisbeth, seems to stand between her and the strong forces who want her silenced.

The book bursts into real life after this long prologue, history and setting-of-scene, when an odd coalition including Mikael, Lisbeth and her hackers' group form the online ‘knights of the idiotic table' in their first real act of striking back. Mikael begins to dig into the story of Zalachencko, gradually becoming to suspect the existence of ‘The Section', as he calls what the reader knows to be SSA. When a crucial report is stolen from his apartment, he uses this circumstance to find out more than the perpetrators had bargained for, and to strike back at them, in a clever game of double bluff.

In THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNETS' NEST, Lisbeth (who until the final chapters is a relatively insubstantial figure in the novel) serves as an allegory for Sweden itself - both the woman and the country have been betrayed over many years by secret allegiances of people bound together by delusions and evil impulses. Just as the young Lisbeth is wrongly diagnosed with mental illness and incarcerated in an isolation cell, so the young Swedish democracy is betrayed by people whose actions can only be explained by Mikael as being like those who have a mental illness and have separated themselves from normal society (p 475). Mikael is as much driven by his journalistic, crusading need to expose political corruption as his friendship and gratitude to Lisbeth compel him to expose the corruption that is continuing to threaten her by this coalition of "men who hate women".

Yet the novel is not a mere spy thriller - what gives it such massive heart are the characters - Mikael, Erica, the Millennium journalists, the Armansky operation, the police, Sapo agents, asylum seekers and others who give the novel such life - and the immense amount of absorbing, authentic details - of the workings of a newspaper office, a secret police organisation, computer hacking, police operations, investigative journalism, the security business, the race to publish Mikael's discoveries, and far more than can be covered in this review - a rich, dense and compelling context for the gradual uncovering of Lisbeth's story, cumulating in her trial where the main players take turns on centre stage.

There are certainly gaps in this book. One glaring weakness is that we never know why Zalachenko was so useful to the SSA, and why he continued to be so uniquely valuable for so long after he defected. We learn little of his criminal empire. Lisbeth, the very core of the trilogy, plays a passive role for almost all of the book. Some plot lines, for example the police search for the cop-killer Niedermann, are never developed. Other stories are hinted at but never told - we can only imagine that the author intended to pick those up in future books.

The Millennium Trilogy is a fantastically exciting and original set of books, admittedly with flaws, but with a great breadth and intelligence - of the characters as well as of the story - and with an ability to draw the reader in to an exciting narrative so that one is lost in the book, not knowing whether to turn the pages rapidly to find out what happens next, or to turn them slowly to prolong the totally mesmerising read, so ably conveyed to English readers by the translator, Reg Keeland.

Maxine Clarke, England
October 2009

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review Redux: The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson tr. Reg Keeland

To celebrate the publication on Thursday of the new "Lisbeth Salander" book, The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz translated by George Goulding, I am reposting Maxine's reviews of the original trilogy by Stieg Larsson translated by Reg Keeland, continuing today with:

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson translated by Reg Keeland, 576 pages, June 2015, MacLehose Press; Reissue edition.

This long book is the second in the Millennium Trilogy, the first of which, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, introduced the reader to Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, a campaigning journalist. It is a very exciting read, and I'm eager to read the final volume.

THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE is in some senses two books. The first 200 pages is an extensive prologue telling the story of Lisbeth, previously a tantalisingly insubstantial figure: we learn quite a lot of her back-story, as some of the previous hints about her past are filled in (including a rather gruesome prologue chapter). At the same time, we learn that she has been travelling the world since the end of the first book, arriving in Grenada at the start of this one, where she has a brief affair, witnesses an attempted murder during a freak tornado, and sets out to solve Fermat's last theorem without the aid of a computer program. The rest of the book - in itself a hefty 400 pages, shifts to Sweden and ignores most of the Grenadan events. Perhaps some of them will be picked up in book three. Otherwise, I'm not sure of their point.

What follows is mostly a straight police procedural, at the same time revealing more of Lisbeth's history. Soon after she returns to Stockholm and sets herself up in an apartment that is off the official radar, three brutal murders occur on one night. Lisbeth, the only apparent link between all the victims, is the prime suspect and becomes the focus of a national police hunt. She has suffered terribly in her life - the reader by now knows some, but not all, of this background - and her treatment by the media is a horrible, insensitive parallel of her earlier abuse by those who should have cared for her - teachers, doctors, guardians and 'friends'. Lisbeth becomes a fugitive, yet refuses to be victimised by her ordeal. She is not only determined to find out the identity of the killer(s), but also, as she becomes more aware of how the crimes are linked to her, goes onto the attack to deal with the situation on her own. She has long since learned not to trust institutions such as the police and the law.

In parallel with Lisbeth's story, Blomkvist, publisher of Millennium magazine, is also investigating the murders. Two of the victims were colleagues and friends of his, and he's convinced that their deaths are related to the work they were doing in uncovering a massive scandal of prostitution and drug trafficking between Russia, Eastern Europe and Sweden. Although Lisbeth has rejected him as a lover and will not contact him, Blomkvist is convinced that she is innocent. Therefore, in contrast to the police investigation, which is focused solely on finding Lisbeth and convicting her, he attempts to uncover other motives for the crime.

The book is packed with incident, thrills, characters, rich details and plot revelations. Because Stieg Larsson is juggling stories about Millennium (the publication and its journalists), the international sex trade, an investigation agency, evil bikers, and the police investigation, as well as Lisbeth's associates and past, which itself contains several strong and moving subplots, the pace never lets up, emotions are intense, and there are no boring moments as, in J K Rowling style, the author gradually reveals more of the intention of his triptych. However, there are plenty of flaws - too often, people remember a crucial fact that they'd forgotten previously (one such, Blomkvist's discovery in his kitchen that leads into the final section, is truly clunky - and this is not the only clumsy device used); Lisbeth can find out anything she wants via magic, that is her (unexplained) hacking skills and her international geeks' undercover network. People often see each other by coincidence (Blomkvist and Lisbeth spot each other several times before they communicate directly), and there are quite a few cliches in terms of criminal masterminds, spooks and an evil Russian thug who is huge and feels no pain.

There is also a strong element of male wish-fulfilment running through the book. Lisbeth is almost a Modesty Blaise-like figure at times, having her breasts enlarged, living off junk food yet remaining "anorexically thin" (as we are often reminded), and enjoying lusty sex with men and women. The Millennium journalists are similarly idealised, being portrayed as liberal-thinking, high on integrity and very highly sexed. On the other hand, most of the other men in the book are either decent enough yet bland (the police chief) or pure evil - rapists, abductors, child abusers and "men who hate women" to name but a few of the types in the pages. Most of these aspects add to the overall excitement, but they also create a slightly comic-book atmosphere.

Nevertheless, despite these flaws (some of which the author might have revised before publication had he lived) this book is truly powerful. The criminal investigation turns out to be directly related to the events in Lisbeth's horrific past, and the way in which old events are gradually revealed in order to explain how the crimes occurred is very cleverly done, with a stunning, emotionally draining climax.

Although there is a resolution of sorts, there are a great many loose ends. It remains to be seen whether the third book will address these, in particular the mystery of Lisbeth's sister as well as the wider issues of the corruption of the Swedish "special services" and of the sex/drug trade. As things stand, we are left on a cliffhanger, with little closure in the characters' life-stories or on the wider issues that were being addressed by two of the murdered people. A perfect recipe for a third, and final, instalment.

Maxine Clarke, England
January 2009

Monday, August 24, 2015

Review Redux: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson tr. Reg Keeland

To celebrate the publication on Thursday of the new "Lisbeth Salander" book, The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz translated by George Goulding, I will be reposting Maxine's reviews of the original trilogy by Stieg Larsson translated by Reg Keeland, starting today with:

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson translated by Reg Keeland, 544 pages, June 2015, MacLehose Press; Reissue edition.

Mikael Blomkvist is a financial journalist in Sweden who, as publisher and co-owner of the independent magazine Millennium, is able to publish hard-hitting investigations into the shady dealings of the country's richest companies. He goes too far, however, in his story about the crooked but enormously wealthy financier Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. Wennerstrom sues Blomkvist for libel, Blomkvist loses and is sentenced to a few months in jail. Almost worse than the sentence is the fact that Millennium has lost credibility, not to mention advertising revenue, and its future is in jeopardy.

After Blomkvist's sentence, he and his on-off lover, fellow publisher Erika Berger, decide the best way to ensure the magazine's survival is for Mikael to take a year's leave of absence, during which time he will serve his jail sentence (clearly a very civilized procedure in Sweden). His confidence shaken by his experiences, Mikael is astonished to be summoned by Herr Frode, a lawyer, to meet the reclusive, wealthy Henrik Vanger, who has been following the case and who has a proposition for him.

Vanger is one of the oldest members of a family dynasty, of a completely different hue from Wennerstrom both personally and in business philosophy. However, the old man is haunted by a dreadful event in the 1970s, when his great-niece Harriet, then 16, vanished on the eve of the traditional annual gathering at the island where the old man and most family members live. The subsequent investigation of the disappearance was severely hampered by an road accident on the bridge connecting the island to the mainland: despite the most thorough investigation possible over the intervening years by both the police and her distraught great-uncle, the mystery of Harriet's disappearance was never solved, so it has been concluded by all that she had died. Nevertheless, every year on his birthday, the old man receives a single flower in a frame, a bitter-sweet memory of the birthday presents Harriet used to give him. Henrik cannot rest until he has discovered who is sending this taunting message, which he is convinced will lead him to Harriet's murderer.

Initially refusing Vanger's commission, Mikael changes his mind when he learns that not only will he be paid for his work but that Henrik will provide him with evidence to convict Wennerstrom - and by so doing will ensure the survival of Millennium. The two men agree that Mikael will live on the island inhabited by the various Vanger family members and, as cover, will write a biography of the family. In reality, however, he will be poring over old documents and questioning anyone who will speak to him to try to cast new light on the tragedy of Harriet's disappearance.

It does not take Mikael long to discover that he has been the subject of a covert surveillance himself to determine to Vanger's satisfaction his own suitability for the job. Via Vanger's lawyer Frode (an attractive if minor character), he soon discovers who is responsible: Dragan Armansky's investigative agency, specifically a highly unlikely operative called Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth is an emaciated young woman, a drop-out from society, whose mother is in an institution and does not know her daughter. Lisbeth has a long history of childhood rebellion and refusal to conform, has been labelled dangerous by assortments of social workers, and is a ward of court unable to control her own finances or manage her own life apart from a shadowy existence with alternative, drop-out associates. She does, however, have amazing computer skills, and so is employed on a freelance basis by Dragan, who has mixed feelings for the young woman - she of the titular dragon tattoo.

Aided by Lisbeth, Mikael becomes increasingly absorbed in the biography, living in an isolated guest cabin on the island and digging into old photographs, befriending the local cafe owner, and gradually working through Henrik's archives, in the process befriending the old man, a poignant character. Mikael pieces together the complicated Vanger family - thankfully, the reader is helped by a family tree and a table (but in my edition, no map of the island, which would have helped) - to try to work out who might have had a motive and the opportunity to kill Harriet and dispose so completely of her body. He undergoes his prison sentence, a relief from his daily worries, but after that his investigation becomes bogged down - until a series of dramatic events provide him with a breakthrough of sorts.

In the meantime, we learn more about Lisbeth and her life, as well as her shocking persecution by her guardian and the revenge she enacts. Her character is intended to show us how a supposedly liberal and caring society can utterly fail someone who has a mild condition (Mikael immediately diagnoses her as having Asperger's), and how she and others like her can "slip through the cracks" into a life of abuse and poverty. First Dragan and than Mikael hold out a hand of help - in Mikael's case, he does not expect anything from her, so Lisbeth gradually comes to trust and even to love him.

Mikael and Lisbeth work together to solve the awful mystery of Harriet's disappearance - and it is, indeed, truly awful. Although the book is extremely leisurely (most of it is taken up with Mikael's researches into the Vanger history), the pace picks up at the end as all the threads come together in a suspenseful conclusion: Harriet's fate, the future of Millennium, Wennerstrom's power, the Vanger secret - and the shadow of a Nazi and racist past. Taken together with the story of Lisbeth, as yet incomplete as this is the first in a trilogy, the whole has a haunting power. Despite its length, and the fact that most of the Vangers encountered by Mikael are two dimensional, I very much enjoyed this powerful book which combines a good story with haunting characters and a crusading message.

The book is the latest in a fine tradition of Swedish fiction begun in the 1960s by Maj Stowall and Per Wahloo in their Martin Beck series, and continued by Henning Mankell and other excellent authors. THE GIRL IN THE DRAGON TATTOO is in the same vein as two other recent Swedish books: the superb PARADISE, by Liza Marklund, which covers similar themes of investigative journalism, financial mismanagement and racist violence against women (particularly immigrants) and Asa Larsson's SUN STORM, an intense story about a young woman unable to function in society after being ostracised by her family and community for her alleged rebellion. All three of these sad stories resonate in the mind long after the last page has been turned.

Maxine Clarke, England
January 2008

Friday, August 21, 2015

Review: The Devil's Assassin by Paul Fraser Collard

The Devil's Assassin by Paul Fraser Collard, January 2015, 384 pages, Headline, ISBN: 1472222717

Reviewed by Terry Halligan.
(Read more of Terry's reviews for Euro Crime here.)

Bombay, 1857. Jack Lark is living precariously as an officer when his heroic but fraudulent past is discovered by the Devil - Major Ballard, the army's intelligence officer. Ballard is gathering a web of information to defend the British Empire, and he needs a man like Jack on his side. Not far away, in Persia, the Shah is moving against British territory and, with the Russians whispering in his ear, seeks to conquer the crucial city of Herat. The Empire's strength is under threat and the army must fight back.

As the British march to war, Jack learns that secrets crucial to the campaign's success are leaking into their enemies' hands. Ballard has brought him to the battlefield to end a spy's deceit. But who is the traitor?

THE DEVIL'S ASSASSIN sweeps Jack Lark through a thrilling tale of explosive action as the British face the Persian army in the inky darkness of the desert night.

The descriptions of battles with the hand to hand combat involving Jack and his fellow soldiers are truly incredible but apparently based on fact. This book is really extraordinary, the author's research, and the descriptions of life in the military and the Indian campaigns, is first rate and I was not surprised that the author indicated that he was influenced by reading the "Sharpe" books of Bernard Cornwell and the "Flashman Papers" of George McDonald Fraser in his youth.

I was very impressed by the deep historical research that this author has made in order to present a story that is truly compelling as this one is. You do not need to have read the previous two books in this series as the author fully explains Jack's present situation and what he needs to do to extricate himself from his desperate situation! The book comes with a map of nineteenth century Persia and also thoughtfully provides a detailed glossary of some unusual words that are used in the text. I have not read any of this author's previous books but I will certainly look out for the future adventures of Jack Lark. This is one of the best historical mysteries that I have read so far this year. Well recommended.

Terry Halligan, August 2015.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Review: Power Play by Mike Nicol

Power Play by Mike Nicol, June 2015, 400 pages, Old Street Publishing, ISBN: 1910400211

Reviewed by Lynn Harvey.
(Read more of Lynn's reviews for Euro Crime here.)

South Africa, Cape Town.

The big man sits beside the pool and watches Krista Bishop making coffee in her kitchen. She watches him. Takes a gun out of her bag and fits the silencer. His dark eyes remain on her and eventually he stands, his own gun in full sight. Krista thinks of her father Mace's words – about taking justice when it comes.
Lagoon Beach.
The Anders family are eating supper at a seafood restaurant by way of mourning the youngest son, Boetie. They must be seen in public at this time. Unbowed. Because Anders is an old-time retired gang lord and respectable businessman, one of “The Untouchables”. Boetie's weighted body had been found in deep water, chained to a plastic buoy marked “property of Titus Anders”. Quint, the youngest surviving son, assures his father that everything is sorted; the tit-for-tat boy is already chained up in the warehouse ready to be sent home to his mother in pieces. But the Anders children – Lavinia, Quint and Luc – still bicker about the next move. Titus tells them to shut up. Down the street, two men wait in a car. When the signal comes that the Anders family is leaving the restaurant, they start up and move alongside the Anders's heavy old Merc. Their window slides down and the Russian aims the Uzi.
Cape Town International Airport.
Krista Bishop and her security partner, Tami Mogale, greet the Chinese businessmen who seem delighted with their female security team. Tami and Krista have trouble defining the boundaries of their duties with their new clients. In the coffee shop across the way, a government agent watches the small party. He is Mart Velaze, the spook who put pressure on Krista to drop their strict women-only client base and guard these two businessmen. He had had to emphasise how easy it was for Krista's lovely house and car to disappear via a tax audit. So she accepted the job. As Velaze tails the group to their hotel, he receives a call from “The Voice” telling him to leave the businessmen and get over to Lagoon Beach – a shooting involving the Anders family.
Lagoon Beach.
In the adrenalin rush of the hit, Tamora's driver takes off early. The Russian is furious. A sharp turn results in him losing the gun to the road. The driver ignores his fury and drives on. Outside the restaurant, in the midst of shattered glass and bullet-holed steel, the Anders family take stock. Everyone OK, just cuts. And they recognised the driver. Tamora's man, Black Aron. The shooter? White. Czech, Russian, something like that. Titus tells his sons to finish the job with Tamora's son but Lavinia warns that nothing will be settled while the mother is still around.
Back at their hotel, the Chinese announce that they want to eat the famous abalone. But Tami reports that the seafood restaurant that they have in mind is out of bounds tonight. Some kind of shooting....

Mike Nicol is a South African writer who sets his crime thrillers in his native Cape Town. His latest thriller, POWER PLAY, continues the Bishop connection from Nicol's earlier “Revenge Trilogy” which concluded with BLACK HEART and featured the Cape Town security firm of Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso. The security firm is now in the hands of Mace's daughter Krista. With her business partner Tami Mogale she concentrates on a women-only client list. Rival gangs The Pretty Boyz and The Mongols are at war over the abalone poaching trade. For this, read three “retired” gang lords known as The Untouchables versus Tamara Gool, upcoming and ruthless. The Chinese arrive, wanting a slice of the abalone trade. With the war heating up, Krista and Tami soon have another woman client to protect – Titus Anders' daughter Lavinia. Then there are the government agents. All in all, a stew of revenge, riddles and violence. Revenge figures in this novel on an intense and bloody level. By the end I was thinking its emotions, motives and gestures were on a Shakespearean scale. Absolutely. Nicol's inspiration is Shakespeare's “Titus Andronicus”. But this is not a casual rip-off. It is well crafted, well voiced, dark and thrilling. Nicol has said of the potential of a crime novel: “...the fun you can have with characters having outrageous conversations after or during the most appalling situations. Appeals to my sense of humour...” and POWER PLAY's violence is truly bloody but Nicol's writing does not gloat. Instead he brings us a powerful, fast-paced, well-observed thriller set amongst the gangsters, businessmen and politicos of Cape Town. With its own blend of subtleties and vividly drawn characters POWER PLAY is an absolute recommend.

Lynn Harvey, August 2015

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Review: The Templar Inheritance by Mario Reading

The Templar Inheritance by Mario Reading, April 2015, 400 pages, Corvus, ISBN: 1782395334

Reviewed by Ewa Sherman.

1198: On the eve of his execution, Bavarian knight Johannes von Hartelius writes a last confession. His parchment conceals the location of the Copper Scroll, said to hold the secret of Solomon’s treasure, and the key to the building of a new Temple in the Holy Land. Years before that, Hartelius attempted to rescue the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, from drowning in a river during a battle. Although now a disgraced Templar knight, Hartelius is still a guardian of the Holy Lance and does not want the Scroll to be sold to finance a Fourth Crusade.

May 2013: In present-day Iraq, British photo-journalist John Hart survives a bomb explosion near a roadside café. He’s accompanied only by Nalan Abuna, his intelligent beautiful Kurdish Christian translator. They are shaken and terrified for different reasons but this event will lead them both to uncover shocking brutal stories, firmly set in the modern history of the area.

At the same time Hart also discovers the message hidden in his ancestor’s testament, placed in the Holy Spear. The famous treasure appears to be concealed in a hollow mountain, known as Solomon’s Prison. Hart, besotted with Nalan, becomes obsessed about getting to Iran where the mountain is located. With Nalan’s help he sets out to find the Copper Scroll, following in Hartelius’ footsteps and his epic battle hundreds of years ago, and his life changes dramatically. What follows is a dangerous adventure where past and present are interwoven, and the finale is utterly unexpected.

Similarities between Hart and Hartelius are plentiful. True love features strongly in their lives, along with the desire for truth and honesty. Both are heroes in a way…

There are vivid descriptions of torture and humiliation in the present times. I assume that style might have been chosen as a way to engage the reader more in the story, and its political context, and also to demonstrate the differences between two separate modern worlds: that of the quite naïve idealistic Hart and that of the disillusioned, older-than-her-years Nalan.

THE TEMPLAR INHERITANCE is an intense fast paced thriller in the 'Dan Brown' tradition. Mario Reading uses short chapters, each ending with a little cliff-hanger which encourages the reader to keep reading and wanting to know more; his preference is for firmly defined characters and the historical background that might not always be accurate but provides an interesting setting for this plot-driven novel.

Ewa Sherman, August 2015