Saturday, 8 July 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR JULY, 2017

A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly


         Charlie Parker’s back!  But I have to say that his battles against evil with his redoubtable friends Louis and Angel are proceeding at a very pedestrian pace in this particular episode:  Charlie is still pursuing his usual ghostly enemies, but for this story at least, they are a pretty tame lot, murderous though they may be. They are descendants of the Capstead Martyrs, an 1850’s sect who made a pact with the terrible Angel Belial that, if they kept on killing (i.e. blood sacrifices) they would never have to answer for their crimes in the next world - which is so terrifying that if we mere mortals had any inkling of its existence we would try to stay alive forever!
            Be that as it may.  Charlie is instructed by laconic FBI Agent Edgar Ross, his sometime employer, to search for private investigator Jaykob Eklund who has not contacted Ross for two weeks.  Eklund was on the trail of the Capstead descendants;  he also had evidence of ghostly presences connected to them, a theory the hard-bitten Ross dismisses:  from previous experience however, Charlie knows differently.
            As is the norm in a Charlie Parker book (see reviews below), there are a treasure trove of minor characters, all beautifully drawn and some completely unforgettable, like The Collector, a murderous avenger who collects a souvenir from each of his victims;  (we say farewell to him in this volume, and I stress again:  you really need to read the previous stories) and Mother, widow of a shadowy super gangster, who is determined to wind up all his criminal enterprises – to the dismay and fury of her son Philip, who has the ambition but not the skill to continue operations.  Compared to them, not to mention that mismatched pair of killers, Angel and Louis, the Capstead descendants are third rate, and their eventual come-uppance hardly raised an eyebrow, let alone my heart-rate.
            Fortunately, Charlie Parker’s daughters alive and dead, provided more goose pimples:  Sam the living daughter, has daily conversations with her dead sister Jennifer;  they have appointed themselves guardians of Charlie and Co. and have developed formidable powers between them in an effort to keep their father safe, as Sam’s mother Rachel discovers when she decides to place restrictions on Sam’s access to Charlie:  everything hits the fan, and Rachel is persuaded to change her mind by the reactions of her living daughter – and the dead one.
            So.  Still plenty of reasons to look forward to the next book, but I hope that Mr Connolly, that master of supernatural suspense, is back on song next time – in this book, all the I’s are dotted and T’s crossed;  answers are given to outstanding plot questions, but in such a perfunctory manner that the reader could be forgiven for thinking that Mr Connolly rushed to finish everything off so that he could indulge himself in something more interesting.  FOUR STARS      

A Time of Torment, by John Connolly

The State of West Virginia hides a reclusive sect within one of the smallest counties within its bounds, Plassey County.  Everyone in the adjoining villages surrounding The Cut, as it is known, are careful not to recognise – or God forbid – antagonise the Cut dwellers;  it is common knowledge that bad things happen to them if they do.  People disappear, and if they don’t, their bodies are found burnt and desecrated.  The people of the Cut keep to themselves, and their neighbours are happy to leave them alone.  It is rumoured that their small sect worships an alien God, a God of blood and retribution, a God that no normal Christian could countenance:  the Dead King.
Enter private investigator Charlie Parker, no stranger to battling the forces of evil, and recently terribly injured in his efforts to vanquish his enemies.  He comes to Plassey County to find his client, a man just released from prison after serving a trumped-up sentence for child molestation.  His only request of Charlie is to look into the disappearance of two women who were dear to him while he was inside;  women who didn’t believe that he was guilty of the heinous crimes of which he was accused.  He also tells Charlie that if he disappears, then he has been kidnapped, probably by The Cut, and his life will be over.  Charlie and his two murderous sidekicks Louis and Angel, are ready as always to ferret out the truth and find out where the bodies are hidden, not to mention adding a few corpses of their own to the growing pile.
Last, but certainly never least, Charlie’s two daughters, one living and one dead watch over him with varying degrees of anxiety – at least on the part of Jennifer, the little daughter murdered many years before.  (You really DO have to read these books from the beginning!)  Samantha, daughter # 2, seems to have more confidence in her father’s ability to successfully fight the Dead King;  she has quite exceptional powers of her own, which have yet to be tested.
John Connolly has always described his Charlie Parker tales as ‘odd little books’:  maybe they are for some but for legions of his fans around the world, odd is good!  (see 2014 review below)  His characters are always, without exception, well-drawn and credible and each story is wonderfully plotted with just the right mix of horror and humour – and always, ALWAYS beautifully written.  It won’t be a spoiler to say that the people of The Cut are eventually defeated, but horror and dread is still just around the next corner for Charlie and his mighty friends.  FIVE STARS.


A Song of Shadows, by John Connolly

In ‘The Wolf in Winter’, John Connolly’s last opus an attempt was made on the life of Charlie Parker, dark hero of most of Mr Connolly’s books.  He was grievously wounded, but with a choice he made whilst hovering between life and death, and the spiritual support (literally) of his murdered daughter (it pays to have read the preceding books), Charlie decides to give life one more chance.  With the devoted assistance of Louis and Angel, hired killers par excellence he rents a house in a little village on the Maine coast, there to try to regain his former strength and dexterity.
It is a long, painful road back to recovery.  Charlie is not used to the weakness and agony his many injuries cause him but he is determined to get better:  he made the decision to live, now that is exactly what he plans to do.
He is delighted to have a visit from his daughter Samantha, his child by his ex-lover Rachel, and it gives him pleasure to have found a playmate for her;  his beach side neighbour, Ruth Winter has a little girl Amanda who, despite health problems that keep her away from school a lot, welcomes Sam’s company:  from a social perspective life is good.
Until a body is found on a nearby beach, and it is eventually established that it wasn’t a drowning or a suicide, but murder;  at the same time a family has been found murdered in their burning house and the Maine police are swamped with crimes for which they are badly under-resourced.  Tragically, these crimes pale into insignificance when Ruth Winter is cruelly murdered on the night of Sam and Amanda’s playdate, but the most uncanny event for Charlie Parker is that his daughter wakes him to tell him that a man is trying to enter Ms Winter’s home.  How could she know?
Charlie is injured trying to apprehend the murderer on the dunes and it seems that finally his own life is about to end – until Sam (who was under strict instructions to stay in her bedroom) appears at his side to confront the killer – who succumbs to burial under a massive fall of sand, an occurrence that hasn’t happened for decades at that part of the beach .To say that Sam is no ordinary little girl is an understatement.
It is time for Charlie, with the assistance of Louis and Angel, to return to what he is best at:  investigating murder and stamping out evil – if he can, and the deeper he delves into Ruth’s killing, unspeakable old crimes and pure evil finally reveal themselves, for Ruth, a Jew, was killed so that she would not disclose anything she may have inadverdently learned about old Nazis:  Nazi war criminals who entered the United States from Argentina under assumed identities, several of whom settled in Maine.  None wish to be exposed and sent back to Germany, and they will go to any lengths, including multiple murders, to stay where they are.
Charlie Parker is a different person now, after his close brush with death.  There is an implacability, a hardness and resolve about him that cause his loyal friends much disquiet but they are determined – as always – to support him to the hilt in his efforts to purge evil.  Charlie is unfazed by the fact that the battle may be uneven;  what nearly stops his heart is the knowledge that his daughter Sam is just as committed as he to stamp out the enemies of the world, and he is fully aware that she is in just as much danger.
As always, Mr Connolly leaves his readers in terrible suspense right to the last page -  which only poses more questions and enables this beautifully written series to continue.  What a master he is, and what a pleasure it is to read a Charlie Parker book.  FIVE STARS

Don’t Let Go, by Michel Bussi

          French Author Michel Bussi (according to the book blurbs) is the second highest-selling author in France, but it is only recently that his novels been translated into English starting with the superb thriller ‘After the Crash’ (see ecstatic 2015 review below), and followed by ‘Black Water Lilies’ – such a disappointment to me that I did not waste my time writing a review for such a mediocre offering;  after limping to the end of it I decided reluctantly that Mr Bussi was a One Hit Wonder -   until now.
            When ‘Don’t Let Go’ became available, the memory of ‘After the Crash’ convinced me to give Mr Bussi another try, and while his latest work is still below the very high bar he set for himself originally, it’s still a classy, highly readable thriller, proving that when he’s not distracted from his day job (a Professor of Geography:  where does he find the time!) he can write suspense novels par excellence.
            The Mascarene Island of Réunion is a French possession in the Indian Ocean and prides itself on being the perfect tourist destination;  it has everything required for R & R – perfect weather and beaches, palm trees, five-star accommodation, an oversupply of bars and night clubs – and a wondrous, frightening number of active volcanoes.  No matter if the local population lives in varying degrees of minimum-wage poverty and squalor;  tourism is the premier industry  and those with Euros to spend must be kept ignorant of poverty, squalor – and the crime that accompanies it - at all costs.
            Therefore, it comes as an enormous shock to the local police force when the beautiful wife of a tourist couple goes missing from the top-class hotel in which they were staying.  She left behind her husband and six year old daughter, saying she was going to change after her swim;  then she was not seen again.  She was reported missing by her distraught husband, but subsequent enquiries reveal that he had also gone back to their room, and was eventually seen by several hotel employees wheeling a laundry cart downstairs and outside to his rental car:  rumours rebound from one end of the island to the other:  tourist Martial Bellion has killed his wife Liane after a domestic (lots of locals could identify with that) and tried to shield himself by reporting her missing, BUT.  Now he has disappeared, too, along with his little daughter Josapha.  A manhunt is launched – this man is dangerous, a killer, for two more murders are discovered in the course of the police search.  All the evidence, circumstantial though it may be, fits:  Martial is a crazed murderer and his little daughter will probably be next, if she hasn’t been despatched already.
            Mr Bussi writes very convincingly and well of island life and politics;  he is a good researcher and brings to life in his no-nonsense prose the various levels of strata in the lives of the haves and have-nots.  And it eventually comes as no surprise to find that handsome tourist Martial has several shameful secrets, secrets that don’t show up well in the light of day:  is he as guilty as the police think?  And if not, then who is?
            I am happy to say that I didn’t know Whodunit until Mr Bussi chose to let me.  He is definitely back on song with ‘Don’t Let Go’;  his characters are always engaging, especially the local police chief and her Second-in-Command and, apart from an unnecessary touch of melodrama when the real killer is revealed, he has done much to restore the respect I lost for him after staggering through ‘Black Water Lilies.’  FOUR STARS 
              
After the Crash, by Michel Bussi

On December 23rd, 1980, an Airbus 5403 flying from Istanbul to Paris crashes during a terrible storm in the Jura mountains bordering Switzerland and France.  All are killed, except for a three-month-old girl, found half-frozen in the snow but otherwise unharmed – a miracle baby, a child who survived impossible odds, and the precious darling of her surviving family in France.
            But which family?
            According to the passenger list, two baby girls were travelling with their parents;  Lyse-Rose, 3 month old daughter of the son of a fabulously rich family, the de Carvilles, returning from running subsidiaries of the family business in Turkey, and Emilie, a baby of the same age whose parents, Pascal and Stephanie Vitral had been given a trip to Turkey by Pascal’s parents who had won it themselves but couldn’t make the trip;  instead they looked after Marc, Emilie’s elder brother aged two, so that his parents could have a lovely holiday.
            The Vitral grandparents are unashamedly working class people who make ends meet by running a food van in Dieppe and the surrounding area.  They are salt-of-the-earth good citizens with sound principles – and a strong conviction that the surviving miracle baby is their granddaughter, and they are willing to fight to the end of their slim resources to prove it.  Léonce de Carville, grandfather of Lyse-Rose, is also as convinced that the little girl belongs to his family, the difference being that he has enormous wealth and power at his disposal, not to mention the services of Crédule Grand-Duc, a private detective in his employ charged with investigating fully the origins of the surviving child, and establishing beyond doubt that she is a de Carville –  for Léonce is so used to controlling the lives and fates of others that he cannot bear to have uncertainties in his own life, let alone lose a fight.
            So begins one of the most compulsive page-turners I have read this year.  French author Mr Bussi gathers up readers and flings them forward on a truly thrilling, mysterious ride spanning eighteen years, and not once (and I’m usually very good at figuring out whodunit well before the book’s end) was I able to see who resorted to murder, and why:  each chapter was never what it seemed.

            Mr Bussi’s style is competent and workmanlike;  no pretty word pictures here except for the character of Lyse-Rose’s emotionally damaged elder sister Malvina:  his prose turns purple and melodramatic to the point of turning her into a Witchy-poo from a fairy tale, but this does little to detract from the overall impact of this high-octane thriller.  I hope he is hard at work on another one.  SIX STARS!!

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