Gutsy, forceful, bullish, coming on strong, powerful and convincing are just some of the synonyms one might use for hard-hitting, but in the case of the books below it is also about far too real knocks, punches and wounds.
Michael Grothaus: Epiphany Jones
From the very first paragraph, where we appear to be voyeurs in a sex scene involving Audrey Hepburn, we realise this is a book that doesn’t spare your blushes! I’ve written a full review of it for Crime Fiction Lover, but suffice it to say that this really does have it all: difficult topics like abuse and sex-trafficking of minors, graphic violence, two unreliable main protagonists constantly trying to outwit each other (the Epiphany of the title and depressed, hapless Jerry), strong language. The combination might be just too much for some, but it certainly has a unique and consistent voice, which makes the book stand out like a skyscraper in a landscape of terraced houses.
Quite a similar topic, in a way: Freedom is a disillusioned, angry woman searching for her daughter, just like Epiphany in the book above. Eccentric characters and violent situations abound, but there is a warmer feel to this novel. We can relate to Freedom and her losses more than we could with Epiphany, even though both of them have a rather elastic approach to legality and hurting others.
Freedom is no saint (she describes herself as murderer, cop killer, fugitive, drunk), but there were good reasons for each of her actions. I also liked the fact that she is no spring chick with unrealistic expectations or illusions. She has spent the last 18 years living under Witness Protection, and she had to give her two children up for adoption. Now she is trying to find them again, but her quest could endanger all of them.
I loved this feisty debut novel featuring a mother who is prepared to do anything to protect her children (surprisingly rare occurrence in the current ‘girl’ crop of psychological thrillers), but I did have a few minor niggles. For instance, all of the chapters told from Freedom’s point of view start with ‘My name is Freedom and…’. While I can see the reason for this (she is convincing herself of her name, as it’s not the one with which she was born), and it helps to clarify POV, it becomes a little grating and artificial after a while.
As for strong beginnings – well, this novel has one of the most explosive, memorable opening paragraphs you can imagine! Jax Miller has said that she wants to write transgressional fiction of the type ‘created’ by Chuck Palahniuk (although publishers are telling her that no one wants women writers to write in this style!). On the basis of this novel, I’d say she has all that to offer and more!
I had no idea this was a series about missing persons investigator called David Raker, but it seems to stand just fine on its own. Raker tries to help his friend Colm Healy, formerly one of the Met’s most promising detectives, but now in a sombre downward spiral since he became obsessed with a case he failed to solve a few years back: the murder of a young mother and her twin daughters. When Colm refuses his help and goes missing, Raker takes on the case where his friend left off, and becomes almost equally stubborn about finding out the truth. We flit in and out of vivid descriptions of council estates and family life, never quite sure what is real and what is fantasy. A pier in London’s Docklands (imaginary, but very evocative) becomes a focal point in the investigation.
It’s not the brutality that stands out in this book (although it’s certainly not gentle), but the damaged individuals, many of whom appear to have given up hope. Slightly depressing, but an excellent plot and subtle, well-rounded characterisation.
Olivier Norek: Code 93
’93’ is the prefix for the French department of Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the poorest and most violent suburban ghettos on the outskirts of Paris. This is where the author worked until recently as a police officer and in this, his first novel, he tries to share some of his intimate knowledge of the area with his readers.
The book starts with two really puzzling incidents, which make you want to read on and on. First, in the prologue, a family is called in to the morgue to identify the body of a young drug addict, but they claim not to recognise her (despite the fact that she is indeed their daughter and sister). Why would they do that? Secondly, a corpse is brought into the morgue but revives on the table as they are about to do an autopsy on him. The newspapers are quick to label this ‘the Zombie case’ and when a few more strange incidents crop up in the neighbourhood (including what appears to be spontaneous combustion), the pressure is on for Victor Coste and his team to provide a rational explanation.
There is perhaps a tendency to overexplain how the police teams work, but this was very useful information in my case, so I didn’t complain. Above all, the author uses his personal experience of team motivation and friction to describe the everyday hassles, nuisances and small rewards of police work. The final solution linking all of the cases does not perhaps quite live up to the promise of the beginning, but it’s solid work and I hear that the author is getting better and better (as he leaves the police behind and dedicates himself full-time to writing). I hope this gets translated into English soon – Norek won the prize in Lyon this year and was part of the panel featuring the real ‘hard-hitters’: Nesbo, Deon Meyer, Craig Johnson, Indridason and Sara Gran.