Thursday, May 16, 2013

Original Skin, by David Mark

blue rider press/Penguin, 2013
427 pp

(my copy from the publisher -- thank you!)

Last November when I read David Mark's crime fiction book called  The Dark Winter , I was surprised at how very good it was for a first novel. Now, with  Original Skin, Mark has kicked things up a few notches to create an even better second series installment, set in the Hull, West Yorkshire area of England.

 His protagonist, DS Aector McAvoy, is a  member of the specialized squad known as the Serious and Organized Crime Unit under the direction of McAvoy's boss Trish Pharaoh.  The unit is currently under fire from the Humberside Police Authority because of the rise of violent crime statistics, not helped much by the crimes of a gang viciously attacking and torturing smaller growers as a means of taking over their farms and intimidating them. After doing his best to convince the Police Authority committee members that the unit is working hard to solve the case, McAvoy decompresses by  taking a walk along the towpath by the Humber, where a) he sees two people talking that may be committee members, and b) in the water among the litter of supermarket carts, bottles, mattress springs etc., he finds a cell phone and picks it up. Curious, he picks it up, thinking he might be able to fix it.  What he finds on the phone starts another investigation rolling, one that leads to a very clever and rather nasty killer whose first crime, as it turns out,  was written off as a suicide. If what I've written so far doesn't spark your interest (although for serious crime readers it should whet some measure of curiosity), and you're more of a Fifty Shades of Gray type person, you can add  into the mix a young woman with a unique tattoo who belongs to the world of swinging sex parties, sexual submission  and sex for thrills with people she's only met online. 

Keeping the action up over 427 pages in any novel of crime fiction is a tough job, but the author does not disappoint.   With his excellent characterizations, a well-plotted and rather twisty core murder mystery and his look at how the local area is primed for "high crime --  for example, the decline of local industry, lack of investment, lack of "impetus on education," and the geographical "sense of isolation,"  -- all working together harmoniously, the 400+ pages fly by in no time.  My own small niggle here is the amount of time spent with Aector's home life, but that's a personal issue, because I'm more about the crime, less about crying babies keeping both parents awake over several nights. It's all about character development, but I'm an impatient reader.

 While McAvoy is a gentle giant of a policeman and a family man, the author takes him down some very dark paths in this book, so I'd recommend it to fans of more darkly-oriented police procedurals.  While cozy readers may find this book a bit overwhelming, readers who enjoy more serious crime will definitely be glued.  Do not, however, start the series with this novel, but instead with Dark Winter, as things in Original Skin build from the first book.  Overall -- much better than the first book and an intriguing read any serious crime reader will want to read. 

crime fiction from the UK

Monday, May 13, 2013

Harlequin's Costume, by Leonid Yuzefovich

Glagoslav Publications, 2013
263 pp

(ARC from the publisher, thank you!)

 "During the performance he ruled the stage, entertained the public and ordered poor Pierrot about until, brought to the point of despair, Pierrot found an imperceptible thread in his tormenter's costume and pulled it. At that, Harlequin's costume, virtuosically sewn from rags with one single thread, fell to pieces."

Harlequin's Costume is a blend of two of my favorite genres, crime fiction and historical fiction. The time is 1871, the place St. Petersburg, Russia; Czar Alexander II is sitting on the imperial throne.  It is a politically-charged time, and after the death of Austrian military attaché Prince von Ahrensburg, Chief Inspector Ivan Dmitrievich Putilin has a tough job trying to a) determine whether or not his murder is the work of some political faction and b) keep his head above water since the Czar's own secret police are also involved with their own agenda and c) maneuver around circles during a delicate time.  The story is told looking back, as Putilin is working on his memoirs, "the most interesting material...accumulated over the course of my career,... something like a chronicle of crime in our Northern capital over the last thirty years."  Harlequin's Costume is the first of a three-volume trilogy based on the real Ivan Putilin who served as St. Petersburg's chief of police from 1866 to 1892; in Russia his exploits are the subject of a television mini-series.

The novel is rich in period detail, and there is a definite sense of time and place that runs throughout. Considering that Yuzefovich is an historian who taught his beloved subject for some 29 years, this is not surprising.  It's easy to envision not only St. Petersburg at this time, but also the multi-faceted political and diplomatic intrigue going on all around poor Putilin as he tries to suss out the truth behind the death of von Ahrensburg.  The story is filled with potential suspects who have more than a few motives to want the attaché dead.  As it turns out, sometimes even the slightest detail becomes important to the crime's solution.  As you navigate through the streets of St. Petersburg, there are also some funny moments that lighten the intensity of Putilin's investigation.   At one point  Putilin's editor notes:

"Ivan Dmietrievich worked like an artist who scatters smears, blots, spots and lines on the canvas before a bewildered audience, in apparently random fashion, and then, with a flick of the wrist, suddenly pulls them together into a single whole and blinds his viewers with the instantaneous revelation of his intent, concealed hitherto in chaos."
and that is precisely the way Yuzefovich writes as well.  Ivan Dmietrievich bides his time until he finds that "imperceptible thread" to unravel the investigation; Yuzefovich also waits for the perfect moment to reveal all. My only issue with this novel is that a number of times, with the switch from 1871 to later when Ivan Dmietrievich is discussing his stories with his editor, I did a quick "huh?" at the sudden changes. One moment you're reading about a shipment from Genoa with its cargo of oranges and lemons, and the next the editor is saying "somehow the freight seems out of season." These little sections would be fine (imho) in little chapters by themselves, but within the narrative it was a bit jarring to switch from one time to another so quickly.

This is definitely not a book for crime readers who want a quick solution. The story moves a bit slowly, taking you through multiple suspects and their motives, and the author takes his time to set up the political and diplomatic scene while carefully sketching out his characters.  This book would probably be suited more for readers of good historical fiction (not the soap-operaish sort) or historical crime readers who want to immerse themselves in a specific time and place while their armchair detective selves try to figure out the whodunit along with the detective. I defy you to figure this one out - I certainly didn't.   I hope the publishers don't wait too long before publishing the next installment -- this one was definitely right up my alley.

crime fiction from Russia