CategoryBook reviews

Presumed Guilty – Winning gilt edged reviews

Not only long-listed for the 2017 NZ Ngaio Marsh Crime Awards, Presumed Guilty is seen as unique in New Zealand in that it’s a genuine legal thriller with powerful characters in and out of the courtroom.

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Link to buy: https://www.amazon.com/Presumed-Guilty-Sasha-Stace-Book-ebook/dp/B01MTV2UI2

Up there with the best psychological thrillers.

What’s worse than running over your neighbor’s dog? If you read The Devil’s Wire by Deborah Rogers, you’ll find out! There are surprises aplenty in this rollicking read and you might at the end, look carefully at what you really know about those closest to you. Are they who they really seem?

 

There’s a small cast of characters in this book but they’re all beautifully drawn by Rogers. Blunt South African antagonist, Lenise Jameson, is a bit of a favourite of mine. She provides endless suffering for protagonist Jennifer, seemingly for the careless killing of her dog who’d somehow gotten on to the road on a dark night at the very time Jennifer was concerned about not having an accident. Jennifer had been trying to rescue a loose mandarin from under foot.

But empathy for the life situation of both women is not difficult. Guilt ridden Jennifer’s relationship with needy husband Hank, is at best, running aground, and at worst, revealing a nightmare. Their only child, 12 year old McKenzie, has hateful rages towards her mother, largely it seems, due to Jennifer’s ignorance of what has been going on in the family home. Rogers is clever in showing us Jennifer’s psychology throughout e.g. sentences that paint a picture of a frantic and unsettled mind.

Meanwhile, Lenise with an adult son who does her no credit, is bereaved by the loss of her beloved pooch and soon finds herself on hard times. Early in the story Lenise is set up by an immoral rival to be fired from her real estate job. But her inability to sustain any meaningful relationship with a human being is not only down to a clumsy penchant for unsolicited advice. Her biggest flaw, one she is blind to, is her obsession about McKenzie, the daughter she wanted and never had. The more she wants that type of love and affection, the more she acts to prevent it.

Jennifer and Lenise, so different in their own way, become an unholy and dangerous alliance. They drive a carefully crafted and twisting plot that will have you on edge wondering how they get out of a horrible mess of their own creation.

When you take the characters, the plot and the liberally infused shades of dark humor, you’ll likely be wondering when you’ll be treated to more of the fine writing craft of Deborah Rogers.

Book review – Trust No one – Paul Cleave

Crime novel readers enjoy the detectives, the lawyers, the private sleuths, all invariably overcoming an antagonistic force. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t keep writing those stories, striving to tell them in unique ways, tweaking and dialing up tension with innovation. Sometimes evil wins, most times not. Some leave us with the main character in our heads long after we’ve finished the story. Jerry Grey, in “Trust No One”, is one of those characters.

Ngaio Marsh Award winner, Paul Cleave’s latest novel is no ordinary crime story. It is a psychological thriller, as far away from something formulaic in the genre as it’s possible to be. And, in my view, also daring. This story doesn’t just show insight into what living with Alzheimer’s might be like. Cleave gives us Jerry Grey’s painfully frustrating life in all its horror – moments of lucidity followed by desperation. In his unique style,  Cleave answers the question about what it’s like for someone in  the grip of a disease that wipes the brain of the very thing that allows him a living –  cognitive function.

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Does it work? Big time! Not just because Cleave’s cleverly unfolds a thriller plot, constantly engaging the reader. In embracing a tough theme, he balances incredible empathy for the protagonist (and by implication, others with this disease) and he does so with the dry and dark humor ubiquitous across his other novels.

Cleave says, he struggled to come up with any title by the time he submitted his manuscript. In the end, Trust No one was suggested by publisher Atria (an imprint of Simon and Schuster) and when you read it you’ll agree it’s the right title for the story. Who can you trust when you can’t trust yourself?

As an attendee of the 10th Thrillerfest Conference in New York in early July, I was sent a digital copy of the book – a great marketing idea by the publishers but also a ‘big balls’ display to promote this book as essentially, a thriller for thriller writers – my words, not theirs.  So it was particularly interesting to hear D.P Lyle M.D. give Cleave’s book a huge rap in a craft session at that conference. You only need to run Lyle’s name through Google to see his credibility.

I’m not revealing a lot about this great story. It opens with Jerry Grey confessing to killing ‘Susan with a z’ and no one believing him. His audience is convinced Jerry’s recounting a tale from one of his books. In fact people don’t believe Susan with a z, has ever existed. Poor Jerry. A successful crime writer of twelve books whose pen name is Henry Cutter. One day a devoted family man, the next – shipped off to a nursing home 15 miles out of the city.  At 49 years of age and with early onset dementia, it can’t get much worse than this, can it? With Cleave at the keyboard, fans of his previous eight books will know that’s a rhetorical question.  

Has Jerry really become a killer? Is this appalling disease really driving him to act out Henry Cutter’s tales, rendering him unable to recall details the crime writer inside him knows are vital? Or is he, at heart and head, a clever killer with the ability to deceive. Some characters in the book certainly believe the latter.

If Cleave tormented Jerry Grey, his family, his friend Hans, his neighbors and the police in (mad as) “Batshit County”, he certainly doesn’t spare his readers. I was convinced he was playing with our minds too when he introduced an uncommon way of writing, a way that works beautifully for this story. We see Jerry’s/Henry’s point of view in the first person, second person and third person. Cleave craftily introduces Jerry’s “madness journal” to do so, creating a contemporaneous record in the form of a diary, which Jerry completes across the course of the novel. It begins with the awful realization that ‘Captain A’ is charting ‘Future Jerry’s course.  

Here’s a short sample of this journal, written after Jerry woke to see an obscenity spray-painted on a neighbor’s house: Naturally she came over and banged on your door. Of course she did. You’re the go-to guy when people have obscenities painted on their walls. Somebody spray-painted the word asshole on your door? Go see Jerry. Fucktard on your letterbox? Go see Jerry. Shitburger on your car? Go see Jerry.”  I won’t spoil the nice twist at the end of that journal’s entry, but despite the humour, I couldn’t help but connect to the distress of uncertainty someone must go through in these circumstances. You’d hope you wouldn’t be guilty, but you can’t rule it out!

As a writer, I enjoyed references to the writing craft: people asking where you get your ideas from, the editor’s concerns, the writer’s self-doubts, getting stuck, getting well through and realizing a significant rewrite is on the cards (yes, I know you outliners claim not to have the last two), last year’s book not that well reviewed. It’s all there, and appropriately so, given Jerry’s living and the fact that it’s all coming to a premature end.

I know this won’t be the end of Cleave’s crime writing, but many will understandably ask how he tops, ‘Trust No one’.  Having taken a year to recover from writing this book, he may even ponder that himself. For someone whose business is to entertain, let’s not bother to ask that, but appreciate that we, his readers, are the reason Cleave likes to make bad things happen. Let’s have more bad things!

Book review – Crime Thriller: Five minutes alone

When you pick up a book written by fellow Christchurch crime writer, Paul Cleave, you can be assured of a great read. His thrillers not only give you a terrific ride  through the often disturbing life of the characters, they can make you smile on nearly every page, at least for those of us with a slightly dark sense of humour. This is no easy thing to achieve.

5 mins alone

At the moment there’s a good debate on the value of restorative justice in New Zealand.  RJ conferences put the victim and offender together as a healing experience for the former and an opportunity for redemption for the latter. I over simplify, but you get the drift.

As Cleave’s title suggests, the premise of the book is a little different. It’s about the desire of many victims of crime, to have their five minutes alone with those who have wronged them, in effect to impart a bit of The Old Testament philosophy of an ‘eye for an eye’.

Ngaio Marsh award winner Cleave puts two main characters from former books together. One is Theodore Tate a cop who’s trying to get his life back on track after the death of his daughter and a wife who has seen better mental health. It’s Tate’s job to detect who’s killing the criminals in this story. The other is Carl Schroder an ex cop who was tormented by delusional Joe in The Cleaner and Joe Victim. Schroder is not only psychologically damaged goods, this lone wolf has a bullet lodged in his brain, inoperable and effectively a ticking time bomb on his life. He’ll never know his last seconds until it’s too late. So why not use his knowledge of crime, criminals and victims to give victims the justice so many don’t get from the system? It’s fair to say Carl Schroder’s idea of a restorative justice conference is not quite what the system intends. But good old Carl doesn’t quite get everything right. Death befalls the innocent people – those Carl is trying to help while his old mate Tate is responsible for putting an end to the unknown vigilante.

But in typical Cleave plotting, Tate has, as the cops say, “form” of his own. When the story begins only Tate (and readers of Cleave’s other books) know this secret. But don’t bet too much money on that remaining hidden. As it lurks in the background of Tate’s detection work and motivation, it makes for a fascinating read.

Cleave has written eight internationally best selling crime stories and been a finalist for the prestigous 2014 Edgar Award. Don’t be surprised if Five minutes alone is an award winner. As much as I enjoyed Joe Victim, I thought this one was even better.

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