The One Sentence Summary: An inquisitive ER nurse is pulled into the hunt for a murderer when she finds a dead body at her son’s soccer game.
The Meat...moreThe One Sentence Summary: An inquisitive ER nurse is pulled into the hunt for a murderer when she finds a dead body at her son’s soccer game.
The Meat and Potatoes: Death in a Red Canvas Chair is Granger’s first novel, a basic murder mystery, told in the first person limited, from the perspective of Rhe Brewster, an ER nurse with a flair for investigation. The story begins with the main character finding the dead body propped up in a folding spectator chair at her son’s soccer game. As the discoverer of the body, Rhe is involved in the investigation from the start, but her naturally curious nature (as well as the fact that her brother-in-law is the town’s Sheriff) quickly lands her a job working the case as an official consultant. When the body is identified as a local college girl, Rhe begins to find a lot of students at the college are spending suspicious amounts of money, with no way to account for it. Everyone seems to have something to hide, so Rhe keeps digging. And then there are threats on her life…
The novel takes place in Pequod, a fictional small town in coastal Maine. Granger does a good job of setting the scene for us, so even those who’ve never been to Maine can practically smell the salty sea air. Although she may give a bit too much technical information about sailing, the level of detail contributes to the novel’s realism.
Rhe Brewster is an interesting and engaging character. She’s a likeable wife/mother/ER nurse, though she may be too perfect. Her one flaw—she’s nosy. I could have said “inquisitive” again, but there are definitely times in the story when her behavior is a step beyond. Rhe even trespasses on private property to learn more about the things she finds suspicious, which, though just illegal for a police consultant, would be unconstitutional for an officer. I suppose it wasn’t just her zeal for investigation that I found tiresome, but that she seemed motivated more by a desire to “know it all” rather than to solve the case.
The Praiseworthy: Death in a Red Canvas Chair is an intriguing mystery with an interesting angle. The story moves at a brisk pace, and keeps the reader’s attention. Overall, this is a good first novel.
The Shortcomings: There are just a few things about the writing that I have to pick on: the dialogue is quite wooden, and the author misuses the subjunctive mood several times. But that’s just me being picky. A bigger problem though is that a significant chunk of the mystery is explained to the reader after the fact, in dialogue. “So it turns out so and so did this, and it was really so and so who did that” isn’t the most interesting way to resolve the story.
The Verdict: I would recommend Death in a Red Canvas Chair to readers who enjoy murder mysteries with engaging characters, in interesting settings. (less)
The One Sentence Summary: A struggling ex-convict flees from New York City to Shanghai after a robbery gone wrong; twelve years later his new life is...moreThe One Sentence Summary: A struggling ex-convict flees from New York City to Shanghai after a robbery gone wrong; twelve years later his new life is threatened when his past comes after him.
The Meat and Potatoes: Brendan Lavin is an ex-con, a wheel man for a group of robbers, struggling to go straight. With the threat of his overdue rent and his failing business, he agrees to join in on another robbery. In the bloody aftermath of what was supposed to be an easy score, he flees to Shanghai to start fresh. Twelve years later he has a wife, daughter, and thriving bakery. But as he always feared, his old crew shows up, threatening to destroy everything if he doesn’t agree to one last job.
Tomorrow City is unique and interesting, splitting the story between a familiar American metropolis and a burgeoning Chinese city that most readers have never experienced. The details of the city and people of Shanghai were the strength of the novel, and kept me engaged.
The story moves quickly, but at only 200 pages, seems to end just as the reader is really becoming interested. The character of Brendan is likeable and sympathetic, a good guy who has made some mistakes and is now trying to live right; but the character could have benefited from more time spent on his background to help the readers better understand his motivations.
The Praiseworthy: Tomorrow City has a few gems hidden inside an otherwise mediocre tale. A few carefully placed details, especially when describing Shanghai and the people, do a good job of bringing the setting to life for us—“[the apartment was] hidden within the high walls topped with barb wire and shards of broken glass” (p. 54); “the weak sun was struggling to shine through a thick blanket of haze and pollution” (p. 70).
Though most of the writing is simple, visually descriptive, and told rather than shown, there were a few sentences I found impressive. A few of my favorites:
“In his dreams, he found himself running, and when he looked back to see what was chasing him, he saw Ducie smiling a blood-soaked grin.” (p.65). This sentence, a standalone paragraph, is a short, simple, to-the-point way of showing Brendan’s state of mind.
“Mold and grime covered the walls in Rorschach patterns: one looked like a crude map of Russia, and another looked like a horse’s head.” (p. 156). This is a nice detail that helps us see the room—and even smell it—without lengthy description.
“Hope was a powerful force—or was it denial? he wondered. And when it all came down to it, weren’t they more or less the same thing? Weren’t they both the decision to wait rather than the decision to act?” (p. 162). I thought this was an interesting and well-expressed insight.
The Shortcomings: My biggest complaint about Tomorrow City is simply the writing. Kjeldsen makes a lot common errors. He often uses unnecessary words (example: “he ended up spilling so much milk” instead of “he spilled so much milk”; “over by” instead of just “by,” “pulling out” instead of “pulling,” “taking down,” instead of “taking”). In a novel as short as Tomorrow City, I would have expected better economy of phrasing.
Repetition was another failure. Kjeldsen repeated descriptions, words, and sentence structure. In one paragraph he describes a character as “built like a power forward,” only a few sentences later to describe another as “built like a linebacker” (p. 25); twice in four sentences a character “pistol-whipped him in the face” (p. 175); he refers to a character “making a sound like a cat,” and then in the next sentence “he made a sound like an inflatable mattress” (p. 185), and on that same page Kjeldsen begins three sentences in a row with “then” (“Then he…, Then nothing…, Then Sean…”) (p.185).
Kjeldsen’s bio explains that he has worked extensively in film and television, and this becomes apparent in the action scenes. The author abandons all metaphor, all imagery, and simply focuses detail-for-detail on what you would see on the screen. While keeping rapt attention in film, this quickly becomes boring on paper. And in his methodical description of the fight scenes, Kjeldsen lets his repetition intrude. In one in particular he simply goes back and forth describing what each character did (“Brendan raised his knee….Sean rolled off to his side….Brendan scrambled out.…Sean got up….Brendan sidestepped him.”) (p 164).
There are also many instances where the author tells us what happens, rather than showing it to us. The best example is on the very first page: “When he got to the bakery, Brendan realized he had forgotten his key” (p. 13). Kjeldsen could have just as easily shown this: “Stepping up to the grimy back alley entrance, Brendan thrust his hand into his pocket to find nothing but lint. ‘Not again,’ he thought, jiggling the locked doorknob.” With only a few more words, the audience is engaged.
The Verdict: I would recommend Tomorrow City to readers who enjoy crime novels with unique settings, are looking for a quick read, and aren’t bothered by elementary writing errors.
Note: Thank you to Signal 8 Press for my advance copy of Tomorrow City! (less)
The One Sentence Summary: Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy of the Dublin Murder Squad is looking to rebuild his reputation on a high profile case—the...moreThe One Sentence Summary: Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy of the Dublin Murder Squad is looking to rebuild his reputation on a high profile case—the murder of a young family in their home—but nothing about the case is as simple as it seems.
The Meat and Potatoes: Mick’s philosophy about murder, drawn from years of experience, is that the victims invite whatever happens to them in almost every case. Called to a new murder scene with a rookie trainee at his side, he goes into the home of Pat and Jenny Spain, a cheap starter home inside a stalled housing development, where the family was brutally attacked, and asks what they did wrong. What he finds inside doesn’t quite add up: holes in the walls of an otherwise pristine home, video baby monitors rigged throughout the house, and an industrial animal trap in the attic. As more evidence is gathered, a number of scenarios fit: a domestic situation caused by the family’s impending bankruptcy, an obsessed stalker who preyed on the family, a jealous lover out to settle a score. But each time Mick thinks he has the answer, the picture changes.
In Broken Harbour, Tana French takes a non-narrating character from her previous novel and puts him center stage. Written in the first person, past tense, Broken Harbour is very character-focused, as with all of French’s previous work. Mick Kennedy is the star this time, and he’s all about control. Though he prides himself in being able to work the most disturbing cases without flinching, the murders at Broken Harbour begin to get to him as a result of his own tragic experience when he used to holiday there as a child. Broken Harbour contains a strong plot (the solving of the murders) with a complementary character-driven subplot (Kennedy dealing with his childhood experience there).
The Praiseworthy: Tana French’s gift in writing is the creation of characters that are so real and deep that the reader becomes emotionally involved in their story; Broken Harbour is no exception. By using the first person and limiting the perspective to Mick’s character, the reader gets not only his thoughts and insights but his hopes, his errors, and his arrogance. We come to know Kennedy in the same fuzzy way he knows himself, and we’re subject to the same blind spots he is. French spends the first half of the novel (and the investigation) setting out for us who Mick Kennedy is. Then she trips him up, and we spend the rest of the story struggling along with him, wishing he would make different decisions, and just wanting the best for him.
French doesn’t try to hide the moment where things go off the rails. In fact, she comes right out and tells us:
When I think about the Spain case, from deep inside endless nights, this is the moment I remember. Everything else, every other slip and stumble along the way, could have been redeemed. This is the one I clench tight because of how sharp it slices.
This paragraph gives us a very obvious heads-up that this scene is important, but leaves us to figure out why for ourselves. This ratchets up the tension and intrigue, and keeps us engaged.
The Shortcomings: Oddly, my favorite aspect of French’s writing is also one of the biggest shortcomings of Broken Harbour. The strength of the character-narrative is what sets her writing apart from any other crime novel. Her first three novels included strong character backstories that impacted heavily on the characters’ states of mind in the present investigation. In Broken Harbour, the subplot of Kennedy’s tragic family vacation stays in the background until well into the narrative. The first half of the novel reads very much like a straightforward crime drama. The subplot is there, but I think it could have been revealed (or hinted at) sooner, and played more of a role in the story.
Broken Harbour is a very good book—Tana French’s writing ability cannot be impugned—but in this reviewer’s opinion, her first three novels do the same things (present us with an intriguing crime, involve us emotionally with the narrator, and employ a compelling character backstory), but do them better.
The Verdict: I would recommend Broken Harbour to those who enjoy well-written character-driven crime novels, with a healthy dose of mystery and suspense. (less)
The One Sentence Summary: Anna Cameron, a Sergeant and rising star in the Glasgow police force, struggles both personally and professionally when she’...moreThe One Sentence Summary: Anna Cameron, a Sergeant and rising star in the Glasgow police force, struggles both personally and professionally when she’s transferred to head the unit where her ex works, and has to investigate a series of brutal attacks on prostitutes.
The Meat and Potatoes: Anna Cameron is a devoted police officer who excels in an arena where women have to fight to earn and keep the respect of their peers. On the first day in her new unit though she finds out she will be working with her ex-boyfriend Jamie, who is now married to Cath, the younger officer that he dumped Anna for without a word. Then an old man is killed, drawing both Anna and ex-officer Cath into the investigation. At the same time, a man is attacking and disfiguring prostitutes on Anna’s beat. Anna has to figure out how to work with her ex, navigate her way through a new and unwelcome “friendship” with his wife, and solve the cases before her while keeping her career intact.
The Twilight Time is a delightfully complex crime novel, and the above bungled synopsis doesn’t do it justice. The novel includes a number of storylines in addition to the case that must be solved: Anna and Jamie’s lingering feelings for each other, Jamie and Cath’s rocky life together in the wake of the birth of their first child and Cath’s post-partum depression, Cath’s jealousy of Anna and regret for giving up her career with the police, and Anna and Cath’s tenuous friendship, navigating an interpersonal minefield while seeking justice for an old man who they both knew through the job.
The Twilight Time is a past-tense novel written in third person close, with a point-of-view that shifts between major and minor characters. The point of view shifts are frequent, sometimes coming between sections or chapters, and sometimes right in the middle of scenes. Though generally smooth, a few of the quick transitions within scenes are less so. However, since each character has a well-defined and unique voice, it is almost always apparent when we have shifted perspective.
The characters in The Twilight Time are well-crafted and unique, and their vices abound. Campbell unites our sympathies initially with Anna, the main character who was dumped for another woman without so much as a goodbye, but then chapters later completely reverses our allegiance. Characters that seem good at the outset are revealed to be deeply flawed, and those that we initially write-off we gradually begin to identify with. These rich characters really drive the story and pull the reader in, resulting in deep emotional involvement with the characters’ lives. It may be overdone however, and in the end the reader may be so fed up with their weaknesses that all of the characters seem like terrible people.
The crime story at the heart of The Twilight Time is interesting, but isn’t revealed until a ways into the book. At first we’re presented with a series of seemingly disparate events, which by the end are proven to be interrelated. But Campbell may have waited a little too long to start drawing the connections. For most of the story it feels like all we’re doing is following the characters in their everyday lives. Still, the interactions between the characters keep the reader interested and the novel flowing until the connection between the crimes is revealed.
Karen Campbell, a former member of the Glasgow police force, writes with authority and realism. Unlike many authors who were formerly on the job though, Campbell’s story is excellently crafted and doesn’t read like a memoir.
The Praiseworthy: Campbell’s writing must be praised. This is one of the things that sets The Twilight Time apart from any other crime novel that you might pick up. Campbell tells the story with a literary flair that transcends the usual straight-forward storytelling of most crime writers. Consider the way she describes Anna’s distress at finding out Jamie has ended up married to the woman he left her for:
‘He’s married?’ How did that come out? Anna looked in the fridge for milk, cooling cheeks, concealing confusion.
‘Aye, his wife used to be in the job too.’ Derek stirred the tea. ‘You might know her. Nice lassie—Catherine. Worked here a while, then ended up at London Road.’
Her hand held fast to the milk carton. Cool and pliant, sharp squares boxing liquid. If she squeezed it, it would burst. Burst like eggs, spilling life in puddles.
So he married her.
Also, The Twilight Time includes a number of passages in well done stream-of-consciousness style. Inside the minds of the character, we see their thoughts jumping and flowing just as our own thoughts jump and flow. After dozens of books where characters’ thoughts come already well-considered and polished, it’s refreshing to find an author whose characters think the way we do.
Campbell’s use of dialect in The Twilight Time is also superb. Anyone who’s ever been to Glasgow can attest to the fact that locals have their own language, and rarely use the King’s English when speaking to each other. Campbell’s use of “no” for not, “canny” for can’t, and shifted contractions such as “I’ve not” instead of the typical “I haven’t,” root us firmly in the setting.
The Shortcomings: Other than the occasionally confusing point-of-view shift and the overdone character flaws discussed above, my only gripe with The Twilight Time would be the ending—not the conclusion, but the actual point at which the author closed the story. (view spoiler)[The final scene involves Anna walking over the River Clyde, and stopping to drop in a war medal that belonged to the murdered old man for whom Anna was seeking justice for most of the story. In my opinion this scene was overly sentimental, unnecessary, and far too reminiscent of “Titanic” to be taken seriously. There were a number of moments leading up to this that would have made an ideal end to the novel, and I think The Twilight Time would’ve finished with more punch if Campbell had chosen a different sentiment on which to close. (hide spoiler)]
The Verdict: I would recommend The Twilight Time to readers who enjoy character-driven crime stories and superb literary craft. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)