IN BRIEF: American crime
Great first lines are no more a guarantee that the book to come will live up to the promise implicit in them, than a brilliant last line is proof that all those preceding pages were worth it. The best do give a sense of what’s to come, though. Northern Irish native John Steele’s latest novel is a good example.
Rat Island (Silvertail Books, €15.16) begins: “Callum Burke was late for the Chinese taxidermist’s murder.” The reader knows at once they’re about to be plunged headfirst into a streetwise criminal cauldron, bubbling with drug dealers and hustlers all desperate to make a little money.
It’s the mid 1990s, and Burke is back in New York after a spell with the police in Hong Kong, where the voices on the street had been “Cantonese backwash, white noise he filtered out”. He’s now wondering how long he can live with this “noise and fury”.
His boss derides him as a “sorry piece of work”. Estranged from his wife, gambling and smoking and drinking too much, he knows he’s on his last chance.
As Chinese Triad gangs try to muscle in on New York’s drug scene ahead of the handover of Hong Kong at the end of the century, Burke infiltrates the network to get closer to the lynchpins. And that’s when the bodies start to pile up... Rat Island never lets up for a moment in its relentless depiction of its violent but viscerally authentic world.
Melissa Larsen’s Shutter (Penguin, €12.84) also begins in New York, as Elizabeth — rootless after the suicide of her father and a break up with her boyfriend, and despite warnings from friends — agrees to star in an independent director’s latest film, which is to be shot on an island off the coast of Maine for a month with a five-person cast and crew.
She isn’t told what the film is about. All she knows is that the title is Fear, and that turns out to be a grim augur, as the phone line is cut, the motor on the boat cuts out, and an incoming storm traps the group on the island.
The novel is a teensy bit overwritten, and, weirdly, the controlling relationship between Elizabeth and the director, Anthony Marino, reminded me a little in places of Fifty Shades Of Grey.
It’s tense, though, and Melissa Larsen is definitely one to watch.
Such A Quiet Place (Corvus, €12.99) by Megan Miranda is a more traditional mystery.
Hollow’s Edge is a respectable neighbourhood, called “sleepy” by the media. Two years previously, a couple who lived there were killed. Now Ruby Fletcher, the woman who was jailed for the double murder, has been released after her conviction was deemed a mistrial, and has returned to the place to uncover what really happened. Because, as the tag line has it: “Not everyone told the truth about that night.”
The dead couple were “liked [them] more in hindsight. In sympathy”. For Harper, Ruby’s old housemate, they represented “something that preyed on our insecurity — that there was something unworthy about the life we were living”. It’s about what people will do to keep up a façade of perfection, and how a whole community corrupted by gossip and voyeurism can be responsible for an injustice, even if they don’t know what they’re doing.
If Shutter is about making a film, Survive The Night (Penguin, €22.80) is structured like one.
The first two words of Riley Sagar’s latest novel are: “Fade in.” There are constant references to classic film noirs such as Double Indemnity. Each chapter is preceded with a scene setting, such as “Int. Dorm Room-Day”.
It’s about Charlie, a film theory student, who accepts a lift across country from a man she barely knows because she wants to go home. She has suspicions about Josh straight away, but dismisses them, because “she’s the girl who sees movies in her mind”.
She’s buried herself in them since the death of her parents. There’s also a serial killer on the loose — the Campus Killer, who murdered her best friend Maddie.
With nothing else in common, Charlie and Josh talk about films. She says she likes them because “they take our world and improve upon it... The colours are brighter. The shadows are darker”.
Gradually during the night, as the tension rises, she realises that movies may have stopped her seeing the truth, and that she needs to become the heroine of her own real life if she is to get through the journey alive.
Everything about this novel is so well described, from the car, the road, the passing of time, to the characters and dialogue. There is one slightly annoying, unnecessary meta textual twist at the end, but it doesn’t ruin what came before, which is a fast paced story that plays with the conventions of noir with the same knowingness that the Scream movie series did with horror.
Indeed, Sagar — the pseudonym of a former journalist — acknowledges a love of director Wes Craven in what the book calls its End Titles. Survive The Night has already been billed as the thrill ride of the summer, and for once the hype may be amply justified.