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review 2019-02-25 19:49
Recommended to those who love horror, psychology, historical police procedurals and a different take on serial killers.
The Devil Aspect - P. Craig Russell

Thanks to NetGalley and to Little Brown Book Group UK, for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely and with some trepidation chose to review.

There is much to talk about in this book (yes, I enjoyed it, if you want the short of it. Yes, it is eerie, gothic, can be scary at times, it is full of evil deeds, some not apt for the fainthearted, and full of atmosphere), and it would also be easy to fall into revealing spoilers, so I will try to talk in general terms and will keep some of the thoughts that went through my head as I read it to myself.

Rather than trying to summarise the plot, as I have already included two versions of the blurb, I thought I’d use the author’s own words (and I recommend you to read the author’s note at the end. I suspect it will keep me thinking about this book for as long as the book itself will):

The main engines that drive the story are Jungian psychology, Central European myths and legends, the history of Czechoslovakia immediately before the Second World War and the ethnic tensions that existed within the country at that time.

This is 1939, and the author is great at bringing to life the atmosphere in Czechoslovakia at the time, the politics and the strained relationships between the different parts of the population, the ethnic minorities, the Germans, Sudeten, the Jewish inhabitants, the criminal underworld, and the increasing atmosphere of threat and impending doom and evil. He also uses the locations, both in the city, the forests, and the castle, to great effect, to the point where they almost become protagonists in their own right. I can’t say I’m familiar with any of the locations of the story despite a visit to Prague many years back, although there are some, like the Bone Church (the Sedlec Ossuary) that have intrigued me for many years, and I am sure I’m not the only one who shares in the fascination.

 

Having worked as a forensic psychiatrist, I could not resist the idea of reading a book set in what would have been a forensic unit of the time. And what a setting! A castle that according to legend was built to keep closed the entry to hell and that now houses the six most dangerous insane criminals of all central Europe. Both, the director of the hospital and the new doctor we meet on his way to take up his new appointment, Viktor, (no, you won’t make me tell you what happened to the previous psychiatrist in the post, don’t insist) have interesting theories to explain the madness of their patients (one akin to a contagion, like that caused by a virus, the other a similar concept to that explored and exploited often in movies and films, but in this case referring to a specific aspect of one’s personality, the so-called “Devil Aspect” of the title, rather than to multiple personalities), and the book goes into a fairly detailed explanation and exploration of those theories, including allowing us to witness the doctor’s sessions using narcotics (a very dangerous technique, I must say). I found these part of the book as fascinating, if not more, as the other part that seemed to be the more active and  thrilling part of it, but I am aware that there is a lot of telling (because each one of the six devils gets a chance to tell their story), and although they help give a global picture of the nature of the evil the book refers to, not all of them seem to be directly related to the plot of the book, so guess that some readers will not feel the same as I do about those sessions.

The second part of the action, which takes place in parallel, consists of the investigation of a series of crimes in Prague, committed by a murderer, Leather Apron, who seems intent on imitating Jack the Ripper, and we follow the efforts of a police investigator Lukas Smolàk, trying to catch him. This part of the book is more akin to a police procedural of the time and is well done. It feels like a noir detective novel, only set within a gothic nightmarish background, not so dissimilar to the Victorian Ripper original. The clues are gruesome and so are the murders, and every time they seem closer to solving the crimes, something new comes to light and confuses matters. While to begin with Lukas appears to be the example of a seasoned detective who has seen everything and is wary of events in society at large, later the murders start to affect him more personally, and he becomes increasingly unravelled by the events, which humanises him and makes him easier to connect with.  

The story is told in the third person but from each one of those characters’ points of view, with some brief intrusions from other characters’ insights, like one of the victims, or Judita, who is a bit more than a friend of Viktor and also works at the hospital. This works well to give us a better understanding and makes empathise, and also suffer with them, in some cases. Personally, I really liked Judita, who has to face prejudice and has overcome her own mental health difficulties, and also Lukas, who shares with Viktor the determination to find the truth, and the analytical mind. I was intrigued by Viktor, not only because he is a psychiatrist, but because we learn from early on that he has survived a pretty difficult childhood and has had to cope with trauma. But his single-mindedness and his pursuit of his theory, sometimes despite the evident risks, not only to himself but to others, give him a tinge of the mad scientist, and I found him more interesting as a subject of observation than as somebody I felt connected to.

The Central and Eastern European mythology and the Jungian psychology theme add a further layer of complexity and work well in helping bring more uncertainty, menace, and confusion to the proceedings. There are dark corners and many secrets hidden by most of the protagonists; there are clues and warnings aplenty, red herrings, twists and turns, and although readers of the horror and the psychological thriller genres might have their suspicions and a variety of theories as to what is going on, a bit like the layers of the personality Viktor tries to reach, the narration also pulls us deeper and deeper into the darkness, the plot, and the castle, which is a physical stand-in for the deepest recesses of the human mind and also of human history.

I don’t want to bore you with my psychiatric insights, but I can say that although I’m not an expert in the history of psychiatry in Central Europe, the procedures followed in the castle, the way the place functions and the patient histories did not require a great suspension of disbelief. (Yes, I have known patients who have experienced a fugue-like state. No, I’ve never met anybody with multiple personalities or dissociative identity disorder, and I don’t think it is a common diagnosis in the UK, but…)

I enjoyed the style of writing, full of vivid imagery and very atmospheric, which makes us see what is happening in our minds (sometimes even when we’d rather not), and felt the rhythm worked well, combining the investigation, that felt more pressing and hurried, with what was happening at the castle, that at least, to begin with, was more contemplative and serene. The closer we come to the end, the more the rhythm accelerates and both strands of the story come together. As I said, there is a twist, or even more than one, in the end, and I think this book has everything to recommend it to readers of the genre who also enjoy a gothic setting and are eager to explore new mythologies regarding good an evil. This is not a book I’d recommend to those who don’t enjoy horror and reading about violent crimes. And it is not a book for those who prefer books fast and full of action, but it pays to stick with it, and if you’re interested in psychiatry and are looking for a different twist on the serial killer subject, I thoroughly recommended.

I am not surprised film production companies are looking at buying this book. This could become a fascinating movie.

 

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review 2019-02-03 18:43
A fascinating true police-procedural account from the early XXc
The Murder that Defeated Whitechapel's Sherlock Holmes: At Mrs Ridgley’s Corner - Paul Stickler

Thanks to Alex, Rosie and the whole team at Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I was fascinated by this book and by the way it is told. The case itself cannot compare to some of the sophisticated cases we read about in mysteries and thrillers, complex and full of twist and turns. A shopkeeper, widowed, that lived with her dog, and sold a bit of everything, appeared murdered on a Monday morning, next to the body of her dog. There was blood everywhere, she’d evidently been hit on the head, possibly with a weight that was found close to the body, and there was money missing. People had been at her shop on Saturday evening and one of her neighbours had heard some strange noises in the early hours of Sunday, but that was it. This was 1919, and, of course, forensics were not as advanced as they are now, but there was an investigation of sorts, although, surprisingly, in the first instance the local police decided it had been an accident. When the new police chief revised the case, he was not so convinced, and called on Scotland Yard for assistance. They sent Detective Chief P. S. Wensley, who had been involved (although only marginally) in the investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders and would become pretty well-known for the Houndsditch murders and the siege of Sidney Street. Unfortunately, two weeks had passed since the original crime he was sent to investigate, the body had been buried, and the evidence had not been well-looked after, but still… He and his team investigated and put together a case against an Irish immigrant who’d fought the war. And, well, the rest is history (and you’ll have to read it yourselves).

Despite, or perhaps because, of the somewhat ‘simple’ murder, the book is a fascinating read. The author explains his reasons for choosing to tell this story, to recover the case of a fairly anonymous woman, and to do it in this particular way, pointing out that he did not intend to set off on a ‘cold-case’ type of investigation.  In his own words:

That is the beautiful thing about history; trying to show exactly what happened using original material and putting it in a contemporary social setting so that the reader can better understand and make sense of it all. I hope that the narrative has not only thrown light on policing in the early part of the century but portrayed it as a piece of history and not as retrospective critique. (Stickler,  2018, p. 145)

In my opinion, he succeeds. Stickler’s method, which consists in looking over the shoulder of the people who were investigating the murder and those who participated in the court case, showing us what they would have seen, and guessing at what they might have thought, while at the same time providing us historical background, so we are able to understand how the police force worked, and what the atmosphere was like in the country shortly after WWI, works very well. As we read the book we can’t help but think about what we would have done, worry about their mistakes, and wonder about the missing details and the conflicting witness statements and evidence. We learn about the social make-up of the town, the relationships between the different communities, the way the police force worked at the time, and we gain a good understanding of the legal issues as well, without having to read long and dry historical treatises. The writer has done a great deal of research and his skill as a writer is evidenced in the way he seamlessly creates an involving narrative that never calls undue attention to it. For the sake of completion, the author includes a commentary at the end, where he provides a postscript, as it were, with information about what happened to the protagonists, and also with his own speculations (that he had kept to himself until then) as to why things happened as they did.

I recommend this book to people who are interested in true crime, especially in Britain, Criminology and Criminal Justice System students, readers who enjoy historical police procedural novels, and also writers of the genre interested in researching the topic (the bibliography and the author notes will be of great help, and there are also pictures from the time provide a fuller understanding of the story). And, as I said, I also recommend checking the author’s blog to anybody interested in the topic.

A great book and a fabulous resource.

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review 2019-01-15 22:13
Mystery, police procedural, and an in-depth look at the US judicial system. A great read.
Justice Gone - N. Lombardi Jr.

I am reviewing this book as a member of Rosie’s book review team and thank her, NetGalley,  and Roundfire for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, ahead of its publication, that I freely chose to review.

This is not an easy book to categorise, and it could fit into a number of classifications, but it goes beyond the standard examples many of the readers of some of those genres are used to come across. When I heard about this book, my interest was piqued by several elements: the book features as one of its main characters a female therapist who has specialised in counselling war vets (many of them suffering from PTSD), and as a psychiatrist (and I did work with military personnel, although not from the US) I’m always intrigued by the literary portrayals of psychologists and psychiatrists and of mental health difficulties. There is a mystery/thriller element, and because I’m an eager reader (and writer) of those genres, I’m always keen to explore new authors and approaches. The novel also promised a close look at the US judicial system, and having studied criminology and the British Criminal Justice system, that aspect of the book was also intriguing. Could the novel deliver in so many levels?

Dr. Tessa Thorpe is an interesting character, and it seems that the author is planning to develop a series of novels around her. She is described as insightful and compassionate, with strong beliefs (anti-war), morals, and a trauma of her own. She is not the perfect professional, and at times her trauma affects her behaviour to a point that I thought would have got her into trouble if she were working in a different environment. We are not given full details of what has happened to her before, but the hints we get through the novel (where other characters in possession of that information refer to it) give us a fair idea. She is much better at dealing with others and understanding what moves them to act as they do than she is at dealing with her own issues, but that is a fairly realistic aspect of the book (although considering how insistent she is in getting others to talk about their difficulties, it is surprising none of the colleagues take her to task). What I was not totally convinced about was the fact that at some point she decides to support the vet going to trial accused of murder, and she leaves her practice and patients unattended for weeks. As she works in a private clinic and we only meet one of her patients, we don’t have sufficient information of her day-to-day tasks, and it’s quite possible that this is not a problem, but it felt counterintuitive to me. Tessa plays an central part in the plot in more ways than one, because although she is an expert in some aspects, she is totally new to what happens in other parts of the novel, like court procedures, and at those points she works as a stand-in for the readers, asking for clarifications and being walked through the process in detail.

The mystery and thriller elements, as I said, are dealt with differently to in many other books. The novel starts at an earlier point than many of the books that give advice to writers would recommend. It does not start in the middle of the action, or the crime (what the real crime is here is one of the main questions). We get the background to the events, down to the phone call to the police about a homeless man, which gets the ball rolling at the very beginning of the book. The police, who have been fed the wrong information, end up beating the man, a war-vet, to death. This causes a huge uproar, and we hear about the way the authorities try to sweep it all under the carpet, then the apparent revenge killing of the three policemen, the chase of a suspect, the hair-raising moment when he gives himself up (with some help from the doctor and others), and then we move onto the court case. There are moments where the book leans towards the police procedural, and we get plenty of details about the physical evidence, the investigation and those involved, we witness interrogations, we are privileged to information even the police don’t have, we get red herrings, and dead ends. The ending… there is a twist at the end, and although some might suspect it is coming, I was so involved in the court case at that point that I had almost forgotten that we did not know who the guilty party was.

I think this is one of the books I’ve read in recent times that best manages to bring to life a US court case, without sparing too many details and at the same time making it gripping. I will confess that the defense attorney, Nathaniel Bodine, is my favourite character, one of those lawyers who will happily cross the line for their client, and he seems, at times, a much better psychologist (and manipulator) than the doctor is. The judicial process is realistically reflected and at times it reads as if it were a detailed film or TV script, with good directions and fantastic dialogue.

And, we also follow the deliberations of the jury, in a few chapters that made me think of Twelve Angry Men, a play I remember watching many years back, although in this case we have a more diverse jury (not twelve men and not all Caucasian) and a more complex case. I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the novel as well, and I could clearly see the interaction between the sequestered jury in my mind’s eye. (It would make a great film or series, as I have already suggested).

The story is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator that at times shows us the events from the point of view of one of the characters, mostly from Tessa’s perspective, but at times from others, like her co-workers or members of the police force. At some points, the story is told from an external and fairly objective perspective (like the jury deliberations); although at times we glimpse the personal opinions of that unknown narrator. I know readers dislike “head-hopping”, but I was never in any doubt about whose point of view I was reading, and the alternating perspective helped get a more rounded view of events and characters. Although the style of writing is factual and to the point (some of the descriptions reminded me of police reports, in their matter-of-factness), that does not mean the book fails to produce an emotional reaction on the reader. Quite the opposite. Rather than emphasising the drama by using over-the-top prose, the author lets the facts and the characters’ actions talk for themselves, and that is much more effective, in my opinion.  

I recommend this book to anybody who enjoys a mystery/thriller/police procedural novel which does not obey by the rules and is keen to engage readers in controversy and debates that go beyond a standard genre novel. (The author explains he was inspired to write this book by an incident not dissimilar to the death of the veteran at the hands of the cops at the beginning of the novel). The novel goes into more detail than most readers keen on those genres will be used to, and also follows the events from the very beginning to the very end. This is not a novel only interested in thrilling readers by highlighting the action scenes and ignoring the rest. Readers who always feel there are aspects of a story missing or underdeveloped will love this book, and also those who like complex characters (plenty of grey areas here) and a story that lives beyond the page. I also see book clubs enjoying a great discussion after reading this book, as there is much to debate and ponder. An accomplished novel and the first of a series that we should keep a close eye on.

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review 2018-07-30 18:35
Whodunit: Horror edition
The Outsider - Stephen King

The Outsider is the newest notch in the belt of one of the most prolific writers of supernatural horror, Stephen King. It's been a good long while since I've sunk my teeth into a King novel but when I read the premise (and saw the ultra rad cover) I knew that it was time to take a bite. (That metaphor got away from me.) The very beginning launches the reader into a graphic description of the murder of an 11 year old boy named Frank Peterson. [A/N: As this is literally the first two pages I don't consider this a spoiler. I do want to point out that it is very graphic and involves a sexual element so if this is in any way triggering to you please steer clear.] It seems to be an open and shut case because of the preponderance of evidence which points directly to a prominent member of the community...who also happened to be the coach of the Chief Detective assigned to the case. Can anyone say conflict of interest? However, things are not so cut and dry because it turns out that this man has an alibi with witnesses. So how was he in two places at once? What next occurs is a roller-coaster of police procedural drama with a heaping dash of supernatural horror thrown in for good measure. I wrote tons of notes about this book after I had read it but because they are mainly about the plot and super spoiler-y I don't feel that I can enumerate them here. Suffice it to say that in trademark King style there are always more twists and turns just when you think there couldn't possibly be any more. I enjoyed it thoroughly right up until the very end which I felt was not up to King's usual standard. With that being said, I did really like it and immediately lent my copy to another coworker with my recommendation so I can't help but give it a 9/10.

 

What's Up Next: The Figure in the Shadows The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring by John Bellairs

 

What I'm Currently Reading: How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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text 2018-07-21 13:54
Review: In For the Kill
In for the Kill - Ed James

It’s always a pleasure to sit down with an Ed James book, because I know it will be a deftly plotted, action packed thrill ride and In For the Kill lived up to the hype. Fenchurch has a lot on his plate at the moment, with dealing with the aftermath of finding Chloe, his long ago abducted daughter, his wife nearing the birth of their second child, and a the terrifying case of a college co-ed found murdered in her bed at the same university Chloe attends.

 

This was a great read, I loved the thrilling fast paced chase through London solving this complex crime. There were one or two points where the pace slowed a bit, but not by much and there was a lot of action to keep my pulse racing and the tense atmosphere kept me turning pages, impatient to see the next bombshell. Although I missed a few books in the series since I read the first book, I was able to get right back into it. Thanks to the great character development and the consistency of the writing, I remembered many of the principal characters, making me feel like I was catching up with people I hadn’t seen in a while. Fenchurch is developing as the sort of hangdog character you can’t help but root for; intense, persistent, stubborn, and fallible, there’s a little Fenchurch in everyone I think. I enjoy watching him methodically pick at the threads of the crime until it all unravels alongside coping with the struggles in his personal life.

 

Overall, a great read with a fascinating case full of twists and turns to keep me guessing. Definitely recommend for fans of dark and gritty police procedurals.

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