"The Red Chameleon" is a debut novel about an ex-cop turned PI that entertained but needed a little more focus and a different narrator.
There were a lot of things that worked well in this book and a couple of things that disappointed.
The premise of the book, which kicks off a series that currently stands at three books, is that, at twenty-seven, Kat Stone is already an ex-cop having resigned following a traumatic under-cover tour virtually straight out of the academy. Now she works as a PI, mostly doing divorce work. She's pushed out of her recently assembled comfort zone and back to confronting her old life when the suspected-of-cheating man she's following is killed and she looks like the prime suspect.
I liked how well-thought-through Kat Stone's character was. In the present day, she hides behind a series of characters, each with its own wig and look, who she uses to do her investigations but which also prevent her from having to come to terms with who she is now that she's not under-cover and what being under-cover did to her. This allows Kat to be a little flippant and faux-sassy one the surface and troubled underneath.
This duality is reflected in the plot in which Kat tries to untangle the murder she's associated with while flashing back along the way to give us the history of her life under-cover, sharing the bad things that happened to her there and showing the frightening possibility of links between her past and the current murder.
The humour in the present-day investigation worked well. The comments and descriptions had me snorting a few times but some of the humour seemed to me to make Kat too much like Stephanie Plumb for an ex-under-cover cop.
The flashbacks were the most intense parts of the book. The transitions were handled well and the pace at which Kat's past was shared was well judged to add to tension and character development.
The present-day plot worked until the very end when it all collapsed a bit. The final scene at the Amusement Park wasn't quite tense enough and the wrap-up that followed felt a little tacked on.
I listened to the audiobook version of "The Red Chameleon", narrated by Rachel Dulude who, to me, didn't seem a good fit for this book. Rachel Dulude handled the humorous dialogue very well and came up with distinctive voices for the characters but she seemed to stumble over some of the text as if reading it for the first time and didn't seem able to adjust her tone to deal with the serious violence and threat in the book.
I recommend going with a text version of the book.
Check out the narration for yourself by clicking on the SoundCloud link below:
"Blood Moon" follows straight on from "Huntress Moon", continuing the dance between Special-Agent-I’m-so-straight-I’d-break-rather-than-bend Matthew Roarke and the Huntress, the woman who kills bad guys.
The writing in "Blood Moon" is just as strong as in the previous novel. The actions scenes are intense, the violence is vivid and repulsive and Roarke's introspective interludes are delivered with skill. This, together with a violence-soaked, tension-filled plot made for an engaging read.
Yet, I finished the book uncertain that I want to go on with this series. Two things bothered me: I felt I was being fed atrocities to keep my interest and I didn't believe in the development of Roarke's character.
This book is heavy on the gritty realism of human trafficking. It also vividly recounts the slaughter of families in their homes using a blade and splattering lots of blood. I know how big an evil modern slavery is. I was appalled to learn how many "familicides", usually the father shooting everyone and then suiciding, there are in the US in a year. I understand that the grim details of trafficking and slaughter are necessary to give the context within which the Huntress was created and continues to operate and to provide a reason for Roarke's slow slide away from the protocol. Nevertheless, I began to feel that these details were there to spice up the book and stoke my responses. Maybe that's what thrillers are for. If so, I don't want it.
The main thing I struggled with in "Blood Moon" was what Special Agent Roarke had become. He no longer follows protocol. He barely briefs his team. He and his retired-but-still-allowed-on-crime-scenes-and-stake-outs mentor have adopted a mystical approach to crime-solving that I thought was unlikely to work or to be tolerated.
I grew tired of how Roarke romanticised the main women in the book. For a guy who is supposed to be an expert in profiling people, I found his inability to see these woman clearly, hard to believe.
He can't look at the woman analyst in his team without being distracted by her "exotic" Indian looks and her calm (as in how-surprising-is-that-in-a-woman?) manner under stress. He sees her research as a form of magic. He seems to have no understanding of how he sees the world.
Then there's the social worker he has sex with. He can barely see her at all and sneaks away rather than be made to see her.
He's set the Huntress on a pedestal. He pays lip-service to the idea that her childhood trauma has arrested her development at a pre-rational stage but he shows no real understanding of what the woman is likely to do.
I felt Roarke was a hollow space at the centre of what should have been a character-driven book.
"Real Murders" is a not so Cosy Mystery that is mildly subversive and moderately entertaining.
"Real Murders" was an odd book. It's a Cosy Mystery that makes you think about just how cosy any murder mystery can be.
It's about the murder of a member of the Real Murder Club, who meet once a month to talk about true crimes. It starts with what seems to be a copycat murder of one of the group and escalates from there.
Like other cosy mysteries, "Real Murders" focuses on a small group of people in an intimate, small-town setting, it has most of the violence occurs out of sight of the reader, it's coy about sex, it defaults to a humour rather than aggression when dealing with stress and the main character, who glories in the name Aurora Teagarden, is a small-town-librarian who is almost too innocent to have made it to twenty-seven.
Yet the murders in this book, and there are lots of them, are gruesome, cruel and driven by the sort of hard-boiled sociopathic narcissism that reminded me of Hitchock's adaptation of Patrick Hamilton's "Rope". The murders also revisit actual murders, using them as game fodder, with little or no empathy for the real people involved.
The Real Murder Club the suspects and murder victims are all members of is a ghoulish, voyeuristic thing, yet it's members, including the unfailingly nice Aurora Teagarden, seem unaware of this until the killing starts and the group's existence comes under public scrutiny.
I never read true crime. I understand why people do but I can never rid myself of a sense of voyeurism. The one exception might be "The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper" because of its focus on the lives of the women Jack The Ripper killed but even then, I dislike the continued fame of the Ripper. I was pleased to see that, in the early chapters of the book, Harris seemed to be challenging the ethics of True Crime buffs and perhaps the idea of "Cosy" mystery, even while writing one. She's suggesting that the process of treating killing someone as the starting point for a puzzle serves to desensitise us to the reality of murder.
Here's what's going through the mind of Aurora Teagarden who has discovered the body and called the police.
I knew he was about to tell Gerald that his wife was dead, and I found myself wondering how Gerald would take it. Then I was ashamed. At moments I understood in decent human terms what had happened to a woman I knew, and at moments I seemed to be thinking of Mamie’s death as one of our club’s study cases.
This is followed by a police interview where the detective's disgust at the idea of a Real Murder Club is very clear.
Sadly, that was pretty much the end of any visible subversion. After that, it devolved into a game of pin-the-blame-on-the-suspect in the traditional way. The plot was clever. I didn't guess who was doing the killing and the denouement was skillfully managed.
I was entertained although mostly because the Texan small-town life being described is so far from my experience. Harris' writing is smooth and efficient and Aurora Teagarden is likeable if a little relentlessly, self-deprecatingly ordinary. There wasn't enough there to make me want to read the rest of the series.
An entertaining, original, humorous, well-plotted story of a new squad of outcasts in the Paris Police coming together to solve two murders.
"The Awkward Squad" is the English translation of "Poulet Grillés", (literally 'grilled chickens' - although poulet is also used a term for prostitutes) which has a slightly more pejorative feel to it than the English title suggests. The Awkward Squad sounds defiant in a bloody-minded other-ranks-insolence kind of way whereas Poultries Grille suggests people who have burned their careers.
The book has a premise that I think is a peculiarly French mix of the logical, the absurd and unacknowledgeable but well-understood reality. The Paris police have set up a new Squad, led by a previously promising but now disgraced Commisar, into which they've dumped forty or so failed but unsackable police officers and a collection of unsolved cases. There's no expectation that the squad members will turn up never mind solve a case. The declared purpose of the Squad is to make the stats of the other Squads better by concentrating all the failure in one place.
This is a great set up or dry humour, eccentric characters and a bit of suspense. To my surprise, it also turned out to include complex investigations into a couple of murders.
What makes "The Awkward Squad" different from Anglo versions of the same kind of story of outcasts working cold cases is the stoicism of the officers who have been branded as not wanted. They don't throw angry tantrums. They accept where they are and hope that things might get better. They discover that by learning to trust and support each other, they can win back their self-respect.
Their leader, Comisionaire Anne Capestan, a woman whose anger and loss of control has cost her her marriage and her career, declines despair, opting instead for cautious optimism and patience. She doesn't use her authority in traditional ways, nor does she allow her boundaries to be set by her bosses. Instead, she prods and encourages and cajoles the misfits into taking on challenging cases, even though they have no resources and almost no authority.
The members of the Squad are well-drawn individuals rather than stereotypes. They each have problems but they also have something to offer. The English phrase for them is probably a motley crew.
I'd expected the investigations to be little more than a vehicle for humour and character development but Sophie Hénaff delivers a well-paced, complex investigation that goes to some unexpected places and changes the overall perception of what the Squad is for.
"The Awkward Squad" was a book that I read with a smile on my face, not so much because it was funny, although it often was, but because this book manages to be hopeful without getting mushy or sentimental. It was a book I enjoyed reading and looked forward to getting back to. For me, that's quite rare.
Sophie Hénaff is a French journalist who writes humorous columns Cosmopolitan. "The Awkward Squad" was her first novel. It won the 2015 Polar Series Prize, the Arsène-Lupin Prize and the 2016 prix des Lecteurs du Livre de poche (Paperback Readers Award). The series currently stands at three books, the first two of which have been translated into English. I already have the next one, "Stick Together" in my TBR pile.