Review: The Sentinel, Lee Child & Andrew Child

For a series that’s sold more than 100 million books, the question of whether Reacher is still Reacher in the hands of a new author could literally be a multimillion-dollar question.

Will people who’ve been reading Lee Child’s series for 20 years be able to tell the difference as younger brother, established crime novelist Andrew Child, has stepped in as co-author? What about when he eventually takes over entirely?

I confess that it was perhaps this question, beyond just my four-month-old (who turns a two-day read into a two-week read) that distracted me from complete immersion in the new Reacher novel. Knowing Lee is handing the baton to his younger brother starting with this book, I was hypervigilant to tone and nuance and character, looking for telltale signs of interference from this interloper. And though Andrew Child was someone deeply personally invested in the series – Lee Child has said in an interview that he consulted his younger for criticism on the first draft of the first novel – as a die-hard loyal reader I couldn’t help but view the whole thing with extreme suspicion.

The story is set just outside Nashville, where Reacher foils a kidnap attempt on a stranger in the street. Because he’s Reacher. (It’s not even the first time he has interrupted the on-street kidnapping of a stranger, having done this in the second book, 1998’s Die Trying.)

Reacher becomes an ad-hoc bodyguard for the intended victim, a frankly pretty useless IT guy whose computer project has drawn him into the middle of an international espionage standoff.

The good news: I couldn’t for the life of me find a difference in the writing or characterisation of Reacher. The short sentences, bone-dry humour and Reacherisms were all there: prime numbers, mental alarm clocks and all. Were there in fact too many references to Reacher’s quirks packed in? No, surely it’s the hypervigilance talking. The plot was tight and twisty enough, though as I said, between baby brain, the interruptions from the infant himself and being unable to stop myself scanning for differences in the writing I found it strangely difficult to focus on fine plot detail (spy stuff isn’t my thing anyway, it confuses me; I much prefer a nice gory murder).

The bad news: characterisation of everyone but Reacher struck me as rather thin, lacking in colour and detail even for a series in which all other characters are transient and rarely given much depth. Even given Reacher’s compulsion to serve and protect I couldn’t see why he’d spend much energy protecting the guest protagonist, the pathetic IT guy Rusty Rutherford. And the nod to Reacher’s one phobia in the climax (not to give too much away) seemed token and rushed to me, another example of a scenario that was already explored more fully and effectively in one of the earlier novels.

This was nowhere near my favourite Reacher novel, but was a remarkably seamless transition for the series into new hands that seem more than capable of carrying the juggernaut forward. I will keep following along – at least for now.

Review: River of Salt, Dave Warner

‘I’ve made some enquiries on your behalf. Shaloub’s bodyguard is a giant, name of Granite. Granite’s no professor but he remembers absolutely every piece of tail set foot in the Cross.’
You might already know Dave Warner’s name. He’s an Australian musician who’s authored three previous crime novels, one of which won the Ned Kelly Award.
He was recently in Perth to promote his latest book, River of Salt, and I picked up a copy to see what all the fuss was about – I hadn’t actually heard of Dave Warner myself, but I do love Australian fiction and crime fiction, and I was intrigued by the jacket quote from prolific thriller writer Michael Robotham: ‘Part Goodfellas and part love letter to Australian coastal towns, this wonderfully imagined crime novel is like riding the perfect wave.’
It’s 1961 and Blake Saunders, a former Mob hitman from Philadelphia, has escaped that life to start again in a sleepy town on Australia’s east coast. He owns his own bar, the Surf Shack, plays in a band and surfs compulsively, slowly washing clean the sins of his past. But he can never quite lose the feeling there’s a target on his back.
So when a prostitute is brutally murdered in a nearby motel and a piece of evidence at the scene points towards the Surf Shack, Blake feels compelled to act, to clear the wolf from his door once and for all by solving the murder the police seem eager just to tick a box on.
I’m attracted to the writing early – it’s strong and clean and loaded with evocative similes. Like,
skies grey as an elephant’s belly.
And,
The wind probed their clothes like the fingers of a dead man.
And,
His belly pressed flat into the board, which gently rose and fell like a crumb on the chest of a snoozing giant.
And,
He moved quietly as cancer.
If similes don’t excite you as much as they do me you’re a fool, but I’ll tell you more anyway.
Warner spends the early part not launching straight into the mystery, but sketching out a compelling cast of characters who hook you just as well as a bloodied corpse opener would:
Blake, a brooding heartthrob with a dark past and a killer’s instincts, full of guilt and regret. His yardboy Andy, a simple sap who loves the fish in The Surf Shack’s giant tank, and knows them all by name. Bar manager Doreen, beautiful and capable, but nursing a deep loneliness. Crane the beach bum, an alcoholic and a poet. Kitty the innocent, but smart and gutsy teen who wants so much more than what her hometown can offer.
The scene shift from Philly to Australia makes for an attention-grabbing contrast, and the menace and darkness of the Mob bleeds into the new setting quite perfectly. I had wondered how convincing it was going to be, the American fish out of water, but the details laced through are perfect, consistent and never overdone.
And 100 pages in, this simmering mystery comes to a rolling boil, with twist after twist keeping me wildly speculating, heightened in drama by Blake’s personal drive for a solution – and for absolution.
Blake is bound to appeal to readers: the man with dark stains on his conscience, but a moral imperative to act, and a strong sense of justice. Like Jack Reacher, but with a humanising longing for love and redemption.
Perhaps he should have let it go, left it to Harvey to get it right. But he couldn’t … He did not deserve any of this: playing his guitar in his own bar with a beautiful woman like Doreen working alongside him, surfing in the crystal ocean, watching the sun rise like a gold coin over a sheet of pure silver. He’d suspected all along it hadn’t just been gifted to him, that there must be more to it, some fine print like on a winning lottery ticket. This was the fine print. You have to help those who can’t help themselves, you have to protect and serve those who serve you.
Warner has strongly evoked a time and a place; but he has also riffed on honesty, human connection, guilt and love – and how the past will never, really, quite let you go.

Hercule Poirot is alive and well in The Monogram Murders

hannah-monogram-murdersI was dubious when I heard modern crime writer Sophie Hannah was approved by the descendants of Agatha Christie to resurrect her detective Hercule Poirot, beloved by many.
So dubious I avoided it on its release in 2014. I read positive reviews, which mentioned Hannah’s chops as a crime writer, her love of all things Poirot and her faithful promise she  would cut no corners in dusting him off for a new case.
This was good enough for the family, but inexplicably still not good enough for me, so I just eyed it suspiciously in bookshops every time I passed it, stroking the cover creepily but still not quite trusting.
I love Poirot, OK?
Dipping my toe in, I assessed Hannah’s skills by reading her Kind of Cruel, which I found highly satisfactory, twisty and mucky like all good crime.
Finally took the plunge on The Monogram Murders and – ! – was not disappointed.
This has the wit and psychological insight Hannah clearly already commands, and that obviously made her an ideal choice for the project.
It’s also, more importantly, so spot-on rendition of Poirot that – and I feel disloyal, but – I just can’t tell the difference. I can actually hear David Suchet speaking the lines. The rhythm, the cadence, the humour; all perfect.
It’s uncanny, as though the Belgian detective, quirks, mannerisms, wardrobe and all, has stepped prissily from the yellowed pages of Agatha Christie into another woman’s book, where he is rendered in loving, lifelike detail and doesn’t even have the grace to look embarrassed.
Strait-laced young detective Catchpool makes a good solid foil, just the kind Poirot needs to shine. The murders, too are very Christie. Three corpses are found laid out in three different rooms of the same hotel, each with a monogrammed cufflink in his or her mouth.
The plot is full of classic Christie tropes and features, though I will not say what they were for fear of spoilers, and is quite as convoluted and macabre as Christie at her nastiest.
Yet nothing feels contrived or formulaic. It does not feel exactly like Christie and yet I could not put my finger on any difference. You can feel the confidence and the the fun the author has had, and it is infectious. A joy to read.
I’ve caught up just in time – the family must have been happy, too, because her second Poirot mystery, Closed Casket, is now on shelves. Hurrah!