Reviews: Crime fiction round-up

A Time To Die (Hachette)

Tom Wood $34.99

Englishman Wood says he got into the book business "to pen thrillers with the boring bits taken out".

And that's exactly what he's delivered. Victor - an assassin whose chosen profession suits him perfectly - "I'm not conflicted. I don't have nightmares. I'm just not a very nice person" - is on a train in Russia, lining up a target, but unbeknownst to him he's a target himself.

The best bit? Victor - whose reputation precedes him - convinces his target to do the job himself. The guy duly slinks to the dining car and, as per-instruction, chokes himself on a piece of steak, although Victor does have a bit more trouble dealing with the other assassin on-board. That's chapter one.

There's no love interest, back story or stabs at redemption (seemingly unavoidable when dealing with hitmen - see the movie and book The American). A Time To Die is the action thriller in pure Darwinian form; our hero must kill or be killed. Lean, mean and utterly addictive Wood's achievement is to get the reader to root for this assassin with no past or surname and no sign of a guilty conscience.

It's all business to Victor (he coats his hands in silicon to avoid leaving fingerprints). If (like me) A Time To Die is your introduction to Wood, the good news is there are five previous Victor the assassin thrillers to get your teeth into - and expect a Victor movie too, directed by Pierre Morel (Taken).

The Couple Next Door (Bantam Press)

Shari Lapena $32.99

This is one of the best in the genre-of-the-moment - domestic suspense; translation - well brought-up WASPs who get caught up in crime.

"You never know what's happening on the other side of the wall" goes the tag-line. Lapena had some modest success in her native Canada with two literary novels, but this is her first thriller. It all starts when Anne (suffering a dose of post-natal depression) and Marco are invited to their next-door neighbour's dinner party (the inevitably beautiful hostess Cynthia) and are told to leave the six-month-old at home.

The baby-sitter they'd arranged falls through - they go. Yes they're listening with a monitor and check often but guess who isn't there when they return...

Throughout Lapena writes with a devilish glee. Save for the straight-arrow detective Rasbach, Lapena revels in her cast of awful characters - they cheat, lie, bully and blame, and each plot twist turns up the heat. I don't think I'm the first reader to think the baby's better off without them. Yes, you may loathe them but you won't be able to put this down. Trashy and whip-smart by turn Lapena's written the break-out thriller of 2016.

The Vanished (Bloomsbury)

Lotte and Soren Hammer $29.99

The Vanished - published in Denmark in 2011 - is the third book in the Konrad Simonsen series by brother and sister crime writers Lotte and Soren. Lotte worked as a nurse and Soren a teacher and engineering lecturer before crime started paying the bills. The Hammers, like many of their Nordic contemporaries, see crime as both a social and moral issue - so if you're expecting a straight who-dunnit, or much action you'll be disappointed; exactly who killed postman Jorgen Kramer Nielsen is less interesting than the journey getting there, but that's a long journey.

The Vanished ranges over 400 pages, decades of Danish social history, our lead characters ill-health, distant adult daughter and relationship with The Countess (a rich detective). A sub-plot concerning Simonsen's decades old dalliance with hippy activist Rita, adds unnecessary distraction. Simonsen is a reserved, methodical but damaged character, a Danish Smiley if you will, but only determined readers will get through this.

The Long Count (Faber & Faber)

JM Gulvin $32.99

British writer JM Gulvin gets all Southern Gothic in this thriller set in the late 60s. Widowed Texas Ranger John Quarrie is called to the scene of a suicide of a fellow war veteran. Quarrie doesn't think it's suicide and soon believes the killing's linked to others in the area. Soon Quarrie teams up with the brother of the prime suspect Ishmael who hasn't been seen since the mental hospital he was housed in went up in flames.

The Long Count resembles some of James Lee Burke's or James Sallis' work in its setting, style and atmosphere (although Gulvin's has a side-serving of horror) but it suffers from weak characterisations (Quarrie in particular doesn't have the necessary heft) and some very clunky stereotypes - the disturbed mental patient who clutches a child's doll to her breast, the kindly old (black) ex-jailbird Pious - all right out of Central Casting. The blurb compares it to True Detective - but that'd be the second series, not the first.

Follow Greg Fleming on twitter

- NZ Herald

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