Book Review: Trust No One by Paul Cleave

Trust No One – Paul Cleave (Upstart Press, 2015)

You may have noticed that I don’t read a lot of mysteries. The very simple reason behind that is that I find them too scary. Overactive imagination + gory tale is not a good combination for me in the middle of the night. However, when my sister-in-law was in New Zealand just before Christmas, she brought me back a selection of fiction and candy unique to NZ and this was one of them. (Books and candy – kind of the perfect gift, right?)

The premise of Trust No One is quite good I thought. Jerry Grey is a successful crime writer, known under the pseudonym of Henry Cutter. He’s made a good living as a writer, has a beautiful wife and an adult daughter. And he’s just been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers.

The book moves through time quite smoothly, returning to Jerry’s early diagnosis and his quick spiral into dementia. This is balanced with scenes of him in the present, living in a nursing home where we know his wife never comes to see him and his daughter no longer refers to him as “dad”. Something has gone horribly wrong and it isn’t just the Alzheimers. Jerry, it turns out, has begun to confess to terrible murders, though many of them sound familiar to fans of Henry Cutter’s novels. And yet, there are some new bodies showing up and Jerry’s become quite good at escaping from the nursing home.

The sections of the novel set in the present were the most interesting. Here Jerry moves between almost total lucidity and a sort of dazed and confused fog. He usually knows who he is but not where he is or what has happened to him in the last year. These sections are interrupted with Jerry’s “Madness Journal”, a record he begins to keep when he is first diagnosed. These sections were largely annoying. First, they’re written in second person which is a ridiculous way to keep a journal and second, they are sometimes written from the perspective of Henry Cutter. And Henry Cutter is a bad writer. Since the entire novel is not poorly written, I have to assume this is a deliberate choice on Cleave’s part. But to what end, I’m not entirely sure. Is he trying to demonstrate that Jerry (and by extension Henry) is not actually a great writer? That his readers only enjoy the violence and fear of his stories? Is Jerry actually a good writer but his dementia has stolen this ability from him? As the story progresses, Henry Cutter becomes almost an alternate identity for Jerry, perhaps one that is taking over his real life and his mind. While an interesting premise, that isn’t quite how Alzheimers works and so clouds the plot as to what is really happening to Jerry.

The story is still entertaining and none of this made me want to give up on it. It’s suspenseful and intriguing enough that I made it through to the end quickly. It’s the ending that drove me crazy. So I’ll warn you that I’m about to give away a spoiler because I need to rant a little.

Spoiler ahead:

Turns out Jerry is being framed. Okay, fine, that makes sense. Where it gets ridiculous though is that Jerry is being framed by two separate and unrelated murderers. That’s right. Two people close enough to Jerry to use him in this way also want to rape and murder women (all of whom match the same generic description). While one of these characters is well established enough that this solution makes sense (and was something I was beginning to suspect), adding in the second murderer is completely ridiculous and discredits the whole plot.

Spoiler over.

So while I didn’t mind the story overall (especially when I skimmed over the parts with Jerry’s journal) the ending completely ruined it for me. There was a lot of potential here for a unique mystery and, in many ways, Cleave succeeds, but overall he hasn’t convinced me to start reading more mysteries.

Book Review: The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee

The Conjoined - Jen Sookfong Lee (ECW Press, 2016)

The Conjoined – Jen Sookfong Lee (ECW Press, 2016)

The Conjoined is filled with everything you hope will never happen to your daughter. Although set in the city of Vancouver whose streets and neighbourhoods I recognize, the story seems to exist in some alternate universe where Vancouver is terrible, always dangerous, where nothing good exists, everyone is evil, and you might as well not try to help anyone ever.

The novel begins shortly after Jessica Campbell’s mother Donna has died. Jessica is a burned out social worker (is there any other kind?), striving to live up to her mother, who was a foster parent while Jessica was growing up. Her entire image of Donna is thrown into chaos however when, while sorting through her mother’s home, Jessica and her dad find two bodies in the deep freeze.  In 1988 two sisters, Casey and Jamie, were fostered by the Campbells until they eventually ran away. Or so everyone thought.

The story is an unconventional mystery in that the question is why rather than who. Donna has clearly murdered these girls but what was her motivation? What happened? Jessica attempt to figure out who her mother was, stumbling across some long-held family secrets in the process.

The story also takes us back to 1988 to tell about the sisters, their parents and how they ended up in foster care. I wish the novel had given more from Casey and Jamie’s perspective. Although at the centre of the story, we never get to see them as more than victims. Things happen to them and they react but without more knowledge of who they really were, their actions seem strange and unwarranted. Jessica remembers them as aggressive, mean, and violent and, indeed, seems to come to blame them in a way for causing her mother to murder them, even as her investigations stir up some of her own dark memories of her mother. Jessica’s explanations don’t fit what we see of the girls in their pre-foster care story, with their own family though. During Casey and Jamie’s first (real) runaway attempt, something horrific happens to them but the action is so out of the blue and we never see how the girls react and so it ends up feeling false and exploitative.

I might have forgiven the novel all this if it weren’t for the ending. Jessica discovers a secret from her mother’s childhood that is supposed to explain Donna’s life and actions but only led me to believe that Donna was actually a psychopath and always had been. As I said before, The Conjoined seems to exist in some extra dark universe where sometimes good people slip up and commit multiple murders. I don’t buy it and I don’t accept childhood trauma as an excuse for killing children. The fact that Jessica apparently does (along with some personal choices she makes along the way) causes me to wonder if she’s more messed up than the author intended her to be. A little more balance to this novel would have gone a long way.

Book Review: Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

Missing, Presumed - Susie Steiner (Harper Collins, 2016)

Missing, Presumed – Susie Steiner (Harper Collins, 2016)

If you’ve been reading reviews here for a while, you may have noticed I don’t read many mysteries. The truth is, I’m kind of a chicken. I have an overactive imagination and when I read horror or violence I have a hard time keeping my brain from focusing on those mental images. (And it doesn’t even have to be that horrific or violent – my brain is happy to fill in those gaps.) So instead, I choose to avoid things that seem too scary.

I was interested enough in Missing, Presumed however to make an exception and I’m happy to report that it’s not particularly violent or horrifying. While definitely a mystery, the descriptions are far from gratuitous and the conclusion didn’t leave my mind running horror movie scenarios late at night.

The novel switches between perspectives but our main character is Detective Manon Bradshaw. She’s thirty-nine and wants to find someone to share her life with. This doesn’t seem to be happening via her string of bad internet dates but Manon is also dedicated to her job with the Cambridgeshire Police and throws herself into the latest Missing Persons case.

Edith Hind is twenty-four, smart though a little flighty, and when her house is found empty and her phone, coat, and car have all been left behind, she is declared missing. As the case drags on (and I liked that it did realistically drag on), the worst is presumed. Edith’s father just so happens to be a very successful surgeon (surgeon to the Royal Family, no less) and so the case instantly gains a high profile in the media, along with all the pressures that brings.

Steiner does well at showing the day-to-day actions and work of the police. The balance of public investigation and the need to protect witnesses, the monotony of some of it and the heartbreak of other parts. Manon and her fellow detectives are generally well-balanced, interesting characters, though they do all seem pretty unsuccessful in their personal lives. I also enjoyed the very British-ness of the novel. It felt accurate and interesting without being forced or over-the-top.

For me, the weak parts of the novel came primarily with the conclusion. As I said, I appreciated that Steiner did portray how the case dragged on. How the public loses interest, how the police move on to other things no matter how much they might still personally care. She also delves into how this affects Edith’s family and their attempts to continue their lives without answers. So it was almost disappointing when the case was very neatly summed up and concluded. Even more so when all the random leads and guesses that the police had did turn out to be related. Being able to make connections between every single minor or large crime that happened in the book and every random interview the police made seemed very unrealistic to me.

While this book hasn’t turned me into a mystery reader, I was glad to branch out in my reading and try something different.

Book Review – The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

IMG_4763

If you love a good mystery novel – with a private eye who smokes too much, drinks too much, likes to comment on a lady’s legs (and calls them “gams”), but always gets the job done – you owe a debt of gratitude to Raymond Chandler.

The Big Sleep is Chandler’s first novel, published in 1939, and the first of several to feature private investigator Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is everything you imagine when you think “private eye”. From a 21st century perspective, it’s easy to view him as something of a cliche but you have to remember that Marlowe is one of the originals. He’s big, brash, and not afraid to bend the rules to work for me. At the same time, he has a deeply buried heart of gold. He’ll protect his client, even the ones he doesn’t like, and he’ll do his best to protect the innocent. You can’t help but like him even if you’d never, ever want to deal with him in real life.

Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood in a possible blackmailing case. Sternwood has two daughters – Vivian, who was on her third husband when he went missing, and Carmen, who seems more animal than lady most of the time. They are wild, dangerous, and beautiful women. Chandler describes them with a seductive sort of appeal, overlayed by an uneasy feeling of creepiness. Carmen especially.

Marlowe’s investigations take him into a shop of lewd images, a strange house where two men live together, and to a suspicious suicide scene. (The words “pornography” or “homosexual” are never used but they’re well-implied.) Marlowe continuously bumps up against the mystery of Vivian’s husband’s disappearance – something everything thinks he is or should be investigating. A blackmail case turns into one murder, followed by another.

Overall, I found the case somewhat difficult to follow. One solved murder only seems to open up into another and another and then a kidnapping, maybe, or an elaborate plot to save one devious man? I got to the end of the novel and thought, “But who killed that one guy?” The final conclusion seemed a little convenient but was definitely unique and cast a new light on certain characters and relationships.

I enjoyed Marlowe’s working relationship with the local police – for good and bad – and all the ways he both co-operates and works around them. At one point, he tells someone that he isn’t Sherlock Holmes, he isn’t going over the police’s tracks to find hidden clues. He trusts them to do their job and to do it thoroughly and he is able to add to their knowledge. This makes him a more realistic mystery-solving figure and, in many ways, a more interesting one.

The Big Sleep was Chandler’s novel and I think it shows in several ways. But there’s enough there – and a great deal to our man Marlowe – that I would happily read more from him.