Complicit By Nicci French
This is the ultimate whodunit – when one of a group of acquaintances is murdered, everyone thinks they know who is responsible and why. The suspensefulness of the book stems from the gradual teasing-out of the truth, through the eyes of Bonnie Graham, the protagonist and (unreliable) narrator.
Embarking on this book, I learned a surprising thing about Nicci French. She isn’t, in fact, a person – the name is the pseudonym for Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, a British couple who, in an admirable display of marital collegiality harmony, collaborate on bestselling thrillers. Complicit is their twelfth combined endeavour.
Chiefly, what makes Complicit an intriguing example of its type is its unusual structure, which aligns nicely with a fairly standard crime-thriller plot – it alternates between two timeframes, before and after the murder of one of the characters. Showing a practiced hand – the skilful slow-feed of clues and pertinent information being critical to success in this genre – Nicci French manages to withhold the identity of the deceased for the first third of the book.
The structure creates a rapid pace, with entries varying in length from a few sentences to several pages. Complicit opens with an ‘after’ passage, as Bonnie stands in her friend Liza’s flat looking at a body on the floor. It’s the beginning of what will be a long, hot summer in London (this is fiction, after all), and Bonnie, a music teacher, is one member of a band that has come together temporarily to play at a wedding.
As the ‘before’ portion unfolds, the band members find their friendships starting to unravel in the face of platonic rivalries and budding and collapsing romantic liaisons. If the style of the storytelling gives you pause, fear not – there is a natural chronology to the plot development that ensures even the most attention-deficient can’t lose track. Finding out who’s come a cropper and seeing how Bonnie reacts to her discovery is balanced with deft character exposition which sets everyone up as a suspect – there is no one in this book who doesn’t have some malevolent or unlikable aspect to their personality. The murder victim is the most repellent of all, leaving no shortage of motive.
As crime thrillers go, this is an atypical one – it is a whodunit, but not in the more classical, modest style of Agatha Christie or PD James.
3/5 Stars – This is a good read for anyone looking for a thriller that’s a bit off the beaten track. Click here to listen to the Easy Mix Audio review.
Say You’re One of Them By Uwem Akpan
A sleeper bestseller, Say You’re One of Them is a collection of short stories by a man with an astonishing personal story – a Jesuit priest from southern Nigeria, Uwem Akpan left Africa temporarily to complete a Masters in creative writing in the United States.
It is remarkable not least for not being at all the sort of book, filled as it is with tales of African children battling malice and catastrophe, that should have found a large audience. Much of the credit must go to Oprah Winfrey, who has done a great service to both new authors, such as Akpan, and those in danger of being forgotten (William Faulkner, Pearl S Buck), through her Oprah’s Book Club, for which Say You’re One of Them was a recent pick. The corresponding uptick in sales of her chosen books, sometimes several million copies’ worth, is known as the ‘Oprah effect’.
There is abject grimness: the last of the five stories, the Rwanda-set My Parents’ Bedroom, centres on a young girl, Monique, and her baby brother Jean, who have the misfortune to be the offspring of a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother as the now-notorious genocide begins. The bald violence of the story, with the children cowering in a corner of the room as a Hutu militiaman thrusts a machete into their father’s hands and issues instructions, pierces the heart – “Say you’re one of them” is the command given to the children by their mother.
There is also stunning courage: in Luxurious Hearses, Jubril, a young Nigerian Muslim, pretends to be Christian in order to travel safely to Niger in a crowded bus. Over a long ride, he must conceal the absence of his right hand, a common Islamic punishment for stealing, and avoid speaking to anyone lest they identify he is Muslim by his accent.
Despite the claustrophobic, lonely terror of his circumstance, Jubril doesn’t feel an ounce of self-pity. He understands what is happening to him, doesn’t ask why, and gets on with the business of surviving.
The three other stories reference Kenya, Benin, Gabon and Ethiopia, and all feature children confronting everyday horror. One of Akpan’s best achievements is his description of emotion, from fear to excitement to relief, that is devoid of sentimentality. His young protagonists reject pity and invite admiration of their extraordinary strength. Each one is indomitable.
4/5 Stars - Compelling, devastating and uplifting all at once. Click here to listen to the Easy Mix Audio review.
The Complaints By Ian Rankin
Lovers of crime fiction will need no introduction to the celebrated Ian Rankin, and indeed, will have many fond memories of his Inspector Rebus, who, in a bold move, Rankin dispatched into retirement at the end of his last novel, the 17th to feature Rebus. Thus, The Complaints was awaited with breath more bated than usual – would the first exploits of the crime master’s complicated and endearing new hero, Malcolm Fox, pass muster?
Well, it starts off jolly well. Inspector Fox works in the Edinburgh police’s Complaints and Conduct Department, colloquially known as ‘The Complaints.’ This is the dark side of the police force – the officers in The Complaints spend their time investigating other cops and sniffing out corruption, malfeasance and general bad behaviour. Unsurprisingly, Complaints officers are treated rather like pariahs by their fellows.
The novel starts with Fox savouring the success of a long investigation into a fellow officer, Glen Heaton, who after being on the grift for a long time has been pulled up short by Fox’s team.
In his personal life, Fox is financially responsible for the care of his aging father Mitch, and has a complicated relationship with his sister, Jude. As siblings, they’re quite close, but Jude has a violent partner, Vince Faulkner, and the habit of making excuses for him and denying his physical abuse of her. Fox, haunted by a brief, troubled marriage and a former battle with the bottle, is distressed and helpless.
Just as the Heaton case is being tied up, Fox is called in to investigate another officer, a younger man by the name of Jamie Breck, whose name and credit card number have popped up in connection with an internet child pornography ring. Fox dutifully starts his enquiries, and mere pages later, guess who turns up murdered? None other than Vince Faulkner, and the lead officer on the murder enquiry is Jamie Breck. Fox’s interest in the case is clear, and he and Breck get to know each other and swiftly form a distinctly rule-breaking friendship.
Sound good? It gets better, as evidence builds to suggest that Fox and Breck being brought together was far from a coincidence. Are they are somehow being set up? But by whom, and why? There are powerful forces at work, and the book is set deep in the recession, with complex financial issues and illegalities shading the action, and sinister underworld figures making appearances that are no less cataclysmic for their brevity.
This carefully constructed and entirely unpredictable story makes for a thrilling ride. Classic Rankin.
3.5/5 Stars – A dashing debut by Rankin’s new hero. Click here to listen to the Easy Mix Audio review.