Double review: City of Lost Girls by Declan Hughes & The Priest by Gerard Donovan

Double review: City of Lost Girls by Declan Hughes & The Priest by Gerard Donovan
Published in The Sunday Business Post on June 20th, 2010, reviewed by Alex Meehan

The key question facing would-be crime authors is how to strike an original note in what is perhaps the most cliché ridden of literary genres. Some attempt to carve a genuinely new literary furrow, while others are happy to take advantage of the literary conventions expected of them – the fans know what they want, why not give it to them?

Declan Hughes’s hardboiled Dublin detective, Ed Loy, gets to go back to where it all started in the City of Lost Girls, as Hughes places him in a caper that sees Loy travel from Dublin to Los Angeles, the spiritual home of the cynical private dick.

And with Loy, this is exactly what you get – a detective unashamedly cast in the mould of a long tradition of jaded, burned-out, West Coast investigators.

With movie studio subplots and a cast of characters drawn from both high society and street level criminality, all the ingredients of a classic detective novel are here, as Loy is drawn back into a life he thought he had left behind.

Famous Irish filmmaker Jack Donovan asks Loy to look into a series of threatening letters he’s received, all of which contain a religious theme. Donovan thinks an estranged family member may be behind the religious threats.

At the same time, a couple of young extras have disappeared from the set of his latest movie being shot in Dublin. In order to complete the film, he needs them back on set. Donovan and Loy go way back, but have officially fallen out, and Loy is wary of being drawn back into his old friend’s narcissistic dramas. A paying gig is a paying gig, though.

Meanwhile, most of the crew assume that the missing extras have merely gone on a boozy bender. However, Loy starts to think something isn’t quite right about the situation.

Fifteen years before, three girls went missing in similar circumstance from the set of a movie Donovan was involved with in Malibu, California, and Loy becomes convinced there’s a connection.

When the bodies of the first set of missing girls are discovered, Loy jumps on a plane to California to see if one crime scene can shed light on another.

Loy is also struggling to maintain his relationship with his girlfriend, Anne Fogerty – and a recently released convict from his past seems to be intent on causing the private investigator some problems.

City of Lost Girls isn’t a particularly original book, but it’s all the richer for it. It’s a comforting read that toys with some very well-established convent ions and doesn’t attempt to redefine the genre. Hughes knows what his readers want and is happy to give it to them – a splash of scandal, a glimpse into high society shenanigans and thinly veiled descriptions of the fictional antics of actors and musicians.

Meanwhile, Gerard O’Donovan’s debut novel, The Priest, is an enjoyable account of Detective Inspector Mike Mulcahy’s attempts to snare a religiously-fixated attacker stalking the streets of Dublin. Recently returned to Ireland from Spain, where his infidelity brought about the end of hismarriage, Mulcahy is sunk in melancholy.

He’s back living in the decaying family home where his recently deceased parents raised him, and pondering a career that seems to be going nowhere fast.

When the daughter of a high-profile Spanish politician is brutally attacked and branded with a red-hot cross, Mulcahy is drafted in for his Spanish language skills, a move that doesn’t go down well with the inspector on the case, Claire Brogan, or her smarmy sidekick Andy Cassidy.

But Mulcahy perseveres, convinced that Brogan and Cassidy’s prime suspect is not the real culprit, and that the Priest has struck before. When he’s not chasing down the killer, Mulcahy is spending time with ambitious reporter Síobhan Fallon.

Fresh from a scoop involving the extra-marital adventures of the wife of the coach of the Irish soccer team, Fallon is on the lookout for her next big story when an anonymous tip guides her in the direction of Mulcahy’s case.

There’s more than one clichéd character in the pages of O’Donovan’s book; Fallon, in particular, is almost a caricature of a careerdriven professional woman with little time in her life for anything but her job.

But in Mike Mulcahy, O’Donovan has created a well drawn, multi-faceted cop who readers are likely to want to spend more time with in the future.

In Claire Brogan, he has also given a glimpse into the life of a character that has the potential to be far more interesting than Fallon.

In his next book O’Donovan could do a lot worse than expand on the themes of Brogan’s unhappy marriage, and her struggle to combine motherhood with a demanding job.

The Priest is an impressive debut, with a well paced plot and enough twists to keep the reader interested until the last page.

But O’Donovan is prone to hyperbole at times, and the eventual capture of the Priest is perhaps a little too overblown. Still, most of the issues with the novel are small ones that could be easily ironed out by the time Mike Mulcahy tackles his next case.

Book review: Clean cut, by Lynda La Plante

Clean cut, by Lynda La Plante, Simon & Schuster, €17.75

Published in The Sunday Business Post on September 22nd, 2007, reviewed by Alex Meehan

At first glance, Clean Cut is a police thriller of the old school.

Detective Chief Inspector James Langton is a driven London cop, hot on the heels of a gang of illegal immigrants thought to have murdered a young prostitute.

While trying to make an arrest in connection with the case, he is stabbed and almost killed. As Langton struggles for his life and then comes to terms with being invalided in a police hospice, his girlfriend, Detective Inspector Anna Travis, attempts to pick up the pieces.

She puts her career on hold to care for Langton, but he’s a less-than-ideal patient: embittered, angry and obsessed with tracking down the men who attacked him. However, the case seems to go cold, and his overworked colleagues are quickly assigned to more pressing duties.

Travis is assigned to a new murder team in Brixton and a new case – that of a woman whose body is found in her home by her 12-year-old daughter. This time, the murderer was a particularly cold-blooded type. He killed at random, and then stopped to make a sandwich at the crime scene.

Travis is drawn into the case when the killer is caught and confesses, but all is not as it seems. While making the case watertight, a suspect threatens her with the chilling words: ‘‘You want to get cut up like your bloke? Stay away from here or you’ll get the same!”

Are the cases connected in some way? Is Travis being threatened by the same people who attacked Langton?

Clean Cut is the third crime thriller from La Plante to feature Detective Inspector Anna Travis, and it is obvious from the first page that this is the work of a masterful creator and manipulator of believable characters.
Click here to find out more!

La Plante has a long and illustrious career behind her writing for television, where her credits include Prime Suspect and The Governor, and it shows in her work.

It takes skill to create characters that the reader cares about within the first few pages of a book, but La Plante handles it with ease.

The story is well-paced and interesting, with a good balance between police procedure and plot development.

The criminals are nasty pieces of work and their crimes stomach churning.

La Plante is a writer with strong opinions on the criminal justice system, and she isn’t afraid to voice them. Clean Cut allows her to vent her feelings about the revolvingdoor criminal justice system in Britain, where 67 per cent of criminals sentenced to jail have previously served time.

In the book, Travis has to face the problem of dangerous criminals released back into the community to re-offend, as well as highly-paid legal defence teams defending the indefensible.

At times, the crimes committed by the villains in Clean Cut seem almost over the top, but in interviews, La Plante has said that all the criminals are based on real people.

All crimes depicted in the book took place in real life and came from newspaper clippings she collected while researching the story.

Clean Cut is a great example of an occasionally moribund genre. This is a page-turning thriller with a strong message that is sure to appeal to casual readers as much as crime fans.

Author interview: Jason Pinter

I met Jason for a very pleasant morning of coffee and chatting in The Merrion Hotel a while ago, and this was the piece that came out of it. He’s a really decent guy, depressingly young to have achieved so much, but altogether a down to earth geezer.



Jason Pinter interview

Published in The Sunday Business Post on June 22nd, 2008, by Alex Meehan

Having won a seven-book contract, author Jason Pinter says he’s nervous but excited about the faith shown in his work.

When you’re a 25-year-old aspiring writer, getting your first book published is a big deal. Getting a three-book contract means major success, but having that deal almost immediately extended to seven books is the stuff of dreams.

For New York writer Jason Pinter, that’s exactly what happened three years ago. His debut novel, The Mark, was bought by publishing house Mira as part of a three-book deal and two weeks later, in an astonishing vote of confidence, he got a call to tell him Mira wanted four more.

‘‘I worked as an editor for five years in publishing and I saw a lot of deals get made. Usually, multiple book deals are for authors much further along in their careers,” says Pinter.

‘‘A publisher usually won’t be interested in a multiple deal like that until you have ten to 15 books under your belt and they can be sure you’ll deliver and they’ll sell. When an author like James Patterson signs a contract, it’s for 12 books at a time, but he puts out four or even six titles a year and it’s not that big a deal for him.”

‘‘For me, my deal was an incredible vote of confidence but also a little daunting because I knew this wasn’t usual. I have a lot to live up to.”

The Mark, which has just been published in Europe, features a rookie journalist, Henry Parker, who finds himself caught up in a story he is sent to report on. Parker has just arrived in New York City fresh from the Cornell School of Journalism and has landed himself the job of his dreams – working at the prestigious New York Gazette. His first day on the job starts out brilliantly when he find himself seated in the same office as grizzled newsman Jack O’Donnell, his journalistic hero.

O’Donnell is an old school newsman, renowned for breaking stories of national and international significance and Parker feels privileged to be in the same room as him. He is quickly pulled down to earth, though, when his first assignments arrive – instead of pounding the streets reporting hard news, he is put to work writing obituaries.

Parker can’t conceal his disappointment and O’Donnell decides to cut the new kid a break, promising him an ‘additional reporting by’ credit if he helps research a story. Parker’s task is to track down and interview minor mob convicts released from jail and see how their lives have turned out a few years down the line.

Henry sets out to interview young Hispanic man Luis Guzman and finds himself accidentally caught up in a shooting when a mob gunman turns up to threaten Guzman. A scuffle ensues, the gunman is killed and against his better judgement, an injured and confused Parker flees.

The next day, Parker wakes to find his own face peering out of the front page of the New York Gazette, under the banner headline ‘Cop killer.’

Pinter’s hero Henry Parker is deliberately not a world-weary anti-hero. Unlike the central characters found in the majority of popular crime fiction, he’s young and relatively optimistic.

‘‘I loved the idea of keeping the series a little different,” says Pinter. ‘‘There are loads of crime novels featuring cops or FBI agents or pathologists, so a reporter is a character that isn’t so saturated as an idea. He’s also young – there are actually very few central characters under the age of 40 in crime fiction but Henry’s only 24.

‘‘He’s not a cynical, divorced, alcoholic, world-weary misogynist – I wanted him to be an optimist, at least at the beginning. I really wanted to create baggage the reader could see and then explore how Parker carries it.

‘‘The things that happen to him over the course of the first book change his life and that’s what I want to explore in the later books – how is what happened to him in the first book going to affect him later on?

‘‘He goes into the second book having become exactly what he most disliked in his profession – a celebrity. He hated journalists who put their name above the headline – the Jayson Blairs and Stephen Glasses of this world – guys who had became bigger news stories themselves than the stories they wrote about. He just wanted to report good stories – but he acquires a degree of unwanted celebrity.

‘‘He then has to deal with former Gazette colleagues writing articles about him and trying to place him at the forefront of a new trend for notorious young journalists who’ll stop at nothing to become well known.” Now that Pinter has a bigger publishing deal, he’s looking forward to using the space to develop the stories he has had floating around in his head for years.

But becoming a publishing sensation is not something he is entirely comfortable with. Given his experience in the publishing business, Pinter is in a uniquely qualified position to weigh up the pros and cons of being touted The Next Big Thing.

His five years spent as a book editor in New York have made Pinter painfully aware that marketing a new author is most easily done with an angle – something that sets them apart.

‘‘I worked in publishing and sat in on a lot of meetings where people discussed the author’s age or looks or other aspects of their marketability but thankfully in crime fiction, nobody cares what age you are,” he says.

‘‘If you’re going to write a tell-all about the fashion industry, then it helps to have worked for Anna Wintour. If you’re writing a tell-all about Hollywood, then it helps if you’ve worked with the Weinsteins.

‘‘But you don’t have to have been a cop, or for that matter a murderer, to write a crime novel. Nobody cares – the story is everything. I write the kind of books that people judge based on what’s between the covers as opposed to the age of the person in the mugshot on the back cover.”

One thing you will find on the back cover of Pinter’s books is the kind of endorsements other crime writers can only dream about. Authors like James Patterson, Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen and Jeffery Deaver have all raved about The Mark and obviously that doesn’t hurt when it comes to shifting copies of the book.

‘‘Eleven authors endorsed The Mark, but I’d only met one of them. Many of them were writers I’ve been a fan of for years so I was amazed. If anything, it gave me confidence to keep going and to think of myself as more than a one-trick pony.

‘‘If a reader picks up a book on the basis of an endorsement by James Patterson or Jeffery Deaver and they hate it, then they’re going to lose a little respect for that writer. So it means a lot to me that people put their reputation on the line to add to mine.” Pinter knew he wanted to be a writer from an early age, but his career to date has included a few literary detours. ‘‘Pretty early on I knew I wanted to write, but I knew nothing about the publishing industry and actually tried to query literary agents without having written anything. Not surprisingly, not many agents were champing at the bit to represent me,” he said.

Deciding it would be a good idea to see the industry from the inside, he spent his summer vacations from Wesleyan University interning at a literary agency in New York. This turned his head enough to make him opt for publishing and he subsequently worked as an editor with publishers Warner and Crown’s Three Rivers Press and then at St Martin’s.

A cynical observer might wonder if industry connections like these might open certain doors for an aspiring author.

‘‘Contacts will get you in the door of a publisher, but they won’t get you published and anybody that thinks working in publishing is going to get them a leg-up is sadly mistaken. The bottom line is that publishers want books that the public want to read. Had I written a book that nobody wanted to read, it would still be sitting in my desk drawer.”

‘‘I understand the business side of publishing better than most other writers, but I’m not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse. There’s something to be said for being blissfully ignorant.”

The Mark is a cinematic read. It’s fast paced, stylishly visual and it would be easy to imagine it as a movie. Was it written with this in mind? ‘‘I wrote it hoping that a film version might be made, but trying to write with that in mind is a mistake.”

Nevertheless, The Mark has been optioned by Irish company Treasure Films, best known for movies such as Shrooms, I Went Down and Man About Dog. Pinter says he’s thrilled about this development.

‘‘It wasn’t a carefully orchestrated campaign to sell the film rights. Paddy MacDonald from Treasure happened to be at Los Angeles airport and happened to buy a copy to read on the plane. He liked it and called my agent and that got the ball rolling.

‘‘It’s really exciting because they get what I was trying to do with the book and they seem like dynamic guys. My wife and I sat down to watch Shrooms and we thought ‘These guys have style and vision, so it would be great if it happened with this company’. We’ll have to see, though.

‘‘It would be nice to see something different and gritty done with it, and they seem like the guys to do that. But I’m getting ahead of myself – I’m very far down the pecking order when it comes to these things. They say the writer is positioned below the caterer on the totem pole of the movie business.”

Book review: Never suck a dead man’s hand

Never Suck a Dead Man’s Hand. By Dana Kollmann, Merlin, €13
Published Sunday, September 07, 2008 in The Sunday Business Post

With CSI and Cold Case among the most popular shows on TV, the public’s voracious appetite for police procedural stories shows no signs of abating. We seem to be endlessly fascinated with what goes on behind the police tape at the scene of a crime, but where once the detective was the hero, today it’s crime scene investigators who hog the fictional limelight.

Except real life isn’t like TV. In Never Suck a Dead Man’s Hand, veteran crime scene investigator Dana Kollmann shares the story of her ten year stint in Baltimore as the person the cops call to asses crime scenes before the bodies are taken away and the blood is hosed off the footpath.

Kollmann’s book is extremely entertaining, but not for the faint hearted or weak stomached. It’s got car-crash appeal — you don’t want to look but somehow can’t quite stop yourself. Written in the form of a memoir, the book gives the reader a fascinating look behind the scenes, giving an insight not just into the day to day techniques used by forensic investigators but also into the mindset necessary to sustain normality in the face of this type of day to day horror.

Unlike the characters in the TV shows Kollmann has been there, and she wants you to know that reality is not just stranger than fiction, it’s frequently ickier as well. From collecting tissue samples from decomposing bodies to dealing with a crime scene in which a man shot himself and bits of brain got stuck on a rotating ceiling fan, going to work in this job takes a special kind of character.

Kollmann herself makes the point that there are two ways to deal with witnessing traumatic events on the job — you can laugh or cry, and those that can’t laugh don’t last. The book reflects the kind of gallows humour necessary for her to leave what she saw on the job behind at the end of each shift.

While the stories in the book are often extreme, perhaps more interesting are the titbits of forensic science Kollmann shares. For example, did you know there are several different kinds of rigor apart from rigor mortis? Or that wearing latex gloves doesn’t stop criminals from leaving fingerprints?

Interestingly, according to Kollmann the degree of interest in forensic matters generated by TV shows and popular fiction isn’t entirely a good thing. She points out that many of these shows portray forensic evidence as the star witness in criminal trials and as a result, members of the public called to serve on juries often have unrealistic ideas about what forensics is and what can and cannot be proved.

If forensic science doesn’t play a prominent role in a trial or no forensically valuable evidence was collectable from the crime scene, then jurors often come to the misguided assumption that the prosecution case must be weak or that the police and crime scene investigators must not have looked properly. She makes the point that forensic evidence is not always there, does not always solve the crime and is not always infallible.

Never Suck a Dead Man’s Hand is certainly a unique book, and if you’re a fan of police procedural TV shows and want an idea of what the real thing is like, then you’ll be hooked from the first page. It’s not pretty, but then Kollmann would say that nether are the things people do to each other at crime scenes.