Claire McGowan – The Vanishing Triangle

Claire McGowan – The Vanishing Triangle

Crime writer Claire McGowan has grown up in a small town in Northern Ireland which she always perceived as a safe place despite the Troubles. Of course, the news daily reported about bombings and people killed but what she hadn’t been aware of was the incredibly high number of girls and women who were abducted or simply vanished in both Northern and the Republic of Ireland. Some of the cases happened close to where she lived, happened to girls her age who roamed the same places when she did but she has never even heard of it. Only rarely was a suspect arrested and even more seldom convicted for rape or murder. How could the country have such a high number of women murdered and except for their families nobody seems to care?

I have enjoyed Claire McGowan’s crime novels for some years now, not only because the plots are suspenseful and complex, but also because she manages to capture the atmosphere of a place, to create a special mood that can only exist there. With her deep understanding for the people and the places they live and which shape their thinking and acting, I was curious to read her true crime investigation of femicides.  

What her enquiry uncovers is not the Ireland that has attracted tourists and business for decades. It is a country that was shaped by the Catholic church and whose legislation was far behind other European countries in terms of women’s rights. With the Troubles, it was often safer not to have seen anything and, first and foremost, not to say anything, thus atrocious crimes could happen in broad daylight in front of everybody’s eyes. The deeper she digs the more cases she finds and can link to a small area, the so called “Vanishing Triangle”, where an astonishing number of woman have disappeared and whose cases remain unsolved.

McGowan tells the women’s stories, lists the evidence and also provides reasons why their bodies are still missing or why prime suspects still walk free. All this grants a look in the country’s state in the 1980s and 1990s – a lot has changed since, but still society and police often fail female victims today.

A read which is as interesting as it is disturbing. I really enjoy listening to true crime podcasts thus the topic attracted me immediately. What I really appreciated was that Claire McGowan did not take a neutral position towards her account but you can sense her anger and the incredulity with which she looks at her findings and which makes you wonder why not more people shout out because of this.

Peter Swanson – Nine Lives

Peter Swanson – Nine Lives

Nine people, seemingly chosen at random, get the same letter: no sender or return address and in the envelope just a sheet of paper with nine names. One of them is theirs.  They have no idea what this is supposed to mean and react quite differently to it. Some of them are worried, others just throw it away. But when the first person listed is murdered, mood shifts a bit. When the second body is discovered, they get nervous as it becomes more and more obvious: this is a kill list. And the strangers will all be dead just a short time after. FBI agent Jessica is among them and she is the first to discover a possible connection: the reason for the murderer lies in the past, many decades ago, there must have been an event that links them.

“Nine Lives” is only the second novel I read by Peter Swanson after “Before She Knew Him” which I also thoroughly enjoyed. His newest novel, too, keeps you long in the dark, just like the police, you wonder what the characters might have brought on the list, how nine – why nine and not ten? – people spread all over the country might be linked. What I liked especially and what came to my mind immediately after starting to read, was Agatha Christie’s crime mystery “And Then There Were None” which is referred to several times throughout the novel. A tricky puzzle where the pieces do not seem to fit for quite a long time and while you still ponder about the reason behind it all, you can only watch how one after the other is killed.

“It wasn’t simply revenge. It felt like something much more than that. Karma, maybe. I had the money, and I had the will, to do what the natural world would never do. I could set the world to rights, in one small way.”

What I appreciated most was how the people reacted to their death announcement. Swanson created quite diverse characters who cope with this challenging situation in very different ways. Ethan and Caroline’s way of bonding over the shared fate was for me the most loveable story as I could relate to this most – just having the feeling of not being alone in it, of having somebody to share the fears and thoughts with, and somehow accepting fate or whatever it is.

There are some noteworthy minor characters – a wannabe victim, a contract killer – whose motives and points of view bring some new spin to the plot, too. However, what is most remarkable is the personality of the character who is behind it all. Normally, you come to hate a serial killer who takes himself for God, emotionally, I found it not that easy here, which alone already makes it a great read since life is never just black and white, good or bad.

A very cleverly composed plot which is not totally nerve-wrecking but full of suspense and also thought-provoking: what would you do if you were on such a list?

Helen Fields – One for Sorrow

Helen Fields – One for Sorrow

First, their pathologist is killed, then another attack is clearly aimed at police and paramedics. Edinburgh has to face a brutal serial killer who is not targeting the public to cause general panic but only aims at the forces. DCI Ava Turner and DI Luc Callanach are confronted with death every day – but not the death of their colleagues and friends. It is obvious that the cases are linked, but they simply cannot find the thread that holds them all together, they only know that it is just a question of time until the bomber hits again, taking more lives of those who help others every day.

Helen Field’s latest case for her Edinburgh team is full of twists and demands everything from her protagonists. This time, it is personal, Ava is affected directly by the death of her friend and still grieving when she needs all her wits to hunt down the serial killer. “One for Sorrow” is already the seventh novel in the series and in my opinion definitely the best. It had me gripped immediately and I kept speculating about the identity of the killer, following wrong leads cleverly laid out again and again.

There are two time levels in the novel. On the one hand, we follow the police investigation which is always several steps behind their enemy. The killer is knowledgeable and perfectly follows his plan. What I liked especially was the scene where they ask a profiler to help them to identify the person behind it all. It made absolutely sense and was highly informative and interesting to follow the line of argumentation.

On the other hand, there is a kind of totally gone wrong love story about a young woman named Quinn and her boyfriend who, instead of accepting the breakup, turns into a freaking stalker. It is obvious that this is the missing link to the bombings, yet, you need to see the whole picture of Quinn’s story to understand the motive behind it all.

A suspenseful and highly emotional mystery I hardly could put down.

Amy Suiter Clarke – Girl, 11

Amy Suiter Clarke – Girl, 11

Elle Castillo’s podcast on unsolved murder cases has gone through the ceiling since she started talking about Minnesota’s famous The Countdown Killer, short TCK. Two decades before, a series of missing and then found murdered girls shock the area of Twin Cities, obviously, they were chosen for their age thus forming a countdown. Only one girl could escape and in this way, the place where she had been hold captive was detected just as two dead bodies. The police believed that the killer was one of them even though both persons have never been identified but the fact that no more kidnapping happened seemed to prove it. However, the new popularity seems to have triggered him to restart – or is it just a very good copycat? No matter who, when Elle’s best friend’s daughter is abducted, Elle knows that she is responsible and in charge of finding the girl.

I really liked the perspective of the podcaster who goes through old materials and builds her own theories on what could have happened. A big fan of true crime podcasts myself, I enjoy listening to podcasts – no matter if the case has been solved or not – and I find it interesting how at times a new perspective of somebody without formal training in investigation can lead to new clues. Amy Suiter Clarke’s protagonist Elle in “Girl, 11” is therefore quite some sympathetic character whom I liked to follow from the start in her quest to find TCK.

All cases of young persons being abducted and killed are followed by the public impatiently, if it happens to be a whole series, people are even more into it. The character of TCK was interestingly created since he did not chose random victims but acted meticulously, even obsessively, to a strict programme. Elle’s investigation is led by her gut feeling, but from the start, you know that there is much more behind it, the author thus creates double suspense, on the one hand, the hunt for the killer, ln the other the question why Elle herself is that obsessed with especially this case.

A suspenseful thriller which accelerates its pace increasingly and also has some fascinating psychological aspects on both sides – the killer and the investigator – to offer.

Stefan Ahnhem – X Ways to Die

stefan ahnhem x ways to die
Stefan Ahnhem – X Ways to Die

Detective Fabian Risk actually could do with some free time to get his family together after the awful events that nearly killed his wife and daughter. Yet, he and his colleagues still have a serial killer on the loose and the killing of people does not stop. Even though the cases could hardly be more different, he senses that there must be some connection. They are finally getting closer to him, but while the Swedish seaside town of Helsingborg is gripped in fear, Fabian also has to complete his very own mission: His former colleague Elvin did not die from suicide, it was forensic scientist Ingvar Molander and obviously, Elvin had put the clues together correctly. Yet, there are still some missing pieces that Fabian needs to uncover before he can finally arrest him, knowing that he has not only a very clever nemesis who knows the rules of the game, but also one who is totally reckless and ready to do everything to get away with much more than one murder.

Stefan Ahnhem continues the story exactly where it ended in “Motive X” and does not waste any time but plunges directly into the plot. Just as in the novel before, “X Ways to Dies” moves at an extremely high pace and cleverly combines the different plot lines that finally tie the knot together. For me, Ahnhem is a worthy successor and heir of Stieg Larsson who set new milestones with his Millennium series; Ahnhem follows his footsteps in many respects by delivering a demanding plot full of suspense.

The latest instalment answers many questions which remained open in the one before thus completing the story and bringing it to a convincing end. What I totally adored was the fight between Risk and Molander, both very clever and certainly belonging to the best in their jobs thus fighting at eye level and giving a lot of insight into police work.  Several setbacks make Risk an authentic and credible protagonist who also shows his weak and vulnerable sides.

The only question left to be answered: does and if so how can the story go on?

Jackie Kabler – The Perfect Couple

jackie kabler the perfect couple
Jackie Kabler – The Perfect Couple

Life has been perfect for Gemma and her husband Danny. The successful journalist and IT specialist have decided to flee busy London and settle in Bristol in a nice home where the quality of living is higher. When Gemma returns one Friday evening only three weeks after their move, she expects Danny to be at home waiting for her with dinner. However, their house is deserted, no sign that her partner has been at home after work. First, she is only slightly concerned, working overtime is not unusual in his job, but not getting hold of him makes her wonder. After changing his job, he hasn’t gotten a new mobile phone and thus, they only communicate via e-mail which he doesn’t answer. Gemma bravely waits two days, becoming increasingly frightened before she contacts the police for filing a missing persons’ report. What she learns then is that two men looking like Danny’s twins have been murdered in the area and soon she finds herself prime suspect in a serial killer case as strangely, there is not the least sign in her home of Danny ever having lived there with her. What is she actually hiding?

Jackie Kabler’s mystery novel starts quite typical for a thriller, you are immediately thrown into the plot and discover the vanishing of her husband together with Gemma. Thus, you get her growing concern first hand and can easily follow her thoughts. When the police’s side of the story is told, the author switches the point of view and leaves you quite quickly in the positing where you wonder if either you were fooled by Gemma who seemingly has set up some very good murder plot or if the woman suffers from some kind of serious mental troubles and even only imagined to have a husband whom strangely hardly anybody seems to have known. On the other hand, there is some creepy feeling that Danny might have taken advantage of Gemma for some scheme of his own, they haven’t been married that long and he proposed only weeks after they had gotten to know each other.

I totally adored the constant insecurity about whom to trust and what to believe; the more you learn about the characters and the further the events develop, you have to adapt your opinion and change sides more than once. Some unexpected twists and turns keep you hooked to the novel and make it hard to put it down. “The Perfect Couple” is a psychological thriller with an interestingly drawn protagonist and a surprising storyline which make a thrilling and gripping read.

Liz Moore – Long Bright River

liz-moore-long-bright-river
Liz Moore – Long Bright River

Two sisters who could hardly differ more. Mickey has always been the serious, more diligent one who went to school eagerly and was dreaming of a better life than the one they had at their not very loving grandmother’s. Kacey, eighteen months her junior, has always been the wilder, more adventurous girl who early pushed against the boundaries. Now, as grown-ups, they find themselves on opposing sides: Mickey has become a cop with the Philadelphia police, Kacey is highly addicted and working on the street. Mickey always has an eye on her younger sister even though they haven’t been talking for years. When several young and vulnerable women are killed, Mickey is highly alarmed since she hasn’t seen Kacey for several weeks.

Liz Moore‘s novel is a brilliant combination of a mystery novel with the search for a serial killer and a very sad story about a dysfunctional family where problems are handed from one generation to the next and where an escape is not really possible not matter how hard you try. Even though it looks as if there were clear sides, the good sister Mickey and the bad sister Kacey, you realise soon that life isn‘t that easy and that both women are more like different and changing shades of grey.

Mickey is a great protagonist in so far as she has a lot of interesting traits to offer. On the one hand, she is the hard working single mom who only wants the best for her son and constantly fears that she cannot live up to her own expectations. As a policewoman, too, she seems to do a great job, her family history helping her to understand the situation of the less favoured by life and those on the streets. That she suffers from constant misogyny in the forces does not really astonish. Yet, there are also other sides of the young women which only slowly unfold and show that there are a lot of lies she has been told by the people around her, but also lies that she told herself to shape the things in the way she wants to see them.

The mystery parts about the serial killer and the search for the sister are full of suspense and have some unexpected twists and turns to offer. What struck me most was the feeling that a lot of what Moore narrates is actually very sad, none of the characters has much to look forward to in their life and all seems but too authentic. A novel which provides entertainment but also much to ponder about after the last page thus something not to be missed.

Steve Cavanagh – TH1RT3EN

Steve-Cavanagh - Thirteen
Steve Cavanagh – Th1rt3en

It’s one of the biggest murder trials New York has seen for some time and all the country is waiting for actor Robert „Bobby“ Solomon to be convicted for the double murder of his girlfriend and her lover. Chances for Bobby are low, all the evidence is clearly against him: he was at the crime scene, blood all over, he left a finger print on a dollar note which was found on the victims, the murder weapon, a baseball bat, belongs to him and has his prints and blood of the victims all over. And he does not have an alibi for the time of the deed. Yet, there is another factor which will make sure that Bobby goes to jail: the murderer is on the jury. But, the killer didn’t anticipate Eddie Flynn, Bobby’s defence attorney, who looked his client in the eyes and saw that this man is innocent. So there must be someone else to blame. Let the game begin.

Steve Cavanagh’s legal crime novel has a rather slow start, but then it takes up pace and suddenly you can only wonder what unfolds in front of you. A brilliant puzzle and fight between two highly intelligent combatants who quickly combine facts and spectacularly try to outplay the enemy. “Th1rt3en” is the fourth novel of the Eddie Flynn series which can also be read without knowledge of the preceding books. For the third of the series, “The Liar”, Steve Cavanagh was awarded the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger in 2018.

The novel clearly lives on the fight between the killer and the lawyer. Both are highly interesting characters and certainly equal in many respects. On the one hand, Joshua Kane who seems to have perfected crime and taken killing to a higher level. It is brilliant how he proceeds and does not only care about the murder itself but also about what follows after. On the other hand, it seems as if nothing can stop Eddie Flynn, his sharp intellect guarantees clever tactical manoeuvres and seeing things that other might overlook.

It’s the classic fight of good versus evil integrated in a complex story. When the actual trial starts, the plot accelerates and suspense rises enormously. It is fascinating to follow the story line and see how all pieces finally fall into places. Even though there are some blunt and brutal murders, “TH1RT3EN” is a rather demanding and intellectual thriller that demands all your attention and concentration, something I highly appreciate.

Stefan Ahnhem – Motive X

stefan-ahnheim-motive-x
Stefan Ahnhem – Motive X

It’s only four weeks after his life was almost completely devastated, but now Fabian Risk sees light again when his daughter Matilda wakes from the coma. Yet, there is not really the time to spend it with his family since Helsingborg police have several tricky cases to solve: a young boy is found dead in a washing machine, a woman is killed and a third murder case also does not seem to have any recognizable pattern. The team’s nerves are on the edge since all of them also have to fight with their own demons. For Fabian, there is also something that has been nagging him since they found their former colleague Elvin dead in his apartment: he cannot believe in the suicide theory and slowly, the pieces seem to fall into place, but does he like the result? Could one of their colleagues actually be a serial murderer?

Stefan Ahnhem continues in this instalment of the Fabian Risk series exactly where he stopped in “18 below”. Quite often you can read a novel form a series without knowing what happened before, here, however, you will certainly not understand a lot without any prior knowledge. And it is obvious that there is more to come since, unfortunately, the big questions are not answered and this is why I could not rate it with five stars.

Again, the author underlines why he is one of the big names of Scandinavian crime. Ahnhem does not tell one story, but he has several plots running parallel, oscillating between them and pushing forward the pots at a very high speed. Admittedly, I could not really say which one is the most important plot here, but it made completely sense since life isn’t a succession of stories that wait in line until their time has come. This happen at the same time and rarely do you have the time to only focus on one case or problem at a time.

Since there is so much going on in “Motive X”, the character development is a bit reduced, but Risk seems to have found his private case to investigate all alone. This will surely be decisive for his life, even more than his family life which is in a very fragile state. Whom I followed eagerly again was Irene Lilja, she surely is somehow out of control, but her motives are good.

All in all, a great read with all the ingredients for a thriller that hooks you at once.

Samantha Downing – My Lovely Wife

samantha-downing-my-lovely-wife
Samantha Downing – My Lovely Wife

They did it before and they are about to do it again. What looks like the absolute average family in Hidden Oaks – the father a tennis coach, the mother in real estates and two lovely kids – is all but average. They have a secret, or better: secrets in plural since they have killed more than one woman. And they are looking for their next victim. They are clever, a lot cleverer than all the other inhabitants of their small community and most certainly smarter than the police who don’t even know that somebody is missing. Yet, every run of luck has an ending and theirs is about to come, isn’t it?

Samantha Downing’s debut is a terrific thriller which combines the core emotions of human beings: love and hate. It’s masterly constructed and when you think you finally know what it all adds up to, you get a big surprise and a twist that takes suspense to another level.

First of all, the couple at the centre of the novel. The story is told from the husband’s point of view – interestingly, he never gets a name, there are only his aliases when he makes contact with possible victims. The point of view is limited of course which will play a major role and undeniably helps to lead you to wrong assumptions. As a reader, I should have known better, but I fell easily prey to Downing. At the beginning, you get the impression that the parents are a bit different, even strange to a certain extent, but even though you know that they have killed before, it doesn’t really keep you from seeing the loving father and mother who try to educate their children and deeply care for them. At some point, I even wished for them to get away with murder. Well, they are great in deceiving their environment and so is the reader.

An impressive psychological thriller which only reveals its full extent at the end of the novel and definitely makes you think about what you really know of the people around you and how easily you can be tricked and misled.