Tell the Truth by Katherine Howell

imgres-5I was both so looking forward to reading this book, Tell the Truth by Katherine Howell and, frankly, dreading it. Excited because I think Howell is an extraordinary writer who has a light yet masterful touch when it comes to creating utterly convincing characters, great dialogue and a plot that lures you in – I relish a new work by her and it’s moved straight to the top of my “must-read” pile. I was also dreading reading this book because of these exact same things only this time burdened with the knowledge that this is the last novel (hopefully, for the time being only), Howell will write in a while. An announcement late last year on her FaceBook fan page warned fans that Howell is retiring from writing …for the time being.

So, it was with very mixed feelings I read Tell the Truth, in one unable- to-put-down session and what I can say is it certainly brings this wonderful series featuring Sydney detective, Ella Marconi, to a realistic and fabulous close.

Tell the Truth is a fast-paced, page-tuner par excellence with an unexpected and fitting conclusion that draws the threads of not only the major plot in this book to a close, but the narrative arc of Marconi’s roller-coaster personal and professional life (across all eight) as well.

The novel opens when young, happily married paramedic, Stacey Durham, is reported missing and then her car is found covered in blood. Marconi is on the case, questioning the usual suspects – the frantic husband, an over-familiar colleague, resentful sister and so on. Suspicion is rife and the reader vacillates between who might-have-dunnit and who we’re convinced did not. When mysterious notes appear with “…tell the truth” scribed upon them, it appears as though the missing person investigation might just become a murder one – that is, if Marconi doesn’t find some answers swiftly.

While I didn’t see the ending, I never mind if I do providing the author ties it up persuasively and there is none of this ex machina stuff or a character who conveniently appears in the last pages pops up, is linked to the victims and charged.

Howell never does this to her reader. Her beginning, middle and endings, like her characters and their motivations, are always totally believable. She leaves readers satisfied but wanting more as well. Able to not only write a gratifying police procedural, Howell also explores the emotional and psychological complexity of people and the relationships we form – private and public, personal and professional, and the lengths we’ll go to maintain the perfect front in order to spare others and even ourselves from the shame and regret of poor choices. In this novel, Howell also delves into friendship, familial bonds, and the ties that bind and break us.

All in all, this is a ripper of a read from a terrific writer. I am just so disappointed this marks a departure from writing for Howell, though if it’s really a finale, it’s a grand one.

 

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Book Review: Deserving Death by Katherine Howell

I have to commence this review with a disclaimer: Katherine Howell is a beloved friend of mine with whom I regularly share the ups and dowDeserving Deathns of being a writer, discuss politics, movies, books and the kind of things friends do – including the roller-coaster journey she went on writing this book. She even gives me a beautiful mention in her acknowledgements. Imagine my delight when I received my copy. I could not wait to read the published version of a tale that had wrung so much creative energy out of my talented friend.

Now, part of me didn’t want to admit to my friendship with Katherine – and you know why? I worried that it might colour the review I’m about to write – that reading it, others might think, well, she would say that, wouldn’t she, Katherine is a friend. The truth is, I don’t write reviews that don’t reflect how I feel about the book and the experience of reading it. I am much too professional for that and I would rather not write a word than be dishonest. That Deserving Death happens to be one of the best crime books I’ve read in a while has nothing to do with my friendship with the writer, but it does make me very, very proud that my mate wrote such a sensational novel.

Deserving Death is the latest in the hugely popular Ella Marconi detective series and, like the others (and what makes this series unique), is each book also has a principal protagonist, a paramedic (or two or three) and describes the inter-relationships between police and emergency services as well as what occurs in the daily and personal grind of our girls and boys in blue/white. In this book, paramedics feature more strongly than usual, occupying many different roles.

The story opens with the second brutal murder of a female paramedic in four weeks. Discovered by two colleagues, Carly and Tessa, the investigation of the woman’s death is handed to Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare who realise very quickly that not only are there connections between this death and the earlier one, but various witnesses and suspects linked to the women and thus the crimes are hiding the truth.

This is something Carly also recognises and, after being frustrated, hurt and confused by the blatant lies she’s being told – and by those she thought she knew and trusted – decides to take matters into her own hands, sacrificing friendship, professional and even personal relationships in the process. But as she steers close to discovering the truth of what’s being hidden and the identity of the killer, little does she suspect that she may yet be forced to make the greatest sacrifice of all…

Relationships are depicted as complex and oft-times fragile things in this novel. Just when you think you know a person, or their motivation, something will emerge or enter a conversation and change everything. I loved the way Katherine built the various connections – from Carly and Tessa’s professional bonds, to those they have with their boss, Mark Vardy, and the dead woman, to the deeper, more complicated ones that dominate their personal lives.

Running parallel to the investigation and the various liaisons and secrets it uncovers, are those that entangle and complicate the personal relationships in the book. One of the most significant secrets, and which is beautifully rendered, is the “coming out” of Carly’s currently clandestine relationship with Linsey. Forced to hide their love because of how Linsey’s family and, at the macrocosmic level society might judge them, the stronger Carly gently urges and supports her girlfriend to find the courage to be who and what she really is, not the version her parents want and which gives lie to her feelings. In a sense, this sensitively drawn (and very topical) plot-line cleverly mirrors others in the book as well.

Hidden from view are the feelings and emotions that draw people together and tear them apart, whether it be Carly’s love for Linsey and Linsey’s fear of what knowledge of her sexuality will do to her family, or the dreadful reality of what brought Ella and Callum together in the first place and which they tip-toe around, loathe to discuss lest it erupt into their present and destroy the fragile relationship they’re building.  Then, there’s the bond between Tessa and her mother – who literally prefers to dwell in the shadows, refusing to face what she’s become – and how you can hate what someone does but still love them unconditionally as well.

Functional and dysfunctional relationships abound in this book, as do secrets, falsehoods and the reasons they exist and why. Sometimes, it’s safer to dissemble – for self-preservation, to protect those you care about, or because fear renders you inert and silent. But then there are also the secrets evil people and/or deeds forces one to keep and how these can commit even a good person to a path that’s fatally destructive.

I could not put this book down. I laughed, I cried, I gasped in horror and genuine fright. By the time I’d finished, I knew I’d been in the hands of a masterful storyteller from whose clever and careful hands I did not want to be released.

If you enjoy great crime stories and one with real heart, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

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Book Review: Web of Deceit by Katherine Howell

I don’t know why I do this to myself. Every time I pick up a Katherine Howell book, my fate is sealed. For the next how ever many hours, I will barely eat, sleep or blink until I finish the novel. And don’t try talking to me while I have my nose in the story – I am unable and have no desire to hold a conversation let alone compose a coherent response to a question – I simply have to know what happens next. Call me a glutton for punishment or someone who just knows a wonderful book when she opens one – maybe both.

Now, imagine this is how I have responded to all Howell’s Ella Marconi novels and then multiply that reaction a hundredfold with the latest in the series, Web of Deceit. This book is an emotional, psychological and narrative time bomb that ticks away, putting you on the edge of your seat and making it impossible to leave the gritty, complex and marvellously tangled world and crimes that Howell has woven.

Web of Deceit opens with two paramedics, Jane and Alex, being called to an accident where a vehicle has hit a pole. No speed is involved and the driver has no injuries yet, he refuses to leave the car. Terrified, convinced someone is following and “out to get” him, it takes a great deal of persuasion to get him to exit. When, later that night, Jane and Alex are called to an apparent suicide at a train station and recognise the victim, events are set in motion that draw in both the paramedics, their families and, of course, detective Ella Marconi and her partner Murray as well.

Determined to prove the suicide was in fact a murder, Ella finds herself up against a new, number crunching boss for whom over-time and even lateral thinking around a case, appears to be an anathema. Combined with demands from her family and cutting her teeth on a promising new but frail relationship, Ella has to work against the odds to bring justice to the dead man.

Parallel to and interwoven with Ella’s dogged investigation is the story of Alex and Jane both of whom have their own lives and problems.  As these are played out in ugly and complex glory, they find that the sinister warnings and fear of the man in the car may not have been the product of a deluded mind after all and, in fact, are simply a prelude to an all too real and terrifying series of events….

What I particularly love about Howell’s novels, apart from the tight and utterly believable plotting is the way she portrays her characters. They are never two-dimensional but fully rounded personalities whose motivation, while you might not always understand or approve (which makes you anxious for them) makes sense. She gives them back-stories and rich, interesting lives, even when they are quite ordinary, demonstrating their strengths, weaknesses, self-doubt, mistakes and hubris and the consequences of all of these.

Howell also has this marvellous ability to not only bring the paramedics’ work to life, but to show their humanity and the stress and strain under which they work as well. There’s a specific scene about halfway through the novel that is so heart wrenching and heart-warming, the words were swimming all over the page and it was a while before I could compose myself and move on. Kudos to Howell that in the middle of a grisly investigation, where tension is mounting, she could include such a scene and without missing a beat. On the contrary, it adds another layer to the tale and the characters.

Similarly, the way relationships are constructed and deconstructed in the tale rings so true – both professional and personal. There are characters you love and champion but whose actions you sometimes question – just as in real life. There are also those you loathe and others who arouse a visceral fear, the type that makes the hair on your body stand to attention and your heart race that little bit faster.

Reading isn’t just about the eyes and mind, not when you’re in the hands of a master – and Howell is undoubtedly that. She plays with all the readers’ senses making the act of reading almost as exhausting and exhilarating as Marconi’s investigation.

Full of twists and turns, always narratively dependable but never, ever predictable, Web of Deceit will keep you captivated until the very last line. It’s as if you’re riding in an ambulance, the siren wailing, and someone else is driving, their foot increasing the pressure on the accelerator as you’re taken on a ride, replete with running red lights, dodging cars and pedestrians; one you’ll never forget or regret.

Completely enthralling, Web of Deceit places Howell right up there with the absolute finest in the genre. Even among such luminaries, she shines.

Available from the 1st February 2013, I was lucky enough to read an early copy. Don’t miss out!

 

 

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Book Review: Silent Fear, Katherine Howell.

Katherine Howell’s latest novel in the Ella Marconi series, Silent Fear is utterly gripping, atmospheric and unputdownable.

 Opening on a sultry Sydney day close to Christmas, the kind where skin sticks to leather and flies adhere to skin, paramedic Holly is summoned, along with her partner, to what appears to be a collapse at a nearby football ground. Only, when she arrives, the young victim hasn’t fainted from heatstroke as first suspected but been shot in the head. Discovering that her estranged brother is not only a witness, but a friend of the deceased, Holly senses that her carefully ordered world is about to fall about. So does detective Ella Marconi who, on arrival at the scene with her distracted partner Murray, recognises that what she’s now investigating is a professional hit with all the sinister connotations that evokes. The deeper Ella digs into this case, the more those involved are not who or what they seem and the truth proves to be more elusive than the killer.

Howell has this wonderful ability to create mood and place. As you read, you’re there in Sydney, sweltering in the heat, longing for the traffic to move again, for the wind to blow across your fevered brow. The plash of raindrops, the relief provided by cool drinks, coughing air-conditioners and the distant sounds of water is visceral. The evasions, lies and egos of the various characters that Ella (and Holly) endures, just adds to the sense of oppression and the simmering tensions between those who should be allies. The plot is so tightly woven, clutching you by the neck and dragging you into the ominous motivations of the seemingly innocent and certainly desperate. Each scene builds on the last until the climax explodes.

Characters are superbly drawn. You invest heavily in the central characters and anxiety runs high as their intentions are questioned and their hard-earned lives challenged. As usual, Ella is a believable, strong and reliable character that drives the narrative with her ethical approach to not only detective work, but people as well. Holly is a complex, deep woman who having lost everything once, stands to do so again. Alas, redemption and moral fortitude don’t always prevent tragedy from unfolding. Howell does not flinch from making the hard calls in that regard either, remaining faithful to the narrative and creating a story that is impossible to tear yourself away from. I lost three nights’ good sleep reading this book and it’s been worth every heavy-lidded day and yawn since. What a writer! What a book!

Can’t wait for the next one…

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