Perfect Addiction

May 2017 I downloaded a book for my Kindle. No big deal I hear you say, but I am the person who loves the scent of ink on paper, who likes the tactility of turning a paper page. I am not a lover of the Kindle…in fact it’s just an app I have on my phone and tablet. It’s a device on which to have emergency books for when you’re sat on a train and you’ve just finished your physical book and you need entertaining for the last hour of your journey. (And you can’t look out of the window because it’s dark!)

I had downloaded Perfect Remains by Helen Fields. I hadn’t heard of the author, or the book, but it was a free download so I wasn’t complaining. One journey back from London, this novel became my emergency book of choice to while away my journey. By the time the train had rattled into Chester station I was hooked…thank goodness for the quiet taxi driver, as that meant more reading time until I got home.

The protagonist of the story, Luc Callanach, was raised in France, however, his career at Interpol was brought to an untimely close following a false allegation made against him. In a bid to make a new start he returned to Scotland, the land of his birth, for a job as a Detective Inspector in Edinburgh. No sooner had he started in his role, then he was plunged head-first into a murder investigation and I was plunged into a perfectly addictive series of books.

Elaine Buxton is missing. On a remote Highland mountain her body is burning. Soon the body of the once respected lawyer will be a mound of ash and only her teeth and clothing will identify her. Callanach wants to prove himself, but the Frenchman of unquestionable beauty riles the other men in the team. Will his good looks be the undoing of him, or will his colleague DI Ava Turner realise that the man has intellect as well as an attractive physique and Gallic charm?

It isn’t long before both DI’s are put to the test. Another successful woman is abducted from her doorstep and Callanach finds himself in a race against the clock. What he doesn’t know is that the real Elaine Buxton is concealed in the back room of an Edinburgh house, screaming into the dark cavern within where no-one can hear her cries. Elaine’s killer has covered his tracks meticulously and the fate of the abducted women becomes more twisted than Callanach could ever imagine.

Perfect Remains is the first in a series of detective novels featuring DI Callanach and what a stunning debut novel it is. I was completely gripped reading this chilling sequence of events and entering into the mind of such a twisted killer. I love a great detective novel. It has to be clever, punchy, dark and the characters have to illuminate the page. If you don’t care for the characters, then you’re not going to be bothered by them solving the crimes.

I often read marketing where I’m told a book is “gripping” “you can’t put it down” “clever twist” and in reality I’m often disappointed. The “clever twist” has been done before or you can see it coming a mile off. The “gripping” novel is often an agent doing their best to ramp up the excitement of a book due to the name of the author rather than the content of the book. “You can’t put it down” – well actually I can, I’ll read the next chapter tomorrow because all of this unnecessary waffle is putting me into a coma! This book was a free download, I was stuck on a train, what was there to lose? I started reading and I didn’t stop until the book was finished…and as I came to the end I did a quick Google search. The second book in the series was waiting for me, I had inadvertently stumbled across a new writer whose work I was enjoying enormously.

Perfect Prey – Edinburgh, a charity worker is slashed across the stomach in the middle of a rock concert. In a crowd of thousands, no-one bears witness to his bloody death. A week later, a schoolteacher is dumped in an alley, she’s been strangled with her own scarf. For DI’s Callanach and Turner there is no motive for the murders and no leads to follow…that is until graffiti begins to appear on the city buildings describing each victim. It’s only when they realise that the words appear before, rather than after the next murder, that they begin to understand the enormity of the task ahead.

The combination of horrific and terrifying storytelling is back and it is more addictive than the first book. By now I had settled in with the main characters, and it was refreshing to have not one, but two lead detectives, both of which weren’t the usual miserable bloke with a chip on his shoulder and a heap of skeletons in the closet who thinks the answer lies at the bottom of a pint glass. Instead there is Luc, a former Interpol Officer and model, used to the sunshine, cuisine and glamour of France, trying to unravel crimes in an often rainy Edinburgh, who has to get used to the dour sense of humour of his colleagues. Then there is Ava Turner, a loyal but feisty woman who is more than a match for all of her male counterparts. She gives Callanach a level of credibility; he could be a character hard to get on with, but she brings out the human qualities of him, and they are a winning  combination - she’s impetuous, whereas he is more level-headed, but both have a similar intellect and they watch out for each other in the depraved world in which they work.

It’s probably best to make it clear these books are a bit gruesome, they’re certainly not you’re quaint Agatha Christie style who-dunnit, or the more traditional easy-paced detective novel; they do force you to consider the depraved and deadly world that we live in. The reader is left to consider the victim, the sense of hope and hopelessness they must feel and the perpetrator, who to the reader seems insane, although in the offenders eyes their actions are completely logical. In amongst this mix, the reader is privy to information the detectives are unaware of, so it becomes clear to the reader who the criminal is, but not whether the police will find the missing links in time to stop another victim come to an untimely end.

Detective novels have been one my favourite genres since my second year at junior school reading Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys in Mrs Scott’s class. From there I ventured to Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie and beyond. I’ve travelled around Venice with Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti (although after the first twelve books I decided I needed to give the series a break) and the South East of England with Susan Hill’s Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler. I even (after some cajoling) read the first three Strike novels, although in that instance I ended up preferring the TV series to the novels; so what was it that held my attention reading the “Perfect” books so much?

Helen Fields has created an edge of the seat style read; as you get towards the end of the novel there is a mix of expectation, apprehension and a bit of melancholy that the book has to end. The books stick to the plot, they are fast paced, they leave you disgusted, perturbed, wary, but then in that darkness there are moments of light peppered through the pages that leave you chuckling and smiling. You are engrossed with the characters, both the main detectives and their colleagues back at the station. You don’t want anyone to get hurt, but this is policing and there is a rawness in that people will get hurt, people will die, you just have to read on to find out who lady luck is smiling on and who she has chosen to ignore.
The books leave me desperate to know what happens next and by the time I finished the second book I knew I was hooked on this series. I also knew that the next time I read a Callanach novel, I needed to ensure I had a whole day ahead of me, because once I read that first page, the book wouldn’t be put down until the last page had been turned. 

Unfortunately when I finished Perfect Prey, there was no third book to read…Perfect Remains and Perfect Pray were published in January and July 2017 and I had no idea when book 3 would surface!

November 2018 I noticed that two new books in the series had been released – I downloaded them but knew I would need a weekend where I would be uninterrupted to read them. That weekend finally happened over the late May bank holiday this year! By now, however, there were another two books to add to the Kindle. Good job I’m only working a three day week during lockdown…this was going to be interesting. Would I still find the books as enthralling as when I read the first two novels? Would I actually manage a book a day or would it end up like everything else I do…being started, interrupted, left on the side for a while before being picked up again?

4 days…4 books…and I’m now in mourning!

Perfect Death – the third novel in the series and Ava Turner has been promoted…she is now Detective Chief Inspector, so how will the dynamic of her and Luc’s relationship stand up – both personal and professional?

Now whilst earlier on I said the lead character isn’t “the usual miserable bloke with a chip on his shoulder and a heap of skeletons in the closet,” Luc does have a troubled backstory relating to his departure from Interpol, which recurs in this book and adds another element about his troubled past. Instead of detracting from the tale, finding out more snippets about his past actually enhances the story and allows the reader to follow more than one crime per novel.

Ava’s first case as DCI is going to be a tough one…Edinburgh has another serial killer on the loose, but this time the murders are slow and painful. Each victim is entirely unaware of the poison slowly flowing through their veins until it is too late. It seems an impossible murder to solve, how can you catch a killer who takes endless pleasure watching his prey slowly die?

The body of a young woman is found lying naked, in the depth of winter, near Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. There are no signs of a struggle, it looks like a simple case of an overdose. Meanwhile, a road traffic accident is called in, but upon investigation, the victim has disappeared. The case is handed over to DCI Begbie to investigate, but is he upholding the strong arm of the law or concealing a history of events about Ava’s former DCI that she might not want to know about?

The murders in this third novel are not as gruesome as the earlier reads, in fact the bodies seem serene and at peace with the world, but they are still distressing for the families left in the aftermath trying to understand what has happened and why. Whilst the pace of the book is slightly slower, echoing the slower types of death, there are two threads for the reader to follow – so once again, intrigue and concern for the victims makes you continue to turn the pages.

As in her earlier works, it is clear from the beginning who the murderer is, so unlike other detective novels, the menacing undertone comes from watching the killer choose his prey and rejoice in the joy of careful planning coming to fruition. As a reader, it is disturbing to watch someone with such evil intentions hiding in plain sight of people. Fields has managed to create characters that appear normal…likeable even…until you establish what they are really like and what they are capable of.

The sub-plot that DCI Begbie is involved in adds another element into the growth of both Turner’s and Callanach’s characters. It is warming to watch these two characters grow and how their interactions have changed following Turner’s change in rank, testing both parties to their limits. It is also heartening to see other characters grow such as DS Lively who has hidden depths. He is fast becoming one of my favourite characters in the station!

Now of course, once the tightly woven plot has come to an end, the various complicated layers tied up in a satisfactory manner, you can put the book down and walk away…unless of course the author has put a teaser into the ending which means that book four is not just calling…it’s screaming to you!

Perfect Silence. Nicknamed “The Babydoll Killer” by the press, Luc and Ava are drawn into a macabre world of butchery beyond belief. The body of a young woman is dumped at the side of a quiet country world. As she slowly drags herself into the middle of the road, she lies back and looks at the stars shining brilliantly in the sky. As her remains are examined the cause of death is quite clear. The silhouette of a doll has been carved out of her belly and back. As Luc and Ava investigate another missing person, they find a doll nestling in the pram of an abandoned baby…made from the first victim’s skin. It soon becomes a race against the clock to find the perpetrator.

This story takes monstrous acts to a whole new level and enters the mind of a very devious and twisted individual…however, I couldn’t help but get side tacked but some bad editing. I know that is being pedantic, but it is one of the reasons I don’t enjoy reading the Strike books; they require some of the superfluous bumph removing…this book needed proofreading. To not notice that one of your main characters has changed name from Salter to Salted is unforgivable, likewise missing words from sentences, not using capital letters for proper nouns and misspelt words were annoying distractions that stopped the flow of the book. That aside, it was another good insight into police procedural work with a good assortment of villains.

I found the sub-plot of the book interesting but not entirely necessary, homeless people taking the drug Spice (the zombie drug) and having the letter Z carved into their faces. It was too coincidental to genuinely have anything to do with the main story nor did it add anything extra other than an opportunity to have a political dig about the mistreatment of the homeless in our society. Perhaps it would have been better to take that idea and develop it for a main storyline in a future novel.

Unlike it’s title, the book may not have been perfect but it was still a lot better than many other crime reads. It may also not have had the perfect ending, but it was another gripping read and enjoyable to catch up with the private lives of DI Callanach and DCI Ava Turner again, although I wish I could grasp them and bang both their heads together!

Despite my misgivings about the previous book, Perfect Crime was beckoning to me. Is there such a thing as a perfect crime? A young man climbs over the anti-suicide railings of a bridge. As he battles the demons in his head, a suicide prevention counsellor talks him out of his suicide attempt. A week later, the young man’s body is found at the foot of Tantallon Castle, only a mark on one fingertip begs the question of whether he jumped or whether he was pushed from the castle walls.

A woman is found in a bath, her wrists slit. She has a history of mental health issues and has tried to end her life before. As DI Callanach and DCI Turner investigate, another body is found…this time the death is even more twisted. The victim has been having marital problems, his remains show a body violently electrocuted, his position shows a carefully constructed death. There are more to these “suicides” than meets the eye, and the perpetrator is much closer than Callanch and Turner realise.

Arrgghhhhhhh! OK – let’s get it over with. The editor needs to go to Specsavers. I’m sure there must have been errors in the earlier books, maybe I’ve just started noticing, but the dropped words from sentences and misspelt words are infuriating when you have paid good money for a quality book. Also, whilst I love the relationship between Luc and Ava, they both need to grow up, they’re adults. The will they won’t they question needs answering. I mean it’s almost there, but it’s starting to get a bit repetitive, especially as readers we are privy to knowing what they really feel about each other. The introduction of other romantic partners to arouse feelings of jealousy between them seems a bit trite and possibly desperate writing, but maybe there is no further storyline for them to develop. Their characters may have started to stagnate a little, but DS Lively has evolved into a well-rounded character with a fabulously dour sense of humour. He has a sense of what’s right and wrong and he has humanised himself as he has slowly broken the walls around him and let others into his life. None of the characters are perfect, and these flaws are what makes us compelled to read about them.

As in previous novels, two threads run throughout the book. The questionable suicides and a return to Callanach’s past. The crime element has one again been thoroughly researched it and gives an insight into why people are driven to commit the atrocities they do. What I did enjoy was the unexpected twist in the tale at the end and that obviously meant it was straight onto book number 6….Perfect Kill.

Bart Campbell is alone, trapped in complete darkness and terrified. He soon realises he has been drugged and kidnapped…what he doesn’t know is that he is trapped inside a shipping container headed for France, nor what fate has instore for him once he arrives there. A young woman makes a bid for freedom. In desperation she knocks on a neighbour’s door, only for her saviour to be shot dead by the men chasing her.

This latest book by Helen Fields is perhaps the most gripping of the lot. Set on both sides of the English Channel, DCI Ava Turner heads up an investigation about women trafficked into Scotland, whilst DI Callanch is back on his old stamping ground working with Interpol and his former friend and colleague Jean-Paul. It’s not long before two separate incidents bring Luc and Ava working together on something so horrific that neither of them could imagine. If they can’t put aside their differences, Bart and many others will soon be dead.

This book has been described as a rollercoaster ride like no other and that is a perfect summation. I think out of the four I read over the weekend, this was the most chilling and sadly very plausible. These crimes were made against young, ordinary, random people, who didn’t have a troubled past to make them susceptible to a preying psychopath. The book hits hard from the moment you start reading it and it just gets more and more graphic as it goes along. It is not a book for the faint hearted.

The complexities around the women trafficked in as sex slaves is particularly distressing to read, but Fields has captured the abject misery these women must go through without sentimentality. She describes the callous nature of the men that hold them and the brutal conditions in which they are kept. There is a reminder that women have been duped from difficult conditions in their homelands to be bought and sold by those who have no interest in their wellbeing, and the graphic descriptions of The Race are particularly galling. It’s an eye-opener for those who do not believe such things could happen, but also an element of hope that there are people working hard to try to put a end to such criminal networks.
Once again, the natural style of banter between all of the characters keeps the reader invested in not only the outcome of the case, but also the personal journeys of both friends and colleagues of the two main characters. The personal stories, of both good and bad news, give the books a sense of authenticity. In this novel there is a little less focus about Luc and Ava’s “relationship” which was refreshing and instead it moved onto the relationship they share with their friend Natasha.

Although I love the dynamic between the two leads, Luc messing up things with their relationship in the previous book and Ava doing something she regrets at the start of this book, has become a bit too soap opera for my liking. There’s only so much shilly shallying that readers will put up with before finding the whole “will they, won’t they” storyline tedious. If there is a next book in the series (and I genuinely hope there will be) Luc and Ava either have to get together or split up for good. It is a fundamental problem in a series of novels when the readers can see that both main characters are in love with one another, but circumstances stop a potential romantic liaison. If there are a finite number of books in the series (approx. 6) then the story can be resolved one way or the other. If the number of books is based on how many crimes the author can come up with – the romantic aside in the story stops working.  (The Strike novels come to mind when writing this. The first three books relied to some part on the awkward relationship between Strike and Robin. Book 4 was so tediously long with various sub plots and distractions I’d got past the point of caring of what the two of them got up to.)

As I read the last pages of the novel however, there was a sense of emptiness. I want to know how Natasha gets on, whether Lively really is disillusioned with the job and whether poor DC (Doesn’t Compute) Swift will make the grade in MIT. I do hope it wasn’t the last book in the series, it’d be a waste of such wonderful characters if it was.