FRANTIC by Katherine Howell

Howell_FranticThis was Howell’s first book and launched the Ella Marconi series, which has reached its 8th volume (so far). Set in Sydney, Australia – I place I have recently come to know and love – this is a tense thriller set across five days involving bank robbers, police corruption, murder and kidnapping. The latter element makes this book as much about the parents, Sophie and Chris, as the investigator and indeed Marconi does tend to recede in the background. But this is an unusual book in many ways, remarkably tough on its very, very flawed characters.

I offer the following review for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, hosted today by Evan Lewis at Davy Crockett’s Almanack.

“Sophie took short shallow breaths. She looked at the detectives. These were the people in charge of finding her son. She’d already forgotten their names.”

There is one thing that I feel I should spoil from the outset and some of you may wish to look away. To me this was crucial to my ability to get through the book at all. First and foremost, this is a story about what people will do when their child is taken away from them – heroes, villains, cops and civilians alike. Thus the snatching of 10-month old Lachlan Phillips drives the plot. I never enjoy stories in which children are put in serious jeopardy – nobody does, it’s the point. But in a conventional thriller-whodunit like this one, you want to be held in suspense, of course, but if the child were harmed I wouldn’t be able to finish the book without hating it.

So here is the spoiler ready?

… you can enjoy the suspense because the kid makes it out completely unharmed.

OK, phew, spoiler over – let’s move on!

Howell_Frantic_pb2Chris is a cop who seems to be suffering from some kind of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder after being assaulted during an arrest. He and Sophie are barely speaking, which foolishly drove her, for one night only, into the arms of Angus, Chris’ partner. Now she is racked with guilt, fearful he will discover her indiscretion, which makes matters even more. On top of that, it is rumoured that a gang of bank robbers active in Sydney may in fact be made up of crooked cops – and Chris seems really disturbed about this. One night while Sophie is out working, Chris is shot in the head and their baby kidnapped. Marconi is investigating and has a mass of red herrings and side issues to get through – is Chris linked with the bank robberies? Has he been cheating on Sophie? Why is he lying to the police? What about a car crash involving a public official with a car full of cash – is it linked? What about the plastic surgeon who blames Sophie (she’s a paramedic) for the recent loss of his wife and baby – is he responsible?

“Ella watched the firefighters roll up the hoses and sighed. Where was the big case, the one that would envelop her, the one she could attack with passion and drive?”

Howell_Frantic_pb3At the same time, we start to question Marconi’s abilities. When one of the robbers, who was shot during the raid, is hospitalised she goes to interview him and the man, who hints at high level police corruption, is literally killed under her nose and the killer gets away; and what about an arson attack she is meant to be handling but which she drops now that she has something meatier to handle. Is she really the hero? The traumatised Sophie then turns into a vigilante and kidnaps and tortures the man she holds responsible, though in fact she is wrong and the poor individual is completely innocent and has, in fact, suffered much more than she has in the last few days. But the baby is all that matters, no matter how many people die in the process. And what about Chris’ unwillingness to cooperate with the authorities? Incidentally, although shot in head, he survives  and checks himself out of hospital the next day (no, I didn’t buy that either).

I do admire Howell’s willingness to show her protagonists in a poor light (Sophie and Chris really do behave with a stunning lack of common sense throughout) and not really let them off the hook, though it did mean that I didn’t much like any of the characters either. There are too many red herrings and a bit too much time devoted to the activities of paramedics (the author’s former profession), so once again this is a book that felt like it could easily have been a bit shorter. None the less, this remains distinctive for the unvarnished approach to character and its exploration of the theme of the stolen child is particularly well thought through – so well worth a look I would say.

Special thanks to TracyK for introducing me to this series over at her blog, Bitter Tea and Mystery. Incidentally, she liked it even more than I did, but gives away much less of the story.

The Ella Marconi series

  1. Frantic (2007)
  2. The Darkest Hour (2008)
  3. Cold Justice (2010)
  4. Violent Exposure (2010)
  5. Silent Fear (2012)
  6. Web Of Deceit (2013)
  7. Deserving Death (2014)
  8. Tell the Truth (2015)

The author’s website can be found at: www.katherinehowell.com/

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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40 Responses to FRANTIC by Katherine Howell

  1. I have to say, Sergio, that I have become a Katherine Howell fan. I like her work very much. So I was pleased to see that you found some things to like, yourself. I agree with you that one of Howell’s strengths is her willingness to show you real, unvarnished characters. I wonder what you’ll think if you move on in the series…

  2. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have not read this book and I have no interest to do so after reading your review !

    • Hope I wasn’t too negative Santosh – it’s an unusual read. I would have preferred fewer red herrings that’s for sure but want to see how the series has developed since its debut.

  3. tracybham says:

    Thanks for the link to my review, Sergio. I do remember being completely engaged in the book while I was reading it, and I always like that in a book.

    • I did enjoy it Tracy though I did wish I’d liked the characters more – the whole subplot in which they kidnap and torture an innocent man dis make a lot of the sympathy for one of the characters completely evaporate almost completely

      • tracybham says:

        I only vaguely remember that torture scene, which surprises me because there have been at least two series by very popular mystery writers that I have rejected because of torture in the books … although those were associated with sadistic serial killers. I don’t think I identified with any of the characters but I did get caught up in the action and the turmoil.

        • Interesting, isn’t it? In this case it’s less the detail of the event rather that we are made to sympathise because the torturer is convinced of the other person’s guilt – but they are wrong, the man is completely innocent and dies for nothing. But because it’s in pursuit of a missing child, the implication is that most people think this is not so bad … The book doesn’t pretend it didn’t happen, which I admire, but it more than crosses the line as far as I’m concerned.

  4. Colin says:

    Seems like there’s a fair bit going on in this story, although I’m sorry to say it doesn’t sound like my type of thing at all. From what you’ve written here, all of the characters, whatever their motivations, come across as downright unpleasant, and that’s always something of an obstacle.

    • It does depend, I suspect, on your ability to just get completely caught up in the psychology of the characters and ignore some plot logic and sympathy in the process. I do hope it’s not a ‘guy’ thing as so many of the other reviews online are way more positive and I wonder if it’s to do with readers empathising with the plight of the characters and ignoring the awful, stupid things they do as a result (or indeed connecting with the irrational impulse, which is fair enough I suppose but it seems to speak to a soap style approach to character sturm and drang I just don’t enjoy)

  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    Yes, the review gives the impression of a bunch of unpleasant characters indulging in senseless and ridiculous acts.

  6. John says:

    This sounds way too much like the Chicago nightly news and I can’t stand reading books that are this “gritty” and “desperate.” Unbelievably, I find myself agreeing with Santosh but for a different reason. There is an element of documentary style realism in contemporary crime fiction that I can’t abide. It’s not the “unpleasant people” thing that ever bothers me (a term I find laughable when talking about any crime fiction — you want to read about pleasant and nice people killing one another, I take it?), it’s the brutality and do-anything-at-any-cost with no regard for human life that disturbs me. Yes, it’s fiction but there’s something really creepy about writers who indulge in this level of violence to tell their story. Usually, as is evident in your review, logic goes out the window and every incident of a beating or shooting reminds me of Marvel Comic book movie adaptations with their endless fight sequences with everyone sustaining multiple debilitating injuries and yet they keep on going like an Eveready Bunny. Or a Wile E Coyote cartoon where a bomb goes off in his face and he has only singed ears when he should be dead.

    • Thanks for that John. As this seems to be a popular series, I have been thinking about the extent to which its exploration of emotion and character seems to have been what people have responded to – the sense that, yes, in this circumstance, I would do the same (closely followed by the salve of the ‘but for the grace of …’ and so on). Clearly there is room for that in the marketplace but feeds a kind of emotional need that, perhaps because it disconnects too clearly from the forebrain, I tend to reject. Which I don’t intend as a criticism – it’s another way of thinking. Deep down, it’s what I was getting at with my spoiler warning – if you’re a really good novelist and really have something to say, I can accept all this and engage. For a standard suspense thriller with a whodunit element, well, for me the reward wouldn’t match what I would need to put it in myself.

  7. Colin says:

    Some very interesting points being raised here, mainly related to the tone and morality of crime fiction. I think I was actually the first to mention the unpleasantness aspect and, on reflection, it does an odd issue to raise within the context of the genre. However, crime writing, perhaps because it does by definition deal with the less savory side of life, needs to have some characters we can think of as above the more base reactions; I’m reminded of Chandler’s knight errant in this respect:
    But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

    The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.

    He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks — that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

    The depiction of violence is a tricky one, and something I’ve tried to address when writing about film; in itself it doesn’t bother me, but it needs to be justified, not only in the characters’ minds, but within the wider narrative, and on an ethical level. For me, the consequences matter, and they should be felt by either victim or perpetrator – preferably both, leading to some redemptive moment. Without this, we stray into exploitation territory, where writers are merely manipulating the audience for cheap thrills and/or sentimentality.

    • Thanks very much for that Colin, all excellent points. In the crime and mystery genre you are going to encounter death and destruction, by definition. So why should you enjoy that? because we accept that it exists but enjoy it being fictionally resolved. And because we love heroes. Chandler was often mocked for putting it in such chivalric (even heraldic) terms and yet one understands exactly what he means – he is defining a hero, his hero, updating the knight errant archetype for the modern age, one that also suits the western hero too of course. It’s an appealing conceit and I love the books, but one accepts that this is not necessarily a realistic depiction of people under stress touched by violence. If the book were by Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith, a less conventional thriller, this might have worked as an exploration of moral ambiguity. But here the book isn’t strong enough, the psychology more convenient than convincing. They could have written a book in which the child doesn;t get returned and make it work, possibly. Howell isn’t even remotely in that league – the moral and ethical dimension is there, so she truly deserves credit for the that. But the skill just isn’t on par with the difficult subject. Obviously part of the problem in this discussion comes from my not being clear on detail to avoid giving too much away to those who have not read the book – … but, hey ho, without giving too much away but to be clear, and yes, beware this is a spoiler alert, in the book the main female protagonist goes a bit out of her mind looking for her child. She believes a man with a grievance is behind the kidnapping and, with the help of a colleague, drugs and kidnaps the man and tortures him to find out where the child is. He dies from an overdoes she gives him, having revealed nothing. He was in fact set up by the real villain, someone else with a personal grudge against the mother and father of the child. This is meant to make our protagonist less culpable as the baddie was manipulating her and at the end the detective would like to get off scott free, but the woman confesses. We don’t know what will happen. End of spoiler.

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        From what you have written (SPOILER ALERT), though the protagonist has murdered an innocent person, the detective would have liked her to get off scot free. This is abominable.
        I am reminded of Death Turns The Tables by John Dickson Carr where Dr. Fell indulges in a similar abominable action without any regard for the victim. (Incidentally, John did not have any problem with this ! Please see the review of the book by Puzzle Doctor).

        • Thanks Santosh – Carr certainly had his own peculiar ideas of ‘justice’ as opposed to the rule of law (CROOKED HINGE similarly allows us to discover the guilty party but has them elude the police at the end). There are plenty of crime books in which justice is not meted out in the conventional way and I am just about to post a review of THE PLEDGE by Durrenmatt that explores this very point in fact. The problem is that if you read THE QUIET AMERICAN and the persion guilty of the murder of the eponymous man isn’t arrested at the end, that is not the point of the novel. but in a conventional mystery then it’s often just a case of the author ‘playing favourites’ which too often feels like cheating at best and poor art at worst.

          • Santosh Iyer says:

            Yes, though I have not read the book The Pledge, I have seen the film The Pledge and I was deeply disappointed with the ending. I will comment further when you review it.

          • Hope you enjoy the review (of the 1958 book and the 2001 film) – it goes up on Tuesday. The book is a s much a commentary on the conventions of the mystery genre as a deconstruction of a failed investigation – works better than the film, I think – but I’m getting ahead of myself … 🙂

          • Todd Mason says:

            And then there are such examples as THE PRICE OF SILENCE by Kate Wilhelm, where much of the motivation for writing the novel is to explore How we lest such things happen in various ways, and why they happen, beyond the specific kidnapping teen-raping and enslaving miscreant in the novel. Not an example of playing favorites, to be sure, but certainly of the Uncomfortable Read, a less bitter take on the same sort of territory as Highsmith’s frequent subject and perhaps more unnerving for that. (Or perhaps because I seem to be tuckerized, with a woman character no less, by the novel simply keeps it in my memory when such discussions arise.) (Looking at the Wilhelm at the same time as one of Joyce Carol Oates’s young women treating with their perilous lot novels, or even ZOMBIE, might make for an interesting piece.)

            Don’t forget the pomposity and sexism of the Chandler quotation…you come close to saying so explicitly, but I choose to stamp with both feet. I’ve at least liked Chandler’s fiction (haven’t gotten far with PLAYBACK), but find the tales Hammett and his more laconic if no less insistent more direct heirs more to my taste.

            Hello, Friedrich. Since reading THE METEOR as a teen, and THE VISIT since (or did I see it?), I’ve been neglecting his work. Can you read German at all, Sergio? (I certainly have depended on translation.)

          • Hiya Todd, good to have you back my friend. Are you back to full strength yet? Playback is a sad little book, very thin, but a couple of scenes have greatness. The Hammett/Chandler debate will happily roll on as long as there are readers, which is at it should be. I think more people read Chandler than Hammett, precisely because the protagonist is much more heroic, which s a limitation, to be sure. Not sure really that I agree with Chandler’s quote as being sexist however. He was talking about hardboiled private eyes in fiction at the time – 99.9% of them were male at the time. Anything else is just post facto revisionism, surely? When it comes to German I cannot understand the original at all so rely on English translations for the most (and Italian for French and Spanish books though at least i can half understand those in the original). Not read Wilhelm yet and frankly I can probably wait a lot longer 🙂

          • Todd Mason says:

            I’ll admit that in rereading the passage, I took it in as “He must be a man” rather than “such a man” (still shaking off the long night last night). Ex post facto revisionism or simply useful correctives? I’m not sure you’re right…I suspect sales of Hammett and Chandler are pretty similar, though it probably also helps the latter that Chandler stuck with, and retrofitted, so much into his primary character…

          • That’s interesting – I would have guessed that Chandler sold a lot more. Certainly it’s easier to find individual editions of his books whereas all the Hammett novels are more likely to be found in omnibus volumes (I mean by that that too few people have Red Harvest and that I know next to no one apart from me who has The Dain Curse, while his superb The Glass Key does not get the respect it deserves compared with Maltese Falcon and Thin Man, which have the better-known movie adaptations to prop them up).

          • Todd Mason says:

            Hm. I should look into it, but I’d note that Chandler has often been published in the States by houses such as Ballantine, who are mass-market powerhouses, while Hammett was being offered (when I first sought his work out, in discrete volumes) by more “modern classic”-approach lines such as Vintage, even though they were initially in mass-market format. I have the novels and THE BIG KNOCKOVER in the Vintage editions from the 1980s, and a few of the newer releases in various editions since (WOMAN IN THE DARK in the initial hardcover reprint, for example). The telefilm adaptations of the less well-remembered novels have been spottily available, though they aren’t in the same league as the best films.

            Don’t worry about the length of DEATH QUALIFIED. The variations rung on the title phrase alone aren’t the only pleasures to be found there (and I didn’t mention THE CLONE lightly, I think you’ll love that one).

          • I know what you mean about the classier Hammett editions, and I think it may reflect his critical positioning – but isn’t Vintage a just an iprint of Knopf, who published Hammett in hardback? And more to the point, I think there are a lot more copies of Chandler in paperback knocking around. On the other hand, it’s not like I’ve got sales figures to hand – I love Chandler and Hammett (and Ross Macdonald) but Marlowe has – because he is a less realistic character and part of a series – managed to transcend the Depression era of the Op, Spade and Baumont to become a pop culture icon in a way they have not. This is I think a fair appraisal but is not meant to index anything anything relating to intrinsic artistic worth, just broad popular appeal. Spade has not appeared in a movie or on TV since 1941 whereas Marlowe has appeared many, many times since then.

          • Todd Mason says:

            Well, Spade had only the one novel, and the long shadow of the third film…yeah, Knopf did themselves more favors than they did Hammett, keeping his work (mostly) in house…

          • I think you are right there chum.

        • Todd Mason says:

          Nah, you need to read Wilhelm. Don’t read THE PRICE OF SILENCE if that’s a trigger, but do read DEATH QUALIFIED. Trust me. You could do worse than CITY OF CAIN, THE CLONE (with Ted/Theodore Thomas, in this early ’60s case the clone is a sensible and rather terrifying version of The Blob), and a slew of her others.

  8. Sergio, I’m not very comfortable with plot themes involving children either though I don’t mind reading such books if there is no violence against the adolescents. This sounds just a bit like A STRANGER IN THE FAMILY by Robert Barnard where an abandoned kid makes out “completely unharmed” in the end although, as a grown-up, it takes a long time for his scars to heal, especially when his own family is none too happy about his return to find out the truth.

  9. Yvette says:

    For me, it’s the dog. If the dog dies, I don’t want to read it. (If a dog’s involved I always check the ending first.) Children in jeopardy are a close second. While reading I will excuse just about anything to save a child in danger. Though in truth, in real life, I would say the same. Children must be saved. Period. That they are often not, is tragic.

    But I don’t like all that torturing of an innocent man thing. Especially since she doesn’t want to pay the price at the end. No, not for me. I wonder about an author who can give her main character such a HUGE gap in their make-up. I begin to wonder if she thinks that makes her more ‘masculine’ in outlook?

    I’m with Chandler – his take on the detective is, for me, the bible. One of many reasons why I can’t stand ‘happy hit-man’ books. Or happy ‘psycho’ books. Or….well, you get my drift.

    Thanks again for another engaging review, Sergio.

    • Thanks Yvette (you haven’t read Cujo I take it …) 🙂 However, I should say that it’s the detective in the book who thinks the woman should not admit to the torture and murder – the author makes a point of not letting the character off the hook. But in a way, this is probably the point, isn’t it – at a gut level, most would say that the child comes first and the rest is secondary. The problem, in fiction, is when you feel you’re being manipulated by a lesser author by being given situations to produced a predictable gut response rendered void of thought and judgement

  10. tracybham says:

    I could be wrong, since I read the book a while ago and my memory falters, but the detective is Ella Marconi, a policewoman, and I consider her the main character, since she continues through the series and the paramedic does not. Ella has nothing to do with the torture, which of course is still not excusable. I would have liked the story better had it focused more on the policewoman and less on the paramedic, but I still loved the pacing. I have (since seeing this review) read other reviews (on Amazon) that found the actions of the paramedic (and mother of the missing child) unbelievable or reprehensible. I am sure it did bother at the time, but it did not stick in my mind. I have only read the next book in the series, so cannot speak authoritatively as to how it develops. But I will be reading more of them as I find the books.

    • Hope I didn’t give the wrong impression Tracy – Ella is definitely the series detective but in this book the paramedic and her husband get more time devoted to them (in terms of pages and character development) than she does, which is all I meant. Each book features Ella but a different paramedic (bit like Dorothy Dunnett’s Dolly series, in which the female narrator changes with each book but the detective figure, Johnson, remains the same throughout). I don’t think anybody here is saying Ella was involved in the torture, but she does explicitly condone it – it’s that ‘if a kid is involved then you can excuse anything’ excuse – by that token, presumably the mother of the innocent man who is tortured and killed by the presumably sympathetic protagonist, is entitled to go and knock her off too for killing her baby, right? Somehow that wouldn’t be OK in the screwy logic applied here …

      • tracybham says:

        Too long ago for me then, I had forgotten that part too. I am sure that would not have appealed to me but clearly did not bother me enough to put me off the book. I genuinely did like the book a lot. I did not like the husband and wife characters especially but that happens a lot.

        • I know what you mean Tracy – ultimately, the book is a well constructed thriller but it does fall in between a fairly down-to-earth approach and the kind of implausible comntent we often associated with the genre, so we end op with mixed results I guess.

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