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Trial by Blood - John Macken

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Genre: Fiction / Author: John Macken / Hardcover / 384 Pages / Book is published 2008-02-11 by Bantam Press

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      05.04.2009 11:46
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      A good one for action fans

      Billed as a crime thriller, the emphasis needs to be on the 'thriller' aspect. Although this is definitely a novel about terrible crimes, the action is more suited to an espionage story and could easily be made into an action movie. In fact, much of the time that's what I felt like I was reading, and since that was not why I picked up the book, I was a little disappointed.

      == The author ==

      Macken is a scientist so he writes convincingly about the science - in fact, sometimes he writes a scene that could so genuinely take place between scientists that I can't really follow it! This really only happens once or twice in the early chapters, but is irritating.

      This is his second book with the same central character. Reuben Maitland lost everything in the first novel in this emerging series: his wife, his job, his reputation - everything except the loyalty of a couple of old friends, his abilities as a forensic scientist and an amphetamine habit. I haven't read the previous novel, but the relevant details were conveyed clearly and I never once felt like I needed to know more about something that had happened before. Of course, this could simply reflect a lack of curiosity on my part! Equally, however, I didn't ever feel like someone who had read the first novel would be irritated by pages of recapitulated back story, since the references to Reuben's previous life were usually neatly integrated into the plot.

      == The plot ==

      So what is the plot? Reuben, whose inability to let sleeping dogs lie appears to be his major character trait, has been reduced to working in a secret, unorthodox laboratory, testing certain unsuspecting members of the public at the behest of other, suspicious members of the public. He also appears to solve the odd problem for the local gangster, Kieran Hobbs, including identifying a man whose features have been largely destroyed by an over-zealous bodyguard. Working on the wrong side of the law? Definitely. Typically for a character working in such a morally ambiguous area, Reuben justifies his actions using straightforward logic: if they don't get the money for doing the dodgy deals, then they can't afford to do the good deeds their lab was really built for.

      Whether or not the means really justify the ends is dramatically brought into question very early on when someone dies as a result of Reuben's illicit investigations, giving the text an underlying moral dimension. However, this does remain 'underlying' and is never fully explored. In fact, the consequences from this early error rather fizzle out later on, rendering the whole episode merely a nasty diversion from the main story, rather than an interesting exploration of motives, methods and morality.

      So far, so grimy, and the novel continues to mine the seedy underbelly of the city. The major plot incident that kicks off the story is the arrival of an anonymous note suggesting Reuben find out who Michael Brawn really is and why he is in Pentonville Maximum Security Prison under a false genetic profile. Apparently unable to resist the puzzle (and the money) Reuben sets to work and soon realises that he will have to break into Pentonville in order to get some answers - and DNA. This actually turns out to be the easy part; perhaps predictably, getting out becomes an increasingly desperate issue as the inmates become dangerously violent. Will Reuben escape? Who is Michael Brawn? Why would he agree to go to prison for crimes he didn't commit? Who placed him there, faking Reuben's signature on vital documents? Who can Reuben really trust? It takes most of 380 odd pages to resolve these questions, with many twists and turns along the way.

      Of course, the story doesn't really start there. Typically for a crime thriller, the story opens with a chapter showing us the death of a victim of the 'Thames Rapist', which ends with two key questions. Irritatingly, neither of these apparently major questions is ever addressed during the rest of the novel, but this is really a fairly minor continuity error. (If I was being murdered, I suspect my thoughts would be very different from the neatly ordered thoughts of the victim's anyway, more like HELP! and OW!) The purpose of this chapter is to set up the second main thread of the novel: the legitimate search for this sadistic killer, who rapes his victims after death - but only after they have realised what is happening to them. This case progresses (or more usually, fails to make progress) alongside Reuben's illegitimate research. Lack of genetic evidence is seriously hampering the police in their efforts to capture this deviant, for reasons that are revealed (well, vaguely alluded to,) in the dramatic final chapters.

      A third thread in the plot is the fate of Reuben's son. Or is he? Interestingly, the renegade forensic scientist refuses to DNA test his own child, whose paternity is in doubt. Perhaps this is simply another example of Reuben's shifting and conflicting morality. Regardless, the boy's life soon hangs in the balance, creating another dramatic focal point and giving Reuben motivation to keep fighting in the most extreme circumstances.

      As the novel progresses, all three threads become increasingly intertwined, although the two central cases appear to be totally distinct until the final few chapters. To my mind, this made the connection seem less convincing, but it did allow for a certain element of dramatic surprise. Actually, it really allowed Reuben to suddenly reach entirely new conclusions without any apparent justification and be proved right, but I suppose that it could be read as quite a dramatic turn of events.

      The pace never lets up from the opening chapter and although there is plenty of dialogue, it never detracts from the action and is always purposeful. Action is a key word here: I can almost smell the film set, especially in the later, action-packed chapters.

      == The characters ==

      Reuben Maitland is our central 'hero' but, as I've made clear earlier, he behaves in dubious ways to achieve his goals. Perhaps this wouldn't matter so much if he had more of a justification, but his excursion into Pentonville is stimulated by one anonymous tip-off, which he assumes is from the Head of the Division he used to command. Personally, I'd need a bit more than a slight suspicion that, somewhere, justice had gone awry, but maybe that just means I'm not made to be any kind of hero!

      Rather than being a sympathetic or likeable character, I pitied him, especially in scenes involving his young son. He was too depressed by his circumstances and too immune from danger to engender sympathy. As the novel wore on, I did begin to wonder if he was secretly Bruce Willis in disguise: he could take a beating and just keep going and going and going... So he may not be particularly likeable, but his relationships with other characters are believable.

      Since he doesn't spend much time with his ex-wife, his main relationship is with Sarah Hirst, a DCI who seems to be on Reuben's side but may simply be out to advance her own career. Their uncomfortable relationship seems logical, given their relative positions after Reuben lost his job, and is well drawn.

      Reuben works with Judith Meadows and Moray Carnock, who are less well drawn as it seems that they are really just there to help the plot. Judith works hard and has an uncomfortable relationship with her husband. This will presumably be more relevant in a later book in the series, since the focus on this aspect of her life came to nothing. She has a brief, albeit predictable starring role later in the novel, then slips out of focus. Moray can apparently organise anything, given just two hours notice. He appears to be unsavoury but trustworthy, a combination that seems typical of underworld characters, but is relevant to Macken's central question: who is 'good' or 'bad'?

      By the end of this twisting and turning novel, almost every character has crossed, and sometimes re-crossed, this line. Perhaps Macken does wish to explore the duality of human nature, or perhaps he simply wants to create a few surprises in this thriller. Either way, this does require some suspension of disbelief as characters sometimes act in a way that seems utterly inconsistent with their behaviour earlier in the novel.

      == The atmosphere and settings ==

      Settings are convincingly evoked through description, although Macken's penchant for creating a dark atmosphere can become a little overwhelming. In the first few chapters, it seems like every skyline or building wants to 'swallow' or 'envelop' the characters.

      The world of Pentonville prison is believable and Macken makes it clear how quickly Reuben becomes settled into routines and desensitised by life in jail. These scenes do contain some clear criticisms of the prison system and make interesting reading - when they are not descending into violence.

      This is where the action-adventure really begins, and where I found myself having to put the book down rather too often to take a break from the violence being described. Yes, I do have a sensitive stomach to these things, but a blow by blow account of a fight isn't always necessary: some things are actually more effective when hinted at.

      From this point, I felt the novel really became predominantly an action story as Reuben tries to escape and gets increasingly caught up in a world of shifting loyalties. His stamina was amazing, although he did have ample motivation in the form of his son. Violence, cruelty and swearing dominated the last third of the novel.

      == Conclusions ==

      Although Macken tries to explore some areas of morality, this is largely undeveloped and more could have been done here. If I pick up a crime novel, I'm looking for something rather different than I found here, but I imagine that many would find it enjoyable as an action caper with crime as its focus. It feels as if it was written with an eye on making it into a film, so if you like high-octane action then this may well be suitable for you. Personally, I won't be trying another one of these.

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