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by Mark Arsenault
Poisoned Pen Press, February 2005
256 pages
ISBN: 1590581393

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The beginning of Mark Arsenault's SPEAK ILL OF THE LIVING made me nervous . . . maverick journalist with serious coffee habit and cute cat. But before too long I'd forgiven the author what looked like tired genre cliches and had been reeled into a thoroughly enjoyable book which I more or less devoured at one sitting.

Eddie Bourque is a freelance journalist with his eye on the scoop of a lifetime. Banker Roger Lime was kidnapped and murdered the previous year. But photos have just appeared suggesting he is still alive -- so Eddie is off on the trail of a cracking story.

A tip-off to help him along comes from a most unlikely source -- his brother Henry, who he has never met, and who is serving a life sentence for a double homicide. And then he finds he has a sister-in-law too, as Bobbi pesters Eddie into helping her clear Henry's name.

Only snag with the story is, his sources are being bumped off at an alarming rate, and Eddie's own survival is looking increasingly unlikely.

SPIKED, the first in the series, was nominated for the Shamus best first novel award, and I can quite see why. Arsenault writes clean, crisp prose and really knows how to keep a story moving. In fact, SPEAK ILL OF THE LIVING is a great lesson to those producing the 'don't count it, weigh it' school of crime fiction. In not much over 250 pages you have a tight plot and enough characterisation to give you a good idea of who you're dealing with.

My favourite among the small supporting cast was mad as a snake Vietnam war veteran Durkin, librarian at the Daily Empire where Eddie used to work. Their exchanges fairly crackle, and there are a couple of priceless scene -- one where Eddie, persona non grata at his former paper, is smuggled into the premises in an ink barrel, and another where Durkin helps fix him up with some wheels.

The book's other strength is its setting. For those of you burned out on or bored with glitzy big city settings, the old mill town of Lowell in Massachusetts makes a welcome change from Los Angeles, New York, London and the rest.

I did guess whodunit, but it didn't matter, as Arsenault avoids taking the easy way out with the ending. My only gripe with the whole book is being asked to believe that a keen as mustard reporter like Eddie wouldn't have read the cuttings files on his brother long ago. Otherwise, SPEAK ILL OF THE LIVING is a gem.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, January 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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