SJI Holliday has been reading crime fiction since she was able to hold a book. She writes short stories and her debut novel, Black Wood was published in spring 2015. You can find out more at www.sjiholliday.com.
The northern English borderlands play host to crime noir at its darkest and most terrifying.
DI Joni Pax, a London homicide detective, wounded in a disastrous raid, has been transferred to the newly formed Police Force of North East England. Her boss, DCI Hector ‘Heck’ Rutherford, is recently back at work after cancer treatment. Between them they are responsible for major crime in rural Northumberland and County Durham. Joni, the daughter of a black American and a white hippy, is a loner struggling to regain her self-confidence. Heck is happily married, but illness has left him fearful.
Based in Corham, a town with Roman, medieval and industrial heritage, Pax and Rutherford investigate a murder at a brothel run by the Albanian mafia. In a series of breathtaking plot twists, we are drawn into the corruption that underpins the beautiful northern English countryside – as well as hinting at a mysterious world beyond the horizon. Carnal Acts explores abuse of many kinds – sexual, psychological and economic – taking the police procedural to places it has never been before.
Dark, unremitting and terrifyingly relevant, Carnal Acts is a book you may hesitate to pick up and put down.
It was a genius move on Arcadia Books’ part, to hype the Northumbrian Noir novel as a debut by the pseudonymous Sam Alexander. The twitter hashtag #WhoIsSamAlexander provoked a guessing frenzy from readers and writers alike, and it seemed that no one was ever going to guess... and then all was revealed by Bloody Scotland (after an interview with Shots that provided a series of cryptic clues). Well played Arcadia, and we'll played Sam - aka Paul Johnston, acclaimed author of the Matt Wells, Quint Dalrymple and Alex Mavros series’.
Carnal Acts is something quite different from Johnston's previous works. Writing anonymously provides a certain freedom, and it was clear that Sam Alexander was using this to his advantage. Carnal Acts is a phrase with many interpretations, from the obvious sexual elements - which the book opens with, to excellent, albeit disturbing, effect - to the more brutal, primal instincts - the violent misogyny of people trafficking and gang led prostitution - something that is all too real, and becoming more widespread in fiction as a result.
It's a complex, and occasionally confusing novel, in that there are multiple threads, a whole host of characters, and a lot of very short chapters, giving it a broken, chunky feel. Yet it works. The short chapters give it a cinematic effect, as scenes shift in quick succession. The Albanian immigrant sex slave, Suzana, who escapes amidst the May Sunday carnival, leaving mutilated victims in her wake – her survival instinct is clear, and it seems that despite her lack of English language, money, possessions and in fact, any knowledge of where she is - her escape is going to be a success. But this is a crime thriller, and of course it's not quite as simple as that.
Then there are The Favons – the old school aristocrats with the temporarily incapacitated daughter, Evie; and The General, and his teenage grandson, Nick, who seemingly harbours desires for both a mother and her daughter. And of course the police... DCI Heck Rutherford, a stoic cancer survivor juggling family life and his desire to stay at the top if his game; and DI Joni Pax, a black woman in the north of England, who comes heads north to Corham after a stint at The Met -bringing her own baggage - to face casual racism and deal with her hippy, Wicca worshiping mother, Moonbeam... the latter, providing a humorous take on the entire complicated situation.
So with a runaway sex worker being chased by both the police and her Albanian gang lords, a murdered teenager, a quirky yet believable small town setting, and the randy Lady Vicky - you've got a crime novel with a difference here. This is one for reading in one sitting, if you can. Light and dark, brutal yet darkly funny – Carnal Acts is a worthy addition to your summer reading pile