Bellman and Black ~ Diane Setterfield

At a time when everyone else in the blogging world seems to be reading Diane Setterfield’s latest novel, Once Upon A River, I found myself picking up her previous offering, Bellman and Black, it being this month’s choice for one of my Book Groups. I didn’t particularly enjoy Setterfield’s first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, even though it was such a commercial success, and the fact that it was promoted on the cover as a ghost story didn’t do anything to attract me to this second volume – I haven’t read ghost stories since I was fourteen.  But that’s the whole point of a Book Group, isn’t it?  Or at least it is of the two to which I belong.  We read books we would otherwise never have picked up because we trust the instincts of the other group members.  I find it very hard to believe, but this particular group is now in its seventeenth year and during that time I have discovered several authors whose books I would never normally have picked up but who now feature regularly on my reading lists.  So, remembering that the person who had chosen this also introduced me to David Mitchell and Kamila Shamsie, I dived in.

When William Bellman is ten, cheered on by his cousin Charles and friends Fred and Luke, he takes up his catapult, pulls off a remarkable shot and kills a rook.  This is the novel’s opening scene and the reader is encouraged to believe that this incident will colour everything that happens to William from that day on.  Although a grandson of the local Mill owner, it is not William who is in line to take up the business but his cousin, Charles. However, Charles has no interest in the business, indeed no interest in living in England.  His love of painting takes him off to Italy and it is William who joins Paul, his uncle, in the family concern and whose fresh eye and keen brain soon transforms the Mill and all the associated trades.  When his grandfather dies and Paul takes over there is nothing left to stand in the way of William one day succeeding his uncle and not only running, but substantially expanding and innovating the Mill himself. Happily married and with four small children everything seems to be going William’s way until an unnamed epidemic (we speculated either typhoid or diphtheria) hits the village and his wife and three youngest children die while Dora, his eldest, is left both disabled and disfigured.

At each of the funerals he is called upon to attend William is drawn to a shadowy figure in black, someone he feels he should know but just can’t quite pin down in his memory. Memory is something that William avoids, even though Dora tries to recall the family life that they had once known.  William is all to do with thought and as the book reminds us,

[there] is a story much older than this one in which two ravens – which are nothing but large rooks – were companions and advisors to the great God of the north. One bird was called Huginn, which in that place and time meant Thought, and the other Muninn, which meant Memory.

In giving himself over entirely to thought and neglecting to remember his family and all those who were important to him, William cuts himself off from the people who love him and who might have saved him as he becomes more and more obsessed with meeting what he sees as an obligation to the black-coated, shadowy figure from the graveyard.  And yet, ironically, it is memory which is at the root of his next great business success as he goes on to found the magnificent London emporium, Bellman & Black, where everything you need to commemorate your recently departed loved one can be found under one roof.  It was the description of the building and the fitting out of this store (one bound to bring almost unlimited success at the height of Victorian mourning traditions) that I enjoyed  most.  Bought up in trade and with a love of ordering and organising, I was fascinated by the minutiae of how William builds this new business from quite literally the ground upwards.  But, although his name is over the door and on all the carriages and letterheads, the mysterious Black is never seen and gradually his absence begins to build in importance in William’s mind and brings about the novel’s conclusion.

We had a really good discussion about this book, mainly because although we had all found it eminently readable, we none of us thought that it quite held together. Our main complaint was that Setterfield had started too many ideas and not really developed any of them sufficiently. Too often we felt we were having to search for an explanation as to how a particular incident fitted into the overall scheme of things and as a result the ideas, if not the narrative itself, seemed disjointed and not fully developed.  Our estimation of the character of William, however, differed. While some found his obsession with his work disturbing and difficult to understand, others felt it chimed with the experience of trying to build a career in a challenging climate. Ulitimately, of course, William fails because to be obsessed with death in life is to deny living, until all that is left is death itself, those things which make living worthwhile having never been enjoyed.  The book begins and ends with William’s death.  Whether or not he can be said to have lived in the interim is for the individual reader to decide.


Sunday Retrospective ~February 10th 2019

So, on to Twelfth Night this week for my online course.  I am much happier studying this play than I was with Macbeth.  It was the first Shakespeare I ever saw on stage and was as responsible as anything for lighting in me the muse of fire (Henry V  next on the list) that has never since dimmed for a moment.  Actually, that first performance was staged by an all-girls’ school which, when you think about it, adds all sorts of interesting dynamics to the gender complexities that are at the heart of the play. Whereas Shakespeare had a boy playing a girl dressed as a man and being wooed by a girl who was also a boy while falling in love with a man who really was a man, that production had a girl playing a girl dressed as a boy being wooed by a girl who was also a girl but falling in love with a girl who was playing a man. Get your head round that, if you can. The last theatre production I saw played around with any number of homosexual innuendos but I’m willing to bet that that first staging, at the beginning of the 1960s and in an eminently respectable grammar school, didn’t have a lesbian overtone to be seen.  The focus of our study this coming week is the question of gender both on the Elizabethan stage and in the society in general.  I might bring that early staging up and see what others have to say about it.  Stirring again, you will notice.

Where my personal reading is concerned I have just finished Jo Spain’s latest book, Dirty Little Secrets. Spain is a writer I discovered last year through her Tom Reynolds’ series which, like this standalone novel, is set in the Irish Republic. I’m not a great lover of standalone thrillers, but I have enjoyed this author’s work so much that I thought it would be worthwhile giving this one a go; I wasn’t disappointed.  This may be in part because although it is a not one of the series, it is very much along the lines of a police procedure. It is, however, also due to the writers ability to unwrap mysteries slowly in front of her audience and allow them to play along with the detection game as well.

Olive is dead. More to the point, Olive has been dead for three months and none of her neighbours, in a small gated community, have noticed. It is only with the blue bottles and the smell become overpowering that the police are finally called in. They were community, however, is something of a misnomer, because the residents of Withered Vale have never exactly bonded. Each home keeps very much to itself, much to the annoyance of Olive, who would like to be part of the lives of her neighbours.   But would you want Olive involved in your life? As the story unfolds, told partially in flashback and from multiple perspectives, it becomes apparent that Olive has a way of ferreting out details of each household’s past and, whatever the circumstances, turning them into the dirty little secrets of the title.

Olive is dead, but is it a natural death, a terrible accident or was she murdered?  Frank Brazil, shortly to retire and happy just to put in a day’s work and go home, is called in with his partner Emma to try and find the answer.  But Frank and Emma each have their own secrets and as the investigation continues they, like the residents of Withered Vale, will find that by turning something into a secret you give it a power over you that it doesn’t necessarily merit.  It is the power that those secrets have, and the way in which they are coloured by the mind of the individual who either hoards them or discovers them, which lies at the heart of the book.  You may, as I did, realise who killed Olive some time before you get to the end of the novel, but that won’t stop you reading on because you will be as eager as I was to discover whether or not the other residents of the Vale will find the courage to face their secrets, acknowledge them openly and thereby deny them the power to continue controlling their lives.  Jo Spain is an excellent storyteller and if you haven’t yet discovered her work, then I seriously recommend her to you.

I don’t know how much personal reading I will get done this week because my first assignment is due in on the 19th.  It’s only 500 words long but that in itself makes it more difficult than if I could be expansive. I do have to find time to start Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black for my next book group.  Am I going to enjoy it?

Hagseed ~ Margaret Atwood

I have made it very clear over the past few years that I don’t approve of the Hogarth Press’s retelling of Shakespeare. For me the playwright’s works stand (or sometimes fall) on their own merits and I don’t see the point of attempting a rewrite.  I’m aware that this is perhaps not always a defensible position, given that nine times out of ten what Shakespeare himself was doing was rewriting the works of other people, but nevertheless  it’s my position and I’m sticking with it.  I wasn’t, therefore, best pleased when my Book Group selected Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest, Hagseed, for February’s meeting. The more so because Atwood isn’t exactly one of my favourite writers either.  Well, we must all be prepared to hold up our hands from time to time and admit that we were wrong and this is my time to do exactly that, because I have to say that I loved it.

Atwood’s starting point is the Shakespeare festival in the Canadian town of Makeshiweg, I suspect a thinly disguised Stratford Ontario, where the director Felix Phillips is planning his production of The Tempest, a production he will never get to stage because he is just about to be forced out of office by Tony and Sal, two self-seeking associates who have taken advantage of the fact that Felix has concentrated solely on his creative work and given no thought to the other aspects of running a theatre company such as where is the money going to come from.  In this, Felix is just like the character he is preparing to play, Prospero, who is forced out of his dukedom because he has devoted himself to the Liberal Arts and neglected the duties of a ruler. At one point a character remarked that Felix makes crime easy and it is certainly true that he contributes as much to his own downfall as do those who depose him.

Deserted by his erstwhile friends, Felix takes himself off to a tumbledown countryside shack, presumably the cave of the island, where for eight years he thinks of little but survival, his daughter Miranda, now dead but still with him in his imagination and the possibility of revenge.  However, salvation of a sort comes when he is approached about running a Literacy Through Literature programme in the Fletcher County Correctional Institute.  Here he introduces the medium category prisoners to the works of Shakespeare, exploring those plays that he thinks will speak to their lives, their situations, in ways that enable them to identify with the characters involved. They start with Julius Caesar and we know that they have also explored Macbeth and Richard III. And then Felix’s moment comes.  Tony and Sal, now influential politicians, are to pay the Institute a visit and thus present Felix with the opportunity to exact his revenge.  Like Prospero, his enemies will be present on his turf and he will be in a position to manipulate them and bring about their downfall.  But how to persuade his ‘actors’ to perform The Tempest?  After all, there are fairies!

Something we were all agreed on was that Felix is a brilliant teacher.  The first thing he does when embarking on a new production is to ban the use of any swear words that aren’t in the play itself.  The prisoners can give free rein to any oaths that Shakespeare included but are ‘fined’ for modern equivalents. Can you think of any better way to get a group of mainly poorly educated men to do a close reading of a text?  He also encourages them to reimagine the characters and their situations for their own times and gives them  relative freedom to re-write areas of the play in their own words. Some of the raps they come up with for Caliban are superb.  I absolutely loved the way in which these men brought the text to life in their own terms.  It also means that if you come to the novel not knowing the story of The Tempest it really doesn’t matter because you will pick it up along with them.

Whether or not Felix is successful in his bid to revenge himself on Tony and Sal you must find out for yourselves. I was more interested in how successful Atwood was in reimagining the play for the twenty-first century and as far as I’m concerned she manages this on two levels. Firstly, I think her recreation of the actual story itself is, if not wholly believable, certainly as believable as the original and thoroughly entertaining. Felix manipulates his actors every bit as effectively as does Prospero and his enemies are made to rue the day they turfed him out of his ruling position. However, I also think she picks up on the theory that in writing The Tempest, Shakespeare was saying farewell to the theatre himself.  Although that isn’t going to happen immediately, I get the feeling that by the end of the novel Felix is realising that his time working on the stage is limited and that he will have to hand over the reins to people such as 8Handz Anne-Marie and Freddie, who follow him from the Institute back to Makeshiweg.  Is it a coincidence that the place where he creates his joint productions with his company of felons is called Fletcher, given that the only plays that Shakespeare would offer the King’s Men after The Tempest were written in collaboration with his successor as company playwright, John Fletcher?

(An aside: did he jump or was he pushed?  The times in the theatre world of the 1610s they were a changing. Tragicomedy was all the rage, a genre in which Fletcher excelled, but which was not really Shakespeare’s forte.  Were takings falling?  Was it suggested to Shakespeare that a structured retirement plan might be a good idea?  I simply ask the question.)

Anyway, you will have gathered that I really enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to anyone. However, I did go off and have a look at the reviews and found something that I thought was very interesting indeed. While the press reviews that I found were all positive, in fact ‘positively’ glowing, there were a number of very scathing reviews from what I will call more academic sources. These criticisms centred around the fact that the reviewers expected Atwood to offer a more positive view of First Nation characters and those who would normally be seen as the underdogs in society.  They really objected to the way that she presented the prisoners. I found this very worrying. It was as if they felt that having brought Atwood onto the syllabus precisely because many of her novels do indeed address such subjects, they now had the right to dictate that she should only write to their expectations.  An academic’s role is to offer insights into a writer’s work, not to own it, not to control it.  My other book group numbers among its members several such academics. I think I might just put this on next year’s schedule and see what sort of a discussion ensues. Nothing like having a good stir now and then.

Someone You Know ~ Olivia Isaac-Henry

When Tess Piper is thirty five she receives a message from her father that she has been dreading for the past twenty years: you need to come home, this time it really does look as if they’ve found her.  Tess is the younger and sub-dominate half of non-identical twins but when they were fifteen, ebullient and popular Edie went missing and despite an extensive police search and various false alarms over the years, the family is no nearer knowing what happened to her.  Tess, at least on the surface, has always hoped that Edie is still alive and that at some point she will decide to come home, but now it looks as though this is never going to happen.  So, Tess takes leave from her London based job and walks out of the flat that she is sharing with Max her now ex-partner of nine years and travels back to the West Midlands to be with her father, Vince, as they await the pathogist’s report.  When the news comes through that it is indeed Edie’s body that has been found and that there can be no doubt but that foul play was involved, the police re-open the inquiry and the family, including Vince’s brother Ray and his wife Becca come under renewed scrutiny.

Told in alternate chapters from Tess and Edie’s point of view, with Edie’s narrative taking us from the twins’ tenth birthday to the moment of her disappearance, the story not only of what happened to her, but also to Gina, the girls’ mother, gradually unfolds.  Are the Vickers, the oddly matched next door neighbours on the rundown estate where the family lives when we first meet them, somehow involved?  Or is Max, once besotted with Edie and possibly only in a relationship with Tess as second best, to blame for what happened?  Maybe Michaela, the older girl that Edie tags after when the family fortunes alter and they move to a ‘better’ neighbourhood had something to do with the disappearance? The police, both twenty years earlier and now, clearly think that someone in the family is behind the death and Vince and Ray’s attitudes towards staging an appeal or a reconstruction do nothing to assuage that view.  Or what about Tess herself?  She and Edie had argued that afternoon and their relationship, once so tight, had been strained for sometime as Edie fought for independence and Tess struggled to keep her twin close.  Certainly Edie’s erstwhile friends, now eagerly engaged in the vicarious ‘pleasure’ of social media mud-slinging, are sure that the ‘creepy’ twin was somehow involved.  Is it possible that Tess was responsible and has blanked out the memory?

I am going to ‘come clean’ on this.  I was asked to read Someone You Know as a favour to a friend (not the author).  However, although I love police procedurals, thrillers are not really my cup of tea, so I am probably not the ideal reader to judge the novel;  I’m not well enough versed in the genre to know how it rates against the considerable opposition out there.  It’s certainly well written and the dénouement when it arrives is plausible, although I think the subsequent conclusion is hurried through and some loose ends are left floating.  The structure, although it is one which is frequently used (Sophie Hannah, for example, manipulated it to considerable effect in Little Face) I found less satisfying.  I think this was because the chapters were so short, sometimes hardly a page in length, and I felt that I was having to switch focus too often and not being given the opportunity to really get to understand what was motivating either twin’s actions.  And, I never really appreciated how the teenaged Tess became the Tess of the present day action; there was a disjunction there I felt needed addresssing somewhere in the course of the narrative.

But, this is a first novel and it may be very good of its type. It’s certainly very readable but it didn’t make me want to go rushing out and look for more thrillers.  That is probably  more my fault rather than the author’s. Perhaps some of the triller readers out there could try it and let me know what they think.

Someone You Know is Olivia Isaac-Henry’s first novel and it will be published on February 4th.

Three Short Christmas Reviews

A Snapshot of Murder ~ Frances Brody

This is the tenth in Frances Brody’s series set in 1920s Yorkshire and featuring Kate Shackleton, a war widow who has drifted into the world of the private investigator.  It is 1928 and Haworth Parsonage is just about to be given to the nation for use as a Brontë Museum. Kate and five of her fellow photographers set off on their society’s first ever outing to record the event and to take photographs of the surrounding countryside, especially that associated with Wuthering Heights. Among the party are troubled husband and wife, Carine and Tobias Murchison. Theirs is a marriage that should never really have come about and one which has been placed under severe pressure both by his drinking and the fact that Carine has never stopped loving Edward Chester, her fiancé who failed to return from the trenches.  Also among the group are Derek Blondell, a teenager besotted by Carine, and Rita Rufus, another of Carine’s admirers. The photographers stay at Ponden Hall and it soon becomes clear that Tobias has history with the family there, who have no cause to welcome him into their home.  Thus, when he is stabbed in the crush of spectators gathered to witness the handing over of the parsonage, there is no shortage of potential suspects.

Aided and abetted by the ever reliable Jim Sykes, her niece Harriet and the intrepid Sergeant Dog (otherwise known as failed bloodhound number two) Kate sets out to solve yet another mystery. Despite the fact that there are some really very nasty people populating this novel, the overall tone remains that associated with crime fiction of the Golden Age rather than of contemporary examples of the genre and although I don’t really get on with the books actually written in that era, I do enjoy Brody’s work; this is one of the better books in the series.


Body Breaker ~ Mike Craven

Mike Craven, whether writing in this persona or as M C Craven, has been one of my discoveries of the year.  This is the second in his series featuring D. I. Avison Fluke a member of the Cumbrian FMIT.

When a body is found scattered all over the tenth hole of a local golf course it is Fluke and his team who are initially called in.  However, almost before they have got past the first stages of the investigation they are elbowed out of the way by a squad from the Met.  For whatever reason, the dismembered corpse is on their radar and they are intent on taking the case over.  Neither Fluke, nor any of his team, are happy about this, the less so when it becomes apparent that the name assigned to the victim is a false one and he is, in fact, Mark Bishop (Bish), an old friend of the Inspector, someone with whom he served in the marines. Characteristically, they are determined to continue with the investigation. Fluke’s personal involvement deepens when Jinx, a young traveller, turns up at his door claiming that she is Mark’s wife and that he told her if he was ever to disappear she should appeal to Fluke for help. Loathe to let the Met officers know of her existence, Fluke turns to the last person he should really involve, Nathaniel Diamond, the local criminal kingpin and asks him to find a safe house where Jinx can hide.

The plot twists and turns as Fluke gradually uncovers the reason why Bish had taken up the travellers’ way of life and why the Met are so interested in him.  Craven lays a number of red herrings and I fell for most of them.  However, I wasn’t as convinced by the ultimate reveal as I have been in the other two books of his that I’ve read and the final sting in the tail, the hook that is supposed to draw the reader to the next in the series, just annoyed me.  I don’t like these cliff hangers.  If an author’s work is good enough I am going to come back anyway.  And, in this case, I wonder if Craven hasn’t gone over the top and left his main character in a predicament too hard to write his way out of.  Is this why he has started to write under another persona, with a new protagonist? I shall have to wait and see.


The Ruin ~ Dervla McTiernan

The third of these short reviews is actually of a re-read.  I am just about to start the second of Dervla McTiernan’s Cormac Reilly novels, The Scholar, but, having read The Ruin at a time when I wasn’t really giving my full attention to what I was reading (moving house can be like that!) and not having reviewed it at the time, I thought I had better go back and renew my acquaintance with her characters and the setting first.

Cormac is a D.S. with the Irish Gardaí, based now in Galway, having just transferred from an elite squad in Dublin to be with his partner, Emma.  In his new posting he meets with considerable hostility and is pretty much consigned to re-examining cold cases.  Used to leading high powered investigations, Reilly is uncertain whether his reception in Galway is due to professional jealousy or, more worryingly, that there is a level of corruption among his new colleagues they are concerned he will pick up on.  However, one of the cases assigned is of personal interest to him.  Two decades earlier, as a rookie on the force, Cormac was sent in response to a call about, seemingly, a minor domestic.  What he discovered then has now resurfaced due to the apparent suicide of twenty-five year old Jack Blake. Jack’s sister, Maude, newly returned from Australia, demands that the investigation is re-opened, convinced that her brother was, in fact, murdered and pursuades his partner, Aisling, to join forces with her.  Reilly is ordered to reinvestigate the original call out and associated death and in doing so unearths a web of evil that has cast a pall over the lives of many of the novel’s characters.

The Ruin was published to great acclaim and I remember thinking when I first read it that it lived up to the hype.  After this second reading I am not quite so sure.  McTiernan’s over-riding concern is a particularly nasty type of child abuse and, to some extent, the use of religion as a means of covering up what is happening. I think at times she lets her desire to push home the message get in the way of plot coherence.  There is a side story about the rape and murder of young women on both sides of the Atlantic, which is vaguely thematically linked, but which can distract from the main narrative line.  Second time round, I also felt that the amount of hostility and indeed corruption that Cormac encounters in the Galway force is just too much.  I have friends in Galway and I am loath to think that their safety is being overseen by a set of Gardi who, with a couple of low ranking exceptions, are a darned sight worse than the criminals they set out to apprehend.  This isn’t going to stop me reading The Scholar because there is still a lot about McTiernan’s writing that I did enjoy, but I hope that in a few years time we will look back on this first effort and see it as just that, an apprentice piece from an author who has gone to become a master.

Transcription ~ Kate Atkinson

There was to be a royal wedding. Even now, as she lay on this London pavement with these kinds strangers around her, as sacrificial virgin was being prepared somewhere of the road, to satisfy the need for pump and circumstance. Union Jack straight everywhere. There was no mistaking that she was home. At last.

‘This England,’ she murmured.

Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Transcription, like her previous two books, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, shifts deftly through a series of different time frames.  In this instance, quite literally bookending the story in 1981 and internally moving between 1940 and 1950.  Like its predecessors, it is also primarily concerned with the Second World War and raises questions about earlier women who might possibly have been seen as sacrificial victims in the name of patriotic duty.

In the world of 1940, eighteen year old Juliet Armstrong, is recruited by MI5 to work under the auspices of a number of men as a transcriber.  It is her job to make a copy of the recorded conversations of a group of fifth columnists, supporters of Hitler, hiding in plain site and making plans to welcome the Third Reich should its troops manage to cross the Channel.  As Juliet becomes further integrated into the Service, she is also sent to infiltrate The Right Club, a group formed initially to rid the Conservative Party of perceived Jewish control but later boasting that its main objective was to oppose and expose the activities of organised Jewry more generally.  The names of the members of the club are inscribed in the Red Book and it is Juliet’s task to get access to a copy of this.

As an author’s note makes clear, not only did both such groups exist, but the former were tricked into revealing their intentions in just such a manner as Atkinson depicts; the transcripts of their conversations are still in existence.  However, as anyone who has worked extensively with transcription knows, it isn’t always easy to be entirely (or even moderately) accurate. It’s difficult enough when your recording is being made in the same room as the conversation takes place and with the agreement of the speakers.  When you are working from hidden equipment, trying to listen in to people who won’t obligingly target their comments in the direction of the microphone, errors and omissions will abound. In such a situation it is understandable that misunderstandings as well as mis-hearings will occur and questions will be raised as to just who can be trusted.  Are the fifth columnists and the Right Club the only non-patriots hiding in plain sight?

Moving forward to 1950, Atkinson takes us into another bastion of the British Establishment, the BBC.  I loved these sections of the novel, mainly because Juliet now works for Schools Broadcasting and I am of a generation who was brought up with regular radio programmes providing a welcome break from the typical Maths before playtime, English after, routine that was such a part of a 1950s primary education. Armstrong’s apparent fear now is that she will never be able to escape the legacy of the war years.  The secret service will keep popping back into her life with their requests for just one last job and people she thought she had left behind forever develop an annoying habit of turning up and threatening her peace of mind, both mentally and physically.  Hitler may no longer be a danger, but there are other forces at work trying to undermine the British way of life and Juliet is well aware of the role she is expected to play in relation to them.

I have been relatively late coming to this novel, given that I would normally read a new Kate Atkinson as soon as it hit the bookshelves, so I am aware that it hasn’t received the general acclaim normally afforded to her work.  I have to say that I found the book eminently readable, gulping it down in just two sittings, but I can perhaps understand why there has been less praise than normal.  While the author appears to be intending to deal with the same sort of ideas as in her previous two novels, ideas to do with the deepening perspectives offered by time and the shifting viewpoints a greater understanding of events can bring about, I don’t think she makes this as clear in Transcription.  Neither do I think she gets the tone quite right.  There were times when I felt that I was more in the world of Jackson Brodie than in that of Ursula Todd. However, none of that stopped me enjoying it immensely.

As a footnote for anyone who hasn’t seen the announcement:  there is a new Jackson Brodie to look forward to.  The fifth in the series, Big Sky,  is due for publication next June.




Born in a Burial Gown ~ Mike Craven

I wish I could remember who put me onto Cumbria based The Puppet Show by M W Craven.  I owe them.  I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how much I had enjoyed this first novel by the writer under this name, especially the chance to meet the analyst, Tilly Bradshaw, with whom I felt a certain kinship.  So much did I enjoy it that I went in search of other novels by the same writer and found Born in a Burial Gown, the initial  book in an earlier series, also set in Cumbria, featuring DI Avison Fluke as the lead protagonist.

Craven’s leading men share certain characteristics.  To start with, they have wonderful names.  On balance I think I prefer The Puppet Show’s Washington Poe, but Avison Fluke is good too.  They both live isolate lives in the Cumbrian countryside and, when we first meet them, they are both recovering from traumatic incidents which mean that neither of them should be working.  They are also instinctive coppers, with little time for the administrative niceties. This may make each of them something of a cliché, but clichés are clichés because they work, because they make for a good story.

And, Born in a Burial Gown is most definitely a good story.  It begins with an anonymous note, left on a building site, tipping the police off about a body dump.  Without the note the body of the unnamed young woman would have been buried deep in the construction foundations and lost forever.  Also, given that she is not only without any means of identification but also appears to have gone to extreme lengths to make sure that she cannot be recognised, she might not even have been reported missing. The investigation, handed over to Fluke and his team of FMIT misfits by his superior officer, DCI Chambers, looks as if it might never get past first base.  They don’t know who the victim is, they have no idea as to where she was killed and given the fact that she has changed her appearance they can’t rely on a public appeal to put a name to a face.  And then, they get a break, when a fellow officer recognises her as a woman who a few days earlier reported a rape but failed to follow through with the allegations. Has her rapist caught up with her and ensured that she cannot go through with her allegations in the most permanent way possible?  Or are the rape and the murder unconnected? Is it rather that whatever actions caused her to feel the need to drastically alter her appearance have finally come home to roost and her death has been some sort of revenge killing?  Fluke has to find out before his ever vigilant specialist drags him back into hospital and forces him to submit to the medical treatments necessary to save his life.

I very much enjoyed this book and will certainly be reading Body Breaker, the second in the series.  If it didn’t engage me quite as much as The Puppet Show that’s probably because it didn’t have a Tilly Bradshaw equivalent. I thought for a time that Lucy, ‘the bug lady’, might be going to fill the role, but it wasn’t to be.  Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a new go to crime writer and haven’t already read Craven’s work you could do a lot worse than spend a couple of hours in the company of either of his disfunctional DIs.

Crime Round-Up

I was listening last night to an edition of Radio 4’s Front Row about the positive influence of immersing yourself in reading fiction if you are plagued by forms of mental ill health.  Well, the same holds true for me when I am physically unwell and so this past week, when I have had a really bad flare-up of a chronic complaint, I have simply buried myself in three recently published crime novels and spent time in their fictional worlds as a way of escaping my own.

The first was Helen Fields most recent instalment in her Edinburgh based series featuring DI Luc Callanach and DCI Ava Turner, Perfect Silence.  It is a particularly gruesome tale in which successive murder victims, all young women whose lives have, in one way or another, fallen apart, are found with the silhouette of a doll carved into their skin.  If this isn’t stomach churning enough, the skin thus harvested then begins to turn up formed into the shape of a doll and left in a location relevant to the next victim.

Previous novels in this series have tended to focus more on Luc, but I felt that this was Ava’s story, which somehow seemed the right progression.  Luc, who has come to Edinburgh after a tortuous personal history while serving with Interpol, has finally begun to find his feet in the Scottish force and it seemed appropriate in this, the fourth novel in the series, that he and his colleagues have become comfortable enough with his presence that the author could turn the main focus of her attention elsewhere.  I also felt that Fields toned down the sharper edges of some of her other recurring characters who might occasionally have stepped a little near the line of caricature, and made them more realistic.  Even DS Lively and the dreaded Detective Superintendent Overbeck seem more believable as serving police officers.

I discovered Sarah Ward’s Derbyshire based DC Connie Childs books three Christmases ago and have read each successive novel pretty much as soon as it was available.  She has a remarkable skill of being able to convey the psychological truth of what is happening to each of her characters, often at the expense of the stereotypical expectations of the world in general.  In The Shrouded Path, also the fourth in the series, she skilfully juxtaposes two time periods, the present day and November 1957, as Connie and her boss, DI Francis Sadler, are forced to open an investigation into a number of apparently natural deaths when a seriously ill woman, who has never before mentioned her childhood, feverishly asks her daughter to find a particular friend.  What comes to light is a story of teenage spitefulness, only too readily believable, which culminated in the mental scarring of more than one young mind and then ultimately leads to cunningly concealed murder more than five decades on.

I think Ward just gets better with each book.  There is nothing salacious or outstandingly gory about her work and I find her depiction of the police force as a working unit more believable than almost any other writer in the genre.  As I say, it is her ability to portray the psychological truth of whoever and whatever she is writing about which makes her novels stand out in the memory.  If you haven’t read her then you have four remarkable books to look forward to.

And then there was the latest Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling) publication, Lethal White. My goodness can that woman tell a story.  600+ pages, it kept me completely engrossed for almost two days solid. I have seen various press reviews which have likened it in scope to a great Victorian novel and I would have to agree as characters of all strata of society are brought together in a plot which encompasses murder, blackmail and political intrigue, not to mention the tortured personal complications for the two main protagonists, Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, brought about by Robin’s failure to act on her impulse, three or four days into her marriage to the creepy little Matthew, to tell her new husband precisely where he can put himself.  Like many a Victorian heroine, Robin can be just too nice for her own good.

One of the things I like most about these novels is the glimpses we get of Strike’s peculiar childhood and the families it brought him into contact with.  One such family, the Chiswells, (pronounced Chizzle, about as Dickensian as you can get) is at the heart of this particular story.  Long standing members of the Tory upper classes, they are now reduced to penury (i.e, they can no longer afford the upkeep of the London home, the country estate, the nine horses etc) and further disaster threatens in the shape of the Socialist Worker son of the old family retainer who knows their deepest and most shameful secrets.  Cormoran and Robin are dragged into this both by the appearance of the mentally troubled Billy, who turns up in the office one day asking for help in investigating a killing he believes he witnessed as a child and by the Chizzle Pater Familias, who wants his blackmailers caught before his political career goes completely to pot.   Murder mystery though it is, it is all great fun and just the thing to help you get through a couple of days when life is getting you down, even if only because the descriptions of the pain Strike undergoes as a result of his ill-fitting prosthesis make anything you are suffering seem slight by comparison.

The Comforts of Home ~ Susan Hill

Writing about Patrick Gale‘s new novel, Take Nothing With You, I mentioned that I had originally come to his work through the recommendation of one of my reading groups. The same is true of Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler books, the first of which, The Various Haunts of Men, was an immediate hit with everyone in the group who read it. While very much a police procedural, it was a success even with group members who would never normally choose to read that genre I think for two reasons: firstly, it was, as you might expect, extremely well written, and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it was as much concerned with the psychological effect that the revelation of the murderer had on the close- knit community of Lafferton as on the reveal itself.  Unfortunately, to my way of thinking at least, none of the subsequent books (and this is the ninth in the series) has ever quite lived up to that opening episode in the life of DCI (as he was then, DS now) Simon Serrailler and the rest of his rather dysfunctional family and while The Comforts of Home is as well written as the first instalment it really doesn’t hang together as a coherent whole.

There are several different narrative strands at play in the novel.  Chief among these, I suppose, is the storyline relating to Serrailler himself.  Seriously injured at the end of the eighth book, and still on extended sick leave, Simon takes himself off to a small Scottish island where he is well-known to a community that will give him the space he needs to continue his recovery.  Joined there by his nephew, Sam, they are both shocked when the body of relative newcomer, Sandy Murdoch, is found, the more so when it becomes apparent that the death is not accidental.

However, pretty much equal narrative weight is given to the ongoing events in Lafferton, where Serrailler’s widowed sister, Cat, has married her brother’s boss, Kieron Bright, the local Chief Constable.  Bright is faced with a series of apparently random arson attacks fortunately on derelict properties, but worrying nonetheless, so when the mother of a young woman who went missing five years earlier turns up demanding that her daughter’s case be reopened even though everyone is fairly certain that the man who abducted her is already behind bars, he sends the files north to Simon and asks him to look into it.

Then we have the French strand centred around Simon and Cat’s father, as nasty a piece of work as you are ever likely to meet.  Saving face by leaving England after escaping a rape charge on a technicality, and now involved with a young waitress, Delphine, he sets up as part of the ex-pat community only to turn tail and hot foot it back to England when things go wrong, becoming ill in the process and forcing Cat into a position where she has to take him into her home, thus threatening her new relationship.  After all, who could possibly be more important than him.  (As you might have gathered, personally I would have swung for Richard Serrailler; ill or not, he would never have set foot over the doorstep. Cat is much nicer than I am.)

Add to this the question of what Sam, Cat’s eldest, is going to do with his life and the issue of how Cat herself is going to cope with the life balance of going back to work as a GP at the same time as bringing up her family and establishing a new relationship and you have more storylines than you can shake a stick at.

Writing about this mishmash of plots it suddenly strikes me that what it most resembles is an episode of a soap opera, specifically, I think, The Archers, for which Hill once wrote.  Firstyou follow this character’s storyline, then you focus on someone else, before switching back to catch up on events that started out in a previous instalment. Reaching the conclusion of this particular segment there are several strands left open-ended but that’s all right because it will bring you back at the same time tomorrow night.  Except it isn’t all right, because there probably won’t be another episode for a couple of years and at no point do I feel that there is one driving narrative line that pushes this particular instalment forward; that gives it a focal point.  What it seemed to me that I was left with when I reached the end of The Comforts of Home, was the need to search for some sort of theme that would at least link the disparate parts of the book together, as you occasionally find in an episode of say Casualty, where several incidents will all have the same underlying message. If there is such a message then I suppose it is to do with not trying to rush things but to give life the time it needs to work things out, a sensible enough pronouncement, but no substitute for a good plot.  When the next episode is finally available I’m not sure that I will be tuning in.

With thanks to NetGalley and Random House U.K. for a review copy.

Take Nothing With You ~ Patrick Gale

Having begun to settle into my new market town life I have been casting around for ways of getting to know like-minded people.  Because of my U3A connections I already have a number of good friends here but they are all of a certain age and I would like to widen my scope of acquaintance.  So, I trotted down to the local library last week and suggested that they might want to host a new book group, not one where we all read the same book (I already belong to two of those) but one like my first ever group where we came together once a month to talk about whatever we had read since the last meeting and swap ideas for future reads.  It’s a format that works well because no one is under pressure to have read a particular text and it is possible to come along even if you’ve had a nightmare month and read nothing yet still get something out of the evening.

I was reminded of that earlier group as I began Patrick Gale’s latest novel, Take Nothing With You, because it was there that I was first introduced to Gale’s work and because of them that I became a devoted reader.  I thought his last book, A Place Called Winter, was his best yet and so came to the new work with some trepidation.  I should not have worried. Every now and again you come across a book that absorbs you in the way that butter absorbs a hot knife.  The reading act is no effort at all, engagement is complete and ultimately the only sorrow is that the book is over.  Take Nothing With You is such a book.

When we first meet Eustace he is battling both with his health and with his conscience: his health because he has been diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid and his conscience because he hasn’t told Theo, his new long distance partner, about his condition.  As a final element of his treatment Eustace must swallow a radioactive capsule and then spend a couple of days, first in a lead-lined room and then avoiding anyone who might be vulnerable to his still radioactive self.  Told to bring nothing with him that he won’t mind leaving behind, he is given a cheap MP3 player by his close friend, Naomi, of music for the cello, the instrument that brought them together in the first place.  Incarcerated in his hospital ‘cell’ Eustace goes back in his mind to the time when he was first introduced to the cello, to his sensitive teacher, Carla Gold, and through her and her friends to an understanding of his own ‘otherness’.

As a study of a teenage boy coming to terms with his sexuality and finding his place in the often treacherous world of school and burgeoning adulthood this is pitch perfect.  In part this is because much of what Eustace experiences is based on Gale’s own background.  Although the setting of 1970s Weston-Super-Mare is different, Gale, like Eustace, was brought up in close proximity to what might be called an institution, in the author’s case his father was a prison governor, while Eustace’s parents run a home for old people.  Like Eustace, Gale took up the cello and also studied with one of the foremost teachers of the day only to discover that a career as a professional musician was not going to materialise.  (I am giving nothing away here; it is apparent from the beginning that this isn’t the route that Eustace has followed.)  In fact, Eustace’s path through adolescence and to his eventual acceptance of his sexuality is, with one horrendous exception, relatively easy, given that no teenager’s journey to adulthood is ever a bed of roses.  For the adults in his life, however, brought up in a far less permissive age, their enforced exploration of their own sexual identity is more tortuous and ultimately disastrous.  If I wept for anyone in this novel it wasn’t for Eustace and his generation but for that of his parents, bound by the mores of a society that still condemned anything other than the sexual ‘norm’ and compelled not only to deny their true identity but to see themselves as somehow defective.

Is this as good a novel as A Place called Winter? It perhaps doesn’t raise as many issues, cover as much ground.  However, as a piece of writing it is, for me, almost perfection.  I can’t remember the last time I was so absorbed in a book and so invested in the characters.  Interestingly, I don’t think I would propose it as a book group read.  I’m not sure it is a book that would benefit from close dissection.  But, if the new recommendation based group gets going then it will be the first suggestion I shall offer in the hope that I can introduce other readers to Gale’s work in the same way that I was introduced twenty or so years ago.