The Postscript Murders ~ Elly Griffiths

When Peggy Smith dies, seated in the window of her retirement apartment in Shoreham-by-Sea, her friends, carer Natalka Kolisnyk, fellow resident, Edwin Fitzgerald and ex-monk, now seafront café owner, Benedict Cole are surprised to find a business card declaring Mrs Smith’s occupation to be that of “Murder Consultant”. Perhaps they should not be so surprised, given that Peggy has been an avid reader of crime fiction and her flat is testament to her obsession, full to bursting with detective novels. What is even more fascinating is that close examination of the acknowledgment pages of several current publications indicates that their authors might actually have consulted the old lady when inspiration deserted them. Where does her knowledge of the dark art of murder come from? Does she have a past that has never been revealed?

Of more immediate concern to her carer, Ukrainian maths graduate, Natalka, is the cause of Peggy’s own death. Given that she was perfectly well the last time that Natalka saw her and that her angina tablets were right next to her, the young woman suspects foul play. Onto the scene comes DS Harbinder Kaur, taking centre stage again after her previous appearance in The Stranger Diaries, still living at home with her parents and still uncertain how to broach with them the fact that she is homosexual. At first Harbinder and her partner DS Neil Winston are sceptical about claims that Peggy was herself murdered, but as sinister notes begin to appear each bearing the legend We are coming for you, and Natalka and Benedict are threatened by a mysterious gunman who bursts into Peggy‘s flat just, it seems, to take a copy of the out of print murder mystery, Thank Heaven Fasting, they have to start to take things more seriously.  

At Peggy’s funeral, which her three friends attend not only out of affection for the deceased but also because the murderer always attends the funeral, they meet crime writer, Dex Challoner, one of those who has consistently acknowledged his debt to Peggy. She was, they learn, brilliant at thinking of new ways of killing people and Dex, author of the Tod France novels, was in the habit of sending her copies of his manuscript to read before publication. His own mother, Weronika, had also lived in the retirement complex and she and Peggy had known each other, possibly even travelled together behind the Iron Curtain. Is that somehow linked to the mystery men who Natalka believes are trailing her?

And then Challoner is shot in the head. Whatever the police may think about Peggy Smith’s death, this one is definitely murder. Now they need to track down and offer protection to the other authors who have received the mysterious threat, including Julie (J D) Monroe.  Ms Monroe ought to be relatively easy to contact given that she has a home in Brighton but she, like many other crime writers, is just off to a festival in Aberdeen; she’ll speak to them when she gets back. This is not good enough for our intrepid amateur investigators, Natalka, Benedict and Edwin, who immediately decided to set off on a road trip from England’s South Coast all the way up to the Granite City.

Inevitably, murder and mayhem follow them, because just as The Stranger Diaries played around with the conventions of the Gothic horror story, an example of which was embedded within it, so The Postscript Murders is something of a tongue in cheek exploration of the idiosyncrasies associated with crime fiction. The amateur sleuths, the killer attending the funeral, the murder in a closed community, these and many other tropes are there for the enjoying. And I did enjoy this book very much, in fact rather more than its predecessor, where I found the inclusion of the Gothic short story to be intrusive and if I’m honest rather dull. This moves along at a much better pace and is clearer in its focus. If you had asked me which character Griffiths was going to pick up and run with after the earlier novel, Harbinder or its central figure, Clare, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you.  I’m glad it was Harbinder. She is no Ruth Galloway, but she is still pleasant company and I am interested to see how she is allowed to develop given that, as she recognises, the chances of promotion within her own force are rather limited.  

The book is written in typical Griffiths’ style, that is with tongue quite often firmly stuck in cheek, and those who enjoy the journeys into Ruth’s very distinctive way of thinking will find much to relish here, my favourite being the (in my mind blasphemous) observation that Marmite is just one reason why the British will never be a civilised nation. And surely Kate would thoroughly enjoy the clock with hands in the shape of carrots which chase sundry vegetables around the dial until such time as it is possible to say that it’s seven-thirty, a carrot past a radish.

Nothing is ever going to replace Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels in my affection, but DS Harbinder Kaur is shaping up nicely enough and I hope the series will continue.  Which genre will be the next under the spotlight. I wonder?

With thanks to Quercus and NetGalley for the review copy.  

The Darkest Evening ~ Ann Cleeves


I have come very late to Ann Cleeves’ novels and I haven’t actually read all of the previous books in the series featuring Vera Stanhope.  Consequently, in reading this, the latest episode concerning the Northumbrian DI, I am behaving very much out of character as I normally prefer to work my way chronologically through a sequence. However, having been given the opportunity to read The Darkest Evening for review, I couldn’t resist the temptation and in fact, reference to the aftermath of one of the cases I have yet to encounter apart, nothing substantial enough seems to have happened to the officers stationed at Kimmerston to make me feel that in doing so I am in anyway spoiling the novels between this and The Glass Room, my most recent read.

It’s the dead of winter; Christmas and the longest night are on the horizon; the snow is falling and against her team’s advice Vera Stanhope is trying to get back to her isolated cottage through the dark and a raging blizzard. Missing her turning she finds herself on a road she normally would not take and discovers an abandoned car, with door wide open and, when she investigates more closely, a toddler tucked up inside. There is no sign of any struggle, no evidence of any foul play, but why would a mother abandon her child on a night as wild as this? Freeing the child’s car seat from its restraints, Vera sets out with the baby in the direction she thinks the driver must have taken, in order to see if she is in need of any help. 

Rather than discovering the missing driver, Vera finds herself approaching a once grand but now rather crumbling country house, Brockbank, ancestral home of the Stanhopes.  As an adult, Vera’s father, Hector, a youngest son and very much the black sheep of the family, had rarely set foot in the place, and consequently, while Vera has some memories of visiting as a child, those memories are not necessarily happy ones and she approaches the encounter with her relatives with a trepidation we do not normally associate with the blunt and forthright DI. Crispin, Vera’s cousin, is dead, but his widow, Harriet, still lives in the mansion along with her daughter, Juliet, and Juliet’s thespian husband, Mark. Despite the foul weather, a house party is in full swing, as Mark attempts to interest backers in a scheme to turn Brockbank into a theatrical venue and consequently Vera’s interruption is not particularly well received. However, when one of the Stanhope’s tenants, Neil Heslop, arrives to collect his daughters, waitressing for the evening, with news that he has discovered a body, they are only too grateful that the police are already on the scene.

The body turns out to be that of Lorna Falstone, also a member of a tenant family, and it is clear from the start that she has been brutally murdered. Lorna has struggled as a teenager, suffering from anorexia, and in her tentative recovery and life as a young mother she has been supported by her former primary teacher, Constance Browne. Her relationship with her parents, Jill and Robert, has been less secure and when questioned it is clear that they know little of her current life and can offer no suggestion as to who might be the father of her young son, Thomas. Reluctantly, Vera leaves the toddler with them, unexpectedly showing, if not exactly a maternal side, then a concern for the child that is more personal than professional.

Hampered by the weather, the Stanhopes’ less than helpful attitude and Lorna’s, if not exactly secretive then certainly very private, lifestyle, Vera, along with her usual crew, Joe, Holly and Charlie, makes little progress towards discovering the identity of the murderer, although several possible motives begin to rear their heads and then Constance Browne goes missing. Did she know more about Lorna‘s life and personal entanglements than she has let on? Has she seen something, somebody, and consequently poses a threat that must be eliminated?

However gruff Vera may appear on the outside, I think anyone who has read the earlier novels knows that there is both a softer and more vulnerable individual hidden behind the unforgiving and unprepossessing exterior. In The Darkest Evening those warmer aspects of her character begin to show more openly, especially in relation to young Thomas, who may or may not turn out to be a distant relative. Questions of fatherhood abound and it isn’t only Thomas’s paternity that is called into question as the investigation progresses. I liked this rather more vulnerable Vera and I also found myself more in sympathy with Holly than has been the case in the previous books I’ve read. She and Vera seem to be coming to something of an accommodation with each other, perhaps beginning to realise that they have more in common than either might like to admit. All in all, a worthy addition to the continuing story of Vera Stanhope; now to go back and fill in the gaps.

With thanks to Macmillan and NetGalley for a review copy.  

All The Devils Are Here ~ Louise Penny

All The Devils Are Here, is the latest novel in Louise Penny’s series about Quebec homicide detective, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. However, unlike most of the earlier books this does not take place in the Canadian village of Three Pines; indeed, it isn’t sited in Canada at all. When I first realised that this novel was set in Paris, I have to admit I was concerned. Much as I like Gamache, I am just as drawn to Penny’s books by the wonderfully eccentric cast of characters that inhabit that small village close to the borders of Vermont. So much so, that I have been known to insist that the next house that comes up for sale in Three Pines is mine; however much it costs. How would I cope with a book that lacked the harum scarum Clara, the wise Myrna and the acerbic Ruth, not to mention the many delights of Gabri and Olivier‘s bistro?  The answer, surprisingly, was much better than I expected. In fact, I think this is possibly Penny’s strongest novel since Bury Your Dead.

Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache are in Paris for the birth of their daughter’s second child. Annie along with her husband, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, have moved to the French capital following Beauvoir’s resignation from the Sûreté du Québec to take up a position with GHS Engineering.  Beauvoir is no engineer, a fact brought home to him by the barely disguised contempt of his second-in-command, Séverine Arbour. Why was the position offered to him? His talents lie in detection. Has he been placed in the company in order to ferret out some sort of wrongdoing? If he has, he doesn’t really know enough about the business to be able to spot any type of corruption that might be going on. Jean-Guy is frustrated; never a good situation.

Annie isn’t the only member of the Gamache family resident in France‘s chief city. Their son, Daniel, also lives there, working for a bank in the field of venture capital. It has been apparent throughout the series that, much to Armand’s distress, there is an estrangement between father and son but, unable to fathom the cause, Gamache has been able to do nothing about it.  While Annie is delighted her parents are there, you get the feeling that Daniel would rather they were anywhere else on Earth.

The final member of the Gamache “family“ greets Armand on the night that he and Reine-Marie first arrive in Paris. Stephen Horowitz is Armand’s godfather. Now in his 90s, this immensely rich man, has been very much a father to the Chief Inspector after his parents died in a car accident when he was nine. Although German by birth Horowitz was a member of the French Resistance and has spent most of his life since then outing corruption in financial and business enterprises around the world. Leaving a restaurant where the family have been dining on that first night, Horowitz is the victim of a hit-and-run attack, clearly targeted at him and equally clearly intended to kill. When Armand and Jean-Guy then visit Stephen’s apartment and find a body there, it becomes apparent that mischief is afoot and that somehow it is linked to the upcoming GHS board meeting.

Of course, Gamache has not always been a “lowly“ Chief Inspector. His career has taken him to the very top and as a result he knows other top policeman around the world, including Claude Dussault, the Prefect of Paris Police so, when he feels that the assigned officers are not taking his insistence that Stephen was deliberately targeted seriously, Armand calls on his friend for assistance.  But is Dussault to be trusted? Is it possible that the Prefect himself has been corrupted? Are Stephen’s claims of his part in the war valid? And, most troubling, can Gamache place his faith in those who are closest to him of all? Much of the novel turns on the question of who can and who cannot be trusted with Gamache really only able to depend entirely on Reine-Marie and Beauvoir.  

You have to keep your wits about you during what is quite a substantial novel. There are many twists and turns before the reasons behind the murders and attempted murders are revealed and answers to the question of who is on whose side are fluid right up until the very dramatic conclusion. Big business and those who sit on the boards of such institutions do not come out of it well. Don’t trust anything manufactured might well be one message taken away by the reader; I may never get in a lift again! After Penny’s previous novel, A Better Man, which I thought was a disappointment, this is a very welcome return to form. If you are already a fan then I think you’ll enjoy it; if you have yet to meet Gamache and Beauvoir then I suggest you go back to the start of the series with Still Life, rather than beginning here, knowing that you have some very fine books ahead of you. 

With thanks to Sphere and to NetGalley for a review copy.

Cover Your Tracks ~ Claire Askew

woman holding mug of coffee beside opened bookCover Your Tracks is the third of Claire Askew’s novels centred around Edinburgh DI, Helen Birch; what is more, it’s the third one I’ve read this year, which says something about the continuing quality of Askew’s writing. Her latest offering focuses on a subject which has been hovering in the wings of both her previous books, namely, missing people. Birch’s own life has been blighted by the disappearance of her younger brother Charlie, a character central to What You Pay For, Askew’s previous book, and, although by no means as troubling, her father has also been absent since she was twelve. Now she finds herself confronted by a belligerent Scottish American, Robertson Bennet, demanding that she locate his missing parents for him. Robertson, or Robert MacDonald as he was born, has had no contact with his family since 1986 and not finding them at the address he expected he considers it the polices’ job to locate them for him. Birch explains, rather more politely than I would have done, that this is not the polices’ job, but Bennet refuses to be put off and returns with what he claims is evidence that his mother may be in danger as a result of his father’s acknowledged aggressive behaviour. Subsequent enquiries confirm that George MacDonald is indeed known to the police but the whereabouts of both him and Bennet’s mother, Euphemia, more commonly called Pharmie, prove to be elusive. Helen‘s superior, DCI McLeod, considers the whole business to be a waste of her time and tells her to hand it over to DC Amy Kato, but Helen is intrigued, and never one to follow orders blindly, is unable to stay away from the case.

Following up on suggestions that George was well known in the train spotting community, it gradually becomes apparent that he had, in fact, ‘helped’ the police with their enquiries far more often than Birch and Kato originally realised, calling himself on those occasions, Ginger Mack, and that almost always his involvement had been in relation to missing women. The novel is punctuated by newspaper reports concerning the disappearance of some of these women, the oldest of which dates back a full fifty years. We read the stories of Suzannah (Suzie) Hay and Christine Turnbull and encounter the heartbreak of Maisie Kerr’s mother, still hoping for news of her daughter who vanished in 1999.

Despite McLeod’s edict, Helen becomes more and more involved, but at the same time she is distracted by what is happening to her brother, now serving a long jail sentence. Branded not only because of his association with a senior police officer but also as the man responsible for the jailing of a major crime lord, Charlie almost inevitably, has become the target of prison violence and when this lands him seriously injured in hospital the fact that he has retaliated and is therefore almost certainly looking at an extension to his sentence simply piles the pressure on for his sister. Not, however, that Helen needs Charlie’s help to feel that she is snowed under by family concerns, because after a gap of more than two decades her father has finally got in touch again and unsurprisingly her first thought is that any renewed contact is bound to bring trouble. Perhaps this is why, when an anonymous tipoff is received, Birch misinterprets the message.

And this, I’m afraid, is where I had a problem with the novel because I didn’t misinterpret the message. Despite the amount of crime fiction I read I am normally still hopeless at guessing who done it, let alone how and why but in the case of Cover Your Tracks I had the whole thing sorted from the moment that message arrived, which made the last two-fifths or so of the book something of an anti-climax. I tell you, I could have saved Police Scotland a fortune in digging time! Perhaps for some that would be a minor quibble, but I like the suspense ratcheted up to the end and so ultimately the book was something of a disappointment in terms of plot. Nevertheless, it’s still a very good read simply because of the quality of the writing and the development of the characters and I shall certainly not be put off reading the next in the series, whenever that should be available.

With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and NetGalley for a review copy.  

Sweet Danger ~ Margery Allingham

floral ceramic cup and saucer above open book

I am still slowly making my way through Marjorie Allingham‘s Albert Campion novels of which Sweet Danger is the fifth. I’d rather been putting this one off because the blurb I read suggested that it was set in some Mittel  European country far away from Albert’s usual English Shires’ haunts. However, my concern proved unnecessary as, while the story does indeed begin on the continent where our universal uncle and deputy adventurer is masquerading as the Hereditary Paladin of Averna, it soon comes back to more familiar haunts as Albert and his three friends, Guffy Randall, Jonathan Eager-Wright and Dickie Farquharson, comb the wilds of Suffolk looking not only for the true heir to the tiny kingdom of Averna but also the proof that entitles said heir to the now very politically strategic throne. As a result of an earthquake this once landlocked state has suddenly acquired a minute, but very important, coastline, important because remarkably and pretty much simultaneously, untapped oilfields have also been discovered, hidden in a hinterland that is so small you could run through it in less time than it takes to write about it (did you remember to practise believing six impossible things before breakfast this morning?) and there is, of course, a dastardly villain who is looking to take advantage of this for his own evil ends.

Setting off to Pontisbright, in the hope of discovering a crown, a charter and, most important of all, the receipt that proves that the Earl of that name did indeed buy the right to Averna from Metternich, our intrepid adventurer encounters the Fitton family: Aunt Harriet Huntingforest, Mary, Amanda and Hal. According to family history, the last Earl of Pontisbright married one Mary Fitton several generations previously. However due to some very complicated shenanigans, the records of the marriage have disappeared and as a consequence the family are living on the proverbial tuppence ha’penny and there is no question of Hal being recognised as the heir to the Earl’s estate, let alone as Paladin of Averna.  (Look, are you keeping up with all this? Because I promise you it’s going to get much more complicated. I haven’t even mentioned the mad local Doctor who is looking for a virgin sacrifice so that he can bring back to life a vicious, but no doubt in some way lucrative, demon. Voldemort, eat your heart out.)

The Fittons live in a rundown old mill on a measly hundred pounds a year and whatever the seventeen year old Amanda and their ne’er-do-well family help, Scatty Williams, can scratch together as a result of their truly terrifying “scientific“ experiments, including the cobbling together of what must surely be the first electric car. (If only they had thought to patten it.) When the bad guys turn up, quite happy to ransack the entire building and kill any who get in their way as they search for clues to the whereabouts of the necessary paraphernalia, otherwise known as proof, it is Amanda and Scatty, helped of course by the indefatigable Lugg, who play the principal and most dangerous roles in the inevitable foiling of the villain and all his evil works.

The presence of Amanda lifts the whole book. Her importance in the ongoing life of Campion is pretty much signalled at the end of the novel.

‘I say’, [said Amanda] ‘do you ever think about Biddy Pagett? You know – Biddy Lobbett.’

Mr Campion, dishevelled, and unbeautifully clad, met her frank enquiring gaze with one of his rare flashes of undisguised honesty.

’Yes,’ he said.

Amanda sighed. ‘I thought so. Look here,’ she went on. ‘I shan’t be ready for about six years yet. But then – well, I’d like to put you on the top of my list.’

Campion held out his hand with sudden eagerness. ‘Is that a bet?’

Amanda’s small cold fingers grasped his own. ‘Done,’ she said.

Having once created such a delightful creature, Allingham must have realised that she had, whether inadvertently or otherwise, provided the perfect helpmeet for Albert and consequently laid the ground work for her return, although I have another four books to read before she will surface for a second time.

I also found myself much happier in Campion’s company in this outing.  The ‘silly ass’ persona, which in the first couple of novels seems designed to befuddle and mislead the reader every bit as much as the other characters, has now faded into the background and instead we are offered a much more likeable and understandable individual who hides behind a facade of foolishness only to mislead those who would do him or others harm or to hide the emotions which for once, in Amanda’s company, he has allowed to show through.

So, overall a pleasant weekend read. Next in line is Death of a Ghost, set in the art world, always a favourite locale of mine. I don’t think I shall leave such a long gap before picking that one up.

 

Review Catch-Up ~ August 8th 2020

book chapter six

This is the third in a series of catch-up posts with short reviews of books that I’ve read over the past couple of months but haven’t been able to get round to writing about in any great detail. It’s not meant to imply that the books are any less worthy than those that get a post to themselves, just that I tend to read faster than I can blog and it seems better to provide a brief comment than nothing at all.

Dark Waters ~ G R Halliday

Dark Waters is the second novel in G R Halliday’s police procedural series featuring DI Monica Kennedy and if you have read From the Shadows, be warned, this one is every bit as disturbing. The heavily mutilated bodies of two very different men are discovered in the Highland district where Inverness based Kennedy operates.  Although officially seconded to traffic at her own request after the traumatic events related in the earlier novel, Kennedy is asked to take the lead role in the case as the only available senior officer.  Both victims are missing limbs and the indications are that they were alive when these body parts were removed.

Intercut with the story of the investigation is that of Annabelle, a young woman with a fast car in search of a stretch of road on which to test it out. When the inevitable happens Annabelle wakens to find herself strapped to a bed and being administered to by the ‘weird’ Marcus who alternatively uses the promise of the presence of the mysterious ‘Doc’ to reassure her and threaten her.  The story then becomes both one of investigation and of a race against the clock to save Annabelle from the same fate as the earlier victims, although it is some time before the police realise this.

Like so many leading characters in modern crime novels, Monica Kennedy has a fractured past that haunts her current work: in her case problems that are linked by both a difficult family background and the repercussions of a previous investigation. I don’t feel that Halliday handles this aspect of the novel particularly well. There are too many hints and nods in the direction of what has happened to Kennedy in the past and Monica herself dwells on it pretty much all the time, but the reader never really discovers in any detail what those problems have been.  The character and the story are strong enough to stand on their own and I found that I was simply being irritated and distracted by the constant references to the leading character’s own traumas. The same was true of the suggestions that Monica’s young daughter, Lucy, is in someway prescient and able to provide insights into current cases through her dream world. The story doesn’t need that.  I did wonder if I was seeing the influence of James Oswald’s Tony McLeod novels here, but Oswald‘s point is surely a more universal one to do with the force of evil that will always accompany human desire for power and wealth. In Dark Waters the supernatural element seems added on rather than integral to the whole ethos behind the created world. Will I go back for a third novel? I’m not sure. Halliday writes well and plots well, but there is work to do on maintaining focus I think.

With thanks To Random House UK Vintage Publishing and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

Tales From the Folly ~ Ben Aaronovitch

As many of you will know, I am not a great reader of short stories. The one exception I’ve made over the past few years has been the tales that interleave the full-length novels, written by Jodi Taylor, chronicling the adventures of those intrepid observers of historical events in contemporary time (don’t call it time travel) from St Mary‘s Priory, Rushford. Taylor’s line in dry observation and witty dialogue lends itself very well to the form and, in addition, most of the stories move the overarching narrative forward and are therefore pretty much essential to the reader’s understanding of the developments in the lives of her much loved characters. I was hoping for something of the same from Ben Aaronovitch’s latest publication, Tales From the Folly, which is a collection of stories featuring both major and minor participants from his London based series featuring policeman and apprentice wizard, Peter Grant. However, while each of the (very) short stories and the even shorter “moments“ are perfectly enjoyable, they tend to read as what, for the most part, they are, which is responses to requests for a short piece of writing for a particular occasion. Consequently, while most of them do add the occasional insight into a particular participant‘s character, they don’t really further the overall narrative thrust or contribute to the development of the story world. This isn’t to say that they are not well written, they are, and there are frequent examples of Aronovitch’s trademark verbal wit, but too often they feel contrived, the characters  placed in a situation designed to meet a requirement rather than to forward the overarching narrative in a necessary manner. I’m not sorry that I read them, but if I hadn’t it would not of made any difference to my understanding and enjoyment of the whatever novel is to follow the latest full-length story,  False Values.

Cry Baby ~ Mark Billingham

brown wooden desk

I had a text from a friend last week saying that she had just managed to catch up with the most recent of Mark Billingham’s novels about Met Detective, Tom Thorne. Extremely gently, I broke the news to her that he had a new one being published the very next day! However, in most respects Cry Baby doesn’t actually take Tom’s story any further forward, because with one exception (two if you count the initial dream) the action is set in 1996, a date easily worked out from the many references to the European Cup matches being played during that summer.  As a result, those of us who have followed Tom’s career from his first outing in Sleepy Head are able to fill in some of the background to aspects of his life that we have come to accept as givens, especially the breakup of his relationship with his wife, Jan, and the first steps in his friendship with the pathologist, Phil Hendricks. The focus of the book, however, is on the story of a missing child, seven year old Kieron Coyne, who is snatched from a local park while playing with his friend Josh Ashton.

Despite coming from socially very different backgrounds, the two boys are the best of friends and they are linked by the fact that both have absent fathers. Josh’s mother, Maria, is divorced from his father, Jeff, while Cat Coyne is bringing up her son on her own because her husband, Billy, is serving time for attempted murder. The boys don’t see as much of each other as they would like because catchment areas mean they can’t go to the same school and this appears to disturb Josh far more than it does Kieron. Josh’s behaviour is causing real concern and this is something that both his mother and the reader should have paid close attention to very early on.  But, we readers don’t always notice those things that we ought to, or interpret them properly, or give them due weight and police officers, being human like the rest of us, the same is true of them. When a witness describes seeing a boy dressed in the same way as Kieron, getting into a red car with someone he seems very comfortable with, Thorne and his fellow detectives neglect to give sufficient importance to one particular aspect of the man’s evidence. Of course, matters aren’t helped by Tom’s immediate boss, DI Gordon Boyle, latching onto the fact that Cat’s next door neighbour was once arrested for a sexual offence and the situation is complicated even more when Dan Meade turns up claiming that he is Kieron’s real father. Thank goodness Cat has Billy’s sister, Angela, a market trader, to stand by her and ease the situation between husband and wife.

Or does she? Because if the novel is about one thing it is about not relying on appearances; about how often we can be mistaken in what we believe to be the truth concerning other people. The force of this is brought home to the reader in 2020 as Thorne muses on the concept of ‘stranger danger’.

He remembered his conversation about it with Simon Jenner, and a book with that title doing the rounds, not long after he joined the force. Jimmy Savile on the front. A trustworthy face off the telly telling a story about nice fluffy rabbits to make the warnings a little more kid-friendly.

What you see isn’t always what you get.

Simon Jenner is Kieron‘s form teacher and if I was his Head, I would be worried about the attention that he appears to be paying to Cat.  Is he a suspect? A vital clog in the plot? Or simply a red herring? When you think about it, red herrings are all about appearances too.

In actual fact, I worked out very early who was behind the abduction, but as I thought it had happened for totally the wrong reason, I suppose I can’t congratulate myself for something that was almost certainly pure blind luck. And, probably because I formed my opinion so early on, I also doubted my original conclusion several times, although I never changed my view that the person I suspected was a seriously nasty piece of work. Perhaps appearances don’t always deceive, at least not those which are so clearly superficial in their nature.

Why Billingham has chosen to go back in Thorne’s past in this way, I don’t know. In one sense it isn’t really important. The crime is the central feature of the novel and the period in which it happened to a large extent irrelevant.  One thing that it does allow, however, is a retrospective view on the outcomes for the people concerned. Once a story like this has vanished from the papers the public in general tends to forget that those who lived through the experience are never going to be quite the same again and that this is true not only for the victims but also for the serving officers who have had to witness events and try to come to terms with the outcomes of the decisions that they made. For them, the well worn children’s fallback, and then I woke up and it was all a dream is more likely to surface in the shape of a recurrent nightmare.

With thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK and Netgalley for a review copy.

If Looks Could Kill ~ Olivia Kiernan

used red coffee cup and saucerA man walks into a public garden in the heart of Dublin. It is lunchtime and the park is slowly filling up with people taking a well-earned break. He opens his bag and removes a gun. However, this is no modern day killing spree, instead he lifts the gun, places it to his temple and pulls the trigger.

If Looks Could Kill is the third in Olivia Kiernan’s series concerning Gardaí officer, Detective Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan, assigned to the Bureau for Serious Crime in Dublin. As she says, they are the first stop for all serious crime that may be of national interest. The death in the park, however, doesn’t initially come to her attention. It’s very clearly a suicide and therefore not of sufficient significance to merit investigation at her level. The case that does drop into her lap is that of Debbie Nugent, reported as a missing person, but from the blood-splattered state of her home, almost certainly either seriously injured or murdered. Initially, suspicion falls on the younger of Debbie‘s two daughters, Margot. It becomes increasingly clear that Debbie has been missing for much longer than was first apparent and, given that Margot lives with her mother, questions are automatically raised about why she hasn’t reported her absence sooner. When Margot is taken into custody and charged with the crime, Frankie’s boss, Commissioner Donna Hegarty, would like to see the case all neatly packed away but Shelly Griffiths, an old University friend and something of a rarity in crime fiction, a reporter who isn’t out just for a good story, contacts Frankie with information that suggests there may be other factors in Debbie‘s past that need to be taken into consideration. Why has she been so solitary, so private? Why has she so tightly controlled the lives of both her children, especially that of Margot? And what, if anything, is her connection with the man who shot himself in that Dublin park?

In an attempt to find out more about Debbie‘s background Frankie and her immediate boss, Jack Clancy, look to the local police force, in the personages of DS Alex Gordon and retired Detective Sergeant, Dennis Fitzsimons, for help. but no one seems to be able to give them any information that might suggest a culprit other than Margot. However, what you see is not always what you get. Advising Frankie at the very onset of her career, her Gardaí officer father tells her

it’s important to know who you are, love, but more important to know how others see you.

What Frankie needs to do is to remember the corollary to that, namely that it is possible that how you see someone is how they want you to see them and not who they really are. Hampered by her uncertainty as to who can and cannot be trusted and thwarted in her attempts to dig deeper into the past of the Dublin suicide by the Chief of the Gardaí Surveillance Unit (who really thinks he is someone) Frankie is forced to turn for help to the very criminal element she should be trying to put behind bars.

Olivia Kiernan is an extremely accomplished writer. She has been likened to Tana French and I would certainly put her writing alongside that of Jane Casey. And you all know how well I think of her as a writer. Her characters are finely drawn, and she plots very tightly. She also ensures that particular themes echo throughout a novel. Here, as I’ve already indicated, it’s very much to do with the question of the persona that somebody puts on as a public face and the question of who that person really is behind what may be a very deceptive mask. A further question that is raised early on is that of whether it is better to follow your instincts or to follow the evidence, a deliberation that is the source of much tension between Frankie and Commissioner Hegarty. Following events in the previous novel, The Killer in Me, Frankie vows to become more cautious, less reliant on instinct rather than evidence. Perhaps what she learns here is that you need to combine the two and use your instinct to make sure you look for evidence in the right place. If Looks Could Kill reinforces Kiernan’s growing reputation in the crime fiction world and if you haven’t already met her work then I strongly recommend her to you.

With thanks to Quercus and NetGalley for the review copy.

Shed No Tears ~ Caz Frear

book opened on top of white table beside closed red book and round blue foliage ceramic cup on top of saucer

Everyone has a price. I truly believe that.

Except the price isn’t always money. It’s just a damn sight simpler when it is.

Well, while not quite everyone in Caz Frear’s third novel featuring DC Cat Kinsella, Shed No Tears, can be seen to be on the take, certainly a large percentage of the characters are either corrupt themselves or in the business of corrupting other people. The question is how do you tell the difference between the two.

When Holly Kemp’s body is found in a ditch in Cambridgeshire the discovery reopens a case that the Met thought they had put to bed six years previously. Holly had been assumed to be the fourth and final victim of Christopher Masters in what was known as The Roommate Case. However, while the bodies of the other three victims were recovered at the time, Holly’s body had remained missing. Masters himself, now dead, having been killed in prison, vacillated between claiming her murder as one of his and denying any knowledge of it. The discovery of the body only adds to the confusion as there are very obvious differences between Holly and the other three women, most particularly, while the latter were strangled, Holly has been shot through the head.

When Cat and her partner, DS Luigi Parnell, report back to DCI Kate Steele it is to find that she has made contact with DCI Tessa Dyer, a highflying contemporary of Steele and tipped for great things. Dyer was the SIO on the original case and hers was the decision to go ahead and charge Masters with Holly’s death despite there being no body. Still, apparently, convinced that Holly was Masters’ fourth victim, Dyer reminds the team of the rock solid evidence given by a teacher, Serena Bailey, which placed Holly on the killer’s doorstep at the very time she was known to have disappeared.  Re-interviewed, Bailey still insists that she saw Holly on the afternoon that she vanished, but something about her evidence doesn’t ring true to Cat and thus begins the unwinding of the case that made Dyer’s name and provided the foundation for her subsequent career.

Meanwhile, Cat has her own difficulties to face. Daughter of a man who has a more than shady background himself and who is still associated with people that it is better Cat’s colleagues and superiors know nothing about, she does all that she can to keep her family at arm’s-length. However, when her father is taken into hospital with a broken arm which he claims to have been the result of an accident with a beer barrel, her more practiced eye recognises the beating he’s been given and she is forced to question just what he may have become involved in and consequently where her duty lies, especially, knowing as she does, that he is paying the price demanded in return for Cat herself being left alone. Coupling this with the news that her brother, Noel, always a thorn in her side, has been released from prison in Spain and is likely to be returning to London, the offer her boyfriend, Aidan, has had of a twenty-two month contract in New York suddenly seems a rather more tempting proposition than had previously been the case. Cat and Aidan seem to be the ideal couple, but their relationship is not without its own difficulties. Unbeknownst to Aidan, Cat’s father was peripherally involved in the murder of Maryanne, Aidan’s sister and Cat is terrified of what revealing that knowledge to him would unleash.  Moving to New York would remove her from the immediate threats her family poses but would also mean leaving the job that she loves. What should she do?

Caz Frear is one of a number of up-and-coming women crime writers who are making a real mark on the scene. I have read both of her previous books with pleasure and this did not disappoint in any way at all. Because of the complicated family history involved, if you haven’t read the earlier books, Sweet Little Lies and Stone Cold Heart, then I would suggest you start there before allowing yourself the pleasure of reading this, the latest in what I hope is going to be a long running series.

With thanks to Bonnier Books UK and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review Catch-Up ~ July 11th 2020

beverage blur ceylon cup

This is the second of a series of catch-up posts with short reviews of books that I’ve read over the past couple of months but haven’t been able to get round to writing about in any great detail. It’s not meant to imply that the books are any less worthy than those that get a post to themselves, just that I tend to read faster than I can blog about and it seems better to provide a brief comment than nothing at all.

The Finisher ~ Peter Lovesey

Murder is only the beginning. The real question is how do you get rid of the corpse? That’s the job of the finisher: tidying things up when they start to get nasty. As the most recent of Peter Lovesey’s DS Diamond series begins the finisher’s immediate task is overseeing a group of illegal Albanian immigrants, a job which includes disposing of the bodies of any who try to make a break for freedom. When Spiro and Murat take their chance to get away they know that their only hope is to run as fast and as far as they can. They are not the only people with running on their minds, however. The Bath alternative half marathon, known as the Other Half, is on the horizon and Maeve Kelly is out training for it. This is not Maeve’s preferred way of spending her time but a series of unexpected events mean that she is using it as a way of raising money for the British Heart Foundation. Her self-appointed trainer is a fellow teacher from the primary school where she works, Trevor, a man who appears to have an interest in more than Maeve’s running style. Also in training for the race is Belinda Pye and when she fails to record a finishing time and is subsequently not to be found in her lodgings, Diamond’s interest is piqued, especially when CCTV footage shows her to have been pestered by Tony Pinto. Diamond put Pinto away several years previously after he took a Stanley knife to a woman who had complained about his behaviour. The DS is horrified to know that Pinto has been released and given his presence in the proximity of the missing woman he automatically becomes the chief subject. But Pinto has gone missing as well and the search leads Diamond into the underground caverns left by decades of stone quarrying in the area where the race took place.

I’ve only recently discovered Peter Lovesey’s work. I was given the first of his novels this time last year. I wasn’t completely convinced by that and now I’ve decided to try a second, I’m not sure that I’m convinced by this either. Lovesey starts too many hares for me and I’m not sure that all the strands come together as well as they might. I’m also not sure about the tone. At times there is a sense of irony which doesn’t sit well with the subject matter. However, if you have read his work in the past and enjoyed it then this one does seem to me to be fairly typical and I’m sure you will relish it as well.

With thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK Sphere and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

The Gift: The First Book of Pellinor ~ Alison Croggon 

Alison Croggon’s Pellinor series deserves to be as well known as any of the works of high fantasy written with a young teenage audience in mind and yet I still find that this Australian author is far too rarely spoken of despite the fact that her books are every bit as good as those of authors such as Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper and even Ursula Le Guin.  As part of my re-exploration of the works of children’s literature that I remember most fondly I have just re-read the opening volume, The Gift (also published as The Naming) and enjoyed it every bit as much as I did when I first discovered the series.

When Maerad discovers a stranger hiding in the steading, Gilman’s Cot, where she is a slave, she can have no awareness of the fact that his presence there will change her life forever. Cadvan is a Bard, a term used to describe those who hold the power of the Light against the evil of the Dark, who maintain the world in Balance, terms which will be more than familiar to those who have read the Earthsea and The Dark is Rising sequences.  And the Dark is rising, which is why Cadvan is so far north of his usual haunts, seeking the source of the evil which seems to be penetrating even the Schools of learning where Bards are trained.  His progress is being hindered by an evil force which inhabits the mountainous area where Gilman’s Cot is situated and when he discovers that Maered possesses an inner strength which, when combined with his own, enables him to escape the area, he realises that she too is a Bard, but one in whom the power has yet to fully manifest itself.

As he learns more of as he learns more of Maered’s background and experiences further evidence of the inner strength she possesses, Cadvan begins to suspect that his young charge may be more than simply a ‘baby Bard’. Prophecies speak of someone who will appear during a time of intense crisis, someone able to defeat the ultimate evil, the Nameless. Is Maered that person, the one that those Bards who still serve the Light have been waiting for? The only way to be certain is for them to make the perilous journey to Norlac, where the highest council in the land can admit her into the circle of Bards at which point Maered’s true name and destiny will be revealed. Of course, their journey is long and dangerous and some of the tribulations they meet along the path force both of them to question who can and who cannot be trusted. Neither are their travels made any easier when Cadvan is forced to add another ‘baby Bard’ to his entourage.  Who is Hem? And why does Maered feel such a strong connection to him?

I have just spent two very happy days back in the company of Maered and Cadvan and I’m only sorry that I didn’t buy the other three books in the sequence at the same time as The Gift, as it means I will have to wait a while for the second volume to turn up. I could quite comfortably have read straight through all four from beginning to end. If you enjoy the works of Wynne Jones, Le Guin and Cooper and haven’t yet read Alison Croggon’s novels then I very strongly recommend that you get hold of copies and set aside a long weekend when you can immerse yourself in some first class storytelling.