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.

 

Review Catch-up ~ July 4th 2020

pile of assorted title book lot selective focus photographt

This is the first 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.

Quiet Acts of Violence ~ Cath Staincliffe

This is the second in a new series by Staincliffe featuring DI Donna Bell and DC Jade Bradshaw both of whom work for the police in Manchester. I haven’t read the first novel, but it is fairly easy to pick up the fact that Bell is not only senior to but considerably older than Bradshaw, is married to a man who at the moment is unable to work and is therefore supporting both him and their five children. Jade, on the other hand, appears to be in her twenties and has come through the care system, an experience that has left her with considerable mental health issues of her own. Donna at one point comments Jade wasn’t wired like most people, the empathy gene missing or disabled, not perhaps a character trait you look for first when recruiting people to the police force.

The case that the novel is built around concerns the discovery of the body of a newborn baby in a waste bin by the homeless Collette Pritchard. Initially an appeal is put out to try to find the baby’s mother, for whose health there is considerable concern. However, when several days have gone by without any success and, given the fact that the post-mortem indicates the child was suffocated, Bell comes under pressure from her Chief Constable to turn the case into a murder enquiry. Certainly, house-to-house questioning conducted in the street where the baby was discovered throws up some interesting and suspicious characters, several of whom clearly have something to hide.

This is the first Staincliffe novel that I’ve actually finished. I have picked up her books in the past, but not really got on with her style of writing. However, this was highly recommended by somebody whose opinions I value and so I thought I would try her again. Unfortunately, I really didn’t get on any better with her style this time and, while it’s inevitable that a police procedural series will focus to some extent on the lives of the officers concerned, I thought that this actually became too central and the crime merely a device on which to hang the story of Bell and Bradshaw’s personal experiences. I’m sorry, but I won’t be going back for any further episodes.

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

 

The Truants ~ Kate Weinberg

When Jess Walker attempts to narrow down the books she might use for her dissertation on Agatha Christie, her charismatic tutor, Lorna Clay, suggests that she adds to her selection of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Absent in the Spring not another novel, but Christie’s autobiography. What is it that these three books all have in common? It is the fact that the conduit between the content and the reader is an unreliable narrator. In a novel where the telling of stories features heavily, be they the texts studied in class or the tall stories of the Tuesday Club, unreliable narrators abound and both the characters concerned and the reader have really to be on their toes in order to work out who can be believed and who is spinning a tale.

Jess has gone to what is clearly (although never actually so identified) UEA specifically because of her desire to work with Lorna Clay. Once there she becomes part of a foursome with the beautiful Georgie, the faithful Nick and the older and mysterious Alec. Alec, coming from a controversial journalistic background in South Africa, is not afraid of challenging anyone and, despite the fact that he is ‘officially’ Georgia’s boyfriend, Jess is soon captivated by him. But, there is a mystery about his past just as there is about Lorna, her time at Cambridge and her sudden recent change of job. In a novel which at times has telling overtones of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Jess finds herself caught up in an ongoing series of events the extent of which she only gradually begins to understand. As she, along with the reader, starts to unpick the truth beneath the stories she has been told, a second Christie trope begins to emerge, namely the question of whether or not it is ever acceptable to kill an individual in order to save the lives of the many.

I am a sucker for a campus novel, even more so when is it clearly set on a campus I happened to know. At the point where Georgie is quoted as having said these mattresses are like lying on sacks of Jerusalem artichokes, my immediate thought was, you have mattresses? The last time I slept in student accommodation there it was on a one inch sheet of foam; except I slept on the floor because it was more comfortable. When you add into the mix a well written first novel built around the ideas prevalent in Agatha Christie‘s work then for me you have a winner. I very much enjoyed this book and I’d recommend it to anybody who has fond memories of either the Tartt novel or of Christine’s output. Kate Weinberg has gone straight on to my list of authors whose books I automatically add to the tbr pile.

With thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

 

 

Cut To The Bone ~ Roz Watkins

Research tells us that one in a 100 people is a psychopath.  If you start to explore specific jobs then apparently 21% of managing directors are psychopaths. I wonder if anybody has ever made calculations about headteachers? I reckon I might of met a few. Anyway, the point is that if you look round society in general many very successful people, not necessarily nice people, but successful people, may well have psychopathic tendencies.  You would do well to remember that as you embark on Roz Watkins’ third novel featuring DI Meg Dalton, Cut to the Bone. As the novel begins Meg is still recovering from the death of her beloved Gran and worrying about her mother. who is about to embark on a trip to El Salvador to support women in their fight for sexual freedom. Possibly the last person she is concerned about is her father, who hasn’t been on the scene for a very long time, however, one of the things that this novel is about is the damage that fathers can do to their children and so we might expect when the missing parent turns up on Meg’s doorstep his motives will not turn out to be as pure as he declares them to be.

Set in what sounds like the long hot summer of 2018, the Derbyshire countryside, which forms the vast majority of Meg’s stamping ground, is as parched and tinder dry as the rest of the country and so, when she and her partner, DS Jai Sanghera, receive reports of a missing 18-year-old girl, Violet Armstrong, their search begins to a background of concern about wildfires sweeping across areas of open moorland. Violet has made something of a name for herself on social media platforms as the “bikini – barbecue – babe”. Advertising the benefits of meat products, she has become a target for militant animal welfare groups; one in particular, Animal Vigilantes, has been especially virulent in their condemnation, threatening to slit her throat. However, while the actions of violent extremists offer one line of investigation, it soon comes apparent that Violet, who is adopted, has been asking around in Gritton, one of the local villages, trying to identify her birth father; is it possible, therefore, that someone doesn’t want the truth to come out?

The investigation takes Meg and Jai to the local abattoir, where Violet had a job cleaning. It seems that the last time the girl was seen was on her way to the factory for her nightshift and she has been reported missing when, the following morning, her car was still there but there was no sign of her. The police are faced with the horrific possibility that not only has the girl been murdered, but that her body has then been fed overnight to the pigs awaiting slaughter the following morning.

The factory is owned and run by Anna Finchley, with the assistance of her brother Gary and Daniel Twigg and the pigs they process come from a local farm in the hands of the Nightingale family, whom we meet in the person of Tony, something of a local grandee, and his daughter Kirsty. Tony seems agreeable enough, but it very soon becomes clear that Kirsty is someone that you would not wish to cross. It is perhaps troubling, therefore, that Violet has also made contact with them, claiming that her birth mother, whom she has been told is dead, was in fact Tony’s younger daughter, Rebecca.

And what about Violet’s claim to have seen The Pale Child, a creature of myth who it seems appears whenever the water levels at Ladybower Reservoir sink sufficiently for the old drowned village to become visible? Legend has it that if The Pale Child, said to be an ancestor of the Nightingale family, sees your face then you will die. Has Violet’s fate been foretold? And, if it has then there are others who should also be very worried because the drought has indeed lowered the water level and The Pale Child is undoubtedly stalking the village and the woodland roundabout.

Attacked on social media by both sides of the animal welfare argument and then physically by animal welfare extremists, the last thing that Meg needs is to have to deal with her father who, for the reader at least, is clearly after the money that her Gran left her, money that Meg had hoped to use to finally buy a home of her own. But fathers and their relationships with their families, misguided and/or self-seeking, are at the heart of this story.  If Rebecca, whom we come to know as Bex, truly was Violet’s mother then who was her father? And why did Tony Nightingale send his three-year-old daughter to live with her aunt, not seeing her again for 13 years? Did you know that psychopaths can also run in families?

I enjoy Watkins Meg Dalton stories, not the least because I know the area she’s writing about very well indeed. When she talks about driving down Winnats, my immediate thought is “did she have to remove a sheep first?” Not an every day occurrence on Winnat’s Pass, but certainly something I’ve had to do on more than one occasion. Sitting in the middle of the road is, apparently, a favourite ovine past time. As with most serial police procedurals, I do think it’s better if you start at the beginning and jumping in midway will leave you with questions about elements of Meg’s background.  However, if you are new to the series that just means you have three books to enjoy rather than one, if not, you won’t be disappointed with this latest instalment.

The Curator ~ M W Craven

black and white ceramic mugWere you disappointed with a Christmas present you received last year? Was it not quite what you been expecting? Perhaps it was even something that made you feel slightly queasy? Whatever it was, I shouldn’t imagine it had quite the shock value of Barbara Willoughby‘s secret Santa gift, which turned out to be a mug with two severed fingers in it. When two further pairs of unrelated fingers are found, one in a baptismal font and the other on a butcher’s cooked meats counter, Detective Superintendent Jo Nightingale of the Cumbria police seeks support from the Serious Crimes Analysis Section of the National Crime Agency, better known as SCAS or, to readers of MW Craven’s previous two novels detailing their investigations, DI Stephenie Flynn, DS Washington Poe and the indomitable Tilly Bradshaw. Just so we’re clear about this before I go any further, Tilly Bradshaw is my hero. Born with an intellect that would have left Stephen Hawking standing with his mouth open, there is very little that Tilly can’t do with a computer and she absorbs new information at a rate that leaves others gasping, seeing patterns where other people simply see confusion. However, understanding nuance in the real world is not her forte and if a rule seems to be nonsensical then she just walks past it as if it didn’t exist. Can we skip ahead to where we’ve had the argument and I‘ve won but Tilly does what she pleases anyway? asks Stephanie Flynn at one point. And that sums the situation up nicely.  When I grow up I want to be Tilly Bradshaw.

As it happens, at the beginning of this investigation Tilly is really the only member of the threesome firing on all cylinders. Flynn is eight months pregnant and Poe still suffering from the aftermath of a bug that sounds almost as if he had managed to contract Covid before anybody else got round to it. Calling in the terrifying pathologist Estelle Doyle to examine the fingers it becomes apparent that not only are they from people who have definitely been murdered but also that they have been removed in three very different ways. Have there been three different murderers? Is it the work of someone who is, as it were, perfecting his trade as he goes along? And how are such apparently different victims being selected? One of the first theories to be considered is that there is only one true victim and the others are being simply randomly selected to muddy the waters. That there is no apparent connection between the three might seem to endorse this.

Then Poe gets a phone call from one Melody Lee, an FBI agent sent to work out in the sticks for having had the temerity to suggest that a young man convicted of murder was in fact set up and that the murder had been committed by someone calling himself the Curator who, for a price, would solve a problem for you, like getting rid of your unwanted business partner, while making sure that the blame could never come back to either you or him. The Curator’s modus operandi consists of involving vulnerable young people in a series of online challenges that start innocently enough but soon escalate into violence. He has, however, chosen his victims well because each of them has some secret that they are desperate is not made public. Although he then goes on to commit the final act of murder himself, they have become the fall guys and he is able to lay the killing at their door because they are terrified of being exposed.  The scheme that agent Lee has uncovered in the US has disturbing similarities to the evidence that is slowly coming to light in Cumbria and when a link is finally discovered between the three victims it points to one individual who may well be the ultimate target and the race is on to locate him and to protect him, even though he wants neither.

But is this really the what lies at the heart of the case? Or is this man simply another pawn, to be played and sacrificed in order to manipulate the chessboard to the Curator’s liking so that he can make a final swoop in a completely unexpected direction. And who is the money behind the Curator’s actions? Who is it that has hired him to take out one particular individual? When Poe discovers that, he realises that nothing can ever be the same again.

Craven is, without a doubt, one of the best crime writers around at the moment. His plots are complicated and intriguing. They never go in the direction that you expect them to but they never cross the bounds of believability either. And, while they are frequently very bloody and very disturbing there is also a lightness of touch and an element of humour in his writing that brings moments of relief to what might otherwise be unmitigated horror.  As is the case with many police procedural series, there is an ongoing development in terms of the relationships between the different characters and consequently, if you haven’t already met Flynn, Poe and Bradshaw, then I wouldn’t suggest that you start here. Go back and read The Puppet Show and Black Summer, the two preceding novels, and then catch up with this, the latest. You won’t regret the time spent.

 

 

 

 

 

Remain Silent ~ Susie Steiner

B7565CB2-4272-4F45-9DC9-02CE18ED9356Remain Silent, the third in Susie Steiner’s series about DI Manon Bradshaw, is not an easy book to write about. Superficially it is a police procedural, and like all good police procedurals these days it deals with a subject that is of current social concern: in this instance the exploitation and abuse of migrant workers and the ill-feeling expressed towards them by some members of the communities in which they are housed. However, there is much more to this book than simply a straightforward narrative journey taking us through the crime, the investigation and the arrest, and that ‘more’ is to do with the difficulties that  Manon faces as a working mother, trying to combine her commitment to her children with an ailing partner and a demanding and responsible job.  So what’s new, you might well ask. Almost every police procedural that you pick up features a main protagonist who has major difficulties in their personal lives. Absolutely, the difference here is that the difficulties that Manon faces are realistic. She isn’t trying to deal with the fact that somebody has knifed both her parents, that she is in a same sex relationship and nobody must know, or even that she has an illegitimate child by another police officer. She is simply facing the day-to-day problems that must make life so complicated for someone whose job means that she doesn’t know when she’s next going to be able to get home and play her part in family responsibilities. Steiner’s books are not just police procedurals, they are also about the problems faced by professional workers who feel themselves torn between two different sets of commitments. So, with that in mind, I’m going to split what I have to say about Remain Silent into two sections. Firstly, a bit about the crime and the social situation which gives rise to it and secondly some thoughts about what Steiner has to say on the subject of the realities of trying to cope with the pressures of both a job and a family in a world that looks for perfection in how a woman handles both.

Steiner’s novels are set in the Fenlands and as such it was only a matter of time before she tackled the question of immigrant workers – the way in which they are brought into the country and the exploitation and abuse that is their lot once they arrive here. In this case, the plight of a particular group of Lithuanian men working in a chicken factory is brought to police notice when one of them is found hanging from a tree. The question is whether he was murdered or if his death was suicide; the answer will dictate how the death is investigated. Steiner splits her narrative between the enquiry and the background into the journey two of the migrants, Matis and Lukas, make from their home in Klaipeda.  Matis has been the driving force behind the decision having

made the common mistake of thinking relocation equals reinvention, thinking his old self wouldn’t follow him across Europe.

Lukas has been less keen. He is leaving behind a loving family and a girlfriend, who will eventually be used as hostage for his silence and compliance. It is Lukas’s body that has been found.

The people responsible for the exploitation and abuse of Matis and his companions are fellow Lithuanians, running the usual racket of taking the wages of the men to ‘pay’ for their journey and living costs. However, local people are not adverse to making use of their services as well if it means that they have to fork out less than they would to a British worker. Even the Tuckers, who live next door to the house where the men are billeted, and who complain bitterly about the ill-kept accommodation and the rubbish-filled front garden, are quite happy to have a little cheap plumbing done on the quiet, and the gang master has got a nice little sideline in garden paving on the go. The Tuckers, however, are not the only people to complain about the presence of the migrants in their community. Onto the scene march the supporters of One Wisbech: English jobs for English people. Stop the flood. Foreigners go home. Led by Dean Singlehurst they troop down the cul-de-sac where the migrants live, waving their banners and shouting their slogans. If Lukas’s death does turn out to have been murder the suspect pool is pretty wide.

In many respects Steiner doesn’t have anything particularly new to say about a problem that has been well documented by press and news reports. What she does do, however, is reflect the ongoing frustration and helplessness that is felt both by the police who are trying to deal with the legal issues raised and the ordinary people who have to live with the situation on a day-to-day basis, be they the migrants themselves or the other people in their communities. And this, I think, is where the strength of her writing lies. One of the points that she picks up on is the way in which there is so often a knee-jerk reaction to a situation about which we actually know very little and how inappropriate that reaction therefore is. Knowing very little, she says, is fine if you know that you know very little: that you know that you don’t know what you don’t know. The problem comes with those people who don’t know that they don’t know what they don’t know:

this is the age of stupid. In place of knowledge people are exalting their gut feeling as if that feeling is more valuable than being informed. When actually, what gut feeling generally is, is prejudice.

Steiner also has important points to make about the consequences of the way in which society has encouraged, in particular, men to feel that they have a right to be happy and empowered all the time.  She speaks of

marginalised white men of a certain age.

These men are equally wrongfooted by clever young women, clever young Muslims, clever young gay men – anyone who appears to have access to the crucial information they lack. Information about modernity, how to live, how to prosper, how it all works.

Even Mark, Manon’s  partner, when he has taken ill, refuses to talk about how he is and what is happening. Mark is a good man but admitting that he is in a situation in which he is powerless is something that he simply doesn’t know how to do. That way frustration lies and frustration often leads to some sort of inappropriate outburst.

And then there is the way in which she addresses Manon’s problems juggling a relationship, her children, her friends, and her work. Rather than worrying about whether or not her double life is about to be exposed, or her adoptive brother is about to  crawl out of the woodwork and attack her, or her family‘s history of involvement in drug-running is going to come to light, Manon is much more concerned with the same sort of things that will concern any working mum. Is she going to be able to pick the children up after school? Is her relationship suffering because of the hours she is working? Is she putting weight on? How can she deal with the seemingly never-ending exhaustion? Manon Bradshaw is a real human being with ordinary everyday concerns and Steiner’s work reminds me of how many of the leading characters, not just in police procedurals, but much of genre fiction, are not.

Remain Silent works as an extremely good crime novel, but it is even better at exploring the pressures that a professional working mum, one who cannot simply walk away from the job because her shift is over, faces on a daily basis. Whether Manon decides to stay in the job or comes to the conclusion that enough is enough is something we will only know if there is a fourth book in the series.

With thanks to Harper Collins UK, Harper Fiction and NetGalley for a review copy.