When Shadows Fall ~ Alex Gray

IMG_0245I’ve come rather late to Alex Gray’s series featuring Detective Superintendent William Lorimer and psychologist and criminal profiler, Dr Solomon Brightman. As a result, while this is the latest in the sequence, I’m still catching up with some of the earlier volumes, which means that I haven’t yet met Joseph Alexander Flynn, reformed drug addict and now Lorimer family friend, who kicks off this latest novel when he digs up a skull while landscaping a garden. The Cold Case Team are called in and, even though it’s clear that the man has been murdered, the death would hardly have troubled Lorimer and his Major Incident Team were it not for the fact that the bullet is also retrieved and, when it is examined, it proves to have been fired by a gun that is still around, a gun that is being used to execute retired police officers.

The first of these is George Phillips, Lorimer’s old boss, gunned down in his own garden. The killing of one of their own brings all the members of Police Scotland together in the search for the gunmen and their efforts are redoubled when the murder of Ex DI Stephen McAlpine follows hard on the heels of that of Phillips. At first the two deaths are treated as a dreadful coincidence, but when ballistic evidence shows that the same gun fired both bullets and those bullets are then linked to that found by Flynn in a suburban garden, it becomes apparent that a single mind is behind all three murders.

The immediate focus of the investigation centres on criminals put away by the murdered officers. However, try as they might, Lorimer’s team finds it impossible to discover a common individual among the rogues apprehended and incarcerated as a result of the work of those have been killed. If there is a mastermind behind the deaths, he or she is not going to be easy to pinpoint.

Solly Brightman, of course, is looking for a pattern in the killings. Most obviously the killer appears to be targeting officers who have retired. This theory is apparently blown out of the water when the fourth victim is still in service. Have all their deliberation so far been misdirected?

Meanwhile, in Barlinnie prison, John Ramsey is coming to the end of a fifteen  year sentence. Now elderly, and suffering from the cancer that he knows will kill him within a year, he is both looking forward to and dreading his release. While the pleasures of freedom are enticing, as soon as he gets out he has a job to do for the mysterious figure known as The Old Man. He has to kill a man he has no reason to dislike other than for the fact that he is a police officer and, despite his past record, the thought troubles Ramsey. But should he fail to go through with the execution his own death will follow even more swiftly than expected and it will not be pleasant.

While I enjoy Gray’s work enough to keep coming back to it, there are features of her writing which I have to say I do find irritating. In particular, she has a tendency to over explain things, very often by Lorimer imparting information to his long-suffering wife, Maggie, that I’m sure, after all these years of being married to a policeman, she must already know. It feels clumsy. There are also elements of the plot line in this particular novel, which I didn’t feel worked very well. One of these proved to be a red herring which petered out into nothing. The other, for me, meant that the ending was unsatisfactory, although I’m sure some readers will have no problem with it. Nevertheless, it was an interesting enough read and I’m certain true fans of Lorimer and Brightman will enjoy it very much.

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

Without A Trace ~ Mari Hannah

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60It’s four years now since we had the last novel from crime writer Mari Hannah featuring her volitile Northumbrian DCI, Kate Daniels. In the interim she has developed two other series, one featuring DS Matthew Ryan and the other CID officers David Stone and Frankie Oliver. While I’ve enjoyed both of these, nevertheless I was looking forward to getting back to Kate, whose exploits were our first introduction to Hannah’s work.

Without A Trace, the seventh Daniels’ novel, begins with Kate in turmoil. The personal relationship between her and the Force’s profiler, Jo Soulsby, lies in ruins and now that it seems there is no hope of resurrecting it, Kate is finally realising just what she has thrown away by her devotion to her job. Jo has taken off to New York and when news comes through of the disappearance of Flight 0113 somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean Kate is beside herself thinking that their final row has put Jo on the missing plane. Determined to find out just what has happened and desperately trying to convince herself that something will have stopped the profiler from boarding the flight, Kate takes off for London in an attempt to insinuate herself into the investigation into what it seems increasingly likely has been a terrorist incident. Accompanying her on their journey, even though he knows that their commander DCS Bright will not approve, and that their absence is likely to amount to professional suicide on the part of both of them, is the ever faithful DS Hank Gormley.  

There are people around who owe Kate favours and as a result of calling in some of those she and Hank find themselves involved in the search for whoever was able to smuggle an explosive onto the plane, working hand in glove with homeland security agent, Gabriele Torres. However, DCS Bright is not so easily accepting of the absence of two of his senior officers, especially when the body of one of the local drug-lords, Russian, Yulian Nikolaev, is deposited at the local hospital with half his face blown off. Bright wants at least one of them to go back to lead the investigation and is incandescent with rage when it becomes apparent that that isn’t going to happen.

Not unexpectedly, because that’s the way crime novels work, the two investigations gradually come together and Kate and Hank return to Northumbria to support Acting DI Paul Robson (Robbo) in his hunt for Nikolaev’s killers. As those who have read the previous novels will know, Robbo has had a chequered history in his time in the murder squad, having made himself vulnerable as a result of a gambling addiction. With that now behind him, this killing is his chance to prove that he has what it takes to step up and lead an investigation and it seems that a link with his past might just provide him with the leverage he needs to identify those responsible.

Glad I was to see Kate and Hank return and to spend time again with those who make up the Northumbrian Murder Team, I didn’t feel that this was the strongest book in the series. You can’t read the other six books without being used to Kate going off piste, but in this novel she really pushes the boat out and although she gets results there were times when I found her behaviour and the way in which she is allowed to get away with it, too extreme to be believable. I also thought that the book was unbalanced in its treatment of the two cases and that, in fact, neither of them was given sufficient space because they had to vie for attention with Kate’s search for evidence that Jo might still be alive. It isn’t unusual in a crime novel for the detective’s personal life to impinge on an investigation, but in this instance I felt it spoilt the focus of the book.  Nevertheless, I was glad to see Kate return and I hope that future outings may prove to be a little more centred on the crime itself.

With thanks to the Orion Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Forced Confessions ~ John Fairfax

EB851C85-08A9-4ACA-A41D-4FCB0C0015E7Forced Confessions is the third title in John Fairfax’s series featuring Will Benson and Tess de Vere.  If you haven’t read the earlier books then you’re going to need to do some fairly quick catching up in respect of Benson’s history. Sentenced to eleven years for a murder which he claimed at the time he did not commit, Will chose to spend his period of incarceration studying for a law degree and then, on his release, qualifying to practice at the bar. As you might expect, this was a progress which met with a great deal of resistance, not the least from the Secretary of State for Justice, Richard Merrington.  However, supported by members of the less than always honest community, who believe implicitly in his innocence, and the barrister Tess de Vere, by the time this novel opens Benson has already begun to build something of a reputation for himself in respect of defending those accused of murder who seem to be practically ‘undefendable’. Tess, clearly well on her way to falling in love with Will, is not always as convinced of his innocence, but in the previous novel she and her close friend Sally Martindale had begun to make strides in discovering the truth of what really happened on the night that Paul Harberton died. And the implication is that Richard Merrington’s family are in someway involved.

This then is the situation when Forced Confessions opens and we are introduced to John and Karen Lynwood, jointly accused of the murder of a Spanish doctor, Jorge Menderez, a patient of Karen who works as a therapist.  The prosecution claim that John, having discovered that Menderez and his wife were in love and about to run off together, had killed the doctor and Karen, implicated by her silence, refuses to supply information that might save them both.

Menderez was clearly a man tortured by something he had done in his past but why that should have caused him to leave his home country and come to England, what the secret that he is carrying that distresses him so much might be, proves hard to ferret out. Karen insists that he told her nothing of any relevance during their therapy sessions and so Will  and Tess have to try and discover what motivated his journey themselves in the hope that this will then indicate that someone else had a viable motive to carry out the killing.

The two plot lines are linked by a discussion about the relative importance of truth, justice and evidence. Knowing the truth, it is suggested, is the bedrock of not only are relationship with other people but also with ourselves.

People can learn to live without justice, but not without the truth. Living with out the truth… That’s unbearable.

And yet, living with the truth, can be just as difficult, especially if the community around you sees what has been done to you as marking you out as in some way shamed.

However, if you hide the truth then you are well on the way to a miscarriage of justice for as Will himself has learnt to his cost, fighting a case according to the evidence without worrying about the truth is a sure way to lose.

As I’m sure you are all aware, John Fairfax is a pseudonym for William Brodrick, the author of the Father Anselm novels. Like Anselm, Brodrick has spent time both as a monk and working in the law and the concern for truth and justice, common to both vocations, permeates all his writing, which is also characterised by a very close attention to detail and great insight into the way that the human mind works.  You don’t read a Fairfax/Brodrick novel quickly, not if you want to understand all the nuances that he is exploring.  In Will Benson he has created a character far more tortured by his own past than was the case with Father Anselm and although by the conclusion of this book we have come to understand some of the demons which have driven Will, the final pages make it clear that there is one truth that he still has to learn to give voice to. In a sort of perverse way this is very comforting, as it means there will be a fourth book.

The Bad Place ~ M K Hill

Twenty-six years ago six children were taken, only five came back. One of them, Becky Haskell, was cruelly murdered by their abductor, Jerry Swann, who was then shot dead by an armed police officer.  Present was a young WPC, Sasha Chancellor, who in her first week on the job dared to challenge decisions made by the officer in command, Peter Carrington, a hard drinking DI who would later be drummed off the force for the mistakes he made during the investigation. Now, married and with a troubled family situation, DI Sasha Dawson finds herself investigating the abduction of another child, Sammi Manning, a teenager who turns out to have a connection with one of the five original survivors.

For twenty-six years, Karin, Lydia, Michelle, Simon and Paul have gathered on the anniversary of Becky’s death to remember their lost friend. None of them has ever truly recovered from their ordeal and you sense that these meetings are more of a penance than a help.  When Sammi is taken their fragile lives come under scrutiny again from both the police and the media and it becomes apparent that someone is manipulating their weaknesses to draw attention to the original case and point the finger of blame for Becky’s death at one of them.

Struggling with a family situation which requires a firmer hand and far more time than she has to give, Dawson finds herself being repeatedly distracted from the main inquiry by the crimes that some of the original five have been drawn into and which come to light as attention is once more focused on their actions.  With both the public and the press on her back, when a second child is taken she is lucky to have the support not only of a strong team, DS Ajay de Vaz, DC Lolly Chambers and DC Craig Power, but also in DCI Vaughn (don’t mention the Claude) a more humane boss than most fictional DIs seem to possess.

Supportive though her team are, however, when a third child is taken Sasha is forced to go off the grid and face the abductor accompanied only by Karin McCarthy who, it gradually becomes apparent, knows more about why it was that Becky alone failed to survive the original ordeal than she has been admitting and who is now very much the focus of the new kidnapper’s attention.

Hill’s book has been very well reviewed and rightly so.  For a first novel it catches the attention in terms of both plot and character far better than many other initial episodes of crime series that I can think of.  I shall certainly by looking out for whatever comes next.  However, I hope that future books will come to the public better edited than this.  The first time we meet Sasha I got totally confused because in my copy her encounter with Carrington reads:

‘What’s your name?’

‘Chancellor, sir’. She swallowed. ‘WPC Chancellor’.

‘I like your attitude, Dawson, very admirable’.

Why does the DI’s attention suddenly turn from Chancellor to someone called Dawson?  I’m not yet far enough into the book to know that this will become Sasha’s married name and Carrington is definitely too drunk to be credited with miraculous prescience.  Very confusing.

And then there is Craig Power.  I think he’s a DC, but I’m not sure because at least half a dozen times he is referred to as Sergeant or DS. This is pure carelessness and Hill deserves better.   However, you’re all sick of my jumping up on my poor editing soapbox, I’m sure and if police procedurals are your ‘thing’ don’t let such slips put you off and do add Hill to your reading list.  I think he’s going to be worth following.

 

The Last Detective ~ Peter Lovesey

I have recently been given a monthly book subscription as a gift.  I look on these as something of a two-edged sword.  It’s lovely to have a ‘free’ book dropping through the letter box each month but, however much information you provide the bookseller with, there are still times when opening the parcel leads, either immediately or subsequently, to a disappointment.  The first book I received, in August, fell into the former category, it was one I had already read, although I didn’t own it and wasn’t averse to reading it again. When I opened September’s parcel it was to reveal the first in Peter Lovesey’s series about DS Peter Diamond, The Last Detective, and I have to say that for some time I thought it was going to fall into the latter.

As most of my reader friends and acquaintances well know, I am more than happy to be introduced to a new (to me) police procedural series and a quick check on the Fantastic Fiction site showed me that if I enjoyed this there were another seventeen titles available, so I set about the book pretty much as soon as it arrived. Having just finished it, I have to say that I am in two minds as to whether or not I shall read any more.  Perhaps writing about this first instalment will help me decide.

I call the main character DS Peter Diamond, but in fact, circumstances force him to resign part way through the story, so I have no way of knowing whether or not he will ever resume his role within the official ranks of law and order. The case that leads to his departure begins with the discovery of a woman’s body which has clearly been floating for some time in a lake near Bath, where the novel is set.  Because of its condition identifying who the victim is takes time, especially as numerous callers ID her as a character in a soap opera. However, those callers are not so far wrong as the body turns out to be that of one Geraldine Jackman née Snoo, the actress who played the role and wife of Peter Jackman, an English Literature professor at the local university. Jackman has already achieved some local ‘notoriety’ both as a result of his rescue of twelve year old Matthew Didrikson from the weir near Pulteney Bridge and because of an exhibition about Jane Austen staged at the Assembly Rooms. When Diamond and his colleagues start to look into the troubled circumstances of the couple’s marriage it seems as if he is going to become even more notorious because he immediately becomes the chief suspect. However, a rock solid alibi forces the police to look elsewhere and attention turns to Matthew’s mother, Dana, whose gratitude, it is suggested, has turned into stronger feelings and who has already had a number of run-ins with Geraldine, an unstable woman at the best of times.

Written and set in 1991, the novel very much reflects the changes that police investigations were undergoing at the time.  Computers and new forensic techniques, such as genetic fingerprinting, are beginning to play a large part in any inquiry and Diamond, a copper of the old school, resents this and isn’t slow to make his displeasure apparent.  He treats those who think differently from him with disdain and this was my main problem with the book: I really didn’t want to spend time with someone I initially saw as inherently unlikeable.  Removed from a position of power, his tendency to bully and browbeat those around him is inevitably diminished and once he had resigned from the force I found I was getting on better with him. If I do read on in the series it will be to discover how Lovesey, whose most recent Diamond novel was published earlier this year, has set about bringing this curmudgeon forward almost thirty years.  If he found the technology of the early 1990s difficult how much more so must that be the case now?  I suspect that what I will find is that time has not flowed quite as fast for the ex-policeman as it has for the rest of us.

Ultimately, this wasn’t a bad read and the bookseller’s choice has certainly introduced me to an author I might not otherwise have considered.  I have to say, though, that I am hoping for a more successful surprise when October’s book sails through the letterbox.

 

Nothing To Hide ~ James Oswald

Nothing To Hide is the second book in James Oswald’s new series featuring DC Con Fairchild.  When we first met Con in her previous outing, No Time To Cry, she was a member of the Met’s undercover squad fighting to clear her name after the murder of her boss, Pete Copperthwaite.  Now, technically innocent, although still responsible in the eyes of many of her colleagues, Con has returned to London after spending time in the Highlands, to await reinstatement and reassignment.  Coming back to her flat one evening she notices a movement near the dustbins and upon investigation discovers a seriously injured young man.  Calling the incident in brings her into the sphere of DCI Bain, in charge of an NCA investigation into a series of murders where the victims have died as a result of having had certain organs, including the heart, removed.  (Various other bits have gone as well, but you might be male and you might be eating and I wouldn’t want to upset you.) While Con would love to be involved she is still pretty much persona non grata and to make matters worse, with the trial of Roger DeVilliers (the villain of the previous piece) coming up, she is being hounded by the press.  Filling in time and reacquainting herself with the local situation she becomes aware of the existence of a group of young people claiming to be from an organisation called The Church of the Coming Light.   They appear to be concerning themselves with drug addicts but at the same time give off that air of menace with which anyone who has been cornered by a cult convert will be familiar.

Desperate to get away from the press attention, Con takes herself first to her ancestral home (being Lady Constance doesn’t help with press or colleagues) and then North to Edinburgh to visit the mother of the young man she found so seriously injured.  There she stays with a family friend, a ‘woman’ who also turned up in the previous book, one Madame Rose, and suddenly all long-standing Oswald fans find themselves on familiar, even comforting territory, we all know that if Rose is around everything will eventually be all right. When Con then proceeds to find herself involved with DC Janie Harrison, forensic expert Manda Parsons and, best of all, Grumpy Bob, somehow the air lightens, even though it is becoming increasingly obvious that the killings the NCA are investigating are tied up with the sort of ritual evil that we have become accustomed to in Oswald’s Edinburgh centred novels and that it is possible that Con’s mother is in thrall to the leader of the cult responsible.

Like all Oswald’s novels Nothing to Hide explores the idea that evil exists not just in the hearts of those who commit crimes of murder, torture and mutilation but as a sentient entity capable of manifesting itself in human form and then manipulating those around it who seek power and are willing to get it at any price.  Although this is publicised as a separate series it is clear from both the subject matter and the gradual introduction of characters from the Tony McLean mysteries that all that is really happening is that Oswald is widening the landscape for his story-telling and the fact that the novel ends with Con joining the NCA (National Crime Agency), with it’s wider geographical remit, simply reinforces this.

Fans of the earlier series need have no worries that the author has abandoned his Edinburgh based characters; there is a new McLean novel advertised for February. Neither should they shy away from these new works.  The Fairchild books are every bit as well written and well plotted as their northern counterparts and if this means that we are going to get two Oswald novels a year in future, I, for one, will rejoice.

Catching Up – Again!

I’m afraid I have been severely negligent of both my own blog and those of all my friends during the past couple of weeks.  Once again I have what I consider to be the excellent, if unwelcome, excuse of further dental surgery.  In the first stage towards correcting the damage that was (necessarily) done back in April, last week I had a bone graft and a pin inserted into my jaw.  This was every bit as uncomfortable as it sounds and not to be recommended as a recreational pastime.  My distress was only added to by the fact that the surgery was scheduled for the week after Wimbledon. I couldn’t even comfort myself by curling up and watching tennis all day long.  What I have been doing instead is blitzing on a re-read of the earlier books in the series from which two of the Summer School novels are taken so that, if necessary, I can fill in on back story.

The Rennie Airth novels are relatively straight forward.  So far I’ve re-read the first two in his series featuring John Madden, River of Darkness and The Blood-Dimmed Tide. In the first, set just after the Great War, Madden is still in the police force, but in the second, ten years on, he has been persuaded by his wife, Helen, to retire and go back to his farming roots, and is only caught up in the investigation when a local girl goes missing.  If memory serves me correctly, in the next two he continues to ‘flirt’ with the service in investigations which span the years on either side of the Second World War.  I chose the fourth book, The Reckoning, for the Summer School because it raises issues to do both with those men who were shot as deserters between 1914 and 1918 and with the women who served in the SOE in the later conflict and thus acted as a bridge between the other two novels.  What I had forgotten, however, is the extent to which Airth is concerned with the terrible psychological damage done to those men who came back from the First World War. In both these early books it is the prime motivating force behind the crimes that are committed, so I shall be interested to see if that is the same in The Dead of Winter when I get round to it at the end of the week.  Sometimes a concentrated re-read like this can throw up links between books that you wouldn’t necessarily notice just reading them as they are published.

William Broderick’s early novels, The Sixth Lamentation and The Gardens of the Dead also share certain characteristics, although in this case it is more to do with structure and style than with thematic content.  Brodrick writes beautiful prose.  I moved from the first of these to a novel by a much better known crime writer and very nearly threw their book away in disgust, so pedestrian did the language seem after The Sixth Lamentation.  From that point of view reading Brodrick is easy, but goodness do you have to keep your wits about you where the intricacies of the plot are concerned. Nothing is straightforward in a Brodrick novel and no one is what they seem on first meeting.  It works well enough in the earlier book, which was highly praised when it first appeared – one of those books that everyone was reading – but I found The Gardens of the The Dead a less satisfactory read when it was published and I felt the same about it this time round.  It may be to do with the fact that other than Father Anselm (the main ‘investigator’) I really couldn’t summon up sufficient interest in any of the characters to care what happened to them. Fortunately, A Whispered Name, complex though it isis even better than The Sixth Lamentation.  I think I had better leave enough time to read it twice, however, if I am going to lead a detailed discussion on it.

The only other book I’ve read over the past couple of weeks has been Tom Rackman’s Costa shortlisted novel, The Italian Teacher.  From the opening chapters you could be forgiven for thinking that the work is about the mid twentieth century artist Bear Bavinsky, so dominating is his presence both in the book and in the life of his wife, Natalie and their son Charles, otherwise known as Pinch, however, what the novel really focuses on is the effect that being Bear’s son has on Pinch, the Italian Teacher of the title.

Bear Bavinsky is a middle rate artist whose works consist of paintings of parts of his numerous muses’ (lovers’/mistresses’) bodies.  He is also a complete monster who believes that he can do whatever he likes, expecting the world to revolve around him regardless of who else is hurt in the process. Why nobody calls him out is beyond me.  He moves from wife to wife, leaving women and children pretty much abandoned around the world with no thought for anyone other than himself.  Even when they are in dire financial need he refuses to help them by selling any of his paintings, which he is determined will only go to museums and art galleries where his greatness can be widely appreciated.  But Bavinsky is no Picasso, and the public institutions don’t particularly want his works.  Their stores are full enough of mediocre art as it is.

The people who suffer most from this are Pinch and his mother, Natalie.  Both of them subjugate their own talents and ambitions to Bear’s demands. Every attempt that Pinch makes to establish himself – as an artist, an academic – his father undermines.  Bear may claim that what he wanted was for his son to push against his criticism and become stronger for it, but in their final confrontation he tells the truth when he shouts:

Do you honestly think I’ll be tagging along to gallery openings of my own kid? Listen to me. Hear this. You work for me. Get it? You always worked for me. … Get this: I win. You hear? I fucking win.

Ultimately, however, Bear does not win and neither does the institution that I take to be the author’s real target, which is the commercial art world itself, with its pretensions and its self-regard.  This was rather apt reading with a new series of the BBC’s Fake or Fortune due to start on Thursday.

Burnt Island ~ Kate Rhodes

Like many readers I first came to Kate Rhodes’ work through her London based novels featuring psychologist, Alice Quentin.  While I enjoyed these in respect of both plot and character development, there was as much pleasure to be gained from her sensitivity to setting.  Already a published poet when Crossbones Yard introduced us to Quentin’s world, Rhodes brought her talents as a wordsmith to bear on the way in which she described the London locations in which the early books in the series were primarily set.  There were times when reading her work was like looking at one of Whistler’s remarkable sketches of the Thames’ waterside.  Latterly, Rhodes has moved her focus to the Scilly Isles, where DI Ben Kitto, newly returned to his home on Bryher after ten years in the Met’s Murder squad, is trying to come to terms with the loss of his partner in undercover work.  Describing the stark beauty of these islands has, if anything, given Rhodes even more scope for her talents and in this, the third book in the series, it is the wild landscape of St Agnes that forms the backdrop for Kitto’s latest investigation.

St Agnes supports a small community, but one which is augmented at certain times of the year both by tourists and visitors from the other islands in the archipelago.  Bonfire night is one of the latter occasions, when islanders from the other Scilly communities come over to St Agnes in order to enjoy both bonfire and fireworks.  However, before the celebrations can begin, the remnants of another fire are discovered and in them the burnt remains of a man.  It transpires that the body is that of Alex Rogan, an incomer  married to one of the island women, who is now pregnant with their first child.  A Professor of Astronomy, Rogan was drawn to the islands because of the purity of their night skies and to St Agnes in particular, where he hoped to set up an observatory that would allow both important observations to be made while encouraging visitors to an island struggling to keep its economy afloat.  At first, despite his Sargent’s reservations, Kitto’s suspicions centre on Jimmy Curwen, a local man suffering from severe psychological damage following a childhood trauma, who is only really happy when surrounded by the island’s wild life.  However, a series of threatening messages, written in the little used Cornish language, suggest that whoever is behind the attack is targeting incomers in an attempt to keep the island as it has always been and fighting against any change.

The threats raise a concern in Kitto’s mind for another recent arrival on the island, Naomi Vine.  Vine, a sculptor of some renown, has not fitted into the St Agnes’ community as well as Rogan.  Her plans to site a series of figures on the westerly beach, reaching out towards the boundary between land and the Atlantic, have been rejected and she is not slow to make her displeasure felt. Whereas the astronomer had worked hard to make friends among the islanders, Vine has stirred up considerable controversy with arguments both for and against.  When the artist goes missing, Kitto can only fear the worst.

While the descriptions of St Agnes bring the island vividly to life, they are not the only strong characteristic of the novel.  The plot is well thought through with just sufficient  indication of where it is going to make the final dénouement completely believable and the characters are persuasively drawn.  Furthermore, Rhodes is allowing the recurring characters to develop in a convincing manner. By the book’s conclusion both DS Nickell and DCI Madron, Kitto’s immediate superior, have developed a more realistic appreciation of the DI’s capabilities and of his working methods.  Kitto himself has not, perhaps, developed quite so much, although there are signs at the end of the novel that he is beginning to see his long term future in the islands and that his family life is going to become more complex.

Having read a really poorly written and badly plotted crime novel over the weekend, with character development so inconsistent with reality as to make me wonder if the book was eventually going to finish with the words and then I woke up and it was all a dream, Rhodes’ Burnt Island was just the corrective I needed.  It reminded me of how good our best crime writers are and that for the majority it is the case that just because they work in genre fiction their narrative talents should not be underestimated.

Sunday Retrospective ~ June 23rd 2019

I suppose this is really another catch-up post, which is disgraceful. One of the aims I set myself for this Summer was to get back to writing full reviews again but for some reason I am finding that very difficult.  Perhaps it has been because I have had too much else on?  Well, that won’t be a viable excuse after this week, when teaching other than a few seminars, finishes until the beginning of September.  So, maybe more luck then.

As you probably realise, I am always on the lookout for new authors of police procedurals.  This week I have rejected one (flat, clichéd writing; I didn’t get far enough in to find out whether the plotting was any good; I couldn’t read another page) and enjoyed another.  Critical Incidents is not Lucie Whitehouse’s first book by any means, but it is the start of a series featuring DI Robin Lyons.  When we first meet Lyons she and her thirteen year old daughter, Lennie, are on their way from London to Birmingham following Robin’s suspension from the Met.  Her refusal to charge a seriously nasty piece of work just because he is a seriously nasty piece of work with a murder she doesn’t believe he has committed has brought her into conflict with her superiors and when he then goes AWOL it looks as though her time with the London police has come to an abrupt end.  Unable to meet her financial commitments she is forced to return to her parents’ home and face her mother’s long-standing disapproval of the way in which she has insisted on bringing up Lennie as a single mother.

At least she has a job to go to.  Maggie, a family friend of long-standing and an ex-cop herself, employs her to work in her private investigative firm and they are both soon embroiled in the case of a missing girl, Becca, whose disappearance (not a child, not vulnerable) the local police don’t feel merits a full enquiry.  Also, she has her lifelong friend, Corinna (Rin), whose support during the months after Lennie was born was the only thing that allowed Robin to complete her degree and retain her sanity.

And then Rin’s house is set on fire.  She dies in the conflagration, her ten year old son, Peter, is seriously injured and the police are hunting for her husband, Josh, convinced that he is behind what has happened.  Robin, shattered by all that has occurred, refuses to believe this and so sets out to try and discover both what has happened to Josh and who is really behind the fire.

Inevitably, the two cases come together but not before Robin has alienated both Maggie and the West Midlands Police by her interference and inability to work as part of a team.  There is no doubt that she has an incisive brain and excellent intuition, but her lack of forethought and failure to see the bigger picture to my mind, at least, make her something of a liability. If the book has a false step then for me it comes right at the end when suddenly, against all indications to the contrary, she is in line for a promotion that will allow her to stay on Birmingham.  Not only is this unlikely given her previous behaviour, but also definitely not what she has apparently wanted for herself, and not what her daughter, Lennie, also desperate to get back to London, is likely to greet with any enthusiasm   It was too neat for me and not in line with what had gone before.

One point I must make about this novel is to do with setting.  As far as I can see Whitehouse has no links with Birmingham. According to the blurb at the back of my edition she was born in Gloucestershire, went to University in Oxford and now lives in New York.  If this is the case, then as someone who, until a year ago, had lived in the city all her life, I can only congratulate her on her research; I could have walked round all the locations she mentions without any difficulty.  I think the only thing she makes up is the name of the road where her parents live, and even then I’m fairly sure which road she has in mind.  For the moment, Whitehouse is a keeper.  I’ll see how the next book progresses Robin’s story.

Reviews ~ Catching Up

I’ve really fallen behind with my reviews over the past couple of weeks, partly because I’ve had a lot of preparation to do for other projects and partly because once more the dentist is looming large in my life.  She told me on Tuesday that all the excavating that had to be done back in April when the rogue root was discovered embedded in my jaw means that before any restoration can be done I’m going to have to have a bone graft and a pin put in place.  “You might want to clear your diary for the following week,” she said, rather ominously.  I am choosing to interpret that as, “expect at least a fortnight of untold misery”.  At least, that way, if I’m over-reacting I will have been prepared for the very worst.  Anyway, in order to clear the decks I thought I would just offer a series of mini reviews so that I can start afresh at the beginning of next week.

An Officer and a Spy ~ Robert Harris

This was the second from my 15 Books of Summer list.  It’s the first time I’ve joined in with this particular challenge and I can already see that I have approached it all wrong and may need to reorganise myself.  Nevertheless, that did nothing to dim my pleasure in this book.  As I’ve said before I chose it because I wanted to know more about the Dreyfus Affair, which rocked France during the last decade of the Nineteenth Century and wasn’t really resolved until almost the end of the 1900s.  I’ve had a patchy experience where Harris is concerned but I thought this book was excellent.  Told from the point of view of a French Army Officer, Georges Picquart, it starts on the morning on which Dreyfus, found guilty of passing secrets to the Germans, is publicly humiliated by having all the insignias of rank and regiment torn from his uniform. Picquart has been involved in bringing this about and is rewarded by being placed in charge of the intelligence unit that had been responsible for bringing Dreyfus down.  Once he has access to all the unit’s secrets, however, Georges starts to suspect that the case against Dreyfus may well have been at best flawed, at worst manufactured, and so begins to dig more deeply into the affair.  What he discovers is a conspiracy to protect the positions of the men in power in both army and state at whatever cost to the truth even if that cost should include men’s lives.

This is a chilling story extremely well told.  It is particularly chilling because of the parallels so easily drawn with our own times: the incipient anti-semitism at the heart of national institutions, the conspiracy to cover-up the wrong doings of men of power, and the ease with which the media can stir up mob hysteria in the populous. It needs Picquart at its heart, a man determined to uncover the truth despite the cost to himself, otherwise the reader would come away thoroughly ashamed to be a member of the human race.

 

A Closed and Common Orbit ~ Becky Chambers

This was the novel chosen for Wednesday’s book group meeting and it provoked a lot of discussion.  It is the second in a sequence of three science fiction books and although those who had read the first thought you didn’t need to know what had gone before the rest of us disagreed.  The storyline stood on its own, but we felt we had missed a lot of the ‘world-building’ that had happened in the first novel and were at times floundering a bit.  Like most science fiction, the book asks questions about the way in which a society works which can be seen as relevant to both the fictional world and our own. In this instance these were mainly to do with the autonomy of the individual, gender fluidity and the definition of sentience.  Although not everyone agreed with me, my own feelings were that these were treated with too light a hand.  I did find myself wondering who the intended audience was, because personally this was a book I would have given to teenagers rather than to adults.

 

Black Summer ~ M W Craven

Just before Christmas, I wrote about The Puppet Show, the first in Craven’s Washington Poe series, here.  As I said then, Craven was my crime fiction discovery of the year and Black Summer has only served to reinforce this view. DS Washington Poe is now back with the Serious Crime Analysis Section (SCAS) full time.  Based, as it is, in Hampshire, this means that he spends far less time than he would like in his beloved Cumbria but this changes when a young woman walks into the Alston library and tells the police officer based there once a month as a ‘problem solver’ that she is Elizabeth Keaton.  As far as the law is concerned Elizabeth Keaton was killed six years previously and it was Poe who was mainly responsible for putting her father, world famous chef, Jared Keaton, behind bars for her murder.  If Elizabeth is still alive then Jared is innocent and given that very few people would argue that he is a dangerous psychopath, this doesn’t bode well for Poe.  Matters become even more complicated when Elizabeth vanishes for a second time and the evidence seems to suggest that Poe has something to do with her disappearance. Never one to suffer fools gladly, the DS has made enemies in his home force and as some of those climb the ranks they are only too pleased to have the opportunity to bring him to book.  However, while Washington may have enemies he also has friends, two in particular: his immediate boss, DI Stephanie Flynn and the brilliant, if socially inept, young analyst, Tilly Bradshaw.   When, at two in the afternoon, Poe texts Tilly to say that he is in trouble he expects that she will drop everything and turn up sometime the following afternoon.  Fifteen hours early at three in the morning isn’t quite been what he’s been counting on, but Poe is Tilly’s friend and in her book that’s what friends do.  Tilly Bradshaw is one of my favourite characters in fiction.  Her incisive mind cuts through everything.  I don’t care that she frequently doesn’t know how to act in a social situation.  Tilly tells it how it is and I applaud her for it.  What is more, she is brilliant at discerning patterns and, although I don’t think there is quite enough Tilly in this book, she it is who finally has the insight that explains what is going on and leads the case to its conclusion.  Possibly the best thing about this book is the way in which it ends because it makes it clear that there is going to be a third in the series.  If you enjoy crime fiction and you haven’t read Craven then I can’t recommend him too highly.