The Lying Kind ~Alison James

IMG_0093Six year old Lola Jade Harper has been missing for seven months after disappearing from her mother’s home in Eastwell, Surrey.  A child likely to be at the heart of a bitter custody battle, she appears to have been abducted to order and inevitably her father, Gavin, is a major suspect.  Now Gavin has also disappeared and given that there have been reported sightings of Lola Jade on the continent, the National Crime Agency, once better known as Interpol, has been tasked to assist in finding him.  DI Rachel Prince and her Sergeant, Mark Brickall, are handed the file and told to liaise with the Surrey force in an attempt to discover whether the little girl has been taken abroad to keep her from her mother.

However, Michelle Harper may not be all that she seems.  While most of the social network comments are supportive of her, there are other indications that she is seriously unstable and very early in her involvement with the case Rachel finds herself questioning just how sincere Lola Jade’s mother is wanting to find the child. Making sure that her husband takes the blame appears to be much more important. When Gavin is eventually tracked down and it becomes apparent that his daughter isn’t with him attention turns back to the UK and Michelle Harper’s movements come under closer scrutiny.  Why has she moved out of the family home to live with her sister and what is happening to the money that has been collected on a just giving site to help with the search?

The Missing Child raises a number of interesting questions about the dynamics of family life.  If a marriage starts to go wrong how do you deal with the growing awareness that you have made a mistake?  Rachel herself has a failed relationship behind her: one from which she has withdrawn without allowing either herself or her husband any form of closure.  What happens when husband and wife have different views not only about having children but also as to how any children should be brought up?  How much can one sibling ask of another and what are the consequences when sibling bonds are broken?  And, most pertinently, what are the consequences when love for a child is subverted by love of oneself.  Alison James successfully manages to integrate each of these different strands into both the central plot and the background material she provides about her main characters in this her first novel.  At the end of the book the reader is left not only with a satisfactory storyline but also with sufficient detail about Rachel, her Sergeant and their personal and professional histories to feel that they are real people with real lives.

This is an accomplished first novel, well plotted, with convincingly drawn characters and also stylishly written.  It isn’t that often that the first in a series is strong enough to make me automatically put a writer on my go-to list of authors but I shall definitely be on the look out for Alison James’ next novel.  I think she may be a writer to watch.

With thanks to NetGalley for making this available for review.

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Perfect Death ~ Helen Fields

IMG_0245What drives someone to commit murder?  This has been a question raised in a number of crime novels I’ve read this year and it is certainly true of Perfect Death, the third in Helen Field’s Edinburgh based series featuring DI Luc Callanch and DCI Ava Turner.  Luc is still finding it difficult to settle into the Edinburgh set-up having been forced out of his job with Interpol following a false accusation of rape.  His gallic good looks don’t make the situation any easier and he remains the butt of DS Lively’s old school sense of humour.  The MIT squad are brought together, however, by the unexpected suicide of their old chief, the now retired DCI Begbie.  What on earth could have induced him to drive his car out to a solitary cliff edge, leave the engine running and feed a pipe in through the window?  Visiting his grieving widow, Ava finds unexpected evidence which links back to a certain Louis Jones, an informant, who has himself disappeared in very suspicious circumstances.

While trying to uncover the mystery in her old Chief’s past, Ava is also under pressure to discover who has been responsible for the death of teenager Lily Eustis.  Initially thought to be an accidental, if questionable, death, it becomes apparent that someone has fed her a high concentration of cannabis oil and left her die on a cold Edinburgh hillside.  Detective Superintendent Overbeck (or Detective Superintendent Evil Overlord as DS Lively prefers to call her) is not impressed when Turner wants to turn the case into a full scale murder enquiry and even less pleased when it is suggested that a second death, that of charity worker Cordelia Muir, might have come about at the hand of the same killer.  Serial killers play havoc with a force’s statistics and have a nasty habit of pushing up the overtime budget.  It is DC Tripp (clearly marked for rapid and well deserved promotion) who makes the connection between the two cases and from that point the race is on to find out who the killer is before they are able to strike again.

I came across Helen Fields first DI Callanach novel early last year and was immediately drawn into the world that she has created.  Her first two novels showed her to be  excellent at both character and plot development; Perfect Death only confirms my initial impressions.  Psychologically scarred by his experiences in France, Luc still finds it difficult to trust the people with whom he works and his obvious differences make it hard for his colleagues to settle with him.  However, there is a realistic growth of mutual respect as he not only brings about resolutions to some seriously nasty crimes, but also shows that he is willing to put his own life on the line when necessary.  Even Lively is prepared, by the end of this story, to go on the record with the opinion that he’s not a complete tosser. From Lively praise indeed.  Fields also deals well with the difficulties faced by newly promoted DCI Turner, exploring the problems which a change in rank, responsibilities and subsequent relations with colleagues can bring.

In respect of the plot elements of the novel Fields judiciously seeds her tale with slight indications of which way the story is going to develop.  Her choice of vocabulary is often very telling, for instance the use of a single word suggesting that a character who is apparently submissive is actually completely in control of the interaction in which they are involved.  This is clever writing.  There is no way that a reader can argue that they have been misled about someone, but equally they are going to have to read very carefully indeed to pick up on the clues that are dropped along the way.

Thematically, as I have indicated, the author is concerned with motive: what is it in a character’s past that compels them to behave as they do? She explores this not only in respect of the two criminal cases that are being pursued but also in regard to the relationship between Luc and the mother who seemingly abandoned him to his fate once the charge of rape was levelled against him.  When she turns up in Edinburgh to try and explain herself to him Luc, not unexpectedly perhaps, wants nothing to do with her.  However, what she subsequently reveals to him might well be seen as motive enough for her behaviour; I suspect that it will become a driving motive for Luc’s actions in future novels. A second developing theme is police corruption.  It is the driving force behind the investigation into Begbie’s death and the disappearance of Louis Jones and the indication is that even when the known rotten apples have been dealt with, there is still another in the barrel who remains to surface at a later date.  This is the second novel I have read this week which explores the less savoury elements to be found in modern policing.  It is a useful plot device applied sparingly, used too often it could be seen an easy way out of a narrative hole of the writer’s own digging.

Helen Fields began strongly and has continued to improve with each successive novel.  If you haven’t already discovered her work then I recommend going back to the beginning and starting with Perfect Remains.  If you do know her previous novels then you will be pleased to know that Perfect Death is every bit as good as what has gone before, if not better.

With thanks to Avon Books and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.

This Is How It Ends ~ Eva Dolan

IMG_0093Four years ago I read Eva Dolan’s first novel Long Way Home.  Set in Peterborough it was the beginning of a series focused on a Hate Crimes unit and featured DI Zigic and DS Ferreira.  I remember writing at the time that I was impressed not only by the quality of the writing but also by the rather harder than usual edge that Dolan gave to her main characters.  My only concern was whether or not centring her novels around hate crime would limit the variety of stories she would be able to tell.  Well, four years on, Dolan has moved away from her police procedural series and now offers a one off tale set on the other side of the law, among a group of anti-gentrification protestors who are attempting to stop developers making a fortune at the expense of those people who are forced out of their homes to enable the building of apartments that will sell for seven figure sums.  Whether this change has come about as a result of running out of ideas for the Hate Crime series, I have no way of knowing, but I suspect not.  This novel, every bit as well written and almost as well plotted as the earlier books, has an even harder edge to it; it emanates anger from every page.  It feels like a very personal response to an emotion deeply felt and it reflects well on Dolan’s ability to control that emotion that it works as well as it does for as long as it does.

Ella Riordan is making waves.  Brought up in a police family, Cambridge educated and recruited into the Force, she then walks out part way into her training and joins the ‘other’ side.  Researching for her doctorate, she gradually makes her way into the confidence of many of the women who have been the backbone of protest movements since the days of Greenham Common.  Given her background, gaining their trust isn’t easy but, when she is clearly the victim of police violence during a kettling incident, she is taken up by a protest veteran, the photographer, Molly Fader.  Molly is one of a number of tenants holding out against developers who want to pull down the apartment block where she lives and so, when Ella manages to raise the money for a book paying tribute to the people who are being displaced, Castle Rise seems the perfect place to hold a celebration.

And then everything goes wrong.  Ella kills someone.  She immediately calls on Molly for help.  It was an accident; he attacked her; she struck out in self defence and he hit his head as he fell; given her history the police would never believe her. This is what Ella tells Molly as she gets her friend to help her carry the body to the nearest lift shaft and drop it down.  This Is How It Begins.  From this point the narrative line splits. We move forward with Molly as she gradually begins to recognise the consequences of their actions.  Her world is disintegrating around her.  More and more people are accepting the developers’ offers and moving out.  Her closest friend, Callum, is questioned about the murder and as a result his past catches up with him. Worst of all she doesn’t seem to be able to communicate with Ella any more.  Meanwhile Ella’s narrative moves back in time as step by step we are shown what has brought her to this point: how she has extracted herself from the difficulties she faced at the Police College and built a new life among the very people she might have expected to oppose.  How she has managed to gain their trust.

And that is the word that echoes repeatedly through this novel – trust.  I lost count of the number of times it is used.  Molly questions whether Ella trusts her any longer and then finds herself asking whether or not she can still trust Ella.  Ella equally expresses doubt as to whom she can trust.  Trust, something that is central to any relationship, becomes a gift that sometimes felt like a burden. And when it is lost the sense of betrayal is another punch to [an] already pummelled old heart.  Ultimately, the question that Dolan is asking in this novel, and the force behind the anger that appears to drive it, is just who can we trust?  Who can we trust in our personal lives, but more forcefully who in society can we trust?  Who can we trust to protect us against those forces who are out for their own profit at the expense of everyone around them?  Her answer is bleak.

I don’t normally read one off thrillers but in many respects this is much more than an off the shelf thriller. It is a response to a serious societal concern that is being raised by many people and, although the anger which propels the writing is apparent throughout, Dolan manages to successfully walk that fine line which keeps the work on the side of a good novel rather than tipping over into a polemic.  My only concern is the ending, where I think her plotting lets her down.  To me it is the easy option, the quick way out of a situation which has become so complicated that any other conclusion would have taken away from the narrative drive, but it is an option that doesn’t ring true.  Perhaps the problem is that in real life there would be no such easy solution.  In all other respects this is another fine book from a fine author.

With thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for providing a copy for review.

Hell Bay ~ Kate Rhodes

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60Over the past six years Kate Rhodes London based crime series featuring psychologist Alice Quentin has given me considerable pleasure.  Now she opens 2018 with a new series set on Bryher, one of the smaller of the Scilly Isles, and featuring DI Ben Kitto.  Kitto is home on extended leave from the Met. The trauma of his undercover partner’s recent death, a death he feels he should have prevented, has pushed him into handing in his resignation but rather than accepting this his DCI has asked him to take a break and give himself time to reconsider.  With no desire to stay in London, Ben returns to the island where he grew up and to the cottage that has always been home.  With a population of less than a hundred, life on Bryher should be as far from the chaos and suffering that have marked his recent life as could be imagined.  However, within days of his arrival, accompanied by Shadow, the Czechoslovakian Wolfhound that he has inherited, his anticipated peace is shattered by the disappearance of sixteen year old Laura Trescothick.  It is Kitto who eventually finds her body, marred by wounds which make it clear that she must have not simply known, but also trusted, her killer.  When DCI Madron, the officer in charge of policing on the islands, is called in, Ben offers his services as SIO, on the grounds that not only does he have the murder investigative experience, but also that everyone who could possibly be concerned is known to him.

What follows is the modern day equivalent of the country house murder.  Ferries have not been running in the time between Laura’s disappearance and the discovery of her body, which means that the murderer must still be on the island.  A curfew is enforced, no one is to leave and mercifully, no journalists to be allowed in, and with the help of PC Eddie Nickell, Kitto sets out to interview each of the islanders.  That many of these are lifelong friends and some of them relatives doesn’t make the process any easier.  Nor does the fact that it is not long before it becomes apparent that there are tensions running below the surface of island society and numerous personal guilty secrets, all of which might provide a motive for murder.

Chief among these is the animosity felt between many of the established island families and the incomers Jay and Patty Curnow.  Millionaire Curnow is intent on buying up as much of the island as he can and is not above using aggressive coercion as a means of getting his own way.  Laura, intent on leaving the island for a life of show business, has been planning her escape with their son, Danny.  Both disapproving families hold the other’s child accountable and the Trescothicks are not the only people who would like to lay the blame for Laura’s death at Danny’s door.

However, running alongside Kitto’s narrative is that of Rose Austell, whose son Sam, a previous boyfriend of Laura’s, has also gone missing.  Through these third person segments of an otherwise first person narrative, it very soon becomes apparent that Sam is mixed up with drug smuggling and when a chunk of cannabis resin is found amongst Laura’s possessions her possible involvement has to be questioned as well. Have they crossed the couriers bringing the drugs into the island and is that the reason behind the crimes which have even the best of friends and neighbours looking askance at each other?

Before turning her hand to crime fiction Kate Rhodes was a published poet and it shows in the quality of her writing.  Time and again I stopped in my reading just to savour lines such as that which describes the sea as a restless sleeper, eager to shrug the night’s weight from its shoulders.  She also invokes place better than any other crime novelist I know.  Crossbones Yard, the first of the Alice Quentin novels, drew a portrait of London which frequently had me going back to Whistler’s magnificently detailed etchings of the area round the River Thames, each artist in their very different ways conjuring up a whole landscape with just a few masterful strokes.  Now Rhodes does the same thing for the island of Bryher and not just for its physical landscape, but for the complex nature of its small and heavily inter-related society as well.  First and foremost, however, she is excellent at creating character.  It isn’t easy to change tack having already established an audience for a particular group of individuals, especially when they have each had a vibrancy that meant readers felt they knew them as friends and I will admit that I am going to miss Alice and Don and Lola and will go on worrying about Will, however, so completely has she created the character of Ben Kitto that I am already invested in him and it is good to know that a second novel in the series, Ruin Beach has been announced for June.

I have read a number of new crime novels over the Christmas period, some good, some not so.  Hell Bay has definitely been the best of the bunch and if you haven’t yet read Rhodes’ work then I very strongly recommend you start here before returning to enjoy her back catalogue.

With thanks to Simon and Schuster and NetGalley for making this review copy available.

Close To Home ~ Cara Hunter

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60Eight year-old Daisy Mason is missing.  The initial assumption is that she has vanished during the course of a summer barbecue given by her parents in their home near the Oxford canal.  However, it soon becomes apparent that she and a friend exchanged fancy dress costumes and it is the other child people have reported as attending the party. No one has seen Daisy since she left school that afternoon.  DI Adam Fawley is detailed to head up the enquiry.  The reader is soon aware that some type of tragedy has befallen Fawley’s own child, Jake, and all eyes are on him to see how he will cope with this, his first child-centred case since his son’s death.

As the Press and social media watch on with more self-indulgent interest than concern, Fawley and his team begin to uncover a web of lies at the heart of the Mason family.  None of them is quite what they seem, not even ten year old Leo, Daisy’s solitary and much bullied brother. Neither is the happy family unit that they would like the world to perceive anything more than surface dressing.  Layer after layer of deceit and mistrust is revealed as old family histories come to light and current tensions explode in the faces of all concerned.  It isn’t so much a question of who could possibly be responsible for Daisy’s disappearance as who can safely be ruled out.   The one person who apparently has been aware of much of this unease is Daisy herself.  In a series of flashbacks we see her not only unpicking elements of her family’s own back story far more effectively than the police manage, but then reflecting the anger against her parents which her discoveries provoke in an anti-fairystory she writes for her teacher.  As someone who has spent four decades in primary education and three of those actively researching the stories that primary children write, I don’t know what surprised me more, the story that this eight year old is supposed to have written or the response of the teacher who read it.  It is hard to say more without giving too much away, but that was the point at which even my well known ability to believe six impossible things before breakfast gave way and I read on simply to see what Cara Hunter would pull out of the hat next but not believing a word.

I have to say that I find it very hard to critique this novel.  In many ways it reminds me of a child’s story itself.  There are so many twists and turns that in the end I viewed it simply as an exercise in cramming as many social and family deviances into a book as possible: an adult equivalent of how many dragons, witches and haunted castles can I squeeze into one tale.  It also has a final dénouement that would give the ubiquitous and then I woke up and it was all a dream a run for its money any day of the week.  These features alone would have been annoying enough, but the author compounds the irritant by doing the same thing with narrative devices.  Sometimes it is a first person narrative, sometimes third.  We are in the present, we are in flashback, although not a simple flashback, but one that goes further into the past each time.  Extensive stretches of dialogue vie for attention with transcripts of interviews and facsimiles of twitter streams and Facebook pages.  If I had been the editor I would have sent it back and said for goodness sake, just trust the story; let it tell itself. My initial thoughts were that I would begin by saying that I believed Cara Hunter had it in her to write a really good novel at some point because every now and again there is a quality in the writing that suggests someone who has a real feel for language.  It seemed to me that this was a young writer who had yet to find a measure of control; who needed to learn that very often less is more.  I was going to jump up and down again on the soapbox marked ‘insufficient editorial input’ and say how this hampered writers just setting out.  Then, checking on the Fantastic Fiction site to see if this was indeed a first novel, I read this:

Cara Hunter is the pen name of an established British novelist who lives and works in Oxford. She also studied for a degree and PhD in English literature at Oxford University.

Now I am floored.  Apparently we have another J K Rowling on our hands.  Except Rowling would never get in the way of a good story in this manner.

I know that the book has attracted great interest and large sums have been paid for it and for the next two in the series.  I fully expect the book world in general to tell me that I am wrong and that this is a masterpiece, but as far as I am concerned this is a novice piece of writing and if it really is the work of an established novelist then I simply don’t know what is going on here.

With thanks to Penguin and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of the book. (Although whether they will thank me for the review is another matter!)

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery Mile ~ Margery Allingham

37788084343093605_97fQ9uva_fEarly in the year I half seriously set myself the task of re-reading the Albert Campion novels of Margery Allingham.  I read them originally when I was in my twenties and thirties and haven’t been back to them since, but I have always thought of them fondly because one of them taught me something interesting about myself which I shall reveal when I come to the appropriate book.  (Like Albert himself, I am all for a bit of teasing to keep the troops guessing.)  Then, I read them in a piecemeal fashion, dependent on whatever was in the library and, as I am fairly certain that the library didn’t have them all, this time round there will be some that will come as a pleasant surprise, however, Mystery Mile, the second novel in the series, I had read before, because I remember sorrowing for Albert over his lost love, Biddy Paget.

Biddy and her twin brother, Giles, live at the aforementioned Mystery Mile, but the upkeep on the decaying building is becoming impossible, so when their old friend Albert sends a message to say that he has found someone to take on the tenancy they are much relieved and makes plans to move into the dower house.  Albert’s proposed tenants are the Lobbetts, an American family he has encountered on an Atlantic crossing. The paterfamilias, Judge Crowdy Lobbett, has become the target of the Simister gang because, rumour has it, he has discovered the carefully guarded secret of the identity of Simister himself.  There have already been several associated deaths in the States and Campion foils yet another on the sea voyage.  Judge Lubbett hopes to protect his grown children, Marlowe and Isopel, by bringing them to England and the offer of a house buried deep in the countryside is therefore welcome.  When the four young people meet up there is an immediate attraction and pairing off, to the quite distress of Albert, who very clearly has a soft spot for Biddy himself.

Unfortunately, the Lubbett family has little time to enjoy the bucolic quiet of rural East Anglia.  They are visited by a travelling fortune teller, Anthony Datchett, whose message so disturbs the twins’ old confident, the Rev. Swithen Cush, that he goes home and commits suicide.  From that point on it is a race against time to keep one step in front of the villains, protect the Judge, uncover the identity of the scoundrel in chief and ensure that justice prevails.

When I wrote about The Crime at Black Dudley, which I hadn’t read before, I ‘complained’ that the Campion I encountered there was not the one I recalled.  He wasn’t the central character and there were very few signs that he wasn’t the complete ass that he appeared to be.  There has been a significant shift between the two novels.  This is much more Albert as I remembered him, perfectly capable of appearing as an ass when he wants to, but deadly serious and competent underneath.  We also begin to learn more of his background, albeit in a roundabout and rather unresolved way.  No one seems to know his true antecedents and Giles remarks that

the last time I saw him we walked down Regent Street together, and from the corner of Conduit Street to the Circus we met five people he knew, including a viscountess and two bishops. Each one of them stopped and greeted him as an old pal.  And every single one of them called him by a different name.

However, when Swithen Cush says of him,

our very good friend Albert is a true son of the Church.  In the time of Richelieu he would no doubt have become a cardinal

Allingham is surely hinting at the habit practised by European royalty of sending younger sons into the Church to make their way (often through intrigue and manipulation) to the top of an institution every bit as powerful as any temporal monarchy.  This is then picked up on in the final pages, when a down at heart Campion is revitalised by a letter crested with the arms of a famous European Royal House, inviting him to take on an impersonation that would have given joy to many a nineteenth century novelist looking for an intriguing plot twist. As I recall, this is a riddle that is never completely answered by Allingham, but it is interesting to see beginning to build a definite legend for her character as if she has decided she rather liked this young man she dropped into the middle of Black Dudley and that he is worth running with.

We also make our first acquaintance with the wonderful Magersfontein Lugg, who is definitely not out of the same school of butlers as either Jeeves or Bunter.  Goodness only knows what his antecedents are at this stage in the series, but his pretensions are there for all to see in the letter he writes to Biddy and which she then cites to Albert

Lugg tells me you’re allowed out, in a really marvellous epistle which begins ‘Dear Madham’ and ends ‘Well Duckie, I must close now’.

I look forward to knowing more of his background.

Something that I did find myself wondering about was just why, given how irritated I was by the characters in The Pursuit of Love and their life style, I didn’t feel the same irritation for Allingham’s cast, who are from a similar milieu and share very much the  same way of life.  I think the answer is that while Mitford takes that life absolutely seriously, Allingham is well aware of the less than twenty twenty vision with which the upper classes viewed the world and is constantly poking sly fun.  Recommending the fortune teller to Judge Lobbett, Giles comments

He’s an extraordinary chap.  Apparently he turns up after dinner at country houses and shells out the past and present for five bob a time.  Anyway, that sort of thing.  Rather funny: he told Guffy Randell that a beautiful creature was going to throw him over and he was going to be pretty seriously hurt by it.  Guffy was quite rattled.  He didn’t ride to hounds for a fortnight, and it wasn’t until Rosemary Waterhouse broke off their engagement that he realised what the chap meant.  He was awfully relieved.

Those last four words make all the difference.

Mystery Mile confirmed me in my resolve to return to Allingham’s Campion novels and I anticipate considerable pleasure in reading those still to come.

The Search ~ Howard Linskey

341df81e231750e5c7f0523db256ffa3The Search is the third in Howard Linskey’s police procedural series featuring Detective Ian Bradshaw and investigative journalists, Tom Carney and Helen Norton.  Set in the North East in mid 1990s they also frequently involve crimes that have been committed at some earlier date, partly because Tom and Helen have built up a reputation for finding missing people.  The Search is no exception, focusing initially on the disappearance, and presumed murder, of ten year old Susan Verity during the long hot summer of 1976.  Vanishing while playing with five friends, the cause of Susan’s disappearance has variously been ascribed to such different suspects as a local bad tempered farmer annoyed by the children playing in his barn and a convicted serial child killer, Adrian Wicklow, who was reported to be in the area on the day in question.  Wicklow, in jail for the deaths of three other children, has admitted to her murder only to then retract his confession.  Now he is dying, and DS Ian Bradshaw is dispatched by his DCI to see if he can be persuaded to finally say one way or the other whether he was involved in Susan’s death and also to give up the burial sites of his three known victims. This is not something that Bradshaw embarks on willingly, but having built up something of a reputation for tenacity in the face of the odds and also being something of a loner within the force, he appears to his superior to be the obvious choice.  The task is formidable on two fronts.  Firstly, Wicklow is known for playing psychological games with those who attempt to get him to admit the truth and secondly, the amount of paper work that has amassed over the Verity case is substantial, but it needs to be search through to see if anything vital has been missed.  With the reputation of police officers considerably higher up the tree than either Bradshaw or his DCI at stake, Ian is allowed to bring in Tom and Helen, who have worked with the police before, to go through the case files.  Helen, particularly, has an eye for detail, which will help the investigation and she and Carney hope to benefit by eventually having a story to sell to the national press.

One obvious starting point in the search for what happened to Susan, is to talk again to the other five children who were playing with her that day.  However, when they begin to ask around locally the investigators find that with good reason they are now known as the cursed.  Michelle has died of breast cancer, Andrea is living a lonely life in an isolated coastal town, Billy, unable to hold down a job, spends his days roaming from one pub to the next, Kevin, has had a breakdown at the age of sixteen and never really recovered and even Danny, who on the surface is settled with a good job and happy family life, has tragedy in his more recent past when a previous girlfriend died in a climbing accident.  Whatever has happened to Susan, none of them has escaped the fallout of that summer day.

Running parallel to this story is a second also to do with a missing girl.  As a result of what appears to be a chance encounter, Tom finds himself involved with Lena, a young woman searching around the North East for her missing sister, Jess, who is apparently on the run from what Lena describes as ‘bad men’.  Personally, I found it hard to believe that Tom would have been taken in by what seems a flimsy story at best, but suffice it to say that at the time it isn’t his brain he is thinking with.  The two stories together, however, do make clear the extent to which any investigation, whether carried out by police or journalist, can be derailed when those most closely involved deliberately lie to further their own ends.

One very serious question which Linskey raises in this novel is that of what motivates a killer.  Wicklow is only prepared to give Bradshaw the information he seeks if the detective can work out from the murderer’s self-indulgent memoirs what pleasure he derives from the act of killing and specifically of killing children.  And, when the killer of Susan Verity is finally identified, that individual is clear sighted enough to recognise not only the source of the pleasure they gain from the act of murder, but also the implications of that for their life going forward, subsequently taking action to ensure that they can never do such harm again.

In Ian, Helen and Tom, Howard Linskey has given us three people who, as far as their positions in their chosen professions and, indeed, in their social lives, are concerned, are irritating misfits.  They aren’t good at conformity or bowing down to what is expected of them by the powers that be.  Together, however, they form a satisfying whole, a partnership that I find completely convincing and I am looking forward to the next book in the series, The Chosen Ones, due out next June.

The Secret Vanguard ~ Michael Innes

IMG_0251A number of fellow bloggers have been reading works by the mid-century novelist, Michael Innes recently, some more enthusiastic in their praise than others.  I haven’t really been in a position to join in the conversation as Innes was a name I knew but not a writer I had ever read, The Secret Vanguard, number five in the author’s series centred on Inspector Appleby of Scotland Yard, has helped to put that situation to rights.

The novel, now being favoured by a reprint, was first published in 1940 and the events are clearly contemporary as the action takes place just before the outbreak of World War II. When a young woman by the name of Sheila Grant goes missing as she journeys to stay with relatives in Scotland her disappearance is linked with the murder of a (very) minor poet with the wonderful name of Philip Ploss.  Both of them have apparently, although separately, had encounters with fellow travellers in dispute over the value of poetry during the course of which the works of a famous poet have been misquoted.  In the case of Sheila Grant she comments on this misquotation to the man who provoked the discussion and thus seals her fate for, unbeknownst to her, the ‘error’ has been deliberate, concealing within it a clue to the whereabouts of Rodney Orchard, the best chemist in the country and a man who might well hold the key to inventions vital to the war effort.

As an apparently high up civil servant comments,

In Germany his opposite numbers have a bodyguard and travel behind four-inch glass.  We don’t need all that – if a man has some sense.  Orchard has none – only genius.

Orchard has gone off on a walking trip somewhere in Scotland and a foreign force, which it appears is not only working for the enemy but which is also attempting to establish a permanent presence in British society, is out to find him and rob him of his work.

Ignorant of all but the oddity of the misquotation, but nevertheless seen as a threat by those who make up this silent vanguard, Sheila Grant is kidnapped.  Gallant British woman that she is, she manages to escape and much of the novel is taken up with her attempts to stay one step ahead of those who pursue her through some of the wildest and least inhabited parts of Scotland.  I have to say that during this section of the book my concentration and credulity began to be stretched.  There are only so many instances of narrow shaves, coincidentally placed means of escape and feats of ingenuity that I can take.  I am full of admiration for Miss Grant, I’m just not sure that her like ever really walked the earth, even in pre-War Britain.

You won’t need me to tell you that it all works out in the end.  Once a message is passed through to Inspector Appleby it is just a matter of time before the baddies are vanquished, our wandering genius is found and Miss Grant is returned to her concerned relatives.  With war on the horizon, I can’t promise you that they all lived happily ever after, but you end the book with the feeling that right has prevailed and a jolly good thing too.

Drawing on my limited experience, I suspect that the book is typical of its period, not only in its characters, its plot and its setting but also in its certainty of the ultimate supremacy of all things British, including the eccentricity of our geniuses. And, coming out, as it did, in the first year of the war, who would expect anything less?  It’s the crime novel equivalent of Olivier’s film of Henry V.  Despite appalling odds, the upper hand falls ultimately to the little guy, or in this case the intrepid young woman.  In terms of its appeal to me as a reader it proved to be a bit of a mixed bag.  Having read one or two modern novels recently where at times even the grammar was suspect, the quality of the prose was a delight. Innes always finds the exact word and he can turn a sentence beautifully.  However, the way in which the novel was plotted didn’t appeal so much.  As someone else has said recently, there is very little in the book about Appleby himself.  While not exactly a minor character, he certainly isn’t central to the action.  I prefer my detectives to take more of a lead role in the narrative and I also like to have more of an idea of who they are and what motivates them.  Apart from the fact that he is clearly a Jolly Good Chap and probably a Jolly Good Thing as well, Appleby remains something of a cipher.  I’m glad that I’ve read at least one of Innes’ novels, but I don’t think I shall be going back for more.  I suspect that they might all turn out to be much of a muchness and that even two would be just too much of a good thing.

With thanks to Netgalley for providing a copy of this book.

Short Crime Fiction Reviews

IMG_0031It’s been a very busy month and so rather than trying to write full reviews for everything I’ve read and failing miserably here are some brief thoughts about three books that I have enjoyed to a greater or lesser extent, but not felt really deserved a lengthy discussion.

First up is Death in the Stars, the latest in Francis Brody’s series about 1920s Leeds’ private investigator, Kate Shackleton.  This, the ninth investigation for Kate, starts with the eclipse of 1927, which could be seen in its totality across parts of the north of England.  Music Hall entertainer, Selina Fellini, asks Kate to accompany her to Giggleswick to view the phenomenon, admitting that she is worried that either she, or someone else in the company she is performing with, may be in danger.  Two members of the troupe have died as a result of apparent accidents in the preceding months but, even though she is reluctant to acknowledge as much, Selina clearly suspects foul play.  Thus, when her co-star, Billy Moffatt, is found unconscious in the grounds of the school that has been playing host to many of the thousands of eclipse watchers, it is inevitable that Kate should find herself drawn to investigate not only the circumstances of his collapse but also those surrounding the earlier deaths.  Is someone with a grudge against the company slowly taking down its members one by one? What role might Selina’s husband, Jarrod, badly injured in the war and no longer happy in general company, have to play in the disasters that assail the troupe? Kate, along with ex-policeman, Jim Sykes and her stalwart housekeeper, Mrs Sugden, set out to get to the bottom of the matter.

While I enjoy Francis Brody’s novels I don’t find that they engage me with the period in quite the way that I would like.  I wouldn’t describe them as cosy, but they don’t explore the links between the social and political conditions of the interwar years and the manner in which certain crimes grew out of those situations in the way that say Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels do.  Nevertheless, if you want a cracking read for a winter’s night by the fire, this will do very nicely.

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ImageSilent Scream is the first novel in Angela Marsons’ police procedural series featuring DI Kim Stone and DS Bryant. The murder of a well respected Head Teacher is the first in a spate of killings which eventually are found to be linked by the victims’ past employment at Crestwood, a former children’s home. Kim Stone, someone whose emotions are never far from the surface, is immediately personally engaged, having spent most of her early life in similar institutions. While a link between the victims may have been found, motive for the killings comes almost accidentally when a local university team is given permission for an archeological dig on ground abutting the old premises and a body is unearthed. As it proves to be that of a teenage girl it seems likely that there is some connection to Crestwood.  The subsequent discovery of two more bodies only heightens this possibility. Someone knows how and why these girls died and that someone is now taking revenge.

I am always on the lookout for new police procedural series but I am in two minds as to whether I shall continue with this one.  The novel is well enough plotted but the writing, especially in the early chapters is very pedestrian and I am so tired of the psychologically flawed detective who is allowed to get away with the sort of constant rule breaking that would see mere mortals like you and me sacked before the end of our first week. Also, there are some errors of consistency which even if the author allowed them through should have been picked up by an editor.  For example, there is a character who is an MP but who is frequently referred to as a councillor.  Which is he? There is a difference.  I am aware though that I was edgy about this book from the start because it is set very close to home.  In fact, it would only take me around forty-five minutes to walk to the police station where Stone is based – less than ten to go in the car.  I don’t know why, but I find it very unnerving to have places I know cropping up in fiction and I tend, as a result, to be more critical than normal.  Perhaps I should give one more book a try before giving up.

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virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60Guy Fraser-Sampson is a well established writer of both fiction and non-fiction.  Death in Profile is the first in a series, The Hampstead Murders, which looks back, in places explicitly, to crime fiction of the Golden Age.  Following the discovery of the body of a fifth woman, all of whom, it is assumed, have been murdered by the same killer, Detective Superintendent Simon Collinson is brought in to take over an enquiry which, after eighteen months appears to have stalled.  Relying heavily on the support of DI Tom Metcalfe and DC Karen Willis he takes the advice of the latter and consults her partner, Peter Collins, in the role of profiler, in an attempt to narrow down the scope of the enquiry.  Initially this appears to have been an inspired decision as a suspect who fits the description offered is apprehended, charged, brought to court and convicted, However, almost immediately the safety of the conviction is brought into question and DS Collinson and his team are put under intense pressure by both the press and the higher echelons of the Met. To either justify their initial arrest or find the real killer.

I really wanted to like this novel, if only because the quality of the writing is so good that I would happily read more by the same writer.  However, despite being well-practised in believing six impossible things before breakfast each morning, there are plot elements here that not even I could swallow.  I found it difficult to believe, for example, that a modern day DS would accept someone about whom he knew nothing into an enquiry of any sort, let alone one of this magnitude, and yet Collinson not only readily agrees to Peter Collins’ involvement he then places considerable weight on the almost instant profile that is forthcoming as a result.  Hardly had I got over that, however, than I was been asked to believe that three members of the Metropolitan Police Force engaged in trying to track down a serial killer and having already blundered badly, would not only enter into a charade in which they take on the roles of Harriet Vane, Parker and Bunter to Collins’ Peter Wimsey, but also follow up on suggestions made in the course of that pretence.  Maybe I’m just not entering into the spirit of the thing, but the word that came to mind was ‘tosh’.  I suspect that if I were to go on and list my other concerns fans of this series would counter them by saying that they were all characteristics of crime fiction of the Golden Age and maybe that is so.  But, for me, a novel set in the present needs to ring true of its own period and good writing or not, this is a series to which I shall not be going back.

 

The Mitford Murders ~ Jessica Fellowes

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersI don’t usually have any truck with crime fiction that is built around real people and especially not those featuring individuals only relatively recently deceased. For example, I gave up on the Nicola Upton books after the first one even though many of my blogging friends really enjoy them. They leave me feeling uneasy, especially when some of the characters concerned are throughly maligned.  However, Jessica Fellowes’ The Mitford Murders was so highly praised by a reviewer who has introduced me to some very fine writers in the past that I decided I would give it the benefit of the doubt and see what it was like.  I should learn to trust my own judgement.

As you might gather from the title, the story is based around the Mitford family and I understand that the idea is to write six books each featuring a different daughter in a leading role, starting here with Nancy. It is 1919 and a retired nurse with years of wartime service behind her is killed on a train as she travels from London down to the south coast. The trail very soon goes cold and Guy Sullivan, an officer with the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway Police is ordered by his Superintendent to let the matter lie.  Guy, however, motivated both by a desire for justice and his ambition to join the Met, is reluctant to do so, especially as pursuing the case gives him a reason to continue contact with one Louisa Cannon, also caught up in the case.

Louisa has her own reasons for also wanting to let the matter lie.  Her life in London has become unbearable and a chance meeting with an old friend provides her with an opportunity to take up a post as nursery maid with the Mitford family at their home in Asthall Manor.  Louisa is well aware that bringing a murder investigation into the heart of Lord and Lady Redesdale’s family is not going to be acceptable.  Unfortunately, once Nancy, sixteen and desperate to move out of the nursery and into the adult world of parties and general bon viveur, finds out about the case Louisa has little option, especially when it begins to appear that a young man who has taken Nancy’s eye may well be involved.

I really wanted to like this book but I was left disappointed on so many levels.  The writing is poor, the plotting so weak that it is clear that one individual is involved in the murder even before it has been committed, and very few of the characters rise above the level of stereotype.  I can’t help feeling that the series has been conceived simply to take advantage of the interest in such programmes as Downton Abbey and in the Mitford family themselves.  Nothing wrong in that if there was anything of substance here but when I compare this to say, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels, which are set in a similar period, there is simply no comparison.  Not only do Winspear’s characters have substance, but she is genuinely concerned to explore the social conditions that Londoners and those who had fought in the First World War had to endure in the 1920s and 30s.  Here these are simply side issues introduced to provide the occasional red herring along the way.

The story is based on an actual unsolved murder and names have not been changed: that includes the name of the innocent person that Fellows here designates as murderer and I have to say that that left me very uneasy indeed.  In fact the whole enterprise just seems tasteless and as it doesn’t even have the merit of being well plotted or well written I find myself wondering what the point was other than to cash in on the popularity of the Mitfords and Downton Abbey. With so much else just lining up waiting to be read I won’t be going back for anymore of these, even though I must admit to being curious as to how Fellowes is going to handle tales of the grown up Diana and Unity.