If Looks Could Kill ~ Olivia Kiernan

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

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

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

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

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

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

With thanks to Quercus and NetGalley for the review copy.

Shed No Tears ~ Caz Frear

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

Everyone has a price. I truly believe that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Adults Here ~ Emma Straub

woman holding mug of coffee beside opened bookFor the second time in a matter of weeks I’ve read a book that I wouldn’t normally have picked up simply because it was well recommended by Elizabeth Strout and, for the second time in a matter of weeks, I have had an absolutely wonderful experience. Strout is clearly as good a critic as she is a writer. Emma Straub’s All Adults Here is set in the Hudson Valley small town of Clapham, a community where everyone knows everyone else and where the marketing slogan Keep Local, Shop Small really means something. It is in Clapham that Astrid Strick has brought up her family, Elliot, Porter and Nicky, all now adults grown and it is here, at the moment when the novel begins, that she recognises that her life has changed forever. What brings this revelation about is the death of Barbara Baker, a woman Astrid has never liked, but whose death she witnesses when Barbara is run over by a speeding school bus. Astrid has a secret and the accident makes her realise that the time has come to reveal that secret, initially to her family and eventually to her friends and wider acquaintances, despite being aware that her plans may well meet with opposition. However, she is not the only member of her family to be concealing things. Both of her older children, still living in Clapham, have important matters which they are keeping from the rest of the family for fear of the consequences and much of the novel is concerned with the difficulty that parents and children have not only in communicating with each other but also, perhaps more fundamentally, in understanding each other and in providing the support and encouragement that is needed when the going gets tough.

This is most obvious, initially at least, in respect of what has happened to Nicky’s  daughter, Cecelia, as a result of an incident in her New York school. Confided in by her friend Katherine, who is involved in a relationship with an older man which is clearly abusive, Cecelia, concerned for her classmate’s well-being, tells those that she expects to be responsible and supportive adults. However, in the aftermath of the fury that erupts as Katherine turns against her, Nicky and his wife, Juliette, fail to come up with the backing Cecelia so desperately needs.

The trouble was that people always told Cecelia things, and that she wasn’t a lawyer or a therapist. She was just a kid and so were her friends, but she seem to be the only one who knew it. The trouble was that her parents had given up at the first sign of trouble.

As a result, the decision has been taken to send Cecelia to live with her grandmother and complete her final year at Junior High in Clapham. When she needed her parents most, they simply weren’t there for her. Straub, however, is very careful not to be too condemnatory in respect of either the behaviour of Nicky and Juliette or that of Astrid who, as the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear has not really provided the support her children needed a generation earlier.  Being a parent is difficult. This is the message that comes through time after time after time. And there is no manual, you have to learn as you go.  Is there any wonder that so many people get it wrong.

If there is one set of parents who do seem to be well on the way to getting it right it is Ruth and John Sullivan. We meet them first as they fetch their 13-year-old son, August, back from Summer Camp. August is dreading going back into eighth grade, knowing that it’s going to be no better than fifth grade, sixth grade or seventh grade was. He has no friends at Clapham Junior High and only ever feels that he is fully able to be himself amongst the people he meets up with each year during the summer vacation. For August also has a secret and it is one that he feels certain will earn him at best ridicule and at worse abuse, should it become known. Ruth and John however do seem to have an understanding of what is troubling their child and they certainly do their best to offer support as, with Cecelia‘s help, August finds the courage to show the world, or perhaps more importantly, his classmates, who he really is.

I’m conscious that I may be making this sound as if it’s a really serious and heart searching novel, one that is searing to read, and it is serious, and at times it really touches your heart, but searing it is not; it is an absolute delight. I found myself trying to eke it out because I didn’t want to leave either the world that Straub has created nor the lightness of touch with which she explores the difficulties that the Strick family go through.  And there are some wonderful passages of writing. When I looked back through my notebook I found I had copied out paragraph after paragraph of ideas that just rang so true and were expressed so well. I have already read some very good books this year, but so far All Adults Here tops them all and I can’t recommend it too highly.

With grateful thanks to Michael Joseph and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review Catch-Up ~ July 11th 2020

beverage blur ceylon cup

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

The Finisher ~ Peter Lovesey

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

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

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


The Gift: The First Book of Pellinor ~ Alison Croggon 

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

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

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

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


Review Catch-up ~ July 4th 2020

pile of assorted title book lot selective focus photographt

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

Quiet Acts of Violence ~ Cath Staincliffe

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

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

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

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


The Truants ~ Kate Weinberg

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

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

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

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




Noel Streatfeild ~ Ballet Shoes & Saplings

white ceramic teacup with saucer near two books above gray floral textile

I have just spent a very pleasant long weekend in the company of Noel Streatfeild, first rereading her children’s classic, Ballet Shoes, and then exploring for the first time her adult novel, Saplings.  I thought it would be interesting to consider how the work of a writer for two contrasting audiences might be seen to both differ and to bear similarities and Streatfeild proved to be an excellent choice in this respect.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Ballet Shoes.  I’m not sure why I was so fond of it as a child, because the world that was being described was completely alien to me; perhaps that’s why I found it so enticing. It was first published in 1936 and reading it now I have to wonder how much of it was wishful thinking on Streatfeild’s part. As I’m sure you all know it tells the story of the three Fossil girls, Pauline, Petrova and Posy, each of whom has been “collected“ by great uncle Matthew (GUM) and deposited with his niece Sylvia in a large house in London. When GUM fails to return from his travels, the money begins to run out and so Sylvia takes in boarders, one of whom, Theo Dane, suggests that the three girls be trained for the stage so that eventually they may also contribute to the family purse. For two of them this is an absolute delight, but for Petrova it represents something akin to one of Dantes’ circles of hell. Into the breach steps another of Sylvia‘s lodgers, Mr Simpson, who, with his car and eventually his garage, provides the outlet that she needs for her own talents.

In many respects it’s possible to read this as almost a proto-feminist work, given that what we have in the end is three young women who are able to dictate their own futures. But, as I’ve suggested, this may be wishful thinking on Streatfeild’s part. I wonder just how many young girls in the 1930s were able to manipulate their responsible adults in the way that the Fossil sisters do? Of course, the fact that those adults are not the girls’ actual parents is important. Already the significance of being able in someway to isolate children and thus give them a certain amount of independence is making itself felt in children’s literature.

The relationship between Pauline, Petrova and Posy is very tight, possibly idealistically so. The children at the heart of Streatfeild’s 1945 publication, Saplings, are perhaps a more realistic portrayal of sibling interaction. When we first meet them in the summer of 1939 Laurel, the eldest, is eleven, the two boys Tony and Kim, nine and seven and the younger daughter, Tuesday, four. They are spending a last idyllic holiday at Eastbourne and while they may not be aware of the dangers lurking on the horizon, it is clear that both their father, Alex Wiltshire, and the writer are. In his afterword for the Persephone edition, Dr Jeremy Holmes suggests that Streatfeild’s primary concern is the psychological damage that war does to children. Certainly the final words of Mrs Oliver, I was saying to my daughter only yesterday, “we got a lot to be thankful for in this country. Our kids ‘aven’t suffered ‘o-ever else ‘as” have to be seen as ironic given the trauma that at least three of the Wiltshire children have endured. And, it is true that while one of the chief issues for the adults in the novel is the question of physical safety, of where the children will live, questions initially to do with evacuation and eventually, given that we are dealing with a nice middle-class family, where they should spend the holidays when their boarding schools are closed, the consequences of the decisions that they make in this respect are given very little thought at all. And yet, they are frequently disastrous, especially for the mental well-being of Laurel, whose distress at being moved from pillar to post is rarely taken into account. However, it seems to me that Streatfeild is every bit as interested in the relationship between the children and the adult women in their lives and frequently the young Wiltshires are let down by the very people you would expect to offer them the most support.

There are many women, relatives and teachers for the most part, who are influential in the children’s experiences, but the primary contrast is between the children’s mother, Lena, and the governess, Ruth Glover. For Lena the children are darlings, charming decorations, but they must not interfere with her real life:

she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and, if it came to that, a mistress too, and she meant to go on doing just those things.

Lena is not used to having to accommodate herself either to other people or to circumstance. The war hits Lena hard.

Ruth, on the other hand, has had a difficult childhood:

she was highly strung and acutely sensitive and, to defend herself drew away from her childhood, studying it with detachment, waiting patiently to be grown-up. As a legacy of these bitter school years she possessed a profound understanding of children.

As the war progresses and the children are successively sent away to boarding school, Ruth joins the ATS and from what we are told has a remarkably successful career there, but it is still to her that the children, Laurel in particular, turn in times of crisis. Lena, almost literally drowning in her own misery, is of no help to them at all, prepared to have them home only when it suits her needs. Not that she is capable of recognising this; she is a victim of muddled thinking, a problem from which the Fossil household suffers as well. The children’s grandfather defines this for us during a conversation about two young evacuees, Albert and Ernie, whose mother has demanded that they return to London, explaining

she didn’t get them home because she thinks the danger’s over but because she’s lonely without them…the reason isn’t the one she thinks it is…very important not to fool yourself.

Lena may think clearly at the beginning of the novel, but by the time the war has taken its toll she is incapable of doing anything other than fooling herself and damaging her children in the process.

I understand that this is the only one of Streatfeild’s adult novels available in print, which is a shame. Saplings is by no means a flawless work, but nevertheless it’s one that I enjoyed very much and I would have liked to have been able to explore more of her writing for this audience. It’s clear that her main interest is still children, how they interact with each other, and how they grow through childhood into young adults. Perhaps when it came to writing just about adult relationships she found herself at a loss, I’m not in a position to find out, but perhaps some of you have read other works by her intended for an older audience. If so, I would be very interested to know what you thought of them.



Cut To The Bone ~ Roz Watkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Curator ~ M W Craven

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

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

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

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

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






Remain Silent ~ Susie Steiner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

marginalised white men of a certain age.

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

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

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

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

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





Police at the Funeral ~ Margery Allingham

photo of teacup on top of books

When I first set out to reacquaint myself with Marjorie Allingham’s strangely self-effacing private detective, Albert Campion, I knew that some of the books would turn out to be re-reads while others I would be reading for the first time. Police at the Funeral is the fourth book in the sequence and so far I’m running at two and two, with this being one of the novels that I am encountering for the first time. By this point in the series Allingham seems to have formulated a better idea of the type of character that she wants Albert to be. The silly ass of the first novel has pretty much vanished and the rather serious young man who can, annoyingly at times, play his cards very close to his chest, is becoming much more established. This is also true of his working relationship with Inspector Stanislaus Oates, who plays quite a prominent part in this story. Alas, the same cannot be said of Lugg, who makes but fleeting appearances at the beginning and end of the tale.  For me, at least, a Campion novel without Lugg is definitely the poorer.

Although the majority of the action in Police at the Funeral takes place in and around Cambridge, the story begins in London where Oates and Campion find themselves, quite by chance (no, really!), in the same secluded courtyard, the former looking for somewhere to shelter from the rain and escape someone who is clearly dogging his heels, the latter apparently anticipating an assignation with a young lady with a family problem. Have you noticed, that there is always a young lady who needs rescuing from some sort of family problem? She will be well bred, striking in appearance and much more intelligent, brave and stalwart than most people have given her credit for. At least, that has been my experience so far. In this instance the lady in question is the fiance of an old university friend of Campion. Marcus Featherstone, now a solicitor in his father’s practice, has sought Albert’s help because Joyce, whom he describes as a species of professional daughter-cum-companion in the house of her great-aunt, a prodigious old Hecuba, is concerned about her uncle, Andrew Seeley, who has been missing for about a week. When Joyce and Oates’ stalker turn up at the same time it is very clear that they know each other but when challenged about this Joyce denies all knowledge of the individual, who has himself now vanished.

Of course, Campion agrees to go down to Cambridge, to Socrates Close, the house where Joyce lives with her Great Aunt, Caroline Faraday who rules the establishment with a rod of iron. Prodigious old Hecuba Caroline Faraday might be, but at least she appears to have her wits about her, which is more than can be said for anyone else in the household, which is made up of her son, William and her daughters, Julia and Kitty, each of whom appears to be more eccentric than the last, while the missing Andrew, Caroline‘s nephew, reportedly was the worst of the lot. Immediately recognising Albert for who he actually is, indeed, calling him by his given name, Caroline agrees to have him stay and his assistance becomes the more imperative when not only is Andrew’s body found, submerged, shot and bound in the River Granta, but that discovery is almost immediately followed by a further death in the family.

While the police are completely baffled by the case, it has to be said that so too, initially, is Campion (I knew he should have brought Lugg along) and his task is made none the easier by the eccentric behaviour of the remaining siblings and the family’s flat refusal to reveal the nature of the antagonism between them and the mystery man from London, who turns out to be Cousin George, a ne’er-do-well who turns up occasionally to blackmail a few pounds out of Caroline Faraday by threatening to reveal some deadly and dastardly family secret. It would help Campion no end if he knew what that secret was but Great Aunt Caroline flatly refuses to let the family skeleton see the light of day and so the only clue that he and we, the readers, have is Featherstone Senior’s macabre intoning of the words, I wondered when the bad blood in that family was going to tell. Well, what with the eccentric fantasies of the alcoholic Uncle William and the hypochondria of Aunt Julia and the fits of the vapours to which Aunt Kitty is disposed, there is plenty in the family that might conceivably be referred to as bad blood, however, be warned, when the mystery is finally solved and the secret that Caroline has sought so assiduously to defend is revealed, a modern audience is going to find her reticence, indeed her disgust, less than palatable. This is one Campion story which has not aged well and while Allingham’s original audience may well have had more sympathy for the Faraday position, I for one found it distasteful.

So, for me not the best of the bunch by any means. However, that won’t stop me picking up the next one, although I might leave it a month or two until the rather nasty taste has left my mouth.