When editor Susan Ryeland is given the tattered manuscript of Alan Conway's latest novel, she has little idea it will change her life. She's worked with the revered crime writer for years and his detective, Atticus Pund, is renowned for solving crimes in the sleepy English villages of the 1950s. As Susan knows only too well, vintage crime sells handsomely. It's just a shame that it means dealing with an author like Alan Conway...
In his latest book Anthony Horowitz tries to have several cakes and eat them all. The fictional work Magpie Murders is an Agatha Christie-style golden age detective novel that is embedded in a novel that is itself a bit of a homage to golden age detective novels. And while being two murder mysteries in one, it is also both a critique and a celebration of the public’s love of cosy English-style murder mysteries. All of which is no surprise coming as it does from the pen of the author who brought us on TV the likes of Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and Poirot and recently in novel form loving reconstructions of Conan Doyle (House of Silk and Moriarty) and Ian Fleming (Trigger Mortis – reviewed here).
Novelist Alan Conway has delivered his ninth Atticus Pünd novel to his publisher. As we learn in the cute frontpieces to the novel in the novel, Pünd is a famous literary detective in the mould of Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey. We get an introduction from Susan Ryeland, the editor of Magpie Murders, before the first six parts of the novel, a murder mystery set in the quaint English village of Saxby-on-Avon. The sixth part ends before the mystery is solved leaving both Susan and the reader in suspense. Susan then learns that Alan himself has committed suicide, complete with compelling suicide note. In her search to find the final chapter of the Magpie Murders manuscript she begins to suspect that Alan’s death itself may not be all that it seems.
Horowitz clearly loves Agatha Christie and was desperate to write a Christie-style novel without being accused of just mimicking her. So he creates both Conway and Pünd and gives the punters what they so clearly want: an English village, two deaths, including the death of someone that every villager had a reason to hate and an inscrutable slightly foreign detective who makes gnomic observations that turn out to be true. Later, just in case the reader missed them, one of the characters in the “real world” lists the multiple Christie homages there are not only in the Conway’s Magpie Murders but in his previous Pünd adventures. And when the music stops, Horowitz gives readers a modern version of the cosy mystery with a different victim who many people had a reason to want to kill and a second set of suspects who were all slightly echoed in the original text. And through this second part, criticisms of the form – the complete lack of real character development, very little in the way of any political or social subtext, and the overly complex plots, the fact that it is considered to be ‘real literature’. But none of these criticisms prevent Horowitz delivering exactly that… twice.
While it at first appears that this might be reinventing or reinvigorating this sub-genre of crime, this is just homage. Horowitz finds himself going through the same motions – murder, range of suspects all of whom have a motive, critical clue, reveal. The only difference is that Atticus Pünd seems to know the answer pretty much from the get go while Susan takes a little longer to get to her solution.
People who love the golden age of detective fiction, who, as Susan puts it, like to curl up with a cosy mystery when it is raining outside knowing that everything will be explained at the end, or who spend their Friday nights in Midsomer (a place which gets named checked far too many times in this novel) will love Magpie Murders. But those who are looking for something original in their crime fiction should look elsewhere.
Review - In the Cold Dark Ground,Stuart MacBride
Sergeant Logan McRae is in trouble…
His missing-persons investigation has just turned up a body in the woods – naked, hands tied behind its back, and a bin bag duct-taped over its head. The Major Investigation Team charges up from Aberdeen, under the beady eye of Logan’s ex-boss Detective Chief Inspector Steel. And, as usual, she wants him to do her job for her.
Writing a long term series has to create some issues for authors that probably some of we fans rarely consider. All we want is the next book. IN THE COLD DARK GROUND is the 10th in the Logan McRae series from Stuart MacBride, and I'm really sorry about this but I want the 11th pretty well now. As in straight away.
It goes without saying that I've always been a huge fan of this series, and aside from the wonderful, strong, often slightly eccentric characters, the reason for that is the constant changes in circumstance that McRae, DCI Steel and those around them find themselves dealing with. Lives change in these books, not always in a good way, and IN THE COLD DARK GROUND everyone seems to end up dealing with some really hefty crap.
Whilst you'd think that the personal would be more than enough for McRae to be going on with, along comes the pain-in-the-neck upper echelon type in the form of a new Superintendent of the Serious Organised Crime Task Force who muscles her way into his investigation of a missing person who turned up dead in very odd circumstances. Mind you, that's nothing compared to how close Professional Standards are getting to DCI Steel - close enough to find McRae doing a turn as a tightrope walker between a couple of particularly tricky snakepits. Mind you, nothing from the professional side of life compares to the bucket loads of grief that come to McRae when Wee Hamish Mowat dies leaving rival gangs eyeing his territory, and McRae in charge of his estate.
Needless to say, IN THE COLD DARK GROUND is exactly the sort of slightly manic action, pressure, personal complications, don't blink or you'll miss something roller-coaster that is a Logan McRae novel. There's always just enough to tweak the heart strings, more than enough to make a reader laugh, and the slightest feeling that everybody's gone a bit mad. As you'd probably do when the weather's always wet, cold and dank, the police house remains a dump, your colleagues are still a bunch of numpty's and what was already a really sucky personal life has just got a whole lot bloody worse.
As much as I'd love to say that if you're a new reader to this series than just get on with it, it's one that you really have to read in order. The personal / professional crossover is pretty complicated and there's so much history to McRae, Steel and the rest of the mad bunch that you're really going to have to know who is what, and how they all ended up in the middle of nowhere dodging Professional Standards, staring at some very odd home movies.
Review - The Woman in Cabin 10, Ruth Ware
In this tightly wound, enthralling story reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s works, Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. The sky is clear, the waters calm, and the veneered, select guests jovial as the exclusive cruise ship, the Aurora, begins her voyage in the picturesque North Sea.
It feels like such a relief to have a woman in Cabin 10, and not a girl, that you'd almost be forgiven for cutting THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 a lot of slack. Along with all the "girls" around there's also been a propensity for unlikeable protagonists, some of whom are unreliable - unknowingly or deliberately. Needless to say Lo Blacklock in THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 is flawed, unsympathetic and seemingly highly unreliable. Or it could just be that she's a stressed out woman with a drinking problem and a long term requirement for anxiety and depression medication, without which unpredictable things happen.
The novel starts out with a home invasion / burglary in which Blacklock comes face to face with a masked intruder, surviving in part because she has a bedroom door that closes oddly. Pity that the survival instinct that kept her safe seemed to be somewhat missing when it came to her pet cat, but then she also happily tripped off on a sea voyage with a belated reminder to her mother to pick up / look after the cat whilst she was away. You're probably getting a hint on this reader's reaction to Blacklock about now.
Assuming that the burglary was solely aimed at upsetting / putting Blacklock off her game, because logically that's the only scenario that makes sense, the book opening and the amount of time devoted to her ... let's call it reaction ... does drag on. She spends an inordinate amount of time and energy obsessing over it, triggering what could only be described as a massive (and rather obviously required for plot elements to come) tantrum with her boyfriend, and then a huffy packing of bags and a jaunt on a super posh, special luxury cruise, courtesy of a boss / colleague who can't go. Dinner, drinking, a restricted cast of characters, and the oddity of a woman in the cabin next door who appeared, lent Blacklock a mascara and then disappears ensue. Odd noises were heard, physical indications go missing, and Blacklock's testimony is easily called into question because of the alcohol consumed, the pills in full view, she comes across as highly strung and on it goes. Obviously this missing woman wasn't supposed to exist in the first place, as is confirmed by an interminable amount of wandering about looking at a very limited number of potential candidates. Now you're probably realising this reader had a bit of a hump up with the plot as well.
There's lots of comparisons between this novel and the stylings of Agatha Christie - the queen of the locked room mystery. Without the artistically arranged body in the drawing room, which is possibly where things get sticky. Problem one is in over-egging the pudding with a non-existent victim, who obviously isn't and despite a final twist in the tail, not that hard to work out where the initial finger of suspicion should be pointing. Problem two is then overdoing the whole "oh look Blacklock's just not being believed by anybody because she's ... flawed" bit. The final problems are then excessive repetition, pointless meandering, and a tendency to overblow aftermath rather than actual threat or event, making it too easy for reader impatience and nitpicking to set in.
It could be that some of the plot flaws and the overblown characterisation would have been less obvious had any sense of pace and threat be maintained. There's only so many times you can be told that a security guard doesn't believe Blacklock; and her fellow passengers, who are a very rum lot into the bargain, are trying to shaft her - personally and professionally (which might or might not be her paranoia). Then there's the burglary that never goes away, obviously indicating the world is out to get her (or she's over-reacting because she's got anxiety / depression issues). Add to this all the whinging about nobody believing the disappearance (with the clue screaming "look at me" that even she's wilfully ignoring) and THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 became a chore to read. Even the twist in the tail, by the time it arrived, had lost a heap of sting and ended up feeling too cute / stick it to the man, to be palatable.
Review - Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts, AK Benedict
In a city of lost souls, the living and the dead are sometimes too close for comfort...
Maria King knows a secret London. Born blind, she knows the city by sound and touch and smell. But surgery has restored her sight - only for her to find she doesn't want it.
Even the name of this novel gives the hint that this is a mash up of two genres. Modern day police procedural meets Victorian-style ghost story on the streets of (where else?) London. Ghost stories and crime novels seem like a natural fit. And Benedict brings them together reasonably effectively in her second novel. Although, as the title suggests, she is not really sure whether this is a crime novel (about detective Jonathan Dark) or a ghost story (about ghostwhisperer Jonathan Dark).
Jonathan Dark is a police detective, on the trail of a stalker who killed his last victim and has moved on to a new target. That target is Maria King, blind since birth but recently given her sight back through surgery. Maria is a mudlark, spending time on the banks of the Thames digging for pieces of old London. She still walks the streets of London with a blindfold, unable to bear the thought of using her newly regained vision.
At the same time Finnegan Finch has died after taking part in a deadly game while trying to escape the clutches of a shadowy organisation. Finnegan returns to London as a ghost, helped by his old mate and undertaker Frank. Frank helps the newly deceased come to terms with their spiritual state with the aid of a range of ghostly companions.
There is a lot going on in Jonathan Dark. The police investigation into the crazy stalker, a mysterious cabal with its tentacles across London including the police force itself, Jonathan’s relationship with his ex-wife, the rules around ghosts, and a subplot around evil soul sucking spirits. And all of this requires a fair amount of exposition. And while it is handled competently, there is a little too much backstory and information.
In the end, as with many crime novels with a supernatural element, the procedural element is almost completely subverted by the supernatural element. It is always much easier to solve murders when you get help from the ghosts of the victims. And this happens across all of the disparate elements of Jonathan Dark. Still this is an atmospheric supernatural thriller with some effective twists that takes readers to parts of London that don’t often get a look in.
The final line of the novel is: “Death has no sequel”. But not so crime novels. And with all of those rules and backstory out of the way, Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts could be the start of another interesting genre mashing series.
Review - The Long Count, JM Gulvin
JM Gulvin is initially a little coy about the timeframe of The Long Count, the first in a new series centered around Texas Ranger John Quarrie, or John Q to his friends. Hints are dropped through the early text – Vietnam gets a mention and it appears that student rioters are taking up the time of the police – slowly building a picture of the late 1960s. The secrets that drive this book are also closely held and sparingly doled out, through to the startling revelations left to the very end of the book.
When the book opens, John Q, his young son James and his friend Pious are grabbling – freediving for catfish in the submerged wreck of a train. The long count of the title refers to the length of time an experienced grabbler can stay submerged. But their idyll is disturbed by the discovery of bones in the wreckage. This is closely followed by John Q being called out to investigate the killing of a policeman. That killing, followed a separate murder, and spirals out into a wave of other crimes and John Q starts to track the killer across Texas. Soon the trail points to Ishmael, an asylum escapee whose father has also been killed and John Q connects with Isaac, Ishmael’s Vietnam vet brother, as he tries to solve the case.
John Q is a traditionalist but is also a determined, lateral and sympathetic investigator. He carries two pistols on his belt and, in a bit of a homage to the old West, is established early on as the quickest draw in Texas. The 1960s Texas setting is well handled. And depriving characters of modern aids like mobile phones and sophisticated forensics adds to the Wild West feel of the book and allows for tension to build through the vagaries of communication.
There is a lot going on in The Long Count and because of this it is easy to miss the clues that Gulvin litters through the narrative. But they are there. And the final revelations give the whole tale a new spin. However, while the resolution is clever and satisfying on one level, it feels a little too neat. Still, John Q is an intriguing new addition to the crime scene and is likely to return, six shooters and all.
Review - Ten Days by Gillian Slovo
House of Cards meets Homeland in this powerful and unputdownable thriller tracing a riot from its inception through to its impact one year on...
Gillian Slovo’s Ten Days started life as a play that explored the London riots of 2011. The play itself was based on a series of interviews and transcripts. The novel follows the outline of these events but ficitionalises them, which gives Slovo a broader scope than that original piece and some licence with her exploration of character and motivation. But it still centres around a week of intense heat in which the disaffected and disenfranchised went on a rampage in London, in a wave of violence that spread across the country.
Ten Days opens ominously. An early morning discussion between single mother Cathy and the man who has spent the night in her tower block apartment is photographed by a passing police helicopter. Slovo litters the narrative with redacted extracts from the inevitable investigation into the events she depicts, giving the personal view of the events and emotionless and stilted counterpoint. The Lovelace Estate, Cathy’s home, is slated for demolition and already the estate is riddled with empty, boarded up flats. A heatwave is driving people onto the streets at all hours and the police, expecting trouble from this part of London, are already in a heightened state of alert, putting them on a collision course with the public. The situation is not helped by political machinations of the Minister of State as he manoeuvres for support of the party, using the police force as a political football.
Using multiple points of view, Slovo puts the reader into the middle of the riots as they kick off. She explores how the response of the police is partly informed by political expediency and partly by poor training and a deep misunderstanding of the population they are supposed to serve. There is also plenty of opportunism on behalf of the rioters, many of whom use the events as a way of expressing their racism or just as an opportunity for theft.
But there is no doubt who’s side Slovo is on here. The politicians are all venal and self serving, many of the senior police too, are playing the political game. While the people at street level (at least those we meet) are, on the whole, just trying to live their lives and protect their community. The only main character who even takes part in the actual riot has a change of heart before he can get up to no good but still gets arrested. So while the narrative might have been based on actual interviews and transcripts, many of the characters, particularly the politicians and those around them, end up being symbols or archetypes of the conflict. Given its theatrical origins, Ten Days would lend itself to a television adaptation where English thespians might be able to breathe more subtlety into some of these characters than comes across on the page.
Despite any shortcomings, Ten Days is still an instructive exploration of the drivers of the unrest that shook Britain in 2011. Slovo dissects the various levels of power and powerlessness that drive these incidents, showing how the tyranny of small decisions can snowball into disaster. Poor training and resourcing and the need for deep cultural change in the police force is shown as part of the cause. But it is also clear that the force has also been put in an invidious position of protecting the public and protecting the city while answering to their political masters. The circumstances that gave rise to the 2011 riots have not all gone away and Ten Days is, if nothing else, a timely reminder of the fragility of the social contract that underpins our day to day existence.
Review - Someone Else's Skin, Sarah Hilary
Called to a woman's refuge to take a routine witness statement, DI Marnie Rome instead walks in on an attempted murder.
Trying to uncover the truth from layers of secrets, Marnie finds herself confronting her own demons. Because she, of all people, knows that it can be those closest to us we should fear the most . . .
Right from the commencement of SOMEONE ELSE'S SKIN there's something extremely engaging about the protagonist DS Marnie Rome. Arriving at her parent's house, five years earlier, to the sight of ambulances and police outside, and the news that her parents are dead inside, it's not hard to feel the shock that she is experiencing. Made even more harrowing by knowing she's a cop / she's been at this sort of scene many times before. Instantly this author has established a central character who is human, struggling with an awful event in their own life, capable of empathy for victims and families. There's real skill in the way that this scenario has been set up. Rather than telling the reader all about Rome, instead there's a short / sharp demonstration of what happens when it's your own, and the reader is pulled from there, straight into current day.
Now Rome is a DS and she and her partner DS Noah Jake are trying to get a statement from a young girl hiding from her family in a women's refuge. The CPS want her to tell what she knows about her brother's involvement in an assault, whilst the threat from her brothers remains very real. Things at the shelter quickly go pear-shaped when Rome and Jake arrive to find another resident's husband dying from a stab wound, a lurking presence watching the shelter, and women who start disappearing from there.
In many ways (good) SOMEONE ELSE'S SKIN is a classic police procedural with a team working an investigation. It's set within a realistic world where culture collision is increasingly common, and there's enough background to give the reader a reasonably good sense of place. The characterisations particularly appeal, each are vividly drawn, even when quickly encountered, and the central two are strong, flawed, realistic cops. Rome, especially, is a great character because she's got that added empathy from her own background, and the vulnerability that comes from struggling, 5 years on, to come to terms with the murder (and murderer) of her own parents.
Best part of all - SOMEONE ELSE'S SKIN was originally released in 2014, and has now been followed by NO OTHER DARKNESS (2015) and TASTES LIKE FEAR (2016). Nothing like a new series to get your teeth into.
REVIEW - COFFIN ROAD by Peter May
A man is washed up on a deserted beach on the Hebridean Isle of Harris, barely alive and borderline hypothermic. He has no idea who he is or how he got there. The only clue to his identity is a map tracing a track called the Coffin Road. He does not know where it will lead him, but filled with dread, fear and uncertainty he knows he must follow it.
A mystery set within a bubble very much heightens the senses when reading COFFIN ROAD. The action is placed within an isolated small seaside town and there are very few characters for the reader to learn about and glean clues from. The lead, who has lost his memory, retraces his steps in an effort to find out who he is, what kind of man he is, and what it is that he has done that has left him with such a leaden feeling of dread.
May reaches deep into the psyche of his lead character and we are immersed very quickly in his nightmare. Having washed up on a beach with injuries, Neal Maclean seems to have no family, no close friends, and lives in a cottage bereft of meaning personal effects with only his dog for company. He is compelled however to traverse what is locally known as Coffin Road, a walkers trail along the coastline. As fleeting memories return to Neal, it becomes even more puzzling to him as to why he has chosen to remove himself from all he has known to live in this beautiful but remote part of Scotland. When he discovers a man’s body on a nearby island, Neal becomes more convinced that the reason why he came to be alone in this remote part of the world was because he had felt a need to hide.
Peter May never loses his way in COFFIN ROAD, coaxing his reader forward as Neal Maclean becomes more desperate to solve the mystery that his own life. COFFIN ROAD is a beautifully descriptive novel as well as being a very personal one; the roar of the wind and the crashing of the ocean are ever present as the melancholic backdrop to one mans’ desperation. The amnesia is thankfully only a minor plot device (that old chestnut) and it is not a novel about one man rediscovering himself – there are other forces at play that are very left field to the moody first half of this book.
Fans of Peter May will gleefully add COFFIN ROAD to their collection and new readers would be pleased with this almost closed room mystery that needs very few literary props to satisfy.
Review - Summer Girl, Kelly Vero
A woman is attacked in strange circumstances on a midnight street in Valletta, Malta. An island country known for its history of early civilisations and military might is the backdrop for a series of distant relations and revelations as we follow Jack Sant; a Knight of Malta, on his quest to solve some of the country’s worst cold cases.
Crime fiction with a vampire as the central protagonist, set on the island of Malta. If this sounds like your ... err cuppa ... give it a try.
Jack Sant is a Knight of Malta, a sort of consultant detective keen to solve the country's worst cold cases, and a vampire.
A scenario that is greatly assisted by this author's style of laying it on the line as part of the story progression - so as a woman is attacked late at night, and rescued, the backgrounds of both attackers and rescuer just fall into place. No big deal is made of the vampire aspects, as is no particular big deal made of the attacker's fate. From there on the connections between these unlikely events and people fall into place in much the same manner, as does their connection to Sant's cold case interest.
Along the way there are some slight twists on the better known aspects of vampire lifestyle, including how to handle food at dinner parties, and a slightly weird thing that goes on with Sant hypnotising people to forget any revelations he chooses to make. (Both of these things may not be that unusual but for somebody who is particularly uneducated in the ways of vampires, they came as mild surprises).
It's a very short novel and there seems to be a lot of character and build up with a bit of plot rushing along the way, although the use of the noir, first-person style might have contributed to that perception as well. There's a lot of Sant's interest in the case that just has to be accepted, quite a few of the connections that he uses to investigate that just have to be rolled with and some slightly odd scenes in which you just have to assume that Sant is sensing the happenings. Add to that quite a lot of Maltese words / phrases scattered throughout that turned out to be surprising hard to glean - so the links to a definitions were actually required and it was possible to feel a little disconnected at points.
Having said all of that, vampire crime fiction isn't a particular area of expertise and this reader could very well have missed some elements whilst simply trying to get a handle on the overall concept. The shortness of what's an opening salvo in an intended series certainly lets readers get a taste of what they were in for with Jack Sant and if you're into this style of fiction then it feels like this would be a very good series to get started with now.
Review - Nowhere Girl, Ruth Dugdall
When Ellie goes missing on the first day of Schueberfouer, the police are dismissive, keen not to attract negative attention on one of Luxembourg’s most important events.
Probation officer, Cate Austin, has moved for a fresh start, along with her daughter Amelia, to live with her police detective boyfriend, Olivier Massard. But when she realises just how casually he is taking the disappearance of Ellie, Cate decides to investigate matters for herself.
The fourth book in the series sees probation officer Cate Austin out of the familiar ground of career, single parenthood and England in a new life in Luxembourg. She's moved there, with her young daughter Amelia, to live with boyfriend and local police detective Olivier Massard. The adjustment to life in a new location, with a new language swirling around her is hard enough, but the disconnection from her career and what feels like a walk away from her own family problems, means that Austin is slightly lost and very out of sorts.
Because Austin is obviously feeling so lost and unsettled, NOWHERE GIRL telegraphs that slightly uneasy, unsure feeling right from the start of the storyline. Which makes an enormous amount of sense as feelings, intuition and discomfort are ultimately what drives a lot of characters. Starting with the disappearance of young Ellie from the local carnival, through to the odd goings on with illegal immigrant children, there is much that feels wrong, but not a lot that is obvious or overt. It makes enormous sense that an outsider sees the odd hints and clues, when their senses are in overdrive anyway, the desire to understand and fit in overwhelming, and that outsider has a criminal justice system background attuned to understanding the psychology of offenders, rather than just catching them.
Because Austin is such a fish out of water in NOWHERE GIRL it's not exactly comfort zone reading. There's something off-putting about just about everything in this novel. Everyone seems to have some sort of personal agenda, everyone, even Massard and the missing girl's own parents seem vaguely sinister at times. The plot is cleverly constructed with sufficient grey in everyone - including the villains to make you think, stop and consider why it is that this is such a discomforting ride. Perhaps the only aspect that is a little sketchy, and might work better with prior knowledge is Austin's own father's trial, and her difficult relationship with her own mother and sister. Aside from that, it is the sort of novel that could work as a standalone - there's enough of Austin's background telegraphed to allow new readers to understand where she's coming from, and enough of the personal story to see where she's probably going.
Add to the good plot a series of excellent characterisations - not all of whom, even Austin, are always likeable, but all of whom are interesting and flawed - good and bad, and you're reminded of how strong series this is. Which means this reader is kicking herself hard over somehow missing book three. Must rectify that error as soon as possible.