Peter 'Mad Max' Maxwell is a very busy man; as Head of Sixth Form at Leighford High he does his best to resist Ofsted imperatives and mark GCSE coursework, whilst trying to cram as much History as possible into the reluctant heads of Nine Eff Gee and their like.
Australian readers could probably be forgiven for slightly different expectations when sitting down to read a book labelled "The New Peter 'Mad Max' Maxwell mystery". This isn't our Mad Max - this is a particularly English style of Mad Max more than a hemisphere away from our own version.
Peter Maxwell is a History teacher, head of sixth form, and a slightly older man with a considerably younger partner, DS Jacquie Carpenter. And a baby son Nolan, a love of bicycles, a decidedly cavalier attitude to keeping ones nose out of matters that don't concern you, and an almost stubborn inability to leave well enough alone.
Whilst this book isn't exactly a fit for the small English village style mystery, there's definitely a hefty dose of the English eccentric about Mad Max. And there is a lot of humour in these books - and there is absolutely nothing subtle about most of that. To the point where it does get a tad annoying, as there's something very predictable about Max's behaviour; Jacquie's reactions; Jacquie's bosses exasperation; everyone's relationship with young Nolan; the kids from school that Max runs into; Max's colleagues at school; Jacquie and Max's "unmarried state" and all those other little elements the reader is constantly beaten over the head with.
Now I will admit there were times reading this book that I could have lived with a whole lot less of the forced eccentricity of Mad Max, but it's not like the author makes any apology for that aspect of the books (I've read others before this one), and somehow, despite a niggling sense of irritation, Max is sort of endearing, and the quality of the plots, which aren't necessarily flat or single-threaded make these books very readable.
Undoubtedly another candidate for readers who are looking for something on the lighter side, the humour will appeal to many many readers, as will Max's relationships with his students and his young son. If you've not read any of this 'Mad Max' series and you like this very English style of book - then I can recommend them. As with most of these relationship based series, it wouldn't hurt to try to read the books in order, but it's also not going to matter that much if you dip in wherever you can get your hands on a copy.
BLOOD IN THE COTSWOLDS - Rebecca Tope
Thea Osborne and her faithful spaniel, Hepzie, have taken on a house-sitting assignment in the charming Cotswold village of Temple Guiting. But as always, an idyllic village can harbour a disquieting number of secrets and when a skeleton is discovered at the roots of an old beech tree, Thea is grateful for the presence of her partner DS Phil Hollis. There is no concrete evidence as to who the bones belonged to although it isn't long before theories and rumours abound. Thea soon finds herself drawn into a murder investigation - perhaps the countryside isn't that quiet after all.
BLOOD IN THE COTSWOLD is an entry in the (somewhat unimaginatively named, it has to be said) Cotswold Series from British author Rebecca Tope.
Central character Thea Osborne and her dog Hepzie house-sit. They do this quite a bit, and in this book they are in the quiet little village of Temple Guiting. Thea's partner DS Phil Hollis is joining them for a quiet, and hopefully romantic, celebration of their first-year anniversary. Of course nothing goes to plan, and Hollis puts his back out, meaning he's on the spot when an upturned old tree reveals a skeleton.
The discovery of the skeleton leads to a range of different possible identities and some local sleuthing, somewhat outside proper protocol by both Hollis and Thea, albeit with Hollis rather restricted in his movements because of his back.
There's some nice asides throughout this book taking you through some of the history of this village, and there's that light touch - not quite cozy (in the recipe and cat's vein), that you can expect from this type of very British, small town, "Midsomer" style of books.
And that's really the main point of this book - that small village; idyllic looking, murder and mayhem lurking beneath the surface countryside; slightly eccentric characters; with a combination of official and non-official investigators of which there are a lot of excellent examples in British crime fiction.
BLOOD IN THE COTSWOLDS fits right in with that whole sub-genre (whatever it's called). Non-confrontational stories, in this example with an up-to-date mature age relationship, it's not a stretch to imagine that this book (and the series) is just the thing for readers looking for a little romance, a little humour and a touch of murder and mayhem without the overt gore and angst of other forms of crime fiction. Even if you're not a dedicated fan of this style (and goodness knows I normally prefer to dance on the dark side), BLOOD IN THE COTSWOLD was a good, solid and interesting plot, with a believable couple at the centre of the investigation, dedicated but not overly romantic and unrealistic. All in all good fun, light entertainment and a very nice way to spend a cold winter's Sunday.
CAPTURED - Neil Cross
Although he is still young, Kenny has just weeks to live. Before he dies, he wants to find his childhood best friend Callie Barton and thank her for the kindness she showed him when they were at school together.
But when Kenny begins his search, he discovers that Callie Barton has gone missing.
One of the things that I've really come to expect from author Neil Cross is not quite knowing what to expect when you pick up one of this books. CAPTURED is the latest in a set of standalone novels that have just all been fantastic, and I'm happy to report that CAPTURED keeps up the standard.
When Kenny finds out he has a matter of weeks to live he draws up the sort of list that I guess many of us might draw up. People that he wants to clear the air with. He starts out tracking down the man who, as a little boy had been nearly abducted. Kenny had seen the suspect trailing the boy, and yet, when the police questioned him, he wasn't able to provide much detail. Kenny wants to apologise. He wants to make things right with his ex-wife, and still closest friend, but somehow he can't quite get to her name just yet. So he tries to track down his old school-yard friend. Callie had been kind to Kenny when he was a loner, awkward, a kid that didn't quite fit in. Callie, unfortunately, isn't easy to find, in fact she has disappeared in unexpected circumstances. Kenny wants to to make things right, and yet, despite his best intentions it ends up not right. About as far from right as you can possibly get.
CAPTURED is just one of the most fascinating novels I've read in a long time. Kenny is a character that will endear you to him, freak you out completely, but in the end, you just can't help but feel so desperately for a man for whom the best of intentions somehow manage to go so incredibly wrong. His complete inability to pull back from the abyss is intriguing. Is it human nature or is it something to do with the ticking time bomb in his brain? Tightly told, quick moving and tense, at no stage does CAPTURED read like a script despite Cross having credentials as a screenwriter. It's also not just a story about Kenny. There are other characters in this book who stand out from the page - the people who help Kenny and support him, and those who come up against him.
If there is anything at all that links Cross's recent books (NATURAL HISTORY / BURIAL and now CAPTURED) it is possibly the theme of the ordinary, flawed human being, pushed way outside their comfort zone. Add to that a talent for creating bleak and vaguely threatening settings; crisp, spare yet beautifully flowing prose and characterisations that tear at the heartstrings even when they are doing the unforgivable and it just has to be said. Do yourselves a favour. CAPTURED is a one sitting, absolutely tremendous, extremely disturbing book that you'll not forget in a hurry.
BLEED FOR ME - Michael Robotham
Ray Hegarty, a highly respected former detective, lies dead in his daughter Sienna's bedroom. She is found covered in his blood. Everything points to her guilt, but psychologist Joe O'Loughlin isn't convinced.
Fans of Australian writer Michael Robotham will always be waiting with baited breath for the next instalment from him. Be it a book that features (now) ex-cop Victor Ruiz, psychologist Joe O'Loughlin, Sikh detective Alisha Barba or a combination of those characters. BLEED FOR ME is another Joe O'Loughlin book, with a hefty appearance from Ruiz as well - and these two are particular favourites of this reader anyway.
If you've never read a Robotham book before it won't take you long to get up to speed with Joe's back story. A psychologist, he doesn't practice any more, now teaching instead. A sufferer of early onset Parkinsons, his physical frailty is something he struggles with on a daily basis. As he struggles with his separation from wife Julianne. A separation he is consistently unable to accept, his lose of close and regular contact with the woman he continues to love deeply is made even worse by his longing to be back living in the same house as his daughters - baby Emma and teenager on the verge Charlie. When Charlie's best friend Sienna is embroiled in the death of her father - ex-cop in his own right Ray Hegarty Joe is there from the very start. Searching for Sienna on the night that Ray is murdered; trying to help Sienna; trying to help his own daughter deal with the impact of the upheavals in her friends life; trying to restore his marriage; trying to stay in good with the police; trying to find the real killer. Joe seems to spend a lot of his life trying - and he tries the patience of a lot of people around him in the process. Calling in a favour from Ruiz, Joe and Victor seem to be the only people who don't believe Sienna killed her father, even when revelations of what has been going on in that family start to surface.
Joe's family have been through a lot in earlier books, and those circumstances, and his increasing Parkinson's symptoms seem to have made Joe more of a hero and Julianne, in particular, somewhat of a villain as their marriage has crumbled. BLEED FOR ME definitely is going someway towards explaining the relationship - the tensions and the difficulties between these two people. A lot of those difficulties play out as the pressure, this time albeit one removed from Joe's own family, acts on everybody in this book. Joe is as alternatively driven, bumbling, well meaning and blind stubborn as he's ever been; Ruiz is closed, measured and somewhat ruthless by comparison. Julianne is defensive sometimes, at other points she's open and caring and protective - and there's some explanation of why she has done what seemed so heartless in earlier books.
Along the way, the personal is balanced well against a story of human perversity and cruelty that is often profoundly confrontational. Perhaps it is that idea of confrontation that made Robotham step over one of those lines for some readers of crime fiction. Whilst I have struggled with, and sometimes been able to see and understand the reason for animal cruelty in some books - as a way of instigating some reaction / affecting a character or illustrating a character's flaws, in BLEED FOR ME it's not just that the depiction goes beyond cruelty and steps into explicit suffering, it's because I struggled from then on to find a context for it - a reason if you will. Despite the fact that I found this story of manipulation and cruelty balanced against understanding and care good, and the balancing of the relationship between Joe and his wife fairer and more balanced than before, since finishing the book I'm still confronted by that animal suffering incident. With the passage of time, the details have faded, but I'm still puzzled by the reactions (or lack thereof) of all the characters around that poor animal and increasingly discomforted by extrapolations of why it had to be so graphic. So confrontational. So unexplained, unnecessary. Certainly the last O'Loughlin book I read was the one that Robotham quipped his wife was worried might stop them from being invited to dinner parties. I hope that the bar didn't need to be raised.
SKIN AND BONES - Tom Bale
On a cold January morning, a nightmare awaits in a small Sussex village. A deranged young man goes on the rampage, shooting everyone in his path before taking his own life. It is a senseless, tragic event, but sadly not an unfamiliar one. At least, that's what everyone thinks.
Tom Bale, it seems, is a pseudonym for David Harrison who wrote SINS OF THE FATHER in 2006, which goes some way to explaining the deftness of touch in this crime fiction thriller. It may also go some way to explaining how the author has managed to install an almost cinematic feel to the action.
In an opening series of scenes that, frankly, were so chilling that they disturbed this reader, everything starts out very quietly one very cold January morning in the sleepy English village of Chilton. Julia Trent's in town to continue clearing out the house of her recently deceased parents - a dreadful accident with a malfunctioning boiler, they both died in their sleep. A glance to the left that cold morning, and Julia is involved. Closely pursued by a deranged young man, who has already shot everyone in his path on that quiet January morning, she's running away from a man who is taunting her, enjoying her terror. Saved once when Phillip Walker, already wounded, sacrifices himself, she thinks she might be saved again when a lone figure in a motorcycle helmet and leathers approaches the man on the village green. She quickly finds out she was very very wrong.
Julia - not a spoiler - she's one of the central characters in the novel after all, survives, albeit after being badly injured. But her story of the second man is dismissed as the panic, the fright, delusion on her part. Nobody else in Chilton, (because there were other people who survived in hiding, traumatised themselves), reported seeing the second man. The only person who believes her is Craig, Phillip Walker's son. Craig has had his own problems in recent life with a marriage that is strained to breaking point already by his wife's infidelity, so the pointless, tragic death of his father, in an act of selfless bravery saving Julia, is a turning point for him. Both Julia and Craig have to find this second man, because they know he was there, and because they know he wants Julia, in particular, to stay silent.
This is a book that says quite a bit about manipulation, control and influence. The terror that Julia experiences is beautifully executed by this author, the flight, the pursuit and the ultimate confusion over the appearance of the second man. "The killer" as he's referred to makes that fleeting appearance in the first part of the book, but his presence is felt throughout, his identity hidden as he slowly reveals himself, talking to his own controller, watching Julia and Craig, alternatively menacing and yet, there's something else about him as well. There's also the developer George Matheson - a man who has been trying to redevelop the little village, a proposal that Craig's father Phillip was vehemently opposed to. George is, in his own right, a fascinating character. At the same time that the massacre occurs, and he and his nephew Toby are talking about how to redevelop Chilton, George's wife Vanessa is dying from cancer. George seems to be genuinely distressed by the events that took place in Chilton, and yet there is the possibility that he is somehow involved.
There are some elements to SKIN AND BONES that don't work quite as well though. The anonymous "killer" scenes in which he reveals his thinking, his manipulating, and his own puppet-master are predictable although well written, and I would suspect that readers will be able to make a reasonable stab at the anonymous killer's identity. Stay with it though, as all is not as it seems, and there are some surprises to come. It does feel very wrong to be using a word like enjoyed about a book that starts out with a shooting massacre. I did enjoy it though, this is a really good crime fiction book with well executed thriller aspects, and a couple of central characters in Julia and Craig who you really are going to want the best for.
INNOCENT BLOOD - Elizabeth Corley
DCI Andrew Fenwick is on a tough case. The Choir Boy investigation, a project outside ordinary police jurisdiction, aims to expose an infamous and increasingly powerful paedophile ring. Moreover, with eleven-year-old schoolboy Sam Bowyers missing, every second counts. But is the investigation more complex than it initially seems? And could something buried alongside a child's corpse, twenty-five years ago, be a vital clue?
There are some authors who just seem to be able to consistently turn out good books, ones that engage your attention, sometimes create some discomfort in the reader, but invariably make you think. Elizabeth Corley is one of those authors for me, I remember her books long after I've finished reading them. INNOCENT BLOOD continues the standard.
DCI Fenwick's case - the Choir Boy investigations into a paedophile ring, was triggered by information from the USA, indicating that there is a paedophile ring operating in his area. This ring looks like it has been in existence for years and could very well have been involved in the murder of local boys. One boy's body, murdered and buried twenty-five years ago has already been discovered, and there is another boy who has been missing for a similar amount of time, as well as an eleven-year old who has recently disappeared. At the same time Major Maidment may have been hailed as a hero by the local community, when he shoots a conman when he pulled a knife on police, but Fenwick's friend and colleague Inspector Nightingale is looking at having to charge the Major with attempted murder. She's also convinced that Major Maidment is hiding something.
Some readers will may the subject matter in INNOCENT BLOOD disturbing, but the handling of it is sensitive, without sensation, whilst also revealing enough to ensure you're aware of the evil that is being perpetrated. There are quite a lot of books around at the moment that have paedophilia as the central crime and many of those don't do the subject matter justice. Sometimes you get the distinct feeling of the crime du jour being followed, not contributing anything much to the readers understanding of the central subject matter. That's not the case in INNOCENT BLOOD as the book conveys a number of aspects of the crime, including a series of saddening and differing points of view, but ultimately the message is clearly that whilst paedophilia itself is incomprehensibly sick, there's something considerably more chilling in the organisation and joint participation in such activity. The men in INNOCENT BLOOD who perpetrate these crimes are undetectable in their day to day lives - uncomfortably normal.
Whilst the subject matter may trigger an automatic skip in some people, the book is extremely well done. Tight, taut, uncomfortable, sensitive, caring INNOCENT BLOOD isn't what you could call an enjoyable read, but it was exactly the sort of book that you can expect from this author, and really worth sticking with.
BURIAL - Neil Cross
Nathan has never been able to forget the worst night of his life: the party that led to the sudden, shocking disappearance of a young woman. Only he and Bob, an old acquaintance, know what really happened and they have resolved to keep it that way. But one rainy night, years later, Bob appears at Nathan's door with terrifying news, and old wounds are suddenly reopened, threatening to tear Nathan's whole world apart. Because Nathan has his own secrets now. Secrets that could destroy everything he has fought to build.
Neil Cross really knows how to put together a story. More importantly, in BURIAL, his second crime fiction novel, he's absolutely not afraid to write a very morally ambiguous central character.
When Nathan meets up with journalist Bob again at a drug fuelled party at his bosses house, he did something incredibly stupid. He was young and restless but just maybe he wasn't the one that killed a young girl that night. Maybe she wasn't actually killed but just died in very wrong circumstances. He certainly had a part in covering up her death. Somehow that isn't the worst thing he's ever done, not when you consider the circumstances of his marriage. But then, what pathetic little Nathan has made of his life is badly threatened when Bob returns with some devastating news about that night.
Either way, BURIAL takes the reader into a world that's populated by some pretty unpleasant people. Nathan's boss - the washed up radio DJ who is, well tacky. The journalist Bob, just a bit off, or maybe a whole lot worse than that. Nathan - on the one hand easily led, a loser who spends his life compensating for one night where he was too pathetic to do the right thing. And now it's almost impossible to do the right thing, and keep his life comfortable, and happy and the way he wants it to be. Maybe a job as a greeting card salesman is as close to retribution as he's ever going to get, it's hard to tell, Nathan's internal dialogue is pretty good at convincing him that there's nothing wrong with his life and he's not a loser, despite the distinct undertone that he thinks he probably really is.
The interesting thing about BURIAL is that the pace simply never lets up, and whilst it's just not easy to sympathise with Nathan, it's very very easy to want to know what happens to him, where he goes with his life, how is he going to make things normal or right. You also can't help but care about some of the people around Nathan - his wife, her parents.
Neil Cross is undoubtedly a very accomplished writer. You're not likely to enjoy the ride with BURIAL, you're probably going to end up disliking just about everybody and everything in this book. For all of that I couldn't put it down, and I simply can't forget. If you haven't read his first crime fiction novel - NATURAL HISTORY - then BURIAL is an option as they aren't part of a series (having said that no reason why you shouldn't read NATURAL HISTORY as well as BURIAL!).
STILL WATERS - Judith Cutler
Detective Chief Superintendent Fran Harman has never been happier. Her relationship with Assistant Chief Constable Mark Turner is going well and they are buying a house together. At work, a former protégé, Simon Gates, has just become her new boss.
The second DCS Fran Harmon book I've read, there is such a lot that that you'd think would make these books unlikeable. Fran is almost too cheerful and nice, she's the sort of person that it's not hard to fantasise about as a victim of brutal crime. Mind you, she's also refreshingly not like your stereotypical angst ridden, difficult boss - she actively supports and encourages her subordinates, both in a day to day work sense, and as part of her ongoing police policy work. She's got her own boss problems though, and she handles them (mostly) with aplomb. There's a big concentration on Fran (and Mark's) personal life - which whilst not totally idyllic, is love's young dream enough to drive you mildly nuts, especially if you're slightly allergic to that level of the personal in the middle of your police procedural. And finally, in STILL WATERS, there is the classic multiple unconnected threads that end up converging.
But for some strange reason STILL WATERS (and the other book I've read in this series) are quite entertaining reads. On the less than confrontational side, there's something very engaging about Fran and Mark, their ongoing love story, their investigation methods, the station in which they work, and in all their colleagues. Sure things are a bit busy in places, who is who and where they fit in the police structure can be hard to follow at points, and Fran - as you'd expect from somebody of her personality type - has a tendency to talk way too much, but the basic plot of the investigation was nicely done, and cleverly drawn out - right to the end of the book.
STILL WATERS is the latest in the Fran Harmon series, and reading the earlier books will give you a total view of who she is, where she came from, although you could also pick this book up on its own without any problem. There is enough back story filled in, without it being tedious if you have read earlier books.
There's some really entertaining storytelling in STILL WATERS, despite all the things that you'd think would drive you slightly bats, Fran is the sort of overly cheerful character that even this grumpy reader can happily spend some time with.
ANGELS UNAWARE - Mike Ripley
Roy Angel is a Private Investigator. He is the token male at an all female agency. His wife, a successful fashion designer, has recently given birth to their first child.. But there’s a fly in Angel’s blissful ointment. The Agency is insisting he is not entitled to extended paternity leave and his mother has descended upon them to “help” with the baby. Angel’s mum is a bit eccentric. She’s a hippy with a penchant for trouble and has the maternal instincts of a doorknob. Angel takes on the job of searching for a missing script writer. The bank financing the film is getting jumpy because the final draft of the script is past due and the writer hasn’t been seen in nearly two weeks. The investigation takes Angel out of his comfort zone of London into the wilds of Yorkshire. He is aided by fellow PI Ossie Oesterlein, a very large man with an even larger appetite, who lives at home with his mum and is into line dancing in a big way. So just how does a search for a missing man end in a murder hunt with Angel staring down the barrel of a loaded gun contemplating his own death? And what does a Polish porn star have to do with it?The story is told from Angel’s perspective. As the narrator, Angel’s voice is highly amusing; particularly the banter between himself and Ossie. These two are about an unlikely a pair as you’ll ever come across. His wife’s increasing exasperation and annoyance at Angel’s extended absence from the martial home is also very entertaining, as is his mother’s antics. The author, Mike Ripley, deftly changes both the tempo and mood of the plot as what begins as a routine missing person case and a jaunt to the north becomes a matter of life and death for Angel. ANGELS UNAWARE is a light-hearted detective yarn with a somewhat dark centre. I was surprised to learn that ANGELS UNAWARE is the fifteenth in the Angel series. I must look out for more. Mike Ripley’s Roy Angel has slipped under my radar until now. Don’t let it slip under yours.
THE EMBROIDERED CORPSE - Brain Kavanagh
THE EMBROIDERED CORPSE is the sequel to CAPABLE OF MURDER. Our Australian heroine, Belinda Lawrence, has put the events surrounding the murder of her aunt behind her and has now moved permanently to England. She is living quietly in the village of Mitford in the house bequeathed to her by her late aunt. However, her sleuthing days are not over. After a trip to purchase antique furniture for her friend Hazel's shop, Belinda finds herself in the possession of a mysterious piece of tapestry that may, or may not, be linked to the famous Bayeux Tapestry. However, ownership brings danger. Two murders occur in quick succession. The first is that of the original owner of the tapestry. The second murder is the local vicar who had offered to help her check the tapestry's authenticity. Both men are killed in the same bizarre way. Belinda and her friends start to investigate and find they learn more than they wanted to know about a medieval French invasion of England, royal shenanigans, monks and people who are not afraid to kill for what they believe in.
THE EMBROIDERED CORPSE is a cosy murder mystery. Belinda is a feisty and believable heroine who is in total control of herself. She can actually walk out of a bedroom leaving a naked man in her bed without a second glance - now that's control. Her best friend, Hazel, is an antique dealer who has just gone through a divorce, and is consoling herself with young men and lots of alcohol to stave off the horror of being rejected for a younger woman. Belinda also has a gorgeous boyfriend, Mark, a real estate agent who would like more snuggling in bed, more sex, and less chasing after obscure clues. This unlikely trio have to deal with mad, and probably murderous monks, along with their religious leaders (who may just be the true descendents of the British throne) trying to kill, kidnap or generally harass anyone to get their hands on the tapestry. At first Hazel and Mark think Belinda is off her rocker for thinking that there is more to the tapestry than meets the eye. But as the strange events mount up, and when Hazel is beaten up by one of the monks, they change their minds and allow Belinda to go off and follow up her suspicions.
Hazel and Mark both appeared in the first novel, albeit as suspects. Despite the fact that the brewing romance between Mark and Belinda in the first book has now been consummated in the second, the romance does not get in the way of the action. Once again author, Brian Kavenagh, has produced a well-written book, with a believable plot with just a touch of suspense and gothic horror, culminating in a very spooky graveyard climax. He has obviously researched his subject well, and has his British history down pat, and yes, it is widely believed that some parts of the original tapestry are missing. Kavenagh skilfully weaves true history, legend and fiction to produce another outstanding story. I can't wait for the soon-to-be-released third in the series, BLOODY HAM