With girlfriend DS Jacquie Carpenter back at work and little baby Nolan rapidly growing into a feisty toddler, Peter 'Mad Max' Maxwell, Head of Sixth Form at Leighford High, decides to hire an au pair. The exotic Juanita Reyes seems the perfect choice.
But one afternoon the lovely Juanita disappears into thin air, and two ramblers are surprised - and not a little disturbed - when their dog digs up a body on Dead Man's Point, the lonely cliff top rising high over the sea.
MAXWELL'S POINT is the 12 book in what seems to now be a 14 book series. Having never read any of the earlier books, I was particularly curious to see whether or not the series could be picked up well down the track without this reader feeling lost, and more than a little confused.
It did take a few chapters to get used to the sense of humour and the tone of the book. 'Mad Max' is an extremely sarcastic, dryly witty, acerbic sort of a character and the tone and humour is heavy-handed. Once you get used to that, and come to understand what the outwardly awkward old Max is all about, the humour fits and can be quite amusing at times. It's also not too hard to work out that his girlfriend - mother of his son - is a fair bit younger than him, and used to his interfering ways, even if her superiors in the force are less than impressed.
Once you have got into the style and relationships of the book, the story of MAXWELL'S POINT was nicely twisty and complicated. 'Mad Max' as is his wont, gets fully involved in the search for his missing au pair, although it's not part of the police investigation. He also gets himself mildly in the way of the police who are investigating a series of bodies that start to be discovered around the cliffs and beach side of the local area, an investigation which Jacquie is involved in. There is also, in what I would suspect is an ongoing war, a skirmish between 'Mad Max' and the school authorities.
The humour and the style of 'Mad Max' might take some readers a little getting used to, it might be easy to mistake the irony as rudeness, the sly and witty commentary as superiority, particularly if you are not used to that style of humour. But the mystery revealed was fairly laid out for the reader to follow and the main characters were engaging and interesting. The fact that the book is so far into a series didn't leave the reader feeling lost or give you a feeling of missing out on something. Having said that, what really worked for me, was the sheer fun of a central protagonist that is anything but predictable.
THE WATCHFUL EYE - Priscilla Masters
Dr Daniel Gregory, a GP in the small picturesque market town of Eccleston, is becoming concerned by the frequency of visits by Vanda Struel and her two-year-old daughter Anna-Louise. At first he believed they were merely a symptom of a vulnerable young woman, over-protective of her child. But as the number of consultations escalates and the complaints become increasingly bizarre, Daniel worries that there could be something more sinister driving Vanda to the doctor's surgery day after day.
Billed as one of Priscilla Masters Medical Mysteries, this author has written around 15 books, some standalone, some with a central series character. THE WATCHFUL EYE is set, as the synopsis says, in a classic small English village where Daniel Gregory is the local GP. Recently divorced, with a young daughter of his own, he's essentially a lonely man, kept in the village by his house and his job alone. But he has a rather odd relationship with many of those patients. Whilst he is concerned by the plight of little Anna-Louise, he does seem a little ineffectual - more worrying than actual action. Plus he's also got other distractions. He's very attracted to the local policeman's wife - although the relationship is platonic. He's got complications with his practice nurse, his overbearing mother, he's increasingly drawn to internet dating and he has a rotten relationship with his ex-wife who keeps his time with his daughter to the bare minimum.
THE WATCHFUL EYE covers the plight of Anna-Louise, the stalking of the policeman's wife and the complications of her relationship with her increasingly distracted and violent husband, the suicide death of an elderly patient and the allegations of a young female patient.
The first part of THE WATCHFUL EYE carefully introduces the cast of characters, and it's not too hard to pick their various roles. The brazen teenage girl is obviously destined to complicate our doctor's life. The policeman's wife has a stalker who is obviously going to drive her husband to extreme measures, which is going to cause problems for our doctor. The elderly patient is obviously going to cause problems for our doctor. The overbearing mother who is only trying to help, but causes problems for our doctor. And the attraction to the policeman's wife - where the doctor causes problems for the doctor without even trying.
The synopsis of the book says it's a captivating and thrilling read, but I must confess it wasn't either for this reader. The layout of the characters and their roles was obvious from the start, and everybody stepped up to their expected role as required. The slightly ineffectual, "why does everything always happen to me" personality of the central character certainly didn't help engender any sympathy or even particular interest in our doctor. A surprisingly low-key, almost unemotional sort of a read - especially with a child in jeopardy, THE WATCHFUL EYE seemed to promise quite a bit, but ultimately didn't deliver for me.
HELL'S FIRE, Chris Simms
The deliberate torching of a church creates outrage across Manchester. And when a charred corpse and satanic symbols are found in the smoking ruins, DI Jon Spicer and the city's Major Incident Team are called in.
Jon Spicer quickly finds himself drawn into the depths of a horrifying underworld he didn't know existed. Soon, fresh killings bring revelations that those responsible are prepared to commit unspeakable acts of evil in homage to their God.
HELL'S FIRE is the fourth book in this Manchester based series featuring DI Jon Spicer, although this is the first book in the group that I've read. An error of omission on my part that I'm going to have to do something about!
As you'd expect with a story that concentrates on the torching of churches, there are a lot of religious elements to this book. Although organised religion and the satanic ritualism as part of the church destruction is only part of a complex intertwining of religious elements. Satanic ritualism at the scenes connects to a Satanic styled rock band. The rock band connects to a new age college. The college connects to the victims - both of the fire and of the murders that keep happening. And for Jon, in a more personally confrontational manner, the new age college leads to his sister's newfound belief in Pagan religion, and conflict with their own, ultra-conservative and devout mother.
All of these connections, and the way that the investigation circles around the churches, the way that the churches - the buildings and the institutions - affect daily life in Manchester, and in Jon's own family - create a sinister, subtle feeling of menace that infects the entire story.
There is a lot of the personal in HELL'S FIRE. Simms has pulled his character's lives firmly into the investigation, and whilst that might prove a little distracting for some readers, it could also provide a real connection for others. To be honest I couldn't decide what I thought about it - I found Jon's personal life a bit overwrought and overblown at points, but that could have been because the plot itself was proving quite involving and very intriguing and I was getting impatient with the family stuff sometimes "getting in the way". Having said that, it's a temporary distraction and the intricacies of the HELL'S FIRE plot held up all the way through the book to an intriguing conclusion.
Before starting HELL'S FIRE I was aware that UK Bookseller Waterstone's selected Chris Simms as one of their '25 Authors for the Future' as part of their 25th anniversary celebrations. After reading the book you can see why. This isn't the most flattering portrayal of life in Manchester, but it is certainly compelling.
A CURE FOR ALL DISEASES - Reginald Hill
To begin with, I have one confession and one warning. Reginald Hill is my absolute favourite author. I could read his shopping list and rave about it, so I have no pretence here of objectivity.
Now the warning. If you have yet to read Reginald Hill’s DEATH OF DALZIEL (published in the U.S.A. under the title Death Comes for the Fat Man) then stop right now. Don’t read any further, because it is impossible to write a review of A CURE FOR ALL DISEASES without creating a spoiler for Hill’s previous Dalziel and Pascoe novel.
In the dedication of the book Reginald Hill wrote in part: To Janeites everywhere. If you’ve read Jane Austen you’ll quickly discover why. If you haven’t (like me) then it will sail over your head and it doesn’t really matter anyway. I won’t give away the reason for the dedication. It will be an extra layer for Austen fans.
The story is told from the point of view of a number of characters. First and foremost is Dalziel’s conversations with “Mildred”. Charlotte’s perspective is told in the form of long, chatty (and poorly spelled) emails to her sister in Africa. Various members of the investigation team; Pascoe, Wield, Novello and Bowler also get a look-in from their perspectives.
A CURE FOR ALL DISEASES also sees a shift in the dynamics of the relationship between Dalziel and Pascoe. Pascoe feels he is ready to spread his wings without Dalziel looking over his shoulder. With Pascoe in charge, Sergeant Wield is seeing a change in him. He thinks Pascoe is starting to exhibit traits that are decidedly Dalzielesque!
There are some who found the emails a distraction with the poor spelling and grammar. I didn’t. I enjoyed the quirkiness of them. A CURE FOR ALL DISEASES is Reginald Hill’s twenty-third Dalziel and Pascoe novel and it is a testimony to his skill as a writer that number twenty-three is as fresh and compelling as all his others.
SHATTER - Michael Robotham
A naked woman in red high-heeled shoes is poised on the edge of Clifton Suspension Bridge with her back pressed to the safety fence, weeping into a mobile phone. Clinical psychologist Joseph O'Loughlin is only feet away, desperately trying to talk her down. She whispers, 'You don't understand' - and jumps.
Psychologist Joseph O’Loughlin is called to the Clifton Suspension Bridge where a woman, naked except for her red high heels, is poised to jump. As she weeps into a mobile phone, he tries to talk her down. She turns to him, whispers ‘you don’t understand’ and jumps.
A few days later, the woman’s teenage daughter, Darcy, turns up on Joe’s doorstep. She refuses to believe her mother could have committed suicide, and certainly not by jumping off a bridge. Joe starts to believe that the woman was coerced into jumping by the person on the other end of the mobile phone. The police don’t want to treat it as anything other than suicide until another woman dies in similar circumstances.
Joe and his family have moved from London to Bristol, in the hope that a less hectic lifestyle will be better for his Parkinson’s, which is now having a significant impact on his life, and he has taken a part-time teaching job at the University. When Joe’s guilt at being unable to save the woman leads him to become more involved in the case, it begins to affect his family, particularly his wife with whom his relationship becomes increasingly strained.
As the true nature of the crimes is revealed, Joe realises that they are dealing with a different kind of psychopath. This murderer doesn’t just want to kill, he wants to humiliate his victim, to completely destroy her mind first. At one point he tells Joe of the “moment when all hope disappears, all pride is gone, all expectations, all faith, all desire: I own that moment. It’s mine. And that’s when I hear the sound. … The sound of a mind breaking.”
There’s a terrific cast of supporting characters, including Joe’s friend, retired DI Vincent Ruiz, and straight-talking DI Veronica Cray, a woman who definitely deserves a bigger role in a future book.
The crimes are chilling, but Robotham’s storytelling is compelling. As psychological thrillers go this is one of the very best. Make sure you have plenty of time when you start to read this book because you won’t be able to put it down.
Michael Robotham, previously a journalist and ghost writer of numerous autobiographies of the rich and famous, lives in Sydney. Shatter is the fourth in this loose series, in which each book takes a minor character from the previous book as the main character. The previous titles are The Suspect, Lost (aka The Drowning Man) and The Night Ferry.
SHATTER - Michael Robotham
SHATTER is the much anticipated 4th book in an ongoing series by this author. All of these books are strong psychological thrillers, with good plots peopled with some believable characters. Each book switches the central protagonist around an expanding character group - sometimes with the others playing bit parts. In SHATTER Clinical Psychologist and Parkinson's sufferer Joe O'Loughlin returns to take the focus, with DI Ruiz taking a supporting (and supportive) role.
As the book gets started Joe is working part-time as a lecturer - the Parkinson's is starting to affect how he can lead his life and it's an ever-present "character" in everything he does. When called to the bridge he's profoundly startled by the sight of a naked woman perched on the edge of a bridge and he's profoundly distressed when he can't stop her from jumping. Everyone is convinced this act - for all it's bizarre characteristics - has been a suicide, but when her daughter - Darcy - gets in touch with Joe she is able to convince him that not only would her mother not suicide, she wouldn't do it in that manner. And there's the question of the mobile phone - who was she talking so frantically to.
Joe's therefore not that surprised when yet another naked woman is found dead in bizarre circumstances, but it takes that death to finally convince DI Veronica Cray that there's something very very weird going on.
One of the great strengths of Robotham's writing is that he can take the reader along the ride of what is a pretty intricate plot - the weird deaths, a strange lurking presence on the end of a telephone call, Joe and his Parkinson's, amongst other things whilst not losing sight of the characters that are central to these plots. The victims have a personality, the killer is allowed to be more than just an "evil presence", Joe's personal life, his own daughters, and his wife Julianne intertwine with his investigation and retired Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz.
Even at points when the reader could get cocky and think that the obvious is about to happen, there's a twist - just a little twist but enough to keep you reading and wondering. Robotham obviously has great skill as a story-teller. The book takes a very disconcerting subject matter, an unusual and quite sobering twist on the standard murder scenario and it makes it seem not only feasible but frighteningly so. But at the same time he can generate a feeling of sympathy for so many of the players in this story that could have / maybe should have / had they done something - then none of this needed to happen - and that applies not just to the victims and the perpetrator.
STILL WATERS - Nigel McCrery
McCrery is the writer of Silent Witness and New Tricks - TV series that are undoubtedly instantly recognisable to a number of readers of this review, and there's something about the characterisations from those shows that rings bells of recognition in STILL WATERS. DCI Mark Lapslie is called back from "gardening leave" - extended sick leave - because his name has been flagged as somebody who could understand a particular mutilation of the body that was found at the scene of a fatal traffic accident. The investigation into this body proceeds slowly as, whilst the identification of the corpse isn't that hard, to all intents and purposes it looks like she never died.
STILL WATERS was an immediately engaging book, whilst simultaneously being slightly frustrating - for a whole lot of reasons. DCI Lapslie has synaesthesia - this means that he "tastes" sounds. Different sounds trigger different tastes. You can probably imagine this makes life a bit complicated - he says it's like being ambushed.
<td><em>"Ever bitten into an apple and found it had gone rotten inside? Ever taken a bite of a chocolate and found it was coffee flavour rather than strawberry? Sometimes flavours can surprise you. Sometimes, they can shock. That's why I had to take time off work - go on gardening leave. Things are home weren't going well, and my synaesthesia took a turn for the worse. I couldn't stand to be in the office, tasting everyone else's chatter, banter, lies and deceits. I was overwhelmed."</em>
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All the way through the book the taste sensations that he is experiencing are commented on - the way that individual people will trigger certain tastes, the tastes that other sounds generate. Strangely this isn't one of the frustrating elements of the book, it's built into the narrative in such a way as to give it some colour (for want of a dreadful attempt at a pun). Lapslie shares the major limelight of the book with a number of supporting characters such as his DS, Emma Bradbury, a no-nonsense sort of a copper - who makes a particularly memorable entrance as she bemoans the loss of the top of the range Porsche at the initial car crash scene, cursing drivers with more money than sense. The killer is also front and centre from the start of the book. What is slightly frustrating are the reasons Lapslie was called back from the long-term leave, given special considerations such as a Quiet Room in which to work, and a DS and then nothing else much; the reason why his name was flagged when the first body was found; the reason why his investigation is stymied and slowed and ultimately closed down, it's all a bit odd. There's some stuff in there that you're probably going to be disconcerted to find - either because it's so implausible it's unfathomable; or because it might just be plausible in which case it's still unfathomable.
All of that aside though, what's really fascinating about STILL WATERS is that this is basically a story of invisibility. It's not giving away too much of the plot to say that the person whose body is found, hasn't been noticed as missing. STILL WATERS is really exploring age, invisibility, social exclusion and how menacing is the villain that picks victims that are as invisible as they are.
NATURAL HISTORY - Neil Cross
Reading NATURAL HISTORY I was struck by a number of things. Firstly, this is not your normal family. It's mostly Jane's idea to take over Monkeyland and build it into a good animal sanctuary - saving it from undoubted bankruptcy. Patrick just sort of goes along with this. It's Jane's idea to do the television series about Monkeyland. Patrick sort of goes along with this. Jane's the one that heads off to Africa and more TV stardom. Patrick goes along with this. Patrick's the one that ends up running Monkeyland - half-heartedly you'd have to say. Patrick's the one that tries to keep hearth and home together as Jane deals with her own demons in Zaire. Secondly, their children mirror the parents, but there's the sex crossover. Jo's pretty amenable, she's got her love of Astronomy and now she's home, rather than at boarding school she's just about prepared to roll along with most things. Charlie, on the other hand, is a bit more volatile. He works actively at Monkeyland and he has a real bond with the animals. When he has to be dismissed after an altercation with a patron chucking things at some of the apes, then he gets a job at a big, seaside hotel. And he works hard at the job. He's getting on with things. Thirdly, there are all these cross-over threads. Patrick's worried that Jane's having an affair with her TV producer, Charlie is having an affair with a woman he meets one night in the hotel. Jo's busy studying with her tutor and Patrick... well Patrick's obsessed with a panther. One morning he's sure he's seen a big black panther, stalking the back lanes of leafy England. Finally, it sounds like there's a lot happening in NATURAL HISTORY, and there is, but there's also not a lot happening. In the early part of the book there's Rue, the elderly ape's murder, but in terms of other crimes, there's nothing else much. For most of the book. But there is this never-ending sense of tension. Maybe it's the reader wondering what / if anything is ever going to happen, but whatever it is, the book moves rapidly - somewhere.
It could be that the writer's background as a TV writer shows strongly here, the story is told in short sections from a number of different perspectives. It swaps, changes, wrong-foots, heads down multiple side alleys and slowly, but surely, feels like it's going somewhere but you don't know where. In the first few chapters I was honestly wondering if anything was ever going to happen and thought I was getting impatient. It was only 3/4's of the way through the book that I realised that there was still a lot of what seemed to be nothing happening, and yet, I didn't want to put it down.
Definitely not a book for lovers of the "body in the opening" pages style, NATURAL HISTORY just crept up on me.
CROW STONE - Jenni Mills
"Corax the Raven - the messenger of the gods. Just when you think life is on track, along comes a socking great bird, squawking news of a divine quest. My advice is, shoot the bloody thing....."
The quote at the start of CROW STONE hinted at something with a very dry, quirky sense of humour and it definitely delivers - on the lighter moments, with good characterisation and a tremendous, taut, tense and frequently disturbing plot.
Katie was a little girl in Bath, living with her overbearing father, her mother left them when she was only a toddler. In many ways, Katie's a normal teenager - she watches the teenage boy who lives over the road through the curtains; she's under pressure to keep up her results at school; and her friends are obsessed with clothes, boys and parties. Katie's a little different though, a bit withdrawn, obviously missing her mother - her love is archaeology - she fascinated by the fossils that are found around Bath and by the ancient stone mines that have been dug out under Bath.
20 years later and Katie has grown into Kit, now a mining engineer, back in Bath and working with the team that are trying to shore up those very same mines before there are major collapses. She's always denied her connections with Bath, but the status of the mines and her past in the area get complicated when Katie discovers something that seems significant from an archaeological point of view. She must call in her best friend, professor of Archeology Martin, and together they have to get into an off limits area of the mine to check out the discovery.
The possibility of a much sought after Roman Mithraic temple is not the only secret that the mines hold, and Kit is struggling with being back in Bath, let alone finding the teenage boy has also grown up into the foreman of the works. But what was it that happened all those years ago, where is Kit's father now, and why did her mother leave her?
CROW STONE covers Kit's life as the teenage Katie in alternating chapters with the current day. There's a slow burning, gripping, building tension that comes with this approach. This is not a book where a crime happens up front, instead, something has happened in the past, something is happening in the present and the reader rapidly learns the details of either event. What holds both of these threads together is Kit. She's a fabulous, engaging character, sometimes full of attitude and confidence, sometimes doubting and unsure of herself. There's a lot that has obviously happened in Kit's life and she's handling it in the only way she knows how.
Along with Kit there's a well drawn cast of supporting characters, Gary the young boy over the road now foreman, Kit's dearest friend Martin, the creepy site archaeologist Dickon and the miners who are horrified to have a woman underground.
CROW STONE was one of those books that you opened, read the first chapter and settled down for the ride. It is a first novel for Jenni Mills, and you can't help hoping that there's lots more to come.
DEATH OF DALZIEL - Reginald Hill
Two mutton pasties, an almond slice and a custard tart are not the normal order that a superior officer would give to a subordinate faced with a possible armed siege. But then, Andy Dalziel's never been one for all that official mucking about and Hector's never been one that anybody really believes. Number 3 Mill Street, an Asian and Arab specialist Video store, is an address flagged for low level interest by the Combined Anti-Terrorism Unit. Inspector Ireland's not convinced that Dalziel is taking this seriously enough. Inevitably he has to ring Peter Pascoe to tell him about this latest grievance with the Fat Man's response but what Peter doesn't expect is that it is Ellie that nudges him from his Bank Holiday hammock musing that Andy may need to be discouraged from starting his own Gulf War.
Meanwhile Andy is breaking every single rule in the CAT book. No roadblocks, no observation, no holding off until the CAT group can respond, and Andy hunkered down behind his car on the other side of the street, waving a bullhorn around and inviting the people in the store to order their own pasties. Pascoe thinks he's using heavy handed irony when he suggests “all you need do is stroll over there, check everything's OK, then leave a note for the CAT man on the shop door saying you've got it sorted and would he like a cup of tea back at the Station?” Unfortunately irony is often wasted on Andy and classic insult delivered, he struggles to his feet and confidently steps across the street towards No 3.
Mill Street then blows up.
Taking the full brunt of the explosion, Dalziel is critically injured, comatose and desperately ill. Pascoe is a little luckier, shielded from the initial blast by the Fat Man himself, he's bruised battered and befuddled, but as the crash cart is called to Andy, torn between grief and anger, acceptance and incomprehension, Peter is determined to find out what happened. Seconded to the CAT Unit as damage control by them (“better on the inside pissing out”), anybody who thinks that one of Dalziel's men can be tamed by token gestures, has obviously underestimated the stretch and tenacity of the Fat Man's influence.
The plot gets more and more complex as connections emerge between the explosion, terrorism, the Yorkshire Muslim community, the CAT Unit, young Hector and even Pascoe himself. Wield is there, providing quiet and faithful backup to Pascoe, distressed by Dalziel's fate and worried about Pascoe. Ellie is supporting her husband whilst dealing with her own feelings, worried about the increasing violence as the investigation gets closer to a mysterious group called the Knights Templar. In a luscious touch of irony, the CAT Unit is headed by Sandy Glenister – Scottish, female, forthright, bawdy and unorthodox. She is a woman who truly could have jousted with Dalziel and lived to tell the tale.
Part of the joy of DEATH OF DALZIEL is as always, the style. The language is peppered with the obscure and unexpected, alongside the most wonderful broad brush Yorkshire phrasing and terminology that just leaps off the page and draws the reader in – and I suspect, leaves you with a tendency to use “owt” and “yon” in your own conversation for quite a long time after the reading has finished.
The humour is also particularly of it's place. Slightly bawdy, edgy and self-deprecating. Only Dalziel, comatose, lying in a hospital bed, and having an out of body experience could joke about his position. Only Wieldy could sit quietly in his backyard, all hell breaking out around him, sneaking a marmoset toast with butter and jam. Surely Hill is one of the few writers who could draw the fabulous Tottie (could she be the Tottie from the Mecca Ballroom?), the classic Yorkshire wife and mother, conversion to Islam or not – she's a Yorkshire-woman first.
DEATH OF DALZIEL is going to grab you from that first explosion and keep you reading, wondering and hoping right to the very end.