Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

Sister act…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A hot-air balloon is drifting over Northumberland, carrying the pilot and twelve sightseers. Jessica and her sister, Bella, now better known as Sister Maria Magdalena of Wynding Priory, are two of the party – a treat for Bella’s birthday. As they silently pass over an isolated farmhouse, Jessica sees a man killing a young woman – and then the man looks up and spots Jessica. By this time everyone in the balloon is watching the man. He only has one option – to kill them all…

No-one writes more entertaining thrillers than Sharon Bolton when she’s on top form – and yet again, she’s on top form with this standalone. We know from the prologue that the balloon crashes leaving only one survivor. The police soon identify her as Jessica Lane, but she has walked away from the crash and they can’t find her. They don’t know why she’s made no effort to contact the authorities – perhaps she’s badly hurt or concussed and confused. So the search is on. But the killer also knows there’s a survivor, and he’s determined to get to her first. But maybe she has reasons for not wanting to be found…

The thing is that you’d imagine that twelve corpses before we even get past the prologue might make this quite a harrowing read. But not at all! Bolton negotiates the difficult task of marrying together a serious plot with some delicious humour to keep the whole thing enjoyable. Bolton doesn’t ignore the grief that the survivor feels for the death of her sister, but the need to survive means she has to put it aside as much as possible and concentrate on getting to safety. The underlying story is actually quite dark and there is some gore, but Bolton doesn’t linger over it in too much detail. If you think too much about the plot, it does cross pretty far over the credibility line in several places, but Bolton doesn’t give you time to think about it – she races the story along, with some fine characterisation, some twists that are perfectly timed and believable within the context, and lots and lots of action.

The secret is in the writing. Once you reach the end and look back, it’s so much fun to see how cleverly Bolton has misled and misdirected all the way through – never cheating though! She never once says anything that is inconsistent with the solution – she just says it in such a way that you don’t spot it at the time. Delicious!

As a result, though, it’s not an easy one to write a review about since almost anything is a potential spoiler, so I won’t say any more about the plot. But I must mention the nuns, especially the wonderful Sister Belinda, who is my favourite character of the year so far! Bella and Jessica had been very close so Jessica is well known to the other nuns and a favourite amongst them. So the police feel it’s quite possible that if Jessica is confused, she might make for the convent as a place of safety. Sister Belinda is an avid watcher of old TV police dramas of The Sweeney variety in her recreation time, so she has a fabulously clichéd vocabulary picked up from these shows and is super excited to get the chance to put her ‘expertise’ to use during the investigation. She’s just so much fun…

The sound of running footsteps made them all start. Then the refectory door opened and the round, freckled face of Sister Belinda appeared. She was breathing heavily, and her veil was crooked, showing short tufts of red hair sprouting around her glowing face like unruly weeds in a parched garden.

“Excuse me, Mother, Sisters,” she said. “But there is a police car waiting at the gate and what looks like the Black Maria behind it. Also, another car approaching from the farm and a uniformed constable coming in via the beach path. It would appear that the filth have us surrounded.”

Loved this one! A perfect mix of dark and light, superbly clever plotting, constant action and hugely entertaining – you can expect to see Bolton appear yet again on my shortlist for Crime Book of the Year.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bantam Press.

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Daisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton

Brilliant!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

daisy in chainsHamish Wolfe is a prisoner, convicted of the murders of three young women. Maggie Rose is a defence barrister and author of several books regarding possible miscarriages of justice, some of which have resulted in the convicted men being released. Hamish and his little group of supporters on the outside are keen to get Maggie to take on his case. Pete Weston owes his promotion to Detective Sergeant to his success in catching Hamish, and he’s adamant that no mistakes were made.

This is Sharon Bolton at her twisty, twisted best, and her best is pretty brilliant! Told in the third person, we’re only allowed brief glimpses into the mind of each of these three main characters, so we’re never quite sure who’s telling the truth. But we’re pretty sure from early on that each one is hiding something.

Hamish is a charming, exceedingly handsome and intelligent young man, so he has even more than the usual quota of strange women declaring their love for him despite, or perhaps because of, his convictions. But is he guilty? The evidence looks pretty solid but he’s always insisted he’s innocent and there are plenty of people who are willing to believe him. Pete seems like one of that rare breed (in fiction) – an honest hard-working cop who sticks to the rules. But as Maggie begins to delve into the case it does begin to look as if coincidence played a pretty big part in his original investigation. And what is Maggie’s motivation for getting murderers released from prison? She claims it’s not about guilt or innocence but about whether they got fair treatment under the law – a moral standpoint, if true…

Bolton’s skill is not just in the plotting, great though that is. Where she really excels is in setting up an atmosphere of growing tension and dread, always helped by the settings she chooses. Her last couple of Lacey Flint books have made us all see the Thames in a new and sinister light, and in this standalone she uses the caves and tunnels beneath the Somerset coast to brilliant effect. Her descriptive writing is fabulous – the lowering snow clouds, freezing cold and short dark days all adding beautifully to a scary sense of creepiness and fear. But there’s a healthy dose of humour which prevents the book from becoming too dark, meaning that it’s a truly enjoyable read even while it’s deliciously tingling the reader’s spine.

Sharon Bolton (amazon.co.uk)
Sharon Bolton

As well as the three main players, there’s a small host of quirky secondary characters, most of them part of the little group campaigning for Hamish’s release. Bolton does address a couple of serious issues – the way some people are drawn to notorious, violent killers for all sorts of reasons, some saner than others, and how society sees and reacts to fat people (all of the victims were fat women). But she does it with a light touch so that it never feels like she’s grinding an axe or thumping a tub – she is observing rather than judging.

It’s a strange thing that sometimes the best books are the ones that require to have the least said about them. The joy of this one is in being lead so skilfully through all the various twists, constantly having to reassess one’s opinion of the leading characters as each new piece is added, so I don’t want to reveal too much. I’ll simply say that in reading over my short notes made while reading I see I’ve used the word ‘brilliant’ no less than nine times, with a couple of fabulouses thrown in for good measure, and I’ve already made space for this one in my Book of the Year roundup. (It could easily also win best title and best cover.) In case I haven’t made myself clear – highly recommended! In fact, brilliant!!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.

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Tuesday Thriller! Here Be Dragons: A Short Story (Lacey Flint) by Sharon Bolton

Going undercover…

 

A summer evening in London, and Mark Joesbury is steering a Marine Unit boat up the Thames. He’s under orders but not from his superiors. An undercover mission is going badly wrong, his cover is blown and the bad guys are holding a gun to Lacey Flint’s head…

Tuesday Thriller white gunslinger

What a brilliant story! Any fan of the Lacey Flint series must read this, and it would actually work fine as a standalone too. In terms of time period, it crosses over with the ending of A Dark and Twisted Tide, tying in with things we learned in that one, while avoiding any spoilers for it. It’s novella length – I’m rubbish at converting from Kindle length (881) to pages but I’d guess about 60 or 70. Long enough for Bolton to give us a really believable, satisfying story, with as much depth as most novels achieve, but just the right length to read in one session.

The plot is great and frighteningly credible, based on a terrorist threat, which is as much as I’m going to tell you about it. It’s the gorgeous and lovely Mark Joesbury who’s in the starring role for once, and he fills it perfectly, though of course Lacey has a part to play too. As she did in A Dark and Twisted Tide, Bolton brings the Thames to life, with its shifting tides and hidden dangers lurking beneath its moody beauty, running between some of the most important buildings in the UK. Her descriptive writing really is second to none at creating an atmospheric sense of place.

Here Be Dragons

Although in a sense it’s a police procedural, because it’s based around Mark’s undercover work it reads much more like a true thriller. There’s no real detection element to it, certainly not as far as knowing who the bad guys are anyway, but there’s still a big element of suspense in not knowing exactly what’s going to happen.

And tension! Oh yes! Brilliant build-up, fantastic dénouement. Pulse-racing stuff – can’t remember when I last enjoyed a short story so much (sorry, James Joyce!). And as for the ending… trust me, Lacey fans, you’ll want to have read this one before the next novel comes along. Which I hope will be soon!! The best kind of cliffhanger – the type that leaves you satisfied but also wanting more…

Can you guess I’m recommending this one? *turns cartwheels while blowing a horn*

* * * * *

Yippee Ki Yay rating:     😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

 

It's a Bruce Willis!
It’s a Bruce!

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Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

little black liesMore dead children…

🙂 🙂 😐

It’s three years since Catrin’s two sons were killed in a tragic accident – the result of a moment of carelessness by her best friend, Rachel. Catrin can’t forgive her and as the anniversary of the deaths approaches it seems as if she might be about to commit some drastic action. But meantime a toddler has gone missing – a rare occurrence in the sparsely populated Falklands Islands, but not unique. Two other children have disappeared in recent years and some people are beginning to wonder if they are linked. Despite her troubled state of mind, Catrin gets drawn into the search for the little boy…

This book gets off to a brilliant start. Bolton is always readable – a born storyteller. Her description of the harsh, bleak environment of the Falklands ten years after the war between Britain and Argentina creates an atmosphere ripe for tales of dread. And her characterisation of Catrin is great – this damaged, grief-stricken mother haunted by her dead sons and burning with the desire for revenge. As the book begins, Catrin is out in a boat at night and Bolton wonderfully contrasts the beauty of the stars reflecting in the water with the dangers of the unpredictable sea and the cold cruelty of Catrin’s thoughts. A truly atmospheric beginning.

Unfortunately, a great beginning doesn’t always make a great book. First off, I am heartily tired of every second crime book focussing on the murder and/or abuse of children. By all means, if an author is making a serious point about some aspect of society or the justice system, but not when it’s just for entertainment, as so many of them are, including this one. It’s not a subject that I find remotely entertaining. And as usual with these trends each new book feels it has to up the ante in order to harrow us just a little bit more than the last. I find it all a little sickening. So I admit that Bolton was always going to have to work extra hard to win me over. But, even putting my prejudice to one side, there are a couple of other aspects that left me feeling this book doesn’t reach Bolton’s usual standards.

Shipwrecks off the coast of the Falklands
Shipwrecks off the coast of the Falklands

The book is told in three voices – first Catrin’s, then Callum’s and finally Rachel’s. Callum is an ex-soldier who fought in the Falklands war and has now returned to live in the islands to try to overcome his demons. His voice and character didn’t ring true for me at all, I’m afraid. While it’s obviously true that some soldiers are left mentally scarred by their experiences, it’s become a stereotype now to have every ex-serviceman struggling with PTSD and so haunted by his experiences he is incapable of functioning normally. And I felt we had enough misery to contend with in Catrin’s grief without the need to relive Callum’s war experiences too. Especially since, in the third part, we also have to relive Rachel’s guilt along with her.

But it’s less that than the way Bolton portrays Callum’s maleness that bothers me. He thinks about women’s bodies all the time, seeing each purely in terms of her sexual attractiveness or lack of it, and fantasises about ‘shagging’ every woman he meets. He makes sexist remarks. He swears a lot. But the reader is supposed to be on his side, and to believe that intelligent women find him attractive. It all seemed a very lazy way to create a ‘male’ voice – again a stereotype and a pretty negative one at that.

Rachel’s voice didn’t fare much better for me either. Wracked with guilt, she is apparently dysfunctional to the point of borderline neglect of her children, but seems too self-aware of her own failings – almost wryly humorous about them at times. I found her unconvincing.

It’s pretty tasteless too, not only about the children, but there’s a particularly graphic and unnecessary whale scene that’s not for the squeamish either, and feels as if it’s only in there to harrow the reader still further – as if dead children aren’t enough. And the plot, which starts out brilliantly, eventually spirals downwards to a degree that stretches credulity so far as to become almost ridiculous. One unbelievable event follows another, then another, and so on, with the eventual equally unbelievable solution tacked on almost as an afterthought. The climax of the investigation in fact reads almost like a humorous farce – totally out of place given the subject matter. The book is still very readable for the most part – the quality and flow of Bolton’s writing, the sense of place and the first section in Catrin’s voice are all excellent, hence my rather generous 2½-star rating. But ultimately I found the flaws in this one outweighed its strengths.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.

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A Dark and Twisted Tide (Lacey Flint 4) by Sharon Bolton

a dark and twisted tide“Till human voices wake us, and we drown…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

After her recent experiences, Lacey has stepped back from her role as a detective and joined the Met’s Marine Unit, patrolling the Thames. She’s also moved to live on a houseboat moored in Deptford Creek and taken up the highly dangerous sport of river-swimming. And it’s when she’s out swimming alone one early morning that she finds the first body…

This is another excellent entry in the Lacey Flint series, with all the regulars back in fine form. Mark Joesbury (sigh!) is off on an undercover mission but we know he won’t be able to stay away from Lacey for long. Dana’s long-distance relationship with Helen is still continuing, and Dana is becoming desperate to have a child. And Lacey, although still suffering the after-effects of her last couple of cases, is continuing to move towards a more normal existence – she’s just about ready to finally accept that there may be a life for her with Mark.

SJ Bolton (source: sjbolton.com)
Sharon Bolton
(source: sjbolton.com)

I’d suggest that, although at a push this book could work as a standalone, it would be much better to read the series in order starting with Now You See Me. The crime story works fine on its own, but the characters develop and grow so much throughout these books that a new reader coming in in the middle might be left a bit puzzled as to the dynamics amongst the members of the team.

Normally Bolton’s plotting is one of her major strengths but, to be honest, I didn’t think the plot of this one was quite up to her usual standard. It relied a bit too much on coincidence and stretched credulity a little too often; and, more than that, I felt the main points of the solution were too easy to work out fairly early on. I also found myself questioning how often we can believe that a killer will specifically target Lacey. However, one of Bolton’s slightly less good plots is still about twenty times better than most people’s best, and what it perhaps lacked in tension was made up for by the brilliant descriptions of the Thames and the people who live and work on it. There are some of Bolton’s trademark creepy moments that set my spine nicely a-tingle – I was never a huge fan of crabs but oooh! Well! They may figure in my nightmares for a while now… 😯

Aaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrgggggh!!!!
Aaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrgggggh!!!!

The story is hard-hitting but as always Bolton manages to tell it without gratuitously-described violence or excessive foul language; and, though the murder victims are young women, Bolton is far too talented and original to rely on tedious scenes of sexual humiliation and torture to harrow her reader’s soul. Lacey is a bit of a maverick, but thankfully not a drunken one, and more and more we see her trying to conform to rules and procedures. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this series has been watching Lacey’s gradual transformation from weird loner to valued team-member – she’s not completely there yet, but she’s getting close. And the fact that she’s changed so much and yet remained completely credible is a testament to Bolton’s skill in characterisation.

By a tiny margin, not the best in the series perhaps, but still one of the best books I’ve read or expect to read this year – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.

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Like This, For Ever (Lacey Flint 3) by SJ Bolton

like this for ever“Blood will have blood…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Publication due 11th April 2013

Lacey Flint’s third outing shows Bolton at her best – inventive plotting, great characterisation, plenty of humour, much of it black, and a sense of tension that builds throughout to a thrillingly dramatic climax. (I say third outing, but it’s really the fourth if you count the short novella If Snow Hadn’t Fallen, in which we first met Barney, Lacey’s young neighbour.) The book starts with the discovery of the body of twins under Tower Bridge, the most recent victims of a serial killer who steals young boys and cuts their throats. The MIT squad, still led by Dana Tulloch, is getting nowhere fast – these murders don’t fall into the normal pattern as there’s no sign of a sexual angle. Dana and the squad are already feeling the pressure and it’s going to get worse…

Meantime DC Lacey Flint is in a bad way psychologically after her horrific experiences in the last book, Dead Scared, (I’m not surprised – I’m still pretty shaken up over that one myself!) and hasn’t yet returned to work. Spending more time at home, she’s getting to know young Barney better, and is concerned that Barney seems to be left alone a lot while his dad is working late. But Barney and his friends are more fascinated than frightened by the killings and are following every twist and turn in the investigation on social networking sites.

SJ Bolton(source:www.boekreview.nl)
SJ Bolton
(source:www.boekreview.nl)

In this outing, with Lacey being outside the main investigation, we get to know the rest of the team better and the book is much more of an ensemble piece. Lacey is still trying to deny her feelings for DI Joesbury, but he’s not planning on giving up on her just yet. Added to the usual characters are Barney and his friends, and Bolton handles them brilliantly – they’re completely convincing in their interactions with each other and with the various adults, and add a lot to both the humour and the tension. And when I say tension, I mean nail-biting, spine-tingling, up-till-4 a.m.-because–you-need-to-know-how-it-finishes tension!

One of the things I enjoyed most is that there’s an old-fashioned whodunit at the heart of this very contemporary book. Bolton gives us all of the clues and a huge cast of suspects, and then uses her consummate skills in the art of misdirection to keep us guessing. I suspected everyone in turn, many of them twice! But Bolton still managed to keep me on tenterhooks right up to the thrilling end. A great addition to a great series – highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

***

Post Script – Like London buses, you wait for years and then three Queens of Crime turn up at once. Once upon a time, there were Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers. Now we have a new triumvirate in SJ Bolton, Jane Casey and Belinda Bauer. This year so far we’ve had Bauer’s wonderfully black and gruesome Rubbernecker, then this tension-filled and immensely well-plotted one from Bolton. And Casey’s much anticipated new Maeve Kerrigan novel, The Stranger You Know, is due out in July…no pressure, Ms Casey!

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If Snow Hadn’t Fallen (Lacey Flint Novella) by SJ Bolton

A taste of unease…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

if snow hadn't fallenIn terms of plot, this novella-sized story falls between the first and second books in the Lacey Flint series, although it was actually published after the second one. Unusually for this author the plot is fairly clichéd; however, the quality of Bolton’s writing always lifts her stories above the average. The story starts with the burning to death of a man in the park behind Lacey’s house; and Bolton gives us a generous taste of the creepiness and unease that she used to such great effect in Dead Scared, the second full-length book in the series, which for me was one of the best and certainly the scariest crime thriller of 2012.

SJ Bolton(source: sjbolton.com)
SJ Bolton
(source: sjbolton.com)

Lacey Flint’s character changed quite a lot between the first book, Now You See Me, and the second – and for the better, becoming warmer, more open, more likeable. In this story, she is more like she was in the first book, a maverick loner, but we see signs of her becoming more part of the team and more involved with the other recurring characters.

In summary, a good if short read and interesting for watching Flint’s character develop. Having now read the new third book, Like This For Ever, I realise that part of this novella’s purpose is to introduce us to Lacey’s young neighbour, Barney, who plays a significant role in the book. As I’ve said in each review, although each book contains a standalone story, it’s better to read them in order because Lacey’s character and relationships develop as the series progresses; so I would recommend reading this as it was published – that is, after Dead Scared.

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Dead Scared (Lacey Flint 2) by SJ Bolton

dead scaredSpine-tingling…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

With this second instalment of her Lacey Flint series, SJ Bolton has set herself a new standard – one that ensures her place amongst the very best of contemporary crime writers.

Although I enjoyed the first in the series, Now You See Me, I had some reservations around both style and characterisation. But not with this one. Scary enough to be truly spine-tingling, well-plotted enough to keep the suspense going throughout and with some really funny moments to lighten the tone, Bolton has given us a real treat of a novel. I felt the lead character, detective Lacey Flint, has been changed quite a bit since her last outing and for the better.

SJ Bolton(source: sjbolton.com)
SJ Bolton
(source: sjbolton.com)

She has become a more open, much more likeable character, less of a loner and now with a sense of humour and considerably less angst – all to the good. Her interaction with Evi Oliver, student counsellor, is very convincing as is her relationship, both personal and professional, with DI Mark Joesbury.

The plot about a spate of students committing suicide couldn’t be much darker, and there are bits that are very unsettling and downright creepy. Bolton handles the tension masterfully right up to the end and certainly left this reader hoping that the series will continue for some time to come. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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Now You See Me (Lacey Flint 1) by SJ Bolton

Ripping yarn!

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Now You See MeSince the new Lacey Flint novel, Like This, For Ever is due out in April, it seems like a good time to post the reviews of the earlier books. I’ve been lucky enough to get the chance to read an advance copy of the new one and will be posting a review shortly. For readers new to the series, do read them in order – although each is a stand-alone story, they refer back to the previous stories and Lacey’s character and relationships develop as the series progresses. Now You See Me is the first and though, for my money, it’s also the weakest, (though still very good), it’s where we get to know a lot about what makes Lacey tick. Here’s the review I posted on Amazon…

A serial killer is on the loose and copying the crimes of Jack the Ripper. This well-written story is told in the first person, through the eyes of young policewoman Lacey Flint, who has had a life-long fascination with the Ripper story. At first, it seems accidental that Lacey should have been the one to find the first body, but when the killer starts sending letters to the press, it becomes clear that she is being targeted in some way.

SJ Bolton(amazon.co.uk)
SJ Bolton
(amazon.co.uk)
The plot twists and turns cleverly throughout the book. At least twice I thought I had it all worked out, but wrongly each time. However, I didn’t warm to many of the characters and found it difficult to empathise with Lacey in particular. I felt the first-person narrative became a problem in the second half of the book when it was obvious that Lacey knew far more than she was telling. Though this was necessary to maintain the suspense, I felt it created a distance between Lacey and the reader. Ultimately, I also found the plot to be stretching the bounds of plausibility.

But despite these criticisms, what could have been a standard serial killer novel was raised above the average by the quality of the writing and the author’s ability to misdirect. The suspense was maintained to the very end. Well worth reading and I’ll be looking out for more from this author.

Looking back at this review a couple of years on, I realise it’s less than glowing but I’m glad I stuck with the series because in the next one, Dead Scared, Lacey came into her own in a big way.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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