Cop Hater (87th Precinct 1) by Ed McBain

A real classic…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a cop is shot down in the street one night, the squad from the 87th Precinct in Isola swing into action. At first the reason for the shooting isn’t known. Was it random? Was it personal? But when another cop from the precinct is killed in the same way it begins to look like there’s a cop hater on the loose. Now Detective Steve Carella and his colleagues have two reasons to find the killer quickly – to get justice for their fellow officers and to stop the perpetrator before he kills again…

First published in 1956, this is the first in the long-running, successful and influential 87th Precinct series. I read many of them in my teens, but this is the first time I’ve revisited the Precinct in decades. I have no memory of the individual plots, but vividly remember the setting and several of the characters – a testimony to how well drawn they are. In this one Steve Carella is the main focus but as the series progressed McBain developed an entire group of detectives who took their turn in the spotlight, which is why the series is known by the name of the squad rather than any one detective. Carella stays at the forefront more than the other detectives overall, though, throughout the series. The books are based in Isola, an area of a major city which is clearly a fictionalised New York. The various boroughs have been given different names but are apparently recognisable to people who know the city (which I only do through books and TV or movies – I suspect my first impressions of New York may in fact have come from this series).

Apparently the series was made into a TV show. I had no idea – I wonder if it wasn’t shown on this side of the pond…

The style seems to me like a kind of crossover point between the hardboiled fiction of Hammett, Chandler and their generation, and the more modern police procedural that would come to the fore and perhaps dominate crime fiction over the next few decades. (I hasten to add I’m no expert and not particularly widely-read, especially in American crime fiction, so this is just my own impression – perhaps other writers had been making the transition before McBain got there.) When he writes about the city – the soaring skylines, the dazzling lights, the display of wealth and glamour barely hiding the crime, corruption and violence down on the streets – it reads like pure noir; and in this one there’s a femme fatale who equals any of the greats, oozing sexuality and confidence in her power over men.

But when he writes about Carella and the squad his tone is warmer, less hard-edged. While hardboiled and noir detectives always seem to be loners, rather mysterious men without much in the way of backstory, McBain’s police officers are real humans, who joke and watch sports, who have wives and children. Personally I prefer that mix to pure noir – McBain’s detectives aren’t always wholly likeable, but they’re human enough to allow me to care about them. Also, because he uses an entire squad as his protagonist, each individual is more expendable than the single hero or partnership of many other authors, so there’s always an air of real suspense as to whether they will come through dangerous situations. They don’t always…

The plot is excellent – I won’t give any spoilers, but I will say that it was only just before the reveal that I really got any idea of where it was heading. McBain creates great atmosphere with his writing, which actually is of much higher quality than I remembered. Some of the scenes had me on the edge of my seat and he left me shocked more than once, but without ever stepping over the credibility line. In fact, realism is at the heart of the book – these detectives have to rely on doing the legwork, using informants and hoping for lucky breaks. There’s a fair amount of casual police brutality, with the impression that this was the norm back then, and rather approved of than otherwise, both within the service and by society in general (and, I suspect, by McBain himself). Times change – depictions of casual and repeated brutality by police protagonists in contemporary British crime fiction annoy me because it wouldn’t be considered acceptable here today and so jars as unrealistic. But it feels right in this book, and isn’t over-emphasised; it’s just part of the job.

Ed McBain
Copyright: Getty Images

There’s also a strand about the relationship between the police and the press, with an irresponsible journalist creating problems for the investigation. This is handled very well, with the reader put firmly on the side of the police. They may not always be nice guys, but McBain leaves us in no doubt that they’re the good guys. And yes, I do mean guys – no women yet in this detective squad. Women are strictly either femmes fatales or loving wives and girlfriends. Well, it was the ’50s!

The ending has aspects of the thriller and again reverts to a more noir-ish feel as we discover the motivation behind the crimes.

I was expecting to like this but perhaps to find it a bit dated. In fact, I loved it. Writing, setting, atmosphere, characterisation – all superb. While some of the attitudes are obviously a bit dated, the storytelling isn’t at all, and the vices and weaknesses of the human animal haven’t changed much over the years. Excellent stuff – definitely a classic of the genre, and highly recommended to anyone who enjoys a realistic police procedural with an edge of noir. I was intending to read this as a one-off as part of my Classics Club challenge, but I’ll certainly be revisiting the 87th Precinct again.

Book 13 of 90

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The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

A quirk too far…

🙂 🙂 🙂

One spring morning, Diana Cowper, a healthy woman in her sixties, calls into a local undertaker’s and arranges her own funeral. Nothing too uncommon about this, especially since she is a widow and her only son has moved to the States to pursue his successful acting career. But it takes on a very different aspect when, later that same day, she is strangled to death in her own home. Disgraced ex-policeman Daniel Hawthorne is called in by his old boss to investigate the crime on a consulting basis. Hawthorne thinks it would be a great idea if someone were to write a book showing him in action – and he knows just the man for the job…

Horowitz is one of the cleverest plotters out there at the moment and I’ve loved his last several books. In this one, however, I feel he allows that cleverness to lead him down a route that, for me at least, becomes too quirky to be totally enjoyable. It transpires that the man Hawthorne has in mind to write his book is none other than Horowitz himself. So the fictional mystery quickly gets blended into a lot of, I assume, largely factual stuff about Horowitz’s actual writing career. My problem with this is that either his characterisation of himself is heavily fictionalised, in which case, what’s the point? Or it’s mostly true, in which case, sadly, I found him a rather unlikeable chap with an overhealthy sense of his own worth and importance, who simply loves to name-drop. I spent most of the book trying to convince myself he was attempting to be humorous by deliberately showing himself off as a cultural snob and an aspiring lovey, but if so, it wasn’t made clear enough. I tired quickly of the long digressions where he breaks away from the story to discuss the making of Foyle’s War, the amazing success of his books, or his meetings with Steven Spielberg and David Jackson to discuss film scripts, even though he occasionally attempts to include a bit of self-deprecatory humour.

I’ve said before that personally I prefer not to know much about authors since knowing about their personalities can get in the way of my appreciation of their books. I therefore avoid literary biographies and autobiographies of all but the long dead, and rarely read author interviews or articles about them for the same reason. So I’m aware that my adverse reaction to this book arises out of that dislike and therefore won’t be the same for readers who do like to know about authors’ lives – in fact, I’m almost certain they’ll find this aspect adds a lot of fun.

Anthony Horowitz
(www.telegraph.co.uk)

Otherwise, the plotting is excellent, as is the quality of the writing. The clues are all given, so in that sense it’s fairplay, though I think it would take a healthy dose of luck for anyone to get close to the solution – I certainly didn’t. The story goes to some dark places but there’s a lot of humour so that the overall tone is of a light entertainment. Hawthorne didn’t ring true to me at all, nor did the idea that a policeman who had been sacked would be called in on a murder investigation, but I didn’t feel Horowitz was really going for realism. To be truthful, I’m not altogether sure what he was going for. He’s clearly doing a kind of update of the Holmes/Watson relationship – he gives the impression that he was writing this at the same time as his excellent books set in the Holmesian world, The House of Silk and Moriarty. But, unlike Holmes and Watson, I found neither of these characters particularly admirable or likeable. And an awful lot of the “detection” element simply consists of characters giving great long uninterrupted speeches explaining all the various events in their pasts that have some connection with the present-day crime.

Overall, I found it a reasonably enjoyable read but, probably at least in part because of my high expectations, something of a disappointment. I’m sure most Horowitz fans will enjoy it and have already seen several people praise it highly, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as one for newcomers to his work. And I’m hoping I can get Horowitz the character out of my head before Horowitz the author publishes his next book…

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

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The Malice of Waves (Cal McGill 3) by Mark Douglas-Home

The Island of Adventure…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Max Wheeler goes off to spend the night camping on uninhabited Priest’s Island, a storm-tossed island in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. His rich father had bought the island as a playground for him a couple of years earlier, much to the annoyance of the townspeople on the neighbouring island of Eilean Dubh, who resented this intrusion into their traditional way of life. Priest’s Island had belonged for generations to a local family who had used it for grazing their sheep. When Max fails to return and no trace of him is found, Ewan, the local lad who would have inherited the island had it not been sold to the Wheelers, quickly becomes the chief suspect. But no evidence has ever been found to allow him to be charged. Five years on, Max’s father has hired Cal McGill, an oceanographer and expert in tides and waves, in a last ditch effort to trace Max’s body. But Cal’s appearance stirs old fears and resentments amongst the townspeople and soon danger stalks more than one inhabitant…

This is the third in the Cal McGill series but the first I’ve read. It worked perfectly well as a standalone and I didn’t feel I was missing anything from not having read the earlier books. The mystery element of the plot is very good – I didn’t get close to the solution but, when it was revealed, felt that it was well within the bounds of credibility. I did think the plotting lacked a little by failing to provide possible alternative explanations though – there weren’t too many red herrings sending me off in the wrong direction. This meant that for quite a long time in the middle I felt the investigation element was rather underdeveloped – neither Cal nor his police officer sidekick Helen Jamieson seemed to be doing very much other than treading water (pun intended) while hoping someone might let something slip. In fact, Cal’s specialism played very little part in the story – always a problem when an amateur detective is given such a specific profession.

However, the depiction of the isolated small town on the edge of nowhere is done very well although, oddly, it lacks any feeling of Scottishness – no dialect, no Scottish traditions, not even Scottish cakes in the tea-shop at the heart of the community. It could as easily have been a small island community set anywhere in the world. But the way they band together when one of their number is threatened feels very realistic, as does the way they all know everything about each other and make allowances for one another’s quirks. The weather plays a large part in the story, and Douglas-Home gives excellent descriptions of the wildness of storms and how quickly these island communities can be cut off from the mainland.

There’s a sub-plot involving an egg-collector – a hobby that’s now illegal in order to protect threatened bird species. I found all the stuff about this added a real level of interest to the story – it feels well-researched and authentic, and sent me off to google images of some of the eggs and nests mentioned. Since some of these collectors go to ridiculous lengths in pursuit of rare eggs, it also allows for some hair-raisingly dangerous exploits and extra suspense (that’s also a pun, but if you want to know why, you’ll have to read the book…).

Mark Douglas-Home
Picture by: Alan Hillyer/Writer Pictures

The writing is very good – third person past tense – hurrah! In this episode we don’t get to know too much about Cal’s life – there’s a little history about his relationship with his father but not much else. However we learn more about Helen Jamieson. She’s a police officer, refreshingly competent and angst-free apart from her apparently unrequited longings for Cal, but she doesn’t allow these to get in the way of having a good professional relationship with him. I actually found myself thinking of her as the central character rather than Cal, so I hope she’s a recurring character in the series.

Overall, I enjoyed this one a lot, and will happily look out for more in this series. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin UK.

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The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards

Books, books, glorious books…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Having fallen deeply in love with the whole British Library Crime Classics thing, this book was bound to be right up my alley – a dark alley, full of sinister shadows and red herrings, of course! Martin Edwards has done a lot of the introductions for the novels in the BL collection and is the editor of all the great themed short story anthologies, so he knows his stuff. Here he looks at the rise of the crime novel and its development throughout the first half of the last century.

The book is split into themed sections, and is arranged roughly chronologically, although with some crossover in dates between the different groups. It starts with A New Era Dawns, which takes us back to look at some of the authors and books that pre-dated the Golden Age but influenced it: for example, Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles and Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men. The next chapter looks at The Birth of the Golden Age, then on to The Great Detectives, and so on; through to The Psychology of Crime, as straight mystery novels began to give way a little to the more character driven books, like those of Patricia Highsmith, which formed a kind of bridge to the more psychological crime novels of today. Some of the chapters look at particular sub-genres with chapter titles that often mirror the themed short story collections – Capital Crimes (London based), Continental Crimes, Miraculous Mysteries (locked room mysteries), etc. And, although the vast majority of the books listed are British, Edwards takes a brief look at what was happening Across the Atlantic and also a few from Europe and elsewhere around the world.

The main aim of detective stories is to entertain, but the best cast a light on human behaviour, and display both literary ambition and accomplishment. And there is another reason why millions of modern readers continue to appreciate classic crime fiction. Even unpretentious detective stories, written for unashamedly commercial reasons, can give us clues to the past, and give us insight into a long-vanished world that, for all its imperfections, continues to fascinate.

Edwards writes knowledgeably but conversationally, so that it never feels as if one is being lectured by an expert – rather it’s like having a chat with a well-read friend. He starts each chapter with a discussion around its theme, in which, I feel I have to warn you, he routinely mentions umpteen books which aren’t part of the hundred but all sound like must-reads! He shows how the genre and various sub-genres developed, and gives a clear impression of how back then crime writers were as much of a community as they are now, feeding off each other and often referencing each other’s work. Several of the authors were also critics and reviewers, and Edwards draws on their work to show how particular books and authors were thought of at the time. He discusses how the books reflect and were influenced by contemporary society and events, putting into context the “snobbishness” of some Golden Age writers that can sometimes be off-putting for the modern reader.

With relatively few exceptions, they [Golden Age crime writers] came from well-to-do families, and were educated at public school; many went to Oxford or Cambridge. . . .

Theirs was, in many ways, a small and elitist world, and this helps to explain why classic crime novels often include phonetic renditions of the dialogue of working-class people which make modern readers cringe. Some of the attitudes evident and implicit in the books of highly educated authors, for instance as regards Jewish and gay people, would be unacceptable in fiction written in the twenty-first century. It is worth remembering that theirs was not only a tiny world, but also a very different one from ours, and one of the pleasures of reading classic crime is that it affords an insight into the Britain of the past, a country in some respects scarcely recognisable today.

Following these interesting introductions, he lists the books he has selected for each section. He makes it clear he doesn’t necessarily think they’re all brilliant – rather, he feels they’re either an important link in the development of the crime novel, or a good representative example of the sub-genre under discussion. There are some well known classics here – The Lodger, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Franchise Affair, The Dain Curse, etc. But there are also zillions that I had never heard of. Talking of zillions, I should mention that the 100 Books are actually 102 Books – a baffling mystery in itself! Edwards gives a brief spoiler-free preview of the plot of each book and then discusses why he’s included it. He also includes some biographical details of the author, mainly more literary than personal, but often including interesting anecdotes about them. Edwards is the current President of the Detection Club amongst other things, and he tells us quite a lot about the history and membership of that organisation as he goes along too.

Martin Edwards

So you can tell the book is positively stuffed full of info, which left me with a much greater understanding of the development of the genre and an uncontrollable desire to pop off and search for all 102 books. And the good thing is that, following the BL’s lead, lots of publishers are bringing these old books back into print, or at least into e-books, so of the sample of 20 or so that I checked, the vast majority are available at prices that won’t require me to defraud a bank or poison a rich relative. Though I’m pretty sure that I’m knowledgeable enough now to do either and get away with it…

Highly recommended to anyone who’d like to know more about the history of the crime novel, or who’d like to read some of the classic books but doesn’t know quite where to begin. But I’d say this book would also be great for people who already know quite a bit about the genre – it’s so packed with goodies I can’t imagine many people wouldn’t learn something from it as well as being entertained by some of the stories about the authors. Personally, I feel a new challenge coming on… watch this space!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press (who publish the Kindle versions of the British Library Crime Classics series).

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You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

When pushy is an understatement…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Devon Knox has spent all her young life becoming a gymnast, her eyes firmly fixed on the ultimate prize of reaching the elite levels in her sport, perhaps even the Olympics. Her parents, Katie and Eric, have supported her every step of the way, making huge sacrifices of time and money to get her the best training, and organising the family’s lives around her needs. She’s worked with Coach T for years and has total confidence in him. Now she’s a couple of months away from competing to reach Senior Elite level. But a hit-and-run accident that kills a young man connected to the gym disrupts her training schedule, and when there begins to be suspicion that Ryan’s death might not have been accidental after all, the repercussions ripple out to threaten the stability of her family and of the whole community of budding gymnasts and parents attached to the gym.

Oh, how I love the way Megan Abbott writes about teenage girls! She takes us to the dark heart of them, where hormones play their twisted games, where innocence and sexuality crash head on, where everything is so intense it can feel like euphoria and despair are the only two possible states of being.

The utterly delightful Olga Korbut who, aged 17, set the world alight in 1972
and started the drive towards the tiny frame required for female gymnasts.

In her last few books, Abbott has told her stories through the eyes of her girls, but in this one it is Katie, the mother, whose perspective we share, though the story is told in the third person. Katie and Eric have convinced themselves they are not like the other parents, driving their children to achieve their own dreams for them. They believe it is Devon, has always been Devon, who is utterly dedicated to her sport, and that they have simply supported her. But the reader is not so sure – pressure comes in different forms, and Devon surely knows how proud her parents are to have a child they repeatedly refer to as ‘exceptional’. Young Drew, Devon’s little brother, certainly knows that his needs always take a back-seat, but that’s how it’s always been and mostly he accepts it philosophically.

In Dare Me, Abbott showed the extreme lengths to which girls would go to get on the cheerleading team. Here she does the same with gymnastics, revealing the physical and psychological costs of reaching the elite levels. Not just building strength and muscle mass, to succeed these girls must remain small and undeveloped – boyish – which in many cases requires delayed puberty. Although it doesn’t play a major role in the book, Abbott hints at the methods to which some unscrupulous parents and coaches will go to achieve this. But she also tacitly suggests that the physical training itself might have this effect for the ‘lucky’ ones. And she takes us into the cruelty of the adolescent world, where other girls are blossoming with femininity, and where Devon’s tiny, muscly body and obsessive commitment is derided as freakish. (I suspect Abbott may be overegging the pudding a little, but it’s all chillingly credible, and I must admit I’ve had concerns myself over the years about these young children who compete at the highest levels, ending up often with their careers over before they’re barely adults but with a lifetime of pain and surgeries still to come.)

Abbott also shows the parents who form the community around the gym, dedicated to the point of obsession with having their child succeed. We see the support they give each other, but also the jealousies and spite over whose child is going to do best. And when things begin to go wrong, we see how quickly loyalty breaks down in the mad scramble to ensure that their own child’s prospects don’t suffer, whatever may be happening to the others in the group.

The amazing Nadia Comaneci, aged just 14, who
in the 1976 Montreal Olympics scored the first perfect ten.

The plot itself is dark indeed, and so well done that, although there are only a few possibilities, I still hadn’t decided exactly where it was heading before we got there. Although so much of the book is about extremes, it still feels entirely credible because Abbott develops the psychology of the characters so brilliantly. As things get ever murkier, Katie is forced to reassess how she has behaved as a parent, to both her children, and to find her way through a maze of morally ambiguous choices.

Megan Abbott
(© Philippe Matsas/Opale)

Anyone who has loved Abbot’s Dare Me or The End of Everything will almost certainly enjoy this one too. But this is written in an ‘adult’ voice, so if you have been put off in the past by her teen voices, then this one may work better for you. For me, I think this may be her best yet, and since I loved both those earlier ones, that’s high praise indeed. It kept me on the edge of my seat, reading well past midnight and on towards dawn, and the ending left me fully satisfied. One that will certainly appear in my crime book of the year shortlist…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.

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She Who Was No More by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

A study of evil…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Fernand Ravinel is a travelling salesman, often away from the home he shares with his wife, Mireille. This makes it easy for him to spend time with his lover, Lucienne. But, in time, the pair decide this isn’t enough – that Mireille has to be got rid of. And so they set out to murder her. Their plot at first looks like it’s going to be successful, but then a strange thing happens, and gradually everything starts to go wrong… and as it does so, Fernand’s mind begins to unravel.

This book comes with a request from the authors for readers to tell nothing about the plot so as not to spoil it for other readers, so I’ve restricted my little introduction to slightly less than is given in the publisher’s blurb. In essence, the book concentrates on Ravinel’s state of mind, showing how guilt and remorse soon knock him off his emotional balance, sending him on a spiral into delusion, depression and finally threatening even his sanity. But there’s also a mystery element that stops this being a simple character study – something strange is happening and, while Ravinel in his delusional state is willing to consider a supernatural element, the reader is left looking for a rational explanation.

Narcejac and Boileau

Unsurprisingly in a man who is plotting to murder his wife, Ravinel is not a sympathetic character. He’s self-obsessed, rather cold emotionally, seeming unable to truly love either of the women in his life, and he’s something of a hypochondriac. But although this makes it pretty much impossible to empathise with him, it still leaves him as a fascinating subject for a character study. Boileau-Narcejac use his weaknesses and character flaws brilliantly to create a compelling picture of a man driven to the edge of insanity. They are the authors who wrote Vertigo on which the Hitchcock film is based, and there are some similarities between the books. Both blur the line between villain and victim, concentrating on the effects on the central character’s mind as he is drawn into a plot that spirals out of his control, and both veer close to mild horror novel territory as he gradually loses his grip on reality. And both are dark, indeed.

For me, this one isn’t quite as strong as Vertigo. Mainly, this is because the solution seems pretty obvious from fairly early on which takes away some of the suspense. It still leaves it an intriguing and enjoyable read though, partly because it’s so well written and partly because it’s less clear how the story will be allowed to play out. As strange events lead Ravinel to become more disturbed, there’s a truly chilling effect – it’s easy to understand why he is so badly affected by them. Both the Boileau-Narcejac books I’ve read have been fundamentally about evil, but they seem to see weakness of character as an integral part of that evil, so that the books are less about the incidents and more about the psychological impact they have on the perpetrator.

I trust I’ve been vague enough to suit the authors and if you’re now wondering what on earth this review is going on about, I can only suggest you read the book! It has also been made into a film more than once, but the consensus seems to favour the 1955 Clouzot version, Les Diaboliques, which I am now looking forward to watching…

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Book 12 of 90

The Long Drop by Denise Mina

Grimly Glaswegian…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

William Watt wants to clear his name. His wife, sister-in-law and daughter have been brutally murdered in their home, and Watt is the chief suspect. But convicted rapist and burglar, Peter Manuel, recently released from prison, claims he knows who did the murders and can lead Watt to the murder weapon, a gun which has passed from hand to hand through the criminal underworld of Glasgow. So one December evening in 1957 the two men meet and spend a long night together drinking and trying to come to some kind of deal – a night during which the truth of the killings will be revealed.

This book is based on the true story of Peter Manuel, one of the last men to be hanged in Scotland, in the late 1950s. A notorious rapist and brutal murderer, Manuel was a bogeyman in the Glasgow of my childhood, though he died before I was born. Adults spoke of him in hushed tones or sometimes threatened disobedient children that Peter Manuel would get them if they didn’t behave. In the old tradition, his story was turned into a rhyme that little girls sang while skipping ropes…

Mary had a little cat
She used to call it Daniel
Then she found it killed six mice
And now she calls it Manuel.

Despite this, I knew almost nothing about the actual crimes of which Manuel was convicted, so came to the book with no preconceptions, and made a heroic effort to avoid googling in advance. And although the blurb already seems to suggest what the outcome of the Watt case might be, it’s not nearly as clear cut as that – Mina does a wonderful job of obscuring and blurring the truth, so that I spent the whole time not quite sure how major parts of it would play out, and immediately had to rush off on finishing to find out how closely the story she tells had stuck to the facts. The answer is that she largely has, but has taken a few fictional liberties. These are just enough to mean the suspense element will work just as much for people who know the case as those who don’t, I think.

Above the roofs every chimney belches black smoke. Rain drags smut down over the city like a mourning mantilla. Soon a Clean Air Act will outlaw coal-burning in town. Five square miles of the Victorian city will be ruled unfit for human habitation and torn down, redeveloped in concrete and glass and steel…Later, the black bedraggled survivors of this architectural cull will be sandblasted, their hard skin scoured off to reveal glittering yellow and burgundy sandstone. The exposed stone is porous though, it sucks in rain and splits when it freezes in the winter.

But this story is before all of that. This story happens in the old boom city, crowded, wild west, chaotic. This city is commerce unfettered. It centres around the docks and the river, and it is all function. It dresses like the Irishwomen: head to toe in black, hair covered, eyes down.

Peter Manuel

But the story is only a part of what makes this wonderful book so special. Despite being in my pet-hate present tense, the writing is fantastic. The portrayal of Glasgow feels amazingly authentic – the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty; the buildings blackened by the soot of the industrial revolution before the big clean up that happened later in the century; the lifestyles of respectable people and criminals alike; the gangsters great and small; the perpetual almost tribal sectarianism between Protestant and Catholic that has marred so much of the city’s history; the relationships between married couples; the pubs as a male preserve; the edge of danger that comes from the ever present threat of violence – everything! It reminded me strongly of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw books – less poetic perhaps, or at least less affectionately so. McIlvanney doesn’t beautify the city or hide its darkness, but nevertheless his books read like a love letter to it and its people – Mina’s depiction is harsher, colder perhaps, but still balanced and nuanced.

And sometimes the book is gut-wrenching in its emotional truth and power. The man giving evidence about the murder of his daughter when we are made privy to his thoughts behind the spoken evidence. The sudden use of war metaphors when a man who had served in WW2 comes across a scene of bloody brutality. It drew tears from me more than once, for the fierceness of its truthfulness and the power of the prose as much as for the tragedies in the story. And there are other passages where a different, gentler kind of truthfulness emerges – the mother torn between her love for her child and what she sees as her duty to God; the children left to run free in the streets in a way that would be almost unthinkable now.

They search the car. In the glovebox they find a tin of travel sweets. The lid lifts off with a white puff of magician’s smoke. Inside, translucent pink boiled sweeties are sunk into a nest of icing sugar. These are posh sweets.

Reverently, the boys take one each. They savour the flavour and this moment, when they are in a car, eating sweets with friends. In the future, when they are grown, they will all own cars because ordinary people will own cars in the future but this seems fantastical to them now. In the future they will think they remember this moment because of what happened next, how significant it was that they found Mr Smart’s car, but that’s not what will stay with them. A door has been opened in their experience, the sensation of being in a car with friends, the special nature of being in a car; a distinct space, the possibility of travel, with sweets. Because of this moment one of them will forever experience a boyish lift to his mood when he is in a car with his pals. Another will go on to rebuild classic cars as a hobby. The third boy will spend the rest of his life fraudulently claiming he stole his first car when he was eight, and was somehow implicated in the Smart family murders. He will die young, of the drink, believing that to be true.

Denise Mina

The book has been longlisted for this year’s McIlvanney Prize and, though I’ve only read a few of the other contenders, I can’t imagine how any book could be a more suitable winner. Scottish to its bones, it nevertheless speaks to our universal humanity. Crime fiction where the quality of the writing and insight into a particular time and place would allow it to sit just as easily on the literary fiction shelf. Not only do I think this is one of the books of the year but I suspect and hope it will become a classic that continues to be read for many decades to come, like Capote’s In Cold Blood or McIlvanney’s own Laidlaw. I hope I’ve persuaded you to read it…

It was Cleo’s great review that tempted me to read this wonderful book – thanks again, Cleo! I owe you one!

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

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Book 5 of 20

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

A deadly dilemma…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Mr and Mrs Bunting are becoming desperate. Having left domestic service to run their own lodging house, they’ve had a run of bad luck and are now down to their last few shillings with no way to earn more unless they can find a lodger for their empty rooms. So when a gentleman turns up at their door offering to pay a month’s rent in advance, they are so relieved they overlook the odd facts that Mr Sleuth has no luggage and asks them not to take up references. He seems a kindly, quiet gentleman, if a little eccentric, and the Buntings are happy to meet his occasionally odd requests. Meantime, London is agog over a series of horrific murders, all of drunken women. The murderer leaves his calling card on the bodies – a triangular slip of paper pinned to their clothes with the words “The Avenger” written on it…

Well, what a little gem this one turned out to be! Written in 1913, it’s clearly inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders but with enough changes to make it an original story in its own right. It’s the perspective that makes it so unique – the Buntings are just an ordinary respectable little family struggling to keep their heads above water, who suddenly find themselves wondering if their lodger could possibly be living a double life as The Avenger. Lowndes does a brilliant job of keeping that question open right up to the end – I honestly couldn’t decide. Like the Buntings, I felt that though his behaviour was deeply suspicious, it was still possible that he was simply what he seemed – an eccentric but harmless loner. With the constant hysteria being whipped up by the newspapers, were the Buntings (and I) reading things into his perfectly innocent actions? Of course, I won’t tell you the answer to that!

Ivor Novello in Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog 1927

The book isn’t simply a question of whether Mr Sleuth is The Avenger or not, though. What Lowndes does so well is show the dilemma in which Mrs Bunting in particular finds herself. It’s not long before she begins to suspect her lodger – his strange habit of taking occasional nocturnal walks, his reading aloud from the Bible when he’s in his room alone, always the passages that are less than complimentary about women, the exceptionally weird and suspicious fact that he’s a teetotal vegetarian (I’ve always been dubious myself about people who don’t like bacon sandwiches…), the mysterious bag that he keeps carefully locked away from prying eyes. And then there are the “experiments” he conducts on the gas stove in his room, usually when he’s just come back from one of his little walks…

….Mrs Bunting returned to the kitchen. Again she lighted the stove; but she felt unnerved, afraid of she knew not what. As she was cooking the cheese, she tried to concentrate her mind on what she was doing, and on the whole she succeeded. But another part of her mind seemed to be working independently, asking her insistent questions.
….The place seemed to her alive with alien presences, and once she caught herself listening – which was absurd, for, of course, she could not hope to hear what Mr Sleuth was doing two, if not three, flights upstairs. She wondered in what the lodger’s experiments consisted. It was odd that she had never been able to discover what it was he really did with that big gas-stove. All she knew was that he used a very high degree of heat.

But, on the other hand, there’s nothing definite to say he’s the killer, and Mrs Bunting rather likes him, and feels sorry for him since he seems so vulnerable somehow. And, just as importantly, the Buntings rely totally on the rent he pays. Lowndes starts the book with a description of the extreme worry and stress the Buntings have been under over money, which makes their reluctance to report their suspicions so much more understandable. For what if they go to the police, and it turns out he’s innocent? He’ll leave, of course, and what will they do then? But what if he’s guilty and they do nothing – does that make them guilty too? It really is brilliantly done – great characterisation and totally credible psychologically.

Marie Belloc Lowndes

The other aspect Lowndes looks at is the role of the newspapers in whipping up a panic (perhaps not undeservedly in this instance), printing lurid details of the horrific murders, and giving out little bits of dodgy information as if they are facts. The Buntings have a young friend, Joe, who’s on the police force, so they get access to more of the truth, though the police are thoroughly baffled. As the murders mount up, so does the tension, and we see both of the Buntings becoming more and more obsessed with reading every detail of the case, desperately hoping for something that will prove their suspicions wrong.

The story is dark and sinisterly creepy but the gore is all left to the imagination, and the tone is lightened in places by a nice little romance between Joe and Mr Bunting’s daughter, Daisy. It’s very well written and Lowndes, like so many writers of that era, has made great use of the notorious London fogs to provide cover for dark and dastardly deeds. One where I really did spend the entire time wondering what I would have done, and fearing for the poor Buntings – no wonder Hitchcock used this as the basis for his first big success back in the silent movie era. But will the movie live up to the book? I’ll find out soon…

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Miraculous Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

Locked doors don’t guarantee safety…

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Anyone who’s been reading my blog over this last year or two will be aware that I have developed something of an addiction for the themed anthologies being published under the British Library Crime Classics label. This one concentrates on “impossible” crimes – “locked room” mysteries and others of the kind where the emphasis is more on how it was done than on whodunit. As always, the stories have been selected by Martin Edwards who gives a brief introduction to each one telling a little about the author. They’re printed in rough chronological order, covering the period from the beginning of the 20th century (or just before) through to 1960.

There are lots of well-known names here – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, etc – as well as some more obscure authors, some of whom have appeared in the earlier anthologies and some who I think are making their first appearance. The crimes are a lot of fun, ranging from the fiendishly clever but quite possible to work out if you have that kind of mind, to ones that rely on something that couldn’t have been known – trick doors or things of that nature. I did guess a few, but was baffled by plenty, and even the easier to solve ones are still entertaining.

As with all anthologies, the quality is variable but I must say I think the average standard throughout this collection is actually higher than in some of the earlier collections. Perhaps this kind of puzzle just appeals more to me, but I don’t think that’s it, really – I think this is just a particularly good group of stories. There are sixteen of them in total, and I ranked ten of them as either 4 or 5 stars, with only one getting a rating lower than 3 (and that was the GK Chesterton story, which can be put down to my own prejudice – I simply don’t enjoy his style).

Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Lost Special by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – a special train goes missing between two stations and, though the driver is later found dead by the side of the tracks, nothing is heard of the passengers or other crew for eight years…until a man waiting to be executed in France reveals how it was done. ACD is a master storyteller and builds up a nice air of almost supernatural mystery around the disappearance, though the answer is firmly of this world. And there’s a brief cameo appearance from an anonymous man who writes to a newspaper with a possible solution to the crime – a man who sounds very like a certain consulting detective we all know and love…

The Diary of Death by Marten Cumberland – when a woman dies in poverty, she leaves behind a diary blaming all her former friends for deserting her in her time of need. Now someone is bumping those friends off one by one. Loreto Santos, an amateur ‘tec from Spain, is on site when the third murder happens in a locked room during a house party. In truth, the method in this one is blindingly obvious, but the writing is very good, there’s some nice characterisation and the story is interesting, so that being able to work out how it was done didn’t spoil the entertainment.

The Music-Room by Sapper – Forty years earlier, a man was found killed in the middle of the locked music room. No-one ever worked out how it happened. Now, during a dinner party, the new owner of the house tells the old tale to his guests. Later that night, his nephew and business partner is killed in the same room, apparently accidentally. But amateur sleuth Ronald Standish is unconvinced. This is one of the ones where it wouldn’t really be possible to work out the how – though one can make a rough guess – and the who is relatively obvious. But the plotting is tight and the telling of the story is done very well.

I could just as easily have highlighted any of half a dozen others, and now feel quite qualified to bump off anyone who annoys me in ways that will baffle the greatest detective minds. So probably best if you were to send me some chocolate, just to be on the safe side…

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

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Book 1

The Vanishing Lord (PorterGirl 2) by Lucy Brazier

Missing paintings and medieval rumpy-pumpy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In this second book, PorterGirl has settled in now at Old College and begun to understand some of the weird traditions. So when the famous portrait of the college’s founder Lord Layton disappears, she knows not to call the police – the college keeps its problems to itself. Unfortunately the police aren’t quite so au fait with the college’s rules, so when word leaks out, they come snooping around and soon begin to suspect that the wall of silence they’re being met with from the Dean and porters suggests they must know more about the alleged theft than they’re letting on. Meantime a mysterious man is spotted around the college – who is he? And why does Deputy Head Porter keep getting the feeling she’s being followed? And did the Master of neighbouring Hawkins College die a natural death or is he one in the long line of mysterious murders that afflict these ancient institutions? And, most importantly, can Deputy Head Porter manage to filch a few more giant cookies from Head of Catering?? A girl has to keep her strength up after all…

The PorterGirl stories originated as a blog in which Lucy fictionalised her real life experiences as the first female Deputy Head Porter at one of our most ancient colleges. One hopes she exaggerates quite a bit! Lucy is a long-time blog buddy of mine, so you will have to assume that I’m biased.

Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed this second outing and felt it was a significant step up in terms of structure and writing from the first. Knowing Lucy, I’m aware that following the initial issue of the first book she was signed up by a publisher and, as a result, this book has had a professional edit. One of my criticisms of The First Lady of the Keys (originally published as Secret Diary of PorterGirl) was that sometimes the bloggy nature of its origin showed through, with the early chapters reading more like rather loosely related journal entries before she got properly into her stride later in the book. This slight problem has been eliminated in the new book, so that it flows much better, with the humorous digressions arising out of the plot rather than impeding it.

This is not to suggest it has become sensible – I’d never accuse Lucy of that! The characters are just as quirky, the plot proudly struts far over the credibility line, the vocabulary is as grandiloquent as ever, and the humour takes priority.

Deputy Head Porter

The main characters are developed a bit more in this outing. Porter gets a bit of a love interest while Head Porter is behaving very mysteriously, leading to all kinds of suspicions as to what he might be up to. The Dean continues to cause mayhem wherever he goes, and seems to look to Deputy Head Porter to provide him with with a constant supply of mysteries for them to investigate – which in Old College isn’t too tricky since barely a day goes by without some poor academic keeling over under unexplained circumstances. There are some great humorous set pieces, like the drunken night in the Dean’s office – or, to be more specific, the resulting hangover the following day. Or the occasion when the Dean thinks it might be a good idea for them all to don fancy dress and invade the neighbouring college…

To add to the fun, Deputy Head Porter stumbles across an ancient diary kept by one of her earliest predecessors and we are treated to occasional extracts. The diary explains the origins of some of the traditions which have baffled Deputy Head Porter, but also tells us a good deal about the diarist’s complicated love-life, all in deliciously mock medieval language. We also find out a bit about the original Lord Layton, the man behind the portrait – a man who makes the Borgias seem quite cuddly.

Fie! Today hast been a wonder, I tellst thee. The wants of these educated gentlefolk taketh it out of a man. The Order of the Lesser Dragon hast invited other learned muggins to the College to work as tutors and run matters. They are naming themselves ‘The Fellowship’ and now I wonder about what the mynster said ere about them having the occult ways because since they arrived the morrow there hast been strange and terrible ceremonials in the chapel and they weren’t no ways of God I can tell thee that as I know well the ways of God, which can also be strange and terrible, but leastways there is the promyse of Heaven at the end of it and all you get at the end of College days is a fancye parchment with your name on it.

If I was being hypercritical (which, as you know, I am!) I’d mention that, just occasionally, the high-flown language which is a trademark of the books leads to words being used when they don’t quite mean what they’re being used to mean, which makes this pedant twitchy. And, viewing it as a standalone, I’d suggest the ending is perhaps a little anti-climactic. However in many respects this is a serial rather than a series, so there are plenty of hanging threads ready to be picked up and woven into the next volume.

All-in-all, a most enjoyable romp – the kind of book that brightens up a dull day. I hope Lucy is working hard on the next episode!

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* * * * * * *

PS My apologies for suddenly disappearing and not responding to comments etc for the last few days. I had a mini domestic trauma, involving cat fight, emergency vet, stitches, etc – all’s well though. Tuppence is almost fully recovered, and my wounds should heal soon too – she really doesn’t like being put in a catbox!

And now I’m disappearing again…gotta support my boys…

See y’all in a couple of weeks! 😀

Testimony by Scott Turow

Much more than a legal thriller…

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Middle-aged successful American lawyer, Bill Ten Boom, is having a bit of a subdued mid-life crisis. He has ended his marriage, not over another woman but simply because he felt there was no real love or passion in it. And he has given up his partnership in a big legal firm – a role he primarily took on to satisfy the aspirations of his ex-wife. So when he’s offered the job of prosecuting a case at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, he decides it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. The case involves the rumoured brutal killing of four hundred Roma in Bosnia in 2004. It happened near an American base, so the case is further complicated by the fact that the US, under George W Bush, pulled out of the ICC. First, Boom (as he is known) must establish that the atrocity did in fact happen, and if so, must then try to find out who should be held responsible.

Scott Turow is one of those writers whose books transcend easy genre definition. On the surface this is a legal crime novel with all the aspects of an investigation, suspects, clues, trial procedures, and so on. But it is also a careful, revealing look at the way the Roma have been dealt with throughout history, in Bosnia and elsewhere – a group at least as victimised as the Jews over the centuries but somehow still left under the radar of popular concern. Turow avoids the easy route of making the Roma seem too much like helpless victims though – he shows how their determination not to assimilate into the societies within which they live puts them in the position of always being seen as outsiders, who are often involved in criminal activity of one kind or another. He also discusses their cultural attitudes towards girls and women, which to our western eyes display all the sexism we have fought so hard to overcome. But Turow doesn’t do any of this as an information dump. It’s woven into the story as Boom himself learns about the Roma during his investigation, and as he becomes attracted to a woman of Roma heritage who is acting as a support to one of the witnesses.

We are also given a look at how the ICC operates: slow to the point of glacial on occasion, bound up in all kinds of procedures and restrictions, but grinding on in its efforts to bring justice for some of the most atrocious crimes in the world. Turow shows how the process can seem cold and unemotional, almost clinical in its approach, but how even this great legal bureaucracy can be shocked by some of the evidence that comes before it.

….“…I knew there was no point. I could claw at the rock the rest of my life and get no closer. I knew the truth.”
….“And what truth was that, sir?”
….“They were dead. My woman. My children. All the People. They were dead. Buried alive. All four hundred of them.”
….Although virtually everyone in the courtroom – the judges, the rows of prosecutors, the court personnel, the spectators behind the glass, and the few reporters with them – although almost all of us knew what the answer to that question was going to be, there was nonetheless a terrible drama to hearing the facts spoken aloud. Silence enshrouded the room as if a warning finger had been raised, and all of us, every person, seemed to sink into ourselves, into the crater of fear and loneliness where the face of evil inevitably casts us.
….So here you are, I thought suddenly, as the moment lingered. Now you are here.

The story also touches on the other big American war of the early years of this century – some of the errors and miscalculations that turned “victory” in Iraq into the quagmire of factionalism that is still going on today, with consequences for us all. But while Turow is perhaps grinding a political axe of his own to some degree, he also shows the dedication and sacrifice of so many US soldiers at all levels, and the basic integrity of much of the legal and even political classes. And if all that isn’t enough, there’s another minor strand about Boom’s European roots and the seemingly never-ending after-effects of earlier atrocities under Nazi Germany.

Scott Turow

Turow’s writing is as good as always – he’s a slow, undramatic storyteller, so that he relies on the strength of the story and the depth of his characterisation, and he achieves both in this one. If I have made it sound like a political history, then that’s my error, not his. Running through all this is an excellent plot – almost a whodunit – that kept me guessing till very late on in the book. He is skilled enough to get that tricky balance when discussing the various atrocities of bringing the horror home to the reader without trading in gratuitous or voyeuristic detail. And as well as Boom, he creates a supporting cast of equally well drawn and credible secondary characters. More political than most of his books, I’m not sure I’d recommend this one as an entry point for new readers (Presumed Innocent, since you ask), but existing fans, I’m certain, will find everything they’ve enjoyed about his previous books plus the added interest of him ranging beyond his usual territory of the US courtroom. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grand Central Publishing.

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A Necessary Evil (Sam Wyndham 2) by Abir Mukherjee

Royal shenanigans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When the son and heir of the Maharaja of Sambalpore is assassinated in front of him, Calcutta police captain Sam Wyndham quickly manages to catch the assassin, but unfortunately the man dies before he can be questioned. Although the authorities and even the Maharaja are willing to let the matter rest as the work of a fanatic, Sam isn’t so sure, so he manages to get himself and his sergeant, Surrender-not Bannerjee, invited to the prince’s funeral so he can do a bit of investigating. Soon they are both sucked into the skulduggery going on beneath the glittering surface in this fabulously wealthy kingdom…

This is another excellent historical crime novel following on from Mukherjee’s début, A Rising Man, which was one of my top books from last year. The year is 1920, the power of the Raj is in decline and the British need the support of the Maharajas to give a veneer of Indian participation in the rule of the country, so Sam has to handle things sensitively so as not to ruffle any political feathers.

Within Sambalpore, the Maharaja is still the ultimate power – the British police hold no official sway there. But the Maharaja is old and it’s rumoured that he may be dying, so his family and subjects are beginning to look to the future and to jostle for positions of power when the kingdom passes to the next in line. And with three wives, vast numbers of concubines and hundreds of children, there’s plenty of scope for trouble just in the Maharaja’s family alone. Throw in some dodgy politicians, a couple of princes who insist on falling in love with unsuitable women, some diamond mines and an avaricious businessman or two and it’s no wonder I didn’t have a clue what was going on for the bulk of the book! But happily, neither did Sam, and once he finally worked it out it all made sense in the end.

The book is narrated by Sam in the past tense and he’s a likeable character. He has a strong desire to get to the truth and, more than that, to see that justice is done. But, though he may not always like it, he understands that sometimes politics will get in the way. He relies on Surrender-not for knowledge of local customs and religious practices. Surrender-not is more than just a guide though – he comes from a wealthy, high caste family and was educated in England, so he’s often as much of a partner as a subordinate.

Lord Jagganath Chariot Parade, Puri

There’s not quite so much about the politics of the Raj in this one. Instead, Mukherjee gives a picture of what life was like in one of the many small kingdoms that still existed within the country at this time – a curious mix of modernity and tradition. The royals are opulently, ostentatiously wealthy and are revered as godlike by their people. The royal wives and concubines live in seclusion in the zenana – the women’s quarters – but Mukherjee suggests that they had plenty of power to influence things within the kingdom, and the wives, at least, had their own roles to play in the many traditions surrounding the court. Mukherjee also shows some of the religious rituals of the Hindus, especially the cult of the deity Lord Jagganath, all of which adds to the interest.

Abir Mukherjee

For me, this book had a couple of slight weaknesses. In the first book, Sam occasionally indulged in opium – in this book, that seems to have become an addiction, and I got a little tired of being told about his withdrawal symptoms and then about how wonderful he felt whenever he had a hit. I find all the many addicted detectives of current crime fiction tedious, whether their addiction is to drugs or alcohol, so I’m seriously hoping Sam can get himself clean soon. I also felt that there were occasional anachronisms, not in the history or setting, but in the language. Would anyone from that period really talk about someone being “hands on”? Were paper cups so commonplace they would be used as part of a simile? These anomalies weren’t frequent or major enough to spoil the book but they did tend to throw me out of the story for a few moments each time, and a more careful revision and edit could have easily got rid of them.

Overall, though, an excellent second book that assures this series its continued place among my must-reads. It could be read as a standalone, but to understand the relationships among the characters, I’d recommend reading in order.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvill Secker.

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The Follower by Koethi Zan

The tricky second novel…

🙂 🙂 😐

As she is making her way back to university one evening, Julie is abducted. She is kept in a locked room and gradually learns a little about her captors. The man, James, is a fanatic who has created his own distorted religion and for a time had a small group of followers. All have since deserted him except for his wife Cora – a woman he has abused to the point where she is entirely submissive to him. Julie begins to wonder if somehow she can win Cora over, so that she will help her escape.

Alongside the story of Julie’s plight, we gradually learn Cora’s story – the troubled childhood and adolescence that led to her coming under the sway of the evil James. James himself is given no real backstory, so his motivation is left undeveloped – he’s simply a mad monster. The final strand of the book belongs to Adam, an ex-policeman who hunts for abducted women in his own time, as a kind of penance for the loss of his own sister to a predator before Adam was born.

The first third of this book is great and then I’m afraid it all begins to slide downhill, eventually landing with a crash which shatters the last remaining pieces of credibility. The quality of the writing is high and at first it builds a good level of tension. The storyline is very dark – Julie’s treatment in her captivity is horrific with repeated episodes of violence and rape, although happily Zan doesn’t make us watch the latter – it is implied rather than described. Each of the characters is deeply damaged except Julie, so it’s unfortunate that she’s so unlikeable. Despite the traumas she undergoes, I found it hard to empathise with her or, indeed, to care much what happened to her.

Cora’s story is perhaps more interesting and she is rather more empathetic during her teen years, when she is dragged around the country by her drunken father, never staying in any place long enough to put down roots or make friends. But sadly, her story gradually descends from being dark but credible, going straight past melodrama and on down to ridiculous. Adam never really comes to life as a character and feels rather tacked on, as if he exists only so that he can be around for the denouement – a denouement that regrettably becomes somewhat farcical.

The basic idea is good and the quality of the writing makes it quite readable. At first, the characterisation seems as if it’s going to be good too but somehow after a bit they stop ringing true. It all becomes a bit over the top – too many crazy people with poorly developed motivation. I think the problem is that none of it feels psychologically believable, and in the end I’m afraid they all begin to feel cartoonish. A pity, but now that Zan has the notoriously tricky second book out of the way, here’s hoping her next one will replicate the much higher standard she reached in her excellent first one, The Never List.

(PS I realise some people don’t mind a lot of swearing in novels, but plenty of others do, for various reasons, so it seems crazy to me that an author would put off potential purchasers and readers by including the f-word in the first line, exactly where a casual browser would look. Even stranger, given that actually the swearing content in the book as a whole is fairly low, with only the victim being consistently and obnoxiously foul-mouthed (which is a large part of what makes her so unlikeable, quite frankly). It’s up to writers, of course, but I’d assume most writers would want to reach a maximum audience, and putting a considerable number off with the first, in this case unrepresentative, line seems a bit silly…

FF’s Eighth Law: Swearing never attracts readers who wouldn’t otherwise read the book, but frequently puts off readers who otherwise would.)

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

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And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Ten little soldier boys…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Ten people all arrive for a stay on Soldier Island, off the coast of Devon. Some have been employed by the new owners, others have been invited as guests, and all but Mr and Mrs Rogers, the butler and housekeeper, are unknown to each other. And talking of “unknown”, all they know of their hosts is that the letters of invite were signed by either Mr or Mrs U.N. Owen. But when they get there, they discover the island’s owners haven’t arrived yet. It’s a strange kind of house party, with all kinds of people from different backgrounds and walks of life – a retired judge, an old military man, a young playboy who likes to drive fast cars, a puritanical spinster, an adventurer with a murky past, a doctor, a young woman who has been hired as secretary to the owners, and an ex-policeman. After dinner on the first evening, they discover they all have one thing in common when a disembodied voice welcomes them to the island and tells them why they’ve been gathered there – they have each, in one way or another, been responsible for the death of another person and escaped punishment for it. Until now…

Undoubtedly one of Christie’s masterpieces of plotting, this is also one of her most chillingly suspenseful novels. As one by one the guests are bumped off, the tension increases exponentially among the rest. The book moves along at a rattling pace, but there’s still time for us to get to know the characters, and to learn about the crimes that have led to them being brought here. While no-one comes across as wholly innocent, Christie does a great job of showing how some could be considered more guilty than others – some of their “crimes” could be considered almost accidental, some have suffered guilt and remorse, while others are callous and cold, having committed their crimes for gain, or unfeeling monsters who have managed to justify the cruelty of their actions to their own moral satisfaction. For some of them, their stay on the island forces them to re-assess the past and begin to feel the guilt they have previously managed to suppress.

Christie is often disparaged for poor characterisation, but this book really confounds that criticism – not only are all these characters believable, but several of them are beautifully nuanced, and their actions and attitudes feel psychologically sound. One of the other aspects of Christie’s genius is that her victims generally are rather unpleasant people, so that the reader isn’t thrown into a state of grief when they get their come-uppance. No sobbing relatives, no wailing and gnashing of teeth, no rending of garments. This means that she can have umpteen murders and yet still make the books entertaining to read – a lesson that could be well learned by some of the purveyors of today’s misery-fests.

Instead what she gives us is impeccable plotting, entirely fairplay with all the real clues carefully hidden amongst the shoals of red herrings she strews in the reader’s path. In this one, the characters too are desperately trying to spot the clues – their lives depend on it. And as the group gets smaller and smaller, miraculously Christie still manages to misdirect all over the place! Though I was re-reading and therefore knew whodunit, I was still marvelling at her skill in never omitting relevant pieces of information and yet hiding them so well. It’s only when it’s all explained at the end – another thing Christie’s great at, never leaving loose ends hanging around – that her true plotting skill is revealed along with the identity of the murderer.

Quite brilliant, and I totally understand why this one is the favourite of so many Christie fans. The end (prior to the explanations) in particular is a fabulously tense bit of writing, so dark it almost counts as horror, and yet retaining entire credibility. My favourite is still The Moving Finger for sheer entertainment, but in terms of plotting, characterisation and suspense, I don’t think this one can be beaten.

I listened to the wonderful Hugh Fraser’s narration via Audible. Not only is his voice pure pleasure to listen to, he brings the various characters to life, giving each a subtly distinct persona that matches perfectly to Christie’s characterisation. And as the suspense grows, he manages perfectly to develop an atmosphere of rising dread without ever slipping into melodrama. A truly great performance – I’m loving revisiting the books in his company.

So, just in case I’ve left you in any doubt – my highest recommendation, book and narration both.

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Maigret Takes a Room by Georges Simenon

Street life…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Following a robbery, the police are staking out a rooming-house where the suspect had been living in the hopes that he will return. But one evening, one of the police officers, Janvier, is shot outside the house. The police think it may have been the robbery suspect, Paulus, who shot him, so it’s even more vital now that they catch him. Maigret is on his own at the moment as his wife is away looking after her sick sister, so he decides to move into the rooming-house to be on the spot should Paulus return.

I enjoyed this one a lot. We know straight away that Janvier is still alive, so the plot isn’t quite as dark as it would have been had he been killed, but we still get to see the emotional impact of the shooting on Janvier’s wife. The rooming-house is run by the charming Mademoiselle Clément, a lady of middle years and twinkling eye, whose somewhat over-the-top personality provides a lot of fun and humour. As always, Simenon creates an authentic feel of Paris, and the rooming-house setting allows for there to be several characters, each with their own story. Maigret is at something of a loss without his wife though part of him is rather enjoying the adventure of living in the rooming-house, and he doesn’t seem averse to a little mild flirting with his landlady. He gradually chats to most of the people in the street, the shop and café owners as well as the neighbours, and while Maigret is gathering together clues that will lead to the solution, Simenon is building up an affectionate picture of life in one of the less fashionable streets of Paris.

Georges Simenon

I listened to the Audible version, narrated by Gareth Armstrong. He speaks more quickly than most narrators and I rather liked that and felt it suited the tone of the book – kept it going at a rattling pace. He gives different voices to the various characters, using English accents throughout and suiting them well to the class and position in society each holds. I prefer the use of English accents when “foreign” characters are supposed to be speaking in their own language – it sounds more natural than having the characters speak English in a faux foreign accent. His portrayal of Mlle Clément is a little caricatured, which works for her character and adds to the lightness in tone of the book. All-in-all, I think it’s an excellent narration.

The solution is more complex than it seems as if it’s going to be, and Maigret gets there by a nifty little piece of detective work. And the story behind the crime gives us a glimpse into darkness, so that in the end the tone is nicely balanced. The translation is by Shaun Whiteside, which means that it’s smooth and flawless. Most enjoyable – I’m looking forward to reading more of Maigret’s adventures, or listening to them.

NB This book was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

Audible UK Link
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Amazon UK Link
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He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly

Let’s twist again…

🙂 🙂 😐

Laura and Kit are newly in love. Kit is an eclipse-chaser, travelling the world to experience full solar eclipses as often as he can. So they’ve gone together to a festival at Lizard’s Point in Cornwall to witness the 1999 eclipse – Laura’s first. Still on a high following this semi-mystical experience, as they make their way back to the festival site Laura comes across two people who at first she thinks are making love. But then she sees the girl’s face, frozen in shock, and reassesses what it is she’s actually seeing. Now she’s going to be the major witness in a rape trial. Fifteen years later, Laura and Kit are still together, awaiting the birth of their twins, but hiding from the world. The book tells the story of how the events after the eclipse have led them to this…

The beginning of the book is excellent, with a very realistic portrayal of an attack and subsequent trial where the whole thing hinges on the matter of consent. Jamie, the man accused of raping Beth, comes from a wealthy, respectable family who can afford the best lawyers. He said she gave consent/she said she didn’t. It’s up to the jury to decide, and Laura is the only witness who can give them an independent account of what she saw.

Kelly writes very well, even when she’s using my pet hate first person, present tense for the parts of the book relating to the present day. Laura tells most of the story, both of what happened back in 1999 and now, while we also hear Kit’s point of view on the present day events. Kelly shows how difficult these cases are by letting us see everything Laura saw and yet leaving some small area of doubt as to whether Laura has interpreted it correctly. She shows not only that we bring our own beliefs and prejudices to things we witness, but also how a good lawyer can chip away at a witness until doubt creeps into even the witness’s own mind, much less the jury’s.

Unfortunately, the book also follows many of the on-going identikit features of the domestic thriller that drive me crazy: skipping between past and present, multiple points of view, the aforesaid present tense – the full ticklist. Worse, it’s another one of those where the narrators know all kind of stuff which they carefully conceal from the reader in an attempt to build false suspense. Some dreadful incident or incidents have happened in the intervening years, changing the course of Laura’s life and leaving her suffering from extreme anxiety. But we don’t learn what until nearly two-thirds of the way through, by which time I was so annoyed I didn’t care any more. It’s a pity, because there is a suspenseful element as to how the story is going to play out which would have been sufficient, so it really wasn’t necessary to clumsily withhold stuff that had already happened.

Erin Kelly

Having said that, when the book finally reaches the point of beginning to reveal all, it becomes progressively less credible with each passing twist. And my, there are a lot of them! Too many. And the final couple are so silly and pointless they take away the last shreds of realism, leaving me sad that a book that began as something thoughtful and well-written ended up like every other trashy domestic thriller of the last five years. Oh well, no doubt this trend will end one day – can’t come soon enough for my liking. I’d like to see writers of the undoubted quality of Erin Kelly produce something with a little more heft and originality and less reliance on false suspense and incredible twists. As these things go, though, this is as good as most and better than many, which I’m afraid is as much praise as I can give it.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.

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The Ghost Marriage by Peter May

Take this woman…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This short novella is a new follow-up to Peter May’s China Thrillers. This was the series that originally turned me into a May fan, long before the Lewis Trilogy made him a major star in the firmament of crime fiction. So it was a pleasure to revisit Margaret, the American forensic pathologist, and her Chinese partner, Li Yan of the Beijing police.

Margaret and Li Yan are still living together, now with the addition of their young son, when Margaret is approached by an elderly woman who tells her that her granddaughter has gone missing, and begs Margaret to use her influence with Li Yan to get him to investigate. As Li Yan gradually finds out what happened to the girl, the story takes us into a mysterious and macabre aspect of Chinese tradition, and into the secrets and lies that can exist in families.

Because the story is so short, I won’t say any more about the plot for fear of spoiling it. What has always attracted me most to May’s writing is that he chooses interesting settings for his crimes and his impeccable research allows him to create a great sense of place. This was always particularly true of the China Thrillers, especially since he began the series way back when the idea of visiting China still seemed like an exotic dream for most of us. The length of this one doesn’t allow for much description of Beijing itself, but the plot gives an insight into some of the strange superstitions and rituals that still exist in the country, while also touching on some of the issues thrown up by China’s long-standing but now abandoned one-child policy.

From the South China Morning Post: Dolls represent the happy couple in a Chinese-style “ghost wedding”

With Margaret being a pathologist, the China Thrillers also contained some rather gruesome autopsy scenes, and that tradition continues in this one. There isn’t room for a huge amount of detection – really we just see the story unfold along with Li Yan as he gradually uncovers the truth. I enjoyed it as a way to catch up with two characters who feel like old friends, but I think it would work equally well as a brief introduction to the style of the series for people who haven’t tried it yet. There was never much doubt that Margaret and Li Yan would stay together as a couple so although this takes place after the other books, it’s otherwise spoiler free.

Peter May

I listened to the Audible audiobook version, narrated by Peter Forbes who, I believe, has been the narrator for May’s books for a long time now. I thought his narration was very good – I have no way of knowing whether his pronunciations of Chinese words and names is accurate, but I certainly found them convincing. The decision to give the Chinese characters Chinese accents didn’t really work for me, I admit – I feel that if characters are supposed to be speaking their own language, then they shouldn’t be made to sound ‘foreign’. I listened to a Maigret novel immediately following this, where the narrator gave all the French characters English accents appropriate to their class and position in society, and I must say that felt much more natural and authentic. However, it’s a debatable point, and some people may prefer the ‘foreign’-sounding accents.

Overall, a short but enjoyable return to the world of Beijing. I’m now wondering whether this is a kind of coda to the series, or whether it’s to whet our appetites for a future new novel? I hope it’s the latter…

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK via MidasPR. The story is also available as an e-book.

Audible UK Link
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Amazon UK Link
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The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A thrilling adventure yarn…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The story begins when Holmes receives a message in cipher from one of his contacts within the Moriarty organisation. Unfortunately they don’t have the key to the cipher but after some lovely banter between Holmes and Watson and some brilliant deductions on the part of the great man, they solve it, to discover it warns of danger to someone called Douglas and mentions Birlstone Manor. Just at that moment, Inspector MacDonald turns up to seek Holmes’ aid in the baffling murder of John Douglas of – you’ve guessed it! – Birlstone Manor. And the game’s afoot…

Like all bar one of the long stories, this one takes the format of a deduction of the crime followed by a journey into the past to learn what led to it. In this case, John Douglas had lived in America for most of his life and the gun that killed him was of American make. Holmes does a nifty bit of investigating, involving a moat and drawbridge, an umbrella, a curious mark on the victim’s arm, and a dumbbell; and promptly gets to the truth, though not before driving poor MacDonald almost apoplectic with frustration first.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The background story takes us to the Pennsylvanian coal-mines of the 1870s, where we meet Jack McMurdo, an Irishman who has just arrived there after fleeing justice in Chicago. He quickly becomes involved in the Scowrers, a gang of unscrupulous and violent men who control the valley through fear, intimidation and murder. McMurdo’s personal bravado and intelligence soon allow him to become a valued member of the gang. But this doesn’t sit well with the father of the woman he has fallen in love with, Ettie Shafter. Gradually, it is revealed how this earlier story links to the later murder at Birlstone Manor, and it is a dark story indeed, especially since it is based largely on real events of the time. The tale finishes back in Baker Street, where we learn the final fate of some of the characters we have come to know.

This is another great story from the hands of the master. The first half is a typical Holmes investigation, with plenty of humour and warmth to offset the grimmer aspects of the plot. Holmes’ deductive powers are in full working order, and the crime itself is nicely convoluted, with a good bit of misdirection along the way. The second half allows ACD to give full rein to his marvellous story-telling powers as he takes us deep into the darkness at the heart of the brutal Scowrer gang. His characterisation is superb, both of the rather mysterious McMurdo and of the cruel and barbaric leader of the gang, Boss McGinty. I love the short stories, but I always find the long stories more satisfying, with the extra room allowing ACD to do what he does best – spin a first-rate, thrilling adventure yarn.

Illustration from the New York Tribune – the Scowrers’ initiation ceremony

Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection introduced and narrated by Stephen Fry

I listened to the story this time around, from this fabulous new audio collection from Audible. It includes all the short and long stories, set out in the traditional order. Fry gives a short introduction to each of the five books of short stories and individually to each of the long ones. The collection runs to over seventy hours, so needless to say I haven’t listened to it all yet, but will have great fun dipping in and out of it over the coming months and years.

In the intro to this one, Fry puts the book into its historical context, telling the story of the Molly Maguires, a secret society active among the immigrant Irish coalminers in Pennsylvania during the 1870s; and of the Pinkerton agent who infiltrated them, ultimately leading to their destruction. He points out how soon after the Civil War this was, and that the bosses of the Pennsylvania mines were effectively their own law and could hire people of their own choosing to enforce it. He also tells the other side of the story – the appalling working conditions and extreme poverty of the workers. He manages all this without giving any spoilers for the story to come. An excellent introduction – brief, but interesting, clear and informative.

Stephen Fry

His narration of the story itself is great! He had to compete with my favourite Holmes narrator, the wonderful Derek Jacobi, so he was going to have to work hard to convince me. And I found myself laughing sympathetically because ACD didn’t make his task an easy one. Almost every character has his accent described, usually something like “half-English, half-American” or “Chicago with a hint of Irish” or “German overlaid with the twang of the new country”. And then there are the characters who are not who they first seem, so that when their true identity is revealed, they change to their real accents. I must say Fry did brilliantly with all of them and, despite there being a pretty huge cast in this story, he managed to differentiate them all quite clearly. There are two characters with straight Irish accents, so to make them different, he made one sound Northern Irish and the other Southern, both done totally convincingly. Even Inspector MacDonald’s Aberdonian accent got a high pass mark from me. He brings out the humour and the warmth of Watson’s character, and makes the adventure parts suitably exciting without over-dramatising them. I always think you can tell when a narrator loves the material he’s reading, and Fry’s strong affection for the Holmes’ stories comes through clearly.

My love for the Jacobi recordings remains, but these are just as excellent, and the little introductions are a great addition, making this a fabulous collection which I highly recommend to all Holmes fans out there.

NB The audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR. Lucky me!

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Book 9 of 90

The Ice by Laline Paull

The root of all evil…

😦

It’s the very near future, global warming continues to advance and the Arctic sea-ice has largely melted. A cruise ship has promised its passengers sightings of polar bears, now even rarer than before. Eventually the wealthy and powerful passengers begin to put pressure on the captain, so the ship takes a detour into an area of the sea that’s off limits to cruises. There they finally see a bear, but when an iceberg calves in front of them, they see something else – a preserved body that pops out from the frozen ice. Tom Harding was an environmentalist, lost as a result of an accident three years earlier. Now the investigation into his death will be re-opened and his business partner, Sean Cawson, will have to relive that terrible moment…

At least, I had to assume it was a terrible moment, based on Sean’s general level of angst. Unfortunately, this is yet another of the books that works to the overused formula of past and present sections, where all the characters know what happened that day, but the reader isn’t told until the book is more than half over. (I feel I may have mentioned before (!) how annoying I find this formula of keeping the reader in the dark for excessive periods in a futile attempt to build suspense. Real suspense comes only when at least some of the characters are also in the dark – otherwise it’s just an author playing tricks on the reader. In this one, it would have been perfectly possible to tell us up front what happened to Tom, and then build the suspense over the questions of how and why it happened, which most of the characters didn’t already know.)

The beginning is very good with some nice descriptions of the changes to the Arctic landscape and the calving of the iceberg is excellently dramatic. The description of the passengers demanding bear is also done well, though it’s the first indicator of the fairly overt polemical stance the author has taken – capitalists bad, destroy land and wildlife: environmentalists good and noble, fighting the good fight. Actually I sort of agree with at least bits of that, though I don’t think the question is quite so black and white, but frankly I neither need nor want to have messages hammered at me – subtlety makes for more interesting storytelling, and when the author makes it so clear that only one side of the debate has any merit, then it hardly leaves much room for thought to be provoked.

Sean has bought a property in the Arctic and turned it into an exclusive retreat where mega-rich businessmen can relax or meet each other privately. But Sean has an underlying motive – he wants to take the opportunity of getting these capitalists to understand the damage they’re doing and convert them to support environmentalism. (Hmm!) So he has asked his old friend Tom, a noted environmentalist, to join him in the venture. But Tom doesn’t know that Sean has agreed to keep a kind of private army on the property on behalf of the British and Danish governments, for reasons that I found vague and unconvincing.

Laline Paull

I’m afraid I found the book dull, the writing flat in places though good in others, the story overly contrived, the suspense entirely missing. The environmental messages are too overt and overly simplistic. Nothing happens for huge swathes, except Sean agonising over what happened that day while managing to not actually tell us. There are little snippets at the beginning of each chapter – extracts from real Arctic explorers which have nothing to do with the story. I quite quickly stopped reading them. In an attempt to evoke an emotional response, I assume, Paull throws in lots of little things like polar bears being killed, or whales being eaten, but always with a little message about conservation or environmentalism tagged on so that it ceases to feel real and just becomes part of the message-hammering, and thus left me entirely unmoved.

By a third of the way through I really wanted to abandon it, and by two-thirds I couldn’t take any more. The major problem was that I simply didn’t care what happened that day any more – the moment had passed. So I abandoned it, flicked forward and discovered that once I finally knew where it was going, sadly, I still didn’t care. I did enjoy some of the writing and feel that the author has potential if in future books she can manage to deliver her message more subtly and find a better way to create real suspense. But, since I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, then 1-star it is.

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

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Scarweather by Anthony Rolls

Digging up the truth…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

The story begins in 1913 when our narrator, John Farringdale, is just twenty-one. He and his cousin Eric are more like brothers, so when Eric meets the famous amateur archaeologist Professor Tolgen Reisby, he’s keen to introduce him to Farringdale too. Eric has a bit of a hero-worship for Professor Reisby, but he’s also well on the way to falling in love with Reisby’s much younger wife, Hilda. Farringdale also has a friend who is considerably older than him – Frederick Ellingham, a man of eclectic tastes and knowledge and a wide acquaintanceship across the classes, from seamen to aristocrats. Ellingham knows something of Reisby and hints that there may be darkness hidden beneath his boisterous extrovert exterior! And so when Eric goes missing in what seems like a sailing accident, Ellingham decides to investigate further…

…which takes him roughly a decade and a half to do. Admittedly they all had to stop and go and fight a war in the middle of it all, but frankly those of us with at least one functioning braincell had the whole thing worked out before the war began, so one certainly can’t accuse Ellingham of rushing things. Fortunately, there’s plenty to enjoy in the book, though, even if the plot is so slight as to be almost non-existent.

As Martin Edwards informs us in his introduction, Rolls was himself an archaeologist and he puts his expert knowledge to good use. He pokes a lot of fun about the world of archaeology – the digging up of a shard of broken pot and extrapolation from that of an entire civilisation, the dismissal of anything that seems a bit peculiar as ‘ritual’, the arguments between experts over time periods, and the jealousies over access to the best sites and acquisition of the choicest finds. He also has his characters comment on the ghoulishness of the archaeologist’s enthusiasm for digging up corpses, with Reisby himself keeping a kind of charnel house of finds in his own study. In fact, even the denouement makes fun of the cavalier fashion in which archaeologists spin theories based on the location of a few bones. (I’m sure it’s all very different and much more professional now, even though it all rather reminded me of Tony Robinson rapturising over half a femur or a mangled old bit of bronze in many an episode of Time Team… 😉 )

On another table were the remains of about a dozen skeletons. One or two of these had a remarkably fresh appearance and were nearly complete; but most of them were in a fragmentary state, and the bones were mottled with a dark stain of manganese – the indication (though by no means invariably present) of considerable antiquity. The skeleton of a young woman, slightly burnt, was particularly attractive.

The set-up is a spin on the Holmes/Watson pairing, but I fear Ellingham and Farringdale don’t match up to their illustrious predecessors in either detection or characterisation. Reisby himself is a fun character – a giant of a man, loud and jolly with an uproarious laugh, but also opinionated and quick to fury when crossed. I would definitely cast Brian Blessed in the role.

Scarweather is a remote place on the coast of Northern England, and Rolls does a good job with the setting, allowing the wildness of the landscape and sea to play their part in the story. The isolation of the setting also allows him to show the kind of unlikely friendships that blossom when people live close to each other but far from the rest of society. Many of these secondary characters add to the humour of the book, slightly caricatured but still believable and, on the whole, likeable despite their idiosyncrasies.

So, overall, while this isn’t the most thrilling or fiendish crime novel in the world, it’s still an enjoyable, well-written entertainment.

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

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