Payment Deferred by CS Forester

Fade to grey…

🙂 🙂 🙂

We first meet William Marble as he sits in his dining room one evening, totting up his debts. William is a bank clerk who deals in currency exchange, and his salary is of the respectable rather than the generous kind. Despite his humble house, he and his wife Annie always overspend their budget and for a long time William has been shuffling his debt around, borrowing from one person to pay off another. But now he’s reached the point where he has no-one left to tap and his creditors are looking to be paid. Then his young nephew arrives unexpectedly from Australia, with a wallet stuffed with wads of banknotes. And it just so happens William has a cupboard full of photography chemicals that can easily double as poison…

This is not a detective novel, so that little blurb isn’t nearly as spoilerish as it might seem. The murder happens right at the beginning, and the book is actually about the impact it has on William’s psychology. We watch as guilt and fear eat away at him, destroying his already weak character. It’s very well written and psychologically convincing but, oh my, it’s depressing! William is deeply unlikeable while Annie is portrayed as so stupid that it seems unlikely that William would ever have found her attractive. They have two teenage children. Winnie, William’s favourite, starts out OK, but becomes progressively harder to like as the book goes on, while John, the son, has all the makings of a fine young man till his father’s increasingly erratic behaviour begins to affect him. I had a lot of sympathy for John, a little for poor stupid Annie, and none at all for the other two.

William eventually solves his money problems by carrying out a shady transaction at his bank – what today we’d describe as insider trading. Clearly Forester understood what he was talking he about when he described the details of how this scheme worked, but I fear I didn’t and my eyes began to glaze over. However, the end result is that William suddenly becomes well off, and we see how this change in fortune too affects the members of the family, not for the better.

Challenge details:
Book: 74
Subject Heading: The Psychology of Crime
Publication Year: 1926

The element of suspense comes from wondering what the outcome will be. Will William give himself away? Will Annie begin to suspect him? But it’s very underplayed – for reasons made clear early on, there’s no active investigation going on into the young victim’s disappearance. While the vast majority of the book is very credible, the ending left me annoyed at the abrupt and contrived way Forester tied everything up.

As you can probably tell, this one is not a favourite of mine. I often struggle with books where the criminal is the main character unless there’s plenty of black humour to lift the tone. In this one there is no humour, leaving it a bleak story with a couple of episodes that I found distinctly unpleasant. Had it been set amidst the anxious speed of big city life I would call it noir, but the respectable dullness of the middle-class suburban setting left the tone feeling grey. I also felt it went on too long (though in actual pages it’s quite short) – the endless descriptions of William drinking whisky to drown his guilt, his heart constantly thudding, pounding, racing, poor Annie’s repeated descent into sobbing for one reason or another, all became so repetitive that they lost any impact after a while.

CS Forester

However, this is mostly a matter of personal taste – I do think it does what it sets out to do very well; that is, to show the disintegration of the man and the effect this has on his family. Call me shallow but, although I admired the skill and the writing, I simply didn’t find it entertaining or enjoyable. Nor was it quite tragic enough to be harrowing, somehow. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, but the ratings on Goodreads suggest plenty of people have enjoyed it far more than I did, so if the idea of it appeals to you, don’t let my reaction put you off. Noir is not my favourite colour, even when it’s faded…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – sorry, can only find used copies on Amazon US.

The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons

Marry in haste…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When John Wilkins realises married life with his wife May isn’t living up to his expectations, he begins to fantasise about another young woman he’s met, his local librarian, Sheila. The first half of the book is taken up with John telling his story to a psychiatrist. In the second half, we are shown a murder trial. We, like the jury, have to decide whether the evidence against John stacks up, or have the defence put up strong enough counter arguments? The book doesn’t reveal who the victim is till quite late on, so I won’t either.

I do feel modern crime fiction suffers terribly from our increasingly lax laws and social order! This plot works because John is trapped in his marriage, at a time when divorce could only be obtained by mutual consent or by proving the other party at fault. May might be a dull wife, but she’s a perfect one, and since she declares she loves John, she’s not willing to countenance the idea of divorce. Sheila, on the other hand, might be a dreadful flirt but, in line with the times, this doesn’t mean she’s sexually promiscuous, to John’s great disappointment.

John is a deeply unlikeable character – narcissistic and selfish, spoiled by his doting mother, but also insecure, suspecting the motives of those around him. He’s convinced, for example, that it’s not him May loves, as much as the respectable house he provides for her. He could be right about that – she’s an aspiring social climber, though her ambitions are for John as much as herself. There’s no doubt he’s abusive towards her, emotionally and occasionally physically. And though we are hearing the story from John’s perspective, it’s clear that there are times when she’s rather scared of him.

John is a troubled man, who has blackouts whenever he drinks. It’s left rather ambiguous as to whether this is because he drinks to excess or whether it’s some kind of unfortunate reaction, meaning that it’s difficult to decide whether he deserves any sympathy for it. But there are periods, sometimes lengthy, when he can’t remember what he did or where he went, and as his emotional state grows more fragile, these episodes are becoming more frequent. So when he declares he can’t remember what happened on the night of the murder, there’s a good chance he’s being truthful. It’s up to the detective hired by his loving mother to try to find out what he was doing over the relevant time.

Julian Symons

Despite the unlikeableness of the main character, I enjoyed this one, for lots of different reasons. Symons does an excellent job of maintaining John’s voice in the first section, as he recounts his life experiences. Although his fantasies can be dark, he’s quite self-aware, and so there’s some self-deprecating and observational humour along the way. The trial section is done well, feeling quite authentic without becoming bogged down in too much detail. And I also liked the light the book casts on the society of the time. First published in 1957, it’s later than true Golden Age, and feels very much on the cusp of the change to the “modern” world of the ‘60s and beyond. Partly this is because of the social questions over divorce, at that time coming under pressure for change, and partly it’s because of the introduction of psychiatry into the story, and the examination of John’s culpability if he’s proven guilty. It also shows the worlds of work and marriage, and the beginnings of the more aspirational, socially mobile society of the second half of the century. All of this is done lightly, though, so that it doesn’t drag the story-telling down.

In the end, the way the plot played out didn’t have the impact on me that I felt was intended, though to be fair, that could well be that what was original back then feels a little too familiar now – often a problem with reading early novels that have influenced later writers. But I happily recommend it as an intelligent, enjoyable and well written psychological thriller, that has stood up very well to the test of time. My first introduction to Julian Symons, and I’m looking forward to getting to know him better.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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Watching You (Joe O’Loughlin 6) by Michael Robotham

Creepy and disturbing…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

I am the most important figure in Marnie’s life, but she doesn’t know it yet. I am the half-figure at the edge of her photographs and the shadow in the corner of her eye that vanishes each time she turns her head. I am the ghost that dances behind her closed lids and the darkness that blinks when she blinks. I am her nameless champion, her unheralded hero, and the conductor of her symphony. I am the one who watches.

Watching youMarnie’s husband disappeared a year ago, leaving a huge gambling debt to a violent gangster. Hennessy is insisting that the debt is now Marnie’s and he’s got his own ideas of how she should earn enough to pay it back. So although she doesn’t want to give up hope of her husband’s return, Marnie needs to have him declared dead so she can claim the insurance money and get Hennessy out of her life. But the reader knows that someone is watching Marnie – someone who doesn’t like it when anyone hurts her…

This is a creepy and disturbing psychological thriller that is much more complex than it looks at first sight. I haven’t read any of Robotham’s other novels, but I gather from the blurb that Marnie’s psychologist, Joe O’Loughlin, has appeared in earlier books. However, this works perfectly as a standalone, with enough information given on the recurring characters for the reader to get to know them and not so much referring back to previous books as to be annoying. When Marnie tells Joe about her need to have Daniel declared dead, Joe asks his friend, ex-detective Vincent Ruiz, to help. But when Ruiz starts investigating, he finds that there have been many odd events in Marnie’s past and begins to wonder if she knows more about Daniel’s disappearance than she’s letting on.

The book is very well-written and Robotham leads the reader on a twisting and twisted journey, full of ambiguity and false trails. The characterisation is particularly strong, and both Joe and Ruiz are attractive and enjoyable characters. Marnie is a complicated character, sometimes gaining the reader’s sympathy and support while at other times the reader joins with Ruiz in wondering if there’s another hidden side to her. There’s quite a lot of violence in the book, but it mainly happens ‘off-screen’ so adds to the chill factor without being too graphic. The story is told mainly in the third person (present tense, sadly, but aren’t they all?), but there are brief chapters intercut throughout, told in the first person from the watcher’s viewpoint. These add hugely to the tension in the book, which builds right from the beginning through to the drama of the ending. And throughout, nothing is necessarily quite what it seems…

Michael Robotham
Michael Robotham

Tense and chilling, the plot kept me guessing right to the end – the twists are done at just the right points to keep the pace up all the way through. There are aspects that stretch credulity but they’re handled well enough that they don’t jar. An effective and enjoyable thriller that will encourage me to look out for more of Robotham’s books in future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown and Company.

Amazon UK Link
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The Never List by Koethi Zan

the never listChillingly believable…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Publication due 16th July (US) and 1st August (UK).

When Sarah and her best friend Jennifer were growing up, they made a list of all the things they should never do if they wanted to stay safe in a world that they had already discovered could turn dangerous in an instant. But one night they forgot the most basic never of all – never get in the car

It’s now been ten years since Sarah escaped from the cellar where she spent three years of her life, imprisoned and tortured by sadistic and manipulative Jack Derber.

“There were four of us down there for the first thirty-two months and eleven days of our captivity. And then, very suddenly and without warning, there were three. Even though the fourth person hadn’t made any noise at all in several months, the room got very quiet when she was gone.”

The body of the fourth girl has never been found. Now Derber is up for parole and has sent cryptic letters to each of the survivors, letting them know he hasn’t forgotten them. Sarah knows the only way to be sure he never gets out is to find the body to prove that he’s not just a kidnapper and torturer, but a murderer too.

Dark and disturbing, this is a real page-turner of a psychological thriller. We see the damage done to each of the survivors and their different ways of coping. Sarah has hidden herself away for years, staying in her apartment and having minimal contact with the outside world. On the surface Tracy and Christine seem to have coped better, but as the women are drawn back into the memories of their ordeal, old terrors re-surface and old wounds are re-opened. There are two strands to the story – as they get sucked into new dangers in the present day, we and they also begin to find out the truth of what happened to them in the cellar.

Koethi Zan (photo: Pieter van Hattem)
Koethi Zan
(photo: Pieter van Hattem)

The quality of the writing is excellent, and Zan has created characters that are as believable as her scenario. Surprisingly the descriptions of the physical and sexual horrors are quite sparse and understated – a great deal is left to the reader’s imagination, though the book is no less disturbing for that. The author concentrates more on the psychological effects of the experience and does so very convincingly. The women don’t suddenly turn into super-heroes – they change as they are forced to deal with their fears and their past, but do so in very credible ways.

Zan gets the pacing just right. After a dramatic first chapter that hooks us straight away, we are given time to get to know and understand Sarah so that we care about what happens to her when the tension starts ratcheting up. And ratchet up it does – to a frightening climax that forces the women to face their deepest fears if they are to survive. One of the best thrillers I’ve read this year, it’s hard to believe that this is the author’s debut novel. Highly recommended, and I’ll be adding Zan to my ‘must read’ list.

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

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My Second Death by Lydia Cooper

‘For in that sleep of death what dreams may come…’

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 and a half!

my second death‘And then there’s me, the middle child. I live in the garage and say “fuck” too much, but I never whine about the rain or the cold, I rarely eat dead animals, and I haven’t killed a man since I was ten.’

Mickey has been to enough shrinks and therapists in her life to know she’s not ‘normal’. But she’d like to be, and her great fear is that she’s destined to become a serial killer. She dreams about blood, murder and torture and battles every day to make sure these dreams don’t turn into reality. So when she receives an anonymous note which leads her to the discovery of a horrifically mutilated corpse, she doesn’t react the way you or I would…

Mickey is a fascinating character. Billed by the publisher’s blurb as a cross between Salander and Dexter, she’s much more than either of these. The story is told in the first person, so we get inside Mickey’s mind and it’s a dark and disturbing place to be. But the author’s skill lies in making us see past the horrors Mickey conjures for us to catch a glimpse of the vulnerable, damaged soul beneath. There are aspects of the book that are truly gruesome – and a warning: there is a scene of animal cruelty that is upsetting, though I felt it was in context and the author managed to handle it in a way that kept it just this side of unbearable.

Lydia Cooper (courtesy of F+W Media)
Lydia Cooper
(courtesy of F+W Media)

To some extent, this reads like a coming-of-age novel. As Mickey tries to get to the truth of what happened to the victim, she is forced into contact with people and begins to re-evaluate herself and her early life. Gradually the veneer is stripped off her seemingly perfect family, and it becomes clear that Mickey isn’t the odd-woman-out as much as we, and she, thought. The author never has Mickey overtly question how much impact her family has had on her personality but nonetheless the question hangs in the air.

And in case I’ve made the book sound too bleak and horrible, I should mention there’s some really good humour in there too –

‘When she finishes decorating the platter I say, “That looks really great.” She looks at me and the skin across her forehead smoothes out. She starts to smile. I worry that she might take my compliment for an invitation to tell me about her grandchildren’s tonsillitis. So I say, “I mean, for pre-digested subcutaneous fat deposits from hormone injected animals.” ‘

And some wonderful use of language – on the subject of the house still containing the undiscovered mutilated corpse ‘A house gravid with death.’

There are problems with the book too, the main one being that the cast of characters is small and there aren’t enough red herrings, which meant that the solution wasn’t a surprise. But the writing is excellent and the plot shows real originality. I read the book in two longish sessions and was fascinated, appalled, entertained and moved in equal measure. A dark and difficult read, not for the squeamish, but a debut that makes me both eager and terrified to see where this author takes me in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Amazon UK Link
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What Lies Within by Tom Vowler

‘Why did you let him in?’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Publication Date 25th April 2013

What lies withinTom Vowler’s debut novel is almost certain to be one of the most read books of the year. Part psychological study, part thriller, it tells the story of Anna, living in seeming contentment with her family in a cottage on Dartmoor. But Anna has a secret in her past – a secret that she has kept faithfully to protect herself and those she loves. And now it looks as though that secret may be revealed…

This is not an action thriller. We see Anna’s story gradually develop in a series of flashbacks that are intercut with the present. It’s hard to say too much about the plot without spoilers but, as we get to know what Anna is hiding, the reader is pulled in to share not just her physical fear of further harm but also her dread of what the revelation of her secret will do to her family.

Vowler’s sensitivity in dealing with some difficult subjects is remarkable, especially since he is telling the story from Anna’s viewpoint. Without wishing to sound sexist, at no point does this feel like a man writing as a woman – Anna’s emotions, thoughts and actions come over as completely credible. A strong woman, but psychologically maimed, she has been given a second chance at life and is determined not to lose it, whatever the cost.

Tom Vowler
Tom Vowler
The darkness of the subject matter prevents me describing this as an enjoyable read, but it is certainly an enthralling and emotional one. The portrait Vowler paints of Anna is sympathetic and intimate; her relationships with her husband, children and parents are entirely believable. Although the other characters are not quite as prominent they are equally well drawn, and Vowler uses the drama and isolation of the Dartmoor landscape to excellent effect. In keeping with the tone of the book, the dénouement might be somewhat low-key for this to be truly categorised as a thriller, but it is tense and moving and ultimately more satisfying for that. A very well-written story, with a leading character who will be remembered long after the book is read – Vowler has already with this debut established himself as an author to watch. Highly recommended.

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

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The Asylum by Johan Theorin

“That way madness lies…”

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Publication date: 14th March 2013

AsylumA slow-burn psychological thriller, the book starts with loner Jan Hauger applying to work in the pre-school that is attached to St Patricia’s psychiatric hospital, known to locals as St Psycho’s. From the beginning we know that Jan has reasons of his own for wanting to be close to the asylum – reasons that the author slowly reveals as he lets us see inside Jan’s head. St Patricia’s holds some of the most dangerous criminals in Sweden but security isn’t as tight as those in charge think. As Jan gets to know his colleagues he finds that, like himself, many of them have a fascination with what goes on inside…

The book is told in the third person but very much from Jan’s perspective. Cutting between present and past, we gradually discover what events in Jan’s troubled past have led him here. The other characters can accept him at face value as a pleasant young man who loves and is loved by the children in his care. But the reader knows that there are darker aspects to his personality and hidden incidents in his past. There is some moral ambiguity here – as we find out about his history, it is easy for the reader to empathise with Jan despite, rather than because of, his past actions and current intentions.

Johan Theorin
Johan Theorin
Theorin writes well and the translation by Marlaine Delargy is seamless; it’s easy to forget that this is a translation at all. The plot is well constructed and has some original aspects to it. However, the story is told very slowly and somehow that stopped the tension building as much as might have been expected given the subject matter. Jan is a believable character, a troubled soul who finds it difficult to make connections with the people around him. But the premise that so many of the characters connected with the hospital had ulterior motives for being there meant that in the end I found some elements of the story unconvincing – it seemed to rely too heavily on unlikely coincidences and circumstances.

Overall, though, I enjoyed the psychological aspects of the book and found Jan’s character interesting enough to make me want to know the outcome. And the end, when it finally came, was worth waiting for – morally ambiguous like much of the book and no less satisfying for that. Despite my criticisms, I found this a good read on the whole and will certainly look out for more of this author’s work. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link
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Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

fallen landState of the Union…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Publication Date: 1st May 2013

“Anyone who doesn’t believe in freedom at eighteen is a fascist. Anyone who doesn’t believe in security at forty is a criminal.”

In this extraordinary book, Flanery delves deep into the troubled American psyche in the post 9/11, post global crash world where the tectonic plates of certainty and complacency have shifted with volcanic and destructive results.

When the economic collapse strikes, Paul Krovik loses everything, including his family and the house that he built for them. He had planned to build a whole development but now the few completed houses stand, already decaying, on swampy land in the middle of an unfinished building site. Louise’s family had owned the land for generations until she was forced to sell to Paul and now Louise lives in her old house at the edge of the site. And now Nathaniel and Julie Noailles, with their young son Copley, are moving from their urban, socially liberal life in Boston to live in this suburban house in an unnamed town in the South. Unknown to them, Paul is living in the concealed basement, determined to get the house back…

Patrick Flanery
Patrick Flanery

Flanery’s prose is wonderful and the characters he has crafted are complex and compelling, each damaged by history and experience and each inspiring empathy in the reader. He develops them slowly, letting us see the influences, both personal and political, that have made them what they are: Paul, whose father brought him up on quotations from Emerson, believes in individualism and apocalypse; Louise, descendant of slaves, guilty at losing the land they treasured, and hating Paul for destroying it; and the Noailles, a family whose veneer of liberalism hides dark secrets and is gradually eroded by fear and mistrust. Through their stories, Flanery shows us the stresses and tensions in a nation still dealing with the aftermath of terror and economic meltdown. The society he depicts is one where trust has broken down; where ultimate security is the goal regardless of the cost to personal freedom; where privacy is seen as an unaffordable luxury; and where the state is in the process of passing responsibility for social control into the hands of an unelected, unaccountable and profit-driven private sector.

The descriptions of the decaying house and the swampy land as the rain beats interminably down add to the air of oppressive menace and threat that builds throughout the book. And as events spiral, Flanery’s depiction of the psychological effects on each character is both convincing and disturbing, as love and trust turn gradually into suspicion and paranoia. This is a masterly, multi-layered book, which works on both levels – as a fine, slow-burning psychological thriller, and as a persuasive metaphor for a society in turmoil in response to huge events.

“If we are not in the final chapters of our history then we are at the end of a particular volume, unable to predict how further instalments may unfold.”

Is this the Great American Novel for this decade? As a Brit, I wouldn’t presume to decide that question but I’d certainly nominate it strongly for the shortlist. And, as a Brit, I feel I understand far more clearly where the American psyche is positioned after reading this, and it scares me. I wait with real interest for the reaction of American reviewers. Highly recommended.

NB This review is of a proof copy kindly provided by the publisher, Atlantic Books.

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Unhallowed Ground by Gillian White

Unhallowed GroundGuilt and fear… 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Georgie needs to get away from London to escape the publicity around the killing of a child while she was the social worker responsible for little Angie’s case. So when she unexpectedly inherits a cottage in a tiny hamlet on Dartmoor it seems an ideal place to escape to for a few months – until she meets the strange and mostly unfriendly neighbours, that is.

White handles prose with originality and control, and in Georgie she creates a completely believable character, flawed, yes, but with an underlying strength of character that is crumbling under the guilt of the child’s death. For the first half of the book, White cuts between the present and the past, letting us see the events that have brought Georgie to this place and this state of mind. Once Georgie gets to Dartmoor, the tension starts to ratchet up, while the reader is left to wonder whether the scary events are really happening or are all part of Georgie’s guilt-ridden mind. As winter comes and the snow starts to fall, Georgie is trapped in the cottage and alone…

For the most part, I thought this was a first-rate slow-burn psychological thriller that kept me hooked and on edge. Unfortunately I thought the ending let the book down – without any spoilers, I felt the climax didn’t quite live up to the sense of anticipation and tension that the author had so carefully built throughout. However, on the basis of this book, I am certainly looking forward to reading more of White’s work. Recommended.

Amazon UK Link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/R17ZB8MXAFR1LW/

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.