I’ll Keep You Safe by Peter May

Back to the island…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane are the owners of Ranish Tweed, a successful cloth manufacturer. They are in Paris for a trade show, when Niamh receives an anonymous email accusing her beloved husband Ruairidh of having an affair. She finds herself torn. Part of her can’t believe it, but when she sees Ruairidh with the woman, Irina, she follows them. Suddenly to her shock and horror the car they are in explodes, killing both occupants instantly. The police quickly determine that this is no act of random terrorism, but premeditated murder. Niamh returns to her home on the Isle of Lewis, grief-stricken and lost. Who could have had a serious enough grudge against Ruairidh to commit this awful crime? The answer must lie somewhere in the past…

Beginning of Lengthy and Completely Unnecessary Digression on May’s Work
 (Readers are respectfully advised that they may want to skip ahead… 😉 )

I have been a fan of Peter May’s writing for more decades than I care to remember. But for all that I love his books in general and think he’s one of the best thriller writers of his time, I have found in recent years that when he writes about his home country of Scotland and particularly the islands of the Hebrides, his writing takes on a beauty and depth that transcends any of his other work. His language is wonderfully descriptive, filled with colour and texture, so that the reader sees the harsh loveliness of the landscape, feels the never-ending rain and wind, knows the towns and harbours and the people who live and work in them.

As May has reached his middle years, I’ve found that some of his books have taken on a reflective tone, a kind of nostalgic retelling of what feels very much like fictionalised autobiography. This was perhaps most evident in Runaway, which May based around an incident in his own early life. But I felt it strongly again in this one, though I have no way of knowing whether I’m correct in that assumption. When he does this, it seems to me it has two results – the books are deeper, more emotional, with the feel of contemporary or literary fiction, and contain his truest characterisations; and, conversely, the crime story is weaker, less important and feels rather tacked on. I can understand why some readers might find that a little frustrating but, since what I love most about him is his superb descriptive writing and his ability to create a rich sense of place, the relative downplaying of the crime aspect doesn’t bother me too much. Part of me wishes he’d go the whole hog sometime and write a William Boyd-style literary novel.

I’m sure partly my reaction is because when May is writing about his own country, his own people and his own past, he’s also writing about mine. There’s a profound Scottishness in these Lewis books. Though his style is very different to William McIlvanney’s, I find the same kind of clear-sighted truthfulness in them – he doesn’t gloss over the darker aspects of our society but writes with a warm affection for both place and people. There is a tendency amongst some writers to show life in Scotland as either tartan and twee, or all drugs, drunks and foul-mouthed violence – both aspects that exist on the edges, for sure. But May instead shows what life is like for the majority of us – a mix of old and new, the modern emerging, more slowly, perhaps, in these remote island communities, from the restrictions and harsh traditions of the past.

End of Lengthy Digression

Old Loom – New Tweed. Weaver Kenny Maclennan from Breaseclete treading the Hattersley loom at the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, Isle of Lewis

Anyway, enough of these musings! To the book! It’s written mostly in the third person, past tense, with some sections in the past told in Niamh’s first-person voice, also past tense. (Regulars will know how happy I am not to be forced to read present tense, even if May does do it better than most.) The bulk of the book is telling us the long history of Niamh’s and Ruairidh’s relationship, from their early childhood through to the present day. We know that some incident happened that has led their families to be at odds with each other, but we don’t find out what till late on. Once married, they set up Ranish Tweed – a variation on the real Harris Tweed which is woven exclusively on the island. Again, May’s research and descriptive skill come into play here, never info-dumping, but showing how this old traditional industry has had new life breathed into it in recent years through clever marketing, becoming a niche couture item for the rich. Through this strand we also get a look at the fashion industry in general and how designers and manufacturers are crucial to each other’s success or failure.

Meantime, the crime is being investigated by Sylvie Braque of the French police, and we learn a little of her life as she struggles to balance single parenthood with the demands of the job. When she comes to Lewis as part of her investigation, she is assisted by local Sergeant George Gunn, who is becoming something of a regular feature in May’s various Lewis novels, making them feel loosely tied together and reminding us that each of the stories form one part that together make up the whole of this community. I’m a big fan of Sergeant Gunn, so was delighted that he got a rather larger role than usual in this one. For the most part, the story is a relatively slow meander through Niamh’s life, but it builds up to a typical May thriller ending which, though I’d guessed part of the solution, still managed to shock me.

As a crime novel, I might only have rated this as 4 stars – there’s no doubt it loses focus on the crime for a long section in the middle. But frankly, I’ll happily ramble round Lewis for as long as May is willing to be my guide, so I was in no hurry to get to the solution. If you haven’t already guessed, highly recommended!

Peter May

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus, via MidasPR.

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Unplayable Lie (Josh Griffin 1) by Caleigh O’Shea

A strong début…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Thirteen-year-old Lexi Carlisle is already famous in her home state of Texas. A budding golf player, she looks set to be a future champion. When she goes missing, the police and even her parents think at first that maybe she’s just off doing something she doesn’t want her parents to know about – she’s a good kid but she’s at that rebellious stage. But when time goes on, worry turns to fear – and then the ransom note arrives. Meantime, local journalist Josh Griffin is hanging onto his job by his fingernails – he needs a big story and he needs it soon. So when he gets a tip-off about Lexi’s disappearance, at first he’s thrilled. But Lexi’s mother, Amanda, was Josh’s college sweetheart and he soon finds himself torn between getting the scoop and helping Amanda find her daughter…

This is Caleigh O’Shea’s début novel and before I begin I shall make my usual disclaimer – under her real name, Caleigh is a long-term blog buddy of mine, so you should assume that there may be some bias in my review. However, as always, I’ll try to be as honest as possible.

The book is a traditional thriller – ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events – and O’Shea has used this format very effectively. The pacing is excellent – the story keeps moving along, with time for us to get to know the main characters but without too much back story holding up the flow. Although the series title suggests Josh will be the main character, in fact Amanda is the character we spend most time with.

Truthfully, I didn’t find either of them particularly appealing in the early chapters. Josh seems deeply unsympathetic to Amanda’s worry over her daughter, getting quite huffy when she makes it clear that giving him a good story isn’t her primary concern. Equally, Amanda seemed quite cold and controlled considering the circumstances, reacting too calmly and almost unfeelingly to major events which should, I felt, have upset her hugely. I also felt that while Nee-Hi, Amanda’s little dog, brought a lot of warmth into the story, humanising Amanda’s character, there were perhaps too many repetitions of the day-to-day stuff of dog-caring – letting him out to pee, feeding him, putting him in and out of his carry box, etc.

However, I warmed to both of them as time went on. (Josh and Amanda, that is. I didn’t need to warm to Nee-Hi – I fell in love with him immediately!) Josh gradually begins to get his priorities right, and in the later chapters especially we see more deeply into Amanda’s feelings. By the halfway point I had grown to like them both and was therefore fully invested in their welfare as the action ramped up in the second half. I wondered, as I often do with débuts, whether the book had been written linearly – the second half feels much more skilled in showing emotion realistically than the first, as if O’Shea’s style and, perhaps, confidence had been developing as she went along.

Caleigh O’Shea

The plot is more complex than it first appears – this is no random kidnapping of a rich kid. There’s a motive here, and a mystery which gives Josh a chance to use his journalistic skills to uncover what’s really going on. The police are involved but their suspicions are centred on this being some kind of domestic thing between Lexi’s divorced parents, so Amanda and Josh have to do their own investigating. And in true thriller fashion, eventually all the strands come together in a dramatic but credible denouement, in which I was delighted that neither Amanda nor Josh suddenly turned into unbelievable superheroes. For my liking, the body count was a little high, with a couple of events that I didn’t feel were necessary and which made the story rather bleaker than my taste runs to, but that’s a subjective point.

Overall, then, a strong début with a good plot, great pacing, an exciting and believable climax, and main characters whom I grew to care about. I’m looking forward to seeing how Caleigh, Josh (and maybe Amanda?) develop as the series progresses.

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Sweet William by Iain Maitland

Whom the gods would destroy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A man escapes from a secure psychiatric hospital to find his little son, sweet William, and run off to a new life, just the two of them, in the south of France. This is the story of the next forty-eight hours…

And what a story! A complete roller-coaster during most of which we’re stuck inside the head of Orrey, the father, whose frequent assertions that he’s not mad somehow fail to convince us! Dark and disturbing doesn’t even begin to describe it. By all rights, I should have hated it – I’ve bored on often enough about my dislike of using children to up the tension in crime fiction. But it’s a tour de force piece of writing with one of the most brilliantly drawn disturbed central characters I’ve read in a long time – think Mr Heming or The Dinner or Zoran Drvenkar. Then add in relentless pacing that drives the book forward at a speed to leave you gasping – the definitive page-turner!

I don’t want to say too much about the plot since it’s always best to know as little as possible in advance when reading thrillers, but I will mention that little William, who’s only three, goes through a lot, so if you really struggle with bad things happening to fictional children this may not be for you. There is no sexual abuse however.

The book is written in two voices. One is a third-person, past tense narrator who tells us the events of this forty-eight hours as they happen to William’s new family, who adopted him after his mum died and his father was put in the hospital. Although we do learn the names of these characters, for the most part the narrator refers to them as ‘the young woman’, ‘the old man’, etc. This is a fantastic device for keeping us distanced from them – in fact, they’re not even particularly likeable in the beginning – so that somehow we’re not sucked in to being 100% on their side – not for a while, anyway.

I can see her, evil cow, trying to keep up with Veitch. She’s holding William’s hand and every time he stumbles, because she’s going way too fast for his little legs, she pulls him to his feet and keeps walking.
Poor little mite.
I’d like to push on up behind her and jostle her to the ground next time she does that and then, as she stumbles and falls, I’d take little William by the hand and be away into the crowd.
He’d look up at me in surprise and I’d look down at him and smile and say something sweet and kind and he’d smile back as we disappeared away together forever.
You know what, I might even kiss him on the forehead. That’s what you do, that is.
Kiss little children.

Orrey however tells us his own story in the present tense, talking directly to us (or maybe talking to another voice inside his head, but the effect is the same). He doesn’t have much of a plan and has to react to each event as it happens. Frequently, a chapter will end with him summing up what he thinks his options are and then asking what would you do? Now, it’s perfectly possible I’m a very sick person because I found myself being forced to agree that sometimes the most extreme option was really the only possible one. When I discovered that at one point I was agreeing that he really had to do something that no normal person would ever dream of doing, I laughed at how brilliantly the author had pushed me so far inside Orrey’s insane world view that he’d made it seem almost logical.

Despite the darkness of the story, Maitland keeps the graphic stuff firmly off the page for the most part, though that doesn’t stop it from seeping into the reader’s imagination. But it does make it a bearable – dare I say, even an entertaining – read, which wouldn’t have been the case for me had every event been described in glorious technicolor. The oblique references to what has happened during the gaps in Orrey’s narration actually frequently made me laugh in a guilty kind of way – there’s a thin vein of coal black humour buried very insidiously in there, I think, in the early parts, at least. Although the stuff relating to William is difficult to read, if Orrey has a redeeming feature it’s that he truly does love his son, which somehow made it possible for me to remain in his company if not on his side.

Iain Maitland

However, as the book goes on, the darkness becomes ever deeper and Maitland changes the focus with a great deal of subtlety and skill so that gradually our sympathies become fixed where they should have been all along – with William and his adopted parents. But we are left inside Orrey’s unreliable mind right up to the end, so that the book might end but our stress levels take a good deal longer to get back to normal. I finished it four days ago, and I’m still waiting…

I believe this is Maitland’s fictional début – well, I’m kinda speechless at that. While the subject matter might make this a tough read for some, for me the quality of the writing, the way the author nudges and pushes the reader to go exactly where he wants, and the utterly believable and unique voice of Orrey, all make this a stunning achievement. Set aside a few hours to read it in a block though – you’ll either stop for good very quickly or you won’t want to stop at all…

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

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The End of the Web by George Sims

Beware the spider!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Leo Selver’s marriage has never been the same since his young son died, and he has taken to having a string of short affairs. When we meet him he is just about to embark on a new one, with a beautiful young woman called Judy Latimer. But Leo is worried about some business deal he seems to be involved in with a man he doesn’t really trust. Soon things are going to turn nasty – very nasty – for Leo and his business partner. And it will be up to Ed Buchanan, former policeman and old family friend, to try to work out what’s going on before things get even nastier…

This may be one of the vaguest little intros I’ve ever written and that’s quite intentional. One of the things I’ve noticed most since I’ve being reading some of these older crime novels is that authors were far more willing to mess with the reader’s expectations and play with structure than we tend to think. This book is a prime example of that. The beginning follows a fairly conventional pattern for a thriller – ordinary man caught up in a situation that brings him into danger – and it looks as though it will go on in the traditional way, with him struggling to extricate himself from the mess he’s in. But then the author turns it on its head, and the book suddenly veers off in an entirely unexpected direction. I was taken aback, I must admit, but it works well, lifting this out of standard thriller territory into something a little more original.

Published in 1976, the book is set only a few years earlier in 1973, mostly in London though with trips out to the countryside and also over to Amsterdam. As with most thrillers (back in those happy far-off days, before turgid soggy middles and endless angst became obligatory), it goes at a cracking pace but, despite this, the author creates a good feel for the time period through references to some of the music and clothes, etc., and his sense of place is just as good.

The characterisation is also very good, achieved with an admirable brevity of description. Leo isn’t exactly likeable, especially to a modern (female) audience who might feel that he should have spent a bit more time thinking about his wife’s feelings rather than indulging in sad, middle-aged fantasies about young women, but his grief over the death of his son is real and makes it possible for the reader to sympathise. He’s no hero, as he discovered himself during the war, but when the chips are down he does his best.

Ed, who becomes the main character as the book progresses, is however an excellent hero! Ex-boxer, ex-policeman, all round nice guy with a bit of a romantic streak, he manages the tricky balancing act of being tough with the baddies but gentle and caring with the women in his life – not just his romantic interest, but with Leo’s wife, whom he looks on almost as a surrogate mother. And remarkably for the period, he doesn’t patronise them! It’s a short thriller, but Sims still finds room for Ed to develop over time, so that in the course of the novel he gets to know himself better and make changes in the way he lives his life.

Can’t find an author pic, so here’s a nice spider instead…

There’s plenty of action and a plot that hints at what I discovered later from Martin Edwards’ intro to be true – that Sims himself had connections to the code-breaking facility at Bletchley Park during the war. There are some seriously chilling moments and some touching ones, and a dash of humour from time to time to keep the thing from becoming too bleak. The writing is very good and the pace never falters. Bearing in mind that it’s the ’70s, Sims seems to be quite forward-thinking, managing to avoid the usual pitfalls of blatant sexism, etc., and he in fact paints a positive picture of the burgeoning multi-culturalism that was beginning to really take off in London at that period. All-in-all, I thoroughly enjoyed this, and will certainly look out for more from Sims. I hope the British Library will resurrect more of these thrillers – from this example, they’ll be just as enjoyable as the mystery novels they’ve been re-issuing.

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

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The Golden Sabre by Jon Cleary

A wild ride through post-revolutionary Russia…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Matthew Martin Cabell has been in the Eastern Urals carrying out a survey for the oil company he works for, and now wants to go home to America. But Russia is in the midst of the Civil War that followed the Revolution, and the local leader of the Whites, General Bronevich, sees an American citizen as a good opportunity to make some easy money. Eden Penfold is an English governess looking after the children of a local Prince who has gone to fight in the war. Eden has received a message from the children’s mother that she should bring the young Prince and Princess to her in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), but Eden is worried how she will make the journey safely in these dangerous times. When Bronevich attempts to rape Eden, Cabell kills him – and suddenly Matthew, Eden and the children are on the run through Russia in the Prince’s Rolls Royce… pursued by a dwarf!

The book was written in 1981 and is packed full of some cringe-makingly out-dated language and non-politically correct attitudes towards women and gay men, so if you find it impossible to make allowances for different times, this is probably one to avoid. That would be a huge pity though, because it’s a rip-roaring adventure yarn, full of excitement and danger, and with a nice light romance thrown in for good measure. And despite the outdated attitudes, it actually has a spunky leading lady in Eden, and Cabell gradually develops a good deal of sympathy for Nikolai, the gay servant who accompanies them on their journey. Partly it feels as though Cleary himself was struggling to get in tune with more modern attitudes (he would have been in his sixties at the time of writing) and partly he’s portraying what would have been the attitudes of society back in the early 20th century, so I was able to give him a pass and enjoy the ride.

And what a ride! As the Rolls Royce travels south to the Caspian Sea, then over into what’s now Georgia, our intrepid heroes have to negotiate their way through White Army factions, Bolshevik villagers, louche aristocrats holding out on distant estates waiting to see what the future holds, Muslim forces intent on redressing old grievances, mercenary ship captains, deserts, mountains… and did I mention the dwarf? The one thing all these people and places have in common is that they all want to kill the travellers, though for varying reasons. They’ve reckoned without Cabell’s strategic ingenuity, though, not to mention Eden’s dexterity at bashing uppity men over the head with her handbag! But even Cabell and Eden seem incapable of shaking off the implacable dwarf…

Jon Cleary

Although it’s a wild adventure story first and foremost, Cleary has clearly done his research about Russia at this moment in time, and there’s a lot of insight into the maelstrom and confusion that followed the Revolution. He doesn’t overtly take a side – he makes it clear the days of aristocratic rule had to come to an end, but he doesn’t laud the Bolsheviks either. All sides are shown as taking advantage of the chaos for personal gain, and he shows vividly the lawlessness to which the country descended – villagers holding kangaroo courts and carrying out summary executions; soldiers on all sides raping and pillaging as they rode through; aristos trying to get their valuables out of the country before they were confiscated by one faction or another. He also shows the anti-Semitic pogroms and the flight of Jews looking for their own promised land where they could live in peace. Again, Cabell recognises his own anti-Semitism, and learns over the course of the book to see the Jews as not just equals, but potential friends. Lots of stereo-typing, but also a good deal of recognition of the stereo-typing too – if one can bear the language, the messages are pretty good. Even the dwarf is treated somewhat sympathetically…

I loved this, despite my frequent cringing! Cabell and Eden are hugely likeable, and the young Prince and Princess become well developed characters over the course of the story too. The gay Cossack servant Nikolai might be clichéd, but he touched my heart nevertheless. And though he’s the baddie, Cleary’s depiction of the dwarf is nicely nuanced too, with a real level of understanding for his character having been distorted by the bullying and prejudice he’s faced throughout his life. I laughed, I sympathised, I held my breath, I shuddered and more than once I gasped in shock and surprise – what more could you ask for from an adventure story? Go on – stick your modern prejudices in a box for a few hours, and jump in the Roller… and keep an eye out behind you for the dwarf…

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Force of Nature (Aaron Falk 2) by Jane Harper

Lost in the woods…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Two groups set off into the Australian outback on a team-building exercise. The men’s team returns on time, but the women’s team is late. The search for them finds nothing but, just as it’s about to be abandoned for the night, four women burst out of the woods – some hysterical, some injured. But the fifth team member, Alice, isn’t with them. Federal Agent Aaron Falk becomes involved when it turns out Alice made a phone call to him the night before, though all he can make out on the recorded message is a lot of static and two words… “hurt her”. Falk and his partner Carmen had been pressuring Alice to get information for them on her company, since they suspect her boss of money-laundering. What has happened to Alice? Did she just walk away from her team in the middle of the night and get lost or is there a more sinister reason for her disappearance? Just to add to the sense of unease the woods were where a serial killer once brought his victims – the killer is now dead, but his son is alive and no one knows where he is…

It’s not often I have to suspend my disbelief quite so early in a thriller, but I struggled with the whole concept that any company would send its inexperienced staff off into the outback with no professional support, no satellite phone, no flares – no way, in fact, of alerting anyone should things go wrong. Maybe they’re tougher in Aus, but here the company management would be liable to major damages not to mention jail-terms. I also felt the idea that the son of a serial killer would necessarily be a serial killer was… dubious. I didn’t feel Harper did enough to convince me of that likelihood by showing that the son had any kind of track record, nor did I feel that strand was really used effectively as the story developed. So I didn’t get off to the best start with this one.

Having set up Alice’s disappearance, the book then takes us back in time to follow the women on their hike, alternating this with Aaron and Carmen in the present assisting the search and slowly revealing the storyline about their investigation into the company. This works fairly well, and each trip into the woods focuses on a different one of the women so that we gradually get to know them all. It’s not long before they get lost and then we get a kind of accelerated Lord of the Flies syndrome, as the women’s veneer of camaraderie quickly gives way to greed, bullying and the dredging up of old scores. This is not a company I would choose to work for!

I don’t want to be too hard on the book, since I suspect some of my relative disappointment with it is caused by too high expectations following Harper’s excellent début in The Dry. But the technique of flicking back and forwards between two timelines is feeling increasingly tired and, a common complaint of mine these days, the first chapters telling us which women come out of the woods destroy any real suspense when we then go back in time. Every time one of the women other than Alice is in peril, we know she survives. I genuinely don’t get why writers think these prologue-type chapters are a good idea, especially in a thriller. The book is also too long for its content – another common feature of current crime/thriller fiction. It drags badly in the middle and somehow the plot gets too convoluted for a thriller and yet not complex enough for a crime mystery. While Harper does achieve a feeling of creepiness at several points in the woods, the major storyline doesn’t live up to its promise.

Jane Harper

On the upside, Aaron and Carmen mesh together well and are a team I’ll be happy to see work together again. Harper’s writing, characterisation and powers of description are just as good as in her début – the book just needs a sharper plot and tighter structure to create a real feeling of suspense. All the elements are there and, while I think authors always have the primary responsibility, as a newish author I feel Harper deserved a stricter editor who would have made the criticisms several reviewers are now making. I always suspect publishers want to rush second books to market after a successful début, but sometimes it would be better to take a little longer – readers will wait. In the end, this is an averagely good thriller with the potential to have been an excellent one. Now that the always tricky second novel is over I look forward to seeing how Harper develops as the series progresses.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group UK.

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Munich by Robert Harris

Peace for our time…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s September, 1938. Hitler has delivered an ultimatum – the Czechs must withdraw from the disputed Sudetenland and cede it to Germany, or Germany will forcibly annexe it. Britain is torn – if Germany carries out its threat, there will inevitably be Europe-wide war, a war for which the British armed forces are woefully under-prepared. The British PM, Neville Chamberlain, must find a way to maintain the fragile peace, even at the expense of appeasing a regime that is already showing the hideousness of its true colours. But in Germany too, the Army is not ready for war, so Hitler faces his own pressures to come to an agreement. People on each side are warning that any agreement will probably be short-term – Germany will not stop its expansion ambitions at the borders of the Sudetenland. Delay will give both nations a chance to go into the war better prepared, but Hitler is unpredictable in the extreme and seems determined to proceed whatever the cost. As the two nations warily circle each other, two young men will play a secret role. Hugh Legat is a secretary in the British Foreign Office; Paul Hartmann is his equivalent in Germany. They know each other well – they studied together in Oxford and have a shared history that will be slowly revealed. And now they will find themselves thrown together again, in a shadowy world of secret deals and betrayals that may determine the course of history.

As always, Harris shows himself a master of riveting storytelling. The book is in fact a fairly straightforward account of the events leading up to and at the Munich conference where Hitler, Chamberlain and a few of the other European leaders met to determine the fate of the Sudetenland. Anyone of my generation will know the outcome, but I’m going to try to leave it a little vague, since the book would work, I think, as a good thriller for those younger people who may not. In truth the fictionalised aspect – the story of Legat and Hartmann – is rather lightly tacked on and in my opinion doesn’t add much. It feels as if it’s only there to justify the book being considered ‘fiction’. But the basic story is so compelling, I didn’t feel it needed much fictionalisation anyway, so that aspect didn’t bother me.

Chamberlain and Hitler shake hands in Munich, September 30, 1938
Photo: AP

What Harris does so well is bring the historical characters to life and take the reader deep into the complexities that faced them. Because WW2 did eventually happen and Churchill, the arch-opponent of appeasement, was ultimately proved right in his long-term predictions, Chamberlain has had a bad rap in this country – remembered as a weak, deluded man who allowed Hitler to manipulate him, largely because that’s how Churchill portrayed him. Harris doesn’t mess with the historical facts (as far as I can tell – I’m far from being an expert about this period of history), but he takes a more nuanced view of Chamberlain’s character, delving into his reasons, personal and political, for acting as he did. I found it entirely believable and oddly moving – the intolerable pressures we put on our leaders, and our unforgiving criticism if they fall short in any way. Churchill doesn’t appear as a major character, but is there in the background. Hindsight makes the heroes and villains of history – at this point, it still wasn’t clear if Churchill was right that war was inevitable or if Chamberlain was right in hoping that peace could be maintained. Britain – Europe – hadn’t yet recovered from WW1, and there was little appetite for more war in most countries.

The Munich conference itself is brilliantly depicted – Harris has the skill to allow the reader to become the proverbial fly on the wall. We see it mostly from the British perspective, and meet some of the more junior people there who would become leaders in their own right over the following decades. Hitler and his closest henchmen are mostly seen through the eyes of others rather than directly, and again Harris gives a somewhat more balanced view than the caricature Hitler is sometimes presented as. I don’t for one moment mean that Harris tries to whitewash him, but he shows how Hitler rose to power on the promise to make Germany great again after the humiliation of WW1 and the economic disasters that followed, caused partly by the war itself and partly by the terms of the peace treaty forced on them. But Harris also shows that there was opposition even at this point – a significant minority who recognised the evil of the regime and were doing what they could to stop him.

Robert Harris

I found this another completely absorbing read from Harris. I feel as if I have a much better knowledge of this crucial moment in European history and a deeper understanding of the personalities involved, especially Chamberlain. The joy of Harris’ writing, though, is that it never feels like he’s teaching or preaching – despite the plot being light and a little under-developed, it still allows him to make the story read like a thriller, with enough uncertainty so that there’s a real feeling of suspense even for people who know the historical outcome. I suspect that people who prefer an intense plot might feel a little disappointed. But for people who are more interested in the fascinating and entirely credible portrayal of the real people and events, I recommend this wholeheartedly. A great read.

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

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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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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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Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

Sister act…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Siren by Annemarie Neary

A soggy sandwich with a great filling…

🙂 🙂 😐

Twenty years ago, Róisín Burns had to flee her home in Northern Ireland after getting caught up in the Troubles. Now the IRA man she fled from, Lonergan, has reinvented himself as a politician, and Róisín has returned to take revenge, sort of. Or something.

This is another of the ubiquitous trend for books set part in the past and part in the present and, like so many of them, one part is much stronger than the other. The past section is set at the height of the Troubles, and Neary gives a convincing picture of a young girl trapped into doing the IRA’s bidding in a city where fear is a constant presence. The present is a silly thriller with absolutely no credibility whatsoever and drags interminably. In fact, had I not been reading this for Reading Ireland month, I would undoubtedly have abandoned it before I even got to the past, since it takes almost a third of the book to get there, apart from the brief prologue.

Róisín, now known as Sheen, has turned up on Lamb Island off the coast of Northern Ireland, where Lonergan now has a cottage. Sheen rents a little cottage too, isolated of course, just up the road from the resident nutter whom everyone assumes murdered the previous woman tenant. They don’t bother to tell Sheen this though, contenting themselves with warning the nutter, Boyle, to behave himself. He doesn’t. But he’s not the only bad man on the island – for such a small population it seems to attract more than its fair share of men willing to bump off lone women, for personal as well as political reasons. We spend an inordinate amount of time inside Boyle’s foul-mouthed and lustful head – ugh! (Constantly using “fucken” instead of “fucking” really doesn’t make it cute, by the way, especially when there’s no other attempt to reproduce Irish speech or accent.) Tedious in the extreme.

Then we go back to Belfast to what seems like the mid-’70s, though we’re not told exactly. The Troubles are at their height, with frequent beatings and bombings directed at both British soldiers and civilians fairly indiscriminately. This section feels almost as if it’s written by a different author. The city and its people are recreated with a real feeling of authenticity, and Neary raises a lot of intriguing questions about where moral responsibility begins and ends in a situation where the norms have disappeared and law and order have almost completely broken down. At first Róisín is tricked into helping the IRA, but after that she has to make choices – pay the consequences or continue down the path of terrorism, this time knowingly. Neary shows how grey that question becomes in a sharply divided society, where informers on either side are at extreme risk. She also touches on the question of how far the crimes of the past must be forgotten or forgiven in the pursuit of peace.

Annemarie Neary

And then sadly back to Lamb Island for a ridiculous thriller ending. The idea is ludicrous that a middle-aged woman with no combat experience or training would decide to take on members of the IRA whom she knows have no compunction about killing. And so unnecessary, since if Róisín simply wanted to destroy Lonergan, she could have sent an email to the police or the newspapers from the safety of her American home. But instead she comes back to Ireland to face Lonergan herself, to… I’m not really sure what… threaten him? Shame him? Neither tactic likely to work on an IRA terrorist, I’d have thought. And then it gets even sillier…

So a mixed bag. If Neary had stuck to telling the real story – the one in the past – this could have been an excellent book. Instead it’s like a sandwich with a great filling, but slapped between two thick pieces of soggy and underbaked bread. Maybe it’s time for authors to start telling one story again, instead of feeling obliged to stick in an extra timeline and a thriller ending – as all trends do, this one has seriously lost its novelty value. Sadly I see her new book follows the same double timeline format, so I think I’ll pass on that one.

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

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The Dry (Aaron Falk 1) by Jane Harper

Revisiting the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-dryKiewarra has been suffering from drought for a couple of years now with no sign of rain coming soon. The farmers are worried, many having to kill their livestock for lack of water, and the knock-on effects are being felt through the town. As tensions rise, a tragedy occurs – Luke Hadler shoots his wife and young son, and then kills himself. Or so it seems, but Luke’s parents can’t accept that their son would have done this awful thing. So when Luke’s childhood friend Aaron Falk turns up for the funeral, they ask him to look into it. Falk is now a police detective working in the financial crimes section in Melbourne. It’s twenty years since he was last in Kiewarra, when he and his father left the town under a cloud of suspicion after another death. Many of the townsfolk are unhappy to see him back…

I’m in the highly unusual position of being unable to find a single thing to criticise about this book! So get ready for a dull review – or here’s a better idea, skip the review and read the book instead.

The writing is great – Harper conjures up this drought-ridden and anxious community brilliantly, showing the deep connection between man and nature in a town that relies on its farmers for survival. There’s are some dark descriptions right from the start, with blowflies being the first to find the bodies of Karen and her little son, Billy, but Harper stops well short of being gratuitously gruesome – the balance is just about perfect.

Jane Harper
Jane Harper

I liked Falk as a character very much, so am rather glad to see that the book is listed as the first in a series. Although he had to face a terrible incident in his past, he hasn’t allowed it to make him either embittered or angst-ridden. He’s professional and intelligent and is someone I’d happily spend more time with. The new local policeman Raco, too, is a refreshing character – a happily married man looking forward to the birth of his first child, he treats people with respect and uses his brains rather than his brawn to get to the truth. And the characterisation is just as good of the other townspeople – from Luke’s grieving parents, to Aaron’s childhood friend Gretchen, to the people who still hold Aaron responsible for what happened back in the past – a whole range from nice to nasty, and each equally convincing.

The plot is strong and well-executed; the familiar device of a crime from the past resurfacing in the present feeling fresh because of the skill in the telling. Raco also has doubts about Luke’s guilt, because of a couple of things that don’t make sense to him. His main issue is that little baby Charlotte survived, and he’s convinced that if Luke had decided to destroy his family out of desperation, he’d have killed the baby too. So Raco and Falk team up, and as they investigate the current crime, the shadows of the past loom ever larger. Harper plants false trails all the way through – I freely admit that I suspected everyone in turn, but was still surprised by the solution. And yet it feels totally fair – all the clues are there and, when the reveal comes, it’s completely credible. Add to all this one of the best and most original thriller endings I’ve read in a long time, and you can see why I’m at a loss to find anything to grumble about.

I part read this book and part listened to it on the Audible audiobook version narrated by Stephen Shanahan. Annoyingly, I can’t fault it either! Shanahan’s narration is the perfect complement to the book. He has a lovely Australian accent, but not at all broad enough to be difficult for non-Australians – it reminded me a little of Pat Cash’s voice (*brief pause while FF swoons*). He doesn’t exactly “act” all the parts, but he manages to differentiate between the different voices. There is one Scottish character, and I was impressed by the accuracy of his Scottish accent.

the-dry-audioOne thing I really liked was that Shanahan used a “younger” voice for Aaron in the sections set in the past – a little quicker and lighter than the voice of adult Falk in the present. And, whether intentional or not, Harper also made this an easier listen than some audiobooks, by calling the young version Aaron and the present version Falk throughout, which was a huge help in clarifying which period we were in. On the printed page, the past sections are in italics, but of course, this is no help when listening. It would be great, now that audiobooks are becoming such a big thing, if more authors thought about how to differentiate for a listening audience as well as a reading one.

All-in-all, a brilliant read and an excellent listen! I’m enjoying the read/listen experience in general – a good narration adds another level to the characterisation and for books set elsewhere it also means you get the correct pronunciation of place names and so on. Expect to see this one turning up in my annual awards at the end of the year, but don’t wait till then – grab it if you can!

Since I couldn't track down a pic of Stephen Shanahan, here's a gratuitous Pat Cash pic instead...
Since I couldn’t track down a pic of Stephen Shanahan, here’s a gratuitous Pat Cash pic instead…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group Ltd., and the audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

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The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer

Murder as performance art…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the-beautiful-deadTV reporter Eve Singer is on the crime beat, so she’s called to the scene of a brutal murder committed in the foyer of an office building, just feet from where people are passing by on the pavement outside. This is a murderer who likes to perform his gory crimes in public, and then stage them as if it were some kind of performance art. When he makes contact with Eve, at first it seems like a great thing – she’ll have the exclusive story and it will give her career a much needed boost. But soon she realises that she’s becoming caught up in the murderer’s schemes, almost to the point of becoming an accessory…

First off, let me say that I love Belinda Bauer. And this book has in it many of the things I love her for – the great writing, touches of humour, some nice building of suspense and an original and dramatic climax. However, for me, this isn’t one of her best. It feels derivative – there are touches of Hannibal and Clarice in the relationship between Eve and the killer, and heavy shades of Psycho over the storyline. Perhaps there’s not much new left to say in the serial killer novel – certainly it’s been a while since I read one that felt fresh. But the derivations in this one seemed so blatant that I wondered at points if she was deliberately referencing some of the greats as a kind of inside joke, but if so, it didn’t quite come off, and simply ended up feeling rather unoriginal.

The structure also doesn’t feel up to Bauer’s usual standard. We are given biographies of the characters rather than being allowed to get to know them through the plot – whatever happened to ‘show, don’t tell’? Eve’s father suffers from dementia and this is used partly to give some humour to the book – always tricky with such a sensitive subject and I felt it occasionally passed over into tastelessness. And while I thought the portrayal of his dementia was well done for most of the book, when it became part of the plotting in the later stages it crossed the credibility line and began to feel contrived and inauthentic, and I found myself feeling that this awful disease was being used for entertainment purposes rather than being given the empathy it deserves. The humour didn’t work as well for me as usual, I didn’t take to Eve much, and the amount of lazy swearing throughout became utterly tedious, not to mention Eve’s need to vomit every time a corpse turned up.

Belinda Bauer
Belinda Bauer

On the upside, there are passages where Bauer achieves that delicious feeling of creepiness, for example, when Eve thinks she’s being followed home in the dark, and it does have a great thriller ending which redeemed it a little in my eyes. I was also pleased that this murderer was pretty eclectic in his choice of victims, not exclusively butchering vulnerable young women. But overall, this is one I’m going to put down to an off day, and go back to waiting avidly for her next offering. I’ve given it three stars but, in truth, I think one of those stars is from a mixture of loyalty and the feeling that I may be judging it too harshly because of my perhaps overly high expectations. Because, despite this one, I do love Belinda Bauer. I can’t help wondering in general if the pressure to get a new book out every year is really a good thing in the long run…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

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Cast Iron (Enzo Files 6) by Peter May

Secrets of the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀

cast-ironBack in book 1 of the Enzo Files series, Scottish forensic expert Enzo Macleod, now living in Toulouse, took on a bet that he could use modern forensic techniques to solve the seven unsolved murders that were described in a true crime book written by Parisian journalist Roger Raffin. A few years on, he is now beginning his investigation into the sixth murder, of a young girl, Lucie Martin. Lucie disappeared one day back in 1989, and no trace of her was found until the great heatwave of 2003 when her skeleton showed up in the dried-out shore of the lake near her home. Her parents believe she was murdered by a notorious serial killer who was active at that time, but he had a cast-iron alibi for the time she disappeared. Enzo has very little to go on as he reopens the case, but it soon becomes clear someone is out to stop him from finding out the truth…

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I’m a big fan of Peter May’s work, going all the way back to his China thrillers. I admit, however, that the Enzo Files is the one series of his to which I’ve never really taken. In fact, I haven’t read them all – just the first two, then this one. But this is really due to a matter of personal preference than any real criticism of the books. May’s usual protagonists tend to be unencumbered by family ties, or to develop relationships as the series progress. But Enzo comes with a lot of family baggage, which gets added to in each book. Having left his first wife and their daughter, he moved to France with his new love, who then died giving birth to another daughter. So in the early books there’s a lot of working out of resentments with his first, abandoned daughter, Kirsty, and by the time of this book, both daughters have acquired lovers who featured in earlier cases.

Enzo meantime picks up women at a rate that would make George Clooney jealous, so that by the time of this book he has tense relationships with more than one ex. And in each story, some or all of his extended family get involved in the investigation. May does it very well, and keeps all the various personal storylines ticking over, but it’s just not my kind of thing – I find all the relationship stuff takes away from the focus on the plot (and I frankly don’t see what it is about Enzo that apparently makes him so irresistible to women). But I wouldn’t want to put other readers off – what I don’t like about this series may well make it particularly appealing to people who like their protagonists to have a ‘real’ life beyond the immediate plot.

As Enzo begins his investigation by visiting the victim’s family, he is unaware that his daughter Sophie and her boyfriend Bertrand have been abducted, until he receives a warning to stop if he wants to get them back safely. Naturally, this only makes him redouble his efforts! The strand involving Sophie and Bertrand’s imprisonment and attempts to escape is my favourite bit of the book. It takes us into traditional thriller territory with plenty of action and mounting tension, and May excels at this type of writing.

Peter May
Peter May

The main plot regarding Lucie’s murder is also excellent, showing all May’s usual skill at creating strong characters and interesting settings, and managing to have some credible emotional content to offset the action thriller side of the book. However, there is also an overarching plot to the series which comes to a climax in this one, and I felt there was perhaps a little too much going on and too many coincidental crossovers between the various strands. But May’s writing is a pleasure to read as always, and he manages to bring all the threads together well in the end. Some aspects of this work as a standalone, but because it reveals so much about the background plot, I would strongly suggest this is a series that should be read in order. Reading this one first would undoubtedly spoil the earlier books in a significant way. The first book in the series seems to be known as Extraordinary People now, though it was originally published under the title Dry Bones.

I hope my relatively lukewarm review won’t deter people from trying this series. Even with favourite authors, we all prefer some of their stuff to others, but any Peter May book is still head and shoulders above most of the competition. And this is as well-written and strongly plotted as always, while the French setting gives it an added level of interest. So, despite my personal reservations, I still recommend the series, especially if the complicated family relationships aspect appeals to you.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus, via MidasPR.

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The Methods of Sergeant Cluff by Gil North

Behind the net curtains…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the methods of sergeant cluffAlthough Sergeant Caleb Cluff is still on leave following the events in the last book, when the body of a young woman is found, as the only CID man in Gunnershaw, he is called to the scene. A local man, he knows the people of the town, so he recognises the girl as Jane Trundle and is immediately aware of who the chief suspect will be – a young man who was in love with her despite her constant rejection of him. But Cluff isn’t convinced that Jack would do such a brutal thing and begins to cast his net wider, much to the annoyance of his superiors who’d rather get the case wrapped up quickly.

For the first thirty or forty pages of this short book, I was a bit uncertain of whether it was going to live up to the previous excellent one, Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm. There are a lot of indications that Cluff and the other characters know things about Jane and some of the other characters, but for what seems like quite a long time the reader is kept in the dark. Happily, however, before it becomes too annoying, this background knowledge is gradually revealed, and the plot begins to darken.

Sergeant Cluff is allocated a uniformed officer to work with him, PC Barker. But Cluff is really a bit of a loner and an early version of the maverick cop who has become so ubiquitous now. His methods are mainly to use his local knowledge, together with a bit of intuition and his deep understanding of the passions of the human heart, to help him decide who committed the crime, and then to silently intimidate and harass his suspects until they either confess or do something that incriminates them. He has a strong sense of justice, but doesn’t think the law is necessarily always the best way to achieve that. And while he has a moral code, his methods sometimes step well beyond what would have been considered acceptable even back in those less politically correct days of the early1960s. At loggerheads with several of his colleagues, it is only his habit of getting results that allows him to get away with his behaviour.

Gil North
Gil North

North’s writing style seems improved from the previous book – fewer staccato sentences and a better flow. The dialogue remains somewhat stilted, but I’m delighted to note that his obsession with describing the breasts of every female character seems to have disappeared. (Perhaps some kindly woman hit him over the head with a hardback copy of book 1 – if so, thank you!) The real strength of his writing comes in his descriptions of this industrial town – all blacks and greys and browns, dirt from the mills and factories, and poverty hidden behind a façade of respectability and net curtains. This is a town set in the midst of Yorkshire moors and farming country, though, and himself the son of a landowning farmer, Cluff is as at home with these prosperous countrymen as he is with the townspeople. Some of his insights into his characters are beautifully written – sparsely, but with truth and a real empathy for the narrowness and hardships of their lives.

Cluff climbed to his feet, a mourner at the death of a marriage that could not be broken while they lived, because this was Gunnershaw and they lived in Rupert Street and were middle-aged and had to exist, both of them, on the pittance the man earned, because, more than anything, they were respectable and the wife could not tolerate, if the husband could, what the neighbours would say. The man could no longer deceive himself about the extent of his wife’s disloyalty. Everything between them was finished and had to go on still, as it had always done.

The climax of the book heads towards the over-dramatic and dangerously close to the credibility line, but somehow it works. The plot becomes very dark, and Cluff’s behaviour, to put it mildly, is morally dubious, but it seemed to me to echo the amateur detectives of the old school, who would often allow justice to take its own course outwith the confines of the law. Again, as with the first book, I found that from halfway through I was totally hooked, unable to put the book down until I saw how it all played out. The current trend of lengthy crime novels had almost made me forget the pure pleasure of racing through a book in one or two breathless sessions, and yet there’s as much depth and plot in this as in most books that are three times as long; and considerably more tension. (I suspect that may be why the credibility issue doesn’t matter so much – there’s not enough time for the reader to dwell on the details.)

Excellent – I hope the British Library go on to publish the rest of the series.

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

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Enigma by Robert Harris

Masterful storytelling…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

enigma 2It’s 1943, and the Allies rely on the shipping convoys from the US to keep their battered countries fed and munitioned. The tide has been flowing in the Allies favour since the German Enigma codes were broken at Bletchley Park in the South of England. But now the Germans have changed the U-boat code, threatening not only individual convoys but the entire defeat of the Allied forces. Tom Jericho, hailed as one of the most brilliant codebreakers, is on a break, suffering from a combination of stress, overwork and a broken heart over a girl named Claire. But with this new threat, despite his fragile health, he’s urgently needed back in Bletchley. And when he gets there, he discovers Claire is missing…

What a joy, after a series of less than stellar reads, to find myself in the safe hands of a master storyteller once again! This is a masterclass in how to write a book. The writing is so good it hooks instantly. Harris recreates wartime Britain with what feels like total authenticity; and specifically the world of these men, recruited for their brilliant minds, their maths and puzzle solving skills, on whose youthful shoulders it sometimes feels the whole weight of the war rests. Throughout the book, Harris feeds out his extensive research into Bletchley and codebreaking at the right moments and in the right quantities, as a natural part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. He carefully creates his characters to feel real and then ensures their actions remain true to that characterisation. And oh, bliss! The book has an actual plot – a proper story, that remains credible throughout and holds the reader’s attention right to the end! The pleasure of reading this well-crafted, expertly-paced story highlighted to me what a rarity that has become in contemporary fiction.

The book starts in Cambridge University, where Jericho has been sent to recuperate. The whole feeling of the ancient university in wartime is beautifully created, setting the tone for the rest of the book. The old staircases and shabby rooms, the ancient traditions; the dullness of an institution empty of so many of the young men and women who would normally have been there, but who are instead part of the war effort; the gossiping staff with too much time on their hands, speculating about the arrival of this young man and then his sudden departure; the difficult position of young men not in uniform, but whose work is too secret to be revealed.

Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park

On arriving back at Bletchley, Jericho finds that two convoys have left the US and are crossing the Atlantic. The Americans want assurances that the codes will be broken quickly enough to allow for these convoys to be protected, but Jericho sees no hope of that. Instead, he believes that by monitoring the signals of the U-boats that will be aiming towards the convoys, he might gather enough information to break the codes. Harris shows very clearly the ethical dilemmas the young codebreakers must face – they find themselves almost hoping for the convoys to be attacked so that they can get the information they need. Harris also raises the point that it was often necessary not to act on the information gathered from Enigma so that the Germans wouldn’t realise the codes had been broken and change them. Thus many Allied lives were sacrificed in the hopes of saving many more by eventually winning the war. He doesn’t labour these points in a heavy-handed way, but he uses them to show the almost unbearable levels of stress the codebreakers worked under, coupled with the necessary secrecy of the work which left them somewhat detached from the rest of society, in a little bubble of constant tension.

No wonder then that suspicion was never absent, the fear of spying a real and present threat. So when Jericho discovers something that forces him to question Claire’s loyalty, he is torn. His head knows he should make the authorities aware of what he’s found, but his heart wants to find her and give her an opportunity to explain. And soon he finds himself teamed up with Claire’s old house-mate, Hester, backtracking through Claire’s actions in an attempt to find explanations.

Robert Harris
Robert Harris

The plot gives Harris the opportunity to gradually lead the reader through how the whole set-up worked, from the soldiers and sailors risking their lives to get hold of code books, to the listening stations on the South Coast where the women of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) intercepted the coded German signals*, and on to the huts in Bletchley, each responsible for an aspect of the war; Eastern Front, naval manoeuvres, etc. Harris shows how women were restricted to being glorified clerks, regardless of their skills or aptitude, while only men were given the more glamorous job of the actual code-breaking. But his few female characters are excellently drawn, strong and credible within the limitations the system forced upon them. The stuff about the codebreaking is complex, sometimes too complex for me, but the story doesn’t get bogged down in it. As with all of the best spy thrillers, there is a growing sense of moral ambiguity throughout, where even the motives of the baddies are equivocal.

A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this one gets my highest recommendation. And now to watch the film…

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*including my mother.

Book 11
Book 11

Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North

Dark and menacing…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

sergeant cluff stands firmWhen Sergeant Caleb Cluff is called out to the scene of a sudden death, it looks like a clear-cut case of suicide. After the death of the mother she had looked after through her youth, Amy Wright in her loneliness had made a bad marriage to a younger man who only married her for her money. Made miserable by him, she is found in her bedroom with the gas tap turned on. Although everyone holds Alf Wright morally responsible for her death, legally he seems to be in the clear. But Cluff can’t accept the coroner’s verdict, partly out of guilt because he, like everyone else, knew that Wright was cruel to Amy but had done nothing to stop it. Since there’s to be no official police investigation, Cluff takes some time off and begins to pursue Wright himself.

This book is being re-published to celebrate the author’s centenary. Written in 1960, the book feels more modern than the other British Library Crime Classics books I’ve read so far. It’s much darker and Cluff, though a man of high moral principle, is something of a maverick, following his own path to justice when the system fails. North has a distinctive writing style – short, sharp sentences that nevertheless allow him to deliver some excellent descriptive prose and create an ever-growing atmosphere of tension as the book progresses. It took me a few chapters to get tuned in to his style, but once I had, I found I was totally gripped and ended up reading the whole book in one session. (As an aside, how lovely to get a book that delivers everything necessary and yet still comes in at under 200 pages. The good old days!)

The characterisation is excellent, not just of Cluff and the other major players, but even of minor peripheral characters North introduces in passing to add depth to his portrayal of the town. North does have a rather unfortunate obsession with describing the breasts of every woman who appears. (I was going to comment that this was probably to do with the time of writing but then remembered how often I’ve sighed over the same obsession in some contemporary male authors!) However, it’s not enough of an issue to spoil the overall enjoyment, and otherwise I felt his female characters rang as true as the men.

He could feel it in the blackness, a difference in atmosphere, a sense of evil, of things hidden. The doors he passed should have been locked and bolted. In the dark they appeared closed, but Cluff had an impression that they were open, just the slightest of cracks, people listening behind them in unlit hallways. Pale patches showed in the upstairs windows of the houses on the side opposite to him, disappearing when he paused to look. Eyes watched him. More than once he heard a quick intake of breath.

The first part of the story takes place in Gunnarshaw, a fictionalised version of Skipton in Yorkshire. It takes North very little time to give a real flavour of life in a small town at a period when neighbours still knew each others’ history and business. Cluff lives in Gunnarshaw, alone in a cottage with his dog and cat for company, and knows the people of the town in the way local police officers did in rural communities back then. North takes us behind one or two of the net curtains in the town to catch a glimpse of Cluff as seen through the eyes of the residents, and he’s revealed as someone who is trusted by the people he works amongst. However, his single-mindedness isn’t always appreciated by his bosses and colleagues in the police – he’s a man who tends to go his own way and it’s probably only his ability to get results that saves him from the wrath of his superiors. He sees himself as some kind of arbiter of the town’s morals, quite prepared to tell someone to leave town if he feels they’re a bad lot.

gil north
Gil North

In this case, he pretty much stalks Wright, hoping that somehow he’ll give himself away. Cluff’s behaviour is threatening and intimidating, and he finally drives Wright to flee Gunnarshaw and go into hiding on a farm on the moors. And it’s when the scene shifts to the moors that the plot begins to both thicken and darken, taking an entirely unexpected turn. North uses the wildness and isolation of the setting to build up a brilliant atmosphere of menace and terror, while gradually the action ratchets up to a truly thrilling climax.

The high wall of the croft rising above the level of the kitchen window screened off most of the late afternoon light. The room was dark, lit only by the leaping flames of the fire. They sat quietly, wearied of talking, in a silence intensified by the ticking of a clock, eerie in the stillness. The noises of the farm had died away as the day was dying. Time and place and life itself were unreal and shadowy.

The book has an enjoyable and informative spoiler-free introduction from Martin Edwards, who tells us a little about the author’s life and puts his books into the context of their place in the development of the detective story. In case you missed it, Martin was here on the blog yesterday, giving us his recommendations for Ten Top Golden Age Detectives, and highlighted North’s Sergeant Cluff as having been influenced by Simenon’s Maigret.

A great start to the series – it’s hard to understand why books as good as this become ‘forgotten’, and I’m delighted the British Library have brought North back for a new audience. I know they’re bringing out at least one more in the series, The Methods of Sergeant Cluff, in September, and hope they’ll go on to re-publish the rest of the series.

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

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The Widow by Fiona Barton

Stand by your man…

😀 😀 🙂

the widow bartonWhen Glen Taylor becomes a suspect in a case of child abduction, his wife Jean stands by him, providing an alibi and declaring his innocence to the world. The police are still trying to get enough evidence to convict him when Glen is killed in an accident. Will Jean now reveal the truth? That’s what both journalist Kate Waters and investigating officer DI Bob Sparkes hope, and each has their own way of trying to persuade her.

The book starts off excellently as Jean is barricaded in her home by a howling press pack trying to get her side of the story. This first section is told in first person present tense from Jean’s perspective, and we quickly see that she’s a complicated woman – perhaps not as loyal to Glen on the inside as she seems to the world. In fact, her major emotion at Glen’s death appears to be relief. She gradually reveals their past together – her initial romantic love for this attractive man whom she almost feels is too good for her, then her gradual disillusionment over the many years of their marriage as he retreats to his own world, spending hours alone on his computer. She shows us Glen’s control over her, his ability to manipulate her, so that over time she finds herself distanced from friends and family, with the two of them living an isolated life.

The second perspective is Kate’s, the journalist, and the afterword tells us that this is Barton’s own background. Kate likes to think that she’s performing a public duty trying to get victims to tell their stories, but in her more clear-sighted moments or when she lets her guard down, she reveals her burning desire to beat the opposition, to get the story at whatever cost to the people involved. We also see Jean’s view of Kate, a much colder one, and it’s interesting to contrast the two perspectives. All of this is done skilfully, and frankly the relationship and sparring between these two would have made an excellent novel with plenty of psychological tension.

Unfortunately the book then descends into tedious domestic thriller territory, building up to a twist that I defy anyone not to spot coming before they get past the first third of the book. The police investigation is so bad it’s a joke, but with the added problem that it isn’t written that way – we are in fact supposed to take it seriously and admire the dogged but incompetent DI Sparkes, who provides the third perspective, and is the only man in the world who doesn’t spot many of the glaring errors and omissions in the investigation. The psychological astuteness with which the book begins is thrown out half-way through in order to allow for a long, long, long build-up to an undramatic climax.

Also, in the middle, Barton gets lost in her timeline and tenses, talking about Glen in the past tense at times when he is still alive, but going back to present tense after he’s dead, etc. If it hadn’t been for the dates given at the chapter headings I’d have been completely lost at points as to whether we were in the past or present. Sadly, Jean’s character starts shifting too – sometimes more intelligent and better educated than others, as if she is being written differently depending on the requirements of plot developments.

Fiona Barton Photo by Jenny Lewis
Fiona Barton
Photo by Jenny Lewis

Sometimes one’s reaction to a book is as much to do with what else one has been reading, and this book suffered because I was reading it at the same time as Helen Dunmore’s wonderful Exposure. There were enough similarities in the story – wives standing by husbands accused of crimes, and shifting timelines – for comparisons to become unavoidable, and I fear they really highlighted the weaknesses in both plotting and storytelling in this one (and conversely made me appreciate Dunmore’s skill even more). As the story became less and less credible, I regretted that Barton hadn’t had the courage to realise her book would have been stronger had it been rather more restrained and avoided the clichéd thriller aspects.

However, Barton is clearly a talented writer and this was her début, as far as I’m aware. Hopefully its success will give her the space to steer clear of the domestic thriller bandwagon in her next outing and give us something with more of the depth this book promised in its early chapters. Despite my criticisms of this one, I look forward to seeing how she develops in the future.

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

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Book 2Book 2

Open Wounds (Davie McCall 4) by Douglas Skelton

Genuine Tartan Noir…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

open woundsDavie McCall is a gangster with a moral code – he doesn’t hurt women, children or ‘civilians’. But that doesn’t stop him from hurting other people – badly, when they’ve done something that crosses one of his personal lines. He’s always felt in control of his violence though, until recently, when he suddenly found he was enjoying it. Now he wants out of the ‘Life’, but he’s scared – not of what his boss might do to him, but scared that he won’t be able to change, won’t be able to leave the desire for violence behind him. Meantime, he’s still working as a heavy for Rab McClymont, who’s not just his boss but an old friend. So when Rab asks him to lean on a man, Fergus O’Neill, at first Davie’s fine with that. O’Neill was convicted a few years back of a horrific burglary that involved rape, but is now out pending appeal and is publicly accusing Rab of having fitted him up for the crime. When Davie begins to believe that O’Neill may have been innocent, he still can’t believe that Rab would have been involved in a rape, even indirectly. So he begins to investigate…

This is a great book that I’m strongly recommending you don’t read. At least not straight away. It’s actually the fourth and final book in the Davie McCall quartet, and I very much wish I’d read them in order, partly because there are lots of references to the previous books in this one which meant I was a bit lost at the beginning, and partly because having now read this one, the first three will have been a little spoiled for me since I know how the series resolves. That won’t stop me reading them though! The first in the series is Blood City.

The book is set in Glasgow gangster culture and has a totally authentic feel to it. These are low level gangsters, running dodgy businesses, small-time drug dealing, protection rackets and loan-sharking. As well as giving a great sense of place, using mainly real locations, Skelton has a complete grip on Glaswegian “patter”, the humour that covers the harshness of life on the edges of society. The dialogue isn’t really written in dialect so non-Scots would have no difficulties with it, but the speech patterns and “voices” are spot on.

Normally I would have a serious problem with being able to empathise with a man who uses violence as a tool, but Skelton provides a ton of moral ambiguity, both about Davie’s victims and regarding his background, that makes him understandable. And his own internal struggle to hold onto some kind of moral code lets the reader be on his side, willing him to win out against the demons that haunt him. I couldn’t help but think of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw – Davie might be how Laidlaw would have turned out if he’d been born into the life of the gangster, and with a few better breaks in life Davie could have turned into Laidlaw. They share that sense of clear-sighted vision about the society they move in, the same philosophical acceptance that there’s only so much any one man can do to change things and the same core of morality that makes them swim against the tide even when they feel themselves being sucked under.

Douglas-Skelton
Douglas Skelton

Though I struggled at first from not having read the earlier books, by about a third of the way through I had gathered enough about the background for that aspect to stop being an issue, and from that stage in this worked fine as a standalone. The plotting is great, with several strands weaving in and out of each other. Davie is a kind of mentor to a younger thug, trying hard to stop him from losing his humanity. He’s increasingly at odds with his boss Rab, whose growing suspicions of Davie’s motives threaten their old friendship. There’s a corrupt police officer on the take, and this strand is handle particularly well – Skelton shows him believably as the exception rather the rule within the police, disliked as much by his fellow officers as by the lowlifes he bullies and uses. The characterisation throughout is exceptional, with every character ringing true – no clichés or stereotypes here. And in the end all the strands come together to an ending which is credible and satisfying without being falsely uplifting.

This is genuine Tartan Noir, grounded in the real recognisable Glasgow of today – a rare treasure amidst some of the overblown melodramatic dross which is so often wrongly acclaimed as giving an authentic picture of life here. I’m delighted to have stumbled across Douglas Skelton and he is now part of that select band of Scottish crime writers to whose future books I will look forward with keen anticipation.

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

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Daisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton

Brilliant!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

Sharon Bolton (amazon.co.uk)
Sharon Bolton

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

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

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

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