Like most writers I am a voracious reader and, as a writer, I know how important reviews can be. Although I never find time to review every book I love, here are just a few crime novels that I would heartily recommend.
I should make it clear that I am not a book review blogger. I admire those dedicated people who work so hard to help readers discover new writers and vice versa, but the books below are simply some of my personal favourites from those I’ve read or reread recently. Unless otherwise stated I’ve bought them myself or borrowed them from my local public library.
And check out my blog page too for links to other places where I talk about more great books.
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Although it wouldn’t be shelved in the crime section of a bookshop, The Handmaid’s Tale contains state-sponsored crimes a-plenty. It’s one of my all-time favourite novels and with the arrival on UK television of a new adaptation of Atwood’s dystopian vision I hope the original book will find many new fans. I read it when it was first published and have returned to it several times over the years always finding something new to admire. And to send chills down my spine!
So far I’m glad to say that the new series is doing it justice.The juxtaposition of the flashback scenes, clearly set in our own familiar world, with the nightmare society that superseded it so quickly are particularly effective. Along with powerful performances, a great look and a brilliant use of music (I loved the way Debbie Harry’s Heart of Glass provided a chilling counterpoint to the brutal suppression of a protest march) it is enormously powerful.
Good though the adaptation is, however, it’s also great to hear that sales of the novel have surged. So I thought I’d dig out a review of the book I wrote some years ago for The Socialist Review.
Are there any questions? This sentence ends the epilogue to The Handmaid’s Tale and for readers, of course there are many questions left unanswered because Margaret Atwood’s classic of feminist fiction is a complex story told by an elusive narrator.
In a future not too distant from the 1985 when the book was published, the US has become Gilead: a patriarchal dictatorship. The story opens five weeks into the narrator’s first posting as handmaid to the Commander and his barren wife, Serena Joy.
The narrator will be known as Offred (the handmaiden of Fred) for as long as she remains the property of this Commander. There is a crisis in fertility and Offred is forced to endure the ceremony every month. In a ghastly parody of normal intercourse Offred lies on top of Serena on the marital bed as the Commander attempts to impregnate her. Any child she bears will be raised by the Commander’s wife.
We learn in a mix of flashbacks and memories that Offred was once married and had a young daughter. Like all women she is deprived of any rights when the regime takes control. At first life seems to carry on much as before, but the narrator is now totally dependent on her husband and she senses that he doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. But this is a second marriage: something that is now forbidden and when the family attempts to escape across the border they are separated.
Indoctrinated by the brutal Aunts to accept their role as handmaids, fertile women are vital to this society, but are treated as pariahs. Offred is unable to give readers a full picture of life in Gilead because her existence is totally restricted. She has her own room in the Commander’s house, but the door cannot be locked. She is forbidden to own anything, is not allowed to read, and can go out only once a day accompanied by another handmaid. She is now merely a womb on two legs.
But life is little better for other women. Even the relatively privileged Wives are far from free. They have no choice, but to accept the presence of the handmaids in their homes and to take part in the humiliating ceremony. They can only go out to visit other wives.
Unmarried and infertile women must work as servants, Aunts or prostitutes. If too old, or refusing to conform, they risk becoming unwomen shipped out to labour in the colonies. This fate seems to have befallen Offred’s mother, once a militant feminist.
The regime exercises control partly by ensuring that women see each other as enemies rather than companions. Serena calls Offred a slut and even the servant, Rita, says that she wouldn’t debase herself like that, although she knows the handmaid has no choice.
While the novel focuses on the situation of woman in this society, there is also an implicit understanding that the lives of men too are poisoned by a regime like this.
Along with Angela Carter’s re-imaginings of fairy tales, in The Bloody Chamber etc,, and Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, The Handmaid’s Tale is a story arising from the women’s liberation movement that has stood the test of time and remains all too resonant in today’s world.
The Crime Writer – Jill Dawson
Jill Dawson is adept at fictional recreations of real people, like Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover and Edith Thompson in Fred and Edie, and in The Crime Writer she builds a portrait of enigmatic author Patricia Highsmith that totally convinces. The story is a fascinating exploration of an eccentric and troubled woman and also a riveting fictional mystery.
It’s 1964 and alone in her cottage in rural Suffolk Pat Highsmith has murder on her mind. This is hardly surprising because, as the title tells us, she’s a crime writer seeking solitude to work on her latest novel. But as she ponders methods of killing and the disposal of bodies her thoughts move away from her fictional characters to focus on potential candidates for the role of victim within her own circle.
Prickly and anti-social, a seething mixture of arrogance and insecurity, Pat has retreated from her overbearing mother in the U.S and from a suspected stalker in France. But the quiet village turns out to be far from a haven of tranquillity. Her sensible friend Ronnie (based on writer Ronald Blythe) tries to calm her with countryside strolls and visits to local churches, whilst tending her pet snails does something to soothe her anxieties, but there is no escape from the turmoil of her own relationships.
She’s in love with a married woman, but her attempts to arrange meetings often go awry. It doesn’t help that, with no telephone in the primitive cottage, she is forced to huddle in the local call box fearful of attracting the suspicions of her nosy neighbour. And things become more complicated when despite her desire for solitude she agrees to an interview with Ginny, a young journalist who proves difficult to shake off. Initially irritated by the girl’s tendency to turn up unannounced and dismissive of her voluptuous charms Pat soon finds herself attracted.
As her private life becomes increasingly tortuous, and her grasp on reality more tenuous, a frustrated Pat threatens to descend into the kind of homicidal behaviour reminiscent of many of the characters from her own novels.
You don’t have to be a fan of Highsmith’s work to enjoy Dawson’s novel, but for those of us who are its impossible to avoid wondering what Highsmith herself would have made of the book. The title would certainly have annoyed her. She always rejected the term crime writer, but did tolerate her work being referred to as suspense fiction. I suspect, therefore, that she had been able to view The Crime Writer objectively (unlikely though that is) she would have recognised it as a superb novel of literary suspense.
You Will Know Me – Megan Abbott
You Will Know Me is a marvellously nuanced and compelling page turner. Megan Abbott is the mistress of the disturbing hint and as the story becomes more and more menacing you may, like me, experience an uneasy sense of complicity with something very sinister.
In Abbott’s previous novel, the brilliant Dare Me, she shone a light into the dark heart of competitive cheerleading. This time it’s another group of obsessive teenage girls vying to enter the world of elite gymnastics. The Olympics is their ultimate goal and their parents are equally determined that whatever happens the star of the group, Devon Knox, will make it. But then a violent death threatens everything the group has strived for.
At the gym an outsider would see gravity defying leaps and glittering leotards, but for an insider, like Devon’s mother Katie, the overwhelming atmosphere is one of fear. Fear of a stumble that will ruin a crucial routine and above all fear that the arrival of puberty may unbalance a physique and a mind honed by years of toil and sacrifice.
We follow the lead-up to a make or break competition mainly from Katie’s perspective and it’s clear that the whole family has made many sacrifices for Devon’s talent. But has their dedication cemented her parents’ marriage or locked them into it?
They are far from rich and, although it’s mostly the mothers who push their daughters to succeed, Katie’s husband, Eric, is even more involved with Devon’s ambitions than Katie. But we have to wonder if his determination is powered by fatherly love, by a desire to make sense of his own disappointing life, or by guilt that his moment of inattention caused the nightmare accident in which toddler Devon lost a toe.
And then there’s Katie – the devoted mother who refers to her daughter’s injury as her Frankenfoot. An illuminating and poignant moment comes when Katie visits Devon in school. Amongst the other tiny bundles of muscle and taut nerves at the gym Devon is the focus of admiring eyes and all aspirations. Yet her classmates, blossoming into adulthood, view her as a freak.
Katie sees her family as one body with steely perfectionist Devon as its heart. But is that body the thing of beauty that Katie imagines or has it become a monster? It’s a mark of Abbott’s brilliance that she leaves the reader to decide.
Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows – James Lovegrove
This is the first guest review I’ve hosted on my site.It’s of a book I know I will love, but haven’t had a chance to read yet. That’s because I bought the beautiful signed hardback (don’t you just love them) as a Christmas present for the lucky reviewer. I’m glad to see my choice seems to have been spot on.
Review by Jack Farmer
Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows is a ‘mash up’ adventure bringing together Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective and the strange and horrifying ‘elder Gods’ depicted in the fiction of HP Lovecraft. The book opens with an elderly Dr Watson admitting that he and Holmes have long suppressed the true nature of their sleuthing. But after years of hiding the truth, Watson feels he must unburden himself by writing about the time he and Holmes first encountered the ‘elder Gods’ and their malevolent schemes.
The first third of the book is pure Sherlock Holmes, with the detective using his trademark skills of observation and deduction to investigate a series of (literally) shady murders in Shadwell, East London. Things soon take a turn towards the surreal, however. By the halfway point, both Holmes and Watson have had bizarre experiences that lead them to believe in the existence of ‘Cthulhu’ and other evil deities intent on the destruction of mankind.
I must admit I was sceptical at first, since Holmes is such a rational, logical character – a far cry from the uncanny creations of Lovecraft. But James Lovegrove delivers such an exciting narrative that I found myself swept along with it. In particular, I felt the author (who has written several ‘vanilla’ Holmes novels before this) has really nailed the voice and idioms of Dr Watson. That did a lot to draw me into this weird world where malevolent gods clash with Victorian rationalism. The story contains a certain amount of horror, but is overall more of an adventure. Those who, like me, love Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories will feel right at home here.
This book is the first of a trilogy, with the next instalments due out in late 2017 and 2018 respectively. I’m very much looking forward to reading those stories when they appear.
The Trespasser – Tana French
The Trespasser, is Tana French’s sixth novel and I would certainly recommend it, but if you haven’t read anything by French yet why not start with book one of her Dublin Murder Squad series and read through in the order they were written. This is not because you need to do so to appreciate The Trespasser but because the series is so damned good.
French combines beautiful writing and cunning plots with so much more. I wouldn’t call these books page-turners because I tend to immerse myself in them savouring every perfectly pitched word. But however slowly I try to read I’m always finished too quickly and longing for the next one.
I’m not alone of course. Tana French’s many fans greet each new novel with passionate discussions about how this one compares to the last or to their particular favourite. So I’ll admit now that, although I loved The Trespasser it didn’t topple her previous offering, The Secret Place, from the top spot for me. However some reviewers are hailing it as her best yet. So read it and let me know what you think.
Perhaps the reason many of us disagree about which book works best is because, although all the novels feature cases dealt with by the fictional Dublin Murder Squad, they are very far from being formulaic police procedurals. There is no consistent main detective with a regular sidekick and the locations are distinctly different in each book.
Major characters appear, reappear and disappear, with minor or secondary characters from one book turning up as the protagonist of the following story, which always reveals a fascinating new side to them. In fact one of the bonus delights of a Tana French novel is guessing which of the secondary characters might be the focus next time.
The first in the series: the hypnotic and mysterious In the Woods, hooked me and many of French’s fans who still regard it as her best. I did have some minor reservations about it and about The Likeness which followed, but that didn’t stop Tana French from rocketing up the list of my must-read authors. For me the next three novels were pretty much perfect in very different ways.
Whilst The Trespasser doesn’t quite reach the heights of Broken Harbour, Faithful Place and especially their successor, The Secret Place, it is still very much a Tana French and that’s the highest praise I can give.
The two detectives from The Secret Place, Stephen Moran and Antoinette Conway, are once again in charge of the investigation, with Conway taking over as narrator/protagonist. The Trespasser is heavier on police procedure than any of the others in the series and that’s what makes it slightly less appealing to me. But the focus makes sense because Conway’s identity as a murder detective is so important to her. Since joining the squad she hasn’t made the progress she always hoped for and she and Moran have been relegated to the night shift and a diet of straightforward domestic killings.
This case seems no different. The murdered woman was expecting her new boyfriend for a romantic dinner and he is the obvious suspect. The detectives have seen it many times before. However, although no one else agrees and they’re urged to wrap it up and move on, to Conway and Moran there’s something off about the scenario from the start.
They’re soon in very dangerous territory and unusually the whole murder squad becomes involved. For the first time in the series a lot of the action takes place at the station including several long interviews with suspects and I was amazed at how French could keep the tension going for so many pages with just three characters talking.
Antoinette Conway is spiky and paranoid. Certain (with some justification) that most of the men she works with are against her, she is desperate to hold on to her increasingly tenuous position in the squad. As the investigation goes on, however, she has to face the fact that she may be unable to do this as well as solving the case. And it’s a case that becomes increasingly personal for her, especially when she realises that she may have had a hand in the tragedy.
His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet
A crime novel on the Mann Booker Prize shortlist is, thankfully, not the seismic shock it might have been a few years ago. And it’s no surprise either that, although His Bloody Project didn’t win in 2016, it has apparently outsold the other titles by a considerable margin. Graeme Macrae Burnet combines an irresistible page turning quality with a cleverly structured and multi-layered plot. Add to that an unusual historical storyline that blends tragedy and horror with a sprinkling of dark humour and you have a very powerful read indeed.
A word of warning: if you’re looking for a whodunit, an astounding twist at the end, or a tidy resolution, then this might not be the book for you. However if you are interested in a story that presents a fascinating picture of a little explored historical setting and is also an enthralling mystery then you might enjoy the novel as much as I did.
Wilkie Collins is, of course, one of my favourite writers of all time. I return to his books again and again and Graeme Macrae Burnet has the same ability as Collins to inhabit a range of quirky voices that nevertheless feel totally authentic. And I loved this aspect of the book.
It is structured as a series of historical documents starting with an introduction from the author that purports to reveal how he stumbled upon the story of the 1869 trial of young Roderick Macrae in Inverness. There follows a series of interviews with Roderick’s fellow villagers in the impoverished crofting community of Culduie, in the Scottish Highlands. Next is Roderick’s own account of his life and crimes, apparently written at the urging of his advocate, and the medical reports and newspaper accounts of his trial.
Roderick does not deny his part in the brutal killing of three members of a local family. Indeed he describes it in the plainest and most matter-of-fact fashion. The same way, indeed, that he recounts the series of horrible injustices done to himself and his family. But when he committed the massacre was he mad, or evil or just a highly intelligent boy driven to take desperate revenge on a world that had made him a powerless outcast with no escape from a grim and hopeless life?
As the brilliantly evoked narrative voices give their differing accounts you will wonder which, if any, you can trust. And if you’re like me you’ll want to turn back when you reach the end to read again with fresh eyes. And that, to my mind, is one mark of a successful novel.
Elizabeth Is Missing – Emma Healey
Elizabeth Is Missing is a poignant and original take on the psychological mystery genre. The Elizabeth of the title is a friend of dementia sufferer, Maud. When Maud cannot contact Elizabeth she feels certain that some evil has fallen her and the novel follows her investigation into the apparent disappearance. Despite the fragmentation of her mind and personality Maud is an appealing and admirable character. She pursues her search with dogged determination to the embarrassment of her long suffering daughter and the irritation of the police and of Elizabeth’s relatives. They all insist there has been no crime.
If Maud’s grasp on the present is sketchy, to say the least, her recall of the past is pin-sharp, especially of one particular event. In 1946 Maud’s elder sister vanished and in Maud’s unravelling mind the old and the new mysteries begin to overlap and entwine.
The novel is a tour-de-force of imagination that reminded me a little of A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The cover describes the book as darkly riveting and I wouldn’t argue with that. In less skilful hands the subject matter might have been painfully bleak. Instead, and leavened by moments of black comedy, the story suggests that even as a mind disintegrates the spirit within can remain intact.
The Silent Kookaburra – Liza Perrat
I have to admit that as an avid reader of psychological crime I have become a little tired of disappearing children or characters trapped in dysfunctional marriages. So I’m happy to report that whilst still having the twisty plot and complex relationships that make for a great domestic noir, The Silent Kookaburra offers something refreshingly different.
It’s 1970s Australia and young Tanya is on the cusp of becoming a teenager. The sun shines, the beach is nearby, but Tanya is far from living the Ozzie dream. She feels fat and ugly and her family is falling apart. The birth of a beautiful baby after a series of miscarriages promises to bring them all happiness, but things soon go wrong and Mum is back to her obsessive cleaning, whilst Dad retreats to the pub. Nanna Purvis has plenty to say (and her salty dialogue is a joy) but offers no help. Poor Tanya does her best, but it’s hardly surprising that when Dad’s ne’er-do-well brother, Uncle Blackie, turns up she is flattered by his attentions.
The story becomes ever more claustrophobic and sweaty with frustrated desires as tension mounts and it’s clear that a tragedy is brewing. But who is in most danger – and from whom? Liza Perrat fills her story with vivid characters, wonderful description, and a sprinkling of humour that only makes Tanya’s situation more poignant. Whether you call it psychological drama, domestic noir or grip lit, this is a book that will keep you enthralled from start to finish.
The Darkest Secret – Alex Marwood
The Darkest Secret certainly lives up to its title. Someone described it to me as a Marmite kind of book, but I’d say it’s more of a raw onion. Sharp, astringent, with layer upon layer of revelations each stinging more than the last. And I loved it!
Poor little Coco disappeared at three years old and is presumed dead. Twelve years after the event, Coco’s older half-sister Mila is heading for their father Sean’s funeral. She’s been reluctantly reunited with Coco’s twin, Ruby, now, a strapping 15 year-old. And Ruby’s need to know the truth pushes Mila into trying to figure out what really happened.
The narrative switches between Mila’s quest for the truth and the events of the weekend when the tragedy occurred as seen through the eyes of some of the major players. So in a clever reversal of the usual conventions we readers often know more than Mila.
Property developer, Sean, his wife Claire and a group of Sean’s oldest friends and their various children have congregated at one of Sean’s newly refurbished seaside villas for his 50th birthday party. These are privileged and selfish people out to have fun and the weekend is fuelled by plenty of booze and drugs. Claire is Sean’s second wife, but he is already flaunting his relationship with Linda. Linda’s husband, Jimmy, is too doped up to notice, but Claire is humiliated.
As for the children, they appear at best an irrelevance to the adults and at worst an irritant. Even Claire, side-lined and scorned by everyone, makes only feeble attempts to prioritise her twins. Although much of the behaviour is repugnant, Marwood’s skill is to make their actions and reactions believable and even understandable when we see them through their own eyes.
None of these people is admirable and more than one is despicable, but as they congregate for Sean’s funeral and are joined by Mila and Ruby it becomes clear that all their lives and relationships were ruptured by the tragedy. Throughout this second gathering the ghost of that earlier weekend hovers and the threat of appalling revelations is ever present, but even when these begin to emerge into the light it isn’t clear that Mila or the reader can believe what they learn.
The book was initially a slow burner for me and just at the start I occasionally struggled with the timelines and the relationships of some of the characters, but after a few chapters I was hooked.
I wouldn’t call it a whodunit or even a whydunit, more an exploration of the way evil can sometimes be done almost casually. Nothing is tied neatly with a bow at the end with justice perfectly served – goodies triumphant, baddies vanquished. This is more like real life and Marwood doesn’t give us all the answers, but that only adds to the power of the narrative. A crucial test of quality for me is whether a story lingers in my thoughts long after I’ve finished the last page. The Darkest Secret passes that test triumphantly.
In Her Wake – Amanda Jennings
I write psychological crime so of course I love reading it and recently I’ve been spoiled for choice with more and more authors turning their talents to this kind of story. That might explain why I only discovered Amanda Jennings with this her third novel.
Although I have enjoyed many of my latest reads I have to say that I’ve also found some of them a little predictable and at first I was slightly worried that In Her Wake would follow a too-familiar pattern.
Many of the traditional elements are here. The meek wife, Bella, and her controlling husband; the family secrets revealed after a death; a mysterious house bequeathed in an unexpected will. Even the trip to Cornwall that Bella makes in her attempts to confront the mystery of her own identity is not unusual. Ah, but then Jennings catches you out as she overturns your expectations and subverts these familiar tropes.
We expect twists and turns in this kind of book and sometimes these can feel awkward or can strain credibility, but never here. Jennings introduces enough revelations and reversals to satisfy even those readers most addicted to surprises. But what I love is that each twist follows naturally from earlier events. Some of these occurrences may seem unlikely, but are never unbelievable, never forced, and on more than one occasion I found myself saying a delighted, ‘Of course, I should have guessed that.’
Even when I anticipated one of Bella’s discoveries it didn’t weaken the narrative. Nor was I tempted to rush on to the final reveal as I’ve sometimes been lately. But then, like all the best crime fiction, In Her Wake is not defined by its genre and although it could certainly be described as a page-turner I found myself trying to slow down as I read because there was so much to relish.
For one thing the writing is wonderful. Much of the action takes place in Cornwall and the coastal landscape so familiar to summer visitors, with its beaches, its sea breezes and shrieking gulls, is portrayed with such vivid imagery I could almost taste the vinegary fish and chips and the coffee Bella drinks at the seafront cafe. But, unusually, we also see the other side of this kind of resort. The real inhabitants who live sometimes difficult lives in what is actually a remote and deprived community.
Jennings demonstrates great skill in using tiny unexpected details to turn her characters into absolutely believable people and at the same time to reveal hints of the secrets they all seem to carry. These are no monsters relishing their crimes, just a group of wounded and guilt-ridden human beings.
In Her Wake asks questions a about identity and memory, but also about what makes a mother, a father, a sister, a lover. As long buried agonies resurface and secrets are forced into the open, we discover that there is more than one lost girl. But who is real and who imaginary; who living and who dead? And as the story develops the title takes on a more nuanced resonance that left this reader at least with much to think about.
Spare Me The Truth – CJ Carver
If there’s one thing I enjoy more than discovering new authors it’s rediscovering a long standing favourite. I don’t know why I lost track of C J Carver’s books, but I’m very glad to have caught up again.
And what a welcome back Spare Me The Truth proves to be. The novel is difficult to categorise. Spy story, police procedural, psychological thriller – it’s all three and more. Perhaps a less rigid label such as grip-lit or even grit-lit would make a better fit! It’s certainly a gripping page turner with plenty of gritty action.
Whatever you choose to call it, one thing is certain: it’s a rattling good story with enough twists and turns to keep any crime fan’s brow knitted. But the satisfying complexity of the plot is only one of the pleasures C J Carver offers. It’s the characterisation that really scores for me.
We follow three main characters. Dan Forrester who lost a chunk of memory after the accidental death of his three year old son. Grace, a GP, desperate to locate a huge sum of money her dead mother apparently owed to some very dangerous people. And last but certainly not least there is young PC Lucy Davies determined to stop a brutal serial killer, but struggling with her own dark secrets.
All three find themselves caught in a web of deception as their lives collide in dramatic fashion. But what I love is that each one convinces as a real person struggling to understand the dark web of deception they’ve become trapped in.
I gather this will be a series and I will eagerly await the next book. If you are new to C J Carver however you have a treat in store as there is a whole back catalogue to explore.
The Wrong Girl – Laura Wilson
If you enjoy psychological suspense you will almost certainly have heard of Laura Wilson. Her novels have all the twists and turns any crime fan could wish for, but it’s her ability to get right inside the psyches of her characters that gives her books their power. The Stratton’s War series is great, but I do love Laura’s standalone books. So I was thrilled when this one appeared.
Janice gave up her daughter, Suzie, for adoption and is stunned when Suzie contacts her for the first time. Unknown to Janice, Suzie has been staying with Janice’s brother, Dan, for some time and now Dan has died. When Janice returns to the family home where Dan lived she discovers that Suzie also has a daughter, ten year-old Molly.
Another surprise is that the Norfolk village is home to reclusive former rock star, Joe Vincent. Janice was once Joe’s lover and Dan the roadie of Joe’s band. Now Joe, hiding out from his obsessive fans, is a shambling wreck of the rock god Janice remembers. Dan too was clearly haunted by something and Janice begins to fear that the two men may have shared a terrible secret.
Janice’s granddaughter has her own secrets. She resembles the age enhanced picture of abducted child, Phoebe. And Molly becomes convinced that she is Phoebe. Phoebe’s mother is everything Molly desires in a parent and the life Molly expects to return to when they are finally reunited is very different to the ramshackle existence she shares with the unreliable Suzie.
Laura Wilson catches the voices of both Janice and Molly superbly and The Wrong Girl, as well as being an exciting suspense story, also asks fascinating questions about fame, celebrity and obsession, about what makes a good mother and whether we can ever escape the burdens we carry from the past.
The Lady from Zagreb – Philip Kerr
I came late to the Bernie Gunther series when a friend, knowing I enjoyed the crime novels of Alan Furst set in mid twentieth century Europe, gave me The One from the Other. I loved it so much I went straight on to read the first three books, published together as Berlin Noir.
Although it’s the tenth in the series, The Lady from Zagreb is only my fifth excursion into Gunther territory, so there were tantalising gaps for me in the hero’s history. Oddly enough this added to my enjoyment and in fact my way of arriving at the series was appropriate because Kerr has never followed Bernie’s exploits in chronological order.
The main story here is set in 1942, but begins and ends with Bernie looking back from fourteen years in the future. We don’t learn what has brought him to a cinema on the French Riviera, in 1956, but it’s clear that the star of the film he’s watching was very significant in his life. She turns out to be the eponymous lady from Zagreb.
In 1942 Bernie is a policeman, forced to wear the uniform of the hated SA. He’s called on to do a special and very personal job for the Reich Minister of Truth and Propaganda, no less than Goebbels himself. Joey, as Bernie likes to refer to him privately, has an eye for the ladies. He’s also in charge of the German cinema. And it’s here that the Lady from Zagreb comes in.
One of the great pleasures of the series is the sardonic wit of Bernie’s narration. He’s surely modelled on Philip Marlow and the streets he walks down could not be meaner. The portrait of Berlin, just as WW2 is turning against the Germans, feels horribly real. More disturbing still is his visit to a Croatia in the throws of its own blood-soaked struggle for supremacy between Serbs and Croats. This episode has an intense and appalling power, not least because it echoes the former Yugoslavia’s more recent nightmare.
Kerr’s plot is as convoluted as the situation in Europe at the time. But I was kept engrossed by Bernie’s struggles to retain some tattered scraps of integrity and to survive as a sane man amongst the madness. Apparently Kerr never intended to stay with Bernie for so long but readers, and his publisher, loved the character so much that he had to keep returning. I don’t doubt that I will do the same.
False Lights – Gillian E. Hamer
The second in the Gold Detectives series focuses on DI Amanda Gold herself. A peripheral figure in the first book it was obvious she would make an interesting lead character and she certainly does. In Anglesey on the Welsh coast Gold’s team investigates a nightmarish series of murders that could be the work of a lone serial killer or part of a dispute amongst drugs gangs jockeying for power in the local sink estate.
The beautiful hamlet of Silver Bay is the scene of the first horrific death, but what connects the elderly woman writer killed by fire with a single mother dead of an overdose on the notorious Maes Gwyn estate? As the situation escalates it becomes clear that fire is the weapon of choice of a sadistic murderer and no one connected with the investigation is safe.
Despite the break-up of their love affair at the end of the first novel Dara Brennan and Kelly Morgan remain part of the team and Amanda is determined to keep them. She understands only too well how difficult it is to keep emotions out of the workplace when you have a relationship with a fellow officer, especially a married one!
Gold’s emotional life may be in turmoil and she has worries about her teenage daughter’s love life too, but she is dedicated and efficient when it comes to her job. Gillian Hamer presents us with a most convincing picture of a group of capable and dedicated officers working as a well-honed team. But despite all their efforts this killer threatens to escape them.
The story is totally enthralling and builds to a twisty and exciting conclusion that, if you’re anything like me, will have you desperate to get your hands on the next instalment.
Human Rites – JJ Marsh
Human Rites is the fifth in the Beatrice Stubbs series and I’m glad to say that it sparkles as brightly as the rest. Inspector Stubbs herself is a really appealing heroine. A woman of a certain age she has the fictional sleuth’s obligatory demons, but also a relish for life that is enormously attractive.
As this book begins she is looking forward to early retirement with long-term partner, Matthew, but is soon globe-trotting again to a freezing December Hamburg on the track of a gang of international art thieves. With her goes her friend, wine-seller and gourmet cook, Adrian. He is eager to explore the city and meet up with an old boyfriend, Holger.
Adrian is my favourite of all the brilliant characters JJ Marsh has created, but things are looking bleak for him amongst the Christmas cheer. Is he, as Beatrice fears, heading for a breakdown or is he really being menaced by sinister nuns and threatened by homophobic messages? And is the beautiful, but remote island of Sylt the best place for him to escape from his fears?
There are so many pleasures here: the two complex mysteries, the wonderfully atmospheric settings and the tantalising hints of what is in store for Beatrice Stubbs in her home and professional lives. And that’s without the lip smacking descriptions of food and drink!
Human Rites works perfectly well as a standalone, but if you read it first I guarantee you will want to go back and luxuriate in the previous four.
A Cold Death in Amsterdam – Anja de Jager
The turn of the year in Amsterdam, the canals are frozen and Detective Lotte Meerman’s life is suffering its own chill winter. No longer so young and scarred by her parents’ acrimonious divorce and the recent breakdown of her own marriage she is tormented by not one but two agonising dilemmas.
She is tasked with investigating the cold case of Oscar Peterson who was murdered on the day he was released from prison. He’d been convicted of fraud and, although suspicions were aroused when his widow married his business partner, the original investigators were unable to find the killer. It soon becomes obvious that much of the evidence they collected is missing and Lotte’s colleague, Stefanie Dekkers, is convinced that ex-inspector Piet Huis was responsible for destroying it.
Lotte realises that Piet is remarkably affluent for a retired police officer, but she is desperate to protect him even though doing so is likely to destroy her career. Because she has a secret that should disqualify her from the case – Piet Huis is her estranged father.
And this isn’t the only burden she carries. Her last investigation brought her media attention as the heroine who unmasked the murderer of a young girl missing for fifteen years. But she’s haunted by the memory of the little body she discovered in its shallow grave and by her own terrible mistake and her attempts to cover-up what she did.
A bitter Dutch winter makes a wonderfully atmospheric setting for the novel. And bruised and battered Lotte is the perfect flawed heroine. This is Anja de Jager’s debut novel and the first of a series. I will be eagerly awaiting the next book.
Death Trap – Dreda Say Mitchell
Death Trap is another humdinger of a thriller from Dreda Say Mitchell. This time DI Rio Wray is the investigating officer. Determined, principled and ambitious, she’s used to facing prejudice, but is determined not to use her gender or colour to help her get on. When Rio first appeared, in Vendetta, it was clear she played by the rules, but in Death Trap she’s forced to choose between following procedure and saving a young girl’s life.
Teenager Nikki Bell is the sole survivor of a bloodbath at the home of her aunt and uncle and the only witness to the gang who carried out the killings. When her presence at the scene of the crime becomes known it’s clear she is in deadly danger. She’s not an easy kid to protect, a mixture of vulnerability, rebellion and sheer bloody mindedness, but Rio will do anything to keep her safe.
Doing anything means she is forced to work with recently disgraced and demoted policeman Jack Strong and to swallow her pride and seek help from her former best friend and ex-lover Calum Burns, now a security consultant. Rio has every reason to despise Strong and feel betrayed by Calum. And it’s as fascinating to see the truth about these men burrow its way to the surface as it is to follow Rio’s desperate journey to find the killers before it’s too late for Nikki.
The action is explosive and the twists and turns mesmerising. But as always Dreda Say Mitchell peoples the story with a range of complex and totally believable characters. Even those on the periphery have their own histories, needs and desires. There are no stereotypes and this enriches the novel enormously. Characters often behave in unexpected ways, yet these always make sense when we learn their motives.
And the ever generous author provides us with even more to think about when we close the book because there are two possible endings!
The Lake – Sheena Lambert
It’s 1975 and the end of a long hot summer in the village of Crumm in rural Ireland. Peggy, the youngest of the Casey siblings, runs the local pub. It’s a quiet spot smelling of cut grass and hay and overlooking a lake.
The Angler’s Rest is a cosy place where the old boys from the village prop up the bar as they sup their pints and the Delaney brothers entertain with fiddle and tin whistle in front of the turf fire, while Peggy’s Irish stew bubbles away on the kitchen Aga.
But Frank Ryan hasn’t come for the fishing, the Guinness or the food. He’s Detective Sergeant Ryan sent to investigate a body exposed when the lake retreated under the sun. And the body isn’t the only secret given up by the water. The ruins of a neighbouring village appear too, bringing painful memories of homes and livelihoods lost when the valley was flooded to build a dam. Peggy and her sister and brothers are too young to remember much from that time, but the scars run deeper and spread wider than anyone can imagine.
We’re used these days to expecting crime novels to be fast-paced with climactic show-downs and twist endings, but this is a more delicate and thoughtful kind of story-telling and I found it enormously refreshing.
The novel is as much about family dynamics and a fractured community that has only partly healed as it is about the crime. There are no car chases, no overt violence, but the ending is both surprising and very satisfying. Sheena Lambert writes beautifully and within quite a short book she gives us a subtle and touching romance, a fascinating snapshot of a very particular time and place, and an absorbing murder mystery.
Burnt Paper Sky – Gilly Macmillan
Burnt Paper Sky begins a year after the kidnap of Rachel Jenner’s eight year old son, Ben. Rachel tells the story in tandem with Jim Clemo the detective in charge of the case and it’s clear from the start that the trauma of the event and its aftermath has left both narrators with terrible scars.
Ben disappears when Rachel allows him to run ahead of her during a familiar woodland walk. At eight he needs to feel she trusts him and to begin to experience a little freedom. Or is she a neglectful mother too obsessed with her ex-husband and his new wife to be properly protective of her son? Even Rachel isn’t sure of the answer and when her despair makes her behave in what’s regarded as an inappropriate manner the newspapers and social media become suspicious.
Jim is excited at his first chance to lead such a high profile case and thinks he’s prepared Rachel well for the televised appeal in the hours after Ben’s disappearance, but it turns into a disaster. With her bloodied face and wild appearance Rachel doesn’t fit the expected image of the bereft and grieving mother. Too battered and damaged to evoke sympathy she flounders under the reporters’ questions unable to control her desperation. Instead she arouses suspicion and alienates everyone, even some of the police.
Did she kill her son accidentally and dispose of the body, or murder him in a fit of the kind of rage she demonstrated at the press conference? And even if she’s innocent of the actual crime she’s clearly a bad mother.
There is of course a whodunit element to the novel and I, for one, didn’t guess the identity of the kidnapper until close to the dramatic and nerve shredding ending. But like the best psychological thrillers Burnt Paper Sky is about much more than the crime itself. As the tense and absorbing search goes on it’s clear that the abduction of a child arouses primal emotions in everyone. Emotions that threaten to have dire consequences for the investigation and for Ben himself.
Without the Moon – Cathi Unsworth
Cathi Unsworth specialises in crime stories set in the latter half of the twentieth century and in Without the Moon she takes us further back than ever – to the London of WW 2.
It’s a dark time and a dark place. In the blacked-out streets of the battered capital a multitude of Londoners: prostitutes, petty criminals, reporters and fortune-tellers, frustrated wives and pitiable husbands, fumble towards the dream of a better life. Or at least a more exciting one.
But two men are out on the town looking for a different kind of thrill; a thrill that ends in violence and murder. DCI Edward Greenaway is on the trail of one of them; the Blackout Ripper. And the book is no whodunit because Unsworth gives it a grim sense of reality by using two true-life crimes as her blueprint.
Gordon Frederick Cummins was a trainee RAF officer. Handsome in his uniform, the very image of one of the heroic Few, the ladies of the night he approached during February 1942 must have thought themselves lucky. But in a six day spree he killed and mutilated four of them. And to the horror of Greenaway, who has seen more nightmare death than he can bear to remember, it’s clear when he catches up with Cummins that there’s another killer on the loose.
But Greenaway is only one of a swirling cast of brilliant characters. Cathy Unsworth shows us the terror, but also the courage, of the victims and their friends and loved ones. And the real heroes of the story are the women. Good-time girls like the beautiful Lil, who can make any man happy. They may huddle in shabby rooms, muffled by black curtains, as they search for signs and portents in the tea leaves and tarot cards. But afterwards they brave the perilous streets, looking out for each other when they collide in the dark or knock back the gin in pubs and clubs while they check out the punters. And when all else fails they are prepared to make their own gallant stand against the terrors of the night.
This is unflinching noir, but noir with real heart as Unsworth mixes true with imaginary events and characters to build a mesmerizing picture of the blitzed and blackened city in a moment of supreme darkness.
The Crimson Shore – Gillian Hamer
Gillian Hamer has done it again! I was a little worried when I realised that Crimson Shore was something of a change of direction. Her earlier books, all of which I’ve loved, were crime with a paranormal twist. This is a more straightforward police procedural, but thankfully there’s nothing straightforward about the story.
Someone is kidnapping, torturing and killing a series of seemingly unconnected individuals and it falls to DI Amanda Gold’s team to catch the murderer. The investigation is not helped by tensions within the team. Nor by lead detective Dara Brennan’s chaotic home life, his drinking or his increasing attraction for partner, DS Kelly Jones.
The author also takes us into the minds of the kidnap victims as they try to survive their ordeal and, like the police, to figure out why someone believes they deserve to endure such torment. And then there is the mysterious youngster, writing letters that reveal a hidden episode from a dark past. A past that, for one person at least, has scarred the beautiful Anglesey coast forever.
Hamer manages to make Dara Brennan both very annoying and immensely appealing and his relationship with Kelly seems ripe for plenty of ups and downs in future books. I’d love to see more of Amanda Gold herself too and I shall certainly be keen to read more about the Gold detectives. A change of direction, but no drop in quality.
The Waiting Game – Sheila Bugler
The Waiting Game is a twisty and exciting police procedural that is also a very satisfying psychological thriller. I read Sheila Bugler’s first book in the series, Hunting Shadows, and enjoyed it enormously and the second outing for DI Ellen Kelly certainly doesn’t disappoint.
A stalker is on Kelly’s patch and seems to be targeting two very different women. The prime suspect is vulnerable estate agent, Chloe’s, abusive former boyfriend, but he has no apparent connection with the other woman, glamorous artist Monica. So why would he be using the same sinister tactics on her too?
Encouraged by her boss and self-appointed protector, Nathan, Chloe complains about the police to the papers and the case becomes much more difficult for Kelly and her team. And when a horrific death occurs things really begin to unravel.
Ellen Kelly is a widow, but unlike so many detectives in crime novels she’s no loner and Bugler has created a most believable and appealing portrait of a working mother, daughter and sister. Indeed one of the great pleasures here is seeing Kelly’s own story develop, as she takes her first tentative steps towards a new relationship after the death of her husband and to come to terms with the traumatic events shown in the first book. Unfortunately it’s not long before her personal and professional lives collide to threaten everything she holds dear.
Although it’s not necessary to have read the first book to enjoy this one I suspect many first time readers will want to try Hunting Shadows after reading this. They are in for a real treat. As a confirmed fan all I can say is, roll on book three.
Vendetta – Dreda Say Mitchell
It’s always exciting to see a favourite writer trying something different even if the experiment doesn’t completely work. However I’m glad to say that the departure Dreda Say Mitchell has made with Vendetta works, for me, on every level. And exciting – oh wow, is all I can say.
We meet Mitchell’s main character, undercover cop Mac, when he comes to lying in a pool of his own congealed blood in a sordid hotel room. And his day goes downhill from there.
Two things puzzle me about this rip-roarer of a thriller. How can Mac keep going when he has to suffer the kind of physical (and mental) torment that the author throws at him over the 24 hours of the book? More importantly, in a novel where the pace never lets up for a moment and where there is so much, and such varied, action and violence how does the author manage to build such a believable and psychologically complex group of characters.
Mac starts as an enigma and becomes a flawed hero. His behaviour may make you wince at times, but you always feel for him. And, where Mac breaks all the rules, the magnificent D.I. Rio Wray lives by them (except the one about sleeping with the boss!) Wray is another great character and I’d love to see more of her in future books.
A lightning-paced novel that will keep you turning the pages even when you’re afraid to know what might happen next!
Cold Pressed – JJ Marsh
If you still have a low opinion of self-published (or more accurately in this case cooperatively published) books then I’m pretty sure you haven’t read JJ Marsh or her fellow Triskele authors. Anyone who’s done so will know they are as well-written and professionally produced as anything turned out by the big-name publishers.
And JJ Marsh’s fourth Beatrice Stubbs murder mystery is something special. It was picked as the editor’s choice in The Bookseller’s recent review of indie titles and I think the accolade is very well deserved.
Cold Pressed – great title – is a perfectly judged mystery featuring a number of killings on a cruise ship travelling around the Greek islands. While Marsh doesn’t minimise the horror of murder her writing is so stylish and effervescent, and the locations so beautifully realised, that the book is a joy to read.
Inspector Beatrice Stubbs has her demons, as must every series detective, but she also demonstrates an enormous relish for life (as well as for food and drink!). It was perhaps a brave choice to use a woman police officer close to retirement age as a protagonist, but Beatrice is enormously appealing. And, while she may not be obviously glamorous, neither is she immune to romantic dilemmas and, as the story begins, she is wrestling with an almighty one.
JJ Marsh has an amazing gift for creating delightful characters: each book is populated with several who could probably star in their own series. I’ve read all four Stubbs’ books and each time I leave the secondary characters with a pang of regret. Yet in every new novel Marsh produces an equally attractive cast. Here the gorgeous Niko, in particular, more than makes up for the almost absence my favourite, Adrian.
Cold Pressed reminds me of the classics from the golden age of crime. The enticing settings of Christie, the stylish writing of Sayers, the clever plotting of Tey, but perfectly adapted for 21st century sensibilities. Highly recommended.
The Vanity Game – HJ Hampson
What a fascinating read! Crime noir, black comedy, dark satire: I wouldn’t know how to label this clever and enthralling novel. Top footballer Beaumont Alexander’s world is a gaudy, glittering mirage seen through a haze of booze, dope and sex. The only other writer I can think of who has created a protagonist that I found so despicable and yet so engaging is Patricia Highsmith, with Tom Ripley and if you don’t find yourself rooting, oh-so reluctantly, for Beaumont by the end I suspect you’re fooling yourself. HJ Hampson has written a fascinating mystery with enough twists to satisfy any lover of crime novels, yet this book is so much more: a critique of celebrity culture, a comment on the corrupting effect of too much money, an exploration of identity. Wonderful!
Winston Graham – The Walking Stick (1967)
When Winston Graham’s Poldark returned to UK television recently I was reminded that Graham is also a wonderful writer of psychological suspense. Marnie, filmed by Hitchcock, is probably his most famous crime novel, but The Walking Stick is my favourite.
Deborah Dainton has a withered leg as a result of childhood polio and, as the daughter of two high-powered doctors, she fears her parents see her as their failure. She is attractive, but can only watch as the men swarm around her two beautiful sisters.
On the surface she is resigned to a life without romance and focused only on her job in a renowned auction house. But in reality Deborah longs for love and begins to believe she has found it with unsuccessful young artist, Leigh Hartley. He’s a bit rough around the edges for her family and even Deborah can see that he has some dubious friends, but she warms to his vulnerability and his tenderness towards her is irresistible.
Leigh lives in a bohemian warehouse apartment in London’s Docklands (a great portrait of that area before gentrification) and when they are there the fairy tale feels utterly real for Deborah. So real that she is willing to compromise all her principles to keep it alive.
The crime scenes, when they come, are nail-biting and the ending … well I’ll let you find out for yourself.