The Dead Ground – Claire McGowan

deadground Title – The Dead Ground

Author - Claire McGowan

Published - 10 April 2014

Genre – Crime fiction

I’m a little late to the books by Claire McGowan, this being her third crime novel and the second in the Paula Maguire series (or McGuire if you’re on Amazon). This is a difficult book to review as I feel as if by doing to I’ve given far too much away, so you have been warned.

Maguire is a forensic psychologist working with the police in a small town in Northern Ireland, close to the border. The story starts with the abduction of a new-born baby from the maternity unit of the local hospital and is shortly followed by the disturbing discovery of a woman’s body in the centre of a local stone circle. With little to go on the investigation makes slow progress and soon another baby is missing as well as a pregnant woman. The team must decide if the events are linked and if so what possible motive there could be for the crimes. Some internal politics soon become apparent  - the team Maguire works in is dedicated to missing persons cases, but there is the thorny subject of what happens when your missing person turns up dead.

The cases develop greater significance for Maguire as she discovers that not only is she pregnant but she doesn’t know who the father is. This provides a contrast between her own situation and that of the victims of the crimes. There are two men in Maguire’s life – one is her boss and the other is a local journalist – and this was one area where I really felt I had missed out by coming to the series part way through. Neither of the men acquitted themselves very well in the book and they didn’t feature enough for me to understand what she saw in them or decide which one I preferred.

The investigation seems to become side-tracked when a local psychic offers her help and for me I would have liked to have seen more resolved around this character.

The prologue provides the reader with information which is key to the investigation and for me this lead to a feeling of frustration as I watched Maquire and her colleagues chase red herrings. There were points when I was (mentally) shouting at the characters to talk to each other – but as someone pointed out, perhaps a consequence of the Troubles is that people kept hidden things which would be better shared.

When writing fiction set in Northern Ireland authors must have a choice whether to acknowledge its history and culture or ignore it, and McGowan’s choice is to meet it head on. Aspects of the plot hark back to the times of the Troubles and she also explores some more contemporary issues of abortion and pro-life support.

An interesting spin on police procedurals.

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Penguin crime

Rowland White

Rowland White

If there’s one thing Penguin does well (other than publish books that is) it’s throw a great party and Wednesday night’s crime gathering was no exception, hosted in a stylish (and packed) room in London’s Soho. After a welcome from Rowland White there was plenty of opportunity to sample the canapés and wine chat with authors, journalists, bloggers and others from the book trade.

ThursdayschildrenOf the forthcoming titles that got a mention on the night it’s probably Thursday’s Children by Nicci French that I am most looking forward to. The Frieda Klein series has been excellent and I can’t wait to read the next instalment.

There was another crime writing duo represented – Paul Perry and Karen Gillece – who are published under the pseudonym of Karen Perry. Their title The Boy That Never Was was published just a few days ago “a deeply atmospheric and masterfully crafted tale of love and loss that will chill you to the bone”.

If I Should DieAs is inevitable with these events, there’s not enough time to talk to everyone that you would like to, but I did have a brief chat to Matthew Frank, whose debut If I Should Die is due out in June. This is the first in a series featuring a police detective who is an Afghan veteran. It was interesting to discover that Matthew’s day job is as an architect and I was as interested in quizzing him on that as his writing! I’ve spotted that Matthew will be on a couple of panels at Crimefest in May and I’m looking forward to catching up with him then. I also spoke to Tim Relf about his forthcoming book  – although we have to wait until 2015 for that!

Penguin Crime Top Trumps

Penguin Crime Top Trumps

Other new titles to get a mention included After the Silence by Jake Woodhouse,  the first in a police procedural series set in Amsterdam, to be published later this month.  Eeny Meeny is s serial-killer thriller debut from M. J. Arlidge, due to be published in early May. James Oswald was also present – the third instalment of his Inspector Mclean 3 series The Hangman’s Song having been published at the end of February.

 

Apologies to any author’s I’ve neglected to mention, and many thanks to the organisers for a great evening.

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Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch

Title – Rivers of London

Author - Ben Aaronovitch

Published - 2011

Genre – Fantasy crime fiction

This is the first in the series of fantasy crime fiction set in London and featuring newly qualified Police Constable Peter Grant as the main protagonist.

Left to guard a crime scene Grant is approached by a ghost who was a witness to the incident – opening Grant’s eyes to a world he never realised existed. The story starts off quite slowly as we’re introduced to the characters and the magical background and there are some nice touches as Grant begins to learn magic for himself. The series of gruesome attacks continues apace and the investigation builds to a huge climax – although I have to say that there were times when I wasn’t sure I was completely following all of the action.

There is a decent mystery for Grant to solve which has its origins in the past and this allows Aaronovitch to touch on quite a lot of London history on something of a whistle-stop tour. As well as the plot featuring an evil presence which is taking over Londoners and making them act in unexpectedly violent ways, there is also a thread concerning rival factions controlling the River Thames. The ‘rivers’ theme allows Aaronovitch to explore more of the myths around London and its river.

Grant is an engaging main character, and I do particularly enjoy books written in the first person. His character works well with that of his new boss, Inspector Nightingale, a dapper policeman to whom Grant is apprenticed. They live in the Folly with the mysterious Molly making a charmingly quaint household. I don’t often read this type of fantasy fiction but became completely engrossed in it – if I’d seen magic on my walk through Westminster in a morning I wouldn’t have been surprised!

The book is written with a wry sense of humour which means Grant doesn’t take his situation too seriously even when it seems pretty perilous. There were a few moments that were, if not ‘laugh out loud funny’, at least ‘snigger audibly on the train amusing’. Fortunately the humour lacked some of the corniness of series like Thursday Next.

The way Aaronovitch uses London as the location is brilliant – anyone who lives or works here will know exactly where they are and it was particularly gratifying to see my office’s local pub making an appearance. The link to some of the myths and history of London were interesting and I had to resist the urge to interrupt my reading to find out more.

This was a very enjoyable read - crime fiction with magic, mayhem and myths! You can see another point of review on Notes of Life.

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That Dark Remembered Day – Tom Vowler

Title – That Dark Remembered Daythat-dark-remembered-day

Author - Tom Vowler

Published - 13 March 2014

Genre – Literary crime (apparently!)

Following hot on the heels of my review of Vowler’s debut novel “What Lies Within” his second novel is certainly the most engrossing and intriguing book I have read recently. Unfortunately, like its predecessor, it is also a book that’s told in a way that by attempting to review it you risk spoiling the discovery for other readers.

It’s autumn 2012 and Stephen seems to have everything - he’s married with a young daughter, he has a job he enjoys, but an out of character act may have put all of this in jeopardy. When he receives an unexpected phone call suggesting that his mother may be unwell circumstances prompt him to return to the town he last saw as a teenager. It is obvious that some terrible event occurred in the past and that somehow Stephen  was involved (this is ‘That Dark Remembered Day’) but Vowler, as with What Lies Within, draws the reader into the story giving only a fragment away at a time.

Towards the middle of the book the focus shifts  back to the summer of 1982 and you begin to understand more about the events which have led to Stephen’s current problems and the reason that he has been so reluctant to return home. Whilst much of the story in the present concerns his realisation that he isn’t as well adjusted as perhaps he thought, the scenes set in the past, adding other points of view, give the reader a better insight into the events. Like watching a car crash in slow motion you have an idea of what is coming but all you can do is watch it unfold.  There is an underlying tension that permeates the book and a sense of dread as it becomes clear what must have taken place. Vowler also manages to add some details that really take you by surprise. It’s a dark and harrowing story which is all too believable.

I can see similarities between this title and Vowler’s debut – both make great use of the locations in which they’re set, especially the natural landscape. Both also rely on keeping the reader in suspense in a much more subtle way than a conventional crime novel. In fact, in both cases, they aren’t conventional crime novels at all. I was reminded of stories like Rupture and Black Chalk, which both used a similar technique of focusing on the aftermath of a catastrophic event and then telling the sequence of events leading up to it.

Last but not least I should mention Vowler’s writing style – which is superb and really brought the characters to life.

Thank you to Headline for my review copy. You can see another point of view at Cleopatra Loves Books.

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Someone Else’s Skin – Sarah Hilary

Title – Someone Else’s Skin

Author - Sarah Hilary

Published - 27 Feb 2014

Genre – Crime fiction

This is one of a handful of British crime debuts which is getting a lot of love on social media sites (alongside Luca Veste’s Dead Gone and Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home).

The main protagonist is DI Marnie Rome – a strong and solitary figure but a brilliant detective. Rome is accompanied by DS Noah Jake when they visit a woman’s refuge to try to secure a statement from a young Muslim woman whom they believe has been injured by her own family. They suspect that the young woman’s brother was responsible for an attack with a scimitar which has severed a man’s arm and need her help in making a case against him. On their arrival at the shelter, however, they walk into the middle of a stabbing – with the husband of one of the women bleeding on the dayroom floor. This unexpected attack gives the plot an additional thread as the detectives try to get to the bottom of the stabbing as well as pursuing the original case they were assigned. Hilary then takes the story in some surprising directions as the plot unfolds.

Like any detective worth their salt, Rome has her share of secrets and has herself suffered loss, in fact she’s seen at close quarters the effect of murder on those left behind. Her background circumstances explain her unwillingness to open up to others, but also provide her sense of purpose and make her unrelenting in her work. Jake is also an unconventional choice of character for a detective and he and Rome make an unusual team.

This is a well-written debut with a strong female lead. As well as delivering a satisfying police procedural the author also brings issues of domestic violence, in all its forms, to the fore. You can see another point of view on the blog One Word at a Time.  Thank you to Headline for my review copy.

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The Burning – M.R. Hall

Title – The Burning

Author - M.R. Hall

Published - 27 Feb 2014

Genre – Crime fiction

This is the sixth title in the crime series by M R Hall featuring coroner Jenny Cooper – which surprised me and means that I must have missed a book after The Flight! As it happens the books are easy to pick up mid-series, so if you haven’t read any of the others before don’t be put off.

The story starts with the deaths of three members of a family in a house in the small village of Blackstone Ley. Neighbours saw the house go up in flames but it soon becomes evident that a gun was involved and that something may have provoked a quiet father to murder his step-daughters. As the reader we know that there is more to the deaths, however, suggested by the brief opening chapter. This means that rather than follow Cooper’s train of thought as she tries to unravel the evidence, the reader is watching her pursuing dead-ends, waiting to see if and when she will discover the truth.

The use of the role of the coroner as the main protagonist is an unusual approach – the advantage is that it gives Cooper the ability to move outside some of the constraints of a normal police investigation, although I imagine most real coroner’s have quieter lives! There’s a good deal of time given over to Cooper and her private life – which manages to be pretty complicated. Now that she seems to have got her drug problem under control, her troubles are of the more romantic kind. I do like Cooper as the lead – she’s strong, (mostly) independent and  occasionally fearless bordering on reckless.

There is an injection of humour from Cooper’s assistant, who seems to have suffered an injury to the part of her brain which ‘controls appropriate social responses’ – the good news is that I also found her to be less irritating than she was before.

This feels less like a thriller than The Flight and more conventional crime fiction, and as with The Flight the attention to detail is evident.  An enjoyable, well-plotted read.

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This Dark Road to Mercy – Wiley Cash

Title – This Dark Road to Mercy

Author - Wiley Cash

Published - 30 January 2014

Genre – Contemporary fiction

Cash’s debut A Land More Kind Than Home was one of my favourite book’s of 2012, so I was particularly looking forward to seeing what direction he would take with his second novel.

There are certainly many similarities between this and his debut. Again one of the main characters is a child – in this case Easter, a 12 year old girl who is currently living in a foster home with her younger sister. Much of the story is seen through Easter’s eyes – she’s seen a lot for her age and has something of a world-weary view. The story shifts between the view points of three main characters – as well as Easter there is Brady Weller, guardian to the girls, and a mysterious character called Pruitt.

It’s six years since Easter has seen her father, Wade, when he shows up at a baseball game she’s playing in at the foster home. It’s not an emotional reunion – there’s been a lot of water under the bridge for Easter. The situation isn’t helped by the fact that Wade has signed his rights away to his daughters, which means he takes (relatively) drastic action in order to spend some time with them. When they inexplicably disappear from the foster home Weller feels bound to help track them down. In fact Weller has his own family issues, especially with his teenage daughter, and it’s easy to see that this influences his behaviour.

What seems to be important here is that the main character in the book – Easter’s father Wade – is only viewed through the eyes of others so his motives remain a mystery. Cash manages to make the fiction thought-provoking, and he certainly cements his ability to evoke small-town America, but somehow the story didn’t connect with me in the way that his debut did.

Amongst my misgivings is the fact that I felt the plot seemed more like a short story rather than a novel, which did little to reduce my impatience for something to happen. Although when it did it was quite surprising and in fact made me think of ‘No Country For Old Men (the film – I’ve not read the book!).

Wade is an ex-baseball player and the sport permeates the story. Unfortunately it’s a game I know very little about and I always feel at a bit of a loss in books where baseball features prominently – much like I imagine an American would feel when faced with stories featuring cricket. Despite reading plenty of books where baseball is significant to the plot, I’m just none the wiser and find it very hard to picture what is happening.

There were also a couple of aspects of the story, or backstory, that were alluded to but never stated explicitly, and I’m not the sort of reader who likes to fill in the gaps for themselves!

I know that there are already some fans out there, but I’m afraid that this just didn’t do it for me. You can see another review over at Raven Crime Reads. Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.

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