Title – Pendulum
Author – Adam Hamdy
Published – Nov 2016
Genre – Thriller
This had been sitting on my shelves since before we moved last year (one of the lucky ones to get unpacked), I was looking for an alternative to historical fiction and this was certainly the polar opposite!
The premise is unusual – always a good start. John Wallace, a photographer, is taken by surprise in his flat and attacked by a man who attempts to hang him. I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that he is unsuccessful. Wallace manages to make his escape after a dramatic fight but finds that his attacker is set on completing what he started and Wallace is short on places to turn for help. It transpires that there are others who appear to have committed suicide in the same way (hence ‘Pendulum’) but if Wallace wants to prove that he isn’t losing his mind he needs to dodge the killer and take up the hunt in America.
The thriller part of the plot centres around the ‘can they stop the killer before Wallace or others die’ and there is more of a crime fiction element around determining the identity of the masked man and the motivation behind his attacks. This is a ‘no holds barred’ thriller and I lost track of the body count; not a book to read if you prefer to avoid gore/violence. Hamdy really puts Wallace through the ringer and it’s amazing the guy manages to keep going with the physical and emotional toll exerted on him. The action is easy to visualise (no doubt the author bringing to bear skills from his screenwriting experience) with some great set pieces and nifty writing that gets Wallace out of danger and while the pace keeps up throughout, the action is balanced by tension.
There are, however, two specific issues I had with the book. The first one was my disappointment when I was halfway through and adding it to Goodreads and finding that this is the first in a trilogy – I was looking forward to a resolution that I knew would be delayed. This would have made a great standalone so it will be interesting to see how the story develops over three books. The other problem I had was that when the motivation for the attacks and the reason behind the targeting of the victims became clear I was less enamoured with Wallace than I had been. Nevertheless, this is a gripping trans-atlantic thriller and an accomplished debut.
Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.
Just a short update to my earlier post on the 2017 Daggers. The winners were announced last week and the results are:
- The CWA Gold Dagger – The Dry (Little, Brown) by Jane Harper
- The CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger – Spook Street (John Murray) by Mick Herron
- The CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger – Tall Oaks (Twenty 7) by Chris Whittaker
- The CWA Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction – Close But No Cigar: A True Story of Prison Life in Castro’s Cuba (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) by Stephen Purvis
- The CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger – A Rising Man (Harvill Secker) by Abir Mukherjee
- The CWA International Dagger – The Dying Detective (Doubleday) by Leif G W Persson, Tr Neil Smith
- The CWA Short Story Dagger – The Trials of Margaret by L C Tyler in Motives for Murder (Sphere) Edited by Martin Edwards
- The CWA Debut Dagger – Sherry Rankin for Strange Fire
I’ve managed to miss reading any of these! Do you think they were well-deserved winners?
Title – The Coffin Path
Author – Katherine Clements
Published – 8 Feb 2018
Genre – Historical fiction
I might be posting this review WAY in advance of its publication date but this was such a perfectly timed read in the run up to Halloween. The Coffin Path is a gothic ghost story set in the seventeenth century at an isolated farm and manor house on the wild Yorkshire moors.
The book starts out from the perspective of Mercy Booth, a woman who challenges the expectations of the time about how a woman should behave. She sees herself as the mistress of Scarcross Hall (what a name!) and expects to inherit it when her father passes away. Scarcross is run down and the source of local rumour and superstition; the arrival of a mysterious stranger coincides with events that bring these to the fore. The man is Ellis Ferriby and as the narration switches between him and Mercy we see a different perspective on the period and gradually discover the secret that haunts him.
The controlled pace allows us to get to know and understand the characters as they face the sinister and mysterious events. Verging between the menace of a more corporeal threat versus an ethereal one, the tension is gradually ramped up through the book. As the incidents increase they take their toll on the inhabitants and the farm’s workers and gradually Mercy comes under more and more pressure and becomes more and more isolated.
The location could perhaps be credited as the third main character – the wilds of the moors, the remote location and the unforgiving weather all play their part. This isn’t a book that’s heavy on historical scene-setting – the period is obviously important for a number of reasons but it provides the backdrop to the story, rather than being the driver for it.
There was a point where I suspected that this might become something of a formulaic romance but while the relationship between the two main protagonists could take that direction the author kept the tone of the writing true to their personalities and anything that does (or doesn’t) happen avoids any predictable clichés. Both characters have their flaws but are immensely likeable and both are presented with situations which put them to the test.
The climax is thrilling and there was a sudden ‘aha’ moment which I hope I haven’t misinterpreted… A chilling and eerie story this is bound to make many lists as a ‘must read’ book for next Halloween.
Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.
Title – The House We Grew Up In
Author – Lisa Jewell
Published – 2014
Genre – Fiction
I’m still trying to clear a backlog of book reviews that I should have written / published so this will be a shorter than normal review.
As this isn’t strictly crime fiction I might never have picked it up but it was in a goody bag I got from … somewhere which I opened on the train home and was gripped. Although billed as ‘fiction’ the heart of the story is a family secret and a tragedy that has shaped the lives of the Birds so it certainly shared some characteristics with crime fiction, particularly the desire for the reader to figure out what had taken place before the author revealed it.
The opening makes the book feel as if it will be a twee domestic drama; a mother and daughter returning to the mother’s childhood home to clear the house and discovering that her mother had developed into an extreme hoarder. While this is set in the present day there are two other threads to the story which are told in parallel – the first is an exchange of correspondence between the late Lorelei Bird and a man that she’s met through the internet. This has quite a poignant quality to it as it’s one sided, a bit like an Alan Bennett ‘Talking Head’ but it’s through these emails that we learn about how Lorelei sees her family. The second thread starts back in 1981 and tells the story of the Bird family through their annual Easter Egg hunt and gives the reader the opportunity to follow the family as it slowly disintegrates.
It soon becomes clear that in all times and all ways this family is pretty dysfunctional, it paints a dark picture of family life and the impact of unrecognised or untreated mental health issues. The fallout affects the different members of the family in different ways – I thought the characters were well written and even though I didn’t particularly like Lorelei I was still interested in her. The pressing reason for reading on, however, was the need to discover what the pivotal event was that was at the heart of the story.
If there was something that I wasn’t happy about it was actually the nature of the secret. When you’ve built a whole book around something shocking that has taken place you need it to really shock the reader, perhaps I read too much crime fiction where ‘anything goes’ but I did feel a little underwhelmed by the actual event.
Not a book I might normally choose for myself but nevertheless an enjoyable read.
Title – The Long Drop
Author – Denise Mina
Published – March 2017
Genre – Historical crime
I’ve read a couple of books in succession which have made me feel inadequate as a reader and The Long Drop is one of them. Last month it won ‘The McIlvanney Prize’ which is Bloody Scotland’s annual prize awarded to the best Scottish Crime book of the year. It beat shortlisted books which included Murderabilia, The Quiet Death of Thomas Quaid and Out of Bounds and I just can’t understand why this was the book to come out on top. So am I missing something?
I hadn’t realised when I started reading that the book was based on real events – the case of Peter Manuel https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Manuel (don’t read the article before reading the book) who was a notorious serial killer in the 1950s. The story is a fictionalised version of the case and tells in parallel both the events of the night of 2 December 1957 when Manuel went on a pub crawl with William Watt, alongside the story of Manuel’s trial for multiple murders. I was intrigued by the story but had I known anything in advance about the true crime aspect it might have taken away some of the mystery. It is, however, a very evocative story which really brought alive the dark side of Glasgow in the 1950s.
What I found quite odd, and jarring, was that even given the constraints of the two parts of the story the author went both backwards and, more puzzlingly, forwards in time. For example, referencing the future implementation of the Clean Air Act or how developments will prompt the eventual action of specific characters – all outside the timeframe of the story. This seemed like an odd approach but perhaps it’s this unusual style that made the book stand out for others.
During the trial there are intricate portraits of the cast of (mostly) disreputable characters that are called to appear but some of the courtroom details – the ins and outs of the origins of two guns – felt unnecessary and slowed the pace. I was also interested in the suggestion that Manuel couldn’t read people in the same way as most of us and he certainly exhibited some bizarre behaviour, perhaps a suggestion of mental health issues at the root of his actions?
This wasn’t a book I enjoyed but as it is an award winner I feel that the shortcomings must be on my side. Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.
Title – Out of Bounds
Author – Val McDermid
Published – 26 Jan 2017 (paperback)
Genre – Crime fiction
Goodness – it’s been so long I may have forgotten how to do this! I’m only picking up with a short review anyway because I’m not sure that a writer like Val McDermid is desperately in need of one more blog review of one of her books. As such a huge name in crime writing and sales of over 15 million books I’m not sure that I can add anything new. In fact this leads to a question for publishers with ‘big name’ authors – if you are paying for huge advertising campaigns for your leading authors do you send review copies to bloggers because they are essential to the marketing plan or because to not do so would make people wonder why? Not one I expect to get an answer to!
Anyway – the book. This is the second of Val’s books that I have read. The first was in the Tony Jordan series and while I enjoyed it I couldn’t get past the mental images I had from the TV series. However the author wanted me to see the characters, my view was shaped by what I had already seen, so I don’t think it was a fair reflection of the books. This book, however, is in the ‘Karen Pirie’ series – number four if these things matter to you.
There are a few different stories and investigations that Karen (DCI Karen Pirie, head of Police Scotland’s Historic Crimes Unit) become involved in. The first is when the DNA from a teenage joyrider is linked to a murder twenty two years previously. It is an unusual angle to take the DNA and then unravel the story and I do enjoy a more ‘forensics led’ crime story.
Then a chance discussion about the death of a man that might or might not have been suicide intrigues Karen, especially when she finds out that the man’s mother was murdered years ago in a suspected terrorist explosion. As if she doesn’t have enough to keep her occupied Karen is drawn into trying to solve the cold case.
Karen makes for an interesting lead character – damaged, as seems to be a prerequisite, but also realistically drawn. We see a very positive and human side to her as she tries to help some Syrian refugees to improve their situation. If there is any way in which I felt at a disadvantage by coming in at the fourth book in the series it’s in having a better understanding of her, I think it would have liked to have know more of her backstory – in no way a criticism of the book.
I can see why Val McDermid is such a bestselling crime fiction author – the book is unpretentious but gives the reader a multi-thread plot line with a mix of forensic and character-led aspects. If you’re not a regular reader of the genre there is plenty to interest you and no gimmicks to put you off.
Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.
Title – In the Month of the Midnight Sun
Author – Cecilia Ekbäck
Published – June 2016
Genre – Historical crime fiction
I was so taken with Wolf Winter that I treated myself to In the Month of the Midnight Sun when it came out in June last year (which shows you how far behind I am!).
Similar to some of the books by Anita Shreve, using the same location for a story in different times, Ekbäck returns to Blackåsen Mountain. In this case we move from 1717 in Wolf Winter to 1856. On the mountain a Sami woman has left her tribe following the death of her husband, while the local settlers are puzzled by this but they have bigger worries as a Sami man has carried out a fatal attack in their rectory.
In Stockholm The State Minister of Justice instructs geologist Magnus to head to the area to investigate the attack. The Minster’s interest is purely bureaucratic, concerned that the sale of land in the area may be jeopardised. Magnus has some personal issues which he should deal with but perhaps prefers to avoid these by agreeing to the trip. The Minister is also Magnus’s adoptive father, so when at the last minute he is forced to have his sister-in-law, Lovisa, accompany him he is unable to argue against it. The two travellers set out for the long journey to Lulea with Lovisa withdrawn and uncommunicative and unprepared for what lies ahead.
The journey sees the relationship thaw a little and we find out more of the backstory of the two characters, and as the story switches between points of view (in the first person so you need to pay attention) we also learn more about those living in the shadow of the mountain. When eventually they reach Lulea and Magnus meets the man accused of the murders he doesn’t believe he is the killer and knows that the only answer is to travel onwards to the Blackåsen Mountain.
Despite the broad, sweeping landscapes and the midnight sun this has a very claustrophobic feel and a very varied cast of characters with some unique voices. There is a hint of the supernatural in the lives of the Sami and the same battle with the elements that those in Wolf Winter faced. But essentially the story is about the people.
If you appreciate beautifully written, atmospheric crime fiction with a literary style then you really should try these books.