3 star

The Long Drop – Denise Mina

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 MurderabiliaThe 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.



Hidden Bodies – Caroline Kepnes

Title – Hidden Bodies51pgbojyk2l

Author – Caroline Kepnes

Published – 2016

Genre – Psychological thriller

This is the sequel to You by Caroline Kepnes – a book that I couldn’t stop raving about. I was thrilled to hear that we hadn’t seen the last of Joe and I was very much looking forward to Hidden Bodies.

So the question is – did it deliver? Sadly the answer is that I don’t think it did. In Hidden Bodies Joe has met a new woman and is putting the past behind him – except for one little issue that he left behind in a wardrobe. But when the tables are turned on him he heads for Los Angeles with plans to exact his revenge. Along the way he loses his purpose and becomes involved with a fantastically rich film-making pair of twins. Kepnes stretches the reader’s credulity with his exploits in the film world, nevertheless the bodies continue to pile up.

This lacked the intensity of its predecessor as well as much of the tension. I also didn’t find Joe’s behaviour consistent with the character I remembered from You. It’s obviously not inconceivable that his experiences have changed him but I don’t believe that’s the case, Joe was pretty entrenched in his views and behaviour. I also struggled with some of the cultural references, it was easier to follow the more literary ones in the first book than the ones in this sequel. Where the first book gave Joe’s quirky and skewed view of the world this felt more a piece about the excesses and superficial nature of the film industry and I’m not sure that New Yorker Joe was the right character to explore it. The pace also left a lot to be desired. Where You flew along this really seemed to drag and my attention wavered but perhaps this was a combination of the factors I’ve already mentioned…

This didn’t deliver the impact of Kepnes’ debut and wasn’t the twisted, stalker Joe that I wanted to read about.


Skinner’s Round – Quintin Jardine

51anj4bskulTitle – Skinner’s Round

Author – Quintin Jardine

Published – 1995

Genre – Crime fiction

The may be the longest I’ve taken to read a book (even longer than The Draining Lake), according to Goodreads I started this in January 2011! The delay isn’t all mine, or even the author’s but when I got halfway through I found that there was a section of pages repeated in place of the correct ones. This is number 4 of a series of (currently at 27 titles) so a replacement wasn’t easy to get hold of.

This isn’t the only reason though – I don’t understand golf, and the ’round’ in question isn’t one in a pub but one on a golf course. A body is discovered at the Witches’ Hill Golf and Country Club on the eve of a prestigious invitation golf match to mark its opening. The police investigation carries on through the duration of the match until it reaches its climax in the final round. But sadly all the references to golf and the description of the action as the different characters played a number of games were lost on me. Which contributed to the length of time it took me to read.

After the first body is discovered a letter to a local newspaper links the death to a local curse. This part of the investigation was much more interesting. A tape recording is discovered of a young  girl talking about the curse to none other than Skinner’s late wife. His colleagues believe that the reference to the curse is critical to solving the case and that leads them to find out more about the origin of the curse in the 1600s.

This book very much fits in the mould that I’ve come to expect from the series with a mix of police procedural and family life. Skinner is an unusual character because although he has the dead wife common to many lead police protagonists he does have a very happy and stable family life. Writing the character to be more of a physical character would probably stretch the credibility of an East Lothian Assistant Chief Constable but he does possess a steely resolve and isn’t a man to be crossed.

I enjoyed the next instalment in the ‘Skinner’ books but sadly the golf aspect wasn’t for me.


20th Century Ghosts – Joe Hill

51pbfcgwtplTitle – 20th Century Ghosts

Author – Joe Hill

Published – 2005

Genre – Horror

This is is a short story collection and is the first of Joe Hill’s work that I’ve read, despite having seen him on his book tour for The Fireman.

One of the real highlights of the collection is the variety of the stories and the distinctiveness of the different voices. The stories make an interesting  combination,  some like ‘Best New Horror’ are a very conventional approach to horror where others have more of a fantasy feel to them. Despite this (or perhaps because of this) many of the stories have a more poignant and touching aspect to them, and there seems to be a thread running through a number of stories featuring children and childhood.

I particularly enjoyed ‘Pop Art’ which was both funny and moving. ‘Art’ is Arthur Ross, an inflatable Jewish boy. The narrator has a difficult home life with an unpleasant father and Art’s family provides a stark contrast, but Art is inflatable. The author has thought through the disadvantages of being inflatable, for example unable to speak Art has to write his thoughts on a pad, but of course this must be in crayon as a sharpened pencil could be deadly… The story is about the relationship between the two boys but inevitably being inflatable is Art’s defining characteristic.

The last story in the collection, ‘Voluntary Committal’ is a chilling horror without any gore or shocks, but nonetheless gripping and was probably the highlight for me. Was this the author saving the best until last? The story is narrated by Nolan but is about his younger brother Morris, a little boy diagnosed with some mental health problems. But that’s not what makes Morris different. Morris likes to construct things, starting with paper cups he moves on to cardboard boxes, the designs becoming ever more elaborate and complex, but the structures have a sinister side.

On the other hand there were some stories that I just didn’t get. I’m not a reader that likes to be confused  – I like clear resolution and explanation, a direct take on the genre, so more ambiguous stories like ‘My Father’s Mask’ just left me puzzled with more questions than answers.

Collections of short stories make a welcome break from novels and although they don’t make for the same sort of escapism there’s a lot to be said for being able to distill a piece of prose into the length of a train journey. This collection was a bit of a mixed bag for me though.


The Ice Lands – Steinar Bragi

Title – The Ice Lands

Author – Steinar Bragi (translated by Lorenza Garcia)

Published – Oct 2016 (in English)

Genre – Crime fiction / Thriller / Horror

This came as an unsolicited review copy but I was intrigued by the cover and with an interest in all things Icelandic it pushed its way to the top of my TBR pile.

The story is about four friends and a dog who are on a camping trip in the volcanic wilds of Iceland. There are tensions between the four and they see the trip as away of mending their relationships but things have already become fraught early on in the journey when they crash in the middle of nowhere. They take refuge in an isolated farmhouse occupied by a mysterious elderly couple.

The efforts to resume their journey are thwarted – they fail to leave in their jeep, or in the car they borrow from the couple and even resorting to leaving on foot they end up returning to the dark and menacing house. At the times where they have put some distance between themselves and the house they make further mysterious discoveries in the wilderness – an abandoned car, an abandoned village on a cut-off ‘island’.

The inside of the house, farm and the couple are no less puzzling. They struggle to figure out the relationship between the uncommunicative man and woman, there are animals’ bodies on the doorstep and a hidden room that just adds to the mysteries.

As the story unfolds the backstory of the characters comes out which casts light on them both as individuals and on the relationships between the four of them. In some ways these feel like caricatures – this isn’t a criticism but it feels as if the author was using the four people to highlight some of the issues around the financial crash (the book was published in Iceland in 2011). Their lives and perspectives are quite exaggerated but their reactions to the events after they become stranded seem surprisingly relaxed.

I still don’t know what to make of this book. It was part crime, part thriller, part horror and part, well, just plain weird. I was really taken in by it. I didn’t particularly like the characters, but I wanted to know what happened to them (or what had happened to them). I didn’t have any issues with the writing or translation. There was probably too much of the characters’ backstory for me but the story was atmospheric, tense, dark – it really gripped me. But I just couldn’t figure out what was going on… Since finishing the book and while writing my review I’ve had a look to see what other people make of the book. There is a full synopsis on Wikipedia which tells me that it ‘enjoyed very positive reviews’ although it seems to be struggling to do so in the English translation. Perhaps it just isn’t reaching the right audience.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.


Rescue – Anita Shreve

51COB0351LLTitle – Rescue

Author – Anita Shreve

Published – 2010

Genre – Fiction

I have to confess to being a huge fan of Anita Shreve. I enjoy her prose and her (usually) female-centric novels which have relationships – often under stress – at their core. In Rescue the main character is a chap – paramedic Peter Webster. Now in his forties bringing up his teenage daughter alone, the story tells how as a rookie he begins an affair with Sheila, a young woman that he treats at the scene of an accident. Webster is a small town guy and Sheila is more worldly-wise – things are never going to run smoothly.

I’ll stop describing the plot there – the blurb on the book gives a lot more away but not having read it (I never read the blurb before the book) I enjoyed the story as it unfolded.

The two characters start a relationship without really knowing each other and they have their own issues and obsessions. In part the story deals with obsession and addiction but it’s also about the importance of family and what sacrifices parents are prepared to make.

I’m impartial enough to say that this probably isn’t Shreve’s best book, the characters aren’t all as fully drawn as those in some of her other novels and I didn’t find the main ones particularly engaging. I just wanted to tell Webster to get a grip! I did enjoy the main themes of the story and I wanted to know what happened, but I did’t quite care enough.

If I haven’t put you off completely I would suggest reading Fortune’s Rocks or The Weight of Water.


Two short reviews – Antti Tuomainen & Nadia Dalbuono

A couple of short reviews in an effort to clear the ‘read but not yet reviewed’ stack.

519xkpynnPLTitle – Dark as my Heart

Author – Antti Tuomainen (translated by Lola Rogers)

Published – Oct 2015

Genre – Crime fiction

Finland has perhaps been one of the smaller forces in the wave of Scandi and Nordic noir so it’s difficult to know if this take on crime fiction is typical of the Finnish contribution.

The story is told from an unusual perspective – the premise is that the murderer (responsible for the disappearance of a young woman some twenty years ago) is already known from the beginning  of the book. The guilty party is a reclusive millionaire who the police have been unable to link to the woman’s disappearance. Her son Aleksi, now in his thirties, decides to take matters into his own hands and manages to get a job working on the man’s country estate. The story is told from Aleksi’s point of view (and in first person) both in the present and as flashbacks to the time around his mother’s disappearance. As Aleksi tries to unravel the events of the past and find the evidence he needs he is drawn into a relationship with the millionaire’s reckless daughter Amanda.

There are some recognisable themes from ‘Nordic Noir’ with dark characters, isolation playing a key aspect in the tension and some graphic violence. However, I found the writing slow going, a lot of use was made of coincidences and I didn’t care enough about the characters. I am perhaps  in the minority, though, as Dark as My Heart was optioned for feature film in 2013 and is in development at Making Movies Ltd, the production company behind the Finnish film Black Ice. The novel has also been voted the best crime novel of the past decade by the readers of a Finnish crime fiction magazine.

You can see a more positive review on Raven’s blog.


51T1XZu41pLTitle – The American

Author – Nadia Dalbuono

Published – Jan 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

I was keen to read this book as I’m a fan of crime fiction set in Italy – it can offer a more relaxed approach to police procedurals compared to books set in the UK or USA and of course there is the opportunity to be transported to somewhere more exotic.

The book opens with the apparent suicide of a man discovered hanging from a bridge in Rome close to the Vatican City. The detective assigned to the case – Leone Scamarcio – is concerned that the death echoes the notorious murder of Roberto Calvi (‘God’s Banker’) in 1982. The murder a few days later of a cardinal within the Vatican City and a warning by some mysterious heavies from the ‘US Authorities’ guarantee that Scamarcio is more rather than less interested in getting to the bottom of the death.

What follows is a mix of police procedural and thriller made more complex by the introduction of conspiracy theories around 9/11, the Polish Solidarity party, corruption in the Vatican and acts of terror within Italy. The actual effect of this was to slow down the pace of the investigative part of the plot to expand on the theories with background and explanation and I found it all too detailed and complex to hold my interest.

What I found particularly disappointing about this book was that it felt as if it could have been set anywhere – I prefer my crime fiction to give me a better, more immersive, feel for the country it is set in.

You can see another point of view on the Euro Crime website.

Thank you to the publishers for the review copies.