4 star

Dark Vineyard – Martin Walker

71h0Mf4nPQLTitle – Dark Vineyard

Author – Martin Walker

Published – 2009

Genre – Crime fiction

I’m starting this review with a bit of an unrelated moan, but WordPress has been driving me mad of late. I use a Mac and haven’t been able to open WordPress via Safari for weeks. Having established that’s the issue I’ve had to install a different browser and although I have access again I now can’t persuade the browser or WordPress to do any spellchecks. I seem to be spending a lot of time trying to fix things that a few weeks ago weren’t broken and my ‘to review’ pile is just getting bigger & bigger!

But back to the point of this post – my review of the second book in the ‘Bruno, Chief of Police’ series ‘Dark Vineyard’. While I felt that the first book (Death in the Dordogne) wasn’t quite as good as the later books I’ve read, I thought this one was up to the standard I’ve come to expect.

There is only really one mystery that gets this book started and that’s who has set fire to a field of GMO crops – could it be a disgrunted local or an environmental activist? As the investigation into the fire begins a Californian wine producer, Bondino, meets with the Mayor to make a business proposition, one that will change life in St Denis, however he won’t pursue the deal if there is a hint of any futher trouble. The proposal adds a political dimension to the plot, pitting tradition against progress, and Bruno is under some pressure from the Mayor to reach the right conclusion speedily.

As ever, Bruno draws on his local knowledge to take the investigation in the right direction and that puts one of the young men from the rugby club, Max, in the spotlight.   He has strong environmental credentials and plans a future in wine production, he also seems to be a rival for the affections of Jacqueline, a young, Canadian student of wine who has been linked romantically with Bondino.

As the investigation into the fire progresses and the day-to-day life of the town carries on there are two further deaths which while odd aren’t necessarily anything more than accidents, although their timing could suit Bondino who, as an outsider, would make the perfect suspect for Bruno.

Bruno’s love life continues to feature – his ‘on/off’ relationship with Isabelle, as she pressures him to follow her to Paris and a new romance sparks on his doorstep. One of the disadvantages of reading the series out of order is knowing how these things will pan out.

Wine production features heavily in this book – adding to my knowledge from Proof by Dick Francis and more recently All This I Will Give to You by Dolores Redondo (which was excellent & I must write up my review). The book, as with the others in the series, evokes the location – if I ever visit the Périgord Martin Walker will be have to take some responsibility. Bruno also conjours up more of his remarkable meals, the notable one featuring ‘bécasses’ which I had to Google afterwards and are woodcocks (not a dish I plan to order!).

An engaging read with a charming yet fallible lead character, an idyllic setting (despite the increasing bodycount) and some aspirational lifestyles, I do enjoy this series. I note that, jumping ahead, the twelfth book in the series, The Body in the Castle Well, is due out in June.

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Villa America – Liza Klaussmann

Title – Villa America

Author – Liza Klaussmann

Published – 2016

Genre – Historical fiction

I saw Liza Klaussmann talking about her book alongside Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (author of Swan Song) at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last year and had to add it to my wishlist for Chirstmas (and many thanks to Mr Novel Heights for buying it for me).

Like Swan Song this is a fictional take on real events, although in this case there is more on the ‘fiction’ side. ‘Villa America’ is the name of the villa built by husband and wife Gerald and Sara Murphy, in Cap d’Antibes. Their presence heralded the fashion for spending the summer (and not just the winter) on the French Riviera and introduced sunbathing as a fashionable activity. The circles they moved in (or rather, that appear to have moved around them) included Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Pablo Picasso, Archibald MacLeish, Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley.

In ‘Villa America’ the author tells the story of the couple’s relationship (they married in 1915) with the bulk of the story taking place in the period between the two World Wars. To the framework of the historical records about the lives of the Murphy’s and their guests Klaussmann has fleshed out a pilot who flew in caviar for them and he (Owen) becomes the representation of Gerald’s struggles with his sexuality.

By creating the character of Owen, Klaussmann has given herself the opportunity to explore a huge ‘what if’ in the lives of the Murphys and weaves that extra dimension into their story. Told from multiple perspectives it’s the story of how the relationships shift within the marriage as Gerald develops a bond with Owen. While much of the book is a story of excess and glamour Gerald Murphy’s character is torn by the duality of his love life and as the Depression hits so very personal tragedies take their toll on the Murphys. It’s not a story with a happy ending!

Gerald became an artist during his time in France and it’s been interesting to see some of the paintings referred to in the book. Of course having read the book first I have to remind myself that the pictures existed before the author started the book and not the other way round! And Sara herself was something of a muse for Picasso.

Yet another book that sends me off in a new direction for my reading, I should add Tender is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have based the characters of Dick and Nicole Diver on the Murphy’s) and the couple are also possibly referenced by Hemingway in The Garden of Eden. I should probably also go back to Mrs Hemingway  to see how this perspective fits with Villa America.

An enjoyable read and one ideal for reading on a hot and sunny beach.

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Blood Orange – Harriet Tyce

Title – Blood Orange

Author – Harriet Tyce

Published – Feb 2019

Genre – Crime fiction

This is one of the few review copies I’ve picked up this year (good news for my TBR), one of the books I picked up at the Headline New Voices event in Bristol.

I’ve categorised it as ‘crime fiction’ but it’s a gripping mix of domestic noir and legal, and unusually for me I read it in just one day.

Alison is one of those women who seem to be commonplace in crime fiction at present – a woman who appears to have it all (career, husband, daughter, illicit boyfriend) but treats it all quite carelessly. A self-destructive barrister, she realises that she drinks too much but despite swearing off the booze and being given her first murder case she fails to get her excesses under control.

The murder case isn’t the main plot but provides an interesting additional thread. The case means working with her boyfriend, a man who treats her abhorrently but seems to be another vice that she can’t give up. They are to defend an alleged murderer, Miranda, who is accused of stabbing her husband to death while he slept. Initially there seems to be little doubt that the accused woman murdered her husband but as they prise the details of their relationship out of her it becomes clear that the relationship was an abusive one, and Alison begins to see some similarities between Miranda’s experience and her own.

Against the backdrop of the case Alison’s home life begins to deteriorate and neither her husband nor her boyfriend seem to have a positive influence on her. She is frustrating when you know that she is making a bad decision (there are a lot) or she gets herself into  an unpleasant situation (there are some real ‘eww’ moments) but there is something about her that makes you want to stick with her despite the frustration.

As is often the case where the main character is drinking too much they and those around them all become unreliable narrators and this gives an underlying tension to the plot and to all Alison’s interactions. She perhaps doesn’t realise that people around her are untrustworthy but the reader certainly sees the possibility, even if it isn’t the case.

As Alison’s relationships fail her domestic issues reach a climax and the case against Miranda heads to court. Things didn’t pan out as I expected which I was pleasantly surprised by but they do take a dark turn.

I’m not a fan of books where you’re supposed to dislike the main character but there is something about Alison, perhaps a vulnerability that the writer has given her, that made me want to not only stick with the book but also made me want to root for her. I can’t say that this was an enjoyable read but it did have me gripped. Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The Last Hours – Minette Walters

Title – The Last Hours

Author – Minette Walters

Published – 2017

Genre – Historical Fiction

I’m a huge Minette Walters fan so The Last Hours was a book I didn’t want to miss out on reading. A departure from her crime novels this is historical fiction where the bulk of the bodycount comes from the Black Death rather than murder (note I said bulk…).

Set in 1348 the book opens as the Black Death is starting its horrific journey across the country. The main location is Develish, an estate in Dorset where the absence of the Lord of the manor forces his wife, the young Lady Anne, to take control in order to protect the serfs who live on their land.

Lady Anne is a progressive woman for her time, having introduced changes (despite her boorish husband) which have seen the health and productivity of their lands improve. She quickly understands the necessity for isolation and brings all two hundred serfs within the moated walls of the estate. This sets up a situation where tempers are sure to fray and conflicts arise.

The death of a young man leads to a small expedition beyond the confines of the estate and this adds more tension to the story. The parts of the book where the action takes place outside the walls are graphic in their depiction of the Black Death and don’t pull any punches. It’s also one of those situations where the reader knows more than the protagonists about their plight (unless you’ve never heard of the Black Death…).

I’ve seen reviews of the book that describe it as being on a broad canvas but I’m not sure I agree. The isolation of the inhabitants from the rest of the outside world, other than a few dramatic encounters, gives the book a claustrophobic atmosphere and although there are several main characters (Lady Anne, her spoilt brat of a daughter Eleanor, Thaddeus Thurkell, a man pilloried for being a bastard) the core story is very much ‘the Black Death came to our door, this is what we did’ rather than deal with the developments beyond the estate.

I think the book has quite a slow pace but I enjoyed the description of the more day-to-day events and the development of the main characters that this allowed. Some of the characters were better developed than others – the priest, for example, felt like quite a caricature, but the demands the new situations put on Thaddeus provided an opportunity for his character to grow through the course of the story.

I’m not sure how realistic the portrayal of Lady Anne is and whether there are any examples of women who took on these leading roles in their estates, but her character is the one that ties all of the story together and she is the one who sets the moral standards in things like equality.

A very enjoyable read but a little disappointing that it obviously goes straight into the sequel so I did feel I’d been left in suspense a little at the end.

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The Chalk Man – C J Tudor

Title – The Chalk Man

Author – C J Tudor

Published – Jan 2018

Genre – Crime fiction

I had heard so many plaudits for this debut that I treated myself to a copy. It’s marketed heavily on similarities to Stephen King but to me it didn’t feel like ‘horror’, which is how most people think of King, it’s more like ‘Stand By Me’ – a coming of age story.

In the 1980s a group of friends are kicking their heels during the school holidays in a small town on the south coast of England. Eddie is one of the friends, now a 42 year old teacher still living in his parents’ house but with the addition of a young female lodger, and is the narrator of the events that took place thirty years previously. He’s received a mysterious letter (and if I’m honest I can’t remember if we ever found out what was in it) which sends ripples through the present and brings to the fore the events that took place thirty years ago. The events took the group from spending their pocket money at fairgrounds, building dens and riding their bikes, to a fractured group who mistrust each other.

Switching between the two timelines we have events unfolding in the 1980s where there is a surprisingly high body count and the present where Eddie is forced to face, and try to unravel, things that the friends hoped they could put behind them.

It’s an interesting way of telling the story, as a reader you wonder at each event ‘is this the one?’ and there are several possible candidates for being the ‘Chalk Man’ so it makes for an intriguing read. Eddie has some problems of his own and you realise fairly early on that he may not be the most reliable of narrators, he certainly is choosy about what he shares with the reader and when. The time slip aspect also gives an interesting feeling about the differences in perception that somewhat naive teens have versus more worldly wise adults. If all this isn’t enough there is also a more touching side of the story as Eddie describes his father’s decline with dementia. As is often the way with debuts, there are a lot of different things packed into the one book.

I liked the characters, you could see how the group would exist as friends and how the personalities fitted together. It’s also interesting to read about them in their school years and then jump ahead to find out what became of them as adults. It all felt very credible and authentic.

I enjoyed the writing and read the book over just a few days but I think there are some aspects where I got swept along with the writing and events may have seemed implausible if they had been given more scrutiny.

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The Whisper Man – Alex North

Title – The Whisper Man

Author – Alex North

Published – June 2019

Genre – Crime fiction

I picked this proof copy up when I attended the Michael Joseph Proof Party at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in October. All three participating authors gave a short reading from their books and this gave a real flavour of how creepy The Whisper Man would be. It was also one of the more frightening literary events I’ve been to because it was easy to believe we were all going to be blown away, marquee and all, the evening was so windy!

There is an odd issue with this book that I’m not sure how to address. The panel was three ‘debut’ authors but having been to a number of crime fiction events I am in no doubt that this isn’t a debut and actually is from a very well-respected crime author. It seems an odd pretence by the publisher (presumably a new relationship with this author) but hey ho.

So to the book. It definitely lived up to the creepy vibe I got at the panel. After the death of his wife,  Tom Kennedy and his young son Jake move to the sleepy village of Featherbank, looking for a fresh start, unaware that Featherbank has a dark past. Fifteen years ago a twisted serial killer abducted and murdered five young boys. Until he was finally caught, the killer was known as ‘The Whisper Man’.

Tom is struggling with his new status as a widower and the sole care of his son and Jake is still traumatised by the events around his mother’s death. The strains within the household seem to be divisive and Jake retreats into a world where he talks to ‘imaginary friends’ but then Jake knows things that he shouldn’t, disturbing things.

At the same time another young boy has disappeared, opening up old wounds for the original investigating officer who is called in to help with similarities to the original case. He is a man haunted by the fact that one of the boys was never found. This provides a second strand to the story as we find out more about the man who was convicted of the original deaths while the police try to find the missing child before the worst happens.

This is crime fiction with a bit of a twist (no, not that kind of twist). It has a psychological / supernatural element which isn’t in itself unusual but it does feel different that the main character is a a single father. There are plenty of women who find themselves as a lead character in this kind of drama but it doesn’t feel as if men do very often.

If I have one criticism it is how unremittingly creepy the book is. The tension feels really constant in Tom and Jake’s part of the story and I think if there had been more scenes that weren’t so tense they would have provided a good contrast and emphasised the ‘creepiness’.

I liked Tom as the main character, his story is in the first person and he has a very authentic sounding voice and it’s good to see a lead character with some depth and emotion rather than being a ‘tough guy’. The crime aspects are set against a background about family and loss but from this slightly unusual perspective.

I did find the story gripping and didn’t get the ‘whodunnit’, and did I mention it was creepy?

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Destroying Angel – S. G. MacLean

Title – Destroying Angel

Author – S. G. MacLean

Published – July 2018

Genre – Historical fiction

This is the sequel to The Black Friar and is the third in the ‘Seeker’ series.

It’s 1655 and Seeker has been sent to a small village on the North York Moors, asked to distribute orders demanding ever more restrictions on behaviour in new anti-Royalist laws. As an aside he is also tasked with tracking down a Royalist supporter who may have gone to ground in this, his family’s seat. What starts out as two simple tasks soon draws Seeker into hotbed of intrigue.

He starts his task by accepting an invitation to eat with the family of local businessman and local Commissioner, Matthew Pullan. It transpires that the village is in a state of fervent excitement as the following day The Trier (enforcer of Puritan morality for the villages) is due to sit to hear an accusation that the local vicar is accused of ungodly acts. The strained dinner highlights some of the resentments bubbling beneath the surface of the village and then one of the attendees becomes seriously unwell.

Seeker takes only a passing interest in events, pursuing his search for the missing Royalist, until the point when a young woman dies and he subsequently realises that events in the village have a very personal and unexpected connection to him. This gives rise to a variety of threads within the story – the search for the missing man, a murder investigation and a personal quest – all against a backdrop of suspicion, allegations, and petty power struggles.

The period is one where neighbour turns against neighbour and a small accusation can have huge repercussions. It’s also a time when the accusation of ‘witch’ can be a dangerous one and women need to be circumspect in how they appear. So the village is a tense place.

The personal side of the story is a very important one for Seeker and goes someway to explaining the dark character that readers will be familiar with. He is still not a man to be trifled with but his sense of decency shows through when he pursues an investigation onto the death of a young girl when there is no expectation on him to do so.

This story had less espionage than its predecessor and was more of a conventional murder mystery, the larger political picture also took a back seat to the ‘micro’ politics of the villages. The historical detail felt well-researched and certainly provided an immersive experience of the period. The book definitely would work without having read the previous title but it’s a good series that’s worth seeking out.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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