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Salt Lane – William Shaw

Title – Salt Lane

Author – William Shaw

Published – May 2018

Genre – Crime fiction

My favourite ‘sub-genre’ of crime fiction is the traditional UK police procedural and over the past few months I’ve read a few of these – Salt Lane is the first review up but to follow is the 7th McAvoy novel by David Mark and the second DC Childs by Sarah Ward. I know not everyone is a fan of this type of series but I like the conventional framework that the procedural uses, the feeling of seeing behind the scenes and the framework usually provides a resolution towards the end- something important to me in crime fiction.

Within the sub-genre there are obviously different approaches to the story, the involvement of external characters (both within the police and outside) and the treatment of the main detective / policeman – are they painted as a maverick and/or with a drink problem, rocky personal life etc. etc?  Modern crime fiction shows this isn’t always a given and the characters can be more nuanced. Although William Shaw’s lead detective in Salt Lane is actually anything but.

Introduced in The Birdwatcher, DS Alexandra Cupidi is new to the Kent area having transferred from London, the reason being the subject of gossip in the police station. She’s quite a character – forceful, not backwards at coming forwards, dogged, determined, somewhat lacking in grace and finesse and perhaps a little lonely.

There are a number of threads to the story but the opening one with a case of mistaken identity was intriguing. There are two main investigations, one following the discovery of an unidentified woman in a watery grave close to the Salt Lane of the title. The other is the death of a young man in a farm’s slurry pit, beaten before his death, his age and appearance leading the investigation towards illegal immigrants and then on to the possibilities of people-smuggling, drugs and groups of migrant workers. As the two main plots unfold the potential connections between events becomes apparent and not in a way I could have guessed at. The investigations are a team effort and special mention must go to her colleague Constable Ferriter who provides quite a contrast to Cupidi’s character.

This is a perfect example of crime fiction helping to illuminate an issue that most readers might not be aware of (I’m not going to say which issue it is). It’s achieved by ‘showing’ during the course of the story rather than a lot of ‘telling’ in explanation and I think this helps to bring the issues to life for the reader. As with The Birdwatcher the sense of place is captured really effectively and as well as being atmospheric the landscape also plays an important part in the story.

Despite the quite domestic setting there are plenty of action sequences and tension in the plot and some quite thrilling chase sequences across the Kent landscape. Someone’s poor judgement in one of the earlier action sequences adds to the mix by prompting an internal investigation so there really is plenty going on.

Cupidi’s personal life is fleshed out and her relationships with her daughter and her mother play an important part in the book, providing some of the drama as well as filling out some of Cupidi’s backstory.

I did enjoy the contrast of Cupidi and the irascible William South in The Birdwatcher and that’s perhaps what, if anything,  I was missing in this book. While Cupidi is a great main character and there were other colleagues and family members who populated the book they didn’t provide the same sharp contrast that South did.

A really enjoyable read.

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Fools and Mortals – Bernard Cornwell

Title – Fools and Mortals

Author – Bernard Cornwell

Published – 2016

Genre – Historical Fiction

If you follow my blog you’ll know that I’m a fan of Bernard Cornwell (with the exception of the Sharpe series) and a standalone novel is a huge treat when I don’t have to remember detail from a lot of preceding books in a series.

With this book the period is Elizabethan England and the location is London; it’s set around the rivalry between an established theatre company and a new company that needs good scripts to appeal to a large audience so they can recoup their costs. The main character is a young man who is part of the long-running theatre company, an impoverished actor, making ends meet through a combination of a pretty face and a side-line in petty theft. Used to playing female roles he wants to move on to take on male roles and disillusionment with his current company makes him a target for an offer that he may not be able to refuse. This isn’t the only thread and the backdrop to the story are the preparations for the performance of a new play for a courtier and the company’s rehearsals. This introduces an interesting take on the development of a very famous play.

I have to say that I really enjoyed this book even though it had a lot less action than is usual in one of Cornwell’s books and it has a very ‘contained’ plot, which could even have been just a short story. However, despite these differences from  – I was really drawn in. The writing is evocative and I got a real sense of what Elizabethan London was like, from the smell of the streets to the political rivalries which affected people’s everyday lives.

I really liked the main character, the multiple threads kept my interest despite the more narrow plot and there were a few action sequences squeezed. It might feel as if it has a slow start as there’s lots of scene setting but I actually found all of the background – both the details and the broader setting – really interesting.

As with much of his historical fiction a number of the characters are based on real people and some of the events did take place. I enjoyed the fact this book didn’t have the memoir style of storytelling to it however it did have some aspects that the reader probably already knows about, so there is still an element of foreknowledge but it gives you a take on how these real life events may have panned out.

A different read from the other historical novels by Cornwell but nonetheless enjoyable.

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Thin Ice – Quentin Bates

Title – Thin Ice

Author – Quentin Bates

Published – 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

It’s good to see that while Quentin Bates is forging a new career as a translator of Icelandic fiction he has also managed to find time to continue writing his ‘Officer Gunnhildur’ series. Thin Ice is the fifth book in the series, and although it was a while since I’d read a story from the series I didn’t feel as if I’d forgotten anything important and I’m sure this would read well as a standalone.

When two petty criminals (Magni and Ossi) fail to find their getaway driver after robbing one of Reykjavik’s main drug dealers they need an alternative escape route and the solution is to hijack a car forcing the woman driver and her daughter (Erna and Tinna Lund) to assist them.

As the story unfolds it’s something of a comedy of errors as, without a plan, the car runs out of petrol and they are forced to keep improvising. The relationship between the two men is strained and as one steps up to the challenges it’s not perhaps the one you expect. Taking the hostages isn’t their finest move and the characters of the two women start to impact on their plans – especially the budding relationship between Magni and Tinna Lind.

The story switches between the criminals and their efforts to escape to the sun  and Gunna and her colleagues who are investigating the death of a thief in a house fire and the disappearance of a mother and her daughter on a shopping trip (who could that be??). It’s interesting reading the story from both perspectives.

One of the joys of Bates’ writing is Gunna and her family. Her home life never seems to be on an even keel but she deals with whatever life throws at her with equanimity. She certainly doesn’t fit in with any of the cliches of the traditional detective in crime fiction, other than her dogged determination to get to the bottom of a mystery. Having said that you could read the book as a standalone, if you haven’t read the previous books you will have missed some of the key developments in Gunna’s life, and the development of the relationships that are important to her, which would be a shame.

An enjoyable and atmospheric read with a thrilling climax this is much less depressing than more conventional  ‘Icelandic Noir’.

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Spectacles – Sue Perkins

Title – Spectacles

Author – Sue Perkins

Published – 2015

Genre – Memoir

This is one of a few books I’ve read recently which falls outside my normal crime fiction reading. This was a book I had particularly fancied reading as I have a fondness for Sue (and Mel) and although I watch the ‘new’ Bakeoff I still miss their ability to lighten the tense and tearful moments for the contestants. She always appears to be one of those genuinely nice and positive people and having read Spectacles I can’t see anything to cast doubt on this.

Although it’s ‘A Memoir’ Sue manages the reader’s expectations from the start by offering a disclaimer that she has taken some liberties with the narrative to increase the comedy and “I have amplified my more positive characteristics in an effort to make you like me.”. Which probably makes for a more entertaining read – and in places it really is laugh out loud funny.

The book charts the time from her upbringing in Croydon to 2012 and her participation in World’s Most Dangerous Roads, with Liza Tarbuck, driving along the Ho Chi Minh Trail – something I must have missed at the time and now feel the need to find and watch.

As well as being funny, and gently humorous the book also has some very touching parts including her father’s diagnosis with cancer. And if you are in a public place you should skip over ‘A letter to Pickle’ until you are somewhere away from other people and have a box of tissues to hand…

Of course, as the book charts Sue’s childhood, time at Cambridge and career progression and there are less traumatic highs and lows – not all her decisions are good ones but that’s the benefit of hindsight. What I found slightly odd was the things that weren’t mentioned. I’m not sure if there was something self-effacing about this (others would have made more of being Footlights President) and more serious issues that are glossed over (an accident to an eye as a child) but it did feel a little odd.

Nevertheless, for all the liberties that the author took I do feel as if I was reading about the person I though I knew from her TV appearances, even though she is someone who tends to keep out of the spotlight rather than seek it.

18th October sees the publication of the next ‘instalment’ East of Croydon – I’ll definitely be adding a copy to my Christmas wishlist.

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The Evolution of Fear – Paul E Hardisty

816qpyYSM1LTitle – The Evolution of Fear

Author – Paul E Hardisty

Published – 2016

Genre –  Thriller

Claymore Straker is back and I regret that I left it so long before picking up this second book by Paul Hardisty. The story picks up just a few months from the end of The Abrupt Physics of Dying and starts off with an action sequence as a reminder of how thrilling Hardisty’s writing is.

Straker’s cover seems to be blown and he may have been betrayed by one of the few people he can trust. He flees his safe house on the coast of Cornwall in a thrilling sequence that will have you holding your breath.

When he recovers from his flight from England he tries to track down Rania, the woman he loves. Unable to speak to her, he follows a trail which leads him to Istanbul and although he finds her he quickly loses her again. A twist in the story see Straker separated from Rania and unsure if she still wants anything to do with him. While he tries to unravel the truth behind the story she has been working on (she is a journalist) he is still a fugitive with a considerable price on his head.

Having moved from the setting of Yemen and the environmental issues of the first book, there is a different issue at the heart of this book – the destruction of the habitats of sea turtles on Cyprus. But of course at the centre it’s still human greed and rival factions trying to make the most profit they can, ignoring the human or environmental cost.

Straker plays the male lead to the full, battered and bruised but ever resourceful. In this second book we find out more about the incident that drives him and for which he perpetually feels that he needs to make amends for. As with the first book Rania’s character is important as a driver for him but she’s not someone we really get to know.

As with its predecessor this wraps fast-paced action-packed writing around a heart which wants to see justice done, whatever the cost. Another thrilling read and I must now dig out the next book in the series! Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The Dark Angel – Elly Griffiths

Title – The Dark Angel

Author – Elly Griffiths

Published – Feb 2018

Genre – Crime fiction / Mystery

I’m someone who is committed to reading series in order but the Ruth Galloway books by Elly Griffiths are one of a few exceptions to this rule. I’ve read the first book and read and reviewed the fourth and oddly still have book 5 on my TBR, but I couldn’t resist starting on book 10 when it arrived. Although I felt I’d missed out a little in not having read the intervening books, there is enough background that you could pick this up without having read any others in the series.

Italian archaeologist and TV presenter Professor Angelo Morelli asks Ruth to help him after a television recording of a dig suffers an unexpected problem. In need of a holiday, Ruth agrees to take the opportunity to exchange Norfolk for a hilltop village outside Rome, if only briefly, so she and her friend Shona and their children travel out to stay with Morelli.

There are multiple threads to the story. As well as the initial dig, Morelli believes that his life is in danger, supported by some mysterious happenings, then Ruth discovers the body of a local man in the village church. There are some dark secrets within the village that date back to the Nazis and WWII which are bubbling under the surface. To complicate matters Ruth and Morelli had a one night stand when she was in Rome for a conference some twelve years before, which Ruth remembers fondly although she’s unsure of his intentions towards her or what she wants.

There was more of the story given over to Nelson and his point of view than I remember in previous books. Both he and Ruth and Nelson’s wife have got their lives into quite a mess. There is a potential threat to Nelson as a man he put away for killing his wife and children in a fire has recently been released from prison. However an earthquake in Italy prompts Nelson (and Cathbad) to join the ladies in Italy where he’s a fish out of water, although it does allow him to spend some ‘family’ time with Ruth and Kate.

I did enjoy the book but this was definitely more of a summer read than a gritty crime drama, and I’m not sure that the all of the questions raised were answered. The change of location offers sunny days, lots of wine consumption and Italian hospitality. Ruth is a lovely character whose life is becoming more and more complicated as the series progresses although she’s not changed much in the last ten books – still feeling like a middle-aged klutz, despite the men who seem to be perpetually in tow.

An enjoyable read if you enjoy a mix of Italian atmosphere and romance with your forensic archaeology. Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The Burning Land – Bernard Cornwell

Title – The Burning Land

Author – Bernard Cornwell

Published – 2009

Genre – Historical Fiction

I’ve been a fan of Bernard Cornwell’s for a long time (although oddly not the Sharpe series) but have fallen well and truly behind. He was writing (with the exception of Sharpe) standalones or trilogies but now some of the other series I was reading seem to be without end.

I bought this book in hardback when it was published so it’s been sitting around for a while but the longer I’ve left it the more difficult it’s been to pick it up. It’s bad enough coming back to an action series when it’s been a year between books but the longer I left it the more daunting it seemed. I should have remembered that I would be swept up in the action!

The Burning Land is the fifth historical novel in The Saxon Stories which follows Uhtred of Bebbanburg and his quest to return to his ancestral home. Told in the first person and narrated as a memoir this book is set around 892 and the opening starts quite slowly as, acting on Alfred’s behalf, Uhtred is in Kent to pay off a Dane to get him to leave. The action ramps up quite quickly as he then turns his hand to finding a way to remove Jarl Harald Bloodhair from Wessex. I was surprised to realise, and wonder if it’s always been the case, that the battles are as much about Uhtred’s ingenuity as they are about brute force. The story is what you expect from Cornwell – action-packed, fast-paced, spanning the length and breadth of the country and so full of detail that you can almost see, hear and smell the place for yourself.

There is one thing which I really dislike about Cornwell’s writing and this is something I should complain about less as I get further behind but it’s the fact that as a ‘memoir’ you know that the narrator survives to tell the tale. So while there may be some tension about how events will unfold you can be pretty certain that the main character isn’t going to perish in the middle of a shield wall. But not content with this Cornwell drops in remarks like “never to see xyz again” or “that was a decision I would regret” which tells me more than I want to know. I appreciate this supports the memoir style but it’s not an aspect I like.

Anyway my worries about picking the series up after so long were unfounded, either there’s an explanation of who people are and what their connection is or it doesn’t really matter, the action swept me along and I’ve even picked up book 6 to read already.

Score – 4/5