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The Long Call – Ann Cleeves

91NnYUCQyaLTitle – The Long Call

Author – Ann Cleeves

Published – September 2019

Genre – Crime fiction

It can’t be easy to embark on a new series with new characters when you’re already known for two really successful ones (Vera and Jimmy Perez/Shetland) but if Ann Cleeves had any worries then, in my view, they were unfounded.

The main character in the new series is Matthew Venn, a Detective Inspector based on the North Devon coast. He’s a quiet, thoughtful character, something of a contrast to both Vera and Perez. His parents raised him in a strict evangelical community that he rebelled against in his teens, but he’s returned to the area he grew up in and as the plot unfolds he has to face some of the events and people from his past.

A body is discovered on the shore not far from Venn’s own home, the victim is a man with a complex past and it takes some time for the team to unravel where he came from and who he is. The first witness to come forward with information is a young girl with Down’s Syndrome who attends The Woodyard, an arts and crafts community hub that incorporates a day centre for adults with learning difficulties. The Woodyard is run by Venn’s husband, ensuring the story centres around a confined group of characters.

The location of the book was one of those odd moments of synchronicity. I had just started the book when I had a weekend away in Devon and we drove to Staunton, driving through Barnstaple, across the rivers (the series is the ‘Two Rivers’) and through Baunton which features in the story. As with her other series the location is important to the story but nothing beats being able to go ‘I know where that is’ when you’re reading.

The story is quite a slow one and is more character-led than action, in some ways it has the sensibilities of ‘cosy crime’ but in others it’s unflinching in the issues it confronts. It would be hard to read it and not notice the diversity of the characters but it didn’t feel as if any of them didn’t have the right to their place in the book or felt shoe-horned in.

If you follow my blog you will know that UK police procedurals are my favourite sub-genre of crime fiction and I’m thrilled that this didn’t disappoint. Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The Silver Road – Stina Jackson

Title – The Silver Road

Author Stina Jackson (translated by Susan Beard)

Published – 2019

Genre – Crime fiction

This is a compelling and darkly atmospheric debut with a seamless translation by Susan Beard.

In a remote part of Northern Sweden middle-aged teacher Lelle spends the long summer nights searching The Silver Road – the main road linking the remote villages – for his teenage daughter. Three years ago he left her at a bus stop early one morning and she hasn’t been seen since, he makes the most of the midnight sun to explore the fringes of the road for any trace of her.

While he is doing this, teenage Meja moves to the area with her mother, Silje. They have come to live with a man her mother met online and Meja hopes that this will finally be the relationship her mother has been looking for.  It quickly becomes apparent that Silje has a whole host of problems, which may explain their previously rootless life. The isolation of the location is something new for Meja, who is keen to escape from her mother’s way of life, but nevertheless she manages to make friends with some young men who work on a nearby farm.

The two threads connect when autumn arrives and the school year begins, Lelle has to stop his search and return to teaching at the school where Meja is now a pupil.

It’s a slow burn of a book, but that is something you should expect from Nordic Noir. Lelle’s desperation is captured through the slow nights of his search and the seemingly futile efforts of the police. The setting is atmospheric and there is a dark intensity to the story that keeps you reading despite the lack of action. I liked the characters of Lelle and Meja, and as a flawed lead Lelle might have fitted into some recognisable stereotypes but there was nothing formulaic about him.

An unusual and compelling read. Many thanks to the publisher for the Netgalley.

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The Mausoleum – David Mark

Title – The Mausoleum

Author – David Mark

Published – February 2019

Genre – Historical crime fiction

A departure from David Mark’s successful Aetor McAvoy series, this an historical mystery set in the late 1960s.

In a small village in the Scottish borders two women are thrown together when a storm of epic proportions forces them to flee the weather. As they dash from the graveyard they were in  lightning strikes and a tree splits open an old tomb, revealing a body, a body which is dressed in a suit and isn’t the dusty bones they would have expected. They make it to the house of one of the women, Felicity, and at the height of the storm her neighbour, Fairfax, stops by. When they tell him about the incident he rushes off to look but never returns. When the storm passes, the body has vanished and the authorities refuse to believe their claims.

The women strike up an unlikely friendship, one that both of them need. Cordelia has a murky past with many secrets but the recent loss of her small son has plunged her into a dark grief that has shut her off from everyone and everything.  She is much more a modern woman than Felicity, one who is more likely to embrace the freedoms that the 1960s will offer her. Felicity is a woman who is stoical, doesn’t shed a tear and just gets on with things, not that that’s how she really feels. As the two women both make a tentative start on their own investigations into what they saw they are drawn together to forge a friendship – particulalry under the pressure of those who would rather they stopped asking questions.

The book owes something to ‘scandi noir’ – a remote location, a main character (Cordelia) who is an outsider, repercussions from a war that people are trying to put behind them and unrelenting bad weather. In fact the hottest day of the year was the perfect time to read this, so permanently sodden were all the characters.
In common with Mark’s other books he shows a deft touch in making his characters realistic and Cordelia and Felicity are well drawn, two completely different characters who complement each other in their friendship. The tentative way that their friendship starts also feels very realistic. He also has a real feel for the period and it was easy to picture him talking about the homes of my grandmothers.

This was an excellent mystery, an insight into the friendship of the two women and a reminder of the social norms of the period (and how things have changed). If I were to draw any parralllels I’d say a cross between Exposure by Helen Dunmore and the TV series The Bletchley Circle.

Thank you to the publisher for the NetGalley. You can see another point of view on The Puzzle Doctor’s blog.

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Blood & Sugar – Laura Shepherd-Robinson

81+E4V5p1LLTitle – Blood & Sugar

Author – Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Published – January 2019

Genre – Historical Fiction

This is a debut by Laura Shepherd-Robinson,  a murder mystery set within the landscape of the slavery trade.

In June 1781 an unidentified and mutilated body is found hanging at Deptford Dock, branded with a slaver’s mark. When Captain Harry Corsham is asked to investigate the disappearance of old friend and committed abolitionist Tad Archer he is drawn into the dangerous world of Britain’s slaving industry.

What follows is an atmospheric and immersive mystery that plunges Corsham into the dark heart of the slaving port of Deptford – a place that bears little resemblance to the modern day area of London. As he tries to uncover what became of his old friend he enters a community keen to protect its secrets and profits.

One interesting approach within the story is the shades of grey that lie between the slavers and the slaves and abolitionists, not all matters are as cut and dried as they might appear. And as ‘freedom’ is a theme in the story, Corsham has his own secrets and has something in common with those who have made an ‘accommodation’ to get by.

In starting the book I did wonder if I’ve read anything else set in the same period and wondered why not – is it me that’s missed a swathe of historical fiction or is it not seen as being suitable fictional setting?

In a way this is quite a topical book, it would be difficult to watch the TV news and not notice the language used by some politicians to describe groups of people. While we might not be about to embark on a new era of slavery it does make it easy to see how the treatment of groups of people, to their detriment, can be sanctioned by those in power.  It’s also timely as people rethink the modern day links to those who pursued and profited from slavery.

It’s disturbing to find that the incident at the heart of the investigation is based on real events and it’s perhaps easier to take in the horrors of the trade in reading this mystery than in trying to read a more objective non-fiction telling. It’s always a positive to learn from the fiction you read!

A fascinating, dark and atmospheric read with a convoluted mystery at its heart. Many thanks to the publisher for the NetGalley.

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Out of the Ashes – Vicky Newham

Title – Out of the Ashes

Author – Vicky Newham

Published – 30 May 2019

Genre – Crime fiction

This is the second outing for Detective Inspector Maya Rahman following on from Vicky Newham’s debut ‘Turn a Blind Eye‘ last year.

In the heart of Brick Lane a flash mob gets people dancing in the street, only for a sudden explosion to replace the excitement with terror. A frantic phone call brings Maya to the scene which turns out to have been a fire at an upmarket soup shop. Inside the gutted building are two bodies, arson becomes murder, but while the identity of one victim is clear who is the second?

As the investigation unfolds it draws Maya back to her own past, she grew up in the location and alongside some of the characters central to the case. In pursuing it she is prompted to deal with some of the issues that she and her family have avoided, including the disappearance of her own father.

I preferred the plot of this story to its predecessor, where the first book followed more of a serial killer route this story felt more true to life (I know – it’s all fiction really!).  The story starts with the single incident and the subsequent direction of the plot is driven by this. The ‘race against time’ aspect is in controlling the fallout from the initial incident – and there is plenty to keep them busy. The detectives have a lot of questions to answer – who is the mysterious second victim, were the victims deliberately killed, who is behind the mysterious anti-gentrification group,  does the diverse ethnicity of the location have a bearing?

The book is told from two main perspectives – Maya’s and her colleague Dan’s – both giving insights into the development of the police investigation and the characters of the detectives. In Maya’s case there’s perhaps less focus on her backstory than in the first book, but her character and her life beyond the investigation form an important core to the story.

While it might appear to some people that the author has perhaps tried too hard to include as many different ethnicities as possible, anyone who has walked down Brick Lane will easily recognise the landscape, which is vividly depicted. And while it may be the heart of the city’s Bangladeshi community it is a hugely diverse location with the new and the old sitting cheek by jowl – it’s surprising more authors don’t use the setting.

A topical novel which deals with issues it’s easy to spot on London’s streets, the social commentary is woven into an intriguing mystery with some strong and memorable characters. I’m definitely looking forward to finding out more about Maya’s story. Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The Craftsman – Sharon Bolton

81ofF+-8H-LTitle – The Craftsman

Author – Sharon Bolton

Published – 2018

Genre – Crime fiction

I’ve been a fan Sharon Bolton’s books since I read Sacrifice, I missed The Craftsman when it was published so picked it up on an offer in (whispers) Tesco.

The story is told across two timelines. The book opens in the present (1999) with a dramatic scene in a graveyard, as it transpires a location that has some prominence within the story; it’s the funeral of Larry Glassbrook – former casket (or coffin) maker and convicted child-murder. The story is told in the first person by Florence Lovelady, now an Assistant Commissioner in the police, who has returned to the place, and the case, where her career was made. She and her teenage son are staying in the village for a couple of nights which seems to be in order bring some closure for her. As the day of the funeral unfolds the disturbing and chilling details of the death of the final teenager to die are revealed and it becomes clear why Glassbrook was so reviled.

While in Sabden Lovelady takes a trip to Glassbrook’s house, where she roomed as a WPC when she was in the local police,  while there she makes a discovery that makes her wonder if Glassbrook acted alone and implies that she may now be a target.

The story then skips back to 1969, the disappearence of the teenagers and the investigation to find them. This is a ‘Life on Mars’ type of leap, where the male-dominated force didn’t take kindly to any input from a woman, WPC or not. Sabden is a villlage in the shadow of the infamous Pendle Hill and not a welcoming one for the young Flossie Lovelady. So Lovelady is an outsider in lots of ways but seems to be the brightest person on the force – picking up on clues no-one else spots and eventually becoming a target herself. The location isn’t used by chance – the connection to the Pendle witches and the history of witchcraft is an important one and Lovelady herself finds a connection to some of the women in the local coven.

As the case is resolved the story moves back to 1999, Lovelady’s opened old wounds and yet again finds herself at the centre of the action.

I found the events of the case in 1969 a little flatter than most of Bolton’s police procedurals. It’s not a fault in the writing but a result of the structure of the story – giving the end of the investigation and the solution to disappearences upfront means that the opportunities for tension and jeopardy were reduced. Afterall, however damaged Florence may now be in 1999 we know that she survived whatever came her way.

The real tension and the real ‘creepy’ aspect of the story came towards the end of the book when the timeline returns to 1999 and Florence decides to pursue the idea that the case wasn’t resolved correctly.  There is one scene when she is in a house in the dark at night that I found particulalry tense!

Even if this was a little slower in the middle than I would have liked it was still an enjoyable (if dark) story. Lovelady was an engaging main character although she could be frustrating and behave inconsistently at times – but then we can all be a bit like that! The setting and the hints of witchcraft are used with quite a light touch, particularly at the beginning of the book – I can be quite critical of the use of supernatural elements in crime fiction but nothing here felt out of place.

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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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