5Star2014

If I Should Die – Matthew Frank

If I Should DieTitle – If I Should Die

Author – Matthew Frank

Published – 5 June 2014

Genre – Crime fiction

I was lucky enough to meet Matthew at the Penguin Crime evening and had another opportunity to talk to him at Crimefest in May, where I also saw him on the “Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock: Ramping Up The Tension ” panel. Since I started reviewing books for my blog it’s become apparent that a lot of new authors have some background in writing – whether it be through journalism, copywriting or teaching, so it’s refreshing to meet someone who comes from a different background (he’s actually an architect).

If I Should Die introduces us to Trainee Detective Constable Joseph Stark, newly discharged from the Territorial Army on medical grounds following a firefight in Helmand. And in that sentence are two key aspects that set this apart from many other police procedurals. The first is that I can’t remember a book where the main character has been a trainee detective – which has some interesting implications. It means that Stark has limitations on what role he can play in an investigation which is balanced by a lack of responsibility. Not that Stark is a man to take his duties lightly, after all he is from a background that demanded that he took orders without question.

The second aspect is an unusual twist on the clichéd ‘flawed detective’. His backstory is intriguing and contrasts with the more mundane nature of crime in south London. The background from his time in the forces gradually comes out through the course book and as with The Last Refuge his nightmares give the reader a glimpse into his past. It’s clear that he is hiding something and there is a sub-plot which involves some unfinished business from his military service.

Stark’s first investigation begins with some fairly run-of-the-mill attacks on the local homeless (local being Greenwich) which have been carried out by a notorious gang of youths. From this inauspicious start the attacks escalate and Stark’s involvement develops. One of the real positives from this book is how credible the crime element remains throughout. The investigative part of the book is very detailed and I particularly liked the fact that the story didn’t end at the point where charges were brought, but carried on all the way through to the court case.

The novel is very much character-led and you can’t go wrong with someone like Stark. He is clearly tough but damaged and comes across as something of an enigma to his colleagues, keeping himself very much to himself. During the course of the book he has to deal with the toll that a return to work takes on his injuries and the treatment that he receives as part of his rehabilitation. There is a temptation for him to turn to drink and drugs to get him through but if he gives in there could be consequences for his new career. The dark mood is lightened, however, by his banter with the ladies – both with Fran, his supervising office and someone he meets during his treatment.

A connection with one of the other characters brings some more political topics to the fore and the author explores some of the issues, both current and historical, regarding the treatment of soldiers during and after service. Although this was in context I thought that it affected the pace of the story.

There is a lot of detail in the book – both in the criminal investigation as well as from Stark’s time in the TA. I have no idea how authentic it all was but it was told incredibly confidently and I found it all fascinating.

A great debut introducing an unusual lead character – I’m looking forward to reading more in the series. Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy. You can see another point of view over at Crime Fiction Lover and you can find the author on Twitter – @M_Frank_Author.

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The Last Refuge – Craig Robertson

Last RefugeTitle – The Last Refuge

Author – Craig Robertson

Published – 22 May 2014

Genre – Crime

I’m not sure that I need to go to the trouble of writing a review for this latest title by Craig Robertson, as I have already given it a one via Twitter. Admittedly that was just a one word review, but the word was ‘stonking’. Whilst it’s not the most informative review I stand by the fact that this is an “exciting, very impressive” book, but I should perhaps expand on that a little.

stonking

This is a departure from Robertson’s earlier series featuring Tony Winter, the police photographer, and takes place on the Faroe Islands. The opening feels like a scene that’s a familiar one in crime fiction – a man who wakes to find that he’s clutching a blood-covered knife with no idea how it got there, or whether or not he may have committed a crime. Don’t let this put you off – there’s nothing clichéd about this story.

Turn back the clock three months and John Callum arrives on the Faroe Islands from Scotland. For reasons that are unclear Callum is seeking somewhere remote to take refuge and initially it seems that he has made the right move, until of course he has to find a job to support himself. Gradually he starts to become involved with more people – a job at a fish farm, a few acquaintances in the local bars and a potential romance. But this is where the trouble starts. There is an inherent violence about Callum, something he tries to resist but there are occasions when it erupts, to the surprise of the locals.

Callum’s dreams, or rather nightmares, are interspersed through the story and provide an insight into the events that led him to escape his Scottish home – but it is inevitable that the reader asks themselves how reliable nightmares are. Despite this it’s clear that they never cease to shake Callum, whatever took place in Scotland is something that he has some regrets over, and his mind is torturing him. This all serves to make him an intriguing character – should the reader find him sympathetic without knowing what it is he is running away from? But told in the first person, it’s hard not to be drawn in.

In some ways this is a book of two halves – the first setting the scene and the background, where the mystery is what led Callum to be clutching the bloody knife. The second half is solving the riddle of whether or not he is guilty of the crime in which he is implicated – he doesn’t know and neither does the reader. Once the crime becomes clear then we’re in police procedural / detective territory – and this benefits from some antagonism between the local force and the team called in from Denmark.

The location is a really interesting choice, the isolation, small population and the harsh and varied environment give the book the feel of a ‘Nordic noir’. The bleak and gloomy weather and surroundings matching the dark tone of Callum’s past and the situation that he finds himself in. Seeing the setting through Callum’s eyes, as an outsider, is the perfect way to introduce an unusual location, and all I know about the Faroe Islands I found out from this story. There are some quirks of the Islands that lend themselves very well to the story (or more likely have been cleverly drawn on by the author) and add to the plot.

I thought the plotting was excellent and the way Robertson told Callum’s story was intriguing. I was completely drawn in and have to confess to being baffled about the ‘whodunnit’ aspect for quite some time. An excellent read that I can’t recommend highly enough. I could ramble on for even longer – but I suggest you go out and buy a copy for yourself.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy. You can see another review of this on Emma Lee’s Blog.

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Thursday’s Children – Nicci French

ThursdayschildrenTitle – Thursday’s Children

Author – Nicci French

Published – April 2014

Genre – Crime fiction

This is the fourth outing for psychotherapist Frieda Klein in a series that will total 8 titles. The series is shaping up well now and as I’ve said in previous reviews, the simplest analogy I can draw is that it’s like a popular crime series on TV where there is a long story arc running through, but each episode has its own plot and resolution.

This story touches on Frieda’s personal life when an old school friend (or rather acquaintance) approaches her to help her teenage daughter. The daughter seems troubled, withdrawn, won’t talk to her mother, but grudgingly opens up to Frieda. Having quickly established what has caused the young girl’s sudden personality change Frieda suggests that she makes an arrangement to see a psychologist on a more professional basis.

The girl’s revelation brings back some uncomfortable memories for Frieda and prompts her return home – something which she has managed to avoid for more than twenty years.  She becomes driven to resolve a very personal incident from her past and embarks on a her own investigation into the event from her teenage years. This involves her tracking down a small cast of characters from her schooldays – both fellow pupils and teachers.  Through her own memories and reminiscing with her old school friends she starts to piece together a picture of what took place. It was interesting to read the way that the adult Frieda perceived herself as a teenager and how her friends remembered her. Of course Frieda doesn’t do anything by halves and she manages to put herself at risk, but the resolution is a stroke of genius.

There’s lots going on in her personal life – developments with her boyfriend Sandy, a new relationship for her niece, and despite her best intentions she becomes drawn into her mother’s life. There’s a regular cast of characters peppering the books now – it would be good to see some of them develop further before we reach the end.

It’s good to get an insight into Frieda’s past and so much of the backstory explains the Frieda that we’ve come to know over the first half of the series. Although she is quite an introspective character we’re never privy to all her thoughts, which gives her the capacity to surprise. Moving the story from Frieda’s association with the police works well too – maintaining her informal involvement over the whole series would have strained credibility.

I still find it hard to explain what it is I find so compelling about the character, but despite being the mid-point in the series this is faultless in terms of characters and plot and one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Many thanks to Penguin for the review copy. You can see another review on the Crime Fiction Lover site.
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That Dark Remembered Day – Tom Vowler

Title – That Dark Remembered Daythat-dark-remembered-day

Author – Tom Vowler

Published – 13 March 2014

Genre – Literary crime (apparently!)

Following hot on the heels of my review of Vowler’s debut novel “What Lies Within” his second novel is certainly the most engrossing and intriguing book I have read recently. Unfortunately, like its predecessor, it is also a book that’s told in a way that by attempting to review it you risk spoiling the discovery for other readers.

It’s autumn 2012 and Stephen seems to have everything – he’s married with a young daughter, he has a job he enjoys, but an out of character act may have put all of this in jeopardy. When he receives an unexpected phone call suggesting that his mother may be unwell circumstances prompt him to return to the town he last saw as a teenager. It is obvious that some terrible event occurred in the past and that somehow Stephen  was involved (this is ‘That Dark Remembered Day’) but Vowler, as with What Lies Within, draws the reader into the story giving only a fragment away at a time.

Towards the middle of the book the focus shifts  back to the summer of 1982 and you begin to understand more about the events which have led to Stephen’s current problems and the reason that he has been so reluctant to return home. Whilst much of the story in the present concerns his realisation that he isn’t as well adjusted as perhaps he thought, the scenes set in the past, adding other points of view, give the reader a better insight into the events. Like watching a car crash in slow motion you have an idea of what is coming but all you can do is watch it unfold.  There is an underlying tension that permeates the book and a sense of dread as it becomes clear what must have taken place. Vowler also manages to add some details that really take you by surprise. It’s a dark and harrowing story which is all too believable.

I can see similarities between this title and Vowler’s debut – both make great use of the locations in which they’re set, especially the natural landscape. Both also rely on keeping the reader in suspense in a much more subtle way than a conventional crime novel. In fact, in both cases, they aren’t conventional crime novels at all. I was reminded of stories like Rupture and Black Chalk, which both used a similar technique of focusing on the aftermath of a catastrophic event and then telling the sequence of events leading up to it.

Last but not least I should mention Vowler’s writing style – which is superb and really brought the characters to life.

Thank you to Headline for my review copy. You can see another point of view at Cleopatra Loves Books.

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Mrs. Hemingway: A Novel – Naomi Wood

81zZMCvizRL._SL1500_Title – Mrs. Hemingway: A Novel

Author – Naomi Wood

Published – Feb 2014

Genre – Historical fiction

In a similar vein to Burial Rites this is a fictional account of real characters, and it is equally enthralling. I must confess that before I started the book I knew very little about Hemingway, and in fact I would have said that he was more of a womaniser and less of a serial husband. In fact the whole impression of his ‘hunting, shooting and fishing’ and the pictures that I was familiar with in his later life meant I hadn’t expected him to be much of a catch, but it transpires that the very opposite was true.

The book opens in June 1926 when Ernest and his first wife, Hadley, were staying in Antibes, and his lover was staying with them – which sets the scene for his unconventional lifestyle. The book is beautifully written and Wood really manages to transport the reader in both time and place. It spans the period from the difficulties in his marriage to Hadley in 1926 until 1961, after Hemingway’s death, and takes the reader from the lazy days of Antibes in the ‘roaring twenties’ through the liberation of Paris in 1944, into Havana and finally Idaho. I was particularly fascinated by the early part of the book and the friendship with F Scott Fitzgerald – oh to have been a fly on the wall!

Wood’s skilful writing gives each of the wives their own voice, so it’s very easy to recognise their different personalities and relationships with Hemingway. Perhaps it’s because it makes a change from my more usual staple of crime fiction or perhaps it’s the evocative writing and storytelling by Wood, but I was captivated by these women. Of course the largest character is the one that we glimpse through the eyes of the women he marries and my challenge now is to read both some of his own writing as well as find out more about him.

Many thanks to Picador for my review copy. If you’re interested in seeing some of the characters and locations from the book then you should look at Naomi Wood’s Pinterest boards.

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