Crime

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 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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Breakdown – Jonathan Kellerman

Title – Breakdown

Author – Jonathan Kellerman

Published – 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

In the past I used to receive some specific hardback books at Christmas which I would then devour over the next few days. Initially this was a Dick Francis and then it became a Jonathan Kellerman; habits change, as do publishing dates, so over the last few years this hasn’t happened. It also doesn’t seem as if I have the chance to read much during the day at Christmas any longer, but a spare pair of hands with puppy-sitting and a long-neglected Kellerman on my TBR and I seized the opportunity!

This is number 31 in the Alex Delaware series, a series that’s had its ups and downs, and I’d say that this was a ‘middling’ book. The main thread of the story is that five years previously consulting psychologist Alex Delaware evaluated the young son of a disturbed actress, Zelda Chase, as a favour for a colleague. The colleague has since died and when the actress is sectioned after some bizarre behaviour Delaware is called in because of his tenuous connection. He tries to help the young woman but Delaware is unable to find out from the woman, who has been living on the streets, what has happened to her son. This leads to a bit of an obsession as he tries to find the boy and even enlists Milo’s (LAPD Lieutenant Milo Sturgis) help in trying to track him down.

The woman is released and Delaware and Sturgis sort out some accommodation for her but she still doesn’t offer any insight into what happened to her son. Then her body is discovered in the grounds of a grand estate in a prestigious area of LA. It  takes a while but eventually they have to give credence to Zelda’s belief in a dreadful event in her past.

The scene-setting at the beginning with the events when Delaware first encounters Zelda and her son are quite tedious but worth persevering with. After the death of Zelda the book takes on more of an investigatory feel with the focus on Zelda and her story – how she died, how she came to be homeless. Then more women go missing.

Less in the way of red herrings and twists than some books in the series, more Hollywood and acting than some. The relevant information which is important solving the case comes quite indirectly to the pair and that felt a bit frustrating. If the story was about Delaware’s search for Zelda’s son he seemed to forget that was his purpose sometimes and then that thread would get back on track. Oooh – and one inconsistency late on in the book that irritated me.

The pairing of Delaware and Sturgis works well, but then Kellerman has had a lot of time to develop the partnership. In fact thinking back to when the series was first published having a gay cop in Sturgis could well have been cutting edge. The pair bounce ideas off each other and discuss their theories, which helps to take the reader along with their train of thought.

Kellerman’s writing has a very specific feel and it’s like putting on a comfy pair of slippers for me but I know it’s not a style that appeals to everyone it’s an aspect that I really like, and for me it helps to bring the characters and situations to life. This was a book more about investigation that psychology, but no less enjoyable for that.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy. Probably a 3.5 star rather than just a 3.

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The Savage Shore – David Hewson

Title – The Savage Shore

Author – David Hewson

Published – 2018

Genre – Crime fiction

This is one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018, a continuation of the Nic Costa series which saw the last book (Fallen Angel) published in 2011. I had been enjoying the series and worried that we’d heard the last of Costa and his colleagues, so I was thrilled to hear that another book was coming.

The team that you would be familiar with if you’ve read the earlier books are in Calabria, in the south of Italy and far away from their comfort zone. They are there to try to arrange the extraction of the elusive head of the ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian version of the Mafia, who is also offering up the overlord of the Costa Nostra – the most wanted man in Italy. The assignment is cloaked in secrecy, including the reason behind the man’s approach to the police and his intention to turn state’s witness. The high-stakes and sparse information don’t make this a comfortable assignment.

Costa is required to go undercover with the man’s family and must prove himself in a number of ways before he will be accepted by those in the ’Ndrangheta. This offers a few thrills and is a test of Costa’s metal. Once he has been accepted the story twists and turns as the opportunity comes for the authorities to make their move.

While Costa has the main part of the story there is an interesting aside for Peroni, who strikes up a friendship with a young widow running a small waterfront cafe. It seems that organised crime affects every one in the community and true to character Peroni risks the group’s cover to step in.

Background to the history of the location and the ’Ndrangheta is provided by extracts from the fictional ‘Calabrian Tales’ which weaves its own set of myths and legends alongside the rise of the Bergamotti family, their traditions and their values.

I’ve always enjoyed reading this series of books and Costa has been an interesting character to follow as he has developed. He takes his role-play a little too seriously and there are some thought-provoking incidents while he is undercover and towards the end of the story.

I really enjoyed the mix of thriller/mystery, the unusual location and the historical aspects to the story, and I thought these worked well using the extracts of text rather than having a character ‘telling’ lots of information. The place and people offer a glimpse of a way of life that’s long gone for most people and the vivid writing easily conjures up this new location. There are even a few meals thrown in for good measure (not quite to the level of Camilleri, but mouth-watering nevertheless).  And it’s always good when a book you’ve been looking forward to delivers.

Many thanks to the publisher for the Net Galley.

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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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