Historical crime

A few (more) short reviews

I used to read a lot on my Kindle when I was commuting but since I stopped working in London in 2018 I’ve read more physical books than electronic ones. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an occasional title on NetGalley that I can’t resist. Of course my problem then becomes the fact that once read there’s no physical pile of unreviewed books to remind me I need to get on. So this is a ‘quick fix’ to share some of the great books I’ve read in the last *cough* year or two…

Title – The Search Party

Author – Simon Lelic

Published – August 2020

Genre – Crime fiction/thriller

The description of this book feels quite familiar “16-year-old Sadie Saunders is missing. Five friends set out into the woods to find her … not everyone will make it home alive” but to think this follows a well-trodden path would be a mistake. 

After Sadie goes missing her friends fall under suspicion and in an effort to find out the truth they go back to the woods believing that they know better than the police who are searching the local river . The events that unfold are told from the friends’ various points of view through interviews with the police after they are discovered in grim circumstances. What appears from the outside to be a solid group of friends displays fractures when put under pressure, all of the group have secrets and they’re not exactly ‘reliable narrators’. 

The police investigation, led by DI Robin Fleet and supported by DS Nicole Collins, brings its own interest as Fleet is put under increasing pressure to solve the mystery and find Sadie. To add to the intrigue Fleet has only recently returned to his home town and there are rumours and stories about his past that he needs to face up to. 

Twisty, thrilling and compelling – this was a great, atmospheric read. 

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Title – Shooter in the Shadows

Author – David Hewson

Published – July 2020

Genre – Crime fiction

Tom Honeyman is a best selling author but a ‘one hit wonder’. A former journalist, he made his name cracking a horrific double murder in his hometown of Prosper, New York and wrote an international best seller on the back of it. Times have been tough since the book was published and both his personal and professional lives leave a lot to be desired.

Honeyman has a ritual – every July he maroons himself at his villa on Maldetto, an uninhabited island in the lagoon at Venice.  By the third weekend of the month, when the Redentore fireworks begin on the Saturday night, he hopes to have either finished a new book or found the start of one. This year seems to be no different… but then he finds that there is a visitor on his island – one that’s taken his daughter hostage and casts doubt on the story that made him. In fact the stranger wants Honeyman to tell the truth about the crimes in a new book and he has just four days to do it. 

Honeyman works though the events of the original crimes in a series of flashbacks and the timeline switches between the present in Venice and the past in Prosper; to meet the demands of his daughter’s captor he has to face up to some unpleasant memories. 

This feels like a really unusual plot when it can be hard to read anything in the crime/thriller genre that feels different. It’s captured the atmosphere of Venice in the heat, great characterisation, a few twists and turns and a real feeling of jeopardy. 

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Title – A Rush of Blood

Author – David Mark

Published – September 2019

Genre – Crime fiction

I love the Aector McAvoy series and also enjoyed Mark’s standalone ‘The Mausoleum’, so was keen to read another book by him. I have to confess, however, that I struggled with this one. It’s a really odd reason that I found it a difficult read and I’m sure it may ‘just be me’.

The book centres around the disappearance of the friend of 10-year-old Hilda – Hilda wants someone to help find her friend and her first port of call is her Mum, who runs the Jolly Bonnet, a sort of theme-pub in Whitechapel and is the meeting place for Molly’s friends. 

The book has a real gothic feel and a quirky Victorian atmosphere. The problem I had was that all of a sudden the characters would be jumping into a car and racing off somewhere and I had to remind myself it was set in the present day and not in the days of Jack the Ripper. I know – my problem. 

It has a very dark and sinister plot with a real touch of gothic horror contrasting with a modern day setting and a very modern set of strong female characters. 

Despite all of this the quirkiness was a bit too much and too distracting for me. 

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A few short reviews

I’m not quite sure how it has happened that I’ve not posted on my blog for so long. You’d think that the months of lockdown restrictions would have given me more time not less! In a way to catch up on some of my outstanding reviews I thought I’d try and cram a few into the same post.

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First up – one of the few books that I’ve been sent by a publisher this year.

Title – Lost Souls

Author – Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman

Published – 2021

Genre – Crime fiction

While I’m a big fan of Jonathan Kellerman, I don’t feel quite the same about his son Jesse, so if I’d been offered a review copy of this book I may well have turned it down. As it happens this just arrived in the post – and I’m very pleased it did.

This is the third in the ‘Clay Edison’ series but it wasn’t spoiled by not having read the preceding books. 

Clay Edison is the Deputy Coroner working the graveyard shift in a Californian suburb when he’s called out to the discovery of a dead infant uncovered by developers working in a local park. It will be Edison’s job to find the cause of death and determine the child’s identity. This is a particularly poignant case as Edison and his wife are just coming to terms with the arrival of their own small daughter. 

Prompted by news of the discovery Edison is approached by a man who is trying discover what happened to his sister who went missing as a small child some fifty years previously. Touched by the man’s situation Edison embarks on a private investigation.

Despite the similarities of the stories the investigations complement each other and I found this a quick and enjoyable read. I do wish, however, that I’d had a better idea of what a coroner’s role was in the US. 

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Next – a book that’s been on my shelves for a while. 

Title – The Stars are Fire

Author – Anita Shreve

Published – 2017

Genre – Fiction

This was the last of Anita Shreve’s books to be published before she died in 2018 and I’ve been saving it for a while.

Set in 1947 on the Maine coast, Grace and her husband a struggling in an unhappy marriage with their two young children. When Grace is pregnant with their third child fires sweep along the coast and Gene volunteers to help in a neighbouring town, leaving Grace to look after their home and their children. Gene hasn’t returned when the fire reaches their own home and Grace must draw on a strength and practicality she didn’t know she had to make sure that she and her children survive. 

In the aftermath of the fire and the decimation of their town she has to find a way to manage when Gene still doesn’t return to them. Grace turns out to be resourceful and is supported by a small cast of people who do their best to help her but ultimately her future will be determined by the fate of her husband. 

An atmospheric book with a period setting and an insight into the everyday lives of women and the hardship they faced, especially how difficult it could be to be single. 

Not my favourite of Shreve’s books but a story with a memorable main character. It also makes a change to read a book that’s told in an uncomplicated way with a single point of view and a chronological timeline. 

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Third – a sort of memoir. 

Title – Hemingway in Love

Author – A E Hotchner

Published – 2015

Genre – Memoir

I chose this book as I’ve developed a bit of an interest in Hemingway after reading Mrs. Hemingway: A Novel in 2014. 

Hotchner first met Hemingway when he was sent to commission him in Havana in 1948 for Cosmopolitan. They struck up a friendship and frequently travelled together until Hemingway’s death in 1961, in 1966 he published ‘Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir’. 

This is a slim book that provides an insight into Hemingway’s own thoughts on the affair that destroyed his first marriage (and led to his second). The dilemma he faced as he was ‘torn between two women’ and how he let Pauline Pfeiffer gain the upper hand. 

This gave an interesting perspective but like many books on this subject it remains difficult to see what is the truth of the relationships versus what people want you to think. Although it does provide a nice, potted, biography of the big man. 

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Finally –  review of a book that’s been sitting on my TBR shelf for 6 years!

Title – The Widow’s Confession 

Author – Sophia Tobin

Published – 2015

Genre – Historical fiction

This is the second book by Sophia Tobin (her debut was The Silversmith’s Wife) and is an atmospheric drama set in 1851. Broadstairs in Kent is the summer destination for people wanting to take the air or keep a low profile; a number of chance encounters amongst these visitors creates a small group of acquaintances who enjoy a few excursions together around the town. An eclectic group where a widow, a priest, and a painter can all find themselves having a picnic and shell collecting together. 

The necessities of Victorian life mean that there are conventions to be followed and woe betide those who don’t toe the line. In this upright and uptight atmosphere it’s easy to keep secrets buried but there is a price to pay when they are uncovered. There is also an ‘outsider’ element to the story – with a division between the ‘locals’ and the ‘visitors’.  

There is a mystery, a number of young women who are found dead on the shore, but that’s more of an aside to the way the relationships develop between the disparate group, it’s the feelings that the deaths bring to the surface within the group that are more prominent than the search for the person responsible.  

I enjoyed this with its historical details, atmospheric setting and well-drawn characters and I was particularly a fan of Delphine Beck. 

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Sidney Chambers and The Forgiveness of Sins – James Runcie

Title – Sidney Chambers and The Forgiveness of Sins

Author – James Runcie

Published – 2016

Genre – Historical crime fiction

This is a book that has been sitting on my TBR pile for quite some time and part of the reason is that I have the hardback and it’s a VERY pretty book.

I’m familiar with Grantchester because I’ve watched all 5 of the TV series based on the books, consequently my review is more a comparison with the ITV drama than just a review of the stories.

If you haven’t seen or read anything of Grantchester then as a brief overview this is quite gentle period (1950s/60s) crime fiction set around Cambridgeshire with a sleuthing Anglican priest at the centre of the stories.

I was surprised to find that the book was actually a series of short stories but that fits in well with the way that it was adapted for the small screen. Other surprises followed as, although I suspect the two started in the same way, Sidney’s life in print has diverged somewhat on the TV – in the book we’re in the 1960s and he’s married with a small daughter. In one of the late stories in the book, when he was actually moving away from Grantchester, there is a reference to him being in his forties. The supporting characters bear some similarities to the ones I was familiar with but with the exception of Amanda they are more passing caricatures.

The stories themselves are quite gentle, not the death and violence of the TV series (although they aren’t actually very gory or graphic). The plots in this book (no. 4 in the print series) featured a missing painting, a falling piano, an exploding school science lab and poison pen letters. There is also a gentle pace in the telling of the stories and the religious aspects of Sidney’s life play a larger part with more focus on the Right (with an intentional capital) of the situations.

Nostalgic and gentle crime fiction, similar, but not the same as, the TV series.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The Quickening – Rhiannon Ward

Title – The Quickening

Author – Rhiannon Ward

Published – 20 August 2020

Genre – Historical crime fiction

While I’ve not suffered the lack of interest in reading that others found during lockdown I have found that the change to my routine has made my blogging even more sporadic than normal. Somehow over the last few years I’ve gone from 50 or 60 posts a year to only 12 so far in 2020 but the latest book from Rhiannon (Sarah) Ward has prompted me to get back to the keyboard.

I had intended getting my blog post out in time for the publication date but it’s taken longer to write than I planned as I’ve deleted around 400 words and started again.

So.

Not only is there a change of name for the author but also a change of publisher and genre (as Sarah Ward she is the author of four DC Childs novels) although keeping the crime/mystery element this is a move to an historical setting – the main part of the story being taking place in 1925.

Louisa is a photographer asked by her employer to travel to Clewer Hall in Sussex, where she is to photograph the contents of the house for auction before the family move to India. She is surprised by the commission but with a baby on the way she’s keen to take the opportunity to earn some extra money. When she arrives she finds that the house is literally falling apart and its inhabitants seemed to be damaged or weighed down with grief; it’s a dark and tense atmosphere that she’s not comfortable with. She discovers that during her stay at the house an event is planned to recreate an infamous seance that originally took place in 1896.

The setting is atmospheric and there is an underlying tension which builds through the story as the secrets of the house and family are revealed. There is a lot of grief and loss in the book, something which Louisa herself is no stranger to, and this is magnified by the decay of the surroundings and the limited cast of characters.

Louisa makes a great lead, she has some modern sensibilities but the author couches these within the constraints of the period. I was fascinated both by the details around the photographic process of the period as well as those around the everyday lives of the house’s occupants. I have to wonder how on earth you can research these tiny details – if they were made up then they were very convincing!

It’s one of those oddities of publishing that I was sitting in the garden in a heatwave reading this dark and chilling mystery – it will make a great read when the nights draw in. A gothic mystery set in a dilapidated country house with a strong female lead, a mysterious child and a cameo appearance by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – what more could you ask for?

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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The Long Drop – Denise Mina

Title – The Long Drop

Author – Denise Mina

Published – March 2017

Genre – Historical crime

I’ve read a couple of books in succession which have made me feel inadequate as a reader and The Long Drop is one of them. Last month it won ‘The McIlvanney Prize’ which is Bloody Scotland’s annual prize awarded to the best Scottish Crime book of the year. It beat shortlisted books which included MurderabiliaThe Quiet Death of Thomas Quaid and Out of Bounds and I just can’t understand why this was the book to come out on top. So am I missing something?

I hadn’t realised when I started reading that the book was based on real events – the case of Peter Manuel https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Manuel (don’t read the article before reading the book) who was a notorious serial killer in the 1950s. The story is a fictionalised version of the case and tells in parallel both the events of the night of 2 December 1957 when Manuel went on a pub crawl with William Watt, alongside the story of Manuel’s trial for multiple murders. I was intrigued by the story but had I known anything in advance about the true crime aspect it might have taken away some of the mystery. It is, however, a very evocative story which really brought alive the dark side of Glasgow in the 1950s.

What I found quite odd, and jarring, was that even given the constraints of the two parts of the story the author went both backwards and, more puzzlingly, forwards in time. For example, referencing the future implementation of the Clean Air Act or how developments will prompt the eventual action of specific characters – all outside the timeframe of the story. This seemed like an odd approach but perhaps it’s this unusual style that made the book stand out for others.

During the trial there are intricate portraits of the cast of (mostly) disreputable characters that are called to appear but some of the courtroom details – the ins and outs of the origins of two guns – felt unnecessary and slowed the pace. I was also interested in the suggestion that Manuel couldn’t read people in the same way as most of us and he certainly exhibited some bizarre behaviour,  perhaps a suggestion of mental health issues at the root of his actions?

This wasn’t a book I enjoyed but as it is an award winner I feel that the shortcomings must be on my side. Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.

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