Who is Alice Salmon? Student. Journalist. Daughter. Lover of late nights, hater of deadlines.
That girl who drowned last year.
Gone doesn't mean forgotten. Everyone's life leaves a trace behind. But it's never the whole story.
Everyone is looking for the next big thing - the publishing sensation that captures the zeitgeist and gets everyone talking. The conceit behind What She Left is the zeitgeist itself – the rise of social media and the inevitable digital trail that people now leave behind in the form of Facebook posts, emails, photos and blogs. But it is so obvious and self referential, consistently applauding itself for pointing this out, that What She Left, supposedly a thriller of sorts, becomes more of a chore.
Alice Salmon, twenty-five years old and full of life, has died mysteriously, falling off a bridge in her old university town of Southampton. One of her old professors has decided, as a type of memorial, to piece together her life from the fragments that she has left behind and that other people – friends, family and colleagues – have since provided to him. And so begins the jigsaw of Alice’s life, details doled out non-sequentially in various formats – diary entries, blogs, notes, emails and letters – from her childhood through her university experiences up to the night of her death and beyond.
There is clearly a mystery here: a character who was not everything people thought her to be, or at least was different things to different people. The main problem with this book is that the text is so obvious about this – it self-consciously screams: there’s a mystery here and I’m going to take my time revealing it to you in bits and pieces – and this takes the sting out. The reader is made aware very early on that the Professor compiling the material has plenty to hide (which makes you wonder why he bothered, really) but that eventually he will reveal it. What’s more, almost every other character, at some point or another in the narrative tells the reader they have secrets that their supposes openness is not revealing. The withholding of information, particularly by characters who are claiming to want to reveal the truth, feels forced.
It is hard to get past the self consciousness in the Professor’s letters to his friend Larry which form the backbone of the plot. But all the characters get a chance to be self-conscious. There are plenty of Alice’s diary entries which, besides being cliched, are also filled with portentous language and conscious irony. For example, writing in her diary seven years before her death Alice writes that she “has a soft spot for doomed heroines”. Another character, Alice’s best friend says in her public blog “I can’t believe I’m telling you [the anonymous reader] the things I am”.
In the end What She Left is just not as entertaining or engaging as it would like to think. Or rather, it is as engaging as scrolling through the Facebook wall of someone fairly uninteresting who you never met. Most of the conversations are banal, the mystery is forced and the text is filled with constant references to music and events of the times to provide some sort of proof of authenticity. Some people may enjoy this, and again, the book is very obvious about modern society and its voyeuristic tendencies. But it does not make for a particularly engaging narrative and regular changes of pace and tone, rather than creating any tension, tend to slow the whole down.
The resolution of the central mystery, when it finally comes, is completely unheralded. While it might make the reader reconsider some of the materials that come before, there is really no logical build up to these final revelations. If the point is that social media and the evidence trail that we leave is able to hide as much as it reveals then I guess TR Richmond has made his point. He just takes a very uninteresting route to get there.
Review - TELL NO TALES, Eva Dolan
The car that ploughs into the bus stop early one morning leaves a trail of death and destruction behind it.
DS Ferreira and DI Zigic are called in from the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit to handle the hit-and-run, but with another major case on their hands, one with disturbing Neo-Nazi overtones, they are relieved when there seems to be an obvious suspect. But the case isn't that simple and with tensions erupting in the town leading to more violence, the media are soon hounding them for answers.
Two books in and the Zigic and Ferreira is a new much anticipated, favourite series.
If you've read the first book, then as soon as you start TELL NO TALES, you're straight back with characters that you really know, in a place that you're comfortable in, even though there is nothing comfortable about events, or the social climate. If you haven't read the first, then it won't matter a bit - there is still plenty here for new readers.
Tackling the question of immigration, immigrant workers, tensions with Nationalist groups, and the explosion in Hate Crimes that has occurred in many communities worldwide can't be an easy undertaking - the issues behind everything are complicated and fraught with political and personal implications. Setting events within the purview of the Hate Crimes division, and then never creating an easy situation for them to deal with gives the reader the opportunity to connect, see, even understand many of those issues through the investigator's eyes. Add to that in TELL NO TALES you have the viewpoint of a survivor (and participant), as well as a look at the politics behind many of the tensions, which gives the difficulties more nuance, more complications, more connections.
The other element that contributes much to these books is the way that no-one here is exactly 100% perfect. Zigic is a well-meaning, frequently absent husband and father, who worries about the effect that this will have on his family. There are such nice glimpses into the things that make you go hmmm - the use of very Slavic names for his very English boys and the potential impact that could have. The way that their quiet domestic community is being pressed in upon as the suburbs extend, potentially bringing the problems of his work-beat closer to home. Both of these main characters are the children of immigrant families, so many of the tensions, the problems of acceptance, fitting in are all too obviously understood. Ferreira is the child of Portuguese parents, trying to step away from family control, branch out a little, living the hard partying life of a young woman who is feeling the pressure of family obligations.
This understanding of the experience of many of the victims, and the perpetrators being perused isn't done in a heavy handed manner however. This is a strong police procedural into which these elements are seamlessly introduced, tucked into the narrative in a way that's informative rather than pointed.
All of which is delivered in a flowing, strong style that effortlessly holds the reader's attention, always promising more in the next chapter. TELL NO TALES is great crime fiction. It's a tale being told, it's a look into a particularly dark aspect of society and a very current day problem, and it's an exploration of the things that go wrong (and right) in our world.
Review - SECOND LIFE, S.J. Watson
How well can you really know another person? And how far would you go to find out the truth about them?
When Julia learns that her sister has been violently killed, she knows she must get to the bottom of things. Even if it means jeopardising her relationship with her husband and risking the safety of her son. Getting involved with a stranger online. Losing control.
Perhaps losing everything.
It is a tough gig trying to follow up your own hugely successful debut novel. SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep, the domestic thriller about a woman with short term memory loss was a world-wide bestseller and was turned into a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth. SJ Watson has delivered a second novel that is both similar but very different. His main concerns again set in middle-class Britain – a white, successful, middle-class, professional family with plenty of skeletons in the closet.
Julia is a middle class housewife with a successful surgeon husband and teenage son. The novel opens when Julia’s sister, Kate, is found dead in a Paris street. Julia’s son is actually Kate’s, adopted when Kate was unable to look after him. This continued a pattern that began when Julia started caring for her sister after their mother’s death and father’s decline. Julia is driven by guilt to do for Kate in death what she couldn’t do for her in life. Flashbacks detail how Julia abandoned Kate when she went to Berlin with her boyfriend where both became heroin addicts. Julia has addiction problems which she is successfully battling as the book opens. The title partially refers to her new, or “second”, life that she started after her friend, and now husband, rescued her from her old one.
But Second Life, as the name also suggests, is also concerned with the perils of the internet. When Julia discovers Kate’s online sexual activities through a website called encounterz she follows her sister down the rabbit hole. It is here that the novel starts exploring interesting territory – the way people can reinvent themselves online, particularly in the world of online dating. Julia creates an false online persona for herself as a way of both trying to understand her sister and possible to identify her killer. She meets someone online and falls for him, not considering that he too might not be the character that he seems to be online. It takes her some time to realise that he might also be not quite what he seems. By that time, when she has put her well constructed domestic life in jeopardy, it is too late to easily pull out.
The first big twist is almost predictable, and a little forced, as it relies on people who are communicating using social media not passing on critical and basic information, such as photos. But it works to ratchet up the tension on Julia. However, the barrage of twists that follow stretch the friendship a little too far. By that time the reader is too committed to seeing how the story plays out, but the final twists and reveals are beyond believable. And the ambiguous ending feels like it was left there because Watson had no idea how to get out of the corner he has painted himself into.
Second Life starts as an effective slow burn thriller with a fairly simple premise. It takes a while to ramp up, but this only serves to increase the tension. Like a slow online seduction, Watson draws the reader into the world he creates and then leaves little choice but to push through when things get tough. And it works, until the twists start to come into play to slowly reveal an underlying plot that undermines the premise and collapses under its own weight.
Review - LONG WAY HOME, Eva Dolan
A man is burnt alive in a suburban garden shed.
DI Zigic and DS Ferreira are called in from the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit to investigate the murder. Their victim is quickly identified as a migrant worker and a man several people might have had good reason to see dead. A convicted arsonist and member of a far-right movement has just been released from prison, while witnesses claim to have seen the dead man fighting with one of the town's most prominent slum landlords.
LONG WAY HOME was released in 2014 and quickly garnered a lot of very positive comments. At which point it was placed on my reading list and then never quite nudged it's way to the top. Nothing to do with it at all, rather a propensity to be useless at prioritising books and the sudden explosion in splendid reading opportunities.
But the second book in the series, TELL NO TALES was provided as a review opportunity and it seemed a pity not to sneak in the first as a lead in. Oh what a good decision that turned out to be. Aside from the pressure to read the second one getting so extreme I might have to pull a hamstring or invent something that makes me take to the couch to read non-stop for a week.
If we take it as a given that crime fiction, at its best, looks at the society in which it is written and plucks out things that need looking at, then LONG WAY HOME is a stellar example of that. The question of immigration and integration is one that is taxing a number of communities these days (here no less than others), and the idea of the requirement for a Hate Crimes Unit makes sense, as does the wide-ranging remit they are presented with. Members of that unit being multi-racial and multi-lingual as well also makes sense, as does the odd feeling that investigating acts against members of your own community, or people with a similar background that must ensue.
All of this messaging though is built into a solid plot within a believable and very strong police procedural. The main characters are stand-out, even the victim is given life and vitality as his background is combed over. The writing is crisp, clear, deft and beautifully executed. The dialogue is spot on, the descriptions of place, people, feelings and circumstances assured and very readable. To the point where this reader should be excused for a bit of late night googling as flagging this as a debut novel felt like a typo.
Leaning towards hard-boiled in stylings and subject matter, Dolan has created a team of investigator's and a scenario for them to work in that really feels like it's got legs. Certainly hope so. Now can well understand the very positive comments about this book. The second book in this series is now calling very loudly.
Review - JIGSAW MAN, Elena Forbes
In the early hours of the morning DI Mark Tartaglia is sent to a London hotel to investigate the murder of a young woman. When he recognises the victim, the case takes a dark and personal turn.
Another case he has been investigating—the body of a homeless man found in a burnt out car—is also not what it seems. Tests reveal that the body has been assembled from the parts of four different people.
Tartaglia now has a far more macabre puzzle to solve. With the clock ticking, and torn between the two investigations, he must decide where his priorities lie.
Jigsaw Man is the fourth in Elena Forbes’ Mark Tartaglia series. For those who have been following the trials and tribulations of Tartaglia and his team this might be a welcome catch-up with familiar characters. For those new to the series there is not much here to excite too much interest in those characters.
The book revolves around two separate investigations. The first, graphically described early on, is the death of the sister of Sam Donovan, who appeared in previous novels as one of Tartaglia's detectives. The second involves the discovery of an incinerated body that turns out to be composed of multiple parts from different victims sewn together.
Due to his team’s connection with Sam, Tartaglia is given the composite body case to investigate. It is not long before the press is calling the killer the Jigsaw Man. The investigation is pure procedural, with Tartaglia and his team gathering evidence and following leads as they work out who the various victims were and how they might be connected. The critical piece of information in the Jigsaw case comes coincidentally from Tartaglia's sister, a plot device that undermines the investigative element.
As Tartaglia is off the second case, not much is revealed except through unsanctioned investigative work done by a traumatised Sam. She picks away at her sister's life, trying to make sense of her death. And she badgers her ex-colleagues, wheedling out details of the crime.
It is hard to nail down Tartaglia except as the standard, crime fiction cop. He drinks a bit and sleeps around, his sister is constantly trying to get him to settle down. He is methodical but is respected for his ability to solve crimes and he breaks the rules if he needs to (or at least he has in the past, he does not do much rule breaking in this novel). Apart from that he is a wholly unexceptional protagonist.
In many serial killer thrillers, the author will spend some time with the killer to try and explore or explain their mindset. This does not happen with the Jigsaw Man. While this puts the reader squarely in Tartaglia's shoes during the investigation, it also leaves the reader as mystified as the investigative team as to what is driving this behaviour. The second killer is the subject of some narrative time as he stalks his next victim. But he also feels underdrawn, and his bizarre relationship with the mysterious stranger who shares his house never comes to much.
There is some tension built towards the end, but the set-up is standard fare for this genre and the resolution is fairly predictable. The London setting is well described but unexceptional, neither the killers are developed enough to be interesting and their pursuers are mainly out of central casting. Some thematic depth or connection between the two stories might have helped what is otherwise a solid, if disappointing serial killer procedural.
Review - FOLLOW THE LEADER, Mel Sherratt
A man’s body is found on a canal towpath. In his pocket, a plastic magnet in the shape of an E.
Days later, a second victim is found, this time with the letter V tucked into her clothing.
As the body count rises, the eerie, childlike clues point to a pattern that sends DS Allie Shenton and her colleagues into full alert.
The race is on. Allie and the team must work quickly to determine where the killer will strike next.
The rules are simple but deadly—to catch the killer, they must follow the leader.
The second book in the DS Allie Shenton series, FOLLOW THE LEADER is not impeded in any way by not having read the earlier novel.
Whilst many fans of crime fiction will take one look at the blurb and groan "not another serial killer", this one deserves a second look. This serial killer kind of makes sense - in a decidedly uncomfortable manner.
In another possibly groan inducing moment, readers will also find themselves spending time in the head of this killer. A viewpoint that's used here to illuminate the killings, their circumstances, and more importantly, the motivation. Even the hardest heart is going to find it hard not to feel a modicum of compassion for this killer - even if his actions are utterly without justification.
Whilst you're squirming a little feeling that sense of compassion, you're presented with a number of other well drawn characters that might be more comfortable for you - sympathetic or not. DS Shenton and her colleagues, many of whom have some school connections with these victims, through to the self-obsessed, pain in the neck live in girlfriend of another school friend, these people feel real. They are flawed, they have personal and professional lives, and they have problems and highlights that they have to balance with the day to day.
Whilst the plot and the killings progress rapidly, obviously heading on a timeline firmly in the killer's mind, there is some backwards timeline shifting going on - especially in the killer's viewpoint - all of which is handled well. There's also school-yard nicknames, married names, changed names to keep track of and the connections from the past and present, which sounds like a lot. Fortunately any chance of confusion is minimised as some of the characters reiterate the confusing aspects, sort it through in their minds, helping the reader to do the same. And the idea of all those connections coming into life in a place as small as Stoke on Trent (in comparison to a major city small) made perfect sense.
Having a strong, central female cop protagonist with a happy, but not nauseatingly perfect home life is a particularly nice change, although there's obviously something from the earlier book that's leaked forward into this one. Shenton's sister is the victim of a vicious rape and assault which has left her in a nursing home, and desperately unwell. That idea that Shenton's life isn't picture postcard perfect or an absolute train wreck is both well done and refreshing, as are the honest occasional flashes of annoyance or difficulty in dealing with her sister's health situation. There's something more to be done in this thread as a very personal threat to Shenton appears in the middle of the current investigation (possibly the only clanger in the whole book as the obvious intent of that rape and attack seemed to muddle the current investigation waters for no good reason).
It looks very much like FOLLOW THE LEADER is heading off into series territory and it shows considerable promise in that. Certainly enough to put the first book firmly on my reading list. Nothing like being prepared when book 3 surfaces.
Review - RIDING IN CARS WITH GIRLS, Evangeline Jennings
A transgressive and cauterising crime fiction collection with more twists and turns than a high mountain road, Riding in Cars with Girls is a hard, fast, and beautifully dangerous read. Consider the evidence:
FIREBIRD -- A small town cocktail waitress. A glamorous stranger behind the wheel of a stolen muscle car. A raging forest fire. What could possibly go wrong?
It's a such a simple idea when you think of it, take a standard noir setting, with added muscle cars, old cars, fast cars and gorgeous cars, and replace the male characters with female ones. It makes enormous sense to me, especially as I grew up in a country town where girls driving hotted up cars, and hanging around hotted up cars was pretty common. Granted there was a bit of dating of boys driving hotted up cars as well - but really we could have just had all those cars to ourselves.
Evangeline Jennings does a good job of building up her dark and dangerous settings and scenarios. In a series of unconnected (apart from the girls and the cars thing) short stories, a series of plot's are played out that come straight from the noir theme park. The dialogue is crisp and clever, the settings are frequently dry and dusty or mean and nasty, although there's some in the story 911 that could have come straight from the Scandi-tourism bods.
The twisting of expectation is done so elegantly and seamlessly that there's nothing here at all that screams "setup". That idea of women on the edge is so convincingly delivered, so believable that there's not a speed bump in sight when it comes to accepting either plot or motivation. Everything in these short stories is as it should be when it comes to dark, twisted and desperate. The sex is explicitly love, lust and control; the drinking is hard; the language is profane and profound; and the cars, of course, are fast and dangerous. Anybody who has read the other short story collection, CARS & GIRLS will recognise the last story - CROWN VICTORIA from that so there's a good opportunity for a re-read right there.
Fans of noir stylings, of pointed, sharp and unexpected storytelling that pulls no punches, holds no bars and gets right up in your face really should be doing themselves a favour and reading both of these collections.
Review - THE 45% HANGOVER, Stuart MacBride
A brilliantly twisty tale from the No. 1 bestselling author of the Logan McRae series. Including an extract from his new Logan novel, The Missing and the Dead.
It’s the night of the big Referendum, and all Acting Detective Inspector Logan McRae has to do is find a missing ‘No’ campaigner. Should be easy enough…
But, as usual, DCI Steel has plans of her own. As the votes are counted there’s trouble brewing in the pubs and on the streets of Aberdeen.
Logan’s picked up a promising lead, but all is not quite what it seems, and things are about to go very, very wrong…
A perfectly formed piece of glorious over the topness featuring Logan McRae, DCI Steel and the recent Scottish independence referendum. Which of course isn't going to bode well. I mean it's part of the world that gave us Whisky. And people who drink whisky. When they are happy, sad, or stressed. All of which DCI Steel manages to be during the lead up to, and the night of the count.
Not that McRae particularly cares. As usual he's just trying to get a shift under his belt, and maybe find a missing 'No' campaigner. Which, well, it ends hilariously. And vaguely disturbingly.
As you'd expect. The 45% HANGOVER is a perfectly formed little delivery of hilarity combined with a refreshingly honest viewpoint on the whole independence question. But a word of warning - perhaps don't read the concluding bits on a full stomach. And certainly not if you've had way too many whisky's.
Review - THE LIFE I LEFT BEHIND, Colette McBeth
Six years ago, Melody Pieterson was attacked and left for dead. Only a chance encounter with a dog walker saved her life. Melody's neighbor and close friend David Alden was found guilty of the crime and imprisoned, and the attack and David's betrayal of her friendship left Melody a different person. She no longer trusts her own judgment, she no longer trusts her friends. In fact, she no longer really has any friends. She’s built a life behind walls and gates and security codes; she’s cloistered herself away from the world almost entirely.
THE LIFE I LEFT BEHIND is the second novel from London based author Colette McBeth, her first being PRECIOUS THING. Both in the form of psychological thriller, part of the increasingly common "domestic noir" category, they are however standalone books.
The story here is told using a combination of viewpoints from three main characters. Melody Pieterson is a survivor, brutally attacked and left for dead, she lives in personal imprisonment, whilst her attacker has just been released from jail. The aftermath of the attack has seen her lose her confidence, her social life and her independence. Eve Elliot is also a victim, she's been violently attacked, just after she meets Pieterson's attacker, and starts working on the possibility that he's been wrongly convicted. But she lost her life in her attack and her voice is post-mortem. Finally there's DI Victoria Rutter, a constable at the time of the first attack, she's the officer who identified the CCTV evidence that lead to the jailing of David Alden.
Now obviously these sorts of viewpoints are always relying on the reader establishing some sort of connection with the characters. Because time is spent inside their heads, there must be understanding, and maybe even sympathy. Which is tricky when one of the voices is coming from somebody who is dead, and another could be perceived as overtly comfortable in the role of victim. It's a strange feeling to know that a victim, a character who has been subjected to the most awful attack, and who has every reason in the world to be scared, hesitant and damaged has the potential to be decidedly annoying as well. Mind you, it's not hard to imagine that THE LIFE I LEFT BEHIND will be one of those books that absolutely polarises readers - some will find Pieterson sympathetic and understandable, others less so.
Given that much of the story is also told in flashback, many of the plot threads feel somewhat coincidental or even convenient. Not an unreasonable feeling given the old adage about hindsight. Combine that, however, with the surprisingly quick manner in which Elliot casts doubt on the conviction of David Aldren, conveniently followed by her death, and something in Rutter's attitude about her original investigation and all in all, something doesn't feel convincing. There's just the slightest sense of unreliable narrator here somewhere, without the confirmation. None of that is helped either by the convenient character traits - the dead victim is confident, sometimes regretful but surprisingly sanguine about the whole being dead thing. Meanwhile the living victim isn't really living, and seems to be overtly passive and easily manipulated.
Just to ram that home, there's the increasing doubt about her band of supporters, friends, and in particular her fiancée. There's a fine line between supportive and controlling and we're not too far into the story before Sam's getting creepy and you have to wonder about the odd dynamic in their friendship group as well.
Needless to say, everything about Pieterson and her situation did not sit comfortably with this reader, and as a result, the whole scenario felt contrived and overblown. Other readers, those that sympathise and identify more closely with that character, are going to get a lot more from THE LIFE I LEFT BEHIND.
Review - THE ZIG ZAG GIRL, Elly Griffiths
When the body of a girl is found, cut into three, Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens is reminded of a magic trick, the Zig Zag Girl.
The inventor of the trick, Max Mephisto, is an old friend of Edgar's. They served together in the war as part of a shadowy unit called the Magic Men.
The Zig Zag Girl is Elly Griffiths' first foray away from her established crime milieu and characters. As the acknowledgements make clear, it is something of a personal piece, based at least in part on the life of her grandfather - a magician who trod the boards in the early twentieth century. It is also based on a little known aspect of the Second World War - the construction of fake weapons and equipment in Egypt to trick the Germans into thinking the allied forces were stronger than they actually were.
Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens, lives quietly in post-war Brighton. He is trying to forget his time during World War Two when he was recruited into MI5 and thrown together with a group of magicians and showmen in Inverness. The Magic Men, as they called themselves, were tasked with creating a fake military build up in the north of Scotland with timber and paint. But the past catches up with Edgar in the form of a body actually carved up in that manner of one if his old company's tricks. The Zig Zag Girl of the title is a trick invented by Max Mephisto, one of his colleagues during the war, in which it appears his assistant is cut into thirds.
The investigation of this bizarre murder throws Edgar and Max together as the victim turns out to have a connection to Max. As the bodies start to mount it becomes clearer that there is some connection between their shared history in the army and current events.
The Zig Zag Girl is a very traditional form of murder mystery, which is fitting for its setting of 1950s Britain. The narrative switches between the points of view of Edgar and Max as a way of fleshing out the world of both the police investigation and the magician circuit. And it also serves to build a bit of tension, particularly as the murderer closes in. While Edgar is far from two-dimensional, Max is the more interesting of the two characters and provides welcome colour.
While there are a couple of red herrings, the resolution of the mystery is fairly predictable for crime aficionados if a little far fetched. However, the final twist is not and provides a satisfying deeper layer to the events.