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.
Review - ELIZABETH IS MISSING, Emma Healey
Maud, an aging grandmother, is slowly losing her memory—and her grip on everyday life. Yet she refuses to forget her best friend Elizabeth, whom she is convinced is missing and in terrible danger.
But no one will listen to Maud—not her frustrated daughter, Helen, not her caretakers, not the police, and especially not Elizabeth's mercurial son, Peter. Armed with handwritten notes she leaves for herself and an overwhelming feeling that Elizabeth needs her help, Maud resolves to discover the truth and save her beloved friend.
Reading a lot of crime fiction can sometimes get a little groundhog day"ish". Not so when a book like ELIZABETH IS MISSING comes along. Not only is the styling of this mystery very unusual, the central character is outstanding and different.
Maud is an eighty-two-year old independent woman, living in her own home, slowly losing her memory. Devastatingly she sometimes knows she's losing touch with reality, she certainly knows enough to recognise that the notes that are liberally dotted throughout her home, in her pockets and her bag are an important aide-memoire. Yet the note that appears most frequently is "Elizabeth is Missing". Despite being constantly assured that nothing is wrong, Maud remains convinced her best friend Elizabeth has gone missing. Her home is deserted, Elizabeth's son cannot to be trusted, and despite reporting the disappearance to the police nobody seems to be doing anything. It's up to Maud who even puts a missing person's advertisement in the paper.
Maud's obsessed with Elizabeth's fate, as she is with marrows and where to plant them. Her gardener daughter, and main carer Helen is constantly called upon for advice on growing marrows. There's something about marrows and Elizabeth - something more than just the way that they got to know each other.
As seems to be the way with dementia, much of Maud's childhood is clearer in her memory than current day events, and the narrative of ELIZABETH IS MISSING uses this aspect to chilling effect. There are snippets of the past constantly being woven into the present, and there's something particularly prescient about much of this interweaving. Especially as it becomes clear that the past disappearance of Maud's sister is firmly in her mind, that something has triggered this particular memory.
ELIZABETH IS MISSING is told from Maud's viewpoint, in present tense, which gives the reader an insight into the fractured way that Maud's mind is now working. Her perception and understanding is shattered or adjusted as is the reader's. Frequently the reader is left in the uncomfortable position of knowing the recent past, whereas Maud doesn't. There's also spatterings of humour in this viewpoint, Maud is defiant enough to ignore some notes (particularly about her shopping habits) and yet terrifyingly able to ignore reasonable notes to not cook (and leave the gas on endangering life).
There are so many strengths to this book. The characterisation of Maud is so real, so uplifting at points, and so distressing at others. The reader wants to shout warnings, cheer defiance, patiently explain the unremembered and mostly, help Maud live her life. At the same time you can't help but feel for her daughter Helen, and grand-daughter Katy. The frustration of caring for a much loved relative who can't remember who you are half the time and constantly seems to ignore the important things makes you ache for them. Then there's the acknowledgement that independence is going, and changes in living circumstances are going to trigger more defiance, more rage against the machine, and more erratic behaviour.
Woven into this family tale is an underlying potential for crime. The present in the disappearance of Elizabeth, the past with Maud's sister Sukey. The interplay between these elements of ELIZABETH IS MISSING provide a narrative drive. Maud is slowly losing everything, and yet there's something that's driving her forward, that must be resolved, answers that have to be sought out.
There is just so very much to admire about ELIZABETH IS MISSING. A realistic, loving and extremely sympathetic portrayal of all of the main characters in the present - Maud, Helen and Katy. A clear view back to Maud's parents, Sukey, her husband and the lodger in their home. Beautifully descriptive about place and the things that Maud observes, along with a good, strong plot delivered in a style that fits 100% with Maud and her situation. There's tension here, but the pace is slow, cautious and utterly believable. There are beautiful touches of humour and sadness, clarity and muddle, past and present. A most unexpected novel, wonderfully original, clever, compassionate and revealing, ELIZABETH IS MISSING was an absolute privilege to read.
Review - REMEMBER ME THIS WAY, Sabine Durrant
Everyone keeps telling me I have to move on. And so here I am, walking down the road where he died, trying to remember him the right way. A year after her husband's death, Lizzie goes to lay flowers where his fatal accident took place. As she makes her way along the motorway, she thinks about their life together. She wonders whether she has changed since Zach died. She wonders if she will ever feel whole again. At last she reaches the spot. And there, tied to a tree, is a bunch of lilies. The flowers are addressed to her husband. Someone has been there before her. Lizzie loved Zach.
Thrillers involving bad marriages are coming thick and fast, both to the bookshelf and the screen. With titles like Gone Girl and Before I Go To Sleep, just to name a couple of recent examples. In these thrillers the idea of marriage, and relationships in general, is deconstructed as characters come to realise how much they don't know about their loved ones. They are the dark side of chick-lit, exploring broken relationships rather than ideal ones. Generally these stories are played as thrillers and Remember Me This Way is no exception.
One year after the death of her husband Zach, Lizzie finally gets up the courage to visit the place where his car crashed. When she gets to the spot she finds that someone else has already left flowers for Zach and gets a glimpse into the idea that he may have had another life. As the clues mount and strange things start to happen, Lizzie begins to suspect that Zach, a control freak who learnt that she wanted a break from him, has faked his death in order to take a slow revenge on her.
Zach is a sociopath, a point made clear through his diary entries that come as alternate chapters and chart the development of their relationship. Lizzie herself is an incredibly passive character, easy prey for a sociopath like Zach. Neither character is particularly interesting or engaging and seeing the same events from each of their points of view does nothing to make them more interesting. However, Durrant uses this relationship to explore how their controlling and passive characters creates a mutual neediness.
Remember Me This Way is an extremely slow burn psychological thriller. So slow that the thrills tend to evaporate and the climax is telegraphed well ahead of time. Without that thriller element firing, all that is left is a couple of not particularly interesting characters and the psychology of a destructive relationship.
Review - FOXGLOVE SUMMER, Ben Aaronovitch
In the fifth of his bestselling series Ben Aaronovitch takes Peter Grant out of whatever comfort zone he might have found and takes him out of London - to a small village in Herefordshire where the local police are reluctant to admit that there might be a supernatural element to the disappearance of some local children. But while you can take the London copper out of London you can't take the London out of the copper. Travelling west with Beverley Brook, Peter soon finds himself caught up in a deep mystery and having to tackle local cops and local gods.
The PC Peter Grant series, of which Foxglove Summer is the fifth instalment, could be described as Harry Potter for grown ups. But it is more than this - part supernatural, part police procedural and part observational humour - at times the series is more Terry Pratchett than JK Rowling. The series started strongly with Rivers of London and while some of the entries don't quite meet those heights, Aaronovitch continues to deliver.
PC Peter Grant has been taken on as an apprentice to the last officially working wizard detective in England. Based in an old house known as The Folly, Grant and his boss, DCI Nightingale, get involved in cases where there is a hint of the supernatural. While there have been individual cases solved along the way, there is an ongoing story through the series involving a dangerous rogue wizard known only as the Faceless Man. The first four books of the series are based in London and have a loving sense of place. Foxglove Summer takes the action to the British countryside and provides a welcome change of scene and pace.
PC Grant is sent to the little town of Rushpool where two 11 year old girls have gone missing. Needless to say, being the English countryside there are rumours of both fairies and UFOs.
While there is no immediate evidence of supernatural involvement, Grant agrees to stay and help with the search. But it isn't long before things start to get weird (or "Falcon" as the local police euphemistically call it) and Grant needs to sort it out without his usual backup.
This is another solid and enjoyable outing for fans of this series. The overarching plot of the series, the hunt for the Faceless Man, continues as background. Other long running plot threads are teased out and explained including the engagement in World War 2 that decimated the wizarding community and the possible origins of Nightingale's creepy housekeeper. But it also comes as a welcome break from these main concerns, allowing PC Grant to have centre stage and shedding light on a new part of Aaronovitch's demimonde.
As the fifth book in a series, Foxglove Summer is not the best place to start. But, with its confined story and only brief appearances by key characters, it is the easiest entree into the series since the original Rivers of London. While it could be read on its own, the best thing to do would be to start at the beginning and enjoy this series all the way through.
Review - THE MISSING AND THE DEAD, Stuart MacBride
One mistake can cost you everything…
When you catch a twisted killer there should be a reward, right? What Acting Detective Inspector Logan McRae gets instead is a ‘development opportunity’ out in the depths of rural Aberdeenshire. Welcome to divisional policing – catching drug dealers, shop lifters, vandals and the odd escaped farm animal.
Then a little girl’s body washes up just outside the sleepy town of Banff, kicking off a massive manhunt. The Major Investigation Team is up from Aberdeen, wanting answers, and they don’t care who they trample over to get them.
Sure Logan McRae's now an Acting Detective Inspector, in uniform. In the backend of nowhere, with a good team working with him, especially when you realise the number of cows they have to chase off roads. His girlfriend has improved a little, she's now in a care home, still uncommunicative, her nursing being paid for by McRae which is creating certain "problems" in his personal lifestyle. To make matters worse, his role in a high profile arrest causes a court case to collapse which brings the higher-ups down on his head and everything he does, says or has is questioned. Except for the inconvenient bits - like the pints of Lentil Soup he's living on just to keep the budget balanced.
Meanwhile in this sleepy little community, the discovery of a young girl's body brings an MIT to town, and with it DI Steel, because after all, where there's McRae, there will be a stumping, whinging, scratching, bitching and complaining Steel. Needless to say the murder will be (mis)handled by the MIT, McRae's team will balance all sorts of day to day policing with a bit of door kicking on the murder as well, they'll get out there after some local drug dealers, and generally deal with the idiots, the missing paedophiles, the weather, the bosses, the mud and the cows in a timely if not slightly grumpy manner.
It's the humour of these books that does it for me. That and the poignancy lurking round corners, ready to mug you when you least expect it. It's the lunacy of so many that McRae deals with, and even in his own head on occasions that works. It's the humanity of his concern for the mother of a missing little girl. It's like a night at the pub with your mad mates that you swear you're going to stop hanging around with because they always get you into shtoom. But then they get you out of it again. They are the team that you know is going to show up when the proverbial hits the oscillating device and the only defences available are tennis racquets and determination.
At the heart of all books in this series, there's always a busy, multi-actioned plot - just like you'd expect in any police station on any particular day. There's the high-profile case, the MIT and higher-ups strutting their stuff, and there's the day to day - the drug dealers, the addicts getting the shit kicked out of them, the people that McRae and his team just wish would get their act together. There's also a strong sense of camaraderie and co-operation in this team, as there is in most teams that McRae works with - with the token dopey bugger that everyone does the heavy-lifting for.
Relocating McRae to small-town Scotland gives this outing a slightly different feel, as does the idea that he's back in uniform, running a shift. Taking Steel with him is a classic example of a fish out of water scenario, but then just about everywhere Steel goes she "stands out". His ongoing, low-key care and love for his girlfriend remains such a highlight, as does his relationship with his biological child, Steel and her wife Susan's daughter. There's loyalty, care, concern and relationships between workmates, friends and colleagues, and that sense of responsibility to the victims that stands out in each book in this series. Alongside, sometimes, a bit of graphic violence and nastiness. Bit like life really.
There's so much in this series that, for this reader, is a highlight, and THE MISSING AND THE DEAD is right up there with the best of the lot of them.
Review - BLOOD MED, Jason Webster
Spain is corrupt and on the brink of collapse. The king is ill, banks are closing, hospitals are in chaos, homes are lost, demonstrators riot and right wing thugs patrol the street. The tunnels beneath the streets are at once a refuge and a source of anger. And as the blood flows Cámara roars in on his motorbike...
The 4th book in the Max Cámara series, which means if, like this reader, you've missed the first three, there's something to look forward to.
Set in post financial meltdown Spain, BLOOD MED is part crime fiction, part police procedural, part analysis of a society that's bottomed out. The King's illness seems to have provided yet more impetus for riots and thugs roaming the streets. Against this backdrop the brutal murder of a young American woman, and the suspect suicide of an ex-bank clerk seem oddly dwarfed. Not helped by the Machiavellian games being played by Cámara's boss setting him and his partner and friend Torres off against each other - budget cuts meaning one of them is going to lose their job.
Add to the tensions in the police, the health service is rapidly falling apart, with insufficient drugs for patient treatment, banks are foreclosing and leaving properties empty all over the place, and some people have been forced to live in the tunnels of the ridiculously expensive, and unfinished underground rail system. Needless to say, official corruption is at the heart of so much that's wrong.
It all feels like a very current day, and one can't help thinking very realistic, scenario. And there is a lot of concentration on those societal aspects in BLOOD MED. Whilst the investigation of the murders does continue, often times it definitely does feel like the society dysfunction is all encompassing. And very personal.
Alongside Cámara there are a number of other main characters - Torres his colleague, his girlfriend Alicia and his much loved grandfather Hilario. All the main characters play reasonably high profile parts in the investigation and in the way that society is viewed, analysed and highlighted.
For a book that's 4th in a series it's quite easy to get into, there's enough background on the characters to give you a good understanding of how everyone fits together. It actually makes you want to go back and read the earlier 3 books.
BLOOD MED is crime fiction that uses the setting of the murders as a way of taking a long, hard, detailed look at the society in which they occurred. This is less crime fiction for fans of investigations and closure as it is for those who are looking for the why, and how things can get to the extremes of murder.
Review - BAD BLOOD, Casey Kelleher
Blood makes you related. Loyalty makes you family.
In the underbelly of Soho's organized crime ring, everyone knows that retired boxer Harry Woods is not one to mess with. And that goes double for his family.
Harry has it all: the big house, the flashy cars, and an abundance of wealth. As much as money talks in his world, Harry knows deep down the only thing that really counts is family. Haunted by the sudden death of his wife, he'll do anything to protect his children, but truth is a heavy burden and hidden secrets can unravel even the strongest of bonds...
Quite a few crime fiction books use the life and crimes of a Gangster type as their central premise, with a sideline of the impact that has on family and friends. BAD BLOOD looks at this scenario with the affected firmly at the centre of the action.
Starting out with a series of chapters that introduce a central character or scenario, readers will need to pay attention. As they will to the prologue which looks at the past of central character Harry Woods and his young, pregnant wife. In the present time, Harry's much loved wife is dead, his children grown and the family ties weakened. Once those introductions and the set-up are out of the way, the action moves forward rapidly bringing the family back together after estrangement, stretching their relationships in new directions, with new tensions.
Each of the characters in this book - Harry, his four children, their partners, his best mate, get equal billing at some point. The story revolves around damage, past decisions, power and control. It's somehow less about the long-time criminality of Harry, and more about the impacts that a life spent on the edge has had on all of them. It's also about decisions - the choice that Kelly makes to come back to the family fold, the choice that Nathan makes to try to live a different life. It contrasts those choices with the lack of conscious choice that Christopher and Evie seem to have in who they are or what they will become. There's a series of questions posed throughout the action about the ramifications of choice (or lack thereof), although that's based in a solid shell of action, tension, threat and violence.
After reading somewhere that author Casey Kelleher was strongly influenced by a well-known author of these sorts of Gangster centric novels, I was particularly intrigued to find how engaging BAD BLOOD was. I've struggled with the influencing authors work in the past, but I think the humour, the strong characterisations, and the less than black and white resolution here made this a strong, believable story. Whilst there's no holding back from the brutality of this life, it was balanced with some basic human decency and care. Whilst Harry might have a questionable moral compass when it comes to drugs, and criminal activities, he's a man who loves his kids, and struggles to this day with the fate of his wife. As clichéd as it might seem - it works in BAD BLOOD. There's something very realistic about the portrayal and the way that it does not make any attempt to explain, justify or excuse what is basically human nature.
Review - LAMENTATION, C.J. Sansom
As Henry VIII lies on his deathbed, an incendiary manuscript threatens to tear his court apart in the new installment of C.J. Sansom's Shardlake series.
Lamentation is the sixth in CJ Samson's historical crime fiction series set during the reign of King Henry VIII. As with other books in the series, one of the key drivers of the plot is a battle over religion and religious beliefs. The book starts with the horrific burning of Anne Askew and two of her compatriots, accused of heresy for daring to suggest that the bread and wine used during Mass do not become the body and blood of Christ. Society itself is in turmoil, torn between Catholicism and Protestantism and the various shades in between, to the point where the safest position to take on any given day was: I worship as the King worships.
Samson's main character, lawyer Matthew Shardlake, has, in the way of many historical fiction protagonists, been a participant and observer in many of the key moments of the age. At the start of Lamentation he is still suffering a little post-traumatic stress from having been on the Mary Rose when it sank in the Solent the year before. He is once again drawn into affairs of state when a manuscript called The Lamentation of a Sinner, written in secret by Queen Catherine Parr, Henry's sixth wife, is stolen and one of page is found in the hands of a murdered radical printer. Shardlake has worked for Catherine before and has already drawn the ire of both Henry himself and a number of his key advisors.
Lamentation is a hefty slab of historical crime fiction. At over 600 pages it has the potential to wear out its welcome. But after a slow start, Samson manages to get the plot boiling at just the right temperature to keep the reader's interest. This is assisted by a subplot involving a sibling battle over their mother's will which manages to raise the stakes for Shardlake just as the main plot starts to run out of steam.
There is a lot of historical detail here but not so much that it overwhelms the narrative. Samson is able to bring the late 16th century to life even though it is through the views of the slightly anachronistic Shardlake. Life at the time could be nasty and brutal and the combat scenes, particularly, bring out the savagery of the age. There is also plenty of court intrigue and a view into the last days of Henry VIII as his health declined and his courtiers and advisors jockeyed for position, changing allegiances as it suited them.
While Lamentation is the sixth in a long running series and there are passing references to previous events and characters it stands up well as a stand-alone novel. Shardlake is an engaging narrator and both his companions and enemies come across as fully formed and complex characters. The resolution is an interesting surprise which manages to throw more light on the politics of the time and the end implies that there may well be more Shardlake to come, which is by no means a bad thing.
Review - THE DARK, VM Giambanco
Seattle Homicide Detective Alice Madison is bound to jailed murderer John Cameron and attorney Nathan Quinn by a debt that cannot be repaid, by a nightmare that changed their lives forever.
When the remains of Quinn’s younger brother – murdered when he was a boy – are discovered in a shallow grave, Madison vows to follow the trail of brutal deaths that leads to the truth.
A sadistic killer stalks the investigation as Madison’s own demons threaten her future career with the police and darkness closes in. How far is she prepared to go to save a life?
The Dark is Valentina Gaimbanco's follow up to her debut novel The Gift of Darkness. The events of the new novel follow hard on the heels of the first and in some ways, this sequel fills in much of the backstory of key characters from her debut. Set in and around Seattle, the novel is full of twisted souls and moody scenery and Giambanco effectively ratchets up the tension from early on.
Detective Alice Madison is still psychologically scarred by the events of the previous novel which saw her hunting down Salinger, the man who kidnapped her godchild. She was helped in that search by a lawyer, Nathan Quinn, and his dangerous client, old friend and suspected killer Jack Cameron. At the start of The Dark, Madison is in therapy, Quinn is in hospital and Cameron is in solitary confinement for his own safety. When the remains of Nathan's brother, killed 25 years earlier, are found in the same forest where she battled Salinger for her life and Nathan puts a public bounty on information leading to his brother's killer, Madison is drawn back into the orbit of the lawyer and the killer.
The Dark can be confusing at first for those who who haven't read The Gift of Darkness, particularly with its two prologues and short point of view jumps. But it does not take long to pick up the character threads and the new threat that emerges as the cold case starts to heat up. The Dark quickly becomes compulsive as details of the past emerge and the threat starts to materialise in the form of a gang of resourceful killers. Giambanco intercuts the stories of Madison, Cameron and Quinn to great effect as the climax rushes forward, her only slip being to cut away from Cameron just as he is at his most vulnerable.
The plot contains many familiar elements of the genre - a cold case, a rookie detective drawn into breaking the rules and forming a relationship with criminals and moments of extreme violence. Giambanco has managed to put all of this together into a thrilling package with memorable characters and, for an expat Italian living in London, a real sense of place.