Farquhar Knox QC heard a creak to his right and swung round, prepared to bully an intruder into going away. But the blustering tirade died on his lips as the sharp point of an arrow pierced his dinner shirt, entered his torso below the ribs and was pushed up until it penetrated his heart. A few gurgles were the last sounds Farquhar Knox made. His own day of judgement had arrived.
Even if you didn't know that author Ian Simpson regards John Mortimer as one of his inspirations, there's something slightly similar in their writing styles, although there's no Rumpole character in MURDER IN COURT THREE.
Set in the precincts of courts, and the legal fraternity, the victim here is a Barrister, and the investigation is straight police procedural, albeit with a hefty portion of fraud case in court antics on the side. It's actually a nice balance, as is the idea that the police team is made up of DI Flick Fortune, pregnant and about to have her baby at any moment and DS Bagawath Chandavarkar from the Major Crime / Fraud squad seconded into this investigation because the victim, Farquhar Knox QC is one of the legal team involved in a major fraud case.
It's a complicated investigation because, for a start, just about every possible suspect - from the fraud trial, the marital infidelities, past cases as well as a general dislike of up jumped lawyers seems to have been on-site the night that Knox died. Many of these characters have plenty of experience of the law - from both sides - as well, and they are past masters at the art of vague memories and obfuscating answering. Even allowing for the slightly odd method of his death there's no shortage of possible motives as well, down to the senior police officer who ends up suspended whilst the team investigate his wife's relationship with the victim.
Alongside the complications of the case there are the irritations of the media shoving it's nose in where it's not wanted, and the opinions of Fortune's old boss who does a particularly nice line in antiquated, horrible old dinosaur if there ever was one.
The subject matter in MURDER IN COURT THREE is handled well and there's no indication that it's a spoof, but the author's hand is light and very engaging. His characters all have lives, thoughts and feelings, and the way that they are affected by each other, and the pressure of an investigation reads with authenticity. There is something here though, some sort of gentle hat-tip to Rumpole perhaps, that does make this feel slightly on the lighter side. Maybe it is the home, love and real lives interwoven with the day to day grind. Perhaps it is the setting of the legal world, and the idea that an Advocates and Archery night would happen in the first place that makes it all seem slightly "not of this world". It's definitely not crime fiction on the gritty side, but it is fabulously readable and enjoyable enough to quickly place the previous two books (MURDER ON PAGE ONE and MURDER ON THE SECOND TEE) instantly on the purchased list.
Review - POP GOES THE WEASEL, M.J. Arlidge
DI Helen Grace returns in Pop Goes the Weasel, the electrifying new thriller from M. J. Arlidge.
The body of a middle-aged man is discovered in Southampton's red-light district - horrifically mutilated, with his heart removed.
Hours later - and barely cold - the heart arrives with his wife and children by courier.
A pattern emerges when another male victim is found dead and eviscerated, his heart delivered soon afterwards.
The second novel in the DI Helen Grace series POP GOES THE WEASEL returns to Grace's life in the aftermath of her sister's death, and that of a much loved colleague in the first book EENY MEENY. Because the events in that first novel were so fundamental to everything that Grace is and how she behaves, this is definitely a series that would work best if you can start at the beginning, something that this reader would have highly recommended anyway.
Arlidge has taken a brave approach with the development of Helen Grace as a character. She's prickly, standoffish, often tricky to be around but there are plenty of reasons for her to be so. An impossible childhood, a dreadful outcome with her sister in the first novel, Grace could be forgiven for getting a lot of things cackhanded, and when it comes to working with other colleagues also involved in the earlier novel, then she's not exactly on high moral ground with everything. She's also got a new boss, DS Ceri Harwood and to say they don't get on is a bit of an understatement.
Despite the personal problems, and the tensions with colleagues, there's a major investigation that demands everybody's attention when a particularly vicious murder is discovered. As victim's start to pile up, in known sex or drug use haunts, eviscerated, with their hearts removed, the team is scrambling to find connections. Particularly difficult with each victim having a substantially different background, although slowly the use of online porn sites and prostitute rating forums starts to reveal itself.
The way that this author has now built a story surrounding an unexpected killer, who for all their violence and depravity, also has reasons for what they are doing in both books, is an interesting precedent. There's also a constant theme of women colleagues, friends and family and their relationships. In POP GOES THE WEASEL that examination extends to the family of the victims, particularly the first victim and a wife who struggles to admit the truth about a tyrannical husband and father.
The balance between personal and professional, angst and dedication is well done in this series. All of the characters are developing well and in some ways it's an ensemble cast, despite a lot of the focus being on Grace. The plot is fast when it needs to be, detailed and thoughtful when there are things need exploring. The balancing act between these elements is well done and makes for an engaging, yet fast paced police procedural with tension, aggravation, and that most unlikely of things - a sympathetic and very sad serial killer.
Review - WHAT SHE LEFT, T.R. Richmond
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.
WHAT SHE LEFT has created a record in these parts as one of the most picked up and put down, unable to continue books that this reader has struggled with for quite some time. Part of the reason for pressing on is that it was a review book, but the more pressing reason became why was it so difficult to read.
An interesting idea, WHAT SHE LEFT uses the idea that the digital trail left by somebody these days could be investigated, explored as part of an Anthropologist's field of study. Building that idea into a mystery / crime format therefore tends to scream that there is a crime here to be solved. And obviously from the start, Alice Salmon is a twenty-five year old woman who died falling off a bridge in her university town in suspicious circumstances. For reasons that appear somewhat bizarre one of her old professor's decides as his memorial to her / anthropological undertaking, to track her life through her diary, blogs, notes, emails and letters - from childhood through to the night of her death.
Part of the problem with this motivation is that it's hard to avoid the slight feeling of creepiness about it, to say nothing of the overwhelming sense, from page one, that there's probably an ulterior motive at play here. Which is most definitely not assisted by the device of putting the Professor's voice in letters of his own as they not only didn't ring true, there was something artificial about the tone, reeking of "unreliable narrator that wants you to know it".
Which now presented this reader with a double dose of difficulty. Not only does the "hero" of the piece, Dr Jeremy Cook feel suspiciously like a bit of a weirdo stalker, but the voice of the heroine, the dead girl Alice Salmon is littered with ironic references and portent so thick it wouldn't have been much worse if there'd been big arrows in the margins to boot.
Whilst it seems, on the face of it, a continuation of a standard historical methodology, seeking to understand an existence from the clues in their correspondence, and memorabilia, the problem with WHAT SHE LEFT is the same as the one that you often find when your Great Uncle has suddenly decided that his life is worth documenting, and you're the lucky person tasked with transcribing the notes. There's a sinking, desperate need to be anywhere else, and a stark reminder that some things are best left unsaid.
Review - ONLY THE BRAVE, Mel Sherratt
When one of the notorious Johnson brothers is murdered and a bag of money goes missing, a deadly game of cat and mouse is set in motion.
DS Allie Shenton and her team are called in to catch the killer, but the suspects are double-crossing each other and Allie has little time to untangle the web of lies.
As she delves deeper into the case, things take a personal turn when Allie realises she is being stalked by the very same person who attacked her sister seventeen years ago and left her for dead.
The third in the DS Allie Shenton series, readers might be best served to have at least read one of the earlier books (this reviewer has read FOLLOW THE LEADER only and that helped make sense of a lot of the sub-plot elements).
Whilst the main plot of ONLY THE BRAVE is the bashing, then stabbing murder of a notorious local identity, his connections to the underworld family that forms a big part of Shenton's background might need a bit of filling from the earlier books to make sense. There are complications aplenty in this death - and not just the missing bag of money. Very soon it appears that Johnson was supposed to receive a warning beating, but how he ended up stabbed to death confuses everyone. Not least the underworld figure who wanted him thumped. Not least his own brother, now living in the same family house of a major character from the earlier books, now sleeping with the same gangster's daughter who the brother's are supposedly minding. Confused? Luckily this plays out really well as the plot evolves, it's really only in looking back that you can see just how much was going on, and how complicated is the web around Shenton, her job, her background and her comatose sister.
ONLY THE BRAVE also brings to a climax events that are set in train when Shenton's sister is attacked and left for dead. In the second book in the series, FOLLOW THE LEADER, her attacker is lurking in the shadows, making it clear that Shenton is now a target in her own right. That aspect is ramped up rapidly in this third book, although there are aspects of the resolution of that thread that feel a little rushed and a little sanitised.
Aside from the ongoing threads, the cases being investigated in both the Allie Shenton books this reader has read are interesting. The way that there are many aspects of day to day life that continue on through the books feels very realistic - the gangster family as her nemesis; the ongoing threat; the perilious situation of her comatose sister; and her close although not sugar-coated relationship with her husband all contribute to making Shenton a believable character with a life as well as a job. The complications of the cases that she investigates are also not straight-forward and there's nuance, and humanity in the victims as well as the entire police crew doing the investigation.
ONLY THE BRAVE is the third in a strong series, although it is one that this reader would recommend you start from the beginning.
Review - CLOSE CALL, Stella Rimington
The next instalment of the Liz Carlyle series: a pacy, intelligent espionage thriller from the woman with true insider knowledge
In 2012, in a food market in Yemen, MI5 agent Miles Brookhaven was attacked. At the time he was infiltrating rebel groups in the area. No one was certain if his cover had been blown or if the act was just an arbitrary attack on Westerners. Months later, the incident remains a mystery.
In the early books of this series, Liz Carlyle was a young MI5 operative out in the field learning spycraft and often finding herself in danger as a result. Now, eight books on, Liz has climbed the ladder within the British Secret Service and is more likely to be directing operations than participating in them. This does not necessarily detract from the tension that Rimington, a former head of MI5, manages to create in Close Call, but it does create a slightly different beast.
Close Call concerns itself with the rise of Jihadi organisations, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring. The focus of the secret service agencies in this book is the illegal arms trade. As the book opens, the British and American secret services are investigating illegal arms shipments into Yemen. Through the course of their investigation they find that many of the plotters are French and English nationals and that the threat posed by these arms might be closer than they thought.
One thing Rimington does particularly well in this book is give the reader a glimpse into the world of international intelligence. While Close Call is clearly fiction, the interactions between the British, French and American secret service organisations, the way decisions are made, the character types that Rimington describes, have the ring of truth about them. There are few bells and whistles here but there is plenty of solid and fascinating spy-craft.
While Liz Carlyle’s character is the one that brings this series together, Rimington’s authorial eye roves across a wide cast of characters in Close Call. Given Carlyle’s necessary remove from some of the action this allows Rimington to create small moments of tension and illumination within the larger plot. But Liz is still the centre of the action and it is her relationships, both current and long past, which carry much of the emotional weight of the novel.
An interesting observation that Rimington seems to make in this novel is the way humans can compartmentalise and ignore the consequences of their actions when they involve people they don’t or can’t know. While a French arms dealer has no compunction in providing arms to be used in the Middle East, he reconsiders his position when he learns that the weapons might be used in Europe. Similarly other characters in the book take the issue more seriously when they realise that the impacts of their actions may not be occurring somewhere on the other side of the world.
Close Call is another solid entry in this long running series from the former head of MI5. While there are plenty of call backs to previous books in the series, and some of the impact will be greater if the reader is familiar with previous events, there is enough background information provided for this novel to easily stand on its own. One for anyone, but particularly the Spooks crowd, to enjoy.
Review - WHAT SHE LEFT, T.R. Richmond
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.