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Reviews

November 2015

Russ Litten - Kingdom

"...this is a book... will haunt you ’til Kingdom Come."

Synopsis:
Subverting the premise of the genre from its fortified gate, this story begins with a man breaking into prison and getting himself banged up. Or, at least, a stranger appearing in the library of an unnamed institution and announcing his presence by assaulting a guard.

Taken to the Separation and Care Unit, the man begins to tell his story to an Impartial Listener with the unforgettable words: 'My name is Alistair Kingdom and I was born a ghost.'

Starting at his end, he claims to have died of a drug overdose in a derelict street at the edge of a city centre. But, having forgotten everything that came before, he has to roam the streets, hovering somewhere unseen between the living and the legions of fellow lost souls, searching for traces of his former life and what led to his desperate finish.

Review:
Never let it be said that Russ Litten doesn't like to gamble. The premise of this book is high stakes – if he cannot get you to believe that Kingdom is a ghost and not a madman pretty soon after his lead character's startling opening gambit, then all is lost. Fortunately, here is a writer with enough skill to keep you dogging every step of Kingdom's next 200 pages towards recognition.

Kingdom's quest is in many ways a voyage through the afflictions of modern masculinity, as well as a landscape of former industry that has also been left to perish. At first, he cannot be seen by anyone other than his fellow lost souls. But, being able to travel where he wants without any effort and do all those other handy ghost tricks like walking through walls, he is soon able to build a picture of what life used to be like.

Kingdom finds traces of his former self among the young and vibrant, as well as the derelicts and outcasts whose parallel existence marks them as the shades of the living. As his investigations begin to bear fruit, his senses return one by one, along with feelings of empathy, friendship, love… then anger and hate, as the pattern of existence that forged his fate begins to reassert itself.

The final revelation hits the reader like a hammer blow and it's no surprise to find that Litten, who has spent many years working as a writer in prisons, was inspired by the story of a real person. More details I won't reveal, as this is a book best read with as little foreknowledge as possible, which will haunt you 'til Kingdom Come.

Reviewed by: C.U.

CrimeSquad Rating:

John Martin - Crime Scene: Britain and Ireland

"This is a splendid, much-needed book."

Synopsis:
When I first started reading crime novels many years ago, they were mostly set either in London (if it was hard-hitting, urban crime), or in respectable Home Counties villages (if it was bucolic crime with retired colonels being bumped off). Of course, Conan Doyle did take us to Dartmoor, but once he solved the crime, he returned to the comfort of London. And Scotland Yard was forever sending out detectives to help country bumpkins in other parts of the country solve crimes that were believed to be beyond their limited intelligence. These days there is hardly a stretch of the UK and Ireland that isn't the setting for a series of crime books. From the Shetlands in the north to Cornwall in the south - they've all featured, and they owe nothing to our capital city.

John Martin has written a guide to most of these places. He has divided the UK and Ireland into thirteen regions, and listed the writers who set their books in these different locations. He has also given the basic plotline for a couple of books by each writer, and supplies a complete list of writers at the end of the book. At the end of each region, he also lists ten recommended reads that sum up the region and the novelists who write about it.

Review:
This is a splendid, much-needed book. I read it from cover to cover though that is not the way it should be approached. It should be dipped into as the occasion demands. If you're a crime fan, and are travelling to or through an area, you will certainly get an added enjoyment by finding out who has been writing about the region, and how the landscapes have influenced the writer.

The book has another benefit. There are, I estimate, over 450 novelists mentioned within it, from early in the 20th century until the present day, and each one has a short biographical paragraph, and a synopsis of one or two of the books they wrote. So dipping into it is an excellent way of seeking out unknown writers whose themes and plots may be of interest to you.

The text is straightforward, the writing direct and simple, and the research is immaculate. No doubt John Martin is, even now, seeking out emerging crime novelists who are coming to the fore to add to the book. This is a must for any crime fiction fan.

Reviewed by: J.G.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Iain King - Secrets of the Last Nazi

"...an original and exciting story that is certainly gripping and races along at a furious pace."

Synopsis:
Hitler and the Nazi regime were convinced that Fate controlled their lives, and if this was understood, it could be used to control the world. In this account, SS Captain Werner Stolz is captured after the war and interrogated by a Russian and an American. He reveals the existence of a way of determining the future that had been embraced by Hitler and other leading Nazis. The Americans decide to keep this quiet for the time being.

Seventy years later, at the age of 103, Stolz decides that after a successful and profitable career, it is his time to die and he uses the same method as his hero before him - poison. This death sparks off an international and secret investigation, spearheaded by a driven Russian woman and including an American, a Frenchman and a British representative. The Briton is Miles Munro, an eccentric and brilliant lecturer in history at Oxford University.

As they investigate the death of Stolz and the papers he left behind, some very strange coincidences and patterns occur. As they seem to get nearer to a solution to Stolz's secret, members of the group are eliminated and danger lurks at every corner. The truth that appears to emerge is that there is a preordained plan that uses astrological methods to predict the major and minor events of the future. But someone is trying to stop this 'truth' emerging, and is prepared to go to any lengths to do so.

Review:
It is a matter of historical fact that Hitler was obsessed with the predictions of the planets. Iain King has followed this up and sees connections to major world events with the occurrences of astrological appearances such as comets. It is an intriguing thought that there is a connection, but to extrapolate this to include micro details involves a little bit of poetic licence. 'Secrets of the Last Nazi' is an original and exciting story that is certainly gripping and races along at a furious pace.

This is reminiscent of Dan Brown's novels in that there is an implication that another force controlling us. I feel much like I did about the Dan Brown stories - rollicking good yarns that keep you enthralled but, on reflection, rather full of assumptions and illogical happenings that do not entirely hang together. I feel if you can suspend belief, then this will be the book for you. The element of the supernatural and mystical is very much 'in vogue', and stories of Hitler and the Second World War are always popular. This book has an intriguing slant on both and I believe will appeal to a large audience.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Karen Rose - Alone in the Dark

"...an addictive thriller that will accompany many a reader through a few winter’s nights."

Synopsis:
Former Army Ranger Marcus O'Bannion and homicide cop Scarlett Bishop have met only briefly but when Scarlett receives a phone call in the middle of the night, she immediately recognises the hauntingly smooth voice asking her to meet him in one of Cincinnati's roughest areas.

On arriving, Scarlett finds the body of a seventeen-year-old Asian girl and Marcus injured. A fierce champion of victims' rights, Marcus claims the young woman was working for an affluent local family and the last time he saw her she was terrified, abused, and clearly in need of help. Having agreed to meet her, both Marcus and the young woman were targeted for death.

As they investigate, Scarlett and Marcus are pulled into the dangerous world of human trafficking where they soon realise they are going to have to become as ruthless as those they are hunting. Because if they don't, how many other girls may end up alone in the dark?

Review:
In keeping with her other novels, Rose brings to the fore two characters that have drifted on the periphery of a previous novel and brought them centre stage to star in their own serial killer drama. However, people from other novels play their part whether big or small including Deacon Novak and Faith Corcoran appear who had centre stage in Rose's last offering.

Due to the romantic/passionate side of her thrillers, Rose's followers tend to be women who enjoy the mix of passion with a good juicy kill. Being male, I don't mind the sex scenes (as with TV you can always fast-forward if you find them uncomfortable…) and enjoy Rose's 'gung-ho' approach to her cases. There are plenty of bodies piled up by the end of Rose's substantial new addition to her series. I did feel at a few points that less would have been more as I felt there was a lull or two before things got going again. On the whole, this is an addictive thriller that will accompany many a reader through a few winter's nights. Just try not to read it all in one splurge – and do make sure all the doors are locked!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Linwood Barclay - Broken Promise

"Barclay does write excellent psychological thrillers..."

Synopsis:
The morning it all started, newspaper reporter David Harwood had plenty to worry about. A single parent with no job, forced to return with his young son to the small town of Promise Falls to live with his parents, the future wasn't looking too rosy. So when his mother asked him to look in on his cousin Marla, who was still not quite right after losing her baby, it was almost a relief to put the disaster his own life had become to one side. The relief wouldn't last long.

At Marla's house David is disturbed to find a smear of blood on the front door. He's even more disturbed to find Marla nursing a baby, a baby she claims was delivered to her 'by an angel'. Soon after, a woman's body is discovered across town, stabbed to death, with her own baby missing. It looks as if Marla has done something truly terrible.

While the evidence seems overwhelming, David just can't believe his cousin is a murderer. In which case, who did kill Rosemary Gaynor? And why did they take her baby and give it to Marla? With the police convinced they have an open and shut case, it's up to David to find out what really happened, but he soon discovers the truth could be even more disturbing.

Review:
I have read all Linwood's books thus far and he is an author who reaches great heights with some, and then slightly falls short on others. Here we have Detective Duckworth looking into the case, with Harwood also carrying out his own investigations. Linwood can be quite the master of the 'sleight of hand' which shows him at his best, although here it was early into the book that the answers became quite obvious. However, there were so many threads to this plot that every time a mention was made to a particular crime, I found myself thinking I had forgotten about it, and wondered who was guilty as I had been taken off track with so much else going on.

'Broken Promise' is the first of a series and the story is to continue in the next book, so not every loose end is tied off. Whilst I enjoy reading books from a series, the issue I find is due to the copious number of books I will read between this one and Linwood's next offering. I am one of those who don't necessarily remember the storylines and characters, but know if I enjoyed the book or not. I hope Linwood is planning on releasing the next instalment in quick time – or that there will be a resume at the beginning of the next one to refresh memories. Barclay does write excellent psychological thrillers, and I am hoping once this continues I won't be disappointed with how the story ends.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Andrea Carter - Death at Whitewater Church

"...gives a chilling, almost claustrophobic feel to proceedings. "

Synopsis:
When a skeleton is discovered wrapped in a blanket, in the hidden crypt of a deconsecrated church, everyone is convinced the bones must be those of Conor Devitt, a local man who went missing in his wedding day six years previously. But the post mortem reveals otherwise.

Solicitor Benedicta 'Ben' O'Keeffe is acting for the owners of the church, and although an unwelcome face from her past makes her reluctant to get involved initially, when Conor's brother dies in strange circumstances shortly after coming to see her, she finds herself drawn into the mystery.

Whose is the skeleton in the crypt and how did it get there? Is Conor Devitt still alive, and if so is there a link? What happened on the morning in his wedding to make him disappear?

Negotiating between the official investigation, headed up by the handsome but surly Sergeant Tom Molloy, and obstructive locals with secrets of their own, Ben unravels layers of personal and political history to get to the truth of what happened six years before.

Review:
Welcome to the Inishowen peninsula in County Donegal, Ireland and welcome to the world of solicitor Benedicta 'Ben' O'Keeffe - a persistent, intelligent, and vulnerable protagonist.

'Death at Whitewater Church' is the first in a new series of crime novels and is definitely a series to get stuck into. Andrea Carter has written a spot-on mystery with echoes of Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway series. She has perfectly crafted the small village mentality and given us a wonderful cast of characters. The 'everyone-knows-everyone-else's-business' image is evident and very true to life and gives a chilling, almost claustrophobic feel to proceedings.

Ben O'Keeffe is a subtle, yet engaging, lead character. There is definitely plenty of scope for more novels featuring her and I imagine Carter is going to have great fun writing them.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Patrick Redmond - The Replacement

"Redmond is a wonderful storyteller..."

Synopsis:
Everyone envies the Randalls: beautiful, accomplished and high-flying, their lives are almost too good to be true. Caroline is the Queenpin of her village. Along with her striking husband and handsome twin sons, James and Thomas it looks as though she has it all.

Stuart had a tough childhood. His parents and sister died in a car crash when he was young and after being abandoned by his surviving family, he wandered through several foster and care homes. Life has never been handed to Stuart on a plate, but a chance encounter sets in motion a series of events which will shatter everything. It will turn everyone's life upside-down and for some it is the beginning of the end.

Review:
I have been meaning to read 'The Replacement' for some time and eventually settled down with it this week. I finished it within two sittings. Redmond weaves a gripping story about family and belonging. Redmond also makes much of being 'a replacement' or in some instances, second best and people's journey to find out their identity (and that doesn't solely mean who we are physically). This is a recurring theme throughout Redmond's novel. I won't tell you exactly what the crux of this novel is – you will have to read it to find out. All I will allude to is that a cuckoo is found amongst the perfect family setting having lived in this privileged environment undetected for many years.

I read Redmond's debut 'The Wishing Game' when it first came out over fifteen years ago and greatly enjoyed it. Redmond has been some time bringing this out since his last in 2006. There really is nobody here who is redeemable. All of the Randalls are quite heartless and brutal and even Stuart, who starts out pleasant is soon infected by the family who has everything. Thankfully, Redmond saw fit to redeem some of the characters caught up in his drama which brings it to a fitting end. As I said, this book was quickly consumed and I would recommend it, although I advise some suspension of reality as some points can feel a little far-fetched. Also, at times the dialogue felt a little melodramatic. Redmond is a wonderful storyteller and this will keep you spellbound.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Barry Forshaw and David Stuart Davies - The Sherlock Holmes Book

"...one of those perfect ‘dip in and out’ books. "

Synopsis:
'The Sherlock Holmes Book' chronicles every case of the world's greatest detective and his assistant Dr Watson. The game is afoot and now you can discover every detail of Sherlock Holmes' world.

From the first novel 'A Study in Scarlet', through to the masterpiece that is 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' and the detective's last story, 'The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place', 'The Sherlock Holmes Book' explores every facet of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most memorable creation. Discover how Holmes reaches his conclusions through deductive reasoning, plus in-depth biographies of key characters, from Holmes and Watson themselves to Inspector Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, and the detective's arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty.

Review:
A new Sherlock Holmes book appears to be an annual occurrence. However, before you think this is a negative review, I will draw your attention to the two 'consulting' editors of this publication. Both Barry Forshaw and David Stuart Davies have been dabbling in crime fiction for a good few decades and both are highly respected within the genre. Therefore, if you think this may be a re-hash of the same Holmes memorabilia, then I advise you to think again.

You can feel that both gentlemen are huge fans of Doyle's work and that shines through here. You can't really call it 'work' or a 'chore' when one gets the opportunity to write about ones literary icon (whether that is Doyle or his creation, Holmes – or both!). I very much enjoyed the layout of the book which is easy to follow and a feast for the eyes with many illustrations and snapshots from different series that have been broadcast. Covering all the novels and short stories, this goes in-depth in to the puzzle nestled within each Holmes outing. If you know of a Holmes fan and think you have bought every kind of Holmes book – then I strongly suggest you reach out for this one. Guaranteed to keep the recipient quiet for a long while, this is one of those perfect 'dip in and out' books. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Anne Randall - Silenced

"...a well-paced thriller with crackling dialogue. "

Synopsis:
Fiona Henderson, the daughter of the victim who'd descended into a world of silence following her mother's murder, has gone missing. Her sister Annabelle scours the city in a desperate attempt to find her. Then the body of a homeless person is found among the rubbish in a deserted alleyway.

As DIs Wheeler and Ross investigate, more suspicious deaths occur and a pattern emerges: the victims are all homeless. And so the police are pitched against a killer who is hell-bent on a mission to rid the streets of the vulnerable and the dispossessed.

Wheeler and Ross descend further into Glasgow's netherworld, their investigation reveals not only a flawed support system for the disaffected, but a criminal class ruthlessly willing to exploit them. This is a city of double standards, where morality is bought and sold, but it's when the killer begins stalking Wheeler, that she and Ross release the threat is now personal.

Review:
'Silenced' is the second novel in the Wheeler and Ross series. The first, 'Riven' was published to great acclaim last year under the name AJ McCreanor.

This is a well-paced thriller with crackling dialogue. Randall writes with spot-on Glasgow colloquialisms. You can almost hear the accent with every line spoken. This is genuine Scottish noir at its best. The story is intriguing and Randall keeps wrong-footing the reader at every turn. The finale is ferocious, fitting and faithful to the characters and plot.

Anne Randall uses her setting well. She pits Glasgow against her characters as if they're at odds with one another. Glasgow could almost be the main character here: homelessness, and a broken social system. I would have liked to have seen more of a manhunt and inter-agency battle to locate a missing prisoner. This may have given the story more bite and energy but Randall's labyrinthine plot drives the action at a steady speed and doesn't let up until the final pages.

Wheeler and Ross are a good team. However it is strange to see two detectives of the same rank work together when you usually get a DI work with a lower ranked officer. They don't come across as equals either with Ross usually taking a subordinate role in the investigation. However, I can see Wheeler and Ross being around for a long time to come. With Anne Randall's original voice behind them, crime fiction fans are in for a real treat.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Jill McGown - The Murder at the Old Vicarage

"This is a great little festive mystery and well-worth investigating."

Synopsis:
It is Christmas Eve and neither Lloyd nor his sergeant, Judy Hill are looking forward to their respective Christmas'. Lloyd usually spends his alone and Judy wants to work rather than put on a brave face in front of her visiting in-laws to cover the fact that her marriage to their son, Michael is crumbling beyond repair.

Christmas Eve and the body of the vicar's son-in-law is found bludgeoned. Married just over a year to the vicar's daughter and already he was getting heavy handed with her. Was this why he had been despatched or was there another secret that Lloyd and Hill have to uncover? As the Christmas woes continue Lloyd and Hill discover that maybe their feelings for each other can no longer be kept restrained.

Review:
Originally published in 1988, this is the second novel in the brilliant Lloyd and Hill series. This new re-issue uses the US title, 'Murder at the Old Vicarage' (the UK title being 'Redemption') and is a definite homage to Agatha Christie. McGown was brilliant at plotting and this one is exceptional. Suspicion shifts from suspect to suspect and she gives her reader plenty to think about before arriving at her solution. Unlike Christie, McGown restrains herself (this was 1988 after all) and does not do the grand 'reveal' in the library. In fact, it is more potent as it brings reality crashing around Lloyd as he realises he can't live without Judy.

This is a great little festive mystery and well-worth investigating. If you love a good old-fashioned Christmas mystery, then I strongly recommend this. And I bet you will then go on and read the other Lloyd and Hill books. For any crime fiction fan, they are well worth discovering.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Neil White - The Domino Killer

"...sublime plotting, expert pacing and wonderfully atmospheric setting."

Synopsis:
When a man is found beaten to death in a local Manchester park, Detective Constable Sam Parker is one of the investigating officers. Sam swiftly identifies the victim, but what at first looks like an open and shut case quickly starts to unravel when he realises that the victim's fingerprints were found on a knife at another crime scene, a month earlier.

Meanwhile, Sam's brother, Joe - a criminal defence lawyer in the city - comes face to face with a man whose very presence sends shockwaves through his life. Joe must confront the demons of his past as he struggles to come to terms with the darkness that this man represents.

Before long, Joe and Sam are in way over their heads, both sucked into a terrifying game of cat-and-mouse that threatens to change their lives for ever.

Review:
I've always thought White's characterisation was his strongest suit, yet 'The Domino Killer' has challenged that particular theory with its sublime plotting, expert pacing and wonderfully atmospheric setting.

Don't get me wrong, I'm talking about the tiniest of margins and his characterisation is still excellent, it's just that the other elements of his writing are now equally strong.

Joe and Sam Parker's story and most importantly their back story make for a fantastic tale of revenge and retribution which White handles with an artisans eye for detail. The interplay and conflict between the brothers makes for great reading although you never dare anticipate what will happen next. The ending in particular totally blind-sided me and left me giving mental round of applause to both author and character.

If you like your crime thrillers to be dark, gritty and utterly engrossing, read Neil White.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Bonnie MacBird - Art in the Blood

"‘Art in the Blood’ is pitch perfect"

Synopsis:
London. A snowy December, 1888.

Sherlock Holmes, at the age of 34, is languishing and back on cocaine after a disastrous Ripper investigation. Watson can neither comfort nor rouse his friend - until a strangely encoded letter arrived from Paris. Mademoiselle La Victoire, a beautiful French cabaret star, writes that her illegitimate son by an English Lord has disappeared, and she has been attacked in the streets of Montmartre.

Racing to Paris with Watson at his side, Holmes discovers the missing child is only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger problem: the most valuable statue since the Winged Victory has been stolen in Marseilles, and several children from a silk mill in Lancashire have been found murdered. The clues in all three cases point to a single, untouchable man.

Will Holmes recover in time to find the missing boy and stop a rising tide of murders? To do so he must stay one step ahead of a dangerous French rival and the threatening interference of his own brother, Mycroft.

Review:
Sherlock Holmes is one of the most popular, most recognised, and most copied characters in the whole of crime fiction. Many writers have tried to recreate the magic of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, stepped into his shoes, and allowed Holmes and Watson to live on. Unfortunately, many have failed.

Bonnie MacBird is no such writer. She has captured the essence of one of the greatest writers known to crime fiction and produced a novel that could easily have been found as an undiscovered Conan Doyle original story.

'Art in the Blood' is pitch perfect as Holmes and Watson team up for a dark and dangerous case that takes them to France and Northern England to locate a missing child, stolen artwork, and discover the murderer of orphan children.

I am a big fan of Holmes and Watson and Conan Doyle was a terrific writer of unsettling horror with an atmospheric setting. MacBird has definitely done her homework as a faithful interpreter of Victorian fiction. Holmes, at times, can often be seen as a caricature, and he has been turned into a farcical character. MacBird hasn't allowed that to happen and centred on his faults as well as his brilliance to present him as a well-rounded, developed individual.

The plot moves along at a cracking pace and the tension mounts steadily as we head towards a truly dramatic and disturbing finale. Any true fans of Holmes and Watson will welcome this addition. MacBird's second novel featuring the famous duo, 'Unquiet Spirits', is published in September 2016. A date for the diary.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

M.C. Beaton - Agatha Raisin: Dishing the Dirt

"The writing is sparse, readable and without an unnecessary word."

Synopsis:
The Cotswold village of Carsley has a new inhabitant, Jill Davent and Agatha Raison is not impressed. Jill is a therapist, and she has set her sights on Agatha's former husband, James Lacey. Not only that - she knows far too much about Agatha's past - a past Agatha would prefer remained hidden, as she was born in an insalubrious high-rise in Birmingham to parents who were alcoholics and sponged off the state. She overcame this to run a successful public relations firm in London, and after she retired, a detective agency in the town of Mirchester, near Carsley.

Agatha being Agatha, she lets everyone know that she thinks Jill is a troublemaker and charlatan who would be better off dead. And then Jill is found dead, and of course, Agatha is the main suspect. So, together with Sir Charles Fraith, an occasional bedmate, she sets out to discover who the real killer is. Along the way she receives a bouquet which could have killed her, and nearly falls for yet another handsome, but totally unsuitable, man - Mark Dretter.

Review:
Okay, I admit it - I am an Agatha Raison fan. They're not to everyone's taste, but I love them. They're in the cosy English village genre, but at the same time they've subverted the genre and given it new edge. Agatha is the antidote to the dry, spinsterish Miss Marple for a start. She smokes, drinks, swears, falls in love at the drop of a hat, sleeps around and - o joy! - eats chips in restaurants (can you see Jane Marple doing that?) which is all right by me.

The writing is sparse, readable and without an unnecessary word. The plot manages to be convoluted while still being straightforward, which is a difficult trick to pull off. The other characters in the book are sometimes ciphers, but Agatha herself is a fully-rounded person who, for all she is in her 50s, can experience jealousy, hatred, lust, vindictiveness, fear and indecision - sometimes all in the one afternoon. There is a satisfying denouement, and plenty of clues along the way to work out who has it in for Agatha – again!

Reviewed by: J.G.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Theresa Talbot - Penance

"‘Penance’ is a damn good read."

Synopsis:
Oonagh O'Neil has a challenge on her hands - and her head over a toilet bowl. TV journalist and media darling Oonagh O'Neil faces danger and chaos when an elderly priest dies on the altar of his Glasgow church. His death comes as she is about to expose the shocking truth behind the closure of a Magdalene Institution. The Church has already tried to suppress the story. Is someone also covering their tracks?

DI Alec Davies is appointed to investigate the priest's death. He and Oonagh go way back, but their friendship counts for nothing when Davies' suspicions falls on Oonagh's married lover. Oonagh now faces the biggest decision of her life. But will it be hers to make? What secrets lie behind the derelict institution's doors? What sparked the infamous three-day riot that closed it? And what happened to the three Maggies who vowed to stay friends forever? From Ireland to Scotland. From life to death.

Review:
I'm not going to do that thing where I say, for a debut this is excellent. Because, for any experience of novelist, 'Penance' is a damn good read.

In Oonagh O'Neil, the author has created a fascinating, flesh and blood character. Someone who pops from the page and someone, dare I say it, who would be great fun to go for a drink with. There is much about this story that is dark and Oonagh's irrepressible sense of humour carries a light tone that leavens the darkness just when it's needed. If I was to pick hairs, there were a couple of times I felt it could have been toned down just a wee bit.

The Magdelene Institutions have become notorious throughout the UK and Ireland for the way young unmarried pregnant women (girls really) were treated and Talbot uses the experiences of those girls to good effect. In this skilful author's hands this never feels exploitative: she treats their powerful stories with respect and honesty. Indeed when describing what happened in these institutions this is often when her writing is at its sharpest and most moving.

As strong as all that social history is, this is still a crime novel and in 'Penance' that element informs the story and the subsequent mystery without ever swamping it: the mark of a talented writer. At one point near the end, I almost jumped out of my chair and cheered. When a writer provokes that kind of response in you, you know you've been removed from your reality and taken on a journey. What more can you ask for from a book? 'Penance' is in turns an exciting, humourous and poignant read.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Agatha Christie - The Lost Plays

"It is marvellous to find something new by Agatha Christie I haven’t read or seen on the TV."

Synopsis:
Lost for over half a century, presented here are three Christie radio plays which are the only ones left in existence. 'Butter in a Lordly Dish' is a play specially written for radio and is a wonderful psychological twister. Sir Luke Enderby's infidelities are known to his wife and others. Has Sir Luke gone one infidelity too far?

James Brent receives a call at his home from a woman called Fay. The call leaves Brent sweating and anxious. Whoever is on the line declaring themselves Fay must be lying – and Brent knows why.

Poirot and Japp enjoy Guy Fawkes' night, but the next morning a call comes through that a mews they were near the night before is the scene for death. The scene looks like suicide, but everything points to murder.

Review:
It is marvellous to find something new by Agatha Christie I haven't read or seen on the TV. Although 'Murder in the Mews' is well-known to all Christie fans and has been televised, it was interesting to listen to an early interpretation of Poirot. I must admit that I do not recognise any of the actors listed, except Barbara Lott who is in the first two plays but not the Poirot. Lott would go on in later life to play Ronnie Corbett's mother in 'Sorry'. But back to Poirot… Richard Williams has a good stab at Poirot's accent but sometimes he does sound as though he has a cold rather than a Belgian accent. I do advise to remember when listening to these that radio was still in its infancy (or at least it's teens) when these plays were performed. Some of the acting could be described as O.T.T. and 'hammy' with everyone having very cut glass accents – but these shouldn't detract from your enjoyment. In a way they embody a lost bygone age.

I found the two plays Christie wrote specifically for radio much more thrilling as I had not heard either before and didn't know the storyline. I am sure that when first broadcast in the late 40's/early 50's, that these were new plot twists. For any Christie fan, you may be able to guess the denouement, but it certainly won't spoil your enjoyment. 'Butter in a Lordly Dish' is a masterly psychological play, something Christie excelled in but unfortunately did not write a great deal of during her career. The same goes for my favourite, 'Personal Call' which certainly sent a chill up and down my spine. This is in the same vein of one of Christie's best collections, 'The Hound of Death'. This play shows that Christie could deliver a real Gothic chiller.

To sweeten the cherry there are a few snippets of live recordings of Christie herself. It is amazing that a woman who was so successful could be so painfully shy as to constantly put herself down at every opportunity. Christie reveals she was not given a proper education – although she certainly talks posh! Or maybe everyone spoke that way back in the day! There is also an interview with Ian Whittaker who played the juvenile in 'Murder in the Mews'. The interview is quite dry to start but do persevere as when Whittaker talks about his second career as a 'set decorator' the conversation becomes fascinating as he shares anecdotes. It is a shame that the BBC didn't archive a lot of their programmes/recordings as there were quite a few Christie dramatisations that have been lost forever, so we have only these three to enjoy. And I can guarantee you that if bought for any Christie fan over Christmastime you will have scored quite a few brownie points! Enjoy!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Mark Roberts - Blood Mist

"I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. This book should come with a speed limit warning."

Synopsis:
Two families massacred with signs of ritual killings.

A nine-year-old child abandoned in the snow.

An imprisoned mass-murderer holding information he refuses to give up.

As Liverpool holds its breath, DCI Eve Clay hunts a sadistic killer who knows more about her past than she does. Her search will take her down into the tunnels beneath Liverpool, boarded up and forgotten since the Second World War.

There, deep underground, she will come face to face with true evil for the first time.

Review:
'Blood Mist' is the first novel in a new series set in Liverpool. It is also a fast-paced, chilling novel that is a genuine one-sitting read. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. This book should come with a speed limit warning. Short chapters, crackling dialogue and action that never lets up for a single moment, adds to the pace. I'm sure smoke was coming from the pages at one point.

The protagonist is DCI Eve Clay, a woman with no past. Abandoned as a baby she was brought up by nuns and has no knowledge of who her real parents were or where she came from. She's a morally driven woman with determination and a gutsy instinct. I like her and I hope, as the series progresses, we discover more of who she really is.

The crime itself is shockingly dark and written with nail-biting gruesomeness as a killer slaughters an entire family every night. Mark Roberts is what British crime fiction has been looking for by creating a genuine lead character and a stark setting with great potential for more novels to come.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Craig Russell - The Ghosts of Altona

"...the prose, plotting and pacing of the novel are superb throughout."

Synopsis:
Jan Fabel is a haunted man. Head of the Polizei Hamburg's Murder Commission, Fabel has dealt with the dead for nearly two decades, but when a routine enquiry becomes a life-threatening - and life-changing - experience, he finds himself on much closer terms with death than ever before.

Two years later, Fabel's first case at the Murder Commission comes back to haunt him: Monika Krone's body is found at last, fifteen years after she went missing. Monika - ethereally beautiful, intelligent and cruel - was the centre of a group of students obsessed with the gothic. Fabel re-opens the case. What happened that night, when Monika left a party and disappeared into thin air?

When men involved with Monika start turning up dead, Fabel realizes he is looking for a killer with both a hunger for revenge and a taste for the gothic. What he doesn't know is that someone has been aiding and grooming a deranged escapee as his own, personal tool for revenge: a truly gothic monster to be let loose on the world.

Review:
I'm late to the party here, but I have good reason. At certain times of the year my work life becomes so busy I can only manage two or three pages before sleep beckons. I would never recommend reading any book in such short amounts, but if you do, make sure it's a good one. I did!

I've read Russell's Fabel series for years now and even in small doses, he kept my attention and had me looking forward to my daily fix. As you'd expect from someone of his standing, the prose, plotting and pacing of the novel are superb throughout.

It's his characters which bring the pages to life, though. Jan Fabel is the kind of character English students should be basing their dissertations on. Anna Wolff provides able support, but never does Russell allow the spotlight to move from the lead. The closest challenger is a marvellously odious villain.

All in all, its little surprise 'The Ghosts of Altona' was awarded the Crime Book of the Year. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes intriguing novels written with verve and understanding.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Stephen Childs - On Track for Murder

"A very strong debut that kept me enthralled."

Synopsis:
Abigail Sergeant and her mentally challenged brother, Bertrand have arrived in Australia after a long exhausting journey to join their father and his new wife. They arrive to an unfriendly welcome from her father's wife, to be made even worse when her father is found murdered and Bertrand is the chief suspect. Abigail is convinced that Bertrand is innocent and sets off cross country to find a witness who can prove his innocence. She takes with her a reluctant Constable Dunning to protect and guide her. Their adventures and Abigail's feisty behaviour provides an exciting and scary ride.

Review:
Set in the late nineteenth century, Abigail's resourcefulness and courage is unusual in a young woman of the time. But Australia encourages strong women and Abigail finds her mechanical expertise and independent thinking invaluable in finding out the truth. I really enjoyed the development of her character and look forward to more tales of her life in the future. Some of the other characters are particularly unpleasant and the flavour of the pioneering times is skillfully portrayed by Childs. A very strong debut that kept me enthralled.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Tom Adams and John Curran - Tom Adams Uncovered

"...a sumptuous book..."

Synopsis:
Displayed here are a selection of paintings by Tom Adams who, quite rightly is famed for his iconic covers of Christie's Fontana paperbacks during the 60's and 70's. Here in wonderful glossy colour, Adams presents his artwork, including others he was involved in (Tom Foules' 'The Collector' is another of his famous covers). Alongside each entry is a 'commentary' from Adams himself and Curran who in recent years released the Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks.

Review:
This is a sumptuous book and no expense has been spared on reproducing these iconic Christie covers. Although this isn't purely on Christie's books, it does take up a large portion of the book. So, if you are worried that any Christie fan would not get their 'hit' of Christie, then don't worry. Included here is Adams' cover for 'Poirot and the Greenshore Folly' which was lengthened to 'Dead Man's Folly'. The original novella was newly issued two years back. There is also a wonderful portrait of Christie surrounded by items and clues that allude to many of her books. This portrait as well as others by Adams seem to have gone on a wander, which makes one feel either Adams or the publisher were a little avant garde with his artwork – or more likely they are such stunning and iconic pieces that it was difficult for someone not to walk off with it and hang it on a wall at home! Adams states that he had to draw his cover of 'Endless Night' three times as the first two went walkies!

This book is really one of those gorgeous books you can flick through time and time again. The images and the colours leap out at you and it is a chronicle of an exemplary artist's journey. Even his other work is stunning and demands your attention. This is one of those books that would definitely score you a lot of points if given as a present to any Christie fan. Superb.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Michael Wood - For Reasons Unknown

"I expect great things from the dark imagination of Michael Wood."

Synopsis:
Twenty years ago in 1994 a couple were savagely killed in their own home. The only possible witness to these murders was their eleven year-old son, Jonathan who was found sitting at the top of the stairs, his hands covered in their blood. The boy could not give a statement as the shock of the horror was to strike him dumb for eighteen months after the tragedy. With their key witness in a mental shutdown and his elder brother missing for three days, the trail went cold very quickly. These two professionals were pillars of their community – who could ever wish to harm them in such a violent manner?

Twenty years later and after a long leave of absence, DCI Matilda Darke is back at work, but she has to earn her spurs and isn't going to be given her old role of head of M.I.T. (Murder Investigation Team) the moment she steps through the door. Oh no. Matilda finds herself in an office the size of a broom cupboard looking in to a case that is so cold you could freeze a body in it. The reason for re-investigating the case is because the scene of crime is due to be demolished within days. Feeling brittle and lacklustre at her treatment, Matilda goes through the motions. Then a body is found dead in an alley in the city centre and quickly the case goes from freezing cold to boiling hot and Matilda is determined to break the case – but Matilda has her own personal demons to deal with before she can deal with anybody else's…

Review:
I admit now that the very first sentence of Wood's grim beginning pulled me in and gripped me. From there, I simply fell into Wood's story.

Part police procedural, part psychological thriller, Wood entices us with a number of false leads and blind alleyways. What I loved here was Wood's characterisation. His main protagonist, DCI Matilda Darke felt fully-formed from the start, but Wood brings fresh meat to her story so that she was three-dimensional by the end. I felt her pain brought on by a spectacular fall from grace which coincided with the death of a loved one. Her life had been turned inside-out as well as upside-down – but you could feel that despite her defeatist attitude, Matilda was a fighter.

But this is not only Matilda's story. The investigation is shared with the murder team and we are introduced to some very interesting characters who I am sure are going to take their own place in the spotlight in future books.

Where Wood excels is with Jonathan Harkness, the man who was found in the house with his murdered parents. With great empathy, Wood describes the solitary life Jonathan leads. His books are his only solace as he cuts off any emotional ties from the outside world. Jonathan's retreat from the world is brought into sharp focus by Wood's sensitive prose. As with Matilda, Wood holds a mirror at two people who have been affected by tragedy and its aftermath – one recently and one in the past.

'For Reasons Unknown' is a stunningly strong debut. As Wood delves in to the depths of his characters psyche, such was his fine prose, I began to wonder if these people were in fact real, they were all so well-rounded. I read 'For Reasons Unknown' in two sittings, I was that entranced by his story. I am already looking forward to how Matilda Darke copes with her next case. I expect great things from the dark imagination of Michael Wood.

Oct FB debut now in paperback!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Tania Carver - Heartbreaker

"...Carver does have some great characters... "

Synopsis:
After years of abuse, Gemma Adderley has finally found the courage to leave her violent husband. She has taken one debilitating beating too many, endured one esteem-destroying insult too much. Taking her seven-year-old daughter Carly, she leaves the house, determined to salvage what she can of her life.

She phones Safe Harbour, a women's refuge, and they tell her which street corner to wait on and what the car that will pick her up will look like. They tell her the word the driver will use so she knows it's safe to get in.

And that's the last they hear from her.

Gemma Adderley's daughter Carly is found wandering the city streets on her own the next day. Her mother's mutilated corpse turns up by the canal several weeks later. Her heart has been removed.

Detective Inspector Phil Brennan takes on the case, bringing in his wife, psychologist Marina Esposito, to try and help unlock Carly's memories of what happened that day. The race is on to solve the case before the Heartbreaker strikes again.

Review:
'Heartbreaker' is the latest in the series of Carver's novels featuring DI Phil Brennan and his wife, criminal psychologist, Marina Esposito. Still reeling from their previous case, 'Heartbreaker' sees both of them face the struggles this trauma has left them with as we watch them both unravel.

Whilst I am a fan of Carver, I found the killer too obvious which was very disappointing. I was hoping I was going to be proved wrong, and at times the author did throw some red herrings to try and confuse the reader, but sadly it felt half-hearted and there was little suspense as to the identity of who the killer was.

That said, Carver does have some great characters (not including Esposito who for some reason I just cannot warm to) that get better with each book. Despite being part of a series, this can be read without needing to read the other books as Carver makes sufficient reference to previous events to refresh memories (without it feeling like repetition) or to share what has happened with any new readers to the series. 'Heartbreaker' is a great read, only let down only by a slightly predictable killer.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Agatha Christie - Little Grey Cells

"This charming little book would make the perfect stocking filler for any Christie fan."

Synopsis:
A little grey book filled with the quotes of a certain little Belgian and his little grey cells. Placed under different headings such as 'Symmetry and Order' and 'My Dear Hastings', we get to read Poirot's quotes and in a way, flesh out the man that little bit more.

Review:
There appears to be a proliferation of Christie books out to celebrate the 125th anniversary of her birth in 1890. This charming little book would make the perfect stocking filler for any Christie fan. This is one of those books that you flick through and put down and then pick up again later. The quotes here won't change your life – nor do they profess to offer any kind of clarity on dealing with life in general, but it is fun and will certainly keep any Christie fan engrossed while the turkey's in the oven!

Reviewed by: C.S.

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