October 2016

James Naughtie - Paris Spring

"As a student myself in 1968, I found this book very evocative of the atmosphere at that time..."

It is 1968, a time of unrest in the United States and in Europe. Paris is at the heart of it, where students from the Sorbonne are protesting against war, and revolution against the old guard is in the air.

Will Flemyng is attached to the British Embassy, and under Freddie Craven, is part of the Secret Service group that is monitoring all activity that threatens the stability of Her Majesty's Government.
He is approached by a secretive and odd character in the Metro who makes tentative approaches that may implicate Flemyng's brother, who is an agent for the United States. Flemyng alerts his boss whilst keeping secret the assertions about his brother.

Journalists and spies socialise and compete to gain information on forthcoming events. Bargains are struck, and favours given and received in the murky world of espionage. When one very high profile and attractive American journalist is found murdered in the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery, the stakes are raised. Flemyng is drawn into dangerous ground that involves his two brothers as well as his mentor and boss, Freddie Craven.

It comes to a climax where all is resolved for the time being but the potential for future action is always there.

As a student myself in 1968, I found this book is very evocative of the atmosphere at that time, although any protests at my university were small beer compared to the Sorbonne. It was heady times, when passions ran high and the chance for a better world was always there. The Secret Service was on high alert, as the threat of Communism was an ever present danger.

But the luxury of altruism and complete honesty is not always open to those struggling to protect our freedom. Will Flemyng and Freddie do their best to remain the good guys, but compromise has to happen. Journalists are all searching for the next good story and some manage to blur the lines of ethical behaviour in the pursuit of a scoop. This can be a dangerous game.

I enjoyed the twists and turns of the plot, and surprises turn up round every corner. The characters are engaging and I do want to find out what happens to Will Flemyng and his brothers in the future. The end was sufficiently open ended to give room for elaboration in a later book. A very good read.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Alex Clare - He's Gone

"...I finished the final page feeling immensely satisfied."

When Detective Inspector Roger Bailley returns to work as Robyn, all she wants is to get on with the job she loves while finally being herself. On her first day back, a young boy, Ben Chivers, goes missing from a local shopping centre. Robyn and her team are faced with the task of finding the missing child – and dealing with the boy's mother, Melissa, who doesn't believe Robyn has the right to even exist. Robyn has to find the missing boy – and herself – as she deals with the reactions of her colleagues, the media and her own daughter.

As the investigation gets underway, the team make a grisly discovery: the body of a young woman is found in a deserted warehouse, owned by an ex-client of Melissa. Convinced this is more than just coincidence, Robyn is determined to discover what connects the dead woman and the missing child.

This is a really well-written police procedural novel with a very credible character at its centre. I loved Robyn Bailley and found it very refreshing to read a crime novel exploring issues of gender dysphoria.

The missing child is the only son of single parent, career woman. Melissa is a remarkably unlikable woman – a bigot with very odd ideas on child rearing. Her obvious dislike of Robyn threatens to undermine the investigation from the beginning. The tension between these two characters is very well portrayed, sensitively exploring the nasty bigotry members of the LGBT community are forced to endure as they go about their day-to-day lives.

The novel starts off slowly and – for me – it took time for me to get drawn into the plot. What kept me going was my instant connection with Robyn's character. I liked her from the outset and was rooting for her even before I started to care about the missing child. It's clear that Clare has done her research; the procedural side of the story felt very credible. Personally, I would have preferred a bit less time spent on this and more time on some of the periphery characters, particularly Melissa. I would have enjoyed learning more about the factors in Melissa's life that contributed to her becoming the person she is when we meet her.

Apart from that tiny niggle, this is an excellent novel. The plotting is very clever and I really didn't predict some of the twists and turns. With every loose thread so neatly tied up at the end, I finished the final page feeling immensely satisfied.

Overall, this is a cracking debut and I really look forward to seeing what adventures lie ahead for Robyn Bailley.

Reviewed by: S.B.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Lucy Ribchester - The Amber Shadows

" accelerating sense of terror that gripped my attention from the first minute."

A chance meeting by two strangers in a wartime train sets into motion a plan to acquire a huge fortune.

It is 1942 and Honey Deschampes is a young woman working on the ultra-secret war effort at Bletchley Park, a country house set deep in the English countryside. Secrecy is all and few people know what anyone else is doing, although rumours night, Honey is walking home to her Spartan digs at the end of her shift when she is approached by a stranger, Felix, who delivers a parcel to her with foreign looking stamps and postmarked in Russia. This package contains a piece of amber. More packages follow with more amber, until she has a complete construction. She is puzzled as to what it can mean and who is sending her the parcels, but her chief suspect is her estranged father who may be exiled in Russia.

Honey has friends who help her at Bletchley and a beloved brother who is a dancer with ENSA. Her mother is a well-known opera singer. As she goes about her routine business, one friend disappears in strange circumstances and the stranger, Felix, appears at unexpected times. As she begins to suspect what is really happening, she calls on her brother for help and after that events escalate into a dramatic and frightening finale.

There are lots of lovely touches in this book which bring to mind, in vivid detail, the atmosphere and privations of wartime living. Details of bathing arrangements in wartime digs made me cringe, used as I am to showers at the flick of a switch. Some of these details have been carefully gleaned from people who were there.

The plot is well disguised and plays on Honey and her brother's memories of their father, who disappeared from their lives early on. He was a lover of Stravinsky and all things Russian, and also curiously interested in codes and cyphers. Could he be sending messages to Honey? How else would anyone know what the sender of the packages knows? Where is he?

As Honey gets more involved in finding out the truth, she puts herself into even more danger. 'The Amber Shadows' is an exciting tale, full of chases in the dark through unfriendly and hidden territory. Suspense builds up as there is hardly anyone she can trust. Blackout conditions make everything much more scary.

This is an exciting story with an accelerating sense of terror that gripped my attention from the first minute.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Claire Douglas - Local Girl Missing

"...very well written and made me want to know what happened."

The old Victorian pier was once a thing of beauty. It's also where twenty-one-year-old Sophie Collier vanished eighteen years ago.

Francesca has spent the last twenty years haunted by the disappearance of her best friend. But when she receives a phone call from Sophie's brother saying that a body has been found, she knows she can't keep hiding from what happened. With her own secrets to keep, Francesca doesn't relish the idea of digging up the past or returning to Oldcliffe. But it is time to go back to where she grew up, and it looks like she isn't the only one there hiding truths.

'Local Girl Missing' is written in the present tense from Frankie's perspective and also in the past tense from Sophie's, so the tale is set over a couple of decades. I enjoyed the way this was written; an event would be given from one point of view and then would be given from the other. It would be down to the reader to decide which character to believe after getting to know each of them throughout the book.

Douglas slowly introduces each of the characters, giving most of them either a motive or opportunity for Sophie's disappearance. Whilst I did feel that one of the plot threads was quite transparent, I wasn't expecting the ending. The book was very well written and made me want to know what happened.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Matthew Frank - Between the Crosses

"...this was one that definitely had my attention. "

Joseph Stark, war-hero-turned-copper is now a Detective Constable. After the Remembrance parade he is called to a double murder of a husband and wife. The house is big and it appears the couple were victims of a burglary gone wrong. Soon the sheen of this couple who were involved in different charities begins to tarnish as different aspects start to surface – especially the wife, Mary. Is there more to this slaying than mere burglary? As Stark and his immediate boss, DS Fran Millhaven delve beneath the surface it appears that a lot of ill-feeling has been bubbling underneath for years – leading them to a disappearance and murder of over twenty years ago.

As I claimed in Frank's debut, 'If I Should Die', he manages to keep the pace of a thriller whilst still delivering solid writing without slowing down the plot. There is much here about Stark's recurring nightmares about past tours to the Middle East which still torment him years down the line. He is a damaged soul, but despite being a war hero, Frank doesn't make Stark a saint, either. I imagine this is why Stark is so appealing – he isn't a one-man army, just a guy with a lot of issues but also with a stoic sense of duty, whether it be for the army or the police force.

Frank's characterisation is spot on. As well as Stark, Millhaven comes leaping off the page. One moment she is like a soft kitten – until riled and the claws come out and she is a tigress! Even Stark's nemesis, Harper is back, in charge and loving the power! All are three-dimensional, all have their own backstory and history. My favourite is Major Pierson who is like a dour elder sister to Stark – and so rude you can't help but admire her! 'Between the Crosses' begins as a police procedural and ends as a thriller. The killer is revealed some time before the end, but Frank continues to deliver the twists and turns as the past comes crashing in to the present and past misdeeds are slowly revealed. I gulped over three hundred pages in one sitting, which means this was one that definitely had my attention. Stunning.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Stuart Neville - So Say The Fallen

"I am definitely a fan."

The fallout from DCI Serena Flanagan's last major case, which saw her home invaded and her husband attacked, has left the previously close family fractured.

When Serena is asked to sign off the suicide of a severely disabled local businessman, she finds herself envying the grieving widow's comfortable life and devoted marriage, until the widow's close relationship with the local reverend starts to sound an alarm. But with a clean crime scene and no evidence to back her up, have Serena's instincts led her down the wrong path?

With her husband struggling to deal with the aftermath of the attack that nearly cost him his life, and her young children anxious and unhappy, Serena's determination to unlock the mystery of what happened in that house may cost her job - and her family.

This second outing for DCI Flanagan deals with the fallout from the first novel and Serena is suffering with a fractured home life that only she can repair. Yet her work is vitally important to her. Neville has tapped into the difficulty of a high-pressured job and a happy home life, giving Serena a compassion and vulnerability where, in trying to please everyone, she's pleasing no-one. Serena is a wonderfully drawn creation and has the ability to be ranked with some of the strong female protagonists in crime fiction.

'So Say The Fallen' starts out with a simple case of a suicide but Serena sees it as more than that. As the investigation intensifies, so does the story and it builds slowly into a gripping Columbo-esque thriller as Serena refuses to back down from catching her target when everyone around her is against her.

As a writer of crime fiction with a female protagonist I am often asked how a male writer can get into the mind of a female lead; I'd love to know Stuart Neville's answer to that question as he has created one of the most likeable and genuine detectives of recent times.

I hope the DCI Flanagan series will be a long running one. I am definitely a fan. Serena Flanagan and Stuart Neville are going to be a dangerous pairing. Brilliant.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating: