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Reviews

November 2016

Janet Neel - Death's Bright Angel

"Neel’s writing reminds me of the early novels of P.D. James."

Synopsis:
Francesca Wilson works for the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry). Currently investigating Britex Fabrics, her work becomes inextricably entwined with a murder inquiry headed by DI John McLeish. Their attraction to one another adds confusion to the labyrinthine case and soon Francesca herself is in danger as the murky truth begins to surface.

Review:
Janet Neel's debut won the John Creasey Dagger for Best First Crime Novel back in 1988. Now re-issued, Neel's debut still holds up over twenty-five years later. Her writing is crisp and taut with drama. Neel uses her knowledge of the DTI to good effect here to deliver a strong and twisting plot. Her writing is imbued with musicality through Francesca's brothers who are musicians of a high calibre. All her characters are three-dimensional and no-one is simply a throwaway plot device. Everyone deserves to be here, whether for ill or good. The blossoming love between Francesca and McLeish is subtle, but not without complication. I can see why 'Death's Bright Angel' was awarded the dagger. Neel's writing reminds me of the early novels of P.D. James. You would do no wrong by searching out Neel's debut novel.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Martina Cole - Betrayal

"‘Betrayal’ is another searing family drama..."

Synopsis:
Aiden O'Hara has been head of the family since he was kid, and he's going to keep it that way.

Jade Dixon is the one who watches his back. Mother of his son, she is the one who makes him invincible. But Jade's been in the game a lot longer than Aiden. She knows no one's indestructible.

And when you're at the top, that's when you've got to watch the hardest.

Especially the ones closest to you . . .

Review:
Having reviewed Martina Cole's books for the past ten years I am rapidly running out of superlatives for this lady's work. Cole always produces something that immediately draws you in and holds your attention. There is no messing about and Cole delivers her story with a brutal blow. What it is that entrances her reader I cannot really say. It could be her wonderful characterisation – all here feel so real that you could reach out and touch them. Or is it her portrayal of a sociopath in the driving seat of a car with no brakes? Whatever it is, one is propelled through page after page until you reach the finish post totally breathless and in awe. My personal favourite here is Jade Dixon. I know Cole is not one to usually re-visit her characters, although she has done with Maura Ryan and Kate Burrows, I felt Jade could carry a novel on her own shoulders. To me there was so much back story to Jade that wasn't fully explored. 'Betrayal' has already hit the no.1 spot – an occupational hazard for this lady and one can see why many flock to the shops the moment her book arrives. 'Betrayal' is another searing family drama that shows there is no greater betrayal than that delivered by those closest to you… especially those related by blood. Gob-smackingly brilliant.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Sarah Ward - A Deadly Thaw

"Whether it was at night before bed or on the bus I just wanted to keep reading this book."

Synopsis:
Autumn 2004 - In Bampton, Derbyshire, Lena Fisher is arrested for suffocating her husband, Andrew.

Spring 2016 - A year after Lena's release from prison, Andrew is found dead in a disused mortuary.

Who was the man Lena killed twelve years ago, and who committed the second murder? When Lena disappears, her sister, Kat, sets out to follow a trail of clues delivered by a mysterious teenage boy. Kat must uncover the truth - before there's another death...

Review:
I nicknamed this book 'Just One More Chapter' as that is what I kept saying when I needed to stop reading. Whether it was at night before bed or on the bus I just wanted to keep reading this book.

'A Deadly Thaw' is Sarah Ward's second novel in the Inspector Sadler series. 'In Bitter Chill', was a wonderfully written, understated and chilling. I really wanted 'A Deadly Thaw' to have the same emotive resonance. To my delight, the sequel bettered the original.

DI Francis Sadler may be the protagonist but his two subordinates of DC Connie Childs and DS Damian Palmer are equally drawn in their complexities and troubled personalities. The relationship of the trio is natural and comfortable.

The plot is highly original and intelligently conceived. Sarah Ward is a talented writer who takes the reader on an emotional journey as the sensitive story unfolds. Ward refuses to shy away from the difficult aspects of the dark story and treats it with respect. It is never voyeuristic and always entertaining.

The story moves along at a cracking pace and is littered with misdirection. The finale is highly charged and a satisfying conclusion is reached. I think my favourite character of our three leads is Connie Childs - a strong detective with a vulnerable nature. She could lead a novel on her own. Sarah Ward is a literate crime writer and is definitely an author to watch out for.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Matt Hilton - Painted Skins

"There is something exceptional about the way Matt Hilton writes."

Synopsis:
PI Tess Grey and her partner, Nicolas Po Villere have been hired by Margaret Norris to find her granddaughter, Jasmine Reed who has been missing for sixteen days. If Tess is to have any chance of finding Jazz, she needs to know the truth about the young woman s troubled past. What is it that Margaret Norris isn't telling her?

Tess and Po aren't the only ones looking for Jazz. With shady local businessman Daryl Bruin and his henchman John Trojak also on her trail, as well as a mysterious and violent stranger, Tess prays, for Jasmine s sake, that she and Po will find her first. It's only when Tess uncovers a link to several other missing girls that she begins to make headway in the investigation and finds herself in a desperate race against time to track down Jazz before it's too late.

Review:
There is something exceptional about the way Matt Hilton writes. Whether he's ramping up the action or diligently following a line of enquiry, he has me right in the action as if I'm sitting on the shoulder of his characters. And what great characters they are. Po has many hidden depths, Tess is trying to adjust to a new station in life and their friend Pinky threatens to steal every scene like an Oscar-winner with a point to prove. Even the bad guys and peripheral characters are drawn with the kind of great aplomb that imbues them with realism.

The plotting is sublime as Hilton trails both character and reader into a world they don't want to know exists. With twists and surprises aplenty the reader must never let their guard down.

This is the second instalment in the Tess & Po series and proves Hilton is more than adept at whatever style he chooses as 'Painted Skins' is a dark descent into some of our basest fears.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Camilla Way - Watching Edie

"‘Watching Edie’ will keep you on the edge of your seat..."

Synopsis:
THERE ARE SOME FRIENDS YOU'LL NEVER FORGET… NO MATTER HOW HARD YOU TRY

BEFORE: Edie is the friend that Heather has always craved. But one night, it goes terrifyingly wrong. And what started as an innocent friendship ends in two lives being destroyed.

AFTER: Sixteen years later, Edie is still rebuilding her life, but Heather isn't ready to let her forget so easily. It's no coincidence that she shows up when Edie needs her most.

NOW: Edie or Heather? Heather or Edie?

Someone has to pay for what happened, but who will it be?

Review:
Theirs is an unlikely friendship. Edie is popular, attractive and sociable. Heather is awkward, has no friends and not the most attractive girl in the school. So when Edie wants to become Heather's friend, she jumps at the chance. And nothing is going to get in the way of their friendship.

The author delves into the home lives of both teenagers, neither of which are particularly stable. Edie is her mum's carer, and Heather's family are very religious and seem to resent her.

As the story progresses, it's possible that not all is as it appears with either of the main characters. Written in past tense from the perspective of Heather, and in present tense from Edie's, 'Watching Edie' tells the tale of two friends whose friendship was torn apart. The event causing the drift is referred to throughout the book.

'Watching Edie' is a brilliant read. As the story develops, more and more questions need to be answered as to what really happened all those days ago. Who was the unstable person and who the injured party?

'Watching Edie' will keep you on the edge of your seat, wanting to know what happened. This is extremely well-written, bringing the characters to life. A must read.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Mark Edwards - The Devil's Work

"I loved every word of this book..."

Synopsis:
It was the job Sophie Greenwood had dreamed of since childhood: working in marketing for iconic children's publisher, Jackdaw Books. After years out of the workforce to have her daughter, Sophie can't wait to get stuck in and hopefully mend her strained relationship with her unemployed husband. But on the very first day, an unnerving encounter drags up memories Sophie would rather forget, and she wonders if she has made a mistake. A fatal mistake.

A mouse nailed to the front door. A stranger following her home in the shadows. Unexplainable whispers in the office late at night.

A series of disturbing events lead Sophie to think someone is out to get her, and as her life begins to fall apart at work and at home, Sophie must confront dark secrets from her past and race to uncover the truth about her new job... before it kills her.

What is her ambitious young assistant really up to? And what exactly happened to Sophie's predecessor?

Review:
Mark Edwards' latest psychological thriller is a gripping, page-turner of a novel that will keep you engrossed long into the night. Once you start reading you'll not be able to put it down until you've finished.

Edwards has created a very human and natural environment with characters any of us could know which makes 'The Devil's Work' feel frighteningly real. Edwards has tapped into the worry, lack of confidence and sense of fear that Sophie feels on her first day, making her instantly likeable. As we follow Sophie meeting her colleagues, getting to grips with the job, and the change in her family dynamic, we get to know the vulnerable yet ambitious Sophie and quickly want her to succeed.

What we also get are flashback chapters to Sophie's time at university where something shocking and life-changing happened to her. Gradually, Edwards slowly reveals breadcrumbs of information to tease us.

There are some great set pieces and a standout scene for me is Sophie and her colleague Natalie trying to have a serious conversation against the backdrop of a zombie apocalypse exercise. It's expertly written and delivers a huge plot twist at the end you won't see coming.

As we get to the finale the tension mounts and bubbles to boiling point. The last few chapters are dark, disturbing and thrilling. I loved every word of this book and will definitely be reading it again (when my heart has stopped pounding).

Mark Edwards is a talented novelist. 'The Devil's Work' can only cement his reputation as one of Britain's leading psychological thriller writers.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Ann Cleeves - Cold Earth

"This is another cracking good read and I can’t recommend it highly enough."

Synopsis:
Jimmy Perez is standing on a rainy hillside at the traditional burial of his old friend and neighbour, Magnus Tait. As the mourners surround the grave, a rumbling is heard and a slow landslide comes down the hill, covering in its wake an apparently empty croft and taking with it gravestones and rubble on its way to the sea. Whilst the rest of the congregation move to the safety of the parish hall, Jimmy carefully looks over the wreckage and discovers the body of an unknown woman, not of the islands, but with a distinctly Mediterranean appearance.

Jimmy, together with Chief Inspector Willow Reeves from Inverness, start by trying to identify the body and the means of death. Together they pull all the strands of why she was in Shetland, who she knew and above all, who would want her dead. For an apparent stranger, the dead woman has connections with several people, none of whom are keen to reveal what they know. Little by little, the story is revealed, culminating in an exciting race to prevent Jimmy experiencing another traumatic scene.

Review:
I shall start by saying that the Jimmy Perez of Ann Cleeves' novels has a different back story to the Jimmy Perez of the acclaimed television series. This is fine, as I am sure there were good broadcasting reasons to change the story line, but it is wise to partake of both formats independently! I love them both.

The plot is, as always, intricately worked out and completely plausible. It makes complete sense with the benefit of hindsight whilst confusing and muddying the waters as it proceeds.

I love Ann's understanding of people and how they work. The characters behave the way people do and with the motives, some honourable, some less so, that people have. This is what drives the plot and it is also what makes the novel such an enjoyable read. The extra spice that the Shetland novels have is that we gain an insight to a world that is slightly cut off from mainland mores and some motives and reactions are different from the usual run of things.

Shetland is a fascinating place, and the cast of characters, some native born and bred, and some seeking consolation or redemption in an isolated island away from their past, co-exist and provide the backdrop for the mystery. This is another cracking good read and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Laura Lippman - Wilde Lake

"Through her utterly compelling narrative, Lippman shows that nothing in this life is as it first seems. "

Synopsis:
Luisa 'Lu' Brant is the newly elected – and first female - state's attorney of Howard County, Maryland. It's a job once held by her revered father, and Lu is determined to prove she's every bit as good at the job as he was.

Prosecuting a controversial case involving a disturbed drifter accused of beating a woman to death, the fiercely ambitious Lu is determined to avoid the traps that have destroyed other competitive, successful women. She's going to play it smart to win this case—and win big—cementing her political future.

However, as her preparations for the trial get underway, Lu is startled to learn that this murder might have its roots in a violent event in the past involving her own family. And that maybe no one – her precious father, her brother, her late mother – is quite who she thought…

Review:
Like many people of my generation, 'To Kill a Mockingbird' was – and remains – one of my favourite books. I am also a huge fan of Laura Lippman so it was a joy to read her latest novel which is, among other things, a modern reworking of Harper Lee's classic novel.

The narrative is told in two timelines and from two narrative perspectives. The present-day story, told in the third person, focuses on Lu's new job, her complicated relationship with her home town and her first murder case as state's attorney. The second – first person narrative centres on Lu's early life growing up with her brother, A.J., in Howard County. Through both timelines we are gradually introduced to the important people in Lu's life: her father, her absent mother, A.J. and his friends, particularly neighbour Noel Baumgarten ('the boy in the bush').

From the outset, the parallels with 'To Kill a Mockingbird' make for a compelling read. Like Harper Lee's Scout, Lu has a close relationship with her father and brother. Like Jem and Scout, A.J. and Lu's childhood summers are defined by their friendship with a boy who moves in next door. Perhaps most strikingly, one of the central events in Lu's young life is when a young African-American man is accused of raping a white girl.

But 'Wilde Lake' is a reworking, not a repeat. Through her utterly compelling narrative, Lippman shows that nothing in this life is as it first seems. Slowly, and with great skill, she reveals that the central narrative of Lu's life has been based on a series of lies. Everyone, even those closest to us, shape the truth to suit their own needs.
It doesn't matter a jot if you've never read Harper Lee's famous novel. If you are a fan of good writing and brilliantly executed psychological thrillers, you will love 'Wilde Lake'.

Reviewed by: S.B.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Joseph Finder - Guilty Minds

"...another thrilling read from a first-class author."

Synopsis:
Private spy Nick Heller is the best lie detector you'll ever meet. Trained in the Special Forces; tough, smart and stubborn, he'll do what needs to be done to uncover the truth.

He's been hired to disprove a story about a Supreme Court judge and a high-class call girl who's just been found dead. Nick has forty-eight hours before a Washington gossip website runs an exposé that could destroy the justice system as we know it.

Forty-eight hours to figure out who is lying. Forty-eight hours to solve the murder of an innocent woman. Forty-eight hours to force the power-brokers of Washington to give up their secrets...

Review:
I knew within a couple of paragraphs that I was reading a great book. 'Guilty Minds' doesn't just have a great hook, the writing is sublime on every level and drew me right into the story from the word go.

Nick Heller is a wonderful creation and a more than admirable character. Finder has been clever to give him a back story which allows his hero to function in the action scenes and a great brain to solve the mysteries he's faced with. The support characters are all finely drawn with Mandy Seeger being the one who drew my eye the most.

The plot is very well executed with great pacing and enough clues and red herrings to keep even the most astute reader guessing. For the record, I only managed to guess the twist a few pages before being told. (Regular readers will be well aware of my unofficial competition with authors). All in all, 'Guilty Minds' is another thrilling read from a first-class author.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Andy Martin with Lee Child - Reacher Said Nothing

"... a fascinating journey for anyone who is interested in literature in general and thriller-writing in particular"

Synopsis:
This book has a fascinating premise – what are the creative processes that go into writing a thriller? On September 1 2014, Lee Child began writing 'Make Me', his latest Jack Reacher book. On April 10 2015 he finished. Looking over his shoulder as he wrote was Andy Martin, a lecturer in French literature and philosophy at Cambridge University, surfer and self-confessed Reacher fan.

He was there when Child, without any idea of where the book would take him, wrote his first two pages. Even though Child declares he only ever writes one draft of a book, he was there when Child worried these two pages to death, changing single words, changing them back again, worrying about tenses, taking things out, putting them back in again and rejigging sentences. He was there when the last sentence was typed and Child went out to buy toothpaste and a kitchen towel in celebration.

Between the two events we don't just read about him at his sheet metal desk (which was made in England), but we follow him around as he gives radio interviews, goes out to dinner, airs his prejudices, philosophises about his approach to writing and how he comes up with his ideas. We even find out how Jack Reacher got his name.

Review:
What surprises me is that no one has ever thought of this before –looking over a writer's shoulder as he puts words on the screen. As told by Andy Martin, it is no easy task. Not all of Lee Child's writing time was taken up in front of a screen. Some of it was spent on a couch, smoking Camels, drinking prodigious amounts of coffee and wondering about the direction in which the book was going. Did Andy Martin use a recorder to record some of his conversations with Child? Did he take notes? He tells us that all the conversations in the book are real, but that some were, out of necessity, condensed. So were some of the conversations paraphrased?

However he did it, Martin writes with authority, though sometimes the writing teeters on the academically pretentious. He is obviously a huge fan of Reacher, and this shines through. We are swept along, not on a tide of adulation, but of admiration at the way Child, without having a clear view of where the book is heading, can draw everything together into a satisfying whole. It's a fascinating journey for anyone who is interested in literature in general and thriller-writing in particular. But a word of warning – if you haven't yet read 'Make Me', the book contains spoilers.

Reviewed by: J.G.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Simon Booker - Without Trace

"You may find smoke coming off the pages as you steam through the book..."

Synopsis:
Four long years, journalist Morgan Vine has campaigned for the release of her childhood sweetheart, Danny Kilcannon - convicted, on dubious evidence, of murdering his fourteen-year-old stepdaughter.

When a key witness recants, Danny is released from prison. With nowhere else to go, he relies on single mum Morgan and her teenage daughter, Lissa. Then Lissa goes missing.

With her own child now at risk, Morgan must re-think all she knows about her old flame - 'the one that got away'. As the media storm around the mysterious disappearance intensifies and shocking revelations emerge, she is forced to confront the ultimate question: who can we trust.

Review:
This is the debut novel of TV writer Simon Booker. Booker has written for Holby City, The Inspector Lynley Mysteries and The Mrs Bradley Mysteries (a personal favourite of mine). But can a TV writer make the transition to novelist? In this case - absolutely.

'Without Trace' is a fast-paced thrilling page-turner of a debut. You may find smoke coming off the pages as you steam through the book to uncover the labyrinthine mystery.

This is the first novel in a series with journalist Morgan Vine as the protagonist. She's a freelancer struggling in a world of multi-media and multi-platforms in order to make a living and is forced to take a job as a cleaner to make ends meet. This is incredibly true to life. As a former freelance journalist I identified with this part of Morgan's life straight away as I had to take on a job I hate to keep paying the bills.

Morgan is instantly likeable as her estranged daughter returns from LA after living with her scriptwriter father. We see Morgan try to be a mother again, but isn't appreciated by the world-wise teenager. Battling against a rebellious teenager and her unforgiving career takes its toll on Morgan making her vulnerable but determined

Booker knows how to tell a story and throws us off the scent with red herrings and blind alleys. This is a multi-layered story with a break-neck pace. As we hurtle towards a thrilling finale we're left screaming for more.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

James Henry - Blackwater

"Fast moving and compulsive reading..."

Synopsis:
Essex, early on New Year's Day 1983 and Detective Inspector Nick Lowry is about to go home when the phone rings. He has a body to investigate. This one is found minus its head at the side of the road. Before the night is out he has another one, this time a young soldier from the local barracks dying from injuries he received whilst apparently running away from trouble after a late night celebrating New Year's Eve.

DI Lowry, his Detective Constable Daniel Kenton and WPC Jane Gabriel come together to investigate the crimes. They are an assorted group: Lowry the seasoned detective, Kenton the university graduate with a taste for fast cars and the beautiful Jane Gabriel, on secondment from uniform and related to more powerful people higher up the scale. They start off as individuals but end up with a mutual respect and a healthy working relationship.

Colchester is a town with an established Army garrison, and its relationship with the town is intrinsic to this story. Drugs, infidelity and military loyalty all have their part to play in the tale.

Review:
This is exciting stuff. Henry's writing is compelling and my attention was gripped from the very beginning. It is historical in that the mobile phone is not the universal tool that it is today and computer records are not comprehensive, but it is not that far in the past that much of the procedure is unrecognisable. Attitudes are different but it is no 'Life on Mars'.

The interaction between the three main detectives is intriguing, and the small town politics between the police and army entertaining. It is another slant on the classic police procedural, but none the less enjoyable for that. Fast moving and compulsive reading, 'Blackwater' is a great example of the crime genre.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating: