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Reviews

January 2017

Martin Edwards (Ed.) - Serpents in Eden

"There are jewels to be discovered here..."

Synopsis:
This book is published by the British Library, under the heading "British Library Crime Classics", showing that the British Library knows what readers like and proving that readers are still very much in love with vintage crime.

Sherlock Holmes, in the story 'The Adventure of the Copper Beeches', declares that "...the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside..." Here, in this volume edited by Martin Edwards, himself a crime writer, is proof. Thirteen short stories, mostly from Britain's golden age of detective fiction, explore the ghastly goings on in the depths of the English countryside.

Review:
If you expect all-cosy fireside yarns, you'll be disappointed. A few give the semblance of cosiness, but the rest are as hard-hitting and bloodthirsty as urban noir. Some of our finest writers are represented here. Marjory Allingham gives us a wickedly satisfying take on rural innocence in 'A Proper Mystery'. Conan Doyle gives us 'The Black Doctor', a dark tale set in Lancashire. G.K. Chesterton is here as well, with a tale that takes politicians as its inspiration. But there are others, some of them, for me at least, are real discoveries such as Leonora Wodehouse, (PG Wodehouse's step-daughter), and Ethel Lina White, who was well-known in her time, but is now largely marginalised. Her story, 'The Scarecrow', is especially good.

Midsomer Murders is ample illustration of the love we have for countryside crime - and the gorier and unsettling the better. Martin Edwards has done a sterling job in editing this collection. Well-known and lesser-known writers come together in a book that is altogether satisfying. Those of you who like your crime to be urban and blood-spattered will be surprised by the content. Yes, some of them verge on the cosy, but even here the deliberate understatement has the power to unsettle and shock the reader.

Martin Edwards writes an erudite introduction to the book, and precedes each story with a short introduction that explains its context, with a few biographical sentences on the writer thrown in. There are jewels to be discovered here, and I will now be buying Martin Edward's other vintage collections published by the British Library – 'Murder at the Manor', 'Silent Nights', 'Capital Crimes' and 'Resorting to Murder'. The next time I walk down the mean streets of one of our major cities at midnight, I'll know I am a darn site safer than I would be walking down a country lane as the parish church clock strikes twelve!

Reviewed by: J.G.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Frederic Dard - Bird in a Cage

" ‘Bird in a Cage’ very much has a feel of a Hitchcock film about it."

Synopsis:
Trouble is the last thing Albert needs. Travelling back to his childhood home on Christmas Eve to mourn his mother's death, he finds the loneliness and nostalgia of his Parisian quartier unbearable... Until, that evening, he encounters a beautiful, seemingly innocent woman at a brasserie, and his spirits are lifted.

Still, something about the woman disturbs him. Where is the father of her child? And what are those two red stains on her sleeve? When she invites him back to her apartment, Albert thinks he's in luck. But a monstrous scene awaits them, and he finds himself lured into the darkness against his better judgment.

Review:
Dard's forgotten book, brought back in to print by Pushkin Vertigo happens over Christmas Eve. Although there is a body, maybe not quite under the Christmas tree but more near it, this is not a cosy crime. In fact, it is the grimmest Christmas I have ever read about – and hope never to experience personally. As with Simeon, the book comes in at just over 120 pages, but please do not let that put you off. Having reviewed for over a decade now, I have found some wonderful gems in crime fiction that do not come in the form of a doorstop!

Dard wastes no time introducing his characters, firstly Albert who after many years arrives back at the apartment of his dead mother. Dard plays his cards close to his chest without cheating. When I reached the end I had to go back to the beginning to see what I had missed and where. This is one of those tales when you can see Albert sliding himself into a tighter and tighter corner. 'Bird in a Cage' very much has a feel of a Hitchcock film about it. The solution to the murder has been done before, but it is the inescapable and claustrophobic situation Albert finds himself in that gripped my attention. This is a very dark and clever little tale and I will keep my eyes out for more from Frederic Dard.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Colin Dexter - The Way Through the Woods

"I had forgotten the humour that Dexter sprinkles throughout his story..."

Synopsis:
They called her the Swedish Maiden - the beautiful young tourist who disappeared on a hot summer's day somewhere in North Oxford. Twelve months later the case remained unsolved - pending further developments.

On holiday in Lyme Regis, Chief Inspector Morse is startled to read a tantalizing article in The Times about the missing woman. An article which lures him back to Wytham Woods near Oxford . . . and straight into the most extraordinary murder investigation of his career.

Review:
The first episode of Morse aired in January 1987. To celebrate thirty years of this iconic TV series, Macmillan Collector's Library have released a lovely pocket size version of Dexter's Gold Dagger winning novel. It has been about twenty-five years since I read this book, but remembered the plot. However, not having read a Morse for some years now, it was wonderful to remember why this series was so attractive to millions of readers.

I had forgotten the humour that Dexter sprinkles throughout his story and the dry humour from Morse himself and his superior, the long suffering Chief Superintendent Strange. It also reminded me that Morse was a bit of a Lothario in his way, who always managed to attract the wrong type of woman and was somewhat obsessed with the female anatomy! What Dexter did so well was to mix his academic knowledge and at the same time make the story so readable. The only other crime writer to do this so well was the equally brilliant, Reginald Hill with his own ill-tempered detective, Andy Dalziel.

Morse investigates the disappearance of the Swedish Maiden who disappeared a year before where Dexter picks up his story. Although a body is not found until quite some way in, it certainly does not lag and throws different conundrums at the reader to get the old brain working. You may well have seen the episode of this novel, but squeezing it in to a two hour show a lot of the book would have been lost. Re-reading this novel has made me resolve that I will go back to Dexter's novels and reacquaint myself with these great stories. This version is a tiny hardback that fits in your pocket, so the print may be small for some, but still a gorgeous edition to cherish if you are a Morse fan. If you haven't read Morse before, (and where have you been the past thirty years?), then I suggest that although this is one of Dexter's later books, it is a good place to start.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Priscilla Masters - A Wreath for My Sister

"Her descriptions of the snowbound moors made me shiver."

Synopsis:
Sharon Priest is out on the moors in a flimsy red dress and spindly high heels. It is cold - very cold - as a snowstorm sweeps the moors and the nearby town of Leek. But Sharon doesn't feel the cold any more ... Detective Inspector Joanna Piercy is at the annual Legal Ball, fending off solicitor Randall Pelham, who wants her to find his missing daughter Deborah. However, it is not Deborah but Sharon who soon occupies Joanna's mind. When the thaw sets in, Sharon's frozen body is exposed; and its horrific injuries reveal that Joanna and her team have a shocking murder on their hands. And not just one, either…

Review:
I have gone back to the beginning of the Joanna Piercy series. This one, the third in the series, I first read back in 1997! What you are always assured with Masters is a solid police procedural. However, Masters still delivers fine writing. Her descriptions of the snowbound moors made me shiver. Masters has a love and fascination of this unfriendly landscape that can be friend or foe at the same time. Also, it has been good to re-visit Joanna at the early stages of her affair with Matthew Levin and see again the firm and sometimes uncomfortable relationship between Piercy and her sergeant, Korpanski.

The solution to Sharon Priest's murder is reached through hard slog and meticulous sifting of evidence, (which here is very scant). There may not be car chases or people jumping out of helicopters, but that has never been the aim of Masters' series. This is true to life and down to earth. It shows the good and the bad and how murder can affect the rich and the poor in such different and yet, similar ways. This is an extremely satisfying police procedural and thankfully Masters is still writing this series twenty-two years later.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Jonathan Aycliffe - The Lost

"There is a clever twist at the very end..."

Synopsis:
British born Michael Feraru, is from a long line of Romanian aristocrats. He has left his country of birth and his love, to reclaim his heritage - a Draculian castle deep in the heart of Transylvania. He plans to turn his inheritance into an orphanage in the new post-Ceausescu, post-communist country. There he enlists the help of a young local lawyer, Liliana Popescu, to search for the missing Feraru millions, and battle through the complex maze of old bureaucracy in the scam-rich, newly-born state.

Feraru describes his journey into the heart of the Romanian countryside, wasted by years of neglect and caught in a time-warp, as though the twentieth century had never reached it. When he eventually arrives at his inheritance, he finds Castel Feraru in a sunless valley in the Carpathian Mountains. This part of Michael's inheritance is home to much more than memories.

Review:
I have loved and championed Aycliffe's ghost stories for many years. I read 'Naomi's Room' when it very first came out in hardback in 1991. 'The Lost' arrived in 1996 and in its way is homage to Bram Stoker's novel, 'Dracula'. The story is told through a series of letters and journals about Michael's (soon to change to Mihai), who is chasing his Romanian roots. This way of telling his story did not bother me and the way the novel is set out I found quite intriguing. The first half of this novel lifted the hairs from the back of my neck as strange goings-on happen, not only in Romania, but in Cambridge where Michael was a teacher before he left to find his ancestors.

Deaths begin to happen in Cambridge, but unfortunately, this is not explored in the second half of the book and feels quite forgotten. It is in the second half when Michael finally reaches Castel Vlaicu nestled high up in the Carpathian Mountains when I felt Aycliffe's book begin to unravel. Despite being at the place where things happened in the past and where there is still a presence, the suspense just didn't feel as strong as the first half of the book. I don't know if Aycliffe wasn't sure of his destination, but though much is mentioned of the 'strigoi', their appearance is quite late and the climax felt slightly rushed. There is a clever twist at the very end, but by then I wasn't convinced and the story had lost its potency for me. This is not his best, but still very well written.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Jack Jordan - My Girl

"Unpredictable, unsettling, unnerving and totally compelling."

Synopsis:
Paige Dawson: the mother of a murdered child and wife to a dead man. She has nothing left to live for until she finds her husband's handgun hidden in their house. Why did Ryan need a gun? What did he know of their daughter's death?

Desperate for the truth, Paige begins to unearth her husband's secrets. However, she has no idea who she is up against, or that her life isn't hers to gamble.

Review:
The debut novel from Jack Jordan tackles a subject so difficult and so dark you'd only expect a seasoned professional to do it justice. Jack has written with all the confidence and style of a man born to write.

There are many themes in 'My Girl' - grief, depression, addiction, abuse - all of which are hard to write and convince the reader to believe in your characters and the story. Jack Jordan has done that perfectly.

We meet Paige as she is living through every woman's nightmare - her daughter has been murdered and her husband took his own life, unable to cope with the loss of their only child. Paige is alone and existing only how she knows how - through drinking and her addiction to prescription drugs. This first part of the story where we get to understand Paige's life is expertly written with heart and soul. You feel for Paige immediately and will her to beat her demons.

However, a plot twist comes out of nowhere to throw you off your guard and you find yourself in the middle of a claustrophobic psychological horror that will stay with you long after the final page.

Unpredictable, unsettling, unnerving and totally compelling. Jack Jordan is a thriller writer to watch out for.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Liz Nugent - Lying in Wait

"If you’re a fan of Barbara Vine, I guarantee you will love ‘Lying in Wait’."

Synopsis:
Andrew and Lydia Fitzsimons, a respected judge and his reclusive wife, find themselves in a most unfortunate situation – they have had to murder a young woman and bury her in their exquisite garden. Together, the family lives in Avalon, a beautiful period property that has been in Lydia's family for years. On the surface, their life in 1980's Dublin couldn't be more perfect. But something dark lurks at the heart of this damaged family. Not least the fact that Andrew has just killed someone.

While Lydia does all she can to protect their innocent son, Laurence and their social standing, her husband begins to falls apart, but Laurence is not as naïve as Lydia thinks - and his obsession with the dead girl's family may be the undoing of his own.

Review:
Liz Nugent's debut, 'Unravelling Oliver', was one of my favourite reads of 2015. So I was very excited to get my hands on her latest novel. And what a treat it is. From its brilliant opening line: 'My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it', we are introduced to the twisted world of Lydia Fitzsimons, Nugent's wonderfully unreliable narrator.

The reasons for the murder aren't made clear immediately. Lydia tells us the meeting between her husband and the prostitute had been arranged to see if Annie was 'genuine and, if not, to get our money back'. She doesn't tell us what money Annie owes them or how she got that money in the first place.

All this action takes place in the first few pages. It's a cracking opening section and what follows is a gripping psychological thriller told through the eyes of three narrators: Lydia, her son, Laurence, and the dead woman's sister, Karen.

In their own way, each character is a victim. What's interesting is the different ways they deal with the hand fate has dealt them. Laurence and Karen both strive to turn their separate tragedies into something positive. Lydia, on the other hand, grows increasingly twisted and manipulative as the novel progresses – a woman desperate to shape the world to suit her own needs, regardless of the consequences on those around her.

She is truly, shockingly awful… and great fun. Her supreme self-obsession, her utter disdain for other people, and her absolute certainty that her husband and son's only purpose in life is to bend to her will all make her a most compelling character.

The novel raises interesting questions about the role of nature and nurture, and whether people can really escape the damage foisted on them by their parents. Reading it, I was reminded again and again of Larkin's classic poem, 'This Be the Verse': 'no wiser words ever written about how damage gets passed down through generations'.

All that aside, it's not really why I loved this book. I loved it because Lydia Fitzsimons is one of the vilest, entertaining and utterly compelling fictional characters I have encountered in some time. I adored her! If you're a fan of Barbara Vine, I guarantee you will love 'Lying in Wait'.

Reviewed by: S.B.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Kate Saunders - The Secrets of Wishtide

"...one of the best."

Synopsis:
Laetitia Rodd is a widow of an Archdeacon, lives modestly in Hampstead with her landlady/friend, Mrs Bentley. She has now limited means and supplements her meagre income with the unlikely rewards from a spot of private investigation put her way by her barrister brother. This time she has been asked to investigate the background of a young woman who is the choice of wife for a young man, heir to a considerable fortune. Sir James Calderstone, father of the young man, believes her to be completely unsuitable. In order to pursue her enquiries discreetly, Mrs Rodd moves up to the family home in Lincolnshire, ostensibly as governess to the two daughters of the house.

This is the start of a run of killings, culminating in the gruesome murder of a young woman. Charles Calderstone is arrested for the crime. Mrs Rodd uses her connections to find out more about the murder victim and discovers a sad tale of poverty and exploitation. These discoveries lead Mrs Rudd into extreme danger.

Review:
The publishers recommend this book to devotees of M.C. Beaton, James Runcie, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. On this occasion I think they have got it absolutely spot on. This is a delightful gentle story (despite some gruesome murders) with a heroine who has the charm and guile of Miss Marple, with the humanity and knowledge of church affairs of Runcie's Sidney Chambers.

I have recently read several stories involving lady detectives in Victorian times and I think this is one of the best. It was extremely gripping, keeping my interest page by page. Mrs Rodd is a feisty independent woman and fights against preconceptions and invisibility to prove her worth. Her relationship with Inspector Bluebeard develops nicely from frosty beginnings. I look forward to the rest of the series.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Del Quentin Wilber - A Good Month for Murder

"...a fascinating read..."

Synopsis:
Award-winning journalist Del Quentin Wilber was given permission to shadow a county homicide squad for one month in February 2013. The county is Prince George's County, and abuts the US capital - Washington DC. Twelve homicides were investigated over the four weeks, and Wilber followed the important ones, either in person or through interviewing the detectives that were on the case. Some were ongoing cases, such as the murder of seventeen-year-old Amber Stanley, who was shot dead in her bed in August the previous year. Who did it? What was the motive? Had the murderer shot the wrong person? Homicide officer Sean Deere has a suspect, but can pin nothing on him. So is he, in fact, innocent? And what of Geraldine McIntyre, a seventy-one year-old woman who was stabbed to death during a robbery on her home on February 9?

Wilber didn't feature all homicides, though the ones he did feature gives an insight into the sometimes quirky lives of the homicide detectives, as well as an insight into the lives of many people living in a county of over 900,000 people.

Review:
The book is written in a sort of right-on, hip, American style, where detectives smoke Camels, have crew cuts and drive Impalas. It's a fascinating read, though in places, as Wilber himself admits, he has had to recreate certain events and conversations after interviewing the detectives involved, as he could never 'be everywhere at once'.

This is a book about people, and not about forensics. Twenty five homicide detectives worked for the Prince George's County Homicide Unit during the time Wilber researched this book, and though he didn't include every one, he certainly manages to give colourful accounts of the lives of some of them. Their principle food, for instance, seemed to be hamburgers (at least when they were on duty) and they were forever exiting the police building to light up a cigarette.

The most intriguing aspect of the book, for me was the suspect interviews and the methods used to extract information, or even an admission of guilt. I had always assumed that the 'good cop/bad cop' routine was invented by crime writers, for instance, but it was certainly a method used in Prince George's County.

If you want to get behind the professional mask of a US homicide detective, then read this book. Occasionally the mask slips, and that's when things get interesting.

Reviewed by: J.G.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Robyn Young - Sons of the Blood

"Young’s novel is an enthralling epic..."

Synopsis:
It is England in the fifteenth century. The country has been torn apart by the bitter conflict between York and Lancaster. Ten years of peace under the victor Edward is under threat when the King dies and the throne is to pass to his twelve-year old son, Edward. The tensions still exist and Richard, Duke of Gloucester has ambitions for himself. The young heir apparent, Edward, is under the protection of Sir Thomas Vaughan, his chamberlain, when Gloucester takes him into his custody and Vaughan is arrested.

Before his arrest, Vaughan manages to get a message to his illegitimate son, Jack in Seville with instructions to search for a secret and also to hang on to the locked chest which he had been guarding with his life.

Two further young heirs to the throne are imprisoned in The Tower of London. Their fate is in the balance. Jack returns to England where he finds all is changed and he must fight to achieve his father's wishes.

Review:
Young's novel is an enthralling epic about a time when England was in great turmoil. Leading up to the ever popular Tudor history, this book will entertain and instruct in equal measure. Robyn Young has used her imagination and research to put bones on historical facts and elaborate with possibilities where facts are not set in stone. History is written by the victors, and Richard Duke of Gloucester, whilst inordinately ambitious, may not have been the villain portrayed by some.

The story of Jack Wynter, illegitimate son, trying to survive under difficult circumstances whilst endeavouring to fulfil his father's last wish, is engaging and exciting. Life was hard and he encounters vicious men trying to stop him.

This is the start of a new series that promises to be a great success. I certainly enjoyed it and look forward to many more hours of exciting reading with subsequent stories from this author.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating: