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Reviews

March 2018

S.S. Mausoof - The Warehouse

"‘The Warehouse’ is not just a taut, griping thriller, it is an all too believable depiction of the ways some people have to live."

Synopsis:
Insurance adjuster, Sayed Qais Ali Qureshi, 'Cash' to his friends, is living comfortably in Karachi with his mother and teenage daughter, Shereen, who is about to start university. When his ex-lover, Sonia, shows up and offers him a large sum of money to finalise an insurance claim for a warehouse that burned down, he is tempted. The problem is, in order to assess the legitimacy of the claim, he must travel to Waziristan, into a war zone where the Afghan, Pakistani and US forces are engaged in a combat made more dangerous by the labyrinthine complexities of the tribal areas where loyalties are split between tribe, family, religion and country and where corruption is rife.

To complicate matters, the owner of the warehouse was killed in the fire. The man's father, a devout Muslim, has refused the insurance pay-out. Sonia's firm, that has already collected the money from the underwriters, is in an embarrassing situation. Cash lets himself be persuaded, partly by Sonia, with whom he is still a bit in love, partly by the money, and partly by the reassurances he is offered for his safety. He is probably unwise to listen to these – the last surveyor who went to Waziristan was beheaded by the Taliban.

But Cash has a major card to play in this game. As a Syed, he is a descendant of the Prophet, and this, along with the protections Sonia promises him, will keep him safe, or so he believes.

But when Cash travels north, he finds himself in a land where none of the rules work. The story of the destroyed warehouse is far more complex than he has been led to believe, and he doesn't know who among the people he meets he can trust, including those whose role is apparently to protect him.

Review:
A lot of – maybe too much – crime fiction is set in locations that are at least passingly familiar to most readers and in contexts where it is easy to feel knowledgeable about 'the rules.' We recognise the characters, we know what the options are, and to an extent, we can feel safe within the context of the story. Not so with Mausoof's 'The Warehouse'. This dark and fast-moving thriller is set in northern Pakistan, in Waziristan, an area that lies across the troubled border with Afghanistan.

Mausoof has created a fast-moving thriller that keeps the readers on their toes. He makes few concessions to an audience that will be unfamiliar with many of the customs and beliefs of Pakistani society, so reading the book can be a bit of a total immersion experience. The sheer speed of events – and in the context of this book, the speed is all too believable – keeps the reader on board as the disaster heading Cash's way draws closer and closer in a way that makes it impossible to avoid. The action moves from Karachi to Tank in the tribal areas, on to more remote locations and then to a desperate escape across the Afghan border.

But 'The Warehouse' is more than a fast-action thriller. Mausoof has peopled it with vivid and very believable characters. Central to this is Cash, human, venal – he loves a drink and is drawn to beautiful women - but is ultimately a good man.

What Mausoof depicts so brilliantly is the psychological damage caused by decades of war, the constant terror of attack from the ground, of suicide bombers and the US drones. These appear in the sky, observe and search, watched by the people on the ground who are helpless against the multiple warheads the drones carry, that incinerate indiscriminately – men, women and children, while the operator relaxes in the safety of home territory. Here, war and terrible death have become – to the operator at least – no more than a computer game.

Mausoof offers no easy answers. He is writing about social chaos, and the narrative threads echo this when potentially neat story lines are cut off, or lose themselves in the complexity of the situation. This is not a flaw – this is the reality of the world Mausoof is writing about. He captures the horror vividly, but also the beauty – the mountainous landscapes, the vibrant colours, the calls from the muezzins as human life goes on in the middle of destruction and chaos.

'The Warehouse' is not just a taut, gripping thriller, it is an all too believable depiction of the ways some people have to live. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by: D.K.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Stevyn Colgan - A Murder To Die For

"This is a romp through the English village murder mystery. "

Synopsis:
The village of Naseby in Herewardshire has an annual celebration of the works of crime writer Agnes Crabbe, who lived there until her death in 1943. Her works were not discovered until many years later, inside a suitcase, and now she is a writing phenomenon. So much so that aficionados of her work (known as 'Millies') descend on Naseby for the celebration, usually dressed in the 1920s style of her female detective, Millicent Cutter. It is usually an innocent affair of talks, displays and readings. But this time it is different. Someone has been murdered. Not only is the name of the murderer a mystery, the name of the victim is as well. Could it be that of Esme Handibode? Or could it be that of Brenda Tradescent? Esme is the leading light in the Agnes Crabbe Fellowship, and Brenda is the leading light in the Millicent Cutter Appreciation Society. There is no love lost between them.

Is Esme Handobode the author of the Simone Bedhead books of romance? The name is, after all, an anagram of Esme Handibode. Why is the village pub called The Happy Onion? Why is Helen Greeley, who plays Millicent Cutter in the TV adaptations, so attracted to Stingray Troy Phones Marina Savidge, who owns a burger van (which caught fire), and who abducted her?

And finally, will Brian Blount, an incompetent detective inspector, finally crack a case?

Review:
This is a romp through the English village murder mystery. Having tired of right-on urban thrillers with serial killers, alcoholic detective inspectors with marriage problems and reformed villains who now help in the fight against crime, I find myself attracted once more to the gentle village genre. This book sends it up in a delightful way, though in places it could have done with some judicious editing.

There is no central character round which the plot revolves. Rather there is a panoply of characters, each one hell-bent on his or their own course of action no matter the consequences. As soon as one situation arises and is resolved (or not, as the case may be) another one rears its head.

And through all this, there is a genuine murder mystery to be solved, which you sometimes won't find in an urban crime yarn. Who is the victim? Why have Esme Handobods and Brenda Tradescent disappeared? Who committed the heinous crime? And why? What is the great secret about Agnes Crabbe that was about to be revealed by lawyer, Andrew Tremens?

Everything is resolved in satisfactory manner, and peace returns to Naseby. Even though the clues are there fairly and squarely, I bet no one figures it out!

Reviewed by: J.G.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Elly Griffiths - The Dark Angel

"The Ruth Galloway series is my favourite of modern crime fiction..."

Synopsis:
Forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway is off on a working holiday to Italy. Little does she know that sunny Lazio holds secrets as dark as any buried in the Norfolk marshes.

It is an out of the blue phone call that sends her to the small village of Castello Degli Angeli in the Liri valley. A prominent Italian archaeologist has unearthed a two-thousand-year-old undisturbed grace with a difference: the skeleton inside has a mobile phone. And while everyone agrees the Romans were highly advanced engineers, no one is prepared to credit them with this much skill. The Italian knows one other archaeologist who might be able to get to the bottom of this mystery - cue Dr Ruth Galloway.

With her daughter Kate and friend Shona in tow, Ruth sets off for Italy. To her surprise, it is also not long before DCI Nelson appears close by, leaving a troubling cold case behind him, and accompanied by a familiar cloaked figure.

There is no time to be distracted, though, as the mystery of the Roman skeleton deepens, and a sinister secret buried at the heart of Castello Degli Angeli threatens to come to light.

Review:
I have been a big fan of the Ruth Galloway novels since book one, 'The Crossing Places', ten years ago. I cannot believe a whole decade has passed. Ten books in ten years and my love for Ruth has grown with each one. She is a wonderful creation; self-deprecating, lacking in self-confidence, a genuinely warm and likeable woman.

To celebrate the first ten books, Elly Griffiths takes Ruth out of Norfolk as she heads to Italy to lend her expertise. The Italian scenes are lovingly written and the countryside is beautifully realised. It doesn't always work taking a central character out of their original setting, but it does with Ruth. Maybe it's her job. Maybe it's Griffiths' elegantly descriptive prose. Either way, it's opened up a new scope for more novels. Fingers crossed Ruth will leave Norfolk a few more times in the next ten novels.

Following a cliff-hanger ending of book nine, Griffiths teases her loyal readers by keeping Ruth and the man she secretly loves, DCI Harry Nelson, apart for the first part of the book. Once they meet, we fans are treated to a glimpse of what Ruth and Harry could be like as a couple. MAKE IT HAPPEN!

With conflict taking place in England and Italy, Griffiths doesn't allow domestic drama to get in the way of an excellent thriller. You can almost feel the tension building as you steam through the chapters at an alarming rate. This is masterful storytelling at its best. The finale is a shock and there are more revelations to be unearthed in future novels.

The Ruth Galloway series is my favourite of modern crime fiction and Elly Griffiths is the author I drop everything for whenever she has a new book out. Ten brilliantly crafted books in ten years and they're still fresh and original. Ten more please. Then another ten! Not that I'm demanding!

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Gillian McAllister - Anything You Do Say

"‘Anything You Do Say’ is more than a crime novel."

Synopsis:
Joanna (Jo) goes clubbing with her friend Laura. In a scenario familiar to most women, a male stranger becomes an intrusive nuisance. But Jo has trouble handling this. She is a woman who devotes much of her life to avoiding unpleasantness and difficulty – she puts off paying bills, puts off making decisions about her future, avoids responsibility for her life and has been drifting indecisively for several years to the exasperation of her friends and her lovers. Her response to this man is typical. She takes the line of least resistance until Laura steps in and gives the man short shrift.

As she walks alone towards the Tube, Jo realises she is being followed and as she crosses a bridge over the canal, the man is close behind her A glance reveals the distinctive red trainers of the man in the club. He tries to pass her just as they reach a flight of steps. She hits him then pushes him as hard as she can. He falls down the concrete steps and lies at the bottom, badly hurt. For a fatal number of minutes, she freezes, as she tries to decide what to do.

Review:
At this point, where the man lies on the stairs, the narrative splits into two strands: Conceal and Reveal. McAllister tells us the story of what happens if Jo runs away, or what happens if she calls and ambulance and gets help. Each narrative thread follows the consequences of the decision she makes.

What seems like a simple case of self-defence becomes complex. The man following Jo was not the man from the nightclub, but a teenager out jogging. Jo believes at first that her actions were justified, but as she faces, in one narrative thread, the possibility of a charge of murder, and in the other, a charge of serious assault, she begins to understand that the concepts of guilt, innocence and responsibility are not so simple.

McAllister has created a compelling world in which she moves the reader between the outcomes of the two choices Jo faces. Neither choice is comfortable – is it better to live free with guilt and fear, or is it better to face consequences that may be more severe that the worst you anticipated? In the 'Reveal' thread, Jo comes to understand the flaw in her that underlies the moments of indecision that made such a difference to the outcome for the young man she attacked. In the 'Conceal' thread, she is forced to live with the fact that her inability to face up to what she did led to the death of another human being.

Jo and her world are convincing and well-created. In Jo, McAllister gives us a flawed individual who is only just starting to learn about her own strengths and weaknesses as she begins to understand that the foundations upon which she has based her life are not so steady or so permanent as she believed. In the end, each choice has consequences, and each choice demands a payment from Jo that she finally realises not only that she must make, but that it is right she makes it.

'Anything You Do Say' is more than a crime novel. It is a book about people's lives under the worst kind of stress, and about the responsibility we carry for our choices and our actions. Crime fiction too often depicts killings that are elaborate and gruesome, but books like this are a timely reminder that there are few easy ways to die, that the consequences of violence affect lives far beyond those of the victim and the perpetrator, and the guilt and grief are the true horrors of violent death. Unmissable.

Reviewed by: D.K.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Felix Francis - Pulse

"....Felix Francis superbly continues the great tradition of the Francis novel..."

Synopsis:
Dr Chris Rankin is a consultant in Emergency Medicine at Cheltenham Hospital, as well as acting as a racecourse doctor during the horse races at Cheltenham.

She has mental health problems that mean that she is liable to blame herself when things go wrong and leave her vulnerable to pressure. When her patient, an unknown man found in the toilets at the racecourse, dies under her care she blames herself. When she starts asking questions about the identity of the victim, she finds herself pressurised to give up. She is, however a strong character, not easily cowed, and continues to search for the truth despite finding herself in extreme danger. Even the threat to her husband and sons does not stop her.

With a background of the exciting world of the Cheltenham Races, the story gathers pace until finally, after many twists and turns, all is resolved.

Review:
Dick Francis novels are a reliably good read. His son, Felix continues in the tradition of his father by delivering excitement aplenty, with more and more tension piled up, just as you think you are safe to breathe again. All this is set against an insider's knowledge of the racing world imbibed as he grew up. The hero(ine) of the story always suffers pain and life threatening attacks but just manages to survive to fight another day, and there are also satisfactory relationships to counteract the violence.

It is definitely comfort reading, as good always triumphs in the end, but none the worse for that. I always look forward to starting another of the books in the series and Felix Francis superbly continues the great tradition of the Francis novel filled with excitement and intrigue. 'Pulse' is a rollicking read!

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Jenny Blackhurst - The Foster Child

"...gripping, with moments of real high tension, well-drawn characters and a convincing setting. "

Synopsis:
An 11-year-old girl, Ellie, is taken into foster care after the death in a fire of her family – her parents and her infant brother. Unsurprisingly, Ellie is a difficult, troubled child. Her fostering arrangements keep breaking down as the foster-carers are unable to cope with her, she is bullied at school, and we gradually become aware that it is not wise to cross Ellie. Bad things happen to people who are unkind to her.

Imogen Reid has come to the town where Ellie is currently living to take up a post as a child psychologist. Her predecessor, whose case-load included Ellie, left suddenly and abruptly. Imogen, who has already had an encounter with Ellie and been shocked by the levels of hostility and blame directed towards the child, takes on her case. Imogen is dealing with an emotional double-whammy: the death of her abusive mother – Imogen and her husband are moving into Imogen's childhood home – and the loss of her previous job where her close engagement with a case drew her in too far and ended in tragedy.

Imogen comes to see Ellie as a victim: a victim of prejudice in the wider community where rumours abound that she is a witch, a victim of serious bullying at school, and a victim of her foster-mother's apparent inability to protect her. The only person on Ellie's side is her foster-sister, Mary. Imogen finds herself being drawn into a case once more where she is in danger of allowing herself to become over-committed and over-involved.

Is this the only peril facing Imogen? Or is Ellie truly as dangerous as others believe? At times Ellie seems to believe this herself. She is a child facing constant threat, and the idea – encouraged by Mary – that she has 'powers' gives her some defences. But too often, when she calls on them, her 'powers' fail her.

Review:
Blackhurst plays with this ambiguity as the book develops. Ellie gradually becomes a very sympathetic character, and the possibility of her acceptance by her peers as she begins to fight back gives an air of optimism to what is otherwise a bleak book.

Blackhurst creates tension well, writing from a range of perspectives in both first- and third-person narrative. The book explores important and relevant social issues: the difficult life of the orphaned child, the way in which society is too quick to exclude and blame outsiders, issues of women's roles as mothers and carers, all within the context of an exciting and fast-moving narrative. The (somewhat ubiquitous in modern crime fiction) present tense adds to the immediacy of the writing as do the short chapters, most of which end on a note of tension. The book draws the reader in and is a real page-turner.

And yet, and yet… to what extent should serious and tragic social issues be subverted for the convenience of genre fiction? Many crime writers have managed to address such issues in the context of a gripping narrative without exploiting them. For much of this book, Blackhurst achieves this, addressing them thoughtfully and with care. However, the book ends with the 'must have' of too much current crime fiction: the plot twist. The book has already come to a satisfactory ending so the twist has the feel of an afterthought, of something added because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

'The Foster Child' is gripping, with moments of real high tension, well-drawn characters and a convincing setting.

Reviewed by: D.K.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Lesley Grant-Adamson - Patterns in the Dust

"...this book still stands the test of time and is a riveting read. "

Synopsis:
Nether Hampton appears on the surface to be the classic Somerset village. All the ingredients are there: the traditional village pub, the Gothic church, fox-hunting squires, wealthy incomers, crusty old retired generals, an archaeologist digging up the remains of a Norman castle and, this being the 1980s, even some young, green-haired punks.

Into these placid surroundings drops Rain Morgan, gossip columnist for the Daily Post, simply looking to relax away from the Fleet Street rat race. She was supposed to be holidaying with her lover, Oliver who insisted he had to stay in London for a big story. Determined to have some time away, even if on her own, she makes her way to Withy Cottage, owned by Oliver's cousin, Adam Hollings. The arrangement to stay with Adam is loose to say the least, but Rain was determined to escape London. Upon arrival the cottage is quaint, but the owner hasn't been seen for some months and nobody has an idea where Adam has gone, saying he is always going 'for a wander'. Soon after Rain's arrival, bodies start turning up!

Review:
Originally published in 1985, 'Patterns in the Dust' was critically acclaimed when it came out and was a big seller. For many years I have enjoyed Grant-Adamson's novels, and this is a perfect launch pad for any who have not read this authors' work. There is a distinct feel that if Christie had been writing contemporary crime fiction in the 80's, then this would have been the result. There is a genteel feel to proceedings, and many of the people here are the privileged few. However, Grant-Adamson also blends it with new gadgetry (the answerphone system thirty years later already sounds ancient compared with today's technology) and an edgy 80's feel. Add to the mix the feisty Rain Morgan, a journalist who has a nose for a story and will go to any lengths to get a byline, even if with the local rag. Grant-Adamson is always good with characters and here, despite the years, they still pop out of the page. The good thing is that although there are no mobile phones or CCTV here (such a blessing), this book still stands the test of time and is a riveting read. Grant-Adamson wrote three other Rain Morgan books, which were much darker than this one, but it was really enjoyable to re-read this one again.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

P.D. James - Shroud for a Nightingale

" I can see why James is so revered in crime fiction..."

Synopsis:
The young women of Nightingale House are there to learn to nurse and comfort the suffering. But when one of the students plays patient in a demonstration of nursing skills, she is horribly, brutally killed.

Amongst the blackmail, lies and hastily kept secrets of the Nightingale nursing school, another student dies equally mysteriously and it is up to Adam Dalgliesh to unmask a killer who has decided to prescribe murder as the cure for all ills.

Review:
There is a time in all our reading lives when we go back to a particular authors' work we have enjoyed over the years. I am now re-reading James' Dalgliesh novels and have got to this one, her fourth and I had to write a review of it. Why? Not only because it must be about thirty years since I read it, but I guess with mature eyes (and a lot of read books under my belt), I can see why James is so revered in crime fiction and why she is credited with producing a crime novel that was well written.

James is always good with her sense of place, and she excels here with a training school for nurses in the very bleak Nightingale House on a gloomy January day. James must have brought all her knowledge about this area to this book as she studied hospital administration and from 1949 to 1968 worked on a hospital board in London. The start of the book introduces us to Miss Muriel Beale, an Inspector of Nurse Training Schools about to make her way through a cold and wet Monday morning, believing she is going to do a simple inspection at Nightingale House – not witness a murder. I am sure a murder didn't occur on James' watch, but you get a strong sense of James heading out on a wet Monday morning just like her fictional Muriel Beale. Even with the use of Miss Muriel Beale you get a sense that James is giving a nod to the Golden era of crime writing she so admired. But that is where James begins and ends with the Golden era. After that, she delivers a sublime plot, characterisation and dialogue.

James showed that crime fiction could be written just as well as any work of fiction – and it is through her efforts that crime fiction is much more respected than the years preceding when it was described as the poor relation (despite the huge sales). James gives well-rounded characters and intriguing plot. This is the book where you can see the author developing and honing her craft. After all these years, I can appreciate much more of this woman's writing and it isn't surprising to see why she will always have a place in many people's hearts. 'Shroud for a Nightingale' is a brilliant novel way beyond anything else that was being written at that time.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Agatha Christie - Sad Cypress

"A wonderful little puzzle that will get your grey cells working overtime!"

Synopsis:
Elinor Carlisle is on trial for the murder of Mary Gerrard. It all started with the anonymous letter warning Elinor that she was in danger of losing her fortune from her aunt, Mrs Welman who had taken a shine to Mary Gerrard who had been comforting the old woman while she had been seriously ill. Elinor and her 'cousin', Roddy visit Hunterbury to see what is happening in their aunt's house. Soon after, Mrs Welman takes a turn for the worst and dies intestate, leaving the entire fortune to Elinor.

On her death bed, Mrs Welman had asked for her solicitor to make provisions for Mary. Honouring her aunt's wishes, Elinor gives Mary a large sum of money to have a good start in life. When clearing out the aunt's house, Elinor invites Mary and her aunt's nurse, Nurse Hopkins to have some fish paste sandwiches. Soon after, Mary is found ill in the drawing room. She dies soon after. Morphine in the fish paste sandwiches was the cause of death according to the Crown Prosecution… but someone has doubts and brings in Hercule Poirot who is not sure if Elinor really is the murderer of this little drama.

Review:
This was the first Agatha Christie book I ever read back when I was about thirteen. It was the start of a long, passionate journey with crime fiction. 'Sad Cypress' is one of her lesser known novels, but it will always hold a special place in my heart.

This little drama has a small cast of characters, but even then, Christie is sublime at throwing suspicion on each and every one of them. Was it Roddy Welman, who is lazy and a bit of a slippery sort who would do anything to get his hands on his aunt's fortune? Was it Dr Lord who claims he wasn't there on the day of the murder, when facts show he was? Why won't Elinor Carlisle help herself during her own trial? The cast of characters are not particularly warm here, Elinor herself is a veritable ice queen, but again, what Christie excels at is plot and delivers a wonderfully crafted conundrum that will keep you guessing right until the end. I, like millions of others, wonder how she manages to wrong foot her reader time and time again. Whatever you think of her books, you can't deny that she is revered by millions around the world. Picking this book up again after more than thirty years was just as exciting a read as the first time. A wonderful little puzzle that will get your grey cells working overtime!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating: