April 2018

Cathi Unsworth - That Old Black Magic

"Unsworth has found her niche in war-torn Britain..."

April 1943: four boys playing in Hagley Woods, Worcestershire make a gruesome discovery. Inside an enormous elm tree, there is the body of a woman, her mouth stuffed with a length of cloth. As the case goes cold, mysterious graffiti starts going up across the Midlands: 'Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?'

To Ross Spooner, a police officer working undercover for spiritualist magazine 'Two Worlds', the messages hold a sinister meaning. He's been on the track of a German spy ring which has left a trail of black magic and mayhem across England, and this latest murder bears all the hallmarks of an ancient ritual.

At the same time, Spooner is investigating the case of Helen Duncan, a medium whose messages from the spirit world contain highly classified information. As the establishment joins ranks against Duncan, Spooner must face demons from his own past, uncover the spies hiding beneath the fabric of wartime society - and confront those who suspect that he, too, may not be all he seems.

As with the brilliant 'Without the Moon', Unsworth takes fact from history and constructs a tale of fiction around it in a 'what if' scenario. Unsworth has used this unsolved mystery to travel back to a point in history that perfectly suits her style of writing, the early 1940's. Britain is under siege and Unsworth shows brilliantly the devastation of the country, especially Birmingham which had been brutally battered. She strikes just the right chord of stoicism and desperation as possessions are lost and people are displaced.

Whereas her last book was set over a fortnight in London, Unsworth begins this novel in 1941 and over the remaining war years and beyond, slowly peels back and uncovers a multi-layered plot of espionage, duplicity, witchcraft, murder and madness that has its origins in Hitler's heartland. It has been well documented that Hitler was obsessed with the occult and believed it could lead him to victory. This lends credence to Unsworth's Gothic story of witches covens within the sleepy English countryside.

At certain points another factor touches and clashes with the missing 'Clara' in the form of medium, Helen Duncan, infamous as the last woman to be convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1735. Unsworth cleverly plays toys with the belief that Duncan was an absolute fraud… or did she really connect with the 'dearly departed'?

Unsworth transported me straight to that time of hardship with many living cheek by jowl in unsavoury surrounds, clinging to the last few fragments of a better previous life. She shows a land of people rising together, but also the underbelly where others are more than willing to take advantage of a country in crisis and the transitionary status of the many, especially the vulnerable. Unsworth always goes for the guts and heart of the story, provoking emotions from her readers through her writing.

Unsworth has found her niche in war-torn Britain, she brings to her writing such a wonderful sense of time and place. Hopefully she will find more unsolved mysteries of that time and weave her spell on them for her next book!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Sarah Hilary - Come and Find Me

"When you’ve finished, you’ll be screaming for more from Sarah Hilary. Yes, it’s that good."

On the surface, Lara Chorley and Ruth Hull have nothing in common, other than their infatuation with Michael Vokey. Each is writing to a sadistic inmate, sharing her secrets, whispering her worst fears, craving his attention.

DI Marnie Rome understands obsession. She's finding it hard to give up her own addition to a dangerous man: her foster brother, Stephen Keele. She wasn't able to save her parents from Stephen. She lives with that guilt every day.

Following a prison break, Michael Vokey is on the run and the hunt is on to find him. As it gathers pace, Marnie fears one of the women writing to him may have found him - and is about to pay the ultimate price.

Clear your timetable. Turn off your phone and don't even think about leaving the house. 'Come and Find Me' begins with the aftermath of a violent and horrifying prison riot. The tension is palpable and does not let up until the final page. When you've finished, you'll be screaming for more from Sarah Hilary. Yes, it's that good.

'Come and Find Me' is the fifth novel in the DI Marnie Rome series and they get better with one. Hilary hit the ground running with 'Someone Else's Skin' and she's continued at breakneck speed. Rome and her partner, DS Noah Jake, are the perfect team. They're both likeable and genuine. What makes them stand out from other detectives in crime fiction is that they have heart. These aren't just characters on a page, these are real people.

Sarah's writing is pitch-perfect. This is not a police procedural series Hilary is writing but deep psychological thrillers where the tortured minds of the killer, the victims and the detectives take centre stage. What happens; the murders, the acts of violence, are not gratuitous and shocking for the sake of telling a story, they're actions born out of the characters created, and that is what makes Sarah Hilary an exemplary writer.

'Come and Find Me' is a twisty, twisted thriller, and has an ending that will floor you and leave you begging for more.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Luca Veste - The Bone Keeper

"If Stephen King and Thomas Harris collaborated, they would have come up with ‘The Bone Keeper’."

What if the figure that haunted your nightmares as a child, the myth of the man in the woods, was real?

Twenty years ago, four teenagers went exploring in the local woods, trying to find to the supposed home of The Bone Keeper. Only three returned.

Now, a woman is found wandering the streets of Liverpool, horrifically injured, claiming to have fled the Bone Keeper.

Investigating officer DC Louise Henderson must convince sceptical colleagues that this urban myth might be flesh and blood. But when a body is unearthed in the woodland the woman has fled from, the case takes on a much darker tone.

The disappeared have been found. And their killer is watching every move the police make.

As children we all heard stories of the bogeyman, strange beings in the woods, monsters under our beds. They were stories to scare us, to keep us on our toes. Luca Veste has tapped into that childhood fear and brought it to life in a chilling and horrifying story. This is 'Silence of the Lambs' meets 'IT'. If Stephen King and Thomas Harris collaborated, they would have come up with 'The Bone Keeper'. After reading this book, the woods will never look the same ever again.

Veste is a natural writer. He has a way of getting under the reader's skin with his genuine characters and his dark stories. With this standalone horror, he chills you to the bone.

Detective Louise Henderson is on the team searching for a serial killer when bodies are unearthed in nearby woods. Henderson has a dark past and secret so deeply hidden even she doesn't know what it is. The further into the investigation she goes, the more about herself she understands.

Each chapter reveals layers in the hunt for the killer, and Louise's past, and will keep your turning the pages long into the night (just make sure you sleep with the light on). Louise is a very human character but in an extraordinary situation which gives her a vulnerability we can all identify with, making her an ideal protagonist. I hope Luca returns to Louise at some point as I feel there is plenty more in her story to unfold.

'The Bone Keeper' is perfectly chilling psychological horror. It would make for a bloody scary film too.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Ragnar Jónasson - The Darkness

"...shockingly sinister and has an ending that will leave you, literally, gasping for breath."

The body of a young Russian woman washes up on an Icelandic shore. After a cursory investigation, the death is declared a suicide and the case is quietly closed.

Over a year later, Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir of the Reykjavik police is forced into early retirement. She dreads the loneliness, and the memories of her dark past that threaten to come back to haunt her. But before she leaves she is given two weeks to solve a single cold case of her choice.

She knows which one: the Russian woman whose hope for asylum ended on the dark, cold shore of an unfamiliar country. Soon Hulda discovers that another young woman vanished at the same time, and that no one is telling her the whole story. Even her colleagues in the police seem determined to the brakes on her investigation. Meanwhile the clock is ticking.

The start of a new series from Icelandic author, Ragnar Jónasson featuring DI Hulda Hermannsdottir on the cusp of retirement after a long and successful career.

Fans of Ragnar's Dark Iceland series featuring Ari Thor will be used to his trademark depictions of the brutality of Iceland's landscapes and weather, and they are all evident here. From the dark streets of Reykjavik to isolated fjords and valleys and forbidding mountains, Iceland is as much of a character as the people who inhabit the island.

'The Darkness' is the perfect title for a book with a story so bleak and disturbing but the pace is cracking. This is the definition of a one-sitting read.

Through flashback chapters we learn about Hulda's past: her career, her origins, her family, and she hasn't had an easy life. Hulda is a wonderfully strong and determined woman, both in her career and in her personal life. She's richly drawn and a unique force of nature.

'The Darkness' is an incredibly original story starting at the end of a characters career. It's shockingly sinister and has an ending that will leave you, literally, gasping for breath.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Karen Hamilton - The Perfect Girlfriend

"‘The Prefect Girlfriend’ is a great read that kept me engrossed from start to finish."

Juliette loves Nate. She will follow him anywhere. She's even become a flight attendant for his airline, so she can keep a closer eye on him. They are meant to be.

The fact that Nate broke up with her six months ago means nothing… because Juliette has a plan to win him back. She is the perfect girlfriend and she'll make sure no one stops her from getting exactly what she wants.

True love hurts, but Juliette knows it's worth all the pain...

Juliette casts quite a sad figure. Obviously mentally disturbed yet extremely dangerous as she is fixated on Nate. With a difficult childhood, Juliette struggles with relationships now she is an adult. She is obsessed, ego-centric, and narcissistic - not someone you would chose as a friend or partner. But the trouble with Juliette is that you don't choose her, she chooses you. And once chosen she is extremely difficult to get rid of.

Set around her job as an air hostess, 'The Perfect Girlfriend' has locations over many countries and continents, giving lots of insight from behind the scenes of the airline industry.

The story is written from Juliette's perspective, allowing the reader to be able to be empathetic but also maybe a little shocked and scared at the lengths she will go to get what she wants. 'The Perfect Girlfriend' is a great read that kept me engrossed from start to finish. Just maybe not read it while on a plane!

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Alex Gray - Only the Dead Can Tell

"Alex Gray is a consummate story teller."

A woman, Dorothy Guilford, is found dead in her own kitchen with a steak knife in her chest. Rosie Fergusson, the pathologist believes it is self-inflicted but DC Kirsty Wilson suspects that the husband, Peter may be implicated. There are pointers that indicate that he would be happy to have his wife out of the way, and he has a previous history of violence.

Investigations into Guilford's affairs reveal that he may be implicated in a country wide network involving people trafficking. Superintendent William Lorimer has been tracking gangs involved in this and as the one in charge of the Major Incident Team he is keen to follow up any leads.

The dead woman also has a family history that is entwined with all that happens to her and her husband.

Alex Gray is a consummate story teller. She provides a detailed and considered plot that interweaves to produce an intensely satisfying and gripping tale. As always, the issues are bang up to date and provide an insight into the horrible world of people trafficking. Not just in Glasgow, but the tendrils of evil spread all over the country and that is Superintendent Lorimer's remit.

I always enjoy catching up with the characters in these books. William Lorimer and his wife, Maggie are strong characters with their own share of disappointments in life, but always honest and decent people. This is refreshing in detective fiction. Their lives and those of their friends develop as the series progresses and is a strong draw in pulling me back.

Glasgow is the backdrop to the story and is the context that informs the tale. Glasgow is great because of its people and Alex Gray reflects that in her writing. Long may this series continue.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Martin Daley - The Casebook of Inspector Armstrong: Volume 3

"...a couple of intriguing vignettes which left me wanting a whole novel featuring Armstrong."

An unknown American tourist, who will one day achieve greatness, visits Carlisle to research his family history. His arrival coincides with Inspector Armstrong's investigating of a macabre series of grave-robbing incidents in the city. The detective's enquiries inadvertently lead him into investigating a case that had lain dormant for over seventy years.

The second case is set against the backdrop of the Great War. With the building of the enormous munitions factory at Gretna, Cornelius is faced with the impossible task of controlling thousands of navvies who built and work at the factory, intent on coming into Carlisle on a nightly basis to drink away their disposable income. Labour unrest, Irish sectarianism, women's suffrage, and the Government's State Management Scheme are all issues, that when combined, prove every bit as explosive as The Devil's Porridge.

This novella has two short stories featuring the erstwhile Cornelius Armstrong and is a fascinating read. Rich with period detail, every page evokes images of yesteryear as the dogged sleuth follows the clues. Sometimes it's nice to hark back to a different age and the fact these tales are devoid of all modern investigative tools brings out the best in both the author and his lead.

Armstrong is a fine character and his interactions with those he knows shows how well he is respected by those he encounters. It was nice to see Woodrow Wilson feature in one of the stories and I enjoyed reading about HM Factory Gretna. These are a couple of intriguing vignettes which left me wanting a whole novel featuring Armstrong.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Joseph Knox - The Smiling Man

"Knox is a writer to keep your eye on."

Disconnected from his history and careless of his future, Detective Constable Aidan Waits has resigned himself to the night shift - an endless cycle of meaningless emergency calls and lonely dead ends. Until he and his partner, Detective Inspector Peter 'Sutty' Sutcliffe, are summoned to the Palace, a vast disused hotel in the centre of a restless, simmering city. There they find the body of a man. He is dead. And he is smiling.

The tags have been removed from the man's clothes. His teeth have been filed down and replaced. Even his fingertips are not his own. Only a patch sewed into the inside of his trousers gives any indication as to who he was, and to the desperate last act of his life...

But even as Waits pieces together this stranger's identity, someone is sifting through the shards of his own.

When mysterious fires, anonymous phone calls and outright threats start to escalate, he realises that a ghost from his own past haunts his every move - and to discover the smiling man's identity, he must finally confront his own.

Joseph Knox hit the ground running with his debut novel, 'Sirens', last year. It took the crime fiction community by storm and launched Knox into the upper echelons of Northern Noir. His unique style of writing has echoes of some of the greats of the genre including Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The problem with having such a hit debut is can the author deliver for his second book. In Knox's case, that's not a problem. 'The Smiling Man' is a powerful, character-driven novel with an electrifying pace.

DC Aidan Waits is a phenomenal creation. I'm not embarrassed to say that I have a massive man-crush on him. He's at the bottom of the food chain - no friends, no family, no life, everyone at work hates him and wants him to quit and there's a price on his head. However, he is so bloody cool about it all. You can picture him walking along the corridors in the police station with his head held high secretly giving life the middle finger.

What I love about Knox's writing is the attention to detail and the fluidity of his prose. Waits' partner in crime is the unfortunately named Peter Sutcliffe - a dinosaur in the police service, but his nuances, his rhetoric, make him the man you love to hate.

Knox is a writer to keep your eye on. 'Sirens' was no bluff. This man can write and he's going to be a powerful name in British crime fiction. Mr Knox, I bow to you.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Lindsey Davis - Pandora's Boy

"...a treat to savour and save up for a quiet evening in."

Flavia Alba and her new husband, Tiberius Manlius Faustus, are settling into married life, although he is still recovering from a dramatic lightning strike on their wedding day. The calm is interrupted when the ex-wife of Tiberius arrives with a suggestion for a project for Flavia. It concerns the death in mysterious circumstances of the young daughter of one of her friends. A mishap with a love potion has been suggested as one possible cause but that has resulted in bitter arguments in the family. Flavia Alba is reluctant to take on anything suggested by Tiberius' ex-wife whom she dislikes intensely although both she and Tiberius are intrigued. However, Flavia Alba is adamant that she will not be involved.

Shortly after, Tiberius disappears and this is blamed on his disorientation following the lightning strike. Flavia does not know where he is and out of boredom takes on the challenge of the young girl's death. This involves her mixing with the young socialites of Rome, the wealthy women as well as some decidedly shady characters. Mixed in with a séance and some witchcraft, the story leads to Flavia uncovering some very dodgy dealings.

Lindsey Davis always serves up an entertaining mix of genuine historical background facts with a sharp and witty set of characters. Flavia continues her father's cynical approach and her turn of phrase is clever and cutting. The minor characters are cleverly drawn with a verve that allows you to recognise them in their modern day counterparts. Even the dog is true to life!

The delights and the horrors of ancient Rome jump off the page, but the people have basically the same instincts and behaviours as today.

I recommend reading the Dramatis Personae at the beginning after reading the book. There are some witty puns and allusions to entertain. As always with Davis' books this is a treat to savour and save up for a quiet evening in.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Georges Simenon - Maigret's Failure

"...another excellent book from a man who combined great literary style and readability."

It is March in Paris. A wet, cold, uninspiring March, and Maigret is feeling low. He has a mystery on his hands: whatever has happened to Mrs Britt, a widowed English tourist on a coach trip to Paris? She has disappeared, and the police have no clues as to what happened to her. Then, to complicate matters, he gets a visit from someone he knew from his boyhood days in Saint-Fiacre. It's Ferdinand Fumal, who bullied Maigret as a boy, and made his life a misery.

He now owns a very successful butchery business ('the King of the Meat Trade'), and has friends in high places. He has been receiving death threat letters, and the Minister for the Interior has told Maigret to investigate and provide protection. Maigret does so, but half-heartedly. Fumal is then murdered - shot at point blank range in his own home. Did Fumal write the letters himself, as someone suggests? If not who did, and then murdered him? It is obviously someone within the household who shot him. Was it his wife? His secretary? His major-domo? His chauffeur? His concierge? His brother-in-law? The businessman whom he ruined?

Maigret considers that he has failed, for several reasons. He failed to protect Fumal, and the murderer, after the identity is revealed, disappears for two years, and eventually dies before being brought to justice. Not only that - he fails to find out what happened to Mrs Britt. And when her fate is finally uncovered, it is through no effort on his part.

In this book, Simenon effortlessly combines great story-telling with well-defined characters that drive the plot. His dialogue is as revealing as ever, and is a joy. Fumal is cruel, selfish and power-obsessed, and for this reason is rightly despised by everyone who know him, Maigret included. And yet Simenon has cleverly managed to show the man's vulnerability without ever making him someone who should be even slightly pitied. It would take a cleverer reviewer than me to work out just how he did it.

The almost claustrophobic atmosphere in Fumal's large apartment is not shown by open exposition, but by Simenon's deft way in handling character and dialogue. Maigret's own doubts about the way he handled the case, and his self-confessed failings, are believable and show a side to him that makes him, in some ways, as vulnerable as Fumal, for all his power as a policeman.

'Maigret's Failure' is another excellent book from a man who combined great literary style and readability.

Reviewed by: J.G.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Gary Dolman - A Satyr's Dance

"...a compelling read that will educate and entertain in equal measure."

Harrogate, 1892, and a series of bizarre attacks coincide with the arrival of a freak show in the town. This contains just a single exhibit: a creature declared to be Charles Darwin's long sought-for but hitherto undiscovered Missing Link between mankind and the great apes of Africa.

Atticus and Lucie Fox investigate and uncover an ancient wisdom, which concerns nothing less than the fall of the Divine and the final ascent of man.

'A Satyr's Dance' is a fantastically researched novel that has been written with verve and humanity in equal measure. From first page to last, the reader is carried along on a wave of delicately crafted prose. Both Atticus and Lucie Fox are well drawn and engender the right emotions at the right time. As for the other characters, they were all created with a perfunctory skill, but never shone the way the Foxes did.

The plot was intricate with just the right amount of revelations to keep the reader guessing and the way it encompassed so many details, speaks of the author's attention to detail when plotting and researching this novel.

All in all, 'The Satyr's Dance' is a compelling read that will educate and entertain in equal measure.

Reviewed by: G.S.

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