June 2019

John Marrs - The Passengers

"Marrs manages to turn what could have been a mediocre plot about some out of control vehicles into a great thriller..."

When someone hacks into the systems of eight self-drive cars, their passengers are set on a fatal collision course.

The passengers are: a TV star, a pregnant young woman, a disabled war hero, an abused wife fleeing her husband, an illegal immigrant, a husband and wife - and parents of two - who are travelling in separate vehicles and a suicidal man. Now the public have to judge who should survive but are the passengers all that they seem?

John Marrs brings us another glimpse into our future with his thriller based around driverless cars. With technology rushing ahead, Marrs not only portrays the future with life partners being DNA Matched (his previous book, 'The One'), but also the move to cars being dictated by technology.

Eight people become passengers in their driverless cars, under the control of a hacker. There is a jury and the public who get to decide who lives and who decides, with their fates being played out on social media. Marrs has (sadly) really summed up the pack mentality with his observations on peoples' keyboard behaviour.

Time is against the jury to decide who gets to live. As time is passing, each of the passenger's stories are being told, and nothing is as it seems at first glance. As with much of the information we receive, we are only told what others want us to know and this book really highlights how it's impossible to make a decision without knowing all the facts.

There is a good mix of characters; those that you instantly know are good and those that are bad. But hiding among those are some that are underhand and devious which will leave you guessing right until the end.

Not being a fan of sci-fi or fantasy genre, I unexpectedly enjoyed Marrs' insight to the future. What may have seemed only fantasy a couple of decades ago, now seems very possible. And when I take my first journey in a driverless car, this book won't be too far from my thoughts!

Marrs manages to turn what could have been a mediocre plot about some out of control vehicles into a great thriller that not only will keep you guessing but also make you think about what will happen in the future and what happens to all the information held about individuals. 'The Passengers' is a hugely enjoyable read.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Syd Moore - Strange Tombs

"As the series progresses, Moore becomes yet more adept at blending her corkscrew crime plots with the shimmer of the supernatural..."

It's Halloween at Ratchette Hall, Essex's famous Writers' Retreat, and practitioners and pupils of the art of Mystery and Suspense novels have gathered. Following a creepy afternoon's exercise in nearby St Saviour's church – repository of Knights Templar tombs and unsettling, devilish effigies – the assembled have drunk a little too much whisky and gone to bed long before the witching hour. Only the caretaker, Graham Peacock is still up, traversing the long, paneled corridors, when an ominous knock sounds out at the door… Felled in the line of duty, his stricken body is found the next morning, clutching a marble finger to his expired heart. Since one of the Ratchette residents, Tabitha Walker, is the aunt of Montgomery from M16, Rosie Strange and Sam Stone are duly summoned from the Essex Witch Museum to investigate. They find a blue-haired Australian cat healer, a blue-blooded fop, a man who claims he can think his way into the mind of a serial killer and an extremely un-cheery cleaner by the name of Carole Christmas all struggling to ascertain what really happened at the Hall – and why one of the stone crusaders in St Saviour's is suddenly missing a digit…

It's the fourth installment of the Essex Witch Museum Mysteries and things just keep getting better and better. Ratchette Hall is a tasty setting for any aspiring or actual crime writer to imagine their contemporaries and rivals in peril and the motley crew assembled by Moore seem to be getting it from all quarters – when they're not being menaced by stone knights, there's a werewolf howling in the nearby Witch Wood, a snake on the loose from the local zoo and even murmurings of a visitation from the Great God Pan. But why would any of these brilliantly drawn avatars of the mysterious have it in for mild-mannered janitor Graham? That is just one of the mysteries facing Rosie and Sam, who have been through quite a few since the former Benefit Fraud officer was left the keys to the Witch Museum by her mysterious Uncle Septimus. After gaining her inheritance and teaming up with brooding curator Sam, Rosie has discovered that her own past history is not what it seemed. She is still struggling to come to terms with the revelation of her real parentage that came in the preceding 'Strange Fascination' – and to get any closer to the real object of her affection, Sam's heart.

As the series progresses, Moore becomes yet more adept at blending her corkscrew crime plots with the shimmer of the supernatural, layering in a wealth of real fascinating facts about the folklore, superstition and hidden history of Essex and Britain in general. There are real people woven into the fabric of her fiction, such as Cecil Williamson, the founder of the Boscastle Museum of Magic and Witchcraft, who really did work covert ops against the Nazis for MI6 during the War; and though St Saviour's is an imagined church, it shares common Templar ground with the mysterious Royston Cave in Hertfordshire, with which Williamson would have been well aware. Like Christopher Fowler with his wondrous Bryant and May, Moore is skilled at presenting the reader with something that seems impossible and pulling off a logical explanation that works like a magic trick. Bursting with quickfire wit and snappy social comment, her books are addictive and as soon as I put this one down, I couldn't wait for the next one.

Reviewed by: C.U.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Alafair Burke - The Better Sister

"I love a good courtroom drama, and this did not miss anything out."

Chloe and Nicky Taylor, estranged sisters are drawn back together with the murder of Adam, one the dead man's husband, the other his ex - they must set their differences and anger aside to save their son.

Being the more promising of the two sisters, Chloe was always the one in charge, the honour roll student who claimed her dream career. While Nicky was the slightly less stable sister until she found Adam Macintosh, an up and coming attorney whom she married and had Ethan with.

Fifteen years later, their lives are not the same happy picture from before - and now Chloe is Adam's wife. One night he is murdered and the hunt turns towards his son, Ethan, and the sisters must reunite and confront their past to protect their future and their son.

To start let's face the elephant in the room - it would be anyone's worst nightmare to find out that your sibling is now together with your ex. That is certainly a big factor in why I picked this book up to read, I just couldn't wrap my head around how this would go down with the other sibling (the ex) and so I had to get stuck in. The rule of sister's before misters was certainly forgotten for the Taylor sisters, and yet Nicky (the ex) was oddly calm about the situation, they say sharing is caring but I think this is a step too far, and realistically I wasn't sure if this was the reaction anyone would usually have... I appreciate Adam had sole custody of her son so she was mindful of that, but there must have been an element of jealousy or anger towards Chloe to have to go for him? Maybe this is just me emanating my emotions?

What did become apparent in this novel was the sisters lack of communication and connection which ended up spreading to their shared son Ethan, and caused history to repeat itself. The rift that they had let creep into their relationship had an underlying effect on Ethan, whom is supposedly the most important person to both of them.

When the police turn on Ethan and the storyline goes into the courtroom, I was very much in my element. I love a good courtroom drama, and this did not miss anything out. I thought Burke wrote this perfectly, as in real life there are unexpected turns of events, and in this case they shocked not only the readers but also the courtroom. I thought the representation was portrayed realistically, and I for one certainly bought into the story.

I was left happy with how the novel turned on its head, with the sister's finally coming together for the one thing that was important to both of them. What resonated was that this happiness also had a sinister, and dark edge to the fold when you find out what happened to Adam - but you'll have to read it to find out for yourself.

Reviewed by: K.C.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Anne Randall - Deceived

"Tartan Noir couldn’t be in more dangerous hands."

When forty-one-year-old Sarah Price is reported missing after having arranged a date with a man she met on the Internet, her son is naturally distraught.

Meanwhile, Glasgow-based Detective Inspectors Kat Wheeler and Steven Ross attend the scene of a murder: Michael O'Donnell, a widower and stay-at-home dad to his daughter, Paula, has been brutally killed. And Paula, who is vulnerable and dependent on daily medication, is missing.

As Wheeler and Ross race to find Michael's killer and Paula's abductor, they are drawn into a tangled web of deceit. Soon they come to realise that the killer is watching them, and is always one step ahead...

The fourth Wheeler and Ross novel by Anne Randall and this one is her best yet. The series is going from strength to strength and established characters are fully fleshed out. If you haven't read the previous three, you can read this as a standalone. However, I highly recommend this series. There are many crime fiction novels set in Scotland, but not all are a dark, deep and gripping as this one.

Wheeler and Ross work very well together. Ross is secretly in love with Wheeler but this is not a typical will-they-won't-they scenario. Both lead characters have their strengths and weaknesses and, if they were a couple, they'd bring out each other's best qualities. It's obvious Anne Randall is having fun with this sub-plot, teasing her readers. Throwing the smarmy Seb and bizarre Aubree into the mix to keep the two likeable protagonists at arms-length just that little bit longer.

'Deceived' is a multi-layered, intelligent, psychological thriller and there is deception on every single page. Again, Randall knows her craft, and she ratchets up the tension to the maximum with gruesome murders, taunts, and an eclectic range of increasingly damaged characters.

At the heart of this novel is the pressures facing the student generation of this country as they come to terms with who they are and the hedonism of the twenty-first century. Identity crises, psychological disorders, popularity, self-esteem and self-loathing all play a huge part and Randall taps into the mindset of a confused teenager incredibly well.

Tartan Noir couldn't be in more dangerous hands. Fans of Ian Rankin and Stuart MacBride are going to love this series of novels.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Simon Beckett - The Scent of Death

"...the twists and turns will surprise even the hardiest crime fiction fan. "

Formerly a busy hospital, St Jude's now stands derelict, awaiting demolition. These days its only visitors are addicts and dealers, those on the very fringes of society.

So when a partially mummified corpse is found in the hospital's cavernous loft, the police believe it must be the result of a tragic accident or a drugs deal gone wrong. Forensics expert, Dr David Hunter can't say how long the body has been there but he is certain it is that of a young woman… and that she was pregnant.

It soon becomes clear that the hospital has yet to give up all of its secrets. The sudden collapse of the attic floor reveals a bricked-up chamber, with beds still inside. Some of them are occupied.

For Hunter, what began as a straightforward case is about to become a twisted nightmare that threatens everyone around him. And as the investigation springs more surprises, one thing is certain: St Jude's hasn't claimed its last victim...

When a crime fiction series has someone other than a detective for its protagonist, there is a worry the story will descend into Silent Witness territory where the lead character will take it upon themselves to be a one-man police force and solve all the unsolved murder singlehanded. There is also the risk that the detectives featured will be cartoon-esque with no idea how to solve a word search puzzle let alone a criminal investigation. With Simon Beckett's excellent David Hunter series, you don't need to worry. You're guaranteed a pitch-perfect thriller.

Beckett has created a unique series with a likeable lead character in David Hunter, a forensics expert. He's at the top of his field, and in demand, yet while similar characters in crime fiction are drawn as arrogant, David is an everyman. He's intelligent, knowledgeable, and not without flaws. He's the perfect protagonist.

A former journalist, Simon Beckett knows research is key to authenticity and his novels are packed with fascinating information on forensics. At the fingertips of a lesser writer, it would read like a text book rather than a work of fiction, but Beckett's fluid prose is tightly packed with a visual descriptive narrative that puts the reader in the thick of the action so when a twist hits you between the eyes (and it really will), you feel it with the same power as the characters.

'The Scent of Death' is Beckett's strongest Hunter novel yet. The crime is shocking and dark. The abandoned hospital, St Jude's, is genuinely creepy. You can almost feel the hairs standing up on the back of your neck as the stale whiff of the long forgotten is chillingly described. The plot is intelligent and intricately woven. The psychology behind it is bleak and the twists and turns will surprise even the hardiest crime fiction fan.

A highly literate and engaging series, Simon Beckett is in a class of his own as a highly polished and brilliant psychological thriller writer.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Tana French - The Wych Elm

"...a brilliant, compelling and dark tale..."

Toby Hennessey has always led a charmed life. Handsome, popular and clever, things have always come easy to him.

One night changes everything. A brutal attack leaves him damaged and traumatised. As he struggles to recover from the attack, Toby seeks refuge at his family's ancestral home, the Ivy House. It's a place filled with memories from many happy summers spent at the Ivy House with his uncle, Hugo, and his cousins, Susanna and Leon.

But soon after Toby's arrival, a discovery is made: a skull, tucked neatly inside the old wych elm in the garden.

As detectives begin to close in, Toby is forced to examine everything he thought he knew about his family, his past, and himself.

'The Wych Elm' is Tana French's seventh novel and like its six predecessors, it's a beautifully written, cleverly crafted crime novel that will have you turning the pages late into the night.

The central character in French's sweeping, 500-page novel is 28-year old PR hot shot Toby Hennessey. At the same time as Toby is attacked, his beloved uncle, Hugo, is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. Toby and his girlfriend, Melissa, go to live with Hugo in the Ivy House. Then one Sunday, Toby's niece and nephew find a skull buried inside the trunk of a wych elm tree in the garden.

When the victim is identified as an old schoolfriend of Toby's, Toby becomes the unwilling focus of the murder investigation. Determined to prove his innocence, Toby sets out to find the truth about what happened all those summers ago. But the truth proves more elusive than he imagined. Since the attack, Toby's memories are distorted and he struggles to separate fiction from reality.

Reading the book is a little like watching a car crash in slow motion. The reader watches Toby edging closer and closer to a catastrophe, but is powerless to stop him. Despite knowing things won't end well, Toby's eventual unravelling is still a shock.

'The Wych Elm' is French's first standalone crime novel. It's a brilliant, compelling and dark tale about families and the different ways we are all capable of hurting even those we love the most.

Reviewed by: S.B.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Rafael Bernal - The Mongolian Conspiracy

"Every now and again, the whole world as it was in one moment is captured in a hardboiled paperback. This is one..."

Filiberto García is a grizzled gun-for-hire, a veteran who came of age during the Mexican Revolution and now lives the shadowy life of an assassin, dispatching to government order and filling in the rest of his time playing cards badly in Mexico City's one-street Chinatown. He appreciates the tight-lipped qualities of his poker buddies and they admire the same attributes in him. In the wider world of 1969 politics, this might not be such a good time to make friends with the Chinese. But García's unique insights make him the perfect third man when the FBI and CIA send their top agents to try and foil an alleged plot – the titular Mongolian Conspiracy – to assassinate the US President on his forthcoming visit to the Mexican capital. Soon García is up to his gimlet eyes in double bluffs and bloody bodies and if this wasn't trouble enough, he has unwittingly fallen in love for the first time – with a Chinese woman – and the cynical carapace that has held him together all this time is starting to show deadly hairline fractures…

Every now and again, the whole world as it was in one moment is captured in a hardboiled paperback. This is one, penned by a former Mexican Diplomat, that distills all the infernal machinations played across the international stage at the end of the 1960s into the characters of apple pie-eating, karate-chopping FBI agent Richard P Graves and milk-imbibing KGB enigma-wrapped-in-a-riddle Ivan M Laski. Our hard-drinking, even harder-swearing anti-hero García is merely their pawn, his hard-won local knowledge and fine-honed instincts ruthlessly exploited to untangle the web of corruption surrounding the alleged assassination plot. But that's only one level of the story – there is also a deeper, existential narrative about the effect of love on a man previously devoid of feeling that provides its stunning denouement. If only this novel could have fallen into the right hands in 1969, it would have made the ultimate Sam Peckinpah movie, the director having exactly the right qualities of understanding and ensemble cast to render it in Widescreen.

Reviewed by: C.U.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Alex Michaelides - The Silent Patient

"Michaelides writes a true psychological thriller which you won’t want to stay silent about."

Alicia Berenson lives a happy life, as a successful painter with a loyal, loving husband... or does she? She starts keeping a diary as a way to put down her thoughts, to prove to her husband, Gabriel, that everything is fine. Until one evening, when Alicia shoots Gabriel five times and then never says another word.

Years later, Forensic Psychotherapist Theo Faber arrives at the hospital Alicia is in, convinced he will be the one to successfully treat her and get her to speak. What starts as a doctor patient relationship soon becomes an obsession with investigating her crime, her past and what she might have to hide.

But if she does speak, who's to say he wants to hear what she has to say?

Both Theo and Alicia's lives entwine so much so I forgot sometimes which character's story I was reading, which actually later proves to build up to a crossing over of events. I thought the way Michaelides tells the story was simply marvellous, somewhere into the novel I was getting a little unsure of where the story was going which was making me unsure about the plotline until a very pivotal moment where it all clicks into place. After the alignment I realised how clever the story actually is, and it is brilliant.

The fact that Alicia practically embodies the Greek myth, Alcestis, is somewhat of a mystery in the beginning of the novel, like Theo, you are trying to figure out what the painting means as well as her silence. It isn't till her story plays out that you begin to realise the depth of this silence and the struggles she has faced. She has a point to prove, and she does just that.

Alicia is a curious main character, considering there is no dialogue from her, you get insight into her past before she commits murder and so with only this voice to form an opinion around it's hard to decipher your thoughts around her current self. You, like Theo, can only try to work her out through her actions and through the voice of Theo, so it's interesting to see how the novel pans out.

The question of the human minds comes into play, you question people's motives and mind-set, which when set in a psychiatric hospital, makes it hard to know who to believe. As with an assumptive mind you trust the doctors, they are there to help, that is their job, you set the patients out to be the unreliable one, but should you?

I won't reveal any spoilers, because this novel needs to be read and enjoyed by others. Michaelides writes a true psychological thriller which you won't want to stay silent about.

Reviewed by: K.C.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Jacqueline Winspear - The American Agent

"...the descriptions and the little details of observation and behaviour are beautifully done."

It is the early days of the Second World War and Maisie Dobbs is busy volunteering as an ambulance driver during the intensive blitz of the East End of London. One night she has an American war correspondent as a passenger and she warms to the humanity of the girl. When the journalist is found murdered and the British authorities are reluctant to investigate, Maisie agrees to work with an agent of the USA to find out the truth.

What she discovers is political intrigue from both sides of the pond as well as secrets on a more personal level. The background of American ambivalence to supporting Britain is an ongoing theme, as well as disclosures about the behaviour of the American ambassador in London. Maisie is determined to find out the truth.

Maisie Dobbs is a revelation to me. A psychologist and investigator, she has her own business in London as well as a family in Kent, including a young girl evacuated to the country whom Maisie wants to adopt. From the details that emerge, it is clear that there is a long back story, but it is not necessary to have read previous books to enjoy this one thoroughly.

Maisie is a feisty character, determined and intelligent as well as humane and sensitive. The progress of her emotional life is an added interest to the book.
This is one of those books that is difficult to put down and calls to you whenever you have a spare moment. The story is gripping and set in a fascinating period of our history. The immediacy of the descriptions and the little details of observation and behaviour are beautifully done.

My only regret is that I had not come across Maisie Dobbs earlier, despite frequent visits to the USA. I shall certainly look forward to more books in the series.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Thomas Harris - Cari Mora

"Cari is a great heroine with guts from the same mould as Clarice Starling..."

Twenty-five million dollars in cartel gold lies hidden beneath a mansion on the Miami Beach waterfront. Ruthless men have tracked it for years. Leading the pack is Hans-Peter Schneider. Driven by unspeakable appetites, he makes a living fleshing out the violent fantasies of other, richer men.

Cari Mora, caretaker of the house, has escaped from the violence in her native country. She stays in Miami on a wobbly Temporary Protected Status, subject to the iron whim of ICE. She works at many jobs to survive. Beautiful, marked by war, Cari catches the eye of Hans-Peter as he closes in on the treasure. But Cari Mora has surprising skills, and her will to survive has been tested before.

It appeared that Harris was not going to write another book. After his spectacular sales, you have to admit that maybe the man had decided to just enjoy himself on the back of Lecter's misdeeds. You can't blame the man having given the world Hannibal Lecter who is up there with other great villains such as Jack the Ripper, Darth Vadar, The Joker and Moriarty. Now we have 'Cari Mora' which is an unexpected surprise – but does it live up to the Lecter novels? Well, yes and no.

Although I loved the main character of Cari Mora, she is a woman who has seen too much violence in her short life. Now a new intruder threatens her and she comes out fighting. The story itself is highly enjoyable, I felt that it was missing that creeping sense of impending doom that laced his most famous novels. I guess that having created a monster, any new monster would be a pale imitation – quite literally in the case of Hans-Peter Schneider. Schneider does have possibilities, but doesn't seem to reach his full potential when pitching his bid as a great villain.

Harris has spoiled us with 'Red Dragon' and 'Silence of the Lambs', and while this latest is not as good as these it is at least several notches up from 'Hannibal Rising' which was dull. Cari is a great heroine with guts from the same mould as Clarice Starling, and it is she who keeps you interested in this book. However much you would like to hear more of her, I think one had best channel patience as it could be another thirteen years before we again hear from Mr Harris.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

James Ellroy - This Storm

"The magnitude of the crimes contained within its pages embrace the true life..."

January 1942 and the American New Year is seen in by torrential storms. They catch newly recruited Naval Lieutenant Joan Conville, driving from a Stan Kenton gig in San Diego to her training camp in Los Angeles under the influence of a dozen highballs, and whirling her into the front of a car on Venice Boulevard. When she comes round unharmed, but having totaled the occupants of the other vehicle, the former nurse finds herself transferred from Naval duties into the Los Angeles Police Department, courtesy of Captain William H Parker, to work in the pathology lab with forensics wizard Hideo Ashida. At the same time, the maelstrom unearths a body in Griffiths Park, where Vice detective – and practitioner – Elmer Jackson's bandit brother Wayne Frank was last seen alive in October 1933, on the night of a fatal conflagration. The rain pours into the opium-fueled dreams of Dudley Smith, seconded from the LAPD into Army Intelligence and newly posted to Baja in Mexico, where he will soon be designing rackets, communing with his wolf spirit guide and lusting after Nazi gold. And it bounces in jazz time off the roof of City Hall, where Count Basie is counting in the New Year for all the LAPD and Hollywood glitterati – and watchful diary-keeper Kay Lake has her eye on everything and everyone…

So 'This Storm' picks off where 'Perfidia', Ellroy's return to his native Los Angeles for the second part of a new, WWII-set series left off. The central enigma of that book was the slaying of the Japanese-American Wantabe family on the eve of Pearl Harbour that was made to look like ritual suicide. Ashida and Smith colluded on framing a man for that murder, Fuijo Shudo, aka the Werewolf, still languishing in his cell on New Year's Eve as this book begins, watched over by the compromised young chemist who helped to put him there. The theme of the two books remains the same – the corruption opportunities provided by the War and the subsequent blackout of the souls of all here involved.

Like its predecessor, this is a hefty tome – almost the same size as the original 'LA Quartet' in its entirety. The magnitude of the crimes contained within its pages embrace the true life, unsolved Griffiths Park fire; a stolen batch of gold, the nefarious activities of Orson Welles (whom Ellroy clearly despises) and ultimately, a clandestine collaboration between Hard Left and Hard Right factions to divide and conquer the world. A suitably damning indictment of America which, despite the author's protestations that it has nothing in common with the current febrile political climate, does nonetheless invite parallels. The title comes from a WH Auden poem, so perhaps it's only coincidence that Donald Trump likes to describe himself as: “The Storm” – but unholy alliances are the concurrent themes of this demonic deluge and the serving President's reign.

Reviewed by: C.U.

CrimeSquad Rating: