February 2020

Robert Bryndza - Nine Elms

"...dark, gripping and the very essence of a page turner. "

Sixteen years ago, Kate Marshall was a rising star in the London Metropolitan police force. Young, ambitious and driven, with a talent for getting into the minds of criminals, she solved several high-profile murder cases.

But when Kate was tasked with tracking down a vicious serial killer, even her instinct and ability to immerse herself in violent worlds couldn't help her find him – until he found her.

Now, years after her narrow escape, Kate lives a quiet life on the English coast, though her years with the police are still with her. And when one day she receives a letter from someone in her past, she is pulled back into the twisted mind of a murderer she knows only too well – and into a case only she can solve.

Robert Bryndza is the writer of the Erika Foster series of crime fiction novels. With 'Nine Elms', he launches a new series, stepping away from police procedure and into psychopathy with a dark and twisted serial killer thriller.

Protagonist Kate Marshall is a former detective now working as a university lecturer but on the cusp of a new career as a private detective. Along with her assistant, Tristan, they decide to help an elderly couple search for their daughter, missing for more than twenty years, who, they believe it linked to a serial killer who ended Kate's career.

The crime is disturbingly dark and Bryndza touches on some shocking themes including child grooming, rape and mutilation. There is always a risk in writing about sensitive issues and using them as a puerile form of entertainment for the sake of storytelling. However, Bryndza escapes that with a touching narrative, and creating well-devised characters who fit the story rather than going for the shock factor.

Kate Marshall is a likeable character. Still suffering the aftermath of a violet attack fifteen years later, she's a shadow of her former self as she battles alcoholism and struggles with missing out on bringing up her son. It's these battles that we witness as she investigates, and almost falling off the wagon and the tear-jerking Skype calls with her son, that make her human, interesting, and who, as the reader, we hope will succeed. Her assistant, Tristan, is a wonderful sidekick and there are many layers to him that I am sure will be revealed in future books. Together, they make a formidable team.

It's rare to find a modern crime thriller about a private detective, and when done correctly, it can be a joy to read. I think Robert Bryndza has done a sterling job and will relaunch the private detective genre. 'Nine Elms' is dark, gripping and the very essence of a page turner.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

SJI Holliday - Violet

"...‘Violet’ didn’t disappoint."

Stranded in Beijing, Violet is trying – unsuccessfully – to get a ticket for the Trans-Siberian Express. A chance encounter with Carrie seems like the perfect solution to her problems. Carrie's best friend had an accident, which means she's unable to make the round-the-world trip the two girls had planned.

When she meets Violet, Carrie makes the impulsive decision to invite Violet to take her best friend's place.

Thrown together in a strange country, and the cramped cabin of the train, the women soon form a bond. But as the journey continues, through Mongolia and into Russia, things start to unravel – because one of these women is not who she claims to be…

Comparisons with Patricia Highsmith meant I was desperate to read this book. I'm a huge Highsmith fan and, I'm delighted to say, 'Violet' didn't disappoint.

The novel is a smart, insightful and gripping exploration of a troubled, deeply flawed character. What follows is an edge of your seat story, as the girls travel across Mongolia and into Russia. It's not long before cracks appear in their relationship. A series of increasingly dangerous encounters, and too many drink and drug-fuelled nights, add further strain to the girls' increasingly fragile friendship.

Reading the book is a tense experience. From the opening – prequel – chapter, you know something bad is going to happen. All you can do is keep turning the pages as you race towards the final, inevitable moment of violence.

Violet is a brilliant creation – complex, compelling and utterly convincing. With great skill, Holliday gradual reveals the real character behind the façade, and the reasons why she's ended up like this.

Apart from a slightly implausible finale, this novel is a stunning psychological thriller. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by: S.B.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Adam Hamdy - Black 13

"This is a tense, raw, intelligent and highly addictive thriller."

An exiled agent. A growing threat. A clandestine war. Welcome to the dangerous world of twenty-first century Britain.

The world is changing beyond recognition. Radical extremists are rising and seek to enforce their ideology globally. Governments, the military and intelligence agencies are being outmanoeuvred at every step. Borders are breaking down and those in power are mere puppets. The old rules are obsolete. To fight this war a new doctrine is needed.

In a world where nothing is at it seems, where trust is gone, one man will make the difference. Meet ex-MI6 agent and man in exile, Scott Pearce. It's time to burn the espionage rule book and Scott will light the fire.

First, a warning: before starting this book, cancel all plans, because you're going to need to dedicate all your time to this novel. It's relentless. It gets under your skin. It will force you to read it in one sitting and you'll be thinking about it long after you finish. The book has the power to change everything you think you know about the governments in power, and the shocking, vile things people will do to enact change. Yes, it's a work of fiction, but it's frighteningly close to reality.

For those of you who love a good spy thriller, this is for you. However, don't expect the glossy world of James Bond or the one-man band Jason Bourne, this is a hard-hitting, terrifying, violent look at our changing landscape with a protagonist who bleeds.

Scott Pearce is living a cosy life in the far-east, although he's forever looking over his shoulder, as an ex-MI6 agent should. He's approached by a banker informing him of a good friend who was murdered during the pursuit of the truth and Pearce is the only man who can pick up the mantle. As much as he doesn't want to, he feels he has no choice and assembles a team of people he can trust to help him. It's this team of well-drawn out characters that make this novel the thrilling ride it is. My particular favourite is Leila. She's lived a hard life and has the scars to show for it. She's intelligent, gutsy, and will stop at nothing in the fight for truth and justice.

Adam Hamdy has certainly done his homework in researching this novel. He's attending far-right meetings to get the feel and mood of a group of people unhappy with the establishment and he's put all the raw emotional sentiment into the story. You don't just read 'Black 13', you live it; such is the power of Hamdy's writing. He doesn't shy away from the horrors people will do for their message to be heard and some of the scenes are disturbing, but it's not gratuitous and it's not written for dramatic effect. At the back of your mind, you know something like this can happen, has happened, and will happen. This is a tense, raw, intelligent and highly addictive thriller. Hamdy is on to a winner of a series and has the potential to be bigger than Bond, Bourne and Reacher put together!

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

CC MacDonald - Happy Ever After

"‘Happy Ever After’ is a cleverly spun story."

Naomi seems to have everything. A beautiful daughter, a gorgeous house, a perfect life. Behind the scenes, though, she and her husband are drifting from one another and struggling to conceive their second child.

Then Naomi meets a parent at her daughter's nursery. Sean understands her, or so she thinks. Looking for a connection, for a friend, she joins him at a swimming lesson with their children. That day, Naomi makes a terrible mistake.

Weeks later, when Naomi attempts to contact Sean, he has disappeared without a trace. But as she begins to piece her life back together, it becomes clear that someone else knows her secret. Someone who wants to make sure she never forgets what she did at the pool.

'Happy Ever After' is a cleverly spun story. As the plot develops it becomes apparent that there is more to Sean than first appears but MacDonald drip feeds you to keep you guessing.

Strange things start to happen in the house, random objects appear or items are moved. Sean can no longer be contacted on the phone which is when Naomi begins to investigate the man she thought she knew only to find a lot more than she as expecting.

'Happy Ever After' is a well written, suspenseful debut novel. The characters are solid and the plot, whilst perhaps not entirely believable, did make for a good read. MacDonald managed to not only tie off any loose endings but also leave the book on a slight cliffhanger - no easy feat. A great introduction to a very promising new author.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Elly Griffiths - The Lantern Men

"Elly Griffiths is certainly my Queen of Crime."

Everything has changed for Dr Ruth Galloway. She has a new job, home and partner, and is no longer North Norfolk Police's resident forensic archaeologist. That is, until convicted murderer Ivor March offers to make DCI Nelson a deal.

Nelson was always sure that March killed more women than he was charged with. Now, March has confirmed this and offered to show Nelson where the bodies are buried – but only if Ruth will do the digging.

Curious, but wary, Ruth agrees. March tells Ruth that he killed two more women and that their bodies are buried near the fens, in an area said to be haunted by the Lantern Men, mysterious figures holding lights that lure travellers to their deaths.

Is Ivor March, himself a lantern man, luring Ruth back to Norfolk? What is his plan, and why is she so crucial to it? Are the killings really over?

For me, a new novel by Elly Griffiths is a 'stop everything' moment. When that novel happens to be a Dr Ruth Galloway story, then life is on hold until I've finished it. Ruth is possibly one of the most rounded and likeable protagonists in British crime fiction. She's hard-working, dedicated to her career and her daughter, she has a gorgeous cottage, a glorious book collection and she's incredibly intelligent. She's also body-conscious to the point where you want to give her a big hug. Ruth isn't a character in a book, she's a friend. That's how richly written she is.

'The Lantern Men' is the twelfth book in the series and they're all of a brilliant high standard. You know you're going to get an intelligently written, dark, multi-layered story packed with a cast that stretches from the wonderful to the weird.

Fans of the series are itching for Ruth to get together with the father of her child, married DCI Nelson. However, that is looking less and less likely as she's moved to Cambridge and living with her American partner, Frank. However, even Ruth knows he isn't right for her and she cannot stop being drawn to Nelson. This case is the opportunity to bring them back together, professionally, even if not personally. This on/off teasing relationship could have become a cliché, but Elly knows what her readers want. She also knows her characters and them becoming a couple is far from easy.

The plot of 'The Lantern Men' is incredibly dark as Elly enters serial killer territory in which several women have disappeared. Ivor March is deliciously evil as he sits in prison and makes his demands of Nelson and Ruth. Is he playing a deadly game? Does he have a partner in crime? There are red herrings and blind corners on every page as Nelson and his team come into contact with the people who knew March, each of them hiding pains and secrets of their own. Don't even try to guess the ending, as you won't. Enjoy this book for the brilliant thriller it is.

Elly Griffiths is becoming increasingly popular with every book she writes, whether it's the Ruth Galloway series, The Brighton Murders, or her standalone thrillers. Elly Griffiths is certainly my Queen of Crime.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Alex Lake - Seven Days

"‘Seven Days’ is a book that needs to be read in one go."

In seven days, Maggie's son, Max, turns three. But she's not planning a party or buying presents or updating his baby book. She's dreading it. Because in her world, third birthdays are the days on which the unthinkable happens - she loses her child.

For the last twelve years Maggie has been imprisoned in a basement. Abducted aged fifteen, she gave birth to two sons before Max, and on their third birthdays her captor came and took them from her.

She cannot let it happen again. But she has no idea how to stop it. And the clock is ticking?

'Seven Days' flits from a number of different time frames; the present, immediately after abduction and a couple of different times during her confinement. The book not only deals with how the abduction has affected Maggie, but also her parents and brother. The story follows the family as they deal with the loss of Maggie, but also how life has to continue for them, however hard it is, and how her disappearance impacts on their daily lives.

Although from early on the mystery of who took Maggie is revealed, there is still plenty of suspense waiting to find out if Maggie can get away from the man who abducted her.

'Seven Days' is a book that needs to be read in one go. I was unable to put this down as I was rooting for Maggie and her son Max to escape their prison.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Hilary Bonner - Deadly Dance

"This is a raw, and in some places, sexually explicit book..."

The body of fourteen year-old Melanie Cooke, bruised and strangled, is found in Bristol's red-light district. She had told her mum she was going to meet a school friend, but the clothes she chose tells a different story. DI Vogel is put in charge of the investigation, aided by DS John Willis and DC Dawn Saslow. The prime suspect is Melanie's father, and he is arrested when his DNA is discovered beneath her fingernails.

But Vogel is uneasy. It is all too simple. Why would a man who obviously doted on his daughter murder her? And why was she inappropriately dressed in a red light district in the first place? Then three other suspects emerge, simply called Saul, Leo and Al. As Vogel digs deeper about them, more questions keep cropping up. Are the three suspects all that they seem? Who exactly are they? And most importantly, which one, if any, is the most likely to have carried out the murder?

This is a raw, and in some places, sexually explicit book, highly charged and with emotional depth. The chapters dedicated to the team's investigations are interrupted throughout the book by chapters dedicated to the thoughts and deeds of three men - Saul, who has problems connecting with women, Leo, who is gay, and Al, a paedophile. It soon becomes apparent that one of them may be the murderer, though nothing is given away until the end.

One of the book's strengths is the refreshing fact that Vogel is not your run-of-the-mill crime yarn detective - one with a drink problem, troubles at home, or a messy divorce. He is a happily married teetotaller with a young daughter, though there is a subplot which revolves round a personal letter he receives during the investigations - a letter he shares with his wife Mary. The contents come as a surprise to him, but they won't alter the course of his life to any great extent.

Reviewed by: J.G.

CrimeSquad Rating:

C.J. Tudor - The Other People

"‘The Other People’ had me hooked and was read in one sitting."

Driving home one night, stuck behind a rusty old car, Gabe sees a little girl's face appear in its rear window. She mouths one word: Daddy. It's his five-year-old daughter, Izzy. He never sees her again.

Three years later, Gabe spends his days and nights traveling up and down the highway, searching for the car that took his daughter, refusing to give up hope, even though most people believe she's dead.

When the car that he saw escape with his little girl is found abandoned with a body inside, Gabe must confront not just the day Izzy disappeared but the painful events from his past now dredged to the surface.

Fran and her daughter Alice spend a lot of time travelling, but they are running and hiding. They can't stop running as Fran will know what will happen if they get caught.

Kate works at a service station on the motorway and often sees Gabe. He looks like the world has beaten him and over time she begins to learn why.

The story is told from the perspectives of each of the main characters; all separate to begin with but as the plot develops their stories become entwined with each other. Going back and forth from past to present, the story and suspense builds.

Whilst a small part of the plot is easy to predict, there are lots of twists that will keep you guessing and leave you surprised. As with other books from this author, 'The Other People' is a regular thriller, but with a supernatural element to it. If you are not a fan of the ethereal plots, then I would recommend you keep reading as this is just a small part of the book and it doesn't overpower what is otherwise a well-written thriller.

'The Other People' was an exciting page turner that had me rooting for Gabe. Each of the well-crafted characters were true to life. Remove the supernatural element and this plot doesn't actually seem that unbelievable.

'The Other People' had me hooked and was read in one sitting.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Daniel Cole - Endgame

"...I am looking forward to seeing where Cole goes next."

When retired police officer Finlay Shaw is found dead in a locked room, everyone thinks its suicide. But disgraced detective William 'Wolf' Fawkes isn't so sure.

Together with his former partner Detective Emily Baxter and private detective Edmunds, Wolf's team begin to dig into Shaw's early days on the beat. Was Shaw as innocent as he seemed? Or is there more to his past than he'd ever let on?

But not everyone wants Wolf back - and as his investigation draws him ever deeper into police corruption, it will not only be his career on the line - but the lives of those he holds closest as well…

Baxter, Wolf and Edmunds return to investigate the death of their former colleague and friend Finlay Shaw. Shaw had recently retired before his death.

'Endgame' is nothing like Cole's previous books. Whilst 'Ragdoll' and 'Hangman' are peppered with gruesome scenes and deaths, 'Endgame' relies more on the characters that have been developed during these earlier novels. Whilst there are still murders to investigate and killers to catch, the dark, bloody murders are taken over by an element which is more thriller. The murders in the previous two novels are to me what made the books and although I still enjoyed 'Endgame', I would have preferred a storyline similar to the others by this author.

On a more positive side, I really like all of the characters (apart from Thomas who is too nice and spineless). Cole always manages to include plenty of humour in all of his books regardless of how dark they are.

'Endgame' can be read as a standalone novel but there has been so much work by the author in building each of the characters that I feel so much of the book would be missed by not getting to know everyone first.

With 'Endgame' being the final book in the trilogy I am looking forward to seeing where Cole goes next.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Alec Marsh - Rule Britannia

"The pace is relentless..."

It is 1936, and Ernest Drabble, a Cambridge historian and mountaineer is asked to go to Devon and examine a morbid object - the mummified head of Oliver Cromwell. It is in the possession of Dr Wilkinson. He only tells one person of his trip and its purpose - his friend Harris, a journalist. It seems an easy enough task, but on the train Drabble is attacked and almost killed. However, he survives and reaches the home of Dr Wilkinson, only to find the man has been murdered and his house ransacked. His secretary, the feisty Kate Honeyand, at first mistakes him for the murderer. Drabble convinces her that he isn't, and then discovers a note to Dr Wilkinson written by Churchill. In it he asks Wilkinson to deliver the head to him personally. So begins a car journey for the both of them to London.

Meanwhile, Harris has his own problems. After being captured, he finds out that Fascists are after the head for some reason, and he is tortured to tell them. The leader of the Fascists is the evil Sir Carmen Kelly, baronet and MP, who takes a delight in inflicting pain, and he does so to Harris with great glee.

The story spins out at a hectic pace, taking in Wallace Simpson, Stonehenge, climbing the North Face of the Eiger and finally ending up in a fortress on the coast. But why do the Fascists want the head in the first place? What power does it have? Will Drabble and Honeyand deliver it to Churchill?

This book is the first in a series starring Drabble and Harris. It is a romp, with no let up. The pace is relentless, the obstacles encountered are many, and it makes no pretence at being literature. Action is all. When writing it, Alec March no doubt gave a nod to John Buchan. I found that it had two faults, however. One was the fact that the characters were two-dimensional. Sir Carmen Kelly was evil. That was about it. There was no effort to dig into the man's background or character to find out why he took such delight in inflicting pain and supporting Fascist ideals. Kate was also two-dimensional. There was very little back-story to bring her to life. Maybe we'll learn more in the next book in the series, but it would have been nice if we had been at least told something.

The other was the fact that I thought it was overwritten. Alec Marsh's researches into the period are faultless, but the impression I got was that he felt he had to include this research at every turn. And there was one factual error in the book. He states that the Interregnum was the first republic in Europe since the Roman Empire. This honour actually goes to the Republic of San Marino, a small country entirely surrounded by Italy. A small mistake maybe, but it did niggle.

But if you enjoy a page-turner (and believe me, it is a page-turner), then you will enjoy this book. Full marks for that.

Reviewed by: J.G.

CrimeSquad Rating:

H.C. Warner - She

"When I first started reading ‘She’ I was instantly hooked."

Ben can't believe his luck when Bella walks into his life, just when he needs her most. Sexy, impulsive and intelligent, Bella is everything he ever wanted. And Bella wants him. All to herself.

In fact, Bella decides that everything is better when it is just the two of them, making it harder for Ben's friends and family to stay in touch. Then a sudden tragedy triggers a chain of events which throws Ben headlong into a nightmare.

Ben is struggling with life after breaking up with his long-term girlfriend, Charlotte. Life seems to improve once he meets the charming, beautiful and very singe Bella. Their new relationship moves very quickly, which is just what Bella wants.

'She' starts from the perspective of Ben and his relationship with Bella. The plot is based mainly around the domestic violence although in a less stereotypical way as it depicts Ben being abused - with the abuse starting very gently with him being persuaded emotionally to let Bella making a decision to physical violence as the relationship continues.

The second part of the book tells the same story as you have just read but this time is it written from Bella's perspective. Often when the perspectives change, so does empathy towards a character. However, in the case of 'She', I didn't feel this happened.

The last part of the book continued the story from perspective of both Bella and Ben but also written as the third person. Writing the book this way kept the story free of bias leaving the reader to decide who they were rooting for.

When I first started reading 'She' I was instantly hooked. Once the plot was revealed my interested waned slightly as I was a little disappointed with what I felt was quite a predictable reveal. However, it was well written and covered the topic of domestic violence sensitively showing how it is often only when the abuse is so extreme that the victim realises they are actually a victim, but how hard it can be to just walk away.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating: