Reviews

March 2020

Marjorie Celona - How a Woman Becomes a Lake

"This is a novel that will stay with you long after you finish reading it. I cannot recommend it highly enough."

Synopsis:
By a frozen lake, ten-year-old Jesse waits for his father. It's New Year's Day, and his dad promised a fresh start. But Jesse messed it all up. And that's when he meets the woman...

In the months ahead, the woman's sudden disappearance sets off a chain of events in Whale Bay, spanning out like fracture lines into the lives of her husband, the detective trying to solve her case, and of Jesse and his family – a young boy cracking like ice under the weight of a terrible secret.

Review:
What an absolute joy this book is. A stunning, literary novel told with such warmth and empathy. 'How A Woman Becomes a Lake' is a chilling literary mystery that asks what happens when we are failed by the ones we love.

Through multiple viewpoints, we follow the central characters as they try to deal with the events at Squire Point on New Year's Day. In their different ways, each character is seeking redemption. There's Jesse, damaged by the abuse inflicted on him and hiding a secret so dark it threatens to destroy his life. His mother, Evelina, has never come to terms with the break-up of her abusive marriage and the events that preceded it. And Lewis, the detective leading the investigation, has spent his life trying to atone for his own troubled childhood by caring for others.

'How a Woman Becomes a Lake' is a wonderful meditation on what it means to be human. Through her examination of these imperfect humans, Celona reminds us that we are all, in our own ways, flawed beings.

This is a novel that will stay with you long after you finish reading it. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Reviewed by: S.B.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Ralph Vincent - Are You Watching?

"An interesting and different debut from an exciting new author."

Synopsis:
Ten years ago, Jess's mother was murdered by the Magpie Man.

She was the first of his victims but not the last.

Now Jess is the star of a YouTube reality series and she's using it to catch the killer once and for all.

Review:
'Are You Watching?' is a book very much written for the times in which we live. Where ordinary people are catapulted to stardom, where they are famous for doing nothing and having no talent, where millions of people's lives are so uninteresting that watching someone else's life is more appealing.

I really enjoyed 'Are You Watching?'. The idea of using a reality show was realistic, the characters were believable. In my opinion the book could have been condensed a little. I liked the way the author kept throwing suspects into the mix to keep the suspense until the end.

The book is written from the perspective of 17 year-old Jess. 'Are You Watching?' is an easy read and would appeal to fans of thrillers both young and old. An interesting and different debut from an exciting new author.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

James Oswald - Bury Them Deep

"Oswald is a genius when it comes to misdirection..."

Synopsis:
When a member of the Police Scotland team fails to clock-in for work, concern for her whereabouts is immediate and the discovery of her burnt-out car in remote woodland to the south of Edinburgh sets off a desperate search for the missing woman.

Meanwhile, DCI Tony McLean and the team are preparing for a major anti-corruption operation – one which may raise the ire of more than a few powerful people in the city. Is Anya Reynold's disappearance a coincidence or related to the case?

McLean's investigations suggest that perhaps Anya isn't the first woman to have mysteriously vanished in these ancient hills. Once again, McLean can't shake the feeling that there is a far greater evil at work here. The truth is far more chilling than a simple cold case.

Review:
'Bury Them Deep' is the tenth novel in the Tony McLean series. As a fan from the beginning, it's been a joy to watch this series grow and develop into one of the most exciting crime fiction series in the country.

The novel opens with the disturbing folk tale of Sawney Bean from Scotland's history that truly chills the bone. So begins a missing person investigation. However, at the back of the reader's mind, is that opening horror and you'll be wondering what it means for the investigation.

It is virtually impossible to try to imagine which direction Oswald is going to take the story. The man is a genius when it comes to misdirection and when the truth is revealed, it's truly an exciting page-turner as you race to the final showdown.

Oswald's novels often feature a touch of the occult and supernatural, and while this is not for everyone, he maintains the balance between realistic police procedure and the otherworldly discourse people believe in without descending into fantasy. It's a series that stands apart from others and it stands tall. Each of the novels are richly created and apart from the sublime writing, at the heart of these stories is DCI Tony McLean who provides the human touch.

There is a great deal to like with 'Bury Them Deep' and it is one of my favourites of the series. It's a police drama with dark, gritty and disturbing undertones. Picking up a new McLean novel is like meeting up with an old friend. I hope Oswald has many more books up his sleeve.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

S.G. MacLean - The Bear Pit

"MacLean manages to combine a fascinating knowledge of the history of the times and actual events with a complex and intricate plot."

Synopsis:
Oliver Cromwell is Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, and some say as near a king as makes no difference. He has been ruling Britain since 1653 and splits are appearing in the support he receives from the people. Former strong advocates of his rule are now against him. There are rumours of unholy alliances between the supporters of the exiled Charles, the cavaliers, and the disappointed extreme Protestants who are unhappy with Cromwell's adoption of kingly ways. This febrile political atmosphere means that Damien Seeker, enforcer to Thurloe, Cromwell's Chief Secretary, is constantly in demand.

When a body is discovered brutally mauled by what appears to have been a vicious bear, Seeker is called in to investigate. Cromwell has banned the presence of bears in the capital and the cessation of all bearbaiting, so where has the assailant come from. The victim proves to have been a friend of one of Seekers staunch friends. His investigations lead him into plots brewing against Cromwell as well as vile and vicious practices with dogs and bears.

Seeker tracks down the perpetrators of the plots against Cromwell and manages to prevent disaster happening but not without damage to his own person and difficulties with his personal life.

Review:
MacLean manages to combine a fascinating knowledge of the history of the times and actual events with a complex and intricate purely fictional plot. The plots against Cromwell definitely existed but the elaborate details and some of the personnel are the products of imagination. It is a great skill that the author has perfected.

Damien Seeker is a complex and compelling character. In some ways amoral if his job demands it but always with a kind heart for the underdog and a sense of honour. He loves his daughter and two other women in different ways. That particular dilemma he has more difficulty in resolving. At the end of the book we are left tantalisingly unsure of the future. Seeker is known by the great and the good. Real characters who come into their own in future years cross the stage: the Tradescants senior and junior, Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn, Prince Rupert, Andrew Marvell.

The religious divides of the country continue to rumble on. There are echoes in Ireland during the Troubles of what life must have been like. I am enjoying finding out more about this period from this series. It seems equally as intriguing as my first love of the Tudors.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Sally Spencer - A Shivering Turn

"The prose is slim, elegant and unadorned, which makes for easy reading."

Synopsis:
Jennie Redhead is an Oxford graduate who spent six years with the Thames Valley Police before becoming a private investigator in Oxford. It is the spring of 1974, and a distraught woman - Mary Corbet - walks into her office and asks Jennie to investigate the disappearance of her daughter, Linda. She is convinced that Linda is dead, but her husband Tom and the police are convinced that she has run away to London.

Jennie also thinks that Linda may have run away, but reluctantly accepts the case. In doing so, he finds herself drawn into the darker side of Oxford - the grubby pubs, the faux genteelness, and the greed and lasciviousness of the more privileged students. She learns of a society called The Shivering Turn, formed by the students of St Luke's College, and of an obscure poet called Robert Cudlip. It is from one of his poems that the words 'The Shivering Turn' is taken. Jennie, however, is convinced that there is more to the Society's name than that.

The founding member of The Shivering Turn is Crispin Hetherington, an arrogant student from a privileged background. He is dismissive of Jenny's investigations, and, along with other members, gives nothing away. But Jennie perseveres, and soon she makes significant discoveries that lead her to a resolution of Linda's disappearance, and the burning question - is she still alive, or is she dead?

Review:
Sally Spenser is the pen name of husband and wife writing team Alan and Lanna Rustage, creators of the Sam Blackstone and Monika Paniatowski crime books. 'The Shivering Turn' is the first in this new series.

Jennie is a feisty, intelligent yet also a flawed, vulnerable and complicated woman. She drives the plot forward, rather than having the plot drive her, as happens in so many books nowadays. The prose is slim, elegant and unadorned, which makes for easy reading. Oxford University and its traditions are beautifully described, not by paragraphs of turgid prose, but by the way they interact with and move the plot forward. And, of course, there is the city of Oxford itself. This is not Morse's Oxford - this is a city which has an underbelly and a seedier side as well as privilege, rank and scholarly endeavour.

The ending comes as a surprise, though perhaps this reviewer should have seen all the signs. If the later books in this series are as readable and enjoyable as this one, Jennie Redhead will garner a dedicated crowd of readers.

Reviewed by: J.G.

CrimeSquad Rating:

C.M. Ewan - A Window Breaks

"...a fast paced and exciting read. "

Synopsis:
You are asleep. A noise wakes you.
You stir, unsure why, and turn to your partner.
Then you hear it.
Glass. Crunching underfoot.
Your worst fears are about to be realized.
Someone is inside your home.
Your choices are limited.
You can run. Or stay and fight.
What would you do?

Review:
Tom's marriage to Rachel is on the rocks following the death of their son, Michael. They are offered some time together at the lodge of Tom's boss, Lionel, so they can work on their marriage. The lodge is set in a beautiful location in a remote part of Scotland, perfect for the family to recover from their recent trauma. But on the first night they are woken by someone breaking in, and Tom knows he needs to keep his family safe.

This is normally my favourite type of plot; ordinary person takes on someone or something bigger than them, and using just their wits and whatever they find to hand, manage to overcome adversity. In theory a great idea for a plot, but in reality, Tom was way too indecisive and terrified. I get that the author wanted to make the character as realistic as possible and that most people would be scared in this situation, but I needed a hero, someone to root for, and Tom had me shouting at him rather than for him.

The plot, whilst perhaps a little far-fetched, was easy to get into. Based mostly around the events of the night of the break-in, the story also flits back to the story surrounding Michael's death.

The events on the night seemed a little too drawn out and I think maybe some editing was needed to make this story even tighter. This left me rushing through the pages to get to the pertinent parts that I needed.

Despite all my criticisms, I did really enjoy this book and read it in a day. 'A Window Breaks' is a fast paced and exciting read. Like an action film, there are no major revelations or things that you didn't see coming, but still a gripping good read.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Ed. by Martin Edwards - The Measure of Malice

"...accessible, enjoyable, and satisfying."

Synopsis:
There are fourteen short detective stories featured in this book, all with a common theme - the solutions to the crime involve the detectives (mostly amateur) having scientific, medical or technical knowledge. Not all date from the early years of the 20th century - those years we now call the 'golden age of crime writing' - but most do. Being short stories, they are all simply told, and centre round one puzzling murder, which makes for a short, satisfying read. The esoteric knowledge used to solve the murders range from identifying cremated bones, the habits of bees, the properties of acids, and forensic dentistry. Some well-known writers are featured here, such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Edmund Crispin, Arthur Conan Doyle and Freeman Wills Crofts. But some stories are by writers who have been long forgotten, and should be due for a revival.

Review:
'The Measure of Malice' is published by the British Library in its series 'British Library Crime Classics'. Martin Edwards must have an encyclopaedic knowledge of past crime writers to have chosen such an eclectic mix. There are no great literary pretensions in any of the tales - the puzzle (and solving it) is the important thing. One thing that stands out in most of the stories is their location. Today, there is hardly an area in the UK that isn't the setting for a crime series. Here, all are either in London or the Home Counties. And in most of the stories, families - even those living in unpretentious bungalows - seem to have maids on hand to provide the detective with valuable clues.

The writing in all of them is simple and direct. Characters aren't complex, and there are few red herrings. Clues are presented fairly, though sometimes the technical knowledge on which the solution depends will be beyond the ken of the average reader.

This book is one that should be dipped into, rather than read from cover to cover in one sitting. And for this reason it is accessible, enjoyable, and satisfying.

Reviewed by: J.G.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Vanessa Savage - The Woods

"...a good read and kept me hooked."

Synopsis:
There's a lot from Tess's childhood that she would rather forget. The family who moved next door and brought chaos to their quiet lives. The two local girls who were murdered, their killer never found. In fact, the only thing she can't remember is the one thing she wishes she could.

Ten years ago, Tess's older sister died. Ruled a tragic accident, the only witness was Tess herself, but she has never been able to remember what happened that night in the woods.

Now living in London, Tess has resolved to put the trauma behind her. But when an emergency call from her father forces her back to the family home, Tess discovers that, sometimes, the past cannot be laid to rest.

Review:
'The Woods' tells the story of Tess's childhood leading up to the death of her sister and her life now. Flitting back between past and present, Savage has time to develop the characters and show them changing over the years. Most is set from the perspective of Tess. She is struggling with her mental health and this is getting worse the more she thinks about her sister's death. With her dead sister talking to her, Tess is determined to find out exactly what happened to her sister, Bella.

Most of the characters that appear in Tess's childhood also come back in the present. Those that were suspects back then now appear to have 'come good' with the characters that were previously without suspicion now looking very suspect. Tess now needs to work her way through her memories to try and find out what happened and who is guilty.

'The Woods' was an enjoyable book. It is well-written, giving plenty of clues and red herrings to keep you guessing. I did find there was a lot of unnecessary information or conversations which felt like padding rather than pertinent to the story or the outcome. The ending also could have been a little less predictable. However, it was a good read and kept me hooked.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Georges Simenon - Maigret and Monsieur Charles

"The dialogue is sharp and incisive, and as usual, drives the plot forward."

Synopsis:
Maigret is offered promotion to the head of the Police Judiciare, and turns it down. One of the joys of his career was getting out of the office and 'soak up the atmosphere' with each new investigation. Being head of the Police Judiciare would tie him to his desk. Besides, in three year's time he would retire.

Later, a woman comes to see him, and tells him that her husband, a prominent lawyer called Gérard Sabin-Levesque, has been missing for four weeks, and would he investigate? Here was a chance for him to 'soak up the atmosphere', and he agrees to do so. He soon finds out that all is not as it seems. The woman, Nathalie Sabin-Levesque, is an alcoholic, and her husband has a habit of disappearing for a few days at a time.

As Maigret investigates, he finds a situation that makes no sense. The Sabin-Levesque's marriage is a sham - one based on pure indifference to each other; Natalie claims to have worked in a lawyer's office, but as Maigret probes, a different story unfolds; Gérard may be a lawyer, but he is not an upstanding pillar of the community. He is, in fact, a playboy. Maigret discovers that when he disappears for a few days, he calls himself Charles, and spends them in hotels and night clubs where he consorts with club hostesses.

Natalie is convinced that her husband is dead. But if he is, is it suicide? An accident? Murder? And if it is murder, who is the culprit? Natalie? Her maid Claire, who is devoted to her? Or perhaps Lecureur, Gérard's chief clerk?

Review:
Published in 1972, this is Simenon's last Maigret book. It is a simple story - a man disappears, and his wife wants Maigret to investigate. There are no alleyways up which we are drawn and there are no red herrings to speak of - just the mechanics of an investigation. The characters are clues in themselves, and Simenon's ability to make them living, breathing people using just a few sentences is, as usual, immaculate. The dialogue is sharp and incisive, and as usual, drives the plot forward. It is more than just people speaking - Simenon uses it as action, a rare quality in a writer.

Maigret's regret at his coming retirement permeates the book. He loves Paris - its foibles, its nightlife and its people. But he is at a crossroads, and he knows it. Simenon handles this beautifully.

The late Muriel Spark called Simenon 'a truly wonderful writer', and she wasn't far wrong.

Reviewed by: J.G.

CrimeSquad Rating:

James Patterson - Criss Cross

"You will race through this book and only come up for air when the last page is turned."

Synopsis:
Could a ghost from his past take everything away from Alex Cross?

Mere hours after witnessing the execution of a killer he helped put behind bars, Alex Cross is called to the scene of a copycat murder. A note signed 'M' rests on the corpse: 'You messed up big time, Dr. Cross.'

Was an innocent man just put to death? As the executed convict's family launch a vicious campaign against Cross, his abilities as a detective are called into question.

The enigmatic 'M' lures Cross out of Washington, DC to the sites of multiple homicides, all marked with distressingly familiar details that conjure up decades-old cases and Cross family secrets.

Details that make it clear M is after a prize so dear that – were the killer to attain it – Cross's life would be destroyed.

Review:
Well, what can I say about Patterson's books that I haven't already said? The man has a writing machine behind him and is one of the biggest selling authors in the world. Having said that, not every book hits the spot, but I feel that having started out with Alex Cross all those years ago, and yes, I was one of those who was buying Cross books back in the day when he first made his appearance, Patterson has a certain love and respect for his creation. I feel that Patterson also keeps the best plots for Alex Cross, and quite rightly too!

'Criss Cross' is another rollercoaster ride in the Cross household, involving his whole family. Now and again, Patterson slows down the pace, especially when dealing with Cross family stuff such as Jannie's potential running career, but quickly the race is back on and Cross and co are running around after the elusive 'M' who is a slippery as the proverbial eel! Why has 'M' got it in for Cross? Not even Cross can fathom that out even when he comes face to face with his latest nemesis. I won't tell you the why, but as with the superb 'Cross Your Heart' and 'Hope To Die', things are certainly not resolved by the end of this book and you can be guaranteed that round two with 'M' wil be coming to your bookstore very soon! I enjoy these two-parter books as it allows Patterson to produce a full-rounded villain who really gets under Cross' skin. 'Criss Cross' is Patterson at his best with a menacing villain and a labyrinthine plot. You will race through this book and only come up for air when the last page is turned.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Agatha Christie - The Last Séance

"...a spellbinding collection... "

Synopsis:
For lovers of the supernatural and the macabre comes this collection of ghostly and chilling tales from Agatha Christie. Acknowledged the world over as the undisputed Queen of Crime, in fact she dabbled in her early writing career with mysteries of a more unearthly kind – stories featuring fantastic psychic visions, spectres looming in the shadows, encounters with deities, eerie messages from the Other Side, even a man who switches bodies with a cat…

This haunting compendium gathers together all of Christie's spookiest and most macabre short stories, some featuring her timeless detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.

Review:
Many of us Christie lovers all have our preference whether it be for Poirot, the cases of Jane Marple or her standalones. Personally, I believe Christie excelled at the macabre, and if you don't believe me then read 'Endless Night'. Here, for the first time, are collected stories that have raised goosebumps on her reader's arms for decades.

Many times I have gone back to two short story collections I feel are Christie at her best, 'The Mysterious Mr Quin' and 'The Hound of Death'. Some of the stories presented here are from the latter. I felt it a missed opportunity that Mr Quin and his protégé, Mr Satterthwaite have not been included here as they too are filled with the supernatural and would have been better placed here than the Marple stories, although 'The Blue Geranium' is one of my favourites and one of the best tales Christie wrote.

'The Hound of Death' is here and with the current demand for Christie adaptations, would be my choice for the TV and one that could be expanded and made even more creepier. 'The Last Séance', after which this collection is named, is one of the most memorable and creepy tales Christie ever wrote. You can taste the atmosphere of impending doom. Other favourites are 'Wireless', 'The Fourth Man' and 'The Red Signal'. I won't go in to them all, but here you have twenty Christie tales to choose from.

Christie has always been a victim of the snob brigade and not given her due. Most have only seen the Poirot/Marple TV adaptations, which is unfair as much is either cut from the book or tinkered with by the screenwriter. Christie was a chronicler of her time, especially with her later books with the demise of the large country manor houses. I have given this collection to several people who have not read Christie and they have been pleasantly surprised by her acute observation and writing. 'The Last Séance' is a spellbinding collection that is bound to make you feel that icy breath on the back of your neck as you read these macabre tales.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating: