Bluebird Bluebird- Attica Locke (2017) – A Murder They Wrote Review

Attica Locke is an American author I’ve been meaning to read for some time.  I chose to start with the 4th of her 5 novels, the first in her so far two novel series “Highway 59” which features black Texan Ranger Darren Matthews.

In this novel Darren uses a temporary suspension from duties to visit the small East Texan town of Lark where two bodies have been fished out of the Bayou in rapid succession; a black man visiting the area followed a few days later by a young mother who lived locally.  This is not the usual order for murder victims in a location where the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas still operates, historically, too often a black man has been killed in retaliation for a white woman killing so the Ranger’s interest and his local knowledge of both the black and white local communities leads him to risk his fragile marriage and stay to unravel the case, meeting up with the dead man’s widow in the process.

Tensions simmer and occasionally bubble to the surface in this oppressive atmosphere which the author very effectively conveys.  Her main character is flawed but driven by a background brought up by two uncles, one himself a Texan Ranger, the other a lawyer, and a strong sense to do the right thing.  The story behind his suspension adds another layer to the plot and feels like it will carry over to the next in the series.  Richly written, strong characterisation and subtle plot twists made this very enjoyable and I would certainly want to catch up with this author’s other novels.

Bluebird Bluebird was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2017.

Crowner’s Quest- Bernard Knight (1999) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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It’s a quick return for me to Bernard Knight’s medieval Crowner John series having only read one a couple of months ago.  This is book number three and now I seem to have formed a regular pattern with my response to this writer.  I’m involved until after the first crime is revealed (here it’s a hanging Canon) but then I experience a slump where I’m struggling until around the mid-way point when once again something happens which brings me back (here the lead character is set up leading to the accusation of a crime) and then my interest level stays fairly constant until the end by which point I’m looking forward to the next in the series.  That’s from a book I could have abandoned around 100 pages in (if I would ever do such a thing, which I can’t).

Knight’s writing style is rather dense and very detailed but sometimes the history sits heavy on the plot.  We get characters telling each other things they would already know purely for our benefit because of our lack of knowledge in medieval history.  Sometimes this feels heavy-handed but I totally understand that the world of Crowner John is so different to ours that it needs this to keep readers in the loop.

I did not feel this book flowed as well as its predecessor but it does have a bigger scope and moves further and more often beyond the Exeter city walls.  It takes place a few weeks after “The Poisoned Chalice” to which there is the odd reference but nothing that would make this book not work if encountered as a stand-alone.  (I just have a thing about reading series titles in order).

We begin at Christmas Eve 1194 where the coroner’s wife is attempting to boost her standing socially with a celebratory feast with local dignitaries.  The relationship between John and Matilda is strained at the best of times and suffers further when he is called out to investigate a death in the Cathedral’s precincts. Initially considered a suicide it develops into a cover-up murder where discontent with the largely absent King Richard is implicated.  Buried treasure is also involved.  When the plot is wound up satisfactorily there’s a surprising turn in a Trial By Combat.  This feels like a set piece added on to the novel to explore a legal quirk of the period (we had this with Trial By Ordeal in the first novel) yet this section and its aftermath was what ended up with me more eager to seek out the next in the series than I was expecting when reading the first half.

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Crowner’s Quest  was first published in 1999. I read a Pocket Books paperback edition

Nine Elms- Robert Bryndza (Sphere 2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Nine Elms: The thrilling first book in a brand-new, electrifying crime series (Kate Marshall)

This is a grisly crime novel with three characters who are wholly evil. That’s quite a lot of evil for one book and it might be a little full on for the times we are living in now. This is the first of a projected series featuring Ex-Detective Constable Kate Marshall from British author and Slovakian resident Robert Bryndza. I haven’t read him before but he has already had a best-selling crime series of 6 novels to date featuring Detective Erika Foster and has also written romantic comedy novels. The second instalment of this new venture is due to be published in November 2020.

The novels begins with a short section in 1995 where Kate’s direct involvement with a serial killer known as The Nine Elms Cannibal leads to her departure from the police and as the novel shifts to 2010 Kate is now a lecturer in Criminology at Ashdean University with a young assistant, Tristan, helping her out. Kate’s much publicised connection with the Nine Elms Cannibal, now incarcerated in a secure mental institution, leads to parents of a long-time missing teenager to ask her to carry out some private investigation work. At the same time a copycat killer begins recreating the Cannibal’s crimes and once again Kate is forced to face her past and fear for her future.

Before reading this I might have said I’d had enough of abduction and gruesome murders of teenage girls but this book did grip me, a couple of times I felt unsure about this as it hovers towards torture porn but Bryndza can certainly structure a gripping tale and there is considerable depth in this crime novel which makes it stand out.

I liked the past and present crimes overlapping and I actually responded better to the PI work of Kate and Tristan more than I did to the more prevalent copycat thread which is actually a good sign as this is the direction the series is going with. I particularly liked the blank canvas of Tristan and feel there is much mileage between the relationship of these two characters.

Elsewhere the copycat theme strays into horror territory in very much the way “The Silence Of The Lambs” did and there were echoes of this crime classic and if you enjoyed that then this is worth considering.

It is a strong series opener from a writer confident in this genre. I would certainly look out for the follow-up.

four-star

Nine Elms was published by Sphere in November 2019 with the paperback due on June 25th 2020. Many thanks to the publishers and Secret Readers for the review copy.

The Greenway – Jane Adams (1995) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I have recently become aware of and pretty fascinated by independent UK publishers Joffe. They seem to be rewriting the rules of publishing and as a result are doing extremely well with 2.2 million books sold in 2019 from 116 books published in e-book editions with big plans to launch paperbacks this year. They develop a fan-base for their authors by drawing readers in with free and low-price offers. Proof this works is suggested by the latest title from one of their biggest authors Faith Martin (2 million books sold and rising) which is currently sitting atop the Bookseller monthly E-Book ranking with another of their authors (Joy Ellis) at number 4.

I picked up ten free titles recently on an excellent one-day offer many of which are debut crime novels. I’ve sung the company’s praises now all I have to do is read one of their books, which up to now I haven’t done. They have also purchased a number of backlist titles and relaunched them and this which was first published by Macmillan in 1995 has been revised by Joffe in 2019. It is the first of a series of four novels published by them featuring detective Mike Croft.

Set in a small town about 15 miles from Norwich, it opens with a dream sequence (which is not my favourite way to open a novel and there are actually quite a few dreams in this) but then settles into introducing Cassie returning with her husband and friends for a break in a place that 20 years before as a child she’d visit frequently to stay with an aunt. This ended abruptly when her cousin disappeared from a wooded passage known as The Greenway. Cassie returns to deal with demons from the time and when another child disappears under similar circumstances we have a case for recent arrival Mike Croft.

The tension is especially well cranked up at the beginning but that dissipates somewhat once we get into the police procedural aspect. The rural location has a history of supernatural legend which Adams touches on nicely from time to time and I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Croft and Tynan, the retired detective from the earlier case. I hope that this is something developed in the future novels. I found this a satisfactory crime thriller experience and will certainly look out for further titles by this author. Fans of the psychological thriller genre will find lots to enjoy and I like it that Joffe are giving their readers opportunities to discover their authors on their publishing list for little or no cost. If you haven’t read a Joffe title perhaps it is time to explore these innovative publishers who have certainly been doing their bit to keep readers occupied during lockdown.

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The Greenway was originally published in 1995. I read the 2019 Joffe e-book edition.

The Poisoned Chalice – Bernard Knight (1998) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I should really crack on with this series.  I  read  the first one “The Sanctuary Seeker” (1998) back in 2017 and it has taken me this long to get round to the second.  I have another 8 of them on my shelves and at this rate I’m not going to complete them until 2032 and then there are the other five Bernard Knight has written that I do not currently own.

My experience with this one was much the same as the previous which introduced us to medieval coroner Sir John De Wolfe.  I found it took me quite a while to get into it and never felt totally immersed in Knight’s vision of late twelfth century Exeter.  Set a month or so after its predecessor this tale begins with an inspection of a shipwreck then moves back to largely within the city walls as a local silversmith finds himself implicated in two crimes involving daughters of notable families.  Relationships between the characters are further established.  We know that the coroner is going to continue to be pitched professionally against his brother-in-law, the sheriff, an inevitable consequence of the redefining of legal boundaries at the time and is also going to experience a fair amount of conflict with his wife Matilda, preferring the more welcoming arms of his mistress, pub landlady Nesta.

Knight packs quite a lot of history into his text which initially makes it a dense read as the historical significance of events require backtracking and a glossary of medieval terms needs to be frequently consulted but once the plot hits its stride around mid-way through this becomes less of an issue as the events in Exeter are brought to a satisfying conclusion.  I think, on reflection, I did enjoy this more than “The Sanctuary Seeker” which bodes well for the series.threestars

The Poisoned Chalice was first published in 1998.  I read a Pocket Books paperback edition.

 

Case Histories – Kate Atkinson (2004) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I always find re-reading a book fascinating. In the last few years with so many good books out there (and also sat on my shelves) waiting to be read the first time I haven’t re-read nearly as much as I’d like to. It’s always reassuring to find a book which is as good the second time around as it was the first. It makes me feel like I’ve got in touch and am still in agreement with an earlier me. Occasionally, on second read the book doesn’t quite match the memories but it’s always a delightful surprise when on a re-read the book turns out to be even better than you remember and that is what has happened with this.

My records say I read this in 2005 and really enjoyed it rating it 4 stars. It did not make my end of year Top 10 that year in a list topped by “Middlesex” by Jeffery Eugenides and including real favourite authors of mine; a John Steinbeck, Alan Hollinghurst, Alan Bennett and Andrea Levy (I’m actually very impressed with what I read in 2005!) I had read Atkinson’s debut “Behind The Scenes At The Museum” (1995) some years before and had enjoyed that- another 4 star read. My relationship with this author changed when I read her stunning “Life After Life” (2013) and its five star associated novel “A God In Ruins” (2015). I decided I wanted to get back into her Jackson Brodie series of novels when the announcement was made that she was to publish “Big Sky” in 2019 but realised I could remember nothing at all about “Case Histories” and that I should start this series with a re-read of this title, especially as I hadn’t got round to reading any of the subsequent novels in this series.

I can see from my Book Journal that I first read this in August, at the height of the summer and it took me what seems like an astonishingly long time of 14 days to read (this time, perhaps thanks to lockdown I polished it off in four). I thought that this might have been the key to me not adoring it. Perhaps something was going on I was preoccupied with in 2005. That got me trawling through the loft to find 2005’s diary and discovering that I thought it was “a well-written, nicely plotted and tied up detective story”. This seems like faint praise for a novel which 15 years later I thought was excellent. That’s the magic of re-reads….

I actually didn’t have any of the plot recall that I would normally expect (even with a 15 year gap). It read like a book I hadn’t read before which does make me wonder what was going on in the summer of 2005! The novel starts in the summer of 1970, in a period of hot, unbroken weather and introduces us to the Land family, four girls, a distracted mother and a disinterested father. This forms the first of three historic cases which feature one after the other, one from 1994 and one 1979 which are brought to the attention of Jackson Brodie, an ex-policeman now working as a private detective. These cases make a marked change from Brodie’s usual trailing of suspected adulterous spouses and take his mind, temporarily, off his own fractured personal situation.

What stands this novel above much crime fiction is the sheer quality of the writing, a richness of cultural references which makes the events feel totally real. There’s so much in Atkinson’s writing, an ability to turn from humour to tragedy in a couple of sentences in a way which feels so plausible and convincing. She really does take the reader on a ride and this may very well be why a re-read works so well. There is so much to take in, so much that seems incidental to the plot but which adds to the wealth and richness of the novel. I’m really liking Jackson Brodie and hope it won’t be that long before I move onto the second of the five books in this celebrated series which has got off to an excellent start (even if it has taken me 15 years to recognise this).

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Case Histories was published in 2005. I read a hardback edition but it is easily available as a Black Swan paperback in the UK.

We Begin At The End – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2020) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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A reviewsrevues.com favourite and former author interviewee is back with his third novel.  Chris Whitaker’s 2016 debut “Tall Oaks” was very strong and critically applauded but I think he got even better with his 5* 2017 offering “All The Wicked Girls“.  With this, his third novel Whitaker proves there’s few better at creating small town America all done with vivid and vibrant characterisation.  Thing is, Chris Whitaker is British.

In Cape Haven the impending release of a prisoner whose crime tore the community apart is causing much anxiety for those directly involved including ailing Police Chief Walker, a troubled mother, Star, and her two children Duchess and Robin.  A solid plot develops as the historic crime overlaps into a present day one but once again what Whitaker does best is characterisation, especially with quirky youngsters.  In “Tall Oaks” we had gangster wannabe Manny, a great comic creation, who really made the debut sparkle, in “Wicked Girls” it was teenage crime-solver Noah and his crew.  Here we have a choice of two with main character Duchess who copes with a miserable life by adopting the guise of an outlaw (I think the author could have made more of this perhaps even referencing it in the book’s title) and maybe even more so the adorably loyal Thomas Noble, a short-sighted black boy with a withered hand whose devotion to the not always appealing Duchess is unquestionable.

I found myself really caring for the characters and enjoying the book most when it focused on these and took a step back from the crime plot.

It feels like a more substantial novel than what has gone before and there is no doubt that Whitaker has matured as a writer.  For sheer reading pleasure I would give “All The Wicked Girls” the edge and I’m still not sure why it wasn’t amongst the big sellers of 2017 but this is still very good and should further enhance his reputation.  He is one of those writers that I am absolutely fascinated to see what he will do next.  Will he continue to recreate the intensity, prejudices and obsessions of small town America or have a go at setting fiction in  his homeland?  Will the crime aspect take more of  a back seat?  I feel that Chris Whitaker could, should he desire, have a good crack at producing The Great American Novel but I would also like to know how his writing would work within a British framework.

fourstars

We Begin At The End will be published in hardback by Zaffre on 2nd April 2020.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark -Michelle McNamara (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I have an uneasy relationship with the true crime genre. I’ve mentioned this before and I think it all boils down to one book which so disturbed me – the account of Muswell Hill killer Dennis Nilsen in Brian Masters’ “Killing For Company” (1985). However, a couple of times in the last week I have held a copy of this in my hands and contemplated buying it and re-reading it. (I lent my copy to someone years ago and it never came back). So far I’ve held back the temptation but the reason for Masters’ book shifting back into my focus is this 2018 true crime publication.

I’ve also been thinking about true crime in relation to author Carol Ann Lee whose five star account of the Bamber killings “Murder At White House Farm” has deservedly ascended the best seller lists since the impressive recent ITV reconstruction of the case. When this book came out nearly five years ago I reviewed it and Carol Ann became an early interviewee in my Author Strikes Back Thread. I asked her for recommendations and I was convinced that reading-wise I would begin a true crime spree but this hasn’t happened. However, the on-paper bizarre mash-up of an arson case and a love letter to the public library system Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book” made it into my current Books Of The Year Top 10 but that’s been about it. I only read “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” because friend Louise whose book opinions I very much value (she put both “Count Of Monte Cristo” and “Sanditon” my way) told me this was her Book Of The Year and I highlighted it in my “Looking Around….” Post.

Michelle McNamara’s obsession (and it was an obsession) was an individual who committed around 50 sexual assaults and at least 10 murders in California in a decade long frenzy (mid 1970’s -mid 80’s). Michelle dubbed him “The Golden State Killer” and he featured heavily in her true crime blog before she began to put this work together. She sadly died aged 46 in 2016 before completing the work.

This, unavoidably, does give the book a haphazard sketchy structure which did mean I kept having to refer back to the list of known victims and crime locations. The sheer number of offences and the lengthy period of time the killer was active also made for at times a stilted and repetitive read and affects the flow but I really can’t just judge this on how I feel it read as a book (I was also very aware of a surprising number of linguistic differences with many terms I was unfamiliar with) but the motives behind the work is what makes this extraordinary.

Michelle McNamara over the years became an expert on the case, came to have access to evidence even investigators did not have and pooled much of this vast amount of material for the first time. The thing I just cannot get out of my head as a British reader in 2020 is how was this man not apprehended at the time? There were a wealth of traits and characteristics that led nowhere. It’s hard I suppose for us looking back to what were largely pre-DNA days to appreciate how much luck was needed to solve cases and luck was certainly not with the many investigators. They could not seem to tap into the extraordinary level of planning that must have foreshadowed many of these crimes and the structure of US state policing at the time means evidence was not shared nor links made. If this was fiction we would deem it unbelievable.

Through her determination to unmask the Golden State Killer it is Michelle McNamara herself who shines through this work and it is this which will see it as an important and perhaps ultimately game-changing addition in the realm of true crime writing.

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I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was published in 2018 in the UK by Faber & Faber.

A Knock At The Door – T W Ellis (Sphere 2020) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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British writer Tom Hinshelwood has written 7 novels and 2 short story collections as crime novelist Tom Wood creating the Victor The Assassin series. Here he is writing his first thriller as T W Ellis locating it in an American suburb where the Chief of Police is an overweight demotivated marijuana smoking woman, Rusty, who blows up at her team if they make her coffee incorrectly.

Living in this town is Jem whose husband leaves her one morning for a business trip whilst she is breakfasting on avocado on toast. Jem is a yoga teacher with anxiety issues which are certainly exacerbated when she responds to a knock at her front door and finds two FBI agents on her step. Not only is Jem placing herself in danger when she lets them in but she begins to realise that she does not know her husband as well as she thinks she does.

Set largely within a twenty-four hour period with a couple of flashbacks Jem’s worst day ever plays out proving you can certainly pack a lot into a day if your very existence is threatened. Much is Jem’s first-person narrative as she tries to come to grips with what she is informed is the truth and has to deal with whom she can trust. There’s also a third-person narrative focusing on Rusty and her attempts to make sense of sudden events happening in her sleepy jurisdiction.

It was hard not to find Jem annoying at times and there was really only one character I warmed to, the elderly Trevor, who attempts to live a quiet life and is suspicious of all authority and the minute by minute breakdown of the action perhaps made it too thorough leading to a number of empty conversations but there’s plenty of action and twists which I’m still kicking myself for not spotting.

The style of the novel does make it a quick read and as most people coming to this will know the type of popular thriller it is they will not be disappointed. This is a good choice for a holiday read.

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A Knock At The Door will be published as an e-book in May 2020 and in hardback on July 9th. Many thanks to the publishers and Secret Readers for the advance review copy.

 

No One’s Home – D M Pulley (2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Every month Amazon Prime subscribers are offered a free “First Read” of an e-publication. I generally take them up on the offer but until now haven’t actually read any of them. I chose this from the August selection.

It’s American author D M Pulley’s 4th novel. Her debut “The Dead Key” won an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2014.  Her latest is a creepy house novel with an acknowledged nod towards Shirley Jackson’s horror classic “The Haunting Of Hill House” and there’s references also to the movie “Poltergeist” within the text. It also brought to mind the first season of “American Horror Story” known as “Murder House”, the residence within Pulley’s novel also very much fits this description.

Everything we would expect from a haunted house tale is here, beginning with the house being for sale and being purchased by a not particularly likeable family before the odd things start to happen. In this case there’s a lot of individual members of the Spielman family spooking themselves by wandering around the house when alone. Obviously, to begin with this new family to the house, Myron, Margot and awkward teenager Hunter know little about the history of the place other than it was a bargain buy. We get to know about previous owners through parallel narratives and for most, things do not end up well. The house has been built on the remains of a Shaker community and from the Rawlings family who lived there in the late 1920’s lives have been steeped in tragedy. In many cases the presence of ghosts are fuelled by characters’ inability to communicate with one another, making it a tale of outsiders haunted by their pasts which influences how they deal with the present.

These parallel narratives make this novel seem less formulaic with echoes of one generation touching others. I can’t say I was particularly chilled at any point but I was intrigued by the interweaving of the past with the present. At times plausibility is strained which is not uncommon with tales dealing with the supernatural. Anyone looking for a creepy (ish) read in the run up to Halloween might wish to consider this.

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I read a Kindle edition of No One’s Home which was published in 2019 by Thomas and Mercer.