The Dry- Jane Harper (2016) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Here’s a book with extremely good word of mouth from readers returning one of our library copies.  It has people itching to tell others how much they enjoyed it.  Since the paperback edition arrived at the end of last year it has become one of our most borrowed books, so I’ve been patiently waiting for my turn.

 Jane Harper’s debut also gained much critical acclaim from reviewers and from her crime writer peers. (“One of the most stunning debuts I’ve ever read- David Baldacci; “Stunningly atmospheric- Val McDermid; “Enthrals from the very first page – CJ Box).  Writers of great repute were queuing up to say good things about this.  Needless to say, I had extremely high expectations.

 Aaron Falk, a policeman who specialises in financial crime, returns to the small Australian country town where he grew up to attend a funeral.  His closest childhood friend has apparently shot his wife and son and turned the gun on himself.  As the small community are shocked and outraged the dead man’s parents want answers.  Tensions are compounded by a lengthy drought which has brought this rural town to its knees and also by Falk’s return itself.  This is his first visit since a tragic incident which had rocked the community years before.  Everyone has secrets and it may be these which have just triggered the present-day tragedy.

This is a well thought out and carefully handled whodunnit with the additional tensions of a community in crisis.  Harper is a British author who has lived in Australia for the last decade and her sense of location is strong but also with a clear understanding of being an outsider.  In many ways and I’m not sure why the author it brought to mind was another Brit who has set his first two novels in small town America, Chris Whitaker. However, “The Dry” did not win me over as much as Whitaker’s excellent “All The Wicked Girls” (2017).  I have this year read another book which on publication was very much compared to the dry and marketed to the same audience, “Retribution” written by Aussie farmer and ex-miner Richard Anderson.  I think in terms of plot handling and character development “The Dry” is considerably stronger.

 What I would have liked a little more ramped up is the intensity of this lengthy drought (two years without water) and the heat playing a stronger part in the dynamics of these people rather than their present actions being motivated by the events of their past but I’m niggling here.  This is a very readable, strong debut which might not have matched those too high expectations I’d built up over the past year or so but it certainly fooled me with twists, was always involving and so highly satisfactory in the way the plot threads were all so well pulled together.

 fourstars 

The Dry was published by Little, Brown in 2016 in the UK.  I read the 2017 Abacus paperback version.

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Not Dead Yet – Peter James (2012) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This 8th instalment of the Roy Grace series pushes Peter James upwards in my list of most read authors, now sitting at number 8 just below Patrick Gale. Its predecessor “Dead Man’s Grip” became my first James five star recommendation earlier this year. I felt that it was a classic crime novel which had everything I would look for in a police procedural. This is not as good.

I used to live in Brighton and part of my attachment to this series is to do with its location and very strong grounding in reality. Although here the locations are present James seems to have ramped up the plot to a heightened level which at times hovers too close to the preposterous. Central to this is a type of character I’ve come across before and I’m yet to like. This character, here called Gaia, is a Madonna/Lady GaGa hybrid of the huge international celebrity. She was present, along similar lines in Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time” (2016) where she was called Aimee and was the weak spot in an otherwise impressive work and, here, despite me thinking there’s value in exploring the notion and trappings of celebrity, Gaia also does not ring true in this context.

With a stalker on her trail she returns to her Brighton birthplace to take up a film role as mistress to George IV using the Royal Pavilion as a location. Others are interested in her return closer to home. Meanwhile, a torso is discovered on a chicken farm and Roy Grace inches further towards fatherhood. There’s also significant development in two ongoing plot lines; Grace’s missing wife Sandy and the leaking of sensitive information to the press.

Although Gaia’s presence can make the plot feel far-fetched the groundwork is set so well in this series that it doesn’t really matter. James continues his blurring of fact and fiction with the film co-stars Hugh Bonneville and Joseph Fiennes written in. He also uses the real names and professions of many of those law-enforcers who contribute to his research.

The whole thing is more larger than life than usual but the rooted ongoing characters and their lives feels important and once again this really drew me back in. That is why I think it is so important to read this series in order. It does crank up to a climax which affected me more because James has made me care for the characters. If I had just picked this off the shelf without reading any of the series before I might have thought it just a bit silly. Pace is good and it reads well and all in all, despite my reservations, this is a solid instalment to a great crime series which just falls short of being considered amongst its best.

fourstars

Not Dead Yet was published in 2012 by Macmillan.

The Way Of All Flesh – Ambrose Parry (Canongate 2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This Edinburgh set Victorian crime novel (not to be confused with the classic novel by Samuel Butler with the same title which was very much a reaction against Victorianism) is the first collaboration between husband and wife anaesthesia expert Marisa Haetzman and crime novelist Chris Brookmyre, (he has some 23 novels to date none of which I have read) written under the pen name Ambrose Parry. 

Chris has never before written a novel set in the past but with Marisa’s knowledge of the history of medicine and especially the development of anaesthetics which has a significant part to play in this they have produced a thoroughly entertaining joint effort, a good slab of historical crime fiction, the first in a proposed new series.

 There are two very good main characters here.  Will Raven has a background from the tougher parts of Edinburgh Old Town and the night before he begins an apprenticeship with esteemed childbirth specialist Dr Simpson he encounters a corpse and is beaten and badly cut up giving him both a disreputable appearance and rendering him a marked man in his new environment of the respectable New Town.  Simpson’s housemaid Sarah, fascinated by the medical goings on in the house is held back because of Victorian society’s view of women and the two are forced by circumstances to come together to investigate agonising deaths of young women from both sides of town.

 Alongside the involving plot we have the growth of the use of ether in routine procedures and the search for more effective and safer methods to sedate patients.  The medical history aspect is inserted seamlessly into the plot and adds much to the enjoyment of the novel.

 I felt that the Edinburgh location with its split personality of the poverty- stricken Old Town and the comparative grandeur of the New is very effective, especially with childbirth happening in both areas causing the medical men to adapt to all kinds of patient.  Plot-wise I thought I had worked out what was going on but I hadn’t. The twists did surprise me.   I would certainly be on the lookout for future collaborations as well as digging into the sizeable Brookmyre back catalogue.

 fourstars

The Way Of All Flesh was published by Canongate in August 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

The Perfect Murder- Peter James (2010) -A Murder They Wrote Review

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My second Peter James novel I’ve read this year is a much slighter affair than “Dead Man’s Grip” which will be in contention for my Book of The Year this year.  “The Perfect Murder” takes my tally of James’ novels to eight which eases him into the anchor position of my Top 10 most read authors alongside Martina Cole and John Steinbeck.  This was because I selected “A Quick Read Novel” from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge.  This was published for World Book Day in 2010 and can be polished off quite easily in an hour.  The whole Quick Reads enterprise is to tempt people back into reading primarily but it can also provide a cheap, easy read for fans of the author.  Last year I read Minette Walters’ “Chickenfeed” from the same series.  You are not going to get the very best work from an author but hopefully a sampler of what they do in order to tempt you into finding out more.

“The Perfect Murder” is a stand-alone novel set like James’ Roy Grace series in Brighton, although on this occasion it could have been set anywhere.  Victor and Joan Smiley, a rather elderly-seeming pair of forty-somethings are so stuck in the rut of their marriage that the only way out seems to be murder and both are planning to bump the other one off.

Characterisation is broadly drawn yet effective and there are twists to the tale, some of which I didn’t see coming, some I did.  There is a danger when writing these Quick Reads to order that the more limited vocabulary and length these demand can mean that the actual defining style of the author does not come through.  I think this is, to an extent, a valid point in both the James and Walters novellas I’ve read but the Brighton location and very Peter James front cover goes some way to rectifying this.

I know that Peter James has produced at least one collection of short stories and here he displays that he has the knack of conveying a sinister involving tale in a succinct fashion.

threestars

The Perfect Murder was published by Pan Books in 2010.

Cover Her Face – P D James (1962) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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How have I got to this ripe old age without having ever read P D James?  This is even more of an oversight when amongst my most-read authors you would find Ruth Rendell, Martina Cole and Agatha Christie.  I know how good Baroness James Of Holland Park (1920-2014) was and I always enjoyed watching and listening to her being interviewed and reading about her – but of her fiction, up to now I’ve not read a scrap.

Seeing as I like to read in chronological order I had to start with her very first novel, which introduced Adam Dalgleish dating right back to 1962.  It is a surprisingly traditional country house whodunnit with all the elements present from the golden age of crime fiction- a death in a locked room,  a social gathering which sees outsiders coming into the rarefied atmosphere of the house (in this case a garden fete), suspects both above and below stairs and a denouement where all of the possible killers are together for the unveiling by the lead sleuth, in this case, Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgleish.  Of him we learn very little on this outing (he has a boat for off-duty adventures) as it is the inhabitants of Martingale Manor who are this novel’s central focus.

1962 is quite late on in the day for a form of fiction that was at its peak a couple of decades earlier so it’s surprising that James was not offering anything new here, but what we do get is a plot which shows intelligence and a complete understanding of the genre. She paves the way with clues that I didn’t pick up on (I so rarely do) and has produced a novel which is well-written with involving characterisation which all adds to breathing some new life into a well-worn format.

There’s nothing that feels like cliché here and that is testament to James’ handling of the plot.  Some of the attitudes might seem old-fashioned but that is only to be expected.  I enjoyed reading this very much.
fourstars

Cover Your Face was first published in 1962 by Faber and Faber.  I read a 2010 paperback.  The book is still in print.

One For The Money – Janet Evanovich (1994) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Selected because I drew “Read A Book From A Female Point Of View” from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge this is my first Janet Evanovich.  It is also her first book to feature Bounty Hunter Stephanie Plum – a series the author certainly decided to run with as there are now twenty-four novels together with four which fall out of the numbered sequence of the main series (at least the reader will know what order to read them in!).  Book #25 “Look Alive Twenty Five” is due in November 2018.

Back at book number 1 we meet an unemployed Stephanie persuaded by her mother to go for a filing job at her cousin Vinnie’s Bonding Company.  With that position unavailable Stephanie persuades her relative to take her on as a “skip tracer”, tracking FTA’s (individuals who have failed to appear at court).  At this point I thought I was going to be thrown by the complexities of the American legal system but here we get a somewhat hapless inexperienced but enthusiastic bounty hunter attempting to find her place in this dangerous environment.

Cousin Vinnie gives Stephanie a week to track and capture New Jersey’s currently Most Wanted, cop Joe Morelli who has gunned down a man in suspicious circumstances and gone on the run.  The potential pay-off for finding him will sort out Stephanie’s financial problems.

Her main difficulty is that she is clueless about how to proceed and this sets up much humour alongside the crime which is a good part of this series’ appeal and is the reason this author gets such good feedback from crime readers of both genders.  I was concerned, especially with the cover of this Penguin reprint that it might be fairly standard chick-lit with a gun and although Stephanie’s ineptitude does mean she has much in common with many light romantic fiction heroines the crime aspect is well done, actually really quite thrilling which gives the whole thing a different and very satisfying complexion.

I’ve never been a huge fan of first-person American crime fiction when that first person has been some macho action or hard-boiled detective but Stephanie’s point of view is irresistible as her attempts to convey crime noir falls apart as she gets herself into deeper and deeper scrapes.  I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this as much as I did. although I should have known this was Evanovich’s strength and that she really wins readers over.  I often see library borrowers bring back the one book they’ve tried and then check out an armful from the series.  I will certainly be interested in finding out how Stephanie gets on.  Don’t be put off by what might on the surface seem formulaic, this is a winner both in terms of commercial sales and critical acclaim (this first book won the Crime Writer’s Association John Creasey Award).  It all starts here……..

fourstars

One For The Money is published by Penguin Books in the UK.  Originally appearing in 1994 I read the 2004 paperback version.

Blog Tour Post Special – A Necessary Murder – M J Tjia (Legend Press 2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I came across Australian author’s debut series novel “She Be Damned” in October last year.  It introduced sleuth Heloise Chancey, a well-off courtesan in Victorian London who first time round helped out an aristocratic private detective with a case.  I was very much struck by Heloise’s potential to lead a series.  She is a strong, complex character with the ability, because of her background, to move fairly effortlessly through the strata of Victorian society.  The debut was highly readable and I’ve had good feedback from readers since both from my review and at the library where I work. 

 Legend Press have just published the second novel in the series.  There’s some grisly throat-cutting of a child found in an outhouse of her family home in Stoke Newington and later and much closer to home to Heloise with the weapon likely to have been stolen from her property.  Circumstances suggest that these could be linked to Heloise’s origins and that her maid, Amah Li Leen’s past may hold the key.

 There are two main plot strands here and things for me notched up a gear when Heloise goes undercover on the Lovejoy family estate, with its distinct echoes of the real life 1860 case of the Kent family from Somerset, the subject of Kate Summerscale’s “The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher” (2008).  I do think, however, that compared to last time round Heloise feels more subdued as a character.  This case does not allow her to sparkle in the same way and there is less of a feel for the times.

 Second novel in and I’m not still not totally convinced by Amah Li Leen, an enigmatic character with much back story.  I think I know why this is and it’s due to the changes in narrative style.  Heloise’s narration is first person yet for Amah’s contribution to the plot M J Tjia chooses to switch to third-person, often mid-chapter, which disrupts the flow.  I found myself having to re-read sections where Amah was central and this was not happening when Heloise was in charge.  In future novels I’d love to see a strengthening of the dynamics between these two characters.  At the end of this novel a trip to Venice is proposed which could forge these bonds away from the restrictions of London society. 

 I thought that whereas the last novel felt quite Dickensian in its influence that here we have more of a Wilkie Collins vibe.  In fact it had more of a different feel to its predecessor than I was expecting.  I still think there is a lot of potential in this series to continue with lots of facets of both lead characters to be explored.  It is establishing itself nicely and those who like a historical feel to their crime should seek it out.

threestars

 

Thanks to Legend Press who sent me a review copy and have included me into the book’s blog tour.  For other opinions on MJ Tjia and related info, take a look at the other sites in the tour.

 A Necessary Murder blog tour

The Mermaids Singing – Val McDermid (1995) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I seem to have a thing about mermaids at the moment as they have featured in the titles of the last two books I’ve read. But this is a very different proposition from Mrs Hancock’s mermaid, a gripping and really quite grisly crime thriller from 1995 which introduced McDermid regulars Dr Tony Hill and Detective Inspector Carol Jordan. The title is a quote from TS Eliot’s “Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

“I have heard the mermaids singing each to each/I do not think they will sing to me.”

This is the first Val McDermid novel I have read but it certainly will not be the last as it kept me gripped throughout. The tortured bodies of young men have been turning up in gay cruising areas in the fictional northern city of Bradfield. The police are initially slow to make a connection but once it dawns upon them that a serial killer is on the loose they bring in profiler Tony Hill, working on a study of using profiling techniques for the Home Office, to help out and Carol Jordan is appointed as liaison between Hill and the Police, a number of whom need some convincing about his methods.

It has been twenty-three years since this book’s publication which is a long time in the world of crime. The reader has to remember to accept profiling is in its early stages, that people use pagers instead of mobile phones and technology we take for granted today is seen as cutting edge but that shouldn’t mar enjoyment. Also, hopefully, attitudes towards gay lifestyles have also mellowed, the views and assumptions of some of the Police Officers here seem somewhat prehistoric. In the novel there are aspects which veer towards what we might consider unacceptable in our more enlightened times but McDermid is herself a gay writer writing very much of the time.

The novel switches between police procedural and the words of the killer, who is not known to us, outlining plans and it is these sections which make for some difficult reading as this is one sick individual who writes with glee about the selection of victims and the terrible tortures that are inflicted upon them. I had not realised that McDermid’s novels were quite as gritty as this, there is no hiding from the true horrors of crime here.

Tony Hill is a complex character who has fascinated the author enough to feature him in to date ten novels. He finds it difficult to form relationships, cannot act on his attraction to Carol Jordan and resorts to anonymous phone sex. For a man whose background is working around therapy he could certainly do with some. The whole process of his work as a profiler would seem more familiar to us now than at publication (“Silence Of The Lambs” is used as a reference point). Now we are more au fait as profiling has become a staple in crime fiction and movies and in such TV series as “Criminal Minds”, but there is a section where Hill is putting together his views on the serial killer which is absolutely fascinating and so well-written in that we learn so much about Hill as a character. He says to the image of the killer he is attempting to conjure up; “I’m just like you, you see, I’m your mirror image. I’m the poacher turned gamekeeper. It’s only hunting you that keeps me from being you. I’m here waiting for you. Journey’s end.

I’m wondering whether this aspect of Hill is played down more in subsequent novels in the series but it certainly packs a punch in this debut. And it’s not all grisly. For me, McDermid can get away with the gruesome as she writes so well, with a real feel for language and a dark humour and comes across as someone who relishes words and the world of books and wants to communicate this to her readers. Although it is disturbing and chilling there is also a warmth as the author welcomes us into this fictional world of Bradfield. This comes not from the characters, events or locations but from the writing and this feels really unusual.

Plot-wise it is not outstanding and there are elements which feel a little contrived but it is such a strong introduction to a series and I think I am really going to like Val McDermid as a writer.

fourstars

The Mermaids Singing was published by Harper Collins in 1995. I read the 20th anniversary edition with a foreword by Lee Child.

Black Eyed Susans – Julia Heaberlin (2015) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Texan author Julia Heaberlin found herself in the best sellers lists when this, her third novel was published in 2015.  As a teenager, main character Tessie was abducted and dumped in a grave with the bodies and bones of other victims amongst a cluster of Black Eyed Susan flowers.  She survives, a man is tried and sixteen years later his death sentence is due to be carried out.  Tessie, now Tess, begins to doubt his guilt and believes the serial killer may still be at large.

 It feels very much an American novel with is exploration of capital punishment and the race against time within the American legal system.  I felt a little distanced from it throughout.  This is compounded by a dual narrative, one of which features Tessie in the time after her ordeal leading to the trail where she has developed psychosomatic blindness and has to endure probing therapy sessions with the other narrative featuring the Tess who is doubting her original beliefs with the convicted man on Death Row.  I felt the narrative switches too quickly in the main body of the novel which stopped me from feeling as involved as I would have liked to be in a thriller of this nature.

 This is a dark tale.  Tess has been through a horrendous ordeal and is understandably a damaged soul.  Her relationships with men, her upbringing of her daughter are all compromised by what happened in the flower surrounded grave.  In fact, what I felt most chilling were these flowers which continue to insinuate their way into Tess’ life long after her ordeal is over.  Unfortunately, character-wise, nobody is especially likeable and although I appreciated the novel’s darkness I did not find it particularly thrilling.

blackeyed2Julia Heaberlin manages to make these seem creepy!

 I was actually expecting to get more out of this book than I did.  I was in the mood for something with good pace and which would have me holding my breath but for some reason it did not do it for me.  I felt Heaberlin was holding me at arm’s length and I was further distanced by the location and narrative style.  Although I did enjoy it I wanted more from a book subtitled “A Novel Of Suspense”.

threestars

Black Eyed Susans was published in the UK by Penguin in 2015.

 

The Pure In Heart- Susan Hill (Vintage 2005) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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The third Susan Hill novel I’ve read this year came about when I pulled “Read a Crime or Thriller novel” from the box for my third book in the year long Russian Roulette Reading Challenge that I am taking part in at Sandown Library.  I’d always thought Hill was most celebrated for her sparse, short horror tinged works of which “The Printer’s Devil Court” was an example but I am much preferring her crime series featuring Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler of which this is the second out of nine full length works. 

 Here, Hill feels like a very different novelist as she writes at length and allows the plot considerable time to unfold.  “The Various Haunts Of Men” had Serrailler pretty much in the background and I felt he was one of the least interesting characters but he’s pushed centre stage for this follow-up published a year later.

 This is a very readable novel but I can’t help but feel that the author is toying with her readership.  Last time round the crime was a long time coming, here, it happens quicker but is far from the only thing going on, which makes it unusual compared to most other police procedurals where the solving of the crime dominates.  There are momentous events happening in the Serrailler family and Hill is prepared to devote as much time to these as the unfolding of the case, but, and here’s the thing, it doesn’t frustrate, it doesn’t feel purposely slowed down and it all feels relevant.  The odd crime reader may feel a little cheated but I personally think her style has enriched her characterisation and her feel of Lafferton, the small town where these novels are set which has already endured in just two books a serial killer and this time the disappearance of a nine year old boy on his way to school.

 I’m enjoying the family stuff and look forward to seeing how plot seeds sown here will develop in subsequent novels.  However, I’m still not buying into the main character’s love life, his hot and cold emotions are being developed as a flaw but it feels a little tacked  on, as it did in the last novel, and as a result a little unconvincing.

 Susan Hill likes to provide surprises along the way and has once again achieved this.  She takes risks, not so much with characters, as in the debut (if you have read it you will know what I mean) but here with the actual case.  Things may not go exactly the way the reader expects it to and I like that.

 I’m also liking that it feels like a traditional police procedural and yet it’s not a traditional police procedural.  I can see the parallels with her horror writing as it is what is under the surface which most unsettles.  I’m fascinated to see how this series continues.

 fourstars

 The Pure In Heart was published by Vintage in 2005