Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter- Tom Franklin (2011)

This is a book which passed me by until I saw it recommended by US author Attica Locke as an example of Southern Gothic claiming it to be “everything Southern Noir should be”.  It also won the UK Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger Award in 2011 given for the best novel of the year.  I was also a little fascinated to discover that an author who received such fulsome praise for this, his third novel, (there was also a short story collection in 1999) has only produced one book in collaboration with his poet wife in the decade since.  I don’t know why this is.

My initial impression was that it was a very dense novel and despite the prestigious British award I found it as a British reader to be a bit of a struggle to find points of common ground in terms of cultural references, characterisation and attitudes.  In a quiet Mississippi town, there’s a continual macho undercurrent of violence and a real love of guns.  As the plot builds I did find myself enjoying it more.

Is history repeating itself when a teenage girl disappears?  The main suspect is a man who close to twenty years before was implicated when another girl vanished without trace.  His life since has been made a misery by the locals but he has stuck it out, alone and vulnerable now his mother is in a home with dementia.  A Black cop, Silas, known as 32 because of his baseball shirt number when he played back in the day, has returned to the area and discovers an ex-team mate, latterly a drug-pusher, dead in a swamp.  A violent attack on the town scapegoat follows.

Much has been concealed from the past which may have some influence in the present crime-wave.  There’s a lot of hostility in the town tied up in past and present responses to the two main characters.

I enjoyed this book.  It’s technically very strong and tightly written.  Unlike most crime novels the tension comes out not in the situations but with the characters relationships with one another which gives this depth and emotional resonance.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter was published in the UK in 2011.  I read the Pan paperback edition

Rollover-James Raven (Joffe 2012)

I’ve mentioned these publishers before as I think they are doing a superb job.  During the first lockdown I was so impressed with their innovative great value offers and free e-books at a time when bookshops were closed; they have a good range of (thanks to them) big selling authors to promote and have developed a quality backlist of (predominantly) British crime thrillers, republishing books and series which struggled to get commercial recognition first time round.  They have an excellent attitude and working relationship with bloggers.  I would be very proud to be a Joffe author- if only that novel ever got finished!!

I read this as the first book in an incredible value 5 book set but it is available as a stand-alone.  Originally published in 2012 it introduced Detective Jeff Temple.  I’m not sure whether at the time the author was consciously beginning a series as Temple as a character is rather understated here, which does, at least, present him as a blank canvas to be developed during the course of the series.

Central to the action here is Danny Cain, an ex-reporter now working as one half of a news agency who finds himself in the headlines when his business partner is murdered minutes after discovering he is the winner of a big National Lottery jackpot.  Cain’s first-person account is interspersed through the novel with third-person narratives.  This is not as seamless as it could be, in a couple of places the narrative style jars especially when changing mid-chapter.

However, in terms of plot and tension James Raven knows exactly what he is doing.  The combination of thriller and police procedural is effective.  We spend 48 hours or so in the Southampton area, at one point the city centre on a Saturday night is very well drawn.  I didn’t see any of the twists coming and I was really impressed with the author’s handling of the threat of violence which certainly ramps up the tension.  Plot-wise it is not complex and Raven seems a careful author who makes sure the reader is keeping up by re-emphasising plot points in a way which feels natural.  All in all, as an unfussy British contemporary thriller this ticked all the boxes.  It does feel more stand-aloney than crime series at this point but this is only the first book.  I think this may be the best I have read so far from these publishers (and I will admit I have still only read a handful) and I am keen to read other books in this series.

I read “Rollover” in “The Complete Detective Jeff Temple” a five book series I bought on Amazon at the amazing price of 99p.  “Rollover” is currently available as a stand-alone e-book and hardback.

A Good Day To Die – Amen Alonge (Quercus 2022)

Here is a series debut I highlighted as one I wanted to read this year and a title which has appeared on at least a couple of forthcoming publications recommended reads lists.  Lagos born trainee London solicitor Amen Alonge has written a very commercial novel which may attract those who do not regularly read fiction.  It’s a day in the life of a young black man known only as “Pretty Boy” by some other characters who arrives back in London with a clear desire for revenge but who, by accepting a piece of jewellery as part payment for a debt provokes a lot of unforeseen circumstances.

It’s violent, it’s brash and unsentimental and both visually and aurally strong, as the author soundtracks many scenes by mentioning what music is being listened to.  It is branded well, especially with regards to cars and weaponry and at times is gripping and always involving.

It’s not easy to write violence and Alonge does a good job focusing on the details leading up to an attack and then dispatching characters quickly.  A couple of scenes are overwritten which gives a cartoonish quality and that is one of the inherent dangers of reading such scenes as compared to watching them on-screen.

It is hard to get into the mindset of these characters which can make them seem inconsistent.  The author uses a mixture of first-person narrative from “Pretty Boy” (which is strong) and a third person narrative which at times I felt slightly confusing.  There is a need to give the main character a back story which features mainly in a chunk in the last quarter of the book but I don’t know whether it helped in fully fleshing him out. 

Indeed, this may not matter as this is Book 1 of a projected series so there is plenty of time for “Pretty Boy” to grow as a character.  There is a freshness to this which I find invigorating but I don’t think the comparisons I’d seen to “The Wire” US TV series are helpful as that is one of TV’s modern greats and a masterclass in writing and crafting a narrative and these comparisons may have built up expectations for me which I do not feel were fully delivered.

Amen Alonge is a vibrant new voice in crime fiction and I would be interested to see where he goes with this character next.

A Good Day To Die is published by Quercus on 17th February 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

A Flicker In The Dark – Stacy Willingham (Harper Collins 2022)

I highlighted this debut in my “Looking Back Looking Forward post”, a Louisiana set thriller described by top crime writer Jeffery Deaver as “an unstoppable journey through the psychology of evil, and of courage (in many senses), all told in a pitch-perfect literary style.”

I don’t read many psychological thrillers nowadays, the market seems flooded with them and I find them a little samey but here we have a strong example.

Psychologist Chloe Davis is our damaged first-person narrator.  Keeping herself well-dosed with prescription medication she is facing the twentieth anniversary of a case she helped to crack as a 12 year old when, horrifically, her father was imprisoned for the abduction and suspected murder of 6 teenage girls.  All this happened in Breaux Bridge, “the Crawfish capital of the world”, a small-town environment Chloe had to escape from after the disintegration of her family.

Now in Baton Rouge and on the verge of marriage her world crumbles again when it looks like a copycat killer is murdering in her local area.

Chloe is implicated, needs to clear her name and takes too long to involve the police (which is so often the case in this sort of book).  Three quarters of the way through the tension is ramped up by unforeseen (by me) twists which continues to impress to its conclusion.  It was a resolution I saw coming early on, then didn’t, then forgot all about as Willingham skilfully misdirects with careful plotting.  It reads well, the Louisiana setting effectively makes its presence known and I am not surprised that options for a TV adaptation have reputedly been picked up.

Flicker In The Dark is published on 3rd February 2022 by Harper Collins in the UK.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Appeal – Janice Hallett (2021)

A book from my “What I Should Have Read in 2021” list. I could see the potential of what is being promoted as a modern day Agatha Christie but had slight concerns that its reliance on e-mails, text messages and post-it notes might make it gimmicky with the whole style over substance debate threatening.

I needn’t have worried.  If we are considering this debut in the “Cosy Crime” genre then this is the best “Cosy Crime” book I have ever read.  Normally, mid-way through this type of book my attention wanders and I have to pull it back for the ending which I either find satisfactory or not.  Here, I hung on every word, really focused on reading between the lines and found the whole thing extremely involving. 

The structure is watertight.  Written communication makes up the entire book, also including local press reports, police transcripts as well as the aforementioned means of modern messaging.  There’s a murder but not until about mid-way through and I loved not even knowing who the first victim was going to be. 

The novel centres around an amateur dramatics group about to embark on Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” and central character and bit-part player Isabel Beck is thrilled by the prospect.  This time she has introduced a new couple to the group, nurses fresh from volunteering in Africa.  Their dynamic challenges the established set-up of the group which revolves around the founding family, the Haywards.  Focus is switched when a small child becomes ill and the society needs to divert to fund-raising and that is all I am going to say about the plot.

The forms of communication (there’s lots of e-mails) allows for bias and unreliable narrators a-plenty.  Isabel is a great character who early on we glean comes across very differently in real life compared to her exuberant messages.

This book really had me thinking about minor plot details, spotting inconsistencies and having these confirmed or otherwise by the set-up of a couple of young legals reviewing the evidence.

I loved this and am fascinated where the author will go next.  This work seems a real labour of love and is so tightly structured.  It seems I won’t potentially have to wait too long as her next novel “The Twyford Code” has just been published.  It apparently follows along audio transcripts so she is approaching it stylistically in a similar style.  It will be interesting to see if she gets away with it twice or whether this book works so well as it is a fresh, original one-off.  But for the time being, this is an excellent work, my first 5 star read of the year and one that even though I now know exactly what went on amongst the Fairway Players I would be very happy to read (between the lines) again.

The Appeal was published by Viper in 2021.

The Heretic – Liam McIlvanney (Harper Collins 2022)

It feels a long time since 2018’s “The Quaker” which won this author the McIlvanney Prize for Best Scottish Crime Novel, an award named after his late father, William.

The action here has moved on, same Glasgow location but six years forward to 1975.  Main character Duncan McCormack has spent the years between working in London and returns to Scotland to head up the Serious Crime Squad.  One of his team, Goldie, has suffered repercussions from McCormack’s handling of the case that brought down The Quaker, another, Shand is in the pocket of the Detective Constable’s Superior and the third member, Liz Nicol, has been moved across from the recently disbanded women’s section to work with the men.  McCormack, himself, is secretly gay in a force where his homosexuality would not be tolerated and has abandoned a promising relationship in London, putting his work before his personal life.  All of this team are outsiders which brings interesting dynamics into play.

This is quite a lengthy crime novel coming in at over 500 pages and the case hinges around two warring gangs, the Catholic Quinns and those led by the Protestant Walter Maitland, who, in the time McCormack has been down South has established a strong grip on Glasgow’s Crime World.  A house fire looks set to start up tit for tat reprisals and a body turns up amongst the rubbish heaps caused by the refuse collectors’ strikes.

Time-wise, we’ve moved into “The Sweeney” territory, with little tolerance of anyone not a white heterosexual male but I’m not sure this bigotry and misogyny comes across quite as potently as it did in “The Quaker”.

The plot is always involving, taking ambitious turns and McIlvanney had me with him all the way.  I’m not sure whether this is a series which will continue and if so whether the author is happy to stay in this time period or envisages another jump with the next book.  I don’t think I was quite as enthralled as I was with its predecessor yet this is quality crime writing.

 The Heretic is published on January 20th 2022 by Harper Collins.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Heron’s Cry – Ann Cleeves (2021)

The first of my “What I Should Have Read In 2021” that I’ve got round to reading.  In that post I mentioned I was kicking myself because I saw a copy on the library shelves and was too slow off the mark but a couple of days later it was back again (must have been borrowed by a quick reader) and this time I didn’t hesitate.

This is only the second Ann Cleeves I’ve read but it is really evident that this is an author who knows exactly what to do with a crime series.  “The Long Call” had a murder which had great personal and professional implications for the protagonists which would have had long lasting repercussions (and this case is referred to a number of times in this book).  Here, things are scaled down a little with some echoes of what had been obstacles before, especially as regards to Detective Matthew Venn and his relationship with his local community arts centre manager husband, Jonathan, and the overlap between the private and professional within a small community.

The rest of Venn’s team, Jen Rafferty and Ross May have their roles beefed up a little but Cleeves’ handling of this ensures there’s not too much given too soon.  Jen, however, does find herself more central than she would like when a party she attend.s and gets somewhat inebriated at, is also one of the last sightings of a man who she thinks was chatting her up and is afterwards found murdered in an art studio.

This complex of art buildings, farm and large house, Westacombe, becomes the focus of an investigation which develops very nicely throughout to a conclusion I certainly hadn’t foressen.  It’s exactly the sort of follow-up I would have both expected and hoped for.  Cleeves handles the characterisation, subject matter and twists in the plot with consummate skill.

“The Long Call” did feel fresher and more rooted in its location and I would give it the edge but I felt that became more entrenched in my mind by reading the book and watching the TV adaptation (good but not exceptional) quite soon after one another.  The quality of this “Two Rivers” series is maintained and there’s loads of potential for more cases.

The Heron’s Cry was published in hardback in the UK by Macmillan in September 2021.  The paperback is scheduled to appear in February 2022.

A Year Of Agatha Christie – A Reading Challenge Round-Up

Before my decision to sign up for the 2021 Read Christie Challenge at agathachristie.com I hadn’t read a book by the world’s most famous crime writer for some 16 years. I’d first discovered one of her works when I was around 12 and browsing in the little bookshop which had opened in our school at lunchtimes and provided a valid excuse for being out of the cold playgrounds. The first book I bought was “And Then There Were None”, admittedly, it did have a different title then in the UK and a lurid cover which made me approach the book as if I was going to be reading horror and would need the lights on at night. The out and out chills did not happen but I loved the structure of this book, the one by one killings,a new experience for someone fresh from children’s literature. I think this was probably the first book I’d read which was intended for adults.

I read quite a few more from the Christie canon moving into my early teenage years but then only the odd book until 2002 when I thought I’d start again with “The Mysterious Affair At Styles”, I read another two of her books over the next couple of years but then nothing until tempted by the Challenge. TV wise, I’ve never watched an episode of “Poirot”, nor Joan Hickson’s celebrated “Miss Marple” although I’ve watched the Margaret Rutherford films a number of times and the more recent ITV adaptations with Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie. I have never watched any of the big Hollywood adaptations of her movies but have watched the odd one-off BBC productions. I wouldn’t class myself as a Christie fan, as I’m all over the place with what I have read and seen and what I haven’t. I thought the 12 books which would be recommended to me by the organisers of the Challenge might change that. It has certainly pushed the author up to number two in my most read authors list.

Although 2021 is not quite finished I think I can say that none of the Christie titles are going to end up in my Top 10 books of the year but as she has formed a significant part of my reading experience this year I thought I’d give these titles their own moment of glory as I look back at what I have read and which impressed me the most.

My Top 5 Christie Titles from the Read Christie Challenge

5. A Pocket Full Of Rye (1953) (May’s Choice)

I said of this Miss Marple novel; “I thought I’d picked up on the clues and sorted out the ending but I hadn’t, so there is the pleasure of Miss Christie outfoxing me again.” 

4. The Sittaford Mystery (1931) (December’s Choice)

This snowy stand-alone was a perfect way to finish the Challenge. I said; “There’s a lightness and a great energy to it which made it a quick, perfect over-Christmas read”. 

3. Murder Is Easy (1939) (April’s Choice)

Another 30’s novel which is actually classed as a Superintendant Battle novel, although he does not contribute a great deal. I said; “I like the feel of this book, the location and characterisation gives it stronger atmosphere and the folklore slant offers us suggestions of darker forces at play and even of satanic orgies in the woods.”

2. The Murder At The Vicarage (1936) (July’s Choice)

I seem to be showing a clear preference for 1930’s Christie and I said; “It is set in St. Mary Mead and was the first novel to feature Miss Marple, not in a central role but she certainly knows what’s going on and I’m not surprised that Christie saw her potential as a recurring character.”

1. Death In The Clouds (1935) (October’s Choice)

There were 6 1930’s recommended titles in this year’s Challenge and I’ve placed four of them in my Top 4 positions. Even more surprisingly, for me, this was a Poirot novel. I’d come to the Challenge thinking I wouldn’t like the Poirot books much. However, of this I said; “The set-up is simple and yet the work seems more substantial and involving.”

And the Christie which really didn’t do it for me…. Well, I didn’t actively dislike any of the books but perhaps the one which most missed the mark was a collection of short stories which shows that Christie did not always have the magic touch in the 1930’s. Of Parker Pyne Investigates (1936) I said; “I felt the stories tended to blend one into another probably because Christie struggled to establish much in the way of characters within the short fiction format.”  

So, that’s the year-long Reading Challenge wound up. I mentioned in my last blog post that I am probably going to give it a miss for 2022 but the team at agathachristie.com have already got some good categories lined up so it is certainly worth signing up for. You never know, by mid- January I may be missing my monthly fix of Christie and might find myself signing up for another year.

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Month 12- The Sittaford Mystery (1931)

The year-long Agatha Christie Reading Challenge for 2021 rounds up with a book set in bad weather.  The recommended title was this 1931 stand-alone and for me, it was one of the stronger of the Christie titles I’d read this year.

There’s a lightness and a great energy to it which made it a quick, perfect over-Christmas read.  The bad weather is snow which has cut off the Devon hamlet of Sittaford.  The Willets, South African mother and daughter and recent tenants of the big house have invited some of the other inhabitants for a get-together and during a playful séance a murder is predicted.  When that comes true and a relative of the deceased is arrested, Emily Trefusis arrives in the area to prove the accused’s innocence.  She joins forces with an ambitious young reporter who has arrived to present a resident with a competition prize to find out who the real murderer was.

The séance adds a bit of the supernatural to the proceedings which I actually like in Christie (it was also evident in another of her 1930’s novels “Murder Is Easy” which I also really enjoyed this year).  The amateur sleuths are investigating alongside Inspector Narracott who is not convinced the police have the right person in prison.  There’s well-paced to and fro-ing, as the weather improves, from Sittaford, the nearby village of Exhampton and the city of Exeter.

Emily proves a lively, spirited and very convincing character, enlisting the support of other residents to help crack the case.  You can sense Christie’s approval of her which is not always evident in her characterisation.  This book was a strong finish for the Reading Challenge.

I think for the time being a whole year of Christie is enough (these 12 books have moved the author up to number 2 in my most read list) but the Reading Challenge is gearing itself up again for 2022.  You can find out more at agathachristie.com.  For my next post I am intending to look back at my year of Christie.  I’m thrilled that I have completed the challenge (especially as I am probably going to fall slightly short on my Good Reads Challenge to read 70 books in 2021).

The Sittaford Mystery was published in 1931 by Harper Collins.  I read a paperback edition part of the 1930s Omnibus which also includes “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?” “And Then There Were None” and the aforementioned “Murder Is Easy”.

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Month 11 – Crooked House (1949)

The challenge this month was to read a title set after World War 2 with the recommendation from agathachristie.com being this standalone which in the Foreword the author claims as being one of her favourites which she planned for years.

I’m quite surprised by this because it feels to me fairly standard Christie, maybe a stronger literary feeling than some of her works yet lacking a little in tension.  Her narrator Charles is effective in that he is able to observe situations both from those involved in the crime committed and those involved in the solving of it as his father is Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard.

When his girlfriend’s wealthy grandfather Aristide Leonides is believed to be murdered Charles decamps down to Swinley Dean and the Crooked House of the title to see what he can find out.  Sophia’s family have not met him before but they conveniently embrace him and soon trust him with confidences rather than seeing him as the outsider with police associations which he actually is.  This gives him a good position in the middle of the situation.  It’s obvious that Christie is using nursery rhymes as a device, here the “There Was A Crooked Man”, as she does in a number of her books but I do not really see how it fits in despite it being quoted in full in the third chapter.  I would have thought that if she was going to use this she would have made more of it than she has (as she did in “A Pocket Full Of Rye” (1953)).

The family are all suspects giving this crime a very domestic feel.  Sophia’s mother, Magda, steals scenes with her dramatics and her brother and sister Eustace and Josephine are distinctly odd (the younger generation damaged by the uncertainties of the war years?).  Grandfather married a woman a fraction of his age not long before his death so it is no stretch of the imagination to see who the family thinks bumped him off.

It is enjoyable throughout but I wouldn’t consider it amongst Christie’s best works and of the 11 read for the challenge I would put it around mid-way.  Next month the theme to finish off this year long reading challenge is a book set in bad weather.

Crooked House was published in 1949.  I read the Harper Collins e-book edition.