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.

fourstars

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.

The Murder Bag – Tony Parsons (2014) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I’ve never before read any Tony Parsons (other than journalistic pieces for the New Musical Express and the many other publications he has contributed to over the years). Best known for his “Man and Boy” trilogy of novels, in 2014 his writing took a very different approach when he began his first crime series featuring DC Max Wolfe.

To date there have been six novels (the latest “#Taken” published this year) and three shorter works. I was tempted to start at the beginning by a recent special offer on Amazon Kindle which focuses on first of series (I was obviously in a crime novel mood at the time  and also purchased Craig Russell’s “Lennox” and Don Winslow’s “The Power Of The Dog, neither of which I’ve read yet).

“The Murder Bag” certainly begins with a punch with a prologue set in 1988 which provides the historic framework for the events in what is clearly going to be a revenge novel. This prologue makes for uncomfortable reading and is continued with a high-octane first chapter which is how I imagine a Lee Child novel would read (I haven’t read one) and which also reminded me of the explosive show-piece openings of the BBC TV series “Line Of Duty”. The purpose of all this action is to give Max Wolfe a back story which explains his transfer to the Homicide and Serious Crime Division.

Wolfe is a newcomer in his post and a single parent with a 5 year old daughter Scout and a young King Charles Spaniel he is trying to settle into the family. There’s a lot of dog references in Wolfe’s first-person narrative, this is a man who notices dogs in his everyday life and investigations, they are a central part of his life, which gives him a little individual quirk compared to all the other fictional DCs out there.

When men of the same age meet a violent death with the same M.O a connection is made to their privileged past and after the sheer intensity of the first two sections this settles into a police procedural.

As a crime novel I’m not totally convinced that Parsons on this initial outing has got everything spot on. It feels a little inconsistent. You know with a Peter James what you will be getting and there’s few better at the police procedural novel which, when on his best form,  is so carefully executed that it is totally convincing. I know I’m comparing Parsons with one of the very best but I wasn’t always convinced here and felt that for a first-person narrative that the style wasn’t consistent, which made it unpredictable, true, but also a little jarring. I appreciate that it’s early days for DC Max Wolfe but I feel as a character he does not feel as assured as I would have expected. I know Parsons is trying to show different facets of personality with sentimental scenes involving his daughter and the dog, macho boxing scenes and within his professional life where as a newcomer he is bound to make mistakes but I don’t think all the pieces here come together. It seems as if the author is trying to play to his existing readers as well as those like myself, discovering him primarily as a crime writer and this is causing a slight struggle with style. But I think he will get there and I’m looking forward to reading more to confirm this.

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The Murder Bag was published by Arrow in 2014. I read the Kindle edition.

The Language Of Birds – Jill Dawson (2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This is not exactly a crime novel, although a murder is very much at its centre and it focuses on a case most readers would have some sense of familiarity with, that of children’s nanny Sandra Rivett killed by absconding aristocrat Lord Lucan in what was believed to have been a case of mistaken identity (Lucan had intended to kill his estranged wife).

The real life events from 1974 are here turned into fiction with changed names, Dawson’s reasons for this are stated in an Afterword; “The life of a victim is a hard story to tell when there are living descendants (of the Lucan family too) and others who might still be hurt. My solution was to invent new characters whose story you have just read.” I think we as readers will respect the author’s decision here. Since reading this I haven’t gone into what was known about this grubby case other than what Dawson has told us in the Afterword and my vague recollections but she does seem to have followed the framework of events closely.

The narrative switches between a third person retelling and the first-person views of Rosemary, a friend of the doomed nanny. The two meet as voluntary patients in a psychiatric hospital and when a recovered Rosemary finds work as a nanny in London, Mandy follows and finds herself in charge of the two children from the fractured Morven family assisting the fragile and not-coping Lady Katherine who is trying to break free from the enigmatic but charismatic Dickie, wrapped in underhand tactics in a custody case. The two girls waver as to who should get their sympathies.

I think what Jill Dawson does very well here is to get the feel of the mid 1970’s just right not only in its many references but particularly in the attitudes. Mandy and Rosemary feel like two young girls new to the London of 1974. There’s a lot of anger in the novel, rightly so, in a case in which time has tended to lionise the disappearing perpetrator. In many ways just as Hallie Rubenhold aimed to reclaim the victims from the hype of Jack The Ripper in her non-fiction work “The Five” Dawson here has managed to move the focus back to the real-life victim Sandra Rivett perhaps even more effectively, especially as the character of Mandy is so vibrant and well-drawn.

There’s an element of imagery going on in the title and on occasions within the text based upon bird communication. At one point it takes the form of auditory hallucinations by swans and pigeons which caused Rosemary’s mental health episode but I’m not sure that this fits into the feel of the novel or understand why it is there. The relevance of this and of the title of the novel has passed me by.  It is not what I will remember this book for which is the great feel for the period, strong characterisation and the build up of dread as to how what we know is inevitable will pan out and the ramifications for those caught up in the grisly events.

fourstars

The Language Of Birds was published in hardback by Sceptre in April 2019.

Oct 19 Update – Read about Jill Dawson at the Isle Of Wight Literary festival here.

The Art Of Dying – Ambrose Parry (Canongate 2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Ambrose Parry’s “The Way Of All Flesh” was one of my crime novel highlights of 2018. I found its Victorian Edinburgh setting refreshing and the combination of an unpredictable crime set-up and a seamlessly incorporated history of medicine at the time was extremely effective. Two strong lead characters also helped, implying a lot of potential for this series.

This was Ambrose Parry’s debut novel but writing under that name is highly established crime writer Chris Brookmyre in collaboration with his anaesthesia expert wife Marisa Haetzman. This follow-up moves things on around a year with Dr Will Raven coming to the end of a tour of Europe and a violent incident in an alleyway before returning him back to the more familiar ground of Edinburgh where he has accepted the job of being his mentor Dr Simpson’s assistant. Here, he meets up again with another of Simpson’s employees, Sarah, but this time her circumstances have changed and it seems the authors are committed to keeping this couple who seem destined for one another apart.

The character of Simpson is based upon a real-life doctor noted for his discoveries with chloroform, which featured largely in the first book. Here, there is still experimentation with its usage, at one point it is served up as an alcoholic beverage but medically, anaesthetics have become more established and the issue now seems to be how to keep a patient alive after work has been done on them internally. Infection is the new priority.

The crime aspect comes via a woman not so keen on keeping the patients she is nursing alive and her narrative is interspersed throughout the text. I felt initially that the crime was taking a back seat compared to the medical history side of things but this is just Parry setting things up very nicely for us. Once again there were unpredictable twists and the novel builds just the way I always hope a crime novel will do.

Once again this is good quality fiction which is very readable, characters are developed (although Dr Simpson himself is more in the background) and I really want to know what is next for Will and Sarah. This series, in the space of two novels has established itself very well indeed.

fourstars

The Art of Dying is published in hardback by Canongate on 29th August 2019 . Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Meaning Of Night- Michael Cox (2006) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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“Revenge has a long memory”

My first re-read for some time is this historical thriller which was my Book Of The Year back when I read it as a new paperback in 2007. It has sat on my shelves since then and the reason I picked it up for a revisit was although revenge may have a long memory (a dominant theme in the book) I obviously do not as I could remember nothing about it other than I loved it. I wasn’t alone in my admiration as at the time it was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award but was beaten by the eventual overall winner Stef Penney for “The Tenderness Of Wolves”.

I can remember feeling that Michael Cox, a writer and academic known for anthologising Victorian short stories was a major new novel writing talent. Sadly, there was only to be one more novel, a sequel “The Glass Of Time” before he succumbed to cancer aged 61 in 2009. His debut was a work in progress for decades before reputedly a prescription for a steroid drug as preparation for treatment for tumours and loss of sight caused a significant burst of energy which resulted in him beginning to put this work together and saw him bring it and the sequel to completion following his temporarily successful treatment. This moving sequence of events of a writer driven to finish his magnum opus seems fitting for this large, intense, dark novel and this truly is a testament to the talents of Michael Cox.

The author’s feel for the Victorian period is evident throughout and it has real authenticity with strong elements of Wilkie Collins and Dickens making it a rich but in no way a quick read. It begins with a random murder carried out on the streets of London in 1854 by the narrator Edward Glyver whose confession we are reading. The reasons for this, the events leading up to and following this crime form the whole narrative. It is a tale of revenge and betrayal with the central location the country estate of Evenwood and the family who live here. The usual suspects of opium, prostitution, class and hypocrisy are all present but none of it feels any way cliched. This is because the author has really assimilated the period and obviously knows so much about it, garnered from years of research and this permeates the text in a natural and convincing way, particularly in the field of book collecting. An “editor’s” footnotes to the text gives the fiction a further air of authenticity as do other documents pertaining to the events in much the same way as Graeme Macrae Burnet’s “His Bloody Project” (2015).

I will admit there were times when I felt I was ploughing through this somewhat (as indeed I have done with many Victorian novels that I have ended up loving) and throughout I was concerned about how little I had remembered from last time round but like many of the novels from the period it emulates it did pull me right in and any effort in the reading was rewarded. On completion the feeling was of total satisfaction for a high quality reading experience. This novel does seem to have faded from public consciousness but I can’t help feeling that a sensitive tv or film adaptation could bring it back to the top of bestsellers lists.

I haven’t read the sequel from 2008 (this was so far under the radar that I didn’t even know it existed until researching for this but given the circumstances of the author’s health issues at the time this is not surprising) but have just ordered it hopefully to read while this novel is still fresh in my mind and I will not be parting with my (now quite well worn) paperback copy of “The Meaning Of Night” anytime soon.
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The Meaning of Night was published in 2006. I read the 2007 John Murray paperback edition.

Ten Second Staircase – Christopher Fowler (2006) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Christopher Fowler is the clear leader on my most read authors list. Since first discovering what is still my favourite of his books, the Faustian “Spanky” as a new publication in 1994 I have now read 16 of his works. He is strongest with horror novels with dark comic undertones, both “Soho Black” and “Calabash” have impressed me and last year I was inspired by his “Book Of Forgotten Authors” to make a reading list from which I’ve sampled so far Patrick Dennis, Margery Allingham, Edmund Crispin and Barbara Pym.

Since 2003 Christopher Fowler has really established himself with a crime series featuring elderly detectives Arthur Bryant and John May from The Peculiar Crimes Unit. I have read now four of the to-date 18. This is obviously a very successful enterprise for him – I have still to be convinced.

In a number of ways these novels strengths are also their weaknesses. This is written with a playful quirkiness which when it works well explores the puzzle-solving aspect of the crime novel making the author’s role in manipulating and misleading readers more explicit but there is a danger this can make the book seem gimmicky. There’s also an odd use of time which I find disorientating. Nobody knows how old Bryant and May really are but judging from what they say about their past they are very old indeed which makes them feel less plausible as characters in this modern-day setting. But does that matter? Well, it does and it doesn’t. The plots are led by the detectives’ eccentric approaches of dealing with crime with much referencing to their past and sometimes this feels like a distraction to what is going on.

What is done well is London itself, whose history and mythology is incorporated to give a sense of timelessness to the piece. It can at times feel like an alternative reality novel where octogenarians are still putting themselves professionally into precarious positions but it is not as references are regularly made to past events we all know about. It’s clear from the above that I am still struggling to make full sense of the concept and feel of this series.

In this fourth instalment a killer in highwayman garb is killing celebrities which may possibly have links to an unsolved crime Bryant and May were involved with decades before which ended in personal tragedy for them. It begins with their immediate boss contacting the Home Office to get the detectives removed because of their age and competency and Bryant goes on to show how out of touch he is with the modern world when he addresses a group of private school boys where neither his past nor the boys’ present rings true to me. It twists and turns with some memorable characters along the way, yet at this stage, some of the series regulars are still feeling underdeveloped (but admittedly, I do have a lot of the series to go).

Summing up, I very much enjoyed aspects of this book but its unorthodox approach to crime solving did cause my interest to wane. I think it is better than both the first and third of the series neither of which I particularly enjoyed and I do feel that there is so much potential and that seeds are being sown which will elevate this series once I get more of a complete grasp of what is going on.  My befuddled view is reminiscent of what I felt about much of the BBC TV adaptation of “Sherlock” and look how popular that became. I wouldn’t have read 16 books by this author, however, if I didn’t feel in some way committed to his writing (and I do have a few more unread copies of this series on my shelves) so I’m not giving up yet.

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Ten Second Staircase was published by Doubleday in 2006

The Five- Hallie Rubenhold (2019) – A Real Life Review

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I like this author.  A previous work of hers “The Covent Garden Ladies” (2006) a study of Victorian prostitution ended up in my Top 5 Books Of The Year when I read it in 2011.  I very much applaud what she has set out to achieve with this new meticulously researched work but I would give her earlier publication the edge.

 “The Five” attempts to redress a wrong which has existed for 130 years- the public perception of the five women believed to have been killed by “Jack The Ripper”.  From the early press reports, to the way the case was handled, to the coroners’ reports and the development of the whole macabre industry which has built up around the perpetrator these women have been misrepresented.  They have become very much the foils to The Ripper’s dastardly crimes, their whole lives tainted by the sordidness of their demise.  They have been labelled “prostitutes” with an implication that they may have invited or deserved their fate.  Their individuality and humanity has been forgotten in the telling of a lurid tale.

 Through the sifting of contemporary reports, including the patchy coroners’ transcripts, newspapers and journals and the census returns which all provided a deluge of contradictory evidence Hallie Rubenhold has explored each of the five women in turn and tracked their lives to the point where they ended up, completely out of luck, in the Spitalfields area in 1888. 

 The most horrific thing which runs throughout is how the lives of the Victorian working classes were so on edge, one change of circumstance and a downward spiral was begun from which there was no escape.  This was especially true for women where the miseries of lost loves, dead children, loss of reputation etc. could lead to turning to drink and from then on there was little hope.  And, despite the odd bright moments in most of their lives this is what happened to Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly.

 The author has certainly achieved her aim in giving them a different place in The Ripper story and used the evidence well to bring them back to life.  The nature of the type of evidence she is using after 130 years of them being treated differently means that looking back after finishing the work I felt that individually they blurred into one another.  The author might not have found their voices individually but certainly as a group I very much felt their presence.  Little is actually known about the last victim Mary Jane Kelly, who lived her life enigmatically as many who became lost in Victorian London chose to do.  This is where non-fiction can let us down, lack of information leads to more generic non-specific writing thus affecting the narrative flow which a novelist would enjoy in bringing their work to conclusion.  I think this was why I wilted a little as a reader towards the end.

The character who is kept very firmly in the shadows throughout is Jack The Ripper himself, moving in only in the last few lines of each section.  I understand and applaud this but I don’t know as much about The Ripper Cases as the author assumes I do and by keeping the perpetrator so far in the background I feel I need to know more about what actually happened and how it was dealt with and to do this I’m likely to have to read one of the works Rubenhold is challenging.  But when I do I know I will have this author’s new perspective in mind and will not forget that these women existed and lived a valuable life before perishing in the London streets.

fourstars

 

The Five was published in hardback by Doubleday in February 2019.  It has this week been longlisted for the non-fiction dagger award from the Crime Writers’ Association.