The Mysterious Case Of The Alperton Angels – Janice Hallett (Viper 2023)

Janice Hallett’s sparkling debut “The Appeal” ended up at number 4 in my current Books Of The Year.  I rarely go so overboard for a crime novel but I so loved its quirkiness, its characterisation and its misdirections which had me making the wrong assumptions all over the place within a work which felt both fresh and classic.  At the time I did wonder if the author would be able to achieve this again with a second novel which had a similar unusual narrative style.  “The Twyford Code” featured potential secret messages from an Enid Blytonesque writer which gave it great heart and although I felt it lacked a little bit in readability compared to the previous work, the cleverness of misdirections led to a highly satisfactory reading experience and a four star rating.  But would she pull it off a third time.  I really hoped so.

“The Mysterious Case Of The Alperton Angels” consists of research material for a true crime novel which is located in a safe.  The author Amanda Bailey was commissioned to write a new slant on a case of eighteen years previous of a cult ritual suicide/murder which almost led to a baby being sacrificed.  At the same time her one-time colleague and rival Oliver Menzies is commissioned to explore the same case for another publishing company.  Here we get their e-mails, research, found materials including associated fiction and transcripts of interviews around the case.  This is darker territory than the previous novels and I do like dark but I became less convinced as the book progressed that the theme suited this format as well as in the previous books.

The first half I was loving but then it felt like it was getting bogged down with too much material and I could feel my enthusiasm waning and the author’s extrication from this did not feel as impressive as it was in “The Twyford Code”.  I wasn’t surprised to read that one of the acknowledged inspirations was Michelle McNamara’s “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” a true account of how an American true crime writer became obsessed with her work and there were references to other UK crimes and real life figures which I actually felt a little unsettling on this occasion.

There is still humour and great relish in the writing but this is undeniably darker and I must admit to missing the effervescent feeling I got from “The Appeal”.

Janice Hallett is a clever crime writer and has been a real find for me and does deserve Richard Osman comparable sales with her cunning quirky take on British crime, but didn’t quite hit home with this book in the way I was hoping she would.  I’d be interested to see if she deviates from her format with her next book, I must admit to being a little nervous here about diminishing returns.

The Mysterious Case Of The Alperton Angels was published by Viper Books on 19th January 2023.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Darkness Falls – Robert Bryndza (2021)

This is the third book in Robert Bryndza’s Kate Marshall series.  Last time round I praised what I saw developing into a high-quality crime series.  This standard has been maintained.

I do feel, however, that there is a distinct change of tone in this book.  First in the series, “Nine Elms” was (too?) grisly and I felt the author’s reining in on this a little for “Shadow Sands” made it stronger than the debut.  Third book in and we have a fairly standard mainstream crime work with little of what made the first two so unsettling.  Perhaps the author feels he has put Kate Marshall through the wringer enough and here places the focus on a well-structured highly readable whodunnit.

At the end of “Shadow Sands” Kate and colleague Tristan were contemplating starting a private detective agency.  This has come to pass but with jobs few and far between they are also running a camp site in their Devon location, assisted by Kate’s teenage son Jake.  A missing female journalist cold case could be their saviour and help her distraught mother get some closure.  It soon becomes clear that the journalist was working on a story which might have caused her demise and this may be linked to a serial killer preying on young gay men.

As in the previous novels the relationship between Kate and Tristan is very strong and the author is right to bring the young gay male research assistant into clearer focus in this.  There were a couple of questionable motives here which grated just slightly but the pace builds nicely for an exciting last third.

I liked the change of tone in this book, it makes both the author and the series unpredictable – we soon tire of series which become formulaic.  Maybe some who found the first novel too dark to get through might like to revisit this series at this point.  I don’t mind whether the author goes back along the darker routes of the predecessors for the 4th novel.  I just know I will be wanting to read it.

Darkness Falls was published in December 2021 by Sphere and will be published in paperback on 29th December 2022.  The next in the series “Devils Way” is due to be published in hardback/ebook editions on 12th January 2023.

The Hanged Man – Linda Mather (Joffe 2021)

It’s unusual for me to read a mid-series title without having read the rest but here is Book 4 of the Zodiac Mystery series by Joffe author, Linda Mather, a long running but intermittent series which began with “Forecast Murder” back in 1994.

Central character here is Jo Hughes, an astrologist currently running a workshop at Alcott College in the Cotswolds.  She is with the recently appointed CEO of the college, Aoife, when they discover Seb, the financial director, hanging in the woods.  Is it suicide?  Jo becomes obsessed with finding out when another staff member disappears at the same time.

I think this setting marks a shift in the series.  It seems from the support systems Jo uses that prior to this she has been assisting a Private Detective, David Macy, in Coventry.  He has moved into debt collection and the new working environment for Jo places her in the middle of the situation and provides a fairly open-ended set-up for future novels.

It doesn’t match the luridness of the title and it is not consistently gripping.  The hanging and disappearance occur early on before these characters are established so it is quite easy not to care that much about them.  The astrological aspect is a good idea, but apart from it giving the reason to be at the college it seems a little tacked on and a tad unconvincing.  But there’s probably not that many readers who come in at Book 4, so they will know what to expect from the author and most will be satisfied with this title.  Plot-wise there are not many twists but it read well and although I didn’t totally feel drawn in by Jo’s experiences at Alcott College fans of this series would be happy with its resumption.  If you wish to get up to speed with this series before the fifth book arrives the publishers have put together the first three in a set at a bargain price (currently £1.99 on Amazon).

The Hanged Man was published in 2021 by Joffe.

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.