The Council Of Justice – Edgar Wallace (1908) – A Running Man Review

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The second novel in the “Complete Four Just Men” collection was published three years after the first and in this time Wallace had rethought his anti-heroes.  In the opening work they were pitched against the establishment in actions that looks, especially to modern eyes, like terrorism.  In a bid to keep readers’ sympathies to the characters in this longer novel they are pitched against a group of anarchists, known as the Red Hundred, who begin their own campaign of terror in London.  Significant amongst these is the first female character in this series.  Known only as the Woman of Gretz she has established herself strongly amongst the anarchic group.  She is a very welcome addition to the cast of characters but Wallace is not sure what to do with her- rabble-rouser, heartless bitch or displaying humanity, she’s all a bit of a mish-mash which doesn’t come off.

The Four Just Men on this their second outing still seem underdrawn, merging into one another but given their need for anonymity this might have been intentional.  One of them, George Manfred, is established more strongly as a separate character this time around.  As in the first book in the series what works best of all here is the build-up to the climax.  In that book it was the projected assassination of a British minister and here it is a potential jail break which ramps up the tension extremely effectively.

I must admit that I am not yet gripped by these books from their start to finish but there is certainly enough in the first two instalments to keep me wanting to read on.

threestars

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The Council Of Justice was originally published in 1908.  I am reading the 2012 Wordsworth paperback compendium “The Complete Four Just Men”.

 

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The Four Just Men – Edgar Wallace (1905) – A Running Man Review

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Edgar Wallace was one of the authors featured in Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors” who I fancied discovering. I’d heard of this prolific and popular English writer (1875-1932) and also of his most famous work “The Four Just Men” but had never read anything by him.

To put this right I purchased a Wordsworth edition of “The Complete Four Just Men” at a bargain price, a weighty tome which features not only his 1905 publication but the other five works about his creations which he continued to revisit sporadically until 1928’s “Again The Three”.

Looking at this sizeable volume I have decided probably the only way I would get through it at this time is to fit in a Wallace novel between other books I want to read, so I’m starting here with the title work, which is actually more of a novella coming in at just over 100 (although in quite dense print) pages.

I fully expected an action tale full of valiant deeds and derring-dos but the Four Just Men of the title can best be described nowadays as terrorists, a quartet of men who take the law into their own hands and operate their system of justice internationally dispatching those they consider to have done wrong. When I started this novel it did remind me in terms of style of G K Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday”, a novel I really didn’t get on with at all. I think that this was because it also dates from the first decade of the twentieth century (1907) and that was how popular fiction was written in those days. This is a much more entertaining work.

There’s far less going on in terms of sub-plot than I would have imagined. The British Foreign Secretay is on the verge of bringing in a law (the details of which I’m rather vague on and which probably don’t matter) which The Four Just Men, originally in their hideout in Spain do not agree with and the politician’s life is threatened if he does not drop the issue. The location shifts to London and becomes a how-will-they-do it type novel.

Edgar Wallace got much publicity for this by offering a £500 reward for readers who could work out what was going on when it was serialised in The Daily Mail for whom Wallace worked at the time. A slip up in the small print meant that everyone who guessed correctly would get the money and people began to guess correctly in larger numbers than anticipated. This meant Wallace had to borrow money to save face with his employers and had to sell a lot of copies to break even. I’ve read the whole book and I’m not really sure if I got the “how will they do it?” part at all.

I did, however, very much enjoy the tension of the police pitted against the inscrutable Four and the sense of time running out for the Foreign Secretary. You get the feeling that The Four Just Men would soon sort out Brexit! As they made their escape at the end of the novel (not a plot spoiler as I’ve already told you there are five more in the series) I found myself looking forward to what they will get up to next. In the style of the best Edwardian serialisations this is….To Be Continued…

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The Four Just Men was originally published in 1905. I read the 2012 Wordsworth paperback compendium “The Complete Four Just Men”

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.

Lethal White- Robert Galbraith (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Why exactly do people read the crime novels J K Rowling writes as Robert Galbraith? Is it for the intelligently crafted plot and the satisfaction of the tying up of the interweaving threads of a detective novel? I suspect not, they are read more for the dynamics between the two main characters, private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner Robin Ellacott both here on their fourth outing.

If this is the case then this lengthy work will delight as there is more relationship than crime plot going on here. I was very happy that it picks up where “Career Of Evil” (2015) left off, at the wedding of Robin and her disappointing fiancé Matthew. Cormoran had stumbled into the wedding proceedings leaving the “will she/won’t she?” aspect very much in the air last time round and here in a Prologue the story we all wanted to read about is resumed. I’m not plot spoiling by saying the wedding goes ahead but given the circumstances the marriage might not last that long. I applaud JK Rowling for beginning the novel at this point.

Following this Prologue we fast forward a year and Strike’s agency is doing well after its high profile cases featured in the previous novels and some of the work is having to be shared out to sub-contractors.  Robin and Cormoran get involved in a blackmail scenario involving a government minister with Robin going undercover at the Palace Of Westminster.  Strike is perturbed by a distressed visitor to his office with a tale from the past which may be linked to the blackmail attempt. The plot simmers along nicely and I do think the balance between a character led narrative and any actual action works well and would please more of her readers than it would disappoint. It’s a long time before an actual corpse makes an appearance and the whole thing is a lot less gruesome and more understated than in the last two novels. I can appreciate this balance as for me the more plot-driven second novel “The Silkworm” (2015) is the weakest of the four and both through her writing and the TV adaptations the two main characters are so strong that I found myself really relishing the scenes when they are together.

This book achieved somewhat mixed views on publication mainly concerning its length. I actually found that there was enough to keep me from grumbling about its number of pages. It could have been tightened a little but that is the case for most books which come in at over 600 pages in a hardback edition. On reflection, I feel I should have cared more about the “whodunnit” aspect of the novel, this is crime fiction after all, which is why this is not quite up to “Career Of Evil” standards but it is a close run thing as we are provided with another highly enjoyable read. “Career Of Evil” was more effective in ramping up the tension. I feel also that Strike’s London has come across stronger in previous novels but this doorstep of a read certainly shouldn’t put people off this series of novels and those that have read the four will be eagerly anticipating the fifth- myself included.

fourstars

Lethal White was published in hardback by Sphere in September 2018. The paperback edition is out this week on 18th April.

The Chalk Man – C J Tudor (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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“Every kid wants to find a dead body. About the only thing a twelve year old boy wants to find more is a spaceship, buried treasure or a porn mag.”

These sentiments expressesd in CJ Tudor’s debut remind me very much of “Stand By Me”, the film based upon the short story by Stephen King and the King feel looms large throughout this book, there is even a front cover recommendation from the man himself who has obviously noted that he and Tudor are pulling in the same direction as he states; “If you like my stuff, you’ll like this.”

But don’t think this is some Stephen King rip-off as it is has an identity all of its own. For a start it is British set in a town called Anderbury located around 20 miles from Bournemouth. We have a narrative of two time spans – 1986 with the aforementioned twelve year old boys and thirty years later when a discovery made back then in the woods is still holding the main characters back.

I was really looking forward to the 1980’s setting and I think the author does a pretty good job of conjuring up what it was like to be twelve in the mid-80s but I think I was looking for a stronger feel of the period, but then again I suppose we can’t expect this particular group of adolescents to be too aware of what was going on around them, they are just living their last innocent summer before some horrific realities of life kick in.

What the author does do very well in her debut is to keep a tense atmosphere throughout. A terrifying incident at a fairground packs one hell of a punch early on and from then on we know that lives will never be the same again. I like the ambiguity in the title referring both to chalk figures used by main character Ed and his pals to communicate; to drawings which have resurfaced in the later narrative strand and to the nickname of an albino teacher who makes his presence felt in the summer before he joins the children’s school. This all adds to the richness and edginess of the book.

Characterisation is memorable, the resolution perhaps not as satisfactory as the build- up but I often feel that way about crime novels. I really like the idea of us having a budding Stephen King here in the UK and I could also feel the influence of another of the author’s literary heroes, James Herbert. This is well-written edgy crime, that never allows the reader to truly relax and which does hover towards horror on quite a few occasions. I’m not surprised that it has appeared on a good number of “Best Of 2018” lists.
fourstars

The Chalk Man was published by Penguin in 2018.

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.

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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.

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.

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

The Case Of The Gilded Fly – Edmund Crispin (1944) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I was reminded of Edmund Crispin (1921-78) when I read Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors”.  I’d not read anything by him but I had bought a set of six of his Gervase Fen mystery novels a while back from “The Book People” so I plucked this introductory novel off the shelves.

Crispin published this when he was in his early twenties and went on to write nine detective novels (so I don’t need many more to compete the set) and a couple of short story collections.  He was also a composer and reviewed crime fiction for The Sunday Times.

This novel is set in Oxford of 1940, just a few years before the publication date.  It portrays a city that Crispin (real name Bruce Montgomery) would have known well as he studied Languages at St. John’s College.  Given both its setting and publication date there is no surprise to say that the war is present, although here it simmers along more in the background in terms of blackouts, shortages and longer journeys but the emphasis here would have been to provide a measure of escapism for a contemporary audience.

Compared to some of the crime writers of this vintage Crispin feels fresh and relatively modern.  He pens here a tale of an Oxford repertory group about to put on a new play by a West End playwright who comes to produce.  The opening chapter, depicting a train going down to Oxford with most of the main characters on board, provides a good introductory device which sets the novel up well and had won me over early on.

When one of the actors is murdered on College grounds it falls to the Professor of English Language and Literature, Gervase Fen to put the pieces together.  I’m not sure about Fen yet.  As a character he feels significantly less rounded than some of the more minor players here but as a sleuth he certainly seems to have been around.  Despite this being his first published outing a number of characters refer to his solving of murders in the past, suggesting darker goings on in Academic Oxford than this book would suggest.  Fen is a scholar who wants to be a detective and he’s nicely paired alongside Sir Richard Freeman, the Chief Constable whose main interest is English Literature.  This is a relationship I would be happy to see develop in later books in the series.

As often happens with crime novels of this age the denouement does not feel entirely satisfactory to the modern reader.  I understood it but was not totally convinced by it but this would not stop me encountering more Gervase Fen mysteries as I did find the whole thing entertaining.

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The Case Of The Gilded Fly was first published in 1944. I read a reprinted 2009 Vintage paperback edition.