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

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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.

threestars

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

 

Career Of Evil – Robert Galbraith (2015) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This book brings me up to date with the three crime novels J K Rowling has written under a pseudonym featuring crumpled Private Investigator Cormoran Strike.  And it’s not quite just in time as I wanted to read this book before the two part BBC TV adaptation started.  When it wasn’t on over the Xmas and New Year period (which was what I was expecting with a high profile series) I assumed the BBC would be holding it over to show over a Bank Holiday weekend so its sudden appearance on schedules surprised me into borrowing the book from the library.

 Now, before you start telling me details of the TV adaptation I’ll let you know I haven’t watched any of it yet.  The second of the two episodes was shown on Sunday and both are sitting on my Sky Planner and I am looking forward to see what is done with this (over what seems a short total running time of two hours) as book-wise this instalment is the best of the three.

 What I really like about these books is the relationship between Cormoran Strike and temp secretary/assistant/potential business partner (her role has evolved over the series) Robin Ellacott.  This took a bit of a back seat in the second novel “The Silkworm” which I did not enjoy as much as the debut “The Cuckoo’s Calling” but it is stronger here than ever before and Galbraith has given us a real character-led crime novel which works a treat.  Apart from some short chapters given over to the killer most of what happens is seen from the two main characters point of view (although not through a first person narrative) which on this occasion works very nicely.

 The actual case that the pair are working on is, like the last novel, pretty grisly.  A severed leg is sent addressed to Robin at the office and it looks as if someone is trying to frame Strike and to put him out of business.  Strike has to consider who he has upset enough for them to want to kill and dismember in an attempt to bring him down and comes up with three main potentials.  With the police moving in a slightly different direction and evidence pointing towards a Jack The Ripper-style serial killer on the loose, Strike sets out to solve things himself.  The one flaw I encountered as a reader was that throughout I found it hard to distinguish between two of the suspects and did have to keep leafing back to see who was who.  I’m not sure if I momentarily lost attention at the wrong place or if they were not clearly enough demarcated when introduced into the narrative.  Also, while I am nit-picking Rowling is obviously a fan of US Rock Band Blue Oyster Cult (best known for their 1978 #16 UK and #12 US hit “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”) using lyrical references to head chapters and within the narrative.  Here it seemed a slightly artificial device and I’m not convinced it added much to the proceedings. 

Otherwise, giving me as much pleasure as the playing out of the crime strand was Robin’s on and off again marriage preparations, her concerns as to whether she is being seen as an equal partner in the business and effective back story on both characters which has really fleshed them out since “The Cuckoo’s Calling”.  Two of the three novels in the Strike series are every bit as enthralling as Harry Potter and I hope, especially now that I am up to date that there will soon be more to come.  (There has been talk about “Lethal White” as a title but no release date scheduled).  And there is still the TV series to watch – my  thoughts on which will appear here soon.

fourstars

Career Of Evil was published by Sphere in 2015

Dead Man’s Grip- Peter James (2011) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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peterjamesI’m up to Book Seven of what has become my favourite crime series.  Peter James’ novels featuring DS Roy Grace have appeared on my end of year Top 10 lists on three occasions and up to this point I would have struggled to say whether the chilling debut “Dead Simple”(2005)  or novel number five “Dead Tomorrow”(2009) with its organ trafficking theme was the strongest but I think here the standard has just upped a notch and in “Dead Man’s Grip” we have a classic crime novel.

 A couple of the earlier novels I felt had slight issues with pace but the three since “Dead Man’s Footsteps” (2008) have put this right and there are certainly no issues on this score here.  The book hits the floor running and is gripping throughout.

 It has been about 18 months since my last James novel but his characters are so well established by this stage in the series that I don’t need much in the way of memory jogging to recall who is who.  I would urge newbies to read them in order, especially as there is an ongoing subplot regarding Grace’s missing wife, Sandy, which James keeps lightly simmering on the back burner here.  I don’t think I would have got as much from this novel if I had read it out of sequence.

 Roy Grace is here an expectant father but has only a small amount of time to fret over pregnancy complications before another set of Brighton-based crimes take over.  They all stem from a tensely written road traffic accident which leads to involvement of a New York Mafia family. 

 Sometimes it is a set piece which sticks in the mind in James’ novels and I have felt that the book has been built around this.  That’s not exactly a criticism as many crime novelists choose to do this but this instalment is so full of memorable pieces, to the extent that I wondered if it could be built to a gripping climax, but we are certainly not deprived of that here.

 This really does have everything I look for in a police procedural crime novel.  The research seems first-class.  In his acknowledgements it seems as if James has used every member of the Sussex Police Force for help and advice.  (He has also used a few real names and job titles throughout the novel).  If there is a better British crime writer out there at the moment I haven’t found them (yet!).  And I still have got 6 books to got to catch up on this series.  The 14th “Dead If You Don’t” is due out in hardback in May 2018.

 fivestars

Dead Man’s Grip was published by Macmillan in 2011

The Various Haunts Of Men – Susan Hill (2004) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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It’s very unusual for me to read two unrelated books in succession by the same author.  Susan Hill has benefited by producing the short “Printer’s Devil Court” which I chose as a successful reintroduction to the world of audio books- a format I’d struggled with on previous attempts and there’s also a story behind my selection of this book. 

At Sandown Library, one of the libraries I work at on the Isle Of Wight there is a year long initiative going on.  It’s the Russian Roulette Reading Challenge which involves pulling from a hat a reading theme or suggestion.  It is running throughout 2018 (new participants welcome) and will culminate in a prize draw for those open-minded and determined towards their reading choices who manage to complete 20 of these challenges.  It’s a little like the Book Bingo which I set up and which is still running at Shanklin Library, but without the bingo card and the route to success cannot be planned in quite the same way, adding a randomness which has led to the Russian Roulette title.  My initial challenge was to read a book which is first in a series.  I’d heard good things about Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler crime series and this instantly sprung to mind, with the first book being conveniently on the shelves.

 The most surprising thing about this series starter is the rather low- key presence of the Chief Inspector of Lafferton Police, Simon Serrailler.  He does not play much of a role in the solving of the crime here.  That falls more to members of his team, namely recent arrival from the Metropolitan Police, DS Freya Graffham and the man described as having a face only a mother could love, the enthusiastic DC Nathan Coates.  Serrailler has an in-charge role to play.  He is good-looking and known as a heart-breaker due to his playing hot and cold with female emotions.  It is intriguing that he is the character the series is built around because on this showing I found him to be one of the least interesting characters.  Probably the author is allowing him to develop over the ten more novels to date rather than having him shine too brightly in the opener with us losing interest in him.

 Also, unusually for a twenty-first century crime novel this takes quite a while to get going.  There’s a disappearance quite early on and then we are drawn into a series of characters who are using alternative medical practitioners as well as us finding out how newbie to Lafferton, Freya, is establishing herself socially in the town whilst getting the hots for her new Chief Inspector.  At one point I was concerned that the novel might be a little too pedestrian for me.

 But then, events began happening and the groundwork had been so cleverly laid by the author that it really drew me in, and, perfect reaction for a crime novel, I sped up as the book progressed.  There were twists I didn’t see coming and it ends up as a highly satisfactory read and a great introduction to a series.  I’m still not sure of the relevance of such an evocative title though.

fourstars

The Various Haunts Of Men was published in 2004 by Chatto and Windus.  I read the 2009 paperback edition.

Past Caring – Robert Goddard (1986) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This is the 5th novel by British author Robert Goddard I’ve read over the years.  He now has some thirty works to his name yet this was his debut first published in 1986.  So far the two of his novels I have enjoyed the most have been “Set In Stone” (1999) and “Play To The End” (2004) yet admittedly I haven’t really been completely bowled over by what I have read.

 The title does seem to be asking for trouble here and in what is quite some intense plotting there were times when I felt I myself was approaching the “past caring” stage but there was always just a little twist to get my interest back when I could feel it fading.

 Martin Radford, unemployed historian, is invited to Madeira where a job opportunity arises.  A wealthy South African has found a journal left by the previous owner of his villa, an ex-Cabinet minister who shone in the Asquith administration but who resigned suddenly and ended up in self-exile in Madeira.  Radford is asked to research and comes across regret, secrets, political feuds, Suffragettes and a closer family connection than he had anticipated.  We get to read the memoir in full and the mystery of Edwin Stafford’s departure from the political scene drives Radford to ever desperate measures.

 It brings the historian into contact with three generations of the Couchman family.  I did at times struggle to distinguish between them which might suggest that Goddard hadn’t quite fully realised his skills with characterisation at this stage of his writing career.  There’s also a love interest for Radford which never rings true (but that could very well be intentional).

 I was drawn into the plot and really enjoyed the memoir aspect of it.  I like the way Goddard locks events into history in his novels and the focus on unravelling these mysteries.  As such, the older characters seemed to resonate with me more than the modern.  (The “present” in this novel being the mid 1970s).

 All in all I would put this on a par with the stronger Goddard novels I have read (so better than Days Without Number” (2003) and “Name To A Face” (2007).  He is an author who explores themes which draw me in but sometimes there is a density of plotting and issues with pace which prevent a whole-hearted recommendation.  I am convinced, however, that there will be some real gems in the twenty-five or so works of his that I am still to encounter.

 threestars

I read a Corgi paperback reprint of “Past Caring”, a novel which was first published in 1986.

 

 

Police At The Funeral – Margery Allingham (1931) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Margery Allingham is the first of the novelists celebrated in Christopher Fowler’s “The Book Of Forgotten Authors” (2107).  I have never read her before but I know that she is an acclaimed golden age of crime doyenne but is arguably less known (and according to Fowler less read) than her contemporaries Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh.

I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf from some time.  I’d bought it from a charity shop because hers is a name often mentioned in “Best Crime Writers” lists and apparently once discovered she inspires devotion in her readers.  I was also very attracted by the lovely green Penguin cover in this reprint of a Classic Crimes edition.

“Police At The Funeral” was Allingham’s fifth novel, which in itself is an unusual starting point for such a chronological reader as myself and by this time her sleuth Albert Campion is well established.  He operates more as a private eye/police consultant, although in common with many of the early crime writers, not in any real official capacity.  It seems that he is working under a pseudonym as some of the characters know of him under a different name and also know members of his family, suggesting a well-heeled background.  Allingham is not particularly kind to Campion, he is regularly described in terms such as “vacuous”, “bland” and “vague”, so we get the impression he’s certainly no James Bond.  Maybe it is that blandness that allows him to work his way into crime scenes, as he certainly does in this novel.

After a kind of coincidental prelude where we meet some of the main characters Campion is drawn into a case where an intense family dominated by a fearsome matriarch lose one of their members when a disappearance turns into a murder investigation when a bound body is discovered in a river.  As other members of the family begin to make quick exits Campion helps the police.

 It starts very well, drifts a little in the middle and reaches a satisfactory conclusion.  I did think Allingham had dug a hole too deep to get out of without a very contrived ending but she manages to extricate things nicely.  There’s a bit more verve than the typical Christie novel, but it does not seem to be as meticulously plotted, based on this novel alone.  It has made me want to go back to her first book “The White Cottage Mystery” to find out more about his gentle mild-mannered yet perceptive  detective.

 Margery Allingham, who died in 1966, did receive a surge in sales of her books in 1989-90 when the BBC series starring Peter Davison was shown but according to Christopher Fowler since then she has been under-appreciated.  Although this particular novel  hasn’t turned me into a devotee I would suggest she is certainly worth seeking out.

threestars

 Police At The Funeral was first published by Heinemann in 1931.  I read a Penguin Classic Crime paperback edition.

Hell Bay- Kate Rhodes (Simon & Schuster 2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I’ve not read any Kate Rhodes before but do know that she is both a celebrated poet and that her five crime novels featuring psychologist Alice Quentin are highly thought of and I get good feedback about her from readers returning library books.

With “Hell Bay” Rhodes is launching a new series featuring Detective Inspector Benesek Kitto and will be setting them in the Scilly Isles.  The exact location of “Hell Bay” is Bryher, an island just to the west of the better known Tresco.  Bryher is actually the smallest inhabited island with, we are told, 98 permanent residents and measures 1.5 miles with a width of half a mile at its widest point.  As someone who lives on a bigger island I know exactly what that means in terms of people knowing everything that is going on and Rhodes is able to put this across brilliantly.  I’m not sure how far she is intending to go with this series- the second novel is scheduled for 2019 but plausibly Bryher and the whole of the Scilly Isles are not going to have much mileage as a hot-bed of crime.  In this novel alone Kate Rhodes has reduced the number of residents!

Ben Kitto was born and grew up on Bryher and returns as a retreat from difficult situations in London, which has caused him to question his future in the police force. His parents are both dead but family remains with his boat-building Uncle and his godmother who runs the pub.  He knows virtually everyone on the island from his formative years there.  In fact, the one person he doesn’t know draws him like a magnet.

A time of retreat and reflection with his inherited Czechoslovakian Wolfdog, Shadow, (a good canine character) is shattered by the suspicious death of a teenage girl.  As Kitto is on the island already he is given the green light to investigate.

The size of the island ensures an intensity of emotions and the decision to stop people leaving without permission whilst the investigation is ongoing turns this who-dunnit into a variation of the classic country-house mystery set-up, substituting the small isolated island for the large isolated house.  This works extremely well, it is always engrossing and builds nicely.  I didn’t work out who the killer was (I actually rarely do) so that’s also satisfying.  I really enjoyed reading this and it has confirmed  what I already suspected that Kate Rhodes is a highly promising crime writer whose back catalogue I really need to discover.

fourstars

Hell Bay is published by Simon & Schuster in the UK in May 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers and to Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Sanctuary Seeker – Bernard Knight (1998) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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The first in a set of ten Bernard Knight books I purchased from “The Book People” quite a while ago has at last been taken down from the bookshelf and read.

It is the opener to Knight’s “Crowner John Mystery” series about Exeter based King’s Coroner Sir John de Wolfe.  Set at the end of the twelfth century this is the first medieval novel I’ve read for quite a while.  I overdosed on Bernard Cornwell’s a while back and decided I needed a break from the hard existence, the mud and the travelling to and fro but all that is certainly present and correct in Knight’s novel.

He has set up a good character here for a historical crime series and you can tell there’s certainly a lot of mileage in Crowner John (the other nine books on my shelves also tell me that, not to mention the other five which take the series up to 15 with a prequel to this novel 2012’s “Crowner’s Crusade” being the latest).  Whilst reading this I was reminded of another historical sleuth Gordanius The Finder in the Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor, set in Ancient Rome which I must pick up on again.

In 1194 it was decreed that all counties should appoint coroners.  This caused conflict in areas between the existing law officials, the sheriffs, with duties being split between the two.  In Knight’s Devon circumstances have meant that John de Wolfe is the only crowner for the county and this professional tension is further notched up as the sheriff is his brother-in-law and there is no love lost between the two.  Home life is already strained by John’s relationship with his wife, the sheriff’s sister Matilda, which causes John to look elsewhere for comfort.

It did take me a while to get into this book and in common with a number of historical crime novels it is based around a number of set pieces on the legal practices of the time.  Here it is the ability of an accused person to seek sanctuary for forty days from a church; the process of “amercement” whereby a village can be fined for not following the legal powers granted to the coroner to the letter and, most memorably in this book, Trial by Ordeal.  This old practice was eventually abolished by the Pope some twenty years after this novel was set and here it is used to prove guilt.  It was a barbaric ritual where the accused would have to complete a task, which would likely lead to serious maiming or their death but may prove innocence, if for some reason the inevitable medical repercussions did not occur.  This is rather like the well-known treatment of witches in ducking stools where if they lived they were found guilty but if they drowned they were deemed blameless.  John is opposed to such practices which are still deemed to be worthy by the Church and his brother-in-law.

A body of a recently returned Crusader  is found in the village of Widecombe and Crowner John together with sidekick Cornishman Gwyn of Polruan and clerk Ralph, a defrocked priest are required to hold an inquest to ascertain responsibility for the death.  Bernard Knight was himself a Home Office pathologist who carried out thousands of autopsies so he is certainly writing what he knows. The historical aspect of his old job is obviously a passion and he certainly brings twelfth century Devon to life.  He had been writing novels since the early 60’s, a number as Bernard Picton, but it is from here onwards that he really begins to make his name.  This is a good, solid introduction to a historical crime mystery series.

threestars

The Sanctuary Seeker was published in 2008 by Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Eeny Meeny – M J Arlidge (2014) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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TV writer/Executive Producer Matthew Arlidge made an impression at his first meeting with Penguin Books when he pitched seven titles of a new crime series.  They took him on board and must have then hoped for a big seller with his debut publication. This they got.  It was picked up as a Richard and Judy Summer Book Club title and established the author as one of the most exciting crime writers of the last few years and he has followed this title with to date another five featuring Detective Inspector Helen Grace.

I was three-quarters of the way through before I discovered M J was a male writer.  The use of initials and a female lead had me thinking Matthew might be a Melinda.  It should make no difference but I realised I quite like to know the gender of the writer whilst reading.  The autobiographical blurb in this debut is (deliberately?) gender-neutral. Is this some kind of marketing ploy?  Does it actually make a difference to crime fans?

Arlidge certainly packs a punch with this debut right from the start.  Helen Grace (a nod to Peter James’ Roy Grace perhaps?) has such a tough time with this case that it’s hard to see how the author will top this for her – surely every other case must be a breeze to solve after this one!

A female serial killer is abducting people in pairs and placing them in an abandoned building.  There’s a way out for one of them- kill the other.  Grace finds herself challenged professionally, through involvement with someone on her team and through leaked information as well as personally when she spots links between her and some of the victims.  The crimes are cruel and chilling which makes this an edgy and compelling police procedural.  Short chapters power the reader through the book.  It’s unpredictable but I did feel the twists running up to the end felt a little rushed.  There’s no doubt that M J Arlidge is a welcome, fresh addition to the crime book world and I’m looking forward to reading more.

fourstars

Eeny Meeny was published by Penguin in 2014.