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.

threestars

The Perfect Murder was published by Pan Books in 2010.

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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.

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.