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 Visitors – Catherine Burns (Legend Press 2017)

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There’s something down in brother and sister John and Marion Zetland’s cellar and we get to find out really early on what it is in this gripping, compulsive debut.

 I’m not spoiling things by saying it’s Eastern European girls tricked into the country by John and kept as prisoners and sex slaves.  This novel focuses, however, on Marion, now in her late fifties, dominated by her brother and almost in complete denial as to what is going on in their house.  Marion has done little with her life and looks back on a past filled with regrets whilst not functioning in the horrific reality of the present.  This makes for incredibly tense reading.  It is a tale of loneliness (charity shop toys fill the role of friends) and neglect in an environment where evil lurks down the cellar steps.

 If this sounds a little too sordid the author has a masterful hand with characterisation and her depiction of Marion will remain long in my mind.  There’s dark humour amongst the dark themes which I appreciated and which kept me reading to the point where I found it very difficult to put the book down.  This is a very accomplished debut, a combination of crime and horror with a strong literary fiction feel which should make it appeal to more than those who make their reading choices from the darker areas of genre fiction.  Publishers Legend Press seem to be building up a great reputation with high quality first-time authors.  I will be fascinated to see what the author comes up with next.

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fourstars 

The Visitors was published in hardback by Legend Press in 2017 and the paperback is due to appear on 1st June 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

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.

 

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.

She Be Damned – M J Tjia (Legend Press 2017) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I have a big old soft spot for novels set in Victorian London.  I love the mix of classes, the hypocrisy of the wealthy and the poor struggling to get by through any means.  From Dickens to “Fingersmith” to Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White” this kind of fiction has the tendency to end up amongst my all-time favourites, especially when there is a strong female lead to stand against the patriarchal society.

Enter Heloise Chancey, main character in the first of a proposed historical crime series by Australian author Tjia.  This is the first full-length novel for a Brisbane-based novelist much lauded for her short stories and novellas.  Heloise is a strong, complex character- a well off courtesan with a background on the stage and as a celebrated beauty, posing as a widow, who helps out an aristocratic private detective with his cases.  Heloise is able to move fairly effortlessly thorough the ranks of society from the upper echelons who may have used her courtesan services, their wives who cannot imagine these services and to those who have remained in the less respectable strata of society, the “renters” in the brothel houses where Heloise passed through in what is evidently a very rich back story.  As such she is a character who has been carefully thought out for a series of novels.

In “She Be Damned” she is asked to investigate a missing girl who has left home after revealing her pregnancy to her family and where her only option is to sink towards harder times.  Prostitutes are being mutilated and murdered around the Waterloo area and Heloise gets caught up with all of this.

Interspersed with the narrative are the back-story experiences of Amah Li Leen, Heloise’s oriental maid and this is done in such a way that we know she will be a supporting character in subsequent mysteries.  Tjia keeps a lot up her sleeve about both characters, good for the future but not without risks as by holding back too much in an introductory novel these characters may end up not as well-rounded as we’d like.  I think the author just gets away with this, but only just in the case of Amah.

There’s a fair evocation of nineteenth century London.  It’s not as drenched in atmosphere as I might have wanted but there can be a tendency to over-egg this leading to cliché and melodrama, both of which are avoided here. 

All in all it’s a very readable introduction to a series and I would certainly seek out follow-ups.  I don’t think Heloise Chancey is going to challenge my favourite investigators but I certainly enjoyed spending time in her company.

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She Be Damned was published in the UK in August 2017.  Many thanks to Legend Press for the 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.

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

Chickenfeed – Minette Walters (2006) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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One of the continuing aims of World Book Day/Night is to get reluctant readers immersed into the world of books.  Back in 2006 a set of “Quick Reads” were published in an initiative between publishing and other related industries.  Twelve popular authors were asked to produce short, fast-paced books to bring people back into reading and to encourage the emerging adult reader.  It was a highly successful enterprise which has been repeated in subsequent years.  Amongst this first batch of Quick Read authors were Val McDermid, John Francome, Ruth Rendell, Maeve Binchey and Minette Walters who was presented with the Readers’ Favourite Award for this short novel “Chickenfeed”.

I have read three earlier Walters novels, “The Breaker” (1998) which I really enjoyed, her 1993 breakthrough novel “The Sculptress” which I had more reservations about and “The Tinder Box” a novella from two years prior to “Chickenfeed”.  I’ve seen that book described as a “Chapbook”, I’m not sure what constitutes that in the 21st Century.

In “Chickenfeed” Walters fictionalises a real-life crime. It has a simple plot-line, understandably given its length and scope and much is given away in just a few lines on the back cover.  I like the surprise element of reading and often do not read back covers until I’ve finished the book and too big a reveal is the main reason why.

The murder took place in the 1920s on a chicken farm and it’s a tale of boy meets girl, girl has unrealistic expectations, boy wants to get rid of girl but she won’t take the hint- a universal life-lesson theme but here it ends in tragedy.

The most interesting and thought-provoking aspect can be found in the author’s notes at the back of the back where Walters doubts the established turn of events and gives a very valid reason why.  This challenges what has been assumed before and if I was a reader with limited recent experience of books I might just feel stimulated by this doubt raised and want to read more.  This book could very well be an entrée into crime fiction and true crime accounts.

By its very nature this is a slight book but well handled.  As I didn’t read the back cover I wasn’t sure how it was going to pan out or even who was going to be murdered.  I read it in under an hour, the largish clear print meant I could read it on the bus without my usual slightly nauseous feeling and it was certainly time well spent.  Just sometimes there’s a lot to be said for a “quick read”.

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Chickenfeed was published by Pan Books in 2006

A Clubbable Woman – Reginald Hill (1970) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Amazingly, this is my first introduction to Reginald Hill and his Yorkshire set Dalziel and Pascoe series.  An acclaimed BBC1 adaptation ran from 1996 to 2007 and starred Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan as the two Police Officers likened in this first novel to Laurel and Hardy but I managed never to see a single episode.  Reginald Hill died in 2012.  He wrote 24 Dalziel and Pascoe novels over a period of 39 years (plus a couple of novellas) as well as his Joe Sixsmith novels and a considerable number of standalones under his own name and as Patrick Ruell, Dick Marland and Charles Underhill.  A prolific British writer and I’ve never read anything by him before. Shame on me.

I’m putting this right with the first of a set I purchased from The Book People at one of their too good to miss prices. It was first published in 1970 and it does feel like it.  Do you think crime novels date as well as other genres?  I’m not convinced and it’s often because of attitudes.  Firstly, the title made me feel as if I was a misogynist just by choosing to read it and I found myself carefully positioning it when reading it on the train to make sure people didn’t see it.  This is because of the implications I take from the title that some women deserve what they get and that there are those who can be deemed “clubbable”.

We are in Northern, male, working-class territory here with its rugby club setting and two rather unenlightened police officers.  The contrast between the two, DS Andrew Dalziel nicknamed “The Bruiser” by other members of the rugby club is very definitively of the “old school” of policing and the university educated Sergeant Peter Pascoe, represents the future as it was seen in 1970, anyway.  It’s not too far into the novel before you can appreciate that the tensions between the two would be ripe with future potential to last for a number of books.

Despite their differences, their views on women aren’t that far apart and that is representative of this part of society in the time the novel was written.  They both seem to see pick-up potential with women in inappropriate situations.  Hill has written a police procedural which flows well.  He does protect us somewhat as readers (we never get to know what was in an “obscene” letter sent to one of the characters.  I can’t imagine that many twenty-first century crime writers sparing our blushes).

The wife of a long-standing member of a rugby club is murdered and everyone becomes a suspect.  I didn’t see the twists coming but didn’t feel totally satisfied by the conclusion.  Characterisation is strong. I felt that even the minor characters felt real which suggests very good things for this series.  I don’t feel that this is going to be the strongest of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels but I can be a stickler for chronological order and despite misgivings when I picked up the book it really was the only place to start.

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A Clubbable Woman was published by Harper Collins in 1970.