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 with 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. 

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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.

100 Essential Books – All The Wicked Girls – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2107)

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Chris Whitaker’s debut “Tall Oaks” was highly enjoyable and received considerable critical acclaim.  It also gained him an interview on reviewsrevues.com on my Author Strikes Back thread.  His off-kilter tale set in small town America seemed an audacious beginning for a British writer yet worked well due to Whitaker’s skilful characterisations and humour amidst the dark deeds.  Whitaker’s character Manny made the novel with his mix of bravado and teenage angst.  There’s more of this in his latest novel set in the small town of Grace, Alabama in 1995.  This is the novel Chris referred to as “The Summer Cloud” in our interview.  Now, with a title change, I was looking forward to reading it.

People in Grace are dominated by their back stories and when church-going teenage girls start going missing old grudges and prejudices come to the surface.  The narration is split between events and the words of the missing girl, Summer, the first to be taken from Grace itself.  The people of the town implode with the tension as an unmoving grey cloud gathers over their heads.

I was reminded of the best of Stephen King in Whitaker’s story-telling and of a 1997 American novel “The Church Of Dead Girls” by Stephen Dobyns which I loved and which should be due for a re-read yet I think Chris’ work is even better and this is once again due to his characterisation.   Those missing Manny will warm to wannabe teenage policeman Noah, his sidekick Purv and Summer’s sister Raine who take the search into their hands with black humour and laugh out loud moments as well as real poignancy.  There is a great bond which develops between these three damaged outsiders.  Also damaged and addictive is Police Chief Black who shows the author is great at adult characters too.  The plot is darker than “Tall Oaks” and religion and good and evil have a strong part to play.  I marvel at how authentic the author’s creation of small town America feels, in terms  of speech, the environment, their cultural references and lives.  The prejudices and obsessions of  a small community is so effectively conveyed and I found the whole thing totally involving.

“Tall Oaks” showed the potential but this is the real deal…………………….”

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All The Wicked Girls is published by Zaffre on the 24th August 2017.  Make a note of the title for a perfect late summer read.  Many thanks to nudge and the publishers for the advance review copy.

Don’t Wake Up- Liz Lawler (Twenty Seven 2017)- A Murder They Wrote Review

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Liz Lawler was obviously paying full attention when told that a debut novel needs to grab readers right from the start as the opening chapters of this novel certainly pack a punch. As an ex-nurse Lawler is totally convincing at setting the scene in her thriller set largely in a Bristol hospital.

Twenty-eight year old Doctor Alex Taylor is good at her job and well respected by colleagues. She has a handsome vet as her boyfriend but her life changes the moment she wakes up on an operating theatre table. Why she is there and what will happen to her provides those opening chills.

I think Lawler has made a brave move in opting to write a “nobody believes me” novel because these are often on a fine line. It’s easy to stretch plausibility and readers can lose sympathy with the character not being taken seriously as their actions, which often lead them down deeper holes and further suspicion can be perceived as them being stupid. Liz Lawler does largely avoid this although at times Alex is frustrating and not always likeable, but then she is in some predicament. It certainly kept me reading but personally I wasn’t completely won over. The author puts her main character through scenes of torture which made me feel a little grubby after reading them. I wasn’t totally convinced by her male characters in particular Detective Inspector Greg Turner who is assigned to Dr Taylor’s case. After such a tremendous beginning I did not feel that the novel always flowed smoothly.

I don’t often read this kind of commercial misery-thriller and I would admit that it would have to be fairly extraordinary to blow me away so perhaps it wasn’t the greatest match for me but if I haven’t put you off with this and you like being chilled right from the start this debut is well worth seeking out.

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Available now in a Kindle edition. “Don’t Wake Up” will be published as a paperback in October 2017. Many thanks to Twenty Seven and Pigeonhole for the opportunity to read a review copy.

The Mayfly- James Hazel (Zaffre 2017) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Corporate lawyer James Hazel quit his job specialising in commercial litigation and employment law in order to write and, if that was a risk, it has paid off as his debut novel sees him as a welcome addition to the quality British crime-writing market.  The man’s enthusiasm for crime thrillers comes across strongly in the first of a projected series featuring lawyer Charlie Priest.

Hazel’s hero has a disassociation disorder which causes him to float in and out of (usually stressful) situations so they feel less “real” to him.  This genetic condition has led to a family tragedy in his past and Priest has moved from crime-solving as a former policeman to building up a successful law practice.

Priest discovers he is embroiled in some dark deeds when a ruthless burglar breaks into his apartment looking for a flash drive.  This leads to a situation which originates from Nazi medical experimentation towards the end of the Second World War and theories on suffering and torture.  It seems that there is a British revival of these theories going on and a dried insect (of the title) is some kind of invitation to participate.

There seems a blend of styles here from a man who obviously knows his crime fiction yet the chill factor is continuously upped until we get to the horror/crime feel of Thomas Harris and his Hannibal Lecter novels.  It’s handled confidently and well, although Hazel might want to rethink his sex scene writing in his next novel as one here is particularly clunky and seems jarring to the flow of the novel.

The disassociation aspect is interesting and by no means overplayed here which would imply that Hazel has plenty of mileage to use this in subsequent Priest novels.  The climax tests plausibility somewhat but doesn’t cross the boundary into unlikely  so all in all a strong debut.  Those looking for a new quality crime series and for some summer chills may wish to seek this out.

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The Mayfly is published on 15th June by Zaffre.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.

The Silkworm – Robert Galbraith (2014) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I read JK Rowling’s first adult crime novel written as Robert Galbraith earlier this year and was impressed.  I thought “The Cuckoo’s Calling” (2013) was highly entertaining and had a generous helping of humour and warmth alongside the crime.  I liked the relationship between dogged private detective Cormoran Strike and his PA, Robin, and felt the whole thing seemed plausible and very real.

“The Silkworm” feels like a bigger novel, in terms of size; in its nod towards Jacobean revenge tragedies; with its literary quotes and setting in the world of publishing and literary fiction and in its more lurid, darker crime.  I so wanted to like it as much as its predecessor but for me it fell a little short.  Perhaps this was inevitable.  I’d always felt the debut Harry Potter novel was better than the follow-ups and with “The Silkworm”, Rowling as Galbraith falls into the same trap as Rowling as Rowling as the pace falters due to the length of the novel.  Both “The Philosopher’s Stone”and “Cuckoo’s Calling” are tightly written little gems but with “The Silkworm” as in the later Hogwarts epics my attention wandered.

Author Owen Quine disappears after his latest book which attacks his so called friends and colleagues is being touted to publishers by his agent.  Is the whole thing some kind of publicity stunt or is something much darker about to happen?  Cormoran Strike, asked by the author’s wife to locate him seems more in control here, fuelled by the success of the case in “The Cuckoo’s Calling” which has brought him greater kudos as a private detective and a continuing difficult relationship with the Police.  Strike has favours he can call in and with Robin still motivated to find out as much as she can abut detective work the reader is confident Strike will solve the crime before the authorities.

Like “The Cuckoo’s Calling” the case is involving and well-plotted but Galbraith here takes a little too long to get to the solution, there’s a few too many meetings with suspects and the literary analysis of the work causing the disappearance makes the book feel not as plausible as last time round and slightly irritated me.  It is no means a failure but now the characters have been established I was expecting a real cracker of a novel and that Galbraith would have me eating out of his/her hand but it didn’t quite live up to my high expectations.

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The Silkworm was published by  Sphere  in 2014

The Shape Of Water – Andrea Camilleri (2003) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Although I’ve watched every episode of both “Inspector Montalbano” and “Young Montalbano” shown over here on BBC4 I’ve never read any of the books on which they are based.  This is the first in the sequence published in the UK in 2003.  Those of you who want to be strictly chronological may wish to start with Camilleri’s 2013 collection “Montalbano’s First Case & Other Stories” but I’m going with the order by publication date.

So far Camilleri has produced twenty of these Italian bestsellers up to 2016’s “A Voice In The Night”with the next two scheduled (“A Nest Of Vipers” is due to be published in August 2017) so I have a fair bit of catching up to do.  I did find myself remembering the TV adaptation quite well as I was reading this (I’m usually a bit of a stickler for reading the book first) and I couldn’t get Luca Zingaretti’s portrayal of the Inspector out of my head.

Plotwise, a local notable is found dead in his car at a known cruising ground, partially clad and having recently had a good time.  It’s believed to be a fairly scandalous natural causes heart attack but Montalbano thinks differently.  On the same site a valuable necklace is found by two waste disposal men and there is obviously some link between the jewellery and the dead man.  Despite some rather tortuous long sentences at the beginning of the novel this settles into a quick and relatively easy read.  The glory of Sicily does not come across, obviously, as well as it does on the television but here, in this translation by Stephen Saratelli you don’t need to read the subtitles.  Once you’re drawn into the Italian way of complex local political manoeuvrings and a different kind of logic and Camilleri writing more than you’d expect with tongue firmly in cheek this provides a very satisfactory introduction to these quirky crime capers.  At times I could feel the influence of prolific French author Georges Simenon (Camilleri worked on a TV production of “Maigret” before embarking on his writing career) and that’s certainly no bad thing.

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The Shape Of Water was published by Picador in 2003

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith (2013) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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A lot of people read this novel on publication assuming Galbraith was a debut novelist and word of mouth about this exciting new talent grew, ensuring it sold well.  Then, it was revealed that Galbraith was none other than JK Rowling dipping a toe into the murky waters of adult crime fiction and sales exploded.  With hindsight, there is in its focus on the relationship between characters and its awareness of popular culture and celebrity enough to suggest a female author at work, but then the main character is so well drawn with an awareness of the foibles and shortcomings of the male species that it feels like he must have been created by another man, so the subterfuge was convincing.

Cormoran Strike is certainly a larger than life character whose vitality is central to the success of this novel.  He is the result of a rock star’s fling with a supergroupie.  Following army service in Afghanistan, where he lost a leg he has given up his military career and become a fairly unsuccessful private detective.  He’s physically large, known to his acquaintances by a range of nicknames, is failing in a relationship with a woman better looking than he thinks appropriate and is struggling to cope with the ramifications of that relationship’s demise.  Into this comes a temporary secretary, Robin, and a case concerning the death of a model which just might enable Strike to make his mark.

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” is a rich, highly entertaining novel which given its crime tag has more than its fair share of humour and warmth.  The relationship between Cormoran and Robin, the employer whose life is in tatters and the employee who steadfastly attempts to ignore her boss’ shortcomings whilst finding herself drawn into his investigation is very strong and demands further adventures.  The case is well-thought out and keeps the reader guessing.  Rowling has spent many years now in the privileged realm of the multi-millionaire world renowned author yet her down at heel detective and the world he inhabits feels plausible and very real.  True, there is a lot of wealth in the case with paparazzi, fashion designers and the super-rich all playing their part but throughout I was rooting for the so likeable but so often unappealing Cormoran Strike.

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The Cuckoo’s Calling was published by Sphere in 2013