The Hanged Man – Linda Mather (Joffe 2021)

It’s unusual for me to read a mid-series title without having read the rest but here is Book 4 of the Zodiac Mystery series by Joffe author, Linda Mather, a long running but intermittent series which began with “Forecast Murder” back in 1994.

Central character here is Jo Hughes, an astrologist currently running a workshop at Alcott College in the Cotswolds.  She is with the recently appointed CEO of the college, Aoife, when they discover Seb, the financial director, hanging in the woods.  Is it suicide?  Jo becomes obsessed with finding out when another staff member disappears at the same time.

I think this setting marks a shift in the series.  It seems from the support systems Jo uses that prior to this she has been assisting a Private Detective, David Macy, in Coventry.  He has moved into debt collection and the new working environment for Jo places her in the middle of the situation and provides a fairly open-ended set-up for future novels.

It doesn’t match the luridness of the title and it is not consistently gripping.  The hanging and disappearance occur early on before these characters are established so it is quite easy not to care that much about them.  The astrological aspect is a good idea, but apart from it giving the reason to be at the college it seems a little tacked on and a tad unconvincing.  But there’s probably not that many readers who come in at Book 4, so they will know what to expect from the author and most will be satisfied with this title.  Plot-wise there are not many twists but it read well and although I didn’t totally feel drawn in by Jo’s experiences at Alcott College fans of this series would be happy with its resumption.  If you wish to get up to speed with this series before the fifth book arrives the publishers have put together the first three in a set at a bargain price (currently £1.99 on Amazon).

The Hanged Man was published in 2021 by Joffe.

A Flicker In The Dark – Stacy Willingham (Harper Collins 2022)

I highlighted this debut in my “Looking Back Looking Forward post”, a Louisiana set thriller described by top crime writer Jeffery Deaver as “an unstoppable journey through the psychology of evil, and of courage (in many senses), all told in a pitch-perfect literary style.”

I don’t read many psychological thrillers nowadays, the market seems flooded with them and I find them a little samey but here we have a strong example.

Psychologist Chloe Davis is our damaged first-person narrator.  Keeping herself well-dosed with prescription medication she is facing the twentieth anniversary of a case she helped to crack as a 12 year old when, horrifically, her father was imprisoned for the abduction and suspected murder of 6 teenage girls.  All this happened in Breaux Bridge, “the Crawfish capital of the world”, a small-town environment Chloe had to escape from after the disintegration of her family.

Now in Baton Rouge and on the verge of marriage her world crumbles again when it looks like a copycat killer is murdering in her local area.

Chloe is implicated, needs to clear her name and takes too long to involve the police (which is so often the case in this sort of book).  Three quarters of the way through the tension is ramped up by unforeseen (by me) twists which continues to impress to its conclusion.  It was a resolution I saw coming early on, then didn’t, then forgot all about as Willingham skilfully misdirects with careful plotting.  It reads well, the Louisiana setting effectively makes its presence known and I am not surprised that options for a TV adaptation have reputedly been picked up.

Flicker In The Dark is published on 3rd February 2022 by Harper Collins in the UK.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Appeal – Janice Hallett (2021)

A book from my “What I Should Have Read in 2021” list. I could see the potential of what is being promoted as a modern day Agatha Christie but had slight concerns that its reliance on e-mails, text messages and post-it notes might make it gimmicky with the whole style over substance debate threatening.

I needn’t have worried.  If we are considering this debut in the “Cosy Crime” genre then this is the best “Cosy Crime” book I have ever read.  Normally, mid-way through this type of book my attention wanders and I have to pull it back for the ending which I either find satisfactory or not.  Here, I hung on every word, really focused on reading between the lines and found the whole thing extremely involving. 

The structure is watertight.  Written communication makes up the entire book, also including local press reports, police transcripts as well as the aforementioned means of modern messaging.  There’s a murder but not until about mid-way through and I loved not even knowing who the first victim was going to be. 

The novel centres around an amateur dramatics group about to embark on Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” and central character and bit-part player Isabel Beck is thrilled by the prospect.  This time she has introduced a new couple to the group, nurses fresh from volunteering in Africa.  Their dynamic challenges the established set-up of the group which revolves around the founding family, the Haywards.  Focus is switched when a small child becomes ill and the society needs to divert to fund-raising and that is all I am going to say about the plot.

The forms of communication (there’s lots of e-mails) allows for bias and unreliable narrators a-plenty.  Isabel is a great character who early on we glean comes across very differently in real life compared to her exuberant messages.

This book really had me thinking about minor plot details, spotting inconsistencies and having these confirmed or otherwise by the set-up of a couple of young legals reviewing the evidence.

I loved this and am fascinated where the author will go next.  This work seems a real labour of love and is so tightly structured.  It seems I won’t potentially have to wait too long as her next novel “The Twyford Code” has just been published.  It apparently follows along audio transcripts so she is approaching it stylistically in a similar style.  It will be interesting to see if she gets away with it twice or whether this book works so well as it is a fresh, original one-off.  But for the time being, this is an excellent work, my first 5 star read of the year and one that even though I now know exactly what went on amongst the Fairway Players I would be very happy to read (between the lines) again.

The Appeal was published by Viper in 2021.

The Heretic – Liam McIlvanney (Harper Collins 2022)

It feels a long time since 2018’s “The Quaker” which won this author the McIlvanney Prize for Best Scottish Crime Novel, an award named after his late father, William.

The action here has moved on, same Glasgow location but six years forward to 1975.  Main character Duncan McCormack has spent the years between working in London and returns to Scotland to head up the Serious Crime Squad.  One of his team, Goldie, has suffered repercussions from McCormack’s handling of the case that brought down The Quaker, another, Shand is in the pocket of the Detective Constable’s Superior and the third member, Liz Nicol, has been moved across from the recently disbanded women’s section to work with the men.  McCormack, himself, is secretly gay in a force where his homosexuality would not be tolerated and has abandoned a promising relationship in London, putting his work before his personal life.  All of this team are outsiders which brings interesting dynamics into play.

This is quite a lengthy crime novel coming in at over 500 pages and the case hinges around two warring gangs, the Catholic Quinns and those led by the Protestant Walter Maitland, who, in the time McCormack has been down South has established a strong grip on Glasgow’s Crime World.  A house fire looks set to start up tit for tat reprisals and a body turns up amongst the rubbish heaps caused by the refuse collectors’ strikes.

Time-wise, we’ve moved into “The Sweeney” territory, with little tolerance of anyone not a white heterosexual male but I’m not sure this bigotry and misogyny comes across quite as potently as it did in “The Quaker”.

The plot is always involving, taking ambitious turns and McIlvanney had me with him all the way.  I’m not sure whether this is a series which will continue and if so whether the author is happy to stay in this time period or envisages another jump with the next book.  I don’t think I was quite as enthralled as I was with its predecessor yet this is quality crime writing.

 The Heretic is published on January 20th 2022 by Harper Collins.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Heron’s Cry – Ann Cleeves (2021)

The first of my “What I Should Have Read In 2021” that I’ve got round to reading.  In that post I mentioned I was kicking myself because I saw a copy on the library shelves and was too slow off the mark but a couple of days later it was back again (must have been borrowed by a quick reader) and this time I didn’t hesitate.

This is only the second Ann Cleeves I’ve read but it is really evident that this is an author who knows exactly what to do with a crime series.  “The Long Call” had a murder which had great personal and professional implications for the protagonists which would have had long lasting repercussions (and this case is referred to a number of times in this book).  Here, things are scaled down a little with some echoes of what had been obstacles before, especially as regards to Detective Matthew Venn and his relationship with his local community arts centre manager husband, Jonathan, and the overlap between the private and professional within a small community.

The rest of Venn’s team, Jen Rafferty and Ross May have their roles beefed up a little but Cleeves’ handling of this ensures there’s not too much given too soon.  Jen, however, does find herself more central than she would like when a party she attend.s and gets somewhat inebriated at, is also one of the last sightings of a man who she thinks was chatting her up and is afterwards found murdered in an art studio.

This complex of art buildings, farm and large house, Westacombe, becomes the focus of an investigation which develops very nicely throughout to a conclusion I certainly hadn’t foressen.  It’s exactly the sort of follow-up I would have both expected and hoped for.  Cleeves handles the characterisation, subject matter and twists in the plot with consummate skill.

“The Long Call” did feel fresher and more rooted in its location and I would give it the edge but I felt that became more entrenched in my mind by reading the book and watching the TV adaptation (good but not exceptional) quite soon after one another.  The quality of this “Two Rivers” series is maintained and there’s loads of potential for more cases.

The Heron’s Cry was published in hardback in the UK by Macmillan in September 2021.  The paperback is scheduled to appear in February 2022.

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Month 10 – Death In The Clouds (1935)

This month’s theme at agathachristie.com was to read a book set on a form of transport.  The recommended title was held until the start of the month and I just assumed it would be her most famous luxury train-set novel but no, they opted for her 12th Poirot written some 15 years after the Belgian detective was first introduced.

I’ve not been the greatest Poirot fan up to now, but having completed this and reflected, it is not only the best Poirot novel I have read but my favourite Christie I’ve read for the Challenge.  The set-up is simple and yet the work seems more substantial and involving.  It’s a classic locked-room mystery in many ways only this locked room is an air-liner, Promethus, making a crossing from Paris to Croydon.  Poirot is one of the passengers but air-sickness makes him less observant and he doesn’t notice one of his fellow travellers being bumped off.  With a weapon found by the side of his seat he becomes a suspect and has to clear his name as well as satisfying his hunger for crime-solving.

There’s the usual mish-mash of characters- a Countess, French archaeologists, a doctor, a dentist, a businessman and a hairdresser who paid for her flight from a winning Irish Sweepstake ticket.  The plot moves on from the on-board incident, to the inquest and the French and British police’s handling of the crime both aided by Poirot. 

The writing feels more vibrant, there’s humour and, admittedly, the odd cringe-worthy moment where Christie’s characters seem inappropriate for 2021 but all in all this seems the sort of book that would have enhanced Christie’s reputation as the leading crime writer back in the day.  Next month (month 11 already!) the challenge is to read a book set after World War II, so there will be a bit of a chronological leap from this pre-war novel.

Death In The Clouds was originally published in 1935.  I read a Harper Collins hardback edition.

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Month 8 – Midsummer Mysteries (2021)

The theme for this month’s challenge was a story set at the seaside and the recommended title at agathachristie.com was this recently published collection of 12 stories and 1 autobiographical extract.  It’s an unsurprising companion piece to “Midwinter Murders” which appeared at the end of last year.  I think maybe the fireside and a winter evening feels more appropriate for Christie.  I wasn’t exactly thrilled to purchase this book but certainly wasn’t giving up on the Challenge at this point and I can see why the official website is promoting this collection.

Discounting the introductory fragment here called “Summer In The Pyrenees” which came from the 1977 “An Autobiography” most of these stories herald from the 1920s with just one first published in 1933.  I was disappointed that they did not feel unified by the theme- summer is strong in a couple of the tales but otherwise the selection seems somewhat random.  Two I’ve also read this year in the challenge as they were taken from “Parker Pyne Investigates”.  I think they do make more of an impression, however, in this collection.

Poirot gets the lion’s share of stories with four and the strongest is the longest which closes the collection, “The Incredible Theft” which adds a touch of political intrigue to the country house tale.  Two Marple stories come from “The Thirteen Problems” which I assume follows the format of mysteries being told by different individuals in a group with Marple providing the solution.  She doesn’t really exist as a character here.  That said, the summer flavour of “The Blood Stained Pavement” was strong and this would end up in my Top 3 from this collection.

I’ve not read the five Tommy and Tuppence novels and I don’t think “The Adventure Of The Sinister Stranger” would spur me on to do so.  Out of context from its appearance in “The Mysterious Mr Quin”, “Harlequin’s Lane” is just odd and I found it hard to like. 

My favourite and one that best fits with the theme is the stand-alone “The Rajah’s Emerald” in which the crime is backstage leaving us with a highly likeable character study of James Bond (no, not that one, Christie is using the name long before Ian Fleming) attempting to impress his girlfriend on the beach, but unable to compete with her wealthier, more entertaining friends.

This is definitely a mixed bag of tales and I can’t help feeling that most would work better in their original collections.  I’m not sure that if this was my introduction to Agatha Christie (and theoretically a new publication would lure new readers in) whether I would have a strong urge to read on.  I think, because of the stronger variety, I’d put it just ahead of Month 2’s “Parker Pyne Investigates” as my 7th favourite from the Challenge.  Next month I’m to read a novel featuring a school.  I think I will be back in Poirot territory.

Midsummer Mysteries was published by Harper Collins on 22nd July   2021.

Next Of Kin – Kia Abdullah (HQ 2021)

Kia Abdullah’s last novel, the terrific “Truth Be Told” (2020) made it onto my End Of Year Top 10 and was my favourite new novel of the year slipping in just ahead of Kiley Reid’s “Such A Fun Age”.  I pledged to read this author’s debut and I do have it waiting for me on Kindle but she is ahead of me and exactly one year later her third novel is ready for publication.

On the evidence of these two novels she has a format.  After getting to know the characters a shocking event takes place which leads to a court case and its aftermath.  It’s an effective format and she handles it superbly.  She drip feeds us information, taking us on wrong turnings and just like last time when you think it you have it sorted we’re off in a different direction.  This author is so good at manipulating her readers and I for one, love it. Also like last time I found myself covering the bottom half of pages as I didn’t want to know of various outcomes until the exact moment Abdullah intended me to.

Plot-wise I’m giving nothing away, but once again it is disturbing and thought-provoking and so set in the everyday that it would make most readers blood run cold.  I’ll just introduce the characters- Leila Syed is a successful businesswoman who has achieved much having escaped poverty when her mother died when she was 18 leaving her to bring up her 11 year old sister Yasmin.  Both are now married, Leila to Will, a journalist and Yasmin to Andrew who works in IT.  Three year old Max completes the younger sister’s family and that is all you are getting from me.

At times sympathies towards these characters will be strained but there will be much empathy.  There are moments which are difficult to read because of the misery heaped onto these people (and because of this I might just give the slightly more restrained “Truth Be Told” the edge) but the events and the plot will drive the reader on.  With two out of two five star novels, this is a writer I am thrilled to have discovered.

Next Of Kin is published by HQ on 2nd September 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Long Call – Ann Cleeves (2019)

This is the first Ann Cleeves novel I’ve read, despite having watched every episode of “Vera” which features her characters and is adapted from her series of 9 novels and 1 novella featuring Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, beautifully played by Brenda Blethyn.  I also had neither watched any of her other acclaimed tv adaptation, “Shetland” nor read any of those 8 novels, 1 Quick Read and 1 associated non-fiction work, but I have always wanted to.  There’s also two earlier series of novels featuring George and Molly Palmer-Jones (8 titles) and Inspector Ramsay (6 titles) so it is pretty incredible that I hadn’t got round to this prolific British author’s work.

This novel is an obvious staring place- a brand new series, “Two Rivers”, and one which has been recommended to me a number of times.  I’ve also seen it on lists of titles with positive LGBTQ+ representation embodied here in main character Detective Matthew Venn.  Set in coastal North Devon, which Cleeves has conveyed very effectively through her writing, Venn is embarking on married life with husband Jonathan following years of estrangement from his Christian Fundamentalist family who rejected him and his lifestyle.  Ostracised from the community he grew up amongst he has returned to the area to live and work.  Jonathan runs a community arts centre and when a body which turns up on the beach close to their home proves to be a volunteer from The Woodyard, Venn knows he has to tread carefully to avoid conflict of interests.

Matthew and Jonathan are well-established as characters with the policeman’s background giving a depth which could last for many cases.  His team, Jen Rafferty and Ross May also both have lots of potential.

There’s a lot going on in this novel and I very much liked that.  I felt, away from the crime, a community of memorable characters had been created and I felt part of their lives, which is an unusual experience for me within the crime fiction genre where I tend to feel less connected with characters’ lives. 

This is a strong opening title for a new series and with the second “The Heron’s Song” due to arrive on September 2nd 2021 whilst the paperback edition of this is still selling well I’d heartily recommend seeking this out.

The Long Call was published in September 2019 by Macmillan. The Pan paperback edition is also available.

A Corruption Of Blood – Ambrose Parry (Canongate 2021)

This is the third in a very solid historical crime series written by husband and wife Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman.  The combination of their professional backgrounds, Brookmyre, an established best-selling crime author and Haetzman, an expert on anaesthesia, is tailor-made for this mid-nineteenth century series set in Edinburgh featuring two fictional characters working for Dr Simpson, a real-life medical pioneer who developed the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic.

Good groundwork has already been laid in the first two novels “The Way Of All Flesh” (2018), a book I often recommend to our library users, and “The Art Of Dying” (2019).  Firstly, the will-they-won’t-they relationship between main characters Will Raven and Sarah Fisher is enthralling as are the ongoing obstacles for a nineteenth century woman attempting to prove herself as anything other than a wife and mother.  At the start of this novel, in 1850, Sarah has set off to meet with another real life figure, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to obtain a medical degree and be registered with the UK General Medical Council for advice, but she is not encouraging.

In fact, the malaise experienced by Sarah as she returns to Edinburgh following this encounter seems to infiltrate the novel as the first half feels a little flat compared to its predecessors.  Raven should be in celebratory mood as he has developed an understanding with a doctor’s daughter, Eugenie, but she feels under-drawn here (purposely so?) making it hard to appreciate why Raven would choose her over Sarah.  However, the Victorian Era is full of contradiction and hypocrisy and the victim of one of the crimes, which occupies Raven’s time, is an advocate for ill-treatment of prostitutes who may have been poisoned by his son.  The title refers to the term for total disinheritance should the heir be convicted of such a crime.

Sarah, at the same time, is engaged on locating the whereabouts of an unfortunate housemaid’s baby, given away at birth. It’s not until the two main characters come together that the pace picks up enhanced by the chemistry between them.  The last quarter of the novel is very strong indeed which lifts this book back up onto a par with the other two.  Further crimes are revealed, some particularly horrific, and careful plotting leads to an impressive exciting climax and resolution.

There is plenty of mileage left in this series and I look forward to finding out what the writers have in store for these characters.

A Corruption Of Blood is published in the UK in hardback by Canongate on 19th August 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.