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.

fourstars

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.

threestars

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.

threestars

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.

fourstars

 

The Cuckoo’s Calling was published by Sphere in 2013

Ritual – Mo Hayder (2008) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I thought I’d explore my complex relationship with Mo Hayder, an author who perplexes me just a little.  This is the 5th of her books I have read and it’s not always plain sailing.  I loved “Tokyo” her stand-alone novel (wasn’t so wild about the too dark “Pig Island”) and I have had reservations about the two DI Jack Caffery novels I’ve read (“Birdman” and “The Treatment”) but there’s something about Mo (“Tokyo” being the case in point) that keeps driving me back to her.

My gripe about her work is that it can all be a little too full-on, all darkness and no light and this is perpetuated by the character of Caffery- a Detective Inspector obsessed with the disappearance of his brother during their childhood.  It’s left him brooding, unpleasant and with tendencies towards inappropriate violence, who basically offers no light relief to the reader.  I was fascinated to read in an Afterword to this novel that the author herself shared some of my views and was determined to leave him to stew in his own misery after two novels.  She was aiming to do something different with this but found him worming his way back in.  This has resulted in the best of her Caffery novels to this point.

This has been achieved by a change of location to Bristol, taking him away from the scenes of his turbulent past and by getting him to share the limelight with another character, Sergeant Phoebe “Flea” Marley – a police diver.  Now Flea is not exactly a bundle of laughs either.  Her devotion to her duties is fueled by guilt following the death of both of her parents in a diving accident but somehow putting these two troubled souls together lightens the intensity to make for a more entertaining read.

The case begins when a human hand is discovered in Bristol harbour.  There are implications of muti, a regional tribal South African form of witchcraft which can involve human blood and body parts.  If this sounds grim, believe me, it’s nothing compared to the cases in Hayder’s previous Caffery novels.

The whole thing is well-paced with good twists and turns and tightly plotted, creating real tension.  A sub-plot sees Caffery connecting with “The Walking Man”, another damaged soul whose guilt saw him taking matters into his own hands and who now lives rough.  It was this connection, Hayder says, which caused her to relent and see a place for the DI in this novel and thus brought him back.  For me, this is actually the least successful aspect of “Ritual” but in bringing him back she has upped the readability of this series and I’m looking forward to reading the next one, despite its spine-chilling title “Skin”.  Hayder does still have the ability to scare me witless but in this has made that ability a little more entertaining and palatable.  Some of her previous books have left me with an unpleasant grubby feeling but I didn’t experience that with this.  The series is here redeemed.

fourstars

Ritual was published by Bantam in 2008

Blackwater – James Henry (Riverrun 2016)- A Murder They Wrote Review

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Reading this first in a projected series of police procedural thrillers featuring DI Nick Lowry I kept thinking about what makes a distinctive British crime series.  A lot is to do with location (Dexter’s Oxford, James’ Brighton, Rankin’s Edinburgh immediately springing to mind).  I was interested by Henry’s Colchester, its garrison town status gives it an added dimension which will pitch army against police and the location itself (with which I am not familiar) with its nearby coastal flats and Mersea Island has much dramatic potential.

Secondly, we need an involving set of regular characters.  Sometimes this can take a book or two to get established so I’m not that worried that I feel I don’t have the measure yet of DI Lowry nor his team nor superiors.  The “crime” itself is obviously an essential.  Does it involve the reader throughout?  On this occasion, I’m not totally sure it does.  In the first week of 1983 a soldier falls to his death after being chased, a headless corpse turns up on a causeway and a drugs run goes wrong.  How far these are connected to one another are up to Lowry and his team to work out.

Finally, a little something special is needed, that unique twist to make the series stand out.  By setting it in the 80’s Henry recreates a world of phone boxes rather than text messages and of police officers more interested in arranging boxing and football tournaments than anything else.  And oh yes, the sexism, this is reminiscent of “Ashes To Ashes’” Gene Hunt (a name that may very well be mentioned regularly in reviews of this book).  Consider the Chief Superintendant’s words;

“ The police force is a man’s arena, and as such any woman prepared to play in this world has to be prepared to take a few punches, much like inside the ring….Figuratively of course- we can’t go knocking them around, that would be wrong….But ordinarily, the odd grope, an arse squeeze on a night out, is acceptable.”

Henry’s world of crime solvers is a macho  and often disinterested one but there’s an awareness that times need to change and this is conveyed well.  A woman is in charge of these boors (albeit a fur coat clad one) and her WPC niece is keen to make an impression and you get the feeling that this is where the mileage is for this series.

The author has previously written three well-received prequels to RD Wingfield’s “Frost” novels  but this has more grit and the lingering air of Old Spice about it.  He has created a series which has the potential to do well.

threestars

Blackwater was published in July 2016 by Riverrun (a Quercus imprint)

Dead Like You – Peter James (Macmillan 2010)- A Murder They Wrote Review

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Okay, so I know I’m six years behind with the Roy Grace series but I enjoy James’ Brighton-set police procedurals so much that I ration them.  I realised that I did not read one at all last year (I had read two the previous year) so had to put that right.

This is book number six in the series where it is imperative to keep a list because of the similarity of the titles and look of the books.  I think things started off so strongly with “Dead Simple” and there was a slight fall in standard for the next couple but “Dead Man’s Footsteps” and especially “Dead Tomorrow” saw James upping his game once again to produce modern crime classics.  This one makes it three very good books in a row, suggesting that this is one of the most consistent of crime series.

For those of you who have already read it and are trying to recall which one it is from the never-that-helpful titles it’s the one about the shoes.  Now I know you remember.

We have two time frames- an abduction on Christmas Eve 1997 of Rachel Ryan, tipsily tottering home on high heels.  Her disappearance has remained amongst Brighton’s unsolved cold cases until a woman is assaulted after a New Year’s Eve party at the Metropole Hotel twelve years later.  It becomes clear that “The Shoe Man” has returned to terrorise Brighton.  A shoe fetishist who preys on women wearing new designer shoes leads DS Grace to dredge up the old case in search of clues.  I’m not sure whether I get so involved because I used to live in Grace’s stomping ground.  My visual impression is always strong reading these but I think this also has a fair bit to do with James’ talent for setting the scene.

Short chapters, tense writing and quite a few set pieces which are absolutely gripping.  It does at times make for very uncomfortable reading but the pace forces you on.  I think this is where the series is getting stronger as a couple of the earlier novels had noticeable fluctuations in pace but this kept me involved the whole way through.  I want to move straight on to “Dead Man’s Grip” but the pile of review books awaiting my attention means I will have to wait.

fourstars

Dead Like You was published by Macmillan in 2010.

A Murder On The Appian Way – Steven Saylor (1997) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This is the seventh book in the Roma Sub Rosa series (for my reviews of the previous two see here).   Unfortunately, this is the weakest in the series.  It took me until I got to the Author’s Historical Note at the back of the book to appreciate just how much of this story was based upon fact.  Saylor takes as his inspiration a real-life murder, defended by Cicero and seen as one of the factors which led to the Civil War which breaks down the Roman Empire.

The novel is set in 52BC.  Main character Gordanius The Finder is now in his late fifties.  The whole thing kicks off with a riot after Clodius (who we met in “The Venus Throw”) is murdered apparently by his arch-enemy Titus Milo.  Gordanius is asked to find out what happened and alongside son Eco and new slave Davus they go to the scene of the crime, the Appian Way, to question potential witnesses.  There’s a lot of political intrigue amongst Clodius’ followers, Milo, Pompey and Cicero and as a result this novel feels a little stodgy compared to its predecessors and the investigations upon the Appian Way become somewhat dull.

All is not lost, however, as the novel does pick up considerably in the last third with the trial and its after-effects and the characters I have enjoyed reading about so much in the past regain their vivacity.  Perhaps there is just a little too much fact in this novel when a bit more fiction might have spiced things up a little.  There are some new characters who look like they might have significant parts to play in later novels and all this suggests that the slight dip in quality for this instalment might just be a little blip.

threestars

 

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A Murder On The Appian Way was published in the UK by Robinson in 2005.  There have been a number of re-issue editions with different covers.

 

The Wicked Boy – Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury 2016) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Subtitled “The Mystery of A Victorian Child Murderer” this is the first Kate Summerscale I have read since “Suspicions of Mr Whicher”.  I really enjoyed her examination of detective work in its infancy.  In that book the author took a case from 1860 and provided us with a leisurely trawl through the facts and all the relevant documents.  It was well-detailed and thoroughly researched and very readable.  Her latest book is just as good.

I began this book with no idea as to what was to happen.  It is 1895 and thirteen year old Robert Coombes and his twelve year old brother Nattie seem to be having a whale of a time- changing coins of large value, going off to Lords to see the cricket and going to the theatre.  These boys have a secret and a plan.  They tell neighbours that their mother is away and get a naive adult male friend of their fathers’s to come and stay with them.  The revelation of their secret is as much a shock to him as it is to the local Plaistow residents.

All three are initially arrested for the crime and its aftermath and the trial makes fascinating reading.  The press latch onto Robert’s treasured collection of “penny dreadful” comics and the simmering debate as to what is suitable material for children to read explodes.  I found this theme one of the most absorbing features of Summerscale’s analysis.

The book becomes a study of “suitable” punishment for a child.  Although it looks like the jury advocated clemency it actually made the punishment initially seem more severe but this is also a story of retribution and it is far from over at the end of the trial.

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Sketch of the Coombes brothers on trial

The adult lives of those who committed terrible crimes in childhood does hold a morbid fascination for me and in researching this Summerscale stumbled upon information which led her story into a completely different direction taking her to  some of the most notorious battlefields of the First World War.

The motive for Robert’s crime was never clear but so much else has been found out about him.  It is a sobering, grisly but ultimately quite life-enhancing tale.  I’m aware that by jumping to this book I’ve missed out a couple of Summerscale works, (“The Queen Of Whale Cay” and “Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace”) and normally I’m a great one for reading books in publication order but I was drawn to the author returning to murder and just couldn’t wait to read this.  I think she is excellent at bringing old crimes alive and at making her accounts of cases both highly readable and relevant to today.

fourstars

The Wicked Boy was published in April 2016 by Bloomsbury.    Thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Author Strikes Back – Vaughn Entwistle

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I was very pleased to be contacted recently by Vaughn Entwistle whose novel “The Angel Of Highgate” I found so entertaining.  Vaughn left a comment on my review (always a little nerve-wracking when an author does this).  I contacted him to thank him for his kind words and was thrilled that he has agreed to answer questions about his book.  I am also delighted that he dressed up for the occasion.    So without further ado…………….

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What is it about Highgate Cemetery that made you choose it as a central location for your novel?

The inspiration for the novel came many, many years ago when I was a  graduate student. I was wandering the stacks of the university library when I happened to pick up a book entitled: Highgate Cemetery: Victorian Valhalla, by Felix Barker.

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There wasn’t much text: just a brief introduction to the history of Highgate Cemetery and a few simple maps of the grounds. But what made the book so compelling were the atmospheric black and white photographs taken by John Gay, a professional photographer. The book was published in 1988 and many of the photographs were taken around that time. They show a Highgate in full surrender to nature with its tombs and statuary (many since lost to erosion or attacks by vandals) wreathed in vines and slowly submerging beneath foliage. At this time, West Highgate had long gone out of business as a cemetery and was derelict and overgrown.  A volunteer society: The Friends of Highgate Cemetery, have since taken it over and are working to restore the cemetery, which now also serves as a wildlife sanctuary and is home to many species of birds, as well as foxes, badgers, and the occasional wallaby. (Yes, really!)

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Highgate Cemetery

As I pored over the book, I was immediately struck by the sheer gravitas of the place:  gothic, mysterious, and suffused in entropic decay. Here’s a few words you may or may not be familiar with: tapophile (one who loves graves, cemeteries and funerals) and coimetromania (an abnormal compulsion to visit cemeteries). Both words aptly describe me. I grew up in northern England watching Hammer films and loved all things spooky and eldritch. At any rate, the book affected me deeply and I immediately recognized that Highgate would make a magnificent setting for a novel. After university I went on to have a career as a writer/editor working in various industries, but part of my mind was still back in Highgate cemetery, spawning a cast of characters to inhabit this moody necropolis. Decades later, I finally sat down to write The Angel of Highgate, a novel in which the cemetery functions as a major character in the dramatic action.

Described as “the wickedest man in London”, a description which certainly seems fitting at the start of the novel where there’s a little bit of playful misleading from yourself, main character Lord Geoffrey Thraxton has to win us readers over, which he does.  How did you develop the character of this unlikely hero?

My protagonist, Lord Geoffrey Thraxton is a louche lord with Byronesque pretensions and a morbid fascination with death. Like Highgate, Thraxton is a dark mirror of the Victorian era, whose outward veneer of Empire, modernity and wealth concealed a seething underworld of vice and crime, crushing poverty, and rampant disease such as consumption (tuberculosis), which prematurely snuffed out rich and poor alike. It could be argued that the Victorians fetishised death with their elaborate mourning rituals and their creation of London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries—Highgate, Kensal Green, etc.  A more shocking example currently circulating the web is photos of Victorian families posing with dead relatives/children.  Although ghastly and ghoulish to modern eyes, the photographs were taken as treasured mementos of a lost beloved.

Like many of the time, Thraxton suffered a deep trauma in early childhood when his mother died.  Thraxton’s brutish father soon remarried and withdrew all love from the young boy, who was left to wander the cold halls of Thraxton hall, forgotten and alone. By chance the young lord strayed into the family mausoleum and found that the screws of his mother’s coffin had been removed. Thraxton opened the lid . . . and crawled inside, seeking the comforting embrace of his mother’s arms.

 “The Angel of Highgate” is a highly enjoyable Victorian novel.  Which novels from the Victorian period have given you the most enjoyment?

Anything by Dickens, of course. Bleak House is arguably my favourite. I read Oliver Twist at very young age and still remember it vividly (especially the scene where he is apprenticed to a coffin maker and spends a terrifying night alone with the coffins). This scene is probably what gave me the twisted sensibilities that later drove me to write The Angel of Highgate. The Woman in White and Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, are other faves. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot is poetic and beautiful. And of course, Austen is represented by Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. The Victorians produced a singularly amazing coterie of poets/playwrights and novelists. 

 

Some of Vaughn’s Victorian picks

One section which is written with real relish is how Lord Thraxton deals with a critic who savaged his poetry.  Thraxton describes critics as “leeches sucking on the body of art” and his subsequent treatment should make us reviewers wince.  What’s the worst criticism you have had to endure?

I don’t know if it was apparent to readers (some material was edited out) but Thraxton was a pretty lousy poet and the unfortunate critic’s scathing review of Thraxton’s collection of poetry was entirely warranted.

I have to admit that bad reviews wound at the deepest level and are hard to recover from. At first I read every review, good or bad. But I have found that the bad reviews tend to stick in one’s mind much longer than the good reviews, so now I stop reading a review as soon as I gather that it is turning negative. (There is enough rejection in a novelist’s life; I don’t need to go looking for more.)

I will say that reviewers on web sites are generally fairer than the snarky comments one reads on sites like GoodReads or Amazon. There is a lot of obvious trolling and “sock-puppeting” taking place on these sites and reading some critiques it soon becomes apparent that the reviewer has not even read the book, as evidenced by confused character identifications and other giveaways.

One thing that helps me put criticism in perspective is to read reviews of books by authors that I greatly admire. Even terrific writers who have written terrific books receive the odd nasty review. On GoodReads you can check out reader reviews of books such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In amongst the five star reviews you will find a scattering of one and two star reviews by people trying to convince the rest of the world that, despite the massive success of these novels, the books are trash and that the rest of us are deluded fools. I don’t understand why these people can’t admit that the novel was just “not their kind of book.”

Speaking of which, I recently received the worst review I’ve ever had on the website Fandom Post. The reviewer opined that every character was a cliché, every situation in the book was a cliché, and basically hated every sentence.

The sheer vitriol of the review took my aback, since most of the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? I think the reviewer even hated the cover art and the type font. If only I could arrange a meeting between this critic and my antagonist, Dr. Silas Garrette (insert fiendish laughter here: Moohahaha!)

What’s next for Vaughn Entwistle?

I am currently writing the third novel in my Paranormal Casebooks series, entitled The Faery Vortex and I am also working on a collection of Ghost/Horror/Weird fiction stories. 

Lastly, I would like to end by thanking Phil Ramage and all the other independent book bloggers out there. Now that most major newspapers have decreased or reduced the size of their book review pages, independent Book Bloggers are vital resource for both readers and writers alike.

 Thanks, to you all for what you do.

 

Thanks for the thumbs up, Vaughn and for the considered responses to the questions which have certainly enriched the experience of “The Angel Of Highgate” for me.  Both this and his two novels  in his “Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”  “The Revenant of Thraxton Hall” and “The Dead Assassin” are available from Amazon (Clicking on the titles should take you straight there).

For more information about Vaughn Entwistle you can visit his website or the website of his publishers Titan Books.