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.

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.

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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.

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.

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