The Confessions Of Frannie Langton – Sara Collins (Viking 2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Here’s a debut out in April with a big buzz about it which appeared in many highlights of 2019 listings (including my very own Looking Back Looking Forward … blog post) so I was delighted to get the chance to read an advance review copy.

 This is Frannie Langton’s account of how she got away from being a slave at a sugar plantation in Jamaica in the first quarter of the nineteenth century and ended up in London on trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of her employers.

 It is very much a novel of two parts.  Although we know from the outset of Frannie’s predicament, the first half is set in Jamaica where as a child she was taken up from the plantation shacks to be a house girl, and then, after being taught to read and write by her bored mistress becomes a scribe and assistant for her master, Langton.  He is involved in disturbing experimentation to discover the difference between the anatomies of whites and blacks.

 Damaged by what she has experienced she turns up in London joining the household of one of Langton’s academic rivals where she is drawn by the attention paid to her by his French wife.

 Through a first- person confessional interspersed with extracts from the court case we begin to piece together what has happened, but very slowly, as Sara Collins certainly keeps us dangling.  This might actually frustrate some readers who’ll think they missed out on something important as part of the Jamaican narrative seems underwritten and only becomes significant much later on.  All is eventually explained.  Characterisation is rich and gutsy with some strongly developed minor roles.  Pace is generally good although for me it dipped in the early London sequence when the relationship between Frannie and Marguerite takes a prominent role.

 Readers loving Sarah Waters’ novels such as “Fingersmith”, “Affinity” and “Tipping The Velvet” should certainly be made aware of this novel and with Waters  moving towards more modern history in her novels in recent years there seems to be a gap which authors are keen to fill.  Two debuts from last year spring to mind Imogen Hermes Gower’s splendid “The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock” and Laura Carlin’s deliciously Gothic “The Wicked Cometh” which also has a female-female relationship as its focus.  I don’t think Sara Collins’ work is quite as good as either of these top-notch novels but it is a close-run thing with the Jamaican slave dimension adding another level of complexity and richness.  All in all, this is a superior historical crime novel that does live up to pre-publication expectations and should end up selling well.


fourstars
 

The Confessions Of Frannie Langton is published on April 4th 2019 by Viking.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

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The Quaker – Liam McIlvanney (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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One of the more intriguing turn-ups in literary awards in 2018 came via the McIlvanney Prize given each year to the best Scottish Crime novel. In 2016 this award was renamed in honour of the writer known as “The Godfather Of Tartan Noir”, William McIlvanney who died in 2015. The previous winners since the rebranding had been Chris Brookmyre and Denise Mina and in 2018 the Prize went to Liam McIlvanney, William’s son for “The Quaker”.

There’s certainly no nepotism at work here as this is a very strong slab of crime fiction which fulfils the criteria perfectly and beat off the other shortlisted new titles by previous winners Brookmyre and Charles Cumming together with Lin Anderson.

This is Liam McIlvanney’s sixth publication which includes three fiction (a two parts of the way through trilogy begun in 2009) and three non-fiction works, two of these in conjunction with Ray Ryan. This novel is, hopefully the first in a new series, set in late 1960s Glasgow featuring DI Duncan McCormack, a member of the Flying Squad team who is seconded to an ongoing murder investigation to produce a report as to why a triple killer known as “The Quaker” has remained undetected. His interest in the case turns into a personal obsession whilst those above him want the investigation scaled down.

I like the feel of the period, clearly illustrated as a time when “the polis” operated with different standards. McCormack is a closeted gay officer at a time when homosexuality in Scotland still equalled a prison sentence and career ruin and this adds a fascinating dimension which stands this character out from the norm of crime fiction detectives.

The victims are also allowed to express their viewpoint in first person narrative sections, another thing which here is done well and adds to rather than impedes the flow of the piece.

I found this very readable and highly entertaining. I very much liked McCormack who is an outsider here in more than one sense and I would be very keen to read more novels featuring him.

McIlvanney currently works and lives in New Zealand but has convincingly conveyed the feel of Sixties Glasgow. There’s political incorrectness a-plenty with the nickname of a killer known to make biblical references a case in point. The novel was actually loosely based upon a real like killing spree by an individual known as Bible John, an undetected serial killer from the same time and location. Those who like their crime gripping and hovering around the edge of darkness should seek this out. I have limited experience of Scottish crime but this has certainly whetted my appetite to read more.
fourstars

The Quaker was published in hardback in June 2018 and in paperback by Harper Collins in Feb 2019. Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the review copy.

The Devil Aspect – Craig Russell (Constable 2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I have not read Craig Russell before. Hailing from Scotland he has published five novels in his post-war Glaswegian series “Lennox” and seven set in Hamburg with his detective Jan Fabel taking centre stage. This is a stand-alone which could, especially with Hollywood interest in the film rights, be a big-selling title.

Set in Czechoslovakia in 1935 and it wasn’t long before I could appreciate Russell as a real story-teller with his fiction enriched by cultural stories, myths, urban tales and localised legends. Main character Viktor Kosarek begins work at the Hrad Orlu Asylum For the Criminally Insane housed in a foreboding castle. The Asylum houses just six inmates, the most dangerous and criminally insane of the lot. Dr Kosarek has a theory that pure evil lurks in an obscure part of the psyche and this “Devil Aspect” can be brought to the surface during therapy and then exorcised. Meanwhile, there is a killer stalking the streets of Prague viciously dismembering whilst clad in a blood- stained leather apron.

Russell is very good at cranking up the fear factor and tying it back to the darkness in our pasts. There’s even a scary clown, for goodness sake! The technique of the main character dealing with the six prisoners in turn and getting their backstories through the guise of therapy starts off extremely effectively but perhaps six were a little too many as it was here I found myself losing a little interest amongst their catalogue of hideous crimes.

Apart from this minor gripe the plot is handled well. I never saw what was coming with any of the twists in the tale. It is extremely dark and occupies the space where crime and horror blend which would make it a potent and highly commercial brew for a film adaptation.

Although at times some of the revelations seem audacious and over-the-top, Russell certainly gets away with it.  This is because of his seamless research, a good feel for the period and that enrichment of legends from the past juxtaposed with the psychological theories in his novel’s present which all builds up the spine-chilling elements.  This is a gory read, but a gripping one.

fourstars

The Devil’s Aspect is published in March 2019 by Constable in hardback.

Snap – Belinda Bauer (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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One of the featured titles in my “What I Should Have Read In 2018” post which I’ve now put  right by making it my first read of 2019.  This attracted much publicity through its long-listing for the Man Booker Prize in a rare nod towards commercial crime fiction and recently took home the Crime/Thriller Book Of The Year at the National Book Awards.  The buzz around the title made it too good to miss, with expectations that this is going to be a top-notch title.

I have read Belinda Bauer before, her debut “Blacklands” was a very dark novel which certainly impressed me but I haven’t got around to reading any of her six publications between that and this.

I did have those high expectations which for me, is not always a good thing, as they tend to make me more disappointed with a book which doesn’t fully hit home than I would otherwise be.  The title refers to instant decision-making, also not always a good thing and which can have long-lasting repercussions.

A pregnant woman whose car has broken down on the motorway leaves her three young children in a car on the hard shoulder to seek a phone and is never seen alive again.  The plot focuses on this disappearance and her teenage son’s attempts to come to terms with her fate over the next few years.  His is the most vibrant characterisation in the novel as he attempts to hold the family together, tries to solve his mother’s case and becomes notorious around the Tiverton area where they live for his own crime sprees. 

It is a compelling read which I enjoyed immensely but I’m not sure how well it stands up to analysis as a crime novel.  A lot here hinges on coincidence (and I do acknowledge that a lot of real life crime is solved through coincidence) and some characters’ actions seem questionable, but then perhaps we’re back to that snap decision aspect again.

Given that the novel is about a horrific disappearance it is nowhere near as bleak as I was expecting.  Bauer’s writing style is lively and there is often humour and sharp observation which here works very well.

This book provided a very good start to my 2019 reading and hopefully this year I will be able to delve into Belinda Bauer’s novels I have missed out on.  She is a very good writer, confident in her genre but (and I think it’s down to those pesky expectations again) this didn’t quite blow me away in the way I was expecting it to.

fourstars

Snap was published in 2018 by Bantam

McGlue -Ottessa Moshfegh (2017) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I first encountered the fabulously-monikered Ottessa Moshfegh when I read her 2016 Man Booker shortlisted “Eileen”, a dark tale, with a fairly unforgettable title character who manages to do the difficult thing of both revolting the reader and eliciting sympathy. This novella is an earlier work which first appeared in the US in 2014 and made its UK debut three years later following the success of “Eileen”.

In 2018 Moshfegh brought out her new novel “My Year Of Rest And Relaxation” which also attracted considerable attention but I thought before I read that I’d give this short novel a go.

I’m never totally convinced by the novella as a literary from (here coming in at 118 pages), fitting mid-way between the short-story and full-length novel can mean that it can fail to have the best qualities of both. Too long to be tied up succinctly and not long enough to be fully realised they can tend to waver along “experimental” lines.
This isn’t quite stream of consciousness but it is writing that feels very open to interpretation and which can seem reluctant to give up its meaning. Critics often really like these types of book. In fact, the last I read with a similar feel was the 2017 Man Booker winning “Lincoln In The Bardo” by George Saunders, a novel I certainly didn’t love, and I feel the same way about this, which is not as good as “Eileen”.

I can appreciate it as writing but it does not satisfy me in the way that I feel a novel should. Basically, here its mid-nineteenth century America (although I don’t think I picked the date up from the text, the back of the book informs me it is set in 1851) and title character McGlue, a drunken sailor, is accused of murdering his friend/lover Johnson during an alcoholic spree. McGlue is held on the ship unti he can be handed over to the authorities and sent for trial in Salem. He has a severe long-standing head injury which together with his alcohol addiction makes for feverish, hallucinatory observations throughout his narrative and that’s basically why I wasn’t always totally sure what was going on. And well-written in vibrant, powerful and earthy language it may be, but I found that I didn’t care that much. McGlue, despite his constant state of confusion, comes across as fairly one-dimensional, especially compared to the enigmatic Eileen whose characterisation was the strength of Moshfegh’s subsequent novel. Part of me wishes that it could have been expanded by perhaps adding another narrative alongside McGlue’s to add variety but then the other part of me was probably glad it didn’t go on for too long, because as it stands I think Moshfegh just gets away with producing a text which is impressive rather than entertaining. It may just be me, but I think I can really struggle with this type of American fiction.

threestars

McGlue was published in the UK by Vintage in 2017.

Ruin Beach -Kate Rhodes (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Kate Rhodes launched her Scilly Isles based crime series at the beginning of this year with “Hell Bay”.  I was particularly impressed by the intensity she managed to build up around the location of Bryher, the smallest inhabited island with less than one hundred permanent residents.  The ramifications of murder on such a close-knit isolated community were fascinating.  Perhaps, understandably, the author has widened her net a little here (she couldn’t keep bumping off those poor Bryher residents) and focused the action on the neighbouring island of Trescoe with double the population and a more touristy feel.

 This population begins to decline when a diver is found dead in a cave.  An object found jammed in her mouth suggests that this was no accident.  D I Benesek Kitto, who grew up on and has now returned to the Scillys, together with Czechoslovakian Wolfhound Shadow (in the course of two novels already up there amongst the best dogs in fiction) are on hand to investigate.  We get a first-person narrative from Kitto interspersed with some short third person sections which drive the plot forwards.

 It becomes apparent that Jude Trellon, the diver, has been killed because of what she knows about shipwrecks around the coasts of the islands and secrets kept means others are in peril.  Kate Rhodes does characterisation very well and as well as developing her human (and canine) characters she is also able to convey the sea convincingly as a main character in the novel, which is like some of the island residents, calm and co-operative one minute and destructive and deadly the next.  Atmosphere-wise, however, I do not feel that this has that edgy intensity I enjoyed so much in “Hell Bay” and the plot here did not feel as impressively tight, there did seem to be quite a lot of recapping which affected pace at times but this is a very satisfying crime series and with the next novel “Burnt Island” planned I will certainly be looking out for it.

threestars

 Ruin Beach was published by Simon & Schuster in hardback in November 2018.  The paperback is due in February 2019.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Smoke And Ashes – Abir Mukherjee (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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It’s very unusual for me to read a mid-series book but circumstances caused me to pick up Abir Mukherjee’s third novel in his critically acclaimed Sam Wyndham series without having read the other two. Wyndham is a Captain in the Calcutta Police Force in the years after the First World War. It certainly kicks off with a pacy punch with the drug-addled Calcutta Police force Captain coming round during a raid on an opium den. In his bid to escape detection he encounters a mutilated corpse. The novel is set in the run up to Christmas 1921, with Wyndham, hiding his addiction caused by trauma from the Great War, and his Indian Sergeant known as “Surrender-not” Bannerjee investigating some strangely linked murders during the build up to a Royal visit from the Prince Of Wales.

What lifts this novel above standard adventure-fiction fare is both the strong sense of location and the historical setting of a Calcutta preoccupied with the non-violent, non-co-operation policies advocated by Gandhi which is causing serious malfunctions in the running of the Empire. The political situation creates dilemmas for both British and Indian characters which adds to the richness of the plot.

Mukherjee’s two main characters have been obviously well established in the first two novels allowing him to focus on the historical detail and in bringing 1920’s Calcutta to life. It is a fascinating time in the history of India as Imperialism looks increasingly inappropriate in the aftermath of the War and the events here are based on actual happenings married with the thriller writer’s licence for creating an involving and plausible tale out of these. It works well as a stand-alone novel but for those who, like me, find chronology important in reading books from a series are probably advised to start with Mukherjee’s debut “A Rising Man” which won the Historical Dagger at the 2017 Crime Writer’s Awards. The second in the series was shortlisted for the same award this year but ultimately lost out to “Nucleus” by Rory Clements. This is quality adventure fiction.

fourstars

Smoke And Ashes was published in hardback in June 2018 by Harvill Secker. Many thanks to Nudge and the publishers for the review copy.  An edited version of this review can be found on the Nudge website.

 

The Dry- Jane Harper (2016) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Here’s a book with extremely good word of mouth from readers returning one of our library copies.  It has people itching to tell others how much they enjoyed it.  Since the paperback edition arrived at the end of last year it has become one of our most borrowed books, so I’ve been patiently waiting for my turn.

 Jane Harper’s debut also gained much critical acclaim from reviewers and from her crime writer peers. (“One of the most stunning debuts I’ve ever read- David Baldacci; “Stunningly atmospheric- Val McDermid; “Enthrals from the very first page – CJ Box).  Writers of great repute were queuing up to say good things about this.  Needless to say, I had extremely high expectations.

 Aaron Falk, a policeman who specialises in financial crime, returns to the small Australian country town where he grew up to attend a funeral.  His closest childhood friend has apparently shot his wife and son and turned the gun on himself.  As the small community are shocked and outraged the dead man’s parents want answers.  Tensions are compounded by a lengthy drought which has brought this rural town to its knees and also by Falk’s return itself.  This is his first visit since a tragic incident which had rocked the community years before.  Everyone has secrets and it may be these which have just triggered the present-day tragedy.

This is a well thought out and carefully handled whodunnit with the additional tensions of a community in crisis.  Harper is a British author who has lived in Australia for the last decade and her sense of location is strong but also with a clear understanding of being an outsider.  In many ways and I’m not sure why the author it brought to mind was another Brit who has set his first two novels in small town America, Chris Whitaker. However, “The Dry” did not win me over as much as Whitaker’s excellent “All The Wicked Girls” (2017).  I have this year read another book which on publication was very much compared to “The Dry” and marketed to the same audience, “Retribution” written by Aussie farmer and ex-miner Richard Anderson.  I think in terms of plot handling and character development Harper’s novel is considerably stronger.

 What I would have liked a little more ramped up is the intensity of this lengthy drought (two years without water) and the heat playing a stronger part in the dynamics of these people rather than their present actions being motivated by the events of their past but I’m niggling here.  This is a very readable, strong debut which might not have matched those too high expectations I’d built up over the past year or so but it certainly fooled me with twists, was always involving and so highly satisfactory in the way the plot threads were all so well pulled together.

 fourstars 

The Dry was published by Little, Brown in 2016 in the UK.  I read the 2017 Abacus paperback version.

Not Dead Yet – Peter James (2012) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This 8th instalment of the Roy Grace series pushes Peter James upwards in my list of most read authors, now sitting at number 8 just below Patrick Gale. Its predecessor “Dead Man’s Grip” became my first James five star recommendation earlier this year. I felt that it was a classic crime novel which had everything I would look for in a police procedural. This is not as good.

I used to live in Brighton and part of my attachment to this series is to do with its location and very strong grounding in reality. Although here the locations are present James seems to have ramped up the plot to a heightened level which at times hovers too close to the preposterous. Central to this is a type of character I’ve come across before and I’m yet to like. This character, here called Gaia, is a Madonna/Lady GaGa hybrid of the huge international celebrity. She was present, along similar lines in Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time” (2016) where she was called Aimee and was the weak spot in an otherwise impressive work and, here, despite me thinking there’s value in exploring the notion and trappings of celebrity, Gaia also does not ring true in this context.

With a stalker on her trail she returns to her Brighton birthplace to take up a film role as mistress to George IV using the Royal Pavilion as a location. Others are interested in her return closer to home. Meanwhile, a torso is discovered on a chicken farm and Roy Grace inches further towards fatherhood. There’s also significant development in two ongoing plot lines; Grace’s missing wife Sandy and the leaking of sensitive information to the press.

Although Gaia’s presence can make the plot feel far-fetched the groundwork is set so well in this series that it doesn’t really matter. James continues his blurring of fact and fiction with the film co-stars Hugh Bonneville and Joseph Fiennes written in. He also uses the real names and professions of many of those law-enforcers who contribute to his research.

The whole thing is more larger than life than usual but the rooted ongoing characters and their lives feels important and once again this really drew me back in. That is why I think it is so important to read this series in order. It does crank up to a climax which affected me more because James has made me care for the characters. If I had just picked this off the shelf without reading any of the series before I might have thought it just a bit silly. Pace is good and it reads well and all in all, despite my reservations, this is a solid instalment to a great crime series which just falls short of being considered amongst its best.

fourstars

Not Dead Yet was published in 2012 by Macmillan.

The Way Of All Flesh – Ambrose Parry (Canongate 2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This Edinburgh set Victorian crime novel (not to be confused with the classic novel by Samuel Butler with the same title which was very much a reaction against Victorianism) is the first collaboration between husband and wife anaesthesia expert Marisa Haetzman and crime novelist Chris Brookmyre, (he has some 23 novels to date none of which I have read) written under the pen name Ambrose Parry. 

Chris has never before written a novel set in the past but with Marisa’s knowledge of the history of medicine and especially the development of anaesthetics which has a significant part to play in this they have produced a thoroughly entertaining joint effort, a good slab of historical crime fiction, the first in a proposed new series.

 There are two very good main characters here.  Will Raven has a background from the tougher parts of Edinburgh Old Town and the night before he begins an apprenticeship with esteemed childbirth specialist Dr Simpson he encounters a corpse and is beaten and badly cut up giving him both a disreputable appearance and rendering him a marked man in his new environment of the respectable New Town.  Simpson’s housemaid Sarah, fascinated by the medical goings on in the house is held back because of Victorian society’s view of women and the two are forced by circumstances to come together to investigate agonising deaths of young women from both sides of town.

 Alongside the involving plot we have the growth of the use of ether in routine procedures and the search for more effective and safer methods to sedate patients.  The medical history aspect is inserted seamlessly into the plot and adds much to the enjoyment of the novel.

 I felt that the Edinburgh location with its split personality of the poverty- stricken Old Town and the comparative grandeur of the New is very effective, especially with childbirth happening in both areas causing the medical men to adapt to all kinds of patient.  Plot-wise I thought I had worked out what was going on but I hadn’t. The twists did surprise me.   I would certainly be on the lookout for future collaborations as well as digging into the sizeable Brookmyre back catalogue.

 fourstars

The Way Of All Flesh was published by Canongate in August 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.