We Begin At The End – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2020) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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A reviewsrevues.com favourite and former author interviewee is back with his third novel.  Chris Whitaker’s 2016 debut “Tall Oaks” was very strong and critically applauded but I think he got even better with his 5* 2017 offering “All The Wicked Girls“.  With this, his third novel Whitaker proves there’s few better at creating small town America all done with vivid and vibrant characterisation.  Thing is, Chris Whitaker is British.

In Cape Haven the impending release of a prisoner whose crime tore the community apart is causing much anxiety for those directly involved including ailing Police Chief Walker, a troubled mother, Star, and her two children Duchess and Robin.  A solid plot develops as the historic crime overlaps into a present day one but once again what Whitaker does best is characterisation, especially with quirky youngsters.  In “Tall Oaks” we had gangster wannabe Manny, a great comic creation, who really made the debut sparkle, in “Wicked Girls” it was teenage crime-solver Noah and his crew.  Here we have a choice of two with main character Duchess who copes with a miserable life by adopting the guise of an outlaw (I think the author could have made more of this perhaps even referencing it in the book’s title) and maybe even more so the adorably loyal Thomas Noble, a short-sighted black boy with a withered hand whose devotion to the not always appealing Duchess is unquestionable.

I found myself really caring for the characters and enjoying the book most when it focused on these and took a step back from the crime plot.

It feels like a more substantial novel than what has gone before and there is no doubt that Whitaker has matured as a writer.  For sheer reading pleasure I would give “All The Wicked Girls” the edge and I’m still not sure why it wasn’t amongst the big sellers of 2017 but this is still very good and should further enhance his reputation.  He is one of those writers that I am absolutely fascinated to see what he will do next.  Will he continue to recreate the intensity, prejudices and obsessions of small town America or have a go at setting fiction in  his homeland?  Will the crime aspect take more of  a back seat?  I feel that Chris Whitaker could, should he desire, have a good crack at producing The Great American Novel but I would also like to know how his writing would work within a British framework.

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We Begin At The End will be published in hardback by Zaffre on 2nd April 2020.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

A Knock At The Door – T W Ellis (Sphere 2020) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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British writer Tom Hinshelwood has written 7 novels and 2 short story collections as crime novelist Tom Wood creating the Victor The Assassin series. Here he is writing his first thriller as T W Ellis locating it in an American suburb where the Chief of Police is an overweight demotivated marijuana smoking woman, Rusty, who blows up at her team if they make her coffee incorrectly.

Living in this town is Jem whose husband leaves her one morning for a business trip whilst she is breakfasting on avocado on toast. Jem is a yoga teacher with anxiety issues which are certainly exacerbated when she responds to a knock at her front door and finds two FBI agents on her step. Not only is Jem placing herself in danger when she lets them in but she begins to realise that she does not know her husband as well as she thinks she does.

Set largely within a twenty-four hour period with a couple of flashbacks Jem’s worst day ever plays out proving you can certainly pack a lot into a day if your very existence is threatened. Much is Jem’s first-person narrative as she tries to come to grips with what she is informed is the truth and has to deal with whom she can trust. There’s also a third-person narrative focusing on Rusty and her attempts to make sense of sudden events happening in her sleepy jurisdiction.

It was hard not to find Jem annoying at times and there was really only one character I warmed to, the elderly Trevor, who attempts to live a quiet life and is suspicious of all authority and the minute by minute breakdown of the action perhaps made it too thorough leading to a number of empty conversations but there’s plenty of action and twists which I’m still kicking myself for not spotting.

The style of the novel does make it a quick read and as most people coming to this will know the type of popular thriller it is they will not be disappointed. This is a good choice for a holiday read.

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A Knock At The Door will be published as an e-book in May 2020 and in hardback on July 9th. Many thanks to the publishers and Secret Readers for the advance review copy.

 

Again The Three – Edgar Wallace (1928) – A Running Man Review

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I’m celebrating!  On completing Edgar Wallace’s collection of 13 short stories that make up “Again The Three” I have finished the mammoth 900+ pages of the Wordsworth paperback edition of “The Complete Four Just Men” which I seem to have been reading for ages.

Written 23 years after the characters were first introduced in their successful debut I get the feeling that the demand was there for revisiting them in a short story format.  Wallace had a commercial mind (which sometimes backfired) and an enthusiasm for journalism throughout his life so may have produced these originally for some of the many publications he was associated with before putting them together as a published collection.  He certainly hasn’t trodden any new ground here, the story outlines seem similar and one “Mr Levingrou’s Daughter” is merely a tighter rewrite of earlier work collected in his 1921 “Law Of The Four Just Men“.  This is one of the sharper works on display, a couple of the stories I didn’t really get the resolution at all or did not find them  especially suspenseful.  Still, it was enjoyable to meet up with Manfred, Gonsalez and Poiccart for one further outing.  They have certainly evolved towards  respectability and now have a detective agency in Curzon Street, London, yet still trade on their disreputable past where their methods of dispatching offenders were more brutal (and permanent!).  Wallace rarely lets a story go by without a reference back to this.  It does seem a little odd to read crime/adventure fiction where past achievements are being saluted more than the present plotlines but readers would not have been sympathetic to these characters for a quarter of a century without them changing their ways.

I’ve probably read enough Edgar Wallace for a time.  David Stuart Davies who penned the introduction to the volume I read feels that Wallace would have gone on to produce more for these characters had he not died in 1932.  He does also acknowledge that, in this collection “The tales are entertaining and even amusing at times rather than thrilling.”

It was Christopher Fowler who reminded me of Wallace in his “Book Of Forgotten Authors” and he mentions the oft-repeated tale of this prolific writer that if anyone phoned him and was told he was busy writing a book they’d reply “I’ll wait.”  I have enjoyed, to varying degrees, these six of apparently 175+ novels he produced in his lifetime.

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Again The Three was published in 1928.  I read the version published in “The Complete Four Just Men” paperback from Wordsworth.

 

The Law Of The Four Just Men -Edgar Wallace (1921) – A Running Man Review

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British crime writer Edgar Wallace’s fourth publication in his “Four Just Men” series appeared three years after “The Just Men Of Cordova” and shows a marked change in structure as instead of being a novel this consists of 10 short stories. I was very  interested in finding out  how the author was able to use this form and hoping that it might be used to provide a bit of back story. Within the three novels I have read there are a number of references to previous cases which seem to represent a so far uncatalogued glory days for the foursome and this seemed like a perfect opportunity for Wallace to explore some of these cases in a short story format.

He hasn’t done this. Instead these unlinked stories fit chronologically into the pattern the Wordsworth “Complete Four Just Men” uses being probably set after the events of the previous novel where, confusingly, considering the title, there are only two Just Men operating. This does allow a little more insight into character, perhaps the most significant is Leon Gonsalez, who has remained fairly under the radar in the previous novels who here has an interest in linking physical attributes and crime, which was probably a bit of an issue around the time this was published. So, large and long front teeth = probable murderer in “The Man With The Canine Teeth”. In a number of the stories it is the quirks of an individual which stands them out as a suspect, thus we get “The Man Who Hated Earthworms”, “The Man Who Loved Music” (well, the 1812 Overture) and “The Man Who Hated Amelia Jones” as titles.

Luckily, Wallace did not offer the same incentive to purchase as he did with his “Four Just Men” debut where readers were offered £500 to solve the case in a move which almost brought about financial ruin as people did and he was obliged to pay the sizeable amount to all those who did for this is very predictable fare with the odd twist but nothing like we have come to expect in short crime fiction in the intervening years.

This collection passed the time but probably wouldn’t be one that I would return to. I enjoyed the trickery involved in obtaining justice, my favourite being in the downfall of a drugs pusher in the elaborate “The Man Who Died Twice”.

The formula of these stories is pretty much the same as in the novels, a criminal has evaded justice and this has come to the main protagonists’ attention, somebody usually says something like “isn’t is a shame the Four Just Men aren’t around anymore” and the plan for retribution swings into action. Starting with this collection wouldn’t necessary put you off reading the novels but Wallace might be better at the more extended form.

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The Law Of The Four Just Men was first published in 1921. I read the version printed in the Wordsworth paperback “The Complete Four Just Men”.

The Just Men Of Cordova – Edgar Wallace (1918) – A Running Man Review

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First published in the last year of World War I this was Edgar Wallace’s third novel in his “Four Just Men” series. There had been a ten year gap between “The Council Of Justice” and this reflected a time when he was writing prolifically as well as getting very involved in horse racing, starting up his own newspapers on the subject. Horse racing does feature as a major set piece which for its duration reads like a predecessor of a Dick Francis work.

The Just Men take more of a back seat with their identity still foxing and fooling those they come up against. The identity of one of the four is not even known by two of the others and that also builds up in the plot until this particular mystery is revealed.

Once again there is the odd turgid moment in the build-up. Central to this novel is Colonel Black a dodgy businessman whose opponents seem to be dying suddenly. There’s undetectable poison administered with a feather which keeps the plot ticking over until, and this seems to be typical of a Wallace novel the tension is cranked up for a more tautly written last third. This is where we get the aforementioned horse race where whole fortunes are staked and its aftermath which makes for some gripping reading and which excuses the business machinations in the earlier part of the novel which are not always easy to fathom for the modern reader and which may get the attention wandering slightly.

Typical of many adventure novels where the audience demands action some of the characters are underwritten but Wallace has here created one of his strongest characters I’ve read to date in Police Constable Frank Fellowe who has his own reasons for attempting to resolve the foul play.

Once again, by the end of the novel Edgar Wallace has whetted my appetite for more of the same which would go some way to explaining his contemporary popularity and longevity as a writer. There are three more novels to go in this Wordsworth “Complete Four Just Men” collection.

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The Just Men Of Cordova was first published in 1918. I read the version printed in the Wordsworth paperback “The Complete Four Just Men”.

The Council Of Justice – Edgar Wallace (1908) – A Running Man Review

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The second novel in the “Complete Four Just Men” collection was published three years after the first and in this time Wallace had rethought his anti-heroes.  In the opening work they were pitched against the establishment in actions that looks, especially to modern eyes, like terrorism.  In a bid to keep readers’ sympathies to the characters in this longer novel they are pitched against a group of anarchists, known as the Red Hundred, who begin their own campaign of terror in London.  Significant amongst these is the first female character in this series.  Known only as the Woman of Gretz she has established herself strongly amongst the anarchic group.  She is a very welcome addition to the cast of characters but Wallace is not sure what to do with her- rabble-rouser, heartless bitch or displaying humanity, she’s all a bit of a mish-mash which doesn’t come off.

The Four Just Men on this their second outing still seem underdrawn, merging into one another but given their need for anonymity this might have been intentional.  One of them, George Manfred, is established more strongly as a separate character this time around.  As in the first book in the series what works best of all here is the build-up to the climax.  In that book it was the projected assassination of a British minister and here it is a potential jail break which ramps up the tension extremely effectively.

I must admit that I am not yet gripped by these books from their start to finish but there is certainly enough in the first two instalments to keep me wanting to read on.

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The Council Of Justice was originally published in 1908.  I am reading the 2012 Wordsworth paperback compendium “The Complete Four Just Men”.

 

The Language Of Birds – Jill Dawson (2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This is not exactly a crime novel, although a murder is very much at its centre and it focuses on a case most readers would have some sense of familiarity with, that of children’s nanny Sandra Rivett killed by absconding aristocrat Lord Lucan in what was believed to have been a case of mistaken identity (Lucan had intended to kill his estranged wife).

The real life events from 1974 are here turned into fiction with changed names, Dawson’s reasons for this are stated in an Afterword; “The life of a victim is a hard story to tell when there are living descendants (of the Lucan family too) and others who might still be hurt. My solution was to invent new characters whose story you have just read.” I think we as readers will respect the author’s decision here. Since reading this I haven’t gone into what was known about this grubby case other than what Dawson has told us in the Afterword and my vague recollections but she does seem to have followed the framework of events closely.

The narrative switches between a third person retelling and the first-person views of Rosemary, a friend of the doomed nanny. The two meet as voluntary patients in a psychiatric hospital and when a recovered Rosemary finds work as a nanny in London, Mandy follows and finds herself in charge of the two children from the fractured Morven family assisting the fragile and not-coping Lady Katherine who is trying to break free from the enigmatic but charismatic Dickie, wrapped in underhand tactics in a custody case. The two girls waver as to who should get their sympathies.

I think what Jill Dawson does very well here is to get the feel of the mid 1970’s just right not only in its many references but particularly in the attitudes. Mandy and Rosemary feel like two young girls new to the London of 1974. There’s a lot of anger in the novel, rightly so, in a case in which time has tended to lionise the disappearing perpetrator. In many ways just as Hallie Rubenhold aimed to reclaim the victims from the hype of Jack The Ripper in her non-fiction work “The Five” Dawson here has managed to move the focus back to the real-life victim Sandra Rivett perhaps even more effectively, especially as the character of Mandy is so vibrant and well-drawn.

There’s an element of imagery going on in the title and on occasions within the text based upon bird communication. At one point it takes the form of auditory hallucinations by swans and pigeons which caused Rosemary’s mental health episode but I’m not sure that this fits into the feel of the novel or understand why it is there. The relevance of this and of the title of the novel has passed me by.  It is not what I will remember this book for which is the great feel for the period, strong characterisation and the build up of dread as to how what we know is inevitable will pan out and the ramifications for those caught up in the grisly events.

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The Language Of Birds was published in hardback by Sceptre in April 2019.

Oct 19 Update – Read about Jill Dawson at the Isle Of Wight Literary festival here.

The Art Of Dying – Ambrose Parry (Canongate 2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Ambrose Parry’s “The Way Of All Flesh” was one of my crime novel highlights of 2018. I found its Victorian Edinburgh setting refreshing and the combination of an unpredictable crime set-up and a seamlessly incorporated history of medicine at the time was extremely effective. Two strong lead characters also helped, implying a lot of potential for this series.

This was Ambrose Parry’s debut novel but writing under that name is highly established crime writer Chris Brookmyre in collaboration with his anaesthesia expert wife Marisa Haetzman. This follow-up moves things on around a year with Dr Will Raven coming to the end of a tour of Europe and a violent incident in an alleyway before returning him back to the more familiar ground of Edinburgh where he has accepted the job of being his mentor Dr Simpson’s assistant. Here, he meets up again with another of Simpson’s employees, Sarah, but this time her circumstances have changed and it seems the authors are committed to keeping this couple who seem destined for one another apart.

The character of Simpson is based upon a real-life doctor noted for his discoveries with chloroform, which featured largely in the first book. Here, there is still experimentation with its usage, at one point it is served up as an alcoholic beverage but medically, anaesthetics have become more established and the issue now seems to be how to keep a patient alive after work has been done on them internally. Infection is the new priority.

The crime aspect comes via a woman not so keen on keeping the patients she is nursing alive and her narrative is interspersed throughout the text. I felt initially that the crime was taking a back seat compared to the medical history side of things but this is just Parry setting things up very nicely for us. Once again there were unpredictable twists and the novel builds just the way I always hope a crime novel will do.

Once again this is good quality fiction which is very readable, characters are developed (although Dr Simpson himself is more in the background) and I really want to know what is next for Will and Sarah. This series, in the space of two novels has established itself very well indeed.

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The Art of Dying is published in hardback by Canongate on 29th August 2019 . Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Meaning Of Night- Michael Cox (2006) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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“Revenge has a long memory”

My first re-read for some time is this historical thriller which was my Book Of The Year back when I read it as a new paperback in 2007. It has sat on my shelves since then and the reason I picked it up for a revisit was although revenge may have a long memory (a dominant theme in the book) I obviously do not as I could remember nothing about it other than I loved it. I wasn’t alone in my admiration as at the time it was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award but was beaten by the eventual overall winner Stef Penney for “The Tenderness Of Wolves”.

I can remember feeling that Michael Cox, a writer and academic known for anthologising Victorian short stories was a major new novel writing talent. Sadly, there was only to be one more novel, a sequel “The Glass Of Time” before he succumbed to cancer aged 61 in 2009. His debut was a work in progress for decades before reputedly a prescription for a steroid drug as preparation for treatment for tumours and loss of sight caused a significant burst of energy which resulted in him beginning to put this work together and saw him bring it and the sequel to completion following his temporarily successful treatment. This moving sequence of events of a writer driven to finish his magnum opus seems fitting for this large, intense, dark novel and this truly is a testament to the talents of Michael Cox.

The author’s feel for the Victorian period is evident throughout and it has real authenticity with strong elements of Wilkie Collins and Dickens making it a rich but in no way a quick read. It begins with a random murder carried out on the streets of London in 1854 by the narrator Edward Glyver whose confession we are reading. The reasons for this, the events leading up to and following this crime form the whole narrative. It is a tale of revenge and betrayal with the central location the country estate of Evenwood and the family who live here. The usual suspects of opium, prostitution, class and hypocrisy are all present but none of it feels any way cliched. This is because the author has really assimilated the period and obviously knows so much about it, garnered from years of research and this permeates the text in a natural and convincing way, particularly in the field of book collecting. An “editor’s” footnotes to the text gives the fiction a further air of authenticity as do other documents pertaining to the events in much the same way as Graeme Macrae Burnet’s “His Bloody Project” (2015).

I will admit there were times when I felt I was ploughing through this somewhat (as indeed I have done with many Victorian novels that I have ended up loving) and throughout I was concerned about how little I had remembered from last time round but like many of the novels from the period it emulates it did pull me right in and any effort in the reading was rewarded. On completion the feeling was of total satisfaction for a high quality reading experience. This novel does seem to have faded from public consciousness but I can’t help feeling that a sensitive tv or film adaptation could bring it back to the top of bestsellers lists.

I haven’t read the sequel from 2008 (this was so far under the radar that I didn’t even know it existed until researching for this but given the circumstances of the author’s health issues at the time this is not surprising) but have just ordered it hopefully to read while this novel is still fresh in my mind and I will not be parting with my (now quite well worn) paperback copy of “The Meaning Of Night” anytime soon.
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The Meaning of Night was published in 2006. I read the 2007 John Murray paperback edition.

Ten Second Staircase – Christopher Fowler (2006) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Christopher Fowler is the clear leader on my most read authors list. Since first discovering what is still my favourite of his books, the Faustian “Spanky” as a new publication in 1994 I have now read 16 of his works. He is strongest with horror novels with dark comic undertones, both “Soho Black” and “Calabash” have impressed me and last year I was inspired by his “Book Of Forgotten Authors” to make a reading list from which I’ve sampled so far Patrick Dennis, Margery Allingham, Edmund Crispin and Barbara Pym.

Since 2003 Christopher Fowler has really established himself with a crime series featuring elderly detectives Arthur Bryant and John May from The Peculiar Crimes Unit. I have read now four of the to-date 18. This is obviously a very successful enterprise for him – I have still to be convinced.

In a number of ways these novels strengths are also their weaknesses. This is written with a playful quirkiness which when it works well explores the puzzle-solving aspect of the crime novel making the author’s role in manipulating and misleading readers more explicit but there is a danger this can make the book seem gimmicky. There’s also an odd use of time which I find disorientating. Nobody knows how old Bryant and May really are but judging from what they say about their past they are very old indeed which makes them feel less plausible as characters in this modern-day setting. But does that matter? Well, it does and it doesn’t. The plots are led by the detectives’ eccentric approaches of dealing with crime with much referencing to their past and sometimes this feels like a distraction to what is going on.

What is done well is London itself, whose history and mythology is incorporated to give a sense of timelessness to the piece. It can at times feel like an alternative reality novel where octogenarians are still putting themselves professionally into precarious positions but it is not as references are regularly made to past events we all know about. It’s clear from the above that I am still struggling to make full sense of the concept and feel of this series.

In this fourth instalment a killer in highwayman garb is killing celebrities which may possibly have links to an unsolved crime Bryant and May were involved with decades before which ended in personal tragedy for them. It begins with their immediate boss contacting the Home Office to get the detectives removed because of their age and competency and Bryant goes on to show how out of touch he is with the modern world when he addresses a group of private school boys where neither his past nor the boys’ present rings true to me. It twists and turns with some memorable characters along the way, yet at this stage, some of the series regulars are still feeling underdeveloped (but admittedly, I do have a lot of the series to go).

Summing up, I very much enjoyed aspects of this book but its unorthodox approach to crime solving did cause my interest to wane. I think it is better than both the first and third of the series neither of which I particularly enjoyed and I do feel that there is so much potential and that seeds are being sown which will elevate this series once I get more of a complete grasp of what is going on.  My befuddled view is reminiscent of what I felt about much of the BBC TV adaptation of “Sherlock” and look how popular that became. I wouldn’t have read 16 books by this author, however, if I didn’t feel in some way committed to his writing (and I do have a few more unread copies of this series on my shelves) so I’m not giving up yet.

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Ten Second Staircase was published by Doubleday in 2006