Bluebird Bluebird- Attica Locke (2017) – A Murder They Wrote Review

Attica Locke is an American author I’ve been meaning to read for some time.  I chose to start with the 4th of her 5 novels, the first in her so far two novel series “Highway 59” which features black Texan Ranger Darren Matthews.

In this novel Darren uses a temporary suspension from duties to visit the small East Texan town of Lark where two bodies have been fished out of the Bayou in rapid succession; a black man visiting the area followed a few days later by a young mother who lived locally.  This is not the usual order for murder victims in a location where the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas still operates, historically, too often a black man has been killed in retaliation for a white woman killing so the Rangers interest and his local knowledge of both the black and white local communities leads him to risk his fragile marriage and stay to unravel the case, meeting up with the dead man’s widow in the process.

Tensions simmer and occasionally bubble to the surface in this oppressive atmosphere which the author very effectively conveys.  Her main character is flawed but driven by a background brought up by two uncles, one himself a Texan Ranger, the other a lawyer, and a strong sense to do the right thing.  The story behind his suspension adds another layer to the plot and feels like it will carry over to the next in the series.  Richly written, strong characterisation and subtle plot twists made this very enjoyable and I would certainly want to catch up with this author’s other novels.

Bluebird Bluebird was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2017.

The Greenway – Jane Adams (1995) – A Murder They Wrote Review

imagesN8KPZ1YT

greenway

I have recently become aware of and pretty fascinated by independent UK publishers Joffe. They seem to be rewriting the rules of publishing and as a result are doing extremely well with 2.2 million books sold in 2019 from 116 books published in e-book editions with big plans to launch paperbacks this year. They develop a fan-base for their authors by drawing readers in with free and low-price offers. Proof this works is suggested by the latest title from one of their biggest authors Faith Martin (2 million books sold and rising) which is currently sitting atop the Bookseller monthly E-Book ranking with another of their authors (Joy Ellis) at number 4.

I picked up ten free titles recently on an excellent one-day offer many of which are debut crime novels. I’ve sung the company’s praises now all I have to do is read one of their books, which up to now I haven’t done. They have also purchased a number of backlist titles and relaunched them and this which was first published by Macmillan in 1995 has been revised by Joffe in 2019. It is the first of a series of four novels published by them featuring detective Mike Croft.

Set in a small town about 15 miles from Norwich, it opens with a dream sequence (which is not my favourite way to open a novel and there are actually quite a few dreams in this) but then settles into introducing Cassie returning with her husband and friends for a break in a place that 20 years before as a child she’d visit frequently to stay with an aunt. This ended abruptly when her cousin disappeared from a wooded passage known as The Greenway. Cassie returns to deal with demons from the time and when another child disappears under similar circumstances we have a case for recent arrival Mike Croft.

The tension is especially well cranked up at the beginning but that dissipates somewhat once we get into the police procedural aspect. The rural location has a history of supernatural legend which Adams touches on nicely from time to time and I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Croft and Tynan, the retired detective from the earlier case. I hope that this is something developed in the future novels. I found this a satisfactory crime thriller experience and will certainly look out for further titles by this author. Fans of the psychological thriller genre will find lots to enjoy and I like it that Joffe are giving their readers opportunities to discover their authors on their publishing list for little or no cost. If you haven’t read a Joffe title perhaps it is time to explore these innovative publishers who have certainly been doing their bit to keep readers occupied during lockdown.

threestars

 

The Greenway was originally published in 1995. I read the 2019 Joffe e-book edition.

The Poisoned Chalice – Bernard Knight (1998) – A Murder They Wrote Review

imagesN8KPZ1YT

bernardknight

I should really crack on with this series.  I  read  the first one “The Sanctuary Seeker” (1998) back in 2017 and it has taken me this long to get round to the second.  I have another 8 of them on my shelves and at this rate I’m not going to complete them until 2032 and then there are the other five Bernard Knight has written that I do not currently own.

My experience with this one was much the same as the previous which introduced us to medieval coroner Sir John De Wolfe.  I found it took me quite a while to get into it and never felt totally immersed in Knight’s vision of late twelfth century Exeter.  Set a month or so after its predecessor this tale begins with an inspection of a shipwreck then moves back to largely within the city walls as a local silversmith finds himself implicated in two crimes involving daughters of notable families.  Relationships between the characters are further established.  We know that the coroner is going to continue to be pitched professionally against his brother-in-law, the sheriff, an inevitable consequence of the redefining of legal boundaries at the time and is also going to experience a fair amount of conflict with his wife Matilda, preferring the more welcoming arms of his mistress, pub landlady Nesta.

Knight packs quite a lot of history into his text which initially makes it a dense read as the historical significance of events require backtracking and a glossary of medieval terms needs to be frequently consulted but once the plot hits its stride around mid-way through this becomes less of an issue as the events in Exeter are brought to a satisfying conclusion.  I think, on reflection, I did enjoy this more than “The Sanctuary Seeker” which bodes well for the series.threestars

The Poisoned Chalice was first published in 1998.  I read a Pocket Books paperback edition.

 

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

imagesN8KPZ1YT

chris whitaker

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.

fourstars

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

imagesN8KPZ1YT

knockatdoor2

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.

threestars

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

images

again the three

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.

twostars

fourjustmencomplete

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

images

wallacelaw

 

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.

twostars

fourjustmencomplete

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

imagescordova

 

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.

fourjustmencomplete

threestars

 

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

images

council

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.

threestars

fourjustmencomplete

 

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

imagesN8KPZ1YT

dawson

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.

fourstars

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.