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 Chalk Man – C J Tudor (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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“Every kid wants to find a dead body. About the only thing a twelve year old boy wants to find more is a spaceship, buried treasure or a porn mag.”

These sentiments expressesd in CJ Tudor’s debut remind me very much of “Stand By Me”, the film based upon the short story by Stephen King and the King feel looms large throughout this book, there is even a front cover recommendation from the man himself who has obviously noted that he and Tudor are pulling in the same direction as he states; “If you like my stuff, you’ll like this.”

But don’t think this is some Stephen King rip-off as it is has an identity all of its own. For a start it is British set in a town called Anderbury located around 20 miles from Bournemouth. We have a narrative of two time spans – 1986 with the aforementioned twelve year old boys and thirty years later when a discovery made back then in the woods is still holding the main characters back.

I was really looking forward to the 1980’s setting and I think the author does a pretty good job of conjuring up what it was like to be twelve in the mid-80s but I think I was looking for a stronger feel of the period, but then again I suppose we can’t expect this particular group of adolescents to be too aware of what was going on around them, they are just living their last innocent summer before some horrific realities of life kick in.

What the author does do very well in her debut is to keep a tense atmosphere throughout. A terrifying incident at a fairground packs one hell of a punch early on and from then on we know that lives will never be the same again. I like the ambiguity in the title referring both to chalk figures used by main character Ed and his pals to communicate; to drawings which have resurfaced in the later narrative strand and to the nickname of an albino teacher who makes his presence felt in the summer before he joins the children’s school. This all adds to the richness and edginess of the book.

Characterisation is memorable, the resolution perhaps not as satisfactory as the build- up but I often feel that way about crime novels. I really like the idea of us having a budding Stephen King here in the UK and I could also feel the influence of another of the author’s literary heroes, James Herbert. This is well-written edgy crime, that never allows the reader to truly relax and which does hover towards horror on quite a few occasions. I’m not surprised that it has appeared on a good number of “Best Of 2018” lists.
fourstars

The Chalk Man was published by Penguin in 2018.

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

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.

The Perfect Murder- Peter James (2010) -A Murder They Wrote Review

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My second Peter James novel I’ve read this year is a much slighter affair than “Dead Man’s Grip” which will be in contention for my Book of The Year this year.  “The Perfect Murder” takes my tally of James’ novels to eight which eases him into the anchor position of my Top 10 most read authors alongside Martina Cole and John Steinbeck.  This was because I selected “A Quick Read Novel” from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge.  This was published for World Book Day in 2010 and can be polished off quite easily in an hour.  The whole Quick Reads enterprise is to tempt people back into reading primarily but it can also provide a cheap, easy read for fans of the author.  Last year I read Minette Walters’ “Chickenfeed” from the same series.  You are not going to get the very best work from an author but hopefully a sampler of what they do in order to tempt you into finding out more.

“The Perfect Murder” is a stand-alone novel set like James’ Roy Grace series in Brighton, although on this occasion it could have been set anywhere.  Victor and Joan Smiley, a rather elderly-seeming pair of forty-somethings are so stuck in the rut of their marriage that the only way out seems to be murder and both are planning to bump the other one off.

Characterisation is broadly drawn yet effective and there are twists to the tale, some of which I didn’t see coming, some I did.  There is a danger when writing these Quick Reads to order that the more limited vocabulary and length these demand can mean that the actual defining style of the author does not come through.  I think this is, to an extent, a valid point in both the James and Walters novellas I’ve read but the Brighton location and very Peter James front cover goes some way to rectifying this.

I know that Peter James has produced at least one collection of short stories and here he displays that he has the knack of conveying a sinister involving tale in a succinct fashion.

threestars

The Perfect Murder was published by Pan Books in 2010.

Cover Her Face – P D James (1962) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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How have I got to this ripe old age without having ever read P D James?  This is even more of an oversight when amongst my most-read authors you would find Ruth Rendell, Martina Cole and Agatha Christie.  I know how good Baroness James Of Holland Park (1920-2014) was and I always enjoyed watching and listening to her being interviewed and reading about her – but of her fiction, up to now I’ve not read a scrap.

Seeing as I like to read in chronological order I had to start with her very first novel, which introduced Adam Dalgleish dating right back to 1962.  It is a surprisingly traditional country house whodunnit with all the elements present from the golden age of crime fiction- a death in a locked room,  a social gathering which sees outsiders coming into the rarefied atmosphere of the house (in this case a garden fete), suspects both above and below stairs and a denouement where all of the possible killers are together for the unveiling by the lead sleuth, in this case, Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgleish.  Of him we learn very little on this outing (he has a boat for off-duty adventures) as it is the inhabitants of Martingale Manor who are this novel’s central focus.

1962 is quite late on in the day for a form of fiction that was at its peak a couple of decades earlier so it’s surprising that James was not offering anything new here, but what we do get is a plot which shows intelligence and a complete understanding of the genre. She paves the way with clues that I didn’t pick up on (I so rarely do) and has produced a novel which is well-written with involving characterisation which all adds to breathing some new life into a well-worn format.

There’s nothing that feels like cliché here and that is testament to James’ handling of the plot.  Some of the attitudes might seem old-fashioned but that is only to be expected.  I enjoyed reading this very much.
fourstars

Cover Your Face was first published in 1962 by Faber and Faber.  I read a 2010 paperback.  The book is still in print.

One For The Money – Janet Evanovich (1994) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Selected because I drew “Read A Book From A Female Point Of View” from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge this is my first Janet Evanovich.  It is also her first book to feature Bounty Hunter Stephanie Plum – a series the author certainly decided to run with as there are now twenty-four novels together with four which fall out of the numbered sequence of the main series (at least the reader will know what order to read them in!).  Book #25 “Look Alive Twenty Five” is due in November 2018.

Back at book number 1 we meet an unemployed Stephanie persuaded by her mother to go for a filing job at her cousin Vinnie’s Bonding Company.  With that position unavailable Stephanie persuades her relative to take her on as a “skip tracer”, tracking FTA’s (individuals who have failed to appear at court).  At this point I thought I was going to be thrown by the complexities of the American legal system but here we get a somewhat hapless inexperienced but enthusiastic bounty hunter attempting to find her place in this dangerous environment.

Cousin Vinnie gives Stephanie a week to track and capture New Jersey’s currently Most Wanted, cop Joe Morelli who has gunned down a man in suspicious circumstances and gone on the run.  The potential pay-off for finding him will sort out Stephanie’s financial problems.

Her main difficulty is that she is clueless about how to proceed and this sets up much humour alongside the crime which is a good part of this series’ appeal and is the reason this author gets such good feedback from crime readers of both genders.  I was concerned, especially with the cover of this Penguin reprint that it might be fairly standard chick-lit with a gun and although Stephanie’s ineptitude does mean she has much in common with many light romantic fiction heroines the crime aspect is well done, actually really quite thrilling which gives the whole thing a different and very satisfying complexion.

I’ve never been a huge fan of first-person American crime fiction when that first person has been some macho action or hard-boiled detective but Stephanie’s point of view is irresistible as her attempts to convey crime noir falls apart as she gets herself into deeper and deeper scrapes.  I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this as much as I did. although I should have known this was Evanovich’s strength and that she really wins readers over.  I often see library borrowers bring back the one book they’ve tried and then check out an armful from the series.  I will certainly be interested in finding out how Stephanie gets on.  Don’t be put off by what might on the surface seem formulaic, this is a winner both in terms of commercial sales and critical acclaim (this first book won the Crime Writer’s Association John Creasey Award).  It all starts here……..

fourstars

One For The Money is published by Penguin Books in the UK.  Originally appearing in 1994 I read the 2004 paperback version.

Blog Tour Post Special – A Necessary Murder – M J Tjia (Legend Press 2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I came across Australian author’s debut series novel “She Be Damned” in October last year.  It introduced sleuth Heloise Chancey, a well-off courtesan in Victorian London who first time round helped out an aristocratic private detective with a case.  I was very much struck by Heloise’s potential to lead a series.  She is a strong, complex character with the ability, because of her background, to move fairly effortlessly through the strata of Victorian society.  The debut was highly readable and I’ve had good feedback from readers since both from my review and at the library where I work. 

 Legend Press have just published the second novel in the series.  There’s some grisly throat-cutting of a child found in an outhouse of her family home in Stoke Newington and later and much closer to home to Heloise with the weapon likely to have been stolen from her property.  Circumstances suggest that these could be linked to Heloise’s origins and that her maid, Amah Li Leen’s past may hold the key.

 There are two main plot strands here and things for me notched up a gear when Heloise goes undercover on the Lovejoy family estate, with its distinct echoes of the real life 1860 case of the Kent family from Somerset, the subject of Kate Summerscale’s “The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher” (2008).  I do think, however, that compared to last time round Heloise feels more subdued as a character.  This case does not allow her to sparkle in the same way and there is less of a feel for the times.

 Second novel in and I’m not still not totally convinced by Amah Li Leen, an enigmatic character with much back story.  I think I know why this is and it’s due to the changes in narrative style.  Heloise’s narration is first person yet for Amah’s contribution to the plot M J Tjia chooses to switch to third-person, often mid-chapter, which disrupts the flow.  I found myself having to re-read sections where Amah was central and this was not happening when Heloise was in charge.  In future novels I’d love to see a strengthening of the dynamics between these two characters.  At the end of this novel a trip to Venice is proposed which could forge these bonds away from the restrictions of London society. 

 I thought that whereas the last novel felt quite Dickensian in its influence that here we have more of a Wilkie Collins vibe.  In fact it had more of a different feel to its predecessor than I was expecting.  I still think there is a lot of potential in this series to continue with lots of facets of both lead characters to be explored.  It is establishing itself nicely and those who like a historical feel to their crime should seek it out.

threestars

 

Thanks to Legend Press who sent me a review copy and have included me into the book’s blog tour.  For other opinions on MJ Tjia and related info, take a look at the other sites in the tour.

 A Necessary Murder blog tour

The Mermaids Singing – Val McDermid (1995) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I seem to have a thing about mermaids at the moment as they have featured in the titles of the last two books I’ve read. But this is a very different proposition from Mrs Hancock’s mermaid, a gripping and really quite grisly crime thriller from 1995 which introduced McDermid regulars Dr Tony Hill and Detective Inspector Carol Jordan. The title is a quote from TS Eliot’s “Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

“I have heard the mermaids singing each to each/I do not think they will sing to me.”

This is the first Val McDermid novel I have read but it certainly will not be the last as it kept me gripped throughout. The tortured bodies of young men have been turning up in gay cruising areas in the fictional northern city of Bradfield. The police are initially slow to make a connection but once it dawns upon them that a serial killer is on the loose they bring in profiler Tony Hill, working on a study of using profiling techniques for the Home Office, to help out and Carol Jordan is appointed as liaison between Hill and the Police, a number of whom need some convincing about his methods.

It has been twenty-three years since this book’s publication which is a long time in the world of crime. The reader has to remember to accept profiling is in its early stages, that people use pagers instead of mobile phones and technology we take for granted today is seen as cutting edge but that shouldn’t mar enjoyment. Also, hopefully, attitudes towards gay lifestyles have also mellowed, the views and assumptions of some of the Police Officers here seem somewhat prehistoric. In the novel there are aspects which veer towards what we might consider unacceptable in our more enlightened times but McDermid is herself a gay writer writing very much of the time.

The novel switches between police procedural and the words of the killer, who is not known to us, outlining plans and it is these sections which make for some difficult reading as this is one sick individual who writes with glee about the selection of victims and the terrible tortures that are inflicted upon them. I had not realised that McDermid’s novels were quite as gritty as this, there is no hiding from the true horrors of crime here.

Tony Hill is a complex character who has fascinated the author enough to feature him in to date ten novels. He finds it difficult to form relationships, cannot act on his attraction to Carol Jordan and resorts to anonymous phone sex. For a man whose background is working around therapy he could certainly do with some. The whole process of his work as a profiler would seem more familiar to us now than at publication (“Silence Of The Lambs” is used as a reference point). Now we are more au fait as profiling has become a staple in crime fiction and movies and in such TV series as “Criminal Minds”, but there is a section where Hill is putting together his views on the serial killer which is absolutely fascinating and so well-written in that we learn so much about Hill as a character. He says to the image of the killer he is attempting to conjure up; “I’m just like you, you see, I’m your mirror image. I’m the poacher turned gamekeeper. It’s only hunting you that keeps me from being you. I’m here waiting for you. Journey’s end.

I’m wondering whether this aspect of Hill is played down more in subsequent novels in the series but it certainly packs a punch in this debut. And it’s not all grisly. For me, McDermid can get away with the gruesome as she writes so well, with a real feel for language and a dark humour and comes across as someone who relishes words and the world of books and wants to communicate this to her readers. Although it is disturbing and chilling there is also a warmth as the author welcomes us into this fictional world of Bradfield. This comes not from the characters, events or locations but from the writing and this feels really unusual.

Plot-wise it is not outstanding and there are elements which feel a little contrived but it is such a strong introduction to a series and I think I am really going to like Val McDermid as a writer.

fourstars

The Mermaids Singing was published by Harper Collins in 1995. I read the 20th anniversary edition with a foreword by Lee Child.