Eeny Meeny – M J Arlidge (2014) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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TV writer/Executive Producer Matthew Arlidge made an impression at his first meeting with Penguin Books when he pitched seven titles of a new crime series.  They took him on board and must have then hoped for a big seller with his debut publication. This they got.  It was picked up as a Richard and Judy Summer Book Club title and established the author as one of the most exciting crime writers of the last few years and he has followed this title with to date another five featuring Detective Inspector Helen Grace.

I was three-quarters of the way through before I discovered M J was a male writer.  The use of initials and a female lead had me thinking Matthew might be a Melinda.  It should make no difference but I realised I quite like to know the gender of the writer whilst reading.  The autobiographical blurb in this debut is (deliberately?) gender-neutral. Is this some kind of marketing ploy?  Does it actually make a difference to crime fans?

Arlidge certainly packs a punch with this debut right from the start.  Helen Grace (a nod to Peter James’ Roy Grace perhaps?) has such a tough time with this case that it’s hard to see how the author will top this for her – surely every other case must be a breeze to solve after this one!

A female serial killer is abducting people in pairs and placing them in an abandoned building.  There’s a way out for one of them- kill the other.  Grace finds herself challenged professionally, through involvement with someone on her team and through leaked information as well as personally when she spots links between her and some of the victims.  The crimes are cruel and chilling which makes this an edgy and compelling police procedural.  Short chapters power the reader through the book.  It’s unpredictable but I did feel the twists running up to the end felt a little rushed.  There’s no doubt that M J Arlidge is a welcome, fresh addition to the crime book world and I’m looking forward to reading more.

fourstars

Eeny Meeny was published by Penguin in 2014.

Chickenfeed – Minette Walters (2006) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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One of the continuing aims of World Book Day/Night is to get reluctant readers immersed into the world of books.  Back in 2006 a set of “Quick Reads” were published in an initiative between publishing and other related industries.  Twelve popular authors were asked to produce short, fast-paced books to bring people back into reading and to encourage the emerging adult reader.  It was a highly successful enterprise which has been repeated in subsequent years.  Amongst this first batch of Quick Read authors were Val McDermid, John Francome, Ruth Rendell, Maeve Binchey and Minette Walters who was presented with the Readers’ Favourite Award for this short novel “Chickenfeed”.

I have read three earlier Walters novels, “The Breaker” (1998) which I really enjoyed, her 1993 breakthrough novel “The Sculptress” which I had more reservations about and “The Tinder Box” a novella from two years prior to “Chickenfeed”.  I’ve seen that book described as a “Chapbook”, I’m not sure what constitutes that in the 21st Century.

In “Chickenfeed” Walters fictionalises a real-life crime. It has a simple plot-line, understandably given its length and scope and much is given away in just a few lines on the back cover.  I like the surprise element of reading and often do not read back covers until I’ve finished the book and too big a reveal is the main reason why.

The murder took place in the 1920s on a chicken farm and it’s a tale of boy meets girl, girl has unrealistic expectations, boy wants to get rid of girl but she won’t take the hint- a universal life-lesson theme but here it ends in tragedy.

The most interesting and thought-provoking aspect can be found in the author’s notes at the back of the back where Walters doubts the established turn of events and gives a very valid reason why.  This challenges what has been assumed before and if I was a reader with limited recent experience of books I might just feel stimulated by this doubt raised and want to read more.  This book could very well be an entrée into crime fiction and true crime accounts.

By its very nature this is a slight book but well handled.  As I didn’t read the back cover I wasn’t sure how it was going to pan out or even who was going to be murdered.  I read it in under an hour, the largish clear print meant I could read it on the bus without my usual slightly nauseous feeling and it was certainly time well spent.  Just sometimes there’s a lot to be said for a “quick read”.

threestars

Chickenfeed was published by Pan Books in 2006

A Clubbable Woman – Reginald Hill (1970) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Amazingly, this is my first introduction to Reginald Hill and his Yorkshire set Dalziel and Pascoe series.  An acclaimed BBC1 adaptation ran from 1996 to 2007 and starred Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan as the two Police Officers likened in this first novel to Laurel and Hardy but I managed never to see a single episode.  Reginald Hill died in 2012.  He wrote 24 Dalziel and Pascoe novels over a period of 39 years (plus a couple of novellas) as well as his Joe Sixsmith novels and a considerable number of standalones under his own name and as Patrick Ruell, Dick Marland and Charles Underhill.  A prolific British writer and I’ve never read anything by him before. Shame on me.

I’m putting this right with the first of a set I purchased from The Book People at one of their too good to miss prices. It was first published in 1970 and it does feel like it.  Do you think crime novels date as well as other genres?  I’m not convinced and it’s often because of attitudes.  Firstly, the title made me feel as if I was a misogynist just by choosing to read it and I found myself carefully positioning it when reading it on the train to make sure people didn’t see it.  This is because of the implications I take from the title that some women deserve what they get and that there are those who can be deemed “clubbable”.

We are in Northern, male, working-class territory here with its rugby club setting and two rather unenlightened police officers.  The contrast between the two, DS Andrew Dalziel nicknamed “The Bruiser” by other members of the rugby club is very definitively of the “old school” of policing and the university educated Sergeant Peter Pascoe, represents the future as it was seen in 1970, anyway.  It’s not too far into the novel before you can appreciate that the tensions between the two would be ripe with future potential to last for a number of books.

Despite their differences, their views on women aren’t that far apart and that is representative of this part of society in the time the novel was written.  They both seem to see pick-up potential with women in inappropriate situations.  Hill has written a police procedural which flows well.  He does protect us somewhat as readers (we never get to know what was in an “obscene” letter sent to one of the characters.  I can’t imagine that many twenty-first century crime writers sparing our blushes).

The wife of a long-standing member of a rugby club is murdered and everyone becomes a suspect.  I didn’t see the twists coming but didn’t feel totally satisfied by the conclusion.  Characterisation is strong. I felt that even the minor characters felt real which suggests very good things for this series.  I don’t feel that this is going to be the strongest of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels but I can be a stickler for chronological order and despite misgivings when I picked up the book it really was the only place to start.

threestars

A Clubbable Woman was published by Harper Collins in 1970.

Don’t Wake Up- Liz Lawler (Twenty Seven 2017)- A Murder They Wrote Review

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Liz Lawler was obviously paying full attention when told that a debut novel needs to grab readers right from the start as the opening chapters of this novel certainly pack a punch. As an ex-nurse Lawler is totally convincing at setting the scene in her thriller set largely in a Bristol hospital.

Twenty-eight year old Doctor Alex Taylor is good at her job and well respected by colleagues. She has a handsome vet as her boyfriend but her life changes the moment she wakes up on an operating theatre table. Why she is there and what will happen to her provides those opening chills.

I think Lawler has made a brave move in opting to write a “nobody believes me” novel because these are often on a fine line. It’s easy to stretch plausibility and readers can lose sympathy with the character not being taken seriously as their actions, which often lead them down deeper holes and further suspicion can be perceived as them being stupid. Liz Lawler does largely avoid this although at times Alex is frustrating and not always likeable, but then she is in some predicament. It certainly kept me reading but personally I wasn’t completely won over. The author puts her main character through scenes of torture which made me feel a little grubby after reading them. I wasn’t totally convinced by her male characters in particular Detective Inspector Greg Turner who is assigned to Dr Taylor’s case. After such a tremendous beginning I did not feel that the novel always flowed smoothly.

I don’t often read this kind of commercial misery-thriller and I would admit that it would have to be fairly extraordinary to blow me away so perhaps it wasn’t the greatest match for me but if I haven’t put you off with this and you like being chilled right from the start this debut is well worth seeking out.

threestars

Available now in a Kindle edition. “Don’t Wake Up” will be published as a paperback in October 2017. Many thanks to Twenty Seven and Pigeonhole for the opportunity to read a review copy.

The Mayfly- James Hazel (Zaffre 2017) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Corporate lawyer James Hazel quit his job specialising in commercial litigation and employment law in order to write and, if that was a risk, it has paid off as his debut novel sees him as a welcome addition to the quality British crime-writing market.  The man’s enthusiasm for crime thrillers comes across strongly in the first of a projected series featuring lawyer Charlie Priest.

Hazel’s hero has a disassociation disorder which causes him to float in and out of (usually stressful) situations so they feel less “real” to him.  This genetic condition has led to a family tragedy in his past and Priest has moved from crime-solving as a former policeman to building up a successful law practice.

Priest discovers he is embroiled in some dark deeds when a ruthless burglar breaks into his apartment looking for a flash drive.  This leads to a situation which originates from Nazi medical experimentation towards the end of the Second World War and theories on suffering and torture.  It seems that there is a British revival of these theories going on and a dried insect (of the title) is some kind of invitation to participate.

There seems a blend of styles here from a man who obviously knows his crime fiction yet the chill factor is continuously upped until we get to the horror/crime feel of Thomas Harris and his Hannibal Lecter novels.  It’s handled confidently and well, although Hazel might want to rethink his sex scene writing in his next novel as one here is particularly clunky and seems jarring to the flow of the novel.

The disassociation aspect is interesting and by no means overplayed here which would imply that Hazel has plenty of mileage to use this in subsequent Priest novels.  The climax tests plausibility somewhat but doesn’t cross the boundary into unlikely  so all in all a strong debut.  Those looking for a new quality crime series and for some summer chills may wish to seek this out.

fourstars

The Mayfly is published on 15th June by Zaffre.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.

The Silkworm – Robert Galbraith (2014) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I read JK Rowling’s first adult crime novel written as Robert Galbraith earlier this year and was impressed.  I thought “The Cuckoo’s Calling” (2013) was highly entertaining and had a generous helping of humour and warmth alongside the crime.  I liked the relationship between dogged private detective Cormoran Strike and his PA, Robin, and felt the whole thing seemed plausible and very real.

“The Silkworm” feels like a bigger novel, in terms of size; in its nod towards Jacobean revenge tragedies; with its literary quotes and setting in the world of publishing and literary fiction and in its more lurid, darker crime.  I so wanted to like it as much as its predecessor but for me it fell a little short.  Perhaps this was inevitable.  I’d always felt the debut Harry Potter novel was better than the follow-ups and with “The Silkworm”, Rowling as Galbraith falls into the same trap as Rowling as Rowling as the pace falters due to the length of the novel.  Both “The Philosopher’s Stone”and “Cuckoo’s Calling” are tightly written little gems but with “The Silkworm” as in the later Hogwarts epics my attention wandered.

Author Owen Quine disappears after his latest book which attacks his so called friends and colleagues is being touted to publishers by his agent.  Is the whole thing some kind of publicity stunt or is something much darker about to happen?  Cormoran Strike, asked by the author’s wife to locate him seems more in control here, fuelled by the success of the case in “The Cuckoo’s Calling” which has brought him greater kudos as a private detective and a continuing difficult relationship with the Police.  Strike has favours he can call in and with Robin still motivated to find out as much as she can abut detective work the reader is confident Strike will solve the crime before the authorities.

Like “The Cuckoo’s Calling” the case is involving and well-plotted but Galbraith here takes a little too long to get to the solution, there’s a few too many meetings with suspects and the literary analysis of the work causing the disappearance makes the book feel not as plausible as last time round and slightly irritated me.  It is no means a failure but now the characters have been established I was expecting a real cracker of a novel and that Galbraith would have me eating out of his/her hand but it didn’t quite live up to my high expectations.

threestars

The Silkworm was published by  Sphere  in 2014

The Shape Of Water – Andrea Camilleri (2003) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Although I’ve watched every episode of both “Inspector Montalbano” and “Young Montalbano” shown over here on BBC4 I’ve never read any of the books on which they are based.  This is the first in the sequence published in the UK in 2003.  Those of you who want to be strictly chronological may wish to start with Camilleri’s 2013 collection “Montalbano’s First Case & Other Stories” but I’m going with the order by publication date.

So far Camilleri has produced twenty of these Italian bestsellers up to 2016’s “A Voice In The Night”with the next two scheduled (“A Nest Of Vipers” is due to be published in August 2017) so I have a fair bit of catching up to do.  I did find myself remembering the TV adaptation quite well as I was reading this (I’m usually a bit of a stickler for reading the book first) and I couldn’t get Luca Zingaretti’s portrayal of the Inspector out of my head.

Plotwise, a local notable is found dead in his car at a known cruising ground, partially clad and having recently had a good time.  It’s believed to be a fairly scandalous natural causes heart attack but Montalbano thinks differently.  On the same site a valuable necklace is found by two waste disposal men and there is obviously some link between the jewellery and the dead man.  Despite some rather tortuous long sentences at the beginning of the novel this settles into a quick and relatively easy read.  The glory of Sicily does not come across, obviously, as well as it does on the television but here, in this translation by Stephen Saratelli you don’t need to read the subtitles.  Once you’re drawn into the Italian way of complex local political manoeuvrings and a different kind of logic and Camilleri writing more than you’d expect with tongue firmly in cheek this provides a very satisfactory introduction to these quirky crime capers.  At times I could feel the influence of prolific French author Georges Simenon (Camilleri worked on a TV production of “Maigret” before embarking on his writing career) and that’s certainly no bad thing.

threestars

The Shape Of Water was published by Picador in 2003

Nutshell – Ian McEwan (2016) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I feel that Ian McEwan has been part of my reading life for a long time.  I was 18 and supposedly revising for my A Levels when I discovered his first two collections of short stories, the Somerset Maugham award-winning “First Love, Last Rites” (1975) and “In Between The Sheets” (1978).  I had never read anything like these tales ever before.  I also devoured  his dark debut novel “The Cement Garden” (1978) whilst I should have been listing the reasons for the French Revolution.

His next couple of novels seemed slighter affairs but I was back with him for “The Innocent” (1990) and particularly for his tale of  hot air balloons and obsession “Enduring Love” (1998), a book I am determined to re-read this year to see if it is as good as I remembered.  His 1998 Booker Prize winning “Amsterdam” is less memorable and came before the book which should have picked up every accolade going, his masterwork as far as I am concerned “Atonement” (2001), one of the best novels of this century so far.  I still have the last three before this latest, “Solar” (2010), Sweet Tooth (2012) and “The Children Act” (2014) sitting on my shelves waiting to be read but I couldn’t hold out when I saw “Nutshell” in my local library and had to borrow it and read it, especially as he is the current holder of my  Reviewsrevues Book Of The Year Re-Read Award.

My verdict- it is very good but not classic McEwan.  It lacks the richness and depth of his very best but it is a very involving and memorable read.  Narrated by a foetus in a womb this is certainly a crime novel with a difference.  This very well-informed youngster has picked up significant life experiences from listening to podcasts and the radio as well as a gourmand’s tastes from the rich food and copious amounts of wine his mother imbibes.  He has a vivid sense of the world he has never seen, two factors which make him a fascinating if not totally reliable narrator.  When he hears his mother and her lover, Claude, his father’s brother, plotting to kill his father (obvious shades of “Hamlet” here) he faces the dilemma of being a small part of a “perfect crime” coupled with a need for his biological father backed by an awareness of what repercussions there will be for his young life if things go wrong.

This is very much a character study of the three sides of the love triangle as seen through the (unopened) eyes of the embryo.  There are digressions aplenty as he attempts to make sense of his world before he makes an appearance and an attuned awareness of the developments of the murder plot.  The three adults are brought to life vividly but it is the unborn who the reader will be rooting for.  It’s original and like the best crime novels I did find myself holding my breath towards the end as McEwan’s plot comes to resolution.

fourstars

 

Nutshell was published in hardback by Jonathan Cape in September 2016.  The paperback edition is due in June 2017.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent (Picador 2013) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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A little while back I read Australian author Hannah Kent’s second novel “The Good People”,  a dark sombre tale set in nineteenth century Ireland with superstition and folklore battling against religion and common sense.  A friend, who read and loved it recommended I seek out Kent’s debut and I am very glad I have.

This writer can certainly do atmosphere.  The claustrophobic smoke-filled peat huts of village Ireland are here replaced by the darkness, freezing conditions and damp wool of nineteenth century Iceland.  Like “The Good People” Kent has used a real-life case for this historical crime novel.  Here it is the plight of Agnes Magnusdottir whose claim for infamy is that she was the last person to be executed for murder in Iceland in 1834.

Following a spell in prison after the death of two men Agnes is sent out to lodge with a local official’s family to await her beheading and to get access to a local minister who would attempt to set her back on the right path.  Agnes had previously spent some time in the area where she had met a young Reverend who she nominates as the man to meet with her. With an Icelandic winter approaching escape from her situation is unlikely and she becomes involved with the work of the family in their preparation for winter.

Her tale is largely told in the one room of the farm with the family and workers, understandably wary of the murderess in their midst, listening in.

This is some debut with Kent totally abandoning the “write what you know” advice to recreate nineteenth century Iceland.  She had spent some time in the country as an exchange student.  This was when the location of the real-life Agnes’ execution was pointed out to here but this novel obviously required a vast amount of research and immersion into the environment to give its intense atmosphere and make it totally convincing.  Her absorption of Icelandic sagas is incorporated into the narrative style of the novel.  This is backed up with good use of documents and reports, which I’m loving in crime novels at the moment and which was the real strength of “His Bloody Project” another nineteenth century tale of murder in a small, isolated community.

The fate of Agnes and the truth about her incarceration is central to the novel and the theme of the woman outside the norm being seen as somehow wicked is a fairly universal one for the time when it was set.  Agnes could have indeed worked as a character in Victorian England but what Kent would have not been able to achieve is this intensity, the claustrophobia, the darkness and dampness nor the vivid impression of the life of these Icelandic folk.

If asked to choose between the two I might give “The Good People” a slight edge because I really enjoyed the way it incorporated Irish folklore into the story.  These two novels show Kent as a writer with so much potential.  I  was also fascinated by the author’s account of the writing of this novel in the back of the paperback edition I read.

fourstars

Burial Rites was published by Picador in 2013.

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith (2013) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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A lot of people read this novel on publication assuming Galbraith was a debut novelist and word of mouth about this exciting new talent grew, ensuring it sold well.  Then, it was revealed that Galbraith was none other than JK Rowling dipping a toe into the murky waters of adult crime fiction and sales exploded.  With hindsight, there is in its focus on the relationship between characters and its awareness of popular culture and celebrity enough to suggest a female author at work, but then the main character is so well drawn with an awareness of the foibles and shortcomings of the male species that it feels like he must have been created by another man, so the subterfuge was convincing.

Cormoran Strike is certainly a larger than life character whose vitality is central to the success of this novel.  He is the result of a rock star’s fling with a supergroupie.  Following army service in Afghanistan, where he lost a leg he has given up his military career and become a fairly unsuccessful private detective.  He’s physically large, known to his acquaintances by a range of nicknames, is failing in a relationship with a woman better looking than he thinks appropriate and is struggling to cope with the ramifications of that relationship’s demise.  Into this comes a temporary secretary, Robin, and a case concerning the death of a model which just might enable Strike to make his mark.

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” is a rich, highly entertaining novel which given its crime tag has more than its fair share of humour and warmth.  The relationship between Cormoran and Robin, the employer whose life is in tatters and the employee who steadfastly attempts to ignore her boss’ shortcomings whilst finding herself drawn into his investigation is very strong and demands further adventures.  The case is well-thought out and keeps the reader guessing.  Rowling has spent many years now in the privileged realm of the multi-millionaire world renowned author yet her down at heel detective and the world he inhabits feels plausible and very real.  True, there is a lot of wealth in the case with paparazzi, fashion designers and the super-rich all playing their part but throughout I was rooting for the so likeable but so often unappealing Cormoran Strike.

fourstars

 

The Cuckoo’s Calling was published by Sphere in 2013