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

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

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

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

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

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

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Not Dead Yet was published in 2012 by Macmillan.

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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.

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The Perfect Murder was published by Pan Books in 2010.

Dead Man’s Grip- Peter James (2011) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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peterjamesI’m up to Book Seven of what has become my favourite crime series.  Peter James’ novels featuring DS Roy Grace have appeared on my end of year Top 10 lists on three occasions and up to this point I would have struggled to say whether the chilling debut “Dead Simple”(2005)  or novel number five “Dead Tomorrow”(2009) with its organ trafficking theme was the strongest but I think here the standard has just upped a notch and in “Dead Man’s Grip” we have a classic crime novel.

 A couple of the earlier novels I felt had slight issues with pace but the three since “Dead Man’s Footsteps” (2008) have put this right and there are certainly no issues on this score here.  The book hits the floor running and is gripping throughout.

 It has been about 18 months since my last James novel but his characters are so well established by this stage in the series that I don’t need much in the way of memory jogging to recall who is who.  I would urge newbies to read them in order, especially as there is an ongoing subplot regarding Grace’s missing wife, Sandy, which James keeps lightly simmering on the back burner here.  I don’t think I would have got as much from this novel if I had read it out of sequence.

 Roy Grace is here an expectant father but has only a small amount of time to fret over pregnancy complications before another set of Brighton-based crimes take over.  They all stem from a tensely written road traffic accident which leads to involvement of a New York Mafia family. 

 Sometimes it is a set piece which sticks in the mind in James’ novels and I have felt that the book has been built around this.  That’s not exactly a criticism as many crime novelists choose to do this but this instalment is so full of memorable pieces, to the extent that I wondered if it could be built to a gripping climax, but we are certainly not deprived of that here.

 This really does have everything I look for in a police procedural crime novel.  The research seems first-class.  In his acknowledgements it seems as if James has used every member of the Sussex Police Force for help and advice.  (He has also used a few real names and job titles throughout the novel).  If there is a better British crime writer out there at the moment I haven’t found them (yet!).  And I still have got 6 books to got to catch up on this series.  The 14th “Dead If You Don’t” is due out in hardback in May 2018.

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Dead Man’s Grip was published by Macmillan in 2011

Dead Like You – Peter James (Macmillan 2010)- A Murder They Wrote Review

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Okay, so I know I’m six years behind with the Roy Grace series but I enjoy James’ Brighton-set police procedurals so much that I ration them.  I realised that I did not read one at all last year (I had read two the previous year) so had to put that right.

This is book number six in the series where it is imperative to keep a list because of the similarity of the titles and look of the books.  I think things started off so strongly with “Dead Simple” and there was a slight fall in standard for the next couple but “Dead Man’s Footsteps” and especially “Dead Tomorrow” saw James upping his game once again to produce modern crime classics.  This one makes it three very good books in a row, suggesting that this is one of the most consistent of crime series.

For those of you who have already read it and are trying to recall which one it is from the never-that-helpful titles it’s the one about the shoes.  Now I know you remember.

We have two time frames- an abduction on Christmas Eve 1997 of Rachel Ryan, tipsily tottering home on high heels.  Her disappearance has remained amongst Brighton’s unsolved cold cases until a woman is assaulted after a New Year’s Eve party at the Metropole Hotel twelve years later.  It becomes clear that “The Shoe Man” has returned to terrorise Brighton.  A shoe fetishist who preys on women wearing new designer shoes leads DS Grace to dredge up the old case in search of clues.  I’m not sure whether I get so involved because I used to live in Grace’s stomping ground.  My visual impression is always strong reading these but I think this also has a fair bit to do with James’ talent for setting the scene.

Short chapters, tense writing and quite a few set pieces which are absolutely gripping.  It does at times make for very uncomfortable reading but the pace forces you on.  I think this is where the series is getting stronger as a couple of the earlier novels had noticeable fluctuations in pace but this kept me involved the whole way through.  I want to move straight on to “Dead Man’s Grip” but the pile of review books awaiting my attention means I will have to wait.

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Dead Like You was published by Macmillan in 2010.

Flesh And Blood – Mark Peterson (2012) – A Murder They Wrote Review

imagesN8KPZ1YTfleshandbloodI used to live in Brighton, East Sussex and so I know it well and yet I am glad that I did not know the Brighton Mark Peterson depicts in this debut. I do, however, recognise it. It’s as if the murky, grimy, edgy location of Graham Greene’s 1938 classic novel has been brought up to date. This is Pinkie’s Brighton for the 21st Century. It’s not a place that I would like to live in. I can’t imagine this book being on the top of the local Tourist Board’s reading list. Peterson even makes the penthouse suite of the Van Alen building, one of the city’s most prestigious addresses seem seedy. This, however, allows the author to offer up a powerful crime novel. It is the first of a series featuring the damaged DS Minter and I am certainly going to be adding the follow-up (A Place Of Blood And Bone- 2013) to my to-be-read list. Fans of Peter James will lap this one up (in fact it looks more like a Peter James than it reads like one, so the publishers are obviously angling for this market). Kemptown’s Serious Crime Squad are attempting to bust a drugs ring before rival gang tensions get out of hand. It is involving and gripping. Reading groups looking to see how an author sets up a crime series should consider this. It’s a thumbs-up from me and I am keen to see what happens to those loose ends Peterson purposely leaves dangling. fourstars

(This review has previously appeared on the New Books website)

 

My Top 10 Reads Of 2014 – Part 2 – The Top 5

 

 

 

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  1. What Was Lost – Catherine O’Flynn (2007) – Read in October 2014

This debut novel did well in various first novel awards when it was published and I’m not surprised as the writing is of a high standard. It starts out with an absolutely captivating central character, ten year old Kate Meaney who covers up her miserable background with her preoccupations of herself as a girl detective, in search of a crime to solve. It’s the mid 80’s and there’s a very good feel for the period. Kate spends hours in a bleak “modern” shopping centre, where she vanishes under suspicious circumstances. The story moves on twenty years and the improved Green Oaks shopping centre becomes the centre character, throwing up ghosts for those who work there, challenging their mundane existences in what they see as fairly dead-end jobs. I found both strands of the story engrossing. There’s some laugh out loud humour and good plot twists.

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    4. 12 Years A Slave – Solomon Northup (1853) – Read in September 2014

The book has had a new lease of life as a result of the Oscar winning film, which I waited to watch until I had finished the book and which very much captures the flavour of this extraordinary memoir. Northup was a free man living in New York. On a trip to Washington he was kidnapped and sold into slavery, ending up at a cotton plantation in the South, by then it has been beaten into him that to reveal his real status would only lead to more thrashing and probable death. He cannot even reveal he can read and write. As a slave it’s relentless work, cruel treatments and thrashings for the next twelve years. I was willing on his plan for escape and bitterly sorry for those left on the Epps plantation. He very effectively conveys the futility of the slave existence and the terror that lived inside them all, knowing each day could be their last. There’s occasional deviations outlining how cotton is produced, how sugar is harvested, which is actually quite fascinating and makes his memoir of interest as a historical document as well as a dramatic story. I am ashamed that I did not know of this book before as I have read much Afro-American writing. Thankfully, the film has brought the book back into prominence and Northup’s words can take their place in the canon of great American writing.

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  1. Dead Tomorrow – Peter James (2009)- Read in October 2014

I know the similar sounding titles get confusing but this is one of his best I’ve read so far. (I think “Dead Simple” is just slightly ahead).  A couple of teenagers with their organs removed are recovered from the sea which develops into a human trafficking plot with a subplot of a teenage Brighton girl whose liver is on its last legs and whose mother is contemplating desperate measures to keep her daughter alive. It is both tense and thought-provoking stuff. We are tantalised by the ongoing plot strand of DS Grace’s wife’s disappearance and Grace’s sidekick Glenn Branson has his part beefed up a little and shows human failings. This is the fifth book of a very strong crime series.

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2 .The Last Town On Earth- Thomas Mullen (2006) -Read in May 2014

This is a thrilling debut. Set in the small American mill-town of Commonwealth, founded by Charles Worthy, a philanthropic mill-owner who wants to offer a fair deal for his workers. All seems to be going well at the tail end of the Great War, with the USA now involved in the combat when a more catastrophic event (in terms of American lives lost) occurs – a Flu epidemic .   Commonwealth decides to go into quarantine and post guards to prevent entry from potentially flu-ridden outsiders. One of the guards is Philip, the Worthy’s adopted teenage son. Whilst on duty he has to make a decision which has a tremendous effect on the town. Mullen has produced a balanced, rich tale with great moral implications and depth, very good characterisation and the plot is engrossing, tense and unpredictable. I loved it. (Just don’t read it when you have the flu!)

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1. The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) -Read in January 2014

I cannot understand how this book has passed me by up to now. If I had read this as a teenager – Wow! Even though my teenage years are long gone this still packs a hell of a punch. Set around 1961-2 in the Bronx, The Wanderers (after the Dion song) are a teen gang obsessed with sex, fighting, staying alive and pop music. In a episodic set of interlinked stories Price so effectively conjures up this group of friends moving towards adulthood. It is shocking, violent, sexy and like many teenagers full of bile for anyone apart from themselves! It does, however, work superbly. It’s unsympathetic, gritty and yet touching. This is certainly one of the best books of the 70’s and my favourite book I read for the first time this year. I loved the characters; Eugene, the stud with a secret; Joey, a victim of his outrageously aggressive father; Perry, home alone with his mother and Buddy whose wrong choices cause him to grow up too fast. (The 1979 film of the same name despite similar themes is unrelated)

So that’s my Top 10 Books of the Year. Okay, nothing in that list was actually published in 2014 but it takes me a while to get round to books. (I did read a couple that did make their first appearance in 2014 but they didn’t make my Top 10 list). Next post will be my favourite re-read of the year. Clue – it’s a non-fiction examination of the two of the biggest stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

 

My Top 10 Reads of 2014 – Part 1 numbers 10-6

It’s still January (well only just) so just to give you a better idea of me as a reader I thought I’d bring you my rundown of my favourite books read in 2014.  I got through 65 books last year ( a few less than previous years).  As I tend to be a bit of a book hoarder and, probably like most book bloggers have probably hundreds haven’t got round to reading yet piled up around the house I get pretty ruthless at the end of the year.  Anything which has been read and didn’t make my top 10 is out.  So here are the survivors that are still sitting on my shelves at the start of 2015.

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10. Dead Man’s Footsteps – Peter James (2008) – Read in March 2014

This is the fourth Peter James book I’ve read. My favourite so far is “Dead Simple” and this is not too far away from the standard of that. Like all the books I’ve read by James this features DS Roy Grace.   In Brighton, a body is found in a storm drain and a woman with a secret gets stuck in a lift (very tensely written). This is interspersed with a bit of back story- New York on 9/11 with a character about to have a meeting in the Twin Towers. All plot strands are handled well. It’s gripping and there are lots of twists and turns. There was a slight dip in the middle but things pick up nicely for an exciting last third. I enjoy these Brighton based novels (particularly as I used to live there) and there will be more from Peter James later on in this list, as he is the only author who features twice.

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  1. Dodger – James Benmore (2013) – Read in March 2014

This was a review copy I was sent by newbooksmag and my review can be found on their website www.newbooksmag.co.uk (make a note of it- don’t move away from my blog yet!) To stop you doing that here is my review.

Making a familiar character the centre of a new series of books is a brave move. Done well , it can overcome any introductory novel awkwardness, as it feels like we know the characters already- done not so well it can end up diminishing the characters’ previous incarnation. The Artful Dodger is such a great creation by Dickens and yet there is considerable unexplored potential. Probably James Benmore is not the first to realise this but, in his debut novel, he develops this potential so well that I am already looking forward to the next of the series.

Jack Dawkins returns to London after a period of enforced resettlement in Australia not knowing of the fate of Fagin, Nancy and Bill Sikes but on a mission which necessitates re-exploring his old haunts. He is accompanied by a compelling new character , his aboriginal “valet” Warrigal. Narrated superbly in Dodger’s voice this is an imaginative, involving and great fun tale with enough touches of Dickens and enough of a modern crime novel to make a potent brew. The odd familiar character pops up for a cameo but this is very much Benmore’s tale. This reinvigoration of the Artful Dodger is the best I have read using a previously established character. It is both refreshingly new and comfortingly familiar.nicetoseeit

8.Nice To See It To See It Nice – Brian Viner (2009)- Read in April 2014

This is subtitled “The 1970’s in front of the telly”. Viner hits home because he is exactly the same age as me with the same cultural references and he might have spent more time watching television as a youngster than I did! It seemed so familiar that I felt that at times I could have written this. But I didn’t, Brian Viner did and great credit to him. Some very funny little stories, a very journalistic approach and highly enjoyable. It was like reliving your childhood all over again. Nowadays, the sheer variety of leisure/viewing options means that such strong cultural imprinting would not be possible, in the 70’s a whole generation would know that you followed “Boom Boom Boom Boom” with “Esso Blue” , which would mystify today’s teens. I laughed out loud quite a few times, which I might not have done if I was somewhat older or younger but for me Viner got it more or less spot-on.

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  1. Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton (1911) – Read in October 2014

Up to this year I had never read any Edith Wharton. I put that right this year by completing this and “House Of Mirth” (1905) and “The Age Of Innocence” (1920). This was the book which impressed me the most. This is atypical Wharton in terms of setting (a bleak New England winter instead of New York), narrative (a story within a story – a la “Wuthering Heights”, a structure I’ve always warmed to) , class (the poor rather than the social climbers associated with her work) and character (a sympathetic lead). It’s a sparse tale of Ethan, who we know early on has been hit by tragic circumstances and in back story these reveal themselves as we are told the tale of his love for Matty, the cousin of his bitter, invalid wife who arrives bringing sparkle to his bleak existence. The sexual tension between the two, Frome’s turmoils of jealousy, despair and hope is extremely well done. The reader knows the outcome will not be good but the build-up is so effectively developed . This is a classic short novel. Sometimes, I can find it hard to commit to short fiction but this had me involved throughout.

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  1. The Suicide Exhibition: The Never War – Justin Richards (2013) – Read in January 2014

This was another book I was asked to review by Newbooks and here is my verdict- which can also be found on their website.

I don’t always get on with science fiction titles and too often series novels just stretch the story out too much for me but Justin Richards’ introductory title in “The Never War” series surprised me on both counts. This is a cracking, exciting start to a series. I can’t remember when I enjoyed a title marketed as science fiction more. It is also a thrilling tale of World War II. Strange sightings are coming up on the recently introduced Radar and it becomes evident that the Nazis are not only aware of this but are harnessing these strange forces in some way. Good characterisation, excellent use of “alternate reality” and a genuinely exciting storyline follows. The Sci-Fi aspects simmer and build rather than dominate the first of this series and hiding the threat of alien invasion amidst the paranoia of the war works superbly. The combination of Nazis and aliens might get not seem a match made in heaven but anyone searching for a thoroughly entertaining read (even if not a sci-fi fan) should check this out. Its accessibility and almost old-fashioned (in a good way) thrills suggest this should attract a wide readership. I’m looking forward to the second part.

So that’s numbers 6-10 with my Top 5 to appear in a separate post.