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April 2014

John Connolly - The Wolf in Winter

"John Connolly never fails to please..."

The community of Prosperous, Maine has always thrived when others have suffered. Its inhabitants are wealthy, its children's future secure. It shuns outsiders. It guards its own. And at the heart of Prosperous lie the ruins of an ancient church, transported stone by stone from England centuries earlier by the founders of the town.

But the death of a homeless man and the disappearance of his daughter draw the haunted, lethal private investigator Charlie Parker to Prosperous. Parker is a dangerous man, driven by compassion, by rage, and by the desire for vengeance. In him the town and its protectors sense a threat graver than any they have faced in their long history, and in the comfortable, sheltered inhabitants of a small Maine town, Parker will encounter his most vicious opponents yet.

Charlie Parker has been marked to die so that Prosperous may survive.

John Connolly never fails to please and with this latest in the long-running Charlie Parker he has delivered yet another superb thriller. With ‘The Wolf in Winter’ he gives us a slice of the old world in the new world with one of the creepiest churches you will ever read about.

This is a book about small towns, how they can protect their own and how their self-limiting behaviour can ultimately lead to their downfall. The cast of Prosperous itself, given their outlandish and despicable behaviour, are convincingly drawn. From the town matriarch, to the church warden, to the town sheriff they all earn their space on the page and are used to great effect.

Connolly also takes the opportunity to highlight the plight of the homeless in the U.S. He details their situation carefully, displaying how difficult and dangerous life on the street is without ever feeling exploitative and I found these sections to be both moving and insightful

The wolf motif is a nice touch with the occasional visit on the page from a wounded lone wolf wondering through the Maine woodlands searching for food and shelter, giving us a hint as to what might be happening next to his human counterpart, Charlie Parker. And the sense of menace this provides – after all, who isn't afraid of the big, bad wolf – carries us through the book at a fair lick. A minor grumble might be that the denouement is over just a wee bit too quickly. Nonetheless, for me this book still gets top marks.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Belinda Bauer - The Facts of Life and Death

"...tautly-wound narratives in the same light as Barbara Vine and Minette Walters."

Women are being terrorised in a North Devon village. They are forced to strip and then call their mothers to say goodbye before they are murdered in cold blood.

Living with her parents in the dank beach community of Limeburn, ten-year-old Ruby Trick has her own fears. She is bullied at school and the threat of divorce hangs over her family.

Helping her Daddy to catch the killer might be the key to keeping him close. As long as the killer doesn't catch her first...

Belinda Bauer's last novel, ‘Rubbernecker’, was my book of the year for 2013; she may very well have written my book of the year for 2014, too.

This truly is a first rate psychological thriller. The tormented main character of Ruby Trick is a wonderful creation as she battles the onset of womanhood and the break-up of her parents' marriage. The scenes are expertly written from her point of view, giving a child's take on an all-too-common familial situation.

The naivety of the ten-year-old Ruby is a refreshing choice of narrator and seeing the brutal crimes through her innocent eyes are disturbing and thought provoking and will leave you asking questions about how children view the world we live in. Yet her journey throughout the novel is a compelling one and Ruby is a reluctant heroine.

All of Bauer's novels are remarkable and it is no exaggeration to say she writes dark and tautly-wound narratives in the same light as Barbara Vine and Minette Walters. Bauer is a natural storyteller. She has a wonderful gift to surprise the reader with her plot twists. There are moments of humour that will genuinely make you smile as the well-drawn natural characters face a disturbing and unnatural situation.

Don't ignore what you may think is a throw-away scene as everything is necessary to a deliciously nail-biting finale.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

T J O'Connor - Dying To Know

"...highly entertaining and completely addictive."

After 15 years as a detective, Oliver ‘Tuck’ Tucker is more used to being on the right side of the gun, but after finding himself as an earthbound spirit after being shot dead in his own home, Tuck knows he has stayed behind for a reason. He has the murder case of his life to solve - his own.

With the help of his new ghostly skills, Tuck will learn that the living are far more terrifying than the dead, as he pieces together foggy memories and eerie premonitions in order to be able to save his wife, bring his killer to justice and lay some age old spirits to rest.

It was a dark and stormy afternoon, when I settled down to read ‘Dying To Know’ and it turned out to be the perfect antidote to the cold wintery weather outside. I enjoy a good cosy crime novel every now and then as a break from my usual ‘gritty’ reads, but that doesn’t stop me from expecting a well plotted mystery which is exactly what this book delivered.

It’s got all of the elements you expect in any good mystery, betrayal, intrigue and murder along with family feuds, bitter rivalries, mob bosses, hired hit men and villainous industrialists. All that and a historical twist, another ancient mystery that unfolds concurrently with the main storyline.

I found ‘Dying To Know’ to be highly entertaining and completely addictive. It’s a great debut into a competitive section of the crime genre and hopefully the first of many in this ‘Gumshoe Ghost Mystery’ series.

Reviewed by: J.P.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Harlan Coben - Missing You

" was not long before the Coben magic got started and I was unable to put this book down..."

It’s a profile, like all the others on the online dating site. But as NYPD Detective Kat Donovan focuses on the accompanying picture, she feels her whole world explode, as emotions she’s ignored for decades come crashing down on her. Staring back at her is her ex-fiancé Jeff, the man who shattered her heart 18 years ago.

Kat feels a spark, wondering if this might be the moment when past tragedies recede and a new world opens up to her. But when she reaches out to the man in the profile, her reawakened hope quickly darkens into suspicion and then terror as an unspeakable conspiracy comes to light, in which monsters prey upon the most vulnerable.

As the body count mounts and Kat’s hope for a second chance with Jeff grows more and more elusive, she is consumed by an investigation that challenges her feelings about everyone she ever loved—her former fiancé, her mother, and even her father, whose cruel murder so long ago has never been fully explained. With lives on the line, including her own, Kat must venture deeper into the darkness than she ever has before, and discover if she has the strength to survive what she finds there.

I was eagerly awaiting the latest book by Coben, who is one of my favourite authors. Yet when I started to read ‘Missing You’ I really struggled to get into the book. Whether this was down to a slow start or my dislike for Kat, I cannot say. However, it was not long before the Coben magic got started and I was unable to put this book down, so much so that I walked around the house reading it whilst doing my housework, rather than wait to find out what happened.

Detective Kat Donovan is a character that lives in the past unable to move on from either her dad's murder or the split from her fiancé twenty years ago. Kat is a needy and negative person who is quite draining. However, the plot itself is up to the usual standard that this author manages to write time and again.

At times the plot was predictable but Coben's writing is such that even though the outcome is obvious, he still manages to make the journey there exciting. Had it not have been for Kat Donovan, I would have rated this book more highly, but she took away a little enjoyment from what was otherwise an excellent book.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

William McIlvanney - Strange Loyalties

"...a work of literary fiction as well as a crime novel."

Jack Laidlaw’s brother Scott was killed when he stepped out in front of a car in Graithnock. Jack, however, can’t get his head round what seems to others like a simple accident. He wants to know what really happened. Leaving aside his police duties in Glasgow, he heads back to Graithnock to investigate. However, the more he digs into his brother’s life and death the more the mystery deepens. What was eating him up? What happened when he was a student in Glasgow? Why did he throw something at a TV set during a party? Was his wife Anna having an affair? Was Scott having an affair? How is Fast Frankie White, from a village just outside Graithnock, involved? Glasgow crime boss Matt Mason?

Jack is obsessed with finding the real cause of his brother’s death, and this leads to his own life unravelling. He has to choose between this obsession, and Jan with whom he is having a relationship. Which will win?

This is the third and, up until now, final, book in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw series, re-issued by Canongate. Originally published in 1991, and like the others is a work of literary fiction as well as a crime novel. Its themes are as relevant as anything written today in the genre, and its hard-hitting and scalpel-sharp dissection of criminal and police minds is breath-taking.

This novel is a radical departure from the first two – it is told in the first person. In the earlier books McIlvanney took us deep into the thought processes of a policeman who was his own worst enemy, but here he takes it a stage further. We get to know Laidlaw so well that we can almost predict what his reaction will be to what he discovers as he peels back the layers of his brother’s life. The character-driven plotting is superb, and the writing itself – the syntax, the descriptive passages, the use of words – adds to the action, and never intrudes.

After a break of twenty-two years, McIlvanney, it seems, is working on a fourth Laidlaw novel. And now we learn that the TV production company that made Shameless has bought the TV rights to the first three books, so we may yet see Scotland’s original flawed detective grace the small screen.

Reviewed by: J.G.

CrimeSquad Rating:

James Oswald - The Hangman's Song

"If Rankin is the king of Scottish crime fiction then Oswald is definitely next in line for the throne. "

A young man is found hanging by a rope in his Edinburgh home. A simple, sad suicide, yet Detective Inspector Tony McLean is puzzled by the curious suicide note. A second hanged man and another strange note hint at a sinister pattern.

Investigating a brutal prostitution and human trafficking ring, McLean struggles to find time to link the two suicides. But the discovery of a third convinces him of malicious intent.

Digging deeper, McLean finds answers much closer to home than he expects. Something terrifying stalks the city streets, and bringing it to justice may destroy all he holds dear.

It is hard to believe this is only the third DI McLean novel. Oswald writes with such confidence and attention to detail that it seems McLean has been around for years. Suspicious suicides, prostitution, human trafficking and brutal beatings are not the lightest of subjects but the deftness of the writing make this a joy to read. The pace is brisk and the separate stories constantly vie for your attention; this is a true page-turner from beginning to end.

McLean is extremely likeable and the tough time he gets from his colleagues for his wealth and work ethics give him a sympathetic edge. He's had a hard life and doesn't have a supportive home life to feel comfortable in. He's a true loner but he's not angry and bitter about it. He's an everyman and you could genuinely have a few pints down the local with him. There are not many coppers you can say that about.

Book number four, ‘Dead Man's Bones’, is due out in July and I hope it is as good as the previous three. I get the feeling Tony McLean is going to be around for a very long time; he's a welcome addition to every crime fiction fan's bookcase.

James Oswald has been compared to Ian Rankin, and rightly so. If Rankin is the king of Scottish crime fiction then Oswald is definitely next in line for the throne.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Elly Griffiths - The Outcast Dead

"Once again Elly Griffiths has delivered a high quality thriller..."

Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway has excavated a body from the grounds of Norwich Castle, a forbidding edifice that was once a prison. She believes the body may be that of infamous Victorian murderess, Jemima Green. Called Mother Hook for her claw-like hand, Jemima was hanged in 1867 for the murder of five children in her care.

DCI Harry Nelson has no time for long-dead killers. Immersed in the case of three infants found dead, one after the other, in their King's Lynn home, he's convinced that a family member is responsible, though other on his team think differently.

Then a child goes missing. Could the abduction be linked to the long-dead Mother Hook? Ruth is pulled into the case, and back towards Nelson.

Once again Elly Griffiths has delivered a high quality thriller and a real page turner from beginning to end.

The story of child murders and abduction can be very dark and depressing, and while Griffiths doesn't shy away from the dark areas of the topic and the horrors of losing a child, the pace is fast and not bogged down with too many raw emotional scenes.

The fact the main character is not a police officer allows the reader to take a step back from the grim investigation, and witness the crimes through Ruth's perspective of the people in her life. This is very refreshing and lifts the tone slightly.

Mother Hook is a suitably chilling creation and is well researched. She could almost be real. There is even a nursery rhyme which has become folklore to scare children against her; slightly reminiscent of the Lizzie Borden rhyme.

The strained relationship between Ruth and Harry continues and shows no sign of becoming stale. They are both extremely likeable characters, and although you want them to end up together, you also want them to remain apart for the good of the novels. I don't think I'd like Ruth as a copper's wife.

Ruth Galloway is an admirable character and Griffiths’ ability to weave myth, superstition and archaeology with modern detective work is testament to her creation. ‘The Outcast Dead’ is a brilliant addition to the series and long may it continue.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Zoe Sharp - Absence of Light

"...a powerhouse punch. "

A major earthquake sees ex-Special Forces soldier turned bodyguard Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox on a transport plane heading for the scene of devastation. The way things are coming apart at home with Sean Meyer, she welcomes the chance to get away.

Tasked as security advisor to the specialist team at the centre of relief efforts, Charlie knows it won’t be easy. The team members are willing to put themselves in constant danger as a matter of course. But what other risks are they prepared to take?

As Charlie soon discovers, it’s not just the ground beneath her feet that cannot be relied upon. Her predecessor died while investigating rumours that the team were on the take. Charlie has been instructed to quietly uncover whether his death was as accidental as the official verdict suggests. She must move through a shifting landscape to find the answers before there are more than earthquake victims buried in the rubble.

Sharp has injected this stunning novella with an incredible sense of place. Her depiction of an earthquake’s aftermath is exemplary such are the obviously researched details, vivid descriptive passages and the strength of her character’s narrative.

Charlie Fox is her usual tenacious self as she battles to uncover hidden truths while keeping herself and her principals safe. The supporting cast are all credible with the standouts being Hope and Lemon. Charlie’s home life is well reflected in the novel which essentially picks up where ‘Die Easy’ left off and as ever, Sharp expends a lot of time and energy making her protagonist’s life hell.

The pace of the story never lets up for a second and while Sharp’s prose is easy on the eye, it carries a powerhouse punch. A particular favourite line was Sharp’s wonderful description of Lemon, ‘a leggy blonde bitch’. While the quote may not seem terribly poignant as part of the review, trust me, when you read the novella, it’ll prove to be deadly accurate.

The only fault I could find with ‘Absence of Light’ was the fact it was a novella and not an opus as I wanted to stay in that world a lot longer.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Josephine Bell - The Summer School Mystery

"...this reader hunkered down to enjoy a good old fashioned mystery. "

Young students are gathering at the summer music school at Falconbury. The weather is hot as many from the Royal School of Music in London travel to the countryside. One couple fail to arrive and soon people begin to wonder where Derek Fox and his fiancée, Belinda Power have got to when they were definitely seen boarding a train for Falconbury.

Then Belinda’s body is discovered in one of her own timpani and suspicion is directed towards her fiancée, Derek who arrives at Falconbury looking dishevelled. With the police breathing down his neck, Derek requests the help of Dr David Wintringham to get to the truth of the matter.

This mystery was first published in 1950 and definitely has a dated feel to it. The language is very ‘jolly hockey sticks’ and images of Joyce Grenfell as the Hockey mistress from the St Trinian’s films flooded my imagination. However, after a while the story does calm down and this reader hunkered down to enjoy a good old fashioned mystery.

After the body is found the London police become involved and Bell portrays them as quite incompetent. Bell’s hero of the hour, Dr David Wintringham is brought in to the story at the instigation of Derek who is suspected of killing his fiancée. Wintringham does appear to use the Scotland Yard as his second home and pokes his nose in to every police file on the case. However, Bell manages to edge round this suspension of belief by Wintringham knowing the policeman in charge and thankfully, unlike the TV series, ‘Cracker’, does not take over police interviews with potential criminals. Wintringham begins his own investigation and due to his professional credentials manages to interview a number of suspects involved in the case. What I did find intriguing is the introduction of a Lesbian couple. There is no subterfuge about their relationship and as this was only 1950, Bell’s introduction of such characters should be applauded, although matters do not turn out well for either woman. This is an easy, romp of a good mystery that should be reserved for an afternoon with a large pot of tea and a packet of bourbons to hand. A great introduction to this prolific, and yet forgotten author and I will be reading more of her work.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

R.N. Morris - The Dark Palace

"...gave a flavour of the times..."

Set in London in the early years of the twentieth century, just before the onset of World War 1, this novel charts the progress of ‘Quick Fire Quinn’, an Inspector in the Metropolitan Police as he investigates some gruesome business associated with the production of a new moving picture, starring the irresistible Eloise. The producer of the show is German and the powers that be are interested in possible espionage being carried out by the Kaiser’s men. Suspicion is rife all over London and Quinn is under pressure to come up with some evidence. The new science of cinematography plays an important part in the story and one of Quinn’s staff is obsessed with developing it in the interests of pursuing criminals.

The style of writing reminded me of a Victorian melodrama. There was a great deal of detailed description, which was sometimes a little overblown. There are some very clever ideas here and some well-written passages but I was not completely convinced of the character of Quinn, nor of some of the other characters. They were perhaps of their time and it was part of the atmosphere but I found it hard to relate to any of them.

The story showed great originality and some of the research came up with some interesting facts like the one street in London where you drive on the right. I also enjoyed the details of the tube and general life around town. It certainly gave a flavour of the times but didn’t quite hit the mark for me.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Linda Castillo - Her Last Breath

" enjoyable book and a very easy read..."

What at first seems like a tragic, but routine car accident, suddenly takes on a more sinister cast as evidence emerges that nothing about the crash is accidental. But who would want to kill an Amish deacon and two of his children? He leaves behind a grieving widow and a young boy who clings to life in the intensive care wing of a hospital, unable to communicate. He may be the only one who knows what happened that night. Desperate to find out who killed her best friend’s husband and why, Kate begins to suspect she is not looking for a reckless drunk, but instead is on the trail of a cold blooded killer amid the residents of Painter’s Mill. It is a search that takes her on a chilling journey into the darkest reaches of the human heart and makes her question everything she has ever believed about the Amish culture into which she was born.

‘Her Last Breath’ is the fifth book in Castillo’s series of books featuring Chief Kate Burkholder. Burkholder grew up as Amish, and still has her emotional ties to the community. What started off as ground-breaking five books ago is now, in my opinion, wearing a little thin. Through Burkholder, Castillo tries to paint a picture of this group of people who are kind, gentle and god-fearing, yet there always seems to be a murder being committed within such a small community. It leaves me thinking that I will take my chances in the big bad world.

I also get irritated at the constant use of Pennsylvanian Dutch that Castillo insists on using, then immediately translating to English. It seems rather superfluous and adds nothing to the story. However, after what appears to be a negative start, I did thoroughly enjoy ‘Her Last Breath’, perhaps because I was expecting less. The group of characters that appear in each books; Burkholder, her colleagues and her partner, have grown over the five books. I think this does help when the plot isn't strong enough to carry itself.

When the killer becomes known, I did feel slightly cheated as not enough explanation or background was given to the reasons why this person would commit murder, despite having a motive. Still, it was an enjoyable book and a very easy read but I do feel that Castillo needs to explore fresher ground to retain this particular reader.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Celia Fremlin - Prisoner's Base

"...the interaction between the three women is pitch-perfect as always."

A house full of women headed by the grandmother, Margaret, her daughter, Claudia and the granddaughter, Helen. Claudia loves to take on lost causes and always invites them in to stay in her house - much to the chagrin of her mother, Margaret. Her latest acquisition is a young poet who tells stories of his seven years in prison. With the intervention of Mavis, Claudia’s lost case before the young poet (who is clearly put out by this new arrival), the atmosphere in the house becomes more and more intense as the summer days slip by.

Was the new ‘lost cause’, Maurice, really only in prison for a robbery? Are the noises in Mavis’ head real or her imagination? Why do people keep lingering about after Maurice’s arrival?

Fremlin was quoted as saying that one of her main hobbies was gossip and that is never more proven to be the case than in this tightly told little study in the art of gossip and its rippling effects and consequences. Although the story seems to centre round Margaret, it is in fact Claudia who is the catalyst for what ultimately happens at the end of the novel.

This book was written in 1967 and Fremlin paints a perfect picture of these times and shows the huge chasm that had opened up between the young and the old generations during this decade. Fremlin shows Margaret’s Victorian values clashing with Claudia’s updated views. In turn, Claudia, trying to seek Helen’s approval by trying to understand her daughter’s sexual needs as a growing woman, leaves Helen, a typical teenager, revolted by her mother’s constant need to try to be an ‘understanding radical mother’.

‘Prisoner’s Base’ is not one of Fremlin’s strongest novels although the interaction between the three women is pitch-perfect as always. Here nobody is exactly who they say they are. In Claudia, the author has created a misguided monster of a character, who truly believes she is helping these people for the good. Unfortunately, as with most of Fremlin’s novels, this is not the case.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating: