Reviews

June 2021

M.W. Craven - Dead Ground

"...‘Dead Ground’ has it all. Craven has done it again!!"

Synopsis:
Detective Sergeant Washington Poe is in court, fighting eviction from his beloved and isolated croft, when he is summoned to a backstreet brothel in Carlisle where a man has been beaten to death with a baseball bat. Poe is confused - he hunts serial killers and this appears to be a straightforward murder-by-pimp - but his attendance was requested personally, by the kind of people who prefer to remain in the shadows.

As Poe and the socially awkward programmer Tilly Bradshaw delve deeper into the case, they are faced with seemingly unanswerable questions: despite being heavily vetted for a high-profile job, why does nothing in the victim's background check out? Why was a small ornament left at the murder scene - and why did someone on the investigation team steal it? And what is the connection to a flawlessly executed bank heist three years earlier, a heist where nothing was taken.

Review:
Poe and Tilly are probably one of my favourite sets of characters. Despite being so completely opposing of each other, they are a perfect match. Poe, with his need to uncover the truth, regardless of how he gets there, and Tilly with her need to follow the rules. Yet somehow, together, both these characters work.

'Dead Ground' is another book from Craven that is impossible to put down. I also liked that the more you read, the more clues were given to the reader. And just when you thought you had worked out what was happening, another layer was revealed… and then another… and another…

And throughout all the investigation and crime solving, Craven gives us a little bit more about Poe, his life and what drives him, which just makes you like him that little bit more. Not only am I more connected to Poe and Tilly as the series continues, but also Craven seems to have bettered his best and the stories are brilliant.

With a mix of computer technology, the secret service, the army and good old fashioned police work and hunches, 'Dead Ground' has it all. Craven has done it again!!

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Marion Todd - What They Knew

"...an engrossing read and one I highly enjoyed. "

Synopsis:
It is the stroke of midnight on Hogmanay when Alison Reid admits a caller to her home. When her death is later reported, DI Clare Mackay attends the scene. The initial evidence does not rule out murder, but it's not possible to say for certain if foul play was involved. Yet when the pathologist informs Clare about a post mortem of a young woman found in the Kinness Burn, and with some similarities to Alison's case, it seems there's a strong chance that there's a killer on the loose in St Andrews.

Clare and her team will have to look past the obvious conclusions and delve deeper into the lives of the victims to get to the truth. But who else risks meeting the same fate while the clock is ticking?

Review:
DI Clare Mackay is back with a strange case of a death that could be murder, but there are no noticeable signs of any foul play. I loved the first three cases and while I enjoyed this one, I quite quickly picked up who was the guilty party, whereas the previous three had me totally in the dark until Todd made her big reveal.

Saying that, this is still an engrossing read and one I highly enjoyed. For me, I think it is Clare Mackay herself. She is so determined to solve the case and I can't stop routing for her, even when it seems that others are determined to throw a spanner in the works, Mackay keeps going forward until she solves her case. Todd has found a great character in Clare Mackay and both women have definitely been added to my 'must read' list. A highly entertaining read.

Reviewed by: H.F.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Martin Walker - The Coldest Case

"I love these books."

Synopsis:
Bruno, Chief of Police in the Dordogne area of France, is spending an enjoyable time in the pre-history museum of Les Eyzies, examining the many artefacts and stories of the people inhabiting that area of France. Expertise has managed to reconstruct the skulls of some of those people to give a stunning image of how they would appear. The impact of those heads leads Bruno to consider whether this amazing development could help his boss, J-J, discover the identity of the person whose skull he has been holding on to for years, the victim of an unsolved crime that has haunted him.

Modern policing methods and a stroke of coincidence lead to the victim being identified but what happened to him and who was responsible takes a little longer. Bruno's local knowledge and wider contacts prove invaluable.

Review:
Another opportunity to indulge in the comfortable and delightful lifestyle that is Bruno's civilian life is greatly appreciated at this time when any chance of experiencing it for yourself is a distant possibility. I don't know which I enjoy more: the clever engaging story line as Bruno uses his multiple talents and useful contacts to track down the murderer, or the panoply of culinary delights that runs through the whole book.

Many charming and idiosyncratic characters are part of the background tapestry and each story has a few more to engage our minds. I love these books. They are pure escapism, but none the worse for that. An excellent series.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Robbie Morrison - Edge of the Grave

"...there is a wonderful rhythm to Morrison’s writing. "

Synopsis:
Glasgow, 1932. When the son-in-law of one of the city's wealthiest shipbuilders is found floating in the River Clyde with his throat cut, it falls to Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn to lead the murder case – despite sharing a troubled history with the victim's widow, Isla Lockhart.

From the flying fists and flashing blades of Glasgow's gangland underworld, to the backstabbing upper echelons of government and big business, Dreghorn and his partner 'Bonnie' Archie McDaid will have to dig deep into Glasgow society to find out who wanted the man dead and why.

All the while, a sadistic murderer stalks the post-war city leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake. As the case deepens, will Dreghorn find the killer – or lose his own life in the process?

Review:
I am divided with regards to 'Edge of the Grave'. On the one hand there is a wonderful rhythm to Morrison's writing. Although he could have used fewer words in his descriptions, Morrison really brought home to me the sights, sounds and smells of Glasgow 1932. There is an energy to his writing that thrums away like a Glaswegian tattoo (certainly not McDaid's terrible bagpipe playing), that lifted Morrisons story, added a dimension to it and gave it body like a fine whiskey. I loved the characterisation of the wide and varied cast, in particular Dreghorn and the giant known as 'Bonnie' Archie McDaid. Both leapt off the page with their humour and determination.

The other side of me feels that this book is two books in one. Sometimes less is more and Morrison does try to cram a lot of information here. While you can see Morrison has done his homework, there are points where the research feels crowbarred into the story and slows the pace. The killer is telegraphed quite clearly, but with Morrisons mesmeric writing, it didn't take the shine off. The ending felt as though Morrison had decided to throw everything in, including the kitchen sink. The bloodshed at the end didn't really feel in keeping with the rest of the novel. So, weighing up, 'Edge of the Grave' is a highly evocative novel with a strong sense of place and time. The denouement may not be a complete surprise, but feels satisfactory. However, with such sublime writing the journey there is definitely worth taking. I look forward to keeping Dreghorn and McDaid company in their next case.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

E.C.R. Lorac - Murder at the Mill-Race

" I really enjoyed this one from Lorac."

Synopsis:
When Dr Raymond Ferens moves to a practice at Milham in the Moor in North Devon, he and his wife are enchanted with the beautiful hilltop village lying so close to moor and sky. At first they see only its charm, but soon they begin to uncover its secrets – envy, hatred and malice. A few months after the Ferens' arrival, the body of Sister Monica, warden of the local children's home, is found floating in the mill-race. Chief Inspector Macdonald faces one of his most difficult cases in a village determined not to betray its dark secrets to a stranger.

Review:
Reading Martin Edwards' introductory biography of Lorac, it appears she left London to settle down to a life in Lancashire after WWII. It seems that despite a Londoner moving to the country, Lorac was not starved of material for her books. One wonders if any of the cast in this particular book raced out on its publication to see if they could recognise themselves on the page. If they had, I am not sure they would have liked the result!

Lorac wonderfully encapsulates the closed village mentality. How the locals know everyone else's business, but it is not discussed and how they close ranks on outsiders. What isn't acknowledged means it does not exist! The village characters are not helpful in any way to Inspector MacDonald when he comes calling, in fact, they are downright subversive, determined to undermine MacDonald's investigation into the death of Sister Monica. Juxtaposed to the village mentality are the Ferens, a young couple who have just moved into the area and see the occupants of Milham in the Moor with an outsiders view. I am sure Lorac had much fun writing this case for MacDonald, especially as I feel she may have had her tongue firmly in her cheek whilst doing it! There are certainly some acerbic asides and observations here. I really enjoyed this one from Lorac. Even though published in 1952, this tale still holds a freshness. However, it may not be the best read for anyone thinking of moving and experiencing that perfect country idyll… it may not be quite so perfect after all.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

S.V. Leonard - The Islanders

"...I found it highly addictive..."

Synopsis:
Kimberley King has spent the last five years trying to outrun the reason she left the police force. Her life is a mess and she's desperate for change. So when she is randomly selected for the new series of the hit show 'LoveWrecked', she can't pass up the chance to win the £100,000 prize. All Kimberley needs to do is couple up with one of her fellow contestants, win the infamous 'LoveWrecked' challenges, and she will have enough cash for a fresh start.

But the island isn't the paradise she was promised and within hours, one of the contestants is dead. Then the announcement comes: one of the islanders is a murderer and Kimberley must find out who, live on television. For every hour it takes her, one more person will die.

The game is rigged, everyone is hiding secrets, and time is running out…

Review:
As with millions of other viewers, I have watched my fair share of reality TV, including one on an infamous island! So, I was very much intrigued to see where Leonard would go with her debut. As has been commented by others, the premise is Christie's 'And Then There Were None' hoisted into the 21stC TV culture. As with the shows, there are some big characters here – well, you don't go on these shows if you're a shrinking violet, do you? Everyone has a secret on this island and Kimberley has to find the killer or there will be a fresh victim every hour. That is one tough call!

Leonard twists and turns her way through her narrative and I found it highly addictive, which of course, led me to finishing this book off in the early hours of the morning! This is a great thriller with an end that feels suited to its surroundings. I am sure 'The Islanders' will be in many people's suitcases, whether abroad or a staycation. Maybe not the best read if you are staying on an island! Enjoy!

Reviewed by: H.F.

CrimeSquad Rating:

E.C.R. Lorac - Murder By Matchlight

"Great to discover another lost classic of the Golden Age."

Synopsis:
London. 1945. The capital is shrouded in the darkness of the blackout, and mystery abounds in the parks after dusk.

During a stroll through Regents Park, Bruce Mallaig witnesses two men acting suspiciously around a footbridge. In a matter of moments, one of them has been murdered; Mallaig's view of the assailant but a brief glimpse of a ghastly face in the glow of a struck match.

The murderer's noiseless approach and escape seems to defy all logic, and even the victim's identity is quickly thrown into uncertainty. Lorac's shrewd yet personable C.I.D. man MacDonald must set to work once again to unravel this near-impossible mystery.

Review:
Lorac has been on my radar for some years, but never got round to her, so I felt this needed to be corrected. I am currently in the throes of reading crime novels, classic and current that are based during the Second World War. Don't ask me why that particular period, maybe it has to do with the whole 'public spirit and bringing the community together' thing. However, there isn't much of that here. Maybe Lorac knew that not everyone was out to help others and more likely to help themselves!

The case centres on a grubby tenement of flats at 5A Belfort Grove. Most of the tenants are theatrics of a different sort. The housekeeper, Mrs Maloney is a character and one of those 'salt of the Earth' types. As with that time, there was a habit of writing phonetically, especially with anyone from the East End of London. So be prepared to ready yourself to translate when Lorac starts dropping 'H's' (or should that be 'aitches'?), left, right and centre. Although there were times I felt Lorac was going over old ground, this was a thoroughly entertaining read and at times Lorac's writing and plotting reminded me of the wonderful Gladys Mitchell who could spring the bizarre from the mundane. Lorac does the same here, mainly through her characters and it was great to have some insight of London under siege from a writer who was alive at the time and could give a first-hand account. This British Library edition also includes the Lorac short story 'Permanent Policeman'. Great to discover another lost classic of the Golden Age.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Will Shindler - The Burning Men

"...a strong and intriguing start to a promising series... "

Synopsis:
When a development in South London catches fire mid-construction, a close-knit team of fire fighters runs in to save a man spotted at the window. They come out without a body. They quit the service. They plan never to speak to each other again.

Five years later one of them is set alight at his own wedding. Soon after, a second is found, nothing but a smoking corpse. It appears that someone knows what they did that night. What they chose over their duty. And there are still three men left to burn . . .

DI Alex Finn and his new partner DC Mattie Paulsen are an unlikely pairing, but they need to discover who is behind these killings before the next man faces the fire.

Review:
I admit this took me a while to get in to. I can't explain why, but what I will advise is to give this debut a chance as it really does suddenly set off at a cracking pace. The remaining three hundred pages I read in two days, which shows how deep and fast that rollercoaster was when Shindler tipped me over after a steep climb up. You get pulled all over the place as different possibilities abound as to who is setting these guys alight.

DI Alex Finn and DC Mattie Paulsen are strange creatures to head a series as neither is a character you can warm to. Despite the fact Finn has just lost his wife a few weeks ago and is in mourning, I seemed to better hear the voice of his dead wife, Karin, more than her husband who feels as though he should be placed on the borders of the Autism spectrum. I hope that with his next novel, Shindler will open up Finn so we may learn more about this enigma. The same could be said of the angry Paulsen. Towards the end, Shindler softens the rough edges of Paulsen and hopefully this will be the beginning of her journey. This debut is definitely a strong and intriguing start to a promising series headed by two detectives who really don't have a social skill between them. It will be interesting to see how they gel and work alongside each other.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Mari Hannah - Without A Trace

"...a rollercoaster of a ride..."

Synopsis:
Flight 0113 from Heathrow to JFK has disappeared from the radar screens over the Atlantic Ocean. Jo Soulsby, ex-girlfriend of Detective Chief Inspector Kate Daniels of the Northumbria Police had been booked on that flight. But had she actually boarded? Kate has no authority to investigate the incident, but she decides she will, and inveigles herself onto a British/American team that is doing just that. Kate goes undercover as a baggage handler at Heathrow to find out more, but for all her work there, questions still remain. How did an explosive device get onto the plane? Was it a terrorist attack? Did Jo actually board the flight? The plot weaves in and out as the story progresses, and red herrings abound.

Meanwhile, back in Northumbria a notorious gangster and drug baron has been murdered. Bright, Kate's boss, orders her back to investigate, but she convinces him that she must remain in London. She gets a mysterious message from someone from her past who wants to meet her. He is a former gangster, a ruthless, bloodthirsty man, and Kate warily agrees. He mysteriously tells her she is looking in the wrong place for answers—she should go back to Northumbria.

Through all of this, Kate is distraught about Jo, for the evidence is mounting that she did indeed board the plane. She returns to Northumbria, only to discover that events there are just as bloody and convoluted as they are in London. Another murder takes place, the body being dumped on the steps of Police HQ in Newcastle. Gradually a picture emerges—one which is far removed from the investigations taking place in London and the US. Drugs are involved, as is revenge and gang warfare. When the solution to the disappearance of the aircraft is revealed, it is shown to be simple and straightforward act, with no thought given to the 301 passengers killed.

Review:
This is the seventh book in Mari Hannah's Kate Daniels series, and it is a rollercoaster of a ride, with the tension unrelenting as the story progresses. Kate is an intelligent, driven woman, married to her job. But she has an unfeeling, self-centred streak about her which may turn some readers off. She seems more concerned about Jo than she does about the fate of the 301 passengers on board the plane, for instance. She uses her underlings in an offhand way, even though they are trying to comfort her about Jo. But no doubt Ms Hannah would say that this is how Kate's mind works, and it adds to the tension and —yes—enjoyable thrills of a complicated, bloodthirsty, yet understandable plot. The book is eminently readable, though perhaps some passages are a little over-written. But this is something I'm prepared to forgive, as it is a good, satisfying, solid read, one that I recommend.

Reviewed by: J.G.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Sarah Hilary - Fragile

"...‘Fragile’ has catapulted Hilary to the top. Give her a crown right now."

Synopsis:
Nell Ballard is a runaway. A former foster child with a dark secret she is desperately trying to keep. All Nell wants is to find a place she can belong.

So when a job comes up at Starling Villas, home to the enigmatic Robin Wilder, she seizes the opportunity with both hands.

But her new lodgings may not be the safe haven that she was hoping for. Her employer lives by a set of rigid rules, and she soon sees he is hiding secrets of his own.

But is Nell's arrival at the Villas really the coincidence it appears? After all, she knows more than most how fragile people can be – and how easily they can be to break.

Review:
When a writer tries something different, there is often a sense of it being the same as, try as they might, an author's signature often breaks through. Sarah Hilary, writer of the award-winning Marnie Room series of crime fiction novels has produced her first standalone psychological thriller with 'Fragile', and, my goodness, she has proven what a wonderful writer she really is. Many have compared 'Fragile' to Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. To me, this is more Barbara Vine territory. Unsettling, dark, captivating and with a hint of not knowing what is going to happen next.

With a police procedural series, like the Marnie Room novels, we know who the good guys and bad guys are. We know we're going to love Marnie and her team and hope the bad guys are thrown in jail or meet a bloody end. With a psychological thriller such as 'Fragile', we don't know who we're supposed to like. This is where Sarah Hilary plays with her readers' minds. You'll love Nell on one page but not on another, but you're so taken with her, you'll keep reading and you'll be tentatively turning the pages, wondering which one of your emotions will be toyed with next.

The pace is considerably slower than Hilary's other work, but it is richly written. The prose glides beautifully and it's this elegant, almost ethereal writing that lends itself to gothic. This isn't a work of fiction, it's a work of art. The cover, alone, should be framed. But there are real elements to the great writings of the Bronte sisters in this book. At times, I felt I should be reading it in an abandoned castle with a howling storm raging outside.

'Fragile' is a dark, and at times, deeply unsettling, story, peopled with characters you'll hate yourself for liking. I didn't want to finish reading this book, but now I have, I want more of this from Sarah Hilary. I knew she was going to have an amazing career after reading her first book, but 'Fragile' has catapulted Hilary to the top. Give her a crown right now.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating: