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Reviews

December 2017

Michael J. Malone - The House of Spines

"This is a terrifying psychological thriller with more than a hint of Gothic..."

Synopsis:
Ran McGhie's world has been turned upside down. A young, lonely and frustrated writer, and suffering from mental-health problems, he discovers that his long-dead mother was related to one of Glasgow's oldest merchant families. Not only that, but Ran has inherited Newton Hall, a vast mansion that belonged to his great-uncle, who appears to have been watching from afar as his estranged great-nephew has grown up. Entering his new-found home, he finds that Great-Uncle Fitzpatrick has turned it into a temple to the written word - the perfect place for poet Ran. But everything is not as it seems.

As he explores the Hall's endless corridors, Ran's grasp on reality appears to be loosening. And then he comes across an ancient lift; and in that lift, a mirror… and in the mirror… the reflection of a woman…

Review:
Let me get this out there from the start. I'm not a fan or horror. Something about the genre, just doesn't work for me. I am though, a fan of Michael J. Malone so I thought I'd try this book to see if he could still entertain me when I was out of my comfort zone. This is a terrifying psychological thriller with more than a hint of Gothic, 'House of Spines' is a love letter to the power of books, and an exploration of how lust and betrayal can be deadly.

The story – as ever with Malone – is beautifully told and his descriptions of Newton Hall really brought the house to life. There was enough intrigue to pique my crime reader's interest and I found myself enthralled by what appeared to be Ran's descent into madness as he learned about the house and his family history.

The characterisation was exceptional throughout and I felt myself drawn to and repelled from certain characters as I'm sure was Malone's intent.

With 'House of Spines', Malone may not have converted me to the dark side, but he sure as hell gave me a chilling read which kept me turning pages. And that last line, yeah, I'll admit it, gave a non-horror fan the chills.

If you like a crime story with some chills or a horror tale which will ask you questions, 'House of Spines' will be right up your street. Just don't go and knock on the door.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Helen Cadbury - Race to the Kill

"What Cadbury does best is she allows the plot to unfold at its own pace."

Synopsis:
It is the middle of a long night shift for PC Sean Denton and his partner PC Gavin Wentworth when they are approached by a dishevelled looking woman desperate that they follow her. She leads them to the old Chasebridge High School where they find the dead body of a Syrian refugee.

The investigation which points to the neighbouring greyhound stadium finds Denton caught up in a world of immigration, drugs and sexual abuse, and one in which his private life becomes increasingly entwined.

Review:
What makes the Sean Denton series stand out more than any other in the British crime fiction canon is the meticulous research and attention to detail the author, Helen Cadbury, brings to them. As any police officer, or crime writer, will tell you, police procedure can be tedious and does not make for entertaining fiction. Helen shows her readers the minutiae of day to day police life without it getting in the way of a gripping story.

Sean Denton (in this novel he is promoted to a DC) is an original creation: a genuinely likeable young man who wants to make a better life after a painful and difficult upbringing. Self-conscious about his dyslexia he is humble and grateful for where he is and eager to make a name within the police force. Such vulnerability in a protagonist is refreshing and allows the reader compassion in hoping he succeeds.

'Race To The Kill' is a timely, gritty novel that features refugees and migrant labour, sexual abuse and wicked manipulation. What Cadbury does best is she allows the plot to unfold at its own pace. She does go in for a gimmicky opening to hook the reader but allows the story to bubble along, led by real, believable characters. By the time you reach the conclusion you feel as emotionally drained as the newly qualified DC Denton, but satisfied in the knowledge you've read a bloody good thriller.

Unfortunately, Helen Cadbury died earlier this year. It is incredibly sad that she will never know how well 'Race To The Kill' is received, or that the Sean Denton series will remain incomplete. She had created a wonderful lead character with the opportunity to feature him in my more novels.

I only met Helen once, at a literary event in Worksop. However, I chatted to her many times online. She was a warm and giving person. She was funny, intelligent, always had a story to tell and her smile and approachable nature was genuine.

Helen is a huge loss; not only to the crime writing community but to everyone who met and knew her and this third Denton novel is a wonderful swansong.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Ragnar Jónasson - White Out

"...a fast paced read - perfect for these dark winter nights. "

Synopsis:
Two days before Christmas, a young woman is found dead beneath the cliffs of the deserted village of Kálfshamarvík. Did she jump, or did something more sinister take place beneath the lighthouse and the old house on the remote rocky outcrop?

With winter closing in and the snow falling relentlessly, Ari Thór Arason discovers that the victim's mother and younger sister also lost their lives in this same spot, twenty-five years earlier. As the dark history and the secrets of the village are unveiled, and the death toll begins to rise, the Siglufjördur detectives must race against the clock to find the killer, before another tragedy takes place.

Review:
Ragnar Jónasson's Dark Iceland series is rapidly becoming one of my favourites in crime fiction. The stories and the setting are rich in detail and structure and are wonderfully entertaining. If Agatha Christie had disappeared to Iceland instead of Harrogate, she would have created Ari Thór Arason.

Ari is a complex character. He's suffered great heartache in his young life and is difficult to get close to. However, he trying, and he wants nothing more to be happy and build a safe life with his pregnant girlfriend. It's this humility that makes Ari Thór so endearing. He's not a maverick. He doesn't operate outside the rules. He wants to do his job and go home to the woman he loves. Ari Thór is an everyman and he could become one of the greatest protagonists in the whole of crime fiction.

'White Out' is set at Christmas and Ragnar has included all the Icelandic Christmas traditions in his story, making the country seem like a gorgeous and beautiful place to spend the festive season.

The plot is dark and claustrophobic with a mystery spanning decades. With Christmas fast approaching and Ari Thór battling the elements and his personal issues, this is a fast paced read - perfect for these dark winter nights.

I hope the Ari Thór series continues for many books to come. However, whatever Ragnar Jónasson writes next, I'll definitely be reading. He's a natural storyteller.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Julia Chapman - Date With Malice

"...a finely crafted novel, with many red herrings and clues... "

Synopsis:
Samson O'Brien has come back to the Yorkshire Dales village of Bruncliffe, having been dismissed as a police officer with the National Crime Agency in London. Here he has formed the Dales Detective Agency, his landlady being Delilah Metcalfe, who runs the Dales Dating Agency from the same address. It's coming up to Christmas, and Alice Shepherd, who lives in the Fellside Court retirement home, pays him a visit, asking him to investigate a series of mysterious happenings in the court. In the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing, Samson is dubious. But when Alice is found dead (was it a natural or unnatural death?), he begins to take an interest. This is compounded by two further accidents (or were they accidents?).

There are questions aplenty. Is the Fellside Court's beautiful, blonde manager Ana Stoyanova, all she seems? Is she Bulgarian or Serbian? What of the mysterious pill box? And what of Samson's other case - the disappearance of a prize tup from Clive Knowles' Farm? Who took it? Where is it? And finally, when will Samson and Delilah finally realise that they're attracted to each other?

Review:
This, the second in the Samson and Delilah series, is a finely crafted novel, with many red herrings and clues scattered throughout its pages. It could be looked on as a 'cosy', though the bleakness of a cold, wet Dales winter and the fears of the Fellside Court's residents as things unfold give it a very 'un-cosy' edge.

Julia Chapman is the nom de plume of Julia Stagg, author of the popular Fogas Chronicles, a series of mysteries set in the French Pyrenees. Her writing is lucid and to the point. She lays out her clues fairly, teasingly mingled with some red herrings, and she leaves the door open at the end of the novel for further investigations by Samson and Delilah. In fact, the third in the series, 'Date With Mystery', will be published by Pan Macmillan soon.

Reviewed by: J.G.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Elly Griffiths - The Vanishing Box

"Elly Griffiths is a writer working at the height of her powers..."

Synopsis:
Winter, 1953. A young flower seller is found dead in her room at a Brighton boarding-house, posed with a chilling perfection into a recreation of a famous painting of the death of Lady Jane Grey. This is a killer unlike any DI Edgar Stephens has encountered before.

Across the city at the Hippodrome theatre, Max Mephisto is top of the bill in a double act with his daughter Ruby. Tarnishing the experience, though, is one of the other acts: a seedy 'living tableaux' show where barely-dressed women strike poses from famous historical scenes. Is the resemblance to the murder scene pure coincidence, or is life imitating art?

When another death occurs - this time within the troupe itself - Max once again finds himself involved in one of Edgar's cases. They have faced down serial killers and anarchist bombers together, but this threat will come closer to home than anything before. What should be just a job is about to become very personal.

Review:
Elly Griffiths is one of my favourite crime writers. I know that upon reading the first page I'm going to be hooked, drawn into a dark and murky world of a twisted mystery with richly drawn characters.

The Stephens and Mephisto series is straight out of the golden age of British crime fiction. If Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers had an interest in magic, they could have created the eponymous duo.

Griffiths seems to have channelled into a time of post-war uncertainty, as she describes life as Christmas approaches in 1953. The period detail is perfectly researched and used with great aplomb as only Griffiths can to draw the reader into not only the crime, but the world surrounding it.

In any crime fighting duo, we always have our favourite and I always plump for Max Mephisto who, despite his confident stage presence, is worried for his future as variety is dying in favour of television and film - a world he feels he doesn't belong in. However, in 'The Vanishing Box', we see a more vulnerable side to Edgar Stephens as he searches his heart and his soul amid a background of chaos and murder. It's this extra development that elevates Stephens more in this book.

Elly Griffiths is a writer working at the height of her powers with two excellent series under her belt. With the tenth Ruth Galloway out early next year, she shows no sign of slowing down and I hope we have more mysteries from the 1950s to come. Mephisto and Stephens are a wonderfully crafted duo and I selfishly want more.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Arne Dahl - Watching You

"This book is full of originality and develops a story that could not be guessed."

Synopsis:
Detective Sam Berger is investigating the abduction of a fifteen-year old girl. Information received sends the team to a house in a remote country area where they find evidence of macabre practices, but no body. In addition, booby traps are set to impede the police. Berger is convinced that the perpetrator is responsible for a series of mysterious disappearances and that in some way it is personal. At each successive crime scene, a momento is left that only Berger will recognise.

Berger's boss is unhappy that Sam is not going on the available evidence but proposing the existence of a serial offender. Sam is banned from mentioning his theory to the rest of the team although his close associate 'Deer' is aware of the undercurrents.
Berger continues to upset the establishment as he investigates further disappearances and allies himself with another maverick cop who is desperate to discover the truth. Their future is uncertain.

Review:
This book is full of originality and develops a story that could not be guessed. Fast moving and cleverly plotted, the tale delves deep into the psyche of one very disturbed man who is linked to Berger in an unexpected way. Berger himself has an unusual way of looking at things and it becomes a battle between two strong characters. The other characters are also intriguing and draw you into the world that Dahl has constructed.

This is the beginning of a new series for this successful author and I look forward to immersing myself in the next book.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

P.D. James - Sleep No More

"A marvellous swansong for such an esteemed author. "

Synopsis:
A retired judge is taken back decades by a yo-yo which directly lead to a murder at Christmas. A young woman lives her childhood in a cemetery, little realising that her fascination with the dead is down to a secret she holds in her subconscious. A crime writer looks back to the murder of Santa Claus back in 1939 while Mr Millcroft is quite happy to blackmail his family to secure his tenancy in the residential home of his dreams!

Review:
Faber publish six more short tales from the wonderful P.D. James after the previous publication of 'The Mistletoe Murder', which while I found enjoyable, did not show James at full strength. These six I found a much more enjoyable. All deal with a murder in the past with my favourites being 'The Yo-Yo' and 'The Girl Who Loved Graveyards' which I had read years ago in another anthology. 'The Murder of Santa Claus' is in a similar vein as 'The Yo-Yo', both being from the perspective of a public school boy during the war, going to a distant relation for Christmas and being caught up in a murder. As James was alive then, you do get a wonderful sense of time and place, even with such a short story. All the tales were extremely enjoyable and each is threaded with James' wry sense of humour, especially in 'Mr Millcroft's Birthday' which has a wonderful little twist at the end. Both 'A Desirable Residence' and 'The Victim' deal with marriage and how one can end up wishing for something so much they will go to any lengths to achieve it, only to find themselves in a trap of their own making. This is a much stronger selection and one that simply shows why James was such a leading light in the world of crime fiction. A marvellous swansong for such an esteemed author.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Cyril Hare - An English Murder

"Hare is an author that deserves to be re-discovered!"

Synopsis:
It is Christmas and remote Warbeck Hall has been cut off from civilisation by a torrential snowstorm. The current Lord Warbeck nears the end of his days and soon the title will be passed to his son, Robert who is not an honourable man. The other guests include Sir Julius Warbeck, Mrs. Carstairs, Lady Camilla and Sir Julius' bodyguard, Rogers. With Briggs, a butler of the old guard and Dr. Bottwink, a man of indeterminate origin who has been allowed to peruse and translate the Warbeck archive, this motley crew gather together for an awkward Christmas which is made worse by a violent murder on Christmas Eve. By Christmas Day another two of the residents will be dead.

Review:
I originally highlighted this book and Cyril Hare in 2015 when Faber Finds re-issued this title. Now it comes out again from Faber with an eye-catching red and white cover.

What makes Hare's novel stand apart from the normal mysteries of the Golden Age is that the author's work here is multi-layered. Not only are we given a very clever mystery at the heart of this story, but it is a treatise of the dying days of the aristocracy. Hare casts a piercing eye over those who have been raised in the upper classes but after years of entitlement, those hey-days are in the distant past as lack of money makes these big mansions that were once palaces, now money pits, rapidly falling in to decay. Sir Julius is one who comes from a privileged background but is seen as a traitor for crippling those he once brushed shoulders with in his capacity of Chancellor of the Exchequer in the current government. His standing on both sides of the fence is another twist to Hare's plot.

Despite Sergeant Rogers taking control of the investigation, the novel follows the outsider, Dr. Bottwink. I say outsider as he is one in all circles, an outsider in class as well as being a 'foreigner'. It is quite uncomfortable that even Sir Julius has a dim view of 'foreigners'! However, as Bottwink points out, he knows more about English history than those who declare themselves English through and through! In fact, it is an Historical event that leads Bottwink to fathom out the case.

Hare's writing is sublime and I feel this author was years ahead of his time. This is not only a Christmas mystery, but an assault on the class society and their distain of any now deemed to be an equal. If you reach for any Christmas book, I would certainly recommend this to any lover of a great story well-told and with three-dimensional characterisation. Hare is an author that deserves to be re-discovered!

Reviewed by: CS

CrimeSquad Rating:

Gladys Mitchell - Murder in the Snow

"Any book by ‘The Great Gladys’ is a panacea for the soul..."

Synopsis:
Mrs Adela Beatrice Lestrange Bradley has been invited to the countryside for Christmas by her favourite nephew. She doesn't particularly like her family, including her own son, Ferdinand who tests her patient at times! However, her nephew is charming and had made her agreeably happy by marrying the woman of her choice – and making a matrimonial match made in Heaven. Something, after several husbands, Mrs Bradley could not do herself.

And so she finds herself on the cusp of Christmas with Jonathan and Deborah Bradley. The recent snow has made the surrounds look the same as a Christmas card – picturesque and festive. Having met the neighbours who she will be sharing her festive lunch with – and having tramped the countryside and heard of the ghost of Groaning Spinney – Mrs. Bradley settles down to a quiet holiday. But murder is not far away and soon a body is found draped over the gate of Groaning Spinney, the same gate local legend says is haunted by the spirit of a local parson who, after a night of heavy drinking, died of cold at the gate in 1850. Now a fresh body has been found and it won't be long before another body is discovered in the snow. Mrs. Bradley feels she knows the murderer – evidence is the only thing stopping her putting a stop to the killer's plan.

Review:
Now, before any fan of 'The Great Gladys' gets excited, this is a re-issue of 'Groaning Spinney' with a new jacket and a new title.

There is nothing better than settling down with a Gladys Mitchell and following another 'off-the-wall' case featuring Mrs Bradley (later to become Dame). I always feel when reading a Mitchell that even though murders occur, these are 'jolly-hockey sticks' adventures for adults. Mitchell's imagination was always quite theatrical and sometimes she was in control, sometimes not. In some books Mitchell's plots can feel as though they have run away with themselves, but here Mitchell is in control, if being very playful with her reader.

I loved the feeling of Christmas in 1950 (no TV then!) which felt idyllic and a much more relaxed affair. You can tell that Mitchell enjoyed this festive season and that leaks through her prose as she sets up an idyllic scene which doesn't last long. As with all her novels, Mrs Bradley's humour threads throughout the story and there are some very sharp and witty observations. Nothing is taken seriously and yet, the act of murder is considered serious with Mrs Bradley as some form of bizarre Nemesis. Unlike Christie, Mitchell does not wrap everything up prettily within forty-eight hours. It isn't until the first touches of spring that Mrs Bradley is finally able to catch her murderer, so this can't be classed as just a Christmas mystery, but I was soon wrapped up in the plot like a present under the Christmas tree. Any book by 'The Great Gladys' is a panacea for the soul – a cosy mystery as warming as drinking a cup of hot chocolate on a winter's day!

Reviewed by: CS

CrimeSquad Rating:

M.B. Shaw - Murder at the Mill

"‘Murder at the Mill’ started off well, but seemed to hit the buffers after a while."

Synopsis:
Iris Grey arrives at Mill Cottage in a picture-perfect Hampshire village, looking to escape from her crumbling marriage. She is drawn to the neighbouring Wetherby family, and is commissioned to paint a portrait of Dominic Wetherby, a celebrated crime writer.

At the Wetherby's Christmas Eve party, the mulled wine is in full flow - but so too are tensions and rivalries among the guests. On Christmas Day, the youngest member of the Wetherby family, Lorcan, finds a body in the water. A tragic accident? Or a deadly crime?

With the snow falling, Iris enters a world of village gossip, romantic intrigue, buried secrets and murder.

Review:
After her stint writing under the Sidney Sheldon umbrella, Tilly Bagshawe reinvents herself as M.B. Shaw with the first of the Iris Grey mysteries.

'Murder at the Mill' started off well, but seemed to hit the buffers after a while. Although I enjoy 'meeting' the cast of actors in the drama, Shaw seems to have got herself lost in her characters rather than moving on the plot. At times, there did seem to me quite a bit of repetition.

I like Iris and feel over several books she will be a woman you can root for in the same vein as Agatha Raisin (although Iris in no way has Agatha's un-PC personality). What annoyed me about Iris was her spinelessness about her husband who really is the most shocking snob ever. I'd have dumped him at the altar, let alone twenty years later! Having spent two hundred pages flip-flopping whether she wanted to stay married or not, a murder finally happens. I think by now I felt a little numb with not much really happening.

I guessed the killer some time before the 'reveal'. 'Murder at the Mill' is enjoyable, but far too long. The one good thing is that Iris does discover her backbone by the end of the story. I would read Iris' next adventure, as long as it isn't as long and meandering as this one. This book was a little like a Christmas cracker; gorgeous on the outside but lacking any substance inside.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Francis Duncan - Murder for Christmas

"...Duncan delivers a very competent and satisfying solution..."

Synopsis:
When Mordecai Tremaine, former tobacconist and amateur sleuth arrives at the country retreat of one Benedict Grame on Christmas Eve, he discovers that the revelries are in full swing in the sleepy village of Sherbroome - but so too are tensions amongst the assortment of guests.

When midnight strikes, the partygoers discover that presents aren't the only things nestled under the tree... there's a dead body too. A dead body that bears a striking resemblance to Father Christmas. With the snow falling and suspicions flying, it's up to Mordecai to sniff out the culprit--and prevent anyone else from getting murder for Christmas.

Review:
There was a buzz about this book when first published in 2015 as nobody, even the great minds of crime fiction (I do not count myself as one of those), did not know who Francis Duncan was or had even heard of him. We now know a little more that his real name was William Underhill and he wrote about twenty crime books during 1937 and 1959.

Duncan is definitely a very good writer and unlike some from that era, it still stands up today. He perfectly painted the different sides of Christmas, those who love it surrounded by family and friends, and those who feel lonely, an outsider and dread the festive season.

Although it is written well, 'Murder for Christmas' does take a while to get started. Duncan is good at characterisation, however here this does seem to have been given precedence over plot. When the murder is finally discovered then the book does pick up speed and Duncan delivers a very competent and satisfying solution to the crime committed. Despite what I have said about pace, this is still a very enjoyable read and Vintage have now released four more Duncan books which I will seek out. It is wonderful that publishers are still searching and bringing back to life these forgotten gems.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating: