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October 2015

Ruth Rendell - Dark Corners

"‘Dark Corners’ is a fitting full-stop to a stunning and forward-thinking body of work."

Carl Martin has inherited his father's house in Falcon Mews; a sought-after area in London. Carl's father collected pills – homeopathic, herbal remedies – which Carl knew he should have put in a bag and thrown away once the house was his. But he didn't. Carl is a first-time novelist, but not a rich one and he needs money. Carl rents out the top floor of the townhouse to a churchgoer with yellow teeth called Dermot. Despite his new income, Carl sells his friend, Stacey some slimming pills rather than give them her. A few days later she is dead. The pills were not illegal, but the wrong dose brings on a sudden and violent death.

Carl's guilt is all consuming, but he can't tell anyone. But someone else does know that Carl sold those pills… his tenant, Dermot who tells Carl what he knows and that forthwith, to keep his silence, he will be living in Carl's house, rent free. So begins a tale of guilt and blackmail and murder. But a murder doesn't always mean that is the end of the matter…

Anybody who is a regular on knows my thoughts on Ruth Rendell. She changed the landscape of crime fiction. Her novels pushed the boundaries and like a surrogate mother, she nursed an ailing crime fiction into adulthood. Rendell proved that crime fiction could stand alongside, if not even head and shoulders above, literary fiction. With the recent announcement of the Man Booker Prize to Marlon James which is in effect a crime novel, (something many said would NEVER happen), Rendell's legacy is great and what she did for this genre will be remembered for decades. In crime genre folklore Rendell has become immortal.

Having read everything by Rendell, it was with great sadness that I started 'Dark Corners', especially with the words, 'Her Final Novel' splashed across the front. Her passing is a great sadness, so enjoy this last book from her warped and wonderfully wicked imagination - but is it a fitting finale? 'Dark Corners' certainly proves that Rendell did not rest on her laurels. The dark corners she alludes to are the ones in Carl's mind as well as those dark spots of shadow under the bridges along the London canal she so lovingly and respectfully describes. As with many novels, Rendell collects a cast of characters that are not particularly pleasant, but she makes you feel for them and wonder what sort of life are they going to have when their greatest attribute is to either deceive or lie? I felt it was quite telling how Rendell paints a picture of Tom Milson and his daughter, Lizzie who he doesn't particularly like because even as an adult she can't stop telling lies – or 'porky pies' as he calls them. And when something horrific does happen to Lizzie of course, nobody believes her.

In attendance is Rendell's wonderful dry and acerbic sense of humour at the ridiculous, the finely tuned observations of the macabre. Rendell shows that committing murder may not necessarily mean the end of the matter. In fact, it could open up a whole new load of chaos. 'Dark Corners' is lighter than 'A Fatal Inversion' or 'The Crocodile Bird', but it certainly proves that Rendell loved nothing more than spinning a good story and 'Dark Corners' still bears all the Rendell hallmarks. What also struck me was the last sentence of this novel. Looking at them now they sound quite prophetic. Rendell said on many occasions there was no point living if she couldn't write. She got her wish, and 'Dark Corners' is a fitting full-stop to a stunning and forward-thinking body of work.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Martina Cole - Get Even

"...will leave you breathless and sleepless until that last page has been turned."

Sharon Conway loved Lenny Scott with every fibre of her being. He was her heart and soul, her beginning and end. Life had been so good for them both. Lenny shot up through the ranks quickly and soon they had everything around them to make life very comfortable. But over time the shine on her marriage began to dull. And then Lenny doesn't come back from one of his 'jobs'. Sharon loved her husband, but with his sudden demise, she is free from the secret she had been cradling to her chest, a secret she had recently found out about Lenny and one that had shattered her world.

Two years later Sharon meets Ray. Tall, dark and handsome, she falls madly in love with Ray and the life they have together is even better than her previous one with Lenny. As the years roll by, again the veneer on her marriage begins to tarnish – but Ray also has his secrets – and one of them is set to explode and set Sharon on a path of vengeance.

I have reviewed many books by Martina Cole and to be honest, I am running out of praiseworthy superlatives for this woman's work. I mean, by the time this review goes up, Cole will be riding high and sitting – for the fifteenth time if I count right, on the number one bestseller spot. And when you read 'Get Even' you will understand why.

With short sharp chapters, some only a page long, I was racing my way through her latest with the speed of a car chase from 'The Sweeney'. I can't put my finger on it, but there is always something so entrancing about Cole's books that once that new hardback is in your hands, it is stuck there as if by glue until finished. I don't know if it is because it involves people we know or have known in our journey through life, but Cole always writes about people and issues we can identify with.

Cole's books grip you by the throat and with 'Get Even' she does just that, but here she also gives you a smack in the face, swiftly followed with a Glasgow (or maybe that should be Essex) kiss! This has to be one of the most savage of Cole's stories I have ever read. 'Get Even' is stonking stuff that will leave you breathless and sleepless until that last page has been turned. Truly admirable.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Barbara Nadel - Enough Rope

"...a fast moving and action packed story. "

Lee Arnold and Mumtaz Hakim are unlikely partners. Lee is an ex copper and Mumtaz is a widowed psychology graduate with a teenaged daughter. She also has some unsavoury characters extorting money from her. Lee is definitely old East End and Mumtaz has many connections with the South Asian community. Together they run a detective agency catering for all. Both of them look askance at the new influx of rich kids developing a new trendy East End.

An old colleague of Lee, Superintendent Paul Venus, finds himself with a problem when his son disappears from school. For various reasons Venus does not want to involve his police colleagues so he turns to Lee Arnold to do a bit of covert digging for him. Meanwhile, Mumtaz is working on tracing the birth parents of a woman who is suffering from a fatal disease.

The unlikely truth and the involvement of the woman's son with Lee's investigation lead the two investigators into very murky and dangerous ground. As Mumtaz' daughter grows up and begins to attract unwelcome attention from some evil members of the community, Mumtaz finds herself pushed into a dangerous and impossible corner. There is only one place to go for help. But that is another story!

At one level this is a straightforward investigation of a kidnapping, but as the story moves on, other particularly nasty developments occur. As always, Barbara Nadel addresses the issue of the moment in her plotting of a fast moving and action packed story. In this case she is considering the phenomenon of the gentrification of the East End and the effect the trendy new young people have on the older residents. In this case the youngsters are inconsiderate, rude and definitely criminal. Barbara Nadel is obviously not a fan of a certain type of Public School as her description of Reed's is extremely disconcerting.

The interweaving of the two directions of the investigation is cleverly handled. Lee Arnold and Mumtaz appear to be working on completely separate cases but adept plotting brings the characters together in a fast moving and exciting finale. Nadel's strong views are very much in evidence in this book but it is all the more relevant because of that. Another brilliant chapter in a spellbinding series from the magnificent imagination of Nadel.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Joseph Finder - The Fixer

"...the latest in a series of great thrillers from a fantastic author."

Two months ago, reporter Rick Hoffman was dining at the Four Seasons with the power elite of Boston. Now he's too poor to replace the light bulbs in his dad's old house. Rick - fired by his magazine, dumped by his fiancé, rejected by his society friends - is down to his last dime - until he discovers millions of dollars hidden in the walls of the attic. But how did it get there? And who else knows about it? Only one person could know the answer. Rick's father: a man who's been in a nursing home, speechless, for twenty years. Now Rick must bring his father's hidden past to light - before deadly enemies find a way to silence father and son for good.

I love a good everyman thriller and with 'The Fixer', Finder has excelled himself. So determined was I to stay up and finish this book, I made myself a cup of coffee at 1.00am on a 'school' night! Believe me, it was worth the next day's exhaustion.

The finding of family secrets is not new ground, but Finder approaches the topic with ingenuity and fresh ideas to create a suspense-laden plot. The central character of Rick Hoffman is crafted in such a way that the readers' empathy for him grows as the chapters fly past.

In short, 'The Fixer' is the latest in a series of great thrillers from a fantastic author.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Don Winslow - The Cartel

"‘The Cartel’ is an important book. It deserves your attention."

It's 2004. DEA agent Art Keller is in hiding after sacrificing everything he cared about to bring down the head of El Federación, one of the world's most powerful cartels and the man who murdered Keller's partner, Adan Barrera.

Barrera escapes prison, determined to rebuild what Keller destroyed. The first thing Barrera does is place a $2 million bounty on Keller's head.

Keller comes out of hiding, determined not to live in a world where Adan Barrera is a free man and goes on a 10 year ruthless rampage of justice. His obsession becomes a ruthless struggle that stretches from the cities, mountains and deserts of Mexico to Washington's corridors of power.

'Awesome' is an over-used word these days but with this book, it is absolutely 'le bon mot'. Taken along with 'The Power of the Dog', this is the definitive work of fiction detailing the actions of the Mexican drug cartels, the ongoing war on drugs and the men and women who wage it.

The truth of the situation is hammered home before you even begin reading the text of the novel. Winslow lists the names of all the journalists who were murdered or 'disappeared' during the time the novel spans. This takes almost two pages of tightly typed names.

The two main characters are fascinating. Coming from either side of the drug war, we get to see the things they care about and the things they do to protect that and cleverly, Winslow demonstrates the complexity in such people. Lines are crossed. Bad people do good things. Good people do bad things.

One of my favourite characters is Jesus 'Chuy' Barajos. At age eleven he is indoctrinated by one faction in the war, The Zetas and forced to kill his first man. He becomes an assassin and his story is one of the threads that build into a terrifying narrative, highlighting the everyday horrors of life in such a world.

Eight years of fact-fuelled fiction, 'The Cartel' is no dry polemic but an engaging, consuming thrill ride that makes you think and feel and fear. It's clear that the author cares deeply about the mess this part of the world is in. His anger and frustration fuel the narrative, pull you in and make you care every bit as much.

'The Cartel' is an important book. It deserves your attention.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Murder Squad - ed. by Ann Cleeves - The Starlings and other stories

"This is a wonderful idea to test the mettle of any writer..."

Six best-selling crime writers, together with their six accomplices, have written a series of stories based on the photography of popular west Wales' photographer, David Wilson.

Edited by Ann Cleeves and featuring a foreword by Chris Simms (author of the DI Jon Spicer series), and a story by Murder Squad founder Margaret Murphy (currently writing as A.D. Garrett), the twelve stories feature an original story with Vera Stanhope; stories of witches and flame-haired girls; revealed secrets long-buried in churches and gardens and even a tale of revenge pornography.

This is a wonderful idea to test the mettle of any writer: an anthology of stories based on landscape photography. Personally, I would find this task incredibly daunting, but the Murder Squad are not shy when it comes to a challenge. They are a group of battle-hardened, award-winning thriller writers who, together, make for a dangerous collection of frightening talented people.

The photographs themselves - taken by Wales' David Wilson - are stunning to look at. Beautiful landscapes showing the very best of Pembrokeshire. I spent time pouring over each photograph before even starting on the stories. They're stark, elegant, haunting, and creepy images. I could have spent hours with just a book of the pictures.

I advise you to look at the photos first, read the stories and then go back to the photos. Once you know the story you'll see a completely different picture, and that is the joy of this anthology.

Stand out stories for me are Jim Kelly's 'The Man Who Didn't Breathe' which is a claustrophobic and frightening chiller; 'Sirens' by Mary Sharratt and 'Port Lion' by Margaret Murphy. However, my favourite has to be 'Secrets' by Kate Ellis - a truly original tale with a neat twist at the end.

Special mention has to go to Chris Simms' 'The Wizard's Place'. I am a huge fan of this writer and have read every one of his novels. However, the power of the photograph must have had a profound effect on Simms as his writing here is almost poetic. It is different from anything he has ever written which proves him to be a writer of incredible talent.

I hope there is a second anthology. However, I'd love to see the Murder Squad tackle a story based on just one photograph and see how each writer views the picture and each come up with a different story.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Robert Karjel - My Name is N

" exceptional, standout thriller I didn't want to end."

In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, five survivors - a ruthless American arms dealer, a Czech hitman, a mysterious nurse from Kansas, a heartbreakingly naive Pakistani, and a Swede - decide to obtain new identities, and plot a major terrorist attack in Kansas which is not quite what it initially seems.

Several years later, Ernst Grip, Swedish security agent lands at a remote military base in the Indian Ocean. His escort, mysterious FBI agent Shauna Friedman, asks him to determine whether a prisoner who has been tortured by the CIA is a Swedish citizen.

At the military base, the prisoner, known only as N., refuses to talk, and Grip begins to question Friedman's motives and why he in particular has been summoned to the U.S. for this task. As he too has a secret he is unprepared to part with: no one in Sweden knows that he is passionately in love with a male art dealer in New York who is fighting AIDS. Together, the couple will do anything to raise the money to pay for the drugs he needs to survive, a situation that leads Grip into the murky world of art theft.

'My Name Is N' - the first novel by Robert Karjel to be translated into English - is a first-class, genre breaking thriller; a superior literary crime drama with a fast pace narrative and a genuine and likeable protagonist.

There has been some bad press about 'My Name Is N' (particular in the U.S.) about the main character's bisexuality. I'm not sure why this seems to be causing such issues in the twenty-first century. Besides, in a novel about secret identities and double lives, it's very fitting that the protagonist also has a secret he's keeping from the world. Ernst Grip is a well-rounded creation with recognisable flaws and a caring heart. I warmed to him straight away.

The multi-layered plot is original and intelligent. The scenes depicting the aftermath of the Asian tsunami in 2004 are delicately written, and the emotions felt by the survivors is truly heart-breaking. Karjel is a knowledgeable writer: he knows his subject, he knows his characters, and he is not afraid to take risks; making this an exceptional, standout thriller I didn't want to end.

The tense plot keeps you guessing right up until the final line with a twist that even the most season crime fiction writer won't see coming. The second Ernst Grip thriller by Robert Karjel is published next June. It's already on my wish list.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Karin Fossum - The Drowned Boy

"...certainly one that will ensure you remember the story far beyond closing the book."

'He'd just learnt to walk,' she said. 'He was sitting playing on his blanket, then all of a sudden he was gone.'

A 16-month-old boy is found drowned in a pond right by his home. Chief Inspector Sejer is called to the scene as there is something troubling about the mother's story. As even her own family turns against her, Sejer is determined to get to the truth.

In 'The Drowned Boy', the eleventh outing for Inspector Sejer, Karin Fossum proves once more why she is so successful. As usual Fossum delves deeply into the minds and motivations of the characters, more so than the incident itself, but she does it so well that it's easy to feel in tune with those involved, and get wound up in both their emotions and your own reaction to what is happening to them. There is definitely one character in here that I took a complete and instant dislike to, and deservedly so it seems.

It opens with a detailed description of the process of drowning, which given the premise of the novel, can prove a little disturbing but it's an opener you won't forget. It's a successful hook that leads you quickly into the story. I read 'The Drowned Boy' in just a couple of sittings as it's a compelling tale that asks some hard moral questions, which I'm sure will trigger some interesting thoughts and conversations on how you would react in a similar situation.

Once more it is perfect for fans of the series, and new readers alike as knowledge of previous novels is not a pre-requisite to enjoying this one. It also has an ending that I can foresee creating much debate amongst fans. Whilst it's a different approach from the norm it is certainly one that will ensure you remember the story far beyond closing the book.

Reviewed by: J.P.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Nik Frobenius - Dark Branches

"...will definitely keep you awake at night..."

Strange and sinister things happen after Joe Udderman writes a book about his childhood: an anonymous letter arrives, a dead squirrel is left on his doorstep, his daughter's Barbie doll has its head cut off and a nail driven through its heart.

One of his childhood friends, George, was a misfit and an outsider; some thought he was a boy without a soul. When he turns up again, Joe's lover, Katinka, is found dead and stuffed into an old rose painted chest in a bog in the forest.

His life with his wife and daughter in Oslo no longer feels secure. Someone is out to get them. Who owns the past? The author who writes or the people he writes about?

The story of an author being haunted by his own work is not a new one but Nik Frobenius has found a chillingly devastating way to make this a highly original novel that is entertaining and haunting.

Written in the first person, 'Dark Branches' is a short novel yet packs a powerful punch. Lesser writers would have needed four hundred pages to tell the story Frobenius has managed in two hundred.

I wasn't expecting to like the main character of Joe. It's difficult to warm to someone who is married with a young daughter yet talks so nonchalantly about having an affair. However, the writing is so sharp and literate that it makes him instantly likeable. Frobenius has created a sympathetic and tormented author who fears the consequences of his own work.

The finale is frighteningly original. This story is going to continue long after the final pages and it would be interesting to see how the character of Joe and his young daughter Emma would cope with the aftermath.

'Dark Branches' will definitely keep you awake at night and stay with you for many months to come.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Martin Walker - The Dying Season

"...there is a frisson of excitement as you begin the first page..."

Benoit Courreges, commonly known as Bruno, is Chief of Police in the small town of St Denis, in the Dordogne region of France. In the latest of this charmingly appealing series, Bruno is investigating a death which occurred at the ninetieth birthday celebrations of local war hero, Colonel Jean -Marc Desaix, known to everyone simply as the Patriarch. He has been a personal hero of Bruno's since childhood, when his flying feats caught the imagination of the young boy. So to attend the lavish celebrations was a great honour and the investigation to the subsequent death has to be handled with extreme care.

Bruno's investigation uncovers many secrets that have been well hidden. At the same time, local conflict between the hunters of the area and the conservationists becomes critical and Bruno has to use his tact and reputation to keep things on an even keel, although not always entirely successfully.

Part of the delight of following a successful series such as that of Bruno is that when a new novel comes out there is a frisson of excitement as you begin the first page, knowing that you have hours of enjoyment ahead of you. This is how I feel about Martin Walker and his creation, Chief of Police Bruno. I have read many of the previous novels with great pleasure and this one does not disappoint. It has all the ingredients I like: plenty of action, clever and original plotting, an update on Bruno and his love life and above all a wonderful immersion in the south of France, its ways of life, its characters and the wonderful food. This is like Peter Mayle's 'A Year in Provence' – but with a huge dollop of dark crime. C'est magnifique!

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Denise Mina - Blood Salt Water

"Mina delivers another excellent read."

Iain Fraser is a habitual criminal, just released from prison. He is under the thrall of one Mark Barratt, big time crook and fixer. He is based in the small gentrified seaside town of Helensburgh where many people know what he's up to but also look the other way to suit their own purposes. Under orders from Barratt, Fraser kills a woman and disposes of her body in the nearby Loch Lomond.

Meantime, in Glasgow, DI Alex Morrow is furious when a woman she is tracking as part of an investigation into a multi-million pound business scam goes missing. Her two children seem to know more than they are saying, and other leads seem to go nowhere.

The two investigations, apparently separate, start to merge together and some diplomatic negotiation is required for the DI in Helensburgh. Arching over all this is the workings of the new Police Scotland amalgamation of forces and the importance of money earned from the recovery of fraud scams to both Police Scotland and the Met. As always, economics and politics play their part in the investigation of crime.

This is a cracking good story which Mina has skillfully put together. The plotting is extremely clever and kept me guessing throughout the book.

D I Alex Morrow is a feisty character and the way in which her story develops from book to book adds to the appeal and makes this one of the most exciting series currently being published. The gritty flavour of Glasgow policing is to the fore, and I particularly enjoyed the insider's view of the Scottish referendum and the way in which different people reacted to it.

All in all, what more could you want from a good crime novel? There is the stunning plot, great characterisation and suspense, put together with a good dose of atmosphere. Mina delivers another excellent read.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Steve Mosby - I Know Who Did It

"...Mosby is a great writer; his writing is testament to that."

Charlie Matheson died two years ago in a car accident. So how is a woman who bearing a startling resemblance to her claiming to be back from the dead? Detective Mark Nelson is called in investigate and hear her terrifying account of what she's endured in the 'afterlife'.

Detective David Groves is a man with an unshakeable belief in the law, determined to bring his son's killers to justice. But Groves' search will mean facing someone with an altogether more ruthless approach to right and wrong.

Former Detective John Mercer is slowly recovering from the case that nearly destroyed his life, but a connection to Charlie Matheson brings the realisation that he still has demons left to face.

And at the centre of it all, are two brothers with a macabre secret. They've been waiting. They've been planning. They've been killing. And for Mark Nelson, David Groves and John Mercer, they're about to unleash hell on earth.

The story is written from different perspectives and flits back and forth from these. With Nelson and Mercer looking at Matheson's re-appearance, and Groves looking into the murder of his son.

The story kept me hooked right until the end. However, what started as a fantastic book, so much so, I could feel the hard work Mosby had put into every word, his conclusion felt rushed. In fact, the ending seemed as though written by a different author than the rest of the book. What started off with well balanced, believable characters ended with stereotypical killers.

I cannot say too much about the plot as this will ruin the suspense. However, regardless of my grumble, Mosby is a great writer; his writing is testament to that.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating: