Reviews

November 2020

Margaret Murphy - Before He Kills Again

"Intense, engrossing and a shockingly good read."

Synopsis:
A serial predator is on the prowl in Liverpool. He has claimed seven victims so far. And he's already chosen his next one.

The police cannot catch him, and he leaves no forensic trace, and no-one has been able to provide a reliable description.

Detective Constable Cassie Rowan is assigned to go undercover in order to lure him out. However, she is playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse through the teeming backstreets in Liverpool. How long will it before he turns the tables and begins hunting her?

Review:
'Before He Kills Again' starts off at break-neck speed and does not let up until the final pages. This is a truly disturbing psychological thriller, perfect for the dark winter nights ahead, to snuggle down under the duvet, and scare yourself senseless.

Margaret Murphy is a stunning writer with immense capabilities. On one hand, this could be a police procedural novel about the day to day lives of detectives and a complex case. However, Murphy doesn't write that way. She has a keen eye for detail and an in-depth psychological knowledge of the trappings of a predatory killer and the inner workings of a struggling police force. It is these nuances that Murphy puts to excellent use in all of her fiction and makes her stand head and shoulders above her peers.

This is the first novel in the DC Cassie Rowan series, and I hope we see a lot more of her in the future. When we first meet her, she presents herself as a mouthy, no-nonsense detective, but as the book continues, we see she is hiding a lifetime of pain. Rowan is instantly likeable as someone with determination to seek justice. She is a career cop, and, although she puts herself above the parapet, she's not afraid to put herself in harms way as long as she gets results. It's this gutsy realism that sets Cassie out as being a truly classic protagonist, and one many of us can relate to.

'Before He Kills Again' is dark and unsettling in places. Murphy's style of writing is one that never gives into the sensationalism of a crime, but doesn't gloss over the depravities either. She strikes the tone perfectly every time. Intense, engrossing and a shockingly good read.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Nicola White - A Famished Heart

"There is so much to commend this novel."

Synopsis:
The Macnamara sisters hadn't been seen for months before anyone noticed. It was Father Timoney who finally broke down the door, who saw what had become of them. Berenice was sitting in her armchair, surrounded by religious tracts. Rosaleen had crawled under her own bed, her face frozen in terror. Both had starved themselves to death.

Francesca Macnamara returns to Dublin after decades in the US, to find her family in ruins. Meanwhile, Detectives Vincent Swan and Gina Considine are convinced that there is more to the deaths than suicide. Because what little evidence there is, shows that someone was watching the sisters die...

Review:
This is the second book in a new, Dublin-based crime series featuring DI Vincent Swan. I haven't read the first in the series and, despite being a fellow ex-pat Irish crime writer, Nicola White isn't someone I'd heard of before. After reading 'A Famished Heart', I'll be making sure I read the first book in the series, as well as looking out for everything else this author writes.

I loved 'A Famished Heart'. It's a complex, moving and multi-layered novel full of imperfect characters White portrays with great sympathy. Like all of us, her characters are the products of the society they're living in; in this case, a repressed and unforgiving one that cares little for those who fall outside the strict social conventions of the time.

There is so much to commend this novel. The three-dimensional, complex characters – each one with their own backstory, their own motivations and their own demons; the pitch perfect portrayal of early eighties Ireland; and, at the heart of the novel, the tragedy of two sisters, forgotten by everyone and left to die alone in the midst of the church community that professed to care for them.

As someone who grew up in Ireland during the eighties, I had Goosebumps moments reading parts of this book. Too often, female Irish crime writers are compared to Tana French. In White's case, this comparison is justified. She does a brilliant job of showing the complexities of Irish society, in all its glory and darkness.

If you're looking for an intelligent, thought-provoking crime novel, look no further than 'A Famished Heart'.

Reviewed by: S.B.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Jeff Abbott - Blame

"A highly addictive and gripping read."

Synopsis:
The crash that killed him… Two years ago, Jane Norton crashed her car on a lonely road, killing her friend David and leaving her with amnesia. At first, everyone was sympathetic. Then they found Jane's note: “I wish we were dead together.”

A girl to blame… From that day, the town turned against her. But even now Jane is filled with questions: Why were they on that road? Why was she with David? Did she really want to die?

The secrets she should forget… Most of all, she must find out who has just written her an anonymous message: “I know what really happened. I know what you don't remember...'

Review:
As pieces of Jane's memory starts to come back she begins to look into what really happened on the night of the crash, and find out why everyone had turned against her. With suspicions of friends and family not being completely honest with Jane, she is left to find out herself what she was doing the night of the crash and why someone was now out to cause trouble for her.

There are plenty of suspects as to who could be covering up the truth, each with their own reasons and false leads to throw you off the scent. 'Blame' had quite a few main characters together with those on the side lines, who also added to the plot and story. Abbott always manages to write a thriller that even if it doesn't leave you completely guessing what happened, will certainly take you on a rollercoaster ride to find out if you were right or not. A highly addictive and gripping read.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Ann Granger - A Matter of Murder

"A perfectly addictive read from this highly readable and imaginative author."

Synopsis:
Miff Ferguson is living rough through choice and has been doing so since he left his high-powered job in the City two years ago. He enjoys his freedom to go where he wants when he wants without being beholden to anyone. His family choose not to think about what he is actually doing and tell anyone who is interested that he is doing good works in Africa. All is going well until he disturbs a murderer who has a good look at Miff but loses sight of him as he makes his escape.

This provokes Miff to run to his aunt and uncle in the small village of Weston St Ambrose. He claims to be writing a book about his experiences of living on the streets and is thus dragged into speaking to the local Writers Circle on the subject. He finds a job working in a small Garden Nursery that comes with accommodation and hopes that he can disappear from the sight of the murderer.

Life in this small village is not simple. A local family, whose members sail close to the legal wind, loses two of their own to a violent death. Inspector Jess Campbell and Superintendent Ian Carter are called in to investigate the first death and then liaise with the neighbouring force in investigating the second death. As they come close to discovering the murderer, Miff also comes close to meeting the man who is chasing him. It is a close call as to whom will succeed.

Review:
Ann Granger can be relied upon to produce a carefully crafted detective story with an exciting plot, interesting characters and a back story that sometimes crosses over to her other crime series which is always interesting to her fans. Granger does a thoroughly professional job of producing an entertaining story that successfully provides an escape from reality and a welcome break in these worrying days. I always look forward to a new book by Ann Granger and 'A Matter of Murder' does not disappoint. A perfectly addictive read from this highly readable and imaginative author.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Elly Griffiths - The Postscript Murders

"Elly Griffiths truly is my Queen of Crime."

Synopsis:
The death of a ninety-year-old woman with a heart condition should absolutely not be suspicious. DS Harbinder Kaur certainly sees nothing to concern her in carer Natalka's account of Peggy Smith's death.

But when Natalka reveals that Peggy lied about her heart condition and that she had been sure someone was following her, many unanswered questions come to the surface. Among Peggy's possessions, a business card is found that describes Peggy as a 'Murder Consultant' and she has a vast collection of crime fiction novels, many of which name her in the dedication and acknowledgements sections. Who exactly was Peggy Smith?

When Natalka is held at gunpoint in Peggy's flat, Harbinder discovers there is no such thing as an unsuspicious death. This will be a complex case, and one she won't be able to solve alone.

Review:
'The Postscript Murders' could have come straight from the mind of Agatha Christie and while I'm sure Griffiths didn't purposely sit down to emulate the Queen of Crime, she certainly has channelled the golden age of crime fiction and produced a memorable instant classic of the genre.

The book is about crime fiction, plotting, and publishing – a subject the author knows a great deal about, yet one which she needed to be spot-on accurate in this book in order to write it well. She has succeeded and surpassed her remit. The plotting is sublime and every comment and supposed throwaway line is essential to the story. Not a single character or word is wasted.

'The Postscript Murders' is more than a crime fiction novel about the world of publishing. It's about the lives of the disparate characters thrown together in their single goal and their approach to life. It's about grief, friendship, love, faith, and the little things that are important to us all.

I imagine Griffiths had great fun writing about crime fiction festivals, how readers and writers interact and attitudes to writing. There are some excellent meta lines in this book that will have readers and fellow crime writers smiling.

This truly is a joy of a book to read. I'm a huge fan of Griffiths' Ruth Galloway series and the Brighton Mysteries series, and I can now add Harbinder Kaur to that list too. A wonderful, multi-layered and everyday character who we can all see something of ourselves in. Elly Griffiths truly is my Queen of Crime.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

David Mark - The Burying Ground

"The twists and turns in the plot take the breath away..."

Synopsis:
Cordelia Hemlock is mourning the loss of her young son, and lives near the small village of Gilsland, right on the Cumbria/Northumberland border. She has few friends, and one day, while in a graveyard, she meets Felicity, who lives locally. They strike up a conversation, which is interrupted by a thunderstorm. A sudden flash of lightning strikes an old laurel, which splits in two and crashes onto an old mausoleum, making it collapse. But what the two women see is not old bones, but the body of a man in a blue suit, not long dead, lying among the stones.

They head back to Felicity's house and meet a villager called Fairfax. Cordelia explains about the body, and Fairfax decides he'll drive up to the graveyard and see for himself. But he never returns. Instead his car crashes, killing him. And the body in the mausoleum has disappeared.

Cordelia and Felicity decide to investigate, but local people are uncooperative. Gradually, however, a story emerges - one involving old, dark secrets that should remain buried, involving simmering revenge, the horrors of the war years, conflict and retribution. The women are horrified with what they uncover, and soon find that they themselves are in danger.

Review:
David Mark is the author of well-received police procedurals set in Hull, but this book is a departure from his usual style. It is not a crime book, nor is it a thriller. There is a mystery at its heart, and it is the gradual exposé of this mystery that makes it a compelling read. Gilsland is a real place, and can be visited, but bears no relationship to its dark, sombre portrayal by David Mark.

The story - which jumps between 1967 to 2010 - is told from various viewpoints, which gives it an added dimension and builds on the inherent mystery that is to be solved. The writing has a dark poetic beauty, but never holds back when the truth has to be told.

Cordelia's character is complicated, but still beautifully portrayed She is married to someone living in London who is high up government circles. He is not the father of her late child, but still maintains her financially. Felicity is Cordelia's perfect foil. She is not so complicated but is still intriguing, being an intelligent country woman in a happy marriage and with a supportive husband.

The twists and turns in the plot take the breath away and make for a highly satisfying and gripping read.

Reviewed by: J.G.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Alex Dahl - Playdate

"Definitely highly recommended."

Synopsis:
Lucia went home from school for a playdate with her new friend, Josie. Later that evening, Lucia's mother Elisa dropped her overnight things round and kissed her little girl goodnight. That was the last time she saw daughter.

The next morning, when Lucia's dad arrived to pick her up, the house was empty. No furniture, no family, no Lucia. Who has taken their daughter, and why?

Review:
As with Dahl's previous book, the excellent 'The Heart Keeper', her latest 'The Playdate' really encompasses the emotional trauma that losing your child would have on a parent. Dahl doesn't just look at the police investigation but also how such an event can rip apart a family.

There is lots of mention made to Elisa's past and her estrangement from her family, but the full reveal as to why Lucia was taken wasn't shown until right at the end, although some clues were given to put some of the story together.

For some reason I could not warm to Elisa. Maybe it was because I thought her character was weak or maybe because I thought she was hiding something. Whilst as a mother I empathised, I just didn't like her, and despite her actions I preferred the other main character.

'The Playdate' deals with revenge, and how far someone will go to get back what has been taken from them. The plot at times was a little convenient and far-fetched, but 'The Playdate' is still a great book to read.

Dahl writes really well and has a real connection with people's feelings and emotions which makes her books slightly different to other crime novels I have read. I didn't want to put this book down and read it in almost one sitting. Definitely highly recommended.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Antonia Hodgson - The Silver Collar

"Hodgson has a talent that immerses you in the London of the eighteenth century from the first page."

Synopsis:
This is the fourth book in the story of Tom Hawkins. He has survived many trials and troubles including a close shave with death on the gallows. He has now reached a contented place, living with Kitty Sparks in her bookshop which earns her a substantial living selling dubious literature and sex aids. His ward, Sam Fleet, also lives with them and provides Tom with a protection from the criminality of the area by virtue of his own cunning and his powerful Fleet family.

But Tom Hawkins is attacked and discovers that someone wants him dead. The Westminster magistrate, Sir John Gonson, also is pursuing a vendetta against him. Tom's comfortable life is about to disappear.

Both Kitty and Tom are dragged into danger and discover evil hiding behind a façade of wealth and power. Vengeance, slavery and downright wickedness combine to bring them to the brink of despair.

Review:
Antonia Hodgson has a talent that immerses you in the London of the eighteenth century from the first page. Historical details in the physical surroundings, in the food of the time, the culture of the city and the edgy life led by Tom Hawkins combine to take you right back to the life of the times.

A consideration of the role of slavery in Britain and the colonies chimes in with the climate of the day. There was a contrast between the belief in the freedom of the individual and the undoubted wealth accrued by individuals as a result of the slave trade.

Tom and Kitty are a pair of feisty individuals, likeable and full of idiosyncrasies. This tale of their adventures provides a powerful thriller. Antonia Hodgson is a talented writer and this is one of those books you will find extremely difficult to put down.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Charles Cumming - Box 88

"...a worthy successor to le Carré’s throne."

Synopsis:
1989: The fall of the Berlin Wall is imminent, and the Cold War will soon be over. But for BOX 88, a top secret spying agency known only to an inner circle of MI6 and CIA operatives, the espionage is heating up.

Lachlan Kite, recruited straight from an elite boarding school, is sent to France – the frontline of a new secret war. Kite is tasked with gathering intelligence on a mysterious Iranian businessman implicated in the tragic Lockerbie bombing. But what he uncovers is even more deadly.

2020: MI5 hear rumours of BOX 88's existence and go after Kite – only for Iranian intelligence to get to him first. Taken captive and subjected to torture, Kite is presented with a simple choice: reveal the truth about what happened in France thirty years earlier – or watch his family die.

Past and present merge, as MI5 and BOX 88 are caught up in a race against time to save Kite.

Review:
The master of the modern day spy thriller is back with an exciting new series featuring an elite group of spies known to no-one. 'BOX 88' begins with a heart-rending chapter about a family boarding Pan Am flight 103 in London to go to New York. It never reaches its destination as it explodes over the small Scottish town of Lockerbie killing everyone on board. The scene is set for a dark and terrifying story that is thirty years in the making.

Cumming takes us on a journey of Kite's life from his induction into BOX 88, his first task which will change his life, and its aftermath, including his kidnapping in present day London. Although we get to know how Kite became a spy, his own doubts and paranoias into who is watching who, we don't fully get to know the real Kite. As readers we don't know the truth of what goes on within MI5 and the CIA, does anyone, but how much of Kite's own life has he suppressed in the past thirty years in order to become the best of the best? This is where Cumming is the master of the spy novel. Through his elegant prose, he is drip-feeding us details of the protagonist, but we know there is much more to come; there is more danger on the horizon and it's that sense of uncertainty that makes 'BOX 88' a cracking, intelligent and fast-paced read.

There is a danger with spy stories for the main character to be given all the glory and coverage and the supporting players to be mere two-dimensional. Cumming's is too much of a professional to give in to such cliché and every character is suitably developed. We fear for Isobel as she's held hostage, wish happiness for Kite and Martha in the budding romance, sympathise with Xavier and his problems and yell out at the page when a particular character is killed off.

'BOX 88' is highly recommended. Nobody writes a more labyrinthine and darker thriller like Charles Cumming. He is a worthy successor to le Carré's throne.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

S.J. Watson - Final Cut

"Watson plumbs the depths of the psyche to produce an enjoyable read."

Synopsis:
Blackwood Bay. An ordinary place, home to ordinary people.

It used to be a buzzing seaside destination. But now, ravaged by the effects of dwindling tourism and economic downturn, it's a ghost town - and the perfect place for film-maker Alex to shoot her new documentary.

But the community is deeply suspicious of her intentions. After all, nothing exciting ever happens in Blackwood Bay - or does it?

Blackwood Bay. An ordinary place, home to an extraordinary secret.

Review:
I liked the premise in 'Final Cut', the filmmaker going to Blackwood Bay, what had once been a seaside haven, but now seen better days. Watson is extremely good at slowly peeling back the layers of a person's psyche, and as with his debut, he does this again with Alex's amnesia, or is it more than that? Is her memory loss more selective than she wants to admit? She has a connection with Blackwood Bay, but what it is, isn't even clear to her.

Girls have gone missing in the past, with another stepping off the cliff that overshadows the village ten years ago. These are all very interesting mysteries that got my interest. Watson's writing flows very well and he builds up to his denouement with great pace. I do feel that too much of the book was centred on Alex, her thoughts, her actions so that I didn't get a sense of the other villagers. People seemed to drift in and out of the story without really leaving a sense of themselves once they had gone. This is entirely different from his debut where I could see, feel and smell the small cast of players in that drama. Also, Blackwood Bay didn't come alive for me either, and a sense of place is important. As the book drives towards its conclusion, the action picks up and the secrets begin to spill. Unfortunately, much of what is uncovered can sadly be believed, although one part may stretch some credibility. Watson is a highly addictive writer and is adept at keeping his cards close to his chest and allowing his reader to stumble blindly around in the dark until the lightbulb moment. Once again Watson plumbs the depths of the psyche to produce an enjoyable read.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating: