Robinson, Peter – ‘Before the Poison’
Paperback: 436 pages (Feb. 2012) Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks ISBN: 1444704850
An important warning – BEFORE THE POISON is not a DCI Banks book. It is however a very good thriller which takes the well-used idea of somebody becoming obsessed with solving a decades-old murder and executes it very well.
Chris Lowe returns to his native Yorkshire from Los Angeles after the death of his wife from cancer. He has been working as a film score composer but now wants to spend time on a piano sonata in peace and quiet. For this period of solitude he purchases Kilnsgate House which lies in a secluded location far from other houses. Gradually he becomes aware of the tragic past of the house where 60 years earlier Grace Fox was alleged to have poisoned her husband – a crime she was tried and hanged for. Chris becomes fascinated by her story and the more he discovers from his investigations, the more he becomes convinced that she couldn’t have murdered her husband.
The narrative alternates between (fictional) primary documents at the start of each chapter: a contemporary account of Grace’s trial at the start and later on her wartime journals of Dunkirk, Singapore and Normandy where she was a Queen Alexandra’s nurse, and Chris’s quest for the truth.
Robinson’s love of music moves from background in the DCI Banks books to foreground here and this combines with his usual skill in prose to give us a well written gripping novel. There are lots of twists and turns in the plot as you learn more about the character of Grace Fox and your own opinion changes as you start to question her guilt and there are multiple twists at the end although some are signposted to a certain extent earlier on.
I love the DCI Banks novels but on the basis of this it would be nice to have a standalone novel from Peter Robinson more than once a decade (the earlier ones were CAEDMON’S SONG in 1990 and NO CURE FOR LOVE in 1995).
Dead Man’s Time by Peter James, June 2013, 416 pages, Macmillan, ISBN: 0230760546
DEAD MAN’S TIME is the ninth in the series of Detective Superintendent Roy Grace novels by Peter James.
In 1922 New York, 5-year old Gavin Daly and his 7-year old sister Aileen board the SS Mauritania to Dublin and safety – their mother has been shot and their Irish mobster father is missing. A messenger hands Gavin a piece of paper and his father’s pocket watch – on the paper are written four names and eleven numbers, a cryptic message that haunts him then and for the rest of his life. As the ship sails, Gavin watches Manhattan fade into the dusk and makes a promise that he will return one day and find his father.
In Brighton in 2012, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace investigates a savage burglary where an old lady has been murdered and ten-million-pounds worth of antiques taken including a rare vintage watch. To his surprise, the antiques are unimportant to her family who care only about the watch. As his investigation continues he realizes he has stirred up a mixture of new and ancient hatreds with one man at its heart, Gavin Daly, the dead woman’s 95-year-old brother. He has a score to settle and a promise to keep which lead to a murderous trail linking the antiques world of Brighton, the Costa del Crime fraternity of Spain’s Marbella, and New York.
Again, Peter James produces crime fiction for those who like to have well-rounded detectives with a believable private life. The short snappy chapters are still there (126 chapters in 416 pages) but so is the slight hint of unrealism in the significant figure from his past and this is dragging on far too much and it really is the case now that you will appreciate this book much more if you read the series in sequence.
The other issue with this book for me is that the ending did seem rather too reliant upon coincidence to tie up the loose ends rather the intervention of Grace and his team.
Brett, Simon – ‘Blotto, Twinks and the Riddle of the Sphinx’
Hardback: 224 pages (July 2013) Publisher: C & R Crime ISBN: 1472103033
This is the fifth of the ‘Blotto and Twinks’ novels by Simon Brett, and there is another financial crisis at Tawcester Towers which leads the Dowager Duchess (mother of our hero and heroine, Blotto and Twinks) to make the decision of selling off the less important of the family possessions long consigned to the attics of the ancestral home.
Blotto and Twinks are dispatched to help the valuer carry out an inspection with little of worth being found until the valuer spies some Egyptian artifacts, collected by the tenth duke. Blotto and Twinks are drawn to a sarcophagus decorated with hieroglyphs which Twinks (the brains and beauty of the duo) translates as ‘Anyone who desecrates this shrine will be visited by the Pharoah’s curse…’ – just as Blotto prises the lid off.
From then on unpleasant incidents start happening at Tawcester Towers and Blotto and Twinks have to stop the accelerating sequence of disasters.
If you have read and enjoyed any of the earlier books in the series then it is probably enough to get you to read it to just tell you that this is more of the same with some new twists and a new location for the ending, but the same characters.
If you are new to the world of Blotto and Twinks, then think of a world that is a cross between PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and a traditional cozy mystery with just a dash of slapstick – if this sounds interesting to you, then read a Blotto and Twinks; it should raise a smile at least. If not a belly laugh.
Where will the next stop be for Blotto and Twinks – India, China?
Brett, Simon – ‘A Decent Interval’
Hardback: 208 pages (Mar. 2013) Publisher: Creme de la Crime ISBN: 1780290446
This is the eighteenth of the Charles Paris novels by Simon Brett and the first to be published for sixteen years although there have been BBC radio adaptations during that time (two had been broadcast with Francis Matthews as Charles Paris in 1984 and 1985 but Bill Nighy took over for a longer run as Charles Paris from 2004 onwards).
Charles Paris is, as is often, if not usually the case, resting between acting engagements with the aid of numerous bottles of his favourite whiskey. He then finds himself contacted twice in quick succession by his agent Maurice Skellern who offers him two acting roles – a very rare event as Maurice normally does not contact Charles for months at a time. The first is for one of the dramatic re-enactments in a television history programme directed by Tibor Pincus – former Hungarian enfant terrible of 1960s and 1970s television dramas – which doesn’t quite live up to Charles’ expectations. The second job is two minor roles in a production of Hamlet which is to be a starring vehicle for two television show winners- Ophelia is played by Katrina Selsey who won the role through a television talent show with Hamlet being played by the winner of a singing show, Jared Root. The two young stars have rather different views of celebrity and the theatre than the more experienced members of the cast believing in the chat show and the tweet over rehearsing.
The company get to their first stop on the tour which should lead to the West End, the Grand Theatre Marlborough. Here the situation gets into more traditional Charles Paris territory, i.e. murder not success.
I did read this very quickly as I tend to do with books that I really like but I still felt disappointed. I really like Simon Brett’s two other ongoing series – the Fethering mysteries which are excellent cozies with a slight comic turn and the Blotto and Twinks novels which have the humour much stronger than the detective story and are laugh out loud funny. This wasn’t that funny for me (although I accept that humour is subjective), the rationale for the murder but not the killer is signposted quite early on after the murder and I felt really sorry for Charles whose life is really in a rut with little contact with his wife or his daughter and grandchild.
Would I read another Simon Brett – yes, BLOTTO, TWINKS AND THE BOOTLEGGER’S MOLL is next on my to-be-read pile and I would read another Charles Paris as soon as it comes out but could Charles have a bit of sunshine in his life please?
McKinty, Adrian – ‘I Hear the Sirens in the Street’
Trade Paperback: 352 pages (Jan. 2013) Publisher: Serpent’s Tail ISBN: 1846688183
I HEAR THE SIRENS IN THE STREET is the second in the Sean Duffy trilogy set in and around Carrickfergus in County Antrim, Northern Ireland.
It is 1982 and Sean Duffy is back at work in CID at Carrickfergus Police station after the events of the previous book, THE COLD COLD GROUND, with a promotion to Detective Inspector and a Queen’s Police Medal. The usual background of the troubles at its height continues when Duffy and DC McCrabban get called to an abandoned factory to investigate a blood trail spotted by the night watchman. They search through the skips and find a suitcase with a headless torso cut off at the knees and shoulders. This turns out to the body of an American poisoned by Abrin (derived from the Rosary Pea) and then frozen – Duffy gets more suspicious when he finds that the suitcase belonged to a part-time UDR soldier from Islandmagee who had been killed by the IRA on his farm (suspicious in itself as Islandmagee is a very, very Protestant area – still less than 1% Roman Catholic today – and has very few routes out) and that the American turns out to be a former IRS official with links to the US Secret Service. There are many twists and turns involving Northern Irish politics, John DeLorean and the interface between rural and urban Northern Ireland.
I had THE COLD COLD GROUND as one of my “almost there” books for my top 5 in 2012 and I feel that I HEAR THE SIRENS IN THE STREET is just as assured a police procedural and the issue that really bothered me of Duffy not being penalised for his hot-headedness does not recur here – it just seems a tad more serious and the writing is more self-assured than in the first book. There are still some issues with how realistic the milieu really was but the gallows humour of the time, which some have criticised as fantasy, is very realistic.
I would strongly recommend I HEAR THE SIRENS IN THE STREET but you should really start with THE COLD COLD GROUND and accept that things are going to get better.
The final one, AND IN THE MORNING I’LL BE GONE, is due in January 2014 – it is pre-ordered.
Fowler, Christopher – ‘Bryant & May and The Invisible Code’
Hardback: 352 pages (Aug. 2012) Publisher: Doubleday ISBN: 0857520504
BRYANT & MAY AND THE INVISIBLE CODE is the tenth book about Arthur Bryant, John May and their Peculiar Crimes Unit of the Metropolitan Police.
BRYANT & MAY AND THE INVISIBLE CODE begins with two children playing a game called ‘Witch-Hunter’ – they place a curse on a young woman taking lunch in a church courtyard and wait for her to die. An hour later the woman is found dead inside St Bride’s Church – a building that no-one else has entered. Bryant & May want to investigate the case but are refused the chance as it is outside their jurisdiction and are instead hired by their greatest enemy who wants to find out why his wife has suddenly started behaving strangely – he is convinced that someone is trying to drive her insane as she has begun covering the mirrors in her apartment believing herself to be the victim of witchcraft. The members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit dig behind the city’s facades to expose a world of private clubs, hidden passages and covert loyalties; as they do so they realise that the case might not just end in disaster – it might also get everyone killed.
Unlike the last book, BRYANT & MAY AND THE MEMORY OF BLOOD, I feel that this is not a good place for a new reader to start as it ties up an awful lot of loose ends in the series. However, if you do wish to start here then there is some background information that you could gather the bare bones of what has gone before from but not the full nuance.
Overall this is another strong Bryant & May novel with a very intricate plot with lots of twists and turns. Some new characters are introduced to set up for the future some of which are almost half fantastical.
Bryant, May and the Peculiar Crimes Unit will return in a graphic novel – THE CASEBOOK OF BRYANT & MAY – and may return in a novel if the publishing gods are willing – his blog says two more are outlined but not yet contracted.
Chatterton, Ed – ‘A Dark Place to Die’
Paperback: 432 pages (Sep. 2012) Publisher: Arrow ISBN: 0099576678
DI Frank Keane is called to a crime scene on the Merseyside shoreline near Crosby where a charred body has been found tied to a scaffolding pole embedded in the sand. He and his partner DS Emily Harris with initially limited forensic evidence and the gruesomeness of the crime start their investigation on the assumption that it is a gang related murder – a supposition reinforced by the discovery of the murder scene in Liverpool Freeport. The discovery that the body is the illegitimate son of Keane’s former boss brings former DCI Menno Koopman back from retirement in Australia to Liverpool as he tries to piece together what brought the son he never knew from his birth in Liverpool to a life in Australia and then to his death back in Liverpool and to find out for himself who is responsible for the crime and perhaps take vengeance.
This is a well written police procedural which should appeal to people who like Tony Black, Peter Robinson and Ian Rankin albeit it is a bit gorier than the latter two. It makes good use of the contrasting backdrops of both urban Liverpool and the Australian outback to drive the narrative on. The switching of viewpoints (each chapter tends to focus on what is happening to a different character) does work quite well but the twist at the end I am less sure about as it is signposted early on – think pantomime villain.
This is the first crime novel from Ed Chatterton who as ‘Martin Chatterton’ has been writing children’s books and Young Adult fiction for over twenty years.
The second book in the Frank Keane series is provisionally titled FROM THE CRADLE TO THE GRAVE and the author states that it begins with an apparently simple – if bloody – murder/suicide in one of the leafier suburbs of Merseyside. I suspect that I will be reading it.
TRUTH LIES BLEEDING is the first book about Detective Inspector Rob Brennan from Tony Black who is best known for his Gus Dury novels.
Rob Brennan is a Detective Inspector in Edinburgh who is returning from psychiatric leave after the shooting of his younger brother. He returns to work to face a hostile Chief Superintendent who is up for promotion and wants everything to be very smooth until she has her interview – this is a problem with the discovery by four teenagers, of the mutilated body of a teenager in a dumpster in Muirhouse, with the only other Detective Inspector tied up on another case. Initially she wants to leave the case in the hands of Detective Constable Stevie McGuire but Brennan persuades her that the best thing for him is to get involved in a case straight away. Brennan asserts his authority over McGuire straight away by getting him to return to the incident room and gets a uniformed office to drive him out to the crime scene.
The murdered girl turns out to be a teenage runaway who is very far from home and had a baby with her – a fact that her Presbyterian minister father is trying very hard to hush up.
At first glance you might feel that this is a fairly standard piece of Tartan Noir, but Tony Black is a very skilled writer who can depict the grim, darker aspects of life with realism and yet still be highly readable. The switching of narrative viewpoint between the pursuer and the pursued works well here – it doesn’t always. My only real issue with this book is that, for me, the multiple sub-plots didn’t quite gel together and some get tidied up very quickly at the end; perchance, they will be dealt with in more depth in another book.
Would I pick up a second Rob Brennan? Yes, I would.
MURDER MILE is the second book about Detective Inspector Rob Brennan from Tony Black who is best known for his Gus Dury novels.
Rob Brennan is a Detective Inspector in Edinburgh who finds himself investigating a murder when the brutally mutilated body of a young woman is found in a field on the outskirts of Edinburgh. This case seems to have links with an unsolved case from 5 years ago when another woman was strangled with her own stockings, sexually mutilated and had her eyes gouged out. This case was investigated by a colleague of Brennan who doesn’t like him, is about to retire and would like to leave the force in glory.
The work of Brennan is made worse by his Chief Superintendent who is obsessed with budgets and dislikes Brennan, whom he sees as a troublemaker. On the home front, Brennan’s marriage has collapsed after some of the events in the first book and he is living in a bedsit with minimal and increasingly abrasive contact with his daughter.
Though a very well written piece – as Tony Black is a very skilled writer who can depict the grim darker aspects of life with realism and yet still be highly readable – I didn’t like it quite as much as TRUTH LIES BLEEDING. I feel that there are two reasons for this: the switching of narrative viewpoint doesn’t work as well here as in the first book in my opinion and I found it very hard to like any of the characters.
Despite these criticisms the last 50 pages or so of the novel are gripping but they do lead one to the suspicion that a third Brennan could be darker still which might make it less of my cup of tea.
The question I suppose is whether I would pick up a third Rob Brennan novel – yes, I would but perhaps with a bit less enthusiasm than I looked forward to this one.
Fran Varady appears in 7 novels by Ann Granger published from 1997 to 2007.
Asking for Trouble (Fran Varady #1, 1997)
Fran Varady is insolvent, unemployed and – though for the moment she’s got a leaky roof over her head – about to be homeless. Her dreams of becoming an actress, nurtured when her father and grandmother were still alive, seem a long way off. But the quietly resolute Fran is a survivor. Which her former housemate Terry, found hanging from the ceiling rose of her room, clearly is not. Terry was far from popular with the rest of the residents, but her death shakes everyone. And the more Fran discovers about her death, the more she sees it was not what it first seemed ..
Keeping Bad Company (Fran Varady #2, 1997)
In Fran Varaday’s second investigation, she is drawn into the life of an alcoholic who claims to be the only witness to the violent abduction of a young girl. But when the alcoholic is found dead, Fran must fight to separate the truth from the lies as the answers begin to slip through her fingers.
Running Scared (Fran Varady #3. 1998)
Fran Varady, aspiring actress and private investigator, feared the worst when her friend Ganesh decided to use their less-than-reliable builder acquaintance to update the toilet at his Uncle Hari’s newsagent’s shop. But even she couldn’t guess at the trouble that follows when a man bursts in and asks to use the washroom and then is found stabbed to death. Before he died he left a note asking Fran to meet him and a roll of film hidden behind the washroom’s old pipes. As she tries to work out what the photos represent, Fran finds her difficulties have barely started..
Risking It All (Fran Varady #4, 2001)
When Fran Varady, aspiring actress and part-time sleuth, is approached by Private Investigator Clarence Duke, she mistrusts him on instinct. However, she can’t ignore what he has to tell her. Her mother, Eva, who walked out on Fran when she was only seven, has hired Clarence to find her daughter. For Eva is dying. But the biggest bombshell of all is that Eva has another child – a daughter she gave up soon after her birth – and she wants Fran to find her. It’s not an easy task, but it’s when Clarence Duke is found dead in his car outside Fran’s home that the trouble really begins…
Watching Out (Fran Varady #5, 2003)
Fran Varady fell into private detective work by accident. Now, she’s got a “real” job at a trendy pizzeria, she’s back on track with her acting ambitions, and she’s even found somewhere nice to live. However, there’s something rather sinister about the way the pizzeria is run and the play rehearsals aren’t going well. On top of all this Fran has rashly undertaken to help a young boy, illegally in the country, find an elusive people-trafficker called Max. But when the trail Fran is following is interrupted by a horrifying death, she finds herself up against dangerous men and a ruthless organization.
Mixing with Murder (Fran Varady #6, 2005)
Fran Varady isn’t keen to help seedy club owner Mickey Allerton track down Lisa, a dancer who’s done a bunk. But since Mickey’s holding Fran’s dog Bonnie hostage till the job’s done, she doesn’t have much choice. She quickly locates Lisa and they arrange to meet – but when Fran gets there early, the first thing she sees is a body floating in the river. It’s Ivo, one of Mickey’s nastier bouncers. If Lisa wasn’t terrified already, she is when she gets this news, and Fran finds herself torn between helping the frightened girl and doing Mickey’s bidding. And it’s all about to get a lot more complicated…
Rattling the Bones (Fran Varady #7, 2007)
Edna, the dotty bag lady who Fran Varady used to see living in a churchyard with only feral cats for company, has crossed her path again. Now Edna is staying in a hostel, spending her days roaming as before. But Fran begins to see a method to her madness and, even though no one will believe her, she is certain Edna is being followed. Who could be interested in a harmless old lady? Determined to protect her from this hidden danger, Fran finds herself digging into Edna’s previous life and an old love affair and family quarrel come to light. But by rattling the bones of the past, Fran has uncovered more than she bargained for..
The Fran Varady series is as well written as the rest of Ann Grangers work (the Mitchell & Markby, Lizzie Martin and Campbell & Carter series) but is much darker in tone albeit not as dark as Mo Hayder et al.
Fran is a very likeable character who has been on the edges of society and is gradually moving in. Her friend, Ganesh, is a combination of Doctor Watson and comic relief – the latter augmented by his Uncle Hari in later books.
“Fran Varady, too, after seven books needed to be ‘rested’. It is more difficult for me, as a writer, to take her forward, because the essence of her situation is that she is down on her luck. Slowly, book by book, her situation has slightly improved. But if it improves too much, she is not the same person.”