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December 2019

HOLD YOUR TONGUE . . . Between the covers

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HYT coverDeborah Masson’s police procedural Hold Your Tongue is as gritty as the granite in the Aberdeen where it is set. Fictional Detective Inspectors tend to be brilliant, yet with fatal flaws; perceptive, but incapable of managing calm personal lives; honest and principled, but concealing their own dark secrets. Masson’s Eve Hunter ticks all the boxes, and adds a few of her own. She is returning to work after a catastrophic encounter with a notorious criminal family. After the son of the crime gang’s Capo sustains life changing injuries in a car chase, Johnny MacNeill has exacted brutal revenge resulting in Hunter’s partner DS Nicola Sanders being paralysed from the neck down, while Hunter herself has a permanently damaged leg and intense psychological scarring.

There is no ‘Welcome Back’ party for Hunter. There are former colleagues who blame her impulsive and driven approach to police work for what happened to Nicola Sanders. Her boss doubts she is ready for a return, particularly as her first case will be to solve the savage murder of an aspiring model, found dead in a hotel room, surrounded by an elaborate and deliberate staging of fashion magazines, make-up and mirrors. Melanie Ross’s tongue has been cut out, and taken away by her killer.

Masson makes telling use of Aberdeen itself as a baleful presence looming behind the misdeeds of its citizens. Despite the grim grandeur of its municipal buildings, the passing of the North Sea oil bonanza has left a legacy of closed shops and tatty, uncared-for neighbourhoods. A prostitute called Rosie, who is involved with one of the suspects, provides a chilling metaphor for the city:

“Rosie pulled together the edges of the flimsy unbuttoned black raincoat that she wore; it barely concealed the bony chest in a low-cut top and laddered fishnets below a skirt that could pass as easily for a belt.”

The pre-Christmas weather
is vile and utterly inhospitable. The sleety rain slants down, the wind blows in squalls from the North Sea, and the grey light of dawn reveals city streets slick, wet and icy, decorated only with discarded takeaway meals, the odd abandoned high-heeled shoe, and a general air of attempts at gaiety which ended in failure.

More murders follow, and they are clearly the work of the same person. Eventually Hunter realises what the elaborate posing of the victims signifies. The killer has somehow become obsessed with the old nursery fable:

Monday’s child is fair of face
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
But the child who is born on the Sabbath Day
Is bonny and blithe and good and gay.

71VcTMOa58L._US230_As the killer works towards the Sabbath Day child, Hunter and her colleagues dash this way and that, always vital hours behind the murderer. Masson (right) contributes to the mayhem with some elegantly clever misdirection. Early in the piece she teases us with the suggestion that the series of murders has something to do with brothers and sisters, but even when we – and Eve Hunter – think we are close to the truth, there is one big surprise left. Hold Your Tongue is an assured and convincing debut, and I hope there will be more cases to come for Eve Hunter. The book is out now, and published by Corgi/Penguin.

 

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best book

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There’s no competition, I don’t have a prize to offer, but there are are certainly no losers. like many other amateur book reviewers I can only be grateful to publicists, publishers and, of course, writers, who trust me with their work. Here are five of the best books of 2019 – feel free to agree or disagree with my thoughts.

htds-coverVal McDermid’s wonderful odd couple Tony Hill and Carol Jordan don’t have it in them, for a variety of complex reasons, to love each other in any conventional sense, and How The Dead Speak finds their relationship more fractured than ever. Tony is in prison and Carol’s bosses have finally lost patience, and she is left to pace the moors around her solitary home. Tony’s venomous mother makes an appearance as she coerces Jordan into investigating a fraud case, while the equally abrasive Bronwen Scott seeks her help as she tries to put together a case for an appeal against a murder conviction. Back in Bradfield, Jordan’s former team are almost literally knee deep in the mysterious case of dozens of skeletons found in the grounds of a former Roman Catholic care home. As ever, McDermid puts in front of us a plate full of delicious mysteries and a few elegantly salted red herrings – crime fiction haute cuisine at its best.

tnibJames Lee Burke celebrated his eighty third birthday earlier this month and, thankfully, shows no sign that his powers have deserted him. His brooding and haunted Louisiana lawman Dave Robicheux returned in The New Iberia Blues with another adventure set in the humid bayous and crumbling colonial mansions of Acadiana. Dave – with, of course, his long-time offsider Clete Purcell – tries to solve a series of grisly killings involving a driven movie director deeply in hock to criminal backers, a preening and narcissistic former mercenary and a religious crazy man on the run from Death Row. We even have the return of the bizarre and deranged contract killer known as Smiley – surely one of the most sinister and damaged killers in all crime fiction. As ever, there’s a deep vein of morality and conscience running through the book, amid the corpses, shoot-outs and hot spoonfuls of Southern Noir.

6104xARjgmLThere is an understandable temptation to lionise a book, irrespective of its merit, when it is published posthumously, the last work of a fine writer who died far too soon. Metropolis, by Philip Kerr, however, is a bloody good book irrespective of any sentiment the reader may have about the passing of its author. Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, has traversed the decades – and half the globe – in his adventures. Peron’s Argentina, the cauldron of Nazi Germany, Somerset Maugham’s Riviera in the 1950s and the haunted Katyn Forest. Now, though, Kerr puts Gunther firmly back where it all started, in 1920s Berlin. While Gunther poses as a crippled war veteran in an attempt to catch a serial killer, we rub shoulders with the likes of Otto Dix, George Grosz and Lotte Lenya. Philip Kerr is gone, but Bernie Gunther – cynical, brave, compassionate and resourceful – will live for ever.

The Lonely HourSometimes, the sheer bravura, joy and energy of a writer’s work makes us happily turn a blind eye to improbabilities. Let’s face it, Christopher Fowler’s Arthur Bryant and John May have been solving crimes since the Luftwaffe was raining bombs down on London and, by rights, they should be, like Betjeman’s Murray Posh and Lupin Pooters “Long in Kelsal Green and Highgate silent under soot and stone.” But they live on, and long may they defy Father Time. In The Lonely Hour, in this case the haunted moments around 4.00 am, they try to track down a killer who is using an arcane and archaic weapon – a surgical device called a trocar. The trocar was a tube devised to allow the body to be punctured in order to facilitate the escape of gases or fluids. There is comedy both high and low, a mesmerising journey through hidden London – and just enough darkness to remind us that murder is a serious business.

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Click the image above to read my full review

 

 

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best historical crime

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I have always been a fan of historical fiction and, more recently, crime fiction set ‘back in the day’. Sadly, there are those writers whose thirst for period accuracy produces lavish costume drama at the expense of a decent plot and good storytelling. Happily, the five books on my 2019 shortlist don’t fall into that trap – take a look, and if you haven’t read them yet, do so – you won’t be disappointed.

Screen Shot 2019-12-13 at 19.34.11The Familiars by Stacey Halls was one of the publishing successes of 2019, and rightly so. The evocative visual presentation was matched by superb writing and the conviction of a natural storyteller. The story is not a conventional crime mystery, but involves suspicion, injustice, intrigue, political chicanery and personal bravery. We are in rural Lancashire in the early years of the seventeenth century and young Fleetwood Shuttleworth has been married off to a wealthy landowner. Far away in London, King James is obsessed with a fear of witches and daemons, and those anxious to please His Majesty are falling over themselves to demonstrate their loyalty. Fleetwood’s new home, Gawthorpe Hall, sits under the looming Pendle Hill, and all around the district, harmless old women – and some not so old – are being rounded up as witches. Fleetwood is under pressure from husband Richard to provide a male heir and when, after several miscarriages, she seeks the help of a young peasant midwife, Alice Gray, her actions put her in direct conflict with the King’s men.

thg-coverChris Nickson’s historical novels may be narrow in geographical scope – they are mostly set in Leeds across the centuries – but they are magnificent in their emotional, political and social breadth. In The Hocus Girl, we meet Simon Westow who earns his living as a thieftaker. In America they still have them, after a fashion, but they call them bail skip tracers, or bounty hunters. Leeds in the 1820s had no police force except inept and frequently infirm Parish Constables, and so thieftakers pursued criminals on commission from victims of crime. Westow has a formidable ally in the shape of a teenage girl called Jane. Sexually abused as a youngster, she is ruthless and streetwise, and God help the man who mistakes her for a waif. Westow and Jane have a different kind of fight on their hands here, as they try to prevent a campaigner for social justice being sent to the gallows by political conspirators.

tsm-coverSW Perry has written an excellent thriller about religious extremism, media manipulation and political treachery. The fact that The Serpent’s Mark is set in Elizabethan London rather than 2019 can only make the reader wonder at how little things have changed. Nicholas Shelby is a physician who, despite his relative youth, has served on the battlefields of Europe and has emerged from a debilitating period of alcoholism caused by the tragic death of his wife and child. With many a real life character – including Robert Cecil and John Evelyn – making an appearance, Shelby becomes involved in a desperate affair which seeks to supplant Queen Elizabeth herself with a hitherto unknown child of Mary Tudor – and return the land of Gloriana to the old faith, Roman Catholicism.

night-watch-coverFor all that the era was in my lifetime, the 1950s may just as well be the 1650s given the gulf between then and the modern world. In Nightwatch David C Taylor takes us back to New York in 1954, and we follow a convincingly tough and hard-nosed NYPD cop, Michael Cassidy, who becomes involved in a case which is way, way above his relatively humble pay grade. There were many former Nazis who escaped Nuremburg and had vanished into the ether by 1954 and although many of them were undoubtedly bastards, the sinister folk in American intelligence agencies gave them a lifeline by making sure that they became their bastards. Awkwardly for the CIA, there were also survivors of Hitler’s death camps who had made their way to America, and although they may have been scratching a relatively meagre living, they still had access to information and a burning desire for revenge. Cassidy battles both the indifference of his bosses and the unwanted attention of some very powerful people as he tries to solve a series of murders and make his streets a little less mean.

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Click the text image above to link to my review of The Mathematical Bridge.

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best police procedural

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While police procedurals, at least in recent years, don’t tend to attract as much publicity as, say, domestic noir (or books with ’Girl’ in the title) they are the solid and dependable backbone of crime fiction. A true cynic might say that the police procedural scene is a roomfull of Detective Inspectors moaning about their desk-bound box-ticking superior officers, but in the hands of writers who are prepared to take a few risks and move away from the norm, a good police novel is hard to beat.

tkim-coverThere are some very special Irish crime writers these days. Some mine the uniquely bitter and bleak seam of Belfast, with its raw and recent memories, while further south the city of Dublin, where “the girls are so pretty”, has its fair share of malcontents and evil doers. Olivia Kiernan and her Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan were new to me, but The Killer In Me was a beguiling read. I called it “dark, complex, but full of compassion.” and the story of Sheehan’s search for a killer, while trying to decide if a newly released killer is a wrongly convicted media cause célèbre or a murderous con artist, is beautifully told.

tbwfStaying in Ireland, it has to be said that Jo Spain is ridiculously talented. She has created a bankable stock character in the affable Dublin copper Tom Reynolds, but this has not stopped her from writing such brilliant stand-alones as The Confession. In reviewing her books I have used adjectives like ‘bravura’, ‘intense’, ‘breathtaking’ and ‘mesmerising’, so will gather that I am a fan. It was good to welcome back Tom Reynolds this year in The Boy Who Fell. On one level this is a firecracker of a whodunnit, and Spain’s ability to misdirect the reader and lead us – Pied Piper-like – in the wrong direction, is proudly displayed. On a more reflective level her observations on moneyed Dublin society are sharp and salutary, as Reynolds tries to discover why a teenager died while partying with his privileged and privately educated friends.

CATGVulnerability as a character trait is perhaps more common in British fictional coppers that their American counterparts, and few fit that bill quite like James Oswald’s Edinburgh detective Tony McLean. Cold As The Grave is his ninth outing, and his quest for the truth behind a series of corpses found in strange locations in the old city brings the frayed edges of his character into focus. He has always had an awareness of the fact that there are “more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Oswald never goes full-on supernatural, but McLean is ever more aware that the solution to the Edinburgh deaths may lie beyond the dry pages of the Police Scotland training manual.

SleepwalkerIn The Sleepwalker, Joseph Knox reintroduced us to his troubled Manchester Detective Constable, Aidan Waits, who we first met in Sirens (2017) and The Smiling Man (2018). To say that Waits’s Manchester is dystopian is rather like saying that there can be a certain frisson between supporters of City and United. In The Sleepwalker it rarely seems to be daylight as the pallid and pinched faces of drug abusers and petty crimInals are caught in the flickering neon lights of the late night clubs and drinking dens. Waits and his loathsome immediate superior Sergeant Sutcliffe have been tasked with waiting at the bedside of a dying serial killer, in the hope that his final breath will reveal the burial place of one of his victims. Inevitably, everything goes bloodily wrong, and when the dust settles, and the final autopsy is done, Knox asks us – perhaps, maybe, possibly – to bid Waits a fond farewell.

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Click this link for a full review of Their Little Secret.

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best thriller

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In the dear, dead days beyond recall, when I was still working as a teacher – casting (as a friend once memorably said) artificial pearls before real swine – someone suggested we apply the WILF principle when explaining to sullen teenagers how to improve their work. WILF stood for What I’m Looking For. Applying the WILF principle to what constitutes a thriller, I would suggest a mixture of the following: severe personal stress, violence, unexplained events, evil masquerading as benevolence, mysterious threats – feel free to add your own criteria, but those will do for me. Click the links to read a full review of each novel.

nohTim Weaver’s intrepid searcher
for the physically lost, David Raker, faced his hardest challenge yet in No One Home when he was hired to find not merely a missing husband or a disappeared friend, but an entire community, albeit a tiny moorland hamlet. As ever Tim Weaver provided a plausible solution to what seemed an impossible conundrum.

severedClergymen writing crime novels? That can only mean cosy village mysteries centred around tweedy villages and eccentric old ladies, surely? Not if Peter Laws has his way. He is a minister in the Baptist Church in Bedforshire, but his Matthew Hunter novels are dark, scary and blood-spattered. In Severed, Hunter encounters a reclusive sect whose primitive and baleful version of Christianity has left a trail of death and disruption.

till-morning-is-nighBen Bracken is a Jack Reacher do-alike transported to contemporary England. Much as I have enjoyed the invincible Reacher over the years, Rob Parker has created a more thoughtful and vulnerable – at least psychologically – version in Ben Bracken, a former soldier who exists in the shady hinterland which lies between law enforcement, special services and officially-sanctioned skullduggery. Till Morning Is Nigh is the fourth in the series and is, by some way, the best yet. Our man infiltrates an extremist far-right group and contributes to a spectacular shootout at a school nativity play.

tbl-coverSad to say, there is no-one more vulnerable in modern society – at least in novels – than a single mother trying to bring up her child. In The Body Lies Jo Baker takes a look at the dichotomy between fictional tropes and reality. Her unnamed protagonist is a lecturer at a minor university, separated from her husband and trying to juggle a job and childcare. Baker spins a delightfully elaborate yarn which begins when the woman is targeted by a stalker.

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Click the image above to read just why I thought A Book Of Bones is
MY BEST THRILLER 2019

TILL MORNING IS NIGH . . . Between the covers

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There is an debate in the Twittersphere at this time of year about whether Die Hard is, or isn’t a Christmas movie. Maybe there is also a discussion to be had as to whether this latest adventure for Rob Parker’s invincible iron man, Ben Bracken, is a Christmas thriller. Those with young children, or fond memories of their own childhood, will surely recognise the source of the book’s title. Preface it with the words “And stay by my cradle ..” and you should have the answer.

till-morning-is-nighWe are in a wintry Manchester
. The time is the present. As usual, the giant plastic Santa is hoist by his breeches on the Victorian gothic façade of the town hall, dispensing silent jollity to the shoppers and merry-makers scurrying beneath his furry boots. In Albert Square, homeless men try to find solace in their threadbare coats, wondering where the next coffee, the next Greggs pasty – or the next fix of chemical oblivion – is going to come from.

 

Among these sad footnotes to the tidings of comfort and joy, Ben Bracken moves, asking questions. The former soldier, imprisoned in nearby Strangeways for something he didn’t do, has escaped and now leads a perilous existence employed by a shadowy government agency who have uses for his particular skillset, which involves an immense capacity for violence and superb fieldcraft honed both in the killing fields of Afghanistan and the mean streets of Britain’s cities.

Bracken has been tasked with investigating the brutal murder of a young undercover police officer working for the National Crime Agency. Executed in front of an audience of drug dealers and sleazeballs, probably pour encourager les autres, DC Mark Kyle may have become too close for comfort to a dangerous new player in the Manchester drug scene. Bracken asks the right questions of the right people, and finds he is being led not towards an organised criminal gang of swarthy Albanian malcontents, but to a group which has it roots much closer to home.

Back in the real world for a moment, we are told by experts that the biggest terrorist threat to our society in Britain comes from right wing extremist organisations. Only a few days ago a number of men – all fans of Hitler, Breivik and other assorted homicidal lunatics – were convicted of planning terrorism via social media. The fictional group which Ben Bracken infiltrates are, however, not pimply twenty-somethings operating out of a bedroom in their mum’s house, but serious players, ex-military and financing their ambitions via the trade in hard drugs. They are well trained, armed with more than just a Facebook account, and they mean business.

The St George Patriots are led by Helen Broadshott. Perhaps modeled on someone across the Channel, she is vivacious, attractive, a brilliant communicator, and someone who knows how to tap into the seam of opinion which has been crystalised by feelings of resentment about immigration, perceived inequality, lack of political representation and frustration about rapid social change. The Patriots are planning a major event which will catapult them from obscurity onto the front pages of the print media, boost their social media following and make them headline news on every TV bulletin.

The irony is, of course, that in order to prevent the planned atrocity, Bracken has to ingratiate himself with the group and make them give him a central role in proceedings hoping, all the while, that his employers will be ready to intervene at the crucial moment.

Rob ParkerParker is a fine young writer. He can muse ruefully on the inadequate protection the human body has against steel wielded with extreme malice:

“Blood and organs artfully arranged on bone. No myth, no mysticism. We are made of soft material that splits and spills, nothing more.”

There is also a more reflective side to his writing. In between energetically demolishing bad people, Bracken has moments of quieter reflection:

“And they weren’t lying when they said the Guinness was the best either – it’s an epiphany as pure and revelatory as finding Jesus and Elvis, all at once, in the same tall glass.”

The spectacular and bloody climax to this excellent thriller will settle the question I posed earlier about Till Morning Is Nigh being a Christmas novel. It is a bravura finale to a thoroughly engrossing thriller.

Till Morning Is Nigh is published by Endeavour Media and will be available from 13th December. Click on the text below to read reviews of other novels by Rob Parker.

ROB PARKER NOVELS

 

 

 

 

 

 

ON MY SHELF . . . December 2019

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NINE ELMS by Robert Bryndza

BryndzaBryndza already has an established audience for his Detective Erika Foster series, and he now introduces another female copper to the crime scene. Fifteen years earlier, Kate Marshall was an emerging talent with London’s Met Police – until a near fatal encounter with a serial killer ended her career. When a copycat killer starts to mimic the work of the man who nearly killed her, she is inexorably drawn back into the investigative front line. Nine Elms is published by Sphere, is out now as a Kindle and in hardback on 9th January.

 

STOP AT NOTHING by Tammy Cohen

CohenThis came out in Kindle back in the summer of this year, but now readers who like the feel of a printed book in their hands get to join the party. They say there is nothing as ferocious, either in the animal world or the human sphere, as a mother protecting her young. A woman has to look on helplessly as the man accused of attacking her daughter is set free. Tess’s quest for justice, however, plunges those she loves most into a cauldron bubbling with hatred and danger. Out on 26th December, Stop At Nothing is published by Bantam.

 

BLOOD WILL BE BORN by Gary Donnelly

DonnellyIt may well be that someone, somewhere, has written a cosy ‘feet up in front of the fire’ crime novel set in Belfast. If they have, it has passed me by, as the streets of that city, their very stones stained to the core with the ancient bitterness of sectarian violence, always seem to provide a natural backdrop for gritty thrillers. When London Detective Inspector Owen Sheen returns to his home turf to set up a special crime unit, he is sucked into an investigation which, in double quick time, becomes political – and personal. This, Gary Donnelly’s debut thriller will be out on 20th February and is published by Allison & Busby

 

 

FREE FROM THE WORLD by John Johnson

FFTWSet in a 1960s mental hospital with the ominous name of Black Roding, this is the story of an idealistic and progressive young psychiatrist, Ruth, whose ideas for a more enlightened regime find no favour with the suspicious staff. Becoming rather too close to a complex and troubled inmate of Black Rodings, Ruth’s determination to find new ways of doing things draws her into a horrifying vortex of hidden crimes and shocking revelations. Published by Matador, Free From The World is out now.

 

WHO DID YOU TELL? by Lesley Kara

Lesley-Kara-author-photo-cropped-300x450Lesley Kara captured the potentially poisonous dynamic of small town gossip in her 2018 thriller The Rumour (click to read the review) Her follow up novel mines the same rich seam, and lovers of Domestic Noir are in for a treat. Astrid, a recovering alcoholic, moves in with her mother in an attempt to rebuild her life and make amends to the people she has hurt. Someone out there, however, has been following Astrid’s fragile progess towards redemption, and is determined to ruin things. Who Did You Tell? is published by Bantam, is out as a Kindle on 5th December, and in hardback on 9th January.

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GONE . . . Between the covers

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In Gone, Leona Deakin’s debut thriller, we meet Dr Augusta Bloom, a psychologist, and her business partner Marcus Jameson. They have established an investigation agency which offers the selling points of Bloom’s skills in understanding the human psyche and Jameson’s rather darker arts, developed during his time working for a shadowy government intelligence unit. The business is doing making headway, but not so much so that Bloom doesn’t ask questions when Jameson asks her to work pro bono on a family-related issue.

41-XAu63npL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Jameson’s sister Claire has, for some time, fulfilled a mixed role of aunt, mother and babysitter to a teenage girl called Jane. Jane’s mother Lana, is a single mum, loving but chaotic, perhaps suffering from PTSD after several tours in conflict zones when she was a soldier in the army. Now she has disappeared, leaving Jane with no money for food or rent. Knowing of her mum’s fragile mental state. Jane was not initially alarmed, but when she began to investigate, after receiving no help from the police, she made several disturbing discoveries.

Lana disappeared on her birthday. Immediately before her disappearance she had received a mysterious card inviting her to play a game. The beautifully presented card bore the words, elegantly embossed in silver on cream:

“Happy first birthday.

Your gift is the game.
Dare to play?”

Jane has discovered, via the internet, that her mum is not the only person to have vanished from the face of the earth, having been sent the same invitation. Dismissed by the police, her only way forward is to ask for expert help.

Bloom’s initial reluctance to become involved softens, as she remembers two daunting experiences with psychopaths in her own recent history. One ended tragically, but the other – involving a clever and manipulative teenager called Seraphine – has remained lodged in her memory for different reasons.

Leona_DeakinLeona Deakin’s own experience and training in psychology gives this novel a framework of authenticity to which the more fanciful parts of the narrative can cling. It soon becomes clear to the reader that Deakin has presented a neat and convincing conjuring trick: the missing are no longer the victims – they are the ones to be feared; those left behind have become the prey.

 The relationship between Bloom and Jameson is intriguing. It reminded me of the unresolved tension and undeclared love between Val McDermid’s doomed lovers Tony Hill and Carol Jordan. We are left to decide for ourselves what Augusta Bloom looks like; Deakin (right) suggests that she might be rather dowdy, an academic in flat shoes. She is certainly razor sharp mentally, however, and she plays a devastating human chess game with the organisation behind the birthday card disappearances.

Gone is published by Black Swan, part of the Penguin group. It came out as a Kindle in August this year, and will be available as a paperback on 12th December.



The second Augusta Bloom novel, Lost, will be out next year. w
Watch this space for more details.

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