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fullybooked2017

A retired Assistant Head Teacher, mad keen on guitars. Four grown-up sons, one delightful grandchild. Enjoys shooting at targets, not living things. Determined not to go gently into that good night.

DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS . . . Between the covers

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Jo Spain’s latest stand-alone crime novel begins with a death which is as sudden as it is violent. The victim of this savagery is only a bluebottle fly, slain by a passing bird, but the important part is where the fly has been before it became a Blackbird’s breakfast. Like countless thousands of its fellow Calliphora Vomitoria it has been innocently feasting and laying its eggs on a corpse. A very human corpse. The mortal remains (and not much does) of Olive Collins has been gently liquefying inside her cottage for months. Her neighbours in the exclusive gated hamlet of Withered Vale have been going about their business oblivious to Olive’s fate.

DLS coverWithered Vale? Hardly your standard estate agent euphemism. Honeysuckle Meadows, Skylark Leys, Virginia Reach, Lakeside View, maybe, but Withered Vale? Years ago, the man who farmed the fields now built over was over-zealous with his pesticide, and nothing grew ever again. The enterprising developer, alert to a possible marketing triumph, chose to retain the local name, thinking that it had a certain ironic snap to it which might appeal to wealthy young professionals. He was right. No. 4 The Vale – Olive’s cottage – dates from before the development, however, and is dwarfed by the arrivistes.

Once Olive’s demise is discovered, the police descend. Frank Brazil, desperate for retirement and a quiet life, has said his prayers hoping that it is a suicide. His young partner Emma Child gleefully discovers taped up ventilation outlets and a boiler that has been fatally tinkered with, thus suggesting something darker, however, and Spain sets to work describing the other residents of the Vale as, one by one, they all become suspects – and what a brilliantly wicked job she makes of it.

There’s poor porn-addicted George Richmond, set up in his designer home, No. 1, by his wealthy showbiz father, and No. 7 houses debonair ladies’ man Ron Ryan with his sunbed tan and simple philosophy of ‘get it while – and when – you can’. At No. 5 live the Hennessys, Matt, Chrissy and their rather odd son Cam. Spain has shown flashes of dark humour in her previous novels, but she lets her considerable talent for satire off the leash when she lays into David and Lily Solanke, in their self-righteous vegetarian paradise within the walls of No.2. David is so exasperatingly ‘woke’ that Lily, pregnant with the twins, curses his kindness:

“Soon, David was playing music to her bump and lying with his head in her lap so her could hear the twins gurgling in the amniotic fluid. He treated her belly with reverence, gentle and worshipping. She felt like a Faberg
é egg. A Fabergé egg that wanted her husband to do her doggy-style because she was so damned horny.”

We meet Ed and Amelia Miller
from No. 6 while they are soaking up the sun in their Andalusian apartment, but their reaction when they hear of Olive’s death suggests that her passing lifts a shadow that has been cast over their lives. No. 3 is home to Alison and Holly Daly, single mum and teenage daughter and, like the Millers, neither of them sheds anything resembling a tear.

JSThus Spain sets up a writhing nest of vipers, every one of whom has a very good reason for wanting Olive Collins dead and out of its life. The narrative darts back and forth between the homes as we learn the hopes, sins and insecurities of the residents, each with a flimsy alibi and united by a mixture of fear and loathing for the apparently mild-mannered resident of No. 4 The Vale. As we scratch our heads wondering whodunnit, could we be looking at some kind of collective guilt, à la An Inspector Calls? The solution, when it comes, is deliciously perverse and very satisfying. Jo Spain (right) has a talent to enthrall, and in an afterword to this book she writes of her early love of reading:

“My heart was won by the written word. It’s been a lifelong affair. If I can give anybody the gift of a good story, a gift I still treasure when I cuddle up in the chair with a book at night, then my job is done.”

Her job is indeed done, and done with a sense of élan and literary devilment unmatched by anyone currently writing crime fiction. Dirty Little Secrets is published by Quercus and will be available on 7th February.

Click the links below to read reviews of earlier novels by Jo Spain.

The Darkest Place

The Confession

Sleeping Beauties

Beneath The Surface

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THE SUSPECT . . . Between the covers

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Kate Waters was introduced to readers in Fiona Barton’s novel, The Widow (2016) and made her second appearance in The Child (2017). Now she returns in The Suspect and is very much “the story” rather than just a reporter investigating the dark things that happen to other people. Two teenage girls have celebrated the end of their ‘A’ Levels by heading off on the adventure of a lifetime – a back-packing trip to Thailand. When phone calls home and emails suddenly stop, the parents of Alex and Rosie are at first uneasy, but then disquiet turns into blind panic.

ts coverSensing a very productive headline story that will run and run, Kate Waters uses all her empathy and tricks-of-the-trade to get close to the girls’ families, and the story does indeed have the whole enchilda. Beautiful teenage girls, disappearance in a Bangkok drug den, frantic parents, the possibility of incompetence by foreign police – what could possibly go wrong? Jake Waters is what could possibly go wrong. Kate’s son has been away in Thailand “finding himself” after a failed spell at university, and her journalistic glee at the ramifications of the story is brutally brought up short when she finds that her errant boy might be at the very epicentre of the story she has claimed as her own.

The technique of telling a story from several different narratives is hardly new, but few can have handled it better in recent times than Fiona Barton. The events both here in England and further afield unfold through the eyes of Kate Walters herself, the distraught parents, and the local police team lead by DI Bob Sparkes and his DS, Zara Salmond. Inevitably, the perceptions of Kate Walters are more immediate because her narrative is first person. Barton has probably forgotten more about the world of journalism than most crime writers will ever know, and she makes good use of her experience when she describes the gears grinding as Kate switches from mother to reporter and then back to mother again. On her own website, Fiona Barton writes:

“I should say here that Kate Waters is not me. I’ve been where she goes but she is a composite of many Kates I have worked with. She is in her fifties, has juggled career and family, chafing at her hospital consultant husband’s dismissal of her job and the guilt of missing parent evenings and football matches. She is world-weary at times, terrified by the technology changing the media and insecure about her role. But she is still driven by the need to find the story. And she refuses to go until she has nailed it…”

FionaIt must be said that this is a story long on personal misery and rather short on redemption, but it is beautifully written. The nuances of conversation, gesture and body language are exquisitely observed even if they sometimes make for painful reading, such as the bittersweet moments between Bob Sparkes and his dying wife. My own children are, thankfully, well past the age of “doing” Thailand, but my advice to those with gap-year offspring is, with all respect to Fiona Barton (right), don’t read this book! Once your teenagers have shouldered their backpacks and waved goodbye at the departure gate, your mind will hark back to The Suspect it will be nessun dorma for you!

The Suspect is a superior blend of psychological thriller and police procedural, and Fiona Barton keeps us guessing until the last page and a half. To be fair she does give us a fairly important clue much earlier in the novel, but – quite correctly in my case – she expects that we will forget about it in all the to-ing and fro-ing between Bangkok, Hampshire and London. The Suspect is published by Bantam Press and will be out on 24th January.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Exit Day by David Laws

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As the row over Brexit gets worse and worse by the day, and outrage, offence, accusation and malice sweep like a remorseless bush fire across the country, I am reminded of a brilliant poem written in 1919 – and what a chilling centenary we may be about to see. WB Yeats wrote The Second Coming about the destructive nature of the movement for Irish self-rule. The first verse alone is worth repeating:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

 

david lawsThose last seven words kill, and journalist David Laws (left) has written a novel about the “passionate intensity” which sparks political assassination. The fateful day of Britain’s exit from the EU is dawning, and a vicious conspiracy is about to make all the previous months of political bickering seem like a garden party in comparison. Inadvertently, a journalist called Harry Topp has embedded himself at the heart of the plot, and he blunders on in search of a lifetime scoop, blissfully unaware of what is unfolding around him.

Laws is a seasoned press man himself, and so his account of the cynical world of newspaper journalism is vivid and authentic. We can only hope that this fascinating novel of what happens when ideals and passionate beliefs spur men and women into madness is just a work if entertaining fiction and not a prophecy. Exit Day is published by Matador, and will be out on 28th January.

 

Find out more about Exit Day on David Laws’ own website

 

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THE BLUE . . . The Postman Delivers

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theblueThe Blue by Nancy Bilyeau is a perfect novel for those long winter evenings, even though The Great Darkness is getting slightly shorter as each day passes. Lovers of historical adventure and romance should find plenty to engage them in this story of Genevieve Planché, a young and rebellious Huguenot artist on a quest for a colour: the most exquisite shade of blue.

We find Genevieve living in 18th century London, in a community established by her Protestant French forebears who had fled their homeland to escape persecution. Genevieve wants to be an artist, a painter of international repute, but nobody takes the idea of a female artist seriously in London.

cloistersdoorwayHer ambition is to travel to Venice to learn the secrets of Tintoretto, Veronese and Giorgioni, but her only chance is in the hands of an urbane – but possibly dangerous – English aristocrat, Sir Gabriel Courtenay.

Courtenay is deeply involved in the competitive English porcelain business, where manufacturers vie with each other to produce the finest wares. He sets Genevieve a challenge. Find the secret to the perfect blue pigment, and he will send her to Venice. Is this a Faustian pact? Will Genevieve’s industrial espionage put her life in danger?

Nancy Bilyeau (right) is from the Midwest of the USA but she currently works as a journalist and academic in New York. The Blue is her fourth novel, is published by Endeavour Quill, and is out now.

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THE MAN WITH NO FACE . . . Between the covers

 

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The most sinister fictional hitmen usually only have a surname, and if that name is a harsh monosyllable, then all the better. Kale is one such, and Peter May introduces him to us in his latest novel, The Man With No Face. Kale, who learned his trade in the British Army, is sent to Brussels to carry out a double killing.

The central character is not the malevolent Kale, but a Scottish journalist, Neil Bannerman, who is sent to Brussels, partly to keep him out of the way of his paper’s thrusting new editor, but also to delve for sensational stories of immorality and incompetence among the myriad employees of what we now call the European Union.

tmwnf coverBannerman initially lodges with an embittered fellow journalist, Tim Slater, who shares his apartment with his autistic daughter Tania. The child is looked after by a young Englishwoman, Sally Robertson, with whom Bannerman strikes up a relationship.  Kale’s victims are Slater himself and a senior British politician but when he strikes he is unaware that Tania is watching from the next room. Mute, she is later unable to tell the police anything, but she draws a picture of what she has seen. The drawing is intensely detailed and very graphic with one exception. The killer has no face.

Peter May aficionados will probably recognise this book in its earlier manifestations; firstly as Hidden Faces, published by Piatkus in 1981 and again with its current title a year later, but this time under the imprint of St Martin’s Press.

mayHow has the book fared, nearly forty years on? Whatever revisions the author has made, he hasn’t pushed the time slot on by four decades, so we are still in the late 1970s, so in a sense the book has become historical crime fiction by default. I don’t know what Peter May (right) thinks about the vexed question of Brexit, but here he paints a picture of the EEC in its all-too-familiar guise as a fraud-riven monolithic haven for thousands of bureaucrats, men and women pushing paper around at huge expense to taxpayers across the continent, but achieving very little except the perpetuation of their own jobs.

The vexed question of Britain’s relationship with southern Africa in the 1970s is now little more than a footnote in the history of the 20th century, but May uses it to good effect here. The setting of The Man Without A Face is a wintry Brussels that, quite literally, chills us to the bone. The snow, sleet, bitter winds and the hazy winking of car tail lights as they battle with the frozen city streets will make you want to reach for an extra layer of warm clothing. In keeping with the weather, there is a distinct noir-ish feel about much of the book, and the existential musings of Kale as he goes about his bleak business reminded me very much of Derek Raymond. Bear in mind, though, that Raymond’s classic Factory novels post date this, making me think that perhaps Peter May was ahead of the game.

Back in 1981, the trope of the mute, blind or disabled witness to a crime had already been explored, most memorably in the Audrey Hepburn film Wait Until Dark (1967), but our current awareness of the complex issue of people with Autism was not mainstream in the 1980s. Leaving aside the socio-cultural background, The Man With No Face is a cracking thriller now, as it must have been then. It is published by riverrun, which is an imprint of Quercus. and it’s out on 10th January.

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ROUGH MUSIC . . . Between the covers

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rbRobin Blake (left) introduced us to Preston coroner Titus Cragg and his physician friend Luke Fidelis in A Dark Anatomy back in 2015, and the pair of eighteenth century sleuths are back again with their fifth case, Rough Music.

The title refers to an intriguing custom in English folklore, where people in a community would take to the streets in protest at someone – usually a man or his wife – who had offended them. The unfortunates or – if they were lucky – an effigy of them, would be paraded through the streets to the accompaniment of a cacophony of noise. Francis Grose described it in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1796:

“Saucepans, frying-pans, poker and tongs, marrow-bones and cleavers, bulls horns, etc. beaten upon and sounded in ludicrous processions”.

Devotees of Thomas Hardy will remember one such procession in The Mayor of Casterbridge, where it was known as The Skimmington Ride. Another name for the custom was Charivari. Older readers will recall that the late lamented Punch magazine was subtitled A London Charivari. In Georgian Lancashire, however, the display was known as a Stang Ride, and Rough Music opens with an unfortunate shrewish woman in what was then the tiny village of Accrington, being set upon by a mob who resent the fact that she brow-beats her placid husband. The episode gets out of hand, however, and when Anne Gargrave is finally brought back into her cottage, she is dead.

rm coverTitus Cragg with his wife and child have retreated from Preston to escape the ravages of a viral illness which has claimed the lives of many infants. They have fetched up in a rented house in Accrington, then little more than a scattering of houses beside a stream. Cragg is drawn into the investigation of how it was that Anne Gargrave died at the hands of her fellow villagers, but his work is complicated by a feud between two rival squires, a mysterious former soldier who may have assumed someone else’s identity, and the difficulty created by Luke Fidelis becoming smitten by the beguiling  – but apparently mistreated – wife of a choleric and impetuous local landowner.

Cragg and Fidelis solve the Gargrave case after a fashion, but their work is just beginning. A disappearance, another three deaths and a mysterious house of ill-repute in Manchester tax their deductive powers to the full, and we are provided with ingenious – but plausible – solutions. The historical background is enthralling, but Blake wears his profound scholarship lightly. Just when I thought the fun was over, the book ends with a chance meeting in a Manchester inn between Cragg and novelist whose most celebrated book was brought to the big screen in 1963, and confirmed stardom on a certain Mr Albert Finney.

accrington_1744_mapI have to admit to a not-so-guilty-pleasure taken from reading historical crime fiction, and I can say with some certainty that one of the things Robin Blake does so well is the way he handles the dialogue. No-one can know for certain how people in the eighteenth century- or any other era before speech could be recorded – spoke to each other. Formal written or printed sources would be no more a true indication than a legal document would be today, so it is not a matter of scattering a few “thees” and “thous” around. For me, Robin Blake gets it spot on. I can’t say with authority that the way Titus Cragg talks is authentic, but it is convincing and it works beautifully.

Robin Blake takes us to a pre-industrial rural Lancashire where trout shoal in clear, sweet streams and bees forage on the pure moorland heather, but he doesn’t flinch from the dark side of the idyll; there is prejudice, brutal justice and heartbreak. Rough Music is entrancing, but also a damn fine detective story. It’s published by Severn House, and is out now.

To read a review of an earlier Cragg and Fidelis novel, click the link below.

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GONE BY MIDNIGHT . . . Between the covers

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Candice-Fox1Australian crime fiction suffered two body blows in 2018 when the two great Peters – Temple and Corris – died within months of each other. While they can never be replaced, there is, thankfully, a younger generation stepping up to the plate, and Candice Fox (left) is in the first rank of these. No-one needs to be reminded of the great detective duos of the past, but Fox has created a partnership for the 21st century in the persons of Ted Conkaffey and Amanda Pharrell.

Conkaffey is a former Sydney cop whose life has been consumed, chewed up and spat out by the media after he was wrongly accused of sexual offences against a teenage girl. His former colleagues have dropped the case, but mud sticks and, like Sisyphus, Conkaffey is doomed forever to push the boulder of public memory up the metaphorical hill. He has, however, earned a serious reputation for solving crime as a PI in the distinctive company of Amanda Pharrell.

Candice Fox is a Sydney girl born and bred, but she has picked Ted Conkaffey up and set him down 1200 miles further north in the steamy tropics near Cairns in Queensland. Conkaffey is brought in by the local police who are baffled by the disappearance of a young boy from a room in the White Caps Hotel. Richie Farrow’s mum had been down in the restaurant along with the parents of three other boys, with the lads apparently safe upstairs together in room 608, watching DVDs, playing computer games and larking about, with the parents taking turns to check up on them every hour. When Sara Farrow takes her turn, she is horrified to find there are only three boys in the room, and it is her Richie who has gone.

A frantic police investigation ensues, but there is neithr sight nor sound of the missing boy, and Chief Damien Clark reluctantly calls in Conkaffey to help with the search. Conkaffey agrees, but only if his partner is involved. He’s aware that Pharrell is held in greater disregard by the police than he is, but she is a formidable talent despite her unconventional manner and appearance.

“There is something deeply wrong with Amanda Pharrell.
Whatever it is, it defies logic. It’s a slippery indefinable thing that arms her with an eternal supply of social confidence, while at the same time preventing her from doing anything except horrifying, disturbing or annoying people everywhere she goes……I was only mildly surprised to see her there in the doorway, materialised out of thin air, in a gold sequined minidress and six-inch stiletto heels painted with red flames.”

gbm coverRichie Farrell’s disappearance is less of a conundrum than a downright impossibility.  There is no obvious motive, no forensic evidence, and no sign of him – or his abductor – on the plentiful CCTV footage in and around the hotel. When the solution does come, it is extremely ingenious, and owes its surprising nature to the characters in the story – and us readers – making the kinds of assumptions that the great consulting detective of 221B Baker Street was so good at avoiding.

Before Gone By Midnight concludes dramatically in a crocodile infested mangrove swamp, Candice Fox has us suffering in the fierce Cairns humidity, wiping the sweat away with one hand while swatting the predatory. ‘mozzies’ with the other. Conkaffey’s determination and decency as he tries to keep his personal life together combines with the extraordinary perceptive and observational skills of Pharrell to make an intriguing narrative. Yes, the diminutive and feisty investigator is considerable larger than life, but this is crime fiction after all, and crime fiction right out of the top drawer. A beautifully devious plot, memorable characters, a totally authentic setting and cracking dialogue. What more do you need? Gone By Midnight is published by Century/Penguin Books and will be out on 24th January.

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2018 . . . (6) Best novel

The Confession is my Best Novel of the year 2018, and it left the competition for dead. Here’s why I feel that way:
 https://fullybooked2017.com/2018/01/03/the-confession-between-the-covers/

 

 

A CRIME FICTION ADVENT 2018 . . . WEEK 4

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