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THE APARTMENT UPSTAIRS . . . Between the covers

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Author Lesley Kara returns to the world she excels in describing – the apparently mundane suburban milieu where the streets and houses  serve as a  stage where families and friends act out a drama riddled with lies, secrets and deception.

Scarlett Quilter, a forty-something accountant, lives in the ground floor apartment of a suburban London house. She has a debilitating illness but is able to work from home. The titular ‘apartment upstairs’ was once occupied by her aunt, Rebecca, a former school teacher. Rebecca made a wrong romantic choice late in life by forming a relationship with a man called Clive Hamlin. Hamlin murdered Rebecca, and then committed suicide, so we know from the start that the apartment upstairs has deeply sinister connotations for Scarlett, as well as for her younger brother Ollie (who has inherited the house) and her father, Peter.

The Quilters have entrusted Rebecca’s funeral arrangements with a firm called Fond Farewells, which is run by Dee Boswell and her business partner Lindsay. Dee and Lindsay had a shared friend called Gina Caplin, who mysteriously disappeared ten years earlier, and they have both supported a campaign to find out the truth about what happened to their friend.

All is not sweetness and light between Dee and Lindsay. Lindsay has abused the trust placed in her by the friend of a dead man – think treasured possessions and eBay. She is caught out but manages to placate the grieving customer in a way which leaves Dee fuming. The contrast between the two women is cleverly drawn. Lindsay is more confident, perhaps even reckless and, in contrast to Dee, is knowingly certain of her sexuality.

When Scarlett discovers that her late aunt was connected to the missing girl, Gina, things start to get interesting. Lesley Kara lays a trail of particularly juicy red herrings which include the possibility that the truth about Gina’s disappearance might lie very close to Scarlett’s home, in a ‘Fred West patio’ kind of way.

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Lesley Kara always enjoys directing her readers up the proverbial garden path in terms of plot, and here she serves up a couple of turns which are more like double somersaults than twists. The clues are there for more suspicious readers, but they are far from obvious.

The Apartment Upstairs is a dark journey into a world where a violation of trust is made even worse because it is happening between close friends and family members.  It is published by Bantam Press and is available now. For more on Lesley Kara, click on the image (below)

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BAD FOR GOOD . . . Between the covers

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This hard-hitting police thriller is set in an English city renowned for its sea air, Regency buildings and – latterly – the Green-ness of its politics. It has also been a surprisingly popular setting for crime novels. Think Pinkie Brown, Roy Grace and Colin Crampton. We are talking, of course, about Brighton. Now we have a new character on the scene, in the shape of Joanne Howe, Detective Superintendent with Sussex police.

BFG coverThe plot hinges around a series of dire events in the life of Jo Howe’s boss, Detective Chief Superintendent Phil Cooke. Already trying to keep his mind on the job while his wife is dying of cancer, fate deals him another cruel blow when his son Harry, a promising professional footballer, is murdered, seemingly a casualty in a drug turf war. He steps down, but then comes into contact with a shadowy group of apparent vigilantes, who tell him that Harry was not the clean-cut sporting hero portrayed in the local media – he was heavily into performance enhancing drugs. The vigilantes – whose business plan is to provide a highly illegal alternative police force, where customers pay for the quick results that the Sussex Constabulary seem unable to provide – blackmail Phil into standing in the election of Police and Crime Commissioner. He is forced to agree, and is elected.

Meanwhile, things go from bad to worse for Jo Howe and her team. As they try to get to the bottom of Harry Cooke’s murder, an arrest goes badly wrong, and one of her Detective Inspectors – Bob Heaton – kills the suspect with his baton. He is jailed. Howe realises that there is some kind of vigilantes-for-profit group at large and she organises a sting operation at a local pub. When the bad guys flee the scene the ensuing pursuit goes pear-shaped, an officer is badly injured and the targets escape. Then the vigilantes fire bomb the pub in retaliation, the landlord dies and Howe has a furious dressing down from her chief constable. All is not what it seems, however, and Graham Bartlett lets us know that people very high up in the senior ranks of the police are as crooked as the proverbial dog’s hind leg.

The vigilantes are operating under the banner of an ostensibly respectable security outfit, but both they and the police seem equally clueless as to the identity of Harry Cooke’s killer. Bob Heaton’s boyfriend Chris – aka ‘Crush’ – works for the security firm, and Jo Howe persuades Bob – now released from jail but jobless – to infiltrate the organisation. Harry Cooke’s killer is finally identified, and the race is on to see who can get to him first, the police or the vigilantes.

Screen Shot 2022-06-19 at 20.35.27Graham Bartlett (right) was a police officer for thirty years and mainly policed the city of Brighton and Hove, rising to become a Chief Superintendent and its police commander, so it is no accident that this is  a grimly authentic police procedural. It is also very topical as, away from the violence and entertaining mayhem, it focuses on the seemingly insoluble problem of the divide between the public’s expectations of policing, and what the force is actually able – or willing – to deliver. Bartlett doesn’t over-politicise his story but, reading between the lines – and I may be mistaken – I suspect he may feel that, with ever more limited resources, the police should not be so keen to divert valuable time and resources away from their core job of catching criminals. My view. and it may not be his, is that effusive virtue signaling by police forces in support of this or that social justice trend does them – nor most of us –  no favours at all.

Bad From Good is an excellent debut novel. I hope it heralds a long running series, and I eagerly await the follow-up. Published by Allison & Busby, the book is out in all formats on 23rd June.

THE FEVER OF THE WORLD . . . Between the covers

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It seems like half a lifetime since there was a Merrily Watkins novel – it was All of a Winter’s Night back in 2017 (click the title to read my review) and there has been one hell of a lot of water under the bridge for all of us since then including, sadly, Phil Rickman suffering serious illness. His many fans will join me in hoping that he is on the mend, and at last we have a new book! Old Ledwardine hands won’t need reminding, but for newcomers this graphic may be helpful.

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Now, as another celebrated solver of mysteries once said, “The game’s afoot!” We are in relatively modern times, March 2020, and the Covid Curse has begun to cast its awful spell. The senior Anglican clergy, including the Bishop of Hereford, are relentlessly determined to be woker than woke, and have decided that exorcism – or, to use the other term, deliverance – is the stuff or the middle ages, and clergy are being advised to refer any strange events to the NHS mental health teams. This, of course, puts Merrily Watkins’ ‘night job’ under threat. She and her mentor Huw Owen know that some people experience events which cannot simply be the result of their poor mental health.

The Merrily Watkins novels have a template. This is not to say they are formulaic in a derogatory sense. The template involves a crime – most often a murder or mysterious death. This is investigated by the West Mercia police, usually in the form of Inspector Frannie Bliss. The investigation then reveals what appear to be supernatural or paranormal characteristics, which then secures the involvement of the Rev. Merrily Watkins, vicar of Ledwardine.

Here, a prominent Hereford estate agent and enthusiastic rock climber, Peter Portis, has plummeted to his death from one of the peaks of a Wye Valley rock formation known as The Seven Sisters. A tragic accident? Perhaps. A parallel plot develops. In another parish, the vicar – a former TV actor called Arlo Ripley – has asked Merrily for help. One of his flock has reported seeing the spectre of a young girl and isn’t sure what to do. Enter, stage left, William Wordsworth. Not in person, obviously, but on a visit to the Wye Valley, the poet apparently met a young girl who claimed she could communicate with her dead siblings. The result was his poem We are Seven. That, and Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey are the spine of this novel. Click the titles, and you will see the full texts of the poems. The girl who has entered the life of Maya Madden – a TV producer renting a cottage in the village of Goodrich – seems to be one and the same as Wordsworth’s muse.

Enter, stage right, another Hereford copper, David Vaynor. Nicknamed ‘Darth’ by his boss Frannie Bliss, he is an unusual chap. For starters, he has  a PhD in English literature, and his thesis was based on Wordsworth’s time in Herefordshire. To add to the strangeness, while he was researching his work, he went into what is known as King Arthur’s Cave, a natural cavity in the rock close to where Portis met his end. While he was in there, he has a residual memory of sinking – exhausted – into what was a natural rock chair – and then being visited by a succubus.¹

Yes, yes, – the poor lad was tired, a bit hormonal and having bad dreams. But wait. As Vaynor is doing his job, and interviewing those who knew Portis, he meets his daughter in law, and she reminds him horribly of the woman he ‘met’ on that fateful afternoon in King Arthur’s Cave.

This has everything Merrily Watkins fans – and newcomers to the series – could want. A deep sense of unease, matchless atmosphere – the funeral held in fading light in a virtually disused churchyard, for example – the wonderful ambiguity of Rickman’s approach to the supernatural – we never actually see the phantoms, but we are aware that other people have – the wonderful repertory company of characters who interact so well, and also a deep sense that the past is never far away. There is also a palpable sense of irony that ‘the fever of the world’ is not just a metaphor from a Wordsworth poem, but was actually happening as the coronavirus took hold.

The Fever of the World is published by Corvus/Atlantic books and is out now.

¹A succubus is a demon or supernatural entity in folklore, in female form, that appears in dreams to seduce men, usually through sexual activity.

HOT HOUSE . . . Between the covers

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Mari E is an LA private investigator,  distinctly low-rent to judge by her business premises, a converted container in a down-at-heel part of the city. Her premises neighbours are mostly scammers and grifters of one kind or another. She is a former government agent. She has been hired by an federal appellate judge to find out who is blackmailing him. Whoever it is wants her off the case and has been threatening her with anonymous notes. She is also certain she is being followed. For back-up she hires a partner, former LAPD detective, and now a PI himself, Derek Abernathy. He is very smart, though, and soon works out that Mari E leads a double life.

“So I have two jobs, what’s the big deal? A girl’s gotta make a living, right?”
“Jobs? More like lives,” he hissed back, pointing outside towards the parking lot.
“Mari E, as you call yourself, drives a fifteen year-old dented Honda and wears a weathered hoodie artificially inseminated with the smell of smoke and vanilla cologne. Mar-ISSA, on the other hand, drives a freaking Porsche and buys her eight-hundred-dollar Ferragamo shoes in Beverly Hills, which she wears to her Culver City art gallery!”

Hot+House+Final+CoverThat is just a quick sample of the whip-crack dialogue in the book, which fizzles and sparks like electricity across terminals. Very soon Mari and Derek realise that the blackmailed judge is also connected to the unsolved murder of a French duel-passport student, Sophie Michaud, and the fate of two women journalists who investigated the case, one of whom is dead and the other missing.

Mari has her own crusade, which is related to her being shot while on a case twelve months or so previously. Her father resolved to take his own revenge on the European crime boss responsible, but neither has been seen since. She realises that if she can discover who killed Sophie, the rest of house of cards will come tumbling down. Big problem, though. She discovers that Sophie was not just one person. Yes, physically she was one body, but psychologically two separate beings lived under that particular roof, and were even known by different names – Sophie and Sasha. One was a dreamy and talented creative artist, while the other was a calculating sexual schemer who used information about potential blackmail victims with the ruthless logic of a criminal Marie Kondo.

Good crime writers can be lyrical when they need to be, and if there were any doubt that LIsa Towles is a genuine California Girl, this passage dispels it.

“There were some places where the quality of the light is always good, and others where it’s never quite right. Too bright to see an incoming text, too dark to find your keys in the bottom of your bag. Besides California, I’d lived in three other states, and somehow the light in LA had a quality that didn’t exist anywhere else. Sometimes the sun was so high and bright, it bled out all detail leaving a luminous silvery cloak over the sand and surf. Then at dusk, that same beachfront hides in climbing shadows, with only small details visible beneath the streetlamps. It was the unsinkable promise of light and dark that anchored me to this place, this stretch of rugged coastline with its seagulls and secrets.”

LisaIn the end, the blackmailer of the judge is located, and the killer of Sophie/Sasha is brought to justice, but with literally the last sentence, Lisa Towles poses another puzzle which will presumably be addressed in the next book. Hot House is everything a California PI novel should be. It has pace, great dialogue, totally credible characters and a pass-the-parcel mystery where Lisa Towles (right) has great fun describing how Ellwyn and Abernathy peel back the layers to get to the truth. Sure, the pair might not yet stand shoulder to shoulder with Marlowe, Spade and Archer, or even more modern characters like Bosch and Cole, but they have arrived, and something tells me they are here to stay.

Hot House is published by Indies United Publishing House, LLC, and will be available in the UK as a Kindle, audiobook and hardback from 15th June. The paperback was published in March. For my reviews of three earlier novels by Lisa Towles, just click on the cover images

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THE FIRE KILLER . . . Between the covers

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My excuse is that I am a one-man-band here at Fully Booked, and notwithstanding  the occasional erudite contribution from Stuart Radmore (who has forgotten more about crime fiction than most people will ever know), there are only so many books I can read and review properly. My first experience of Peterborough copper DI Barton  is the fifth of the series (written by Ross Greenwood), The Fire Killer. Peterborough is a big place, at least for us Fenland townies, but is rarely featured in CriFi novels. I am pretty sure that Peter Robinson’s DI Banks grew up there (The Summer That Never Was) and Eva Dolan’s Zigic and Ferreira books are certainly set in the city.

Peterborough is a strange city in some ways. Its heart is divided in three. One third is its medieval heritage and its magnificent cathedral; another third is its railway history, while the final slice belongs to the fact that some anonymous civil servants decided, in the 1950s, that it should be a ‘new town’. Hence its sprawling suburbs, divided by interminable dual carriageways and countless roundabouts, stippled with anonymous housing developments, most with the faux-pastoral suffix – choose your own – such as Meadows, Leys, Gardens, Fields and even Waters. I digress. No matter that Peterborough isn’t quite sure whether it is in Cambridgeshire or Northamptonshire, this novel is rather good.

We are in standard police procedural territory here. DI John Barton is large, bald, busy, rather unglamorous, but a decent copper. He and his team are called in to investigate a body found in a skip that has been deliberately set alight. The body is eventually identified as that of a young woman whose life has unraveled after she had fleeting success as a fashion model. Barton and his ‘oppo’, Sergeant Zander, are sure that the culprit lives in one of a row of four shabby terraced houses not far from the skip, but which one is the home of the arsonist?

Screen Shot 2022-05-20 at 19.51.23Ross Greenwood (right) has fun inviting us to make out own guesses, but also makes the game a little more interesting by giving us intermittent chapters narrated by The Fire Killer, but he is very wary about giving us too many clues. The dead girl, Jess Craven had been involved with a very rich dentist with links – as a customer – to the London drug trade.

There are a couple of other mysterious blazes, but when one of Barton’s suspects meets a horrifying end in another fire – but this time in a torched Transit van – the search for The Fire Killer just seems to be chasing its own tale. The rich dentist, Stefan Russo, is clearly hiding something, but he is ‘lawyered up’ and even though he has some very questionable contacts in London, the police are unable to get close to him.

Then, there is a breakthrough – or at least Barton thinks it is – and someone confesses to being The Fire Killer. As readers we can judge how much of the book is left, and it is clear to us that Barton has some work still to do before he closes the case. There is, as we might predict, a very clever twist in the tale, but when an exhausted Barton finally goes off for a family caravan holiday in Sunny Hunny (Hunstanton), we suspect that at the back of his mind there is still a some doubt about the true identity of The Fire Killer.

John Barton is an excellent creation, and this book is cleverly plotted, with one or two spectacular bursts of serious violence. It is published by Boldwood Books, and will be available in paperback and Kindle from 30th May.

THE MIRROR GAME . . . Between the covers

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Even before I read the first page, this book ticked a number of important boxes for me, including:
1920s ✔️
London ✔️
Great War background ✔️
Beautifully imagined cover graphics ✔️
I’m happy to say my initial optimism was not to be shattered. So, what goes on? We are in 1925 and in a London that has borne relatively little structural damage from the recent war compared to what it was to suffer less that two decades later. The major damage, however is to the people and families of the city. Across Britain, the war has claimed the lives of  886,000 participants, mostly men between the ages of 18 and 40, and London has more than its fair share of widows, children without fathers and parents without sons.

TMG FIGURE013Investigator and journalist Harry Lark fought for King and Country and emerged relatively unscathed although, like so many other men, the sounds, smells and images of the trenches are ever present at the back of his mind and he has also become addicted to laudanum – a tincture of opium and alcohol. When he is contacted by a friend and benefactor, Lady Charlotte Carlisle, she tells him that she thinks she has seen a ghost. Sitting in Mayfair’s Café Boheme, she has seen a man who is the image of Captain Adrian Harcourt, a pre-war politician who was killed on the Western Front in 1918, and was engaged to be married to her daughter Ferderica. But this man is no phantom who can fade into the wallpaper. Other customers notice him. He is flesh and blood, and approaches Lady Charlotte’s table, stares into her eyes, but then leaves without saying a word. She asks Lark to investigate.

Harry’s search takes him to Harcourt’s father who throws him out on his ear. He then visits an exclusive gentleman’s club, where he asks one too many questions, and is beaten within an inch of his life by thugs in the pay of someone powerful. Helped by an old friend, retired policeman Bob Clements, he learns that Adrian Harcourt was listed as being killed in a firefight near a ruined French village, when the company he commanded were slaughtered. There were a mere handful of survivors, one of which was the son of an influential London gangster, Alec Ivers.

Harry Lark begins to get the sense that something terrible caused the death of most of Harcourt’sTMG FIGURE012 company, and that some seriously well-connected people have ensured that the truth about their demise has been successfully covered up. Iver’s son has been committed to an institution for mentally and physically damaged WW1 soldiers, and Filton Hall is Harry’s next port of call.

As he tries to learn the truth Harry himself takes both mental and physical batterings, while there are a string of deaths around the fringes of the affair. His growing love for Ferderica seems to be reciprocated, but then they both receive a huge shock which turns the case on its head.

Author Guy Gardner’s day job – or, more likely, night job – was jazz pianist, but now he teaches piano at home in  Dorset and is planning to write more novels. He also says he enjoys a glass of single malt, so I raise a glass of my favourite, Lagavulin, in his honour!

The book is certainly not short on action, intriguing characters and plot twists but, unsurprisingly, Guy Gardner is at his best when describing the occasions when music (Ferderica is a violinist, and Harry is a music journalist) is woven into the story. The Mirror Game is atmospheric and has a convincing sense sense of time and place. It would be good even coming from an established novelist, but as a debut it is excellent.  It is published by The Book Guild, and is available now.

FOR MORE FICTION WITH A GREAT WAR BACKGROUND, CLICK THE IMAGE BELOW

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A TASTE FOR KILLING . . . Between the covers

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Sarah HawkswoodThose of us who are lucky enough to be sent printed copies of novels for review almost certainly have “keepers” – books which don’t go off to friends, free libraries or charity shops once they are read. Looking across at my shelves, I see books by Jim Kelly, Christopher Fowler, Philip Kerr, John Connolly, Phil Rickman, James Oswald, Peter Bartram – and Sarah Hawkswood (left). I was a late arrival at the ‘Bradecote Ball’, but these superb stories of medieval Worcester have joined my list of favourite books which I will not be parted from. A Taste For Killing is the tenth in this splendid series featuring the 12th century Worcester trio of Hugh Bradecote, Serjeant Catchpoll and Underserjeant Walkelin.

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It is a bitter January afternoon in Worcester, 1145. The wells have frozen, the streets are empty, and decent folk are huddled around their fires. In the house of Godfrey Bowyer – remember the origin of many surnames – a skilled, but widely disliked maker of longbows, it is supper time. As Godfrey sups his pottage with his wife Blanche, the servants cower in another room, listening to the customary arguments and smashing of crockery. Godfey and Banche (his second wife) frequently disagree, but they are as one when it comes to the adage about it being better to let it all out than to keep it in. Tonight’s row takes an unexpected – and fatal – turn, as both Godfrey and Blanche collapse with the symptoms of poisoning. Blanche recovers quickly enough, but it is to be Godfrey’s last night on earth.

Catchpoll and Walkelin are summoned and are joined – reluctantly – by Bradecote, who was anxiously at the side of his heavily pregnant wife. She has miscarried before, and he is reluctant to leave her, but  suspected murder is what it is, and he joins his two colleagues. The row between Godfrey and Blanche which culminated in a dish of pottage (a soup thickened with grain, containing vegetables and – when available – meat) being thrown at the wall raises the crucial question – the contents of whose bowl redecorated the wall of the house? Was it Blanche’s, and did Godfrey then sup from the bowl intended for his wife? What was the poison, and who put it in the pottage?

It transpires that the Bowyer ménage is far from simple. Runild the servant girl is pregnant, but by whom? Alwin, Bowyer’s apprentice is out of the frame as he is too shy to even look at a girl, let alone do anything more physical, but there is another suspect. The late Godfrey’s  hands often followed not far behind his roving eye, as more than one Worcester woman can testify. Furthermore, what was Blanche’s relationship with the Steward of Worcester Castle, Simon Furneaux, a pompous individual who has a hate-hate relationship with Hugh Bradecote? There was little love lost between Godfrey Bowyer and his younger brother Herluin the Stringere, also a maker of bows, and a man who has his eyes on his late brother’s business. There is even a rumour that they do not share the same father.

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One of the many captivating qualities of this book is the reminder of the potent symbolism of the Yew tree in human history. The traditional home of the Yew tree in England is the village churchyard, and there is a deep irony that its wood was used to produce the fine – and lethal – bows that were to dominate medieval warfare. The Yew is also a more direct cause of death, however, as its wood contains toxins that bow makers had to wash from their hands before eating, and the seeds in the delightful red berries contain a deadly alkaloid.

When there is yet another death in the Bowyer household, a local herbalist and bone-setter called Roger the Healer, who has thus far been on the fringe of events, takes centre stage. He suspects that Yew killed Godfrey Bowyer, but a glance at the cover of the novel will give readers a clue as to what caused the second tragedy.

The chemistry between Bradecote, Catchpoll and Walkelin is a work of alchemy in itself. Bradecote is, I suppose, minor nobility, quick-witted and well educated, while Catchpoll is grizzled, rough round the edges, but wily. Walkelin, in the earlier books, was simply a clever but callow lad. Now, however, he uses his apparent naivety and lack of guile to extract information from people who would otherwise be too deferential to Bradecote, or too fearful of Catchpoll’s reputation as a street fighter.

A Taste For Killing is raw-knuckle historical crime fiction which, while it never flinches from describing the often brutal lives of people in 12th century England, still paints a picture of decent, thoughtful folk living honest lives as best they can. Thanks to Sarah Hawkwood’s skill, that picture has a timeless quality. The book is published by Allison & Busby and is out today, 12th May. Click on the images below for my reviews of earlier books in the series.

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THE LAST TO DISAPPEAR . . . Between the covers

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No-one will ever accuse Jo Spain of being unadventurous. With a best-selling series of police procedurals under her belt – the superb Tom Reynolds novels – a lesser writer might hunker down and play safety first by sticking to the familiar. But that’s not Jo Spain. Her last standalone thriller, The Perfect Lie (click for review), was set in Newport, Rhode Island, and now she takes us to the ski resort of Koppe in icy Finland, where Brit Alex Evans has travelled to identify the murdered body of his sister, Vicky. She was something of a ‘free spirit’, having wandered half the way round Europe doing a variety of temporary jobs (including pole dancing in a Spanish bar), always broke, but always looking for the next big adventure. Her body has been found by an ice fisherman, and has been in the water for some time.

Handling the investigation is local police chief Agatha Koskinen, but Alex is determined to ask his own questions. He discovers that Vicky had been working at a local  hotel and had made friends with an American tourist who is now back in the states, but has an alibi for the time when Vicky disappeared. Agatha has demons of her own to contend with, however, as somewhere out there is the abusive parent of her three children – Luca – and she fears for them should Luca come back into their lives.

As ever, Jo Spain weaves a complex mystery, and gives us a split time narrative. She takes us back to 1998 where we are a fly on the wall in the house of Miika and Kaya Vartinen. Miika is a Sami – one the ethnic people of what used to be known as Lapland. He is a reindeer herder. Kaya is pregnant, but Miika is not the father. She is carefully managing the usual symptoms so that when she tells him,  Miika will believe the child is his.

The significance of the book’s title becomes clear when Alex visits Agatha at her home, and she reveals that Vicky is the latest woman to disappear in a ten-year period, and that Kaya Vatinen was the first. She also tells Alex that Miika Vartinen is widely suspected as being involved in the disappearances, but no evidence has ever emerged to connect him to the cases.

With the most delicate of touches, Jo Spain hints at the darker aspects of life in Koppe, where there is an undercurrent of racism towards the Sami people, and she reminds us of the familiar theme of movers and shakers in tourist resorts – think the Mayor of Amity Island in Jaws –  not wanting anything to disturb the inward flow of visitors and their cash. There is also the spectre of an international mining company sensing a million dollar windfall from the minerals sitting beneath the pristine and picturesque Finnish landscape.

Jo Spain’s tricksy thrillers are very cleverly written. She relies on us making assumptions. She invites us to make these assumptions rather like a fly fisherman casting the cunningly constructed fly on the water, hoping it will fool the fat trout (aka the reader). When we realise we have been gulled, we might turn back a few ages and react with something like, “hang on – didn’t she tell us that …?“, only to find that what she wrote was  perfectly ambiguous, and that we have jumped to the wrong conclusion. Perhaps there’s a few too many mixed metaphors there, but I hope you get my drift.

There are only two predictable things about a Jo Spain thriller. The first? There will be a dramatic plot twist. The second? You won’t see it coming! The Last to Disappear is published by Quercus, and will be out on 12th May. For more of my reviews of Jo’s books, click the image below.

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NO LESS THE DEVIL . . . Between the covers

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610XqcYjnhL._SX450_This is a new police procedural from Stuart MacBride (left) and it introduces Detective Sergeant Lucy McVeigh. Her beat is the fictional town of Oldcastle (not to be confused with the actual city of Oldcastle, which lies between Aberdeen and Dundee). Aberdeen, of course, is where DS Logan McRae operated in the hugely successful earlier series from MacBride. Also, DS McVeigh comes across – to me at any rate – as a younger version of McRae’s boss, the foul-mouthed and acerbic DCI Roberta Steel. McVeigh is equally sharp tempered, and similarly indisposed to suffer fools gladly.

Early on, we are aware that McVeigh has been involved a high profile incident where she killed a man – Neil Black –  in the line of duty. This requires her to suffer – by order of her bosses – psychological treatment and counselling. Like the good storyteller that he is, MacBride doesn’t let us know the nature of the incident right away, thus keeping us guessing for a while. When we do learn what happened, over seven terrifying pages, it is horrific stuff.

McVeigh is involved in the  hunt for a serial killer nicknamed The Bloodsmith. He – or she – eviscerates victims and scrawls “Help Me’ on the wall of the murder scene, using the blood of the unfortunate prey. The trail is cold, but when a new victim emerges McVeigh and her ‘gofer’ Detective Constable Fraser (aka The Dunk) have some fresh clues to work with. It turns out that the latest corpse is the remains of a former police officer who did time for petty theft, and then ended up as a vagrant on the streets.

Women are supposed to multi-task better than men, but Lucy McVeigh has two other problems. Firstly, she is being harassed by the family of the man she killed. They are determined to end her career by fair means or foul, and the press are lapping up every minute of the feud. Secondly, a case from the past surfaces. Years earlier, McVeigh was involved in putting behind bars an eleven year-old boy who, along with another boy as yet unidentified, committed a terrible murder. Now a young man, Benedict Strachan  is back – literally – on the streets, using an alias, misusing drugs, living rough, and he is convinced that someone is trying to kill him.

Screen Shot 2022-04-19 at 19.51.13As the search for The Bloodsmith continues, and Lucy McVeigh struggles to keep abreast of that investigation, as well as her battle with the Black family and coping with the mental agonies of Benedict Strachan, MacBride treats us to his signature mixture of Noir, visceral horror and bleak humour. Even though his Oldcastle is a fictional place, it is vividly brought to life to the extent that I would not be in the least surprised if the author has a map of the place hanging on the wall of his writing room. The situation becomes ever more complex for Lucy McVeigh when she learns there is a connection between the murdered former policeman and Benedict Strachan. That connection is a prestigious and exclusive independent school, known colloquially as St Nicks’s. When she visits the school, she unearths more questions than answers.

Novels that use the name of the Devil in their title are making a statement that the writer has to live up to. No-one did it better than the great Derek Raymond in his 1984 The Devil’s Home On Leave, but what about this book? I won’t over-egg the pudding and say that it’s an existential treatise on the nature of evil. It’s just a crime novel, albeit a very superior one. Suffice it to say that Stuart MacBride takes us to some very dark places, and convinces us that the Devil is real, if only in the sense that he lives in the hearts and souls of certain human beings.

No Less The Devil will be published by Bantam Press on 28th April. As a postscript, I have to say that I found the last hundred or so  pages seriously strange, and it took me all the way back to the 1990s and my weekly (and increasingly puzzled) visits to Twin Peaks. Without any further spoilers, I will simply say that I think I know what happens, but I aIso believe readers will be divided over the plot swerve.  I would be interested to hear from other people what they made of it.

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