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WATCHING YOU . . . Between the covers

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Josephine “Joey” Mullen has returned home to Bristol from living and working hand-to-mouth in sunny Spain. With empty pockets and zero job prospects, she might be downhearted, but on the positive side she has a handsome new husband and a generous older brother who is prepared to share his home with the newly-weds. While Joey finds a job dishing out chicken nuggets and mopping up puke at a children’s party venue, Alfie (nice-but-dim and with a very fit bum, if you are into that sort of thing) works in a bar and is trying to establish a painting and decorating business.

Watching You front011Watching You by Lisa Jewell takes us to the chic urban village of Melville Heights. Jack Mullen is a successful consultant in cardiology, while his wife Rebecca is “something in systems analysis.” A couple of doors down live the Fitzwilliam family. Tom is a charismatic and nationally renowned Head Teacher with an impressive record of turning round failing high schools. His adoring wife Nicola has no CV as such, unless you want to list an over-awareness of body image and a devotion to the latest fads in fashion and diet. Their teenage son, Freddie – an only child, naturally – is very keen on all things technical, particularly digital binoculars, spy software, and a fascination with the lives and movements of anyone he can see from his bedroom window.

Watching You back012This is a clever, clever murder mystery. Lisa Jewell gives us the corpse right at the beginning – while keeping us guessing about whose it is – and then, by shrewd manipulation of the timeline we are introduced to the possible perpetrators of the violent death. By page 100, they have formed an orderly queue for our attention. Of course there’s beautiful, feckless Joey and her husband Alfie. Freddie Fitzwilliam is clearly at the sharp end of the Asperger spectrum, but what about his bird-like – and bird-brained mother? Schoolgirls Jenna and Bess are clearly fixated – for different reasons – on their headteacher, and as for Jenna’s mum, with her persecution complex and incipient madness, she is clearly on the brink of doing something destructive, either to herself or someone else. And who is the mysterious woman who flew into a rage with Tom ten years earlier while the Fitzwilliams were on a family holiday to the Lake District?

Domestic Noir in crime fiction borrows jealousy, lust, anger, greed and pride from the early Christian list of vices but no modern thriller in the genre ignores the fatal flaw of obsession. The Big ‘O’ is certainly at the root of the plot of Watching You, and we willingly suspend our disbelief that so many disturbed characters should end up within a stone’s throw of each other in a posh Bristol suburb.

Lisa JewellLisa Jewell peels away veil after veil, but like Salome in front of Herod, she tantalises us with exquisite cruelty. Just when we think we have understood the truth about the complex relationships between the characters, we are faced with another enigma and a further conundrum. There are flashes of absolute brilliance throughout this gripping novel. The relationship between Jenna and Bess is beautifully described and even though we suspect he may end up with blood on his hands, Freddie’s strange but exotic view of the world around him makes him completely appealing. In the end, of course,we learn the identity of the corpse and that of the murderer but, just like the Pinball Wizard, there has got to be a twist. Lisa Jewell (left) provides it with the last 39 words of this very special book, and it is not so much a twist as a breathtaking literary flourish.

Watching You is published by Century, and is out on 12th July.

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DEADLY DANCE … Between the covers

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Detective Inspector David Vogel, of Avon and Somerset Police, cuts a rather different dash from many of his fellow fictional DIs. He is a tall, bespectacled and slightly shambling figure, teetotal and resolutely vegetarian. His only leisure pursuit is assembling crossword puzzles. Formerly with the Metropolitan Police in London, he, wife Mary and daughter Rosamund had moved from their Pimlico flat out to the suburbs of Bristol to an unassuming bungalow which had an unusual attraction – its own swimming pool. Rosamund has cerebral palsy, and we are told:

“She was a happy and intelligent girl, trapped within a body that consistently failed her, except when she was in water………the water gave her freedom. In water, her body was no longer an encumbrance.”

Deadly DanceWhen the battered body of teenager Melanie Cooke is found amid the garbage bins in a seedy Bristol alleyway, it is obvious that she has been murdered. Only fourteen, she is dressed in the kind of clothes which would be considered provocative on a woman twice her age. Vogel goes to make the dreaded ‘death call’, but he only has to appear on the doorstep of the girl’s home for her mother and father to sense the worst. Like many rebellious teenagers before her, Melanie has told her parents that she is going round to a mate’s house to do some homework. When she failed to come home, their first ‘phone call confirmed Melanie’s lie, and thereafter, the long dark hours of the night are spent in increasing anxiety and then terror, as they realise that something awful has happened.

Hilary BonnerThe book actually starts with a prologue which at first glance appears to be nothing to do with Melanie’s death. It is only later – much later – that we learn its true significance. Bonner (right) is determined not to give us a straightforward narrative. The progress of Vogel’s attempts to find Melanie’s killer are sandwiched between accounts from three different men, each of whom is living a life where all is not as it seems.

Saul is socially inept and has reached early middle age without achieving his ambition to become a caring husband and father. His first attempt at marriage had been a disaster, and subsequent efforts to find a life partner have been impeded by his inner sense that his mind harbours demons over which he has little or no control should they choose to wake within him. He settles for internet dating, and heads up his CV as follows:

“My name is Saul and I am a 33 year-old supply teacher. I live in a village near Swindon and I would like to meet a young woman of around my age whose intentions are as serious as mine….. my interests are simple and quiet. I like to read and go to the cinema. If you are out there, please get in touch. I need you.”

Leo is a very different kind of fellow. He spends his leisure time cruising gay bars and clubs in London. He clearly has some kind of day job where ‘coming out’ is not an option. He cultivates the blokeish image when at work, but when he goes to London he adopts a different persona, but one with which he is not entirely at ease.

“I didn’t have the slightest desire to be gay. I didn’t even like the word. I’ve never liked euphemisms and that’s surely what ‘gay’ is. When you called yourself a homosexual it didn’t sound quite so modern and attractive. And what about queer? Is that what I was, queer?

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Leo’s misgivings are put to one side, however, when he goes on the prowl. Just as he puts on the skinny Levis, gels his hair, squeezes into a black T shirt that reveals his six-pack and insouciantly slings his studded leather jacket over his shoulder, Leo adopts a different mental mindset from his ‘one of the lads’ image.

While Bonner might coax a sliver of sympathy from us as we read of the personal lives of Saul and Leo, when Al introduces himself it is abundantly clear from the start that he is a wrong ‘un.

“They get what they deserve, these young girls in their skimpy skirts and the little shorts they call hot pants. They’re hot all right. Everything about them is hot. Burning hot.”

Al cruises around the streets of Bristol, usually in a stolen van, ogling schoolgirls, and occasionally trying to bring his sordid fantasies to reality, but without success. Until he discovers a teen dating site on the internet, and he is amazed at the ease with which he can construct a fake profile and attract the attention of a teenage girl whose hormones are racing in the opposite direction to the concerns and limitations her parents seek to impose.

Deadly Dance works very effectively as a police procedural. Vogel is an interesting character, very much left field of his fictional contemporaries, and I anticipate that he will have a long and successful career between the covers of British crime novels. Bonner’s solution to the apparent dislocation between Vogel’s investigation and the lives of Saul, Leo and Al is audacious. To reveal any more would be to give the game away, and no-one will thank me for that. Does it work? I think it does, but you must be the judge. Deadly Dance will be published by Severn House next month, August 2017.

 

 

 

 

WHAT ALICE KNEW … Between the covers

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WAKBack in late 2016, I had the pleasure of listening to T A Cotterell read an extract from his debut novel, What Alice Knew. He made it clear that this was a book about secrets, and about that strange beast, family life. Family life. The words are anodyne, mild and reassuring, but we all know that many families are not what they seem to be to an outsider. Cotterell’s question, though, is simply this: “How well do members of a family know each other?”

This particular family is as close to the notion of perfection as can be. Husband Ed Sheahan is a senior obstrician at a Bristol hospital while Alice Sheahan, née Tenterden, is a successful and highly regarded portrait painter. They have two adorable children and a beautiful house in a sought-after Bristol district – one of those places which delights in calling itself a village, complete with ‘proper’ shops which strive to be terribly artisan and traditional.

As Alice is driving home from painting a commission in Suffolk, she takes a ‘phone call from daughter Nell. The first five words send a stab of anxiety through her. “Mummy – Daddy hasn’t come home.” Ed Sheahan simply isn’t the kind of father to leave his children alone in the house at night. He is not answering his mobile, he is not at the hospital, his suitcase, hold-all and travel bag are still in their cupboard. Eventually Alice discovers that Ed was last seen at a party with some younger colleagues.

Much to Alice’s relief, the absent Ed finally breaks surface and reveals, much to his embarrassment, that he had drunk well rather than wisely and had passed out in an expensive apartment belonging to a mature art student called Araminta Lyall. The apartment is in the district of Stokes Croft, which Cotterell describes as:

“..home to artists’ studios and vegan cafés, squatter collectives that sprout in disused buildings, all-night clubs, wraith-like dealers, protest groups.”

Ed Sheahan makes his way home very much with his tail between his legs. Alice is actually rather amused, because he is no sort of a party animal and much less a drinker. She is just happy that the temporary scare and anxiety have passed with no real harm being done to the family. But – and of course there is always a ‘but’ in domestic noir thrillers – her contentment is short lived when she reads the newspaper headline SOCIETY GIRL DIES, and when she reads to story, one name leaps out at her. Araminta Lyall.

T-A-CotterellFrom this point on, the dreamy soft-focus life of the Sheahan family descends into a nightmare reality, all jagged edges and harshly grating contrasts. The visual metaphor is actually totally appropriate, as one of the great strengths of the novel is how Alice sees much of life through her painterly eyes. Rose madder, cadmium yellow, viridian, alizarin crimson and flake white. Alice’s world is the world of the quaintly named oil paints on her palette. It came as no surprise to me to learn that Cotterell (right) studied History of Art at Cambridge.

One of the most gripping chapters in the book is the description of Alice being commissioned to paint a mystery sitter, who turns out to be a woman who was her best friend at school, but from whom she parted under traumatic circumstances. The woman has become dazzlingly rich through business, and has changed her name. In an atmosphere that could be sliced with a razor, the two eventually come face to face. Even if you read another two hundred books this year you will not experience a more tense and excoriating account of the power of memory, guilt and bitterness.

The tale is told from first to last by Alice herself. This poses interesting possibilities for the reader, particularly in the light of the shocks contained in the final few pages of the novel. Is Alice a reliable narrator? Does her ruthless honesty as a portraitist extend to what she is telling us – and herself? Cotterell certainly takes a huge gamble and puts our credulity on the table as stakes. I think it works, thus seating him up there on the High Table where the more established purveyors of domestic noir sup and dine. As ever, you must judge for yourselves. What Alice Knew is published by Transworld/ Black Swan/Penguin Random House and is available here.

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CLOSE YOUR EYES … Between the covers

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A BRUTAL DOUBLE MURDER in a remote Somerset cottage has baffled the police, and inflamed local opinion over what they see as the ineptitude of the investigating officers. In charge of the case is DCS Ronnie Cray – and yes, she has changed the first letter of her surname – and almost in desperation she enlists the help of forensic psychologist Dr Joseph O’Loughlin.

O’Loughlin is reluctantly drawn into the efforts to track down the killer who butchered Elizabeth Crowe beneath the satanist pentangle daubed on her wall, and efficiently suffocated her teenage daughter, Harper, in her bed upstairs. To say the very least, O’Laughlin has enough problems of his own. He is trying to live a normal life while battling the early symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, and his delight at being invited to return to the cottage occupied by his daughters Charlie and Emma, and his estranged wife, is tempered when he learns that Julianne has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Robotham introduces us to  a possible culprit in the opening pages of the book. This man describes his assaults on various women, while describing his awful childhood. His once-brutal father is now in a care home, and has advanced dementia, but our narrator recalls with hatred the beatings – both physical and psychological – he suffered at his father’s hands. Even more telling is the lasting legacy of his mother’s death. She was, perhaps understandably, given her husband’s predilection for violence,’playing away’, but was killed in a bizarre road traffic accident.

Elizabeth Crowe was, to use the old cliché, “no better than she should have been”. After an acrimonious divorce, she has used her new-found freedom to explore the dubious delights of dogging, and it is the participants of that strangely British open-air activity who are the obvious suspects in the investigation. There is no shortage of other suspects, however. How about the dim-witted Tommy Garrett who lives with his grandmother in the neighbouring property? Or maybe Elizabeth’s former husband, Dominic? Not only did Elizabeth cheat on him with her body, but she also ruined him financially.

Robotham leads O’Loughlin – and you, the reader – a merry dance. There are red herrings a-plenty, as O’Loughlin tries to establish the connection between the contrasting deaths of Elizabeth and Harper Crowe, and a seemingly random series of attacks on people which leaves some of them dead, but all with a crude letter ‘A’ cut into their foreheads. But of course, in detective novels, nothing is ever really random, or no fictional crime would ever be solved. Robotham is a clever enough writer to allow O’Loughlin to make the mother of all mistakes before a terrifying climax is played out on a storm blasted cliff top above the raging seas of the Bristol Channel.

Remember the famous scene in Jaws, where we are watching the Richard Dreyfuss character probing the hole in the half-sunken boat? Just as we are expecting the shark to come charging in, Spielberg gives us an even greater shock when the severed head rolls in to view. Robotham does something rather similar at the end of Close Your Eyes as he blind-sides us with a killer blow that we never see coming. This novel, which came out in hardback and digital versions last year, and is now out as a Sphere paperback, will further cement Robotham’s reputation as one of the cleverest and most effective writers of modern crime thrillers.

Click the link to check out buying option for Close Your Eyes

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Robotham
was born in Casino, New South Wales in 1960, and after serving an apprenticeship on a Sydney newspaper, moved to London, where he eventually became deputy features editor for The Daily Mail. In 1993 he began his literary career, first as a ghostwriter for several notable personalities who were writing their autobiographies. His first hit crime novel was The Suspect in 2004, and he has since won many awards for his books.  He has returned to Australia, and Close Your Eyes is the eighth novel in the Joseph O’Loughlin series.

Michael Robotham, international crime writer visiting London 26.07.2010 picture: Stefan Erhard

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