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domestic thriller

STOP AT NOTHING . . . Between the covers

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Tessa Hopwood is a fifty-something mum, a journalist recently ‘let go’ by a top magazine, a serious drink-driving conviction on her CV to accompany a failed marriage and one of two daughters estranged – they haven’t spoken in months. When the younger daughter, Emma, is attacked on her way home, Tessa’s life is turned on its head. Em is shocked and shaken, physically bruised but – most importantly – saved from any sexual assault by the timely intervention of a passer by. When the police organise an ID parade to identify the culprit, neither Em nor witness Frances can identify the ‘right’ man and Tessa, convinced that she knows who Em’s assailant is, decides to do things her own way.

SANPoor Tessa is a mess, actually. Struggling to cope with the physical and psychological effects of the menopause and her self-esteem battered by redundancy, she is prey to all manner of fancies, midnight imaginings and “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Much of Stop At Nothing is pure anxiety porn, as Tessa makes bad judgment after bad judgment, wrong call after wrong call. Readers will see the picture – at least part of it – way, way before she does, and in places the narrative reminded me of the frequent moments in Hammer horror films where the heroine (usually scantily clad) insists on going down into the cellar clutching only a flickering candle. We want to grab Tessa by the arm and say. “Do. Not. Do. This!

TCPersonally, I warmed to Tessa – and her unfailing knack of getting things wrong – much more when her relationship with her elderly parents moved to centre stage. The tragedy of dementia is a natural cruelty that makes even the most devout religious person want to howl with rage at the heavens, and Tammy Cohen (right) handles this poignant mix of frustration and fury with a deft touch.

This is a novel of great subtlety, less a crime novel, more a detailed portrait of obsession and  deception. Tessa Hopwood’s north London life is one that will be uncomfortably familiar to many readers, with its mixture of social angst, financial pressures and the constant urge to “keep up, don’t dawdle – just keep up..

Stop At Nothing is published by Bantam Press and is available now. For a review of another novel by Tammy Cohen, writing this time as Rachel Rhys, click the link to Dangerous Crossing (2017)

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THE HOUSE … Between the covers

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Do houses have souls? Do they retain some of the psychological warmth – or chills – of the people who have lived there previously? When a young couple, against the run of play in terms of the asking price, find themselves proud owners of a higgledy-piggledy house, they can’t believe their luck The previous owner has struck lucky in the romance game, albeit late in life, and has hotfooted it to Australia to be with his love. He has left the house ‘as found’, and this includes paintings, random stuffed animals and a plethora of clutter. And the ‘soul’ of this house? Once rid of the examples of the taxidermists’ art, Jack and Syd begin to transform the house into something more reflective of their own moods and personalities.

the-house-book-review-Simon-Lelic-credit-Justine-StoddartThere is, however, that strange smell. A certain je ne sais quoi which will not go away, despite the couple’s best efforts. When Jack finally plucks up the courage to climb up into the roof space, he finds the physical source of the smell but unpleasant as that is, he also finds something which is much more disturbing. Simon Lelic (right) then has us walking on pins and needles as he unwraps a plot which involves obsession, child abuse, psychological torture and plain old-fashioned violence.

The novel does pose one or two challenges. The first is that we have two narrators, Syd and Jack. We see events retrospectively. At some point we learn that they have challenged each other to write up their personal version of what has happened. Inevitably, their stories are not identical. While this is part of the charm, we do have to ask ourselves the key questions,”do we trust Syd or do we trust Jack? Do we believe both – or neither?”

This leads to the second challenge, and it concerns our judgment about the personality of the two individuals. I can only tell it as I see it, and for what it’s worth, neither came over as being particularly likeable. I am sure that there are dozens – hundreds, maybe tens of thousands – of perfectly worthy people who work in and on the fringes of the social services, but in fiction – and the perception of some journalists – there exists a stereotype. He or she is mild mannered, anxious, keen to please and with a tendency to be naively trusting when dealing with people (I believe ‘clients’ is the preferred word) who are scrabbling around, for whatever reason, at the fringes of comfortable society. Jack certainly has all his ducks in a row here.

Syd, by contrast, is spiky enough to give the biggest Saguaro cactus a run for its money. Of course, Lelic doesn’t just shove her on stage and make her behave badly without giving us her backstory. It is a pretty grim narrative and, trying to avoid any spoilers, I have to say that it is fundamental to what happens in the book.

This is a genuinely disturbing psychological thriller, and we are kept guessing almost until the last page as we try to make sense of what has happened. Not all new novels live up to the entertaining and inventive hype which precedes their publication, but this one certainly does. The House, by Simon Lelic, is published by Penguin and is out now on Kindle, and will be available in paperback from 2nd November.

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THE WALLS … Between the covers

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Lone mother. Single parent. Solo carer. Whatever the politically correct term currently favoured by The Taking-Offence Police, Kristy Tucker is it. Not only is she bringing up her teenage son Ryan, she is caring for her debilitated father. ‘Pops’ is paying the price for a lifetime of heavy smoking, and two things keep him alive. One is physical – the cannula connecting him to his oxygen tank – and the other is psychological – the faint hope that he can still be a father to his daughter and someone his grandson can look up to.

The WallsKristy puts food on the table and tries to make sure that Ryan isn’t disadvantaged. She has a job, and it is one that demands every ounce of her compassion and every droplet of her sang froid. Her official title? Public Information Officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. If that sounds like some bureaucratic walk-in-the-park, think again. Acting as mediator between inmates, the press and the prison system is one thing, but remember that The Lone Star State is one of the thirty one American states which retains the death penalty. Consequently, Kristy not only has to manage the fraught liaison between prisoners on death row and the media, but she is also required to be an official witness at executions.

Despite the stresses and strains of her professional and family life, Kristy is still young enough to hanker after a personal life, and when Ryan introduces his martial arts teacher, Lance Dobson, she is taken aback by his kindness and his humility. It doesn’t hurt that he is ruggedly handsome and totally charming. Dobson becomes more and more a part of the Tucker household and, despite Dobson’s “aw, shucks..” modesty, Kristy finds herself falling in love with him. She is dazzled by the man, and cannot believe her luck when her affection is returned, with interest, and he asks her to marry him.

Back at the prison, Kristy Tucker has become involved with a condemned prisoner, Clifton Harris. He has been sentenced to death for starting a fire which killed his two children. There have been frequent appeals and stays of execution, but Harris’s last ride on the gurney of death is imminent. Kristy becomes convinced that Harris is innocent, but her profession inhibits her from offering anything but sympathy and a kindly voice.

All too soon, Kristy becomes Mrs Dobson, and both Ryan and Pops think all their Christmases have come at once. For Ryan, Lance Dobson becomes the father he never had, and Pops takes on a new lease of life, knowing that at long last there is an alpha male in the house to take on the duty of care which his illness has prevented him from fulfilling. Gold at the end of the rainbow? Not quite. Within a matter of weeks a fatal chasm begins to open up between Dobson’s public persona and the man he has become when alone with Kristy. He is insanely jealous, sexually demanding, domineering – and brutal with his fists. Despite Ryan and Pops still worshipping the ground that Lance Dobson walks on, Kristy has finally had enough. Using her unique insight into the mistakes made both by criminals and police, she plans a route which will take her out of her misery.

hollieovertonIt will come as no surprise to learn that Hollie Overton (right) is an experienced writer for TV. In The Walls every set-piece, every scene is intensely visual and immediate. With consummate cleverness she sets up two story lines which at first run parallel, but then converge. Two men. One is definitely guilty. One possibly innocent. Both are condemned to death. One by the State of Texas. The other by his battered wife.

The Walls is a sheer joy to read. The pace of the narrative is breathtaking, the characters are beautifully drawn and utterly convincing. Of course Hollie Overton takes sides, and she expects us to do the same, but we can still hold our breath and chew our nails until the final pages. This is domestic drama at its very best. The Walls is out on 10th August in the UK, published by Century, and is available here.

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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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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Gimenez and McQuaile

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THE ABSENCE OF GUILT by Mark Gimenez
As we saw in The Colour of Law (2013) lawyer A. Scott Fenney is used to dealing with unpopular cases. Back then, it was a  heroin-addicted black prostitute, absolutely no-one’s idea of a sympathetic defendant. Now, he is a newly appointed U.S. District Judge, and before him  is a man who many consider to be the embodiment of evil on earth – Omar al Mustafa, a notorious and charismatic Muslim cleric known for his incendiary anti-American diatribes on social media. Even the POTUS has been publicly clapping his hands with glee at the prospect of Mustafa’s downfall. There’s just one tiny problem; there is no evidence to support the cleric’s conviction. With a widely expected attack on America by ISIS just weeks away, Fenney is faced with the most difficult decision of his life. The book is out in hardback on 6th October, and is published by Sphere. Check out buying options here.

WHAT SHE NEVER TOLD ME by Kate McQuaile
This domestic psychological thriller came out on Kindle earlier this year, and is now available in paperback. McQuaile is a graduate of the Faber Writing Academy, and her debut novel from Quercus tells the story of a woman, Louise Redmond, who is left feeling desolate after a failed marriage. She has never known who her father was, and when she travels home to Ireland to be at the bedside of her dying mother, her search to discover her past takes a sinister turn. Check out McQuaile’s author page on Amazon.

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