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English Crime Fiction

RIVER OF SINS . . . Between the covers

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A little while ago I reviewed a novel set in Worcestershire – it was the beginning of WW2, and it centred on the fictional village of Ambridge and, of course, featured The Archers. History of a very different kind now. River of Sins is the seventh in a series of historical mysteries written by Sarah Hawkswood set in and around the city of Worcester in the 12th century.

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I am new to the series but I enjoyed the fact that we have that most dependable of crime fiction tropes – a pair of investigators. There is a slight variation a theme in this case, as they are aided by an intrepid young apprentice. The dynamic between the three works well. Hugh Bradecote is the Under Sheriff, and is of noble birth with a degree of hauteur, while Sergeant Catchpoll is Worcester through-and-through, rough and ready, but very street-wise. Walkelin – the apprentice – is something of a ‘gofer’, but is bright, perceptive, and not afraid to speak his mind.

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The novel begins with a woman being brutally done to death on a small island in the River Severn on the northern outskirts of Worcester. We learn that the woman and her killer are acquainted, but just how, and what the significance is, only unfolds with the investigation.

The dead woman is Ricolde, known throughout the city as The Whore of Worcester. She was widely despised by the gentlewomen of the city, while being used by their husbands, but as Bradecote and Catchpoll discover, there was another dimension to Ricolde. Educated, and perfectly content to talk the night through with men who demanded nothing other than her company, she also gave money to the church to be used to ameliorate the misery of other women of the street who were less resilient than she.

The investigators struggle to find a motive for the murder. Moral disapproval doesn’t usually lead to someone being dismembered with a woodsman’s axe, but does the clue to Ricolde’s death lie deep in her past, and has it to do with the horrific scars on the soles of her feet, inflicted decades earlier?

Sarah Hawkswood’s Worcester is a place we can see, hear, feel, breathe – and smell – as the mystery unfolds. What is the River of the title? It is the River Severn, broad and deep, a source of fresh food, a vital artery of transport at a time when roads were just beaten dirt, but also a means of escape and concealment. With only the most rudimentary forensic skills available, Bradecote and Catchpoll must rely on the most basic and time-honoured methods of detection, means, motive and opportunity. This is an excellent detective story which also gives us an intriguing glimpse into a long-lost world.

River of Sins is published by Allison & Busby and will be out in paperback and as a Kindle on 19th November.

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THE BEACH PARTY MYSTERY . . . Between the covers

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41FEXmDAJYL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_It’s the summer of 1966 and Brighton journalist Colin Crampton – he’s the crime reporter for the Evening Chronicle – gets a tip off from a friendly local copper that there has been a murder in Embassy Court, an upmarket block of flats on the seafront. Racing to the scene to try to out-scoop his rival from the Evening Argus, he ducks under the crime scene tape and learns that the dead man is Claude Winterbottom, a financial consultant.

Reporters are sometimes accused of muck-raking, and Crampton does literally that as he holds his nose and sifts through Winterbottom’s dustbin. He soon finds a motive for the man’s death. The so-called ‘financial consultant’ was actually a fraudster, selling get-rich-quick schemes to people with more money than sense. The list of people Winterbottom has scammed is quite impressive, and it even includes Crampton’s landlady, the redoubtable Mrs Gribble.

indexPeter Bartram (right) doubles up on the enjoyment by giving us a parallel plot (which eventually weaves in with the murder of Winterbottom) involving an off-shore pirate radio station, Radio Sea Breeze. Younger readers used to the communication free-for-all we have today may be puzzled by the concept. Back in the 1960s licences to transmit radio were not readily available in the UK and record companies had a tight grip on who played their music. Taking their cue from America, enterprising broadcasters exploited a loophole in the law by using ships anchored in international waters as their radio stations. The most famous was probably Radio Caroline which was on the air, using five different ships with three different owners, from 1964 to 1990. It still exists, but is now fully digital – and legal.

The Beach Party Mystery is a highly entertaining merry-go-round involving, in no particular order, The Rolling Stones, the FBI, the KGB, MI5, auditions for a James Bond movie, a Mary Whitehouse soundalike – and the world’s most insanitary pub. Unsurprisingly, for a man who has spent his life as a journalist, Peter Bartram has a nice turn of phrase, and a keen eye:

“It was one of those picture book places you find in the Sussex countryside. There were ancient houses with oak beams and sagging roofs. There were moss-encrusted flint walls. There was an old stone church and graveyard with weathered headstones. There was a village hall with a noticeboard. It carried news of scouts’ picnics’ Women’s Institute keep-fit sessions and parish council meetings.”

I make no apology for being a huge fan of the Colin Crampton novels. Yes, they may be light in tone, and they don’t set out to examine the darker recesses of the criminal mind, but I love them. The Beach Party Mystery is published by The Bartram Partnership and is out now, For reviews of the previous novels in the series, and also feature articles by Peter Bartram, click on the image below.

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THE DARKEST EVENING . . . Between the covers

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Confession time. Up until recently I may have been the only crime fiction reviewer who had never read a novel by Ann Cleeves (left), nor watched the long running TV adaptations of her Vera Stanhope novels. No particular reason why, except the purely practical one that no publicist had ever sent me an ARC, and possibly because, in my bigoted way, I thought that anything served up as Sunday evening TV must be impossibly cosy.  I was wrong. Mea Culpa. Hair shirt. Ten – no, make that twenty – Hail Marys. I have just finished The Darkest Evening and loved every word of it.

My take on Vera Stanhope first, uncoloured by the reportedly excellent TV personation by Brenda Blethyn. is that Vera is frumpish, rather alone in the world, wedded to her job as a Detective in North East England, totally without vanity and completely indifferent to the figure she cuts. Criminals underestimate her at their peril, however, as she has a sharp intelligence – both as a human being and as an investigating police officer.

TDE coverThe story begins in a blinding December snowstorm, as Vera takes a wrong turning on her way home, and unwittingly steps onto the stage of a murder mystery. For newbugs like myself, this gives Cleeves a chance to flesh out part of Vera’s back story. The early action in The Darkest Evening takes place near a crumbling stately home – Brockburn – to which Vera has familial connections via her father Hector who, we learn, was rather a bad lot. The current residents of Brockburn are Harriet, the widow of Crispin Stanhope, and her daughter Juliet and husband Mark. Mark has thrown a party for the local gentry in order to get them on board with his plan to turn the old house into a vibrant regional theatre. The evening takes a turn for the worse when the body of Lorna Falstone is found outside in the snow. She has been bludgeoned to death.

Lorna was the daughter of a local hard-scrabble farmer and his wife, and her short life has been framed by a near fatal eating disorder, and then a mysterious pregnancy, which has left her the lone parent of baby Thomas.

The novel is beautifully plotted and a classic whodunnit. It is more, though – much, much more. Vera Stanhope is a complex and subtle character despite her apparently ramshackle appearance and manner, and the sometimes bleak rural setting is magically described. Fans of the series will, no doubt, be shaking their heads and saying something like, “Tell us something we don’t know – what took you so long?” All I can reply is, “I know, I know – the fault is all mine.” The Darkest Evening is published by Macmillan and is available now in all formats.

A quick quiz question that any CriFi buff worth his or her salt should be able to answer. Which classic (and complex) crime fiction classic also begins in the snow, with the main character’s car in a ditch? DM me the answer on my Twitter feed – @MaliceAfore and I will send you a free novel. I’ll give you a choice of several, but UK postcode only, please.

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BAD TIMING . . . Between the covers

IMG_1893-2-2Nick Oldham (left) is a former copper from Lancashire,and his novels featuring Henry Christie have been delighting readers for many years. I believe that Bad Timing is the 27th in a series dating back to A Time For Justice, which came out in 1996.

Here’s a very quick Henry Christie CV ( or resumé for American readers). He worked his way up through the ranks of Lancashire Police, but never wanted the kind of seniority that meant braid on his ceremonial uniform or role where he spent most of his time behind a desk massaging crime figures for the Home Office or, even worse, managing the force’s diversity targets. He has been shot, beaten up, sacked and re-instated, and has seen the very worst of criminal lowlife in England’s north-west. He has now retired and is running a moorland pub, while still mourning the deaths and various departures of women in his life.

Bad TimingBad Timing is a kind of sequel, or perhaps the final chapter of a story which began in the previous novel, Wildfire. If you click the link you can get the background story. In short, a married couple who made a tidy living out of creative accounting – laundering money for some seriously bad gangsters have been murdered in their luxurious converted farmhouse. The problem is that huge sums of money have gone missing, probably sucked into a Bermuda Triangle of dodgy companies, offshore investments and Swiss bank accounts. And now, the bad guys want the money back.

A word to the wise. Don’t be misled into thinking that the partly rural setting of these novels mean that it you will be reading a cosy Heartbeat-style tale of lovable rogues and amiable coppers on push-bikes. Oldham tells it how it actually is, and Christie’s world is one of ruthless criminal families, vicious thugs, appalling council estates with endemic crime, and toxic traveller sites populated with opportunists who are as violent as they are anti-social.

When the body of the daughter of the murdered accountants is found in a remote lake, the police realise that the case is far from closed and there is still a killer out there. Henry Christie is brought back as a consultant, and although he is ‘chaperoned’ by Detective Diane Daniels, it is his nose for danger that pitches them into a head-on collision with a gangland killer who is as black of heart as anyone Christie has encountered in his long career.

Christie is, to put it mildly, getting on a bit. His body is just about up for the demands of pulling pints, concocting exotic designer coffees and serving full English breakfasts at his pub, The Tawny Owl, but now he is out there challenging a man half his age and twice as malevolent.

Bad Timing is as brutal and unflinching a thriller as you will read all year. It is published by Severn House and is out on 30th September.

THE FINISHER . . . Between the covers

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51bAlRSlCzL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Fictional police officers come in an almost infinite number of guises. They can be lowly of rank, like Tony Parsons’ Detective Constable Max Wolfe, or very senior, such as Detective Superintendent William Lorimer, as imagined by Alex Gray. Male, female, tech-savvy, Luddite, happy family folk or embittered loners – there are plenty to choose from. So where does Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond fit into the matrix? As a Detective Superintendent, he pretty much only answers to the Assistant Chief Constable, but for newcomers to the well established series, what sort of a figure does he cut? Lovesey lets us know fairly early in The Finisher, the nineteenth in a series that began in 1991 with The Last Detective. Diamond is on plain clothes duty keeping a wary eye on a half marathon race in the historic city of Bath:

“Difficult to tell whether Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, on duty in the gardens, was overt or covert. If he had been in the race, you might have taken him for one of the jokers in fancy dress. He might have stepped out of a nineteen-forties film, a sleuth on the trail of Sydney Greenstreet. The gabardine trench coat and dark brown trilby, his so-called plain clothes, weren’t plain at all in twenty-first century Bath.”

Neither is Peter Diamond a vain man, nor one who gives excessive attention to his personal appearance:

“He didn’t waste time showering or shaving. A swish of tap water took the sleep from his eyes and a squirt of deodorant completed his grooming. Unshaven jowls were standard among the younger members of his team.”

The book’s title is a clever play on words and has a double significance. It can be someone who manages to complete ‘The Other Half’ – an alternative half marathon pounded out along the elegant streets, disused railway tunnels and steep wooded hillsides of Bath. It also has a more sinister connotation – a person who gets things done, even if doing so involves a lack of compassion and, even, a willingness to use violence.

Lovesey’s clever novel combines the events surrounding the race, as well as a particularly brutal example of modern day slavery – illegal immigrants forced to work for a pittance, housed in grim conditions, and for ever in thrall to men and women who earn fortunes exploiting the vulnerable.

Finisher021There’s a dazzling array of characters to act out the drama. We have an earnest school teacher who forces herself to run the race in order to make good a lost donation to a charity; there is a statuesque Russian, wife of a cynical businessman, determined to lose weight and gain her husband’s respect; instant villainy is provided by a paroled serial seducer and sex-pest who has taken on a new role as personal trainer to the rich; at the bottom of the pond, so to speak, are a pair of feckless Albanian chancers who have escaped from an illegal work gang, and are trying to avoid the retribution of their controllers.

Throw into this mix a fascinating geographical background which comes vividly to life, even to someone like me, who has only a limited knowledge of Bath. Like most, I knew of its Roman heritage and the wonderful Georgian architecture, but I was totally unaware that the hills surrounding the city conceal warrens of quarries, caves and tunnels from which the beautiful local limestone was hewn.

Throughout his long and celebrated writing career, Lovesey has never given away his solutions without putting the reader through their own private marathon of false clues, and misdirections. So it is with The Finisher. If you get within ten pages of the end and reckon you know who did what to whom – then trust me, you don’t! This wonderfully entertaining novel by one of our finest living writers is published by Sphere and is out now.

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FIND THEM DEAD . . . Between the covers

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Brighton copper Roy Grace seems to have been with us for ever. Since Peter James introduced him in 2005 there have been sixteen episodes in the career of the resolutely honest and decent man who shares none of the character faults of some of his fictional contemporaries. Yes, there was the protracted mystery of his missing wife – now solved, thank goodness – but Grace has few demons; certainly none that involve drink, drugs, dodgy tastes in music or sexual fallibility. Neither is Roy Grace, perceptive and intuitive though he may, cursed with second sight or prone to supernatural whimsies.

So what keeps him as a permanent resident in the crime fiction best-seller charts? It hasn’t hurt that Peter James has pretty much patented the use of that potent four-letter word DEAD in his titles. Simple, Looking Good, Not … Yet, At First Sight are just a few of the the inventive titles James has used. I’ll answer my own question with a simple reply. Peter James is a bloody good writer. End of.

dead013Strangely though, Find Them Dead sees Roy Grace rather in the background. He binds the narrative together by his presence, of course he does, but he mostly takes a back seat in this tale of drug dealers, bent lawyers and jury-nobbling. He has returned to Sussex after a spell working with the Metropolitan Police in London. The sheer depth and depravity of London’s crime has been an eye-opener, but the south coast is not without its villains.

A Brighton solicitor called Terence Gready – what a wonderful Dickensian name – has been arrested on suspicion of being near the top of a multi-million pound drug ring. His favourite modus operandi has been importing the pharmaceuticals packed into bodywork cavities of fake classic cars. His main man on the ground has also been arrested and Gready is in grave danger of spending the rest of his life in jail.

The spine of Find Them Dead concerns the ordeal of Meg Magellan, a middle-aged widow who has been summoned for jury service in the trial of Terence Gready. The bent solicitor is not quite at the apex of his organisation; his bosses believe that his downfall would also implicate them,and so they they target the jury – Meg in particular – in whose hands Gready’s fate lies.

Meg’s daughter is on a gap-year jaunt to Ecuador, and it is by threatening her that the bad guys hope to persuade Meg to emulate Henry Fonda’s Davis in the 1957 classic Twelve Angry Men. If Meg can persuade her fellow jurors that Gready is innocent, then all will be well. If she fails, then Laura will never leave Ecuador alive.

James ratchets up the tension with the true zeal of a torturer. As Grace – and his long term offsiders Norman Potting and Glenn Branson try to get to the bottom of who knows what in the case, we tread a tightrope of anxiety where it is never clear what the next step will bring.

Find Them Dead is published by Macmillan and is out now.

WHITETHROAT . . . Between the covers

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There are locations for British crime novels that fit certain moods. You can have rural idylls which are shattered by evil deeds – the Cotswolds, the Yorkshire Dales and the majestic Scottish Highlands all fit that bill. Then you have the criminals hiding behind the bright lights of cities like London, Glasgow, and Manchester. James Henry has chosen a rather more understated milieu for his Nick Lowry police novels – Essex, and in particular, the garrison town of Colchester.

9781529401134Essex has become something of a trigger word in recent years, conjuring up images such as lavish mansions owned by London gangsters and dumb bottle-blondes with their perma-tanned, medallioned boyfriends. James Henry, however, takes us back forty years to the 1980s. DI Nick Lowry and his boss, Chief Superintendent Sparks, inhabit a police HQ which leaks, has rotten floorboards, and is maybe only months away from the demolishers’ wrecking ball. Sparks contemplates his desk:

“He studied the wooden surface of his desk. Countless semicircles, rings from years of mugs, cups, scotch glasses, placed carelessly and staining the untreated grain. The there were more pronounced wounds and scars: cigarette burns, knife scores, unusual marks – traces of events only the man behind the desk could read.”

Since Roman times, the history of Colchester has been inextricably intertwined with that of soldiering, and it is the death of a young ‘squaddie’ (an unranked private soldier) that Lowry investigates. Improbably, it seems that the dead man was shot in a Victorian-style duel, complete with gentlemanly observance and the presence of Seconds. With the help of his friend Captain James Oldham, of the Military Police, Lowry discovers that the two men had been fighting over a woman. But who was the other duellist, and who was the woman?

The plot goes this way and that, but this is a book that is always about the quality of the prose. Lowry has a young subordinate called Kenton, who has been on leave since being traumatised by the death of a young girl. Kenton is clever, well-educated, but enjoys his stimulants. In pursuit of the more legal kind, he observes pub life:

“..it was different being here as a punter. You saw the place through different eyes; peaceful and inviting and shabbily familiar. Flaking paintwork, worn hardwood surfaces, the yellow, cracked ceiling; a naked aging structure smoothed by the warmth of alcohol and density of cigarette smoke.”

And again:

“The first to arrive were the regulars. Men in their sixties. One, Wilf, was already in situ, perched quietly at a corner table, steadfastly drinking IPA. He would sut there until last orders, then leave as silently as he had arrived. Around midday, the bohemian set – ‘intellectual dossers’, Sparks called them – would drift in. Young men clutching tatty paperbacks. Sucking the end of biros and staring pensively into the middle distance.”

Like most self-respecting fictional police detectives, Lowry’s personal life is something of a wasteland. He is divorced, and his wife has poisoned their son against him. He feels that the years are taking their toll on him, but he remains compassionate:

“Lowry moved to place his arm across Sparks’s shoulders, but instead grasped the nearest arm, squeezed the firm bicep and bowed his head. He was winded by a surge of sympathy, revealing an attachment to the older man that seldom surfaced. Even now – more and more, in fact, the older he became – life caught Lowry out, introducing unsolicited emotions and concerns, age bringing with it a new sort of awareness.”

HenryThe plot is the least important part of this fine novel, but it unfolds gradually. The woman whose favours are being fought over by the duellists is not a woman at all, but a fifteen year-old schoolgirl, the daughter of a local businessman. He, in turn, has unfinished business with a local enrepreneur, and business that dates back to a racial attack three decades earlier. We are in a world of simmering resentment born out of old slights, and the result? The proverbial dish that is best served cold.

Whitethroat is bleak, downbeat and mesmerising; a subtle, compassionate and beautifully written novel that is something of an elegy to a way of policing – and living – that is gone for ever. James Henry (above right), as James Gurbutt, has also written prequels to RD Wingfield’s Jack Frost series. Whitethroat is published by Riverrun and will be out in hardback on 9th July. The two previous Nick Lowry novels are pictured below.

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GRAVE’S END . . . Between the covers (click for full page)

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Former music journalist William Shaw (left) introduced us to Detective Sergeant Alex Cupidi in Salt Lane (2018). This was followed by Deadland in 2019, and the third in the series is Grave’s End. Alex Cupidi is socially something of a loner: she has a teenage daughter, Zoe, who she has raised pretty much on her own; her only other family is her mother, 80 miles or so up the road from the bleak Kent marshes, in London. Zoe Cupidi, like many other idealistic young people, is a fervent defender of nature, and sees the adult world in which her mother has to work as a grimy conspiracy to fell every tree and concrete over as much of green England as possible.

For those who know something of England, Alex Cupidi’s Kent is not the rosy cheeked rural idyll of The Darling Buds of May. This is the coastal Kent of the Romney Marshes and Dungeness; beautiful in its own way, perhaps, but bleak; the coastal fringes are flat, scoured by cruel winds, and shunned by holidaymakers who prefer deck-chairs and the friendly smell of fish and chips to solitude and the mournful cry of the curlew.

GE coverThis taut thriller is  distinctly unusual, in that one of its main characters is neither a fellow member of Kent Police, nor one of the villains they spend their professional lives trying to put behind bars. Instead we see – or sense – some of the action through the perceptions of an elderly badger. Before such thoughts can gain foothold, I can assure you that this is no Wind In The Willows. Our badger is not an avuncular personification. He is old, fearful of younger rivals, and hungry – always hungry.

Of course, readers have to accept that the badger’s perceptions are expressed in our language. Since this particular representative of Meles Meles has none that can be written, what is the alternative? I was not convinced at the start of the book that the idea was going to work, but after reaching the last page, I think it does. Shaw keeps the badger’s subterranean activity linked to the plot, and from the very start it is his sense of smell that alerts us to the fact that something is very, very wrong.

“By now, the air should smell of fresh grass, cow parsley, other badgers and dog shit. He moves forward more cautiously in the blackness and his snout meets something hard. At the end, where darkness should change to dusk, he finds the tunnel blocked. He digs, but there is something in his way, so hard his big claws make no impression on it at all. He sniffs. It smells rank. People stink.”

When an enterprising junior estate agent decides to impress his girlfriend, he ‘borrows’ the keys to an impressive empty property, but his hopes of a passionate afternoon’s grappling on someone else’s bed are dashed when they find a dead body in a freezer. Alex Cupidi and her team soon identify the frozen corpse of that of a local wildlife activist. Further investigations lead them in the direction of a controversial housing development on a site inhabited by, among other various fauna, our friend the badger.

Alex Cupidi is like the proverbial dog with its bone as she relentlessly follows the trail leading away from the murdered activist. High profile government ministers, avaricious property speculators, a minor public school with a terrible secret – every time she lifts a stone, nasty things scuttle about, unaccustomed to the light. Grave’s End is a totally compelling read. It is published by riverrun, an imprint of Quercus, and will be available in July.

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A KILLING MIND . . . between the covers (click for full screen)

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Icame late to the party regarding Angela Marsons and her Kim Stone series of police procedurals set in England’s West Midlands, but I thoroughly enjoyed Child’s Play (2019) and was very pleased to have the chance to read and review the latest in the series, Killing Minds.

KMA murder where the body is arranged to make the death look like suicide is a well-worn feature in crime novels, but Marsons takes the trope and gives it new life. When Sammy Brown is found dead in her featureless flat, her throat cut apparently by her own hand, everyone – DI Kim Stone included – is initially prepared to tick the suicide box and move on. It is only when Stone interviews Sammy’s parents that she begins to sense that things are not quite what they appear to be.

Stone has a strong sense that Myles and Kate Brown are concealing something, but it is a second look at the crime scene photographs that triggers her response:

She stopped speaking as her gaze returned back to the photo of the hand. Something struck her and it was like seeing it for the first time.

She turned the phone and looked at the photo from every angle.

‘Penn, get me a red pen and ruler. Now.'”

Meanwhile, Stone’s assistant, DS Bryant, has his own fixation to deal with. He was involved in the capture, trial and conviction of a notorious killer, Peter Drake, and has become involved with Richard Harrison, father of one of Drake’s victims. A previously unrepentant Drake has, suspiciously, turned over a new leaf in jail and has become a model prisoner, thus transforming his application for parole from a forlorn hope into a distinct probability. Both Harrison and Bryant are powerless to prevent Drake’s release. Both have a sense of foreboding about what may follow.

When another body – that of a young man – is discovered in a nearby lake, the fact that he apparently new Sammy Brown sets more alarm bells ringing. After painfully prising the truth – or a version of it – from Sammy Brown’s parents, Stone’s attention is turned on a nearby community, mostly made up of young people who have chosen to step away from real life. They all live in Unity Farm. Sammy Brown was a member of the group – as was the lad in the lake, Tyler Short.

Stone and Bryant pay a visit to Unity Farm, and they meet the leader of the community, Jake Black:

“A man in his mid-fifties appeared behind her. His hair was completely white, but thick and cut well. His shoulders were broad beneath an open-neck pale blue shirt. His skin was smooth with enough colour to radiate good health. His eyes were the purest blue she had ever seen. Once your gaze met those, the rest was forgotten.”

When Stone makes the decision to send one of her younger officers into Unity Farm, posing as a distressed and unhappy young woman, things do not turn out according to plan and Marsons orchestrates a tense and nerve-shredding finale to the book. When the murderer is unmasked, it came as a cleverly constructed surprise. Killing Mind is published by Bookouture, and is available now.

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