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DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Darkest Place

The Confession

Sleeping Beauties

Beneath The Surface

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

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

 

 

THE DARKEST PLACE … Between the covers

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There can be few tropes – either using visual imagery or words – to match the allure of an disused and desolate lunatic asylum. The more Victorian and ‘Gothick’ the building is, the more it is likely to attract both those brave but foolhardy folk known as Urban Explorers – and writers of atmospheric thrillers. Place the building on a desolate island off the south western coast of Ireland and we have a dream – or nightmare – location for a murder mystery. Then let the tale be told by one of our finest modern writers of crime fiction and, as Wilkins Micawber once said, “Result, happiness.” Happiness at least for those of us who love a good read, but there is less joy for the characters in Jo Spain’s latest novel, The Darkest Place.

TDP coverDublin copper DI Tom Reynolds is summoned from the dubious delights of his family Christmas to solve a murder. Readers of the previous three Tom Reynolds books might think there is little remarkable about that, but this time the corpse has been in the ground for rather longer than usual. Forty years, in fact. On the island of Oileán na Caillte, the pathologists have been disinterring corpses from a mass grave of the unfortunates who passed away as patients of the long-defunct psychiatric institution, St Christina’s. Those involved in the grim task discover nothing illegal, as all the residents of the burial pit were laid to rest in body bags, tagged and entered onto the hospital records. With one exception. That exception is the corpse of one of St Christina’s medical staff Dr Conrad Howe, who mysteriously disappeared forty Christmases ago. No body bag or tag for Dr Howe, but a rather surreptitious last resting place wedged between two other corpses.

For Howe’s widow Miriam the discovery comes as a shock but a release of sorts. For all the Christmases in between she has, like a latter day Mrs Hailsham, laid out the seasonal trappings in the same way each year, half hoping that her husband would return. Her children, now grown up, have humoured her in this ritual up to a point, as has a doctor colleague of her husband’s, Andrew Collins, who retains his connection to Oileán na Caillte. The fact that Collins has been hopelessly in love with Miriam all this time is not lost on Reynolds as he tries to discover who killed Howe with – as tests on his bones reveal – a length of electrical flex which left copper traces on his thoracic vertebrae.

Reynolds is no-one’s fool. As he pores through the almost indecipherable scrawl of Howe’s diary (we share that task with him, but minus the scrawl) he realises that the truth about who killed the idealistic physician involves not only the dead of Oileán na Caillte, but those who are still very much alive. One of the most telling lines in the diary says:

“It is though we are sharing this island with the devil.”

JSOther than that dark angel, the cast of suspects includes another former physician, now himself just days away from death, and others whose culpability in the inhuman treatment of St Christina’s patients has left psychological scars, some of which have become dangerously infected. Of course, this being, among other things, a brilliant whodunnit, Jo Spain (right) allows Tom Reynolds – and us readers – to make one major assumption. She then takes great pleasure, the deviously scheming soul that she is, in waiting until the final few pages before turning that assumption not so much on its head as making it do a bloody great cartwheel.

Jo Spain is a brilliant writer. It really is as simple as that. She takes the humble police procedural and not only breathes new life into it, but makes it dance and jitterbug like a flapper on cocaine. Not content with that, she shifts a heavy old stone covering some of the less palatable aspects of her country’s history, and lets us gaze squeamishly at some of the nasty things that click and scuttle about beneath, disturbed by exposure to the light.

The previous Tom Reynolds novel was Sleeping Beauties, and you can check that out by clicking the blue link. Do the same to see the review of her brilliant standalone novel The Confession. The Darkest Place is published by Quercus and will be available on 20th September.

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NO JANUARY BLUES FOR SPAIN!

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DUBLIN AUTHOR JO SPAIN AND HER AGENT NICOLA BARR had very reason to be cheerful last Thursday evening, in the atmospheric surroundings of The Harrow, just off London’s Fleet Street. Spain’s breakaway psychological thriller, The Confession, has hit the ground running and is already heading the best-seller charts in Ireland.

The Confession moves away from the police procedural world inhabited by Spain’s Dublin copper Tom Reynolds, and into a different territory altogether. The Confession is a daring and bravura performance by one of our finest writers. We know within the first few pages who did it (the bludgeoning to death of a disgraced investment manager) but Spain spins a dazzling and complex web over the next 380 pages or so, as we try to work out why?

Follow the links below to read the Fully Booked take on The Confession, and also two cases for DI Tom Reynolds.

The Confession

Sleeping Beauties

Beneath The Surface

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR, 2017 … Best police procedural

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Police procedural novels are the core items of crime fiction and, if you like, its beating heart. Police officers, young and old, serene and anguished, drunk and sober, are endlessly attractive to both readers and writers. There have been several outstanding examples during 2017, and special mention should go to Eva Dolan’s Peterborough partners, Zigic and Ferreira in Watch Her Disappear, Max Wolfe, as imagined by Tony Parsons in Die Last and, from another era, the dogged and warm-hearted copper from Victorian Leeds, Chris Nickson’s Tom Harper in On Copper Street. There was yet another strong story, Wild Chamber, featuring Arthur Bryant and John May but, as fans will be well aware, Christopher Fowler loves having his ancient investigators do anything but follow accepted police procedure. I also loved the distinctly different talents of Chief Superintendent Simon Collison, Inspector Bob Metcalfe and Sergeant Karen Willis as they probed the eccentric criminal classes in Guy Fraser Sampson’s Hampstead in A Death In The Night.

The clear winner this year, however, was another case for thoroughly decent, well-mannered, but extremely perceptive copper, Inspector Tom Reynolds, of Dublin’s An Garda Síochána, and his pursuit of a serial killer in Sleeping Beauties. The book was outstanding in so many ways. It has a brilliant plot, with the author joyfully deceiving us on several occasions. The astonishing sense of place makes the Irish landscape a character in its own right. Thirdly, but perhaps most telling, is Spain’s uncanny ability to create characters so real and so convincing that they are in the room with us, talking to us, as we turn each page of the book. The full review is here and, if you will forgive me the conceit of quoting myself:

“Jo Spain writes like an angel. No fuss. No bother. No pretension. The narrative flows as smoothly as a glass of Old Bushmills slips down the appreciative throat”

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SLEEPING BEAUTIES … Between the covers

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Spain014In the beautiful valley of Glendalough there are ancient stones, shades and spirits of the holy men who prayed in the monastery – and in the cemetery, lichen-covered headstones of generations of Byrnes, Cullens, Farrells, Nolans, Waldrons – all, both monks and villagers, at peace now. But the body of a young woman has been found. Interred without sacrament, beyond the gaze of those who would mourn her. In a shallow grave on a hillside, wearing the clothes she disappeared in. It is all that remains of Una Dolan, a twenty four year-old lass from Waterford. Last seen April 29th, 2011.

Inspector Tom Reynolds, of Dublin’s An Garda Síochána, is called to the scene on a blisteringly hot summer afternoon. The police tapes are strung out, a tent is put over the body, the hundreds of tourists shepherded away beyond gawping distance, but Una does not lie alone in her woodland grave:

“The Inspector frowned and examined the earth under the trees. As he scanned the glade, his stomach lurched.
One, two, three, four. Five, counting the mound of earth disturbed under the tent.
Tom counted five separate patches where the same delicate blue flower was blooming. And then he saw it …
Somebody had cleared the earth of its natural layer and sown their own flowers.
In five places.
Five graves.”

Reynolds and his team are already searching for another missing woman, Fiona Holland, but as the forensic experts do their macabre job and try to identify the five Glendalough women, Fiona’s name doesn’t seem to be among them. Instead, the unresolved disappearances of the last few years are narrowed down in a business-like but brutal fashion.

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While the guards go about the melancholy business of dashing the hopes of the girls’ relatives, Tom Reynolds has more than one disagreeable offering on his plate. One unpalatable mouthful is his immediate superior. The very model of a modern career policeman, Joe Kennedy sits in the ergonomically designed executive chair which Tom himself was offered, but turned down because the job would have distanced him from all the aspects of policing which energise and inspire him. Kennedy is, to put it bluntly, a prick. Worse, far worse, is that Sean McGuiness, Tom’s previous boss and mentor, is facing the retirement from hell as he tries to cope with the regressive dementia of his wife, June. Tom and his wife Louise feel helpless as their old friends face the worse crisis of their lives.

Tom Reynolds is compassionate and perceptive, but he is also driven by his own desire to see justice done. His investigative team are sympathetically drawn, and the sense of police teamwork is palpable. The guards must combat the possibility of police corruption and deal with the pent-up anger of frustrated and grieving families but, just as the killer appears to be cornered, caught and convicted, the gut-wrenching possibility arises that the case may not be ready for filing in the “solved” drawer.

50a-4glSJo Spain writes like an angel. No fuss. No bother. No pretension. The narrative flows as smoothly as a glass of Old Bushmills slips down the appreciative throat, and she has us looking this way and that as we stand beside Tom Reynolds as he searches for the killer. This is, on one level, a police procedural, but Jo Spain doesn’t let methodology bog the story down. We know that she knows how the police operate, and that is more than enough. Her rural Ireland is beautifully described without unnecessary frills and furbelows, and she gives us as perceptive a story of the heights and depths of human behaviour as you will read all year. If you have come a little late to the Tom Reynolds party, the first episode of his career is With Our Blessing, followed by Beneath The Surface.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Patterson and Spain

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                          The People vs Alex Cross by James Patterson

Cross013 I used to be a massive fan of Patterson and his Washington DC profiler Dr Alex Cross, and particularly when he was battling his two most deadly opponents Kyle Craig and Gary Soneji. Recently, though, I have felt that Patterson, particularly with his collaborative novels, has spread himself a bit thin. I am mindful, however, of the massive work he does for charities, and no-one can accuse him of just wanting to make money. This is the first Alex Cross novel I have been sent for a long time, and I am actually looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with Dr C,  and his regular cast of co-stars. Although the saturnine Gary Soneji is long dead, he still has followers, and it is after a shoot-out with them that Cross finds himself on the wrong side of the court room. The People vs Alex Cross is published by Century, and will be available in all formats on November 2nd. Watch our home page for a full review nearer the time.

                                  Sleeping Beauties by Jo Spain

Spain015This is the third outing for Dublin copper Inspector Tom Reynolds. He first appeared in With Our Blessing in 2015, and you can read our review of the second in the series, Beneath The Surface by clicking the link. Now Reynolds returns with a case which is brutal, barbarous – and baffling. During the search for a missing woman, a makeshift grave is found near the tourist village of Glendalough, in Wicklow. The medical examiner quickly discounts the body as being that of the missing woman, but then Reynolds and his team make a chilling discovery:

“Somebody had cleared the earth of its natural layer and sown their own flowers.

In five places.
Five graves.”

Sleeping Beauties is published by Quercus. If you have a Kindle, you can get hold of a copy now, but if you want the paperback, you will have to wait until 2018. Meanwhile, our full review of the novel will be on our main page within the next few days.

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CAN YOU KEEP A SECRET? … Between the covers

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This is the latest from Karen Gillece and Paul Perry
, the successful Dublin writing partnership. How two people can write one novel remains a mystery to me but, my goodness, Gilece and Perry do the business. Who contributes what may well remain a trade secret, but if you have any misgivings about the effectiveness of collaborations, ditch them now. This narrative is seamless, gripping, intensely creepy, and an object lesson in how to to convince the reader that they know what is going on, while cooking up surprise after surprise and twist on twist. Eventually, a rather sinister rabbit is pulled out of a bloodstained hat.

CYKAS coverLindsey Morgan is our narrator. She is a photographer with the Irish police, the Garda Síochána, and her frequent visits to gory crime scenes mean that she must don a cloak of cold objectivity as she looks through her camera at the damage people do one another. The distance between the person behind the viewfinder and the scene captured by the lens is a key motif in the story, as you will discover when you read the book.

Lindsey finished her education at an independent school, and it was there that she met the players in this drama. There’s Niall, Marcus and Hilary but, most significantly we have Rachel Bagenal and her older brother Patrick. Rachel and Patrick are the children of what used to be called landed gentry. Their home is Thornbury, a substantial mansion in the countryside.

We have two separate timelines here. First, we have the present day, where Patrick Bagenal, living alone in the decaying house, invites his old school friends for a final weekend at Thornbury. The house has deteriorated beyond Patrick’s ability to maintain it, and so he has been forced to sell. His parents, Peter and Heather, are both dead. The second timeline takes us back to the early 1990s. The youngsters are all still at school, but enjoy being invited for weekends at Thornbury. It is one such visit – for Patrick’s lavish eighteenth birthday party – which ends in a tragedy which will resonate down the years.

As with all reunions, the adults appraise each other and remember how they used to be, and how they have changed. Marcus has embraced modern acceptance of homosexuality and is comfortably gay, while Niall has made a success of his business but failed in the marriage game. Hilary has metamorphosed from the archetypal fat girl into a waif-like lifestyle coach. Patrick retains his boyish charm, but has grey hairs because of the demands imposed on him by being the sole tenant of Thornbury. Rachel? Rachel was always the force of nature, the woman among the teenagers, the assured femme fatale among the gauche schoolgirls. Now, she returns from a life in London to preside over a weekend which will self destruct in a clatter of betrayal, guilt, recrimination and violence.

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This is an outrageously brilliant thriller, and we are pretty much hit with every shot in the stylistic locker. We have a classic convergence of past and present, where convergence becomes a collision, and the collision explodes into a catastrophe. We have the timeless element of a crumbling old house, complete with secrets, unexplained noises, and the shades of the dead – some of them malevolent, but some of them wronged. Thornbury is every bit as haunted as Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley. We may not have a Mrs Danvers, but we certainly do have a Rebecca.

Throughout the book, I felt an over-arching sense of regret for lost innocence, but the authors are far too canny to make that straightforward as they shine a torch into all the little guilty corners in the lives of the characters. And, the novel’s tour de force, the narrator herself. Victim? Catalyst for tragedy? Innocent observer? As the saying goes, if I told you, I would have to kill you. You can avoid further bloodshed by buying your own copy of Can You Keep A Secret, which is published by Penguin.

For more top quality Irish crime fiction, check out our reviews of:

So Say The Fallen by Stuart Neville

Beneath The Surface by Jo Spain

THE TRESPASSER …Between the covers

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AUTHOR TANA FRENCH beams us down into an endlessly wet, chill and foggy Dublin. The old working class district of Stoneybatter has become, so we are told elsewhere, the epitome of ‘cool’ with all the trappings which that entails – craft ales, artisan bakeries and community spaces. There’s little of that on display when DI Antoinette Conway and her partner Steve Moran are called to a terrace house to view the body of a dead woman. Aislinn Murray is on the floor by her fake rustic fireplace with severe head injuries. Conway says;

“Her face is covered by blond hair, straightened and sprayed so ferociously that even murder hasn’t managed to mess it up. She looks like Dead Barbie.”

Two things puzzle Conway and Moran. Firstly, who was the man who made the ‘phone call alerting the authorities to Aislinn’s demise, and why did he call direct to Stoneybatter police station, rather than using the emergency number? Secondly who was the dead woman’s intended dinner guest that evening? The table was laid for two, with candles lit and a bottle of decent red wine quietly breathing.

As Conway puts her team of ‘D’s’ – murder detectives – together, we learn that she has a prickly relationship with her fellow officers. Yes, she is a woman and, yes, the men’s laddish behaviour – nothing new to readers of novels featuring women detectives – is nastier than simple banter, but the dystopian atmosphere in the squad room is more complex. To be blunt, Conway is something of a pain in the arse at times. She has more chips on her shoulder than a bag of McCains (other brands are available), and the endless baiting and crass pranks from her male colleagues simply stoke the fires of bitterness. Having said that, she is an absolutely pin bright and razor sharp copper, but her fragile equanimity is not helped when her boss forces her to work alongside DI Breslin, a man she loathes. Breslin is glib, sharp-suited and much admired by the other D’s. In short, he is everything that Conway is not.

The consensus among the Gardaí is that the killer of Aislinn Murray is her latest boyfriend, an apparently mild-mannered bookshop owner called Rory Fallon, and he was  the intended beneficiary of the candle-lit dinner in the Stoneybatter cottage. From the moment Conway clapped eyes on the Aislinn’s ruined face, however, she is tantalised by a feeling that she has seen the girl before. When that memory clicks into place, the investigation takes a different turn entirely, and it turns over a large rock which has many nasty creatures scuttling around underneath it.

To say that The Trespasser is a police procedural is, strictly speaking, accurate. But the description does the book justice in the same way that simply describing Luciano Pavarotti as a singer fails to illuminate the central truth. Tana French knows her Dublin, and she knows her An Garda Síochána, but those dabs of authenticity are just that – mere paint spots on a subtle, complex and magnificent canvas.

I suppose I must have drawn breath during the five or six minutes it took to read the gripping climax of this book, but I don’t remember doing so. The final pages contain no action to speak of, just four people sitting in an office, but the psychological intensity is quite terrifying. The quality of the writing is such that French does not allow Conway to luxuriate in her victory, such as it is. There is just a terrible sense of pity, of shattered lives, and human frailty. Conway walks away from the police station:

“The cobblestones feel wrong under my feet, thin skins of stone over bottomless fog. The squad I’ve spent the last two years hating, the sniggering fucktards backstabbing the solo warrior while she fought her doomed battle; that’s gone, peeled away like a smeared film that was stuck down hard over the real thing.”

This is a brilliant, savage and uncomfortable read. Don’t pick it up unless you want your emotions scoured and your sense of empathy and compassion put through the mangle.

Tana French has her own website, and you can follow the link to check buying choices for The Trespasser, which is available now.

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