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MARCH2020

THE EVIL WITHIN . . . Between the covers

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profile-750x750SM Hardy, aka Sue Tingey, has put together a thoroughly enjoyable and, at times, genuinely scary ghost story. The Evil Within tells the tale of Jim Hawkes, a young London banker who has an attack of conscience about the bloodthirsty nature of his trade, and tells his boss to go forth and multiply. This rush of blood to the head is not entirely unconnected to the fact that he is still grieving for his dead sweetheart, who drowned herself after breaking off their engagement in a calamitous row. Jim decides that a physical exit from London is essential, and so he takes out a short term lease on a cottage in England’s West Country.

When he arrives in Devon he finds that the cottage – and its immediate surroundings – have, shall we say, history. The back story involves a dead girl, who was found hanged from the banisters. While exploring the adjacent churchyard, Jim meets the vicar, and is invited in to the rectory for a welcoming chat and a nice cup of tea. All good so far, but when he meets two of the long term residents, widowed Emma and Jed, the local handyman, fixer of lawnmowers and general village sage and factotum, his equilibrium is seriously disturbed when they tell him that the rectory is not only unoccupied, but the reverend gentleman has been dead for some time.

TEWBy now, of course, we have to suspend disbelief, because this is going to be a book where weird things are going to happen. There is one key question, as it ever was in ghost stories. Are the strange events actually happening independent from the main character’s perception or, as the title hints at, are they in his mind? SM Hardy certainly gives Jim Hawkes plenty to cope with. We have a Don’t Look Now style figure in a red coat who not only flits in and out of Jim’s peripheral vision, but occasionally holds his hand in her dead, cold fingers. Again with a nod to Daphne du Maurier’s wonderful short story, there are also two sisters, who may possible be sinister as well as spinster. We mustn’t forget a mysterious and hulking man in grey who clearly wishes Jim harm and may – or may not – be an astral projection of a malevolent criminal who lies in a vegetative state at a mysterious local mental hospital.

Clichés only become clichés when they are wearisome, and there is nothing remotely wearisome about The Evil Within. Yes, SM Hardy mines deep into the seam of supernatural fiction and comes up with many recognisable elements, but she welds them together to make a compelling novel. Best of all, even though she deal in familiar tropes – the haunted cottage, the startling face in the window, the conversations with the dead and the events that no-one in the village pub will talk about – we genuinely care about Jim Hawkes and what happens to him. The possibility that Jim’s apparitions may be just the product of his own mental fragility in the wake of his fiancée’s tragic death doesn’t diminish our concern for him, nor prevent us from fearing the worst when events take a disturbing turn.

I have never written a novel, nor could I, but I have read many and I know from experience that if the author doesn’t forge that link between reader and character, the book may as well be cast aside and sent to the charity shop. SM Hardy ticks this box – and many other important ones – and ensures that The Evil Within is both entertaining, credible and enthralling – with a sharp sting in the very tip of its tail. It is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.

Click on the image below for a short but spooky video

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THE BOY FROM THE WOODS . . . Between the covers

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Harlan Coben’s ability
to write gripping stand-alone crime thrillers is little short of astonishing. Yes, we loved his character series featuring Myron Bolitar and then the three novels centred on his nephew Mickey, but here’s the thing. In The Boy From The Woods he introduces us to a couple of characters right out of the blue, as it were, but after just a few pages we feel that we have known them for ever. We might resolve to catch up on the previous books in the series, but then we remember there are none. This is our first acquaintance with the enigmatic young man known only as Wilde, and his hotshot lawyer friend Hester Crimstein.

91ZT8HhFQnLSo, who is Wilde? No-one knows his real name. He was rescued (if that’s the right word) as a child, after living alone and by his own wits in remote woods not far from New York City. How he got there, no-one in authority knows, and if he does, he isn’t telling. Subsequently fostered, he then went on to have a distinguished career in the special forces, and he now earns a living as a security consultant.

Hester? She is a delightfully sharp Jewish lawyer with a laser mind and a tongue as keen as a Damascus knife.Widowed some years earlier when husband David died in a car crash, she defends high profile clients as well as being the central attraction in a reality TV show featuring legal cases.

Naomi Pine, a socially awkward teenage girl who is the subject of relentless bullying at school, goes missing. Is it foul play, or is it somehow connected with Naomi’s relationship with Crash Maynard, the silver-spoon son of Dash Maynard, a millionaire TV producer who is connected to all that is good, bad and ugly about East Coast politics.

The plot of The Boy From The Woods is complex and intriguing. While Wilde and Hester try to find out why Naomi has disappeared and where she is, there is another plot strand involving Rusty Eggers a rich and ambitious politician whose bid for power may be derailed by old #meetoo tapes held by Dash Maynard.

One of the cover blurbs for The Boy From The Woods says “Coben never, ever lets you down.” Many such claims these days are just spin, but this one is totally correct. The book is published by Century and is out now. For more Fully Booked features and reviews of Harlan Coben’s books, click the image below.

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KEEP HIM CLOSE . . . Between the covers

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Keep Him Close is quite an apt title for Emily Koch’s second thriller. The key word is ‘close’ as the whole story has the feel of events and emotions being observed at very close quarters, almost through the lens of a microscope. We see every little twitch and tremor in the lives of the two main characters, and the tension is quite claustrophobic at times. Two women. Two mothers. Two lost teenage sons. Alice’s son Louis is now in a police mortuary after falling – or having been pushed – from the roof of a car park. Indigo has, effectively lost Kane, but this time to the criminal justice system as he awaits trial for murder, after he admits responsibility for Louis’s death.

KHM cover017The two women have little in common except the convergence of the social lives of their sons and the fact that neither has a husband in the house. Alice was married to Etienne, but he is long gone, having fallen in love with someone else. Indigo’s husband took his own life. Indigo is what some might call an ageing hippy. She dresses rather chaotically and earns a living as an art therapist. Alice once had dreams of being a concert pianist, but now works as a librarian. She has a certain primness associated – rightly or wrongly – with that profession. Let us be generous and say that Alice appreciates order and method.

What began as a night out for post-exam teenagers ends with the dreaded late night knock on the door by police officers and expands into a nightmare as Alice and older son Ben try to come to terms with the death of Louis, while Indigo can only look on in confusion as Kane is, first, identified on CCTV as someone who the police would like to speak to and, second, blurts out his guilt in a police interview room.

Where the story develops its edge is when Indigo – something of a flustered airhead when it comes to technology – goes to the local library to use one of their computers. By investigating Kane’s social media activity she hopes to locate other youngsters who were witnesses to the apparent fracas which ended with Louis plunging to his death. Who should be the kindly library assistant who helps Indigo check her son’s Facebook profile? Why, none other than Alice! The frisson starts to do its shivery work because Alice recognises Indigo, but Indigo has no idea of the identity of her helper.

There are one or two sub plots by way of diversion. Former hubby Etienne turns up, we suspect that the police have been less than thorough in their investigation and we are given to wonder if Ben knows more than he is telling. We only meet the soon-to-be-late Louis in the early pages, and while he comes over as not being the most adoring of sons, we later learn the reason for his apparent antipathy.

KHM author018The structure of the book is intriguing; we learn about the contrasting characters of Alice and Indigo in different ways; Alice’s story is told third-party, while Indigo tells us herself. This has the effect of making Alice more aloof and remote, and is a clever device which hints she is somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

Emily Koch (right) ratchets up the social and emotional tension as Alice and Indigo dance their stately sarabande to the tune of the legal recriminations following the tragic conclusion of what may have been just a drunken scuffle – or something far more sinister. This book is a must for those who like their psychological dramas acted out on a small stage but exquisitely observed. Keep Him Close is published by Harvill Secker and is out in Kindle on 12th March and in print on 19th March

THE SECOND WIFE . . . Between the covers

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The Second Wife is Rebecca Fleet’s second novel. Her first, The House Swap, was well received and now she takes her skill at writing engaging domestic thrillers to the next stage. I will say at the outset that as much as I was gripped by The Second Wife, I was cursing quietly to myself because it contains a seismic plot shift towards the end which completely demolishes every assumption the reader may have made about what is going on, based on what he or she has been told by the different narrators. But why the curses? Simply because it makes a summary doubly difficult, because no reviewer wants to be known as the person who gave the game away. I loved the book, however, and I want you to love it too, so here goes – treading on eggshells.

TSWThere are three narrative viewpoints; centrally, there is Alex. He is a widower with a teenage daughter, Jade. He works in an advertising agency in Brighton, on England’s south coast. His first wife died from cancer when Jade was just a little girl, but he has remarried. The titular second wife Natalie is one of the storytellers, and she does her best to be a decent ‘second mum’ to Jade, although hormones have started to kick in and Jade is, like every modern teenage girl, obsessed with her social media profile and perceived slights from her step mum.

The novel begins with a serious fire in Alex’s house. Natalie, overcome by the smoke and flames, has been unable to rescue Jade, but the emergency services arrive in time to bring the teenager to safety. Temporarily relocated to a hotel, Alex and Natalie take turns at Jade’s hospital bedside as she slowly recovers from the ordeal. As Jade comes back to life, Alex is both puzzled and horrified at his daughter’s insistence that there was a strange man in the house at the time of the fire. Now, Alex’s disquiet turns to genuine alarm, and Natalie admits to him that she has a disturbing back-story.

RF014Her estranged sister, Sadie, has led a wayward and self-destructive existence which has forced Natalie to put some distance between herself and her sister, and reinvent herself using a different identity. Sadie’s obsession with a violent criminal has gone disastrously wrong, and Natalie is trying to lead a new life. By this time, Fleet (right) has given Sadie a voice of her own, and we listen to the musings of a sexually promiscuous young woman who has used men like Kleenex, and has a moral compass that barely makes the needle flicker beyond zero on the scale. But she has fallen under the spell of Kaspar, a London club owner who uses women in the same way that Sadie has come to use her queue of suitors.

So, we have the three viewpoints. Timewise, they span almost a decade. All I can say is that one of them – and you have to choose – is telling the mother of all lies. The Second Wife is anxiety-on-a-stick and, although the plot twist left me wondering who on earth I could rely on to tell me the truth, this was a brilliant read, and a novel that confirms Rebecca Fleet’s place at the top table of contemporary crime fiction writers. The Second Wife is published by Doubleday and is out today, 5th March.

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