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Psychological Thriller

THE LIAR’S ROOM . . . Between the covers

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Imagine a world without liars. Imagine a world without novelists. OK, I know that we all know that novelists are, most of the time, describing things that never actually happened, but that’s what we pay them for. Lying is deeply embedded in the human psyche. Think of all the memorable quotes:

“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”
“History is a set of lies agreed upon.”
“The visionary lies to himself, the liar only to others.”
“The worst part about being lied to is knowing you weren’t worth the truth”
“There’s only two people in your life you should lie to… the police and your girlfriend.”

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, in no particular order (put the name to the quote for a bit of fun, but no prizes, sadly) Napoleon, Jack Nicholson, Hitler, Sartre, and Nietzsche. In this brilliant new novel by Simon Lelic we have, in theatrical terms, an intense two-hander between Susanna (a counsellor) and Adam (a troubled young man). Just a couple of problems here, though. First, neither person is exactly who they claim to be and, second, Adam has abducted Susanna’s daughter Emily and, for reasons which emerge as this extraordinary dialogue develops, wants her dead.

This is one of those books which reviewers dread. Not because of the quality of the writing and not because the pages drag. The problem is that the plot is so fiendish and so beautifully designed to suck the reader into a series of emotional quicksands, that any commentary has to be very carefully judged so that it gives nothing away.

What I can say is that Susanna lives alone with her daughter in a house where there are secret drawers, hidden bundles of photographs and memories which are witnesses to Susanna’s past. A past that she hopes she has left behind, just as her visions of the dead have receded so that they are now merely mental shadows. You will learn that Adam is connected to Susanna. Connected by memory, circumstance – and by something much, much more powerful.

The Liar’s Room (interesting placing of the possessive apostrophe) starts with a tiny giveaway, but then proceeds at a leisurely pace before a real sense of menace kicks in. I am not sure if ‘chromatologist’ is a real word, but I think anyone who studies the science of colour would agree that there are places in this novel where the mood goes beyond black into a place where the emotional darkness is so intense that we have no words to describe it.

Simon Lelic (right) simon copyis a writer who views the human condition with what some might term a jaundiced eye, as witnessed in his previous novel, The House – follow the link to read my review. He is all too aware of our weakness, our fallibility, and the lengths we will go to in order to preserve our fragile sense of normality. He doesn’t judge, however. He simply reports. This excellent book shows just how shrewd, how perceptive and how entertaining – in a swirling and disturbing sense – his writing is. The Liar’s Room is published by Viking/Penguin Random House and is out now.

 

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THE DEATH OF MRS WESTAWAY . . . Between the covers

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What would you do if you were all alone in the world, with no family, scraping a living reading Tarot Cards in a shabby booth on Brighton Pier, threatened with violence by loan sharks, and then you receive a letter from solicitors telling you that you have inherited a fortune? Hyperventilate? Punch the air with joy? Sing a hymn to whichever god you believe in? Harriet ‘Hal’ Westaway does none of these things. Because she knows that there has been a terrible mistake. She shares a surname with the deceased woman, but that is it. End of. Hal knows that she is not connected to the Mrs Westaway who has gone to meet her maker, leaving a vast rambling estate in Cornwall – and a prodigious bank balance – to her long-lost granddaughter.

TDOMW coverHal Westaway is no crook. She is not an opportunist. She has a conscience. She instinctively understands the difference between meum and teum. And yet. And yet. The gangster from whom she unwisely took out a desperation loan is angry and anxious for his 300%. Hal’s Brighton flat has already been turned over, and she knows that broken bones are next on the agenda. So, she accepts the invitation from the late Mrs Westaway’s solicitor to travel down to Cornwall to meet the family she never knew she had.

In a glorious take on the classic Reading Of The Will trope, Hal meets her new found family, principally Mrs Westaway’s three disinherited sons. Now, at least according to the the solicitor, Harding, Ezra and Abel Westaway are her uncles and, boy oh boy, are they in for a shock as Mr Treswick looks over his glasses, pauses for dramatic effect, and announces that Hal is the main beneficiary.

Once this irresistible set-piece is out of the way, we learn that Trepassen House has some dark – and I mean seriously dark – secrets. Ruth Ware milks the forbidding Manderley-style atmosphere for all it is worth, and she even gives us a Mrs Danvers in the person of the baleful and embittered housekeeper, Mrs Warren. Hal discovers that her late mother was once a part of the Trepassen household when she stayed with Mrs Westaway’s daughter Maud, to whom she was a distant cousin. But why on earth did Mrs Westaway think that Hal was her granddaughter. Was she mad? Simply perverse in wanting to humiliate her own children? And just what happened at Trepassen in that long hot summer of 1994?

RWRuth Ware (right) is not the first writer – nor will she be the last – to explore the lurid charms of a decaying mansion, its ghosts both real and imagined, and the dusty terrors of death, but she makes a bloody good job of it in The Death of Mrs Westaway. Hal Westaway is a delightful character, and you would require a heart of the hardest granite not to sympathise with her and the exquisite dilemma she faces. The plot is a dazzling mix of twists, surprises, and just the right amount of improbability. The Death of Mrs Westaway is a thriller which makes you keep the bedroom light on, and long for the safety of daylight. It looks like being another bestseller for Ruth Ware, and you can judge for yourselves on June 28th, when the book will be published by Harvill Secker.

 

NOW, HERE’S THE BEST BIT!

If my review of this cracking novel has tickled your what-not, and you want your own copy, you might just be in look. Either email me at the address below, putting Mrs Westaway as the subject:

fullybooked2016@yahoo.com

OR

Click the image below which will take you to the Fully Booked Facebook page. Simply ‘like’ the post, and your name will go into the digital hat. I’ll draw a winner from all the entries after the competition closes at 10.00pm on Sunday 1st July. Due to postal costs, the competition is only open to readers from the UK or the Irish Republic.

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WELCOME TO CAMP NIGHTINGALE . . . but the birds aren’t singing

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SUMMER CAMP – that particularly American institution which, for those of us in our dotage, evokes memories of Allan Sherman’s letter home from Camp Granada.

 

Camp Nightingale017RILEY SAGER (aka Todd Ritter) however takes a darker view. When Emma goes to Camp Nightingale, it is her first summer away from home. She learns how to play games, but she also learns a more sinister skill – how to lie. That golden summer dream becomes a twisted and feverish nightmare when three of Emma’s new-found friends set off to explore the woods, but are never seen again. It is inevitable that he subsequent furore spells the end for Camp Nightingale as a safe holiday destination for teenage girls. But times change. memories fade. Years after the terrible events of that summer, Emma is asked to return to the newly reopened camp. Will her return lay old ghosts to rest, or wake the spirits of the dead and rip away the veil of innocence to reveal a much darker truth?

LAST TIME I LIED  is published by Ebury Press/Penguin Random House, and will be available later this year. To find out more about Riley Sager, you can follow these links.

https://www.rileysagerbooks.com/

@riley_sager

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PANIC ROOM . . . Between the covers

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There are some professions that give the noble art of lying a bad name. Politicians, for starters, and then their brothers and sisters in arms, lawyers. Have you ever noticed that both jobs share the same skillset? But I digress. It could be argued that novelists are born liars, but at least we know that what they are telling us never actually happened. But the true monarchs of misinformation, the sovereigns of sophistry and the bards of bullshit are, surely, estate agents (for any American readers, that’s what we call realtors here in Britain.)

Panic RoomDon Challenor is what Monty Python might have called at ex-estate agent. He is no more. He has over-egged his last pudding and hyped up his last hovel. The prestigious London property sellers Mendez Chinnery have, as the saying goes, let him go. He has been, to quote the late lamented Alan Clark, economical with the actualité once too often. He is at that stage of life when it is becoming harder and harder to slip into a new job. Not only is he sans employment, but he is also sans wife. Fran has married again and is still lawyering away, but with a new husband and his children. Challenor is surprised, then, when she makes contact to offer him a cash in hand one-off job. It sounds simple. He is to travel down to Cornwall, assess an executive-style property, and present her with a glowing file which will attract well-heeled buyers like moths to a flame. The house, Wortalleth West, was formerly owned by millionaire businessman Jack Harkness, but it has now been signed over to his former wife as part of a divorce settlement.

Wortalleth West is a futuristic building perched on a promontory overlooking the ocean, but as Challenor goes about his business he notices that within the house, the measurements don’t add up, and he comes to the conclusion that there is a hidden room within the building. Not only that, he has encountered a mysterious young housekeeper who calls herself Blake. Most troubling, however, is the fact that his visit to Cornwall has attracted the attention of a follower, complete with sinister dark glasses and blacked-out four-by-four vehicle.

Challenor had hoped for a breezy few days doing what he does best – romancing about the many virtues of a property and preparing an irresistible package of enhanced photographs and wildly colourful descriptions of its charms. Instead, he realises that Jack Harkness is on the run from the authorities for financial fraud, and deep within Wortalleth West lies a secret which desperate men are prepared to kill for.

Fran has insisted that Challenor send Blake packing, but things are not so simple. Blake has discovered a secret which links the fugitive Harkness to both a young woman who simply disappeared off the face of the earth many years earlier, and a local woman who appears to have supernatural powers.

The tone of the novel gets progressively darker with every page turned. The bland and eternally optimistic Challenor finds himself totally out of his depth in a swirling intrigue of financial fraud, a biochemical time-bomb and international gangsters who are determined to solve the mystery of Wortalleth West’s panic room.

I have read – and very much enjoyed – Robert Goddard’s trilogy (pictured below) set in the turbulent aftermath of The Great War, and featuring former pilot James Maxted, but Panic Room is the first of Goddard’s standalone novels I have come across. It is published by Bantam Books and will be available on 22nd March.

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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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THE INNOCENT WIFE . . . between the covers

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Samantha is a schoolteacher, and to say that she is unhappy in her work would be an understatement. As she presides over a violent and potentially criminal separation from her wimpish boyfriend, she is hooked into a social media storm centred on the imminent execution of Dennis Danson, a Florida man who has been accused, tried and convicted of the murder of a teenage girl. Danson has a fervent and vocal set of social-media followers. There is only circumstantial evidence to connect him to the killing, yet the court has pronounced him guilty, and so he resides in that most gruesome of thoroughfares, Death Row

Samantha kicks into touch her recent romantic travails, and begins an online relationship with the condemned man. Dennis writes back to her, and senses that Sam is not just another execution groupie with a bizarre fascination for a notorious criminal. Sam decides that her future is inextricably entwined with that of Dennis, and she uses a recent bequest to finance a trip to the USA. Breathless and uncertain, she finally meets the man of her dreams, albeit on the wrong side of a protective screen at Altoona Prison. Sam and Dennis officially become man and wife, in a cruel parody of the normal wedding ceremony

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AmyAmy Lloyd (right) makes sure that fans of Southern Noir who enjoy a tumbledown and gothicky old house in the Florida badlands are not disappointed. If you enjoy the odd sinister Sheriff, townsfolk who don’t hold grudges for much more than eighty years, and mentally disturbed teenagers in the body of a forty year-old man, you will not come away empty handed. But The Innocent Wife is much more subtle. As we follow the tortuous marriage of Sam and Dennis, we are reminded of the shocking consequences of ill-advised relationships forged on the flimsy anvil of whichever social media platform is currently in vogue. A chilling wind of truth blows through the narrative as we realise that the inch-thick perspex that separates prisoners from their visitors is a compelling metaphor for the separation which exists between people who only communicate via Facebook or Instagram.

One of the most obvious paradoxes about reading psychological crime thrillers is that we come to expect the unexpected. It becomes less a matter of a surprise twist being a possibility, but more trying to work out who or what is going to provide the statutory jolt, and when it will occur. In The Innocent Wife it is a given that Sam will come to regret falling for Dennis Danson. Or will she? The final pages are exquisitely subtle and – even if this sounds like one of the more bizarre utterances of George W Bush – Amy Lloyd doesn’t give us quite the surprise that we were expecting.

The Innocent Wife is out now in Kindle and hardback. The paperback edition will be available in summer.

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THE CONFESSION . . . Between the covers

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Here’s a challenge for you. A challenge for writers, and for those who like to write about writing. Begin your novel like this. Time? The present day. Scene? A comfortable room in an Irish house. Characters? A man and woman watching television, and an unknown intruder. Action? The intruder hacks the man to death in front of his horrified wife. Placement in book? The opening pages. Now, write a compelling and hypnotic novel of 400 pages which follows this dramatic beginning, and keep your readers hooked until the last paragraph.

The ConfessionJo Spain not only takes on the challenge, but she meets it head on and completes it with subsequent pages of The Confession which manage to be, as night follows day, bravura, intense, full of authentic and convincing dialogue, utterly mesmerising and, in places, literally breathtaking. A countryman of Spain’s began his most famous novel with Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” She counters with:

“It’s the first spray of my husband’s blood hitting the television screen that will haunt me in the weeks to come – a perfect diagonal splash, each droplet descending like a vivid red tear.”

Now that is as fierce an opening paragraph as you will ever read. The speaker is Julie McNamara. The victim – of a perfectly timed swing with a golf club – is husband Harry, a financier who has recently fallen from grace as his empire took a huge hit in the 2008 financial crash. He is still formidably rich by most people’s standards, but his reputation as some kind of investment Midas has been destroyed. We hear the story of his rise and fall through Julie’s voice. She says, of the beginning of their love affair:

“Young, innocent, hopeful, in love. That was us at the beginning of our fairytale. But here’s the thing about fairytales. Sometimes they’re darker than you can ever imagine.”

Jo Spain continues to defy crime fiction convention by eschewing the standard police procedural manhunt. Instead, the killer of Harry McNamara turns himself in at the nearest police station in his blood-stained clothes and announces himself as John Paul Carney. At this point, Spain introduces us to a very distinctive member of An Garda Síochána, Detective Sergeant Alice Moody:

“Gallagher’s senior detective sergeant arrived at the top of the stairs, sweat patches already forming under her armpits from the three flights, her thin mousy brown hair gleaming from the perspiration emanating from her scalp.Every time that woman took the stairs she gave a convincing performance of somebody on the verge of a heart attack.”

 So DS Moody is not cut out to be a TV producer’s idea of a marketable sharp, charismatic – and stunningly sexy – detective. But she is bright. Very, very bright, as we are to discover.

The Confession unfolds like a beautiful but deadly flower opening its petals, one by one. Our narrators are the widowed Julie, Alice Moody, and JP Carney himself. A phrase here and there, a paragraph or two, an apparent revelation, and we think we know why JP Carney has bludgeoned the living daylights out of Harry McNamara. But this is Jo Spain’s skill. A page at a time, she weaves her spell and points us in the direction of the truth. Except we come to a dead end. A literary rockfall. An emphatic no-entry sign.

JSOf course, we get there in the end, and understand why JP Carney has exacted such an emphatic revenge on the handsome, charismatic and plausible Harry McNamara, but sometimes book reviews have to stop dead in their tracks, and say, “Trust me, this is a brilliant novel, but to tell you any more would be little short of criminal.” Yes, The Confession is a brilliant novel. Yes, I read it through in one sitting, deep into the early hours of a winter morning. Yes, I am a fan of Jo Spain (right). Yes, if you don’t get hold of your own copy of this, you will receive scant sympathy from me. The Confession is published by Quercus, and will be on sale as a Kindle from 11th January, and as a hardback from 25th January. Check online buying choices here.

For reviews of earlier Jo Spain novels, click on the titles below.

Sleeping Beauties

Beneath The Surface

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BLAME . . . Between the covers

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JeffAbbottI guess we all play the game. We know the rules, every one of us. No expensive equipment required and no real skill needed, that’s for sure. The Blame Game, it’s called, and when something bad happens in the world it plays out on every social media feed, every newspaper paragraph and every breathless sentence from every permatanned TV news anchor. Bestselling thriller writer Jeff Abbott (left) convinces us that it’s also very popular in the little Texas town of Lakehaven where, just two years ago, a car carrying two teenage friends plummeted off a lonely road and down into a deep gully.

When the paramedics arrived, all they could do for young David Hall was to get his body clear of the wreckage – and then zip up the body bag. Jane Norton, the driver? Well she got lucky. After a fashion. Multiple broken bones, but nothing fatal. And a major bang to the head, which has left her with partial amnesia. When a suicide note surfaces, written by Jane, the Lakehaven rumour mill starts to grind, and it grinds exceeding small. Obviously, Jane intended to kill herself, and she took David – the trusting, popular, talented, handsome David – down with her.

Two years on, Jane has learned to recognise her mother and her college friends, but as to what actually happened on that dreadful night, nothing. Nada. A big fat blank. This big fat blank makes her the perfect hate figure for many former school and college buddies, and she has shrunk into what is left of herself. She has left home, and is ‘crashing’ in the dorm room of one of the few friends who is still prepared to give her – literally – house room.

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Jane and David were inseparable childhood friends. Their parents still live next door to each other. Perri Hall and her soon to be ex- husband Cal no longer speak to Laurel Norton who is also on her own for a different reason. Her husband Brent is three years dead from a gunshot from his own weapon, either intentionally or maybe through a tragic accident; the gossip jury is still out but, like Old Jacob Marley, Brent Norton is as dead as a doornail.

The two year anniversary of David’s death is being commemorated in the modern way, along with other tragedies, baby scans, bad moods, good moods, cute cats, photos of ‘what I had for dinner’ and Trump memes on the (strangely familiar) social media hub, Faceplace. David is the martyr, Jane and her mother equally culpable as the villains.

blame017In a nutshell, the novel is an account of Jane’s attempt to find the truth about what actually happened on that dreadful night on High Oaks Road. We have to assume – because we are seasoned readers of crime thrillers – that Jane is innocent of a brutal suicide mission which claimed the life of a boy whose only crime was to be in love. As Jane turns over rock after rock, and unpleasant critters scuttle about, exposed to the light of truth, the novel builds to a dramatic and breathless finale. As might be expected from a writer of Jeff Abbott’s pedigree, he keeps his cards close to his chest, and keeps us guessing until the final few pages.

I particularly loved how Abbott works the Jane character; at the beginning, despite her having suffered a terrible physical trauma, she still comes over as being something of a pain in the butt; as the novel develops, and the web of possible suspects widens, her courage and determination not to take shit from anyone began to grow on me. Remember, as well as having lost her memory, the boy they tell her was her best buddy is also gone, and she has completely forgotten how to talk properly to people. As for normal social and conversational responses, they are also an unfathomable mystery. Blame came out earlier in the year in hardback, but will be available in paperback from 28 December.

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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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