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Rachel Rhys

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2017 … Best historical crime novel

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I was delighted that John Lawton’s Friends and Traitors showcased a return for his charismatic copper, Fred Troy, and even more pleased that the beautiful and enigmatic Meret Voytek featured once again, after her ordeals in A Lily of The Field. Norman Russell certainly brought Victorian Oxford to life with An Oxford Scandal, and his consumptive Inspector Antrobus was an intriguing fellow, finishing the novel trying to avoid the sight of his bloodstained handkerchief. In Dangerous Crossing, Rachel Rhys captured beautifully the potent cocktail of snobbery, suspicion and political uncertainty among passengers on an ocean liner on the eve of World War II. In The Well Of The Dead, Clive Allan skilfully wove together two stories, the first being an account of the calamitous events surrounding The Battle of Culloden in 1746, and the second an assured modern police procedural plot.

My winner this year, in spite of the fierce competition, is On Copper Street, by Chris Nickson. I have grown to love the stories featuring Inspector Tom Harper, a brave and determined copper treading the cobblestones of Victorian Leeds. Here, Harper investigates the death of a petty crook, and the horribly modern-sounding attack on two children who have acid thrown at them. Against the background of the lonely and impoverished death of a pioneering political activist, Harper pursues the villains in his usual implacable way, supported at every turn by his admirable – and very bonny – wife. I wrote:

“I would imagine that Nickson is a good old-fashioned socialist, and he pulls no punches when he describes the appalling way in which workers are treated in late Victorian England, and he makes it abundantly clear what he thinks of the chasm between the haves and the have nots. Don’t be put off by this. Nickson doesn’t preach and neither does he bang the table and browbeat. He recognises that the Leeds of 1895 is what it is – loud, smelly, bustling, full of stark contrasts, yet vibrant and fascinating.”

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DANGEROUS CROSSING … Between the covers

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ADC014It is the summer of 1939. In Germany, the bitter ashes which have been smouldering for two decades since the punitive reparations after Versailles have been fanned into flames, and the fire is set to spread across Europe. As Hitler prepares to march into Poland, in Britain the world carries on as normal, although few would know that this would be the last summer of peace for more than six years.

In the dock of the Essex port of Tilbury stands the ocean liner Orontes. The crowds on the quayside watch and wave as their loved ones board the ship, which is bound for Australia. One of the passengers is Lily Shepherd, a quiet but pretty young woman who has had enough of waitressing at a Lyons Corner House in London, and has signed up with a scheme which will take her to Australia to work as a domestic servant.

Rachel Rhys begins the book with the closing scene. The Orontes has docked in Sydney, but before the passengers disembark, we see police escorting a woman from the ship. It is obvious she has committed some grievous crime, but her identity is not revealed and so the book becomes less of a whodunnit? than whowilldoit? Rhys carefully follows the conventions of mystery stories which take place in the enclosed spaces of ships and long distance trains, and she has assembled an excellent cast of characters. Again sticking to the tried and trusted formula, Rhys describes how most of the characters are running away from something – or someone.

Edward Fletcher and his sister Helena are travelling to Australia for the good of Edward’s health. He is suffering from tuberculosis. Months in a sanatorium have saved his life, but only the Australian climate will guarantee that it will be a long one. George Price is an embittered young man who has been sent by his father to work on a relative’s farm in New Zealand. He makes no bones about the fact that he sees Hitler’s rise to power as the best thing which could have happened to Germany in particular, and Continental Europe in general.

The typically staid and reserved social dynamic between this little group, who all share Lily’s dining table, is shattered by the arrival of Max and Eliza Campbell, an American couple who escape the stifling atmosphere of their First Class lounge hoping to find a little fun slumming it in Tourist Class. On the very fringe of things, but growing ever more dependent on Lily’s friendship, is Maria Katz, a Jewish girl who has managed to escape impending disaster in her native Austria. Her parents, however, have not been so fortunate.

Lily is ‘adopted’ by the Campbells but the couple have very different motives. As well as being dazzled by the louche and extrovert Americans, Lily begins to fall in love with the shy and hesitant Edward. As she does so we learn, little by little, about the tragic consequences of her only previous love affair.

RRRachel Rhys (right) is nothing if not a skilled storyteller, but we should not be surprised as Dangerous Crossing is no debut novel. Under her real name, Tamar Cohen, she has written a string of best selling psychological thrillers. So, as the Orontes proceeds on its stately voyage to Australia, we share Lily Shepherd’s mixture of discomfort and amazement as she goes onshore to visit such exotic places as Pompeii, Cairo and Colombo. Rather after the fashion of a modern day Patricia Highsmith, Rhys has the main players gradually revealing their secrets to one another. The rack turns, one ratchet at a time, but so elegantly and cleverly are things concealed that the crime, when it does happen, is completely shocking and unexpected.

 Dangerous Crossing is published by Doubleday and is available here.

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TRANSWORLD 2017

At a gathering in The Charlotte Street Hotel on Wednesday evening, and against a backdrop of their impressive collection of recent best-sellers, Transworld showed that they are determined to hit the ground running in 2017. We were were introduced to five writers who will be making their debuts. Each read from their novel, and then took part in a question and answer session.

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First up was Joseph Knox, with his Manchester based police thriller, Sirens. Unsurprisingly, in the short extract we heard, it was raining! Joseph spoke about his love of Noir – which he defined as “Beautiful Doom”, and told us about how he had been hooked into the world of Noir by a memorable sequence of movies starring Humphrey Bogart. His advice to aspiring writers was simple – make time for your writing, but don’t beat yourself up when it doesn’t go well. Sirens will be out on 12th January 2017.

02-katie-khanKatie Khan took the stand with something very, very different. Hold Back The Stars, which will be published on 26th January is a love story, but with a difference. It is part sci fi, part fantasy and part romance, and is the story of a young couple who are forced to prove their love in order to stay together. Katie reminded us that it was only a few years ago that making friends – and finding lovers – on social media would have been unthinkable, but her book takes us forward to a time when such liaisons will be commonplace.

03-rachel-rysAustralia 1939, and The Lucky Country is the setting for A Dangerous Crossing, the upcoming mystery thriller from Rachel Rhys. In a sense, this is a different kind of debut, as Rachel Rhys is the pen-name of an already- successful psychological suspense author. A Dangerous Crossing is her debut under this name and is inspired by a real life account of a voyage to Australia, during which two passengers die in mysterious circumstances, and war has been declared in Europe. Rachel reminded us that in a pre-digital age, a long ocean crossing was the perfect place for people to hide, and in her book everyone has a secret, or is running away from something. The novel will be published on 6th April.

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Mahsuda Snaith provided us with a complete contrast of tone and subject matter. The Things We Thought We Knew is a minutely observed tale of a girl made prisoner by her surroundings – a mundane housing estate – and her own illness. Mahsuda said that the plot itself was not autobiographical, but the setting was a faithfully painted portrait of the world she herself grew up in. She is a very accomplished short story writer, and when questioned about the problems of going from the short form to the full length novel, she admitted that she has been writing this book since she was sixteen, and it has been revisited many times. The Things We Thought We Knew  is out on 15th June.

05-t-a-coterellBristol resident T A Cotterell was the final reader, with an extract from What Alice Knew. Cotterell read History of Art at Cambridge University and, significantly, the central character in his book is a portrait painter. He explained that the core theme of the book is family secrets, and told us of a real life instance when his mother name dropped someone of whom he had never heard, and when he asked who he was, he received the disconcerting reply, “Oh, he was my handler in MI6!”. The thought of his mother being a very successful intelligence operator in communist Hungary led him to explore the theme of how much we owe our children in terms of the truth. The novel asks many questions. How far would you go to protest someone you love? Would you lie to the police knowing your loved one is guilty as charged, or would you watch their life fall apart because of a terrible accident? What Alice Knew is out on 20th April.

Fully Booked will be reviewing each of these titles nearer to their date of publication, but if you wish to pre-order any of them, the details are already up Amazon pages.

 

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