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Serial Killer

NINE LIVES . . . Between the covers

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This thriller is relatively brief, but it buzzes like an angry hornet. It begins in rural Ireland in 1979, when a terrified girl escapes from being held by an unknown assailant. She finds refuge in a farmhouse, and the farmer’s wife arranges for a neighbour to drive her to the nearest Garda Síochána station. Neither the girl nor the neighbour is ever seen alive again. Some months later, the girl’s remains are found. There is little left of Hazel Devereaux, but just enough to reveal, on examination, that her throat had been cut.

Screen Shot 2021-07-19 at 18.16.06The action skips thirty years, and Jim Mulcahy who was the rookie detective covering the girl’s disappearance is now Superintendent, and heading for retirement. When recreational scuba divers find the rusting remains of a car at the bottom of a local lough with a skeleton on the back seat – which turns out to be the headless remains of Frank Rudden – the case is reopened. It was Rudden who drove off in his VW Beetle that fateful night three decades earlier, with Hazel Devereaux as his passenger. We are now, of course, in the age of smartphones and internet search engines, and it doesn’t take the Irish coppers long to link this cold case to several similar murders in that Irish home-from-home, Boston Massachusetts. Detective Ray Logue is sent to liaise with the Boston PD, in particular Officers Sam Harper and Olivia Callaghan.

The rough-and-ready Irish policeman manages to ruffle the feathers of his more sophisticated American counterparts, but they soon make three interesting discoveries. One is that the dates of the Boston murders have an uncanny connection – they are all numerically linked with the number nine. You can Google it, and see that there is a long tradition of mysticism connected to the number, but Ray is initially unimpressed by what he feels is “hocus pocus.” The second discovery is that Donal Keane, an Irish academic was in the area at the time of Hazel Devereaux’s murder and then immediately decamped to Boston, where he has been ever since. The third – and most sinister – connective element is that each of the victims has been sent a brief note containing a quotation from a poem by Edgar Allan Poe.

Screen Shot 2021-07-19 at 18.16.23As Logue, Callaghan and Harper close in on who they think is the killer, Kevin McManus bowls us a couple of googlies – or perhaps I should say, since we are in Boston, throws down some curve balls – and all is not what it seems to be.

Kevin McManus (right) primarily writes Crime Fiction novels but also delves into writing poetry and short stories. He lives in County Leitrim in Western Ireland with his wife Mary and their dog Jack. He works by day as a secondary school teacher. In addition to the Ray Logue books Kevin has written a series based around a New York Detective called John Morrigan. His debut novel, published in 2016, was The Whole of the Moon. Nine Lives is a highly original and cleverly conceived thriller which gives a new twist to the serial killer genre. It is published by Spellbound Books and is available now.

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A COLD GRAVE . . . Between the covers

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I had not come across Trevor Negus and his DCI Danny Flint novels, and it was only a browse through Netgalley that brought it to my attention, and I am glad I found it – but sorry to come late to the series, which began with Evil in MInd, and was followed by Dead and Gone. The three books all came out in May this year from Inkubator Books, but A Cold Grave was first published in 2018 with the title A Different Kind of Evil, from Bathwood Manor Publishing, which seems to be no more. I am glad that Inkubator have picked up the torch and are running with it.

I have to say that the police procedural genre is my absolute Alpha and Omega in crime fiction, and chancing upon a new (to me) series is a ‘punch the air’ moment. The acid test of course, is deciding if the book is any good. I think police procedurals are harder to get wrong than most genres, but it does happen. I am happy to say that Trevor Negus does most things right in this novel, and so he hasn’t dropped the Ming vase to shatter into a thousand pieces. The book is set in 1986, so in one sense it is Historical Crime Fiction, but only the absence of mobile phones stands out as a major difference between then and now. One of the elements that make this novel work so well is the sense – and continuity – of place. We certainly aren’t in the most romantic or obviously atmospheric part of Britain, but Negus knows Nottinghamshire like the back of his proverbial, and so he should; his bio reveals:

“In 1975 Trevor joined the Nottinghamshire Constabulary as a Police Cadet, becoming a regular officer in 1978. As a uniform constable he learned his craft in the pressure cooker environment of inner city Nottingham which at that time had one of the highest violent crime rates in the United Kingdom.

During a varied thirty year police career Trevor spent six years as an authorised firearms officer and sniper, before transferring onto the CID. He spent the last twelve years of his career as a detective, becoming a specialist interviewer involved in the planning and implementation of interviews with murder suspects.”

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One of the most notorious places in Nottinghamshire is Rampton Secure Hospital, and it is here that the story begins. Two prisoners escape, after inflicting serious violence on several staff. One is quickly tracked down, but the other, Jimmy Wade, gets clean away, almost certainly helped by a member of the public with a car. Wade is a seriously deranged psychopath, and every day he remains at large is a day of anxiety for Detective Inspector Danny Flint and his team.

Flint has something else on his plate, though. That ever-reliable participant in murder enquiries (real and fictional)  – a dog walker – has discovered the decomposing body of a boy. The boy is soon identified as Evan Jenkins, who has been removed from the ‘care’ of his mother, a drug addicted prostitute, and placed in a care home called Tall Trees. Flint has a bad feeling about the couple who run the home – Carol and Bill Short – and he connects them both to a drug ring and – even worse – a ring of paedophiles  whose members include several civic dignitaries and influential businessmen. Meanwhile, Wade’s whereabouts remains a mystery.

Unlike Danny Flint, we know that Wade is living in a remote cottage on a country estate, aided and abetted by his girlfriend Melissa Braithwaite, who is drawn to him by a poisonous mixture of fear of his violence and the worst kind of sexual attraction. Wade has a revenge mission he hatched while under lock and key – the abduction of two prison officers who had given him a particularly hard time in Rampton. Danny Flint’s hunt for Wade and the paedophile ring responsible for Evan Jenkins’s death is played out against an impressively authentic geographical background – the Nottinghamshire towns of Retford, Newark and Mansfield. A police procedural this may be, but Dixon of Dock Green it certainly is not. It is dark, and sometimes frighteningly violent, but always compellingly readable. A Cold Grave is out now.

THE CUSTARD CORPSES . . . Between the covers

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Sometimes a book comes along with very little by way of advanced publicity or hype, and it hits the sweet spot right away. One such is The Custard Corpses by MJ Porter. Strangely-named it might be but the reason for the title becomes more obvious - and appropriate - the more one reads. A few sentences in, and I was hooked. It ticks several of my favourite boxes - WW2 historical, police procedural, likeable and thoroughly decent English copper, the West Midlands and a plot which is inventive without being implausible.

We are in the Birmingham district of Erdington. It is 1943 and Great War veteran Sam Mason is a uniformed Chief Inspector at the local nick. He is not yet on the downward slope heading for retirement, but he is like Tennyson's Ulysses:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Screen Shot 2021-04-05 at 19.39.14Mason is a man given to reflection, and a case from his early career still troubles him. On 30th September 1923, a boy’s body was found near the local church hall. Robert McFarlane had been missing for three days, his widowed mother frantic with anxiety. Mason remembers the corpse vividly. It was almost as if the lad was just sleeping. The cause of death? Totally improbably the boy drowned. But where? And why was his body so artfully posed, waiting to be found?

Mason and his then boss, Chief Inspector Fullerton, had never solved the crime, and Mrs McFarlane died without knowing the whys and wherefores of her son’s death. When  Mason learns that there had been a similar case, a couple of years later, he is close to despair that it hadn’t come to light earlier. He realises that the fault was theirs. They hadn’t circulated the strange details of Robert’s death as widely as they should.

Attempting to make amends, albeit two decades too late, he has a circular drawn up, and sent to the police forces across England, Scotland and Wales. To his dismay, a succession of unsolved killings come to light; the dead youngsters are of different ages, but there is one bizarre common factor – the bodies have been posed as if in some kind of sporting action. Mason is given permission to devote his energies to this macabre series of killings, and with the resourceful Constable O’Rourke, he sets up an incident room, and begins to receive case notes and crime scene photographs from places as far apart as Inverness, Weston, Conway and Berwick.

Picture_Post_21-Sep-40One evening, after he has taken images and documents home with him, his wife Annie makes a startling discovery. Like nearly two million other readers across the country, she is a great fan of the magazine Picture Post, and while thumbing through a recent copy she notices that the sporting youngster drawn in an advertisement for a well-known brand of custard is posed in a way that has a chilling resemblance to the way one of the victims that Sam is investigating.

At this point, the investigation sprouts wings and takes flight and, in a journey that takes them across England, Mason and O’Rourke eventually uncover a tale of horror and obsession that chills their blood. MJ Porter has written a  series of historical and fantasy novels, mostly set in what we call The Dark Ages – Vikings, Goths and those sorts of chaps. That doesn’t tend to be ‘my thing’ but, my goodness, Porter is a good writer. The Custard Corpses goes straight onto my early shortlist for Book of The Year, and I do hope that he can tear himself away from his tales of ravens, rape, swords and general pillage to bring us another novel featuring Sam Mason. The Custard Corpses is out now.

FAR FROM THE TREE . . . Audio book

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There’s a first time for everything, even when you are a conservatively-minded old curmudgeon who has, begrudgingly, accepted that digital books are here to stay. But audio books? Never – until now. Faced with the fact that the latest novel by one of my favourite writers – Rob Parker –  is only going to be printed on paper next year, I bit the bullet and accepted what I suppose could be called an Advanced Listening Copy of Far From The Tree.

Brendan Foley is a Detective Inspector with Cheshire Police, based in Warrington. If the name Cheshire conjures up a gentle county famed for its delicious cheese and half-timbered villages, that would not be wrong, but Warrington is a place with rougher edges. Situated on the River Mersey it grew in the Industrial Revolution with its steel (particularly wire), textiles, brewing, tanning and chemical industries. The word ‘industrial’ is what comes to mind when Foley is called out one Sunday morning to investigate not just one corpse, but twenty seven of them. All neatly packaged in heavy-duty plastic, and laid to rest – if that is the correct word – in a shallow trench.

Foley has been called away from the christening of his youngest child, but when he is summoned back to the venue to pay the caterers, we learn that his family is far from being a collection of model citizens. It is, nevertheless, with a deep sense of shock that when he attends the post mortem of the first batch of the corpses, he recognises that one is his nephew.

Screen Shot 2020-07-09 at 18.05.57This is a very different Rob Parker (left) from the previous novels of his that have come my way. Crook’s Hollow (click the links to read my reviews) was rather like The Archers meets The Hills Have Eyes, while his Ben Bracken Books, Morte Point, The Penny Black, and Till Morning Is Nigh are hugely entertaining but somewhat escapist in places. Far From The Tree is real. Very, very real. It is dark, unflinching, and, to my mind, Parker’s best book yet.

Foley is a superbly drawn character – a decent man who has to face a shocking challenge, involving his own flesh and blood, and a brave man, too, as he is forced to make decisions which would unhinge a lesser person. I also enjoyed his sidekick – Sergeant Iona Madison – who among other things is a boxer. Rob Parker himself is a pugilist, and he allows himself a little enjoyment as he describes Iona’s battles in the ring.

Not the least of the pleasures of Far From The Tree is that it is read by none other than Warren Brown, of Luther fame. It certainly does no harm to the authenticity of the recording that Brown – like Rob Parker –  was born and bred in Warrington!

Far From The Tree is an Audible Original and is available here.

WHEN YOU SEE ME . . . Between the covers

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WYSMI first encountered Lisa Gardner’s entertaining ensemble of law enforcers just over a year ago in Look For Me. D.D. Warren, the Boston cop whose exploits began in 2005 with Hide was there, as was the rather more exotic and eccentric Flora Dane – a young woman who has been damaged physically and mentally by a long torment of captivity and abuse at the hands of Jacob Ness, a psychopath who was taken down in dramatic fashion when the FBI raided his hideout. When You See Me reunites Warren and Dane, along with one or two other key players, as a couple of hikers out for the day in the Appalachian mountains find human remains. When police give the site their full attention other bodies are found. Are they previously undiscovered victims of the unspeakable Ness, or has the area been host to another sadistic killer?

Flora Dane is at the centre of this novel, not only because of her connection with the history of the area, but because she has teamed up with Keithe Edgar, an amateur – but extremely clever – data analyst whose unofficial skills are harnessed by the federal agents as they try to unpick the knot of the case. Flora’s attitude to men has been, to put it mildly, compromised by her trauma at the hands of Ness, but in Keith she might – just might – has found a person to trust, a person with no negative motives, and someone who can ward of the fears and horrors embedded in her memory.

T redhe storytelling technique which uses multiple narrators is much used and, it must be said, often abused, but Kisa Gardner nails it here, particularly through the eyes of Bonita, a Mexican girl maimed in childhood, unable to speak and used as a maid-of-all-work in an ostensibly respectable Victorian mansion, now an upmarket Bed & Breakfast facility in Niche, Georgia – the nearest settlement to where the human remains have been uncovered. Bonita is not her real name. Only her late mother knows what it is, but when D.D. Warren meets her during the investigation, she says:

’Bonita’ D.D. said softly.’It’s the Spanish word for pretty. What do you think? I’ll call you Bonita.’”

Lisa-Gardner-2_940x529-72-ppiAlmost inevitably, the dreadful goings on in the mountains surrounding Niche must involve some of the locals, but Lisa Gardner (right) lays out several enticing red herrings before revealing precisely which of the eminent townsfolk are involved in a dreadful conspiracy, a toxic cocktail of abduction, sexual slavery and-ultimately-murder. Flora, D.D. and the other members of the team eventually corner the evil genius at the centre of Niche’s darkest secret, but not before we are treated to a spectacularly violent finale involving secret tunnels, torture and, intriguingly, death-by-dishwasher.

A redmerican crime fiction is a huge, diverse and somewhat unwieldy beast, but at its best it is slick, literate, flawlessly plotted, endlessly enthralling and with a narrative drive that seems to come as second nature to such writers as Lisa Gardner. When You See Me will be out in Kindle, published by Cornerstone Digital on 28th January and in hardback by Century on 20th February. The paperback will be available in July.

ALL THAT IS BURIED . . . Between the covers

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ATIB coverAll the fun of the fair? They are strange throwbacks to an earlier, perhaps more innocent time, these funfairs that travel the country setting up in this or that town for a few days of loud music, strings of multicoloured light bulbs swinging in the wind, the shrieks of excited children and the unique smell of candyfloss and toffee apples. All That Is Buried, the latest case for Robert Scragg’s coppers Jake Porter and Nick Styles begins with an abduction in one such fair, pitched on a field in a London suburb. We see some of the story through the eyes of the killer. Our man – if he is indeed the culprit – describes the fair:

“Around him, the ebb and flow of the people is a chaotic palette of colour. Sounds swirl, overlap, conversations impossible to separate from the cloud of white noise as he picks his way between rides. Oversized teacups spin in lazy circles.Squeak of socks on rubber as children launch themselves skywards on a bouncy castle.”

One minute, seven year-old Libby Hallforth is at the fair. Next minute, she is gone, her mum and dad distracted for a few seconds. That’s all it takes for a child to vanish. When Porter visits the parents in their grim tower block flat he finds “lives of quiet desperation”, to be sure, but he is not convinced that Libby’s parents are quite what they seem to be at first glance.

The search for Libby goes round in ever decreasing circles until a chance sighting of someone who might be her takes Porter and his team to an East London park. They don’t find Libby, but what they do find turns the case on its head. On an island in a boating lake, they find roses:

“A mixture of blood reds, soft whites, pale peaches and buttery yellows..”

But beneath the roses lies something lacking their fragile beauty, far less fragrant and indescribably more sinister. The search for Libby Hallforth, in the time it takes for a man to turn a sod of earth with a spade, takes on a whole new dimension.

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The book, to a degree, is formulaic. We have all the usual components of a British police procedural: a DI and a Sergeant are the main characters, the DI having the shadow of personal tragedy hanging over him; the DI has a boss who is more of a desk copper than a crime fighter; there are an assortment of nasty gangsters, druggies and petty crooks on the fringes of the story; deep at the heart of the plot, however is a distinctly malevolent individual who takes human lives – many of them.

Th said, Robert Scragg brings much more to the party. What impressed me most was the genuine sense of humanity, compassion and mutual respect between Porter and Styles. To call it a symbiosis is perhaps rather too grand, but they fight each other’s corner and make allowances when either of them slips up. There is a feel-good factor about the novel, despite the harrowing nature of the crimes the pair are trying to solve.

It would be giving too much away to divulge the outcome, but the eventual solution caught me unawares and was an imaginative plot twist that worked beautifully without being too extravagant or showy in a “look at me, no hands!” kind of way.

All That Is Buried is published by Allison & Busby and will be out in hardback and Kindle on 23rd January. For reviews of the previous two Porter and Styles novels, click on the images below.

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NINE ELMS . . . Between the covers

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Kate Marshall lectures in criminology at a university in the south west of England, but when she speaks to her students it is not as an academic, making judgments based purely on the research of others; neither does she approach the subject as an outsider, albeit one who is well read and well prepared. Fifteen years earlier, when she was a humble detective constable with London’s Metropolitan Police, she brought to justice one of the country’s most prolific and perverted serial killers. In doing so, she paid a heavy price; only skilled surgeons prevented her death from terrible injuries, but her career – and personal reputation – were both beyond saving.

Nine ElmsFifteen years on, the former police officer dubbed The Nine Elms Cannibal is serving multiple life sentences in a secure mental institution, and Kate Marshall, if not exactly dining out on her experiences, uses her involvement in the case as part of the course she delivers. She lives alone and while not exactly lonely, she is a changed woman from her days as part of London’s police force. She battles alcoholism, but with the support of Alcoholics Anonymous and, in particular, a local AA member called Myra, Kate sips her iced tea and pretends it contains a hefty shot of Jack Daniels.

Kate Marshall has a rather distinctive connection with The Nine Elms Cannibal, aka Peter Conway, but to elaborate further would be to spoil your fun. Suffice it to say that when a series of copycat killings – young women found dead with savage bite marks on their bodies – Kate is drawn into the investigation despite the misgivings of some police officers, who are only too aware of her back-story.

Of course the new killer can’t be Peter Conway – he is held under Hannibal Lecter – style restraints in prison, but what is his mother – author of a best-selling lurid true crime book called No Son Of Mine – up to? Is she acting as malignant go-between, a conduit between her son and an admirer who seems to have studied Conway’s modus operandi, and is proving the old adage that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?

With her research assistant Tristan Harper, Kate tries to reassemble the pieces of an increasingly complex puzzle, but it is not until events take a spectacular turn that she comes face to face with both the apprentice New Elms Cannibal – and his master – in a fast and furious finale which is not for the faint of heart.

Author Robert Bryndza is British, but lives and works in Slovakia. He has a successful series featuring Detective Erika Foster already under his belt. Nine Elms is published by Sphere, and will be out on 9th January.

I have an unopened hardback copy of Nine Elms up for grabs. Watch the Fully Booked Twitter feed for a prize draw competition – coming soon.

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HOLD YOUR TONGUE . . . Between the covers

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HYT coverDeborah Masson’s police procedural Hold Your Tongue is as gritty as the granite in the Aberdeen where it is set. Fictional Detective Inspectors tend to be brilliant, yet with fatal flaws; perceptive, but incapable of managing calm personal lives; honest and principled, but concealing their own dark secrets. Masson’s Eve Hunter ticks all the boxes, and adds a few of her own. She is returning to work after a catastrophic encounter with a notorious criminal family. After the son of the crime gang’s Capo sustains life changing injuries in a car chase, Johnny MacNeill has exacted brutal revenge resulting in Hunter’s partner DS Nicola Sanders being paralysed from the neck down, while Hunter herself has a permanently damaged leg and intense psychological scarring.

There is no ‘Welcome Back’ party for Hunter. There are former colleagues who blame her impulsive and driven approach to police work for what happened to Nicola Sanders. Her boss doubts she is ready for a return, particularly as her first case will be to solve the savage murder of an aspiring model, found dead in a hotel room, surrounded by an elaborate and deliberate staging of fashion magazines, make-up and mirrors. Melanie Ross’s tongue has been cut out, and taken away by her killer.

Masson makes telling use of Aberdeen itself as a baleful presence looming behind the misdeeds of its citizens. Despite the grim grandeur of its municipal buildings, the passing of the North Sea oil bonanza has left a legacy of closed shops and tatty, uncared-for neighbourhoods. A prostitute called Rosie, who is involved with one of the suspects, provides a chilling metaphor for the city:

“Rosie pulled together the edges of the flimsy unbuttoned black raincoat that she wore; it barely concealed the bony chest in a low-cut top and laddered fishnets below a skirt that could pass as easily for a belt.”

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is vile and utterly inhospitable. The sleety rain slants down, the wind blows in squalls from the North Sea, and the grey light of dawn reveals city streets slick, wet and icy, decorated only with discarded takeaway meals, the odd abandoned high-heeled shoe, and a general air of attempts at gaiety which ended in failure.

More murders follow, and they are clearly the work of the same person. Eventually Hunter realises what the elaborate posing of the victims signifies. The killer has somehow become obsessed with the old nursery fable:

Monday’s child is fair of face
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
But the child who is born on the Sabbath Day
Is bonny and blithe and good and gay.

71VcTMOa58L._US230_As the killer works towards the Sabbath Day child, Hunter and her colleagues dash this way and that, always vital hours behind the murderer. Masson (right) contributes to the mayhem with some elegantly clever misdirection. Early in the piece she teases us with the suggestion that the series of murders has something to do with brothers and sisters, but even when we – and Eve Hunter – think we are close to the truth, there is one big surprise left. Hold Your Tongue is an assured and convincing debut, and I hope there will be more cases to come for Eve Hunter. The book is out now, and published by Corgi/Penguin.

 

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A MINUTE TO MIDNIGHT . . . Between the covers

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There’s probably a PhD somewhere waiting for the person who writes a thesis on the ratio of fictional female FBI agents to their male counterparts, then setting this against the equation among real-life graduates of Quantico. In the world of crime fiction, there is certainly equal opportunity. The most celebrated is probably the indominatable Clarice Starling (Thomas Harris) but many others run her close, including Alex Morse (Greg Iles), Smokey Barratt (Cody McFadyen), Kathryn Dance (Jeffery Deaver), Kimberley Quincy (Lisa Gardner) and Lacey Sherlock (Cathrine Coulter). David Baldacci has bought into the idea with his Agent Atlee Pine, who he introduced in Long Road To Mercy (2018). That title is something of a pun because Atlee Pine’s twin sister was abducted one mysterious night thirty years earlier and her name – you’ve guessed it – is Mercy.

AMTM coverAtlee Pine has anger management issues, and A Minute To Midnight begins as she is put on gardening leave for kicking the you-know-what out of a child rapist. She decides to use this enforced leisure time in another attempt to find out what happened on the fateful night when her sister was abducted and she was left with a fractured skull. Accompanied by her admin assistant Carol Blum, she revisits the scene of the trauma, the modest town of Andersonville, Georgia. Tumbleweed is the word that first comes to mind about Andersonville, but it scrapes a living from tourists wishing to visit the remains of the Confederate prisoner of war camp which, in its mere fourteen months of existence, caged over thirty thousand Union prisoners of whom nearly thirteen thousand were to perish from wounds, disease and malnutrition.

The house where Pine, Mercy and their parents lived is now little more than a tumbledown shack lived in by a shambolic old man, and revisiting her childhood bedroom brings the agent emotional grief but no further clues as to what happened that night. Why was she spared and Mercy taken? Or was it the other way round? Were her parents drunk and drugged out of their minds downstairs while the abductor did his business?

David BaldacciA series of apparently motiveless murders in Andersonville diverts Pine from the search for her own personal truth, and she is soon enlisted to help the understaffed and under-resourced local cops. The first murder victims – a man and a woman – are killed elsewhere but then delivered to Andersonville bedecked as bride and groom respectively. When it turns out that they were both involved in the porn industry, what first appears to be a significant lead runs into a brick wall.

Pine’s personal quest is ever present, and Baldacci weaves this thread into the fabric of the search for the present day serial killer. For my taste there are rather too many occasions where the narrative is propped up by the investigators explaining things to each other, but this is a cleverly written thriller by a master craftsman in the genre. The Andersonville killings are solved, and Atlee Pine is subject to some uncomfortable revelations about her own back-story, but this is not the end of the matter. David Baldacci clearly has more secrets up his sleeve as an addictive series begins to take shape. A Minute To Midnight is published by Macmillan and is out on 14th November.

For more on books by David Baldacci click here.

 

 

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