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Serial Killer

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.”

The pre-Christmas weather
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.

 

 

ALL HIS PRETTY GIRLS . . . Between the covers

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AHPG coverAlyssa Wyatt is pretty much your showcase American Mom. Not Middle American geographically, as she lives in New Mexico, but she ticks most of the other boxes; handsome successful husband, two teenage kids, nice house and a fulfilling career – as a cop. Like so many fictional law enforcement types, she has a dark past centred in childhood trauma, but what is done is done, and she lives for Holly, Isaac and husband Brock.

Detective Wyatt and her professional partner Cord are at the forefront of the investigation into a missing woman. Callie McCormick has no apparent enemies apart from the person who has abducted her from her smart home. There is no ransom demand, no body and no progress in the police investigation. What we do have is an increasingly angry Mr McCormick and a detective squad room with a worryingly empty whiteboard, and fanciful sightings multiplying by the hour once McCormick offers a hefty cash reward for information.

Charly CoxCharly Cox reveals to us the identity of the bad guy fairly early in the piece. Or, rather, she doesn’t. Over enigmatic? Quite probably, but to say more would ruin the fun. Alyssa and Cord chase their tails with more determination than success, while the sadist at the centre of the mayhem plans his next atrocity.

What it may lack in nuance, All His Pretty Girls more than compensates for in punch, narrative drive and sheer energy. Albuquerque, New Mexico, is known as The Land of Enchantment, and also the setting for the epic TV series Breaking Bad. It is also home to author Charly Cox. She says that she enjoys eating copious amounts of green chili and other spicy foods, and there is plenty of heat and burn in this novel. She has come up with a sensational – and very clever – plot twist in this, her debut novel and, although the first half of the story is familiar Silence of The Lambs territory – serial killer, murdered women, frustrated cops desperate for clues – Cox then springs a breathtaking surprise on us and the remaining pages just fly by.

All His Pretty Girls is available as a Kindle on 23rd October, and is published by Hera. Hera is a brand new, female-led, independent digital publisher, founded in 2018. They say:

“We’re on a mission to publish the very best in commercial fiction. From gripping psychological suspense, police procedurals and serial killer thrillers, to romance, heartwarming sagas, quirky uplifting fiction and sexy, glamorous contemporary fiction.”

Don’t be misled, however, into thinking that All His Pretty Girls is Chick Lit. Yes, a female is the central character, but there’s no shortage of graphic violence and enough of the ‘mean streets’ to satisfy fans of hard-boiled crime.

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HOW THE DEAD SPEAK . . . Between the covers

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Val McDermid was anxious that over-enthusiastic reviewers and fans might give away the ending of her previous Carol Jordan and Tony Hill novel, Insidious Intent (click to read my review). So, given that there will be readers who have that novel on their TBR pile, no spoiler from me. Suffice to say that the metaphorical IED that blasted Jordan and Hill off the road in the final pages of the book have left them in, shall we say, rather difficult circumstances, and at the beginning of How The Dead Speak we find Carol Jordan very much a former police officer while Dr Hill is serving a four year jail sentence.

HTDS coverAfter the events of which we will not speak, Jordan’s Regional Major Incident Team has been disbanded while the woman who was its beating heart and soul keeps her fragile psyche from harm by continuing to renovate her home, a former barn on a heather covered northern hillside. Visitors are few and usually unwelcome, but none more so than Tony Hill’s vindictive and manipulative mother Vanessa who, after inflicting her abrasive personality on her son in a prison visit, coerces Jordan into using her investigative skills to track down a fraudster who has conned her out of a small fortune. Only slightly less welcome is Bronwen Scott, Tony Hill’s solicitor. She also has a job for Jordan, but this time it is to establish grounds for an appeal against a murder conviction handed down to a gay man who, the jury believes, has murdered a rent boy.

Meanwhile, back in the fictional city of Bradfield (which I have always assumed to be Leeds/Bradford) Jordan’s old ReMIT has been given the kiss of life. Its first post-resuscitation job, under the ambitious but box-ticking leadership of DCI Ian Rutherford, is to investigate the gruesome discovery of dozens of human remains in the grounds of a former Roman Catholic children’s home. I am not privy to Val McDermid’s religious beliefs, if she has them, but she certainly gets stuck into the darker side of Roman Catholicism’s social policy. OK, perhaps it’s something of an open goal these days, but as the RMIT try to discover the why and when of the St Margaret Clitherow Refuge skeletons, we learn some dark and unpalatable truths about the ‘Brides of Christ’ whose singular duty is to obey, no matter what the command.

The forty-or-so skeletons are, to an extent, explained away, but when the investigators find a further series of bodies, much more recent and apparently asphyxiated with plastic bags taped over their heads, the police activity intensifies. McDermid is brave enough to initially consign Jordan and Hill to the outer darkness, but she is canny enough to keep us comfortable by placing familiar figures at the centre of the action. Karim Hussain, Paula MacIntyre and Stacey Chen tut and eyeball-roll behind Rutherford’s back but somehow the investigation homes in on the real truth behind the more recent corpses in St Margaret’s vegetable garden.

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There are police procedurals, and then there are Val McDermid novels. Her ingenuity and unmatched clarity as a storyteller make How The Dead Speak a very special book. The Jordan/Hill story appears to be running on separate rails for part of the journey, but in a beautiful twist, everything comes together.

And there is a bonus. McDermid – who, as fans of her band will know, is no mean singer – might just be performing a cover version of one of my favourite songs Save The Best For Last (below). If any potential readers are sentimental old (or young) sods like me, you will be permitted a little sniffle and a dab at a moist eye when you read the final pages.

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How The Dead Speak is published by Little, Brown and will be out on 22nd August.

CHILD’S PLAY . . . Between the covers

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The man whoI’m new to the Angela Marsons Kim Stone series, which is good a cue as any to adapt a cartoon by one of my favourite illustrators, HM Bateman. It is clear that the Kim Stone novels, which began in 2015 with Silent Scream are hugely popular and although her millions of existing readers will not give a hoot what I think, I can now see why.

The author hails from the Black Country, that wildly unfashionable area west of Birmingham, which takes its name from the prodigious amounts of soot generated by its heavy industries in times past. Geographically it includes parts of Staffordshire and Worcestershire. Beyond place names, Marsons doesn’t make the region a dominant character in Child’s Play, at least not in the same way that, say Chris Nickson uses Leeds or Phil Rickman uses the Welsh Marches.

Kim Stone, like the great majority of popular fictional British police officers, has issues. Marsons is too good a writer to include Stone’s complete biography, but we learn that she had a wretched childhood. In both fiction and real life I am never really sure about people who relate better to dogs than they do to fellow humans, but such folk exist in both spheres. Kim Stone is one such, but her general misanthropy probably makes her a better copper. She is a fascinating and complex character who is at home the random chaos of modern life, perhaps because she can escape, maybe from herself:

“She drew comfort from the familarity of town noise, even the late-night noise of occasional sirens, doors slamming, loud music through open windows, drunks singing on the way home from the pub, wives giving them what for once they got there.”

CP coverUnsurprisingly, her chosen mode of transport is a powerful Kawasaki motorbike, the ultimate solo kick where all that exists is the rushing road, the wind and the scream of the engine:

“Her only interest in the countryside was tearing through it on the Ninja to blow the cobwebs from her mind.”

Child’s Play begins with the bizarre and apparently motiveless murder of a woman in her sixties. Belinda Evans is found in a children’s playground, bound to a swing with strips of barbed wire. Belinda – and apologies to people who have never watched Coronation Street – is no Emily Nugent, however, as Stone’s team soon discover that the late woman had a taste for rough sex and bondage.

As the title suggests, there is a theme of childhood running through this intriguing police procedural. All kinds of childhoods. The ones where youngsters are sufficiently traumatised by events that they become mute and withdrawn, living in their own personal hell. The ones where parents seek to live out their own inadequacies through desperate and damaging over-encouragement of a child’s talent. Not just those screaming abuse at the world from the touchlines of a junior football game, but those who believe their children are gifted and talented above the norm, and push, push, push for more certificates, more acclaim and more vicarious satisfaction.

In a fascinating parallel story, one of Stone’s team, Penn, has to absent himself for the hunt for the killer of Belinda vans as he is a key witness in the trial of a man accused of killing a convenience store server. Minutes away from the jury retiring to deliver a nailed-on guilty verdict, the wife of the accused man changes her story and the prosecution case unravels at a frightening pace.

AMMarsons (left) takes us down and dirty into the visceral world of police work:

“It was the pungent, unholy smell that could only be compared to a room full of rotting meat with the added smell of faeces. It was an odour that could live in a house for years despite deep cleaning, and was unmistakeable as anything else other than a dead body.”

The drama finally plays out in the intense, other-worldly – and distinctly disturbing – world of a weekend event for Gifted and Talented children and their parents. Bryant, one of Stone’s team comes face to face with the scary world of youngsters who are on the Aspergers Autism spectrum:

“ ‘This seat taken, buddy?’ he asked a boy sitting alone with a book.
‘Taken where?’ he asked, peering over his reading glasses. ‘Do you mean occupied?’
‘I’m gonna take that as a no,’ he said, pulling the chair towards him.
The boy regarded him seriously and Bryant guessed him to be ten or eleven years old with fair hair and clear hazel eyes, enlarged by the thick spectacles.”
‘Is it appropriate for a middle-aged man to seek the company of an unattended child?’ the boy asked, seriously.”

Gripping, unusual and fast-paced, Child’s Play is, by turns, unsettling and cleverly plotted. It is published by Bookouture and is out now.

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MARKED MEN . . . Between the covers

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Manchester writer Chris Simms intoduced us to Detective Constable Sean Blake in Loose Tongues (Severn House, 2018) where he was making his debut in the city’s Serious Crimes Unit. Crime buffs will know that Simms has been around for a while, building a serious readership with his books about another Manchester copper, the rather more senior Detective Inspector Jon Spicer, as well as earlier novels featuring DC Iona Khan of the Manchester Counter Terrorism Unit.

MMMarked Men begins on an idyllic Spanish beach, but then switches to the less salubrious setting of urban Manchester, and we only learn the significance of the opening much later in the plot. This way of starting a novel has become rather well-worn, but Simms handles it well and times to perfection the revelation of its significance. The Manchester action begins with Blake in waders and hard hat at the bottom of a drained lock on a local canal. There is a body, naturally, with more to follow, and as Blake and his immediate boss, DS Dragomir criss-cross the city trying to make sense of the crime scenes we – like them – are drawn into thinking that the deaths are revenge killings. But who, exactly, is avenging what? This is where Chris Simms leads us – and his detectives – a merry dance. There is a clue, but I have to confess I didn’t get it any quicker than did Blake and Dragomir.

Police procedurals come and go; some writers, in an effort to take the genre in a new direction, make the featured police officers ever more quirky and disagreeable, to the extent that they are barely functioning as normal human beings. Simms has a steadier hand, and is happy to have Sean Blake as thoroughly decent fellow, perhaps a tad naïve at times, but – as an officer – alert and intelligent. The shadow of his late mother is slowly receding as he makes his on way through the complex office politics of the police station. For a boy brought up in rural Sussex and then spending his university days in Newcastle, Simms certainly knows his Manchester and, as in the Jon Spicer novels – he makes the city a strong and vibrant character.

Marked Men will be published by Severn House in hardback at the end of March, while Kindle users will have to wait for the Darling Buds of May to open before they get their chance. Chris Simms has his own website, a Facebook page, and is also on Twitter. Click on the images below to find out more.

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THE BOY IN THE HEADLIGHTS . . . Between the covers

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Somewhere there is a book of rules
that must be followed by writers of police procedurals, and high on the list is that senior investigating detectives must be difficult folk, with troubled personal lives, possibly prone to addiction of one kind or another. The addiction can range from being relatively harmless, like Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne and his love of mournful country songs by Hank Williams, via Nero Wolfe’s gluttony, right through to Sherlock Holmes and his occasional use of cocaine and morphine.

TBITHNorway’s Samuel Bjork ticks the boxes with his Olso cops Holger Munch and Mia Krüger. Munch is a bearded bear of a man, overweight and stuffed into his habitual duffel coat like a fat foot into a shoe two sizes too small. His home life is in disarray. Separated from his wife, his daughter Miriam recovering from a serious injury, he seems to treat those people with – at best – edgy tolerance, but his obsession is with the job, and catching criminals. Krüger’s back story makes Munch’s people look like candidates for a TV breakfast cereal advert emphasising warm family values. The story opens with her recovering from – in no particular order – alcoholism, a fatal shoot-out after which she was accused of murder, and the haunting death of her sister, victim of Oslo’s drug scene.

There is a brief but vivid prologue taking place fourteen years before the main story, which then relates a series of bizarre killings. The dead include a ballet dancer found in a remote lake, a jazz saxophonist lying on a bed in a flea-bitten budget hotel, a teenage boy in the boot of a burning car, and a Catholic priest slumped in his own confessional. All have died from being injected with antifreeze, and the killer has left a clue – a number – at each site.

Seasoned veterans of the serial killer genre will know that there are several variations on a theme as regards the answer to whodunnit? Sometimes the author gives little clues along the way, but the best writers have very devious minds, and often these little hints are designed to lead readers off in the wrong direction. One version of this trope is when some chapters allow us to observe events through the eyes of the killer, but again, how reliable is the narrator? The Boy In The Headlights uses another method altogether, which intially involves a red herring the size of a Great White Shark, but to say more would spoil the fun.

The adage suggests that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, and I felt that the only weakness of this book was in the final resolution. The journey, however, is a brilliant roller-coaster, with great dialogue, convincing sub-plots and a real feeling of pace and urgency. Munch and Krüger are partners made in crime fiction heaven, and both the atmospheric geographical setting and the police procedural detail are impressive. The translation, by Charlotte Barslund, seems faultlessly fluent, but then I suppose we monoglots are in no position to judge. The Boy In The Headlights is published by Doubleday/Penguin and will on the shelves and available for download from 21stMarch.

Click the images below to learn more
about the previous two Munch and Krüger novels

TOAHNITA

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