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YOU WERE GONE . . . Between the covers

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David Raker is a former journalist who has been at the sharp end, the places where bullets fly, knives flash, and explosions separate the bodies and limbs of decent men. Now, he has left the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan behind, and he plies his trade in what is, ostensibly, a more civilised environment, but still one where greed, violence, depravity and deception are an everyday – and very viable – currency. Where could that be? Correct. The dark streets of London. Raker’s business sounds simple. He looks for missing people. Sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives and parents who have disappeared. Vanished. Went to work one day, and never caught the ‘bus home. People whose absence becomes more grievous day on day for their loved ones, but folk whose here-today-gone-tomorrow status has defeated the limited resources of the police.

Raker has a special empathy with his clients. Like them, grief and loss still gnaw away at his heart and soul, but he has the slight advantage of knowing what happened to his loved one. Derryn. His adored wife. Taken in a prolonged tug of war between her spirit and the implacable demon of cancer. Raker watched her fade away, watched her beautiful skin turn to fragile parchment as the disease ate its way through her body.

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 11.58.41But he has, as far as is possible, moved on. He has an unexpected family in the form of a daughter from an early relationship, and he keeps his chin up and his eyes bright. Because to do otherwise would mean self destruction, and he owes the physically absent but ever-present spirit of Derryn that much. His world, however, and such stability as he has been able to build into it, is rocked on its axis when a woman turns up at a West End police station claiming to be his wife. Derryn. Dead and buried these nine years. Her fragile remains consigned to the earth. He sees the woman through a viewing screen at the police station and he is astonished. In front of him sits his late wife, the love of his life, and the woman for whom he has shed nine years of tears.

In terms of improbable plot lines, Tim Weaver has form. You Were Gone is his ninth David Raker novel, and he has staked out his territory as a writer who sets questions which seem unanswerable. I have to confess that in the earlier books, I was tempted to think, “Oh, come on – you cannot be serious..!” Now, however I have learned to trust Tim Weaver, and I know that however impossible the conundrum he sets, he will provide a plausible – if audacious – resolution.

Raker faces a series of events which force him to question his own sanity. Someone, somewhere has constructed a brilliant plot to undermine his sense of self and his memories. Who can he trust? The police investigation into the ‘reappearance’ of his wife seems skewed and slanted against him. Why has a widely respected doctor offered the police evidence that he had treated Raker for an obscure psychological syndrome? Why does Raker have no memory of this? What secrets lie in the overgrown ruins of a London mental hospital?

Tim WeaverSo many questions. The answers do come, and the whole journey is great fun – but occasionally nerve racking and full of tension. Tim Weaver (right) has crafted yet another brilliant piece of entertainment, and placed a further brick in the wall built for people who know that there is nothing more riveting, nothing more calculated to shut out the real world and nothing more breathtaking than a good book.

You Were Gone is published by Michael Joseph and will be out on 17th May. To read a review of the previous David Raker novel, I Am Missing, click the blue link.

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . FUDGEGATE!

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The Death of Mrs Westaway will be published in hardback and Kindle by Harvill Secker/Vintage Digital in June 2018.

PRIZE DRAW . . . Win PANIC ROOM by Robert Goddard

The FULLY BOOKED competitions attract many entrants, and the prizes are always brand new editions of top quality crime novels by the best authors. The most recent winner is Stephen Fraser of Linlithgow, and he has a spellbinding Tom Thorne novel, from Mark Billingham, on its way to him now. The latest book on offer is another cracker. You can read our review of Robert Goddard’s thriller Panic Room by clicking the image below.

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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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If I DIE TONIGHT … Between the covers

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It is October in New York State
. ‘Fall’, of course, to the residents. Nothing much disturbs the ultra-ordinary Hudson Valley town of Havenkill, however, even the yearly arrival of the quaintly named ‘Leaf Peepers’ – folk who come to witness the glorious golds and reds of the autumn trees. Until one-rain lashed night when the rickety police station is being battered by the strong winds and the shoddily repaired roof is, once again, only just holding back the weather. Above the noise of the storm, there is a battering in the door as if the devil himself was trying to force his way in. It is not the devil, but a frantic woman:

“…make-up smeared, weeping in her bright red raincoat and rainbow-dyed hair, wet as something dredged up from the river. ‘There’s been an accident’.”

614rKZRqmfLThe woman is a former rock star, now reduced to providing the warm-up act to tribute bands in dingy roadside venues. All that Amy Nathanson has left to remind her of her brief spell of fame as ‘Aimee En’ is her former manager, now disease-stricken, and a luridly painted vintage Jaguar car, which she calls her “baby”. Now, on this grim night, as she drives home from her less than star-studded gig, she has been involved in a terrible accident. Her precious car has been hijacked but, even worse, a teenage boy lies broken in the road, run down by the car and its illicit driver.

Liam Miller is rushed to hospital. Dozens of his high school friends rush to be as close as they are allowed to his bedside but their vigil, for all its tears and prayers, is fruitless. He dies without recovering consciousness. The Havenkill police now have a rare case of murder/manslaughter on their hands, and the community – parents and youngsters – are plunged into a frenzy of speculation about the identity of the hooded teenager who stopped Amy Nathanson on the pretence of selling her drugs then mugged her and drove off in her car, leaving Liam Miller – who Nathanson thinks tried to come to her rescue – at death’s door by the roadside.

This superb thriller is peopled with strongly drawn characters. Pearl Maze is one of the police officers investigating the death of Liam Miller. She began her career in the nearby city of Poughkeepsie, but a tragic event from her childhood caused her to be victimised by her fellow officers, and she is trying to build a new life out ‘in the sticks’. The Reed family, mother Jackie and sons Wade and Connor, are central to the story. Jackie is a divorcee trying to hold down a job as a realtor, while trying to be both mother and father to her boys. She is driven to Xanax by the behaviour of the older son, Wade. His moods and unpredictability are far worse than the usual hormonal torment of teenage boys. What is going on in his secret life? Where was he on the night that Liam Miller died? We see Amy Nathanson, for all her weaknesses and hankering after faded glory, as a genuinely troubled woman cast adrift in a sea of her own insecurities and quiet desperation.

Alison GaylinAlison Gaylin (right) knows full well that every human interaction in the modern world – birth, death, triumph, failure, joy and misery – has to play out on social media, and so it is after the death of Liam Miller. We see the messages and memes, the grief and the anger, flash around the Havenkill cyberspace as the speculation about the identity of Liam’s killer intensifies. Even the makeshift shrine outside Liam’s family home is dwarfed by the virtual tribute page set up by his parents.

The plot is beautifully laid out to lead us first in one direction, and the another. Two thirds of the way through the book I began to infer just a hint of the truth about Liam Miller’s death, but I would never have guessed the real reason behind Wade Reed’s refusal to absolve himself from the crime – Gaylin waves her magic wand and carries off a show-stopping piece of literary theatre. If I Die Tonight is published by Arrow, and is available now on Kindle. It will be out in paperback at the end of December, and in hardback in 2018.

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THE HANGED MAN … Between the covers

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The tragic events described in Simon Kernick’s previous novel The Bone Field hang over this thriller like a pall of noxious smoke, darkening the landscape. Maverick police officer Detective Inspector Ray Mason staggers through the poisonous fog like Wilfred Owen’s soldier, stumbling and flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…” He and his partner Dan ‘Dapper’ Watts are, once again, trying to bring to justice an implacable criminal gang for whom murder is just too quick and simple. The gang leaders Cem Kalaman, Alastair Sheridan – and their sinister enforcer known only as Mr Bone – use Satanic rituals and blood sacrifice to spice up their recreational violence.

THM coverIn The Bone Field, Mason tried – and failed – to bring the gang down. The bloody conclusion to the confrontation at a remote Welsh farm haunts him. His bitterness and sense of a score still not settled drive him on, but he is now working under the mandate of the National Crime Agency – and they play by the rules. The fire and desire for retribution burning in Mason’s soul will force him to abide by those rules only as far as they suit him. His personal background – a childhood shaped by violence and cruelty – has endowed him with a sense of what is right and what is wrong which diverges dramatically from the code followed by his boss, Sheryl Trinder.

The novel starts with the Kalaman gang attempting to silence Hugh Manning, a lawyer who has become entangled with their misdeeds but is, at heart, a decent man caught up in a toxic spiral of temptation and his own weakness. He escapes the killers sent to eliminate him and goes on the run, pursued by both the gang and the police. He knows all too well that the gang have insiders within the criminal justice system, and he would be signing his own death warrant simply to walk into the nearest police station and offer his wrists for the handcuffs.

Kernick045Mason has a girl-friend. Tina Boyd is a former copper herself, but fate has forced her to ‘go private’ and she is now a successful and well-known enquiry agent. As she tries to unravel the complex tangle of relationships and loyalties which bind together the various members of Kalaman’s gang, she puts herself in harm’s way. She is smart and has a nose for danger, but does she have the killer gene which will enable her to tackle Mr Bone on his own terms?

As Mason rides roughshod over police procedure in his drive to avenge those who died at The Bone Field, his partner, Dan Watts, tries to reign him in and see the bigger picture, which is the one depicting Kalaman and his underlings tried in a court of law, and sentenced for their crimes. Watts, however, has secrets of his own, and these secrets make him particularly vulnerable to the manipulations of the unscrupulous men – and women – who he is trying to bring down.

Who is ‘The Hanged Man’ of the title? Kernick keeps his cards very close to his chest, but a quick internet search into the significance of the melancholy Tarot card suggests that he is:

“A martyr, renouncing a claim, putting self-interest aside, going one step back to go two steps forward, giving up for a higher cause or putting others first.”

 Or possibly:

“Having an emotional release, accepting what is, surrendering to experience, ending the struggle, being vulnerable and open, giving up control and accepting God’s will.”

I suspect that by the time you turn to the last page of this excellent thriller, you will have made up your own mind as the the identity of The Hanged Man. The book is published by Cornerstone/Century, and will be out in Kindle and hardback on November 16th.

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THE PEOPLE vs ALEX CROSS … Between the covers

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Back in the day, James Patterson’s Alex Cross books were my go-to choice for police thrillers with something just a little different. Along Came A Spider, Kiss The Girls, Jack & Jill and Pop Goes The Weasel were all sustenance for a hungry man. But round about the time when Patterson had exhausted his nursery rhyme references for the book titles, I began to lose interest. Maybe it was the Washington cop’s implausible bad luck in choosing wives and girlfriends. For such a demonstrably clever bloke, he was becoming a serial bad judge of character. Was it his Mother Teresa of a grandmother, Nana Mama? Apart from the fact that she must have reached the age of at least 130, had her unfailing wisdom and saintliness begun to grate? Whatever the reason, I moved on. When, however, the good people at Century sent me a crisp new hardback copy of The People vs Alex Cross, I thought it would be rude not to see what the good Dr Cross was up to in his 27th outing, almost a quarter of a century after his first appearance.

Alex CrossAlex Cross is in trouble. Big trouble. He is the victim of a beyond-the-grave revenge attack from his very first opponent, Gary Soneji. Gary is long dead, blown up by his own bomb in a subway. It is not beyond Patterson’s audacity to resurrect someone, but in this case it is supporters of the late Mr Soneji who are responsible for Cross being accused of homicide. He is lured to a warehouse where members of the Soneji cult are waiting for him. In the fire fight that follows, members of the cult are killed and wounded, but when Cross summonses emergency backup, no weapons other than Cross’s own can be found. The words happy, trigger and cop are immediately rearranged into a well-known phrase or saying by the sensation-hungry media.

As Cross prepares for his trial he is, naturally, suspended from police duties. Again, perfectly naturally, since it is Dr Alex Cross we are dealing with, he becomes unofficially involved in the investigation into a series of kidnappings and murders. Whoever the kidnapper is, he or she has a penchant for willowy blonde young women. Cross’s best buddy, the almost indestructible cop John Sampson, is knee deep in the chase to find the missing girls, and the search leads the pair into the darker-than-black world of snuff movies and the mysterious cyber phenomenon known as the dark web.

Writer James Patterson promotes the new movie "Alex Cross" based on his novel "Cross" at the Four Seasons in Los AngelesHand on heart, I have to admit to really enjoying this book. Patterson (right) hasn’t achieved his world-wide pre-eminence as a best selling writer by not being able to tell a story. The action comes thick and fast and in this book at least, the portrayal of Cross disproves the old adage about familiarity breeding contempt. Yes, Nana Mama is still there, serving up delicious meals for all and sundry and being annoyingly stoical in the face of her grandson’s adversity. Yes, Cross’s annoyingly geeky nine year-old son spots something that a top FBI data analyst has missed, but at least our man’s current love interest seems to be a good sort.

The book pretty much turns its own pages. It is pure escapism, but a damn good read. Long time fans of the series will not be disappointed, and apostates like myself may well be converted back to the old religion. The People vs Alex Cross will be out on 2nd November in hardback, Kindle and as an audio CD. The paperback edition is due in April 2018.

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DON’T LET GO … Between the covers

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Napoleon. Dumas. Two names resonant of nineteenth century France. A warrior and a writer. Put them together, and you have an unusual combination. Unusual, certainly, for a New Jersey cop. He has been known as ‘Nap’ for as long as he can remember, and he takes centre stage in the latest thriller from Harlan Coben. Dumas was born in Marseilles but since his family moved to Westbridge, NJ, he hasn’t strayed far from his home town. Nap Dumas is not, however, all he seems to be. On the one hand:

DLG cover“Mr Nice Neighbour. See, I am that rarest of creatures in suburban towns – a straight, single, childless male is about as common out here as a cigarette in a health club – so I work hard to come across as normal, boring, reliable.”

That’s the Nap Dumas who waves to his neighbours Ned and Tammy and never forgets to inquire how their son’s team is doing in the little league. There is another Nap Dumas, too. He’s the man who tracks down Trey, a lowlife bully who has been beating up his girlfriend and abusing her daughter. He’s the man who explains the problem to Trey. With a baseball bat.

There’s a third Nap Dumas, who never lets a day go by without talking to his twin brother Leo. That’s the Leo who, fifteen years ago was found by the railway tracks with his girlfriend Diane. Both of them turned into little more than roadkill by the impact of 3000 tons of freight train. The sequence of events of that terrible night play on loop inside Nap’s head, along with a nightmare tangle of unanswered questions. Why did the pair commit suicide? Why did Nap’s girlfriend Maura Wells disappear that night and simply drop off the radar?

When ex-Westbridge boy Rex Canton – now a traffic cop in neighbouring Pennsylvania – takes two bullets in the back of the head while conducting a routine traffic stop, the investigators come looking for Nap Dumas. At first he is puzzled. He hasn’t seen Rex Canton in years, and they were never particularly close. But when they tell him whose fingerprints they found in the car realisation dawns:

“I have always heard the expression,’the hairs on my neck stood up,’ but I don’t think I ever quite got it until now.”

One of the investigating officers spells it out, just in case the penny hasn’t dropped:

“The prints got a hit …. because ten years ago, you, Detective Dumas, put them in the database, describing her as a person of interest. Ten years ago, when you first joined the force, you asked to be notified if there was ever a hit.”

The discovery of Maura’s prints triggers a journey into a nightmare that some people in Westbridge had tried to forget. A nightmare made up of lies, lives shattered, deception and cold blooded murder. Nap Dumas, however, is determined to prise up the stone from the ground, even though he knows that dark and deadly things will be scuttling about underneath.

Harlan Coben 2014 bis (c) Claudio Marinesco (3).jpgCoben is never anything but readable and he is great form here. This was one of those books which pose a delicious dilemma – do I carry on reading as the hook of the action bites deeper and deeper, or do I put it down for a couple of hours to make it last longer? As a regular reader of Coben’s books I knew that the big reveal – in this case the truth about the deaths of Leo and Diane – would be a definite “Oh, my God!” moment, but try as I might, I didn’t get close to guessing the actual shocking detail.

Coben doesn’t usually spend too much energy on giving us anything remotely romantic but, as a bonus, he allows himself to tug a few heartstrings at the end of this gripping – and affecting – thriller. Fans of Coben’s sporting investigator Myron Bolitar (read our review of Home here) will also be pleased to know that he puts in an appearance – albeit a brief one – in Don’t Let Go, which is published by Century and will be available in all formats from September 26th.

THE WORD IS MURDER … Between the covers

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Diana Cowper crosses the Fulham Road, and walks into a funeral parlour. We are told that she is:

“… a short, very business-like woman: there was a sense of determination in her eyes, her sharply cut hair, the very way she walked. She was in her sixties, with a pleasant, round face. There were plenty of women like her in the streets of Fulham and South Kensington. She might have been on her way to lunch or to an art gallery.”

TWIM058Many people in their sixties – particularly those who are comfortably off – plan ahead for their own funerals. Daytime television programmes are interspersed with advertisements featuring either be-cardiganed senior citizens smugly telling us that they have taken insurance with Coffins ‘R’ Us, or rueful widows plaintively wishing that they had been better prepared for the demise of poor Jack, Barry or Derek. However, it would be unusual to hear that the be-cardiganed senior citizen had died only hours after planning and paying for their own send-off from the world of the living.

But that is precisely what happens to Diana Cowper. She is found murdered in her smart Chelsea terraced house. It is at this point that we are introduced to the two main characters in the story. One is Daniel Hawthorne, a former police detective sacked for unprofessional conduct, but with such an uncanny ability to solve murders that he is retained as a consultant by his former employers. The other is also involved in murder, but of a fictitious kind. He is a successful author and screenwriter with a string of hit TV shows and book bestsellers to his credit. His name? None other than Anthony Horowitz.

Plot-wise, the semi-fictional Horowitz is approached by Hawthorne, who wants him to write a crime story detailing his skill as a solver of murder mysteries. Where better to start than with the mysterious death of Diana Cowper? The back-story to her murder includes her complicity in the death of a young boy in a road accident ten years earlier, her son – now one of the best known young actors between the West End and Hollywood – the shattered family of the dead boy, and the judge who let Diana Cowper walk away a free woman from her trial for causing the boy’s death.

AHDuring the story, Horowitz (right) drops plenty of names but, to be fair, the real AH has plenty of names to drop. His CV as a writer is, to say the least, impressive. But just when you might be thinking that he is banging his own drum or blowing his own trumpet – select your favourite musical metaphor – he plays a tremendous practical joke on himself. He is summoned to Soho for a vital pre-production meeting with Steven and Peter (that will be Mr Spielberg and Mr Jackson to you and me), but his star gazing is rudely interrupted by none other than the totally unembarrassable person of Daniel Hawthorne, who barges his way into the meeting to collect Horowitz so that the pair can attend the funeral of Diana Cowper.
To write a novel with yourself as one of the main characters takes a certain amount of chutzpah and a great deal of narrative skill. Does Horowitz get away with it? Yes, yes, yes – and yes again. This is a gloriously complex whodunnit and a sly dig at the bizarre intensity of the worlds of both film-making and publishing. It is one of those books where the pages are turned all too quickly. The best books draw you into their world, make you part of it, make you care about what happens to the characters and force a sigh of regret when you reach the end papers. The Word Is Murder is one such book. It is full of intrigue, enjoyment, dark humour and superb characterisation.

I genuinely hope that this is not the last of Daniel Hawthorn. Horowitz has created an intriguing anti-hero who is, at times, almost autistic, but also capable of a chameleon-like transformation into an empathetic and sensitive listener. Hawthorne can switch between figuratively holding someone’s hand but then, in the blink of an eye, stabbing them with a bodkin. We learn just enough about Hawthorne to answer a few basic questions, but Horwowitz leaves us so much more to discover. Let us hope that he delivers. The Word Is Murder will be published by Century on 24th August, and is available for pre-order here.

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