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BETWEEN THE PAGES . . . The Unseen

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Lisa Towles is a California Girl by residence, but she hails from New England. She writes crime novels when she isn’t putting her IT Management MBA to good use in The Sunshine State’s tech industry. Long time followers of Fully Booked will recall my enthusiastic review of her earlier book Choke (2017) and will remember that I began that review with the words:

“Lisa Towles is over-cautious. Said no-one, ever.”

TU051She is back with a vengeance – and that same imaginative flair – with her new mystery thriller The Unseen and the action is just as breathless. We have a story that spans five decades and whirls us between Dublin, the Egyptian desert, Boston Massachusetts, London and Rome. With a cast of larger-than-life characters including archaeologists, journalists, hit men – and a direct descendant of an Eastern Orthodox Pope – the story is never short of surprises and dramatic twists.

The basic plot is that back in 1970, an archaeologist unearths a series of documents which, if they are authentic, could re-write the history of early Christianity. That archaeologist, Rachel Careski, disappears in mysterious circumstances, and the artifacts are believed to be in the safe keeping her brother, Soren. The story moves to 2010,  Soren Careski is long dead, and the secrets of the scrolls are assumed to have accompanied him to the grave.

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lisaWhat starts off in a rather Indiana Jones vein quickly morphs into Robert Langdon territory and there’s no shortage of rapidly-changing locations, sinister ancient manuscripts and malevolent religious freaks. Lisa Towles shows great skill in taking these well-visited elements and stamping her own imprint on them. The Unseen is published by 9mm Press and is out now.

 

Lisa Towles has a Facebook page, her own website, and can be found on Twitter as @bridgit66

KEEP YOU CLOSE . . . Between the covers

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Steph Maddox is something of an Alpha female. She has punched her way through the law enforcement glass ceiling during her training at the legendary Virginia military training base known as Quantico, and now she is a senior operative at the HQ of The Federal Bureau of Investigation which, as the organisation’s website tells us, helpfully, is:

“… located between 9th and 10th Streets in northwest Washington, D.C. The closest Metro subway stops are Federal Triangle on the Orange/Blue lines, Gallery Place/Chinatown and Metro Center on the Red line, and Archives/Navy Memorial on the Yellow and Green lines.”

The site goes on to offer a very individual kind of day out:

“The FBI Experience is a self-guided tour at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Open to the public, visits may be requested up to five months in advance of, but no later than four weeks prior to the desired visit date.”

KYC coverFor Agent Maddox, however, The FBI Experience is something other than a theme park visit. Gender equality has come at a price, and she is viewed with a certain degree of suspicion by many of her male colleagues, particularly as she is – and feel free to use the ‘woke’ description of your choice – a single mother, lone parent or head of a one-parent family. The blunt truth is that Steph has brought up Zachary largely on her own from day one. Not only that, but she has steadfastly refused to reveal the identity of his father.

Zachary is a walking embodiment of a male teenager. Monosyllabic, tech-savvy, frequently tongue-tied and often a recluse in his bedroom. As mums do, Steph is casually going through the things on his clothing shelves when her hand touches something which makes her recoil in horror. No, not a particularly nasty piece of unwashed personal attire, but the cold, brutal steel of a Glock 26 pistol – a compact version of her own official firearm.

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To say that Steph is now unsettled is a massive understatement. Choosing a rather more indirect route to confronting Zach about her discovery, she also learns that the boy is on the mailing list of a known terrorist organisation, the Freedom Solidarity Movement. Her anxiety deepens when Scott, a fellow agent and former boyfriend, reveals that Zachary is a person of interest.

karen-clevelandKaren Cleveland, to say the very least, knows of what she writes. She is a former CIA analyst herself, and her experience translates into a swiftly moving and convincing narrative. Steph Maddox is torn between fighting her son’s corner – he is innocent, surely? – and preventing a major terrorist assassination attempt. As in the real world of political and military intelligence gathering, nothing is what it seems, and no-one is above suspicion.

The tension of the plot is wound higher and higher until, like an over-stretched guitar string, you know it’s going to snap. When it does, the results are catastrophic for all concerned. Cleveland (right) , however, is not just a one-trick pony. Her account of Steph struggling to be a decent mother, despite the dramatic chaos of her professional life, is perceptive and moving. Keep You Close is published by Bantam Press and is out now.

THE ARTEMIS FILE . . . Between the covers

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I redt takes a very ingenious – not to say devious mind – to fashion a fiction plot which meshes together a whole bagful of disparate elements to make a satisfying whole that challenges the imagination but does not exceed it in possibility. Adam Loxley has done just that in his latest thriller The Artemis File. George Wiggins is Mr Ordinary. He lives in what would have been called, years ago, a bijou residence in the twee Kentish town of Tenterden. He is not Mr Stupid, however. He travels into ‘town’ each day to sit at his desk in Fleet Street where he composes the daily crossword for The Chronicle under his pseudonym Xerxes. Aficionados know that in reality, all that is left of the newspaper industry in Fleet Street are the buildings, and the use of the term to denote popular journalism, but we can forgive Loxley for having the good, old-fashioned Chronicle hanging on by the skin of its teeth when all its fellows have decamped to Wapping or soulless suburbs somewhere off a dual carriageway.

front-cover-finalWhen George has a rather startling experience in his local pub after a couple of pints of decent beer, the other elements of the story – MI5, the CIA, Russian agents, immaculately dressed but ruthless Whitehall civil servants and, most crucially, the most infamous unsolved incident of the late 20th century – are soon thrown into the mix. Such is George’s conformity, it is easily compromised, and he is blackmailed into writing a crossword, the answers to which are deeply significant to a very select group of individuals who sit at the centres of various spiders’ webs where they tug the strands which control the national security of the great powers.

 

G rdeorge Wiggins might have been easily duped and he has few means to fight back, but he recruits an old chum from the Chronicle whose knowledge of the historical events of the 1990s proves key to unraveling the mystery of who wanted the crossword published – and why. While the pair rescue a dusty file from an obscure repository and pore over its contents, elsewhere a much more visceral struggle is playing out. A ruthless MI5 contract ‘fixer’ called Craven is engaged on a courtly dance of death with a former CIA agent, current American operatives and their Russian counterparts.

One of the joys of this book is Loxley’s delight in guiding us through various parts of England that he clearly loves. Winchester, the Vale of Itchen, various ‘secret’ London places – we track the characters as they play out the fateful – and frequently bloody – drama against fascinating backdrops. We are linked into real events such as the mysterious death of intelligence ‘spook’ Gareth Williams, and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. We learn that the truth behind the events of 31st August 1997 has become an chip in an international poker game with world peace at stake. Just when we think that things have been wrapped up sweetly, however, Loxley has one final ace to play, and he lays it down with, literally, the last few words of the book.

The Artemis File is published by Matador and is available now. Adam Loxley lives in the Weald of Kent. Other than creative writing his passions are making music, world cinema and contemporary art. The first book in this series was The Teleios Ring, and the concluding novel The Oedipus Gate is currently in manuscript.

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ONE WAY OUT . . . Between the covers

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If fictional coppers need to be idiosyncratic to attract readers, then DI “Harry” Hardeep Singh Virdee ticks all the required boxes and also a good few new ones of his own devising. The Bradford policeman is a Sikh, but has enraged his father and his wider community by doing the unthinkable in marrying a Muslim woman. His brother Ronnie also happens to be a ruthless career criminal.

OWO coverThe latest novel from AA Dhand is a gripping thriller which goes well beyond the constraints of the conventional police procedural. One Way Out begins with a huge bomb going off in the centre of Bradford. Although there has been sufficient warning to minimise civilian casualties, the perpetrators – an extreme right wing group known as The Patriots – have a further trick up their sleeve. It is a Friday, and with all 105 mosques in the Yorkshire city being full of worshippers, the terrorists announce that they have planted a bomb in one of the mosques, and it will be detonated unless the police track down and hand over the members of a notorious Islamic militant group called Almukhtaroon. The Patriots have pre-empted the obvious evacuation of the mosques by stating that if one single worshipper attempts to leave, the bomb will be detonated.

Virdee’s wife Saima is trapped inside the Mehraj mosque where the massive bomb is eventually located, but that is just one of his problems. He is sought out by the Home Secretary Tariq Islam, with whom he has, shall we say, history, and given the task of rounding up  the four leading members of Almukhtaroon while the government maintains the façade of refusing to negotiate with terror groups.

What we then have is an entertaining and thoroughly readable mix of all the best thriller tropes – race against time, threatened love one, maverick cop, violence-a-plenty, double-dealing politicians and embittered fanatics – Dhand relishes every minute of it, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

Screen Shot 2019-06-19 at 20.18.59Dhand is a Bradford man, born and bred, and he paints a vivid – if occasionally depressing – picture of the results of racial and religious bigotry. While he is justifiably harsh on right-wing extremism, he doesn’t spare the blushes of the Asian community, whether they are warring Muslim factions or Sikhs with more angry pride in their hearts than compassion. I’m not sure I totally bought into the relationship between Virdee and Tariq Islam, but no matter what the plot, suspension of disbelief is what we fiction readers are good at, otherwise we would spend our days reading history books or browsing the Argos catalogue.

One Way Out is a genuine page-turner. Futuristic? Maybe, but who would have said, a decade ago, that we would have a Muslim Home Secretary? Another nod to reality is the charismatic leader of Almukhtaroon, the self-styled Abu Nazir. He is not only a genuine Geordie, but he is also a ginger-haired convert to Islam. I seem to recall that one of the notorious followers of the hate preacher Anjem Choudry fits that description, at least in his ethnicity and hair colour. Virdee is a compassionate and credible hero, but with just enough of a mean streak to allow him to go head-to-head with he genuinely bad guys. One Way Out is published by Bantam Press and will be available from 27th June

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THE BODY LIES . . . Between the covers

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As the immortal Juliet once asked, “What’s in a name?” To her, not very much, as I recall, but it takes a brave novelist – such as Daphne Du Maurier in Rebecca – to keep the narrator and central character anonymous. Jo Baker uses this literary ploy in her latest novel, The Body Lies. Even the title is ambiguous, but the young woman at the centre of this dark domestic thriller is anything but anonymous or sketchily drawn.

TBL coverIn the absence of a name, what do we know of her? She is a writer who, like so many others in real life, has been published but needs a day job to stay afloat. She is married to a rather dull but worthy London schoolteacher. They have a young son, Sammy and, in an effort to re-establish her identity she makes a successful application for a lecturing job at a university in the north of England. Husband Mark is unwilling to leave his post, and so they agree to live separately but meet up at weekends. At the very beginning of the novel the woman is assaulted by a stranger while she is out jogging: the attack is not physically serious but leaves deep mental scars.

She finds herself in a provincial university which is aspirational rather than distinguished, and once she has conquered her nerves about delivering lectures, her main challenge is to conduct tutorial sessions with a group of would-be authors, each drawn to the crime fiction genre. The students are a diverse bunch: a voluble and emotive American woman who is, if nothing else, extremely ‘woke’; a suit-and-tie solicitor who is a fan of gritty police procedurals where the corpses are invariably female; most troubling – and troubled – is a young man called Nicholas who is writing a stream-of-consciousness narrative about a mysterious death which could be suicide, or then again….

When Nicholas and his tutor go beyond the accepted boundaries of student-teacher relationships, the story moves from a wry and sardonic satire on the political and social politics of schools and universities, and takes on a much darker hue. Nicholas disappears, but sends in the weekly updates to his work-in-progress via email – and they are nothing more or less than a blow-by-blow account of his most recent sexual encounter.

Jo BakerAll the familiar tropes of modern British domestic noir kick in, to good effect. We have a stalker, marital infidelity, a woman alone in a remote cottage, the debilitating after effects of recreational drug use, a murder disguised as a suicide and, tellingly, a very scary confrontation on a Wuthering Heights-style moor.

Jo Baker has written an intriguing and very clever novel which, while asking probing questions of readers and writers of crime fiction regarding their tolerance of the woman-as-victim trope, never preaches. Her nameless but vividly real central character is memorable for her courage, resilience and sheer humanity. The Body Lies is published by Doubleday and is out on 13th June.

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NO ONE HOME . . . Between the covers

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Over the years, missing persons investigator David Raker has, courtesy of his creator Tim Weaver, solved some perplexing cases. There was the man who disappeared into the bowels of London’s underground railway system, the amnesiac who was found on a deserted south coast shingle beach, the straight ‘A’ student with the secret life who just vanishes and, memorably, the time his dead wife walked into a London police station and back into his life. Raker tends to be looking for troubled individuals, as in just the one person. But this time it’s different.

NOHA whole village has disappeared. OK, let’s put that into context. The village is the isolated moorland community of Black Gale, and it consists of a farm and three expensive and fairly recent houses arrayed in a semi-circle around the older building. Black Gale. Population, nine souls. And on Halloween, two years since, they vanished. Into thin air. Like Prospero’s insubstantial pageant, the four families have left not a rack behind.

Raker has problems of his own, principally in the shape of his long time friend, former police officer Colm Healy. Healy featured in the very first Raker mystery Vanished (2012) and his misfortunes have been ever present over the series (No One Home is the 10th book). Healy is officially dead – and buried, He has a gravestone to prove it, but for a variety of reasons the former copper now exists under a variety of aliases, under the protection of David Raker. A persistent and intrusive journalist wants to write Raker’s life story, but also suspects the truth about Healey, and uses his knowledge in an attempt to force Raker to co-operate. Keeping the hack at bay – just – Raker begins to unpick the mystery of Black Gale.

Fans of the series will know that Tim Weaver doesn’t like Raker’s cases to be geographically confined, and so it is that the Black Gale conundrum is linked with a grisly unsolved murder in a flyblown California motel decades earlier. I say “unsolved”. The local Sheriff’s Department think the case is a wrap. They have a vic and a perp and have moved on to other things. Detective Joline Kader, however, has other ideas. She is unconvinced that the body lying face down in a bathtub of muriatic acid is simply the victim of a drug deal gone wrong, and the case stays with her over the years, right through her police career and her subsequent vocation as a college lecturer. Right up until the moment where her old obsession collides with David Raker’s fatal unpicking of a very clever and murderous conspiracy.

Screen Shot 2019-05-25 at 19.45.47No One Home is a brilliant thriller. It runs to over 500 pages, with not a single one wasted. The action is constant and the plot spins about all over the place, so you will need to be on your mettle to keep track of what is going on. Tim Weaver (right) has never been shy of creating apparently improbable conundrums for Raker to solve, and this is no exception. Suspend your disbelief for a few hours and go with the flow. I read it in three intense sessions and although I don’t use “Wow!” in normal speech, it certainly applies here. No One Home is published by Penguin and is out now.

POSTSCRIPT: It is unlikely that anyone reading this is a book reviewer with a yet-to-be-read advance copy of No One Home, but if you are, then please be advised that the ending in your copy makes no sense at all. Reverse sections 9 and 10, however, and things fit into place much better, and I believe this is the version which is now on sale to the public.

RUNAWAY . . . Between the covers

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This gripping thriller opens in New York’s Central Park. To be more precise, in Strawberry Fields, the section of the public space dedicated – perhaps by a city with an uneasy sense of guilt about providing the stage for the most infamous music death of all – to the man who took five hollow-point .38 bullets in his back, just across the way on 8th December 1980. Simon Greene, a wealthy investment advisor, sits on a bench listening to a busker, also committing murder (but this time the victim is only a song, All You Need Is Love)

“Simon’s eyes stayed locked on the panhandling girl mangling John Lennon’s legacy. Her hair was matted clumps. Her cheekbones were sunken. The girl was rail-thin, raggedy, dirty, damaged, homeless, lost.

She was also Simon’s daughter Paige.”

RunawayStart a 366 page book like that, and you might be making a rod for your own back, one that will whack you squarely between the shoulder blades if you don’t keep up the poetic intensity. Does Coben manage it? Of course he does – and with the stylish flourishes and narrative élan we have come to expect from one of the great crime writers of out time.

Simon Greene tries to embrace his fallen daughter, both literally and metaphorically, and he meets not only rejection but is sucked into a vortex of desperation and violence as he defies the good advice of his family, and tries to bring Paige home. Greene has three weapons: first, a borrowed handgun he has no idea how to use; second, a relatively inexhaustible supply of cash with which to bribe the grifters who he believes can lead him to his daughter; thirdly – and perhaps the most potent – a desperate desire to reclaim his ‘little girl’ and, perhaps, assuage the inevitable feelings of guilt any parent must feel when a child goes badly astray.

Pitting a mild-mannered financial advisor against a violent underclass of drug dealers and abusers might seem an obvious ploy, but Coben turns the narrative on its head by introducing another element into Simon Greene’s quest. Think Heart of Darkness, and imagine Greene as Conrad’s Marlow, but be prepared for the elusive Kurtz to be someone – and something – way, way different and far more disturbing and dangerous.

HCHarlan Coben (right) has thirty or so best selling crime thrillers behind him, but we must never, ever, take him for granted. There is no formula, no template, and no literary flat-pack easy-to-assemble ‘give-the-audience-what-it-wants’ sameness. He takes us to uncomfortable places and introduces us to people who are not stereotype heroes or villains. He is unafraid to give us a rough ride along roads traveled by complicated people who frequently confound our perceptions. Runaway is, quite simply, a brilliant read. It is published by Century and will be out in Kindle and hardback on 21st March. The paperback version is expected in the summer. You can check out other Fully Booked reviews of Harlan Coben’s novels by clicking the links below.

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CURTAIN CALL . . . Between the covers

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Graham Hurley could never be accused of playing safe. Having created one of the genuine originals in English crime fiction, Portsmouth copper Joe Faraday, he has the poor bloke take an overdose to end it all. Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but it was a few years ago. Then, he takes Faraday’s brightest apprentice and moves him down to Devon along with his restless wife and their daughter. Jimmy Suttle was another ‘one-off’ in terms of crime writing, but although he is presumably still in the land of the Quick rather than the Dead, he was last heard of in The Order Of Things (2015)

Hurley has never been a slave to police procedurals. His many standalone novels will testify to this, but now he brings us a deliciously inventive thriller which is a smartly-delivered slap in the face to those people who simply have to organise their To-Be-Read pile into genre boxes. Curtain Call, published by Severn House, describes a few week in the life of Enora Andresson. She is 39 years old and an established actress with CV boasting several highly thought of movies. She is estranged from her charismatic film director husband and, in collateral damage, from their teenage son Malo.

Enora’s world is wickedly spun off its comfortable axis when she is diagnosed with a brain tumour. Surgery removes the immediate threat and Enora picks herself up, dusts herself down, and tries to resume her career. Her life becomes infinitely more complicated when she is contacted by a campaigning Left Wing journalist. Mitch Culligan has done his homework and discovered that Enora has a link to a controversial businessman/fixer/gangster called Hayden Prentice. Prentice, nicknamed ‘Saucy’ after his initials (HP – geddit?) once had his way with Enora aboard a luxury yacht moored off Antibes. But this was back in the day, both enjoyed the fling, and there were no recriminations.

Culligan’s mission is to write an exposé outing Prentice as a mystery donor to the campaign which made all the pollsters look stupid, and ended up with Britain voting, in 23rd June 2016, to leave the European Union. Like many people, now categorised as ‘Remainers’, Culligan is determined to prove graft and corruption, and wants Enora to revisit her relationship with Saucy and feed back any juicy details.

As Robert Burns so memorably put it:

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley”

CCEnora’s reunion with her one-time lover has unintended consequences, particularly in relationship to her son, who turns up in London having fallen out with his father who, in turn is facing bankruptcy after a severe career downturn. There is crime – of a sort – in the novel, most horrifically when Culligan’s Syrian boyfriend is beaten within an inch of his life, but Curtain Call is much more complex and multi-layered. Admirers of the Faraday novels will love the fact that Saucy was a long-time confrère of the ebullient and occasionally unhinged King of the Portsmouth underworld, Bazza Mackenzie, a nemesis who Joe Faraday spent twelve memorable novels trying to put behind bars.

Enora is a wonderfully drawn character; intelligent, worldly and occasionally sentimental, but the linchpin of the novel for me was Hayden Prentice. He is a constant surprise, and a walking tangle of contradictions. Hurley does a brilliant job of first establishing him as an archetypal barrow-boy turned ruthless businessman, with all the sensitivity of an axe murderer, but then dismantling all our impressions one presumption at a time. Saucy delivers his pithy opinion of UKIP supporters:

“They don’t much like abroad, and they definitely don’t like Pakis nicking their seat in the bus, and given half a chance they’d shut their doors and spend the rest of their lives listening to the fucking Archers.”

Enora’s view of political zealotry is more measured:

“Beware of Causes, I tell myself. No matter how worthy.”

Readers will no doubt build their own visual image of Hayden Prentice and Enora Andresson but if I may be allowed to play the indulgent game of Fantasy Casting for a moment, I see Bob Hoskins playing opposite Anne Bancroft. Other pairings are, of course, available and if, when you have read this splendid novel, you would like to have your turn, then please do get in touch!

It’s only February, and there will be dozens more books to come in 2019, but I will be a lucky man if I find one more nuanced, thoughtful and stamped through with a lucid honesty about modern England than Curtain Call. One final nod to those who get misty eyed about the glory days of the Joe Faraday novels, Saucy’s favourite preface to any of his many sardonic utterances about the state of mankind, is just two words:

“Happy Days….”

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SEVERED . . . Between the covers

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In a structurally ramshackle – but otherwise unremarkable – rural parish church in the gently undulating Chiltern Hills, the scant congregation is watching their parish priest reach the most sacred part of the Sunday morning Holy Communion service, where they join together in the belief that “God was man in Palestine, and lives today in Bread and Wine”. In a few violent seconds, however, the wine symbolising Christ’s blood is dramatically spilled and mixed with real human blood, as the vicar is savagely attacked by a young man wielding an axe.

severedThus begins another case for Professor Matt Hunter, a university lecturer in religion and belief. He has previously helped the police in cases which involve sacred or supernatural matters (see the end of this review) and he is called in when it becomes clear that the wielder of the axe was none other than the teenage son of the Reverend David East, and that the boy was under the spell of a cult of deviant Christians whose central belief is that God The Father is a brutal tyrant who murdered his only son. They are also convinced that all other humans but them are ‘Hollows’ with evil in their eyes. Consequently, they shun all contact with the outside world, and live in a remote farmhouse, deep in the hills at the end of a rutted farm track.

Laws manages to recast the relatively benign uplands of the Chilterns as a scarred and brooding landscape with many a nameless terror lurking in its valleys, waiting to pounce on the unwary. There is blood by the pint, a coven of homophobic Christian evangelicals, a storm of biblical ferocity plus every Gothick image you could ever think of – plus a few more besides. Oh yes, I almost forgot – a very convincing and horribly plausible shape-shifter.

As the chapters spin by, Laws dusts off one of the oldest tricks in the book of narrative devices, but deftly breathes new life into it. There are basically two stages in his theatre of horrors; one shows us what is happening around Matt Hunter, while on the other, the members of the sect enact their weird dance of death. Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger, so we whirl through the next few pages to see what is going to happen, but then that chapter leaves us in suspense too, so we become caught up in an addictive mad scramble. It’s a ridiculously simple ploy but, good heavens, how well it works.

LawsOne of the most intriguing aspects of the Matt Hunter books is the relationship between the fictional former man of God and the very real and present minister in the Baptist church, the Reverend Peter Laws himself . We get a very vivid and convincing account of how Hunter has lost his faith, but also the many facets of that belief that he has come to see as inconsistent, illogical, or just plain barbaric. It suggests that Laws has identified these doubts in his own mind but, presumably, answered them. In these days of CGI nothing is impossible, so a live debate between Reverend Laws and Professor Hunter would be something to behold.

The finale of this brilliant thriller is apocalyptic enough to satisfy the most ardent fan of the horror genre, but Laws is smart enough – like Phil Rickman in his Merrily Watkins novels – to give everything (well, almost everything) a natural explanation, and when the emotional roller-coaster finally comes to rest we know that it is human beings, images and clones of ourselves if you will, that are capable of far more dreadful deeds than any supernatural monster conjured up from the bowels of Hell. Severed is published by Allison & Busby, and will be available at the end of January 2019.

For more on the extraordinary adventures of Professor Matt Hunter, read the reviews of:

Unleashed

Purged

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