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Thriller

MORTE POINT . . . Between the covers

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There is a hoary old cliché sometimes heard in football or rugby games, when the manager exhorts his team “to leave nothing in the changing room”. In plain English, he wants, to unearth another classic, “110% effort” from his lads. Robert Parker certainly leaves nothing behind on his keyboard, if I can extend the metaphor. As I noted in my review of his previous novel, Crook’s Hollow:

“If you are a fan of leisurely paced pastoral crime novels, complete with all the tropes – short-sighted vicars, inquisitive spinsters, toffs at the manor house with a dark secret – then maybe this book isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, you want 200 pages of non-stop action …..”

Morte PointParker is on similar form here in Morte Point which, as Devonians know, is a rocky peninsula on the north west coast of that county. Rather than the bitterly feuding rural families in Crook’s Hollow, Mr P gives us a jailbird ex SAS soldier, a mysteriously beautiful Kosovan biochemist, a sunken plane wreck containing only the body of a woman (minus her head), a senior British government minister determined to engineer the biggest international shock since Hitler declared war and Stalin, a bloody shoot-out in London’s most prestigious hotel and – at the centre of the drama – a phial containing a synthesised botulism capable of killing millions.

Ben Bracken is the former SAS trooper who has fallen foul of The Regiment and ended up in jail. Escaping, but taking out an insurance policy by way of blackmail material on the governor, he is officially still “inside”. He is not far enough under the radar of a certain officer in the National Crime Agency, however, and Jeremiah Salix contacts Bracken with an offer he cannot (for various reasons) refuse.

An aircraft is due to land at a Devon Royal Marines airbase, but Salix tells Bracken that it will not reach its destination, but instead end up on the seabed. It will be carrying something of great interest to a certain group of individuals, but Bracken’s mission is to dive to the wreck and snatch that certain “something” before the bad guys arrive. Bracken does as he is bid, and despite being kept in the dark about the exact nature of what he was meant to retrieve, he is soon left in no doubt that the people who arrive just too late to prevent him from carrying out Salix’s orders are deadly serious.

robertparkerWhat follows is, to my mind, the best part of the book. Back in the day when the mysterious Andy McNab (and his ever-present black rectangle) was the media’s darling, survival skills, initiative in the wild and hiding in plain sight were familiar tropes in thrillers and on the screen, but Parker (right)  has revitalised the idea. Bracken manages to stay half a step – but no more – ahead of his pursuers as he travels rough on his way north to meet up with Salix. You might scoff, and say that rural Devon is hardly the Iraqi desert, but Bracken realises that he is Britain’s most hunted man and, in these days of 24 hour news coverage on a bewildering range of devices, he knows that he has no friends, and no ally except his own resources and awareness of nature. He comes unstuck, however, after a chance encounter with vipera berus, and from this point the story takes a very different direction.

With the caveat stated at the beginning, this thriller will not tick every CriFi box. Midsomer Murders it ain’t, but in Ben Bracken we have a dangerous and complex man who certainly has every reason to bear a grudge against society while not being entirely without a conscience. The spectacular conclusion in, of all places, a turkey rearing farm, may not be “bootiful”, but it is certainly high-octane drama. Morte Point is published by Endeavour Quill and will be available on 27th July.

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LAST TIME I LIED . . . Between the covers

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Riley SagerI was working in Australia when Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic At Hanging Rock premiered. I remember pub and dinner party talk for months after being dominated by interpretations and explanations about what might have happened to the ‘lost girls’. In the endpapers of Last Time I Lied American author Riley Sager, (left) acknowledges his debt to this film (and the short story on which it was based). Instead of a 1900 Melbourne, Sager beams us into up-country New York State in, more or less, our times.

When Emma Davis, a skinny and gawky thirteen year-old just on the verge of young womanhood, wins a place at a prestigious summer camp for privileged teenagers, she falls under the spell of three older girls with whom she shares a cabin. In particular, the assured and sexually aware Vivian captivates Emma, just as she has captivated the other two, Natalie and Allison.

Camp Nightingale was created by a timber baron in the early years of the twentieth century. His master design featured a lake and, as there wasn’t one to hand, he simply evicted the inhabitants of a nearby valley, dammed the river and created his own huge water feature, Lake Midnight. Now the property is in the hands of his descendant, Francesca Harris-White, who presides in benign dictatorship over the gathering of rich city girls every summer.

LTILEmma’s summer idyll is destined to come to an abrupt and tragic end, however, when the three older girls in the cabin disappear one night, never to return. Despite the massive search and rescue operation, Vivian, Natalie and Allison remain missing, and Franny is forced to close the camp in disarray.

Now, fifteen years on, Emma Davis is a successful artist who is on the verge of giving up her day job in an advertising agency to paint full time. Her huge canvases create a stir in the New York art world, but they contain a hidden image known only to the artist. Each painting begins as a depiction of the three missing Camp Nightingale girls, who are progressively painted over by ever more intense foliage until only tantalising glimpses of them remain.

Emma is shocked when she receives an invitation to have lunch with Franny, and her shock turns to panic when she learns that the heiress plans to reopen Camp Nightingale and wants Emma to return for the season as artist in residence. Can she bear to relive the tragic events of that fateful summer? What is Franny’s real motive for reopening the camp? And, most importantly for us as readers, is Emma providing us with a classically misleading unreliable narrative?

Emma does return to Camp Nightingale and, naturally enough, since this is a thriller all about fate and coincidence, she has to sleep in the cabin called Dogwood – the selfsame one which she shared with Vivian, Natalie and Allison. Her new companions are Miranda, Krystal and Sasha. But now, of course, they are the giggly fifteen year-olds, and she is the mature and experienced woman.

Riley Sager packs the story with the literary equivalent of Improvised Explosive Devices, destined to go off at any moment with devastating consequences. We have Theo, Franny’s adoptive son, the subject of Emma’s massive and breathless crush all those years ago. There is Ben, the moody ‘bit of rough’ who has always been the camp maintenance man. Added to the mix are Lottie and Becca, both ‘survivors’ of the first downfall of Camp Nightingale. Above all – or, better, beneath all – is the moody presence of Lake Midnight itself, beneath which lie the stone memories of the displaced villages from over a century ago. Incidentally, if anyone can think of something more dramatically Gothick than Sager’s drowned lunatic asylum, whose roof appears only when the lake suffers from drought, I will give them a prize!

Bitte bei Verwendung Hinweis an: bilder@joexx.de

Last Time I Lied cleverly alternates between Emma’s recollections and the present time. Events in the reopened Camp Nightingale come to resemble nothing more nor less than a disturbing re-enactment of a cold-case crime, where the spectral presence of the fifteen-years-lost girls looms larger and larger with every page.

The eventual solution to what happened to the three girls is dazzling, ingenious, gasp-provoking – and fairly improbable – but, hey, this is a cleverly constructed and blissfully entertaining novel and no lesser person than Aristotle, in his Poetics, declared

“for it is probable that many things may take place contrary to probability.”

Riley Sager is the pseudonym of a New Jersey author who has published several mysteries under his own name, Todd Ritter. Last Time I Lied is published by Ebury Press (an imprint of Penguin Random House) and will be out on 12th July.

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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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