The Slaughter Man by Tony Parsons

The Slaughter Man | Tony Parsons | 2015 | Century | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Slaughter Man by Tony ParsonsIt’s New Years Eve but for one family it’s not time to celebrate, it’s time to die. DC Max Wolfe and his team find the horrific remains of a family – mother, father, son, daughter – brutally slain within their expensive home in a North London exclusive gated community. But the youngest child, a boy little more than a toddler, is missing, presumed kidnapped. The Wood family would seem to have had it all – happiness, looks, wealth – but for one killer this was more than enough reason to slaughter them like cattle, his weapon a stun gun.

Wolfe pays a visit to Scotland Yard’s Black Museum, following a hunch, and finds among its grim displays details of similar murders – The Slaughter Man wiped out the men of a family thirty years before using the same type of weapon. But he has done his time and is now back with his own community of travellers, who live in a camp nearby. They do not react well when the police come calling.

The Slaughter Man is not an easy book to put down. Its opening, horrifying chapter sets up a pace that does not stop until the end. Its mystery is an intriguing one. The Wood family appears perfect but, as one might expect, appearances are one thing and reality is another. Tony Parsons paints a vivid picture of rich and woody North London but he also takes us to other parts of the city, the volatile travellers camp, and the lethal underworld of vice and crime, as well as the places where all worlds meet. It’s a twisty journey and the conclusion is both thrilling and a satisfying surprise.

Max Wolfe is an interesting character and he is one of the biggest draws of this series. He’s a single dad, not yet over the pain of his ex-wife beginning a new life and family, with a lovely daughter, Scout, and a faithful dog, Stan. The happiness of this threesome is a welcome relief through the dark parts of the novel (of which there are many). I particularly enjoyed the scenes when they go about Smithfields on their daily walk. As a single father, Max relies on friends for help and these loving characters are a stark contrast to plenty of other people we meet through the course of the investigation.

I had a couple of minor gripes with the novel but they are small and had no impact on my enjoyment of the book, which was considerable. I had to keep double checking that Wolfe is just a Detective Constable. He seems to act with much more authority than that, listened to by his superiors and respected. He also has a habit of rushing into dangerous hotspots with no backup, even if that backup is just a few minutes away. As a result, people get hurt. But counteracting that is Wolfe’s likeable nature and his conviction. He wants a better world for his beloved daughter and, if necessary, he’ll die making it. I was intrigued by other members of Wolfe’s team and I hope we learn more about them in future books.

The Slaughter Man is well-written, intense and dark crime fiction with a strong sense of place and a great plot. I look forward enormously to following Max Wolfe through his career – let’s hope he survives it!

The Real Lives of Roman Britain by Guy de la Bédoyère

The Real Lives of Roman Britain | Guy de la Bédoyère | 2015 | Yale University Press | 264p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Real Lives of Roman Britain by Guy de la BédoyèreThe Romans brought much more with them to Britain than roads, sanitation and posh tablewares – their obsession with recording the smallest of details, the most insulting of curses, as well as a habit of letter writing, means that for the first time in the island’s history we are able to learn the identities of a small number of individuals. Through their words, we can begin to build up a picture – albeit a fragmentary jigsaw – of what life was like in Britain almost two thousand years ago. And then there are also the accounts which preserve Rome’s attitude to this distant bit of empire – they didn’t think much of it.

But although Britain might have been a drafty backwater, it still contained a number of people who began to think of themselves as Roman, changing their names, their housing, their way of life, perhaps enlisting in the army, serving and dying overseas, perhaps owning slaves, then later freeing them, climbing the social ladder. It’s arguable how much or little life changed for the poor working in the fields but for those with Roman coins in their pockets it was sometimes appropriate to express their status in inscriptions, tomb monuments, villa mosaics, bling. And because of all of this we are able to learn a little about the real lives of Roman Britain.

This is the Roman Britain that Guy de la Bédoyère evokes in his excellent and very accessible history. It is a province populated by a colourful mix – native Britons as well as people pulled from across the Empire, many finding their way here through army service, or servicing the army. Following a broad chronological structure, de la Bédoyère examines the surviving evidence to examine what life – and livelihoods – were like from the conquest through to the withdrawal of the legions in the early 5th century. The emperors aren’t ignored – de la Bédoyère takes us to Rome to uncover the plans these men had for the distant province – but the emphasis is strongly on lives in Roman Britain and these cross all ranks and social scales. We have governors and administrators, centurions and ordinary soldiers, tradesmen and prosperous freedmen, potters and craftsmen. The evidence comes from all manner of sources, including graffiti on tiles and pots, mosaic symbols, to grand monument inscriptions, which, tellingly, were sometimes forgotten after a century, dismantled and reused in later Roman buildings.

Not surprisingly, most of the written evidence covers the male Roman world, indeed the free male world, but there are glimpses of female life, albeit mostly wealthy female life, thanks to letters which survive from Vindolanda as well as tomb memorials from elsewhere.

But while The Real Lives of Roman Britain gave me a great deal to think about, it also made me realise just how little surviving evidence there is and what does survive is often fragmentary and in a poor state. So few lives are represented. Very occasionally a person is known from two or more inscriptions but this is most unusual. A person pops up in the record, gives us a little detail about their lives, sometimes very mundane, and then disappears from history again. But these little fragments do tell us that there would have been a wealth of evidence that’s now gone, that these glimpses of past lives are just a taste of the generations of life that shaped Britain during these centuries. It is all hugely intriguing and frustrating at the same time.

Archaeological evidence is also used to throw light on Roman lives and some of it is striking, not least the evidence for ancient murders, or the remains of many infant burials under one roof. This is just as compelling as the remains of grand villas and palaces. But it is in these villas that there are signs of early Christian worship and there is evidence of fascinating continuity of activity at one site in particular.

Guy de la Bédoyère makes a distant period and distant lives accessible. Known from Time Team, he knows how to communicate the past and he knows how to pick those little bits of evidence that strike a chord more than any other, bringing the driest of sources to life. This book would make an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to know more about what life was like two thousand years ago along the roads and in the towns that are still such an important part of Britain today.

The book includes plates and substantial notes.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Seveneves | Neal Stephenson | 2015 | Borough Press | 880p | Review copy | Buy the book

Seveneves by Neal StephensonOn a day that started like any other but became known as Day Zero, an unidentified ‘agent’ blew up the moon. Upon impact the moon broke up into seven pieces, the Seven Sisters, that continued to orbit the Earth. For a week, everyone’s biggest fear was the identity and nature of the unknown agent. Could what happened to the moon happen to the Earth? But then Doc Dubois, celebrity astronomer and TV scientist, woke up with a shock – the biggest threat to the Earth wouldn’t come from a repeat of the moon’s fate, it would come from the moon itself. Dubois must inform the world of its approaching annihilation, of the Hard Rain that would fall, that would destroy life on Earth, in less than two years.

The International Space Station, ‘Izzy’, immediately becomes the focus of Earth’s attention as its leaders attempt to pacify the world’s population with the promise that although they might die their species will not. Izzy will become the hub of an Ark, lots will be cast, a few thousand people will be saved, the DNA and embryos of many other species and humans will be stored aboard. There is hope. Even though most have little cause to do anything but despair.

Seveneves is an extraordinary, magnificent novel. Within its 900 pages it contains an astonishing and meticulous depiction of mankind’s efforts to survive, day by day, bolt by bolt, as the Space Station is transformed. We grow enormously close to its crew, especially Dinah, an expert in robotic technology, and Ivy, the Station’s commander, but there are others, including Dubois, and the numbers grow as more and more people are rocketed to the Space Station, attaching new habitats. Many of these early arrivals are mere sacrifices, giving their lives as they work tirelessly, endlessly, to build habitats that others may live in. Humanity cannot survive without extreme heroism on the part of many. Sometimes the maddest of ideas turn out to be the best of solutions – mankind is evolving fast to survive.

Two thirds of the novel follows in enormous detail life, sometimes barely a life, aboard the Space Station as well as the other vessels and habitats that work towards the survival of the Ark. Hundreds of pages are devoted to this, no detail is too small, nothing too little not to worry the crew and scientists. There are countless problems to overcome. But the detail never becomes too much. It is absolutely fascinating. This is hard science fiction and it is done brilliantly – the tension never eases, the human drama increases, everyone trying not to look at the Earth they have left behind. This effort to detach emotionally from Earth’s fate is powerfully moving and is never lost amongst the science. The goodbyes are dealt with quickly but how could they be done differently? This is too huge. The trauma is too great. Survival is in the detail.

The final third moves us on five thousand years and from this point on the novel shifts in another direction entirely. Now the author directs that attention to detail to describing the future of humanity. This section strongly contrasts with what has gone before and it does take some getting used to but it does succeed, largely because of the lavish descriptions of the new worlds and technologies and its treatment of the bioengineering that has transformed mankind. The play of the book’s title means something here just as it did at the beginning with the moon’s Seven Sisters. There are some huge ideas at work in this final section, some of which also take us right back to the start. I found the ending completely satisfying.

For me, the first two thirds of this novel is nigh on perfect science fiction. If you were to give me a checklist of what I wanted from SF then this would tick most of the boxes. The plot seemed made for me – end of the world, space stations and space ships, heroism, weakness, action scenes that take the breath away and ideas and visions that make the jaw drop. This had it all. My only issue with this part of the novel was that one baddie in particular seemed too conventional and familiar. But this was more than compensated for by the other characters, not least of whom is the incredible Tekla. There are so many strong women in this book. I appreciated every one of them. Dealing with loss is something that everyone in this novel must endure and as the book goes on the pain of this only increases.

Seveneves is the first Neal Stephenson book I’ve read. I was attracted to it by its themes and promise of hard science fiction. I love SF brickbooks and Seveneves proved irresistible. This is a saga to lose oneself in. It is rich, layered, alive. Its detail is absolutely fascinating and complements perfectly the scenes of high drama. The meticulously presented ordeal of surviving day by day on the Ark contrasts with the later section’s elaborately developed and grand view of mankind’s future. Seveneves is a triumph – I cannot praise it enough.

Day Four by Sarah Lotz

Day Four | Sarah Lotz | 2015 (21 May) | Hodder & Stoughton | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Day Four by Sarah LotzFor the passengers aboard the cruise liner the Beautiful Dreamer the first three days of their trip were a delight. The ship might not be top notch exactly but there was very little to complain about, there was even a famous medium aboard to entertain the passengers with regular séances. But then came Day Four. At first the power went off, all communications were lost and the ship came to a complete stop. As the hours pass and the toilets block up and food begins to go off, it becomes more and more of an inconvenience. It begins to become something else entirely when passengers and crew begin to get ill and one young woman is found dead in her cabin, murdered. And still the ship stands dead in the water.

Day Four follows hot on the heels of one of my very favourite novels of 2014, The Three, a truly chilling tale indeed. Both take place within the same universe but each can be read independently of the other, in either order. But for the full effect, the full cold blast of terror, I would really recommend that you read them as written, The Three and then Day Four. There are little links between the two, the occasional mention of a familiar name, but it’s the spirit of this universe that means that Day Four provided me with extra insight into The Three. The main reason to read them both, though, is that each book is marvellous and, as a pair, they construct a fabulous world of horror in which nothing can be relied upon or trusted and in which there is much to be feared.

Day Four might be as frightening as The Three, if not more so, but it has a very different style to it. The passengers aboard the Beautiful Dreamer are trapped in a claustrophobic hell, a deteriorating situation, marooned far from civilisation. But what begins as a thrilling disaster adventure soon becomes something else as some of the passengers and crew, most especially the medium, begin to exhibit very strange behaviour. The chapters move through the decks, giving us a glimpse into the increasing bewilderment and horror of a range of people, each with their own stories to tell about why they’re on the cruise. There is so much going on, so many things unknown, so much that is hiding, creeping through the increasingly dark and rancid decks.

And that is as much as I’m going to say about what goes on aboard the Beautiful Dreamer. You need to discover it for yourself. You need to get to know these people and see the events through their shifting perspectives. I found Day Four to be both thrilling and frightening, a perfect combination. I loved every page of it, perhaps even more than I did The Three. I love the claustrophobic atmosphere, the strong sense of place, the fine suspense-laden, witty prose of Sarah Lotz. I loved that it stands alone while still throwing a shade of light onto the brilliantly creepy world of The Three. It makes me wonder what on earth Sarah Lotz will write next and if she will continue with this dark place that she’s created. Truly accomplished and confident, it chills from the first to very last page. Neither book, however, does much to raise my confidence in transportation. Getting from A to B will never be the same again. It might be best to stick with walking from now on. But perhaps not in the dark…

Other review
The Three

You Are Dead by Peter James

You Are Dead | Peter James | 2015 (21 May) | Macmillan | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

You are Dead by Peter JamesLogan Somervile knows she is not alone when she arrives in her building’s underground car park in Brighton. Frightened, she calls her fiance Nick Walton. But to his horror, Nick answers only to hear the screams of the woman he loves as she is stolen away. On the same day, during building work, the remains of a woman long dead are found under the pathway to the Big Beach Cafe. During the postmorten, a branded mark is found burnt into the woman’s forehead. It’s not long before another long dead body is found and another young woman is abducted. However unlikely it may seem, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace becomes convinced that the two cases are linked – that a serial killer who got away with murder thirty years before is back to terrorise Brighton.

You are Dead is the eleventh novel in Peter James’s highly successful Roy Grace series but, I’m afraid to say, it is my first. As a newbie to crime fiction it’s important to me that I can dive into a series wherever I choose and then, should I wish, buy up the back list to catch up in leisure. This works extremely well here. The book made me feel at home with the characters straight away. There are two major themes that run through the novel which have their roots in the past – the funeral of a police office who died in the line of duty during the previous novel and the longstanding story of the disappearance of Roy’s first wife Sandy ten years ago. It was very easy to catch up with these strands without worrying about what I’d missed but they also made me very keen to go back and catch up. Roy is now remarried – hopefully to someone who will remain extremely understanding about his long days – with a baby son. The events of You Are Dead take place while this new family is busy moving house into the country. The Sandy story line has therefore become extremely sensitive as Roy begins his new life. There are developments here that could have repercussions in the future. It’s very hard to look away from this story, feeling as we do for Roy and, after all this time, Sandy.

The mystery at the heart of You Are Dead is a gripping one. This is a race against time. Roy is sure that Logan is still alive, that the murderer wants to play games with the police, almost that he wants to leave clues. There are red herrings, as you’d expect, but they are particularly teasing. The novel follows three narratives, that of Roy’s investigation, of Logan’s suffering and another which dips into the mind of the killer. This movement keeps the pace fast and the tension high.

I enjoyed the complexity of the murder investigation. Roy Grace is a very senior detective and he runs a fascinating case, dealing with an irritating senior officer (although I think he’s slowly warming to him) but deftly handling many lines of inquiry. His team is clearly very fond of him, united as they all are in the funeral of their colleague which plays such an important part in this novel, forming its heart. The investigation itself is meticulously presented, the team integrated, the clues well presented. This is a great police procedural.

I did guess some of the ending, but not enough of it to spoil it. There was more of a sense of waiting for Grace to catch up with our insight as we were given the benefit of being a step ahead. But there are shocks in store, nonetheless.

My only issue with the novel is with some of the dialogue, especially between Roy and his wife Cleo, but also between Roy and members of his team. It’s all very loving and a little cloying – there are lots of ‘darlings’ and ‘dears’. Having said that, it was really rather pleasant to read a novel in which there were far fewer swear words. So, if I had to choose one above the other, I’d keep the ‘darlings’.

I thoroughly enjoyed You Are Dead. It is a confident and polished novel, incorporating a fine depiction of the police at work, backed up by the personal stories of Roy, a man I liked very much indeed, and his colleagues. Very few people feel as if they are just a name. I liked the Brighton setting very much and the mystery itself was extremely intriguing. I will definitely be keeping my eye on Roy Grace in the future. I’ve already bought a few more from the series to investigate.

Blood and Steel by Harry Sidebottom (Throne of the Caesars II)

Blood and Steel | Harry Sidebottom | 2015 (21 May) | HarperCollins | 419p | Review copy | Buy the book

Blood and Steel by Harry SidebottomIn March AD 238 the Emperor Maximinus was challenged for the imperial throne by Gordian the Elder and Younger, father and son, who declared themselves joint emperors. Their aim was to seize control of the empire from the barbarian Maximinus and return it to Rome’s rightful heirs, the patrician descendants of the original Caesars. Despite being based in north Africa, the Gordiani were able to send envoys to the Senate in Rome where, through peaceful means as well as foul, they staged a successful coup, safe in the knowledge that Maximinus was distracted and otherwise engaged by war in the north. They now had to consolidate their control in the short time they had before Maximinus awoke to the revolt and hurried south with Rome’s most battle-hardened, experienced legions.

Blood and Steel picks up exactly where Iron and Rust left off. While that previous novel dealt with the three years that saw Maximinus rise to power, convincingly combining his talents as general, thug and murderer, Blood and Steel focuses on the tumultuous events of this one particular month of March 238. Its technique is the same as before. The narrative moves across the empire, shifting perspectives among some of the key figures of the day, representing both sides, including rich and poor, male and female, but mostly ambitious, determined, untrustworthy men. Prominent amongst them are the main protagonists – the Gordiani and Maximinus and his despicable son, a son that Maximinus knows he must outlive. Other perspectives come from people familiar to us from Iron and Rust, such as the able administrator Timesitheus, Pupienus, Prefect of the City of Rome, and Iunia Fadilla, the unfortunate woman married to Maximinus’s son. Others include Priscus, the Governor of Mesopotamia, Capelianus, the Governor of Numidia, and Decius, the Governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, and other extremely influential figures. The whole empire is in crisis, lines are drawn, allegiances are made and broken, armies begin to mobilise. Other lives take us into the streets of Rome, inhabited by prostitutes, soldiers, tradesmen and die cutters. When the Gordiani declared in Africa, everyone across the whole empire of Rome was about to be affected.

One story that I especially enjoyed was that of Menophilus, one of the Gordiani envoys to Rome. Here is a man with ideals who realises that he is slowly becoming the brute he detests. One of the reasons why the Senate was so quick to replace Maximinus was the man’s cruelty – letters arrive regularly from the Northern front listing the latest victims of his conscriptions. But Menophilus must go further than the Gordiani to end this regime of terror – he must kill with his bare hands in their name.

The structure of the novel ensures that this is a book of action, moving quickly back and forth across the empire, taking us into the camps of both Maximinus and the Gordiani. There are some intriguing portraits. Maximinus’s view of himself tallies in no way at all with the way that the world perceives him and his relationship with his son contrasts starkly with the opposing father-son relationship of the Gordiani. It is between these two, particularly as the novel progresses, that we have some glimpse of the ideals and nobility in action that they find so easy to profess in words. As history closes in on Maximinus and the Gordiani, I found myself increasingly moved. There are other characters, though, that deserved everything that the fates could throw at them.

This is a book about warfare (civil war, no less) but it is equally about politics and the picture it paints of the empire during this period does not cover it in glory, although it does make it utterly compelling. The deceit and corruption amongst the higher ranks is matched by the underhand actions of the lower ranks in Rome’s streets, in particular the lengths to which the prostitute Caenis must go to survive. There’s nothing noble here. The poor are as bad as the rich, although perhaps with more urgent cause. And they are all fascinating.

With Blood and Steel, Harry Sidebottom confirms the appeal of the Throne of the Caesars series. Although set at a simiilar time to his successful Warrior of Rome series, I find this new series much easier to engage with – it draws me into the very heart of this extraordinary period of unrest and upheaval, dominated by astonishing individuals. This period is made for historical fiction but it works here so well because it is written by an author who is not only an authority on the period but who also knows how to combine knowledge with the ability to tell a good tale.

As you’d expect from a Harry Sidebottom novel, Blood and Steel is supported by notes, a hugely useful cast of main characters and, most particularly here, a copious glossary of almost 50 pages. At the end of the novel, the reader has not only enjoyed themself, they’ve also learned something about a period of history that shouts out for attention.

Other reviews
Throne of the Caesars I: Iron and Rust
Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East

The Forgotten Room by Lincoln Child

The Forgotten Room | Lincoln Child | 2015 | Doubleday | 304p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Forgotten Room by Lincoln ChildJeremy Logan, a Yale University academic, is a famous enigmalogist, frequently appearing on magazine covers and on TV discussing his latest mystery, whether it’s Atlantis, an ancient Egyptian curse or the Loch Ness Monster. Now he is recalled to LUX, a science thinktank where Logan worked a decade before (leaving under something of a cloud) that is based within an isolated and old mansion on the shore of Long Island. Willard Strachey, one of their most eminent and respected members of staff, has just killed himself, in full view of CCTV, in the most horrific way. For days before he had acted in the most erratic and uncharacteristic manner, mumbling to himself before finally shouting out to everyone around him, increasingly violent and distressed. Until the day it became too much.

Logan is asked to investigate the reasons for Strachey’s strange change of behaviour. He soon discovers, though, that there are ‘others’. More people have exhibited strong compulsions to self-harm, although, fortunately, for them, these moments have passed. As Logan digs deeper, with the help of Strachey’s research assistant, he discovers that the mystery dates from the time of Strachey’s latest project. As a man deeply interested in historical architecture, Strachey had been asked to help renovate the abandoned West Wing of the great house, working with architects and builders to restore its rooms. But Strachey found one room more forgotten than others, sealed from the rest of the house and with no sign of there ever having been a door or windows. Logan, following in Strachey’s footsteps, finds strange items in the Forgotten Room, a machine, protective suits, but most of all Logan senses something evil. And whatever it is is now loose.

The Forgotten Room is the fourth novel in Lincoln Child’s Jeremy Logan series. While I haven’t read the last, The Third Tomb (it still sits on my shelf), I have read and enjoyed the first two, Deep Storm and Terminal Freeze. Both provided exciting and intriguing escapist fun. In this latest novel, the theme is the American haunted house. LUX’s mansion has a past, it is haunted by its previous occupants, a family that knew little but despair. It is difficult to reach, located by a cliff against which the waves crash. Its mysteries are sealed up behind the walls of its abandoned West Wing. Jeremy Logan is extremely sensitive to the supernatural. He believes in it and he can feel it. When he opens up The Forgotten Room, the reader is ready to be terrified.

It is unfortunate, then, that for this reader at least, The Forgotten Room fails to live up to the potential of its premise and opening chapters. The atmosphere, location and terrible fate of Strachey hooked me instantly but this mood was lost when the mystery begins to take on a more pedestrian and distinctly unglamorous angle. It’s a short novel, at about 300 pages, but at about the halfway point it begins to drag.

Lincoln Child writes well but there were elements that did grate – I particularly didn’t like the moment when Strachey’s research assistant asked Logan if she could hold his hand while he interviewed her as she found she could relate to people better if touching them. This didn’t strike me as at all probable. At one point, Logan is almost chased off the cliff edge by a rogue driver but this is never mentioned again. It hardly bothers him at all. And there are other moments like that which pulled me out of the story. I am more than happy to suspend my sense of disbelief and believe the incredible when I read a mystery thriller but if a character doesn’t feel ‘true’ then that’s a different matter entirely.

This is a novel that uses all of the familiar themes of the haunted house novel, setting the reader up for one thing and then rather disappointing them, at least me, by delivering something else. This, in tandem with the fact that the novel becomes rather dull and slow, losing any sense of fear that its earlier chapters created, means that The Forgotten Room failed to fulfil my criteria of what a mystery thriller should be. First and foremost, it should entertain and thrill, which it didn’t. However, I have read and enjoyed Lincoln Child’s novels in the past and I am sure that I will do so again. I suspect, though, that I shall keep my distance from Jeremy Logan in the future.