Severed by Peter Laws

Allison and Busby | 2019 (24 January) | 380p | Review copy | Buy the book

Severed by Peter LawsWhen teenager Micah takes an axe to his father, a vicar, in front of his horrified congregation in church, Matt Hunter is called in to help DS Jill Bowland find out why the boy should have committed such a terrible crime. Micah’s final words to his father had been in Aramaic, there is an element of ritual about the attack, and there are rumours that Micah had been involved with a mysterious group of devil worshippers. Matt, before he lost his faith, was a reverend. Matt now makes his living as a professor exploring the sociology of religion. He knows better than most how complicated man’s relationship to God is. He’s seen it all, or so he thinks, and some of it isn’t entirely explicable.

Micah isn’t the only child to be caught up in this cult. Ever is a ten-year-old boy and he carries the weight of their world on his shoulders. Matt must confront this world one terrifying, stormy, bloody night.

Severed is the third novel in Peter Laws’ series featuring Professor Matt Hunter. These are books that always go to the top of my reading mountain, partly, I think, because of their enticing mix of crime and horror. Matt is an expert in religion and so the cases he advises on always have a touch of the unknowable about them – they depict a battle between good and evil. One suspects that demons may well exist in these shadows while angels have fled.

The action takes place over just a couple of days and this certainly adds to the intensity as Matt finds himself caught up in something that at first he didn’t recognise. The novel begins with humour – Peter Laws always knows how to make me laugh in his books and I laughed out loud with this one. There’s such absurdity and nonsense and it’s wonderful. There’s such love between Matt and his wife and daughters. They are the light, their world is humorous and caring, but over the course of these two days, they will be immersed in blackness.

Severed is especially sinister and menacing. I found it truly frightening at times. There is a hint of horror about it and that’s frightening in itself but, even without that, the cult’s beliefs are terrifying and the damage being done to the children is horrendous. The murders are brutal and shocking. There was one section I wasn’t able to read, it was too graphic for me. But I can see why the evil is presented like this. It can’t be allowed to hide. But there were times when I had to look away.

The characters here are brilliantly created, whether they’re good or evil. We only have two days but they are developed so fully within this short period of time. Matt as ever is a fantastic character. He has seen some dreadful things in his time, they haunt him, but he deals with it by loving his family. I liked that. The darkness is mostly without, not within, for Matt. As for the baddies here, they are truly nasty! Although one’s heart weeps for Ever.

Severed is dark but it is enthralling and once again demonstrates why Peter Laws is an author to follow. His books are thrilling and action-packed but they’re also clever and interesting, with an unusual perspective. They affirm the joy of life, despite the horrors that can lie in ambush, and this is most memorably displayed here in a chase involving a certain giant duck. You do not want to miss that!

Other reviews


The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

HarperCollins | 2019 (24 January) | 394p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Hunting Party by Lucy FoleyEvery year a group of old friends gets together to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Most of them know each other from their golden days at Oxford University some years ago but two, Miranda and Katie, became best friends when they were at school. Through the years they’ve gathered partners and lovers and they, too, are now part of the group, although Katie is still single. She knows that means she’ll get the smallest room…. This particular year, Emma, the newest member to the group, has arranged the trip and the destination is a remote lodge by a loch in the Scottish Highlands. Emma’s keen for it to go well. But when a wintry storm strikes and the lodge is cut off from the outside world, then you just know it’s only time before something goes wrong, before there is a murder. Because there is nobody on this hunting party without a secret.

The Hunting Party has such an appealing premise. It has that Agatha Christie vibe of a small group of people cut off from the world (ideally by bad weather as here) and one of them is murdered. It’s claustrophobic, dark and compelling. And you just know that there are going to be surprises.

The novel’s narrative moves between several of the protagonists, which include the hosts at the lodge as well as the guests, notably the rather dark and moody gamekeeper. The action takes place in the ‘Now’, after the body is discovered, and in the two or three days leading up to the murder. During this time we get to know everyone and the dynamics of their relationships. There’s a salacious pleasure in watching the strings that bind these people together wither. They each have their secrets, a space within themselves that nobody else can enter, but perhaps the time to clear the air has come.

The Hunting Party is a tense and fast read. With so much drama going on the pages almost turn themselves. But I didn’t entirely get along with it. I think this is partly because out of all of the characters in the book, I didn’t like a single one of them. That shouldn’t really matter but, when you’re trying to work out who killed whom, it makes it less of a puzzle when you’re actually not bothered and rather think they all deserve it. The author definitely had some fun with these people. Miranda, the beautiful one, is outrageous! In fact, it’s the women who have the most character. The men are a bit limp, with the exception of the moody gamekeeper.

The other main issue I had with the novel is that these people have far too many secrets or hidden angst. There isn’t one settled person amongst them. This made me wonder how they could have celebrated so many New Year Eves together in the past without killing each other – why wait til now?

Nevertheless, The Hunting Party is a fun read, especially during a long dark evening and the Highland setting, although not explored in depth, is a suitably chilly setting for this atmospheric tale of murder.

Golden State by Ben H. Winters

Century | 2019 (24 January) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Golden State by Ben H. WintersThe laws of Golden State require a certain kind of enforcer and Laz Ratesic, in his 50s, a veteran of the special police, is one of the best there is. Perhaps there has been only one better – Charlie, Laz’s brother. Laz is a Speculator. He can detect lies, just from an inflection in the voice or from the smallest movement of a face muscle and from them he can construct the truth. It’s an extraordinary skill and a vital one, too, because in Golden State to lie is illegal. Telling just one lie can result in years of imprisonment or even exile into whatever it is that lies outside the confines of Golden State. Nobody knows what’s out there. Like the past, it’s not knowable and isn’t to be questioned. But nobody wants to go outside.

Laz believes in his job. He’s proud that he’s so good at it. He believes it’s for the common good. But just because people can’t lie, it doesn’t mean that other crimes can’t be committed and one day he is sent on a case that will change everything. With a young partner to teach in tow, Laz is sent to investigate the suspicious case of a man who has fallen from a roof to his death. Nothing about the death makes sense, not least the discovery of an actual work of fiction, which tells a story – a lie. But that’s just the beginning.

I’m a big fan of Ben H. Winters’ novels – I loved the apocalyptic trilogy, The Last Policeman – and so I was very keen to read Golden State. This time we’re taken to a dystopian city in the future. It’s a place that reminds us of California, although nobody in Golden State would have heard of such a name. The powers that be strongly believe that that Golden State is held together by truths and so everybody greets each other, not with a pleasantry, but with an irrefutable truth. Truth is almost a religion, depositories of truths are regarded as temples.

There is some fascinating worldbuilding at work here. Ben H. Winters describes the different areas and public buildings of the state so vividly. We see people going about their everyday lives – Laz particularly cares about food – and it almost seems normal until you realise how small this world is, how unquestioning it is, and how susceptible to manipulation it is. People watch CCTV instead of normal television; a novel is non-fiction; all one’s thoughts, deeds and transactions are written up in one’s Day Book. I was so intrigued to learn what remained beyond Golden State but that is a speculation forbidden to all in Golden State but Speculators.

Laz is a strange one. You’d have thought that he would be difficult to warm to, he’s such an enthusiastic agent of the dystopian state. And there is such unkindness, not to mention barbarism, in the sentences that are handed down to people who utter a lie or, through illness, are unable to fathom the truth. Yet I did like Laz very much, especially as the novel goes on and he starts to question the tiny world around him.

I must admit that I did get a little lost with the actual case itself. It’s complicated and, as you’d expect with conspiracies, little can be taken at face value. There is also a twist which I didn’t really care for. Having said all that, everything around the case really did appeal to me, especially the way in which it all ends. I love Ben H. Winters’ ideas. How he can create fearful worlds or situations and put people into them who could seem ordinary but become exceptional. And if you haven’t read The Last Policeman trilogy yet, do!

Other reviews
The Last Policeman
Countdown City (The Last Policeman 2)
World of Trouble (The Last Policeman 3)

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

HarperCollins | 2018 | 448p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Woman in the Window by A.J. FinnPsychologist Dr Anna Fox lives in a glorious, several stories high town house in New York City. It even has a garden on the roof. But for ten months Anna has confined herself within its walls. Very occasionally she has stepped outside for a few steps, a therapist by her side and a protective umbrella clasped in her hand for comfort. But invariably such experiments have ended in debilitating panic attacks. Anna is an agoraphobic and she suffers from the very worst kind. Ironically, she is qualified to advise others with the condition, and she does that daily on an online forum, but she is little able to help herself. Instead, she copes in the best way that she can – playing online chess, watching classic black and white movies, drinking merlot, sitting at her window to watch her neighbours carrying on with their lives, talking to the husband and daughter who left her.

But then one day Anna sees something through the window that shocks her out of the life she’s created for herself. Anna witnesses a murder. But who will believe her? Perhaps she doesn’t even believe herself. But Anna must try and discover the truth of what she saw, for the sake of her own sanity if for no other reason. And she must hang on to that sanity with all her might.

The Woman in the Window is one of those psychological thrillers that has sold millions. This has happened in the past with Gone Girl and The Girl in the Train, two books that I didn’t get along with, and, as a result, I fought the urge to read this latest bestseller, helped by its title, which I really don’t care for. But then I saw it in Waterstones with its yellow sprayed edges and I was drawn to it with a force I couldn’t resist (clearly this type of marketing has a 100% success rate with me). And I am so glad. The Woman in the Window is not at all what I expected. There is so much more to this book than its mystery. In fact, you could remove it entirely and I’d still be engrossed. It’s interesting that the mystery only really takes hold about a quarter into the book. It almost wasn’t needed. Having said that, when it did come along, I was gripped by it. It adds to the tension, to the atmosphere of menace that Anna does her best to dispel in any way she can.

The main appeal of The Woman in the Window is Anna and A.J. Finn’s sensitive, kind, sad and, at times, witty portrayal of an agoraphobic woman’s self-confinement. Anna spoke to my heart and I adored her. Her story may well wring your heart out. It did mine. I cried on the bus. I could hardly stand to read some pages, they are so raw with what Anna has gone through. Yet, despite her agoraphobia and her drinking and pill popping, Anna is a survivor.

I loved the descriptions of Anna’s wonderful, dimly lit house as well as her profound relationship to every bit of its space. When it’s challenged from outside, we understand so sharply how terribly this undermines Anna’s coping strategies. I found some sections of the book genuinely frightening, while, during the first half of the book, I was simply fascinated and charmed by this beautiful, character-filled house.

I’ll say nothing here about the mystery. You may well guess the truth as I did but I don’t think that this detracts from a thing because this is a book about how a woman is held under siege, from without and from within. And we can understand so well why Anna is so consumed by what she sees through that window. I have personal experience of agoraphobia and I applaud how the condition is dealt with here. I really relate to it. There is a minor factual error about Oxford, which I’m sure nobody but me and a few others would notice, but that is the book’s only fault in my eyes!

I was completely engrossed and captivated by Anna and by The Woman in the Window. This is one of those books that, in my opinion, well deserves the hype, even if you might not realise from it exactly what kind of book you’re getting. This is much more than a psychological thriller in my opinion and the surprise of that is wonderful. And then there’s those yellow sprayed edges of the Waterstones special edition… Irresistible.

The Banker’s Wife by Cristina Alger

Mulholland Books | 2019 (10 January) | 341p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Banker's Wife by Cristina AlgerNewspaper journalist Marina is on holiday in Paris with her fiancé, Grant. Everything in the world seems beautiful and right. But then Marina takes a phone call late one night from her editor Duncan in the US. Duncan has been on the trail of Morty Reiss for years. Reiss is believed to have committed suicide but Duncan is convinced it was faked and that Reiss is at the centre of an enormous financial conspiracy. Exposing the truth could bring some of the world’s largest and most secretive banks and institutions to their knees. Duncan needs Marina to pick up a USB stick from his source and bring it back to America. It all sounds so simple. And then Duncan is found dead.

Annabel is a banker’s wife. They live a relatively luxurious life in Geneva. Annabel is keen to get back to America and back to her own business as an art dealer but, for the time being, she is supporting her husband Matthew as he settles down in this new role at one of the most prestigious Swiss banks. Then the private plane flying Matthew back from a trip to the UK crashes into the Alps. He is killed along with the glamorous woman he was travelling with. Annabel didn’t even know he had been abroad. None of this sounds like the Matthew who loved her so deeply. Annabel, stricken with grief, is determined to uncover the truth. Matthew’s employer offers Annabel every support, watching her very closely as she begins to dig.

The Banker’s Wife is a very entertaining and smart thriller set in the glamorous world of high finance and politics. It presents a heady mix of powerful financiers and politicians, living elite and luxurious lives, where money exists to fund influence and pleasure. It can also buy solutions to problems. Marina and Annabel don’t know each other and act independently but they soon prove very difficult for this world to ignore. The identity of Annabel’s fiancé adds to the pressure and the tension builds.

I found this book so hard to put down. It has a pleasingly complex plot and creates an enemy that is worthy of the fight. It’s exciting from the very start but the pace builds and builds as we follow the action around exotic locations, stunning houses and dark, perilous roads, twisting their way through the mountains. The chapters alternate between Annabel and Marina and each story is as compelling as the other. As time goes on, other characters’ viewpoints are introduced as the web expands.

My one issue with the thriller, and it’s a very minor point, is the emphasised physical perfection of several of its characters, especially the women. This is a world in which to succeed one must be beautiful and you don’t want to let something like murder, or running for your life, get in the way of looking good. But, having said all that, this novel depicts a glamorous, rather shallow world, there’s almost a fantasy, James Bond-like feel to it. This is not gritty drama played out over the kitchen sink. This thriller plays out in private planes, the poshest hotels and the most stunning countryside.

The Banker’s Wife is certainly well-written, fun and compelling. It kept me guessing, and on the edge of my seat, until the very end. I’m not surprised to hear that it’s to be made into a TV series. It’s perfect for the screen. I’ll look forward to seeing it and I also look forward to reading more by Cristina Alger.

Scrublands by Chris Hammer

Wildfire | 2019 (8 January; ebook was published 25 July, 2018) | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book

Scrublands by Chris HammerExactly a year ago, the small rural community of Riversend, a remote town surrounded by scrubland, was devastated by the shocking actions of its priest, Byron Swift. It was a Sunday just like any other with Swift about to carry out the church service at St James’s. But, having chatted with members of the congregation, Swift walked inside the church and came out a few minutes later armed. He shot dead five men before he too was killed by the town’s young constable, Robbie. Rumours followed, hinting that the priest was paedophile, but, when journalist Martin Scarsen arrives in Riversend to write a feature on how the town is doing a year on, he discovers that the priest was a popular, respected man, with at least two women in love with him. Swift’s actions seem inexplicable but Martin, who has his own healing to do, is determined to discover the truth. And for that to happen, he will immerse himself in Riversend and the lives of its people, an experience that will change his life. What he uncovers is extraordinary.

Riversend is a dying town. It is wracked by trauma, heat and drought. The river has dried up, shops have closed down, some people, especially those who scrape a subsistence in the scrublands themselves, are barely surviving. The threat of fire is constant and terrifying. And yet people don’t leave. They are tied to the town and Martin learns why. Nothing binds a community together quite as much as its secrets.

Scrublands is a truly immersive read. Just as Martin becomes almost obsessed by the curious town of Riversend, so we too become caught up in its story. It’s enthralling! Part of the reason is the character of Riversend itself. There’s not much to it but what there is we get to know very well indeed – its Oasis bookshop and coffee bar, the country club (the only place to get a cold beer), the boarded up wine saloon, the motel, the general store, the abandoned pub and the church, a place where people go to remember what happened a year before. And then there’s the surrounding scrubland with its isolated farms and homes. It’s all under attack from heat and drought. Water is a currency. Chris Hammer makes us feel the heat, dust and thirst, as Martin explores the town thoroughly.

And then there’s the people, so many with pleasing names such as Mandalay Blonde, Harley Snouch, and the unforgettable Codger Harris. They are all fully developed by Chris Hammer, each with his or her own distinct personality and story to tell. Martin couldn’t be better placed to get the scoop of his career.

It’s a complex plot and it becomes increasingly so as the book progresses and more and more press, police and special agents descend on the town. Everyone is edgy and it’s not surprising. This town runs on secrets. There are several threads running through the book. It’s Martin’s job, when he’s not falling hard for some of the town’s people, to knit them together and I couldn’t work out how on earth he would do it until the very end.

There is something wonderful atmospheric, oppressive and claustrophobic about Scrublands, just as there is about the town of Riversend. We’re led off in so many directions, all under that fiery relentless sun. This is impressive storytelling and already one of the crime thrillers to beat in 2019.

The Last Lie by Alex Lake

HarperCollins | 2018 (27 December) | 357p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The Last Lie by Alex LakeClaire Daniels could hardly be happier. She’s wealthy, living in a beautiful home and she’s married to a man she fell in love with at first sight and Alfie is still the man of her dreams. And she is the centre of his world. Claire needs only one thing more for her life to be complete – a child. Despite lots of fun trying, the results have all been negative and so it’s time now to seek medical advice. Alfie couldn’t be more supportive if he tried and Claire knows they’ll succeed.

If only Alfie didn’t hate Claire with every fibre of his being… Of course, Alfie has to hide this. He doesn’t want to lose access to her cash, after all. But he’s determined there will be no child. There can be no child. And so Alfie decides at last that he’s got to do something about it. Alfie is making plans for Claire.

I’m such a big fan of Alex Lake’s novels and, even though I’m not generally a lover of psychological novels, I am drawn to these books. He writes so well and knows how to fill his thrillers with page turning twists but, most of all, he creates people that I’m fascinated by – sometimes in a good way (as with Claire) but often in a deliciously bad way (as with Alfie). These people have such interesting and tortured lives, facing almost unbelievable situations, and we’re drawn into the uncertain tension of it all, longing to know how it will work out as secret upon secret, lie upon lie emerges.

Alex Lake’s books are page turners and The Last Lie is perhaps the biggest page turner of them all. In fact I read it in one sitting, staying with it until late into the night. The narrative moves between the perspectives of Claire and Alfie, their stories both complementing and conflicting with the other. It’s so well done and you can’t help getting all fired up as Claire fails to see what’s in front of her face. And Alfie is so arrogant and confident in his cruelty. His audacity is incredible to watch while we worry for Claire. Alfie digs us deeper and deeper into his dark mind. It’s a horrifying place to spend time but it’s also irresistible.

I loved the story at the heart of The Last Lie. There are elements that remind me of certain other best-known psychological thrillers (I’m not saying which on purpose) and, as a result, I did have a good idea how it was all going to develop. This didn’t mar my enjoyment one little bit as I really liked the ways in which it all comes together, not to mention its brilliant premise. It’s such a fun read.

The Last Lie is one of those rare books that compels you to finish it in one greedy gulp. I could not put it down. So, yet again, Alex Lake has shown me that I shouldn’t give up entirely on psychological thrillers. Now and again really excellent ones come along and, for me, The Last Lie is most definitely one of those.

Other reviews and feature
After Anna
Killing Kate
An interview