Category Archives: Crime

The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd

Century | 2017 (ebook 6 October; Hb 28 December) | 356p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Innocent Wife by Amy LloydDennis Danson has been on Death Row for over twenty years for the murder of the child Holly Michaels. Her mutilated body was found dumped in a swamp ten miles from her home in Red River County, Florida. Danson was himself just a teen at the time and the evidence was, to say the least, nebulous and so, with his movie star looks and charm, he has become the favourite of true crime documentary makers as well as fans who campaign for his release. When Mark shows his girlfriend Samantha, a school teacher in England, a documentary about Dennis Danson she becomes hooked on the man and on his case and soon she is lost in the online message boards and forums of his campaigners. She writes to him, he writes back. Samantha leaves her life in England behind to meet and then marry this convicted murderer.

And then the campaign succeeds. Dennis is released and now Samantha must make a life with a husband she barely knows. She has so much to learn…

The Innocent Wife has a fantastic premise and draws on that curious phenomenon of the lonely women who fall for men convicted of the worst of crimes. While the safety glass remains between the couple all is well, everything is managed and controlled, but when it is withdrawn and the convict is freed, suddenly trust becomes an issue. For them both, because we have much to learn about the motivations of Samantha as well as Dennis.

This is a dark psychological thriller that grips instantly and I read it all in half a day. It kept me up until well into the night because I simply had to know what was going to happen. Amy Lloyd expertly builds up the suspense and tension as Samantha learns more and more about the man that she has fallen in love with but hardly knows. And vice versa as well. Danson not only has to deal with freedom and life outside a prison for the first time in his adult life, he must also cope with the demands of a hungry media as well as living with Samantha. This raises all sorts of questions about what it is that makes couples compatible, the need for compromise and tolerance, and it is absolutely fascinating watching strangers marry. It’s the little things that often cause the arguments. But for Danson and Samantha there is so much more to contend with. It makes for a compelling read.

Samantha is ridiculously naive and compulsive and not at all easy to like. We see much of the story through her perspective and it does little to win us over to her, while it keeps Danson as an enigmatic and handsome stranger hidden in the shadows. But I did realise that these flaws in Samantha’s character are part of the point. She is lonely and isolated. She is susceptible and obsessive. And that’s why she flies across the ocean to Danson. But I didn’t care for her or Danson, although Danson’s predicament at times appears pitiable. The reader is an observer, detached yet incredulous of what we witness.

I did predict much of the plot. Some of the clues were a little too obvious and parts (particularly the beginning and the end) felt too rushed – all contributing to the rollercoaster pace of the novel – but that didn’t stop me gobbling it up. The speed did mean that this isn’t a book to dwell upon but for a holiday read An Innocent Wife did very well indeed.


The Fear Within by J.S. Law

Headline | 2017 (30 November) | 419p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

The Fear Within by JS LawNatasha Moore, only just 18 years old, has vanished without trace from HMS Defiance, the warship on which she serves. The ship was due to be in port for some time, with most of the crew enjoying the leave due to them, and so it took a while for Natasha’s absence to be noted. Naval investigator Lieutenant Danielle (Dani) Lewis is given the case. Dani is the Navy’s star investigator. The media love her and it’s not surprising considering the times that Dani puts her own life in danger to rescue the vulnerable. But it’s won Dani no favours with her bosses and, as ever, Dani must work to prove herself.

The case takes Dani deep into the ship politics of the Defiance. She is better aware than most of the nature of navy life, its maleness, the bullying, the long absences and the discomfort of the cramped living conditions and the isolation it brings. But the navy is in Dani’s blood. As she investigates Natasha’s disappearance, further clues emerge about the conspiracy that Dani unearthed during her previous case aboard the submarine Tenacity. The past daunts Dani. She must resolve it. But all the time she must keen an eye on the young woman that the navy almost forgot, Natasha Moore.

The Fear Within is the second novel in J.S. law’s series to feature naval investigator Dani Lewis. Things have moved on from Tenacity, now renamed The Dark Beneath just as Dan has now become Dani. The Fear Within is a tighter thriller, the case more complex, and Dani strides through it with the perfect mix of confidence and vulnerability. She might be far too headstrong on occasion, rushing in to situations when she should know better, but she is also so easy to like. This navy society is extremely rigid but Dani manages to cross its boundaries, bridging worlds and ranks. And in The Fear Within, Dani is at her very best. If you haven’t read The Dark Beneath yet and intend to then I certainly suggest you read that first (this second book does reveal some important details of the first).

The structure works very well, moving between Dani’s investigations onshore and aboard Defiance and the past story of Natasha during the months and weeks leading up to her disappearance. But there are more stories at play here which take Dani even deeper into her past. This movement and the layers that bring these cases together make this novel such a fascinating and absorbing novel. I enjoy the mix of new mystery combined with an older one that hangs over events like a shadow. Natasha is also a powerful presence and her story is the one that dominates.

It is, though, a disturbing novel. Navy life is shown here at its most unappealing, not least for the isolation of its young sailors, especially the female ones. I was troubled by it and found some aspects of the tale challenging to read. But I love how the author brings to his writing his experience of navy life. The prose is full of nautical terms. It feels very authentic. And the setting of the ship is fantastic. It doesn’t have the claustrophobia of the submarine Tenacity in The Dark Beneath, and most of it is set on a ship that’s docked and not at sea, but it’s nevertheless extremely atmospheric.

The Fear Within is a gripping and moody crime thriller with an unusual setting. This series certainly brings something original to the genre while also being extremely well-written. Dani is a fascinating main character. There is still so much to learn about her (and her family). I hear another book is on the way. Good news.

Other review
Tenacity/The Dark Beneath

The Death Messenger by Mari Hannah

Pan | 2017 (16 November) | 435p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The Death Messenger by Mari HannahA DVD is sent to Northumbria Police Headquarters. A lock-up drenched in blood fills the screen while an anonymous woman’s voice coldly describes the appalling scene. There is no body. So begins the challenging first case for a new special unit led by Detective Superintendent Eloise O’Neil. Detective Sergeant Matthew Ryan is the other core member of the unit but, when it becomes clear that there have been other DVDs, other blood-soaked rooms, O’Neil builds her team – it’s an unusual team, but it’s one she can trust. They all share a history.

They also share a commitment to tracking down a serial killer who appears to be playing games. The stakes are high, the victims prominent in society and yet random. They’re also scattered across the country and beyond. But, in order to crack the case, O’Neil and Ryan and their team must also look inwards, to try and heal the scars that threaten their investigation. Meanwhile the killer has an agenda of their own.

The Death Messenger follows on from The Silent Room, a superb novel that began Mari Hannah’s Matthew Ryan series. I’d definitely suggest that you read that marvellous book first because it provides such insight into the main characters and their complicated and heartfelt relationships, but, if you haven’t, you’ll find that The Death Messenger stands alone well.

As you’d expect from a Mari Hannah novel, this is a very clever mystery. The story is complex and moves along with a brisk speed. We’re placed in the midst of the case and little allowance is made for our status on the sidelines. We must pay attention. And it is absolutely fascinating. It’s also relatively gore-free. We have locations but few bodies. Instead, the novel focuses on the horrendous impact of murder on the partners and families of the victim, as well as on the investigative team.

The Death Messenger is a novel with a great deal of heart and warmth. Ryan and Eloise are fantastic characters, drawn with great depth and feeling, and their relationship is a joy to follow. Things have moved on from The Silent Room but they’re still walking on eggshells and it doesn’t help that they have Grace and Newman stirring the pot, two more characters that I’ve grown to love.

The Death Messenger is a clever novel, beautifully written and plotted, with characters I can’t get enough of. This doesn’t surprise me because Mari Hannah’s Kate Daniels’ series has just the same appeal. The Death Messenger confirms the Matthew Ryan series in my affections. Kate Daniels has a rival on her hands…

Other reviews
The Silent Room
Gallows Drop

Fire by L.C. Tylor

Constable | 2017 (2 November) | 295p | Review copy | Buy the book

Fire by LC TylerIt is 1666 and the Great Fire of London is ablaze. Lawyer John Grey heads out into the smoke and flames to try and help. Almost everybody is going in the other direction, escaping with what they can carry while their houses burn. Grey finds a body with somebody hunched over it who flees as Grey approaches. But the corpse is no victim of the fire. He has been stabbed.

London is looking for somebody to blame and, as the fire dies down, rumours spread of French involvement. This is the last thing the royal court of Charles II wants. The court is suspected of Catholicism. If the French did start the fire then Charles and his brother the Duke of York would be given a hefty share of the blame. And then a Frenchman, Robert Hubert, is arrested, admitting to starting the fire and also stabbing his French accomplice to death. John Grey is more than a lawyer. He is also the agent of Lord Ardlington, the Secretary of State, and Ardlington despatches Grey to discover the truth. When he interviews Hubert he finds a man barely in possession of his wits, repeating details that he has been trained to say. It’s clear that this is the work of a conspirator’s plot. And as Grey and his friend Lady Pole trace the clues deep into the smoking ruins and along London’s busy river, it becomes clear that nobody is in more danger than they are.

Fire is the fourth novel in L.C. Tyler’s John Grey series and almost ten years have passed since the events of the first novel A Cruel Necessity, which was set in 1657 during the Cromwellian Commonwealth. The series, in my opinion, got off to a slow start with the first two books but in the third, The Plague Road, everything came together and the result was an exciting, well-plotted and brilliantly witty historical mystery. I’m delighted to say that Fire is every bit as good. This is fine writing and the tension and danger of the mystery is complemented by the humour of the narrative and dialogue. The novel is set during the Restoration, a time of wit and elegance, as well as sin and debauchery, and this mood is captured so well in these books. Fire made me laugh out loud more than once, something that doesn’t happen too often.

John Grey is a fascinating character with a history as convoluted as you’d expect in a society that is still picking up the pieces after the Civil War of the 1640s and the miserable Commonwealth of the 1650s. He’s in love with Lady Aminta Pole, whose background is as complicated as Grey’s, but real life – and scandal – keeps getting in the way. These two are very easy to like, although I can’t help feeling extra regard for Will, Grey’s poor clerk and servant who seems to spend much of his time as a go-between and has more sense in his head than almost everybody else in Grey’s world.

The mystery is such a good one and the setting in London’s smouldering ruins is richly evocative. I really enjoyed the descriptions of the city, its firefighters and their rather ungainly machines, river crossings and the camps that are set up to house the newly homeless and hungry. The idea that tourists flocked within mere days to look at the traditional starting place for the fire on Pudding Lane is an appealing one. This is a London crammed full of interesting personalities of all classes. This isn’t just a story about Charles II’s court. It covers all of London. And there in its middle is Grey who’s like a dog with a bone. When his teeth are dug in there’s no way he’ll let go.

Fire is a short novel – which is perhaps my only not entirely serious complaint – and it is put together perfectly. Not a word of its witty prose is wasted. I’ve always been fascinated by the Great Fire of London and it’s hard to imagine anyone immersing me in these astonishing days with more skill and wit than L.C. Tyler. I can’t wait for the next.

Other reviews
A Masterpiece of Corruption
The Plague Road

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

HarperCollins | 1934 (this edn 2017; 19 October) | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

Below you’ll find first a review from my recent re-reading of Murder on the Orient Express. Beneath it, there’s my report of one of the most extraordinary days I think I’ll ever have…

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha ChristieIt is the early 1930s and there are few ways more luxurious to travel from Stamboul to London than on the glorious Orient Express. The train is full and so famous Belgian detective is fortunate to find a berth when a case he’s been working on calls him back to England in a hurry, curtailing a longed for time of rest among the wonders of the Turkish city. It is midwinter and after just a day and a night the train is stopped in its tracks by an impassable snowdrift. There is no choice but for everyone aboard to wait until help can arrive. But this can be of no concern to Mr Ratchett, the wealthy American businessman in the berth next to Poirot’s, for in the night he has been murdered, stabbed multiple times in his chest.

The passengers are trapped. And what a group they are, hailing from all over the world and from all walks of life, from an elderly Russian princess to a young English governess. Poirot has no doubt that amongst them he will find the killer, but which of them is it? And why are there so many clues? Too many clues for Hercule Poirot’s peace of mind.

I grew up on Agatha Christie’s novels and during my teenage years I read every single one of them (my young adult reading was Agatha Christie, Jean Plaidy and Arthur C. Clarke). Since then, I’ve returned to the Poirot books because these were always my favourites and, while Death on the Nile has always been the one I loved the most, Murder on the Orient Express has never been far behind.

The setting and circumstances of Murder on the Orient Express provide the perfect background for an Agatha Christie novel – the confined space, the exotic location, the limited number of suspects, the clever and seemingly unsolvable crime, the glamour, the passion. And while Agatha Christie demonstrates once more what a genius she was, the murder also gives Hercule Poirot one of his most perplexing cases as well as perhaps the biggest moral conundrum of his career.

I’ve read Murder on the Orient Express three times now and obviously I know who did it. I suspect there aren’t many who don’t – aided by the television and movie dramatisations of the novel over the years, including the most recent version directed and starred in by Kenneth Branagh. But somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. I enjoyed reading it again perhaps even more than I have done before. It didn’t hurt that I was reading such a beautiful celebratory hardback edition, or indeed that I actually carried it on to the Orient Express train itself, but it was a pleasure to read it in search of the clues. Knowing how it ended, I could observe Poirot at work as he interviews the passengers one by won and follows the clues.

There are elements that have aged less well than others, particularly in the regard of some characters for some nations. Snobbery is rife, class is everything, at least to some. But Poirot manages to bridge these cultural and social divides because he is an outsider and also because he’s more elegant and refined than the lot of them.

I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with this much loved novel again. I found Agatha Christie’s style refreshing, to the point, curt in places, but more often than not eloquent and elegant. It evokes a bygone world beautifully and so now the novel is as much a historical piece as a supremely successful crime novel. I enjoyed it for both and it inspired me to go back and re-read more. Hercule Poirot is extraordinary and it’s good to be reminded of this by rediscovering him where he was born – on the page.

Premiere report

On 2 November, I had a day unlike any other, all thanks to HarperCollins, Twentieth Century Fox and Agatha Christie Ltd. I can’t thank them enough because for one day I was treated like a movie star. I think I could get used to red carpets, five star hotels, premieres, and lots and lots of champagne. All the photos below were taken by me.

The day started with something I have always wanted to do – boarding the Orient Express train at St Pancras Station in London. I’ve seen the movie and obviously read the book and now here I was sitting in one of its plush seats in the glamorous bar carriage, listening to James Pritchard discuss the legacy of his great grandmother, Agatha Christie. Across the carriage was Agatha Christie’s portable typewriter. The last time it had been on the Orient Express it had been with her.

Orient Express

It was good to hear that more adaptations may follow Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. But the overriding impression I was left with was how incredible and intrepid Agatha Christie had been – to have travelled across the world on her own in a time before television to places that she could not have fully imagined in advance. I’ve always been interested in the story of Agatha Christie’s expeditions with her archaeologist husband Sir Max Mallowan but she did so much more than that. Agatha Christie and her husband are buried in the beautiful village of Cholsey, not too far from me, and I regularly pay my respects.

James Pritchard

The premiere experience at the Royal Albert Hall was unforgettable. I’ve been to a fair few premieres due to my movie blogging years but this was the first time I’ve been to one as a guest and it was incredible. With my special pass, I was able to access the areas with the stars and so watch them all be interviewed on the red carpet stage by Lorraine Kelly. It seems a long time ago since I used to go and see Kenneth Branagh on stage with his Renaissance theatre company. Now look at him! I was particularly thrilled to see Daisy Ridley and she looked beautiful.

Daisy Ridley
Daisy Ridley
Kenneth Branagh

The film itself was thoroughly entertaining although I was a bit overcome by the atmosphere inside of the Royal Albert Hall (I collected my degree in the Hall in another century and this was my first time back), the occasion, the sound system and by the amount of champagne. I was interested in the ways in which the film veered from the novel but I thought that the addition of the viaduct and the use of the outdoors for one of the most important scenes were inspired. I thought Branagh was fantastic as Poirot – completely different from David Suchet and Albert Finney (certainly from Peter Ustinov). This Poirot is a man of action as well as a genius with his little grey cells. The practicality of the moustaches is another matter entirely.

Johnny Depp
Josh Gad
Kenneth Branagh
Judi Dench
Royal Albert Hall

An extraordinary day and one I’m so thrilled and grateful to have experienced. It means a lot to me that this was all to celebrate Agatha Christie, an author who has played such a significant part in developing me as a reader and lover of books. Many years have passed and it’s so good to think that films such as this may give new generations a nudge to read and love Agatha Christie’s mysteries, just as their parents and grandparents have done.

Agatha Christie's TypewriterPoirot choccies

Thanks again to HarperCollins (Fliss), Twentieth Century Fox (Olivia) and Agatha Christie Ltd (Lydia) x

The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

Quercus | 2015 | 339p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Zig Zag Girl by Elly GriffithsIt is August 1950 and Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens is about to get an unpleasant surprise. Two large black cases have been recovered from the left luggage at Brighton’s railway station, reported as suspicious for their nasty stench. On opening them, Edgar is confronted with the head and legs of a woman sawn into three. The middle section soon follows but this black case, very disturbingly, is sent directly to Edgar. And there are notes as well, sent from a Mr Hugh D. Nee. The dead girl was clearly murdered in a way reminiscent of that famous magic trick – the Zig Zag Girl. This is just the sort of trick that Edgar’s wartime comrade and friend, and now a celebrated magician, the great Max Mephisto, would perform. And the coincidences don’t end there – Max is currently performing in Brighton and it appears that this poor girl was once Max’s glamorous assistant. It’s all about to get very personal for Edgar and Max.

I recently read and reviewed The Vanishing Box, the fourth mystery in the Stephens and Mephisto series by Elly Griffiths. I fell in love with it, so much so that I immediately bought the others in the series and now I’ve gone back to the beginning. It’s in The Zig Zag Girl that we’re first introduced to Edgar Stephens and Max Mephisto who have met up again for the first time since they served together in the war in the curious and secret unit, the Magic Men. The Second World War still casts a shadow over Edgar, Max and the others in the Magic Men unit. And in that shadow answers might be found.

The historical setting in this series is perfectly realised. I love the portrayal of Brighton during the 1950s with its theatres, boarding houses, pubs and (possibly haunted) police station. These are the days in which variety performers are beginning to worry about the future in a television world, but the thrill and the skill of magicians, dancers, comedians, ventriloquists, snake charmers, performing dogs and all those other colourful personalities of the stage still lives and Elly Griffiths captures it all brilliantly. I love all of the historical details, the social codes, the old-fashioned policing, the almost theatrical suspense and danger of the case, the glamour of the theatre and the austerity of the post-war years. It’s riveting.

I love Edgar and Max. It isn’t easy deciding which I love more but I think it could be Edgar. Elly Griffiths paints his character beautifully, building it up over the chapters, as we learn his history, feel his moods, sadness and hope. He’s truly wonderful. And he and Max make such a fine partnership. Little builds a relationship like fighting together in war and they do feel like brothers. In this novel I particularly enjoyed the interaction between the surviving members of the Magic Men. They’re each very different but all linked with insoluble ties. And the little touches of humour, intermingling with the feelings of sadness and regret, are irresistible.

It’s not often that I fall for a series as fast and as deeply as this one. Smoke and Mirrors is the next in the series and you can expect a review of it very soon indeed.

Other reviews
The Vanishing Box
The Chalk Pit (Ruth Galloway series)

Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre

Orbit | 2017 (9 November) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Places in the Darkness by Chris BrookmyreCiudad de Cielo (CdC) is the City in the Sky, humanity’s gateway to the stars – or at least that is the intention. Located many thousands of kilometres above Earth, CdC is a space station comprising two enormous Wheels that whirl around a central trunk, each Wheel the home to thousands of men and women. Their mission is to create and construct the first of the generation starships that will carry mankind to a new home. There are no children. Everyone on CdC has a place and a purpose, an inspiration, and so there is no serious crime. That is the official line.

In reality CdC is also known to its inhabitants as Seedee, a fitting name indeed. While the prosperous enjoy comfort and space in Wheel Two, the rest are squeezed into Wheel One and life thrives behind doors, in bars, clubs, brothels, gambling dens, gardens of sin. Contraband alcohol is the currency of choice and competition for the good stuff is fierce. Two club-owning gangsters are fighting a turf war but, when one of their men is murdered horribly, the authorities are most concerned that news of it doesn’t reach Earth. Wheel One is policed by the Seguridad and Nicola Freeman is one of their sergeants. She’s the perfect choice to investigate the murder, not because she’s a fine detective but because, if there’s a pie, you can be sure Nikki Fixx has got her finger in it. Unfortunately, Nikki has been given a partner, a young and new arrival to CdC, Jessica Cho, a formal observer from Earth’s Federation of National Governments and a walking rule book. And nothing at all as she seems.

Chris Brookmyre is a familiar name in crime fiction for his Jack Parlabane novels (I loved Black Widow). Now he looks to the future and the claustrophobic, dangerous and exhilarating space station of CdC. As soon as I heard about Places in the Darkness I was desperate to read it. Its premise is fantastic. But what I discovered in these pages is something even better than that.

The worldbuilding in Places in the Darkness is jaw droppingly brilliant. It is immediately striking, vivid, dark, chaotic but also strangely appealing. And this is all summed up by the character of Nikki Fixx. She is dangerous to know, undoubtedly hated by many for good reason, corrupt, venal and at times extremely unpleasant. But we’re never entirely allowed to believe the worst, even when we watch her bulldoze her way through other people’s lives. Watching Nikki and watching the underworld of Seedee get through each one of its strange days is compelling. It’s violent and thirsty, sex-driven and greedy. But somehow it works. Until the murder happens and it’s soon clear that this odd world is about to be turned upside down.

The character of Nikki is offset by Jessica and, as the novel went on, I began to like her just as much as Nikki. This is helped by the pacey, present-tense narrative shifting between the two. Sometimes events overlap slightly as we see them from both perspectives. We’re not let into all the secrets by any means – and there are an awful lot of those. It’s as if we’re slowly allowed into Nikki’s confidence just as we’re slowly acquainted with Jessica.

The pace builds and before you know it we’re aboard a runaway train. Places in the Darkness is tremendously exciting. Full of surprises, deadly chases and dark conspiracies, all taking place in the contrasting shadows and artificial light of Ciudad de Cielo. When I reached the end I was surprised at how far this book had taken me. It’s not a straightforward journey but it is most certainly thrilling. This is one of the best science fiction crime novels I’ve read in a long time – with the best of characters, story and mood – and I can only hope that Chris Brookmyre takes us into orbit or beyond again.

Other review

Black Widow