Category Archives: Crime

Written in Bones by James Oswald

Michael Joseph | 2017 (23 February) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Written in Bones by James OswaldFor a few moments the man in the sky thinks he might be flying. Until he smashes into a tree. And with death comes the realisation that this had been a terrible final fall. It’s no easy matter to get the body disentangled from the tree but once it is, it falls to Inspector Tony McLean to discover his identity and find out who is responsible. Matters are complicated by the young boy who found the body – or, rather heard its impact – when out walking his dog. The child is the son of a notorious criminal, murdered a few weeks before the boy’s birth ten years before. Nobody really wants to talk about that. Perhaps it’s time they did. McLean doesn’t believe in coincidences, especially not the weird ones.

Written in Bones is the seventh novel in James Oswald’s fine Inspector McLean series – one of my favourites – and it goes from strength to strength. McLean doesn’t have the best of relationships with his superiors and this is partly because McLean is particularly adept at uncovering the strange and the unusual. He discounts nothing and is prepared to prove the impossible possible. Sometimes in these novels there’s a hint of something inexplicable, almost other worldly, but it’s always subtly treated, just adding to the undercurrent of criminal evil that flows beneath these streets and houses. McLean, better than anyone, can tap into it. The resulting stories are clever, gripping and extremely atmospheric, set so well in Edinburgh and brilliantly written by James Oswald.

As with most fictional detectives, McLean has a history and homelife that influences his career but it never intrudes. I love his unusual home and his complicated relationship with the cat. And then there’s the car. How McLean loves his car. McLean is a fascinating individual even before he begins a crime case and he’s backed up by some other intriguing characters, such as Grumpy Bob and Call-me-Stevie. The senior police officers are an extraordinary bunch. Even the police station is a little bit odd with one newer building built on top of the basement of another. People like to think it’s haunted even though McLean insists it isn’t. In Written in Bones, there’s another factor affecting its mood – a bleak, frozen Scottish winter. You can feel the chill in your bones. This book might have fewer hints of the supernatural than some of the others but it more than makes up for this with mood.

The story is such a good one and makes use of previously encountered individuals, although no other knowledge of the series is needed to enjoy Written in Bones. As usual, McLean goes his own way in his investigations but he has the full support of his junior officers. Tony McLean is such a likeable man. His bosses might not get on with him but everyone else does. Here, McLean has to break in a new detective constable and I really enjoyed the pages that the two share.

These books are always hard to put down and Written in Bones is no different. James Oswald is such a fine, elegant writer, as brilliant at creating mood as he is characters and plot. Not surprisingly, Written in Bones went straight to the top of my reading pile as soon as it arrived and it rewarded me with such a brilliant, gripping read. If you’ve yet to read these books, you have such a treat in store.

Other reviews
Natural Causes
The Damage Done

Ragdoll by Daniel Cole

Trapeze | 2017 (23 February) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Ragdoll by Daniel ColeThere is nothing ordinary about this particular corpse. It comprises the stitched together dismembered remains of six people – male and female, black and white, tall and short. Each of the limbs – and torso and head – have something distinguishing about them. Just enough to give away clues as to their origin and, perhaps more importantly, their connection to each other (other than through the thick, uneven, cruel stitching). It isn’t long before the media award the murderer with a name – the Ragdoll Killer.

Sergeant William Fawkes (aka Wolf) has just returned to the London Met after a long time away. It’s possible that he may never be the same again after the part he played in bringing another infamous serial killer, the Cremation Killer, to court. It certainly destroyed his marriage. But like it or not, he’s back on the job and his first case is the Ragdoll Killer, surely a murderer every bit as evil as the one who almost destroyed his life. With Wolf on the new case is his old partner Detective Emily Baxter. She too has her own problems, while the newbie on the case, Detective Alex Edmunds, has everything to prove. But he has the mind and ability to do it. It’s a small team working on the Ragdoll Killer case and tempers are frayed, especially when the killer sends the press the names of the next ragdoll, the next six people on his death list along with the days on which they will meet their fate. It doesn’t help that the sixth and final person on the list is none other than Wolf himself.

Ragdoll is the debut novel by Daniel Cole and you wouldn’t guess it for an instant. This is such an accomplished, confident and fine piece of writing but, not only that, its plot is absolutely fantastic! We’re left guessing from the very beginning but this almost plays second fiddle to the thunderously dark and menacing mood that hangs over the whole proceedings, as well as the novel’s great characterisation, dialogue, and wit. There are moments here that made my jaw drop almost off my face, the shocks are so horrifically shocking, while there were other moments that made me laugh out loud. This is a novel as witty as it is dark.

The story is brilliant. It’s ridiculously inventive and clever. It might be gruesome and macabre in places but I was filled with admiration for the imaginative flair of the killer (and author). The pace is urgent throughout because we know the killer’s timetable of murder from the very beginning. Our expectations are mirrored by that of the media and public who are pinned to the news as the death clock in the corner of the TV news studio counts down the hours and minutes to the next day of slaughter. The fact that the journalist with the most prominent profile is personally close to Wolf certainly helps to stir up the passions. But, more than anything else, this is an ingenious murder mystery. I didn’t guess any of it and I didn’t even try. I was glued to every page.

Wolf is a fantastic central creation but my favourite, I think even more than Wolf and the violently vulnerable Baxter, is Edmunds. I love the ways in which he tries to ingratiate himself with Baxter, never succeeding, and yet growing ever closer, more by accident than design. I can’t think of many other police partnerships I’ve enjoyed as much as this. There is barely a detective here without some kind of crippling back history – and Wolf’s own past experiences would be impossible to beat – but I really enjoyed the effect of this on their personalities. There is a frisson of insanity running through the incident room. It’s as close to the edge as it can get. It’s as if somebody has lit a fuse and at any moment the whole business could be blown into smithereens.

There are a few elements here that seem familiar, notably the killer communicating directly with the female news reporter, and at times there seems something rather American about the phrasing and tone, but regardless of all that, Ragdoll is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining crime thrillers I’ve read. It is a joy to read, fuelled in part by the author’s pleasing sense of humour, and I didn’t want to put it down at all. I was shocked in the best of ways by some of the twists that are revealed along the way. Ragdoll is full of treats from start to finish. I can’t recommend it enough.

Stasi Wolf by David Young

Zaffre | 2017 (9 February) | 402p | Review copy | Buy the book

Stasi Wolf by David YoungStasi Wolf is the second novel to feature East German police detective Oberleutenant Karin Müller, taking place a few months after the events of Stasi Child. Both novels stand alone very well but, as Stasi Wolf begins, life has changed for Karin Müller. And so this review assumes you’ve read Stasi Child.

It is 1975 in East Berlin and the career of police officer Oberleutenant Karin Müller has taken quite a knock since the conclusion of her last case. It’s never a good idea to get on the wrong side of the Stasi. But someone it seems wants to give her a second chance. To the south west of Berlin lies Halle-Neustadt, a brand new model town of apartment blocks, all built to the most modern specifications to house worthy citizens. But not all is perfect in this communist paradise. Newborn twins have been stolen from the town’s hospital and one has been found dead. The Stasi are determined that the crime should be solved with the utmost tact and secrecy – nothing must be allowed to tarnish the reputation of Halle-Neustadt. Karin Müller is given the case and, with little choice in the matter, packs up her life and heads south.

Halle-Neustadt is no ordinary town. Its streets have no names, it buildings are just numbered and many of them are empty and silent, the perfect place to hide a crime. Prevented from making public searches or appeals for information, Müller is well aware of the difficulty she faces as the clock ticks away and the surviving twin remains lost. And it is only a matter of time before more children will need to be found.

Stasi Child was such a fine debut novel from David Young, introducing one of the most fascinating and original detectives in contemporary crime fiction. Incredible as it seems, Stasi Wolf is even better, taking us back into the dangerous, chilly setting of the DDR, where spies hide among neighbours and Stasi eyes keep watch. But what makes Karin Müller particularly fascinating is her relationship to the state. She believes in communism and, despite her conflict and unease with the Stasi, she still believes this society can work. Even though she has seen it at its worst.

In this new case, removed from East Berlin, we learn more of the ways in which the Stasi affect so many aspects of society but driving this excellent novel on is the mystery itself. Ultimately, this is a novel about child snatching and that is something that goes beyond politics. But while there are themes here that affect people wherever they are from, in whatever period, East Germany in the mid 1970s is not a place that can be disentangled from its government, just as it cannot forget its past and the legacy of war and defeat.

Stasi Wolf is utterly steeped in atmosphere. Even when its weather is hot, the story still chills, the menace remains sinister. David Young immerses us in its time and place but the characterisation is equally successful. Karin Müller stands out but there are others, too, that you won’t forget. Müller’s personal life is an important feature of this novel and it winds through the story, adding further mystery. Pieces of narrative move between the past and present, hinting at other troubled lives. It is totally gripping. This is not a novel that’s easy to put down, and its conclusion will have you on the edge of your seat.

Stasi Wolf is a hugely accomplished novel, scoring high as both historical fiction and crime fiction. I love both genres and so I couldn’t have been more entertained by it. This is a series with legs and we’re very lucky to have it.

You can read another review at Novel Heights.

Purged by Peter Laws

Allison & Busby | 2017 (16 February) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Purged by Peter LawsMatt Hunter was once a minister but since losing his faith Matt has become a professor of the sociology of religion and is currently writing a book about the invention of gods in human image. To be honest, he’s not getting along that well with it and so he takes refuge instead in the odd job helping the police to solve religiously-motivated crimes.

Wren, Matt’s wife, is an architect and in real danger of redundancy after two of her firm’s three owning partners had fatal heart attacks. But there is a chance for redemption. A church in a beautiful village in Oxfordshire is about to be remodelled and its governing body has picked Wren personally to be one of the candidates for the job. This not only throws Wren a lifeline but also gives Matt and Wren, along with their daughters Lucy and Amelia, a golden opportunity to escape their hellhole of a London street and spend a month in a lovely village on what will be effectively an extended interview. And so the family heads off to Hobbs Hill, the home, incidentally, of Britain’s loudest natural waterfall but, more disturbingly, a place named after the devil.

Hobbs Hill is a town caught in a religious fervour, many of its buildings adorned with crosses, their imagination caught by their charismatic minister who preaches a Christianity based on purging and baptism. Matt is determined to bite his lip and keep quiet in the cause of his wife’s project but when women start to go missing he can’t keep still and attaches himself to the local police force. But the killer seems to be playing his own game with Matt and the hunt becomes increasingly personal and desperate. And then there’s that charismatic minister…

As soon as I heard about Purged I couldn’t wait to read it. I live in Oxfordshire and so its location really appealed. I love snooping around all of the stunning villages and churches around here and I’m always wondering if perhaps there’s something just too good to be true about such beauty. This novel tells me that perhaps I’m right! Purged also has such a catchy premise and its mood is sinister and deliciously creepy – and yet believable and real. There’s a line between religion and superstition that is crossed here and it makes for a mystery in which you sense that anything can happen. Matt and Wren might live in a horrible area of London but they soon learn that there is danger in paradise.

Matt is a great creation. He thinks too much, to be sure, but he is haunted by his past and, as he digs into the lives of others, he finds similar nightmares. Perhaps, this is a world in need of a god, but whether it’s the god of Hobbs Hill is another matter entirely. As you’d expect from the nature of the mystery – and also the fact that the author is a minister himself – there are some interesting conversations going on here about the nature of faith, need, salvation – good and evil. Matt is torn as he watches his daughters become caught up in the village’s passion – should he object or, as he’s always believed, is it up to them to make up their own minds?

There is a dark humour as well as the macabre in Purged. What a pleasure to read this book is! And extremely hard to put down and why would you want to? I didn’t. Incredible as it is to believe, Purged is Peter Laws’ first novel and it’s a brilliant achievement. This is a novel in which one should be thoroughly immersed. It contains a gripping mystery, terrifying evil and also goodness. I am so pleased to learn that this is just the first in a new series. The next one will go straight to the top of my reading pile and that’s not something I say about many series. Purged is an absolute corker!

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

Orbit US | 2017 | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Six Wakes by Mur LaffertyThe starship Dormire is bound for the planet Artemis, a paradise virgin planet that will be colonised by the ship’s sleeping cargo of thousands of humans. Watched over by the AI, named IAN, the ship is crewed by three men and three women. Not quite human, the six are clones whose bodies can be rebooted at lifelong intervals during this long voyage through the stars. But something terrible has happened. All six awake at the same time, reborn in the cloning tanks, and around them in the zero gravity float the slaughtered, murdered corpses of their clone predecessors – themselves.

The six soon realise that years have passed and none of them has the memories of what has happened. But the ship is off course, the AI is disabled and the food printer produces only hemlock. There can be no doubt – one of the six is a murderer. But which? It could be any of them for not only are all six clones, they are all criminals and each has secrets to hide.

Six Wakes is a fantastic, brilliantly imagined and executed novel, combining science fiction with crime mystery and doing such a good job of both. We have a small group of suspects, confined together in a completely isolated environment, and every one of them has a motive. But it’s much more complicated than that because of the added clone dimension. Some of these people have lived for hundreds of years, witness to the struggle of clones to achieve legal status and all too aware of the ways in which clones have been abused and manipulated. Each of them has a story to tell and we hear them, interspersed throughout the novel, and this mix of past and present adds such depth and curiosity to the murder mystery at its heart.

The characters are great! Each has a distinct voice and they are so fascinating. We know that each is a criminal but this is much more subtle than that. There are reasons for what they’ve done. And this means that our sympathies are torn. Good and evil aren’t quite as simple in this world and in this extraordinary place.

The cloning aspect of the novel is compelling and clever. It mixes politics and ethics with something much more human and also much more devious. I love the way in which the stories from the past throw light on the present and it’s such a rounded world, even though we see most of it from within the claustrophobic confines of the Dormire, only escaping in the flashbacks to the past.

The mystery element is just as successful as the science fiction and we are caught throughout in twisty traps and surprises. I don’t think I guessed any of it. The atmosphere is sustained throughout and I loved its mood. There are characters here I won’t forget in a hurry. Six Wakes isn’t currently published in the UK but you can buy the import paperback (linked to at the head of the post). I really recommend it as this well-written novel is one of the most enjoyable science fiction and mystery tales I’ve read in quite a while.

Watch Her Disappear by Eva Dolan

Harvill Secker | 2017 | 418p | Review copy | Buy the book

Watch Her Disappear by Eva DolanFinally, Corinne Sawyer is happy in herself. She looks the way she wants to look, she’s made the break from an unhappy past, and the future looks as if it will belong to her. And so, as she lies dying, murdered during her regular morning jog, her face pressed into muddy leaves, Corinne’s last thoughts are of regret for losing what she was never permitted to enjoy.

DI Zigic and DS Ferreira work for the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit and so can’t understand why they are called to the latest victim of a serial rapist who is terrorising the area. But Corinne is not quite what she first appears. Corinne was born Colin Sawyer and she is a prominent member of Peterborough’s trans community. There have been several recent attacks on trans women but nothing quite like this. Was Corinne attacked because she was a woman or because someone thought she wasn’t? But, whichever it is, the murder represents an escalation of violence that captures the imagination of the media and the public, and causes all sorts of problems for Mel Ferreira and Ziggy.

Watch Her Disappear is the fourth novel in Eva Dolan’s superb Zigic and Ferreira series. This really is a standout series not least because it tackles serious issues. Eva Dolan clearly cares a great deal about people who have found themselves marginalised. These books place them at the centre of our attention and more often than not it’s a troubling tale that ends in murder.

The Hate Crimes Unit is itself under threat in Watch Her Disappear. Ziggi and Mel feel a need to prove its worth to their superiors but sometimes Mel in particular is her own worst enemy. She gets too close and makes it personal. But Mel’s empathy and anger is also her strength. Ziggy is quieter and more centred – his private life is very different to Mel’s – but he lets nothing get in the way of his pursuit of justice, not even a crying baby keeping him up at all hours of the night. How I love these two! They are so different from each other but they work perfectly together. I love spending time with them. And in Watch Her Disappear, I think we see them at their very best.

Watch Her Disappear tells such a strong story and its characters are marvellous. Corinne’s family life is extraordinarily complicated and Eva Dolan untangles it with so much care. Her wife and children are wrapped up in the most difficult conflicting feelings. Corinne – and Colin – is almost lost in the mess. It’s up to Ziggy and Mel to unravel the truth but none of it is easy. But throughout we want to learn about Corinne. She demands to be brought back to life.

The novel has such breadth to it. The investigation is so fascinating but this is broadened out to cover the whole trans community and it is a compelling picture, full of colourful personalities and, by contrast, withdrawn and secretive individuals. It’s clear that the community is under attack, but so too is society as a whole, and there is more than one crime for Ziggy and Mel to solve.

Eva Dolan is a fine writer. She knows full well how to plot a satisfying and involving mystery but she is also brilliant at creating characters we care about or, if needs be, despise. I don’t know Peterborough at all but I do enjoy it as a setting – it’s certainly out of the way of many other crime series. These books now go straight to the top of my TBR pile and Watch Her Disappear, which is quite possibly the best, demonstrates why better than ever.

Other reviews
Tell No Tales
After You Die

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Rattle by Fiona Cummins

Macmillan | 2017 (26 January) | c.400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Rattle by Fiona CumminsWhen little girl Clara Foyle is stolen away from school and not a trace of her can be found, the local community learns to be afraid of shadows. Another small child, Jakey Frith, is especially frightened. He feels like he’s being watched and he’s even given the bogeyman a name: ‘Ol’ Bloody Bones’. Jake is a boy in need of particular care. He suffers from Stone Man Syndrome, a debilitating and agonising disease that will trap him within a second skeleton bit by bit. Jakey’s parents adore him more than anything in the world, more than their love for each other, and this knowledge eats away at them both, harming Jakey’s father Erdman in particular, but soon they will know the true meaning of worry and despair. The Bone Collector has a special place in his museum for such a special child.

Detective Sergeant Etta Fitzroy is assigned the case of Clara Foyle by The Boss and she jumps at the chance to prove herself. She needs to. Etta once grew far too involved in a case and it’s left its mark on her and her reputation. She knows she can’t make the same mistakes again. But how could anyone investigate these missing children and not get too close? Etta is determined to find them.

Rattle is an astonishing debut novel by Fiona Cummins. To call it a piece of crime fiction isn’t sufficient because this is a clever novel that draws the reader in to a dark and disturbing world in which anything can happen, even the inexplicable. That doesn’t mean we’re taken into supernatural territory but there is something just a little bit strange about some of the characters, particularly the ‘relationship’ between Jakey and Ol’ Bloody Bones. The novel shifts perspectives and one is that of the Bone Collector himself. It’s creepy in the extreme and utterly compelling.

The novel is such a success for so many reasons and atmosphere and mood are certainly key. But this is supported by the structure which I loved. It moves quickly between perspectives, the voices shifting, and watching it all is the knowing eye of the author. Hints are dropped and add to the foreboding and menace as well as the novel’s curiosity. I’m a big fan of Sarah Lotz’s The Three and Day Four, and Rattle has a very similar appeal. Reality touches horror and it recoils.

The characterisation is powerfully done. We’re shown both evil and good but there are also characters, noticeably Erdman Frith, who change through the book and grow before our eyes. Erdman is my favourite figure in the novel although his son Jakey is absolutely adorable, as is Clara Foyle. I didn’t get on quite as well with Etta Fitzroy. At times, Etta’s introspection is a little tiring and you can most definitely see why her behaviour has got her into trouble in the past. But there is something of the superhero about Etta, battling against the villain, the Bone Collector, and nothing will stand in her way.

Rattle is a fabulous book, easily one of the best crime novels I’ve read in a fair old while, and I am so impressed by Fiona Cummins’ writing – it is perfectly pitched, its creation of mood fantastically achieved and the pace builds and builds. Above all else, Rattle is a thoroughly entertaining and skin-creepingly shuddering crime thriller. If this is a debut novel, we can only wonder at what will be next from this wonderful writer.