Category Archives: Crime

All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker

Zaffre | 2017 (24 August) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

All the Wicked Girls by Chris WhitakerThe small town of Grace in Alabama is in trouble. Isolated in many ways from the surrounding world, it is now even separated by its weather. A wall of cloud and looming storm hangs around and over this town. Several of its inhabitants drive out each day beyond the wall, just so that they can feel the warmth and brightness of sun on their skin and faces, and be reminded what normal is like.

Summer and Raine Ryan are sisters and their names reveal how different these teenage girls are from one another. Summer, though, the one who is easy to know and like, is missing and the disappearance reminds the town and its sheriff, Chief Black, of the case of the missing Briar girls. Presumed murdered, these girls continue to haunt the town. They are its curse and surely the worst thing that could happen to Grace is that the murderer has returned to continue his work. Everyone wants Summer found alive, especially her sister Raine and Raine’s friends Noah and Purv.

Beyond this, I’ll say no more about the plot because All the Wicked Girls is quite simply a work of genius. And that’s no exaggeration. Its story is astonishing and complex and it is driven as much by heart as it is by puzzles and surprises. Tall Oaks, Chris Whitaker’s previous novel, is one of my favourite novels of recent years but, incredible as it seems, All the Wicked Girls leaves it behind.

The central mystery is brilliantly told from a range of perspectives, including Summer’s own, and it moves back and forth through the weeks leading up to Summer’s disappearance. We hear from several of the people who influenced Summer’s life and were so deeply affected by this wonderful girl. We’re soon aware that not everything is as it seems but how we learn this, and what we learn, is beautifully told.

Chris Whitaker writes superbly. As with Tall Oaks, I marvel at how this British author captures the mood and sound of an American small town. It’s not overdone. It feels completely natural and each of these characters has his or her own distinctive voice.

But what drives All the Wicked Girls beyond its wonderful plot and its fantastically atmospheric sense of place, is its people. In Tall Oaks I fell for Manny (like everyone else!) but in All the Wicked Girls we have Noah and Purv and it’s fair to say that I can think of no other characters in recent years that I have fallen for quite as hard as this. Their individual personalities and their friendship come alive in an astonishing way, and this is as due to Chris Whitaker’s stunning and often understated use of language as it is his empathy for young people. This is clever writing. We hear a phrase and it’s only later that we learn the full significance of its meaning and it hits us like a fist. I loved Summer and Raine too (how could I not?) but Purv and Noah made me laugh and cry time after time. Just thinking about Noah, his courage, wisdom, kindness and deep heart, makes me want to weep.

This is a novel that takes us into some very dark places. The melancholy of Grace goes far deeper than the storm that hovers over it. It is disturbing at times, there is no doubt of that, but it is also filled with a humanity despite its subject and I was held spellbound. There are so many reasons to read All the Wicked Girls but if I had to give you just one – well, two reasons – it would be to read it for Noah and Purv. I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.

Other review
Tall Oaks

A Man of Shadows by Jeff Noon

Angry Robot | 2017 (3 August) | 384p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

A Man of Shadows by Jeff NoonWithin the world lies a very strange city indeed, concealed by a dome. Almost half of it is called Dayzone, where endless bright lamps reproduce hot sunlight for every hour of the day. Connected to it by train is its opposite – the endless night of Nocturna. But, to travel between the two, the train must pass through an area of fog and permanent gloom called Dusk and therein lives the unexplained and the terrifying. As if all of this weren’t strange enough, the whole city has turned its back on the linear time of the outside world. Hundreds, if not thousands, of timelines co-exist, many available to be bought, and they mean that the inhabitants of Dayzone and Nocturna move from timeline to timeline, often obsessed with their watches and clocks. Never has the question ‘what’s the time?’ seemed so vital and yet also such a waste of time.

Moving between the timelines is a feared killer called Quicksilver, managing to commit murder in broad faked daylight, sometimes in front of an unsuspecting audience. Private detective John Nyquist has taken on the case of a runaway wealthy young woman Eleanor but he’s soon sure that there are links with Quicksilver. His pursuit of Eleanor takes him not only across Dayzone and Nocturna but also into the place he dreads the most, Dusk, and even to the very edges of his sanity. And all the time, all of the times, he has that feeling that he’s being watched and judged.

A Man of Shadows is a quite extraordinary novel. Its world building is absolutely fantastic – intricate, complex, moody and disturbingly real. The movement between timelines means that John Nyquist rarely sleeps and you can strongly sense his extreme fatigue as the hours pass. People who become too time-obsessed almost literally lose their minds and you know that Nyquist is well on the way to this state. It gives his task an extra urgency and desperation.

Dayzone and Nocturna are brilliantly visualised and would have been sufficiently impressive on their own but the skill of Jeff Noon astounds even further with his treatment of time. I found myself wondering why anybody would chose to live such an existence, what its appeal might be. Many of the inhabitants of this city have almost a euphoria about them as they defy the restrictions of a conventional life but others are clearly damaged by it. This is a book that makes you think as you read it. It is extremely clever.

We never see the world beyond the city, although occasionally characters are nostalgic for a sight of the real sun or the real stars. The city itself has a 1950s’ feel to it, just as the mystery element of the novel is detective noir. Now and again we’re given extracts from guidebooks which tell us a little of the background to Dayzone, Nocturna and Dusk, but generally we experience it all through the increasingly fraught mind of John Nyquist. This can be claustrophobic at times and there is also chaos and confusion. It is certainly atmospheric.

In the final third of the novel, the mystery inevitably takes us into Dusk, and what a frightening place this is. I must admit that I did become a little lost during this section as it becomes increasingly surreal and fantastical. Throw in some mind bending drugs and you get an idea of the state of Nyquist’s mind during this phase of his hunt. It’s hugely disturbing. Personally, and this is probably because I’m more of a science fiction reader than a fantasy reader, I enjoyed more the majority of the novel which portrays so brilliantly life in a world of endless day or endless night, in which time is a force to be controlled, manipulated and even sold. And all the time, outside the city lies the ‘real’ world, out of reach in so many ways to a man such as John Nyquist.

I was completely absorbed by A Man of Shadows and deeply impressed by the skill and imagination of this author. This is the first novel I’ve read by Jeff Noon and I’m not sure why that is – there are such big ideas here that provide an unusual and quirky perspective on our own lives. I love a book that makes me think while also entertaining me and A Man of Shadows does just that.

I love the cover – it really contributes to the mood of 1940s’ and 1950s’ detective noir in an extraordinary environment.

The Night Stalker by Clare Donoghue

Pan | 2017 (10 August) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Night Stalker by Clare DonoghueA young woman, Pippa, is driven off the road, meeting a grim death near the site of Dead Woman’s Ditch, the scene of a murder in the 18th century for which a man was hung. This is the Quantock Hills in Somerset, an eerie place surrounded by superstition and dread. Nobody wants to be out alone after dark and on this particular cold December night, Pippa’s murder shows these fears are justified. Somerset is a long way from London and the usual beat of DI Mike Lockyer and DS Jane Bennett but the powers that be aren’t satisfied with the DI in charge of the case. Pippa lived in London, providing the perfect excuse for Lockyer and Bennett’s intervention. But the local police are’t happy, to put it mildly.

Relocating to Somerset isn’t perfect for Jane Bennett either because where she goes so too does her young autistic son, Peter. This creates challenges all of its own. And all the time the fears build for whatever it is that haunts the Quantock Hills by night. One young woman in particular is terrified to drive over the hills in the dark. With good reason.

The Night Stalker is the fourth novel in Clare Donoghue’s Lockyer and Bennett series and with no doubt at all it’s my favourite. This is no mean feat as this is a fantastic series – Mike Lockyear and Jane Bennett are really easy to like, especially Mike, and the pair of them together are fabulous. They have a lot of history behind them, which you’ll know if you’ve read the earlier books but, if you don’t know their past, I think you’d still really enjoy watching the two of them together in The Night Stalker. They complement each other perfectly, perhaps here better than ever. They’ve been through the mill for sure but there is humour, too, sometimes at the expense of Jane’s extraordinary mother. But I don’t think Mike Lockyer could stop being loveable however much he tried.

What really makes The Night Stalker stand out in my opinion is its atmosphere. The whole book is steeped in it and the scenes on the Quantock Hills are frightening. Bits of this are as scary as any horror novel. I’m not easy to scare but this book managed it.The menace that hangs over the entire novel is delicious and Clare Donoghue manages the tension brilliantly. Quite a few of these chapters end on a knife’s edge. I love moody atmospheric books!

The story is such a good one. It’s complex, emotional, tense and dangerous. I enjoyed the location outside London and I loved the use of the 18th-century murder which overshadows the hills and the villagers. This is one of those places where you walk in a pub and all goes silent, where families stick together (not necessarily because they like one another) and where everyone knows everybody else. Lockyer and Bennett are isolated, not knowing who they can trust, and the more they learn about the case the worse it becomes. The fact that it’s the winter really helps to set the mood. I savoured every page of this mystery. It sets a very high bar indeed.

Other reviews
No Place to Die
Trust No One

Yesterday by Felicia Yap

Wildfire | 2017 (10 August) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

Yesterday by Felicia YapImagine an alternative present, in which nobody over the age of 18 can remember what happened more than one or two days ago. The fortunate ones are Duos – those who can remember the events of the day before yesterday. The Monos, on the other hand, can remember only yesterday. As a result, Monos are victimised and judged as inferior, backward and of little use to society. They must even register at the Department of Monos. They have little chance of advancing in their careers. Duos, on the other hand, are regarded as the thinkers, inventors, artists and doers of society. They are the high achievers. But, in order to manage, everyone must record their everyday lives onto their iDiaries and each day they must study it to remember the ‘Facts’ of their lives.

How easy it must be, then, to hide a murder, to forget it even happened. But why would anyone choose to murder at all? It’s difficult to hate somebody when you can choose to forget that they even exist. These are the issues facing DCI Hans Richardson when the body of a woman is pulled from the river Cam in Cambridge. The obvious suspect is the man with whom she was having an affair, novelist Mark Evans, a Duo who is close to achieving his goal of being elected an MP. He is also married to a Mono who everyday must learn to re-love a man she knows she can’t trust. But how can Hans tell what really happened when the clock is ticking towards yet another day of forgotten memories? The answer he feels may be found in the iDiary secrets of the murdered woman, Sophia.

Yesterday is an excellent psychological thriller with an intriguing and original premise. It’s set in a world (and England) that we can recognise but everything is altered due to the way that people and society cope without the luxury of memory. This is done brilliantly. We’re given extracts from scientific and social studies, from personal diaries and from literature (including snippets from Mark Evans’s own novels) which illustrate what this means for culture and society. In a way it’s almost a Utopia – there’s little crime, war or unhappiness – but then we’re reminded of what the reality is actually like for Monos. There’s a reason why there’s no misogyny, religious hatred and racism in this alternate world – all that prejudice is reserved for the Monos. It’s fascinating stuff. It also allows for some humorous touches, such as Steve Jobs’ runaway success in developing the iDiary (with lots of software updates, obviously).

Much of the narrative is told by each of the main characters (Mark, his wife Claire, Sophia and Hans) in turn, moving backwards and forwards between them, and also moving into the past, especially in the sections told by the victim. But each is the very epitome of the unreliable narrator – how could they be otherwise? Each of these people is either desperate to remember or to forget. It also throws light on the relationship between Duos and Monos by focusing on how Mark and Claire relate to each other. Claire is a wonderful character, my favourite in the novel, and her story is incredible and very moving at times. My feelings towards Sophia were much more complicated – what a creation she is. Hans has his own problems, a world away from those facing detectives in crime fiction set in our time and place. Hans has only a day to solve the crime and this adds a different twist to the police procedural element of the novel.

I did have one minor issue with the novel. I didn’t understand how people could make themselves remember Facts from their iDiaries. This gets over the obvious problem of characters not being able to remember anything or anyone at all but I didn’t understand how it worked.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the way that Yesterday comes together into what is a very clever and original debut novel from Felicia Yap. It races along and maintains the tension throughout. I’m very intrigued to see where the author will head next. I think it’s going to be very interesting indeed.

I Know a Secret by Tess Gerritsen

Bantam Press | 2017 (10 August) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

I Know a Secret by Tess GerritsenYoung men and women are being murdered in Boston in horrifically elaborate ways – the first is found in her house, lying on her bed, holding her eyeballs in her hand. The walls of the house are covered in horror movie posters. The torso of the second is shot through with arrows. There seems little to link the murders except for their gruesome nature but Detectives Jane Rizzoli and Barry Frost, as well as Medical Examiner Maura Isles, are determined to find one and stop the killer. But watching them is a young woman with something to fear. She knows how the victims are linked and she knows she’s on the murderer’s list. But she has a secret and that means that she can’t look to the police for help. Matters aren’t helped when someone very close to Maura Isles, someone she hoped never to see again, decides to take an interest.

I Know a Secret is the twelfth novel in Tess Gerritsen’s fine Rizzoli and Isles series. As usual, it features a standalone mystery but this is set within the context of so much that has grown familiar over the series – this a close-knit group of people. Jane and Maura know everything about each other and their team. Family and relationship troubles are causes for concern and Jane in particular spends time worrying about others, including Frost, whose longterm marriage woes continue to torment him (and everyone around him). Likewise there are developments in Jane’s own family and in Maura’s difficult past. These stories don’t dominate the novel – the mystery is always what matters the most – but it does mean that if you come to this novel cold, without having read any of the others, then you might well be missing out on the pleasure of getting to know their wonderful characters. I have yet to read them all but I’ve read enough to have picked up a real affection for these people.

I do enjoy how I Know a Secret is driven as much by character as it is suspense. Rizzoli, Frost and Isles all react in very human ways to the horrible sights that face them. They care about the victims and their families. The hunt for the killer becomes a personal driving force. I like Jane so much and, among all the other memorable characters who play their part here, I love her mother.

The crime case is a good one and it’s speeded along by regular chapters that give the point of view of the mysterious young woman who is watching events so closely. While I did find the story a little less involving than others in the series, it does pick up in the second half of the book as it begins to move in unexpected ways, culminating in a thoroughly satisfying conclusion.

I’ve grown to love this series very much and, as always, I must wait impatiently for the next while enjoying the fact that I still have a few to catch up on. It’s always good to spend time with Rizzoli and Isles.

Other reviews
Die Again (Rizzoli and Isles 11)
Gravity

The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond

Michael Joseph | 2017 (27 July) | 414p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Marriage Pact by Michelle RichmondAlice and Jake are the perfect couple – young, attractive, with fine careers ahead of them. Alice was a singer in a successful rock band but now she’s an up and coming lawyer while Jake is a partner in a growing psychology practice. They’re ready to get married. On the spur of the moment they invite one of Alice’s wealthy clients to the wedding. He loves weddings, he tells them. His gift is unexpected – an offer to join something called the Pact.

The Pact, Alice and Jake learn, is a society of like-minded couples who want nothing more than to achieve the perfect marriage. It lays down a few rules that are designed to bring the couple closer together and every few months everyone gathers at a Pact party to celebrate their marriages and friendships. It all sounds positive and Jake and Alice desperately want their marriage to work. Jake spends much of his time counselling couples on the verge of divorce. He knows better than most that a relationship takes commitment. Perhaps they could do with the help. So, with only a cursory glance at the paperwork, Jake and Alice join the Pact. And so begins a descent into a hell of their own making.

What follows is something from the realms of horror that, as reviewers have noted, has elements in common with The Stepford Wives. For the Pact is nothing but a sinister cult. It might be glamorous on the outside but its core is rotten through and through. The lengthy manual that Jake and Alice are given lays out the code and any infractions are met with punishments of increasing brutality and humiliation. Jake and Alice are trapped and what happens to them is appalling.

The Marriage Pact is undoubtedly one of the most gripping novels I’ve read this year. It’s a rollercoaster ride of suffering for Jake and Alice but it’s a thrilling read for us as time after time we wonder what could possibly happen next. The movement from the beginning to the end is staggering, so much has happened. The members of the Pact are successful members of society and it’s all stripped away before our eyes.

There is a fundamental issue with The Marriage Pact that you have to get past in order to enjoy it. Its premise is completely preposterous and unbelievable. This is compounded by the fact that Alice is a lawyer – why didn’t she read the contract? And the incredible resources that the Pact has in its power are just that – incredible. Everything feels that it is held together purely by compliance and submission. I wanted to shake these silly people from start to finish.

But, if you can get past this as I did, then you’ll have a lot of fun with The Marriage Pact. It’s well-written and there are sections of this novel that were golden to me. These bits, for me, weren’t part of the main plot but to do with Jake’s job as a psychologist. The novel is narrated by Jake and he likes to tell us about his day, giving us facts and figures, for example, about marriage as well as anecdotes about coming to terms with one’s past. I found some of these sections extraordinarily powerful and I actually took some tips away from it! Some of the book’s ideas went far deeper than I was expecting.

I also enjoyed Jake and Alice. It’s easy to feel irritated by Alice but her character is an interesting one and I was desperate for her to wake up. Their relationship, though, feels genuine and I did care what happened to them. The spiral into hell that is The Marriage Pact happens fast and it is very hard to put down. The ending has divided reviewers and I can’t say that it was entirely satisfactory for me but I can’t imagine how else it might have ended so I’m happy enough with it. This is a novel with fine writing and huge energy and heart and within were significant little nuggets of gold which I’ll carry away with me.

I’m delighted to post my review as part of the blog tour to celebrate the publication of The Marriage Pact. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.

The Marriage Pact blog tour

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

Century | 2017 (27 July) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

Then She Was Gone by Lisa JewellEllie disappeared ten years ago when she was just fifteen years old. A popular and very clever girl, she was about to sit her GCSEs – her future was ahead of her. And then she was gone. Ellie’s disappearance changed her family forever, with her mother Laurel and father Paul trying to deal with her loss in their own ways while her sister and brother have to cope not just with the grief of it but also the devastation of knowing that their mother has lost the child she loved the most. Guilt is such a big part of the grief and it has endured for years. But now, all these years on, something happens to give Laurel the kick she needs to move her own life on again – she falls in love with Floyd, a charismatic and handsome stranger.

It isn’t long before Laurel is spending all of her spare time with Floyd and the day comes soon when she accompanies him home to meet his two daughters. And when she meets Poppy, Floyd’s lovely, curious and precocious nine-year-old daughter, time stops. Poppy is the spitting image of Ellie when she was that age. As Laurel finds herself increasingly drawn into the arms of Floyd’s family, the questions that used to obsess her about Ellie’s disappearance return with a vengeance.

Then She Was Gone is the first novel by Lisa Jewell I’ve read but I soon knew it wouldn’t be the last. She most certainly knows how to tell a good tale. The writing is superb as is her characterisation and it’s this that pushes Then She Was Gone into another class of psychological thrillers. I love the way that the narrative moves around between key characters, also shifting between the present and the events of ten years ago when Ellie vanished out of the lives of those who loved her so much. It’s hugely accomplished.

The novel is driven most of all by character. The story itself is such a good one but it’s quite possible that you, like me, will guess much of what happens. At first I was slightly disappointed by this, hoping that I’d made a mistake and some great twist was on the way to confound me, but on reflection I realise that this was entirely the wrong attitude. Perhaps I’ve been conditioned by reading far too many psychological thrillers! What matters here is the story of Laurel, her family, Floyd and his. It’s superbly done. It’s very emotional and sensitively handled. Laurel in particular is a marvellous character, learning to cope with great trauma while also dealing with people so close to her who don’t quite know how to handle her.

Poppy is an absolute delight. She’s vulnerable and tiny but so courageous. She can be irritating but Laurel knows just how to handle her and the relationship between the two is wonderful, as is Laurel’s troubled relationship with her other daughter Hanna. I liked these people a great deal.

Then She Was Gone is a very difficult novel to put down. So well written, it insists you keep reading, immersing you in the story of these people’s lives while always reminding us, and them, of the beautiful, clever, funny and loving Ellie. It’s time the truth was told.