Category Archives: Crime

The Cutting Place by Jane Casey

HarperCollins | 2020 (16 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Cutting PlaceWhen a severed hand is pulled out of the Thames, a case begins for DS Maeve Kerrigan and DI Josh Derwent that will strike at the heart of London’s establishment. Further remains are discovered and they’re identified as young journalist Paige Hargreaves. Paige had been working on a story involving the Chiron Club, a private society for some of the richest men in London, men who are so privileged that they need something extra in their lives, something criminal and very dark indeed. This is a world in which its members all have secrets and are prepared to lie, even kill, to protect their own and Maeve and Josh know that they are going to have to solve this the hard way, at great risk to themselves, as the net around them begins to close.

The Cutting Place is the eighth novel in Jane Casey’s superb Kerrigan and Derwent series and I think it represents a landmark book in a series that has excelled from the beginning. You could read it on its own quite easily and enjoy it for the superb crime thriller it is but, if you’ve been a fan, like me, of these two detectives for quite some time, then this book will make your jaw drop. And I don’t say that lightly because that sort of thing is often claimed for a book and it doesn’t always deliver, leading to disappointment. But there’s none of that here. I love Maeve and Josh. I love their unusual relationship, which is often not easy, it’s certainly complicated, and it can be agonising. I love their personalities. Both can be frustrating and irritating but Maeve in particular is as tough as nails and yet as vulnerable as one could be. Josh knows this. His protection of her is intense. Their relationship is platonic, which might surprise some of their colleagues, but it’s certainly very real.

In The Cutting Place, the stunning mystery shares centre stage with events in the lives of both Maeve and Josh as things happen that make them both change their attitude to what they see around them. It makes things more tetchy, more difficult and heartrending. And then something happens that knocks the ground out from under our feet and we want to hold these two very real people close, especially one of them. I’m not going to talk here about any of that as you need to go into it on your own. These are dark issues and Jane Casey, the most fantastic of writers, deals with it beautifully and with such heart.

With no doubt at all, and like others have said, The Cutting Place is the best in a series that is very fine indeed. This is an extraordinary achievement! To better something that is nigh on perfect in itself. The writing is beautiful, the tension is tight, the characters are fascinating and complex. We’re taken into some difficult places and we see some of the worst and best of behaviour. It’s gripping throughout and utterly engrossing. If you haven’t read this series before, do give it a go. Maeve and Josh are people you will want in your literary lives. The crime shelf is a crowded place but The Cutting Place most definitely stands out.

Other reviews
After the Fire
Let the Dead Speak
Cruel Acts

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins | 2020 (2 April) | 417p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Protector by Andrew TaylorThe Last Protector is the fourth novel in Andrew Taylor’s fine series that portrays the intrigue, decadence and fragility of Charles II’s Restoration court in the years beginning with and following the Great Fire of London. This is most definitely a series and so, although you could read it on its own and enjoy it, you really need to read these books in order, to follow the course of events and to understand the relationship between government agent and lawyer James Marwood and Cat Lovett, the daughter of a regicide. This review assumes you’ve done just that.

It is 1668 and the honeymoon period following the restoration of Charles II and the monarchy is most definitely over. The King’s court is a hotbed for dissent, rivalry, licentiousness, cuckoldry and rebellion. Unfortunately for James Marwood, son of a traitor and now a lawyer and government agent, he’s once more thrown into the deadly heart of it. He is sent to spy on a duel between the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Shrewsbury and, unluckily, Marwood is spotted by Buckingham’s men. The duel was ostensibly due to Buckingham having an affair with Lady Shrewsbury but Marwood, and his boss Lord Arlington, the Secretary of State, knows that it goes far deeper than that. Buckingham is plotting against the King.

Events grow ever more dangerous when Cat, now uneasily married to her elderly employer architect Mr Hakesby, is greeted by an old acquaintance. Elizabeth Cromwell, the granddaughter of none other than Oliver Cromwell is in town and with her is her father, Richard Cromwell, the last Protector. He is a man with a price on his head and someone that Buckingham wants in his power. Both Marwood and Cat are caught in a web of treachery and sedition and the stakes couldn’t be higher, or their lives more expendable.

I do enjoy this series. There are plenty of reasons for this but, as I read The Last Protector, I was reminded once more at just how skilfully Andrew Taylor can evoke the past. Just the right amount of detail is used to bring 17th-century London to life, with its busy river, its Tudor warren of alleys, apartments, brothels, inns and palaces, where the poor and the rich seem almost to live on top of one another, except for those oases of grand houses and gardens on the Strand. This book is full of the colour, smells, stench, misery and grandeur of London life at this time. As in previous novels, we’re reminded of how the most vulnerable suffer. In The Last Protector it’s the turn of the young prostitutes and the strange man who scrapes clean the royal sewers.

The characters are always interesting and I do enjoy the glimpses we’re given of Charles II. He’s devious and decadent and he’s also entertaining – as we see here with his little spaniels – but he is more canny of what’s going on than some might think. In this novel we meet the Cromwells and it’s an intriguing portrait of Richard Cromwell, the man who grew up in a palace and now must live abroad, secretly and quietly.

The heart of the novel rests with Marwood and Cat. The paths of the two don’t cross quite as much as in previous novels but, when they are together, the tension is as strong as ever, with the added complication of Mr Hakesby. We’ve seen the relationship of Mr Hakesby and Cat change over the years and now we see the old man in yet another light. What really stands out in this novel are the portrayals of the put upon and the abused, the prostitutes and Ferrus, the mazer-scourer’s labourer, the poor, damaged man who clears out the court’s excrement. As you can imagine, there is an awful lot of it.

The Last Protector tells an excellent story. It’s thrilling and also clever. There are moments when I was on the edge of my seat. Most of all, though, I just thoroughly enjoyed being transported to this other time and place where there is so much to see around every corner. This is an excellent series, now fully established, and I look forward to the next.

Other reviews
The Ashes of London
The Fire Court
The King’s Evil

Strangers by C.L. Taylor

Avon | 2020 (2 April) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Strangers by CL TaylorAlice, Ursula and Gareth are complete strangers to one another and yet they are linked together by crime and mystery. Alice has a new potential boyfriend but they are driven apart by a menacing stalker. Gareth’s elderly mother is receiving strange postcards from her long dead husband. Ursula believes that she is responsible for the death of the love of her life and her life has caused her nothing but torment since. Their worlds collide in unexpected ways and then, as strangers, they must stick together to fight to save the life of one of them. Life will never be the same again.

A new psychological thriller by C.L. Taylor is always a much anticipated event, especially during these strange days when escapist pageturners are a regularly needed tonic. In my opinion, Strangers is the best of C.L. Taylor’s thrillers and I’m grateful to her because I had such a good time reading it.

It’s an unusual crime and psychological thriller in some ways because it tells the separate stories of three characters who don’t know each other at all. Their lives might briefly interconnect at moments, and those moments are such a pleasure in the novel (at those times we know something our characters do not), but this is coincidental. It’s only slowly that their worlds come together but by then we have become invested in the stories of each. It’s an interesting structure and I’m not sure I’ve read anything like it before. It works very well, painting a picture of seemingly random and different lives in a community.

One thing connects our three characters and that is the local shopping centre, making it seem all the more realistic and believable. Much of the novel’s action takes place in places that we are familiar with. The perfect locations for chance encounters, perhaps.

All three characters are enjoyable to get to know but my favourite is Ursula. She is unusual to look at and she’s unusual in other ways, too. I love the way that our opinion of her transforms through the novel as we learn that she is nothing like how she first appears.

All three strangers are fundamentally good people but there are others in the novel who are not. Goodness is under attack. To beat it strangers, communities, society, must unite. In some ways, then, Strangers gives us a positive message, while entertaining us with its thrills. It suggests that we are not alone, even if we think we are. It recognises that there is evil out there but suggests that society can overcome it. I like that.

C.L. Taylor writes very well. She has compassion for her characters and she can tell a good story. If you haven’t read one of these novels before, then I can certainly recommend you start with Strangers.

Other reviews
The Missing

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker

Zaffre | 2020 (2 April – ebook: 26 March) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

We Begin At the End by Chris Whitaker

Thirty years ago, Vincent King, aged just 15 years old, killed Sissy Radley. He has now served his time. His oldest friend Walk, the Chief of Police, collects Vincent from jail and drives him home to Cape Haven, in California. Cape Haven is a neglected, unfortunately placed and unhappy town, never forgetful of the murder, and now it is thrown into turmoil by the return of its killer. Sissy’s sister Star is a traumatised, damaged woman. Her 13-year-old daughter Duchess looks after her and cares for her little brother Robin who is 6 years old. Duchess is an odd child, disliked and even feared. She hides behind a Wild West persona she has created as a shield. She has her eye on Dickie Darke, a man who wants to transform the town, and who Duchess knows is responsible for much of the evil in Cape Haven. Vincent King means little to Duchess, but he means so much to everyone else. The community is upheaved, its fragile heart pierced and darkness descends. Walk must help Duchess and Robin to escape before they are consumed.

I’m going to make a bold claim here. I don’t think there’s an author out there whose books can move me as profoundly as Chris Whitaker’s books can. His novels defy genre and expectations. The author’s insight into character and place is tremendous and can often be devastating. We Begin at the End is his third novel and another stand alone read. It builds on Tall Oaks and All the Wicked Girls, both outstanding. Again, we’re taken to small town America and once more we’re introduced to characters, especially children, who melt the reader’s heart while also punching us in the gut. You read one of these books and you’ll be reeling from it afterwards.

Ostensibly, We Begin at the End is a crime thriller but it’s much, much more than that. It is a novel about damaged people living in a town, so inappropriately named, that seems to deserve no better. It’s Walk who tries to hold it together but it’s under assault and Walk is not the man he once was. Part of the novel is also set in a rural community in Montana, which is such a contrast to Cape Haven but still presents such challenges. What links the two is Duchess and Duchess dominates the novel. She is so beautifully created, as is her little brother, and the relationship between the two of them is exquisitely drawn. So too is the relationship between Duchess and her grandfather Hal. Such is the impact of some of the characters in this novel that they almost take on allegorical powers.

We Begin at the End is a journey towards a salvation that may not be possible. It’s a journey assaulted by loss, murder, revenge, cruelty, hatred, fear and love. It’s not always dark, there is gentle humour. There are also big stories as we learn about the people of Cape Haven, including Vincent King. That means that the novel is as intriguing and engrossing as it is emotionally involving. The sense of place is fabulous. Its locations feel real and influential.

Chris Whitaker is a fine author, one of the very finest, and he should be on everyone’s reading list. He proves this yet again with We Begin at the End which is a masterpiece. This is how characters should be written. The author is a genius in creating loveable, damaged, vulnerable human beings, both child and adult. This means the reader is extremely emotionally invested in his stories. It does mean that there will probably be tears. This is a painfully sad novel at times but watching how the characters, especially Duchess, deal with this is mesmerising. Please read it. You won’t regret it. With no doubt at all this is a contender for my top book of 2020. And now, more than ever, we need books like this.

Other reviews
Tall Oaks
All the Wicked Girls

The Holdout by Graham Moore

Orion | 2020 (20 February) | 336p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The Holdout by Graham MooreTen years ago, young Maya Seale was a juror at the trial of Bobby Nock, an African American school teacher accused of murdering his pupil, Jessica Silver, 15 years old, white and the daughter of a billionaire. The evidence seems conclusive. Everyone, especially the media and the general public, is convinced of Nock’s guilt. So too are eleven of the jurors but Maya Seale is not so sure. She is the holdout juror. And she either convinces or persuades the rest to change their verdict to not guilty.

This verdict impacts so many lives, and not just those of the Silver family or Bobby Nock himself. While Maya decides to follow her new interest in the law and become a criminal defence attorney in LA, others find it less easy to leave the past behind, especially one juror in particular, Rick Leonard. Rick was never happy with the verdict and he has spent the years since gathering evidence. He is now ready for the grand reveal. And so a TV company gathers together all of the jurors once more, putting them in the same hotel where they were sequestered ten years before. It’s not long before one of the jurors is found dead in Maya’s room. Now, Maya must defend herself.

I really liked the sound of the premise of The Holdout and it certainly begins in a catchy way. We meet Maya Seale, the successful, clever attorney, who wants to put the past behind her but learns that she can’t. She must clinically work through the clues even when it is her own freedom, perhaps even her own life that’s at risk. We also have the elements of a traditional murder mystery with a small number of suspects confined to the same location as the victim. Any one of them could have done it. It’s only by getting to know each of them in turn that clues will emerge. And so the novel moves between the past and present, focusing on each juror in turn, presenting the reader with the evidence, from which we should determine a verdict.

It’s clever stuff and it’s well-written, authored by an Oscar-winning screenwriter. For me, though, The Holdout, did fall a little flat and that may well be because it might work better on the screen than it does in a novel. There is impact but I’m not so sure that there’s much substance behind it. The characters are impossible to warm to, including Maya. She didn’t feel real to me and some of the things she does don’t seem believable or likely. Although I didn’t care too much for the characters, I did like the narrative style of moving between the present and the past, which really kept the pace of the novel up.

There are some serious issues under consideration here, mostly involving race, wealth and poverty. But I feel that the novel treated them superficially and, again, this might be more effective on the screen than here.

Many readers have loved The Holdout and so I am aware that much of this is very much a personal opinion that probably has a lot to do with the fact that I can struggle with courtroom novels, even though I really enjoy them on TV or in the theatre. This, unfortunately, wasn’t any different, despite its intriguing premise. It’s all a bit too clinical and dispassionate for me and it became a struggle to finish. The length and narrative style meant that I managed it. However, as I have said, many readers have loved it and so, if you enjoy courtroom thrillers, you may find that this book is for you.

Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

Faber & Faber | 288p | 2020 (5 March) | Review copy | Buy the book

Rules for Perfect Murder by Peter SwansonMalcolm Kershaw runs The Old Devil’s Bookstore in Boston, the perfect place to find a first edition of a classic murder mystery. Years before, Kershaw wrote a blog post called ‘Eight Perfect Murders’, which listed some of the most infamous murders in crime fiction, and it is this list that now brings FBI Special Agent Gwen Mulvey to his door one snowy winter’s day. Mulvey is investigating a series of deaths, which to most would appear completely unrelated and perhaps not all even suspicious, except if one happened to be a crime fiction fan and had read Kershaw’s list. The deaths appear to follow a pattern and that pattern is the list. Mulvey needs Kershaw to help her find a murderer, someone who may well know Kershaw and is now sending him a message. To solve this crime, and to prevent other murders, Mulvey and Kershaw must think like some of the greatest writers of crime fiction.

Rules for Perfect Murders has the most fantastic premise and I read it the moment I could. I adored the two other Peter Swanson novels I’ve read, The Kind Worth Killing and Her Every Fear and so I knew that if there was any author who could deliver on such a good premise it would be this one. I was right! Rules for Perfect Murders is a completely addictive, clever and ridiculously twisty tale of murder and mystery, which also manages to have fun playing homage to some much loved novels by Agatha Christie, Donna Tartt and Patricia Highsmith, among others.

Peter Swanson plays some clever games with the genre and its popular devices, such as the unreliable narrator and the snowy setting. It is Mal Kershaw who tells the story to us and it is fascinating watching out for red herrings or genuine clues. This is one of those books that might well reward a second reading. But we also get to know Gwen Mulvey and she is equally interesting and intriguing. The author might be playing games with the genre, but he is also playing them with his characters and with us. The book is so pleasing in more ways than I can say.

It is worth mentioning, I think, that the nature of the story means that it is full of spoilers for some classic novels and so you might want to bear that in mind when you read it. I’d read the books in question and so I enjoyed tracing their clues through the book and I think it’s possible that the book works most well for fans of classic crime fiction. But, even if you’ve never read any of the books referred to here, you would still enjoy Rules for Perfect Murders. I absolutely loved the bookshop setting and, as someone who loves Boston, the location is also a big draw.

Rules for Perfect Murders is a clever and very well written murder mystery and brain teaser that would appeal to anyone who enjoys crime fiction, bookshops and wintry tales of murder. It’s a fast read and it is an entirely satisfying and rewarding one, successful on so many different levels. I cannot wait to read more books by Peter Swanson.

Other review
Her Every Fear

When You See Me by Lisa Gardner

Century | 2020 (20 February) | 385p | Review copy | Buy the book

When You See Me by Lisa GardnerTwo hikers in the hills of Georgia, USA, discover human bones. It is believed that this is one of the old stomping grounds of serial killer and rapist Jacob Ness. FBI Special Agent Kimberly Quincy and Sergeant Detective DD Warren have been chasing the trail of Ness for a long time and now, at last, there is a chance to find the remains of missing young women and return them to their families. They are accompanied to the small, remote town of Niche by Flora Dane, the Ness victim who got away. Flora survived for 472 days with a monster, most of that time stored in a pine box, emerging only now and then to be fed or far worse. She now works as a consultant, helping DD Warren to find and release other abducted people. But now Flora is given the chance to finally save herself, to find answers, stop the nightmares and begin living in some degree of peace.

Niche is rarely troubled by the outside world and what at first seems charming and eccentric to the detectives and their team, soon becomes something very different indeed. This is a community built upon secrets and Kimberly, DD and Flora will be tested to their very limits as they discover that whatever they thought they knew about evil, it was just the beginning.

Lisa Gardner is a wonderful crime written who has written many excellent novels, including her DD Warren series, which is now eleven books long. My favourites, though, are the last four for the very good reason that they feature Flora Dane, a fantastic character. Flora isn’t just incredible for what she has endured and survived but also for what she does to cope with it and to help others who have been in similar situations. Flora is traumatised and the signs of that are everywhere but she is rebuilding her life, perhaps even finding love, and she has the most enormous courage and bravery. We’ve seen Flora grow over these books and so, for that reason, I’d suggest that you start with the first of the four books, Find Her. But you could also read When You See Me as a stand alone crime thriller, if you wish.

When You See Me tells an engrossing story set in the perfect location for it – a remote town in the mountains, with its occasional grand wooden house with verandas, its hiking trails and thick forests. Everybody knows everybody else and Kimberly, DD, Flora and the others are not only outsiders, they’re also people of interest. They are watched and scrutinised. I don’t want to give away anything about what they discover in Niche but it is sinister, disturbing and frightening. It is very hard to put this book down.

I enjoyed the way that the novel switches perspectives between Kimberly, DD and Flora. I’m heavily invested in all three of them. While Kimberly seems less prominent than the other two in this book, her role in Flora’s rescue makes her integral to the series and I was pleased to see her again here. It is DD who I love the most in When You See Me. She has such a warmth to her and this is more apparent than ever in this novel. Her relationships with others, include Flora, are so beautifully drawn, and now we watch her establish another relationship with somebody else who needs her and who she needs to help.

When You See Me is an excellent novel. It’s richly atmospheric, exciting and full of fascinating characters, some good and some not at all. Both are a joy to read. There are disturbing themes. The novel takes us to dark places. But it is an enthralling crime thriller – moody, exciting and brilliantly written, as you’d expect from this wonderful author.

Other reviews
Find Her
Look For Me
Never Tell