Category Archives: Crime

The Zealot’s Bones by D.M. Mark

Mulholland Books | 2017 (21 September) | 247p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Zealot's Bones by DM MarkIt is 1849 and Canadian Diligence Matheson has arrived in Hull to search for the bones of the apostle Simon the Zealot, believed to have been buried somewhere in Lincolnshire following his execution by the Romans in their fort at Caistor. With Matheson as bodyguard and companion is Meshach Stone, a former soldier who is tortured by his experiences of war in Afghanistan. Both men find themselves in another hell on Earth. The city of Hull is gripped by an outbreak of cholera that is wiping out almost whole families and streets, leaving behind the wails and torment of the bereft. Stone has hopes of finding redemption in Hull but instead he finds dead the woman he so wanted to love. There are so many dead but this woman’s death was not through cholera – she was murdered. And she is not the only one. Driven almost mad by his need for vengeance, Stone must hunt down the murderer in a city where Death roams freely and hell awaits around every dark corner.

David Mark is familiar to many as the author of the McAvoy contemporary police detective series but in The Zealot’s Bones he picks up the reins of a historical murder mystery for the first time – and I am so glad he did. The Zealot’s Bones is nothing short of brilliant and is one of the finest historical novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year.

The writing is superb. This is a dark, gruesome and twisted tale and through it walk the damned and the afflicted. And David Mark brings both the locations and characters to life with the most gorgeously vivid prose. The dialogue is wonderful and often extremely witty as we know well that what a character says need not be at all what he or she means. This is an age of manners and etiquette and sometimes not even murder is allowed to interfere with that. When one memorably odious character meets Matheson and Stone, he utters ‘I… extend the hand of welcome, even if I would rather chew it off’ and this sums up the hypocrisy of this impoverished, plague-ridden and cruel Victorian world. It also made me chuckle.

Stone is a fabulous creation. In many ways he believes that he is as evil as the monster he hunts and his body is as scarred as he believes his soul must also be. We’re taken deep into his troubled mind and it isn’t always a gentle place to be but there is a kindness about Stone, a willingness to change his life, that makes his experiences here all the more painful and meaningful to read about. His relationship with the rather lovely and charming Diligence Matheson is tender and enjoyable. I loved Diligence’s quest for the Zealot’s bones. He’s so easily distracted but he too has something to prove.

There are some fantastic characters in The Zealot’s Bones, whether they’re good or evil. The ratcatcher is quite a scene stealer and there are other intriguing men and women who make brief but colourful cameos. The murders are horrendous, their victims utterly pitiful and the murderer an abomination. This is gruesome stuff and I found it impossible to tear my eyes away. And all is set against the most perfectly described backdrops of a city devastated by death and mourning and a wonderfully creepy country house, likewise caught in the grip of something dreadful and disturbing. Increasing the mood are Stone’s haunted memories and dreams of his experiences in Afghanistan. It’s all mesmerising and every line of fine prose does its job to hook the reader in and keep them there.

I hope so much that Meshach Stone returns. If he does, that book will go straight to the top of my reading pile with no shadow of doubt.

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Copycat by Alex Lake

HarperCollins | 2017 (7 September) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Copycat by Alex LakeWhen an old friend, Rachel, gets in touch with Sarah Havenant for the first time in years, she asks Sarah a very odd question – which of Sarah’s two Facebook accounts is the one to friend? Sarah only has the one. When Sarah takes a look she’s shocked to find that this other account has photos of her husband Ben and their children, even a couple taken over the last day or two. The posts sound like Sarah wrote them, they contain the mundane details of her life that only she should know. Sarah’s family and friends, including a police officer, are concerned but it’s difficult to know what she should do. And then, just when she’s ready to put it out of her mind, it escalates – emails, purchases made from her Amazon account, and more. It’s around this time that Ben begins to think that perhaps the impossible is true – is Sarah doing this to herself?

Copycat is the third stand alone psychological thriller by Alex Lake and I’ve enjoyed all of them. They each feature an intriguing female protagonist who has the ground swept away from under her feet. We’re never quite sure what is happening and these women certainly don’t. And it puts everyone around them into the same dark place as the main character sinks further into herself, questioning everything around them. Sarah is a fine example of this. Her own identity is being eroded for reasons she can’t fathom until she even doubts her own sanity.

Social media is becoming increasingly appealing to authors of psychological thrillers and it’s used well here, expanding on the theme of identity fraud. I’ve had experience of this and so I found the way that this story develops particularly frightening. It certainly keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.

There are elements of the story that I found quite hard to accept. I don’t want to give anything away but I did have trouble with the reasons for why all of this is happening. So while the first half is thoroughly absorbing and tense, scary even, this is dissipated in the second half (at least for me) as it is all explained. Nevertheless, even though this isn’t my favourite of the three, I enjoy Alex Lake’s writing very much. I like the ways in which his stories undermine the everyday lives of his main protagonists and affect those around them. Life is a frightening place in the world of Copycat. As Sarah becomes more and more afraid, she finds threats everywhere, but which are real and which are red herrings are not easy to separate. It leaves Sarah with nowhere to go. And it is fascinating and thrilling to watch.

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The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter

HarperCollins | 2017 (13 July) | 512p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Good Daughter by Karin SlaughterTwenty-eight years ago Charlie Quinn’s life was ripped to pieces around her. Her father Rusty, a defence attorney, was notorious in the small town of Pikeville for his defence in court of the indefensible. As a result, his wife, known as Gamma, paid the ultimate price during a vengeful attack on their family home. Gamma was shot dead, Charlie’s elder sister Sam was shot and left for dead in a stream and Charlie herself had to run for her life. She did survive but that day could never be forgotten and its effect on her relationships could never be underestimated, even all these years later as she makes her own name as a lawyer, following in her father’s footsteps, always the good daughter.

Pikeville is hit by violence again. A shooting at the school leaves two people dead and a town in shock and bewilderment. Charlie was a crucial witness and what she sees makes her confront her own past, unlocking the secrets that she had kept buried within her for so many years. As her family gathers around her, truths must be revealed, however painful they might be, because the past never died.

The Good Daughter is a stand alone novel and it is superb. I haven’t read a Karin Slaughter novel before (that is true, I’m afraid) and so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but I was surprised by the directions in which The Good Daughter took me. This isn’t a crime novel as such but instead a hugely impressive and engrossing scrutiny of a family and small town in America during their darkest days. It is entirely character driven and succeeds because the people that we meet inside this substantial novel are three-dimensional, vital and very real.

At the heart of the novel is the Quinn family and we move through past and present to understand what has happened to them and why. Charlie and Sam embody the novel’s friction and conflict but this expands to include Charlie’s husband Ben and, arguably the most dominating figure in the novel, her father Rusty. Rusty is a tour de force, with a public face. But as we learn something of his private self, it’s painfully revealing. Shadowing them all, though, is Gamma – that extraordinary wife and mother whose life was wiped out in an instant. And new crimes in the present day reflect the pain of the past, more victims, more hatred, more vengeance, forgiveness impossible. Some of this is quite painful to read. The most brutal elements are only revealed bit by bit and in the most shocking manner. The surprises in this novel are stunning.

This is a small town in which everyone knows everybody else and is fed by ignorance and prejudice. This is most apparent in the court scenes – female lawyers are expected to behave and dress in a certain way. There is a sense that this town carries its pain within and it’s difficult for those who live there ever to escape it. Pikeville is brilliantly drawn by Karin Slaughter, as are its buildings, its homes, courtrooms and schools.

The greatest achievement of The Good Daughter is Charlie Quinn. This novel presents a process of self-learning and understanding that holds the reader in a tight grip. This is a compelling and powerful read. It’s dark and painful, with some pitiable characters, but it is also about the difficult process of survival and healing and coming to terms with the truth. This is a significant novel, giving me so much more than I was expecting.

The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts

Gollancz | 2017 (24 August) | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Real-Town Murders by Adam RobertsAlma is a private detective trying to make ends meet. She doesn’t have many cases to pick from and the few she has are hardly promising – a mother who thinks her son is getting thinner with every meal he eats and then there’s the case of the body found in the boot of a car. This could be one of those interesting lucrative cases until Alma learns that this is a brand new manufactured car, still in its factory and untouched by human hands. That it should have a dead body in it is an impossibility but the company want her to find out why, who and, most especially, how.

But as soon as Alma starts digging into the mysterious murder of civil servant Adam Kem, she realises that she’s out of her depth. Important people keep warning her off. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Some of them want her dead as well. But why? All she wants to do is drop the case but instead Alma finds herself on the run. It doesn’t help that she has to return to her home every four hours and four minutes to medicate her love Marguerite. If she misses that deadline, Marguerite will die. Quickly.

The Real-Town Murders is a brilliant detective thriller but that description only scratches the surface. This is Adam Roberts, after all, who yet again shows us what a wizard he is with words and ideas. He has created here a near future Britain and it is an almost empty place. That’s because 90% of the population is buried away in their apartments, some the size of coffins, to immerse themselves in the Shine – our internet’s future. The only time these people venture out is in their mesh suits – an automated robotic case which exercises these unconscious bodies. And if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself in either prison or hospital, there you’ll be forced into the Shine – you’re so much easier to handle that way.

But the Shine has almost shut Britain down. The appeal of the real world has gone. There is a drive by some to get it back and that means giving the place a boost! The UK is now UK!-OK!, Reading is R!-Town (or Real-Town), and then there’s Basingstoked! and sWINdon. Staines is still Staines, though… The White Cliffs of Dover have been sculpted to draw in the crowds and make the British feel good about themselves – what could be better than having the monumental face of Shakespeare carved into the white cliffs to usher in tourists? But you only have to look around the streets and bars to see how ineffective this is.

This is worldbuilding at its very best. It’s complex, multi-layered, absolutely fascinating and so witty. This is very clever writing but it’s not difficult to read or get into, it’s a delight. And we see all of this crazy, really rather horrible world through Alma as she tries to work out what on earth is going on while always keeping an eye on that ticking clock. There are joys along the way – the argumentative talking door is a highlight – but there is also great tension and topnotch adventure as Alma runs from scrape to scrape.

This is also a novel full of fabulous women. The majority of the characters, both goodies and baddies, are female but this doesn’t feel forced. It’s just how it is. And Adam Roberts writes women so well. Alma is wonderful and so too is Marguerite, who sees herself as the Mycroft to Alma’s Sherlock. These two women have got themselves into a pitiable situation and the world around them is only making it worse.

There are some brilliant touches of science fiction that pay homage to such lovely things as Star Trek. There are extraordinary flying cars. There are hints of impossible things, all becoming real in the familiar mystery of the body in the locked room, which here gets such a fantastic twist.

The Real-Town Murders is a joy to read. Adam Roberts’ imagination is incredible, backed up by some truly beautiful writing. I think that it is more accessible than The Thing Itself, a book that I adored, and so I hope it gains the huge audience it deserves. Whatever will be next?!

I must also mention that all of Adam Roberts’ hardbacks have the most stunning covers. The Real-Town Murders is no different – gorgeous.

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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
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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.

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