Category Archives: Crime

The Sign of the Devil by Oscar de Muriel

Hello! Before I begin, I must apologise for the lack of reviews in recent weeks. I am suffering from a bad back injury that has made reading and concentrating very difficult. I am beginning to start to feel hopeful that I might be on the mend! So keep everything crossed. I have turned to audiobooks, which, as they have done in the past, provide comfort and company. I have finished a few books over August as a result and so the reviewing should pick up from now on. Excuses over, on with the review!

The Sign of the Devil by Oscar de MurielThe Sign of the Devil by Oscar de Muriel

Orion | 2022 (4 August) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

Evil has returned to Victorian Edinburgh. Body snatchers are busier than ever, feeding the frenzy for autopsy theatre. But one night the body snatchers are disturbed and the corpse is recovered, a mark of the devil on its skin. It had not been there before. That same night a patient is murdered in Edinburgh’s lunatic asylum. An identical symbol is marked on the walls. The prime suspect is a young woman, another inmate, indeed considered possessed. She is Amy (or Pansy) McGray, found guilty of killing her parents with an axe, also wounding her brother, Detective ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray. It is up to McGray, and his long-suffering former associate Inspector Ian Frey, to prove her innocence, right the wrongs of the past and solve the mystery of the sign of the devil.

The Frey and McGray series has been a joy to read over the last few years. Surely, these are the most perfect examples of Victorian melodrama and mystery. Sadly, with this, the seventh novel, the series comes to an end. It is very much a conclusion to the series, looking back to the beginning and coming to terms with the event that has cast a shadow from the start – the murder of McGray’s family and the confinement of his sister, now mute and troubled. All of which means that this is not a stand alone novel, nor is it the one to start with. INstead, go back to the beginning and Strings of Murder.

I love these characters. The very tartan McGray and the extremely English Frey are a great double act. Much of the time we see McGray through Frey’s eyes and his exasperation, and McGray’s constant teasing, are hugely entertaining. These are dark books, dealing with diabolical crimes, but they are also very funny.

There has always been an element of the supernatural in these novels. McGray is a firm believer in such things as devils and witches and he always gets the unsolvable cases that nobody else wants. Frey is the opposite. He believes in logic and deduction. But combined they have a habit of working things out. They also have a habit of getting stabbed. Frey is especially scarred by their earlier cases. No wonder he’s not keen to work with McGray again. But there is something about McGray’s sister that pulls these two men together to clear her name.

I love the depiction of Victorian Edinburgh. I don’t know the city and so can’t vouch for the accuracy but it is so atmospherically drawn, by night and by day. The surrounding countryside seems both beautiful and threatening and the grand houses hide sinister secrets. The crimes are gruesome. It is also a place of science and education.

The Sign of the Devil brings the series to a satisfactory conclusion. If you’ve not read any of the books, then this is the perfect time to start, knowing that it’s complete. I will miss Ian and Nine-Nails. I’m also intrigued to see where the author, the very talented Oscar de Muriel, turns his attention next.

Other reviews
A Fever of the Blood
A Mask of Shadows
The Loch of the Dead

The Darker Arts
The Dance of the Serpents

All That Lives by James Oswald

Wildfire | 2022 (17 February) | 448p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

Discoveries of 700-year-old human remains at an archaeological dig in South Leith intrigue DI Tony McLean and his partner Emma but Tony becomes troubled when more bones are recovered, far, far more recent and yet sharing similarities with the ancient remains. And other people are dying. Their deaths appear violent and brutal but no evidence can be found of a killer. Matters aren’t helped by the return to work of Chief Superintendent Gail Elmwood who appears to have had a miraculous recovery from her horrific burns. She wants Tony to work with the charitable Dee Foundation, which is working to clear the streets of drugs and knife crime. Tony knows differently. Jane Louise Dee or Mrs Saifre is Tony’s nemesis of many years’ standing. He knows her to be a monster.

How I love this series! I’m not a big reader of crime fiction these days, as I immerse myself in historical fiction and alien worlds, but if there’s one series I will always read it’s James Oswald’s Tony McLean books. I absolutely love them. They’re set around Edinburgh, a beautiful city with a current of darkness flowing beneath and the books themselves are also dark. Retired officer Grumpy Bob works in the basement on old, cold crimes, revealing an evil that never dies, while the enigmatic Madame Rose taps into the positive energy that can keep people safe. This is a world in which evil fights good, with hints of the supernatural, but only hints. These books are truly immersive, multi-layered and they make you believe.

Tony McLean is one of my favourite characters in contemporary fiction. I love his kindness and thoughtfulness. But he’s not rewarded for it. Once more, Tony must suffer in his private life as Emma falls terribly ill. His worry colours the novel and draws us in to it. It’s hard not to care for Tony McLean.

The old favourite characters return here, including the cats, and I must admit to enjoying the return of Jane Louise Dee. This woman is utterly diabolical. Once again, her battle with Tony is sinister and dramatic. I also loved seeing Janie Harrison take on more of a role.

I listened to the audiobook of All That Lives, the first time I’ve done so with this series and I’m so glad I did! It’s brilliantly read by Ian Hanmore and the fact that it’s read in a Scottish accent added so much to the experience of reading a Scottish novel. Tony McLean is fixed in my head after all these years and this narration fitted that view completely, even enhancing it.

All That Lives is the twelfth novel in the series. You don’t need to have read the others to enjoy this one but I think you might want to after you’ve read it! Tony has a history that is well worth discovering and you’ll want to spend more time with Madame Rose. I really hope there are many more to come and, when you’ve read All That Lives, you’ll understand why I’m nervous!

Other reviews
Natural Causes
The Damage Done
Written in Bones
The Gathering Dark

Cold as the Grave
Bury Them Deep
What Will Burn
No Time To Cry (Constance Fairchild 1)

A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline Winspear

Allison & Busby | 2022 (22 March) | 375p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1942 and the Americans have joined the war. With many men away from home, American GIs are helping out in English fields, keeping things going, making friends, falling in love. Women are working alongside them, including female pilots who collect and deliver planes across the country. One of them has a shock when she realises that there is someone on the ground firing at her plane from a barn. When she goes to investigate, she finds a terrified tied-up black American GI who says he had not been kept alone. His friend, a white man, had been taken away, probably to be shot. The army immediately judge him a guilty man. It is up to private detective Maisie Dobbs to discover the truth and clear the soldier’s name before he is transported back to the US. Maisie, married to an American, is better aware than most of the differences between the two nations and of the paramount importance that nothing destroys the relationship between them. Not everyone, it seems, agrees with that.

I am a huge fan of the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. A Sunlit Weapon is the seventeenth in the series. I haven’t read them all yet (I discovered them relatively recently, about 3 years ago) but I have enjoyed reading them whenever I can and I think I’ve now read about ten of them. So, while I don’t think you need to have read them all to enjoy A Sunlit Weapon, I would recommend that you read one or two, just so that you have a bit of an understanding of Maisie’s unusual background and her relationships, particularly with her assistant, with her husband and with her adopted daughter. Maisie’s been through some adventures over the last twenty years. She’s known tragedy and she’s also experienced the worst of mankind. But there is also love.

I am so fond of Maisie. She is practical, busy, helpful and loving. There is also an obstinacy to her. She will fight for what is right and she will persevere. She spends half of her time in London and the other half in the country, with her daughter Anna. But there are signs that this cannot continue indefinitely. Anna needs her. She is different from her schoolfriends and teachers. This is not a good time to be different. This is made more than apparent when Maisie takes on the case of the African-American GI.

I enjoy the spy element of these novels. Maisie has, in the past, gone undercover to complete some lethal missions. Those days are gone but she is still involved with individuals from the government, while her husband Mark is an important, somewhat shadowy figure at the American Embassy in London. His role now is to prepare the ground for the First Lady who is determined to visit England and encourage the GIs in person. There is a potential for disaster.

This isn’t fast crime fiction. In a way, it’s more of a saga, a leisurely investigation over multiple novels into the impact of the First World War, the rise of fascism and the Second World War on Maisie Dobbs and those she loves. It’s historical fiction more than crime and there are some fascinating glimpses into life in the early 1940s. The female pilots are especially admirable and charismatic. You can see why Maisie would be drawn to them. Discrimination is a clear theme of the series, whether it’s against women, foreigners or those of a different colour. This novel also provides an appealing portrait of the transformation of London by war but also by the influx of foreigners and new attitudes.

I was engrossed by A Sunlit Weapon and soon fell back into the cosy yet thoughtful world in which the author immerses the reader. I will always read these novels and, once more, look forward to Maisie’s return.

Other reviews
The American Agent
The Consequences of Fear

Breathless by Amy McCulloch

Michael Joseph | 2022 (17 February) | 320p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

Adventure journalist Cecily Wong needs a break and she also needs to put the past behind her. To do that she must confront her fears and the golden opportunity comes when legendary mountaineer Charles McVeigh offers her an exclusive interview. If, that is, she can reach the summit of Manaslu in Nepal, the eighth highest mountain in the world. It is a monumental task but Cecily and the other teams on Manaslu will have more than the elements, the lethal terrain and the lack of oxygen to contend with. There is uneasiness among those on the mountain, Cecily hears things she cannot explain, there are memories of fallen climbers, and soon there are deaths.

I have always been drawn to thrillers set in cold, wintry and inhospitable places. There is something about the battle to survive against all that the environment can muster against you. Having said all that, I’m not physically drawn to them at all and mountains terrify me! But the same cannot be said for Amy McCulloch, a fine writer who knows what she writes about. This is an author who has summited Mount Manaslu. She actually did it. How amazing is that?! And all of that personal experience and endeavour makes Breathless more real and convincing than ever.

You really can feel the effort and inherent danger of this climb. Cecily Wong and her fellow climbers are not ‘normal’ people. There is something truly epic about them, whatever their failings and arguments, and that something special really shines out in this novel, even while we see their flaws. Few of the climbers, if any, are without their personal battles. There is much to prove on the lawless precipices and crevasses of Manaslu.

The descriptions of actually how to scale a mountain such as this are fascinating, with the repeated climbs to camps for acclimatisation and so on, as well as the detail of specific parts of the climb, particularly sheer walls of ice and rock. This mountain has claimed many lives and, reading this, you can understand why. And that’s even without the thriller element! But this is a great place to get away with murder.

The thriller itself is an exciting read and very atmospheric. This feels like a haunted mountain and that adds to its tension and air of dread. I liked Cecily, our journalist heroine who must overcome some personal, traumatising hurdles to find the story that will save her career. It is true that the story is a bit predictable (I worked it out early on). Nevertheless, this is an entertaining thriller that really captures the sheer effort of the ascent. I was none the wiser by the end why anyone would want to put themselves through it but I was left in awe of this author who did just that.

Where Blood Runs Cold by Giles Kristian

Bantam | 2022 (24 February) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Where Blood Runs Cold by Giles KristianErik Amdahl is tormented by nightmares since the death of his daughter Emilie, wanting nothing more than to keep his remaining daughter Sofia safe. But Sofia is becoming a teenager and, finally, Erik accepts that he must fulfil old promises made to both daughters and take Sofia on a great adventure, on the ‘Long Ski’ through the dramatic wilderness of north Norway. But it doesn’t go as planned. A place they presume to be safe turns out to be far from it and soon they must ski for their lives, pursued by ruthless killers, heading deeper and deeper into the glaciers, mountains and forests of an ice-gripped landscape.

Giles Kristian can do no wrong in my eyes. He is a superb storyteller, one of the very finest writing today, and now after some outstanding historical novels on the Vikings, the English Civil War and the post-Roman Britain of Arthur and Lancelot, he has written a modern thriller set in a country that he knows so very well. The topic and setting might be different from his previous novels but there is a connection. There is a spirituality and mythology to this snowy, lethal, beautiful environment that Erik’s Viking ancestors would recognise.  Erik is taken to the very limit of his endurance, like one of Giles Kristian’s other heroes, like the Viking Sigurd or Raven or Lancelot. In times of such extremis one looks beyond the natural world for comfort and, in places of such beauty and danger, that other world can be found in the surrounding rocks, rivers, trees and animals. The local Sami people are wise about their environment and this must be protected.

Where Blood Runs Cold is as beautifully written as the author’s other novels. It shares the same feel of place as well as a strong sense of danger, great tension and, on occasion, violence. It is a thriller and so the reader expects excitement! They get it here. It is a hunt and pursuit with the extreme cold proving equally as dangerous as the killers at their heels. But there are still quiet times, when the father and daughter hide in their dug-out snow caves, and they bond and remember Emilie. The relationship between Erik and Sofia is tender and one’s heart goes out to Sofia who just wants to help her Pappa when she is at the very limit herself.

I love wintry thrillers and I am fascinated by Norway, a country I want to visit very much. I found Where Blood Runs Cold thoroughly exciting but I also found myself caught up in the story of a father and daughter coming together in the most dangerous of situations. Giles Kristian has demonstrated that not only can he make any period of history his own but that he can also master a new genre entirely. Not that this was a surprise to me! He is a wonderful writer whose books belong on your shelf.

Other reviews
God of Vengeance (Rise of Sigurd 1)
Winter’s Fire (Rise of Sigurd 2)
Wings of the Storm (Rise of Sigurd 3)

Raven: Blood Eye; Raven: Sons of Thunder; Raven: Odin’s Wolves
The Terror: a short story
The Bleeding Land
Brothers’ Fury
Lancelot

With Wilbur Smith – Golden Lion

The Man in the Bunker by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2022 (20 January) | 476p | Review copy | Buy the book

The war is over and it is time for the guilty to pay for their atrocities. While the Nazis are rounded up, ready for trial and punishment, their leader is believed dead. He committed suicide in his bunker under Berlin’s bombed streets, his body burned. But did Hitler really die in the bunker. The American and British secret service suspect he escaped, their suspicions supported by a trail of strange and violent deaths in Germany. It is time once more for Tom Wilde, an American Professor of History at Cambridge University and reluctant spy, to head to Germany and follow the clues and trace the witnesses to the truth. But Wilde is not alone. He is paired with Dutch soldier Mozes Heck, who has his own agenda and it could get both of them killed.

The Tom Wilde series is one of the very best being written today and I have been a huge fan of it from its beginning. Rory Clements is an excellent writer who has written both Tudor and World War Two thrillers. Interestingly, Wilde is an expert in Elizabethan history. There is a wider perspective to these novels, a strong sense that intrigue and deception are timeless and that the past can repeat itself. I like that. The Man in the Bunker is the sixth novel in a series that has taken us from the troubled, ominous years just before the war, through the war and now to its immediate aftermath when the concentration camps are being liberated and the true horror of the war is revealed. Berlin at this time is such a fascinating setting for a thriller that is enthralling from start to finish.

I think that The Man in the Bunker stands well alone as it very much focuses on the matter at hand, removing Wilde from his life and family in Cambridge. It is apart from the earlier novels. But I really recommend reading them all. Wilde is a fantastic character, an intellectual and a man of action. He has his hands full here, though, thanks to Heck, who holds his own against Wilde and adds a real edge of danger and menace to the story, while being a constant reminder of the personal motivation of many to bring the Nazis to justice. The two men uncover multiple stories of suffering and endurance. This is a powerful, disturbing novel.

Wilde and Heck interview several of the people who knew Hitler most, adding to the mystery element of the novel while also providing a chilling picture of Hitler and those closest to him during the last days of the Reich.

The Man in the Bunker is thoroughly exciting, ingenious and page-turning. Now that the war is over I wonder what the future holds for Tom Wilde but I really hope we haven’t seen the last of him and his wife, Lydia. This has been a great series from the beginning but I think that this, the sixth, is my favourite.

Other reviews
Holy Spy
Corpus
Nucleus

Nemesis
Hitler’s Secret
A Prince and a Spy

The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett

Viper | 2022 (6 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Twyford Code by Janice HallettMany years ago, schoolboy Steven Smith found on a bus a book by Edith Twyford, a writer now considered old-fashioned, a bit dodgy. It’s covered in strange scribbles and messages. He took it to his teacher Miss Isles who became obsessed with it, believing the book to contain a code that could decipher a great mystery. On a school trip to Bournemouth shortly afterwards, she vanished without trace, her disappearance haunting Steven for the rest of his days.

After a stretch in prison, Steven decides to do something about it. He determines to decipher the code himself and to find out what really happened to Miss Isles. Steven isn’t good at writing and so he records all of his interviews with his old schoolfriends and anyone else he encounters in his investigations to solve his own past. But Steven soon discovers that he isn’t the only person to be intent on solving the mystery of the Twyford Code and by then it is too late. Steven is caught in a web and, just out of reach, the answers to it all tantalise.

The Appeal was my favourite crime mystery of 2021 and one of my very top reads of the year. It’s actually one of my favourite novels of all time, not just for the story it tells but for the way in which it tells it. It’s ingenious. It’s an updated epistolary novel, which involves the reader with the mystery in such an engaging and thoroughly gripping way. It’s a hard act to follow but Janice Hallett is a very clever writer and in The Twyford Code she tweaks the style just a bit to deliver another original and consuming standalone mystery.

This time, the novel comprises a series of transcripts. These contain numerous mis-hearings of certain words, presumably due to the transcription software, adding a very curious element to the prose. This is the sort of novel, like its predecessor, in which the reader needs to keep their wits about them, staying alert and always on the look out for clues. The whole book is a puzzle. But where does it lead?

The Twyford Code is also a novel about a vulnerable boy who grows into a damaged soul. We learn about his relationships with his family, his school days and the trouble that he has found himself in. Now he has a mission. But will it be the death of him?

More than that, I cannot say. These are books to immerse oneself in, to be driven by curiosity and fascination to discover where they lead. I cannot wait for the next novel.

PS – I love the cover!

Other review
The Appeal

The Mitford Vanishing by Jessica Fellowes

Sphere | 2021 (4 November) | 416p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It is 1937 and Europe is marching towards war, with Civil War already raging in Spain. Idealists on both sides – Communist and Fascist – are drawn to the conflict in Spain, perhaps not realising the horrors they will face there. The Mitford family is as divided as Europe but they come together when they realise that Communist sister Jessica (nicknamed Decca) has eloped to France and believed to be heading for Spain. Their former maid Louisa now runs a private detective agency with her ex-policeman husband Guy and the two of them are surprised when novelist Nancy Mitford hires them to track down Decca and her unsuitable lover. Scandal, war, ruination face the young woman if she cannot be found in time.

The Mitford Vanishing is the fifth novel in Jessica Fellowes’ wonderful series, which follows the lives of this extraordinary,  glamorous and controversial family. Each one tends to look at a different sister and so you can pick them up easily but I’d really recommend reading the series from the beginning as then you’ll know more about Louisa and Guy. Louisa is the star of these novels however shiny the sisters are. One thing’s for sure, they all attract trouble and they have kept Louisa’s investigative skills busy since the day she first met them.

This time we’re on the trail of Decca but, as she remains elusive for much of the novel, the focus is on the people that Louisa and Guy meet on their travels across France. The war in Spain looms over events and the details about that are fascinating. Louisa, though, has other matters on her mind and spends much of the novel investigating another case in London of a missing woman while Guy chases clues on the continent.

The novel mixes fact and fiction very well and the scenes in France are particularly compelling. I wasn’t convinced as much by the London missing person case or its conclusion but Decca’s mysterious disappearance is thoroughly entertaining and a great device through which to look at the rise of fascism and the Spanish Civil War.

Louisa is a fabulous main character and I’ve enjoyed following her over the years. Her husband Guy plays a much bigger role than usual and he is improved for it. The two now feel like an equal partnership and they work so well together.

I listened to the audiobook, which was well-read but I think the treebook would be better due to the many brief chapters.

We are running out of Mitford sisters now but arguably the strangest of them all remains – Unity. I really, really hope Jessica Fellowes tackles her next!

Other reviews
The Mitford Murders catch up (The Mitford Murders and Bright Young Dead)
The Mitford Scandal
The Mitford Trial

Five Minds by Guy Morpuss

Viper | 2021 (2 September) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Five Minds by Guy MorpussIn the near future, Earth’s population crisis has been solved through drastic measures. On reaching adulthood, people can select how the rest of their lives will be lived – as a worker in their own bodies, as glamorous and wealthy pleasure-seekers (but for a pitifully short life), as a kind of human-android hybrid. All have their lifespan limited. But, for the longest life, people can opt to share a body – five minds in one body for about 140 years – but with consciousness limited to four hours as each mind takes its turn through the day.

Alex, Kate, Sierra, Ben and Mike have lived together in one body for 25 years. While Mike does everything he can with his time to keep the body fit, others within the commune have treated it less well. The time has come to compete for time credits to buy a new host body. They must play a series of virtual games in the ‘death parks’, places where people play to gain time but so often lose it. But, as the games play out, one of the five goes missing and soon it becomes terribly clear – they have been murdered. Someone wants to kill them off one by one. But who? Could they be sharing a body with a killer?

Five Minds is such an original and clever speculative novel, which takes the concept of a locked room murder mystery to extremes, with some of the suspects confined within one body, and each of the minds using their allotted shift of time to investigate. The chapters move through the structure of the day, moving between the minds, with Alex starting the day. It’s purposefully disjointed with each mind having to readjust to where their predecessor in the body has left them. They can communicate through messages, leaving clues and warnings – or lies and deceits. It’s an intriguing way for a murder enquiry to be conducted.

The science fiction element comes to the fore in the Death Park, a horrendous place of shifting realities and manipulation. Some of the games are frightening, others physically challenging, but the cost can be extreme, even fatal. What a place!

It is a dark novel. There seems no pleasure to be had living in four-hour chunks, in a body that isn’t your own, with the minds of others that you don’t particularly like. What if you’re the one who never sees the sun or even daylight? You can see why few select this course but there is a sadness about the other types of life. The setting of the Death Park seems appropriate to the gloom of a world that has no room for the people who live on it.

Five Minds raises questions about what type of life one might want, what one might be prepared to do to have more time, what time one might give up for a short life of luxury. But it is also an excellent crime novel that goes off in all sorts of unexpected directions. It does get complicated, which you’d expect when nobody has time to see the full picture, and is very clever and satisfying in the way it develops.

The Heron’s Cry by Ann Cleeves

Macmillan | 2021 (2 September) | 400p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It’s a hot summer’s night when DS Jen Rafferty attends a party thrown by her magistrate friend Cynthia. She is approached by Nigel Yeo, a doctor whose role is now to monitor NHS trusts in this part of north Devon. He needs official advice from a police officer but, drunk, Jen is in no state to offer it and so he leaves. The next day Yeo is discovered murdered at Westacombe, the home of a rural community of artists, a shard of glass from a vase made by his daughter Eve in his neck. While Jen struggles with the guilt of not having helped Yeo when he needed it, her boss DI Matthew Venn must unravel the lies that tie this community together and seek out the killer in its midst. But one of the suspects is a close friend of Matthew’s husband Jonathan. This unusual case is about to get very personal, for Matthew and for Jen.

The Heron’s Cry is the second novel in Ann Cleeves’ new series, Two Rivers, which began in fine style with The Long Call. Matthew Venn immediately became one of my favourite literary detectives (along with the author’s other famous creation, Vera). Matthew is a fantastic character. He’s quiet, well-dressed, reserved and infinitely kind and well-loved, not just by his husband but also by his friends and colleagues (except for his boss, of course, who hates everyone except DC Ross May), and it’s good to see them all again in The Heron’s Cry.

Once more, the emphasis is on the people who drive the story onwards, making it an immersive and gentle read. It’s lovely to meet such characters as Lucy again while it’s also good to get to know others better, such as Jen and Jonathan, and especially Matthew. The author takes her time to guide us through the personalities and conflicts of the community of artists, and their relationship with their powerful, wealthy patron Frank Ley.

The locations by the coast in north Devon are wonderful! It’s a hot summer, the beaches are beautiful and full of holiday makers, contrasting with the unhappiness of the artists and the menace of the killer, as well as the stories of despair that Matthew and his team uncover.

I should mention that this is a good example where the author’s foreword should most definitely be at the back of the book. I found it spoilery. Resist the urge to read it!

While it is a little slow in places, perhaps frustratingly so at times, The Heron’s Cry is a very enjoyable read, filled with wonderful characters, and it tells a story that has depth, heart and menace. I can’t wait for the return of Matthew, Jen and Jonathan.

Other review
The Long Call