Category Archives: Review

Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre

Orbit | 2017 (9 November) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Places in the Darkness by Chris BrookmyreCiudad de Cielo (CdC) is the City in the Sky, humanity’s gateway to the stars – or at least that is the intention. Located many thousands of kilometres above Earth, CdC is a space station comprising two enormous Wheels that whirl around a central trunk, each Wheel the home to thousands of men and women. Their mission is to create and construct the first of the generation starships that will carry mankind to a new home. There are no children. Everyone on CdC has a place and a purpose, an inspiration, and so there is no serious crime. That is the official line.

In reality CdC is also known to its inhabitants as Seedee, a fitting name indeed. While the prosperous enjoy comfort and space in Wheel Two, the rest are squeezed into Wheel One and life thrives behind doors, in bars, clubs, brothels, gambling dens, gardens of sin. Contraband alcohol is the currency of choice and competition for the good stuff is fierce. Two club-owning gangsters are fighting a turf war but, when one of their men is murdered horribly, the authorities are most concerned that news of it doesn’t reach Earth. Wheel One is policed by the Seguridad and Nicola Freeman is one of their sergeants. She’s the perfect choice to investigate the murder, not because she’s a fine detective but because, if there’s a pie, you can be sure Nikki Fixx has got her finger in it. Unfortunately, Nikki has been given a partner, a young and new arrival to CdC, Jessica Cho, a formal observer from Earth’s Federation of National Governments and a walking rule book. And nothing at all as she seems.

Chris Brookmyre is a familiar name in crime fiction for his Jack Parlabane novels (I loved Black Widow). Now he looks to the future and the claustrophobic, dangerous and exhilarating space station of CdC. As soon as I heard about Places in the Darkness I was desperate to read it. Its premise is fantastic. But what I discovered in these pages is something even better than that.

The worldbuilding in Places in the Darkness is jaw droppingly brilliant. It is immediately striking, vivid, dark, chaotic but also strangely appealing. And this is all summed up by the character of Nikki Fixx. She is dangerous to know, undoubtedly hated by many for good reason, corrupt, venal and at times extremely unpleasant. But we’re never entirely allowed to believe the worst, even when we watch her bulldoze her way through other people’s lives. Watching Nikki and watching the underworld of Seedee get through each one of its strange days is compelling. It’s violent and thirsty, sex-driven and greedy. But somehow it works. Until the murder happens and it’s soon clear that this odd world is about to be turned upside down.

The character of Nikki is offset by Jessica and, as the novel went on, I began to like her just as much as Nikki. This is helped by the pacey, present-tense narrative shifting between the two. Sometimes events overlap slightly as we see them from both perspectives. We’re not let into all the secrets by any means – and there are an awful lot of those. It’s as if we’re slowly allowed into Nikki’s confidence just as we’re slowly acquainted with Jessica.

The pace builds and before you know it we’re aboard a runaway train. Places in the Darkness is tremendously exciting. Full of surprises, deadly chases and dark conspiracies, all taking place in the contrasting shadows and artificial light of Ciudad de Cielo. When I reached the end I was surprised at how far this book had taken me. It’s not a straightforward journey but it is most certainly thrilling. This is one of the best science fiction crime novels I’ve read in a long time – with the best of characters, story and mood – and I can only hope that Chris Brookmyre takes us into orbit or beyond again.

Other review

Black Widow

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The Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths

Quercus | 2017 (2 November) | 358p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Vanishing Box by Elly GriffithsIt is the winter of 1954 and a young flower seller, Lily, has been found murdered in her room in a Brighton boarding house. She has been arranged by the killer so that she matches almost completely a famous painting’s portrayal of the death of Lady Jane Grey. She has been dressed in a white gown, she is blindfolded and her arm reaches out for the execution block on which she must place her head. DI Edgar Stephens has never seen the like before. But it appears that two other young ladies in the same house are actresses currently appearing in Brighton’s Hippodrome Theatre. And they, along with a few other women, perform each night in a ‘living tableaux’ – almost naked, except for a few strategically placed props and feathers, they reenact famous historical scenes, such as the death of Cleopatra. Edgar is not a man to believe in such coincidences.

In the very same show, Edgar’s friend and wartime comrade Max Mephisto is top of the bill along with his daughter Ruby – they are a magician’s double act and, such is their fame and skill, they have attracted the attention of TV producers, even Hollywood. The significance of this show is lost on no-one. And neither is the horror of poor Lily’s fate, especially when it is shortly followed by another death. This time the victim comes from the living tableaux troop itself. Everyone at the theatre is suspect. This isn’t easy for Edgar, not least because of his engagement to Ruby.

The Vanishing Box is the fourth novel in Elly Griffiths’ Stephens and Mephisto series and I am staggered that this is the first one I’ve read. I’m a big fan of the author’s contemporary Ruth Galloway detective series but, for some reason, I’d avoided the Mephisto books. I think this might be because of the the title of the series. I thought it was something to do with carnivals and magic (subjects I fear) but I was so wrong. Mephisto is a theatrical magician but he is firmly grounded in reality, as is Edgar Stephens. In fact, we’re transported back to the fascinating early 1950s, a time still recovering from the loss and hardship of World War II. The theatre is an escape. It offers glamour and hints of sin, a new reign has begun. There is optimism but also regret and nostalgia. Stephens and Mephisto both carry burdens on their shoulders and they are compelling.

In some ways this novel could be described as cosy crime and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s no criticism. I love this sort of mystery and its setting in a bygone time. It reminds me in some ways of an Agatha Christie detective novel but that’s largely because of the period in which it’s set. just as police technology was very different in those days, the police force is also as affected by manners and social mores as the rest of society, and this is especially seen in the character of DS Emma Holmes. I really, really liked Emma. But there is something so wonderfully old-fashioned about her character and that of Edgar Stephens – or, not so much old-fashioned, as from a different time. I love it.

The nature of the crime is also from another time. There’s no excessive blood or gore. It’s stylised and evocative. The relationships in the novel drive on the story as much as the clues do. The setting of Brighton certainly adds to the mood as does the theatricality of the characters and the crimes. It’s all completely engrossing and beautifully arranged with period clothing, manners, attitudes and theatre, with a little splash of romance and sin thrown in to add a little tension.

Elly Griffiths writes beautifully and the characters she creates are full of colour and life. I had no desire to put The Vanishing Box down and read in two sittings. I have also made sure that I now have the other books in the series to enjoy. I might be about to read them backwards in order but I don’t think that will matter. Any future novels will go to the top of my reading pile for sure. I am so glad I read this!

Other review
The Chalk Pit

Now We are Dead by Stuart MacBride

HarperCollins | 2017 (2 November) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Now We Are Dead by Stuart MacBrideNow We Are Dead is a stand alone novel featuring the one and only Roberta Steel. Now if that isn’t enough to grab your attention, I don’t know what will, but a quick word of warning. Although this novel stands alone, it contains a fair bit of fall out from the last and monumentally brilliant Logan McRae novel In the Cold Dark Ground. If you haven’t read In the Cold Dark Ground then that doesn’t matter at all for Now We Are Dead but if you haven’t read it and intend to then there are things here you might not want to know so tread no further!

Roberta Steel is back! But not as she was. Stripped of her rank as DCI after that Jack Wallace business, she’s now a DS and having to claw her way back up the ranks once more – while scratching that itchy bra, letching after anything in a skirt and generally abusing all those in her power at the same time as stealing their kitkats. But she cannot let Jack Wallace go. More women are being raped and Wallace is taunting her with alibis and fancy lawyers. Steel knows that Wallace is guilty but she knows that if she goes after him it won’t just be her who’s sacked but also Tufty, her dependable PC. Not that that would matter. It might stop him talking about gravity.

But Steel has much more to contend with than Wallace. As a DS, she’s been thrown back into the police work she would have delegated as Chief Inspector – and that means trying to catch thieves and the other low lifes of Aberdeen’s more dodgy areas. And some of the crimes are enough to make a police officer weep. Even Roberta Steel. There are others, though, that will have them rolling on the ground in laughter, usually at the expense of poor Owen. Why does everyone and everything like to bite Owen? He’s a bite magnet. But the incredible thing is that, despite all this Wallace obsessing, Roberta Steel isn’t just good at what she does, she’s brilliant. But there are some things she does that….. well, this sort of behaviour shouldn’t be seen in broad daylight.

As soon as I heard that Stuart MacBride was bringing Roberta Steel back for a stand alone book of her own I could hardly restrain myself! In the Cold Dark Ground did not finish in a good place for Roberta. I was worried. I needed to know what had happened to her. Nobody bounces back like Roberta Steel and, although she bears the scars and mental anguish of what’s happened to her, she mucks in and gets her hands dirty (this statement does have relevance for a particularly memorable moment of the book). There’s no head holding and whimpering for her reduced status. Steel cowers in front of nobody. She might abuse them, ideally to their faces, but she won’t be ashamed. She knows she was right.

If you’ve met Roberta Steel before then you know what to expect from Now We Are Dead and that’s just what you get, although totally undiluted because there’s no Logan McRae here except in wee walk on spots. This is Roberta Steel loud and proud and she is wicked! But in such a good way. Her relationship with her sorry team of PCs is utterly fantastic! The dialogue is so fabulous I could eat it all up and I laughed and laughed while still remembering that really I should be shocked by Roberta’s outrageous behaviour. I loved the other characters, especially Tufty, and even Owen. Poor Owen. The book is packed full of bits to treasure, although I think the daily vote for swear word of the day is chief among them, or how Steel likes to call on her Native American Chief spirit guide during police interrogations – Big Chief Lionel Goldberg.

But the tender side to Roberta is here, too, hidden though it may be, and that reflects some of the pitiable and awful crimes that she must investigate. These stay on the mind and, we know, they’re on Roberta’s mind as well. How could they not be? Read some of this and weep.

Stuart MacBride with every novel reaffirms my conviction that he is the best crime writer out there today. A Dark So Deadly, published earlier this year, is my favourite crime novel ever and Now We Are Dead isn’t far behind. The mix of humour and tragedy, the finding of humour in tragedy and vice versa, the alluring Scottishness of it all, the wickedness of Roberta Steel and the charm and strangeness of her underlings and overlings, and the evil of what she must confront, is irresistible. And just look at that Winnie the Pooh-inspired contents page… pure gold. I need more, MORE! Roberta Steel is back!

Other reviews and features
The Logan McRae series
In the Cold Dark Ground
In A Dark So Deadly

Shadows by Paul Finch

Avon | 2017 (19 October) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Shadows by Paul FinchManchester’s gangsters are no strangers to violence and crime but the tables have been turned. A series of brutal robberies, with criminals as the victims, has the city’s biggest gangs reeling. DC Lucy Clayburn has firsthand experience of just how dangerous these streets can be but she is determined to sweep them clean. It doesn’t matter to her that one of Manchester’s most infamous criminals is her father. That’s nobody’s business but her own. And when she manages to pull off a key arrest, Manchester’s elite Robbery Squad is keen to welcome her among their number. Perhaps now Lucy can really make a name for herself on her own terms. Solving the strange crimes that are shaking the foundations of Manchester’s crime world would be a very good start. But it could also be the end of her…

Shadows is only the second novel by Paul Finch to feature detective Lucy Clayburn but this is already a very strong series indeed. I loved Strangers, immediately falling for Lucy. She is a wonderful heroine – undoubtedly flawed and vulnerable but also courageous, stubborn, determined to stand alone, and resolute. Nobody understands crime like she does – she’s only had to observe her parents to see its effects – and she’s set on defeating it, bit by bit. She’s only a DC and so she does what she can, pounding the streets after insignificant lowlifes, but grabbing every chance she can get to strike higher up the criminal foodchain.

Lucy is fantastic to spend time with and in Shadows, as with Strangers, she’s given a story worthy of her. Much of this novel had me on the edge of my seat and I thoroughly enjoyed the twisty ways in which it developed. But it’s enriched by Lucy’s own unusual background, her self-doubt and her relationships with her family and other detectives. Life isn’t easy for Lucy but you sense that she thrives on this police role that she’s shaping for herself in her own unique way.

The Manchester setting is great! I spent some time in its clubs and neighbourhoods as a teenager and Paul Finch’s portrait of it feels so possible and authentic, frightening yet also alive. The policing is also well done and the investigations – and competition for results – are exhausting. I must admit that I’m normally not a fan of gangster books in the least and so I initially had my doubts about this series but these have proven unfounded. This is largely due to the strong storytelling and Lucy herself. The policing is what dominates here. There is nothing glamorous in the portrayal of Manchester’s controlling bullies.

I’m a big fan of Paul Finch’s other longer-established detective series featuring Heck. But, if it isn’t heresy to say so, I’m starting to think that these Lucy Clayburn books are even better – for their Manchester setting and feel but also for the character of Lucy. She is so well-drawn, unusual and likeable. I hope to spend much more time in her company over the years to come.

Other reviews and features
Strangers
Hunted
Ashes to Ashes
Guest post – ‘What seven things you should know if you want to write crime fiction’

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the blog tour to celebrate the publication of Shadows this month. For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the banner below.

SHadows blog tour banner

Another Woman’s Husband by Gill Paul

Headline Review | 2017, Pb (2 November) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Another Woman's Husband by Gill PaulOn 31 August 1997 Alex proposes to Rachel during their romantic break in Paris. Everything seems perfect until their taxi takes them down into an underpass by the Seine. An accident has happened only moments before. It’s surrounded by photographers. When Alex and Rachel go to offer their help, they are shocked to learn that in the smashed car is none other than Princess Diana. All bedlam breaks loose.

In 1911 Mary Kirk is about to meet a new girl at Miss Charlotte Noland’s summer camp for girls in Virginia. When Wallis Warfield, striking and witty, walks in the door, Mary has no idea that Wallie is to become her closest friend for many years. Together they will share so much, even love for the same man, as Wallis’s glamour (and Mary’s wealth) steers them through ever more influential social circles on both sides of the Atlantic. History tells us what lies in store for Wallis Simpson (as she becomes known) but Mary will play a vital role in the lives of Wallis and Ernest Simpson and in the romance played out between Wallis and the man they call Peter Pan – the Prince of Wales.

In The Secret Wife, Gill Paul combined past and present perfectly to tell the story of the Romanov daughters and the possible fate of one of them, Grand Duchess Tatiana. In Another Woman’s Husband, Gill Paul uses the same technique, with every bit as much skill and appeal, to present the extraordinary life of Wallis Simpson while also following a (fictional) link with another woman who played such a key role in the royal history of 20th-century Britain: Diana, Princess of Wales.

Diana herself isn’t found in these pages. Instead, Rachel, who runs a successful shop selling vintage clothing and objects, finds herself compelled to discover what Diana was up to during her final twenty-four hours, a day that included a visit to the Paris home of the now dead Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Rachel’s fiancé Alex, a filmmaker, has his own reasons to become obsessed with Diana and this creates tension in their relationship.

But the true heart of this wonderful and engaging novel is with the story of Mary and Wallis. It is wonderful to follow them through the years, through marital turmoil, tragedies and glories. Their relationship feels so real. There are moments of such pettiness between them, selfishness and arrogance (Wallis Simpson was no wall flower), but they are always fascinating. Wallis isn’t someone you could ever describe as likeable – on the contrary – but Mary certainly is and it’s Mary who fills this book with so much light and warmth as well as sadness and bitterness. I liked Mary very much.

I love how Gill Paul writes. She has such a gift for dialogue. She sweeps me away with these stories of grand men and women, all set against such sumptuous backdrops. There is such a strong sense of time and place, a luxuriousness filled by the author’s knowledge and use of contemporary objects and, most of all, dresses and suits. It’s all so decorous and involving. Knowing the high stakes that Wallis was playing for certainly adds extra spice and tension. But above all else Another Woman’s Husband is the glamorous portrayal of a scandal that continues to fascinate. Hanging over it, though, is the shadow cast by the tragedy of Diana’s fate and this is dealt with by Gill Paul with great sensitivity and sadness. There is nothing about Another Woman’s Husband that doesn’t appeal to me – I gobbled it up and loved every single page.

You can read about the author’s use of historical sources for Another Woman’s Husband in this guest post.

Other reviews and features
The Secret Wife
Guest post – Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
Guest post – ‘Historical Sources for Another Woman’s Husband‘ by Gill Paul

The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Allen & Unwin | 2017 (2 November) | 547p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Hours by Minette WaltersIt is August 1348 and the pestilence has arrived in Dorsetshire. Sir Richard of Develish has ridden to the demesne of Bradmayne with a cart of treasure – the dowry for his daughter Lady Eleanor whom he wishes to see wed to young Peter of Bradmayne. But Peter is the first to be stricken with the Black Death and others soon follow. Sir Richard returns home to Develish but his wife, the Lady Anne, won’t let him or his men in. For this could be the saving of their lives. The manor is sealed within its moated banks, the surfs all brought inside, their fields abandoned. Lady Anne turns society on its head by bringing forward Thaddeus Thurkell, a slave, as her steward. Confined and with limited food, trouble is inevitable but its source is not what one would expect.

In these times of limited travel and communication, the quarantined inhabitants of Develish have no idea what disease this is that is sweeping the land. They don’t know how far it has travelled or when it will end – if it even will. Is it God’s punishment? But when they look to their priest, no comfort can be found there. Sooner or later they must look beyond the moat for nourishment, for salvation.

I have read and loved every one of Minette Walter’s novels and I was thrilled to learn that not only was a new book on the way, after a sizeable length of time, but that it would also be historical fiction. And what a period Minette Walters has picked – the Black Death of 1348. But she doesn’t look at it from the point of view of the important and all-seeing, instead we view these terrible weeks from the perspective of one small community that can have no idea what is going on a mere five miles from their manor. This is a fine story, a worthy subject for Minette Walters’ talents, and I was engrossed immediately.

These are remarkable people, all the more so because the majority of them are serfs or slaves, people usually ignored by history and fiction. Lady Anne is the foundation on which their lives are built but it’s the serfs who must face the biggest questions of the Middle Ages – why has God cursed us? how do we survive when we’ve sworn an oath to own nothing? what is our fate after the Black Death, should we survive it? will the pestilence give us our freedom? The person who contradicts all attempts of the peasants to examine their condition is Lady Eleanor and she is relentless in her medieval righteousness. Bridging the two worlds are Thaddeus and Lady Anne and the two of them have the power to change others. Watching them do so, whether it’s through the skill of literacy or the experience of travel, is fascinating and completely absorbing. Overshadowing them all though is the legacy of Sir Richard. This might be a tale of the medieval period but it is alive and vivid with real people.

Their situation is diabolical. The descriptions of the plague and the reactions of men and women to it are powerful and shocking. The land has gone silent but for the sound of weeping. While some try to work out what the cause might be, others are overwhelmed. We can’t forget that these are very different times to our own. The Black Death might make no distinction between the classes but feudalism certainly does. And the descriptions of villages, hovels, inns, abandoned sheep, stricken manors and empty, rutted roads are every bit as striking and memorable as the scenes of plague.

The Last Hours paints a wonderful portrait of one small section of medieval England and it is populated by so many interesting and distinct people facing the worst time of their lives, of their age. And yet the Black Death was the catalyst for such change as well as uncertainty, religious questioning and tragedy. All of this is captured so brilliantly by Minette Walters in a medieval apocalyptic tale that is beautifully-written, atmospheric and always gripping.

The Lost Village by Neil Spring

Quercus | 2017 (19 October) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Lost Village by Neil SpringAt the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 the army evacuated, forcibly even, the village of Imber on Salisbury Plain. Its manor, houses and church were turned over to battle training, their walls scarred by bullets, the surrounding woodland pitted with bomb shells, everywhere the dangerous remnants of war. But every October, for one single day, the villagers are allowed to return to Imber to have a service in the church and pay their respects to their loved ones who lie buried in the graveyard and who, for every other day of the year, have been abandoned.

It is 1932 and the annual pilgrimage of the villagers to Imber is imminent. But the army has a problem. Its soldiers are terrified of the place and one man in particular has been turned mad by it. The seizure of Imber was a public relations disaster and the army is intent on avoiding any other attention, particularly as the villagers are more then ever set on reclaiming their former homes for good. Whatever it is that is frightening the soldiers must be explained and eradicated immediately. They call on the famous ghost hunter and ghost debunker Harry Price and his assistant Sarah Grey. But the relationship between the two has soured almost irretrievably and both, especially Sarah, have their own ghosts to face. But all of this must be played out in the deserted woods and dark buildings of Imber.

The Lost Village is the second Ghost Hunters novel by Neil Spring. I haven’t read Ghost Hunters and this mattered very little, although I expect it might have provided more information on the breakdown of Sarah’s relationship with Harry. But it was certainly easy to pick up on the mood between them, especially because our narrator is Sarah herself. Sarah begins her tale when she is an old woman looking back, her memories prompted by the discovery of a skeleton in Imber. We are instantly plunged into an atmosphere of fear, secrets and the unexplained. In Imber anything can happen but there is more to Sarah and the novel than just Imber as some of her initial experiences in London are every bit as terrifying to read.

I love a good ghost story and The Lost Village is deliciously teasing and frightening. Sarah is a wonderful narrator. She combines just the right amount of suspicion and superstition to make her seem a reliable yet open witness to these extraordinary events. Harry is another kettle of fish entirely. There is nothing reliable about Harry and yet, as the novel continues, I warmed to him much more than I expected.

This is a great story and it kept me guessing right to the end but the main strength of this enjoyable novel is its mood. Imber is the perfect subject for such a book and there is an element of truth behind it. Imber was indeed evacuated for army purposes but during a different war, the second, but by shifting it back to the first, the atmosphere of loss and tragedy is arguably increased.

As with most ghostly tales you have to bring a pinch of salt to them and I was certainly prepared to do that with The Lost Village. Apart from my one issue, that perhaps it is a little long, I thoroughly enjoyed my frightening experience in Imber and among its inhabitants.