Category Archives: Thriller

Dirty Little Secrets by Jo Spain

Quercus | 2019 (7 February) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dirty Little Secrets by Jo SpainThe exclusive gated community of Withered Vale in Ireland appears to have much going for it. These are expensive houses, their owners are aspirational and wealthy, their children allowed to roam free behind the gates. But not all is as it seems. Secrets lurk behind each of these doors but particularly behind No 4. The body of Olive Collins, the owner of No 4 Withered Vale, lay unnoticed and undiscovered for three long months. It was the cloud of flies bellowing out of the chimney that finally gave the game away. Police officers Frank Brazil, so close to retirement, and his partner Emma, so close to the start of her career, are given charge of the investigation into what might be a suspicious death. As they begin to make their visits around the small number of houses on Withered Vale, there are questions they really need the answer to – why did nobody in this small community notice that Olive was missing? Perhaps because they knew that she wasn’t?

This is such a gripping read! And it is indeed packed full of dirty little secrets and it’s up to Frank and Emma to wheedle them out of the occupants of the perfectly named Withered Vale. We’re introduced to each of the households one by one as key members of the community take over the narrative – we have the cheesy lover, the pretentious (and rich) hippies, the mother and daughter who keep themselves to themselves, the retirees who may or may not have been in their holiday home abroad at the time of Olive’s death, there is the son of a wealthy man who now lives alone and is controlled by his addiction, there’s the loving couple who really hate one another, and there’s the wayward children. And then there’s Olive. Olive better than anyone seemed to know what was going on within each of these elegant houses. Her voice isn’t neglected in Dirty Little Secrets. Olive speaks from the grave.

My favourite characters in Dirty Little Secrets, though, apart from one of the young children, are the police officers, Frank and Emma. They investigate this case, hanging around the Vale constantly, almost as if their bosses are trying to get rid of them. Frank is so close to retirement. It’s as if they want to keep him out of trouble. Emma has much to learn but she has a distinctive feel for the case that Frank is keen to develop. Their relationship is absolutely fascinating. They each have their own past to deal with, which they slowly reveal to the other. It’s poignant and so beautifully done. I grew to care for both of these people very much.

And this is what makes Dirty LIttle Secrets such a sophisticated and elegant triumph. The reader might have their preconceptions about the way in which this novel might develop, not least due to the signpost of its title, but they will be wrong. I’m not going to say anything at all about this except to urge you to keep your expectations on hold.

Dirty Little Secrets is such a clever, rich and witty novel. It has that wonderful Agatha Christie feel of a crime committed by one of a small number of confined suspects. There’s such a charm about the way in which we learn about the goings on in each of the houses. But then the reality kicks in and that’s what left me enthralled. People are complicated, even if they live in Withered Vale or if they have to police it, and Jo Spain teases out their true natures, their involving stories, in such a fascinating way. I loved The Confession but it’s quite possible that Dirty Little Secrets is even better. Jo Spain’s books will always go straight to the top of my reading pile.

Other review
The Confession

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Marked for Death by Tony Kent

Elliott and Thompson | 2019 (7 February) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

Marked for Death by Tony KentWhen a retired Lord Chief Justice is viciously slaughtered in his home, tortured and crucified, London’s legal establishment is shocked. And then another solicitor is killed in the same way. Someone, somewhere, is clearly out for terrible vengeance and Detective Chief Inspector Joelle Levy is given the job of finding out who that is and why. It’s not an easy task and matters aren’t helped when the most audacious and astonishing gangland killing takes place on her patch. One of the most well-known journalists of the day, Sarah Truman, investigates the crucifictions on her own as a worrying pattern emerges. Meanwhile, Sarah’s fiancé, QC barrister Michael Devlin is consumed by his own court case, in which he must prove the innocence of his client against enormous odds. But both Michael and Sarah have no idea how close the killer will come to their own lives. The clock is ticking.

I loved Tony Kent’s debut thriller Killer Intent and the good news is that its successor, Marked For Death, is every bit as compelling, if not even more so. I was so pleased to see Sarah and Michael return. Both have done well from what happened before. They’ve not only received promotion and admiration in their professions, but they are also now engaged and living together. It’s a good life. It’s about to get turned upside down.

As with Killer Intent, there’s an engrossing story at the heart of Marked For Death. The novel starts with a shock that sets the pace and mood for the rest of the novel. It doesn’t let up at all. There is so much going on as more than one thread weaves its way through the plot. We follow Sarah and Michael in their busy daily lives but we also have a killer to watch. It’s such a good story and Tony Kent tells it brilliantly well.

Sarah and Michael are joined in this book by DCI Joelle Levy and she is given plenty of space, meaning that we get to know her very well indeed. We get involved in her relationships with her fellow detectives, with her child and also with Sarah. I love the depth of character that Tony Kent gives us. It’s skilfully done as it doesn’t in any way distract from the plot. It keeps us invested in what’s going on and raises the stakes. We don’t want anything to happen to these people while fearing that it must.

The author’s legal background adds authenticity to his novels, especially for the character of Michael Devlin and his court case. There are some great moments of cross-examination here, with complex detailed argument (I’ll admit that I had to concentrate a great deal to follow the cross-examination about mobile phone masts!), which I thoroughly enjoyed. This combines so well with the thriller element of the plot outside the courtroom, although there is tension in both worlds. I was gripped by Marked For Death from the outset and it was a perfect read for the Christmas holidays. I just hope they’ll be more soon from this very talented thriller writer.

Other review
Killer Intent

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Orion | 2019 (7 February) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Silent Patient by Alex MichaelidesAlicia Berenson had a life many might envy. She had a beautiful house in London, was a famous artist and was happily married to the sought-after photographer Gabriel. Then one August day, the hottest day of the year, Alicia shot Gabriel in the face five times. From that moment on she didn’t speak a word. Six years later forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber begins work at the Grove, the facility where the still silent Alicia is held alongside other violent and damaged women. Theo is obsessed by Alicia’s case and he believes that he will be the one who will finally be able to discover why Alicia did what she did. He will break Alicia’s silence.

The Silent Patient is one of those psychological thrillers that is next to impossible to put down. The reader is grabbed by its irresistible premise and then cannot put it down until they discover how it ends. It’s partly being sold as a thriller with a twist that you won’t work out. Psychological thrillers are often described like this but The Silent Patient is one of the very, very few that I’ve read that actually did catch me out. That was a very pleasant surprise!

There’s not much I can say about the novel because, like most psychological thrillers, they work best when the reader knows little about them in advance, but I will say how much I liked the background to the characters – the fact that Alicia is an artist and the way that Theo can’t stop analysing everything and everyone around him. Alicia and Theo drive this novel on, even though one is silent (although we are given extracts from Alicia’s journal, which does give her some voice). You can’t help but wish Alicia would speak. That adds such tension.

I’m still in two minds about how much I enjoyed some elements of The Silent Patient. But, on reflection, I think this might be because of how disturbing the novel actually is. We are immersed in this world and it’s a damaged, frightening and untrustworthy place. The author does a fine job of evoking an almost claustrophobic fear. Initially, I wondered if the reader is being manipulated by the novel’s end but I’m now coming to the conclusion that it’s really rather cleverly done. This is one of those books – it makes you think, possibly in a quite anxious way. It’s a book you may well respond to.

I’m extremely picky with psychological thrillers, having read too many of them. The Silent Patient, even though it caused me some conflicted feelings as I read it, is one I’m very glad I read.

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Little, Brown | 2019 (7 February) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Lost Man by Jane HarperIt is Christmas and the outback desert of Queensland, Australia, is baked by the relentless sun. Three brothers, Nathan, Cameron and Bub Bright, own vast ranches, relatively close to the single street that is called Balamara. It’s the closest thing to a town round here. Where the brothers’ properties meet stands a gravestone, marking the spot where a stockman died a century before. A dreadful, lonely, hot place in which to die. And now it’s become a grave again – Cameron is found lying next to it, the sun having done its deadly work. As Nathan and Bub stand over their brother’s body, they can only wonder why Cameron abandoned a car full of water and other supplies to walk to his death. In an environment as hostile as this, death is not uncommon but there’s a mystery here that may tear the Bright family apart.

The Lost Man is the third standalone novel by Jane Harper and, despite the stiff competition offered by its predecessors The Dry and Force of Nature, I think it’s my favourite and confirms why Jane Harper is an author whose books I will always seek out.

Once again, Jane Harper brilliantly visualises the outback as well as those hardy people who have to make a living from it. This landscape, especially to someone who lives in small, green Britain, is vast, dusty, empty and barren. Above all, it is monstrously hot. A short walk could prove the death of a strong man. We see the preparations that people make to survive the unexpected, which surprisingly includes floods. The Lost Man is full of little details about the safeguards people take – the book that everyone must write in when they go out, the cold larders that must be kept stocked, their goods religiously counted, the cool boxes in the vehicles. It’s a way of life that is both fascinating and fearsome. These are people covered with the scars left by skin cancer incisions, their skin is tough and leathered, they don’t waste time on talk. Women face their own issues. This is a man’s world but it wouldn’t exist without the women they rely on. And yet you can can also sense why these people, the Brights, for example, don’t want to leave. There’s something almost noble in their strength of character and resolve.

The Bright family is scrutinised in these pages. They can go months without seeing each other, perhaps without seeing anyone at all, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that so much is left unsaid. The layers are peeled away as we spend time getting to know the generations of the Bright family. Nathan, in particular, is driven to know what happened to Cameron. The more he learns about Cameron, the more we learn about Nathan. It’s a sad, troubling tale but Nathan lies at the heart of The Lost Man. He is perhaps more lost than anyone.

This is stunning writing and it is supported by such insight into the lives of these men, women and children. It’s completely involving, atmospheric and exposed. The novel takes its time. The emphasis here is on character as Nathan in particular reflects on the events that shaped his own and his family’s life. Nathan’s relationship with his teenage son Xander is lovingly explored. I cared for these people. And the ending when it comes is utterly engrossing. But by that time we have been thoroughly immersed in this harsh land.

The heat, dust and merciless cruelty of the outback desert at the height of summer is relentless and superbly depicted in The Lost Man. The mystery is very much character-driven. It is all about families and relationships between a small group of people who live such remote and difficult lives. But there is as much love as there are secrets. It’s an excellent novel, beautifully written. Jane Harper is an irresistible writer.

Other reviews
The Dry
Force of Nature

The First Lady by James Patterson and Brendon DuBois

Century | 2018 (13 December) | 339p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The First Lady by James Patterson and Brendan DuBoisPresident Harrison Tucker is a popular president and his First Lady, Grace, is well-respected for the work that she does for the country’s disadvantaged children. Tucker’s first term is about up and the country is due to go to the polls shortly. Everyone is confident of a second term. Until Tucker is ambushed by the media with his arm around his mistress. If asked, though, Tucker would say that she’s more than his mistress. Tammy Doyle is the love of his life. The scandal threatens to consume the government. The Chief of Staff Parker Hoyt is the man tasked with trying to pull it all back together. Much depends on the response and attitude of Grace Tucker. Can they win her round? But Grace has had enough. The First Lady manages to give her security detail the slip and she disappears. But, as questions begin to be asked, a terrible possibility raises its head – perhaps the First Lady did not vanish by choice.

I’m such a fan of James Patterson’s thrillers and I loved the premise of this one, particularly as it’s not that long since I enjoyed The President is Missing. This time it’s the turn of the First Lady, although both books (and characters) are unrelated.

As you’d expect from a JP thriller, The First Lady sets off at a pace that sets the speed for the rest of the book. What starts off as a simple scandal becomes something very different indeed. We’re introduced to various people who are involved in the hunt for the First Lady – some to help her, some with other intentions – and they’re quite a bunch. Parker Hoyt stands out but he isn’t alone. For sympathy, though, we’re on the side of the special agent in charge of protection at the White House, Sally Grissom, who has to combine such a stressful job with raising a young daughter alone. Sally is tough and uncompromising. Many of the people who work for her are scared of her. But she’s certainly the type of person you’d want looking after you and trying to find you. I did like her.

The authorship of The First Lady is split and with this thriller it felt more evident than in others. It isn’t the best written of the thrillers, certainly not as good as the excellent The President is Missing, and some of the characters are a little wooden and some of the developments a bit implausible. All in all, it just feels less ‘Pattersony’ than some of the others I’ve read recently. But, having said all that, I had no desire to put it down once I started and I thoroughly enjoyed myself reading it over the course of just one day. I’ll take that!

Other reviews
NYPD Red 5
The President is Missing
Target

The Last by Hanna Jameson

Viking | 2019 (31 January) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last by Hanna JamesonJon Keller left his home and family in California for a conference in a hotel in Switzerland unhappy about how he had left things. He really needed to sit down and work things out with his wife for the good of their two adored young daughters. Emails and texts are all very well but home seems such a long way away. And then those emails and texts stop. Everything stops. Modern life comes to an end. Survival instincts have to be dredged up from humanity’s distant prehistoric past. Because one morning, while Jon and his conference colleagues were eating breakfast, nuclear weapons fell on Washington DC and soon they fell everywhere, the last flickers of television chronicled the fall one by one of the world’s cities. Then there was nothing. For Jon, life has shrunk to the dimensions of this hotel, preserved from the bombs by its remote location, so far from cities and any settlements at all.

The Last tells the story of the end of the world from the perspective of one man stranded far from his home, family and country. Jon recounts events in his own words as he records events in a diary. It’s his testimony, a message to his family but ultimately intended only for himself, and its power partly lies in the fact that he can only recall the full details of what happened on that terrible, terrible day bit by bit. And so the narrative frequently returns to Day One.

This is a remote hotel and many fled on the day the world ended and so we have just a small group of men, women and children to observe as they work out how to survive. It’s such a compelling and involving story. But there’s more to it than that when Jon discovers the body of a murdered young girl in the hotel water tanks. Jon is determined to discover the truth about her death, to do right by her as he couldn’t by his daughters, presumed dead in San Francisco. And so The Last is also a murder mystery.

It is, to be honest, a little difficult to focus on the murder mystery in this situation and so our focus instead is on the people in the hotel as they try to form a postapocalypse community, with varying degrees of success. I’m not sure how much I liked Jon but I realise that we’re not seeing him or anyone else at their best. I wasn’t keen on the sections in which characters took refuge in drugs and drink and it was all a bit Lord of the Flies at times, with some relationships becoming tormented. But there are some great and memorable scenes and I loved the way in which the novel developed. It is full of surprises and the end was as good as the excellent beginning.

I love apocalyptic novels and The Last has such a fantastic premise and I particularly enjoyed its setting in Switzerland, becoming increasingly cold and desolate under the encroaching nuclear winter. The joy felt by characters on hearing the rare song of a bird is palpable. There are gems in this novel. I heartily recommend it. And what a brilliant cover!

Twisted by Steve Cavanagh

Orion | 2019 (ebook: 24 January; Pb: 4 April) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Twisted by Steve CavanaghJ.T. LeBeau is one of the world’s most successful thriller writers. You can find his books anywhere; everyone is reading them. LeBeau is known most of all for his genius with the twist. They’re unguessable. But, despite all of the accolades and all of the awards, he never makes public appearances. In fact, nobody knows who he is. Actually, to be accurate, there were a couple of people who knew his identity but they’re dead now. Better, then, not to find out.

Maria is not a happy woman. She thought she’d married the perfect man. They have a beautiful house by the sea and he gives her all the money she needs. But something isn’t right. He’s often away without telling her why. He has a luxury boat and a sports car, while she drives around in a bit of a heap. Maria suspects he’s keeping a very big secret from her. And so too does her lover Darryl. When they discover a bank statement and some other bits and pieces, Maria realises that her husband is LeBeau. It’s about time he shared the wealth. But the hunter is about to become the hunted.

Twisted is a very clever thriller that plays games with the idea of the ‘twist’, something beloved by thriller writers and readers alike. It’s almost like a thriller about a thriller. Steve Cavanagh writes a twisty thriller about the author of twisty thrillers, while demonstrating that sometimes the very worst thing (indeed, often the very last thing) anyone can experience is a killer twist! So, right from the outset, we’re given a barrage of clues, red herrings and false leads. And we’re not the only ones trying to unravel it. Maria isn’t alone either. A lot of people are trying to work it out when, as we’re warned right at the beginning, sometimes it’s best to leave these things alone. If you want to live.

It’s a fun story and it doesn’t let up for a moment – I read it in just one day. The style is reminiscent of the author’s Eddie Flynn legal thrillers (Eddie is amusingly referred to at one point in Twisted). It’s sharp and to the point, it gives us the facts – even if they’re not true – and makes its case. It is, though, in my opinion, rather clinical and at times does feel like an exercise in thriller writing, so much so that characterisation is left undeveloped. This also means that there are some genuinely shocking moments because the shocks are more important than our relationship to the characters. This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing in a thriller! I was gripped by Twisted more than I was engaged by it but it’s one of those books that, when you get to the end, you sit back and you’re impressed by how we got there. Twisted is certainly twisty and if you’re a fan of twists, then you’ll enjoy this masterclass.

Other reviews
The Defence
Thirteen