Category Archives: Thriller

Nucleus by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2018 (25 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nucleus by Rory ClementsIt is the summer of 1939 and, although nobody leaves home without their gas mask, England is carrying on as normal. A more immediate threat comes from the IRA which has begun a bombing terror campaign. But events in Europe cannot be ignored indefinitely and world powers – especially America, Germany and Britain – are well aware that in the war that is to come the atom bomb, if such a thing can be created, will be critical for victory. Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory in England has been a centre for scientific discovery and innovation and it is close to a breakthrough. America knows this and so too does Germany. When one of its scientists is murdered and another one disappears, Tom Wilde (a Cambridge professor but an American citizen) becomes caught up in the investigations.

Tom has been instructed by the American government to spy on the inhabitants of a local grand house, Hawksmere Old Hall, including a scientist (and an old friend of Tom’s) Geoff Lancing and Geoff’s sister Clarissa, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and famous film actresses. Meanwhile Tom’s love Lydia has gone into the lion’s den itself – Berlin. A German Jewish scientist and his family has been smuggled out of Germany but a child has been stolen, presumably for blackmail to make the scientist return. Lydia is determined to find him. But this is a conspiracy that stretches across continents and oceans and both Lydia and Tom are soon out of their depth. As Europe hurtles ever closer to war, the stakes couldn’t be higher, the danger to Tom and Lydia more certain.

Nucleus follows on from Corpus, the first novel to feature Tom Wilde. Before this, author Rory Clements was better known for his Elizabethan spy series but Corpus and now Nucleus demonstrate that he is a master of the spy novel whatever the period in which it’s set. Pleasingly, Tom Wilde is a professor of history, especially of the Elizabethan spymaster Walsingham and I love the way in which these two periods of history 350 years apart are shown to share similarities. Tom has his own spymaster to deal with as well as serious issues of who he can trust – it’s difficult to see the truth when you can only glimpse a small part of the bigger picture.

The plotting is superb and deliciously intricate. You do need to keep your wits about you and keep alert and the rewards are enormous. I was thoroughly immersed in the plot and caught up in the tension. The scenes in Germany are especially intense and I found them terrifying. There is one moment in this novel when I actually gasped and had to put the book down. I even flicked through a few pages to find resolution, I couldn’t deal with what I’d ‘heard’.

I love the portrayal of England during 1939. The Old House is a symbol of decadence and the old way of living, one that will shortly be made irrelevant. Lydia is arguably the most appealing and interesting of all of the characters in the novel. It’s good to read a spy novel in which women play an equal role, although if you’re after glamour you’ll certainly find it in Clarissa.

Rory Clements has created two fine characters with Tom and Lydia and he deploys them with cleverness and skill. There’s an air of intellectualism about these novels – as there would be with a professor for the central character – but there are no ivory towers here. The world is waking up to a second world war and Tom will have to get his hands dirty. I loved Corpus. Published in January 2017, it opened up the year’s reading in fine fashion and Nucleus has done exactly the same in 2018. With no doubt at all, this is one of the best historical and spy series being written today. I can’t wait for more.

Other review
Corpus
Holy Spy

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Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

Simon & Schuster | 2018 (11 January) | c.400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah VaughanKate is a successful barrister, a QC who prosecutes those who need to be locked away. But she’s just lost a case and it’s hit her hard. But as she sits at her desk in the Inns of Court, London, her clerk brings her the file for a new case and it immediately catches Kate’s interest. It concerns James Whitehouse, a junior Home Office Minister and confidant of the Prime Minister, a friend of his from his Eton and Oxford University days. Whitehouse has been accused of the rape of Olivia Lytton, one of his researchers, with whom Whitehouse had had an affair. It’s hard to imagine a more high profile case. It could give Kate’s career the push it deserves.

Sophie is a woman whose life has been turned upside down. She is married to James Whitehouse, the doting father of their children, whose political career is on the up, and they live in a beautiful house, enjoying such a wonderful lifestyle. Learning that James has had an affair with researcher Olivia Lytton is appalling for Sophie but she knows that she will stand by him. But then, as the reporters camp outside her door, it all gets much, much worse. Sophie loves her husband, he must be innocent. She must hold her family together.

Anatomy of a Scandal is a timely and tense psychological thriller. It presents men of privilege, men who believe that they’re above the law and may have evaded it for decades, but those days are changing. It all sounds very familiar, especially when you throw in Eton schooldays and a decadent and exclusive dining club at Oxford University. Kate and Sophie approach this story from different angles – one is actively trying to challenge the status quo while the other wishes things stayed as they were. It’s hard not to sympathise with both positions. Sophie is part of the establishment, it’s understandable that she wants to keep her perfect life as it was, but this is the type of crime that, if proven, could collapse the world around her.

The novel is presented from several perspectives but mostly from the point of view of Kate and Sophie and also in the present tense. This raises the tension, the clash in perspectives, and also contrasts the legal and personal elements of the story and case. James Whitehouse is a different man to different people and so we’re left to make up our own opinions. This is especially true during the court scenes and the extended inquisition of Olivia in the witness box. So we have the perspective of a third woman and these scenes are perhaps the most powerful of all.

With no doubt at all, Anatomy of a Scandal is a fast and compelling read. Its structure, moving between the main characters and also between the past and present, contributes to the pace. It is also very well-written with fascinating insight into the legal process and also into the psychological state of the novel’s characters. But I did have some issues with it, mostly due to its big twist which I did not care for at all and hoped wasn’t coming. I know psychological thrillers are expected to have these twists but these days it rather puts me off. I’d rather have a story that stays true to its characters and doesn’t bend them to fit the twist. My other main issue was with its similarity to the reported student days of Cameron and Johnson etc in Oxford. It’s all so odious it automatically puts me off every character concerned. As a result, there were a fair few characters here I had no time for and unfortunately that also included Sophie.

Nevertheless, although I had a bit of trouble with some of the plot devices, Anatomy of a Scandal was a book I’d been looking forward to reading and it certainly did keep my attention. Sarah Vaughan writes very well and I’m very interested to see what she does next while hoping that the skill of her writing is allowed to triumph over the ubiquitous twist.

If I Die Before I Wake by Emily Koch

Harvill Secker | 2018 (ebook: 4 January; Hb: 11 January) | 312p | Review copy | Buy the book

If I Die Before I Wake by Emily KochAlex has had a terrible climbing accident. He now lies in a coma and he isn’t expect ever to wake up. But, as the visitors come and go, sometimes holding his hand, touching his face and talking to him, and as the nurses and doctors come in to examine him or turn him over, none of them realise that Alex is aware of every word and every touch. But he can’t communicate. He can’t even move a finger or an eyelid. All he can do is listen and sometimes that means he hears the worst of things. Especially when his girlfriend Bea visits and cries that she may be ready to move on with her life, with somebody new.

But Alex can also hear other things. He can hear that Bea is afraid, that she thinks she is being watched. He also learns that the police are looking into his accident all these months on. Could there be a connection? Could Bea be in danger? But what on earth can he do about it when all he can do is lie on his hospital bed. Nobody could be more vulnerable than Alex is right now. And he’s aware that he might not have much time. His father and sister have the power to have his lifecare turned off any moment they choose.

If I Die Before I Wake adds another twist to the psychological thriller. Everything is presented through the limited senses of Alex. We barely leave his hospital room except for brief flashbacks to memories from his past. And we don’t even see everything that happens in his hospital room. Alex dips in and out of consciousness, his vision is impaired and almost non-existent. He must rely on his other senses as well as his sensitivity to the moods and fears and hopes of his girlfriend, his father and sister, and his closest friends. He must use his instincts and knowledge of their characters to try and work out what is going on. This is also a mental exercise for Alex – to keep his brain working while the rest of him fails.

This premise means an intriguing mystery and we are no more aware of the clues than Alex is. There is also an element of the unreliable narrator about Alex. We don’t know if we can trust him. We barely know him. And, as he moves in out out of wakefulness, we are only too aware that we’re not seeing the full picture. This does add menace and tension to the novel but it also means action is something that can only be imagined rather than carried out. There were times when this slowed the pace down too much for me but the main issue of it was the frustration – we share Alex’s frustration.

I found it refreshing to have a male main character rather than another female victim. This does add an interesting edge as Alex spends time examining his relationships with his father, sister and girlfriend. Arguably, the sections in which Alex looks back on his relationship with his sister are the strongest of the novel and have a resonance beyond the shock felt by any twists in the tale. The novel is written beautifully, with some clever little touches as Alex lies still and hears conversation to the left and then to the right of his bed.

If I Die Before I Wake is a novel with a great deal of emotion and intensity. It is built upon a tragic state of affairs but there are still touches of humour, glimmers of hope, largely due to Alex who has retained his personality despite his terrible situation. The mystery didn’t entirely catch my imagination but this is a novel about what Alex can do to stay alive, how he can keep sane, and Emily Koch’s treatment of that is the novel’s highlight for me. And it is done very well indeed.

The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd

Century | 2017 (ebook 6 October; Hb 28 December) | 356p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Innocent Wife by Amy LloydDennis Danson has been on Death Row for over twenty years for the murder of the child Holly Michaels. Her mutilated body was found dumped in a swamp ten miles from her home in Red River County, Florida. Danson was himself just a teen at the time and the evidence was, to say the least, nebulous and so, with his movie star looks and charm, he has become the favourite of true crime documentary makers as well as fans who campaign for his release. When Mark shows his girlfriend Samantha, a school teacher in England, a documentary about Dennis Danson she becomes hooked on the man and on his case and soon she is lost in the online message boards and forums of his campaigners. She writes to him, he writes back. Samantha leaves her life in England behind to meet and then marry this convicted murderer.

And then the campaign succeeds. Dennis is released and now Samantha must make a life with a husband she barely knows. She has so much to learn…

The Innocent Wife has a fantastic premise and draws on that curious phenomenon of the lonely women who fall for men convicted of the worst of crimes. While the safety glass remains between the couple all is well, everything is managed and controlled, but when it is withdrawn and the convict is freed, suddenly trust becomes an issue. For them both, because we have much to learn about the motivations of Samantha as well as Dennis.

This is a dark psychological thriller that grips instantly and I read it all in half a day. It kept me up until well into the night because I simply had to know what was going to happen. Amy Lloyd expertly builds up the suspense and tension as Samantha learns more and more about the man that she has fallen in love with but hardly knows. And vice versa as well. Danson not only has to deal with freedom and life outside a prison for the first time in his adult life, he must also cope with the demands of a hungry media as well as living with Samantha. This raises all sorts of questions about what it is that makes couples compatible, the need for compromise and tolerance, and it is absolutely fascinating watching strangers marry. It’s the little things that often cause the arguments. But for Danson and Samantha there is so much more to contend with. It makes for a compelling read.

Samantha is ridiculously naive and compulsive and not at all easy to like. We see much of the story through her perspective and it does little to win us over to her, while it keeps Danson as an enigmatic and handsome stranger hidden in the shadows. But I did realise that these flaws in Samantha’s character are part of the point. She is lonely and isolated. She is susceptible and obsessive. And that’s why she flies across the ocean to Danson. But I didn’t care for her or Danson, although Danson’s predicament at times appears pitiable. The reader is an observer, detached yet incredulous of what we witness.

I did predict much of the plot. Some of the clues were a little too obvious and parts (particularly the beginning and the end) felt too rushed – all contributing to the rollercoaster pace of the novel – but that didn’t stop me gobbling it up. The speed did mean that this isn’t a book to dwell upon but for a holiday read An Innocent Wife did very well indeed.

Inquisition by David Gibbins

Headline | 2017 (28 December) | 355p | Review copy | Buy the book

Inquisition by David GibbinsIt is 258 AD and the Emperor Valerian has turned on Rome’s Christians, slaughtering them and their pope in the most imaginatively cruel ways, as entertainment for the masses. A Christian legionary runs into the fire-drenched catacombs beneath the city to retrieve his faith’s most sacred object, the Holy Grail, to save it for the future. In 1684 the famous diarist Samuel Pepys is in Tangier to oversee the handing over of Charles II’s defeated colony to the Moors. A mysterious object concealed within an ancient leather saddlebag becomes part of the negotiations. Pepys’ aim is to send it away to safety in the Caribbean, far from the attention of kings and emperors, but something terrible stands in the way – the Altamanus, a merciless element within the Inquisition, and they never lose sight of their target.

In the present day, marine archaeologist and explorer Jack Howard is diving off the Cornish coast on the wreck of a ship that he is able to identify as one of those that Pepys despatched from Tangier. It presents a tantalising glimpse into a mystery ready to be solved and it sends Jack and his diving partner Costas, as well as his daughter Rebecca, on a trail of clues that will lead them across many miles of stormy ocean seas. But every step Jack takes is one dogged by the evil that is the Altamanus and the Inquisition.

If you’re a fan of archaeological adventure then you are in for a treat with David Gibbins’ Jack Howard series. It is unbeatable. I hesitate to call the books thrillers because, although they do contain action, fights, chases and spilt blood, they go deeper than that into the history behind the mystery and their archaeological context is sound. Gibbins is a marine archaeologist himself and it shows on almost every page. These books are full of exhilarating diving sequences, infused with the excitement of discovering historical artefacts as well as the thrill of exploring this dangerous yet beautiful environment. You can learn something while reading these books, as well as being thoroughly entertained and I love them. As soon as Inquisition arrived, I read it.

Inquisition is the tenth book in the series and I don’t think it matters at all if you read this on its own. I love Jack and Costas very much so there’s definitely much to be gained from reading all of the books but I don’t think it would matter too much in which order you read them (with the exception of Pharaoh and Pyramid, which are a pair – and outstanding).

David Gibbins tells a great story and at its heart is the Inquisition, particularly in 17th-century Portugal. While most of the novel takes place during the present day, there is a significant chunk that transports us to Tangier and to Portugal. We witness the tension of the British evacuation of Tangier through the brilliantly-realised figure of Samuel Pepys – most definitely a man with one eye on his posterity (and the other well fixed on alcohol and women). I did enjoy Pepys. David Gibbins is so good at evoking the past. But the section set in Portugal during the Inquisition is far darker and deeply disturbing.

Inquisition is a shorter novel than usual and Costas has far less of a role than normal. While I would have liked much more (of pages and Costas), the focus is very much on the Inquisition and the shipwrecks that evoke so powerfully this bygone era. The mystery is almost secondary to the history and archaeology and that is something I’ve always appreciated in these novels. I love the author’s attention to the details of marine archaeology. You feel like you’re there beneath the waves with Jack and Costas and that anything could be found amongst the rotting timbers of a forgotten wreck. But in this book in particular there is great trauma – the Inquisition that gives the novel its name – and its telling is extremely moving. I will never be able to get enough of David Gibbins’ novels.

Other reviews
The Gods of Atlantis (Jack Howard 6)
Pharaoh (Jack Howard 7)
Pyramid (Jack Howard 8)
Testament (Jack Howard 9)
Total War Rome: Destroy Carthage
The Sword of Attila: Rome Total War II

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Orbit | 2017 (16 November) | 486p | Review copy | Buy the book

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira GrantIn 2015 Imagine Entertainment despatched the vessel Atargatis to the Mirana Trench, deep within the Pacific Ocean, to film a ‘mocumentary’. Its subject would be the sea’s most celebrated of legendary creatures. But not a soul would survive the voyage. The ship was found a few weeks later with nobody aboard. Recovered cameras, though, hint at something terrible but some people refuse to believe what they show, calling it a hoax. But the families of the lost need answers. Now, in 2022, a new expedition is about to begin. The Melusine, a luxurious and state-of-the-art science vessel is to return to the Mirana Trench, again sent by Imagine, and this time it is after answers about the fate of those aboard Atargatis as well as the truth concerning these creatures of myth.

The Melusine sails with a team of scientists and filmmakers who have no idea what they’ll find, but among them is marine scientist Tory, whose sister filmed those infamous shots aboard Atargatis. She isn’t alone in feeling driven to confront her fears. But surely they will be safe aboard the Melusine. Its shutters can protect the ship against anything the sea can throw at it. Can’t they?

Into the Drowning Deep is the type of book I love very much if done well – terror at sea, horror in the depths, the uncertainty of survival, with some thoroughly entertaining science thrown into the mix. And I’m delighted to say that I think Mira Grant has succeeded in her aims. This is a meaty book, for want of a better expression. It’s substantial in length, it’s packed with characters each with their own goals, their relationships complex, and the tension builds as the characters are hunted across the ship.

We’re taken deep into disaster territory with a decent amount of horror thrown in. But the stars of this book aren’t the people – although there were a handful of people that I liked very much indeed and spent a lot of time worrying for – it’s the creatures we’re forewarned about from the very beginning. There can be little more appealing in a novel about the secrets depths of the Mirano Trench than these enigmatic beings and they do not disappoint – the descriptions are fantastic. But there’s so much more to it. There are lots of surprises and shocks. And so much blood. I spent a fair amount of time while reading this novel shuddering. I love that!

There are a couple of predictable characters and sometimes you can look ahead and sense what will happen, but on the whole I was thoroughly satisfied with the way that the novel progresses. It’s the first of a series and so there is room for further development at the end but on the whole I think Into the Drowning Deep stands on its own very well. I really liked the detail in the plotting and most of the characterisation. We’re eased into the horror gradually but the foreboding builds from the very start while we’re also given intriguing bits of sciencespeak. The tension is maintained throughout and the action is thrilling. In some ways, Into the Drowning Deep reminded me of Michael Crichton’s novels. How I love technothrillers.

I’ve previously read Mira Grant’s horror thriller Parasite and, while I enjoyed that, I enjoyed Into the Drowning Deep much more. This book is one of those which I actually felt could have been written for me. I love horror set within the claustrophobic confines of a ship at sea but I also have a thing about mythical sea creatures and have read a fair few novels about them over the years. None of it though was anything like this! I lapped it up and I’m looking forward to book 2 very much indeed.

Other review
Parasite

The Demon Crown by James Rollins

William Morrow | 2017 (5 December) | 624p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Demon Crown by James RollinsWhen a team of scientists lands on an island off the coast of Brazil they discover a scene of horror. But only one of the scientists, Professor Ken Matsui, a specialist in venomous animals, will leave the island alive. Weeks later, a plane is seen crashing out of the skies on the Hawaii island of Maui. But before it’s destroyed, two people watch the plane release a black cloud. Gray and Seichan, members of the elite and secretive American agency Sigma, are most definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time and they must run for their lives. As news of the attack spreads to the Sigma headquarters in Washington DC, a trail is discovered that leads back through history to the tunnels hidden underneath the National Mall, the capital of America.

And so begins the thirteenth Sigma novel. Few people write thrillers with the skill and pace of James Rollins, a true master of the genre whose books I have read for many years, and each new addition to the series is to be longed for. I have no hesitation in calling The Demon Crown my favourite of the Sigma novels. It has the most fantastic premise – it’s scientifically and historically fascinating (how I love books that combine history, thrills and science) and it never lets up its pace. This is a thoroughly exciting novel.

The Demon Crown moves backwards and forwards between Hawaii and other stunning parts of the world. I’m going to say nothing about them – as you should come into this book not knowing where it will take you – but Rollins brings these incredible places to life, describing them vividly. I really enjoyed the Hawaii setting but I loved the other places we’re taken to just as much.

I love these Sigma characters – Painter, Gray, Seichan, Monk, Kat and the inimitable Kowalski. After all these years their relationships have grown complicated and this makes them even more of a joy to spend time with. Not that I’d want to spend time with them in reality – I don’t think my chances of survival would be high… If you’ve read all of the novels then you’d have more of an idea of how their individual stories have developed over the years, but that isn’t necessary to enjoy The Demon Crown. It’s a self-contained novel and it grips like a vice. What some of these characters must endure in this novel is utterly and spellbindingly horrible.

Thrillers don’t get much more exciting than The Demon Crown. I had my issues with the previous novel in the series, The Seventh Plague, which felt a little formulaic, but I had no such problem with The Demon Crown. My difficulty here is that I don’t want to tell you anything about it! I can only assure you that it marks a clear return to form and, if you enjoy scientific historical action thrillers half as much as I do, then you are in for a treat!

Other reviews
The Devil Colony
Bloodline
The Eye of God
The Bone Labyrinth
The Seventh Plague
With Grant Blackwood – War Hawk
With Rebecca Cantrell – The Blood Gospel (The Order of the Sanguines 1)
With Rebecca Cantrell – Innocent Blood (The Order of the Sanguines 2)
With Rebecca Cantrell – Blood Infernal (The Order of the Sanguines 3)