Category Archives: Thriller

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

Hutchinson | 2019 (5 September) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Second Sleep by Robert HarrisIt is 1468 and young priest Christopher Fairfax is hunting his way through Exmoor to find the remote village of Addicott St George. He has been sent there to bury the village’s priest Father Lacey who, when out in the nearby countryside, fell to his death from a great height. It’s hard to conduct a eulogy for a man one doesn’t know and so Fairfax sets out to discover all he can about this man who served his parish for 32 years.

It is while Fairfax is searching Father Lacey’s office that he comes across documents that Lacey shouldn’t have had. These heretical texts record past lives, those of the ungodly, who once walked and worked this land. As Fairfax digs deeper, his investigations leads him to nearby Durston Court and its enigmatic, unusual Lady of the manor, and secrets that she keeps hidden. Suddenly, Father Lacey’s death seems less of an accident and the truth of it will be as staggering as it is lethal.

Robert Harris is easily one of my very favourite authors, if not my favourite, not least because everything he writes is so different, original, ingenious and surprising. And with The Second Sleep Robert Harris has achieved, in my opinion, the greatest surprise of them all. Something happens early on – watch for the clues – and, it might be a cliche to say it, but I could feel my jaw actually dropping.

It is for this reason that I’m going to say nothing further at all about this book! I came to it knowing nothing except that I knew it would be wonderful – which it certainly is – and so I had the considerable joy of discovering all of its secrets for myself. And so I’d urge you not to read any reviews (except this one, of course).

All I’ll say to tempt you to read it, is that The Second Sleep is beautifully written and structured. Its characters feel real, their fears and loves tangible. The Exmoor setting is perfect – it’s comforting but also claustrophobic and remote. Spend time with Christopher Fairfax and Lady Durston. You won’t be disappointed. You’ll be thrilled, mesmerised and shocked.

Most of all, read this book putting all your expectations and assumptions to one side. Neither belong here. The rewards will be great. The Second Sleep is most certainly a masterpiece and a contender for my book of the year.

Other reviews
An Officer and a Spy


Elevator Pitch by Linwood Barclay

HQ | 2019 (5 September) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Elevator Pitch by Linwood BarclayOne Monday morning, four people get into a lift in Manhattan, New York. Everything seems normal until the lift stops. And then everything goes very wrong indeed. It seems to be a terrible accident but then, a week later, another lift kills. The city is in shock. How can a skyscraper city manage without its elevators? The authorities don’t know how to deal with it. Blame flies between them, with many pointing a finger at the Mayor who, in turn, has his eye on others. Two detectives and a journalist race against time to stop the panic, to catch the killer. And meanwhile people die, not just in the lifts but also on the stairs as people are faced with climbs of over a hundred flights of stairs. The city is being held to ransom. But why?

I’m embarrassed to say that Elevator Pitch is the first novel by Linwood Barclay that I’ve read but what an introduction to his books this is! The premise is very enticing and the thriller fully delivers on it. Elevator Pitch is thoroughly exiting, tense and exhilarating – there were moments when I just could not look. I also read this book when I was staying eight floors up in a hotel. It made that lift ride to breakfast each morning a little sweaty. But it was the perfect holiday read.

The story is fantastic but so too are the characters as we spend time with a range of people, as we get to know a little about how this city is run. Battle lines have been drawn between the journalist, Barbara, and the Mayor and it’s now got very personal indeed. It’s worth pointing out, though, that this is not a simple case of the evil city Mayor. Richard Headley is much more complicated than that. Meanwhile two detectives, one near the start of his career, the other nearing the end, bring their very different skills together to try and solve this case. And there’s a countdown. A very special public event will take place shortly. The world will be watching and elevators will be needed.

There’s a social message as well. This is a city divided between rich and poor, with the rich enjoying living and working in the roof of the city in its skyscrapers. Radical groups are gaining media attention, terrorist acts are taking place across the northeastern United States. Time is ripe for the elevator killer to cause maximum terror. This is thrilling stuff! This is the type of thriller, with a political element thrown in, that I find irresistible and I gobbled it up, even though it made me eye that hotel lift with more than a little unease. There were also some unexpected moments of emotional shock. Excellent!

The Warehouse by Rob Hart

Bantam Press | 2019 (13 August) | 484p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Warehouse by Rob HartPaxton worked hard for years so that he could build his own business but all of that was destroyed by the Cloud, the most powerful company in the world, which sells everything to everyone (with the exception of certain forbidden books). And now Paxton has been reduced to working for the Cloud to survive. He’s one of the lucky ones. It’s a competitive business getting a job and even when he has it he discovers it’s not that easy to hang on to it. This is a world of colour-coded jobs, of stars awarded and taken away, of lengthy days, all monitored and controlled by the smartwatch on their wrists.

Paxton finds himself in a blue jumper, that means he’s security, the last job he wanted. But it could be worse. His fellow new recruit Zinnia is working in the warehouse and there she must risk her life to fulfil orders in time. The two of them are drawn together. Paxton falls in love warily and carefully. Zinnia, on the other hand, wants something and Paxton is the man to help her, whether he likes it or not. Because the creator of the Cloud, Gibson Wells, the richest and most powerful man in the USA, is about to visit.

The Warehouse, set in the not too distant future, is a timely and thought-provoking dystopian thriller. It doesn’t take the biggest imagination to work out which company is suggested by the Cloud and that does make it all the more believable and possible, and that is a terrifying thought. The American government barely exists, if it does at all. Cloud has bought out all of its services. Robots have been removed from factories. Human labour does it all now. This might mean almost everyone has a job but they’ve lost far more than they’ve gained. And then there are the ones who live outside the protected walls of the Cloud cities. They’re left to fry in the brutal sun.

Rob Hart creates a fascinating and troubling dystopian world. Plenty of time is spent on the worldbuilding and it’s vivid, stark and relentless. Chapters alternate between Paxton and Zinnia as they battle life every single day. This is reflected rather cleverly in the structure of the prose at intervals through the book. By contrast we have occasional chapters narrated by Gibson Wells, a man who has everything except what he needs the most – his health. In these final weeks he reflects on his life and the great ‘gifts’ he has bequeathed to men and women. He’s a monster who speaks with a reasonable voice, fully confident in his worth – such a man is to be feared.

There are some intriguing glimpses of an outside world in decay. Hardly anyone flies now, travel is too expensive, the world is hot and scorched, the seas have risen to claim towns. People shop themselves into oblivion, the skies are controlled by the Cloud’s drones. It’s grim but it’s also compelling stuff.

This is an espionage thriller and it is at times as exciting as it is chilling however I did have my issues with the novel. Personally, I thought it rather laboured the point, going on too long, with unconvincing, flat characters and an unsurprising twist. I really didn’t care for Zinnia and wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to or not. Her ruthlessness seems little better than Gibson’s. It is, though, an entertaining dystopian thriller, and the star of it is, for me, its thorough and disturbing worldbuilding. It’s a frightening thought – it doesn’t take long for people to accept what is very wrong to be right.

Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz

Penguin | 2019 (Pb: 25 July) | 498p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Out of the Dark by Gregg HurwitzEvan Smoak is no ordinary killer for hire. Taken from his foster home as a boy and raised as a lethal assassin working for a secret, deniable section of the American government, Evan is Orphan X, one of many of his kind. Now Evan is loose, working to help, one at a time, people in dire trouble. But Evan’s fellow Orphans, many of whom are now integrated to varying degrees back into society, are being assassinated and Evan knows exactly under whose order – Jonathan Bennett, President of the United States. Evan knows he is next. He knows far too much about Bennett’s past. But how to kill the most powerful and protected man on Earth? Especially when that man has unleashed another of the Orphans to kill Evan Smoak.

Out of the Dark is the fourth Orphan X thriller by Gregg Hurwitz and I must admit to having worried beforehand that I would be at a loss, having not read the previous three. I needn’t have worried. There are plenty of clues in Out of the Dark to what has gone before, to the context of Evan’s creation and troubles. So it stands alone perfectly but it did make me very curious indeed about this damaged, isolated, charismatic man. I’ll be reading more for sure because this is one of the very best thrillers I’ve read this year.

There is a lot going on, all of it tense and action-packed. Evan’s meticulous planning is fascinating and we are awed by Evan’s daring in taking on this president and removing his harm from the world. Evan has all of the skills for the job but there’s every chance he’s met his match as we get to know the person in charge of Bennett’s protection, someone we can’t help but warm to. And then there’s the fact that Evan will not kill the innocent. He would rather an innocent person kill him than that he should take their life.

But this is just one layer of the plot. On another we have Ethan’s current case, which is to help Trevon Gaines, whose life is in the process of being destroyed. I loved Trevon. His story actually made me cry! I don’t think even Evan is immune to such tragedy. I looked forward especially to those sections of the novel. There is something so sweet in seeing justice dealt where it’s due.

This is such good writing. Gregg Hurwitz knows how to tell an excellent story but he also knows how to write it well. It’s punchy, tense, fast and furious, but it’s also well-considered, careful, with the tone perfectly pitched. And it all serves the story, and Evan, so well.

I suspect that readers familiar to this series will be delighted by cameo appearances from well-known figures from other novels. We’re given tantalising glimpses of a fair few. This world of Orphan X is one I want to explore. What a hero he is – superhuman in some ways but so human in others, but certainly charismatic, caring and reflective, as, in a social world he can barely understand, he tries to build a new life for himself however impossible that dream may be. If you love well-written action thrillers as much as I do then you do not want to let this series pass you by.

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Harvill Secker | 2019 (8 August) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Turn of the Key by Ruth WareNursery nurse Rowan Caine is in a bit of a rut and looking for something to change her life. She finds it when she stumbles across an ad for a job working as a live-in nanny for a family with four children, living in Heatherbrae House in the Highlands. The salary is enormous and when Rowan visits the house for an interview she falls in love with it. Once a large Victorian house, parts of it have been transformed into a ‘smart house’. The owners, Bill and Sandra, are architects and so they use their house to test out these state of the art systems which result in a beautiful home that runs like clockwork. Rowan gets the job but as soon as she starts, Bill and Sandra have to go away for work, leaving Rowan alone to look after the children. The parents have literally only just left the drive when the nightmare begins.

These are troubled children. Nannies have come and gone with upsetting frequency; one not even lasting the first night. Rowan has her hands full with the three little ones and she hasn’t even met the teenager yet, who is away at boarding school but soon to return. But having initially loved this house, Rowan comes to fear it. Everything is outside her control, there are strange noises, impossible things happen, and that’s even before Rowan discovers the secrets in the garden and in the house itself. But all this is in the past because Rowan is telling this tale in a letter to her solicitor, written in her cell where she waits to be tried for murder. A child is dead. Rowan needs someone to believe she is innocent. To save her.

I was drawn to the premise of The Turn of the Key and I immediately fell for the menace of the extraordinary Heatherbrae House. It’s wonderfully described. It’s modern but still extremely creepy. This is an interesting take on the haunted house theme and Heatherbrae House is certainly the star of the novel.

I have found Ruth Ware’s books a little hit and miss in the past, with some I’ve loved, such as The Woman in Cabin 10 and The Death of Mrs Westaway, and others I’ve struggled with, namely In a Dark, Dark Wood and The Lying Game. Unfortunately, The Turn of the Key falls into the latter category, although there were elements that I enjoyed.

I had several issues with the novel and one is its format. The whole book is supposed to be a letter to a solicitor but this just doesn’t seem realistic in the least. I think it also spoils the book’s sense of suspense and tension. I also didn’t care particularly for Rowan but that doesn’t matter too much. More significant is my dissatisfaction with the ending and for the way in which the story is developed. I can’t say too much as I don’t want to give anything away but the way in which this story concludes seems, to me, extremely contrived. I loved the smart house and the way in which it’s described. It is genuinely frightening. But in the end none of this seemed to matter much to how things developed, which I thought was such a shame.

There is some good writing here as the scene is thoroughly set. It is possible that some readers may tire of the meticulously detailed account of what seems like every moment of the day and night but I thought this was well done. The teenager is just another rebellious, unpleasant thriller teen but the younger children have an innocence and charm that really appealed to me.

I will always read Ruth Ware’s novels because I know that they can be excellent. She certainly has some interesting ideas and always sets her novels in beautifully and atmospherically evoked places. I won’t forget Heatherbrae House in a hurry.

Other reviews
The Woman in Cabin 10
The Lying Game
The Death of Mrs Westaway

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

Century | 2019 (8 August) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Family Upstairs by Lisa JewellThe police are alerted to the sounds of a baby’s cry from a large fashionable house in Chelsea, London. They find three bodies, dead for days. Upstairs is a healthy baby. It’s an enigma. Who has been looking after the baby? Is this a suicide pact, as a note suggests, or is it something else entirely?

Years later, more than one person is drawn back to the house. The baby is now a woman, aged 25 years. She’s inherited this magnificent house. But it comes at a price. Others may look for her there as the house’s layers of mystery are slowly and shockingly peeled away.

Lisa Jewell is the master of stand alone psychological thrillers and this is proven yet again by The Family Upstairs, which I found to be utterly compelling and engrossing, in a kind of voyeur sense, perhaps, but this darkly disturbing novel is as catchy and addictive as you could desire.

We’re given a bunch of lives to follow, and we spend time with them in the present day and in the past. The narrative moves between certain characters and between the years. It’s a complex structure but this is an author who has no trouble at all controlling, manipulating, an array of plot threads, each as fascinating as the next.

I don’t want to give anything away about the plot or the people. It’s a joy to watch it all unravel before your eye. But, at the heart of this book is 16 Cheyne Walk, with its several floors, many rooms and multiple hiding places. There’s barely a room without a secret, barely a space left untouched by its extraordinary past and we explore them all.

This is a dark novel with some dark themes. For several of the people in the novel the normal rules and codes of life don’t apply and Lisa Jewell shows us exactly why in the most beautifully-written and punchy prose. I loved The Family Upstairs. It kept me company through a couple of very hot, sleepless nights, but it wasn’t just the heat that kept me reading. I could not put this marvellous book down.

Other reviews
Then She Was Gone
Watching You

The July Girls by Phoebe Locke

Wildfire | 2019 (25 July) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The July Girls by Phoebe LockEvery year on 7 July a woman is snatched off a London street never to be seen again. The body of one has been found but the killer learned from his mistake. No more have been discovered. But that day in 2005 was the day of the London bombings, when the attention was stolen from the killer. He’s determined that this won’t be the case again. The police know him as the Magpie as he likes to keep mementos from his crimes. There’s a reason why he keeps them.

7 July is also the birthday of young Addie Knight. On 7 July 2005 her father came home covered in blood and Addie, just ten years old, believed it was because of the bombings but then she and her much older sister Jessie find the purse of one of the missing women hidden in a hole in their father’s wall. Addie’s world is torn apart but while she struggles with what to do with the suspicion that consumes her, Jessie decides to make amends in another way entirely.

The July Girls is attracting a lot of attention and deservedly so. It’s a psychological thriller that races along – I read it in just a day – but it’s also driven by some beautifully drawn characters, especially sisters Addie and Jessie, as well as the younger children in the novel. They feel real; the awful situation they find themselves in also feels real, and we care deeply for little Addie as the worry she must contend with damages her. It’s a fascinating yet emotional portrait of a young girl caught in a situation she’s not old enough to deal with. And it’s through her young innocent eyes that we see this world that Phoebe Lock has created and it’s a menacing one, in which killers steal women, terrorists blow up innocent commuters and the disaffected riot in London’s streets.

I don’t want to give anything more away about the plot as it’s full of surprises as Addie grows into a teenager and learns more about the world and people around her. The menace is particularly prevalent in the first half of the novel and so this is my favourite part but I enjoyed the whole novel. It’s impossible to put down, with the pages flying through the fingers and – and this is a rare and good thing – I was completely caught out! I suspect this will be a very popular read on the beaches this summer.