Category Archives: Thriller

The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PS – I love the cover!

Other review
The Appeal

The Genesis Inquiry by Olly Jarvis

Hobeck Books | 2021 (12 October) | c.400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Genesis Inquiry by Olly JarvisElla Blake is a much-respected and in-demand QC when she disappears from view, hiding in her van in Northumberland, finding a refuge in anonymity and the dramatic and historic landscape. It’s a false haven and, as she sinks, she knows that. The chance to repair herself comes from an unlikely source. A Cambridge University college wants her help. One of their dons, Matthew Shepherd, a genius polymath, has disappeared on the brink of discovering something that could change humanity’s future and understanding of the past. Ella is intrigued but, more importantly, heading to Cambridge will allow her to reconnect with her daughter Lizzie. But, as Ella digs deeper into the mysteries of Shepherd’s project and understands the magnitude of its significance, she soon realises that she is in deadly danger and so too are all those she holds dear.

I am a huge fan of thrillers that revolve around historical secrets, archaeological mysteries and enigmatic, dangerous organisations and so The Genesis Inquiry was a book I couldn’t wait to read as soon as I heard of it. What makes this book stand out, however, isn’t so much the mystery at the heart of it (although that is certainly intriguing), but its characters and the developing and changeable relationships between them. I really, really like Ella Blake. She is a woman in the prime of her life who has reached the pinnacle of her career but she has realised that it is built upon glass. She is vulnerable, wracked by guilt and anxiety, and yet you would never know it to look at her. Ella is very easy to relate to. Her relationships with her daughter, her daughter’s friends and with the US agent who helps them with their inquiry, bristles. But the warmth of Ella grows through the novel and it really is extremely compelling and engaging as we become increasingly close to her.

Having said all that, The Genesis Inquiry is a thriller and it is a very exciting affair, as Ella and the others travel great distances on the trail of both Matthew Shepherd and his scattered clues. Obviously, I will tell you nothing about any of that as I don’t want anything to dampen your curiosity as the pages fly though the pages. But I do love a mystery that revolves around ancient manuscripts, biblical texts and ancient and modern science. It all contributes to the importance and significance of the mystery that is to be discovered.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Genesis Inquiry. I loved the places, especially Cambridge and Lindisfarne. I did find that my interest in Ella exceeded the pull of the mystery but I believe that this is actually a tribute to the author’s writing, which I think is very good indeed. I really hope that we will get the chance to meet Ella Blake again.

Five Minds by Guy Morpuss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing

Michael Joseph | 2021 (19 August) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

For Your Own Good by Samantha DowningTeddy Crutcher has been teaching English at Belmont Academy for a long time and, at last, he has won Teacher of the Year. At last. Nobody deserves it more, at least in Teddy’s eyes. He always wants the best for his students, especially those who treat him with respect and have influential parents on the School’s Board. He also likes to teach a different kind of lesson to those who deserve it, especially gifted student Zach and the popular teacher Sonia. To his chagrin, Sonia is about to be given a party to celebrate her tenth anniversary at the Academy. But when a member of the School’s Board, a pupil’s mother, is poisoned at the party, it’s not just Teddy who is shocked into action. This is a school where it seems everyone has a secret and nobody is safe.

Samantha Downing is an absolute genius at witty and wicked psychological thrillers. She did it with My Lovely Wife and she’s done it again with For Your Own Good. Usually, I need to like someone in a novel, at least a little bit, to engage with it but this novel shows that, as long as a book is written as well as this one, that’s really not the case. Pretty much everyone at Belmont Academy, including the over-reaching parents, is despicable! Sonia might be ‘nice’ but she’s living some sort of dream in her head that doesn’t seem to fit with reality. We might feel sorry for one or two of the students but not for long. And Teddy is utterly appalling.

The reader spends time in the heads of several people, although it’s Teddy who sets the mood. The more he reveals of himself the more you can hardly believe what you’re hearing. And then we move into the perspective of other students and teachers and you realise that you’re in some sort of nightmare territory and it’s all brilliantly wicked! As the story goes on, nothing seems impossible. There seems nothing these people won’t do. But do they actually do them? That’s the thing. We spend time in people’s minds – how much of what they think is true?

The plot is fabulous and it kept me reading compulsively.  The more the novel went on, the more intrigued I became. By the end, it was absolutely compelling and engrossing, so much so that I read it in one day. I can’t remember the last time I read a book in one day. This delicious book demanded it.

Other review
My Lovely Wife

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell

Century | 2021 (22 July) | 480p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa JewellIn 2018, detective novelist Sophie arrives to live at Maypole House, a country boarding school. Her boyfriend is its new head and she finds it hard to settle so far away from her old life in London. When she goes out for a walk in the woods behind the school, she finds a sign nailed to a fence – ‘Dig here’. What she finds will re-open raw wounds among the members of the school and surrounding small community.

In the summer of 2017, teenage mum Tallulah left her baby son at home with her mother Kim to go out on a date night with her boyfriend. They ended up at a pool party at Dark Place, a house in the woods behind the school. Neither Tallulah or her boyfriend Zach were seen again, leaving Kim and the detective in charge of the case in limbo, endlessly searching. But now, after all these months, somebody is trying to get Sophie’s attention and the mystery intensifies.

Lisa Jewell writes such brilliant stand alone crime and psychological thrillers or twisters and with The Night She Disappeared she has done it again. The premise is appealing and the mystery intriguing. I really wanted to know the answer to what happened to Tallulah and her boyfriend Zach.

But this is more than just a crime mystery, it tells several stories in a structure that moves between the present – Kim and Sophie’s stories – and the past – Tallulah’s life as a teenage mum trying to fit in with her friends who are so entirely different from her, all leading up to the night of her disappearance. Following that disappearance, our sympathies move to Kim who now has to raise an unhappy small child. She is filled with love for him but wasn’t ready to raise another child. And, of course, he is a constant reminder of the child she has lost.

So there is the deeply involved story of Kim and then the outsider perspective of Sophie, looking on the mystery with fresh eyes and finding potential suspects all around her. The school and its woods take on a sinister and menacing air as Sophie literally digs for clues.

I did find the ending slightly rushed and a little unconvincing but otherwise I thoroughly enjoyed The Night She Disappeared and found it hard to put down. Its portrait of Tallulah is particularly well done as she does battle with herself. The structure of the novel works very well. Lisa Jewell is such a wonderful storyteller.

Other reviews
Then She Was Gone
Watching You
The Family Upstairs

The Wolf Mile by C.F. Barrington

Head of Zeus | 2021 (ebook: 6 May; Pb: 5 August) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Wolf Mile by CF BarringtonTwenty years ago the Pantheon was formed – the richest men, the most powerful organisations in the world, created seven kings, each controlling an army of warriors that do battle for one short period each year, watched by thousands of investors. The people of Edinburgh are used to sightings and rumours of strange armoured people on the city’s rooftops, in its streets and hidden passages but few are aware that the Valhalla Horde and Alexander the Lion’s Titans are at war in the Pantheon Games in the city. Tyler Maitland and Lana Cameron are among the latest recruits to the Horde and must fight for their places, while learning the elaborate rules and customs of the Pantheon. Both are looking for answers, particularly Tyler, who believes that his missing sister is lost within the Pantheon. As the season of war comes around again, Tyler discovers that he has a target on his back.

The Wolf Mile is the first in a new trilogy by C.F. Barrington, The Pantheon, and it is just the sort of thriller to grab my attention – secret societies, classical and ancient warlords reborn. As for Vikings fighting Hoplites through the streets of Edinburgh, that was not in my abilities to resist. If, like me, you’re a fan of The Hunger Games and the Matthew Reilly Jack West Jr thrillers, then I think The Wolf Mile will appeal to you.

We’re thrown headfirst into the action, which does mean that, while it is extremely exciting, there are lots of questions to be answered about the set up of the Pantheon and the nature of those who observe its rituals and battles. In a way, we’re viewing it through the eyes of Tyler and Lana, novices in the Pantheon. This also means that we’ll no doubt learn more through the next two books as they work their way through the layers of secrecy. For now, we see how warriors are recruited and trained and how preparations are made for the Grand Battle. It is engrossing.

Tyler is an intriguing individual, raising all sorts of questions about why he was selected. It becomes clear that there may be more to him than meets the eye. I’m looking forward to finding out where he goes from here. Lana is less successful as a character, as are the women generally. I wasn’t keen on her backstory. Tyler’s, by contrast, is much more involving.

The setting in Edinburgh is fantastic. I don’t know the city but it rings true and I loved how the novel moves across it, with modern-day Vikings and Greeks hunting through its shadows, while living ‘normal’ lives during the day. The Wolf Mile is a lot of fun and shows Edinburgh in a whole new light. It’s action-packed and thrilling and I loved the story and concept. I’m looking forward to the second novel, The Blood Isles, which will be out as an ebook this Autumn so not long to wait at all, which is always a good thing with a trilogy.

Falling by T.J. Newman

Simon & Schuster | 2021 (10 June) | 304p | Review copy | Buy the book

Falling by TJ NewmanWhen Captain Bill Hoffman of Coastal Airways agrees to take on another flight, against his wife’s wishes, he takes on the responsibility of over 140 souls. It’s not long into the flight before he realises with stark horror that every single one of them is in jeopardy. He receives a call – his wife and children are being held hostage. Only one thing can save their lives. Bill must crash the plane.

Falling has a fantastic premise and kicks off a summer of plane thrillers (never has travel seemed such a nostalgic pleasure!). The author is a former flight attendant and that inside knowledge really adds to the authenticity in the chapters set aboard the plane. The authentic detail also makes the thriller more frightening.

The chapters alternate between the plane and the drama on the ground as the FBI goes into action and Bill’s wife tries to negotiate with her kidnapper. The scenes on the plane are the most successful and are absolutely engrossing and tense. The characters aboard, especially the experi flight crew, are very well drawn and Bill is great. The horror feels real. The FBI and hostage scenes and characters are less convincing and stall the pace somewhat but overall Falling is a very enjoyable ‘holiday thriller’ with a difference. And what a fantastic cover!

It’s possibly fortunate that you’re more likely this year to read Falling on the ground than in the air…

As a side note, I read the ebook but I can see that the audiobook is narrated by Steven Weber who did such a brilliant job of narrating Harlan Coben’s Win.

The President’s Daughter by Bill Clinton and James Patterson

Century | 2021 (7 June) | 620p | Review copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

The President's Daughter by Bill Clinton and James PattersonThere is a new administration in the White House. Matt Keating, ex-President, ex-Navy Seal, has retired to New Hampshire, while the former First Lady Sam has taken up an academic post. Their daughter Mel is flourishing away from the public eye, old enough now to have had her security shadows removed. But Keating is about to learn that a President is always a President and now, away from the protection of the White House, he is more vulnerable than ever and, more to the point, so is his family. This is brought home in terrifying fashion when Mel, out on a camping trip with her boyfriend, is kidnapped and, when the demands come in, Keating has no choice but to put his faith in his political rival, the new President, once his former Vice President, Pamela Barnes. But, as Matt and Sam grow increasingly desperate, perhaps the former President has options after all.

I can’t believe it’s three years since the last collaboration between Clinton and Patterson was published, The President is Missing. Time has flow by. But I remember vividly just how much I enjoyed it and I am so pleased to see another novel by this duo who marry together thriller expertise and presidential insight perfectly. We have a different President, a different situation, but The President’s Daughter is every bit as thrilling as its predecessor. I read it as soon as I could and also listened to the audio review copy. And that is staggeringly good. There’s money and influence behind this project and that shows in the quality of the audiobook and its cast.

I am a massive fan of action thrillers, especially those with a hint of politics about them and so The President’s Daughter could have been written for me. I’ve found James Patterson’s thrillers a bit hit and miss over the years but the collaboration brings a depth, authenticity and focus that, in my opinion, is very successful.

It’s a great story, very punchy and told through short chapters that alternate perspectives, including those of Keating, Mel, President Barnes, foreign agents, villains. It moves fast for such a substantial novel and we get close to several characters. I particularly liked Mel, who is in such a horrendous situation and deals with it as best as she can. She has coping mechanisms taught to her by her father’s security chief, David, who is himself one of my favourite characters in the novel. It’s not a complicated plot but it is a thrilling one and it is driven. And there are moments of out and out shock. Blimey…..

It is fascinating watching the relationship between Keating, the new President and her husband, her chief of staff. While the plot isn’t complex the relationships are and the benefit of Bill Clinton’s input here is invaluable. He knows what it’s like to leave the White House and what it’s like to be that strangest of political beings – a former President who still remains a President for the rest of his life. What does that mean? This novel explores that.

I can recommend the audiobook, which has a number of narrators and really adds to the pace and immediacy of the plot, which crosses borders and packs quite a punch. A couple of blows had me in tears, they were that powerful. I really, really hope that there is more to come from Clinton and Patterson, and soon.

Other reviews
The President is Missing

James Patterson
Target
With Marshall Karp – NYPD Red 5
With Brendon DuBois – The First Lady

Win by Harlan Coben

Century | 2021 (18 March) | 384p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

Win by Harlan CobenWindsor Horne Lockwood III is a man of privilege, a billionaire proud of his emotional stillness, his cold separation from people, except perhaps his friend Myron and maybe his biological daughter. He is the man who, when called, answers the phone with the simple command ‘Articulate’. But when a suitcase containing items stolen from his family years before is found next to the body of a murdered man, Win is mildly ruffled, or at least interested. These items had disappeared on the night twenty years ago that his uncle was murdered and his cousin, Patricia, was kidnapped, stolen away to be raped and tortured at the Hut of Horrors. And then there’s the identity of the murdered man to contend with – Ry Strauss, a hoarder and a recluse, believed to have been a member of a terrorist group in the 1970s, the Jane Street Six. The FBI believes there must be a link with the Hut of Horrors, with Win’s family. It seems only logical that Win should investigate.

Win is, I’m embarrassed to admit, the first Harlen Coben thriller I’ve read but many will know that Win is the sidekick of Coben’s popular detective Myron Bolitar and now he has a novel of his own. This makes Win a great starting point for new readers like me. Myron gets his mentions but this is most definitely Win’s book and it provides such a good entry into this world of Harlan Coben’s thrillers.

Win is quite a character and my feelings towards him are mixed. He’s undoubtedly arrogant, defying anyone to like him, and he has some extremely annoying and obnoxious habits, but the fact that others do seem drawn to him, to want to work for him quite apart from any financial gain, adds to his charisma. But what clinched it for me is Win’s increasing bewilderment surrounding his feelings for his ‘biological daughter’. I found myself liking him, perhaps not a huge amount, but certainly enough to be fascinated by him. He’s undoubtedly unusual and that made a refreshing change.

The big appeal of Win, though, is its extraordinary and fabulous plot. This is a great story with so many layers to it. It’s intricate, it’s involving, it’s terrifying and it is extremely gripping. It’s a puzzle that Win must dispassionately solve but it’s also a dark storm. I love that mix of neatness and chaos. It is brilliantly done by Harlan Coban and, on reading this, I could completely understand why so many people are hooked on his thrillers. I did find myself getting a little lost on occasion but I was happily swept away by it and loved how it all came together.

I listened to the audiobook, which is brilliantly read by Steven Weber. The novel is narrated by Win, which makes it a perfect fit for the audio format when told as well as Steven Weber tells it. He gives Win a voice that fits so well. I was engrossed. Despite the darkness of some of the content, this book is a lot of fun to listen to.

I’m really intrigued now to read earlier novels, to meet Myron for myself and to understand more about his relationship with Win and to find out more about Win himself. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite like him in a book before.

The Wild Girls by Phoebe Morgan

HQ | 2021 (15 April) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Wild Girls by Phoebe MorganIt’s been a long time since these four women – Grace, Felicity, Alice and Hannah – would have thought of themselves as best friends. They grew up together, running amok as a gang of wild girls, and that turned into close friendships as adults. Until it all went wrong and now each must deal with feelings of guilt, distrust and regret. It’s a surprise, then, when Grace, Alice and Hannah receive a message from Felicity inviting them to a party in a luxury lodge in Botswana, an all expenses paid dream holiday. Each of these women face different circumstances in their lives but perhaps getting away from home for a while is what they need? Against their better judgement, they each make the trip to join Felicity in Botswana. They would have been better off listening to those instincts.

I really enjoy Phoebe Morgan’s stand alone thrillers and I particularly couldn’t wait for The Wild Girls. I travelled around Botswana many years ago and my memories of it are vivid. Its the perfect setting for a mystery novel – a beautiful, remote location, dangers outside, little chance of help. Perfect. I must say, though, that it seems an awfully long way to go just for a long weekend!

I love the way in which the mystery builds. I found it engrossing and read half of the novel in just one sitting. The chapters move between the perspectives of Grace, Alice and Hannah and I was soon interested in their different lives. There are hints of things going on in the background and in the past, which are very intriguing and disturbing. These women feel multi-dimensional. Phoebe Morgan is very good at creating believable characters with a backstory you want to learn about.

The scenes set when the three women arrive at the lodge are thoroughly compelling as the reader tries to second guess the characters with what on earth is going on. I didn’t find the second half as engrossing, possibly and ironically because the first half is so sensational! The past and the present begin to merge together. I think the greatest fun to be had is in the sheer tantaslising mystery of the first half, which is very well done indeed.

The Wild Girls is such a fun, fast thriller, which also benefits from being set in such an unusual and very enticing location. It’s therefore escapist as well as thrilling and allows the mind to travel even if the rest of us can’t for now.

Other reviews
The Girl Next Door
The Babysitter